Volume 4, Number 47
This Week's Reviews: Die Another Day, Femme Fatale, The Emperor's Club, Far from Heaven, Solaris (1972) / Solaris (2002).
This Week's Omissions: Friday After Next, Real Women Have Curves, Skins.
|Die Another Day
BY: DAVID PERRY
The James Bond franchise as we know it began 40 years ago with the Monty Newman music introducing Sean Connery's walk through the barrel of a gun. Moments later, the soundtrack has begun playing "Three Blind Mice" and Ursula Andress has emerged from the ocean wearing barely a knife. There have been 19 visits with Bond over the years (not including the bastardized Never Say Never Again and Casino Royale), each with similar memories of music, sex, beautiful women, and great gadgets.
Remembering the Bond series is like remembering part of life -- scary as it may sound, over 80 hours of our lifetime have been spent with this man as he's gone through various incarnations. The producers, coming off of Albert R. Broccoli's successful formula, release the movies every other November, striking an early family get-together (albeit, with a fictional family member) that has both the pomp of an uncle's overblown story and the filling of too much Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.
Die Another Day, marking the twentieth feature since Dr. No, spends its first two-thirds in awe of its past, constantly reminding the audience of previous Bond films through old gadgets, old cars, and old settings. But the main problem that plagues Die Another Day is not that it spends too much time in nostalgia, but that it finally chooses the wrong nostalgia to embrace.
With 19 films of varying success behind it, Die Another Day cannot find the right level of contemporaneous action to go with its historic shallowness. There is nothing wrong with a sequence that has Bond running around Cuba trying to make sense of the people and events passing him by -- this was, of course, the main expository ideas used in Sean Connery's first three films, which are generally considered the best three films -- but to take it and throw in enough pompous, overdone CGI sequences that have nary the amount of direction causes the film to both run too long (the 132-minute length covers 25 minutes of unneeded triple climaxes) and remind the audience that they've already seen this film, just that it starred Vin Diesel at the time.
Complaining about a Bond film sticking with an idiotic formula is like saying Bergman was too existentialist -- even if these statements are true, they serve as eternal attributes to the works' appeal. The Bond villain still makes little sense (played now by Toby Stephens as a billionaire developing a space satellite weather machine) and the Bond girls offer little more than carnal representations of the action female.
The latter statement is certainly true with regards to the actual audience interest in this film's Bond girls, even though the Broccoli family tries their best to ensure that one of them, Jinx (Berry), is more of a companion in the action than eye-candy. The family has notoriously considered a female Bond (the idea, which was most commonly connected to Sharon Stone, dissolved soon after the hiring of Pierce Brosnan for GoldenEye) and the see-through ascent of Jinx in the ranks of Bond girls shows just how desperate they were to make it finally happen. Even if this is still a Bond films starring the rugged male virility, the intent to one day have a Jinx spin-off is clearly permeating from the film's martini and cigar façade.
Die Another Day deserves credit for reworking
the Bond ethos into an interesting form for much of the film (the first two-thirds of the
movie is the best since Timothy Dalton's underrated The Living Daylights), but
loses all of its headway by confusing modernity with success. The posh security that can
be found in most of the Bond films helps to bring fans back every two years. The
uneasiness to continue the tradition in the third act helps to destroy what had been a
magnificent Bond film. But none of the producers should be worried: we'll all be back in
two years for the next film.
BY: DAVID PERRY
John Waters may be considered the king of trash, but it is Brian De Palma who can most easily convince the audience that his kind of trash is worthy of respect. All of his movies come from years of watching great movies -- a De Palma movie usually plays like a giant homage to everyone from Hitchcock to Antonioni to Welles -- and a resolve to find the most puerile (and technically impressive) side to show.
He most commonly covets the works of Alfred Hitchcock, so much that he hired Bernard Herrmann to do scores for Obsession and Sisters that sounded eerily similar to Herrmann's scores for Vertigo and Psycho, the films that De Palma was worshiping. This covetous attention towards Hitchcock films has helped to bring an equally covetous attention to the sexiness of the female physique and the way sexuality can bring out a male side that cannot be easily understood. Hitchcock did this, but his level of genius has made it impossible to refer to such elements as trash.
De Palma's latest work of Hitchcockian intrigue takes the name Femme Fatale, which could very well describe many of the women who populated Hitchcock's 1950s and 1960s works. Casting model-cum-actress Rebecca Romijn-Stamos to play a Kim Novak facsimile may not bring a magnificent actress (Romijn-Stamos' previous credits include a mute slinkiness in X-Men and a painful Russian accent in Rollerball), but it does promise an amazing blonde for De Palma to toy with like he toys with the camera and the audience.
Romijn-Stamos has an incredible screen presence, properly convincing the audience that she is the modern personification of the femme fatale. Her posture and look serve more for the film than anything that comes out of her mouth (sometimes coming with a French accent that sounds much better than her Russian), but, boy, is it an amazing posture. Whether or not De Palma is fetishizing his lead actress is a given: didn't Hitchcock?
The film opens with Laure Ash (Romijn-Stamos), sitting in her hotel room watching Double Indemnity, the ultimate femme fatale film. Seeing a little Barbara Stanwyk in herself, Laure prepares to go into a convoluted heist that will involve her infiltrating the paparazzi at a Cannes Film Festival screening of Regis Wargnier's East-West. Lucky for her, Veronica (Rasmussen), Wargnier's jewelry-adorned companion, leaves the screening early to meet Laure in the bathroom for a short tryst (lucky because she's meeting Laura and lucky because she's momentarily freed from watching East-West).
While they make out in one of the bathroom stalls, Laure removes the jewels (which, in the form of a diamond-studded gold snake, serve as Veronica's oft-exposing brassiere) as Black Tie (Ebouaney) exchanges the real jewels for fakes and Racine (Montoute) tunnels through the electric system to prepare the getaway. Not having noticed what was playing on Laure's television before they began the heist, Black Tie is surprised to find that not only is Laure double-crossing her lover but also her partners in crime. Living up to the fatale part, she leaves Black Tie at the Palais with a bullet in his chest and nothing to show for it.
Serving as the first thirty minutes of the film, this sequence is a technical achievement that must be seen to believe. The actions are predictable, but the way De Palma films it is so astounding that the audience is somehow dazed by a formulaic heist.
There's still an additional hour and a half that follows, but trying to synopsize this would be unfair to both the film and a possible viewer. Without giving anything away, Laure must try to save herself from the police and her old cohorts by falling into the arms of an American diplomat Bruce Hewitt Watts (Coyote) and then must use paparazzo Nicolas Bardo (Banderas) to save herself when it looks like Watts cannot protect her anymore.
Much of the film is reminiscent of David Lynch's Mulholland Dr., with its dizzying narrative and willingness to reflect on the viewing audience. While not finding the same effect as Lynch did, De Palma does confront the story with enough visual panache to remove any worries that he is nothing more than Lynch-wannabe playing in Alfred Hitchcock's shoes. A disciplined film technician, De Palma turns the entire feature into a miraculous puppet show of filmic proportions.
It is De Palma's most satisfying film in a decade, mainly
because it includes the kind of elemental reverie that impress technically and the
composure that can only come when the director is working with his own script. At first,
the film may lack the direct satisfaction that can be found in The Untouchables and
Dressed to Kill; but within hours, the biggest sequences and the tiniest touches
(like a prison shirt still stained with blood seven years later) remain clearly in mind,
conjuring a little smile. De Palma deserves a great amount of credit for making another
omnibus homage without paling in comparison to the deified predecessors.
|The Emperor's Club
BY: DAVID PERRY
Everyone has a professor that they always remember for his or her guidance that helped them achieve the means of life they have so happily found. For me, it was Mr. Scheuchenzuber, a high school Latin and U.S. history teacher, who infused his class with the type of tough love that embodies the finest disciplinarians and the most able professors. There were always ways to get him on an aside -- his career in the Air Force, where he was high ranked, was always especially easy to sidetrack him with -- but coming out of the class, it was amazing the recount the amount of information I had somehow accumulated through three years of Latin under him and two years of history.
Movies like The Emperor's Club, with their seeming aggrandizement of the teaching profession, are form-fitted to get people thinking about their own Louis Scheuchenzuber, remembering the way they helped form them into the exemplary citizen they are now. But within these ideals comes a deep problem: these films are nostalgia films that survive on people's reflexivity, not the ability of the film to do anything on its own.
The subgenre of prep school teacher films has always hit me with the wrong reaction. They almost always involve some teacher and their ability to finally get through to the upwardly mobile students who know that they can rely on daddy's position instead of educational prowess. It's both exploitive and untenably negative towards the abilities of the upper class' kids. These movies strike me with the same disgust that often comes when I hear people rally for the Estates Tax (aka, The Death Tax) because, evidently, children of the highest echelon cannot learn about life normally with an inheritance.
The Emperor's Club attacks the same issues and makes them into another ho-hum reflection on a teacher's attempt to carve something out of his upper crust students. This is by no means as nimble an attempt at similar circumstances as Peter Weir achieved with Dead Poet's Society, a subgenre film that was more calculated and less sanctimonious than the new film.
From the short story "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin, The Emperor's Club follows one teacher, William Hundert (Kline) circa 1975, as he tries to coerce his students to learn about classical history without falling into the same regurgitation of facts and figures without any regard for their meaning. At first, he is succeeding well -- St. Benedicts, an all-boys New England prep school has brought in students who are willing to learn and show an excitement to succeed in their studies.
And then the antiestablishment bad seed Sedgwick Bell (Hirsch) arrives at St. Benedicts carrying a cache of sundries like French nudie magazines, cigarettes, and condoms. Oh, the place will never be the same.
Hundert knows that Bell will succeed no matter what -- his father, a West Virginia senator, will make sure of that. His obligation to the boy is to, instead, find the scholar inside and help to bring it out. He knows that Bell can learn the Mediterranean history that he teaches, but worries that he will not be able to resolve the radical mind with the conservative lessons.
At the center of the film is a competition that takes the three best students in Hundert's class and places them against each other to prove their intellectual prowess with regards to Greco-Roman history. Getting into this mêlée, called Mr. Julius Caesar as if there is a swimsuit competition, becomes the greatest cause for the students, including Bell, who has tried to prove himself after Hundert makes an oh-so spot-on reference to the kid's future in unabated stupidity and then runs to Senator Bell to tell him about his son.
Director Michael Hoffman seems to be going through the same storyboards made by Stephen Herek for Mr. Holland's Opus, but hasn't that film's well-matriculated (though too in love with its setting) story to rely on for support. Apart from a good-but-not- great Kevin Kline performance, there is nearly nothing in The Emperor's Club to note -- ranging from Hirsch's painfully bad performance to the story's deadening and tedious second half.
An all out waste of time, The Emperor's Club
tries to embody some treatise on better education through morals but fails to even find
its own voice in the rumble of constant sermonizing. The Blackboard Jungle was
more narratively adventurous than this over starched mess.
|Far from Heaven
BY: DAVID PERRY
In the September/October edition of Film Comment, a cover story on Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven comes with five images of Cathy Whitaker (Moore) brightly smiling (accentuated by bright red lipstick) as she takes part in a 1950s form of communion: eating a picture-perfect dinner with her picture-perfect family, talking to her friends in their color coordinated apparel, picking up her husband at the police station after a drunken driving arrest (a task that may seem unfortunate, but merely something that was customary and expected for a '50s society wife).
Only in one image does the smile finally break, as she holds her daughter and stares to the right of the frame. This moment, which comes last in the format of the magazine and the chronology of the film, has deeper meaning than what can be seen in simply the image -- the people she's staring at are other mothers and daughters, none of whom want to have anything to do with her. The perfection of community and conformity that Carol Whitaker has so enjoyed is crumbling before her.
Far from Heaven is the rare film that comments as much on the society it recreates as the society that watches it. Todd Haynes, a filmmaker best known for his work in "New Queer Cinema," has made films that are about the veiled relationship of homosexuality and AIDS to a society unwilling to accept their existence. Perhaps best known for the AIDS treatise Safe, in which he looked at the commonality of an environmental disease amid '80s materialism and conformity, Haynes has succeeded in retaining his anti-establishment look by doing exactly what the establishment would accept under different circumstances.
Look at Poison, quite possibly his best feature, where Haynes poses three stories of non-conformists in relation to their social mores. His Fassbinder-like section, called "Homo," was the part that made him the No. 1 enemy of the religious right, but the section that seemed most artistically assured was a section called "Horror" that followed one man's ascent in society's purview because of a disease that has taken over him. The entire section is made in a highly faithful 1950s sci-fi film style -- part of the reason that the reaction to the sequence is so commanding is that it shows how 1950s anti-AIDS values are no different from the so-called liberated 1990s values.
For Far from Heaven, the source is not Jack Arnold or Ed Wood, but instead Douglas Sirk, the German filmmaker best known for his soapy Hollywood melodramas and a favorite filmmaker of none other than Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Every facet of the production -- from Elmer Bernstein's score to Sandy Powell's costumes to Mark Friedberg's sets -- comes directly from the Sirk school of filmmaking. The movie opens with one of those grand paintings in the background as loud, large titles come up announcing the film's grand entrance. Even as the film begins to deal with issues that Sirk could never touch in the 1950s (like homosexuality), Haynes never refrains from layering on the elements of a Douglas Sirk film.
The film portrays the Whitaker family as they attempt to make sense of the problems that have entered their once perfect 1957 milieu. Cathy is a society gal, enjoying the attention that comes from people in love with her and her life. Husband Frank (Quaid, in an incredibly understated performance) has quickly moved up the ranks at his Hartford, Connecticut, firm, bringing his family into the kind embraces of the upper-middle class neighborhood they've inhabited.
When the film begins, Cathy is being interviewed for a local paper interested in how she runs her home -- a type of woman-behind-the-man story. During the interview, she notices a black man walking in her yard. Introducing herself, she finds that he is the son of their recently deceased gardener. She sees nothing wrong with inviting Raymond Deagan (Haysbert) into her home and treating him as an equal, which causes the columnist to go into a tizzy: the article soon arrives with a statement that Cathy is also "a friend to Negroes."
Such liberal politics are not wholly opposed by the supposedly liberated homemakers that dot the street and invite themselves into the Whitaker home for the occasional gossip session. Cathy is, as her best friend Eleonor (Clarkson) states, notorious for her ability to welcome everyone in friendship, bringing her the college nickname 'Red.'
The rift comes when she allows Raymond to become more than just a casual acquaintance, meant only to be spoken to as a hired hand. When she goes with Raymond to an all-black bar and is spotted, the ramifications become clear: being liberated in the Eisenhower era means only that you show a kind face to the 'lower rungs' of society, but never act.
Frank is aghast at his wife's encounters with Raymond -- regardless of whether it is sexual or not, the problem is that it is interracial (notably, Cathy and Raymond receive an equally cool reaction from the denizens of the all-black bar). But Frank is, in the process, showing some hypocrisy in his own lifestyle. Earlier in the film, Cathy finds that Frank is dallying in homosexuality, a decision that he says disgusts him but one that he cannot stop. Even after seeking psychiatric help, he still yearns to be with men instead of his wife. In the process, he is becoming as much a cancer to the preservation of the Whitaker family's merry weather façade as Cathy and Raymond's relationship.
By subverting a genre that is built on open emotions and histrionics, Haynes has created one of the most beautifully beguiling works this year. Every moment seems to tease the audience with some unstated truth looming within the frame. Haynes uses the over-aestheticized musings on Sirk as a way to develop his story through style and setting. Far from Heaven is one of the rare films that leaves the audience sifting through clichés without once questioning the director for using them.
It is intriguing to see that one of the biggest directors of the New Queer Cinema finds the best way to introduce homosexuality into cinema is in the form of long accepted genres. Sirk's films are common additions to the auteurist curriculum -- partly because of Fassbinder's love for the works and partly from the efforts of the Hollywood loving Nouvelle Vague -- and most cineastes have seen many of his works, including All that Heaven Allows (which Far from Heaven mimics in many ways), Imitation of Life (which also dealt with race relations in the middle amid the ideal family), and Written on the Wind (which starred the most famous closeted gay man of the 1950s, Rock Hudson).
The Sirk films that Haynes evidently loves enough to
imitate establish an emotional crux that are synonymous with melodrama. Far from
Heaven may fall directly into the melodramatics that (in many people's opinions,
myself included) ruin Sirk's films, but it also introduces issues to a world unsullied by
our knowledge of the problems inherent in society. Try as we might, though, we must
remember that these problems are in our past too. They are just hidden from our memories
by an unbreakable wall of 'acceptability.'
BY: DAVID PERRY