Thursday, September 22, 2005

Nowhere in Africa (Link, 2001)

What is the most critical element in defining a human being? Is it race? Gender? Nationality? Religion? Family? Friendships? In times of severe crisis, what do we look to in order to give us strength and purpose? This is the driving question at the heart of Caroline Link’s impressive drama, Nowhere in Africa – a film that beat out such competition as Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without a Past and Zhang Yimou’s Hero in order to win the Academy Award for best Foreign Language film. Indeed, Link’s film has much that the Academy has traditionally found attractive, such as a sweeping epic scope, gorgeous cinematography capturing exotic landscapes, and a war-time setting in which the protagonists strive to overcome adversity. However, unlike typical Oscar fare, Nowhere in Africa has wonderfully complex and specific characters, an exploration of patriotism that does not plunge into cheap slogans and an honest, insightful analysis of the problematic nature of human love.

Nowhere in Africa follows a German Jewish couple and their young daughter as they leave their homeland in the face of Hitler’s rise to power and relocate to a Kenyan farm. Early on, it is clear that Jettel, the mother (Juliane Köhler), is not exactly prepared for the life that awaits her, as it is revealed that she has packed up the family’s fine china and spent most of their remaining deutschmarks on an expensive evening gown. Young Regina (Lea Kurka) proves much more adaptable, quickly befriending the natives and acclimating to the local customs. Despite being the victim of racial persecution in her native country, Jettel is adamant in insisting that her daughter not behave like a “negro.” Through the occasional letter and international radio broadcast, the family is able to stay updated on the horrifying political events dramatically transforming their homeland and the devastating impact on family and friends that were left behind. The father, Walter (Merab Ninidze), even gets a brief taste of the far-reaching ramifications of World War II’s outbreak when he is separated from his family and placed in a British internment camp.

Throughout all of this, the family’s cohesion begins to slowly dissolve. Without the binding force of a familiar routine or environment, the impact of African life isolates father, mother and daughter and drives each of them on a desperate path to reclaim their personal identity. Walter realizes that his nationality is a fundamental part of who he is and, despite Germany’s state of turmoil, he has a need to return to the land that will always be there, though governments come and go. Despite her early resistance to remaining in Kenya, Jettel finds her identity in the care and maintenance of the farm. She is driven to maintain stability -- to nurture -- even though her definition of family has been twisted about and altered. Regina (who in a delightful cinematic moment ages in the blink of an eye) is a different case altogether. Having spent many of her formative years in Kenya, she has a greater attachment to the land and people than her parents, especially family friend, Owuor (Sidede Onyulo). Though she has received formal education from an educational institution led by a rather detestable British headmaster, in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, she also reveals the spirit of Africa that resides within her by rejecting that conditioning and climbing a tree like a Kenyan would. These are characters that cannot possibly be defined by a particular type. They are complex personalities created by extremely unusual circumstances. Link knows these characters with all of her heart and presents them to the viewer with remarkable clarity and confidence.

Once the family has discovered themselves, will they rediscover each other? Or will they drift apart, hopelessly changed by their years in exile? Again, the answer is anything but simple. Nowhere in Africa is a film that pleases on a number of different levels, engaging in its narrative and captivating in its visuals. It is insightful, unpredictable and often very sexy. Link, who is still relatively young at 41 years of age, establishes herself as a director of considerable skill, sensitivity and intelligence. Nowhere in Africa is a work that revisits a time in history that has been endlessly examined in countless films, books and plays and yet manages to offer an experience that is fresh and vital.


M is for Man, Music, Mozart (Greenaway, 1991)

Commissioned for television in order to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death, M is For Man, Music, Mozart is above all a celebration of symmetry. Over the course of 29 exhilarating (and occasionally overwhelming minutes), Peter Greenaway revels in the symmetry of both music and the human body. Set in an old-fashioned viewing theater for medical operations, Greenaway’s film begins with two nude female dancers covered completely in powder-white make-up. As they dance and contort their bodies, a singer progresses through the alphabet, listing a collection of key words and finally landing on the letter M at the center of the alphabet. With the creation of Man, a male nude dancer becomes the central figure. As he dances, a grid is superimposed over his body, highlighted certain poses and drawing our attention to the marvelous composition involved in creating the human form. The choreography is unpredictable and showcases virtually every aspect of the dancer’s body. Following the creation of Man, comes the creation of Music. Greenaway’s film seems to suggest that whereas dance is a celebration of the beauty of the body, music is an abstract expression of the beauty of the human mind. The final creation is that unparalleled concoctor of music himself … Mozart. Produced around the same time as Greenaway’s feature film, Prospero’s Books, this short film shares a similar desire to bombard the viewer with wall-to-wall imagery and stands as an astonishingly meticulous creation. Though this may be a minor entry in Greenaway’s filmography, it is far from a trifle. Track it down if you can and watch music, dance, film and theatre come together in a glorious artistic synthesis.

Simon of the Desert (Bunuel, 1965)

He stands atop a stone tower overlooking a small village. For over six years, he has remained there, separating himself from any sort of worldly pleasure in order to demonstrate his steadfast devotion to Christ. Although there are those who see him as an inspiration, an example of religious purity, Simon regards himself as a sinner. Others take him for granted, regarding him as a kind of spiritual sideshow, despite the fact that the miracles he performs are real. Indeed, Simon is noteworthy enough to receive several surprise visits from Satan who appears in the guise of an attractive young woman that sings seductively and bares her breasts. With Simon of the Desert, Luis Bunuel, offers a provocative and humorous commentary on the divide between uncompromising religious devotion and the ordinary realities of humankind’s earthly existence.

Having literally placed himself on a pedestal, Simon naturally receives not only praise, but also his fair share of contempt. After Simon scolds a young clergyman for being distracted from his prayers by a beautiful woman, he returns later to tell the ascetic that despite the fact his religious commitment has lasted the better part of a decade, this masochistic version of spirituality has no bearing on the material world that God has presumably designed for mankind. What good is it to prostrate oneself before a rigid set of rules when it consequently denies the experience of life? In the end, Bunuel provides Simon with one final stirring vision that effectively puts all of his suffering and fasting into perspective. It is a jarring, yet witty, capper to this delightfully pure expression of Bunuel’s pet themes. Despite being only a one-acter, it surely ranks amongst his best work.


Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Castle in the Sky (Miyazaki, 1986)

Long before Princess Mononoke and the Academy-award winning Spirited Away, Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki created Castle in the Sky, a characteristically imaginative effort that shows many of his pet themes already in place and is the very definition of the word ‘rollicking’. Watching Castle in the Sky, it is easy to see why over time Miyazaki has developed a huge following in North America. Apart from some facial features that could be characterized as distinctive to anime, there is very little about Castle in the Sky that stands out as being especially Asian. Indeed, Miyazaki seems to be drawing inspiration largely from American blockbusters such as Star Wars and the Indiana Jones series. Miyazaki takes the X-wing fighters and transforms them into pirate flying machines resembling giant insects. Enormous and destructive ships pursue the protagonists much like Lucas’ star destroyers. A chase sequence set on fast-moving trains is reminiscent in its execution of the mining car scenes in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Naturally, Miyazaki is no mere pilferer, adding plenty of his own touches that would eventually come to be readily recognizable. There is the aggressive and intimidating elderly woman, the sweet-faced protagonists that look about ten years younger than their actions would suggest, the huge complex piece of machinery with an unclear practical purpose and a symbolic patch of natural environment threatened by the actions of mankind. I especially enjoyed the way in which Miyazaki throws us immediately into the heart of the action with little time to calibrate ourselves. An opening scene featuring two warring factions battling it out in the sky and a young girl taking a rather ill-advised plunge effectively captures our attention and introduces us to a world of murky motives and sudden, inexplicable magic. Before long, we hear tales about a mystical castle that exists above the clouds and we know for certain that our tale will ultimately lead us to that far off place, though for much of the film’s runtime, it is not especially clear why. Once we finally reach the destination, things become somewhat clearer, as we see a metaphorical conflict between technological progress and pure environmentalism taking shape in the form of overgrown roots and large metallic boxes. Considering this is a Miyazaki film, rampant technology doesn’t stand a chance.

It is difficult to visit Castle in the Sky after viewing Miyazaki’s superior films such as Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. While the film is consistently entertaining and has its fair share of invention, it can’t help but feel like a Plain Jane by comparison. It’s not that the story in Castle in the Sky isn’t told well. It’s just that Miyazaki has gone on to create works of greater maturity and higher aspirations. With two young protagonists possessing little charisma and an awkward schoolyard-level romance, Castle in the Sky does little to distinguish itself as an essential adventure all to itself. There is some kind of pro-environmental message here, but since the struggle seems to be played out above the level of the protagonists’ comprehension, it is difficult to feel any sort of emotional attachment to their vague quest. Still, for those attracted to Miyazaki’s fantasy universe, Castle in the Sky is worth a look.


Benny's Video (Haneke, 1992)

The universe of Michael Haneke must surely be one of the darkest realms in all of cinema. Not only is it a place where violence and cruelty are commonplace, it is a place where these things seem to be an unavoidable and unexplainable part of the human experience. Those who perpetrate the violence are as much incapable of explaining why they do what they have done as those who are the recipients. Like his later films, such as Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, Benny’s Video is a film that depicts deeds of an excruciatingly unpleasant nature and then prods the viewer to consider how such acts came to be.

Young Benny (Arno Frisch) is a typical teenager in many ways. He enjoys fast food, loud music and violent movies. He also enjoys immersing himself in technology. With a camera and some impressive home editing equipment, Benny documents odd slices from his so-called life. His favorite clip comes from a visit to a nearby farm in which a pig is suddenly and brutally killed with a point-blank shot to the head. With no apparent feeling of compassion, Benny slows the video down to absorb the pig’s frenzied cries as it goes through the throes of death. In this, and other scenes in the film, Haneke makes a distinct suggestion that increased modern technology has had a palpable effect on his central character, encouraging a detached, unemotional outlook on his fellow humans. In one brief, but telling moment, Haneke shoots a bustling group of people, interacting with each other joyfully as Benny stands on the opposite side of the fence looking in. Not only is he apart and uninvolved, he seems completely disinterested.

It will probably come as no surprise that Benny is soon involved in an incident of horrific violence; however, such foreknowledge will hardly prepare the viewer for Haneke’s agonizingly cold depiction of the crucial moments that serve as the film’s centerpiece. The scene calls to mind the virtuoso 10-minute sequence in Funny Games where Haneke captures two characters struggling in the wake of a deed of senseless brutality. Here again, Haneke uses his camera’s apparent disinterest and detachment to paradoxically envelope the viewer in dread.

If all this seems like a simple-minded assault on the corrupting influence of violent entertainment, think again. With the second half of his film, Haneke focuses his attention elsewhere – on Benny’s parents and the way they interact with their son. Note how Benny’s mother and father react when they learn about what has transpired. Note the way they immediately strive to make the problem disappear. Note the utter selfishness and lack of compassion for the victim. Note how quickly they are willing to relieve their son of responsibility. In this film, the stakes for Benny are not simply whether or not he will be caught, but rather whether or not he will be able to rediscover his humanity. Ultimately, there will be consequences to be faced – but not exactly in the way we might expect.

Benny’s Video unfolds in such a way that the second half of the film has no chance of attaining the level of tension we experience early on in the film. Consequentially, the film feels front-loaded structurally, even though the plot develops in a logical and essentially satisfying direction. To be sure, this is an audacious and provocative effort; however, it would be an exaggeration to say that the film is terribly thought provoking. Unlike Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, which used extreme situations to offer complex insight into humankind’s relationship with violence, Benny’s Video settles for teenage alienation painted in broad strokes. Nonetheless, Benny’s Video remains a worthy entry in the filmography of one of contemporary cinema’s most accomplished provocateurs.


Friday, September 16, 2005

The Emperor's New Groove (Dindal, 2000)

The Emperor’s New Groove is a film so genuinely witty and resistant to formula that I had to check the DVD case to make sure that the film I was watching was really produced by Disney. The central character is not another recycled wide-eyed dreamer with a wise-cracking sidekick chasing after a sassy idealized animated hottie. Oddly enough, he really isn’t even all that likable. Still, with distinct, memorable characters and a fresh, consistently pleasing script, The Emperor’s New Groove manages to offer a valuable message of integrity and humility while simultaneously providing laughs for both children and adults.

The greatest risk the filmmakers take is to place a snotty, arrogant young ruler (voiced by David Spade) at the center of their story. Not only can Emperor Kuzco have anything his heart desires, he can even have anyone that dares disrupt his life of wealth and excess tossed from the nearest palace window. Naturally this sort of behavior engenders a fair amount of hostility amongst those he has abused and soon he is the subject of a murder plot. Though he may not appreciate it at the time, Kuzco is fortunate to escape with his life when the assassination is botched and instead he is turned into a llama. What follows is a delightful tale of how the smug, selfish Kuzco gradually learns the value of trust and kindness. Especially pleasing is the way that this lesson is not delivered in a heavy-handed monologue or through a vacuous pop song, but rather through tangible examples and at least one simple, yet effective, metaphor.

Another pleasant surprise is that most of the laughs in The Emperor’s New Groove come not from pop culture references or blatant anachronisms, but arise internally from the world of the film. The filmmakers clearly understand funny. Llamas, for example, are funny. With the long necks, the awkward bodies and their temperamental attitudes, they are inherently comedic creatures and the decision to place Kuzco into a llama body is a good one. There is also a scene of remarkable comedic timing set within a kind of diner where characters cross paths, narrowly missing one another, all the while holding a conversation with a third character that is so obsessed with his task at hand that he doesn’t realize that he is talking to two different people. Or take the character of Kronk (voiced by Patrick Warburton) who is set up to be a doofus, but gets most of the film’s big laughs because the execution of his character is anything but stupid. Warburton supplies Kronk with impeccable comic timing, as well as charm and most importantly sincerity. We laugh because Kronk does not seem like a Hollywood actor that knows he’s playing dumb, rather he is comically earnest.

There are a few moments where The Emperor’s New Groove momentarily loses its way and tries a little too hard to be hip. Specifically, Spade’s omniscient voice-over, in which he interrupts the story and provides commentary, constantly reminding us that he is the misunderstood hero of the story, gets tiresome quickly and seems like an unnecessary hangover from an early draft of the script. Indeed, Spade’s voice-over in general is the most inconsistent of the bunch, occasionally capturing the snide humor that presumably won him the role, but more often sounding awkwardly like a guy clearly reading his lines in a recording studio. Nevertheless, The Emperor’s New Groove, exceeded my expectations and delivered a solid night of family entertainment.


Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #12 -- JULIUS CAESAR directed by Martin Scorsese

The Plot:

The Roman citizens absolutely love Julius Caesar. There’s even talk about making him king. But Cassius is concerned that Caesar’s growing popularity is a threat to the republic. Brutus, a good friend of Caesar’s, needs more convincing, so Cassius just whips up some ‘evidence’ that supports his conclusion and Brutus goes along. Then here’s my favorite part: not only does Brutus participate in the assassination of Caesar, he shows up at the funeral and gives a eulogy explaining why he was justified in killing him. For a while it seems that the Romans will be swayed, but Antony reminds the crowd that Caesar refused the crown when it was offered and reveals that in his will, Caesar divided up his money amongst all Roman citizens. Hey, Brutus! Scoreboard!

Why Scorsese?

For the man who’s given us some of film’s most memorable gangsters, I suggest a film concerning one of history’s most famous hits. One of the things that I think tends to get overlooked about Scorsese is what a dedicated historian he is. His films may be largely visceral, but they’re frequently backed with meticulous research and extraordinary thoughtfulness. Though the characters in Shakespeare’s play are mostly politicians – can you imagine Joe Lieberman whacking Dick Cheney and then going on Larry King to discuss why – it is not a huge leap to see the similarities to the mentality of gangster culture that Scorsese has so vividly explored. I liked the intelligence with which Scorsese analyzed the roots of American violence in Gangs of New York and also the way in which he challenged us to reconsider the story of Jesus’ crucifixion in The Last Temptation of Christ. Scorsese could bring new vitality and detail to what is already one of Shakespeare’s best historical dramas. Just as long as he doesn’t cast Harvey Keitel as Brutus.

Scorsese films I have seen:

1. The Last Temptation of Christ ****

2. Raging Bull ****

3. Goodfellas ****

4. Gangs of New York ***1/2

5. The Age of Innocence ***1/2

6. Taxi Driver ***1/2

7. Cape Fear ***

8. After Hours ***

9. Bringing Out the Dead ***

10. The Aviator **1/2

11. Mean Streets **1/2

12. Casino **

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The Brown Bunny (Gallo, 2003)

Vincent’s Gallo’s much-derided film, The Brown Bunny, received a response so negative after being screened at the Cannes Film Festival that the filmmaker vowed in a press conference never to make another film as long as he lived. Roger Ebert famously declared that he would much rather witness his own colonoscopy again than sit through another viewing of The Brown Bunny. This led to a very nasty, very public feud, followed by a rather awkward conciliation between the involved parties and, miraculously enough, another Ebert screening of a heavily re-edited Brown Bunny which yielded a positive three-star rating. At the time of this writing, no word has been received in regards to whether or not Ebert’s Colonoscopy Redux will receive two thumbs up.

Let it be said first that Gallo’s film is indeed a sincere, legitimate artistic gesture. Because Gallo cast himself in the lead role and receives a rather explicit sexual favor from Academy-award nominee, Chloe Sevigny in the film’s most notorious scene, much noise has been made about The Brown Bunny being the ultimate vanity project, a colossal joke of a film created by a man who has always seemed a couple steps removed from sanity anyway. Is the film indulgent? Absolutely. But not overly so. I suspect that Gallo has placed himself at the center of this film not simply for the benefit of his own ego, but because the mood and tone he wants to convey with this film is so specific that it would be very difficult to coax from another actor. It also results in a film that feels exceptionally personal and intimate. Gallo puts himself on the line without much support in the way of witty dialogue or clever plot twists. He performs mostly opposite people who I assume must be non-actors. Gallo does not manipulate his central role in order to showcase his own performance abilities. His acting choices are muted and honest, supporting the minimalist aesthetic that permeates the entire project. When he shares the screen with another actor, he is able to give focus, rather than selfishly pushing the action along or drawing undue attention to himself. In short, he demonstrates a passion for his work that I personally find admirable.

The Brown Bunny does have a linear series of events that could be called a story, I suppose, but it really is not wise to think of the film in terms of plot. Instead, Gallo’s film is a poetic expression of a state of mind. Using the expansive landscape of middle America, Gallo documents a long, lonely cross-country motorcycle trip. To be sure, Gallo tests the viewer’s patience with long shots of the open highway, often seen through a bug-splattered windshield; however, the long, labored pacing does indeed serve a purpose. It helps to convey Bud’s sense of deep melancholy and disconnectedness. Though we will not comprehend the depth of his desperation until later in the film, the moments where he makes human contact consequently take on an added charge. Though I occasionally felt restless while I was watching the film’s first hour, I had to admit in the end that the film’s climax was greatly aided by the journey that preceded it.

Like his former lover, who serves as the impetus for his long journey, three of the women that Bud encounters along the way are named after flowers. They clearly do not know Bud, but it seems as if Bud knows them, or at least thinks he does. Perhaps he does not know them entirely, but recognizes pieces of them. With each, he shares a brief moment of connection, at varying levels of intensity. With each, he leaves at increasing levels of dissatisfaction and emptiness. Finally, he arrives in California and encounters his former lover in a scene of remarkable rawness, sensitivity and fluctuating emotions. Surely the amount of people who will download the juicer parts of this scene on the internet exceeds the amount of people who will actually see it in context many times over. In the former case, it must surely seem coarse and exploitative. In the latter case, it does not, moving from tenderness to despair and, yes, actually legitimately contributing to the film’s overall thematic purpose.

It’s easy to see how a much longer cut of The Brown Bunny would be a disaster. Gallo rides a fine line between minimalism and barrenness as it is. However, to this viewer, the cut now available on DVD seems just fine, demanding patience, but also offering a fair share of rewards in return. It is also easy to see how the infamous sex scene created a furor. Gallo and Sevigny are easy targets because they are risk-takers unafraid of putting themselves into unflattering situations. I wonder if most of all, the quality that most caused derision amongst those early viewers at Cannes was the film’s unabashed sincerity. The Brown Bunny is not witty, ironic, or politically savvy. It strives instead to create a simple expression of despair and loneliness. And on those terms, I think that it is a film well worth seeing.


Monday, September 12, 2005

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #11 -- HENRY VIII directed by Ang Lee

The Plot:

Henry VIII is married to Katherine, but attracted to Anne. The Catholic church is not really thrilled with the idea of granted a divorce. What’s a man to do? Fortunately for Henry, he’s the king. Heck, he could whip up a whole new religion if he wanted to. So Katherine gets a . . . er . . . demotion and Anne takes her place in Henry’s bed. While she is unable to produce a male heir, she does give birth to Elizabeth, who apparently turned out very nicely indeed.

Why Lee?

This is another tough one, but for very different reasons. There’s just not a whole lot of personality to this play that seems to be written primarily to kiss up to King James I. There has been some dispute as to whether or not Shakespeare collaborated on this play with another writer, which is scholar-ese for "Gosh, this isn’t very good at all." It’s easy to see why this one isn’t produced very much, especially since A Man for All Seasons does such a bang-up job with the same subject matter. With Ang Lee, there’s a pretty good chance that the finished product is going to be solid with good performances, attractive visuals and pacing that leaves room for reflection. Of the Lee films that I have seen, The Ice Storm is particularly memorable to me in the way that it exposed the dissatisfaction that can infect average families. Henry VIII is about dissatisfaction within a family that is anything but average. Perhaps Lee's sensitivity to the subtleties of human relationships combined with his costume drama experience would make for a decent film.

Lee films I have seen:

1. The Ice Storm ***1/2
2. Sense and Sensibility ***1/2
3. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon **1/2

Sunday, September 11, 2005

My 20 Favorite Films of the 1940's

1. The Bicycle Thief (De Sica)
2. Hangmen Also Die (Lang)
3. The Lady Eve (P. Sturges)
4. Notorious (Hitchcock)
5. Stray Dog (Kurosawa)
6. Day of Wrath (Dreyer)
7. Casablanca (Curtiz)
8. Great Expectations (Lean)
9. Orpheus (Cocteau)
10. Citizen Kane (Welles)
11. My Darling Clementine (Ford)
12. Beauty and the Beast (Cocteau)
13. His Girl Friday (Hawks)
14. Hamlet (Olivier)
15. Children of Paradise (Carne)
16. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston)
17. The Grapes of Wrath (Ford)
18. Pinocchio (Luske/Sharpsteen)
19. Rebecca (Hitchcock)
20. Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger)

The Iron Giant (Bird, 1999)

In the middle part of the twentieth century, mankind’s love affair with technology took a rather horrifying turn. Shortly after discovering how to split the atom, humans developed weapons capable of unleashing unimaginable devastation. Many of those who worked on the atom bomb did so despite strong moral objections because they thought that they would be able to save the world from the threat of Hitler. Though Hitler was indeed toppled, the weapons remained and soon were stockpiled into quantities capable of destroying each and every human life on the planet several times over. In The Iron Giant, Brad Bird’s animated adaptation of Ted Hughes’ popular story, mankind’s struggle to comprehend the unbelievable power that has fallen into its lap is played out in a tale of an enormous metal man from outer space, the boy who befriends him and the government agent who fears potential threat to national security.

Like technology itself, the iron giant, I would argue, is morally neutral. He is driven by a need to consume and sustain his own existence. Depending on the input he receives, he is capable of great acts of compassion or terrifying acts of violence. He arrives on Earth an innocent. Yet, it is in this state of innocence where both goodness and evil originate. Fortunately for mankind, the first human being to make significant contact with the creature is a young boy filled with curiosity and imagination. In a moment of bravery, the young boy instinctively saves the metal man from destruction. Soon, a tentative trust is developed. And then a mentorship. And finally, a loving friendship. Though we will learn later that the metal man has destructive capabilities, the boy’s spirit of exploration turns the creature instead into a swimming buddy, an amusement park ride, even a scrap metal artist.

On the other end of the spectrum, the iron giant is hunted by a government agent with very limited imagination. He immediately latches onto the idea that the metal man is a threat that must be eliminated. Where a young boy sees the coolest friend he could ever have, the agent sees only a weapon. And like many influential men before him, his paranoia is enough to make his own nightmarish prophecy come true. Together, the boy and the agent represent opposite sides of human potential with technology in the middle looking for guidance. Through our curiosity and sense of wonder, we can use technology to create a better world. Through our fear and selfishness, we can use technology to obliterate that world.

All of this may sound daunting and heady for a family film. However, this is where Bird deserves kudos for pulling off a remarkable feat. He is able to couch the film’s overt political message in a tale that also works in simple terms that could no doubt be understood by a five-year old. Most notably, the early scenes in which the giant’s illuminated eyes can be seen in the darkness against the shadowy forest background are thrilling in their execution. Bird also deftly handles the film’s transition from light-hearted adventure to soul-searching morality play with ease. All of this leads up to an intense emotional climax involving choices both foolish and noble and a stunning, instructive moment of sacrifice. Throughout the film, Bird uses the atomic era setting to his advantage, most especially while lampooning the horribly naïve and surreal ‘duck-and-cover’ films produced by the government for consumption by young Americans.

The Iron Giant has few missteps, but one of them is nearly critical. In the film’s coda, the final, brief images we see nearly undermine the powerful fifteen-minute sequence that has preceded them by altering the meaning of the film’s most critical moralistic choice. It is an unnecessary conclusion and seems slapped on in order to make the film more palatable for sensitive filmgoers. Fortunately, the moment passes briskly and is left open-ended enough for viewers to supply their own interpretation. In the end, the film’s style, humor and trust in its young audience overwhelms its minor faults and packs a wallop that surely could serve as the basis for valuable family discussion. Involving, inspiring and instructive, The Iron Giant is not to be missed.


Saturday, September 10, 2005

3-Iron (Kim, 2004)

Early on in Ki-Duk Kim’s latest philosophical gem, 3-Iron, a young man stands with his motorcycle as an older man pulls his expensive car out of his garage. Before he drives away, he stops, stares at the young man and holds his gaze for a few seconds. The young man, we will soon find out, spends his entire life trying not to be seen. While homeowners are away on vacation, he sneaks into their homes and spends the night, helping himself to their food and clothing, but never stealing anything and even taking the time to do laundry before he goes.

However, at one house, the tables are turned, as he fails to notice a young, beautiful woman cowering in a corner, presumably not long after being physically abused. She observes him and watches his stealthy routine. She penetrates his ghostlike existence and, not coincidentally, reveals herself at a moment where feels confident that he has the utmost privacy.

Initially, it seems as if the young man will be content to disappear into the night. His goal seems to be to live an existence entirely free of the ordinary earthly concerns that weigh us down. Without rent payments, numerous material possessions or even personal relationships, he able to stay mostly weightless and invisible. This time, however, something is different. This time, he must get involved.

After a confrontation with the woman’s husband, the young man does the best he can to absorb the woman into his lifestyle. She shares his desire to disappear, his desire to remain detached, his desire to stay silent. But as the chemistry between them churns, they inevitably create something between them (love?) that is tangible and substantial. More and more often, they find themselves caught by the homeowners. There is violence, both intentional and unintentional. There are accidents. There is even death.

For me, the message of 3-Iron, is this: to ‘live’ is to necessarily have an impact on the world around you. Every action we take has a resulting consequence. Grabbing impulsively and recklessly for those things that we desire creates a dramatic ripple in the world and that ripple can have a nasty karmic backlash. On the other hand, to live without desire, completely detached from our world, is not to live at all. Instead, Kim suggests a third option – a life lived with supreme focus, concentration and direction. A life that allows us to tread lightly on the planet without feeling as if we were never here.

In Ki-duk Kim, I feel that we are watching a filmmaker in the midst of a remarkable period of productivity. His films are not only entertaining and sensual, but also highly instructive without being didactic. He is willing to approach life’s deepest questions and offer insights that take into account the ugliness and pain that exist in the world, but are never weighed down with moody pessimism. With the simplest of plots and just a smattering of dialogue, he creates films capable of moving us substantially and inspiring valuable self-analysis. 3-Iron is another rewarding entry into his filmography and, for the time being, takes over the distinction of best film I have seen this year.


Thursday, September 08, 2005

Millennium Mambo (Hou, 2001)

Millennium Mambo is the kind of film that draws to a close before you realize that it ever really got started. Director Hou Hsiao-hsien explains in an interview on the DVD that he didn’t want his film to have too much plot or for the plot to be too obvious. He’s succeeded. Perhaps too much so. The opening of the film is very promising, as we see a very long shot of the central character, Vicky (Shu Qi), walking purposefully down the sidewalk, as we viewers gleefully tag along behind her. This, we think, must be a woman worth knowing. She has beauty, confidence and attitude. She must be a character with a tale to tell. Not really. Hou is content to give us some information about Vicky via voice-over, place her in some mildly dramatic situations and then observe. The decision to use numerous long takes is admirable and could possibly have allowed the actors involved to create something memorable. However, too often, we are subjected to long sections of Vicky thinking … something. Her estranged boyfriend makes some moves on her. She rebuffs him. And then goes back to thinking … about something.

Films don’t necessarily have to be plot-driven, as long as there is a compelling thematic exploration. In my opinion, Millennium Mambo falls short in this area as well. What is the film’s purpose? I couldn’t tell you. With several references to American influence (KISS, the U.S. Army, Las Vegas), I thought possibly that Vicky and her situation -- it would be inaccurate to call it a ‘journey’ -- was intended to mirror Taiwan’s search for national identity. If this is indeed the case, the themes are merely broached and certainly not explored to a satisfactory degree. With the ever-present pulsing club music that underscores Millennium Mambo, my last gasp at trying to pinpoint the filmmaker’s goals is to suggest that Hou intended merely to create a ‘mood’ film. A film that paints a picture of a woman at a certain point in time, experiencing a certain set of emotions. If so, I can only state that I did not find it to be terribly gripping cinema. On the contrary, it is sort of like saying, “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful, but melancholy woman, with an unsatisfying life and a good-for-nothing boyfriend ….. The End.”


Wednesday, September 07, 2005

My 20 Favorite Films of the 1930's

1. M (Lang)
2. Vampyr (Dreyer)
3. Grand Illusion (Renoir)
4. Wuthering Heights (Wyler)
5. L'Âge d'or (Buñuel)
6. The Wizard of Oz (Fleming)
7. The Thin Man (Van Dyke)
8. Pėpė le Moko (Duvivier)
9. Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
10. Sabotage (Hitchcock)
11. City Lights (Chaplin)
12. I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (LeRoy)
13. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra)
14. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock)
15. Bride of Frankenstein (Whale)
16. The Adventures of Robin Hood (Curtiz/Keighley)
17. It Happened One Night (Capra)
18. All Quiet on the Western Front (Milestone)
19. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (various)
20. Zero for Conduct (Vigo)

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #10 -- HENRY VI directed by Shekhar Kapur

The Plot:

The great king Henry V is now dead the new guy on the throne just isn’t up to snuff. He’s got prophecy saying that he’s destined to lose all the territories his father won. He can’t even keep his own country on the same page, as differing factions bicker and wear different colored roses. When he gets a chance to wed a woman that will help ease tensions abroad, he decides to marry poor, insignificant Margaret instead. If all that weren’t bad enough, his troops are getting outmaneuvered by a teenage girl (a.k.a. Joan of Arc). The one thing everybody seems to agree on in that Henry VI isn’t fit to be king. Amidst the chaotic power plays, an ambitious man with a hump back and a pronounced limp positions himself to make a stab at the throne. Hmm . . . what ever happened to him?

Why Kapur?

As time goes by, it seems to me that the 1998 film that got robbed at the Oscars was not Saving Private Ryan or even The Thin Red Line, but rather Kapur’s Elizabeth. Kapur gracefully pieced together a drama detailing the intrigue and various plots surrounding Queen Elizabeth ascension to the throne. That film was the best kind of historical film – thoughtful, but never dull; gorgeous, but never shallow; gripping, but never intellectually lazy. At the end, as Elizabeth participated in the ceremony that would make her queen, I remember wishing that Kapur’s film could go on further into her life and show us more of her reign. Henry VI requires the same sort of gifts. There’s countless twists and turns as various factions struggle for the throne. It’s an ambitious play (or series of plays) and it needs a director that can keep things straight and keep things moving. Plus, Kapur has experience with burning people at the stake. I did not see Kapur’s The Four Feathers, so I’m not sure why it was not received very well, but based on Elizabeth, I will take my chances.

Kapur films I have seen:

1. Elizabeth ****

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Color of Pomegranates (Paradjanov, 1968)

We are told at the beginning of Sergei Paradjanov’s The Color of Pomegranates that the film that is to follow will not be the recreation of a life’s story, but rather the artistic expression of a poet’s inner struggles and turmoil. Furthermore, we are told that this will be done employing the symbolism and allegory of medieval Armenia.

All righty then.

What follows is a film that takes small snippets of poetry and then uses a collage of meticulously composed, ornate shots, as well as human scenery (it would be inaccurate to call them ‘actors’) in order to evoke various stages of the life of an historical figure, apparently of some importance in Russia if you are hip to the retro troubadour scene. I did not know anything about Sayat Nova before I watched The Color of Pomegranates. After watching the film, I still do not know anything about him, apart from the fact that he apparently died horribly amongst lit candles and a flurry of chickens. Oh, wait … that’s probably that wicked medieval Armenian symbolism and not a true reflection of reality. Never mind. So, indeed, I know absolutely nothing about Sayat Nova, even after watching an entire film devoted to his life, apart from the fact that at some point he died. Which I would have assumed anyway, because as far as I know, the world is completely bereft of medieval Armenians. In fact, truth be told, the only reason I can even tell you that the subject of this film was named Sayat Nova is that I am reading it directly off of the summary on the Netflix envelope.

All of this rambling has a point. There is much to admire in the way that Paradjanov has attempted to create a film devoid of plot and characters. Indeed, there are individual moments of great beauty and at least one satirical moment (involving sheep in a church) that is worthy of Bunuel. However, in the absence of traditional narrative elements, I look to a filmmaker to have a firm grasp on his selected themes and expect him to deliver evocative imagery as an alternate method of achieving the end goal – to deliver an experience that engages, entertains and enlightens. The Color of Pomegranates falls short on all three counts. Indeed, if we look to this film as an expression of how one great artist saw the world, then he must have viewed his fellow humans as pawns living a life of drudgery, going through the motions of love, child-rearing and spirituality. Each and every human we see amidst the cavalcade of seemingly arbitrary imagery moves and performs with all the animation of the figures in one of those giant Swiss clocks.

Paradjanov’s problem is not that he has attempted to forego traditional narrative elements, but rather that he has opted to put the full weight of his themes on imagery and symbolism that is only occasionally evocative. The result is a film that may be inspired by a great man, but does little to convey that greatness to the contemporary viewer. As much as I admire the director’s aspirations, I am deeply disappointed by the film’s lack of purpose.


Sunday, September 04, 2005

The Aristocrats (Provenza, 2005)

Strangely enough, the ultra-profane documentary, The Aristocrats, in which numerous comedians are asked to discuss, dissect and then tell the world’s dirtiest joke, has something in common with the G-rated nature documentary, March of the Penguins. Apart from the fact that both have long, detailed descriptions of the process of procreation, both take subject matter that might possibly be fascinating in an hour-long cable special and then stretch it out about thirty minutes too long so that the film might be released as a feature. I like filmmaker’s premise here – to analyze the nature of comedy by taking one joke and breaking it down – but in the last half of the film, we’ve pretty much covered all that there needs to be said about The Aristocrats. Is the joke really that hard to get? There’s the set-up, then loads of filth and then a disconnect when the name of the group is revealed. If anything, the film proves that there at least one element that will certainly kill comedy. Repetition.

Sadly, despite the fact that the filmmakers have supposed brought together the world’s foremost comedic minds, very few of the performers actually distinguish themselves from one another. If this joke is what the filmmakers say it is, a sort of opportunity for comedians to showcase their skills, then a large percentage of these performers fail to rise to the challenge. What is more, many of these interviews seem to have been conducted as if the subjects received a knock on the door five minutes previous and have had little time to organize their thoughts on the subject, let alone a rendition of the joke worth hearing. Eddie Izzard, one of the funniest men in the world, confesses that he has never heard the joke before and then proceeds to attempt to tell it anyway. Jon Stewart looks like he has been ambushed by the crew from 60 Minutes. Drew Carey forgets to wear his trademark glasses and forces us to stare at his ultra-creepy eyeballs.

Some people tell a similar, but different joke entirely, and manage to get laughs. However, as far as simply having the courage to tell the joke straight, George Carlin pretty much nails it early on in the film and most of the performers look like hacks by comparison. I also enjoyed the rendition by the Smothers Brothers, which worked surprisingly well with their goofball-straight man shtick. The joke works there, most likely, because the brothers are a product of a gentler time. We don’t expect them to work with obscene material and, for a moment, we glimpse how shocking the joke must have been in a time when profanities weren’t a routine part of movies, cable and sometimes even network television. Lewis Black offers perhaps the most insightful commentary, noting that the joke doesn’t translate well to our times because the litany of profanities gets lost in the profane atmosphere in which we live our lives. Leave it to the South Park gang to touch on subject matter that is more taboo to this generation than sodomy, bestiality, incest and defecation (not that they are above these topics).

In the end, The Aristocrats, is only partly successful in accomplishing its stated mission. It is certainly funny in places, but too often it falters when the comedians interviewed either seem to express a distaste for the subject matter, an unwillingness to go along with the conceit of the film, or a lack of preparation to pull off the joke in a satisfactory manner. I am not convinced that the editing together of this film really improves on simply letting a series of comedians tell the joke in their own way, without outside commentary, back to back and letting the viewer make their own assessment of what makes great comedy. After all, nothing ruins a good joke (or even a joke of questionable worth) like someone who needs to have the joke explained.


Note: The film’s tagline -- No Nudity No Violence Unspeakable Obscenity – is a lie. In the closing credits, we are forced to endure the sight of Carrot Top’s ass.

Note #2: The one performer that I can’t believe they didn’t get for this film is David Cross who, for my money, is today’s king of politically incorrect humor.