We're Desperate! Get Used to It!

The Pang brothers' hyper-stylized, aggressively "gritty," tonally erratic One Take Only (aka Som and Bank: Bangkok for Sale) is at its best when its at its simplest. Early on, I feared we were in for a Thai Requiem for a Dream, but One Take Only progressively won me over, mostly in the small, perfectly articulated moments where the Pangs and their superb leads (Adam Morrison look-alike Pawarith Monkolposit and Wanatchada Siwapornchai) shine. More apt comparisons would be Alex Cox's Sid & Nancy or Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels: This is, in its way, a terrific little movie about life on the fringes, where meaningful romance isn't impossible, but is tough to sustain or nurture between risky drug deals and prostitution assignments.

In one of the film's most indelible scenes, Som, who works as a hooker in order to help her mom out with money, sits on the steps outside her housing project, discussing with a friend the liabilities of the world's oldest profession. It's very hard to quit once you start, she tells her friend, who's hard up for some quick cash. Cut to a shot of said friend's face, reacting to the idea and mulling over the difficult decision ahead of her. She seems on the verge of tears, but doesn't cry; she knows what she has to do--or what she thinks she has to do, anyway. It's a heartbreaking end-of-innocence moment, a visible realization of the hard costs we sometimes pay just to make ends meet.

There's a lot of superfluous showiness on display here, and the plotline is fairly standard-issue--formulaic and predictable--but One Take Only is ultimately redeemed by a real sweetness, embodied by the idiosyncratic star-crossed central pair, and an empathy with ne'er do well-types that reminds me of both Jia Zhang-ke and John Darnielle. Speaking of which, in the We Shall All Be Healed highlight "Palmcorder Yajna," Darnielle sang, "It will be too late by the time we learn / what these cryptic symbols mean." Littered through the Pangs' movie are curious, if not cryptic, symbols: t-shirts promoting the state of Wisconsin, the Chicago Bears, Spider-man, and, most inexplicably, a Nazi flag prominently hung in the seemingly benign Som's bedroom. Perhaps this is intended as some implicit comment on the West's ambiguous cultural impact in present-day Thailand. Or maybe the Pangs and/or their art department just have a really odd sense of humor?


Top 40

Every year, for the past several years (four? five?), I've put one of these (entirely subjective, mostly arbitrary) things together--a list of the top forty artists making music right now. Inclusion and rank are based less on overall body of work than recent output, though consistency makes a difference, too. In this year's edition (previous years' lists were posted over at the Oscarwatch forums), emerging artists with one terrific record under their belts share space with vets launching convincing comebacks. Of course, the x-factor here is the likelihood of whether said up-and-comers (and, for that matter, the older folks making inspired stabs at relevance) will continue to make good music. And, right, who knows? Which is to simply say, these are my best guesses.










































I Want Certain Words More Than a Thousand Flowers

Music and Lyrics is very charming--and, no, that's not a backhanded compliment. Charming goes an awfully long way, for my money, and, give or take George Clooney and Tony Leung, Hugh Grant is our most charming current movie star. While it's not unfair to quibble that he almost always plays the same part, it's about as meaningful a gripe as arguing that most Ramones songs sound the same.

Drew Barrymore, meanwhile, hasn't had a role this good--or, more specifically, this well suited to her particular strengths--since E.T.. She plays here a cross between Diane Keaton's titular character in Annie Hall (offhandedly quirky, ditzy but not dumb, fun clothes) and Diane Keaton's character in Manhattan (burdened by memories of her "brilliant" ex, confidence issues) minus most of the pretense.

Things take off when the fated leads spend a night together writing a song. They talk, they walk, they eat, they shop; you can see these two people realizing, moment by moment, that they enjoy each others' company. Music and Lyrics isn't Before Sunrise (or Sunset), but the grace and wit with which this sequence is performed is worthy of Linklater--or, for that matter, Woody Allen at his late '70's best.

The formula is familiar and the results predictable, but the execution is nearly flawless, handled with minimal flab (there are a few regrettable caricatures among the supporting cast) and a featherlight touch. As a case in point, consider the scene where Grant confronts Barrymore's aforementioned ex in an upscale restaurant. In Bridget Jones's Diary (a movie I really like, for the record), Grant and Colin Firth beat the hell out of each other, demolishing a similarly swanky establishment in the process, set to the tune of "It's Raining Men." Here, they exchange words, a few heated shoves, and then we cut to Barrymore holding an ice pack to Grant's sore cheek. Such restraint is indicative of why this winningly low key movie works so well.

Plus, the soundtrack is pretty good, really dead-on, and usually both.


Last Holiday

Once in a while, I see a movie that really shakes up the way I think about film, the world, or both. From the past decade of filmmaking, there's just a small handful that really qualify: Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry, Sokurov's Russian Ark, Jia's Platform and Still Life, Morris's The Fog of War, Hou's Three Times. Add to that list Manoel de Oliveira's A Talking Picture (which I'm embarrassingly late catching up with), the most striking of the seven de Oliveira features I've seen.

As with most of the films on my shortlist above, A Talking Picture is a meditation on history, concerned particularly with the process by which we interpret the events of the past and lessons we should be learning from them. The deceptively simple first half of de Oliveira's film follows a Portugese history teacher (de Oliveira mainstay Leonor Silveira) and her young daughter (Filipa de Almeida) as they venture by sea from Lisbon to Bombaby (where, she repeatedly tells people they meet along the way, they're joining her husband, an airline pilot). They stop at Marseilles, Pompeii, Athens, Istanbul, and Cairo, with the woman--glimpsing ancient wonders for the first time, after teaching her students about them--explaining to her inquisitive daughter the origins and legends surrounding each. Her approach to this is neither overly pedantic nor simplified; it most closely resembles that of a great historical storyteller (a Homer or Virgil, say).

This series of educational, visually captivating excursions combined with de Oliveira's leisurely pace serve to create a lovely rhythm for this early half--and then, quite abruptly, the focus shifts to the ship's American captain (an appropriately hammy John Malkovich) and his three famous dinner guests: a successful French businesswoman (Catherine Deneuve), an Italian former model (Stefania Sandrelli), and a Greek singer and actress (Irene Papas). Their conversation is long, as they each speak in their native tongue (an experiment of sorts initiated by Malkovich's character), pontificating about life and death and love and gender and politics.

It's a fascinating scene, and a curious one. Each personality at the table seems to be playing an exaggerated version of themselves, while, at the same, standing in as sociocultural ciphers for their respective countries. Their collective tone is broad and rather flowery, partly because each participant probably only understands so much of the other languages being spoken. What they sound like is the sort of "worldly," aristocratic characters that populate 19th Century Western literature, albeit voicing some very contemporary concerns at the start of the new millennium (the film, released in 2003, is set pointedly in July of 2001).

A second roundtable discussion follows, this one including the professor and her daughter. The only catch is the other three women don't speak Portugese, though the captain does understand it and speaks a little ("I spent some years in Brazil," Malkovich explains). So, this conversation is conducted in English, with naturally, the widespread use of the English language dissected at length by the Europeans. The tone here, by contrast, is considerably more modern, with the threat of Islamic fundamentalists a topic of interest as the ship sails further East.

What comes next I won't disclose in this space--you really need to experience it yourself, if you haven't already. I will say that A Talking Picture takes a very unexpected late turn that irrevocably recolors all that's preceded it. If it leaves you feeling uneasy--well, that's very much the point. You never know when history's going to happen.


(Just Like) Starting Over

It's comforting to think that in the year of the most devastating massacre in U.S. history the highest-grossing film will almost inevitably be a movie about forgiveness, second chances, and bridging that awkward, insecure gap between adolescence and adulthood. And no, I'm not talking about some new festival favorite by way of the brothers Dardenne. I'm referring rather to Spider-Man 3, the most sweetly humane blockbuster to storm the 'plexes in years--and the strongest Hollywood release of 2007 thus far.

Mind you, I'd never in the past been a fan of either Sam Raimi or the Spider-Man mythology, but the first movie was good, the second better yet (that subway sequence still knocks my socks off upon recollection). Now, with the third installment, Raimi has made a big-budget comic book adaptation to rival Ang Lee's moody, underrated Hulk. This is pop drama of the highest order, reminiscent of Buffy's later seasons in its treatment of superhero(ine) growing pains and its emphasis on character as a component (at least) equal to plot or special effects.

Speaking of the latter, the visuals are better this time around. The titular figure still looks cartoonish (or more pointedly, video game-ish), at times, as he swings around the city, but the Sandman (one of the film's villains, embodied in a heartfelt performance by Thomas Haden Church) is a CGI marvel, flawlessly integrated into the film's brightly colored fabric. More importantly, though, the effects-heavy action sequences are well-placed throughout this fairly long, surprisingly dialogue-heavy movie--a film that may finally have less in common with Daredevil than with Eyes Wide Shut.

Like Kubrick's masterful swan song, Spider-Man 3 takes place in a vivid yet suggestively dated version of Manhattan--here, Raimi uses the device to comment on the American appetite for nostalgia and all things retro--and focuses intently on the idea of fidelity and the challenges of monogamy. One of the most telling crowd reactions at the screening we attended: When Tobey Maguire's Spidey kisses another woman, the audience seemed to approve, but when his girlfriend, Kirsten Dunst's Mary Jane Watson, kisses another guy, she was roundly booed, with a few "slut!"'s clearly audible. To make matters more troubling, the guy MJ's kissing is her man's best-friend-cum-sworn-enemy-cum-best-friend-again, played by James Franco in the film's most charismatic (and probably best) turn. After exacting some confused payback on his former pal, a waitress asks him how his pie tastes. "Mmmm, so good!" he answers, flashing a grin worthy of a young Jack Nicholson.

I should note, too, while I'm at it, that this isn't simply a more thoughtful effort than your usual franchise megahit--it's a pretty damn weird movie on any scale. After a promising first third that deftly balances character drama with episodic build-up, Raimi blindsides the audience with a determinedly oddball, quasi-surreal midsection in which Peter Parker gets his inner-hedonist badass on and Dunst and Franco do the twist while frying up an omelet. It's a lot of fun, and a refreshingly idiosyncratic detour in a movie that's supposed to please everybody.


Trouble at Home, Travel Away

Last year, Karen O. made her moving-to-L.A. record; it wound up topping my year-end list. This year, Lucinda Williams follows suit--and it's not hard at all to imagine this one hanging on for seven months as my favorite album of 2007.

First thing's first: West is Williams's best record since Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, and song for song, as good as the ones she put out before that 1998 masterpiece. It's the most musically diverse (I'm trying not to use the word "eclectic") album she's ever made, thanks in large to producer Hal Wilner, who does here for Lucinda what Parks, O' Rourke, and Albini (sounds like a law firm) did for Joanna on Ys: That is, take a signature sonic palette, and expand it in unexpected yet entirely natural new directions.

Sure, the new album features the usual mix of heartbreakers ("Mama You Sweet" is about Williams's late mother; "Learning to Live" may be, too, or it may be about an ex, or it may be about both at the same time) and ballbusters ("Come On": "you can't light my fire, so fuck off!"), but they sound sharper here, lovelier or angrier as the case sees fit (again, sometimes both). And she's never made anything before that sounds much like "Rescue," which could easily soundtrack one of the moodier moments in Michael Mann's next nocturnal tour of Los Angeles.

On the other hand, West is very much of a piece lyrically with the decidedly spottier Essence and World Without Tears. Together, they serve to map out Williams's progression from the detailed specificity with which she made her name as a songwriter to a more overtly universal, overtly poetic style. Here, she pretty much nails it, give or take a couple minor missteps, and the results are sublime. And, hey, for those of you who really miss the Old Lucinda, she's thrown in "Where Is My Love": Helena, sweet potatoe pies, Tupelo, Birmingham, flannel sleeves, Gainesville, whiskey, and summer storms each earn a reference. She's still country--don't get the wrong idea.