Will Noah on three films now playing in New York.
Red Hook Summer
Spike Lee’s work has always been most successful when it has embraced dialectics: realism and stylization; personal and collective identity; Dr. King and Malcolm X. So it’s great news that Red Hook Summer finds Lee at his most schizophrenic, engaging all opposing sides of his artistic persona. He seems to have attempted to forget everything he knows about filmmaking in this project, but of course he can’t. The film consequently feels like a young man’s film and an old man’s film constantly doing battle with each other. Neither of the central characters, a preacher (Clarke Peters) and his grandson (Jules Brown), is sentimentalized or condemned; each one’s voice is heard and measured with appropriate weight. Formally, Lee throws in everything and the kitchen sink, valuing spontaneity over polish. Not every idea works; the incongruous soundtrack flops as often as it drives a scene home. Still, the scenes where Lee’s experiments work pack a tremendous wallop, justifying those that fail to cohere. Red Hook Summer might not be a masterpiece, but its willingness to toss the director’s handbook out the window in favor of crazed, dueling modes of expression qualifies it as a minor miracle.
David Cronenberg seems to have entered a new career phase in which text interpretation is the name of the game. In Cosmopolis, however, instead of A Dangerous Method’s secondhand Jung, he’s got Don DeLillo’s dialogue to work with, which turns out to be a considerable asset. The simple pleasure of hearing an all-star cast spouting DeLillo’s pomo technospeak is reason enough to see the film. The performances are uniformly excellent, including Robert Pattinson, who supplies a surprising degree of varying shades to the robotic character of Eric Packer, a 28 year old stock trader making his way across New York City in a limo as his fortune (and western civilization) collapses around him. The film is structured as a glacial series of dialogues between Packer and another character, culminating in a confrontation with Paul Giamatti’s would-be assassin. Cronenberg cultivates an eerily chilling tone, and finds plenty of material in the text for his directorial trademarks, particularly the way that Packer’s limo acts as a semi-permeable exoskeleton, letting in sexual partners and keeping out the reality of the power he exercises. Still, Cosmopolis doesn’t quite achieve the emotional arc it seems to be shooting for. The film inches close to the dead-eyed sadness of Cronenberg’s Crash, but never quite reaches it. That said, there’s plenty to be overwhelmed by, and perhaps the overall design of the project would resolve into clarity on a second viewing.
Craig Zobel’s Compliance posits itself as a Milgram-esque social psychology experiment, but the whole enterprise is premised on such rickety terms that the project is bound to collapse. The film, an amalgam of several real-life events, unfolds over the course of an evening at a fast-food restaurant as a sadistic prank caller (Pat Healy), impersonating a police officer, forces the manager (Ann Dowd) to detain and strip-search an employee (Dreama Walker), escalating his demands to a horrifying degree. Maybe Zobel was just too beholden to the “true story” angle, but the setting in which the film takes place gives the audience too many explanations that insulate them from implication. Why set this story in a low-income work setting for any other reason than the fact that it happened there in real life, since that allows big city arthouse viewers (know your audience!) to write the characters off as education-deficient rubes who simply don’t know their civil rights? Why make so many concessions to plausibility that effectively write off the film’s thematic thrust? And if you’re going to go with the true story angle, why not attempt to interrogate the social forces that caused such a horrifying scenario? Not only does Compliance build its experiment on faulty grounds, it fails to follow through in its procedure, eventually replacing its blow-by-blow procedural approach with sensationalized ellipses. Some performances are impressive, Zobel’s visual sense is proficient if uninspired, and the film succeeds as a conversation-starter, but as an investigation of human nature it fails horribly.