Leaky Horror, Toback Remake, Indie Quirkiness
By Fernando F. Croce

When something like Fantastic Four is the weekend's bit hit, what better excuse is there to duck the box-office for the more interesting movies with about a fifth of its media blitzkrieg? Okay, one commercial concession before moving on -- Dark Water, the latest J-horror remake aimed at the PG-13 masses too lazy to read subtitles. A damp chiller to go along with the dreadful Ring and Grudge Hollywoodizations, it could have been an example of an émigré filmmaker using an assignment for a stylistic-muscle workout; after all, foreign artists are constantly (if not often wisely) flocking to American screens, and the results have usually been richer to the eye than to the ear. Unhappily, Hideo Nakata, who directed the 2002 Japanese original with at least some sense of chilling foreboding, had already been wrangled for the Ring sequel, thus the project fell to bland Brazilian auteur Walter Salles. The material here is closer to the trash of his early Exposure than to the fake-humanism of Motorcycle Diaries, though, even as a purely stylistic exercise, the film is tasteful hackwork -- Salles' visual choices are pedestrian, helicopter-shots galore alongside shock-milking views of ominously uncooperative faucets and gurgling drains, "Itsy Bitsy Spider" yawningly chanted out in creepy-little-girl tones.

There's a plot somewhere underneath the dirty downpours (designed by Affonso Beato, dutifully dimming his Almodóvar rainbows), with Jennifer Connelly still trapped in legal-hell fallout from her previous House of Sand and Fog outing. This time her soulful mopeyness is used for single-mother stress, handed the double-whammy of surviving a harsh custody battle with ex-husband Dougray Scott and finding a new place for her and her tiny daughter (Ariel Gade) in New York City. They land on the creepiest, most fastidiously snot-green apartment complex in town, complete with burned-off elevator buttons, evilly spreading water stains, and the spirit of a Russian girl possibly haunting the upper floors. But hey, it's only $900 a month! The ghosts here are mainly emotional, old memories of motherly neglect threatening to cross generations, lending Salles' handling a "classy," social-conscious (read: condescending) patina until the plot machinery kicks in and sadistically feeds on the heroine's torment. Made with palpable disdain for the genre, Dark Water gets indispensable energy-shots from canny peripheral perfs (John C. Reilly doing joyous two-faced routines, Tim Roth rounding out lawyerly neurosis, Pete Postlethwaite muttering about "punks"), though ultimately the hardworking sludge wins out. If Connelly's message in House was basically "Open your mail," here it's "Fix your plumbing."

*

Remake-fever has apparently reached the other side of the Atlantic, though The Beat That My Heart Skipped is a far more useful update, and actually a fine movie in its own right, even if authorship-knots get predictably scrambled -- the raw material it draws on turns out to be Fingers, James Toback's 1978 semi-masterpiece of New York nuttiness and obsessive filmmaking. French director Jacques Audiard shares some jangled nerves with Toback, but his own stylistic impulses aren't nearly as wildly ejaculating; as shown in his earlier hit Read My Lips, Audiard's jumpy camera traces zigzag paths of interaction but remains craftily earthbound, delineating actions rather than of leaping into them. The filmmaker has moved the setting from his previous picture's pressure-cooker office to the streets of Paris, though the atmosphere change hardly soothes the characters' feel of pent-up violence -- the five o'clock-shadowed hero (Romain Duris), pushing thirty in a techno-fueled existence, appears always ready to explode, whether going about his job routine of setting rats on apartment squatters or sharing a drink with his friends at a bar. All but shooting out of his fingertips, Duris' volatile energy is channeled mainly into finger-breaking for his manipulative, petty gangster dad (Niels Arestrup, whom I still mostly remember getting a handjob from Chantal Akerman in Je, Tu, Il, Elle), though once upon a time those digits belonged to a potential musical prodigy.

Caffeinated to the point of epilepsy, Fingers was also the first installment of Toback's fixation with the thin line separating artistic sensitivity and wild-card thuggery, both of which to him demand the fullness of the artist's drives even as it denies him conventional wholeness. Audiard's retelling is more straightforward, although the schism in the pug's psyche remains jacked-up to the end, the same meth-passion invested in channeling Bach at the piano and pointing a knife at the neck of the immigrant cook who owes his father money. (The closest the new version comes to winking at the original is the throwaway gag of playing a Euro-remix of "The Locomotion" while real-estate thugs muscle poor families out of their refuges, a nod to the protagonist's taste for girl-group pop in the older film.) The various tremors are streamlined into a neater path of dubious redemption, yet there's a keener interest in relationships, as well as more respect for the female form -- Emmanuelle Devos, the superb Read My Lips star, pops up all too briefly, and Aure Atike and Lihn Dan Pham provide a cooling stability to Duris' high-strung hepcat. Indeed, his mostly nonverbal scenes with Vietnamese piano coach Pham all but externalize the hero's jittery inner wounds, of the blurring of delicacy and brutality that, as arresting as it is absurd, never quite solidifies. The portrait of the artist stuck between beast and angel, then and now.

*

No need to compare and contrast Me and You and Everyone We Know with anything else -- Miranda July's "digital-age" vision is hers, and hers alone. The film's reality is a singularly individualized one, though even that nowadays is no blank-check for quality; in fact, by the time the title had come on, I was dreading yet another exercise in flakey-Sundancey "originality" a la Napoleon Dynamite. A frazzled shoe salesman (John Hawkes), after his wife's walked out, asks his boys (Miles Thompson, Brandon Ratcliff) if he looks okay before going outside to light his palm on fire; already this early, action and reactions both are oddly but assuredly off-kilter, the soothing calm of the images deliberately at odds with the emotions coursing through. July envisions contemporary existence as metaphysical screwball comedy and, as befits the inclusive title, she implicates herself into her own art, playing a loopy video-artist (doubling as driver for retirement home dwellers) whose paths cross with Hawkes. The theme is the odd togetherness of folks and things, a less manic I Heart Huckabees -- eulogies for a goldfish on top of a car, a picture of a bird deposited in a tree, "Soup won't be computadorized," pink shoes, a discarded wrapper mistaken for performance-art, a stroll to a parking lot standing in for the arc of a relationship. The film wavers from wondrous to unendurable, yet who else would have risked enough childlike crystallization to turn chatroom coprophilia into an affirmation of the human yearning for connection? "Back and forth... forever." July's arrival might be one worth celebrating.


Reviewed July 14, 2005.

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