Why did I rent Memoirs of a Geisha? I hated the book on which it was based. Ziyi Zhang’s breathily portentous line reading in the preview — “A story like mine has NEVER been told” — made me roll my eyes. The little I heard of John Williams’ score made me long for Tan Dun’s superior work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I suppose Memoirs made its way onto my Netflix queue because it seemed a shame to pass up the chance to see Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang on screen together, but I should have trusted my instincts. Memoirs of a Geisha is a dull, overwrought mess. I would have been better off holding my own personal marathon of the trio’s greatest hits, maybe Farewell My Concubine, Crouching Tiger, House of Flying Daggers and 2046.
In repertory at Film Forum through April 27. Also on DVD.
I always felt sorry for Abimelech, the king in the book of Genesis who takes Abraham’s wife, Sarah, into his harem. He doesn’t realize he’s doing anything wrong because Abraham and Sarah both insist they are brother and sister before Abimelech even shows any interest in her. But God still curses him, making all the women in his household barren until the poor guy realizes he’s been fooled.
Judging from Days of Heaven, I think writer-director Terrence Malick might share my sympathy for Abimelech. The beautiful film, released in 1978, echoes that biblical story in its tale of two Depression-era laborers and the owner of a farm where they find work during the harvest. Days of Heaven easily could have been a heavy handed metaphor of class war — I admit I expected something like that: the bourgeois screwing the proletariat literally and figuratively — but Malick’s work, as I should have realized, is far more nuanced than that.
Few styles are more distinctive than that of film noir. The disillusioned gumshoes, seductive femme fatales, dark alleyways and darker motives are instantly recognizable, particularly when shot in shadow at odd angles. At first, the idea of transposing film noir from the city underworld to the suburban high school seems little more than a clever conceit, a gimmick, but writer-director Rian Johnson makes it work in Brick.
Watching The Third Man for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of déjà vu. Anyone who has ever read anything about film noir is going to recognize Orson Welles’ first dramatic appearance, the scene of the Ferris wheel, the chase sequence through the sewers, the line about the cuckoo clock, and the beautifully odd zither score. Often, that kind of familiarity makes actually watching the film in question anticlimactic, but that wasn’t the case for me with The Third Man.
Inside Man opens with a long shot of an old-fashioned roller coaster. The roller coaster, of course, is a familiar metaphor for the thriller, so the shot (accompanied, oddly, by a jaunty Bollywood number) reads like a promise of high-tension and a truly spectacular climax.
The movie certainly has its share of twists, but it never builds enough energy or momentum to be a roller coaster. The pleasure of Inside Man is the details, the quirks that make it a Spike Lee joint rather than a generic heist pic.