by Greg Muskewitz
Neve Campbell, the driving force behind Robert Altman's The Company.
Perhaps in my haste to dismiss and forget 2003 as soon as possible, I neglected to look back at other trends in film during the year; or, not necessarily trends within the movies, but in the process of going to them.
Two Cents and Other Change
A critic’s decision on how they opt to utilize these perks is at their own discretion.
Perhaps in my haste to dismiss and forget 2003 as soon as possible, I neglected to look back at other trends in film during the year; or, not necessarily trends within the movies, but in the process of going to them. These issues all have certainly received their share of criticism in print all over, but I’ve yet to add my two cents. The first real effort made on behalf of the studios to combat piracy at the behest of the MPAA was the temporary set up of strip mall security guards to wand incoming critics manu militari before entering the theater. Forget the sketchy preview audiences, the studios believe the critics and members of the press to be secretly recording the movies and posting them on the internet. The gall that they would suspect those of us who make our living from attending press screenings, that we would disregard our integrity for an e-communal filesharing orgy, was offensive and laughable at the same time. The inconsistency on when and why some screenings included a pre-preview frisk was given the explanation upon further inquiry that if the film in question had not already opened in New York or Los Angeles, it was at the risk of being pirated. Whatever. (It was only after all of the wand-waving began that for the first time ever, during a screening of The Lizzie McGuire Movie, did I see someone recording a movie. And despite my failed attempt to locate the publicist in the dark, when I alerted the theater management down to the precise number of seats into row three, where the glowing monitor and occasional flash came from, they did nothing to remove the person, prevent the filming, or confiscate the material.)
As a brilliant follow-up brainstorm months later, certain studios implemented the infamous Cap Code, where strategic dots would flash across the print to help identify that the movie appearing on the web was recorded from the theater. Already long-criticized and harped on, while the caps may prove a movie was “stolen” from the theatrical print, it did nothing to identify what print or where it was recorded from. Luckily most of the press screenings I attended were free from the Cap Code, or when they appeared, it was brief and not much more attention-grabbing than the circle in the top right corner of the frame when the reels change. Only during the screening for Master and Commander did the red dots incessantly persist for the course of five-plus minutes.
The final piece of contention came over the battle to send, or not to send, awards screeners to critics’ groups and other award committees, for fear that the owners were uploading their DVDs and posting them on the internet. As many articles have revealed, including an excellent piece here by Chris Parry, the films that critics and such were sent, are not the films you see available for download on Kazaa. No All or Nothings, no Y Tu Mamá Tambiéns, no Fridas, no Gangs of New Yorks, and especially no Warm Water Under a Red Bridges. It became quickly apparent to most that the decision was simply a smoke-screen to handicap independent films, and I don’t think I’m alone when I say the ban of the ban was a well-made decision with results that prove the benefit of having these screeners available. (When will the MPAA open their eyes and see that copies are made at the in-house (or out-house) dubbing processors; the quality of downloaded movies, and the inclusion of super-imposed studio warnings prove another source beyond camcorders and audience heads.) Of course, I argue that films belong to be seen on the big screen in the first place, and that a video or DVD substitute is not really doing the film justice. A critic’s decision on how they opt to utilize these perks is at their own discretion. The purpose they serve for me, a reminder of the select highlights throughout the year, and occasionally, the opportunity to make up a movie I missed, is my own prerogative. The smarter move made on behalf of the campaigning studios was to encode the cassettes with a tracking device linking specifically to the person it was issued to. And as was the result, it was a member of the Academy — not a critic or a nominating committee member of BAFTA or the Hollywood Foreign Press — who was ultimately responsible for the distribution of several titles: the one body of people deemed acceptable by the MPAA to receive these tapes. So what does this all mean? I dunno. I show up where I’m told a screening will be so I can watch the film and do my job. Anything else along the way, while it may certainly be an inconvenience, is apparently just a new pitfall of the line of duty.
Back to 2004 …
The Company, longest out of my memory, and the most overdue for something to be written on, does not much resemble a film by Robert Altman. A labor of love for the star Neve Campbell, a quondam terpsichorean herself, she takes part in producing and writing the story of this oblique drama that uses a vérité documentary approach to the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. It’s first and foremost concerned with the ballet itself, the exhaustive rehearsals, the extravagant performances, the behind-the-scenes injuries (and occasionally, in front), the competitive nature and ego that come with the territory. That Campbell’s character (one of only three “real” actors in the film, followed by Malcolm McDowell and James Franco) and her partner get to perform at the film’s first public event (stunningly done alfresco), it is only a mixture of luck when the original duo is pulled due to one-half’s neck spasm, and at the end of the film the cycle comes to a full circle in exhibiting the span and vicissitudes that provide the unexpected opportunities for other performers to get their chance. Which, as it becomes blatantly clear, may be one’s only chance. Any real sense of focus is foregone instead for the delicately shot peeks and glances into the preparation for, and the presentation of, the company’s seasonal pieces. Shot by Andrew Dunn (Altman’s DP for Gosford Park), despite a certain filminess to it, alternating at times between brittle and flaccid, the main concern is the dutiful capture of the dance form in all of its own complexities without the additional razzle-dazzle of photographic trickery. Altman’s status as a gun-for-hire still heeds his ability to mingle within characters’ space, but the attention to the ballet, and the photography of it, strain to remain as unobtrusive to the action as possible, allowing the performers’ skills to deliver on their own merits (including Campbell’s). And all the time, regardless of how busy and full the stage can become, Dunn and Altman still leave so much space open for the dance to move about in. (My own favorite piece had Campbell melting into her partner’s posture, and moved by his puppeteer-like control.) Anything else that hits the film’s peripheral vision is pure tergiversation, particularly the rice paper-thin dialogue, which comes as an afterthought. Perhaps the reason it works better that way is because the film isn’t tied down with the propensity to dramatize the characterizations or flesh them out with soap opera-like motives. Like a student who may share classes with any number of unknown peers, you get pieces of their life from daily attendance, but nothing more, and with no need to go any further.
The Big Bounce, a remake of the forgotten 1969 film of Elmore Leonard’s mini-caper novel, is little and low-key enough that it, too, will be forgotten not long from now. (Judging from the initial box office receipts, it was forgotten before it could be remembered.) Which is not to say that the transitory fun it includes cannot be enjoyed during its company. A drifter con man (Owen Wilson) is to be run out of Hawaii after taking a bat to the head of his employer, but not before a deal is made with an unscrupulous judge (Morgan Freeman) for him to stick around and get caught up in a hatched plot with a local femme fatale (the emaciated Sara Foster) to fleece $200,000 from her lover — who owns the company Wilson was fired from, and whose planned construction of a resort threatens Freeman’s own little monopoly on the area. The convolutions, once they begin, stack up plenty high, but it takes a while to get the motion going before realizing you’re already standing in the middle of a bunch of stagy twists. As the title suggests, it tends to be bouncy in that flippant, rhythmic attitude, the winkingly self-assuredness so prevalent in the actual assuredness of Get Shorty. But seeing as how this is directed and written by nobodies, it cannot efface the excess smarty-pants reflexivity of the source material (or embellish them like Tarantino so superbly did with Rum Punch’s transformation into Jackie Brown) without going completely overboard with them. There is still a fair share of charisma to be doled out, and the kooky casting choices and odd cameos that turn up admittedly bring to it an airy breeze of satisfaction, which is also being constantly brought to your attention by the obligatory wave scenery that is slightly above-average for its normal use. On the other hand, the concealed treatment of Foster’s nudity, a desperate attempt to open up to the PG-13 crowd, is very un-adult and the lamest in its laidback ways. With Charlie Sheen, Gary Sinise, Bebe Neuwirth, Vinnie Jones, Willie Nelson, and Harry Dean Stanton; directed by George Armitage.
Japanese Story is one of the movies that played in Palm Springs that I skipped, because alas, it’s hitting theatrical release already. And had I seen it then — something I can only recognize after the fact — it would have meant I would need to have missed one of the other films I saw, and I know now it wasn’t worth it. (It would’ve cost me my favorite film from the festival, Who Killed Bambi?.) Sue Brooks’ film has a geologist named Sandy (Toni Collette) being imposed upon to serve as a tour guide to a married Japanese businessman on a visit to Australia for unknown reasons. (“It scares me. Here, lot of space, not many people; in Japan, lot of people, not enough space.”) They share something of a forced Walkabout at odds with one another — typical stereotypes strongly reinforced along the way to make Collette an obstreperous, obnoxious Australian, and Gotaro Tsunashima a cliché sidekick, singing along poorly to karaoke and laughed at because of the rigidity of his culture — before a sudden apostasy and affair arise, and before he accidentally dies, leaving Collette in tortured agony. Apart from being a piss-poor clash of cultures, a very good recent example being Fear and Trembling (one of the films I did see in Palm Springs), this is a loosely constructed non-narrative that serves as an open canvass for Collette to show off her stuff, only to embarrassingly fail. (The fact that her performance was once the talk of a possible Oscar nomination is funnier than anything in the film.) Brooks oscillates between attempts at superficial humor through the division of the two characters and their differences in backgrounds, and heavy-handed grieving for a turnabout that isn’t in the slightest believable. Above all, the thing is a big bore, and for all of the beauty that lies within Australia, the best look we get is during the opening credits.
Barbershop 2: Back In Business, sequel to the popular 2002 comedy, would be better off with the subtitle Back for Business. Ice Cube and crew reunite at his south Chicago barbershop for more of the same comedic highlights as last time, facing additional competition from a soon-to-be-opened opulent salon across the street called Nappy Cutz. The actors all pick up where they left off, some unchanged, some in the process of change (the white boy has now moved out of the first chair and is known as “Slim Fady”), and notwithstanding some unnecessary fleshing out and flashback explanation given to Cedric the Entertainer’s character in an attempt to allow him more opportunity to participate, nothing new is done to the franchise to distinguish it from its predecessor. (Unless you want to count a couple of appearances by Queen Latifah, who will be getting a spin-off with her own Beauty Shop.) Upheld with a hip soundtrack and irreverent politically incorrect humor, Barbershop 2 works best when its characters are being funny and fighting with each other or lambasting pop-culture blemishes (“I got something you won’t believe: R. Kelly on tape with grown women”). It only fumbles when the filmmakers decide to disingenuously and superficially push across a message — not that a sense of community is irrelevant here, but the way that it is so sloppily portrayed and tacked on, it has no impact on the rest of the movie and wouldn’t detract in the least if altogether removed. Particular stand outs, and those with the better material, are Ice Cube, Cedric (when you can understand him), Queen Latifah, Eve, Michael Ealy, and Leonard Earl Howze. Also with Sean Patrick Thomas, Troy Garity, Harry Lennix, Garcelle Beauvais, Robert Wisdom, and Kenan Thompson; directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan.
The Dreamers, one of my early anticipations of the year, proves to be a letdown far too soon. A San Diego college student studies abroad in 1968 Paris, receiving his education predominantly from film (Freaks, A Star Is Born, Top Hat, Shock Corridor), before he is accepted by twin brother-and-sister cinephiles (“My first words were ‘New York Herald-Tribune’”) when the Cinémathèque Française is closed for political reasons. From there, the ménage-à-trois holes up in a penthouse apartment while the twins’ parents vacation, role-playing scenes from their favorite films (Band of Outsiders, Queen Christina) and sexually experimenting. (Incest being just as viable an option; they sleep together nude, and quiz each other on films, with the loser forfeiting to requests such as masturbating to a picture to a picture of Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus, or the brother telling the sister to make love to the American.) While it is in the mode of film-loving and appreciation, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers is an intimate homage, perhaps serving greater purpose to the film buffs and historians, and despite its initial recoil from the political scene on the cinematic front, the trio’s esteemed homemade ventures tend to be of the vibrantly exquisite. (Bertolucci is sensually aware of lush, deep colors in geometrical compositions, and even more attentive and conscious of elongated shadows that take form on large solid shapes.) Being a Bertolucci film, there is no surprise in the camera’s seduction of the salacious female lead, here newcomer Eva Green, and the requisite inch-by-inch examination of her flesh, from her mountainous, missile-like breasts, to the clear and steady view of her labia majora. However, the oneiric atmosphere takes a turn for the worse as the focus inevitably turns to a bad daydream and the secluded apartment setting stultifies the aura of film worship in defiance of predictable bed-letting. The early controversy surrounding the film naturally dealt with its sexual content, and the distributor’s decision to trim it down in order to avoid an NC-17 rating. In the end, presented as intended, the fact that it is not so racy is the only true surprise as to what all of the hullabaloo was about, and that the assigned rating is hardly constituted. But that’s their problem, not mine. Beyond the stretch (or pause) of bedding, once that runs its course too, Bertolucci moves back to the political scene, opting instead this time to preclude the context of cinema’s place within it, and forge ahead in the strict mindset of Communism and Mao Tse-tung marches. In doing so, he abandons so much of what made it exciting in the first place and stagnates the function of the film’s own applicable beliefs. Cinematographer Fabio Cianchetti works brilliantly with Bertolucci, creating a breathtaking opening credits sequence that pans down and down and down until it lands on the wide-eyed Michael Pitt; even once Bertolucci has moved on to other things, Cianchetti never resigns from making it look great. With Louis Garrel, Anna Chancellor, and Robin Renucci.
A handful of requests have come in about a preferential prioritizing of the films I saw at Palm Springs, and a single suggestion of highlight performances. Easily something I can abide by. I will only go so far as my top eight, those of which I found myself to be most enthusiastic over, beginning from the front-runner: Who Killed Bambi?, Distant Lights, Moi César, Twin Sisters, Goodbye Dragon Inn, A Talking Picture, Elina, and Free Radicals.
Without a categorical break down or some such thing, the performances I was awed by were (in no order): Sophie Quinton, Nadja Uhl, Gudrun Okras, Ellen Vogel, Sylvie Testud, Fouad Labied, Maud Forget, Grégori Derangère, Sophie Conrad, Leo Bruckmann, Antonella Ríos, Vilma Santos, Caroline Dhavernas, the entire ensemble of Distant Lights, Bellinda Akwa-Asare, Bárbara Lombardo, Mercedes Funes, Joséphine Berry, Pernilla August, Michael Nyqvist, Rebecka Hemse, Natalie Minnevik, Tind Soneby, Andreas Wilson, Leonor Silveira, and Filipa de Almeida.
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originally posted: 02/07/04 05:19:42
last updated: 02/13/04 02:51:07