Volume 4, Number 31
This Week's Reviews: Full Frontal, Signs, The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat), Sunshine State, Home Movie, Late Marriage.
This Week's Omissions: Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat, The Master of Disguise.
BY: DAVID PERRY
At the end of Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal, there is a title card proudly proclaiming that the film was edited with Apple's Final Cut Pro software much in the same way a title card said the same thing about Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking begrudgingly using antiquated editing machines. For Robbins, it was a problem of using faulty established machines; for Soderbergh it is pride in getting to toy with something so anti- establishment.
That is the tone throughout Full Frontal, that this is a movie about going against the Hollywood establishment. Soderbergh has never really been one within the crowd -- at least, that is, until two years ago when people actually noticed how good his films were -- and actually spent much of his early years criticizing the hands the fed him. After he went through the therapy of his flop Schizopolis, Soderbergh came back as more of a bankable director. More importantly, though, he was more artistically sure of his work than ever before.
Full Frontal goes against this, partly because it is a movie meant to allow the director freedom to do anything and everything he's wanted to do since Schizopolis. While he's been churning out incredible (and profitable) films like Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean's 11, he's evidently had fears about "selling out." None of those movies were really within the realm of the modern Hollywood product, but they did have a certain amount of big budget appeal partly because of their big name casts (true with all of the films but The Limey, a strong non-genre film that setup much of the cheerless style Soderbergh would use on Traffic).
The new movie does involve the same gaggle of art house and multiplex marquee names, some of whom have worked with Soderbergh previously. Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts open the film, and then proceed to show Clive Owen and Laura Linney in cameos, major parts for Catherine Keener, David Hyde Pierce, and Mary McCormack, all the while hammering in a regular reminder that Brad Pitt is somewhere around. It is a strikingly L.A. movie made for people that say they hate L.A.
At first this sounds like The Player, but Soderbergh wants the movie to be more than a bit of stargazing and, instead, tries to play with the direction and screenplay in such a way that could only be referred to as Nouveu French and American New Wave. Godard and Cassavetes seem to be channeling through Soderbergh as he plays with the editing (joined by film editor Sarah Flack, conspicuously his editor on Schizopolis) and cinematography (once again working under the nom-de-plume Peter Andrews) working on a story that wishes it were written by Truffaut.
Even if it is the dream of the studio-stifled Soderbergh, this is nothing new. In fact, Mike Figgis' novelty film Time Code used much of the same premise for the movie so that he could have less to worry about with the actual experimenting in that film. Europe sent its own equivalent last year in the form of Michael Haneke's Time Code, a film that had a statement to go with the directorial decisions. None of this seems to be true with Full Frontal, which is slap-dash for the sake of being slap-dash.
Trying to give an overview of this film's story would be useless since none of it really matters. The tangible statements have nothing to do with the characters and their improvisations but are instead built around the way Soderbergh is presenting them. He is trying to show filmmaking by breaking down the fourth wall but, in the process, only creates a chaotic series of events that are -- woop-de-doo -- partitioned from others scenes based upon the way it was filmed. Soderbergh's inner-film (a Brad Pitt-David Fincher crime flick) and meta-film (a romantic story of a black actor and a white journalist) are both on 35mm film, but -- brace yourself -- the meta-meta-film (which is, well, everything else) is on digital video. Like the problems of the characters, this experimentation brings only one reaction: "who cares?"
Not quite The Anniversary Party or Short Cuts or Magnolia or Mulholland Dr. or any of the dozens of films about L.A. people and their L.A. problems, Full Frontal serves instead as one of the most disappointing personal exercises ever taken by a high-level filmmaker. Steven Soderbergh, even in the wake of this mess, is still one of the finer contemporary filmmakers. Point him the right direction and he can give you one of the year's finest films. Unfortunately, as we have learned from Schizopolis and Full Frontal, leave him to point himself in the right direction and all you get is pretentious cinematic masturbation.
[Postscript: After writing my review for a film, I often begin
reading what some other film critics wrote. In the case of Full Frontal, I found
that the reviews were generally more enjoyable than the movie. Some of the year's best
film articles are spent simply trashing this movie, including great reviews from The
New York Times' A.O. Scott, The New Yorker's David Denby, The New York
Observer's Rex Reed, and Time Out New York's Mike D'Angelo.]
BY: DAVID PERRY
In just four major efforts, M. Night Shyamalan has placed himself as the heir apparent to Steven Spielberg, who, of course, was considered the heir of Alfred Hitchcock. Like the absentee fatherhood of Spielberg, Shyamalan has his own obsession: faith. This regular theme was important to his second film, Wide Awake, but only became climactically important for his most popular works, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Through this, he has come up with an oeuvre filled with the pop-gnosticism that fuels so much of the Trinity Broadcasting Network's film productions, but packaged in a more amenable form.
As a Hindu working in the Judeo-Christian world of Hollywood, it comes as no surprise that his works are non-denominational, but they still pack some form of believers-only sign on the door. It is to his advantage that none of it really comes across as horribly heavy-handed, but his theist tributes are nonetheless there in retrospective glory. The Omega Code may have equated world destruction to the non-believers, but Shyamalan only says that those people are just waiting for the revelation (ahem, sign) that they are just missing the truth.
This quandary is set forth explicitly halfway through Signs as brothers Graham (Gibson) and Merrill Hess (Phoenix) sit on a couch comforting Graham's sleeping children Morgan (Culkin) and Bo (Breslin). They watch the late night television reports of extraterrestrial sightings and wonder how the possibility of an alien invasion could have happened. Graham states that there are two people in the world: those who believe and think that everything has been setup to make current circumstances livable, and those who do not believe and must live life thinking that there is no real plan to anything.
Merrill, a former minor league baseball player, smilingly acknowledges that he is in the believing camp, thus making his worries about alien domination momentarily dissipate. But Graham, a former Episcopalian priest who left the church after his wife died in a car wreck, sadly admits that he has lost all faith in anyone watching over them. This is perhaps the film's most dramatic scene, proving that the character-driven Signs is far from Independence Day 2.
For all the pomp and circumstance that normally comes with any film dealing with alien visitors, the overwhelming fear in the movie is that they are belligerent and, therefore, must be dealt with in such a way. I don't know if this comes from too many movies like Alien and Mars Attacks!, but the idea of peace-dove aliens seem just as oddly dated as the computers in Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Whether or not these visitors are coming to help or harvest is something that should be saved for the film, but it is certainly reasonable to say that no one, either in the Hess family or in the dark theatre, really believe for a moment that those who left the huge crop circles are coming for peaceful coexistence.
Like the British invading Shyamalan's native India, this appearance seems to have all the markings of an invasion, which boggles the mind of a bumpkin like Graham Hess and local police officer Caroline Paski (Jones). Their separation from urban Philadelphia (where Shyamalan has set his previous three films) seems so stuck in time that it becomes easy to discern that these are the same people who believed Orson Welles was really reporting the news on Halloween night, 1938. These are not stupid people, by any means, but they are so based in their locale that technological advancements seem to still be beyond the county border (this is noticeable in the fact that the Hess farm, a huge cornfield, lacks any machinery to take care of the seemingly prime crops).
Since Graham has left the frock, anyone wondering where Shyamalan is going with his story has probably not seen his previous films. Nor are these patrons aware of his precision in plot development, using nearly every facet of the story for a climax. Like Hitchcock, he should arrange with theatres that people cannot enter the movie late since they would miss out on half of his establishing plotlines by simply missing the first ten minutes of the movie.
Though his obsession with the novelty of his style is still there (a problem that was even more apparent in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, the best of his films thus far), his technical crew is among the best. Mamet regular Barbara Tulliver chooses every edit in the film with a patience unknown to most Hollywood editors; some of the scenes seem to take forever but never feel too long. Production designer Larry Fulton creates a Pennsylvania farmhouse so isolated and comfortable, that it's hard to not think of the house in Night of the Living Dead in dread of any possible extra-terrestrial assault. And Tak Fujimoto creates the dreading ambiance with his camerawork using handheld cameras and isolated direct lighting.
These technical achievements are no surprise considering
the normal level of achievement found in Shyamalan's films. While he practices some
theology in his stories, he works as a well-assembling god to his own films, creating his
own private Megiddo in and around Philadelphia. He wants everyone -- Gnostics and
Agnostics, Theists and Athiests -- to believe in the higher power at work in his movies.
He might not convince some of the parties by the end of his pictures, but surely everyone at
that time believes in one thing: this kid's going to have a long career in the pictures.
with the Devil
for Drunken Horses
|The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Zacharias Kanuk's The Fast Runner (internationally known as Atanarjuat, but that title was probably deemed to foreign for American markets) has been the recipient of countless accolades, including the Camera d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, Canada's Genie Award for Best Motion Picture, and the undying praise of a large majority of the film critics across the world. The startling question is, why?
Historically, the movie is a grand achievement, the first film ever made by the Intiut people. This is a culture that has been left out of modern filmmaking since Nanook of the North, occasionally appearing in a special National Geographic but never as a central people for a narrative film. Kanuk and screenwriter Paul Apak Angilirq fill the movie with wonderful chances to look in on the cultural traditions and how they were probably carried out a thousand years ago.
Cinematically, the film is an incredible pleasure for the eyes, allowing Norman Cohn's cinematography to discover every different shade of white as he captures the starkness of snow and ice, and the people inhabiting the land where seasons remain constant and the vegetarianism would mean death. The close-ups of each characters face serves as a window into their souls and the central image, which shall be dealt with later, could be one of the most memorable film images so far this year.
And yet, it is hard to really rejoice this film as my colleagues have already done. Running at nearly three hours, The Fast Runner is also one of the most taxing films of the year. It successfully never becomes repetitious to the point of tedium, but entire sections of the film play like commercial-free National Geographic coverage without any real importance to the story. While a case could be made that these scenes are meant to establish the characters and the Inuit people, there is never a moment when we are not getting enough exposure to their lifestyles. If cutting raw meat is meant as a meaningful motif, then I apologize to the filmmakers, but otherwise I cannot feel that moments like this (which would add up to at least thirty minutes of the film) are too extraneous for the film's own good.
The film comes from traditional oral stories passed on through generations and finally brought to written form in Angilirq's script. Certainly, these stories have a deep meaning to most of the Inuit people, but they lack the awe that one would expect for one that evidently deserves three hours of screen time.
The story follows two brothers, Atanarjuat (Ungalaaq) and Amaqjuaq (Innushuk), who have been cursed by a shaman and must go through their lives waiting for their fate to destroy them. It comes in the form of a power rivalry and the love of a woman. Atuat (Ivalu) captures the eyes of Atanarjuat, who decides to fight her suitor Oki (Arnatsiaq) despite the fact that he is son of the tribe leader. After winning the fight and her hand, a rivalry begins, soon Oki's sister Puja (Tulugarjuk) joins in on the escapades by becoming Atanarjuat's second wife.
Adultery, banishment, and murder soon follow and these people begin to counter each other like Shakespearean players. The histrionics soon follow as the two families get into a blood brawl that spans beyond the borders of the tribe. In the process, Atanarjuat is forced to give credence to his title as The Fast Runner by escaping Oki and his cohorts on foot. What makes this image all the more striking is that Atanarjuat was so surprised by the attack that provoked the run that he hasn't a stitch of clothing on. Since he runs at such a faster rate, Oki must rely on the trails of blood on the ice from Atanarjuat's blistered and frostbitten feet.
The central story is most certainly interesting and the
film's treatment of it in the last thirty minutes works. However, the tediousness of the
film's previous moments makes getting to this point in the film so tough. It is still
wonderful to see the capturing of the snow throughout the movie, which gives the film an
extended shine throughout the picture. So, for the most attention deficient viewers, they
always have enough light in the theatre to read a book during that first half of the film.
BY: DAVID PERRY
The past is a mighty weighty thing. We look back on it with some reverence, but factually it is marked with many sad and horrific events. Ask anyone what is more frightening, the future or the past, and most will go with the former. Why? Simple, however many misgivings that's occurred, the past is done and we can at least attempt to forget whatever we don't like about. The future, however, is bright and filled with possibilities. Not always true, of course -- just look at the stock market from the point of view of a 1998 investor -- but it is written into our system: dwell on it we may, but the past is done and we can try to wash our hands of it.
At first glance, John Sayles' Sunshine State is about the encroachment of conglomerates into small town USA, but as the film continues and its theme becomes more noticeable, it becomes impossible to not notice that the real meaning is in the way the characters try to make peace with the past.
By setting the film in coastal Florida, Sayles pits the entire story in a melting pot of awful historical moments. The area of Plantation Island was originally settled by the Spanish and various pirate ships who raped, pillaged, and murdered many of the original inhabitants in hopes of capturing the resources they were sure could be found in Florida (and the limits to their expectations are hard to find -- we must remember that the Spanish looked for the fountain of youth in Florida). By the first half of the twentieth century, the island was divided into segregated spheres, the white-only Delrona Beach and the black-only Lincoln Beach. Now, as the people of the two halves have come to terms with each other, the place is being Disney-fied by land developers seeing any unused land in Florida as millions of dollars in tourist money not yet exploited.
The single personification of these developers comes in the form of retiree Murray Silver (King) who spends his days golfing with his fellow retirees and waxes on the needed development of this place. He scoffs at the idea of keeping the swamplands around the place -- he'd much rather see his greenery on the 18th hole as "nature on a leash."
More importantly, there are those who come from the two halves of the island, the people who have been divided for generations and are just now finding a willingness to live side-by-side. At the center are two families, the black Stokes family and the white Temple family. And within each group is a daughter trying to make sense of their lives in the town -- they are, need we remember, of the first generation to live completely in an integrated society.
Desiree Perry (Bassett) was born in the Stokes family, the pride and joy of mother Eunice (Alice). After decades of estrangement, Desiree has returned to Lincoln Beach to introduce her mother to her Boston life, complete with a husband (McDaniel). Her mother had been so ashamed of the reputation that could be created when Desiree became pregnant at 15 that she sent her daughter away during the pregnancy. Desiree never came back until now.
Meanwhile, in Delrona Beach, Marly Temple (Falco) spends her days toiling in the Sea-Vue motel and restaurant, a personal love of her father Furman (Waite) and a bane for her mother Delia (Alexander). As the developers begin to woo her with monetary amounts in return for the family property, Marly is hit with a terrible quandary: does she keep the hotel that her father pained over or sell it and be free of its nuisance.
Both children are left to think over their family dilemmas and what their reactions have brought them to. If anything is really proven by this, it is that both Angela Bassett and Edie Falco are among the finest performers currently working in film. Their strength is in their ability to make every scene seem new. Where some actors, especially in dealing with southern characters (i.e. the ladies of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood), get caught up in the same clichés throughout their belle movies, these two women create realist, strong women who happen to have southern accents.
The film makes occasional references to Faulkner and As I Lay Dying (Delia Temple, a community theatre performer, is to play Addie Bundren in an upcoming stage adaptation), justifiably bringing to mind the author's terrific understanding of the problems inherent in a southern society still trying pay for its century-old sins. John Sayles, who perfectly pulled this off previously on Limbo in addition to a filmography filled with outstanding films, has a similar eye for his characters and their plight. This is not a story of simple character development and the way people play off of each other, but directs itself at the many different precursors that bring people to a certain point in their lives.
At one point Dr. Lloyd (Cobbs), a pillar of the Lincoln
Beach activist community, remarks that his attempts to stop the buying out of the area
from developers comes as a chance to save "an endangered species: us." The past
has attempted to destroy his people through slavery and segregation and yet he understands
that the real threat to them is not from those past hindrances. Instead, the ultimate
reason for the endangerment is capitalism and all the smug destruction for the sake of the
almighty dollar that will allow some other smiling executive to one day join the golfing
crew with Murray Silver.
History of Time
of Tammy Faye
BY: DAVID PERRY
It was impossible not to laugh at American Movie, the 1999 Sundance hit about Mark Borchardt and his attempt to make a horror movie, even if there was an incredible feeling of guilt for laughing at Borchardt and his friend Mike Schank. Chris Smith, who co-directed the documentary, made the film with a nudging smile -- it was much like a small child showing his parents the puerile work he created. Without a doubt, Smith was laughing at these people as much as we were.
Somehow in the process, Borchardt became a minor celebrity, gaining national attention through occasional appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman. The odd fact is that through his obsession to getting his film done, Mark Borchardt was able to make his movie. I don't know if Northwestern has yet ended production (though he surely has backers by now), but we'll always have Coven.
Smith returns to the world of the weird for Home Movie, but does not step away from obsessions. Like Mark Borchardt, the subjects of Home Movie are all living for their obsessions, though they are not to be found in movies but instead in their homes.
Each person that Smith documents has an odd house, numbering five unusual interiors and exteriors out of the many that Smith visited for a special he was contracted to make for some Home and Garden-style website. An odd addition is the fact that these people are just as open to share everything absurd with Smith even though they barely know him. These houses, as bizarre as they may seem to us, are the prides and joys of their owners.
Take Louisiana gator-keeper Bill Tregle, who has set-up his home on a floating raft. Free from the hustle and bustle of land living, Tregle can go without paying taxes or worrying a bad view. No matter what the problem, he can always move his makeshift houseboat to some other location -- when the going gets tough, the boat gets, well, you get the picture.
Or take Illinois electrician Ben Skora, who has filled his house with complete electronic gadgetry. Regardless of the need -- a bar of soap, pots and pans -- Skora can simply press a button and access it. His living room feels like a trip into Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451 or The Jetsons and, even more frightening, it can all be accessed through a telephone, so when in visiting Hawaii, Skora can turn on his television in Chicago. If this were not odd enough, Skora also has robot butler named Arok and a wannabe actress named Darlene. It puts Bob Sagat Rube Goldberg to shame.
Or take Kansas hippies Ed and Diana Peden, who have built a house out of an abandoned missile silo. It was in use during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but fell to disuse afterwards and was scooped up by the couple for a nice million dollars. Feeling the bad karma of the place, though, they've had to fill it with enough spiritual trinkets in hopes of keeping the completely underground abode from killing them psychologically.
Or take California photographers Bob Walker and Francis Mooney, who revamped their home to better suit their 11 cats. With overhead walkways, little cubbyholes, dead mouse effigies, and a cat magazine flooring, this could take the cake for the most depreciated house value of the film, though the couple is willing to admit it with some pride. As they see it, the cats are just as important in the family as they are and the house must successfully show the true spirit of all of its inhabitants.
Or take Hawaii retiree Linda Beech, who built her home in a tree at the remotest point of Hawaii. She, with her vagabond cabana boy, lives in a haven that she sees as decidedly Japanese -- she should know, she used to be the American That Girl of Japanese television. A waterfall runs outside, with a rock that Beech loves to sit on and dwell on the extravagance that comes with the mere addition of a waterfall to any home. Even before her home is shown, we know that we are in for something when she beckons the gods in Hawaiian to let her SUV cross the river that cuts through her driveway.
As a mixture between Errol Morris' Fast, Cheap & Out of Control and Albert Maysles' Grey Gardens, Home Movie has the intimacy of a an old family friend even if no one in your family is actually this crazy. From a rooftop ski ramp to a wall with a cat head shaped opening, nothing in these houses seems in the least normal; and yet these people seem to feel that they are living in the lap of luxury, a home that everyone in the world would want. For them, these places are paradise, but for everyone else, the idea of having a home that can float away might not be the most tempting of residential situations, even if it can hold 10 people comfortably.
Unlike Mark Borchardt, the contempt for the oddity is not
as apparent. In some way, Smith seems to be just as enamored with these people's efforts
as they are. Each house is treated like it is the oddest and most imaginative dwelling yet
built. Like Errol Morris and his peculiar people, these houses are nothing but odd and
My Big Fat
BY: DAVID PERRY
Though I normally write towards the art house crowd, I often fear that my recommendations for art films fall on deaf ears. I may heap a year's worth of praise on a film like Under the Sand and then find it as one of the least popular imports of the year (and, may I add, the François Ozon film is now on DVD and video). So, basically, I must grovel to ensure that my message is clear, even if it means pandering the to the vices of some readers who would never otherwise see a film from, say, Israel.
And how might I try and convince people to see Late Marriage: it has what could be the frankest, most charmingly believable sex scene in film history. Porn films notwithstanding, the extended sex scene in Late Marriage lasts for what seems to be longer than the story elements of the film. But the reason that Late Marriage deserves credit for using its sex to get people's attention is that it is not simply a device to show of the attributes of the attractive couple, but also to establish more about the characters than anything else in the film.
After the 30-minute long scene, probably a few minutes short of the painfully long consensual rape scene from Fat Girl, the characters are no longer paper-thin as they had been thirty minutes earlier. The dimensions that they show in their coital moments are veiled behind façades of normality found in their clothed scenes. The two performers, Lior Ashkenazi and Ronit Elkabetz, do an incredible job showing levels of their characters that are meant for their behind closed door trysts and the audience, regardless of any excitement created by the scene itself, gets more out of the sequence than the could have gotten through any breakfast conversation dialogue.
Director Dover Koshashvili recognizes the depths of his characters through direction that probably covers about ten pages in the screenplay. Most of the film comes in the form of medium and medium-close shots, viewing the characters without causing the audience to feel invasive. We are, he surely noted, sitting in on a scene that these people would never want to be seen; if the camera had luridly moved up and down their bodies like a Paul Verhoevan film, the intimacy would have been deadened by the director's own carnal obsessions.
Of course, regardless of how notable this scene is, a lackluster story would have kept this as a one-trick pony. Thankfully Koshashvili has crafted an intelligent, wickedly funny, and frighteningly realistic film on the mating rituals of Georgian Jews. The family at the center of the story is much like his own family: a group of former Soviets who came to Israel to be closer to their Jewish heritage. Whether or not Koshashvili has had a similar problem compared to his protagonist is unknown, but I'd be willing to bet that he's at least seen someone in his family go through this.
The protagonist is Zaza (Ashkenazi), a 31-year-old SWM having to go through the marital misery of his family. Father Yasha (Moshonov) and mother Lili (Koshashvili, the director's mother) live under the strict Georgian Jewish belief that a man is a disgrace to his family if he has not gotten married by the time they reached 31. Zaza is able to convince them that his reason for turning down all the arranged brides they have purchased because he is too busy working on his doctorate in philosophy. In truth, his repulsion of their deals comes from the fact that he already has a lover, Judith (Elkabetz).
There's a problem: the family tradition does not just cover the age of the groom, but also the expectations of the bride. Three basic tenets should never been broken: she cannot be a divorcée, cannot have a child, and must not be older than the groom. All three of these are true for Judith. And then the trouble begins: once the parents learn that their son is courting a "whore," they begin to assemble family members to attack her apartment. If they cannot get Zaza out of the relationship through pushing him on other girls, they'll just attack his lover in a war formation. It is a scene that is equally funny and frightening.
To understand the dynamics of all this, one must have seen Koshashvili's expository scenes, which not only include the insights of sex, but also the resistance of two people placed in a room to talk about a marriage even if they'd never met each other before. The sweetness found in a similar scene in Monsoon Wedding earlier this year has disappeared for Zaza and his wannabe bride Ilana (Loar), who seem to be there just to ogle each other and then neck -- ultimately, any viewer can discern, neither of them would be happy in a long-term relationship.
The centerpiece of the movie would be the family, which is
so obsessive and aggressive that it makes any of the Western doting mothers in films like
Keeping the Faith and My Big Fat Greek Wedding (naturalized Westerner) seem like quiet and
refined ladies. The explosiveness of these people is alarming; even more alarming, though,
is the way the son seems all too willing to bow to their attack. They deserve each other.