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Review: War of the Worlds

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A decade or so from now, when academics start publishing scholarly tomes with titles like “The Anxiety of Insurgence: Hollywood Responds to 9/11,” Steven Spielberg’s unsparing adaptation of War of the Worlds is guaranteed a meaty chapter all its own. No doubt aware that images of people running in terror from collapsing buildings now carry unavoidable topical baggage, Spielberg, with the help of screenwriters Josh Friedman and David Koepp, has refashioned H.G. Wells’ classic tale of interplanetary invasion into a unnervingly cathartic simulacrum of that Tuesday morning’s apocalyptic confusion and horror. The references fly fast and furious and sans subtlety: onlookers covered in ash, walls papered with handmade MISSING flyers, mountains of rubble dotted with airplane wheels and hunks of fuselage — even the suggestion that the aliens have in some sense been living among us in sleeper cells. (Their war machines, shiny metallic wedges perched on spindly tripod legs, have been buried underground for millennia in anticipation of the attack.) For (mostly) better and (occasionally) worse, mindless summer carnage this decidedly ain’t.

    From the moment that ominous storm clouds begin lowering over the broken home of New Jersey dockworker Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise, miscast but largely irrelevant), Spielberg has the audience by the short hairs. The initial invasion and its immediate aftermath, astonishing and unforgettable, derives most of its power not from ILM’s typically impressive effects but from the camera’s relentless, breakneck evocation of an overwhelming adrenaline rush. Without denying us the pleasurable frisson of excitement, Spielberg reminds us, via jarring, unexpected whip-pans (including one shot that hurtles us from inside a speeding vehicle out into traffic and back again), of the nausea and vertigo that accompany sheer, blinding panic. Crucially, there’s no time to remember that the film’s banal story arc involves Ray’s gradual transformation from self-absorbed deadbeat dad to ferociously protective father.

    Alas, things settle down in the film’s comparatively lackluster second half, much of which Ray and his daughter (Dakota Fanning) spend hiding in a dank basement inhabited by a demented survivalist (Tim Robbins, recycling his damaged grandstanding from Mystic River). Spielberg, admittedly following Wells, offers a less virtuosic rendition of the spider-probe sequence from Minority Report; the aliens make a brief, underwhelming in-store appearance; Cruise struggles manfully to convey emotions more complex than “Holy shit, RUN!” And you’ve probably already heard people grumbling about the ending, which manages the tricky feat of being at once frustratingly anticlimactic and unbearably saccharine. Disappointing, to be sure, but still, half a masterpiece is better than none. — Mike D’Angelo

Review: Tropical Malady

With his latest Cannes-winning film, Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul continues to transgress filmic boundaries, as he did between documentary and feature in Mysterious Object at Noon (an exquisite-corpse treatment of a traditional story, as told by different people the film crew encounters) and between nations in Blissfully Yours (set in the mountains separating Thailand and Burma). In the bewitchingly strange Tropical Malady, a faux-naif story about the love between two men gives way to a folk-tale inflected reverie about a soldier hunting a mythical tiger.

    Tropical Malady shares the same bifurcated structure as Blissfully Yours, where late-running credits signaled a plunge into its characters’ escapist desires. But as with the earlier film, the demarcation between the two worlds is fluid — the ostensibly realistic depiction of the blossoming relationship between a soldier and a young man from the countryside has the quality of ecstatic memory. The tiger legend, inhabited by a talking monkey and an electric tree blazing through the forest, is disrupted by the real-life crackle of radio static.

    Both halves of the film feature the same actors, with the young man doubling as the shaman-turned-tiger, the soldier in thrall to both — the sweetness of love gained, and the oblivion of its loss. — Noy Thrupkaew
Review: The World
Jeez, talk about symbols. The setting of Jia Zhang-ke’s new film about the perils of globalization is Beijing’s World Park — a giant Chinese amusement park that recreates great landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Manhattan skyline, and the Taj Mahal. Not exactly subtle, is it? You could probably set Wedding Crashers at World Park and automatically have a film about the perils of globalization. Luckily, Jia seems to have more on his mind than just taking a few swipes at the global village.

    The World revolves around the lives of the young Chinese workers who populate World Park, performing in its revue shows, dressing up in its colorful outfits, providing its visitors with security, etc. Although the park’s simulated landmarks, or other signs of China’s capitalist boom, are always clearly in the background, the film’s real villain isn’t so much The World At Large as it is The World Within. There’s something gnawing away at Jia’s characters, preventing them from achieving anything resembling happiness. Perhaps it’s the constant ideal of connectedness they’re presented with — Jia liberally peppers his film with florid animated interludes featuring happy cellphone-toting figures — or their stunning inability to maintain any real relationships. When connection does occur in The World, it’s usually fleeting, rough, flawed — and more often than not happens in dark bathrooms or dank hotel rooms rather than those pristine, artificial landmarks.

    It would be easy to diagnose this problem and chalk it up to the bogeyman of international capitalism, but Jia is more interested in exposing globalization’s hollow promises than accusing it of anything. People still have to deal with each other on a one-to-one-basis, no matter where they are. The World is merely an empty backdrop. Sometimes a World Park is just a World Park.— Bilge Ebiri
Review: The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Is there any point to a James Toback movie not directed by James Toback? More than almost any other American filmmaker, Toback is defined by his obsessions, virtually all of which are predicated on the juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. Fingers, his 1978 directorial debut, starred Harvey Keitel as a prototypical Toback protagonist, torn between a career as a concert pianist and his current gig as a low-level Mob enforcer; it’s hard to imagine anybody else mining riches from such a schematic, implausible scenario, unless he happens to share the personal conviction that the stars are best viewed from a reclining position in the gutter. And yet here we have The Beat That My Heart Skipped, a loose remake of Fingers made by French moodmeister Jacques Audiard (Read My Lips) and by God, it actually kind of works, despite Audiard’s substitution of elegant, fragmented atmosphere for Toback’s unruly, candid urgency.

    What makes this achievement doubly impressive is that Keitel’s explosive part has been allotted to Romain Duris, a blandly handsome young actor who’s previously (in films like L’Auberge Espagnole and Le Divorce) evinced little more than affability and/or petulance. I’m not sure whether Duris actually gives a strong performance here, or whether Audiard’s expressively jumpy camerawork merely creates the illusion of depth; whatever the case, this is the first time I haven’t found him insufferable. The whole which-parent-should-I-emulate? business (Mom, now dead, was a renowned pianist; Dad is a slumlord who goads his son into collecting his debts) remains irritatingly facile, but the film’s strength resides largely in isolated moments of somber beauty and quiet grace, epitomized by the lovely, diffident relationship that gradually develops between our hero and his Vietnamese piano tutor (Linh-Dan Pham), who doesn’t speak a word of French. Their frustrated attempt at communication, mediated by their mutual love of art, echoes the strange alchemy achieved by this movie — a marriage between two sensibilities that could hardly be further removed. — Mike D’Angelo

Date DVD #39: Crazed Fruit

Because distributors typically release a DVD four to six months after a film’s theatrical release, we’re now stuck with the duds of January and February: Diesel’s The Pacifier and DeNiro’s Hide and Seek. Luckily, a few terrific indie and oddball dvds are taking advantage of the lull. There’s the Iraq War doc Gunner Palace (somewhat overrated, but still better than most coverage I’ve seen), the over-the-top doc Overnight (about self-proclaimed indie film god Troy Duffy), and even the second and third seasons of the original Twilight Zone TV show. But for a night in, I suggest ordering in some sushi and sipping Sapporo to a few new Japanese releases.

    Check out the new box set of the weirdly stylish Maiku Hama Private Eye Trilogy, which, in films like the beautifully black-and-white The Most Terrible Time in My Life, doesn’t so much amplify the violence of private dicks, as stylize it into a series of lush tableaus and sly compositions. But be sure to rent Criterion’s new edition of Ko Nakahira’s Crazed Fruit, the tanned, frisky 1956 film that set loose two rich young brothers on the same, beautiful young woman. Epitomizing Japan’s brief burst of antiauthoritarian, “sun tribe” filmmaking, dripping with sweat and salty water, sticky with beach sand and jealousy, it’s a stylish, erotic roll in the sand with a tragic streak (not unlike, in certain sequences, Madonna’s “Cherish” video). It’s a historic document for Asian film buffs, and an idealistic romance for any date smitten with the idea of impetuous love. — Logan Hill



 
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