Wong Place, Wong Time

After the concentrated perfection of "The Hand" -- Wong Kar-wai's fraction of the anthology film, Eros, earlier in the year -- the defects of his 2046 are apt to appear the more glaring. Ostensibly this is a sequel to his close-to-perfection In the Mood for Love. Or anyhow the action picks up shortly after it, and centers around the same protagonist (Tony Leung), although the love-'em-and-leave-'em libertine and spicy science-fiction writer of the current film bears little resemblance to the inhibited piner and Grub Street drudge of its predecessor, even allowing for the ravages of a broken heart. (The title refers both to the time-setting of his s-f tales and to the number of his next-door Hong Kong hotel room.) There is a patchwork feeling to this one, jammed and jumbled, diffuse and desultory, partly the effect of a fragmented narrative and a heavy dependence on the cement of voice-over, and partly the effect of a visual grab-bag that includes a lot of slow-motion, a bit of black-and-white, and extended re-enactments of the hero's visions of the future, sometimes animated, sometimes live-action, always in an illustrational style that postdates the science fiction of the mid-Sixties. The director's painterly eye ensures, at the same time, a great deal of beauty; and the wide, wide screen affords him more room than ever before for empty space, out-of-focus space, purely compositional and coloristic space. This thing of beauty, though, is rather a scatterbrained beauty, a gorgeous space case. Some hefty ideas, to do with impermanence, loss, memory, alienation, are lugged up and down the arduous stair-step structure: we skip quickly past the characters played by Gong Li, Carina Lau, and Faye Wong (if I have them in the right order), before we spend some quality time with Zhang Ziyi, and begin to work our way back, in reverse order, to Faye Wong (still going forward in chronology) and then (withdrawing into the past) Carina Lau and Gong Li. With small overlaps, the scheme goes more or less A-B-C-D-C-B-A. We can almost perceive that the top step -- the peak of the pyramid -- the Zhang Ziyi piece -- the drawn-out "D" in the outline -- might have attained the independent perfection of "The Hand," if held to similar length. The lower steps are stubbier, and slipperier. And where the Antonioni and Soderbergh fractions dragged down Eros, Wong manages to drag down 2046 all by himself.

With Grizzly Man, the globe-trotting Werner Herzog digs up another of those border dwellers, those boundary pushers, he loves to document -- one Timothy Treadwell, b. 1957, d. 2003 -- along with a hundred or so hours of found footage, a treasure trove of video shot by the subject himself, mostly of himself, to record his years in the wilderness living among Alaskan bears, capped off with an audio recording of his own death, plus his girlfriend's death, at the paws of one of those bears. ("Capped off" might not be the way to put it: he evidently didn't have time to take the lens cap off the camcorder.) Herzog neatly organizes the material into a portrait of a man who at first glance seems simply an ecological eccentric, with more than a little presentiment of his fate ("They can kill, they can bite, they can decapitate"), but a man who, at a longer look, turns into something of a self-mythologizing monomaniac. The filmmaker, in his own footage, gathers testimony from those who knew the man ("He tended to want to become a bear"), and he captures at least a couple of priceless moments: the coroner handing over to one of Treadwell's former girlfriends the still-ticking wristwatch taken from his detached arm, and his mother reminiscing about him, in the comfort of her home in Florida, with his favorite teddy bear perched on her lap. Herzog is not shy about adding his own observations in his familiar feverish idiom and his expectorating delivery ("I discovered a film of human ecstasies and darkest inner turmoil"), nor about taking an editorial stance at variance with his subject: "I believe the common denominator of the universe is chaos, disharmony, and murder." Treadwell, in proof of Herzog's point, is in no condition to present a rebuttal to that. The film, while it acts as a powerful antidote to the chipper denial of March of the Penguins, is much less a nature documentary than a human documentary. Either way, the shadows run deep.

Red Eye is an economical, efficient, taut little thriller from Wes Craven, a terror film in place of his customary horror film. The normal business of a modern-day airport, with its flight delays and frayed nerves ("Flying's so much fun these days, huh?"), makes for a smooth and easy access to the subject of terrorism, and terrorism is indeed the subject, divested of any identifiable ideology, and therefore any possible offense. When our damsel in distress (Rachel McAdams, showing some impressive physicality in the closing stretch) finally rebels against her personal terrorizer (Cillian Murphy), you might wonder what took her so long; but the film is pretty much over by the time you can lay a finger on, or poke a finger through, any hole in the terrorist plot. At just about an hour and a quarter, it is closest thing you can find nowadays to an early "B" movie by Anthony Mann or Richard Fleischer. Close in running time, that is; close in speed; not in style.

The Great Raid recounts the true story of a U.S. Ranger assault on a POW camp in the Philippines toward the end of the Second World War, though the first-person narrator, the leader of the assault, starts back a bit further: "In 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor...." The operation is something of a beat-the-clock, to free 500 survivors of the Bataan Death March before the merciless Japanese, busy with selective tortures and executions around the island, can get around to burning alive the entire population of prisoners, as they burned those of another camp in the grisly opening scene. (After sitting on the shelf for a couple of years, the film now seems timed as a retort to the sixtieth anniversary commemorations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Who burned whom first?) John Dahl, the director, had had trouble enough coping with the bare-bones neo-noirs of Kill Me Again, Red Rock West, and The Last Seduction, and whatever skills he honed in that workshop are pretty well worn down on this grander scale: a three-ring circus that jumps back and forth between the arenas of the POWs, the Rangers, and the Filipino resistance. The initial overrating of the noirs, however, means that auteur-hungry critics will continue to go the extra mile to hunt down a laurel or two. To get there, they must pass through many miles of straightness, flatness, dullness, and corn, in the company of cardboard characters and second-tier actors (James Franco, Benjamin Bratt, Joseph Fiennes, and lessers). The sun-washed color, a step away from sepia, appears to be an attempt to impart a newsreel reality, but the actual newsreel footage of liberated POWs and their liberators throughout the closing credits makes you feel a little like James Agee, forever brandishing wartime documentaries as a club against the prettifications of Hollywood. That sort of tactic might have been ruled (even in Agee's day) inadmissible, had the filmmakers themselves not introduced the footage in evidence.

Junebug orchestrates a muted cultural clash, when a Chicago gallery dealer (Embeth Davidtz) drags her new husband (Alessandro Nivola) back to his Carolina roots so she can woo a modestly obscene "outsider" artist ("I love all the dogs' heads, and computers, and all the scrotums") and, secondarily, so she can meet his family: churchy folk suspicious of a different type of outsider. Her blockhead brother-in-law doesn't take kindly to her efforts to help him with his paper on Huckleberry Finn ("Did you think it was funny?" "No, I thought it was long"), and her mother-in-law sizes her up as all wrong ("She's too pretty, she's too smart, and that's a deadly combination"), and her father-in-law keeps himself to himself. Only the kin by marriage, a non-sequitur motormouth nine months pregnant, lays out the welcome mat: a showy role for Amy Adams, if a tad condescending, a hand-me-down Dixie ditz. The first feature of Phil Morrison exhibits several of the most basic "indie" indicators: a milky, diluted image; too-quiet, unatmospheric sound; a character-driven storyline that's more drifting than actually driven. There's a nice scene at the church social when the interloper finds out, to her amazement, that her husband is prized for his hymn singing, but there's no followup to it, not so much as a what-the-hell.

9 Songs, a half-baked hot dish of sex and rock-and-roll, signals another penetration (so to speak) of triple-X hardcore into the aboveground art house, a plotless chronicle of the burbling passion of two young strangers who meet at a concert and then go on attending concerts in between demonstrations of their passion: tonguing, fingering, toeing, dildoing, and finally, certifiably, condomed copulating. The blow job, unlike the job in The Brown Bunny, is manifestly a finished job, but then again these actors (Kieran O'Brien, Margo Stilley) are unknowns, and in the case of the actress, patently nonprofessional. The director, on the other hand, Michael Winterbottom, is well enough known (Code 46, 24-Hour Party People, to limit the examples to numerical titles) if not equally well respected. 9 Songs can only widen the space between "known" and "respected." Its ill-lit, grainy video photography ranks as not just subpar, but subporn; and its concert footage, shaky, zoomy, cut-cut- cutty, achieves extreme mediocrity. Clearly this was an idea not worth doing right.

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