Volume 3, Number 41
This Week's Reviews: The Turandot Project, Together, Joy Ride, Training Day.
This Week's Omissions: Corky Romano, Greenfingers, Iron Monkey, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade.
|The Turandot Project
(Dir: Allan Miller, Appearances by Zubin Mehta, Zhang Yimou, Guido Levi, Lando Bartolini, Barbara Hendricks, and Sharon Sweet)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Anyone entering a theatre playing The Turandot Project with Puccini medleys dancing in their heads will surely come out of the film appreciating what has just played before them; conversely, anyone who does not know what Turandot is and thinks the film is probably a new version of Startup.com featuring film critic Kenneth Turan, will be heading for the doors by the film's second half.
Turandot -- for you Ken Turan thinkers -- is a Puccini opera set in ancient Beijing that follows a princess and her wait for the perfect suitor. This is not Puccini's finest or best known work -- for those, I point towards La Bohème and Madame Butterfly -- but would probably be considered one of his more audience-friendly works with Gianni Schicchi, though it did not finally play until two years after his death.
The idea of restaging Turandot in Florence comes from Indian composer Zubin Mehta. He received financial backing to bring the opera back and made sure that he had complete control over the orchestrations. For the stage directions, though, he wanted to look for someone outside the opera society. His final decision: Chinese director Zhang Yimou. Mehta did not know Yimou's name, but he did want whomever that guy was who directed Raise the Red Lantern.
And two minds come together -- one for the visual art behind Puccini's opera, the other for the aural art. They make a magnificent production, creating Chinese culture in an Italian venue with an Italian opera. Turandot is as much a Chinese opera as Casablanca is a Moroccan film, but it still has a mindset that turns heads to the civilization at that historical period and Yimou -- with the complete cooperation of Mehta -- attempts to make his Turnadot into something the Chinese people would be proud of.
Watching The Turnadot Project, it is not hard to notice how patriotic Yimou acts most of the film -- he is constantly referring to this as a chance to show people what the Chinese can create, to take the smug Italian opera-mind out of Turnadot and unveil it like a traditional Chinese folk story, all the while keeping things at a level Italians would still appreciate. This is ironic considering that Yimou is the main impediment to bringing this opera to Beijing in the second half of the film -- the Chinese government opposes Yimou's employment because his films do not show China in the most flattering light. When Mehta and Yimou begin searching for a location in the Forbidden City to stage Turandot, it has to be in the strictest of secrecy from the government.
The first half of the film documenting the Florence production has a pageantry akin to its Florentine roots, but the second half becomes as much a story of opera in an oppressive regime as that of a stage production. The oppressive regime that automatically comes to mind is that of the Chinese government, but they are not the ones who really stand out in the second half (though, there is an interesting anecdote by a smiling young bureaucrat that if any of the ancient buildings around the stage are damaged, she will be thrown in jail). The real oppressor in the Beijing performances of Turandot is Zhang Yimou. The common meaning behind the term director in other languages is "king," and Yimou definitely takes this as his calling in directing Turandot. He knows the vision he has and will rarely falter from it. When the lead sound technician asks Yimou to move the chorus members a couple steps to the side so that the speakers will not blare into the back of the heads, Yimou just sits and disagrees. Soon the technician is walking away to move his speakers.
The main fight against Yimou is found in lighting director Guido Levi. Yimou wants the lush stage to be illuminated and be seen in all its glory for the audience to enjoy; Levi, on the other hand, sticks to the Italian operatic ideals that call for dark lighting on anything outside of the foreground (I wonder what he'd do with The Mikado). They bicker constantly through an interpreter, though it's safe to say that neither really listens to the other's interpreted remarks. By the first show, Levi is telling the camera that he knows he'll get his way through bad weather and technical problems. This, of course, is all part of his underlying complaint that Yimou has no place directing an opera -- his hiring is just an attempt by producers to coerce non-opera fans into coming to see Turandot.
The documentary's director is Allan Miller, who has
directed 35 musical documentaries, including Oscar winners From Mao to Mozart: Isaac
Stern in China and The Bolero. Miller is given an incredible backstage pass
to the proceedings found in the Turandot productions and is happily willing to
show them for the world to see. Some people might be disappointed that he does not attempt
to really capture the spirit of the actual opera. However, that is not the point; The
Turandot Project is about the genius found in recreating what is already a
masterpiece. Now, Zhang Yimou probably has his own ideas in how to direct this
documentary, but all in all, I think he's quite content with the end project.
(Dir: Lukas Moodysson, Starring Gustav Hammarsten, Lisa Lindgren, Emma Samuelsson, Sam Kessel, Michael Nyqvist, Jessica Liedberg, Henrik Lundström, Anja Lundkvist, Ola Norell, Axel Zuber, Shanti Roney, Olle Sarri, Cecilia Frode, Lars Frode, Emil Moodysson, Thérèse Brunnander, Claes Hartelius, and Sten Ljunggren)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Two young kids sit in a Volkswagen bus on cold Swedish nights. The boy, 14-year-old Fredrik (Lundström) is there to get away from his straight-laced, extremely conservative parents; the girl, 14-year-old Eva (Samuelsson) is there to get away from the hippie, extremely liberal commune she has been forced to live in.
That is the most striking relationship in Together, a film that, even by name, is meant to look at how different people react to each other. People come in and out of the woodworks in this film and concur, love, and fight with each other as the audience -- almost sadistically at times -- watches. This is a 1975 hippie commune in Stockholm, where everyone is open to free-love -- at least on the outside, as we learn in the film, even those free-lovers have their doubts inside -- and yearn to push their feelings on others. By the end of the film, much of the commune has broken, quite possibly because even the nonconformists disagree in ways to act differently.
Of course, the founders of this commune (called "tillsammans," the Swedish word for "together") have made rules and feel that they are impregnable. No meat, no TV, no multinational products. At one point, they even fight over washing the dishes -- some see this as a needed chore, but one person thinks washing is a bourgeois action.
The underlying revolutionary group -- and the ones who begin the crack in the commune's stability -- is a mother and her two kids. Elisabeth (Lindgren) with her son Stefan (Kessel) and daughter Eva move into this commune after her alcoholic husband Rolf (Nyqvist) hits her in a fight. Since the owner of the residential home housing the commune is Göran (Hammarsten), Elizabeth's younger brother, they get two rooms to use for themselves. This separated mother thus begins her attempt to fit in.
Elizabeth is the paradoxical character of Together -- she comes into a house of nonconformists and quickly tries to conform. She begins to meditate, becomes a socialist, and even finds lesbian feelings for another commune member named Anna (Liedberg). Probably the most telling of the film's scenes is when Elizabeth forces her children to switch pillows since it has become too regular for boys to have blue bedding and girls to have pink bedding.
Homosexuality is an intriguing oddity found in Together. Anna chooses to become a lesbian as a chance to move against the grain. You almost get the impression that she chose to come out of the closet only because her therapist thought she was a lesbian -- not because any real feeling towards women. There is another homosexual relationship found in the film -- I will not disclose between who since it is late in the film -- but its actuality in being true to love seems all the more threatening to Anna since her lesbian tendencies are so questionable.
Together stands as a remarkable little comedy with Norse production values. Over the last couple years it has become more and more regular to find guerilla filmmaking tactics in Scandinavian films. The most written of would be the Dogme films, but they are just part of the group. The Swedish director Lukas Moodysson follows the same regiment of values found in Lars von Trier's films. This is not a Dogme film in some of the rules (I'm sure that some of this film uses sets and non-essential props), but the camera work is very similar to the movement. The extensive use of close-ups, the handheld cameras, and grainy quality all bring back memories of Breaking the Waves and, even, von Trier's last non-Dogme effort Dancer in the Dark.
But there is an important difference. Together is a comedy -- it never really veers into the same dramatic territory touched by von Trier with Breaking the Waves or Dogme directors like Thomas Winterberg's The Celebration and Kristian Levring's The King Is Alive. Moodysson is willing to sacrifice some of the guerilla devices' more histrionic pathos for a more entertaining film. There's a great deal of laughs found in the film, mixed in among the various character touches.
The closest film to compare Together to is
probably von Trier's The Idiots -- his only Dogme film thus far. That film was
easily the worst work from that talented director. His sadistic toiling with the human
condition showed a commune that literally left the audience yearning to forget them --
with Moodysson's film, the audience instead gets to enjoy the idiotic actions of the
commune as a comical touch. And they are entertained in a far more satisfying way than the
so-called insights found in The Idiots.
(Dir: John Dahl, Starring Paul Walker, Steve Zahn, Leelee Sobieski, Walt Goggins, Matthew Kimbrough, Ted Levine, Jessica Bowman, Brian Leckner, Kenneth White, Luis Cortés, Michael McCleery, Jim Beaver, Satch Huizenga, and Tim Cooney)
BY: DAVID PERRY
John Dahl stands with Joy Ride as one of the premier directors of the modern noir thriller. His films, like The Last Seduction and Red Rock West, seem like picture perfect plays on old conventions. Dahl serves as a filmmaker intent on toying with cliché for his own little mind game movies.
In his last films, Dahl had moved away from those noir roots, making films like Unforgettable (which is not as bad as people make it out to be) and Rounders. Dahl, even in those films from different genres, infuses his films with a style that lets the audience know the man behind the camera is in complete control. John Dahl may never become a recognizable name in the film industry, but his films will forever mess with the minds of his viewers.
That said, Joy Ride is not quite of the same level as Red Rock West or his masterpiece The Last Seduction but still comes out as one of the few thrillers in recent years to be utterly thrilling. Comparisons to the Steven Spielberg classic Duel are given, but I would also like to note Jonathan Mostow's Breakdown, which came out to little fanfare four years ago. All three films use tractor-trailers as threatening devices of suspense, but each one uses a different page from the book of thriller story arcs to get their jobs done. For Breakdown it was a superbly detailed duel of bodies on a truck; for Duel it was a collision course between two vehicles; and for Joy Ride it is a step outside the truck and into a seedy motel like the one where all the problems began in the first place.
Lewis (Walker) is a normal UC Berkley student pining over the love of high school friend Venna (Sobieski), who now goes to school in Boulder, Colorado. Summer is upon them and Lewis is ready to board a plane for his New Jersey home. That is until a fateful telephone conversation with Venna, who yearns for a car to just drive home in -- on a whim, Lewis cancels his airplane ticket and buys a car (1971 Chrysler Newport, since all road trips must occur in an older car) and tells Venna he'll be at her dorm to pick her up shortly.
On his way through Utah, Lewis learns that his delinquent brother Fuller (Zahn) has just gone to jail for drunken disorderly behavior. Lewis, keeping in tune with his nice guy stance, drives out of his way to post bail for Fuller and take him on the road with him. Spotting a deal at a gas station/auto shop, Fuller has a CB radio antenna latched onto Lewis' car. Before long, they're listening to the radio for information on police cars clocking the highways.
But Fuller's aberrant behavior comes to life with this radio -- he thinks of a practical joke to pull on the lonely truckers speaking on the radio. After setting himself up as "Black Sheep," Fuller convinces Lewis to speak in a falsetto and go by "Candy Cane." Through this, they get the attention of an unknown trucker going by the handle "Rusty Nail" (voiced by B-actor Ted Levine). They get his libido active and then lose his signal. That night, after a run in with an obnoxious salesman at a seedy motel, "Rusty Nail" comes back on in search of his "Candy Cane." Fuller is all too willing to get this lonely soul ready for some sexual encounter in the motel and get a good laugh out of it. Lewis gives "Rusty Nail" instructions on how to meet "Candy Cane" and the room to meet at is #17 -- where the salesman is for the night.
So much happens beyond this point in the film, but it is all so intriguing and suspenseful that it would be a crime to give anything away. Dahl crafts the film into stark and moody action with occasioned humor. The film feels like a marriage between the dry humor of The Last Seduction and the Western ethics of Red Rock West -- and, though paling in comparison to those films, works masterfully for the fusion.
The screenplay by Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams keeps the film running briskly and the jokes popping up at just the right moments. It helps that they have a comedic actor with abilities like Steve Zahn's. He perfectly plays his role with a doofus charm inherent in most of his roles. And the lines that sputter from his mouth -- most of which seems improvised -- save the film from a single dull moment. One particular scene involving a near bar brawl falls on the list of funniest moments from films this year.
Paul Walker does little to help Zahn, though his boyish charms do keep in line with the role. When people complained about his miscasting in The Fast and the Furious earlier this year -- myself included -- the main complaint was that he just did not fit the role. He's not much of an actor regardless of where he is, but in some roles, his charms do go far, like in Pleasentville. But the misappropriations of his casting calls leave him sticking out like a sore thumb in films like The Fast and the Furious, Varsity Blues, The Skulls, and She's All That.
The visuals in Joy Ride are absolutely incredible at times. Some of the most sanguine moments are genuinely threatening because Dahl and cinematographer Jeffrey Jur stick to their guns and make shots that dazzle the eyes without losing the constraining feeling needed for the thrills. I especially liked the way they often drench characters in colors. Green, blue, and especially red all hold important roles in the lighting of the film. And every time Dahl and Jur turn to these base colors, the film looks like a piece of beautiful photography.
There are some big holes in the proceedings, but they are all acceptable in the long run. Joy Ride is a proud B-movie without any pretension. I liked the way the film goes for old-fashioned thrills instead of the normal scare tactics found in most genre films lately. When the camera passes something that would normally have an insidious device in most thrillers today, Dahl instead holds out to get a scare out of something more surprising. Even the red herring chase early in the film has a slam-bang moment that is completely unpredictable.
Joy Ride is not going to remain in the minds of
most people seeing the film for very long. As is usually the case, other thrillers with
much less intriguing aspirations will pop up and take audience members' minds off of
Dahl's little film. That is a true shame, but something that I have come to understand.
Just look at how well people remember Breakdown these days.
(Dir: Antoine Fuqua, Starring Ethan Hawke, Denzel Washington, Scott Glenn, Cliff Curtis, Tom Berenger, Peter Greene, Eva Mendes, Samantha Becker, Mimi Fletcher, Harris Yulin, Raymond J. Barry, and Dr. Dre)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Denzel Washington has made a career playing ethereal saints, often misunderstood but always important. Looking over his filmography, it's easy to notice that there's not a single villain in the bunch. Washington instead plays flawed giants like Rubin Carter in The Hurricane, Herman Boone in Remember the Titans, Jake Shuttlesworth in He Got Game, and the title character in Malcolm X, with the occasional low-key character like Joe Miller in Philadelphia, Nathaniel Sterling in Courage Under Fire, Anthony Hubbard in the now timely The Siege, and Easy Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress.
However, Washington is always commanding in his roles. Even in undemanding roles like his in The Preacher's Wife, Washington takes the character by the lapels and makes it his own. I think this is why Washington will be remember as one of the finest American actors of the late twentieth century: he may give some above-average performances, but the real treat is that he's consistent.
This definitely remains true with Alonzo Harris, the role he dons for Training Day. In his first slimy heavy, Washington seems to relish each chance to antagonize his costars. Harris is possibly the first role in which Washington's smile means something bad is about to happen, even including the downbeat follow-through of Fallen. Washington might not get that long awaited Best Actor Academy Award for this film, but he definitely proves that it won't be long before he does.
Harris is a corrupt LAPD officer working the streets intent on getting his way. Bad luck for Jake Hoyt (Hawke), the upstart young officer hoping to make detective by training under Harris -- little does he know that his training day will mean something more than an overview of the chronology to become a detective. He gets into Harris' customized Monte Carlo and soon finds out that the cop he's working under is as crooked as anyone under arrest.
This is a tough role for Hawke, who constantly proves to be one of the best young actors seen as nothing more than a pretty boy. After pulling great work in Before Sunrise, Reality Bites, Great Expectations, Gattaca, and last year's Hamlet, Hawke still remains as an oddity out there in the film world. He takes on independent roles, unflattering roles, and sometimes invisible roles, but he has yet to get beyond the list of Tiger Beat cover models with a SAG card. I desperately hope that his work in Training Day might shed some light on his skills as an actor -- heaven knows that it takes a mighty remarkable performer to play off the over-the-top Washington. Hawke is second billed, probably based on both the star quality and commandeering going on with Washington, but he is the actual star of the show. I can only think of a couple scenes in which he is not in the frame.
One of those scenes comes in the film's incompetent ending. No divulgences here, but that scene, which feels better suited in a Jerry Bruckheimer film than in Antoine Fuqua's movie, is one of the biggest missteps this year. The film is already going in the wrong direction by the time the film hits this scene, but this five-minute lapse in judgment by the director and screenwriter is the most damning aspect of the entire film. The audience has been through an hour and forty-five minutes of remarkable scenes involving character interaction and the obligations of a corrupt cop (one of my favorite scenes is when Harris meets with three big-time LAPD detectives who are as corrupt as he is, though more aristocratic looking - of course, it helps that two of them are played by Raymond J. Barry and Harris Yulin), but the last fifteen minutes make the film end on a sour note.
Before all this goes on, a piece of coincidence lets the
story continue on the beaten trail it wants to go on. I was willing to forgive this scene
in hopes that something great was just a couple minutes away. I was, unfortunately,