Volume 2, Number 32
This Week's Reviews: Autumn in New York, 42 Up, Beau Travail, Chuck & Buck.
This Week's Omissions: Bless the Child, But I'm a Cheerleader, The Five Senses.
|Autumn in New York
(Dir: Joan Chen, Starring Richard Gere, Winona Ryder, Anthony LaPaglia, Elaine Stritch, Vera Farmiga, Sherry Stringfield, Jamie Harrold, Jillian Hennessy, Delores Mitchell, and Rohan Quine)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Autumn in New York is the second film from Joan Chen, who received international acclaim for her directorial debut last year with Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl. Chen, best known as an actress in Heaven & Earth and Twin Peaks, took a fine story and turned it into a brooding beautiful film. That is not true here.
This film, with its overwrought dramatics and strained comedics comes off as one of the year's worst films. It has the emotional impact of an ice cream headache -- it's just plain bad. There's so much that could come from this scenario (i.e. Terms of Endearment, Love Story), but nothing really comes about in the end.
The film follows Richard Gere's highly successful Will Keane, a New York socialite version of his American Gigolo character, is so contrived that one can only wish his demise before the end of the film, or at least something that might get him off of the screen. Unfortunately, Keane is the film's protagonist.
Keane is a well-to-do Lothario, living a succulent life having sex with every woman that he can find. His life seems fine until he finally falls in love with a young woman named Charlotte, the daughter of one of his old flames. The two become inseparable, dealing with every hardship that comes in the way.
One of the problems that finally comes to his attention is that she does not have much longer to live. Charlotte has a heart disease that gives her about a year to live. Will is so in love that he must find a way to save her life.
Gere has never been anything that might be considered a good actor -- he might not even be able to achieve the title of mediocre. He's one of the worst actors around to have enjoyed a long lasting career. He is the boil on the Hollywood infrastructure, and I do not see a removal coming anytime soon (even if this film flops, he still has an unmerited fanbase that will keep him from disappearing in the near future).
In other words, I was not expecting anything out of Gere. That is not the case with Ryder, who I've considered to be one of the better actresses to come out of the 1990's. Here she hits that low that Sandra Bullock has come so used to living in (hmm, raise your hand if you thought that Bullock's 28 Days was sort of like Ryder's Girl, Interrupted). What happened to the darling of Tim Burton films? I guess she has given that over to Christina Ricci.
Ryder is horrible in this, her worst performance yet. Remember when Reality Bites and Little Women came out and people commented that the six years since Beetlejuice was evident in her smart performances? Well, this performance comes like she gone six years backwards from Beetlejuice. She stutters with a glazed over look and small demeanor that comes off more like an 11 year old than a 29 year old.
Chen and cinematographer Changwei Gu make some moments worthwhile, but most are horrible. Take for example the highly dramatic sex scene, which looked to me like he was holding her head in an aquarium. And let's not even get into the whole clairvoyant heart touch scene.
Screenwriter Allison Burnett creates a world of utter sappiness and less than enthralling so-called touching moments. Don't paint me Montag here, but this is one script that should have been burnt in the heap -- no question about it. But what do you expect form the great writer behind Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight?
Autumn in New York was not screened for critics,
a veritable faux pas of film distribution. Normally a studio does this to keep from
receiving poor reviews that might hurt the all-important opening weekend. If a
studio knows that they have a dog on their hands that might be dependent on reviews (i.e.
edgy and arty studio films), they hold it. There once was a time that I thought
that lack of critical screenings was not a definite sign of a poor film after Tony Scott's
The Fan, but considering that the last film to get this treatment was The In
Crowd, I can safely say that I'm converted.
(Dir: Michael Apted, Appearances by Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, Suzanne Dewey, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Susan Sullivan, and Tony Walker)
BY: DAVID PERRY
In 1964, British television sanctioned documentarians Paul Almond and Michael Apted to film fourteen British children every seven years, seeing them grow up into the twenty-first century. Based upon the Jesuit saying "give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man," Seven Up was a thirty minute look at the plans and dreams of these seven year olds. Seven years later, Almond dropped out of the project, leaving Apted at the reigns, who has taken it since.
The Up series has continued every seven years, each time letting the audience keep up with the upperclass twit (Andrew), the brooding genius (Nick), the self-sacrificing teacher (Bruce), and the downtrodden dreamer (Neil). Meant to look at the crumbling class system, the series mysteriously keeps falls short on female subjects with only one upperclass woman and three working class women.
With 42 Up, we see these children grow into middle-age. What was yearned and dreamed for has come true in some cases, blown-up in others. Each person is shown through the five previous films along with their new interviews, making it as much a treat for fans of the series as for those seeing this for their first Up film.
Michael Apted has come to know these people well by now, and many of them have grown to become incredibly open to them. Look at Nick, who at 14 would barely look at the camera or answer questions, blossom into a smart, articulate individual, open to let the world through Apted know him.
Over the years, three have dropped out of the film, though others have left only to come back. One of them, Peter is unmentioned here, though we see long absent Charles and John with some updates. Otherwise, everyone is back from their seven or fourteen year absences.
First off is Bruce, who has given both of his dreams a try (a jockey and a cab driver), only to finally settle down in suburbia. Thanks to sharing cab duties with his wife, Bruce has been able to get the family in a walled-in suburban home -- something that he has pride in, but in some ways regrets.
Then there is Suzy, who was the chain-smoking, angry, lost 21 year old. At 28, 35, and now 42 she still stands as a housewife, living the life that she would have scoffed at twenty-one years earlier. While the change was dramatic at 28, by now she seems the same old Suzy from the last two installments -- only adding her work as a bereavement counselor.
Third is Symon, who has had one of the harder lives. Following his failed marriage, Symon has gone onto find happiness with a new family, now holding some 7 dependents. In some ways, Symon has grown-up, something that one might have never guessed would happen from his earlier interviews.
My favorite, Bruce, follows, with his fears and desires from 35 Up, where he stood as a teacher in Bangladesh, finally coming true. He is the nicest and sweetest of all the people followed, and it is incredibly heartwarming to see that he has finally found happiness through another person.
The three working-class girls were next, with their varying degrees of achievements, mistakes, and aging. Lynn, one of the few people to have had only one marriage that worked out, has gone onto have loved family and has aged right into 42. Meanwhile marriage pained Susan could pass for 35 and multiple failed relationship strained Jacqueline looks to be pressing into her 60's. Hers is the most interesting of stories of the three, raising three children on her own while struggling with arthritis.
Next is Nick, the furthest upwardly moving individual in the series. He has gone from living one of the mere two children in his small farming village (the other child being his younger brother) to succeed as a nuclear physicist, becoming a full professor at the University of Wisconsin. Though nothing has really changed over the last seven years, he does get to deliver the best remark in the film: "My ambition as a scientist is to be more famous for doing science than for being in this film. But unfortunately, Michael, that's not going to happen."
Like Nick, Paul has long been gone from British society, therefore going against what the films are purportedly supposed to be about. Now living in Melbourne, Paul and family seem fine in their Australian life, though there seems to be a part of Paul that dies to keep on moving.
Initially there were three upperclass boarding school boys interviews together, like the middleclass Susan, Lynn, and Jacqueline. Now only Andrew remains with the series, slowing but surely toning down his snobbishness (the stunning accuracy of seven year olds Andrew, Charles, and John to spout out secondary prep schools and universities in their plans is rather frightening).
Lastly there is Neil, who has slowly become the star of the series. He has gone from a little boy hoping to show everyone the world to a homeless man in Scotland in 28 Up. Though I will not say what he has done with himself, it is a surprise to see the dramatic change that has come to his life thanks to a friendship with one of the other subjects.
Each passing film is a chance to remind us how these people have changed and how we too have changed over the course of seven years time. What was it we yearned to be at seven? Did it turn out that way?
42 Up is probably the final chapter in the series. One of its reasons for existence is to look at how these seven-year olds are the future of British society, making way into the year 2000. With each one of these characters on the heels of the twentieth century when this was filmed, it is very possible that this is the end. Since Apted has recently published a book on the series and the feeling of the ending of this film, I would not be surprised if this is my final time to get to know Bruce and Neil, Jacqueline and Susan, Andrew and Nick.
It is interesting to see this slice of real life in the
midst of a spurt of reality programming on American TV. With shows such as Big
Brother, The Real World, Road Rules, and Survivor taking
on sociology, it is this film that seems closest to reality. The people on Big
Brother survive a house without any outside communication; the people on Survivor
survive being stranded on a desert island; the people of 42 Up survive life.
(Dir: Claire Denis, Starring Denis Lavant, Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin, Richard Courcet, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Adiatou Massudi, Mickael Ravovski, Dan Herzberg, Giuseppe Molino, Gianfranco Poddighe, Marc Veh, Thong Duy Nguyen, Jean-Yves Vivet, Bernardo Montet, Dimitri Tsiapkinis, Djamel Zemali, Abdelkader Bouti, and Marta Tafesse Kassa)
BY: DAVID PERRY
One of the last remaining disciples of the French New Wave, Claire Denis has hit her mark as a filmmaker fascinated with isolation and the exiled. For that reason the Herman Melville story Billy Budd was a perfect choice for the filmmaker. Perfect in idea, but certainly not in execution.
Beau Travail is a muddled mess, one that is even hard to comprehend if you are a staunch fan of both Denis and Melville. The filming of the story is so psychoanalytic that it leads towards utter pretentiousness. Denis takes on the story like a child in a toy factory, almost as if she is having too much pleasure out of making this film to make it anything worthwhile to the audience.
Billy Budd, a story of a triangle of trust, tyranny, and trepidation in the British Navy, has been moved to the North African desert with the French Foreign Legion. Here it is Sergeant Galoup (Lavant) that runs a tight squad, making sure that everything goes perfectly. He is obsessed with perfection, whether it be in the ironing of clothing or in the making of his bed.
The only perfect thing that irks him is a young legionnaire named Gilles Sentain (Colin). Sentain is a sleek looking man, a big contrast from the grizzled looking Galoup, that makes friends with all the other legionnaires quickly, meanwhile making an unknown enemy with Galoup. He is favored by his peers as well as the commander of the squad, Bruno Forestier (Subor, who played the same role in Godard's Le Petit Soldat), a respect that drives Galoup crazy.
Now that's is not a bad story, not at all. But here's the rub: that story could have successfully been shown in 30 to 45 minutes. The Billy Budd novel is far more expansive in detail and can be made into a more laden film, but this, with its dwindling narrative and carefree structure is 45 minutes of story and 45 minutes of men exercising.
Yes, you heard it here first. Claire Denis takes on this story as if she is the female version of Peter Greenaway. Using the female body as a toy, Greenaway would love a chance to make an all-female legion with nude calisthenics on the beach. Denis does not stray too far, having the barely clad legionnaires lay on the beach for five minutes, then take a shower, then perhaps some clothes ironing, then pushups, then, just maybe, a little story on the side.
She has a fine grasp for the camera, which does help some of the more unnervingly boring moments whist away a little quicker, but it cannot save this film. Agnès Godard can photograph men sunbathing and cattily staring at each other like an old pro. However, one of the biggest problems is that great set-ups do not follow-through as well as one might expect. Take for example the stare down on the beach -- on the poster for the film it looks great, but as a five minute sequence it is overwrought.
To think that this could have been made into a great film only makes the heart grow sadder. Filmmakers like Mike Leigh could have made it into a fine moment in depressing dramatics. Denis has the visual touch to create a good film, but not the emotional touch. By the time that I was ready to kill Sentain just so that Galoup would quit complaining was when I knew that this film was beyond rehabilitation.
That is not to say that the film does not look up as it progresses. As it turns to a more tortured area of the story, in which the semi-nudist colony is far from the central location, there is actually much to say, and the performance from Lavant sweeps these scenes into a beautiful momentary lapse from the homoeroticism.
Then, as Denis attempts to make the ending to The
Last Days of Disco sans Chloë Sevigny, we are allowed to have a Dionysian release
(ooh, I read Film Comment too). Unfortunately, this single moment of energy
comes too little, too late.
|Chuck & Buck
(Dir: Miguel Arteta, Starring Mike White, Chris Weitz, Beth Colt, Lupe Ontiveros, Paul Weitz, Maya Rudolph, Mary Wigmore, Paul Sand, Gino Buccola, Doug Keifer, and Glory Simon)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Buck (White) is a 20-something living in a world of a 10 year old. He plays with toy soldiers, listens to children's records, and sucks on blow pops like their going out of style. He is a sweet guy, someone that most people would feel bad for. Of course, all this could also be said for Norman Bates.
But the Buck is not a violent stalker in anyway, but instead simply one of misunderstanding. When he sits at his long lost friend's window while said friend is having sex with his girlfriend, Buck is not comprehending the felony that he is committing -- for him, he's merely spending some time getting to know his friend a little better.
Buck's childhood friend was Chuck (Chris Weitz), and Buck can only remember the great time that they had together. That is not the case for Chuck, who is now a record producer in L.A. and called Charles. He can only wish to hide some of his childhood games, especially one that goes against his current lifestyle.
When Buck's mother dies, Charles and his girlfriend Carlyn (Colt) go back home to Oregon to be at the funeral. This brings joy to Buck's life, who has yearned to see and play with Chuck again. Carlyn makes the poor choice of telling Buck that he should come to L.A. and visit -- which he does after Charles fails to return any of his calls. Buck quickly gets to know his Charles' routine, following him everywhere from his office to his house, and always entering uninvited.
In between the stalking moments, Buck spends his time writing and preparing a semi-autobiographical children's play called Frank & Hank. The tiny theatre across the street from Charles' office is the right venue, with the stage manager (Ontiveros) directing the piece for $25 an hour -- Buck's life is filled with people that either feel sorry for him or use him.
The character of Buck is a tough role to dissect. There are so many layers to the character that Mike White has created (he also wrote the screenplay) and brought to life that Buck is hard to place in the cinematic pantheon -- he is a distinct character with emotions that have not been covered too much in film. How often is it that stalkers suffering from an underdeveloped psyche make it to mainstream media?
The framed play within the story makes so much more come to life for this film. Ontiveros takes in Buck as an easy payday at first, but it is a true compassion that comes as they work together. One of the Hank & Frank actors is played by Paul Weitz (brother to Chris; the two wrote Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and Antz, while Paul directed last year's American Pie), who takes on the secondary character better than Charles. His Sam character is chosen because he looks like Charles despite the fact that he is a horrible actor. Unlike anyone else in the film, he really treats Buck like a real person, not as a dimwitted leech.
Miguel Arteta filmed Chuck & Buck with digital video, something that really helps the story. While a clean, crisp print might have been an interesting approach, the home movie look gives this an edge that is needed. It comes off closer to home. Buck is not a cinematic hero, he's that guy we never really pay attention to on the street.
Chuck & Buck is not an easy film. Like Todd Solondz' Happiness, this might not sit well with some audiences. Its protagonist, someone that struggles with his intelligence, anxieties, and sexuality make this a stand-out production. If there is anything to come out of this film that should be remembered as a mark for 2000 in independent films, it needs to be Buck.
My only real big problem is that the last act comes off too easy. I was reminded of The Player in a way as I sat and watched some things occur. If this was a male/female film, the pay-off between the two would be normal for Hollywood. The fact that it is two men make it more risqué, but it is still like saving Julia Roberts from the gas chamber in Habeas Corpus.
Beyond the relinquishing final thirty minutes, Chuck
& Buck does stand as something that makes independent films notable. With a
decade filled with art films that lead toward talky pretentiousness, one can only hope
that the sweet desires of Chuck & Buck can be the holding for the next ten
year's of indie films.