Open Water, a bracing, admirably mature thriller in which two scuba divers are stranded in shark-filled fathoms of ocean, yields something more than an adrenaline rush. When the movie was over, and I was back on the sidewalk outside the theatre, I felt that I had just emerged from underwater. All the muscles in my upper torso were singing, the way they do after a good, long swim.
Open Water represents a kind of triumph for filmmakers (and actors) discovering their way as they go along. The movie begins dismally. The hand-held cameras are held too close; the colors are off, so that some nature shots look glaringly fake; and the two leads are stiff, amateurish. The careerist Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and her bland, emasculated partner Daniel (played by Daniel Travis) are the sort of yuppies I love to hate: all laptops, cell phones, double tall lattes, and tight-lipped smiles. I was past the point of writing the film off as a loss when slowly, incrementally, it improves. Then, once the couple has been submerged a while with no immediate rescue in sight, Daniel’s patience yields to rage, and Open Water takes several leaps forward dramatically. The movie becomes so much better that I was with them, this couple I initially disliked, as their bitterness toward each other pours out, and all was forgiven.
No such triumph occurs in China’s Drifters, San Francisco’s Quality of Life, or the repulsive no matter where it hails from In the Realms of the Unreal. Let me first dispatch the last of this troika of shame, Jessica Yu’s dubious film re the dubious “artist” Henry Darger. Festival buzz on Unreal ran high—a documentary could be made about taste-impaired viewers who lap up this very thing just because it’s “different.” Darger was a severely mentally ill old man who spoke to himself in multiple voices behind his closed apartment door. By day, he eked out a living in various menial roles at a hospital in Chicago. He slaved there for over 50 years, had no friends, made repeat unsuccessful petitions to adopt an orphan from the Catholic Church, and drew violent, nasty pictures of androgynous little warrior girls until he died. Both Darger’s posthumous champions and writer/editor/producer/director Yu treat Darger as if he were an undiscovered genius instead of just a sickie. The novelty of 9-year-old Dakota Fanning narrating the film provides some interest. Not enough.
Drifters, written and directed by Wang Xiaoshuai, has the distinction of being the only festival film (to date) that put me to sleep. Movies such as this seem easy to make. Place a handsome young man in front of the camera and instruct him to pout. Instruct him to pout and to smoke cigarettes at the same time. Have him do a few push-ups, sport a crewcut, and suffer silently, morosely, as a result of his pugilistic incommunicativeness. Place an adorable moppet child in front of the camera. Instruct the child to do something endearingly cute, such as eating French fries with chopsticks, so that the audience won’t feel totally cheated. Have the child address the pouty butch as “Daddy!” Last but not least, place a radio broadcast in the background of every other scene. Have the radio announcer report portentously on the World Trade Organization, and how the WTO will greatly benefit China, so the viewers will know that you, the writer-director, intend it as irony. This will cover for your complete and total absence of anything to say.
By contrast, first-time feature film director Benjamin Morgan does have something he urgently wants to communicate in Quality of Life. Only he lacks the skill. I looked forward to a movie about graffiti artists and their milieu. The recycled clichés processed here could apply to any misunderstood, alienated youth culture; there’s nothing particularly fresh going on either in the characterizations or the visuals. “We paint graffiti—that’s what we do!” the poor, suffering, put-upon working-class housepainter hero Mikey exclaims to his dad. The movie clearly intends us to love Lane Garrison as Mikey. And I’ll admit I feel a bit guilty for not doing so. The camera ogles Mikey as if he were a precious little darling, artfully framing the daubs of white paint on his high cheekbones, the clean lines of his buzzcut and facial contours, the smoothness of his jolly pink torso. Kev Robertson, the director of photography, shoots the film in cool, faded, blue pastels, so that we lose the great, garish beauty of the graffiti. – NPT
May 26, 2004