Apr 14, 2008

Echo Chamber Returns - On The Flight of the Red Balloon/The Visitor/Street Kings

Live from the set of VH1's I Want to work for Diddy (something I never wanted to do, but poverty seems less appealing), the Echo Chamber returns after a brief hiatus. Things got alittle hectic over here while I was prepping and directing my short adaptation of Jonathan Lethem's short stories If There Love Were the Biosphere and The Mad Brooklynite. Sorry for the absence, you tireless blog readers. So, to catch up, here's my short take on a few recent releases I caught during the chaos of early April...

The Flight of The Red Balloon

What a joy! An altogether sublime serenade, its flat narrative delivered in dense, wandering, multi-layered takes whose seams burst with life, Hao-Hsiao Hsien’s The Flight of the Red Balloon, the Taiwanese wonderkind’s first western movie, a French language reworking of Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short film La Ballon Rouge, is as consistently revelatory a cinematic experience as one is likely to encounter all year, a light, delicious, completely irresistible movie.

Juliette Binoche channels vintage Gena Rowlands as Suzanne, a high strung Parisian puppeteer for whom drama is always bubbling just beneath the surface of every relationship. Consumed by her work, she is estranged from her novelist husband and college student daughter, both having moved abroad, perhaps to escape the tempest she sets off all around her. When she isn’t working, she’s feuding with her downstairs neighbor, a friend of her husband, while barely managing to find time for her precocious son Simon. He is the object obsession followed not just by his new Taiwanese film student turned nanny Song, but also a red balloon that haunts the young boy’s presence like a ghost.

Although less omniscient than in Lamorisse’s original, the balloon functions more as a silent observer to the melancholy mysteries that make up so much of our lives and specifically for Simon, the beauty and innocence of youth, which like the flight of a balloon is both wistful and fleeting. Song, whose short video pieces featuring Simon and this mysterious balloon could be footage from a dry run of this movie, give the film and its director an anchor, the poised perspective of an outsider, from which to plumb Paris depths and explore its rich skies. A can’t miss film, it confirms Hao, the auteur behind Goodbye South, Goodbye, CafĂ© Lumiere and Flowers From Shanghai as a stylist who can transport his particular brand of mise en scene heavy cinema just about anywhere. Go see it in a theater - these movies don't work on your Ipod.

The Visitor

Ok, so it’s not reinventing the wheel. We’ve seen it before, the whole white man finds himself by learning the ways of “the other” plotline, but rarely is it so shamelessly put to use as in The Visitor. Yes, that is Richard Jenkins, stalwart character actor with over 50 films credits to his name, but nary a starting role until this one, being taught to play a congo drum and poof – he’s no longer depressed about his dead end academic career and widower status. In its story of a lifeless, middle aged, white economics professor who is reinvigorated by his encounter and involvement with a pair of charming, attractive African illegals who happen to be squatting in his apartment and are facing deportation, Tom McCarthy’s new film, an even bigger fest circuit success than his formula bound indie hit The Station Agent, has more than its share of terrific performances and I’m sure if I dug deep, I could find nice things to say about most of the craft elements.

But wait a minute.

Any movie that takes its subject matter seriously ought to have the courage of its convictions. This film does not. In its prioritization of it’s oh so old eastern liberal protags rebirth over the costs of expatriation for its catalysts seems like a cop out and an excuse to pander to his intended audience, which probably looks and sounds a lot like its star, the character actor Richard Jenkins. Yet Haaz Sleiman and Hiam Abbass, both terrific as the Syrian son and mother who are trapped in our Byzantine, wholly unfair immigration system, aren’t really given the time of day in the third act, but I think the story of there repatriation in Syria may have proven far more interesting than what McCarthy & Co. chose to represent.

Street Kings

Testosterone filled and brimming with bizarre casting choices, nothing feels unified, not to mention new or especially authentic in David Ayer’s Street Kings, a movie that would be much better if any of the characters (save Hugh Laurie, of course) could occasionally resort to some means of problem solving other than gun violence. Not that the gun violence is uninvolving. Mr. Ayer, the man who punched Denzel Washington’s ticket for Oscar gold with his script for Training Day, was last seen directing the nifty Christian Bale, war veteran run amok tale Harsh Times and knows how to construct a visceral action sequence. Add that to a film with the pedigree of a James Ellroy script and original story, and you start to think that this thing can’t go completely wrong (despite the Kurt Wimmer rewrite. Egh.). Even if this is no LA Confidential, that assumption proves to be a correct one; Street Kings has several entertaining passages and some bravura slumming by actors who have been far more interesting elsewhere, but the entire project, distributed by Fox’s indie wing Searchlight (what a joke), reeks of studio mediocrity.

I could watch Forest Whitaker spit, yell and scream most of the afternoon and Keanu Reeves is built to play quiet, methodical, damaged men such as this film’s Tom Ludlow, ace VICE squad fixer being doubled crossed by his equally shaddy brothers in blue, but corrupt cop movies and their genre cousin, the “cops and robbers/two sides of the same coin” movie, are a dime a dozen and it takes a real auteur (Michael Mann anyone) to make them sing. Mr. Ayer may one day get there, even if he keeps casting rappers in roles they’re clearly not up for, but he’s got a ways to go before he makes his Heat.