The Ocean's 11 auteur returns to his indie roots in impressive style. Also, we say goodbye to Chris Penn by remembering his best film role.
Most non-mainstream projects would kill for the indie buzz that Steven Soderbergh boasted with his new Bubble. It's shot on DV with a shoestring budget. It stars non-actors. And it's the model for an experimental day-and-date release strategy, another (excuse the pun) maverick idea from producer and film distributor Mark Cuban, that makes a film available in theaters and on cable simultaneously, with the DVD coming out just a few days later. Some of those hypes involve the business community. I'll focus on the artistic ones down below.
Bubble (Magnolia Pictures)
When Hollywood, whether it be the big studios or our certified "independent" filmmakers, try to capture the Heartland, you are allowed to be plainly suspicious — especially if you actually live around the area they feel like investigating. Steven Soderbergh's treatment of these moderate lives on the border of Ohio and West Virginia works mostly because he doesn't feel the need to editorialize — indeed, the three principals (and the great real-life police detective who comes later in the film) feel so real because they barely seem to be trying. Such small-scale experiments are limited by definition — I hope some bozo like Brett Ratner doesn't get it into his head that this is the cool artistic maneuver to try in '06 — but in small doses, they can be fascinating and cleansing. In a movie full of hints and suggestions, the only question I want cleared up is what Soderbergh thought Robert Pollard's acoustic dirge of a score means to represent, because regionalism it ain't and music it ain't, either.
Tropical Malady (Strand Home Video)
Some Brokeback Mountain snobs want to point to this film as proof of a more poignant, magical, mysterious take on the forbidden love between two men in a repressed society. No reason to compare, though — they're both terrific, more complementary souls than rivals. Apichatpong Weerasethakul's film is the more elliptical, but it's not nearly as maddeningly opaque as some would have you believe. Divided in two sections — first half a sweet collection of memorable little doodles of scenes from the guys falling in love, the second half a primal journey into the jungle where the secrets of one of the two lovers is revealed — the film hints and suggests and never ever tells a thing. I'm mad I missed it on the big screen, but the DVD retains the mystery and the spell.
Kings and Queen (Wellspring Home Video)
One of those big messy family comedy-dramas that work better as a foreign film than when it's attempted as an American studio product. Maybe it's because overseas filmmakers have more interest in nuance and storytelling — maybe it's because we're more willing to accept the slower pace when it come to us with the rubber stamp of "quality" from a language we don't speak. I don't mean to sound like I'm knocking Arnaud Desplechin's juxtaposition of a more-cruel-than-you-realize woman and her better-than-you-first-expect ex-lover both trying to find their way in the world. But when Desplechin falls into cutesy humor, and that happens more often than the film's fans want to admit, I can't help but wonder how much more vicious we'd be if, say, Curtis Hanson was the auteur running the ship. Desplechin easily outdistances his American peers, but I think he can do even better and hope that he does.
Quasimoto, The Further Adventures of Lord Quas (Stones Throw)
Beyond production wizardry and a sense of humor, Madlib exists to demonstrate that CDs are merely receptacles for a predetermined period of time's songs, jokes, and brief fragments of ideas. The Further Adventures, therefore, are just some snippets of inside jokes and random madness he was feeling at the time — concept album or not, it's connected by its strands of interconnected sonic blueprints. I don't sit around trying to figure out the character components that make up Quasimoto, Madlib's alter ego — it's just another component to mesh within the samples and the beats, all of which add up to precisely as much as you care to put into it. Madvillainy had too many tracks, but they all were short — this has too many tracks, but is just too damn long. But it's hipper background music than KCRW — smoother, funkier, and plain weirder, too.
Mashups are usually clever at best — at worse, they're a train wreck. This one works the angles, elegant and pretty. It makes you wonder how Deborah and Jim would have gotten along. She would have detested him, I think — but she still might have gone to bed with him regardless. At least, that's what this song sounds like to me.
Beyoncé (featuring Slim Thug), "Check on It" (from #1's, Sony)
I can't say for sure that it's because of her close proximity to Jay-Z, but her honey-dew version of the street-thug life feels like the studio-fantasy parallel to Hova's empire dreams. She's not bragging she's the bestest, she's flaunting sex appeal, which she knows she has and which has long been the prime weapon in her arsenal. It's a fantasy she's selling because it's all tease tease tease. That alone isn't risible — female artists since Madonna have used the technique as a way to bypass the supposed cleanliness of America's airwaves. To prove she's tough, she brings in an actual thug rapper. To prove she's worth her wait, she brings in the video. To prove that she's already beyond her old group, she puts this single on their greatest hits, which everybody just assumes is hers anyway.
Chris Penn in Short Cuts (Criterion DVD)
When his death was announced, the résumé got rolled out: True Romance, Reservoir Dogs, Entourage. Why wasn't anyone talking about his best screen work — in Robert Altman's Short Cuts? As the sexually frustrated but disgruntledly polite pool cleaner, he has one of the toughest jobs in the movie — illustrating a long fuse that finally reaches its end, when his seemingly out-of-the-blue action becomes horrifyingly obvious in retrospect. Too often, he played his dopey looks for easy laughs, but here he was an everyman not ennobled by his salt-of-the-earth status. He's disappointed by life, he feels like a failure, barely a man. It's all there in his response to Bruce Davison's condescending news anchor who asks him how goes the war. "Bad guys are winning," Chris Penn says, somewhere between a snarl and shrug.
Consumables is a regular overview of popular culture.