Always on the lookout for a compliment to pay, I have been meaning for some time to pay one to Focus Features for the design of their logo. Simple, elegant, sans-serif capital letters, eye-chart-style, with only the "o" out of focus. Succinct, clever, relevant to the medium, not to mention helpful to the projectionist. And a refreshing alternative to the more and more elaborate logos of the now numberless film production companies, revealing themselves only by degrees, unfolding over a span of time, taking computer-generated journeys down a desert highway, across a bay, through a jungle, seeking to tell a story, create a mood, deliver an "experience," typically more than one logo at the start of every movie, so that you often are unsure of when the actual movie is beginning. The old roaring lion of MGM, the scanning searchlights of Fox, the beaming Lady Liberty torch of Columbia, and the rotating globe (or earlier, the orbiting plane) of Universal are about all the "development" I care to put up with before a movie gets going. Even the rock-solid Paramount mountain now settles into position on an axis, first tumbling through space like a meteor, then encircled by a chorus line of stars, one by one. Things, in my recollection, began to get out of hand with the galloping Pegasus of TriStar Pictures and got thoroughly out of hand with the Huck Finn fishing line dropped from a crescent moon into a pool of thought (since elaborated further, with balloons and whatnot) at the top of a DreamWorks production. Now everyone has to get in on the act, and the outset of a movie starts to look like a competitive animation festival that can only end in a new category at the Academy Awards.
The latest offering of Focus Features is Hollywoodland, and my opportunities to pay compliments grow scarce after the opening logo. The speculative investigation into the death of Superman -- i.e., the man who played him on television, George Reeves -- by gunshot on June 16, 1959, divides itself into the present-tense, but in no other sense tense, nosing-around of a shady private eye (Adrien Brody) and a past-tense review of the third-tier career of the deceased actor (Ben Affleck, a stiff even prior to death, several degrees colder and less supple than the real Reeves). An on-the-set vignette of Fifties grade-Z special effects is amusing in an Ed Wood sort of way; and the digital insertion of Affleck alongside Burt Lancaster in footage from From Here to Eternity, although not quite an exact match, is amusing in a different sort of way, a Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid way. And the vintage clothes and cars are nice. However, the parallel plotlines take a long time to shed any light on each other, and never very much light even by the end; and the present-tense one, padded out with the case of an extraneous jealous husband, doesn't hold up its end of things, is more of a rude interrupter, despite the anecdotal interest of the impact of the reported suicide on the detective's young son. (I myself, at right around the same age, happened to be in Hollywood on a family vacation when the news broke -- I got it from a curbside L.A. Times vending machine -- and while I can testify to the initial shock, I cannot testify to the post-traumatic stress disorder.) None of the three possible scenarios restaged for the cameras alters the essential facts of the matter: Rashomon this is not. Suicide, for an actor imprisoned in a single role, made sense at the time. Suicide still makes sense. The further speculation never seems more than idle. First-time filmmaker Allen Coulter (a TV veteran, albeit "quality" TV, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, etc.) keeps trying and trying to make it more of a story. And failing, failing.
Queens is a gay romp, not to say a merry romp or a lively romp or a spirited romp, simply a homosexual romp, a strained and flat and unfunny romp, about the run-up to the first legal same-sex wedding in Spain, a public spectacle involving twenty couples, of whom we focus on three and their hovering mothers. Director Manuel Gómez Pereira assumes, or counts on, the unearned friendliness of the spectator -- as, for example, when Marisa Paredes, playing a film star, gives her blessing to a dinner guest's postprandial marijuana, "Please, I've worked with Almodóvar" (as indeed she has), or when a casual fan on the street misidentifies her as Carmen Maura, another Almodóvar alumna, also a member of the present cast. Perhaps Pereira assumes, or counts on, a bit of rub-off friendliness from friends of Almodóvar. Production and photography, it might be worth noting, exhibit a level of professionalism well above the standard of the American gay cinema; and it might then be troubling to ponder what those different levels imply about mainstream acceptance versus marginalization. Brokeback Mountain may have scaled a peak, but did not necessarily clear it out of the path.
Half Nelson has to do with a do-gooding, dedicated, young, white, liberal history teacher and girls' basketball coach at an inner-city middle school, a voluntary role model who develops a special friendship with a fatherless black girl and a rivalry for her affections with a neighborhood dope peddler. Oh, and his usefulness as a role model, friend, or rival is somewhat compromised by his own crack addiction. That's a recipe for complication, if not quite complexity, and the film -- the first fictional feature by Ryan Fleck, an expansion of his twenty-minute short, Gowanus, Brooklyn -- feels fairly authentic at any second (no credit to the obligatory grainy, wavery photography), but it generates no flow, no pace, no momentum. And the authenticity is compromised a bit, too, by the self-regarding, actorish work of Ryan Gosling.
Factotum, a word slightly misdefined on screen as "a man who performs many jobs," in the sense of a man who cannot hold a job, instead of the proper sense of a man who performs many duties, is a respectable addition to Bukowskiana, if respectability can be a criterion for the life and work of the pickled writer, Charles Bukowski. A mangily bearded Matt Dillon, in the part of the author's semi-autobiographical stand-in, Henry Chinaski, gives a full-bodied performance, and a literally full-body one, his head tilted backwards as if sighting down his nose, his feet shuffling along as if tugged by a rope. Phlegmatic, undemonstrative, unexhibitionistic, he wisely resists the temptation to romanticize or mythologize. (Lili Taylor makes a suitable mate as his main squeeze, brave enough to model lingerie in a body you would never see on the cover of Maxim.) And the deadpan detachment of Norwegian filmmaker Bent Hamer, of the droll Kitchen Stories, seems a good strategy in the face of a hell-bent boozer, granting us sufficient distance to see the humor. There is, at the same time, entirely too much first-person narration (curiously recited in a stride-and-glide Jack Nicholson cadence), which is another way of saying there's not much external activity. The episodic narrative goes nowhere fast. Meaning that wherever it goes, it does not go there fast. It goes everywhere slow.
The Wicker Man, as needless a remake as The Omen, is not as big a time-waster for the viewer (an hour and three-quarters) as for the writer and director, Neil LaBute, known for less generic stuff like In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors. He has weeded out some of the silliness of the 1973 British original, but that bit of gardening is offset by his transplanting of the action to a Goddess-worshipping, organic-farming colony on a private island in Puget Sound, where a California motorcycle cop (Nicolas Cage, not altogether serious about the assignment) has come on a personal invitation from his former fiancée to search for her missing child. Further, the pruning of the protagonist's Christian faith and the grafting-on of a fresh mental trauma and some cheap-thrill dreams are no help at all. If the film serves no other purpose, it at least allows the filmmaker's suspected undercurrent of misogyny to erupt unambiguously and unapologetically into a geyser. The ad campaign -- "A psychological thriller. A mind blowing conclusion" -- leaves no possibility, even if you missed the original, that the ending is going to sneak up on you. Unless, that is, the campaign strategists thought your mind might be blown by the unannounced guest appearance of James Franco in a redundant epilogue, or by the closing dedication of the film to the late punk rocker, Johnny Ramone. Whoa.
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The first announcement of the seventh annual San Diego Asian Film Festival, to be held October 12 through 19 at the UltraStar Mission Valley 7 in Hazard Center, divulges that on its program this year will be Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times, which, if you'll remember my grumble from early in the summer, Landmark could find no room for on their ten local screens. (For the complete festival program, keep an eye on www.sdaff.org.) Of course by then the film should already be out on DVD -- September 26 -- but I am willing to hold off for the chance to see it on a big screen.