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Rus Raves and Rants

Articles - Directing

Cyclo

The Best

Cyclo – There is not a wasted image in this
film from Vietnamese director Hung Tran Anh (The Scent of Green
Papaya). Scenes of transfixing beauty and startling brutality blend
seamlessly to form an hallucinatory narrative, an almost psychotic
meditation on a culture and people struggling through their capitalist
evolution. Hung is not so concerned with plot mechanicsthe story,
about a young cyclo (pronounced SEEK-low) driver who is forced
into a gang to keep his job, is disjointed and at times confusing.
But the director uses color like an abstract expressionist; he
prefers bold, extreme close-ups to standard wide shots. He will
someday make a masterpiece. Cyclo comes pretty close to being one.

Small Faces – This Scottish film, directed
by Gillies MacKinnon and written by the director and his brother,
Billy, also takes a sobering look at a young man lured into gang
life. The elliptical story takes place in 1968 and is anchored
by the remarkable performance of Iain Robertson, a teenager at
war with his older brother and his hormones. MacKinnon’s camera
moves with a mesmerizing glide; he discovers angles that depict
a working class world that is both monstrous and, at times, strangely
alluring. An underrated gem.

Casino – Paranoia, treachery, desire. Martin
Scor- sese works this territory like a pit boss. Casino was criticized
for its length and repetitiveness, but that is exactly why it worked
for me. It played like a long night at the blackjack table, an
epic descent into the base arena of greed, where deceit can be
exposed with a simple wink. Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, and Joe
Pesci are a trio of lowlifes who get to play dress-up until they
begin to tumble, step-by-inexorable-step. Scorsese tracks their
fall with a trance-like precision while getting powerful performances,
especially from De Niro, who plays the last hour of the film in
a bathrobe and slippers.

Dead Man – Speaking of trances, Jim Jarmusch
made the cinematic equivalent of Tuvan throat-singing with this
gorgeous black-and-white western. It’s a deeply mystical exploration
of identity and death, rooted in a wintry, wooded landscape, grounded
by the mesmerizing junkyard growl of Neil Young’s guitar. A film
of exotic power.

Breaking the Waves

Lone Star – John Sayles writes so well that
you believe everything his characters say; you believe their
life stories, you understand their reasons without having them
pointed out to you. Chris Cooper and Elizabeth Pena are excellent
as tentative lovers separated by the past, by prejudices, and
by an odd paternity. They unravel a Texas community’s secret
history while attempting to hold together the fragile present.
A mature, subtle, engrossing film from one of our best filmmakers.

Hard Eight – In just two films, Paul Thomas
Anderson has established himself as a director of vision. It’s
clear with Hard Eight and Boogie Nights that he is concerned with
survivalthe people who practice it and the tools they useand with
the paternal instinct, the ways older men can sweep the young under
a fatherly wing. With Boogie Nights it’s Burt Reynolds’ soft-hearted
porn king; here it’s Phillip Baker Hall’s aging gambler. He is
a man who survives through patience, by waiting for the right roll,
by working a system just enough. It is a testament to Anderson’s
trust in his own story that he delivers his climaxes quietly. This
is the best American debut film in years. It’s dynamite with a
slow fuse.

When We Were Kings – We are so lucky that
Mu- hammad Ali let director Leon Gast into his training camp for
the famous "Rumble in the Jungle" in 1974. Now we have
this funny, moving, electric portrait of one of America’s true
originals, who believes to this day that the measure of a man is
in his humanity, his ability to say what he means, his willingness
to take risks, look foolish, and most importantly, to have a sense
of humor. Interviews with Norman Mailer and George Plimpton make
you love the fight; Ali makes you love the man.

Flirt

Breaking the Waves – Lars Von Trier’s film
is a hybrid, a sort of fictional verité that shows what
happens when a woman takes her religion too seriously. It’s a
devastating story of love and sacrifice, shot by Robby Muller
with a roughnecked, hand-held style as rocky as the Scottish
coastline where it’s set. Emily Watson and Stellan Skarsgard
are sad and real and erotic as the tragic couple.

Flirt (Part 1) – Hal Hartley’s latest was
actually three films in one, an experiment that went horribly wrong
(see Worst). Part I works because of Hartley’s absurdist Zen dialogue,
the way he introduces characters and locations as if he lifts a
curtain and reveals them posing for us, and the complete unpredictability
of his plots. Flirt, Part I is hilarious and knowing; one giddy
surprise after another.

The Worst

Flirt (Parts II and III) – It must have seemed
like a radical cinematic idea at the time, but when Part II of
Hartley’s triptych comes up it’s clear that the fun of the movie
is over. The technical exercise that follows is such a film school
bore that you desperately start fast-forwarding to find the next
good scene until you realize it doesn’t exist. The idea, to have
three different sets of characters in three different settings
repeat the same exact dialogue must have looked good scrawled on
a cocktail napkin, but on the screen it’s an excruciating, Mondrian-like
attempt to paint the same box over and over again. Nice try, Hal,
but don’t go there again.

The Spitfire Grill – First Sundance gave it
an award, then CastleRock Entertainment spent 10 million for the
rights. Wow, what an embarrassment! Did they really think they
could market this slice of Sunday school dreck to an art house
audience and force them to swallow it? Spitfire featured enough
scenery chewing to make John Malkovich turn in his knife and fork.
Ellen Burstyn slobbed around in a house dress and Marcia Gay Harden
was so mousy I thought she was going to start squeaking. Come on,
a whole movie built around the dramatic intrigue of an essay contest?

ll Postino – I try to give a wide berth to
any film that captures the ignominious title of "Highest Grossing
Foreign Film of All Time." That means two things: first, it
is written, directed, and acted to appeal to the broadest possible
American audience, i.e. all of those people who think subtitles
are the gas mileage information they put on the bottom of car commercials;
and second, it sucks! Does anyone remember The Gods Must Be Crazy,
Like Water For Chocolate, Cinema Paradiso? The fact that audiences
flock to these movies like lemmings makes me want to take a long
Peckinpah- vian piss on the screen. I’ve seen tourist snapshots
with more artfulness than the shaky, flat cinematography of this
film. Director Michael Rad-ford (1984), lurches through the story
like a drunk looking for a place to sleep it off. What a cheap,
unfocused, poorly cut, sentimental little mess.

Touch – Paul Schrader has never really made
a great film, but now at least he has made an extraordinarily bad
one. Touch, based on an El-more Leonard novel, unfortunately has
none of the snap you might expect from the author’s dialogue, and
the movie is absolutely bereft of any sizzle, attitude, or momentum.
I just don’t think Leonard transfers well to film (even Tarantino’s
Jackie Brown, based on Leonard’s "Rum Punch," is dreary,
flat, and slooooow). Touch also suffers from the musical kiss of
death: a goofy doop-de-doo soundtrack that never stops, that drains
the irony and comedy from every scene. A stupendously silly bore.

Space Jam – I usually swim clear of the mainstream
with this year-end list, but this was such an egregious example
of the eight-year-old male mentality that drives Hollywood these
days that I couldn’t pass it up. Since I can’t remember a single
scene, moment, character, line, or shot of this worthless tripe,
isn’t that enough of a reason to burn director Joe Pytka at the
stake? Wait, I do recall Bill Murray literally wandering into the
film at the end for no apparent reason other than to show that
a middle-age white guy with a beer gut can definitely not jump,
and I remember thinking Charles Barkley should stick to throwing
guys through windows. It couldn’t be as painful as watching him
act.

She’s The One – Since we’ve already got the
fire lit for Pytka, keep it blazing for Edward Burns, leader of
the indie-lite movement, in which 20-something directors write
puffy little romantic comedies, shoot them cheap, get their three-picture
deals and then, whaddayaknowevery picture looks just like the last
one (Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, anybody?). Burns doesn’t possess
one molecule of filmmaking intelligence. He doesn’t know where
to put or when to move his camera, how to compose or choreograph
a shot, or how to get his actors to believe a word of what they’re
saying. He thinks infidelity is a million laughs and love only
happens when cued to a soundtrack. What this guy knows about relationships
you can etch onto the nub of a pencil.

Nowhere – What would a year-end worst list
be without Gregg Araki? MM

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