29 May 2007

Alpha Dog

Written & Directed by: Nick Cassavetes

Grade: C+

Based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood—here called, with far less panache, Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch)—Alpha Dog is directed by Nick "Son of John" Cassavetes with a distracting flair that senselessly uses all sorts of gimmicks, like split-screen, to cover-up the film's thematic vacuity; the most egregious example is his inclusion of to-the-camera interviews with the actors in character, like he was Ingmar Bergman or some shit. It seems a poor attempt to justify the film's voyeuristic exploitation aesthetic, as everything else is far too exaggerated to pass for realistic, based on a true story or not, regardless of how many touches of verite you try to pad it with. Truelove, a high-wheeling, nineteen year old druglord, gets into some serious beef with one of his dealers, Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster, laughably awful), that escalates out of control; when Mazursky takes a shit on his carpet and steals his phat TV, Truelove retaliates, on a whim, by kidnapping Mazursky's exceedingly likeable little brother Zack (Anton Yelchin). ("What's not to like?" a character later asks, "he's fifteen!") Truelove and his gang end up giving Zack the time of his life, getting him high, drunk and laid and giving him a little bit of the peer-validation that he can't get living with his overbearing mother (Sharon Stone, also awful), the kind of woman who happens to, for what it's worth, watch him while he sleeps.

Though a pointless orgy of sex, drugs, vulgarity and violence, there's admittedly something alluring about Cassavetes' stylized vision of contemporary teenage debauchery, and it's convincing why Zack would stick around despite being given several opportunities to split; it's fun! But without Yelchin's performance as an overmothered, underfathered (Jewish stereotypes?), naive and curious adolescent keeping it together (and, to a lesser extent, Justin Timberlake's enthusiastic display of his impressive range), Alpha Dog would be conspicuously revealed as the meaningless claptrap that it is, despite its aspirations to disingenuously claim a weightier moral relevance. Bruce Willis, in a small role as Truelove's father, blatantly lays out the supposed theme—the importance of good parenting—in the film's opening sequence, and examples of bad parenting, mostly in the form of leniency and indifference, do largely occupy the film's background. Yet the kids in the film are, for the most part, (ambiguously) likeable, played with undeniable charm at least, and no amount of speechifying from Willis and his flustered character is going to change that. Yeah, kids need discipline and strong father figures, I guess, but what they probably don't need are more romanticizations of a pernicious modus vivendi like Alpha Dog. (Though, as Nathan Rabin recently wrote, "if I was a 16-year-old who'd seen Alpha Dog [and other similar films], I'd probably feel like the whole teenaged world was one giant omni-sexual drugged-up orgy I hadn't been invited to.") It isn't parents, anyway, who are likely to see the film, whose major claim to fame is that it's sexy-returner Justin Timberlake's big breakthrough. Though Cassavetes' film is ultimately tragic, considering the co-opting of Scarface as a celebration of gangstahood makes me think Alpha Dog will be largely misunderstood. (I'm not saying that it's irresponsible in that regard, only that Cassavetes shouldn't pretend he's doing the world a favor by having made the film.)

Despite the increasing inevitability of the film's conclusion, and already knowing the how it all ends from a familiarity with the actual story, Cassavetes, to his credit, is able to establish a legitimately suspenseful atmosphere as, like autumn leaves, the film slowly sheds its formal pretensions to build to a shattering climax, an acting triumph and reason enough alone to see the film; unfortunately, save for a brief cameo from Lukas Haas, the next thirty minutes are worthless, particularly as Yelchin and Timberlake, Alpha Dog's greatest assets, effectively disappear from the film. Ostensibly, Cassavetes' piece of teenxploitation is a study of a powerful figure's fall from grace, an illustration of how hubris inevitably leads to comeuppance—in the film's first scene, Truelove boasts that his "dick's so big it's got a knee," but by the end he can't even a muster an erection, to his girlfriend's dismay. ("What are we gonna do?" she angrily asks, "Talk?") The alpha dog's been emasculated, and childhood excess has been reigned in by the comforting forces of law and order. As such, though, it's not very effective; however, as a study of a character, Zack, who learns the dangerous consequences of a sex, drugs and kidnapping lifestyle, it's far more successful, thanks only to the acting strength of Anton Yelchin, who should be watched closely from now on. He's really fucking talented, yo.

25 May 2007

Deliver Us From Evil

Written & Directed by: Amy Berg

Grade: C+

I can't fault writer-director Amy Berg for tackling a subject—presbyteral molestation and the subsequent Catholic cover-up—in Deliver Us From Evil that's by now old hat, since she scored a remarkable opportunity too extraordinary to pass-up: an exclusive, three day interview with the straightforward and candidly confessional Oliver O'Grady, a former priest and convicted sex abuser now living in Irish exile. But ultimately O'Grady presents Berg with quite a conundrum that she doesn't quite having the courage to confront, and which ultimately brings Deviler Us From Evil down—Oliver O'Grady is the most likeable and charismatic person in the film. When he reappears near the end, after a long hiatus from the narrative, I was happy to see him again, and yet this is a man that admittedly molested and raped probably upwards of hundreds of children over the course of his ignoble career!

O'Grady is and always was an ostensibly unassuming and non-threatening presence, "the perfect example of what a priest would be," according to the mother of one of his victims, but on the inside O'Grady is a fiend, a sociopathic pedophile who admits that nothing gets him jonesing like a child in a bathing suit. The basic story, as I said, is familiar: O'Grady is first accused of abuse in 1976 and, over the course of the next decade or two, is bounced around Central California, from Lodi to Thurlock to Stockton to San Andreas, where in every city and town it's basically the same story (until he was finally arrested and convicted in 1993): he's accused of some sort of "inappropriate touching", the victims are promised he'll be moved to a place where he won't have access to children, and the diocese moves him to a new parish where he in fact does have access to children, whom he starts molesting immediately. In the interviews, from Berg's own footage and previously recorded, decade-old depositions, O'Grady remains calmly and cooly composed, laying out the specifics of his actions and mental states as though fully aware of what he did but completely removed from the reality of his actions. (One attorney asks him if he's ever been diagnosed with dissociative disorder, to which he mockingly responds, "I'm sure I fit the category of a lot of disorders.") His demeanor is all matter-of-fact, and while it should be unsettling in a Hannibal Lechter sort of way I actually found it rather inviting; after all, this man devoted some thirty years and all of his intellectual capacities into deceiving children and their families, making them trust him, so that he could then take advantage of them to satisfy his vile urges. He's obviously always been good at manipulating people and he's doing the same thing now on camera and Berg, in the name of misguided objectivity, makes the fatal mistake of putting O'Grady on camera and not challenging him directly. For a spell, Deliver Us From Evil seems as thought it might have the potential to, however unintentionally, glorify a child rapist.

So to prevent that from happening, Berg winds up overcompensating in the other direction, resorting to shorthand emotional hokum, like long shots of teary victims set against a drippy score and staged stunts along the lines of Michael Moore—meant to elicit pity for the victims and scorn for O'Grady—rather than letting him have it or getting O'Grady to incriminate himself. The challenge to O'Grady is indirect, offered by the children he hurt who, on camera, are banal in their weepy victimhood. "He's a piece of crap, man," as the friend of one victim eloquently notes, laconically capturing the tone of the entire film. Berg's most vehement attack on Father O'Grady comes from the father of one victim, who spends the last half of the film literally screaming and crying about the pain the man caused his family; it eventually degenerates into uncomfortable exploitation, the camera lingering gratutiously, but without those scenes you'd still be thinking about what a nice man that Oliver is. He's so honest and seemingly repentent, knowing all his life that what he was doing was wrong and aware that he needed help; "I should have been removed and attended to," he admits, adding, with the inappropriate smirk he wears throughout, "I'd like if all the bishops had done that." (Or, phoenetically, "Oid like eff ahl da bishups had dun dat.")

Though of course the bishops didn't, and Deliver Us From Evil only comes alive as a film during a single reel towards the end when it engages in a fiery denigration of the Catholic Church's monarchical structure that's packed with bishops more concerned with advancing their own careers by eschewing scandal than with protecting children from rapists. (Just as it's more concerned with condemning condoms than preventing the spread of AIDS.) The film might have benefitted by taking that even farther (though in its favor it does at least find time to lay blame on the current Pope), or perhaps examining how in the hell a man as despicable as O'Grady comes across as so gosh darn likeable, but Deliver Us From Evil aspires not to be psychologically revealing and only marginally revealing of the Church's complicity, settling instead for a stream of dirty antecdotes, always shocking and gross, balanced out by the tears of those affected. It's easy to feel outraged at such a story, and even easier to exploit that outrage as a filmmaker; that's not to say that Deliver Us From Evil is an easy movie to sit through—it goes out of its way to be disgusting—but it isn't risky, challenging, or enlightening by any stretch of the imagination. "We should all be in the business of protecting children," one interviewer intones. Wow, how illuminating. Berg, who tellingly worked at 60 Minutes before becoming a filmmaker, has fashioned a news magazine piece, though with more prurient details than the FCC would ever permit, that merely parades repulsions around without ever directly confronting a sick and twisted man.

21 May 2007

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)

Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Robert Altman & Brian McKay

Grade: B

Warren Beatty had a tendency in the 1970's to take a lot of self-indulgent roles, from an irresistable hair stylist in the abominable Shampoo to a courageous newspaperman in the uneven Parallax View, so the title role (guess which) in McCabe & Mrs. Miller is something of a departure—despite Beatty's good looks, his character's an out-and-out cad, an unsympathetic and redemptionless anti-hero. For once, Beatty's character is intentionally unlikeable.

That's because McCabe... is a sort of anti-Western,a modernized and revised take on the genre. Altman, as he would do for Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles in The Long Goodbye two years later, strips the West of its romantic trappings—there are no cowboy hats, no John Waynes, no proud masculinity on boastful display. The sets were constructed by Altman's crew in the middle of the wilderness, and they lived in the houses they built or, in the case of many structures, half-built, so there's no denying McCabe & Mrs. Miller's authenticity; overall it's visually stunning, and Leon Erickson's strikingly realistic production design is captured gorgeously in Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography, a combination of soft lighting and hazy filtering that gives the film an antiquated and dreamy look.

But Altman's revisionism goes a bit too far; his characters aren't ambivalently sympathetic or equivocally heroic, just an aggregation of scoundrels, louts and whores. McCabe rides into a frontier mining town, Presbyterian Church, as a stranger—just some Joseph looking for a manger. (Songs from Leonard Cohen's first album constitute the soundtrack, contributing to the poetic delicacy established by Zsigmond.) He walks into the tavern, starts up a poker game, and before you know it the townsmen are working for him, building McCabe his own casino and ramshackle brothel. Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie, over the top), another stranger and sister of mercy, arrives on a whim proposing she be allowed to build and manage a high-class whorehouse, on McCabe's dime of course; McCabe gives in to her, surprisingly and rather quickly, despite the fact that, as he tells tavern-owner Patrick Sheehan, "deals is what I come up here to get away from."

"The minute you arrived in town, I knew you was a man to be reckoned with," Sheehan tells him. "That's a lot of shit and you know it," McCabe fires back. That is a lot of shit, I knew it, too; McCabe's a nobody, and as Mrs. Miller's whorehouse proves more successful than any of his personal ventures, she assumes a more forceful position of leadership in their relationship, reducing the emasculated McCabe to a drunken pimp and vulgar wiseass, a rich man stumbling drunk around his town telling dirty jokes. When representatives from a large Mining Company come to buy him out, his bratty attempts at negotiation are construed, correctly, as obnoxious arrogance. Well, there's more than one way to get his land, and hired guns are dispatched to Presbyterian Church.

Cowardly McCabe doesn't run away, but he does try to take the matter to the newspapers or the courts, trying to find someone, anyone, else to fight his battle for him; ultimately he confronts the contract killers, practically pleading to take any offer the mining company will make. When he insinuates that they've come up to kill him, the enormously tall leader of the hitmen feigns ignorance: "I came to hunt bear," he claims, and the audience, seeing McCabe decked-out in his ridiculous fur coat and looking like a grizzly, knows he's fucked.

A tense and craven shoot-out concludes the film: a film with a hitherto drained and muted palette, comprised exclusively of browns and grays, is suddenly bright white and orange—as a snowstorm rages, men are dishonorably shot in the back while, simultaneously, the church burns allegorically, the two events working in parallel to forge a sad and effective finale. Though Altman's overall approach is unique, it still feels as though he aspires to classical tragedy; but can an effective tragedy have an irredeemable scalawag as its protagonist, with a prurient, opium-addicted harpy as his lover? It's simply detaching. McCabe & Mrs. Miller is, in the end, just a failed experiment, a complete 180 from the standard Hollywood form, when all it needs is just a bit of complexity and ambiguity. Altman's film is simply black instead of white, when what it really ought to be is gray.

16 May 2007

Day Night Day Night

Written & Directed by: Julia Loktev

Grade: A-

A little ways into Day Night Day Night our nameless protagonist, who from here on in I shall refer to as "Green Eyes" (Luisa Williams), is alone in a motel room, waiting for a phone call. To pass the time (next time bring a magazine) she starts toying with the bedside lamp, flipping its power switch off and on and causing the screen to alternate between brightness and total darkness. Day, night, day, night...the scene serves to briefly exemplify the film's primary, underlying oppositional forces: day vs. night, one set of daynight vs. another set of daynight, but, most importantly, the seeming contradiction between being a charming ingénue and a budding suicide bomber.

Green Eyes, the audience comes to slowly realize (if, unfortunately, they haven't read any reviews or seen any trailers) is preparing to detonate a bomb in a presumable act of terrorism, though it isn't spelled out as such; when Day Night Day Night opens, she's cataloguing, in a soft whisper and lightning succession, the various manners in which people die—different diseases and types of accidents—before she declares, "I have only one death and I want my death to be for you." I looked around the nearly empty theater. Who, me? Honey, don't.

But honestly she may have meant me, because there's no indication that she means anybody else; Loktev expressly elides any mention or explanation of the characters' motivations, and every character speaks in an uninflected, Northern-American accent (i.e. they're not clearly Muslim or Middle Eastern, stripping the film of any easy politics.) Green Eyes disembarks from a bus in what we later learn is New Jersey, where she gets a phone call from a deep and anonymous voice (Josh P. Weinstein), giving her instructions as to where to go. She is shuttled by an Asian man (Tschi Hun Kim) to a motel, where she waits alone for quite a while. She cleans herself meticulously, and the soundtrack is piercing, transforming the clipping of toenails into aural Q-tip jabs. In due time her handlers, a handful of men in sinister skimasks, arrive to prep her for her mission. If anything, Day Night Day Night is a deromanticization of suicide bombing, at least its preparatory aspects, exposing them for what they are—relentlessly repetitive and banal, although the film manages to make them more absorbing than they have any right to be. They grill her on the details of the false identity with which they've provided her for what seems like two whole reels, and when filming her video (all suicide bombers have a video) it is a long process of trivial selections: hair up or down? Which jacket? Which background?

Some of these scenes are actually pretty funny, as is an awkward, de facto fashion show Green Eyes puts on, as she tries on various outfits for her handlers—which one is best for her big day? But no one in the theater was laughing, probably because the film has an otherwise grim tone and is too cryptic for an audience to be sure whether laughing at such a film among strangers would be OK; not to mention I was in downtown New York, where suicide bomber comedies are still something of a taboo.

What's so striking about Green Eyes is what a darling she is, and Loktev's debut feature is essentially an experiment in the problematic nature of cinematic identification, using the close-up to establish an intimate connection between audience and star, regardless of her diegetic intentions. It's manipulative, sure, but successful—Green Eyes is endearingly dopey, as she has difficulties using chopsticks or the motel shower; when she picks up a pair of handcuffs, it's only moments before she's clumsily dropped them. She's also exceedingly polite, always apologizing and saying "thank you" to her handlers like an obsequious prostitute; she even asks them to share in her pizza pie, one of many last suppers she enjoys throughout the film. In tight close-up, the camera often just lingers on her face, which gradually softens throughout the film from a tight puss to a soft pie. Loktev and Williams implicate the viewer in the crime she is about to commit by making her character so easy to love. Prepare to grow accustomed to her face.

Loktev employs nearly only close-ups, particularly once she switches locales (more on that in a moment), and Williams has the acting fortitude to match it, endlessly delivering what Béla Balázs called "silent soliloquies" while the tension slowly accrues. While it immediately recalls Lodge Kerrigan's Keane from two years ago—another creepy New York movie told in tight close-up—Williams' face and the way Loktev shoots it brings to mind Falconetti, and the filmmakers clearly mean to draw a mild comparison between her apparent martyrdom and that of Jeanne d'Arc.

Up to about the middle of the movie, Green Eyes keeps behaving as though it's only just any other day; in the morning she uses mouthwash, applies face cream, but the silliness of the preparatory rote is overruled by melancholy finality, as she squeezes or spills each bottle's excess content into the sink before tossing each item into the trashbin. But it's only when her handler describes the pain to come—"it'll be over so fast you won't see or hear anything"—that it, for the first time, becomes achingly clear that she's about to explode herself. And it's a gutwrenching realization.

Honey, don't!

But alas, as passive viewer I have no say in the matter, though by now I'm thoroughly invested; she is soon fitted with a bomb-filled backpack, weighing in at fifty pounds. "Most of weight's in the nails," she's told, and she courteously replies that they can put more in if they'd like, a suggestion that titillates the deaf bombmaker. (Maybe she's not so nice after all? And yet the viewer inexplicably, like a supportive parent, starts to root for her to succeed in whatever she chooses to do.) She then gets on a bus and debarks at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, a short walk from Times Square, her (it becomes clear) intended target.

Look, I'm well aware of a Midtown, tourist-related congestion problem, and I don't care for much of what's playing on Broadway these days, but I'm not sure that bombs are the answer. (Guerilla criticism?) Wandering the streets, looking as lost as little Richie Andrusco in Coney Island in The Little Fugitive, she spends the day buying snacks: a candy apple, two pretzels soaked in mustard, a tomato slice, etc., repeatedly treating herself to one last bite to eat. All the New Yorkers are remarkably kind to her, providing accurate directions, helping her up when she falls down and, in a restroom, advising her not to use a particular toilet because it doesn't flush. There's even a hilarious scene in which she gets hit on by an aggressive suitor, who compliments her: "you got pretty green eyes and shit." It's true, baby; whatcha gonna blow yaself up for?

But all the kindness makes her mission all the more menacing, and the scene in which she stands at a busy street corner and prepares to detonate, fingering her activation switch, is excruciatingly tense, as the soundtrack disappears save for her heavy breathing, and the camera slowly cuts to close-ups of the unaware New Yorkers. (Loktev is adept at creating tension, as in another scene in which Green Eyes waits at a long red light and the beat of a neighboring car's turn signal provides an unbearable tick tock tick tock.)

(spoiler warning) By the end, what should be a horrifying tale of homicidal intent turns into a pitiable story of personal failure; her bomb winds up to be a dud and, not having any method of getting in touch with her handlers, she winds up as just one more lonely transplant who came to New York to make a name for herself and didn't. When her second attempt to detonate the bomb fails, there's a real sense of disappointment in her and in the audience. "Why don't you want me?" she enigmatically asks, sounding like the Salieri of suicide bombers, and in turn an indifferent New York City looks back at her dispassionately. (/spoilers)

Day Night Day Night and its central character ought to be repugnant, but instead they're sympathetic and brimming with pathos. There's something van Sant-esque about its refusal to provide us any causes, acknowledging only effects. Suicide bombers, however abhorrent, are people too, full of contradictions, and the movie, a complicated character study, ferrets out Green Eyes' goodness, almost sweeping her malicious intentions under the rug and out of the way. Irresponsible, maybe, but it's still gripping and fascinating filmmaking.

15 May 2007

Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Directed by: David Lynch
Written by: David Lynch & Robert Engels

Grade: A

When Twin Peaks, the popular '90s television series on ABC, was about to be cancelled due to declining ratings (and, arguably, quality), David Lynch returned, after a long hiatus from the show he had co-created, to direct its final episode. And what a cruel episode it is, packed with cliffhangers, leaving many beloved characters for dead or seemingly possessed by evil spirits, as well as featuring interminable—and hilarious—passages in which nearly literally nothing happens. (For example, there's a shot that lasts several minutes of an old man slowly walking back and forth across a room.) Fiercely loyal fans, who had coalesced into what you could call a "cult following", understandably wanted more, and it looked like they were going to get it: David Lynch announced he would be revisiting the world of Twin Peaks, later saying, "I couldn't get myself to leave [it]." The resulting film, Fire Walk with Me, is a prequel of sorts, taking its name from the line in a quatrain oft-repeated in the television series:

Through the darkness of future past,
The magician longs to see
Once chants out between two worlds:
Fire, walk with me.

That poem is about as obscure as the film itself, which was met at the time of its release by unanimous critical and popular contempt, unsurprisingly. (It was booed at Cannes, where Lynch had won the Palme d'Or two years earlier for Wild at Heart.) Fire Walk with Me is as mean-spirited a "fuck you" to the show's fans as the final episode was, Lynch bitterly purging the show and its characters from his psyche. Appropriately, then, the film opens with the smashing of a television set. Its opening thirty minutes focus on the investigation into the disappearance of Teresa Banks from Deer Meadow, ND, and introduces almost entirely new characters, most prominently Special Agent Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and his Capote-esque partner, played with a blinking problem by Kiefer Sutherland. Deer Meadow is, consciously, the anti-Twin Peaks, a small town entirely devoid of charm: the sheriff's station is uncooperative, hostile and downright rude, as are the patrons and proprietor of a nearby diner, contrasting sharply to Agent Cooper's (Kyle Maclachlan) reception in the first season of the show and Twin Peaks' corresponding characters. "You wanna hear about our specials?" the anti-Norma diner owner asks through her rotting teeth, between puffs of smoke, adding, after a beat, "We don't have any."

Though what starts off as a surreal procedural changes gears a few reels in, becoming a character drama concerning that familiar Lynch theme—a woman in trouble. Lynch, and the film, finally get to Twin Peaks, and as the theme song blares from the speakers any fan of the show's heart jumps—Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is alive, and beautiful as she strolls down the gorgeous tree-lined streets. She meets Donna (Moira Kelly), unfortunately not played by Lara Flynn Boyle due to a scheduling conflict, and the two walk to school together. It's an idyllic sequence, the soft beauty of the suburbs shot in a dreamy haze, reflecting the innocence of its high-school aged characters. When they arrive at school, Laura bids adieu to Donna as she enters the ladies room, where she flops into a stall for a bump of cocaine. Suddenly you have the feeling, this isn't going to go as well as I may have hoped.

Like a lot of Lynch's other work, most notably Blue Velvet with its macrolens shot of nasty black beetles beneath the surface of the green lawngrass, Fire Walk with Me exposes the dark underside of the American small town, stripping it of its typical romantic regard. (The intention is announced right from the start, as fans will notice that the credits roll over blue static, blatantly recalling the blue velvet backdrop of Blue Velvet's opening credits.) Chet Desmond is introduced searching and arresting people outside a schoolbus while the children scream and cry inside, thusly reinventing a familiar icon of Americana as a symbol of pain and fear, or "garmonbozia" in Lynchspeak.

(Spoilers follow; while I believe, unpopularly, that Fire Walk with Me can still function as a stand alone film, seeing it before one goes through the two seasons of Twin Peaks spoils the show's central mystery of who killed Laura Palmer.)

Fire Walk with Me drops most of the television series' beloved humor for a far darker tone; but that only makes sense, because a whimsical quirkiness would be inappropriate for a movie about rape, incest, and filicide. Laura Palmer, homecoming queen, is rapidly unravelling psychologically; consider the following exchange:
Donna: "If you were falling in space, do you think you'd slow down after a while or go faster and faster?"
Laura: "Faster and faster. And for a long time you wouldn't feel anything. And then you'd burst into fire."

It's essentially a quick rundown of Laura's emotional progression; deeply involved in dangerous drug deals and salacious exploits, her freefall's spinning out of control, and she's about to be set ablaze. Laura's leading a double life and can't sustain it much longer; as she says to one of her lovers, James, "your Laura is dead." Pretty soon, everybody's Laura will be dead, in a less figurative and far more literal sense.

When she realizes pages from her diary have been torn out, she rushes tearfully to her friend Harold and explains that BOB must've taken them. "But BOB isn't real," Harold assures her. "BOB is real," Laura explains, "he's been having me since I was twelve." She then reveals that BOB has informed her that he wants to be her, or he'll kill her.

BOB is the central villain in Twin Peaks' mythos, but it's unclear what or who exactly BOB is. Is BOB an evil spirit? A poetic personification of the evil that men do? It depends how you want to read it, but what's certain is that, at least for the time being, BOB is Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), Laura's father; and though one supposes Laura has always subconsciously understood this, when she comes to realize it for certain it's a devestating, disgusting and terrifying scene. Sheryl Lee, who was a "local girl from Seattle" (according to Wikipedia) before being cast to play a dead body on Twin Peaks, shows off an impressive range in an incredible performance that goes through a plethora of emotions and mental states, often within a single scene, from hysterical high school girl to sultry sextress. One moment she is as frail as a sixteen year old, the other as self-assured as though in her late thirties. At times it could be argued that she's a little over the top, but given the nature of the story and the style of the film and its director, her performance is a perfect complement to the material.

Lynch's standard surrealist style is also a perfect fit to the story, a depraved tale of brutality, fear and torment. How else to express the psychological breakdown of a young girl being sexually abused by her father, other than in a dreamlike and abstract style? How can one begin to make literal sense of such aberrant behavior and the toll it takes on its victims? (Look to any Lifetime original movie for the answer.) Fire Walk with Me is an impressionistic nightmare, and features many frightening scenes, of which Leland demanding that his daughter wash her filthy hands, and a traffic jam in which Mike, the one-armed man and BOB's archnemesis, screams at Laura, "it's him! It's your father!" as a deafening cacophony of honking horns sound stand-out the most. "What's the world coming to?" Leland asks rhetorically after the incident. Indeed, sir!

"There's no tomorrow," Jacques Renault (Walter Olkewicz) tells Laura at a strobelit sex club. "Know why, baby? 'Cos it'll never get here." Sadly, that's true for Laura, who ends the film as dead as she was in Twin Peaks' pilot. While the TV show ordinarily kept its violence subtle and off-screen, Fire Walk with Me brings it unabashedly to the forefront, just one more way in which it seems like Lynch is angrily challening Peaks fans. "You want to see more Twin Peaks? How about Leland fucking his daughter?" A man is seen shot in the skull during a drug deal with greusomeness worthy of Croenenberg; Agent Desmond resorts to violence against a Deer Meadow deputy; Leo smacks Shelly in the face; Laura hits James in the face; Heidi has a bloody-nose; a microscope examines the flesh hanging to an excoriated fingernail. Some of those scenes, though not all, are actually pretty funny, but they're symptomatic of the violent vision Lynch has for the film, which culminates, in the unsparing final reel, in Laura's brutal, bloody murder in the traincar at the hands of her (jealous?) father/BOB, after a violent sexual encounter with Jacques and Leo Johnson (Eric DaRe).

Fire Walk with Me does however, thankfully, end on as positive a note as it could, with Laura Palmer crying tears of joy; however, earlier Agent Cooper is describing to his colleague Albert (Miguel Ferrer) the vision of Laura Palmer he has before she's killed (and before he knows who she is.) Albert asks Cooper to describe her: "She's sexually active...she's using drugs...she's crying out for help."

"Damn Coop," Albert responds, "that's half the high school girls in America!" It's a hilarious line, but one that nonetheless indicates the darkness of the film doesn't end when the final reel passes through the projector; the violent debauchery of Fire Walk with Me is Reagan/Bush's America, and we all have our own Laura Palmer.

14 May 2007

28 Weeks Later

Directed by: Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Written by: Rowan Joffe, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo & Jesus Olmo and E.L. Lavigne

Grade: B+

"Everything's fucked," Alice (Catherine McCormack) tearfully declares early-on in 28 Weeks Later, and she couldn't be more spot-on. As the movie opens, she and her husband Don (Robert Carlyle) are hiding in a boarded-up country house, unsure as to the fate of their children, living in constant fear and running out of food; they're some of the few survivors of a rapidly spreading "rage virus" that's decimating the British population, transforming its members into vicious cannibals with an insatiable craving for flesh. (Apart from the whole "undead" aspect, they're essentially zombies.)

Ordinarily, it isn't a good sign when Hollywood produces a sequel, particularly to a horror movie, without any of the original's cast or crew, but 28 Weeks Later, the follow-up to Danny Boyle's effective but uneven 28 Days Later..., is a tense thriller awash in political overtones that holds its own, if not surpasses its predecessor; Weeks is, at least, far more consistent than its antecedent, a generic mash-up. In a craven act of self-preservation, Don abandons his wife to die at the hands of the infected, and circuitously winds up, twenty-eight weeks later, in London, where he is reunited with his children (played by Imogen Poots and Mackintosh Muggleton, who one assumes tumbled out of a fairy tale and into the real world) who were studying abroad when the epidemic exploded. The zombies, by this point, have died-off from starvation, and US-led forces are now slowly repatriating English refugees and survivors, repopulating the United Kingdom.

Though Don is delighted to have his children safely returned to him, the London that surrounds them still bears the somber scars of the recent carnage: rooftops are painted with pleas for help—a pointed reference to the images from Hurricane Katrina, as well as to the end of the first film—and makeshift memorials occupy the middle of the sidewalks. After the opening action sequence, whose camerawork is so blurry and frenzied as to render it undecipherable, 28 Weeks Later becomes a plaintive drama composed of small, intimate moments, with Carlyle primarily shouldering its loads of guilt and melancholy.

A fresh outbreak soon occurrs, though—of course—and the film changes gears; as the occupying American army loses control of the situation, they decide to abandon their previous policy of "selective targeting" and, taking no chances, obliterate every living thing in London. This puts the survivors, then, in something of an unenviable spot, caught between a rock aperch with sharpshooters and a hard place populated by zombies—that is, if the infected don't get them, the snipers, firebombs or chemical weapons will. (The biological attack comes in the shape of a smoky gray cloud, a clever and menacing take on the legendary London fog.) As in Boyle's film, the savagery of the military becomes just as threatening, if not more so, than that of the zombies they're pit against.

"It's for your own protection," the Americans tell the uninfected British civilians as they're herded- and locked-up in quarantine, looking like Dachau Jews. However, it isn't WWII on Fresnadillo's mind, but the current situation in Iraq, and the parallels to that conflict are copious: American-led reconstruction efforts, for example, are run out of a stabilized area called "The Green Zone", while flame-addled streets can't help but recall Falluja. "The rage virus," which turns the population into irrational, blood-thirsty brutes and activates a vicious military campaign, becomes an apt metaphor for the frenzied fear of terrorism pervading the post-9/11 (and post 7/7) West.

28 Weeks Later is a horror movie, but unlike many of its contemptible contemporaries it doesn't have a lot of cheap "boo!" moments; it's not scary so much as it is horrifying to behold—watching terrified civilians scatter in panic and vain as they're indiscriminately picked-off is downright painful. Lacking the technical brilliance of Alfonso Cuarón, the grim, cynical and poundingly appalling 28 Weeks Later is like a poor man's Children of Men, and absent even the tiniest shred of hope. "Everything's fucked," Sergeant Doyle (Jeremy Renner) says late in the film, echoing Alice's sentiment from twenty-eight weeks earlier; time goes on, new approaches are tried, but the situation doesn't change, let alone improve. Like the war in Iraq, there are no happy endings.

The Queen

Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Peter Morgan

Grade: A-

An unusual piece of historical fiction, as with some daring it tackles a current, or at least recent, event—the death of Princess Diana—The Queen plays out as a dramatic conflict between two government officials, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren), that becomes an allegorical showdown between two opposing political courses: progressivism and reactionism. The uneasy contrast is set-up from the start, when newly-elected Prime Minister Blair and his wife, Cherie (Helen McCrory) have an awkward and humorous meeting with the Queen as they stumble through the required rituals and punctilios.

Screenwriter Morgan imagines the behind-the-scenes reactions of each side to the death of the former Princess, and how the entire affair brought them closer together and saved the monarchy (which to me, trapped forever in a 1776 mindset, seems a dubious triumph.) Frears fills in the spaces by adding actual news reports and press conferences from the time, allowing them to almost always dominate the background. (A bit of trivia: documentarian Adam "The Power of Nightmares" Curtis served as the "archive consultant".) As the action begins, the Royal Family is embroiled in Diana-related controversy—pronounced kon-TREV-ess-see, of course—but not too time passes before she is dead in Paris. The bulk of the film is set over the course of the next several days, titles indicating them as they pass, though they feel more like years.

Blair, in a telephone conversation with his speechwriter, notes, "this is gonna be huge," and his people are working on a statement within an hour of the accident. The Royal Family, on the other hand, finds the whole affair a bother, with the Queen's mother noting that Diana is more annoying in death than she was in life. The Queen adopts the familiarly British demeanor of "quiet dignity", avoiding the press and insisting that the whole affair is a private family matter. The Family makes no statements or appearances, cloistered away at their country estate as their behavior slowly evolves into a public relations disaster. The Queen fails to recognize that the private Diana they resented was not the public Diana the people adored, and that their silence is being construed as cruel and cold by a grief-stricken people in mourning.

Blair however, fresh off of a modern election campaign, understands the rules of the 24/7 media coverage world, and is incredulous at the Queen's behavior; "her instinct is to do nothing," he declares, "say nothing!" Although it could be argued that, more sympathetically, she is motivated by a desire to protect her grandchildren, Diana's children, from unscrupulous headlines and the pervasive media circus. Nevertheless, The Royal Family, failing to understand how the world has changed or that they have a public, visible place in the English cultural landscape, do everything wrong in terms of public mourning; they won't even fly the flag over Buckingham Palace at half-mast because it would defy hundreds of years of tradition, and the Blair camp can do little but watch and shake their heads.

Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), however, isn't so foolish; "What the country needs," he tells Mr. Blair, "is a more modern perspective," one they certainly won't be getting from Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. (Americans, especially, would be well-advised to brush up on their knowledge of the Royal Family tree before going in.) Not only won't those fogies make concessions to time-honored traditions on behalf of Diana—who in life caused them nothing but trouble—they seem genuinely confounded as to why they should. It's surprising just how out of touch the Queen is, most strikingly revealed when an advisor informs her that the flowers left at the gate by mourners will interfere with the changing of the guard. She absent-mindedly gives permission to move them, to which her advisor recommends: perhaps they ought to move the changing of the guard instead. Frears, cleverly, often shows The Queen trailed by her loyal dogs, over whom she has absolute control and the power of unquestioned command; they serve as a contrast to her subjects, over whom she is rapidly losing her authority. There has been a "shift in values," she admits later as she plaintively discusses her declining influence. Polls show a fourth of the English public advocating for the monarchy to be abolished.

So in steps Tony Blair, and it's ultimately he who comes out as the champion in The Queen; as his popularity rises in indirect correlation to that of the monarchy's, he chooses, rather than to allow the Royals to destroy themselves, to be the bridge between the people and the Royal Family. After all, he possesses a tremendous respect for them, which Morgan attributes it to a proud Englishness and a mommy-complex. He coins the phrase "the people's princess", which seems to placate the throngs (who Prince Philip compares to feral Zulus), and he also shakes the Royal Family from their fantasy conception of Great Britain and into the reality-based world. (If only he'd been such a friend to George Bush.) As such, though Blair should represent modern liberalism, the film's politics seem deeply conservative; Blair takes a step backwards, saying we can't persevere as a nation without preserving the past, without recognizing what made us a great power in the first place. The Queen may make a lot of political mistakes in the film, but Morgan and Mirren, who took the Oscar, imbue her with profound pathos; unimaginably, I came out of the film with sympathetic respect for the bloody Queen of England! The same goes for Blair who, despite his track record as a warmongering Bushboy, comes out of the film damn near a hero. (Partially to account for such sentiments is that the only anti-monarchist voice in Morgan's dynamite script is Blair's wife Cherie, who comes off so shrilly that it only makes everybody else look better—particularly Blair for being able to put up with and love such a shrew!)

The filmmakers open The Queen with a quote from Henry IV, Part II: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown," and the Shakespeare allusion serves, in part, to acknowledge the albeit old-fashioned literary tradition of historical drama. I doubt the script's historical accuracy, and am uneasy of the politics involved in portraying Tony Blair as "the good guy", but that's not really the point. While it would be impossible for The Queen to avoid any political implications, its success stems from focusing on the interfamily drama and how it symbolizes the struggles within a modernizing England, while eschewing the particulars of the Labour Party's fumbles. To the nonacademic reader, do Elizabethean politics come to mind when reading Henry IV? Morgan's script may not be Shakespeare, but it's a remarkably successful adaptation of the classical tragedy form. Since the revolutionary tragedians of the twentieth century defied the rules set out in Aristotle's Poetics and began writing dramas about a bunch of Willy Lomans, it's become unusual to see a genuinely moving drama about individuals in power. I can't believe I'm saying this, but The Queen reminds us that royalty are people, too...and thusly uses them to examine the ambivalence between history and future that exists within us all.

11 May 2007

Triad Election

Directed by: Johnny To
Written by: Nai-Hoi Yau & Tin-Shing Yip

Grade: A-

In Triad Election’s most memorable scene, a kidnapped gangmember is beaten to death with a sledgehammer by members of a rival gang, then delimbed with a butcher knife, put through a meat grinder, and fed to caged dogs. (This might explain the recent poisoned petfood epidemic that originated in China.) After this long, sickening ordeal, To cuts to a shot of a pile of blood-soaked cash on the floor; the symbolism's a little heavy-handed but, for a film about the parity between criminals, politicians and businessmen, essential.

Set where capitalism, democracy and crooks intersect, Triad Election, the stand-alone sequel to To's previous film, Election, is, narratively, simple enough—a Triad Society, essentially the Hong Kong mafia, is having its biennial leadership election and Lok, the incumbent chairman, is running for a second term against the charismatic Jimmy. Though Jimmy wants to become a legitimate businessman and cut-off his ties to the crimeworld, he is coerced by the government to enter the race; they prefer his level-headedness to Lok's mercuriality, and won't let him do business if he doesn't do what they say. The elections bring out the worst in both sides, as an amicable relationship ("everyone looks up to you," Lok tells Jimmy early on, presumably including himself) turns sour in light of their competition; a string of increasingly brutal kidnappings and killings ensue, each leader surrendering any ethical sense they may have once possessed for the goal of victory. With power and money on the line, anything goes.

It's a film swimming in melancholia, from its dominantly brown and black color scheme to the deliberate pacing, patient editing, and plaintive soundtrack. In essence, Triad Election is a string of brilliant set pieces, alternatingly violent, tense, and funnier that you'd expect; like some other recent Asian genre films (eg. Memories of Murder), it escapes from feeling contrived despite its clear American influences (Gordon Willis should feel flattered) by nailing the essence of the crime picture while sprinkling fresh flourishes in the margins. If Triad Election were an English-language film, it’d be Number One at the Box Office and racking up Oscars. But as it stands, playing in scattered little art houses across the country, it'll be lucky, unfortunately, if anyone sees it at all.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston

Written & Directed by: Jeff Feuerzeig

Grade: A-

Evidenced by the affection espoused for Daniel Johnston's songwriting in The Devil and Daniel Johnston by a congeries of assorted journalists and fellow musicians, I think it would be safe to say that he's what you'd call an "artist's artist", akin to the comedian who makes his fellow stand-ups fall over backstage, but can hardly bring an average audience to chuckle. Not knowing much about Mr. Johnston coming into this film, I'd always had the impression that he was something of an ironic hipster joke, an eccentric who made strange music that you had to at least pretend to like and/or respect in order to maintain an acceptable level of indie-cred; but while that may be what he's become, a fact that the film somewhat suffers for at the end, to hear Johnston's early work—and to see his films and drawings, as he is an artist of multimedia talents—is to bear witness to ineffable raw emotion. I was impressed, but like many first-timers to Daniel Johnston I didn't know what to make of it or how to explain it. A friend of Daniel's avers that he was such a natural artist, he had no real influences; that's of course not entirely true (he adored, for one, the Beatles), but a good attempt at an explanation. A gallery owner says later, "Daniel Johnston is his own movement," which is a little better. I guess what strikes one when listening to those early tapes and live performances is the purity of expression that comes across. I wouldn't call him a genius; perhaps the most accurate description, by comparison, would be to say that he's an unpretentious, manic-depressive, Generation X Bob Dylan—whatever that means. He is either an unprofitable servant, as his mother would say, or, as he preferred, an unserviceable prophet.

But I'm getting a little carried away; The Devil and Daniel Johnston doesn't require one to have an appreciation, though it helps, of Johnston's art, only the capacity for believeing that other people do. (Which shouldn't be hard, given the on-screen gushing from fans, friends and former associates.) More than just a standard portrait of the artist, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a portrait of an artist gone sincerely insane, and the toll that the madness takes on those around him, without the romanticism history usually affords the tales of such deranged men of talent (eg. van Gogh).

Johnston was born into what a friend calls "a Christian fundamentalist Glass family" within which he didn't quite fit, and the story of his childhood to the present is told mostly by making use of his own Super 8 footage and audio recordings—he was quite the prolific documentarian—narrated by recounting friends and family. When of age, and after dropping out of college, Daniel shuffled around his siblings' homes until joining a carnival—seriously, apparently—and winding up in Austin, where he settles for a bit and becomes a controversial darling of the local music scene.

Daniel, however, suffers from manic-depression, and soon his grip on reality begins to loosen; he becomes progressively dangerous and unpredictably violent. His friends of the time, the types to chastise the ignorant figures of history who committed the great and mad artists to mental instituions, are soon confronted with the reality of how difficult is it to care for someone who's genuinely ill. Daniel only gets worse, and spends most of the rest of the film bouncing between hospitals and his parents' care, going on and off his meds. (He also has a brief stint in New York that parallels his time in Austin: he makes friends with the prominent local musicians—in this case, Sonic Youth—becomes popular, and then descends into a madness that his friends can't handle, and which ultimately gets him shipped back to his parents' house in West Virginia after a brief stint in Bellevue.) Comparisons to Brian Wilson are obvious, though imperfect, not least of all in the pronounced weight gain.

Though for the bulk of its running time The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a fascinating depiction of a descent into utter lunacy, given the reality of Daniel's present circumstances there's just no good ending for the film, and it winds up at a sort of anticlimax. Daniel's not in a mental institution anymore, he's actually doing pretty OK; nor has he faded into obscurity, as his notoreity grows in tandem with a fiercely loyal cult following. "In terms of creating a legend," a friend observes, "he's done everything right."

When, occassionally, the filmmakers are at a lack for archival footage, they resort to dramatization; their constructed recreations are always from a subjective point of view, lost within abandoned, depopulated spaces. It reflects that Daniel Johnston, in his madness, is a self-absorbed artist who sees himself as irredeemably detached from ordinary society, but tellingly, the film ends with Daniel in the company of his loving parents—the only reason he's survived thus far, and made it to where he is, is the sacrifice of the people who loved him. (Much credit is especially due to his Broadway Danny Rose style manager.) Daniel Johnston, like many other artists, regular Joes, and psychopaths, is only as strong as the people holding him up.

08 May 2007

Spider-Man 3

Directed by: Sam Raimi
Written by: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi, Alvin Sargent

Grade: B+

The fanboys and the critical establishment have teamed-up, in a rare display of unity, against Spider-Man 3, and not entirely without good reason—in all fairness, it is too long, or rather, depending on how you want to look at it, perhaps not long enough, as it has so many characters and storylines that they all arrive, ultimately, at haphazard and careless resolutions; packing about two movies worth into just one leaves a single film that often feels perfunctorily plotted. It's true, Spider-Man 3 is sloppy, but what's problematic in terms of storytelling is easily glossed over, and the film emerges as gratifying and engaging enough on basic levels to pass muster as exceptional divertissement.

While the first two Spiderman films were as centered around their supervillains as their anthroparachnoid hero, in a manner dangerously close to the faulted style of the ‘90s Batman films, the third focuses the bulk of its attention on the romantic relationship between Peter Parker and Mary Jane. (By doing so, however, it never finds the time to satisfactorily tie its threads together.) That’s not to say the film is for want of action, though, as it regularly bursts into fights and web-slinging flights, but Thomas Hayden Church, as Sandman, and Topher Grace as Eddie Brock/Venom have, actually, largely marginal roles. Primarily, they just seem there to provide a bit of, respectively, action packing and comic relief. It’s unfortunate, because they’re both (surprisingly for Grace) adept in their roles, more in the tradition of Alfred Molina’s tempered turn as Dr. Octopus in the second film and not, thankfully, in the opposing tradition of the first film's campy, movie-spoiling Green Goblin, courtesy of Willem Dafoe. Grace is a palpable prick as Brock, Parker's professional rival, although far less convincing as a serpent-toothed Venom; and Church uses his sonorous voice and emotive eyes, familiar from his performance in Broken Trail, to great effect, adding depth to his otherwise lackadaisically developed character—an escaped convinct turned man-made-of-sand after a run-in with a carelessly placed "particle atomizer". James Franco, as Harry/Green Goblin fils, takes a conking to the noggin early in the film and it, conveniently, gives him amnesia; he forgets his homicidal contempt for Spiderman, a gift not only for his arch-nemesis Peter Parker but for the audience as well—the hit seems to have loosed Franco from the spell of uninteresting acting he’s been under the last couple of years, welcomely abandoning, for the bulk of the movie, his grumbly pout for a wide smile.

That grin is a lead the audience is meant to follow, if they can bring themselves to lighten up as much as the film has. Though Spider-Man 3 is centered on Parker and MJ’s potentially depressing relationship woes, and has its share of what Noel Murray snidely calls Important Conversations, it rarely takes itself too seriously. When an "alien symbiote" attaches itself to Spiderman’s suit, he, and Parker, are taken to the dark side, but Raimi’s concept of an evil transformation is not quite on par with, say, George Lucas’—it consists mainly of dressing like a moody emo hipster—nice bangs—and getting his neighbor to bake him trays of cookies while he chugs a big glass of milk. Spoiling his appetite—what would Aunt May think!? (His badass routine culminates in a ridiculous sequence in a jazz club, which reminded me of the “Remains of the Day” sequence from Corpse Bride, in which Pete upstages Mary Jane by dancing as though participating in a Zoot Suit riot.) Many of Spider-Man 3's detractors have accused it of being unintentionally hilarious, but it seems clear enough to me that it's meant to be funny. Raimi brings the charm of the original comics to the film's foreground, capturing the lighthearted spirit that comic books possessed before they became serious and respectable "graphic novels". Spider-Man 3 hardly attempts to be credibly weighty; it's silly, hokey, kitschy and sappy, devoid of all nuance in favor of a blithe spirit of gee-whizery. (Stan Lee, the man himself, has a charming little cameo, and Bruce Campbell’s appearance as a maître d’ is hilarious, lightening the mood of what would otherwise have been a gloomy scene.)

But Spider-Man 3, for its simple pleasures, is still not as wholly fatuous as I've made out to be; in fact, it subtly packs a rather devious message beneath its puerile superficies. The Spiderman franchise's third installment spills a bit of subtle 9/11 imagery onto the streets of New York: a runaway crane slices through a skyscraper like a hijacked airplane, and Sandman as a traveling cloud of sand whipping around street corners recalls collapsed-WTC-tower dust billowing through downtown. Like Saw III, though not as dreadful or ineffective, Spider-Man 3 is about the virtue of forgiveness; "You want forgiveness? Get religion," Peter Parker snaps malevolently during his dark period, but: Pete can’t get MJ back unless she forgives his stupid mistakes; Harry can't regain his sanity until he forgives Spiderman for the death of his father; Brock will be vanquished by the symbiote unless he forgives Parker for costing him his job; and, most importantly, Pete can’t move on as a man, spider or otherwise, until he is able to forgive the person who killed his uncle. As Aunt May tells Peter, who wants Mary Jane to marry him, a good husband must learn to put his wife ahead of himself; but as long as Pete is consumed by a need for vengeance, his relationship with MJ continues to crumble.

Near the film's end, Spiderman is photographed, with Raimi's tongue stuck firmly in cheek, against a large American flag, and when coupled with the 9/11 imagery Raimi seems, finally, to be suggesting that the U.S., with Spiderman as its representative hero, might be a stronger nation if it, along with its familiar ass-kicking, did a little other-cheek turning every once in a while. "Revenge is like a poison," Aunt May tells Peter; despite all its violence, Spider-Man 3 is a call for peace.

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Written & Directed by: Michael Haneke

Grade: B+

Just in case you’re worried that a movie called “Piano Teacher” might be as stuffy and dull as your typical piano lesson, Haneke quickly proves otherwise; within five minutes Erika (Isabelle Huppert—wow), la pianiste of the title, is shouting, name-calling and pulling her elderly mother's hair. Perhaps that's not much more arresting than repeating major scales, but two or three reels later she is sitting in a private screening room, watching a pornographic film and inhaling the aromas of the booth's previous occupants' used-tissues. How's that? The Piano Teacher, far from priggish, is one of the nastiest, most prurient movies ever committed to digital video outside of the San Fernando Valley, so much so that its distributors felt it necessary to remove almost fifteen minutes from the U.S. DVD.

But one ought to be prepared for such ordure from contemporary French-language films, especially those directed by Michael "Funny Games" Haneke. The Piano Teacher is a character piece, a veritable gift to Huppert who gives everything she's got into her performance as a prim and proper pianist with a deviant desire for penis. A student calls her out, averring, "you're not as indifferent as you pretend"; she may put on the airs of a mean, tough professoress, but secretly, it is slowly revealed, she likes to buy nice dresses that she can’t afford, put on make-up, and spy on the kids at the drive-in as they're awkwardly humping in their backseats.

Huppert was nearly fifty years old at the time of filming and so, presumably, is her character (give or take), but Erika’s mother (Annie Girardot), whom she lives with, treats her like a teenager, constantly calling her when she’s out—"where are you? What are you doing?"—and fighting with her when she gets back in—“where’ve you been? What were you doing?” (Lady, you don’t wanna know.) So it’s no wonder, then, that Erika falls for a younger man, Walter (Benoît Magimel), one of her students—if you could call her stirring salacity and malformed sexual desire “falling”—and their relationship smacks of adolescence and gaga monomania.

Never before, even in Death and the Maiden, has Franz Schubert, Erika and Walter’s favorite composer, inspired such morbid emotions; it seems for a while that Schubert will bring them together or Schubert, specifically Walter’s poor playing of him, will tear them apart. But far more is going on here than just piano playing and, later, awkward bathroom handjobs; evidenced by a mad letter she writes to Walter, what Erika calls “love” is probably, more appropriately, sexual aberration, lust repressed for so long it's become deformed, not to mention contagious as Walter, first repulsed, is soon relishing in her preternatural kinks. (Magimel would be in similar situation a few years later in Claude Chabrol's The Bridesmaid, another film with a Gallic digital aesthetic in which Magimel falls for a batshit broad.)

I don't mean to sound haughty or moralistic about other people's sexual predilections, but The Piano Teacher explicitly exhibits the unerotic side of sexual fantasy; it's the (arguably) subconscious desires behind the appeal of pornography put into action as cinematic sex and the objectification of women are shown, by the film's end, not only to be anti-titillating, but actually rather sickening and sort of scary. In such a way, The Piano Teacher becomes to sex what Funny Games is to violence, at least to a certain extent as the former is far less smarmy and overbearing—and far more Huppert's show than Haneke's—than the latter. Haneke loves to confound expectations, and what began as arousing quickly turns repulsive as, for example, Erika vomits rather graphically from performing oral sex; he seems to be taunting the audience: “you want sex? I’ll give you sex.” Readership, be careful what you ask for from this man Haneke.

02 May 2007


Written & Directed by: Pedro Almodóvar

Grade: A

Not very far into Volver, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz), is standing over a dead body in her kitchen when a knock comes on the front door. It’s her landlord, and he notices a bit of blood on her neck. “Are you hurt?” he asks and, without missing a beat, she replies, “No. It’s women’s troubles.” Women's Troubles, were it not so euphemistically uncouth, would've been an excellent alternate title for Volver; hardly a man appears in it, and when one does, like Cruz's husband Paco (Antonio de la Torre)—who is introduced by a POV shot of his teenage daughter's crotch—it's only to cause trouble.

For women.

Raimunda hides the aforementioned body inside of a freezer in her landlord's neighboring, boarded-up restaurant, which she then decides to, without permission, open up and manage herself. Meanwhile, her sister, Soledad (Lola Dueñas), moves-in with their mother, Irene (Carmen Maura), who incidentally died four years prior (!?), and an old neighbor (Blanca Portillo) from the sisters' hometown is looking for answers to her own mother's mysterious disappearance, which also occurred four years earlier. Like any old melodrama, these plot lines all intersect with heated results, but Almodóvar takes them places Douglas Sirk would never have dared dream, lest the MPAA have shipped him back to Germany. Volver might arguably be a generic "woman's picture", but in its proud portrayal of feministic independence and its frank tackling of taboo subjects it's distinctively modern (there isn't even a standard romantic subplot), an aughties soap opera of sorts, grounded in the doughty performances of its leading ladies. It's a portrait of women more than just emotionally strong—when a refrigerator needs to be moved, it's a pack of women who do it, no muscle-bound men required; and if they don't even need a man to move heavy machinery, what else would they need one for?

Almodóvar's deep and genuine appreciation for women applies to not just their fortitude and derring-do but to their physical beauty as well—and, well, why not? Penelope Cruz has never looked lovlier, but neither has she ever acted better or had a more complex and admirable character to take on. As a contrast, however, the few men who appear as characters in the story aren't particularly appealing, sexually or otherwise: Paco's venereal violence, as exhibited when cruelly masturbating in bed beside a tearful Raimunda or while shooting salacious gazes at his daughter, is abhorrently frightening, while Cruz's father—already dead when the action begins, having died in a fire with his wife—is revealed to have been a philanderer...and worse, the sort of fellow you could imagine sharing a circle of Hell with John Huston's character from Chinatown. He was "born to hurt the women who loved him," according to Irene's ghost—to put it mildly—and it's a description that neatly fits Paco as well. (The only man who comes off well is the production manager of a film crew shooting nearby, a marginal character notable only for his sex, who everyday orders lunch for the cast and crew at Cruz’s restaurant. He’s nice enough, I guess, particularly in relation to Paco, who we see watching his topless daughter furtively and lasciviously through her narrowly opened bedroom door.)

Fires blaze in past and present while ominous easterlies blow-in (having a sort of full-moon effect on the characters' sanities), foreshadowing the arrival of Irene's ghost, the return of the repressed. Meanwhile, the screen is awash in deep red, as though barrels of blood and Cabernet were tossed around the sets and wardrobe to illustrate the fiery, flaring and stirring repressions that infect every character and their relationships to one another. (Almodovar, when developing Irene, Sole and Raimunda, might have had Ezekiel 19:12 on his mind: "[the tree] was uprooted in burning wrath, and made low on the earth; the east wind came, drying her up, and her branches were broken off; her strong rod became dry, the fire made a meal of it." A masculine God would allow such a thing to happen to a feminine tree!) Volver, as its title implies—it's the unconjugated Spanish verb for “return”—is about reappearances, repetitions, and do-overs; about revisiting the unresolved wrongs of the past, as buried sins are exhumed in the present, resurfacing in new yet familiar shapes. Volver opens with Cruz and Soledad cleaning-off their mother's tombstone, but some things can't just be brushed away.

Yet Volver thankfully eschews easy histrionics in favor of something more difficult—subtle though colorful drama. Almodóvar, like the smell of paperback books, is just getting better with age; with Volver, he has finally mastered the melodrama, a triumph he’s been striving after for, arguably, his entire career. Volver is both artificial and credible, and Cruz owns it with her surprising virtuosity, breathlessly portraying an exasperated, put-upon, yet resilient woman with a string of misfortunes too terrible to be true, were it not for her dramatic believability. For all its barbarity, though, for its cynical portrait of an evil world, Volver says it's never too late to undo the wrongs of the past, to make the world right again. Talk about a lot of gorgeous, heart-warming/tear-jerking phony baloney. It's marvelous.