The worst of the worst: 10 bottom films of 2005
29-03-06 Revista de Prensa
by Walter Chau
Some films engage in actively retarding the society at large. These were the ones in 2005.
The worst films from any year are, technically speaking, fairly easy to pick out. I'd hazard that there will always be more across-the-board consensus on the bottom ten than on the top, because 'bottom tens' give critics the chance to take a working vacation. Alone in the Dark, for instance, is among the worst movies ever made--as is the astonishingly inept A Sound of Thunder, the last nail in Edward Burns' already-undead career. ("You killed the zombie Flanders!" "Flanders was a zombie?") I'm not saying you should kick over ant piles by listing something like Brokeback Mountain (it's not bad so much as middling, after all) or, say, March of the Penguins, which, despite having next to no nutritional value, at least doesn't engage in actively retarding the society at large.
But some films do. The ones that cast Wanda Sykes as a mammy archetype, for starters; the tortured feel-good dramedies that contort themselves into pretzels trying to make Diane Keaton, with her knob turned all the way to "shrill psychopath," likeable; or documentaries about something important and tragic that smug documentarians manage to transmogrify into films about how much they care. If you used race, rape, or death and suffering as afterthoughts and second-class citizens to childish narratives played by petrified stereotypes, you probably showed up on this list. If you used more than one of those things, you definitely did. The temptation is strong to come down hard on Me and You and Everyone We Know for being the masturbatory product of an onanistic (even by the profession's standards) performance artist, or The Exorcism of Emily Rose for taking the monkey side of the intelligent design debate, or Bee Season for being a piece of self-righteous shit--but really, what's the point? Let's turn our baleful gaze to stuff that actually has credible defenders.
10. Memoirs of a Geisha (d. Rob Marshall)
The wounds that WWII opened between the Chinese and the Japanese are still fresh. Over the course of a twelve-year occupation of Manchuria by the Japanese regular army, at least nine million Chinese civilians were butchered--and though the Chinese, lacking a unified defense, bear the burden of poor organization, petty in-fighting, and a fair share of mortal Pollyannaism, the Japanese refuse to this day to apologize for what they have officially dismissed as the standard toll collected in conventional warfare. I believe it's this--as opposed to the centuries of racial hatred--that has called down the normally quiescent Chinese activist contingent on the suddenly-thorned head of the Steven Spielberg-produced Memoirs of a Geisha, a film written, directed, and produced by Caucasians based on a book by a white author who was promptly sued by the geisha, Mineko Iwasaki, he interviewed for the book on the grounds that he not only betrayed their confidentiality agreement, but also fabricated the fate of her virginity, which she claims was never never auctioned off in the way that the Arthur Golden novel describes. True or not, it's the sort of thing that would be particularly attractive to a western mind transfixed by the sexy Mystery of the Geisha.
It's not that there's a Chinese reluctance to forgive the Japanese--it's that forgiveness was never asked for. Thus ethnically Chinese actresses accepting parts as Japanese geisha in the service of war profiteers and "heroes" of the occupation of Manchuria strikes many as the worst kind of cultural betrayal. And why wouldn't it? (Compounding frustrations, this is one of those extremely rare war movies set in the Pacific Theater and it manages to neatly sidestep the Japanese occupation.) But there's more to it than that, because the film is a product of an industry notoriously unfriendly to Asian actors who are not clowns or martial artists (or both), and so it feels like yet another slap in the face from people content to lump Asians of every stripe into one group. When you say "they all look alike," I don't think you mean all Chinese people, or all Koreans--I think that you mean all Asians, period; when a film like Memoirs of a Geisha is cast completely with the Asian faces that are the most familiar to American audiences, actual ethnicity be damned and with no regard for the potential shockwaves such decisions will send through a third of the world's population, it just feels like Mickey Rooney upstairs to Audrey Hepburn all over again. And when Chinese actors are schooled in "light Asian-accented English," there's not a distinction that they're speaking with Chinese accents instead of Japanese. Does it matter? Maybe it doesn't. The standard refrain from Caucasian journalists so far is "I think they're overreacting"--which is patronizing, of course, and clearly ignorant, but it speaks, too, to the essential misunderstanding of the completeness of the offense.
While most of the ire from China is being directed at Zhang Ziyi, Gong Li, and Michelle Yeoh (and at what point will we address THE INTERNET MOVIE DATABASE's practice of "helpfully" rearranging Chinese and Korean names so that the surname is sequenced in a west-pleasing way?)--I won't speak for them or the personal paths they took into kimonos and servility. I mean, there's a lot of smugly-located irony in their "selling out" for a film with this kind of subject matter, isn't there? Whatever crosses they have are theirs to bear. Some, like Zhang, have already spoken for themselves in correctly identifying the difficulty any Chinese actor has in breaking into Hollywood. (The choice, as she saw it, was between a career in relative obscurity versus this anomalous shot at the big time.) Yet I feel like I must take into consideration that the film is a Sony Pictures release and that Sony Pictures is, of course, a Japanese company. No sooner have I done so than am I on the horns of another complexity. Racism and xenophobia are spider's nests: kick them over at your peril, you might even find yourself under there. It's a mess, a complex and delicate one involving race, artistic license, gender, and ethics vs. profit. That most will dismiss it as little more than overreaction and inscrutable nonsense about a trifle of a trifle is just license to do it again.
Memoirs of a Geisha might as well be science-fiction, because for all the insight, research, and humanity afforded this project, it comes down to exotic, imaginary creatures flitting about in a fantasy of bellum-Japan--Star Wars' cantina scene stretched to feature-length. This is exactly the tactic, in fact, that the filmmakers (and Golden) would seem to encourge: it's not history, it's that holy grail of the ignorant and callow, Just a Movie (i.e. completely meaningless, impact-less, ephemeral). It doesn't say anything about us as a people just like Birth of a Nation doesn't say anything about America in the first part of the last century, just like Reifenstahl's pictures don't offer up any insights into the Reich, and just like all those celebratory 9/11 videos cobbled together for sale on the streets of Beirut don't say a thing about Lebanon. Okay, then, let's spend review how the film fails on its own merits.
Sayuri (Zhang) is a blue-eyed girl kidnapped, in a soft-sold version of the abduction in Casualties of War, from her parents' fishing hovel and sold to a house whose business it is to train Geisha and introduce them into service as living pieces of art for the gratification of rich businessmen. Evil, drunken, promiscuous, jealous geisha Hatsumomo (Gong Li, a master of these roles) is fearful of Sayuri's future earning potential either because the little girl has blue eyes or because she's read the script and knows that Sayuri is the lead. On the flipside we have Pumpkin (Youki Kudoh, actually Japanese), the meek Geisha apprentice who is posed carefully as Judas in the Passion of the Sayuri. Romance novel stuff happens, the little girl grows up to be a gorgeous Char-girl, and then a fairy godmother in rival Geisha Mameha (Yeoh) materializes in order to turn this pumpkin into a beautifully-appointed coach with all the surrey yen can buy. Sayuri, however, is in love with The Chairman (Ken Watanabe)--a man so powerful and good (he buys her a snow cone) that he only needs a title--and pines after him for years and years in a weird, sort of disgusting, Katie Holmes/Tom Cruise, Soon-Yi/Woody Allen way until she, like Katie and Soon-Yi, gets to sleep with the old (and only getting older) letch she's idolized and romanticized since forever.
It's melodrama at its most overheated (if Fabio were Asian, he'd be in this film). Director Rob Marshall has taken whatever questionable nuance there may have been in Golden's book and transformed it into a glossy picture-book you want to hide under your mattress. Its rags-to-riches by way of slavery and institutionalized rape story is far from heart-warming--maybe it's just not my cup of tea. Yeoh's moment to shine revolves around her barely-repressed jealousy that one of Mameha's long-time customers might have raped pupil Sayuri, thus destroying Sayuri's cherry-price and losing Mameha, a customer who always paid his bills on time. The later revelation that this guy didn't actually rape her (he merely assaulted and molested her) comes as some relief because that means that Sayuri and Mameha can proceed to sell Sayuri's holiest of holies to a disgusting old doctor apparently turned on by tending to knife wounds on supple Geisha thighs. It confuses its message of female empowerment (it is, indeed, one of those pictures that suggests that forms of prostitution are feminism in full flower and practice) with fatalistic moments like those and lines like "what more can we expect, we Geisha?"--ignoring altogether the gangsters with their fingers in every Geisha school at some level during that period. The goal oft-stated is to turn these girls into commodities for trade on an open market, but the goal unstated is to make Sayuri both that object of ornamental Orientalism and a plucky, fast-talking, strong-headed dame from a thirties screwball comedy.
In a word, Memoirs of a Geisha is icky. Marshall has a flair for big-budget movie-making, which means that, like another Spielberg protégé, Chris Columbus, he's able to make every single shot look ultra-expensive. Sayuri's "coming out" dance on a modern runway complete with fake snow and strobe lights is a marvel of "what the fuck is going on?" quickly swallowed by "wow, lights." (As good an analysis of the film as a whole as any, really.) The men are never judged in any way, save a couple of post-war American businessmen, one of whom is used as the instrument of the fatally compromised Pumpkin's weird revenge subplot that comes from nowhere, goes nowhere, and is wrapped up as neatly and tightly as a tourniquet. This is the cleanest movie about prostitutes (auctioning off your virginity never looked so refreshing) since Butterfield 8, a film so apolitical that its vacuity has allowed all manner of offended special interests to flood in to fill the void. A scene where Sayuri sails the requisite Handkerchief of the Beloved off a cliff a-crash with waves is so very "Madame Butterfly", and I dare say any scene could be captured for use in one of those tacky calendars that line the shelves of your local Far East Center. But pretty pictures only get you so far. While Zhang and company are game, they're not given much to work with in a language that's not their own in a film that, in the final analysis, simply doesn't deserve the amount of attention it's getting for being stupid. A lot of movies are stupid, after all
9. The Family Stone (d. Thomas Bezucha)
An absolute freakin' nightmare: imagine spending the holidays with Diane Keaton in full-smirk, full-chuffing, shit-eating laughter mode, then magnify that with a screenplay by hyphenate and former fashion executive Thomas Bezucha that never misses an opportunity to excrete a little dollop of quirk where silence would have spoken volumes. The Family Stone is an intensely middlebrow bath, dipped in warm sentiments and institutionalized ugliness--one half slapstick fish-out-of-water, one half chestnut-lit holiday perennial-hopeful. (The marriage works about as well as it does in other pieces of Yuletide garbage like Christmas with the Kranks and Home Alone.) Therein, eldest Stone boy Everett (professional piece of wood Dermot Mulroney) is home for the holidays (it's not as good, obviously, as Jodie Foster's film of the same name but it's cut from the same cloth) to introduce his girlfriend Meredith (Sarah Jessica Parker) to his quirky tribe. Chief antagonist for the first hour is mousy (yeah, right) Amy (Rachel McAdams), who has an NPR duffel bag in a brief introductory shot, thus establishing her character as much as it's ever going to be established. She doesn't like Meredith because I don't know why but proceeds to brand her a racist and a boor when it seems that, mostly, Meredith is intensely uncomfortable and self-conscious. Maybe she has social anxiety disorder, or the more common stick-up-her-ass-ism. That's how appropriately-named evil mother Sybil (Diane Keaton) diagnoses her, except she calls Meredith a monkey and replaces the ass-stick with a silver spoon.
Ergo there's a little bit of classism going on here, except that beloved Everett does exactly the same thing Meredith does and wears a shirt and tie to play charades, so...physician, heal thyself, yes? Another sister (Elizabeth Reaser), older and pregnant, generally hangs out in the background until she's called on to sit by herself and watch Meet Me in St. Louis (ah, treacle-within-a-treacle, how po-mo), which, because it might jerk a tear and not because it has anything to do with anything else in the picture, Bezucha lingers on for ages. But the worst is little brother Thad (Tyrone Giordano), whose status as a deaf homosexual dating a black man (Brian White) would be fine as far as it goes if it weren't for a dinner table scene where the already unjustly-demonized Meredith is laid waste as she suggests that gay people have more hurdles to overcome than straight folk. By making being gay a point of honour or derision, you succeed only in transforming your picture into a painful message piece and an opportunity to use your characters as righteous mouthpieces for your own knee-jerk liberal politics. Sybil gets the virtuous vituperation this time around, in addition to the misty-eyed affirmation for a peculiarly fragile Thad, who, with all of these screenwriting workshop strikes against him, would surely have thicker skin by now. Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly incomprehensible why Everett would ever love such a monster (Sybil, Meredith, Amy... take your pick).
The Family Stone is awful, reprehensible stuff. As soon as Meredith's sister (Home for the Holidays' own Claire Danes, luminous) arrives to lend moral support, you know just by the lighting that Everett's going to end up proposing to her instead--and as soon as you realize that, you know that for it to be okay (because the film is as interested in resolving everything as a hysterical brood-mare), The Family Stone will pair off Meredith with Everett's stoner brother Ben (Luke Wilson). Quirky! Goofy! Taken with a Christmas present that's a framed vintage photo of Keaton's character, pregnant and with breasts (did I mention that Sybil's dying? Did I need to?), it's enough to make you vomit, but you don't quite because there are a couple moments of grace, both of them involving Stone family patriarch Kelly (a superb Craig T. Nelson). Nelson turns in what is arguably the only interpretation of this rancid text that reads as warm and human; between a scene where Kelly and Ben have lunch on bleachers in the middle of a snowstorm and another in which he quietly anchors an extraordinarily badly-handled revelation sequence with red-rimmed eyes and a look of sad desperation, you'll wish the picture were about him instead of a collection of jolly dysfunction clichés, a screed on homosexuality, and the kind of "insight" into family and legacy that bean counters have programmed into the one part of the year people are most likely to forgive this breed of feckless heartfelt pap.
8. North Country (d. Niki Caro)
North Country is a sensationalistic, pandering film that crafts from a landmark legal case a cinematic martyrdom the equivalent of Christ's and Joan of Arc's rolled up into the noble, trembling lips of Charlize Theron (who once had the temerity to chastise the press for focusing on her appearance in Monster whilst wearing a see-through, painted-on size-4 gold dress). I'm not decrying the stunt-casting of a statuesque blond in the role of the tiny Minnesotan mine worker the life upon which this film is ever-so-loosely based, nor am I begrudging, per se, the natural instinct of Roger Ebert and the Academy to foam over turns like this from starlets undergoing extreme make-unders. No, what I really don't like are movies like North Country that fudge humanity in all its ugliness and imperfection so tragically that the real issues of the picture end up looking like one of those glossy fashion mag covers Theron will grace as she embarks on her promotional turn. According to the world of North Country, it's not terrible enough that awful things happen to a real live person--no, awful things have to happen to Mother-freakin'-Teresa.
Pure silk streams out of Josie Ames' (Theron) ass. She's a single mother of two--thirteen-year-old son Sammy (Thomas Curtis) and cipher of a daughter Karen (Elle Peterson)--who has "done nothing but bring shame" upon her parents Hank (Richard Jenkins) and Alice (Sissy Spacek) by allowing herself to get the crap beaten out of her by her Neanderthal sketch of a soon-to-be ex-husband. During the bizarre (and embarrassing) courtroom melodrama that serves as the film's framing story, her hockey star attorney Bill (Woody Harrelson) will object to an exhumation of her sexual history--but by the time people have finished standing up in the gallery in a show of Dead Poets Society moral support, it's evident that for director Niki Caro and screenwriter Michael Seitzman, that Josie's sexual history be clean as the driven snow means absolutely everything. There's a bad missed opportunity here to present the story of a deeply flawed woman who slept around with some of her married co-workers and earned the mistrust of a few of her female peers for being too "girly" for the job of cleaning industrial sludge off mining equipment. I guess in the actual class action suit--and before I get too far ahead of myself, North Country ostensibly deals with the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit brought against a major Union company--a few of the women actually testified against the whistleblower. Boy, would I have been interested to see that movie.
Understand that this is not a defense of sexual harassment in the workplace, but rather a rhetorical question as to whether it's less egregious an offense if the victim isn't up for sainthood. Jonathan Kaplan's The Accused took a few brave stands, I think, in casting its victim as a flawed person we'd like to look down upon but who, despite her provocative attire and flirtatious gestures, still didn't deserve to be gang-raped atop a pinball machine. What North Country does instead is pile on the piety with giant brick-laying slops, even pausing for a moment for the mother figure played by Spacek--perhaps the most decent-seeming actress of the last forty years--to make an antiquated stand for the plight of the housewife: "Maybe I should charge you for all the loads of laundry I do!" It's sort of like Pleasantville where the kids introduce the parents into twentieth-century ideas about gender relationships, except that North Country isn't set inside a 1950s situation comedy.
Incidents of rabid machismo accumulate at the mine (as to be expected, though, the offenses detailed in the actual case are considerably more egregious), with the initial salvos against the women taken in stride until the writing-with-excrement on the wall and the tipping of Port-o-Potties becomes epidemic, pushing noble Josie to the stand. A villain is proffered in childhood boyfriend Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner), who, as he's pushed to spill some rancid beans with the classic attack of "you're a homo" (backed with a string of sports analogies from Harrelson's jock character, woefully underutilized in a film taking place in hockey-mad Minnesota), to pass time until it's crystal clear that even though Josie is crying rape on the stand as explanation of her first child's conception, the evil defense team is incapable of making the leap that this is the perfect opportunity to impeach this witness for maybe always crying rape. Just the fact that they bring in a super-secret surprise witness seems to indicate that this is the tactic they'll take--but because the film doesn't trust its audience even a little, Josie's virtue is never in question and the proof of her violation is finally the catalyst for the fence-sitters to grow a little backbone.
What we ought to be asking ourselves throughout is if it matters whether Josie is a miserable parent (she isn't; we're reminded she's a saint constantly, particularly in a scene where pal Kyle (Sean Bean) acts the dad for wayward Sammy by decrying adoption), an alcoholic, a slut, an idiot, a disgrace, a person we'd like to look down on for any number of reasons: does she deserve to be sexually harassed in her workplace? There's a disturbing conversation to be had here about why the corrupt judge of the real case is replaced by a justice-loving curmudgeon--and, better, how it is that this film revolving around women's rights in the workplace is fought and won by men acting like boys, swooping in to rescue their damsels in distress and accusing one another of being girls while the actual girls sit around crying. The only characters who need redemption and experience growth in this picture are the father, the lawyer, the son, and the bully, no?
That being said, North Country finds Frances McDormand reprising her Fargo accent as a terminally ill pal given the best utterance of "fuck you" in years, poised as the best single moment in a picture so dedicated to drumming up faux-outrage that it actually manages, with no little irony, to inspire a lot of outrage towards it. It's a picture that doesn't respect you very much and so presents to you a beautifully-painted, one-dimensional piñata it then proceeds to knock around for a couple of high-falutin' hours until you're showered in a welter of righteous candy. The movie that an ugly fight about an ugly issue deserves is one weighted with more complexity and intention than podium-highlight monologues on noble causes that nobody in their right mind is arguing against in the first place can provide. After all the women of the Eveleth Mining Company went through to prove their toughness and perseverance, what a shame that North Country comes along to turn them back into a parade of indistinguishable porcelain dolls: flawless and inert. Like Oscars, now that you mention it, given now as ever to rewarding the kind of insulated middlebrow safe that pays lip service to the disquieting
7. Crash (d. Paul Haggis)
In peeking under the satin-slick bedclothes of the latest crop of high-falutin' liberal diatribes tarted-up with matinee idols and compromised ideals, one finds that whatever the trappings of sophistication, we're still making Stanley Kramer movies, all of grand speeches and peachy endings. Seems to me the common denominator among the Interpreters and Constant Gardeners and Lord of Wars is a good unhealthy dollop of white man's guilt, that could-be beneficial malady that afflicts the affluent and socially well-established once in a while so they'll pay lip service to Africa, and race, and class. (Just as long as it has nothing to do with actual activism.) They're issues considered phantom offices at which to give and then leave with a sense of closure at best or, at the least, a feeling that all the tempests in the world are fit for a teacup you can put away somewhere in a mental cupboard. Race as a fable, Africa as a fantasy--and the last reel interested in beautiful, rich white people falling in love; I think about Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels and a couple of challenges presented therein to white, privileged, "morbid rich" filmmaker Sully, played by Joel McCrea: "What do you know about trouble?" and, later, "I have never been sympathetic to the caricaturing of the poor and needy, sir." To which Sully responds: "Who's caricaturing?"
Paul Haggis is caricaturing. The writer of last year's middlebrow flog-pony Million Dollar Baby co-writes and directs this year's middlebrow flog-pony Crash, a picture championed by that holy pop trinity of the father Larry King, the son Jay Leno, and the holy ghost Roger Ebert, who agree that the picture will make people in the audience better for having reclined agape before it. If you do pay attention, what you'll see is a roundelay of racist caricatures engaged in various levels of bigotry and race-baiting in a Los Angeles mythologized in exactly the same way (but to much better effect) in Michael Mann's Collateral. In that film, a wolf haunts a fairytale of the conflict between a white-collar white assassin and a blue-collar black cabbie when the pair wanders off the path into an urban jungle. In Crash, strife transforms saints into sinners and sinners into saints in the easiest, most reductive way in order to show that people are the same everywhere, no matter how broadly they've been painted as rigid types. A pawn is always a pawn, and a chessboard is always just sixty-four squares.
This would explain why characters are always running into one another in Crash. A day after molesting the wife (Thandie Newton) of a successful TV producer (Terrence Howard), a bigoted cop (Matt Dillon) crawls into a burning wreck to save the same woman. The philosophical car-jackers who turn the D.A.'s (Brendan Fraser) wife (Sandra Bullock) into a sour harridan (who accuses Christ-like locksmith (Michael Pena) of being a gang-banger) then try to jack the car of the TV producer saved from suicide-by-cop by the idealistic young partner (Ryan Philippe) of the bigoted cop. Lest we forget the Persian convenience shop owner who buys a gun and also thinks the locksmith is a gang-banger and decides to do something about it, or the black detective (Don Cheadle) with a troubled younger brother (no fair telling) and a Hispanic girlfriend (Jennifer Esposito) he insults by calling a "Mexican" before compromising his principles to get a promotion. The black detective, by the way, is the only character to get boned in the piece, which is only interesting because Crash is about race but not, apparently, about the representation of race in big-budgeted motion pictures.
Cheadle's black detective--and that's the only way you ever hear of people discussing the particulars of Crash ("Matt Dillon as that racist cop" and "Ryan Philippe as Matt Dillon's partner" and "That black guy from Ocean's Eleven as that detective"), giving lie to any argument that the film is successful in painting recognizable characters in realistic situations--opens the film by saying that the people in the City of Angels are so disconnected that they crash into one another "just so we can feel something." (I wrote something like that in a journal as a suicidal fifteen-year-old contemplating cutting myself with the serrated edge of a tape dispenser. Pathetic then, pathetic now.) The implication being that racial tensions and conflagrations are a product of sensitive people closed off from their feelings and needing to express themselves somehow. It's a theory that would explain how easily the bigots are redeemed in Crash: not with scars, but with chests full of medals and the grateful approval of an audience somehow seeing itself reflected in two-dimensional demagogues. I think about Ayn Rand a lot lately, too, and how easy it is in a fiction to reduce the great unsolvable, immutable complexities of the world to a series of meticulously manufactured dialogues spoken by machine-tooled automatons in a gunmetal universe as slick and un-mysterious as a snake-oil salesman's huck-and-jive.-
6. Rent (d. Chris Columbus)
On the list of painful experiences, the modern Broadway musical ranks fairly high, so it's fair to wonder how an adaptation of Rent--by Chris Columbus, of all people--could have struck anyone as a bright idea. In all honesty, though, pretending not to understand the reasoning behind a project like this is disingenuous snobbery, because when something this terrible has proven to be that popularly galvanizing, it's only a matter of time, really, before Hollywood moneymen come calling with dollar signs in their eyes and memories of Chicago dancing in their heads. (I can only assume that that's also the reason the legendarily awful Phantom of the Opera got a greenlight with Joel Schumacher at the helm--and that Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane's stupendously popular (and similarly awful--film and play both) The Producers is set to bow this Christmas.) But with Rent, in place of a name like Webber or Mel Brooks to drive its inexplicable success, you find a genuine middlebrow cause célèbre, loaded well beyond safe with Message carried on the backs of a thundering stable of Alphabet City freaks and caricatures of freaks, each of them wilting from a romantic wasting disease (AIDS, naturally, or 'disenchantment' in place of source La Boheme's 'consumption')--the same one, not-so-incidentally, that claimed creator Jonathan Larson a few tragic months before Rent's triumphant debut on the Great White Way.
The story isn't important, but it has something to do with a roundelay romantic intrigue involving wacky pairs of mismatched couples. There's a certain self-obsession about the film, which knows its audience is composed entirely of people who've seen the stage production and thus dispenses with any niceties of character introduction or sense. Almost as soon as we meet Tom Collins (Jesse L. Martin), the joke-unfunny being that he's named after a drink, I guess, he's mugged by a trio of street thugs--the point of which to demonstrate how lousy is the neighbourhood in which our heroes live (our heroes consisting of '80s rocker Roger (Adam Pascal, the spitting image of Jeff "Kenickie" Conaway) and his platonic roommate, Nice Jewish Boy Mark (Anthony Rapp)), and to introduce Angel (Wilson Heredia), who comes to his (emotional) rescue. Next day, the boys are introduced to Collins' new beard with neither curiosity nor, really, introduction. The relationship is assumed, see, or rather presumed, and because every audience will be familiar with the text, there's no need to flesh things out for the uninitiated. Better, when stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold Mimi (Rosario Dawson) appears later to woo soulful, Winger-esque Kenickie, she walks these same mean streets in a G-string and leather jacket without a whisper of the kind of danger that befell 6'3" muscular black man Collins. Seems ugliness is selective in Rent and in short supply besides, as Columbus (like mentor Steven Spielberg, like compatriot Ron Howard) never met an ugly subject he couldn't polish into an antiseptic sheen.
I didn't understand, either, why Kenickie's friends determinedly foist on him a heroin-addicted stripper ("She'd be great for you!"), especially when we're given a repugnant backstory wherein he gets infected with HIV by his ex-/dead girlfriend, another intravenous drug user. Must be that they know they're characters in an allegory for some kind of unearned soaper redemption. It's hard for me to feel terribly respectful of something that steals throwaway gags from Weird Al Yankovic's 1984 song for Johnny Dangerously ("If money can't buy happiness, I guess I'll have to rent it!") as a major theme--and to my untrained musical-theatre ears, the songs in Rent are maudlin, atonal, and arrhythmic. I liked Chicago pretty well and appreciated the way it integrated its musical elements with the rest of its story. Too, I really liked Moulin Rouge! for its breathlessness. I'm not completely resistant to the musical new wave is what I'm saying, but I don't like things that are trite, and if it's not the lyrics, it's the sentiments of the Rent book that set my teeth on edge. Not helping, probably, is the dumbest romantic resurrection since the one in Far and Away--tacked on to an interminable (really, this thing is endless) running time bloated by an Elizabethtown road trip and, brace yourselves, a documentary film about the principals that just makes you wanna cry, for all the wrong reasons.
None of it works on film. I'm willing to give this shit the benefit of the doubt on stage where the vibe is different, the acting techniques are different, and the whole experience is probably more conducive in general to inspiration. But this kind of charisma feels like mania in a movie theatre. The messages are pounded home and, for some reason, everyone with AIDS is elevated to some kind of holy pantheon therein. (THE ONION skewers this tendency for certain kinds of paternalistic garbage to nominate for sainthood anyone with a disability or disease with typical precision by having someone comment, when asked about Christopher Reeve, "I wish I had the courage to get crippled like that.") Rent's songs are juvenile and grating, its politics are obvious and unchallenged, and its characters are broad stereotypes engaged in shallow versions of complex issues. On the bright side: after Dawson's extended striptease (and her identical turns in Sin City and Alexander), I've now officially spent more time contemplating her crotch than my own. And after a few dips in Pascal's power ballads, I've been miraculously cured of my "Pornograffiti" CD. In the final analysis, thank you, Rent.
5. Hustle & Flow (d. Craig Brewer)
Another film that deals with music and feels like the seventies (and if we must resurrect a decade in American cinema, what better?) is Craig Brewer's Sundance sensation Hustle & Flow, a maudlin, broadly-appealing, race-baiting melodrama that traffics in cliché and misogyny with as much ease as its happy-go-lucky pimp/drug dealer hero. DJay (a fine Terrence Howard) is a two-bit street hustler trafficking in twenty-dollar whores (white Nola (Taryn Manning), in particular), turning tricks in the back seats of questionable Johns while DJay writes his puerile, illiterate rap lyrics in a little beat up notebook. "Everybody has a dream" is the film's catchphrase--the catchall that this "everybody" includes pimps, whores, drug dealers, and DJay, our sad-eyed asshole street thug. It's not the point that everybody has a voice, it's that not everybody with a voice has something to say nor, verily, deserves to be heard--and so it is with DJay and so it is with Craig Brewer. Anymore, the Sundance imprint is a promise that a movie is going to be self-satisfied, laborious, and incompetent in that special way that independent films have become since getting co-opted by big money and directors looking to make a résumé instead of a film. You can call this shit "alternative," but alternative to what? Hustle & Flow is the same kind of underdog bullroar that mainstream producers who never met a pre-chewed master plot they haven't massaged introduce into the pool at every turn.
DJay's pal Key (Anthony Anderson) happens to be a board operator who happens to know a talented white keyboardist Shelby (DJ Qualls) who happens to be good comic relief in the "jive-talking cracker granny" tradition of offensive, underwritten garbage like this. After stapling egg-cartons and drink-holders to the walls to baffle the sound (would that we were outside this sanctuary), the three proceed to record DJay's magnum opus--but not before DJay throws one of his hos out the door with her toddler son, forces Lola to screw the hick in a pawn shop for a better microphone (she quails, natch, in the tradition of movie whores suddenly too good to fuck), and soul-kisses one of his pregnant streetwalkers in a scene so protracted and grotesque that it looks simultaneously like two wet pink mattresses slapping together and the parody of ethnic blaxploitation melodramas Hustle & Flow threatens to turn into at every turn. DJay finishes his classic in gangster rap (completing his ascendance from two-bit street hood to convict and two-bit gangster rapper street hood in the process)--something about smacking his tricks up and the hardships of pimping out little girls lost--as audiences outside the festival plutocracy laugh, derisively, at the excess that white-guy Brewer slathers on his black criminals, sociopaths, and hen-pecked castrati. That's the point, Brewer might say: to satirize society one magnifies its injustices. But outside of a nicely-metered conversation between DJay and childhood-pal-turned-superstar-rapper Skinny Black (Ludacris), Hustle & Flow is faux-hardcore rap without any hint of credibility at its root--Justin Timberlake doing his R&B shtick. It looks good, it has its moments, but Jesus it's embarrassing to be caught in a theatre with it.
4. Gunner Palace (d. Petra Epperlein & Michael Tucker)
Some of the footage is interesting and some of the quotes are poignant, but Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's documentary Gunner Palace is hamstrung by embarrassingly trite narration and a lack of any sort of unifying theme in its editing. The film follows the United States 2/3 Field Artillery group--"Gunners"--as they take up residence in Uday Hussein's palace of earthly delights (redubbing the mansion "Gunner Palace" in the grunts' rough vernacular) in a bombed-out Baghdad during the months following U.S. occupation. More old ladies and shell-shocked children than hard-bitten insurgents are terrorized over the course of Gunner Palace, but what should have been an unbearable look at life under wartime and the constant threat of betrayal or ambush opens with a tone-setting Tucker voiceover that, with the callous defensiveness of a perspective-challenged, embittered vet, derides the audience for liking reality television like "Survivor". "Survive this," he says, spitting like a bona fide jarhead in the face of all us lefty wimps who've made the mistake of trying to learn something without getting shot at.
Tucker isn't a journalist or a documentarian--in the tradition of Born Into Brothels, he's an avatar and a mouthpiece, and his Semper Fi activism is tedious and ill-fitting. Halfway through Gunner Palace, he films himself pouring a cup of coffee in his home in Washington state, going on about his experiences as he roots through the fridge and wanders into his office. Tell me the truth, now: who the fuck wants to see Michael Tucker's kitchen and workspace? It's a ridiculous way to throw his hands up to the heavens at the capriciousness of fate and the arbitrary winds of war--to take a few more badly-aimed shots at the rapidly-cooling audience for being passive observers instead of, what, active observers? Soon, Tucker is back in Baghdad, riding around filming the soldiers doing free-form raps about how much it sucks to be shot at everyday by people who don't appreciate their presence in their country and, apparently poignantly, about how nobody back home can appreciate how much it sucks.
When Gunner Palace works, it works because of the blithe innocence of the disadvantaged American soldier. They're kids, but more than that, they're kids from poor backgrounds with limited educations and limited possibility for advancement in the society that they're willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to defend. The social caste in the United States is the subtext of the piece: when the soldiers try to help out an Iraqi street youth goofed-up on glue, we feel like it's with the same sort of recognition that fuels their disdain of an Iraqi journalist's desire for the right to speak (and due process) once his home is raided for bomb-making equipment that isn't there. The repeated promise that evildoers, no matter how speciously fingered, are going to be sent to Abu Ghraib, rings with a different kind of chill now. The story gleefully recounted of how a young MP reduced a pair of big men to tears with threats that they were going to be shipped out to Guantanamo Bay suggests there are more stories of torture in the name of justice yet to be uncovered.
Two moments stand out. The first comes after we've heard through the Armed Forces Radio reports Tucker and Epperlein use as ironic (?) counterpoint to their slapdash footage that George Jr. has asked Congress for 87 billion dollars to continue the war "against terrorism": soldiers proceed to show off the "87 billion dollar" armour that's equipped on their humvee, i.e. scrap metal they've scavenged and soldered onto the sides of their vehicle so that the inevitable bomb shrapnel will be slowed enough to lodge in their bodies instead of slicing right through. (The second highlight is a quote from a soldier that he can no longer conceive of any good ever coming through the murder of another man in armed conflict.) The rest of the film is guys diving in Uday's swimming pool, playing electric guitar, eating Burger King, and counting the days until they get to go home. Not exactly a revelation, in Tucker's and Epperlein's hands it becomes something even less. Gunner Palace is a little like The September Tapes: lots of fury, very little smarts--it's almost as dangerous, then, as the kid from Monument, Colorado who confesses that he once accidentally discharged his weapon into a building; if anybody was in there, the kid says, they would have been really unhappy. Gunner Palace shoots off a lot in a lot of different directions--and if anybody's in the audience, they're going to be really unhappy.-
3. Pretty Persuasion (d. Marcos Siega)
Noxiousness is the point, of course, of Marcos Siega's Pretty Persuasion, which discovers a star in young Evan Rachel Wood but spends the rest of its time slapping on the country-club offense in sloppy, self-congratulatory strokes. Wood plays Kimberly Joyce, daughter of a sleazy electronics magnate (James Woods) and the Heather-est of all the Heathers in the brief history of high school mean girl melodramas: a calculating, cunning black widow using sex, race, and class to take her revenge on the classmates and teachers she believes may have wronged her. The point at which I stopped playing ball with Pretty Persuasion is the moment where Ron Livingston's idiot English teacher Mr. Anderson congratulates his wife (Selma Blair, natch) for using the word "besmirch" correctly in a sentence. It's a big, giant, spine-crushing, shoulder-separating pat on the ol' back--a "we're attacking all sorts of pretensions here" situation that scavenges the blow-jobs from To Die For, frames a conversation between two lesbians against a washroom "women" sign, and, most egregiously, finds Mr. Anderson delivering an important monologue in front of a blackboard with a definition of "satire" on it as its only decoration.
The crux of the piece is the picture's dedication to equating the Iraq War with a sexual harassment tempest in a teapot, stirred by Kimberly's canny manipulation of every single other character in what amounts to a high school version of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible". Miller, incidentally, is largely unreadable (I still like "Death of a Salesman", but not for the same reasons I used to), badly dated, and so didactic he's not social satire anymore, he's one of those interminable "talks" you used to have with your grandfather. I don't know who still needs to be lectured on our legal system, our almost equal intolerance for Jews and Arabs, or the scary confluence between our news and entertainment media structures--any more than I know who still needs a lesson on how sex is power. Wherever they are, they represent the only people who could possibly be edified by Pretty Persuasion. Failing an education, the film fails too in entertainment in that broad shots across the bow from a source so smug that it doesn't know at what point it crosses over to the dark side aren't what most well-adjusted, well-informed people consider entertaining.
It's clumsily written (there's actually, without irony, a Sylvester Stallone joke), with Wood's glacial performance its only saving grace. When the poor little Muslim girl (Adi Schnall) drawn into Kimberly's web serves as the resolution of the film's gun violence subplot, one does wonder if the message is that "we are all sinners" (scrawled poignantly in Arabic, natch, on another blackboard), or that if you push Arabs just a little bit, they'll go off like a pipe bomb. The film's receiving praise for hating everybody and has been compared to "South Park" for its general lawlessness ("South Park" actually appears to be attacked by the film for its insensitivity), but by tacking on pathos and even a kind of bed-wetting feminist redemption for our antihero, it's pretty crystal clear that the target it most hates and underestimates is its own audience. Kimberly's called a bitch, a cunt, a dirty little whore, and a twat by her father, her lovers, her best friends, and herself--and so, by the end of Pretty Persuasion, after 100 minutes of director Siega participating in her systematic degradation with ugly flashbacks and obfuscating, superior time shifts, you come to realize that despite the comparisons being made of this film to good films, it's really just a geek show with a tacked-on moral. If The Baxter is Rosencrantz replacing Hamlet, Pretty Persuasion is the distaff Napoleon Dynamite starring the liger.-
2. Derailed (d. Mikael Håfström)
Okay, here's the deal: if I tell you that Derailed has a big plot twist, you're going to figure it out from the trailers; and if I don't, you're going to figure it out at around the ten-minute mark--it's just that stupid. So I'm simply going to say that Jennifer Aniston is like an old studio starlet trying on her ill-fitting acting shoes in a thriller that wants to turn her into a bad girl done wrong but quails at every moment of truth. The ultimate effect of her "metamorphosis" from America's sweetheart is the uncomfortable feeling that you just saw Donna Reed (or your best friend's mom) in an S&M outfit. It makes the already-spoiled rape scene (unless ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY is an underground publication nowadays) a non-event because as you're watching it, tickling at the back of your head is the knowledge that they'd never rape Rachel in a mainstream middlebrow thriller (even if professional creep Vincent Cassel is the rapist). More, because the whole thing unfolds from the point of view of a very groggy paramour Charles (Clive Owen), the rape becomes something that's only very inconvenient for our married white male adulterer. It's despicable is what it is--compounded by a lie later on and ultimately invalidated by our tired twist, which finds at the end our Charles the spitting image of Travis Bickle but without any trace of irony.
The adultery is bad, and the extortion that follows is only to be expected (squint a little and Adrian Lyne could have been directing this milk-fed, soft-porn crapulence in the '80s), but the moment that Charles consults black mail-boy Winston (The RZA) for advice on what to do with criminals is the moment Derailed identifies itself as the worst kind of classist, racist, misogynistic bullshit. Amoral at best, it has Charles giving away all the money he and his cuckolded wife Deanna (Melissa George) have been saving for his gravely ill child's (Addison Timlin) miracle cure so that he can protect the honour of his partner in slime. That's one thing, sure, something that perhaps has a home in a different pulp exploitation picture--but then Charles tells his wife everything, goes on a bloody vigilante rampage that claims three lives, carefully plans the knifing execution of a fourth, and returns home to Deanna's loving embrace. See, this guy who's just mortgaged his daughter's life--without taking into consideration the embezzlement, the adultery, the seeming preference of the welfare of his lover over his family--is rewarded at the end with a clinch from his beautiful blonde wife as their child (well now, we surmise) is driven off in a yellow school bus down an upper-class suburban lane.
Derailed is the quintessential white-man's fantasy: lower class black men working for you to kill French people (and their working-class black men) while you get away with, literally, murder. That girl with the hair from "Friends" is hot for you and because she's naughty, you get to smack her around a little bit--and because this fantasy wants it both ways, before she eats a bullet, she confesses "real" feelings for Charles and, particularly, his ailing daughter. It's acceptable and comfortable, this ugly little artifact, and it reveals its message to be in line with the Saw saga's curiously compromised carpe diem: "Some people just don't know how to appreciate what they've got." Owen is good even straitjacketed into a flat American accent, Cassel is deep in the red of his psycho turn, and Aniston is so in over her head that she never for a minute exudes the kind of sexuality (or believability) that would make a fatale of her femme. She has all the right parts, yet you can't help but want to call her "Mrs. Aniston." While dozens of inept thrillers are churned out every year, only a few are ever this simpering. It's too cowardly to actually be controversial--all it's got is about two hours of the same tired old shorthand hate, enabling the polite crowd assembled before it to rest assured that after sitting through this sordid tale, they didn't really see anything untoward at all.-
1.Monster-in-Law (d. Robert Luketic)
felt real pain as Monster-in-Law unfolded. It was the variety of headache that begins behind the eyes before settling somewhere in the gorge. Two whole lines in my notebook were devoted to the word "hate," and true enough, it took all of five minutes for me to know that I despised this film. Five minutes being the same amount of time it takes for the picture to resort to a dog-humping gag, something that has never been funny in any incarnation and is always, always a sign that the oft-dredged barrel bottom is getting scraped once more, with feeling. Monster-in-Law has Jane Fonda playing a fossilized Barbara Walters manqué who attacks a Britney Spears manqué on the day that Fonda's Viola Fields is fired. (The faux-Britney has mistaken Roe Vs. Wade for a boxing match, a crime of ditz maybe less egregious than, say, cheerfully having your picture taken on a North Vietnamese gun battery circa 1972.) Meanwhile, Jennifer Lopez continues to do a whinier, Puerto Rican Melanie Griffith. But the picture isn't about the age issue or the class issue or the race issue--how could it be when Viola owns an eye-rolling, foolishness-talking mammy slave archetype named Ruby (Wanda Sykes)? No, Monster-in-Law isn't about anything on purpose except Fonda's too-real desperation, great draughts of random ugliness, and extorting money from people who will say once the dust settles that I'm out of touch.
Try this on for size: Charlie (Lopez) is a free-spirit--a dog-walker/temp/artist/designer who falls for a hot Ken doll in doctor's scrubs named Kevin (Michael Vartan) in spite of his complaint after they meet-cute that his mother pages him a dozen times a day. That's the first warning, dear; the next several hundred involve the never-addressed issue that Kevin's mother Viola doesn't try to hide the fact that she really wants to fuck her son and resents Charlie for getting there first. Part of this is the fault of a screenplay that could be the most offensive excuse for a comedy since Bringing Down the House, and part of it is the fault of Fonda: pushing, pushing up daisies, she can't resist the bulimic's mating cry of "please want me." What's made crystal clear is that Viola is a psychopath fresh from the loony bin--a woman, it's cautioned at the outset, incapable of handling any stress. Her mental instability is the cheery set-up for her plastic son's announcement that he's going to marry the completely worthless, mush-mouthed Charlie intercut with scenes of Ruby scampering for cover whenever massah goes crazy. (How much does a black woman go for nowadays, anyhow?) My favourite part is when Viola relates a charming story about Snoop Dogg's misogyny and how all of the Sultan of Brunei's hundred-some wives professed ignorance of the rapper's disdain for women.* With hateful, openly misanthropic garbage like Monster-in-Law floating around to tickle the funny bones of would-be shut-ins, it's not worth wondering why someone dangerously allergic to nuts would have a big bag of them in her kitchen.
Monster-in-Law has a heart as small and cold as an ice cube. It features a tableau in which two underclass minority women share a knowing gaze over the head of an over-medicated upper-class white woman, yet it doesn't have the balls to turn Viola into the sledgehammer racist she appears to be. Instead, as Charlie fawns over a picture of Viola taken with Oprah, Ruby cracks, "There's a cast photo of 'Good Times' over there, too!"--which means absolutely nothing in or out of context except perhaps that the sassy Flo-on-"The-Jeffersons" maid is suggesting that Charlie is some kind of, what, racist? Sycophant? Afro-wannabe? TV Land aficionado? It deflects attention from the class struggle embedded in a film with this kind of premise--but not even a party where Viola has invited "75% of the world's royalty" can provide friction beyond the tired "old girlfriend" trope where Charlie catches her beau in a "it's not what you think" clinch. There's every opportunity in the world for Monster-in-Law to say something, but the only thing it cares about is how best to gratify the type of audience that feels reassured when people call something a "chick" and/or "date" flick rather than offended by all that those terms imply. It's a condescending, appalling film for people who are grateful for the help, only too glad to have their suspicions about the world justified for them by an actress long past her prime and another who'll never have a prime. And it's a chick flick directed, as most of them are, by a man. Chew on that.
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