Sunday, December 16, 2007

ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE (2007)......7/10

ELIZABETH:THE GOLDEN AGE, sequel to the more strictly situational ELIZABETH (1998), functions best as a period-piece via an impressionistic mood-piece, with the certain air of speculation about its history. Its cinematography bows rather elegantly and severely to nature of retrospection; a peering through the veil of history, as it were. In many instances we observe scenes obscured by textured glass, from a harsh angle, swathed in saturated colors, or through a hazy reflection in polished metal. The entire film has a kind of poetic severity; virtuosic score, stunning compositions and design. Ultimately though, this does put a rather theatrical and abstract wall between the viewer and the film, which might have sustained better by a more subtle existential language, considering its focus on the queen's taxing solitude, and indeed its acuteness of character abroad. We are swept up in pageantry and spectacle, but not compelled by authenticity or humanity per se, even though Blanchette’s performance is beguiling in its dance between vulnerability and command. The only real mar against the film are those many moments in which characters wax their prose-like introspections, moments that undermine their own depth and weigh as a self-conscious. But in the end I wonder, what else did people have to do back then but talk of their experience? For that matter, one might as well draw their words with particular zeal. It merely buoys the poetics of the rest of the films verbous construction.

Historical inaccuracy is certainly rampant in Kapur’s film, but I concede to it for I’ve never seen a historical drama that is built entirely on incontrovertible unmodified fact, just as adaptation from reputed fiction is never translated pure. I forgive it because I expect it. I understand that materials and words and facts will be manipulated for a filmmaker’s own “truth-telling.” THE GOLDEN AGE shuffles a number of milemarkers in the later life of the queen, and mixes them with some speculative if not fictional elements, but to no significant detriment of the film itself. The reason I say this is because, like a good period film, its very nature and display made me question its bearings and authenticity. It inspired me to actively research the period on my own terms. I know exactly what was changed, added, trimmed, cropped, highlighted and crammed in terms of actual fact, and all the better for myself and the film. This is a sentiment shared by Blanchette, who is weary of a growing uneducated populace complacent with illusion-as-truth.

Shekar Kapur (the director) explains that his film operates under the maxim of “all history is but an interpretation.” His paramount concern is to make ELIZABETH resonate, through mood and consequence of action, the crucial attitude of religious tolerance in a world that has begotten so many vehemently singular religions convinced of their authority. This is wholly relevant to our own world stage.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Vagabond (1985) DVD................8/10


“You chose total freedom and but you got total loneliness. The time comes when, if you go on you destroy yourself. You head for destruction. If you want to live you stop. My friends who stayed on the road are dead now, or else they fell apart: alcoholics or junkies, because the loneliness ate them up in the end.” –Farmer speaking to Mona

This critical conversation extends itself into the visual language of the film, as do several. "If you want to live, you stop." VAGABOND (1985) is in fact punctuated by moments where Mona, our detached and wandering loner, forges past stop signs, but not before pausing for a hanging moment. She is recurrently given explicit warnings, both tactile and in conversation, but falls deaf to them, as if impelled to her own end by indifference. Mona’s arrogant fatalism is what differs her most from, say, the altruistic driven character of Alex Supertramp of INTO THE WILD (2007). In fact, it seems apt to be discussing Agnes Varda's VAGABOND in lieu of the recent release of Sean Penn’s film. Both share an uncompromising spirit of refusal and follow an usher who has arguably no roots in this ‘world of reason’ on their rebellious migrations. While the commonalities of these films are striking (structure, premise), their differences are stark and mostly attitudinal. Mona of VAGABOND is virtually the opposite of Alex of INTO THE WILD though they make roughly the same larger decisions, affect those they encounter by their intensity, and meet with a solemn and solitary finality. Where Alex is aimed (reasonably so), Mona is aimless. He seeks a means, and she seeks an end (whether or not she understands it). Mona has no interest in building loyalties or to be changed by her encounters, nor does she strive to offer any returns of thanks or wisdom, while Alex is explicitly seeking a kind of purity, a truth that he desires to share. “Maybe I’ll write a book when I get back, about my experiences.” He rejects the tenets of man and law with knowledgeable discretion, not bitter totality. To be fair though, Mona makes a curious gesture of selflessness by giving blood, and not for food or for money. She pawns it off as "killing time," but in a way it might be the best way for her to lend herself, because it is done from a distance, detached completely from those who will take benefit. In a sense, it could be taken as her own obscure manner of "living on," in the way that an artists work is their own vying for posterity. I'm reminded of Francois Ozon's unsympathetic and complex LE TEMPS QUI RESTE (2005), in which the young, rather insensitive, and bitter Romain, dying of cancer, makes a final gesture of amends by helping a family conceive, naming the child the sole recipient of all his wealth. Its a small moment that doesnt swell or turn saccarine, just as Mona's moment remains as passing as any other in her downfall.

Mona is a base individual, whose ambitions are wholly selfish and sensual (that’s not to infer that she is simplistic). She seeks no attachment and boasts a harsh ambivalence towards those she encounters (though some evoke a brief sensitivity from her, such as Assoun, “the man with the kind eyes.”). We never really get wind of her motives or of her heart. VAGABOND is insular to a brief period of her wandering, as revealed and anchored by scenes of those scorned individuals interviewed in the police investigation of her death. What we do get, in terms of motives, is a latent superficial remark that explains a part of her disdain, but it comes across as more of a shallow pretense to a deeper concealed impulse we’ll never know. “I hated being a secretary. I quit those bosses, but not to find another boss on the road,” she says to the farmer’s accusation of her laziness and inadequacy. “You don’t want anything. We give you land, you don’t do anything with it. Your heads empty….You’re no drop-out, you’re just out. You don’t exist.” “Fuck your philosophy!” she exclaims.

The film floats on a motif of stark but elegant lateral panning shots, calling a likeness to Mizoguchi and the more unsparing moments of his etherial but realist masterwork UGETSU (1953), with the camera held back, hung in observation by detachment. Unique to VAGABOND is that these shots convey, not only the attitude of Mona, who sidesteps responsibility and repercussion (save for her demise), but also function as microcosms of the film itself. Several of these lateral shots start before Mona, catch up to her and then rest at a point ahead of her, alluding to her transitory nature and the parenthetical narrative. One of these shots is particularly telling. The camera begins at the top of a stone wall, it pans left somewhat swiftly and imperfectly, passing Mona who is seated and looking at photographs, resting well ahead of her on a tangle of winter-worn branches. The photographs that we are shown shortly after, lean to the form of the narrative, being itself a composite of flashbacks and fractured recollections, mere snapshots in the lives of those who encountered Mona, and but a snapshot of her own.

This much is certain; Mona meets her end, falling waerily headfirst into a ditch covered in wine dregs. It is a meager affair as pitiful and solitary as her life on the road, seeming more like a pained resignation as it unravels. It’s not a surprising result, mostly because it is the first thing we come to know of her existence, but also because the film constantly breeds an impending finality, (another quality it bears in common with INTO THE WILD), as if it could end at any moment. Although INTO THE WILD conceals Alex’s death till its final moment, and all the while you hang upon his volition, VAGABOND folds its hand on Mona within the first five minutes. Even if Varda held back till the end like Penn did, it would be evident that Mona was at a dire threshold. The most direct implication of her character and demise is that of the dialogue between Mona and the woman tree specialist, who drives her around half delightedly, half curiously, for presumably 24 hours. The woman is explaining the work that she does; seeking a cure for diseased plane trees. Mona boasts an obvious disinterest. “It invades the tree and kills it. We can’t stop it. All plane trees are doomed. The epidemic began, we understood too late.” “How dumb,” Mona replies. “Not to stop the plague is even dumber,” the woman recants. “Anyway…” says Mona, rolling her eyes. After this conversation, the woman drives them onward, but the camera turns from them to the heart of the withering infected tree she had cited, set upon its final days. This is a perfect illustration of how Mona is herself infected. Her sickness is that of constant refusal and a debilitating velocity. These qualities are as much a cancer as the fungus killing the tree, a sickness that is all too late understood and has no “resistant strain” to stave its course. Remember what the farmer said of his wayward friends, “the loneliness ate them up in the end.” Neither kindness, nor company, nor security, nor warning can lull Mona to stillness, though ironically in all her travels she never really gets anywhere and in fact collects a loose orbiting family of members unaware of each other’s proximity and relation. A number of those whom she affects, are drawn into passing encounters with one another, like bodies caught in the tail of a comet, drawn to bitter realizations or reflections of themselves. If nothing else then, Mona was a wandering mirror covered by a filthy scrim.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Some notes on THE DARJEELING LIMITED (2007)............8.5/10

Yes, Anderson uses literal baggage (the three brothers' dead father's luggage) to represent ......baggage. The luggage, split between Jack, Francis, and Peter is the physical representation of how they carry their "emotional baggage," as a mechanism of loss. Anderson pushes past metaphor and into metonym. It is what it is. The baggage of their dead father.

Though it was obvious from the start, Anderson has developed such a characteristic dialect that each film is a landmark in the process of a language, which is great fun for those who view him as a craftsman. Anderson emphatically and confidently engages the medium on all fronts. With DARJEELING, Anderson has made a considerable effort to ensure himself as a filmmaker with longevity. Its a new coctail of familiar elements. Easily one of the funniest films in recent years despite its somber undercurrents, DARJEELING is about a fractured family suddenly together again which compares directly to TENNENBAUMS but Anderson is not as generous or direct with flashbacks and context in his new film. Part of its excellence is how and when we learn things about each character and their passing.

THE DARJEELING LIMITED is great step forward for Wes Anderson and also a welcome step backwards. Though still imbued with his usual modes; saturated colors, hand-crafted sets, often centered framing, theatrical timing, arial detail shots - and above all, quirky characters trying to relocate and recapture themselves after great trauma - this film is a new leaner amalgam. THE DARJEELING LIMITED is Anderson’s most mature work, being that it is the result of an instructive and deliberate retrospection. He has extracted the most functional and creative elements of his practice rather than simply carrying on. As was said of Mizoguchi's SANSHO THE BAILIFF (1954) by critic Tadao Sato, "after an artist has delved deeply into his work, he often arrives at his simplest style of expression. In this film (SANSHO), needless drama and imbellishment are eliminated." I think this is true of DARJEELING as well, or at least that it is a notable step in a similar and effective process of distillation by Anderson. This is a film about three people who are rendered vacant by loose ends and questions, not necessarily about who they were and who they will be afterwards. Its simply about the force that finally breaks them from their glazed-over lives so that they can engage all that is happening to them presently. Recall what Jack says of his final short story (which is part of the script for Hotel Chevalier). "It's just an ending, i dont have the beginning yet." DARJEELING is an ending before a beginning. It is merely the fog lifting.

DARJEELING moves at a different meter than his past works, more kinetic in ways (it takes place on a train), and more insular in timeframe and structure. The principal characters, three American brothers (Francis, Jack, and Peter - Owen WIlson, Jason Swartzman, and Adrien Brody) hampered by the death of their father, scarce mother, and destructive emotional patterns, obscurely seek reconnection under the efforts of their eldest (Francis, who is secretly taking everyone to see their estranged mother who is now a nun in rural India) after a year of separation.....on a trip to India no less. They bounce around uneasily in tight spaces in which they still manage to keep secrets (items they comically, compulsively, and connivingly forfeit to one another). Even when they are outside of the train their emotional and geographical exile keeps them in a fixed interaction, therefore the energy of the film comes ironically from its systemic confinement.

It should be said that while the brothers stay in close orbit of one another, their greatest developments occur when they don’t have walls to impact...when something happens beyond their narcisism and scope to which they must measure themselves spontaneously. For Anderson, confinement works for pacing, but openness works for variety and character development, and the two are balanced well.

Anderson curbs his often compulsive quirky flashbacks and exchanges them for fragmented recollections spoken in passing (sometimes written in short stories by Jack), which are linked and flourished in one perfectly placed, lengthy, late flashback (a fantastic piece of filmmaking on its own).

Another measure of maturity in DARJEELING’s rather random but calculated unfolding, is that it isn’t terribly romantic ... romantic in the sense of the characters breaking down to honestly embrace the culture whereby wholly changing themselves. They don't, in fact they fight it for the most part, engaging in inda shallowly and cynically - something they don’t significantly shake. They embrace the quality of the train, passing things by. While to some degree they are each changed, they are much the same in the end, continuing their base neurosis and tendencies, but with a lightness and self-awareness gained. Though all three share a singular impetus of suffering, they grow on their own terms and to the extent that they need, becoming honest and reflexive for the first time in a long time.

Like in all Anderson’s films the characters seek to reclaim vestiges of their former lives and must do so by ultimately letting them go (a quality carried throughout the films passing layers), and never painted so aptly than by the brothers tossing their dead father’s luggage - items they’ve carried with great inconvenience, individually and together, literally and emotionally, from the beginning - in order to catch their last train home. Anderson apparently has the ability to lace an entire film with, and make you relish, an obvious metaphor because it is utterly simlple and perfect, and I'm all the more impressed.

Friday, October 5, 2007

INTO THE WILD (2007).........6/10

"Exile to Exile: no man who loves is free."

There are films that can ensnare you from their first moments, perhaps by a solemn note, a mood, or a stirring image. ‘INTO THE WILD’ is not one of those films per se, but only because it is so actively about having no roots, something that carries into its entire structure. Even its most resplendant or revealing moments are kept momentary so as to avoid a hampering or irresponsible romanticism (not that its void of it). Chris McCandless, self called Alex Supertramp and sublimely portrayed by Emile Hirsch, is 23 years old and decides to rightly abandon his upper middle class cacoon as part of a "walden-esqu' rebellion after graduating from college. He wanders westward, organically migrating from place to place, never staying too long, and never losing sight of his prevailing goal…"a great Alaskan adventure," despite the beckoning of human relationships wherever he goes. What's important about Alex is that his transience never translates to a ‘non-presence’ but rather an impending impermanence in everything but our observation of him. He has a notable, lasting, and authentic effect on every life he touches and the weight of that impact is emotionally palpable. Jan, the wayward ex-hippie he deeply befriends, says to him with a wounded but loving affection, “Just get your bag and go on. I don’t think I can handle a hug,” as he leaves her company for the last time on his journey north. Perhaps people see in him an old spirit recapturing its boundlessness, and it indeed intoxicates. Its a curious thing that this boy of 23 is the bearer of wisdom and soul to a host of seasoned bodies. He almost makes them seem like children, but by harmless default.

INTO THE WILD is a progressively entrenching story, brilliantly weaving two, forward linear threads that reveal ever more of themselves and each other, leading to an appreciation of the inevitability and necessity of Alex's initial departure (something that endures but also grows as his travels bear fruit). Structure is a key element to the story, but mostly in terms of how we've come to know Alex's exploits historically. In terms of the research done for the book and subsequent film, the first comprehensive information attained was Alex's journal of Alaska, so this is where we begin. For the author, the rest of the process was a hopscotch search for significant people mentioned in Alex's earlier documentation. Like the author and perhaps Alex's meandering memory while in the wild, we periodically jump between threads, appreciating ever more his honesty and aspiration, and the toll it took on his family. As each moment passed to the next, I was swept more swiftly along (too gentle a term), all the while feeling a kind of subtly wrenching impending loss even as Alex was ever present to me, as though in every encounter I took upon myself both Alex’s insatiable drive and the sadness of those scorned by his transience. The sweeping sensation I speak of is less the elegant breed, and more like the scene in which Alex stumbles into the raging Alaskan river that has widened its neck and sharpened its bite since last he crossed, threatening to rush him downstream and cutting him off from any escape. "I am literally trapped in the wild," he writes in his jornal. Its strange, but I was so uniquley moved by the exponential quality of my experience of this film; its nakedness, its naivety, its romanticism, its fairness, its splendor, its simplicity, and its unsparingness, that I can’t really come to criticize it, for if I did, it would be like spitting in the face of one of the most genuine human ambitions…to be free in truth, and to understand that freedom has its own tenacity, for in many ways it grinds against the arch of law and convention that welds our society together. INTO THE WILD, beyond schema and splendor, is an earnest embodiment of Alex's singular drive, and it is utterly convincing and above-board in its manner.

The pertinence and power of Sean Penn's film is helped greatly in terms of timing, for now it would be exceedingly more difficult, if not impossible for Alex to make the affecting journey he did without being arrested, detained, fined, or reprimanded in some way, particularly as a result of most post 9/11 security measures. He serendipitously made his pilgrimage on that all too shallow precipice between the fear bred by the cold war and the fear bred by the war on terror. In a way Alex was fighting his own war during this "peacetime", a primordial war that is both genuine and borrowed (He's never shy about his influences and often quotes Tolstoy and Thoreau to articulate his attitudes. "Jack London is king" he declares once). Alex's is an existential war with tactics ruled by passivity, not inaction mind you. His weapons are books, a rabid intellect, an unfailing sincerity, and the resilient feet that carry him from the exile of loveless privilege and obligation to an exile of self-discovery and broken borders. In that sense, Alex is perched upon yet another precipice between two polarities, one he rejected and one he aspired too (even though both leave him quite alone).

In Indian /Hindu culture reincarnation is a staple belief. It is understood that each incarnation of physical life is a process of learning, suffering, and purification until the individual is ultimately delivered to enlightenment, at which point the soul is free of the exhaustive cylcle. While watching Alex strive in his objections and survive in solemnity, I couldn't help but think of those individuals who choose to live outside of Indian society as posessionless beggars or "untouchables," so that they might suffer or endure enough to be finally released from cyclical captivity in life. Alex sees the looming cage around himself, but has an equal eye for the resplendent beauty beneath and beyond the superstructure, something he's "doesn't mind calling God." What he seeks "rather than love, money, faith, fame, or truth." Every step he takes is toward truth, both in the moment and aggregate. At every opportunity, he forfeits his wisdoms (sometimes words forfeited to him by other wise men) in an effort to reduce and relinquish whatever holds him to this world of reason. "If we admit that life can be ruled by reason, then we destroy the possibilities of existence."

Not to divulge too much, but Alex finds his truth, and it is a somber chord struck to the core. Like the tortured composer who plays a sharp note and smiles on its perspective and healing asperity, Alex writes his epiphany in the margins of Doctor Zhivago with a heartbreaking lag and concision and resigns to its finality bathed in cold and light. For this reason, there is nothing of failure in his journey, though "some blunders and absurdities had crept in," for his greatest goal is met with wide open eyes and a smile.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

PRINCESAS (2005) dvd............8.5/10

PRINCESAS (2005), by Spanish filmmaker Fernando Leon de Aranoa takes a raw humanistic approach to a lifestyle that can and has been easily overstated and shallowly probed by lesser directors. However it is a misapprehension to think that PRINCESAS is ‘about prostitution’ when it is more so a film whose characters happen to be prostitutes, and by default reveals much about their world. PRINCESAS casts its “whores” in an even and unvarnished light without being either entirely pessimistic or propagandistic, lending it dexterity and credibility. The film’s dilemmas are universal, its character relationships genuine, and its rhythm is in pulse with the bustle of traffic in the streets.

The main character Caye, whose street name is Lima (headway into her identity subversion), is a beautiful but guarded woman, with competing qualities of sadness, fortitude, and a brimming spirit withheld. Candela Pena deserves all the accolades she received and more for her dynamism and quietly heartrending performance. Caye works as a prostitute, intently saving all her earnings (for what we don’t know, and neither does she). Instead of tricking on the streets she works out of a tiny hair salon with a band of likeminded, if not elitist, working girls. This seems like a peculiar life decision considering her upper middle class background. She never elucidates her motivation explicitly, but she needn’t for our purposes. Along with an unwanted influx of foreign prostitutes comes Zulema, a Dominican woman whom Caye befriends in spite of being her lower caste competition. They forge a tender bond amidst dramatic circumstances, which becomes a kind of active inspiration for Caye. Something to think about for a person who has “never had anything happen to her worth remembering.”

Caye reveals in her expressions, and sometimes in words, her subverted attitudes, her existential curiosities, and desires without realizing from how deep a place they come. She tells Zulema about how princesses get homesick for their kingdom and cant stay away for too long. “Remember, princesses are so sensitive they can die of nostalgia.” Caye’s kingdom is her unabridged identity, and she has been at its compromise for too long. She restrains her desires, which makes her cry at their mention, but she restrains the tears too. Zulema’s kingdom is her son. Though the film offers much of its concerns to Zulema, (saving money for her child back home, caught in the grips of a dead end abusive situation over her ‘papers,’ all the while writhing in separation anxiety), she always feels a bit transitory, almost ethereal. Therefore our mind gravitates to Caye, for it seems that even Zulema’s suffering exists so that Caye can heal within, in part, by healing without. I think that history has proven beyond doubt that mutual suffering unites with far greater strengths than mutual rejoice, and that wartime heralds an immediacy and authenticity like no other time. For this reason, the abruptness of Zulema and Caye’s friendship is not surprising. But in all fairness, one can find a kindred spirit even on a battlefield.

From its opening frames PRINCESAS boasts a gritty but sensitive story which delves into the pains of self-deceit and the relegating of ones petitions. In this broader context, Caye is so much like her mother (the other important woman in her life), who sends herself flowers and pretends with an uneasy ambiguity that they might be from her husband who “has been buried three years.” They both reveal their pain with their eyes. Like the adage, “what you hate in others is invariably something you hate about yourself,” Caye projects her frustration at her mother, perhaps because she acts as a kind of attitudinal mirror, and because it is easier to criticize than to take criticism. The terse and laborious dinners that she shares with her family, of which she isthe youngest, are so because of all that is concealed and left seething beneath the surface…or calling incessantly on Caye’s phone, to be apt. In the one place she should be able to best actualize herself; her home, her kingdom, Caye is again an actress, surrounded by actors. In every role of her life she is covert, denying her passions at work, and her work in her passions (even though she tells new her love interest Manuel at the beginning of their courtship, he thinks she’s joking and she allows him the misapprehension). This kind of active self denial can only endure for so long, for there may be no greater agony than an individual hidden within themselves.

By its prevailing strokes of mitigated pathos and existential leanings, the entire film is a bastion of hope for cinema that dwells in severe territory. Our sympathies arise from its pure humanism and a dire minimum of manipulation (I suppose even framing is a form of manipulation). In keeping with Aranoa’s proven sensitivity and intuition, we are not appeased with a clean resolution, but offered a hanging expression that promises both turmoil and respite in its aftermath…but we may only infer, like cutting away before the last thread of a twig has broken and having to imagine the snap! In a way, it resonates more. What my mind reverts to is an early scene in the film. Caye turns from the pharmacists counter and sees a little blonde girl playing on a scale. The scale reads zero. “You’re so light,” she says to the girl. “That means you’re an angel.” Her mother looks at Caye smartly and says, “you have to put money in it for it work.” To this remark Caye’s face speaks of a heart that is trying so hard to love, but is stamped out at the smallest outpouring. But after going through the wars with Zulema, she’s grown brave enough to want to shatter her shell and let her heart bleed. No kingdom is reclaimed without blood.

Sunday, September 23, 2007


“Fixed in time and timeless.”

Critics are too often compelled to make the remark of “mere spectacle” whenever a film is so boisterously visual, but beyond and within the splendor of ‘ACROSS THE UNIVERSE’ lives a beating heart with genuine feeling. Taymor artfully unravels a story of inverwoven lives in which characters and places sway with the passage of time in a buoyant and compelling way. Jude leaves liverpool to locate his american father. He meets restless Max, falls in love with Max's sister, moves to NY with him, meets some more people all displaced one way or another, and all of whom are formatively tumbling forward.

Like a wanderer to the tune of a siren’s song (never a more apt analogy), you will follow enraptured, at least i did. ‘Universe’ captures the broad essence of a tumultuous and vibrant time in history; the changing landscape of american youth in the wake of Vietnam and civil rights, with equal parts grace, tenacity, theatricality, and colorful groundedness. That's no small accomplishment. Sure, it rests on a predominant and stylized visual punch, but one that is wielded with ingenuity and relevance, and that is not so much a crutch as it is joyously respondent to the time and each moment. To those who racant with words like "overstated" and "over the top" I say, yes indeed and all for the better. Once people break into spontaneous song and dance, I say anything goes. What’s more is that 90% of the songs were recorded live on set without overdubbing in post-production, a testament to the richness of talent that is overflowing in this film that reinvigorates timeless music (almost all Beatles songs) in a timeless tale.

Let me contradict my praise by saying that ACROSS THE UNIVERSE was not my favorite film of the year. While vibrant and powerful, it was mostly so when songs were in swing (which they were a remarkable amout of the time). In its "regular moments" we are left with pretty people and slightly less in the pail of rather familiar material. Despite this hinderance, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE stands tall as an enlivening experience that I have little to compare to over these summer months. Dismiss the dismay of those who say it’s a just a "pretty nostalgic romp." I’m just glad that a Hollywood film can still have a lively spirit that is both convincing and contagious. “This is a movie that fires its songs like flowers at the way we live now. It's the kind of movie you watch again, like listening to a favorite album” (Ebert)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

DANS PARIS...............7.5/10

"Together Alone"

-Anna has just left Paul who, annihilated by the separation, moves back with his father in Paris. His younger brother Jonathan, a casual student, still lives in his father's apartment and spends most of his time womanizing and fooling around. But what this apparent lightness conceals is a deep wound. Jonathan, in fact, has never been able to overcome the death of his beloved sister. Meanwhile Paul sinks into depression.-

DANS PARIS, the fifth film in as many years by writer/director Christophe Honore (Ma Mere), is through and through a constant collapsing and building of the fourth wall, both attitudinally and structurally. It is at once a Brechtian display of self-awareness and reflexion (Jonathon talking to the audience), and with its counter cannon of bare intimacy (insular moments between quarrelling lovers, Paul singing along to music in his underwear) it is a film that is equally, if not more so, a work of inclusion.

Honore’s pervasive dance of oppositions begins as the film itself does, for even within the gesture of Jonathon’s opening address to the audience and recognition of the medium of film itself by which he is present, the viewer is simultaneously broken from and unified with the narrative. Certainly not the first time something to this effect has been done. I’m thinking on Jodorowski’s allegorical opus THE HOLY MOUNTAIN in which the final lines of dialogue are roughly, “this is just a film, and we are just actors. The ideas are what will live after it’s over,” spoken straightly to the audience. But in ways, this frankness is more a throwback to the modes of the nouvelle vague (which DANS PARIS is in spades). In Jean-Luc Godard’s film MASCULIN FEMININ (1966) there are two scenes in which actors, who are not in character, are being candidly, if not awkwardly interviewed by the director from behind the camera, himself posing as another character in the film. These unscripted scenes, notably divergent from the rest of the films tone were included as moments of human authenticity, simultaneously shaking the viewer from their cathartic rapture and placing them within its grips. While Jonathon of DANS PARIS doesn’t take an interplanetary journey to climb a holy mountain in order to share his halting sentiment, he does make a small pilgrimage from his tiny bedroom out onto the airy porch, from the warm dimness of the apartment to the cool sterilizing light of the morning’s first moments, an important action that compounds the disconnection his monologue will spurn. Not only does he admit that he is in a film acting as storyteller with an unlikely omniscience, he even engages the audience with questions and advice in concern of their experience of the film. This is as brash and direct as a film can become, and yet because of its apperent lightness and comedy, it becomes an invitation rather than a push.

What we learn very quickly through character interactions is that Jon and Paul are rather different people (seemingly) and share little in their attitudes on love, despite their tender sibling chemistry. Light-spirited Jon thrives in a diverting playworld of spontaneous couplings that masks a more subtle and withheld sadness, while Paul steeps himself in his romances and wears his emotions loudly. Paul has become a disciple of, “Men prefer sorrow over joy... suffering over peace (Kurosawa)."
His heart-withering woes stem from an impulsive life decision to move out to the country as some sort of medicating quarantine with his then girlfriend Ana, even though from this moment we are well aware of their discord. The subsequent singularity of their environment (the relationship) turned Paul into a polarized individual, much in the way that the construction of the film is polarized; being at once so small and authentic and at other times so self consciously poetic, overtly cinematic, bouncing from small still rooms to the open kinetic air of the city. During thair stay of execution in the county, Paul and Ana (mostly Paul) lived in a wartime of the heart, going through the exercise of “silence to mayhem with nothing in between.” It is a desperate kind of sickness that drags, and though Ana never fractures quite like Paul does, it leaves them both withered.

With his quickness to laughter, deceptively juvenile demeanor, and youthful spontaneity, Jon is almost a foil to Paul, though not realizing his transience causes its own thread of woes (scorned lovers, an underappreciated father left in the lurch all too often). Probably like every other day of the week, Jonathon bounces from encounter to encounter on his epic race to the Bon Marche shopping windows, which turns out to be more of a distraction for himself than for Paul, whom he contacts at regular intervals on the phone. Jon is adept to his brothers suffering and is keen to the idea that he should be left alone. For the most part, this is what Paul wants, even though he has chosen to be surrounded by people in these dire straits. What good Jon is able to do, when he’s around to do it, is bring the exuberance of the city air into the vacuum of his father’s apartment, a quality he shares with his mother (who gets Paul to laugh histerically). Inversely Paul, with his palpable bitterness and introversion, brings the weight of four walls to the outside world when he takes the occasion in flashbacks. Jon and Paul, foils and yet friends, are by example equal parts architect and destroyer of the polarity in DANS PARIS.

Overall, DANS PARIS is something of a harmonious schism; a mostly nonlinear structure that is accomplice to the idea of the polarity inherent in close relationships. It is both parenthetical (in that it is a caption of time which continues before and after the film), and is also a closed circuit narrative (in that the film ends right where it begins…in the bedroom). The film, essentially an interlaced flashback, ends the only way it could have, at a point no farther than its moment of retrospection (even though it will catch you off guard). But instead of just looping, it also expands in our imagination as we draw on our own memories of healing and project upon the inevitability of respite. Thinking on the opening frames of DANS PARIS as connected to the last, I’m reminded of the final shot in Tsai Ming-Liang’s meandering existential romance I DON’T WANT TO SLEEP ALONE (2006), in which the three conflicted leads are sleeping on a bed that’s floating on an industrial pond, as if a concrete poem on the nature of our existence (we get to choose who we float with, but not the fact that we float, or necessarily where). Therefore Paul, Jon, and Alice (just like Hsiao-Kang, Rawang, and Chyi) are floating on the potential for a kind of resolution rather than the resolution itself, on the stillness and ambiguity of healing rather than the clarity of action and retrospection. For me DANS PARIS ends on an ever-satisfying, unpresumptuous, and understated upward swell.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

THE BRAVE ONE (2007)............6.5/10

"An apple not far enough from the tree."

THE BRAVE ONE shifts between being pointedly brilliant and being a mere caricature of brilliance. To begin with flattery, the cinematography is a head above the rest. Rousellot has the camera deftly swaying as though on the deck of a ship in deep swells, capturing a severity and psychology without being oppressively analytical when cast on its existentially wounded vigilante Erica Bain. And the crowning achievement in editing is the early montage in which passionate detail shots of Bain and her lover David are juxtaposed with moments of a likewise vulnerability with her brutalized body being stripped by doctors after the assault in the Park. It’s a stroke of genius that passes all too soon and is never repeated.

In terms of performance Jodi Foster (Bain) and Terence Howard (Mercer) make a masterful pair, each sustained by their own particular grace and enhanced by the other’s. Though they have just met, they appear to know each other with a subtle intimacy. Despite this honest connection they are equal in their manner of concealment and restraint, which is a credit to the film overall. Even the most intense moments of vigilantism are carried out with a brand of relative quietude and brevity. Unfortunately the manner in which these scenes are aesthetically and tonally constructed is marred by the simplistic if not tactless nature of their specific content; terrible situations falling into Erica’s lap, bad guys filling archetypes to the brim and saying memorably embarrassing lines like “you ever been fucked by a knife before?” It is these moments, though they get their point across, which nearly destroy THE BRAVE ONE’s dexterity, as though there are two apparent attitudes at the helm of the film, one distinctly more artful and nuanced than the other. Personally, I’m going to side with mind responsible for such greatness as THE CRYING GAME (1992) and MONA LISA (1986).

Ultimately and much to my dismay the film fails, but not before it threads a few strong ideas and performances along its descent. Though brimming with potential (which is why I afford it such a measure of leniency), it comes across as a few drafts short of excellence. Considering its title, THE BRAVE ONE doesn’t go far enough in its deviation from the source. It is notably more intelligent in design and sensitive in psyche and morality than most vigilante films but still trails some of the muck of its predecessors onto the celluloid, anchoring a work of nuance with Hollywood contrivances, least of which is THE BRAVE ONE’s ungainly conclusion, satisfying as it may be emotionally. For the most part Jordan navigates well by the films internal compass, but in its final throws denies its own logic. Instead of an ending that leaves room to breathe or resonates in action rather than narration with Bain’s wayward disposition, the Roderick brothers (I’ll chalk it up to the writers for this one) construct an “all bases are covered” kind of finality, leaving any moral or existential conflicts dead with the body count…and apparently my scathed regard.

I played the fools game with THE BRAVE ONE by which I mean I was driven by high expectation. I wanted a great film and got an OK one. Stellar cinematography, superb acting by the leads, the ever welcome ambivalent sarcasm from Detective Vitale (“Christ on a cracker!”), and the obvious notes of delicate complexity from the hand of Neil Jordan are what buoy what could have been wholly saved by a simple rewrite.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

SUNSHINE (2007) ......9/10


“Our sun is dying. Mankind faces extinction. Seven years ago the Icarus project sent a mission to restart the sun but that mission was lost before it reached the star. Sixteen months ago, I, Robert Capa, and a crew of seven left earth frozen in a solar winter. Our payload; a stellar bomb with a mass equivalent to Manhattan Island. Our purpose; to create a star within a star. Eight astronauts strapped to the back of a bomb. My bomb. Welcome to the Icarus Two.”

Boyle’s key decision in SUNSHINE, among its many welcome genre deviations, is omission. After its brief but explicative opening narration, SUNSHINE thrusts the mostly ignorant audience into a mission in progress. We are without any grounding scenes of life on earth or the launching of the mission, suspending us in a telling isolation. In its beginning seconds Boyle, with economical brevity, gives you all you really need to know in order to appreciably enter this film, which is precious little. Hitchcock, master of so many things, executed the tactic of omission beautifully, and none better than in his cold war thriller TOPAZ (1969). There are two standout scenes in TOPAZ during which key characters concoct espionage scenarios in plain view of the audience but vocally cut off; one time they are behind a glass door, the other from across the street. This decision iterates three basic points. The first is to remind the audience that the imagination is a central component of the filmic experience. Secondly it is a means to avoid narrative redundancy (to be told what will happen and then have it happen). Lastly it shows how little information we need in order to connect dots, how few stars we need in order to recognize a constellation. Those things discussed in muted fashion in TOPAZ are extraneous. It is understood that we will inevitably be shown, in action, what they are concocting in silence through the natural situational unfolding. Likewise and throughout, SUNSHINE avoids the typical, weighted scenes of scientific jargon justifying all the technology and processes used within the universe of the film as well as minimizing coverage of actions based on technology (such as the docking of Icarus I to Icarus II being captured in two or three brief shots) in favor of more authentically occurring dialogue and a maximizing of the linchpin of human attitudes, action, and interaction. If and when things are explained, it occurs as a natural product of each situation and is done so to an appropriate extent with unpretentious delicacy, often diegetically visually (as with the oxygen garden) rather than expositionally. We learn a considerable amount of information simply in the process of SUNSHINE’s fatalistic unfolding. Notably, while the arch of the film is distinctly causal (all subsequent dilemmas and failures stemming from the initial receiving of Icarus I's distress beakon and the decision, after a risk assessment, to rondezvous with the ship and salvage its payload), SUNSHINE is alternately sustained by an equivalent arch of ideas, quietude, and human spontaneity.

SUNSHINE offers such faith in intuition as a credit to the audience and as a measure of confidence in storytelling. In lue of excessive expositional dialogue, the films chief concerns are (separately and relationally) psychological, existential, spiritual, environmental (space, the ship), and sensual (light, dark, sound, movement) all of which are articulated through the authenticity of human experiences and reactions, heightened moral and practical dilemmas, analytical editing/cinematography, and a brilliantly empathic musical score (which manages to be as delicate, solemn, and explosive as the sun itself).

Though unlike anything he’s done before (that is to say, as different as every film Boyle has ever made is from the other) there is a quirk in storytelling that threads a number of his works together; Tainspotting, 28 Days Later, Millions. He has a tendency to execute a third act that seems marginally detached from the preceding. A second viewing always seems to sew them back together for me, but never seamlessly. The third act dilemma of SUNSHINE is seen by many critics as especially problematic. At least it draws the most fire. Unlike the popular criticism, I found SUNSHINE’s third act, though self-confused of its tenets, is as much a twist as it is a matter of the films logical progression, mostly in terms of the polarization of didactics within the narrative (leaving physicist Capa the pragmatist and Pinbecker the dogmatist as two ideological stand-ins at war).

Pinbecker is the captain of the first Icarus. He has survived seven years in orbit of the sun after murdering his entire crew and sabotaging the original mission based on an existential/theological fugue. Pinbecker slips onboard Icarus II and continues his ‘latter days’ agenda with the new crew after they dock with the dormant Icarus I in order to assess and possibly utilize its payload as a back-up. Pinbecker is a vehicle, in one sense, for the idea of fanaticism, and the dangerous reversion of the mind towards narrow fundamentalism in a world that beacons, if not demands broadness of scope (an all too timely topic). All of this resulted from the original Icarus missions’ year and a half staring contest with the Sun (God itself for countless cultures, the source of life energy, the primordial origin, etc). The ensuing seven years of quietism Pinbecker spent “talking to god” on a dead ship didn’t act as remedy either. His ideological reversion serves as the counterpoint to Capa's prevailing scientific pragmatism (that is not to say that he is without a personal kind of spirituality). Capa invented the bomb...a bomb made by man that will be used to "fix god" and disrupt the perfect primordial order as Pinbecker sees it. In broader terms it is the greatest ultimatum btw/ science and religion, between the apex of 'the natural' (the source energy for life on earth) and the apex of the 'unnatural' (technology designed by man), and between the openness of spirituality and the confinement of dogmatism. SUSHINE tells the story of the absolute summit of man’s science and industry, coupled with the unity of man’s societies’ efforts based on desperate survivalism (noted as the international cast) reaching out to touch god (the sun).

The culminating frenetic texture of the third act, contrasted with the more moderate pacing of the first two, manages to equate itself with the increasingly psychotic reality of flying into the sun on a Manhattan sized bomb. We are visually arrested by erratic movement, heightened claustrophobia, blurred vision, disorientation of characters and location, and a tactile quality of separation (crewmembers are dispersed or dead, and Icarus II is at the furthest distance yet traveled from earth). Granted, the shift towards a reputed “horror genre” dynamic, with Pinbecker stalking the crew in darkness is jarring, and feels at first like the filmmakers might have fumbled the reins of the narrative, or that it is an aside seeking justification through severity. But it is forgivable in lue of its resultant flaring of style, tension, creative sensory disruption, and its philosophical implication. SUNSHINE doesn’t merely degenerate into a “slasher film,” but effectively transplants a horror schema (which Boyle has shown he excels in) for its own devices, distinguishing itself by being neither arbitrary in its action nor self-egrandizing in its gratuity. Rather than merely a "reason to show blood" it stands as message of universality, a reminder to the audience, on a small scale, of the price of the missions failure. Blood becomes a simple and effective element to emphasize our humanity and fragility in such a far removed and fantastical situation.

In the end it seems more that SUNSHINE’s perogative is that of ideas, textures, and sensations taking the precedence over explicative science, and doing so with stellar results. The film even admits to an extent that the spoken science is going to take a back seat (though the tactile products of science and technology within/without the ship are their own evidence). Remember, Icarus says to Capa in the Earth Room, "…any further calculations beyond this point are not useful for speculation"..."because everything about the payload delivery is completely theoretical. Between the boosters and the gravity of the sun the velocity of the payload will get so great that space and time will become smeared together and everything will distort. Everything will be unquantifiable…" . For me this dialogue is a resonant truth of the film and a matter to consider in its experience. It rung also as a gesture to put science and religion on a similar plane, if you will. The existence of God is not something that can be empirically proven or discussed, therefor much of the driving science of the film, which is itself theoretical, is given an equivalent conjectural and undiscussed nature. If anything it inspired me, and apparently Roger Ebert, to conduct research independently, finding out anything I could about the theoretical science used for the film and related material. If SUNSHINE had divulged everything on its own, or made the typical plea for approval by flaunting its science like a diploma in a doctors office, the learning curve would have ended with the credits, and the audience would have left a complacent mass, pretending they understand solar physics and quantum mechanics. Personally, I’d rather a film instill the desire to discover than do the discovering for me. To lead me to water and let me drink of my own accord.

As a sentimental aside, the next morning after seeing SUNSHINE, I awoke to catch the sun just as it was cresting the horizon. It was an impossible red and hung in a baffling clarity. I could look right at it without a wince. I smiled and realized that I hadn't even thought about the sun in ages. I took it for granted as one does the ground or air. Since then I stop and give it a moment once in a while. Just a few seconds of attention or thought. I don't know what consequence it all has, but it took a film to remind me that the reason I exist at all is because of that big bright spot in the sky that blinds me when I'm driving to work. It almost has an identity for me now.

SUNSHINE, a genre cluster, an existential hotbed, and a platform for some of the most affecting and revelational imagery in recent cinema, stands as a milestone for its filmmakers, for mindful but accesible science fiction, and for film in 2007.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

THIS IS ENGLAND (2006)……7.5/10

"A violent man will die a violent death."

Shane Meadows’ most recent film, a semi autobiographical slice of middleclass suburban England circa 1983, concerns itself with the coming of age of a 12 year old boy named Shaun. He’s being mocked at school for his out-of-style clothes and suffering ever more from the loss of his father in the Faulklands war. Shaun befriends a rowdy ragtag group of young Skins on a detour from school one day. Led by the eloquent and optimistic Woody, the group opens their arms to him without a moments thought. In belonging to a surrogate family of “outcasts”, Shaun begins to build some much needed self-esteem. However, Shaun’s self esteem turns into a poisonous pride when a former member of the group, Combo, returns from jail to spill his newly learned nationalist rhetoric onto his underlings, and present an ultimatum. Shaun, seeing something of a father in Combo, quickly takes to his side, and a rift is drawn between those who will fight the street war for English pride, and those who will not. From this rift is built an inevitable downward spiral.

Shaun and Combo make quite a pair, and to a minor degree one is almost pleased by their union. One bright and young, the other brash and not yet old, each bringing out the opposite quality in the other. “It’s like looking in the mirror, like we’re the same person,” he says to Shaun. At this point, the narrative, finding a kindred protagonist in Combo, justifiably deviates to his struggles. With a self entitled privilege Combo takes charge of the pack of strays he’s left with after dropping his ultimatum, and likewise takes charge of the film itself. He serves as the linchpin to the ideological whirlwind that spins a once tight-fisted brotherhood into factions. This inevitability serves as a counterpoint to the notion of nationalism and community that Combo aggressively preaches, revealing that his modalities and ideology are more fuel for dissent than unity. As a companion piece to this film I would highly recommend Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley for its relatable content.

Combo, though seeming to be the most simplistic character in the film based on his explicit goals, is slowly revealed to be the most complex in attitude and motivation. His name, Combo, even stands as a red flag for his dynamism and internal confliction. This is articulated in three particular scenes, two of which take place in his car. The car scenes are incredibly intimate, shutting out the world for a few moments of unabashed sincerity. In the first of these scenes Combo says to Shaun that if he ever needs to just talk with someone, get into a scuffle, or even have a cry, that he will always be there. “I’ll never turn my back on you.” In the second of these scenes, we find Combo talking with Woody’s girlfriend Lol, professing his long standing affections towards her in a bashful and almost childlike manner, only to the avail of her rejection. “You’re all I could think about for those three years,” he admits, offering her a handmade box with her initials embroidered on its top in red (weighted imagery considering the spell of violence that is, in part, this rejections’ aftermath). In both of these scenes the camera is tight on the characters faces, divergent from the loosely kinetic camera that dominate the rest of the film. The shots of Combo are tellingly close, isolating his face, cutting off the top of his head and chin. For all intents and purposes this isolates Combo from his identity as a skinhead and puts him back into a vulnerable human station, signaling to the audience a glimpse of his deepest motivations; love, fraternity, compassion, and generosity; all these things being thrown in conflict with his more overt display of bitterness, ferocity, and growing racism. For these scenes I commend the work of cinematographer Danny Cohen and the dynamism of Stephen Graham’s revelational and subtle performance. The third of these scenes is at the films tipping point, and suffice it to say that a man’s face can show a thousand feelings all at once.

What continually impresses me about this film is that despite its dabbling in rather volatile and severe content, fairness and humility prevail in its portraiture. THIS IS ENGLAND doesn’t pretend to have the single authoritative view of Skinhead culture, because it is a film whose agenda is more broadly laid. It’s far too responsible, intimate, and authentic a narrative to be concerned with the trappings of specificity. Shane Meadows, instead, presents a culture in fair view; both in its idealisms and its pitfalls, in its ambiguity and its sometimes frightening clarity, through a natural and gradual exposure. We see Skins in their best light; rowdy but heartfelt comrades of all walks (one of the members, Milky, is half Jamaican) joined in commonality rather than victimhood, and in its worst light; bestowing a threat of violence and bearing a weighted didacticism. In THIS IS ENGLAND, we are ushered into the boiling point of the Skinhead movement as it segues, in part, towards violent and vehement nationalism, merging a working class youth based demographic with the economically minded self-preservationist post-war attitude of an older generation. But again, this is more so a stage for the ideas of how dangerous and polarizing absolutism can be, and how confusion in attitudes is a motivation for violence, both physical and psychological.

Because Combo’s agenda is weighted so heavily on England’s declining economic standards and the fear of outsourced "cheap and easy labor," it merely serves the film's own agenda of underscoring the kind of absurdity inherent in preaching such matters to a group of, for all intents and purposes, children. Compounded with the fact that Combo himself isn't seeking employment, not performing his duty as a hard working Englishman, it is clear that he's simply parroting the slogans of another demographic's campaign to justify his own aggression. The only person we can be sure of that even has a job is Lol because she's emphatic about being late for work when confronted by Combo in the streets. THIS IS ENGLAND relies mostly on an "aesthetic middleclassness," using geography and summertime "everydayness" as its quieter cultural indicators.

My singular quarrel with THIS IS ENGLAND, which I have conditionally revoked, has to do with the soudtrack. Knowing that the Skinheads are themselves a product of the Punk Rock subculture, it seems almost errant for the film to shy away from making more than a few such nods (beyond attire and hairstyles). What I diecided after deliberation is that Meadows' hand picked soundtrack seeks a broader spectrum of music to capure the times as ENGLAND is interested in a contextual broadness in each of its scopes. Maybe these jobless kids don’t have enough money to go to shows, or are in deficit of a music scene, floating in a suburbanesque quarantine. Furthermore, Shaun, our protagonist, didn't become a Skin for love of the music. He could scarcely name a single band off the top of his head if pressed, i'm sure. He was introduced to the fraternal culture directly by its participants rather than by one of its aesthetic threads (though he donned their uniform just the same). And Combo's interests are certainly well beyond the exhuberance of youth and music. In the end, it would have been an easy road, though perhaps appropriate, to have laden THIS IS ENGLAND with Punk and Skin anthems. Not fitting for a hard knocks tale that takes the hard road to be told.
-Aaron Mannino