Sunday, April 27, 2008

Wong Kar Who?


In the pantheon of international cinema Wong Kar Wai (or Kar Wong Wai if you’re hip with the traditional Chinese pronunciation) is a household name. His notoriety in the United States may not be on the same plane but thanks to a new film things might change. 

My Blueberry Nights
 is currently in the midst of a fairly mediocre national release playing mainly in select art house theaters and garnering so-so reviews from critics. At first glance Nights is the new film starring America sweetheart jazz singer Norah Jones. Starbucks musical idol aside, My Blueberry Nights is an exciting release since it marks Wong Kar Wai’s first feature length foray into the English language.

Besides being a fairly decent film, if not a little flawed when it comes to the script, Nights serves as a big step for the Hong Kong director. The leap from native to foreign tongue for any director is a difficult one. Some of the greatest international filmmakers have attempted this feat–some succeeding, while others simply went back to what they know best. Nights is by no means Wai’s best film but in terms of visual style and its unique take on the romance genre it is a respectable premiere effort to tackle the American movie going audience.

Wong Kar Wai is probably best known for his unique use of color, mood and a fascination with stories tackling the complications of romance. His most well known work, 2000s In the Mood For Love is a beautiful period piece, among other things, that deals with the theme of rejection, lust and restraint unlike anything else out there. It’s the film that truly propelled him from indie international darling to global master. Image

In the Mood For Love is also the middle piece of an unofficial trilogy of films in his repertoire starting with his sophomore effort, Days of Living Wild and ending with 2046. The three films are not connected in terms of plot but rather through certain characters and above all themes. The most common of these themes, rejection, is the driving pulse of almost all of Wai’s films serving as an unofficial trademark for the filmmaker along side a knack for cinematographic beauty.

Wai’s 1994 film Chungking Express was hardly seen outside of Hong Kong and China upon its release but was resurrected by Quentin Tarantino in the mid nineties as a title in his short-lived overlooked film distribution company, Rolling Thunder Pictures. Besides being a beautiful film in itself Expressshowcases another of Wai’s most common cinematic traits, the use of interconnecting stories revolving around the proletariats of society–shop owners, beat police officers, cafĂ© employees, prostitutes, and others on the brink of society. If there is one film that serves as the perfect introduction into Wai’s canon it’s Chungking Express

While My Blueberry Nights is set on U.S. soil rather than Hong Kong or Southeast Asia, with an English language script in lieu of Cantonese dialogue, it is without a doubt a Wong Kar Wai film. His trademark themes are still present. His love of cinematography and knack for eye candy colors is evident and his usual choice of Asian movie stars–Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Valerie Chow–is replaced by the likes of Jude Law, Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz and of course Norah Jones.

The casting of Jones as the lead is a curious one but ends up an overall success. The musician’s trademark lulling piano music plays in the background throughout the film reminding viewers that hey, not only can I still sing but I can also act! Overall though she carries the film quite well and despite some clichĂ© romantic movie moments (the upside down kiss featured on the poster being one of them) My Blueberry Nights is a fairly sweet love story despite its predictability.

Rather than go through the plot, which is as much a road flick as it is a romantic film, it should be noted that the theme of dealing with rejection and moving on with one’s life is the primary catalyst for the film. Wai’s use of common folk is also a big factor of Nights with the majority of the characters set in either rundown coffee shops or rundown bars. If there is one fault to take away from Nights it’s that the casting of pretty boy Jude Law and the beautiful Jones as down on their luck coffee shop employees seems to be a bit of the stretch. Then again, Wong Kar Wai has always been drawn to beautiful actors.

The two characters that work the best in the film are David Strathairn, as an empathetic alcoholic, and Rachel Weisz as his wild but in the end emotionally conflicted ex-wife. Their scenes manage to steal the show away from Jones and their storyline is one of the more fascinating that Wai’s weaves in the film.

Still nitpicking aside My Blueberry Nights is a beautiful film to experience visually and serves as a nice little intro into Wong Kar Wai’s work for American audiences. If it prompts even a handful of moviegoers to check out the director’s other films than if anything else it is a success. In terms of future English language projects for Wai only time will tell. 

Fellow Chinese filmmaker Ang Lee made the cinematic trip from international filmmaking to Hollywood and back with great ease and success and perhaps Wai aspires to head down the same route. My Blueberry Nights is not a perfect film but when it comes to romantic dramas, it is ten times better than anything starring Patrick Dempsey or the recycled Meg Ryan style of fluffy filmmaking. See My Blueberry Nights but then dive into Wai’s past films to see how it’s done in the Far East.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

When Great Actors Make Bad Choices


Al Pacino has a new film out. It’s called 88 Minutes, and the gripping premise is as follows: a gifted forensic scientist (a post “hoo-ha” Al Pacino) is given 88 minutes to live by a copy-cat serial killer who calls him up on a cell phone. From what I hear it’s not very good.

Later this summer Pacino will star alongside fellow veteran actor, Robert De Niro in Righteous Kill.Here the two play cops who must track, yet another serial killer. Oh and the film also stars 50 Cent. This film was directed by the same genius behind 88 Minutes. Why shed light on these two upcoming routine sounding genre flicks? Simple. They’re proof that two more acting legends may be letting their careers go down the drain.

Why do some of greatest living actors continue to make such poor project choices? How come we have to endure a piece of crap like Meet the Fockers from the same guy who gave audiences Travis Bickle, Jake La Motta, or the young Vito Corleone? How is it someone like Pacino who stretched his acting abilities to just about every angle imaginable in his hey-day could sign on for a film like Gigli

Why do some of best continue trade away their rich careers for mediocrity? This is by no means a new topic of discussion but it still remains a curious one. 

There is no denying that even the finest of actors have ups and downs in their careers–the occasional flop or poor decision is to be expected. Still some, like the pair mentioned above, can’t seem to climb out of their current slumps and are in serious threat of becoming has-beens. Sure some people claim that actors like De Niro are just trying to have fun in their later years–opting for the less challenging roles instead of the gigs that truly test one’s acting chops. The problem with this argument is it seems like taking the easy way out. 

The best of the best are the ones who took the chances, stretched their acting range, and devoured the roles they were handed. Orson Welles was still testing his abilities both as an actor and a director in his later years. As did Henry Fonda, whose later work complimented his age and maturity as an actor perfectly. Then you have a legend like Marlon Brando whose later work was a bit of a train wreck (does anybody remember his laughable turn in The Island of Dr. Moreau in which he is carried around like a God with a creepy mini-midget by his side)

Consider a lineup from arguably the greatest era of filmmaking, the late 1960s through the 1970s. When surveying the list of greats to come out of this epoch–Pacino, De Niro, Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Jack Nicholson, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, for example–it’s difficult to pick one with a near flawless record. With the exception of maybe Meryl Streep, who even after 50+ films continues to tackle new and exciting roles, many of these actors are struggling to find their place in the new generation of filmmaking.

Some have switched gears to fluffy comedic roles and popcorn flicks while others can’t help but revisit the same character or method and are on the verge of typecast. Below is a short list of three greats whose reputation since the new millennium is at risk thanks to some particularly bad and uninspired project choices. 

Robert De Niro: To be fair De Niro was maintaining a respectable career through the 1990s. His work with Scorsese is now legendary (GoodfellasCasino, even a juicy scene stealer in Cape Fear), he was collaborating with rising directors (Tarantino’s Jackie Brown), and even managed to do some smart big budget flicks (Backdraft perhaps). Then came Analyze This, without a doubt the beginning of the end for one of our finest actors. It’s not that Analyze This (That) or later Meet the Parents are bad comedies it’s just that De Niro is better suited for something smarter, rather than films that focus on feline breast milk jokes. Take for example the satirically brilliant Wag the Dog, or his early comedic work in films like Brazil!The King of Comedy and even Midnight Run.
Possible Resurrection: De Niro needs to collaborate with some serious up and coming directors. While another project with Scorsese would also be suitable, it would be interesting to see what De Niro could do under someone like P.T. Anderson or Christopher Nolan. Ditch the bad comedies and even worse thrillers and focus on the roles that matter.

Al Pacino: Unlike De Niro who hasn’t starred in a truly outstanding film since maybe 1997s Wag the Dog or ‘98s Ronin, Pacino has turned in a couple truly memorable roles in his A.A.R.P years. His turn in Mike Nichol’s wonderful Angels in America adaptation as Roy Cohn was Pacino at his best. Add this to 1999s The Insider, a thrilling look at ethics in journalism, and a riveting take on Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and you have a veteran who still has some tricks up his sleeve. Then there was the virtual supermodel disaster, S1m0ne, or two completely overly acted performances in Any Given Sunday (loud, angry football coach) and The Devil’s Advocate (loud, angry Devil). 
Possible Resurrection: Pacino’s biggest problem is he’s become accustomed to playing, well, Pacino. In his earlier years he was a master at tackling out of character roles–the homosexual bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon, the multi-dimensional Michael Corleone in The Godfather trilogy. Even his vibrant role as gangster villain, Big Boy Caprice in Warren Beatty’sDick Tracy was a fun character to watch on screen. Pacino’s last truly fascinating role was in the little seen film People I Know, in which his subdued performance was a complete 180 to everything he’s done in recent years.

ImageJack Nicholson: It could be said that Nicholson is at the point in his career where people know what to expect from him. Similarly to Pacino most of his recent roles show Jack playing Jack. With the exception of two performances dealing with trials of aging and retiring a life long lived (About Schmidt and the equally if not better and underappreciated film, The Pledge), Nicholson hasn’t really done anything recently that matches his range in the early stage of his career. His take on Frank Costello in The Departed was fun to watch but ultimately seemed way over the top, even for Nicholson (his bizarre cocaine sex scene was particularly ridiculous).
Possible Resurrection: It could be Nicholson is close to film retirement, following in the footsteps of greats like Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Warren Beatty, all of which chose their later roles sparingly and with care. One last triumphant performance could maintain his legendary status. Please just not another Adam Sandler flick. 

One could argue that unlike someone like Beatty or Newman, who starred in only a handful of films in the past twenty years, actors like Pacino or De Niro are more concerned with trying as many different roles as they can. In reality they seem to be recycling more of the same. Clint Eastwood is in the midst of a very strong late career both as an actor and a blooming director. He’s choosing his work wisely and isn’t afraid to branch out (his two Iwo Jima films were very well executed). 

I look at some of the best younger actors working today and I wonder how their careers will be in their later years. Christian Bale has shown that he has a knack for not only crowd pleasers (Batman Begins, 3:10 to Yuma) but also more challenging roles (The Machinist, I’m Not There) but will he be able to maintain his momentum and maturity as an actor into his twilight years?

Perhaps some of the actors mentioned earlier still do have it in them and are just waiting to unleash another monumental performance. If this is true than all I have to say is, the sooner the better. 

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Healthy Serving of Reality


It’s hard to say when reality television officially transformed from merely a fad to a staple element of American television. Maybe it was when MTV launched its first Real World. Perhaps it came later with the success of Survivor and the many spin-offs that soon followed. American Idol certainly changed not only the television landscape but also the music industry but then again isn’t Idol nothing more than a flashier version of the Americana classic, American Bandstand

There was a time when I believed that the surge of “reality” programming that was sweeping all networks (I mean, even Animal Planet has a reality show starring a family of Meerkats), was nothing more than a craze that would eventually die down. Instead it’s become very hard to ignore. Much to my dismay I have officially become addicted a to a reality show and while it pains me to say it, I’m rather enjoying it.

I don’t know how it happened but I’m officially hooked on the gastronomic gala that is Top Chef. I’m not sure what drew me to this show. Perhaps it’s the fact that this season was filmed here in Chicago a features some local culinary personalities. Maybe I was desperately searching for something, anything to fill the void left by the recent culmination of HBOs The Wire, one of few shows that I actually watched religiously. 
Whatever it may be, I'm officially hooked and the side of me that once bashed all things reality is taking a break.


Okay, to be fair I still think the majority of reality TV is trash. Call me a hypocrite but despite my newfound pleasure in Top Chef there’s no denying some of concentrated crap that somehow makes it onto the air. I’ll never understand the allure of watching a has-been rap personality try to find love via a crew of crazy, fame seeking common whores (Flavor of Love), or a show based solely around the concept of Donald Trump saying, “You’re fired” (The Apprentice). 

I believe Bravo’s Top Chef is one of many niche reality shows out there and by that I mean it has a target audience. While the show is accessible to anyone clearly it is aimed at foodies, people in the industry and those who just like watching food cooked on TV (why else does the Food Network work so well?). Sure it’s over the top at times and it plays up the bickering and overly dramatic level of competition between total strangers but at its core isn’t it also a window into the lives of aspiring chefs crafting their art. 

Perhaps this explanation is nothing more than my justification for getting sucked into a reality show. Still I can’t help but think that whereas a show like The Real World or pretty much damn near everything on MTV or VH1 focuses on everything but real life people and situations, a show like Top Chef features people competing with an actual creative craft. If you look past the fighting and yelling between contestants or the cold and unremorseful lineup of judges the show is actually an interesting look into what goes into modern cuisine.

ImageThis past episode of Top Cheffeatured an eruption of bottled-up discontent from a couple of contestants following a cooking challenge. People were yelling, feelings were hurt, spatulas were flying, okay maybe not the spatulas. The sad part was as much as I hated watching the bs bickering I couldn’t look away. 

It seems like this is the biggest draw for reality TV. We as viewer enjoy watching people get mentally and physically abused. The sick side of us enjoys watching people get into fights (the Spike TV network may very well be based on this fascination–now the official home of shows beginning with the phrase, World’s Deadliest________). We enjoy the in-your face showdowns between strangers. It’s why The Jerry Springer Show remains one of the most watched shows or why viewers can’t help but root for the raging cutthroat bitch on a show like The Apprentice
In the past people would blame violence on television and movies for hurting the national psyche but what about our obsession with watching people bicker and humiliate each other on national TV?  In any other setting someone like Simon Cowell from American Idol would be nothing more than an asshole or wanker on his native soil but behind the judge’s table he’s a star.

Above all though the biggest problem with “reality television” is it focuses on anything but reality. A show like Big & Rob, which my roommate was watching not too long ago, focuses on the life of a celebrity who is living in anything but reality (millionaire skateboarder blowing through his money in a West coast mansion). Shouldn’t true reality television be rooted in reality? 

Lately I’ve been drawn to The Travel or Discovery Channels, which both feature an eclectic lineup of programs that serve as windows into the rest of the world via the food, culture, sights, sounds, you name it. PBS had a reality show based on history highlighting how people lived on the American frontier. Alas these are niche programs whereas the majority of people would rather watch a bounty hunter named Dog tackle and taser a bunch of Hawaiian petty criminals. The Real World once had a show set in Las Vegas quite possibly the most surreal city in America. Even the major news media houses have become havens for pundit manipulation and hidden political agendas, giving the public a heavy dose of distorted reality.

Maybe true reality is just too boring or too depressing to soak in. Reality is working a 9-5 job. Reality is deciding between the many yogurts with fruit on the bottom at the grocery store. Reality is watching my cat figure out the best way to kill and dismember a roll of toilet paper. Reality is watching the disaster in the Middle East continue to unfold. Reality is deciding who will next lead this country. Reality is, oh hold that thought, the Top Chef judges are about to unleash all hell on a guy who cooked an extravagant but soggy corn dog! 

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Why The Stones Still Matter


ImageMartin Scorsese has always been a bit of a rock and roll film director. He uses pop music and good old-fashioned rock and roll with the same care and finesse as most filmmakers do with their actors. For Marty what you hear has always been as important as what you see. Fans of his films will know that one of his favorite musical muses is without a doubt The Rolling Stones, with “Gimme Shelter” serving as his own unofficial personal trademark. This past week marked the opening of Scorsese’s newest film, Shine a Light, an admirable ode, if nothing else, to the band he has always loved and reminder of why the band is still important. 

Remember that scene in Pulp Fiction where Mia Wallace asks Vincent Vega if he’s a Beatles Man or an Elvis Man? There is a large population out there who would answer this question with a third response: Stones Man.

The Rolling Stones have long been considered one of the best rock and roll groups in the history of, well, rock and roll. Sure it’s music is pop at times but at its core the Stones is a true rock and roll band in the pure sense of the term. Its music has always been rooted in rhythm and blues, propelled by hard hitting guitar riffs, powerful yet concise drumming, and a lead singer’s on stage theatrics that, no matter how ridiculous they may seem, never fail to capture the groove of the music.

The Stones have had their share of critical highs and lows–for every masterpiece in the repertoire (and there are quite a few) there is undoubtedly a dud filler album, primarily from the early 80s to present day. In the past decade or so the vocals have been hindered by their age (and in the case of Keith a lifetime of cigarettes and all things bad for you) but all these grievances aside the Stones still know how to rock. On stage, as a whole entity their sound still remains unprecedented.

Shine a Light is by no means the greatest concert film ever made nor was this Scorsese’s goal for the film (one could argue that the director mastered this feat with the immortal classic, The Last Waltz). The film is not a historical documentary of one of the biggest bands in the world nor does it chronicle any specific part of its career similar to Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary No Direction HomeShine a Light sets out to do one thing–showcasing a band doing what they’ve always done best. 

The concert at the Beacon Theater in New York, which Scorsese captures in the film, is hardly unique or as truly memorable as say the Altamont disaster, that tragic show that was dissected in the must-see Maysles brothers’ documentary Gimme ShelterShine a Light was filmed over a two-night performance during the bands Bigger Bang Tour, backing the less than memorable recent record of the same name. 

Sure the Presidential Clinton family was present for the final night’s gala. The show featured three successful guest performances from Jack White (“Loving Cup”), Buddy Guy (the heavy Muddy Waters cover, “Champagne and Reefer”) and a surprisingly soulful Christina Aguilera (seriously if you ignore her pointless pop albums and celebrity stardom this singer actually has some stellar pipes on her. Then again she was born during one of the Stones’ many dull periods) lending her talent to the Let it Bleed classic “Live With Me.” These moments seem like nothing more than added bonuses when really the concert plays out as nothing more than a document of a band that has been doing their thing for over forty years, and somehow continues to do it well.

While primarily focusing on the Beacon concert Scorsese chops up the concert’s setlist with career spanning footage of the band, everything from TV interviews to early stage performances. Through the sparse but enlightening grainy reels from the band’s past Scorsese manages to tell the story of not only who these musicians are but also what continues to drive the members to perform well into their AARP years. 

ImageThe three original members–the mad man leader of the pack Mick Jagger, space cadet and guitar riff master Keith Richards, and the mysterious backbone drummer Charlie Watts–are each given a spotlight. We see the group’s rather innocent early days, their God like rise to stardom, and a little bit of the 80s aftermath (the funniest clip taken from what appears to be a Japanese TV interview featuring a giggly and possibly inebriated Jagger).

There is a specific moment in the film when Scorsese slips in an amazingly true to life comment from Keith that truly sums up what the Stones represent. When asked who is the better guitar player, Keith or Ronnie Wood, Richards jokingly replies something along the lines of, “well the fact is neither of us are any good but when we play together we’re better than the rest. 

In my mind this sums up what Scorsese set out to do with Shine a Light. Critics and fans may complain that this film is 30 years to late and that the Stones have been out of its prime for a long time (the band’s last truly standout record was 1981s Tattoo You, the last masterpiece was ‘78s Some Girls, which gets its dues in the film’s set list). Scorsese no doubt realizes this but he also knows that despite the bands faults the Stones still remain an untouchable force in rock and roll. Shine a Light is about ignoring that band’s shortcomings and simply having a good time. 

There is a reason the film was catered to fit the larger than life IMAX experience, the filming required multiple cameras or that the surround sound mixing was obviously handled with care. Scorsese uses Shine a Light to recreate what its like to be there with Mick and the gang as they rip through an entire career worth of classic sing-a-long rock and roll anthems (whatever band can write a song about a slave trader’s sexual desires as heard in “Brown Sugar” and turn it into a classic that everyone knows). The film shows that that despite the waning vocals, the group’s physical appearance (skeletal remains with baseball glove weathered skin), and the nonsensical ramblings of Mr. Richards who himself is surprised to have survived this long, these veteran rockers still know how to let it loose.