Monday, May 29, 2006

The Proposition and Lady Vengeance

Went in for a bloody revenge/ties-that-bind double feature on Sunday: The Proposition at the Music Box, then Lady Vengeance at the Landmark. I'm glad I saw them in that order because the second served as a much needed corrective to the first.

I very much wanted to like the Nick Cave Australian Western (it's basically useless to call it anything but, on account of it probably wouldn't have received nearly as much notice without that pedigree), but it was just a bit too ramshackle to really win me over. Playing with archetypes is a tricky business; when it's done well, it can be completely thrilling, but when, as here, you just get a handful of very basic, very familiar character outlines that are supposed to be Meaningful simply by virtue of being Suggestive of something Universal (count the number of Biblicals in the reviews gathered on Metacritic!), it all starts to feel very emperor-has-no-clothes. The characters look exactly like they should look, talk exactly the way they should talk, act out exactly the plot points they should act out, but to what end? I felt like I only had about one dimension to swim around in while I was watching the movie. I could appreciate the craft on the surface, but there wasn't a whole hell of a lot of meaning left to ponder beyond that point.

It's thick with atmosphere and portent, and, where it succeeds, it does so largely on the strength of the visual storytelling. A filmmaker doesn't have to do much work to make the Australian outback look stunning, but John Hillcoat framed it nicely with some interesting editing that simultaneously kept the obviousness of the plot at bay while respecting its functionality, and, evidently, created a safe space for some grand, swinging-for-the-fences acting to boot. I qualify the success of the visuals with "largely" because the other place where the film really soars and comes into its own is through the too-spare use of black humor. Par example, after mentally and emotionally unstable youngest brother Mike is sentenced to 100 lashes, the brutal flogging scene weeps its way, like Passion of the Christ with cowboy hats, through shots of the townsfolk watching dispassionately, the blood being wrung out of the cat-o'-nine-tails, the slo-mo wailing horror in his face, all soundtracked to a mournful, a cappella Irish folk tune. A beat or two for the audience to catch its breath, then one of the attending officers counts, "thirty-eight." More of this (and Ray Winstone's running-into-a-closed-door pratfall and a soldier's limping that calls back, about an hour later, his accidentally shooting his toes off and the "we're not misanthropes, we're a family" one-liner), please! But the bulk of the script was unfortunately bogged down with a lot of stilted, highfalutin diction that might have been gorgeously, gothically poetic in a Bad Seeds song, but just ended up sounding like something Drusilla would have written if given enough time and creative resources. (Seriously? That scene of Emily Watson in the bathtub describing her dream about the dead baby gripping her finger? That kind of shit drives me nuts.)

I just started in on the first season of Deadwood (thanks, Lisa Ro!), and even after only a few episodes, I could feel the fresh memory of the meatiness of its dialogue and labyrinthine sociopolitical machinations spoiling my experience of The Proposition. Though, like many of the most successful Westerns (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly being foremost in my mind at the moment), The Proposition picked up some steam toward the end in its inevitable, tragic conclusion, it still left just a little too much hanging in the breeze without a satisfying context or connection.

Danny Huston is, for me, def the standout in the cast, a monster worthy of all the veneration and fear the other characters build up around him, worthy not because he does so much more scenery-chewing, but because he does so much less. He's repeatedly described as being dog-like, but I kept seeing the calm insanity of a beautiful, magnificent cat in his perpetually crouched, coiled performance. (Anthony Lane goes for ursine; fair enough.)

Unlike The Proposition's limited rewards, Lady Vengeance is positively stuffed with treasures as you keep digging deeper and deeper. Atonement for past sins! The different functions played in a person's life by individual and collective grieving! A human being's fundamental ability to choose to be a devil or an angel in any given situation! The unimaginable hurts visited upon us by an unblinking universe! The balm of religion and its occasional situational uselessness! The formative importance of both the family of our birth and the family of our circumstance! I could go on.

The pacing of the film is nothing short of remarkable. Before I realized what it was doing, I thought to myself while watching it, "gosh, this is the longest resolution to a film I've seen in some time." It just kept ending, and ending, and ending. But then I realized, of course it's the longest resolution to a film I've seen in some time--the film is all about resolution: finishing chapters, tying up loose ends, mourning what's passed/past, repairing what we can, apologizing for what we can't, selfishly chasing after that which we imagine will allow our individual selves to heal, dimly realizing we are redeemed by our friends' and family's love for us sometimes in spite of but more often because of our inability to fully achieve the closure we crave. Instead of the brief, explosive money shot we're used to getting in most revenge flicks, temporarily satisfying but not necessarily complex, inevitable but weightless, the substance of Lady Vengeance is in its ending and constitutes a good half of the running time.

Having not seen the preceding two films (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance and Oldboy) in director Chan-wook Park's so-called vengeance trilogy, I can't pretend to speak to what he's doing in relation to his own oeuvre and that of what J.R. Jones calls the "extreme Asian" genre, but, based on what I saw here, I am in nothing but awe of his skills. He liberally uses all the elements that I loved most about The Proposition--and some that I didn't love there but was completely swept up in here--with profligate abandon. More music, more black comedy, more single-minded-hero-on-a-mission plot points, more innocents in gut-wrenchingly disturbing peril, more ridiculous coincidences that bring long-separated family members back together, more hyper-stylized framing that looks cool for the sake of looking cool, more operatic emotions snuck in under the radar of genre conventions, more keen understanding of the conflicting impulses in human nature that lead us to make difficult decisions--not to mention a far less enigmatic and far less charming villain and a protagonist with far more mixed motives, far more at stake, emotionally, and far more (interesting) complicity in the villain's actions and eventual downfall.

It's also bloody as hell, gorgeous to look at (the opening credit sequence is especially noteworthy, doing more for the colors red and white than Jack and Meg have in recent memory), and doesn't take itself seriously at all, except when it does and, even then, it takes great pains to earn it. Sure, there's a touch of sappiness here and there that you're going to be hard pressed not to find in all but the most unrepentantly gruesome Asian exploitation flicks, but they're generally easily glossed over if that's the kind of thing that's likely to stick in your craw. Lee Yeong-ae carries the thing on her back effortlessly. She caroms from murderous rage that manages to remain profoundly human to adorable cheekiness (the scene where she simply holds up a bar of soap by way of explanation for a minor villain's well-deserved comeuppance is particularly delightful) to a mother's heartbroken willingness to accept the consequences of the way she's failed her child to angelic self-sacrifice, all without smudging her most excellent, and oft-remarked upon, red eyeshadow. The movie itself is outstanding, and, as I say above, pairs wonderfully with The Proposition, for the ways they speak to and inform each other.

On the movie tip, I finally saw an actual preview for Olivier Assayas's Clean before Lady Vengeance this weekend. The good handful of reviews I read when it was released on the coasts here in the U.S. about a month ago definitely got me excited about it, but the trailer pretty much had me salivating in anticipation. Do any of you filmies know if it's going to open in Chicago at any point in the near future? The "release dates" page on the IMDB is no help; it only goes as far as the April 28 limited release date. Boo! The Windy City needs some Maggie Cheung too!

"[T]here are those who sympathise with my predicament--as if becoming 30 were a terrible accident that could have been avoided if only I had not been quite so silly": Various British celebrities and Alice Cooper share their two pence on what they're proud to have done and what they wish they would have done before they turned 30 (via).

"At a certain point, you have to wonder which is the outside culture. I mean, I think it's a lot more normal to grow up Evangelical than to grow up in New York!": Matthew Perpetua in conversation with the author of Body Piercing Saved My Life: Inside the Phenomenon of Christian Rock on Fluxblog.

"[T]he human brain has a specific centre that does nothing more, and nothing less, than recognize faces. This centre is what enables us to recognize each other with such certainty. Prosopagnosia, or face-blindness, is what you get when that centre is damaged or otherwise unable to perform its functions": a lucid, good-humored description of what it's like to live as a social being with face-blindness (via).

And, for fans of both Cute Overload and my own "Wild Animal Edition" post below, I bring you: Vicious Dog Pack Kills Gator in Florida.

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