Nation Topics - Film
News and Features
Maria Margaronis reviews Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
As bloated Hollywood blockbusters such as Pearl Harbor and A.I. disappoint to a staggering degree this summer, foreign films without huge promotional budgets are delivering offbeat, heart-stirring cinematic experiences afflicted with one minor marketplace burden: subtitles. You'd think that an American public addicted to website scrolling, instant messaging and cell-phone menus would no longer balk at scanning words onscreen. But, no, mon Dieu, in American movie theaters, English rules! While Miramax finesses the problem with ad campaigns and trailers implying its foreign films are actually English-language (see the one for With a Friend Like Harry, for example), a trio of wonderfully genuine films are now on screens, supplying a welcome relief from the linguistic bait-and-switch game.
Hailing from Iceland, Vietnam and Taiwan, and radically different in style, all three are set within a circumscribed universe of families (one single-parent, one extended, one nuclear) beset by sexual tensions, deceit, betrayal and some decidedly odd forms of reconciliation. Plot points and character arcs come to hinge on the cold of a Reykjavík winter, the heat of a Hanoi summer and the intrusive waters of Taipei. Fierce narrative inventions combine and collide with stylistic panache. Maybe Iceland's 101 Reykjavík, Vietnam's The Vertical Ray of the Sun and Taiwan's The River are old-fashioned, for in place of digital effects and sci-fi concoctions, they expertly deliver the kind of cinematic magic that can transport an audience unreservedly into a believable and all-consuming parallel universe, only to be spat out at the end, on a summer evening, on a city street or multiplex asphalt, forever transformed.
At last fall's Toronto International Film Festival, where 101 Reykjavík had its North American premiere, first-time director Baltasar Kormakur was jazzed: His film was getting major buzz, his bar back home in Reykjavík was thriving, he had a major role in another Icelandic film at the festival and he'd just been invited into the cast of the new Hal Hartley movie, Monster. Back then, he couldn't have known that the buzz would evaporate without his landing a major distributor; luckily, New York's Film Forum has performed yet another rescue to our benefit, one that will hopefully incubate an audience.
If 101 Reykjavík has energy to burn, its protagonist most certainly does not. A slacker terminally tied to his mother's couch, Hlynur divides his time between drinking, surfing porn on the web, masturbating in his creaky bed, shagging women and visiting the unemployment office, where his surliness nearly loses him the stipend he relies on for his, um, lifestyle. Liquor virtually jump-starts the film's energy, as scenes of Iceland's younger generation partying its way into oblivion carry the same kind of freshness that Icelandic bands and singers have already brought to the global music scene. No surprise, then, that the film's soundtrack is credited to Damon Albarn, star of the Brit pop group Blur, and Einar Örn, who started the Sugarcubes with Icelandic diva Björk. The driving rhythms of the music may not be synchronized with any productive energy on the part of Hlynur, but they are indeed in pace with the sexual energies and essences that suffuse this film.
For that, there's Victoria Abril to thank. Made famous by her roles in the films of Pedro Almodóvar and other Spanish directors, Abril would seem an odd casting choice for an Icelandic film. What's she doing in Reykjavík? Why, she's playing Lola, a clever deus ex machina dropped into this frozen universe to teach flamenco dance--and set the blood of the natives on fire. Poor Hlynur! Lola is introduced as a friend of his mom's, setting the stage for a madcap sex farce, rife with mix-ups.
With Mom conveniently absent over the holidays, and Abril left to babysit mama's boy, Hlynur cannot imagine any impediment to his lusty fantasies. When Mom returns with her own agenda, though, even this jaded couch potato of a son is shocked. Mom announces proudly that she's now a lesbian and Abril is the woman of her dreams. Be happy for us, my son. And that's only the beginning.
101 Reykjavík is a straightforward sort of movie, but its unabashed innocence and stylistic aplomb are wonderfully endearing. Equally pleasing is its refusal to follow the rules of niche marketing, which would certainly prohibit a single film from aiming so broadly. A brash young heterosexual male, his masculinity mangled by a pregnant girlfriend and limited prospects, gets his comeuppance. That's one film. A middle-aged woman, responsible for aged relatives and an overdependent son, finds happiness in the arms of a foreign female. That's another. Add to that count Abril's character, an expatriate who's sick of wandering and ready for a nest, and Hlynur's girlfriend, whose pregnancy falls victim to his commitment phobia, and the mix becomes wonderfully complex. It's such a relief to find all these characters together in one movie, with a killer soundtrack to boot, that 101 Reykjavík surely deserves to be seen, if only to inspire legions of viewers to dream of Victoria Abril while stocking up on Icelandic pop and mixing a cocktail.
The time-honored trope of family gets a further, equally unpredictable workout in two Asian films from directors mining nearly opposite terrain, nationally and aesthetically.
Tran Anh Hung is a French-Vietnamese filmmaker whose early work (The Scent of Green Papaya) was suffused with nostalgia for a preliberation Vietnam, where a privileged boy romped through a fabulous manse in tandem with the child-maid in whose care he was entrusted. Shot on a soundstage in France, it was a hard sell to anyone looking for a film devoted to history, politics or modern Vietnam. As if in retaliation against his critics, Tran's next film (Cyclo) moved ruthlessly into the present, tracking the rough life of drug dealing and prostitution in the contemporary, corruption-filled streets of Ho Chi Minh City. Now, with The Vertical Ray of the Sun, he has melded the best of both early works into a lush, poignant film, set in a near-timeless Hanoi, that traces a trio of sisters through the cycles of family relations, the vagaries of their husbands, their brother's future and finally the youngest sister's coming of age.
Public and private are fascinatingly intertwined, as are past and present. The film's action, for instance, is bracketed by two memorial observances: a banquet at the start of the film for the clan's mother and another, which they head off to prepare at film's end, for their father. In between, the fantasies and dreams of the three daughters reprise the themes of their parents' marriage in subtle ways.
Lou Reed supplies the anthem to which Lien, the youngest sister, and her beloved (too beloved, perhaps) brother Hai awaken. Other tunes haunt other locations. Visual beauty accompanies emotional shifts, from serenity to pain, from suspicion to temptation, amid shifting family fortunes. One sister suspects her husband of infidelity, another doesn't. One husband is faithful, another may not be. Nothing is quite what it seems in this romantic universe, certainly not the business trips taken by the set of husbands, with momentous results. Yet nothing is ever entirely defined either, as ambiguity itself becomes the essence of the work.
To be honest, plot is not the point here. Instead, prepare to succumb to a higher power: the shimmering essence of a Vietnamese summer. Cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bin, who shot a great deal of Wong Kar-wai's meditative In the Mood for Love, has outdone himself. In one jewel-like shot, the surface of the water in an antique bronze bowl at the center of an adulterous liaison bubbles into a cloud of luminosity, turning the air liquid with its force. Surfaces reflect the temperature, skin shines with humidity and the languid universe of Southeast Asia claims a magnificent visual register. How ironic that the films shaping our views of modern Vietnam these days seem to be made by French--or American--hyphenated filmmakers, whose cinematic canvas has become a space for them to work out their own complicated relationships to this magnetized place. The emerald green so emblematic of Vietnam is present here, not in the sorts of battle scenes that characterized Apocalypse Now (to be re-released this month in Francis Ford Coppola's definitive director's cut) but rather in the quieter battles of a family.
It's the quotidian feel of life that is worshiped in Tran's film. Such a religious word is not out of place: The Vertical Ray of the Sun, no mere movie, is a prayer rung out across the movie palace, a benediction to the everyday, a stirring of the skin where no breeze has traveled, a visual altar upon which to gaze. Ultimately, what Tran offers is a way of experiencing life as a thing of beauty and a process of, dare I say it, enlightenment. What's important in the universe of Vertical Ray is the tenderness of life, the joy of human connection and the sense of continuity. Luckily, it's got the marketing muscle of Sony Classics behind it, beefed up with Crouching Tiger revenues, so it might just win some hearts.
The River, only now having a limited theatrical run five years after its debut, makes a completely different parable out of the common shards of parental eros, adolescent frustration and city life. More King Lear than Midsummer Night's Dream, The River continues director Tsai Ming-liang's obsession with disjointed families, isolated individuals and sparer-than-spare narratives. Instead of lush landscapes, Tsai plunges us into a cerebral world of perfect frames and rigorous compositions, where alienation becomes palpable and the physical world offers few comforts.
Ever since he first came to notice (with Vive L'Amour and Rebels of the Neon God), Taiwanese/Malaysian filmmaker Tsai has been a cinephile's favorite for his uncompromising visual minimalism and perverse goings-on. In The River, a fractured family carries out its business in near-silence, interacting like strangers. Mom is having an affair with a porn salesman, Dad is cruising for anonymous sex in gay saunas and teenage son Hsiao-kang is, well, trying to find his way to adulthood by blundering into absurd situations.
In one hilarious scene that serves as the film's central emblem, he's hired as an extra by real-life Hong Kong director Ann Hui. His role? A corpse, floating in the murky waters of a local river. Afterward, he warms up with a quick sexual tryst in a hotel room with one of the production assistants. But his luck is short-lived. He soon develops a pain in his neck which may or may not be a result of his dead man's float. It gets worse and worse, even more so after a motorcycle accident that sends his neck even further out of joint and leads his mother and father on ever-escalating searches for a cure. And we, the audience, are there with them as life gets reorganized around the mysterious ailment. Soon the physical universe falls prey to maladies, too. The apartment ceiling begins to leak, occasioning another round of investigations. While his father constructs ineffective barriers and his mother performs heroic acts to stanch the flow, Hsiao-kang suffers, and suffers some more. Existentialist to the core, but never without a perverse sense of humor, The River is a minimalist masterpiece.
Admittedly, this plot summary is far more coherent than the film itself. In fact, I was halfway through the film before I realized that this was a family, before I understood that the father and mother were in fact a couple, or that the pain in Hsiao-kang's neck is not simply metaphorical, or suggestive, or a joke, but a veritable cosmology guiding the film. By the time the father and son show up, with characteristic abruptness, at the same pitch-dark gay sauna, we, the audience, thoroughly retrained by Tsai to be simultaneously saturated with anticipation and detached from narrative expectation, are ready for anything, even a terribly transgressive rewrite of the Oedipal myth.
The River ends with a spectacular rejection of film logic: We never do learn what's wrong with the poor boy's neck.
Why did Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick want Spielberg to direct Kubrick's A.I., the fable of a robot who wants a human mother's love? Imagine the personals ad Kubrick might have taken out:
"YOU LIKE: sweetness & light, plucky kids, happy endings, 'When You Wish Upon a Star.' I LIKE: a hope-free environment, leering homicidal teens, pitilessly ambiguous Götterdämmerungen, icy Gyorgi Ligeti melodies written 'as a dagger in Stalin's heart.' LET'S MEET FOR A MOVIE!"
Maybe they had a mutual case of genius envy. Kubrick needed Spielberg's speed. Ever since 2001's success freed him to do almost anything he wanted, Kubrick yearned to make a blockbuster as big as The Godfather or Star Wars or E.T. But he couldn't, because he enslaved himself with research. "I usually take about a year [developing a film]," he said in 1968. "In a year, if you keep thinking about it, you can pretty well exhaust the major lines of play, if you want to put it in chess terminology. Then as you're making the film, you can respond to the spontaneity of what's happening with the resources of all the analysis you've done."
After 1971, Kubrick's spontaneity expired (if not his genius). He spent decades mulling movies more than making them. Most of what he actually shot was over-thought, emotionally parched. Spielberg once (according to critic Michael Sragow) compared watching Barry Lyndon to "walking through the Louvre without lunch." Kubrick was all about making marmoreal masterworks, not pleasing mortals with morsels of wish-fulfillment fantasy.
But surely he knew, as the real 2001 approached, that he wouldn't live long enough to fulfill his own fantasy: an A.I. movie starring real robots instead of actors (most of whom he treated like robots). And a child actor would age visibly during a yearslong Kubrick shoot. He hoped Spielberg might whip up a computer-generated boy for the lead, or at least do his famous fast magic with a live child actor.
So what's in it for Spielberg, in making a Kubrick movie? Perhaps to "eat at the grownups' table," as Woody Allen put it--to join the highbrow pantheon. Spielberg makes filmmaking look too easy, and makes too much easy money. We've all spent wild nights with his flying bikes and leaping lizards, but not everybody respects him in the morning. Many say Schindler's List is sui generis and Private Ryan simplistically jingoistic; his serious-issue movies The Color Purple and Amistad suck dead eggs. But when he dares to swap DNA with über-director Kubrick, you've got to give him credit.
There could be deeper motives. Biographical critics Joseph McBride and Henry Sheehan trace a strain of father fear in Spielberg's movies, and the father figures he seems fondest of are akin to movie moguls: Attenborough the proprietor of Jurassic Park, Schindler the factory "Direktor," and in A.I., William Hurt as Professor Hobby, the entrepreneurial inventor of the robot boy David. (Professor Hobby is far kinder than David's adoptive dad, played by Sam Robards.) The company Kubrick formed to produce Aryan Papers, the Holocaust movie he scuttled after Schindler's List hit, was called Hobby Films. How better to honor a cinematic daddy than to finish his film in his style with a character named Hobby? What better way to transcend the anxiety of influence than to blend pastiche with one's own stylistic voice?
Anyhow, now it's finished: A.I., a film (as one producer put it) by "Stevely Kuberg." It's like no other movie, because it's so much like so many other movies. In one brilliant scene, the robots scavenge spare parts for themselves from a dump of less fortunate fellow robots: a new jaw here, a forearm there. The parts fit together jaggedly, but the crude welds enable the robots to function. That's the way A.I. is built: not just Spielberg's style mashed into Kubrick's, but characters and stories and particular shots from multitudinous movies (especially Kubrick's), all stuck together at odd angles. It's weird, but it works.
The primary source of A.I. is Brian Aldiss's "Supertoys Last All Summer Long," and two of his other very short stories about David, the robot with the mommy problem. Kubrick jammed David's story together with the story of Pinocchio. This misses the point of Aldiss's tale: Pinocchio wants to earn the right to be real, but David the robot doesn't get it that he's not a real boy. In the film, David (portrayed with sensitive precision by the eeriest boy actor on earth, Haley Joel Osment) has a more primal urge: to make Mommy (the generically cute Frances O'Connor) love him, no matter what it takes.
When David enters his human Mommy and Daddy's house, he's backlit to look like the tall, spindly extraterrestrials in Close Encounters. Then he's revealed to be an almost perfect replica of a human: a bit shiny-faced and stiff, but convincing, even by the standards of the day (the usual futuristic post-apocalyptic Earth, whose advanced gizmo science produces what Kubrick used to call a "mechanarchy"). At first, sitting at dinner, shot from above through a circular lamp that echoes the War Room in Dr. Strangelove, David seems remote. When he emits a barking laugh and points at the strand of spaghetti dangling from Mommy's chin, and then Mommy and Daddy laugh, it's hard to say whose laugh is more mechanical.
After Mommy imprints herself on David according to the owner's manual, however, his face melts into beatific rapture. Osment does a good job of conveying love at first sight. David hugs Mommy. Later, he's shot from below, with a lamp granting him a halo, like the one that gives Strangelove a nimbus when doomsday arrives. David gets his halo when he becomes aware of death: "Mommy, will you die?"
It's creepy, because of course Mommy doesn't love David--he's just a substitute for her real son, Martin (Jake Thomas), who must remain comatose for years until science can revive him. (The lad is stashed in a bubble bed like the ones astronauts hibernate in in 2001.) At last, Martin is defrosted and comes home. It's bad for David, an echo of the displacement of Alex by Joe the Lodger in A Clockwork Orange. The convincingly bratty Martin taunts David, a cold, Kubrickian echo of the domestic comedy of Spielberg's enchanted suburbia.
Two scenes of mythic impact ensue. Martin tricks David into snipping a lock of Mommy's hair as she makes like Sleeping Beauty one night; Mommy makes excuses for him. But at a pool party soon after, the real boys threaten David, who clutches Martin, begs, "Keep me safe!" and falls with him into the pool. Martin requires CPR after being fished out, and as he's receiving it, the camera pans back from David, infinitely disconsolate on the pool bottom. He recedes, like the castoff astronaut drifting into space in 2001 (the one who doesn't get to be reborn as the Star Child).
David recedes yet again later in the film--in Mommy's rearview mirror when she abandons him in the woods. This is palpable horror. It's not a standard Spielberg kiddie-peril scene, though, because one uneasily identifies with the mom's predicament--at least she didn't send him back to the factory to be destroyed--and David's monomania has begun to alienate our affections just a bit.
Into the woods goes David. He glimpses those scavenging robots--a folksy lot, like hobos in a 1930s Warner flick, though their busted-upness mainly alludes to the wooden boys hacked up by wicked Stromboli in Pinocchio. He meets his rakish new pal, Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a robot with hair like a Bob's Big Boy statue, built for sex with lonely human women. Law breathes life into a clammy mise en scène--you'll miss him when he goes. Spielberg made him nicer than Kubrick would've done, but it's no sellout. It simply buries the weirdness deeper. Joe tries to tell David that his mommy doesn't love him any more than Joe's dates love him, but David won't listen.
When Joe laments of his creators, "They made us too smart, too quick and too many," he's echoing Coppola's quote about how his crew making Apocalypse Now had "too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane." The idea is to critique techno-culture, but the point is muddled, and the film's heart isn't really in it whenever it sounds the danger: technology alarm. Ominously, the woods are lit up by a false moon--an aircraft that hunts robots for the Flesh Fair, a demolition derby where humans take out their frustrations by burning and hacking up robots. The moon is a cruel parody of the kindly moon in E.T. But whereas abandonment by Mommy registers emotionally, violence against robots just doesn't.
It's a relief when Joe leads David to Rouge City, a sci-fi update of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island, with big bridges shaped like women's gaping mouths, to evoke the Korova Milk Bar in A Clockwork Orange (which was much scarier). Rouge City is a letdown: It's Blade Runner; it's Judge Dredd's town; we've seen it all before. Its plot function is to give David the Pinocchio prediction that a Blue Fairy will make him a real boy.
David heists an amphibicopter and buzzes off with Joe to Manhattan, flooded up to the Statue of Liberty's torch (a nod to Planet of the Apes). He meets his maker, Professor Hobby (a nod to Rutger Hauer's scene with his maker in Blade Runner), confronts the existence of other Davids and has an existential tantrum. Here's where Kubrick would nastily stress that David has become a real boy in the sense that now he kills robots too; Spielberg makes it a friendlier reunion, just as he changed Michael Crichton's sinister dinosaur-park entrepreneur to a jolly man in Jurassic Park. Either way, as a Kubrickian snarl or a Spielbergian coo, the scene would come off as abstract and unaffecting.
Arbitrarily, Hobby leaves David alone a minute, and soon we see him leap from a skyscraper (Radio City) into Manhattan's briny abyss. This is formally a quote from Pinocchio's dives to escape Pleasure Island and rescue his father at the bottom of the sea, but it has no resonance, because it's not really part of an intelligible narrative movement. There is no sense of escape; it's a slow fall, not scary at all. The whole movie is by this point as drifty as seaweed in a lulling current. David's bed at home resembles Monstro, the whale that imprisons Pinocchio, and yet it's snug and inviting. What does this mean? Plainly, this movie doesn't work at the level of straightforward causality. It's a troubling dream.
A.I. has two endings involving the Blue Fairy, and I guess I shouldn't reveal either. Suffice it to say that the one Kubrick probably would have stopped with is clearly superior, colder, mysterious without being muddled. The second, Spielbergian ending is fuzzier, more redemptive and alludes to the cosmic ending of 2001 and Kubrick's cuddly aliens and snug family feelings.
A.I. ends with a whimper (or two), but I got a huge bang out of it. It's full of stunning images: sad, disintegrating faces, a robot boy's strangely shining eyes, lively artifacts of humanized technology. Although it's in an utterly different key, the blend of sensibilities is not an adulteration but an improving alchemy. A.I. effectively combines the moody indeterminacy of Kubrick, especially the Kubrick of 2001, and the addiction to happily-ever-aftering of Spielberg. There's also the merest flavor of what William Everson once called "one of the screen's supreme moments of horror"--the scene in Pinocchio where the boy, in midtransformation into a donkey, shrieks, "Mama!" until he's deprived of human speech and his mama can't hear him anymore. When you're not a real boy, no one can hear you scream.
Franky Four Fingers. Bullet Tooth Tony. Boris the Blade. Barry the Baptist. Porno king Hatchet Harry, who coshes his victims with a fifteen-inch black rubber cock. These are just a few of the horrible bastards who have captured the hearts and minds of young Brits over the past two or three years, thanks to the cinematic crime wave launched by Guy Ritchie's hugely successful Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Lock, Stock..., its follow-up Snatch and the entourage of cocky British gangster films that have followed in the wake of Ritchie's success personify an in-your-face--think Oasis, think art-world bad boy Damien Hirst, think Maxim, FHM and Loaded--British export drive to show the world that there's more to British culture than the mummified exhibits displayed on PBS.
And there's no sign anywhere of a lull in the crime wave, as British producers, smelling filthy lucre, are courting and flattering ex-cons by the dozen. Rumor even has it that Ritchie's planning to make another gangster flick, this time a bio-pic of Ronnie Knight, the former husband of soap star/siren Barbara Windsor, whose involvement in Britain's biggest cash robbery earned him seven years at Her Majesty's pleasure. It's enough to make one scream, "Do me a bloody favor!" (as Ritchie's characters often do). Well, Ritchie's charms may have won over Brad Pitt, Benicio Del Toro and Madonna, to whom Ritchie's married, but his films are too smugly ironic for their own good; there's a vile, penny-dreadful take on working-class East London--so typical of Ritchie and middle-class England's fascination with all things cockney, the patois of the area--that reduces and romanticizes gangland Britain to no more than a cockney minstrel show.
The fuel that Ritchie's films run on is the rich East London vernacular, its celebrated rhyming slang, its vicious comic irony. Ritchie is clearly intoxicated by it, and his films are stitched together by verbal gags that sometimes sparkle but more often than not have a peculiarly depthless feel--like listening to a suburban white boy rap. There's no sense of fear: The younger crooks in his films, the small faces trying to hustle their way into the criminal big time via the card table or the boxing ring, resemble the Ant Hill Mob from a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, while the older crooks are sharp suits and funny nicknames in search of a character.
Jonathan Glazer's Sexy Beast, however, is the perfect antidote to Guy Ritchie, the heist movie that Harold Pinter never got around to writing. Like Pinter's early plays, what's between the words is as important as the words themselves. There is real menace here, a context of violence that is more than style. The authenticity and danger, especially when its two leads go mano a mano with each other, come from the use of silence and pauses, and from Don Logan's (Ben Kingsley) sudden, almost Tourette's-like outbursts. To say that Sexy Beast is an evolutionary leap for the New Brit gangster film assumes that those following it will emulate its innovations. I doubt they will. But Sexy Beast dares to do something different: It makes its thugs think, and it treats the gangland milieu seriously.
Glazer's strikingly mature and reflective directorial debut is about what happens to a middle-aged crook when he loses his yen for villainy and drops out. Gal Dove (a brilliant Ray Winstone), an old gangland legend, has decamped to Spain's Costa Del Crime, leaving his gangster pastback in a grotty old England, which he's quite happy to do, ta very much. He's a beet root-skinned, thickset, ex-pat Brit who's spent nine no-risk years sunning himself by his swimming pool, tempting skin cancer. Every day is a long hot summer, a still life, interrupted only by Deedee, the sexy ex-porno actress wife he adores, returning from her high-end shopping trips. And the occasional falling boulder that rolls down the hillside to which his villa is attached, and into his pool.
The falling boulder heralds the arrival of Don "Malky" Logan, an embittered and very scary former rival/colleague from Gal's old manor who has his sights on bullying Gal into joining him and an elite firm of crooks who are masterminding a grandiose bank robbery. Don is an extraordinary amalgam of ressentiment and rage, and the fear he strikes in Gal, Deedee and their two friends, Aitch and Jackie, is matched by the fear he strikes in the viewer. Voices tremble at the mere mention of his name, let alone his company. He has the frame, gait and dress sense of a former jailbird who spent his years inside methodically. His tidy muscularity complements his smart but casual appearance, and his head's shiny phallic texture recalls, in a rather wicked way, Kingsley's celebrated performance as Gandhi (there's a mischievous moment when we see Don, stripped to his undies, watching soccer on the telly in the meditative pose of the Mahatma). Gangster No 1., an earlier Brit flick from Acid House director Paul McGuigan, captured this menace in fits and starts. But in Don Logan, whether it's the casual way he misses the toilet bowl when he pisses, or how he refuses to extinguish his cigarette on the plane, it's constant. There hasn't been such a frightening gangster since Joe Pesci said, "Do I amuse you?" to Ray Liotta in GoodFellas.
It's Don's subtle and ruthless verbal jabbing of Gal, first in an informal, almost matter-of-fact way when he tells him, "You're wanted in London this Friday," that starts Gal's unraveling. Gal finds all kinds of ways of trying to say "No," but you don't say no to Don Logan, especially when he can probe every one of your weak spots. There's a touch of the Gestapo in his interrogatory manner: the staccato drill of Don's monosyllabic orders, the relentless exhortation to "Do the job," the barking, prodding "yes, yes, yes, yes" to Gal's "no," and the sheer "fuck-offness," as Don would put it, of his "Are you going to stand there like Porky Pig, hiding behind your ex-porn star wife's skirt?"
Don's got something here, and in fact, it's Deedee who saves Gal's skin. But it's obvious that Don's annoyance at Gal's recalcitrance reveals a deep-seated loathing that goes beyond his animus toward Gal's cushy domestic life: "They used to call you Gorgeous Gal," Don taunts him, exhuming Gal's memory of when, before exile softened him up, he was one of the London underworld's most celebrated faces. Their exchanges, however, expose Don's own wounds. Underneath his pit-bull exterior is a man of many torments; the way he verbally beats up on Gal and Deedee implies the motivations of a spurned lover. That we wonder whether Don holds some sort of torch for Gal is indicative of the new directions Sexy Beast takes us in, a stark contrast to Guy Ritchie's sexually squeamish and closeted world.
Part of Sexy Beast's surprise comes from the fact that it's a restoration work. Deedee may have bailed Gal out, but he returns to a rain-soaked London anyway, to the patria of his old stomping grounds, hoping to make peace and avert the suspicions of kingpin Teddy Bass (Ian McShane)--"Mr. Black Magic himself"--who wonders why Don Logan never returned from Spain. We go back in time here: Gal returns home, and so does the film, to the noirish pigment of the 1960s gangster flick, to Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samouraï, John Boorman's Point Blank and even Mike Hodges's later Get Carter. The casting of McShane--who played Richard Burton's gangland boyfriend in 1971's Villain--as kingpin Bass, and James Fox--who was unforgettable as Chas, the repressed, possibly homosexual East End face in the wild and bohemian Performance--as Bass's former lover who runs the bank that Bass plans to rob, is a respectful nod to, rather than a pastiche of, the 1960s gangster film. It's also a symbolic return of the homoerotic subtext that has been lost in the new Brit gangster film.
Who would have expected this from a director of commercials and pop videos? But Glazer, aided by a pitch-perfect script, is a sorcerer who expertly marshals Winstone and Kingsley, and extends the territory of the genre with his mesmerizing command of space, contrast and color, and his vigorous timing. Sexy Beast starts slowly with the sharp, rich blues and yellows of Gal's sweltering but sedate Almerian hideaway, turns apoplectic with the pitch-black fury of Don Logan's nocturnal horror show and then cascades into the grimy kind-of-blue shades of gangland Britain. What starts so modestly as a meditation on the pleasures (and perils) of doing damn all has in its last movement the nerve and velocity of the gangster film at its purest and most primal.
It's been six years since Dogme 95 nailed its ten-point "Vow of Chastity" to the door of world cinema. Lars von Trier's gang of four Danish film rebels flung an inkwell at the father of Hollywood lies, calling for an end to auteurist indulgences, corrupt special effects, duplicitous props and sets, backslider's reshoots and the devil's tricks with camera and soundtrack. As pious as my Lutheran Grandma Dyveke, they demanded an overnight reformation. And now they've finally unveiled the fourth film from the movement, Kristian Levring's The King Is Alive. Apparently, nothing takes longer than absolute spontaneity.
It took the Dogme-ticians only 150 seconds to devise each of the ten rules of the Vow of Chastity, and from the start they were fully prepared to violate them all. Dogme directors are expected to submit a list of their "sins" in making their films-- the parts of the Vow they've broken. Yet their playfulness about the creative process is also dead serious. They view their allegiances the way Mary McCarthy was said to regard marriage. They need a worthy ideal to be unfaithful to.
Von Trier remains the high priest of the movement, even though 1998's The Idiots, his only film made under formal Dogme rules, was by far the worst of the four. An encounter-group-grope movie, whose big nude scene he directed in the nude, The Idiots is completely overshadowed by his great, albeit grandiose, proto-Dogme epic Breaking the Waves, about a simple country girl (Emily Watson) whose crippled husband manipulates her into having sex with thugs who kill her, and the semi-Dogme musical Dancer in the Dark, about a simple country girl (Björk) manipulated by a suicidal man into killing him.
But even when they're not strictly Dogme-tic, von Trier's films make the world safe for certain Dogme qualities: a restless, handheld camera; jolting edits; a grainy look; a love of ugliness; an ensemble cast gradually reverting to savagery; a burning urge to live in the moment; and a Sade-esque compulsion to put a stink up God's nostrils.
Thomas Vinterberg's 1998 The Celebration was the first hit Dogme flick. In place of von Trier's gathering of orgiasts getting in touch with their inner idiots, Vinterberg stages a family reunion at which the son rebukes the patriarch for raping him and his sister as kids. To me, it was smug, sentimental, bad Bergman pastiche, but the film world ate it up and clamored for more.
What they got was Søren Kragh-Jacobsen's 1999 Mifune, a screwball comedy. To make a genre movie overtly violates the eighth commandment of the Vow--"Genre movies are not acceptable"-- but the constraints of spontaneous filmmaking can make Dogmeteurs revert to narratives more generic than Hollywood's. No problem: Be it ever so sinful, Mifune is humane and fresh where von Trier and Vinterberg are lumbering and sulfurous. It's a gas--a giddy, romping shaggy-dog tale wherein a Copenhagen businessman revisits his ramshackle family farm in the country, ruled by his beguiling half-wit brother (Jesper Asholt), an aficionado of samurai films and crop-sculpting aliens. Kragh-Jacobsen calmed down the Dogme shaky-cam and made a virtue of available light sources. The film has champagne spirit on a beer budget.
For my money, Kragh-Jacobsen was the top Dogme dog, but Levring's The King Is Alive has given me second thoughts. It looks sensational, walks the minimalist tightrope with balletic brio and, like many good things, begins in sin. A closeup of a face on a bus yields to a shot of a bus from above, rolling down a bleak road; this image gives way to a glimpse of coldly remote mountains. Clearly, Dogme-flouting technology was involved--you're not supposed to use tripods, let alone aerial shots. But Levring honors the spirit of the law: The movie is about the human-scale consequences of confrontation with implacable nature.
At the wheel of the bus is Moses (Vusi Kunene), a gentle black African whose name is a gag--he's about to get his passengers horrifyingly lost in the desert, because the compass on his dash is busted. Moses pulls the bus into the best Dogme set you ever saw: a tiny ghost town called Kolmanskop. A globe-trotting director of TV commercials, Levring knew just where to find an exceptionally evocative set--crucial when you're forbidden to construct one to your specifications. It's an abandoned mining burg in the Kalahari, maintained by the Namibian government as a museum, and so it helpfully contained old-fashioned kerosene lamps, mining tools, weathered furniture and rooms half filled with sand spilling through the open doors, driven by winds hauntingly captured by Levring's multiple microphones.
Though the Vow is a bit muddled concerning precisely which bits of technology are forbidden, I think those many mikes constitute another sin, illustrating an intriguing contradiction of Dogme. The quest to capture the true moment clashes with its low-tech strictures: You better your odds of nailing spontaneous greatness with more and better technology. In the interview on the DVD of Dancer in the Dark, von Trier says he shot the musical sequences with 100 cameras, but would have preferred 1,000, and looks forward to the day when technology permits 10,000 cameras. Will the Vow be altered to accommodate technology's inexorable march? Maybe; but the Dogme-ticians won't lose sleep over their crimes. Sin boldly! That's the Dogme spirit.
When Moses discovers that Kolmanskop's gas tanks are all dry, the passengers panic. A take-charge Aussie (Miles Anderson) strides up to the sole human in town, an old African (Peter Kubheka), viewing the proceedings from some mysterious otherworld. What's he doing there, unthinkable miles from nowhere? Waiting for an ensemble to arrive so he can comment on them in portentous voiceover. (He's not the most successful character in the film.)
The Aussie passes on the old man's wisdom: The only food in town is a cache of tinned carrots, some poisonous, and to survive, they must learn to drink dew. "Above all, we stay positive and we keep our spirits up!" (Positive? Doesn't he know he's in a Dogme film?) Then he marches into the desert for help. The others are to wait five days for his return, then start picturesquely blackening the sky with burning tires to attract airplanes, because if he's not back, he's dead.
A shot of a roomful of sand yields to footsteps in the desert. Efficiently, Levring has placed us with the protagonists in one hell of a Jack London jam.
The tourists know just what to do: They freak out. Guzzle hooch, start arguments and bonfires, jump and jive in the flames and shadows. The prospect of death makes them horny, and very pissed off. Several cordless cameras roamed while the cast went on a wild chase, each to find the depths of his or her own character, none ever certain when on or off camera. It kept them honest. The twenty-minute setups permitted by location shooting and state-of-the-art videocams enabled Levring to get around the no-reshoots rule: He kept rewriting scenes and then shooting them in altered forms, merging rehearsal and performance, until he got pure takes. And who needs makeup (a Dogme no-no), when for six weeks you've got the sun to bake faces and whittle away at bodies until they resemble contestants on TV's Survivor?
What passes between the passengers is not embedded in any structured story, and the emotions don't make much naturalistic sense. A big woman (Janet McTeer) unhappily married to a bland man (Bruce Davidson) lashes her husband with cat-o-nine-tails insults and tries to provoke Moses in an ugly racial come-on. An angelic party girl (Jennifer Jason Leigh) with excelsior for brains and a Walkman instead of a mental life tries to make nice with an irascible French intellectual (Romane Bohringer), who heaps contempt in French on the uncomprehending kid.
Watching the group get ever more nasty, a grizzled old Brit tourist (David Bradley) murmurs, "Is man no more than this?" He gets the notion to jot down what he can remember of King Lear and get the others to enact it, to pass whatever time they've got left. The ragged, fragmentary scenes don't add up to a play-within-a-play; Shakespeare is just another existing light source under which to study characters. It works better than, say, Gus Van Sant's hippified Shakespeare in the otherwise exemplary My Own Private Idaho; Levring doesn't attempt to update the Bard, and he's not aiming at a large thematic statement or strained parallel. He more modestly uses bits of Lear to spotlight aspects of character. "Howl! Howl! Howl!" spoken by the old Brit dramatizes his grief, the Leigh character's self-destruction and the death of his own long-lost daughter. The Brit's half-remembered Lear is, like the mining town, a timeless found ruin occupied by a Dogme 95 fairy tale.
Why does The King Is Alive live, even though it's so artificial and disconnected? It creatively unleashes the actors while preventing the usual scene-stealing games. The scenes don't exactly add up, but they are riveting while they last, and the countdown to calamity or rescue provides a sustaining tension in place of a plot. The voluptuous curves and lurid lights of the desert are stunningly photogenic, and the cheap but sophisticated equipment achieves operatic effects. This may be Dogme's best shot.
But does it really do what the revolutionaries set out to do in 1995? Does it truly "force the truth out of...characters and settings"? No, because there is no single "truth," and only a narrow zealot would claim to find one. Like all the Dogme films, its real sin is to do what they promise: to "regard the instant as more important than the whole." Ultimately, and however salubrious its influence on moviedom, Dogme film is a dead end, because in art, the whole is more important than the instant.
But my God, does it have its moments.
It was the first Cannes Film Festival of the new century, but it felt more like an end than a beginning, as the past returned, in film after film, with weight and insistency. This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of Cahiers du Cinéma, and two of that venerable journal's founders, Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Rivette, made fugitive appearances on the Croisette (the beachside thoroughfare where starlets promenade in the shadow of film history) with works in competition, their white hair and grizzled chins at odds with the general carnival atmosphere. Francis Ford Coppola brought a brilliant new version of Apocalypse Now, adding fifty-three minutes and the ghosts of the French occupation of Indochina to his dark and delirious vision of war's insanity, which shared Cannes's top prize, the Palme d'Or, in 1979. And a 92-year-old director, the Portuguese auteur Manoel de Oliveira (who began his career in silent cinema), provided one of the festival's highlights with I'm Going Home, a film about an aging actor (Michel Piccoli), infused with lightness and simplicity.
The awards, announced May 20, confirmed this sense of a film culture unfurling under the banner of memory, as the jury (headed by Liv Ullmann) honored films about a father in mourning (Nanni Moretti's The Son's Room) and a woman (Isabelle Huppert) crushed by her own masochism and the suffocating mass of Austria's musical heritage (Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher). In this year of transition, as festival president Gilles Jacob handed over the reins of artistic direction to newcomer Thierry Frémaux, the world's great cinematic behemoth seemed haunted by the specter of previous generations.
Yet their vitality continued to surprise us. "If filmmaking doesn't kill you, it prolongs your life instead," the nonagenarian Oliveira affirmed in an interview. I'm Going Home opens with Gilbert Valence (Piccoli) on the Paris stage, playing the enfeebled but tyrannical king in Ionesco's Le Roi se Meurt, and surrounded by colleagues and admirers. Backstage, after the performance, his friend and agent George informs him that his wife, daughter and son-in-law have been killed in a car accident. Unlike Nanni Moretti's film, which (despite its considerable accomplishments) strikes a few false, forced notes in its depiction of a family's sorrow, Oliveira handles Gilbert's grief with gentle humor and extreme discretion. The distinguished actor brings his orphaned grandson to live with him, but otherwise continues his daily routine, refusing to acknowledge (even to himself) the magnitude of his losses. Perhaps it's the result of Oliveira's long experience; in this graceful and uncompromising meditation on time and its vicissitudes, he gives the small consolations of life a place beside its great catastrophes.
The actor's life is also the focus of Who Knows, Jacques Rivette's metaphysical farce about an Italian theater troupe performing Pirandello's Come tu mi vuoi in Paris. Camille (Jeanne Balibar), the lead actress and lover of the troupe's director, is French and a former Parisian; as she returns to Paris, she's filled with longing and trepidation over the prospect of meeting Pierre, her ex-lover. Pierre now lives with Marianne, who in turn conceals her own secrets. A precious ring, a cake recipe and an unpublished Goldoni manuscript circulate among a sextet of characters, providing clues to each one's desire. Rivette's magical direction changes this watery plot into wine. The actors inhabit their roles with sparkling vitality; the film buzzes with life, with the strange coincidences, emotional truths, hesitations and intense passions that shape love, in all its complexity.
"It's very demoralizing for a director to see bad films," the notoriously reclusive Rivette admitted at his press conference. "You have the feeling that you've wasted your life on a crummy profession." At 73, he retains the lightning reflexes and fluid gestures of an acrobat, and his deftly magisterial and lovely film belongs to that rare genre of comedy whose effects are more profound than tragedy.
Cannes is perhaps the only place in the world where the fight to view Jean-Luc Godard's latest opus could provoke a minor riot. Security police were called out to handle the huge, unruly crowd of journalists assembled to see his Éloge de l'amour, screening just once for the press in a small room. Those who gained admission found themselves in the presence of a lyrical, melancholy and ultimately puzzling cinematic essay on the relation between film and history. Godard picks through the ruins of the twentieth century, citing its high culture (painting, music, philosophy) and its moral disasters (most notably Auschwitz) in this elusive and fragmentary work, which calls itself a love story but is really a semiautobiographical reflection on the director's nostalgia for, and belief in, a cinema of resistance. The film's few coherent plot points involve a disappointingly facile anti-Americanism, with Steven Spielberg set up as the fall guy (however deservedly) for Hollywood's need to transform history into entertainment, as his fictive company purchases rights to the life story of an elderly couple, French Jews who fought in the Resistance. (Roberto Benigni, the Italian director of Life Is Beautiful, might have served the cause as well. And do Godard's credentials, as either a longtime member of the artistic avant-garde or a citizen of Switzerland, give him any greater claim to this history?) Still, Godard's poignant use of sound and imagery--his lush, black-and-white visions of nighttime Paris and crayon-bright, handheld, digital seascapes--teases you into thinking.
In the festival's curious conjunction of artistic and market considerations, each person's place in the food chain is clearly demarcated, from the color of your press pass (among four levels, white passes claim the greatest privileges) to the amount of time old colleagues will afford you. Sometimes, as at the Godard screening, the promise of Old World cultural capital whips the crowd into a frenzy; at other times, historic occasions and films from marginal locations go relatively unremarked. Only a handful of journalists attended the screening of Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner), the first film shot with an Inuit cast and crew, which won the Camera d'Or for best debut feature. Director Zacharias Kunuk's nearly three-hour saga is based upon an ancient Inuit legend about sexual conflicts and vengeance pursued across two generations of nomadic tribespeople on a remote Canadian Arctic island, where Kunuk was raised and still lives. In an extraordinarily beautiful landscape suffused with an unearthly light, women with elaborate facial tattoos and men sporting futuristic-looking sun goggles build igloos, hunt for seal meat, make love and participate in shamanistic rituals. Closely based upon both eyewitness accounts of the first European settlers (who arrived there in the early nineteenth century) and Inuit oral tradition, Atanarjuat shows a sophisticated culture, filled with art and humor, that has survived virtually unchanged for some four millennia.
And while Godard danced around history like a mournful clown, those viewers seeking a cinema of resistance might have turned instead to Sobibor, 14 October 1943, 16 heures, the latest chapter in Claude Lanzmann's piercing, thirty-year exploration of the memory of the Shoah. Sobibor screened out-of-competition, and its inclusion here (alongside an arresting documentary by Abbas Kiarostami on the ravages of AIDS among children in Uganda) marked a welcome expansion of the festival's traditional focus on fiction. The film returns to an episode mentioned in Shoah, Lanzmann's landmark 1985 epic, in which the inmates of the Sobibor death camp carried out the only successful revolt of Jewish prisoners against their German captors.
Sobibor begins with an archival photograph of SS officers saluting the corpses of Nazi officials murdered in the uprising. A strange sense of joy wells up with the knowledge that, for once, the executioners became victims. In 1979, while filming Shoah, Lanzmann interviewed Yehuda Lerner, who was deported from the Warsaw Ghetto at the age of 16 and whose unquenchable thirst for life led him to escape from eight death camps. Six weeks after arriving at Sobibor, Lerner took part in the rebellion organized by Alexander Pechersky, a fellow inmate and Soviet Jewish officer.
Lanzmann maintains both a journalist's surgical precision and an artist's sense of wonder as he questions Lerner, who traces his remarkably suspenseful tale in a vibrant Hebrew, infused with mythic grandeur. The clarity and beauty of his voice contrast sharply with the film's opening panorama of Warsaw--a city of dead monuments and anonymous architecture--and in one surreal sequence, with flocks of geese, whose unendurable cacophony was used by camp officials to cover up the screams of dying prisoners. Shoah rendered the annihilation of European Jewry astonishingly palpable; Sobibor is a hymn to the courage of people who were less than nothing, yet rose up to defend themselves. Lanzmann has titled his film with the place, day and time of the uprising, recalling the question posed by both Rabbi Hillel and Primo Levi, "If not now, when?" And it brings that decisive moment alive to us.
Watching the competition's twenty-three features over the course of twelve days, along with a good number of the twenty-two films included in the subsection called "Un Certain Regard" and the dozens more screening in two sidebar festivals, critics' week and directors' fortnight, alters one's experience of time considerably. A second, imaginary life begins to take shape. How many couples made love and separated, how many cups of coffee and cigarettes were consumed, how many characters died or were murdered onscreen each day? In rare instances, a film manages to impose its own sense of time and reality. Such was the case with David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, a wildly idiosyncratic work by a home-grown American surrealist. Lynch deserved his own award but shared the directing prize with Joel Coen (whose highly stylized The Man Who Wasn't There also screened in competition) for his story of two actresses, a sensual, winding, noiresque exploration of both the literal topography and the psychic geography of Los Angeles.
Lynch's film, the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar and Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang's What Time Is It There? (all French co-productions) proved that there is hope for the future of auteurism, as long as you look beyond the confines of Europe. Filmed in Afghanistan and among refugee communities along the Iranian border, using a style that mixes documentary elements with an improbable visual poetry and humor drawn from the desolation of war and poverty, Kandahar is Makhmalbaf's attempt to give a face to Afghan women, who remain hidden behind the heavy veil of their burkas and the world's indifference.
If Kandahar is a model of social engagement, Tsai's film is a homage to the golden age of art-house cinema, incorporating footage from François Truffaut's classic, The 400 Blows (a 1959 Cannes sensation), into a contemporary Taipei story about the different time zones we inhabit when we look at films, travel to distant countries or mourn the loss of someone. Halfway around the world, Tsai works like an old-style European auteur, writing his scripts in Taipei cafes and working with a limited number of actors, whose roles have evolved over the course of five features focusing on urban anomie, family alienation and Taiwan's restless youth culture. "I'm really a sixties person," the 43-year-old director explained in an interview. "That's why I make these sixties-style films. Luckily, there are a few other sixties people around, who like to watch them."
A tidal wave is coming. Soon I am sure. It will sweep all of us away.
--The opening lines of Eureka
One of the more familiar works of Japanese art--particularly in the West, where it has shown up everywhere from ecocampaigns to the cover of the Metropolitan Museum of Art gift catalogue--is Hokusai's Shogun-era The Great Wave. Everybody knows the picture: a massive, percolating arch of water, dwarfing the far-off Mount Fuji and frozen at the instant of breaking. The wave has been hanging there, imperiling the painting's tiny fishermen, since the early part of the nineteenth century.
It would be hard to imagine that Aoyama Shinji, director of another epic and audacious Japanese import, Eureka, didn't have Hokusai's lurching wave somewhere in his mind while building his three-hour-and-forty-minute film. (In an era when Hollywood's current top stars seem constitutionally and/or contractually incapable of appearing in anything under two hours and fifteen minutes, it still seems necessary to mention Eureka's unorthodox length, if only because in this case it works.) Not only is the film poised, from murderous opening to rapturous conclusion, on an emotional precipice of imminent danger and delirium; it is, like The Great Wave, a work suspended between cultures: Hokusai created a supposedly classical Japanese painting by marrying Eastern imagery to Western artistic innovations. Aoyama's movie presumes on the surface a most Japanese serenity, while at its heart is soul-shaking psychological and spiritual violence, ignited by a very Western cinematic sensibility. No cars blow up, only souls.
Despite the opening weather forecast--voiced over by the film's delicate Kozue, who will be given such a moving and virtually mute performance by young Miyazaki Aoi--what comes closest to physically resembling a tidal wave in Eureka is a bus, cresting a hill in a heat-vapor haze and bearing a distinct air of menace. We've seen a woman in a bonnet waving goodbye from a hillside to her children en route to school; older brother, younger sister, they seem to adore/tolerate each other silently, routinely. They board that bus and what follows is a sequence of dispassionately considered horror: the entrance of an obviously disturbed character, his suit a careless attempt at white-collar respectability; the bus parked in an otherwise empty lot; bodies splayed on the gravel; one fleeing passenger shot dead in his tracks. The camera observing helplessly, possibly against its will.
The cops arrive, at last. And what adds to our rising sense of dismay is that we know so much more than they do. (What people know and when they know is essential to the fascination of Eureka.) They phone the madman, who has covered the inside of the bus windows with newspaper, shot several of its occupants and is clearly in that space where reason has evaporated and only more killing can diminish the sense of crime: The more bodies, the less each can mean. It's a sentiment that will haunt the survivors of this "incident" throughout the rest of the film. Meanwhile, the cops ring Busjack Man's cell phone. Kozue covers her ears.
Because he collapses in fear while being walked around the lot by Busjack Man, the driver--named Makoto, and played by veteran film star Yakusho Koji (Shall We Dance?, The Eel, Sleeping Man)--allows the sharpshooters an opening. But the shot's not clean: The wounded Busjack Man gets back on the bus, managing to kill everyone on board but the kids. It's not that he doesn't try to be thorough--his gun, and his eyes, are trained on the two at the moment the police shoot him dead. And it's not that he doesn't succeed, in his way: That he is himself finally killed prevents nothing, really, but an actual bullet leaving an actual chamber.
Eureka is not a film about a bus hijacking. (With more than three hours to go, how could it be?) Nor is it, exclusively, about the serial killings that punctuate the movie. It's a ghost story, about the almost-killed being viewed as if they were. Or worse--that they've become dangerous, walking time bombs whose experience has placed them beyond the common law of common experience, and rendered them entirely unpredictable.
But how can life possibly be lived once random murder has come so close and with such mad indiscretion? How can life be lived as a form of death? Having survived their ordeal, our characters become personae non grata, treated the way terminal cancer patients are often treated--like they're not quite there, or are stubbornly, inconveniently delaying the inevitable. Makoto, Kozue and Naoki (played by actress Aoi's real brother, Masaru) have their distinct postbus experiences: Makoto leaves home to wander, is eventually divorced by his wife and treated as an embarrassment by his family. The kids' mother abandons their unhappy household, their father subsequently dies in a car crash (we're pretty sure it's suicide), and the two wind up living alone, unspeaking, in their squalid house. But common pain proves a common bond: Only when Makoto seeks them out and they set up housekeeping--sleeping in the shape of a torii (if we're not reading too much into it), with the kids parallel to each other and Makoto serving as the bridge--does their dream state start to lift.
Aoyama alludes to François Truffaut's 400 Blows, employs Western music to make certain sometimes cloying points and eventually winds up adapting the road movie to his metaphysical survivors' tale. Despite the Ozu-inspired angles and distance of his film, his taste for sentiment is hardly an un-Western inspiration. But he's certainly indicting Japanese culture. Had this been a Western film, the Holocaust would likely have been an unavoidable issue (how differently its survivors are treated, for instance, and why). Grief counselors would have stopped the kids' story in its tracks. Tom Cruise would have been the lawyer fighting their damage suit against the bus company.
Instead, the culture of Eureka explodes the idea of Japanese family into something as twisted as Busjack Man's psyche. Kozue listens silently on the phone as her auntie says how much she has meant to visit, how much she really wanted her and her brother to live with her...and is the insurance money still coming in? The prodigal Makoto tells his family he's OK. "He said he's OK," his brother says, "now leave him alone." Naoki, the most damaged and silent and unapproachable, exhibits strange reactions to everything, including the extended visit of his cousin Akihiko (Saitoh Yohichiroh), a wack-job college student who is probably a family plant, but who provides much of the movie's much-needed humor. The secretary at the construction firm where Makoto works (his redemption is incremental; he rides a bicycle before he boards another bus) reveals that she too lost her parents as a child and was put into an orphanage by relatives who stole her insurance money. Makoto develops a mysterious cough.
Eureka is the most novelistic film to hit these shores since...well, at risk of revealing some kind of pro-Asian prejudice, Edward Yang's Yi Yi, another film with a seriously unhurried approach to construction. One of the most intriguing and seductive things about Aoyama's film, as was the case with Yi Yi, is how we're never so captivated by the obvious as we are by the painfully subtle. The serial killings that follow our quartet around (our suspicions flow like tides between the characters) seem almost incidental next to their inner lives. Likewise the pursuit of Makoto by the police inspector (Matsushige Yutaka) who killed Busjack Man, and who clearly wants to achieve absolution for the slaughter by proving Makoto's gone bad. "Your eyes were the same as the killer's," he tells Makoto. All we can remember is Makoto dissolving in shame and nerves.
No, the moments of Eureka that wring out your brain are more delicately devastating. Kozue--the movie's principal character when all is said and done, its conscience, its emotional bridge-builder, its selfless repository of pain--crosses a railroad track with her bicycle, stopping to consider the oncoming train, staring full-faced into the camera as if to ask our approval for whatever she does. Then, in an insidious bit of Joycean coincidence, unknowable by anyone but us, Makoto gets off that train. Krzysztof Kieslowski used to devise moments of such tantalizing realism of possibility, although they were usually a little less terrible than this particular moment of Eureka.
Aoyama's movie played at Cannes last year--one screening, no doubt because of its inconvenient length. It then played at the New York Film Festival. (For purposes of full disclosure, be advised that this writer was on the festival's selection committee.) It now opens courtesy of the invaluable Shooting Gallery Film Series, which has already made it possible for New Yorkers to see Marziyeh Meshkini's The Day I Became a Woman, among other otherwise unreleased films. And there's more good news: Aoyama returns to Cannes this year with a new film called Desert Moon. On the promise of Eureka, Aoyama makes it a very attractive prospect to head for the sunny French Riviera, to sit in the dark.
Bright and eager, bouncy and buoyant, sharp-eyed and quick-eared and passionately in love--those are a few of the ways you could describe Calle 54, director Fernando Trueba's tribute to a dozen Latin-jazz stars of three generations. Among them: Chico O'Farrill, Israel "Cachao" Lopez, Tito Puente, Chucho and Bebo Valdes, Paquito D'Rivera and Jerry and Andy Gonzalez.
The result is a catchy, discerning performance film about Latin jazz, one sure to be numbered among the few outstanding movies about music, with Dolby Surround sound to die for.
The 46-year-old Spanish director has a long and interestingly twisty oeuvre. The Year of the Awakening (1986) followed a Spanish boy's discovery of sex with a nurse in a sanitarium. Belle Époque (1992) copped an Oscar for its bawdy picaresque tale of pre-Franco Spain, where a young pacifist army deserter finds refuge with a wealthy man and his four voluptuous and seductive daughters. Two Much/Loco de Amor (1996) starred Antonio Banderas, Melanie Griffith and Daryl Hannah in an updated screwball comedy where con man Banderas beds both women by pretending to be two different men; the film got a lot of attention because of the off-camera sparks between Banderas and Griffith.
Trueba says it was the magic of improvisation--what Whitney Balliett called "the sound of surprise"--that Latin jazz ensnared him with twenty years ago. His fluidly dynamic camera work demonstrates just how thoroughly he understands and has internalized and formalized the technique into his cinematography. Shooting the performance footage in a historic environment (Sony, once Columbia, studios in midtown Manhattan) that is both easily controlled and sonic heaven, Trueba maxes out on sound and vision. Not only does he make sure we see how, for instance, Chucho Valdes's huge hands careen up and down the keyboard, he cross-cuts shots avidly along the music's flow. That way he can dart around the bandstand, alighting on each of the musicians at work, effectively re-creating the sense of conversational dialogue that underlies truly effective improvisation.
At least that's the intellectual frame that, like a lot of good art, Latin jazz energetically bursts out of. Trueba replicates that process too, via the daring and exuberant elegance of much of his camera work. Take his characteristic languid pan that starts from Eliane Elias's bare foot tapping against her piano pedals, moves up her leg, lingers briefly over her décolletage and focuses on her flashing virtuoso's hands. Or the way his cameras bob and weave around Puente, his face a series of kinetic masks, as the timbales virtuoso capers around the stage: It's as if they were dancing.
Though it's more performance film than history, Calle 54 does serve up some backstory about the performers, suggesting the serpentine coils shaping both their own and their music's development. Each musician gets a chapter, usually beginning wherever each calls home.
Puente, for instance, is shot in his City Island restaurant in the Bronx, where he tours the camera through the pictures of Latin jazz greats hanging on the wall--the closest the movie comes to formal genealogy. O'Farrill briefly recalls the postwar days when Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza and Machito were formulating Cubop, or Afro-Cuban bebop, and he became the new music's chief organizer and orchestrator. (In the studio, Trueba shoots O'Farrill and his big band in evocative black and white.) Chucho Valdes joins his father, Bebo, a virtuoso in his own right who performed with the likes of Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole at Havana's famed Tropicana hotel in its heyday, for a wonderful, musically and emotionally charged duet; the episode also gives us a sidelong glimpse into the Cuban diaspora. (Bebo left his family and bolted the island when Castro took over, married a Scandinavian woman and has never returned; Chucho, who still lives there, leads the privileged life of the Cuban artistic elite and sees his father every few years when he's touring.) Andy Gonzalez visits the nondescript South Bronx house where he and brother Jerry, still in high school, first conceived the Nuyorican-soul hybrid that powers their ironically named Fort Apache Band.
But it's in the old Columbia studio that Calle 54 really delivers. Trueba's cameras seem to be everywhere--lurking over drummers, swooping up and down at pianists, dancing around horn players. His eye is as active as the music and helps create the illusion that you're moving in your seat--an illusion the music, with its emphasis on solo flights and fierce rhythms, demands. And to pump the adrenaline, the sterling sound puts viewers center stage. (The soundtrack CD is stellar.)
Calle 54 was released last fall to qualify for the Oscars. It didn't get one, but its planned one-week run last October stretched to three, thanks to popular demand. Sources say that for its rerelease Miramax, its distributor, is relying largely on word of mouth to put it over. Calle 54 will surely get that in plenty, but in the post-Ken Burns world, it would be shortsighted not to flex some serious marketing muscle for this film. It wouldn't take much to break this flick out of its expected niche.
When the guy I'm seeing, Dan, invited me to the Wayne Wang film The Center of the World I felt sure it would lead to a hot night. The movie poster featured a stripper licking a lollipop and I'd heard that Wang had collaborated on the script with novelist Paul Auster. The film sounded sexy but erudite, kind of like me. "I hear it's a feminist, indie Pretty Woman," Dan said, "and supposedly the sex is real." That was enough to catapult me into a seat, but after ten minutes watching the pretentious, digital-video-shot claptrap the only emotion swirling in me was disgust at Wang's fake take on female power.
Bridget Jones's Diary, on the other hand, was low on my list of movie priorities. Though like every other single woman I'd enjoyed the book, I just didn't get the Renéeacute;e Zellweger appeal, and I was convinced the adaptation would be glossy and corny. So when my friend Emily asked me to accompany her, I agreed only in the interest of female bonding. As Emily happily gobbled Whoppers and laughed at every joke, I rolled my eyes and shook my head. But by the time I got to Renée lip-synching to "All By Myself" I was a goner, crushed out on the character, hooked on the film. It was so bizarre: The indie erotic drama's take on women proved shallow and unbelievable, while the mainstream mega-hit pretty much got women right. Who knew?
The Center of the World was directed by Wayne Wang and written by Wang and Auster under the pseudonym Ellen Benjamin Wong from a story by Wang, Auster, novelist Siri Hustvedt and multimedia artist Miranda July. The plot revolves around an Internet entrepreneur named Richard (Peter Sarsgaard) who pays Florence, a stripper (Molly Parker), $10,000 to spend three nights with him in a Las Vegas hotel. Florence, an aspiring rock drummer, needs the money but wants to set limits, so she insists that there be no talk about feelings, no kissing on the mouth and no penetration. Each night will begin at 10 and end at 2, and she even finagles herself a Woolfean room of her own.
Night one goes without a hitch--she puts on a tight dress, does an erotic dance for Richard and after telling him she doesn't want to go fast, brings him to orgasm in about three minutes. But by night two, after they go out on the town and share some laughs, the attractive grungers begin to fall for each other, and everything gets confusing. Caught up in a playful moment, Florence kisses Richard on the mouth and immediately regrets it, insisting, "We have to stick to the agreement.... If we don't play by the rules this isn't going to work." The relationship must be kept fiduciary; feelings complicate money.
Yet the couple can't stick to the rules--each gets broken and love quickly erupts into violence. In the denouement Florence lies on the bed, intones, "You want real? I'll give you real," masturbates in front of him (always a pleasant way to say goodbye) and the two lovers part ways and return to their isolated, empty lives.
The film strives for a gritty, intellectual tone--like Wang and Auster's previous collaboration, the pseudo-gritty, pseudo-intellectual Smoke. But despite The Center of the World's low-light, digital-video format and indie-cred cast, the premise is an old misogynistic crowd-pleaser: hooker falls for her john. This timeless tale has roots in Jane Eyre and Pygmalion and was featured more recently in Leaving Las Vegas, Indecent Proposal and the genre-defining standard, Pretty Woman, in which Julia Roberts, America's sweetwhore, similarly insisted on no mouth-to-mouth.
It's a tale men never tire of: You pay a woman to sleep with you but she likes it, meaning you, so much that she wants to keep doing it for free. Whore can morph into wife. It's a tale with a panacean, if twisted, appeal to single women as well: If a guy can fall for a hooker, then gosh darn it, maybe I've got a chance too!
Wang's ending is far darker than Pretty Woman's, and his intent is to show that money is a corruptive, alienating force (though the dot-com crash makes his take seem outré). Director of, among other films, The Joy Luck Club, Chan Is Missing and the chick flick Anywhere But Here, Wang has stated that he is "pro-woman" and that in The Center of the World he wanted "to show audiences how strong this character is, in spite of what she has to sacrifice."
Yet the Florence he has written comes off as little more than a computer geek's wet dream; she moves sexily but doesn't have much to say. Despite one intriguing monologue about having held a job rescuing people from locked cars, she is devoid of nuance. When she pulls at a beer morosely we know she's "numbing herself"; when she applies lipstick we know she's "putting on an act"; when she stands in front of an empty pool we know her "life is hollow." Even her nurselike name is too obvious by half. Furthermore, the guy she falls for seems like such a socially inept loser that it's hard to see even a glimpse of what draws her to him.
In the final moments of the film Wang gives us a shot of Florence pounding away on her drums, but she comes off as bruised and weakened, more vulnerable than before. Though financially richer she is emotionally bereft and may never open herself up again. She doesn't seem strong, she seems wrecked for life.
Bridget Jones's Diary, written by Helen Fielding, Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis and directed by Sharon Maguire, supplies its heroine with a Hollywood ending but also gives her a rich character, a sense of humor and a brain. While Florence is slender, cool and matte, Bridget (Renée Zellweger) is chunky, compulsive and sweaty. Yet she's a striving compulsive sweater, so her plight plays as engaging.
After well-off barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) snubs Bridget at a party, she develops a crush on her publishing-house boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant). Charmed by Daniel's smarmy wit, and status, she moonily gazes at him in his glass-walled office as he types on a flat-screen monitor and takes important calls. When he makes a sexual advance, she doesn't press charges but instead sends him a joking e-mail stating, "How dare you sexually harass me in this appalling manner?" and shows up to work the next day in a see-through top.
The blatant flirting is mined for comedy over sex appeal: She's thwarting the rules brazenly but seems prepared to accept the consequences; she seems less a slut than a kook. Though we know she's flirting with disaster we get the feeling that no matter what happens, she'll pick herself up and brush herself off.
Daniel's entire modus operandi with Bridget is to banter in a mock-sexist way. He calls her "bitch," "orders" her to come to dinner with him, and when she asks if he loves her after some kinky (read: anal) sex, says, "Shut up or I'll do it again." Yet Bridget is no pushover herself; she seems capable of matching him tit for tat. She blows him off the first time he shows interest, calls him a "stupid ass," challenges him when she's suspicious of his behavior and tells him how she feels.
When Daniel inevitably betrays and rejects her, Bridget is forced not only to get over her broken heart but also to get a new job--because she can't stand to be around him. Getting screwed gets her screwed; though she didn't exactly sell her booty, now she's out on it. But before she leaves she publicly humiliates him, in a clever Tootsie-like outburst, cheered on by her female co-workers.
Instead of mourning her state of unemployment she sees her situation as an excuse to look for a better job, and she winds up getting one, as a television producer. Her new boss puts her on the air, she snags (with some help) a good story and is catapulted to celebrity.
The high career status helps to empower her--when Daniel comes crawling back with his tail between his legs, telling her, "If I can't make it with you, I can't make it with anyone," she thinks for a second and then tells him she's "not willing to gamble my life on someone who's not quite sure.... I'm still looking for something more extraordinary than that." In the end she snags her extraordinary man, but, more important, she gets her act together, while Florence in The Center of the World may never do so.
One of the keystones of Helen Fielding's book Bridget Jones's Diary was Bridget's daily, self-flagellating listing of the alcohol, calorie and cigarette units she consumed. While the joke got stale after the first few pages, women related to this tallying, because it anchored its heroine in a sensual life. Like many conflicted single women, Bridget was a hedonist striving for self-control.
The film maintains sensuality as a theme: In almost every scene we glimpse Bridget coming into contact with the physical world. We watch her wriggle into her panties, inhale countless cigarettes, slurp margaritas through a straw, spoon down cereal, wax her pubic area, get dough on her face, fall on the floor. Some of the jokes play off as pale imitations of Lucille Ball but most of them feel hilariously true-to-life.
While most romantic comedies feature scenes in which the heroine falls on her ass (as Janeane Garofalo put it, all a beautiful woman has to do to be funny is fall down a lot or act stupid), the heroines never seem to get a hair out of place in the process. But Renée gets filthier than Julia, Jennifer or J-Lo. Bridget is literally a mess--unlike Florence in The Center of the World, who, in spite of the fact that she has sex in almost every scene, never gets mussed in the slightest.
The one Bridget Jones fluid we don't get to see is blood--that is saved for Glenn Close, whom Bridget, in a postdump slump, mournfully watches in Fatal Attraction on TV. As the quintessential psychotic single gal of the late1980s gets shot to death by her lover's wife, Bridget's eyes pop out of her head in bemused wonder. She seems to be saying, "Is this what's in store for me?" Yet her glance has a slyness that lets us know she's not really worried, that she thinks Adrian Lyne got it wrong, that Fatal Attraction was a piece of crap. The moment works as a comment on the future of women in movies. In the post-Bridget Jones era, women get to mock the misogynistic standbys, not live in them. With Helen Fielding rapidly eclipsing Adrian Lyne as an A-list Hollywood player, perhaps we'll see more films where pithy careerist single gals can meet ends cheerier than a bullet wound.
Tim Appelo reviews the film With a Friend Like Harry.
Facebook Like Box