Saturday, August 23, 2008

Anton Chigurh Got a Haircut

I haven't really kept up with Woody Allen's recent output. Out of the last ten (twelve? fifteen?) years or so, I've seen maybe three of his movies. Match Point: check (loved it). Scoop: check (hated it). Cassandra's Dream: still haven't gotten around to it. And now? Vicky Cristina Barcelona: check. I don't think I can really place this movie in the context of any "recent Woody Allen" trend without feeling like a hypocrite, so I won't. But judging from my meager personal experience, along with everything I've heard about the last decade of his work, Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a bit surprising. I went to see it with no reviews under my belt (I've made it clear elsewhere how I feel about reading reviews before seeing a movie), and to be honest I was almost going in with a chip on my shoulder, ready to hate it. Woody Allen is certainly past his prime, over the hill and so on, right? Shows what I know. While I wouldn't go so far as to add it to the Woody Allen "masterpiece" canon (along with Annie Hall, &c.), this isn't one to be dismissed as a minor work either, despite how it may initially appear.

The setup is pretty standard: two friends go to Barcelona for the summer. One's an uptight grad student (Rebecca Hall), the other's a free spirited not-quite-artist type (Scarlett Johansson). They meet dashing local painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). These are the ingredients for a good ol' fashioned love triangle, and things unfold just the way you'd expect. The lustful Cristina gets sick on the trio's first night together, and Vicky is "forced" to spend a glorious weekend alone with Juan Antonio. Despite her engagement to a safe, boring, businessman back home, she loses her shit due to wine and acoustic guitar (who wouldn't?), and ends up having sex with him. She regrets it and goes back to her research, cutting herself off from further hijinks. Cristina and Juan Antonio end up together as planned. All of this happens in an enjoyable, if predictable, manner. It's nothing you wouldn't expect from any European-inspired piece of sexual dramedy, in other words. Then, just about when you start to wonder if maybe you didn't imagine seeing her name in the credits, Penelope Cruz makes her entrance. And she is crazy.

Also: crazy awesome. More than a few reviews have already bandied about Oscar talk, and it isn't hard to see why. She goes all out as Juan Antonio's fucked up ex-wife Maria Elena, and basically steals the show. It's also amazing that, in a movie that had so far featured three of the most beautiful people on Earth, she blows them all right out of the goddam water, apparently without a shred of effort. She has this strange, alluring, manic-depressive, something that just fits perfectly. She goes from bouncing off the walls, spitting Spanish curses, and threatening physical harm, to being a perfect specimen of tender, understanding affection. And back again! There are points where it's obvious that the other actors are just as surprised as the audience at the fury of her outbursts, which is always entertaining. I actually started to feel sorry for Javier Bardem--I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that he was covered with real-life bruises after some of those on-screen assaults. Does she steal the show too much? Possibly. Perhaps after a second viewing I can judge more objectively, since I'll be a little more prepared for the onslaught.

In any case, Cruz's character fucks up the comfortable stability of Cristina and Juan Antonio's relationship in the way you'd expect. At first. Then things go in strange, wonderful new directions. And then Vicky comes back in the picture! It's a bit of a clusterfuck, and over the course of the film the love triangle transforms into multiple triangles, then a rectangle, back into a triangle, and finally into some sort of incomprehensible love dodecahedron. It's funny, it's emotional... in short, it works. I'm always pleased when a film presents a love triangle that doesn't neatly solve itself somehow (e.g. killing and/or vilifying one of the members). Allen doesn't give us any cop-outs, and I respect that.

A couple of things stood out for me after this first viewing. For one, Woody Allen himself isn't in it (this is a good thing). Yet through most of the movie, you can undoubtedly feel him speaking through the mouths of his characters. I don't know if it's just a matter of his "voice" being so strong in his writing or what... but the end result for me was that I couldn't help but imagine a bonus audio track on the DVD where Woody Allen dubs himself over every actor. I honestly don't know if I'd be able to tell the difference. At certain points it seemed like each character was little more than a physical manifestation of a different part of Allen's psyche, and I was just sitting in the theater watching him argue with himself. This isn't a deal-breaker or anything... one certainly expects plenty of Woody Allen dialogue in a Woody Allen movie. But it was a little distracting.

Another thing: it takes a little while for the characters to break away from their little stereotypes and become anything close to "real" people. Lusty artist, uptight grad student, European sexpot... these are all obvious character molds to inhabit this kind of story. Allen clearly realizes this, and he spends plenty of time delivering exactly the foibles we expect (want?) to see in these types of characters. Whether it's Cristina's bad poetry or Vicky's constant overthinking, we're not exactly surprised by any of these people until the film starts to wind down. But in the end they do end up becoming something more, despite our expectations. Shit, even Vicky's polo-wearing, golf-playing, clueless husband-to-be ends up as a sympathetic three-dimensional human being. So why the wait? Was this kind of delayed characterization intentional? Again, I think maybe a second viewing will help shed some light.

One last thing stood out: the voice over narration. It's interesting... the voice doesn't belong to anyone in the film, nor even to Allen himself (except in spirit, of course). Honestly, I can't decide how I feel about it one way or another (yet). The knee-jerk critical reaction to voice over is negative, of course. Bad writing! Unnecessary! And so on. But Woody Allen knows what he's doing, right? I can't help but think that he was using the narration to some end other than simple narrative clarity. And it didn't even seem that vital. I imagine it would be fairly easy to edit it out entirely and not lose much. So what's the deal? Just another item to pay closer attention to during round two, I suppose...

Oh and finally: if any of the above didn't interest you in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, perhaps this will: Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson make out in it. Assuming the clip hasn't already made it to youtube, it certainly will soon. So we can all look forward to millions of teenage boys thanking Woody Allen as they nervously lock their bedroom doors. Hooray!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Neither Fast Nor Furious

I feel as if I should apologize for my lack of posts lately, especially considering I've just been welcomed into the LAMB. But here's the thing: Netflix has been sending me disc after disc of Mr. Show and The Office, which has caused my cinematic intake to dip pretty drastically. You may remember I mentioned something earlier about summer being a time of media binges? Well summer rages on. Mr. Show is of course an old favorite I haven't watched in a while, and The Office is something I've only recently begun to enjoy. (It fucking rules, by the way. Can't wait to check out the British version.) Anyway, I finally pried my eyeballs away from television long enough to watch Satoshi Miki's newest film, Adrift in Tokyo. It's been doing its thing at festivals for a little while now (NYAFF, for one), and it came out on DVD in Japan sort of recently. I've been hearing nothing but good things, so I checked it out. Not for everyone, I'd say, but I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Actually, I liked it so much that I'm planning on writing something real about it in the near future, though for now I think I'll just throw up (which is to say vomit) the (stilted/semi-shitty) review I wrote for Midnight Eye. Prepare yourself for a disturbing lack of expletives.

And I quote (myself):

Satoshi Miki’s Adrift in Tokyo is a difficult film to categorize. Is it a road movie? A city film? A buddy movie? A comedy? A drama? The short answer is: yes. It’s each of these things, and when put together, it becomes something substantially greater than the sum of its parts. Miki has managed to craft something touching, hilarious, informative, and brimming with a subdued sense of adventure that one can only get from exploring a seemingly familiar city with a fresh perspective.

Joe Odagiri: best hair in the history of time.

The film (more or less) follows the perpetually blank-faced Fumiya (Joe Odagiri), an eighth year law student who has managed to rack up over 800,000 yen in debt, and naturally has no way to pay it back. While sitting in his apartment contemplating the finer points of three-color toothpaste, Fumiya is assaulted by ruthless-looking debt collector Fukuhara (a mullet-wielding Tomokazu Miura), who gives him three days to pay back the cash. The days pass and Fumiya makes a series of characteristically half-assed attempts to raise the money, but gets nowhere. Ready to give up, he’s approached once more by Fukuhara, who surprisingly says he will pay a total of one million yen if Fumiya accompanies him on a walk around Tokyo. It might take days, weeks, or months, he says, but after they’re finished his debt will disappear. Having no choice, Fumiya accepts the offer and the film kicks into gear.

As we follow the two through the streets of the city, their lives unfold by way of conversations, squabbles, confessions, and the occasional shouting match. We discover that Fumiya was abandoned by his parents as a young child, leaving him without a soul to depend on. With this revelation Miki subtly transforms Fumiya’s attitude of blank detachment from a comic device into something deeper, while still keeping the atmosphere light. And we learn that Fukuhara, the strangely sensitive thug, has killed his wife. He plans to wander the streets of his city, rediscovering old memories and creating new ones, before turning himself in to the police and resigning himself to prison. This kind of multi-layered emotional content is typical for the film, and it’s not unusual for any given scene to first lift, then break your spirits as each of the characters unfurls into an actual multidimensional human being. It takes a delicate hand to strike such a perfect balance of humor and (I hesitate to even call it this) drama, but Miki has succeeded brilliantly. It’s completely possible to see Adrift in Tokyo as nothing more than a breezy comedy, full of first-rate performances and hilarious gags, but the viewer who digs past the surface will be rewarded with something surprisingly touching, and undeniably beautiful.

Speaking of gags, Miki’s particular brand of out-of-left-field humor runs steadily throughout the film, and there are plenty of moments that might confuse a viewer searching for clear-cut linearity beneath the lingering narrative. But if it starts to seem like he’s losing track of his characters, try to remember that the city itself is being developed just as much as Fumiya or Fukuhara. For example, consider the seemingly unnecessary B story involving Fukuhara’s wife’s coworkers, and their trek across the city. Whenever these characters take center stage, every ounce of a typical viewer’s narrative training suggests that Miki is building toward some concrete connection--a bridge with the central characters that is just never going to form. It’s normal for loose ends such as these to cause frustration, but perhaps things aren’t quite as open ended as they initially appear. As these characters run around the city, gossiping and laughing and finding excuses to go from one place to the next, it’s simply one more slice of Tokyo that Miki is baring before his spectators. Any connection these people might have to the two "main" characters is incidental. The only truly important link they share is one that should be obvious from the story’s opening moments: they are, along with those watching the film, adrift in Tokyo.

End quote!
(Expletives motherfucking resumed.)

This is another flick that might be a bit tough to get ahold of (surprise surprise), but if it sounds at all up your alley then it probably is. Have you ever seen somebody smell their own head? You will. And it's just as great as it sounds. Possibly even greater.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad Detective

Everyone loves Johnnie To. Everyone. You may not even know who the hell he is, but trust me--you love him. You just don't know it yet. He's Hong Kong's baby right now, and everything he touches seems to turn to gold. In short, Johnnie To has it. Fairly prolific by today's standards, he turns out around two films a year. And unlike certain other prolific Asian directors, his work is mostly highly regarded, even in "regular" critical circles (i.e. not Asian film fanatics).

(One major exception I can think of: Roger Ebert. He isn't really picking up what To's putting down. But--and I mean no offense to Ebert when I say this--Roger Ebert is a worthless old cunt who needs to pass the ubiquitous film critic torch to somebody who doesn't remember when a bowl of soup cost a nickel. He is a confused, bedraggled, unattractive old man who is given to pawing at the screen and trying to grab the images he likes. But like I said, no offense. All due respect and all that.)

As a self-proclaimed Asian film fan, I have to bow my head in shame and reveal that I've only seen four Johnnie To films. I've seen Election and Election 2, of course. Everybody's seen those, and for a good reason. Then there's Exiled, which was the best western I've watched in quite some time. (This is especially impressive when you consider that technically it's not even a western. If Exiled sounds familiar and you don't know why, you may be remembering it from an earlier post of mine. If you like Sergio Leone, please please please watch this movie. I can't emphasize that enough.) The fourth film was one that I just watched a few nights ago, and one that may even be coming to DVD in the US sometime in the near future: Mad Detective. Was it as great as the rest of 'em? Read on to find out! (Hint: it was.)

The titular mad detective is Bun, a strange, seemingly clairvoyant Hong Kong cop who just happens to be a little psychotic. He claims to be able to see people's "inner personalities," and this naturally gets him into no end of shenanigans. The film opens with a few scenes from his heyday, solving crimes no one else could even get a lead on using his "unconventional" methods of re-enactment and divination. Then, at his boss's retirement party, Bun cuts off his own ear and offers it to the old man as a present. The department takes this as a sign that Bun should probably retire himself, and they kick him off the force.

Present day. Up and coming detective Ho is trying to solve a case of a missing cop. Ho, who is mildly obsessed with Bun, ends up enlisting his help on the case. Lacking any real evidence, all they've got to go on are Bun's visions, which seem to point to the missing cop's partner. Against all logic, they pursue their suspect throughout the film. Bun continues to unravel psychologically, and it isn't long before Ho is falling apart right alongside him. Long story short: some serious shit goes down, and it all comes together in a climax that rivals... well, most climaxes.

What's really surprising about Mad Detective is how well all of this "divination" and "inner personality" stuff plays out onscreen. When I first read what the movie was about, I naturally assumed it was going to be cheesy. How could it not be? Multiple actors crowding around playing different aspects of one character's personality? Come on! Even Johnnie To couldn't pull that off without losing dramatic tension, right? But it works. And it works really well. Imagine one character pointing a gun, with seven different sets of hands pulling and pushing, seven different voices telling him whether or not he should shoot. Seven different variations of his thought process, all fighting to get their way. With Johnnie To at the helm, what could very well be a ridiculous scene turns out brilliant. If you're new to To's films, this is probably something you should just go ahead and get used to.

A few reviews I've read mention that Mad Detective often leaves the viewer confused as to what's real and what's only taking place in Bun's mind. This is totally accurate. The strange thing is, these reviews pass this off as a negative aspect of the film. As with just about any film (or novel, or whatever) with an insane protagonist, Bun's unreliability plays a huge part in Mad Detective's tension and development. I guess these critics haven't read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? I don't know. I can't really explain it. If anything other than perfectly obvious linearity bothers you, maybe this movie ain't your bag. I'm not really going to force the issue.

I was pleased that someone else picked up on the obvious reference to Orson Welles's Lady from Shanghai in the amazing climactic shootout. This actually wasn't the only point in the film that I felt Welles's influence, but it was certainly the most clear. Actually, in every To film I've seen so far I get the sense that it's the work of somebody who has watched Touch of Evil about a million times. (I mean that as a compliment, by the way...) And there are plenty of other influences, obviously. Kurosawa, for one. Elements of both Rashomon and Stray Dog were peppered throughout, and arguably some of his noir work as well. During any stylized shootout one can't help but feel the pull of John Woo, naturally. And the final Mexican standoff could very well be a nod to Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, though I'd be more likely to draw the connection to Ringo Lam's City on Fire (which was of course the "inspiration" for Tarantino's film). Actually, now that I think of it... that particular brand of gunfight goes back even more obviously to Sergio Leone, whose work To is clearly quite familiar with (once again: see Exiled). Shit, it's practically straight out of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

All in all, I really enjoyed this supposedly "minor" work from Hong Kong badass Johnnie To. I don't think it quite upended Election 2 as my favorite (of what I've seen, anyway), but it's definitely worth checking out. Hopefully it'll get a little more recognition once it's released in the US.