…and the quest to see everything

Archive for December, 2011

Bad-ish Movie: The Artist


The critical praise for Michel HazanaviciusThe Artist baffles me, especially since they say that it captures the silent era that the movie tries to reenact. Thinking about camera movement in those silents, the shot by shot relationships, image quality, the acting, and storytelling. When I look at those categories, The Artist seems to fail in almost all of them.

The characters let us read their lips instead of the inter-titles writing what they’re saying. Understandably, inter-titles are pesky and a silent seems smarter the less inter-titles it has But if Hazanavicius wanted to use those sparingly, at least he could have written a script with more action and direction instead of close human interaction. Besides, silent acting is gestural, intense and expressive – it’s definitely not like watching a movie with the volume turned down. These actors’ styles were too contemporary and introverted for the medium, anyway. At least Singin’ in the Rain had some respect to authentically imitate the silent acting style.

Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), the anti-hero George Valentin’s (Jean Dujardin) extramarital love interest, becomes her rival because her rising star would signal his failing career. Although she would never have been a star the way the movie makes her, her bubbly yet chic personality an alien creäture from the Arcadian yet All-American sweetheart or temptress types prevalent in 1927. Her dark skin, would also make her face prejudices that actresses experience today.

A part of the movie’s conceit is where George ‘refuses to talk.’ From his first scene he’s proven to be insufferable, his cockiness making me root for his failure. His decisions during this period in film history seems stupidly inaccurate because first, there’s the Kathy Selden argument against silent film. Also, when talkies came, most actors hurriedly tried their voices out. An actor’s voice had to sound terrible for him or her to be unemployed while some of them are financially stable enough to quit. It’s still strange to watch George dismiss talkies as a trend, stick to silent movies as an art form, crown himself as the titular ‘artist,’ and financially bury himself in the process (And yes, I know Charlie Chalpin existed). As much as I liked seeing him fail, it’s as if the movie uses a character’s pride to create a forced arc towards downfall.

Its visual language, though beautiful, is anachronistic. Others have compared it to Citizen Kane but watch out for shots resembling those in An Affair to Remember or its use of the music in Vertigo – apparently Ludovic Bource didn’t bother to write a coherent score for the movie – these references grating because they’re not supposed to be there. At the same time I had to consider that not every silent operated the same way. Murnau let his camera creep, Lang occasionally used quick pans while Griffith and most directors preferred short takes and multiple camera set-ups. The Artist, however, is self-indulgent with too much camera movement as well as letting its audience know how long its average shot length is. Sometimes it zooms to a poster that would direct the characters what to do, which is, again, what the inter-titles are for.

But I liked some things. Sound, foley or lack thereof is intelligently used here, especially in the dressing room scene when Peppy closes the door quietly behind her, as if letting us decide to feel whether she’s angry, sad or any emotion we can interpret for her. Despite Bejo being miscast, I kept checking on Peppy if she’s still the same character introduced in the movie, the fan girl waiting for that sliver of George’s presence, that humble struggling actress. I’m not sure if the fame has gotten into her, no matter how soberly she approaches it. But she’s never jaded nor purely cruel. I even like the damn dog, Jack’s (Uggie) rescue mission seeming like a non-sequitur I would see in an actual silent movie.

I understand that we can’t turn back the clock, making the images here look grainy and such. Nonetheless, it is necessary for a contemporary silent film to look and feel like the ones in the past.  Silents aren’t like a genre with arbitrary conventions against which present or future filmmakers can rebel, it’s an actual medium with a relatively strict language. If someone is going to make a silent movie they have to follow some rules.

Even without looking at it from a technical standpoint, it still doesn’t have the same danger, ambition, pathos, comedy and magic that silents do. It relies on cuteness that for me doesn’t sustain itself. It’s disappointing that I can’t share the hype behind the movie, that this facsimile is a really cheap one, making me long for the real thing instead. But then you’re probably normal and don’t see the same problems in this movie like I do.


Scene: Le Cercle Rouge


Jean-Pierre Melville slowly worked himself up to become a master of the cinematic frame in his heist films, culminating to Le Cercle Rouge where he attains a balance between the visual and the narrative. There are many memorable images here, like the police doing a search of rural grounds or leggy nightclub dancers but my favourite will be the one where we’re introduced to Yves Montand‘s character. A secret door opens in his bedroom and animals make their way to his bed, these reptiles and other creepy crawlies symbolic of something haunting this ex-police officer. It’s style and terror within the same scene, making its audience sweat. That or maybe I like that shade of blue.


Melville’s Le Doulos


I like how Jean-Pierre Melville depicts the French urban landscape in his films, especially in Le Doulos as its characters walk under bridges, sandy dunes and landfills or patchy parks. The homes, within crowded neighborhoods or otherwise, are safe houses with stolen jewelry, money and weapons.

As if these places are where characters burrow or hide or run but never strolled on or enjoyed. And pardon the cliché but it’s the France that the tourists don’t see, a France that surprisingly seems more American, dusty and dirty.

Maurice Fuguel (Serge Reggiani), just coming out of prison, involves himself in another murder/robbery/chase scene. Then he goes to his apartment where his girlfriend Therese (Monique Hennessy) is staying.

When he opens a door, a shadow appears, cool in his uniform trench coat, turning out to be his best friend Silien visits and enters the movie. Silien at first seems like a secondary character until we quickly realize the actor playing him – Jean-Paul Belmondo – and at this point we’re anticipating more excitement.

Which he brings ten minutes later as he returns to the apartment, finding Therese alone. It’s disturbing to watch him brutalize her, the delivery of his threats showing either a great, risky performance or a great, risky moment within an otherwise decent performance. What feels more uncomfortable is how the movie tries to convince us that the beating is for the greater good – he forces her to give information that might save his Maurice and his friends from a heist that will definitely go bad.

The movie introduces another female character, Silien’s ex-girlfriend Fabiene (Fabienne Dali), a woman with an equally terrible past whom he’s attempting to rescue. Melville tries to show the opposites between these female characters but they are still within a limited spectrum – passive and victimized.

Silien hijacks the movie with the best intentions. Even if he’s a police informant his loyalty is with the underworld, trying to correct the wrongs. The film’s last scenes are its weakest as he explains why some of his friends had to experience arrest or murder.

Patching things up, eventually the best friends plan to move to an orchard outside the city. Silien even tries to being Fabienne along. But then the enmity between friends produces unexpected problems, the dream of finishing with their criminal life becoming a foggy dream.


Bergman’s The Virgin Spring


The Virgin Spring seems to ask: Why are teenage girls perpetually dumber that we expect them? Tore (Max von Sydow) sends his daughter Karin (Brigitta Pettersson) out on a simple errand but within her little pilgrimage she does things that common sense would tell the audience not to do.

Why would she go into a dark forest without hesitation or go on without her escort? Why would she let herself get distracted by suspicious looking men?

This movie seems different from Ingmar Bergman‘s later, more excellent films because of its straightforward approach towards storytelling, but he comes up with a great formula nonetheless. He compartmentalizes every part of the narrative, the script firing off one section or character evenly.

And I know that Hollywood rules don’t apply to him but I also somehow applaud his decision to show a graphic sexual assault but not a murder. In 1960.

It has a straightforward enough of a message but we can also dig for the complexities within this cautionary tale. We can say that this movie exposes the arbitrary and cruel nature of violence, as she’s taken away without warning.

Instead of saying ‘bad things happen to people,’ we can say that God punishes a girl for her lack of judgment, innocence, gullibility, altruism and obliviousness.

They aren’t necessarily vices but I assume that contemporary audience’s eyes see her qualities as flaws working against her survival. We’re not looking at her merely as a victim because a victim is a blank slate and she is not.

And as much as it is about Karin it’s also equally about the people around her, and through them Bergman finds room for complex character studies within this simple movie. An example is Karin’s more beautiful yet pregnant escort Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom).

In the earlier part of their journey they argue about Karin dancing with the father of Ingeri’s child, being doubtful of anyone’s purity. She leaves Karin for a while, making a pit stop at a cabin and then running away to follow Karin from a distance.

Ingeri inadvertently watches as Simon and his cohorts assault her. Keeping her pregnancy in mind, she also behaves as if constantly troubled, and being a constant survivor doesn’t help her guilt and powerlessness.

There’s also Tore and his reactions towards the news of her daughter’s violent murder. As luck would have it, Karin’s murderers would ask to lodge in his home. He avenges her but his act doesn’t satisfy him.

The titular spring appears where her body is found, a sign of her family’s redemption. But since the movie has gotten to the point in depicting Tore’s part of the story, it shows a family with one less child, a community broken from a future that could have been.


The Mill and the Cross


From what seems like ages ago I reviewed Lech Majewski‘s The Mill and the Cross (click on link for longer review), the perfect movie for aficionados and retentive history buffs, watching people suffer through period correct beauty. Getting top billing are veteran actors like Rutger Hauer, Charlotte Rampling and Michael York, adding gravitas to an already intellectual subject. It’s no longer in theatres in Toronto, I hope it wheels itself into your city. I was a little too nice on my review but it’s still worth checking out.

Here are other movie reviews that got no comments – me pooping on Hobo with a Shotgun, my lukewarm reaction to the myth making in Page One.

To paraphrase the divisive film writer Scott Weinberg, I wrote review for ANOMALOUS MATERIAL between March and November. My reviews were atrocious.


Melancholia


Because of Breaking the Waves, every time I hear Lars von Trier‘s name I remember this Bowie song. Let’s play it, shall we?

Her’s my write-up of Lars’ new movie Melancholia at Yourkloset. Within this movie I can see Lars’ earlier work, like the wedding in Breaking the Waves, the mob mentality in Dogville and the depression in Antichrist. It operates like a contest – whoever has the most complex and human approach to depression wins. There’s Justine (Kirsten Dunst), a disastrous bride and a vessel of depression who somehow marvels and is relieved that a planet, also called Melancholia, dangerously approaches to evaporate the Earth. She’s the one most of my friends can relate to either because of personal reason. Or because of Dunst, arguably giving her best performance within a career unfolding just as me and my friends were growing up. There’s also her brother-in-law John (Kiefer Sutherland), the most blindly optimistic character who steadfastly holds on to a rational belief system.

Justine is sympathetic enough but I wouldn’t pick her or John as someone I can relate to. That honour belongs to Justine’s sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). She’s the one who’s probably read all the books about psychological health and help and thinks that she’s sent on this earth to help her sister even if the latter doesn’t want to be helped. The one worried with real problems, the maternal instinct to both coddle and abscond her sister when she thinks she needs to do so.

She’s also the false image of normalcy that I assume many people with depression learn to act out, that layer vulnerable to anxieties outside and underneath. So which character here do you relate to the most?


Guilty Pleasure: Happy Feet 2


That time when you show your kid appropriate, child-friendly films and then ten years later, he or she decides to dive into art house cinema and admits years after that “Hey Mom/Dad, some of the effects in Terry Malick’s The Tree of Life remind me of the marine life scenes in George Miller‘s Happy Feet 2!” and you shake your head in dismay because you have brought up a Philistine, spreading his mashed potato cultural knowledge into this God-forsaken world.

Yes, I’m stupid enough, comparing those movies not because of some overlapping aesthetics but also because they share the same themes. Childhood, resentment, self-reflection. Both films star Brad Pitt. Instead having a wife or eldest son to reach out to the universe beyond them, his character, Antarctic-residing Will the Krill does all the questioning. He’s resentful of being second to the bottom of the food chain, he’s frustrated by the limits of the swarm, he’s not your regular krill. And instead of stasis, he takes his questions to a further level and explores life outside the swarm. His intelligence is proactive instead of an introvert’s tendency to just contemplate. He decides to live with the motto of “I want to eat something that has a FACE!” which Pitt says with his comically Southern bravado. His friend Bill the Krill (Matt Damon) reluctantly joins him in his voyage.

And it’s with his adventurous eyes that we see this movie’s depiction of the lush marine life, the krill transparent, the jellyfish luminescent, the ice shards glinting. These scenes show the greatest use for the 3D medium, letting us go deep into what’s on the screen instead of it splashing on to us. I can imagine some of the younger members of the audience sympathizing with these krill, the discovery more magical because they’re so little and the world so large it envelopes them. It’s a bit scary but it’s also a lot of fun. Pitt and Damon play second-fiddle in an all-star voice cast,working as intermission acts to what’s happening to the larger land birds. But these scenes makes us almost forget that there’s another world above them, a world with the titular happy feet.

Over sea level, things are more inconsistent when in comes to tone. The movie actually begins with a crystal-like green iceberg, menacingly drifting from one section of the Antarctic coast going eastward to the Emperor penguin land, where Mumble (Elijah Wood) and the rest of his song-and-dance colony live. This movie is one of the few instances where I preferred a simpler arc from peace to a disequilibrium. I didn’t need the iceberg prologue. It was enough to see the penguins behaving erratically when their coastline – and therefore, their food supply – gets blocked. The second half of the movie containing these troubled scenes also involves penguins from other colonies/different species coming towards the crisis zone, most of these new characters leaving the scene because they’re found to be quite useless.

But what counts here are the characters, the movie’s saving grace. For some reason, Mumble and his wife Gloria’s (Pink) kid Erik (Ava Acres) do his own exploring where he inadvertently sees older penguins try to mate, the movie incorporating that adult subject into a universal theme of belonging that the young penguins yearn. As Mumble, Wood adds his eternal youthfulness, brave as a young father who’s perpetually learning and making unconventional friends along the way. Pink, replacing Brittany Murphy as Gloria is a more mature and altruistic presence in the colony, encouraging her family – and the young audience – to persevere in hard times. These characters teach kid-sized lessons but if that doesn’t satisfy you, at least it’s still a visual treat on the big screen.


Any Given Sunday


From my childhood third world perspective, looking through a keyhole into the widely disseminated First World pop culture, sports were the furthest thing. But I have a sneaking suspicion, that Oliver Stone‘s portrayal of the public and private lives of a football team in Any Given Sunday feel inaccurately cartoonish. For the pats decade, there has been a different quarterbacks who would host SNL once every four years and another one who would announce his blindly conservative views. And mind my traces of nerdy, anti-jock prejudices but anyone who gets to college through a sports scholarship should never be in front of a microphone ever.

That said, I don’t remember the late 90’s with the memory of men Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx). He starts out as a nervous last resort on this movie’s football team, the symbolically named Miami Sharks, replacing quarterback Jack ‘Cap’ Rooney (Dennis Quaid), the latter feeling varying degrees of pressure from his coach Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino) and his wife to play on, has taken it to himself to swallow his pride and make way for the new blood.

Then becoming its unlikely rising star, and it’s inevitable that this new fame, the fake friends that go with them and the endorsements get to his unprepared head. For some reason, he would be allowed to embarrass himself through a nationally broadcast sports channel and a rap music video. The movie also gives us access to his semi-private life, with his stupid crass boring ass parties and such. It was as if Stone was conflating that decade’s football stars with those in basketball, like actor Michael Jordan, rapper Shaquille O’Neal and model Lebron James. Beaman is the cringe-inducing manifestation of the black masculine ego, Stone’s inadvertent racial, gendered caricature. I’m not saying that this movie’s racist but if someone told me that it was, I wouldn’t object to his or her opinion.

Knowing that characters within the Sharks are less surprisingly coarse, what interests Stone are stories with trashy narcissists who have no business in becoming figureheads of America’s institutions, whether they be political, financial or athletic, but they end up doing so because of luck and some talent. Timing is important to them, entering these systems in dire times, and their presence within their new worlds make these institutions more precarious, the same way the Sharks’ standing within the NFL is vulnerable. Speaking of talent, I can’t fully discredit Stone’s anti-heroes or villains no matter what they do or how they get to the top, Clay Shaw is well-connected and an efficient taskmaster, Gordon Gekko knowing stocks at the back of his cranium. Of course after vomiting spells and surprisingly, Tony coaching, Beamen can magically pass the football to the other side.

It also helps to know who’s on scriptwriting duties. Helping Stone out is John Logan, responsible for the expanisve, ambitious, masculine and violent A-list vehicles like The Last Samurai, Sweeney Todd and the Oscar-winning Gladiator and Daniel Pyne, whose work in Fracture and the TV series “Miami Vice” bring equal amounts of flash and contemporary grit to this movie.

Back to Stone’s characters, if the ‘trashy’ character is a secondary protagonist like Beamen, there comes a more major character who has to make us less cynical and make us believe that the Sharks and football are holy institutions with integrity and rules. That’s what Tony is for. Pacino amazes here, as we can hear his vocal restraint even when he’s yelling at his players and calling them ‘an embarrassment.’ He has a good rapport with the other actors playing athletes, guiding these characters individually especially in times of need, like injuries, ego deficiencies and the like.

There’s also owner-by-nepotism Christina Pagliacci (Cameron Diaz). Both are conflictophiles, Tony and her respectively representing old and new ways of handling a sports team, both of them being right in their own ways. There’s a short yet innately caricature-like moment when Diaz is sitting on her desk, “Thinker” pose and all. She’s absent in chunks of the movie and neither is she perfect, especially in verbal clashing with a commanding presence like Pacino, but she’s aware of the pressures that faces her character.

Supporting cast includes Aaron Eckhart as an offensive coach impatiently waiting under Tony’s wing, Ann Margaret as Christina’s alcoholic, chagrined and emotionally abandoned mother Margaret and LL Cool J as an endorsement hungry player resentful, like everyone else, of Willie’s refusal to follow the playbook.

The rest of it I’m not a big fan of. Stone’s indulgent camerawork were effective in his earlier movies. He tries to use the same techniques to capture the game’s frenzy but it doesn’t work, especially with adding the aggressive, multi-genre popular music. Scenes of football games portrayed with pathetic fallacy, either with glaring, desert-evoking multiple spotlights or the rain and mud, either weather condition showing every anguished sinew of the athletes despite all that padding. That and the flashbacks were needlessly fetishistic. The more subtle the better. And of course, Charlton Heston appears some commissioner who says about Christine that ‘she’ll eat her young,’ reinforcing the movie’s xenophobic streak in thinking that a woman could be in power is if she’s evil. Please.


Julianne on “An Ideal Husband”


Julianne Moore is one of Hollywood’s most versatile actresses but there are arguably three performances where she could be interchangeable with Madonna. The first and most obvious is as Charley in A Single Man. The second being Maude Lebowski although of course we’ll assume that the singer doesn’t have the same comic timing as Moore does. The third is the twice divorced Laura Chevely in An Idea Husband, a dramedy set in London during the Gilded Age. Madonna has the alabaster complexion back in 1999 but Moore had the curly red hair, ringlets and a luminescent yet cleavage-revealing golden gown, looking like an older yet polished Morisot muse. But when she slithers beside Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett, at one time Madonna’s best friend), opens her mouth and unleashes her laced sexuality, it makes my mind go ‘Madge….’

An Ideal Husband is Oscar Wilde territory – petty, bourgeois, yet more lighthearted than a few other works I’ve skimmed. Laura used to believe in concepts like love but she only concerns herself now with acquiring husbands for power or destroying the enemies who get in her way. She threatens Arthur, wanting marriage from him or else she will reveal the contents of a scandalous letter! Her other option would be destroying Sir Robert Chilton’s (Jeremy Northam) integrity, a Member of the Parliament, by convincing him to approve of a scene. Meanwhile the lives of headstrong Mabel Chilton (Minnie Driver), Robert’s sister, and the shy Lady Gertrude (Cate Blanchett), more worthier wives than Laura can ever make, hang in the balance.

Moore’s casting, along with Blanchett’s, makes the film merely three-fifths British. Everyone’s accents, including Moore’s affected and sassy rendition, are passable but there’s something in the movie that takes away from its authentic locality. Maybe I’ve seen most of these actors play North Americans too many times and in better movies. Or that they seem to belong somewhere else.

Getting neither man, Laura plants the letter, leaves London’s boulevards and hopes her work is done. Unfortunately, she leaves us withe the rest of the sappy, romantic characters and I turn into a Grinch.


Slaughterhouse Five


How does this movie even exist? What, are you saying that there’s also a movie adaptation of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four?” Besides, Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse Five almost describes a world that isn’t tangible, its emotions and shock and awe and horrors are more present. Second to that is his imaginative ideas about the future, his non-linear plots putting his characters in a haze. It didn’t even occur to me to picture what our hero Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks) might have looked like, even if Vonnegut describes him pretty well.

This source material screams Stanley Kubrick if he portrayed one scene every two minutes. This definitely is oceans and light years away from the comfort zone of the director we have ended up with, George Roy Hill, whom we expect more in dusty Western or Depression era landscapes. What Hill and Vonnegut do have in common here is that they both show the desolation caused by historical events. However, Hill gravitates more to history’s effects on the male psyche which is yes, fractured but is also trying to evolve and desperately survive.

Pilgrim isn’t your typical hero because he gets unstuck in time, able to travel from his present day in postwar suburbia to his stint as a drafted private to a futuristic planet where the Tralfamadoreans kidnap him. There’s an irony to ‘unstuck in time,’  suggesting a freedom only from linear constraints. He types that he doesn’t have control of when he travels. He can’t change passed horrors nor use his free will to alter the future. It’s unsettling how passive he is about this and his children equally react to his discomforting philosophy. And of course the editing between one scene – or rather one time frame from another – is impeccable, sometimes going back and forth within seconds, as Billy walks up the same footsteps that others like Edgar Derby (Eugene Roche) have, to similar destinations of horror.

And Sacks, who was 23 when filming started, is capable in the role of the time traveler, going through these phases of his life with ease and knowledge. In the physical sense he’s like a boring white boy/blank slate/archaic Ryan Gosling prototype with his well proportioned frame and blond locks. He’s both believable as the gaunt, awkward child fighting a crusade and as someone who has charmingly learned the tricks of manhood my default. I don’t know why this guy never stuck to acting, maybe it’s because he didn’t really stick out. George Roy Hill preferred his lead performers as stoic all-American archetypes instead of making them overact, letting that job be carried by the supporting characters around like the Italian stereotype Paul Lazzaro (Ron Leibman), etc.

I also can’t fully figure out why this ambitious movie didn’t stick to audiences neither but I have a few theories. For one, it fits less within the topical 70’s obsessions. Science fiction or a future-obsessed zeitgeist flourished within the 60’s and the 80’s, sandwiching this decade into a dry period when, offering its own dozen sci-fi films, it didn’t have a hold on its own aesthetics and additions to the genre. This feels more like a movie from a few years past when Vonnegut wrote the book, its anti-war sentiment and its transcendent philosophies about time and free will.

It’s also troubled with any book adaptations, especially those of contemporary/’postmodern’ works. Can any image justify Vonnegut’s words? When reading the book, we come across the name ‘Dresden,’ a traumatic flashback that persists despite how permanent his futures seem. ‘Dresden’ just makes me imagine this whiteness of destruction – a masochistic and romantic view, I admit – and seeing dead soldiers and crumbling buildings, no matter how shocking they look, inadvertently soften the blow.

Yet I still wish that big audiences rediscover this movie instead of it falling back into a new Hollywood curiosity. I wonder how they’d react to its views about America’s awkward fumbles during and after the war, especially in a surprisingly irreverent and humorous scene when Billy’s wife accidentally kills herself. But I guess people are too busy now, as they were back then, watching Cabaret or The Godfather.


Guilty Pleasure: Analyze This


‘I love Billy Crystal, I want him to host the Oscars,’ so you say but when I hear his name I think, snarkily, like I do with my best friend’s ex-boyfriends. ‘Like really, him?’ National treasure statuses go in waves and I got introduced to him and his work during a hiatus of said status. Others have experienced him during When Harry Met Sally… or now when he upstaged whoever was hosting the Oscars – I have an interesting story of how I missed that glorious moment, by the way. I, however, lump him within middle-aged comedians dominating HBO with dated comedies of the late 1990’s. Tim Allen. Tom Arnold. It’s sad, I know, but he did star as Dr. Ben Sobel in the Harold Ramis directed movie Analyze This.

Oh, I get it, America and Canada loves him because he looks like a human Muppet, with smizing beady eyes and the way he opens his thin lips. It’s funny listening to his muffled voice when he gets high-pitched and irritated with Paul’s demanding ways. He also reaps as much as he can pose as a gangster in Paul Vitti’s (Robert de Niro) place.

With a cast including Lisa Kudrowas Ben’s long-suffering fiancée, Chazz Palminteri as a gangster rival and half of the people who have appeared in “The Sopranos,” Crystal gets sidelined, having to play the normal guy as he normally does. He doesn’t always hit a home run with some punch lines neither. However, I find myself surprised when I chuckle to some of the jokes that I didn’t catch the first or the second time I have seen this. He’s funny when he’s underplaying a punch line about himself as a psychiatrist. His brand of physical comedy more introverted than limb-y.

This movie also came out the same year when the aformentioned “The Sopranos” did, both coincidentally have plots about aging gangster types who deal with their emotional and psychiatric issues. Ben plays a psychiatrist who deals with the sexual ennui of the middle-aged until he lands on a goldmine by getting Paul as a patient. Wackiness and whacking – not off – ensues, chaos being an essential part of every generic comedy. Ben sees Paul merely as a patient but like every other comedy, the latter has boundary issues. Vitti has daddy issues but unearthing those psychological knots also mean that he can convince Ben to talk about his father too. In a way, they’re perfect for each other.

Crystal also gets upstaged and rightfully so by de Niro, who’s on his post-post-Scorsese era. The latter probably did this movie in the tail end of gangster revisionism or genre mash-ups that began a decade before. He gives the character exactly what it needs for a comedy – a childlike nature that makes him think that he beyond scrutiny. Unlike Crystal, de Niro barely if ever plays it down. In some of his scenes he’s angry. In one, he almost seems like he wants to give out a full-on Christopher Walken impersonation. He also uses his signature scrunchy frown in the greatest ways, in one scene transitioning to that to full histrionic crying about his daddy issues that he can’t function during a gangster gun fight.

And since we already brought up the ‘national treasure’ thing. He’s probably the only unscathed survivor of the great actors and actresses of the 1970’s, getting constant work that are equally hit and miss. But we’re also living in a world where Jack Nicholson stipulated in his contract that he can’t work with Lindsay Lohan in any circumstances yet de Niro is in a movie with Katherine Heigl, Jon Bon Jovi and Ashton Kutcher. I don’t like saying this phrase but how the mighty have fallen.


Bad-ish Movie: Wuthering Heights


I read Emily Bronte‘s Wuthering Heights, about the titular estate where the multi-generational drama of the Earnshaw family unfolds, when I was in Grade 12 (?) and as with public (Catholic) school education, we watch clips from a movie adaptation after reading the book, or at least when our teacher expects most of us to have read the book. She chose the 1993 version, with Anne Devlin’s script and directed by Peter Kosminsky. The other class, however, saw the Olivier version, which I’ve run into on TCM and changed it because there was a ball scene where every character wears the latest fashions. I changed the channel. It’s as if the studio system only knew one way of dressing and setting up period movies. And they keep putting ball scenes in these fucking movies.

As much as it got carried away with the thunder, lightning and beating branches on a window thing and although it also feels like more an adapted Harlequin novel, the Gothic tone is still present, the smell of old wood and the texture of the walls. Kosminsky pushes the camera back, his colours lighter and subdued. Ryuchi Sakamoto‘s score is great, although it would have been more memorable in a better movie. It has the grand scale that maverick director Andrea Arnold’s newer and cramped version doesn’t.

This version also has a lot in common Arnold’s movie. Both adaptations lack in evoking Emily Bronte’s storytelling and multiple perspectives. Although this one has Sinead O’Connor narrating, using words like ‘fire,’ ‘ice’ and ‘wolfish’ taking me back to Bronte’s image-heavy prose. But they see a portrait to a stunted childhood that I never did, Heathcliff (Ralph Fiennes) and his adopted sister/love interest Catherine (Juliette Binoche) playing in the dangerous moors, their characters hardened by the violent prehistoric creation of this unique rocky English landscape.

When they decide to sneak into the Linton family-owned Grange, some guard dogs attack Catherine, she stays in the manor to heal while throwing out Heathcliff the gypsy. This separation becomes more symbolic, Catherine becoming a mature English woman while Heathcliff  stays the same. She even chooses to marry Edgar Linton over Heathcliff. What does this mean then if they’re placed against each other in a binary of adulthood and arrested development? Never has the place Wuthering Heights seem like a child-friendly Arcadia nor Heathcliff seem innocent to me either in the book or the three adaptations. He’s narcissistic but he’s also more destructive than tantrum-y, and this is one of the most restrained Fiennes characters I’ve ever seen. And I always thought that their relationship ended because factors have wedged them as opposed to growing apart.

If there’s a binary between them it’s the superficial ones like class and gender, Heathcliff being the more masculine outcast surprisingly has a stronger chance of survival. That’s mostly because of the upper class’ decadence that lead to their decline. Heathcliff, clinging to opportunities like his adopted brother Hindley’s (Jeremy Northam) gambling debts, becomes cunning. He preys on Edgar’s sister and ruining the innocent young woman’s life, becoming the villain that Hindley and to a certain extent, Catherine have painted him.

Arnold’s draws out the childhood scenes and skips the years between Heathcliffe’s disappearance while Kosminsky keeps the playtime down to 10 minutes or less, then shows Catherine’s marriage to the Lintons. But it’s not so much better here as the movie has a ‘this happened and this happened and this happened,’ trying to give every part of the novel justice while losing any of the chapters’ immediacy.

Despite Binoche’s competent handle of the English accent – giving her an advantage from any French actress within twenty years of her – and her elegance in dresses designed by James Acheson, watching her giggle and hum her way out makes Catherine look insipid. I prefer to know what characters are laughing at. It’s  like watching a 40-year-old Norma Shearer play Juliet and Marie Antoinette, although comparing Shearer’s worst to Binoche’s worst is an insult to the former. She, like we do, gets a raw deal with a passive character but she doesn’t pull out the tragic side of Catherine in later scenes. Even then can she only process one level of emotion at a time, like a scene when she discourages her sister-in-law against Heathcliff, hating him as if she never loved him, if that makes sense. I’ve praised Binoche’s chops many times here but she got this role too late in her career and keep in min that this is her starting out.

It’s a dealbreaker for this movie and nor does Fiennes, relying on his dark make-up and hair pieces – like most of the cast – more than his own talent, falls short in a role that others have loved. Both have been in great movies during the same year this was released and it’s fortunate that they’re known for those instead of this hot mess. Although I don’t think I’ve ever heard Kosminsky’s name attached to any major project after this. Also starring in the film is the younger version of Janet McTeer as the maid and Catherine’s clear-headed best female friend Nelly.


Bad-ish Movie: Schumacher’s Flatliners


I remember my aunt talking about Joel Schumacher‘s Flatliners, its characters facing the consequences of questioning God, as if the latter is the worst and most grave thing anyone can ever do.

Let me introduce you to the characters.

Nelson (Kiefer Sutherland) is the ringleader and mad scientist, having a Satanic flair in convincing some of his fellow students into his racket or trying to find out what’s after death, arguing not for a religious but a scientific approach to truth and knowledge even though he’s equally about fame. Dave, (Kevin Bacon) reckless yet brilliant, reluctantly joins Nelson’s experiments only because he’s good at saving other people’s lives. Hurley (William Baldwin), despite his fiancee (Hope Davis), is the token lothario, has an effortless grasp on the human anatomy and is assigned to document the proceedings. Rachel (Julia Roberts), curious about her patients’ brushes with the afterlife and seen by the other characters as frigid because that’s what everyone thinks of driven female characters. Her femininity also makes the other students protect her from the experiment. And Oliver Platt, snarky yet poetic, exists here so that the audience already believes that most medical students aren’t hot youngsters with head shots.

I can still hear the Atlanta in Roberts’ speech. Bacon has been luckier, while Platt and Sutherland will eventually get roles that sort of echo the ones that they play here. Say what you will about Schumacher but the guy knows how to cast the movie.

Leave it up to Schumacher to create some garish images. Aided by his director of photography Jan de Bont, this movie is in the middle ground of ugly between his Batmans and his later work with Colin Farrell that I have yet to see, with his obsession with altitude as well as depicting some jumbled urban landscape. Hospital wings appropriately enough are littered with dead bodies for medical students to study but what are the red neon bars doing there? The exterior, however, is decorated with friezes depicting Medieval images of life and death flanking different sides of Hippocrates’ symbol.

Every structure is crumbling. Student housing where young kids play or abandoned buildings downtown. Nelson and Hurley’s lofts are minimally furnished where the latter videotapes his sexual experiences. There’s a church with a high ceiling surrounded by yellow tape and under renovation where the students irreverently do their experiments. And every time they enter a space or a scene begins we hear the jangle of an electric guitar or a synthesizer, making the movie’s aesthetics look way more dated than it already is.

Let’s talk about the afterlife sequences. Nelson’s seamless changes from a bucolic, all-American grassland to a forest with twined trees and other Gothic imagery like a paralyzed dog. Hurley’s is what would happen in Fritz Lang directed a Calvin Klein underwear commercial. Nelson’s afterlife blends into his real one is when Schumacher’s signature of neon pastel graffiti lights up and spooks his audience. Too bad that this kind of flashiness distracts from a truly compelling stories and set of characters, eventually loses my interest.