By Robert T. Wazeka
In this issue:
(rating 5 of 10)
One of the heroes in Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center" is a God-fearing marine who charges past the police barriers at Ground Zero without authorization to help with the rescue mission. Afterwards he defiantly shouts out the need to get revenge. If John Wayne were still alive, he might have played this guy.
Is this the same, supposedly left-wing film maker who brought us “JFK," “Nixon,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Salvador” and “Natural Born Killers?” It’s fine to highlight personal and emotionally uplifting events that contribute to an understanding of our enduring national tragedy, but Stone handles it so uncritically and in such a naively inspirational fashion you have to wonder if he’s lost his edge. Working from a script by Andrea Berloff, he avoids any mention of the failed communication systems that clearly led to the deaths of so many policemen and fireman. Given the film’s subject matter, doing so would have seemed obligatory. Nor does Stone mention the nation’s inadequate preparation for such a terrorist attack or its failure of intelligence or its inability to coordinate a timely response such as getting fighter planes in the air fast enough to counter the hijackers. “United 93,” a far superior picture, raised these issues in a powerful and matter-of-fact way without pumping any particular political agenda. By going out of his to avoid controversy, Stone won the praise of right-wing commentators and critics who lionized “World Trade Center” even before it officially opened.
On the positive side, the film is an impressive spectacle, both visually and emotionally. Stone’s control of crowds borders on the amazing. His re-creation of the gigantic mounds of steel, cement and metal that the nation saw on television after the collapse of the buildings is an amazing achievement. The realism is astounding. When Sgt. John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) of the Port Authority Police and a rookie cop, Will Jimeno (Michael Pena), find themselves trapped beneath a hundred feet of wreckage, I felt I was there right with them. The sheer horror of their situation is heightened by the fires that spontaneously burst out around them, by the periodic cascades of falling rubble that almost kill them and by the creaks and groans from above that suggest almost anything can happen at any time. A fellow officer shoots himself to put an end to his pain, but Cage and Pena, trapped and badly wounded, endure as best they can. They tell stories, they scream out in pain, they converse, they learn things about each other they didn’t know.
Stone keeps returning to Cage and Pena, but their situation is static. We know they’re suffering and waiting desperately to be rescued, but we don’t need to be shown this ten times. The hard truth is that there’s not enough material in the story to fill out a two-hour film. By focusing more and more on the wives and families of the two men as the picture moves along, Stone gives us something else to watch. But these efforts feel labored despite fine performances from Maria Bello as Cage’s wife and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Pena’s. Stone back-lights Bello in a gold-orange glow to bring out her beauty and he gives her some precious moments such as the quiet scene in which she wanders through Cage’s workshop and picks up his tools, one by one, as if each one were filled with memories. Her four children react differently to the fact they that can little except wait. Gyllenhaal, who is pregnant with Pena’s second child, is almost driven wild with expectation. Her father wants her to take some medication. She’s an Italian married to a Puerto Rican, and Stone contrasts her noisy family with Bello’s more subdued and Waspish one. Both women are sympathetic, but there's nowhere for them to go dramatically.
“World Trade Center” is deeply affecting emotionally – I broke out in tears several times -- and it’s a marvel technically, but these qualities are out-numbered by its deficiencies.
(rating 8 of 10)
Nearly fifty novels and short stories from British crime writer Ruth Rendell have been turned into TV dramas. Another ten have been made into full-length feature films by an amazing international array of directors that includes Pedro Almodovar (Spain), Petra Haffter (Germany), Ousami Rawi (Iraq) and Gilles Foster (UK) as well as three French directors -- Gilles Bourdos, Claude Miller and Claude Chabrol. Most are drawn to Rendell’s blend of deviant psychology, class antagonism and murder. Following his shockingly effective film, “La Cérémonie” (1995), Claude Chabrol now ventures into Rendell territory for the second time with ”The Bridesmaid (“La demoiselle d’honneur”).
Although “The Bridesmaid” is deliberately lethargic in getting off the ground, you can feel its mounting undertow of tension. We’re brought into the quiet domestic world of the Tardieu family that, in the absence of a father, is under the confident and arbitrary thumb of son Philippe (Benoît Magimel), a young man who sells bathroom fixtures and is particularly adept at soothing the ruffles of elderly women. There’s a hint of incest in his relationship with his mother, Christine (Aurore Clément), who dotes on him. It’s important to her that he approve of her new beau, Gérard Courtois (Bernard Le Coq), a self-centered businessman who doesn’t appreciate her or the stone female bust she brings him as a gift. Unlike their mother, Philippe’s sisters aren’t especially fond of him. They see him as a sour authoritarian who should have long since gotten married and moved out of the house. The older sister, Sophie (Solène Bouton), is about to marry Jacky (Eric Seigne), a clueless dolt, and the younger one, Patricia (Anna Mihalcea), is an acid-tongued teenager involved with drugs, sex and, as it turns out, theft. On the surface, it’s stable French bourgeois family; underneath, it’s in meltdown.
Philippe meets Senta (Laura Smet) at Sophie’s wedding. As one of the groom’s cousins, she’s a bridesmaid, though no one knows much about her. During the reception, Philippe offers her a ride home – outside it’s pelting down rain – but she declines. Soon afterward she shows up at his front door soaked to the skin, and she proceeds to step out of her wet clothes into his arms. Philippe dissolves into an emotional puddle when she proclaims that she loved him immediately, that they’re destined for each other, that she’ll never ever leave him. It’s stagy, histrionic stuff, but her intensity and sensuality overwhelm him. He wants to believe her. Bold and intuitive as she is, she knows this; she knows she’s penetrated his defenses. Now she takes him to the decrepit mansion (an inheritance from her father) where she lives. Despite the array of grand, empty rooms on the three floors above her, she prefers to enclose herself in her cozy basement oasis. Above her, in a ballroom, her stepmother is forever rehearsing tango steps with a man who’s undoubtedly her lover. Absurdly, the two of them keep re-appearing, and always they’re dancing, like wind-up dolls. The whole mansion is charged with artifice and lunacy and decay – just the right combination to turn a repressed bourgeoisie upside down.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Senta isn’t just your run-of-the-mill femme fatale. Her passion may be real, but she’s a disturbed woman. When she tells Philippe that there are four things one must do to live authentically – plant a tree, write a poem, make love to someone of the same sex and kill someone – you know she’s not kidding. Growing afraid of her, he leaves her more than once, but he keeps coming back. In Chabrol’s hands, he’s an even more complicated psychological mess than she is. After retrieving the female bust that his mother’s would-be lover discards, he cradles it in his bed. The face is reminiscent of both his mother and Senta, underscoring the suggestion of incest. But much more than incest is at stake. Soon the police come around, asking Philippe pointed questions. (In French, with English subtitles)
(rating 9 of 10)
If you think of “Quinceañera” as a teenage coming-of-age film, it has to be considered one of the best of its kind to appear in years. Considered as a serious family drama, it’s still a first-rate effort despite its sporadic forays into sentimentality and stereotyping. Set in the predominantly Hispanic section of Los Angeles known as Echo Park, the movie moves past the area’s social and economic problems and focuses in on its human dramas. The ending is probably more hopeful and affirmative than the events of the film would justify, but I didn’t feel cheated by this. Rather I walked away feeling that I’d seen something fresh and important and positive.
Based on what I saw in the film, I’d describe a “quinceañera” as a combination bat mitzvah and coming-out party for fifteen-year-old Mexican and Mexican-American girls. The movie takes an affectionate look at the ceremony in the opening scene. Eileen (Alicia Sixths) is celebrating her quinceañera, an event marred only by the attempted intrusion of her volatile older brother, Carlos (Jesse Garcia). The women gather in the kitchen to make large batches of food, the men sit around the tables and talk, the elderly couples get up and dance and Eileen looks very much like a princess. All of this is an inspiration to 14-year-old Magdalena (Emily Rios), particularly Eileen’s new dress and the fact that she and her friends get to ride in a Hummer limousine. She’s upset when her mother says she’ll have to make do with letting out Eileen’s dress; and, in addition, the family can’t afford a Hummer limo. Her strict father, Ernesto (Jesus Castanos), a storefront minister, points out that the quinceañera should be primarily a spiritual event.
It comes as a revelation to learn that Carlos, with his tattoos and macho demeanor, is gay. When his father catches him cruising gay porn sites, he boots Carlos out of the house. Carlos goes to live with his grandfather, Tomas (Chalo González), a kindly man in his eighties who helps support himself by making and selling champurrados, a kind of gourmet hot chocolate. Tomas lives in a small house that he’s decorated over the years with a profusion of beads, mementos, jewelry, photos, tiles and knick-knacks. He also tends a small, but elaborate garden. His place is owned by a gay couple living next door whose lifestyle and presence in the neighborhood suggest that Echo Park is starting to be gentrified, with uncertain results for the Mexican-American community. It isn’t long before Carlos gets himself invited to a party by the two gay owners, Gary (David W. Ross) and James (Jason L. Wood). Amid the gathering of well-do-do gay men, Carlos is an appealing curiosity. Trouble arises when he starts sleeping with Gary on the side rather than continuing to dispense his favors to both men.
Though she takes a different route than Carlos, Magdalena is also forced to come live with Tomas. (He’s her uncle.) She’s been experimenting sexually, up to a point, with her immature, but ambitious boyfriend, Herman (J. R. Cruz). He has a gangly sort of appeal for her, but he’s completely under the control of his mother, as she learns to her dismay. Herman can’t believe her when she tells him she’s pregnant; strictly speaking, they haven’t had sex. Her mother accepts Magdalena’s explanation that her pregnancy is a rare form of non-penetrative conception, but her father tells her to move out. As outcasts, Magdalena and Carlos slowly form a bond, though not a romantic one. Emily Rios and Jesse Garcia are both very good in their roles, and when you see what happens at the end of the film you can’t help feeling inspired.
“Quinceañera” is clearly a breakout film for writer/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Together and separately, they’ve previously made three films with gay themes, all of them obscure. In this context, it’s interesting to note that the two principal gay characters here, while not malicious, are treated as heedlessly selfish and indifferent. But life goes on, girls turn fifteen and Hummer limos turn up even in poor neighborhoods. (in English and Spanish, with English subtitles)
(rating 8 of 10)
My guess is that Hans Canosa knew he had the material for a decent one- or two-act play, but not necessarily for a feature film. The script from Gabrielle Zevin provided him with one-liners and stark emotional confrontations, but not much in the way of action. Yet he still wanted to direct this as a film.
His way of making the material cinematic is to present it in side-by-side split screens through the entire picture. If the thought of this bothers you, don’t worry – you’ll get used to it. The question is what Canosa gains, if anything, by doing this. First, I should explain that virtually the entire movie consists of just two characters, a man and a woman, talking to each other. As played by four different actors, they’re shown both in the present and the past. Neither is given a name, and all we know for sure about their present circumstances is that the man (Aaron Eckhart) is a lawyer living in New York and that the woman (Helena Bonham Carter), who may or may not be employed, is living in London. Both are approaching forty. Eckhart is currently living with a much younger woman, a dancer, and Bonham Carter is married to an older cardiologist, whose children she’s helping to raise. Their younger selves, as of 15-20 years ago, are played by Erik Eidem and Nora Zehetner.
The cleverest way Canosa takes advantage of his split screens is to display the two couples next each other doing essentially the same thing. There’s a deliciously voyeuristic quality in watching them like this -- innocence played off against world-weariness and ripening beauty played off against the first signs of encroaching age. At other moments, Canosa presents identical action on both screens, only from different camera angles. Sometimes he uses the screens as barriers between the man and the woman as they're talking or embracing. Occasionally the two of them are shown side by side doing different things in different rooms. All things considered, the split screens work pretty well. They suggest a fractured sense of reality and memory, which is what Eckhart and Bonham Carter discover about their past lives as they simultaneously try to put the fractured pieces back together in a way that makes sense for them in the present.
When they meet at Eckhart’s sister’s wedding at the opening of the picture, I had no idea they’d had a past together. Eckhart is intent on seducing Bonham Carter. He’s slightly overbearing, but charming as he flashes his big, broad smile. Bonham Carter is coy, letting him know she’s willing, but wanting to wait and see how he plays his hand. Suddenly, in a flash forward, we glimpse them walking into a hotel room together. And then their conversation shifts, revealing that they already know each other. So were they play-acting before or what? They were in love, we discover, and even lived together, but there’s a suggestion too they were once married, with a divorce following quickly.
After they’ve had sex, Eckhart falls into a nasty mood and Bonham Carter retreats into herself. Are they reprising the way their past way of being together or is this something new? He wants to start over, but she’s not very tempted. It clear now that it was she who left him, not the other way around. Eckhart’s transformation from seducer to spoiled brat isn’t very convincing; it ruins an otherwise effective performance. Bonham Carter, on the other, is wonderfully and ineluctably subtle; she’s a flower that opens in the light and closes shut in the dark. It becomes more and more clear why her attraction to him will always be ephemeral. And yet.
(rating 3 of 10)
“Pulse” could easily have been a droll satire instead of a dark, frantic film that makes you want to take a shower afterwards. So murky is the cinematography that half the time it appears as if particles of ash are drifting down from the sky like dark snowflakes blown out of some nearby volcano. The characters in this film, nearly all of them college students, live in rat hole dwelling units in desolate apartment blocks that you’d never want to get close to, much less live in. The campus itself is a concrete nightmare where we sometimes see a smattering of students and sometimes not. Part of the point here is that the dead people -- or demons or ghosts or apparitions or whatever we decide to call them -- are taking over. They kill people by leaping at them and essentially swallowing them whole as their victims’ bodies disintegrate into clouds of black ash. So maybe that we see falling from the sky is decomposed bodies.
There’s a good reason why “Pulse” could and should have been a satire. These creatures, whatever they are, exist solely within the electrical signals emitted by computers, cell phones, I-Pods and the other electronic gadgets currently flooding our sentient world. In effect, this makes the ghosts something akin to electronic zombies; apparently, they once occupied real human bodies themselves. Then only way to escape them – naturally, they threaten to take over the world -- is to go somewhere out in the desert where cell phones can’t pick up any signals. (I’m not kidding about this.) The conclusion from this has to be that all the attention we’re giving to little electronic screens is dehumanizing us and turning us into zombies. And, as I say, this notion have been conveyed through satire.
As it happens, “Pulse” isn’t merely overly serious and turgid and difficult to follow; it’s derivative as well. It’s a remake, and apparently a faithful one, of the 2001 hit film “Kairo” from Japanese director Kivoshi Kurosawa – a movie I haven’t seen. People who have seen both films say “Kairo” is much better, which I wouldn’t doubt.
The lead character in “Pulse” is Mattie Webber (Kristen Bell), a slight blonde who hasn’t seen her boyfriend, Josh (Jonathan Tucker), for several days and wonders why. When she finally breaks into his apartment to see what’s going on, she gets to watch him hang himself. Then she and her best friends, Isabel (Christina Milian) and Stone (Rick Gonzalez), all receive the same message the next time they turn on their computers: “Would you like to see a ghost?” After clicking on the message, they’re treated to an extremely grainy video showing one or more of the electronic zombies. As they and their other friends start dying off, they also start showing up on computer screens.
When Mattie returns to Josh’s place with the intention of examining his computer hard drive, she finds the apartment completely empty. It’s also up for rent. The landlady tells her she sold the computer to a guy named Dexter (Ian Somerhalder), who informs Mattie he’s been getting strange messages from a guy named Zieglar. Soon he and Mattie team up to save themselves and, of course, all of humankind as well. Sex, apparently, has to wait. They discover that red tape helps keep the ghosts away -- some of those still alive are barricading themselves into their apartments and taping their walls red. The very idea of red tape, with all its connotations, might cause you think that director Jim Sonzero intended a bit of satire with this, but I think the idea never occurred to him.
(rating 8 of 10)
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance -- these are the five stages of dying famously articulated by Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. In François Ozon’s new film, “Time to Leave,” a 31-year-old gay fashion photographer named Romain (Melvil Poupaud) moves through all five stages after discovering he has terminal brain cancer. His doctor (Henri de Lorme) advises him to try chemotherapy if only because there’s a remote statistical chance he could still pull through. Romain declines. Emotionally, he has already moved beyond denial into a private world that apparently has little room for other people.
Compared to “Under the Sand” (2000), another Ozon film about death in which a newly widowed woman, played by Charlotte Rampling, slowly absorbs her husband’s disappearance and presumed drowning, “Time to Leave,” until the very end, feels stolid and mechanical. It doesn’t help that Romain is so unsympathetic as a character. Nor does he reach out for sympathy. At dinner after receiving his bad news, he attacks his sister, Sophie (Louise-Anne Hippeau), telling her she’s far from beautiful. With his mother (Marie Rivière) and father (Daniel Duval), he’s snappish and discourteous. After driving Romaine home, his father tries to reach out to him, but is pushed away. Next, Romain takes a leave from his job and informs his live-in partner, Sasha (Christian Sengewald), that he should move out. None of these people is told that he has cancer.
The one person Romain does tell is his grandmother, Laura, played by the great French actress Jeanne Moreau, whose face, at the age of seventy-eight, has become a sea of wrinkles. He visits her at her country home. They reminisce, have a meal, take a walk in the woods, and that’s it. Why Ozon didn’t write a big scene for Moreau I don’t know. Her presence serves only to prove that Romain still has a twinge of humanity left in him.
By now Romaine is growing noticeably thinner and paler, though his dark good looks remain intact. A cafe waitress (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi), eyeing him, asks if she can sit down and talk. He says no, almost brutally. When he encounters her a few days later, he apologizes. She introduces him to her husband and then makes him a rather startling proposition. Dumfounded, he tells her no, but slowly the notion takes hold. When he accepts her offer, he feels revitalized, and it leads to a remarkable scene with her and her husband. Romain now understands how he should live out the final days of his life. It ends in solitude, in a way that recalls Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice.” The film, and especially Romain, still felt emotionally disengaged to me, but then I found I had trouble getting up and leaving. I realized that Ozon had woven a spell on me after all. (in French, with English subtitles)
Copyright © 2000 - 2013 Robert T. Wazeka. All rights reserved.