Thursday, March 16, 2006

What Kept Me From Liking Brick As Much As I Wanted/Expected To

I caught up with one of the last press screenings of Rian Johnson's debut high-school-Hammett excercise Brick in advance of its opening on 3/31. And for the most part, I really liked it. Admired the plotting; loved the meta-noir dialogue. Liked its wide-open, California overcast spaces. Enjoyed the fact that I could clearly see elements of its forebearers in its structure. (Making Marlow into a high school loner who eats his lunch by himself is particularly genius.) I could have done without the occasional glitchy jump-cut, flash-cut dream sequence with allegedly portentous soundtrack runbling- that MTV Generation stuff won't date well- but that's a minor complaint. My problem, and this is a particular talking point of mine, has to do with something that Johnson says in the press-kit interview:

Q: Since there's no caricaturing in the movie, the teenaged charaters are very suitable for the elements of crime and passion. There's an emotional intensity; so much seems at stake for them.

RJ: You know, Hammett was once asked if Sam Spade was based on any particular detective. He answered no, it's based on what every detective would like to imagine himself to be. That's sort of analagous to our movie's relationship to real high school; it's not the way high school is, but it's the way high school feels.

When you're in high school, things don't feel- they didn't, for me- flippant and silly. A lot of high school shows and movies seem to me to have a very adult perspective on high school, the perspective of someone who is out of that world and is now seeing it in a slightly condescending manner. Once you get beyond it, it's easy to forget how you once were completely encased in its logic. Whereas when you're actually in it, and your head is completely encased in this microcosm, it's your world and it's a world you have to survive. And things seem, if not life-or-death, very important and mythical. The people you know and the dynamics of your relationships seem hyper-real. We tried to summon that here. The level of intensity that's in Brick equates to the level of intensity that I think a lot of us felt in high school.

I probably didn't need to put in that quote, but I just love it so much. I recently critiqued a story in my fiction workshop about a high school superhero, and wrote in the margins something like, "of course, when you're in high school, you think everything that might go wrong with your life is the end of the world; what I like about this story (and Buffy, for that matter) is that, if something does go wrong for these high school kids, it really is the end of the world."

I'm also writing my thesis on Battle Royale, which I think is pretty clearly (intentionally or otherwise; it's really none of my concern) an allegory for high school graduation. My line of argument is, basically, that it phrases high school in terms of a what's in all respects (contrived circumstances, kids acting like adults, emotionally heightened, ultraviolent) an especially cinematic narrative, and that phrasing it in that way suggests that cinematic narrative forms function in ways really similar to Jung's ideas about archetypes and the collective unconscious.

[What's great, too, is that elsewhere in the production notes Johnson mentions how Miller's Crossing was a key influence on this project in its interaction with classic genre tropes. (He also mentions Man Who Wasn't There, a movie which I find vastly inferior and far more tongue-in-cheek.) That's a great example, I think, because I've always felt that Miller's Crossing was an especially Jungian work, in how it attempts to make an entire cohesive movie out of fragments of cinematic memory.]

All of which is to say, that the idea of a movie which attempts to convey the (at the time) profound emotional content of high school through the device of a classical cinematic narrative form was really, really appealing to me.

Except that: Brick barely has any high school in it at all. It almost seems at times that Johnson goes out of his way to avoid showing his characters interacting in a high school environment. It's a barely visible framework, but there's no interaction between the plot and the day-to-day lives of the characters. By reducing the high school content to a couple scenes involving lockers, a scene in the library and a couple in the parking lot, and a couple moments backstage at the drama club (I' m deliberately leaving out the principle's office scene; we'll get back to that), Johnson cuts off the characters from their surroundings. (Yeah, I know, a lot of the exterior scenes, especially between Brendan and Brain, and all the scenes on the football field, are at school. But they could be anywhere. They aren't tied to any actual high school activity.) In the library, at least, there's some banter about "zero period" and bus routes, but it's not nearly enough. These kids can come and go as they please (and Johnson doesn't concern himself with the particulars of cutting); this isn't a life that kids are leading along with their high school existence, it's a life that they're leading instead of it. (One of my favorite throwaway moments in Buffy is at the beginning of the third season- "Faith, Hope, and Trick," specifically, when the characters eat a picnic off campus because they're seniors and they can do that now; things like that anchored the to its setting. The real reason Buffy never got over leaving high school was that it never found real lives for their characters to lead afterwards.) So, that's what specifically disappointed me about Brick: the high school noir I was salivating in anticipation of turned out to have at best a passing interest in high school.

As for the scenes with the Pin's "comically" oblivious mother, pouring apple juice like her son isn't a drug lord: again, don't make a joke about how little these characters have to do with the lives they're living.

And then there's the music. Maybe this is a licensing thing, but can anyone explain to me why, out of an entire cast of high-school age kids, only one of them ever listens to pop music for any length of time? It just gets back to the major problem with the movie: Johnson being so (justifiably) in love with his plot and dialouge that they become the entire movie. And I wouldn't have minded at all, if he had been making a straight noir. Maybe next time he should.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Johnny To: Consumer's Guide

By way of explanation: I had planned to churn through as much of Johnnie/Johnny (I've seen it spelled both ways; from here on out I'll use the imdb-approved "y" spelling) To's body of work as I could in preparation for a career-spanning post coinciding with the brief pre-DVD theatrical release of Breaking News. This, obviously, did not happen. What I did happen, eventually, was a gradual Netflixing of the movies that pop up most often in discussions of To's work and now, at long last, a series of capsule reviews. The original intent was to cap all this off by tracking down a DVD of Election, and considering it, and To's work, in light of the opinions voiced here, here, and elsewhere, about him as purveyor of brittle flash. A bit of that angle remains, in the decision to structure this post as a "Consumer's Guide," but what inevitably ends up happening when you set out to evaluate a series of supposedly assembly-line products is that the variances within all of them end up thrown into stark relief. Anyway, enough of my blathering; on to the films (in chronological order, as per imdb)...

The Heroic Trio (1993) Weird hybridazation of the classic martial arts film with 90's-era action film technology; the only comparison I can make is Benny Chan's The Magic Crane, but even that was a period piece (and didn't attempt an extended riff on Hard Boiled's rescue-a-baby-from-a-burning-building set piece). The three heroines, incidentally, are Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung- and for those of us who have been fed a steady diet of Maggie Cheung, ethereal object of repressed longing (cf. Wong Kar-wai, and every other movie she's ever been in not directed by Olivier Assayas), her performance comes as a bit of a shock. By which I mean: she makes her entrance on a motorcycle, carrying a sawed-off shotgun, and wearing knee-high fishnets, a black leather bustier, and leather duster (all of which she continues to sport for the rest of the movie), and no matter how prepared you think you are for that sight, you're going to have to pause the movie for at least 45 seconds before you start to believe it.

Running Out of Time (1999) Andy Lau as lone-wolf criminal with terminal illness (some lovely shots of blood-spattered hankerchiefs) playing cat-and-mouse with police officer; he also wears a dress at one point, I seem to recall, which is milked about as much as you'd expect it to be. The whole thing- action sequences, character development, production design, plot- is constructed entirely from gloss; the movie's a Platonic ideal of shallowness, which is a kind of transcendence, I suppose, if you squint hard enough. Most notable stylistic trope, especially here but used extensively elsewhere in To's films (to say nothing of John Woo, from whom he probably stole it): the swooping crane shot from an extreme low or high angle to catch ample chunks of skyline, shot with a super-wide angle lens so that the ultramodern skyscrapers fairly bulge off the screen. Very few directors love their city as much as Hong Kong actioneers.

The Mission (1999) Inexplicably emblematic bodyguard-bonding piece; mismatched team, all with different specialties and from disparate backgrounds, etc. etc. One excellent shopping mall shootout (actually tense, as supposed to outre, which is a change), but otherwise entirely uninspiring. I wonder if this movie is recommended as a key To film simply because it's built on a fairly conventional genre structure; this strikes me as a mistake, since To is invariably so flimsy in his handling of genre conventions. There's no connecting tissue, and while that doesn't spoil a more ludicrous, spit-shined offering like Running Out of Time, it means that a familiar excercise like The Mission comes off as pretty sloppy.

Full Time Killer
(2001) Andy Lau is in a video store, wearing a rubber Bill Clinton mask that covers his entire face. A Point Break poster is clearly visible in the background. The video store clerk, in voice-over: "He always wore a mask. It reminded me of a Hollywood movie I once saw." Cut to Point Break poster; pan all the way down. Just in case you didn't get it, you know. (Also, click on the link, if you haven't.)

Running Out of Time 2
(2001) So, the terminally ill criminal played by Andy Lau in the first movie is set up to die at the end; although we never technically see him kick off, it's established that it's a matter of days. And I suppose that if the sequel had brought him back, we'd all be crying foul, and write the whole thing off as ludicrous. Which, when you think about it, makes no sense: versimiltude should be the last demand we ever make of a movie like this, especially since a great deal of the pleasure here comes from the depths of contrivance to which To will gladly sink in the name of brainless fun. Also, we want our Andy Lau back. Lau Ching Wan, repeating his role as the cop, has his subtle shades of charisma, but Ekin Cheng as a carbon copy of Andy Lau's role is insufferably vacuous; at one point I thought I detected a hint of impishness in his performance, but it turned out to just be the wind running through his goatee.

My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002) Movies whose titles function as hilariously succinct and spot-on synopses? Excellent. Movies whose titles function as hilariously succinct and spot-on synopses, and are uttered (shrieked, in this case) by the main character about 20 minutes in? Priceless. So, the title-speaker here is Sammi Cheng (entirely charismatic, with a wardrobe of siezure-inducing vibrancy), wealthy and perhaps not entirely un-merry widow, who is gifted with a half-measure of second sight after a car accident. After a frantically hilarious first half, though, the religious (Buddhist, sort of) implications of the plot migrate to the forefront; it's a film progressively more concerned with cycles, redemption, and destiny, and comes to an interestingly compromised acceptance of the natural order of things. Also of note are some rather weirdly inspired P.O.V. shots: the opening funeral scene makes judicious use of what appears to be a fish-eye Headstone Cam (TM) for a couple of shots looking up at mourners placing flowers onto it; there's a also a later scene in which Sammi Cheng maces the camera three times in fifteen seconds. It's that kind of movie.

PTU (2003) See above re: projects requiring a certain level of structural discipline. It's his Stray Dog riff, only with more converging plot threads and set within a single night; unsurprisingly, the subplots reek of empty gesturing and forced connections. Also, somebody should probably tell Lam Suet that he needn't work so hard to play up his vulgarity: until he gets rid of the hair growing from out of his mole, nobody is likely to mistake him for Mr. Suave. On the plus side, the urban nocturne, as shot by his regular DP Cheng Siu-keung, is his best-looking movie to date.

Running on Karma (2003) Okay, this one's really interesting. Andy Lau is a male stripper named Big outfitted in an enormous rubber Hulk suit. He's also, we soon learn, a martial arts expert and lapsed Buddhist monk. And, after some outlandish action sequences (many involving a shaggy-bearded, pipe-cleaner-thin, CGI-enhanced Indian contortionist), Big's ability to see visions of people's past lives (and looming karmic payback) leads to another completely genuine, and even momentarily startlingly, interrogation of Buddhist principles. Along with My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (another deceptively ridiculous parable of toubled religious inquiry), it's my favorite of these movies. There's also a fine performance by Cecilia Cheung, whose upbeat, occasionally quavering resolve is a primer for How to Be a Waifish, Fashionable, Chirpy Pop Star in Your Early Twenties and Play a Convincing Policewoman. (This is no small accomplishment, as we shall see when we discuss Breaking News.)

Breaking News (2004) Oh, here we are. Actually, I said most of what I wanted to say in my review, so I'll reiterate a couple key points, specifically a) that the opening shoot-out sequence, in a continuous seven-minute crane take that's the first shot of the movie, is frankly miraculous; b) that the balancing of the simultaneous siege set-ups in the sealed-off building is wildly disappointing, and that not nearly enough is done with the "Breaking News" element- as Ed Halter observes, To just seems content to introduce ideas and coast on them; and c) Kelly Chen is really, really bad in this movie. You get, in alternate scenes, either the sense that she's playing dress-up in a cop uniform, or that she knows how far out of her depth she is and is flailing mightily to hold the screen. And Hui Shiu Hung's comic relief, here as in the Running Out of Time movies, is exceptionally grating.

Throwdown (2004) A much more succesful Kurosawa homage, mostly because Sanshito Sugata is a pretty agreeable little mess, too. It's one of the first To's I saw and I wish I remembered it better than I do; I seem to recall it being slightly more low-key than the others, probably as a result of it being about judo, and pretty unapologetic in regards to its sappiness. Neither of which is so bad, really.

And that's it, for now. I'm still interested in seeing more of his pre-Milky Way films, the aforementioned Election, the Andy Lau/Sammi Cheng rom-coms Needing You (2000) and Yesterday Once More (2004) (both of those are near the top of the Netflix cue) and, embarrasingly enough, Shopaholics, because I don't think I'm going to have the willpower to resist.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Why You Should See Woman Is the Future of Man (Hong Sang-soo, 2004)

(The first of Hong's films to receive a U.S. theatrical run is playing at Cinema Village for at least another week. Michael Atkinson and Manohla Dargis have written a couple of quite favorable (and perceptive) reviews of it; girish has talked a little about Hong's formal qualities. So, I'm going to use this post to convince my friends, and any other NY-based readers who might accidentally stumble across this page, to see the movie.)

"What really stings about Woman Is the Future of Man, even more than the movie itself, is that this movie isn't going to get nearly the audience it deserves. This is really the kind of movie people our age would love if they only knew about it.

"For one thing, the pension-pulling audience I saw this movie with over the weekend isn't going to respond as emotionally to the movie as we are- we're uniquely equipped to find resonance in a movie about characters too drunk and bloated on munchies to recognize that they're caught up in one of life's key moments.

"It's also a movie about being completely unprepared for a situation. In one scene, too characters are sitting up in bed after sex. 'Your legs are hairy,' the guy tells the girl. She responds that she hasn't shaved in a while. 'I didn't know women shaved their legs,' he says. And I think the movie is full of scenes like this one, presenting as anti-epiphanies the kinds of youthful moments that most movies romanticize.

"I think we're at a time right now when we're ready to instead romanticize disappointment, to find solace in a movie that speaks eloquently on the subject. The movie's eloquent, I mean, not the characters: the characters aren't even aware of how paralyzed they are by nostalgia (another circumstance to which we might be able to relate). But in their rationalizations of their increasingly meager artistic ambitions, we can recognize the disappointment which is, we fear, looming right ahead of us. And in the movie's final scene, when a character stands silently in the snow, finally realizing that he's been standing in the same place for far too long, a piano strikes up, and we can sit through the opening credits, relishing the tenderness with which Hong treats his new understanding. His evocation of two overgrown boys oblivious to the fact that they're getting too old for this shit is painfully dispassionate; the ending is a moment of utter resignation. That fact that this is for the best doesn't mean it cuts any less deep.

"Anyway, that's why I think you'd love this movie. And this movie should be seen, loved, talked up and seen again by a bunch of young people (like us), who both really love the movie and are energetic enough in their love to make it a movie to be reckoned with. It deserves to be one, and won't become one without us. Anyway, that's why you should see Woman Is the Future of Man. If you're around next week, I'll go with you."

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Something I Noticed for the First Time While Watching Blue Velvet at Film Forum Tonight

So, Frank Booth is... married?

This is the third time I've seen the movie and the first time I've noticed it. (I picked up on it in his first scene; it's easy to spot against Dorothy's carpet. And of course I'm not sure we're meant to think that it is a wedding ring- but hey, a band on the second finger of the left hand is what it is.) Am I coming late to the party here? Or have I unearthed a heretofore unnoticed layer of fucked-up-itude?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

"He used to be call 'Pudgy' McCabe... Anyway, he's the man that shot Bill Roundtree."

Thanks to Matt Zoller Seitz and his enablers for calling the Altman blog-a-thon, first of all, and to everyone else who's chiming in with an appreciation of the old bastard. Anyway, much as I'd like to mark out my own territory in the overlapping chorus going up this weekend, I never really had much of a choice in terms of my topic. Robert Altman made McCabe and Mrs. Miller; McCabe & Mrs. Miller is my favorite movie; I'll be writing about McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Couldn't be helped, really.

Thing is, it's hard to write about your favorite movie- that is, to convey what it means to you, what it did to you the first time and what it's done to you since, without walling yourself and your subjectivity off from everyone else. Of course McCabe & Mrs. Miller is my movie in a way that it isn't yours or anybody else's, but simply saying "I love this movie" is a private act no matter how loudly I declaim it, or from how high a mountaintop.

And McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, I flatter myself to think, a uniquely impossible experience to relate to anyone else, even anyone who loves it. That's partly the gift of Altman in general, who's the filmmaking equivalent of Spinoza's God: the creator as noninterventionist. Improvisatory, organic constructions leave too much room for variance to ever pin down entirely. But it's specifically true of McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a movie that seeks (calculatedly, to an extent, which makes its success all the more unlikely) to settle in the shadows of a world at the moment of its disappearance.

Because certainly the beauty of McCabe & Mrs. Miller has quite a bit to do with its elusiveness. Already you see me resorting to abstractions as a way of projecting my response to the movie outwards. So maybe if I talk, specifically, about my experience with this movie, something more concrete will come through.

I first saw it in the fall of my junior year of high school. I had taken over the running of the Film Club that fall, upon the graduation of its founder. After an ill-advised decision to organize the year chronologically (Battleship Potemkin and Metropolis, surprisingly, didn't go over well), I moved into the supposedly more user-friendly genre of Westerns, selecting McCabe & Mrs. Miller as the "revisionist" selection, probably after reading about it in one of the ten books my school's library had about film, Robert Kolker's A Cinema of Loneliness. And on the day we watched it, we were about a half-hour in before the last remaining member walked out. And then I went home after school and watched the rest of it. I just remember sitting in the guest room of my house, where the VCR was, in a rocking armchair with a blanket on my lap, getting to the end of the movie with Warren Beatty expiring in the snow, and even though I knew how it was going to end going in, all I could think, then or since, was that I wanted my death to be just like that.

There's something about a movie like this that requires that level of intimacy, in watching it and in talking about it. (My favorite pieces on the movie is Charles Taylor's appreciation, for this and other reasons.) It's the snow, I think: to survive within it, you have to draw inwards on yourself, like McCabe pulls his coat around him in his dying moments, or how the world for Mrs. Miller ceases to exist outside of her opium pipe. Vilmos Zsigmond finds the barest blue hues for the outdoor scenes, and bathes the interiors in gold.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller is a movie about two people trying to keep warm.

The great tragedy, and the thing the movie expresses most eloquently, is that they aren't able to find warmth in anybody else. The film's crucial moments all play as failures of communication- I'm thinking of the scene with Keith Carradine's toothy Cowboy, unable to tell the teenage gunslinger wannabe that he just wants to cross the bridge, and ending up dead on the ice below. But mostly it's Warren Beatty (perhaps the actor in the world who most relishes playing a character who can't find the right words), blustering around his fear in the scenes with the lawyer and the guman who's come to town to kill him. And, of course, in his scenes with Julie Christie. His key line, the one most frequently quoted in discussions of the movie, is, "I got poetry in me." He's saying it to her, but he's the only one in the room. The deep and abiding sadness of McCabe & Mrs. Miller is that he does have poetry in him, and that it stays there. And so if I can't quite offer an adequate explanation for why this is my favorite movie, maybe it's only appropriate.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Japanese Cinema Wednesdays: The Bad Sleep Well

The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, 1960) At the end of the justifiably famous opening sequence, one of the reporters hovering vulturelike outside a wedding banquet to report on the arrests of some of the guests refers to the even as "the best one-act I've ever seen." To which another reporter replies, "this is just the prelude." The first guy was right. The 150 minutes lay out a vast, emotionally expansive cast of characters (and with Mifine and Shimura supported by the likes of Masayuki Mori, Takeshi Kato, Kunie Tanaka, even Chisu Ryu- to along with a host of other familiar faces) in an ambitious muckraking revenger's drama, complete with electric close-ups (I've never seen a movie make more striking use of the interior of a car as a frame for the actors) and a pulpy East-West noir-pomp score, but... damn. Dave Kehr's right. Five credited screewriters apparently equals five times the exposition. Far too much of the drama comes through proclamations of retroactive character revelations, and neither the uncovering of corruption or the disclosure of family secrets has the sinister abruptness that the movie's going for. I get really frustrated when movies like this topple over themselves.