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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

New and recent releases: United 93, Silent Hill, Battle in Heaven, more

united93_230957.jpgA catch-up of capsule reviews of the past month, including United 93, Silent Hill, Battle in Heaven, Le Mujer de mi hermano, Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School, On a Clear Day, The Sentinel, Brick, Lucky Number Slevin and The Syrian Bride.

United 93 (*** 1/2) Did I only imagine the quiet tolling of a church bell under the Universal Pictures logo at the start of United 93? There is much to praise and admire and fear in English director Paul Greengrass’ scrupulous imagining of the events that befell the passengers on the last of four hijacked passenger planes to crash on the morning of September 11, 2001, which made them, as the writer-director has put it in one too many interviews, the first inhabitants of a post-9/11 world. His work, however, is mostly without such big-picture posturing, instead working with small strokes of telling detail and framing and cutting with the same visceral authority demonstrated in the intimate kineticism of his first wo features, Bloody Sunday and The Bourne Supremacy. The documentary-trained, 51-year-old director’s widescreen compositions show rare, quiet intelligence, which benefit foreordained dramatic events in a story like this. For instance, as the hijackers prepare to board, there is a simple swish pan across their faces as they walk through the Newark airport, and for a split-second, the camera holds on an advertisement in the corridor: a pair of smiling women, cleavage exposed; the libidinous excess of a culture these men supposedly disdained. There is a moment when Flight 93 passes over Manhattan. One of the murderers looks out the window. For a flash, through the halation of early morning sun, we see part of the island below, and that part is the antennas and rooftops, only the tip-top of the Twin Towers. Sweet banality and bursts of jargon jar and sadden: “She’s got a crush on that maintenance man”; “Do you guys have sugars up there?”; a co-pilot preparing to slosh hot sauce on his breakfast; united 935782307.jpga pair of female attendants sliding on their mid-heels before moving into the cabin. Before a climactic sequence that attempts to imagine the last half hour or so of the doomed flight in approximate “real time,” Greengrass intercuts the events in the cabin with those on the ground, in flight centers across the East coast, with more than a dozen of the actual controllers and supervisors from that day playing themselves. Their astounded reactions at the one-two-three of the flights into the WTC and the Pentagon do include a judicious “What-The-Fuck” or two as the military fails to find the President or even to locate jets that would be in a position that would allow them to prevent further, unknown events. But the greatest terror awaits in the cabin: the forty or so men and women who knew; they knew the World Trade Center was ablaze and there was almost no chance of surviving. United 93 is a wonderfully etched process piece, forceful, assured. Greengrass consulted family members of the victims, and as many of the FAA and military members as he could. What is the larger picture? Vast systems fail. Art attempts to reconstitute failings and start conversation. This is a movie worth talking about. The widescreen photography is by the gifted Barry Ackroyd, who shoots Ken Loach’s films; the restrained score is by John Powell. 111m.
Silent Hill (**) Only once have I been tempted to begin a review with these words: What The Fuck? With Christophe Gans’ Silent Hill, drawn from a popular video game in Roger Avary’s (Pulp Fiction, Rules of Attraction) adaptation, the production starts rapidly with suggestions of a febrile, ash-covered Don’t Look Now, but it devolves into imaginatively designed incoherence and inconsequence. But Gans, whose Brotherhood of the Wolf fossechorine230-57.jpgdisplayed similar bravura and bloat, is a man whose influences are rife: a “Red Harvest”-like bedrock of a city afire from its deepest riches; street signs labeled “Bradbury” and “Bachman”; a City of Lost Children/Caro-Jeunet love of moldy metal; a burn victim like David Lynch’s Eraserhead baby grown large; the ashy doom of Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor; the framing of a witch about to be burnt from Dreyer’s Day of Wrath; Guy Maddin-like desiccated footage of the town of Silent Hill’s past; and a phalanx of undead lizard-faced nurses clad in slips, who dance in bare, bold light with the mistakable rhythms of Bob Fosse chorines. 127m.
Battle in Heaven (*** 1/2) Mexican provocateur Carlos Reygada strikes again with the magisterial, languid Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo, 2005). While I can’t go as far as some admirers and call Reygada a visionary, his work is certainly idiosyncratically expressive and thrilling for that. Openly admitting that he finds film narrative oppressive, the 35-year-old director establishes the simplest narrative frameworks then embellishes them with incidents ripe with symbolism and challenges to power, class, and most emphatic, representations of sexuality. battleinheaven12359871075.jpgA dreamy, drifting naturalism propels Reygada’s work, denying the melodramatic stew favored by Mexican directors past and present. Carlos works for a private security firm; one client is a general whose beautiful young daughter he’s known since she was tiny and covets into his pudgy middle age. (As in Buñuel ‘s Belle de Jour, this bored, privileged girl tricks on the side.) Before the film begins, Carlos and his wife have kidnapped a baby that’s died in their hands. While there is a literal pilgrimage threading through Battle in Heaven, much of the film partakes of a near-religious progression between two acts of violence and two explicit sexual acts, detailing the everyday of life in Mexico City without underscoring an immediate interpretation. The film feels both Latin and European. Every shot has a detail, a lightly freighted strangeness, Bresson-deadpan with absurdist sight gags. Quietly willful, Reygada even dares an invocation of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Red Hat” during a moment of quiet, great violence and a climactic scene of the ringing of bells that evokes his esteemed Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev in a most clever manner. 98m.
Le Mujer de mi hermano (* 1/2) A peculiar Pan-American concoction but a decently indecent shallow entertainment, Ricardo de Montreuil’s Le Mujer de mi Hermano (My Brother’s Wife, 2005), is a cleanly shot (by Andres Sanchez) but blandly paced variation on Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful (keeping the adulteries closer to home). It was a hit across South and Central America, embellishing simple telenovela-style emotional complications with canny production choices. mujer230857.jpg The nonspecific urban location where the elegant homes of its rich and moneyed characters and their pansexual entanglements are located could be Mexico City, but was shot in Santiago, Chile, by Mexico- and Florida-based producers by a Peruvian director and actors from Colombia, Uruguay and Peru. (Cross-cultural imperialism?) Of the three leads, Manolo Cardona, Christian Meier, the startlingly beautiful Barbara Mori is the most interesting to watch in the movies brief eighty-nine minutes of shallow, mellow melodrama. Angelo Milli’s memorable soundtrack is accompanied by a tango-inflected cover of New Order’s “Blue Monday” by Tanghetto. The subtitles, notably, fail to translate a wide range of obscenities in Spanish. 89m.
Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School (1/2) Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School is the kind of movie where, after a screening, you want to burn your notebook, purging your thoughts in brilliant sunlight in the great out-of-doors. Incorporating a 1990 American Film Institute short made by director Randall Miller, MHBDACS is rotten enough to have been accepted by Project Greenlight, a treacly, sentimental, noggin-bashing mix of Dirty Dancing and Amores Perros, and with the presence of a vulpine Robert Carlyle, perhaps The Half Empty Monty. (Spoilers follow.) Carlyle plays a wealthy, widowed baker in a well-appointed “thirtysomething”-worthy Mission house where he speaks to his dead dog’s ashes—“Good boy!”—and the ashes of his wife, who committed suicide for no discernible reason. (One assumes the dog did as well.) He says lots of things like “We have a lot of bread to bake before dawn,” as if a “Bright Lights Big City”-era Jay McInerney had been his writing teacher. Incessant intercutting grows from several strands: the 1990 footage of pre-teens making nice and naughty in 1960s Pasadena, Carlyle’s meetings of the latter-day version of the school, led by Hotchkiss daughter Mary Steenburgen, Carlyle’s group grief counseling sessions, and intermediate flashbacks to John Goodman as a car crash victim narrating the story, a role in which a hoarse actor does not even have to move, pinioned in his wreckage or in the back of the ambulation, variously spewing blood, bile and bromides. marisat0676.jpgMHBDACS is emphatic about its own wisdom, from Goodman’s vulgar, condescending and the therapeutic fuss and bother of almost every other line about blame, anger and guilt. (I blame the investors, I’m pissed it’s so bad, and I’m guilty I can’t tell you what I really think of the movie.) If it weren’t for the prospect of a small role by the criminally underrated Marisa Tomei as one of the students, I don’t know if I would have lasted more than ten minutes. Even in the laugh-out-loud moment when the actress is required to be observed from a distance revealing that one of her legs is a prosthetic (which, unaccountably, she is rubbing as if it were a pained ghost limb). Yes, the one-legged merengue devotee. Tomei plays it with sweetness and dignity. She has a smile and a voice that would charm the socks off a dead man, and she can earn a line like “You’re a good man. How come you’re not married?” Sorrowfully, Most of the characters are on the level of Hotchkiss’ mute black operator of a flyblown, schmutz-grimed boom box, whom she inexplicably seems to be calling “Three-Way.” The score announces the movie’s sinister sentimentality, and the dance sequences are cut with the grace and gravity of the late Herbert Ross—that is, almost none to speak of. As a character could well be saying of the movie, “I like to think of my smell as a work in progress.” Theaters that have booked this item would be well advised to invest in brighter exit signs. 103m.
On a Clear Day (***) Gaby Dellal’s feature debut, On a Clear Day, finds the great Scots actor Peter Mullan as the gruff center of this likeable bit of charm and uplift. As a Glasgow shipbuilder “made redundant,” the middle-aged Frank (Mullan, in his late 40s, playing a stocky 55) begins to question his self-worth in unsurprising fashion. The mix of eccentric comedy and unabashed drama brings the too-long-silent Bill Forsyth to mind—as well as other recent UK middle-age feel-good tales like The Full Monty and Calendar Girls—although it’s unlikely Forsyth would have hatched the notion that Frank would train to cross the English Channel as a way of regaining his respect and atoning for the guilt of a long-lost child. Still, Dellal’s keen understanding of how life can stop when the life of a loved one ends is matched by a clean, unassertive visual style that, among other things, captures the huge majesty of tankers against the working-class shape of a city whose workers built them. With Brenda Blethyn. 98m.
The Sentinel (*) Even with a few pages of notes scrawled in the dark, an identikit movie like The Sentinel leaves almost no residue on the memory: Michael Douglas, looking reasonably hale in his early 60s with notably unlined eyes, plays a Secret Service agent who’s been on presidential detail at least since he helped save Ronald Reagan from further damage when he was shot by John Hinckley. (The film opens with tricked-up footage of the Reagan shooting.) A colleague is killed early on (played by director Clark Johnson), and suspicions of an inside job—a traitor in the SS—run wild. Kiefer Sutherland is on hand as an investigator from another part of the government, angry years later because old friend Douglas had an affair with his wife, and he keeps rookie Eva Longoria under his wing. The banality is crushing, the shouting is dull, even with the introduction of lusty first lady Kim Basinger, bored by the president (David Rashe). The unmotivated swirling of Johnson’s camera, as in his earlier SWAT has some energy, but an overly busy, oddly garish digital re-coloring of almost every scene is like visual sandpaper. The extras casting is oddly distracting, too, as is a terrorist hoping to commit a murder in Toronto and making the darndest, spiffy Atom Egoyan-lookalike. 108m.
Brick (***) Rian Johnson’s loopy first feature, Brick, transposes the slangy conventions of 1940s pulp with a dose of David Lynch-style obsession to a contemporary San Clemente high school campus, a patch of California that is always bright but filtered a rain-blue, cloud-gray cast. (Call it “Blue Snuggle.”) brick1704.jpg“Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the mop-topped, bangs-in-eyes Brendan, and it’s another stellar performance by the former TV star, even if Johnson’s conceits are ultimately suffocating. “Where you been eating?” a girl asks. “Who you been eating with?” a boy asks. “Lunch can be difficult,” they agree. Keep your specs on, find me if she shows,” Brendan says of the missing Laura. “You said her business was none of yours” is prime pop and “I really loved you a lot” makes for a lovely, terse moment of inarticulable emotion. All well and good, and there’s much of the aping of noir grownups in the cracked cadences of a more purple era: “I got all five senses and I slept last night so that puts me six up on the lot of you.” Some love this thing; I can respect that. With Lukas Haas as “The Pin.” 110m.
Lucky Number Slevin (** 1/2) Compulsively derivative, Lucky Number Slevin wants to be the cleverest three-legged dog on the block. Scots director Paul McGuigan’s first feature since the baleful Wicker Park is this Montreal-shot rendition of screenwriter Jason Smilovic’s relentlessly smart-ass feat of recombinant typing suggests Quentin Tarantino and Chris McQuarrie on slow days—“Fuck-shit-Jesus is right” is a swear by sometimes-narrator-gunman Bruce Willis in an opening set-up that includes the invocation of sthe creenwriting jargon “the inciting incident,” and later Hitchcock’s North by Northwest will be explained in painstaking detail in order to footnote (or headstone, in the case) Mr. Smilovic’s lifts. McGuigan also allows Hartnett an extended James Bond audition that’s more inside than a kidney stone. luckyslevin13587.jpg(While set in New York, most of the establishing shots involve vehicles rather than actors.) McGuigan alter ego Josh Hartnett is the wrong man who’s picked up by warring clans of gangsters—one black, one Jewish, each depicted with similar casual stereotyping—while wearing only a low-slung fluffy floral bath towel and a prodigious treasure trail. While McGuigan’s work ranges ambitiously from The Acid House to The Reckoning, he doesn’t have the chops to reconcile the warring acting styles: Willis, Hartnett, Lucy Liu, Morgan Freeman, “Sir” Ben Kingsley and Stanley Tucci, to name a few of the denizens of the Pork Store of Finer Acting. François Séguin’s mad Mod production design is a consolation, as lit with designer alacrity by Peter Sova. (While set in New York, most of the establishing shots involve vehicles rather than actors.) Lucy Liu’s the one respite, a freckled quirk-kitten made of Pop Rocks. Everyone else seems smug; she’s a charming comic resource awaiting further investigation. (There are twelve credited producers, for those who consider that sort of thing alarming.) 109m.
The Syrian Bride (***) Every decent movie about a wedding party will seem like it’s had an uncredited rewrite by Beckett and/or Kafka, and Eran Riklis’ The Syrian Bride (2004) is a prime example. Beautifully observed, acted and shot, syrian_bride_7482.jpgRiklis’ prickly, provocative heartbreaker finds a young woman of Syrian descent who lives in the Golan Heights facing what may happen once she goes through with her arranged marriage to a Syrian television comedian, after which both the Israeli and Syrian border police will recognize her only as Syrian. “Perhaps I’m going from one jail to another one,” Mona (Clara Khoury) groans, her large, intense green eyes and regal nose stoic with resignation. (Khoury resembles Sarah Jessica Parker, only she’s attractive.) Hiam Abbass, who played the mother of one of the potential suicide bombers in Paradise Now, plays Mona’s older sister, and easily the most affecting of the performances. The many bold story strands are cleanly aligned and Riklis’ wide-screen style is deceptively simple yet efficient. The Syrian Bride is a rich surprise. (Khoury’s own father plays the “father’ of the bride.) 98m.

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One Response to “New and recent releases: United 93, Silent Hill, Battle in Heaven, more”

  1. PetalumaFilms says:

    Amen on the SILENT HILL review. What a total disappointment. I reviewed it for Film Threat and called it the best looking bad movie I’ve ever seen. I love Roger Avary and think his RULES OF ATTRACTION is a totally dismissed but brilliant adaptation, but SILENT HILL fails in its story and even more so in its dialogue. Hopefully he saved the “good stuff” for “Beowulf.”
    I also agree, but was more warm towards “Brick.”

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon