Thursday, August 31, 2006

71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance (Haneke, 1994)

You’ve no doubt seen this kind of film before. A variety of seemingly unrelated people, each struggling with the day-to-day obstacles and disappointments of life, are drawn together by a single critical incident. Short Cuts, Magnolia and 21 Grams would be just a few noteworthy examples of this kind of storytelling which strives to underscore our interconnectedness and our fragility in a world that has a momentum too large for any one human to completely control. However, rarely has this structure been executed so masterfully as in Michael Haneke’s third film, 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance.

From here, I will proceed with caution so as not to lessen the impact for anyone who plans to view the film. Even though Haneke tells us at the very beginning where his film will end, there is remarkable tension in the way that he introduces the various players and then slowly moves the pieces together. However, there is really no puzzle to 71 Fragments, no artificial plot twist to anticipate, nor any political subtext to translate. What the film does have though is an unnerving atmosphere of inevitability. Watching 71 Fragments, I wondered to myself how Haneke is able to achieve a mood that is so cold, so clinical and yet so captivating. My conclusion is that it is because his camera simply does not flinch. In any given scene, we may see emotions laid bare or a sudden act of violence or perhaps just someone engaged in an everyday activity of utter simplicity. Like a poker player, Haneke provides the viewer with no visual or auditory clues that would allow us to anticipate what is about to occur. 71 Fragments contains no underscore, precious few close-ups and a minimal amount of camera movement, reinforcing a perspective that is dispassionate - sometimes distressingly so.

Adding to this sense of detachment, Haneke provides a brief, but certainly noticeable pause between each of his scenes. The pause lasts barely more than the amount of time it would take to count one thousand-one; yet, this small stylistic choice forces us to consider the importance of each chunk of new information and how it relates to the incident that we know will eventually occur. Another critical factor contributing to the film’s suspense is that we have no idea how long each of these scenes – or fragments – will last. At times Haneke interrupts midstream just as we are getting involved in the moment – even in the middle of a sentence. At other times, he holds the camera on his actors for a duration far longer than we initially think he should. We think we understand what the scene is communicating, grow impatient as it seems to drag on and then eventually are startled to discover the scene evolve into something completely different. During that time, we experience a series of emotions and find ourselves in deep in thought. It is for this reason that Haneke’s films can feel so draining. Those who have seen the virtuoso long sequences in Funny Games and Cache will know what I am talking about. 71 Fragments contains at least two such scenes, neither of which I will spoil here.

In Haneke’s resolution, he finally finds a place for a joke. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t the sort of joke that is likely to make you laugh out loud. On the contrary, it is a kind of cosmic joke that speaks volumes about the value of our lives and the overwhelming momentum of the human race as a whole. Haneke ends his film with probably one of the last faces you might expect to see and yet finds a way to use this persona to discreetly guide our interpretation towards his film’s overriding purpose. If it seems as if I have told you next to nothing about the film’s plot and characters, it is intentional. Never fear. They are certainly deeply compelling. But I will leave it for you to hopefully experience Haneke’s work as I did – as freshly as possible.


Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Devil's Wanton (Bergman, 1949)

Of the twenty-odd Ingmar Bergman films that I have seen, The Devil’s Wanton is the earliest, made in the director’s early thirties. Although over half a century of masterful filmmaking lay ahead, this early effort shows Bergman already with a firm handle on cinema’s possibilities and a clear vision of the themes he wants to convey. Made just a few years after the Hiroshima bombing, it is a deeply pessimistic film that suggests that hell may very well exist – right here on earth. Despite the gloominess of his theme, Bergman playfully bookends his tale with a beginning and an ending involving a group of filmmakers pondering the creation of the film seen in the middle. It is a story of a young prostitute, her accidental pregnancy and the way in which the child’s father goes about covering his tracks. Bergman’s ability to write challenging, captivating roles for women is unparalleled and the one he has created for lead actress Doris Svedlund is no exception. Standout scenes include a dream sequence involving a forest made up of human beings rather than trees and a tense scene in which a man notifies his wife that both of them are going to commit suicide whether she likes it or not. Although the prostitute’s tragic life is something that has really occurred within the universe of the film, we see the on-screen filmmakers conclude that such a work could never be made because it would leave viewers with a question too unbearable to ponder. Of course Bergman not only poses that question in this film, but would do so in numerous other films over the course of his illustrious career. The Devil’s Wanton is a worthy entry in a deep filmography and one that will doubtless become more readily available to film buffs eventually.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

Battle in Heaven (Reygadas, 2005)

Carlos Reygadas’ Battle in Heaven has a title that is highly deceptive. It contains nothing so dramatic or beautiful as those words might suggest. Instead it is an empty, awkward film about an empty, awkward man. He and his wife have kidnapped an infant that has unexpectedly died. This might seem like an enticing set-up. However, Reygadas doesn’t show us any of this drama on-screen. We learn about it in an early conversation and then his lead spends much of the rest of the film moping about feeling guilty. The central role of Marcos is played by a non-actor named … err … Marcos and his inexperience is evident in each and every scene in which he appears. A favorite Reygadas move is to have his robot of an actor stare off into the distance while his camera pans away to …………nothing. Marcos seeks comfort in the bed of his boss’s daughter who conveniently happens to be a prostitute. Unfortunately for viewers, he also has time to get busy with his tank-like wife in an explicit scene featuring about 500 pounds of combined nakedness (don’t ask). Where is all this heading? That’s the funny part. Nowhere! Absolutely nowhere! Reygadas can’t probe the psychology of the situation because he has cast actors utterly incapable of conveying emotion or complexity. He can’t lure us in with his plot because he has none. The only card he really has to play (besides pointless sex and violence) is opacity. In his 95-minute film, Reygadas has enough content for a film about 10% of that length. The rest is cinematic vamping as Reygadas hopes to accidentally stumble upon a captivating idea, an honest moment or a meaningful image. Not good enough. Battle in Heaven is a complete waste of time.


The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (A. Argento, 2004)

With her first feature length film, Scarlet Diva, Asia Argento delivered a highly indulgent work that demonstrated that its director had no shortage of ideas and no shortage of love for her leading actress – herself. While Scarlet Diva was wildly unfocused, it was also highly watchable – partly because of Argento’s charisma and partly because of her ability to keep us off guard with risky choices. At the time, I suspected that Argento had a great film within her. After all, she had the pedigree and no shortage of confidence. Her most recent film, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, shows Argento well on her way to accomplishing that goal, progressing even faster in her maturation than I could have anticipated.

Working from the writing of J.T. LeRoy, Argento creates a harrowing nightmare of one young boy’s long-term abuse at the hands of several parental figures, but primarily his drug-addicted mother. Apparently, there has been controversy over LeRoy’s identity and whether or not the stories told within LeRoy’s books are factual. Such matters do not interest me and have little to do with what Argento has accomplished or how the film impacts the viewer. I assumed going in that what I was watching was a fiction. Whether or not the film entertained and had something to say were more important considerations than whether it was based in truth.

In the role of Sarah, the young boy’s mother, Asia Argento takes her own impulsive persona and layers in a dose of Courtney Love-style nastiness. Indeed, with her bleached hair and perpetual petulance, the resemblance to Love is too close to be a mere coincidence. It may seem to some that Argento’s appearance in this critical role is more narcissism, but honestly, who else could pull off the performance that Argento gives us here? The challenge is that Sarah is a woman in her twenties who has lived a life of constant tumult. She must be attractive enough to plausibly lure multiple sexual partners and yet weathered enough to have plausibly lived a life of substance abuse and other risky behavior. At thirty years of age, Argento has been performing in movies since childhood. She grew up with a father who was one of horror’s most accomplished (and most sadistic) directors. She has the background to allow her to approach the role with confidence and succeeds in being both utterly believable and consistently compelling.

At the beginning of the film, we see Jeremiah, the young boy at the center of the tale, returned to his biological mother after living for years with foster parents. He considers them to be his true mother and father and regards Sarah as a complete stranger. It soon becomes clear that Sarah, despite her biological connection, is an utterly worthless parental figure. She is given to ridicule, cruelty, manipulation and promiscuity. We see her with so many sexual partners that we eventually lose track. How long, we wonder, can Jeremiah be exposed to her influence and resist being forever consumed by her irrationality? When Sarah is unable or unwilling to care for Jeremiah, he is placed in the care of his Grandmother and Grandfather whose devotion to religion is revealed to be merely a tool used to justify sickening abuse. Through them, we come to understand Sarah’s chaotic nature and realize the gigantic obstacles Jeremiah must face if he is ever to attain a healthy existence.

After spending some time with his grandparents, Jeremiah oddly finds his mother somewhat comforting by comparison. In a startling sequence, he strives to understand his mother and feel closer to her by assuming her identity. These scenes are handled with tact and creativity while still achieving the desired emotional effect. Argento uses several stylistic touches in order to allow her viewer to consider the events from Jeremiah’s perspective including unusual camera angles, first person perspective and even a few startling scenes of stop-motion animation. These choices elevate the film above the banal and give it an exciting edge of surrealism. Although the film becomes somewhat confusing towards the end with the introduction of a character whose purpose is unclear, the overall journey of mother and son is haunting and thought-provoking. It asks us to consider our origins and how much of our future is determined before we even have a chance to care for ourselves. Not only that, it does so with copious amounts of creativity and passion, indicating that Asia Argento may very well have a second cinematic career should she ever tire of acting.


Monday, August 21, 2006

Snakes on a Plane (Ellis, 2006)

OK, let’s not go overboard. Snakes on a Plane, the new film from David R. Ellis - which has gained a great deal of publicity for its straightforward “give-the-people-what-they want” approach - is neither disaster nor masterpiece. What is it? A fairly efficient Hollywood action film that has the good sense to embrace its ridiculous premise and push it to gleefully absurd heights. Make all the jokes you want. Snakes and planes are two things that lend themselves exceedingly well to creating tension. Both the villains and the setting are used to excellent effect as Ellis creates a genuine feeling of claustrophobia, chaos and hysteria. Snakes are inherently dramatic creatures, shifting between a slow ominous slither and a sharp, sudden strike – two gears which are nicely integrated into the film’s rhythm.

For the most part, the film achieves an appropriate tone – somewhere on the silly scale between Stephen Chow and Sam Raimi – but unfortunately uses up all its best ideas in the second act. Comparatively, the film’s final scenes are a bit of a letdown. After actually creating characters that we are willing to invest in, the film places far too much of its resolution in the hands of a peripheral comic relief character whose nonchalance defuses too much of the excitement that has been built up over the course of an hour-and-a-half. In the lead, Samuel L. Jackson is given a perfect vehicle for his humor and charisma. He embraces the role wholeheartedly, coming alive in a situation that might have left other actors embarrassed. Oddly enough, one of his few lines that do not work is the one that has received the most attention. The line, with its double use of everybody’s favorite 13-letter profanity was a suggestion from internet fans that eventually found its way into the film. Jackson’s line reading is impeccable and, taken on its own, the line is exceedingly funny. However, the filmmakers have inserted it into a part of the film where it doesn’t quite fit. Jackson’s line is an explosion, something that we could easily imagine him building towards; yet, it occurs during a time of relative calm when the passengers are plotting their next move. A couple minutes earlier and it would have been perfect. As it is, it misses the mark and seems incongruous, an obvious addition to the original script.

As for any metaphorical connection to terrorism or satire of America’s culture of fear, Ellis has made no overt gestures in that direction. His film exists in a universe that is largely divorced from our own. It is a purely cinematic universe, generated to inspire escapism and not weighed down with anything so lofty as ‘relevance’ or ‘purpose’. Still, I think it is fair to say that it is no accident that this much-hyped and eagerly anticipated film (in some circles) is a cartoon recreation of one of the deepest fears many of us hold in the early years of the 21st century. Perhaps deep down the film resonates for us because it allows us to distort and openly ridicule something that many of us find genuinely terrifying. Perhaps its simplicity is comforting with its promise of a slick, charismatic hero who will take care of us, cracking wise all along the way. Or perhaps it just boils down to the fact that snakes and planes are an idea whose time has come.


Saturday, August 19, 2006

Rent (Columbus, 2005)

In the late 90’s, there were two plays that erupted onto the New York musical theatre scene and were hailed as the rebirth of the rock musical. The first was Jonathan Larson’s Rent which garnered a lot of attention because its composer had died tragically just hours after the final dress rehearsal. The second was John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which beat Rent to movie screens by about four years. Whereas the latter is a soul-searching journey of personal identity told with extraordinary wit and music inspired by David Bowie, the former is an insipid, naïve tale of eight friends living in Greenwich Village waiting for someone to appreciate their untapped genius/inner beauty with music inspired by Rick Springfield.

There are many, many flaws in both the play and the film version of Rent; however, there is one that stands out among the others as simply deadly. We are asked to extend our sympathy to a group of characters that seemingly see no connection between their motto “No day but today” - which is repeated ad nauseum - and their inability to pay their bills. I agree that it is a shame that money drives so much of our thinking in America and that we should not forget to experience pleasure while we have the ability to do so, but seriously. Grow up. Don’t sully other artists who are actually sacrificing to make a difference in this world by whining about how you don’t get paid to sit at home and indulge in “mucho masturbation.” You’ve got all this artistic integrity that nobody appreciates? Boo hoo. Get in line. The arts certainly should be better funded in the United States, but being an artist means having a responsibility to society, even if it’s not always appreciated. Besides, you know who else “sold out” and took money from sources that weren’t exactly sparkling and pure? Shakespeare, Mozart, Moliere, Michaelangelo, etc., etc. The list goes on.

If this enormous helping of self-pity and myopia weren’t bad enough, Larson piggybacks onto the AIDS tragedy by making not one, not two, but four of his characters HIV-positive. While this is a worthy topic for discussion, there is no evidence in the film that anyone has a genuine understanding of the epidemic that could not be gleaned from reading about it in a textbook. Nor does he seem to be willing to make any kind of political statement apart from appropriating the slogan of Act Up and shouting it during the film’s most offensive number, “La Vie Boheme”. Larson may have known people with the disease during his lifetime, but here he uses it as a cheap tool to manipulate our emotions. Who will be lost? Who will live to proclaim the need for hope? With characters this transparent and unlikable, who really cares?

Six members of the original Broadway cast reprise their roles in the film, and it must be said that they are, for the most part, a talented, passionate bunch that sincerely believe in the project. I was especially taken by the charisma of Idina Menzel and Jesse L. Martin in the roles of Maureen and Collins. Rosario Dawson, who was not in the original cast, also shines during her featured number, “Out Tonight”. Unfortunately, they have devoted their passions to work with no understanding of the world that exists outside of its own neighborhood. It has no interest in understanding the politics surrounding the AIDS crisis and arts funding in America. It begs us to be moved by characters whose most notable quality seems to be that they are able to name drop Lenny Bruce and Vaclav Havel, but who don’t have a fraction of their guts. It is a film that does not see the irony in celebrating “anyone out of the mainstream” when it is directed by the guy who brought us Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire. It is a film that is naïve enough to pay tribute to the Sex Pistols and then in the same breath tell us that we should never play “the fame game”. The Sex Pistols may have taken an unusual path to stardom, but they most certainly were playing the game. This is more than can be said about the characters in Rent who seem to be reluctant to take any sort of action lest it disrupt the shimmering glow of their precious artistic purity.


Friday, August 11, 2006

The Passion of the Christ (Gibson, 2004)

Watching The Passion of the Christ on DVD now, over two years after the initial release, it’s hard to see why we all got so worked up. Was it because it was an election year and George Bush seemed determined to continue to blur the line between church and state until we were living in a full-fledged theocracy? Whatever the cause, Mel Gibson’s take on the Jesus legend is neither inspirational nor threatening. It is worthy of neither enthusiasm nor vitriol, because … well … it’s mostly just kind of silly. One of Gibson’s wisest moves is to employ ancient languages for his screenplay, for it is the only thing apart from the copious amounts of blood that give the film any sense of seriousness or gravity. Surely it is not Gibson’s ideas that give the film any weight, because he has none. He has made a film that, for all its grandiose posturing, is essentially as airheaded as Legally Blonde. Nowhere in the film does Gibson seek to explore, illuminate, question or clarify. Instead, he continually aspires to nothing more than cheap effect, operating in a perpetual state of “Wouldn’t it be cool if …?”

Wouldn’t it be cool if the coins flung to Judas moved in slow motion? Wouldn’t it be cool Satan had this really freaky looking baby? Wouldn’t it be cool if Mary rushed to help Jesus when he fell just like when he was a kid she rushed to help him when he fell? That would be, like, ironic and shit.

Gibson’s film is all cheap effect and posturing. It fails to utilize the greatest gift humans ever received: the capacity for thought. Instead, it dutifully creates reenactments of a simple tale created by people thousands of years ago who were more scientifically ignorant than a moderately sharp first grader in the 21st century. We are far from unlocking all of the secrets of the universe, but we know a hell of a lot more than the people whose mythologies and petty politics continue to have tremendous impact on our lives. We fight their wars with modern technology. Shouldn’t we, at the very least, temper their myths with modern philosophy? For all of the talk of Gibson’s dedication, his film lacks the sincere spiritual yearning of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. For all of the talk of Gibson’s historical accuracy, his film lacks the deep academic understanding of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. For all of the talk of Gibson’s ability to elicit emotional reaction, he falls short of even the pathos generated by Jesus Christ Superstar. At least in that film, we get an idea of how Jesus inspired so many humans and how his teachings must have seem like welcome light in a dark world.

However, unlike others, I am not bothered by Gibson’s decision to focus his film on the final hours leading up to Jesus’ death. I am bothered by his decision not to stay focused. The flashbacks he inserts to break up Jesus’ trial and torture come at awkward times, making it seem like Jesus is distracted more than anything else. The content of the flashbacks adds little to no insight into Jesus’ situation or character. Obviously, they also don’t add anything to the film thematically because – well – Gibson doesn’t really have themes to begin with. It just feels like Jesus’ mind is sort of wandering. The flashbacks also prevent Gibson from effectively building the momentum of his much desired visceral effect. We are given too many interruptions -- too many opportunities to relax and not enough to ponder in the downtime. Setting aside any ethical question of presenting the torture of Jesus as a thrill ride, Gibson’s film fails at even that shallow artistic goal.

In the hands of a more capable and intellectually curious director, the hours leading up to and including the crucifixion of Jesus could have made for a worthwhile film. Defenders rightly point to Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc as an example that shows that the structure is not inherently flawed. However, they miss a few things that Dreyer has and Gibson does not – focus, restraint and legitimate artistic purpose being chief among them. If Gibson was an introspective man, perhaps he could have asked why, thousands of years later, we are still captivated by a tale of childlike simplicity centering on grotesque physical torture. Perhaps he could have explored whether it has something to do with human spirit - whatever it is that animates us - being hopelessly at odds with the human form. Do we obliterate the body of Christ as a kind of ritual self-loathing in order to demonstrate that our souls are held back and weighed down by the ordinariness of our clumsy bodies? Now that is a question that might have led to a better understanding of ourselves and our interaction with others. Instead, Gibson is content to spin his wheels like a monster truck caught in a vast pit of mud. It doesn’t matter if he’s making progress. It only matters that he’s making noise.


Monday, August 07, 2006

Over the Hedge (Johnson/Kirkpatrick, 2006)

Consistently funny and relatively inoffensive, Over the Hedge is a quality mainstream animated adventure that coyly introduces an environmental theme of woodland animals facing the prospect of encroaching suburbia and then safely retreats into a broad reinforcement of the concept of family. With Over the Hedge, Dreamworks does not venture too far from their formula for success; however, in this particular case, the copious celebrity voiceovers are mostly endearing and the occasional pop culture references are actually kind of funny. Bruce Willis and Garry Shandling are well cast respectively as a conniving raccoon and a cautious turtle that bump heads about competing ideas about foraging. William Shatner is also a welcome presence as a possum that is fond of hamming up his death scenes. Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara’s use of Fargo-esque accents for a pair of porcupines is somewhat of a lazy choice, but the pair certainly has the comic technique to pull it off. At its best, Over the Hedge has comic set-pieces that are reminiscent of the kind of hilarity inspired by Looney Tunes. The chase scenes are well choreographed and I greatly enjoyed the film’s willingness to go extreme with some of the better jokes. Without spoiling the moment, I will also say that the film builds to a very funny climax involving an overactive squirrel that is refreshingly strange. I was less enamored by the direction of the skunk character voiced by Wanda Sykes. Her involvement in a distraction plot is probably the least inspired aspect of the screenplay and also gives the filmmakers an opportunity to dabble in Dreamworks’ trademark gas humor. I was also somewhat disappointed, though not terribly surprised, by the way the film sidesteps the environmental issue and instead embraces something far more generic. In the end though, such complaints do not ruin the fun of an enjoyable family comedy.