Runs Fri., March 26–Thurs., April 1, at Varsity
Imagine a society in which greedy capitalists are limited only by the amount of bribe they can afford to pay corrupt officials. Envision no EPA, OSHA, or FDA; no Medicare or Medicaid; no Social Security or workers' comp; no minimum wage or sick days. You work or you die. You work until you die. Is this our future under Dubya? No it's present-day China, at least according to this bluntly powerful moral fable, in which coal is more valuable than human life.
"Now only fucking money matters," says Tang (Wang Shuangbao), the older and more cynical of two grifters with a well-practiced scheme for profiting from post-Communist China's moral/economic anarchy. With his younger cohort, Song (Li Yixiang), they blackmail shady businesses willing to pay hush money to conceal industrial accidents from the authorities (who would otherwise demand an even bigger payout). Sample M.O.: Befriend some unsuspecting rube fresh off the bus from an impoverished village; lure him with the prospect of a well-paying job at a mine; kill him with a pickax to the skull; claim the death was caused by a cave-in; then collect the cash. (Each life is valued at about $4,000.) Says one mine owner before handing over the loot, "Burn the corpse and get out of here."
Blind Shaft is about as subtle as that pickax to the skull. Shot inside real mines (meaning some very, very dark cinematography), it has a somewhat clunky, utilitarian feel to its craft, plotting, and characterization: Tang is ruthless, while Song is sensitive and softer. One of their marks, Yuan (Wang Baoqiang), turns out to be a sweetly trusting and innocent 16-year-old hick who's coached to call Song "uncle." Soon Song feels himself to be exactly that. He helps studious Yuan to lose his cherry in the obligatory brothel-deflowering scene. He stalls and barters with Tang to forestall Yuan's death. Finally, as the deadline nears on their latest con, he offers himself in Yuan's place.
In an earlier era of capitalism, like that of Upton Sinclair and The Jungle, director Li Yang's debut feature might be seen as a muckraking call to arms, a progressive manifesto, or perhaps just a 60 Minutes exposé. Today, we call it an art film, perhaps being so unaccustomed to viewing the brutal underpinnings of the system. No documentary (though news reports would tend to support its verisimilitude), Blind Shaft dramatizes the flip side of globalization—an economy in wrenching transition from farms and collectives to smokestacks and cell phones. The doomed miners here resemble the workers in a Sebastião Salgado photo, and the ravaged, poisoned environment in which they toil resembles those chronicled by Canadian landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky (such images are typically taken in developing nations).
The movie shows us labor conditions so perilous that murder and employment are almost interchangeable terms. However, perhaps to pass government censors, it spares the authorities direct criticism, and its ending is rather too morally pat and predictable. (Or perhaps you could call it Confucian in its justice.) As much as Blind Shaft is about China's problems, it's not "foreign," because the half-Communist, half-capitalist system it depicts is like some dark doppelgänger of our own. Somehow we're implicated, too—this is our history being played out again, only in Mandarin. When shy, virginal Yuan steals a peek at Western pinups, with their Brobdingnagian boob jobs and bottle-blond hair, their sheer abundance seems more pornographic than their poses. The kid's curiosity is touching, even while his desire betokens greater problems ahead. China is much larger than the U.S., and it will eventually be richer in sheer economic might. It will consume more, spend more, pollute more, kill more—whether by design or neglect. As we see in Blind Shaft, both those tendencies are equally fatal. (NR) BRIAN MILLER
Opens Fri., March 26, at Metro and Uptown
This diverting but minor Irish comic ensemble piece opens with a speech by Colin Farrell that shows why the bad-boy thespian was snapped up so fast by Hollywood. "Love's not something you can plan for, is it?" he asks, beginning a breakup-induced roundelay of unplanned mishaps and broken hearts with ample charisma (and some nifty handling of a shovel). Redeeming himself nicely for S.W.A.T., Farrell plays a petty hooligan on a crime spree who ends up part of an inept bank-robbery scheme that also includes a lovelorn grocery-store peon (28 Days Later's Cillian Murphy) and the woman he disastrously dumps (Trainspotting's Kelly Macdonald, worth more than any amount found in the safe). The film jumps around briskly among its various plot strands, then sews them up neatly in a satisfying, if predictable, manner.
Along the way, we meet Murphy's sad-sack co-worker, who's so lonely that he cries while masturbating; Macdonald's sister, who refuses to wax her she-'stache "as a sign of mourning" for a past trauma; and a hard-faced little urchin with a knack for tossing rocks through car windows, causing several serious accidents. Recognizable to American viewers, Colm Meaney plays a self-styled vigilante cop who wants to star on a reality TV program. Naturally, his mean streak leads him into conflict with Farrell (who punches several women with untroubled gusto—he's an equal-opportunity ruffian). Then there's a guy who gets knocked out by a can of peas, my favorite moment in the film.
Intermission fails to develop at least half its overlapping plot lines and characters on a trajectory that could become either tragic or comic. By the time we get to the robbery/hostage plan, things could go either way, but this seems indecisive rather than dramatic. The tone's default setting is all whimsy and color, so the occasional moments of violence seem random and unmotivated—like the malign rock-tossing boy, who belongs in a different picture. The movie's pace and structure help to disguise—just barely—the thinness and familiarity of its writing; when in doubt, Intermission resorts to music and montage, including, yes, U2. You'd rather it stick with a couple of characters—or, better yet, just one. Instead of seeing him play Alexander the Great in his next blockbuster, Farrell's charming thug—close kin to his cameo in Veronica Guerin—deserves his own 24 hours in the spotlight of Dublin deviancy. Now what material could be adapted for his character? Hey—isn't Bloomsday coming up in June? (R) B.R.M.
Opens Fri., March 26, at Metro and others
Most indie filmmakers bitterly resist Hollywood's sibilant siren song, but Kevin Smith was always cheerfully eager to sell out. Only problem was, his talent was unsalable to a mass audience. After his $28,000 slacker comedy Clerks, he flopped horribly with the attempted sellout comedy Mallrats. Chasing Amy and Dogma did better by targeting the art-house market's THC–scented sector. At last, he attempts to sell out for real with Jersey Girl, his first bid for a No. 1 hit.
Surprise! It's not half bad, because it preserves the half-badness that is his semiliterate auteurist signature—the static quality, the stony talkiness, the wandering story line, the seventh-grade comic-book fan vulgarism. Despite the haloed glow bestowed by sainted cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, Girl again exemplifies Smith's essential visual incompetence. It's a Ben Affleck star vehicle and formulaic family feel-good flick, and yet still echt Kevin Smith.
Don't fret: It's not a Bennifer star vehicle. J.Lo only appears in the first dozen or so minutes. She loves Ollie (Affleck), then she promptly dies in childbirth. To Smith's credit, you don't feel like cheering here: Even if you'd never heard of Gigli, you'd think they made a cute couple.
But not as cute as Ollie and Gertie, the Jersey girl J.Lo dies birthing. As Ollie's 7-year-old heartthrob Gertie, Raquel Castro (who does kind of resemble Lopez) skillfully treads the line between adorable and icky. Affleck agreeably coasts through the film on her bouncing coattails; he ribs his own damaged image a bit, milking his fall from grace like Kate Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story. At first, PR maven Ollie's ego's like a big, inflated testicle. He abuses his self-effacing underling (Jason Biggs), then blows his career by bellowing to assembled Gotham journos that his client, Will Smith (cameoing as himself), will never be a movie star. A fine mess, Ollie!
So, abashed and shit-canned, it's back to a street-cleaning job and life with his dad (George Carlin) and Gertie in his Jersey hometown. Seven years' celibate-widower itch drives him to the video store for porn. The clerk (Liv Tyler, whose perky performance lives up to Smith's nickname for her, "Sport Fuck") offers her svelte self instead. Can she bond with Gertie after Gertie catches her with Ollie in the shower? Will Ollie return to N.Y.C. prime time or check his ambition to co-star with Gertie in her school's (pretty amusing) production of Sweeney Todd? Could this be any more PG-13 predictable? Girl is PG-13 pleasant, if inert, which goes to show that Kevin Smith has finally sold out (and more power to him for that), even if he still hasn't learned how to move the merchandise. (PG-13) TIM APPELO
Never Die Alone
Opens Fri., March 26, at Pacific Place
There's a big difference between an antihero and a nihilistic, vile, no-good sonofabitch who happens to be a movie's protagonist. Don't be confused by Alone's poster aesthetic. It is far, far from just another chop-sucky action vehicle for always-ready-to-retire rap tough DMX. Under the wanna-be noirish direction of Ernest Dickerson, it's as fiendish and alarming a drug 'n' thug melodrama as his 1992 Juice—and one that likewise runs the risk of repelling most of its audience.
The film opens tritely with DMX narrating—nay, woofing—in voice-over from his open coffin. We learn precious little via initial flashbacks, except that he's a criminal named King David who's utterly reviled (the movie's second section hinges on the hows and whys of this revulsion). Apparently he's on a mission to set past grievances right, which requires a payoff to a cutthroat underworld boss, whose young underling (Barbershop's Michael Ealy) is sent to collect. Problem is, the kid has a beef with David, a vicious struggle ensues, and a Samaritan witness (David Arquette) ends up hauling a mortally wounded David to the ER.
This random act of kindness splits the story into two brutal halves. Arquette's fledgling ghetto novelist unearths a series of David's portentously narrated audiocassettes. From these, he pieces together the deceased's sordid history, while becoming increasingly embroiled in a series of present-day revenge killings conducted by David's past enemies.
There's nothing poetic about DMX's gruff musings, but there is a fascinating audacity in the way his character systematically turns all of his adoring girlfriends into junkies. (The creator of the 1974 source novel, Donald Goines, was both a smack addict and a prolific pulp-fiction author, one of the best-selling black writers of his day.) Never Die Alone is unabashedly misogynistic, clumsy, and mean, but . . . well . . . artfully so. Y'all gonna make us lose our minds up in here, X. Keep at it, I guess. (R) ANDREW BONAZELLI