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Crash, V for Vendetta, The New World, Cache

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  • Noel Vera
    Four films Noel Vera Four films, by ascending levels of quality: Paul Haggis Crash has half a dozen characters ramming into each other, and instead of them
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 30, 2006
      Four films

      Noel Vera

      Four films, by ascending levels of quality:

      Paul Haggis' "Crash" has half a dozen characters ramming into each
      other, and instead of them coming out of their vehicles and
      exchanging murderous blows (the way they did in Godard's "Weekend"),
      or coming out of their vehicles and falling on top of each other in
      an erotic frenzy (the way they did in Cronenberg's film of the same
      name), they come out and accuse each other of racism. This worked
      fine for Godard and Cronenberg--they used wit and surrealism to
      stylize their films, to allow them to exhibit all kinds of
      outrageous behavior and get away with it--but Haggis seems to want
      us to take his collisions at face value, as serious drama, to
      consider them profound reflections on The Way Things Are. Which is
      funny too, but not in an intentional way, and not in a way that I
      think helps Haggis or his film at all.

      I always thought the obviousness of "Million Dollar Baby" was due to
      the source material or Eastwood's flatfooted literalness, but now I
      suspect Haggis played a substantial role; looking at this picture
      you can't believe he has the foggiest notion of the existence of
      concepts like subtlety or restraint. People smash into each other
      and right away they're yelling racial epithets, one for each color
      of the spectrum (Haggis employs a considerable palette), with a few
      religious slurs thrown in for good measure. Which might be par for
      Los Angeles, but in cold weather? Spike Lee at least set "Do the
      Right Thing," his film on race relations (from which Crash cribs a
      great deal) on the hottest day of summer, and you can understand a
      little better there why everyone's on edge. Here it's so cold it
      snows (okay, that could be ash from a fire), yet everyone is still
      implausibly hot-tempered--aren't New Yorkers supposed to have the
      more fearsome rep for irascibility?

      It doesn't help Haggis that perhaps his most irredeemable caricature
      (I can't quite call them characters) is the Iranian store owner,
      who's shown to be too dumb to know good advice when he hears it, or
      what kind of bullets he's buying; faced with an especially dire
      crisis, he can think of nothing else to do but walk up to the person
      he believes is responsible and shoot him point blank. Yep, those
      dern Muslims--can't speak proper English, can't solve anything
      without a firearm. Which probably wasn't Haggis' intention; to his
      credit the Iranian is grief-stricken afterwards--but who wouldn't
      be, the way he's conceived and treated in this picture?

      The Wachowski brothers' adaptation of Alan Moore's "V for Vendetta"
      is just chock full of problems. They've jettisoned most of the cast
      (some of them vivid, excellent characters) and a huge chunk of the
      subplots to concentrate on a simplified version of V's vendetta, and
      they've shoehorned in a galumphingly obvious virus subplot that to
      my mind is less interesting than the various crimes Moore accused
      his totalitarian state of committing (various genocides, for
      example, of minorities of all kinds of ethnicities, religions, and
      sexual orientations). Weaving as V does his best, but the
      loquaciousness is a bit off-putting (to be fair, you wonder what
      else can he do what with that mask on); Portman's accent is
      inconsistent, to put it politely, though she does look good with a
      bald pate. Their relationship together has taken a large step
      towards the romantic, with V himself considerably humanized, and I'm
      not sure I like that (in the novel, he's an unsettling mix of the
      superhuman and the mystical; it's suggested that not only is he
      abnormally swift and strong and intelligent, but that he can peer
      into the future).

      All that said, there are things in the film I can't dismiss out of
      hand--Evey's incarceration and torture (and her discovery of
      Valerie's story, really the heart of the film); Stephen Fry's good-
      naturedly gentle subversive (the one marked improvement in the film
      over the novel, I thought); Stephen Rea's beleaguered Detective
      Finch; the various jabs at the Bush administration, redirected from
      the Thatcher regime (all that's really wanting is a manufactured
      war); the line "people shouldn't be afraid of their governments;
      governments should be afraid of their people"--obvious, I suppose,
      but really needing to be said.

      The director directs fairly well--he's no great talent, but he
      doesn't muck the action scenes up too much; the bullet-time
      sequences are inoffensively brief, the final explosion satisfyingly
      huge, the best images cribbed from a good source (Orwell's "1984").
      Not a bad kickoff for the rest of the year.

      "The New World"--Terence Malick's latest--is, yes, visually
      gorgeous, and yes, wallpapered with voiceover narration; that's
      pretty much a given. The voiceover I've gone up and down the street
      debating with myself through Malick's every picture from "Badlands"
      (where it was justified as a young girl reading from her diary)
      onwards (where it has come to be unapologetically presented as
      Malick's idea of poetry, or at least streaming consciousness); I
      find that if I listen to it I don't like it, but if I let it hum in
      the background--feeling more than hearing the hiss and sighs of the
      vowels, the click of the various consonant, the different rhythms, a
      kind of verbal soundtrack to supplement the musical and aural one--I
      like it so much more.

      More problematical is Malick's decision to dramatize the myth of
      Pocahontas' romance with John Smith--but set that aside for now. I
      found this film more than any other of his films revolves around the
      consciousness of a single protagonist (oh, occasionally it'll flit
      to Smith's point of view, or Rolfe's, but the dominant consciousness
      is the girl's); even the way the pilgrims arrive is a way of
      introducing us into the girl's worldview, showing us wonder after
      wonder until it all becomes familiar and reassuring, and every time
      we walk into the settler's log fort, we're shocked at the squalor
      and misery they've blindly forced upon themselves.

      All of which pays off in the film's latter half, when Pocahontas
      comes to the Old World--'old' in the sense that the civilization is
      one we're more familiar with--and we, having spent the first hour
      looking at the 'new' continent through her eyes, now look at
      the 'old' continent through those same eyes and find it strange, but
      in a different way. The 'new' world is naive and unfettered, and
      Pocahontas runs through it like a deer; the 'old' world is all laced
      up and corseted, and she walks, not runs; her beauty there isn't
      carefree, but solemn, sad. We, in effect, have watched this wild
      young woman grow into a grave young mother, and the world (through
      Malick's magic, if you like) changes accordingly.

      And that may be the reason why Malick chose to dramatize the myth,
      not the reality; his Pocahontas is a metaphor for humanity's passage
      from innocence into civilization, with the accompanying sense of
      maturation and loss, and as such he needs someone who can be ogled,
      wooed, won over, loved. Call it contradictory to historical facts,
      call it pretentious, call it self-indulgent and incoherent; it's
      probably guilty of all charges, but it's also not without poetic
      force.

      Michael Hanake's "Cache" is terrific, one of the best films of last
      year. It's a step forward and refinement of what he does in "Funny
      Games"--that film also showed a family under siege, but the violence
      and various violations there are blatantly overt; here Haneke does
      more with less, creating moments of tension and terror out of
      nothing more than a man stepping out into a silent street. And the
      premise is beautifully believable: yes, anyone can point a video
      camera at you anywhere, at any time--can in a sense rape you--and
      you'd never know it.

      Even better is the suggestion that as we learn more about the person
      or persons terrorizing the family, we also find hints that their
      acts of harassment may to some extent be justified, and that that
      hidden justification taps into France's knotty relationship with
      Algeria, and into our suspicions and fear of Muslims and of the
      lower classes.

      Hanake has a beautifully suggestive storytelling style; he doesn't
      say too much, doesn't even bother to wrap up loose ends, leaving
      many of them--and you--dangling in thin air. He's what I'd call the
      French equivalent of Kurosawa Kyoshi (Kyoshi's more versatile,
      perhaps, and more boldly experimental; Hanake to his credit confines
      himself to stage effects--I don't remember him using digital effects
      in his films), in that he also likes to step back and watch the pain
      and suffering at an ironic remove--unlike most American horror
      filmmakers today, who rub your nose in it (which makes them look
      silly and the whole experience cartoonish; which makes you throw up
      your hands in disbelief, and dissipates what little tension the
      filmmaker managed to generate). These 'filmmakers' are more
      successful when they inject humor--that way, you can believe the
      bloody excesses are meant as a joke--but even there Kyoshi and
      Haneke's deadpan wit have them beat. All things being equal, wit
      usually trumps slapstick--slapstick has to leap and leer and
      pratfall to make you laugh; wit just has to twitch a muscle and
      you're howling.

      (3/29/06)
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