Films Seen - November 2001

[Pre-'96 films not included.]

AMORES PERROS (63) (dir., Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) Emilio Echevarria, Gael Garcia, Goya Toledo [Tarantino-wannabe criticisms kind of miss the point : obviously Inarritu knows the opening scene of his movie is a lot like the opening scene of RESERVOIR DOGS - which is precisely why it's a good joke when we get a real live dog in the Mr. Orange role. He's using, not just slavishly imitating, moving confidently across milieus, the combination of moment-to-moment urgency - lots of handheld roving and roaming - and panoramic detachment calling to mind an earthier, more belligerent P.T. Anderson rather than QT (who still hasn't ventured anywhere near the chattering-class neurosis of the second - and perhaps finest - story). Lots of extrovert, Life-is-a-carnival energy, though also a touch of poetry in the way dogs act as Chorus, passive repositories of our sins and frustrations - animal aggression in the first story (literally set in a dog-eat-dog world), inability to communicate in the second, a mirror to misanthropy in the third, the old man suddenly seeing himself in the savage Rottweiler (a killer who's unable to live with his own kind) ; suspicion of hollowness nonetheless, partly because it gives the impression of straining to say more than (say) PULP FICTION, yet is just as amorphous - and did it really have to be so long? Attention wanders but it's good, nervy stuff, with a vivid sense of people living on top of each other - in the bustling streets, in their cramped apartments ; above all, of course, in the narrative itself.]

LEGALLY BLONDE (44) (dir., Robert Luketic) Reese Witherspoon, Luke Wilson, Selma Blair, Matthew Davis, Victor Garber [Ms. Witherspoon - Reese, goddammit - is adorable : some of us have known this since THE MAN IN THE MOON a decade ago (wonderful actress, but it's also something about the way her big eyes and toothy smile offset those angular cheekbones and sharp little chin). The film is problematic, however, going the CLUELESS route of trying to have its cake and eat it too - trotting out the Valley Girl locutions (a distaff version of male stoner-dudes) while also protecting its heroine at every turn - though even CLUELESS didn't push the 'smart blonde' conceit so relentlessly : it's one thing for Bill and Ted (say) to triumph through a series of happy accidents, but there's something pernicious about this bubbly heroine - loves to shop, watches "Days Of Our Lives" religiously, jumps up and down squealing "Omigod" - acing Harvard while blithely holding on to her persona. It's a kind of pandering, reassuring her counterparts in the audience that 'smart' is a meaningless term - that Harvard is just like high-school (dorks still can't get a date), "serious" people are just feeble swots, working with orphans in Somalia is about on a par with winning the Miss Hawaiian Tropics Contest or dissuading Cameron Diaz from buying "a truly heinous angora sweater" ; it's like the tabloids asking Geri Halliwell what she thinks about the war in Afghanistan because hey, her opinion is as valid as any so-called expert's (it's not, you know). Buys into the twin shibboleths of 'self-esteem' and Girl Power, which is why every woman character turns out to be a friend - except of course the rabid feminist (who's just bitter and absurd), making the point that the film's sorority-sisterhood is just as much a closed world as the snooty elitism it's meant to be opposing (only its status symbols are Clinique and "Cosmo" instead of texts and tenure). Reese rocks, her character less so ; law school is about "sharply questioning what you know", says a professor - but she never does, really...]

CATS & DOGS (46) (dir., Lawrence Guterman) Jeff Goldblum, Elizabeth Perkins, with the voices of Tobey Maguire, Alec Baldwin, Sean Hayes, Susan Sarandon [Basically a cartoon (even the kid looks CGI), shrill but pleasantly demented in patches, esp. when Goldblum's doing the absent-minded scientist Dad as alien-from-another-planet (he seems to speak entirely in a stream of befuddled "oh!"s and "ah!"s). Also smiled at a couple of the anthropomorphic parallels (CNN for "Canine News Network", strays being referred to as "domestically challenged", stuff like that), though it's not a million miles from those kitschy prints of dogs playing poker, when you think about it. Runs the gamut from fart jokes to "Pinky and The Brain" villain, with the occasional bull's-eye : "Cut the red wire!" comes the inevitable cry when the dogs are trying to defuse a time-bomb (don't ask). "We're dogs!" yelps the chief mutt, helplessly watching the seconds counting down to zero ; "We're colour-blind!"...]

CRAZY / BEAUTIFUL (53) (dir., John Stockwell) Kirsten Dunst, Jay Hernandez, Bruce Davison, Lucinda Jenney [Silly / Memorable. Honest / Meretricious. Starts well / Finishes badly. SAVE THE LAST DANCE (though stiffer and gawkier) still the one to beat in this year's cross-racial teen romance stakes, but I thought I'd found a genuine sleeper for a while - not least because the lovebirds straddle class as well as race, making for some seldom-seen layers : in a nutshell, both need each other too much for their own good - she because his working-class earnestness can untangle her screwed-up life, he because her Congressman daddy is his ticket out of the ghetto (he's virtually a kept man, as helpless in her grasp as when she playfully buries him in sand up to his neck in the lovers-together montage). Mucho potential for using and abusing on both sides, but the film can't or won't see the tensions already in the relationship, goes for external pressures - Dad warning loverboy away from his daughter - and ratchets up the wild-child heroine into a disturbed, suicidal creature bearing no relation to Dunst's expressive, exuberant performance ; second half spirals into melodrama, leaving lots of time to scribble disparaging notes about intrusive soundtrack (everything from David Gray to Latino rap) and over-emphatic characterisations. Unexpected detail early on, however, plus a privileged milieu rarely glimpsed in this genre (characters in teenpics being invariably Everyteens) ; and an actress called Taryn Manning as the heroine's best friend - mischievous and gutsy, like a warmer Helen Hunt - is, I suspect, going places.]

AMERICA'S SWEETHEARTS (31) (dir., Joe Roth) Julia Roberts, John Cusack, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Billy Crystal, Hank Azaria, Stanley Tucci, Seth Green, Christopher Walken [Publicists spin a web of hype to conceal the unfortunate fact that they haven't got a movie ; talk about self-referential irony. Great cast, jaunty score, snappy pace, but it gives the impression of having been written in a rush in between bouts of schmoozing - everyone's happy and relaxed (except Roberts, whose range doesn't stretch that far), but they're trading the most obvious showbiz-insincerity gags ("I hate Larry" followed 10 seconds later by "I love Larry") and doing whiskery burlesques involving Doberman Pinschers and Indian swamis with funny accents ; it's almost embarrassing how primitive the humour is - does anyone think it's funny anymore when we cut from a publicist saying "She's really excited" to 'She' yelling "Not in a million years!"? Interesting as a case of Hollywood insiders dispensing Hollywood wisdom on the State of the Industry - entertainment reporters with shows called "Bob and Ken at the Multiplex", young execs who've never heard of BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S - but I only smiled once in the whole shoddy 103 minutes (Azaria's pronunciation of "junket"). Corny in a bad way, like writer-producer Crystal hasn't freshened up his jokes in 20 years ; Walken's eccentric-director character would seem to be a take-off on Hal Ashby, which says it all really...]

MOULIN ROUGE (52) (dir., Baz Luhrmann) Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Jim Broadbent, Richard Roxburgh [Impressive and original, but I guess Mr. Luhrmann and I will never be in sync ; maybe I'm a stick-in-the-mud, or maybe it's that I actually have feelings for the cultural (and pop-cultural) artefacts he samples and scrambles so blithely - hearing "One Day I'll Fly Away" (or even "The Sound of Music") tossed into the mix just makes me want to go back to the originals, just like ROMEO + JULIET made me yearn to revisit my long-unopened Shakespeare, away from the surrounding noise and static (I'm much happier with the opposite extreme - pop music given more weight than it deserves, e.g. Lukas Moodysson elevating a cheesy Nazareth number to a totem of Togetherness). Lots of glitter here, show-must-go-on manic energy, couple of in-jokes (Kidman's character longs to prove she's "a real actress" ; the Duke's manservant is called Warner, and pursues the hero at the climax just like David Warner in TITANIC), bead curtains, gold chandeliers, a rain of shining tinsel, Kylie Minogue as the Green Fairy. Comic numbers work like a charm, Broadbent does (and outdoes) Joel Grey in CABARET - but songs with "love" in the title aren't actually the same as Love itself, and it doesn't really make any difference that we know the film knows this (and Luhrmann knows we know). Lots of things I meant to say, but I find - to my surprise - I've forgotten almost everything about it. Dazzling craft, very little magic : for this particular movie, that's a fatal flaw.]

Thessaloniki International Film Festival (November 9 - 18)

THE CENTER OF THE WORLD (42) (dir., Wayne Wang) Molly Parker, Peter Sarsgaard, Carla Gugino [What's wrong with this picture? Not the cruddy look, necessarily - pretty appalling, even for DV, but the whole stripped-down, warts-and-all philosophy makes a certain sense in a film that's explicitly about the quest for "real" emotions (plus it's fun watching faces dissolve into pixels in ECU). Not the unconvincing way everyone behaves, necessarily - even when the heroine's friend totters in all bruised and battered by her abusive beau, then five minutes later is coming on to our hero and making out with said heroine on the couch - given how the film's pushing a deliberately jaded worldview where feelings have been colonised and eroded by all-pervasive capitalism (money being the true Centre Of The World). It's the half-baked quality that's the problem, neither one thing nor the other, too sensation-seeking for a truly hard, hermetic movie (say what you like about CRASH, it had integrity) yet also too enamoured of its easy cynicism to 'go soft', even when the characters demand it - hence the pointless structure wherein love gradually blossoms only to be suddenly rejected (for no better reason than because it's a shitty world baby, love bought and sold, post-millennial malaise etc.). Wang's blueprint seems to have been an anti-LEAVING LAS VEGAS : sex in the shadow of casinos, only Woman self-destructive this time, Man the enabler, mercantile relationship growing tender only to resolve chilly / earthbound / 'realistic' (cf. febrile / transcendent / 'tragic'). Looks like he got what he wanted. Now what?...]

AMERICAN PIE 2 (56) (dir., J.B. Rogers) Jason Biggs, Eugene Levy, Seann William Scott, Alyson Hannigan, Shannon Elizabeth [Pardon the geekiness, but this is important : very little of this film is actually a 56 - mostly it's filler, barely a 50, except for a half-hour or so in the middle (roughly from the arrival at the lakehouse to the superglue incident, very much including the extended but-are-they-lesbians? scene) when it somehow gets its mojo working and turns shamefully hilarious, soaring into 60+. Doing a deliberate carbon-copy of the original was certainly unpretentious but not a great idea, seeing as the original was a crude teenpic leavened with pleasant surprises (Levy's droll Dad, our heroes' inadequacies vis-a-vis the much smarter girls) and you can't have the same surprises twice ; only the actors seem to have gained in confidence (you get the feeling they never really took the original assignment very seriously), Biggs fine-tuning his soulful loser, Scott turning Stiffler into a jerkish force-of-Nature, so brimful of obnoxiousness he can barely keep it in, even when supposed to be laying on the charm ("Christy, right, beautiful name ... (sotto voce) Like it matters!"). Wild-party climax is a flop, sentimental interludes downright painful (nadir : Levy saying "Keep it real, homies") - but is it worth pointing out that this gleefully blunt instrument does occasionally make a valid point about sexual hangups? Probably not ; worth a rental for that middle half-hour, though. Anyone else think Alyson Hannigan might be the result if Meg Ryan played the young Phoebe in "Friends : The Early Years"?...]

ANGEL EYES (43) (dir., Luis Mandoki) Jennifer Lopez, Jim Caviezel, Sonia Braga, Terrence Howard [He takes in stray dogs, says hello to people in the street, looks at the world through a shy, simple smile (when he plays the trumpet, what he plays is "Nature Boy") ; she's bad with people, alienated from her family, tells him to hang up the phone so she can ask for a date via his machine. She draws him out, he soothes her anger ; they picnic by a lake with Alanis-style AOR droning in the background ; they learn that "It doesn't have to be perfect" and you have to start from scratch sometimes, leave the past behind. He makes an impassioned speech by his dead wife's graveside, telling her he loved her ; she makes an impassioned speech to her estranged father, telling him she loves him. Stars are good - J. Lo much better actress than she is a singer - characters insufferable. "I think cops are pretty great," he says. What a nice thing to say...]

BATTLE ROYALE (69) (second viewing: 74) (dir., Kenji Fukasaku) Tatsuya Fujiwara, Aki Maeda, Taro Yamamoto, 'Beat' Takeshi [Accidental caveat : I mistakenly thought the opening scene of this movie was an audacious flash-forward divulging the outcome of the central game, and spent much of it 'seeing' layers of meaning that weren't really there (still think it would've worked better with the serial-killer girl as the predetermined winner). More substantive caveats : premise is implausible (how come the kids have never heard of these games?) and the resolution disappointingly arbitrary, making you wish Hollywood would get hold of this material and firm it up a bit - even while you know they never will (and never would have, even pre-Columbine), which is actually a large part of its power. Definitely something transgressive to this ROLLERBALL scenario played out with minors, borrowing the HEATHERS trick of high-school idiom - cliques, secret crushes, whispering in class - given a morbid twist ("No whispering!" snaps Takeshi, felling the culprit with a knife between the eyes), but also going beyond cheap irony, giving Death its due. Doesn't just twist youthful innocence for the existential buzz (no academic point being made, a la "Lord of the Flies") but creates a poignant sense of people wrestling with the primal dilemma - kill or be killed - for the first time, their response crystallising their latent moral characters (ranging from pacifist to psycho, with a hugely inventive range in between - not just Golding's line in the sand between savagery and civilisation). Works as a fertile B-movie, action sharpened with black humour, works as sly variation on "Ten Little Indians" - also works as more than that, esp. when you know who made it. Is this 71-year-old Fukasaku's elegy to his own generation, faced with WW2 (and having to define themselves by their response) while still in their teens, or is it his mordant joke at the expense of today's disaffected young Japanese, self-destructing at the behest of a controlling, authoritarian society? The shot near the end, a map of the island where the carnage takes place - a world of death, spilling over with cartoon corpses - makes a fitting illustration for both ; and a chilling one.] [Second viewing, March 2012: All the above is true but I didn't quite appreciate how emotive it is, rhyming the bursts of violence with the teens' hidden desires and hormonal urges. This time round it also seemed to be about Death in general - "You can't stop what's coming" to quote the Coen Brothers - and how precious it makes our few moments of kindness; the epilogue, and Shuya's line "We've got no choice but to keep moving forward", really got to me (maybe it's just that I'm 10 years older). Also psychologically solid (everyone reacts differently to the situation, ranging from embrace to denial), also works as action flick, gripping, inventive and incredibly intense - especially when viewed right after THE HUNGER GAMES...]

SEXY BEAST (67) (dir., Jonathan Glazer) Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley, Ian McShane, Amanda Redman [Easy to get stuck on the homoerotic subtext here - and it's obviously there, right from the title plastered over a freeze-frame of Mr. Winstone's crotch. He's the sexy beast (a.k.a. "Gal"), implicitly lusted after by the gangsters he's left behind, esp. Kingsley as the (literally) hard man who's like a case-study in sexual panic - oozing paranoia ("What's he looking at me for?" he snarls when a goat blocks their path - which is doubly funny since his, um, goatee and sizeable ears give him the look of a demonic billy-goat), making up an elaborate story of being "sexually assaulted" (the most shocking thing he can think of) when improvising his way out of a tight spot, taking a pee without touching his penis ; even when he loves a woman, it's primarily for her less-than-feminine attributes (alternate title : "Donny Got Fingered"). The film contrasts his tormented antsiness vs. Winstone's placid well-being, a man at peace with his own repressions, gruffly paternal with the perpetually shirtless teenage pool-boy (not to mention having a perpetually shirtless teenage pool-boy hanging around in the first place), making for a good joke spicily told - shock-cuts, a hint of PERFORMANCE and a playwright's love of words ("Pinteresque" is the obvious adjective, and indeed the plot riffs directly on "The Birthday Party"). Totally flashy, totally implausible - gangster recruited just two days before a major job? yeah, right - totally fun ; jewel in the crown of the post-LOCK STOCK British crime wave.]