Sunday, July 30, 2006

Hôtel des Amériques, Psycho, Lady in the Water

We're getting treated to a Techiné retrospective in Chicago just in time for the release of his new film, Changing Times. I caught Hôtel des Amériques, a 1981 film made 4 years before Rendex-Vous, which was previously the earliest film I'd seen by Techiné. Hôtel stars Catherine Deneuve who meets Patrick Dewaere in Biarritz--by nearly running him over with her car. She's an anesthetist, which I fear is probably a metaphorical choice the meanings of which I'm not interested in sniffing out because they're too obvious. More importantly, this drama uses a handful of major and secondary characters to illustrate the idea that love is a fragile, difficult thing and by no means something we are guaranteed. Certainly not news to most of us, but it's a rare enough truth at the movies, and it's interesting how, filtered through Techiné's romantic sensibility, it's almost as sentimental a notion as the standard ideal that there's one perfect match for all of us who we're destined to find. Techiné explores some trademark concerns about sexuality, as if suggesting the idea that we're like pieces from different puzzles thrown together. Étienne Chicot (who turns out to be in this year's Da Vinci Code, looking, I'm sorry to say, all of his 20 years older) plays Dewarer's drifter musician buddy, and he's got eyes for the ladies but offers from a gent, and there's some ambiguity about what he wants and what he's tempted to try. There's an interesting patch of dialogue about Biarritz as a strange no-man's land, neither Paris nor rural France, which seems like another quintessential theme of the director's. The title clearly has to do with the family hotel changing styles from French to American, but since it isn't an American making those changes, I'm not exactly sure what ramifications were intended. And the film isn't always as compelling as it could be. There was some slightly heavy handed material that he flashed at us quickly--he hadn't quite gotten his editing down to the fluid perfection of the mid-90s work. Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars.

I saw Psycho for the first time all the way through, and I really don't know what to say about it. It's difficult to have a spontaneous reaction to a film that's so legendary (I was just looking at some online discussion of Citizen Kane that shows I'm not the only one with that problem). I realize how bold he was in the Janet Leigh plotline, which was surprisingly effective, but I knew too much about the film's twists to give it a completely fair viewing. It's not ever going to be my favorite Hitchcock film, but I liked it more than I thought I would. The score is exceptional, of course. Hitch was at his creative peak. I think it's a shame that Anthony Perkins' career was more or less destroyed by it. I thought he was charming and handsome at times here, and he could have done so much more than cheap Psycho sequels. Rating: 4 out of 4 stars.

I'm so disappointed about Lady in the Water. I've had a blast at every M. Night film up until now, so I couldn't trust the negative reviews. I know there were problems with Signs and The Village (both of which strained credulity, even for this genre), but I enjoyed them. But Lady has forced me off the Shyamalan bandwagon at last. A stupid story (which he apparently made up for his kids) that cheats like the worst whodunit mystery you've ever seen, breaking its own rules in order to try to surprise you. He packs the story with more "quirky" characters than you can bear. Worse, the director's ego clearly needs to be checked. He has a film critic character that he heaps abuse upon, which only makes him look small since his apparent criticisms of film criticism are populist but stupid, and he casts himself as a man who is going to save the world with the story he tells. If that's how he sees himself, it's appalling. If it isn't, he should have known better than inviting people to think so. Made me appreciate the joke Hitchcock played when he cast himself--the director pulling the strings appears in the most trivial moments of the film. Worse still, he's badmouthed Disney, which stuck with him through some bad times, all over the press. I'm thoroughly disgusted.

Still, the cast is first rate--I still think Paul Giamatti is a terrific actor, and he is first-rate here. He does some intense emoting to bolster the story's weaknesses but somehow always made it feel sincere. Bryce Dallas Howard, a revelation in The Village is fine here but is basically stuck playing the damsel-in-distress. They're joined by an obscenely gifted supporting cast of quirky actors, squandered in small roles: Jeffrey Wright, Bob Balaban, Bill Irwin, Mary Beth Hurt, Jared Harris, and Tovah Feldshuh. Any of them could lead a film. I was impressed with Sarita Choudhury, who I'd never seen before. Noah Gray-Cabey was enjoyable enough as a weird tyke. Top that off with cinematography by the film treasure Christopher Doyle and score by James Newton Howard, and somehow the film is watchable. I hope they were compensated, because they'll collectively save Shyamalan's ass. I'd like to see him create one scene of power that doesn't rely on Howard's score for chills. Is he capable any more? I hope he bounces back, but it's time for friends and family (or mentors--Spielberg?) to start giving him the cold truth. You're not a prophet, Night, and these days you're barely an entertaining storyteller. Get it together. Rating: 1 out of 4 stars.

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