Clean (2004)

Dedicated to reviewers who recognize and appreciate a real star when they see one. Now back off!

At the outset, Maggie Cheung is clean but she’s not “clean.” A friend of mine saw the movie and all he could talk about was Maggie. This is a guy who’ll watch a flick with Michelle Yeoh in it, or Sandra Oh or Lucy Liu or Gong Li or ZiYi Zhang, no matter what it’s about, him just sitting there taking in the sight of Maggie or Michelle or Ziyi onscreen in all her Asian-ness, Sandra in “Last Night” living up in Canada and working in indies long before becoming a doctor on TV, or Lucy slicing and dicing in “Kill Bill” with that Siamese-cat crossed-eyes thing she does, or Michelle the quiet, reserved, classy force in “Crouching Tiger” as opposed to her glamorized American persona when she does those interviews on DVD. Or Margaret Cho, if that’s your thing, popping up for a quick turn in “Lost Room,” strapped. And then my friend will say, oh, she was soooo wonderful, she’s soooo beautiful, blah, blah, got her up on a pedestal, the guy’s yellow fever running wild irregardless of the woman. What’s wrong with these men? Are they afraid to commit?

When Angelina Jolie (not interested!) starred in A Mighty Heart, the question that arose was whether she could disappear into her role in spite of her celebrity. With Maggie in Clean, it’s can she wrap up the role into her own selfness and walk through the movie without my friend jumping off the couch shouting That’s not you Maggie get ahold of yourself for the love of God! Because he’s used to all those Hong Kong action flicks she’s made, and then Kar Wai Wang. Now in Clean she has to be a 2nd-rate faded rock star junkie. Anybody who’s watched “Behind the Music” on VH1 knows what that’s all about. In other words, can we stay with her at least till she gets to her epiphany at 52 minutes into the film where she lowers a window in the subway train (which right there is why we should all move to Paris) and throws all her methadone and her methadone prescription out onto the tracks because she’s just tired of waitressing, arguing with her father, getting stood up at job interviews, working in a department store, and what else, oh yeah, her partner OD’ing on the stuff she brought him and then some other guy OD’ing shortly thereafter? And by the way, is it so wrong for her to look so good even if she’s supposedly using, because for a 43-year-old singer with a bad habit, she looks better than most ladies do on their best days, not like Courtney or a young kid like Lindsay Lohan, at 21 already showing major signs of wear and tear. More like Jennifer Connelly in “Requiem,” who even at the bottom of the barrel, hard used and I do mean hard used, is still looking pretty sharp. Let the Burstyns of this world take their parts over the edge using the Method or whatever. Maggie, getting out of a car in Canada at sunrise, down from a high: lookin good. Then out on the street after six months in prison, still heavily on methadone, with the hair intact just begging you to run your fingers through it: lookin good. But I will say, her so imposing onscreen, it’s shocking to see her standing next to Nolte and her ex in a publicity shot, looking as small as she does. But that’s good too. She’s delicate. They’re all delicate. Delicate fighting machines. Except Margaret. So anyway, just to have Maggie up there onscreen with that low, breathy, English accent, talkin oh so low, or easin along in Frenchy, or rating her papa in Cantonese. That’s what I’m talking about. Commit to a woman! Throw Nolte up next to her for the contrast. He’s the big dog in this production. Assayas and Maggie both were shy and in awe when he showed up. He’s got that Smoking-Gun mugshot look down pat, but he’ll always be Thomas Jefferson to me, scoring with Gwyneth and Thandie (not interested!) in Paris. (That’s Thandie before the eating disorder.) Btw, Maggie claims to do everything, be everything, make every sacrifice, all for Hong Kong, just for the Hong Kong fans. She says that. You could look it up. Not for Hollywood. Not for Europe or anyplace else in the world. Just Hong Kong. And me taking Cantonese classes like mad for her. And THEN she goes and marries a Frenchy.

Olivier Assayas, namely. That lout. Get a shave, Skinny! Are Asian women all attracted to hairy white males? Give some love to the man of color! Ass-ayas makes a couple of movies and thinks he’s God’s gift to women. Maggie’s well off without him. I don’t see that he’s remarried or has any children. Is he still carrying a torch for Maggie? Pray God he’s not. He treats her like a queen in this movie, even as she was signing the final divorce papers. The camera moons over her. He said that he just wants to allow her to be herself, show herself on screen. I’m not complaining! She dropped him; he didn’t drop her. I don’t know that for a fact but I hope it. I surmise it. “In the few years that we were together,” she says, not sadly. I definitely don’t think about the time they spent together, if you know what I mean. That’s water under the bridge, the time they spent together. He says he’s imagining her as a widow in this movie. You wish! Feel sorry for yourself, Olivier! In the movie, she doesn’t like any of the guys that much. You know she’s hanging out on the set with Emily Haine and the rest of Metric, and Tricky (who blows her off in the movie but as soon as the cameras stop, he’s back there, I guarantee), and David Roback, who wrote her songs for the movie, and James Johnson, who plays her partner. Johnson’s not even a real actor; it’s his first movie. He has a band and also sings with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Maggie argues with him in the movie and I didn’t buy that for a minute. It wasn’t bad acting on her part! She just doesn’t really care about the guy. I’m definitely not threatened by the Indie rock scene of the 80s; it’s extinct. The kids in Metric enthusing about staying in a nice hotel for a change during the shoot, and riding in a van that doesn’t smoke, whereas they’re used to rolling up to the gym to play for 40 minutes at a dance in Indiana. And btw, in their interviews, neither Metric nor Tricky nor Nolte ever MENTIONS Maggie. Why? Because Assayas cut it out. Jealous.

Just to say about Assayas: Maggie’s not goofy or all existential or mailing it in in Clean. Assayas lets her be herself, WANTS her to be herself, not some crazy sidekick to Jackie Chan or moonbat for Kar Kai Wong. That’s how I know Maggie dropped him, not the other way around. If you were in love with her but you could only, you know, film her, then you’d want it to be HER you were filming, right? In the same way, if you were in love with her but could only WATCH her movies, not really be with her live in person but only vicariously? Well, she’s been in more than 800 movies, believe it or not, so if you just ran two movies a day, that would be 730 movies a year, so you could spread out her other 70 or 100 movies over the year, maybe one extra movie every third or fourth day. Would that be enough to sustain your romance? No, but you’d also have her 358 YouTube entries. And you could go Google Maggie Cheung images. And you could also read reviews of her movies, but every clown out there has an opinion, knuckleheads trying to suck up to her and soreheads ragging on her. Speaking of YouTube, you can see the tribute clip I put together with shots of her and me getting together. It took me weeks to make it, especially using a handheld to get those shots of myself in action. [Rats they took it down.]

Maggie doesn’t get to interact with her son until we’re 60+ minutes into the movie. And by the way, if you’re the president of the oldest, most exclusive Maggie Cheung fan club in the U.S., shouldn’t you be entitled to at least a personal interview with her? Dinner together while we discuss her life and her work? She’s got this child in the movie whom she apparently doesn’t see much for his first seven or eight years, and then when she does, she’s pretty remote, like you’d expect, but does she have any children of her own? I’m trying to imagine her pregnant. Forget I said that. I think she’d be a good mother. I can imagine her being my mother. I’d run home and fly into her arms and bury my face… Aw what’s the use? And by the way, how seriously should we take the lesbian/bisexual aspects of this movie with reference to Maggie’s aspirations toward motherhood? What’s the cultural take on an individual’s casual liaisons with beautiful people of both sexes in the context of family values these days? I’m sensitive to any untoward discoveries that I might make if she and I would actually form a relationship. She’s used the name “Man-Yuk Cheung” in some of her billings. Not a good sign? But what if her “special friend” were Michelle or Lucy or Sandra? Man. Not much to go on in the film, though – she just admits it; it’s actually just a little distraction, but you know why Assayas put it in, the dog. Anyway, she’s an addict, she’s bisexual in a somewhat uncommitted way, she drinks and smokes a lot, but she looks great. A Maggie quote: “Because I’ve done so many different roles, I don’t want to repeat myself. It’s getting harder and harder to find something interesting.” This after only the first movie where she plays a normal human being? She says she’s not a lonely woman, which means she is. She should try hanging out with one of her greatest fans ha ha. Same as with her son, we don’t get her dealing with Nolte much till 60+ minutes into the movie. I’m like Nolte, sort of, under the skin, all wise and practical and whiskey-voiced. If she liked him, she’ll love me. If she does have kids, they could visit every once in a while. I could handle that. But I would tell her one thing: no singing. She wants to sing. She says so. But no. Talk, Maggie, in any of your various lingos. Just don’t sing.

Is it really so wrong to stalk a movie star? Folks are watching them all the time anyway. As long as you don’t bother her or do something inappropriate, why not? Join the paparazzi! Assayas is practically stalking her with his camera in Clean anyway. It’s a Vogue shoot. He’s not over her, is why. In the movie she’s running around Canada and Paris like she owns the place, just at home anywhere in the world. (What about those Canadian police, eh?) Assayas says it’s because she was born and raised in London, spent so many years in Hong Kong, and now in France. She doesn’t know where her roots are, so she takes them with her whereever she goes. One little stalker like me isn’t going to make a damn bit of difference.

My interview with Maggie: Finally caught up with Maggie last night at Mr. Chow on North Camden just off Wilshire in Beverly Hills. She was eating rabbit. A glass of red wine, high-gloss lipstick (she doesn’t need it), and a B. Romanek Crocodile Rockstar Clutch on the table next to her plate. Those dark, dark eyes, my God. I only had a second to ask her some questions about Clean, so I went with that scene in Paris: How do you lock somebody INTO a bathroom – is that a French thing? And how come Nolte’s son in the movie had such a thick English accent? And that final shot in the movie – Is that taken from Marin? Reversed? Doesn’t seem right to me. They were on location in S.F., but is it a Vancouver shot stuck in there? Anyway, Maggie answered me in Cantonese. I should have worked harder in that Chinese language class! The only word I caught before I had to leave was “rabid.” Must ask her to use English next time.

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2001

I notice that 2001 is #22 on the AFI list. Various blog posters have it on their top-five sci fi lists. Just a quick post here to ask why.

Disclaimer: I write here only of my subjective reactions to the movie. No absolutes. No measure of Kubrick as visionary or master filmmaker. If 2001 is your favorite sci fi flick, I’m down with that. I don’t expect everyone to respect my favorite movie as the #1 of all time, not if they aren’t into horses and the young girls who ride and feed and groom them like I am. Because one day that girl grows a little older and loses interest and then you’re stuck with half a ton of knickering, piebald… but I digress.

I haven’t watched 2001 in several years, but I’ve seen it more than once and I do have my lasting impressions. Perhaps, given the adulation enjoyed by the film, I’m forgetting something important. I saw the film in Boston in 1968 when it came out. Played at the Cinerama. Might have been the first movie shown there. Prices jacked up, I remember that. We sat in the balcony. Course, we didn’t know that we would be watching THE #22 MOVIE OF ALL TIME when we went. There was more interest in the whole Cinerama thing, which as I recall turned out to be no big deal.

Anyway, the movie… Did I use the word “visionary”? I’m just remembering here that it’s 2010, as I write. In 2001 I was still driving my ’67 VW with the sunroof. But the trip to Jupiter required that we find the black thingee on the moon and, well, we didn’t go back to the moon. In fact, x percent of Americans don’t think we ever went to the moon in the first place; twas all a hoax. So instead of the Jupiter trip and HAL, we get Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush, Clinton, and Bush (“Let’s go to Mars, right after we finish with Iraq.”). And a head of NASA who thinks that it’s presumptuous of us to consider our current climate as the best of all possible climates. But whoa. I’m going to pretend that the movie’s title is 2101, just to give myself a little room here. And 2010 can be 2110, for those who dug the sequel.

Anyway, I settle back in my seat and we get the cavemen and the black thingee, and then the bone tossed in the air and it turns into a spaceship, and right there I’m annoyed. I wanted more ape. This is it? A little ape and black thingee and we’re done? And btw, what happened to that black thingee? It’s buried out there somewhere? What would that thing bring on Ebay? Did I mention that I read Arthur Clarke in paperback (Ballantine Books) back in the 50s? He was ok, more than ok, but a little staid. Childhood’s End, as I recall, had a great cover. The covers were almost as important as the books, back in the day (my fave companies: Bantam, Ace, and Ballantine). Anyway, we don’t just leave the apes, we get the Strauss waltz music and flight attendents (in 60s stewardess mode). The reality: 2007, Southwest Airlines, a tiny bag of greaseless peanuts.

Then another black thingee but nothing really happens. The Cinerama has worn off. Did I mention we were up in the balcony? My girlfriend at the time… jeez, by now she’s a grandmother. I don’t think she cared that much for the movie either, but who knows? I was too self-centered to care what she was thinking about it anyway.

Ok. HAL. Finally. A gay voice like that was totally unusual in the 60s. A breakthough of sorts, except that his breakup with Keir was a little heavy. Holy Cow! Keir played a senator in The Good Shepherd. Still working. But anyway, lbgt was all code back then. Pulling those circuits out, one by one. Homophobia at its worst.

Don’t get me started on that light-show thing. Went on forever. Checking my watch. Those colors wouldn’t have passed muster in The Wizard of Oz.

And then the ending, which Clarke hated, and still hates (in heaven).

Warriors of Terra

Warriors of Terra is the name of a group of young eco-activists who have invaded, and freed the caged critters from, the research facilities of twelve of those large, evil companies that mistreat animals in the service of developing drugs that will make the stockholders (and the immoral CEOs, always beautifully decked out in navy blue suits in these movies) richer than we can hope to imagine. The film is several cuts above average for a low-budget effort. It should satisfy undemanding horror geeks and some of the rest of us who were misled by the title into watching it.

Edward Furlong gets top billing. After Pecker, American History X, and Animal Factory, I thought Furlong was a star, but perhaps not. If the list of films he’s done in the past few years represents quality work, then I’m out of touch, since I haven’t heard of any of them. He doesn’t look good; the sweet bird of youth has flown.

[Mild spoilers]

Think Alien and then replace the female bug with a female human with ebola DNA patched into her cells. Result? She’s faster than the eye can follow. The more she is injured, the more she needs to eat and like Ebola, she likes to eat flesh – the flesh of B-movie actors. Replace the crew in Alien with the Warriors of Terra stuck in the basement of a big building, and then sit back and try to guess who makes it out alive. One of the warriors, Andrea Liu, we’ll be looking for in future films. In this one, being of Asian extraction, she is named “Jade,” in case we hadn’t noticed.

The movie uses sound well. Quiet, understated techno backgound. Rather than graphic killing and feeding, we get a blackout and sound of crunching as each victim meets his/her fate.

The film is unrated, but sadly, only for language and a little gore. Since some of the gore moved, something I don’t remember seeing before, I suppose it’s CGI.

No commentary, which you’ve really got to have to get through some of these things.

Paths of Glory

This Stanley Kubrick film (1957) is listed in AFI’s top 200 movies of all time. Paths of Glory tells the story of a company of World War I French soldiers accused of cowardice after the men refuse to advance during an attack on the German lines. Three soldiers chosen at random from the ranks are court martialed, tried, and shot, to provide a warning and example to the rest of the men.

In WWI, following an initial burst of enthusiasm and optimism on both sides, a static front of trenches developed, stretching unbroken from the Atlantic to Switzerland. Soldiers from Germany, France, and England populated these trenches from 1914 to 1918. Periodically, one side or the other would send forth a wave of men to be slaughtered while attempting a breakthrough. Casualty numbers ran higher, far higher, than had ever been seen before in human history (although the patterns of battle and loss reflected those of the US Civil War, with respect to death vs the development of new weaponry). The lines hardly moved over the entire course of the war.

The action in Paths of Glory occurs halfway through the war. It could have been set anywhere on the line, on either side of the line. Kubrick lays out the basics with a nighttime reconnaissance sequence, scenes of the general officers planning the next attack, a fruitless assault, the trial of the three men for cowardice, the executions.

I watched this movie again several weeks ago and asked myself, does it deserve its stellar reputation as an effective antiwar movie?

The question occurred to me because I was in a contrarian mode, having just written a review (q.v.) of 2001, explaining why I thought the movie was not as good as advertised. If Kubrick could win accolades with 2001, could it be that Paths of Glory was similarly defective? The generals behave badly. Death is a statistic. The war, it is clear, is symmetrical, meaning that right and wrong do not apply when weighing the reasons to fight. Some die and the rest move on. Meaningless. In “All Quiet on the Western Front,” the protagonist returns home from the lines for a visit and finds the old men in the tavern arguing over the war as if it were a soccer match. In Paths of Glory, we are not even provided the neocons’ cold-blooded, realpolitick, simple-minded explanations of the benefits of political change by force.

The moral, ethical, non-cynical man’s view is provided in the film by Kirk Douglas, who might as well be living on another planet for all the good he does here. Idealism can only be used as contrast by Kubrick here, can only be grand and shining but febrile in effect, if war is to remain absurd, mechanical, final.

A soldier is killed because of an officer’s criminal malfeasance; ironically, the officer is spared retribution by having a witness to the killing executed. A soldier is near death from a head injury incurred in a fight; ironically, he is saved so that he can be shot. A young German woman sings to the French troops and ironically brings them to tears. Kirk gives up at the end, with that Kirk look on his face, and ironically, I find myself grinning.

Be With Me (2005)

Directed by Eric Khoo.
Starring Theresa Chan, Ng Sway Ah, Seet King Yew, Exann Lee
93 minutes. Unrated.

In English, Cantonese, Hakkim, and Mandarin, with English subtitles.

“Be With Me” weaves three fictional romances around the true story of Theresa Chan, a deaf and blind woman living in Singapore.

Sometime during the first half of this film, I decided that director Eric Khoo must be a talented novice, in need of guidance but possessed of real film-making skill. I reined in some of my negative critical reactions because of this. However, I have since learned that Khoo was credited with reviving the Singapore movie industry ten years ago with “Mee Pok Man” (1995), and that after a silence of 7 years, he has recently directed three new films, one of them “Be With Me.” Which means that everything I saw onscreen, Khoo put there on purpose. What market and/or financial pressures and/or cultural perspectives caused him to make the peculiar choices he made, I can’t say, so I’ll simply report my viewing experience without feathers.

In the film, an old man loses his wife and learns to live without her; a social misfit stalks a beautiful woman and writes her a love letter; a teenager falls in love with a girl she meets on the internet, and then is jilted by her. Khoo cuts between these stories quickly, taking time out periodically to insert documentary-style film and exposition about Theresa Chan, who lost her hearing and then her sight when she was fourteen, to diseases that remain nameless in the film (meningitis, in fact).

The stalking and teen-love stories, although beautifully shot, are dramatically appropriate for no more than after-school TV; they don’t belong anywhere near Theresa Chan. There is a place for schoolgirls in bed together, don’t get me wrong, with urgent soapy music welling up in the background, and a place as well for failed suicide, and for death via getting hit on the noggin by a falling body, but these matters do not comport well with footage of an energetic sixty-year-old deaf and blind woman teaching eight-year-olds to knit. At least, not where I come from.

The third fictional segment of the movie is another matter. In long, composed, static shots with an an ambient soundtrack and subdued colors, an old man (Ng Sway Ah) is followed by the camera and studied as he closes his small shop in the city, shops for food, cooks at home, and lies in bed alone. The years of his long life are etched into his face and we’re given plenty of time to contemplate the rhythms of his day and the ravages of time on his body, and to compare him and his daily life with ourselves, with all the attendant intimations of mortality that this kind of mediation triggers in us. Rare opportunity, and a blessing.

In the film, the old man’s wife appears in many scenes with him, sitting or standing wordlessly by. I thought that she had some plot-driven, Alzheimer-like malady that caused her to behave this way. Turns out that she was a ghost. Don’t know why I didn’t get that, but in the end, as she faded away, it didn’t make any difference one way or the other. Similarly, I had trouble keeping track of which teenage girl was which, and whether either was related to the stalker, so forth. Again, in the end it didn’t matter.

And speaking of ambient sound, by muting the movie I could differentiate the cricket chirps in my backyard from those on the sound track. Counting chirps per minute, dividing by 4, and adding 40, I deduced that I was watching the movie at 75F, while in Singapore it was 88F while the night scenes were being shot.

Which brings us to Theresa Chan. Director/writer Khoo would have done well to toss out all of the film I’ve described so far, regardless of any poetry contained in it, and replace the lot with more footage of Chan. After a period of complete isolation within herself, sight and hearing gone, by a series of lucky chances Chan found herself enrolled in the Perkins School in Boston. She lived in the U.S. for ten years, learning to knit, ride horses, understand and speak English, and otherwise engage life and the world directly. We watch her type, cook, teach, and talk while we read her written words, expository and philosophical, in subtitles.

But how did she learn, starting alone, with only her sense of touch? Not to lower the tenor of this review, but I’m reminded of a recent podcast by Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier. These two knuckleheads spent thirty minutes debating the proposition that the Helen Keller story was an elaborate hoax, since in Smith’s estimation it would have been impossible for her to learn 90% of what she claimed to know, given her condition. (“SMODCAST” is available on Itunes. IT IS NOT FOR EVERYONE.) Smith and Mosier had seen both versions of “The Miracle Worker,” but perhaps because they make movies themselves, they didn’t believe anything in either movie, Anne Bancroft or no Anne Bancroft. Anyway, the point is, Khoo would have been well advised to skip the three fictional tales and invest his production money in a ticket to Boston, for a visit and some interviews at Perkins.

Again, how was Theresa Chan able to maintain the lively spirit she exhibits? We want to learn more. It isn’t all good news. She lost her one true love and we read parts of her letters to him. She isn’t interviewed because the conceit of the movie is that hers is the fourth story, and that the old man’s eventual connection to her helps him to overcome his own loss and move on.

In the event, “Be With Me” is the film that got made. It’s message – and it definitely has one – is… well, Theresa Chan’s written words in the subtitles are about the importance of love. The three fictional stories are all about the rough edges of love. So perhaps the message is that love is important. (Theresa’s one true love died of cancer on Christmas Day, just before their wedding.) Love…is…important…

On the other hand, there is virtually no dialog in the film – ironic since four languages, plus braille, plus a sort of sign language on the hand, plus cell phone texting and internet email, are all employed – so maybe there is a message here about communication. As in, a deaf and blind woman can communicate better than all these other folks, and maybe better than YOU, so… communication…is…important…

Khoo’s artistic enterprise, then, is to cause me to cogitate on love and the importance thereof, or find inspiration in love, or just learn to communicate better with those I do love, or, wait, perhaps just to keep hope alive. There was something in there about how there is always hope. Never give up. So forth.

So, put aside for now my questions about how a person can learn when deaf and blind. Put aside my resonance with the everyday rhythms of an old man’s life.

Come to think of it, I did learn one thing from this movie: Teresa Chan is not a cynic, and neither is Eric Khoo. There is no cynicism or irony in this quiet, graceful movie. After watching it, I was, in fact, briefly, not cynical myself.

This film won five international film festival awards and was nominated for three others.

The DVD was provided by Film Movement (www.filmmovement.com) – “Early access to award-winning independent and foreign film.”