Skip the Armageddon, Grab a Brew
By Fernando F. Croce

Nobody, not even George Lucas, has done more than Roland Emmerich to flatten science-fiction into insignificance -- add Universal Soldier, Stargate, Independence Day, and Godzilla, and the genre's potential fertility shrinks in the face of so much turgid nonsense. Though The Day After Tomorrow, the émigré hack's new blockbuster wannabe (and probably will-be), has little in its brain besides popcorn jollies, it arrives with supposed political resonance (i.e., Al Gore's okey-dokey over the effects of global warming). To mine for hidden election-year subtext in this early entry of the summer grab 'n' smash sweepstakes is to acknowledge the collective rumble in the stomach for relevance, and the need to dig for food for thought in some mainstream Hollywood hamburger. Still, for Emmerich Strained Seriousness comes second to Blowing Shit Up, always -- snowstorms bury New Delhi and basketball-sized hail crush Tokyo, while back in these shores L.A. is pulverized by rampaging hurricanes and Manhattan gets submerged, Statue of Liberty and all, by titanic waves. Whoever thought landmark places were verboten for cinematic mayhem after 9/11 has apparently never told Das Spielbergle.

What's causing the bum weather? The melting of the glaciers and our disinterest in them, which, according to climatologist Dennis Quaid, is now heralding a new ice age, with a mankind-decimating temperature drop on the way. The Nature's-revenge gimmick may hark back to such '70s eco-thrillers as Night of the Lepus, Frogs, and Day of the Animals, but the film instead plunders that decade for the far more conventional disaster epics of the Poseidon Adventure variety, which always formed the preferred template for Emmerich's knuckleheaded ensembles-in-peril. Here, Quaid has to prove his pluck by braving his way through bone-shattering cold from Philadelphia to New York City (by foot) to reunite with estranged son Jake Gyllenhaal, who is himself scrambling to ward off the raging elements in the Public Library, alongside high-school sweetheart Emmy Rossum and assorted, less fetching nerds. Elsewhere, scientist Ian Holm telegraphs it from a British station while turning icicle, a pack of CGI-etched wolves runs amok, raptor-style, in a stranded Russian ship, and Sela Ward and Perry King pace through their ludicrous roles with the gumption of the TV-sized stalwarts that they are.

The cataclysms of end-of-the-world thrillers can be used to flatten our sense of certainty, though leave it for Emmerich to fashion a feel-good armageddon where, despite those pesky vortexes of death, familial wounds are healed, a black homeless man and a white preppie bond together, and civilization ultimately emerges wiser and humbler, the air clearer than ever. Even Dick Cheneyoid vice-president Kenneth Welsh sends over a mea culpa from some "Third World" refuge camp -- tellingly, the only time in the film when the TV logo is not FOX-News. Despite the nifty, Lewis Carrollesque gag of turning American masses into illegal immigrants pushing into Mexico (the Rio Grande only opens after the foreign debt is pardoned), the German-born Emmerich is no cultural critic ala Verhoeven, only a cloddish, imitative techno-geek, the spectacle shorn of imagination, humor, and beauty. The elements, menacingly crunching ice or ominously freezing air, chase after the heroes like reminders of their guilt, but the ecological wake-up call of The Day After Tomorrow is cozily digitalized, nothing actually threatened or challenged. Even with the fate of civilization at stake, the Hollywood blockbuster remains serenely sure of the regenerating power of nifty FX and rampant stupidity.

*

Dodge the cold: For a film of a thousand delights, check out The Saddest Music in the World, Guy Maddin's funny, lustrous extravaganza of archaic cinephilia. The Canadian avant-gardist who last year reimagined vampirism as sexual-cultural ballet in Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary, Maddin burnishes his native Winnipeg as a frostbitten burg visually and aurally soaked in Hollywood pop. The time is 1933 and, to celebrate being appointed World Capital of Sorrow, local beer baroness Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini) invites musicians from all over the globe for the Saddest Music in the World Festival, with $25 grand at stake. Representing America in all her vulgar glory is oily, chipper Broadway impresario Mark McKinney, arriving from Manhattan with amnesiac-nymphomaniac squeeze Maria de Medeiros in tow. No sooner has he hit town than he's cozying up to Rossellini, whose amputated legs serve as reminder of their former romance and play a crucial role in his lovelorn father's (David Fox) attempts to win her heart with beer filled glass prosthetics. Elsewhere, countries engage in musical face-offs, each vying for the ultimate in melodic tearduct-plucking, while Ross McMillian, McKinney's incredibly gloomy bro and de Medeiros' forgotten hubby, carries his dead son's heart inside a jar filled with tears.

As evident in Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, Maddin often has trouble stretching the mannerist-whimsical intensity of his shorts into feature length, though the pitch of The Saddest Music in the World is miraculously sustained by dense style and deadpan lyricism, to say nothing of its sneaky agenda. Silent cinema and Art-Deco studio artifice are the main points of iconic reference (de Medeiros is a Griffithian sprite, while Rossellini is a von Stroheim muse; there are also nods to Borzage, Browning, Lang and Depression-era talkies) yet the film remains insistently topical in its analysis of the commodization of grief, Canada's blurry history (memory loss and nostalgia are not Maddin's escape hatches, but his very tools of inquiry) and a political hierarchy as fragile as glassy gams. Jerome Kern's plaintive "The Song Is You," milked for pizzazz by McKinney and wrenched out of a cello by McMillian, unites Maddin's monochromatic flow of dreamy imagery, de Medeiros warbling "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" to spasmic 8mm reflections or a troupe of Indian dancers decked out as Eskimos while "California Here I Come" emanates from sitar and panflute. A synopsis can't help suggest a filmmaker's facetious smirk, yet Maddin's anachronistic effects are not so much "campy" as achingly aware of their evanescence, and of the strong emotions they cloak.

Reviewed May 21, 2004.


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