Volume 4, Number 19
This Week's Reviews: Unfaithful, Code Unknown, About a Boy, Insomnia (1997) / Insomnia (2002), Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones.
This Week's Omissions: Enigma, Lucky Break, The New Guy.
BY: DAVID PERRY
One of the reasons Adrian Lyne has become one of America's more successful filmmakers is that he is as much a moralist as a voyeur. He captures characters in the throes of intense carnal desires and then makes them atone for their sins. Despite the growing agnosticism in this world, Americans still grasp to some deep-rooted beliefs in morality and the hellfire that can follow for the wayward.
For this reason, Lyne's fight to adapt Vladimir Nobokov's Lolita is one of the least surprising choices of his career -- Nobokov also had a resolve to look at the way people have digressed and the way they must ultimately pay for it. Claude Chabrol, the Nouvelle Vague Hitchcock, had his own touches with Nobokavian moralizing when he made La Femme Infidèle. Now Adrian Lyne makes his second most predictable choice by loosely adapting the Chabrol film for the screen, with his voyeuristic sexual urges, of course.
Connie Sumner (Lane) is a relatively happy Westchester County housewife. Her husband Edward (Gere) has seemingly made enough money in his armored car business to move his family to a posh estate in the suburbs, allowing Connie with the freedom to stay at home taking car of son Charlie (Per Sullivan). But with great freedom, sometimes, comes great boredom -- everyday Connie finds herself commuting into the city so that she can take care of a little shopping.
One day, in the midst of the worst windstorm known to man, she literally runs into a man during one of her struggles to get a taxi. In the collision, she skids her knees (which become a fixation for Lyne's camera -- perhaps as a nod to Eric Rohmer and his Lolita story Claire's Knee) and enters the young man's apartment for a little first aid. Almost instantly, the sexual energy can be felt between the two -- Lane is vibrant and Martinez, as French bibliophile Paul Martel, has the smooth satisfaction of a long-working lothario.
He quotes a little Omar Khayyam ("Be happy for this moment: this moment is your life") after unconvincingly pointing her to the Kubaiyat as if he had not placed it there for this very occasion. She is smitten but faithful -- the same cannot be said for their subsequent meetings. Soon they are having sex in café bathrooms and in empty movie houses -- Connie finds herself digging herself into lies that become harder and harder for Edward to digest.
Unfaithful has so much more waiting to come out -- like a perfectly tuned mystery novel, it has the all-knowing compassion of a author-deity and the fortitude to not drop everything at the wrong time. Lyne and screenwriters Alan Sargent and William Broyles, Jr., never really rely on much contrivance, instead wallowing in a melodramatic resolve built by scenes of happy domesticity and searing sex. The change in pace at the film's midpoint, similar in many ways to Robert Zemeckis' What Lies Beneath, captures an emotional peak that stands both virtuously and carnally; and the ending harkens back to another Broyles screenplay that also knew that the world neither knows nor cares what path a single person goes on. It's Chabrol with touches of Steinbeck and Nietzche.
Adrian Lyne and cinematographer Peter Biziou create much of the tension through filters, special lenses, and, in some cases, a patch of smoke. Never in the film does it truly feel staged and yet every facet of its production, every frame has the look and feel of a duteous director and his l'artifice des auteur. At every moment, Lyne et al. are working to create visuals that could never feel true, but successfully refrains from throwing the audience out of the picture. From an artistic standpoint, Unfaithful is his most technically distinguished work yet.
Much of the non-visceral satisfaction, however, comes from Diane Lane's performance, which far exceeds what anyone would expect from the normally passable actress. She embodies the inner-struggle of la femme infidèle with the type of immovability that Celia Johnson created in Brief Encounter and, more recently, was given an age change by Julia Blake in Innocence. She goes through a kaleidoscope of emotional changes throughout the film (in some cases, simply within scenes) that places her along side the equally devastating Lena Endre performance in last year's Faithless.
Unfaithful delivers a continence unseen by
American cinema -- the way it frankly deals with infidelity is heartening for anyone long
disturbed by the way Hollywood marginalizes sex into a Dawson's Creek mentality.
Adrian Lyne, much like the film Stanley Kubrick tried to make with Eyes Wide Shut,
has directed films about sexual peccadillo and violent punishment. One character in the
film comments that "things like this always end terribly." She thinks, like the
rest of a moralizing America, that a minor tryst can inadvertently bring the worst form of
retribution to the least morally askew people.
Town is Quiet
BY: DAVID PERRY
an offensive, directed against the repetitious mechanism of the Universe."
For Code Unknown, Michael Haneke struggles to look at the way the world is moving at the expense of human existence. In the form of 46 short vignettes, he attempts to bring to the screen a glance at five people's lives and the way they go about their day-to-day lifestyles. The movie is like a marriage between François Girard's 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould and Haneke's own 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance, with seconds of black-screen to divide the various vignettes.
At the heart of the experiment is the way people either accidentally or intentionally gloss over the inequities found in society. Haneke's characters are vagabonds and bourgeois, beggars and farmers and cab drivers. In the middle of all their problems is the fact that no one is willing to accept them for whom they are, only marginalizing them into easy adjectives: pretty, ugly, rich, poor, happy, sad.
The film's second vignette puts everything into play: a roadside tussle between a West African lad trying to do the right thing and the white Parisian unwilling to admit he was in the wrong. Trying to contact his photographer brother (Neuvic), Jean (Hamidi) runs into his sibling's girlfriend Anne (Binoche). After they meet, he walks away with Anne's pastry, throwing the empty bag into the lap of Maria (Gheorghiu), a Romanian beggar. Disturbed by this lack of manners, Amadou (Yenke) stops Jean and requests an apology to Maria. The bidding escalates into a fistfight, bringing the police into the matter, who quickly assume that the black fighter must have been the instigator. Through various other vignettes, the audience learns that Jean returned to the farm run by his father (Bierbichler), Maria was deported back to Romania, and Amadou was senselessly beaten by the authorities.
There are only two sequences that deal directly with more than one of the storylines -- that first street altercation, and another sequence set in a resteraunt -- but almost every short story has a weight on the rest of the film. When the camera momentarily looks at the family farmer monotonously tilling his land, the audience is given an early insight into why Jean makes a decision a couple stories later.
Filming the movie in various countries (France, Germany, and Romania) and in many different languages (French, Malinka, Romanian, German, English, Arabic, and International Sign Language), Haneke looks at a multitude of scenerios involving racism, ethnic hatred, economic divides, and the intangible way humans try to react to such occurrences.
Michael Haneke has showed a very sadistic worldview throughout most of his films, ranging from the brutal disturbance of Benny's Video to the provocateur whimsy of Funny Games, all of which have divided viewers between those who accept the art in his work and those who do not like his heavy-handed, Godardian ethos in feeble pursuance of making his statements. As unusual a statement this may be, Code Unknown proves, in at least the most trivial citation, to be Haneke's most humanitarian film. His statements are not dulled by any overbearing cruelty to the characters, but instead the minor atrocities put upon them help to give weight to their problems, not make them seem like cartoons of a sadistic artist.
The didacticism may still be in full force for Code
Unknown, but Haneke has reworked much of it into a form that never turns off the
audience, only interesting them with the scenarios he has brought to the screen. In that
way, Code Unknown shares a similar style and treatise with Spike Lee's Do the
Right Thing, where the unspoken tension between characters speaks far more than their
words and actions. Though not near as striking a document of the inequities as Lee's film
was, Code Unknown succeeds in its own right by consistently pulling the audience
out of their seats and into the charade that frames Haneke's sermon.
and 40 Nights
|About a Boy
BY: DAVID PERRY
In my review for the abysmal Down to Earth last year, I penned the nickname les directeurs de sibling incompetents to refer to brother filmmakers Chris and Paul Weitz. This decision was sparked after going through the torturous movies produced, written, and directed by these two: The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Down to Earth, American Pie, and American Pie II. After seeing hearing they would direct an adaptation of Nick Hornby's fine novel About a Boy, I thought I would get a chance to retract that early statement. Alas, after watching their film version of the novel, I'm afraid that the name les directeurs de sibling incompetents will have to remain.
Hornby's novel is one of the better choices in the modern fiction area of a library, mixing interesting comparisons between two characters with the always enjoyable Hornby writing style. The last movie to come out of Hornby's prose was High Fidelity, a terrific film successfully brought Hornby's wit to the screen by capturing his characterizations and scenarios in the exact fashion that fits the novel's style. Plus High Fidelity director Stephen Frears was able to parse the novel down into a two-hour film without leaving those who had read the novel feeling that they were missing out on something.
This cannot be said for the way les directeurs de sibling incompetents make About a Boy, which starts off strong with a fine course from its source material, but ultimately succumbs under the strain of the directors' puerile tendencies and the extended length of the story. Added visual flairs seem excessive and some important story arcs are rushed through to the point that the filmic About a Boy seems like a different work on the artistic spectrum compared to the novel.
What exactly brought les directeurs de sibling incompetents to this project is unknown? Perhaps they see themselves in the lead character, an adult still caught in his childishness. That man is 38-year-old slacker Will Freeman (Grant), a North Londoner who has lived his posh life off of the royalties brought in by his father's song "Santa's Supersleigh." He has never had a job in his entire life, living the life of a professional lounger, taking in a daily dose of television, music, shopping, and billiards, all leading to a routine of picking up women for completely non-committal, short-term relationships.
After incidentally turning out with a single mother, he finds that there is a payload waiting to be taken over by single me -- single mothers are better in bed, have easy to please children, and will call it off before the relationship ever gets too far. So, in the ever-progressing proof of his shallowness, he visits a help group for single parents called SPAT, Single Parents Alone Together, where he meets a new bird to momentarily be with. As part of his mating rituals, he goes out with her on a small get together and meets a Marcus (Hoult), the son of another SPAT mother. Completely unintentionally, a bond is created -- Marcus needs a place to get away from his manic-depressant mother Fiona (Collette) and bullies, Will feels slightly good by playing humanitarian philanthropist (and, hey, what else is he doing?).
In the first half, when all this is established, About a Boy works despite some huge directorial problems (including over use of wipes, a horrendous framing of characters, and occasionally stilted camera movements), but as the length of the novel begins to catch up with the filmmakers, who share screenwriting credit with Peter Hedges, they seem troubled to juggle all the storylines at the same time. Will's relationship with his father is momentarily glazed over and Rachel Weisz is introduced in a flurry so that they can quickly move onto the book's worst section, the climax.
Whatever problems may arise, though, there's always one facet of the movie that is consistently enjoyable: Hugh Grant. He perfectly finds the balance between his affable fop in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill and his effete cads in Small Time Crooks and Bridget Jones's Diary -- Will is fervently shallow and, yet, the way Grant performs him, he is still likable. Playing off of a varied talent of actors (the always terrific Collette, the enjoyable Weisz, or the poor Hoult), Grant simultaneously delivers a great scene for his characters and a great opening for his costars to play.
As I read About a Boy soon after seeing High
Fidelity, I imagined a completely different movie. For some unknown reason, I
imagined we'd have a Stephen Frears film starring Christian Bale as Will Freeman. Perhaps,
it's that Bret Easton Ellis fan in me that still reads About a Boy like a
terminally happy continuation of Less Than Zero -- an underlying darkness does
wonders for what could otherwise be a hackneyed, sentimental story. Les directeurs de
sibling incompetents evidently do not see it this way, instead opting for the more
audience-pleasing digressions of man-child duplicities.
Falling on Cedars
BY: DAVID PERRY
[We are currently at work on a second entry into the "From Auteur to Author" series with a comparison between Erik Skjolbjærg's Insomnia and Christopher Nolan's Insomnia. A full article should be up by 29 May 2002 in this space. Meanwhile, below is a small capsule on the new film.]
Christopher Nolan's atmospheric psychological thriller perfectly pits cop and killer in a light unseen by much of today's thrillers. Al Pacino delivers one of his finest performances as Will Dormer, the LA cop brought into a small Alaskan town to investigate a recent murder, all the while dealing with the threat of his own ouster at the discretion of his IA-leaning partner (Donovan). His struggle with both his case, his own demons, and the insomnia that keeps him up at night is one of the year's most wrenching portrayals. Robin Williams tops a magnificent supporting cast as the killer Walter Finch who just wants to make a compromise with Dormer. His portrayal of an aloof but sly tactician is the counter-comical performance that Williams has been trying to portray lately in films like Death to Smoochy and One Hour Photo, though this one is his best turn yet.
Nolan's visual aptitude is constantly shown in full glory
by using the jagged glaciers, crisp fog, and mellow sunlight that is found in an Alaskan
summer. Though it will definitely not turn as many heads as last year's acclaimed Memento,
Insomnia proves to be better -- in both style and substance -- than its somewhat
of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace
|Star Wars: Episode II --
Attack of the Clones
BY: DAVID PERRY
Film trilogies are always tough sells, even when their origins are of the highest -- whether artistically or financially -- caliber. Everyone will see Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones regardless of what myself or any other critic writes; but, as Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace proved, all those people are not inclined to automatically like it. Getting them in the door may be a knee-jerk reaction, but getting their approval is another story.
The people over at Lucasfilm know they are going to make the money back on all the digital tinkering they need to make, which comes as a godsend for any perfectionist filmmaker working with CGI, but worries over the tinkering needed for the script goes unnoticed. Written by George Lucas and Jonathan Hales, the script to Attack of the Clones is a scansion of the mid-section of their story, meaning there's more exposition than a stand-alone film would ever need -- Lucas and Hales are not only trying to tie-up loose ends from The Phantom Menace, but also organize storylines in the original trilogy (Star Wars [A New Hope], The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) and tell a story for simply this movie.
This is a big problem not because it overly confounds the audience (which it does) or because it thinks it is the greatest story ever told (which it isn't), but because neither man really has what it takes to write dialogue. Both have worked predominately on the stories for films, not on the actual screenplays, and neither Hales' The Scorpion King nor Lucas' Radioland Murders give much credibility to their writing credentials. Lucas did write the dialogue for Star Wars, but its pop-revisionism and B-movie mentality helped to make the dialogue work, though its need was not entirely part of the experience: Star Wars did not have the bombastic self-righteousness of its successors (at least of the new trilogy) because it was not part of one man's attempt to turn his early, successful camp movie into a convoluted franchise. Thank heavens he brought in Lawrence Kasdan to clean up the scripts for The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (though Kasdan still couldn't keep Lucas from using those Ewoks). But Kasdan is not around this time around, and the banality soon ensues.
Attack of the Clones takes place 10 years after The Phantom Menace, as Anakin Skywalker (Christensen) and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi (McGregor) again meet with Padmé Amidala (Portman), who has now become a senator when term limits ended her monarchy over Naboo. With the impending passage of Amidala's pet polices and the continued tension between the Senate and the Trade Federation, Amidala's life is in jeopardy meaning that the senate needs Jedi to guard her. Skywalker, with the glistening in his eye of a boy with a crush, is happy to take the position.
Meanwhile, Kenobi heads out to discover who is behind the assassination attempts on Amidala. In his search, he discovers that a clone race has been created, as well as crossing paths with a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Morrison) and a wayward Jedi named Count Dooku (Lee). All this leads to a collection of altercations pitting Jedi vs. monsters, Jedi vs. droids, and Jedi vs. Jedi. At one point, series favorites Mace Windu (Jackson) and even Yoda (Oz) get into the action.
But here lies the problem: unlike The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, none of these occurrences give the audience a feeling that there's pay-off ahead. The movie aspires to take some lofty place as an integral chapter in a complete story, but none of this ever feels like it is worth all the pomp and circumstance. Christensen as Anakin does get a chance to pout about the way Kenobi treats him as an unready kid, and the scene where the darkness momentarily comes out of Anakin while looking for his mother (the grossly underused August), give some credence to the dramatic change ahead when Anakin Skywalked will don the Darth Vader costume; however, any other moment of the film either plods along like extraneous filler (like a long and uninspired early chase sequence set in the skies of a Blade Runner-like city) or seems so contrived to leave the audience uninterested (like the budding relationship between Anakin and Padmé, a plot point that is so important that Lucas should have worked harder to make it seem like more than a Sweet Valley High story set in a galaxy far, far away).
Visually, the movie is stunning -- it is hard to question Lucas' achievement there. However, so much of it is at the disservice of the actors that it almost seems like Lucas' Jar Jar Binks fiasco was just the beginning of his CGI woes. Other than the dreck they are saying, so many of the performances (especially from Christensen, Portman, and McGergor) are stilted and uneven, like they are thrown off by some inept puppeteer. Part of the reason may be that these actors are having to work in front of blue screens, in some cases, reacting to performers that are not there. Backdrops and entire characters are now being added digitally in post-production, meaning that their presence is never felt by the actors who must instead interact with tennis balls. No wonder Christensen's demeanor throughout seems to be that of a blank stare.
Besides to perpetual villain Ian McDiarmid (who was the
best actor in The Phantom Menace), only Christopher Lee comes out of the movie
completely unfettered, partly because the acting great (and, to this day, the best actor
to ever play Dracula) never seems to take the film completely seriously, infusing the
perfect camp quotient that Lucas seems unwilling to give the rest of the film. Lee is part
of that other big-budget fantasy trilogy, The Lord of Rings, where Peter Jackson
has fine-tuned a series of films that have captured the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the
masses. This, the same enthusiasm felt by audiences for the first Star Wars
trilogy, is probably the thing we are most missing with the new one.