TIFF Day Three — the first part
MATCHSTICK MEN (Ridley Scott, USA, 2003, 6)
It’s tough to say exactly why this mostly very entertaining movie turned out as a whole lot less than the (considerable) sum of its parts. The basic problem was one of too much knowledge, and I cannot go into more detail than that without basically forcing everybody who reads this capsule into the same hole-filled boat. Since a little knowledge is a dangerous thing here, I will speak vaguely for a while.
MATCHSTICK MEN was a very funny picture with several well-handled conman setups. Nicolas Cage is as good as expected in the role of a conman with severe anxiety attacks who suddenly has a daughter whom he doesn’t even know exists (Alison Lohman, who is excellent) drop into his lap. Cage is like Phil Hartman’s anal-retentive guy on “Saturday Night Live”– literally wrapping his garbage in Zip-Loc bags. Problem is: he can’t function at all without his medication and he’s liable to suddenly go on benders of cleaning (in an amusing scene, using the same kind of flash edits Dody Dorn used in MEMENTO, he suddenly cleans his whole luxe apartment). In fact, and very rare for a conman movie, the first 25 or 30 minutes or so before the main plot kicks in with the daughter’s arrival (which I had expected since the trailer and ads give away that much of the plot) are fine material and not just thumb-twiddling filler.
But then the main plot kicks in (the SPOILERS are coming thick and fast now). Maybe this isn’t this movie’s fault, but I hereby officially petition for conman movies to cease the “con” of a meta-twist at the end, where everything we had been seeing turns out to be part of a bigger “long con.” It’s been 15 years since HOUSE OF GAMES and DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, and almost 10 since THE USUAL SUSPECTS (and there have been a score of lesser films). We can see it coming since we now expect it. Turns out, to the surprise of nobody that I have talked to about MATCHSTICK MEN, that the daughter and the psychiatrist were part of a bigger con being played on Cage. All five or so friends with whom I have discussed this movie said we cottoned onto what was going on (at varying times admittedly) long before the film springs what-it-thinks-is-a-surprise. That kinda spoiled the film for me. And then the film adds a coda, which I in particular found absolutely unforgivable. A movie that thinks it’s conning the audience along with its characters has to have a soul as black as coal. MATCHSTICK MEN contrives to redeem its victim — being conned out of everything was *really* good for him. Blech.
CHOKER BALI (Rituparno Ghosh, India, 2003, 3)
Just a godawful mess here. It’s a Bollywood movie with no songs. It’s a comedy of manners with very little comedy. And it’s a comedy of manners about manners that will make little sense to those of us without an intimate knowledge of 1905 Bengal. And it lasts 2 hours and 50 minutes. There are a couple of comic moments where CHOKER BALI fitfully stirs to life, but far too much of this film, based on a Rabindranath Tagore novel, follows the kind of material about social ritual that might work in an allusive, precise, minutely-detailed social novel — whether a widow should drink tea or eat fish, who can speak English, or the various rankings of inlaws within the Indian extended family. Or it might work in a film with an audience already familiar with the social mores being detailed, i.e., not me.
Yet I can’t imagine this film even working were I an Indian because of a fundamental miscasting. I’m a fan of Aishwarya Rai’s work in Bollywood films — she’s gorgeous, she has a model’s skill in moving on screen and wearing a costume convincingly, she has some dancing ability. But she’s essentially a beautiful star; not an actress. There’s nothing behind her eyes. Here, she’s playing the dramatic lead in a somber, novelistic work. Try … just try … to imagine Zsa Zsa Gabor as the mother in LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (Katharine Hepburn in the movie) to give you a sense of just how misguided this casting is.
The film also just goes on too long, apparently trying to cram every incident in the novel. After we finally get to the last of what feels like the half-dozenth ending (“are we done yet?”) we get some cheap and arrant nonsense trying to draw some analogy between the breakup of a family and the division of Bengal into India and (now) Bangladesh (East Pakistan at the time it happened), particularly in a family (and a film for that matter) that has no Hindu-Muslim cleavages. I’m probably making this movie sound worse than it is, partly because it ran behind schedule, and so its lengthy running time caused me to miss the first 5 minutes of …
CRIMSON GOLD (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2003, 8 )
… and so as a result I’m kinda hesitant to say too much about this film because, based on conversations with others about what I missed in those first five minutes, I saw a fundamentally different movie (though one I obviously happen to like a great deal).
For most of this movie’s length (speaking vaguely … the first five minutes are a more-detailed flash-forward to the last events before the film fades out), I was watching basically a light picaresque social comedy about the days and nights of a Tehran pizza delivery man, the people he runs into and what that means about social class in contemporary Iran. And that’s pizza … not falafel or baba ghanouj … we see the pizzas in some scenes, so it’s not a subtitling trick. Deliverer Hossein, a big inarticulate, shambling man, also has a woman he wants to marry but can’t afford the required jewelry. And in an honor-based society, also marinated in the egalitarianism of Islam, there is much humiliation in that. The woman’s brother Ali works with Hossein and is a little, talkative guy — giving the pair a kind of Mutt/Jeff or Ratso/Buck relationship as they drive around Tehran’s streets on motorbikes.
I didn’t much care for Panahi’s last film THE CIRCLE — a hand-wringing feminist whine masquerading as a movie. CRIMSON GOLD is also an angry, political movie in part about the treatment of women, though much more about inequality and class envy. But here Panahi’s ideas are … “subtle” isn’t exactly the word, it’s just that he and writer Abbas Kiarostami (a great director himself) find a way to tell an absorbing, entertaining story and so the film doesn’t come across as preachy.
For example, there is a scene in which Tehran police seal off a block in order to arrest people as they leave an immoral party (booze, dancing … that sort of thing), Hossein enters the block unwittingly, trying to deliver pizzas to another apartment in the building. But the fuzz won’t let him go, for fear he’ll alert the partygoers. So Hossein has nothing to do but politely badger the cops to let him go (they have other things on their mind), and try to dispose of his pizzas. While the arrests pile up, and other passers-by are held incognito. As I say, it’s not that the scene is subtle, it’s more that it’s not mere preaching. (Though I think the apartment in the next-to-last sequence is a bit *too* lavish.) By the time we get to the end, the climax (i.e. the start) felt earned. Even people who don’t often go to foreign or art films will, I think, find CRIMSON GOLD accessible, absorbing and entertaining when it plays on U.S. screens sometime next year.
ELEPHANT (Gus Van Sant, USA, 2003, 0)
My “1” grade last night was too generous to this vile piece of immoral shit that should not sully any theater screen whose owners have a soul.
This film, about a generic high-school massacre but very closely based on Columbine, is basically a snuff film without the balls to actually kill anybody. Its world is the world of first-person computer role-playing games, only here presented in the much more realistic medium of cinema, taking us one step closer to the SERIES 7 world of murder as entertainment. Only we’re the ones supposed to be “entertained.” We learn nothing about these students beyond a one-line character-type tag — “the photographer,” “the jock,” “the popular bulimics,” “the shy girl ashamed of her legs” (though we never find out why). Even the film’s lengthy bravura tracks through the high school, which have been much-ballyhooed as connecting the students and establishing their universe, mostly follow the students from behind, so all we’re doing is seeing the backs of their heads, and it frankly feels like stalking the kids through the scope of a gun, as if they had targets painted on their backs.
What’s compounds the offense is that Van Sant indicates that he knows what he’s doing — there is a first-person POV shot of the shooters playing one of those first-person killing games (used by the Army to innure soldiers); there is even a shot of the killers enjoying Hitler, only from an Allied propaganda film (get the point … the text has no meaning, so the artist can’t be responsible for it). Oh … and there’s also a scene of the two killers’ last pre-killing act being a passionate kiss (and we presume more) in the shower … to give the gay kids in the audience somebody to identify with, I guess. I preferred Michael Moore’s bowling lie, frankly.
In a movie filled with unforgivable moments (Benny the dumb-ass being the one black character and acting in a way that makes Steppin Fetchit seem like Einstein), the worst is the last edit. One of the killers traps two students in the cafeteria freezer (amidst the sides of beef — get it, meat … metaphor?) and starts playing “eenie, meenie, meinie, mo” as the camera draws back, and right as he finishes saying “mo,” the film cuts to clouds passing overhead while Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” plays on the sountrack. End of movie. I am not kidding. We’d earlier seen one of the killers play the “Fur Elise” on his home piano and end it by flipping off the sheet music, as an act of universal contempt. That was my reaction, frankly … fuck you, Gus.
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