Wednesday, March 29, 2006

See the Sea (Ozon, 1997)

The most compelling aspect of Francois Ozon’s See the Sea is the way it leads viewers through almost the entirety of its 52-minute running time without revealing definitively just what kind of film it is. It begins ominously enough with a young mother living in a beach house with her infant girl whom she cares for on her own while her husband in away on business. As they lounge upon the beach, a mysterious female traveler happens by and gazes at them from a cliff high above. From the way Ozon shoots this scene, it is immediately clear that this new presence is some kind of a threat – but of what variety? Is she a violent threat? A threat to the baby’s safety? Or perhaps she is a threat to the mother’s sexual curiosity and the make-up of the traditional family. Her emotional distance also suggests that she could be a threat to herself. The mother’s eagerness to see the goodness in people leads her to make several questionable choices including allowing the stranger to pitch her tent in the front yard and later watch the baby while leaves the house to do a few errands. As the two women learn more about each other, it becomes clear that they are interacting with distortions of themselves, living lives heading in opposite directions. The way Ozon resolves this difference allows us to finally look back and realize what sort of a film we’ve been watching all along. I was not entirely pleased with the film’s resolution, as Ozon once again demonstrates that despite his style and sexual digressions, he is a filmmaker content to walk down well-trodden paths. However, the film is worth seeing for the way Ozon is able to create a feeling of suspense merely in the way he strings together events that individually would seem entirely ordinary.


Sunday, March 26, 2006

A Director to Adapt Each of Shakespeare's Plays #22 -- OTHELLO directed by Michael Haneke

The Plot:

Othello doesn’t know it, but he’s made a very dangerous enemy. When it came time to give out promotions, Iago got snubbed. Now, he is dedicating himself to tearing Othello’s life apart. In Othello’s new bride, Desdemona, Iago sees an ample opportunity. He uses his extraordinary powers of persuasion and manipulation to set in motion a series of events that lead Othello to believe that Desdemona is unfaithful -- better yet, unfaithful with Cassio, the man who received the promotion Iago so eagerly desired. He plants Desdemona’s handkerchief in Cassio’s bedroom, leaving Othello so enraged that smothers her to death in her own bed.

Why Haneke?

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s most brutal, unrelentingly vicious plays, but it’s also one of his most fascinating. Iago deserves to rank amongst Richard III, King Lear and yes, even Hamlet, as one of his most complex, captivating creations. Some explanation is given for Iago’s evil deeds, but one gets the impression that Iago is a character so infatuated with orchestrating agony that Othello’s snub serves merely as an excuse for him to unload the full extent of his maliciousness. Even though he should make us recoil in disgust, his deeds are so brazen, so cold-hearted and so ingeniously devised that instead we watch with mouths agape as Othello walks right into a trap. In order to get the maximum effect out of Othello, I choose Michael Haneke, whose Funny Games features a pair of relentless thugs who methodically rip apart a family, seemingly with no other motivation than sport. At times, they even chastize the viewer for being unable to look away. In another of his uncompromising films, The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert plays a rigid instructor who punishes an untalented student in a shockingly cruel manner. When it comes to the dark impulses of the soul that urge some to lash out at their fellow humans, I have seen few who can rival Haneke. His films possess a coldness and a wickedness that seem to me just right for Othello.

Haneke films I have seen:

1. The Piano Teacher ****
2. Funny Games ****
3. Cache ****
4. Code Unknown ***1/2
5. Benny's Video ***
6. The Time of the Wolf ***

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Syriana (Gaghan, 2005)

Syriana is the most disappointing film of the past year. Despite its efforts to connect the dots between corrupt oilmen, shady politicians, poverty in the Middle East, war and terrorism, the film's script and its propensity for favoring statistics over insight kill any chance the film has to make any sort of lasting impression. The film offers copious amounts of intrigue, but it is not terribly intriguing. Even the good monologues stink of screenwriter showiness and for the first hour it seems like Gaghan is trying to set a world record by setting the film in EVERY CITY IN THE KNOWN WORLD. If you were able sift through all of this, pay attention and get anything valuable out of it, then my hat is off to you. Personally, I left the film irritated and frustrated by the feeling that the world is in the hands of madmen and villains and there's nothing that I will ever be able to do about it.


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Tabu (Murnau, 1931)

On the one hand, F.W. Murnau’s death at the age of 42 years old is one of the cinema’s great tragedies. Who knows what masterpieces Murnau would have created with an extra 20-30 years of time to explore his craft? What contributions would Murnau have made with the innovation of sound? How would he have responded to the rise of the Nazis? The questions are delightful to consider. And yet, watching his films, it is hard to imagine how the advent of sound would have made his films any better. Whereas many of his contemporaries overloaded their films with intertitles that disrupted the dramatic rhythm and broad acting full of gesticulation, Murnau made the silent film seem effortless. While some silent films seem held back by their inability to speak, Murnau’s films thrive. His ability to draw modern viewers into tales of surprising complexity without a tool now considered mandatory is testament to his extraordinary talent.

Murnau’s final film, Tabu, with its award-winning cinematography is a both a dazzling showcase of his effortless cinematic control and a deeply satisfying story that in its simplicity carries the stirring power of myth. Murnau employs a cast of non-professional islanders to tell the story of a young woman who has been claimed by a powerful older man for marriage upon threat of death to anyone who dares touch her or look at her lustfully. Naturally, there is a younger man whose passion cannot be quenched and dares to break the ‘tabu’. It is worth noting that Tabu, with its juxtaposition of true love and harsh societal expectations bears more than a passing resemblance to Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, the canonical dramatic work that would receive its first production just two years later. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Tabu is how well Murnau (with the help of collaborator Robert Flaherty) has immersed himself in the culture of the South Sea Islanders. There are sections of Tabu that have the quality of documentary because they detail the daily interaction of the locals. But where other filmmakers might be content to gawk from afar and marvel at ‘strange’ customs, exploiting their exoticism, Murnau provides a thoroughly involving narrative that demonstrates both his knowledge and his compassion. It is clear that his novice actors trust him and his two leads in particular give performances that are not just passable, but comparable with the work of professionals. The way he flings himself into the spirit of the dance … the way her mood shifts from despondent to joyful – these are moments that could not be topped by the best their generation.

Tabu is a rare film that is both utterly romantic in spirit and yet also unwilling to wring viewers for emotional reaction. The events which transpire are entirely logical in the way they unfold. We are moved by a pure and simple expression of human truth – honest, but not unfeeling. All of this builds to an unforgettable gesture of love and devotion and an ending that (unlike Murnau’s The Last Laugh) is clearly unfettered by studio intervention.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

The Most Dangerous Game (Pichel/Schoedsack, 1932)

The Most Dangerous Game, a film made by the men responsible for King Kong, is a film so insignificant and slight that it barely manages to improve upon the experience of reading the plot synopsis on the back of the DVD cover. The plot concerns a big game hunter who shipwrecks on an island where he finds himself on the receiving end of a rifle aimed by a maniacal nobleman with a taste for hunting humans for sport. The tables are turned! How you like that, Mr. Big Shot? Not feeling so tough now, are ya? Anyway, the protagonist actually says towards the end of the film that now he knows what the animals felt like when he was hunting them and that’s about the extent of the film’s insight. The trouble is that lions and tigers are not humans, so putting a man in their place does not create the sort of psychological twist that I think the filmmakers were going for. But this failure to distinguish between the mind of man and beast should not be surprising coming from the team who saw no reason why a romantic attraction couldn’t occur between a human female and a gigantic ape. The rest of the film is mildly entertaining I guess if you like coarse acting choices, oodles of unnecessary exposition and ridiculously over-the-top orchestral accompaniment. Even with a running time of just over an hour, The Most Dangerous Game is a waste of time.


Saturday, March 18, 2006

V for Vendetta (McTeigue, 2005)

V for Vendetta, the directing debut for James McTeigue, is a film that nonetheless takes a pair of enormous risks and delivers an unusual blend of mainstream action film and radical political provocation. The most obvious risk McTeigue (and his screenwriters, The Wachowski Brothers) take is to leave their central character – known only by the letter ‘V’ – behind a rather ridiculous harlequin mask depicting 17th century British revolutionary Guy Fawkes. Perhaps even more shocking, it allows V to be part charismatic renaissance man and part ruthless terrorist. What is more, the film does not suggest that V is in any way insane or use his character to explore the dual nature of man’s psychology – light vs. dark. The actions he takes – even when they result in deaths – are carefully thought out and cause him no sense of regret once they have been completed. Strangely, his path of destruction leaves the viewer with no regrets either because V has been so effectively constructed as an old school romantic hero. And when I say romantic, I mean it in the sense of Romanticism with a capital ‘R’ – the 18th century intellectual movement that placed the individual spirit above strict rationalism.

The world of V for Vendetta borrows heavily from Orwell’s 1984, but has a unique personality strong enough to stand on its own. I like how this futuristic Britain has small technological advancements and changes in vocabulary, but, for the most part, is very recognizable to us in the present. It also contains ideas and sentiments that mirror contemporary politics; however, I don’t think it can be said that V for Vendetta is a parable or an allegory. We may draw connections to our own times because the film is so effective at exploring its themes, but the universe that the film is primarily concerned with is its own. In other words, V for Vendetta is not about Bush’s America, but it most certainly speaks to Bush’s America. In the real world, the emotional sweep of fascistic political bullying must be fought with cool logic and reason – things that unfortunately don’t always capture the public imagination the way they should. In this fictional world, the conviction in knowing that beauty, art, justice and the human spirit must survive in the face of oppression is the fuel that lights powder kegs both metaphorical and literal. I don’t believe that V for Vendetta is a dangerous film in that it endorses violence as a means towards social change. On the contrary, I believe that it is a film that makes a convincing plea for those dissatisfied with their government to object with passion. Notably, there are several shots of ordinary citizens sitting in their homes grumbling at what they see being presented on the news. By the end of the film, these seemingly insignificant characters become involved in a manner that is deeply stirring.

I was very surprised by my reaction to V is for Vendetta. It is a film that satisfies on a variety of levels. Perhaps most importantly, it is highly entertaining with only a few scenes that seem to drag the film’s running time out too long. Beyond that, it is a film that truly contains some challenging ideas and insights. It uses our love of seeing the human spirit triumph in the face of adversity and then gives it a wicked, meaningful twist. Most surprising to me of all, I found that I had a deep emotional response to this film – not necessarily to the characters, but to the glorious expression of the film’s core message. As V, Hugo Weaving is fantastic, using his voice to seduce and inspire though his face is never seen. Natalie Portman shows that she is finally starting to live up to her early promise, negotiating her character’s transformation with ease. And the film is also blessed to have three superior supporting performances from Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry and John Hurt. It will be easy for some to nitpick V for Vendetta as it is certainly not perfect in every moment, but no matter. The heights it attains in its greatest moments more than make up for its infrequent lapses. V for Vendetta is a film that consistently rises above expectations and delivers more substance than one might reasonably expect. At long last, I am able to forgive the Wachowskis for The Matrix Revolutions.


War is Menstrual Envy (Zedd, 1992)

For a film that I truly think may be one of the worst I have ever seen, Nick Zedd’s War is Menstrual Envy actually starts out pretty strong. The opening images are of two bodies wrapped completely in gauze, lying on a white floor like two freshly created mummies. Slowly, one struggles towards the other, seemingly in need for contact – any kind of contact. After some moments of awkward flailing, we see a sudden shocking image of one of the mummies’ mouths opening and a large amount of blood pouring out through the gauze. This is the sort of provocation and highly charged imagery I was hoping for when I took a chance on this ultra-underground film with the clever title. At that point, it looked like I was in for a kind of dark exploration of the cruelties of war employing elements of performance art. Unfortunately, Zedd quickly plunges into a highly tedious and unfocused series of half-baked ideas that fluctuate between nauseating and cruel. One tip-off of Zedd’s desperation is that he has employed two of the biggest exhibitionists in the history of the world to fill screen time. Kembra Pfahler, lead singer of The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black, appears in her trademark body paint, thigh-high boots and nothing else. Hiding behind her loopy goth persona and the punky noise of her band, Pfahler can be very charismatic. But here, Zedd unimaginatively exploits her nymphomania, allowing her to contort in front of images of underwater sea creatures that seem drawn directly from a local cable access show and then topping that off by having her get intimate with a hokey looking pair of tentacles. The sequence goes on for what seems like an eternity with Pfahler clearly looking off-camera seemingly to receive spoken instructions, presumably from her trusty director. The other modern-day Godiva making an appearance is Annie Sprinkle, best known in the performance art world for inviting audience members to gaze into her vagina with a speculum. Sprinkle is involved in the film’s climax along with a man who appears to have suffered horrible burns over his entire face and torso. He is unwrapped from gauze and – oh look! – Sprinkle touches him! Fondles him! Caresses him! It is one of the more depressingly vile sequences I have ever seen committed to film – well, video – completely devoid of purpose, meaning or artistry. It is the sort of thing that makes Harmony Korine look like Orson Welles. Zedd’s final insult is to offer close-up images of eye surgery underneath his closing credits.

Surely, it is unlikely that many people besides me would even bother to pick this film up off the video shelf. However, Zedd has earned a bit of a reputation as an underground auteur. When filmmakers break free from narrative and decorum, terribly exciting things can happen. This is why I give directors like Zedd a chance, even though it might seem foolish in retrospect. However, it seems clear to me, based on this film, that Zedd is a nasty small-minded charlatan posing as an artistic rebel.


Monday, March 13, 2006

God's Angry Man (Herzog, 1980)

Werner Herzog's short documentary, God's Angry Man, is a brief introduction to fiery televangelist Gene Scott. Herzog's film was made before the high-profile scandals invovling Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart and is a delightfully absurd look at a man who is highly intelligent, emotionally unstable and frightfully intense. Though he claims to only have one private possession to his name -- a mysterious black bag with contents he will not reveal -- Scott rides around in a limousine, dresses in expensive suits and commands hundreds of thousands of dollars from viewers in a single evening of programming. Initially, we laugh smugly as Herzog shows us Scott counting the enormous amount of money that has been pledged. But later, as we get to better understand Scott's situation, it becomes clear that despite his notoreity, he is essentially entirely dependant upon the church for his livelihood -- and that church is deeply in debt. In the film's most startling scene, Scott refuses to talk on air until viewers send the necessary $600 to reach his target. He glares viciously into the camera as members of his staff quietly weep. What happens next I will not reveal, but it reveals a man whose occupational needs have bled dangerously into his personal needs. By the time Scott introduces his viewers to a chorus of animatronic monkeys, you'll think this guy must know he's in a Werner Herzog film. But the key to Herzog's success, as evident here as in Grizzly Man, is not only his witty edits, but his skill as an interviewer, putting his subject at ease and coaxing responses that are thoughtful, honest and occasionally bizarre. As with Timothy Treadwell, Herzog does not just observe -- he finds the poetic meaning in his subject. His quest is a search not for objective truth, but subjective understanding. Without a broad explanation of Scott's precise situation, God's Angry Man feels a bit incomplete, but it is certainly worth tracking down to see Herzog grapple with one of the more mystifying aspects of American religious extremism.


Friday, March 10, 2006

Susana (Bunuel, 1951)

A young girl of questionable mental stability escapes from incarceration and ends up at a plantation wheres she disrupts a working family's daily routines and chemistry. Apparently, she is some kind of nymphomaniac, but it's hard to tell because the most outrageous thing she does is adjust her dress so that her sleeves fall off her shoulders rather than resting above them. This is a gesture that is repeated several times for (I believe unintentional) comic effect. The bookworm son suddenly can't focus on academics. The hired hand suddenly allows his passion to turn violent. The paterfamilias argues more and more with his wife and none of the women in the house are pleased with Susana's presence in the least. The whole thing is played out as melodrama, but the central character is so devoid of personality that the film never really fully captured my attention. Bunuel's ending is also troublesome as it seems to imply that female sexuality is a threat to the sanctity of the conventional family make-up and needs to be uprooted. Knowing the rest of Bunuel's work, I suspect he was shooting for some kind of satirical statement here, but it does not completely work in this case. The film's purpose is muddled and the film's narrative is not compelling enough to pick up the slack. A fairly insignificant effort from a great filmmaker.


Monday, March 06, 2006

Munich (Spielberg, 2005)

In some ways, Steven Spielberg's latest film, Munich may be the most troubling, disheartening film in his filmography. Though Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan detail large scale barbarism, the viewer is at least left with the comfort of knowing that the Nazis were ultimately defeated and the extent of their cruelties exposed. By contrast, Munich shows us a hidden world of violence committed unofficially by likable men who use the same word to toast the arrival of a newborn child as they do the successful elimination of one of their targets. As we well know, the death toll continues to rise worldwide as men of different convictions attempt to avenge grudge upon grudge upon grudge. The goal of Spielberg's film -- to plead for sanity in a world that lacks the imagination to find non-violent solutions -- is an admirable one. Between this film and the politically-charged War of the Worlds, Spielberg has used 2005 to drastically complicate the history that will be written of him once his filmmaking days are over. Munich's greatest success is in showing the toll revenge mentality can have on those who harbor it. I also enjoyed the way in which the film showed how guns and bombs have become the new international 'dialogue'. Although Spielberg is Jewish, he depicts the violent actions taken on both sides as brutal. Though he has received criticsm from his own community, it is clear that Spielberg has made this film in the hopes that his people and others will reject being identified with the film's central characters. He does not judge these characters; rather, he handles them with compassion, understanding their rage, but hoping to guide others towards a different path. The weaknesses in Munich are slight, but it does lag on well past the point that it has effectively made its point and, for a film co-written by Tony Kushner, it does seem to be light on sharp, insightful dialogue. Still, the basic message hits hard and makes Munich a film that deserves to be seen and discussed by a large audience now and for however long humanity clings to these problems which tragically keep it from achieving its great potential.


Friday, March 03, 2006

Mirrormask (McKean, 2005)

Mirrormask is a film that I truly regret not seeing in the theater. I suspect that I have missed out on what was intended to be an immersive experience by having all of McKean's images forced to compete for space on my average-sized television. I'd like to see it again on an IMAX screen. As it was, I had a very difficult time getting invested in the young heroine's quest. The script recycles many of Gaiman's favorite themes, namely that there is a fantasy world of dreams and metaphors that can have a dramatic impact on the 'real' world. The girl's quest is simple: work out a way to save her mother in the fantasy world and then she will be well in the real world. And yet, the opening twenty minutes of the film, mostly set in a circus, are so disorienting -- with unusual camera angles and music and pacing -- that, for me, the basic human connection was not established. When we arrive in the fantasy world, it is something of a relief because then we know that we can relax our logical side and become a sightseer. The film works best when we have at least some strand of connection to something we might recognize. For example, I enjoyed the witty twist on the myth of the Sphinx. However, at other times, the film struck as being so original and unusual that I felt unengaged and emotionally distant. The character of Valentine, for example, wears a mask that distorts his human features so much that it is like watching a living, breathing abstraction. Perhaps a better performer might help, but the actor given the role in this case gets swallowed up, barely registering as much of anything. Ultimately, I found much to admire in Mirrormask, but couldn't help but feel that I was given so much to process visually that a simple thing like a child's need to know that her mother will be OK was lost in the mix. I felt a bizarre combination of amazement and utter disinterest. Again, I suspect that watching the film at a size that would allow for easier processing might help a bit; but as it stands, I am somewhat disappointed that the film strove for surreal complexities while neglecting the part of the film that should have been most basic.


Thursday, March 02, 2006

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (McKay, 2004)

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy lines up a prime target in its sights and then proceeds to shoot itself in the foot. There's plenty of humor to be mined from taking the wind out of pompous, authoritative news anchors, but Will Ferrell creates a character that is so buffoonish that he ceases to be recognizable. He is so clearly an idiot that there is no joy to be had either when he succeeds or fails. Steve Carell plays a weatherman who we are told is mentally retarded; however, this only barely distinguishes from any of the other characters in the film. There's precious little news satire here, but lots of digressions -- a street fight, an impromptu jazz flute performance, an escape from a bear pit and a long sequence that takes up about a third of the movie in which all of the male members of the news team take turns on trying to get a female employee into bed. The film is trying to ridicule these simple-minded characters for being obsessed with the presence of a woman and not focused on the news. Well, the creators of Anchorman could be accused of having the same juvenile mind-set. Indeed, we never even get to see the weatherman do the weather, the sports guy do the sports, etc. Instead we are just expected to find them funny because they're stupid. What would be funnier is if we saw how these dimwits were actually able to produce a television show that was likely to be readily consumed by the public. Instead, Anchorman is the comedy equivilant of bashing a pinata. Ron Burgundy has been created for one purpose only: to be ridiculed. Any resemblance to actual anchormen -- or actual humans -- is purely coincidental.