Reel Time

Amity and Enmity

Violence, Violations, and Kung Fu Hustles

I’d like to tell you about the remake of The Amityville Horror (MGM), but I ankled after less than five minutes. It was something about the little girl holding the stuffed animal getting blown away with a shotgun at point-blank range. I hate it when critics boast about walking out of movies—we’re paid to keep our butts in our seats (at the very least). But I swear this is true: I felt my body rise and move smoothly out of the screening room in advance of my mind’s resolution to do so. As a card-carrying skeptic, I’m reluctant to invoke the supernatural, especially in relation to the community of Amityville. (The family at the center of this “true” story owned up to the hoax after all the money had been made.) But I’d like to believe I was propelled from that room by a beneficent spirit. Dude, I owe you a drink in the afterlife.
Readers of this column know that when it comes to violence onscreen, I have selective recoil. As one e-mailed, “Why did you object to the violence in The Passion of the Christ and not Sin City? Could you possibly be a hypocrite?”

Possibly. But I think that when it comes to violence in movies, one size doesn’t fit all. A flamboyantly stylized, largely black and white movie with canted angles and blood that runs white, green, and mustard is not comparable to an ultra-realistic depiction of one person being beaten and hacked at relentlessly for two hours. (This is irrespective of Mel Gibson’s higher motives.) Extreme stylization builds in a kind of emotional distance—as it does in the hyperbolically entertaining Kung Fu Hustle (see below), the over-the-top splattery dismemberment of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and even (moving much further along this artificial spectrum) the private-eye ballet at the end of The Band Wagon.

But it is a thorny (no pun intended) issue, the moral and immoral uses of violence in popular culture. I would hardly have described myself as “going to hell” for loving Sin City if I hadn’t been troubled by my enjoyment of its many sadistic acts of revenge.

Many years ago, Stuart Gordon—purveyor of such shockingly bloody horror films as Re-Animator and From Beyond—struggled with the MPAA’s penchant for slapping him with X ratings because his use of violence upset people. Isn’t the greater danger, he asked me, violence that is portrayed as painless or fun? Gordon recalled that when he staged his first fistfight in the theater, he did some research and discovered that many fights last one punch: One guy breaks his hand and the other breaks his nose. He appreciated the irony: If he put a fight onscreen in a way that made the audience hate violence (cartilage breaking, blood flowing copiously in close-up), he might get an X for his troubles; but if he made it Popeye-painless (scores of bloodless punches with no bruising), he’d get a PG and an audience of happy kids learning the lesson that violence is fun.

The violence in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (Sony Pictures Classics) is fun city. Too bad it’s rated R, or I’d say bring the kiddies. At times, the picture evokes such stylized musicals as The Band Wagon; at others, it seems to whirr every kung-fu movie ever made into the most luscious action smoothie you’ll ever imbibe. A mob of dancing, pinstripe-suited killers called the Axe Gang descends on a poor village, the inhabitants of which prove more adept at self-defense than anyone could have predicted. The Axe Gang calls in some supernaturally agile assassins; the village counters with even more supernaturally agile defenders. The Axe Gang brings in the biggest, baddest killer of all, but the village turns out to have its own secret weapons. …

The vagueness is meant to keep from spoiling what is actually 100 minutes of can-you-top-this that begins where other action movies climax. Content is meaningless; computerized effects and design are all. Two years ago, I flew to San Francisco’s East Bay to have the special effects director of The Matrix show me a few precious seconds from the “Burly Brawl,” the computer-generated kung-fu-fighting sequence that would change the face of film. Now, Chow and his computer technicians and choreographers not only parody the “Burly Brawl,” but best it by a factor of 10, making it seem threadbare in its adherence to the space-time continuum. Thumbing its nose at gravity, deflating Zen solemnity, embracing big-top artifice with childish glee, Kung Fu Hustle zings you with some of the most unfettered slapstick ever put on film.

On the subject of unfettered slapstick—and Black Knights: Broadway isn’t my bailiwick, but some indignities can’t be contained. As someone who cherishes nearly every syllable of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, I was juiced for Spamalot, Broadway’s current impossible-ticket musical—the latest in an apparently endless line of shows adapted from old movies. Hats-in-the-air reviews, standing ovations … I’ve rarely parted as happily in advance with my money.

Folks, it’s thoroughly second-rate. Half of Spamalot consists of intact exchanges from the movie, mostly delivered by Americans who get the inflections wrong—about on par with me and my dorm-mates 20 years ago, only we didn’t charge over a hundred bucks and had the excuse of being stoned. The other half is Broadway camp—intermittently amusing, but awkwardly juxtaposed with the tricky, hyper-literary Cambridge Footlights absurdism of the Python boys at the peak of their inspiration and near-peak (Life of Brian was to come) of their irreverence.
I say “Ni!” to it. … 1:06 PT

Judy Irving’s documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (Shadow Distribution, Inc.) has been in release for a few months, but with a related book on the extended bestseller list and stupendous word-of-mouth (not to mention, in the blogosphere, enthusiastic advocacy by The Daily Howler’sBob Somersby), the movie is actually returning, with the spring, to some cities. It’s much needed—it thaws the soul.

The film chronicles the principal passion of a man named Mark Bittner, a musician with no visible means of support (at least until his bestseller, which came after the movie was made). Living in a rundown cottage beneath San Francisco’s Coit Tower (thanks to the largesse of a conflicted yuppie-liberal couple up the hill), Mark has a splendid vantage on the flock of cherry heads that has improbably taken up residence in the trees. (The film briefly explores the various urban legends on how these tropical creatures—obviously pets—came to live and breed in the wild.) Bittner studies them, occasionally feeds them, cares for them when they’re sick, and reaches out to them as a friend from another world.

He is rather careful to say that he is not anthromorphizing the birds, and I believe that he is correct. What happens is much more fascinating: Without fully realizing it, he seems to be “avianizing” humans—or at least letting some parallels between the two species float suggestively. Asked by Irving why he has such long, straggly salt-and-pepper hair (it reaches to his waist), he replies that he will cut it when he finds a mate. He follows avidly the couplings and uncouplings of various parrots—among them a self-pecker that drives her significant other away by attempting to defeather him as well. Most of all, he is deeply empathetic towards a bird he names “Connor,” a parrot from a different species (the blue head) that seems to have reluctantly taken up with this flock—proud, isolated, but often gruffly helping out the weak or injured birds cast off by the cherry heads.

“I don’t think of myself as an eccentric,” Bittner says, and he isn’t—except, perhaps, in his serene indifference to questions of money, employment, and shelter. If he is an eccentric, we should all have the time, space, and temperament for such eccentricity. A loner who arrived in San Francisco in the ‘60s but regarded the Beats as “too down” and the hippies as “too airy,” he has staked out a nature-reverent middle position embodied by the poet Gary Snyder. He’s one of the gentle creatures of San Francisco—the city where people who want to be in a city but can’t deal with cities end up, if they’re lucky.

Irving (along with Bittner, who shot some of the footage) lingers on the vividly-colored parrots without overdoing the lyricism, using slow motion only to capture (astonishingly) an instant or two in which the birds’ emotions are plain. There is a split-second punchline that sends you out giggling, but the principal mood of The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill is one of yearning and heartbreak. These non-native birds seem much more vulnerable than their truly independent native counterparts, and Bittner might be fighting a losing battle with nature to keep them healthy. In many ways, this is a movie for outcasts and outcasts at heart—most of us, I’ll wager.

Even more melancholy is Winter Solstice (Paramount Classics)—the title implies that it’s no barrel of monkeys. Written and directed by Josh Sternfeld, it’s a quivering portrait of a grief-stricken family, all male, after the loss of a wife and mom. Jim Winters (Anthony LaPaglia) is a suburban landscaper with two sons who barely pay attention to him: They are obstinately embarrassed by displays of emotion. The dinner table scenes are pure torture in the monosyllables and hanging silences, as the patriarch reaches out and, unanswered, remains helplessly extended, a very Quasimodo of mute despair.

For the first 20 minutes or so, I was impatient with the longeurs, but then it became clear that the movie is one long longeur, and that each still frame is bursting with emotional desperation. You can feel your inner rhythms slow as the film takes hold—enough for you to take in the details of the houses, yards, garages, and basements. I found myself almost in tears over a minor item in the cellar—a Calphalon box on a crowded shelf, maybe a piece of kitchen equipment bought by the mother and now stowed away, unused. (It’s worth singling out the production designer, Jody Asnes.) (Actually, it’s often worth singling out production designers—we don’t do it enough.)

I can’t think of too many actors who could bring off Jim Winters. LaPaglia manages to convey, wordlessly, the man’s inner struggle: between his own instinct for emotional retreat and his conscience as a father, which impels him to try to break through to his boys, however imperfectly. Aaron Stanford is very fine as the elder son; as the younger, Mark Webber is remarkable. Partially deaf from an accident, Webber’s Pete hides behind an all-purpose smirk, cultivating a sort of laconic superiority that might be the last refuge of the emotionally crippled. Allison Janney plays a paralegal who’s housesitting in the neighborhood and attempts, in her awkward way, to engage this stunted family. Freed from the brittle, headlong pacing that is her (superb) specialty, she is beautiful and real.

One more thing: The first line of the Winter Solstice coming attraction is the revelation to which the entire movie is building. The next lines are smaller revelations to which other scenes are building. Now, I know that previews are constructed out of highlights and that they almost always show you more of a film than you want to see. But this might be the most gruesomely insensitive coming attraction ever made. By removing the silences (not even suggesting that there are silences) and cutting among all the big dramatic moments (which, in the film itself, are squeezed like blood from proverbial stones), the preview effectively disembowels the movie. If you’re in a theater where it’s shown, plug your ears and hum… 1:20 PT

It’s no big news that people who aren’t conventionally attractive, especially women, tend to be overlooked—professionally, socially, even walking by on the street. Agnes Jaoui’s new film Look at Me (Sony Pictures Classics) uses this harsh fact of life as the springboard for the drama of an overweight young woman (Marilou Berry), her famous and indifferent father (Look at Me co-writer Jean-Pierre Bacri), and the vocal teacher (director Jaoui) who doesn’t pay much attention until she finds out who that father is.

Already I’ve made Look at Me—the French title is Comme une Image—sound too tidy, too pointed. This is an uninsistent film, its pacing casual, its camera somewhat detached. It dawdles—yet it builds, almost imperceptibly, to a vision of a world in which no one looks at anyone, at least deeply enough to see beyond the trappings of beauty or fame.

It’s an ensemble movie, set among self-centered intellectuals, but Jaoui doesn’t take easy shots at her characters—she’s one of them. The choral teacher she plays, Sylvia, dreads being accosted after rehearsals by the plain, self-conscious Lolita (Berry). What a bother that woman is, she tells her husband, Pierre (the amusingly morose Laurent Grevill), an unsuccessful novelist given to spasms of self-pity. How can she be expected to spare her precious energies for someone like that?

And then, on the verge of telling Lolita that she just doesn’t have time to advise her and her little vocal group, Sylvia discovers she’s Lolita Cassard, the daughter of the celebrated novelist and publisher Etienne Cassard—whose last novel has just been made into a big-deal movie. And suddenly she sees the girl, and suddenly she’s dazzled by the prospect of squeezing into that inner circle. When her husband’s new novel gets a rave review in Le Monde, she knows she has really arrived. It’s only then that she begins to feel guilty about the way that she and everyone else have treated Cassard’s homely daughter.

For long stretches, you find yourself staring at Berry’s Lolita, whose name seems a cruel joke—she’s anything but a nymphet. She has a big honker, a wide body, and shoulders that perpetually slump, especially when she’s forced to wear fashionable clothes. She’s proof that French women do get fat, no matter how much leek soup (which apparently makes you pee like a horse) they ingest. Watching Lolita twiddle her hair and gaze into the distance, you see how much the young woman has been formed by people not looking at her. In a clothing store with her father’s girlfriend, Karine (Virginie Desarnauts), she barely flinches when the thin, model-gorgeous blonde looks in the mirror and announces, “I’m enormous!”

The heart of Look at Me is the relationship between Lolita and her kingly father, who travels with his own courtier, a worshipful masochist named Vincent (Gregoire Oestermann). That heart is a black hole, a vacuum befitting a monster of self-absorption. It’s unclear if Cassard would pay much attention to Lolita even if she were stunningly gorgeous. He certainly regards Karine and their attractive five-year-old daughter as props. He barely pays attention to anyone, although he ostentatiously searches any party he enters for pretty girls.

Over the course of the film, Lolita tries to get Cassard to listen to a tape of her singing: Perhaps if he can’t look at her, she seems to think, he can hear her. But that tape goes unplayed, and their encounters are incessantly interrupted. Cassard’s cell phone rings and he withdraws into his phone conversation, or Lolita takes refuge in her cell phone; and no one is ever in the moment—no one, that is, except the filmmaker, who gazes on without blinking. Perhaps this explains the film’s pacing and its formless air. The director is the only one present.

Jaoui’s character undergoes a transformation, but it doesn’t lead to some cathartic confrontation. This is a bleak, unresolved film, with no release. What keeps it from being a mortal bummer is the music—exquisite sacred choral works, plus Mozart. The Baroque arias that Lolita sings—in an imperfect but lovely high soprano, so unrepresentative of her body mass—suggest a yearning for life on a non-physical plane, for the world that will come when she has shuffled off this mortal coil. Or, should I say, gone beyond this too too solid flesh?… 1:34 PT

The Farrelly brothers, Peter and Bobby, didn’t write the screenplay for their romantic comedy, Fever Pitch (20th Century Fox), and by their standards it’s a mild offering. There’s only one gross-out scene, and it takes place off camera—although the sounds of a food-poisoned Drew Barrymore upchucking repeatedly are pretty convincing. But the movie fits happily into the Farrellys’ universe. The hero, Ben (Jimmy Fallon), is a child-man so obsessed with the Red Sox that he’s something of a freak, and he finds himself torn between a challenging, grown-up relationship with a career woman, Lindsay (Drew Barrymore—not the most credible mathematics prodigy, but adorable anyway), and the security of the Sox, the Green Monster, and the surrogate family with season tickets that he sees every season in the same section of Fenway Park behind home plate. This year, Ben discovers, one old duffer is in dialysis and one woman has dropped 200 pounds after a stomach stapling. On the field, there’s a Jimmy Fund boy with leg braces singing the national anthem. It’s a hopeful, inclusive world. Even after “86 years of bangin’ our heads against the green wall,” Ben has faith. He even thinks the Sox could someday win the World Series!

I have to admit, I miss the usual fart and masturbation jokes—I prefer the Farrellys when they’re disreputable and push the boundaries of taste, because they’re otherwise a tad sentimental. Other directors develop as craftsmen over the course of their first few movies, but the brothers will never be a threat to Steven Spielberg; they seem untroubled by their limp rhythms and ordinary staging. Fever Pitch isn’t even very feverish. What makes the movie fun and sometimes even moving is its complicated view of fandom. The movie Fever Pitch has little in common with its supposed source, Nick Hornby’s memoir of his addiction to football (i.e., soccer), but it’s informed by Hornby’s ambivalence. Fandom takes you out of the real world, yet it makes you feel as if you’re plugged into something higher, outside yourself, out of your control. It’s about living for players who are completely indifferent to you personally, and yet, in worshipping them, you remain in touch with a kind of pure, childlike joy. (Hornby’s book seems very amusing, but I only understood about a quarter of it. Chaucer and Finnegans Wake were easier to follow than the ins and outs of English football.)

The script, credited to veterans Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel, has its graceful patches. Lindsay worries that if she comes to share Ben’s obsession and lifestyle she’ll be like the women she knows who get new boyfriends and “their prior lives just vanish.” And when she gets beaned by a foul ball and the late TV news shows Ben high-fiving the fan who came up with it before he noticed his unconscious girlfriend—that’s enough to give anyone pause. But Fallon’s Ben is very sweet. He’s a compulsive jokester, but he’s friendly, not aggressive. He says he loves the way Lindsay talks out of one side of her mouth, “like a stroke victim,” and that’s a pretty good take on Barrymore—who’s absolutely adorable (did I say that already?) and looks shockingly great in a flapper costume with Louise Brooks hair. (Fallon is rather good, too, by the way—his self-effacement here becomes him.)

The Farrellys have a commentary track on their Something About Mary DVD, and in every shot they point out the extras who are their childhood friends or relatives or doctors or the guys in some program for the disabled they support. (They evidently support many.) As commentaries go, this one is incredibly boring, but it helps you understand why their universe feels so warm. They really do love everyone on screen—in wheelchairs, or connected at the waist, or with long legs, or with no legs. They loved the Red Sox when the team hadn’t won a series for 86 years—or, maybe, because of that? It must have thrown them when the Sox actually did it, because it’s the losers in their world who are transfigured.