Notes on Days of Being Wild, Donkey Skin, Moolaadé, The Merchant of Venice, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, and Rory O’Shea Was Here

leslieLeslie Cheung in Days of Being Wild (Photo courtesy of Kino International)

Days of Being Wild has the distinction of being the first Wong Kar-wai film that didn’t put me into a deep coma. Sure, I stayed awake the entire time, which I can’t say for my experience of watching In the Mood for Love or Fallen Angels, but this re-release of Wong’s aesthetically pleasing 1991 failure isn’t any less solipsistic than his later works, though it is a good deal less somnambulistic.

“Drink Coca-Cola,” a wall sign urges us in the movie’s first scene. Into a dingy, forlorn soda fountain, romantic flirtation begins. “You’ll see me tonight in your dreams,” a lean and beautiful young man (the late Leslie Cheung) informs the decorous wallflower (Maggie Cheung) who serves him. Wong then cuts from the tenebrous interior to the tops of a lush, green tropical forest—the Philippines—scored to Hawaiian slack-key guitar, a musical motif that crops up throughout Days of Being Wild, though not often enough. From this refreshing juxtaposition (the trees look good enough to drink), we go back to the isolation of the stale, acrid soda-pop counter where the girl tells her would-be seducer: “I didn’t see you in my dreams last night.” They become lovers, trade terse banter in bed, she proposes marriage, he declines. And then he takes up with a screeching gorgon of a showgirl, an hysterical loudmouth deafeningly overacted by Carina Lau.

Visually, there are some nice touches. After the Leslie Cheung character beats his adoptive mother’s gigolo to a quivering pulp, he whips out a comb and slicks back his shiny hair with as much serious concentration as he had brandished a hammer to the unlucky lothario. There’s also a curious, intriguing bit of a neighbor boy, in Cheung’s apartment building, who visits only by climbing from window to window, rather than taking the stairs. And the magic dust of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography renders even the homeliest locations (this movie is full of them) unaccountably fetching.

Wong’s choice of music works small wonders, too. He sets Days of Being Wild in the early 1960s, and the most entertaining passages occur when his characters cease spouting psychobabble and simply mambo or cha-cha-cha in their underwear. In one scene, Cheung turns his back on and walks away from an elegant old house, which may or may not be the home of his biological mother, and Wong again cues the sinuously bouncy, Django-influenced Hawaiian guitars. Neither the end credits nor the press notes tell us who’s playing. Quel dommage. The anonymous slack-key syncopator imbues this movie with mysterious, tender qualities that don’t exist in Wong’s empty screenplay.

deneuveAnother theatrical re-issue, the 1970 Donkey Skin, provides better sport. Jacques Demy’s bizarre musical fable, inspired by the 17th-century fairy tales of Charles Perrault, isn’t a good movie by any stretch, but it’s an entertaining bad one. I laughed myself silly at the spectacle of lissome, young Catherine Deneuve parading around with a dead donkey carcass propped on her lovely, blonde head. The songs here are nothing special, and you sense that the composer Michel Legrand knew this: every so often, he and Demy insert a squawking parrot whose mission is to make a mockery of the main love theme. Delphine Seyrig gives a fine, witty performance as Deneuve’s fairy godmother, who shows her just what a girl can accomplish with a magic wand. The cinematographer Ghislain Cloquet includes a dazzling aerial shot of a driverless coach drawn by white steeds through verdant countryside, and the film handles the threat of father-daughter incest with such kooky detachment, even Michael Medved couldn’t object.

The Senegalese film Moolaadé also has certain qualities of a fairy tale. The Sub-Saharan architecture of the African village setting, with its round huts of caramel-colored dried mud and thatched straw roofs, has a vivid, primeval look to it. There’s an amazing mosque, too, which appears to have been molded from marshmallow, its hollows and contours dyed yellow, poked with tree branches that stick out in every direction, and crowned with an ostrich egg. As in Donkey Skin, children run from their parents, although instead of a grown daughter evading an amorous father, six little girls flee from their knife-wielding mothers.

moolaadeI wish that Moolaadé were better than it is, because the lead actress Fatoumata Coulibaly, who plays Mother Collé, gives a lovely, sympathetic performance as a woman who questions the long unchallenged tradition of female genital excision. Collé takes in and grants protection to four of the surviving girls, and in the movie’s most involving scene, she quizzes each of them about their reasons for abandoning “purification.” The octogenarian writer-director Ousmane Sembene does work up a sense of fear in the ensuing standoff between Collé and nearly the entire village, but not a sense of indignation for the suffering. Moolaadé lacks the high drama of the great Rabbitproof Fence, or even of Hotel Rwanda, which in all its MGM/United Artists fustiness at least managed to be compelling. Sembene has made a sociological tract, valuable in its own right, rather than cinematic art.

I haven’t been in much of a hurry to write about the fiasco Michael Radford hath wrought of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. I’m surprised that the reviews haven’t been worse—they deserve to be. A quick glance at the Metacritic tally reveals an unusual amount of slack cut for this film, presumably by movie critics who’ve never bothered to read the play.

Remember, Shakespeare wrote Merchant as a comedy; there are passages, in some of Shylock’s speeches and in the kitschy interplay between the fool Launcelot and his blind father Old Gobbo, that seem to anticipate Borscht-belt humor by centuries. One might hope that a contemporary film would grapple with the theme of anti-Semitism by embracing it: by making the screen Merchant into a full-blown comedy that offends or at least has a willingness to offend.

fiennesjNo such luck. That Radford misses the boat becomes apparent in a distressingly sincere prologue. The soundtrack roars with thundering crescendos of “serious” music; a crawl defines usury and illumines just how unenlightened Venetians were back in the intolerant 1590s; there are shots of a gondola ferrying the sign of the cross; and in a woefully overdramatic touch, images of Christians burning the Torah, the Hebrew script crinkling into ashes in close-up. It’s all too literal a misreading of the play, and it’s the sort of (passé, I thought) political correctness espoused by white liberals who feel the need to apologize for the classics.

The writer-director excises every mention of “the dog Jew.” When the ebony-skinned Prince of Morocco fails to win Portia’s hand, so timorously mousy is Radford that he drops Portia’s line, “Let all of his complexion choose me so.” Heaven forfend Portia be thought a racist! (I shudder to think how Radford might adapt Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. Would he deprive them of the N word? Would he have the Bible salesman in “Good Country People” refrain from stealing Hulga/Joy’s wooden leg?) So humorless is Radford that he cuts Shakespeare’s best pun from the play. After Bassanio wins the right to marry Portia, Gratiano declares, “We are the Jasons, we have won the fleece.” And Salernio, aware that Antonio’s ships have sunk, retorts, “I would you had won the fleece that he hath lost.” Why delete that?

What then, besides counterfeit high seriousness, does Radford bring to The Merchant of Venice? Why, homosexuality, of course. Antonio prances about with shirt unbuttoned to the rib cage, and when you have an actor as unappetizing as Jeremy Irons in the role, that’s a problem. Irons is even more repulsive here than in Callas Forever or Being Julia. He continues in film after film, no matter what the setting, to wring variations on the same stereotype: the faded Castro District queen. (And worse, he flubs the poetry in Antonio’s great opening speech, “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad: It wearies me; you say it wearies you…”) When Bassanio (Joseph Fiennes) asks Antonio to loan him money so that he might pursue Portia, Radford frames the actors in such a way as to suggest that the men are former lovers. Not content to have them lie next to each other in Antonio’s bed, Radford invents a kiss. Bassanio expresses his gratitude by kissing Antonio on the mouth.

pacino

Contrary to what revisionists might claim, this sort of choice doesn’t “liberate” the material. Just the opposite.

Among the cast, only Al Pacino as Shylock compensates for the abysmal misdirection. I’d feared he would be in Looking for Richard mode, overbearing and egomaniacal, yet he underplays, resorting to none of the usual Pacino mannerisms. I found him exceptionally poignant in his reading of, “If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” Perhaps as atonement for this travesty, Radford should sacrifice a pound of his own flesh.

Kimberly Elise, who last autumn gave an intense yet human scale performance as a victim who matches violence for violence, then struggles to recover from both wrongs in Woman thou Art Loosed, would have seemed destined for greater things than Darren Grant’s meretricious Diary of a Mad Black Woman. This movie, which casts a female impersonator as Elise’s grandmother, ricochets tastelessly between risible sentiment and vulgar sadism: Grant takes an insulting view of women, blacks, and humanity in general while ostensibly promoting a Christian agenda. It’s only February, but I cannot imagine that 2005 will produce a film to top this one for sheer excruciation. One example: a minor character who’s a junkie walks into a rehab center and two minutes later, with her listless tangle of hair finally washed, she’s in church on Sunday morning, belting out an over the top, lip-synched gospel aria in praise of Jesus. Diary preaches, yet the movie’s ugliness is soul-killing; it’s substantially more noisome than anything on my 10 worst list for 2004.

roryA perfect match? Romola Garai and Steven Robertson in Rory O’Shea Was Here (Photo: Focus Features)

At long last, we come to the Irish import Rory O’Shea Was Here, which I will unfashionably declare the first good movie of 2005. All movies are essentially fantasies, and this is one of the sweeter ones. Two disabled Dublin lads in their early 20s leave the safe confines of a residential care home and set up shop in a private flat, where a gorgeous young blonde woman attends to their every need. The expected, unrequited love triangle ensues, yet with what freshness the screenwriter Jeffrey Caine, the director Damien O’Donnell, and a superb cast invigorate an archetypal scenario.

As the male leads, James McAvoy as the aggressive Rory and Steven Robertson as the timid Michael are sufficiently unfamiliar faces, and they portray their respective physical handicaps (muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy) with formidable conviction. Robertson, especially, although he has the less flashy of the two roles, creates something indelible. Michael falls for Siobhán (Romola Garai), the boys’ personal assistant, and he lies awake in bed after she rejects his advances at a costume party; the expression of bewildered hurt on Robertson and the placement of the dapper white naval uniform that he’d worn to the party, lying in a heap to one side, are beautifully composed.

The stills made available from Rory don’t adequately capture Romola Garai’s striking good looks. When she smiles or winks at a man, it’s as if the sky allowed us direct access to heaven. In the smaller role of Eileen, the care home director, Brenda Fricker gives a gently authoritative spin to the character; she keeps it “real,” never succumbing to facile bossiness. Peter Robertson’s crisp cinematography showcases the slates and silvers of Dublin gray to perfection, with stunning medium-angle shots of the city bridges. – NPT

Addendum: Below is the capsule I wrote on Rory for the March 2005 issue of Tablet. Although the movie had screened for Seattle press, it never opened. The American distributor, a subsidiary of Universal, made an idiotic mistake in dumping this picture.

steven_rA refreshing antidote to Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Bullshit, the Irish film Rory O’Shea Was Here presents two lads with disabilities (one has cerebral palsy, the other muscular dystrophy) who choose to live vicariously rather than be put down like dogs. The movie painstakingly details what it’s like to be 20 years old and dependent on other people to bathe you, to brush your teeth, to navigate you from motorized wheelchair into bed. All the performances are good, none more so than stage actor Steven Robertson making his film debut as Michael. He plays the speech impediment and palsied mannerisms to perfection, and he’s authentically agonized when falling in (unrequited) love with his sinuous blonde caregiver (Romola Garai, one of the most radiant women ever to appear in front of a camera.) With James McAvoy as the poisonously ignoble title character, and the glorious cinematography of Peter Robertson, who captures the muted colors of Dublin in sharp focus.

February 8-10, 2005

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