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Saturday, Sep 22, 2007


Family films may have finally found their saving grace – and her name is Amanda Bynes. After years making Nickelodeon’s kid vid offerings (All That, The Amanda Show) eminently watchable, and delivering the WB one of its few sitcom hits (What I Like About You), she’s finally branched out into features. With her winsome, wholesome persona and slightly kooky undercurrent, she’s like a Bratz Lucille Ball, a seemingly serious actress who can easily slip on the requisite banana peels when needed. Though she’s currently geared toward the tween set, her potential easily surpasses her demographical reach. That’s why the winning Sydney White is such an important step for the star. It’s her first foray into quasi-adult fare, and it will gauge how much staying power she truly has.


By the looks of it, the answer is quite a bit. Based ever so slightly on the famed fairytale (the film’s title should provide the necessary hint) and featuring a cast of fresh faced newcomers, George Lucas in Love director Joe Nussbaum takes something that could be cloying and pat and expands it beyond its tacky TV movie boundaries. In fact, it’s hard to fathom how the Olson Twins passed on this project. Still, the simple storyline – tomboy Sydney heads off to college and pledges her late mother’s snooty sorority – lays the groundwork for moments of ‘meet-cute’ comedy and standard Greek life lunacy. It’s all very Revenge of the Nerds in its make-up and manipulation, but in a current cultural shift that actually embraces the dork dynamic, the last act standoff is more heartfelt than hilarious.


No, the majority of the comedy comes from Bynes’ ability to be both comely and klutzy in a scene. When she meets BMOC fraternity president Tyler Prince, her ridiculous ramblings are cute and corny. Similarly, her interaction with the varied Vortex’s resident rejects reminds us of how fragile the combination of coming of age awkwardness and adolescent awakening can be. But our young actress maneuvers through such tenuous terrain with grace, wit, and a sense of wide-eyed wonder. One of the best traits Bynes brings to her roles is the sense of sudden experience. We never doubt the shock of her reactions, nor are her responses over-rehearsed or rote. Instead, we feel as if life is constantly surprising this sprite, and her good natured, normative takes come naturally, not out of some screenwriter’s notebook. It’s indeed a rare cinematic condition.


Wisely, Nussbaum surrounds Bynes with actors capable of conveying a similar stance. As the prime villain, Sara Paxton’s “witchy” Rachel is the perfect blond baddie. She’s all pampered and privileged poison, without a single saving sentiment. She is primed for a finale fall. As the rightly named Tyler Prince, Matt Long has a too good to be true quality that should have the adolescent gals in the audience wiggling in their wish fulfillment. While his ‘feeding the homeless’ hunkiness may be a bit much, this actor finds a way to make it work. Some of the best moments, however, come from the seven ‘dorks’, performers like Jack Carpenter (winning as the nebbish Lenny), Danny Strong (the perpetually pissed-off blogger, Gurkin) and Freaks and Geeks’ Samm Levine (as horndog dope Spanky) turning stereotypes into individuals with effortless engagement.


In fact, it’s fair to compare Sydney White favorably to the college comedies of the ‘80s, especially the smarter, sassier ones like Real Genius. While Nussbaum and his writer Chad Gomez Creasey realize the need to keep the mentality geared toward the marketplace, they also infuse the film with lots of grown up grins. When the Vortex dweebs head off onto the Student Body President Campaign trail, the classic sing-along “Hi Ho, Hi Ho” gives one of its words a satiric, contemporary nod. Similarly, Rachel’s set of “calming words” come across as a Super Sweet 16 registry list. Granted, a few of the jokes are obvious, and the narrative frequently follows traditional plot contrivances, but since both actors and filmmakers are trying everything to avoid cliché, the truisms don’t seem so tacky.


What we have here then is an obvious throwback to the Disney University cavalcades of the mid ‘60s, movies where Kurt Russell shined as genial undergrad Dexter Reilly. All that’s missing is the supernatural/sci-fi premise, the occasional slapstick setpiece, and Cesar Romero as a too suave underworld figure. Yet the same pleasure principles clearly apply. A movie like Sydney White is only out to entertain, to provide the emotional underpinning that will get us through the various purposeful plot machinations. It will establish sides, provide motivation, clarify the characters, and then deliver everything in a clean, convincing manner. We may not end up with something special, or overly endearing, but there will be no denying its effervescent entertainment qualities. You’ll leave happy, and hardly embarrassed.


As a result, Sydney White is one of those fascinating films that taunt your aesthetic while it simultaneously delights your fun zone. It doesn’t strive for deep meaning, or tempt fate by fully falling into the updated Brothers Grimm mode (the Snow White storyline is barely recognizable most of the time). Instead, it provides proof that Amanda Bynes will be the next big thing, a Meg Ryan in the making who will one day dominate the cinematic stratosphere. As long as she continues to mark time, putting in professional work both as star (She’s the Man) and sidekick (she was great in the Summer musical hit Hairspray) there is nothing but fame in her future. Unlike so many others in her former child star position, she appears resolute on building a career, not a criminal record. Perfect for the kids and inviting for adults, Sydney White is a surprisingly effective film that produces nothing but piles of smiles…and Amanda Bynes is the reason why.


 


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Saturday, Sep 22, 2007


The War in Iraq is destined to leave yet another battle-weary scar on a nation finally recuperating from the one it received three decades before. Both sides can argue their rosy Red pros and basic Blue cons, but when all is said and done, all conflict is about people, not positions. They are the ones who pay the price, not the politicians. So what does it say about Paul Haggis and In the Valley of Elah, his post-Crash comeuppance to everyone who thought his 2005 racial roundelay didn’t deserve the Oscar, that our brave fighting men are actually the bad guys here. Not unsympathetic bureaucrats, career minded Congressmen, or bomb building extremists, but the boys and girls wearing the stars and stripes. Granted, this laconic whodunit is based on actual events, but one still has to wonder if this is the right story to tell, given the current climate in the country.


When he goes AWOL after returning home from Iraq, the parents of Private Mike Deerfield get a fateful phone call. Father Hank (Tommy Lee Jones), an ex-military policeman himself, immediately heads over to his boy’s base to see if he can aid the investigation. However, his worst nightmares are realized when a badly burned, and crudely cut up, body is found along a deserted roadside. It is his son, the obvious victim of foul play. Promising his wife Joan (Susan Sarandon) that he will get to the bottom of the crime, Hank contacts local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron). Unappreciated by the male members of the bureau, and battling against stonewalling Army brass, she initially gives up on the case. But when inconsistent statements and some illegally obtained video footage suggest something far more sinister, she decides to help Hank. Together they will try and figure out why Mike became the target of such a senseless slaughter.


Wearing its holier than thou attitude on its blood-soaked sleeves, In the Valley of Elah is the most underhanded, backdoor anti-war film ever attempted. It takes a standard murder mystery, wraps it up in a torn and tattered flag, and flies the entire narrative upside down and a little lower than half mast. As a thriller, it’s a swing on a country porch. As a diatribe, it’s like listening to a well-intentioned teen explain politics. There is literally nothing wrong with Haggis’ approach, or his appreciation of the toll the Iraq War is taking on everyone involved – family, friends, and those in the line of fire. And he does make his characters complex enough to sustain such a subtle, slowpoke storytelling stratagem. But by the end of its overlong running time, when the final loose thread has been neatly knitted back into place, one can’t help but think that there was a better way to make this material work. Sometimes, a scream is preferable to a whisper.


Yet Haggis is content to keep his voice down. There are moments when this movie appears to be barely moving, when our director is purposefully stalling for significance. For example, when Tommy Lee Jones checks into a local motel, we witness his entire bed making routine. Similarly, we catch almost all of his character’s morning hygiene ritual, with an accidental shaving cut accentuated for future plotpoint portents. Indeed, a great deal of In the Valley of Elah wastes time laying cinematic booby traps. The aforementioned facial laceration will end up bleeding on a list of heretofore unknown subjects, while an inappropriate racial epithet will turn into an invitation for background information. Haggis wants to hide his symbolism as much as celebrate it, and with the cinematography’s dour, faded color scheme and vague visual palette, he creates the perfect vista for such an approach. Unfortunately, this film is so restrained that it frequently feels inert.


Granted, one doesn’t come into a tale like this expecting the rockets red glare and bombs bursting in air, but Haggis’s halting style can be very aggravating at times. At one point, Sarandon phones Jones to tell him that a package from their dead son has just arrived. Immediately, he warns her not to open it, and after a brief back and forth she acquiesces. But then the subject is never mentioned again, with almost an hour going by before the envelope makes a last minute reappearance. As a dramatic device, it may have some significance, but we are smack dab in the middle of a murder investigation – a crime that may have some connection to the soldiers Mike served with. And you’re NOT going to investigate a mysterious parcel sent from the front lines which, perhaps, holds a key to solving the case? Right, that makes perfect sense.


Haggis’s politics are also problematic here. Thematically, In the Valley of Elah ascribes to the theory that war turns the innocent into bloodthirsty butchers, and in the case of the Iraq conflict, it has the potential to turn the best and brightest into unstable, antisocial psychopaths. There are several senseless sequences of foreboding offered, as when a scared military wife warns the police that her husband has started acting weird (he goes berserk and drowns the family dog). Yet instead of taking it seriously, the other officers in the station make goofy animal noises as Charlize Theron tries to comfort her. The whole chauvinistic take on the lawmen of Tennessee is equally odd, since the justification being forwarded is that, as ex-military men, it’s part of their noble nature. Indeed, time and time again, Haggis argues that everybody’s favorite iconic Uncle is really the Son of Sam. In his world, being all you can be means eventually turning into Ted Bundy.


If one thing saves this overly stoic statement, it’s the overall level of proficiency in the performances. Jones, Theron, and Sarandon all own Oscars, and they legitimately deserve said accolades. While he’s nothing more than a hospital corner’s curmudgeon at the beginning, Hank Deerfield is modified nicely over the course of the narrative, thanks in part to Jones’ desire to dimensionalize this despondent dad. Sarandon gets two excellent scenes (a morgue visit, and a late night phone call) and she makes the most of them. Oddly enough, Theron’s efforts may be the most intriguing. Dressed down, but never out (it’s hard to make this classic beauty look bad, unless you’re stopping off at the special effects tent), she comes across as jaded and unstrung, a woman waking everyday to a series of traumas that have as much to do with her career as crime. Her single-motherhood is hyped to no real end, but the connection with her kid makes for some intriguing and enlightening nuance.


Yet it’s these types of tangents that ultimately derail In the Valley of Elah. It seems like, every time a clue is unearthed, it requires a lengthy rationale and off topic backstory to certify it. Papa Deerfield swipes his son’s cellphone from the barracks, and within its damaged memory is a series of cryptic video clips. Of course, we get to witness almost all of these overlong ‘flashbacks’ in technologically deficient detail. As the picture pixelates, jumping and jerking to mimic handheld, in battle ‘realism’, we wait for the denouement. Sadly, Haggis hampers his own vindications by employing such a strange, scattered approach. Yet each video has an explanation, and we are constantly thrown off the case itself, to explore these occasionally unnecessary facets. It’s like the title analogy (Jones tells Theron’s little boy the story of David and Goliath): we are supposed to see the allusion between small town cop and the big, bad US military, but because the movie avoids such bravado confrontation, the link appears hallow.


Maybe the message will save In the Valley of Elah. Polls indicate that most Americans are sick of Iraq and its jumbled, no-endgame policies. As such, Haggis plays right into their worst, most horrifying fears. He shows an army incapable of achieving its objective while excusing the off-base criminality of its soldiers as simply “blowing off steam”. The grunts themselves are strip club settled and pimply, like hyperactive kids in an oversized candy store. When we learn what happened, both at home and abroad, we’re not shocked as much as saddened. The US has always suspected that its ‘unnecessary’ wars lead to unseen post-traumatic consequences. As a filmmaker, that’s all Haggis has to offer. Relying on it may be politically, or philosophically right, but it doesn’t necessarily serve a murder mystery thriller. Perhaps that’s why In the Valley of Elah seems so subdued. When questioning the heroism (not the heart) of the men who serve our nation, it’s best to speak softly. You don’t want to rile the resolved.


 


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Friday, Sep 21, 2007


While turkeys and the resulting leftovers are still two months away, your premium pay cable channels think the weekend of 22 September is theatrical Thanksgiving. They’re dishing out a depressing collection of half-baked entrees, with nary a satisfying side dish or desert in sight. An obvious reaction to the rising importance of awards season and its continuing collection of proposed available Academy taste tempters, the main movie channels have decided to acquiesce to averageness – at least for now. While one film definitely stands out among the others, the overall pickings are less than rib sticking, and will definitely leave you hungry for more. It will be interesting to see where this kind of counterprogramming eventually goes. If the substandard showcases continue, there’ll be a mass exodus from the idiot box before long. Hopefully, some of this Spring’s bigger titles will find their way into the Saturday premiere collection. Without them, it could be a rather regressive Fall, even with offerings like this one:


Premiere Pick
Stranger than Fiction


They say that every actor wants to be a rock star, and visa versa. Truer still is the notion that every comedian wants to tackle serious subject matter now and again – even if it means the end of their solid slapstick spoils. The latest former funnyman going the quasi-dramatis route is Will Farrell, and he appears to be following in the footsteps of one James “Jim” Carrey to get there. This Truman Show like effort, in which Farrell’s IRS agent Harold Crick begins to hear a disembodied voice narrate his life like it’s a novel, flummoxed fans of his SNL style silliness, while providing diehards attracted to his big screen fare (Talladega Nights, Blades of Glory) with a reason for pause. Overall, the novelty of the narrative helps us past some of the more pat and cloying circumstances, and the supporting cast (including Oscar winners Emma Thompson and Dustin Hoffman) help round out a remarkable company of characters. Still, the question becomes – do the devoted want to see their jester putting on the realism, or the ridiculousness?  (22 September, Starz, 9PM EST)

Additional Choices
The Black Dahlia


Brian DePalma, once a Hollywood heavyweight with his Hitchcock homage style, has fallen on some substantial hard times as of late. This LA Confidential retread, a routine reading of James Ellroy’s novel about the mysterious murder of a Hollywood starlet, is ample proof why. Instead of focusing on the compelling real life case, he goes off on tangents so surreal that even diehards couldn’t figure out his motives. The result was one of 2006’s biggest blunders. (22 September, HBO, 8PM EST)

You, Me and Dupree


If there were such a thing as crudeness copyright infringement, the Farrelly Brothers would be up to their necks in proactive litigation right about now. Still milking the There’s Something About Mary school of basic bodily humor, the siblings Russo (Joe and Anthony) use the overdone concepts of non-erotic male bonding and arrested development to create one of several reasons why Judd Apatow had to step in and save big screen comedy. (22 September, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Mission: Impossible III


Tom Cruise tempted filmic fate one too many times with the further adventures of Ethan Hunt and his IMF gang. The only individual who actually benefited from this non-charming third time though was director JJ Abrams. While the movie may have been a less than spectacular blockbuster, it gave the man behind Lost enough cinematic stature to take over the Star Trek franchise. Talk about failing upward. (22 September, Showtime, 8PM EST)

 


Indie Pick
Death Becomes Her


15 years ago, audiences were agog at the brand new CGI stylings of Robert Zemeckis’ brazen black comedy, a film fashioned to take on the superficiality of stardom and the overemphasis on anti-aging. Though the physical effects were also impressive, it was the concept of combining the real with the motherboard rendered that truly impressed audiences. Even the critical community, who found numerous flaws in both the storyline and the casting, couldn’t deny the visuals’ visceral power. After all, you had Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep systematically destroying each other in a baffling biological battle royale. Oddly enough, the last decade and a half have only amplified Zemeckis’ message. And with the prevalent plastic surgery that’s now part of the cultural dynamic, the plot’s focus on an “anything for looks” ideal is even more potent. Why this one time blockbuster has ended up on the independent oriented Sundance Channel is something to take up with their staff. But as an example of how the cutting edge can remain razor sharp, this is a timeless wonder. (23 September, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Sleep With Me


There’s a gimmick at the core of this 1994 off the radar entry – six separate writers collaborated to create the overall narrative drive. Such cinematic stunts usually don’t work, and for many, the results here were only average. Yet there are ardent defenders of this romantic drama. Be on the lookout for Quentin Tarantino as a boorish party guest who lets rip with a tirade on the obvious homoerotic overtones in Top Gun. (24 September, IFC, 10:30PM EST)

Memories of Murder


South Korean director Joon-ho Bong, got his first big exposure in the West with this sly, subtle serial killer procedural. Apparently, Asian law enforcement is ill-prepared for dealing with such systematic slaughter, and Bong infuses his film with some darkly humorous material, almost always at his bumbling policemen’s expense. While not as universally appealing as his follow-up, the monster on a rampage The Host, this is still an intriguing insight into crime in another culture. (24 September, Sundance Channel, 12AM EST)

Pumpkin


Christina Ricci continues to polish her creative indie cred with this interesting romcom about a sorority girl who falls for a handicapped man. Life lessons are learned and horizons are broadened. For first time filmmakers Adam Larson Broder and Anthony Abrams, the biggest hurdle wasn’t avoiding cliché or maximizing character. It was getting this little seen gem any notice whatsoever. (29 September, IFC, 9PM EST)

Outsider Option
Spider Baby


It remains a strangely satisfying experiment in terror: writer/director Jack Hill hired former fright master Lon Chaney Jr., turned him into a sympathetic caregiver for a collection of craven creeps, and gave the whole thing a freak show veneer of macabre monochrome. Subtitled The Maddest Story Ever Told, no other underlying label ever did a better job of describing a yarn’s intentions. Featuring future human oddity Sid Haig as the repugnant Ralph, and Mantan Mooreland in a minor cameo role, this arguably bizarre family fright night substituted novelty and wit for nastiness and the wicked. Still, it will be hard for newcomers to forget the truly horrific ending. Paired up with another nightmare novelty from the ‘60s (Die! Die! My Darling), we’ve got one of the better double features offered by Turner Classic Movies late night film fest. Here’s hoping that a post-Halloween Rob Zombie can make an appearance as host. He single handedly resurrected Haig’s career, and his comments would be very telling indeed. (28 September, TCM Underground, 2AM EST)

Additional Choices
The War (Ken Burns)


While SE&L normally ignore TV offerings, the latest from The Civil War’s Ken Burns deserves a mention. This time, the talented documentarian takes on another country-defining conflict – WWII – and the results are reportedly masterful. One thing’s for sure – come Sunday night, the DVD player will be pushed aside for what promises to be seven nights of fact filmmaking at its finest. (23 September, PBS, Check Local Listings)

The End


Back when Burt Reynolds was the reigning box office God, he flexed his fiscal reputation on the occasional obscure effort. This remains one of his best, the story of a dying man who enlists the aid of a manic mental patient to commit suicide. This ballsy black comedy defied expectations in 1978 and stands as proof that there was more to the actor’s persona than Smokey and the Bandit. (24 September, Retroplex, 10PM EST)

At the Earth’s Core


Sometime in the mid ‘70s, American International Pictures decided that Doug McClure was an action star. Go figure. The company created a set of schlocky projects for the former TV talent, and along with The People that Time Forgot and The Land that Time Forgot, this Edgar Rice Burroughs bunk ruled the passion pits. That’s okay – no one really knows why, either. (26 September, Drive In Classics Canada, 12:15AM EST)

 


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Thursday, Sep 20, 2007


The glamorization of crime has as much to do with the mob as it does the movies. Because of its strictures that exist outside the limits of the law, the rights and duties, honors and codes becomes the art design for a million cinematic statements. Part of the relish in something like The Godfather is watching these ritualistic rationales play out, as well as sneaking a peek behind a frequently unseen curtain. But the genre itself is also a mirror, reflecting the level of sameness in, say, a South Central Los Angeles gang and a high ranking Hong Kong triad. It’s all about family, force, and the freedom to indulge in the blurry border between capitalism and corruption. In his latest mean streets masterwork, Eastern Promises venereal horror icon David Cronenberg takes the Russian mafia to task. It’s part of a bigger picture dissection of how obsession makes even the most moral individual turn.


Our story begins when midwife Anna (a wonderful Naomi Watts) stumbles across the diary of a dead girl. With a newborn baby left behind, she’s desperate to locate some manner of family abroad. With the help of her immigrant uncle Stepan, she translates a few pages of the text, and learns of the girl’s name (Tatiana), her trip from Russia, and her initial contact with a local London restaurateur Semyon (a diabolic Armin Mueller-Stahl). When she approaches the seemingly genial gentleman, he promises to get to the bottom of the Tatiana’s situation. But since Anna has a copy of the diary as well, the secrets it contains suddenly threaten the incognito mobster’s standing. He puts his son Kirill (Vincent Cassell, stealing every scene he’s in) and dedicated ‘driver’ Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) on the case of reclaiming the journal, quieting anyone connected with it, and retrieving Tatiana’s baby. Even the slightest slip up could mean chaos for Semyon’s omnipresent power structure.


At first, it feels like Eastern Promises is going to revolve around an unconscionable connection between Anna and Nikolai. They run into each other several times during the opening act, and each time, there’s a growing sense of attraction and mystery between the pair. We keep waiting for the inevitable moment, the situation which allows both characters to remove their outer façade and become real, recognizable people. But Cronenberg isn’t out to explore that particular narrative thread. Indeed, many of the standard crime story motifs that have come to define the cinematic category are completely ignored by this wonderful film, making it an anomaly in an otherwise recognizable realm. Sure, there is blood, and death hangs its shingle over almost every onscreen action, but as a director, this is one artist who is looking for new canvases to compile. Eastern Promises will remain recognizable, but only partially so.


Instead of going for gratuity, Cronenberg is out to understand human arrogance. He wants to know what makes one group of people – in this case, displaced Russian hoodlums – think they can flaunt the conventions of civilized society. He does so by contrasting Semyon with his son, offering an older man of unspeakable evil with a young stud who barely has the backbone to handle the small stuff. Obviously doomed from the start, Vincent Cassell turns Kirill into a walking contradiction, a man who loves power but can’t wield it in a way that’s successful or substantive. He lucks into his tainted triumphs, and relies heavily on Nikolai to mop up his messes. Semyon, on the other hand, is cruelty covered in a fine patina of paternity. He’s like everyone’s elderly grandpa - that is, if said relative was a repulsive, irredeemable rapist. It’s to his credit that Cronenberg never lets Mueller-Stahl act on his reputation. Suggestion works much better than having all of it shown.


At the opposite end is Mortensen’s Nickolai. His is a brute that is all outer trappings, from his jet black wardrobe and Secret Service sunglasses to the elaborate tattoos that trace his horrible history of violence. We are given reason to fear this mystifying man, especially after witnessing the offhand way he handles the disposition of a corpse. Even more intriguing, you will never see a gun in Eastern Promises. Every act is tactile, requiring a knife or handy tool to tackle. When Mortensen’s character is confronted in a bath, his full frontal nude body battling with two dagger wielding hitmen, it’s more than just a homoerotic stunt. Cronenberg wants to illustrate that real men don’t need a phallic substitute (read: a firearm) to create unspeakable destruction. All they need is a sharpened blade and a will to survive. As one of the film’s setpiece splatter sequences, Nickolai’s naked clash is a classic.


But it’s also antithetical to the movie’s main point. As with most syndicate activity, insinuation and rumor is far more effective at keeping things under control than direct confrontation and destruction. It’s obvious from the moment Semyon learns of the diary. The contents do indeed worry him, but the sign of weakness amongst the other bosses is far more problematic. Like a massive game of multilevel chess, the slightest miscalculation can mean utter defeat. It’s the reason the understated Don is so mad at his son. He sees recklessness and a streak of irredeemable drunken sloppiness – elements that function in direct contrast to the strategic aims of the syndicate. It’s a model of interconnected complexity that illustrates how difficult these dynasties are to take down. But it also underlies the notion that everyone here is out for their own selfish motives. Even the supposed heroine is far from pristine.


Indeed - don’t be fooled. Naomi Watts’ Anna is no innocent here. She has her own selfish reasons for learning of Tatiana’s family, though the underpinning isn’t apparent at first. Cronenberg only hints at the pain this childless woman experiences especially as someone serving biology day in and day out while her own personal prayers go unanswered. Yet in several close contact conversations with her mother, we begin to see the truth. Without spoiling the situation, it’s clear that circumstances in Anna’s past are coloring her concern, leading all pathways directly back to her own maternal instincts. No one else in the film feels the same way, and it’s shocking the Cronenberg would introduce such a mercenary facet into this narrative. But because we keep expecting certain ‘good vs. evil’ avenues, it’s that much easier of the director to take us down an unexplored backstreet.


As a matter of fact, much of Eastern Promises is a window into a world we know little about. While pageantry and grandeur paint the Russians as much as the Italians (a major confrontation occurs during a ceremonial banquet), Cronenberg stuffs this storyline with all manner of insider details. We learn of the Yakuza-like significance of body art, what stars on one’s knees means, how slander and sexual defamation means more than a random killing, and why the collapse of communism led to such inhuman hostility. It’s intriguing material, made even more emblematic by how this director incorporates it into the subtext. Some hold a significant place in the plot. Others are asides that only come back to resonate later.


Perhaps the best thing about Eastern Promises, however, is its lack of conclusiveness. We definitely get an ending, and an epilogue wrap-up featuring a calculated character “where are they now.” But there is no real sense of resolve, no suggestion that everything is right in this one time very wrong world. Instead, the tableaus suggest change, but little in the way of finality. Roles may have changed, and situations settled, but there is still trouble brewing. One can sense it. You can even see it in a person’s slow, controlled deliberation. It’s a look that can only come from contemplating the next move. Unlike other movies in his canon, which end on a shot that suggest definiteness, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises remains an enigma. And considering the genre he’s working in, it explains crime’s continuing hold on our consciousness.


 


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Wednesday, Sep 19, 2007


There is perhaps no more detail-oriented director than Roman Polanski. All his films, from his initial landmark productions to his later misguided efforts, have concentrated on the minutia and facets of life from which epic circumstances appear to arise. Movies like Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby are not just well acted, brilliantly scripted works of creative cinematic construction, but they are carefully observed sketches of finely intricate scrutiny. Everything is significant in a Polanski film; the setting, a character’s coat, the view in the window behind an actor, the placement of items on a desk. His moviemaking language, the importance of the camera and framing, the creation of an outside voice to generate tension and drama between the individuals onscreen is as imperative as the words they are saying and the emotions they are expressing.


When everything comes together, the technical and the emotional, there is no better filmmaker. When one is missing, however, or if both are weak, then there is no more artificial movie mind. Polanski is a student of film as a mechanical craft. He is also an artisan, a handmade creator of complex scenarios and interweaving undercurrents. Sometimes his style can substantially outweigh his substance, but he is usually able to balance both to create something magical out of a sort of cinematic geometry.


Polanski’s first full-length feature film, Knife in the Water, is a technical marvel, a masterpiece of composition and perfected camera work. It is filled with startling, glorious black and white imagery, obvious symbolism, and shots of staggering complexity and construction. At its core, it is a three person psychological drama that takes place over a period of 24 hours on a small sailboat adrift in a lake, a simple, subtle struggle between classes and emotions. Yet through its sweeping vistas and rampant artistic touches, it is also a movie of greater scope and universal platitudes.


One can look at Knife and see the start of a thousand future film projects: movies that capture interpersonal and sexual tension between lovers and strangers, spouses, and students. One can also feel the foundation for Polanski’s entire career, a series of movies that deal with untold secrets, unspoken pain, and unexpected connections. No one is who he or she seems to be in Knife in the Water. The husband is not a brave, successful man; the wife is not a happy, contented partner; and the enigmatic, blond-haired hitchhiker is not the switchblade wielding threat he portrays. They are more than their outer face…but they are also less. Actually, the question becomes who exactly are these people and what do they really stand for? Unfortunately, Knife has little desire to address this quandary.


This is a major misstep in this film. The obvious ambiguousness to almost every event that happens on screen and the characters creating the scenarios renders Knife in the Water cold and calculating when it should be hot with untold tension. This is not a thriller in the traditional sense. We are not witnessing a true battle of wills or a deeply disturbed set of secretly acted-out agendas. Indeed, the characterization and dramatics play out like the languid day on a calm blue waterway. Issues are allowed to drift and stagnate, motives become ill defined and lazy, and the entire story sags beneath underdeveloped plot sails. Part of the problem here is that we really don’t have anyone to identify with. The husband and wife appear content, yet there is a thread of hatred between them that only flares up once. When it does, the movie crackles and burns. Finally, we are seeing something of the subconscious. But it’s one of the few times where we experience such insight or shock.


The rest of the movie is just too vague, too sub-textual to spell out—or in some cases even hint at—the issues irritating the characters. A great deal of the dynamic between the players here has to be inferred, created in the mind of the viewer from half-heard lines of dialogue, a stolen glance or two, and most unfortunately, from a backlog of similarly structured post-Polanski storylines. If Knife in the Water is indeed a creepy, suspenseful love/hate/horror triangle between disaffected marrieds and an ingenious, insane interloper, the reason for its success as such is purely cinematic craft. Just like any summarization, we keep waiting for the real meat of the story to step forward and be recognized.


Maybe it’s better to view Knife in the Water as not about a marriage on the brink or a young man trying to unseat a dominant male. This is Communist Poland, after all, and no amount of Western allusion can dilute the fact that we are dealing with a strict class structure and sense of social composition. The youth (as this is how he is referred to in the credits) is supposed to be a scared, wild-eyed dreamer, the kind of impressionable mind the Party recruits and debases for the sake of the common good. Krystyna is supposed to be subservient and dissatisfied with life: wives behind the Iron Curtain don’t have the liberation of America or Europe and marry more out of convenience than love or sex. And the older businessman (or bureaucrat or ranking government official) is indeed the boss, the controlling and commanding dispassionate pawn to dogma that makes the political machine ebb and flow. So there’s not much more of a dynamic that can be created or challenged. These people are doomed to fulfill their State-sponsored roles.


In interviews, Polanski’s stated desire to strip the dialogue back, to only present small, selected portions of these people’s thoughts and personas, is irreparable to Knife in the Water. Perhaps he felt his camera would fill in the blanks, but in reality, that attitude backfires and it becomes increasingly impossible to understand the individual’s motivation or if they even have any. Tension and suspense only work when we feel something is at stake, when something we care for or understand is threatened or about to be. In Knife in the Water, the characters never truly come alive for us. So, in turn, we never really care what happens.


Yet the visual scope and sense of artistic structure mostly makes up for the lack of a fully realized internal element. Indeed, you can watch this film, never once worrying about the people or the plot and simply sit back and enjoy a cinematic impressionist at work. Polanski piles on the unique angles (only Kubrick indulged in more lens and placement machinations) and faultless compositions, making the superficial facets of his film simply exquisite. He uses everything at his disposal to maintain a moody, atmospheric tone. Costumes and setting, blocking and in-frame tableaus, even a fantastically multi-faceted jazz score all combine to create a sense of dread and foreboding. It is easy to see why this is a much praised motion picture. It is probably as close to visual perfection as you will witness, the ultimate blending of the monochrome medium to light and shadow, image and presentation.



Yet one can’t help but be bothered by the vagueness, the sheer lack of specificity that runs throughout the story being told. Like the irritating bearer of information that keeps hinting over and over as to what the secret or the story really is (and eventually fails to divulge everything completely), Knife in the Water‘s all too well hidden agendas eventually grow tiresome. You want someone to rage. You want someone to lust. All this polite positioning is just not dramatic.


But perhaps Knife in the Water is not supposed to represent anything more than these hidden desires and sequestered sentiments of people under the rule of a totalitarian thumb. Setting is as important to Polanski as anything else, and Poland circa 1960 was not a wellspring of openness and experimentation. This trip on the lake is a chance to escape the complex prerequisites of a society under Soviet domination. It is these people’s brief chance to shed the images impressed upon them by the Marxist ideals. These are citizens without power, with only their place within the class configuration to preserve their identity. How they interact on the boat is perhaps how they would do so within any other social setting or Party meeting. This is not a time for in-depth personal revelation, nor is there a communal climate for such.


At most, it’s a chance to test the waters, so to speak, to barely open the door to the psyche and discover the undercurrents of discontent running through each of them. Or maybe this is all just an excuse for Polanski to create a love letter to his favorite pastime of that moment: sailing. Indeed, a boat is merely a knife in the water, cutting a swath along the glass-like stillness of the surface, revealing a small wake of what’s underneath before quickly closing back up. Just like the nick of a blade to the skin. Just like our trio of isolated souls. While far from perfect on the interpersonal level, Polanski’s first feature heralds an artist in full effect.


This is also evident from his work in short films. As part of this DVD package, Criterion collects eight of Polanski’s mini movies. They span the period of 1957-62 and cover all genres, from drama to absurdist comedy. Each movie looks fantastic with only minimal defects. The only real visual issues come with the final short, Mammals. It has a fuzzy, faded look that may have been intentional, or may be the result of age or production problems (after all, it must be difficult to film in the bleak whiteness of snow). Each one of these movies is a masterwork of form, style, and simple near-silent storytelling, even when the plots seem obtuse or illogical. Murder is a brief snippet of crime in controlled shots. Teeth Smile tells a voyeur’s tale from a wonderful, beautifully framed mise-en-scène.


Break Up the Dance is the first experiment in more long form narrative. Here, Polanski tries to challenge tone and show a happy set-up (a swanky, invite only party) followed by an anarchic ending (a gang of thugs literally break things up). Lamp is the notion of progress competing with old world ways. A new electrical system destroys a dollmaker’s shop, and the magic inside, when it replaces the reliable oil lamp therein. The aforementioned Mammals is really an allegory for the battle between man and his nature for evolutionary and social superiority. Basically boiled down to a snowbound tale of one rube forced to pull another along on a sleigh, it’s a game of one-upmanship to see who gets to play master and who gets to be subservient.


The three longest shorts, however, are also the best. Two Men and a Wardrobe tells the tender tale of a couple of jolly furniture movers who suddenly appear from out of the ocean, oversized cupboard in hand. As they move around a cityscape devolving into crime and brutality, the good-natured duo are put upon and ridiculed, refused service in restaurants, and beaten by thugs. The dichotomy between people who are different and the stubborn prejudice of the community strikes chords of instant recognition. What is not so readily apparent is the quiet gentility in the story and the painful pathos of watching the innocent be oppressed. Equally stirring is The Fat and the Lean, a strange tale of ritualistic patterns that reveals how the ties than bind are more damaging than the ability to break free. As a sad servant tries his best to entertain and care for his obese, dictatorial master, he longs for freedom and a life in the big city, away from service and supplication. It is funny, sad, and stupid all in one big bravura cinematic performance.


But probably the best piece of moviemaking in the whole DVD package is When Angels Fall, the brutally devastating story of an old woman forced to live out her last days with haunting memories of her past as she monitors a men’s bathroom. Surrounded by bums and hustlers, urinals dripping with running water, we see a face devastated by time and fate thinking back and recalling: remembering her youth, remembering young love, remembering family, and always, remembering loss in wartime. Shifting from the black and white realities of the toilet to the faded colors of memory, it shows that Polanski, even as a graduating student from school, was a genius of visual arts.


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