31 May 2008

I Didn't Know You, Harmony Korine

Mister Lonely is, I suppose, a Harmony Korine film about professional impersonators, but I've been thinking about it for a week as brilliant shot after brilliant shot and hard time finding a brilliant shot to end on. Just a partial list: the hypnotic opening scene with Diego Luna/MJ trailing a kite likeness behind the tiny motorbike. That could have gone on forever and I would have stayed in my seat, starving. The iconic MJ and Marilyn Monroe walk through the park, shot with so much affection it burst into the theatre. The sequence of Marilyn in creek, slo-mo-ing her blown skirt moment. And none of those can even compare to the mind-blowing Buckwheat astride the miniature pony shot. The strangest fairy tale magic I’ve ever seen. I need to see again, to memorize more of his monologue/conflation of chicken, chicken breasts and women. Wow.

Some other brilliant scenes, like Abe Lincoln (I liked the impersonators picked for this film a lot: Lincoln, the Pope and the Queen over Elvis and Spiderman) spinning the red white and blue basketball in the strobe light, are somehow extraneous to the line of the film. But how can you really blame Harmony Korine, who came up with the best “I can’t believe they did not just kiss” scene in a while. Marilyn strolls into Michael’s room at the impersonator commune in sheepish Scottish country, rocking fabulous blue and yellow rollers and a bowl of strawberries (all the primaries nicely represented). The camera alternates between longing stares and slow bites of berry, Michael getting so close to her lips. And she turns out the door, loyal somehow to the brilliantly-acted asshole husband, Charlie Chaplin.

Much to my surprise, Korine brought Wong Kar-Wai to mind with the decadence, the bizarre lushness of the Highlands. This film has nowhere near the rhythm and timing of, say, 2046, but just pulling out individual sequences the comparison is there. Mister Lonely is surprisingly without memorable music (no “Billie Jean,” no “Man in the Mirror”) and so loses another chance to be inescapable. Post-2046 I hear Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and see slow-motion ‘60’s Hong Kong (and that song kind of had a strong theme to it beforehand). But maybe I can just admit that I really wanted Korine sucker me with some Sam Cooke song.

It seemed the intrepid director could not quite find an ending to Lonely and gave us several. I could have cut things after the performance of the impersonator troupe. The horrible interruption of their wan singing walk home would have made a startling, true finish. Or I should have cut after the talking nesting doll sequence. Instead we get Michael wandering football-mad Paris as not-Michael (a “no one” according to his absurd impersonator “agent”). There is a voiceover I can’t remember and a loss of the power wielded throughout the film.

And what about the flying nuns??? We have Werner Herzog at full Loch Ness froth as a completely unbelievable and magnetic priest pushing nuns into the back of a prop plane from which the sky dive in sky blue habits. It’s lovely. I have no clue what it might mean, accept the connection of free-falling into death.

If nothing else, Mister Lonely makes me keen for the next Korine film. Having only seen, and been alarmed by, Gummo in my younger and more vulnerable years, it’s amazing that now have him at the top of my informal “directors to watch” list.

21 May 2008

Iron Shotgun Man Stories

As a good American, I’ve tried to start off this summer with action. And I was told that Iron Man was the way to go. And it is worth the $8.50 to hear Jeff Bridges bellow, in full surround sound: "TONY STARK WAS ABLE TO BUILD THIS IN A CAVE!!!!!!!!! WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS!!!!!!!" Bridges brings it strong like a good Santa Barbarian should. His Obadiah Stane looks gooooood suctioning up his cocktail and cigar in his striped magenta PJs. I love that before seeing the movie someone said his experience had been ruined because someone told him Obadiah was secretly the villain. Come on!! How many non-villains have ever had the shaved head and full beard look?? How many!?!?

On to secondary concerns: Iron Man is alright overall. Robert Downey Jr. was pretty funny but not some kind of revelation. He is, I must say, a little toadish in shape but this is probably an indication that he is off the smack. Which is good for him and for the future of this franchise (not to say that I can name a single Iron Man villain, or imagine that I will care). Gwyneth Paltrow is a total loss as Pepper Potts—she is trying to actually be a good actor in an action film but this only comes across as unneeded anxiety. I blame bowling-ball-shaped Jon Favreau. It could not have possibly cost more to have Megan Fox (a better reason for seeing any film), who can’t really act but can look intently at spots in the distance. Terrence Howard does nothing either. But that one dude who always plays a terrorist is pretty good. He seems like a terrorist.

Okay, it may be a stretch to call Shotgun Stories a summer action film—the violence is too believable. It’s brought to you by the letters DGG (David Gordon Green all over this). The structure is so borrowed from George Washington and All the Real Girls that this feels like homage. Even if the film is not action the main players at least have epic action movie names: Son, Kid and Boy Hayes. They are pitted against a separate set of brothers from a different mother (the cause of their anger might be that the other set of brothers have a) real first names and b) fancy pick up trucks). The father, whose death and funeral start the dust-kicking here, was a Mr. Prospector-level stud apparently.

The film is controlled by the magnetic Michael Shannon, who, no matter how many people tell me I’m way off-base, reminds me of early Christopher Walken. A big dude with honor and real menace in The Deer Hunter. And at least the menace in King of New York. Not so much the Fatboy Slim/Wedding Crashers/“I make my money just by talking this way” Walken. The great opening Shotgun shot is of Son standing in his bedroom with his back to us, revealing a spray of red boils down his back—already he is established as a protector. (He proceeds to wake his brother Kid from a tent outside the house and the younger brother pulls on a t-shirt tattered down the back, a sort of negative match to his Son’s back).

But in watching Shotgun Stories I really enjoyed all the Iron Man parallels. We start with the idea of wounds—Tony Stark wears FOX's glowing hockey puck in his chest as a memento of his time in the “Fun-Vee” and Son Hayes’s back is covered in boils resulting from a shotgun aimed at his family. We also have the mad genius tinkering of RDJ, his voice activated toys able to discern sarcasm even, paired with Boy Hayes’s magical conversion van. The tape deck in the van doesn’t work because Boy blew a circuit trying to run a portable air conditioner through the cigarette lighter. But, in one Moment of Zen, Boy is able to convert engine power into a blender, resulting in an Arkansas margarita and the restoration of 80’s radio. The exclusive locations are also fun to compare. Tony Stark's pleasure palace juts out concretely from the Malibu coast, stuffed with exotic rides. Shotgun's Arkansas landscape, where each character lives and works in angry heat, looks like this:

Nichols certainly commands all the dark spaces of his Stories. If he keeps it up, maybe he will be ready to helm Doctor Stange IV in 2019.

11 May 2008

Happy Together

On Love Songs: Sad songs. Same songs. Hilariously-translated from the French songs. I saw the preview for this film and it became an immediate must see. Honoré. Paris. Youth. Threesome. Even a Mastroianni. And the preview is a great summary of the first 20 minutes, which will make you think of Godard, A Woman is a Woman, etc. Fabulous last name only opening titles, shots of the streets, smoky vocals (“look at me”), caterwauling into a fashionable apartment, hip choices for bedtime reading. And then it all goes away.

The moments before she collapses and dies Julie (Ludivine Sagnier) leans in concert with the man at the piano, the music the same as what she’s been singing to Ismael (Louis Garrel) and the short leg of the triangle Alice (Clotilde Hesme) all along. With Ismael’s arms around her, we feel with Julie the way any music can be yours when you are in your neighborhood, in love.

As soon as she disappears from the film in an odd collection of black and white still frames, Love Songs becomes a dirge. The main sport is giggling at the lyrics about tongues licking clean muddy feet with sweet venom saliva. Or something. I did also have an ancillary attraction to the male characters’ nice woolen goods—it appears I have the same taste as the Bretons when it comes to sweaters.

And, bless her pedigreed heart, Chiara Mastroianni does little as Julie’s lamenting sister. She sings poutily for a while in Bastille Park, a little like Scarlett Johansson-Van Wilder doing Tom Waits. She is not even as good at looking sad as Marcello is in a film like A Special Day.

I found myself asking, “Why couldn’t Love Songs have been a sequel to Ma Mere? In the latter film Louis Garrel was still more of a brooder than a bather and his interest in group sex was already well-defined. His Pierre in that film starred with the indomitable Isabelle Huppert. The milieu of Love Songs was 10th arrondissement and group sex, whereas the milieu of Ma Mere was the Canary Islands and group sex with your mother. As Malle’s Lacombe Lucien showed us, the French excel at films that revolve around the question, “Will he or won’t he be a motherfucker?”

In the same way sex object Sagnier departs early in Love Songs, Huppert decamps with her terrifying friend Rea after Act One of Ma Mere. Huppert provides the incandescent vitality that Love Songs lacks. She starts off the film with the question “Did I keep you waiting?” This is directed at her older, cable-sweatered husband whose pants are pulled down. Apparently he was waiting. With the immediate and continuing on screen power she holds over both her husband and Pierre she is able to dominate the film from off screen as the puppetmaster the others characters aspire, fearfully, to be.

She leaves for her son Hansi (Emma de Caunes). de Caunes, inflammable (or, if you prefer, flammable), peach and plum colored, is the one who "still believes in love" but wears her boots to bed and is handy with a whip. In her interview on the DVD extras (looking all the more stunning and natural in short brown hair) she repeatedly uses the phrase, “not gratuitous,” which is a good indication of why Ma Mere is not to be missed. Hansi (you can hear the bread crumbs home in her name) asks Pierre, “Did I keep you waiting?” (a Huppert doppelganger). She continues, “Do you think I am a whore paid by your mother?” And they kiss, Pierre answering silently, I think you are my mother.

The entirety of Ma Mere forwards an older, more disturbed worldview than the one in Love Songs. So Honoré seems another who has regressed for lack of aggression.

(He also loses points for the over the top ending soundtrack choice—though Honoré claims The Turtles’ “Happy Together” is in no way an ironic comment on a son masturbating over his mother’s corpse. That is a Bruno Dumont-level fib.)

03 May 2008

A La Mode

First thing: much to my relief, My Blueberry Nights is not a bad movie—more like comfort food from Wong Kar Wai. I knew I would be fine in the first five minutes, caught in the fast-paced shots through glass (not just the restaurant windows, but through the cake case as well). Also the digital film helped me immediately distance this project from In the Mood for Love, 2046, etc. It seems WKW was telling us digital is America today (and, as my admiration for Miami Vice shows, I think he is right).

The negative buzz for My Blueberry Nights did give me pause. I read repeated criticisms of the “trite dialogue.” And I would mostly agree with that claim as it pertains to Blueberry while retorting that WKW dialogue is always bordering on trite. It’s just usually spoken more exotically, in Cantonese or Mandarin. What Zhang Ziyi says in 2046 does not really matter to me—I am more fascinated by the shapes her mouth makes as she says it. In a Believer column Klosterman objected because it wasn’t a good road movie. But it wasn’t a road movie at all, any more than As Good as It Gets is a road movie because it has one crucial sequence in a car. Thanks for playing Chuck.

It’s fun to watch the extremely beautiful Jude Law (Jeremy) try to harness his natural screen personality into something more like Tony Leung’s (clearly this role is the Leung part in WKW’s best known films). Law gets the charm down, naturally, but can’t always hide is overriding exuberance. He’s likable even though he admits to watching security tapes of Elizabeth (Norah Jones) over and over until they lose fidelity, which is, you know, really creepy. But he has a darling white smile and we feel that he deserves his last kiss—after all it started with the honest impulse to get the ice cream off the lips of a damsel in distress.

Said damsel Elizabeth looks like the Hong Kong icons we’ve seen before in slow left to right pans, first in the improbable hat check area of the Memphis bar (mirroring Faye Wong) and then sidesaddle before a slot machine in slum casino (very Gong Li). (I suppose WKW might congratulate Nevada as the last bastion of barside smoking in America.) Throughout, Elizabeth (sometimes Betty, Liz, Beth, etc.) looks quite nice in your average primary-colored waitress uniform and has a very nice way of saying “thank you” to the various addicts and losers she draws in to her circle of trust.

The dialogue issues are kept to a minimum thanks to the lack of lengthy speeches in the film. One exception is for Rachel Weisz’s Suelynn (echoes of Su Lizhen?), who goes on for several minutes too long about David Strathairn’s bad cop courtship. I wish her monologue took less time because what follows it, a blurred (then focused) pan that lingers across the rain-slick street, shows the emotion more precisely than her words.

WKW films are about gestures—gestures of one person towards another but more importantly the gestures (caresses really) of the camera towards the actors. Think of the long shot of Faye Wong’s android in 2046, walking unsteadily away in her red-lit platform heels. Think of the camera keeping close company with Maggie Leung in the noodle shop rain of In the Mood for Love. And the shots of New York trains are pure Chungking Express, the film this one most closely resembles. Some other geographies are not as well understood. How long did it take him to find romantic shots of central Nevada—I’ve never wanted a drive over more than the one I took down that “loneliest road in America.” (Yes, it succeeds in making you want, desperately, to reach Las Vegas.) But he found the best Nevada haircut for Natalie Portman—I can attest to at least that bit of poker room accuracy.

The Blueberry music is a tough one. While not as pitch perfect as Chungking’s Cranberries, In the Mood for Love’s “Quizas Quizas Quizas” or 2046’s “Christmas Song,” Cat Power’s “The Greatest” did make me smile each time it arrived. Though, thankfully, it did not come with Jeremy’s ex Chan Marshall (named “Katya” which is a little bit giggly and a little bit scary—Twentynine Palms scars are deep!).

The standout scene is certainly Jeremy at the bar calling every diner in Memphis looking for Elizabeth, finally reaching her, giving her the full speech about how he misses her and admitting that he knows this is not the right Elizabeth but he wanted to say it anyway. Classic WKW, a moment of pure joy for me, a reminder of why I write.