Poseidon turns belly up, and the summer of dumb officially begins. Big-budget vacuity is on display from the first image, a helicopter shot (all CGI, natch) swooping around the titular gleaming vessel, catching Josh Lucas jogging on the deck before craning away to end on an appropriately chintzy-looking sunset. Tay Garnett employed a similar camera maneuver in 1935 with China Seas, although to the honest artisan of old Hollywood the emphasis was on the character boarding the ship instead of the technology depicting it, where Wolfgang Petersen stages it for the facile audience wow! that's become de rigueur in today's digitally-lubricated universe. Not that studios bother to look that far back to dig for remake material, anyway -- the new film's basis is, of course, The Poseidon Adventure, a 1972 sample of the disaster genre that fascinated Pauline Kael so much more than Fassbinder or Akerman around the same time. But back to the present: Lucas now plays the Gene Hackman character, changed from cynical priest (aah, the '70s) to blank-faced gambler aboard Petersen's dopey luxury liner, sharing the cruise with such ambulatory clichés as Kurt Russell's 9/11 signifier (ex-fireman and ex-NYC mayor), rebellious daughter Emmy Rossum, stowaway Mía Maestro, and professional asshole Kevin Dillon. Richard Dreyfuss is fist seen leaving a weepy cellular message for his lover, in right profile so he can turn and, a-ha!, a diamond stud dangles from his lobe. As prize for such progressivism, he is awarded with the first sight of the gargantuan "rogue wave," heading over this a-way while everybody sings their Auld Lang Synes.
Regarded somewhere by somebody as a nautical-action specialist, Petersen (Das Boot, The Perfect Storm) makes sure Poseidon remains from there on like Gene Wilder, hysterical and wet. The ship is turned upside down, and, though any chance to explore upstairs-downstairs social implications gets washed away with it, that doesn't mean it lacks subtext -- survival becomes the name of the game, and all of the movie's imbecilic speed can't hide the fact that privileged whites are the only ones making it to the morning after. Captain Andre Braugher is an early watery casualty, while Freddy Rodríguez, after having helped the other passengers escape past an elevator shaft, gets a boot to the face and impaled down below; Maestro, the only one I was hoping would actually survive, supplies a picturesque underwater crimson cloud after contributing her crucifix as a screwdriver. To be fair, Dillon is flattened by a falling motor, though we are in morally muddy waters when catastrophic suffering can be so tidily packaged as a Hollywood product. Poseidon might feel like the flipside of United 93, but whether it's a "fun" popcorn flick or a "tasteful" reenactment of real-life tragedy, both irresponsibly fetishize the spectacle of death, raiding viewers' fears and emotions minus perception or catharsis. When the sea bursts through the boat's walls and the screams of the dying in the ballroom are heard, the absolute lack of feeling would border on indecent if it hadn't already become so distinctly the chatter of the modern blockbuster machine. Let it drown.
With its Bollywood-on-hashish whimsy, Princess Raccoon may be no less of a headache if the woolly cartooning of Seijun Suzuki curdles in your belly. To this fan of Japan's vintage gonzo auteur, however, the picture was a ride of a thousand delights, the effervescent phantasmagoria light as a breeze, surfing on the sheer liquidness of form. Zhang Ziyi plays the eponymous damsel, not necessarily furry but a shape-shifting trickster all the same, singing and tap-dancing in broken Japanese since the director, instead of attempting to camouflage the Chinese star's specific attributes like the they're-all-Asian-anyway insensitivity of Memoirs of a Geisha, celebrates the contrasting cultures here at play. Quite a carnival -- musical is the genre, with self-mocking operetta the subgenre and just about every imaginable pop-aural assault trotted out, from moony ballads to 50s all-girl bubblegum to calypso to glam-rock to rap to performance-art voguing. A plot lurks along the margin, sort of: The vain regent (Mikijiro Hira) of some kind of bizarro-fantasy Japan learns that his son (Joe Odagiri) is to grow up to surpass him in beauty, so the prince is banished to Sacred Mountain. Along the way he meets downpours of petals, floating beach balls, and Zhang, the comely human shape of frisky Princess Raccoon. "I met a man in the forest," she ponders. "Not the prince of my dreams, but an interesting fellow." Such deflating spoof, especially so soon following the pompous pageantry of The Promise, sounds melodious.
Suzuki's block-party antsiness is just as rooted in national folklore as Chen's smear of middlebrow kitsch, yet while The Promise is geared for the international market who swooned for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Princess Raccoon is foremost the work of a 83-year-old prankster who really couldn't give less of a fuck about whether the masses are getting their fix of pre-packaged exoticism or, for that matter, whether the basic grammar of filmmaking is being obeyed. The individual shot is everything for Suzuki -- a long-shot segues into a close-up or a rigid tableau into a tracking shot, and just in case there's a chance they may actually match, the impish director tosses in a soupçon of computer color for further spatial disorientation. Still plenty of piss and vinegar in Suzuki, though if this knockabout surrealism were only for show, the whole thing would be about as tolerable as Moulin Rouge! Instead, the ticklish fireworks dismantle genre mechanics and disarm expectations, and become as spiritually and communally rejuvenating (and as much of a philosophical style) as Takeshi Kitano's blood spurts in Zatoichi. It's no accident that the fairy-tale story is set during a period of European occupation -- like the indigenous mythology under threat by colonialism, Suzuki's tenaciously personal style fights to exist in a market of homogenized cargo. The dissonant filmmaker by now films to entertain himself, yet the final celebratory crane movement caps the closest he's come to an authentic populist crowd-pleaser.
Music and culture also figure in The Lost City, yet Andy Garcia, helming the paean to Batista Cuba that has been his pet project for nearly two decades, can't think of much to do with them other than to fashion a crosscutting loop for some long-lost installment of The Godfather saga. If the movie is supposed to be Havana-born Garcia's homage to his heritage, how come this "epic" unfolds like a series of as outtakes from Hollywood productions? The previously interesting actor, growing waxy with age and wealth, basically plays Rick Blaine from Casablanca, a nightclub owner summing up (or, rather, reducing) a nation's complex epoch by how his business and family are affected by the encroaching revolution. It's 1959 and political upheavals are erupting, yet Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are literally extras not only to the soapy narrative of Garcia, his brothers (Nestor Carbonell, Enrique Murciano), and a "widow of the revolution" (Ines Sastre), but also to gratuitous superstar cameos of Dustin Hoffman (as Meyer Lansky) and Bill Murray (as a waffling question-mark in pool trunks). "There's no happiness outside the revolution" in this stolid lament for the end of leisure for the privileged few, especially if Cuba's history is to intrude upon Garcia's pernicious plot.
Reviewed May 18, 2006.