Thursday, December 30, 2004

Darkness: Notes From Two Hours in the Dark

Jaume Balaguero’s Darkness, from a screenplay by Balaguero, Fernando De Filipe and Miguel Tejada-Flores, finally arrives on American shores a full two years after it debuted in Europe. Despite being made by a Spanish crew and filmmakers and shot entirely in Spain, this is an American film with English-speaking actors, much like Alejandro Almenabar’s The Others. Also like that film, Darkness is a supernatural horror suspense thriller that features creepy kids and the heroines who try to save them, with Anna Paquin filling the role here as Nicole Kidman did in the other.

Ms. Paquin is unique among her young actress peers in truly looking like the girl-next-door, seemingly more attainable, more genuinely likeable and down-to-earth then her like-aged statuesque model associates. As Regina, the teenaged daughter of an American family that relocates to an old, creaky Victorian house in the Spanish countryside, this accessibility helps an audience identify and side with her when the chips are down. Unbeknownst to her and her family, their house was the site of some unspeakable science experiments involving children on the night of a total eclipse forty years earlier. So when her 8 year-old brother Paul (Stephan Enquist) develops unexplainable bruises on his chest and her father Mark (Iain Glen) begins inexplicably banging holes in the walls with a sledge hammer, Regina, suspecting their new abode, springs into Nancy Drew mode with her hottie Spanish boyfriend (boyfriend? They had moved only three weeks earlier!) Carlos (Fele Martinez). Despite a blind-eye turned to these problems by her mother (weird bruises on my son? No big deal) Maria (Lena Olin) and her grandfather Albert (Giancarlo Giannini), Regina tracks down the haunted house’s crusty designer, Villalobos, for some answers. And so on.

Unfortunately for Ms. Paquin, down-to-earth looks aren’t everything; she sleepwalks through most of her lines, robbing the term “scream queen” of its vocal aspect. Indeed, I found myself wishing, at times, that I had stick to poke at the screen to make sure she was still participating. But to fault her fully would be a foolish miscalculation. Admittedly, I am not the biggest proponent of the horror film genre but I know cliché soup when I’m served it. Balaguero uses day-of-the-week placards to demarcate time and to map ascending points of suspense pressure. But the precious few moments in the film that approach horror intensity are immediately destroyed by a placard’s pronouncement of the next day, like a knife chopping possibility in one kill-shot. This same device was used more memorably in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining; but while we learn, early on, of the horrific atrocities committed in the Overlook Hotel, Balagureo feeds us no such story until we are halfway through his proceedings. Until that point we are left to nibble on shadowy figures crossing in front of the camera; disturbing images drawn in color pencil by a kid; echoing children’s laughter; heavy-shaky music-video-style camera work; shots of empty swings; wind-chimes; perpetual rain; unknown crazy guy standing in the rain and an X-files-like music. Cliché unto itself is not a fatal pill, merely just a dirty term used to decry influence. But cliché served alone without something original mutating from its scaly skin can prove, as it does in Darkness, to be poisonous.

By the time the credits rolled, I was left with more questions than answers about the film’s resolution. Sadly, some of those questions included: Why was I here? And, can’t they just warn me next time? If you want to spend two hours with darkness, I recommend doing so somewhere comfortable, watching the back of your eyelids.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Sea Inside: A Review

Traveling in Dublin a few years ago, I found, to my shock, that the hip, young, urban locals drank Budweiser as if it was a premium import, much as Guinness is treated here stateside. This tiny oddity dogged me walking into Alejandro Almenabar’s The Sea Inside. Do we, as an American audience, too easily give a critical pass to foreign film? Is there a subconscious given that tells us anything imported to the art-house is “better,” or, at least, more sophisticated then our own cinema? Would a film, like The Sea Inside, be as critically praised if it were produced here, in English?

The film deals with death and suicide, difficult topics that, along with sex and money, rarely find their way into polite conversation. Based on a true story, Ramon Sampedro (Javier Bardem) is a quadriplegic who, bed-ridden for 28 years, is seeking his own right to die; giving him a dignity he cannot find in a wheelchair. Is his life a right or an obligation? Ramon petitions for his right despite the varied contrarian or salvation efforts of everyone around him: the Spanish government and Catholic Church who vehemently oppose him; the family he lives with and who take care of him (and sometimes vice-versa); Rosa (Lola Duenas), an unhappy single mother who seeks his council and who falls in love with him; and Julia (Belen Rueda) a lawyer with whom he develops a firm bond that grows to mutual love. It is a testament to the quality of the film and its performances that two women falling in love with a quadriplegic raises nary a hair on the eyebrow.

Almenabar, who also wrote the score, tackles this difficult subject matter deftly, infusing an unforced humor found, for example, in the scenes Ramon shares with his nephew Javi (Tamar Novas), and Rosa's two young kids. He also uses several cinematic tools effectively throughout: close-ups to draw the audience closer to his characters; the aria Nessun Dorma from Turandot to hyper-amplify Sampedro’s flight of sea fantasy; and sound editing that morphs Sampedro’s breathing into the crashing waves of the ocean that both abundantly gave and took away much from his life. But it is Bardem's sublime performance that should be remembered. Were this film made by a Hollywood studio – probably as a highly sentimental, maudlin treatment re-purposed for the Lifetime Network – one can easily imagine an angered, emotional protagonist upset over the hand he has been dealt. Bardem's Sampedro internalizes all of that, choosing only to "cry with a smile." Ironically, it is his family, friends and we the audience who are most affected by his choice. Indeed, from almost frame one, he calmly states his objective and never wavers, no matter how much his family, the women who love him or the audience want him to reconsider. Were it up to him, he would have met "a sweet death" in his beloved sea where, 28 years earlier, his accident occurred. The intervening time since has been a long wait at an unforgiving rest stop.

Perhaps there is something to be said for an unspoken bias towards foreign film among the American audiences who go see them. But look elsewhere for a test case, especially considering the thick biopic haze of American-made films considered favorites for this year’s Oscars. The Sea Inside is a demanding film whose merits translate well into any language.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Pop Culture Apocalypse: The Ipod Army

They're cute and they're everywhere, spreading like the fat-faced mid-80's Cabbage Patch Kid craze. They count a Vertigo-inducing, hip-swileving Bono among their denizens, a group whose size knows not the boudaries of race, age or class. I am talking, of course, about the getting-to-be iconic white ear buds of the Ipod; I am talking about the Ipod Army of the Ipod Nation. They are everywhere.

The flip side of this growing gang is two-fold:

1. The term "Ipod" is slowly branding itself to act interchangeably with "MP3 Player" a la "Band-Aid" for bandage or "Xerox copy" for photocopy. For an owner of Rio's 20Gb Karma, it affords me the twin frustrations of red anger and green jealousy (perfect for the holidays!)

2. The spirit of capitalism gloms onto the "new big thing" like muscle cream to professional athletes. An entire accessory-based industry has started and its life-support is the continued success of the Ipod; speakers, cases, little beds to rest your Ipod in at night.

Today's Pop Culture Armageddon takes you to the most ridiculous spawn of this new, a company that will take any of your photos and convert it into an Ipod-silhouette ad as easy as Uno! Dos! Tres! Catorce!

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The Life Aquatic: Come Aboard, We're Expecting You

There’s a telling scene early in Wes Anderson’s at-times brilliant "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou," where Zissou (Bill Murray), an aging, fading oceanographic documentary filmmaker divulges that he never knows what’s going to happen on his seafaring adventures, he just films it – a sentiment clearly meant for "Aquatic" itself. For the resolution of the main plotlines - Zissou and his crew's adventure to find and exact revenge on the mythical jaguar shark that ate his best friend Esteban (Seymour Cassel), and whether or not new Team Zissou member Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) is his long lost son – are subjugated for the two arteries pumping directly into film’s true heart: One, that it’s a movie about the making of another movie; a study, on the ocean, of a declining fictional filmmaker made by rather successful real one, as if "The Voyage Of The Mimi" and Federico Fellini’s "8 ½" had a bastard child. Two, and rather less successfully so, that it’s a vehicle for Anderson to further explore some of the adolescent-inspired themes featured in his previous work ("Bottle Rocket," "Rushmore," "The Royal Tenenbaums"): the redemption of an absentee father and a child-like longing to belong.

It’s soon clear that Zissou’s crusty vessel, the Belafonte, is as prepared for oceanic exploration as Marty Mcfly’s tricked-out Delorean. After all, did Jacques Cousteau have an editing suite, soundproof recording booth or camera-wearing dolphins on his ship? Like any real life movie set, the Belafonte features abused interns fetching gourmet coffee drinks; a fiery, demanding executive producer Oseary Drakoulias (Michael Gambon); a watchful line producer, or in Zissou-speak “bond company stooge” Bill Ubell (Bud Cort); and a media-aware, egotistical, self-conscious has-been auteur, Zissou, and his trusty “crew” (boat and film-wise), highlighted by the faithful, funny and very “German” Klaus Daimler (Willem Dafoe). Indeed, there is a fully palpable artificiality to the movie that makes it clear that Anderson means to show us that we are, in fact, watching a movie. For example, the set of the Belafonte itself (built at Italy’s famed Cinecitta Studios, ironically where Fellini once held court) is shown as one giant cross section - as if a large machete had cut a real ship (or the director's figurative imagination?) in half – revealing its innards to the audience and allowing the camera to follow the characters as they walk and talk from room-to-room and floor-to-floor. While visually stunning, the effect can conversely distract attention away from the dialogue being spoken in those scenes.

Like Max Fischer’s final Platoon-styled opus in "Rushmore," watching the two action sequences in Aquatic - one a pirate invasion, the other a land-bound rescue - is like watching a lucky group of kids play cops-and-robbers with the coolest authentic-looking firearms and explosions ever; complete with a three-legged dog tagging (gimping?) along with our heroes. This child-like sense of security from belonging to a unit (the academy in "Rushmore," the family in "The Royal Tenenbaums") fits well thematically with the film, i.e. what is movie-making but playing grown-up make believe? On the other hand, what does not fit in as well is Zissou’s evolution from an emotionless, selfish lout into a warm wellspring of paternal feeling. Unfortunately, it is one of Anderson’s strengths – witty, sophisticated and heavily ironic dialogue – that does not deliver the desired affecting end. In fact, there are only a few instances where you can actually feel the film come up for any real emotional air from its idiosyncratic sea. In one scene, for example, Zissou, trying to reconcile with his wife Eleanor (Anjelica Houston) incongruously flicks a stop-motion lizard off his hand - and any hope for a stirring connection with it. That bit is a microcosm of Murray’s overall performance, which is too detached to make you believe he is capable of any real growth.

"The Life Aquatic" is filled with the dazzling touches one can expect from a Wes Anderson film: unique characterizations; sophisticated repartee; an excellent soundtrack (including David Bowie songs sung in Portuguese); and painstakingly detailed sets. But while in "Rushmore," you can, say, easily empathize with Max Fischer’s rejection by Ms. Cross, you get the feeling that in his subsequent films, "Aquatic" included, Anderson is content just to wink a whimsical eye at you while hesitant to portray any real feeling.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

House of Flying Daggers: Our Chinese Fortune

On a line at a Blockbuster Video in mid-town Manhattan, I recently overheard a patron infer that he had interest in renting Zhang Yimou’s Hero because he liked the “first one,” to which he was referring Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. If anything, this moment in urban boredom illustrates that the latter Hong Kong-born film’s $130 million domestic intake has been both a blessing and a curse. Ironically, while it has expanded foreign-film awareness, it seems to have fostered a minority “they all look the same to me” bias. The blessing is that cinematic goodies from the East -- like Yimou’s fine House of Flying Daggers –will, in growing numbers, continue to leap over the Pond Pacific and splash onto the local big screen.

Made a full two years after Hero, House, set during the Tang dynasty in 859 A.D., outlays its storyline like a fortune cookie: On the outside, there is a warring conflict – which feels rather timely -- between a chivalrous, yet outlawed, group (The House of Flying Daggers) and the corrupt government that’s in abusively in power. Yimou’s focus, though, is what’s inside the cookie: a building romantic triangle involving the beautiful, blind but deadly Mei (Hero and Crouching Tiger star Ziyi Zhang), a member of the Daggers, and the two undercover cops, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) and Leo (Andy Lau) assigned to take her down. While the Chopsocky-meets-Romeo and Juliet love story provides greater emotional resonance than the messier-plotted Hero, it still feels a bit awkward and immature; especially when compared to, say, the soulful urban emotion conveyed in the cinema of another Hong Kong master, Wong Kar-Wai. For example, Mei and Jin’s sex scene, possibly too hot for Hong Kong’s conservative censors, feels stilted and staged to these American eyes. The amorous dialogue, too, gets easily lost in a translation of multiple “wind” metaphors that grow increasingly tiresome as they appear. On the other hand, there is also some provocative imagery to be found, as when Leo furiously fires a dagger that slices through what appears to be a walnut that Mei has tossed and nails it to a tree.

Please don’t go thinking that this movie is all red roses, happy hearts, and tumbling tears. Ass indeed is kicked, and often, in a mouth-dropping fashion that will make our Blockbuster patron proud (My personal favorites are the “Echo Game” and the scene in the bamboo forest). What sets this film apart is the heightened attention Yimou pays the technical aspects of his breathtaking action sequences, especially in sound and camera work. Nary will such an occurrence pass without some intensive onomatopoeia: the whoosh of a flying dagger, the ping of clashing swords and the crack of splintering bamboo. The fighting sequences are also filled with a clearly audible heavy breathing and deep grunting by male and female participants alike that border on erotic opera. While Christopher Dolan’s cinematography in Hero received much notice for its striking hues, Xiaoding Zhao’s work in House is more natural, autumnal and subtle but equally as effective. Shot mostly outdoors, you can feel and see the seasons change, sometimes from shot-to-shot. Included in the fun, too, are POV shifts to inanimate daggers, arrows, tiny spears or rocks as fly through the air, seizing us in their wake.

Technical mastery aside, House Of Flying Daggers is an excellent thrill ride. But while it seeks a higher ground with a more tender touch, it lacks the overall characterizations and emotions could have made it truly memorable. Certainly, it is of a high enough quality to bring our Blockbuster patron back for another helping.