Sunday, December 22, 2013

My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant)


Aside from it being an almost Dickensian look into the world of hustlers (or male prostitutes, if we get a bit more direct), the film is also a tear-jerking look at how great of a loss River Phoenix really is to the movie industry and also to the furthering of the Marlon Brando-esque leading man mystique in films. From the minute River, with all his James Dean-like mannerisms and uncanny good looks, enters the frame, one can't help but be sad about the wasted potential of what he could have been and what wonders he could have done working with other talented filmmakers. In a way, this was his great coming-out party as a truly serious dramatic actor, and he didn't disappoint. And if Keanu Reeves' character Scott, a rich heir who, for reasons unclear, has chosen to be a hustler instead, is the one highly pivotal in terms of the film's connection with Shakespeare's "Henry IV", River Phoenix's role is its throbbing heart and aching soul, and he makes us feel every single ounce of his character's silent cries through his narcoleptic ways as a hassled hustler.

Though set in the polluted streets and dingy sidewalks of modern-day America, the film is surprisingly flowery in its wordings (to of course keep up with its Shakesperean roots) and perhaps often a bit stagy on how the washed-up characters describe off-screen events and explain themselves to their fellow low-lives. Sometimes, though, the film then suddenly switches from overlong, quasi-poetic utterances to brief, street-smart talks, which makes it quite incomprehensible and, subsequently, infuriating to watch at times.

Gus Van Sant, an openly gay filmmaker, is equal parts brave, bold, and even elegant in directing this film that even the more explicit sex scenes were shot in a series of beautiful, tableaux-like images that seem to be a very tasteful aesthetic choice on his behalf. There's no denying the fact that the themes explored in "My Own Private Idaho", from homosexuality to downright prostitution, is hard to portray in a cinematic manner that would not tread the territories of exploitation and smut. Yet Van Sant, who has directed his fair share of modern film classics ranging from the Oscar-winning "Good Will Hunting" to the shocking indie gem "Elephant", has never let that happen, for he knows that although the highly sensitive issue of homosexuality is the area where the film extracts its primary emotional force from, the film is still simply about this gay man (River Phoenix's character) who just wants to find his mom and also to love somebody on the side, and isn't that, regardless of gender, the default story of our lives?

As expected, with this being the story of male prostitutes, it is a given that odd fetishes will be handed enough share of the spotlight, just like the ones in "Belle de Jour" and especially in "Midnight Cowboy", a film that, I believe, is kins in spirit with "My Own Private Idaho". There's the singing Udo Kier, for one, and also the fat client who seems to get off when he hears the sound of cleaning brushes making contact with dirty floors. And in the middle of the oddity of it all and these night people who seem to be more of themselves when the sun is out, stands River Phoenix's Mike and his struggle to literally keep himself from constantly falling asleep and also to keep whatever's left of his memory of her mother, who seems to continuously pester his mind with recurring childhood scenes of Oedipal-like affection. 

Physically speaking, the character is already challenging for River Phoenix to play because there's the difficult obligation of accurately portraying narcolepsy on-screen. And then, there's the trickier part of mustering all the fragile nuances of playing someone as emotionally scarred as Mike and then keeping them all at bay so that he can project a false sense of street grit. Jon Voight, who played Joe Buck in "Midnight Cowboy", has finely captured that, but Phoenix, I think, has even perfected it. I don't know, perhaps I'm a bit biased about his greatness in the role simply because he's already no more, but there's a kind of elegy in his eyes and in his actions that makes the experience of watching him play someone as tragic as Mike even more heart-rending, and dwarfs Keanu Reeves' unexpectedly effective performance all the more. 

"My Own Private Idaho", though included in many 'essential films' list, is by no means a masterpiece, but it's the kind of movie, no matter how happy and contented you are with your life by the time you've decided to pop it into your DVD player, that will certainly make you seek your own private whatever, in terrible longing for loneliness. It's an odd feeling, but it sure is something.

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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Rushmore (Wes Anderson)

Max Fischer: prep school rebel. Or not.

Perhaps a film that really was quite a puzzle during its time that even veteran film critic Pauline Kael was "thoroughly mystified" by it, "Rushmore" bursts into the screen with a kind of humor and passive grace reminiscent of Robert Altman's works, but is sadly lacking in solid focus and direction. For newbie filmmakers, it is but normal to either commit rookie mistakes or wallow in self-indulgence (or both) along the way; for Wes Anderson in this film, it surely is the latter. Unlike his later works which are all clear about what their central themes are ('family' in "The Royal Tenenbaums", "The Life Aquatic", and "Fantastic Mr. Fox", 'brotherhood' in "The Darjeeling Limited", and 'young love' in "Moonrise Kingdom", among others), it is quite obvious that "Rushmore" isn't really sure about what kind of film it really wants to be. 

On one side, it's kind of like trying to be a coming-of-age story about a popular, seemingly self-taught student named Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) who's consistently getting his ass beat by the eponymous school's stern educational system. On another, it's really about an unlikely friendship between Max and a quirky industrialist named Herman Blume (played by the 'godfather' of quirks: Bill Murray), and also their intense romantic interest on a young, newly-widowed teacher (Olivia Williams). And then, as if in hundreds of other corners, there are also these little happenings that seem to have little to no significance to the whole story, but are nonetheless scattered all throughout the film by Wes Anderson simply because he is Wes Anderson, and that he can do off-kilter things in his films and still be labelled 'cool'. 

The performances, although all are imprinted with a sense of wry passive-aggressiveness that emanates from almost all of Wes Anderson's characters, come up quite short in terms of making me feel that this is indeed a Wes Anderson film. Adding on what I've said earlier, the script is a tad too aimless to begin with, which of course resulted in the film being two sizes too small for its projected ambition. It is, for me, like a standard-sized blanket that was stretched far beyond its limits to accommodate 5 sleepers. In short, "Rushmore" is like 3 films worth of stories were crammed into one 'school misfit-centric' picture and was then left just as that, which is nothing short of a textbook exercise in 'more being less' coming from the Futura font-loving director himself. 

Although much has been said about how Wes Anderson is slowly perfecting the art of handling multiple narratives with every film he makes, "Rushmore" is still here to remind us that he and his films were once not so masterfully absurd and quirky but instead quite mischievously unfocused and clumsy. And just like its hero Max Fischer, "Rushmore" seems more interested in extracurricular activities rather than its core priority, which is to tell the story in a non-alienating way. And is it just me, or is Max Fischer really isn't that likable and strong of a protagonist to really carry the film through? Perhaps there's a reason why Anderson's later films feature more than one main character, and also why Jason Schwartzman has merely taken on relatively smaller roles in his films ever since. It appears that one of Wes Anderson's weaknesses is extracting and then sustaining an interesting enough narrative from a single character, and "Rushmore" just goes to expose this glaring fact. The film is like "Dead Poets Society's" detached and peculiar younger brother, and he couldn't care any less about you, your opinion, and whether or not he gets himself understood. This is, quite simply, a film made by a director who's still testing the waters.

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Friday, December 6, 2013

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

A Greek dramedy.

We have ventured with them through the streets of Vienna and tagged along on their reflective walk one Parisian afternoon. Jesse and Celine, as far as modern cinematic couples are concerned, is indeed the thinking man/woman's love team, thanks to Richard Linklater's deeply contemplative yet very entertaining style of writing. And after all these years, the first film, "Before Sunrise", still stands tall as a wonderful testament of how bittersweet a happenstance romance can be, while "Before Sunset" effortlessly goes to show how a hyper-idealized overnight love can completely change when, paraphrasing Jason Silva, lovers finally go their separate ways and return to their respective task-based existence. 

9 years ago, we were left to draw our own conclusions regarding what can happen to Jesse and Celine and whether or not their picture-perfect romance can carry itself away from the pragmatic hassles of reality, as Jesse is after all already married and has a son. Finally, though, we now have the answer in the form of "Before Midnight": the final chapter to the 'Jesse and Celine' saga. Yeah, that totally sounded like an epic superhero film.

In this film, Jesse and Celine are on a Greek getaway, and this time, it's not, in any way, a happenstance encounter but an official family vacation (along with their twin daughters). Yes, here in "Before Midnight", Jesse and Celine is finally (and permanently) together, albeit unmarried. Not the exact set-up you might expect if you think of an ideal kind of love, but hey, better to have that than nothing at all. Sure, both of them were physically withered by age quite a bit, but the energy of how they connect with each other is just as fresh and young as the moment when they first met in a sleepy train ride back in Vienna. "Before Midnight", with its preservation of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy's on-screen chemistry that spans close to two decades, delivers just the right amount of ups and downs, romance-wise, to leave unto us a feeling that we've just been witnesses to what may be the closest cinema has gotten in perfectly capturing the essence of a flawed but nonetheless true kind of love.

Comparatively speaking, watching "Before Midnight" in all its sexual innuendos, hurtful gender slurs, and overwhelming pragmatism makes "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" seem like two innocent younger brothers who have just gotten out of the house long enough to frolic freely in the streets for a while. Simply put, "Before Midnight" looks just like the big brother who has finally arrived to fetch his younger siblings so that he can smack some sense into them that no, it should never be all play. Though the film is still ripe with nostalgic talks about time in relation to love and love in relation to life at large and all that idealizing romantic bull, it's more clear on what it wants to examine, and that is the separation of love from the conundrums of life and vice versa. Unlike the first two films which seem to indulge only on reflections about what can be and what could have been between Jesse and Celine, "Before Midnight" is the realistic wake-up call that things are bound to inevitably fall apart. 

With Richard Linklater on the helm and on scribe duty, it's not a surprise that the film is just as layered as the first two films. This time, though, everything seems to be very much at stake, as both Jesse and Celine, for the first time in their screen lives, are quite careening into an emotional climax that may just be as explosive as the one in "The Avengers". Are we going to see them just as strong as before? Or, as surreal as it may sound, are we going to see them bitterly part ways? In ways more than one, "Before Midnight" is the maturation that we've all been waiting for and are unconsciously dying to see, because as much as it feels good to see them together at the end of "Before Sunset", it's still an altogether different kind of ballgame to tackle the all too real things (such as career conflicts, priorities, and family) that go along with love like prickly bonus items. And for that, I guess Linklater has nothing short of done something that makes me believe that, no, the telling of great love stories in films is yet to run its course. On the other hand, though, it's sad to think that to make me believe just that, it has to be done by ending one of the bestest modern ones there is. 

Like a more optimistic and infinitely more humorous "Scenes from a Marriage", "Before Midnight" is an extraordinary film that will force you to think twice about being married, but at the same time will convince you to just hold on to the imperfect truth that holds two people together like Velcro. And as Jesse and Celine struggle through a mudflow of insecurities, misled accusations, and complex decisions, the Velcro still sticks, and neither of them know the definite reason how and why save for the fact that, well, it just does. And remember what Celine was repeatedly saying while watching the sun set? "Still there." In the end, perhaps she can say the same to the love that she and Jesse have stumbled upon one fateful day in Vienna nearly 20 years ago; a kind that they thought would only be nothing but a fling, only to find out that there's definitely more to it than the aimless walks through cobblestone streets.

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