Tuesday, January 29, 2008
Woody Allen has certainly still got game. His most recent effort CASANDRA”S DREAM, which effectively erased SCOOP from my pained memory, is a film in step with MATCHPOINT (2005) and CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989), but it unfolds in an even plainer fashion than either. It’s unlikely savagely humorous at times…if your adept to that brand, but is otherwise an acute and dismal affair. Even in the first hopeful rustlings, with brothers Ian and Terry musing over purchasing a small boat as a bright escape from their lives of stifling mediocrity, there lies the seed of an unraveling, perhaps merely for the coupling of the brothers’ aspirations with a dim overcast sky. What truly turns the tide is their rather wealthy uncle who is willing to help them in their considerable financial goals (Ian wants to invest in Hotels, and Terry has a severe gambling debt) if they agree to do a terrible deed for him in return.
McGregor and Farrell are magnificently anonymous in their roles. Not that they're void of detail, but that they embody the kind of nearsighted, everyman desperation of the working class, which the film deftly hinges on. What CASANDRA thrives on however is the inevitability of ambition, the persistence of choice, and the absence of justice as an empirical ideal.
Vilmos Zsigmond, who famously worked on THE DEER HUNTER (1978) is at the top of his understated game as cinematographer in CASANDRA’S DREAM, having the camera often seem light and afloat, but still (an apt quality considering where the films namesake derives), avoiding any tight close-ups or shots from afar. The camera stays low and within the plane of action, appropriately for a film that would surely suffer from any loss of groundedness. As for the resulting visual experience, we don’t become complicit in the drama or morality per se, but are certainly made to reside within it, unable to effect the outcome, watching all the same. The story is all the more interesting because of this inclusive groundedness.
Relative newcomer J.A. Bayona has fashioned an unexpected sense of sanity about the peculiarities of this tense psychological horror film. I hesitate to use the maxim of ‘horror’ to describe THE ORPHANAGE because of all the unfortunate resonance of mediocrity the term has. But rest assured, Bayona is, here, a confident and sensitive helmsman of precarious material.
Belen Rueda plays Laura, a mother suffering through the disappearance of her child from their new home; the very orphanage in which she lived as a child, that she has now purchased and renovated. Rather than simply and typically descending into a state of exponential madness, Laura retains a shade of self awareness about the stress, absurdity, and peculiarity of her increasing spectral encounters, encounters that hold clues to her sons whereabouts, even as she seems to actively deteriorate. I was surprised at the mostly rational mind she kept while suffering and mentally spiraling; thinking things through in the terms of the ghosts' own playful dogma, keeping a cautioned openness during the session with the medium (Geraldine Chaplin), etc.
The unfolding of the narrative is tactful, never relying on cheap, manipulative, or arbitrary tactics to frighten. All anxiety and tension arises from within the narratives construction, rather than, as in most horror films, from without. The gravity of the film arises from the wholly convincing emotional weight of the characters amidst their plight, and the subdued but eerie goings on. I’d be remiss to neglect that THE ORPHANAGE not only well written, but is also beautifully and hauntingly photographed. Cinematographer Oscar Faura avoids the cliché of overly personifying the house, turning it into a character of evil. The orphanage, as a structure, is simply the place in which something terrible happened (though it is not especially the focus of the drama). The austere of those unseemly events is palpably present, but doesn’t turn the house into some unlikely deviant structure. The characters are almost always present over the architecture anyway. For that, and many other tonal decisions, THE ORPHANAGE is quite reasonable in terms of what it expects the audience to believe or to swallow as far as the supernatural is concerned, making the finale and the 'medium' sequence resound that much more.
Absolutly brave filmmaking. 4 MONTHS is an uncommon, unsparing, texturally unsentimental film that never “suffices to say” anything. It never cuts from a scene, complacent that the audience “gets it.” If it did cut, it would shatter the trenchant pillar of realism and well drawn anxiety on which it stands. I'm citing the agonizing dinner scene specifically because of what is going on simultaneously outside of the scene, and also inside Otilla's (the protagonist) churning thoughts. Not only are we steeped in the narrative tension almost by force, with long uninterrupted handheld shots, but we are made keenly aware, by that regard, from the very start, how difficult and pervasive the repression is that weighs upon Romanians at this time (late 80’s) and how it informs each characters attitude, regardless of the nature of ones goals. Just getting a pack of cigarettes, or booking a hotel room becomes an arduous task. The same kind of unmitigated attention is given to the entire spectrum of details within the film, and by this stroke avoids any hampering narrative singularity, considering the severity of its core subject. I find that in films of this stylistic nature (anything by Tsai Ming-liang), one can detect the greatest prevalence of and opportunity for nuance, whether deliberate or arbitrary. The longer you look, the more you see and can draw from. It builds a more experiential and much less passive medium.
Fortunately, the film does not placate us with a simplistic ‘victimizer/victim’ conventionality, and offers the unfolding of authentic, frail, confused, and at times pathetic characters that surprise at with their alternating fortitude and naivety, and a scenario that takes all the time it needs to accumulate its details.
As the credits roll, we retain the ability to form our own opinions about the issue concerned; a woman named Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) assisting her friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) in an illegal abortion, because 4 MONTHS doesn’t berate us with agenda or propaganda, nor does it stoop to any academic exposition. All we need to understand in order to appreciate this film is offered in its own language of editing and mood. What I sensed from the manner of Mongiu’s film is that these types of things [abortion] will be inevitable, no matter the hazard, and that as a solution, it bears great consequence no matter what the outcome. 'Pro-choice' or 'Pro-life' doesn't really enter into it except from the viewer's own position. That is what makes 4 MONTHS such a brimming success: its willingness to peer unabated, and its refusal to judge.
Ang Lee’s latest feature, taking place in Japanese occupied Shanghai, is a film lavished with classical aesthetic sensibilities and period detail, heightened by a bold streak of dimensional sexuality. LUST, CAUTION dips and sways between shades of noir, espionage, rending emotional portraiture, a story of youth and ignorance, and political period drama, never settling as but one of them. It’s a solution, not a mixture. A near perfect amalgam, helmed by two wealthily talented leads (Tony Leung, Wei Tang), a director in peak performance, and a warmly convincing family of idealistic friends daring to change their world.
Youthful and beautiful Wong Chia Chi (Tang) is a college girl that gets swept up into a novice resistance scheme by the ambition of her fellow theater group. After their promising start as patriotic performers, and realizing Wong Chia Chi's immersive capacity as a performer, they attempt to elevate their goals to ensnare and eliminate a local high ranking officer of the collaborationist government (Chinese that are aiding the Japanese occupation) named Mr. Lee, using Wong Chia Chi as sexual bait, so to speak, though not as such at first. The sexual nature of her mission arises as an unplanned but vital opportunity. Her cosmopolitan alias is Mrs. Mak, and her companions all have their own roles etched out from a false history. The scheme drags on and dredges her soul, getting ever more consuming and precarious, especially as it resumes after a long postponement.
The most effective, and least disguised tactic of the film is strictly narrative. LUST, CAUTION builds the catalyst and model of the young groups subversion agenda from their preexisting involvement in theater. No better tactile element threads the body of the film together, for it stems from their ambitious beginnings, to their subversion methodology, to their fatal and final curtain call. The groups last scene together,and the second to last scene in the film, is especially powerful because in it they kneel defeated at the stage of their execution; a stage without any audience but the night, completely stripped of their invented roles. As this unfolds, and the camera lifts above their heads to reveal the blackness of the quarry into which their bodies will fall, one can only recall the triumphant ovation and resounding cries by the audience, “China will not fall!” at the end of their first play together years before. “China will not fall!”
LUST, CAUTION builds a significant bridge to Lee’s previous film BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, by exploring the emotional degradation that occurs in subverting ones own identity and inventing passions, which the young activists must do in order to, in turn, subvert the collaborationists. The irony continues further when we discover that, not only was Wong Chia Chi and her group watched unknowingly by actual resistance outfits eager to use them, but the collaborationist govt itself, was watching them as well, using Mr. Yee (Leung) as a convenient bait in order to gain information about the resistance cell. LUST, CAUTION rounds out as an elegant mobius strip of espionage, charade, and broken hearts that is so beautiful to behold.
Marjane Satrapi’s film, which impressionistically trails her own experiences as an outspoken child from the Islamic Revolution in Iran, to her emotionally taxing years apart in Europe, is brimming with honesty, humor, and harsh history, with all the resonant capacities of a live action film…perhaps ironically even more so, for at moments it seems to extract the heart of an experience so purely, it comes across distilled to an essence.
PERSEPOLIS is structured and styled much in the manner of the director’s original graphic novel of the same title; incremental, sectional, flowing generally by virtue of chronology, but jumping from moment to moment. It was also animated purely by hand, with felt-tip tracing. This makes a tactile link between the two manifestations of this wonderful story; film and graphic novel. It’s uncommonly rich in its utter simplicity, and ever inventive for the same reason. What makes it even more appreciable is just how starkly different it is compared to the daunting prevalence of over-manufactured computer animated films being pumped out of Pixar and the like. PERSEPOLIS comes across as a retreat to basics, and yet speaks volumes more by its modest innovations.
The Coen brothers offer up an utterly flawless display of craft, pacing, and mood. NO COUNTRY dwells in a similar moral territory to Allen’s MATCH POINT (2005), in that it exists in a world that operates firstly on chance and secondly on causality. It is a world in which “justice” is a lofty imposition of man without gravity. Also like MATCH POINT, the only character explicitly aware of the tenets of chance is a man with a gun. The man is Anton Chigur (Bardem), a grim and soulless specter of heedless violence, who is after a rather unfortunately fortuitous but resilient man named Llewelyn Moss (Brolin). Moss, a hunter from the Rio Grande, stumbles upon what looks like a slaughter, finding a stash of heroin and more than $2 million in cash. He takes the money, and sets the next two hours of atmosphere and tension in motion; a cat and mouse game between him and Chigur, only it’s more like a panther and mouse game. The back and forth of the film is punctuated by scenes involving the investigating Sheriff , Ed Tom Bell (Jones). He’s an oldtimer ready to be set out to pasture, and the barbarism of this ensuing match is proof enough to him, even though he deals merely in the aftermaths of its passing. "I feel overmatched" he explains. "I don't want to push my chips forward and go out and meet something I don't understand. You can say it's my job to fight it, but I don't know what it is anymore. More than that, I don't want to know." Ed Tom Bell sees the world as a place thats grown inexorably harsh under his watch, but an old friend evens out the keel for him. "Whatcha got ain't nothin new. This country's hard on people, you can't stop what's coming" relating a rather cruel story of many years past.
The preponderance of "what's coming" is a constant hanging question in NO COUNTRY, and is the crux of the films existential framework. Or rather, its that you "can't see what's comin' that propels the story, despite its rather fatalistic certainty. "Watcha doin?" a flirtatious woman asks Llewelyn poolside, just before his death. "Waitin for what's comin" he says back with a smirk and a lean. "You never see it" she says rather plainly. Or even earlier, Bell's deputy, at the sight of the drug deal slaughter says, "This sure is a mess, aint it?" "If it aint, it'll do till the mess gets here" Bell replies with a mix of nonchalance and concern.
The pacing is moderate and perfect, flowing no faster than the dust blown in the Texas breeze, but all the more gripping for it. The pacing roots NO COUNTRY on a scale we can appreciate without having to suspend our disbelief too far. Each character is so immediately rich and secretly complex, playing just beneath an archetype. The three leads (Jones, Bardem, Brolin) stand as a kind of attitudinal or moral ‘past, present, and future’ vehicle, which works as brilliantly as the trinity of moralities in Allen’s recent murder drama CASANDRA’S DREAM. In that sense the story is quite existential, with a manner that says as much in its measured language as it does in its likewise unfolding, recalling Antonioni’s masterwork THE PASSENGER (1975).
The greatest match that Chigur meets is neither Llewelyn, nor the hired contract killer Carson Wells (Harrelson), but little Carla Jean Moss, Llewelyn's wife. She challenges him in a manner no one else had through out the film because she refuses his entire ideological model, and does so without bullets or braun. "Call it [the coin toss]. Its the best I can do." In refusing to call the coin toss on which her life was staked, saying to him "That coin 'aint got no say. It's just you" she rattles Chigur's idea that we are fixed in our design and convictions or that the best any of us can do in this desolate world is weigh our lives against something vastly arbitrary. She says like so many others, "You don't have to do this." What she gets across more than others however, at least to the audience, is that we needn't slave ourselves to ideologies and refuse to break the chains simply because of our seeming design. But as Chigur checks his boots on the way out of her mother's house, its clear he didn't absorb her meaning. He's the heedless soulless future...or is he past, present, and future. Chigur's curious nature reminds me of a despairing passage from the novel THE SORROW OF WAR by Bao Ninh. "Like the dead, one felt no fear, no enthusiasm, no joy, no sadness, no feelings for anything. No concerns and no hopes....and no regard for the clever or the stupid, the brave or the cowardly, friend or foe, life or death, happiness or sadness. It was all the same; it amounted to nothing."
The film, sparse but viciously taut, holds onto no one, and the body count rolls off the celluloid like so much water from a rain-beaten windshield, not stopping to sympathize, moralize, or heighten their passing. In fact, several significant deaths occur off-screen. This is a world that believes in no cannon of pure justice and understands that causality is but a pretense for the truth of chance, and NO COUNTRY refuses to satiate an audience with expectations of how a story should unfold.
Despite the preceding parade of ruthlessness, the final words of the film have an almost hopeful tinge to them. In the scene Tom Bell, now retired but just as amiss in respite as he was in the worlds violence, relates a dream to his wife, concerning him and his father. "When he [his father] rode past, I seen he was carrying fire in a horn the way people used to do and I, I could see the horn from the light inside of it, about the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was going on ahead, and he was fixing to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold... And I knew that whenever I got there he'd be there... Then I woke up." One might read into this sentiment that for every expanse of darkness or hazard in this forsaken world, there will be a soul prepared to bring a light into it. It suggests that both eventualities are inevitable.
Tuesday, January 1, 2008
"The Clarity of Passion"
*contains many spoilers
In the first few minutes of the film, aspiring playwrite Broiny (Ronan) remarks to her older sister Cecilia (Knightley) that “in a book all you have to do is write the word ‘castle’ and you can imagine the steeple and walls…but in a play it’s difficult…it all depends on other people.” Indeed ATONEMENT proves how much of each persons life, each persons happiness, “depends on other people.” God help you if your architect is nearsighted. The fact that Broiny mentions this just before she next remarks of Cecelia's broken relation with Robbie (McAvoy); son of the groundskeeper and friend of the family, seals the two notions together and sets all the calamity in motion.
ATONEMENT, a suspenseful and incisive mood piece, a perfectly placed period drama that isn’t stifled by insularity, and a tale of hapless love torn asunder by lies, is more than the sum of its faculties because of the levity with which it navigates through them, and the broadness of its accessibility. Director Joe Wright, with reputedly faithful consideration to his source material, engages what might otherwise be a rather straightforward fatalistic unfolding of events and irrevocable consequences, with all the amenities that film allows. Sound, framing, montage, juxtapositions, and structure are all utilized to a rich and poetic extent, never wavering in, but perhaps flaunting, their functionality
The reason the film is so successful in dramaturgy, though it owes grand favor to all its aesthetics and impeccable composition, is because we are utterly and rather swiftly convinced of the gravity between Cecelia (Knightly) and Robbie (McAvoy), the very crux of the story itself. This is where Atonement succeeds over, say, Jeunet’s lush but grim A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (2004), a film that bears certain emotional and circumstantial likeness. Jeunet’s film seems to have to tell us explicitly that the principle characters are “soulmates” rather than allow it to be implicitly and therefore more authentically understood. The subsequent convoluted yarn that unravels is just slightly less compelling without anchor and urgency, though still beautiful. Not only are we convinced of Celia and Robbie’s internalized penchant for one another, it is an understanding that is accomplished in mere glances and gestures, viewed if not obscured from a distance through a window; a quiet quarrel of expressions and mannerism speaks volumes. Beyond the brilliance of the two leads in ushering these simmering complex emotions, we have a telling structure of visual juxtapositions in montage, which reveal in the abstract, the very same connection; Cecelia diving into the water as Robbie surfaces in his bath, Cecelia wiping lipstick from her face to reveal a kind of physical honesty to herself in the mirror as Robbie attempts his own version of honesty in a letter meant for her with mirrors at his face level, both smoking and pondering their words, both (ironically at this moment of self-honesty) putting on costume and façade for the impending dinner later that evening. This contradictory moment is embodied in the nature of mirrors themselves (a substantial motif). Mirrors are a contradiction because they are both the truth and deception, a reflection is accurate but also inverse.
Color makes its own statements in ATONEMENT, but in small ways; not as vibrantly instructive as in a film like RAN (1985), or as strictly aesthetic as in a film like ROMEO + JULIET (1997). It exists in a middle ground. Broiny, blond-haired, blue-eyed, naïve little wordsmith, wears white as a child, but as a young adult coming to terms with her transgression by working as a nurse for the red cross, the purity of her white uniform is marred by the violence of a bright red cape (I mean bright), and the red “x” that its straps make across her chest (not unlike the small jagged war wound across Robbie’s own chest). The "x" carries the guilt across her heart of having spun the falsehood that tore the two new lovers apart, sending Robbie to jail and then war, and Celia to the exile of urban disillusionment. For the fateful dinner party Cecelia puts on a shimmering leaf-green dress, and because of the inter-splicing in this sequence we can’t help but notice the connective theme of green in Robbie’s house as he leaves for the same dinner, nor can we help but draw Cecelia’s colorful elemetal connection to Robbie’s practice as a gardener. The nuances in ATONEMENT abound so much so that from the very beginning we feel the bond between Cecelia and Robbie…the rest is aftermath. We follow in tow because we are given the legs to stand on. It is because of these nuances that when the two say “I love you” in the library, partly removing each others costume and breaking their silences, we believe it. It is also one of the most brilliant love scenes I’ve seen on film because of how much it communicates beyond mere sexuality. I’d compare it, only in recent cinema, to the gestural complexity of the first love scene in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005), which undulates its pitch masterfully.
Like in all truly great love stories, love is a palpable but distant ideal for Cecelia and Robbie, though within their grasp for but a moment. “We just travel in different circles,” Cecelia explains as pretext to her affections for him. CASABLANCA, the most romantic movie ever made as some say, has only two kisses in it, and Bogart doesn’t even get the girl in the end! What’s “romantic” is the yearning, the aching, the struggle for or towards love. These are the more tangible qualities of love (or at least the more cathartic), and ironically they are the greatest proof of the enduring and prolific stain that love can leave on us, even when distilled by tragedy, time, distance, war, class, etc. ATONEMENT is testament to the inevitability and boundlessness of attraction and love, as well as the inevitability of its forfeit and difficulty. Maybe Robbie and Cecelia would wind up hating each other, break up over some petty quarrel, but the tragedy lies in the ‘not knowing,’ the ‘never got the chance.’ This emotional thievery is what makes the very last scene such a contradiction to its nature. It’s blissful and pure on the surface, which belies the devastating truth that it is but an impossible and imagined joy, as Broiny (played in later life by Vanessa Redgrave) explains as author of her autobiographical final novel in tight inescapable close-ups. .
The most effective decision in ATONEMENT may be that it waits until its final breaths to rip the carpet from under the narrative and riddle the audience with a kind of half-doubt about everything they have just watched and been swept up in. It is the kind of film that demands by this twist, and its own infectious emotion, for the viewer to reconsider and reconstruct and to revisit. This decision is not arbitrary or manipulative because the entire narrative is spun by the 'imprecision of truth,' the shades of perspective and speculation, which bear grim consequence. It drives the point home completely, that we now question everything we just saw as Broiny had to do. ATONEMENT opens with the sound of a typewriter striking away, the title banged out stroke by stroke. We will come to recognize this sound not only as a structural marker, but also as a constant echo of fabrication, and as Broiny’s musical theme to a degree. From this moment we should have an inkling of how speculative many elements of the story are, especially because the first shot is of Broiny typing, but we don’t. She’s the architect of the whole story and the catalyst of its entire drama…but we don’t know as much as we think until the very end. We learn subliminally that truth follows her, but never walks with her, as told by a particularly excellent shot in the hospital. The camera tracks backward through a dim hallway in pace with Broiny who's walking toward us. As she takes her steps, the ceiling lights behind her turn on one by one...always following behind her, never the one above her.
The early rustlings of the narrative have much to say in their details about an impending discord, and none are better than the buzzing of the bee. Broiny looks to her window when she hears the buzzing of a frantic bee, clawing at the glass. This image already resonates as a note of violence when shown in close-up, and because of what Broiny sees unfolding outside at this very moment between Celia and Robbie, it speaks to the hazard of trying to understand things with an obscured perspective. It is through this window that Broiny makes her first grave misconception, just as the bee, not understanding that glass is clear but solid, writhes its body against it ceaselessly. For Cecelia, it is her proclivity towards water that foretells disharmony. It’s not so much that she’s drawn to water, but more like she can’t escape it. First she jumps into the fountain to retrieve the shard of broken vase, she dives into the pond to escape the raised issue of Robbie, and she sits on the shore of a violent sea to ponder her distant lover. These are all part of a foreshadowing because they all couple water with a negative ideal. Cecelia’s fate lies within her proclivity. Her demise is drowning in a tunnel during the bombing of London. Its one of the more haunting images in cinema history; her body trails away from us suspended in the dim water like a grim marionette, arms extended. The scene in which she retrieves the shard of vase is, in its own way, an impressionistic foretelling of her death. Her scuffle with Robbie at fountains edge fractures the vase. She goes in after to retrieve it, only to fix an image in our minds to be recalled when her fragile body is floating amongst the tunnel’s debris. One might also recall the scene in which Cecelia lays prostrate on the diving board above the pond, wearing the purest white bathing suit and cap. Her body hovers like a still spirit over the water while her reflection in the pond ripples with a quiet intensity; the reflection serving well enough as both her body trapped underwater, and the simmering of her hidden emotions. The great irony of her fate is that Robbie’s final experience on the beaches of Dunkirk is that of insatiable thirst. It’s befitting though, that they should both die underground in the dark, together at least in circumstance.