Thursday, August 05, 2004

A little brother, a little misunderstanding, and a big obsession

Some brief notes on the DVDs I've seen recently...

STEVIE (Steve James, 2002)

While attending Southern Illinois University Steve James was a Big Brother to Stevie Fielding. The director of HOOP DREAMS becomes a subject in his own film when he seeks to reconnect nearly ten years later with his Little Brother. Stevie's home life with his biological and foster families included abuse of some kind. So, it is unsurprising to James and the audience to learn that in the intervening years Stevie has been institutionalized and been arrested for various crimes.

James renews his relationship with Stevie but does not stay in regular contact with him, perhaps due to discomfort with the situation. Then Stevie gets into serious legal trouble. James is forced to make difficult choices regarding how he should be involved and, to a lesser extent, what role he now plays in the film.

The cynic might try to dismiss STEVIE as exploiting a poor family's problems and James as constructing a testament to his altruism. The Fieldings wouldn't be out of place on the daytime TV talk show circuit, but despite their faults, James displays great empathy for them in his filmmaking and personal actions. Although they are shown warts and all, STEVIE refuses to take a derisive view of these people. James may decline to bail Stevie out of prison, but he counsels him as best he can so that Stevie gets the legal and psychiatric help he urgently needs. While James again becomes an active participant in Stevie's life, he expresses reservations and wonders if the turmoil is why he distanced himself from his Little Brother after graduation and their reunion.

Ultimately STEVIE serves as a powerful depiction of what results from the cycle of abuse and how the system can't always succeed in saving troubled youth. The conclusion isn't a victory, yet it's probably the best for all parties involved.

Grade: B+


In LOVE ME, LOVE MY MONEY (YAU CHING YAM SHUI BAAU), Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Qi Shu become amorously entangled due to a familiar romantic comedy case of mistaken identity. Leung plays Richard, a miserly business executive who wishes to find love with someone not blinded by his bank account. Complications set in motion by a vengeful ex-girlfriend leave Richard with no cash and no access to his credit cards. Choi (Qi) is acquainted with Richard but does not know his true identity. She encounters him at this low point, even seeing him beg for money from a pregnant woman.

A stockbroker whose main priority is divesting herself of a tubby admirer, Choi pretends that Richard is her boyfriend. She gets rid of her suitor, but word reaches her father that she is dating someone. Choi and Richard strike a deal in which she pays him to pose as her boyfriend so as to convince dear old dad.

Leung and Qi are appealing, but they're saddled with an inane script and an unconvincing romance. Their actions are functions of the screenplay rather than natural choices. Even when allowing for the coincidences the genre thrives on, Choi's discovery of Richard's true self stands as a major continuity error, if one wants to get picky. (And I do.) Conveniently a DV camera captures Richard's announcement of his desire to find a woman who isn't a golddigger. The morning after a big party at his house, which he explains away as a favor he collected from a filmmaker, she stumbles upon the camera and watches scenes of the night before, which also happen to have the film's soundtrack on them but nevermind. Then she sees him talking about women and his money, something that took place days before and wouldn't have been after the party scenes on the tape. It's representative of the carelessness in the film's plotting and direction.

If you don't speak Chinese, the DVD subtitles leave a lot to be desired. Sentences pick up in midstream with sometimes half of the dialogue lines seemingly omitted. The translation is imperfect too. For instance, "either" means "too", as far as I can tell.

Grade: C-

DAMAGE (Louis Malle, 1992)

Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche star in a tale of erotic obsession. Is there any other kind when a French director is on board?

The sparks are immediate when Anna Barton (Binoche) introduces herself to Parliament member Dr. Stephen Fleming (Irons). Problem is, she's dating his son Martyn (Rupert Graves). Or maybe it's not a problem. She calls Stephen. He arrives at her apartment. They engage in rough, dispassionate sex. They repeat this scenario many times, even after Anna and Martyn become engaged and plan their wedding.

DAMAGE is handsomely mounted and boasts fine, emotionally cool performances from Irons, Binoche, Graves, and Miranda Richardson as Fleming's wife. Malle rhymes an incident in Anna's past with an important third act development, so I get the point of obsession's senselessness and destructiveness. While I appreciated the formal aspects, I was never engaged with the film.

The DVD offers the R rated and unrated cut. (The unrated version is about a minute longer.) I assume that the vigorousness in one scene is what deemed some trims for an R. Granted, the film was released in 1992, but 1999's R-rated release of EYES WIDE SHUT contained more intensity and considerably more nudity than the unrated DAMAGE.

I'm aware that DAMAGE has a solid critical reputation, so the film may be worth revisiting at some point. For now, though...

Grade: C

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