Great Expectations: Three Movies I Saw Yesterday

by clarencecarter
October 31, 2005 6:00 AM
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Movie-going out in the provinces sometimes has its benefits. Sure, we get new stuff 3-4 weeks after they hit the Big Apple—if at all in some cases—but with hometown critics only marginally worth paying attention to, it’s possible to walk into that odd title on a whim with almost no prior sense of the prevailing critical winds and come out pleasantly surprised as happened to me this weekend with Anand Tucker’s Shopgirl and the omnibus Three…Extremes. Conversely, a brief holding period for hotly anticipated works can often serve to pleasurably deepen anticipation and potentially skew reaction, especially when the majority of responses swing towards one end of the spectrum—the critical drubbing Atom Egoyan’s Where the Truth Lies has taken since its Cannes premiere set me up to love it, but when confronted with the real thing…

So, Shopgirl, allegedly a romantic comedy, except it’s not terribly romantic, nor very funny, which, unless Tucker completely eviscerated the source material, seems completely by design. It’s awkward and self-conscious where I’d expected rom-com polish, cold where it seems like it should be warm, and vice versa down the line. I once harbored a rather unhealthy obsession with L.A. Story (also penned by Martin), and Shopgirl’s not unlike what that film would have felt like had it been framed as a dream that took place mostly in restaurants and bedrooms after dark. Martin’s probably the worst thing about it—playing a “symbolic logician,” he attempts character through constantly squinting, so thankfully Jason Schwartzman steps in to splendidly, manically balance a film that pivots on Danes’s delicate, strange performance. Still can’t decide if the whole thing’s a boy’s fantasy of a girl, a girl’s fantasy as imagined by a boy, or just, more benignly, a fantasy, but with a score so insistent and overly dramatic (like a dumbed-down Contempt--in a good way), a tone so thoroughly off (reminded me a bit of Deepa Mehta’s similarly off-putting Republic of Love), and a long, improbable cameo from Mark Kozelek…I couldn’t help but be engaged. Tucker’s set to direct the films of Philip Pullman’s fantastic His Dark Materials series, and somehow Shopgirl’s aesthetic gives me confidence he’s up to the challenge.

Poor Atom, watching Where the Truth Lies is somewhat akin to listening to a later Beach Boy’s record like Love You: flashes of the great stuff, delight that everyone’s still standing, and a healthy dose of cringing embarrassment. Alison Lohman, who mostly worked in Matchstick Men is way out of her league here, though I can’t help but wonder if Egoyan isn’t projecting—he does after all sit the ingénue down for a highly “serious” chat with her “editors” a who’s-who of past Egoyan collaborators: Arsinee Khanjian, Gabrielle Rose, and Don McKellar (best fake moustache of the year). “Are you ready to handle this ‘big project’” they demand of her/him? Not quite, but it’s fun watching them both stumble around in the dark. When it hits—the vintage polio telethon, the arch Michael Dyanna score with its questioning oboe and nervous strings, Maury Chaykin as the most overdetermined gangster in film history—it feels like Egoyan’s found a way to bring his cold-calculations to bear on Hollywood glitz. When it doesn’t—the sex is rote and surely disappointed the five other dudes sitting by themselves in the house, Lohman, again, is not up to this (yet), and the narrative’s more convoluted than fascinatingly labyrinthine—well, it’s hard not to feel like we’re back in Ararat again…Still, I kinda love it, and we may look back and find that Egoyan’s pulled a fast one on us…even if THE FUCKING BUTLER did it.

If folks left Three…Extremes during Park Chan-wook’s middle segment “Cut” and came back for the Miike closer, they’d be in for a largely recommendable cinematic diptych. As it stands, that’s the one that seemed to garner the most positive response, so it seems the Reverseblog’s meager attempts to derail the Park bandwagon are going unnoticed. “Cut” is worthless, and proves all this revenge business a zero-sum game—his movies don’t exist beyond themselves except perhaps in a lingering waft of shammery that comes with each recollection of his intended-to-shock gorey exclamation points. Better instead to pay attention to a filmmaker like Fruit Chan, whose work is largely unknown in the U.S., and whose short “Dumplings” opens the film on a mildly queasy high. What’s “in the dumplings” is the question, but the answer’s kinda boring, and the finale seems dictated by the title of collection, but his use of music, camera placements, and handling of his performers suggest a talented filmmaker that we could use more of (his Public Toilet is pretty gonzo if you can find it…). And as for the Miike’s “The Box”…a surprisingly mild, yet creepy ghost story. It’s nice, not unlike what the folks behind Mirrormask would have made if they had brains, or a clue.

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