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Tran Anh Hung’s intimate first film, The Scent of Green Papaya, was so elegantly idealized that it could be shot entirely on sets; its quietly foreboding pre-war Vietnam was actually a Paris soundstage. But the Franco-Vietnamese writer/director’s second feature is set, both thematically and literally, on the bustling streets of Ho Chi Minh City, the contemporary version of the Saigon that Papaya represented only abstractly. Indeed, in Cyclo the streets are perhaps the most articulate characters.
Visceral where its predecessor was ethereal, Cyclo explores the brutal underworld of urban Vietnam. Photographed mostly with natural light and often with handheld camera (by the exceptional Benoit Delhomme, who also shot Papaya), the film is punctuated, both narratively and visually, by explosive violence: Men are consumed by flames, or drenched in blood. Indeed, the redness of blood is a central pictorial motif, and one character, the Poet (Tony Leung-Chiu Wai), has chronic nosebleeds whose modest outpourings of blood presage the rivers that will flow later. (Hung also contrasts the blood with the free-flowing pigment unleashed by a young retarded man, the son of the main character’s boss, who likes to cover himself in paint.)
The story is simple, although presented as obliquely as possible: The Cyclo (Le Van Loc) is an orphaned 18-year-old who pedals a bicycle-cab (or cyclo) to help support his two sisters and his elderly grandfather, who patches bicycle tires to make a little extra money. When his cyclo is stolen, the young man falls in with a group of gangsters, which includes the laconic Poet, in order to pay his boss (Nguyen Nhu Quynh) for its loss. Meanwhile, the Poet experiments with prostituting the Cyclo’s older sister (beautiful Tran Nu Yen Khe, also featured in Papaya), although at first he pimps her only to various fetishists whose interests are no threat to her virginity. After they enter this maelstrom of chaos and corruption, can the Cyclo and the Sister possibly ever exit?
Neither naturalistic nor prescriptive, Cyclo depicts the (moral) fall of Saigon in a style that’s more French than Vietnamese; since the forces of good and evil overshadow questions of character and motivation, the film recalls the work of Robert Bresson (and Delhomme has cited Loc as an ideal Bressonian performer). The film’s post-MTV style is a little too baroque for the rigorous Bresson, however. Instead, its rapturous abstraction and fragmented narrative suggest the influence of Hong Kong action-flick eccentric Wong Kar-Wai. Tony Leung-Chiu Wai has appeared in Wong’s Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time, and Chungking Express, and Hung’s film plays like the latter in a bad mood. It’s transported by the bustle of Ho Chi Minh City’s streets, but horrified by the ruthlessness that cohabits with the vitality.
Cyclo is visually exquisite, but Hung’s approach is problematic. Though the film will provide a shock to those expecting the cool formalism of Papaya, that shock is chiefly aesthetic. Where his previous film was able to suggest the cataclysm that was about to transform placid Vietnam, Cyclo obscures the devastation of the postwar era by rendering it so exquisitely. The images (and Ton That Tiet’s spare, eclectic score) are stunning, but the movie works only as urban fantasia, not as either sociological tract or human tragedy. Rather than expressing Ho Chi Minh City’s anguish, Hung transforms the place into a back lot where he can explore his aesthetic preoccupations. He does that spectacularly, but the result doesn’t seem entirely fair to the real inhabitants of those mean streets, reduced by Cyclo to mere scenery.
A movie as blithely preposterous as Grace of My Heart, Allison Anders’ ahistorical pocket history of ’60s pop, really ought to be more compelling. But the film attempts an impossible feat, taking flamboyant liberties with the subject while hewing to a Scorsesean rhythm that promises docu-drama. Executive produced by Scorsese and edited in part by his faithful lieutenant, Thelma Schoonmaker, Heart advances relentlessly with short scenes that suggest that the film might have been called Songfellas. Yet Anders’ scenario and tone are anything but gritty.
Though most of the characters in this movie are not precisely who they first seem to be, heroine Denise Waverly (Scorsese protégé Illeana Douglas) is more or less Carole King. A Brill Building songwriter who helps create the girl-group sound of the early ’60s, Denise vanishes from the public eye after the British Invasion, only to return with a smash album that introduces the sensitive singer/
songwriter era of the early ’70s. Where the real King was just one cog in the works that created ’60s pop, however, Denise is at the very center of the process.
After writing a few girl-group hits with her phony-leftist husband Howard Caszatt (the ubiquitous Eric Stoltz as someone vaguely like Gerry Goffin), Denise proceeds to pen songs for lesbian teen-queen singer Kelly Porter (Bridget Fonda as Lesley Gore) and high-harmony balladeers the Click Brothers (the Williams Brothers as the Everly Brothers). She then records a bombastic ballad that flops (the equivalent of Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”) produced by eccentric genius producer Jay Phillips (Matt Dillon as an unpudgy Brian Wilson), who she soon weds. After the marriage turns traumatic, she makes her breakthrough as a performer at the insist-ence of her old friend Joel Millner (John Turturro, looking just like Phil Spector but meant to be—who? Lou Adler?). All that’s really missing is a trip to India with a moptopped British foursome.
Anders is under no obligation to stick to the facts, but Heart’s account of ’60s pop is so jumbled that it’s jarring. Denise and Howard write an unwed-mother tune almost a decade before the Supremes’ “Love Child” actually broached the subject in the Top 40, and Nashville cats the Click Brothers record in New York. Rather than rubbing shoulders with Ellie Greenwich or Cynthia Weil, Denise becomes pals with British-accented Brill Building songwriter Cheryl Steed (Patsy Kensit, main squeeze of Oasis’ Liam Gallagher). When Jay announces his plans for the new album that will transport his surf-music band the Riptides (played by Redd Cross) into a new style (and is, in other words, 1966’s Pet Sounds), he claims to be inspired by the Beatles’ 1967 “I Am the Walrus.” Soon after writing something that resembles “Good Vibrations”—well, it’s got a theremin part—Jay’s work tapes indicate that he’s about to make Neil Young’s Harvest. When Denise and Cheryl write a song for a girl group that appears regularly on a 1967 afternoon TV show, it sounds like British pop-punk from two decades in the future.
This muddle ain’t rock history, but the film could have worked on some level. Alas, it benefits from neither emotional resonance nor character development. Denise changes her wardrobe and hairstyles frequently, but 10 years later she remains merely the plucky, likable young woman she was at her first appearance. When she finally succeeds as a singer/songwriter, her longtime goal, it seems less the fruition of a dream than the culmination of the plot.
Anders apparently means to bring a female perspective to rock history—“I sort of write for girls,” Denise explains early in the film—but that worthy goal translates merely as a series of either soap opera or sitcom incidents: Denise shocks her overbearing mom by switching dresses with another contestant in a talent contest; the pregnant Denise’s water breaks at a recording session; pregnant again and soon to be divorced, she gets an illegal abortion; as Denise dresses in a hurry to meet her lover (Bruce Davison), her maid recommends a new product called pantyhose.
The director’s affection for her subject is clear from the reverent tracking shot of the Brill Building façade. That passion fails to come to life on the soundtrack, however. To sidestep overly close identification with the characters’ real-life counterparts (and to avoid paying expensive royalties), the filmmakers chose to use few actual songs from the period. Instead, they enlisted a host of professional songwriters, including Gerry Goffin himself, as well as his (and King’s) daughter, Louise. Other contributors include Burt Bacharach, Elvis Costello, Larry Klein, Carole Bayer Sager, David A. Stewart, David Baerwald, J Mascis, and Joni Mitchell. The result is mostly bland, although a few of the songs are archly knowing: Lesley Gore actually helped write a tune called “My Secret Love,” not a song her teenage self would have likely recorded.
In Gas Food Lodging, her breakthrough film, Anders conjured a dreamlike atmosphere that bridged the plot’s gap between dashed hopes and wish fulfillment. Nothing like that, however, happens here. Grace of My Heart scurries as if it has someplace to go, but it only becomes more lost as it leaves the girl-group era behind. Instead of the details, historical or emotional, that would bring the characters and the period to life, the film just has a hasty, haphazard sweep it tries to pass off as vitality.
The cinematic plot twist can be a powerful thing, but it only thrills if the plot being twisted makes some sense to begin with. No wonder The Rich Man’s Wife frequently stoops to routine slasher-flick shock tactics; writer/director Amy Holden Jones’ script depends on developments so implausible that subverting them is both narratively and emotionally futile.
Offering a stodgy, triflingly feminist variation on The Usual Suspects, this patchwork thriller is a crime-conspiracy tale told in a flashback that represents the story of a possible culprit. Dragged to an L.A. police station for hiring a man to kill her husband, Josie Potenza (Halle Berry) insists that Cole Wilson (Peter Greene, also a psycho in such films as Pulp Fiction, Laws of Gravity, and Clean, Shaven) murdered wealthy TV executive Tony Potenza (Christopher McDonald) of his own volition. Or was Cole working for bankrupt restaurateur Jake Golden (Clive Owen), who owed money to Tony and was sleeping with Josie? And is Josie’s account of these events to be believed anyway?
Viewers are unlikely to care, since Jones has found nothing more striking in L.A.’s heart of darkness than the Potenza mansion, with its grand oceanfront pool. The few aspects of the film that prove amusing are all incidental: Casting Berry allows for a few racial-paranoia flourishes, as when the cops assigned to the case (one black, one white) argue about whether her race makes Josie more or less of a suspect. The initially cowering Josie ultimately proves no fragile flower, defending herself with some credible kickboxing. And Jake’s wife, Nora (Ellen’s Clea Lewis), a plainspoken cynic with Valley Girl diction, adds a little humor to the interrogation process.
These diversions, however, do little to lessen the tedium of the basic plot. Jones has written and/or directed such classics as Indecent Proposal, Beethoven, and Slumber Party Massacre, and this movie is from that same tradition—which is to say, no tradition at all. Symbolically, Tony Potenza is a TV executive, but this is hardly the sort of film that can slay the menace of small-screen paltriness. Indeed, if The Rich Man’s Wife has a message, it’s that movies that mean nothing foster characters that don’t amount to anything.CP