Friday, April 24, 2009

Tribeca Report No. 2

“That sucked,” says Henry McCarthy (Mark Polish) about twenty minutes into Stay Cool, which is a funny coincidence, because I said the same thing when the movie ended an hour and a half later. This is the sixth film from the Polish brothers (Mark wrote and stars, Michael directs), whose earlier films include the odd and fascinating Twin Falls Idaho and the lovely Astronaut Farmer, so its poor quality is all the more surprising. According to imdb, it was shot back-to-back with their currently-unreleased fifth film, Manure; I’m not sure if they were just worn out from the quick turnaround, but however you slice it, I think they gave that title to the wrong movie.

Stay Cool (not to be confused with the unfortunate Elmore Leonard sequel Be Cool) concerns Henry, a New York City writer who returns to his home town to give the commencement speech at his high school. His rekindled relationship with a high school crush (Winona Ryder) is the primary thrust of the movie, and while Polish and Ryder are likable enough (though we are getting pretty much the same performance out of her in every film these days), much of their dialogue is tepid and clunky.

But the film’s worst element, far and away, is the inclusion of Henry’s two best high school buddies. Sean Astin plays a mincing, preening, hairdressing, catty gay friend who calls himself “Big Girl”, while Josh Holloway is a mulletted, bearded tattoo artist. They’re like sitcom caricatures, flat and underdeveloped, ideas instead of people. Their interactions are forced, their dialogue is atrocious, the laugh lines land with a loud thud, and the scene late in the film where they sing Kenny Loggins’ “This Is It” at an IHOP is so painful, I wanted to crawl under my seat.

Much to my shock, the one supporting performance that really sings is that of Hilary Duff, who plays a high school senior with a crush on Henry (nice when you can write yourself a role where both Winona Ryder and Hilary Duff want to get in your pants) who talks him into taking her to the prom. Duff is a bubbly, zippy force of life, and the movie invariably perks up when she slinks into it. Frankly, you know you’re movie is in trouble when the secondary romance is more interesting than the primary one; there’s a whole other, better movie hinted at when he tells her, sadly, “you haven’t even been through your Led Zeppelin phase,” especially if she had a less predictable response.

Stay Cool has some good ideas, to be sure. But the characters are poorly developed and the dialogue is terrible; it plays like a first draft that’s in dire need of a rewrite. The Polish brothers have made good movies before, and I have no doubt that they will again. But this time, they’ve made a very bad film.

* * *

“We are here for the encoffment,” they say when they arrive. The two men burn their incense as they clean the dead body in a ritualistic fashion, in order to “prepare the deceased for a peaceful departure.” It is their job, and they take it very seriously; they are there for both the family and the deceased, as a kind of buffer that soaks up their grief while respecting the dead. It’s not a job that Daigo (Masahiro Motoki) would have sought out (he sees that ad for an agent of “departures” and thinks it’s for a job at a travel agency), but it becomes honorable in his eyes, though perhaps not in everyone else’s.

The story of Daigo’s journey is told in Departures, which pulled a big upset by beating out Waltz with Bashir and The Class for the Best Foreign Language Film award at this year’s Oscars. From that strange, fascinating opening scene, director Yojiro Takita weaves a tale that is by turns odd, dryly funny, and deeply moving.

It also takes too long to get going and relies too heavily on voice-over narration; as is often the case with Japanese cinema, you have to choose to give yourself over to the storytelling style and the deliberate pace, which require some getting used to. I’ll confess that there was a long stretch in the middle of the picture where I wasn’t sure where it was going, if anywhere; there are scenes and episodes that seem extraneous, until they’re calmly pulled together in the third act.

Director Takita is a terrific visualist; his compositions have a marvelous symmetry, and a scene where Daigo plays his cello (melding into a series of childhood memories) has some knockout imagery. But what pulls the film together is Takita’s mastery of tone, and his patience. Departures is a quiet, measured picture, somewhat clinical in its opening passages. But that gives way to the tremendous emotion of its closing sequences, and that final scene is a wrecker.

* * *

Back tomorrow with notes on Soundtrack for a Revolution, Don McKay, and one of my most anticipated films of the festival, Kirby Dick’s new documentary Outrage.

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