Volume 5, Number 20
This Week's Reviews: All the Real Girls, Gerry, The Matrix Reloaded, Down with Love.
This Week's Omissions: Laurel Canyon.
Release: 14 Feb. 03
|All the Real Girls
BY: DAVID PERRY
[NOTE: Since this is more an analysis than a review of All the Real Girls, major plot points including the ending are given away. It is recommended that this only be read after watching the film.]
All the Real Girls, David Gordon Green’s slow, lethargic, and amazingly beautiful follow-up to his similarly adjectival first film, George Washington, is the kind of cynical love story you expect from a gaunt 28-year-old. It features people falling into love and falling out of love, but not with the same kind of melodramatics akin to most downbeat love stories. This time the artifice has been removed, and all those awkward pangs of love emphasize what is, unequivocally, a star-crossed affair.
Hailing from Arkansas and having attended college in North Carolina, Green has in these two films established himself as the most truthful and articulate directors of the modern southern milieu. His grasp of the desolate feeling of rural southern youth comes from a heart empathizing with those kids you recognize will probably never leave their lower Middle American homes. George Washington, following the collective reaction to the accidental death of one of these kids, seemed to come straight from the grave of William Faulkner or James Agee, methodically looking at what it is to be human and to be southern.
All the Real Girls comes from the same level of harrowed empathy, though its grasp of such lofty comparisons to Faulkner or Agee isn’t quite at the same level as the previous film. Sans the abstraction of George Washington but retaining the poetic lyricism, it is more structured, more accessible. While Green is certainly not a film director who covets being called populist, his latest work comes with the approach of a humanist hoping to dash his own cynicism, but ultimately underlining it. The way he covers the ground created by himself and his college friend Paul Schneider is one of reproachful dedication. By turning his attention to something that, evidently, bewilders and beguiles him, Green is much more focused on the narrative and finds the most manageable way to tell the story without coming off as too artsy or pretentious.
The central characters, Paul (Schneider) and Noel (Deschanel), seem to be proxy emblems for what Green either saw or felt in his own lifetime. Paul is the person stuck in his North Carolina textile town, attempting to hide his destitute future as a glutton of beer and sex. His friends equally lack ambition, with varying degrees of recognition of such.
Noel, on the other hand, has been outside, spending much of her teenage years at an all-girl boarding school. Upon graduation, she returns to her childhood home with the emotional baggage of her arrested development. While she is much more mature than those who have never left the town, she isn’t quite adept at her own possibilities outside of this place.
Or, maybe, she’s the smartest of them all, having seen the outside and returned, recognizing the underlying beauty of it (captured by Tim Orr’s breathtaking cinematography). Alfred Lord Tennyson famously said “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,” which seems to be the central thesis behind Green’s drama as he uncomfortably shows the relationship between those caught in a void of southern rustics and those caught in the similarly inescapable void of lost love.
Paul, having felt the unloving bed of
dozens of women, is the person destroyed by the relationship he forges with
Noel. At the beginning, despite his experience and her virginity, he is directed towards the unhappier of Tennyson’s comparison; Noel, on the other
hand, has the romantic posture of someone destined for the lost that
remains, which may come to her after a series of loves lost. She, the
adventurer willing to accept her own pitfalls, would have been happy had she
never stepped into Paul’s life while he would have been just as blind to the
outside world without her. He’s loved and lost, and seems all to willing to
linger on this, but we know that he’s the better for it.
|©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 9 May 2003|
Release: 14 Feb. 03
BY: DAVID PERRY
[NOTE: Since this is more an analysis than a review of Gerry, major plot points including the ending are given away. It is recommended that this only be read after watching the film.]
Gus Van Sant’s career has been anything but predictable -- somewhat like Steven Soderbergh -- with turns from indie-film-art-pretentiousness to pop commercialism. Whatever complaints one might have about some of his early films (especially My Own Private Idaho and Even Cowboys Get the Blues), they were respectable in their pretentiousness, their endless circles of garish cinematic contortions. And, then, with the stroke of genius (To Die For), he was able to get the backing of Miramax and the script for Good Will Hunting. His career wasn’t the same for five years.
Suddenly, the director of Drugstore Cowboy was making a giddy video for the pop group Hanson and attempting to remake Alfred Hitchcock’s untouchable Psycho. In 2000, the worst finally happened: Gus Van Sant had taken the plunge into Hollywood by reusing a formula that was becoming common. Worst of all, that film, Finding Forrester, was not just a variation on previous films, it was practically a remake of the very film that got him into this mess, Good Will Hunting.
Vanquished to the type of indie-director purgatory that evidently (and momentarily) reformed Joel Schumacher after Batman & Robin, Van Sant has become critical of the Hollywood that was once so kind to him and turned back to the art films that made him love filmmaking in the first place. Having been attracted to the oeuvre of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, Van Sant has chosen to purge himself of those populist sensibilities by making a Tarr-inspired meditative drama about metaphysical relationships between humans and the outside world by glancing at them with reel-long (or real long, depending on one’s perspective) shots at a time.
Gerry lacks the same magnitude of my one encounter with Tarr’s work, Werckmeister Harmonies, but it makes up for it with the type of forlorn dedication that can only come from a man trying to cleanse himself of his past sins. The film definitely brings in the long shot perspective of life common to Tarr (1994’s Sátántango was 7.5 hours long; Werckmeister consists of a mere 39 shots for its nearly 2.5 hour length), languidly looking over the characters for minutes at a time. The only moments when speedier editing is used comes from brief shots of the landscape by cinematographer Harris Savides.
The other comparison Gerry most often brings is to Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot, the notorious play about waiting for a man who will never come, i.e. God. For Van Sant, the wait is more proactive, as those waiting become those searching. Replacing Vladimir and Estragon are two urbanites, both of whom answer to the name Gerry. Played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, Gerry I and II come across as the strong and the weak, the dichotomy of not only men, but also of a fortuitous friendship (nearly all couplings pair the assertive with the meek, each one thriving off the other).
Their precarious position is that of being stranded in the type of existentialist drama that would make Sartre applaud. Almost from the very beginning (following the 11 minutes driving sequence to Arvo Pärt’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”), they are walking. And that is essentially most of the film: two actors, in the top of their game, dolefully walking without any discernable destination on the horizon. Having wandered into the California desert to get to “the thing,” they have found nothing but the forces of nature, which briskly crushes their bond. How can a friendship built on strength and weakness survive when the situation only allows for the former?
Underlining most of the film is the homoeroticism that was
clearly found in those early Van Sant films but seemed to have disappeared
in his Hollywood features. While there is never a clear sexual bond between
these two, the symbolism of their relationship is apparent, especially as
the film comes closer to the end, as a moment of ambiguous mercy seems
blurred with a final, emotional embrace. Both Gerry I and Gerry II have
looked for guidance out of this vast wasteland (their confusion is
underscored by Van Sant’s decision to film in both Death Valley and
Argentina) and the conclusion of their journey is simplified to the image of
two people becoming one in the middle of the desert. After that, salvation
for both them -- and the audience -- seems like little more than a minor
disturbance to the mortality of us all.
|©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 16 May 2003|
Release: 14 May 03
|The Matrix Reloaded
BY: DAVID PERRY
“Reality no longer has the time to take on the appearance of
reality. It no longer even surpasses fiction: it captures every dream even
before it takes on the appearance of a dream”
I envied the Wachowski Brothers in 1999 for something they succeeded in doing which I considered fairly impossible: they were able to make philosophical discussions part and parcel with viewing a Hollywood blockbuster. The Matrix, their follow-up to the gloriously catty masterpiece Bound, wasn’t the big-budgeted, soulless action adventure of the year. It wasn’t even a summer release. Instead, it was the mesmerizing blend of Zen Buddhist, Christian, and Silverist philosophy (producer Joel Silver deserves massive credit for gambling to get the feature off the ground). I excitedly spread the word to the public: see this film, it’s the action movie we’ve been waiting for. And indeed it was. It was the carefully pieced together work that was meant to free us from the deceptive powers of Roland Emmerich, Dean Devlin, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Michael Bay. I wanted the Matrix sequels to do what the first film did: create a new bar for action films, partition a time pre- and post-The Matrix trilogy. Instead, all I can report is that the post-Matrix period is marred with ugly rip-offs from The One to Exit Wounds to Vanilla Sky (which cripples the granddaddy of all Baudillard incarnations, Open Your Eyes), and The Matrix Reloaded is just another face in this crowd of ill repute.
It is telling that I have come to a point of irritation with conversations on The Matrix trilogy. My willingness to celebrate the Philosophy 101 underpinnings of the first film has been scuttled by the pedestalization of its remedial depth. I grow uncomfortable with the way The Matrix has been turned from notable an oddity amid the vacuous action genre to the cornerstone of theoretical debate among those unwilling to read any philosophical text. The copy of Baudillard that makes a cameo in the first film should have been something for the fans to turn to when they entered their own thoughtful discussion of reality v. dream. Instead, the copies of his works remain dusty on bookstore shelves while the film is watched frame by frame in an attempt to find depth beyond a shallow grasp of the film’s core precursors.
But I’m not mad that The Matrix is popular, just that it has gotten out of hand. The Matrix Reloaded should be the chance for those like me who are disgruntled with the mass hysteria over a simple intellectual film to have renewed faith in what the Wachowski Brothers are achieving. Instead, my excitement over a cameo by Cornell West as a Zion leader is tainted by my disappointment that he was willing to appear in this dreck.
The philosophical pangs of the Wachowskis are still clear in this film, but perhaps the real destructor is that it is so unwilling to embrace subtlety over quality. The way these people expound on their conjectural didacticism is more of a head-scratcher than an intelligent realization of a deep debate. The film’s central point of reference for anyone willing to forge an understanding of all this waste -- a long monologue by a man called The Architect (Bakaitis whose sole purpose is to speak fast enough and cyclically enough for the truly devoted to pay for the pleasure of deciphering it a second time – is neither informative or imaginative. It feels tacked on and wasteful. The scene becomes more of a visual pleasure (the tiles of video monitor Neos filling the walls) than an intellectual pleasure.
This balance between thoughtful filmmaking and popular filmmaking is one that The Matrix Reloaded struggles with throughout. Where The Matrix was a cinematic tour-de-force (even the film’s critics were willing to admit its groundbreaking advances in the sphere of action cinema), the second time around feels more like a Jesus’ son disappointment. The inherent need among the filmmakers to one-up their previous film overburdens a cinematic philosophy that cannot survive within the minds of creators bent on spending the much larger budget they now have.
The clearest example of this comes in the CGI quotient that can be found in these two films. Where The Matrix was happy with only a few moments of computer-generated visuals (a destructed earth, a mirror engulfing Neo), most of it was spent simply covering the wires used by Yuen Wo Ping to create the gravity-defying fights (Yuen was also supervised the wire-fu choreography in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). This allowed for a much more realistic looking film that succeeded in creating the dichotomy of reality and dream where neither looks truly fake or truly real.
Compare this to The Matrix Reloaded where the Wachowskis never seem willing to settle for the real achrobatics of the actors and the stunt technicians, instead turning to the dream factory that is CGI. Trading in the reality of wire-fu, they get an unquestionably fake looking series of fight sequences that fail to have any resonance whatsoever. Even the scene that promised to be the film’s best fight, a showdown between Neo and Agent Smith (Weaving), both fashioning superhuman powers, devolves into an animated sequence devoid of any actors. For minutes, the film looked more like an entry into the Animatrix series than part of the feature film trilogy.
this is the great tradeoff that comes when commercialism takes over what of
the few beacons of hope that it occasionally bears. I still have some
remaining optimism that the Wachowski Brothers will stave off my disgust
over their fall. And even if they don’t succeed in doing it with The Matrix
Revolutions (there is a two minute trailer for the third part after the
credits as if the previous 138 minutes had not already been one), I still
have some faith in the Andy and Larry Wachowski: Gina Gershon and Jennifer
Tilly aren’t working too much these days.
|©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 16 May 2003|
Release: 9 May 03
|Down with Love
BY: DAVID PERRY
Barbara Novak (Zellweger) comes into New York City with one interest in mind: to turn women into the uncaring sexual demons that men have always been. Her new book Down with Love promises to be the healing text for all the women tired of standing in the shadows of their husbands. Barbara can, she surmises, create a world where women use men for pleasure instead of procreation, where a woman can go after the things she wants without being labeled a slut.
Although this may not seem like the chaste story of Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, or Send Me No Flowers, the whole story, set in the early 1960w, pivots on the style and variable substance of a Doris Day-Rock Hudson romantic comedy. The ambassador for all men, magazine writer Catcher Block (McGregor), is the only chance for the halting an impending women’s liberation front. Having a fairly flamboyant actor play a part intended for a closeted gay figure in such a misogynistic role has the wink-wink-nudge-nudge edge of a bundt cake, and yet it is still oddly charming.
But while tinkering with the same cinematic nostalgia that works gangbusters for Todd Haynes and Guy Maddin, director Peyton Reed has latched onto the flourish of a Day- Hudson romantic comedy with all the satisfaction of a child who finger painted a lousy copy of Guigan. You want to hug the kid for the effort even as you hide the horrendous canvas behind the couch.
The only problem is that those 1960s originals aren’t even at Guigan levels in the first place. Far from Heaven, Todd Haynes’ revision of the Douglas Sirk melodramas that also starred Rock Hudson, at least had a stronger foundation to stand on. Although the stories in the Sirk films were often unbearable in their soap-operatics, they always had the amazing sense of style that Sirk infused into his films, from the contrasts inherent in grey tones to the flourishes of colors.
What you get in the Day-Hudson films is kitsch, and that stales far faster than anything found in a Cinemascope widescreen presentation. Down with Love come lovingly recreate that Cinemascope title at the beginning, the sumptuous production design (courtesy of Andrew Lewis), and the whimsical musical score, but ultimately, the whole adventure still feels flat, unfocused, and needy. Even nostalgically watching those old films leaves one feeling instantly unsettled by its refusal to ever let you breathe anything other than the fresh pastel paint on the canvas.
Maybe Reed and screenwriters Eve Ahlert and Dennis Drake recognize this and want to find some way to get the notable qualities out of those films without compromising the narrative storytelling that is needed to make it rise above them. If that is the case, they have certainly found moments that infuse the film with the energy of the originals coupled with the definition of a stronger story. The problem is that outside of these few moments, they lose sight of this and revert back to Neverland.
However, I could not be happier with the people who Reed has assembled to fill these thrice-worn shoes. Ewan McGregor, playing Rock Hudson, seems to be having the time of his life as a promiscuous “man’s man, ladies’ man, man about town” writing for the magazine Know. He veers somewhere between Hunter S. Thompson’s ego and Frank Sinatra’s style. McGregor practically dances in each of his scenes, allowing his uninteresting character -- the stereotype is about as new as the shoes -- to break the seams of that tight polyester suit. I liked his performance for the same reason that he isn’t Rock Hudson: his realization of the 1960s man is more fey Astaire than complex Brando. (It is oddly appealing to watch McGregor, healthy but not bulky, walk around in his skivvies for the film, reminding us of a time when the definition of a Hollywood star depended less on the muscle definition of his chest.)
Renée Zellweger, on the other hand, is a facsimile of her predecessor, Doris Day. Where Day would give a harrumph with her lips and brows, Zellweger has something comparable, a lemon-pucker and squinty eyes that comes somewhere between sickening and precious. Although the screenplay doesn’t let her truly feel the body that she’s trying to fill (one of Down with Love’s twist endings is about as degenerate as endings come these days, turning a master’s thesis on femininity embracing masculine mores into the progressive attitude of a trip to the Playboy mansion), Zellweger is evenly equipped to turn the character into something a little less precocious and little more satisfactory.
The real magic, though, is
in the film’s Lauren Bacall and Tony Randall (although, Randall, who
appeared in all three Day-Hudson films, does appear as the chairman of the
board). Sarah Paulson, as Novaks’s editor, and David Hyde Pierce, as
Catcher’s, have the ability to take their stereotypes and make them into
something more credible. When on the screen, they turn make the 1960s kitsch
seem fresh, and, when one considers that the paint on these walls dried
forty years ago, their achievement seems all the more notable. They see what
was evidently unclear to Reed and the writers, that the only reason people
still care about those Day-Hudson films is the strange coupling that the
film’s were able to balance. Facing off 1960s production with 2000s mores in
Down with Love highlights an imbalance that Reed never completely overcomes.
It is a great experiment to watch, but ultimately an incomplete one.
|©2003, David Perry, Cinema-Scene.com, 16 May 2003|