Monday, January 01, 2007

Kenji Fujishima: 5 Memorable Moments

In thinking back on the 2006 movie year, I was initially going to conclude that this wasn’t quite as memorable a year as, say, 2004 or 2005 — when the fall season saw a whole slew of politically-minded American films (The Constant Gardener; Good Night, and Good Luck; Syriana; Munich), perhaps not all of them equally good, but nearly all of them worth seeing and thinking about. This year, with perhaps the exception of United 93 and World Trade Center — Hollywood’s first two attempts to directly address 9/11 — there weren’t really any studio movies that inspired the same degree of heated national debate as, say, The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 did over two years ago (when pundits — none of them film critics, I suspect — seemed willing to endorse one film or the other to further some kind of political or social cause). In fact, this year — with the exception of Borat (and maybe Babel) — other potentially provocative social- or politically-minded films like Fast Food Nation or Bobby vanished fairly quickly in theaters (I didn’t get a chance to catch either film, unfortunately).

As I think more about 2006, though, I realize that there was still much for which to be thankful — certainly on the independent side. Politics wasn’t absent this year: witness Clint Eastwood’s two hero-debunking war epics (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima) as well as the perceived critiques of America in Babel, Borat and others. Other noteworthy films of the year — Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times, for instance, or the late Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion — either didn’t make a big deal about their politics or eschewed them to tell resonant human stories. The year also saw quite a few established artists put themselves out on a limb — Sofia Coppola with Marie Antoinette, Alejandro González Iñárritu with Babel, Darren Aronofsky with The Fountain, Mel Gibson with Apocalypto, David Lynch with INLAND EMPIRE — trying to push themselves to greater artistic heights. Not everyone agreed on how successful each film or director was, but certainly cinema as an art thrives on such risk-taking, and there was more of it in one year — heck, more of it in one fall season — than one could have anticipated. 2006 may have seemed like an outwardly safe year, relatively speaking, but there was no shortage of experimentation to be found in films both big and small.

For The House’s commemoration of film in 2006, I wanted to contribute something a little different from the usual top-10-movies-of-the-year fare: a “5 for a Day” of five memorable movie moments. My definition of “moments” is fairly broad: they include either lengthy sequences or simply one particularly memorable image or scene. These are the sequences or images that stayed with me even after I saw them in a theater months earlier, and even if they occured in films I wasn’t too crazy about.

1. “A Time for Love” from Three Times

While the whole of Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien’s three-part anthology about love relationships across time is fascinating and even profound in its own formally spare yet ambitious way, the first 40-minute segment, “A Time for Love” — set in Kaohsiung in 1966 (during the director’s own youth) — is the most vivid and touching of the three. Hou characteristically emphasizes medium shots, long takes and slow pans in depicting the stirrings of love between a soldier (Chang Chen) and a young woman who works at a pool parlor (Shu Qi) — a quiet, awkwardly blossoming romance that eventually hits a speedbump when the woman leaves town to work at another pool parlor elsewhere, leading the desperate soldier to scour town after town for her just before he is about to go off to army duty. But, emotionally, “A Time for Love,” in its own spare, Ozu-like manner, beautifully expresses the kind of exquisite romantic yearning that is almost Wong Kar-Wai-like in its power. You have to see all three segments — including the silent movie-like second segment, set in 1911 — to get the full measure of what Hou is trying to get at, but “A Time for Love” is a small romantic masterpiece in miniature.

2. The Conquistador gets to the Tree of Life in The Fountain

The whole of Darren Aronofsky’s attempt at a grand folly The Fountain didn’t add up to the sum of its hugely ambitious parts (but then, is there a cinematic folly in which this isn’t the case?). However, the climax of the 16th-century plot thread — when the Conquistador (Hugh Jackman) of Izzi Creo’s fictional story kills the soldier guarding the Tree of Life and finally makes his triumphant way to the “promised land,” so to speak — is the film’s lone glorious moment. There may have been no more spiritually transcendant a movie image this year than the image of the Conquistador partaking in the bark of the Tree of Life in a mad rush of childlike astonishment; there was no more darkly resonant a moment in The Fountain itself than the moment when flowers start growing out of the Conquistador and overtake his body — the arrogance of humanity’s eternal attempt to find the fountain of youth punished with a quietly Biblical fury. (If the film had ended there, I might have forgiven its occasionally laughable, if consistently sincere, mythmaking pretensions.)

3. José Yero looking on from a distance at Crockett and Isabella dancing hot-and-heavy in a nightclub in Miami Vice

Granted, the whole spacey look of Dion Beebe’s voluptuous HD videography of Michael Mann’s anguished post-9/11 updating of his hit ‘80s TV series was marvelous (arguably the best thing about the movie, which I admire in hindsight but don’t quite love as much as some of the other House contributors do). The film certainly doesn’t lack in arresting imagery, but one particular image still sticks with me. No, it’s not the painterly aerial shots of the Cuban sea and the horizon; it’s that of Cuban drug smuggler José Yero (John Ortiz) — having just discovered that his right-hand woman Isabella (the typically luscious Gong Li) is having an affair with undercover cop Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) — looking on jealously as the two dance erotically in a nightclub beautifully sums up the seething, genuinely operatic passions underlying the fairly standard-issue cops-and-robbers complications of its crime plot. For me, it’s not only the plot context, but also the finely wrought hot atmosphere — the disco music, the glowing neon lights — that makes the image particularly memorable: it acts as a wholly visual reinforcement of the film’s theme of buried passions surging dangerously to the surface. With the exception of some of the grandiose pop-religious imagery in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, there were no other images quite as sublime to be found in a Hollywood summer blockbuster.

4. The sequence on the island — massive chase, three-way duel and all — in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Speaking of summer blockbusters: there was one lone great action sequence to be found in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the bombastic, noisy and soulless sequel to the surprisingly fun original. When various heroes and villains find themselves on an island, tempers flare and betrayals occur that leads to an exhilarating chain-reaction sequence in which a three-way duel — atop a giant spinning wheel, no less — and an attempt by two doofuses to steal treasure improbably converge as one obstacle seems to top another obstacle in one giant ball of rolling momentum. Just when you think it can’t get crazier, it does. You have to see it to believe it; it’s the one gleaming jewel in an otherwise overstuffed action showcase (although Johnny Depp was still as fun to watch as ever, if inevitably less fresh and surprising).

5. The final image of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette’s trashed bedroom in Marie Antoinette

I’m not ashamed to say that I think Sofia Coppola’s widely-trashed pop historical drama is misunderstood. If it isn’t quite a masterpiece (it’s perhaps more interesting to think about afterwards than it is to necessarily watch), there’s certainly more to its surface lavishness (and its use of deliberately anachronistic ‘80s punk rock on the soundtrack) than most of its naysayers indicated. It’s an ironic kind of surface beauty that pulses through Marie Antoinette: Versailles as a huge self-contained playpen in which the rich soak up their privilege while remaining almost defiantly ignorant to the discontent brewing outside the castle walls. Of course poor Marie Antoinette got in trouble with the angry French peasants, the film suggests -- in such a stifling atmosphere, and at such a young age, how could she know any better? Thus the magnificence of the film’s final image, a short but chilling shot of Marie and husband Louis XVI’s empty bedroom after it has been trashed by peasants storming the Versailles. A more fitting representation of real life intruding upon a glittery, empty house of privilege would be hard to imagine.

Other memorable moments:

* Lee Geum-ja (Lee Young-ae) staring up at heaven and sticking out her tongue — seeking a possibly nonexistent redemption — in Chan-wook Park’s Lady Vengeance.

*Spike Lee’s Inside Man had a plethora of funny, distinctly Spike Lee-ish topical, race-related bits that had little to do with its heist story proper, but my favorite of these bits was a New York policeman’s snap reaction when he took off the hood of the Sikh: “Fuckin’ Arab!” As they say, it’s funny because it’s (quite possibly) true.

*“The Passion of Superman” — his near-death and rebirth — in the startling final half-hour of Superman Returns.

*Olive Hoover’s hilarious beauty competition dance in Little Miss Sunshine.

*Bucky Bleichert (Josh Hartnett) seeing the ghost of Elizabeth Short on the lawn at the end of Brian De Palma’s otherwise disappointing The Black Dahlia (sorry, Matt, Keith and other passionate partisans of the film).

*The sudden outburst of emotion in Kitty Dean’s rendition of “What Is This Thing Called Love?” in the opening minutes of Douglas McGrath’s Infamous, as well as a particular distorted mirror shot in the same film.

*The parkour foot chase in Uganda in Casino Royale (one of the best James Bond flicks ever)

*David Lynch’s insane INLAND EMPIRE has so many memorable moments — from the Greek-chorus floozies’ unexpected “Locomotion” dance to Nikki/Sue’s “death” in between three seemingly unconcerned homeless people — that, if you’re not too concerned with trying to figure out the connecting tissues underlying his extended avant-garde fever dream, you could simply savor the moments.

Any others I’m missing?
Kenji Fujishima is a contributor to The House Next Door, a Rutgers University journalism student and the publisher of My Life at 24 Frames Per Second.


Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

That conquistador groveling and gulping at the Tree sequence was one of the best things onscreen all year, I gotta agree.

I have to add Penelope Cruz singing the title song of VOLVER while Carmen Maura cries silently in the backseat across the street. I saw the film for a second time and it ripped me apart, insides all out for all to see.

My favorite MIAMI VICE moment is a half-a-sec intersplice when Sonny and Rico first meet Agent Fujima: Mann cuts from a series of tight close-ups to a medium wide angle shot, that's still close and crowded, but deep enough to catch a lightning flash right behind all four men at the summit. That, in a nutshell, typifies how tactile and monstrous that movie was. And how (!) illuminating.

Plenty more, I'm sure, but I won't bore you so I'll offer one more, one of BLOCK PARTY's many delights: when the marching band erupts. My heart flew out my mouth.

9:34 PM  
Blogger Annie Frisbie said...

1) Jennifer Hudson's screen-burstingly transcendent solo in DREAMGIRLS. Not since Liza Minnelli killed me with "Maybe This Time" in Cabaret have I fallen so deeply in love with a musical performance.

2) Djimon Hounson coaxing his son back from savagery in BLOOD DIAMOND. I'm aware that it's a deliberately sentimental moment, blatant Oscar baiting, and as telegraphed as they come, but it's the only 2007 film that made me cry the way I want to cry at the movies.

3) That's it, because this year sucked.

8:37 AM  
Blogger kenjfuj said...

I haven't yet seen Dreamgirls, so I don't have much to say about Jennifer Hudson's buzz-generating performance. But, as far as moments that made me cry this year...well, I did catch the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant on DVD recently, and the ending of that film---in which a previously unsavory character seems to find some sort of personal salvation and makes the leap into maturation---did made me shed tears. It's a genuinely cathartic moment that certainly seems more honest and meaningful than the moment Annie describes in Blood Diamond (personally, I didn't really like the movie overall, but I give it some credit for approaching its fairly conventional Hollywood-melodrama material with obvious conviction).

9:09 AM  

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