Çarşamba, Şubat 28, 2007

The Transforming Landscape of Tideland

Tideland (Canada, 2005) * * * 1/2
D: Terry Gilliam

Tideland is the bravest, most personal, and most harrowing film Terry Gilliam has ever made. But it didn't work out so well for him. First there was the accusation, from former Gilliam child star Sarah Polley ("Sally" in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), that he recklessly endangers his child actors and shouldn't be guiding a young actress through the dark, adult material found in Mitch Cullin's novel. Gilliam, dumbfounded by her complaints, talked to Polley, and they seemed to work it out. But then it was screened in the 2005 Toronto Film Festival--just a month after the box-office failure of Gilliam's studio movie The Brothers Grimm--and received a disastrous reception, even worse than the reception his film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas received at Cannes. Nobody liked Tideland. Everyone complained that it was interminable, too unhinged, too bleak. A year passed and the film was not released. Finally, just last fall, it received an extremely limited release. Gilliam became desperate. In an unusual move, he filmed an introduction to be screened with Tideland in which he says to the audience, "Many of you will hate this film," but says that the film is about innocence, and asks that the audience view the events through the eyes of a child. "Children are resilient," says the ex-Python. "When you drop them, they bounce." When his film opened in New York, he greeted a line of people waiting for Jon Stewart's Daily Show dressed as a bum with a sign begging people to see his movie. He happily introduced himself to his fans. He'd talk to anyone. Just so long as they would give Tideland a chance.

In a way, the ordeal is now over: Tideland is out on DVD, and anyone can watch it, learn what the controversy was about, and draw their own conclusions. It can now become a cult film, which is most certainly what it's destined to be: a film that the majority will not understand (or will actively detest), but that a small, appreciate group will come to love. When Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas--a film that's already followed this path--was released, Gilliam enthusiastically proclaimed that yes, people can hate the film, and that's a good thing: it's good to get a real emotional reaction, when so many films intend complacency. Of course, now Fear and Loathing has become something of a classic. It helps that Terry Gilliam's never made a movie that's at its best on the first viewing; it usually takes a couple to appreciate the film's density--and to see past the grittiness.

And Tideland is all about the grit. Although the film is quite often beautiful to look at--the sweeping shots of the prairie, with a lonely house nestled within and propped up against a blue sky, are just as visually arresting as anything in the canon of this noted visual stylist--it is also a film that deals with hideous subject matter with a wide-open gaze. It's the innocent gaze of a child, and it's what transforms this film from a simple fantasy into something more complex and difficult. The plot concerns Jeliza-Rose (Jodelle Ferland), a child who is accustomed to preparing the needles for her drug-addicted parents (Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Tilly). She dislikes her mother, who guards all the candy. She admires and tenderly cares for her father, Noah, who fronts a rock and roll band, encourages her imaginative world through his own rudderless delusions and hallucinations, and is absolutely not worthy of the admiration. But as the film opens, her mother dies of an overdose, and Noah takes Jeliza-Rose out to the prairie to a deserted, dilapidated farmhouse--where he promptly overdoses. Jeliza-Rose is now orphaned, and copes by taking refuge in her imagination. She talks to the severed doll-heads that she carries on her fingers, seeks out a squirrel that's hiding in the roof, and dresses up the corpse of her father, whom she leaves in his rocking chair. Eventually, she discovers a "ghost" in the fields outside her home--actually Dell (Janet McTeer), a taxidermist who lives with Dickens (Brendan Fletcher), a young man with a lobotomy. While the young girl is frightened of Dell, she finds a fitting companion in the childlike Dickens, who has envisioned the prairie as a vast ocean occupied by a "monster shark" which is actually the train which periodically disturbs the landscape's serenity. Together all three form a makeshift and temporary family unit--solidified when Dell takes over the farmhouse and does something rather disturbing, which I won't reveal here, but which prompted one Tideland admirer to mention that it's best to take it in as a comedic version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I wouldn't go that far.

But it does, indeed, borrow many of the qualities of a horror film, particularly in some of the grisly moments toward the film's end. It starts ugly and it gets ugly. It's not an easy film to sit through. But if you turn it off--if you look away--you break the trance which the film is attempting to create. Tideland requires active attention and active thought; Gilliam is true to his hatred of complacency-inspiring films. And consider that if Gilliam wanted to wallow in ugliness, he would not have cut away from the film's one vomit scene (perhaps the only time he's done so in his career!). If you're open to this movie, if you're meeting its gaze, I think you're rewarded.

Take the film's acknowledged framework: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Jeliza-Rose is reading the book--presumably it's her favorite book--and not only does she quote lines from it, but at one point Dell does, as though the taxidermist were a creation of Jeliza-Rose's imagination. So you have a child who falls down a hole, meets some strange characters, and emerges, "waking," at the end. This is its structure, but it is not a movie "about" Alice in Wonderland; there is no point in making a direct connection of this-character to that-character. It's simply the foundation for a recurring motif on which to dress its themes. Tideland is, instead, a film about transforming reality through a child's eyes as an act of survival. It's about coping. It's about how the awful can be transformed into something sacred, even transcendent. It's about the difference between subjectivity and objectivity--and how objective meaning can be irrelevant behind the sheer will of one's subjective point of view. The events that surround Jeliza-Rose do, indeed, belong in a horror movie, or at least a Requiem for a Dream sequel, but in the eye of this hurricane exists, imperviously, Jeliza-Rose. She doesn't change; she doesn't deteriorate. She adapts to continue existing, yet retaining a relatively innocent viewpoint. This is something only a child can do, and it's the miracle of which Tideland is an intensive study. This isn't to say that Jeliza-Rose is traumatized by the deaths of her exaggeratedly horrendous parents and escapes into fantasy because of it; instead, she sees everything as it happens with an open, understanding gaze. She doesn't mourn her parents, for they were awful parents, but on the other hand, Noah was her world. When he's dead, she sleeps in his lap, brags about the song he wrote for her, and retains his vision of the "tidelands," which gels fortuitously with the imaginative world of Dickens. Her behaviour in the film will only seem extraordinary if you're not considering the imagination with which she was born and the parents with whom she's been sequestered all her life. Those are the elements, and when she's orphaned and set loose upon the adventure of Tideland, it's as though a grand experiment is taking place: to see just how far a little girl can go into the darkness while retaining her essential innocence.

Faithful Terry Gilliam fans--and we're a cult of our own--will immediately notice how few are the moments of outright fantasy in this film. It's particularly unusual given that it's the film's subject. In Brazil, when Sam Lowry retreated from his dreary office life into the make-believe world of his daydreams, it was an exhilarating experience, launched with the spreading of his silver wings. In Tideland, we only have one toe in the water of dreams. Everything seems mostly-true, like the world seen through the hazy veil of a hypnagogic state, caught between sleep and waking. There are only a few brief moments of outright fantasy, the most prolonged a vision of the prairie transforming into the "tidelands" as Jeliza-Rose swims against the current. That's maybe a minute-and-a-half. Only once do you see one of the doll heads become animate in the features, although a few float around the air. The squirrel talks, but not much. When Jeliza-Rose spies upon Dell having sex, it seems like a conspiratorial, sinister encounter suited to a dark fairy tale--and it's funny, but only modestly unreal. No, we are seeing events more or less as they happen. Children, after all, are not delusional. But events, to a child, are just a little bit magnified, and the meaning can be completely distorted. This is the eye of Tideland, and in that respect I believe it's completely accurate.

It gets even more interesting. Every character in Tideland is in the act of transforming the world into a reality with which they can cope; it's only that Noah does it less imaginatively by shooting up. Dramatically, Dell, by applying the art of taxidermy, hopes to reconstruct the world into her own ideals, even constructing her own semi-imaginary family. Perhaps this is why the setting is so flat, so empty, this corner of the prairie: it's a relatively blank slate upon which these identities can stamp their dreams. All of this comes together in the final scene, the "waking" of sorts, which promises escape from the landscape--and rescue--just as we've witnessed the most absurd, and blackly comic, transformation of all.

It is a really, really tough film to watch--or appreciate--for two principal reasons. (1) Because the film is essentially narrated by Jeliza-Rose, you may overdose on precociousness really fast. It's nothing if not honest in its depiction of a young girl's feverishly romanticized vision of her life. (2) Her relationship with Dickens threatens to become intimate late in the film. Perhaps speaking to this, Gilliam has said that the film plays better on a second viewing because one knows that nothing bad will happen to the girl. Nevertheless, Gilliam is well aware that he's playing with fire, and you can hold that against him, or appreciate how fearlessly he's scrutinizing the properties of a child's innocence. It's supposed to be harrowing--but when he grants these scenes a romantic tone (he's that committed to the girl's point of view), you might find it too much to stomach. I'll tell you this: it's the edgiest material Gilliam's ever attempted. Rest assured he pulls back at the precipice.

Gilliam had always been so easy to categorize, primarily because he did it himself, identifying for critics that three of his films fit into a "Dreamer Trilogy,"* and that the next three fit into an "America Trilogy."** But where does Tideland fit? Is it the middle part of a third trilogy which began with Brothers Grimm? Not at all--Tideland is nothing like anything Gilliam's done before. I always likened the filmmaker to Pasolini, who also had an earthy sense of the fantastic, and exuberantly sought the contrast between scatalogy and transcendence. This one is actually much closer to Pasolini's earlier, more intellectually-charged films. It's a true art house movie, in that it's a piece of art, not entertainment. You see, whether or not this movie "works" for you is kind of beside the point. It is a brave and indispensable piece of cinematic art.

And I dock it half a star for the fart jokes.

* These are Time Bandits (the dreamer as a child), Brazil (the dreamer as an adult), and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (the dreamer in old age). Tideland works upon a similar theme--actually, Gilliam's pet theme--of the thin line between fantasy and reality, but with a completely different technique, as noted above.
** These are The Fisher King (his first film made in the United States), 12 Monkeys (his bona fide Hollywood studio film), and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the film in which he turned on the U.S., scathingly delivering Hunter S. Thompson's satirical venom as his characters go in search of the real America). The Brothers Grimm was an international production. Tideland was produced in Canada.

Pazartesi, Şubat 19, 2007


Duelle (France, 1976) * * * *
D: Jacques Rivette

The touring Jacques Rivette retrospective (or "revival," more appropriately, given how underappreciated and underseen his films are in the States) continued last Saturday night with a rare screening of his 1976 fantasy Duelle. The fictional title word, I learn from the program notes, is a neologism intended to feminize the world "duel." And yes, this is a duel between two women, with a third caught in the middle.

It seems to operate in the same whimsical universe as his best-known work, Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974): like that film, it is an unapologetic fantasy with a twisting narrative, and told in a deliberately counterintuitive manner. But it is also an episode in an unfinished series of films to be called "Scenes de la vie parallele" ("Scenes from a Parallel Life"). Originally envisioned as a four-part series embracing myth in the storylines and a mannered mise en scene based upon the movement of the actors through the screen, he only completed two of these films in the Seventies before being forced to abandon the project. (Recently, he completed a third, The Story of Marie and Julien [2003]).

My understanding is that a lot of critics have rejected Rivette--at least, one can assume as much, given that his reputation needs to be "revived," despite the fact that he's still making films. With Duelle, I can see why, although it's a film that I can embrace. A glimpse at the plot might help you understand: Lucie (Hermine Karagheuz), who works at a hotel, is asked by a mysterious woman, Leni, to help track down her lover. Only gradually does Lucie learn that Leni is actually trying to track down Lucie's brother, Pierrot (Jean Babilee, slightly resembling Eddie Constantine in Alphaville--a comparison that will get you far in interpreting this film). Pierrot is also being sought after by Leni's friend Viva. Both of the women--Leni and Viva--are actually goddesses of the Moon and Sun, respectively, granted 40 days to take human form at the end of winter, and seeking a magical diamond called the "Fairy Godmother." The gem is cursed, but should one of them possess it, they will no longer be subjected to the rules governing the seasons. Pierrot does not have the gem, but one of his many lovers does: Jeanne, a miserable dancer who keeps it in her drawer, and covers with a scarf the tainting black mark that it's left upon her neck.

While the plot is fairy-tale fantasy, it is structured like a film noir. The Fairy Godmother is really just a surrogate for the Maltese Falcon, or, more accurately, the glowing package in Kiss Me Deadly. Leni approaches Lucie just as a pretty woman might approach Sam Spade in his office--and the fact that she's presenting a red herring, and harbors ulterior motives, is to be expected in this genre. Early on, Lucie is summoned to a nighttime meeting in an aquarium, and discovers her contact dead on the floor. She subsequently tails a suspect through the streets of Paris. All of this detective work eventually reveals the truth--that Leni and Viva are immortals, and they're after a magical diamond--which leads to a series of climactic setpieces straight out of a Philip Marlowe book, if they weren't so fantastic.

But if it doesn't play quite as exciting or suspenseful as it sounds, that's by design. Rivette underlines the artificiality through a number of curious, if not outright mischievous, devices. Most obviously, although the film has the basic story structure of a detective story, in the first hour it skips to disparate characters and events rapidly without stopping to introduce them. We actually learn much--that Leni and Viva know each other well, that Viva is beginning to work her wiles on Pierrot, that Jeanne possesses the diamond--but because we have so little context, we're frustrated and struggle to pull the meaning together. (To this end, as the film unfolds and reveals its design, the structure reveals not incompetence but bravura storytelling. How appropriate that this Cinematheque series is entitled "Parisian Labyrinths," for this is what the film resembles.) In another playful device, the score is entirely improvised--on set, with the pianist (Jean Wiener) in full view, playing his scores to fit the action just as a silent movie organist might. This is in line with Rivette's preoccupation with revealing the artificiality of cinema in order to draw attention to the relationship between the viewer and the film. Because of that damned pianist, it's impossible to completely lose oneself in the film; Rivette wants you to engage with it instead. But engage with what? Well, you could observe the way the actors seem to drift or swim or even dance across the screen--no one seems to just walk. (It can't be an accident that the centerpiece of the film is a ball in which all the major players are exchanging partners on the floor.) This technique is undoubtedly part of the new filmmaking technique which this series was meant to introduce. The only difference it makes, that I noticed, is a heightening of the film's dreamlike quality, for everyone moves as though in a dream. I would have to view the film a second time to see how it affects the "mise en scene," as Rivette implies.

But I can imagine that many critics, upon seeing this film in its original release, could find it all empty and meaningless (i.e., "commercial"). It does, after all, bother to tell you an actual story with a beginning, middle, and end. There's also all that nonsense about goddesses and magic. How could a film critic be bothered? Jonathan Rosenbaum is quoted in the program notes as excusing the film's complex storyline thusly: "Narrative habits [as a viewer] die hard, and the burning desire to know what is going on in the story terms might well divert one from the fascination of not knowing what will happen next in formal terms, in the constantly fluctuating relationship between chance and control...The irony of the situation is that the plot is important chiefly as a vehicle, and one mainly has to 'know' it in order to be able to dispense with it." Rosenbaum is here bending over backwards to excuse his enjoyment of a film with so much plot in it. Good lord. Get bent, Mr. Rosenbaum. I honestly don't believe Rivette--and his co-writers Eduardo de Gregorio and Marilu Parolini--poured so much work into this enormously dense screenplay just so that the viewer could dispense with it. There's a general tendency in film criticism to praise the director's techniques over the screenplay, and this is the extreme endpoint. In fact, this screenplay masterfully merges Raymond Chandler with Borges, filtered through a feminist lens. Still, he has a certain point, though he overstates it. Rivette is toying with the viewer's capacity to handle a plot which seems too tangled to infiltrate--but didn't Chandler do that first with The Big Sleep (and in particular, didn't Faulkner do it with his more-confusing screenplay)? In fact, a closer re-examination of Duelle's plotting, once the film is over, and you see that it wasn't so confusing after all. All the events make sense in retrospect, as in any fine mystery. It's just that Rivette's art house mannerisms tease one into believing that it's just Bunuelian (or Lynchian) surrealism, excavating the Unconscious, and no rhyme or reason will come of it...until it does.

But you may find yourself in one of these two camps--which, I impress upon you, are not the only options: the one who wants Duelle to have less story and more abstraction, and the one who followed the story dutifully and wants it to have more resonance of meaning. Fair enough. I would like to pose a third runway on which to land from this dizzying trip: you engaged in a game with Rivette--a fairy tale puzzle for adults--and there needn't be a winner. There is the sun. There is the moon. And there is, in the middle, the mortal--the Lucie, spilling a drop of her blood on the diamond to trump them both with her own mortality and her own limitations. Learn, as Lucie did, that the riddle of Duelle will not be solved by acting as an absolute. Embrace your limitations. Rivette is the wiser. It's as much as we can do to follow, like lost detectives, along the path he's led us along, and enjoy all the shadows, sights, and inspirations along the way.

[Note: although the still--one of the few I could find--is in black and white, the film is actually in color. The print screened at the Cinematheque was unfortunately battered and skewed toward the pink.]

Cumartesi, Şubat 17, 2007

Capsule Reviews

Children of Men (U.K., 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Alfonso Cuaron

One of the best dystopian thrillers I've seen (that's not saying that much--there are a lot of terrible ones), Cuaron's director's baravado is the real star of this film, with his extremely long handheld takes that bring a riveting immediacy to almost every scene. It's been decades since the last child was born, and as terrorism and riots have descended upon the rest of the world, the U.K. has been transformed into a police state, rounding up illegal immigrants and locking them in cages. Clive Owen plays a jaded beaurocrat who, after running into an old girlfriend (Julianne Moore) who's now working for a terrorist group, unexpectedly finds himself the protector of a miraculously pregnant woman (Claire-Hope Ashitey)--attempting to hide her pregnancy long enough to get her into the hands of a possibly-mythical human rights organization outside of England. The action is intense enough to put you in a thick, cold sweat, but Cuaron also has a knack for finding moments of incredible beauty, as in the memorable final shot.

Curse of the Golden Flower (China, 2006) * * * *
D: Zhang Yimou

The third in what might be a trilogy for the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou (after Hero and House of Flying Daggers), it's received less critical acclaim in the States and disappeared quickly from theaters. Undoubtedly it's because of the unusual style and structure of the film. The first half, in which Yimou finally reunites with his once-favored star, Gong Li, plays like one of their older films--a little bit Ju Dou, a little bit Raise the Red Lantern. With typically gorgeous cinematography and vivid, almost blinding colors, they guide us through the winding passages of the Forbidden City. Li plays Empress Phoenix, who is in love with her step-son, and is slowly being poisoned by her husband, Emperor Ping (Chow Yun-Fat). There are other complications and conspiracies involving her other two sons, too complex to recount in a capsule review, but suffice it to say that King Lear seems to be a chief inspiration. The second half is an action spectacular that builds upon the technology and epic battle scenes of The Lord of the Rings to put them to a slightly different use: as giant armies clash, moving as of one mind, it's like we're seeing a Romance of the Three Kingdoms legend re-enacted in the vivid imagination of a young child.

The Departed (U.S., 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Martin Scorsese

Scorsese's remake of Infernal Affairs--a superb Hong Kong thriller which has already spawned a sequel and a prequel--follows the original closely, while adding a completely different flavor. A Boston crime boss, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), watches as his prodigy, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), rises through the ranks of the Massachusetts state police while working as Costello's informant. Meanwhile, Billy Costigan (Leonardo diCaprio) another rising through the ranks, is forced into going deep undercover, first thrown in prison, then gradually involving himself with Costello's affairs. Only the captain (Martin Sheen) and his right-hand man (Mark Wahlberg) know that Costigan is an undercover cop, and Costigan, who spends each day living a life he'd wanted desperately to avoid, grows suicidal. The pace picks up when Costello learns there's a mole in his ranks, and the police learn there's one in theirs, too; soon Sullivan and Costigan are on each other's trail, in a chess game that grows more and more bloody. Nicholson's performance is way over the top, and distracts, but for the most part this is the same kind of hyper-intelligent thriller that Spike Lee made with Inside Man and David Mamet made with Spartan, and kind of makes you wish more of our great directors would try to reinvent the thriller genre.

Flags of Our Fathers (U.S., 2006) * * *
D: Clint Eastwood

The first in Eastwood's two-volume rumination on the battle of Iwo Jima, this one's told from the American point of view, in particular those who raised the flag in the famous photograph. They quickly become heroes on the homefront, but they feel randomly plucked for fame, and undeserving; haunted by the horrific memories of the battle on the Japanese island, their lives begin to fracture. Particularly devastated is Ira (Adam Beach), a Native American soldier who detests the public relations duties, and rapidly descends into alcoholism. The strongest scenes in Eastwood's film come at the very beginning, as we see the battleships filling the horizon as they gather for the assault on Iwo Jima, and the grunts turn to card games, jazz music (hosted by DJ Tokyo Rose), and mild hazing to cool their nerves. All of that seems authentic, as do the hellish scenes of battle, but whenever the film tells its central story--that of the three soldiers relentlessly exploited by the government and the media when they return home--the film is deflated and lethargic. You get the point early on, and you wait while Eastwood hammers it home again and again. Still, the strengths are greater than the weaknesses, and it's a film worth seeing, particularly on a double bill with the follow-up, Letters from Iwo Jima.

Ghost Rider (U.S., 2007) * *
D: Mark Steven Johnson

Nicholas Cage fulfills his longtime dream of bringing his favorite comic book (anti-)hero to the screen, but unfortunately Mark Steven Johnson (Daredevil) is in the director's chair. Johnson isn't as bad a director as Uwe Boll, but he seems almost as clueless. At least this film is a couple notches above his last effort, and it's kind of a thrill to see the big flaming skull zip up his leather jacket, convert his stunt motorcycle into a tripped-out skull-and-flames affair, and whip his chain over his head. A fairly faithful adaptation of the comic, with CGI that's hot (as with the Ghost Rider) and cold (as with the demons he fights), it tells the story of Johnny Blaze, a stunt rider of colossal fame (Cage plays him as an eccentric Elvis type), unwittingly selling his soul to the devil (Peter Fonda!) and becoming his cycle-riding "bounty hunter." Eva Mendes is quite terrible as his romantic interest, as is Wes Bentley as the demonic villain, but Sam Elliott is a lot of fun as his gravedigger mentor. Campy entertainment that occasionally has the sense to serve up intentional laughs, as with Blaze's inexplicable Carpenters fixation.

Idiocracy (U.S., 2006) * * *
D: Mike Judge

A military experiment in cryogenics sends two subjects--an everyman (Luke Wilson) and a prostitute (Maya Rudolph)--spiralling into the future, where society has degenerated into such a state of ineptitude that a Gatorade-like energy drink has replaced drinking water (because it has electrolytes) and the President of the United States is part hip hop artist, part wrestling champion. If you use big words, you're a "fag," and the current Hollywood blockbuster is "Ass," which is one long shot of a man's nude, flatulent ass. Wilson's character is deemed the smartest man on Earth and quickly becomes an advisor to the president. Satire is pretty tricky to pull off, but Mike Judge succeeds by combining his sharp wit with a genuine, passionate anger against the dumbing-down of society. It's almost reminiscent of Monty Python's Life of Brian in how it streamlines its satire into a coherent narrative, but most of all it's refreshing to see a comedy that knows how to deliver a smart joke--my favorite being the slide projector gag at the beginning. Although Judge's last film, Office Space, has been a lucrative cult hit, his follow-up was dumped in theaters with no advertising (reportedly, it played in a couple cities as "Untitled Mike Judge Film") by a studio (Fox) that didn't know how to cut a trailer for it. They instead settled on the idea that it would gain a cult following on DVD--overlooking the fact that no one will rent a comedy they've never heard of. Essentially, the studio was as moronic as the culture Judge is parodying. It's not a classic by any means, but it is consistently funny, which is rare enough.

Lady Vengeance (South Korea, 2005) * *
D: Park Chan-wook

The third in Park Chan-wook's "vengeance trilogy" after Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003), this ultra-stylish noir follows a beautiful woman falsely accused of kidnapping and murder, who, upon release from prison, sets out to kill the man who framed her. Her elaborate plan is only gradually revealed--as we meet a pack of characters too thick to sort through--leading to a very ugly, messy reckoning. Oldboy received buckets of acclaim, and though I had some reservations about that film, it's superior to this follow-up, which has less to say on the same subject. Often the film is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino, with its fractured narrative devices and visual techniques that draw attention to the editing and camera-work. But there is less here than meets the eye, and little actually happens in the film that sustains one's interest. It's a thriller without thrills, and a mystery without a mystery. There's much to admire in its technique and visual invention, but it's a self-satisfied film that offers nothing substantive for the audience.

Letters from Iwo Jima (U.S., 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Clint Eastwood

The immediate follow-up to Flags of Our Fathers is more compelling and powerful. Unlike Flags, almost all of Letters is set on Iwo Jima, as we see the Japanese commanders and soldiers turn the desolate, rocky island into a stronghold, even while learning that, no matter what they do, they are ultimately doomed to defeat and death. Based on the book Picture Letters from Commander-in-Chief, it's a tightly focused recounting of the battle from the point of view of several participants; they write letters to their families at home, form friendships and jealousies, and occasionally recount moments from their past. Actually, much of this plays pretty flatly, with little psychological depth, but moments of stark emotional resonance break through. The most remarkable aspect of this war film is how long, desperate, and despairing the battle is. The Japanese are pushed further and further back, some committing suicide by grenade (in one devastating sequence), others plotting desertion. Because we know the ending to this story, and spend so long contemplating that outcome with its participants, it's one of the darkest war films ever made.

Pan's Labyrinth (Laberinto del Fauno) (Mexico, 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Guillermo del Toro

It looks like it will finally be the year of Guillermo del Toro, the astoundingly imaginative Mexican director of The Devil's Backbone and Hellboy. His taste has always been somewhere between H.P. Lovecraft and Lewis Carroll, and Pan's Labyrinth finally makes that clear, reconciling the two worlds into a vision that's both breathtakingly wondrous and utterly grotesque. As with The Devil's Backbone, to which this seems to be a companion piece, the story is set against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War--or, in this case, in the immediate aftermath, as Franco's regime holds Spain in an oppressive grip. Young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) is taken to a fort held by the brutal Captain Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who has just married Ofelia's mother, and who's hunting down guerrilla forces in the neighboring woods. It's within these woods that Ofelia discovers the ruins of a labyrinth, in the center of which is a faun who tells her that she's destined to be restored to the throne of a mystical kingdom, if only she can perform certain tasks. As Ofelia sets about on her quest, guided by fairies and pursued by monsters, a real-life horror is enacted around her, as the captain coldly executes any opposed to Franco's regime. The most fascinating aspect of del Toro's widely acclaimed film is how the escapist fantasy proves to be anything but escapist: the faun, growing ever youthful as Ofelia completes her tasks, also becomes more sinister--and the tasks themselves are as bloody, visceral, and disturbing as Grimm's original fairy tales. An uncompromising, adult fantasy.

Princess Raccoon (Japan, 2005) * *
D: Seijun Suzuki

Suzuki's acid trip of a musical adapts an old Japanese legend involving a raccoon princess (Ziyi Zhang, of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers) falling in love with a prince (Jo Odagiri), while battling an evil sorceress. Enacted almost entirely on studio sets (which are supposed to look like studio sets), and filled with moments of utter insanity and confusion, the film is Suzuki's attempt to make a new kind of musical, a pure, and senseless, entertainment. Suzuki is a legendary Japanese film director, and he's in his eighties, which you wouldn't know by glancing at this film, which is exuberantly youthful--childish, even. It dwells at the point where a sugar high breaks through into spiralling nausea. Scatalogical humor, as well as many cultural jokes that don't translate at all (but which seem pretty adolescent, anyway), dominate the proceedings. Helpfully, the closing number spells out who were the racoons and who weren't. I could have used that at the beginning, but never mind.

The Queen (U.K., 2006) * * 1/2
D: Stephen Frears

Helen Mirren accepts the mantle of our new Judi Dench, although there's no coronation ceremony in this movie. Frankly, I think one Judi Dench was enough, but Mirren is still quite good as the Queen of England who, when she learns of Princess Diana's death, faces a public relations nightmare when she refuses to serve her respects publicly. But the real delight of the film is Michael Sheen, a dead ringer for Tony Blair who also captures the man's spirit. He serves as the surrogate for the audience, as we're introduced to the interior world of the royal family. It's fascinating to see the everyday life of the extremely priveleged and severely cloistered--to a point--but Frears handles the subject with little subtlety, and there's a great big dumb metaphor walking around in the film in the form of a prize stag, as though writer Peter Morgan just took Creative Writing 101. Prince Philip (James Cromwell) wants to take the boys out to hunt it, but when the Queen finds its decapitated body on a neighboring estate, she finally is able to grieve. Uh-huh. An inelegant film with modest pleasures, that is unsurprisingly reaping the benefits of awards season--at the expense of more worthy films (see above and below!).

Volver (Spain, 2006) * * * *
D: Pedro Almodovar

"Volver" is Spanish for "to return," and the one who returns is the supposedly dead mother (Carmen Maura) of two sisters, Sole (Lola Duenas) and Raimunda (Penelope Cruz). Sole keeps the mother's presence secret from Raimunda, although she also puts her to work in her salon (you can't just have a ghost hanging around the apartment all day). Raimunda, meanwhile, has her hands full: her adolescent daughter, Paula (Yohana Cobo), has just killed her father in self-defense during an attempted sexual assault. Raimunda hides the body in a freezer in the restaurant next door, and appoints herself the restaurant's new owner when the real one asks her to sell it. Over the past ten years Almodovar has become one of the greatest living directors, while consistently releasing the very best films for and about women. Volver is one of his best, combining his usual harrowing subject matter (in this case, there's a very dark secret revealed late in the film, which casts all the events in a new light) while applying a touch of Fellini.

Perşembe, Şubat 15, 2007

Mutual Appreciation

Mutual Appreciation (U.S., 2006) * * * 1/2
D: Andrew Bujalski

A plot description wouldn't do it justice. So here it is.

Alan Peoples (Justin Rice) has just watched his indie-pop band, the Bumblebees, fall apart. He journeys to New York, ostensibly to put together a new band, but also to visit his longtime friend Lawrence (Andrew Bujalski). At first, he thinks, he only needs a drummer. He finds one, the brother of a local DJ (Seung-Min Lee) he's hesitantly dating. But he finds it easier to get along with Lawrence's girlfriend, Ellie (Rachel Clift), who's also attracted to him--but neither can do a thing about their "mutual apprecation," of which they're pretty uncertain in the first place.

Bujalski is the writer, director, and editor of this zero-budget film, which has one a few festival awards and was recently acclaimed by Film Comment, which led me to seeking it out. It's a sublime film. "Hesitantly" would be the key adjective in the above paragraph--there's a tentative attitude held by Alan, Lawrence, and Ellie, not just toward each other but toward everyone. Anxiety floods every moment, but they do their best to hide it. There are no giant emotional displays, nor are there any nebbish, cutesy comedy moments. Not a single frame of this film comes off as false. A couple of times you will suck in your breath and say, "Holy shit is that accurate." But although it's a film that thrives on making you uncomfortable--there are a zillion awkward pauses--I found that I had a grin frozen on my face for almost the entire time, because Bujalski affords the actors so many occasions to let the truth of what they're feeling accidentally slip out through their carefully guarded masks. Alan complains that he's been sending "signals" to his DJ girlfriend that he doesn't want a relationship and she's pressing on anyway, and we witness the moment first and read those signals loud and clear, but for the rest of the film we're left to find everyone's signals on our own. One of the most interesting is when Alan, quite drunk and looking to meet up with Ellie and Lawrence, wanders into a party at which they never arrived. He's left to introduce himself to three girls he's never met, all of whom are wearing wigs, and before long he's putting on a wig and being persuaded to wear eye shadow and a dress. He's trying to adapt socially to the bizarre situation (which is like something out of Martin Scorsese's "After Hours," although it still has the aura of authenticity)--but he knows he probably shouldn't let them apply makeup, and he certainly shouldn't put on the dress; it's a slow, horrifying humiliation that's also truly funny. Where that scene ends--the moment when Bujalski cuts--is just about perfect cinema.

You could complain that there's no plot, not really, and that the conflict is a bit tired, but that's not the point. Mutual Appreciation is about showing reactions and conversations and moments that you haven't seen before on film, and as much credit is due to the performers. I'm not sure how much improvising was involved in the picture, if any, but it all comes off like a documentary captured on Super-8. It has to be noted that the struggling-indie-rocker has never been depicted with such accuracy, as when Alan goes to play at Northsix in Brooklyn (a real club), and hardly anyone shows up except for a few of his friends. Watching the moments just before he begins performing, and how the crowd slowly gathers to the stage, but keeping a certain distance, as he begins, adheres so closely to the truth of the small-club scene that I was transfixed. I've never seen that in a movie before. Not to mention the awkward "trying to find a place to hang out and drink" that follows the concert, and the strange, spacey moments of hanging out with people you've never met before, trying to invent a brilliant conversation while getting drunk out of sheer nervousness. There's the bit where the drummer finds a way to score weed. Or when Lawrence is asked by a performance artist if he'd like to contribute to her show. Or when Ellie tells Lawrence the truth about what has passed between her and Alan.

The film is a little too long. There's an awkward phone conversation with Alan's father in which Bujalski seems to be desperately editing out the weaker moments of the father's performance, which leaves the scene feeling a little spotty. Perhaps too much it wears its Cassavetes influence on its sleeve (I've often heard directors list Cassavetes as an influence, but here is clearly a director who idolizes him). But most of all this is a film that radiates warmth and humanity, and it's a real joy. Netflix this now.

Cumartesi, Şubat 10, 2007

The Nun

The Nun (France, 1966) * * * 1/2
D: Jacques Rivette

For the winter/spring semester, the UW's Cinematheque is hosting the touring retrospective on overlooked French master Jacques Rivette, most famous for Celine and Julie Go Boating--a through-the-looking-glass metaphysical comedy that I wrote about here. That film opened the retrospective, and the series continues each Saturday...but, alas, without Out 1, his 729-minute opus (I guess since they played the 450-minute Satantango last semester, they thought we needed a longer break from the marathon cinema sessions). The first in their Rivette series which I've been able to catch is The Nun, his ultra-controversial adaptation of the 18th century Denis Diderot novel about Catholic corruption.

There's a whole genre of late 18th to early 19th century novels about depraved Catholic clergy, in which Diderot's novel fits snugly, and at times, in watching this film, I was reminded of one of my favorite books that's right out of that genre, Matthew Lewis' The Monk, which is about the extreme lengths to which a monk is driven to satisfy his unrequited sexual desires for a young woman. Here is another potboiler, just as lurid. It is divided cleanly into three acts, the third being abbreviated. In the first, a teenager, Suzanne (Anna Karina, star of many Godard films), is being forced into a convent against her will, and she refuses to take her vows; this causes a scandal, but she is nevertheless compelled to join the convent or risk living on the streets, as her callous mother will cut her off from the family's savings. Her allegiance to a sympathetic mother superior is cut short when the woman dies, and the new mother superior quickly suspects her of trying to resentfully divide the nuns against her. In fact, Sister Suzanne is only trying to contact a lawyer to win her freedom from the convent, as she was coerced into taking her vows. When the mother superior learns the truth, life becomes a waking nightmare for Suzanne: she is deprived of linens and food, even a prayer book and her rosary, and locked in a cell. She begins to grow delirious, which leads the nuns to suspect her of being possessed by the devil. Her abuse in this convent is as much psychological as it is physical, and it's arresting to watch these seemingly innocent nuns coldly conspire against each other, finally turning Suzanne into the scapegoat for all their sins. ("She thinks she's Jesus," one of the nuns sneers at one point.)

In the second act, events become more interesting, and the film heads into Bunuel territory. Suzanne has failed to win her freedom, but at least, through the efforts of her lawyer, gained transfer to another convent. At first it seems she's acquired a paradise, by comparison to her old life. The mother superior appears to be delightfully frivolous, and lets Suzanne play her harpsichord and lead the nuns in a singalong love song. But something else is going on that only gradually reveals itself to Suzanne: at first it seems that the mother superior is using her favoritism toward Suzanne as a method of psychological warfare against one of the other sisters. But then the mother superior begins to flirt with Suzanne, and invites herself into her bed chamber in the middle of the night...

In the third act, Suzanne finally gains her freedom, only to discover, inevitably, that "society" offers as many prisons, in various guises. This plays out very quickly, as the pace of this rather long film suddenly picks up and skips ahead through time, underlining the black satire of the premise while rushing ahead toward a tragic conclusion, which isn't hard to predict. For all its obviousness, Rivette's film is magnificently subversive. Towards the end of the picture, the convents have been transformed from the expected stereotype of prayers, confessions, choir, and seclusion in silent rooms, into a dark labyrinth of sinister traps made of pride, vanity, jealousy, and lust. Typical of this 18th-century genre, the plot's sole purpose is to point out that those whom society has deemed the most pious prove invariably to be the most deeply corrupt. I get a kick out of this stuff. There's just something about the luridness of the story, the desperation of the characters, and the giddy breaking of taboos by the author. In this case, it was too much for the Minister of Information in France, who banned the film. It seems inevitable, since the lesbian lust of the second act isn't hinted at, but spelled out, underlined, and highlighted in bright yellow marker.

The film is rather drably shot--appropriately, given the milieu--and not at all stylish, like the films of Karina's then-husband, Godard. There are only brief flashes of an experimental, cacophanous score, and the odd jump-cut, to add a bit of interest here and there. But Rivette is keenly interested in the storytelling, which is never less than compelling, and Karina transfixes the audience, perfectly portraying the only character in the film who presents a resolute moral pillar. Given to suicidal inclinations, and sometimes hanging to sanity by a thread, she is nonetheless determined to keep her faith in God and do right by him--which, perversely, requires escaping the one place which is supposed to be closest to him. It's a potboiler, yes, but a brilliant one.

Cuma, Şubat 09, 2007

The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. I

The Films of Kenneth Anger, Vol. I * * * 1/2
Fireworks (1947)
Puce Moment (1949)
Rabbit's Moon (1950)
Eaux d'Artifice (1953)
Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954)

After years of delay, and reputedly some disputes with the filmmaker, Fantoma Films has finally released its long-awaited DVD compilation of the films of legendary underground filmmaker (and Hollywood Babylon scribe) Kenneth Anger, the first in a projected two-volume series. While most of his major works are absent--Scorpio Rising (1964) and Lucifer Rising (1972) will have to wait for the next DVD, which hopefully won't take as long--this DVD contains some stunningly sophisticated short films, totalling about 90 minutes when played as a program. I've wanted to watch Anger's films since beginning my personal "Primer" project of film essays a couple years back, and knew that the best video store in town, Four Star Video Heaven, had a VHS tape compilation that may or may not be legitimate; unfortunately, a flood in the building had promptly erased about a quarter of the store's inventory, and presumably the Anger tape was among them, because it was gone when I went looking again. So it was with great joy when I learned, early last month, that Fantoma had suddenly added the Anger DVD back to their schedule, and it was to be released within a matter of weeks. I am only an Anger initiate, and not an expert, so the short summaries I write here are only first impressions garnered from the very dream-like experience of watching the whole program.

According to the IMDB, Anger had been making films since he was 14 years old, but "Fireworks," made when he was 20, must be considered his first major work. The style and imagery of this, the only black and white film in the collection, calls to mind "Un Chien Andalou" and the early avant-garde films of Man Ray and Jean Epstein, put to use for a gay-themed parable. The story is quite obviously one of self-actualization, as a young man begins to experience homosexual longing, is tormented and brutally beaten for his desires, and finally is resurrected with a firework stuck in his pants. It's obvious, but quite well done given Anger's youth and lack of time and budget. It would certainly play well on a bill with one of Guy Maddin's films.

But it's the only film that seems to be of its time--even if it's an underground film. All the others, probably because many of them were reworked and redubbed over the years, have a more timeless feel. "Puce Moment" is a lovely fetish film that has a delirious opening sequence, as one brightly colored dress quickly replaces another, and the colors seem as dazzling as those of The Wizard of Oz. We obsessively follow a movie star as she leads a pack of dogs like a Siberian princess out of her estate. I'd like to know who's singing the psychedelic rock songs on the soundtrack. It sounds similar to the Velvet Underground, though at least I know it isn't them. Considering that this is a film from 1949, the effect is disorienting and weirdly euphoric. Most of all it feels like the sort of film a gay teenager would make in his bedroom when the parents are asleep--later to grow into a Jonathan Caouette, a John Cameron Mitchell...or a Kenneth Anger. Slight but technically astonishing, like all of the films here.

"Rabbit's Moon" is the first flat-out great film here. Restored to its original length of seventeen minutes (it was later cut down considerably), it's another parable, but reenacted by its players with a deliberately repetitive and ritualistic manner. A mime is stranded in a clearing in a dark woods, and falls in deep love with the moon. While he tries to reach it--an impossible task that continually leaves him isolated and broken--he is visited by a jester and a ballerina, who manipulate his desires. All of this is set to a doo-wop soundtrack--linked by chanting and tribal drums--which lends the atmosphere an electricity. The film is color tinted blue, in the manner of silent films depicting nighttime.

"Eaux d'Artifice" is an astounding and dreamy walk through a palace garden decorated with so many fountains that the water even cascades down the steps of the path. In fact, it brought to my mind Ralph Steiner's 1929 film "H20," in the way it approaches the moving water closer and closer until you're watching a purely abstract film.

Finally I was treated to a film which I gather most closely resembles his later classics. "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome" is a lengthy (38 minutes), intensely ritualistic film which summons imagery both pagan and Satanic (Anger was a professed disciple of Anton LaVey, author of the Satanic Bible). It begins with an initiate decorating himself with opulent jewelry, then consuming it. He is led into a dark chamber and joins a group of masked magicians/deities/whatever; the IMDB tells me that Shiva, Osiris, Kali, Aphrodite, Isis, Lilith, Pan, Hecate, and more are here--a density in myth that is echoed by the visual density of the film, which grows increasingly hallucinogenic and fevered as the film progresses. We even see, but dimly, an orgy of bodies piled atop each other in a pyramid, celebrating in a thick red mist, an image of intense pleasure that also, conversely, seems to invoke the traditional Catholic image of Hell. Clearly, Anger seeks to transform the Satanic into the liberating. In the bottomless pit of this secret chamber, you can don your mask, lose your identity, or discover your true one, free from the hypocrisies of the world above. It's an hypnotic bacchanalia, to which he would return--and hopefully Fantoma will too, as I eagerly await Volume II.