Saturday, May 12, 2007

Half Nelson, Old Joy, Deja Vu and the Pleasures of A Total Disregard for Substance

Half Nelson. This doesn’t qualify as an official Dogme work, but Half Nelson—written by Ana Boden and Ryan Fleck, directed by Fleck—may be the closest that mainstream US indie cinema has got to one so far, and it’s a quietly impressive, experimental work. The film has little by way of internal momentum (i.e., story), but it’s carried along by Ryan Gosling’s thoughtful and nuanced performance. As the crack-smoking inner-city teacher with (possibly) a heart of gold but a head filled with cobwebs, Gosling brings a measure of contained intensity to the film that keeps it from drifting off into non-existence. It might sound pretentious to call Half Nelson a “tone poem,” but whatever it is, it succeeds where most movies of its kind fail—fly-on-the-wall filmmaking that, while uneventful and subdued, is never dull. While managing to be intensely lifelike, it creates a lazy, trancelike hold upon us, and to be curiously involving—even suspenseful—despite the apparent lack of a narrative. Actually, there isn’t much I can say about the film—it rather defies analysis or description—except that it’s unique and at times inspired, an almost wholly successful work that would have the markings of a cult classic, if it weren’t so determinedly non-sensationalist as to seem inconsequential by today’s standards. See it for yourself. And maybe you can tell me what the deal is with the cat?

I tired to watch Color Me Kubrick—a showcase for the very talented John Malkovich, about the guy who pretended to be Stanley Kubrick for years and got away with it—but it was such a sloppy, amateurish affair that I gave up after twenty minutes.

Instead I watched Old Joy, which makes Half Nelson look like a Tony Scott film. Old Joy—beautiful title, and there is one good scene that explains it—is really an anti-movie. Not only does nothing happen, but it doesn’t even provide anything by way of character, mood, or atmosphere. It’s a big, relaxing nothing of a movie, more or less indistinguishable from a home movie about two guys who go camping for a night, visit some hot springs, and that’s it. Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy, the singer-songwriter) is watchable enough (though not especially likeable as a character), but besides that there’s nothing much in the film to hold our attention. It’s by no means as tedious as Brokeback Mountain, because at least there is the mild pleasure of seeing genuinely small-time, amateur filmmakers at work (rather than a Hollywood hotshot trying to be “independent”). Even so, the relative critical success of Old Joy is if anything even more unaccountable than that of Mountain. There are no queer cowboys here for politically correct critics to fall over themselves showing tolerance towards, and the only explanation I can offer is that praising the film is a reaction against Hollywood, a rejection of its increasingly bombastic fare. In other words, liking Old Joy, or rather, calling it a good movie—though it’s not strictly a movie at all—is a way of showing superiority and disdain for Hollywood movies. But five years from now, Kelly Reichardt (who directed it and co-wrote the screenplay with Jonathan Raymond, based on his “story”—huh?), will probably be making a Brad Pitt movie.

Déjà Vu
Speaking of Tony Scott films, this is the latest (though you may not find the accents on the title—French is way too pretentious for Scott), and his latest teaming with the ever watchable Denzel Washington. I have to confess a partiality to the films of the younger of the two Scott brothers; I especially like True Romance, but even his generic fare of the past few years has struck me as top-notch entertainment, and a lot less pretentious or pompous than some of brother Ridley’s work. If Hollywood must needs continue churning out violent plotless/overplotted action thrillers, then they should at least get Tony Scott to make them. Enemy of the People, Spy Games, and Man on Fire (not so much Domino) were state of the art action melodramas that wore their brutal emptiness on their sleeves like medals. Unlike most similar fare, they didn’t leave you feeling gypped for a movie. Scott is all style and no substance (which is why the Tarantino-scripted True Romance is his best film)—but what style! Despite the luke warm reviews, Déjà Vu is not a major disappointment. Although it starts poorly and comes unraveled in the last half hour, it upholds the Scott tradition of jagged action and sizzling high-tech realism that make his films such persuasive and intoxicating nonsense. This time he goes all the way out on a limb, into the hokey sci-fi territory of time travel, yet for most of the movie he pulls it off. Déjà Vu sacrifices realism to formula in the last section (when it sends Denzel back through time to save the girl), but until that point it makes for a pretty convincing treatment of the subject. It’s by no means a time travel classic—it lacks the surreal poetry and romance of The Terminator, and obviously it’s not a screwball gem like Back to the Future; but compared to Paycheck, for example (or to most time travel action movies), it does a stand-up job. The scriptwriters (Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio) provide no more than functional dialogue, but they lucked out with Washington and Val Kilmer to read it, on whose lips even humdrum stuff starts to sizzle. (Kilmer is a little heavy around the jowls these days, however, which is perhaps why he's been given a slightly dormant role, a far cry from how Mamet used him for Spartan.) It’s easy to see how Scott was sold on the script—it provides an impressive scenario—that of using a “worm hole” in space-time to create a window onto the past and so track the criminal in the act of the crime. This breezy little number allows for sequences (such as when Washington “chases” the bad-guy in the past while having to navigate his way through dense highway traffic in the present) that are almost perfect bits of movie business—they offer up maximum excitement with minimum consequence. They are so dazzling, in fact—Scott’s style so audacious, his disregard for substance so complete—that at times the film makes you want to laugh out loud.

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