In a marketplace dominated by flashy, hyperactive, bathroom humor-centric extravaganzas like Shrek 2 and Shark Tale, it’s refreshing to find, in Wayne Wang’s Because of Winn Dixie, a children’s film that embraces storytelling modesty and a balanced view of the world as both depressing and joyous. Told with a relaxed storybook melodiousness that agrees with its tranquil backwater Florida setting, the film – based on the acclaimed children’s book by Kate DiCamillo – is realistic without being morose, hopeful without being saccharine. Portraying life as a series of uplifting highs and sometimes painful lows, it’s sincere children’s entertainment that respects its audience’s intelligence, and one of the surprise highlights of this still-young film year.
Having recently moved to rural Naomi, Florida with her withdrawn preacher father (Jeff Daniels), lonely 10-year-old Opal (impressive newcomer AnnaSophia Robb) – whose mother walked out on the family years earlier for mysterious reasons – is desperate for a friend. She finds a loyal companion in the Winn Dixie supermarket when she rescues a shaggy dog (who goes by the grocery store’s name) from certain incarceration at the pound and takes him home to live with her none-too-pleased father. Winn Dixie is a rascal who actually smiles at everyone he meets, and as his relationship grows with Opal, so the cheery girl learns to come out of her shell and attract a group of new, similarly lonesome friends, including an unmarried librarian (Eva Marie Saint), a reticent, guitar-strumming ex-con (Dave Matthews) who gives Opal a job at his pet store, and a blind recovering alcoholic (Cicely Tyson) whose seclusion has earned her a reputation among the other kids as a witch.
One might naturally expect a surplus of treacle or irony from such a set-up, yet Wang (working from Joan Singleton’s screenplay) makes sure his story’s optimism is earned through frank confrontation of life’s less-than-pleasant truths. As Opal unites the town’s alienated citizens by fostering a spirit of togetherness, she also learns to confront (and help her despondent father come to grips with) her mother’s alcohol-fueled abandonment, and it’s heartwarming to find that Because of Winn Dixie refuses to shy away from the simple, unavoidable fact that life (like the tragedy-imbued candies that were once produced in town) is a mixture of the sweet and the sad. To be sure, the laid-back film is a tad on the long-winded side, and a couple of scenes involving Harland Williams’ cop are unnecessary detours into cartoonish zaniness. Yet by promoting the idea that unhappiness is a feeling shared by everyone (rather than an emotion that makes us unique), this delightful film confronts the emotionally bumpy terrain of childhood (and adulthood) with unassuming maturity.
The finest anime film I’ve ever seen, Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress concerns a documentary filmmaker’s interview with legendary Japanese film actress Chiyoko Fujiwara, who retired from the business 30 years earlier to live a hermetic life in her forest-shrouded home. The life story Chiyoko recounts is one which melds authentic memories with both her movies and national history, and as her tale unfolds, the documentarian himself (who has known and loved Chiyoko for years) becomes a first-hand witness to, and later an active participant in, her sprawling personal saga. Chiyoko’s lifelong search for an anti-government rebel painter she met and fell in love with as a young girl – a mystery man who gave her a beloved key “to the most important thing in the world” – becomes the focal point of not only her life but her films’ narratives, and Kon (as he did in his debut Perfect Blue) beautifully blurs the line between the real and unreal with graceful animation (highlighted by a cinematic forest fight in which his “camera” bobs and weaves with fluid energy) that invigorates his temporal-shifting narrative. His stunning film confronts issues of love, obsession and aging, yet ultimately Millennium Actress’ earthshaking virtuosity comes from its meditation on the nature of cinema itself – how moviemaking and acting (whether in dramas, comedies or documentaries) all contain competing degrees of make-believe and autobiography, and how Chiyoko’s millennium-spanning affair with romance and the movies mirrors our own.
Ben Stiller headlined six films last year (Duplex, Starsky & Hutch, Envy, Dodgeball, Meet the Fockers), and Along Came Polly may be the worst. Inane, inorganic and predictable from the start, the film exists solely as a reason for the clumsy comedian to behave ineptly while simultaneously giving Jennifer Aniston some post-Friends big-screen exposure. Ruben (Stiller), an uptight risk assessment executive for an insurance company, is devastated when his wife cheats on him during their honeymoon, yet things get wackier after he falls for a devil-may-care free spirit named Polly (Aniston) who teaches him how to lighten up and love life. One might say it’s ironic for a movie about taking risks to wholly ignore its own advice and play it safe, but the film’s unimaginative nonsense really just feels pathetic. Phillip Seymour Hoffman seems to channel Jack Black as Ruben’s best friend, a has-been actor who once starred in a Breakfast Club-style teen drama, and he thankfully provides a few chuckles via his character’s horrendous athleticism. For the most part, though, Along Came Polly is just another lame Stiller attempt to rehash his There’s Something About Mary persona, replete with him suffering through humorless bathroom indignities (here an overflowing toilet), bowel embarrassments (spicy food irritates Ruben’s tummy!), and bodily fluid humiliations (during a basketball game in which he’s slimed by a hairy man’s sweaty chest).
Korean provocateur Kim Ki-Duk sets aside his penchant for misogyny and violence with Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, and the results are somber, serene and stirring. Split into the title’s five seasons, the film is a simple fable about the different stages of a young man’s slow but steady maturation. A boy lives on a floating river raft as the apprentice of an elderly Buddhist monk, and Ki-Duk’s film charts his growth from being a cruel kid who tortures animals (Spring) to a love-struck teenager enraptured by a beautiful visitor (Summer) to a spurned and vengeful lover (Fall) to a repentant and spiritually renewed adult (Winter) and, finally, to a wise mentor to a young boy not unlike his former self (and Spring). More so than with Bad Guy or The Isle, Spring, Summer’s symbolism – which aids the film’s themes of compassion, altruism, love, lust, jealousy, revenge, penance and selflessness – fits smoothly into his mise-en-scène, which conveys delicate spirituality through contemplative tranquility. Ki-Duk’s film runs a bit too long, but his patient storytelling reflects a newfound directorial maturity, and his hypnotizing depiction of the repetitive (and unalterable) cycles of life has an unaffected profundity.
Tupac: Resurrection provides an "autobiographical" take on the late gangsta rapper’s tumultuous life, yet those who don’t believe in the holiness of Tupac – this reviewer being one of them – will find the documentary’s gushing adoration for its subject annoyingly one-sided and misleading. Lauren Lazin’s film charts the rapper’s rise to stardom with montages of old photos, news clippings and performance footage, and the central gimmick is that Tupac himself narrates his own story via carefully edited archival interviews. Unfortunately, he’s an untrustworthy storyteller, and neither provides satisfactory explanations for his misogynistic lyrics and “Thug Life” persona – which he lamely attempts to describe (by redefining the word “thug”) as a lifestyle of rebellion rather than one of criminality (um, sure) – nor really confronts his own responsibility for his notoriety and problems with the law. Tons of great concert clips and a wealth of lucid discussions (including a lengthy one with former MTV newswoman Tabitha Soren) reveal Tupac to be a well-spoken, intelligent, funny and charismatic guy. But his attempt to depict himself as an unjustly persecuted truth-teller doesn’t jibe with his juvenile and shallow glorification of the unlawful life, and Tupac: Resurrection’s unwillingness to balance its reverence with criticism of Tupac’s infatuation with guns and drugs ultimately leads to a dishearteningly incomplete portrait.
Demons are this week's speciality, from those that abuse and debase (Mail Order Wife) to those who perpetrated WWII's holocaust (Downfall) and those literally attempting to escape Hades to bring about hell on Earth (Constantine). And though none of these films plumb truly terrifying depths, all are - to some extent - worth checking out.
Before 2003’s heralded Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, Korean director Kim Ki-Duk was best known for his unnerving shock-cinema love story The Isle, a creepy, gruesome, gorgeous and flabbergasting treatise on romantic obsession and violent, nasty male-female relationships. Hee-Jin (Suh Jung) is the mute proprietor of fishing shacks sitting out in a river who spends her overtime sexually servicing (or procuring other female companionship for) her male clients. One of the shack’s current residents, Hyun-Shik (Kim Yoo-Suk), is a suicidal police officer traumatized by having killed his girlfriend – an act he sees in nightmarish flashbacks – in a fit of jealous rage. The two strike up an unlikely, and unhealthy, relationship in which Hee-Jin murders another prostitute who’s eyeing her new man and Hyun-Shik crafts little sculptures (such as a swing and a hangman) out of copper wire. Ki-Duk’s film partially succeeds as allegory even as it falls flat dramatically, but symbolism-infatuated director Ki-Duk beautifully juxtaposes the serenity of the mist-shrouded isle – its hazy gray punctuated only by the floating cabin’s coats of primary colored-paint – with ugly violence such as Hee-Jin and Hyun-Shik’s two shocking acts of fishhook self-mutilation that eerily link the lovers’ plight to that of the water’s hunted fish.
Well, after close to a year (not counting my quick DVD write-up of I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, which I'd already reviewed during its theatrical release), I've finally written a couple of a new DVD reviews. My thoughts on Criterion's two new Jules Dassin DVDs are now up at Slant magazine.