Sunday, October 02, 2005

Notes from Underground, Pt. IV

And now, for the final round of catch-up capsule reviews for the month of September...

Proof C+
...or, as it happens, September and early October, since I just saw Proof this afternoon and am cheating a little bit in the spirit of carpe'ing the diem. Having found the play diverting but unremarkable, and in some ways seriously flawed—over-proud of its one-liners, its narrative too compressed, its relationship to higher learning a little fuzzy—I've been dreading the film adaptation. The stingy opening credit sequence didn't help, acknowledging only the four main actors, the playwright and screenwriters, and the director, and no one else. This is particularly appalling since the genius cinematographer Alwin Küchler, albeit working on thinner material than Lynne Ramsay and Michael Winterbottom have given him, finds a frosty, scraped-ice look for the movie and its colors that redeems several scenes, bracing the film within its mood even as the actors (Davis and Gyllenhaal in particular) skate on the thin edge of lazy interpretation. The changes to the play, for better and for worse, square us much more confidently in support of Catherine's abilities, which is quite freeing for Paltrow, who is allowed to focalize her anger, worry, and indignation without having to tow the line of an intellectual potboiler. She's quite impressive, actually, proving again that the pinched and furious bystander in Ripley, not the luminous reciter of Shakespeare in Love, is the touchstone performance still guiding her career.

Rize B
Like Proof, the diametrically different film Rize also begins with its least convincing sequence, as director David LaChapelle invokes the Watts riots, the Rodney King conflagration, and other historical tableaux of racial protest in L.A. as some kind of historicist "explanation" for the hip-hop dance style known as krumping. It's not that the parallels don't resonate, but they're much too clean given the fascinating cacophony of commentary that fills the film: krumping has nothing to do with violence, but might be an expression of violence; it is an escape from street life even as the scene gets more and more bogged down in feuds and retributional rivalries; anyone can krump, even though the film clearly has to reach to find non-African American krump-dancers with even a shred of credibility. The more "explaining" is going on in Rize, the less compelling it is, and LaChapelle can't be accused of organizing his document all that well. But an invigorating document it is, replete with fabulously shot dance footage, well-chosen musical tracks, and a restless willingness to free associate on the meanings of krumping (a much more rewarding approach than the genealogical breakdown). Just by watching the dancers, you get a real sense of what the art and finer points of the dancing are, as evidenced by this East Coast white boy's surprising success at distinguishing the wheat from the chaff during the climactic battles. Imperfect, but impressive.

Serenity B
Appropriating Star Wars and Aliens as both tantamount inspirations and points of clear departure, Joss Whedon's exegesis of his own TV cult hit Firefly plays like a charm even to a viewer who hasn't seen a frame of the show. We're very close to B+ territory here: the interplanetary backstory is established crisply and with healthy lathers of interesting irony (rather than easy cynicism). The interdependence and camaraderie among the crew—both the characters and the ensemble of Hollywood unknowns—is lively and convincing. Best of all, the film generates those sensations you look for in good sci-fi and dearly miss in the bad stuff: layered concepts, real-world resonance, humor, bravery, internecine squabbles that are actually about something, and powerful knocks of genuine terror. I would happily venture again wherever this crew was voyaging, and the franchise leaves itself plenty of room to improve, just like its antecedents did. The down sides? The beginning and ending aren't nearly as compelling as the gripping middle. Nathan Fillion and Sean Maher, the shakiest actors in the ship's crew, dominate a lot of the early scenes with their pallid shouting matches, and the discrete mythologies of the River character are never clear or resolved enough to justify her centrality to the narrative. Still, a real kick in the pants, with casual pleasures and head-scratching complications well-stocked along the way.

Transporter 2 D+
No need to dwell here, except to say that Transporter 2 goes just about as wrong as a follow-up film can go. Gone is the sidelong, feather-light touch of the admittedly ludicrous and hyper-edited original; the new film groans beneath that deep, saturated, 21 Grams-style photography that lets you know from the first frame that everyone's taking themselves much too seriously. Gone is the funky soundtrack of American hip-hop, swingingly appropriated into European locations, which are also gone. Gone is Jason Statham's central note as a character, his stone-faced solitude. Here, he's saddled with a kid, a supermodel co-star, Matthew Modine in a key role, and a pair of truly dismal adversaries: Kate Nauta, who looks like a walking fang, and Alessandro Gassman, who skankily peels off his shirt as often here as Statham did last time, but no longer does—and this, too, dear reader, is a shame.

2046 (second go-round) B+
About five times a year, I see a movie twice or more in theaters because I just love the film. Another handful of times, I see a movie twice because I'm skeptical of my own reaction, usually because I can't summon the enthusiasm that I keep tracing in other reviews. And so I had another go at Wong Kar-wai's 2046, a fluorescently chilly film that I admired on first pass but which also, dare I admit it, bored me silly through the second hour. I'm glad I ventured back—which, according to Tony Leung's character, is what everyone eventually does in 2046—because the film did improve appreciably. I still doubt that Wong is going to mine any new gold from those repeated song elements and endlessly recycled motifs. Few of these are as effective in 2046 as they have been on past occasions, and there are so many Asian women crying in close-up, Amy Tan must be throwing a jealous fit somewhere. Still, on second viewing, the Faye Wong character moved much closer to the center of the film's concerns: unavailable while Leung is dating Zhang Ziyi, and the closest proxy for his memory of Maggie Cheung's Su Lizhen in In the Mood for Love, Faye is also the muse, emblem, and sometime progenitor of all of the film's storytelling, and her scenes with Leung really click. I still want more from Leung's own performance, and even though the movie is properly overt about the seedier glamour and tightening desperation of this world—as compared to the more eye-opening prospects in In the Mood for Love—my nostalgia for the earlier film shouldn't have blocked me from seeing how much this newer, colder, but worthy addendum has to offer.

Winter Soldier B+
Not so much a documentary as an actual document, Winter Soldier is an assembly of footage from the Winter Soldier Conference that unfolded in a Detroit hotel over three midwinter days in 1971. Scores of Vietnam veterans gathered to attest to the atrocities they had witnessed and in some cases committed while on their tours of duty, speaking with passion about the utterly false consciousness that war imposes on otherwise reasonable people, and implicitly pleading for an end to the conflict. Had the film been broadcast on television in 1972, as per the producers' initial plans, Winter Soldier might well have hastened the withdrawal of our forces, but every major network as well as PBS refused to air it. Seeing the film now is revelatory and harrowing in all the expected ways, and in some unexpected ways, but at this point, I'm not sure the material is best served by this bare-bones approach. After three and a half decades of interceding history, and with the film already peppered with smart questions about the inherent power of testimony—what does truth-telling accomplish on its own, if it isn't accompanied by some systemic project or context?—you leave Winter Soldier, or at least I did, eager to see some shape, reflection, or expansion applied to this stand-alone audiovisual transcript. At least with the film finally circulating, if only in one American city at a time, some of those larger questions and moral demands can now be posed.

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Blogger Dr. S said...

Don't front -- you're the best-qualified East Coast white boy I know to observe dancing and then judge it. It's not like you're not working with your own repertoire...! I was wondering how you'd liked Rize; I just saw the preview today (on the DVD for Diary of a Mad Black Woman) and decided to add it to my list. Movies about people doing dance-type things always make me happy.

Did you see the original trailer for Bring It On, by the way? (You knew that was coming, eventually.) Based on what I see there, on my DVD, that movie was going to have a whole other subplot about the Clovers--there's a distinct shot of Gabrielle Union kissing somebody in a high school hallway. And yet, there's no deleted scene corresponding to that whole other subplot. What's *that* about? I mean, other than the obvious?

Are you by any chance going to NYC to celebrate your birthday? Because I'll be there, man, I'll be there--Oct 7-10. :)s

7:25 PM, October 02, 2005  
Blogger Dr. S said...

That last s was totally a mistake.

7:25 PM, October 02, 2005  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Excellent field research on the BEST CHEERLEADING MOVIE EVER, Dr. S. I don't understand a lot of things about Gabrielle Union as regards that movie—for example, why she didn't become a huge freaking movie star after wiping everybody up with her charisma in that movie. But now the idea that there was more Isis to be had for our ticket-buying buck... is too sad to contemplate.

I have so far resisted the urge to rent the straight-to-video Bring It On 2, but perhaps you have done the deed?

As for Rize, it's kind of you to give the semi-public shout-out to the skillz, but I guarantee you that when you watch Rize, you will understand why it put me back in my Life Seat as an East Coast white boy.

As for the b-day, I'll be in VA, yo. Are you visiting the Brooklyn crew? Feel free to respond off-board.

8:22 PM, October 02, 2005  
Blogger tim r said...

But Gwynnie was even better in Sylvia, no? Pinched and luminous at the same time.

You're nice to Kuchler. I thought this was the closest he's come to Oliver Stapleton-ish hackwork, but I suppose I'd rather be looking at the movie than, you know, listening to it.

When's Nick's birthday, Dr. S?

12:34 AM, October 03, 2005  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

Hahaha... I knew you'd call me out on giving Proof such a pass, and I knew you'd crack me up when you did it!

Having just cast a horrified eye over Oliver Stapleton's credits, I can see why he's your emblematic "hack" for purposes of argument, though I did think Küchler more than made do here.

And yes, Gwynnie was better in Sylvia; watching her lash out at that hellacious dinner-à-quatre was terrifically uncomfortable. And Sylvia as a movie is a little better than Proof, too, but not hugely. What I'm wondering is whether Gwyneth Paltrow will ever again headline a movie that makes any money whatsoever.

Oh, and lastly, October 9. Same as PJ's. There are no accidents!

12:51 AM, October 03, 2005  
Blogger Buffange said...

Oh Dr. S... I'll be just up the road from you (and somewhere close to Hartford, Nick) in New Haven... Are you leaving NYC on the 10th? I'll probably pass through on the 11th... :(

my fangirl heart says hurray for joss and serenity... :D

9:45 AM, October 03, 2005  
Blogger Dr. S said...

Buffange, it gets worse! I'll actually be flying in and out of Islip, so I'll be even more near! And yet so far! I fly out on the morning of the 10th. :( indeed.

Please say hi to A. for me. I've been enjoying that blog, too...!


11:49 AM, October 03, 2005  

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