Friday, May 18, 2007
Guiseppe Tornatore's THE LEGEND OF 1900 functions as a fine showcase for the compositions of Ennio Morricone. Since the filmed fable offers little in the way of drama or compelling characterization, however, it became a showcase that failed to attract much attention. Too bad - Morricone's music is out of this world.
The titular 1900, played by Tim Roth, was born on an ocean liner, left on top of a piano, and taken in by the crew. He grows up on that ship, develops into a piano virtuoso, and even defeats Jelly Roll Morton in a jazz duel there. But he never leaves, he never matures beyond manchild stage, and he becomes uninteresting after a while. When you protagonist is delivering his climactic monologue and your audience is thinking, "Oh, get on with it, already," you have a problem.
I'd have advised you to skip the movie and listen to the soundtrack, but a little digging has shown that the U.S. release is missing two of the most compelling pieces in the score: "Magic Waltz" (the cure for seasickness) and "Enduring Movement" (the number that defeated Jelly Roll Morton). Apparently, they're available in the Italian version, so I'll be sure to look for it the next time I'm in an Italian record store. Morricone's work here is just plain beautiful - unfortunately, I lack the music vocabulary to give you much more than that.
If only it had enjoyed a better showcase.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Chan Wook-Park's JOINT SECURITY AREA is a noble, and reasonably successful, attempt to grapple with issues of power, warfare, and common humanity. It doesn't say anything new or particularly startling about the human condition, but it does a fine job of capturing its time, place, and people. For a movie billed as an action thriller, this is a pleasant surprise.
Here's the setup: a Swiss major of Korean ancestry (and a Korean accent, but watcha gonna do?) reports for duty at the Joint Security Area, the zone in Panmunjong that's run by Switzerland and Sweden and serves as a meeting point and negotiating center for the Koreas. There's been a border skirmish that could get ugly, as the South accuses the North of having kidnapped one of its men and the North accuses the South of violating its territory. There's an injured South Korean sergeant who was either a victim or provocateur, there's a Northern sergeant who was either a victim or provocateur, and there's a guardpost full of dead communists. This being Korea, everyone's hewing to their respective party lines. What happened? Who was to blame? Can the major avert a war?
JOINT SECURITY AREA proceeds along the lines of an investigative thriller, building tension in anticipation of the inevitable skirmish as it meditates on the nature of nationalism, friendship, and human nature. We get to know both sergeants, we get to like them, and we come to mourn the requirements of patriotism and power. JSA puts us in that guardpost and it breaks our hearts. Not bad for an action thriller.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
I enjoyed the heck out of SKY HIGH.
SKY HIGH's hero is one Will Stronghold, a young man born of superhero parents whose power, it seems, is his ability to look just like an adolescent Scott Bakula. It's Will's first day of superhero high school, and he hasn't yet manifested powers cool enough to elevate him above "sidekick." That's the least of his problems, however. He has to make friends; find his way; handle a new enemy; and choose between the unbelievably hot Gwen, a sexually aggressive girl with super-techno powers, and Layla, the reasonably attractive childhood friend who's good with plants. Hmm, tough call: do you go with the knockout who builds cool gadgets and wants to jump your bones, or the proto-hippie who can, uhh, grow fruit? My answer: I went to the wrong high school.
One of SKY HIGH's pleasures is its cast. From a perfectly cast Kurt Russell as Pa Stronghold/The Commander to Kelly Preston, Cloris Leachman, Bruce Campbell, Kevin Heffernan, and Lynda Carter, this movie can afford to coast by on goodwill alone. It doesn't, whoever, boasting instead a clever script, excellent effects, and a pleasing, consistent palette.
Did I love SKY HIGH? No, I can't say that I did. The heavier stuff tends to exercise a firmer hold on my imagination. Did the movie make for an enjoyable family evening gathered around the enormovision? Absolutely. SKY HIGH is worth the rental.
Ahh, the Sixties. The dope was great, the people were groovy, the music had a conscience, and everything would have been all right, man, if only the fascist pigs hadn't screwed it all up. CHILDREN OF MEN, supposedly a science fiction movie, is the most backward-looking film I've seen in a long time.
In the world of the future, the conservatives won. They had their wars, they polluted their planet, and they blew it. Now, Mother Nature is exacting her revenge by wiping out the human race through the infertility of its women, and the only thing standing between us and human extinction is a sold-out ex-yippie; an idealistic hippie; and the personification of Earthly fecundity, a pregnant young African woman named, obviously enough, Kee. In the world of the present, the bores won.
What is it about the '60s countercultural movement that so captures the creative imagination of generations too young to remember it? Director Alfonso Cuarón was born in Mexico City in 1961, so he wasn't even around for the really good stuff. Nevertheless, the film's moral center (played by an always-engaging Michael Caine) is a guy for whom time stopped in 1969. He grows his weed, he listens to his Beatles records, and he cares for his invalid wife (crushed under the boot of The Man, of course) in an eco-friendly home that's safely tucked away from the horrors of the outside world. Here's the thing, however: if the movie's set in 2027 and the Caine character is 74 years old, that means that he has dedicated his life to a world that moved along when he was twenty years old. It's as if I decided to dedicate my life to the Reagan '80s and moved my family to a country house where I could revel in supply-side economics and Devo music 'til the end of my days. It's crazy. It doesn't make sense. In the world of CHILDREN OF MEN, it's about the best possible thing a man can do.
Anachronistic ideology aside, CHILDREN OF MEN is a decent chase thriller with the requisite twists and set pieces. Though it criminally misuses Chiwetel Ejiofor in the Sean Bean role and its denoument clunks like the shed chains of the Liberated, it does have some magnficent bits and it does move along. Now if we could just get a science fiction movie set in the future.
Sunday, May 13, 2007
FAR AWAY, SO CLOSE!, the unnecessary sequel to the superlative WINGS OF DESIRE, has two special treats that make it worth the viewing: it tells us whatever happened to WINGS' Damiel and Marion, and it gives us Willem Dafoe as one of cinema's best demons. WINGS fans will be delighted to find Damiel and Marion happily married, very much in love, and the parents of an adored daughter who's developing gymnastics skills of her own. That's sweet, and I'm a sucker for sweet, but Dafoe's performance here is what really brings the goods home.
Here's the setup: Cassiel the Angel is feeling the angst. Growing tired of watching, he's ready to put his hand in the mix. When events conspire to push him into making an abrupt choice, he does the right thing and sheds his angelic nature so that he may walk among the humans. I was ready for a different take on assimilation into a foreign world, but the film's actually a little disappointing, here. Cassiel has an innocence that strikes me as ridiculous, and while his adventures culminate in an appropriate and satisfying way, I was much more interested in Dafoe's demon.
The character is never clearly identified as a demon, but he has the ability to shift between the angelic and the mundane world, which makes him neither angel nor human. I doubt that he's the Devil, though he could be, because I get the sense that Wenders' major theological antagonists are somehow more cosmic than the angels he's shown us thus far. That the character is Satanic in the Hebraic sense of the word, I have no doubt: he describes himself not as merciless, but as pitiless: a prosecutor who will pursue and aggravate every flaw; who will create temptations and then pass judgement when men succumb. And Dafoe, cinema's finest Christ, plays him just right. He's seductive, friendly, and mean. He's brutally harsh, engaged yet calculating, and he neither expects nor gives quarter.
That's why I don't understand the climax. Why does he do what he does, and what does that mean about his relationship with Cassiel and Raphaela (Cassiel's angelic friend)? And speaking of the climax, where did that minor villain come from?
I think the answers may be found on an editing room floor somewhere, but you know what? It doesn't really matter. In ten years, I'm not going to remember FAR AWAY, SO CLOSE!'s plot points. I am, however, going to remember that Dafoe performance. What an actor.