All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

3000 MILES TO GRACELAND

F

Twenty years after playing Elvis in John Carpenter’s memorable TV-movie, Kurt Russell still has the look and attitude to pull off a first-class impersonation of The King; he’s easily the best thing about “3000 Miles to Graceland.” But that’s saying very little; “Graceland” is a heist movie with a starry cast but a dumb script and desperately flashy direction, and despite Russell’s presence, the picture is utterly atrocious–a long, tedious trip that leads absolutely nowhere. (As it lurches from one idiotic climax to another, you’re likely to begin repeating, plaintively, those words that every parent will recognize as evidence of boredom and frustration–“Are we there yet?”) One can truthfully observe that its stupidity is exceeded only by its ugliness.

“Graceland” is also a case study in deceptive promotion. The trailers and ads suggest that it’s going to be a high-energy action comedy about five dudes dressed like Elvis who rob a Nevada casino, but it quickly becomes apparent that it’s actually a nasty piece of post-“Pulp Fiction” tripe detailing how the job goes sour and the surviving thieves fall out in its aftermath. Unfortunately, in dealing with the gang’s squabbles the picture doesn’t emulate the sly noirish approach of such similarly-plotted pictures as John Huston’s “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950) or Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing” (1956), but instead mimics–very badly, one must add–the cynically jokey nihilism of “Reservoir Dogs.” Like a bad Tarantino knockoff that’s way past its expiration date, it’s crammed with pseudo-hip dialogue, preposterous coincidences and bloody confrontations, all of which would be tired and obvious even if they’d rolled straight off Quentin’s own word processor. But they’re made even worse by the ostentatiously awful helming of one Demian Lichtenstein, yet another refugee from the world of music videos, whose penchant for extravagant camera angles, inopportune closeups, frenetic editing and tricked-up montages of cars and clouds suggests that he’s learned all the worst lessons Oliver Stone has to teach but can’t even pull off those empty tricks properly.

It’s hardly surprising that in such dismal circumstances the cast is helpless. Russell, as noted above, comes off best as Michael, the relatively good guy, and he can still manage a few Presley riffs decently enough; but his character is basically a dolt, and the scripters’ ineptitude is shown most brutally in a persistent need to resort to convenient bullet-proof vests to explain how he survives apparent annihilation not once but twice. (It’s about as credible and satisfying a device as the multiple masks in “Mission: Impossible II.”) Costner takes a stab at playing a maniacal killer–Thomas Murphy, a smiling but brutal sleazebag who believes himself Elvis’ illegitimate son–but though he’s more animated than in most of his recent pictures, he’s never remotely convincing or even amusing; the whole performance is just a postured pose. As a hard-luck dame whose attempts to get some of the loot cause crisis after crisis, Courteney Cox is surprisingly pallid, and urchin David Kaye plays way too heavily to the camera as her larcenous young son. The remainder of the cast, in what are little more than extended cameos, tend to overdo things, too (probably as the result of Lichtenstein’s inept prodding). So as the other three thieves we get David Arquette acting like a moron, Christian Slater seething with his best Jack Nicholson smirk and Bokeem Woodbine doing the oh-so-cool gangsta bit. Then there are those two sticks of thespic wood, Howie Long and Ice-T, as crooks who assist Murphy. And Thomas Haden Church and Kevin Pollak as the inevitably wise-cracking federal marshals who pursue the robbers. To add insult to injury, Jon Lovitz pops up for a brief (though not sufficiently so) sequence as a nervous money launderer. He used to be more restrained on “Saturday Night Live.”

Steven Soderbergh is currently prepping a remake of “Ocean’s Eleven.” Viewers hungry for a Vegas heist flick would be well advised to skip this abysmal misfire and wait for that one, even if it lacks the Elvis motif.

CHUNHYANG

C

It’s surely a virtue to be open to artistic expressions from cultures other than one’s own, so it’s undoubtedly valuable that Lot 47 Films has decided to release the South Korean “Chunhyang,” from prolific director Im Kwon Taek, in this country. In terms of narrative, the film offers a traditional Korean tale which intermingles moralistic praise of wifely fidelity on the one hand and good royal government on the other (indeed, it implies that the two are comparable in ethical terms). However, it couches its presentation of the story within the framework of a sung performance of it by a histrionic declaimer (Hong Kyung Yeun) who’s accompanied by a drummer (Kim Hyung Hwan); this is the form of Korean solo opera known as pansori, which might best be compared to Celtic bardic practice, although one might also see it as similar to the ancient Greek poetic tradition centered on figures like Homer or even the more recent African habit of maintaining a local historical record through the music-like recitation of memorized past accounts by local figures of the sort that Alex Haley encountered in writing “Roots.”

“Chunhyang” begins with Hong singing rhythmically (without subtitles) on a near-barren stage, with Kim’s drum striking the accents or beats of the verse. The effect isn’t dissimilar from rap, although the extraordinarily pungent, emphatic style of declamation will strike western ears as more wailing than vocalizing. We then segue into the story–shot in lush, colorful hues on large sets boasting big crowds when appropriate–of a young governor’s son who falls in love with (and secretly weds) Chunhyang, the beautiful daughter of a local courtesan, only to be torn away from her when his father is transferred to Seoul and he must also go there to take his government exams. She promises him fidelity and he pledges to return; but no sooner has he left than the cruel new governor demands the girl’s services. When she refuses, the governor brutally abuses her while his henchmen loot the countryside. We’re told that three years pass, during which Chunhyang suffers terribly in her Penelope-like fidelity while her husband aces his test and becomes a chief royal minister. Happily, he’s sent back to the district, disguised as a beggar, to investigate the governor’s conduct in office, arriving in time to save his wife and reestablish honest rule in the king’s name. This is obviously a simple folk-tale exalting both feminine integrity and enlightened royal rule, and it’s played that way, with stilted acting and very schematic dramaturgy. But throughout it’s also periodically interrupted by our return to the pansori-singer telling the tale onstage before a rapt and emotional audience; and we often hear his insistent narration of events overlaid upon depictions of the scenes he’s describing.

All of this is dramatically rather curious and off-putting. The purely visual portion of the picture has a certain beauty and visceral power, even if it’s staged more woodenly than might suit western taste. (The fable, to be perfectly honest, has less depth and subtlety than Disney’s “Mulan,” and the performances embody a quasi-operatic style that’s sometimes almost humorously obvious.) But intersplicing the pansori segments makes for a very peculiar hybrid. After all, the entire point of pansori is that the recitation is complete in itself, with no need for extraneous imagery; the dramatic use of the voice, which often tries to simulate the effect of the mood or object it describes, surely points to this. Adding cinematic representations to what’s being told by the bard thus seems rather untrue to the premises of his artistry. On the other hand, the narration often needlessly reinforces what we’re shown on the screen, telling us the characters’ moods, for instance, or describing a scene that’s been recreated by the production designers; the effect is redundant, but even worse it seems to betray the filmmakers’ fear that their dramatization isn’t successful on its own. In other words, by trying to meld the two art forms, “Chunhyang” doesn’t seem very true to either; imagine, if you will, a movie of Homer’s “Odyssey” which was punctuated by a white-haired fellow in a toga reciting Greek verses from the poem, or an adaptation of one of Jane Austen’s novels periodically interrupted by shots of the author scribbling words in her notebook or someone reading fragments of the text which were then replicated on the screen. The effect would be jarring, and though the analogy isn’t perfect, Im’s attempt to meld pansori with images on film isn’t entirely satisfactory either.

So “Chunhyang” remains, for all its cultural interest, at best a cinematic curiosity which only those with the most rarified tastes will want to sample.