4/11/7 - 4/20/7
In October 2006, Funderburg and Cribbs set out to watch at least 200 movies over the course of the next 200 days. They both watched a different slate of films and wrote about every single one; from epic high art masterpieces such as Jean-Pierre Melvile's Army of Shadows to half-forgotten oddities like I Bury the Living to quality-deficient garbage like Charles Band's Tourist Trap. In sections spanning 10 days at a time, The Pink Smoke is reprinting their writings about the grueling experiment in cinematic endurance.
<<click here for 4/1 - 4/10>>
4.11. Radio Star.
Of course, if you ingest enough cinema, you have an awareness that most countries have their own thriving film industries in which they turn out popular films that never make it over to America in any capacity (not dvd, not vhs, not on cable, not illegal bootleg, not vcd, not nuthin’). Just look at Variety's international top ten listings and you'll see a host of films about which you've never heard anything and most likely never will. For instance, I grabbed the October 10th, 2005 issue of "Variety" out of a random pile of back-issues beside my desk and glanced at Spain's highest grossing films for the week. Among recognizable titles like Monster-in-Law, Red-Eye and The Brothers Grimm (no wonder the rest of the world hates us), there are several films that haven't made a dent in the international market in the nearly two years since their success with the Spaniards: El Metodo, Obaba and, the number one film for the week, Torrente 3: El Protector*. Come on, you're telling me you're not the least bit curious about a box-office juggernaut with the sweet-ass title Torrente 3: El Protector? I bet all three Torrente movies are awesome. Going through the other countries, Germany's list is topped by Die Weisse Massai, France's by Il ne Faut Jurer de Rien! and Australia's by some anonymous bullshit called Cinderella Man – who's ever heard of that movie?
Anyway, Radio Star is the latest film starring South Korea's hugest box office sensation, the matinee idol Joong-Hoon Park. We're doing a big Joong-Hoon Park series here at the JBFC because Jonathan Demme loves the guy and we are willing to do whatever Mr. Demme wants because he is kind of an awesome dude and he has great, idiosyncratic taste. So, Radio Star is one of those strange foreign titles that I've been talking about: it's been a gigantic fucking hit in Korea, but there is roughly 0%chance of it getting anything resembling a release here in the U.S. (and again, I mean even on video, etc.). So, I was actually kind of excited to see this and get a rare peek at that specific breed of foreign mainstream film that has no chance of crossing over. And it all makes sense now: this film is the Monster-in-Law of Korean cinema. I don't know how to describe it any simpler than that.
Joong-Hoon Park plays a washed-up rocker (or the pasty, bedazzled variation of what constitutes a "rocker" in Asia) with one last chance to redeem his fumbled career: a demeaning gig as a DJ at a small radio station in rural Japan. Will Park shake things up at the station with his devil-may-care attitude and outrageous on-the-air antics? Will he reconcile with his estranged, but still loyal manager? And what about the crazy group of local youths who still idolize Park, will they get in on the act – perhaps by starting some kind of a website devoted to Park’s new radio show? As for the uptight management types: is this all going to jive with their button-down worldview? Whatever happens, I think you can agree that we'll laugh and love and learn about laughing and loving and what really counts in life. The film is no better and no worse than half the movies dribbled out into American multiplexes each week (as I write this, The Fantastic Four sequel and Nancy Drew are primed to open) and it's interesting how its tactics are virtually identical to the Hollywood model: a ridiculously weak script is redeemed in large part thanks to Joong-Hoon's immensely charismatic screen persona and the general chemistry of the cast. It's directed with a nondescript efficiency and it never strays too far from notions on which we can all agree: it's better to be nice than a jerk, friends and family are more important than money and fame, it's never too late to redeem yourself, rock music has the ability to change lives, Korean food is delicious.
* Which must have been a huge hit as it grossed $8,674,757 compared to Monster-in-Law's second place showing of $859,000.
4.12. Perfect Stranger.
(35mm) JBFC preview.
I always wondered how scripts like this actually come to be. The basic set-up is obviously designed to fit snugly into a trailer for the film: "A journalist goes undercover to gather evidence exposing a sleazy businessman as a killer. Posing as one of his temps, she enters into a game of cat-and-mouse." Fine, there are worse ideas for movies. But what happens next? Ok, some dude has this idea and starts to write the script. Or maybe a studio executive or actor or producer has the idea and farms it out to some dude, who then starts to write the script. Does he then just begin to haphazardly pile up the clichés: A hard-drinking, maverick journalist ignores her superior's admonitions to "let this story go!" and goes undercover to gather evidence exposing a sleazy, slick, high-powered businessman as the killer of one of the journalist’s old friends. Oh yeah, the friend is a cryptic character with a sordid history. Did I mention that the journalist is well-respected (award-winning) but THROWING HER DAMN CAREER AWAY! because of a troubled personal life? Posing as one of the businessman's temps, she enters into a sexy game of cat-and-mouse where the journalist is reluctantly attracted to the businessman and begins to doubt his guilt.
I mean, couldn't a more interesting script be written just by plugging different words into the bold, Mad-Libs style? For instance: a fey, musical-loving journalist half-heartedly pursues a lead and goes undercover to gather evidence exposing a sleazy, bumbling, nearly destitute businessman as the killer of a well-respected local weatherman. You're probably saying, "but doesn't that just sound like a goof-ball comedy à la Miss Congeniality?" Well, just don't make it into a god-damned comedy then, wise-ass. I mean, aren't I more describing something like Fargo* or Fletch?
Anyway, the blandness of the former description versus my Mad-Lib seems mainly to be a necessity, really - not a sign of creative bankruptcy. Think of it this way: how many actors could reasonably be considered for the first description? Forget that it ultimately ended up starring the supremely untalented Halle Berry – it actually could've been Jude Law with very little re-jiggering. And Hollywood is over-loaded with past-their-prime stars who would be more than plausible in the sleazy businessman role - Willis said "no?" Well get me Alec Baldwin! In that sense, the script is designed to attract an actor, any actor, whose involvement will lead to a green-light. Halle Berry most likely couldn't have played a fey, musical-loving journalist (although, I'd be interested to see Willis in the role of a bumbling, nearly destitute businessman. Perhaps he could run a hardware store).
But another huge problem with the boring, actual plot is that it clearly has no particular ending in mind. Did I mention Giovanni Ribisi is in the movie? Neither do the advertisements for the film. I wonder who the surprise "real killer" could be? But audiences love twist endings, so let's throw in a final twist on top of the shocking revelation of Ribisi's blood-thirst. A twist that makes absolutely no sense. I'll go ahead and spoil it for you: Halle Berry turns out to be the real killer – not Giovanni Ribisi at all! Totally left-field, end of film surprises rarely work because they're predicated on unpredictability; and for harried screen-writers, the easiest way to be unpredictable is to do something that makes utterly no sense in the context of the film – you can't predict something that renders the preceding narrative totally incoherent. And if people actually care enough to think about it, they think back and pick through all the plot holes that obviously weren't taken into consideration before this left-field idea was formulated. As cheap and shallow as something like The Sixth Sense is, the writer at least had his twist in mind from the get-go and was carefully setting the audience up for the reveal. Perfect Stranger feels like what would happen if Lionel Hutz wrote a movie.
But all that noise aside, the true coup de grace of awfulness in this screenplay is the "hook" that somebody clearly thought would be its bread and butter. All of the above machinations are centered around "the internet." Berry and Willis IM each other, Ribisi is into bondage porno websites, Berry has to "hack" into Willis' computer and "download" files, etc. Obviously, the internet is not in the least bit cinematic. Watching people type and read things off a computer screen is boring. Having them say what they're reading obviously engages that pathetic trifecta of silly, tedious, and unrealistic. You don't need me to tell you this. But, for whatever reason, high-paid studio executives don't seem to grasp the simple fact that it is a losing battle to attempt to try to make the internet suspenseful (or otherwise engaging). Clearly, the internet is an important technological development and wildly popular. It is even very important pop-culturally, what with websites with lists of various things and self-important analyses about long-forgotten Halle Berry movies. But that doesn't mean people want to see movies about it.**
Really, there's not much more to be said about the general awfulness of this screenplay - what’s funny, though, is that it seems inevitable that its failures will be repeated endlessly so long as there are screenplays gettin' "greenlit." Hmm, what’s new on dvd this week. Fracture and Vacancy? I wonder if they're any good
* I am not entirely convinced the Coens don't write their scripts in the Mad-Libs style described above.
** "I don't get it, this is the most popular coupon in the country – people love the coupon, they should love the movie."
4.13. Nowhere to Hide.
Remember when the strange collision of melodrama, hyper-active stylistics, brutality, and shop-worn b-movie clichés taking place in Hong Kong action cinema seemed invigorating? This Korean variant of that particular strain of double-barreled, bare-knuckled, defiantly ridiculous cinema came along just as the disease was going into remission: John Woo was in between the production of two credibility-deficient Hollywood projects (Face Slash Off and Mission Impossible II: Robert Towne's "Notorious"); Jet Li was refining his sexless, monotone Kung Fu-guy with a rapper sidekick persona; Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam were splitting the duty of shepherding ill-conceived Van Damme vehicles through production (Hark on the muscles from Brussels' surrealist masterpieces and Lam on movies about multiple Van Dammes); while Jackie Chan was just settling into a highly profitable decade-long partnership based on the uncertainty of whether or not he could understand the words coming out of the irascible Chris Tucker's mouf. Presumably, Chow Yun-Fat was either explaining to a baffled Antoine Fuqua that he didn't know how to use a katana, resisting the urge to punch Mark Wahlberg in the face or contemplating suicide.
In that context, the main thing Nowhere to Hide had going for it was its authentic gonzo-action cinema approach: it feels exactly like something that would've been churned out in Hong Kong in the early 90’s. Its Korean-ness also added a small bit of novelty and Joong-Hoon Park's swaggering turn in the lead role raised hopes that there was a passable Chow Yun-Fat replacement now ready to step up. Overall, the film is no better and no worse that any other mildly diverting H.K. action programmer. Its attempts to bludgeon a low budget into submission with inventive stylistics yields mixed results: for every scene that's visually dazzling, there's one that looks like the Adobe Effects Palette took a shit on it. It's appropriately grimy and raw, melodramatic and implausible, but overall it reminds me of Across 110th Street or Report to the Commissioner or something – some mildly memorable, gritty late 60's/early 70's action film that's interesting on a certain level but isn't ambitious in the right way to be even worth mentioning in the same breath with the genre's greatest successes. It sure as shit isn't The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 or Hard-Boiled.
4.14 & 15. Berlin Alexanderplatz.
see: 200 Days & 200 Movies: Berlin Alexanderplatz
4.16. Syndromes and a Century.
(dvd) just at my house.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul is one of those filmmakers who specializes in cryptic narratives: he is not an experimental filmmaker along the lines of Michael Snow or Stan Brakhage - who are far enough the narrative path that it's clear that their films are not primarily meant to be understood as stories.* Weerasethakul creates scenes, images, plots and dialog that more or less resemble "standard" narratives, but any narrative thread is wholly subsumed under stylistics. Syndromes and a Century is a story; specifically, it is the story of two doctors who fall in love. There are wacky side characters and the plot functions on a basic episodic "this happened, then this happened" level and the doctors have charming little dialogs. However, everything is intentionally unintelligible to a certain extent: it is entirely possible to watch the film and not have the faintest idea what "actually happened" in that basic, episodic story.
Much like his last film (Tropical Malady), it is divided into two equal parts: in the first part, the two doctors fall in love in a provincial Thai hospital that seems to be set in the past; in the second part, the story repeats itself in a modern, urban setting. This repetition is deliberately unexplained: are these the same characters? Is this a case of reincarnation? In addition to the fact that those type of narrative answers are emphatically eschewed, there are also many little stylistic hiccups which contribute to the audience's disorientation: scenes from the first episode repeat themselves in the second episode with pointed variations in the dialog, editing, and shot selection. The camera lingers on unoccupied chairs and empty offices. The camera tracks slowly away from the action to suddenly stop and hold on nothing in particular – an empty waiting room, for example. There is an endless shot of smoke pouring into a funnel: you understand that it's smoke pouring into a funnel at a certain point in the story in a certain moment in time, etc. (the shot is intelligible in a basic narrative fashion) – but why are you watching it for several minutes without significant visual variation?
Of course, with a filmmaker like Brakhage, you understand immediately that his intentions are lyric: his films are obviously trying to harness a kind of visual poetry that exists somewhere just beyond the immediate narrative intelligibility of his images – that is, you can easily understand that it's the texture, the vibrancy, the suggestiveness, the poetry of his images (and the meaning of that poetry) that matter above the simple and/or unintelligible narratives lurking around Dogstar Man (a man climbing a mountain) or Window Water Baby Moving (the story of a woman's pregnancy/giving birth). I believe that Weerasethakul has a similar lyric agenda, but that the collision of "standard" narrative form and his lyric aspirations are the mismatched elements that unintentionally create the cryptic form. You can’t help but think over and over during Syndromes and a Century, "Why am I seeing this? What is this supposed to mean? Why is he wasting his time on this?" For all but the most patient of audiences, it puts one in an uneasy state seemingly antithetical to his poetic aspirations: you're never sure how closely you need to be following the narrative to understand what's going on, so you can’t quite slip into a hypnotic trance and be carried away by the imagery and, conversely, the long passages of "standard" form are tedious if you haven't been making an effort to construct the plot from the cryptic bits and pieces at your disposal. If you get caught up in the poetry, the narrative suffers immeasurably. If you try to assemble the narrative, you can't get lost in the poetry.
I'm past that point in my life in which I try to pound a film into oblivion because I disagree with its artistic strategies**. I can imagine that two or three years ago I would've railed against this film because there is something about it that fundamentally rubs me the wrong way. However, Weerasethakul imbues Syndromes with something undeniably heartfelt: he wants me to understand him, even if the film fails to reach me on any significant level and its lyric conception ultimately prevents me from searching for deeper meaning. This film simply lives on a different planet than I do and as much I find it boring, pretentious and dumb, I don't begrudge it anything. Not every film works on every audience - there is always the chance that you will find a good film to be absolutely terrible.
* Although, yes, both of those filmmakers frequently include narratively "readable" elements and don't exclusively work in pure abstraction.
** If I find those strategies to be sincere as a tactic of artistic communication. Even now, nothing irritates me more than filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick or Paul Thomas Anderson, who wield their talent like a blunt instrument designed to beat an audience into submission: this is a work of GENIUS!
4.17. Police Beat.
(dvd) my apartment.
For whatever reason, True Crime is a thriving (if lurid and disreputable) literary genre, while very few films manage to capture the queasy pleasures that those books provide. Theoretically, there should be an entire flourishing sub-genre of these sort of documentaries; instead most films that tackle comparable subject matter take a staid, decent "60 Minutes" approach that loses something in the translation. Granted, there have been some notable exceptions to this rule, films such as The Thin Blue Line and Paradise Lost that evoke (and even surpass) the best True Crime writing with their dedication to methodically dissecting the mess around their lurid subjects.
But most True Crime films shy away from the gritty details whereas the books exhibit a devotion to parsing tangled web of messy, frequently appalling facts – these films are stream-lined and tasteful where the books are sprawling and shocking. This is one of the reasons that True Crime books are so compelling - they almost always have a prosecutor’s fetish for details. All of the blind alleys and utterly inexplicable moments surrounding a case are chronicled, categorized, and analyzed – building a case doesn’t result in a perfectly coherent whole; it’s like assembling a Lego castle without instructions and ending up a bunch of little, grey pieces left over. The Thin Blue Line makes a big deal about milkshakes and taillights and drive-in movie titles and semi-coherent confessions precisely because that fog of facts is what makes any given case compelling. Would Capturing the Friedmans even be worth watching if all of the loose ends were shored up by the time the end credits rolled? And yet, that's how most films based on actual crimes play out: all's well that ends well. The film takes you through a coherent narrative of events, presents reversals of fortune with clarity, states its claims and declares "case closed."
So, the most striking element of Police Beat (directed by Robinson Devor, who co-wrote the script with Charles Mudede) is how well it fuses a poetic narrative style with a distinct True Crime sensibility: it's Truman Capote's In Cold Blood's closest cinematic relative (even more so than the 1967 film version of that book). The story follows a bicycle cop around Seattle as he pines over his vacationing girlfriend and responds to a variety of minor incidents. Even if going into it you didn't know that events of his days were taken from real incidents reported to the Seattle PD (I sure didn't), there's an unmistakable True Crime flavor to the parade of semi-lucid old women in bath robes, beer-swilling white-trash-o's in full riot gear, unexplained stabbings, vengeful tree branches and lonely men wading out into the ocean - the film is thrilling when seizing on the poetic possibilities inherent in these strange situations. The gorgeous blue/grey cinematography and dreamy soundtrack heighten the sense of unreality, but coupling that style with items pulled from a police blotter gives it an unforced authenticity that makes a supposedly "gritty" and "raw" crime film like Harsh Times seem even more full of shit.
I'm not so crazy about the over-arching story, though. The bike cop is an African immigrant with deep-seated jealousy issues and a hipster girlfriend – the way it plays out is a little clichéd and a little boring. The film doesn't say whether she majored in African-American studies in college or not, but I would just go ahead and make that assumption. There's also a pointless subplot about his partner sleeping with a junkie whore and the film never really comes together in a way that's satisfying, but it's an inarguably exciting and interesting movie much more notable for what it gets right than what it gets wrong.
4.18. Lights in the Dusk.
(dvd) my apartment.
So dry so very, very dry. There's no way to label Lights in the Dusk as anything other than a comedy, but its sense of humor passes beyond dry into the territory of arid, brittle, nonexistent. On the surface, it's a classic film noir set-up: a lonely security guard is seduced by a femme fatale; and of course it's just a set-up, but he still walks right into the trap. However, the deadpan dialog, static performances, and somnambulant stylistics suggest that we're definitely not supposed to take the proceedings at generic face value. Its goofy settings and off-kilter rhythms would be a set-up for hijinks in most films, but Aki Kurismaki's sense of humor derives almost all of its kick from the fact that it's borderline antagonistic. Nothing funny, per se, ever happens in a Kurismaki film: Lights in the Dusk verges on comedy throughout, but constantly pulls back from the precipice of humor. The moment you think you're in store for a bit of tom-foolery, you're instead greeted with something grim, bleak, depressing. With Kurismaki, punch-lines are replaced with punches.
And, admittedly, that's funny in concept: pathologically denying an audience the humor that seems to be in store was a staple of indisputable comedic genius Andy Kaufman. But it never really works in Kurismaki – there's an undercurrent of sentimentality that confuses your reaction: he insistently eschews comic pay-offs while setting up emotional ones. The problem is that the emotional pay-off of Lights in the Dusk is cheaper than any vaudeville gag and the film just seems schizophrenic as a result. On the one hand, its approach to humor antagonizes the audience, keeping the audience at arm's length and subverting their base desire for gags - while its approach to drama simultaneously makes a maudlin, cloying play for their tears. It's a film that coldly denies you what you want, moments before launching into a desperate plea for your sympathies. The film's fascination with shitty rock bar rock doesn't help the situation. Kurismaki's films are weird and completely singular, but for once that's not a compliment.
I should have done the right thing and seen a movie.
4.20. Hot Fuzz.
(35mm) UA Union Square 14.
Shaun of the Dead was a nice surprise, so I had lofty expectations for this follow-up - well, lofty insofar as one can have lofty expectations for an amiable, un-ambitious studio comedy. I was hoping for another satisfyingly amiable genre "____?" - "deconstruction" is too strong a word and "parody" is too soft. I was hoping for another enthusiastically slacker-ish riff on a shop-worn genre, a winking "buddy-cop" film without an ounce of condescension for the type of film it's reproducing. And that's what this is, basically. The movie has some great moments, but it fizzles severely at the end. It gets you all excited for a rousing showdown and then botches it – this film needs to end with a real, effective action sequence, not the goofy, semi-serious, completely implausible, utterly flat nonsense to which it actually builds. It becomes un-serious at exactly the wrong moment – just when it needs to be The Terminator, it pulls a Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! Maybe that’s too harsh. At very least, though, it pulls a Cobra: Stallone's action hero never caught on because the film was too knowing and, ultimately, too ridiculous: an ax-wielding, sewer-dwelling, serial-murdering cult of steroid enthusiasts? Audiences want realism. And will therefore favor an unstoppable Austrian-accented robot from the future, any day. Ok. Perhaps that doesn't prove my point.
There's just something about the execution of the fights scenes at the end of Hot Fuzz that just doesn't work: fine, I won't argue with the lame gag that the whole town is in on it, but gun-toting grannies and butchers throwing cutlery like ninjas winging throwing-stars? Add in the groan-inducing "justification" for their murderous activity and the movie falls flat when it should be shifting into high gear. But really, in all truthfulness, the last twenty minutes of this movie really does end up playing like the last twenty minutes of Stop or my Mom will Shoot! - another goofy "____?"("deconstriction is too strong and "parody" is too soft) that flails aimlessly as it attempts to fuse its goofy comedy with genuine action. Obviously, comparisons to the nadir of "Action Comedy!" are a bad thing, but I'm being sincere: the ending of Stop... is a moderately entertaining action sequence peppered with hopelessly unfunny comedy and that's, unfortunately, the only way to describe the climax of Hot Fuzz. At any rate, there's no reason to come down too hard on this film. Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are endearing performers and their relationship is even better realized (and more sweet-natured) than in Shaun of the Dead. They should've saved the "comedic twists" for another film, though – this one doesn't need them.
Year of the Dog.
(35mm) Angelika Film Center.
A strange movie that exists in an unsatisfactory wasteland between legitimate art film and quirky indie dramedy, Year of the Dog is a losing proposition any way you slice it. The movie frequently has a broadly comedic feel and, in fact, the cast is full of shaky actors who deliver sitcom-ish performances – Molly Shannon may be aiming for a Bill Murray-esque career trajectory, but here she rarely moves past a few well-worn tics and mannerisms which don't suggest that she has anything in her future beyond a few cameos in the Air Bud franchise. John C. Reilly is more in Talledaga Nights mode than "serious high-falutin' actor" mode and Regina King's continuing ability to get work is totally baffling. Only Peter Sarsgaard is able to successfully balance the bone-dry comedy and strange emotional desperation that the film seems to want to coalesce. Certainly, the film's artless, drab direction doesn't make its intentions very clear.
On one level, the film appears have the courage of its convictions: it never yields in its depiction of the staggeringly linear logic of emotional degeneration and its attendant sociopathy. And the screenplay itself feels honest – it's easy to imagine this movie re-jiggered slightly into something raw and painfully real. In execution, however, it's only a hair's breadth from being Little Miss Sunshine. That's what makes it such a strange viewing experience: does anyone really want to see a mildly appealing tv sketch comedian in a painfully depressing movie about a lonely woman's increasingly unhealthy bond with abandoned dogs?
There's a scene in this movie where Shannon waits in her neighbor's closet with a knife, planning to stab him when he gets home. Her conscious reasoning is that he's a hunter and she wants him "to feel what it's like to be hunted." The subconscious motivations for her activity range from loneliness to sexual frustration to boredom with her job to blaming the neighbor for her beloved dog's death – I mean, Jesus Christ, that scene is impossible. It's just too ridiculous to ever be really dark or psychologically interesting and I'm not sure it could ever be funny without being truly trivial or goofy. There are several scenes that are probably aiming for "Fawlty Towers"-style squirm-comedy and several scenes that could be construed as aiming for heart-breaking poetry. There's a scene in which an adorable dog is killed and it really is unclear whether the scene is supposed to be sad or funny – I mean, what the hell do you do with a film like that? For better or for worse, the film isn't original or creative enough to make you want to bother.
<<click here for 4/21 - 4/30>>
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