Volume 3, Number 16
This Week's Reviews: Series 7: The Contenders, Bridget Jones's Diary, Chunhyang, The Widow of Saint-Pierre.
This Week's Omissions: Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles, Freddy Got Fingered.
|Series 7: The Contenders
(Dir: Daniel Minahan, Starring Brooke Smith, Glenn Fitzgerald, Marylouise Burke, Michael Kaycheck, Merritt Wever, Richard Venture, Donna Hanover, Angelina Phillips, Nada Despotovich, Stephen Michael Rinaldi, Alex Yershov, Danton Stone, and Jennifer Van Dyck)
BY: DAVID PERRY
I suppose that there is a certain sadistic aspect to the reality television that plagues prime time these days. What with the Temptation Islands, the Real Worlds, the Road Rules, the Boot Camps, the Survivors, the Big Brothers, and whatever else has come about that I failed to notice (I remember an article last year that spoke of a PBS incarnation dealing with high school students, though the elitist forum makes that project closer to documentary television than reality), America has created a weird world of the confessionals. People come on these shows with the sole purpose of getting some money and a little fame (though, there have been a couple people on Survivor, the injured Michael Skupin especially, that were in it as much for the adventure as for the spoils), and they can even air their dirty laundry. It's like Gilligan's Island meets The Jerry Springer Show.
This is the climate that Series 7: The Contenders opens itself to. I have read that it was written and mostly filmed before Survivor started (and I'll believe this statement based on Toy Story 2 and The Green Mile posters at one point in the film), but that does not make it more than social commentary. The critic that pointed this out seems to have forgotten that there were many others before the stream of Survivor wannabes. Off the top of my head, Road Rules, Real World, and Cops all dealt with issues that are present in Series 7: The Contenders, though the admittedly auspicious idea of adding guns to 'vote out' the weak links (and let's not even get started on that reality/game show offspring The Weakest Link) is a nice touch. The only reason to respect the abhorrently ugly Series 7 is that it is meant as a satire. It can play that card in the same way as, say, Starship Troopers even though that does not keep it from the damning fact that it is nearly unseemly.
Spliced together in the form of back-to-back episodes of a series called The Contenders, this, the 7th season, is an exploration into the thought and dreams of each of the six people waiting to kill or be killed. You see, through some unexplained government deal, people are chosen randomly to play in this game, where they must kill the other five contenders in three different competitions to regain their freedom.
When this new season begins, reigning champion Dawn (Smith) kills her tenth person to end the 6th season. She is eight months pregnant and ready to burst. But her violent energy and maternal instincts keep her in the game -- she only has to make it through five more kills (which can be at her hands or those of another contender) and then she and her child will be free again.
In the new season, a lottery girl pulls the numbers of five more people and the camera crews set out to find them. Once these five are in their sights, each one is given a gun and constantly followed by a cameraman. Bob (Kaycheck) is a mild-mannered family man, a little overweight, recently laid off, and waiting to explode. Lindsay (Wever) is a 17-year-old student with possessive parents that arm her to the teeth and shout supportive remarks to their baby as she heads out for a hunt. Connie (Burke) is a Bible-totting nurse who thinks she has the grace of God, but not the compassion. Franklin (Venture) is the definitive old coot, living in his aluminum-lined trailer listening to incomprehensible signals from various sources. And Jeff (Fitzgerald) is a testicular cancer victim waiting to die and holding onto a secret past with Dawn.
In setup, some of these people seem at least passable acceptable, but in the end, the only one that I could even stand was Franklin, whose screen time is at most ten minutes (and I'm not saying that he is first to die, his screen time is just abnormally slight). Connie becomes some sort of Jerry Fallwell meets the Angel of Death and Glenn has more nauseating characters arcs than a soap opera character. Dawn is the center of the film, and she is by far the biggest presence (which is not meant as some statement on her natal size) -- before long, characters are less based on their own stories but on their importance to Dawn's.
This film attempts to balance between two lines, social commentary and comedy. For some it might succeed on both counts, for others neither. I'm in the latter camp. When Series 7 is not turning off the audience with violent characters studies it brushes the line of dullness. Director Daniel Minahan seems so satisfied by recreating the productions values of reality programming that he never really takes that extra mile to produce a product that is half acceptable. The comedy is never really funny (I laughed once) and the commentary is old hat. By now, many Oliver Stone law suits later, we understand that violence in media is threatening our morality and that each new series and the burgeoning viewership brings us closer and closer to bubbling slobs that get our kicks watching executions on television.
In the spring, I have the ability to overuse a word:
innocuous. I use it constantly because, simply put, that's what most of the early year
films are. But Series 7 is not innocuous; it is abrasive, brash, and repugnant.
In 90 minutes of time, it threatens the independent film world with more power than Armageddon.
That film was flashy dumb, this film is just plain bad. It's not the first film to take on
this commentary -- Natural Born Killers, EDtv, and The Running Man
all quickly come to mind -- but it is the worst. So not only has reality TV done the
disgrace of bringing us the objectionable Temptation Island, but it also spawned
this trash. Heaven help us now.
|Bridget Jones's Diary
(Dir: Sharon Maguire, Starring Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Embeth Davidtz, Jim Broadbent, Gemma Jones, Shirley Henderson, Sally Phillips, Crispin Bonham-Carter, Patrick Barlow, Honor Blackman, James Callis, Celia Imrie, and Lisa Barbuscia)
BY: DAVID PERRY
I am a man. My daytime television is CNN instead of Days of Our Lives. My book collection features Kurt Vonnegut instead of Joan Collins. Nevertheless, I still felt compassion for the plucky heroine of Bridget Jones's Diary, an adaptation of Helen Fielding's incredibly popular novel for the female crowd. Bridget Jones would watch Days of Our Lives, read that Joan Collins novel, and have tub of Hagen-Daas during the interim. Having never read the novel that the film is based on, I cannot tap into whether or not it succeeded in adapting the high-pressure foundation, but I can say that, as an astute romantic comedy viewer, it succeeds exceptionally as a film by itself.
When I first learned that Renée Zellweger had become the latest female star for the boys of Miramax, I was not aghast as fans of the novel were. In fact, I thought that she could very well be the finest thing about the film (truthfully, I thought that it would be terribly hard to adapt a such a novel -- the entire story is brought out in Jones' diary entries written in shorthand -- into a comprehensible film). I'm happy to report that not only does she pull of the 20-pounds and British accent that left original fans scratching their heads at her hiring but also Zellweger goes far beyond it. She makes a character come to life, creating a stunning realization of grace under fire.
Bridget Jones (Zellweger) is overweight (well, not really, but in this toothpick waist world she does feel a little large), a chimney with cigarettes, a horrible conversationalist, and a regular to the liquor bottle. She sits in her apartment, watching Frasier, singing along to "All by Myself," and imagining her destiny: should she attempt to reconstruct her life or die to give snack food to roaming dogs. Bridget, of course, chooses the latter future and throw out those bottles, those cigarettes, those self-help books, and clocks in some time on the local exercise bike.
When the film begins, she frightens away an old friend whom her mother thinks is a perfect suitor. He is Mark Darcy (Firth, who played a similar character named Darcy in the Pride and Prejudice miniseries from a few years ago), a successful barrister that has a smug way of making everyone feel insufficient for his presence. By the halfway point, and some unpleasant meetings later, his feelings are stripped away and his interest in her can be seen.
But Darcy is not the only person looking to grab up this new and improved Bridget -- a longtime adversary is there to ruin any chance he, or Bridget for that matter, have at happiness. This man is Daniel Cleaver (Grant; playing his role delightfully smug), Bridget's boss at his publication company, who really couldn't care less whether or not he can remain faithful, but whether or not he can keep her struggling with the lies he shrewdly whispers into her ear. He wins at first, and everything goes wrong following a funny party that was to have a theme called 'Tarts and Vicars.'
Wait a second, this synopsis almost makes this look to have
the wrong moral: that a seemingly forever-single woman can become a 'wanton sex goddess'
by dropping some weight. Let me set this straight, do not expect this film to allow its
heroine to fall prey to Hollywood's obsession with thinness. While a change is seen in her
love life after the character change, this is not the way that the film leaves the
audience embracing. To keep from giving away too much, the moral to the story is merely
that true love is as forever as faithful as that Billy Joel song to Christy Brinkley.
(Dir: Im Kwon-Taek, Starring Lee Hyo Jeong, Cho Seung-Woo, Kim Sung-Nyu, Lee Jung-Hun, Kim Hang-Yun, Kim Hak-Yong, Cho Sang-Hyun, Kim Myung-Hwan, Lee Hae-Ryong, Choi Ji-Youn, and Lee Hye-Eun)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Long before there were mass-produced novels, before television shows, before motion pictures, there was the ancient art of pansori. This Eastern art is still a little vague for Westerners. In fact, before seeing Chunhyang, the only knowledge I had of pansori was from reading about it -- a far cry from the actual intrigue of the presentation. In pansori, two men take a stage, one who sings a story, one tapping a drum for the beat. Koreans still embrace the art (like the way we Westerners still embrace our Shakespearean play performances in the original Elizabethan format), but it has never really made its way into this hemisphere.
The Korean film Chunhyang becomes the first real chance for the pansori to jump cultures. Through the international, interethnic art of motion pictures, the pansori can unfold in front of American audiences who would have never otherwise had a chance to see it in all its glory. The only problem is that we, a society that embraces every hackneyed and dependable story, can only look at the fairy tell told in Chunhyang as predictable melodrama. I would not be surprised if this same storyline was once used in a couple episodes of Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest.
According to Korean legend, there once was a haughty governor's son named Mongyong (Seung-Woo) who lived in the Korean province of Namwon. His father ran this area justly and was well liked by everyone. One day, while Mongyong was on holiday to study for an upcoming exam to prove his nobility, he caught sight of a young girl named Chunhyang (Hyo-Jeong). She was the daughter of a noble and a courtesan; the noble died soon after her conception and her mother ended her life as a courtesan to raise Chunhyang. Mongyong is smitten -- he is used to getting everything that he wants and has found something else to acquire.
Of course, Chunhyang resists, but soon falls prey to his beauty and the post-coital pillow talk they begin to have. Mongyong and Chunhyang marry in secret -- if his father knew, he would remove Mongyong from the inheritance. But just as they become close as husband and wife, Mongyong's father is sent to Seoul by the emperor and Mongyong is forced to follow, leaving Chunhyang behind.
With the promise of Mongyong's quick return, Chunhyang remains quiet of their relationship as he leaves Namwon. But all is not well when the new governor comes in. Byun Hakdo (Jung-Hun) is a very severe leader, taxing the residents for his birthday and calling for the beating of a guard because of one person's out-of-pocket shoutings. He is especially cruel when it comes to Chunhyang, whose beauty he has heard of along the road to Namwon. Since her mother was a courtesan, he believes that Chunhyang is forced by legacy to be one as well. He has heard the rumor that she is the wife of the former governor's son and that makes him desire her even more -- the virtuousness makes her all the more appealing, kind of like the Tarquinii rape of Lucretia in classical Rome.
Knowing nothing of what is going on in Namwon, Chunhyang must pray that Mongyong will return before Byun kills her for not sleeping with him. Though the situations are bit more adult, as is often the case with Eastern stories where societies embrace physical pleasure in the fairy tales, the plodding storyline is still like that of the Brothers Grimm. There is a moral of the story, an ending predictable from the beginning, and a realistic good guy yet completely evil bad guy -- we know this story in 17 different variations.
So, for what I can tell, the importance of this film is in its depiction of the pansori. The film begins and ends with the two men performing this story and occasionally leaves the action of the film to return to them -- this is a complete motion picture devoted to making the pansori accessible through film. The real problem is that the choice story is not something to make this art form come across as awe-inspiring. Occasionally we see the audience watching the pansori performance and get this gut feeling that our presence is completely inconsequential.
Director Im Kwon Taek tries his best to juggle the two weighty interests in the film. And, as Paul McCartney said "it did him in in the end." The pansori is not something to throw out with something as flat as this story. I can see this film working as a film unto itself and the pansori succeeding on screen with a story more along the lines of, say, Ran. Taek is talented with the camera, but even his terrific visual sense cannot revive this mismatch of forms.
The two leads are a couple of the worst actors I have seen in foreign films for some time. I have this weird feeling that I watched the Korean equivalents of Freddie Prinze, Jr., and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Seung-Woo and Hyo-Jeong seem to have a nice visual presence, but their acting abilities are dismally poor.
Taek and cinematographer Jung Il Sung work some beautiful
shots into this 122 minute film and keep the interest in their style even if the story is
not remaining intriguing. Capturing night and day like a latter day Kurosawa, they set the
mood for this piece of moody blues. I can only smile in their attempts, even if their
product is flawed.
|The Widow of Saint-Pierre
(Dir: Patrice Leconte, Starring Juliette Binoche, Daniel Auteuil, Emir Kusturica, Michel Duchaussoy, Philippe Magnan, Christian Charmetant, Philippe Du Janerand, Reynald Bouchard, Ghyslain Tremblay, Marc Béland, Yves Jacques, and Yvon Roy)
BY: DAVID PERRY
One evening, in a drunken stupor, Neel Auguste (Kusturica) and Louis Ollivier (Bouchard) row a boat over the Dog Island, a poverty section of 1849 Saint-Pierre, a French island off of the coast of New Foundland. They quarrel -- they disagree on whether or not their old naval officer is fat or simply big (gras or gros) -- and decide to bring him out to prove their point. But when the elderly man is disturbed at his dinner table, he takes a knife with him to see who's at the door. Moments later, he is dead.
In the trial, Neel is given the death penalty, Louis is given hard labor -- however, Louis does not make it home after the ruling. This leaves only Neel to sit and wait -- French law calls for the death penalty to use the guillotine (whose French nickname is la veuve or 'widow') and this tiny island has neither the machine nor the executioner to use it. But, sticklers to their French rules, the magistrates of the community send out a request for a guillotine which can be sent all the way from Martinique and leave their prisoner to wait for its arrival.
What they do not expect is the sudden change of face for Neel -- the gruff exterior hides someone that shows kindness and compassion. In the months of waiting, he moves from exile to town hero. One magistrate even muses "his popularity is a nuisance -- we committed a murderous brute and we're going to top a benefactor." One of the reasons that Neel has been able to show this rehabilitation is the liberal way that local army captain Jean (Auteuil) runs his prison. With Neel standing as his only prisoner, he holds some reservations for confining the man. The general's wife, Pauline (Binoche), is even more open to Neel's freedom and uses the man as a handyman for her various efforts at putting up a green house and fixing the roofs of the poor residents on Dog Island.
There are three main themes to The Widow of Saint-Pierre and it pursues each one until the films haunting finale. First is that of politics. I have a love-hate situation with most political films. I am, personally, a huge supporter of capital punishment, something that this film condemns. But the success that this film finds is that it never becomes preachy. As is often the case, whenever a film that is disagreeable becomes preachy, it becomes annoying and redundant. The Widow of Saint-Pierre is instead like one of the finest debaters -- it makes its point clear and leaves it at that. Turning this into some nonstop opinionated diatribe would have done itself in. Nevertheless, director Patrice Leconte works with Claude Faraldo's screenplay in such a fashion that the extremities never really bare their ugly heads. I was happy to disagree with the film more because it never tried to impose its feelings on me. This is the type of politically minded film I like -- not the extreme leftist agenda of The Contender.
The second theme is forgiveness. Saint-Pierre is a town that has become a troupe of lackeys for the French Republic across the Atlantic, who tell them to hate the man that is doing so many good deeds. Neel is not a horrible person in any way, just someone that made a mistake when under the influence of alcohol. As time goes by, the people of Saint-Pierre begin to understand that they are awaiting the death of a human being, not a monster. One of the film's finest sequences shows Neel joining in with the other men of the town to pull a house along the streets. When something goes wrong, it is left for Neel to save the day, and everyone embraces him as a brother, not as an outsider.
But the third theme is the one that really sets The Widow of Saint-Pierre apart from other films -- the strongest essence of the film is on devotion. At first glance, this is the story of Neel's reformation, but once engrossed by the film, it is easy to see that the real balance of the film is in the relationship of Jean and Pauline. They are the subjects of countless gossip amongst the well to do, but they are fine with this. Women want Jean, men want Pauline, and everyone thinks that Neel is the person that will break their bond. But this is not true; instead he only makes it stronger. They are desperately devoted to each other and it shows in the absolutely incredible performances from Auteuil and Binoche. You literally feel the attraction even when we merely see Pauline through Jean's telescope.
The Widow of Saint-Pierre is one of those films
that leaves the audience enamored. Not only does it have a succulent story to follow, but
a ravishing look and appeal. Leconte does abuse handheld cameras on occasion, the only
real debit to the film. Otherwise, his deep blues and browns make for an astonishing
masterwork that comes alive from the screen. After Leconte's The Widow of Saint-Pierre,
Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love, and Liv Ullmann's Faithless, it is
beginning to look like this may be one of the finest times for foreign films from around