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Which is annoying, isn’t it?
THREE MONKEYS (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey, 2008) — 6
Ceylan’s films dance on the edge of my tolerance for narrative ellipsis and emotional lassitude. His formal mastery is evident from the very first shot of THREE MONKEYS, of a car driving in the dark that eventually becomes the equivalent of an iris shot without actually being an iris shot. The sound design is again incredible — both naturalistic and expressive (example: a knock at the door late in the film). Ceylan doesn’t simply blanche out the color and give us a succession of sepia-grayscaled images, as if actually filming in a thunderstorm, but he counterpoints it at key moments — splashes of red like the curtains at a key mother-son confrontation, and having the foreground be in the washed-out style while in the background is a window with a conventional picture-postcard color scheme. This film has GOT to be seen in the theater. In a review of CLIMATES now in the cyber-ether, I called Ceylan the Turkish Antonioni. (And as Antonioni did, though less radically than in L’AVVENTURA, Ceylan begins THREE MONKEYS with a character whose sole function is to lead us to another character.) But as with Antonioni at times, at the end you realize that all this style just hides the thinness of the story, the badness of the acting, and the fact that all the There there is another Come-Dressed As (Again) The Sick Soul of Europe movie. The actors are so glum and Ceylan lavishes so much on the enormous facial closeups of their dour solemnity that you just lose interest in this story — a love triangle with some filial anger and a political subtext that experts on Turkish politics will no doubt get more out of than I. And far too much of the events in THREE MONKEYS happens offscreen — most annoyingly a death, and a jail deal neither the end (did it come off — who knows?). Seemingly every significant event is seen only in its effects or only hinted at. It’s all re-action shots without any action. I’m giving this film a guarded recommendation because a great director so obviously made a great work for us to look at. But equally obviously a weak writer didn’t give us much to watch.
LINHA DE PASSE (Walter Salles, Brazil, 2008) — 3
Take ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS, transplant from Italy to Brazil, replace boxing with soccer, give us pointedly ambiguous endings (more on that in a minute), toss in symbolic details like clogged drains, and voila — Landmark-ready masterpiece. And I don’t even like the original ROCCO. Both films involved a matriarch and several children taken different paths in The Slums of the Big City. The things is (and this was true even of the 1961 Visconti film) Warner Brothers made this movie a half-dozen times in the 30s — with James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Ralph Bellamy, and maybe another brother. But they did so with a lot more verve and energy than these symbolic ciphers. In LINHA DE PASSE, the brothers are defined by a single trait — criminal, religious guy, sports star, kid w/an absent-father complex. At the end, we’re intercutting between the endings of the five stories and my only thought is “DW Griffith was so awesome.” They’re all ostentatiously unresolved (labor pains have started in the pregnant matriarch, but she’s not even on her way to hospital). As for two of these endings — how can one take seriously any moral ambitions of a film that ends with a boy of about eight driving a bus around Sao Paolo and a robber chasing his carjack victim off having said “do you see me” and then walks away from the loot himself. The schematicism of LINHA DE PASSE would even be tolerable if it had a tighter narrative (CITY OF GOD looks better every year now, doesn’t it). Instead details and moments are tossed around like pinwheels and are scattered thus at the end — mom puts a picture of the father under a boy’s pillow, but does he see it?; mom leaves the kid at a neighbor’s to prevent him from riding on buses and skipping school, but our next view he is on a bus and we never see the neighbor again; the issue of the soccer player’s age and a fake ID keep him off one team, on the next team it’s never even brought up; the soccer player can only get on one team by offering a bribe, he promises to meet it, and then … Movie over.
35 RHUMS (Claire Denis, France, 2008) — 2
To heck with a black man winning a major-party presidential nomination. The real advance for civil rights this year is 35 RHUMS, where blacks prove they can be as dreary and boring in a Claire Denis movie as white people can. This has something to do with a mostly-black circle of friends centered around a father-daughter pair living together (he’s a train driver, though we first see him wasting a day trainspotting — about the last meaningless hobby I would think a train driver would have). Ceylan above at least makes it clear what we’re supposed to feel, though his success in making us do so is variable. But Denis is too uninflected (but not deadpan — that would risk being funny) to hold my interest. One measure of unspecificity: I never figured out or remember being told if these people were from West Africa, Equatorial Africa or the West Indies. Another: We get a dead body that I thought was a friend’s until I thought it wasn’t. J. Robert said I’m just not the target audience for the latest Denis exercise in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. Only instead of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot happened, it’s more Whiskey Tango Foxtrot’s the point. It’s generally clear what happens, but I never could figure out what I was supposed to get out of it other than counting the rum shots, like in DROWNING BY NUMBERS, only Denis gives us (or me anyway) less emotional involvement than Greenaway did. I was sparked a little whenever the Tindersticks music accompanied the train barrelling through the tracks, viewed from the front of the first car. And the same during the Commodores song that accompanies an improvised party that plays like a short version of FRIDAY NIGHT — a pickup while stranded by traffic woes in Paris. In these moments, 35 RHUMS gets some gracefully seductive moments of the kind BEAU TRAVAIL consisted purely of. But then we’re in Germany for an explicable diversion having less to do with the paper-thin story, I suspect, than with Denis getting financing from the Hamburg regional government. The title comes, by the way, from a legend that at the beginning isn’t explained. At the end, when the lead character is asked about (the still unexplained) it, “did you invent it,” he says “maybe.” That’s it. How ooo-la-la French. How hollow.
THE BURNING PLAIN (Guillermo Arriaga, USA, 2008) — 6
Looking over my viewing notes, it’s clear my initial 7-grade was too generous, I still may be pretty much alone in liking this film at all (Mike walked out and Jeremy hated it), but dagnab it, it was such a relief to see a movie on this day with lots of events, where people behave like normal people and it isn’t so obviously sketched out. Or rather … BURNING PLAIN is sketched out (this is by the screenwriter of AMORES PERROS, 21 GRAMS and BABEL, after all) but the sketch isn’t what you think it is. Arriaga uses his reputation well, taking advantage of the fact we’re primed to expect stuff to come together at (say) one road junction and to search for parallels (which the film does offer). BURNING PLAIN really does work as a straightforward narrative — taut and tense. To speak vaguely — this latest Gotcha Twist fooled me completely while making everything “make sense” in retrospective. But it neither adds up to much nor seems like something that will gain richness on second viewing because what Arriaga did tends to collapse the two main stories into one pat point about a redemptive second chance. As for the performances, Claire Danes is brilliant, in the best-written role; Charlize Theron isn’t, in the most actressy role (resorting to haggardizing herself physically at key moments); and the fact Kim Basinger is credible in a non-sexpot role at all is remarkable.
DETROIT METAL CITY (Toshio Lee, Japan, 2008) — 9
Yeah … I was surprised too. But I busted my gut laughing harder at this movie than I think I ever have for a movie in a language other than English (i.e., one where stylish verbal humor is pretty much out the window). One word of warning, though: one must have a very high-tolerance for the sort of hyperactive acting and humor seen on those Japanese game-show highlight clips … which is an acquired taste. The comparisons with SPINAL TAP are easy, though DETROIT METAL CITY isn’t a mockumentary per se despite its being filled with pop-culture parody and absurd music lyrics (this is where you’d love to speak Japanese. You probably can’t translate “the bigger the cushion / the sweeter the pushin” into Japanese very well either).
Detroit Metal City is the name of Japan’s top death-metal band, but behind the makeup, lead singer Sir Krauser (sample dialog: “this is good practice for when you’re slashing men’s throats”) is a simpering dweeb who wants to make syrupy happy poppy love songs, called “trendy music” in this movie. Imagine Jerry Lewis’s NUTTY PROFESSOR character turning into Marilyn Manson for the general gist (indeed it occurred to me while watching DMC that Julius Kelp’s turning into Buddy Love is what made his childlike-simpleton not so annoying and thus the movie Lewis’s best Martin-less effort). Like SPINAL TAP, there’s lots of musical parody, and not just of death metal. DETROIT METAL CITY also has fun with the Japanese appropriation fetish, with fanboyism (implicitly) in all its forms, with other music genres like DJ-rap, bubble-gum “Tiger Beat” pop and grrrrl groups (the funniest non-DMC music is a feminist dis of DMC by such a group). Indeed, the ideal audience for this movie is someone generally knowledgeable about metal music but not a fan of it (e.g., me). Also like SPINAL TAP, this film has a great role for the manager, who stubs her cigarettes out on her mouth and who fruitily chews over every line, like the bad guys on Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl or the 60s Batman TV show. Some of the other comic highlights: the explanation for a moptop haircut, “the devil is sending the worst punishment ever” and what makes you lucky at a death-metal concert.
One of the film’s surprising strengths is that it never runs out of comic ideas, even when it’s tying up plot strings. For example, the end of the second act is precisely defined and the film seems to have nowhere to go but to have Sir Krauser return to the Japanese small-town he came to Tokyo from. Once it arrives in the countryside, Lee finds a way to get new laughs with a new set of plot points that begin with … seeing an unlikely character wearing a DMC shirt (before we get the inevitable showdown with the Gene-Simmons-played American death-metal champion). But there’s also a maybe unintentional but actually quite profound undercurrent about Satanism, like Satan’s rebellion itself, being the sort of absurd pose about which CS Lewis (quoting Luther and St. Thomas More) said should be laughed at rather than obsessed over (and traditional religion, of a Japanese variety, plays a small role in the third act). If DETROIT METAL CITY can find American distribution, and it seems like an eminently “sellable” movie, there’s no reason it shouldn’t take a place alongside SPINAL TAP in the cult-comedy pantheon.