Jan 31, 2008

Park City: A Few Additional Thoughts

Despite my best efforts, I've settled right back into the rhythms of Second Borough existence in the City that never sleeps. It doesn't quite miss sleep like Park City the third week of January though. Having returned, I marveled in how quickly I was back to my old act; I feel like I'm one of the few coastal dwellers I've talked to who returned from the mountains without a cold or flu. I've thought much about the films I saw in Utah, and while I may have second thoughts about some of them, (Was Reversion really that interesting? Was Ballast as much of a phony as I initially thought?) I stand by most of my observations, and in particular, since I was unable to get around to it last week, I want to briefly point out just how wonderful Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's Sugar is, and just how artistically, intellectually and emotionally bankrupt Clark Gregg's Choke turned out to be. Here's hoping that the fine people at HBO decide to go theatrical with Sugar and that by it's August 1st release date, Fox Searchlight pull some Harvey Scissorhands action on the most pointless, aesthetically banal attempt at provocation I've seen in awhile.

Sugar is, simply put, the most effecting movie about loneliness and cultural dislocation I've seen in sometime, a fish out of water tale that is sweet, funny, sad, tough, immensely loveable and never cliched. Fleck and Boden, again working with stud DP Andrej Parikh, opt for a more classical lensing style than their previous indie, which was shot in graceful but conventional hand held. This film, full on slow dollies, gentle rack focuses and wide angle lenses, captures the uninflected beauty of the game of baseball in a way I thought previously impossible. The details are all just perfect, Bodens cutting expressing the simple cause and effect relationship of pitch placement to strike out, ground ball to double play or strike out to infield toss around with a joy and genuine fascination that is just rapturous. Beyond that, we find a film that perfectly understands the notion of baseball, our oldest and grandest game, as a symbol of the American Dream for so many Latin American ballplayers. They are represented by a stunning ensemble of hungry young men and given a special voice within the stunning, understated debut performance by Algenis Perez Soto, who plays a gifted young right handed pitcher Miguel Santos. A fiery 20 year old Dominican who like so many, may not have all the tools, which although physical are mostly mental and emotional, to get to the majors, Soto steals every scene. A sports film about someone who is not quite good enough, and must come to terms with finding a more adequate place in which to put his skills for and love of a game is quite a departure, as radical a reversal for a genre as Boden and Fleck devised for the patriarchal white teacher in the ghetto drama that they deconstructed with Half Nelson. This is a beautiful film that must be seen, if not least for former Reds pitcher Jose Rijo, perhaps my favorite of all time, at whose Dominican baseball complex a number of early scenes were filmed, and who plays a small role as the man who informs Soto of his trip to America.

Choke doesn't work in any way. It's funny, al least sporadically, during its first half. How could it not be. The source material, from Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, was hysterical at times and conceptually audacious. But after the initial shock and renewed interest that builds as such a biting series of concepts and satirical targets are introduced, one quickly realizes that Mr. Gregg's movie is flat and seemingly undirected. He coaxes the most uninteresting lensing out of the consistently wonderful Tim Orr that I've yet seen. As the sex addicted, colonial theme park working, Choking to feel something, mommy issues galore protagonist Victor Mancini, Sam Rockwell is having a whole lot of fun. It's too bad the audience isn't. I read the book long ago, but everything seems to be reduced, stripped of its layers and made to seem cheap and small in Choke. Angelica Huston is miscast as his borderline nihilist, Italian-American mother who is currently wasting away in a nursing home and who holds a dangerous if absurd secret that will transform Victor's life forever. Her scenes are sometimes painful to watch, Huston seeming unsure of just where to take this material. As are Kelly MacDonald's as his love interest, a worker at the nursing home who may not be everything she claims to be. The pervasive irony from the book is present in every frame, but not the sad undercurrent with which we proceed through the book, which gives it a smidgen of meaning, the acidic aftertaste which allows Palahniuk to approach Burroughs instead of pomo hackdom. Especially unforgivable is the ending, which takes one of those especially ironic/sad episodes from the novel (the beginning of Mancini's sex addiction, as personified by a random hook-up in an airplane bathroom) and re-appropriates it as his way to true love with MacDonald's character. Not only does it not live up to the entire logic of the narrative, but it proves that the director either didn't understand or didn't care about the author's intentions. The relevatory, transformative notions about Victor's identity, which build to a terrific, if somewhat unsatisfying climax in the novel, are completely scrapped. The film begins to move in this direction, and then abruptly stops, the original ending, which was shot, a victim of poor production values. Sad as it is, this film isn't worth the stock Fight Club was printed on.