Wednesday, October 31, 2007

It's Halloween, and I'm Not Dead...

...I'm just haunting a different house than I usually do. The typically tireless Nathaniel is taking one of his seasonal siestas from his own blog, so I'm helping to pitch in during his absence. My particular task is to maintain his daily 20:07 feature, for which I have so far pulled images from The Descent, Children of Men, United 93, INLAND EMPIRE, and – in commemoration of StinkyLulu's recent 1940 Supporting Actress Smackdown, which you've hopefully already visited – Rebecca, The Uninvited, and The Grapes of Wrath.

More to come chez Nathaniel, and here at home, too. I can vouchsafe for now that late October has been something of a zombie brigade: movies that are mostly dead but not entirely so. Dan in Real Life hangs itself on an infantile story arc that somehow manages to feel abrupt even though there's nothing else going on for most of the other 98 minutes. At least the movie emanates a rare and engaging vibe of family bustle that nicely pulls against and whistles around the false beats of the story. Reservation Road kills off a child in its first ten minutes but has no better idea of how to recuperate from this crisis than do the parents of the kid in the story. A lot of middle-class agony and New England art direction ensue, and the ending is jaw-droppingly truncated, but that knotted-stomach feeling of committing a titanic error and knowing you won't (and shouldn't) get away with it is convincingly evoked—often enough to count for something, even if the movie's still not very good. Rendition can't decide who or what to be about, finally, and the large cast cycles listlessly in and out of a script that would feel dry and programmatic if it weren't so bizarrely oblique. The movie is not without interest, primarily due to its subject matter, but for some reason, director Gavin Hood (Tsotsi) has cast most of his actors and even some of his crew to play directly against their biggest strengths. This leaves Jake Gyllenhaal cramped and inexpressive, Meryl Streep embarrassingly vague and gormless, and redoubtable cinematographer Dion Beebe (Collateral, In the Cut) culpable for one of the year's most badly underlit movies. Sleuth is as bad as its box-office numbers, which are very, very bad. Director Kenneth Branagh treats the tacit banalities of Anthony Shaffer's play and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's sawdust-and-tinsel original film as though they were sleek subtexts just waiting to be jackhammered home. And I choose my metaphors deliberately. Determinedly diagonal in look without ever once achieving an "edge," the film marks the very definition of "pointless," except insofar as it confirms the overratedness of the play itself.

By far the nicest things I have to say are about Tony Kaye's Lake of Fire, a sprawling but evocative documentary about abortion in the United States that eschews deep historical contexts but still approaches the issue from a gratifying diversity of angles and positions; its strongest sequences, including the macabre aftermath of a second-trimester abortion and on-camera interviews with the future assassin of a doctor who performed abortions, rank among the year's most indelible moments. Speaking of indelible, Susanne Bier's Things We Lost in the Fire may not qualify on the whole, and if she doesn't stop shooting eyelashes and cheekbones in extreme close-up as arbitrary inserts, I'm going to perform a citizen's arrest. However, for all its basically conservative impulses, the movie bravely occupies some mysterious and illuminating emotional terrains of passive aggression, well-intended exploitation, and the appropriation of nearly defenseless people as prosthetic substitutes for dead lovers and friends. Holding this tricky emotional ecosystem together is Benicio Del Toro, in what looked to me like one of the year's very best performances. I've read that some critics think he's showboaty and unpersuasive, but I loved watching him hover away from rage, away from despair, away from sexual ardor, and away from loutishness—all of which the character as written seems to court. The actor locates himself instead within quieter, gentler, more paralyzed, and dare I say more subtle states of being. He's funny, tetchy, warm, uneasy, charismatic, non-judgmental, and nonetheless unreliable in some way that feels impolite to acknowledge. Male leads in "women's pictures" are a sadly neglected bunch, but Del Toro will make my year-end shortlist without breaking a sweat.

(Photos © 2006 StudioCanal/Asymmetrical Productions; © 2007 New Line Cinema/Anonymous Content; and © 2006 Anonymous Content/2007 ThinkFilm)

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Intermission: Elizabeth: Full Throttle

The Chicago Film Festival ended on Wednesday, but I still have six or seven more reviews from that festival in the pipeline. I've been trying to knock them out in the order I saw them, which means that the superb 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, bound for my year-end Top 10 list, should rightfully be next. But I'm going to allow this stinker to cut in the line, because it was easier to get it out of my system right after I saw it, and it makes for lighter Friday reading. Enjoy!

The CGI Spanish Armada sinks into the CGI water. That's how this thing ends, or nearly so. Some cuts imply that Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett), unwigged, and therefore more thoughtful and somehow True, observes her country's victory from some sort of castle window, but not long before she seemed to be leading a CGI army on the southern coast of England, and in between she's found a lot of time to stand on her big map of Europe with her palms outstretched and all the royal fans turned on High. So I'm not sure where she actually is. I suspect that Elizabeth does not watch the Armada sink from her castle window, but that she telepathically absorbs their defeat as an Inner Message, in the same way Mariah banged out the words to "Reflections (Care Enough)" at her piano while her boyfriend, across town, wrote the music for the same song in Glitter. Elizabeth is Mariah, and Clive Owen, against every Newtonian law of Stardom Conservation, is somehow Max Beesley, swinging along riggings and diving into the green sea. A horse swims over top of him. Chagall, y'all. The movie has a bit more twisting and turning to do before it actually ends, with Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, coddling a baby in her arms and fading into the glaring whiteness of failed irony. Then she stands on her map again and turns all the fans back on, but this time she fades to black. Some captions prove informative. I didn't write them down, because bringing along a notebook to Elizabeth: The Golden Age would be like bringing along a tape recorder to interview your dog. So, I can only paraphrase: The defeat of the Spanish Armada went down as one of the worst humiliations in Spanish naval history. Seems awfully qualified to me, in the manner of "the fall of the Bastille was one of the largest-scale destructions of a Parisian prison in French history." But there you go. Also: England, under Elizabeth's reign, entered a time of peace and prosperity. Which sounds an awful lot like...a golden age. Tristram Shandy-like, the movie ends just when it's caught itself up to its promised beginning, so perhaps, like Sterne's novel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is a crafty metaphysical and rhetorical masterpiece, and its surface appearance as a jewel-toned, bovine, blender-edited, overdressed nightmare of a Wigstock festival is but a clever disguise.

But no, I'm pretty sure that the movie is ridiculous, and that among its endless list of wrong choices and confused agendas, it simply adopted the wrong title. There's a lot of that going around, but let's be generous. Let's close our eyes, think of England, and even though we wouldn't know the first thing about directing or producing or picking the proper lens, and even though we weren't around to feed the composer his Ritalin or to remind Abbie Cornish that she isn't playing a stoner in this movie, let's help where we can and endow Elizabeth: The Golden Age with the title it deserves. I have several suggestions. Click here to read the rest...

Photo © 2007 Universal Pictures/Working Title Films

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Montgomery Clift Blog-a-Thon: The Search

I'm a few hours late, but Montgomery Clift has waited 87 years for this blog-a-thon, 41 of them posthumously, so I'm guessing three hours in Central Standard Time aren't going to make him roll over in his grave. Plus, Nathaniel's parties tend to run late into the evening. Trust me, I know. And, I have an excellent excuse for being otherwise occupied, but more on that tomorrow. Best of all, I only have nice things to say about Monty in his first released movie, The Search, which I finally screened this morning after many years of anticipation. I think it's a high point for Monty and even more so for its director, Fred Zinnemann, and if you surf through the comments on her own phenomenal post, you'll find that Self-Styled Siren agrees with me, and who could want better validation than that?

Here, then, is my full review of The Search, and here is the rest of the blog-a-thon. Read them, love them, and rent more Monty! (I have seen 8 of his 17 movies, and these write-ups make me want to see more, especially The Misfits, which I own on DVD but have never watched, Indiscretion of an American Wife and Wild River, which I have on tape from TCM somewhere around here, and Freud, which is apparently harder to find than a good therapist whom your HMO will actually cover.)

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Chicago Film Festival: Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton is the fall season's most interesting and rewarding contradiction. Overplotted, and guilty of repeating the same backward-looping structure that writer-director Tony Gilroy just pulled off with greater ingenuity in The Bourne Ultimatum, but nonetheless commanding in its shape and refreshingly alert to how a real person usually experiences one crisis within a web of other crises: professional, ethical, domestic, and introspective. Inconsistently acted, but never poorly acted, and graced with several distilled examples of truly inspired performance. Handsome in look and pristine in texture, even if the movie's elegant sheen affiliates it with the high-gloss corporate aesthetic that the rest of the film seems designed to interrogate, even to criminalize. Thematically diffuse, especially when we're asked to take such a debonair star as an emblem of modern disillusionment, and even more so when the broad diseases of a culture get repackaged at the conclusion into a duel between two paragons of Honesty and Deceit. Paradoxes abound all over Michael Clayton and impress themselves on every level of my response to it. And yet, say whatever else you will, such pervasive, inchoate dispersal of such mutually permeating anxieties has rarely been evoked so tautly at the center of a post-9/11 Hollywood movie, and the multiplex needs more movies where life, work, morality, and debt comprise the constellation of adult experience, unimpinged upon by concessions to youth audiences and unameliorated by any whiff of romance. Enigmas and imbalances of power persist. Sex remains the furthest thing from the movie's mind. Time-honored structures of narrative wobble, even if the wobbling betrays no truly radical inclinations. Even the audience-friendly finale affords plenty of room for the putative victor to sink back into doubt and impotence and for the villain, or the offstage cadre of villains, to sprout new hydra-heads and think of new survival tricks. Credit watchers, we few and proud, are rewarded by this movie, which isn't over until the final blackout cut, when the hero's name, spookily rendered in the serifed idiom of the corporate business card, doesn't grace or complement Michael's image but actually snuffs it out. Click here to read the rest...

Photo © 2007 Section Eight/Warner Bros. Pictures

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Friday, October 12, 2007


For those of you following along at home, that's Thank God It's Friday and also Thank God It's the Chicago Film Festival, where the hits keep on coming. I'm still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for all of these screenings, even when I've crammed five into a single day, and my schedule has mostly stayed consistent with my initial plans. The print for the tantalizing Dreams of Dust unfortunately never arrived, and life intervened to prohibit my attendance at Opium and Chicago 10 on Wednesday night, and to postpone my rendezvous with The Man from London from Thursday afternoon to Sunday night. I'll also have to bag my plans for The Banishment and One Hundred Nails next Tuesday for a work obligation—one of the very few disadvantages to hitting such a major film festival in one's own hometown, all of which are significantly outweighed by the advantages of sleeping in my own bed, eating my own food, and knowing all the quickest routes between the theaters.

The Festival staff compensated for the Dreams of Dust cancellation with a substitute ticket for the gay British thriller Surveillance on Tuesday night, so that will be my last screening appointment until the big Savages finale on Wednesday. Further and greater compensations have been furnished by the films I have actually seen, both within the Festival program and among the concurrent multiplex releases that I have squeezed in between commitments. I hope you've enjoyed the reviews so far, and I promise to keep turning them out, for Michael Clayton and Yella, two suspenseful dramas from the world of work, with more similarities than they superficially admit; for 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, the Romanian Palme d'Or winner that's every bit as galvanizing as you've already read elsewhere; for Taxi to the Dark Side, one of the year's most urgent and best-assembled documentaries; for Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress, one of the program's few outright misfires, and not as interesting a misfire as one might rightfully expect from Breillat; for the engagingly sweet if undeniably thin Lars and the Real Girl; and for James Gray's We Own the Night, a Sony/Columbia release that mostly got drubbed at last spring's Cannes Film Festival. The short report, timed for its debut in wide release today, is that I loved We Own the Night, with its crystal-clear and classical form, its superb sound design, and its canny positioning of all the scenes you saw in the trailer into stages of the narrative where you won't expect them. Go out and catch it—give the movie that opening-weekend boost that it needs—and check back here in the next few days for a fuller tribute.

(And for all you dear souls who wrote earlier this week with birthday wishes—God bless you every one! Personal replies forthcoming when this delicious madness subsides...)

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Chicago Film Festival: Stuck

Stuart Gordon's Stuck trumps even The Darjeeling Limited as the most prophetic title of the movie year so far, initially strutting around with a real, punchy amorality before bogging itself down into stalled, repetitive dramaturgy. The movie increasingly assumes the stance of a transfixed but inarticulate bystander to its own premise, rather than using that premise as an aperture into revelation of character, accumulation of suspense, or persuasive ethical reflection. The opening sequence, a long steadicam shot through a garishly lit nursing home, throbs with the first of several interpolated hip-hop tracks by DJ Honda—titled, naturally, "Get on Your Job"—thus tipping viewers off that even though Stuck was financed and filmed in Canada, this ain't Away from Her. This sequence soon finds American Beauty's Mena Suvari sporting dark cornrows and toting a tray of sick-looking jello as she smilingly administers to her patients. Despite her kind demeanor, the film obviously has darker thoughts in mind, and if the coiled rap and skulking camera weren't enough to signal a storm warning, even the quaaluded viewer will take note of the literally explosive title credit and the dispatch with which Suvari's nurse Brandi finds herself wiping up the nastiest pool of #2 incontinence in recent screen memory.

Nasty shit and the raw shock of having to clean it up is what Stuck is all about, and though subtlety of simile is never where director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator) or screenwriter John Strysik set up shop, the movie barrels and bristles along through its first half-hour. Like the blazing first acts in one of Samuel Fuller's underbelly thrillers, like The Naked Kiss or Shock Corridor, Stuck draws potent energy and giddy overstatement from Suvari's germy and menial duties, from the scene where her smiling-piranha boss dangles a promotion in front of her to secure her "volunteering" for weekend labor, from the Ecstasy pills and alcohol that soon permeate the movie's system as well as her own, even from the low-fi cinematography with its steamy streets and tight orientation around faces and moving bodies. Meanwhile, the parallel montage patently forecasts a fateful encounter between, on the one hand, Brandi and her drug-dealing boyfriend Rashid (Russell Hornsby) and, on the other, middle-aged Tom (Stephen Rea), whose tense eviction from his apartment is itself interrupted by a violent, offscreen squabble upstairs, allowing him to abscond with a heap of his white-collar clothes before heading out into the nightscape of Providence, Rhode Island (actually Saint John, New Brunswick). In their last hours of leading separate lives, Tom and Brandi both narrowly avoid hitting or being hit by other cars on the road, which might read as an early symptom of Stuck's simplistic propensities if the movie weren't, at that point, absolutely thriving on the certain foreknowledge of its crisis and on a poetics of pure impact rather than an ethics of depth or an aesthetic of cleverness. The same principle redeems the episode where Tom, sadly ensconcing himself on a park bench for the evening, is approached by Sam (Lionel Mark Smith), a veteran and apparition of the foggy streets who rolls his clanking shopping cart in silhouette like the Ghost of Christmas Past. Smith's own powers of prediction ("I'll be seeing you again...") cannot be doubted, because Stuck has already shown itself to be the kind of movie where mystical street prophecies will be ratified by life, though the timing and nature of how Sam's vision comes true seems titillatingly up for grabs.

We don't have to wait long to find out. When Brandi, addled by narcotics and distracted by her cell phone, plows right into Tom as he crosses a seemingly empty street, the movie palpably clicks into place as the movie it wants to be, like a loaded barrel being snapped back into a gun. Soon enough, while two policemen who lack any peripheral vision whatsoever book old Sam for vagrancy, he espies Brandi's car careening through the streets with Tom's abdomen and legs still protruding from her windshield onto her front hood. The associated thrill for the audience is structural as well as visual: having already played the imminent card of a second exchange between Tom and Sam (albeit a one-sided one), the narrative horizon stands totally open. As one of Stuck's characters will shortly espouse, "Anybody can do anything to anyone at any time," and though he intends a moral as well as a practical pronouncement about The Way We Live Now, he also gives voice to the machinery of the script. Who will survive this grotesque incident? Who will intercede as savior, witness, accomplice, or undertaker? When, if at all, will Tom regain consciousness? When, if at all, will Brandi's Darwinian impulses to save herself and to doom her desecrated victim be countermanded by a higher moral calling? And why are the choreography of the accident itself and the relative proportion of Tom's headfirst penetration into the cab of Brandi's car so sloppily shot and carelessly edited? Click here to read the rest, including spoilers and reflections on a Q&A with the filmmakers...

Photo © 2007 Rigel Entertainment/Amicus Entertainment

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Chicago Film Festival: Hallam Foe

David Mackenzie is back to some of his Young Adam tricks in Hallam Foe, and once again, the most riddlesome tricks of all are a) how he gets the movie to spring as excitingly as it does from a sketchy story with significant limitations, and b) why the movie fails to work a little better despite all the evident and encouraging talent involved. Hallam Foe orbits around the twin suns of Collision and Surveillance, as encapsulated in the opening sequence that starts with the title character (Jamie Bell) squatting in his treehouse to spy on his sister, who at that moment is taking an amorous roll in the glade with her boyfriend. After streaking himself up with some "barbarous" makeup and a makeshift headdress made of a badger hide, Hallam war-whoops his way down a pulley-and-cord contraption and crashes right into the humiliated lovers. The whole sequence, improbable in incident and choreography, serves primarily to acquaint us with Hallam Foe's bold and peculiar experiments in exaggerated reality. As befits a film about an incorrigible peeping tom, Hallam Foe is full of point-of-view shots and furtive, handheld pokes around corners and to the sides of various barriers. Just as markedly, however, but with much more distinctive formal panache, Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens (The Deep End) perpetually shuttle Hallam in and out of strong but strikingly different lighting schemes, soundscapes, and color patterns. Though these contrasts and effects occasionally spill into overstatement—trains that sound like entire artillery brigades, saturated colors and overexposed light to signal big emotional climaxes—Hallam Foe cannot be accused of concealing its investment in the dramatic heightening of sensation, the privileging of psychic logic and hormonal pulls over safer and more quotidian forms of "realistic" storytelling. Indeed, the film's evocation of Hallam's jumpy and inchoate overstimulation is its sustaining badge of craftsmanship and creative vivacity. Click here to read the rest...

Photo © 2007 Scottish Screen/Ingenious Film Partners

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Monday, October 08, 2007

Chicago Film Festival: Scream of the Ants

I purchased a ticket to Scream of the Ants based solely on my affinity for Mohsen Makhmalbaf's past work, which has a nasty habit of receiving no commercial distribution in the United States despite the relative box-office potency of his Gabbeh and Kandahar and the critical adoration of those films and several others. Which is to say, I lacked any notion of Scream's theme or plotline and could not possibly have forecast the poetic, festival-style justice of wandering in the space of a single morning from Wes Anderson's Kool-aid vision of India to Makhmalbaf's assiduously bleak travelogue of subcontinental misery and his fulminating screed against the venal idealisms and disavowals that so often typify a foreigner's passage to India. As an Indian journalist advises a betrothed Iranian couple aboard an Indian train, "Most foreigners who come to India are stupid. They come chasing all the wrong things." Not coincidentally, this pronouncement follows the woman's admission that she and her fiancé have come in pursuit of a "Complete Man" or "Perfect Man" reputed by an acquaintance of theirs to "do great things in people's lives." This is a harebrained, romantically superficial agenda to rival Owen Wilson's—though Makhmalbaf, already savvy enough to set the West aside and show how one south Asian culture trivializes another, is also attuned to how India exploits and mystifies its own. Not only is the journalist riding the train to investigate a rumor about an old sage who can "stop trains with his eyes," and thus to earn a living by perpetuating the very kind of hooey he pretends to ridicule, but he kills time aboard the train espousing his own strain of unqualified utopianism ("Life is a miracle – everything is a miracle!") that is ubiquitously undermined by the status quo of a country where 99% of a billion citizens live below the global standard of poverty. In a brilliant and wickedly funny masterstroke, when the train finally haps upon the celebrated Baba sitting cross-legged on the rails, he privately confides to the Iranian couple that he sat on the tracks one day in hopes of ending his misery, but the train conductors all persist in slamming on their brakes—and now, the adulating crowds of pilgrims who have gathered around and behind him refuse to release him or to desist from holding him up as a spiritual icon.

This 20-minute opening of Makhmalbaf's movie is rendered with the political friskiness and absurdist humor for which Iranian films, much less Iran itself, is seldom given credit, largely because Western festivals and distributors decreed the flowering of Iranian cinema based on the evidence of children's stories like Children of Heaven and somber meditations like Taste of Cherry. The Makhmalbaf of A Moment of Innocence or Gabbeh, and even more certainly his Iranian contemporaries like Kamal Tabrizi and Massoud Dehnamaki, would have spun a teasing but illuminating feature out of this comic entrapment and the serious currents of ignorance, projection, and desperation that give rise to it. The Baba himself, with his weather-beaten body and his doubly-elbowed arm—a souvenir, no doubt, of a long-ago compound fracture—is a transfixing character who may or may not be "in" on the joke of which his fate is the center. Therefore, it's with considerable regret that we watch Makhmalbaf and his characters abandon this anecdote for a shape-shifting movie that never finds any comparably fertile or crystallized point of focus, however much justifiable anger and philosophical ambivalence Makhmalbaf allows himself to vent through the ensuing hour of arguments, monologues, vérité photography, and narrative cul-de-sacs. The husband, a former Communist long disabused of any form of hope or belief in his fellow man, reveals himself to be a colossal narcissist and a chauvinist of epic proportions—not least when he hires a prostitute for an entire night to get down on all fours and serve as a table on which to set his teacup. The wife, comparatively sympathetic but worryingly recessive, hungers for the kind of fulfillment this lover will never give her and hangs more desperately on the dream of finding a Complete Man whom she doesn't even recognize when she finds him.

Scream of the Ants grows nearly intolerable as the two trade bitter barbs over the course of a long night, so much so that we excuse the totally incongruous edit that finds them reunited for a taxi-ride into the desert. In an even more marked demonstration of the narrative listlessness that afflicted his script for his daughter Samira's most recent film, At Five in the Afternoon, Scream of the Ants lacks anything like the muscular, compressed montage that typified earlier Makhmalbaf projects. He resorts to fixing the camera on scenes and objects which are themselves prodigious or harrowing or beautiful rather than making them so through framing and metaphor, as he did so indelibly with the floating prostheses of Kandahar or the titular character of The Cyclist. Scream of the Ants, whose title refers to the unheard protests of people in a godless world, lapses inexcusably into talking-head aesthetics, with various characters spouting different strains of Makhmalbaf's own frustrated and contradictory world-critiques... but then, just as the picture precipitously lost its footing after the first act, it recovers its visual potency, at the very least, in an extended finale along the shores of the Ganges: filled with bathers, bobbing with corpses, strewn with blossoms, lapping against the concrete banks where even the wealthiest of the deceased are burned by their families for want of a proper gravesite. Again, the strange and bitter world yields itself up to Makhmalbaf's camera without his necessarily intervening or shaping our impressions at the level of his most rigorous artistry. And yet, these moments of mysterious and discomfiting realism make Scream of the Ants an urgent record of a denied world (and not an emblem of that very denial, like The Darjeeling Limited is, for all its cosmetic wonders). In its visual austerity, its withering speeches, its unusual tolerance for nudity and verbal vulgarity, and even in its aesthetic self-sabotage, Scream of the Ants maps a Godardian arc from artistic wit and sophistication into dogmatic ideology and ascetic self-loathing, directed if not against the director himself than at least against his medium and against his world. Whether this breakdown is ameliorated or extended by the riverside coda is up to each viewer to decide, just as the question remains open as to whether Makhmalbaf has really made a movie here or else just crudely illustrated an Op/Ed that's been thundering inside his head.

Commercial distributors will sprint in the opposite direction from a picture like this (check out the Variety review!), so I'm doubly grateful to the film festival. For better or worse, this side of Makhmalbaf is exhilarating at its best but still feels essential at its petulant and shapeless worst (embodied, for me, in a long speech by a German tourist who's repeating what a million college-campus T-shirts have contended for years). I wanted to scream several times during Scream of the Ants, sometimes for no better reason than the film's laziness and hectoring tone, but just as often for the same reasons that have pushed Makhmalbaf to this edge of his own outrage. C+

Photo © 2006 Makhmalbaf Film House/Wild Bunch

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Chicago Film Festival: The Aerial

If Guy Maddin and Leo McCarey got together to remake Brazil, their efforts might yield something like Esteban Sapir's The Aerial, a jaunty errand into silent-era surrealism and anti-corporate allegory that should, by all rights, be too obvious in its points and too crammed with fancies to generate the level of charm and light-touch magic that it does. In The Aerial's universe—billed as "Once upon a time..." but inclined, too, toward the present and the prescient—a monolithic and mobster-defended television station has already committed a whole host of crimes against humanity: its leaders have literally revoked the voices of the world's citizens; they have eliminated rival media outlets; and they have saturated the grocery market with boxes of "TV Foods," basically sugar cookies topped with a lulling spiral of white frosting. Only one woman in the film's unnamed city has retained her own voice and the right to its exercise, but at the heavy prices of hooding her face, parading her body in sultry nightclub performances, and indenturing herself to the tyrannical and devil-tailed mastermind Mr. TV. This woman, simply named Voice, has a child, a boy born without eyes whose own vocal capacity is a desperately kept secret. Soon, the fate of this pair intertwines with that of an inventor, his young daughter, and his grandfather, who live and work in a TV repair shop. When the girl arrives to visit her blowzy, cigarette-smoking mother, she befriends the sightless son of Voice. When Voice herself is abducted by Mr. TV and his henchmen—on the way to an even grander, and weirder, scheme of world domination—the two children as well as the girl's reunited mom and pop trek into the snow-swept mountains to rehabilitate an old transmitter and basically culture-jam the villains to death and the slumbering, wordless population to life.

As you will already glean, the political line of The Aerial does not distinguish itself in nuance or depth, and Sapir is much softer on the question of whether silence is coerced or whether it is passively and hegemonically accepted. The almost-ending of the movie, which suspends and challenges the power dynamics and the prevailing apportionments of Good and Bad, would have offered a richer, more provocative conclusion than the one we actually get, however much The Aerial admits of its fairy-tale contours. Sapir also indulges in some appropriations of several sign systems—Communist, Nazi, Judaic, marital, domestic—that he cheekily but indubitably simplifies in pursuit of his homiletic agendas. But all of that said, The Aerial is patently an exercise in formal and stylistic brio, and in breathing witty, creative life into hard-leftist axioms. On these scores, the movie is a robust success. The antique, tungsten quality of the flickering light and the evocative, efficient editing achieve a splendid mixture of beauty and economy. The soundtrack is bright and unimpeachable—not just the warm, funny, inspired musical score but the ingenious instrumentation that also supplies all of the film's foley effects, including footsteps and gunshots. Sapir also has great fun throughout with the placement, phrasing, and materiality of his intertitles; characters are frequently spotted waving or shoving the text out of their way, or having the summary terms of entire emotional states scrawled right over their heads.

Best of all, the gusto with which Sapir reprises so many silent-era tropes while also flexing them for new expressive potentials rhymes perfectly with The Aerial's polemical support of creativity over convention, of under-exploited powers over institutionally regulated genres and boilerplates. Even as the movie assumes discordantly conservative notions of redemption through sentimentalized childhood and of the two-parent nuclear family as ethical building-block, the geometries and overlays and eccentricities of the film stoke the very imagination which Sapir's politics almost suppress. Compared to Maddin's frequently arch and esoteric approaches to the tropes of early cinema, Sapir shows a Pixar-ish loyalty to clear, clever, and spirited storytelling, over and above arcana and idiosyncracy for their own sakes. Thinner and less adventurous than first impressions imply, but a feast for the ear and the eye from start to finish. B

Photo © 2007 LadobleA

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Chicago Film Festival, Intermission: The Darjeeling Limited

I've had a few second thoughts about yesterday and have wondered if I ought to bump Control up to a B since the early sequences were so strong and the handling of the song score and concert performances so fresh and adept...but then I'm suspicious that I'm just enthusiastic about the music itself, which has caught in my brain all day, and which doesn't a movie make. Possible that I'll inflate the grade later, but not for now.

Meanwhile, speaking of music fans, the most courageous moves Wes Anderson makes in The Darjeeling Limited are to thwart his usual propensity toward wall-to-wall song scores and to throw the word Limited into the title of his film. Movie, know thyself! Anderson's last outing aboard The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou encompassed bigger formal and tonal experiments than this one does, but unfortunately, some of his big stretches—the eruption of brutal violence, the shrill and fluty performance by repertory outsider Cate Blanchett—hindered that film more than they helped. The Darjeeling Limited, like The Life Aquatic, makes another leap in physical setting but neither aspires to nor achieves any real breakthroughs for Anderson's intensely specific and frustratingly dehumanizing style.

Nothing works in the plotline about three brothers half-attempting to solidify their fraternal bonds during a voyage to India, and worse than that, nothing seems designed to work. Anderson, his actors, and his two co-writers (including co-lead Jason Schwartzman) seem passingly aware of the arrogant, colonizing narcissism of the plotline, and both the foibles of the brothers and the pop exaggerations of plot, color, and camerawork invite us to make fun of the enterprise even as the movie undeniably invests itself in the brothers' compulsory neuroses and half-sketched backstories about a dead dad and a fugitive mom. "B) I want us to make this trip a spiritual journey and to seek the unknown and to learn from it," Owen Wilson itinerizes in his self-appointed capacity as docent and chaperone, and while the movie unmistakably underlines his naïve officiousness, Anderson is just as programmatic and just as annoyingly semi-serious about wanting the Brothers Whitman to grow toward each other and toward themselves through an astonishingly arrogant series of quasi-adventures: a railway fling with a cabin stewardess, an unforeseen involvement in the death of an Indian child, an unannounced arrival at the convent their mother now calls home, etc. As usual, Anderson takes on bigger character arcs and denser pre-histories than his flattening style and steady narrative clip are prepared or inclined to make good on. By extension, his actors become mannequins for banal forms of melancholy (mirthful as well as rueful) that are meant to compensate for but finally just advertise the thinness of their roles and, save for the best stretches of Royal Tenenbaums, the immunity to richer emotion that appear more and more inveterate to Anderson's filmmaking style. "You wanna read a short story I wrote in France?" Jason Schwartzman's character asks his brothers over lunch, beneath and within which you can hear Anderson asking his audience, "You wanna see a movie I started rough-drafting when I was in India?"

The real shame here is that The Darjeeling Limited could have suited and also challenged Anderson's formal and affective idioms so much better, and indeed shows the potential of doing so through the first 20 or 30 minutes. As always, the fine-tuned and filigreed sets and the textured, rectilinear, fluorescent production design are ocular pleasures, but the natty uniforms and delicious wallpapers aboard the Darjeeling Limited train—self-conscious as they already are—also implicitly connote the fetishistic cocoon of comfort and pleasure in which the Whitman boys encase themselves while they only pretend to intersect with a far-removed and, as we know, a greatly suffering culture. Imagine, then, what might have happened, visually and cinematographically, when the Whitmans jettisoned this dollhouse perimeter of Colorforms fantasy and Louis Vuitton comfort and tried to maintain this lacquered, perpendicular worldview among the chaos, the multiplicities, the energies, the shortages and surfeits of India. Anderson had a double-barreled metaphor here in his holster (and designed to a tee by Mark Friedberg) but he never realizes or utilizes it: the film is so lost in its own inflexible style that the Indians' emotions and domestic lives remain totally elided, even when the brothers accept an invitation to a local funeral. Indeed, the film seizes the moment to flashback to the day of their own father's death, rather than let India, any India, even this Playmobile India, actually weave its way into their minds or hearts. Neither the feel nor the look of the film evolve in any impressive way after the three man-children debark their train, and their own peccadilloes and reciprocal resentments stay pretty steady until the hour arrives for their pat quasi-resolutions.

In another promising but missed opportunity for a breakthrough, Anjelica Huston, sprung from that coldly pinched mode of acting to which Royal Tenenbaums and The Life Aquatic both bound her, shows up in the last ten minutes of Darjeeling Limited. Here, she's rocking a short, cropped, and very gray hairstyle, and she accuses her director, I think, and not just her pretend-sons, of looking right past her own reality and repeatedly perceiving a thin idealization where she, a real and complicated woman, is standing. Huston's voice, manner, and message during her short appearance all force the film to a new level of self-scrutiny, and it's perfectly symptomatic that, faced with such a steeled, charismatic personality with her own point of view, The Darjeeling Limited can't do anything but hustle to a close. The evidence of talent persists in Anderson's work, but the prognosis of terminal solipsism and emotional dilettantism draws ever fuller support. C–

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Chicago Film Festival: Men in the Nude

Number of nude men in Men in the Nude: Zero. Aside from some glimpses of backside and some female bosoms, the title of Károly Esztergályos' movie doesn't denote anything except some marketer's cynical attempt to hustle an audience looking for a thrill. Clearly, I was such an audience, but since I don't care about the baseball playoffs or the new fall season on TV, you can't be too hard on me. Plus, as Nathaniel has often observed, it's a fairly open secret that a gay moviegoer implicitly obligates himself (or, despite a perpetually malnourished market, herself) to see a steady stream of coming-out comedies and somber closet dramas that have big dreams of mediocrity, and next to no aspirations toward actual, enduring value.

Men in the Nude—about a middle-aged Hungarian novelist (Lászlo Gálffi) who surprises himself by taking home a young, blond, rabbit-faced hustler (Dávid Szabó) while the writer's wife (Éva Kerekes) is off performing a play in the provinces—treads a lot of safe, unilluminating water for its first hour. Chest-kissing, opera, poppers, petty crime, early-dawn homecomings, briberies, saucy wives, the heedlessness of youth, the laments of encroaching age. I will say that Esztergályos offers the first image I've ever seen of a character reading aloud from great hardcover literature (Death in Venice, as if you didn't assume) while simultaneously being fellated (and in the very same shot!). Had the movie hewed to the path of well-worn inanity and yielded another tacky-sexy chuckle or two like this one, Men in the Nude could have relied on its notoriously generous niche-market constituency for a passing grade: our version of the Gentleman's C. There but for the (dis)grace of compulsive jump cuts, truncated subplots, and what-were-they-thinking allusions to the film's own emptiness goes Esztergályos. "Wife comes home early—it's a banal story," the writer confides to his Mrs. and to the audience, with faster and fuller assent from the latter, and that's even before a stilted penultimate sequence in a police interrogation room or a desperately "surreal" finale that conjoins far-scattered spaces and swells the volume of the soundtrack for no reason but the most pitifully failed echoes of Lynchian unmooring or exquisite Beau travail-style crystallization. If the Men were emotionally or psychologically denuded, to whatever qualified degree, Esztergályos would have at least some reason to have made this movie, much less to have chosen this moniker. But even by the standards of visually undistinguished wait-for-the-DVD fare, this one's fully missable. D+

Photo © 2006 Centrál Filmstúdió

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Chicago Film Festival: Control

The first half-hour of Anton Corbijn's Control parades so many smart, savvy strategies for avoiding the typical music-bio pablum that it's particularly dispiriting when the middle and end of the film so dully and incorrigibly embrace those very clichés. So, let's emphasize the beginning, since the filmmakers conjure so much good will in those early sections that even the increasingly arbitrary sound-image matches, the literalized use of songs to embody narrative action, and the late-breaking bouts of prosaic and redundant narration can't entirely snuff the film's appeal. Control at least admits from the outset, by filling the screen with closed doors and massive, unforgiving edifices, that visual and psychological penetration will always run into impassable barriers. I think that's why the sketchbook quality of the screenplay and the scrappy but eloquent black-and-white photography work so well; like Christopher Munch's The Hours and Times, though with more expansive narrative parameters, Control riffs on and hints at the lived experience of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of the British-invasion band Joy Division, instead of reaching for an exhaustive Seven Ages of Man biography.

Retreating into silence before blasting back to life with a Sex Pistols concert, a deliciously foul-mouthed improv poet, or a line from a favorite album sung at top volume into a mirror, the sound design of Control's first act doesn't just walk us through a portmanteau of fantastic songs but actually reacquaints us with the forceful, sensual, dare one say "primal" appeals of sound itself—even as writer-director Corbijn, a personal acquaintance of his subject, evokes Curtis in a charming, unhistrionic way as a Portrait of the Punk Rocker as a Young Low-Level Bureaucrat. Despite the prevailing ethos of punk, Curtis isn't fulminating against the System, and the film avoids pitting him falsely against some staid status quo. With his jerky, aw-shucks gestures in concert, Ian Curtis could be playing Curly in a community-theater Oklahoma!, but then he goes ramrod straight to wail out lyrics like "dance to the radio" as though the fate of the world (or of his, at least) depended on it, Ian constitutes his own graph of contradictions and mysterious affinities, and the film prefers to spark our own guesswork than to flip straight to any specious answer keys. Did Ian "get" that he was punk? When and how, and why, did he learn to sing like this? What did his band members think of his style, his lyrics, his dalliances? Entire sequences depend, and thrive, on the thrills of deferred and enigmatic revelation, as when Ian strides down his monochrome street beneath a potent Joy Division score (a sufficient shot in itself), turning to reveal that the word "HATE" has been graffiti'd on the back of his black leather jacket, and arriving at the front door not of a club or a rehearsal space but the Employment Exchange—where, unlike any rock star in any biopic in history, he handles his paper-pushing job rather well, and with seeming equanimity. Control doesn't need Ian to emit any rebel yells or to posit him at the center of any nostalgic iconography. The characterization, like the bulk of the songs, is scrupulously trimmed to an evocative hint, instead of a full-blown effigy.

But then, "effigy" and also "blow" pretty well describe the second half of the film, where Curtis' artistic and psychological legacy is reduced to one of inconsolable self-stranding between the claims of a wife (Samantha Morton, charismatic but under-challenged) and the arms of a mistress (Downfall's Alexandra Maria Lara, a frustrating blank of Paris Hilton proportions). Plus, Ian's medications threaten him as much as the maladies for which he takes them. And he sings "Isolation" in the plexiglas isolation of a recording booth, and "Love Will Tear Us Apart" plays while love, or something like it, sort of tears Curtis' marriage apart without, somehow, sparing us any of the customary sequences of matrimonial suspicion, confrontation, and tentative reunion. Resorting to ever more desperate strategies for getting inside Ian Curtis' head—a hypnotherapy session, a banal letter recited at length, visual and sonic reprises of earlier shots and snippets—Control becomes the very film that an ill-informed, speculating outsider would have made about Curtis after watching lots of Rays and Walk the Lines, and hardly the work of a promising stylist or a genuine technician, much less an actual confidante. Even the most abstract images, as of rope spinning through a pulley, assume strict, thudding roles within the overt logic of the narrative, and after several connotative deaths and a thousand spotlighted shots of Ian's flouted wedding band, the gig finally winds itself up. B–

Photo © 2007 Becker Films/The Weinstein Company

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Chicago Film Festival, Appetizer Course: Lust, Caution

Ang Lee's Lust, Caution is not technically part of the Chicago Film Festival; it just happens that the film opened commercially in Chicago on the first full day of the festival, so a funny thing happened on the way to the evening screenings and I snuck in a Lust, Caution showing on my way downtown from work. Frankly, I haven't been all that enthusiastic about this one, since I'm almost always lukewarm about Lee's decorous direction and his almost self-consciously tangential relationships to the stories and genres he tackles from film to film. One of the distinguishing marks of Lust, Caution, though, is that it turns so many of its potential vices and pitfalls into virtues. For instance, Lee's muted, middlebrow personality as a director winds up suiting the many, teasing layers of guile, secrecy, and cool impersonation in the film. The tired cliché of the actress with a knack for deception, self- and otherwise, takes organic and plausible shape within the script rather than sliding off the wire-rack of old storytelling truisms. Hollywood's millionth quantum leap back into World War II keeps uniforms, phalanxes, and battlefields almost entirely off-screen in favor of an unusually subtle look at the sociology of foreign occupation and the psychology of resistance. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who softened the edges of his typical style for Lee's Brokeback Mountain, reprises that film's formal elegance but finds welcome opportunities for the restive verve and eye-popping color he brought to Spike Lee's 25th Hour. Tony Leung Chiu Wai, whose rueful suavity was becoming overfamiliar, uncorks a blistering, barely contained nastiness that Richard Widmark would have admired, but even he is outshone by newcomer Tang Wei in the starring role. Tang has to age persuasively, communicate silently, smile demurely, screw acrobatically, and, hardest of all, graduate on-screen from a neophyte actress (without overplaying the awkwardness) to a seamless role-player (without letting us forget that she's acting or lose sight of the high stakes for the woman behind the mask).

All of these demands Tang rewards with mystery, depth, and panache, and she does so without delivering a coy, hackneyed portrait of the exoticized Oriental artifact (as Wong Kar-wai increasingly allows his actresses to do). The actress judges her expressions and movements as precisely as Lee orchestrates light, rhythm, and the frugal but exceptional score by Alexandre Desplat. The story never plumbs as deeply as the cast and other artists imply that they could happily and easily venture, and despite the heroic feat of making a 160-minute movie breeze right by without sacrificing emotional clarity, editor Tim Squyres lapses a few times into an antic, overly intrusive mode that hyperbolizes some testy games of mah-jongg and a few violent showdowns. Plus, I'm still waiting for Lee to fight his impulses toward elegant outsiderism and really dig into the perspectives of his characters—a trick he almost managed with the revelatory fight sequences of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and with the elaborately self-conscious characters of Sense and Sensibility, for whom the boundary between inner life and external codes of conduct existed only sporadically. Still, Lust, Caution spins a satisfying and surprising yarn, and the formal and visual motifs are more ambitious and ambiguous here—for example, not just recurring mirrors, but excitable camera movements in relation to those mirrors—than anything in Brokeback (a film whose cautious relation to the lust between Ennis and Jack, elided in favor of serial goodbyes and accumulating subplots, is more than compensated here). I'll be lucky if the festival yields even two or three films as strong and refreshingly confident as this one. B+

Photo © 2007 Focus Features/River Road Entertainment

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