Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Notorious Bettie Page (Harron, 2005)

One generation’s unspeakable pornography is another generation’s kitsch in Mary Harron’s lightweight but enjoyable The Notorious Bettie Page. Tracing her journey from sweet-faced innocent to swimsuit model to fetish icon and finally to evangelical, Harron’s film is at its best evoking 1950’s America with its costuming, art direction and knowing nods to relics like Sunbathing magazine. Gretchen Mol is a perfect fit as Bettie Page, stunning in her beauty and capable of finding the humanity and motivations of a character many of us only know from still photographs. Her hands tied up for a photo shoot, Bettie removes a ball-gag from her mouth, scolds the photographer for his rough language and declares her belief in Jesus – and we believe her. Where the film falls short is in establishing a definitive reason to exist. Harron and her co-writer Guinevere Turner give us the typical scandalized preachers and politicians, but fail to offer much of a point of view. As best as I can tell from this film, Page’s life was not terribly eventful apart from her appearance in some naughty photos. She did not suffer a tragic death or plunge into drug addiction or anything like that. In fact, she is still alive, now in her eighties. We see that she was a victim of rape and domestic violence, but we gain little insight into how these moments shaped who she was. She is called to Congress when a magazine featuring her bondage photos is seized in a raid, but she never is called to testify. Naturally, Harron should not invent false drama where it doesn’t exist. Still, it would be nice to understand what Page means to us now in the 21st century. Ultimately, her subject comes across as a bit of a dim bulb, unaware that some might see in her photos a dark undercurrent. She frets over whether her nude modeling will offend God, but decides that it cannot be wrong to give others pleasure. And besides, Adam and Eve were naked. It is also worth noting that two of the key photographers we see in Bettie’s life are women, including Bunny Yeager, who sent her photographs to Playboy. However, Harron does not use this opportunity to make any sort of feminist statement. Indeed, she does not make much of a statement at all. And yet, there is something captivating about looking back from an internet age in which pornography can seem so vicious to consider Page, whose dominatrix persona now seems refreshingly quaint. So, I can give the film a slight recommendation, but only for those already interested in the subject matter or for those who want to see a delightfully charismatic performance from Gretchen Mol.


Manderlay (Trier, 2005)

With blind confidence and some heavy weaponry, an oppressive dictator is overthrown. The force responsible quickly works to introduce democracy and rebuild the ravaged community only to find that liberation isn’t nearly as simple to achieve as one might think. Sound familiar? Lars von Trier follows up Dogville, his scathing critique of American isolationism, with yet another well-placed kick to the proverbial groin. Set on an Alabama plantation that is somehow still practicing slavery 70 years after Lincoln, Manderlay is a darkly humorous allegory ridiculing American involvement in the Middle East. But most interestingly and provocatively of all, Trier the Dane also explores the relationship between the two regions in sexual terms with both the dominant and the submissive working together to fulfill the other’s latent needs. For years Trier has been accused of artistic sadism; now he has created a film that is indeed Sadean.

Of course, Manderlay employs the same minimalist devices and conventions that were laid out in Dogville. While some have complained that this approach is needless artistic hooey, Manderlay demonstrates definitively that the reduced emphasis on realism is actually a necessary component of conveying the underlying message effectively. After all, what sense would it make to recreate an alternate 1930’s America with slaves when doing so would only dilute the film’s central metaphor and distract audiences from the immediacy of the film’s thematic thrust? Stripped of extraneous flourishes, Manderlay rightly becomes an ideological battlefield rather than a literal location. The allegory Trier employs is deliciously wicked and sophisticated. Though the film centers on characters that are slaves of the American South, they are truly stand-ins for oppressed people of a very different sort. It is fairly common for artists to use allegory in this fashion – to provide a sense of distance and allow us to process complicated ideas in simple terms. However, in this case, the effect is circular. Trier illuminates American policy in the present by using the language and images of the past. Why reopen old wounds some may ask. Perhaps because those wounds were never healed to begin with.

While much hubbub has been made about the replacement of Nicole Kidman with Bryce Dallas Howard in the role of Grace, the reality is that it truly makes little difference. Grace is not a real human being anyway, but rather a symbol. It may actually help the trilogy to allow a different lead to show us a different aspect of Grace. In the role, Howard is appropriately earnest and naïve. She is filled with good intentions and the desire to bring justice where she sees misery. Unfortunately, her desire to implement change far exceeds her ability to perceive what consequences those changes might reap. One of the great joys of Manderlay is the way that it packs the same kind of visceral punch that made Dogville so memorable, but does so in a completely different manner. Once again, the knife twists … but in the opposite direction. In general, the cast of Manderlay (having the benefit of following Dogville) seem more confident of their purpose and thematic goal they are striving to achieve. Willem Dafoe in particular, stepping into the role of Grace’s father that was vacated by James Caan, handles his dialogue with authority and nuance whereas his predecessor occasionally seemed somewhat confused by his own character. Danny Glover shows that there is a highly skilled stage actor beneath action-film rep, masterfully unfolding a character that instinct tells us must surely be more important than he initially seems. And, of course, John Hurt’s voice-over is top notch, providing the film with a witty, detached perspective that effectively conveys Trier’s underappreciated sense of humor.

At the time of this writing, Manderlay holds a paltry 49% rating on the Tomatometer. It causes me untold bewilderment to see a film like this exploring race relations get savaged while a contemptible piece of garbage like Crash is nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. But oh yes, I forgot. Lars von Trier has never visited America. So why on earth does he know us a hell of a lot better than Paul Haggis? With Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark and Dogville, Lars von Trier has created three of the best films of the past 10 years. Now it’s time to make that four.


Friday, February 24, 2006

Innocence (Hadzihalilovic, 2004)

Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence is a film that playfully hints for two hours that it is about to explode into a great film only to fizzle towards the end when it cannot muster an ending powerful enough to justify the journey. There’s a lot about Innocence that works very well, particularly the mysterious set-up in which a young girl arrives at an isolated boarding school/dancing academy in a coffin with little idea of why she is there and when she will ever be allowed to leave. Any questions she asks are met with vague answers from the other girls who are watched over by various adult women who we are told have been punished because they once tried to leave as children. Each of the girls dresses in the purest of whites and wears ribbons in her hair that are color-coded to indicate her age in relation to the rest of the group. The eldest girl is the only one allowed to leave for any period of time, mysteriously walking off into the woods at night. Innocence has an otherworldly atmosphere that alternately calls to mind Suspiria, The Village and Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Hadzihalilovic’s film is an exploration of the way in which women are often groomed for consumption and exploitation. Although the person sitting behind me found the film to be among the most bewildering they had ever seen, Hadzihalilovic is consistent in her themes and her message. What she does not do is make the point forcefully enough. There is a timidity to the film that does not match well with the ambition of its premise. In the end, it feels like a Catherine Breillat film without guts.


Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Wild Blue Yonder (Herzog, 2005)

Throughout his career, Werner Herzog has taken as one of his major themes mankind’s relationship to nature. Aguirre: the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man are connected by the fact that nature looms so large that it almost becomes a character unto itself. While men have their petty squabbles or chase after their futile dreams, nature looms in the background ready to swallow them up – not out of hostility, but simply as a way of keeping things tidy. With Grizzly Man, Herzog walked a very fine line in celebrating Timothy Treadwell’s existence, but also holding him up as an example of man’s folly. Now comes The Wild Blue Yonder, which playfully explores the same cosmic joke – that while humans consider themselves extremely important and special, nature really couldn’t care less.

How to describe The Wild Blue Yonder? Well, it all starts with found footage that Herzog has borrowed from a NASA space voyage, as well as underwater footage of divers beneath the ice of Antarctica. There are also scenes of real scientists explaining how it might be possible for humans to visit other planets. Herzog has underscored this footage with a bizarre combination of musical artists: a Viennese cellist, a Sardinian choir and a Senegalese vocalist. In a Q and A after the screening, it was revealed that Herzog had brought these musicians together and, without allowing them to rehearse together, recorded their improvisation in order to capture an otherworldly sound. The result is extraordinary, although you will simply have to hear it for yourself as it defies categorization. To tie all of this together, Herzog has written scenes for a character, played by Brad Dourif, who claims to be an alien despite the fact that he looks entirely human. He tells of his journey to Earth and how his people have unsuccessfully tried to colonize our planet. Dourif channels a wee bit of Dennis Hopper to create a character that provides fascinating perspective on mankind’s quest to conquer space, yet never strikes us as reliable in the least. Herzog leaves open the possibility that the narrator is simply a mentally disturbed human – Dourif himself was unsure of the exact nature of his character after the screening – and it is my opinion that that interpretation actually strengthens the underlying themes. You see, the ‘alien’ weaves a tale of how humans have discovered a way to reach his home planet, and provides a narration that twists the stock footage in order to fit this story. For example, we are told that the divers underwater are really penetrating the liquid helium atmosphere of this far off world and that the jellyfish that floats by is really a native life form. The scientist’s theories are incorporated into the narrative, although Herzog uses editing tricks to undermine their authority, such as waiting to make a cut after a speaker thinks he is done and relaxes into a goofy expression.

This all probably sounds a bit silly – and it kind of is – but there is a startling, haunting truth uncovered along the way. Herzog’s tone is not quite sarcastic – it’s not as aggressive as that – it’s better described as amused. He is amused that, despite our dreams about space travel and exploring the stars, the entirety of human existence has brought us infinitely closer to destroying ourselves that it has to beginning life elsewhere. For as far as we can see into the future … we’re stuck here. And so it’s time to make the most of it. The Wild Blue Yonder is often very funny, but it also contains long stretches without dialogue that allow us to contemplate our place in this universe. There’s an underlying sadness to this film which essentially finds humor in mankind’s insignificant flailing in a universe beyond our ability to comprehend. However, there is also comfort in the idea that there is a wealth of beauty to be found in the world we already know. There are still mysteries to be solved and improvements to be made. Though The Wild Blue Yonder will certainly not have the commercial success of a film like Grizzly Man, it has same level of insight into mankind’s relationship to the world it inhabits. It is a refreshingly peculiar cinematic experience and a worthy entry into Herzog’s exceptional filmography.


The Giant Buddhas (Frei, 2005)

Christian Frei’s documentary, The Giant Buddhas, takes as its starting point the destruction of two 1500-year old statues in the spring of 2001 by Taliban forces. The stone behemoths were destroyed as a part of a decree that all non-Islamic statues in Afghanistan would be destroyed. According to the film, this decision was largely a response to increasing financial pressure by the United States through the use of embargos. Thus, this act of cultural sabotage was performed with full knowledge of the international outrage that would follow. For the Taliban, it was like a giant middle finger directed at the rest of the world. This incident is of particular importance to me as it was the first time that I became aware of the Taliban. Perhaps this is evidence of the ‘success’ of their vile actions.

Frei’s film surprisingly does not delve very deeply into the political aspect surrounding the statues’ destruction. Perhaps he was wary that it would take him off course into territory covered extensively in other recent film documentaries. Instead, he focuses on a few lives that have been impacted in the wake of the barbaric act. There is a nomadic Afghani whose family lived in a cave so close that their home filled with dust. There is an architect who is convinced that a third Buddha exists, buried beneath the earth. There is a Canadian woman of Afghani descent who sees the missing Buddhas as a link to her father. Frei has made a distinct decision to focus on education rather than entertainment, and perhaps that is the right choice. Still, I’m wondering whether there are several minutes here that are simply unnecessary and dilute the pathos and philosophical musings at the heart of the story. Archeological digs, for example, occasionally produce amazing results, but numerous shots of sifting through dirt does not exactly make for riveting cinema.

Still, there is enough here for me to hope that this film is somehow able to reach a larger audience. There are tough questions about what the West could have done to help avoid this loss. There are also provocative questions about the nature of art, and what makes something culturally important. Many felt, for example, that the Buddhas were flat-out ugly. Did their value lie in their aesthetics, their history, their oldness? And should they be recreated? If so, does that replace the cultural link that was severed so brazenly by the Taliban? Despite the methodical pace and uninspiring narration, The Giant Buddhas is a film I am glad to have seen and evidence of an admirable soul-searching investigation.


Friday, February 10, 2006

Curious George (O'Callaghan, 2006)

There is a scene in Curious George in which the mischievous monkey finds his way into a rocket ship and inadvertently sends it into orbit. At this point, all the Man with the Yellow Hat can do is strap himself in and enjoy the ride. This a pretty accurate metaphor for what parenthood feels like. The spirit of play and discovery is so strong in young children that it can often be overwhelming. I’ve never raised a monkey, but I imagine that it can’t be too terribly different. It is delightful to find such a poignant moment in Curious George, because, to be perfectly honest, the books from which the film is adapted are a terrible bore. I know, because I’ve read them … over and over and over again. They contain language that is mundane, situations that are utterly predictable and little to no educational value. The Man with the Yellow Hat has to be one of the most irresponsible owners in the history of the world, disappearing for long stretches of time while George gets himself into peril. And there’s always been an uncomfortable subtext with the way that George is snatched from his home in Africa and dragged across the ocean against his will just because ‘safari guy’ thinks he’s nifty.

The film version actually makes several improvements to the source material, resulting in a film that may not be revolutionary, but certainly is rather entertaining. Rather than being abducted, George stows away on the ship taking the Man with the Yellow Hat home because he is not yet done playing peek-a-boo. Automatically, this shifts the balance of the relationship so that there is more of a connection between the two. The Man (named Ted in this version for reasons of practicality) has his own dramatic throughline involving a museum in financial trouble and a requisite love interest that is sweet without being too distracting. George thus becomes a comic foil, providing constant distraction due to his persistent, but innocent, exploration. In casting Will Ferrell as Ted and David Cross as the weaselly curator’s son, the filmmakers add just the right does of hipness without exploding into Dreamworks-style pop culture references and Jenny Jones slang. Songs by Jack Johnson provide emotional support without becoming pandering and syrupy. You’ve probably seen many animated films that are funnier, but Curious George does have its fair share of genuinely humorous moments. Most importantly, the humor is pure, supporting the story and characters, rather than undercutting them with innuendo and excessive sophistication. The film is drawn mostly in bold, primary colors and delivers a simple message about the value of curiosity without ever lapsing into sermonizing.

Curious George is a film that will do a very good job appealing to its target audience: precocious pre-schoolers and those whose love allows them to see through their eyes. Will it have a broad appeal outside of those two categories? Probably not. But then again, who cares? It would have been easy to phone this film in and coast on name recognition. Instead, the filmmakers have gone beyond the call of duty and delivered a film that is full of wide-eyed optimism and is also consistently entertaining.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #21 -- MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING directed by Milos Forman

The Plot:

The soldiers have just come home from battle and are looking for love. Well, except for Benedick, who would rather make jokes about how absurd the whole prospect of marriage is. He is particularly fond of trading barbs with Beatrice who is every bit his match and then some. Their friends know repressed sexuality when they see it, so they trick the duo into falling in love with each other. All seems to be going well until Don John, the Bastard (this time in both senses of the word) tricks Claudio into thinking his bride is unfaithful. After that, there’s a whole lot of ado and strangely enough, in the end, it turns out it was really all about nothing.

Why Forman?

Much Ado is another Shakespeare play that successfully navigates a wide range of moods with ease. It’s a comedy that is actually still quite funny to a modern audience, but it also has moments of heart-wrenching drama, particularly when Claudio lays into the completely innocent Hero on her wedding day. Apart from a couple of curious casting choices and the amusement at seeing some heavily tanned Brits, I don’t have many problems with the Branagh version. He ably handles Shakespeare’s massive mood shifts and delivers a production that is a rare kind of funny – ‘sexy funny’. It’s probably far too soon to remake this play again, but if someone was going to do it, I think Forman’s a darn good choice. His Amadeus reimagined Shaffer’s play for the screen and did not allow the humor to be lost beneath all the ornate clothing and powdered wigs. His Valmont was released shortly after Dangerous Liaisons, despite drawing inspiration from the same story, and managed to (at the very least) match its predecessor with flawless casting and increased sexual tension between the two leads. From his early Czech films of the 60's, Forman has proven himself throughout his career to be a director with the ability to balance joy and laughter with sadness and reflection. His comedies are frequently more touching and thoughtful than most people’s dramas. I have the utmost confidence that a Forman Much Ado would be at least on a par with Branagh’s take and might even exceed it.

Forman films I have seen:

1. Amadeus ****
2. The Firemen's Ball ****
3. The Loves of a Blonde ****
4. Valmont ***1/2
5. The People vs. Larry Flynt ***1/2
6. Hair ***1/2
7. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ***
8. Man on the Moon **

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Capote (Miller, 2005)

After emerging as an exceptionally strong character actor in films like Boogie Nights and Happiness, it quickly became clear that, despite his unconventional appearance, Philip Seymour Hoffman was a performer that needed to find his way into leading roles. He was simply too good, nearly drawing too much attention to characters that might otherwise have been forgotten. Fortunately, Hoffman has in recent years found the opportunities he so richly deserves in films like Owning Mahowny, Love Liza and now, a genuine star turn as eccentric writer extraordinaire Truman Capote. Hoffman is so well suited to Capote’s mannerisms, voice, wit and inner demons that it wouldn’t be a crime if this film existed simply as an opportunity to showcase Hoffman’s performance. Thus, it is a true delight to discover that Capote is much, much more than a conventional biopic in which we rush through the key moments in a complex life. It is a film that focuses on a critical period in Capote’s life and successfully uses those events -- their impact on him and vice versa -- to offer us a crystallization of the essence of the man.

It becomes clear almost immediately that Truman Capote was an unusual kind of journalist. It is hard to imagine a situation where his presence alone would not impact everything around him. The uncommon intellect, the celebrity and, of course, the trademark high-pitched voice all cause him to stand out dramatically in the small Kansas town of Holcomb. Indeed, he is a man that threatens to upstage a multiple homicide. Catherine Keener plays author Harper Lee, who accompanies Capote to Kansas partly to serve as a kind of buffer to his overwhelming personality. Initially, it seems as if the film risks becoming a retread of territory already covered in the film In Cold Blood; but, after Capote becomes immersed in his research, it becomes clear that there is indeed a compelling story behind the story. Capote uses his charm and other wiles to gain access to Perry Smith, one of the men charged with the brutal murder of four people. The relationship he develops with Perry is complex to say the least. Is it a friendship? Perry certainly thinks so, imagining that Capote’s goodwill must mean that his writing will somehow paint a flattering picture. There are times when Capote shows emotion in connection with Perry, but does he feel for the human or the subject matter?

There are other times when Capote seems indifferent to Perry’s fate, hoping that the court verdicts will be favorable to his writing schedule. His actions do not go unnoticed by Lee, as well as the local lawman played by Chris Cooper. Their objections barely register with Capote though and it is here where the film makes its most enlightening observation. Capote and Perry are heading in different directions – the former towards international fame, the latter towards execution – and yet they share an amazing similarity – the ability to disconnect from the feelings of others. For Capote, it allows him to persuade a murderer to give him the story of a lifetime without regard for the ethical nature of his investigation. For Perry, it allows him to kill. After bemoaning the length of the appeals process and the toll it is having on his psyche, Capote finally gets the ending to his masterpiece, but at what price?

Led by Hoffman’s accomplished performance, Capote is a deeply stimulating film that rises above the typical biopic. Rather than simply ask what Capote did or what he said or who he knew, it rightfully asks what Capote meant. By being the ultimate outsider, he was able to gain the trust of a killer and shed a little light onto a crime beyond comprehension.


Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Blood of a Poet (Cocteau, 1930)

Jean Cocteau’s debut film is a bold, confident effort that is all the more amazing when we realize that there was very little precedent for what he was trying to accomplish. One of the most versatile artists of the early twentieth century, Cocteau comes to the medium of film seemingly with a fully formed idea of what he wants to accomplish. Already there are stylistic elements that will reoccur later in films like Beauty and the Beast and Orpheus – the camera trickery, the reverse motion effects, the romantic world view. As in those films, a protagonist is transported to a world of magical irrationality. Here, we have a poet whose work suddenly comes alive in a way that suggests the power and tenacity of the creative impulse. Once expressed, it is the art itself that teaches the artist, penetrates his soul and forces him to view himself from the inside out. What follows is a journey that is largely instinctual and will likely either fill the viewer with wonder or with boredom. Which way the film registers may depend largely on the level of sympathy one has for the idea of artist as martyr. Beneath Cocteau’s surreal imagery is, I believe, a film about the lengths to which an artist must go in order to have an impact on the surrounding world. The path may be littered with pain. The ultimate reaction may be derision. These are the truths that Cocteau explores with his trademark elegance. Cocteau’s later films take this starting point and explode into fully realized visions of unparalleled poetic magic; however, there is no question that The Blood of a Poet is a film way ahead of its time.


Saturday, February 04, 2006

Caché (Haneke, 2005)

Michael Haneke’s Caché is a film made to be seen, re-seen, dissected, analyzed and discussed. It is a film that holds us in suspense, but does not do so with the purpose of leading towards a cheap thrill. Indeed the film’s palpable sense of tension dissipates only slightly with the appearance of the end credits, leaving the viewer with much to contemplate on the way out of the cinema and into the parking lot. At the end of the day, Haneke reveals only part of his hand; but, the cards he exposes and the cards he keeps ‘hidden’ are well chosen. With a plot centering on mysterious surveillance videos being made of a well-to-do French family, Haneke’s cold, dispassionate directorial style is perfectly suited for his complex, multi-layered script. The takes often linger several moments beyond our comfort level and are often shot at a distance that makes empathy extremely difficult. Naturally, the paranoia and racial tensions at the heart of Caché resonate deeply for anyone who has been politically aware for the past five years; however, the film is too deep to be neatly categorized as either a thriller or a political allegory. We’ve seen marital tensions like the ones played out between Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche before – someone or something draws attention to problems lying beneath the healthy veneer and things begin to crumble – but the characters and situations are so particular, so masterfully executed, that we are unlikely to care.

There are many interpretations and readings that could arise from Caché’s elusive conclusion. This, of course, is what makes for great art. But without giving too much away, here’s what I took from the film: that the only way to live in true happiness and peace is to take responsibility for our actions in the past. And yes, this applies to nations as well as individuals. An unsettling provocation to rank with Haneke’s best work, Caché is a puzzler in which answers only lead to more difficult questions.


Thursday, February 02, 2006

Yellow Submarine (Dunning, 1968)

Perhaps one of the most delightfully optimistic films in existence, Yellow Submarine is a natural extension of the Beatles’ incomparable music. Using the irresistible sing-a-long classic as a starting point, a team of screenwriters and animators weave together a whimsical, meandering journey in which the Fab Four use music and love to overcome the roguish Blue Meanies -- a group so diabolical, they use giant green apples as weapons of mass destruction. Yellow Submarine’s best quality is that it mostly affects the viewer instinctually, washing over us without ever bogging down in conventional character development or narrative. Like John Lennon’s anthems of peace, the film expresses a ridiculously simple truth, but does so with a conviction and honesty that is refreshingly pure. I also liked the way the film expressed the Beatles’ gigantic celebrity, placing them in a giant, chaotic mansion full of doors leading to paths unpredictable. The actors hired to voice the animated version of the band attempt to mimic the same deadpan delivery that provided many laughs in A Hard Day’s Night; however, the dialogue registers as unintelligible mumbling as often as provides laughs. There is a sameness in the voice-overs that gets swallowed up by the visual stimulus. There’s plenty of Beatles charisma on display -- don’t get me wrong – in the music and the images inspired by their lyrics. And yet, much of the charisma is delivered second-hand. Fortunately, the film does its real communication through music merged with the creation of a captivating universe in which a commitment to peace is more powerful than any weapon. The Beatles walking in a nowhere land leaving a wake of beautiful color … the word ‘No’ becoming ‘Know’ … and of course the unabashed embrace of the power of love – these are moments that are certain to linger and which make Yellow Submarine a singular experience.