It was a dark and slimy film--and yet, as it wound its way slowly into the third hour, it undeniably lit people up. Looking around the movie house, you could see instant-message screens glowing everywhere, as a bored preview audience distracted itself from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest.
To be rained on incessantly; to be chained and flogged; to be slapped in the face with tentacles, spewed with mucous, drowned in murk, subjected to an endless booming racket and repeatedly tortured, gerbil-like, upon different versions of the medieval wheel: These are only some of the imaginative pleasures for which the Walt Disney Company now expects you to pay. And because the sadistic merchant wields corporate power at its most omnipresent, submissive millions are even now presenting themselves to be "entertained," with nothing but cellphone flashes to signal a feeble and belated resistance.
Two and a half hours of cinematic slog, lightened for only a second or two by Johnny Depp's mugging or Keira Knightley's kisser; and at the end, poor sucker, you learn there is no end, but only a come-on for Pirates of the Caribbean 3! Had this insult to the nervous system been inflicted in darkest February, when studios clear their shelves, you might have understood the affront, if not excused it. But Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is a summer blockbuster, and so it gives frightening evidence that its studio felt no need to do better.
That's why the rest of this column will deal with less profitable films--ones that are so small they almost didn't get produced, or had to be made by French people.
First presented on stage at the start of the Reagan era, when it was arguably least welcome and most needed, David Mamet's Edmond is probably as close as we'll get to an American Woyzeck. Composed as a sequence of short, stark dialogues, it is the fable of an exemplary figure sucked down into his fated hell. This being America, the character is not a wretched soldier but a horny middle-aged salaryman, fatally ignorant of the world that lies beyond his white skin and business suit; the destiny is as much chosen as ordained, and hell, when it's finally reached, has a warm, redemptive glow. That said, Edmond is one efficient punch in the gut. Now it is also a perfectly efficient, breathtaking movie.
A pause for disclosure: I worked with David Mamet years ago and am proud to have been a member of the theater company once run by Stuart Gordon, director and co-producer of this new Edmond. So if you want a review by someone who has never been touched by talented people, please consult another critic. This one says that every moment of Edmond is extraordinary.
Gordon feels this material. His camera direction has the swift, spare expressiveness of classic Hollywood noir, and none of the mannerism of today's imitations. His casting is impeccable, down to the smallest role. And in his support of the actors, he never falters--especially with William H. Macy, who finds, and lives, every nuance of the daunting title role.
It's a truism that actors must accommodate themselves to the instruments they were given; and Macy, as has been evident since Fargo, was born to play men with rumpled, desperate faces. But watch how he exceeds himself here, as he spews platitudes (sometimes wincing as he hears them), tries on and abandons a grin that's no longer boyish, masks his sexual shame (and so exposes it) with a show of self-righteous shrewdness and, at the dreadful center of the story, bursts with joyful wisdom, or its manic counterfeit. He's high on life. He's just stomped a black man half to death, and yelled really bad words while doing it.
You may wonder where's the pleasure in such a movie--especially when you learn that I haven't told the half of it. Well, that's the pleasure: Edmond doesn't stop halfway but tells all. There's exhilaration in seeing to the bottom of things you ordinarily don't even want to look at. And in this tightly budgeted film, there's also a paradoxical exhilaration of scale. Bursting out of the logistical constraints is a tremendous performance, given in the service of a huge and terrible theme.
Squirrel-cheeked 13-year-old Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau) has no need to learn about sex in the gutter. He gets groans, grunts and smelly leftovers right at home, by living and working in his mother's hot-sheets motel. The place sits in semi-isolation on an exurban road, identified by a generic sign that also serves to name this film: The Motel.
For any nearsighted chubby boy who likes homework, puberty is already going to be a trial, even without a flinty mother (Jade Wu) who collects overtime charges by breaking in on her naked guests and threatening them with a baseball bat. Sex, for Ernest, is a promise simultaneously flourished and squelched--much like the recognition he's just won in a writing contest but is forbidden to claim. He can't go to the awards dinner because, according to his mother, "honorable mention" means that Ernest wasn't even good enough to lose.
If he is ever to grow out of this trap, Ernest will need a friend, a teacher, a model--and so one blows into the office one afternoon, bringing with him a giggling hooker and a bad credit card. Sam (Sung Kang) is handsome and breezy and drives a sharp car. He may not be able to pay, but he chums up readily, and Ernest wants him around. It doesn't at first occur to him to ask why Sam has nowhere else to go, or why he would seek the company of a 13-year-old. If Sam wants to offer tutelage, Ernest will accept, for both good and ill.
Written and directed by Michael Kang, The Motel is a quiet charmer: modest but precise in visual style, and always tactful about its characters. It never tells you more about them than you can figure out on your own. The film is now rolling out for national release, having recently opened at New York's Film Forum.
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Confined in its setting to a townhouse interior, concentrated in action within thirty-six hours and focused intently on one married couple, Gabrielle would conform very comfortably to the rules of chamber drama if it didn't also drip with luxury and ostentation. The film's townhouse is a Belle Epoque hôtel particulier, populated with neoclassical statuary in its marble atrium and Proustian dinner guests in the flocked and velvety salon. When entertaining, the master and mistress put on a show for their eighty best friends. When nominally alone, they play to the servants, who are many and ever-present. So this period drama becomes very grand and outgoing for an intimate two-hander: a film that lavishly exposes the private feelings of people who aren't supposed to have any.
Co-written and directed by Patrice Chéreau, based on Joseph Conrad's short story "The Return," Gabrielle begins as the monologue of Jean Hervey, whom you might call complacent but who prefers to think of himself as self-confident. As you see his tall, lean figure striding through the Parc Monceau section of Paris, a cigar perfuming the waxed ends of his mustache, you hear him on the soundtrack praising his wife as if she were the best of his polished sculptures. Chronically impassive and faultlessly incurious about others, Gabrielle has been, for ten years, the perfect ornament of a social circle where "emotion and failure are feared more than war."
So it's bad for Jean when he comes home one afternoon and finds a note from Gabrielle saying she's left him for another man. It's disastrous that she doesn't keep her word. Before night falls, she's back, having decided not to abscond. Horror-struck, Jean realizes he has no appropriate face to put on this situation. How can he smooth over a rupture that both did and did not happen? As for Gabrielle, who'd gone out to commit adultery as if dressed for a funeral, why did she return? And can she negotiate a new living arrangement with her husband, now that he suddenly, violently wants her to love him?
The answers come down to physiognomy--despite Chéreau's elaborate period detail and chandelier lighting, his use of jarring music (more Second Vienna School than turn-of-the-century Parisian), his trick of sometimes slapping Brechtian titles over the image. For all of this, the force of Gabrielle lies in the faces--of Pascal Greggory, whose formidable chin should be a French national monument, and of Isabelle Huppert, the only possible choice for a woman "whose every thought and feeling shows on her skin." He is a block of stone, which fractures with a piercing, terrible crack and then slowly crumbles before your eyes. And she is the chisel: keen, resolute and direct.
This summer the Museum of Modern Art has honored the prolific François Ozon with a series titled "Ozon at the Beach." Simultaneously, the writer-director's most recent film, Le Temps Qui Reste (Time to Leave), is making its way into American theaters, carrying with it the usual Ozon baggage: sand, sea, a grande dame of French cinema (Jeanne Moreau this time), a sex scene with a busty blonde (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi), two or three grams of cocaine and a corpse.
A young, beautiful corpse-in-the-making: Time to Leave is the story of a 31-year-old fashion photographer (Melvil Poupaud) who has just been diagnosed with an inoperable cancer. Given perhaps three months to live, the professionally superficial Romain neither confides in his friends and family nor strives to make the most of his time. Instead, he gives up working, pushes out his live-in boyfriend, excoriates his only sibling and wanders disconsolately through the back rooms of gay bars. Maybe he doesn't misbehave as flamboyantly as does the protagonist of Cyril Collard's Les Nuits Fauves--the obvious parallel--but Romain takes the bad news badly, in a way that's credible and ultimately moving.
In the past, I have tended to resist Ozon's immaculate, manipulative style and artifice-laden stories. (His biggest hit, The
, struck me as being a Russ Meyer movie with brie.) But in Time to Leave, Ozon has poked through the Saran Wrap of his own cleverness to touch on feelings that are simple and sincere. The format is CinemaScope, but the action may be as beautifully tentative as a moment of reconciliation in the park, or as inward as the recollection of a first boyhood kiss.
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Short Take: To the growing list of heartbreaking, indispensable documentaries about the Iraq War, please add The Blood of My Brother by Andrew Berends. Opening at the end of July in Los Angeles, it is the first (and no doubt last) film shot by a journalist embedded with Shiite insurgents. It focuses on young Ibrahim, who dreams of revenge for his older brother Ra'ad, now thought to be a martyr after being killed by US troops. You hear from some of these soldiers, too; Berends tries hard to be balanced. But his film's unforgettable moments show the face of pure fury against "Americans and Jews." Let everyone watch, and decide: Just what is this course we're supposed to stay?