28 February 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Written & Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Grade: B+

Bookended by images of a bloodied child, Pan’s Labyrinth is a graphically violent film, pushing the limits of watchability, for example, during a needlessly protracted scene in which a character stitches up his own sliced-up face. Set during the Spanish Civil War, this “fairy tale for adults” (as people won’t stop calling it) earns its R rating somewhere in the second or third reel with a surprisingly gruesome, savage, and cold-blooded beating of two pitiable peasants. Well, after all, this is war, and with Fascists no less.

Rendered fatherless by the war, Ofelia and her enceinte mother relocate to a countryside manor, also unfortunately the frontlines of post-war combat against Republican insurgents where the mother’s new husband, Vidal (the dourly handsome Sergi Lópeza), a sadistically cruel Captain in Franco’s Army, is stationed. To the consternation of her parents, Ofelia is a bookworm hopelessly lost in fantasies, and, frightened of the Captain, her mother’s declining health, and the encompassing conflict, she uses a labyrinth on the property as the starting point for an elaborate escapist fantasy involving a frightening Faun (the film’s Spanish title literally translates to The Faun’s Labyrinth), a handful of faries, and an assortment of various creatures, most notably a child-eating monster with his eyes in the palms of his hands. Fighting off the helpless anonymity imposed on her by the war and her mother’s illness, in Ofelia’s fantasy she is the reincarnated spirit of a Princess who must complete a series of difficult allegorical tasks to prove her worthiness, while elsewhere the fighting rages on. It’s a curious juxtaposition; the “real world” is portrayed as dreary and gray, but so too is much of Ofelia’s fantasy world and its characters, the colors faded as the violence of the parallel external war seeps into her dreams.

Unable to be sufficiently described in words, the film’s imaginative and gorgeous visual style is its strongest point—evidenced by its racking up the technical Oscars—welcomely using CGI only minimally, primarily opting instead for make-up, animatronics, and constructed sets.

Pan’s Labyrinth’s greatest fault is in adopting the moral simplicity of the fairy tale form; being intended for adults, it could’ve better served its revisionism by deconstructing the stark dichotomy of good, represented by Ofelia and the Republican guerillas, and evil, represented by the Captain and his army, that it instead willfully embraces. It isn’t exactly interesting or courageous to make an anti-Fascist film, regardless of the modern Fascist revival amongst Islamists and neocons. It is somewhat courageous, however, for del Toro to follow the story to its tragic though logical conclusion, and I think it’s “happy ending” is only deceptively so. Thematically, Pan’s Labyrinth is at times complex and at others facile, but surrendering to its charms does tend a moving, old-fashioned cinematic experience.

For Your Consideration

Directed by Christopher Guest
Written by Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy

Grade: B-

I was excited after seeing The Royal Tenenbaums; while not a perfect film, I felt Wes Anderson was on the right track and that if he stayed on course his next film had the potential to be truly great. And, uh, then he put out The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a sort of sideways step backwards. I like The Life Aquatic... (enough as to own the DVD) just like I enjoyed For Your Consideration, but the latter is a pretty serious disappointment after A Mighty Wind, Christopher Guest’s previous film that was his best to date, being not only aisle-rollingly hilarious but genuinely moving in its suspenseful climax.

Guest tries to replicate that pathos in the climax of For Your Consideration, but it just doesn’t work, despite Catherine O’Hara’s devastating performance. Deviating from the form of Guest's previous films (Best in Show, Waiting for Guffman), it's not a mockumentary but rather a tradional fourth wall comedy, and the style works against Guest & Co. Set in a hyperbolic Hollywood, it’s a behind-the-scenes look at the filming of a movie called Home for Purim, a histrionic Southern tale of a dying matriarch’s confrontation with her lesbian daughter, spoken in a humorous Yiddish drawl. As a rumor from the internet that the performance of the star, Marilyn Hack (O’Hara), is generating Oscar-buzz begins to gather credibility, the whole set soon becomes infected by Oscar-fever as nearly everyone in the cast starts mustering their own awards-hype. (The title is a reference to the ubiquitous trade magazine advertisements common during the Awards season, intended to drum up support or buzz around a film or an actor.)

For Your Consideration wants to rise above the level of basic comedy by satirizing contemporary Hollywood and its production and publicity systems. It’s a bit of a straw man, though, as the Hollywood it sets up to attack is too disingenuously, for comedic purposes of course, caricatural to be the basis of an effective satire. It's actually at its funniest when the characters aren’t talking about the movie business, just doing plainly funny, non-specific comedy for the sake of simple hilarity. As usual, Fred Willard steals the show and his performance alone makes the movie worth-seeing (or skipping around on DVD), but overall it's too broad and esoteric to be consistently rewarding.

Down in the Valley

Written & Directed by: David Jacobson
Grade: B

The very first images in Down in the Valley are cartoon cowboys and airplanes—my, how the West has changed. You could call the film a Western, but there’s nothing Old or Wild about it. The film takes the Western mythologies that have been beaten into us through popular history and popular culture and deconstructs them by juxtaposing them within contemporary California, in the shape of Harlan Fairfax Carruthers (Edward Norton). This ain’t 1850’s Dodge, it’s the San Fernando Valley, ca. 2006; we see a wind-up Victrola in one room, but right behind it is a computer monitor. Less a Western, Down in the Valley is a metawestern.

A drifter qua gas station attendant, Harlan accepts a spontaneous invitation to the beach from Tob (Evan Rachel Wood), a pretty young girl who looks like she’s of legal age by about fifteen minutes. Once they start osculating in the deep end of the sea, it doesn’t seem as though they’ll ever be able to stop. Harlan is something of an anachronism—well mannered and naïve—introduced into the most thoroughly modern family (I don't think they're even all blood-related!): Wade, a distant, single father (a bulked-up David Morse), with a promiscuous teenage daughter and an awkward teenage son, Lonnie (Rory Culkin, who ever since the otherwise mediocre Igby Goes Down has established himself firmly in my heart as the greatest of the Culkin Bros.) Wade don’t take a liking to Harlan, not just because he’s a noticeably older fella, no matter how polite, banging his seventeen year-old daughter but because he proves to be a better father figure to his children than he.

In one scene Harlan takes Tob on a horseback ride to a gorgeous panoramic vista, demonstrating that the countryside, despite being polluted by pavement and powerlines, still has its glimmers of beauty; it suggests that the corrupted populations of modern society still have their bright spots, and though pa ain’t so sure, all the chill’un agree—this Harlan character's somethin’ else.

Soon enough, however, we’re let in on just how superficial beauty is; just as nature’s discernible pulchritude obscures its wild, irrational and unpredictable dangers, so too does a romanticization of the Old West’s punctilio and refreshing simplicity overlook its latent lingua franca, the six shooter.

Not only is Harlan old-fashioned but the film itself, as Scott Tobias has noted, is something of a throwback to the American cinema of the ‘70s, replete with an armed soliloquy-in-the-mirror homage to Taxi Driver. Edward Norton, who in a wonderful and complicated performance has one of the most natural on-screen orgasms I’ve ever seen, fills a role that, thirty years ago, would’ve been Nicholson’s. Though a little corny sometimes, as when Tob shouts to her father, “I love him! Why won’t you let me love him?” and a little too heavy on the montage at other times, overall the filmmaking is strong—scenes are well clipped so they don’t drag and the character’s emotions aren’t spelled-out when they don’t need to be. While conforming to some generic expectations, it confounds others: a shot of a lonely Harlan stuffing a donut-hole into a donut’s hole is genuinely sweet and funny; an episode in which Harlan is physically ejected from a synagogue by a gang of Hasidim is hilarious and surreal; and a metacinematic moment when Harlan and Lonnie stumble onto the set of a Western film in the midst of shooting approaches the profound.

Down in the Valley is far from a perfect film, but it’s smart and risky, a superbly-acted character drama, carried by Norton, that, unlike many of its indie counterparts, isn’t afraid to take chances, to try and be something more than a familiar love story. We’d be lucky is American cinema were pumping out more like it.

The Cave of the Yellow Dog

Written & Directed by: Byambasuren Davaa
Grade: B+

Sort of like The Searchers without any Indians, The Cave of the Yellow Dog feels like a John Ford Western, especially with its breathtaking backdrops, sucked dry of all dramatic conflict. Having much in common with neorealism, the fiction film feels largely documentary, spending most of its time observing the ordinary life of a real family of non-professional actors on location in Mongloia. Learn how to make cheese, skin a sheep, and how children of little resources can transform animal dung into toys.

Nansal, the oldest of three children, is the focus of the film and has a remarkably natural screen presence, as though completely oblivious that there's a man with a camera staring at her. Davaa, for his part employs a very simple—that's a compliment—filmmaking style that's patient in its long, steady glances. It's the perfect fit for an exceedingly simple story about a simple, though by no means easy, way of life; this is a movie not about things happening but about people in a particular place and time. Oh, and a dog.

While out one day grazing sheep, Nansal encounters a stray dog peeping out from a cave. They're immediately best friends—maybe they know each other from a past life? Dad says they can't keep him, an order Nansal defers as long as she can until the nomadic family must move on and leave the dog behind. Since my dog just died perhaps I ought to have recused myself from reviewing the film; how could I ever discuss a film about dogs again when I can't watch one without blubbering? But Davaa, despite how sweet his kids and dog are, never lets his film descend into the cutesy or the maudlin. Still, damned if I didn't tear up.

Dad, from a trip to town (on a motorcycle no less), brings mom back a new plastic ladle to replace her old metal one, but it melts in a pot soon thereafter. Modernity encroaches on Mongolia, but some things just can't be replaced; when Dad buys his children a small, pink, battery-operated toy dog, it's no substitute for the one he's taken away. Particularly in the masterful, long final shot—see it for yourself—the story of the dog is elevated to an allegory for Modern Mongolia losing a bit of its rural heritage to urbanization; I imagine this speaks more to native Mongolians than to an ignoramus like me, although you'd have to be the creep in L'Âge d'Or who kicks that little white dog not to fall for this movie on its simplest terms. How could you not be a sucker for a simple story of the love between a girl and her dog?

22 February 2007

Elevator to the Gallows (1958)

Grade: A-
Directed by: Louis Malle
Written by: Louis Malle & Roger Nimier

David Cook writes, “some critics…dismiss [Malle] as an elegant stylist with little substance at the core.” Superficiality may be a fair charge to level at his debut film, Elevator to the Gallows, but a stylist so elegantly spot-on doesn’t warrant that kind of derision.

Elevator, one of the earliest examples of Nouvelle Vague filmmaking, is exactly what you’d want and expect an old French movie to be: supercool, from its crisp black and white Parisscapes to its Miles Davis score. (Davis is, of course—and not coincidentally—the progenitor of cool, having begat it from the birth canal of his trumpetic bell.) Julien, played by the steely-eyed Maurice Ronet, is himself so cool, “covered in medals and scars”, that he’s not even afraid of parking tickets! Watch him take one off his windshield like he doesn’t even care! (Haughty contemporary audiences may find themselves sniggering at the picture's un-ironic sincerity, but they laugh only at their own jaded selves.)

Julien, in lascivious cahoots with the boss’ wife, kills said boss in a well-crafted murder scheme. Malle, rather than show the fatal gunshot on screen, cuts to a secretary electrically sharpening a pencil, at once answering why no one heard the shot—those old machines were pretty loud—as well as ironically commenting on the absence of solemnity from modern death. A black cat then impossibly passes by the window, crossing Julien’s path and letting him, as well as the audience, know that it’s all pretty much over for him. The filmmaking proves to be more meticulous than the execution of the crime, as Julien, about to meet his freshly widowed love, realizes he made a stupid mistake and must return to his office, the scene of the crime. While riding up in the elevator, the building’s super cuts the power for the night, trapping Julien in that merciless, existential box. Merde! And we’re only twenty minutes into the picture!

What is a Frenchman to do in such a hopeless situation but chainsmoke cigarettes? Meanwhile his life disintegrates in the streets of Paris: two kids steal his car and unwittingly frame him for a serious crime, while his mistress is mistakenly convinced, as she wanders through the Paris underground, that her man has chickened-out and run-off with a flower girl.

Masterfully entertaining in the most enthralling way, despite its probable protagonist being improbably holed up in an elevator, Malle’s film is a suspenseful, clever, and cynically ironic statement on the inescapable irreversibility of fate. It’s a quick and easy ride, worth the fare for the scenery alone.

The Science of Sleep

Grade: B
Written & Directed by: Michel Gondry

A friend recently asked if I planned on seeing The Science of Sleep, and to his surprise I responded with an unenthusiastic, "eh, maybe." I like Gondry as a director, I explained, but even more I enjoy Charlie Kaufman's scripts; the issue for me therefore was, "can Gondry be trusted to make a movie by himself?" and from the looks of the trailer I was not too eager to find out. (Obviously, however, since a review follows I took the risk.)

Gondry's protagonist, Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal), is the host of Stephane TV, a television programme resembling a morning talk show with its inclusion of a little bit of everything, such as cooking, interviews, and a dash of musical performance...

Yeah right, in his dreams! No, literally, in his dreams; see, Stephane is quite the escapist, one of those classic schlubs with a dull job who’s also a bit of an artist. What he really wants to be, though, is an inventor, and the movie is packed with his various creations, such as a time machine that, while functional, endearingly only takes one a single second back in time. Stephane vaguely recalls Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee; all that's missing is an enchantingly, mechanically prepared breakfast.

Stephane moves into a Paris apartment, though his French is miserable, where his new neighbor is the charming Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg)—hey, what a coincidence! Stephane, Stephanie; Stephanie, Stephane. I cautiously prepared myself for a dreadful meet-cute. He falls for her in due time and a prolonged and awkward courting process ensues. The bulk of the film plays out in the irritating style of an indie romantic comedy to the point that, when Stephane asks Stephanie, “will you marry me when we’re seventy?” I suspected "Michel Gondry" might be a pseudonym that Zach Braff uses when he's on French acid.

Of course, it’s not (or is it?); Gondry is the talent whose previous credits include helming the mighty Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and like that film The Science of Sleep is manically directed and full of wildly imaginative imagery—after all, most of the action is set in Stephane’s fantasyscapes. In the tradition of Terry Gilliam, Gondry exhibits a unique and particularly personal visual sense, and as such he seems to be at the forefront of the neosurrealist wave, though he may be the only one on it. Unfortunately, though the film is well-acted and well-directed, like surrealism proper it feels a bit substantially fustian.

The kid’s got a vivid sense of imagination, I get it. Stephane’s mother remarks of her son's artwork, “I’ve always found it rather strange,” to which Stephanie replies, “that’s what’s good [about it].” Attention, Monsieur Gondry, because you’re treading dangerously close to the untenable realm of quirkiness for quirkiness’ sake; being different is not simply a virtue in and of itself.

The Stephane of the script comes across as annoyingly pretentious, a serious problem for the film because its success seems to depend on the audience sympathizing with its mildly unlikable protagonist. But in the third act, clearly marked by a “two months later” announcement, Gondry radically switches gears, severely blurring the lines between the real and the fantasy to the point that it not only becomes somewhat difficult to understand what’s going on, but I began to question whether I had really understood what’d transpired hitherto. Well, now we're getting somewhere Michel.

Finally, in the penultimate scene, the action unfolds from a seemingly objective standpoint, as opposed to Stephane’s subjective that had previously dominated the film. The sudden injection of unfiltered “reality” is deeply unsettling, and I felt apologetic for my earlier impressions of the movie; I was so troubled and caught off-guard I secretly wished that Gondry would stop being so serious and jump back into the sugary fantastic.

With a marvelously affecting conclusion, Gondry ultimately proves himself to be not only clever, intelligent, and effective as a director (we knew that already) but as a writer as well. Overall, it’s just that the film doesn’t feel properly balanced. Next time maybe he should ask Charlie Kaufman for a hand, at least.

21 February 2007

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

Grade: C

Written & Directed by: David Leaf & John Scheinfeld

Nostalgic in the worst of possible ways, The U.S. vs. John Lennon is yet another entry in the ongoing series of films that would function better as Wikipedia entries. Nothing more than a glorified VH1 special—the fact that it enjoyed a theatrical run is downright stupid—it’s a tired highlight reel of all the big events of the American 1960's (the Kent State massacre, the Democratic Convention in Chicago, etc.) set to the tune of John Lennon’s solo records. It's another pitifully disingenuous depiction of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, the kind that refers to that shallow fraud Abbie Hoffman as a “radical activist” and, by the way, doesn’t even acknowledge that G. Gordon Liddy, who holds a peculiarly prominent talking head position in the film, is a convicted felon.

One way the filmmakers attempt to compensate for their own vacuity is by providing ostentatious mangled photo collage backdrops for the interviewees, who were apparently interviewed in front of a green-screen; another is through gimmicky graphic effects. What am I, an idiot? An artfully edited collage of John Lennon interviews could have been interesting, even enlightening, but instead we’re offered a feature-length episode of “I Love the ‘60s; John Lennon Edition”, with the insufferable Michael Ian Black replaced by the, well, insufferable Geraldo Rivera. You'd be better off Netflixing the Dick Cavett interviews, readership.

The film’s ostensible purpose, to illuminate Lennon’s political career, is pretty thin and primarily covers a surprisingly brief period of his life, the early seventies. Lennon, near the end of his tenure as a Beatle, became politically energized and compelled to use his celebrity to speak out against the War. (That’s the Vietnam War.) The perpetually paranoid Richard Nixon saw him as a threat to his re-election, so consequently the US Government not only tried to deport him, but Hoover’s FBI began to spy-on and intimidate him, measures that now only reaffirm his position, to his fans (like the filmmakers), as the patron saint of rock n’ roll.

Wanting to have it both ways, the filmmakers try to present Lennon as both a radical activist/threat to Nixon’s political career as well as an innocuous artist just speakin' his mind. Jounralist Tariq Ali rightly chuckles on camera when asked if Lennon was a threat to the country, as it’s a notion as laughable as the film itself. But then hey Msr. Leaf & Scheinfeld, what was the first hour of your film about? Lennon was harassed because Nixon was a nut, not because he was changing the world and undermining the status quo; the movie concedes this, but then it doesn't. It’s a funny prank when John & Yoko give a press conference underneath a bag, but no one was taking that seriously, as in, "let's burn down the recruitment station and vote McGovern because a Beatle's wearing a sheet." I’ve got no beef with Lennon, but it’s impossible to take this movie as seriously as it takes itself. I admire him for trying to use his fame for good; he was an intelligent, charming and well-spoken rock star, as the clips in the film show, and I wish there were more like him. That doesn’t make him a Messiah or even a hero, so let’s not get hagiographic over it. John Lennon was far from perfect, something the film never even considers, as a musician, politician, and human being. The unwarranted attempts at apotheosis expose the film as a self-righteous baby-boomer celebration of themselves. Boy, those were the days, huh? Not like the kids today, I’ll tell you that. Well, I’d call and say thanks, guys, but George Bush has my phone tapped.


Grade: C+

Directed by: Patrick Creadon
Written by: Patrick Creadon & Christine O'Malley

Ever since the success of Spellbound, which I found dull, it seems that indie documentary filmmakers can’t scramble fast enough to record other seemingly boring contests and attempt to imbue them with a weightier resonance than they actually possess. The DVD-era, in tandem with more democratic access to camera and editing equipment, is bringing on a series of non-fiction films that would really function better as Wikipedia entries: 2004 brought us Word Wars, about competitive Scrabble players, and 2006 brings us Word Play. I readily expect a movie about Sudoku to be released before I finish writing this article. Imagine the visual possibilities: people on subway cars, with newspapers and pens in hand…

The first half of Word Play is interesting, at least for me as an amateur solver, as it delves into the history of crossword puzzles, the personalities of the people behind them (most prominently Will Shortz, editor of the Times puzzle), and parades a handful of celebrity solvers to offer insight. Taking only forty-five minutes to do this, however, the filmmakers needed another angle to pad out the film, and they found it in the Stamford Crossword Tournament, a crossworld puzzle competition and the focus of the film’s second half. Hang onto your hats, readership.

Watching people do crossword puzzles, even if you jazz it up with rock music, split screen and animation, is about as captivating as watching someone read a book. (Unless, of course, the person doing the solving is Jon Stewart or Bill Clinton, who respectively offer-up jokes and wisdom while filling in their tiny white squares.) Otherwise, however, the people who excel at crosswords are strikingly average, notable only for being slightly awkward or pretentious, and watching them zip through the Sunday Times puzzle is impressive but hardly interesting. Similarly, watching the puzzle constructors build a puzzle is intriguing, but the film makes the process no less mystifying.

The filmmakers’ attempt to infuse the tournament with poignancy via montage and a sorry rendition of “Take Me to the River” fails embarrassingly; it takes more than slow-motion embraces and soft guitar-music to tug my heartstrings. Overall, the whole project is poorly conceived and poorly executed; near the end they find a moment of genuine pathos when, during the competition’s final round, a pitiable player makes a stupid mistake that costs him the crown. It’s a serendipitous accident for the filmmakers, and without that kind of filmmaking fortune this would be an out and out travesty.

15 February 2007

United 93: The Problem of Inspired Films

Disappointed by the ubiquitous appearance of United 93 on many respectable critics best of 2006 lists, I reprint here my essay on the film.

When United 93 was released it was, along with the subsequent World Trade Center, seen, as Frank Rich noted, as a referendum on whether or not America was prepared for “9-11 The Movie”. The problem for me, from a film critic’s standpoint, is why the general public or the media would feel that the events of September 11th necessitate a cinematic interpretation? The question is not whether it’s “too soon” to make a movie but why a movie should ever be made in the first place.

American films based on actual events and/or persons, living or dead, have always possessed a conspicuous flaw: they feel fake, because the standard Hollywood narrative form is inherently artificial. All Hollywood movies are basically identical in terms of their storytelling style; of course there is wiggle-room for variations in complexity, but on a basic level they all follow the same framework, the three-act structure of set-up, conflict, and denouement. When attempting, however, to tell inspired stories (as opposed to invented stories) within this inhibiting structure, the intricacies of the original story are inevitably lost. Real-life people and situations are irreproducibly complex; condensing them into standard Hollywood forms yields invariably awkward results. (This explains why Made-for-TV movies are often so laughable, because they need to explain months of subtle change in one or two histrionic scenes.)

Consider Ray (2004), the overrated Oscar-magnet. Obviously Ray Charles had some serious psychological problems that drove him to womanizing and drug-addiction; the film, however, reduces his motivations to his guilt over the death of his younger brother. Once he confronts this guilt, in a ridiculous dream-sequence near the end of the film, he is cured -- if only real-life were so simple!

The most successful biopic I’ve ever seen in the Hollywood style is Amadeus (1984). The filmmakers do not set out to tell Mozart’s life story so much as they use Mozart’s story to touch on larger themes like the nature of artistic genius. As a result it is largely historically inaccurate but it doesn’t really matter, particularly since there are a few centuries of distance between the film and its source of inspiration. It is not an historical film.

There are more contemporary films as well that successfully handle inspired stories, like those of Gus van Sant. His film Elephant (2003) deals with an event “ripped-from-the-headlines” (give or take a few years), a Columbine-esque school-shooting. First of all, van Sant is careful not to bind his characters to real-life individuals; they are inspired by real people, but do not come with the baggage of verisimilitudinous expectations. The Dylan Klebold stand-in won’t be judged by how much he resembles Dylan Klebold because, after all, he is not actually supposed to be Dylan Klebold.

More importantly, though, van Sant does not attempt to fit his subjects neatly into the classical Hollywood narrative style; rather, he alters and deconstructs that form in the attempt to accommodate the irresolvable complexities of his subjects. His narrative style is fractured, going back and forth through time, often forcing the audience to re-experience the same diegetic moments from alternate perspectives. There is little traditional plot to speak of, and the film is packed with long tracking shots of students roaming the school’s corridors without any real action. There are no causes, only effects, and the results are powerfully effective.

United 93, on the other hand, hits the video store shelves with full-fledged adherence to the classical Hollywood guidelines. Soon into it I felt like I was watching The Bridge on the River Kwai, waiting two and a half interminable hours for that damn bridge to explode. Thankfully, United 93 is a bit shorter. The first hour is populated mostly by military personnel and air traffic controllers watching the events of September 11th unfold on various monitors and screens (just like most of us did!); it is outright boring, but it sets up the drama. The last third of the film, which mostly takes place on the ill-fated flight, is particularly unsuspenseful, leaving the viewer to just wait for the plane to crash; this, however, leaves the viewer feeling guilty and confused. We know, in the back of our minds, that these are real people and we shouldn’t want to see them die.
The characters, however, are poorly developed and lack any more depth than the stock characters populating any generic slasher film. The hijackers are mad Islamic fundamentalists, plain and simple; the passengers are heroes, motivated by patriotism and good ol’ American courage. The film comes dangerously close to apotheosizing, and is at best jingoistic propaganda. As David Thomson wrote, “This is a picture about American courage and enterprise…[i]t is a rousing affirmation of a war effort.” The New Yorker called the film “brilliant”, but a modicum of taste and restraint (because, admittedly, the film could hypothetically have been much more vulgar) does not a brilliant film make. Good art has the power to move us in virtue of its complexities and the manner in which it works through them. United 93 does not set out to explore or to clarify, only to glorify.

The film possesses no emotional core of its own; rather than aiding the audience in working through their own engrained emotions it merely exploits them. Only those easily manipulated by the usual modes of Hollywood filmmaking should find the film in any way emotionally cathartic. The rest of us are left thinking, what the hell was the point then?There are only two reasons to produce films, or art in general: to entertain, and/or to enlighten. Only the repulsively morbid could find United 93 entertaining, and for the reasons stated above the film is not enlightening in the slightest. It seems, then, that the only reason the film was made was to expolit the deaths that resulted from the terrorist attacks for personal profit. That feels, to me, as morally repugnant as war profiteering.

Gus van Sant should have been hired to direct United 93 (or at least one the many similar made-for-cable variations) so he could’ve done for its passengers, and hijackers, what he did for the high school students of Elephant; that is, to make them into (seemingly) real human beings. It would be truly cathartic to see some ordinary, unadulterated humanity injected into the already cool and heavily mediated images of the death and destruction on September 11, 2001.

10 February 2007

Children of Men

Grade: A+
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron
Written by: Alfonso Cuaron, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby

Aren't you glad that George W. Bush is the President of the United States? No, of course not! But you might just be, at least momentarily, tempted to think so after seeing Children of Men; after all, without the vicious blunders of Falluja and Guantanamo to inform its sense of doom, Alfonso Cuarón may never have had the inspiration to make one of the best goddam things I’ve ever seen up on the big screen. I worry about overselling the film, that perhaps it was more bewitching than great, but I’ve decided to follow a maxim once writ by A.O. Scott: “overpraising good work is...a more forgivable sin than underpraising it,” and so I cautiously concede to you, readership, that Children of Men may not be one of the best movies ever made; it may not even be the best film of the decade, though surely at least it's the best film of the year. What’s undeniable is that it’s one of the most rewarding and harrowing cinematic experiences I’ve had since renting Vertigo as a teenager. (Will this feeling subside? Will the film slip down to a mere A or A- in my mind? Impossible to tell, though just watching a six minute clip on YouTube left me breathless.)

Cuarón’s vision of the near future is bleak, which is evident even without the expository information culled from P.D. James' novel—global infertility, civil war, perpetual terrorism—by the chronically wet, gray, dirty, graffito-ed streetscapes of 2027 London that are either clogged with sad faces or entirely desolate. So what keeps anybody going? With the help of state-supplied anti-depressants, they, as a marginal character named Nigel says early in the film, “just don’t think about it.” A worldwide pandemic of psychological infertility and political impotence has destroyed the world.

Theo, a career-defining performance from Clive Owen, seems to get by with the help of his self-prescribed anti-depressant
an ever-present bottle of scotchas well as by smoking, frowning and unwinding with an old pal, Jasper, played endearingly and masterfully by the increasingly avuncular Michael Caine, bedecked in his John Lennon Halloween costume. Theo is the classic Bogartian hero, an indifferent bureaucrat hardened by age in a carbonite shell of cynicism, but compelled to action by forces around him greater than himself. He’s bestowed with the honorable duty of transporting the first pregnant woman in nearly twenty years to safety, and he’ll have to it largely alone since he can’t trust the rebels and certainly not the government.

Children of Men is an action movie, a generic hybrid of war movie, chase thriller, and Nativity story. It’s many opposites at once—topical & timeless, grim & hopeful, political & religious, simply accessible & intricately complex—as well as being unbearably intense and unmercifully relentless from its opening scene that literally sent chills through my nervous system to the final set-piece, the greatest battle sequence in motion picture history (eat shit, Saving Private Ryan), that left me in tears. Cuarón, with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (previously responsible for the gorgeous visuals in, among other films, The New World and Sleepy Hollow) create a sense of devestating immediacy by not cutting away in the most fervid sequences and by operating with a handheld camera. The experience is more palpable than could've been had by even having been there yourself; the theoretical concept of "suture" is the idea that, according to Wikipedia, the filmmakers can "engage the viewer with the narrative events onscreen; the viewer is subjectively sutured into the narrative by the filmmaker(s), in order to keep him or her invested." It has never been more deftly and astounding accomplished, and as such the film will be best experienced in the theater, on a large encompassing screen. Don’t allow yourself to miss the experience! The emotional thrill ride is unstoppable, not even pausing to wipe off the blood that’s spattered onto the camera lens; I haven’t had such a visceral experience with moving pictures since I watched the Allies’ footage of the concentration camp liberations.

Cuarón allows his camera to linger in the settings after his characters have left, like Antonioni with his temps mort, but instead of investigating depopulated landscapes, Cuarón more closely examines the people and action within the nightmarish deathscape he’s wrought. The film’s own concentration camp conspicuously resembles the Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib of photographs, but is more affecting than even a real time documentary of the abuses that occur/occurred in those places could be. Cuarón and his team are in total control and get all the details right, though it isn’t as though they linger to make political points. The camera barely finds the time to look around before it’s shoved forward by the film’s unstoppable momentum that spurs, horrifyingly, forward.

It can be read in several different ways, for example: a Mexican director’s polemic in which an illegal immigrant is turned into the savior of humanity,
an argument that the use of immigration issue is a political red herring, a political critique about the failures of both the left and the right, an appraisal of the contemporary cultural fear accumulated through attacks by phony terrorists. As grim as it sounds, it’s also genuinely and surprisingly hopeful. Things are going to get a lot worse, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get better. The first thing you can do, readership, is go see this film. Right now.

Hour of the Wolf (1968)

Grade: A
Written & Directed by: Ingmar Bergman

Hour of the Wolf, like most of Bergman’s work, is supremely difficult to parse, but that’s a great part of its allure. That’s not to say, of course, that the film is difficult for difficulty’s sake—that would be rubbish. Bergman’s most homologous equivalent in the current cinema, I would say, is David Lynch, as both filmmakers, at their best, directly affect the viewer’s subconscious, creating films that are confounding yet viscerally and primally affecting. The challenging nature of Hour of the Wolf doesn’t dampen the intensity of the experience; one need not speak French, as Leonard Cohen once remarked, to appreciate Edith Piaf.

Johan (Max von Sydow), an artist, moves to a remote island with his wife, Alma (Liv Ullman), in tow, where they briefly enjoy a blithe existence, conveyed in a series of short, idyllic episodes. This happy life, however, is almost immediately interrupted by Johan’s descent into madness. He shows Alma a series of drawings of various demonic ghostmonsters, the description of each more horrifying than the last, though we are never afforded the opportunity to see any of Johan’s sketches for ourselves. This is commonly referred to as "Bergman’s only horror film"; at first I thought, “how do you figure? Maybe for lack of a better term.” But the film’s second half, delineated by putting the film’s title back up on the screen (oh Bergman), soon corrected my haughty attitude. Bergman is careful not to give too much, or anything really, away too soon. The horror slowly builds, including a wrestling scene between von Sydow and a small boy that is downright bizarre—mysterious, senseless and terrifying—leading ultimately to a genuinely frightening third act.

Johan and Alma are invited by the island’s owner to have dinner with he and his aristocratic retinue. They all profess to be avid admirers of Johan’s art, but slyly make embarrassing allusions to a former affair of his. There seems to be here a comment on the nature of art and the artist, and their relationship to real human relationships. At the time of filming, Ullman was carrying Bergman’s baby, but refused to move to Sweden to live with him. He asked her to please at least come and make this movie, which she did; in this context, I think the film can be understood as a very personal apology from Bergman to his female star for his artistic eccentricities; the fixated but unspecific nature of Johan’s compulsive obsessions manifests itself externally as both art and demons, and both threaten to undermine his marriage and his life. Art and life (love) are irreconcilable, as for Bergman the former has no practical purpose in the latter. (It’s ironic, then, that filming the movie brought Bergman and Ullman back together.)

Near the film’s end, Johan is poised to make love to the object of his affections, an animate corpse (his Lenore, as suggested by a frequently reappearing raven), when a crowd of spectators begin to wildly laugh at him. With von Sydow in make-up and a lothario’s robe, the scene suggests the humiliation and absurdity of emotional artistic expression. Hour of the Wolf is the story of a troubled marriage and a journey through the mind of a disturbed artist, but at its core is a parade of effective images and captivating sequences. During the film I felt I hadn’t been too frightened, but once it was over, while walking from the living room to my bedroom in my darkened apartment I was overcome by the sensation that someone was following me. Suffice it to say, I slept with a nightlight on. Like Johan, I couldn’t sleep due to an overpowering fear—but a fear of what?


Grade: D+
Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
Written by: Leigh Whannell

Deetily deet de dee, two ladies, and the serial kiler Jigsaw is the only man. Yeah! Looks as though the previous Saw films' piece pan is about to have a deathbed delight; too bad one is a bitchy power-drill wielding brain surgeon and the other is a homicidal psychopath. Deetily deet dee oh.

Just when my faith in film was being re-energized by Children of Men, I made the mistake of renting Saw III. I’m not going to mince words here: Saw III is awful. Really, unwatchably bad. I know, many of you may be wondering, “well, stupid, what did you expect?” Well, that makes you a film snob, but anyway I was prepared for a worst case scenario of some pretty mediocre acting and dialogue, but I'd forgotten how bad mainstream, commercial American movies can be.

That's because, in my defense, the Saw franchise has been, hitherto, not an altogether worthless one. The first film was clever, mysterious, and surprising, and had the benefit of starring the comfortably familiar Cary Elwes and Danny Glover. Even the follow-up, the sensibly titled Saw II, was fun to watch and to boot had a satisfying twist. The trilogy began with the idea of a terminal cancer patient’s revenge on a world that was so unappreciative to be alive, a biting critique of the gluttonous and spiritless American audience that ate it up, but it’s devolved into a mere excuse for a series of extravagantly grisly murders with no apparent purpose. (So violent, in fact, that during the opening scene I literally dropped my popcorn.)

Near the two hour mark—where do these DVD-era directors get off thinking they can make movies however long they feel like?—the film finally starts to become what it should’ve been, and wanted to be, all along: a parable on the virtue of forgiveness, an important message for a country hellbent on razing the Middle East in a misplaced demand for justice. Unfortunately, at that point I was too bored, exasperated, and full of “oh come now”s to buy it. Saw III wants to have its cake and eat it too, but all it winds up with is an empty plate and an empty stomach, covered in blood.

09 February 2007

Prizzi's Honor

Director: John Huston

John Huston, one of the all time top powerhouse Hollywood directors, continued to make films long after his former contemporaries (like John Ford) had ceased or become deceased. He was nearly eighty years old when he directed Prizzi’s Honor but his technique is nearly as flawless as it was over forty years earlier on his first film, The Maltese Falcon -- there are no superfluous shots or edits. He exclusively uses dissolves to move between scenes and the result is gorgeous. Why don’t contemporary directors use dissolves, by far the classiest transition device available in the grammar, much anymore?

But I digress. Unfortunately, the sophistication in the construction is mismatched with the content. For starters, I’m not ever offended by ethnic stereotypes, but even I was a bit put-off by the caricatural portrayal of Italians in the film, namely by the performances of William Hickey and Lee Richardson. Jack Nicholson stars, sporting a silly Brooklyn-Italian accent, as a hit man for the mob who falls in love at first sight. He marries the girl, a Polack contract-killer from California, and ultimately she brings him nothing but trouble. Nicholson’s acting style is typically over-the-top, and while it can be used to great effect in, for example, The Shining, here when combined with the exaggerated accent the performance approaches the cartoonish.

Which might even be ok, except that the film just doesn’t really work because while half of it wants to be a punchy comedy, the other half aspires to be a bit more serious-minded and sophisticated, and it never finds the right balance. Kathleen Turner’s great in it, but she is playing it pretty straight while Nicholson is playing it pretty silly, and like the two characters themselves, ultimately it just doesn't mesh.

Grade: B-

Broken Trail

Directed by: Walter Hill

Walter Hill’s new film fits neatly into the Westerns canon with its Deadwood-esque visual style (Mr. Hill directed the pilot episode of the series), a Peckinpah-esque climactic shoot-out, and irritating musical montages that echo Butch Cassidy. The film, or more accurately the miniseries as it was originally broadcast in two parts on AMC, tells the story of an old man (Robert Duvall) and his nephew (Thomas Hayden Church) as they move several hundred horses from Oregon to Wyoming. Along the way, five virginal Chinese maidens happen to wind up in their custody and they take ‘em along for the ride.

Duvall, who also produced, graciously hangs back in Part One and allows Church's character to drive the film; he steals the show in a fine performance, expressed almost entirely, in reaction shots, through his glaring eyes. The two men carry the film because it falls flat whenever female characters appear on the screen at all. Hill showed himself to be something of a master of male relationships under duress in films like The Warriors and Southern Comfort, but apparently he don’t know a damn thing about girls. They are all two-dimensional, nothing more than sympathetic victims or, in the case of “Big Rump Kate”, a bombastic supervillian. Characters, whether male or female, good or bad, ought to be a little more complex than that.

There are moments of originality, intelligence, and emotionality, so it would be unfair to write the film off as just another generic cliché. At its best, however, the film just gently rocks back and forth between failure and success like a rickety rocking chair.

Grade: B

Hard Candy

Directed by: David Slade

Hard Candy addresses the predation of underage girls by internet-prowling pedophiles. It's quite an unsettling subject, and accordingly, the action unfolds almost unfailingly in claustrophobic close-ups while the settings are theatrical in their confinement. Though the film’s politics are a bit irresponsible and excessive, it’s that very shock-value that makes it compelling to watch – apparently my fear of castration is very literal, not just in an abstract Freudian sense.

Whereas a scary movie like The Descent uses the filmic medium to make the viewer uncomfortable, Hard Candy simply thinks up a frightening situation and shoves it down your throat. It works, almost, but it feels like cheating. One of its biggest problems is the screenplay, which is didactic in an obnoxiously obvious sort of way. Does anyone really need to be lectured on the malicious effects of child pornography and pedophilia, save perhaps the pedophiles and pornographers themselves? Is that the film’s intended target audience?

Jeff (Patrick Wilson) may or may not have killed a girl, and he may or may not have taken pornographic photographs. The film, however, isn’t a mystery; it intentionally fails to investigate whether Jeff has done anything beyond inappropriate, implying instead that anyone with pedophilic urges is inherently guilty of a crime against society. As punishment, it disproportionately prescribes torture, mutilation, and death. Call me a bleeding heart, but I don’t think anyone, particularly someone who may not have done anything beyond possessing a few photographs, deserves that kind of treatment.

The script tries to throw in some philosophical reflections on the nature of voyeurism intended to raise the film’s intellectual value, but unfortunately, they fail – don’t expect Vertigo or Peeping Tom here. It’s a very violent film for violence’s sake; for those with the courage to look, it's tough to look away, but don't expect to learn anything.

Grade: C+


Directed by: Hal Ashby

I recently read somewhere that Hal Ashby's reputation has not aged as well as many believed it would back in his hey-day. I can see why -- Shampoo is a travesty. A ‘70s screwball sex comedy with a glowing reputation (#47 on the American Film Institute's 100 Funniest Films) and it can barely muster a decent joke?

It’s a remarkably unfunny film, with the exception of a few performances (notably Jack Warden) and a few tossed off lines here and there. Warren Beatty, who also co-wrote and co-produced the film, plays a gay pirate, or at least that’s how he’s dressed, decked out in a flamboyant foulard and sporting the most ridiculous haircut in film history. Is that supposed to be intentionally funny or just lamely dated? Who cares? A brief dinner party scene in the middle of the film picks things up a bit, but they just fall off again so quickly that the laughs seem to have been a serendipitous accident. Perhaps frank sexual comments and chides regarding Beatty’s sexuality were risqué and shocking enough to induce a few chuckles thirty years ago, but it just doesn’t cut it, especially in a post-Borat world. Attempts at pathos near the end of the film fall embarrassingly flat. Who gives a shit about these unredeemable, self-obsessed characters? It functions more successfully as an indictment of Beatty-vehicles than it does of the free-lovin’ hipsters of the 1960’s.

Grade: C

04 February 2007

Jesus Camp

Directed by: Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war! Of course the secular liberal establishment won’t allow children to actually take up arms, so while their daddies are off attending to America’s Holy Wars, they’re home with mommy training for the equally important culture wars. As Ashley, a young girl who is the co-focus of the film, puts it, “we’re being trained to be warriors, but in a much funner way,” which asks the question, are there no grammar books for home schoolers?

Ewing and Grady document several months in the lives of Ashley and an older boy named Levi, both the children of hardcore Evangelical Christians, from their homes to a Christian-themed sleepaway camp, and then on a cross-country excursion with stops in Colorado Springs—Evangelical capital of the USA—and Washington D.C. for a quaint Right to Life mini-rally. Though the filmmakers treat their subjects respectfully, even lovingly at times, when it comes to Evangelism and their practice of conditioning children they’re clearly tendentious—they’re agin it. While the Christians get the better part of the screen time, offering the audience the absurdity they spew serves to simply disparage their arguments. You don't have to argue with a fundamentalist to get them to lose face. Just let them speak.

When a Holy Joe gets a wildly raucous response to his question of whether or not the children are ready to give their lives not to Jesus but for him, it’s clear these fundamentalists’ model for indoctrination is not merely radical Islam, as one of them claims, but radical Islamism. The children usually sound as though they are merely parroting their parents and preachers when they espouse reverent polemics on Christ, America, and their relation to one another to the point that it’s made perfectly clear, especially when a preacher asks, “who thinks God can do anything?” and a mother physically raises her two children’s hands for them, what this is. This is brainwashing.

But who could blame the kids for giving in? Levi confesses that he was “saved” at the age of five, at a time when he thought nothing was fun. Besides the fact that they’re young and impressionable, if I were from Mullettown, Missouri, I’d want to go to Jesus Camp, too—they have rock music, dancing, and clapping. (When megapastor Ted Haggard, the discredited and disgraced male prostitute solicitor and illegal substance procurer, shows up in the film for an extended cameo, you get a good idea of just how fun Evangelical Christianity can be.) The only countervoice to the radical Christians in the film is radio host Mike Papantonio—well whoop de doo. If I could only choose between Air America and Fundamentalism, I’d take the latter, too. At least they go bowling.

With interesting shot composition, ironic counterpoint, and pointed sincerity, Ewing and Grady offer a fascinating glimpse into an American subculture quickly, and frighteningly, losing its prefix. As a deeper look into Borat’s America, there are some real hilarious moments, such as when Pastor Becky, a lardaceous old bag who has the nerve to call mainstream Christians “fat", prays for the PowerPoint presentations to have the strength to project, or when she bitterly howls, “if it were the Old Testament, Harry Potter would be put to death!” Mostly, however, the movie’s just creepy, and it’s hard not to let it rile you up. (Just when I thought, “at least they’re not speaking in tongues,” they actually started to!) Boys goofing around before bed are chastised because their horseplay isn’t holy, and at one point the kids are brought to devastating tears from shame for having sinned. Oh, Mr. Bunker, not only is girls not girls and men not men no more, kids ain’t even kids!

Mafioso (1962)

Directed by: Alberto Lattuada
Written by: Rafael Azcona, Marco Ferreri, Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli

opens with a montage of heavy machinery in motion, and it’s so loud it approaches absurdity. But, of course, it has a point; Lattuada wants to make it unequivocally clear that Milan is exceedingly modern. This way, when the film moves to Sicily, you’ll really perceive the stark distinction between urban and rural Italy, and you’ll, at least at first, be on Antonio’s (Alberto Sordi) side with nostalgic adoration for the old way of living.

Antonio is a chipper and strikingly obsequious (he takes a cigarette when offered despite the fact he doesn't smoke) factory foreman about to embark on a two week vacation back to his boyhood Sicilian home, toting his blond trophy wife, Marta, and two young daughters along for their first visit. In Milan, everything is so modern that even the doors are mechanical—they open at the push of a button, with no knobs or handles. Sicily, however, is still thoroughly Old World, and Lattuada has a brilliant comedic eye for the contrasts: Antonio’s wife sticks out like an IBM among the mustachioed women and toothless octogenarians; residents travel by horse-drawn cart, while stray dogs litter the streets and wild hens room freely through the house. It doesn't take long for the exasperated Marta to finally break down in tears.

Antonio, on the other hand, has a romantic fondness for the ostensible simplicity of that kind of living, and the first half of the picture is a very amusing culture clash comedy between North and South. (Even if American audiences can’t appreciate the regional specifics, they should be able to appreciate the spirit, having their own North and South divide.) But something not so funny lurks just beneath the film’s surface; after all, one of the first things the family encounters upon their arrival in Sicily is a funeral, and when Don Vincenzo—the local Mafia boss—asks Antonio for a favor in the middle of the story, the film radically changes from light comedy to dark drama. It’s deftly and successfully executed thanks to Lattuada’s smart direction and Sordi’s masterful performance. Both the comedy and the drama are heavily exaggerated—I think the reviews claiming the film to be somewhat neo-realistic are misguided—but the actors and location shooting give it a balancing sense of believability and legitimacy.

Lattuada is making a pointed rebuttal to those reactionaries who’d claim that country life is a purer and superior way of living to city life, that the past was better than the present is. Antonio is good family man in the city, but the country transforms him into a violent criminal. He’s naïve to have imbued the rural areas with an unfounded innocence when in truth life was far dirtier and more violent in the old days than it is today. And so, the film’s final image is a wide overhead shot of Antonio passing back into the safety of rows and rows of factory machinery. Long live modernity.