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Circus, Circus
by Greg Muskewitz

Post-screening a week or so ago: As several of the critics had already emerged from whatever was the disappointment of the day, they were comparing notes and complaining over what performances and behind-the-camera categories could possibly be nominated at the year-end awards. How?, I thought, could they be concerned over the pieces of the whole, when there have been so few whole-wholes this year at all? The end of the year couldn’t be far enough away at this stage of the game. I’m already too conscious of the paucity of greatness on display, although without much thought, I can easily say the first most film reviewed has its share of potential recognition.

Circus, Circus
The filmic flipside is so thorough and seamless that you only notice the craftsmanship after the fact.

Post-screening a week or so ago: As several of the critics had already emerged from whatever was the disappointment of the day, they were comparing notes and complaining over what performances and behind-the-camera categories could possibly be nominated at the year-end awards. How?, I thought, could they be concerned over the pieces of the whole, when there have been so few whole-wholes this year at all? The end of the year couldn’t be far enough away at this stage of the game. I’m already too conscious of the paucity of greatness on display, although without much thought, I can easily say the first most film reviewed has its share of potential recognition.

Dirty Pretty Things. “The hotel business is about strange people who do stranger things,” provokes Sergi López’s hotel manager, appropriately named Sneaky. Over and over again, theatrical trailers have proved to give away too much. When I went to see Swimming Pool for the third time, there was a preview for Dirty Pretty Things that I promptly ignored (best as I could the others), but with no more vested interest in the film than any other. Of course, it touted the English-spoken role of Audrey Tautou, and it was from director Stephen Frears, who is responsible for several solid films (The Hi-Lo Country, The Grifters, Dangerous Liaisons, Mary Reilly), as well as some critically lauded, but traditional middle-of-the-road movies (High Fidelity, My Beautiful Launderette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid). But as far as expectations or preconceptions about this film, I knew next door to nothing about it. And for any potential viewer, I would not recommend reading on (anyplace, that is) and simply see it.

The film is dark, quiet, pensive, from its opening frames; it beckons to the audience with an ominous flirt, a dare, to pay attention and learn what’s to happen. Over time we discover that Okwe (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an illegal Nigerian immigrant, living (perhaps more like passing by) in a skuzzy side of London. He drives a cab until the evening hours, and works a graveyard reception shift at the hotel run by Sneaky. A quick ritual is observed as the morning cleaning ladies arrive at work: Senay (Tautou), a Turkish immigrant, haphazardly drops a set of keys which Okwe slyly retrieves. He is renting a couch in her apartment, but being new to the country, she is not yet allowed to be working. Back to Okwe: he shows up to his cab-driving headquarters, seemingly unfatigued, but is called into a back room where he can diagnose his dispatcher as having clap. Later, we learn, he buys a special herb that causes him to keep going without sleep. Back at the hotel, a friendly prostitute alerts him to a mess in one of the rooms; he finds a clogged toilet. Closer examination reveals a human heart to be the stoppage. Okay, so at this point, what exactly is going on, and who is Okwe? Even his employers don’t know so much as his surname. Are these the strange things being done by stranger people? (Or is this the action of a strange person doing stranger things?) Possibly.

Understandably, his curiosity, apposite to our own, brings Okwe to a friend of his, a doctor in a morgue whom he apparently plays chess with on a regular basis. One of the noticeable trends at this point is that no one we have met is of British decent — the Russian greeter, the Chinese doctor, the Spanish hotel manager, the foreign cleaning ladies, the Indian cab drivers, our protagonist. Then comes a stumbling block; immigration services have been made aware of another person in Senay’s apartment and pay a surprise visit. (Nice detail: the officers, in their search, grab an iron and spit on it to check for use.) Okwe narrowly escapes, but now speculation has been cast on her (work being the issue), and she must leave the hotel job for a sweat shop, where once the pair of immigration officers check for her there, she is coerced into giving her boss sexual favors to keep quiet. Okwe’s investigation continues with dead ends until he helps a recent organ-donor with shoddy surgery. His deed does not go unnoticed, with Sneaky beginning his own query. A fugitive doctor, he learns — how convenient; now the strange secrets and secret strangers need not be so hush-hush when the doctor can be of service. Would he be willing to perform organ operations for a set amount of money per surgery, as well as a bonus of a counterfeit passport? The possibility is a dilemma to the Robin Hood outlaw, bound in a selfless debt to Senay who is now in a more precarious situation because of him. Et cetera.

The progressive developments are far from over, they only keep getting better, but total clarity is not needed here. What is clear is that from the film’s outset, Frears attentively and constantly keeps the audience involved. He utilizes or manipulates his viewer into the position of an armchair or stadium-seated detective. You are working as fast to connect the dropped hints and possibilities as Frears (working from a slick, taut script from Steve Knight) is scattering them to be pieced together, mulled over, contemplated. Regardless of when certain connections have been made and insights gained, there is rarely a moment when suspense and wonder are not part of the equation. Dirty Pretty Things is involving in an actively forward movement that has been absent (at least in the way of this film’s consistency) for quite some time. Especially this year. All the way through, the elements of the film that are employed reflect and emanate the thematic devices, which are murky, dank, odious, bleak. (But never so much so as to turn the viewer away.) Admittedly, it takes some energy and interest on the part of the spectator to want to keep up, or simply to allow the pieces to fall in place. Frears has always been a capable director of atmosphere, even in his weakest efforts. He generated the feel of a real western (albeit, a hybridized western) in The Hi-Lo Country; he emulated the lifestyle of a music fanatic in High Fidelity; he worked up some serious heebie-jeebies in Mary Reilly. However, in the past, there’s always been some form of an inconsistency at some point, even if only temporary. With Dirty Pretty Things, its realization is so full, so fulfilled, that there is no break, meaning that it doesn’t ever fall prey to monotony or platitudes. The commitment to the film’s external tonality is constant without drawing attention to itself insofar as one’s focus and concentration is strictly on the plot and its characters.

The filmic flipside — the technical aspect — is so thorough and seamless that you only notice the craftsmanship after the fact. Even with the occasional left over Question Mark (the quick accessibility to plane tickets) or moments of cinematic déjà vu (the bait-and-switch became rather obvious to me, but the scene’s suspense and execution was never diminished), it remains one of the most complete and proficient films of the year. And for all of the know-how and familiarity of Frears, there is no greater unexpected find in the eloquent and crafty performance of Ejiofor, an unknown by my books. (His only recognizable credit is a tiny role in Amistad, although his upcoming film Love, Actually I’ve already heard of.) I feel as though it’s been quite a passage of time since I could so wholeheartedly endorse and be enthusiastic for a male newcomer’s performance as I simultaneously can here. Like Ejiofor’s role (and availability of past roles), Dirty Pretty Things is nonpareil; they remain in a league of their own. They also belong in a very small league for 2003: that which may not be missed.

The Magdalene Sisters. Not so much an attack on the Catholic Church as it is an intramural exposé, namely centering around three young women who are placed in the custody of the “church” following incidents well beyond their control. The film opens with each girl’s moment of reckoning, or at least an example from it — a rape, a schoolgirl coquette in action, an unwed mother being forced to sign over her baby right after birth. (The first sequence is the most effective; music plays over the interlude as the young woman is forced into the act, as she is then alerts one of her friends, which the news continues to drop down along the grapevine.) No bond between the three protagonists is immediately established. One could argue, that at least across the board all three ways, there never is a blanket bond among them. Instead is the careful documentation and initiation of the trip into their new surroundings, having their first impressions thrust at them in the daily rituals of their new supervised life. (The plight is illuminated over the course of their stay from the well-detailed, to the cliché: a rebel trying to escape and being caught.) Clearly, the point being made is that they are not being cared after, their sins are not being questioned or forgiven, but they’re being imprisoned, against their will, and subjected to an additional hell after the original actions that had them placed there (at least with the rape and pregnancy, it was hell before). The rape victim befriends a semi-autistic girl; the coquette combats against her imprisonment; the mother does her best to find a comfort zone.

Other obstacles occur throughout the film and Peter Mullan’s direction is careful to authenticating each girl’s experience instead of homogenizing them into one dismal pityfest. He scrutinizes in caution as to what separates the three individuals, how they handle their similar situations, and how they act within them. Being as that this is fictionalized from true accounts (Mullan handled the script-writing as well), one can only assume that the examples and facts taken from real women have helped in re-enacting and re-visualizing their stories. Empathy has a definite role in the film, but it’s only used as a starting point; Mullan doesn’t focus on generating sympathy for his characters as he is more interested in examining and analyzing who they are. It slightly reminded me of the prison experiment in Das Experiment, where the volunteers were subjected to a seemingly controlled environment for a psychological test, but their limits were challenged when the project went awry. Here, of course, it is not an experiment, and all of the girls in the quasi-asylum were held against their will, stripped of their dignities and rights, and forced to conform to what the church deemed appropriate, while far more concerned by the revenue that their program brought in. The Magdalene Sisters is neither fun or pleasant to watch (though there is an uncomfortably humorous revenge scene involving poison ivy), but it’s powerful, and often unflinching filmmaking. The faded cinematography is a starching acknowledgement of the washed out and worn down deterioration of the church’s prisoners. (Symbolic, perhaps, of the traditional laundry duties.) Maybe one of the film’s peccadilloes is that it doesn’t ask enough of its viewer in terms of connecting with the girls; at times its opposite disposition is to sever any connection with them. In a sense, however, it helps to remove the viewer from any personal biases and to observe along with them rather than feel for them during. Commendable work is also noted from the four major anti-heroes (the fourth being the semi-autistic girl), going above and beyond the simple embodiment of their believed real-to-life counterparts. And among them, extra praise is warranted towards Anne-Marie Duff as the rape victim, who makes it very hard not to believe.

And Now … Ladies and Gentlemen. While talking with a colleague/friend from Paris about Claude Lelouch’s newest film in question, despite not seeing it herself, she said it received not one single positive review from the major press and ergo, having seen the majority of his other works, felt she did not need to see it either in order to participate in the lambasting. That, of course, had no register with me — I try to keep my preconceptions blank, especially as a low-key Lelouch doesn’t generate the reaction to me that a new Howard or a Jackson does to the general public. (It’s funny to think that the generalized blandness of referencing those two last names is what ends up dominating the box office.) I could care less about a film’s reviews in any market, and as I’ve collected continued years under my belt it has become easier to ignore early buzz on as-of-yet unreleased films. (Easier is the key; when a studio representative comes down to heed warning over their Oscar push for the year, no amount of distance can get it out of your head what they have in theirs.) But the other thing my friend mentioned was more telling of the cultural divide: she equated the latter end of Lelouch’s career and positive acceptance in the U.S. with the same latter end positive acceptance of Woody Allen in France. Clearly both have passed their popularity among their native audiences years ago (though I can at least say Allen holds some form of his regard, even if it’s merely a fraction), but culturally the separations have traded.

I liked And Now … Ladies and Gentlemen, especially after I saw it’s first local screening back in April of this year, but the time in between my viewing it, and then reviewing it, has seen a diminished attitude in my enthusiasm. Ironic, slightly, since the film also strongly deals in the theme of memory. Jeremy Irons is a con artist, specifically, a jewel thief. We see him smooth-talking a jewelry store owner, telling him that he is an undercover police officer and that in setting a trap for a vicious criminal who will be robbing their store, not to worry as they will be waiting outside for the bust, rocket-launcher and everything pointed at the shop in anticipation. Later that day, Irons returns, in prosthetic make up (though honestly, it wouldn’t fool anyone) to swindle the overly sang-froid store owners out of priceless jewelry as they confidently await the bust. He walks away, and obviously, nothing happens. Following another heist, this time with the help of a young woman who worked at the shop, he begins to mentally fatigue and using some of the money he’s made to buy a boat, decides to sail off alone. However, his illness kicks in at sea, and he’s forced to dock someplace he doesn’t know and receive treatment from people he doesn’t know, when he is not completely sure of who he is. In passing, he meets a piano bar chanteuse who appears to be afflicted by the same disorder. Played by a real French chanteuse, Patricia Kaas has come to Morocco to flee a failed relationship. Soon, they are put together, and he scares off some riffraff following her in the streets, creating an amorphous bond between them. As neither one is fully aware of their realities and their mental disillusions (blackouts broken down for us by a draining gray color scheme), they come to rely on one another to sift through what they have or are doing, or what they haven’t. Additional complications arise when a hotel guest has her room vault broken into, leading police to pursue Irons once his identity is established, but further twisted since he cannot remember whether he did it in the first place.

Lelouch, though assuring he doesn’t fully lose his audience by the convolutions of the mind, still actively takes part in putting up a fog screen as to avoid total comprehension. He masks the film in confused fantasy sequences — not as in Campbell Scott’s infidelity fantasies in The Secret Lives of Dentists or Jason Lee’s anxiety fantasies in A Guy Thing — but as more of them begin to play out, it becomes increasingly obvious that they are not reality. Irons begins to cope with his wrongs and yearns to make them right by recompensing his victims. But each time, there is still a moment before discerning if it’s real or not that the viewer cannot jump to conclusions. Mental instability is equally a shaky exploration in film as with the reliance on dreams, inasmuch as most filmmakers use it to weasel their way out of implausible predicaments. The feeling gained from this is not that Lelouch is trying to trick anyone, or pull a fast switcheroo. He is genuinely intrigued by the possibilities of two lost souls and deteriorating minds to lean on each other in search of survival. At times, it does take a stretch of the imagination to go along with certain plot developments, and there are other pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that never properly align (Irons’ girlfriend’s trajectory), but the film is able to bridge over those difficulties almost like the two main characters must forge on to reach their final destinations. It still remains, however, that And Now’s tricksiness is more than Brian DePalma could have ever dreamed of with Femme Fatale. Other bridging assistance comes from the confident and solid photography of Pierre William Glenn, the haunting melancholy from Kaas’ songs, as well as her impressive acting debut, and Irons’ worldly performance, destined at times to drop for pathos, but managing each time to get back up and move forward.

Le Divorce. A more contemporary effort from Merchant-Ivory, in times at least closer to A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, but dramatically quite distant. The movie is an Allen-esque assemblage of top talent, if all of the actors are not household names, they still manage to bring the same level of skill. The core of Le Divorce has Kate Hudson coming to visit her married sister, Naomi Watts, in Paris, and all plans are sidestepped when her husband leaves for another woman and the drama of a divorce creates a particular panic over a possible authentic La Tour painting that originates with the American family, but that the French side wants dibs on through the settlement. There is added baggage of pressure from family and friends on what to do, who’s doing whom, and who should being doing what, or again, whom. Through James Ivory’s adaptation of Diane Johnson’s novel (adapted with oft-collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala), what could easily have been the movie’s comedic centerpiece and highlight is left as an indiscretion for far too long, billowing in the horizon, but tip-toed around until it absolutely must be dealt with. And when the time comes, mostly near the end, it’s used as a ploy to temporarily heighten some suspense for a predictable and unsatisfying turnout. Much of the story follows in the same footsteps of the painting subplot — there is such an availability for space in which to work, whether it be dramatic or comedic, that Ivory leaves the living room floor open and free of clutter simply to display the openness without ever actually filling it. For one thing, the movie has a horrible idea in the passage of time. A haircut or a reference to a considerable piece of news (after the fact, of course) are the only alerts that time has gone by, opting to tell instead of show. Le Divorce is restrained to an unsteady pulse, relegated to the unpredictable whim of its characters, which all tend to lead up to nowhere; the story blows freely through the Paris air as does Hudson’s character. The movie’s cast is pretty spectacular, but put to waste; they all perform as best as they can, but there is no determining factor in whose roles make sense and build up, and those whose don’t at all (Matthew Modine). Again, there is a lot of potential for comedy over the familial conflicts, the American vs. the French, but Ivory and company barely touch upon it. Unfortunately, good actors must have good writing and a good scenario for their work to flourish. The peak of Le Divorce, so to say, is the tag-along tour we get of the Eiffel Tour, beautifully photographed and explored with the camera, bringing us and its characters to the pinnacle of excitement throughout.

Gasoline. Pathetic, amateur lesbian Judgment Night done Italian-style. Somewhere between a cheeky lezbo touch-fest (without much touching), a D-grade student film, and an under-stylized schlock-er, Monica Stambrini (not even Italian-born — she’s from California) presents two young lovers who sort of go on the lam when the frumpy butch girl accidentally kills the mousy girl’s mother during an impromptu visit and fight stemming from the daughter’s newfound sexuality. Devoid of development, the rest of the movie is filled with a series of events and predicaments the girls find themselves in while trying to dispose of the body (who annoyingly “talks” to the daughter), mostly restrained to escaping a callow threesome’s sadistic pursuit and torture. There are only winks of sex, the actresses are terrible (not to mention unfittingly ugly for their roles), the video-grade image is distracting and junky (and that’s when camcorder footage isn’t being used), and no one seems to care that they don’t appear to know what they’re doing at any given moment. As time tells (remember The Girl?), decidedly lesbian features, unless they have something more enlightening to show or tell, should stick the pornography market.

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originally posted: 08/24/03 09:20:15
last updated: 01/08/04 12:19:28
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