Into the Out-Box

I've got an excuse. It is a bit disturbing, though, to admit how dependent I have become on the Internet: how the screening invitations, etc., that once came to me by post or phone are now almost exclusively conveyed by E-mail, and how the tangible typescript I used to carry by hand to a typesetter is now funnelled by cable directly from home to office. And all it takes is for my Internet Service Provider suddenly to stop providing me Internet service, and I am obliged, as last week, to go dark. It could have been worse. At first I was expected to wait eleven days for a diagnostic house call, putting me effectively out of commission for two weeks minimum, but after telephoning what is humorously known as Customer Service, negotiating my way through the jungly phone tree, sitting on hold for half an hour and listening to recorded promotional pitches -- for three days in a row -- I eventually, by incremental escalations in ire, managed to obtain a timelier appointment. (The parallels to the victims of Hurricane Katrina are distant but crystal- clear.) Not too surprisingly, the assigned field technician was unable to fit himself into the nine-hour window during which I was obliged to stay at home by the phone, but this snub seemed to give me the moral leverage to command an immediate response -- immediate, I mean, after telephoning for a fourth day in a row, negotiating my way again through the phone tree, and listening to another half- hour of recorded promotions. Inasmuch as I cannot be certain beyond a shadow of a doubt of all the following facts, I would not want to mention the ISP by name, but its initials are RR.

The "problem" -- and as a devout technophobe I can only comprehend it in the broadest of terms -- seems to have been that some implacable Javert-like inspector from the company had come by my place of residence on his routine rounds, to peek into an outdoor locked box whose existence and purpose I had no knowledge of, and to which only the company is authorized to have access, and he found there -- ah-ha! -- an improperly labelled hook-up. Whereupon, without checking to find out whether this provided service to a law-abiding paying customer, and without informing the resident of what he was doing, but just on the off chance that somebody might be getting away with something, he took it upon himself to disconnect it. And because the left hand did not know what the right hand had done, none of the Customer Service people I talked to could put one and one together. And there I was. Nowhere.

But now here I am. Back where I belong. And the in-box is overflowing.

Just Like Heaven, directed by Mark Waters, merits a kind word or two, and not solely because of the barrage of P.R. bribes that preceded it: the free Internet music downloads (sounds like heaven), the French Tulip scented candles (smells like heaven), and the 100% cashmere scarf (feels like heaven). A supernatural romantic comedy, unremittingly cute and on a couple of occasions actually funny, it adds a new wrinkle to the conventional ghost story, and new rules (anything goes) into the bargain. The new wrinkle is that the previous tenant who haunts a breathtaking San Francisco apartment as an intermittent apparition, visible only to the current tenant, is not technically a ghost at all, merely the disembodied spirit of a workaholic young doctor in a three-month coma. Because this previous tenant, female, had had no social life prior to the coma, and because the current tenant, male, is a withdrawn widower, a happy ending heaves into view at the same instant as the new wrinkle. Reese Witherspoon, assisted by some seamless passing-through-solid-objects effects, has sufficient artifice to make herself right at home in the situation. But Mark Ruffalo, though he can play befuddlement, which will come in very handy, is not by any stretch an acceptable romantic-comedy lead; and Jon Heder, in search of life after Napoleon Dynamite, proves to be no longer an extraordinary geek, only an ordinary one, as a dilettante occultist.

Tim Burton's Corpse Bride is partly, if not equally, stop-motion animator Mike Johnson's Corpse Bride, a voguishly grotesque kiddie film in which all the characters look like reflections in fun-house mirrors, and the worm-eaten title figure is not appreciably more ghastly than the living. Indeed the netherworld boasts more color, albeit garishly expressionistic, than the mere blush of color aboveground. Overlong at an hour and a quarter -- and far too soon after the last Tim Burton film, a mere two months since his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and easily, plausibly, sensibly postponable till Halloween -- it features several showstopping musical numbers, not in a good sense but in the sense of clockstopping, and a couple of un-Disneyfied cute critters, a maggot with the eyes and voice of Peter Lorre and a skeletal pet pooch. For all his ghoulishness, the essential innocence, naiveté, even squareness of Burton may be linked to his unshakable faith that the sophomoric cackle will never evolve into a satiated yawn. The climactic rising-up of the dead to walk the face of the earth, like George Romero's zombies but without the appetite, is fairly amusing if you can slough off the descending torpor.

Côte d'Azur, a sufficiently French-looking title altered from the original Crustacés et Coquillages (or Seafood and Shellfish), chronicles a family holiday on the Riviera. The action takes the form of a change-partners sexual cotillion in which the committed heterosexuals slightly outnumber the overt or borderline homosexuals, yet command much less attention from co-writers and co-directors Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau, the team responsible for the AIDS musical, Jeanne and the Perfect Guy. Two song-and-dance numbers -- the first, a rainy-day indoor recreation, at least half-fantasy in its musical accompaniment, and the second total fantasy at the closing curtain -- might be insufficient to classify the movie as a musical, but are surely sufficient to pose the question of why a low-rise soufflé such as this one demands distribution to provincial theaters while Alain Resnais's anachronistic operetta, Not on the Lips, must go straight to the DVD shelves. It pains me to propose the possible or partial answer that Resnais, though he thought to cast a man in a woman's role, has once again neglected to put any homosexuals into his movie and thus give himself a leg-up in the American art house. From my point of view -- as detached as a doctor -- the best reason to go to the movie, even so, is for the presence of the hoarse, horsey, toothy, earthy, uninhibited, sensual, soulful, womanly, completely human Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, so impressive in the recent 5x2. In her role here, she keeps making a point of her Dutch mother, but the real clue to her laissez-faire character would seem to be the actress's innate Italianness.

Reel Paradise is a shoestring documentary (i.e., video) by Steve James, whom I will never see the same after Stevie, and to whom I will ever after extend the benefit of every doubt. On this less personal project, he appears to be no more than a hired hand, summoned to Fiji to document the last month of the year-long sojourn of John Pierson, the indie-film "guru" and TV host of IFC's Split Screen, who took along his wife and two children on his "midlife crisis slash mission," to show free movies to the natives of Taveuni Island in a dilapidated fifty-year-old movie house: X-Men 2, Hot Chicks, Bringing Down the House, Jackass, but also Apocalypse Now Redux, a program of student films (for which the natives, even for free, will not sit still), and, as his farewell offering, Steamboat Bill Jr. (Ever the movie man, he self-consciously cites The Mosquito Coast as the model for his adventure.) The results have all of the messiness -- and much of the ridiculousness -- of real life: a burglary of his house while he's away at a screening, a crazy Australian landlord, an unreliable projectionist, a rebellious teenage daughter ("You're just acting for the cameras here," snaps Mom), a contentious evangelical church in competition for Fijian souls, and a protagonist who frankly refuses to adapt himself to the local culture. It's also the messiness of four or five movies' worth of material. More than enough to afford interest. Too much to afford satisfaction.

Some others: Everything Is Illuminated, a road film in a sparse landscape, follows the quest -- the "very rigid search," in the uncertain English of the Ukrainian guide and translator -- for the peasant woman who in WWII saved the life of the late grandfather of a young American Jew (Elijah Wood, looking like one of the Men in Black, an alien even in his native land), but really a quest for quirks, personal oddities, cultural dissonances. Actor-turned-director Liev Schreiber (strictly behind the camera) pushes the absurdism very hard, and the relentless ethnic background music lends a hand and a shoulder, until the climax of straight schmaltz and a musical switch to angelic harps. The Thing about My Folks, more rueful Jewish humor, is pretty much a two-man show, a father-and-son show, written expressly for Peter Falk by Paul Reiser, but written for himself as well, and dripping in shtick, in two contrasting styles: the Method mode of Falk vs. the sitcom mode of Reiser. The generational conflict pales in comparison. Proof, under the direction of John Madden, who previously directed it on the London stage as well, puts on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Auburn, a hoked-up sort of mathematical mystery thriller, not so much a whodunit as a whoprovedit, centered around the mentally shaky daughter of a mentally crumpled math genius: two beautiful minds. (With Philip Glass-y motor-gunning, engine-revving background music by Stephen Warbeck to suggest a churning intellect.) Gwyneth Paltrow -- down the same path as Sylvia, the Plath path -- Anthony Hopkins, and Hope Davis try to make it sound natural, and Jake Gyllenhaal nearly succeeds. Thumbsucker spins out a new metaphor (preferable to Bedwetter no doubt) for the plight of the misfit, a coming-of-age tale, even a coming-to-confidence tale, concerning a feminine teenage boy (Lou Pucci, a blend of Johnny Depp and Scarlett Johansson) who hasn't yet weaned himself off his thumb. The first feature film of Mike Mills falls between the two stools of the sharply satirical and the mushily sensitive. Falls with a splat.

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