2003 Milk Plus Droogies

Best Picture
Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Director
Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Actor (tie)
Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean

Best Actor (tie)
Bill Murray, Lost in Translation

Best Actress
Uma Thurman, Kill Bill Vol. I

Best Supporting Actor
David Hyde Pierce, Down With Love

Best Supporting Actress
Miranda Richardson, Spider

Best Screenplay
Sofia Coppola, Lost in Translation

Best Foreign Film

Best Cinematography
Harris Savides, Gerry

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Friday, March 12, 2004

Secret Window

Last year, Johnny Depp played a pirate sailing the high seas. Here, as his next trick, he boards the good ship Mediocrity and navigates through an thriller-genre ocean of crap and coincidence, and I'll be damned if he doesn't breeze through without getting soiled. I can question his choice of material (as I often do), but I certainly can't complain that he's phoning it in.

Depp plays writer Mort Rainey (and if that isn't a sign of trouble, I don't know what is -- when was the last time you saw a good movie where the protagonist is named Mort?). Mort has many problems: he's divorcing his wife and none too happy about it, he's got writer's block, he lives off Mountain Dew and Doritos, his dog has cataracts and his ex is schtupping Timothy Hutton (which you know has to smart). Still, there's no wound so grievous that someone won't show up to squirt lemon juice in it, and the someone for that job is the improbably-named John Shooter. Shooter accuses Rainey of plagiarizing a short story some time ago, which might be a fair complaint if a) Rainey hadn't demonstrably written it first, b) Rainey hadn't meant it as a thinly-veiled murder fantasy aimed towards his then-wife, and c) if Rainey hadn't made the geography of the cabin in which he currently lives integral to the story. Still, something about Shooter's presence and the similarity of the stories spooks Rainey. So off Mort goes to try and find how he can placate this weirdo... and therein lies the film's faults.

It's not a bad premise, is it? Let this then stand as an object lesson in how to screw up a good idea. Ten minutes in, the film has set up its central conflict. It then proceeds to mosey along admiring flowers, periodically remembering that it's supposed to, you know, try and scare us or freak us out or something. And somewhere along the way, it tips its hand. Boy, does it ever. Writer/director David Koepp's last project was the David Fincher film "Panic Room" and he swipes some of Fincher's fancy camera tricks -- the opening, overly elaborate tracking shot leads us around a house, through a window, past a desk, down a flight of stairs and through a mirror. However (and I'll try to be delicate with this), there's echoes of another movie in this film's DNA. It's based on a Stephen King novella, but the climax hums with familiarity for different reasons; appropriately, this tale of plagiarism feels second-hand. And it's not like the film is trying to be subtle about it, either. I mean, if you can't interpret the early blinking-neon signposts and figure out the destination here, you simply weren't paying much attention.

The ho-hum screenplay doesn't get much help from the parties not named Depp involved in its making, either. As I mentioned earlier, Koepp's direction occasionally exhibits a stylishness that by now can be bought at Goodwill for seven bucks. But then, when he's not pitching the camera around like a man who's seen too many Dario Argento movies, his eye is bland and faceless. His technical staff similarly exhibit a dogged professionalism that might as well have Xerox stamped on it. The nighttime shots and the denoument, in particular, seem stuck on Grim-O-Matic. As for the actors... well, you've got Maria Bello, who has never impressed me in any capacity. You've got John Turturro, who has dragged out his "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" shtick and superimposed "evil" on top of it. You've got Hutton, who proves yet again that he's about as intimidating as a Teletubby. And you've got Charles S. Dutton, who shows up and collects his money and goes home, much like he did in "Gothika" four months ago. So that means it's Depp's show the whole way. As usual, he doesn't disappoint; his portrayal of a man frustrated, scared and barely able to keep his anger in check is notable for the way that he gives us all these emotions with nothing more than narrowed eyes and a constantly sardonic tone of voice. Indeed, Mort's unwavering aggressive flippancy as put forth by Depp is indicative of another possible road this material could have taken, one more darkly humored and less generically "scary". Depp already seems like he's in on the joke, and it takes nearly 90 minutes for the rest of the film to catch up with him. I give the film credit, in fact, for following this silliness the whole way down into its corker of an epilogue. It could have been fun. Instead, it's one more Friday night out the window. Thanks for trying though, Johnny.

Thursday, March 11, 2004
Jersey Girl

A cute little film. Very different than his previous efforts but I knew that going in. It has its share of profanity but the crude/crass humor is nicely absent. In its place is a bit more maturity (just a bit, mind you) and a little more drama than we've come to expect. With the exception of parts of Chasing Amy, this is Kevin Smith's only real foray into the dramatic form and, though it's a bit cliche at times (okay, the whole time), it's still an enjoyable ride.

The good:

The dialogue, as usual, is pretty interesting and entertaining.

The chemistry between Ben Affleck and his movie daughter, Raquel Castro. It was funny and poignant and felt like a real relationship.

The cameos. You come to expect them with his films and these were nicely done, if not entirely original.

The visuals. Having a real cinematographer does wonders and Vilmos Zsigmond comes through with flying colors. There is some interesting camerawork in this film. He hasn't quite moved into the Scorsese/Anderson camp of constant movement but it's not entirely static like much of his earlier work. It really looks like a movie this time around and much of that credit goes to Zsigmond.

The bad:

His one failing in the dialogue department (okay, there is more than one but for the sake of brevity...), and it's followed him throughout each film he has done, is that all of the characters speak in his voice. That's okay when it's people his own age or in his own kind of circumstance, it gives them a sense of authenticity (or at the very least, legitimacy), but when he expands out to encompass people of different backgrounds and age ranges it stretches the bounds of credibility.

This is practically Robert McKee's wet dream of a script. Someone could give you the logline and you'll know exactly what the rest of the plot points will be. I was hoping he would give us a curveball or two but, sadly, no. I'm not saying he's always been the most original of writers but I was hoping he would try something different here and was a bit disappointed when everything I predicted would happen came to fruition.

The music, while well used, was almost all known for other films. They didn't mention whether this was a temp track but, seeing as how it's only a couple of weeks to release, I have to believe it's not. Poor musical choices, in my opinion. Get some new stuff out there, this was entirely too mainstream and overplayed.

Overall I'd say it's a good date movie or a movie to see as a matinee but it's definitely not a theatrical must. If you have nothing else to do then take it in, it's light fare (even accounting for the dramatic aspects), and I'm sure you'll laugh at least once, smile at least twice, and forget it within an hour.

Wednesday, March 10, 2004
The Saddest Music in the World

The Winnipeg 1933, deep in the Great Depression, is maddeningly cold and dark; melancholy hangs over the great city like permanent night and it feels lonesome and lost in the midst of the sorrow of its inhabitants. To counteract this, or, more precisely, to make a ridiculous profit from the atmosphere, beer baron Lady Helen Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) has decided to promote a contest for the Saddest Music in the World. Hoping to capitalize on the imminent repeal of American prohibition, she deviously plans to use the winning song to sadden the American masses, for sorrow breeds the kind of thirst only a beautiful, legless and stately matron of alcohol can provide. Among other international musicians drawn to the cash prize of the contest is swanky n’ hollow American producer Chester Kant (Kids in the Hall alum Mark McKinney), a gee-that’s-swell man full of noir one-liners and Hollywood pizzazz; his wide-eyed mysterious girlfriend cum singer of the sad, Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros); and rounding off the group are Kant’s Canadian father Fyodor (David Fox) and his estranged brother Roderick (Ross McMillan), traveling under the guise of a world famous Serbian cellist.

Less ambitiously baroque or disorientingly formalized than his previous films, Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World is his most accessible work yet; it seems less like an intense and overwhelming creative remix of nearly forgotten cinematic antiquity like his best work, Archangel and Careful, and a more punchy and smoothly enjoyable pseudo-musical. Typical of the Maddin oeuvre, the film is a barrage of subplots half abandoned, themed only partially articulated, and rich visuals incompletely employed. Co-written by long time collaborator George Toles the entire film is told in Maddin-speak, a surreal and dreamily clipped dialog of imaginably fashionable faux-period slang and bizarre outcries of passion. Initially love triangles appear in spades, one simmering between ex-Canadian Chester, his guilt-ridden father and Lady of the Beer (who owes her missing legs to a drunken, love-infused amputation provided by Fyodor) and another between Chester, his dreamy songstress Narcissa and long lost brother Roderick. Soon these triangles deteriorate into deeper sorrow; most Maddin characters bear a unique brand of deeply etched melodramatic trauma and these are no different. Among Chester smiling like an idiot, Lady Helen mourning the loss of her two legs due to a prior spat between father and son, and said father misreading his leg-driven guilt as love for Helen, it seems only the nearly psychotic hypochondriac Roderick is really “out there.” But in Depression Winnipeg melancholic dementia seems the purest of emotional mind states and despite the humorous bouts for song title (Siam vs. Mexico! Poland vs. Germany!) a gloomy cloud of doom watches over the more superficial, excitable characters.

The result as usual is delirious and highly enjoyable. Despite working with a larger budget and two familiar stars Maddin dials down his stylistics (to a degree), except for the casual intoxicating montage or two, and limits his Winnipeg to a snowy soundstage, a dilapidated Canadian home and a population crowed in a single local tavern, straining to hear the Saddest Music and get drunk. That the populous cheers and hoots and claps enthusiastically at what Chester calls songs of deliberate “false pity” points at a quirky paradox of entertaining suffering. Chester capitalizes off the notion, staging grandiose musical numbers based off such American tragedies as the San Francisco quake of 1906 and the sinking of the Lusitanian. Among such a Vaseline-smeared dream world of sorrow and whimsy the main characters often seem directionless; all that is, except the mad Roderick who carries around with him the heart of his dead son, preserved in his tears, in the hope of reuniting with his grieving wife and paying for Serbia’s war-guilt through a painful cello solo.

One of Maddin’s best qualities is the maddening amount of extra-narrative details, asides, montages, and dreamy cinematic fetishes that seem to take a ghostly and evocative priority over his stories, and The Saddest Music in the World, being his most leisurely constructed film, has them in spades. From Lady Helen’s beer-filled glass prosthetic limbs, funerals told in hyper-surreal two-strip color, peculiarly dingy art deco set design, sub-subplots contesting Canadian and American sorrow, and the shocking persistence of tongue in cheek Serbian guilt over World War I, the whole film is replete with enough bang-up dialog spurts, fevered imagery and madcap cinematic moments to pleasure any viewer who hasn’t a clue either what kind of movie Maddin is trying to make nor the kind he is likening his to. It is distracted and not nearly as productively focused as past works, but it is a whirling dervish of random and accumulated delight and the magnificent additions of Medeiros’ sexiness in fur (an actress disappeared and not seen since Pulp Fiction) Rossellini’s kinky combo of wig and glass legs (as well as a killer thumbs up endorsement) and McKinney’s pure ‘30s arrogant perseverance plums The Saddest Music in the World as full of “fizz” as a movie about deep rooted melancholy can be.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

The Gospel According to Mel

I finally made it. A week and a half later, and the theater I went to was still packed (while waiting for the film to start, I made some interesting demographic observations about the audience, but I think I’ll leave that to the comments). I have to admit, I only went to the The Passion of the Christ for two reasons: (1) curiosity, and (2) a misplaced sense of objectivity. I’m not a believer; I rejected Catholicism long ago, and am now a firm atheist; nor am I a fan of Mel Gibson’s recent work. I used to kind of dig Braveheart, but the Mel’s increasingly apparent martyr complex and rank homophobia soured any enjoyment I got out of the old fashioned melodrama and battle scenes. Even though I’ve followed the developing controversy (and the crassly evident attempts to capitalize on that very same controversy for marketing purposes) and many of the mixed reviews, I still was kinda, sorta optimistic that Gibson could have pulled off a half-way decent movie about the final hours of Christ’s life. Stranger things have happened; a gay Marxist managed to create one of the most moving and profound films concerning Jesus Christ.

Alas, I was disappointed. Not extremely disappointed, since my half-hearted optimism only took me so far. Still, I have never seen a film that relies so heavily on what the audience brings to the theater, while providing so very little in return. Unless you have a vested interest in the material, watching someone get beaten and flogged for almost two hours has a tendency to cause one’s interest to flag (case in point, during the scenes on Golgotha, as several of the people sitting around me were openly sobbing, I sat in the darkness thinking about various quotes from The Simpsons that dealt with Christianity; I had to stifle some laughter). The film’s central problem is the narrative itself, and it is not only the fact that everyone in the audience already knows how it ends. Actually, come to think about it, that is one of the film’s biggest problems. The film is too dependent on the audience already being at least somewhat familiar with the events depicted in the film. The film literally preaches to the choir, providing very little context as to why events are transpiring on screen, even from the supposedly all important spiritual perspective. For a story whose central tenet is that Jesus had to die on the cross to forgive mankind for its sins, the movie does a piss poor job of explaining why it had to happen, or it’s even it’s importance (the film, however, does go to great pains to draw out Pontius Pilate’s political dilemma). Not that the film goes into any great depth when it comes to Jesus’s teachings, which in the film, are reduced to a series of soundbites presented in isolated flashbacks.

My guess is that anyone not brought up in the Judeo-Christian perspective would have a hard time understanding what the hell was going on in the course of the film. Also, I can’t see how the film would be an effective tool for proselytization, all I could see the film doing to people who are not familiar with Christianity is scare the crap out of them. This dependence on audience familiarity also renders what could have been a positive aspect of the film’s success, the fact that millions of Americans are flocking to see a subtitled film, into a pyrrhic victory. I mean, who cares if it is in Aramaic and Latin if you already know what’s going on, you don’t even have to really read the subtitles.

The lack of context provided by the film is further exacerbated by the filmmaker’s decision to only depict a relatively small portion of Jesus’s life, albeit an important one in the overall arc of the narrative. By focusing almost solely on what is effectively the middle of the narrative, all but ignoring Jesus’s birth, early life, ministry, and Resurrection, the filmmakers have drained all the character growth, conflict, complexity, etc. from the story, you know, the things that make narrative’s interesting. I’ve read the gospels and they are interesting, textured narratives, something captured by such exemplar films as The Gospel According to St. Matthew and The Last Temptation of Christ, but lacking from The Passion of the Christ. Jesus barely interacts with his disciples, Mary Magdalene, or his mother (of course, my favorite scene in the entire film comes early on; it is on of the few scenes where actual humanity is interjected into the story, it is the scene where Jesus is building the table in his mother’s courtyard), they are all, in fact, cyphers for the purposes of the narrative. I’m sure the intent of the filmmakers was to render the main characters as icons, for the purposes of reflection by the faithful, instead of flesh and blood people (you know, something that would make them interesting separate from the fact that they are all venerated figures in Christian mythology), and in some respects, especially in regards to Maia Morgenstern and Monica Bellucci, who have wonderfully expressive faces, they succeed, but in others they fail miserably. Especially Jim Caveziel, who is pretty much a blank slate (Caveziel seems to be competing with Jeffrey Hunter for the title of “Pretty Boy Jesus;” give me Willem Dafoe or Enrique Irazoqui any day of the week and twice on Sunday), when not screaming in agony or writhing in pain. I don’t think he was helped with the Aramaic dialogue, as it sounds like he was speaking pho-net-ic-al-ly (the Italian actors who got to speak Latin sounded much more confident and natural).

For the most part, the Romans, with the exception of that lovable bloodthirsty tyrant Pontius Pilate, his wife Claudia, and a couple of the centurions, are depicted as sadistic animals, while the Jews, with the exception of a few proto-Christians, are depicted as a sinister cabal (the priests and Temple Guards) or a bloodthirsty, easily manipulated, fickle mob (everyone else). Simplistic depictions turn cartoonish when Gibson pushes his narratives to the extremes. For example, Satan, who appears frequently throughout the film as an androgynous, hairless perversion of the Virgin Mary (you’d think that temptation would be more effective in the guise of, say, a little girl, instead of a weird, scary monster), and the demons that plague Judas (the film actually skirts with horror-movie motifs when it comes to Judas’s final fate, obviously expanding on Matthew 27:5, perhaps cross-pollinated with Dante; maybe Judas will get a fair shake, though I think he already did in The Last Temptation of Christ, in tomorrow night’s ABC telemovie?), or the decadent court of King Herrod (where in Mel Gibson land, decadence=homosexuality). Why do I think that these depictions are cartoonish? Because they are so overwrought (especially when Satan, in a field of bones, cried out in anger).

But overwrought is the adjective of the day when it comes to The Passion of the Christ, but what can you expect from a movie whose primary purpose is to depict nothing but the suffering of it’s main character? Mel Gibson obviously never met an action that could not be shot in slow-motion (I actually lost count of how many times Gibson ramped the camera during the opening scene in Gethsemane; or how many times a Roman centurion whipped him in a low-angle, slow motion shot; or how many times that Caveziel stumbled and fell, writhing in agony in slow motion); a big moment that could not be punctuated with a camera push-in; or a scene that could not be underscored with some kind of ominous piece of music (Peter Gabriel, where art thou?), and I actually kind of liked the music, along with Caleb Deschanel’s moody photography (save for the fog-drenched blueness of the Gethsemane scenes). My “favorite” stylistic motif was when some characters looked directly into the lens (the most noticeable example being Mary, after the body of Jesus is taken from the cross), as if they were shooting accusatory glances at the audience, implicating them in the brutality of the events. Which is actually kind of the point of the narrative, so I have to give Gibson that one.

But, in The Passion of the Christ, who is really responsible for the death of Christ? Gibson, in many recent interviews, may have responded with “humanity”, but the film all but has a big, blinking arrow pointing straight at the Jews, and we’re not just talking about the priests, it seems we’re talking about the whole of Jerusalem at one point. The sneaky Jewish priests manipulate all of the events, railroading Jesus to his death using the bloodthirsty Jewish crowd as a political incentive against the incredulous Romans, who hesitate to punish the clearly innocent Jesus. Even if Gibson neglects to translate some of the more colorful aspects of Matthew (such as Caiaphas’s blood libel, or some of what the crowd was chanting when Barrabas was freed), I find myself agreeing with Frank Rich and Abraham Fox, this film is rank anti-Semitism. It might not inspire new hatred, but it will certainly reinforce that which has already been learned (it also doesn’t help that people already inclined to accept the literal truth of the Gospels, may also extend their beliefs to this film, which despite Gibson’s protestations to the contrary, is not all that historically or theologically accurate; for one thing, Gibson continues the conflation of the Mary Magdalene with the adulteress, not to mention the poetic license he takes by expanding the story of Judas, Pontius Pilate, and Claudia). Given all of Gibson’s recent statements, I wonder if he even realizes what he’s created, as he may have just internalized all of it. It certainly doesn’t help that his father is a Holocaust denier (and that Gibson himself has made questionable statements concerning his father’s views); that he is part of a Catholic splinter group that rejected Vatican II (you know, that thing that absolved the Jews of deicide); and that parts of his screenplay may or may not be based on the writings of two notoriously anti-Semitic mystics. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The film is what it is.