Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Decade's Best Movies: The Best Movies of the Decade

1. I'm Not There. (2007)

Todd Haynes only made two films this decade, but they were worth waiting for. First there was Far From Heaven (2002), his affecting homage to Douglas Sirk's technicolor melodramas, and then this even more ambitious work that's not exactly a bio-pic of Bob Dylan, but is more like a series of myths loosely inspired by his life--sometimes very loosely. Marcus Carl Franklin is a natural charmer as an African-American child calling himself Woody Guthrie, who rides the rails singing songs about the union cause that are twenty years out of date (the story is set in the late 1950s). And Charlotte Gainsbourg and Heath Ledger both deliver fine performances in the story of an actor, Robbie, who becomes famous for playing a Dylanesque folksinger in a movie, and his wife, Claire, an abstract painter, whose relationship runs parallel to America's involvement in Vietnam. In total, there are six different Dylans, none of them uninteresting, and the impossibility of reconciling them all into a single person is what gives this mosaic its enduing tension. Stylistically, Haynes and his cinematographer, Ed Lachman, up the ante in relation to Far From Heaven by filming each segment in a different style, ranging from a spot-on recreation of Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963) to pastiches of the French New Wave and several hippy westerns. Bottomlessly stimulating, this is the only movie I've ever seen four times in theatres.

2. Yi Yi (2000)

Edward Yang's magisterial final film is a real heartbreaker--despite, or perhaps in part because of, his meditative long take style. Some reviewers have compared Yang to Yasujiro Ozu, and the English title of his second feature, Taipei Story (1985), is obviously an allusion to Ozu's work. But in both his earlier masterpiece and this film, Yang's concern with alienation, and the absence of close-ups, bring him closer to Michelangelo Antonioni. (Yi Yi means "individually," and Yang's suggested English title, A One and a Two, is both an allusion to music--a major leitmotif in the narrative--and to the characters' shared sense of isolation from one another.) Set in Taipei at the end of the twentieth century, this film about a severely dysfunctional middle-class family is an uncommonly bleak and pessimistic portrait of modern life, and Yang's contemplative style does nothing to temper the story's seething anger. I remember how mad this movie made me the first time I saw it for a scene in which the family's eight-year-old son, Yang-yang (Jonathan Chang), brings some out of focus snapshots he's taken to school, and is cruelly mocked by his teacher, who snidely remarks to the class that avant-garde art is worth a lot of money. Part of what made me so mad is that, in a society driven by the pursuit of profit, the teacher's hostility towards art is hardly exceptional. This is a movie about the way we live.

3. Dogville (2003)

Lars von Trier is one of the most consistently exciting filmmakers on the planet, and is possibly the boldest and the most confrontational. He began the decade with Dancer in the Dark (2000), an audacious neo-Stalinist musical about a Scandinavian woman (Björk) who's crushed by American capitalism, and ended it with Antichrist (2009), a film that's impossible to be indifferent about. Even better were this Depression-era drama set in the Rockies and its sequel, Manderlay (2005), about slavery in the deep south. (If I have to pick just one for this list, I'll say Dogville because I've seen it four times, while I've only seen Manderlay twice.) Frankly allegorical, both films were shot on a bare soundstage with chalk outlines to represent streets and buildings, and Dogville gets a lot of mileage out of symbolic fruit. At three hours, this tale of a woman, Grace (Nicole Kidman), on the run from gangsters, who's exploited by the wretched townspeople who agree to help her, is a virtuoso piece of storytelling, gripping and stately, building steadily to its chilling climax. It's also perversely funny in the way it plays the heroine's suffering for dark comedy. Papa Fassbinder would be proud.

4. demonlover (2002)

Olivier Assayas is a director whose restless intelligence is manifested in his restless style, which is characterized by a probing handheld camera that's alive and alert, not merely a passive recording device but an active participant in the story. This dark and seriously deranged thriller begins as a lurid yarn about a cutthroat multinational run by Amazon fashionistas that distributes anime porn over the internet, but halfway through, the narrative goes haywire with the accumulating ambiguities making it increasingly unclear just what the heck's going on in this movie. Five years later, Assayas tried to do something similar in Boarding Gate (2007) to lesser effect, but here he's in total command of his material even as the plot seems to spin wildly out of control. Or maybe he's really not and I'm just misreading the film, but either way, I was captivated throughout. A bold, brilliant, bewildering mind-fudge of a movie.

5. La Pianiste (2001)

This elegantly clinical character study by Michael Haneke is especially noteworthy as it contains the best performance yet by Isabelle Huppert, my favorite actor of all time. Adapted from a novel by Elfreide Jelinek (which I haven't read), it's about a Viennese piano teacher, Erika (Huppert), who's leading a double life, presenting herself as the living embodiment of bourgeois respectability while acting out her perverse impulses in secret. And Huppert, who's often pegged as an ice queen (she has a hilarious cameo in David O. Russell's I ♥ Huckabees [2004] as an existentialist philosopher), is totally convincing at portraying both sides of this character. There's a wonderful scene in which Erika runs into some of her teenage students at a sex shop, and lectures them on their disgusting behavior so that they're too embarrassed to ask her the obvious question of what she herself is doing there. Benoît Magimel is almost equally impressive as Walter, the cocky piano prodigy who sets out to seduce this reserved older woman as a kind of macho challenge, and gets in way over his head. And Annie Giradot is truly terrifying as Erika's monstrous mother, with whom she shares a bed. This is a film about extreme, shocking behavior, but Haneke's approach to the material is ferociously coolheaded, so that we come to empathize with Erika instead of merely recoiling from her.

6. Marie Antoinette (2006)

I wasn't a fan of The Virgin Suicides (1999) or Lost in Translation (2003), but Sofia Coppola finally won me over with this sensuous bio-pic of the last queen of France, which is a major step forward in terms of both subject and style. After the lazy and dehumanizing Japanese stereotypes in her (Oscar-winning) second feature, here Coppola does something unexpected and kind of radical in attempting to empathize with Marie Antoinette (Kirsten Dunst) as a human being--something that upset a lot of people on both sides of the political spectrum, who would apparently prefer a simpler, less nuanced version of history that ends with a good, clean beheading. Beyond that, this is a feast for the senses. Coppola's mise en scène--the soft, naturalistic lighting, candy coloured costumes, and Versailles locations--is exquisitely beautiful, and the film boasts the most radical sound mix of any Hollywood picture of the last decade. This is an uncommonly quiet film, and in many scenes the dialogue is barely above a whisper (I found myself leaning forward in my seat and really listening to the film in a way that I don't often do at the movies). So when the rabble start to assemble outside the palace, the contrast is overwhelming (an effect somewhat diminished when watching the film on DVD). This would make a great double bill with Eric Rohmer's L'Anglaise et le duc (2001), which offers a more overtly political (and unapologetically monarchist) take on the French Revolution.

7. Femme Fatale (2002)

It's a neat paradox that the more Brian De Palma borrows from other directors, the more singular and personal his films become (something you might also say about Haynes). A work of consummate craftsmanship and inspired goofiness, this daffy thriller tips its hat to everyone from Louis Feuillade and Claude Chabrol to Luis Buñuel and Andrei Tarkovsky, but the extreme high angles, dramatic slow motion shots, and complicated split-screen sequences are pure De Palma--not that he invented any of these techniques, but brought together, they add up to a unique sensibility. Opening with an improbably elaborate jewel heist at the Cannes Film Festival, the audaciously nutty story line embraces obvious devices like coincidence and mistaken identity, but De Palma truly outdoes himself in the film's final scenes, which don't make any logical sense, but as pure filmmaking come together with clockwork precision. If there was ever an illustration of Stanley Kubrick's description of a movie director as a kind of taste machine, this is it.

8. In the Mood for Love (2000)

Not an authentic recreation of Hong Kong in the 1960s but a throwback to the glamour of films from that era, Wong Kar-wai's tale of unrequited romance is as visually ravishing as it is poignant. The screen is awash in deep purples and reds; the camera's languorous gaze regards the characters' daily rituals in slow motion; and Nat King Cole croons smoothly on the soundtrack. Maggie Cheung is dressed to impress, and Tony Leung smokes and smokes and smokes. They play neighbors who discover their spouses are schtupping on the sly, and together begin to speculate about how it started, each one acting out the part of the other's spouse, like a dress rehearsal for an affair of their own that never quite happens. Both actors give subtle performances as people who never say exactly what they mean. Early in the film, they both individually suspect that hanky-panky is occurring, and notice the cautious, indirect way that Leung tries to broach the subject. Undoubtedly, the decade's greatest love story.

9. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000)

A bleakly beautiful, beautifully bleak meditation on order and chaos, adapted by Béla Tarr with his usual collaborator, László Krasnahorkai, from the latter's 1989 novel, The Melancholy of Resistance (which I haven't read), this awe-inspirng masterpiece is nearly two and a half hours long, but consists of just thirty-nine unbroken takes, most of them elaborately choreographed tracking shots. Set in a crumbling Hungarian backwater ruled by suspicion and rumor, the story is set in motion by the arrival of a traveling exhibition of natural wonders, including a giant whale carcass on the back of a truck, and an anarchist prince whose followers soon descend upon the town, gathering in the main square to wait for his instructions. In response, a group of influential townspeople form a committee for the restoration of order. Tarr has said that the film was a response to the war in Bosnia, and like all his movies, it's uncompromisingly serious and unfashionable, so it's no wonder that he only gets to make a film every seven years. But as Roberto Rossellini said of Charlie Chaplin's A King in New York (1957), this is the work of a free man.

10. The Holy Girl (2004)

Remarkably, this absorbing and singular Argentine film was only the second feature by writer-director Lucrecia Martel, who with La ciénaga (2001) and this film established herself as one of the most distinctive stylists now working. Her shallow, claustrophobic compositions are striking for the way she crops her actors' faces and bodies, which are constantly spilling out over the sides of the image, as if there's too much going on to get it all in frame. Yet, far from being congested, her staging of actors is surprisingly elegant (and elegantly surprising) so that we always know exactly who we're supposed to be looking at in each shot. And seeing the film again recently, I was reminded of Martel's light touch with actors. There's a lovely scene in which the heroine's mother, Helena (Mercedes Morán), is flirting with a married man, Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), who's staying in her hotel for a medical conference, when she gets a call from her ex-husband. "It's Manuel," the bartender informs her. "Which Manuel?" she asks, knowing perfectly well who it is. "Your ex-husband Manuel." Martel's third feature, The Headless Woman, premiered at Cannes in 2008, and I can't think of any film I'm more eagerly anticipating.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Geeking Out on Mulholland Dr.

"'The cinema,' said André Bazin, 'substitutes our gaze for a world that corresponds to our desires'."

This quote, read by an off-screen narrator at the beginning of Jean-Luc Godard's greatest film, Le Mépris (1963), is a good entry point into David Lynch's Mulholland Dr. (2001)--not quite his best film but close (Heather says Inland Empire [2006], but I'm partial myself to Eraserhead [1977])--as its two-part structure is virtually an illustration of the different ways this quote can be interpreted (and because the Angelo Badalamenti theme over the credit sequence is almost a dead ringer for George Delerue's score for Godard's film). Le Mépris playfully turns Bazin's quote on its head, so that "a world that corresponds to our desires" doesn't mean a world of easy gratification but a confirmation of our worst fears--namely, that a loved one would cease to love us--and Lynch's film, which is no less of an epic break-up movie, gives us both sides of the equation. In the movie's first and longest part, an aspiring actress, Betty (Naomi Watts), moves into a swanky apartment, is discovered by a casting director, and falls in love with a glamourous amnesiac, Rita (Laura Elena Herring). Betty's meteoric rise is contrasted with the decline of a unibrowed Hollywood director, Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), who in the same day loses control of his film, and is left by his wife for the pool man (Billy Ray Cyrus, in a surreal cameo), which is retroactively recoded as wish-fufillment in the second part of the movie when Rita (who's now called Camilla Rhodes) leaves Betty (now called Diane Selwyn) for Adam, and to add insult to injury, Adam is rewarded with a fat settlement in his divorce ("I got the pool, and she got the pool man"). This part of the film begins with Diane waking up in a much dingier apartment than the one where Betty was living, and it's Camilla who's discovered as an actress, landing the lead role in Adam's film, The Sylvia North Story. The important thing to note is that neither part of the movie is more real than the other.

The other important reference point in relation to Mulholland Dr. is Fritz Lang's greatest film, Spies (1928)--another movie in which some of the characters have multiple identities. At the beginning of Lynch's film, Rita is about to be killed in a limo on Mulholland Dr. (we learn later for stealing money from the mob) when the parked car is hit head-on by another vehicle, and Rita walks away from the accident with no physical injuries but total amnesia. (Rita is the name she gives herself after Rita Hayworth.) The efforts of the gangsters to track her down unfold at the same time, but apparently unrelated to, their taking control of Adam's film. Pulling the strings behind both operations is a single all-knowing mastermind, Mr. Roque (Michael J. Anderson), who like Haghi (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the master criminal in Lang's film, is confined to a wheelchair. And the office where Mr. Roque receives information from and gives orders to his henchmen is almost as anonymous and abstract as Haghi's. In keeping with the generic abstraction of Lang's film, where it's never explained what's in the stolen documents, Lynch's film never explains why Mr. Roque is so keen on having Camilla Rhodes (played in the first part of the movie by Melissa George) star in Adam's film, or why he decides to shut down production on The Sylvia North Story instead of simply replacing Adam. Additionally, other gaps in both films add to the sense that their villains are omnipotent: In Lang's film, a soldier claiming to have seen Haghi is promptly shot by an unseen assailant, while the gangsters in Lynch's film are some how able to track Adam to the dodgiest downtown crack house dive hotel imaginable, even though he payed the improbably friendly concierge in cash. However, in the second part of the movie, Mr. Roque is effectively replaced by a hit man (Mark Pellegrino) that Diane pays to bump-off Camilla using the money that Rita stole from Mr. Roque. Needless to say, the movie doesn't explain how Diane got this money, but as part of an overall system of rhymes between the film's two parts, it fits cinematically even if it doesn't make any sense literally.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are: Trier and Herzog

As a rule, Lars von Trier's English language films are a lot more ambitious and interesting than his movies in Danish, where one gets the impression that he's merely keeping himself occupied in between bigger projects. Coming four years after Manderlay (2005), his boldly un-P.C. allegory for slavery in America, and two years after The Boss of it All (2007), a slight and uneven office comedy, Trier's Antichrist (2009) is certainly audacious and singular, as much for its style as its content (although it's the latter that caused such a stir at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and indeed, everywhere else the film's been shown). However, I'd hesitate to call this A-squad material because I find its subject--or perhaps I should say the film's treatment of the subject--has less resonance than Breaking the Waves (1996), Dogville (2003), and Manderlay.

Like most of Trier's films, Antichrist alternates between two diametrically opposed shooting styles: A pseudo-documentary style characterized by a handheld camera, sync sound, and jump cuts (though it seemed to me there were fewer jump cuts here than in Trier's previous films, particularly Dogville), and a more dreamlike style characterized by a stable camera, slow motion (according to David Bordwell's blog entry on the film, some shots were filmed at one thousand frames per second), and in place of sync sound, off-screen dialogue and a low Lynchian droning. (Additionally, the bookending sequences, which are also shot in slow motion with a stable camera, are distinguished from the rest of the film by being photographed in black and white, and scored to a baroque aria.) The film is about a man (Willem Dafoe) and a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose infant son, Nick, falls from an open window and dies in the opening sequence while they're schtupping in the next room. At the funeral, the woman collapses, and when the man goes to visit her in the hospital, Trier boldly cuts 180 degrees on a close-up of the man's face in profile, so that he seems to jump from one side of the 'Scope image to the other. When Trier cuts back to the woman, they both seem to be looking in the same direction, at something off-screen left, rather than each other. After the woman is released from the hospital, the man--a therapist who thinks he knows better than his wife's doctors--decides to take her, for therapeutic reasons, to the place she fears the most: the garden outside of Eden, their cabin in the woods. On the train ride there, the man asks her to imagine herself arriving at Eden and becoming one with nature. And the sound of their conversation continues over a scene representing her fantasy, shot in slow motion and accompanied by an ominous rumbling on the soundtrack. The first style is associated with reality, while the second is linked to dreams and flashbacks, but as the film continues, the line between fantasy and reality becomes increasingly ambiguous.

The film is dedicated to Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian master of mysticism, misogyny, and mist (all of which are highly pertinent to Antichrist), but the dead white guy who seems most relevant as a reference point is Carl Theodor Dreyer, whose Day of Wrath (1943) is about a witch hunt in 16th century Denmark. In keeping with the characters' puritanical worldview, Dreyer's film never questions the existence of witches and associates nature with evil--an outlook shared by Antichrist. Roger Ebert has been aggressive in pushing the interpretation that the film is about a universe created, not by God but by the Devil, which is consistent with the woman's belief that nature is evil, and therefore, human nature is evil as well. (It could also be read as a fairy tale with a cruel father and an ambiguous mother.)

However, unlike Dreyer's film, and Trier's earlier Breaking the Waves, about an isolated religious sect on the northern coast of Scotland during the sexual revolution, Antichrist is set, like F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), in no particular time or place, so the characters exist in a historical vacuum. Despite its 16th century outlook, Dreyer's film is also something of a proto-feminist statement about how women are oppressed by patriarchy. (When the heroine discovers that her late mother was a witch, she's sexually aroused by the idea that a woman could have such power.) And in Breaking the Waves, set during the time when the feminist movement was in full swing, the heroine's behavior confounds not only the rigid church elders, but the more secular and progressive characters as well (and poses a comparable challenge to viewers). I'll need to see Antichrist again to be sure, but it seems like this time Trier is siding with the church elders.

Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant—Port of Call: New Orleans (2009) is one seriously loopy movie. Although it doesn't slow down long enough to lull the viewer into the same druggy stupor as Herzog's '70s films, its story is trippy enough all by itself; as he did in his earlier remake of Nosferatu (1979), Herzog reinvents Abel Ferrara's anguished Bad Lieutenant (1992) as a stoner comedy. (There's a sequence in a retirement home, which I won't describe here because you absolutely have to see it for yourself, except to say that it made me laugh as much as anything in Todd Phillips' The Hangover [2009]--maybe more.) Then, to add an extra dash of weirdness to the proceedings, the more desperate its crack-smoking cop protagonist becomes, the more he starts to talk like Jimmy Stewart. The tension between the constraints imposed by working in a commercial genre with big stars, and Herzog's yearning to sail off into the wild blue yonder of cine-craziness, is only slightly less apparent here than in his stylistically bland Discovery Channel co-production Grizzly Man (2005), but in light of how compelling and funny this film is, maybe it's churlish to complain.

Considering the huge differences between the two films in terms of character and plot (to say nothing of tone), Herzog's Bad Lieutenant feels closer, in some respects, to a crypto-remake of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956) than it does Ferrara's bellow of Catholic angst. For starters, Ferrara didn't give his character a backstory or even a name; instead of trying to explain his behavior, Ferrara's lieutenant (Harvey Keitel) simply was. Here, the screenplay by William Finkelstein not only gives the lieutenant a name, Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), but a more detailed backstory as well. Like Ed Avery (James Mason) in Bigger Than Life, Terrence is diagnosed early in the film with an incurable condition that will require him to take medication for the rest of his life. In Ray's film, Avery goes cuckoo for Cortisone and tries to kill his son; here, six months after his doctor prescribes him Vicadin for chronic back pain, we see Terrence snorting a little cocaine in his car before walking into the scene of a murder. Later, we learn that Terrence's father is a recovering alcoholic. (Like father, like son, we're obviously meant to conclude.) Also, like Bigger Than Life, Herzog's film has an ambiguous ending, since in each movie the protagonist will have to continue taking drugs indefinitely to treat his condition. The sinister implication of both films is that the characters were already bad, and the drugs merely exacerbated an existing situation. Other changes to the story are more dubious, like the substitution of a pair of wretched Latino rapists in Ferrara's original for a flashy black gangster (Xzibit) in Herzog's remake, which is indicative of how the material has been Hollywoodized in certain respects.

Stylistically, this doesn't look very different from a Hollywood feature, apart from Herzog's taste for the occasional handheld sequence shot--here broken up by jump cuts that don't reappear elsewhere in the film. Herzog's touch is particularly evident in the scene where Terrence tells his girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes), a story about his childhood, which is filmed in an unbroken take (without jump cuts) with a handheld camera, and set to a score by Mark Isham doing his best Popul Vuh impersonation. But what's most Herzogian about this scene, which recalls the best moments in Herzog's non-fiction work, is the way it invites the viewer to fill in the gaps with their imagination. And then there are the reptile point of view shots, and in particular the already famous scene where Terrence sees some iguanas on a table that no one else believes are there. Herzog employs a wide angle lens to distort the space of the room, and the story comes to a complete halt as Terrence just stares at the iguanas while an old blues song plays on the soundtrack--a moment that feels closer to the work of Herzog's American disciple Harmony Korine than Herzog himself. (Making this scene even stranger is the fact that none of Terrence's coworkers seem even remotely concerned that he's apparently hallucinating. As in a later sequence where he sees the soul of a dead man dancing, the obvious explanation is that Terrence is straight-up tripping; but a crazier, more Herzogian explanation is that the world is an illusion and Terrence is simply being given a glimpse into the reality of dreams.) But apart from occasional non-narrative interludes like these, the film is, on the whole, a fast moving piece of storytelling, lacking the meditative quality of Herzog's German films, like Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) and Heart of Glass (1976).

It's curious how, in a matter of only a few years, Herzog has gone from being a slightly marginal cult hero to something like a bankable Hollywood director. It all started when Grizzly Man became an art house hit and was shown endlessly on the Discovery Channel. I was in the minority in finding it a disappointment, and passed on Herzog's subsequent Rescue Dawn (2006)--a fictionalized version of the story Herzog told in his already pretty conventional Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)--and Encounters at the End of the World (2007), his Antarctic documentary which was nominated for an Academy Award. My immediate knee-jerk conclusion was that Herzog had been tamed enough to be embraced by the mainstream, and I probably would've passed on The Bad Lieutenant as well had it not gotten such ecstatic reviews coming out of TIFF.

My own enthusiasm for The Bad Lieutenant has forced me to rethink some of my biases, but as with Grizzly Man, its craziness is largely a matter of pro-filmic content rather than anything Herzog's doing behind the camera. And even then, the delirious hyperbole of the story is tempered somewhat by leftover obligations to the detective genre, like a sub-Peckinpah slow motion shoot out, which was less the case with Ferrara's original despite it being less ostentatiously weird. Also, one misses the the presence of real people in Herzog's films, as opposed to actors, which was so effective in Invincible (2001), where he contrasts Zishe Breitbart's total lack of guile as the simple strong man with Tim Roth's performance as the sinister illusionist. As with Fritz Lang, another German who made some impressive films in Hollywood (but nothing to rival Die Nibelungen [1924], Metropolis [1927], Spies [1928], M [1931], and The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb [1959]), Herzog's talent seems diluted rather than enhanced by his access to the resources of a Hollywood studio.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Montreal Film Diary

Coming six years after her previous film, In the Cut (2003), a commercial thriller starring Meg Ryan that was panned by nearly everyone and which I haven't seen, Jane Campion's Bright Star (2009) is striking in part for the absence of both big stars and an original score (and for the most part, music in general)--the very elements that made The Piano (1993) so commercial. Not that I missed them, mind you. This intimate and subtle film about the unrequited romance between the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) shows that Campion is perfectly capable of getting on without either. The scene where Keats and Brawne kiss for the first time literally made my heart race because the film up till then had been so chaste. And their final goodbye, before Keats sails for Italy (where he would die at the age of twenty-five), is devastating because neither party has any illusions about his coming back. Such exquisite agony doesn't require musical accompaniment.

What's the point of allegory? Does Neill Blomkamp, who directed District 9 (2009), really think that the best way to confront South Africa's Apartheid history is to cloak it in the trappings of an SF-action movie, or is he merely being opportunistic? In the film, aliens arrive in Johannesburg, and a sinister multinational corporation moves them into a slum outside the city. Early on, in an obvious allusion to Apartheid, we see signs forbidding the aliens to enter certain areas. To point out that the film's allegorical approach dehistoricizes Apartheid (the film's backstory has no equivalent for British colonialism) almost seems beside the point, since Blomkamp isn't particularly committed to pursuing the parallels between his story and Apartheid anyway. Unlike the aliens in the film, South Africa's black population didn't have any cool space weapons, and once the characters start talking about (and inevitably using) said weapons, the Apartheid allegory is dropped for the sake of mindless splatter. This shift is even reflected in the style of the film, which begins as a pseudo-documentary with intentionally bad sound and talking head interviews. Gradually, however, this self conscious approach gets phased out in favor of a more conventionally invisible style that at times mimics the look of a video game (a soldier's point of view shot, with a gun protruding into the frame, looks like something out of Doom). The implication is that no one wants to see a film about Apartheid unless it has a ton of violence, and that even if people did, Blomkamp had no real desire to make one.

An anguished cry of "Oy vey!" into the metaphysical abyss, Ethan and Joel Coen's A Serious Man (2009) starts out semi-realistically, but grows increasingly surrealistic as its hero, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stulhbarg), a Jewish physics professor from the midwestern United States, is hit with one crisis after another. Eventually, the accumulation of misfortune becomes a kind of referendum on the universe itself: Is there some kind of divine purpose and meaning in Larry's suffering, or is everything one big cosmic accident? More than anything, Larry desires certainty. Where exactly is the property line separating Larry's lawn from that of his deer hunting Aryan neighbor? Did a South Korean student try to bribe him after failing the midterm? Is his wife leaving him, or are they getting back together? In desperation, Larry turns to a series of rabbis, each one hilariously less helpful than the last. When one rabbi tells him that one can't know everything, Larry fires back that he doesn't seem to know much of anything. The point seems to be that true wisdom consists of accepting how little you really know, and learning to live with this uncertainty.

As impressive as the Coens' earlier films are, with Burn After Reading (2008) and now this film, they've really become master stylists. The confidence and Kubrick-like precision of their framing and editing is almost scary. There's a simplicity and elegance in the way they set up each shot; nothing is done merely to grab our attention. The film has the same rightness of each shot that one finds in great classical studio films by Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, and more recently, James Gray. Which is not to say that their filmmaking lacks flamboyance. If anything, this is probably the weirdest movie the Coens have ever made. It opens with an entirely self contained sequence involving a Dybbuk (Fyvush Finkel), which is shot in a narrower aspect ratio and with an extremely shallow depth of field, like an early sound picture. Larry's dreams are so whacky they make the dream sequences in The Big Lebowski (1998) look downright sane. And the ending is radically ambiguous, upping the uncertainty level from No Country for Old Men (2007) and Burn After Reading. I don't expect to see a better American movie this year.

An Education (2009), the second English language feature by Denmark's Lone Scherfig, is obviously an improvement in craft and storytelling on her earlier films, Italian for Beginners (2000) and Wilby Wants to Kill Himself (2002), even if the screenplay by Nick Hornby demands almost as little of the viewer as District 9, underlining points that have already been well established. As David, the cultured creep who's such a smooth operator that he not only seduces Jenny (Carrey Mulligan), a bland and anemic-looking piece of shiksa jailbait, but her parents as well, Peter Sarsgaard acquits himself nicely. But his mate's girlfriend, Helen (Rosamund Pike), is forehead-slappingly stupid, and not in a funny way like Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) in Singin' in the Rain (1952). And we get a reminder of this fact in every single scene in which she appears, which is surprisingly often for such an unimportant character. When Jenny's grades start to slip in Latin, Helen reassures her that in fifty years it'll be a dead language anyway (the film is set in 1961). Ho, ho. And I'm afraid that Alfred Molina, as Jenny's fuddy-duddy father; Emma Thompson, whom it seems hasn't had a good role since Remains of the Day (1993); Olivia Williams from Rushmore (1998) in schoolmarm overdrive mode; and Sally Hawkins for all of thirty seconds fare little better.

Still, this is decently engaging, though not enough to justify the ecstatic reviews it's been getting, which would only make sense if every reviewer in North America were somehow Mulligan's over-supportive father--something like that movie Twins (1988), where Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger had seven fathers. I kept waiting for David to do something really horrible to Jenny, to damage her permanently some how, but it just never happened. (That the film is based on a memoir by Lynn Barber begs the question: How on earth did she fill an entire memoir with what would make for, at best, an okay short story?) If ever a film needed a rewrite by Lars von Trier, this is it.

Monday, October 5, 2009

On Maturity or: Quentin Tarantino's Arrested Development

If you haven't read David Bordwell's thoughts on Inglourious Basterds (2009) in the second part of his blog entry, "(50) Days of Summer (Movies), Part 2," I highly recommend that you do as it's plainly the best and most detailed analysis of Quentin Tarantino's new film that I've come across. I was a little surprised to see Bordwell call it Tarantino's most "mature" film since Jackie Brown (1997), but what he meant is simply that the film "exploits [Tarantino's] strengths in fresh but recognizable ways." While I can't find anything here to disagree with, I must say that's not how I would've defined maturity in the cinema, and it's got me thinking about some different ways of looking at the issue.

Personally, I tend to think of maturity as an attitude towards content. A film might be considered mature for its philosophical outlook (reviewers routinely praise certain movies for their enlightened humanism), or its representation of history. Robin Wood likes to quote the literary critic F.W. Leaves, who thought that great art was characterized by an "intelligence about life." None of these definitions even remotely apply to Inglourious Basterds, so as much as I admire the film, I can't figure out why Bordwell regards it as less juvenile than Tarantino's previous revenge fantasy, Boulevard de la mort (2007), which he evidently hated.

Oh, the Humanism!

In a defense of Jafar Panahi's Offside (2006)--an exuberant comedy from Iran about a group of teenage girls who get caught trying to sneak into a soccer match disguised as boys--Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, "What some critics are calling sentimentality may be simple humanism. Panahi refuses to make a villain out of anyone and I'm not persuaded that demonizing the mullahs who enforce gender apartheid (which bans girls from attending soccer matches, among other things) would have made us any wiser." In other words, Panahi's film rejects the simplistic, black-and-white morality that Tarantino requires to even function.

Tarantino's last three movies have all had villains who are soft-spoken, civilized psychopaths. In Kill Bill (2003-04), the title character (David Carradine) was capable of making a sandwich for his young daughter as well as shooting the heroine (Uma Thurman) in the head on her wedding day. Boulevard de la mort is about a movie stuntman and serial killer (Kurt Russell) who's similarly soft-spoken and genial when he isn't murdering women with his car. And in Inglourious Basterds, we not only get Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who recalls Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) in The Godfather (1972) when he's making a French farmer an offer he can't refuse, but also the young German officer, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who spends much of the film politely (if insistently) attempting to court the movie's French heroine, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), unaware that she's Jewish. Eventually both characters drop the civility and go totally berserk, each attacking a different blonde woman--Landa at the discovery of a spy; Zoller at Shosanna's rejection of him. Given the film's numerous allusions to fairy stories, perhaps Tarantino sees these characters as big bad wolves dressed in Grandma's clothing. (Is Shosanna's dress supposed to remind us then of Little Red Riding Hood?)

Histoire(s) du cinéma

One of the things that the cinema can do is represent history, which it seems to me often supplies the most potent subjects for any kind of art. Some of my favorite films of the last few years have been Philippe Garrel's Les Amants réguliers (2005), about the events of May '68; Paul Verhoeven's Black Book (2006), about the Dutch Resistance during World War II; Todd Haynes' I'm Not There. (2007), a sort of bio-pic of Bob Dylan; Rachid Bouchareb's Indigènes (2006), another World War II film, this one about North African soldiers fighting for France; Lars von Trier's Manderlay (2005), about slavery in America; Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (2006); Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's Persepolis (2007), adapted from Satrapi's autobiographical comic book about the Iranian Revolution; Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life (2006), about the construction of the Three Gorges Dam; André Téchiné's Les Témoins (2007), about the AIDs crisis; and Pablo Larraín's Tony Manero (2008), set in Chile during the Pinochet-era. All of the above function as myths about the past.

This kind of myth-making is the explicit subject of Inglourious Basterds. In the first chapter ("Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France"), Landa tells the farmer that he's thrilled about the nickname he's been given by the French populace, "The Jew Hunter"; he's literally become a legend in his own time. Similarly, one of the Basterds has earned the nickname "The Bear Jew," and word of his earlier exploits is what led to the Americans recruiting him in the first place. Myths aren't the same as reality, but I'm a little skeptical of Tarantino's motives for rewriting history in the way that he does here.

When Edward Zwick's Defiance (2008)--which I haven't seen--was released last winter, its director wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times stating that one of his reasons for making the film was to replace the image of Jews as victims during the Holocaust with, I guess, Daniel Craig kicking ass in the forest. And Tarantino has upped the ante here by fabricating a myth about Jews brutalizing Nazis. In any historical event, there's always more than one truth (Zwick's film is, as they say, "Based on a true story"), but Tarantino, by demolishing any pretense of accuracy, lays bare the motive for representing Jews as macho action heroes: He wanted to make a film about the Holocaust that makes us feel good.

Of course, Steven Spielberg did the same thing in Schindler's List (1993), a film that I love. At least Tarantino is being honest about what he's doing, beginning with "Once Upon a Time...," while Spielberg's use of onscreen text to convey factual information--as well as Janusz Kaminski's naturalistic black-and-white cinematography, and the appearance of real Holocaust survivors in the film's final sequence--make the movie feel almost like a documentary. (Of course, documentaries are myths too.) For better and for worse, Inglourious Basterds ultimately has less in common with Schindler's List than The Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), including an equivalent for the close-up of the villain's face melting. (Don't get me wrong: I like The Raiders of the Lost Ark a great deal, but "mature" isn't one of the words I'd use to describe it.)

Life, and Nothing More...

The phrase "intelligence about life" could be interpreted any number of different ways, but what Wood means specifically are questions of value: What do we live for? What should we live for? What might we live for? One of his favorite movies is William MacGillvray's Life Classes (1987), which ends with a self-referrential sequence set in a shopping mall. On a TV set under a banner reading "Clearance," we see the film's leading lady, Jacinta Cormier, giving an interview as herself at the premiere of Life Classes, which we're told was sparsely attended. For Wood, this is a profound statement about the debased values of capitalism, which reduces everything to its market value. Therefore, a low-budget film from Nova Scotia without stars is doomed to languish in the clearance bin in order to make room for more commercial fare from Hollywood. (Personally, I'm more inclined to read it as a swipe at Canadians for not supporting Canadian films, as if it were our obligation.)

I don't know if Wood has written anything on Inglourious Basterds, but if he does, I'm sure it'll be worth reading. Perhaps he gave us a preview in his essay on MacGillvray's films, which was published in CineAction! a few years ago. Defending his decision to vote for Life Classes in the 1992 Sight & Sound poll of the ten greatest films, Wood says that he much prefers it to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941), which he grudgingly admires for its technique but doesn't find sufficiently intelligent about life. For Wood, that MacGillvray's film offers no formal interest whatsoever is, it would seem, entirely to its credit. To be sure, in the same essay he praises Patrice Chereau's Gabrielle (2005) in passing, calling it undeniably masterful. (I don't have the exact quote with me, but I believe that's correct.) Yet in the piece he wrote about Chereau's film for Film Comment, Wood makes no mention of its aggressively unusual formal strategies, including abrupt switches from colour to black-and-white and silent movie inter-titles. Does he regard these stylistic flourishes as merely empty, Wellesian technique? In the article on MacGillvray, Wood confesses that, while watching Chereau's film, his thoughts often drifted away from the story to the expense of the upscale furnishings and Isabelle Huppert's fat paycheck. He's not claiming that the film would be improved if, like MacGillvray's, it did without the extravagance of Chereau's attractive mise en scène and a charismatic star, but that he prefers Life Classes anyway because it has more resonance. Then again, returning to Inglourious Basterds, maybe he'll surprise me and really enjoy it. Lord knows he's full of surprising opinions.

Conclusion (Development Arrested)

It's possible that Bordwell is defining "juvenile" in a different way than I am when he applies this label to Boulevard de la mort (or Death Proof, if you want to be an American about it), but judging from his phrasing, I don't think that's the case. Somewhat like the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Blissfully Yours [2002], Tropical Malady [2004]), the movie is divided into two part of roughly equal length, both telling more or less self-contained stories, and both variations on a theme. In the first half, a group of empty-headed, profoundly uninteresting working class women make boring small talk about obscure pop music from forty years ago until the movie's macho villain, Stuntman Mike (Russell), comes around to kill them all with his car. Tarantino lingers on the grizzly details of the fatal car crash with almost as much relish as he did the women's conversations, replaying the crash several times to show each character's death in turn and in slow motion. In the second half, a group of empty-headed, profoundly uninteresting rich women make boring small talk about obscure car chase movies from thirty years ago until Stuntman Mike returns to harass them. But this time, the women manage to turn the tables on him. After chasing him down in their car while delivering stupid one-liners about tapping Stuntman Mike's ass, they drag him from his car, and he's quickly killed off with a stiletto heel to the face, crushing his skull instantaneously. What's truly alarming about the film is that Tarantino seems to think this adds up to some kind of feminist statement.

The underlying situation is basically the same in Inglourious Basterds with the Jews turning the tables on their Nazi oppressors. Tarantino even announces his solidarity with the Native Americans, I guess, by having the Basterds scalp their victims in homage to the Apache Resistance. That the film is doubtlessly more interesting than Boulevard de la mort doesn't necessarily make it less juvenile.

So while I agree with Bordwell that Jackie Brown is one of Tarantino's most mature films to-date (and I would go so far as to call it the most mature film he's made), my reasoning for this is simply that the characters played by Pam Grier and Robert Forster seem closer to real people than any other characters in any of Tarantino's films. This is in part because they have more conventional jobs (a flight attendant and a bail bondsman, respectively, as opposed to, say, a hit man). And much of the credit for this achievement can likely be traced back to the Elmore Leonard novel, Rum Punch (1992), that the film is based on (which I haven't read), as well as the actors, who bring a real sense of weariness to their scenes together. They're almost too tired and worn out to have a relationship with each other. The film feels like the work of some one who's had some life experience. Inglourious Basterds feels like the work of a young kid who's seen a lot of old movies.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Manifesto for an Ideal Film Festival

If I had my own film festival, I swear that...

* I wouldn't invite any stars. Fuck the red carpet.

* I wouldn't invite any directors to talk about their work. The work speaks for itself.

* There wouldn't be any parties. That's time I could be watching films.

* I wouldn't program any Canadian films unless I actually liked them. Less Can, more Con.

* All tickets for all screenings would cost five dollars. No galas or special screenings. If it costs five thousand won (five bucks) to see a film at PIFF, why should any one have to pay twenty dollars to see a movie at TIFF?

* There wouldn't be any midnight screenings. I don't want to see another zombie movie as long as I live.

* There would not be something for everyone.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

What I liked most about Quentin Tarantino's new film, Inglourious Basterds (2009), is also what I liked about Pulp Fiction (1994), Jackie Brown (1997), and to a lesser extent, Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004): the slow, patient storytelling; the amount of time he spends on every sequence, milking it for all it's worth--the most obvious legacy on Tarantino's work of his hero, Sergio Leone. Consider the film's long opening sequence, in which a Nazi officer, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), arrives unexpectedly at a French dairy farm. Landa doesn't come immediately to the point of his visit, but first ingratiates himself with his manners, and then over a glass of milk, talks at length about himself--his nickname, "The Hunter," and what he believes makes him such a good one. It's a terrific sequence, brimming with tension, and the film is full of scenes like it. This approach can backfire, as in Boulevard de la mort (2006), where the characters are all idiots, whose conversations are no more exciting than those you might overhear at a junior high school cafeteria; but when Tarantino is on, he can be very good.

However, I don't think Inglourious Basterds is as satisfying as Pulp Fiction. In that film, the pay-off for each vignette is that almost all the important characters get a second chance at life: Mia (Uma Thurman) is literally resurrected after overdosing on cocaine; Butch (Bruce Willis) squares himself with Marsellus (Ving Rhames) by literally saving the latter's ass; and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) succeeds in changing his life. In this film, the ultimate pay-off (spoiler alert!) is getting to see an American soldier, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), carve a swastika in Landa's forehead, after which Raine chuckles to the camera, in a thick Tennessee brogue, "I think this ma-ight be my massturpiece." End of film, roll credits.

The films has been criticized because it shows Jews acting like Nazis, but Tarantino doesn't stop there; he apparently thinks no better of his audience. The film's climatic sequence is set at a film premiere, and the film within the film is a Nazi propaganda piece about a German soldier who single-handedly picked off about one hundred fifty Allied soldiers. Watching the carnage onscreen, the German audience laughs and cheers with delight--exactly how the crowd that I saw Inglourious Basterds with responded to the scene mentioned in the second paragraph of this blog entry.

Of course, I can already hear one of Tarantino's defenders saying, "But Nazis are evil," period. Indeed, at one point late in the film, when a Jewish movie theatre owner, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), takes pity on a private in the German army (after shooting him several times in the torso), the film equates her empathy with weakness, and it effectively seals her death. The private in question, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who's both the subject and star of the film within the film, is initially made to seem sympathetic (he spends most of the film politely, if insistently, trying to court Shosanna, and at one point leaves the premiere because he doesn't like to be reminded of killing all those men), but in the blink of an eye, he turn into a total psycho when the plot requires it. As Raine puts it near the beginning of the film, "A Nat-zee ain't got no humanity," so presumably it's okay for the audience of this movie to lap it up when, for instance, one of its Jewish-American heroes bashes a Nazi officer's brains out with a baseball bat. I enjoyed Inglourious Basterds, and then I felt like a goon for liking it so much.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Year of the Dragon

After the disastrous reception of Heaven's Gate (1980), Michael Cimino had to wait five years to direct another picture, and like Spike Lee's recent Inside Man (2006), Year of the Dragon (1985) seems intended to show that Cimino could still deliver the goods--that is, make a perfectly conventional cop movie. Ironically, it was only once Cimino abandoned the languorous pacing and Visconti-like spectacle of The Deer Hunter (1978) and Heaven's Gate that he became a mannerist. The plot, with Mickey Rourke as an honest cop taking on corruption in Chinatown, is so threadbare that it's hard to think of anything else besides style as you're watching it. I don't mean to imply that the project is impersonal; in fact, all of Cimino's usual thematic hang-ups have been inelegantly ladled onto the standard genre script, so that the hero, a war veteran of Eastern European descent, keeps saying, "This is just like Vietnam!" Cimino also sets some scenes in Thailand, where parts of The Deer Hunter were shot, and he even manages to work in some mandolin music. It's the sort of film where you can talk about Cimino putting his stamp on the material because all of his auteurist flourishes feel so inorganic.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea

In Hayao Miyazaki's delightful and wondrous new film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008), the very balance of nature is upset by the onset of mermaid puberty. Ponyo (voiced by Noah Cyrus in the English-language version), like many Miyazaki characters, inhabits an enchanted state of in-betweeness. The daughter of an ocean goddess (Cate Blanchett) and a magician (Liam Neeson), who renounced his human citizenship to live under the sea and who buys his clothes at the same place as the David Bowie character in Labyrinth (1986), Ponyo spends most of the movie vacillating between being a fish and being a girl--much to the dismay of her father, who wishes she could remain "innocent and pure forever"--and in her in-between state, has feet with three toes that look like a duck's. (I'm reminded of the protagonist of Virginia Woolf's great novel Orlando: A Biography [1928], who lives for two hundred years as a man, and then another two hundred as a woman, but never as a duck.) Given this fluidity of identity, it's hardly surprising that Miyazaki would choose to set this story by the ocean.

In Asia, Miyazaki is a populist figure roughly equivalent to Walt Disney (except that the political bent of his work is more environmentalist than southern confederate), and when I was in Busan last year, Ponyo was playing everywhere. But when I finally caught up with this film, which has been following me around the world (a French version was playing in Geneva in April), in Halifax there were hardly any children in the theatre. Nor were there many children in the theatre when I went to see Miyazaki's previous film, Howl's Moving Castle (2005), a few years ago. My point isn't that his films are inappropriate for children, but that they are appropriate for grownups. Miyazaki's nuanced empathy for all of his characters displays a lot more maturity than most films intended exclusively for grownups, like No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood (both 2007), and Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which all have clear-cut good guys and bad guys. That the closest thing to a purely unsympathetic character in Ponyo is a distrustful old woman (Lily Tomlin) is itself almost an indictment of the misanthropy of a film like No Country for Old Men. Miyazaki is not only the world's greatest maker of children's films, but one of the world's greatest living filmmakers, period.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Breaking the Waves

Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves (1996) takes place in a remote village on the northern coast of Scotland in the early 1970s. Although this was an era of social change, the townspeople might as well be living in the Middle Ages. In this village, only the men are allowed to speak in church or attend funerals, and a typical funeral sermon consists of the priest (Jonathan Hackett) sternly stating that the deceased is a sinner who deserves their place in hell. Most viewers are likely to identify with the progressive attitudes embodied by the heroine's empathetic sister-in-law and a young doctor at a nearby hospital. Reconciling and confounding both sides is Bess (Emily Watson), whose behavior poses a challenge not only to the unbending church elders but the more enlightened characters as well.

Bess, it has to be said, is retarded. In an early scene, her new husband, Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), takes her to a children's movie, and she stares at the screen with her big, round eyes, utterly transfixed by it. Jan is an oil rig worker who spends weeks at a time offshore, but Bess, who loves him with an intensity bordering on madness, cannot bear to be parted with him a single second. (She counts down the days till his return on a calendar with childish drawings scribbled in the margins.) Her sister-in-law, Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), doesn't like that Jan has so much power over Bess, and before he leaves for the rig, Dodo tells Jan that she doesn't trust him, articulating our own ambivalent feelings about him as viewers: His benign smile tells us he really loves Bess, but that doesn't mean he's good for her.

Bess has a simple, childlike belief in god. When she prays, she does both her voice and god's, like a child with an imaginary friend. However, her conception of god is as harsh and rigid as the church elders. (Accordingly, she uses a deep, stern voice when speaking for god.) Early in the film, one of Jan's buddies gets sent home with a sprained wrist, and Bess prays for god to send Jan home early. God asks her if she's sure that's what she wants, like a sinister genie in an Arabian Nights tale. And in a plot twist worthy of Fassbinder, Jan has an accident on the rig that paralyzes him from the neck down. Inevitably, Bess blames herself, although Dodo tries to explain to her it was just an accident--again, as if speaking for the viewer, or at least suggesting an alternative way of interpreting the world.

Up till this point, Bess and Jan's relationship has been entirely carnal. After his injury, he tells her to wear loose clothing when she comes to see him so he won't have to look at her body. Later, he suggests that Bess take a lover, since the townspeople would never let her divorce him, but Bess doesn't like this idea. Eventually, Jan (who's at this point whacked out on drugs) tells Bess that if he forgets about love, he'll die, so the only way to keep him alive is for Bess to sleep with other men, and tell him about it. Neither the church nor Dodo approve of what Bess does in following his instructions, but the difference is that Dodo and the local doctor, Dr. Richardson (Adrian Rawlins), seem genuinely concerned for Bess' well being, while the church elders coldly expel her from the community for her "sins," as if to keep her from infecting the others. However, their empathy has its limits as well, and finally Dr. Richardson sees no other option but to put Bess in an institution, just as his predecessor did, which Jan agrees to, and Dodo, though clearly conflicted, tacitly goes along with.

I just finished reading Azar Nafisi's wonderful memoir Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), in which she defines a villain as some one who lacks the capacity to truly see, and therefore empathize, with another person. (One of her favorite villains is an Iranian film censor who was literally blind.) The church elders are obviously villains in attempting to impose their rigid idea of morality on Bess, but Dodo doesn't completely see her, either. She tells Jan that she's feeble, to which Jan replies that she has more strength than any of them. (Later, Jan's line, "Love is a mighty force," finds its antithesis when Dodo tells Bess that, "Sickness is a mighty force.") Paradoxically, Bess' willingness to go to the absolute limit in following her love for Jan to its logical end is at once an indication of weakness, the power that Jan has over her, and as well as an indication of her strength.

Empathizing with a character like Bess is a real challenge for viewers. Her love for Jan is so intense that it kills her, yet in the end, Jan recovers completely. Can Bess' example be applied to real life? Only if you believe in miracles.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Funny People

The trailers for Judd Apatow's Funny People (2009) have been cut to emphasize the film's snappy zingers (including a few that didn't make it into the finished film) and its story of a stand-up comedian who gets a new lease on life after a near-death experience. But the film is uncommonly heavy and morose. It's kind of fascinating how the same scene can be edited to hit different notes in the trailer and the film. For instance, a scene in which the Adam Sandler character makes fun of his doctor's heavy Swedish accent looks funny in the trailers, but in the film, it's incredibly tense and awkward with Sandler using humor to express hostility, and the doctor becoming increasingly annoyed. This is not by any means a feel good comedy, so if you're one of those idiots who needs to feel good, you should see something else instead--like Woody Allen's Whatever Works (also 2009).

The film plays like Ingmar Bergman's Cries and Whispers (1972) with more penis jokes. The Sandler character, George Simmons, is a mega-rich comedian and film star who's bitter, self-loathing, and hostile. Here is a man who could've been happy, but pissed it all away, and maybe he deserves to be alone. I certainly wanted to get the hell away from him. Early in the film Simmons is diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia--apparently, the kind that doesn't make you sick. After he's miraculously cured, he has a curious conversation with Eminem (in one of the film's many celebrity cameos), in which Eminem tells him that he caught a bad break by surviving, and that death could've been his way out. Is this supposed to be funny?

The story takes on a surprising moral complexity in the second half when Simmons tries to win back an old girlfriend, Laura (Leslie Mann). She left Simmons for cheating on her, but is now married to Clarke (Eric Bana), an Australian businessman who also cheats on her. Is Simmons being selfish in trying to break apart her marriage? When Simmons goes to see her in San Francisco, he brings along Ira Wright (Seth Rogen), a struggling comedian that Simmons has enlisted to write some jokes for him. He thinks what Simmons is doing is wrong, but is it any of his concern, or should he just mind his own business? And when he does get involved, he only makes things worse. This is a moral dilemma that might've appealed to Krzyzstof Kieslowski or Eric Rohmer.

Did I like the film? No, but a movie can be unlikeable and still be interesting. If the film isn't as much fun as Paul Schrader's Auto Focus (2002)--another film about a washed-up comedian who creates his own private hell--it's because Bob Crane (Greg Kinnear) was upbeat, cheerful, and very shallow. Simmons knows his life is empty and meaningless, and is resigned to it. Rogen at least is appealing as the young ingenue, so it's all the more mysterious why his character chooses to spend his time in the company of this depressive, verbally abusive crank. The art direction abstains from bright colours, adding to the film's sombre mood, and the shadowy cinematography is by Janusz Kaminski, who won an Oscar for Schindler's List (1993). If you're ever feeling too elated, and need something to bring you down, here's the film to do the trick.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Deer Hunter

Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter (1978) is filmmaking with balls. The first thing one notices about this ambitious three-hour film is the time Cimino takes with the long opening scenes, set in a Pennsylvania steel town, and the breadth of his canvas. Favoring groups over individuals and long shots over close-ups, almost to the point where the individual characters become interchangeable, the film gives us a wedding banquet so well attended that one finds it hard to believe there are even that many people living in the town. And the languid pacing and accumulation of small details indicate that Cimino is in no hurry to get on with the plot. The film's style and content secrete masculine excess from every pore of their being.

The story is about a group of guys who work at the steel mill. As the film opens, Michael (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken), and Steven (John Savage) are about to go into the army, giving Steven just enough time to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Angela (Rutanya Alda), before shipping off to Vietnam. Nick is in love with Linda (Meryl Streep), but at Steven's wedding, it becomes evident that she has feelings for Michael as well. There's a fourth friend, Stan (John Cazale, in his last performance), who doesn't go to war, but carries around a revolver, "just in case," hinting at sexual hang-ups involving impotence. In Vietnam, Michael, Nick, and Steven are captured by the North Vietnamese and made to play Russian roulette at gunpoint. Curiously, given the amount of time the film devotes to the wedding banquet (to name just one example), the film choses to skip over the characters' actual capture, cutting directly from a scene of Michael, Nick, and Steven on the battlefield to them in captivity.

In any event, Cimino's singular talents have less to do with storytelling than sounds and images. There's a joyous early sequence in which the guys go to a local bar after work and singalong to Frankie Valli's "Can't Keep My Eyes Off of You" on the jukebox. The day before they ship off to Vientam, after a hunting trip, the guys return to the same bar, where the bartender, John (George Dzundza), begins playing a plaintive number on the piano, which puts the guys in a thoughtful mood. This sequence, and the film's final scene in which the characters spontaneously sing "God Bless America," are both examples of pure feeling rather than an attempt to make a particular point.

As a response to America's involvement in Vietnam, the film is problematic. The horrors inflicted on the characters are blamed exclusively on the Vietnamese without any mention of the American government that sent them there. Meanwhile, the American soldiers don't participate in any atrocities themselves, like the massacre at My Lai, but are unambiguously heroic. At one point, we see a Viet Cong soldier throw a grenade into a cellar full of civilians; when a woman crawls out, badly burned and holding a child, the soldier finishes her off with his rifle. Thus, we're supposed to feel a sense of satisfaction when Michael burns him alive a few seconds later. The South Vietnamese don't come off much better, since we also see them taking bets on games of Russian roulette, as if it were the national sport. I've yet to see a film that represents the war in a satisfying manner.

The Deer Hunter was only Cimino's second feature after the Clint Eastwood vehicle Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). And its success emboldened him to make Heaven's Gate (1980), an even longer and more ambitious film, in which Cimino's limitations as a storyteller and the clunkiness of his dialogue are more of a serious flaw. (Conversely, in the early scenes of The Deer Hunter, the dialogue is so low in the sound mix, it's often difficult to make out what's being said.) Although he was able to continue making films until the mid-90s, Cimino hasn't been able to work on the same scale since Heaven's Gate, whose commercial failure hangs over his reputation like a shroud. This is a shame because, even if The Deer Hunter and Heaven's Gate aren't masterpieces, they feel like the work of some one who could've made one.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Graduate

I've known about Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967) since I was about ten or eleven because of the extended parody at the end of Wayne's World 2 (1993). Despite seeing the latter film maybe a hundred times or more when I was a kid, I've never had much desire to see the Nichols original. Roger Ebert's three star re-review from 1997, which I read as a teenager, and Jonathan Rosenbaum's two star (worth seeing) review from the same period, which I first read a few years later, certainly didn't offer much motivation. It was finally A.O. Scott's Critics' Pick video from The New York Times website a few weeks back that made me want to see it--less because of anything he said about it than the clips from the film itself. That's just as well, because I'm at an age now where I'm better suited to appreciate the film's subject (post-university malaise) than if I had seen it when I was younger.

The thing that struck me about the clips in Scott's video were the strange, off-kilter framings, which is not something I expected to find after seeing two of Nichols' recent films, Wit (2001) and Closer (2004). Those two films, like Nichols' first feature Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? (1965)--which I once saw an hour of on TV before changing the channel--were both adapted from prestigious plays and were essentially vehicles for their stars without much formal interest, giving me another reason to pass on The Graduate. To a much lesser extent, the same could be said about this film: in several early sequences between Anne Bancroft and Dustin Hoffman, Nichols lets the majority of the scene unfold in a single unbroken master shot. However, his manner of framing and lighting these shots is a lot more impressive than in the later films--which if memory serves, have far more close-ups.

The plot charts the hero's substitution of an aggressive older woman for her more passive daughter. As the film opens, Benjamin Braddock (Hoffman) is on a plane home after graduating from university. (If we learn what his major was, I must've missed it, but I did catch that he was on the track team.) On his first night home, his parents throw a welcome back party, but since Benjamin apparently has no friends, all of the guests are well into their forties or older. Benjamin would much rather sit in his room by himself, which may be why he doesn't have any friends. One of the party guests, Mr. Robinson (Bancroft), who's the wife of Benjamin's father's law partner, asks him to take her home. She invites him to come in, and almost has to drag him through the door kicking and screaming. I found this aspect of the story a little difficult to relate to, growing up as I did in a post-American Pie (1999) world.

Once she gets him inside, Mrs. Robinson tries to seduce Benjamin without admitting it. When Benjamin utters his famous line, she denies it so thoroughly that he feels compelled to apologize for even thinking it. Benjamin's embarrassment reaches a crescendo when he walks in on Mrs. Robinson nude, and just as he's about to run out the door, Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) walks in the house. Benjamin, thinking quicker than I was while watching the film, darts into the living room and pretends to be finishing his drink. I like it when the characters in the movie are smarter than I am, but this is the only time in the film I could say that about Benjamin or even Mrs. Robinson.

There's a funny scene, a few days later, when Benjamin calls Mrs. Robinson from a hotel, drunk, and she asks him if he wants to get a room. The idea hadn't occurred to him. This leads to a steady affair, but while a man of my generation would think that was awesome, Benjamin persists in thinking of it as some sordid thing. After a few nights of wild off-screen sex, Benjamin decides he wants to have a conversation with her before getting down to business--less because he has anything to say than to trigger the revelation that Mrs. Robinson wanted to study art before getting knocked up.

Earlier in the film, Benjamin's parents pressure him to ask out the Robinson's daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross), when she returns home from Berkley for the summer. Mrs. Robinson fiercely opposes it, and Benjamin, in a bind, decides to take Elaine out once and act like a jerk, driving recklessly and taking her to a titty bar. When she cries and walks out, Benjamin decides that he really likes her, and to make nice, he apologizes and takes her to a fast food place. (Some beatniks in the next car blast quiet folk music so the screenwriters don't have to write dialogue for them.) When Mrs. Robinson learns that Benjamin wants to continue to see Elaine, she threatens to reveal the truth to her about their relationship. Benjamin decides to tell Elaine first, but he's not able to before she figures it out for herself (a realization underlined by having Elaine's face slowly come into focus). In American Pie, Stifler's mom (Jennifer Coolidge) was the ultimate prize, but here Mrs. Robinson is merely an impediment to Benjamin having a "normal" relationship.

For the first hour or so, Mrs. Robinson is the most compelling character in the film because she's the only one who knows what she wants. At the same time, I was increasingly frustrated with Benjamin, who doesn't seem to want anything. He resists. When he tells his father that he's "just drifting," while sunbathing in the pool, he doesn't know how right he is. He only figures out what he wants about mid-way through his date with Elaine. And it's at this point that Mrs. Robinson jumps the shark and becomes the film's least interesting character; she's not trying to seduce Benjamin any more, but is merely an obstacle to his goal. Once you accuse somebody of raping you, it's not likely they're going to sleep with you later, and the Mrs. Robinson of the movie's first half was at least smart enough to know this.

I realize that I've fallen into the same trap as Ebert and Rosenbaum by spending too much time talking about the plot. So let's talk about the style. Despite being a self-proclaimed drifter, the film keeps associating Benjamin with a deep sea diver. In an early scene, there's a close-up of Benjamin, framed in the dead center of the 'Scope image, sitting in front of an aquarium; in the tank, on the lower left side of the frame, is a plastic diver. This shot gets awesome when Benjmain's father (William Daniels) enters the room and sits down with Benjamin, his giant out-of-focus head blotting out most of the left side of the screen. His father invites him to come downstairs to join the party, but Benjamin says he'd rather be alone. Later, Benjamin's parents give him a diving suit for his birthday and ask him to model it for their friends at a second party scene. The sequence ends with a lengthy long shot of Benjmain standing at the bottom of the pool. The film associates the image of the deep sea diver with isolation and depression.

The songs by Simon and Garfunkel also function as leitmotifs. "Scarborough Fair" is associated with Elaine, and first appears over a montage showing Benjamin driving to Berkley to see her. (This trip apparently takes two days; I've never been to California, but it only takes a day to drive from Quebec City to Toronto.) "The Sounds of Silence" is used three times during the film, once over the credit sequence, which shows Benjamin in medium close-up and in profile against a white wall, standing on an unseen conveyor belt in an airport--another kind of drifting. It reappears over a fade to black while Benjamin is having sex for the first time with Mrs. Robinson, and continues over a non-narrative montage sequence that begins with several shots of Benjamin sunbathing in his parents' pool. He then gets out of the pool, puts on a white shirt and walks in the house. The film cuts on the action of him opening the door, but in the next shot he's completely dry. The camera pulls back to reveal that he's in the hotel room with Mrs. Robinson. The sequence ends with Benjamin back in the pool, explaining to his father that he's just drifting, "here in the pool." In a sense, the film has been drifting with him for several minutes without furthering the plot. Finally, the song reappears again over the final shot of Benjamin and Elaine on a bus, underscoring the replacement of the daughter for her mother. In each case, the relationship of the lyrics to the plot is tangental, if not non-existant. (Although "Mrs. Robinson" makes explicit reference to the story, the relevance of a line like, "God bless you please, Mrs. Robinson / Jesus loves you more than you will know," is hard to fathom.) Instead of creating an association between the lyrics of the song and the story, they create an association between two or more moments in the film.

Seeing The Graduate after Wayne's World 2, I found myself mentally comparing it with that film, and certain details just seemed wrong. In the church, when Benjamin calls out "Elaine" instead of "Cassandra," I felt like the name should have three syllables. Mrs. Robinson is clearly mouthing "Son of a bitch," but I haven't a clue what the groom (Brian Avery) is supposed to be saying. What a let down from Wayne's World 2, where you can clearly see that the priest is saying, "Son of a bitch!" But while The Graduate may not live up to that classic film, Nichols' style is enough that I'm glad I finally saw it.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Toronto Diary: Day Four

The difference between Steven Soderbergh as an independent filmmaker (1989-96), and Steven Soderbergh as a studio filmmaker (1998-present), is the difference between a writer-director and a director-cinematographer. With the exception of the much maligned Kafka (1991) and his Spalding Gray performance film, Gray's Anatomy (1996), neither of which I've seen, Soderbergh wrote all of his early features himself, including what I regard as his two most interesting and fully realized films overall: sex, lies & videotape (1989) and King of the Hill (1993). Though more conventional in form, the former has a freshness of characterization that's missing from much of Soderbergh's subsequent work; and the latter, adapted from A.E. Kotchner's memoir about growing up during the Great Depression, is especially strong on period ambiance. (Before going mainstream with Out of Sight [1998], Soderbergh also directed one more adaptation, The Underneath [1995], and another original screenplay, Schizopolis [1996], but I haven't seen either.)

Although Soderbergh has photographed all of his films since Traffic (2000) himself, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, he takes writing credit on only two: Solaris (2002), an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's SF novel that was first filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and "Equilibrium," his segment for the portmanteau film Eros (2004). And like the others I've seen--Out of Sight, The Limey (1999), Erin Brokovich (2000), Traffic, Full Frontal (2002) and Bubble (2005)--it's impossible to remember a single thing about the films more than a half-hour after watching them. Why are these eight films so forgettable? There's the immediate thrill of seeing techniques associated with European art cinema being assimilated by Hollywood filmmaking, but once that wears off, we're left with nothing. The Limey, for instance, applies non-linear editing techniques derived from Richard Lester's Petulia (1968) and the first five films directed by Nicolas Roeg (themselves indebted to the early films of Alain Resnais) to yet another revenge yarn about Cockney gangsters and crass Hollywood insiders. I'm reminded of Jonathan Rosenbaum's description of Bernardo Bertolucci as a filmmaker who "ultimately chose stylishness over style and both over content."

Che (2008)--which was playing in Toronto in a "Special Roadshow Edition," with the credits printed on a booklet and an eighteen dollar admission price--is certainly the most ambitious of all of Soderbergh's films, as well as the most unusual. A four and a half hour war film about the Argentinian revolutionary, Ernesto Che Guevara (Benicio Del Toro), it largely eschews interiority, taking a relentlessly ground-level view of guerrilla combat. Yet, there's a part of me that suspects Soderbergh only agreed to direct the film as a pretext to try out the new digital camera, the Red.

The film is divided into two parts, each about 130 minutes long, with a fifteen minute intermission in between. The first part, based on Guevara's book, "Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War," depicts Guervara's involvement in the war against Batista. We see him tending to wounded soldiers, leading his troops through the jungle, picking up new recruits as he moves closer to the capital. The second part, based on Guevara's Bolivian diary, shows everything that went wrong there: the lack of popular support, the CIA-backed military counter-insurgency, Guevara forgetting his asthma medicine. In Halifax, the film is playing as two separate features, "The Argentine" and "Guerrilla," but you really need to see both parts; each half completes the other.

Del Toro won the Best Actor prize at Cannes last year, but I suspect there was a conflict of interest (the jury's president, Sean Penn, co-starred with Del Toro in 21 Grams [2003])--or at least, that's the only way I can account for it. Although the screenplay is based on Guevara's own writings, we don't come to know him very well as a character in the film. Near the end of the first part, Guevara casually mentions to a female soldier, Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno), that he has a wife and daughter in Mexico City, but this is the first and last time the viewer hears of them. The first part ends just after Batista's exile from Cuba, and when the second part picks up several years later, Guevara is married to March, with whom he has several children. Early into the film's second part, however, he leaves Cuba in secret to lead the revolutionary movement in Bolivia with March's knowledge and apparent consent. Why did Guevara desert both families? The film doesn't provide any psychological explanation deeper than Guevara's desire to spread the revolution to all of Latin America. Nor does it presume to know how Guevara felt as he was leaving or how March felt about being left. In other words, the film takes the life at its word, so to speak, without providing any kind of interpretation or commentary.

The movie's first part cuts between Guevara's trip to New York in 1964, where he spoke at the UN, and his involvement in the Cuban revolutionary movement, beginning with his first meeting with Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) in Mexico City in 1955. The scenes in New York were shot on grainy, high contrast black-and-white film stock, while the scenes in Cuba were shot in colour on the Red, which in optimal lighting conditions results in images of hyper-clarity without grain. Throughout, Soderbergh favors long group shots over close-ups, which is in keeping with the film's intellectual detachment. (When the film shows Guevara's death from his point of view, it's a way of not showing the viewer his expression.)

Like many of Soderbergh's films, Che lives in the shadow of another, greater film--namely, Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers (1966). Although Che sympathizes completely with Guevara and his comrades (in contrast with Pontecorvo's more even-handed approach), I suspect that Soderbergh is less passionate about the revolution than he is about Pontecorvo's film on it. And at the end of the day, he goes back to Hollywood and directs Ocean's Fifteen for a huge pile of money. If Soderbergh were more engaged by his material, he might've tried to do something more original instead of relying on Pontecorvo as a role model.

Stephen Daldry's The Reader (2008) is a film of surprising complexity and nuance. The film, which opens in Germany in 1958, starts out in Red Shoe Diaries territory with a pale, effeminate teenager, Michael Berg (David Kross), having an affair with an older woman, Hanna Schmizt (Kate Winslet)--somehow without his strict parents or anyone else ever knowing about it. The film becomes interesting when it skips ahead eight years to when Michael is a university student. His class takes a train to the Hague, where Hanna is on trial for war crimes during World War II. The film is sharply critical of the trial, showing how a small number of low-ranking Nazi war criminals were given harsh sentences while the majority of the people responsible were either given lighter sentences or never brought to trial in the first place. Hanna is certainly guilty of doing the things she's accused of, and her answers to the judges reflect the moral myopia of some one who's incapable of seeing beyond the task they've been assigned to perform. Where Hanna differs from her co-defendants is that she still doesn't get it, which makes her easy to scapegoat.

The film is not perfect. There are big revelations that attentive viewers should see coming a mile away. Also, it takes some time to adjust to English actors playing German characters while speaking in English with heavy German accents, and it's always distracting when you have two actors playing the same character at different ages. (Michael is played as an adult by the very unfeminine Ralph Fiennes.) But despite all this, the film moved me because it's such a compelling subject, and the storytelling is fluid throughout. So far I've seen four of this year's Oscar nominees (the only one I haven't is Milk [2008]), and this is by far the best.