In Your Queue: Cutie and the Assassin (“Cutie and the Boxer”, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”)

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Cutie and the Boxer – Zachary Heinzerling (2013)

Cutie loves Bullie. Bullie loves liquor. Typical. But nothing is really that easy or straight forward in this sober documentary about the artist couple, Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. In its telling, it’s about the art — Ushio’s boxing art and cardboard motorcycle sculptures, and Noriko’s Cutie graphic stories —  but really, its another love story, but a little bit more complicated than most love stories. Cutie and Bullie are Noriko’s creation, one that is loosely based on her own struggles with falling in love with Ushio. Ushio is a dominating presence, both in their marriage and in their art lives and it’s easy to see how much better off she might have been if she had fallen for anyone but Ushio, but sometimes life doesn’t let you make that decision. It just happens and leaves you paint splattered. Heinzerling is mostly hands off, letting the story unfold at a natural pace as Noriko struggles to find her artistic voice and Ushio struggles to get someone to pay him for his so the couple can keep the lights on. They are a dynamic pair, both as opposites and as artists, one you root for without quite understanding how or why it all works, but it does.

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – George Clooney (2002)

After producer Arnon Milchan outed himself as an Israeli spy last week, I made a joke about how he could start up a club with Chuck Barris, the creator of The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show and, as he claims, a CIA assassin. This joke immediately got me thinking about Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, the 2002 biopic of Barris written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by George Clooney. It was a slick directorial debut for Clooney, who must have taken copious notes from David O. Russell and director of photography Newton Thomas Segal while he was working on Three Kings. Segal joined him as DP on Confessions as well, bringing his bag of photographic tricks along with him. If nothing else, it’s a very pretty film to look at. Much too pretty and slick for Kaufman’s tastes it turns out, and the writer eventually disowned the film. But the film is more than a pretty thing to look at. Whether you believe Barris’s claims or not, it makes for a great story with a high body count and Clooney and Sam Rockwell (and Rutger Hauer of course) really brought out the best, adding a cockeyed layer of black humor that settles down the more ridiculous elements of the producer-hitman story. It’s damn funny, and a great film whether Kaufman wants to admit it or not.

Marriage is a Crazy Thing – Ha Yu (2002)

A fall afternoon. A blind date. Two people, meeting over orange juice and coffee. Polite smiles, banal conversation, a dull movie that she’s already seen. This is the perfectly benign set up for Yoo Ha’s Marriage is a Crazy Thing.

But as the alcohol flows and the right articles of clothing come off, something else entirely happens: they begin to actually speak to each other. There is a self-awareness to how absurd the situation is, and the talk goes on, they both unveil the ugly-yet-playful side of their personalities.

I don’t like either of the characters: Yeon-hee (Uhm Jung-hwa), a serial dater who has some financial independence but values financial security so much that she can’t find Mr. Right; and Joon-young (Kam Woo-seong), a part time English lit professor whose career is stuck on the launch pad. He has no financial freedom or independence but is also a serial dater, and possessed the rare combination of being deeply sullen and supremely cocky.

So, then, why do I like this film?

Marriage is a Crazy Thing is among my favorite Korean films–one of the first I ever saw–but I’ve never truly been able to figure out why that is. The film has always had an asterisk next to it in my head, and in the past I’ve likened it to three-chord rock bands that aren’t technically good but just have something–some spark, some elusive glimpse that is hard to pin down–to them.

A few months ago, film critic Kartina Richardson wrote a post on Mirror Film about the various problems one encounters when writing film criticism. Her starting point was about race and color, but (being a white male) I latched on to a different part of her essay. “I never want to discuss cinema in a leaden and academic way, but what other way is taken seriously?” she asks. “Emotional discussion of film is often dismissed as juvenile,” she says. And she’s right. And it’s absurd. Why should films be reviewed differently than they are viewed?

Film is a thoroughly emotional medium.

Movies are meant to make you feel, or they fail. They can also make you think. But while a film that can make you only feel is fine, a film that only makes you think seems to be missing something: a soul, a center, heart, a point of view. Whatever you want to call it, it’s the emotional element that is missing from otherwise good films, such as Syriana or, for me — though some will disagree — Barking Dogs Never Bite or A Single Spark, that keep them from reaching a certain level, from really digging in under the skin and into the vital organs.

When I go back and read over the bad reviews I’ve written – either the ones I didn’t write well, or the movies I didn’t like – the thing missing in them is generally an emotional point of view. Now, the catch to that is that emotions are also the easiest thing to manipulate in film. The mainstay of South Korean drama: the melodramatic tearjerker, for instance. But they can’t be manipulated clumsily. If we see the strings of manipulation, we can cut them off and be free of them.

Where does Marriage is a Crazy Thing fit into that?

It’s a perfect example of a film meant to be viewed emotionally rather than intellectually. Your brain will only get in the way of the story, which lays itself out almost like a modern fairy tale, but in reverse, where the man is the powerless maiden waiting to be freed from his cell by the one he loves as friends and family around him move on in life, get married, have kids and careers.

Joon and Yeon-hee’s relationship was designed by them to be a weight station along the road, just a temporary stop before their final destination, but they never quite found a way out. They meant to, sure that each would cheat on the other, confident that the other was not fully up to building a real life around, but the thing about it is that they mesh so well, compliment each other so perfectly in their awfulness that it is kind of endearing.

Even after Yeon-hee’s marriage they can’t end it, becoming a weekend couple, when Yeon-hee lends Joon money to move out of his parents’ house, into a small roof room apartment. From the outside it appears that this actually the only way their relationship can truly function.

It’s the apartment, tiny, cramped, decorated by her, but lived in by him that makes all the difference in the world for the film. It’s a perfect stroke from the writer-director, Ha.

So, the somewhat strange conclusion to the question, I think, is that I like Marriage is a Crazy Thing because of its emotional selfishness. The meeting of these two characters in their little roof room getaway sparks some kind of a firewall into existence, where common sense, morality, guilt, conscience, law — or anything related to the brain — cannot penetrate, if only for a small amount of time. When something does finally penetrate it, it is a tide of emotion. It makes a mess, but it’s a true mess. Emotions always are.

Solaris – Steven Soderbergh (2002)


With Steven Soderbergh’s imminent retirement (to be a painter) apparently back on, I thought it was time to go back and take a look at the only film of his I genuinely loved, the George Clooney-starring remake, Solaris.

Yeah, yeah. A remake. Sacrilege, I know.

But spare me, Salman Rushdie. Solaris is not the typical Hollywood-out-of-ideas remake that we’ve become so used to in the last few years. It’s a genuine attempt to carve something new out of an old, beloved film while not disturbing the primary work. Tarkovsky’s 1972 original was a bold and brilliant reply to Kubrick’s 2001, putting a deep Eastern European thought process into the science fiction films that had always existed in science fiction writing. But it is a film that is not without its flaws, whether they were on purpose or not.

On its face, it’s a simple film: recently widowed psychiatrist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) is summoned to a ship orbiting the planet Solaris when the crew members begin experiencing something unexplainable and unbearable. “I could tell you what’s happening,” explains Snow (Jeremy Davies), “but I don’t think that would tell you what’s really happening.”

So what is happening? As the scientists orbiting Solaris try to study it, it is reacting to their thoughts. Indeed, the planet is a shit-stirrer, and begins messing with the crews minds, conjuring up physical replicas of the people on Earth they apparently miss the most. For the crew leader Gibarian (Ulrich Tukur), who eventually sends the panicked message for Kelvin to join them, it is his son.  And he cannot bear it any longer. By the time Kelvin arrives, Gibarian is dead, suicide, leaving his replica son to wander the ship alone.

Gibarian’s son is not the only visitor of course. Shortly after arriving, Kelvin gets his visitor: his dead wife, Rhea (Natascha McElhone).

It’s a brilliant concept, one that makes you stop dead in your stride and instantly makes you think 1, who would Solaris conjure for you? and 2, what the hell would you do if it really happened?

Kelvin proceeds to freak out, breaking his otherwise-logical persona, and sticks the Rhea replica into a escape pod to get rid of her. To his immense surprise, he is soon greeted by a second Rhea replica, who has the same innocent, vacant child stare as the first replica. This one, though, he keeps. Getting rid of a second one is an unbearable thought now that he has had time to regret the possibility of it being the real Rhea.

One can’t help but accept his decision. It’s the same I would have made, and probably you too.

It’s all in the eyes, I think. Natascha McElhone’s ghostly perfect eyes, like piercing globes in and of themselves. Some eyes are the window to the soul, some are enough to keep you busy on their own. Hers are the latter. You can swim in her eyes and get lost along the way. These eyes reel Kelvin in the first time they met, and they’ve done it all over again as they are reunited.

Solaris must be beside itself, giggling. Poor humans. Poor stupid humans.

Clooney was probably miscast here as Chris Kelvin, but both the star and the director were hot off of their last collaboration, Ocean’s 11, when they began pitching this. It’s the kind of picture that goes into turnaround or doesn’t even get bought without a major star attached. Everything about is extravagant  even though the film itself is understated and darkly lit. Soderbergh’s — I mean Peter Andrew’s photography is sumptuously understated, artful, wonderful, giving us just enough of a glimpse of Steve Arnold and Keith P. Cunningham’s lavishly beautiful — and as expensive — sets without setting us into a whole new world, like Kubrick and Tarkovsky did before, or Lucas, or Danny Boyle before. It’s slick, angled and polished. Wood doesn’t seem to exist, with stainless steel and synthetic fabrics and fibers taking over every corner of the architecture and interior design of both the buildings on Earth and in space. It’s everything we always assumed the future is going to be, but probably will not. But it’s also not the point of the story. The point of the story is humanity. The biggest, greatest human flaw, even: emotion.

The film’s concept of a sentient planet as a most dreadful wish fulfiller is greater in our heads, though, where we can control what Solaris sees, not Soderbergh, where we can tailor the exploration to our own experiences.  but still, the driving paranoia Kelvin comes to experience because of — that he may have actually remembered Rhea wrong — is what gives this film its emotional bite.

It’s a superior play on the concept that anything we would have come up with in our own heads, I think, because we simply would have wallowed in the good times and never wondered if they were being remembered wrong. Or I would have. But Kelvin gets physical hints that he was remembering things wrong, hints that haunt him. Hints that would haunt us, should we have gotten them instead of the bliss of reunification. They hit Kelvin deeply enough in the end that the residual force hits us squarely enough to actually make us wonder what we have remembered wrong in our daily lives. Was Rebecca Solowitz really that great in fifth grade that I should still think about with regret 20 years later? Was I actually that good a baseball player or were there just no one better in the travelling team try outs? Was Nirvana really a good band?

Damn you Soderbergh. Damn you Tarkovsky. Damn you Lem.

You brilliant bastards.