31 October 2007

BOO

I suppose that it's fair to say that if you have so far been a fan of the Saw series, you will most likely enjoy Saw IV, at least in part. You are also a sick and deviant monkey-fucker.

Why did I pick monkeys? I cannot say. But I expect that people who would deliberately and willfully fuck monkeys are probably nasty and sleazy, and people who get legitimately excited about new entries in the Saw franchise, at very least, have a higher likelihood than the population at large of being nasty and sleazy.

With that said, the weird thing about Saw IV is that I suspect the fanboys will be comparatively harsher on it than people who are compelled to see it without desiring to, i.e. critics and overly enthusiastic bloggers who for some damn reason decided that it might be fun to be an expert on torture films. Because I think that if you genuinely like the Saw films, you would think - rightly - that this is the most perfunctory and confusing and needlessly over-plotty of all of them, whereas if you find the films to be things that are endured rather than watched, you would be forced in fairness to admit that this is somewhat better-constructed and significantly less morally outrageous than at the very least Saw III.

Let me propose that when one has reached the point of comparing the relative morality of the Saw films, he is at last beyond help and is only to be pitied from afar.

As this latest film opens, however, it looks to all appearances to be firing on cylinders barely conceived of so far in the series. The corpse of John Kramer AKA "Jigsaw" (played in flashback by the apparently irreplaceable Tobin Bell) is wheeled into a police morgue, where he is given an autopsy that is filmed in exceptionally specific detail, in a scene that pushes miles beyond what I would have supposed was even on the radar for an R-rated film: his skull is sawed off and his brain removed, his chest cut open and his ribs- okay, so you know what, I'm not actually going to go any further with this. Let's just say that my notoriously strong stomach was flipping cartwheels like nobody's business, in a way that even the unrated cut of Saw III only gestured towards, and literally the only thing I can think of is that it's "okay" when this all happens to a dead body because goddamn is it hard to watch. I have pretty much seen all of the most violent films the world has to offer outside of the infamous Italian gutmunchers, and this is beyond anything I know.

Then it pretty much stops. When I decided like a batshit crazy person last March to watch what was then the Saw trilogy, I observed to my surprise that the films, at least the first two, were not really all that gory. Blood was shed, of course, but not in any hugely over-the-top way. Saw IV, after that excruciating first scene, pretty much follows suit: there are a few nastily torn-apart bodies here and there, but not much in the way of particularly outré gore effects. Instead, there is unrelenting nastiness and grimness and nihilism that is all the more needlessly disturbing because it is not very bloody.

It's easy to lump all torture porn into one big pile where it's all just sick and depraved, but that's intellectually dishonest: there's a whole lot separating the different approaches to the movement. I am not in any way prepared to call Hostel a good or nice or even particularly watchable film, but it and its sequel have a certain zestiness to them that springs out of Eli Roth's unabashed love for everything that has ever been in any horror film ever. There's a sense of twisted childlike "look what I can do!" to the proceedings, and while that doesn't speak well of Roth's mentality (dude worships Cannibal Holocaust, for fuck's sake), the films have a high energy level that is in a very particular way - notice that I do mean a very particular way - "fun." The Saw films, I am convinced, are not "fun" in any sense that has any real-world meaning. In Saw IV, we see that in the grisly opening, which grabs the viewer and shoves his (or her, I should say, but I don't like to) face right in the steaming pile of exploitation and violence. Saw IV basically hates the viewer for liking violence and torture, and to accommodate that fact, everything is ugly and underlit and grimy and grainy. None of which is particularly different from the proceeding three, I guess.

Still, the film doesn't insist like the last one did on making us identify with the torturers, and this is both good and sort of problematic. Problematic because as a story, there's nobody we really connect to in the film. It really is just straight-up voyeurism this time, and this series has always avoided that to this degree.

In fact, the word for this story is "crap." Straight up crap. I don't particularly want to engage with the story, but it's about SWAT Commander Rigg (Lyriq Bent) racing against a clock to save Det. Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) and Det. Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), the latter missing since the events of Saw II. Along the way, he is forced to make the judgments that Jigsaw would have made if he were still alive to make judgments, and it is hinted throughout that this is a sort of training ground to make him the new Jigsaw. Meanwhile, FBI Agents Strahm (Scott Patterson) and Perez (Athena Karkanis) try to figure out what's going on in general, and this leads to flashbacks showing Jigsaw's origin story.

It's at once the most arc-based plot and the most aimless in the whole series (an origin story? Really?), and the final twist is pure, unabashed insult, present only to leave enough totally confusing holes to make Saw V a virtual necessity just to figure out the plot of this film, not to mention Saw III, which actually ends up feeling less resolved than it did a year ago. Horror films are generally cash-grabs, but this is a specifically trashy way to go about setting up a sequel. I can't imagine a true fan feeling anything but cheated by this.

But I am not a true fan, and I am grateful that the over-reliance on plot means less of the films' patented immoral moralising. And I am also grateful that director Darren Lynn Bousman has toned back so considerably on the music video visual trickery, leaving only a really odd but not inherently awful motif of transitioning between scenes that I can't really describe properly (it involves placing the actors from one scene in the new scene so there's a sort of shot-reverse shot into the new set, that's always confusing but inventive and technically well-done). I am grateful that the tin ear of Leigh Whannell was not allowed anywhere near the dialogue.

Mostly, I am grateful that it's a full year before I have to deal with another one.

2/10

And now, I continue a tradition by lightening the mood with a kitten:

Happy Halloween to all, and to all a good night.

30 October 2007

PLASTIC FIGURES

Sometimes I amuse myself with this little game: figure out why an actor decided to sign on to a particular film.

It's often dismayingly easy, whether the actor is bad (Chris Tucker = the money), brilliant (Philip Seymour Hoffman = the money), halfway decent (Christopher Lee = the money, the money, personal affection for J.R.R. Tolkien. And the money), or Marlon Brando (funding his abortive dial-a-fart phoneline).* But there are a few actors whose taste is usually so impeccably idiosyncratic that it's actually a lot of fun; Johnny Depp is a good example, or Willem Dafoe.

Perhaps my favorite, though, is Ryan Gosling, the notoriously choosy 26-year-old whose every film up until this spring's Fracture had an obvious appeal based somewhere in his desire to grow and stretch and generally make a name for himself as a very good and perhaps too pretentious indie demigod. And so I come in my roundabout way to Lars and the Real Girl, which represents a much-needed return to not-trashy-procedural form for the actor, and the first time in his career where he gets to do something in the way of comedy, although it is very tentative and wry and kind of unfunny indie comedy. You know how it is.

Gosling plays Lars Lindstrom (the surname given only in the credits), a young man of tragically delicate sensibility in the far northern reaches of Wisconsin, living in the garage of his old family home now occupied by his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer), and doing all he possibly can to avoid any human contact. It comes to pass that Lars orders a fully-functional sex doll from a website recommended to him by his utterly sleazy cubicle-mate Kurt (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos), which he names "Bianca" and proceeds to treat in every way like an actual human, explaining her immobility as paraplegia and her muteness as lack of facility with English, and throwing his family into a state of panic, tempered when the local GP/psychologist Dr. Dagmar Berman (Patricia Clarkson) advises Gus and Karin, as well as the rest of the close-knit Lutheran community, to play along until Lars can work out whatever issues are driving his delusion.

It is my belief that the hook that drew Gosling to the project is that Lars is basically unplayable, insofar as he is basically not a human. Mind you, the generally fuzzy humanism that courses through the community in a sort of "Waking Ned Devine by way of Frank Capra" mashup, is not the stuff of documentarylike realism, but the townspeople populating the edges of the film aren't the central interest, and their behavior is entirely predicated on Lars; if we can believe his persona and his relationship to Bianca, then the story has at least a chance to succeed, and if we do not, it has no hope whatsoever.

Bless him, Gosling makes it work, by recognising that a) this isn't realism, nor even poetic realism, but a fable (the film's resolute sexlessness insists on that point); b) the key to the humor is keeping the character tiny, and not like a sketch-comedy figure; and c) the doll is not a prop, but an actor, and a fairly central one, and should be played against like an actor. What emerges is the finest man/inanimate object relationship in a movie since Tom Hanks made us weep for a volleyball in Cast Away.

I don't suppose there was ever any hope of Lars turning into a realistic human being, but Gosling's performance doesn't really require that. What he does instead is take a bundle of highly erratic quirks and synthesise them into a man in full, who is instantly recognisable even though we've never met anyone like him. Sometimes his physical gestures come across just a tiny bit too much like an acting exercise, as does his newly-acquired pudginess and mustache, but considering how elliptically the script draws the character, the actor's work is beyond admirable.

With that in the center, the performances around him are all of the highest-caliber; Emily Mortimer stands out not just for being one of the most famous faces in the film but also for giving what is by my reckoning her career-best performance as a neurotic, mothering presence in Lars's life. She's frankly the only role whose behavior seems entirely natural, and that helps, but the bulk of the character is due entirely to the actress's face, and the wonderful mixture of fear and neediness and optimism she wears throughout. And then there are all of the tiny roles, which would be endlessly tedious to list, so let us suffice it to say that there isn't a false note in the film, although the typically magisterial Patricia Clarkson is coasting a little bit.

All of those wonderful performances are the crux of the movie, and its primary success; for there are significant problems with the story as a story, and not just because it is too charming for its own good. I am genuinely unsure who gets more blame for this, Six Feet Under veteran Nancy Oliver in her feature writing debut or director Craig Gillespie in his own feature debut (he made Mr. Woodcock after this was complete, for what that's worth), but something about the story just doesn't quite hang together. It's a film full of individual tiny moments that all work taken as modules - some better than others, no doubt - but when they're all assembled it doesn't quite feel like a project made from whole cloth. A big part of this is the curious insistence on fading to black out of nearly every scene (those fades, they are tempting, but they are so powerfully dangerous!), which serves to pluck each scene out of the context of the rest. Another part is that the vignettes, for I can think of nothing else to call them, are mostly arbitrarily laid together, particularly in the overly-long middle sequence where the town absorbs Bianca into their daily routines at church, shopping, ladies' night, et cetera. There's nothing leading from moment to moment, no sense that the film is proceeding as it must, but simply as it is. That sort of leisurely storytelling is not typically something I complain about, but it is also not a common feature of scripts with such an outlandish high-concept hook as Lars and the Real Girl.

The other stumbling block is the humor: this is an awfully precious film. Sometimes it's very subtly done, but sometimes it hammers you over the head, mostly in the scenes involving Lars's co-worker with an incredibly cute schoolgirl-esque crush, Margo (Kelli Garner). Gillespie and Gosling suck a lot of the treacle out by separating the most obvious gags with moments of silence, and very successfully, too: there's a lot of silence in the film, and that's probably when it's at its best. But the cutesiest moments are cloying, and the sugar content is made significantly worse by how unnaturally sweet every character in the film is to Lars. There's nice that shades into sickening, and that is bad for comedy unless you are a tween girl who dots her i's with hearts. Still, the actors take some of the edge off - or rather, they put some edge back on - and while it's not the best way for a film to triumph, only a crank would complain about an actors' showcase when it turns out this well.

7/10

28 October 2007

HOME, HOME AGAIN

My vacation is over, and I will not be returning to blogging quite as soon as I had anticipated, due to things and other things and OMG LOOK A PUPPY!

Anyway, I've taken requests into account, thought long and hard about what I'm actually looking forward to, and most importantly, looked at what's playing in the theaters closest to me, and this is what you can look forward to:

10/29 - Not a damn thing!

10/30 - Lars and the Real Girl

10/31 - As the admen say, "If it's Halloween, it must be Saw." I'll be in the back of the theater, gnashing whatever I have that can be gnashed.

11/1 - Not so much a new release, but rather Dario Argento's Suspiria. Even film bloggers watch old scary movies on Halloween night, y'all.

11/2 - The surprise winner of the "What Shall I Watch?" contest, Gone Baby Gone.

11/3 & 11/4 - A super-mega catch-up weekend of random short reviews.

11/5 - Normal blogging shall recommence.

I share all of this so that when I fail utterly to keep up with this schedule, you can all come at me with pitchforks and torches in comments.

20 October 2007

LES VACANCES

Once again, it's time for my post-Festival unwind; and this time I'm even taking a proper vacation, and not just a blogging vacation. And such a good week I've picked - eleven new films opening in Chicago this week! A healthy number of them are Oscar contenders! I'm not really interested in more than two of them!

I'm (idiotically) hoping to see as many of these as possible, although I expect it will be some three weeks and the closure of half of them before I get caught up. Meanwhile, I wanted to toss this out to you my audience: which of the following films would you be most interested in seeing reviewed? I'm not looking for "recommendations" per se - I have a pretty clear sense which of these are going to be awful and which will only be mostly dull - just want to see what you care about. Because it's all about you, beloved readers.

-30 Days of Night
-Broken
-The Comebacks
-Gone Baby Gone
-Ira and Abby
-Lars and the Real Girl
-My Kid Could Paint That
-Rendition
-Reservation Road
-Sleuth
-Things We Lost in the Fire
-We Own the Night (opened on the 12th, but I still plan on seeing it)

Fortunately, the following weekend looks a great deal simpler: Dan in Real Life and...fuck fuck FUCK.

Back on Monday the 29th - maybe Sunday the 28th, but that's probably not the smart money.

DRAMA QUEEN

Long-time readers know the drill with my design scheme: yes, that poster on the left does mean I think you should see Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and yes, the score at the bottom of this page does mean that I thought it was at least somewhat awful. In point of fact, those two positions are intimately related. We all know that there are movies that are so bad they're good, and then there are movies that are so bad they're completely fucking awesome.

Truth be told, I rather liked Elizabeth, this film's 1998 precursor. I liked its Shakespearean appropriation of history, I liked the gritty prettiness of its production design, and I liked the way that it modulated its pageantry with a grubby little conspiracy tale full of anti-heroes and villains. There is absolutely nothing modulating The Golden Age, which starts out in high camp mode and proceeds to lose its mind. The best comparison I can make is to Showgirls, although this film never comes close to that film's woozy heights of deliberate awfulness: both films are unconscionably excessive train wrecks, but compulsively watchable, giddy train wrecks.

There's nothing here done by halves: the production design is coated in gilt, the costumes are almost cartoonishly large and elaborate, the score almost never stops pounding with its giant strings of tortured nobility. The dialogue is incredibly overripe: anyone who saw the trailer knows the magnificent line "I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare if you dare to try me!" (context doesn't really make it any more or less goofy), but that's got nothing on some of the things the actors are forced to say. My own personal favorite is the fantastically catty "My bitches wear my collars!" spoken by Queen Elizabeth I in a fit of peevish lesbian rage.

Oh, yes. The lesbianism. Much like Oliver Stone's equally arresting, equally shitty camptacular Alexander, it's the film's pronounced homoeroticism that is its most conspicuous and probably best feature. All very sanitised, of course, just smoldering glances - but oh how they smolder! - and suggestive, sensitive touching - but oh how it suggests! - and really smutty double entendres. That hale old signifier of the Love That Dares Not Speak Its Name, the bath scene, even puts in an appearance.

This is a gay film. So, so gay (that's a compliment, by the way, because camp is the only thing standing between The Golden Age and complete sensory exhaustion). And it stars as gay a Queen Elizabeth as you could imagine - I have never seen Quentin Crisp's turn as her majesty in Orlando, but I cannot imagine how he could have been any more drag than Cate Blanchett is, reprising the role that made her famous but not playing the same character. In Elizabeth, she gave, you know, a "performance," but here, perhaps sensing that the script was as purple as a field of lilacs, she unhinges herself, camps up a storm, and clearly has a ball doing it. I daresay that the single most watchable element of The Golden Age is Blanchett's apoplectic joy in Acting! without restraint.

Not that anybody was going to stop her. I don't know what happened in the last nine years, but the many members of the creative team returning from the original - director Shekhar Kapur, cinematographer Remi Adefarasin, editor Jill Bilcock, costume designer Alexandra Byrne and co-writer Michael Hirst - have all lost their minds. Elizabeth wasn't the perfect model of restrained filmmaking, but at least it had discipline, and everyone was working towards the same end. Here, we have a great many obviously talented individuals turning it up to 11 and trying to be the biggest part of the whole project. For my money, it's the musical score by Craig Armstrong and A.R. Rahman that wins this particular battle, but it's a photo finish, really. At ever moment the film is pulling out every stop it can to be the most overwhelming film it can be. Damn me if it fails: it's altogether overwhelming, like drowning in a bathtub filled with sequins; or a better image might be like hitting every key on pipe organ at once: that is how much it blows.

It's all so magical if you like this sort of thing: beautiful white horses jumping off of burning boats in slow-motion, deposed monarchs wearing flowing blood-red gowns to their executions, giant crane shots that turn back 270º on themselves as they pan over throne rooms. "Restraint" is a word that has less than nothing to do with Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and sometimes that is quite enough to make a film totally fantastic, even if it fails on every conceivable aesthetic yardstick.

There's a plot in there somewhere: the queen lusts after the gorgeous Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen, being gorgeous), she lusts after the coquettish Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish, being a coquette), and she becomes thunderously pissed when those two knock boots. Meanwhile the comically diabolical Spanish Empire is pitching a vast field of CGI boats against England to depose the Protestant queen, and I will honestly say that the cartoon Catholic baddies in this film shocked even my decidedly uninvested tastes.

But that's secondary - far secondary - to the simple matter of lusciousness and over-the-top gorgeousness and gorgeousity and Cate Blanchett acting like a holy terror. It's awful. But dear God almighty, is it ever great.

3/10

18 October 2007

LAWYERS, GUNS AND MONEY

There is a certain kind of writer-director that emphasises the first half of that equation: write a great script and then just slap it up on the screen. Woody Allen is the godfather of this mentality (though he is not always beholden to it); men like Barry Levinson is its elder statesman; M. Night Shyamalan is its court fool; Kevin Smith is its slacker brother-in-law who won't ever get off its couch.

The newest member of this august company is Tony Gilroy, whose script for the legal thriller Michael Clayton is very good indeed, and whose direction of the script for the legal thriller Michael Clayton betrays only the faintest hints of personality at the most irregular intervals, and makes no effort to hide itself as the work of a newbie who has logged time with with some very good directors and some significantly weaker directors.

That said, I can't defend calling Gilroy a bad director, just a very cautious one. That's practically a good thing: in the hands of an established genius we call that "restraint," and praise it. But in Michael Clayton it comes off more like a fear that if the director does anything too imaginative, we might lose track of his wonderful story and wonderful language. It's not a coincidence, I don't think, that the best moment in the whole film bar none, and its best-directed moment, is an essentially dialogue-free scene in which a character is ambushed and killed. Taking place in a single gutsy tracking shot that runs back and forth through an apartment (Steadicam, by the looks of it), this character is grabbed, tasered, undressed and injected. It's incredibly intense, one of those classic movie moments where all of a sudden you realise that you've just started breathing again, and it can only be regarded as a triumph of directing and visual storytelling. And every other moment where I noticed myself thinking a particular incident had been particularly well-directed, it was a moment in which spoken dialogue was absent or irrelevant (in the case of a scene that we had already watched one time, and were now seeing again in a totally new context; the film's second most thrilling sequence).

So, Michael Clayton is the story of five days in the live of a fixer for a major New York law firm who starts out having little self-knowledge besides being proud that he is one of the best at what he does, and ends in total disgust at the casual way he and his company have typically brushed off the suffering of innocents. It's a Message Picture, in other words, although not a particularly shrill one, which is nice. Clayton is played by George Clooney in full-on movie star mode - and it still boggles me that our best star in the '30s and '40s sense was just ten years ago failing to get out of the TV ghetto - and that means that his ultimate moral awakening is foreordained, but still a hell of a lot of fun to watch. I'm not going to go down the "career-best performance" road (I'd stick with O Brother or the first Ocean film for that), but it's such a phenomenal star turn that it doesn't matter. When the man is onscreen, he is magnetic, pure and simple.

Usually when there is that kind of central performance, it's easy to loose track of the other characters, and to a certain degree, that happens here: Sydney Pollack, as Clayton's deeply amoral boss, just pretty much does a Sydney Pollack - "I'm irascible! And old! But smart, too!" Tilda Swinton, as the deeply unmoral company lawyer for the film's Ee-vil corporation is actually kind of flat, given her normal intensity, but I'm tempted to call that the role's fault.

The real stand-out is Tom Wilkinson as one of Clayton's other bosses, the one who goes crazy at the start and kicks the whole plot in motion. He's manic-depressive (and don't we know how much actors love the mental disorders?), and Wilkinson's performance is a marvelous collection of twitches and wide-eyed smiles with a nasty violent undertone. It's perhaps even more commanding than Clooney's work, although more self-conscious, and when the two are together (which happens in almost every one of Wilkinson's scenes), it's pretty actorgasmic. Honestly, the two are on such a level when they're working opposite each other that they could perform a dramatic interpretation of a Congressional roll call, and it would be damn electrifying.

See, that's the problem: this is well-acted (even the "bad" performances are well above average), so well-acted that one begins to feel that Michael Clayton would work about as well if it were a videotape of a table reading. The script is good: the structure is very well-balanced and the dialogue is quite delicious. But there's a distinct lack of "the cinema" for most of the film. It's got plenty of painterly shots; for it was filmed by the wonderful Robert Elswit, whose particular speciality, I think, is the sort of boxy, anonymous interiors that make up so much of the film's mise en scène (seriously: the man made Good Night, and Good Luck. look thrilling, and that was a movie full of featureless white walls). Here, he does some interesting things with focus that serve to underscore the story's idea that facts are easily made "fuzzy" (in other words: the poster. Which is magnificent). But the best cinematography in the world can't compensate for the amount of static going on here: it's obvious that Gilroy wanted to keep focus on the acting, and that leaves the film feeling kind of like a particularly well-lit recording of a stage play. He does not create a world, he puts actors in front of the camera. Thank God that those actors are in peak condition, because otherwise two hours of this would be deadly.

7/10

CIFF: A DARK AND A HUNGRY GODDESS

It's unfortunate the way that the sub-Saharan African continent gets all kind lumped together, and so we have people talking about "Africa this" or "Africa that" without any regard to the 46 countries that make up the continent. At its worst extreme, this results in a sort of First World inability to conceive of African politics at all, and we get genocide and revolution and genocide. At the other extreme, we get things like white film buffs who go to see "the African film" at film festivals because he (I mean, I'm theoretically assuming that our theoretical film buff is a "he") likes "African films," ignoring that the continent is something like three times the size of the US.

That intro honestly doesn't have anything much to do with anything, but first-time director and co-writer Salif Traoré's Faro, Goddess of the Waters, a co-production between Mali, France, Canada, Burkina Faso and Germany that I saw because it was "the African film," doesn't really give one an awful lot to go on. It just sort of is a movie. You know, the kind where you leave the theater and think "I just saw a movie," because there honestly isn't much else to think.

Here is what happens, broadly: Zanga (Fily Traoré, who I assume is related somehow to the director) is returning to the backwater village in Mali where he was born and raised, before traveling to the city for his education. A bastard son, Zan is already treated with some tiny amount of derision that turns into outright loathing when he suggests that Faro, the river goddess that the villagers look to as the source of their prosperity, maybe probably doesn't actually exist.

Not much better off is Penda (Djénéba Koné), the sweetheart of the chief's son, daughter of the resident shit-stirring anti-patriarchalist, and generally odd and slightly crazy person, viewed as being cursed by Faro, and the source of the town's recent fishing problems - problems which will surely be solved by sacrificing Zan.

"Hey, that's not logical!" you point out. Indeed no. That's in fact much the point of Faro, the tension between the traditional animism of rural Africa, and the (slowly) increasing levels of education and training. Zan and Penda, and a couple other misfits, are all either rationalists at the start of the film, or they begin to embrace rationalism as it moves along. And they are the protagonists, so far as that goes, but the film isn't really interested in a big heroes and villains showdown; the many villagers whose belief in Faro is too ingrained to shake and who persecute Zan et al are just as human and well-drawn. It's a film without answers, just questions about what is happening to Africa, and whether or not the continent can survive.

Which is well and good, for sure; but it's so extremely graceless about how it presents that theme. The closest thing to metaphor is that Zan, trained as an engineer, wants to build canals and such things, tapping the river; it's the forces of modernisation developing over the traditional ways of life, do you get it? And most of the film isn't nearly that subtle. It mostly just props up Zan here, a villager there, and they talk about how Zan with his big city ways is no longer a good fit for the village.

And that's pretty much that.

To a certain small degree, it works as a study of the dynamic of a town; to a slightly larger degree, it works as an exercise in landscape cinematography (the opening and closing shots, both pans over the river, are beautiful, hypnotic, and the best part of the film). But there's just not a whole lot of anything to it. And I think that I shall not belabor that any more.

5/10

THINGS THAT ARE FILLING ME WITH RAGE AND SORROW AT THIS MOMENT

-Upon returning from a nice lunch that I treated myself to in celebration of receiving a rebate check, and having quite enjoyed the warm autumn afternoon, I no sooner set foot in the lobby of my office building, where there is a TV set to CNN every moment of every day, than I see glaring at me the headline that the S-CHIP veto override failed in the House. By 13 votes. Well fuck it, if God wanted little kids to be healthy He wouldn't have invented little kid diseases, 'm I right?

-There is not actually a second thing filling me with rage and sorrow, the first one is doing that very well all by itself.

17 October 2007

CIFF: OLD TIME ROCK 'N' ROLL

The Aughts have not been kind to the once-mighty John Sayles. From the winking screenplays for Piranha and The Howling to his directorial work including an extraordinary 12-year run from Matewan to Limbo, it really did seem like he was incapable of making movies that weren't at least interesting, when they weren't outright masterpieces. But since the turn of the millennium, he has only been able to muster up Sunshine State, Casa de los Babys and Silver City in quick succession, three flat and lifeless wastes of talented ensembles and a once-incisive eye for the nuances of communities. Now, three years after the last of those, he comes back with Honeydripper: by all means a fine film, by no means a great film, but good enough next to his meager recent output that it seems much closer to being a masterpiece than is objectively the case.

The film is set in 1950, in Harmony, Alabama, a town whose ironic and metaphorical name is commented upon at its first appearance and so becomes much less arch in both its irony and metaphor. Tyrone "Pinetop" Purvis (Danny Glover) is the owner of the Honeydripper Lounge, an old-time blues shack fallen on hard times due to the new rhythm & blues place across the way. In debt to everyone under the sun, Tyrone hits upon the desperate gamble of inviting Guitar Sam of New Orleans to play for one night, and pray that the night's profits will be enough to cover his food and liquor and rent expenses for just one more month.

The plot is mostly incidental to two much better trends: first is the languid ease with which Sayles introduces his typically capable ensemble, made of up some fantastic character actors and various blues legends who've never "acted" before: the latter group including such insufficiently famous names as Eddie Shaw, Keb' Mo' and Mable John (whose brief turn as the ousted featured star of the Honeydripper is perhaps the most arresting and electrifying part of the film), the former including Charles S. Dutton, Vondie Curtis Hall, Lisa Gay Hamilton and rather surprisingly, Yaya DaCosta, giving the single finest performance by far ever recorded by a former America's Next Top Model contestant, but I didn't really say that, because that would be embarrassing.

Second is the film's preoccupation with the crucible in which "the blues" became "rhythm and blues" became "rock and roll." It's pretty obvious that Sayles loves all three (and why not, his CV includes videos for Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." and "Glory Days," rock anthems if ever there were),* going so far as to write the songs featured in the film his very own self. And I think you'd be hard pressed to argue that the scenes involving musical performances, be they rock, blues or gospel, aren't the best parts of the movie, and it would be much enriched if there were more of them.

Sayles has never been a wildly stylistic director, but he certainly knows his way around a camera (that, and he works with awfully good cinematographers a lot: most frequently Haskell Wexler, but also Robert Richardson and Slawomir Idziak. Dick Pope does the honors here). Still, Honeydripper has a distinct lack of visual panache that is at least partially motivated by its content, which is summery and laid-back, although that doesn't keep it from being disheartening. Sayles's camera is unusually passive here: it's soaking in visuals without engaging with them, and except for a few scenes inside the Honeydripper itself, there aren't many moments that don't feel essentially flat. There's always a wall of sorts between the camera and the action, which is a great shame: at his best, Sayles is uncannily good at capturing the tenor of a community but here we're mostly sitting back and watching.

That leaves most of the heavy lifting up to the actors, and while this particular director has always been fond of that gambit (in a good way), here he is perhaps too hands-off (still, he doesn't actively sabotage their efforts, which is a good shift from his last three projects). So it's a good thing that the cast is especially strong, anchored by Glover, who at the age of 61 gives the fullest performance of his mostly-distinguished career, carrying himself with a blend of desperation and canniness that never tips too far in either direction. He's surround by plenty of great support: Dutton as his right-hand man is more playful and thoughtful than I've ever seen him, and Hamilton is more of everything than I would have assumed she had in her to give, particularly in her scenes at a revivalist's tent, where the curve of her mouth communicates more than whole pages of screenplay could even stab at. Et cetera ad infinitum; I'm not going through every performer, there's a frightening number of them, and they're all at least quite good.

When all is said and done it doesn't add up to a whole lot, but at least it's fun, and it seems that's all that Sayles had in mind. This is what we call a "minor" film: not much of the theme, less of the technique, but surely not a waste of anyone's time or effort. It's a tiny delight.

7/10

Kudos, by the way, to Sayles and his self-distribution model that is likely to screw the film over rather badly, but serves to remind me of all the reasons that I decided 8 years ago that I wanted to be him when I grew up.

CIFF: JUST ANOTHER CHILDREN'S STORY

I haven't seen all that many films by Hou Hsiao-Hsien, but based on what I have seen, Flight of the Red Balloon qualifies as his most action-packed work yet, given that it has a plot for pretty much all of its running time. I snark, but from love.

More damningly, I haven't ever seen Albert Lamorisse's much-loved children's film from 1956, The Red Balloon, of which the Hou film is...not a remake. I am quite confident about that. It's something much harder to quantify: it treats upon the earlier film as a touchstone, as an inspiration, and a reference, and I'm pretty sure that "getting" this film means having more knowledge of the original than knowing it exists. Still, I'll do what I can.

In many ways, Flight of the Red Balloon showcases some of Hou's most obvious traits: long, still shots; frames within frames; stories that stress the bleeding of the past into the present. But as far as I know - and I don't know very far - he's never made a film so taken up with the matter of filmmaking itself. And it does it in a wildly autobiographical way, too: one of the film's three leads is Song (played by newbie Fang Song, and the "character is named after the actor" thing can't be a coincidence, either), a recent arrival from China to France, who spends her free time making a movie that is not quite a remake of The Red Balloon. That's not nearly so overdetermined as I've made it sound; in fact it's really quite elliptically expressed.

Song is employed as the nanny to Simon (Simon Iteanu), the not-quite-abandoned son of Suzanne (Juliette Binoche), a voice artist in a puppet show (specifically, a retelling of an old Chinese legend). The bulk - in fact, the entirety of the film consists of watching some iteration of these three characters going on about their lives while a red balloon that may or may not be part of Song's movie drifts around just at the periphery of Simon's vision.

There's a lot going on, and for the patient viewer I think most of it is obvious, but one of the things that I particularly want to bring up is that the Chinese woman is interpreting a classically French film, and the French woman is interpreting a classically Chinese story. Fluidity of culture is another major touchstone of Hou's cinema, along with the enjambment between the modern and the classical, and the way those themes cross each other and build themselves up together is very elegant here.

Of course, one could have a perfectly satisfying reading without recourse to anything more than the story of a family in strife: Suzanne is not "neglectful" exactly, but she certainly can't attend to Simon as much as either of them would like, and the boy, without his mother or his much-beloved half-sister, has turned inward, into a world of the PS3 and Game Boy. Song casts him in her film and begins to expand his mind a little bit that way; at the start of the film, he has never heard of The Red Balloon and at the end, he is captivated by the mystery of his very own red balloon.

Which is not to discount Suzanne's own arc, which is beautiful to behold: Binoche is more exciting than she has been in years as the frenzied single mom with the gaudy bleached hair and wrinkled clothes. She's always in a hurry - in distinct contrast to the slow-moving Song - always flustered. It's very close to a career-best performance, and that's before we consider the marvelous work the actress does in the puppetry voice-over scenes; it's almost enough to make you wish that Binoche would do such work full-time.

Hou's camera captures the ebb and flow of these characters casually, but not without a great deal of sensitivity. Many - perhaps even most - of the scenes take place in the very crowded living room/kitchen where the three characters collide like electrons, and simply watching the actors move through the frame, fully exploring the way that the setting affects the characters, is engrossing. Taxing on one's patience, doubtlessly - but for those on the right wavelength (and there's certainly no shame in finding Hou's films too slow for their own good), this is magisterial cinema.

9/10

16 October 2007

CIFF: IN THE FLESH

My first intention had been to start out with a little riff about being confused by how The Diving Bell and the Butterfly seems like it must be a biopic, but there are no musicians taking drugs, so it just can't be. But I decided that missed the point a little bit, and I would just be passive-aggressive about it. Anyway, it's not a biopic, not precisely. Like Capote, it tells a real story about a real person, but it's not really his life story so much as it is about one overriding incident in his life.

Quite the story it is, too: the French editor of Elle, Jean-Dominique Bauby, was 43 years old in 1995, when he suffered a massive stroke that for unclear reasons left his brainstem so damaged as to trap him with locked-in syndrome: a disease where the upper brain is perfectly intact and the voluntary muscle system is irretrievably dysfunctional. Bauby was able only to move his head a tiny bit, grunt a tiny bit, and blink his left eyelid; and it was by using this one ability that he could communicate in binary, more or less. A system was worked out whereby he would listen to an aide recite the alphabet, and he would blink when a letter was reached; thus could he tortuously spell out words, and thus did he endeavor to write a memoir about being trapped inside one's body, Le scaphandre et le papillon. The hugely successful book was published mere days before Bauby died of heart failure.

Whatever other flaws any particular adaptation of that book might have, the one that cannot possibly be overcome is that the most fascinating part of the story is that it exists in the first place. It's really just human nature: no matter how interesting the content of a book explaining how it feels to be locked-in (and it's pretty damned interesting, to my way of thinking), the fact that a locked-in man wrote a book in the first place is almost necessarily more interesting, because it includes the basic idea and then adds to it.

Of course, dramatising a book that takes place entirely in a single mind would be hell anyway, practically requiring the invention of a brand new cinematic language. But I don't care if Orson Welles and Krzysztof Kieślowski both returned from the dead to collaborate on developing that language, it still remains that their film would be essentially unable to be more compelling and fascinating and thought-provoking than the fact of the book.

That said, Welles and Kieślowski would probably not have come up with a much better approach to the material than the American avant-garde artist-turned-filmmaker Julian Schnabel. Not that he uses that approach flawlessly; and I suppose it's not right to call it a "brand new cinematic language," but he still comes up with a wholly successful patchwork of techniques with what I'm sure was a great deal of assistance from cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, noted Spielberg associate, turning in what is surely the most adventurous work of his career if not necessarily the most aesthetically satisfying.

What they do is shoot from Bauby's point-of-view, but it's more than just the simple "the camera is the character" sort of thing. Through the use of focus and lighting and movement, they suggest the vision of a man who's just had a stroke and can't quite see properly, who can't turn his head on his own, but who can dart around with his single good eye. I also do believe I detected the use of a wide lens (I've had a hell of a time confirming it) to sort of capture the entire human field of vision - wider than a film frame - and suggest that Bauby's ability to see has been "compressed" a little, forced into a narrower frame than it could fill.

Then there are the editing (by Juliette Welfling) and the sound (by Dominique Gaborieau and Francis Wargnier): the first capturing the ways that a man of Bauby's damaged brain might have a hard time retaining focus and consciousness, skipping like a cheap record player, the latter foregrounding the way that sounds inside the head are different to the ear than sounds outside the body. Since nearly everything Bauby feels must be communicated by narration, the proper sound design is crucial here.

I've made it sound like a dry academic exercise, but it's certainly not. It's completely engaging, in fact, by turns terrifying and humane and even funny. There is a huge problem with this aesthetic, though - for of course I cannot love a movie without finding a huge problem - and that is the way that Schnabel gets out of it. The majority of the film is not shot from inside Bauby's head, which is probably for the best, and when it is not it is still mostly good although a great deal more conventional: Mathieu Amalric, in a role that once was destined for Johnny Depp (and I think it's really for the best that it didn't work out that way), manages the superhuman task of communicating emotion using eye movement - in fact, I haven't the slightest hesitation in saying that Amalric is much more interesting when he plays the locked-in Bauby than he is during flashbacks. The supporting cast around him is extremely good, especially Max von Sydow, which you've probably heard by now, and Emmanuelle Seigner, which you probably haven't. Von Sydow plays Bauby's father in two scenes, and perhaps because of that ol' Swedish gravitas that he carries with him like its part of his body, he turns the film's most conspicuously Oscarbaity moment of manipulative tearjearking into an actual tearjerking scene. Seigner plays one of Bauby's ex-lovers, the mother of his children, still madly in love with him even as he sits mute, and the hurt that plays across her face is positively wounding.

It's pedestrian, I won't lie, but it's the kind of pedestrian that is still awfully emotionally effective. The problem getting to it at last, is that the rotation between the conventional "man trapped in a wheelchair" drama and the more avant-garde "inside a man's head as he is trapped in a wheelchair drama" seems completely arbitrary. I'd hoped that if I sat with the film for long enough - it's now been four days - I would have some sense of what made Schnabel choose the moments he did to switch perspective, and I simply can't. The best I can come up with is that he was afraid we'd get bored if he spent too long in either point-of-view.

That's not good enough. Everything about this story hinges on point-of-view to an exceptional degree: the story is notable primarily because of point-of-view. And as far as I can tell, there is no specific method to the director's manipulation between points-of-view besides whim. I would like very much to re-watch the film, actually, and try to see if I missed anything, but that's not an option open to me right now. So I just have to go with my gut reaction: a very good movie is mixed with a pretty good movie with such carelessness as to leave both of them much worse off. It's still a good movie. But it wanted very badly to be great.

7/10

15 October 2007

CIFF: A SONG OF HUMANS

Carlos Reygadas's Silent Light is a decidedly unconventional motion picture, playing by so few of the rules that govern moviemaking, whether commercial or "art" films, that I feel almost uncomfortable calling it a movie at all. Certainly there are all the usual paradigms about cinematography does this, editing does that, writing does the other thing, that can be brought to bear on the film, but I sort of don't want to.

The weirdness starts at the production history: this is the first film ever shot in Plautdietsch, a language or dialect (there is controversy on this point) spoken by Mennonites in the Americas. The Plautdietsch-speaking cast is comprised almost uniformly of non-professional Mennonites in the first (and presumably final) acting gig. The movie was filmed in Mexico by a Spanish-speaking director, and is the official Mexican submission for the Academy Awards, a situation that would not have been possible except for the newly-revised eligibility rules.

That's all trivia, although some of it is awfully useful trivia (the bit about the Mennonite non-actors in particular). The film itself, though, really does feel like something odd, something deserving of an odd history like that. Not to the degree that "you've never seen anything like it!" but it's out there.

The story is tiny: Johan (Cornelio Wall) is a Mennonite farmer living in northern Mexico with children, a wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), and a mistress, Marianne (Maria Pankratz). He tries unsuccessfully to balance the two women in his life, and he begins to wonder if Marianne is a gift from God or a temptation from Satan.

If that doesn't look like much, that's probably because it really isn't. Yet it's the foundation for a film that runs to almost two and a half hours. Clearly, there's no way that such a story can be stretched out that long right? Yes and no. The thing is, Reygadas doesn't make any particular effort to foreground that story for long stretches at a time, instead focusing on the rhythms of life, favoring the indelibly slow development of story and character through very neutral observations of Johan's world. Not that it's an ethnography, or anything like that: one of the most distinctive aspects of the film is the way that it tosses Mennonite life and philosophy at the audience as though we're supposed to know everything about the society already. Instead, the focus is very much on the domesticity and placidity and comfort of Johan's life as an individual, not as a representative of something greater.

This is all communicated through some of the most action-deficient long takes imaginable (it's so, so tempting to compare this to Tarkovsky, and so, so inappropriate in so, so many ways). Reygadas and his cinematographer, Alexis Zabe trot out a great many empty frames, full of a melancholy beauty, and just let them hang there for minutes at a time, sometimes with something happening that advances the story, sometimes not - for example, the film's incredible opening shot starts on a field of stars and tilts down to the horizon, where the camera holds steady for every bit of four minutes, watching the sun creep over the horizon. These vacant moments aren't meaningless, of course; they are sometimes symbolically laden (the sunrise, obviously) and sometimes they are simply indicators of the film's ecosystem.

Importantly once the story ramps up - once Johan becomes less discreet about his affair - the shots get shorter, the exterior shots grow less prevalent and the interiors more, and the lighting grows less painterly and impressionistic. Implicitly, what's happening is that the laid-back, natural rhythm of things is being disturbed by Johan's actions, made faster and more chaotic as it were.

Still, even as it increases, the pacing of the film is never "movielike." Scenes run into each other essentially randomly: the example so jarring as to be almost comic is when a late-summer day cuts immediately and without context to the middle of winter. Really, it's almost impossible to tell how much the first half of the movie covers; it seems to be early summer through the following spring, but that's just a guess. The film seems to exist outside of time and most of the plot takes place in the spaces between cuts; or at least, significant portions of the plot do, and somehow it is natural that they should. It's not conventional, I said, and I'm sticking by that. Silent Light is a continuum of events and emotions that we drop into, much less than it is a classically described story.

When the end comes, it comes with a healthy dose of magical realism, if not outright fantasy, and despite the fact that the film has heretofore been as sober and realistic as anything, that change doesn't seem particularly jarring, I think because the whole film has seemed so impressionistic to this point. I'm not at all comfortable calling it a religious film, thought it is about the religious, but it certainly a mystic film throughout, it just couches its mysticism in a literally hypnotic slowness. I have no doubt that it's a film that is not to all tastes, for sound aesthetic reasons (I do love a film where I can read all of the bad reviews, think "that's completely right," and still think exactly what I think), but for those on the same wavelength as its deliberate anti-cinematic bent, it achieves something close to transcendence; at any rate, it is clearly something different, if not necessarily "more," than the limits of its art form.

9/10

14 October 2007

CIFF: ANIMATED SHORTS 2007

The Chicago International Film Festival "Animation Nations" short film slate was better this year than last: there weren't any I truly disliked, like before (although there was only one, and it went on to win the Academy Award), and two that positively sent me reeling.

"Art's Desire" (Sarah Wickliffe, USA)
View here. A clever enough idea if slightly over-done: what if the subjects of paintings were alive and sentient? And Wickliffe's ideas are certainly playful within that framework. I can't help but feel, though, that the animation itself is a little bit jerky, speaking not to a stylistic choice but to cheapness or hurry. Then again, Wickliffe was an NYU undergrad when she made this, and that doesn't necessarily make it okay, but it's enough to make me feel like a complete and utter dick for saying anything mean. When I was her age, I was making...well, let's just not go there. 6/10

"Sleeping Betty" (Claude Coutier, Canada)
View trailer. For my money, the best thing in the world of animation for about the last three decades has been the National Film Board of Canada, the government-funded organisation that only doesn't seem to much else besides finance cartoons. Well, let them, if the cartoons are like this: the story is straight-up post-Shrek boilerplate about fairy tale characters in the modern world, but the sense of humor is agreeably warped - even Pythonesque. To say nothing of it's raison d'être, the animation itself, which looks - I should maybe say nothing, I have no idea how they made it - but it looks like it was all done with colored pencils. At any rate, this was the most beautiful film of the night, easily. 9/10

"Flutter" (Howie Shia, Canada)
Two NFB films in a row! And while it doesn't hit the woozy heights that "Sleeping Betty" does, "Flutter" is still a gorgeous piece. It's very textured, by which I mean that it appears - and again, I don't know if this is actually the case - that the animators used found material in their animation. It's in black-and-white, which helps add to that impression, in any case. The story itself is a tiny little thing about children pushing beyond the boundaries adults set, but more than I think any other representational film here, the style washes out the theme. 7/10

"The Battle of Cable Street" (Yoav Segal, United Kingdom)
The concept is both intriguing and frustrating: a live-action boy and his grandfather are wandering around London, when they arrive at Cable Street, and the old man tells the child about the Cable Street Riot. The battle itself is then rendered in beautiful minimalist animation that is meant to be the child's drawings. I enjoy the framing, I suppose, but as much of the project is filmed as is animated, and that's not what I signed up for. Besides, the animation is so low on detail that it's basically impossible to tell what happened at the battle. It's a very nice commemoration, but ultimately not that exciting a film. 6/10

Rowlandson Rides Again (Tim Fernee, Ireland)
It helps to know that Thomas Rowlandson was an English caricaturist known for his semi-pornographic artwork going in, because the film certainly doesn't make that clear. As a collection of stills, this looks great - sort of like pencil sketches on brown paper, but the story is confusing and the animation doesn't help to sort things out, being much too fluid and amorphous to actually settle down and depict things. Which is too bad: the bawdy poem that drives the story is funny, and the plot involves bestiality, and who doesn't love a good horse-porn cartoon? 5/10

"For the Love of God" (Joe Tucker, United Kingdom)
A remarkably slimy and squirmy bit of stop-motion animation with figures that look like they were carved out of melting wax with paper mouths. The plot involves some seriously twisted sexuality going on in a Christian bookstore in a red-light district where Graham (voiced by Steve Coogan!) lives with his mother and lusts after God. The family jackdaw (voiced by Sir Ian McKellen!!) provides cryptic and gothic advice, and the whole thing is almost as nasty as it is funny. The ending, unfortunately is what they call "too clever by half." Still, a triumph of design. 9/10

"Spontaneous Creation (Andy Cahill, USA)"
View here. Oddly enough, it's not the imagery I find myself thinking of in this particular animation, but the sort of gross (in a good way) squishy sound design. Not that the imagery isn't striking - it's rudely physical in a manner at least superficially similar to the work of Jan Švankmajer. Certainly not everyone's cup of tea, and the musical score was a bit distracting, but I responded to the utter lack of polish. 8/10

"Yours Truly" (Osbert Parker, United Kingdom)
My favorite short film last year, bar none, was Parker's "Film Noir," and its sequel manages to improve on it in almost every way, without necessarily trying for anything new. There is a clear plot in this film, involving the particularly ingenious way a woman disposes of her husband, and the animation, which consists, like its predecessor, of stop-motion model cars and rooms, much like a doll house or train set, with paper cut-outs of movie characters - including Bogie, in this case - as I was saying, the animation is much smoother, and there's a really creepy way that the actors, who are so clearly slips of paper, seem to be three-dimensional. 10/10

"1977" (Peque Varela, United Kingdom)
A basic coming-of-age tale, about a young woman's quest to identify herself. The opening 90 seconds are much the best part of the film, animated with an elementally simple black-on-white pencil drawing style that looks exactly like a 7-year-old's scribbling. The film becomes a little too precious for its own good when the animation starts to take the form of some board games, including Life and Guess Who, and while I appreciate the metaphor, I'm not certain that it works as well as it is supposed to. Much better is the end, when the game imagery is ended and there's something that's clearly not rotoscoping but similar in effect. 7/10

"Everything Will Be OK" (Don Hertzfeldt, USA)
From any other director, this would qualify as a career-defining epic, but Hertzfeldt has had the misfortune of directing "Rejected," a short film of such overwhelming ambition and perfection that even a "better" film would still somehow seem to be a disappointment. Anyway, this is the story of Bill, a man who is probably dying, and who is incredibly sad about that fact despite how completely joyless his life is. The animation is typical of the director's work: crude characters just one step above stick figures, in this case segregated into "cells" within the frame (all done in-camera). It's terrifying and funny as hell, obviously. 10/10

CIFF: THE QUIET MAN

What's great about film festivals: I Served the King of England started late and I had to leave without waiting to attend director Jiří Menzel's Q&A (not that Q&A's are ever really worthwhile), but I as I snuck out of the theater, I got to see him, from a distance of about 8 inches as we squeezed path each other in a hallway.

I must confess to my shame that I'd never seen any of Menzel's films before, not even his much-loved Closely Watched Trains (though I have an idea of when that particular gap in my education will be filled), and therefore I feel ill-equipped to discuss his latest film, to say the least. But if I can't slot I Served the King (adapted from the same novelist as Closely Watched Trains) into any greater thesis about the director's development, or into the development of the Czech cinema as a whole, at least I know that it's ridiculously funny.

Moreover, it is a ridiculously funny silent film, for although it has dialogue and music and sound effects, those things are used sparingly, and the gags are all structured after the fashion of a 1920s slapstick comedy. Lest we think this is an accident, Menzel tips his hand rather early: one of the first scenes in the film is presented as a literal silent movie, in black-and-white with intertitles, the film itself faded and scratched to appear older.

The film opens in the mid-1960s, as Jan Díte (Oldrich Kaiser) is released from prison, observing in narration that he was meant to serve 15 years, but thanks to a general amnesty, was released after only 14 years and 9 months, and something about the syntax of the gag and the way it is narrated over the action feels very 1920s-style. There is at least the possibility that I am too married to my thesis.

But then there's the face of Díte as a young man, as played by Ivan Barnev, and he gives me a much better leg to stand on. Because Barnev looks inexplicably similar to the bastard son of a union between Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx, with the former's physical bearing a tendency towards twitchy little details of performance wedded to the latter's sly, licentious grin and playfully expressive face. In effect, Barnev gives a silent performance even when he has dialogue (which is infrequent, actually): he communicates everything we need to know in tiny pieces of physical acting, whether it's the look on his face or simply the way he walks though a room

The film revolves around the older Díte as he settles into a government-mandated job helping to clean out the abandoned German settlements on the border (a relic of the time before the war when the two countries had a friendly and open policy), and his subsequent memories of the road that took him from selling hot dogs at the train station to becoming a millionaire (and pointedly not serving the king of England, although he is given a medal by the emperor of Ethiopia). It's a funny and charming take on the basic Horatio Alger model, deepened by the filmmakers' invocations of the history of cinema and the national character of Czechoslovakia.

And after a point, the movie pulls the rug from under our feet, and even while on its face it's still funny and chipper, there's a dark core pulsing balefully. This treads into spoiler territory: when the German government starts to annex portions of the country, Díte decides not to join in the solidarity or resistance movements of his co-workers and neighbors, but willingly - joyfully! - becomes a collaborator and falls in love with a German woman, and does what he can to turn a nice profit from his efforts.

The shift from playful comedy to this strange hybrid of the comic and the upsetting is managed perfectly, and the new moral tone the film adopts is neither preaching nor obvious: indeed, the movie is very sly about the awful implications of this plot, up until the final moments of the film, in which old Díte surrounds himself with mirrors, mirrors which we have been told are thought to hold German ghosts, and he looks around at who he has become. It's the one and only truly sad moment in the film, but it doesn't feel anything other than inevitable. The whole film has been about remembering the past; it is only in the final moments that the callow youth at its center finally has the strength to confront the past.

8/10

13 October 2007

SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT

It's not even that I mind the trolling per se, but my God, if you're going to troll, at least have the decency to come up with an amusing handle. I don't want this to turn into a sea of anonymous commenters spewing invective.

To that end, and I hate to do it, because I know that some legitimate commenters will be shut out by this, but effective at this moment, only registered users of Blogger will be permitted to comment. I'm going to look into less arcane, earth-salting measures once things have settled down after the festival.

Bumped to remain top post

CIFF: TOMORROW IS ANOTHER DAY

As of right now, my favorite director that you've never heard of is Roy Andersson, a Swedish director of ash-dry comedies whose glacial pace of output rivals that of Stanley Kubrick.* His last film, 2000's Songs from the Second Floor, was a miraculous bit of drollery in celebration of the human capacity to suffer without losing hope.

You, the Living is also a bit of drollery in celebration of the human capacity to suffer, but it's not as much a retread of the first film as that makes it sound. Although to be perfectly honest, I went in expecting that. "Oh, how I hope there are long takes with no camera movement and quirky details of set design that don't amuse so much as they puzzle," I thought. "Surely it will not be as good as the last film - which is indeed, one of my favorite films of the decade! - but as long as he does the same things, I will at least be entertained," I thought (yes, in fact I do think in subordinate clauses).

And the movie started up and I was right, that it was awfully like Songs from the Second Floor, and then it turned into a musical.

You know that moment that you get now and then when you're sitting in the dark of the movie theater, and there's a moment that you didn't anticipate whatsoever that is unmixed, joyfully pure cinematic invention that makes you fall desperately, religiously in love with the movie? That moment for me happened about four minutes into You, the Living: after an old man looks in the camera and tells us about his disturbing dream, in which the entire city was overflown by a large number of bombers, the action suddenly cuts to a middle-aged woman sitting in a park, proclaiming that she doesn't deserve love. After a few minutes arguing with her boyfriend, a tuba starts up on the soundtrack, and the woman sing-speaks in the harshest voice I can conceive of that all she really wants is a motorcycle so she can ride away. The tuba is joined by a whole brass band, and for three or four minutes, the film stops and lets the song play on. In two shots: one of the tuba player puffing away in his apartment, one of his downstairs neighbor pounding on the ceiling as a picture frame falls into his fish tank.

I don't want to overstate the degree to which this is hilarious - comedy is subjective, bleak Scandinavian comedy most of all - but surely we can agree that turning an existential comedy about unloved people into a oom-pah band musical (the band, we will eventually learn, is called the Louisiana Brass Band, and they make their money playing military parades and funerals) is the mark of a filmmaker who does not particularly care to play within our expectations.

When the director isn't busy putting deadpan musical numbers into the film, he's playing games with mise en scène and framing that much trump anything in Songs. In that film, Andersson put all sorts of jokes into the frame, but "jokes" is all they were: something weird and crazy would happen, and the characters would pointedly not react to it. You, the Living is a great deal cannier, using location within the frame as part of the joke: it is almost Tati-esque, if Tati were a bitter Swede who hated life instead of a gentle French clown.

I've not mentioned the story, you'll note, for the good reason that there basically isn't one, although the final shot imparts a structure to the film that turns the seemingly random blips of the past hour and a half into a very clear framework (I wouldn't dream of spoiling it, although a sufficiently attentive viewer shouldn't have any trouble guessing it before it arrives). Instead, there are vignettes, one might almost call them "sketches," in which a not-so-very-large cast of characters pop up in various places without ever forming connections between themselves. Which is entirely the point: this is a film about social isolation, and tying every character up in a "Six Degrees of Dour Bastards" flow-chart would violate the spirit of the thing.

Instead, the film is tied together through the repetition of motif: not only the music that we hear so much of (the Louisiana Brass Band has a small repertoire), but lines of dialogue, situations, compositions: the refrain "tomorrow is another day" that the local barman calls out every night, somewhere between a prayer and a threat; the many characters who stare straight into the camera and tell us about their dream; and so forth. It enforces the idea that all this society is working from a shared set of impulses, which is partially answered by the ending and partially the simple fact that we're all in this together, even if we're alone.

I will not lie: I love me some depressing comedy and some Swedish existentialism, but even given those biases, You, the Living strikes me as something special. It's completely pessimistic but totally hilarious, and its random hopping from moment to moment just points out that it's always the movies that seem the least like movies that are the truest to life.

10/10

12 October 2007

CIFF: SHE'S HAVING A BABY NEVERMIND

The festival and art house crowd might be excused for declaring a Romanian New Wave on the basis of what amounts to just three films in as many years, for those three films are all pretty amazing: Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, winner of the 2005 Un Certain Regard at Cannes; Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest, winner of the 2006 Camera d'Or at Cannes; and now Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, winner of the 2007 Palme d'Or at Cannes.*

(The French, they have their obsessions).

That said, the newest film in that triptych suggests, I fear, that the end is already coming. Not because it is bad, dear Lord no, but as much as I wanted to collapse in love with 4 Months, there is a distinct whiffiness to it, the first tiny sense that it's not as fresh an aesthetic as it once was, not as invigorating. I give it two more films before the backlash.

In the meanwhile, we've got this film and the many cues that it has clearly taken from Mr. Lazarescu, which is a criticism in roughly the same way that claiming "Scorsese takes cues from Godard" is a criticism. That is to say, when something is done this right, there's not a whole lot of reason to screw around with it.

The New Romanian Aesthetic, for the uninitiated: long, long, long (scene-long, if possible) takes shot on a handheld camera + an obsession with the legacy of the Ceauşescu regime + unbridled pessimism. The films are at least nominally "realistic," according to the current fashion (certainly, the current "handheld camera" vogue in Europe seems to have arisen from the turn by some documentarians, notably the Dardenne brothers, to neorealist-style filmmaking derived from their documentaries in the mid-to-late '90s), but I tend to wonder how much of that is incidental: certainly Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months have scenes that begin to flirt with Expressionism in mood and lighting. Maybe we could call it Expressionism as shot by Neorealists. At any rate, it's not like anything else in world cinema right now.

The specifics of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days make it the most urgent and least pleasant of the recent Romanian films: Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is a pregnant college student in 1987 (can you guess how far along she is?), terrified because she has finally set in motion the events that will lead to her extremely illegal and significantly dangerous abortion. "Setting in motion" in this case refers to begging her roommate and best friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to take care of all the details for her, from calling the abortionist to arranging the hotel to scraping together the money.

Honestly, if you set yourself the question "how much awful can happen to these two people without their actual deaths?" you will probably have a good sense of where the plot goes and ends up. Eastern European miserabilism is as rigid a form as any other, and while this might be slightly more miserable than most, it hits most of the familiar notes.

The important thing to note about the film, is that unlike Mr. Lazarescu, a conscious and obvious satire about the medical industry, 4 Months isn't "about" what it's about. That is, it's not an argument for or against abortion, after the fashion of e.g. Vera Drake. Abortion is the vehicle for which it is a much broader assault on the bureaucratic nightmare of Communist Romania, a situation which the film implies hasn't improved much. The drama isn't so much that Gabita is having a pregnancy terminated as that the two girls are putting themselves at significant risk by breaking the law in a totalitarian state.

There are plenty of tiny details that encourage this reading, such as the hinting references throughout to the black market, to Otilia's facility with bribing officials, to all the talk throughout the film about the way the government treats college graduates; and there is a great big detail, which is that the word "abortion" isn't spoken until over halfway into the film, and that a viewer not armed with the plot outline could easily go 45 minutes without having any idea what's happening. But for my tastes, the best support for the film's anti-bureaucracy, as opposed to anti-anti-abortion, theme, is Anamaria Morinca's incandescent performance. It's very clear that Otilia loves Gabita, wants to help her through a trying time, and probably counts as feminist by the standards of 1987 Romania, but what the script doesn't really foreground until late in, that Morinca makes clear pretty much from her first scene, is how pissed-off Otilia is at everything she has to do. For her this is all a matter of inconvenience, made worse by Gabita's startling ability to everything exactly wrong, and you can see it in the actress's eyes, and the way she bends her mouth, and even the tiny slouch to her back, that she is every bit as annoyed as sympathetic. She's very good at working in the system, but she doesn't like having to do it.

Otilia is framed as being the worldly one, the one who knows how the government is, and that is why focusing on her, and focusing on her anger rather than her sorrow, allows the film to focus on the myriad ways in which the government trips the women up. It's also noteworthy that the only time Otilia cracks is not when her friend is given the surgery, nor even when she has to deal with the dead fetus, but when she ventures outside and is confronted with the possibility of being caught. It's at this point that the film ventures from dramatic miserabilism into something like Expressionist horror, in both the lighting and the sound, and it has everything to do with being a lawbreaker under a Communist regime, not being a scared girl with a dead fetus.

Mind you, the abortion plot is still harrowing, and evokes much in the way of human drama; it's just not the polemical aim of the film to explode that.

When all is said and done, this might well be a better film than its predecessors, but I keep coming back to that teeny tiny touch of staleness. The style works but it is no longer exciting and fresh, and where Mr. Lazarescu seemed almost adventurous to watch, 4 Months seems perilously close to being the Old Guard.

9/10

11 October 2007

CIFF: DANGEROUS LIAISONS IS NOT A GUIDE TO LIFE

Ah, Asia Argento! I am not persuaded that she is a good actress, in the way that we customarily mean 'good," but she is an unnervingly perfect movie star: it is impossible to look at anything else when she is onscreen. She is electric in all things she does.

Lately, she's been doing costume dramas, oddly enough. Her last film seen in this country was Marie Antoinette, where she played Mme. du Barry and was the only flicker of life in Sofia Coppola's eye-candy parade. Now, we find her in The Last Mistress,* Catherine Breillat's adaptation of a most notorious 1851 novel by Jules-Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, and once again she is the lively center of a sometimes meandering tale of sexual intrigue.

The film opens with the proclamation that it takes place in 1835, the "century of Choderlos deLaclos," which is a little odd given that de Laclos died in 1803 and his work that so obviously inspired this story, Les liaisons dangereuses (newbie , was published in 1782. Except, as quickly becomes clear, Breillat is playing a tiny joke on us: it's the century of de Laclos because the people who live in it have been so fully consumed by that author's writings. At least the old generation has been, represented by the Comtesse d'Artelles (Yoland Moreau) the Vicomte de Prony (Michael Lonsdale) and the Marquise de Flers (Claude Sarraute), who view infidelity and sexual politics as a fine bit of fun gossip fodder and a game to play. The younger generation doesn't quite agree: the marquise's granddaughter Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), her fiancé Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou) and Ryno's former lover Vellini (Argento) are all a bit too ripped up inside to enjoy the consequence-free libertinism of their elders' youths.

I have never seen a film by Catherine Breillat - my impression is that they're unpleasantly nihilistic even by my generous standards of misanthropy - but I do know that two of her favorite topics are on display in this film: the inherent inability of the genders to mix peacefully, and hatefucking. Of course, I should be fair to Breillat and observe that hatefucking is a particular specialty of French art cinema in general. Never has an entire generation of artists so unanimously agreed that sex is something that can only occur between people who despise each other! And yet the sex scenes in The Last Mistress are still more flat-out erotic than anything in e.g. Lust, Caution, or anything in the American cinema (obviously).

Anyway, in this film, the hatefucking and the gender imbalance are very much the same impulse, which is that Vellini is a passionate woman who rebels against being put into a box and objectified by Ryno throughout their ten-year relationship, and who is aroused by her desire to do violence as much as by lust (the moment of the film, for me: after the young man is wounded in a duel with Vellini's husband, she licks blood out of his wound, in the semi-hope of infecting him and killing him).

This is at least the impression I get from the first half of the film, in which it seems obvious to me that Ryno is set up to be a licentious cad, discarding Vellini for Hermangarde's wealth. The second half of the film tends to directly contradict that impression, which I'm certain was supposed to be there. For one, Breillat has cast opposite the wild Argento a wan and pasty pretty-boy with large pouty lips and drowsy eyes, and he is in all possible ways a boring slat of nothing when contrasted to her vitality. For two, the director uses close-up shots to constantly put Ryno in the worst light: he seems leering and puffy. It's really wonderfully consistent how she uses close-ups, in fact, with the closest shots on any given character apparently reflecting how venal they are being in that instant.

The second half of the film muddles things a bit, both visually (it moves outdoors and becomes much less conspicuously framed) and thematically (suddenly Ryno is sympathetic). It's at this point that the marvelously entertaining old people cease to be in the picture very much and Argento becomes quite the only thing to keep our attention on the film at all, at least until the barnburner of a final montage. Still, as things to look at are concerned, she's dynamic, much more so than the suddenly trite film containing her. I will say this: I had always been told that Breillat liked to push buttons. Now that she's working with a budget literally as large as her entire preceding career put together, she has apparently learned conservatism and caution; for other than those sex scenes, nothing in the back half of the film feels edgy or political at all. Oh well. We'll always have Asia.

6/10

10 October 2007

CIFF: DO YOU HEAR WHAT I HEAR?

For about 100 of its 108 minutes, the Australian cop movie Noise rolls along smooth as silk, less a procedural and more a look into two minds affected in altogether different ways by a miserable crime, a perfectly efficient construct that hardly seems to go by at all, so effortless is it.

Then it has its last scene, which is so absolutely not any ending at all, by which I mean that it is exactly how the film would end if it were a supercool hipster drama that delighted in fucking with the audience. At no point have we been particularly anxious to see the resolution of the crime that forms the film's backbone, but the ending taunts us with its confusing "answers" that aren't, implying that it has revealed the killer, but leaving things so vague that I could only tell who the killer was because his character name in the credits was in scare quotes.

There are two possibilities: one is that the ending was all wrong for the movie, and the other is that the movie was fundamentally something other than what I thought it was. Since up until the ending, I mostly liked the movie that I thought I was watching, I'm content to assume it's the former, and just scrunch up my eyes and pretend that the ending didn't happen, and to hell with critical integrity.

So, one of my big pet peeves is that we have in cinema this marvelous toy called "sound," and such a vanishingly small number of filmmakers ever try to do interesting things with it. That said, there's one type of film that pretty much by default has to do so, and that is the story about sound (the granddaddy of the form is of course Coppola's masterpiece The Conversation). A film title Noise doesn't have to be about sound, of course, but in this particular case it is, and director Matthew Saville along with sound mixer/designer Emma Bortignon and sound editor Jed Palmer really do go all out.

To explain why will require the plot: in the film's bravura opening, teenage Lavinia (debuting Maia Thomas) hops on a subway train, iPod blazing, and is so intent on her music that she does not notice as seven passengers are shot and killed in her car until just in time to see the killer escape. Coming as it does hard on the heels of a seemingly random killing of a local woman on a roadside, this traumatises the community fiercely, and Office Graham McGahan (Brendan Cowell), who had hoped to get some medical leave to deal with his increasingly crippling tinnitus is assigned the night shift at a trailer in the dodgy part of town to listen to anybody who wants to come in as a witness, or just to talk about what has happened.

Hearing things you don't care to and not hearing things you need to are deeply ingrained to the story's evolution, and the filmmakers do marvelous work playing with that. Chiefly in the form of the nominal protagonist, Graham, whose hearing is interrupted constantly by a low ringing that occasionally and for no apparent reason picks up in intensity, sometimes to the point where he literally cannot make out any other sound. The soundscape is primarily subjective - that is, we hear what the characters hear, whether it be the constant buzz in Graham's scenes that eventually becomes such a natural part of the movie that it's startling when it cuts off, or Lavinia's heightened sensitivity to every little noise as a result of her post-traumatic stress. As I write this, I realize that it sounds like a cliché - ooh, she's scared of the big bangs! - but it's done in a way that seems much more imaginative than that.

Sometimes, anyway, the sound is more impressionistic, which is one of my favorite words that doesn't really mean anything. The use of diegetic music throughout cannot be traced to any one character's perspective, but it hangs over the movie anyway, filling up space and intensifying the moodiness of the neo-noir surroundings.

Mood and space are two very important things in film: they are often created through evocative lighting and mise en scène and editing, and mood in particular through dialogue and acting. And while all of these things are done awfully well (the writing by Saville, the cinematography by the well-named László Baranyai), it's really the sound that creates those things. All the details that would ordinarily be filled in with little visual touches are instead filled in with offscreen noise that immediately and effectively evokes a whole neighborhood. I can think of a few films that do something similar - The Haunting leaps to mind - but it's still exciting when it's done this well.

Hell, even That Ending uses some pretty aggressive sound design that cannot possibly be regarded as "natural" in any useful sense of that word.

But That Ending does call into question, for me at least, the degree to which this is an experiment in sound couched in a genre film versus a genre film with a really well-done soundtrack. Make no mistake, it's a fine genre film, more about psychology than policing and all the richer for it. But rich cop films aren't rare, and it's not a stand-out in that field, just good. I don't know. Sometimes you just really wish that narrative films didn't need narratives.

7/10