Thursday, July 06, 2006

Clean, The Lake House, and The King

I don't know how it is that I've seen so many Olivier Assayas films, since I've only mildly liked most (Late August, Early September, Cold Water) and hated one (demonlover). Oh, that's right--I loved Irma Vep. I think many people did--it was such a strange combination of ideas for a movie, sort of postmodern and open-ended and pop-culture savvy. And so I think that when Assayas reunited with Maggie Cheung to make Clean, it set certain expectations. Especially when the film went on to win an award for Cheung's acting at Cannes. But Clean is really nothing like the earlier collaboration. It's a fairly straightforward story about a young woman in the music scene (obvious comparisons: Yoko and Courtney) whose husband overdoses. This wake-up call forces her to try to put her life back together again. There's little in the way of suspense, and the acting is low-key and more realistic, not in a showboating Oscarbait mode. It reminded me of another recent film about a junkie mother, Pure--though that film's emphasis was far more emotional--as well as Gus Van Sant's Last Days, a more lyrical, less plot-driven look at a Kurt Cobain figure. Clean never really jolts, but it kept me interested. Maggie Cheung is--no surprise--an excellent actress, performing in three languages here (English, French, Chinese), as well as singing. And it's always nice to see Don McKellar, the multitalented Canadian who brought us Last Night and the recent Broadway sensation The Drowsy Chaperone (highly recommended fun!), here lending his talents in a supporting part and doing a bit of polishing on the English language portion of the film.

But I must admit I came more for Nick Nolte, whose later career has been one of the most exciting in film (Affliction, The Thin Red Line, Hotel Rwanda, The Golden Bowl, and The Good Thief--in which he had a turn playing a recovering addict). Nolte became a national joke a few years ago when his mug shot was splashed across newspapers and tv screens following an arrest for driving under the influence. I can just imagine the jokes some will make when they hear the title of his latest film, but it's possible Nolte's substance abuse problems deepened his commitment to this project. He is exceptional here once again as the father of Cheung's addiction-casualty suicide. His character's kindness, compassion and forgiveness is a recurring and refreshing source of surprise, which brought to my mind one of my favorite father characters in film, Kris Kristofferson in A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries (based, of course, on James Jones). You could argue that his actions are self-serving, and he admits as much, but I saw them as more principled than that--I think he was just being modest. It was also touching to see Nolte play a part that emphasizes aging. There's a tremor on his face in one of the last scenes, delicately added by the actor, a deft touch of characterization.
Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars.

I bought a ticket for The Lake House with low expectations (and a few dollars) because I heard it had good Chicago scenery and that it was surprisingly watchable. True, on both counts. I thought Speed was a tasty bit of entertainment in its day, and I thought the idea of a Bullock and Reeves reteaming was a nice one. I was also impressed with Reeves in Thumbsucker (an excellent film). It wasn't until the credits rolled that I remembered that the film was written by David Auburn, who wrote Proof, an excellent play-turned-film also set in Chicagoland. In short, The Lake House is no Proof, but it's surprisingly good. It's basically a romantic fantasy, with a doozy of a premise--that, magically, a man and woman inhabiting the same house in different years, are able to communicate by letters dropped into their mailbox. You have to get beyond that premise to enjoy the film, but it's a small price to pay--at most. It really wasn't a price for me at all. Fun, fresh concept. Auburn's script and the direction (by the experienced but otherwise unknown to me Alejandro Agresti, best known in the U.S., apparently, for Valentin) combine to keep the film at a mostly serious tone that keeps the goofiness of the premise (or thoughts of the two leads' past comedic performances) at bay, enabling the audience to get lost in the air of romance. There's at least one twist I didn't entirely see coming. In some ways it's a classic movie romance--more longing and passion than sex, and for a lot of us, that's refreshing. Update: The Chicago Reader reports (p.14-5) that the house of the film's title was built nearby for the film, was nominated for an engineering award, but has already been torn down.
Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars.

The King was a big disappointment. I should have walked out--I had a bad feeling about it early on, but I hoped the ending might draw it all together. Gael Garcia Bernal plays a young man just out of the Navy who tracks down his biological father carrying a huge, never-adequately-explained granite chip on his shoulder. William Hurt is the hypocritical southern preacher who unknowingly sired this boy in his sinful youth but who now has a respectable family and a respectable position as the head of a large congregation. Bernal, as others have pointed out, is too sweet and too small to be quite believable as the menacing character apparently out for revenge. But forget that--that's just quibbling. The major problems with this film are 1) the director's anti-fundamentalist agenda is glaring and uncomplicated by anything like humanity or curiosity let alone empathy and 2) Bernal's motivation to do the horrible things he does is never explained. His father doesn't behave well upon learning he has another son, at first, but even though he improves with a little time to adjust, it doesn't matter. Elvis' (The King--get it?) plans are apparently set in motion from the beginning, and he executes them like a machine--or like a one-dimensional character. Absolute trash, no matter how much you think religious people have messed up our country.
Rating: 0 out of 4 stars.



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