Tag Archives: D

ORIGINAL SIN

Grade: D

Cornell Woolrich’s “Waltz into Darkness” (which the author published under his pseudonym of William Irish in 1947) certainly isn’t the best novel in the world, but it doesn’t deserve the treatment it’s gotten from filmmakers over the years. Francois Truffaut, who, like many of the Gallic directors of his time, had a great affection for American pulp crime stories and the wonderful films noir based on them, tried his hand on the material–involving a man taken in by a femme fatale posing as his mail-order bride and then ruining himself in pursuit of her love–in 1969’s “Mississippi Mermaid.” The outcome, shot in bright colors and made contemporary (the setting was changed from turn-of-the-century New Orleans and St. Louis to an island off the east African coast and modern France), wasn’t very successful in capturing the moody, despondent air of the original, but it had compensating virtues: Jean-Paul Belmondo and Catherine Deneuve as the chic central couple, some lovely locations, and an attempt to stay generally faithful to Woolrich’s narrative line. Though decidedly imperfect, it now seems a positive masterpiece compared to Michael Cristofer’s unintentionally hilarious new version, which makes florid and absurd the parts of the book it retains and miscalculates badly in adding a twist of its own to the plot.

In “Original Sin”–a title about as silly and pointless as the rest of the enterprise–the duped rich man is Luis Vargas (Antonio Banderas), a nineteenth-century Cuban entrepeneur, who’s surprised to learn that the American woman he’s been corresponding with, and who’s just arrived to marry him, isn’t the plain Julia Russell whose photo he’d received, but instead the luscious and seductive Angelina Jolie. She explains that she hadn’t wanted to be chosen by him for her looks, and he accepts the excuse. They’re quickly wed, but soon trouble arises: a letter from Julia’s sister arrives complaining that Julia hasn’t written, and in due course a private detective, Walter Downs (Thomas Jane) appears looking for her. Equally troubling are Julia’s curious interest in the Mephisto of a traveling theatrical troupe, the fact that she never bothers to unpack her trunk, the suspicious death of her pet canary and her remarkable love of coffee, which she had once written she found undrinkable. Under the circumstances, might it have been a mistake for Luis to make her a joint owner of his considerable bank accounts?

It’s fairly obvious where this plot is headed, but Woolrich wasn’t so much interested in the con aspect, as in the inability of the wronged man to free himself of desire for the woman who’s misused him after he finds her again: it’s the tragic nature of his love which forms the centerpiece of the story. Truffaut played this out pretty straightforwardly, making a deadly confrontation with a detective the fellow had originally hired to find his wife the linchpin of the last act of the tale, and while he didn’t use the book’s dark, doomed denouement, he did at least keep his ending noncommital. Cristofer embellishes the latter portion of the story with a simply stupid twist involving the identity of Detective Downs–a change which, in turn, leads to a climax so overwrought that its flamboyant foolishness can only engender giggles. To make matters even worse, he has the script narrated in flashback by the false Julia, allowing for interludes in which she converses sultrily with a priest and a final “surprise” which panders shamelessly to the contemporary audience’s inability to tolerate anything but a “happy” ending. The last fifteen minutes of the picture are so utterly ridiculous as to invite one to drop his jaw in stunned silence.

To add to the woe, Cristofer adopts a wildly exaggerated directorial style that renders the mess he’s made of the narrative even more comic. Everything seems to be done in italics–from a trashily staged sequence involving Banderas, Jolie and lots of nudity early in the proceedings (the bedsheets are so carefully situated that the result has the feel of a series of near-pornographic magazine ads), through an even more embarrassing scene in which Banderas later accosts Jolie’s new suitor, to the risible concluding chase involving Banderas, Jolie and Jane on a train platform. Typical of the helmer’s ineptitude is his penchant for employing quick cuts within shots to no perceptible dramatic purpose, deliberately omitting bits of a pan to achieve a jumpy effect; the technique is the editing equivalent of strobe lighting, and should be used sparingly, if at all, but Cristofer resorts to it repeatedly, and pointlessly.

One can’t really speak of any acting in the movie. Banderas smolders in his usual fashion (he also shows lots of skin, for those interested in such things), and he does Luis’ look of longing with Mediterranean skill, but in a few sequences when he goes momentarily berserk, it’s pretty embarrassing. Jolie pouts and poses, but her huge lips do most of the work. Jane is terrible as the far too obvious Downs. Jack Thompson, however, does a respectable turn as Luis’ cynical but supportive partner.

It’s always sad when a book that some readers cherish is poorly adapted to the screen. Woolrich fans, however, can still take comfort in “Rear Window,” Alfred Hitchcock’s incomparable version of the author’s “It Had to Be Murder.” Those interested in a serious adaptation of “Waltzing into Darkness” are directed to “Mississippi Mermaid.” “Original Sin” can be recommended only to moviegoers who like pictures so outrageously bad that you can revel in their awfulness.

BROTHER

This has been the year of “brother” insofar as movie titles go. First we had the Coens’ “O Brother Where Art Thou?” There soon followed “The Brothers.” Now comes Takeshi Kitano’s “Brother.” Can “Bro” be far behind? And then maybe just “B” (after all, a modernization of “Othello” called “O” is supposedly awaiting release.)

Unfortunately, as the titles have gotten shorter, the quality has steadily fallen. “O Brother” was quite simply a delight, easily one of the best films of the winter season. “The Brothers,” by comparison, was tolerable but unexceptional. Kitano’s picture is, quite simply, an astonishingly amateurish resumption of his string of yakuza-themed flicks, muddled and banal in narrative terms and self-consciously artsy in technical ones. When it isn’t being dull, it’s simply silly.

Kitano, of course, is something of an icon in Japan, a smash both in film and on television, and his earlier gangster pictures have earned him a small cult following in this country, too. It’s probably the desire to expand on that crossover popularity that induced him to undertake this picture, which brings him to America, despite the fact that both his writing and acting show that he has little command of English. Under his thespian alias of Beat Takeshi, he plays a hard-boiled guy named Yamamoto who relocates to L.A. after his boss has been assassinated back home and the old “family” dismantled. On U.S. soil he creates a new gang of his own, employing a few refugees like himself but also a number of African-Americans who’ve been hanging with his Americanized half-brother Ken (Claude Maki); the most notable of these is Denny (Omar Epps), with whom the older man develops a near-fraternal bond. Initially their operation is extraordinarily successful as Yamamoto uses his combination of raw courage, street smarts and ruthlessness to rub out the opposition, but in time the boys bite off more than they can chew, so to speak, and doom follows, albeit of a supposedly heroic variety.

“Brother” boasts a good deal of the yakuza-inspired violence and mystical Obi-wan Kenobi sort of mumbo-jumbo that’s characterized Kitano’s earlier flicks, but it apparently also wants to be a commentary on how the “code” of that life crosses national and ethnic boundaries to create a sort of transcendent gangster nobility. Even on the most basic level this is a pretty silly concept, but it’s made more ridiculous by inept execution (pun intended). The most fundamental problem is with Kitano’s Yamamoto; simply put, the actor is so impassive that he’s like a stolid lump of flesh occasionally roused to a slight twitch that’s apparently intended to indicate a pulse still beating beneath the deceptively placid exterior. Bogart was often still and undemonstrative too, but he always suggested a force seething under the surface. With Kitano there’s none of that, just a dull somnolence. It certainly doesn’t help that as director Kitano has the camera linger on himself endlessly as he does virtually nothing but stare into space. The brooding quiet, contrasted with the periodic bursts of ultra-violence, is obviously supposed to create a hypnotic rhythm, but it’s so clumsily managed in this instance that it just lulls viewers into a state of near-slumber.

Kitano’s directorial inadequacies infect the remainder of the cast as well. Epps, who’s proven himself a charismatic actor in films like “Love and Basketball,” is entirely adrift as Denny; he fumbles through many scenes as though he were a complete amateur, and try as he might, he can’t make the capstone of the picture, a ludicrous final twist accompanied by a dumb monologue, anything more than the ridiculous bit of nonsense it is. None of the other performers makes much of an impression, though it’s nice to glimpse veteran James Shigeta as one of Yamamoto’s legal counselors, even if he looks understandably pained in most of his scenes.

Kitano was also responsible for the screenplay, of course, and in this capacity, too, he stumbles badly. The narrative is clumsy, fractured and oddly superficial, alternately unpleasant and absurd. Why, for example, in a film that purports to be about friendships crossing racial lines, are all the Latino rivals of the Yamamoto gang portrayed as leering caricatures? And how does Yamamoto smuggle an arsenal of guns into a supposedly neutral conference room, where he and his brother blow their enemies to bits? When such basic plot connections as this are simply ignored, a viewer can’t help but feel cheated on the most elementary level.

There will undoubtedly be those, devoted to Kitano’s work, who will overlook all the faults of “Brother” and proclaim it yet another masterpiece. These are the same folk who had nice things to say about his last picture, “Kikujiro,” the schmaltzy, tedious change-of-pace piece in which he played a grumpy gangster saddled with a young kid. That picture wasn’t any good, but at least it was coherent. “Brother” isn’t; and to make matters worse, it’s also a pale imitation of Kitano’s earlier efforts in story and style. If there does turn out to be a “Bro” out there in the wings, we can only pray it won’t be even worse than this.