Are superheroes still vessels of purity? Even in the late-'50s, the setting of the blandly polished La-La Land exposť Hollywoodland, was there that much innocence to be lost anyway? The audience-surrogate, Adrien Brody's disheveled shamus, gets the crap knocked out of him so he can hear the darkest secret of the film industry whispered over the phone: "Things... are not what they seem." Whoa. The occasion triggering such staggering revelation consists of the events clouding the death of original TV Superman George Reeves, which surely means the medium is running out of scandals to plunder. Then again, as Bryan Singer has shown this summer, tons of people continue to read profundity into the Kryptonite, so the saga of Reeves (Ben Affleck) must not simply be told, but also puffed up into a would-be meditation on the price of fame, the underbelly of illusion, blah blah blah. It's 1959, the ex-Man of Steel is a has-been found with a bullet in his brain, the suspects line up for Brody's grimy scrutiny: Diane Lane, barely seven years older than Affleck but dolled up into a doleful sugar momma clinging on to her "boy"; Bob Hoskins, Lane's husband and a general manager for MGM; Robin Tunney, a strumpet with a penchant for hardboiled lip-biting. Whodunit? The fractured structure swings from past to present, employs namedropping for period-detail shorthand (Ralph Meeker this, Rita Hayworth that), and offers up a trio of accounts of that night's shooting while somehow failing to make any of them provocative.
No need to prop Hollywoodland against the indelible Tinseltown house-cleaning of Sunset Blvd and The Bad and the Beautiful to feel its skimpiness -- it's there in the vapid, made-for-cable varnish director Allen Coulter lays on the seediness, properly leeching it of danger. The Venus-flytrap backside of celebrity is a presiding theme, with the doomed Reeves achieving stardom via the crackerjack illusionism of a kiddie show and becoming utterly entombed in Superman's tights, his entrapping iconography getting the actor laughed off the screen when he pops up in From Here to Eternity (first a pre-credits dive through the clouds, then Affleck Forrest Gumped next to Burt Lancaster -- thank you, CGI). Hollywood is an album bulging with yellowing scandal clips, forever poised to rob Boy Scouts everywhere of their purity; the image must be protected, so goons are sent to snooping Brody with a punchy memo: "Let it go," which the film takes to heart after proving unable to recreate even the pulse of a standard E! True Hollywood Story episode. Lane is marvelous, Hoskins doles out his usual fine-tuned truculence, Tunney actually spits out "Go clear the mud out of your whiskers" and makes the line stick, yet it's Affleck who is most ingeniously used. Placing as Reeves a synthetic pretty-boy with his own superhero turkey to live down may be a stunt, but Affleck's presence, like Tom Cruise in Magnolia, serves as a commentary on the actor's early performances -- in both cases most of the work is done in the casting, so all the performers have to do is lend their spent narcissism and the falsity of their presences. Even more ingenious is the movie's own miming of the protagonist's trajectory, starting with artful delusions before dribbling into nothingness.
While Hollywoodland cynically laments lost innocence, Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles radiantly posits spiritual awakening. Because it slices through peasant backwaters rather than through armored swordsmen, reviewers are bound to see Zhang Yimou's latest film as a return to "serious" form after the martial-arts flash of Hero and House of Flying Daggers, yet splurging visual storytelling was paramount to the Chinese auteur decades before it was cool to tread back into the wu xia arena. The first image is a coastal still life, bled of color -- Ken Takakura, the taciturn Japanese main character, is estranged from his son for "unexplainable reasons," and travels to Tokyo upon learning from his dutiful daughter-in-law (Shinobu Terajima) that the son's been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The old man is turned away at the hospital by the resentful son; the dying man is a documentary maker, so in an attempt to make amends, Takakura packs up a digital camera and heads over to China to record a performance by the folk-opera star he believes his son wishes to hear. The palette, which emphasized autumnal whites and concrete and glass in Tokyo, warms up as the story shifts to Lijiang, the beginning of the journey and, of course, of the parallels between the protagonist's trip and the legendary trajectory of the titular aria; the singer has been arrested, the interpreter (Lin Qiu) barely understands Japanese, another estranged child is found along the way.
Bureaucratic walls are erected, if not as high as in The Story of Qiu Ju: red tape gets cut as the prison warden, fatigued by foreign troublemakers, declares the inmate's operatic performance a fine way to promote Chinese culture. Ready to perform, the singer remembers his own son and breaks down -- Takakura, who earlier on had hidden his tears behind a local red and gold banner, hails the man's blatant emotionalism as a "blessing." So does Zhang, molding the maudlin pitfalls of the redemptive road movie genre into a deeply felt celebration of familial commitment and cultural landscape, the vanishing China of communes and winding roads captured by new technology. Indeed, modern modes of recording figure in prominently: a village council follows the aged visitor to the rooftops to scoop a signal for his cellular phone, and later, lost amid majestic mountains, Takakura uses his camera's flash to guide his rescuers. The running gag about bumbling translators attests to the filmmaker's preference for visual expression over verbal exposition, which builds augustly to the father's reaction to news of the son's death, silhouetted against the hilly background and sky as the son's goodbye words reverberate. The recording of the opera is less important than the healing emotions precipitated by the performance -- first spotted with its colors degraded by a TV screen, the aria is climactically restored to its splendor by Zhang, who stages it in a prison hall as a follow-up to the still-photo slideshow of the performer's boy. Infusing still and moving images with equal force, Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles suggests a profound example of unashamed feeling expanding across cultural barriers.
Zhang's Hero, incidentally, reached American audiences only after being placed under the "Quentin Tarantino Presents" banner. What started as an admirable strategy for avoiding studio cutting has since degenerated, after Hostel and now The Protector, into the laziest audience-baiting tag. The Protector is basically Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior rehashed with elephants and choppier editing; Tony Jaa's athleticism is still the main object of contemplation, though even his impressive ass-whopping gets sabotaged by oafish staging, so that the plentiful tumult never reaches the elating delirium of District B13, the year's far superior, less hyped genre import. No need to drag a clunky piece of exoticism into the screens when such a true-blue exercise in techno-mayhem as Crank is still playing -- in addition to boasting authentic badass Jason Statham, the sly thriller makes a gag out of the adrenaline leaking out of its ears by literally wrapping the narrative around it. Injected with some deadly "Chinese shit," the loutish hero scrambles for a cure, with each grotty second frenetically pumped and the screen frequently splintered just to be on the safe side. Knowingly ridiculous, Crank is a lot more fun than The Protector, a reminder that, as far as numbskull junk food goes, Hollywood reigns supreme still.
Reviewed September 15, 2006.