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Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Give 'em enough dope



The Tesseract

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Oxide Pang
Running time: 96 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 19
[See Japan Times movie listings]


Spun

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Jonas Akerlund
Running time: 102 minutes
Language: English
Opens June 19
[See Japan Times movie listings]

There's a great movie waiting to be made someday set in the seedier districts of Bangkok, zones like Soi Nana or Soi Cowboy with their louche atmosphere of vice and carnality. I can tell you this, though: It certainly won't be Alex Garland ("The Beach") who pens the script. "The Tesseract," a film by Thai director Oxide Pang based on Garland's novel of the same name, betrays a view of Bangkok so superficial it makes Sofia Coppola's Tokyo look profound in comparison.

News photo
Brittany Murphy in "Spun"; Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in "The tesseract"
News photo

There's no way you could deploy the elements present in Patpong -- sex, gangsters, drugs, hookers, danger, decadence and more sex -- and not have the outline of a script dangling before your nose like a pair of panties on a stripper's stiletto heel. But to make something memorable would be to get beyond the surface and uncover something real, something true about these people, this place, this moment in time.

Don't expect this from Garland. Not since Jay McInerney's "Ransom" have we seen such shallow, tourist-level impressions of Asia passed off as ex-pat insight. Garland's a hack, but it's his shtick, and works as long as it's fopped onto Western audiences with even less experience of Asia than himself. What's truly incomprehensible, however, is why a Thai director would want to put this drivel up on the screen. (The answer is of course Garland's "name recognition" factor, which makes it far easier to finance a film made in Thailand.)

A tesseract is, as the film tells us, "a hypercube unraveled. Two dimensions become one, four dimensions become three." This is really apropos of nothing, except a high-concept excuse to include yet another "Rashomon"/"Pulp Fiction"-inspired mishmash of perspectives, and some ghostly, "Matrix"-esque gangsters walking through walls and firing slo-mo, air-displacing bullets.

After sorting through the jumble of characters onscreen, the story basically comes down to four people at one guesthouse.

There's Sean (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers), a pasty Brit who is Exhibit A for Hunter S. Thompson's maxim that anyone who does drugs should not be dealing them; Rosa (Saskia Reeves), a one-woman NGO involved in a project where -- I'm not making this up -- she interviews Thai kids, in English, about their dreams; Lita (Lena Christensen), a supercool assassin who's nursing a bad gunshot wound; and Wit (Alexander Rendell), a child who works at the guesthouse, stealing from tourists and pimping bar girls.

There's a lot of faux-metaphysical dialogue, like when Rosa interviews Wit -- "You can't tell your dreams from reality, and I can't tell my past from my present" -- that sounds much more like a pretentious writer than things people actually say. This only gets worse with the Thai characters: Says one thug to Sean, "typical Englishman. Trying to be polite, but a terrible liar." Ah, so.

Pang's directorial style doesn't help things any. He has a penchant for cutting his scenes at really odd points, as if you're reading this sentence and. He's the kind of "edgy" director who's more confident inserting a graphic closeup of flies copulating than he is filming a sex scene involving humans; better at staging shootouts than making us believe in the people caught up in them. In short, he should have a promising Hollywood career ahead of him.

"Drugs are bad, mmm-kay?" That's the ultimate point of "The Tesseract," where everyone dies like dogs in the dirt, scrabbling for a brick of hash. But making the point with much more flair, detail, and an admirably grim sense of humor is Jonas Akerlund's "Spun," an appropriately psychotic look at America's burgeoning speed-freak subculture.

Drugs like heroin, coke and ecstacy have always maintained an aura of cool, with plenty of successful addicts and dabblers in the urban worlds of fashion, art, music, finance and film. But speed has always remained the most uncool drug of all, a cheap, brutally efficient high associated with low-rent white trash.

"Spun" won't change that image; this is a film that redefines the word "squalid." Akerlund's got an eye for the advanced state of decay that tends to set in around any serious user. Not just dishes in the sink, but piles of them, with a collected layer of scum that looks like it's been festering since 1923.

His cast, similarly, have no fear of antiglamour. John Leguizamo plays meth-dealer Spider with blackened veins, and the look of a man who's sure that the insects crawling up his spine are going to eat out his brain any minute now. Mena Suvari, the teen Lolita of "American Beauty," looks like hell as Cookie, Spider's junkie girlfriend. With lank, greasy hair and puffy eyes, she putters about in children's jammies and plush puppy slippers. Patrick Fugit ("Almost Famous") is unrecognizably poxy with acne, playing a dazed metalhead/game-addict named Frisbee who always seems to be hanging around. Mickey Rourke finally gets the role he was born to play as The Cook, resplendent in white cowboy hat and boots as he brews up crystal meth in a motel room. Retaining her dignity is Brittany Murphy as Nikki, the Cook's girl, who exudes a slutty, runny-mascara allure as she obsessively files her finger nails down to stubs.

It's Jason Schwartzman ("Rushmore") as Ross, a college kid gone to seed, who's our guide through this inferno, and he's got the hardest task. While he's supposed to be just slumming it, able to quit any time, the guy the non-crankheads in the audience are supposed to relate to, his likability is seriously crippled by a running joke that involves him forgetting that he's left his stripper-girlfriend handcuffed to a bed for three days straight.

Poor taste, yes, but "Spun" positively revels in poor taste, whether it's corn dogs and Cheetos for dinner, or gags about constipation and impotence. You could say that Akerlund, like many an indie director, is a snotty ironist making fun of suburban, "white trash" America, but nobody knows a milieu this well without loving it a little. His hyperedited, eyelid-fluttering style also boasts more than a casual acquaintance with speed . . . or at least a love of Darren Aaronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream."

Unlike that film, "Spun" never becomes a total, unrelenting bummer. Its bleakness is stark, but always balanced with an acknowledgment of the absurdity of, say, not sleeping for three days and running to the vet shrieking that your fluoro-green puppy is gonna die from too much secondhand crank smoke. Say what you will about "Spun," but it's never dull.



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