Apr. 23, 2008 - Issue #653: Great Outdoors
Film CapsulesOpening This Week
Directed by Paolo Barzman
Written by Jefferson Lewis
Starring Susan Sarandon, Gabriel Byrne
JOSEF BRAUN / firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s this scene in Emotional Arithmetic that, like a handful of others, feels as though it was shaken loose from the film’s tight weave of pervading solemnity. It features two old guys getting up in the dead of night to raid the icebox for the congealed leftovers of what was previously a lavish meal. With their grub and a couple of bottles of 50, they hunker over a table and get down to work. Each man represents a disparate chapter in the history of a beguiling younger woman, and this unexpected wee-hours companionship is thus laced with a certain, amusingly masculine tension. What happens in this scene neither dissolves the tension entirely, nor does it exactly resolve anything. It lingers briefly between the ostensibly important scenes. Interestingly, this scene lingers in my memory more vividly than anything else in the movie.
Awkwardly adapted from Matt Cohen’s Holocaust-related novel by screenwriter Jefferson Lewis and director Paolo Barzman, Emotional Arithmetic, with its godawful title, was never going to have an easy time proving itself a dynamic cinematic experience. It comes burdened with themes of loss, sacrifice, memory and the at-times-crippling responsibility to the past. I say burdened not because these themes aren’t potent—on the contrary, the ideas Cohen’s addressed are rich and resonant—but because rather than coming to us through action, these themes are announced, lobbed about, mulled over.
What eases this burden considerably is the tremendous cast, five actors from four different countries with such accumulated experience as to evoke networks of emotion the moment they appear on screen together. Susan Sarandon plays Melanie, Gabriel Byrne plays Christopher, a pair linked by their time spent in the Drancy transit camp in occupied France as kids, and their being rescued from deportation to Auschwitz by Jakob, played by Max Von Sydow. The bulk of Emotional Arithmetic takes place four decades later, at Melanie’s rural home in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, where Melanie is now a mentally unstable middle-aged woman, wife to David, a much older history professor played by Christopher Plummer, and mother to Benjamin, a handsome, talented chef played by Roy Dupuis. The story as such concerns an unexpected reunion between Melanie, Christopher and Jakob, an event fraught with opposing ideas about how to memorialize victims of catastrophe and how to manage life’s loose ends and enduring desires.
There are moments where something happens, risks are taken, pent-up feelings are given expression—but these moments are nearly crowded out by scenes of stasis or contemplation—and it is not an active, nor an especially contagious, contemplation. The rather gaudy, overwrought flashbacks to Drancy constitute only a fraction of Emotional Arithmetic’s duration, but they somehow exemplify the overall weakness here, a tendency to make a case for the film’s seriousness by merely directing our attention toward events that we all know are overwhelmingly serious. The end result, I suppose, is a somewhat muddled meditation, a movie that doesn’t entirely work as a movie, but arguably functions as some modest catalyst for thought, and a rare opportunity to see actors of this calibre sharing the screen.
Richard Linklater Retrospective
Featuring Dazed and Confused
Sun, Apr 27 (4 pm); Metro Cinema
Dazed and Confused: www.imdb.com/title/tt0106677/
JOSEF BRAUN / email@example.com
I can’t remember where I first heard Richard Linklater compared to Howard Hawks, but the more I watch his movies and, more importantly, the more I consider his career, the more this initially jarring correlation sticks. Like Hawks, the director of Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Big Sleep (’46) and Rio Bravo (’59), Linklater, who in less than two decades has delivered titles as diverse as Slacker (’91), Before Sunrise (’95) and School of Rock (’03), possesses an increasingly rare ability to shift gracefully between genres; to capitalize on rather than just complain about the compromise between commerce and art; to work with tremendous energy and, just as impressively, to work frequently, both in and out of the studio system.
These traits largely concern Linklater’s working habits, but there’s also a key similarity between his and Hawks’ art: the gift for talk. It’s often emphasized that film is a visual medium. Well, actually it’s an audio-visual medium, and Linklater has a marvelous affinity for the kinetics of language, the dynamics of story translating into speech, the way gab becomes a funnel for nerves, desire, aggression. While topics of discussion can get heady, actors in his movies rarely pontificate—they behave. And attention to behaviour is what drives Linklater’s work, endowing it with its singular force and sense of freedom, both of which will be in evidence over the next three Sundays as Metro Cinema screens five different Linklater flicks.
A comedy about the end of a school year in a sleepy town in Texas, 1976, Dazed and Confused (’93) arrived in theatres around the same time I was departing from high school. I remember being excited to see the movie despite its lame marketing, and I remember walking away from it with this uneven feeling: I had a lot of fun watching it, yet it seemed lacking in substance. It seemed narrowly concerned with nostalgia and kitsch—and that’s the part that stuck in my youthful craw. Little did I know that, while I was the same age as the characters on screen, I was at least a decade too young to really appreciate it.
The obsessive attention to period detail that once struck me as indulgent—the styles of the ’70s always made for cheap gags—has with a little distance proved itself to have terrific anthropological value. The movie’s universality emerges from its specificity. Its focus on the minutia of gesture, posturing, status identification and the most fleeting aspects of popular culture culminate in what is finally a big-hearted study of how humans learn to socialize: driving up and down Main Street, building bongs in shop class, tormenting each other, measuring the limits of acceptable rebellion, revelling in music. And it’s a lesson as painful as it is hilarious: witness the repressed, sadistic homoeroticism of the hazing rituals, with a gleefully villainous Ben Affleck whacking Wiley Wiggins’s skinny little ass with a giant paddle while the kid is bent over a shiny hotrod. It’s practically a Kenneth Anger movie.
Dazed and Confused will be sharing a double bill with American Graffiti (’73), George Lucas’s chronicle of teen life circa 1962, and its natural predecessor. The pairing reveals a developing tradition, and, 15 years after Dazed re-enacted 1976, it begs the question: when do we get the movie about the class of 1993?
Directed by Jon Avnet
Written by Gary Scott Thompson
Starring Al Pacino, Neal McDonough, Leelee Sobieski
OMAR MOUALLEM / firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometimes when I’m watching a movie, I find myself spending more time mulling over the pre-production than the production. While watching 88 Minutes, which is sadly 30 minutes longer than it promises, I was compelled to wonder why this script made it to theatres: it could’ve been produced for a quarter of the price and maintain its crappiness by going straight to DVD. The obvious reason is the Pacino factor; but now the question is, “Why did Pacino sign on to this disposable psychological thriller?” Oh yeah: Pacino stopped trying a long time ago.
88 Minutes finds its influence in CSI, Saw and the filmmakers’ convoluted nightmares. Pacino plays Dr Jack Gramm, a forensic psychologist and professor at the University of Washington with a penchant for banging his students. He is the Nancy Grace of his field: haunted by a loved one’s homicide and self-righteously condemning all suspects before the evidence is in. In 1997, he controversially convinced a jury to send Jon Forster (Neal McDonough), suspect of the “Seattle Slayings,” to death row on questionable grounds. A decade later, on the night of Forster’s execution, similar murders are running amuck in Seattle. Gramm gets a phone call claiming that he has 88 minutes to live, and the anonymous caller gives him constant updates throughout.
Is Forster really innocent? Does he have an accomplice? Are these murders the act of a copycat? 88 Minutes hardly gives its audience a moment to consider the options. Its idea of clues is slow motion flashbacks panning the face of every speaking roll in the story. Suspect after suspect is presented with neither motive nor reasonable doubt. By the time the truth transpires, it has to be explained with elaborate detail to Gramm, or rather, the viewer, because without clarification, it would be completely nonsensical (not that it made sense already).
Even more ridiculous is its abuse of time. We are to believe that the events are happening within the 88 minutes Gramm has to solve the case, but unless Seattle is the size of Fort Saskatchewan, there is no realistic way they could. Gramm drives across Seattle, from scene to scene, chases an assailant, investigates a home, stops to get his mail and do a television interview, investigates another place, saves some people and escapes arrest all in the time it takes a normal person to buy groceries. Basically, in short, 88 Minutes is a clusterfuck of ideas that never align.
THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM
Directed by Rob Minkoff
Written by John Fusco
Starring Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano
BRIAN GIBSON / email@example.com
The Forbidden Kingdom certainly doesn’t offer much of a welcome—the opening 15 minutes is a bit of a mess, lurching us through daydream, near-camp, time travel and morally reckless adolescence. Kung fu-obsessed Boston teen Jason Tripitkas (Michael Angarano) engages in a video-game style fight of fancy, betrays his pal—an elderly Chinese shopkeeper—for an over-the-top bully who mostly hulks and broods, and then wakes up in Olde China, where eye-shadowed, gilt-armoured soldiers throw him nasty looks.
So it’s a relief when Jackie Chan literally drops in. Falling off his donkey, Chan, as scholar-warrior Lu Yan—who makes peace with his wine gourd when not fighting drunk-fist style—draws all the laughs here, throws in some nice physical comedy, and even offers an almost unrecognizable turn as that shopkeeper.
When the much-touted double bill—Jackie and Jet! First Time Ever Together!—finally kicks off, the clichéd, forced story fades into the misty bamboo forests, as it should. This kind of film is really all about the fighting, anyway, and action choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen (The Matrix, Kill Bill) knows it. Chan’s and Li’s first encounter is a nicely drawn-out battle, a match of parries, blows, fighting styles and acrobatics.
The other throwdowns are all right, though there’s a bit too much flying around and superhero-magic junk. (Why bother with the fighting if you can just blow people away with a breath, lethally Rapunzel them with your long hair or stone-petrify them with a hand motion?) For a film that mocks Jason’s video-game notion of kung fu, it relies too much on CGI backdrops and computerized colour palettes, and too little on gravity.
Li is fine as a cold, hard monk but better against type as the mischievous Monkey King. There’s a nice scene where Jason goes through the arduous tedium of training, and Angarano isn’t just a Transformers-style Shia Leboeuf Jr but a sweaty, bewildered kid out of his element—the film shows him with pimples, even a tear dripping off his top lip.
But that story, which should be forbidden, keeps coming back for more. Whenever the plot pops up, from predictable love scenes to the villainess who hates men for no reason to the heaping bowl of crypto-Confucian lines, you keep wishing for the next fist to fly already. Or the Fight Scenes Only Edition on DVD.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Directed by Nicholas Stoller
Written by Jason Segel
Starring Segel, Kristin Bell
JONATHAN BUSCH / firstname.lastname@example.org
It might be a stretch to describe the series of Apatow and Co productions as transcendent, but Criterion fave Yasujiro Ozu (Tokyo Story) frequently came to mind during Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a romantic comedy by Nicholas Stoller and Jason Segel. By transcendent, I refer to a work of art that not only rises above its medium, historical period and literal narrative content but also ingeniously reveals the interdependency of all three factors. The simple act of storytelling becomes a convergence of ideas and emotions, and perhaps the birthplace of creative ambivalence.
Segel stars as Peter, a musical composer for a hit television crime drama who has his heart broken by his longtime girlfriend (and star of said program) Sarah Marshall (Kristin Bell). His stepbrother Brian (Bill Hader) sends him on a vacation to a Hawaiian resort, convinced a solitary break will break his misery. Upon Peter’s arrival, he encounters Sarah and her new rock star beau Aldous Snow (Russell Brand) and is only more devastated. But after Rachel (Mila Kunis), a beautiful and charming desk clerk, lets him stay a couple free nights in a premium suite at the hotel, he comes out from under his rock to be able to reflect upon and discover some truths about his failed relationship.
On the way, he meets a series of comforting, well-drawn characters performed by several of the Apatow regulars including Jonah Hill, Carla Gallo and Paul Rudd (by the way, figurehead Judd Apatow co-produces this time around). As well, some new faces, including heavyweight and phenomenal presence Taylor Wily as Kemo, who acts as Peter’s emotional rock all the while looking like a giant Hawaiian baby (as he is eventually described). Forgetting Sarah Marshall affirms some of the conventions of its localized genre seen last year in Knocked Up and Superbad, most notably its cast of hot albeit funny women amongst dorky, emasculated men. Nonetheless, such a habit consistently raises open-ended questions of the romantic comedy as an incomplete, “unfinished genre” that allow a certain type of male figure to be examined within a sphere of cinematic fantasy.
Of course, I too would love to see some ordinary, spunky women stake their place in American comedy and become a bigger part of the Apatow scene (consider Jane Lynch’s store manager in The 40 Year Old Virgin a jumping point). But as it stands, these productions are slowly evolving, not to mention renewing the global impact of American comedy. I’m thrilled to like something so much. V
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