Godzillas: Tokyo!, Knowing, Duplicity, Sunshine Cleaning
By Fernando F. Croce

Paris and New York have gotten the tourist-auteur treatment, why not Tokyo? The three-panel Tokyo! is one mountain bracketed by a pair of valleys, but what a mountain! "Merde," the middle episode directed by the brilliant, erratic Leos Carax (much missed since 1999’s Pola X), tickles, repulses, and beguiles. A crumpled, one-eyed, pointy-bearded troglodyte (Denis Lavant, insanely inspired) spills out of the city’s bowels onto its streets on a rampage that escalates from licking schoolgirls and munching flowers to hurling grenades left over from the Second Sino-Japanese War. The screen is splintered during his trial, as an equally grotesque but more housebroken French lawyer (Jean-François Balmer) translates the grunting provocations of "the Creature from the Sewers"; al-Qaeda and Nagisa Oshima figure in this welter of giddy effronteries, Godzilla’s iconic shriek makes a cameo appearance. Next to this pungent, barnstorming joke, the other two segments, both dealing with far gentler mutants, waft by flavorlessly. Michel Gondry’s "Interior Design" follows the girlfriend (Ayako Fujitani) of a wannabe filmmaker (Ryo Kase); I spent most of the time in dread anticipating a burst of Gondry’s usual papier-mâché surrealism, and was relieved to see things instead trail off to a deadpan, perversely poignant close. The concluding fable, Bong Joon-ho’s "Shaking Tokyo," contrives an earthquake to hook up an agoraphobic (Teruyuki Kagawa) with an adorable delivery gal (Yu Aoi). Stale whimsy all the way, it nevertheless elucidates the project’s presiding idea, the transformative/deforming effect of urban loneliness. A humanistic theme which could take place in any metropolis, but I prefer the ogre who detests humanity but loves life, which could take place only inside Carax’s cranium.

*

It’s still early, but Alex Proyas’s Knowing already scoops this year’s prize for most ludicrous set-up and most ludicrous punchline. So dig this, cat: It’s 1959 and an elementary-school class stuffs a time capsule with drawings, and a paper covered with frantically scribbled numbers is submitted by a spooky little gal (Lara Robinson) last seen scratching digits on a basement door with her bloody fingertips. Rather than sticking around to see if she grows up into Jennifer Jason Leigh or Amanda Plummer, the film flashes forward five decades to Nicolas Cage pondering randomness versus determinism as a soul-sick astrophysics professor. The capsule is exhumed and the mysterious paper lands in Cage’s hands; a mix of hooch and insomnia gets him in a deciphering mood, and before you can say The Number 23 the page becomes a map for the dates and locations of the world’s catastrophes, including a handful conveniently scheduled for the next few days. Where do the Billy Idol-ish humanoids who keep telepathically stalking Cage’s son (Chandler Canterbury) come in? Is it still tacky to imprint 9/11 imagery on CGI demolition derbies? Which of the five screenwriters came up with the moose-on-fire gag? "We must go where the numbers tell us to go!" is typical Cage-speak here. Proyas can be a virtuoso Gothic fabulist (The Crow, Dark City) but, despite the occasional long-take flurry that’s positively Dantean, this is radioactive, sub-Shyamalan donkeyshit. As for the flaming-lulu of a closing sequence (which involves spaceships, bunnies, and a multi-millionaire’s version of the Left Behind series), well, Terrence Malick himself wouldn’t have been able to water this Tree of Life. Quoth Goethe: "Thinking is more interesting than Knowing..."

*
While Proyas strains for Adam and Eve, Tony Gilroy in Duplicity seeks Hepburn and Tracy... and settles for Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. The main concept is Michael Clayton’s grayish corporate-skullduggery played for comic suavity, but the results are mistimed and misshapen, like Lubitsch after a vasectomy. The stars are cast as feuding lovers in the middle of a business tug of war, playing the espionage game but, as the winking tone telegraphs, nursing a sting of their own. Introducing the rival CEOs (Paul Giamatti and Tom Wilkinson) going at it in slow-mo like the War of the Gargantuas between parked private jets is a clever idea, though, like the film’s other attempts at cleverness, it is milked until the udder is dry. For instance, the protagonists flirt, shag and part repeatedly over time ("2003," "Five years later," "Two years ago") and space (Dubai, Rome, Cleveland); more than one critic has noted the Resnais gloss (the joke is from Last Year at Marienbad: "Haven’t we met somewhere before?"), yet Gilroy’s repetitions and temporal hopscotching are there only so he can hear his own would-be zingers ("You’re so used to having your legs in the air that you don’t realize you’re upside down, sister") two, three, four times and have the characters chuckle at how witty they are. The swirl of twists, MacGuffins and split-screens stands or falls on sheer star wattage, but Owe’s usual tautness dissipates in the face of cute trickery, while Roberts’s stabs at sexy drollery seem bizarrely goonish. (Her character is named "Stenwick." As in Barbara? If only...) Has Soderbergh’s smug-caper torch finally been passed? Wait for the DVD. Then wait some more.

*

Sunshine Cleaning shows there’s nothing indie dramedies can’t turn into faux-regional quirk -- it makes mopping up after a shotgun suicide seem like the gory equivalent of a worm farmer or a luau-themed motel lobby. But mordant icing can’t hide a stale cake, and Christine Jeffs’s earnest meander can’t disguise its Sundance-tested clichés. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, very talented and creamy actresses who’d promptly shrivel up in an actual New Mexico dead-end, play sisters working out emotional wounds while joining in the lucrative if icky business of tidying up crime scenes. Adams is the responsible one, scrambling to raise a son (Jason Spevack) and waiting in vain for her high-school sweetheart (Steve Zahn) to leave his wife for her; Blunt is the sardonic one, sobbing quietly over flashbacks of Mom while shacked with profane, flim-flaming Dad (Alan Arkin, natch). The picture’s peculiar disjointedness raises questions about the release delay since its Park City premiere last year: Do the jerky subplots with Clifton Collins, Jr. (as a gentle, one-armed supplies store owner) and Mary Jane Rajskub (as a timid lesbian stalked by Blunt) betray a pusillanimous producer’s ax, or just illustrate the general aimlessness of the project? There are some touching moments, but a day’s reflection wipes the whole thing off the mind as surely as two plucky starlets scrubbing blood off tiled walls.


Reviewed April 11, 2009.

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