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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McBain Recommends
-Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
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-Kill Bill vol 2
Shroom Recommends
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Merlot Recommends
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-The Man on the Train
-Safe Conduct
-The Statement
Whitney Recommends
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-In America
-Looney Tunes: Back In Action
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Top 20 List
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Rodney Recommends
Top 20 List
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-Talk to Her
Jeff Recommends
-Dial M for Murder
-The Game
-Star Wars Saga
Lady Wakasa Recommends
-Dracula: Page from a Virgin's Diary
-Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler
-The Last Laugh
Steve Recommends
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-Princess Raccoon
-Princess Raccoon
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Jenny Recommends
-Mean Girls
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Jason Recommends
Top 20 List
-Old Boy
-Million Dollar Baby
-Head On
Lons Recommends
-Before Sunset
-The Incredibles

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Friday, July 16, 2004

Before Sunset

Celine tells a small story about how spending time in a gloomy Communist city gradually transformed her boredom into undemanding soulfulness, draining the must-buy, must-get-where-I’m-going mentality of Western life.  Jesse replies that he felt a similar simplicity of life when visiting a Trappist Monastery, but deep down he felt the monks were searching for spirituality in the same way everyday people search for their own kind of fulfillment.  These two mindsets beautifully describe the subtle tension in Before Sunset, Richard Linklater’s sequel to his 1995 film Before Sunrise, which tracked a one-night rendezvous in Vienna between two strangers, an American and a Frenchwoman.  At the time declarations on the romantic limitations of their one nightstand eventually gave way to promises of another rendezvous six months hence.  Picking up ten years later, Before Sunset reveals they never did meet up, and in real time (roughly 85 minutes) the film tracks the brief reunion the two have in Paris.

Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine’s (Julie Deply) time together is at once without time, sucked out of context and free floating through each character.  The two wander the city as Paris approaches sunset, touch on their missed meeting (Jesse showed up, Celine had to attend a funeral), briefly touch upon their memories of the night (Jesse wrote a book about it, Celine seems to misremember key moments) and then simply resume where they left off-amid a long, wandering conversation.  Atemporal, ahistorical, acultural, their time together is special because it is so about the interaction of their characters and not about anything else around them.  At the same time the dilemma proposed in Jesse’s tale of the monastery hovers elusively around their talks, for at the back of the minds of the characters as well as the audience who has seen Before Sunrise is the possibility, the hope that Celine and Jesse might move beyond just talking.

Linklater’s film is of barebones simplicity, following or preceding these two actors in long tracking shots or traveling shots on boats or cars that emphasizes their movement through space while freezing their moments in time.  Just as the previous film took place during an endless night and exploded into emotion at the rise of the sun, its sequel lays in the golden light of the magic hour until a similarly emotionally rocking fade to black, night, and possibility.  The time in between, the scant minutes that Jesse and Celine have to catch up, reconnect, and pick up where they left off flows like its own kind of philosophy, one embedded in the simple shots preceding the two down Parisian alleys or the textbook reverse-shot conversations in a café.  The dialog, written by Linklater, Hawke and Delpy, is alight and natural and nearly devoid of the anecdotal-ness of Before Sunrise, and their walk through the city is similarly drained of a vocal or visible populace.

In a way this film is a request for forgiveness for the first film.  Celine and Jesse, once in their twenties, have now matured far beyond their past selves in Before Sunrise, and, as Jesse says, have pushed their own problems deeper but learned how to cope.  Thus the cynicism and eagerness that Jesse’s character suffered ten years ago has changed into a pensive mood wrought with experience.  With wild success Hawk is able to subtly convey the feeling that his character has worked hard to achieve a level of self-understanding that would precede him trying to find Celine and seriously pickup where they left off-at promises of a longer and deeper relationship.  Delpy on the other hand appears just as beautiful but more frail, as if short bouts of melancholy have gradually worn her down over time.  Her smile is still able to do wonders Julia Roberts only dreams of, but a sadness has tainted her character in the past ten years and it is not hard to guess what sadness it is about.

Though their words flit from relationships in between to career choices and small details and thoughts on life completely incidental, their time together is all the time in the film and all the time in the world, and nothing else seems to exist, in form or in their conversation that doesn’t speak for themselves, their past, and their possibilities right at that moment.  Linklater has revised and refined the situation of his previous film, honed it to a liquid flow of film, a cinematic naturalness in action and word that effortlessly engulfs Delpy and Hawke’s characters in a magical isolated moment.  Ever so naturally the dilemma that pervades Jesse and Celine’s brief time together-whether to let themselves go in the moment or push towards definitive progressive in their relationship-is an experiment within the film itself.  Essentially non-narrative, even in its progression and evolution of the couple’s conversation, Before Sunset flirts both with the audience’s willingness to bask in the time with the characters and enjoy them simply for being together, and the desire to want more from them and the film itself.  Seductive and effortless, Linklater’s film, springing off the eager talents of Delpy and Hawke, waxes beautiful philosophy from simplicity incarnate, achieving a sublime atmosphere.


I'll Sleep When I'm Dead

Not to step on Allyn's nice review below, but my thoughts are a bit longer than a comment's post, so please tolerate a double review.
So slow burning it practically extinguishes itself, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead is the most mellow and low-key thriller ever made.  Coming far too late in the game to be labeled a revisionist genre piece, Mike Hodges’ new work follows the model of his previous film Croupier in its moody blandness.  Unlike that film-which helped put Clive Owen on the map for deadpan antihero and hopeful next James Bond-I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead effortlessly avoids criminal psychology, narrative slickness, or satisfying plot mechanics.  The film, in what must be a deliberate decision shared between the Hodges’ shadowy and plain aesthetic and writer Trevor Preston’s hyper no-nonsense script, seriously flirts with being nondescript.

Clive Owens returns to Hodges’ stable as blank-faced Will Graham, a man with a gangster’s reputation who has secluded himself in the English countryside.  His self-imposed exile is a lonely one of empty woods and living out of a van but the fatalism inherent in such tales keeps reminding him of his criminal past.  Amongst his loneliness and apparent penance for past life wasted, Will senses something amiss with his city-dwelling brother Davey (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers).  Returning to the city in the dead of night in order to explain his uncanny feeling, Graham discovers that Davey had recently committed suicide.  Horrified as much as mystified, Will feels this situation must bring him back into the urban underworld to explain his brother’s death.

The setup reeks of revenge, and the film’s title promises the kind of narrow-minded violent plow-through of the lower depths of urban scum epitomized in John Booreman’s Point Blank, Steven Soderbergh’s fairly recent The Limey, and quintessentially in Hodges’ own masterpiece Get Carter.  But if I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead’s visual style does nothing to reinvent the thriller, it is Hodges and Preston’s narrative approach to the story that essentially turns the film into a deliberate anti-thriller.  Completely devoid of style, Owen walks around in a lumberjack’s beard and plaid shirt, his potentially violent frame shrouded by a bulky parka; the man looks more like a bum than a ruthless mobster, and a number of local cronies actually mistake him for a pikey.  The camera generally keeps its distance as well and Graham is not just a monotone single-minded protagonist, he and most of the people he deals with throughout his quest are equally devoid of deep characterization.
Most of the talking in the entire film is done in three highly psychological but narratively unnecessary speeches.  In the first Graham’s restaurateur ex-girlfriend Helen (Charlotte Rampling) speaks of the reasons why their relationship cannot be picked up again, but Will dismisses this as a motive for his return and asks her to help find the reason behind Davey’s death.  He follows the trail from a coroner who discovers that Davey was raped before he died to a rape psychologist who gives a lengthy discourse on how rape is more about power than sex-but Will simply wants a profile for the man he is looking for.  When Will Graham finally finds the man, a wealthy socialite played by Malcolm McDowell, the character delivers an involving monologue on his motive, one which Will could not care a lick about.  He executes the man and is done with it.  There is no tension in the film, no suspense about who this man really is or the method behind his madness, and likewise Hodges and Preston minimalize Graham as a sympathetic character whose vengeance the audience should be supporting.

Though ridiculous motive delivered by McDowell superficially means nothing to Will, from the speech blossoms the only dominant theme within I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, that of the fatalism in the subtle class distinctions within the urban world.  Preston’s screenplay presents only two kinds of gangsters-those on top and those who do their bidding-but the bourgeoisie aspirations of a lower class working kid like Davey catapults him to a social level not shared by those around him.  Dealing drugs to and hanging around in the social circles of young bourgeois men and women puts Davey near a group of people who share with the mob bosses a mutual hatred for the working class and their aspirations.

Outside all this is Graham, whose past is a mystery and whose urban status is confused between Helen’s refined older age and restaurant ownership and Will’s ties to his brother and the petty thugs in that strata.  Will’s decision to divorce himself from that urban/criminal/classist sphere and retreat to a rugged nature life is the decision of one unable to reconcile the subtle machinations and degradations involved in navigating a society of crime and life, finding a place between the working class and the bourgeoisie, and likewise above the street thugs and the classy mob bosses.  Will’s decision to fall back into the orbit of the urban world-a decision which eventually results in a stylistic make over, putting him back in the role of suave underworld playboy hovering between the streets and the mansions-is as much about the loneliness of not finding one’s place in the world as it is about brotherhood and vengeance.  But life for a gangster is one of fate, and Will’s attempt at wholesome seclusion in the country translates to a lifeless, friendless life in the city. He dismisses the help of his own mates, takes his task on alone, and in doing so attempts again to find the impossible-a place between social worlds, a quest that time and time again ends in death.

The subtly of Hodges’ film is extreme; it could almost be defined as an elliptical noir.  On screen it seems to lack presence, to lack a punch, but its memory stays in the mind and claws away in places only true noirs lurk.  One may even superimpose its social concerns onto the stylistic choices of the film itself-Simon Fischer-Turner’s disruptive dissonant play with a jazz score being a prime example-dismissing obviousness, slickness, and style in order to pare down the now-standard opulence of a gritty genre.  At first glance I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead practically invites dismissal, but its simple, well-plod lines are etched deeper than one imagines, and the work, on repeated viewings, may in fact be stronger than Croupier and be a true successor to Get Carter.

Monday, July 12, 2004

The Stepford Wives, '04 Version, or: Notes on a Scandal

I'm gonna keep this short, since Shroom already said much of what I feel about this film (except less so). First, let me start with a story: I did not plan to see this film (at least, not until it went to video). But on July 4th, my family decided to go to the movies. I ws game to go; however, having consumed a large dinner (topped off with roughly half a bottle of decent red wine), I didn't particularly care what we saw. So we're in front of the box office and we don't know what we're here to see. Ideas were swapped, opinions were offered ("Spider-Man 2", to my chagrin, was ruled out early), and we eventually arrived at "The Notebook". Until one member of our party chirped, "Well, why don't we just wait another ten minutes and see 'The Stepford Wives'?"

Cut to two hours later, where I am actually muttering the words "We should have just fuckin' seen 'The Notebook'." This is a sentence I never ever in a million years thought I would find myself uttering. So you can probably understand the depth of my dislike for "The Stepford Wives". If not, allow me to explain:

I fuckin' hated it. Hated it beyond all reason. Despised the existence of an industry -- nay, a world -- where a misbegotten piece of crud like this could overcome the hundreds of obstacles present in the creation of a feature film and even survive dismal test screenings to pollute our multiplexes. I hate this film so much that I can barely collate my thoughts on it. So here, for your amusement, is a series of undigested, self-indulgent gripes, bitches and other such comments.

*Two minutes in and I already feel like I'm in for a cinematic Cleveland steamer: Nicole Kidman opens the film by reading off a TelePrompter in such a overdone, artificial manner that I was begging for Mike White to shoot her.

*Toothless parodies of reality television. Oh great. You know, I can get "Mad TV" for free, thanks anyways Mr. Rudnick.

*Oh yeah... and Mike White? He can go jump in a lake. Aside from "School of Rock" (his most atypical project), I've never liked anything he's been involved with. Bad Sign #3.

*Paul Rudnick was a pretty funny guy until he started working with Bette Midler.

*And what the hell happened to Frank Oz? He was once really good at this kind of camp-grotesque pastiche. (Remember Steve Martin and Bill Murray in "Little Shop of Horrors"? That was awesome.)

*One small detail I liked: All the Stepford husbands drive midlife-crisis dream cars. I think the main reason I enjoyed this was that it was throwaway business and the film didn't grind it into the dirt.

*Imagine how people would have reacted to the character of Roger Bannister if Mel Gibson had written this movie.

*Glenn Close is such an intense actress that it's nigh well unbearable when she tries to go over-the-top. She's more irritating here than she was in "Cookie's Fortune".

*I'm not going to go over the massive plot hole (everyone else has covered that ground), but when I pony up my hard-earned cash I expect to see a film that at least understands its own fucking premise.

*"Harvey Birdman, Attorney-at-Law" is playing on a TV in the background during one scene. That's the closest this film gets to big laughs.

*Nicole Kidman is REALLY awful in this movie. I can't recall the last big-budget Hollywood extravaganza that was saddled with such a terrible lead performance. And from a woman whom I thought I would enjoy in anything, too.

*Full confession: I laughed out loud at the line about nobody noticing robots in Connecticut. But then, it's probably because I live here and know how true that is.

*I've never seen anyone botch the mock-50s-educational-film before. That's a surefire laugh-getter. Here, it's possibly the least funny thing on display. Have I mentioned that I hate this film?

*Please, please, please don't let Christopher Walken turn into Marlon Brando, walking through films relying on his famed mannerisms in order to cash an easy paycheck.

*Thought running through my head twenty minutes on: I wonder if I can sneak into "White Chicks"...

*The trailer for "The Spongebob Squarepants Movie" is possibly the funniest thing I'll see all summer. I love it.

*What of the film's take on feminism and women with ambition, anyway? The film can't really be telling us that Joanna deserves her humiliation and near-murder because she made the mistake of being incredibly successful... can it? (And before someone brings up the ludicrously exploitative shows she makes as a justification, shouldn't that also mean that the creators of "Temptation Island" and "Fear Factor" deserve to be shot? Wait. Don't answer that.)

*There comes a point in some films where you get the feeling that nobody gave a shit about the end result, that the production was too big a pain in the ass for anyone to be bothered with putting in a full effort. This may be one of the few films that is constructed entirely out of moments like that.

*Let's at least try to hide the reshooting scars, shall we?

*Matthew Broderick is possibly the most colorless actor of my generation.

*And on a final note: Credits roll, finally, at 12:05 AM. That's right, I stayed up past midnight to endure this travesty. If that isn't a testament to my stupidity...

Sunday, July 11, 2004

Short Takes

Coffee and Cigarettes (d. Jim Jarmusch, 2004) - As usual, I’m a little late to the party so if you are interested in a more detailed look at the film, check out Phyrephox’s earlier review. I enjoyed the film overall, though the individual vignettes vary in quality. I did notice that the best vignettes in the film concern a comic power imbalance/struggle between the characters: the passive-agressive Tom Waits’s hostility towards a star struck Iggy Pop; Cate Blanchett in an uncomfortable conversation with her identical, less successful cousin; the back and forth machinations of Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan (easily the best of the lot); and even (despite the stilted acting) Meg White showing up a once arrogant Jack White over his malfunctioning Tesla coil. Those four vignettes, along with the absurdist meeting between RZA, GZA, and Bill Murray, as well as the poetic final film featuring the janitors, made the film. The other shorts were hit or miss, in particular the one featuring Steve Buscemi and Spike Lee’s siblings.

Strayed (d. André Téchiné, 2003) - What I liked most about this film was the way it confounded my expectations. OK, OK, there was that and Emmanuelle Béart, who plays a thirtyish war-widow, a Parisian schoolteacher fleeing the advancing German army with her two children, a 13-year old boy and 7-year old girl, in the Spring of 1940 . When their refugee convoy is strafed by German planes, the family is saved by Gaspard Ulliel’s Yvan, a 17-year old boy, who of course, has a secret past. Together, they find a deserted country house, and hide out from the war, creating a fragile family in the process. Yvan early on declares his love for Odile, Béart’s character, but it is not until two retreating French soldiers happen upon the country house does she give into her passion. In particular, the treatment of the soldiers is very interesting; it disrupts the rural idyll, but they turn out not to be a threat, despite Yvan’s paranoia. One of them gets drunk and passes out, while the other desires to just get cleaned up and have a conversation with an adult (about his kids of all things). No sooner do they leave, and Yvan and Odile consummate their relationship, does the real threat show up. The gendarmes are back (with their new Wehrmacht pals, whose only actual appearance is on a brand new propaganda poster), which leads to the film’s quietly tragic conclusion.

The Office - I’ve heard many great things about this BBC comedy series. Guess what, they are all true. The Office is a brilliant, two season, 12-episode satire of the modern workplace, captured in the form of a mock cinema verite documentary (well, it’s not cinema verite since it involves actual interviews), replete with a Frederick Wiseman-like institutional title. While co-writer/director Ricky Gervais’s depiction of the boorish Regional Manager David Brent, a self-styled “entertainer” who would rather be a popular boss than an effective one, gets most of the media attention, the most hilarious aspect of the series were Tim’s (Martin Freeman’s) frequently shocked and amused reaction shots to all the shenanigans occurring around him (I loved it when he looked right into the camera lens with an expression like “are you getting this?”). Season one focuses on the absurd situations that can occur in a workplace environment, while Season 2 virtually defines “comedy of embarrassment”, as the self-deluded Brent becomes more and more pathetic, concluding with a very, very sad, almost tragic, plea from a broken man. The Office is full of details and rich characterization which made the characters, even the minor ones come alive (I loved how the relationship between Dawn and Tim ended). I just can’t imagine the American remake, assuming it actually gets on the air.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (d. Adam Mckay, 2004) - There is a new comedy troupe hitting the American screen and I seem to go to all of their movies. Of course, when this troupe includes Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and the Wilson brothers, it’s easy to pony up the dough to go to the theater for a matinee. Anchorman shares all the characteristics of this troupe’s films: a loose gag-a-minute plotting based on sketch comedy; a film populated by lovable losers; a sense of humor that is rarely “smart” but which is often downright absurd, if not out and out surreal, and frequently hilarious (i.e. the throwdown between the news teams that devolves into gladiatorial combat, the jazz flute solo). Not exactly a must see, but a good way to pass the time.

Springtime in a Small Town (d. Tian Zhuangzhuang, 2002) - OK, after seeing this film, and reading Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of the remake, I’m dying to see Fei Mu’s 1948 original. For now, I’m content with Tian Zhuangzhuang’s new version, a welcome return to directing from one of my favorite Chinese directors (Tian was banned from directing by the authorities for a decade after the release of his last film, The Blue Kite). Tian’s command of the nuanced mise-en-scene shows that he has not lost a step. Though a written description makes the film seem like a simple melodrama, Springtime in a Small Town is a quiet and affecting, five character chamber piece about lost love, repressed emotions, and bittersweet compromise. Working with ace cinematographer Mark Lee Pin-bing (the film has a visual quality similar to that of Hou Hsaio-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai, though the print I saw of Springtime in a Small Town was fairly battered, so it is hard to compare directly), Tian uses the camera to masterfully elucidate character relationships and the subtle shifts caused by the events of the story. The scenes surrounding Dai Xiu’s sixteenth birthday party stand out in particular, when Linyan realizes the extent of the relationship between his best friend Zhichen and his wife Yuwen, with the information parsed out by the way Tian frames and reframes the characters as they sit around the dinner table.