Monday, August 09, 2004

Three Updates for the Price of One

The quickest way for me to bail on updating this blog on a regular basis is to hold myself to the impossible standard of writing about everything I see. Maybe I ought to hire that therapist Metallica used, except I can't spare the $40,000 a month he was charging them. (Speaking of which, I ought to unearth my METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER review and slap it up here.)

So, for my next trick, I will work toward that goal of writing about everything I've seen in the past week that I haven't commented upon. Perhaps then I can hash out a more thorough analysis of THE VILLAGE. For the time being, check out what my fellow Columbus critic John DeSando's cogent take on the M. Night Shyamalan film. Be warned, spoilers are plentiful, especially for those wanting to experience the film tabula rasa.

OK, time for the lightning round...

COLLATERAL (Michael Mann, 2004)

Michael Mann sure knows how to shoot Los Angeles, although Thom Andersen might beg to differ. He brings out great texture in film stock and DV to paint a beautiful nighttime portrait of the city. More talking and less rocking, the characters, like improvising jazz musicians, trade existential riffs around some fine action setpieces. The subway chase sequence doesn't match the one in THE FRENCH CONNECTION, but that's setting the bar pretty high.

Jamie Foxx plays the cabbie who doesn't know what he's getting himself into by agreeing to drive Tom Cruise's hitman around the city. Foxx has shown a lot of charm in other films that weren't worth the time of day. Here he gets his best role to date in his best film to date and demonstrates true leading man qualities. The film's opening shows how carefully he maintains his taxi and goes about his job. Then it segues into a lovely conversation between him and a lawyer played by Jada Pinkett Smith. As he wins her over, he wins us over. We want everything to turn out okay for him because Foxx turns on the charisma.

Cruise, in the flashier role, is good too. Frequently dismissed as an actor because of his looks and that million dollar smile, he's been pushing himself over the last few years, working with top directors like Kubrick, Crowe, and Spielberg and playing more complex characters. Even though he's a cold-blooded killer in COLLATERAL, he still snakes his way into our good graces when he flashes those teeth and gives those devilish justifications for his actions.

Grade: B

OPEN WATER (Chris Kentis, 2004)

A couple (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis) go scuba diving and are left in the middle of the ocean by accident. Time passes. Sharks circle. Repeat.

Best decision in making this film: using real sharks instead of CGI. There's a palpable tension in the performances and in one's experience as a viewer in knowing that those sharks are really in the water with the actors. Kentis, who also edited OPEN WATER, builds terror through montage. The shots with sharks and humans sharing the frame are important, but the edits suggest proximity and actions that make the film more terrifying. Kentis does such an expert job of evoking the environment that one of the best sequences occurs during the night when we can't see anything except when the lightning flashes.

Worst decision in making this film: shooting on DV. OK, it most certainly made production easier, but where DV can look terrific (COLLATERAL, THE COMPANY), it can also look cruddy when blown up to big screen proportions. There are times when the image is much to pixellated for my taste.

The superficial characterizations and banal dialogue keep OPEN WATER from being a great film, but it's one of the scariest films I've seen in some time.

Grade: B

TIME OF THE WOLF (LE TEMPS DU LOUP) (Michael Haneke, 2003)

Michael Haneke's TIME OF THE WOLF (LE TEMPS DU LOUP) thrusts us into an unknown time and place unsettled by unclear events. A family seeks sanctuary at their countryhouse only to come upon squatters who kill the husband, take their provisions, and send them off to fend for themselves. Isabelle Huppert stars as Anna, the fiercely protective mother of two.

Haneke's formal mastery produces many striking images. Foremost among these is a nighttime shot in which Anna, in the foreground, lights a torch that burns briefly while in the great distance we see a fire burning where she left her daughter. Haneke evokes a remarkable sense of space swallowing them. Later he elicits claustrophobia in the train station where they await rescue.

Huppert was magnificent in Haneke's THE PIANO TEACHER (LA PIANISTE). Her part in TIME OF THE WOLF is just as central but not as predominant. Anna recedes into the pack for the sake of survival, but Huppert still stands out with her intensity.

The unknown often produces a greater fear than the known. (The Russian film THE RETURN (Vozvrashcheniye), which is also currently circulating on the art house circuit, got a lot of mileage keeping the audience in the dark.) Rumors abound at the station. Mystical theories that ordinarily wouldn't carry much weight are considered in the film's ungrounded world.

What ultimately matters isn't whether help is coming or will never arrive but how the people treat one another. Haneke finds humanity in a scenario lacking hope, an unexpected beacon of light in a gloomy film.

Grade: B+

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