Tuesday, February 3, 2009

DVDebuts: Two Bracingly Bad Ones -- RACING DAYLIGHT, GENE GENERATION




Sometimes there's nothing like a really bad movie to make you appreciate the good ones. Even mediocre fare can look surprisingly competent, once you've subjected yourself to films as poorly conceived and executed as RACING DAYLIGHT) or so thoroughly second-, third- and fourth-hand like THE GENE GENERATION.

I rented Racing Daylight on the basis of its cast, which includes Melissa Leo, below (nominated for an Oscar this year for her work in Frozen River), and

David Strathairn (above). I've loved Ms Leo's work since I first encountered it in an off-Broadway theatre more than 20 years ago, and I have never seen her give a bad performance. Until now. I can only credit the film's writer/director Nicole Quinn for what must have been her help in obtaining from Ms Leo acting that is overwrought, phony and foolish. I simply cannot believe that this actress made these "choices" completely on her own. That she plays two roles in the film only adds to the discomfort-level viewers are likely to feel. Mr. Strathairn, from whom I also have never seen anything less than sterling work, is a bit luckier. Halfway (or so) through the film he gets to switch into an ironic, "Let's look at the camera and sort of 'address' the viewer" mode, which he does very well, and this goes quite a distance toward redeeming his work.

Finally, it is Ms. Quinn's idea of conflating a murder mystery with a ghost story with a romance with a time-travel tale -- without the skills to tackle even a single one of these properly -- that leaves everything and everyone in the lurch. This was Quinn's first attempt as writer/director/producer. The good news is that she can only move up from here. Watching the "making of" sections on the DVD's Special Features was interesting, if a little sad: Hearing all these performers go on and on in such sincere fashion about the filmmaking and acting process. Actors, bless, 'em, must give their all and get into the swing of things by feeling, or maybe pretending, that their particular role is something wonderful and worthy of their special skills. The cast does so in spades in this "making-of" featurette. Included, among many other talented folk are Giancarlo Esposito, Denny Dillon and Jason Downs (shown above), all of whom play dual-roles to half-effect. (The photographs above are by Dion Ogust.)


The Gene Generation, on the other hand, actually has some skills on view: interesting cinematography (Anthony G. Nakonechnyj) that offers a future in which brackish chartreuse and metallic gray vie for prominence (the green tones win hands-down) and a story that warns us of the genetic missteps that science might well make. Unfortunately none of this is remotely novel; we've seen it all time and again, if perhaps not featuring the likes of Ms. Faye Dunaway as Scientist Number One, who soon morphs into a slithering genetic mishap. The real draw here will be the movie's star Bai Ling (above) who looks as good as she ever did, even after 60 performances over some 25 years. We see a lot of her here, in and out of costume, and if her -- well, I would call them "erectile nipples" -- tend to draw your attention away from the plodding and silly story line, consider yourself fortunate. Cuties Parry Shen and Alec Newman play, respectively, Ling's brother and love interest, while director/co-writer Pearry Reginald Teo brings everything to a heavy boil early on and does his best to keep it there for a very long 96 minutes. Unfortunately, the best, as they sometimes tell us, is none too good.

6 comments:

nico said...

ouch! thanks for taking the time to watch.

nicole quinn

James van Maanen, said...

You're welcome, Nicole. And I mean it when I say that I look forward to watching your NEXT film. In fact, if you give me a heads-up, I'll even blog about it. I don't enjoy giving a bad review (which is why, mostly, I keep to the films I like). Over the years, one of the pleasure I've found in seeing a lot of movies is discovering a film I like from a director whose work I had not previously enjoyed. (You can't help wondering: is s/he getting better -- or am I?) Anyway. I'm impressed that you managed to gather up such as great cast for "Racing Daylight."

nico said...

thanks, but i think i'll stick to bloggers and reviewers who actually like my films. you say you don't like writing bad reviews.... no one's forcing you.

James van Maanen, said...

I can understand your reaction, Nicole. And I had should have mentioned in my earlier comment how very gracious was your original short response -- considering how bad my review was. You're right: No one is forcing anybody to write a bad (or a good) review. Maybe the impetus is the same for all of us: We want to communicate. Anyway, I will still watch your next film, if and when it arrives, which I'll hope to enjoy.

nico said...

my mother always said "if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all." and in movie review world that would be a lovely axiom. it is so difficult to get a movie made and then to get it distributed is even harder. the paid critics have been kinder. i wonder ... if what you want to do is communicate why you choose the negative? celebrate what you do like!

my next film SLAP AND TICKLE is set to shoot in june/july starring gloria rueben, linda powell, adam lefevre, melissa leo, and giancarlo esposito. vanguard will again distribute. i hope you do like it. but if you don't ... please think about the time and expense of all those who bled for the film before you blithely shoot missiles at it in an effort to communicate.

James van Maanen, said...

It would be interesting if all reviewers only tackled the films they liked, leaving all other movies un-reviewed (rather than saying anything negative). But then many moviemakers would be up in arms that their film wasn't reviewed -- or reviewed often enough -- and thus didn't find its audience.

One of my relatives also told me the "If you don't have anything nice to say..." chestnut, (I think it was Dorothy Parker who amended that to "If you don't have anything nice to say, come over here and sit next to me"), which can work well in certain situations. But how would adhering to that have helped us get rid of this past Bush administration? That's politics, not art, you say? Well, it's all important.

Still, any critic who has maintained a few shreds of humanity realizes that, yes, a whole lot of work went into the project by a whole lot of people, all of whom were probably doing the best they could. Which I think ought to make it more difficult for us to be really nasty in a review. But sometimes we slip. However, I don't know that all of us are "blithely shooting missiles." We try for some balance, even when were being negative.

In any case, thanks for the heads-up on SLAP AND TICKLE (love that title!), which I will look forward to seeing. Of course, I'll probably have to recuse myself from a review because now, I feel some personal connection to you and your work that I didn't have a few days ago. Thus it will be much more difficult for me to write a bad review. Which is why, I suppose, critics don't always have this kind of communication. But what the hell, it's interesting and I am learning something -- which at my age is always encouraging.