Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Lumps of coal

Not everything under the cinematic tree this Christmas season is worth opening. In the run-up to my 100th entry, which I plan on being a Top 10 list for 2006, I have two posts to make, one naughty (today's) and one nice (tomorrow's). I'd give these a miss when planning holiday viewing.

Apocalypto (Touchstone). This one's already keeling over at the b.o., and doesn't need me to push it over the cliff, like so many warriors in the film. Shrug...not as violent as one might have feared (or wished) but one-note in its relentless, reductive, dog-eat-dog brutalism. I learned next-to-nothing about Mayan culture, though I guess how much there is to know is a question. Way overlong, too, particularly in the second half, in which every wilderness survival cliche is trotted out (quicksand, snakes, waterfalls, etc., except, of course, avalanches). The physical production is nicely realized but after all the tumult this is a ponderous non-experience, if maybe the strangest film ever released by a Disney unit. Reviewers who underrated or maybe undervalued Mel Gibson's more bracing Christ story seemed to go overboard on this one, perhaps embarrassed that they didn't "get" Passion like audiences did; with theaters empty of patrons for Apocalypto in its second week, I wonder if reviewer's remorse has set in? One of those movies that's more interesting to read about than actually sit through, all 2:20 minutes of it.

Curse of the Golden Flower ( Sony Pictures Classics). I attended the gala premiere of this film at New York's Lincoln Center late last month, with director Zhang Yimou and co-star Gong Li (absolutely, spectacularly beautiful in a floral print outfit) in attendance. Fans of Hero and House of Flying Daggers won't be keenly disappointed, but the film, which is comically perverse at times and underdeveloped except for the visuals, is unlikely to win any new converts. It's over-everything on the production side: over-the-top, overdesigned, overscaled, overstuffed, an attempt to dethrone Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, capped off by a Lord of the Rings-style battle sequence, that, in its heavy underlining of the futility and impotence of power, recalls Brian De Palma's Scarface besides. It's stunning to look at--reference-quality DVD material somewhere down the line, but you'd best see, if so inclined, on a big screen with a quality sound system. (The cinematography was able to cope with the rich colors Zhang puts up there, unlike in Daggers, a flat-looking film. A good thing, too, as a good chunk of the film takes place in an ornate room with corridors that have the color and texture of multiflavored Lifesavers.)

The emotions, however, are remote. The elaborately brocaded and coiffed Gong, returned to Zhang's fold after a decade away, and Chow Yun-Fat, in his first screen role in three years, are a scheming empress and emperor whose one-upsmanship games with their family members and with each other erupt into multi-army violence staged like Olympics ceremonies (which, as it happens, are on Zhang's directorial docket, for the Beijing Games). Chow, typically, effortlessly magnetic, looks depressed and miserable with all the corseting, which you would be, too, if required to stomp around in battle armor that makes you look like a fat golden lobster. The story strands come together in brazenly, almost silly, operatic fashion--the audience chuckled at the hysterics, particularly when the sons of their characters, the eldest very badly played, go crazy with bloodlust--but with limited dramatic effect, given the undercooked dimensionality of the characters. I felt more for the thousands of chrysanthemums planted on the grounds of the mountainside castle, which are trampled to death by the marauding armies.

I think Zhang really nailed this type of picture with Hero and has nothing else to convey in this vein. What's new, in pro forma genre filmmaking style, is the weaponry (flying scythes instead of daggers), the rope-drawn assassins, the battle atop the pretty flowers; the human touch is distinctly absent. But somewhere in the cosmos Louis B. Mayer is smiling; the MGM aesthetic has gone East in a big way.

The Good Shepherd (Universal). A film unlikely to find much of a flock to tend. As a director, Robert De Niro's first picture was the modestly appealing A Bronx Tale; here he and the screenwriter, Eric Roth, chew on the early history of the Central Intelligence Agency, with indigestible results. Roth dabs fictionalized episodes from the case files into a portrait of a fact-inspired spymaster, played by a barely simmering Matt Damon, who seemed to shake himself up in The Departed. The cloaks-and-daggers he encounters on his way to a personal comeuppance at the Bay of Pigs, told in barely comprehensible and unexciting flashbacks that fail to hang together, are played by trench-coated all-stars like Alec Baldwin, Billy Crudup, Michael Gambon, and a barely mobile De Niro himself. The left-behind love interest, a deaf woman, is played by Tammy Blanchard--so what of Angelina Jolie? She has the "I have Nick the pig for a friend" role (a la Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface), the wronged and betrayed wife (shades of Jennifer Aniston) who pouts and frets as her husband fights the Cold War from behind a desk and inserts ships-in-a-bottle the rest of the time. (Her character is nicknamed Clover, but the aloof Damon, who married her only to get her out of "trouble," sure isn't rolling in it.) The wary fascination with period technology is the stock-in-trade of co-producer Francis Ford Coppola; the freeze-dried marriage, Scorsese's Casino, which had flamboyance and not the lugubrious, high-church style lighting here (by Robert Richardson) to offset its nullity. Unwilling to engage the subject politically, save for a pro-and anti-Americanism that glibly alternates, De Niro settles for a muted hysteria about how the collapsing WASP hierarchy of the period took no prisoners, and ends with preposterous contrivances. At first dull, then excruciatingly dull, The Good Shepherd is an end-of-the-year disaster, and the most useless three hours since the same distributor foisted Meet Joe Black on us in 1998.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (DreamWorks/Paramount). I'm tempted to write "it reeks" and move on. The producer, Bernd Eichinger, specializes in inert, middlebrow, Hollywood-ish adaptations of literary bestsellers like The Name of the Rose and Smilla's Sense of Snow. Usually successful in Europe, they tend to tank here, and for once we Yanks can pride ourselves on our taste and discretion. Perfume, another English-language co-production from his mill, is a little more flavorful; the German director, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) has a bit more flair, in a perverse story of a mute, trod-upon 18th century Frenchman (Brit Ben Whishaw) who plans to avenge himself on an uncaring world by releasing the perfect, enslaving scent. As the key ingredient is carried on the skin of young virgin women, who must be killed for it to be properly extracted, there is some trouble. We have, again, The Good Shepherd problem of an uncommunicative and unsympathetic protagonist placed at the center of a story for well over two hours; at the margins, however, are the reliable Alan Rickman and a comic Dustin Hoffman, as a famed Italian perfumer who actually cries "Mamma mia!" and "Basta!" It climaxes with a very tastefully arranged orgy that has been carefully shot and edited to minimize naked abandon, precisely the opposite effect of what is intended in the story--that, in a nutshell, is the Eichinger touch. And the squarely composed images stink of production gloss, rather than beauty. If only scratch-and-sniff cards worked better to give the stagnant Perfume a more intoxicating air as it unspools.

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