The Five Obstructions
Runs Fri., July 16–Thurs., July 22, at Varsity
The premise of this documentary film-about-a-film sounds awful, and it has the added demerit of Lars von Trier pulling the strings—or cutting them—above co- director Jørgen Leth's efforts to remake his own 1967 art film, The Perfect Human, five times according to five arbitrary sets of strictures imposed by von Trier. Yet while primarily of interest to Dogma geeks who can't get enough of formal constraints upon the medium of film ("Lies! All lies!" you imagine von Trier shouting off-camera), Obstructions isn't awful. Not exactly. Since we never see Leth's 12-minute black-and-white original in its entirety, nor any of the five follow-ups in theirs, this film is fairly frustrating. It cries out for DVD, where we could suppress the not-very-interesting behind-the-scenes negotiation between the two directors—pupil von Trier essentially pulling the pants down on his mentor and grinning at Leth's reaction—and concentrate on product, not process.
But there are moments in the process to be savored. Though you want to dislike von Trier, the Dogville director who scorns America and sees hypocrisy and violence beneath every stone, who must crucify a woman in every picture he makes, he's an entertainingly, impishly neurotic screen presence. While he insists his maddening rules are meant as "therapy" for the buttoned-down Leth, it's obvious— particularly in the fifth remake, which he, von Trier, actually directs!—that he's the patient on the couch. You could call the whole enterprise Five Short Films About Lars von Trier; it's cathartic for him, and certainly one of the emotions released is envy. He good-naturedly grouses to Leth, "The trouble is that you're so clever, whatever I say inspires you," and he's right. Leth's fourth remake, a very cool cartoon created with the assistance of Waking Life animator Bob Sabiston, begs full-length scrutiny. Again, wait for the DVD.
When von Trier expresses mock disapproval that the responses to his provocations are so ingenious ("Teacher is offended," Leth quips), it ultimately reflects the shortcomings of his attack upon film's supposed objectivity and truthfulness. He knocks "the highly affected distance that you [Leth] maintain" in favor of his own brand of unadorned, deformalized truth without sounding entirely convinced of his own argument. He jokes that he wants Leth to produce "crap," a term he uses interchangeably with "therapy." Amid their tongue-in-cheek gamesmanship, Leth proves one thing at least: As an art, movies remain more than formless excretions, even when you talk shit about them. (NR) BRIAN MILLER
I'll Sleep When I'm Dead
Opens Fri., July 16, at Metro
The early scenes of Mike Hodges' new neo-noir flick introduce a rare figure for the genre: a bad lad with nothing but fun on his mind, instead of the conventional cloud of existential angst. Davey (Bend It Like Beckham's Jonathan Rhys-Meyers) waterskeeters along rain-slick London streets from party to posh party, making crazy money delivering cocaine so good he gets away with always being late. And once he finally gets there and palms the host's cash, he visits the back bedroom where partygoers toss their coats and rummages for dropped wallets and loose bills. Nervy little wanker! He'll get his comeuppance!
He does, too soon. Thugs drag him into an alley and hold him down while the sneering überthug Boad (Malcolm McDowell) rapes him. Fun's over for Davey. He stumbles home and dies in his bloody bathtub.
Enter Davey's older brother, Will Graham (Clive Owen, whose tough, well-dressed performance in Hodges' Croupier won him instant fame and everybody's nomination to be the next James Bond). Will is just as gloomy as that other Will Graham played by William Petersen in Manhunter. This Will also had some kind of emotional breakdown, quit the crime biz, and got back to nature. Now he's a solitary lumberjack in the U.K.'s remote north, working without ID papers, his gaunt, suffering eyes boring into the soul of everyone he meets—or simply boring them, depending on their tolerance for gaunt suffering.
Suddenly, Will gets a funny feeling he ought to check up on his kid brother, even though he hasn't seen anybody from his old gangsta life in ages. This is one of a great many plot points that the movie thinks it's way too cool to have to bother to explain. Why did Boad rape Davey? Did Davey kill himself? If so, why? How did Boad, a fancy-car dealer, get mixed up in gangsta shit, and Will get out of it? What is Will's real relationship with Davey, or anybody's with anybody? Hodges takes far too long to supply answers, and he sins both by underexplaining and overexplaining. Arbitrary answers outnumber satisfying ones.
Yet the film does afford surprising satisfactions. We wouldn't be so disappointed if the atmosphere weren't so rich, and the cast so magnetic: jaunty Rhys-Meyers, gravitas-laden Owen, scary McDowell, lots of scruffy thugs, and Charlotte Rampling as Will's mysteriously long-ago abandoned flame. Even as a young beauty, Rampling looked like a shell-shock victim; now her hooded eyes seem spectral in their sadness. If there were an All-England Silent Grief Olympics, Rampling and Owen would be finalists. Alas, their grief here, however masterful, has nothing to say. (R) TIM APPELO
Opens Fri., July 16, at Metro
Even though it's awash in water that's foaming at the tubular mouth, Stacy Peralta's epic history of surfing isn't a mindless celebration of nature, like The Endless Summer, Step Into Liquid, or Blue Crush. Much of the lens-splattering footage is on the level of shaky old home-movie footage, and even its most awesome shots aren't state-of-the-art in technical terms.
But they work better as drama, because the action is embedded in the loony human context of the sport. Director Peralta, a skateboard ace who immortalized his obsession in the indie hit documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, and his co-writer, Surfer magazine editor Sam George, focus their 1,500-year historical chronicle on the charismatic lives of the sport's big figures: bold old Greg Noll, who conquered the watery peaks of Hawaii's Waimea in the '50s; Jeff Clark, who convinced other maniacs to bash themselves against the sharp rocks of California's Half Moon Bay; and Laird Hamilton, who gets himself towed way out to sea, where waves are titanic and the biggest of men bob like corks.
You get a vivid sense of the thrills that craze these guys; Giants provides a real feel for their authentic alternative culture. To glimpse the scratchy old footage of deserted beaches where anyone could drop out, surf all day, fish for dinner, and crash in a free shack is to weep and yearn for a lost paradise more alluring than Kerouac's. It's amusing to hear the actual, historical Gidget—a real woman, not Sandra Dee—explain how she almost accidentally detonated the pop-culture surf deluge, causing real surfers to want to drown themselves. And it's impressive to see how ingenious surfers were in questing for ever more dangerous waves.
The guys (and Gidget) are charismatic, Peralta's interviews are psychologically skillful, and the heterogeneous footage (including a dandy opening animation sequence) is stitched together with real flair. OK, I admit that the movie would've been still stronger if some of the surfers' rhapsodizing had been trimmed by at least 15 minutes. And it's a bit jarring, given the movie's mostly giddy spirit, to deal with the chilling scene about the death of Mark Foo at Half Moon Bay after his board tether got stuck on a rock, trapping him underwater. By coincidence, I happened to walk by Foo's funeral at the beach soon after, so I can testify: The film captures the surfers' mood of mournful yet defiant commitment to risk. It does not prove they're sane. (PG-13) TIM APPELO
Opens Fri., July 16, at Big Picture
If reality TV ever were to feature geeks rather than airhead hotties, the four Scrabble junkies profiled in this documentary would surely make the callbacks. Like many men who've opened their lives to the lens, these four have one-track minds. Except in this scenario, bleached-blond babes are replaced by alphabet-studded tiles. Machismo is measured by one's ability to remember an esoteric word under pressure. These guys have a keen grasp of the English language (or at least orthography), but Wars doesn't follow the genius-as-social-outcast formula familiar from Shine and elsewhere; there is no final flowering from obscurity to fame. Joe Edley, a fragile, tai chi–practicing neo- hippie, is humbled after losing to the robust Scrabble crowd of Washington Square Park. Matt Graham's clothing is tattered, yet he gambles away much of his money on pickup games. Marlon Hill expounds on the dire poverty he hoped to overcome by winning a big tournament, all the while lighting up joint after lonely joint. And "GI" Joel Sherman, perhaps the saddest case of them all, leads a life revolving around digestive troubles, sleep, and, obviously, Scrabble. The subjects' skills may be admirable, but their bleak stories will hardly inspire you to join them on the anagram circuit. (NR) EMILY PAGE
Zhou Yu's Train
Runs Fri., July 16–Thurs., July 22, at Varsity
Gong Li, one of China's—and the world's—most beautiful women, here plays a painter of porcelain in a humble ceramics factory in Northwest China. This is something like having Dietrich as your barista, Garbo as your hotel maid, Jennifer Connelly swabbing out your toilets. So while grittily immersed in present-day China, Train can best be understood—or half-understood, really—as a stale fantasia upon the eternal love-triangle theme. No matter how familiar, none of it makes much sense. Li's factory girl falls in love with a brooding slacker poet-librarian (Tony Leung Ka Fai), resulting in a commuter romance between her digs and his distant burg (hence the train, twice a week, and endless shots of rails, trestles, and locomotives). Then a smiling, self-effacing veterinarian (Sun Hong-lei) falls in love with her. Throughout, the poet remains in love with his poetry—which is to say, with himself, which doesn't make Zhou Yu (Li) very happy.
Had Li been starring in one of those historical noirs by Zhang Yimou (her former Svengali and paramour), her falling for a palace poet would seem a reasonable conceit. But here, given the film's modern-day setting, their liaison seems hokey. If she were ga-ga for a rock star or a dot-com tycoon, Train might be a little more convincing. As it is, director Zhou Sun resorts to camera tricks, loud music, and montage whenever the audience's credulity wanders. Why is Li running in slo-mo beside yet another train, her skirt flowing mournfully in the breeze? It doesn't really matter—the idea is supposed to be that everyone is so passionate about everything that the eye candy will make sense. It doesn't. Things become so convoluted that when Li, playing a double role, reappears from a short-haired future perspective, you wish there'd be a catfight between her two characters over the hunky poet. (In one scene, he uses books as barbells in his dusty library.) Instead of a tantalizingly opaque, unresolved love affair like in In the Mood for Love (starring the very different Tony Leung Chiu Wai), you get something like In the Mood for a Poem About Love, which doesn't work nearly so well.
With Li playing two characters who may or may not have met, Train finally gropes toward some kind of Kieslowski-like metaphysical significance à la The Double Life of Véronique. Li's hot-and-cold heroine—the initial, long-haired one—makes a stab at consoling the understandably frustrated vet by explaining, "What I really want . . . ," then lets her declaration tail off. Like the movie, she can't finish the sentence. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER