Category Archives: 2004

Gowanus, Brooklyn (2004, Ryan Fleck)

Gowanus, Brooklyn is quite possibly the best you could hope for early aughts digital video short. Director Fleck and cinematographer Chris Scarafile know the limitations of the medium. Some of those limitations are seemingly self-imposed—if a scene isn’t obviously handheld, it’s because Scarafile was standing really still that shot. Since the short is so traditional—it’s basically a legit after-school special, like something “Sesame Street Junior High” would do—only with a complicated ending.

Tween Shareeka Epps catches her coach and something or other teacher Matt Kerr smoking crack in the girls locker room after he’s closed up for the night. She gets a ride home and a burger and fries out of it. Director Fleck and co-writer (and producer and editor) Anna Boden take a hands off approach to a lot of the story. It’s one of those “oh, the answer’s from a better world” moments. Only they don’t end on that positive sentiment, they go about fifty percent on it just so Epps never seems in danger and use it all the time. All the time. There’s also a message in the short about gentrification and it’s very hard not to see it as a perspective on Epps and not from her. The short is very much the story of this girl and this weird time in her life but it’s not the girl’s story. Gowanus examines Epps. It describes her, instead of her informing it. The narrative distance is inverted and leveraging the heck out of 2004 digital video verisimilitude; the short never exploits Epps—going out of its way to never do so (it’s so safe, so safe—but in a good way)—but sometimes it seems like the scenes are constructed more for that purpose than ever to do actual character development. Gowanus is comfortable throwing things in Epps’s way and watching her get through them… but refusing to examine her reaction to them. Everything in the short is tailored around Epps’s performance, which is great—she’s excellent—but it’s also a bit too safe. Fleck’s not willing to try anything. He never wants it to look too video, just video enough.

Kerr’s good as the teacher. Fleck’s not willing to take any chances with him either. Everything’s so controlled. And it’s masterfully executed. I’m reluctantly enthusiastic about Gowanus, Brooklyn because it’s got such a strange feel to it: the hyper reality of the video, the pseudo-intrusive nature of the narrative distance. It’s as perfectly made a short 2004 digital video could a 2004 digital video short be, positive proof a short video could hold up for twenty minutes.

I’m so glad it didn’t catch on.

But Fleck knows how to get it to work. Epps, Kerr, everyone; they give serious performances, even when the direction’s framed around not showcasing that performance because video is so flat. Boden knows when to cut away from that flat too; the cuts seem based on when the lack of depth becomes distracting. Because you’re usually wondering if it just looked better, how much better would it be. Fleck’s ambitiously strict to reliable techniques with no interest in exploring. Gowanus is very constrained.

Which just makes Epps’s performance more impressive. Her performance is enthusiastically ambitious while the short itself isn’t.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Ryan Fleck; written by Anna Boden and Fleck; director of photography, Chris Scarafile; edited by Boden; music by Ronit Kirchman; produced by Boden for Gowanus Projections.

Starring Shareeka Epps (Drey), Matt Kerr (teacher), Karen Chilton (mother), Timothy Nesbith (brother), and Regina Milligan (friend).


Two Cars, One Night (2004, Taika Waititi)

Trying to describe Two Cars, One Night without getting schmaltzy might be difficult. It’s sublime, gentle, tender, funny, brilliant, inspired, exceptional. Director Waititi’s just as phenomenal directing his young actors as he is at composing the shots to emphasize their experiences; specifically, how they perceive those experiences. The short starts with these two boys sitting in a car in front of a bar. They’re presumably waiting for a parent or two to get done hanging out in the bar. The little brother, Te Ahiwaru Ngamoki-Richards, is quietly reading a book in the passenger seat. The older brother, Rangi Ngamoki, is sitting behind the wheel and watching the adults outside the car.

Waititi does an amazing job subtly implying all these things going on around the boys, which they know are going on but don’t exactly understand. They also don’t understand they don’t exactly understand. Waititi sets up all these known unknowns before there’s the second car. Because amid this situation, where the boys are waiting outside a bar, in this isolated island surrounded by adults adulting, Waikato is going to unknowingly take the first steps towards adulthood.

And here’s why it’s hard to talk about the short without getting schmaltzy. While Waititi avoids sentimentality and instead focuses on his actors and how they convey the action, Two Cars, One Night is about Waikato teasing a girl, Rangi Ngamoki—who arrives in the second car, her parents also going in for drinks (there’s a whole other silent, subtle implication thing regarding the parents who come out first)—but it’s about these two adorable kids flirting. They go from tween and pre-tween (Ngamoki is nine, Waikato is twelve) fighting and teasing to—again—understanding their similar situations on a deeper level than they’re able to consciously recognize. Waititi’s real quiet about it too; he focuses on Ngamoki realizing he wants to talk to Waikato and not really understanding why. Because he’s nine. And she goes from being a grody girl to being worth trying to impress.

Little brother Ngamoki-Richards proves an intentionally bad, more intelligent and thoughtful, hilarious wingman.

Perfect performances from Waikato and Ngamoki. Waititi’s direction, on all levels, just gets more and more impressive throughout. The black and white photography, from Adam Clark, is great. So’s Owen Ferrier-Kerr’s editing. Both Clark and Ferrier-Kerr’s fine work contributes to the sublimeness.

It’s wondrous.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Taika Waititi; director of photography, Adam Clark; edited by Owen Ferrier-Kerr; music by Craig Sengelow; produced by Catherine Fitzgerald and Ainsley Gardiner; released by the New Zealand Film Commission.

Starring Rangi Ngamoki (Romeo), Hutini Waikato (Polly), and Te Ahiwaru Ngamoki-Richards (Ed).


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2046 (2004, Wong Kar-Wai)

2046 is a very strange sequel. Because it’s most definitely a sequel to In the Mood for Love. Tony Chiu-Wai Leung and Lam Siu Ping are playing the same characters, a few years after that film. But the way writer and director Wong deals with the previous film and its events… he intentionally… well, I’m not sure if distorts is the right word, because it works out perfectly, but he delays it. 2046 is a sequel to In the Mood for Love, but it’s also a sequel to itself. The film starts in the mid-1960s with Leung moving home to Hong Kong from Singapore. Well, actually, wait. It starts in 2046, a CGI megalopolis with a train and some narration about riding the train and trying to leave 2046. Like it’s a place.

2046 also has Hong Kong significance—when the British “gave” Hong Kong back to China in 1996, the Chinese said Hong Kong would stay the same way for fifty years. So 2046. Of course, it’s also got a significance to In the Mood for Love. But back to the future for a moment. There’s some love sick guy on the train. He wants to leave 2046. His narration also refers to Love, even though nothing else does.

So all the coincidences collide for Leung—mid-sixties Hong Kong had some significant unrest and Leung spends his time sitting it out, dreaming of the future and writing a serial called… 2046 in a hotel room 2047, which he took because 2046 wasn’t ready yet. Leung brings a litany of nightclub friends with benefits affairs home while musing on the goings on around him at the hotel. Faye Wong is the owner’s older daughter, in love with Japanese guy Kimura Takuya. Her dad (Sum Wang) doesn’t approve. Leung distantly watches the heart attack and incorporates it into his stories, which is good since Kimura plays the story’s protagonist in the future stuff. Leung’s also got to fend off Sum’s younger daughter, Dong Jie, who’s too young.

Because even though Leung is supposed to be a casual sex addict, charming the ladies by night, moping about his previous heartache through his writing, there’s got to be a line. And Wong, director, tests it from time to time. It’s a good narrative hook and only there because we still need to like Leung for later, because later is going to get worse before it gets better. Leung narrates the film–eventually even the future stuff–and it’s a very controlled narration. Wong, writer and director, doesn’t want to show too much. Like Wong, actress, appearing for an almost cameo before disappearing, just like when the film opens on Leung and mystery woman Gong Li to set up the Hong Kong homecoming. Wong, writer, is delaying certain things but for very good reasons, which aren’t clear until the end of the second act.

Because it’s not just Leung’s story; there’s also a second story-in-the-story, which Leung writes for writing partner and lovesick buddy Faye Wong for a while in the middle. It’s got a full narrative arc for future guy Kimura and even future Faye Wong. And that narrative arc is later going to matter for Leung and the film. It’s an exceptionally complicated narrative structure. Wong, writer, fractures the narrative in a lot of major ways, sometimes technically surprising ones (but the surprise isn’t the right reaction because they’re inevitable). But he lays out this always forward layer too. For the viewer, who is watching the events of Leung’s life—with tangents—but seeing Leung’s reaction to those events. Macro-reactions, not micro. So very deliberate plotting.

2046 has more than its share of “why is Wong doing this” head-scratchers, but they’re always the exact right move. Because while Wong, director, is keeping with Leung in the present, experiencing new events, Wong, just writer, needs to move the plot in peculiar directions. The film’s got these multiple, dense narrative tense layers and Wong, writer, needs to move between them sometimes rapidly, sometimes not. Wong, director—and with great editing from William Chang and music from Umebayashi Shigeru—has to figure out a way to trigger these movements stylistically. It’s gorgeously done.

The most drastic of the three big narrative shifts is someone I can’t believe I got 700 words into a post about 2046 and haven’t yet—Zhang Ziyi. She’s Leung’s first significant love interest. Meaning she falls in love with him and he treats her like shit.

Remember when I said it was important to like Leung? It’s when he breaks Zhang’s heart, which isn’t really a spoiler because it’s almost still first act stuff. If you took out the future stuff, it’d be first act stuff. 2046—a sequel—is initially just about Leung’s really sexy love affair with his neighbor, Zhang. During that time period, Zhang gets a lot more to do than Leung. It’s not exactly from her perspective, but Wong, director, makes sure it’s real close.

So, in the second act, 2046 becomes a sequel to 2046’s first act, which was a sequel to In the Mood for Love. Only as things go on, it turns out 2046’s first act is a sequel to the end of the second act flashback, which is a sequel to In the Mood for Love. The more Wong, writer, reveals about Leung, either through the present action, flashback, or the future story stuff… the more the narrative distance changes. Narrative distance in this case also taking into account narrative sympathies; assumed intentions as far as Leung goes. 2046 isn’t a mystery, but Wong does almost structure it as one. Really, I guess, the more appropriate phrase would be a secret. 2046 is a secret and Wong is very careful about how he wants to tell it.

Of the three female leads, the best performance is Zhang. Faye Wong is really, really, really close but Zhang wins out. Then Gong. Gong it’s the role. She doesn’t have anywhere near the amount of time as the other two. Gong’s really is the extended cameo it seemed like Wong was getting. Only Gong’s cameo seemed like a really short one when it opened the movie. Because Wong, writer and director, is so forcefully deliberate.

So good.

Leung’s really good. He’s not as good as Zhang, Wong, or Gong. In a way, it’s not his place in the story. Where he’s protagonist. And everything revolves around him. He shouldn’t be overshadowing in that narrative, at least not the way Wong wants to tell it. It’s a very delicate, precise performance. Lots of nuance. It’s outstanding.

It’s just not as good as any of the lead actresses.

Carina Lau has a nice cameo, Wang has some good moments, Ping is hilarious. Not comic relief hilarious, just momentarily hilarious hilarious.

High nineties majority of the film is inside. Restaurants, the hotel rooms, occasionally cars. Quiet moments between characters either on their own or in crowds. There’s one standout party scene, which opens things up for a while, but the scene’s still focused on Leung. Again, the film is exceptionally precise.

Great photography from Christopher Doyle and Kwan Pung-Leung. Great production design from editor Chang. Great everything.

2046 movie probably even works better if you haven’t seen In the Mood for Love, which is a singular description—and, in this case, compliment—for a sequel.

But it’s still a very direct, very intentional sequel.

It’s magnificent.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Written, produced, and directed by Wong Kar-wai; directors of photography, Christopher Doyle and Kwan Pung-Leung; edited by William Chang; music by Umebayashi Shigeru; production designer, Chang; released by Block 2 Pictures.

Starring Tony Chiu-Wai Leung (Chow Mo-wan), Gong Li (Su Li-zhen), Wong Faye (Wang Jing-wen), Kimura Takuya (Wang Jing-wen’s Boyfriend), Zhang Ziyi (Bai Ling), Carina Lau (Lulu), Dong Jie (Wang Jie-wen), Sum Wang (Mr. Wang), and Lam Siu Ping (Ah Ping).



THIS POST IS PART OF THE ULTIMATE 2000S BLOGATHON HOSTED BY DREW OF DREW'S MOVIE REVIEWS AND KIM OF TRANQUIL DREAMS.


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Saw (2004, James Wan)

I’m disappointed in Saw; I didn’t think I could possibly have any expectations for the movie where Farm Boy has to cut off his foot. I also didn’t know it wasn’t Danny Glover locked in the room with Cary Elwes. I wish Danny Glover had been locked in the room. He’s not. He’s a cop. And he’s terrible.

Danny Glover gives a terrible performance as a cop. Embarrassingly bad. It’s uncomfortable watching him a lot of the time, because it just feels wrong. Writer and leading man Leigh Whannell writes in movie trailer speak. Everything’s a soundbite. Not even caricatures, much less characterization. Saw’s just a bunch of actors reciting terrible dialogue without any direction from Wan. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sad. It’s sad with Glover.

Elwes is just funny. For the first half of the movie, he’s got a husky low voice to hide his accent. Farm Boy has been acting since he was seventeen years old, but apparently on Saw, he forgot how to believably get rid of his English accent. Then the English accent comes through, then Elwes adds husky to the English accent. The third act is Elwes wailing a lot, usually without any continuity between his wailing accents.

Whannell, as a writer and an actor, is terrible. Still, he’s not unlikable. He’s not sympathetic, which is a problem because he’s being held captive in a terrible, poop-filled bathroom with a dead body and the Dread Pirate Roberts trying really hard to be so serious he might be a surgeon. But he’s also not unlikable. He’s just giving a bad performance in a terribly written part.

Ken Leung’s bad as Glover’s partner, but the writing is worse. Michael Emerson weathers his involvement a little better than his costars. Monica Potter’s fine in her scenes, which usually involve Saw threatening ten year-old Makenzie Vega with horrific death. Saw’s comfortable being craven.

If director Wan had any personality, and Armstrong’s photography weren’t so flat and Kevin Greutert’s editing weren’t so imprecise, Saw might be some kind of horror exploitation camp. But it’s not camp. It’s got all the set pieces for exploitation, but Whannell’s ponderous script and Wan’s bland visualizing shove the film into the serial killer sub-genre. Except there’s not really anything about the serial killer’s method, so it’s not an easy fit. It ought to be a psychological thriller–real time, Elwes and Whannel deciding their fates. Instead, there are a bunch of pointless flashbacks.

Because Saw can’t slow down. The one thing Wan and Whannell seem to get is the need for momentum. The film drops the audience in without any setup, so Wan’s got to make every jump scare prove the pitch’s worth. And he’s got a couple good jump scares. They’re like the only good things in the film, but it’s not nothing.

Saw sputters out in the third act. The tension is gone as the film just becomes a string of plot revelations. A lot of the film is Whannell’s fault as writer, but most of it’s on Wan. He doesn’t have any enthusiasm to his composition and he doesn’t have any interest in his actors. One or the other might’ve helped Saw.

Within reason, of course; it’s still got Cary Elwes’s risibly atrocious performance.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by James Wan; screenplay by Leigh Whannell, based on story by Wan and Whannell; director of photography, David A. Armstrong; edited by Kevin Greutert; music by Charlie Clouser; production designer, Julie Berghoff; produced by Mark Burg, Gregg Hoffman, and Oren Koules; released by Lions Gate Films.

Starring Cary Elwes (Dr. Lawrence Gordon), Leigh Whannell (Adam), Danny Glover (Detective David Tapp), Monica Potter (Alison Gordon), Ken Leung (Detective Steven Sing), Michael Emerson (Zep Hindle), Makenzie Vega (Diana Gordon), and Shawnee Smith (Amanda).


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