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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Thursday, January 27, 2005


Robert Altman's "Quintet" takes its name from a bizarre board game played by the characters in the film with an obsessiveness that rivals Vegas. The rules of the game are never quite made clear. It involves dice and little markers and a board shaped like a pentagon. At some point you "kill" your opponent by removing all of his markers. That's about as clear as the game gets, and it makes a fine analogue for the film as a whole. Altman's films often obscure or withhold crucial bits of information, but "Quintet" is so oblique at times that it hardly seems worth the trouble.

That's not to say there isn't any worth in the film, nor that any meaning cannot be drawn from it. Oddly enough, the reigning metaphor is pretty damn obvious. The film is set in the twilight of humanity, with snow and subzero temperatures everywhere as a new ice age encroaches upon the surviving city-dwellers. Those who are left huddle in their frigid enclaves and play their little game while doing their best to ignore the reality of the outside world. Ice age? Try Cold War, nuclear winter -- you see where this was meant to go. In fact, we can push this further (and in doing so, I'm going to be moving into SPOILER TERRITORY, so if you've not seen this yet and want to I'd suggest skipping to the next paragraph). At some point we realize that the game of Quintet is being ritualistically enacted in reality, with Paul Newman unwittingly involving himself in it. So what does Newman get when he wins the game? He escapes annihilation and gets to live another day. So that's it then: The game of Quintet is a war game. The last man (read: country) standing gets to call himself victor and hang around to fight more wars. The dead get scavenged to bits (quite literally, by dogs, in one of the film's most successful and uncomfortable recurring visual motifs). It's not bad as allegory, honestly.

However, it's not in the big picture but in bits and pieces that this film falls apart. Its major problem is also its biggest box-office asset. In both the character he's given to play and the performance he gives in playing it, Paul Newman goes a long way towards sinking this film all by himself. Strike One: The character, quite simply, is a sap. It takes him forever to catch on to the game, and even when he finally understands he still takes no action. Here is a man who has been warned about the supposed dangerousness of a Quintet player, and what does he do? He gets drunk and allows this player to take him back to his room. That his game doesn't end right there is a miracle; Newman's character is either the craftiest player in Quintet history or the luckiest, and the film doesn't do much to support the first possibility. Strike Two: The character, being oblivious, is thus given nothing to do. While the other involved parties are hustling and scheming and trying to figure out when their number will be up, Newman is in the dark. So he instead runs around trying to figure out what the hell he's gotten himself into, even though it should be obvious when the first corpse turns up. And it's not like a Kafka situation where the more he digs the less he knows -- the screenwriters just couldn't figure a way for him to be aware of the situation without making him smarter. This despite a central sequence about an hour in where he plays Quintet (the board game) and damn near has the rest of the film mapped out for him. Strike Three: Stuck with this unplayable character, Newman sheds his effortless charisma and retreats into himself, so his character seems pitched halfway between stoic and autistic. This is probably one of his worst performances, and between this and "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" I think we should all be glad that he and Altman never worked together after this.

Not that Newman is alone in the grim-faced acting sweepstakes. However, of the four principals he looks the most uncomfortable, so he must bear the brunt of the blame. Bibi Andersson and Vittorio Gassman don't fare significantly better, but at least they know how to compose themselves under such stone-faced circumstances -- Andersson worked with Ingmar Bergman several times and Gassman honed his chops during the Italian post-war cinema years, so it's not like either of them haven't been here before. Fernando Rey, as the official Quintet referee, is the lucky one; since he's not playing the game, he's apparently the only one who's allowed to look like he's enjoying himself. I don't know if Rey ever played Satan, but he damn well should have at least once. His character, all smiles and explanations, hides his sadism behind a mask of impartiality. He provides the sparks of life that are needed to keep the narrative from stopping dead in its tracks.

Not that the screenwriters didn't try. As I mentioned before, much of this film is comprised of people (mostly Newman) running around from one frigid place to another frigid place with little in the way of explanation, leaving us to fill in the blanks. What bits of the film don't involve running usually feature people playing a board game. Given these elements, most people would be hard-pressed to create something that could hold anyone's attention. And, given this film's reputation, it apparently didn't do the job for many people. I don't think it's as bad as all that, partially because it is quite accomplished from a technical perspective. Altman takes the cold-n-sterile sci-fi approach popularized by Kubrick's "2001" and literalizes it, blanketing everything in snow and ice. You can feel the chill radiating off the screen. He's successful in setting a world where you might just want to hide away and amuse yourself to death. His sound design, always the most important aspect of his films, is beautifully rendered here in a minimal style far apart from his usual information-overload overlap. The early scenes in the information center, for example, are so precisely realized in terms of sound that one almost wants to stand up and cheer. The cinematography is striking as well (note the scene where Newman takes a body to the river and lets it float away before the dogs can take it), and there's even a sort of autocritique of the film's flaccid plotting built into the camerawork: Most of the scenes are shot with either frost (Altman apparently kept the sets at freezing temperatures for added realism) or Vaseline around the edges of the lens, so that it creates a kind of iris -- visual information in the center is clear, but the further you go out from there the hazier it gets. The film's lack of sense occasionally leans towards effectiveness too because it is so baldly meant as allegory that the narrative disinvolvement works on a certain level, giving the audience time to detach and think about what they're seeing. So I respect the film. But that doesn't make it easier to watch. Pity poor "Quintet": It has ambition. It just can't quite figure out how to make that ambition work to its advantage.

Monday, January 24, 2005
The power and influence of family resonates through Head-On, a film that takes a fairly standard romantic scenario and turns it into something smart and compelling even when it is not hard to guess what happens next. Two particularly fine performances help guide the film through its near rom-com conventions. Birol Ünel plays Cahit Tomruk, a Turk living a bum-ish life of grumpy alcoholic depression in Hamburg, and after unenthusiastically attempting suicide he ends up in a clinic with Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a beautiful, sweet girl who immediately and fervently pleads for Cahit to marry her. Sibel explains that with the two married she can lead the free, sexually wild lifestyle she wants without being threatened by her conservative Turkish family, who place more emphasis on family honor than on actual family members. After understandably tossing off her suggestion as that of a delirious woman, Sibel has another messy suicide attempt and Cahil reluctantly agrees it marry her. It only seems a matter of time before this mourning, bearded misfit will fall in love with the beaming, cheery beauty who now shares his apartment, and indeed that is what does happen and much of Head-On plot-wise goes just as one would expect.

It is the ethnicity of Cahil and Sibel, which is always looming in the background of Head-On, that differentiates the film from the countless others which similarly rework co-ed odd-couple dramatics. Yet, in a paradox, writer and director Fatih Akin, himself a Turkish German, should be commended for not overtly making his film a drama of a unique, oppressed minority. Instead, the film delicately and intelligently uses the conventions of its plot to look at the fallacies and benefits of the couple’s removed traditional background. While Sibel tries as best she can to physically escape her family, Cahit, who seems to sympathize with his German side more than his Turkish roots, begins to find meaning in his platonic, familial relationship with Sibel. The evolving feelings between the two would seem pat if these opposing stances in the way to lead a meaningful, fulfilling life did not complicate them. By the end, Akin wisely sends both Sibel and Cahit back to Turkey for them both to grow as individuals, and relate obliquely but importantly to their heritage. The result is a film that effectively, sympathetically finds a way to incorporate the wisdom of tradition into a modern life without endorsing any kind of oppressive conservatism.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2

Go on. Read that title again. That's right, I saw it.

Now brace yourself: In a way, I'm glad I did. Not that it's any good (it's not, surprise). But it revealed something to me that I'd never quite grasped before: Jon Voight is a goddamn brilliant actor.

It could be theorized that the true test of a great actor is not how he handles his great roles but how he handles the less-than-ideal roles -- the ones that pay the rent and keep the kids fed while he conceivably waits for the great roles to show up at his doorstep. Based on his work here and in several other recent films (certainly we all remember his indescribable "Anaconda" turn), I'd say that Jon Voight is, like Lawrence Olivier and Marlon Brando before him, quite simply worth watching in even the most dismal film, simply because he throws himself so shamelessly into whatever he does. Here, for example, in one of his most ill-advised parts, he does all he can to spin this straw into... well, if not gold than at least pyrite. He affects a ludicrous German-martinet accent and a limp, spends much of the film strutting around like Lieutenant Schiesskopf on parade day and has an endless array of bizarre mutterings and non sequitors (ad-libbed, I'd bet) that prove weirdly amusing. It's as if he's trying to will the film out of suckhood all on his own. I'll admit that I laughed quite often at his near-surreal shenanigans. If only I could say that for the rest of the film.

Alas, Voight is the only amusing thing about this misbegotten sequel, whose sole virtue beyond The Almighty Jon is that it's completely crummy. This may sound like a strange thing to be praising, unless you recognize that it's a sequel to one of the most pathetic and horrifying films I've ever had the misfortune to witness, as well as the only film I've ever needed hard alcohol to see to completion. (I sincerely believe that the left-field financial success of "Baby Geniuses" is the one of the first signs of the Apocalypse.) But if this followup doesn't make a piece of your soul die in just thinking about it, that doesn't make it any less lousy. It may be hallucinogenically bad as opposed to satanic, but it's still a remarkable crapwagon. It's laden with bad special effects and awful plotting and deer-in-the-headlights acting and writing that apparently confuses "genius" with "smartass". There's of course the requisite dollop of scatological humor, though thankfully the phrase "diaper gravy" doesn't show up this time around; however, the script's gravest mistake is taking all this seriously and trying to impart life lessons. If it's not as embarassing as its predecessor, it's only because the cast this time is comprised of people who have long ago lost all capacity for embarassment. There's no earthly reason this film should exist... except for the madman Voight.

And it's here that I must take away that which I have given. Because I'm glad that Voight did what he could salvage this crazed idea and give it the tiny entertainment value it has, but it's his frickin' fault that it exists at all. He executive produced this, as he did the first. He and writer/producer Steven Paul have apparently set up some kind of evil plan to take over the world through bad kiddie entertainment, since they've churned out a fair number of bad youth-oriented flicks since 1999 according to the IMDb, including something called "The Karate Dog" which I think says everything. (Knowing this lends a certain irony to the plot of this film, which involves Voight trying to kill everyone's brain with subliminal messages in his lame kiddie shows.) And, as a special extra bonus, he's using this partnership to foist his goddaughter Skyler Shaye upon the world. The nicest thing I can say about her is that she's real purty. She kinda looks like Alicia Witt except shorter, blond and without that air of carnality. Talent-wise, though... well, she's no threat to upstage the triplets who play Kahuna here, if that tells you anything. So as much as I appreciate Jon for trying to help, he shouldn't have had to. Still, I'd almost tell you to watch this just to catch a whiff of Voight's untethered genius. Except then you'd have to suffer through all the surrounding material. And that would be rude of me to make you do that to yourself.