Monday, November 30, 2009

Second Thoughts: Adventureland

Nearly all of the reviews of contemporary reviews I've posted on this blog from its inception leading up to about July were submitted in tandem to Auburn's student newspaper, The Plainsman. The Plainsman set a 500-count word limit (admittedly a flexible one) on my submissions, which is why so many of my reviews for new movies are so short in comparison to my views of older ones. For a while, I tinkered with some of these reviews, editing them surreptitiously to add elements to flesh out the restricted observations I wrote for the Plainsman, but I've decided that, if I have enough I wish to change an opinion of one of my previous posts, or simply find new aspects of a film to discuss that I overlooked, I'll simply collect them into an addendum such as this.

My initial reaction to Adventureland was positive but not exactly effusive, yet it stuck with me as much as the films I considered the best of the year. The more I thought about it, the more I found new touches to enjoy, and when I finally saw it again, I unreservedly adored it. What stuck out that eventually made the good seem great, and why did it take me so long to realize it?

I was idly perusing some of the blogs I follow recently and stumbled across The Film Doctor's review of the film, in which he compares Adventureland and its ability to evoke its time period with Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. An apt comparison, and one I'd supplement with another teen retrospective: Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. None of these films is perfect, yet they are all perfect evocations of a certain period, because they capture that which is most rare, the spiritual unity of youth -- zeitgeist isn't quite the right word -- that manifests itself, appropriately enough, through our primary method of communication: music. Adventureland sports one of the few soundtracks these days that is neither a shallow nod to the big hits designed to sell CDs nor a collection of insufferable hipster semi-obscurity that blends together into one stale, hard-to-swallow acoustic lump; containing tracks by Hüsker Dü, The Cure, The Replacements and numerous, bountifully, gloriously numerous, tracks from Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, Adventureland's soundtrack reflects Mottola's approach to the film: commercially indifferent, unabashed honesty.

Honesty is central to the appeal of these films. Crowe's stranger-than-fiction life story, Linklater's more laid-back, quasi-anthropological examination, and this occasionally downbeat reminiscence all tackle the same ultimate subject with contrasting moods, yet none lies to us. Crowe's film is tinged with his low-key, fleshed-out Spielbergian sentimentality (though I would argue that, if Rolling Stone paid you at 15 to follow the Allman Brothers on tour, you'd be a bit nostalgic too), a movie in which a busload of people can suddenly burst into a sing-along of Elton John's "Tiny Dancer" without the barest trace of irony. Mottola's is flecked with a reserved embrace of its period, one that is not so quick to spotlight the fonder memories that it forgets and forgives the bad times.

How, then, are they all flip sides of the same coin, and can three objects fulfill a metaphor of something with two sides? Well, maybe Linklater is the thin middle width connecting them; his film, after all, is more emotionally-neutral behind the camera, allowing the actors and situations to create a mood. Adventureland presents us with a post-graduate hero without any doubts concerning his future. An English major seeking to get into grad school to study journalism, James Brennan dreams of writing travelogues that show the real cities that he visits. He speaks of Charles Dickens' writings on prisons and sanitariums with breathless reverence, as if he can't believe he might get the chance to read them again someday, much less write articles in their vein.

Unlike Benjamin Braddock, the post-grad sophisticate of The Graduate, James' life plans are altered not by a sudden crisis of confidence and insecurity but through the financial troubles of his parents. He saved up for half the cost of a summer in Europe, but his parents (played by superb character actors Wendie Malick and Jack Gilpin) can no longer afford to pay their half. Too, they strongly hint that they'll be unable to pay his tuition for Columbia University. So, James looks high and low for a job. Set in 1987, Adventureland hits strikingly close to home today; financial troubles threaten his ability to continue his education, and no one seems to be hiring for him to get a job to pay his own way.

At last, James finds a potential opening at a local theme park. As Mottola rides just in front of James' bicycle, a gargantuan roller coaster looms in the background, a subtle feint as James keeps riding until he moves farther away from that impressive attraction into the heart of Adventureland. This park is dilapidated and childish, a traveling fair that broke down one day and simply rooted where it stopped. James enters the park's office and accepted without a glance at a resumé by owner Bobby (Bill Hader) and his wife Paulette (Kristen Wiig). James requests a job at one of the rides, but Bobby insists that James is "a games guy," and we sense that this is in some way a put-down.

Games proves to be a dull job indeed, with James standing at various booths lackadaisically separating bored children and couples from their money with rigged games, his only important task to prevent anyone from winning a Giant-Ass Panda. He loses his charge at knifepoint, but no one seems to mind, and in the process he meets fellow games jockey Em (Kristen Stewart), whose striking green eyes have a curious vacuity to them that does not suggest dimness but a genuine sense of angst and a lack of inner direction. Em isn't nearly as literate as James, but she's the next best thing: someone with killer taste in music. Yes, James and Em bond over hip, off-mainstream tunes, but Mottola navigates in between the Scylla and Charybdis that is hipster irony and an over-reliance on music without losing a single shipmate. James, a virgin, is attracted to her because he sees her own vulnerability not as a weakness to be exploited but a sign of kinship borne out through their mutual appreciation of depressive pop (and fellas, if you ever run into a lady with Big Star records, just get down one on knee and propose on the spot).

Yet where James' troubles largely extend to a sudden financial upheaval, Em's life story is considerably more tangled. She lost her mother to cancer only two years ago, only for her father to remarry the woman he was having an affair with, an image-obsessed socialite named Francy who lost her hair due to the stress of her first divorce and its impact upon her circle of gossipers ("My mom loses her hair in chemo, and he starts fucking a bald woman," Em says in a bizarrely matter-of-fact manner, so unable to process this that she treats this news as if a kooky story). Her shock-induced anomie led her into the arms of Connell (Ryan Reynolds), the park's maintenance man who inspires awe in the collegiate workers despite the fact that he works maintenance for a crap theme park into his '30s and hides from his wife in his mother's basement. Connell shops a story about of him playing on stage with Lou Reed once, though he never quite gets the titles of the songs they played right.

"Stewart plays a variation of what The Onion A.V Club terms the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl:” that is, a female character who serves to bring the male protagonist to some sort of epiphany and/or stable relationship at the expense of any characteristics of her own," I wrote in my original review. What an asinine misreading of the character. Having finally acquired a copy of this film for my home collection, I watched Adventureland twice in rapid succession and realized something: Mottola reverses the gender roles of Eisenberg and Stewart. James is the fairly stable one, a genuinely nice person less concerned with losing his virginity than losing it to someone he loves. Em, on the other hand, is at a crossroads, unsure of what she wants out of college and burying her grief in passionless sex with a handsome-but-pathetic loser. When confronted with someone who truly, deeply cares about her, his earnest kindness terrifies her.

This aspect of her character only stands out more when compared to the other noteworthy young lady in the film, the much-worshiped Lisa P (Margarita Levieva). The men of Adventureland gawk at her, clad in a torn T-shirt, gaudy and over-sized earrings and everything else that signified why the '80s were absolutely, unequivocally the worst, as if a goddess. Where Em listens to haunting and powerful college rock, Lisa P dances mechanically the park's incessant usage of Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus," and once again Mottola communicates everything through the music. For everyone else in the park, "Rock Me Amadeus," is used in a manner not unlike the military's usage of blaring rock music to force Manuel Noriega's surrender, weeding out those lacking the fortitude to withstand its constant barrage; her vacant swaying is seductive only in this atmosphere of desperation and sidelined dreams. Lisa P becomes the unlikely fallback for Em, as James is so enamored with Em and so sure that he has no chance with Lisa that he attains that perverse sort of anti-confidence that allows him to be himself around a girl who has never witnessed anything other than obsequious falsity from the men in her life, thus captivating her. When she spreads gossip about Em around the park, however, James sees the Lisa P that the audience sees, a cold succubus trapped in her own sense of superiority and the warped dialectic of her hedonistic, Reaganomic, consumerist pop image and her deluded take on Catholic morality. Her ruse discovered, she simply slinks back into her horrid dance as if repairing her trap for the next victim, one who hopefully won't escape her clutches.

As all romantic comedies must, Adventureland comes to the section of the story in which some misunderstanding or revelation threatens the relationship, but those that plague the budding couple here have been skillfully set up over the course of the film, not suddenly dumped upon us with someone entering a room at the wrong time or with one ill-timed outburst, and thus their time apart can tug at the heart strings without smacking of manipulation and the dénouement can be happy without sinking into schmaltz.

Adventureland can be easily (and, for the most part, lazily) connected to two other recent youth movies by the cast and crew members they share, chiefly Superbad (Mottola) and the Twilight films (Stewart). Working with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg's script, Mottola's Superbad wasn't exactly dishonest -- its most absurd moment, involving an ancillary trip to a creepy house party, was purportedly toned down from Rogen and Goldberg's memory of a similar occurrence because they felt that it was so weird no one would buy it -- but its maxims of growing up, and the fear of leaving high school* were distinctly separate from its menstrual-blood-and-dick-jokes linear comedy plot. Adventureland, by contrast, organically fuses its low-key comedy and its off-Graduate tale of post-collegiate uncertainty. Superbad of course also brings up the inevitable Cera-Eisenberg debate, and while they're clearly playing much of the same root character (and not just in these two movies), Eisenberg's James is appealing where Cera's Evan could be nasty and spiteful.

Stewart's Twilight connection is notable because here, too, she plays a morose, sexually confused young woman (albeit promiscuous where Bella is chaste) presented with the choice between an awkward but sincere young kindred spirit or an older, creepily dependent aggressor**. Where the two differ, and differ severely, is in Stewart's performance. Her Em is vulnerable and insecure, but she is never the helpless (and hapless) creature that she must portray as Bella Swan. Em can be quite confident at times, publicly shaming a Catholic co-worker who drunkenly made out with the Jewish Joel and subsequently used his religion as a means to nip any lingering feelings on his part in the bud. Her performance here is proof that vulnerability does not equate to an inability to function without a man, and Mottola's suggestion that unhappiness and doubt can be relieved by a mutually loving relationship is romantic and true on both sides of the gender gap where the romance in Twilight is one-sided and disturbing. If Stewart brought half of what she does here to that series, I'd be the first in line for the next sequel.

As I was pressured by the word limit in my initial review, I devoted little space to discussing any of the actors, and I was catastrophically off the mark with the one person I did detail (Stewart). Both Eisenberg and Stewart are just right for the roles, fitting their current image but adding refined detail to them not present in their other work. Their reserved, dry personae lend an air of credence where other films inject a manic character designed to pump out one-liners like AA fire in the Battle of Britain or to generally act like a jackass; Adventureland does have one such character in the crotch-punching Frigo, unsurprisingly the one aspect of the film I thoroughly dislike. They rub up against the more over-the-top characters played by Hader and Wiig, whose Bobby and Paulette are ludicrous entrepreneurs with dangerously indifferent views of the safety of the rides and the corndogs. Yet they are also tempered by a certain lovable quality; they blare that effing Falco song all day, yell at patrons to properly dispose of trash and attempt in vain to generate some enthusiasm in the game presenters, but none of the employees hates them. Bobby does not fire James for losing the G.A.P., and when another angry patron attempts to beat the poor lad, Bobby bursts out of his office wielding a baseball bat like a father defending his child ("You don't know what I'm capable of!" he shrieks to the suddenly terrified thug). Hader and Wiig are both adept at stealing their scene separately, and together they manage to pull off their caricatures without sacrificing the story's believability.

But even the combined might of Hader and Wiig cannot upstage the genius that is Martin Starr. I only mentioned him in passing in my original review and indeed in this one, but in the interim between seeing Adventureland for the first time and now, I watched Freaks & Geeks, so let me now speak as Martin Starr's #1 New Fan. Starr stole absolutely every moment on that show, a series filled with great performances from each of its cast, and here he effortlessly walks the line between the dry, hyperliterate sarcasm and relatability of James and the comic exaggerations of Bobby and Paulette. His Joel is a Russian lit major and sometimes nihilist who smokes a pipe, which he admits is a pretentious affectation but gives him some amount of serenity. His delivery is so deadpan that you don't get the joke until it passes you, taps on your shoulder and punches you out when you turn around. When he gives that Catholic girl a copy of his favorite Gogol book as his way of courtship, he is at once hilarious and heartbreaking in his shy awkwardness.

stumbled at times, sprinting ahead too quickly at the end and occasionally given to dubious directorial choices that threatened to suck the life out of some shots, but of all the recent attempts to create an identifiable depiction of young adult life, none came so close to the mark as this charming, understated '80s throwback. Unlike the majority of autobiographical films, it is neither overly nostalgic nor embittered by the hindsight of age; often downbeat and measured, it nevertheless offers a touching and happy ending without sprinkling saccharin all over the place. If this doesn't claw its way into my top 10 by the end of the year, it will be pounding at the edge like a 900-lb gorilla until I finally acknowledge it to everyone.

*(I used to wonder why so many films made high school the place of security when leaving college for the real world was the bigger culture shock, only to get to college and realize that the friends I'd built up over 12 years were across the country and I had only four to make lasting impressions with any new people.)
(Kind of sounds like Edward Cullen, huh?)

Saturday, November 28, 2009


Alejandro González Iñárritu sits at his desk, looking pensively at a screenplay he's just read. After taking a few deep breaths, he picks up the phone and calls Guillermo Arriaga. The phone barely rings once before a voice answers.

Guillermo Arriaga: Alejandro?
Alejandro González Iñárritu: Guillermo? I just finished reading your script.
GA: What did you think?
AGI: Well, that's what I'm calling about. Um -- oh Christ I don't know how to say this -- Ar--are you kidding me?
GA: Wha--what's the problem?
AGI: Are you serious? This is the exact same script you gave me six years ago.

The sound in Iñárittu's phone suddenly drops to a low hiss. He strains his ear and hears a faintly whispered, "¡coño!" Suddenly the sound of Arriaga's breathing intensifies.

GA: I don't--I don't know what you're talking about.
AGI: Really? A script about the lives of separate people all joined by an unlikely root? Doesn't ring any bells?
GA: I think you're being kind of childish about this.
AGI: I think you're trying to end me! We've already made this movie. Twice. If we do this again the townspeople are going to ignore us crying wolf.
GA: I'm telling you, these movies are different.
AGI: [hissing through the eroded barriers of patience] How?

Iñárittu absent-mindedly fingers his scarf, wondering if its stretching wool could conceivably asphyxiate someone.

GA: I keep broadening the scope. We started in the Mexican underworld, expanded to America, and now we're traveling the world.
AGI: Expanding the stories doesn't make them different!
GA: It does, though! Amores Perros was about surviving into adulthood, 21 Grams was a romance, and this is about couples becoming parents and their relationships with their children, who will then grow up and start the cycle anew. It's a logical progression of my cartography of the human condition.

This time, Iñárittu pauses. He swears he can hear the writer holding his breath.

AGI: [calming] Wel-um, fine then. That does sound interesting. Why don't we cut out one or two of these plotlines though and focus on the rest.
GA: Absolutely not! We have to do all of them!
AGI: Why?
GA: B--because the multiple stories show how the generation gap is universal and that we're always at a crossroads with our children and unsure in which direction to continue.
AGI: Yeah, but it's overly repetitive and it gets bogged down at multiple intervals to openly discuss the same message. And I don't even see the point of putting the Jones family in the story at all. The parents do absolutely nothing and the kids only serve to set up the story of the maid. Her part is nice, so you should separate her story from the Joneses and just throw them away all together.
GA: Have you gone insane?! If I take one element out the stories lose their connection.
AGI: What connection? This is the most contrived bit of nonsense I've ever seen. A rifle links 4 families from across the globe? Are you kidding me? Why not just write in a precocious Scottish child called MacGuffin while you're at it?
GA: The rifle gives the story meaning! You don't think it's interesting that the object that links the world together is a deadly weapon?
AGI: NO! You can't just throw in a symbol without any connection to the story and expect anyone to pick up on it or care. It is pretentious, freshman-year-at-film-school bullshit and I'm better than this. Let's cut back a bit and just make them vignettes, like Jim Jarmusch films.
GA: I will not change a word. The connection is solid and it's genius. We'll get Brad Pitt for the star power, throw in some nudity and ride that critical wave to Oscar gold.
AGI: You have truly lost your mind. This is barely passable and contrived and stilted and preaching. I have worked too hard and come too far to let myself make this. This is outright self-parody and none of the pros overcomes its matching con. I can't take this anymore; you and I are done professionally.

Iñárittu goes to slam the phone, but stops. He thinks for a moment, the hand holding the receiver moving closer and farther away from the base as if literally weighing his options through it. Finally, he brings the phone back to his ear.

AGI: You really think we can get Brad Pitt?

Pan's Labyrinth

[Warning -- contains spoilers]

Guillermo Del Toro has always been fascinated with Gothic fantasy, both the Victorian romance/horror and the Medieval sense of the word, the artistic moment when the profane melded into the sacred resulting in pious but often terrifying works. He grew up loving the tasteless and mania of splatter gore pictures, and yet rather than ape the free-flowing body fluids of the works of Sam Raimi or Herschell Gordon Lewis, Del Toro uses his more excessive effects in the aid of atmosphere. For though he often makes horror films, and damn good ones at that, his approach can be just as readily applied to his (relatively, as he doesn't waste money) big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.

Pan's Labyrinth is a masterpiece precisely because it reveals the director's knowledge of his strengths. He recognizes the current of atmospheric terror and imaginative horror/fantasy that runs through his work and strips away the detritus until he's left with the core of his auterial vision -- of wickedly dangerous but attractive iterations of classic fairy tale creatures, loving shots of creepy crawlies and of clocks and their innards. Upon that rock he builds his church, a vision of heaven and hell that comes less from a religious text than the minds of Lovecraft and Poe. In my review of Let the Right One In, I placed that film in a sort of unofficial triumvirate of fantastical horror stories involving children with the great Night of the Hunter and this opus, the three collectively representing the responses of pre-adolescents to terrifying circumstances. Night of the Hunter turned the stalkings of a murderous psychopath into a grim (or Grimm) fairy tale, while Let the Right One In dealt with teenage loneliness and hormonal rage with a romance both Platonic and thinly sexual.

Ofelia (Ivan Baquero), however, faces much larger problems. Set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, Pan's Labyrinth foists not just personal but sociopolitical terror upon the shoulders of its 10-year-old protagonist. Thus, her emotional defense mechanisms require greater fortitude and commitment to maintain some sense of sanity. As such, the film contains an almost boundless imagination, borne from the mind of a child who carries with her old, leather-bound copies of fairy tale books that look as if they collectively weigh as much as her.

Her father, a tailor, died in the war, though we don't know where his loyalties lied nor even if he served in the military. The mother, Carmen (Ariadna Gil), remarried to the fascist Captain Vidal (Sergi López) and suffers through complications from pregnancy. Vidal, an unsettling embodiment of the inherent fascism of male dominance, has his new family driven out to the Spanish countryside where he is mopping up lingering cells of Communist fighters. He risks his wife and his baby's health, but "a baby should be born where his father is." Already traumatized by the death of her father, Ofelia must contend with this terrifying man and the violence he perpetuates.

She finds a respite from these worldly concerns by following a stick insect (or fairy) to an ancient stone labyrinth near the estate Vidal has commandeered for them. Inside, she a spiral stone staircase leading deep into the ground, where she finds an antechamber filled with mysterious carvings and one very tall faun. The faun tells her that she is not borne of mankind but of the moon, the spirit of a long-lost princess of a forgotten realm and that he shall guide her back to her rightful home ere the full moon.

First, though, she must prove herself with a series of tasks. After completing each one, the faun gives her some reward to help her for the next trial. When Ofelia's mother begins hemorrhaging terribly, the faun gives the girl a mandrake root to place under Carmen's bed to heal her. Ofelia clearly views the faun as a much-needed father figure, but she's still a child and therefore can be quite insolent when she feels like it. More than once, she openly defies Vidal (the only character brave enough to do so to his face), disappoints her mother by ruining a pretty new dress in her adventures -- she enjoys going to be without supper as it spares her Vidal's presence -- and ignoring some of the faun's instructions, to horrific consequences.

Perhaps the greatest distillation of what makes a movie came from no-nonsense, versatile maestro Howard Hawks, who said, "A good movie has three great scenes, and no bad ones." Pan's Labyrinth certainly qualifies, and its three great scenes are some of the most memorable of the decade. The first involves Ofelia meeting the faun in the underground chamber. For all his size and distinctive design, the creature melded perfectly into the walls. Aided by Doug Jones' unassailable body language -- if you need to put a guy in a costume, you're not doing your film a service if you don't hire Jones -- the faun conveys wisdom and authority in his movements but also giddiness and care. Del Toro and his makeup and costume team of David Marti, Montse Ribe and Xavi Bastida craft the faun out of the elements: he seems less goat-like satyr and more wooden Ent, borne of the earth, stone and flora from which he emerges to meet Ofelia, looking all the more real because he is (Del Toro only uses CGI when what he wants cannot be physically recreated). When he says to the girl, "Do not be frightened," she isn't, nor is the audience, precisely because he's such a beautiful and striking creature.

The second is the harrowing scene of Del Toro's take on the myth of Persephone. Ofelia must travel through dimensions to the home of a dangerous creature to retrieve a ceremonial dagger. The faun warns the girl not to eat anything she finds there. Inside the portal is a terrifying vision indeed, of a humanoid monster frozen at a table, sat before a pair of eyes on a plate without sockets in his face to house them. Of course, the rest of the table is covered in mouth-watering food, and Ofelia can't help but grab a couple of grapes (you just can't find good pomegranate seeds anymore). The rest of the scene is the most nerve-wracking, suspenseful thing Del Toro has ever filmed; Gene Siskel used to complain about films putting children in danger for a cheap emotional impact, but had Del Toro placed Vidal himself in this situation, chased by a lumbering, hissing monster with eyes in its clawed hands and permanent blood stains on its mouth (also played by Jones), he would still have generated nail-biting terror.

The third great scene of the film, and I'm surprised to say this, involves a grisly torture scene. I'm not one to dictate what can and can't be shown on-screen, but the recent upswing in gratuitous torture porn has been the most revolting (and most inadvertently revealing) trend in contemporary cinema. To hear that Del Toro, a fan of splatter pictures, conducted a torture sequence should send me running for the hills then, yes? Well, no; in fact, Pan's Labyrinth is one of the only torture scenes in the movies (the haunting sequence in Godard's Le Petit Soldat being the only other example that comes to mind) of torture that Jonathan Rosenbaum calls "artistically justifiable on some level." Taking into account Rosenbaum's predilection for identifying and loudly decrying (as one should) what he perceives to be the fascism of many productions, that seemingly tepid compliment might as well be a pullquote on the DVD cover. It helps that Del Toro, whose sumptuous visuals made the rest of the film so inviting, curbs his style back to stark horror in the scene. As Vidal prepares to torture his stuttering captive, Del Toro uses only shot/reverse shot structures with cold lighting as the captain holds up various tools and describes the future of their "relationship" together. Del Toro then cuts away from the action, returning only to find the prisoner a horrific, bloody mess without forcing us to sit through the process that turned him into it. The scene ends with an act of mercy by the local doctor (who's been healing the other side the whole time) as powerfully felt as any of Ofelia's more noble actions, and I daresay that it ends a depiction of violence and tyranny on a note of beauty.

Yet while we all might (rightly) laud praise upon Del Toro's jaw-dropping visuals and his sense of flow, one must also pay attention to his script, not only the tautness of the emotional journey but of its allegorical qualities. All of Ofelia's tasks in some way connected to the real issues affecting Spain. Ofelia ventures to and old, mighty and gnarled tree to find a giant, slimy toad inside. It is bloated and greedy, the animus of Franco's fascism, which rations out food to the populace but lavishes upon its officers and honored members palaces and feasts. The Pale Man, whom Del Toro described to costume designers as "a fat man who suddenly lost all his weight, is the emaciated shell of the old Spanish monarchy, itself once fat on the blood of the peasants and capable of seeing only that which they wanted (hence the eyes in the hands) but now stripped of its privilege and authority but still a terrifying and murderous creation. Even Ofelia's baby brother is symbolic, representing the future of Spain. If the baby stays with Vidal and his ilk, Spain itself stays in the hands of the fascists. When Ofelia refuses to sacrifice him on the faun's orders, it's as much as declaration of her unwillingness to damn the country as it is a testament of familial bonds.

While she might have been upstaged by the child actors of Let the Right One In, Baquero gives one of the most memorable performances ever seen by a kid. She is somewhat bratty and overly precocious, yes, but she's also, out of all the kids we normally see, rebelling not only against adults but an entire system that most of us would condemn. She's also brave and ethical even at her worst, which is more than you can say for most characters (or real people, for that matter) at any age. Del Toro also extracts great work from his adult actors, particularly López as the sociopathic Vidal --near the end of the film he's on the receiveing end of a Glasgow smile, which makes him look uncomfortably like the Joker out of Nolan's Dark Knight -- and Maribel Verdú as Mercedes. Verdú is known for playing the sex goddess (see Y tu mamá también), but here she plays a haunted, sad housekeeper whose fury is unleashed in the end, a wrath that can rival Vidal in pure intimidation. It's one more aspect of Del Toro that might be masked in the shadow of his stunning visual acumen, and yet more proof that he's one of the finest directors working anywhere in the world today.

There are those who will ask whether Ofelia's adventures are real or imagined, as if the answer means anything or proves its quality or lack thereof. The film opens with its ending, played backwards as a dying Ofelia's blood returns to its wound; perhaps, then, the events were not only imagined but created on her deathbed, a final, hallucinatory fever dream à la Mullholland Dr. But does that make any of this less "real"? If this is some escapist reverie, why is the sound design so harsh and immediate, from the constant creaking of wood to the crunch of of Vidal tightening his leather? I do not care whether what happened was true or if Ofelia makes it all up to comfort herself and send her soul to her vision of heaven, because that's not the point. Pan's Labyrinth is a tragedy, yes, but also a vibrant examination of how a child processes and internalizes horror and a flawless vision of what that horror might look like when mixed with her innocence and imagination.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Wind Will Carry Us

Having seen only two of his films, I'm already discovering what it means to be an Abbas Kiarostami fan. Foremost is patience, the likes of which make sitting still through 2001 seem as easy as watching a Youtube clip. The Wind Will Carry Us, largely considered his best work, does not even bother to establish a plot until it reaches the 30-minute mark, yet by that time I was sufficiently hooked anyway. Kiarostami's direction, while sparse, is not minimalistic, and the way he can capture with astonishing clarity even that which he keeps off-screen continues to fascinate me.

The film opens with a familiar image, of a car traveling on a winding dirt road in the Iranian countryside, a terrain so spare and desolate that the car's passengers shout with excitement when they pass a tree. The "engineer" -- as he's called -- Behzad comes to a village, small but labyrinthine, so complex that he enlists the aid of a precocious village kid, Farzad, to help him around the place. After ingratiating himself a bit, he at last reveals his purpose for coming to the village: he's a filmmaker documenting mourning rituals, and he's here to wait for a resident 100-year-old woman to die so that he can film the resulting funeral.

It sounds macabre, and it is, and there's a surprising amount of black comedy to be found here for those who watched his decidedly severe Taste of Cherry. The idea of hanging around a village like vultures waiting for a sick creature to finally die -- which she never finds the time to do -- is so dark I wasn't even sure at first if it was a satirical jab at the emotional vacuity of "objective" documentarians who like scientists will sit idly by as lab animals die so they can study the remains. Kiarostami inserts numerous shots of Behzad receiving phone calls on his cell but unable to get a clear reception, forcing him to run to his car and drive up to higher ground yelling "Hello? Hello?!," the antithesis of the Verizon "Can you hear me now?" commercials. At the top of the hill is a man digging a well, and the two engage in idle chitchat. The two compare the frustrations of their job: "You're lucky you have a pick axe," says Behzad to the man, jokingly considering speeding up the process.

Yet from this comedy comes reflection as profound as the sort found in his previous feature. During one of his many trips to the top of the hill for reception, Behzad witnesses the digger trapped by a cave-in and summons help to rescue him. As he rides to the hospital, the local doctor explains his philosophy, that life should be loved and enjoyed, a sharp contrast to Behzad's twisted mission. Like the suicidal protagonist of Taste of Cherry, Behzad is losing or has lost his ability to perceive and appreciate the beauty of the world. Yet unlike Badii, Behzad doesn't seem to realize it. That would explain why the compositions of Taste's shots were flattened and often dull, and why the village Behzad visits is such a tangled, unpredictable web: Badii saw no beauty in the world, while Behzad hasn't quite reached that conclusion but is still...inconvenienced by beauty, unable to see the appeal of the village for constantly losing himself trying to get to specific places.

Kiarostami's direction here, in fact, proves beyond shadow of a doubt his masterful skill with the camera, and he's also one of the more unique filmmakers I've ever seen who never dabbled in the avant-garde. When faced with typical situations -- such as filming actors speaking in a car, "fish-out-of-water" city slicker in the country tales -- he makes the choices that no one else would think to make, and thus he invigorates these shots and tropes as if he was inventing them on the spot. As he did in Taste, Kiarostami does not place a camera in the back of a car looking forward nor on the hood of the car looking inward, instead placing the camera in both the passenger and driver's seat, looking directly at its speaking characters one at a time. He also blurs the line between fiction and documentary better than any director since Herzog: as he scans his camera over an alley as chickens run madly about and people wander in and out, we wonder, "Did he, could he, have planned all of this, or did this heavily improvisatory director simply stumble upon a shot he liked?"

And while most films about a city dweller in the country feature the inevitable shots of ragged bumpkins, Kiarostami cheekily decides to not even show numerous characters -- Behzad's film crew, the old woman they're documenting, the well-digger. Is this a reflection of Behzad's solipsism? I doubt it, as that would not explain why we see the young boy or the woman who runs the tea shop. A more accurate (yet thin) explanation would posit that the figures who are heard but never seen are those in some way connected to the story, the crew and old woman for obvious reasons and the digger by virtue of being the person Behzad confides in. If this film is about Behzad's inability to recognize beauty in his work, then that lack of perception extends to those even involved with the work.

"Why," you might ask, "would filmmaking be an occupation devoid of beauty? Isn't the whole point to capture beautiful imagery?" Kiarostami seems to suggest -- perhaps manifest his fear -- that shooting images omits that which makes them beautiful. I'm reminded of the old superstition that photographs steal a part of your soul, and I wonder if the person taking the picture loses something as well. The entire film is a build-up to a funeral, but when it finally arrives, Behzad has observed so much in the village that he realizes that life is too beautiful to sit around waiting for death (unlike Badii, not his own). And so, at last reconnected to the world, he commemorates the funeral by leaving town without filming. This might be the only film where running away is the brave and noble choice, and it's only one of the reasons that The Wind Will Carry Us is one of the most interesting, unique and thoughtful films I've seen of contemporary cinema.

Wings of Desire

Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire is a film of constant juxtapositions, between light and dark, mortal and immortal, old and new, inner thoughts and outward expressions. It is a film with angels, but not the sort one might picture. They do not sit in the clouds playing harps, nor do they protect and bless people in need of assistance. Quite the opposite, actually: their job is to "assemble, testify, preserve" reality, as one of the angels, Cassiel (Otto Sander)l, says. They can only observe and document like anthropologists studying a dead civilization, for while their subjects are very much alive they cannot interact with them, unseen by all save for children who will lose the ability as they grow older.

Is that a sign of a loss of heavenly purity, a visualization of "Let the children come unto me"? Probably, but it's also a reflection of the angels' own infancy. They existed before the Earth, yet their inability to connect to the world they document leaves them stunted, like a child able to process and retain information but incapable of applying it. Cassiel and Damiel (Bruno Ganz) watch over Berlin, still separated by the Wall; every day they meet with notes of the most extraordinary things they saw that day, always some simple display of emotional freedom that stunned them (for example, Damiel marvels at a woman who closed her umbrella in a storm and allowed herself to get wet, Cassiel at a child who sat transfixed to his grandfather reading The Odyssey). They have seen it all, yet each day, in a single city, they see something that excites their child-like wonder.

Wenders reflects the dichotomy of the angels' existence with juxtapositions between sharp, static shots of Berlin's culturally significant landmarks (the Wall, the Berlin State Library) and soaring views of modenization (skyscrapers, graffiti). Even the music reflects this, with Jürgen Knieper's orchestral score rubbing up against the gothic post-punk of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. With these contrasts, he makes Berlin as much a character as any of the humans, and one of the reasons that Damiel so desperately pines to be human.

He resolves to shed his wings and become human upon observing Marion (Solveig Dommartin), a trapeze artist dressed as an angel in a failing circus. Her graceful acrobatics inspire more reverence in the angel than, judging from what we see, God, yet she is also hopelessly alone, a French woman trapped in Berlin forced to hamper her talents with silly costumes for crowds that never come. She has no friends, no lover, and she wiles away the time by dancing morosely to Nick Cave's more somber tunes. He understands her disconnect and marvels at her beauty, until he finally approaches his partner, whose drive to study the darker side of humanity traumatized him, causing a certain hostility with his decision.

A subplot of the film involves the actor Peter Falk, playing himself. He's come to Berlin to film a Nazi movie, and his presence causes a stir, one that seems less a script choice than the actual excitement of the actors (Dommartin is clearly so giddy in her scene with him that any other director would have done another take, yet somehow it works here). He cannot see Damiel but feels the angel's presence; so, he holds one-sided conversations with Damiel and reveals that he was once an angel who became human for all the reasons Damiel wishes to do the same. The kids on the set and in the streets call him Columbo, and suddenly I wonder if Falk was so convincing a detective because he spent millennia observing mankind. More than that, is acting the perfect profession for an angel who would renounce immortality to experience humanity, as it allows one to imbibe multiple personalities?

Wenders and cinematographer Henri Alekan (who also had a hand in crafting the floating beauty of Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast) film the first two acts in sharp black and white, but they switch to color when Damiel becomes human, signifying the sharp contrast in perception between the two species(?). The angels see everything in black and white because theirs is a world filled with absolute good and evil, and they even though they envy the humans they simply cannot fathom the whole spectrum of opportunity of human existence. Wings of Desire is often a paean to the senses, be it the bitter sweetness and warmth of a cup of coffee or that almost exciting way that the blood from a minor wound flows slowly enough for it to oxygenate and turn bright red.

When the now-human Damiel meets Marion, she recognizes him as much as he does her. That is because we first identified them as kindred spirits, divided just as the equally German residents of Berlin: the dimensional wall between them is no different than the physical one that would crumble before the end of the decade. Wenders of course could not have conceived of just how imminent the Wall's fall was, but that doesn't diminish the symbolic power of the story. "There is no greater story than ours," says Marion, "that of a man and woman." She's right: for all the film's symbolism and multi-layered meaning, this is a love story, one of the finest of its kind ever told.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Planes, Trains & Automobiles

As I sit here tonight, cradling a full stomach and nursing a head cold, I've turned to two things for comfort: Nyquil (so forgive me if this review slips into the realm of garbled non-sequitur when that miraclous green sludge kicks in) and Planes, Trains & Automobiles. There's something wretchedly pathetic about a 20-year-old's nostalgia, particularly for something that's actually older than he is, but I wonder we'll ever have another film of its kind. A Thanksgiving film, I mean. Every other major holiday has numerous films that revolve around that particularly day (well, maybe Independence Day is the only one for July 4, but that film so inadvertently summarizes that holiday that no one needed to try again). Heck, one has a veritable pick of the litter for Christmas, whether you like so-sugary-it'll-give-you-diabetes nostalgia (A Christmas Story), family-is-hell farce (Christmas Vacation) or even love-to-hate cynicism (Bad Santa). And I'm not even counting the approximately 12,000 versions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol (though attention must be paid to The Muppet Christmas Carol, king of the adaptations and indeed the Christmas genre).

Thanksgiving, if I might break out the soapbox now and be done with it, doesn't even exist anymore. Now, Thanksgiving is merely a feast to build and store one's energy for the subsequent Christmas shopping spree. Christ, the economy was so bad this year that Black Friday started on Monday. Of course, this isn't entirely a recent occurrence; one could spot the trouble on the horizon all the way back to 1947's Miracle on 34th Street, a staple of the Christmas genre, which builds its plot upon an opening at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. That was the real Red Tide of the late '40s, one that foresaw our current situation, in which the Ghost of Christmas Future has become the Present, his skeletal talons clawing for yet more territory by eviscerating our beloved celebration of a time when we relied on the Native Americans for food, before we figured it out for ourselves and killed them in repayment (be thankful we were the only ones with guns!).

I suppose -- as I appear dead-set on derailing this review before it even begins, spurred on by the tongue-loosening treacle that is the deadly Q, its green haze slowly clouding my vision -- that this is as good a time as any to discuss the late John Hughes. As a child of the '90s, and someone who's never really fit in with the youth zeitgeist anyway, Hughes doesn't hold the place in my heart he does for the Gen X'ers. I find that his screenplays typically waver between hip youth comedies that do not age well and message-heavy pictures that slam on the brakes at odd intervals to remind of Serious Issues (there is a great deal of overlap between the two).*

That may be one of the many reasons why I so dearly love his masterpiece Planes, Trains & Automobiles. Neither facile comedy nor a heavy-handed issues picture, it instead finds the best elements of both of these styles while omitting the weaker aspects of the rest of Hughes' corpus. For make no mistake: this is a farce, albeit one played with a straight face rather than a winking nod. It is also, at times, dramatic and serious, but its messages are fluidly integrated into the film instead of set apart and lit with neon. It is also a holiday film that impressively links to the deeper meanings behind its holiday beyond superficial lip service.

As farce requires simplicity, Hughes' story can be summed up in a single sentence: a man attempts to go home for Thanksgiving but cannot. The man in question is Neal Page (Steve Martin), an advertising executive currently working in New York and set to fly back home to Chicago to see his family for the first time in weeks. But a meeting runs long, his cab is stolen and the flight is delayed. When he finally gets on a plane, he's bumped from first class to coach, and then the plane must divert to Wichita due to a blizzard.

Adding to this misery is one Del Griffith (John Candy), the man who stole Neal's cab and, of course, sat next to him in his downgraded coach seat. Del is the sort of person who embodies the idea of "trying too hard": he's a kind, affable man, but he treats strangers like close friends, regaling them with long-winded stories that cannot qualify as anecdotes because they ultimately serve no point. Even his laugh is overly ingratiating, widening his mouth to swallow his face to emit a staccato chuckle of a laugh. He makes a living selling shower ring curtains (or earrings, depending on whom he's pitching), the sort of prosaic, meaningless occupation that seems perfectly fitting. He offers to use his connections to get Neal a room in Wichita, setting in motion one of the weirder buddy movies, a genre that is predicated on off-kilter juxtapositions.

Though the buddy film had existed for years, Martin and Candy almost seem like the archetypes for the genre's characters: Martin, the detached, ironic stand-up, is perfect as the uptight, no-nonsense character, while the lovable, physically comic Candy can make Del's exaggerations identifiable. At the motel in Wichita, Neal, fed up with the day's events, unleashes on Del, criticizing him for the exact things we all feel for his ilk -- a hatred of his "amusing" stories, his irritating cheerfulness, the way people like that think that laughing off serious problems is a valid way of handling them and thus wondering why normal people get stress -- and Candy's slow deflation is one of the most heartbreaking things I've ever seen in the movies. And then, he rallies; "Yeah, you're right," he calmly states. "I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you... but I don't like to hurt people's feelings." He says, with childlike yet forceful simplicity, "I like me," and the effect is so staggering even Neal stops in his tracks.

The rest of the journey unites the two in an odd friendship, as they suffer yet more setbacks and find a certain comfort from this mad world in each other. A thief nabs the cash out of both their wallets, but at least Neal has a credit card. Until their rental car catches fire with his wallet inside. They hitch rides at times, but they never seem to make it into the actual cabs, always stuck in the backs of trucks in the middle of snow-blanketed Kansas and Missouri. Yet the trip is therapeutic, softening Neal's self-absorption and taming the more insufferable attributes of Del's kindness. Such moments grow naturally from the ills that befall the pair, and they never obstruct the comedy, which is as bountiful and filling as a Turkey Day feast.

Two bits continue to strike me as particularly hilarious: the first takes place in the Wichita motel, the morning after their argument and subsequent burying of the hatchet. Sharing a bed, they each reached out to their imagined loved ones in the night, waking to find themselves spooning and holding hands. "Where's your other hand?" asks Neal. "Between two pillows." "Those aren't pillows!" It starts with typical homophobic jitters and gagging, then Hughes pushes it further until he mocks such responses with Neal and Del's desperate attempts to find something macho to discuss to prove how manly they are. "See that Bears game last week?" "Yeah, helluva a game, helluva game. Bears gotta great team this year." There's also something tremendously funny about the way this scene of mock-post-coital cuddling coming off their harsh conversation the night before, a subtle evocation of makeup sex.

The other notable comic triumph, and the film's most famous scene, occurs at a rental car agency. After receiving the keys to the wrong car and being forced to walk three miles back from the airport to the agency, Neal looks like he might produce a shotgun at any minute and start indiscriminately killing customer and representative alike. He approaches the counter of a woman enjoying a personal phone conversation who waves him off when he clears his throat. When she at least hangs up and turns to him with one of those painted-on smiles, he launches into a tirade. In the space of one minute, Martin uses the word "fuck" 18 times in a picture that would have otherwise barely garnered a PG rating. The concentration of the film's swearing into this one scene makes it hilarious, more so because Martin does not grandstand and shout but hisses silently in true anger.

The ending comes with a twist, but one designed to enhance the emotional weight of the story, not create some out of thin air. Its happy ending is not saccharine but deeply felt, a validation of the men's trials as evidenced in Neal's flashbacks on the train, in which Hughes contrasts thoughts of his children and his memories of his time with Del, both of which elicit the same smiling, loving reaction. Before fading out to the credits, the frame freezes on John Candy's smiling visage, smiling so that his pudgy cheeks push his eyes into squints, and I am reminded of the great pain of losing someone so vibrant. I remember as a kid just wanting to reach through the screen of his movies and hug John candy, feeling it would be like hugging Winnie the Pooh and Santa Claus all at once. Even now, I see the way his great mound of flesh wriggles when he laughs, or the way that a simple slump of his shoulders can bring me as close to tears as the end of Casablanca. So I lament him, as I do Hughes, for all his weakness. I also mourn the passage of films like this, broad comedies with a true heart, the likes of which Judd Apatow and his sphere of influence has been trying to recreate for years now without the recipe. And, as this film is so much a part of its subject, I mourn Thanksgiving, the fading luster of its wonderful message, no matter how dark the truth behind it might be.

Yet, if I stopped there, I would
be just as guilty of casting aside the holiday, so let me really blog here for a minute and discuss that for which I give thanks. Friends and family are a given, but consider this my thanks anyway. For Roger Ebert, Jonathan Rosenbuam, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris, Dave Kehr, James Agee, Cahiers, Film Comment, and all the other intelligent critics and film publications out there who have offered and continue to offer revealing, beautifully written criticism and analysis of the cinema. For Deron Overpeck, my Intro to Film Studies professor last year, the only witty, enthusiastic and utterly engaging professor I've yet had in college after almost three full years. For David Bordwell, whose instructional writings reassure me that I might be able to learn something about academic film studies when my college offers so few courses on film. For Bergman, Scorsese, Herzog, Welles, Kurosawa, Kubrick, Peckinpah, Ford, Lynch, Kaufman, Lang and Murnau. For Whedon, Simon and Sorkin. For filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard, who are so independent and confident that they continue to make films that don't cater to anyone's wishes, including those of people like myself who consider ourselves adventurous moviegoers. For people like Jim Emerson, James Berardinelli, Tim Brayton, Ed Howard, Jason Bellamy -- to name but an obscenely omissive few -- who prove that serious, well-written criticism is not only possible on the Internet but greatly abetted by it.

And lastly, I'm thankful for those who somehow found this blog, read it and gave me feedback and suggestions. Your input is invaluable to me and I can only hope that I receive more in the future. Thank you. Oh, and thank you, Nyquil, for easing this sore throat with your sickly sweet serum. You may take me to the land of the dreamless sleep now.

*I confess that I was somewhat amused to check his IMDb profile and see that he wrote the remake of Miracle on 34th Street. It's a small world after all, huh?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Silent Light

A farmer, Johan (Cornelio Wall), lives in Northern Mexico with his children and wife, Esther (Miriam Toews). They are Mennonites, an Anabaptist denomination so small and traditional that they speak their own language: Plautdietsch. The Mennonites are not Amish-like -- they drive cars, use mechanized pumps to milk the cows and live in fairly modern housing -- but they clearly adhere to an old-fashioned, religious code. It is surprising, then, to learn that Johan has a mistress, Marianne (Maria Pankratz). As he agonizes over who to choose, he wonders if Marianne was sent by God to bring him happiness or the devil to claim his soul.

In that slim paragraph lies the entire plot of Silent Light, a film with a running length of 145 minutes. The third feature of Mexican director Carlos Reygadas -- and the third to offer serious competition for the Palme D'Or at Cannes -- is so slow it might confound even the arthouse crowd. Yet it is also a work of striking beauty, an example to rub in the face of those who throw out the phrase "style over substance" too freely. The director hired nonprofessional, real Mennonites for the parts, yet this is not a film that investigates a nearly unheard-of subculture; in fact, it practically assumes that whatever ethical codes govern the Mennonites are cultural universals, or at least known and studied by its audience. Instead, Reygadas crafts an intimate portrait of an individual, grounding his epic shots in the moods of that character.

And the shots are epic: Silent Light opens on the stars, a deceptively standard image that one expects shall zoom in until the camera settles upon Earth. But the camera simply tilts and pans, revealing itself to already be on the Earth just as the sun crests on the horizon. It is an absolutely breathtaking piece of impressionism, held for four full minutes, one suspects, because the director understands how powerful it is. That is not to say that the shot exists for its own sake, as of course the sunrise can symbolize several things, such as marking a fresh new start for Johan's life or possibly shedding light on his illicit affair.

At other times, however, Reygadas and cinematographer Alexis Zabe linger on shots of...nothing. I don't mean shot without dialogue or some noticeable physical action: I mean nothing. Yet something eventually does happen, even if it occurs minutes into the shot. Esther knows of the affair because Johan is an honest man even in his marital dishonor. The two have an awkward, stilted conversation, and Johan is left alone at the table. The camera rests on Johan sitting impassively, boxed in by a door frame in the background, until minutes later, he bursts into tears.

The picaresque beauty of Reygadas' and Zabe's visuals, combined with Johan's religious preoccupations, suggest a comparison to Andrei Tarkovsky, one that is facile and inaccurate even as a voice in the back of my head keeps whispering, "Do it. Just say it." It is even more tempting to draw a line to Terrence Malick, particularly his work with the painterly exteriors and expressive use of light on Days of Heaven -- one could also find a certain aesthetic middle ground between Malick's lush imagery and Jim Jarmusch's deadpan minimalism. But that too is wrongheaded: Tarkovsky's camera charts the action on a spiritual level, his barely perceptible movements tracking the characters like an apparition or a guardian angel. Malick's compositions detach themselves entirely from what is actually happening, allowing for a poetic explanation and explication of the film's action. By contrast, Reygadas' camera is directly connected to the emotions of its protagonist: as Johan begins to face the tangible and psychological consequences of his affair, Reygadas moves gently from those endless exterior shots to cramped interiors cut at a faster pace, reflecting the mounting turmoil (though still nothing as quick as the average moviegoer ever sees).

The focus on Johan's emotional state leaves large narrative gaps that, as in a Jane Campion film, seem to say more than anything shown on-screen. The most powerful moment we do get to see comes when Esther finally opens up about her own feelings, just as a a torrential rainstorm begins around them, informing her husband of her own feelings of pain and disconnect that resulted from his affair. From this moment, though the camera remains rooted in Johan's perspective, Reygadas shifts the narrative focus onto the two women in his life, allowing for three-dimensional portraits of all three relevant characters. The way that these characters must come to terms with their desires and how they conflict not only with their personal senses of ethics but the spectre of cultural norms, recalls some of contemporary Asian cinema, such as the work of Edward Yang in Yi Yi or Wong Kar-wai.

(It should be noted, however, that the community does not seem concerned with condemning Johan for his actions. The Anabaptists were heavily dogmatic but also largely peaceful, but they also suffered horribly at the hands of both Catholics and Protestants. I wonder, then, if the persecution and atrocity they suffered in some way instilled an instinctive lack of judgment in its descendants. Their acceptance of Johan's feelings does not, however, lessen the tension of his wracked conscience.)

If I am searching for comparisons to make with this film it is only because Silent Light is so original that I can't help but look for something to tether it to the familiar, even if the connections are tangential. It boasts the most striking imagery -- and the most likely to be ignored by the mainstream-minded Academy -- since Tarsem Singh and Colin Watkinson's work on The Fall. Even the lens flares are gorgeous. That so minimal a film could end with a miracle -- one that leaves Marianne's metaphysical alignment between light and dark as ambiguous as ever -- almost seems realistic in the steady hands of the director and Zabe.

Perhaps the most striking element of the film, however, is time. Silent Light lacks any concrete sense of time, leaping from summer to winter in the space of a single cut. We can explain this loosely defined passage of time because everything is depicted from the perspective of a man agonizing over love. In such matters, time slows to a crawl when we are away from the one we love and wish to woo, and it passes in the blink of an eye when a window of opportunity presents itself. Silent Light is, to use that wearisome, pointless phrase, "not for everyone," but the subtlety and gently overpowering emotion of its presentation makes it one of the most striking, original and affecting films of the year*, one I simply cannot recommend enough.

*I should say that the film actually premiered at Cannes in 2007, and it made its way through the festival circuit throughout '08. So, the film has already appeared on best-of lists for two years now, but the official limited U.S. release date was in January of this year, so I'm counting it.

Days of Being Wild

Wong Kar-wai's first film, As Tears Go By, was a cookie-cutter crime drama that borrowed heavily from Scorsese's Mean Streets but left out all of the original's flair. It did, however, introduce some of the director's visual preoccupations, chiefly his expressive color palettes. But it was his second feature, Days of Being Wild, that crystallized his style -- lush visual poetry, elliptical character dramas, the way we, not just the Chinese, guard ourselves with perceived "appropriate" behavior even we are bursting with passion -- and announced the arrival of the first Hong Kong director who could rival the skills of the contemporaneous Fifth Generation filmmakers. A depiction of rejection, empty hedonism and the tragedy of dreams, Days of Being Wild is a devastating reverie worthy of the auteur who would go on to make even more draining masterpieces.

Set in 1960, Days makes inescapably clear the director's nostalgia. It opens with a shot of a red Coca-Cola cooler, made somehow to look redder than anything you've ever seen. A handsome, mysterious young man, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), enters a stadium concession stand and chats up the clerk, Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung). She rebuffs his advances, but he returns, again and again, until she at last relents. Wong cuts to a breathtaking shot of the two post-coitus, giving off such heat that the mise-en-scène takes on a muggy, humid quality. The moment is short-lived, however, as Yuddy promptly trows her out, already bored.

As we shall soon see, this is Yuddy's M.O. He has an ambiguous, rocky relationship with his adoptive mother, an aged whore who was once a high-class escort, accompanied by a pimp Yuddy will find any excuse to beat. She will not tell him about his biological mother, and Yuddy projects whatever buried feelings he has onto the women he seduces and discards. Or perhaps not; a Freudian analysis seems to simplistic for so evocative a film.

Yuddy stands in the center of a group of people joined by their collective sense of longing and trepidation. Su falls into a deep, reclusive depression, and Yuddy's new squeeze, the outburst-prone bar dancer Mimi (Carina Lau) outwardly emotes at her mistreatment. Both women look for love but find only the blank wall that is Yuddy, but they find no reprieve from their sorrows from any other the other men -- Zeb (Jacky Cheung), Yuddy's street hustler friend lovesick for Mimi, nor Tide (Andy Lau), a police officer who wants to become a sailor. These people all want something they can't have, save Yuddy, who understands that to want nothing is to have everything and to want it all is to be left empty-handed. As he and Zeb ride a train after a violent confrontation in the Philippines, Zeb thunders that they almost died because of Yuddy. "You can die any minute," Yuddy retorts; he knows the future is uncertain, and that is the only certainty in his life.

He's portrayed with a bravura performance by the late, great Leslie Cheung, who channels a bit of the three main late-'50s, early-'60s rebels -- James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones and especially Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless (his constant hair-combing recalls to an extent Michel's habit of running his thumb over his lips) -- Cheung adds that degree of tragedy to a man hell-bent on self-destruction. He does not break down like Jim Stark, nor is his detached image a hip feint like Michel's; no, this is a man truly cut off from the world around him, who accepts that there's no time like the present and thus sets no goals for himself and rejects anything that might pin down his future. Cheung's connection to on-screen rebels also reflects his days as a pop star; indeed, any fan of Hong Kong cinema should be delighted to see baby-faced versions of Leslie, Jacky, Maggie, Carina Lau, even Tony Leung in a cameo at the end, all of them known at the time as pop icons or kid TV stars putting in serious dramatic work.

However, the chief draw of the feature must be its astonishing visuals. Days marks the start of the bountiful collaboration between Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle, beginning a modern director-cinematographer relationship offering the most rewarding aesthetic partnership second perhaps only to the Coens' work with Roger Deakins. Some shots are simply perfect, such as a shot of the adoptive mother lying on a bed gazing at herself in a mirror. Surrounded by the pale, sickly fluorescent green glow that would pervade Chungking Express, she looks like a well-preserved corpse in a museum, a relic of some long-ago epoch were her kind were regal but now simply something to be ogled at through glass. In Yuddy's haste to break free of his mother, we should not forget this image and realize that she, too, didn't get what she wanted out of life.

Days of Being Wild is not only a touchstone of the auteur's career but a landmark of Hong Kong cinema, one that took its primarily Western influences, mixed them with the unique cultural aesthetic crafted by Tian Zhuangzhuang and particularly Zhang Yimou, and spit out arthouse beauty universally appealing to cinephiles (though the film did flop upon its original release). It frames its characters in mirrors, reflecting their images back at them, and to us. The film is all about images, the way that we perceive them and remember them. When Yuddy at last convinces Su to go home with him, Wong inserts a shot of a clock, a dull thud amidst the visual poetry that marks the time and date of the event, as Su will never forget when she allowed herself to be abused. Wong also frame his characters quite often behind bars of some kind, containing them as they trap themselves in their tangled web of desire and loathing. The entire film is a flashback, traversing different point of views and unfocused time duration, but the message is clear: with Days of Being Wild, Wong Kar-wai displayed a deep understanding of the cinema, that when all else is stripped away, we still have images, and thus we must derive our emotions, our very being, from them.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Anyone who knows my opinions concerning Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series might wonder why I bothered to see the second film in the four-part saga, perhaps even assuming that I went only to snipe the picture to rain on the fans' parade. That simply isn't true: first of all, this blog doesn't get enough traffic to offend a significant portion of any demographic. Second, I went because, if I expect to be a film critic when I graduate, I should prepare myself now to check out whatever movie ignites the zeitgeist, regardless of whether it interests me. Besides, New Moon is such a tedious bore that anyone who goes in relishing the opportunity to make catty comments and project an air of superiority will be too lulled to do anything.

New Moon picks up a few months after Twilight ended. It's Bella's 18th birthday, but she's so wound-up over her vampiric boyfriend's agelessness that she she openly fears her birthday as a sign of growing old. At 18. Edward assures her that her concerns border on the obsessive (it's all relative, remember; he stands at the foot of her bed at night) and that he'd love her even if she was old, because that's how much he loves her. She pauses. Her pause gives him pause. That night, Bella celebrates the birthday she doesn't want to celebrate with Edward's vampire family. She gets a paper cut from opening her card, and it bleeds like a minor stab wound, awakening the vampires' bloodlust. This reminds Edward what their relationship risks, so he breaks up with Bella and disappears.

This brief bit of plot setup takes long enough, but that's nothing compared to what's in store. Bella spends three months or so locked away from the world, wracked by inhuman grief. Chris Weitz took over the director's chair for Catherine Hardwicke, and he appears to have made the bold auteurial choice to make the passage of these three months feel as close to real-time as possible. Bella is not simply sad; she's devastated. She suffers screaming nightmares constantly, her shrieks rating somewhere between a child crying in a restaurant and "Crazy Frog" on the list of Things That Are Insufferably Annoying. Eventually, she discovers that adrenaline rushes fuel visions of Edward and, desperate to see even an apparition of the moody sparkler, she buys two rusted old motorbikes and takes them to her old friend Jacob (Taylor Lautner) to repair. Jacob tries his best to be there for the girl he loves: Bella hits her head on a rock, Jacob takes off his shirt.

Naturally, with Edward gone and Jacob standing in that "I never knew you were so handsome" light, Bella must decide between pale,sub-poetic stalker vampire Edward and kind, friendly werewolf Jacob (oh right, forgot to mention: Jacob is a werewolf). But Bella can't help herself: when presented with the nicer, more supportive and, frankly, better-looking Jacob, she can't stop thinking about Edward as his professions that seem to come less from Shakespeare and more from George Lucas. Not that her choice really matters: everyone involved in this love story is so repressed that I kept waiting for one to explode in a sticky blast of backed-up sexual effluent.

If it seems like I'm summarizing this film, know that I'm simply writing about the few things that actually happen. This movie is interminable: the pauses have pauses. It's like Antonioni by way of My Chemical Romance. In my review of Twilight I did my best to defend its stars against the material they had to speak, but I've run out of excuses: Pattinson, his part mercifully reduced, reads his few lines as if embarrassed by them (though who could blame him?). Stewart, so intriguing in Into the Wild and Adventureland, is dead-eyed and vacuous; Bella intrigues the vampire cult known as the Volturi (lead by Michael Sheen in an over-the-top performance that genuinely made me wince) because they cannot read her thoughts, but that's only because she's an empty cipher of a character, there to stand-in for its audience to project themselves into the story. However, Bella, fawned over by gorgeous men and scrutinized by elite vampires, doesn't so much represent the normal girl discovering her inner beauty but the popular girl with the body image issues. That's a perfectly valid person to study, but there's something unsettling about propping this type of character up as a role model when Bella sets herself up as a beacon of helplessness and incompetence . At the end, she stands between Jacob and Edward and begs Jake not to make her choose between them. Well, you have to, Bella. What are you supposed to be, a Morm-oh, right.

Only Lautner gives a decent performance, one rooted in some semblance of reality as the boy who can only ever be just a friend. Having put down the first book a hundred pages in out of anger, I never got to this aspect of the story, so I was surprised to see how much better in every way Jacob is to Edward. If that places me in "Team Jacob," so be it. I actually felt sorry for Lautner when his character had to turn into Meyer's idea of a werewolf, which is essentially nothing more than a large dog (I shouldn't have been surprised; look at her idea of a vampire).

Visually, New Moon bests its predecessor, as it dropped that sickening blue tint that Hardwicke inexplicably used for Twilight. Otherwise, however, nothing about Weitz's direction is particularly pleasing, and I feel like I only appreciated his aesthetically neutral touch when compared to Hardwicke's tinting an laughable camera movements. He does give us one good moment though, when Bella flies to Italy on Virgin Airlines. Weitz was given a script in which almost nothing happens, and he does nothing to pass the time, only tilting and panning his camera near the end in a vain and ill-fitting attempt to breathe some life into the film. New Moon follows a circuitous path, opening with a vision of what's to come in the climax, but by the time we get there it's impossible to care anymore; I'd been so lulled into delusion by that point that I worried for a moment that the whole thing would just start again, a never-ending spiral that led down to some level of hell Dante could not conceive. New Moon is simply one long, sleepy pause interspersed with the odd sexual fantasy. This isn't a film; it's an Ambien-induced hallucination.

In the end, though, I do not wish to project onto the fans, as many of the series' detractors have. I certainly don't agree with the characterizations, but I also don't think that any but perhaps a minuscule few would accept someone behaving like Edward in real life as romantic. This is merely a venue for young girls to vent all their obscene, shrieking excitement, which is just fine. Many seemed bored by the end of this seemingly endless film, but they'll be back, just as all of us men hated The Phantom Menace and still showed up for Attack of the Clones, which was even worse. To be honest, I find the Twilight phenom fascinating and revelatory: the rampant hysteria over the franchise and the degree to which women across a surprising age range connect to this admittedly questionable vampire lover opens up interesting dialogues concerning not just female under-representation at the cineplex but also a national feeling of sexual repression that should not be so casually dismissed by a bunch of chortling men who conveniently ignore the Star Trek and Star Wars conventions that endure to this day. Ignoring these feelings is what led to Twilight in the first place.

Aguirre: The Wrath of God

When people learn that I hope to become a film critic after I graduate college, they immediately ask me what my favorite film is. I'm not entirely sure why, as the sort of people who ask me this question -- typically adult family friends -- are the sort who invariably tell me that they only go to the cinema once a year, and four times out of five the last movie they saw involved Jesus in some capacity, though in a lot of those films he just kind of hangs out (har har, gallows humor). Yet it's a question I never fully know I have the answer to, because in my warped head I feel the need to differentiate between "favorite" and "best." For example, having only seen Rules of the Game and Persona twice apiece, I would not hesitate to list them as two of the 10 best films I've ever seen, yet combined I haven't watched them as many times as I sat down with Sin City over the course of a single, bizarre weekend. For me favorites aren't the films I've watched the most times but the ones I love so much that I save for occasions when I might watch them wholly without distractions, for I respect and revere them that much.

Occasionally, though, I find a middle ground between the two interpretations, films that I view as high art but can also watch with the same exuberance as I do a popcorn movie. As a budding auteurist, I typically find these films among the corpora of certain directors. Martin Scorsese, Billy Wilder, even -- to the extremely limited extent to which I've seen his work and my reservations about all his films I've watched -- Jean-Luc Godard come to mind. But, for me, no one makes high art as visceral and immediate as Werner Herzog. It doesn't matter that many of his movies are in another language and thus require more concentration, nor does their inherent loopiness and warped inner logic and coherence; his quest for the "ecstatic truth" is as exciting now as it was when he moved out of directing shorts for German television into making full-length fictive and documentary films 40 years ago.

The subject of today's review is Aguirre: The Wrath of God, his fourth narrative feature and, for many, his magnum opus. Herzog's unique and overpowering visual style can be most easily glimpsed in three scenes across his entire narrative filmography: the madcap but tragic finale of Stroszek, the image of the boat pulled manually up a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, and the breathtaking opening shot of Aguirre. As the electro-orchestral strains of Krautrock band Popol Vuh gently waft through the ears, Herzog starts with an establishing shot of a mountain, zooming in until we see a line of European conquistadors working their way down an indiscernible path that is so steep the ant-like procession appears to be walking down a sheer cliff wall. With any other director I might have assumed this some sort of camera effect or at least the product of a keen placement, but with Herzog I simply accept that these men, carrying with them their women in carriages on their backs, are truly there, truly made to scale such an impossible path.

They move down the mountain laden with goods and slaves, conquerors of the Incans now searching for El Dorado. The leader, Gonzalo Pizzaro, knows that he cannot continue to lead a thousand Spaniards and natives through the jungle, so he sends an expedition of 40 men to raft down the Amazon for a week and to return with news of what they find. Pizzaro places Don Pedro de Ursúa (Ruy Guerra) in charge, with Don Lope de Aguirre (Klaus Kinski) as his second-in-command.

Herzog immediately establishes these people as a doomed convoy, dragging cannons through the mud, bearing velvet-lined carriages containing the lavishly dressed Inez, Ursúa's mistress, and Aguirre's daughter Florés. These characters' clothes look as though Herzog looted the costume department of a local theater, yet he makes them more real than just about any period piece I've seen. When Akira Kurosawa started production on his masterpiece Seven Samurai, he instructed his actors to wear their costumes home, to break them in instead of simply showing up and putting on shiny gear that would expose the artifice. Herzog, either directly or simply through the ordeal of the agonizing shoot, employs a similar method: the conquistadors wear half-armor and the leaders are clad in the gaudy pomp of European nobility, yet the armor is tarnished with scrapes, buffs and dirt, the the bright shirts dulled by the gallons of sweat poured into them from the oppressive humidity of the jungle. Their hair is unkempt, their beards scraggly; these are real people losing themselves in the vast, unchanging terrain.

As it was in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the jungle of Aguirre is a primal force, a beautiful yet foreboding landscape that seemingly bears an ill will toward its invaders. One of the four rafts snags in an eddy. When the rest make their way back in the morning to rescue its occupants, they find nothing but corpses, yet the bodies contain no signs of a typical Indian attack. The rest of the rafts are lost when the river rises 15 feet in the night, taking with them the expedition's food supply. Like the ocean in Jaws, the jungle surrounds these men on all sides, unchanging and without haven. If the expedition does happen upon a village or a possible place of shelter, they shell it preemptively. The waters of the Amazon constantly rage, reflecting the broiling turmoil within.

Without forcing the metaphor, Herzog uses this oddball horror to comment upon the nature of imperialism. When Ursúa decides to return to the main camp, Aguirre stages a coup and presses those he does not kill on a whim further downriver. He writes a treasonous decree declaring the expedition's independence from the crown of Phillip II and sets up one of the men, Guzman, as a puppet emperor. In doing so, he effectively creates a new imperialist power -- he calls Guzman the "Emperor of El Dorado" -- even as he fashions the group into a sort of colony, complete with a leader installed to do the bidding of the imperial leaders. Ursúa, the de facto symbol of Spanish rule, is placed on a farce of a trial, but Guzman surprises his master by "pardoning" the convicted Pedro. However, Guzman proves to be as destructive a force as Aguirre, using his invented title to hoard any of the meat and fruit the conquistadors collect, feasting while the men count out their last kernels of corn. When a horse on the raft starts thrashing around, he orders it thrown overboard, and the men must watch as several hundred pounds of meat swim away from them.

Herzog's oeuvre directly concerns dreams and the line that separates them from reality, so it should surprise no one that Aguirre contains numerous oneiric scenes and imagery, yet Herzog simply inserts the impossible into the frame -- a wooden ship nestled in a tree like the ruinous product of European expansion and production reclaimed by nature, natives poking through the brush of the river banks peering at the raft, a man executed mid-sentence with such speed that his severed head can finish what it was saying -- and the effect is more jarring than if he used all sorts of camera techniques to leap between reality and fiction. The combination of Herzog's rich, saturated color palette and Popol Vuh's ethereal soundtrack only enhances the haunting and sinister nature of the jungle.

Of course, when discussing this film, all roads lead to Kinski. The director met Kinski as a young, struggling actor and was drawn to Kinski's explosive persona, but the two never collaborated until Herzog cast him as Aguirre. Forget for a moment that Kinski was genuinely unbalanced. Set aside what you might know of Aguirre 's troubled shoot and the nearly fatal tension between the director and star and look only at what's on-screen: no one, no one, could portray madness so convincingly: he lopes about the crew lolling his head like a wounded orangutan. Does Aguirre have a game leg, or is it just his method of psychological warfare? There is madness in his bright blue eyes, fueled by greed and religious insanity. When the mistress discusses Aguirre's growing instability to the priest, he solemnly dismisses her concerns, saying that "for the good of our Lord, the Church was always on the side of the strong." He knows that following Aguirre is folly, but he sees no other alternative. Besides, he looks forward to converting any natives, though when he explains that the Bible contains the word of God to one, he has the native killed when the poor man takes it literally and holds the book to his ear and remarks that he cannot hear anything.

In the film's warped climax, Aguirre stands alone on the circling raft, the other occupants slain by arrows from unseen assailants. At last driven into full insanity, he proclaims himself the "Wrath of God" and announces his intention to marry his dead daughter to create a pure blood line for his new dynasty. The jungle acknowledges the sick rule of this simian tyrant, showering him with tiny, chattering monkeys to serve as his subjects and knights. This ending, as with the rest of the film, is Herzog at his finest, making an epic out of peanuts, one every bit as affecting and grand in its own way as its clearest disciple: Apocalypse Now.