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Friday, Oct 26, 2007


For the weekend of 26 October, here are the films in focus:


Lust, Caution [rating: 8]


While some will feel his previous works better illustrate his gift of film, Lust, Caution creates an unmatched statement of cinematic wisdom all its own.

Ang Lee has had an amazing career behind the camera. Seemingly unphased by sudden shifts in subject matter, he’s tackled everything from Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility), ‘70s relationships (The Ice Storm), Civil War strife (Ride with the Devil), mystical Chinese wire-fu mythos (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and full blown Hollywood popcorn fare (Hulk). He even owns an Oscar for bringing a solemn, sensitive touch to the gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain. Yet aside from Tiger, and his first few films, Lee has seldom focused on his Asian heritage. Indeed, some have suggested that he purposely avoids it in order to not be stereotyped by the Hollywood studios. It really shouldn’t be a concern. Even when he decides to work in his native land, as with this year’s exceptional Se, jie (translation: Lust, Caution), his vision and attention to detail set him far above any limits wrongfully inferred from his nationality.  read full review…


The Darjeeling Limited [rating: 8]


Like a once in a lifetime trip that only grows grander with the passage of time, The Darjeeling Limited is idiosyncratic filmmaking at its finest.

Wes Anderson makes cinematic novels - episodic, heavily reliant on subplot and subtext, and filled with quirky characters that seem to work best when fully plotted out on paper. Indeed, films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou have often been accused of being better in bits than as a sum of all their perculiar parts. Part of the problem is audience perception. They’re used to seeing people as pawns, cogs in a mainstream mechanism moving robotically from setpiece A to denouement B. Another is aesthetic inconsistency. Within Anderson’s brilliant flourishes are occasional moments of lax detail. While his work has been potent, and very provocative, few could call it perfect – until now. The Darjeeling Limited is an Anderson epiphany. Finally, within the context of a single storyline, the writer/director has found a flawless premise and three equally ideal characters to carry it across. read full review…


Lars and the Real Girl [rating: 7]


Avoiding cliché while exploiting the obvious comic possibilities of a man’s obsession with a ‘anatomically correct’ love doll, Lars and the Real Girl is a satiric, sentimental jewel.

Though we like to think of ourselves as enlightened and progressive, there is still a part of our inherent human make up that hates to see people alone. From the meddling matchmaking imported from many an immigrant’s old country culture to the current computerized claims of electronic harmony, we function under the foolish belief that individuals aren’t complete until they’re paired up and procreating. Equally disturbing is how readily we dismiss someone’s personal preference, no matter how unusual or outside the considered norm. While some affections can’t be supported, others offer nothing more than shelter from the social storm. Lars Lindstrum suffers from such well-meaning misconstructions. His brother and sister-in-law just want him to be happy. But finding said bliss with a life-size sex aide is another issue all together. read full review…


Saw IV [rating: 7]


If the original Saw was the kernel of a potential terror universe, Saw IV is, by this time, a series of satellites and lesser celestial bodies bound together by some of the best bloodletting in modern macabre.

It’s interesting how the Saw series has progressed since James Wan and buddy Leigh Whannel came up with their punk rock homage to Alfred Hitchcock and ‘80s horror. While Part 2 was nothing more than a puzzle box of gore, Part 3 gave audiences (and fans in particular) a nice bit of closure to end things proper. So when Saw IV was announced (a more or less certainty since each installment more than makes its budget back), the question for those in the know was – where could the franchise possibly go? The main character is dead, several of his cohorts on both sides of the law have also kicked the proverbial bucket, and Whannel specifically fashioned the last installment to tie up as many loose threads as possible. So how does this latest sequel deal with such narrative roadblocks? By taking things sideways and backwards, to be exact, broadening the movie’s mythology while laying the foundation for all future films to come. read full review…


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Friday, Oct 26, 2007

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL (dir. Craig Gillespie)


Though we like to think of ourselves as enlightened and progressive, there is still a part of our inherent human make up that hates to see people alone. From the meddling matchmaking imported from many an immigrant’s old country culture to the current computerized claims of electronic harmony, we function under the foolish belief that individuals aren’t complete until they’re paired up and procreating. Equally disturbing is how readily we dismiss someone’s personal preference, no matter how unusual or outside the considered norm. While some affections can’t be supported, others offer nothing more than shelter from the social storm. Lars Lindstrum suffers from such well-meaning misconstructions. His brother and sister-in-law just want him to be happy. But finding said bliss with a life-size sex aide is another issue all together.


Avoiding cliché while exploiting the obvious comic possibilities of a man’s obsession with a ‘anatomically correct’ love doll, Lars and the Real Girl is a satiric, sentimental jewel. Directed with heart and humor by newcomer Craig Gillespie (whose efforts here feel a billion miles away from his sloppy summer dud Mr. Woodcock), we get an amazing performance from Ryan Gosling, a weirdly evocative narrative that never once strays into sleaze, and a thematic resonance that requires us to look at love through the eyes of the person, not public perception. Our hero is a 27-year-old manchild who lives in the garage of his parent’s old house. Mother long dead and father recently passed, it is up to his older brother Gus to look after him. Taking up residence in the family home, he’s about to be a proud papa. Yet his very pregnant wife Karin can’t help but worry about Lars. He seems lonely without being obvious about it, shy both at work and in the rare occasions he ventures out into the world.


One day, a large crate shows up in the driveway. It’s Bianca, a human-sized figurine typically used by men to satisfy a certain, partner-less, urge. But Lars is not interested in his newfound companion’s carnal capabilities. Instead, he seems to think she’s alive, interacting with her and requesting that others treat her with the same respect they would others in the community. Initially confused, Gus and Karin seek the advice of local doctor and resident psychologist Dagmar. Using the ploy that Bianca needs special medical treatments (she’s from Brazil, after all), our medico starts to slowly unravel Lars’ delusion. Hoping to break his bond with the oversized toy, she suggests everyone treat the doll as a real person. Soon, the whole town is taken with Bianca, and Lars shifts from happy to slightly confused. It’s not just the love they are showing for his gal pal. It’s the emotional outpouring focused toward him as well.


Like the best kind of movies, Lars and the Real Girl effortlessly moves from hilarious to earnest without us really knowing it. We giggle at Gosling, all goofball mannerisms and awkward personal tics, as he projects his naïve romantic feelings on his plastic paramour, and nod knowingly as Patricia Clarkson’s patient shrink gets to the bottom of many of his deep rooted problems. Like Ordinary People populated by eccentrics, this is really a film about discovering one’s inner strength, and understanding the need for human companionship. Lars’ belligerent brother (a nice turn by the seemingly omnipresent Paul Schnieder) just wants a pill to turn his relative back to normal. But it is he who has one of the story’s biggest epiphanies, realizing the role he played in sequestering his sibling. Wife Karin (a lovely Emily Mortimer) sees things more simply. Whatever makes Lars happy is what’s best. Of course, it would be nice if it weren’t inanimate and shrouded in smut.


As with most surreal stories like this, the background is populated with dozens of idiosyncratic individuals, from the local hairdresser who wants to give Bianca a makeover, to the matronly know-it-all who calls out the populace when they initially want to reject Lars and his new companion. This mother figure also plays a prominent role in the film’s last act, helping everyone deal with a sudden, sad change in events. Perhaps most important, there is an actual human being who cares for Lars, a genial if slightly silly girl named Margo. As played by Kelli Garner in a completely unglamorous turn, we see the decency and concern the character carries. While she’s a natural match for our addled adult, how they get together—IF they do - becomes one of the movie’s more endearing elements.


In fact, this whole film is like a massive down comforter fresh from the drier and fluffy as a cuddly kitten. Golsing may be pitching his performance a tad too far over into introvert mode, but he’s a solid, stoic figure, a man made up of several psychological missteps—so many, in fact, that Gillespie wisely concentrates on a chosen few. Clearly, Lars is devastated from the loss of his mother (who died giving birth to him) and the accompanying fade of his father. Gus was a cold caretaker at best, and the resulting distance has become a chasm. Fears revolving abandonment, childbirth, the responsibilities of being alone, and the overreaching pressure to play nice in the world of adults are constantly projected on Bianca, Lars’ imaginary conversations saying more than any direct confrontation. The town’s reaction to his several thousand dollar therapy device is just the icing on an already sweet and satisfying cake.


Clarkson’s role here is also unique. Unlike your typical psychologist that probes and prods, her character’s style is subtle and very effective. The talks she has with Lars are more about filling in the blanks the overgrown boy leaves when discussing subjects than prying information out of him. There is a real sense of compassion voiced, something that gives the film a genial yet genuine gravitas. She wants her patient to open up, but not at the expense of what makes him so special. It’s a shame that all therapy can’t be this successful. As stated before, the premise initially plays as wildly incongruous and slightly slapstick. It’s a dude dating a sex toy, after all. But as Lars and the Real Girl progresses, we find ourselves celebrating right along with the rest of the town. They really do love this strangely iconic figure—and so do we.


It’s a shame then that this loveable little sleeper won’t be experienced by more people. Even with the name change (the female figure is sold under the trademarked ‘RealDoll’ label), there will be those who see an adult novelty sitting aside a grown man and assume this is some scandalous sex farce. Others will be disappointed when they learn that there is very little controversy involved. Recently, North One Television in Britain aired a documentary about four men who all have what they consider to be legitimate relationships with their own versions of Lars’ love interest. It was a creepy, and ultimately depressing exposé. Craig Gillespie has managed to avoid any and all inappropriateness to deliver one of 2007’s most endearing films. Lars and the Real Girl is a real gem.




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Friday, Oct 26, 2007

THE DARJEELING LIMITED (dir. Wes Anderson)


Wes Anderson makes cinematic novels—episodic, heavily reliant on subplot and subtext, and filled with quirky characters that seem to work best when fully plotted out on paper. Indeed, films like Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou have often been accused of being better in bits than as a sum of all their perculiar parts. Part of the problem is audience perception. They’re used to seeing people as pawns, cogs in a mainstream mechanism moving robotically from setpiece A to denouement B. Another is aesthetic inconsistency. Within Anderson’s brilliant flourishes are occasional moments of lax detail. While his work has been potent, and very provocative, few could call it perfect—until now. The Darjeeling Limited is an Anderson epiphany. Finally, within the context of a single storyline, the writer/director has found a flawless premise and three equally ideal characters to carry it across.


The Whitman Brothers have not seen each other since their wealthy father’s funeral one year ago. Hoping to bring them back together as a family, oldest sibling Francis (Owen Wilson) books a month long train trip across India. While the problem prone Peter (Adrien Brody) relishes the idea (he’s escaping from pressing commitments on the home front), writer/lothario Jack (Jason Schwartzman) just wants to get to Italy to reconnect with his demanding girlfriend. Once all three hop on the title express, their dad’s special made Louis Vitton baggage in tow, they find themselves immersed in several levels of intrigue. Some of it is personal (rivalries, onboard romance, personal problems) while others involve the spiritual, the cultural, and the karmic. In fact, it is clear that all three Whitmans could use some significant healing. Each carries their own steamer trunk full of unanswered questions and unresolved expectations. Maybe reconnecting with their mother, who left the brood to seek solace in a far off nunnery, will sooth their ongoing struggles?


Like a once in a lifetime trip that only grows grander with the passage of time, The Darjeeling Limited is idiosyncratic filmmaking at its finest. Sure, there will be those who see Anderson’s trademark quirks, his moments of forced magic realism and out of the blue character shifts and claim the same old self indulgent designs. And within his previous settings—a private school, a New York apartment, an oceanic research vessel—such strategies did indeed appear downright excessive. But within the context of India, a mysterious nation with its own inherent eccentricities and extremes, Anderson finds a totally complementary venue. In a country where seemingly anything can happen, where faith folds itself neatly into the fabric of everyday life in a manner so seamless that it’s almost indecipherable, the idea of three wayward men seeking interpersonal salvation doesn’t seem quite so quixotic. The way Anderson portrays it, it’s standard operating procedure in such a pulsing, overpopulated locale.


Beginning with a short film backstory (the ITunes treat Hotel Chevalier, now attached to all theatrical prints) which provides insight into Jack’s plight, and ending on one of those cinematic notes that continue to resonate long after the movie is over, The Darjeeling Limited is not a complicated movie. It’s not out to use intricate character details and dense sibling rivalries and conflicts to create its meaning. Instead, Anderson embraces the road movie contrivance—characterization reflected in the reaction his players have to various individuals they meet along the way—to broaden the span of his implications. This results in a film that feels wistful and feathery at first, only to trick us halfway through into becoming part of the brothers’ inner journey. By the end, we understand the pain felt by Francis, the disconnect experienced by Peter, and Jack’s longing to simply get lost.


This is a film of faces, and Anderson outdoes himself here, projecting all of his actors in the best possible cinematic light. Wilson, forced to wear a ridiculous set of bandages throughout most of the movie, is the personification of theater’s bifurcated dramatics. When he’s donning his medical mask, he’s a clever comic contrivance. But the moment he removes the gauze, giving us a horrifying glimpse at what lies beneath, it’s so tragic as to take one’s breath away. While he plays the mensch, Francis is the foundation of his family—and this entire film. Peter, played expertly by Brody, is like Narcissis fixated on his outward appearance to others. Every action he takes, every emotion he expresses, seems purposefully offered to make him and his overreaching angst feel appreciated. Longtime Anderson accomplice Schwartzman, on the other hand, is instinct inferred. He sits back and lets the others mull the meaning of things, functioning on impulse and his sense of superiority when the muse strikes. 


Together, they’re like the Three Stooges on muscle relaxers, irony substituting for eye pokes and face slaps. While the vignette-oriented approach of the storytelling might turn some off, it really is necessary if Darjeeling is to achieve its aims. It’s not just an exterior travelogue. In fact, we see very little of India proper. Instead, it’s all controlled closed sets and vast open spaces. What Anderson wants to show us is that life is made up of tiny events, each one connecting to the other to form a pyramid of potential. Sometimes, the result is clarity. In other instances, it’s hurt. And then there are those unconscionably rare scenarios where you achieve balance—the pain finds its place and the closure brings peace. It’s what we hope the Whitman boys can achieve. Even when faced with temptation and tragedy, they tend to come off as spoiled brats. Yet through the course of the film, we actually watch them grow. They shed layer after layer of pent up animosity, and suddenly start acting like brothers again.


Naturally, Anderson saves the best for last. For Francis, finding their mother stands as a personal holy grail. It may explain his self-destructive streak (which may or may not have lead to his injuries). As the Earth mother matron with a seemingly selfish view of charity, Angelica Houston owns the screen. Wrinkles showing and hair cropped and graying, she’s like Mother Teresa’s oversexed twin. Her story is shrouded in shadows and hints, yet her actions belie everything we eventually learn. Her lack of altruism, especially when it comes to the boys she bore, becomes one of Darjeeling’s best moments. Even as the ending suggests a newfound bond and a freedom from the past, there are unanswered questions in abundance. For anyone wondering how this director constantly gets cast alongside those who play in prose, such open ended narrative dynamics illustrate the point perfectly. Anderson wants his audiences to absorb and then reflect on what they’ve seen. In many ways, his movies are like interactive journeys into human nature.


While Hotel Chevalier is stilted and purposefully static (and very necessary to our understanding of what will come next), The Darjeeling Limited is a classic curry covered confection. It seems superficially sublime, only to underscore its surface with deep, philosophical power. It’s about never wanting to grow up, and discovering that responsibility ain’t so bad. It’s like listening to a beautiful song and then realizing the lyrics describe a particularly disturbing issue. Anderson may be continuously labeled as strange and unconventional, but there is something most critics can’t deny. He is a master of the medium he is so frequently called out over, and The Darjeeling Limited is both a wonderful rebuttal, and recognizable explanation, for such fractured feelings.



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Friday, Oct 26, 2007

LUST, CAUTION (dir. Ang Lee)


Ang Lee has had an amazing career behind the camera. Seemingly unphased by sudden shifts in subject matter, he’s tackled everything from Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility), ‘70s relationships (The Ice Storm), Civil War strife (Ride with the Devil), mystical Chinese wire-fu mythos (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and full blown Hollywood popcorn fare (Hulk). He even owns an Oscar for bringing a solemn, sensitive touch to the gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain. Yet aside from Tiger, and his first few films, Lee has seldom focused on his Asian heritage. Indeed, some have suggested that he purposely avoids it in order to not be stereotyped by the Hollywood studios. It really shouldn’t be a concern. Even when he decides to work in his native land, as with this year’s exceptional Se, jie (translation: Lust, Caution), his vision and attention to detail set him far above any limits wrongfully inferred from his nationality.


Dealing with the Japanese occupation of Shanghai during World War II, and a band of student resistance fighters hoping to assassinate a high profile collaborator, much has been made of the film’s current NC-17 MPAA rating. Yet reducing this epic drama to a series of purposefully graphic sexual moments undermines nearly two hours of pristine narrative. It takes everything Lee establishes between his leads, all the political and personal intrigue involved, the endless sequences of mindless Mahjong, and one incorrigible girl’s coming of age, and labels it lewd and lascivious, two words far removed from Lust, Caution’s motives. Dealing with the Eros up front, Lee is clearly using it as connection and escape, a means of having his ideologically opposite characters sync up and learn the power of sacrifice and the suffering inside the human heart.


It seems strange that a story which starts off within standard espionage paradigms would end up playing out this way. When first we meet the young and naïve Wang Jiazhi (Tang Wei, absolutely amazing), she’s a wide eyed youth exploring the world for the first time. Taken in by a group of university radicals, she initially thinks making a stand means giving a good performance in a propaganda play. But when the gang targets Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chi Wai), a Chinese national working with the enemy as part of their police/prison system, she bites off more than she is capable of eschewing. The plan is simple—Jiazhi will pass herself off as a merchant’s wife, befriend Mrs. Yee (a radiant Joan Chen) and allow herself to be seduced by the notoriously adulterous adversary.


Naturally, this initial plan has its flaws, and years later, Jiazhi is recruited again, this time by better organized underground forces. With money behind her mission, and a strange inner desire to complete the cause this time around, our heroine falls into a highly erotic and physically brutal relationship with Yee. In the meanwhile, former student leader and current covert operative Kuang Yu Min waits for the proper moment to strike. His silent longing for Jiazhi is becoming a problem, though. In between, we learn about the day to day life of people under enemy rule, the complex class structures and idleness of ladies who lunch, and the blinding power of ideology, its egotistical draw, and friendless final consequence.


So clearly there is more to Lust, Caution than nudity and philosophical pillow talk. What Lee really wants to explore here is the notion of commitment, of how the fortunes (and fantasies) of many can land squarely on the shoulders of a single, easily swayed young woman. Wang Jiazhi will be our guide through all the subterfuge and strategizing, taking her role in stride while missing most of the big picture—at least, at first. The film is actually set up in two totally insular acts. Part one can best be described as misguided youthfulness exposed. Part two is maturity marred by personal/political obstacles. At the start, it is clear that Jiazhi is seduced by the implied power she carries—sexually as well as covertly. Her entire presence is the precept upon which the assassination’s success rests. Yet when plotted by individuals incapable of such calculated brutality, things turn sloppy and strained. The last scene of the film’s first hour is like a literal rite of passage. Everyone, including our heroine, must survive this surprise trial by fire—or find themselves at the business end of a bullet.


When we catch up with the characters later, life has taken some interesting twists. Jiazhi’s situation is so dire that we initially believe she’s returning to the Resistance to improve her impoverished lot. But then Lee tricks us, making the situation less about money and more about emotion. When they knew each other before, Yee and the pert object of his desire danced around their feelings in an ill-advised game of interpersonal defensiveness. By the time they meet again, desperation has become part of the ruse. Yee needs this young woman to feel alive again, and she is eager for his shelter, his power, and his control. Together, they become psychologically and physically bound, and the necessity of the relationship controls everything that happens. Clearly Lust, Caution will not end happily. Stories like these never do. But Lee leaves enough room in his narrative for lots of interpretation. We can see what happens to these characters as tragic, or we can view it as a necessary part of destiny—especially in the fragile existence of wartime.


There are some minor qualms here and there. Lee is a little too leisurely in getting to his points on several occasions. He is obviously pacing this film to magnify the scope. WWII is in the air constantly, but rarely shown. Period detail is prevalent, but aside from a random comment or two, we recognize that this story could be set in any era. It’s not merely indicative of Japan’s dominance of the Pacific in the 1940s. It could be a tale told within coming Communist rule, modern openness, or ancient feudal law. The key is the concept of oppression and treason tacked onto standard human needs like love and acceptance. Even the supporting characters do their duty as part of some perceived nationalistic need. It is only when they miscalculate and come up short that their efforts are recognized by those truly facing the enemy.


With acting that argues for the pure art of performance (both leads are exceptional) and a luxuriant visual drive, Lee has concocted a masterwork out of catty gossip, naked fury, and misplaced patriotism. While some will feel his previous works better illustrate his gift of cinema, Lust, Caution creates an unmatched statement of cinematic wisdom all its own. Clearly calculated to be both scandalous and soft, aggressive and astute, the director confirms his continued award-winning status. Recognition from his peers has done little to dull Lee’s need to explore and provoke. This slow, simmering drama may be the antithesis of a typical spy thriller, but it’s definitely this director’s aesthetic all the way.



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Thursday, Oct 25, 2007

Must be some kind of zeitgeist thing but I’m noticing articles that complain about how works are art are over-explained in program guides. I really liked a piece by Alice O’Keefe (Information overload) which inspired me to wonder if we crits sometimes overdo it when we try to explain “difficult” art.  The answer is of course that we do sometimes instead of, as O’Keefe suggests, letting the work explain itself and connect with the audience.  Which isn’t to say that ANY kind of context should be tossed out the window but let’s not get carried away.  Another piece about classical music in the Philly Inquirer (Like exegesis with that?) echoes this idea as well as a hilarious piece at the Huffington Post (A gentle plea).


 


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