Back in Action

Haul me up, if you must, on charges of dereliction of duty, scheduling my vacation at the heaviest time, if not busiest, of the movie year. The crux of my defense will be that while in Paris I managed to catch the Coen brothers' five-minute segment in the eighteen-part Paris, Je T'Aime (I had hoped to catch the new Alain Resnais film, Private Fears in Public Places, or Coeurs as it is known locally, but no such luck), and while in Lyon I wolfed down a barrelful of the Lumière brothers' silents (the pure source, the pure purpose, of cinema) at the Institut Lumière, site of the invention of the Cinématographe at the family factory in 1894, and while in Annecy I saw Gianni Amelio's La Stella Che Non C'e (or L'Étoile Manquante in French) at the annual Italian film festival there, and finally when back in Paris I saw a fresh 35mm print of Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway (or in French, Les Bas-Fonds de Frisco, the Lower Depths of Frisco), looking all the more neo-realist for the unread subtitles at the bottom of the picture. Additional props to my defense appear to be falling into place as I claw my way out of arrears.

All the King's Men. Dead on arrival at the box-office, an inflated remake of the Robert Penn Warren Pulitzer-winner, with the pseudonymous "Willie Stark" as Louisiana governor Huey Long, and Oscar-winner Sean Penn as Oscar-winner Broderick Crawford. Penn, sporting a Trotskyite haircut as the backwater populist politician ("Ain't nobody ever helped a hick 'cept a hick hisself"), speaks in an accent so slurrily authentic as to be almost unintelligible, and unlikely, without the boost from the swelling violins in the background, to carry his charisma very far beyond the neighborhood watering hole. Much of the dramatic interest, plus all of the voluminous voice-over, issues from the inner struggles of an impartial newspaper reporter (Jude Law) who crosses the line and signs on as one of the king's men. But writer-director Steven Zaillian, while he has no trouble projecting a tone of parable-like preten- tiousness and high-horse moralism (one means: the abstemious, ascetic color, uninterested in the physical world), has a lot of trouble finding a navigable storyline in Robert Warren's rabbit warren of dirty politics, corporate malfeasance, family skeletons. In its place, he fills up the screen with a gallery of Serious Actors -- Anthony Hopkins, Kate Winslet, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson, James Gandolfini, Kathy Baker -- none of whom makes a stronger impression than the former child star, Jackie Earle Haley, as the governor's mummylike bodyguard. Where has this Bad News Bear been keeping himself?

Flyboys. Fulsome tribute to the boys, the men, of the Lafayette Escadrille, the corps of American volunteers who flew for France in the First World War. A throwback, to some extent, to the aviation films of, for the prime example, William Wellman, except that Wellman had himself been a pilot in the Escadrille, and in consequence did not have so exaggerated, so exalted, a view of it. James Franco, a contemporary cutie-pie anachronistically aping a Fifties method actor (James Dean) in a setting of the Teens, is no heftier a star than Tab Hunter in Wellman's 1958 film named after the corps, but then again Hunter wasn't asked to be such a paragon. Martin Henderson, the new Bruce Boxleitner aspiring to be the new Bill Pullman, comes up even shorter, even lighter, as the hard-bitten, battle-scarred ace of the squad. A couple of colorful details -- the 18th-century chateau for a barracks, the domesticated lion for a mascot -- cannot go far to compensate for the cardboard characters, the hand-me-down dramatics, the taxing love interest (she speaks no English, he speaks no French), the squarish direction (Tony Bill), the tinny dialogue, the blustery music. There is nevertheless plenty of action, even if it mostly takes place inside a computer, programmed to hurl objects straight at your eyeballs till you yearn for the red-and-green goggles of 3-D.

The Guardian. A more up-to-date fulsome tribute, this time to the elite rescue swimmers of the U.S. Coast Guard, a select fraternity of 280. The flag-carrying paragon here is Kevin Costner, the closest living thing to the mythical "Fisher of Men" who represents the last hope of the drowning man, but now tied down, during recuperation from a rescue gone fatally wrong, as a discontent instructor of gung-ho wannabes. Ashton Kutcher is the noisiest of these, a high-school swim champ (whose actual name is "Fischer" -- a potential Fischer of Men -- and whose mocking nickname is "Goldfish") bent on breaking every record in the book. In short, a sort of Top Gun of the seas, complete with hackneyed love story, obligatory bar fight, lessons in humility, lessons in humanity. The training is gone into in some depth and at even greater length, with spectacular computer-generated waves (Perfect Storm program, Poseidon program) placed at both ends. Director Andrew Davis, despite the ubiquity of water, favors drained, ashen, parched color and a gritty Dust Bowl atmosphere, triggering in my mind (rightly or wrongly) the catchword of "high-def digital video" and triggering in my eyes a thirst for two drops each of Visine.

The Science of Sleep. Michel Gondry, the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and less memorably Human Nature, sets out to demonstrate he can be just as wacky and braintwisty without Charlie Kaufman as his scriptwriter, with, instead, only himself as scriptwriter. The blur of dream and reality demonstrates that, all right, but at a cost of increased tedium and irritation. (An unsteady hand-held camera no doubt factors into the cost.) The dream scenes, incorporating a variety of animation techniques, are inventive, intelligent, informed, yet also invariably overstuffed, and not just in the literal sense of the stop-motion straw pony or the plump pillow typewriter. The wispy plot thread has to do with the amorous hankering of a graphic artist and crackpot inventor (mind-reading helmets, time machine, and the like) for his next-door neighbor, a twosome seemingly made for each other: Stéphane and Stéphanie. Gael García Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg have little room to exert their charms. We know they have them.

The Bridesmaid. Already here and gone, after a single week at the Ken. My belated two cents: subpar Chabrol, a further cure for the mindless habit of affixing to his work the label of "a Chabrol thriller," let alone "a Hitchcockian thriller." Despite its origins (same as those of his La Cérémonie) in the oeuvre of the incomparable Ruth Rendell, it little resembles a thriller of any type until its last half-hour, and delivers no measurable thrills even then, particularly not in the abrupt and out-of-the-blue climax. The romantic relationship of an oddish young couple (the crinkled-browed Benoît Magimel, the marmoreal Laura Smet), each of them independently odd, is not without psychological interest. It's simply without thrills, psychological or otherwise.

And here's a reminder (to myself as much as to anyone else) of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, October 12 through 19, UltraStar Mission Valley 7, Hazard Center, San Diego, California, U.S.A., Latitude 32.715N, Longitude 117.156W, Cyberspace www.sdaff.org.

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