Saturday, September 29, 2007
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
-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
"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
“A MISSION OF OMISSION”
“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.