23rd 01 - 2011 | 5 comments »

Eleven Men Out (Strákarnir okkar, 2005)

Director: Róbert I. Douglas

By Marilyn Ferdinand

My local library, the Skokie Public Library, is, I’m convinced, the most wonderful community library in the country, and it’s got the credentials to prove it—the 2008 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor for libraries. The huge catalog of foreign-language films the library carries or has available for download to accommodate village residents who speak one or more of 97 languages likely cannot be found through even the best video rental sources. And while I would never guess that Icelandic was one of those languages, the Skokie library has a few titles to accommodate those from that small country as well. The hubby picked up one of them yesterday for our evening entertainment, an irresistible-sounding film about a gay soccer club based in Reykjavík.

Eleven Men Out wastes no time in getting to the point. The powerful pro team, KR, moves into the locker room after a game, where they are pursued by photographers and reporters. One of the reporters is talking to Ottar Thor (Björn Hlynur Haraldsson), who is concerned where a photo of him will be placed in the magazine. She says that it will be on the last page, the last thing people read. He complains. She says that if he gives her something good, he could get a cover. He decides on the spot to come out as gay to her, the photographers, and his unsuspecting and flabbergasted teammates. Ottar gets his magazine cover—and gets booted off the team by the homophobic team owner.

Ottar’s father (Sigurður Skúlason) tells him to give up this nonsense or, barring that, to get psychiatric help to “cure” his “illness.” Ottar’s brother Orri (Jón Atli Jónason, who cowrote the screenplay), a completely contemptible person who treats his girlfriend of two months like trash, merely insults his brother at every opportunity and shows more concern for the money owed him for rentals from his video store than the tumult Ottar has caused his parents. Gugga (Lilja Nótt Þórarinsdóttir), Ottar’s ex-wife and a former Miss Iceland, is sloppy drunk for most of the movie; neither she nor Ottar understand how Ottar has made their son Maggi’s (Arnmundur Ernst Björnsson) life hell at school.

Ottar’s friend Pétur (Helgi Björnsson), a former pro who had his moment of glory scoring a goal off the mighty Arsenal team in London, coaches an amateur soccer team. He offers Ottar a position, mentioning that his team has a few gay members so Ottar won’t get the same treatment as he did on KR. Alas, Ottar is now a very high-profile homosexual, and the few straight men on the team resign. The discussion Pétur has with them is hilarious in its circularity (“But I’m not gay.” “Exactly. That’s why this isn’t a gay team.”). Of course, it doesn’t matter that the team is mixed; perception is everything, and these men fear guilt by association.

Eventually, the team is composed entirely of gay players. They change the name of the team to Pride United and adopt a uniform that has a rainbow stripe on the sleeve. After winning their first game through the homophobic forfeit of the other team, they finally get a chance to prove their worth by winning enough games to reach first in their league. A random drawing of teams for the playoffs has them bussing to northern Iceland to play a team in an isolated hamlet and partying in a pathetic disco called Club Cambodia, run by the Cambodian wife of the other team’s coach. Maggi meets their lovely half-Cambodian daughter Rosá (Pattra Sriyanonge), who asks the 13-year-old boy if he wants to fuck. He’s taken aback and nervous, but she says matter-of-factly that there’s not much else to do in her town.

The film climaxes when KR, worried about fallout from their homophobia, agrees to play Pride United. The date of the match falls, coincidentally, on the same day as Reykjavík’s gay pride parade. As a multicolored balloon ribbon follows the floats filled with drag queens down the streets of Reykjavík, Pride United and KR face off. If you want to know the outcome, stay with the closing credits; this film does not traffick in the traditional underdog payoff of most sports movies by filming the big game.

To many Americans, this film may seem thoroughly contemptible and behind the times. After all, have we not seen openly gay politicians rise to national prominence, openly gay entertainers like Ellen DeGeneres win lucrative modeling contracts and continue on with their successful careers, gay writers land on best-seller lists? Have we not also seen gay bashing continue, gay marriage rights come—and go—in various states, strong coalitions of religious leaders forming organized offensives against gay rights of every stripe? Have we not seen a 2010 film by a gay director present two lesbians in the most straight-friendly manner imaginable? If you listen carefully to the Icelandic, you’ll notice that the language has only one word for homosexual, whereas the subtitles change it up frequently. This one difference represents what I like so much about Eleven Men Out—its direct approach to its subject.

The film doesn’t sugarcoat the homophobia that exists in Iceland; it also doesn’t have its gay characters back down into stereotypes or defensiveness. Ottar says he is what he is, and by the way, that includes a narcissistic soccer star whose vanity brought him out of the closet without considering the consequences of an abrupt public outing on his teammates, friends, and family. Continuing with his tunnel vision, he takes up with a young soccer player on Pride United, offering up movie theme nights for entertainment; he’s caught completely off guard when his lover walks out on him, preferring to spend his time in more youthful, active pursuits. He is also careless about having Maggi walking in on him having sex with his lover. The film is utterly casual about nudity, mixing women and naked men in locker rooms without comment; a group hug in the showers is handled unself-consciously by the actors.

The film also doesn’t whitewash the very serious drinking problem the country has, as evidenced by Icelandic singer Björk’s admission to drinking a liter of vodka every Friday, a “custom” she picked up from her grandparents. Gugga is drunk all the time, but so is everyone else in the film, and there are virtually no scenes in which a character doesn’t have a drink in his or her hand. It also doesn’t present picture-postcard images of Iceland; in fact, I’m surprised the populace hasn’t drowned in all the rain, which isn’t the gentle mist one finds in more image-conscious Irish films, but comes down in torrents on the umbrella-free characters.

While Eleven Men Out strives for some kind of upbeat ending, with the Pride/KR match, Gugga’s entry into rehab, a real talk between Maggi and his parents, and Ottar’s mother (Lilja Guðrún Jónsdóttir) forcing her husband to sit in the stands with the fans of Pride United, the film doesn’t forsake the reality of Iceland’s attitude. “You didn’t expect us to win,” Ottar says to Pétur, a wonderfully comic line that sums up a realistic, sardonic attitude not only to the difference in skill between Pride United and KR, but also the uphill battle facing homosexuals in a society whose language has barely changed since it landed on the island in the 9th century.

I like how unsympathetic a part Atli Jónason was willing to write for himself, making him the perfect comic man you love to hate. This is a funny movie, but it’s not blind to the seriousness of its subjects and isn’t willing to turn its characters into caricatures for the sake of a few yucks. Unlike a film I didn’t much like, Up in the Air (2009), it doesn’t use its serious subjects as mere background. The film is too packed to get a deep character study, but we do get a good feel for the nasty situation Icelandic homosexuals find themselves in and their real strength to overcome it.

19th 01 - 2011 | 13 comments »

The Room (2003)

Director/Screenwriter/Executive Producer/Star: Tommy Wiseau

By Roderick Heath

The Room has grown slowly but with ever-increasing momentum to become perhaps the preeminent Bad Movie of our time. When people talk about Bad Movies, the kind I mean by capitalising the epithet, they’re usually interested in the pleasures gained from the obscene mockery of all good sense exhibited on the screen. There’s affection in the way we love Bad Movies, akin to the impulse that makes people take in stray animals. Less noble emotions, too, including a level of wrath for the frustration that many of us aim at movies for being made by people richer and prettier and more talented than we are (or who at least mysteriously have access to enough money to make them) finds appropriate targets in select icons that encapsulate everything that can be rotten about cinema. These people become scapegoats, whipping boys, Gadarene swine for all the small frustrations and dashed hopes, the cumulative cognitive dissonance and offended sensibilities that movies can provoke and fuel. And yet, anyone who’s ever tried to create anything can empathise, usually distantly, but sometimes all too keenly, with the failures of artistic ambition that, a bit like the way decomposing marine life lends a phosphorescence to the brine, illuminate what’s actually good that much more clearly.

We rate movies according to the success with which they, in fact, lie to us. A film that so utterly compels us with its lies, say, The Godfather, Gone with the Wind, or any other movie hailed as a popular icon of great cinema, stands in contrast to Bad Movies, which are defined by their failure in this regard. The worse the movie, the more evident it usually is that the movie is constructed by a complex interplay of technicians and actors. Therein lies the beauty – or anti-beauty – of Ed Wood’s films, and this truth is also present in Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 debut film The Room, feeding into the playful audience participation that usually infuses such cult artefacts, as if, in failing to live up to any reasonable standard of professionalism, they have instead become open, interactive creations. Such works offer, in their way, unfiltered windows into their makers’ lives and attitudes, redolent of narcissism or at least breathtaking insensitivity to the problems of art. The cult status of The Room gathers more ironies in that the cult was germinated amongst the young culturati of California, essentially the same milieu from which the film itself emerged. Tommy Wiseau’s origins have been described as obscure, and, of course, Wiseau’s weird accent, bizarrely retro personal style, and strange notions about what a film should look and sound like readily designate him as a figure of fun.

Such considerations serve merely as intellectual prologue for me to the actual experience of watching The Room, which is, alternately, deliriously funny and deeply depressing. Armed with a budget that would have been entirely sufficient for other, actually talented filmmakers to put together something great, Wiseau produced one of the most god-awful films ever made. There’s often a peculiar kind of magic at work with bad films, as the piling up of mistakes and idiocies metastasize, and replicate, in their way, the same accumulation of refinement or invention that makes for great films; they therefore can be just as compelling, as each little fragment of foolishness takes on its own epic lustre. The Room certainly fulfils this requirement of the awe-inspiringly Bad Movie. I spent long stretches of the film clawing the air in pinioned physical reaction, and had to take a long breather in the middle, for it was starting to make me feel like a prisoner in a Kafkaesque nightmare. One by one, all of my more gentlemanly, inquisitive, broad-minded instincts were met and defeated by this film; it actively invites cheap shots at such rancid conceits as Wiseau’s evident pride in serving his body up as what he obviously thinks is a strapping example of manhood, but which in certain shots and lighting, looks rather like he’s suffered some sort of massive tissue trauma. Even the film’s title broadcasts a stultifying lack of imagination. What room does it refer to? The bedroom? The living room? The room in the loony bin waiting for anyone who watches this film without warning?

The Room is the story of Johnny (Wiseau), an all-round awesome dude with a fiancée— oh, sorry, “future wife” as she’s constantly referred to—Lisa (Juliette Danielle) who live together in a dream apartment in San Francisco. We know it’s San Francisco thanks to the endless opening montage of tourist brochure locations. And if we didn’t notice it then, Wiseau re-uses shots of the Golden Gate Bridge and other locales throughout The Room in his constant, ham-fisted scene interchanges. He even appears in some of them, crossing the frame with all the apparent randomness of CCTV footage or one of those “actual documented proof” movies depicting a Bigfoot sighting. Actually, with his long shaggy hair and knobbly, fit yet ungainly body, Wiseau looks a bit like Bigfoot, strategically shaved.

But I digress. Johnny is an employee with a bank who credits himself with saving his employers large sums of money, and expects a big promotion. Lisa talks about having to do something with computers, but she’s a failure at that, and so spends all day every day sitting about their apartment. Early on in The Room, Johnny comes home with a gift for Lisa, a sexy red dress she promptly dons as an overture to a scene of extended, sweaty passion, but only after a bit of banter with Denny (Philip Haldiman). He’s a young man whom Johnny apparently once wanted to adopt and whose college education Johnny is paying for, in spite of the fact that Denny acts like an emotionally retarded 11-year-old, following Lisa and Johnny up to their bedroom and hurling himself into their pillow fight, before they make it clear to him they want him to go away so they can make sexy-time.

Later, there will be a dramatic moment in which Denny is threatened by a gun-wielding drug dealer who insists in an unreasonably forceful manner that he be paid for selling Denny some of his wares, but fortunately Johnny and Johnny’s best friend Mark (Greg Sestero) grab the thug and take his gun without great difficulty before bundling him away. After a few tearful recriminations, this incident is not mentioned again. Its purpose, we later learn, is simply to get a gun into the story. Mark is the object of Lisa’s lust, for Lisa, as she explains to her reprehending, patronising mother Claudette (Carolyn Minnott), is bored with Johnny in spite of the fact that, as everyone repeatedly states, he’s a being of overwhelming goodness. He is a river to his people: father-figure to Denny, breadwinner to Lisa, and his apartment is, as Claudette describes it, a bit like Grand Central Station for the people who traipse through it. Michelle and Mike (Robyn Paris and Mike Holmes), a couple who, in spite of being in what appears to be their mid-20s, feel a need to sneak into Johnny’s place under the cover of doing “homework” in order to erotically share chocolates. Michelle is also Lisa’s confidante and sometime-enabler of her wayward sociopathic streak, half-heartedly trying to talk her into being honest with Johnny, but mostly just giggling along as if they’re both high and having playful fights with household objects. Other randomly introduced members of this circle of friends include Peter (Kyle Vogt), a psychologist who mumbles vague opinions about Lisa’s mindset, and some guy who looks a bit like Danny Huston who first appears during the climactic party scenes and yet seems instantly included as a major character.

An aspect of The Room that attracts the most immediately obvious incredulity, and yet which I found myself particularly taken by, is the way it accidentally trashes the settled niceties of humdrum screenwriting. It’s as if Wiseau, in penning his script, began toying with many possible discursions for his tale, decided to pursue none except the central romantic crucifixion, and then did no rewriting whatsoever. Scenes lurch by and repeat without specific motion, the story has an entirely disconnected rhythm, and Wiseau doesn’t just introduce conflict, but every conflict he can think of. Johnny tries blatantly to make Denny his lovably foolish mascot, as he cajoles the guys into playing football when they’re wearing tuxedos (Why they’re wearing tuxedos is not explained. Is someone getting married? Going to a funeral? Winning the Nobel Prize? It seems to be for some kind of wedding rehearsal — but whose wedding?) and stoking panicky, weepy concern from Lisa and Claudette when he gets threatened by that drug dealer. Claudette mentions early in the film that “I definitely have breast cancer.” Mike, during one of Denny’s impromptu football games, wobbles and nearly collapses as if he’s suffering from some illness, too. Neither of these aspects, like the drug dealer, is mentioned again. When Wiseau himself isn’t on screen, the combination of the otherwise blandly attractive cast and the jostling, clichéd story lines resembles clip-show excerpts from a particularly bad mid-’90s soap opera, assembled without any of the connective tissue or resolutions. That’s actually the highest praise I can give it.

Sometimes the Bad Movie cult engages in a kind of snobbery, where all low-budget films or even just old films with dated special effects and production values, are food for ridicule, a notion I’ve always been intensely at odds with when the film exhibited some passion and smarts. The original canon of cultish bad movies was built around monster movies and tacky spectacles like Plan Nine from Outer Space, Eegah!, Robot Monster, etc. Later, these were supplemented by movies from the late ’60s and early ’70s that tried to exploit the Counterculture, and then finally, by calamitous misfires of the blockbuster mentality, like Showgirls and Battlefield Earth. But The Room is something different. Aspects of its awfulness are timeless—the egotistical one-man-show quality of the production, with the auteur parading his sexual and emotional hang-ups, as well as incompetence, across the screen; the soul-witheringly awful writing; and total lack of cinematic intelligence and craft in the filmmaking. But other aspects are more contemporary in their obnoxiousness—the sex scenes, with their stale reproduction of visual gimmickry from shitty cable TV filler flicks and cheapo music videos; the dreadful synthesiser music score with its endlessly repeated, yet completely unmemorable main theme, and random quotes from Satie and Beethoven that swirl surreally under dialogue exchanges. The Room is the inevitable by-product of the independent film revolution, a specific summary of everything that could go wrong with the “Hey, I can make a movie, too!” philosophy.

One amazing thing about The Room is that it cost a reported $6 million to make. Apart from the incessant blue screen work in the rooftop scenes, in which exactly the same light and sun-through-cloud effects occur from scene to scene, it’s hard to imagine what the hell that money got spent on. Its sex scenes are like some hitherto undescribed 10th circle hell, interminable montage interludes scored to ballads that sound like they were recorded by the clapper loader’s brother’s band. Leading lady Danielle seems to have been chosen mostly for her willingness to let Wiseau’s carcass undulate on top of her. Undoubtedly these would-be sexy bits are the film’s selling point as some kind of erotic drama, and yet they wouldn’t get a nun bothered, except possibly by nausea. The first sexual interlude sports red rose petals crumbled over Lisa’s skin, dissolves between lighted candles and shots through the gauzy drapes around the bed, and rainwater flowing down the window. Soft-core? How about dribble-core? Most of these elements repeat in the next bedroom bit, too, like some horrible, recurring dream. These scenes elucidate both Johnny’s awesomeness and Lisa’s perfidy: how she can seem so blown away by Johnny in such moments, and yet still want to reject him and cheat on him, is supposed to be utterly mysterious. The fact that he’s an unattractive dimwit doesn’t seem to be obvious to anyone but Lisa and the audience.

Lisa and Mark’s first shag, on the stairs, sees them disrobing and fondling, and then, after a delicate dissolve, finds them both fully clothed again, still seated on the stairs. As the story gains terrible momentum when Johnny fails to land his sought-after promotion, Lisa encourages him to get drunk and go crazy. A jarring jump-cut later, intoxicated high spirits are communicated by how Lisa now wears Johnny’s necktie around her head; they then ascend to the bedroom for more eye-wounding contortions. But all of this is part of Lisa’s evil plot to justify leaving him—she plans to tell her mother and others that Johnny got drunk and hit her. She never does actually get around to leaving, at least not until another hour has passed. Lisa’s initial seduction of Mark is equally hilarious, as she comes on as vaguely crazy. Her character passes through some mad switchbacks of behaviour, sometimes full of tender concern for Denny and elucidating her appreciation of Johnny’s caring side, and then violently transforming into the scheming minx full of contempt and lies about to ruin everything. Mark shifts from a confused but generally pleasant hipster doofus into a posturing, pot-smoking jerk who first assaults Peter when he confronts Mark about his strange behaviour and then attacks Johnny in the wrenching climax. Such drama represents character evolution of the lowest calibre.

Ed Wood’s films maintain a sort of honesty, and their efforts to say, in their fumbling way, vaguely original and serious things in the context of their ’50s origins about arms control and sexual understanding, inspire a certain level of affection for Wood amongst casual and serious cinephiles alike. Wiseau’s agenda is much less agreeable. Wiseau’s portrait of Johnny as undone by widespread betrayal has qualities in common with some great tales of ridiculous men, like Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. Here however, it just reeks of gruesome self-pitycomposed of a potent misogyny mixed with a strange naiveté about the real world. Recognisable human behaviour is almost nowhere to be seen. Several scenes depict Claudette lecturing Lisa on what she owes Johnny and how Lisa can’t support herself and therefore needs to tether herself to his financial security, scenes that reveal Wiseau’s understanding of gender relations to be jammed somewhere back in 1917. Lisa’s ultimate crime of not comprehending Johnny’s greatness is therefore a compulsive act of self-destructiveness. By the time Johnny finally shoots himself after a titanic bout of maudlin demolition, it becomes clear that the film he’s made is a version of a child’s pouting session where he fantasises how much people will regret hurting him once he’s dead. The internal dynamics of Wiseau’s scenes often defy description, like the one in which Mark and Peter come to blows, or the already-immortal scene in which Lisa’s distanced provocation drives Johnny to scream, “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” The characters move on from these concussive, sometimes near-deadly altercations almost immediately, without repercussions. Only one scene obtains anything like a whiff of authenticity, when Johnny recounts how he met Lisa just after his arrival in San Francisco.

Fortunately, Wiseau had the perfect lead actor to focus the qualities of his writing and direction. Wiseau’s acting is bad enough to warp the fabric of time and space, his complete lack of charisma only compounding his seeming insensibility in many scenes, refusing to look actors he’s exchanging lines with in the eye and mumbling so thickly that he’s had to redub his lines throughout, lip movements rarely synched to what he’s saying. He expresses emotion through violent exclamations, and theatrical groans and grunts only add to his accent in creating a likeness to a stoned Arnold Schwarzenegger with delusions of thespian capacity. Then there’s the spectacle of some of the other actors obviously trying to work out how to deliver the insipid drivel they’ve been given to speak. Wiseau’s inspired awfulness reaching an apogee in his moan-and-groan final scenes, trashing his house and shooting himself in a bratty fit, leaving Lisa and Mark to weep over his body and Mark to finally realise what a bitch Lisa is and walk out. Perhaps Lisa goes on to find her metier as a weapon of mass destruction for some obscure dictator. Either way, the ultimate statement of Wiseau’s movie is that it sucks to be him, and it’s one whose manifold inanities I feel like I’ve only touched on.

The effect of The Room is powerful, in a strange sort of way, as it lives up to the grand tradition of Bad Movies, and seems to infect everything else after it to make you feel both elated and wearied. It’s perhaps the first time I’ve ever been left feeling personally insulted by a filmmaker. The Room finishes, and yet its all-pervading awfulness remained with me. Everything seemed to grow darker, tainted by its touch. The likes of Michelangelo and Leo Tolstoy would have had their faith in creative endeavour shaken by it, and afterwards I started seeing the inner Wiseau in many a great artist, as if all efforts lead into an immense heart of crappiness.

13th 01 - 2011 | 5 comments »

Requiem (2006)

Director: Hans-Christian Schmid

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The filmmakers of the Berlin School have caught the interested and often admiring eye of serious cinephiles around the world since they began releasing their deceptively simple films at the beginning of the new millennium. The Berlin School filmmakers, of whom Christian Petzold (The State I’m In [2000], Yella [2007]) is perhaps the most iconic, generally shun the overtly political breast-beating other German filmmakers have engaged in with regard to Germany’s fraught past; instead, their stories are quite personal in scope. Yet there is an underlying seriousness of purpose that often puts difficult choices and feelings of guilt at the center of their films, thereby coming at the problem of the moral legacy with which Germans are still struggling from a less sensational, but no less acute angle.

These films vary in the degree to which they work; sometimes stripping them down too much takes some of the urgency of the questions they pose out of them. Such was the case, I felt, with Longing (2006), Valeska Grisebach’s Lady or the Tiger parable that never really fleshed out its dilemma for me. So, too, Hans-Christian Schmid’s most recent film, Storm (2009), seemed a hybrid of the overtly political and the politics of personal betrayal that didn’t do either perspective much justice. However, with Schmid’s earlier film, Requiem, the tone is perfect, and its tale of possession leading to tragedy is a perfect allegory for Nazi Germany’s brutal mindset.

Requiem, which tells the story of a modern-day demonic possession and exorcism, is based on the true story of German college student Anneliese Michel. Schmid’s take on this story, which certainly must be well-known in his country, focuses intensely on the possessed woman herself. In using this approach, Schmid does a remarkable thing. He takes us inside the life of someone who eventually comes to believe she is possessed by demons.

Unlike the makers of another film released about the same time that is also based on this story, The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), Schmid isn’t interested in deciding for us—and especially for the woman herself—whether her claims of possession are real. If we want to draw our own conclusions, screenwriter Bernd Lange has provided “evidence.” It must be kept in mind at all times, however, that this so-called evidence is the interpretation of a writer, and therefore not truly factual.

Michaela Klingler (Sandra Huller) is a 21-year-old woman with a strong and completely natural desire to become independent of her family and start her own life. She receives a letter in the mail informing her that she has been accepted to a college in another town. Her father (Burghart Klaussner) and younger sister (Friederike Adolph) are happy for her. Her mother (Imogen Kogge) reacts by saying, “How can you go there with your thing?” and reminds her of her previous failed attempt. A predictable fight ensues, during which Michaela accuses her mother of not wanting her to have anything of her own. This could be any family, anywhere in the world.

Michaela prevails with the support of her father, who arranges a dorm room for her. He drops her at her new home with a smile and a hug, and Michaela begins her first steps into freedom. On her first day of class, she is late. The professor stops her on the steps of the lecture hall as he describes a theory of teaching. He then asks her if she agrees with the theory. She answers that she doesn’t know. He asks her what she does believe in. She says, “In God.” The room explodes in titters—this is the rebellious ’70s after all. The professor cautions them that their response means they may not believe in much of anything, and that is a problem. In this not terribly subtle, but effective, way, Schmid is cautioning the film audience to suspend judgment about spirituality and its power. It also, however, provides a much subtler set-up for the rest of the film that believing in something too deeply can have grave consequences.

Michaela sees a woman from her hometown leaving the lecture hall at the end of class. At first, Hanna (Anna Blomeier) rebuffs her, but when Michaela later gives her a cheat sheet during an exam, she warms up. They become fast friends, especially after Hanna finds Michaela collapsed in her room and learns her secret—she has epilepsy. Michaela and Hanna have some carefree times together, including going to a mixer at which Michaela meets Stefan (Nicholas Reinke), a handsome young man who appears merely to want to get in her pants. She ends up as his girlfriend, however.

Michaela confesses to Hanna that she hears voices. Hanna thinks Michaela should see a doctor. Michaela argues that she’s seen doctors, been to hospitals, and taken pills all her life, and they have done her no good. She decides to follow her instinct to seek spiritual help.

Michaela goes home to see her parish priest to complain about the voices. He sternly chastises her for believing in demons, calling God and the Devil symbols rather than facts. Michaela sees another priest, who wants to perform an exorcism once he sees how agitated she becomes when he tries to pray with her. She has lost the ability to pray, touch the cross, and hold a rosary.

Events snowball, including a major fight with her mother and a break-up with Stefan, and eventually, Michaela ends up at home. Her mother and father are now convinced she is possessed, and they call in the two priests to start the exorcisms. The movie is almost over by the time the exorcism begins.

We recognize Michaela’s swearing and rude behavior from The Exorcist (1973), and it does seem demonic coming from such a pious girl. But it’s not horrifying. It could be the result of many factors, such as being off medication, heartache, school pressures, her mother’s disapproval, her own identification with St. Katherine, who suffered possessions all her life. What becomes obvious is that medical science is as primitive as religion at this point in time, and that a troubled girl brings out the worst in everyone, from her long-suffering mother to an eager young priest in love with the idea of exorcism.

The cast is uniformly superb, but Huller, who is in nearly every frame, gives one of the great performances I have ever seen. She brings to life a complex woman with a view of her condition consistent with who she is. Schmid adds to the verite feel of this film by shooting with a handheld camera and concentrating on close-ups, making us feel as though we are trying to peer into Michaela’s soul. I don’t know what was going on in this girl, but I found this film to be a fitting requiem to her spirit.

4th 01 - 2011 | 16 comments »

2010: My Favorites Year

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In the last blog entry, my partner Rod Heath gave his year in review and 10 favorite films of 2010. He also mentioned the ongoing dialogue we’ve had about the films we’ve seen and what has worked and not worked for each of us. Here’s what he said:

Marilyn’s been hungry for films with positive and expansively humanistic sensibilities, which have, sadly, been pretty thin on the ground. I’ve found myself, on the other hand, responding enthusiastically, or, at least, with a certain empathetic recognition, to the oft-brutal and misanthropic mood exhibited in so many films.

Rod, of course, is essentially correct about the kinds of films we’ve each pursued and how we have scored our respective reactions. I have not been impervious to the misanthropy afloat in the zeitgeist—indeed, I have found myself haunted by the dead-on critique of the current state of our culture by the mockumentary I’m Still Here—the mud-wallow that is reality TV, the rise of the dilettante to meteoric heights, self-obsession projected for mass consumption by enabling home and surveillance technologies, and the sanctification of the word “fuck” as the dominant term for emotion and emphasis. Do I want to escape all that? You bet! Art has the ability to ennoble, but it seems that most filmmakers are content these days to fish in wading pools and shoot into barrels. A paucity of films with ideas or any motivation to really wrestle with them has film audiences and critics falling all over themselves to try to find some nourishment for their minds and souls—hence, the declaration that Inception is the thinking man’s blockbuster, never mind that there’s nothing to think about but the plot twists.

I find myself in the grip of a very strong desire to find a lot more that’s real in my everyday experiences. The world has gotten too virtual for me, and even the movies, whose fictional stories have always helped put real life, once lived largely face to face and in real time, into much-needed perspective, are, as Rod put it, “thin on the ground.” For example, the gay and lesbian experience, so long banished from or opaquely referenced in movies, is now everywhere, with many a straight actor looking for a same-sex tongue kiss to keep up with the times. Ironically, lesbian director Lisa Cholodenko, given the chance to show how the other half really lives in The Kids Are All Right, chose to create a sitcom highly palatable to straight audiences, putting her characters in an upper-middle-class California milieu and offering a lesbian who is made invisible under a bulky blanket while failing to arouse her lesbian partner during a silly sex scene and who is then rushed into a straight sexual relationship for the duration of the movie.

Leave it to documentaries to provide a snapshot of where we are today—ironically, still remote from the world or in despair. Marwencol shows how a hideous assault on a cross-dresser in upstate New York sent the victim, exceedingly lucky to be alive, into a fantasy world populated by dolls whose names and stories stand in for a world the man is too frightened to face. Restrepo recalls the televised Vietnam War, but unlike with Vietnam, who has really connected their own fates with the men and women sent to the other side of the world to fight yet another war? And Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work continues a trend of documenting aging celebrities (Valentino: The Last Emperor, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster); watching Rivers’ desperate bid to keep working—and surely that’s why she agreed to do this documentary—seems to continue the freak show aspects of her current celebrity, but I’m not sure what it means on a cosmic level. Waiting for Superman is union-busting propaganda and fear mongering. And documentaries like Casino Jack and the United States of Money and Countdown to Zero (“convincingly argued and extremely polished, it has theatrical potential for auds whose reservoir of worry about humanity’s future hasn’t already run dry” says the Hollywood Reporter) provide too little too late for most of us.

As distribution for films made outside the United States or official channels continues to dwindle, it is harder for fresh, world-expanding visions to be seen. And yet they are there, and I’ve been lucky enough to see them. Recognizing films officially with awards based on whether they have played theatrically during a given year is a hegemonic and, given internet distribution, archaic practice that assures these films will not join in the publicity bonanza a show like the Oscars can provide. So I’m simply going to ignore this kind of nonsense and make a list of favorite films I’ve seen this year through any means at all.

In alphabetical order:

Asleep in the Sun (Alejandro Chomski)

Literary adaptations don’t have to be Oscar-baiting films on a grand scale. Alejandro Chomski’s sly and winning Asleep in the Sun reinvigorates the scifi horror film with humor and wisdom. It’s a smallish film with a big heart and charm to burn.

Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat)

Leave it to the brilliant Catherine Breillat to take the oft-told tale of Bluebeard and weave a grisly story of wish fulfillment that gives patriarchy its comeuppance.

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami)

Recalling the multinational, polylingual sex farces of Luis Buñuel, Abbas Kiarostami turns out a philosophical love story unlike anything I’ve ever seen—as puzzling and beautiful as love itself.

Lourdes (Jessica Hausner)

A perfectly modulated comedy, Lourdes also makes rueful comment on the desperate need and search for personal miracles that keep religion and its many brokers in business.

Marwencol (Jeff Malmberg)

Regarding Henry made poignantly real when Mark Hogancamp is beaten nearly to death, awakens from a 9-day coma with the task of relearning everything from walking to writing, and gives up his old best friend—booze—to build himself a new, safe world of doll friends in his fictional Belgian town of Marwencol. The will to survive and create art rich with sincerity and imagination is Hogancamp’s gift to everyone who sees his town and this film.

No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson (Steve James)

If documentarian Steve James has ever made a less-than-compelling, beautifully crafted film, I’ve yet to see it. James turns a beam on his own home town of Hampton, Virginia, where a criminal assault case against rising basketball star Allen Iverson showed the depth of the community’s racial divide, long buried, but never dead.

On Tour (Mathieu Amalric)

A bit of a rambling, loose film, but the wonderful sense of family and shared fates reminiscent of the films of Mike Leigh inform this look at an American New Burlesque troupe on tour in France.

Problema (Ralf Schmerberg)

Imagine you are at a dinner party with 112 of the most interesting, informed, out-of-the-box thinkers on the planet and they all respond to 100 pressing questions asked by people from all walks of life all over the world. Imagine, too, that you could see their answers any time you wanted by clicking on this link and that you could make your own movie out of what you found there. Open-source films are a totally new form, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be around at the moment of their birth.

The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court (Pamela Yates)

The United States lost all credibility as the world’s white-hatted savior when it failed to join the International Criminal Court. The ICC truly does divine work, bringing criminals to justice and ending their reigns of terror. How the court works, what it has accomplished, and what still needs to be done form the basis for this eye-opening, compassionate documentary focusing on the real good guys in the world today.

Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean)

An ordinary tale of adultery given an extraordinary treatment by master filmmaker Radu Muntean, Tuesday, After Christmas provides an allegory for Romania in a newly prosperous era.

Waste Land (Lucy Walker)

The art of found objects advances exponentially when photographer Vik Muniz travels back to his native country of Brazil to make art with garbage from the country’s largest landfill and the people who make a subsistence living recycling some of it. Uplifting, ingenious, and a subtle critique of the social divide that keeps black Brazilians down and white Brazilians throwing away perfectly good objects and people.

24th 10 - 2010 | 7 comments »

Trouble Every Day (2001)

Director/Screenwriter: Claire Denis

By Roderick Heath

Claire Denis is one of the best directors working today, a maker of films that are poetic and cryptic, humanist and yet lacking illusions, fascinatingly artful and creatively evasive. Trouble Every Day is both a key Denis film and her most atypical work: the ugly violence and horror-movie motifs she explored in her much-discussed 2001 film stand in contrast to the fonder instincts she displayed in her other notable films of the decade, including Friday Night (2003) and 35 Rhums (2009). Some feel Trouble Every Day was the film that gave new impetus to the visceral, attention-seeking, but largely silly wave of extreme Euro-horror. But Trouble Every Day takes its place in Denis’ canon with ease, not only in style, and in the multifarious ways it explore human intimacy, but also in the extension of the notion presented more tangentially in Beau Travail (1999) of the human body as both an object of fetish and warfare.

In terms of pure story breakdown, Trouble Every Day toys with the essential ideas of many late ’70s European horror films, like the works of Lucio Fulci and Ruggiero Deodato, in which interloping white westerners who have travelled into foreign lands return infected with a taint that drives them to nihilistic violence. The literal plot is, however, only presented in tangential, hinted terms, the key occurrences having occurred long in the past, and the familiar patterns of those model stories are partly inverted. Trouble Every Day, both more exactingly grotesque and personal than many undeniably but often juvenilely brutal films, is also far more attuned to its protagonists as physical and moral entities.

Denis commences with a series of what appear barely connected events that all contain the threat of horror. A young woman (Béatrice Dalle), wandering the desolate outer suburbs of Paris, eyes a truck driver with evident sexual interest, and he responds; later, a motorcyclist (Alex Descas), coming across the man’s parked truck and the woman’s van, penetrates the vacant lot nearby and finds the man’s mangled body and the woman dissociated and caked in blood. Simultaneously, a newly married American couple, Dr. Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) and his bride June (Tricia Vessey), arrive in Paris for their honeymoon, but only after Shane has locked himself in the plane toilet and had a panic attack whilst conjuring visions of June drenched in blood.

Denis’ peculiar, eliding film grammar, alive to the minatory pleasures found in the focused tranquility of a commute home from work, or the cigarette break when at one’s job, meshes here with her bizarre story to create a rare texture. The long prologue, consisting of decorous dissolves between shots of Paris at sunset, romantic and yet dark, sonorous, to the music of The Tindersticks (their soundtrack is generally admired, and rightly so), remakes Denis’ Paris as a depopulated, drowsy, faintly forbidding place, and much of the rest of the film is shot either early in the morning or in the late evening. Her purpose, to both evoke and undermine the romantic glaze of the city as one for lovers, is slow to congeal, but ineffaceable once done. Gallo’s own debt to what he learnt (or mislearnt, as some might have it, from Denis) for his own The Brown Bunny (2003) is evident in how he tried to counterpoint textures of grief, expressed in lingering images of ceaseless travel, with grossly intimate physicality and brutal discoveries.

Denis explores bodies with the eye of an astronomer craning closer and closer to see all the multitudinous shapes and intricacies charged with mystery and beauty. Here it contributes to the slow conditioning of a sense of uneasy eroticism, her camera playing over the minute pores of Vessey’s skin as Shane suffers from initially inexplicable, repeated spasms of anxiety as he fondles himself, pops mysterious pills, and avoids intimate contact with June: at one point he locks himself in the hotel bathroom to masturbate rather than conclude sex with her, to June’s pleading, despairing reaction to being locked out.

Slowly, the facts begin to solidify. The young woman glimpsed at the start is Coré Semenau, and the motorcyclist was her husband Leó, a doctor and former research fellow of Shane’s. Leó has dropped out of sight in the scientific research community because of his wife’s mysterious illness. Shane visits a lab where Leo used to work in attempting to find them, and he meets the sceptical reaction of one of Leó’s former colleagues about a theory of his that Shane is interested in following up on. A lab assistant, Malécot (Hélène Lapiower), contacts Shane later and gives him a lead as to where Leó and Coré have retreated. It is a large, old house that’s been fortified by Leó to try to keep Coré locked up, but every now and then she escapes, and he has to track her down, inevitably finding her next to another mangled body. In one of several hazy flashbacks that punctuate the film, Shane recalls an icy conversation with a fellow scientist, Friessen (Marilu Marini), in which he explained how he and Coré had an affair when they accompanied Leó on a jungle research expedition, and Shane also stole some of Leó’s data to advance his own career. But the darker secret soon reveals itself when two young men (Nicolas Duvauchelle and Raphaël Neal) break into Leó and Coré’s house, believing that because of the security it must contain all sorts of riches. One of them instead finds Coré, making a hot and sultry come-on, and he joins her in bed, where she commences to eat him. And that’s not a euphemism.

Denis’ films are often about patiently withheld secrets and veiled truths of great importance. Here, the hidden crux is monstrous. Coré and Shane both have a disease that drives them to acts of cannibalistic sadism when they engage in intercourse: desire portrayed as a literally carnivorous act. Shane’s keeping his disease partly controlled, but in his new, frustrating marriage he’s clearly being driven closer and closer to the edge of total enslavement to the disease that Coré is gripped by. The story evokes some classic metaphors and images of sexual anxiety, particularly in the scenes of the young men trying to penetrate that mysterious house and gain access to the woman who is raw passion personified, and, in the mythic tradition, the price to be paid for this transgression is not small. In its own hypermodernist way, then, Trouble Every Day is about taboos that are ancient and figurations that are primal. When the young man who will be Core’s last victim finds her eyeing him from behind wooden slats, he’s violating a sanctum, a common fairytale motif, and unleashing the contained yet always straining feminine libido (the similarity to Michael Cacoyannis’ vision of Helen contained in The Trojan Women leapt out at me).

The subsequent visions of Dalle—large teeth dripping gore like one of H. R. Giger’s aliens, laughing and toying with her prey who’s unable to fight off her supercharged strength, as she bites off his lips and slides fingers under flaps of skin, all the while giggling like a child—aren’t easily forgotten. Perhaps even more affecting, however, is the agonised spectacle of the perpetually unspeaking Leó trying to take care of his wife, who he loves in a deep, easily apparent fashion, in spite of all good sense, and Shane’s increasingly frail efforts to keep his wife from becoming the object of his own latent predatory tendencies. Questions of how people use each other, laden sometimes with both hate and love, bubble throughout. Denis’ taciturnity as an artist is actually one of her great strengths, and that’s readily apparent here as her galvanising efforts escape the facile inchoate provocations of Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier in trying to keep pace. Shane’s hunger for money (which he confesses through silence to Friessen) and for Coré, both of which meant fucking over (Afro-French) Leó, condenses forms of betrayal and exploitation, but Denis leaves this as a suggestive aspect of her drama. Simultaneously, whilst Denis is undoubtedly making an excellent horror movie, her approach both teases apart the fibre of old-fashioned mad scientist and vampire movies and restores and emphasises sensitivities usually excised from the gruelling modern genre. Shane’s mixture of unrequited passion and intense guilt is part and parcel with his disease, gnawing him from the inside out as much as the disease makes him and Coré gnaw on other people, and Shane’s killing of Coré, after she’s set fire to her house is part mercy killing, part self-defence, and part last-ditch effort to kill the animal in himself she embodies.

Denis’s fascination for layers of society interacting half-consciously in modern metropolitan life sees her segue now and then from the main drama to follow the maids in Shane and June’s hotel, women of various ages and states of being, and especially pretty, young Christelle (Florence Loiret-Caille). Denis follows Christelle as she’s dropped off in the morning by her boyfriend, pinches unused perks left in hotel rooms, and sprawls on the Browns’ bed when they’re both out for a cigarette. She catches Shane’s eye, and he catches her, so that when Shane tracks her into the maids’ locker room, the thrill of a quickie is nigh, but this turns inevitably into another grotesque assault, punctuated by the nightmarish image of Shane’s blood-smeared face rising from between Christelle’s legs and then kissing her, forcing her to taste her own blood. It’s as genuinely horrific a scene as cinema can offer, but one that, in ironically treading close to pornographic detail, avoids the pornographic thrill of a lot of modern horror movies, in which sexualised violence is presented through conveniently shallow characterisations. The idea that true terror lies at the end of a simple workday shift is all too resonant. Denis tries to encompass her bottom-of-the-barrel fantasia in just such a way that makes every cruel and kind act count, and in this way, Denis both heightens and reinforces the emotions that underpin many of her other films; but also the threat of damage individuals can do to each other hovers in those other works and explodes here.

Denis’ style might have felt a bit abstract, some of the power in her approach left untapped in trying just a little too hard to avoid the usual, if it wasn’t for the offhand wonder of moments like that in which June automatically helps Christelle make the bed in June and Shane’s hotel room, a telling moment of interaction; June’s not someone who’s used to or comfortable with being waited on, and also not one to let her bridal couch be usurped by anyone else, a point that has dreadful ramifications. Or the heartbreaking tenderness with which Leó cleans Coré after one of her murders. Or the polite yet remorseless way Friessen orders Shane out of her lab. Or the dark suggestiveness of Leó, and the audience, knowing what he’ll find when he spies blood dripping from stalks of grass in another of the vacant lots Coré uses as her killing ground. There’s a wonderful sequence in which Shane and June visit Notre Dame, Shane acting like the monster of traditional movieland as an overture to a magically romantic moment high in the towers, closing in for the most tender of clinches as the June’s headscarf blows away, a moment that renders her confused and despairing later reaction to Shane’s retreat to the bathroom to jerk off all the more palpable. In offering a melodramatic set-up, Denis doesn’t quite deal with how this upsets the usual balance of her style, and outsized horror grazes against fragile humanity, contributing to the finally icy, alien chill the film gives off. I suppose that’s a comparatively small complaint, considering the undeniably powerful and quite brilliant film Denis wrought.

The effect of Trouble Every Day sinks deep into the bones and doesn’t let go for hours after the chillingly curt coda. Denis manages to conjure what is at once a psychologically, physically, and metaphorically immediate sense of hell being other people.

15th 10 - 2010 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2010: Southern District (Zona Sur, 2009)

Director/Screenwriter: Juan Carlos Valvidia

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If you want to learn how the other (upper class) half lives in Bolivia, Southern District can show you in minute detail. Visually arresting—something I’m coming to expect from South American films these days—director/screenwriter Juan Carlos Valvidia turns his acute eye on the fading, as one character puts it, of 500 years of dominance by the descendants of the Spanish conquistadors.

The movie takes place almost entirely within the grand old hacienda in the posh Southern District of La Paz in which matriarch Carola (Ninón del Castillo) grew up and is just about done raising her three children. Patricio (Juan Pablo Koria) and Bernarda (Mariana Vargas) are college students, but Carola must have had a change-of-life baby with her now ex-husband. Andrés (Nicolás Fernández) is an imaginative 6-year-old who follows Carola’s native butler Wilson (Pascual Loayza) around, imitating everything he does and asking him, Marcellina (Viviana Condori) the maid, and a local farmer who sells the household cheese (“from the Altiplano!”) through the barred gates of the hacienda what they wanted to be when they were his age.

After 25 years of service, Wilson has become something of a platonic husband to Carola. He knows her wardrobe so precisely that he is able to pull a handbag out for her simply by having her name the designer, and he knows that the senora will ask for vinegar the minute he puts his spicy noodles on the dinner table. But familiarity brings its own problems—Wilson has a family back in his mountain village to support, and Carola hasn’t paid him his wages in six months. Indeed, Carola owes money all over town, and Wilson has to scrounge change from the children to buy bread and pay the dry cleaner. Carola’s unspecified job clearly is not paying her enough to keep up with her extravagant lifestyle.

Carola believes in the old values of femininity (declaring women’s liberation to be the worst thing ever to happen to women), style, and white supremacy. She overindulges Patricio, buying him condoms and a new car when he loses the old one in a card game, and frankly telling her sister Rosario (Ximena Alvarez) that she’s in love with Patricio and thinks mothers should save their sons the lifelong trauma having their first sexual encounter with a prostitute or common girl and initiate their sons into sex themselves. Patricio believes in machismo and warns Andrés away from the sissy pursuits of cooking and cleaning that Wilson performs. We also see him in one too many scenes having sex with his girlfriend (Luisa De Urioste) under his mother’s roof, with her approval. Bernarda is having a lesbian affair with a “half-breed” college girl (Glenda Rodriguez) from the Northern District and plays the rebel to Carola’s insistence that she dress like a woman, but she gives in fairly easily to her mother’s demands and seems to be trying lesbianism on like the latest fashion.

This description makes this family seem thoroughly loathsome, but there is something so easy about their relationships—and Andrés is the wonderful heart of the family that keeps them human—that their decline seems, despite all odds, rather sad. It would be easy to focus on the racism, privilege, and petty injustices served upon Wilson (who, by the way, claims his wife is worse than Carola), but Valvidia ensures that we see the beauty, too. The lush grounds, filled with calla lilies for centerpieces and enormous, spreading greenery that was grown from seed, emphasize a certain aesthetic graciousness that can’t be ignored easily. Valvidia uses a rather odd, restless camera to envelope us in their story. The slow 360-degree pans of each scene almost never cease, and his crane shots allow us to see the house as a singular entity in its immediate and distant surroundings. He frames the inhabitants of the hacienda staring out of their tastefully barred windows, pulling his camera back to emphasize their isolation from the reality around them.

These isolating techniques cause claustrophobia, and eventually feel rather suffocating. I felt an actual, physical release when Wilson leaves the hacienda against Carola’s direct orders to attend to an emergency in his village, with Andrés as a stowaway. On the road, the harassment Wilson experiences at a checkpoint shows the real situation of the native population and the need to disassemble the apparatus of power Carola represents. A brief scene in the village is too breathtaking to describe. I will just say that the power exerted by the Andes Mountains trumps anything the Spaniards had to offer and shows exactly why native culture has survived.

Southern District is a film in the grand tradition of Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. Despite attempts at keeping up appearances, an era of concentrated privilege is passing. Judging from the ending, an only slightly assimilated native population of Bolivia seems poised to come into its own. This film is a fascinating, beautifully executed look at a country and culture I’d like to know better.

Southern District screens Friday, October 15, 3:45 p.m. and Saturday, October 16, 8:45 p.m. (rush tickets only on Saturday). All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Asleep in the Sun: Ingenious period film that shows the transformation of a troubled woman into someone whose personality her husband doesn’t recognize after a stay in a mental health clinic. (Argentina)

Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)

On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)

Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)

The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)

Ten Winters: Love will find a way, but it takes its time in this wise, realistic story of a young man and woman whose mutual attraction and friendship take some interesting turns over 10 years. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

6th 10 - 2010 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2010: Ten Winters (Dieci Invierni, 2009)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Valerio Mieli

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If you’re a fan of the TV series Bones, Ten Winters is going to seem teasingly familiar. In Bones, a very attractive, brainy forensic anthropologist and her swoonworthy “partner” at the FBI solve murders and ignore their sizzling mutual attraction and growing love because the woman is too afraid of being hurt. It’s all very titillating, but kind of annoying for those who believe that true lovers should be together no matter what.

First-time director Valerio Mieli seems to believe that, too. He shows the instant attraction of Camilla (Isabella Ragonese) and Silvestro (Michele Riondino) and then follows them over the next 10 years to see what will happen to them. It’s an interesting journey.

It is 1999 when Camilla’s father (Roberto Nobile) sees her to the boat that will ferry her from the main island of Venice to one of the outer islands, where she is going to college to study Russian literature and theatre. He warns her not to spend all her time alone, to make friends, but to be careful about whom those friends are, thus letting us know that she is a serious student and a bit of a loner. After absorbing this slightly confused, but loving message and with backpack and floor lamp (“it gives good light”) in hand, she boards the boat. She spots through the throng of passengers a young man—Silvestro—who is entertaining a small boy with a leafless, decorated tree. She is immediately attracted to him and rather boldly makes him aware of her gaze. Eventually, the two are alone with their large, awkward cargo on the boat. He follows her off the boat and worms his way not only into her unheated rental home, but also into her bed—for warmth only, as the bedroom is the only room with a space heater. They shake hands and introduce themselves while laying side by side.

They part the next day, and Silvestro hooks up with some college students. While they are out flying a kite, Camilla appears and waves tentatively. “Do you know her?” asks Simone (Glen Backhall). “Vaguely,” answers Silvestro, who refuses to go over to her. “She can come to me,” but she doesn’t. Silvestro, besides coming on very strong, is rather a sarcastic clown, joking with her in ways that made her feel teased and belittled. He’s too young emotionally for an intimidating girl like her, though they begin to move in the same circle of friends. When Silvestro takes up with Liuba (Liuba Zaizeva) a pretty Russian girl who is studying to be an interpreter, Camilla is crushed.

As the decade passes, Camilla and Silvestro’s lives start to take shape. After basically admitting to Camilla during their first meeting that he has no idea what he plans to do with himself, Silvestro finally decides to pursue a career in theatre. Camilla moves to Moscow “to concentrate” on her studies, but develops a thriving e-mail friendship with Silvestro while quickly getting involved with a theatre company and its director, Fyodor (Sergei Zhigunov). Silvestro, misinterpreting her intimacy online, accepts her invitation to visit over Christmas, bringing a cat she says she misses from the rented house he now occupies and returning to Italy the minute he learns she is living with Fyodor. The couple will go through more relationships and more painful growing experiences before they are finally ready to open their hearts and lives to each other.

Italy is famous the world over as a country of love, with Venice hailed as its most romantic city. Yet, Mieli’s romance is more realistic, just as his Venice is shot without the dubious benefit of the usual clichés. We see it in winter, we see it in the rain, we see housing that is anything but charming. When Fyodor offers Camilla a gondola ride, she says, “Oh, please!” at the absurdity of the idea to a native Venetian like herself. The majority of the film doesn’t even take place in the Venice tourists know, but on an island away from that kind of action. These characters get to be real people instead of the Latin lovers audiences have been led to expect from works that stretch even farther back than film, for example, the operas of Puccini and Rossini or Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. And yet, Mieli and his cinematographer Marco Onorato film with a dreamy sort of atmosphere that fits the story well. The wet, soft winters of Venice contrast with the crisp, snowy winters of Moscow, but both have a bit of enchantment to them that develops a sense of longing.

Although Mieli’s real-life partner Isabella Aguilar cowrote the script, there is a slightly more concentrated focus on Silvestro and his pangs of frustration. Perhaps this is due to the differences in the characters, with Camilla being the first to be lovestruck and disappointed and using her overdeveloped ability to shut people out and intellectualize to remain distant from Silvestro. This imbalance of visible feelings does rather make it harder to understand Camilla and feel with her in her happiness and pain, though Ragonese’s performance has a great many shades to it that are never less than interesting. Riondino matches her in complexity and sincerity; his painful outbursts, and declaration of love in a scene I found extremely moving, showed a believable ardency and anger. They are a magnetic couple to watch, and there’s never a moment when we don’t root for them to find happiness together; in fact, we wonder what is wrong with this woman to keep running away from her destiny.

Ironically, that expectation weakened the film for me. The title cards inserted periodically to let us know that another year or two has passed amount to a countdown to the final clinch, making the romance less organic and more schematic. There were moments when it seemed very likely that this couple would be parted forever, and those moments should have created more doubt than they did. And perhaps that is not Mieli’s fault, but the fault of too many predictable love stories turning audiences into Pavlovian lapdogs of romantic expectation.

There are some wonderful set-pieces that show how much Camilla and Silvestro share over the course of 10 years; thus, their love feels real and earned. For example, Silvestro follows a nervous Camilla out at the crack of dawn to half-listen to her practice her dissertation defense in an empty square and then sits through her exhausting oral examination in an act of pure friendship and devotion. Camilla, admiring snails Silvestro is raising and accepting a box of them as pets, shows an enthusiasm for something his other friends only laugh at.

The CIFF is offering some uncommonly smart love stories this year. If you tamp down your “get together already” impatience and just appreciate the beauty and rhythms of this warm and real love story, the rewards, barely hinted at in this review, are many.

Ten Winters will screen Saturday, October 9, 1:15 p.m., Monday, October 18, 5:30 p.m., and Tuesday, October 19, 8:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

24th 09 - 2010 | 3 comments »

CIFF 2010: The Last Report on Anna (Utolsó jelentés Annáról, 2009)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Márta Mészáros

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The fall of the Berlin Wall opened not only borders and opportunities to the Soviet bloc countries that, one by one, would gain their independence, but also aired the deep wounds inflicted by one “comrade” on another in exchange for a few privileges—permission to take trips out of the country, a bigger apartment, a job promotion. I was riveted by Timothy Garton Ash’s memoir The File, in which he details what he discovered when he read through the file the East German government had been keeping on him, including that his lover had been spying on him. The Last Report on Anna takes a look at Hungary’s own repressiveness through the eyes of real-life political progressive Anna Kéthly.

The film starts in 1989, in a Budapest café, where Péter Faragó (Ernõ Fekete) is talking with his nephew while the funeral of Soviet-backed leader János Kádár blares from the café’s television. Péter says that things will come out and that it is better if they come from him first. We are then transported back to 1973. Péter is talking in the same café with a functionary for the Hungarian government who wants him to persuade Anna Kéthly (Enikö Eszenyi) to return from self-imposed exile in Belgium. It seems Anna, a minister representing the Social Democrats in Hungary’s Parliament before the Communists took over in the late ’40s and arrested her, has continued to criticize the Communist government and is causing it some trouble in the international community. Péter, a professor of Romantic literature, was chosen for the assignment because Anna had a passionate love affair with his uncle Laci (Jákob Ladányi), and it is hoped that her lingering affection for Laci will cause her to drop her guard with Péter and be persuaded to return. Péter is offered incentives—a passport, clearance to lecture at a literary conference in Belgium, a telephone—and eager to see a bit of the world and gain some professional prestige, he accepts and spends a long day pouring over Anna’s government file to learn tidbits he can use to get close to her. He visits his uncle before he leaves, and Laci gives him a carved wooden box to take to Anna.

Péter is, it seems, happily married to Kati (Gabriella Hámori), but when he sees a group of flower children in a park in Brussels, he feels reborn and attracted to the pretty, carefree women of the group. This attraction takes a back seat to his assignment. He meets his handler in Belgium, Klári (Adél Kováts), and is told how often he must report the content of his meetings with Anna. She tells him to bring Anna flowers. And so Péter sets off to woo Anna and earn his state-sponsored privileges.

The 78-year-old director of this film, Márta Mészáros, has explored the vagaries of sexual politics and government repression during her career. This film, while offering flashbacks to Anna’s political activities, including impassioned pleas against racial laws being imposed upon the Jews of Hungary, and brief glimpses of the horrors of her three-year incarceration beginning in 1950, is much more interested in sexual duplicity. The early attraction of Péter to a hippie girl is merely a moment in the film that is never acted upon, but it suggests everything to follow. Péter, whom Anna and her companion Magda (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi) say looks very like Laci, deceives them both and awakens Anna’s nostalgia for Hungary and Laci; we get a repeated scene throughout the film of Anna taking a multicolored, chiffon scarf, which was in Laci’s wooden box, and letting the air catch and billow it out behind her as younger versions of Laci and her sit on the pier of a lake. Anna’s love is undying, but Magda reminds her that Laci did not leave Hungary with her and has never come to visit her—his excuse, “I can’t,” is never explained.

Anna’s vicarious renewal of her love affair through Péter is cut short when she attends a garden party at the Hungarian embassy and sees the people Péter consorts with. She leaves, disillusioned, and Kati, who has been flown to Brussels to help Péter’s morale in his flagging campaign, learns that he has become a spy. She defects to Paris, and Klári tells Péter that if he divorces her, it won’t reflect badly on him with the government. When we return to the movie’s present, Péter seems as foolishly impotent as Laci was during a final phone call with Anna. The fecklessness of men in matters global and personal is the final impression this film leaves, an idea emphasized strongly by the appearance of Golda Meir (Beata Fudalej) at Anna’s doorstep, a strong female leader paying her respects to another of her kind in a scene of ribald camaraderie.

Lest anyone think this film’s tone is caustic or deeply political, I hasten to point out that the overall quality is romantic and dreamy. Memory is a strong force, one that must reflect the long lifespan and experiences of its director, who was in her 20s when Kéthly rose to prominence in post-World War II Europe. Anna’s homesickness and wish to return home after she learns of Laci’s death make this politically motivated narrative highly personal. Eszenyi is a beauty who is rather too young to be playing Anna, but she is a charismatic presence; for his part, Fekete is handsome, a perfect face upon whom Anna can project her sexual and romantic longings. I was attracted to this film based on its political story, but I became entranced with its atmosphere. The Last Report on Anna is a very fine women’s film that would be great viewing for lovers.

The Last Report on Anna shows Wednesday, October 13, 6:15 p.m., Thursday, October 15, 5:45 p.m., and Sunday, October 17, 12:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

13th 09 - 2010 | 6 comments »

The Comedy of Power (L’ivresse du Pouvoir, 2006)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Claude Chabrol

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The film world is awash today in notices about and tributes to Claude Chabrol, the French New Wave director who died yesterday at the age of 80. Noted for his leading-edge championing of Alfred Hitchcock, Chabrol himself relished in making many a good thriller. But he was also interested in power and corruption in society, in families, and in the human heart.

I can’t pretend to be extremely well versed in Chabrol’s career, nor have I seen nearly as many of his movies as I would have liked. But the films I have seen (This Man Must Die and La Cérémonie are reviewed on this site) have led me to an instant kinship with this critic of the smug, excavator of hypocrisies and depravity, and bemused observer of the strivings of men (mainly) whose ambitions are not only unworthy but surprisingly simple-minded and, ultimately, modest.

The Comedy of Power, his 2006 takeoff on a real-life scandal, is a rewarding exercise in watching him perform a perfect balancing act between a drama of corruption and a comedy verging on slapstick. That he has some female enforcers hand some very self-impressed men their dicks on a platter is even more deliciously humorous.

The first comedic moment comes right at the start, with an explanatory title in bold lettering that contains the boilerplate disclaimer that usually appears at the end of all feature films—that the movie is a work of fiction and any resemblance between the characters and real persons is strictly coincidental. In fact, any French viewer would recognize this story as “L’affaire Elf,” a worldwide, multiyear scheme in which politicians and business leaders enriched themselves through kickbacks paid by corrupt African governments and businesses. But you don’t have to be French to get the inference. Political and financial scandals know no borders, and this movie’s theme strikes an all-too-familiar note.

Chabrol sets up the adversarial sides with economical visual gags. We meet the first corrupt businessman, CEO Michel Humeau (Francois Berlèand), as he prepares in his office for a weekend trip. He speaks on two cellphones at once as a flurry of assistants buzz around him. When the phone that has his wife on the other end cuts off, he shakes it and then uses it to—what—shave? No, he has a skin condition, and he’s always scratching at his face; perhaps his wife literally makes his skin crawl. Outside of his office building, he is accosted by a complement of gendarmes and arrested. Amid protests of “Do you know who I am?!” Humeau is forced to strip at the prison—a literal dressing-down.

We get an inkling of what’s ahead when two of his associates, hearing of his misfortune, say that a magistrate named Jeanne Charmant-Killman (Isabelle Huppert) is the investigator. She is known as “The Piranha.” Cut to a shot of some enormous goldfish sitting at the bottom of a small fish tank—a hilarious and perfect metaphor that is rounded out when the camera pans down and we observe The Piranha in action, eating sushi with a man who is involved in the scheme but who thinks he has her where he wants her.

Of course, no man in this film is any match for Charmant-Killman. Huppert gives her a spine of steel wrapped in a painfully thin form of pure energy fueled by nicotine. She has a short, sarcastic laugh ready for any of the dubious, ridiculous statements made by the buffoonish conspirators she interviews one by one. Descarts (Jacques Boudet), a rubberfaced politician who is fond, as all the conspirators are, of enormous cigars, decides to contain Charmant-Killman by coopting her and setting her in competition with another woman. He has her promoted, moved to a spacious office, and gives her a very sharp assistant, Erika (Marilyne Canto). But, instead of ending The Piranha’s crusade, this move only doubles the conspirators’ trouble. The only person the plotters manage to corrupt is a man, and they show the famous honor among thieves by shamelessly ratting each other out.

This film would have been a farce in other hands, and probably a good one. Chabrol, particularly by casting Huppert, adds the necessary gravity to the story. This really is how the world works. Greedy, stupid, condescending men are lining their pockets with taxpayer money in countries all over the world for luxuries they could well afford with their executive salaries, or a mistress, or some other bit of ephemera to balm their overtended egos. Dedicated prosecutors like Charmant-Killman keep putting their thumbs in the dike, but the pressure is too great to hold out for long. In one particularly tragic case, anti-Mafia fighters Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were Excellent Cadavers, and in the film, Charmant-Killman eventually comes under 24-hour police protection.

The only misstep is the depiction of Jeanne’s rich husband Philippe (Robin Renucci), who becomes ever more lonely and depressed as his wife develops tunnel vision for her quarry. He makes a desperate choice near the end of the film that seems to reach her, and hints are that she may have a change of heart toward her work. This character transformation, if genuine, is unnecessary. Chabrol should have trusted Huppert more. Her performance is so vibrant that it is impossible to see Jeanne Charmant-Killman as one of the caricatures that surround her.

Indeed, Chabrol has shown an affinity for detective stories and their keen-eyed sleuths to such an extent that this collaboration led me to envision Huppert as Charmant-Killman in a series of films to offer a realistic antidote to the fussy concoctions of Agatha Christie. Although Chabrol can no longer offer his amazing touch to the proceedings, I sincerely hope to see The Piranha hunt another day.

David Hudson at MUBI has a comprehensive round-up of articles, observations, and more here.

Roger Ebert has a Chabrol tribute and links here.

Longtime Chabrol enthusiast Ray Young (Flickhead) has a tribute and links here.

31st 08 - 2010 | 4 comments »

Every Little Step (2008)

Directors: Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the great mysteries of life is the act of creation. Many people consider the creation of life a miracle, and teasing out the artistic muses is a delicate and clandestine act of faith. The muse Terpsichore has gotten a lot of attention lately, with the TV series So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars runaway hits, and La Danse (2010), about the Ballet de l’Opera de Paris by renowned documentarian Frederick Wiseman, the latest in a steady line of nonfiction films focusing on dance. When a revival of the landmark musical A Chorus Line was announced in 2005, directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern seized the chance to discover what strange brew must be mixed to recreate the 1975 “singular sensation.”

A Chorus Line was a truly special musical. The first major production to be developed over months using a workshop format, it told the real backstage story of chorines and chorus boys—not overnight fame when called upon to replace an injured star, but rather constant rejection for everything from their actual talent to their physical attributes, career-threatening injuries, and always an overwhelming love of dancing that kept them in the game when prudence would dictate a change in direction. This approach made the smile and frown of the comedy/tragedy masks real, and audiences responded to the human drama in a way perhaps no one but the man who conceived the idea—dancer/choreographer Michael Bennett—expected.

The film begins with a shot of a reel-to-reel tape recorder and the recording of the conversation that took place between Bennett and a group of Broadway show dancers that formed the basis of the show. Various talking heads, mainly Bennett’s longtime friend and collaborator Bob Avian, explained the process. Bennett encouraged the dancers to open up about their lives and their art by sharing his own story. One Asian dancer (Baayork Lee, who became “Connie” in the musical and was part of the production team of the revival) was hampered by her short stature, while another dancer (“Val”) couldn’t get work until she had her breasts enlarged. One young man (“Paul”) faced the shock of coming out as a homosexual to his parents when they unexpectedly attended his performance at a drag club and saw him dressed as a woman. From these and other stories, James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante fashioned a book for the show, and Oscar-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyricist Edward Kleban were engaged to write the music and lyrics. Bennett provided the choreography; the part of Cassie, a featured dancer in a career drought, was written especially for Bennett’s longtime muse Donna McKechnie.

The eight-month-long audition process begins with an open call that attracts 3,000 hopefuls. Del Deo and Stern telescope this beginning process by showing whole groups of dancers being dismissed after a brief show of their technique. They also focus on one unknown from New Jersey named Jessica Lee Goldyn who says she doesn’t have a fallback plan if dancing doesn’t work out because “if you do, you’ll fall back.” That determination—and rigorous training and preparation—will get her all the way to the finals.

Del Deo and Stern narrow their focus to only about half a dozen of the characters being cast and those in the running to play them. Auditions for Val, the dancer who got breast augmentation, take up an inordinate amount of screen time, perhaps for not-so-noble reasons. We see one dancer after another shaking and squeezing her ta-tas at the panel, and it does get rather grating. For other characters, the directors seem content with producing short vignettes, most amusingly, the casting of Maggie, the character who must reach a crescendo in the song “At the Ballet” that is beyond the reach of most of the hopefuls. Quick cuts through the missed, shouted, and croaked vocalizing, matched with the winces of the casting panel, add humor to a rather humorless process, and we are left with a final shot of a young woman who hits the high note just right. At the end of the film, we see that our assumption that she got the part is correct, but until then, she vanishes from the screen.

After Cassie, the role of Paul is the most important, with Paul’s monologue about growing up gay an emotional centerpiece. The casting panel flips through cards, rejecting numerous candidates for the role until Jason Tan steps in. The panel is reduced to tears by his rendition of the monologue, and after they compose themselves, Avian simply says “Sign him up.”

Of course, not all the tryouts are with unknowns. Phone calls are made to successful Equity members, like Alisan Porter, auditioning for the part her mother played in the first national touring company of A Chorus Line, and Charlotte d’Amboise, daughter of famed dancer Jacques d’Amboise. Lacking any context from the documentarians and based on how many of them greet each other with hugs and kisses, it appears that these A-list dancers comprise the largest share of those in the finals. I’d really like to believe Charlotte d’Amboise when she says she has suffered the kinds of knocks that qualify her to understand the role of Cassie, but when someone’s very talented AND born into the showbiz elite, it’s hard to believe no one would hire her.

And this is the biggest flaw in Every Little Step—Del Deo and Stern barely scratch the surface of the dancers they showcase. When d’Amboise says she has suffered setbacks, the next questions should be “when?” and “what kinds of setbacks?” Instead, the statement is left to stand alone, and the directors fill the screen with an interview with her father. Now, I’m as big an admirer of Jacques d’Amboise as the next dance fan, but what does he have to do with A Chorus Line? He’s not auditioning for the show or choreographing it. He’s not one of the original dancers on whom the story is based. He was, in fact, a very successful ballet and featured show dancer, not a chorus boy. I have to assume that Del Deo and Stern simply think he’s interesting and able to add some star quality to this tale of a musical about nonstars—a sad betrayal of the aims of the show and its creators.

The musical numbers in A Chorus Line are marvelous, but aside from archival footage of McKechnie dancing part of her solo “The Music and the Mirror,” we barely get to see them. The other strength of the musical is its personal stories, but we learn next to nothing about those auditioning or those who finally get hired. Deidra Goodwin, who wins the part of Sheila, says she almost gave up but learned from a psychic that she was meant to keep entertaining people—and that’s all she wrote about Deidra. Her rival for the part, Rachelle Rak (above), gets comparative mountains of screen time, but it is only through offhand comments she makes that we learn that she was in Fosse for more than two years and that she broke up with her boyfriend during the first round of auditions. How was Jason Tan able to move the casting team so much? We get absolutely nothing about him.

Nonetheless, Every Little Step does have some value. The production history as told by those who made it is very interesting. Hamlisch talks about how he had just won two Oscars and how he had to break the news to his agent that he was turning down the lucrative offers in Hollywood to return to New York for a job paying $100 a week. McKechnie and Avian talk a great deal about Bennett’s background, career, and ambitions. The rigors of casting a show are seen in meticulous detail, though the proliferation of talent competitions on television has removed the novelty of this inside look at the judging process. And if you’re a theatre fan or a lover of Hollywood’s backstage musicals, the documentary has its own inherent appeal.

Ultimately, though, I wonder how much any person can get out of a film about the creative process. There have been many, many films that show individuals in the act of creation, but none of them are really able to articulate the process in any satisfactory way. The discussions the casting team have in this film about what they are looking for or what is needed for a particular role sound clichéd or imprecise. What does it mean to be an organic dancer? What exactly is a tough sweetheart supposed to project? How do they know when they’ve got “it”? We can see the result, but the mystery of creation is something no documentary will ever be able to capture.

26th 08 - 2010 | 8 comments »

Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing (2006)

Directors: Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Barbara Kopple has done it again. The preeminent documentarian of the American experience and Cecilia Peck, her codirector (and daughter of Gregory Peck), have turned their compassionate beam on the three gifted and courageous women whose idea of being patriotic created the greatest crisis of their professional lives. Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing takes us along with this phenomenally successful band from the night in 2003 lead singer Natalie Maines told a British audience that the Chicks were ashamed that the President of the United States was from Texas to the recording of their album, Taking the Long Way, an angry and emotional chronicle of their experiences.

Before 2003, country music fans made the Dallas-based Dixie Chicks the top-selling female group in history. Natalie Maines and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison were selling out stadiums and living the life of millionaire recording artists and peformers, though they were not yet on the radar screen of most Americans. The film opens with the band getting ready for their concert in Shepherd’s Bush Empire theatre in London to open their Top of the World Tour. A television playing in the background shows then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s WMD dog-and-pony show at the United Nations, and President Bush’s warning to Saddam Hussein to disarm within 48 hours or accept the consequences. Soon thereafter, the Chicks take to the London stage and Maines utters her famous statement to thunderous applause: “We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

Within hours, the comment has made news in the States. Disappointed fans don’t understand how Maines could be so disrespectful and unpatriotic. Country music stations stop playing the Dixie Chicks on the air. A couple of right-wing organizations organize CD destruction events, and an apology by Maines gets no traction. The mainstream media sit up and take notice. Eventually the Chicks are interviewed by television journalist Diane Sawyer and make the cover of Entertainment Weekly.

The film captures the intense debates between the Chicks and their stalwart manager Simon Renshaw about how to respond to the controversy. Maines, the most vocal of the band members, is adamant about sticking it to country radio, offended that they refuse to play the group’s music—not even their runaway-hit single. The backlash intensifies as country singer Toby Keith exploits their problems by writing a song criticizing them and whipping up his audiences to oppose them. We are in on the Chicks’s bull-session about how to respond. Maines famously hits the stage wearing a T-shirt that has the initials FUTK on the front. Anti-Chicks forces respond with an FUDC T-shirt. We hear Martie quip, “What have they got against Dick Cheney?” Eventually, we share the tension when the Chicks bring their Top of the World tour to Dallas. They have received a death threat, and their fear is palpable. Although Maines tries to lighten the mood with a joke to the camera crew before going onstage (“I’ll see you in four hours, if I’m not shot.”), her black humor conveys just how horrifying the lives of these American successes have become.

All of the film footage up to 2005 was shot by a variety of people. Kopple and Peck meticulously assembled it and added to it with video footage of their own in a film that looks visually coherent and surprisingly crisp. Their own footage concentrates on the private lives of the Chicks and their recording session. We meet Natalie’s father and learn how a tape he made of her for her application to the Berklee College of Music in Boston eventually ended up with Maguire and Robison and landed her the gig with the Chicks. They chronicle Martie’s pregnancy and delivery of twins, and listen as she and Emily talk about their struggles to become pregnant. This struggle will become the song “So Hard.” We watch as the band decamps to Los Angeles to write and record Taking the Long Way with famed producer Rick Rubin. Natalie’s rendition of “Not Ready to Make Nice” shows that the war against the hate of the fans who rejected the Chicks and the government that ignores the wishes of a wide swath of the American electorate rages on:

I’m not ready to make nice
I’m not ready to back down
I’m still mad as hell and I don’t have time to go ’round and ’round and ’round
It’s too late to make it right
I probably wouldn’t if I could
‘Cause I’m mad as hell
Can’t bring myself to do what it is you think I should

I made my bed and I sleep like a baby
With no regrets and I don’t mind sayin’
It’s a sad sad story when a mother will teach her
Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they’d write me a letter
Sayin’ that I better
Shut up and sing or my life will be over.

It is fascinating to see how these women create their lives, make their music, rejoice in their triumphs, and seem to be made stronger in the crucible of public controversy. They are loving parents and spouses, shrewd businesswomen, incredibly funny and warm, and principled in a way that few entertainers with so much to lose could be. And they do take a real hit. Although their CDs continue to break sales records, their concert sales are sluggish, and schedule changes must be made.

While I’m sure Cecelia Peck contributed a lot to this film (she and Kopple previously collaborated on A Conversation with Gregory Peck, with Peck producing and Kopple directing), it is veteran director Barbara Kopple who must have led the way. The film has the kind of intimacy she is always able to achieve, and the perfect pacing and judicious editing of hundreds of hours of footage to find exactly the right images and tone to tell the story.

While Kopple’s subject matter usually has a liberal bent, if you did not know her body of work, you would not be sure of her politics. Her genius is in letting her subjects tell their own story. Even the actions of the “villains” are simply presented. A consultant from the Lipton Tea Company, which sponsored the Top of the World Tour, is shown frankly explaining the company’s discomfort with their political stand. Maines tries to explain that it was just a comment in the heat of the moment designed to rouse the crowd, but over time, her own simple faux pas seems to radicalize her.

Maines, with the support of her bandmates, let out the dirty little secret that some all-American girls from the South are liberal and can distrust and dislike a right-wing government. This revelation is educational for both the super-patriots from country music’s stronghold states and liberals in other parts of the country who look at the South as a land of rednecks. Let’s not forget that the original American protest singer, Woody Guthrie, was from Oklahoma; it appears that the Chicks from neighboring Texas, who are still stumping for basic human rights as they continue to make music, are following in a tradition much older than the radical right claims to represent.

8th 08 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Venus (2006)

Director: Roger Michell

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Recently, on the occasion of Peter O’Toole’s birthday, my blog partner Rod announced on Facebook that O’Toole is his favorite living actor. One certainly doesn’t argue with favorites, as they are personal choices, but I think anyone would be hard put to disagree with his choice in any case. Anyone, male or female, who didn’t fall in love with Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia must have been very jaded indeed. His portrayal of the rather naive and vulnerable adventurer made almost mad by his experiences in North Africa is a performance for the ages. Since Lawrence, the prolific O’Toole has built up an eclectic body of work on film, in television, and as a voice actor for animated films that shows his range; his creative energy, still undimming at the age of 78 (he’s filming two movies this year and is in preproduction on a third); and his continued popularity with both those who make movies and those who watch them.

In 2006, O’Toole tackled a character very close to himself—an elderly actor of renown—who takes one more shot at love with a barely legal girl. While the stretch of his skills is not so great, the fearlessness needed to expose what certainly must be real parts of himself as an elderly man was just as great an achievement as in Lawrence. He is no longer naive, but he is just as vulnerable and at least as seductive.

Maurice (O’Toole) accompanies his actor friend Ian (Leslie Phillips) from the hospital where he has just been discharged to Ian’s flat. They shop to restock Ian’s home with food and essentials. When they reach Ian’s spotless and beautifully appointed apartment, Ian informs Maurice that his great-niece Jessie (Jodie Whittaker) will be coming to look after him. “I bought a bell to keep by my bedside,” Ian cheerfully informs Maurice, and gives the obnoxious object a tinkle.

The day of Jessie’s arrival, Ian runs to the diner where Maurice and another friend (Richard Griffiths) are having tea and says the girl is a complete nightmare. “I bought a nice piece of halibut, and she didn’t know how to cook it!” Ian despairs. Maurice decides to accompany Ian home and meet the she-devil herself. Maurice gets Ian settled and offers to make him a cup of tea. He moves through the familiar flat where he has been a visitor for decades and slowly passes an open doorway. Sitting in it like a scruffy black cat is Jessie. Her eyes are thick with liner, her clothes are barely there, and she wears the insolent scowl of most people her age. Maurice is intrigued.

He stops by the apartment again, and this time asks Jessie a little about herself. She wants to be a model. She’s not model attractive, so Maurice asks if she has a fallback plan. “Don’t you think I can be a model?” she spits at him. He backpedals. He has learned in his long life how to smooth over his thoughtless insults—he has, no doubt, made many. He says he can probably help her because he knows a lot of people. “You famous or something?” Jessie asks. “A bit,” Maurice demurs. He says his full name. She doesn’t recognize it.

True to his word, Maurice gets her a modeling job. She will be posing nude for his art class. Well, we saw this seduction coming, and now Jessie’s in on it, too. She agrees, but only if Maurice leaves the class. He tries to position himself at the transom of a door to spy on her, but ends up falling through and knocking over several easels. The comic timing of the scene, and Maurice’s guilty-but-innocent response are priceless, and shows O’Toole’s comedic chops very well. After class, Maurice takes Jessie to the National Gallery, where they study Velasquez’s Venus at her Mirror (The Rokeby Venus). He tells her that Venus was a goddess who inspired people to love. He said that a real model posed for the goddess, just like she is donig. From that moment on, he calls her “Venus” and is, too, inspired to love.

The delicacy of this drama could have been spoiled at any moment. We’re looking at what most of us would call a dirty old man. But O’Toole shows us that the old have a lot to offer in the way of love and the experience to know how to offer it. Yes, Maurice was a ladies’ man, and we see his routine. He plies Jessie with gifts and impresses her with a limousine ride and the chance to be on a movie set as he plays a bit part in a costume drama. But he really does care. He becomes faint on the set, but one look at her concerned face lifts him up, and he carries on as a man renewed.

For her part, Whittaker plays Jessie as a young girl who can’t exactly explain why she’s so turned on by this relic. She gives him small sexual favors—three kisses on her shoulder, permission to smell her neck—and becomes very cross if he tries for more. But his kindness to her, particularly when she shares the secret of a first love and a forced abortion, wins her heart as well.

The supporting cast of elderly actors, including Vanessa Redgrave as Maurice’s wife, bring the world of the aged to life in a plausible way. The concern with obituaries and raising all-too-frequent toasts to the newly dead, the long-standing relationships that are as much a part of life as breathing itself, the infirmities, hospitals, healthcare workers—this is what we all face should we reach our golden years. These images are not often seen on the screen, and very few directors take up this subject with any regularity. The master of the silver-haired screen is Dutch-Australian director Paul Cox, whose A Woman’s Tale is the pinnacle of the genre.

For his part, director Roger Michell keeps the film in perfect balance. His touch for romance has been well developed on such films as Persuasion (1995) and Notting Hill (1999). But it is to honored screenwriter Hanif Kureishi (his novel Intimacy was given a first-rate adaptation by director Patrice Chéreau) I tip my hat. This is a beautifully written screenplay, both witty and wise, that deserved to be honored with the talents of O’Toole, Redgrave, and the rest of the uniformly fine cast. Make time to see it.


1st 08 - 2010 | 34 comments »

Inception (2010)/American Psycho (2000)

Director: Christopher Nolan/Mary Harron

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The big movie of the 2010 summer season, by amount of attention paid, seems to be Inception. This latest outing by the man who set the cinematic world on fire with his mind-bending mystery Memento (2000) and left fanboys panting with devotion in 2008 with The Dark Knight, his version of the Batman myth, has critics and the general public admiring it as the blockbuster with a brain. Isn’t it nice, they say, to actually walk out of an action film with something to think about?

I must say that I’m a bit dumbfounded by this reaction. “What could they be thinking about?” I ask myself. It’s possible, I suppose, that some of the archetypal images Nolan used in the film, for example, the malevolent anima represented by main protagonist Cobb’s “wife” Mal (French for “bad”) or the fortress that represents the Self of Cobb’s supposed target Robert Fischer, could have reacted with unconscious material in the male audience’s mind. As a woman, I wouldn’t react to an anima image, so I readily admit to a built-in block toward a kind of thinking this film could generate.

And is it inherently more intriguing to think that you can, as Roger Ebert put it, think your way into a dream than, say, being plugged into the hive mind of the Borg in Star-Trek or fight the soma-like virtual reality created by the machines in The Matrix? Say, aren’t those Matrix agents kind of just like the “projections” that attack Cobb and his team in Inception? Well, that’s another argument for another day.

Personally, I don’t think people are using their post-movie think time to consider the possibilities of the unconscious, the richness of dream material in understanding ourselves and our world, or any other larger implications that could arise from such a film. Sadly, Nolan has contented himself to enter the realm of the psyche as though it were merely a soundstage to film yet another loud, crashing movie. So I think the only thing Inception accomplishes in the way of thought is encouraging audiences to figure out what really happened. Did Cobb and his team succeed in their mission to plant an idea in Fischer’s psyche, or did the entire movie happen in Cobb’s head? Most people concede that Nolan’s dreamscape doesn’t resemble real dreaming, and assumptions the film makes, for instance, that lucid dreaming actually exists, are open to debate. (Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz contends that dreamers believe they are consciously controlling something the psyche was doing on its own anyway.) Nonetheless, a movie can make its own rules as long as they don’t have too many internal inconsistencies and don’t stretch the suspension of disbelief too far. That the ambiguous ending of Inception is neither disturbing to consider nor particularly memorable speaks to just how modest the film’s ambitions are—and how overblown its reception has been.

A film that debuted the same year as Memento and that was as mysterious and involved in the inner workings of the mind as that movie was American Psycho. Based on the 1991 notoriously violent book of the same name by flavor du jour writer of the East Coast literati, Bret Easton Ellis, the film was a disappointment at the box office—perhaps backlash to the perceived misogyny of the book—and faded from view. Yet, the genuinely disturbing implications of that blackly comic film have a heft and longevity that the humorlessly drab imaginings of the mind of Nolan will never approach.

The confusion American Psycho plants is much more subtle and, therefore, more powerful. Patrick Bateman, a narcissistic 27-year-old graduate of Harvard and its business school, works on Wall Street, dates graduates from the Seven Sisters colleges who couldn’t figure their way out of a paper bag, and competes with his peers over everything from the look of their business cards to the size and location of their apartments. Driven crazy by the supposed perfection of the business card of colleague Paul Allen, Bateman gets him drunk, takes him home with him, puts on a CD of Huey Lewis and the News, and hacks him to pieces with an axe. When several of his colleagues catch him stuffing the body, now encased in a two-suiter, into his car, one of them asks Bateman where he got the luggage. “Jean-Paul Gauthier,” says Bateman, relieved that they hadn’t questioned him about what was inside it.

Indeed, what’s inside doesn’t count for anything to the characters in this movie, forming the flipside to the philosophy of Inception that ideas can only take hold if the person believes they have come from within. However, American Psycho takes its cynicism about the manipulation of identity seriously, whereas Inception, whether or not you believe Cobb’s mission was real, suggests that brainwashing in service of a noble cause—in this case, breaking up a monopoly that could concentrate control of virtually all the natural resources of the world in a single man’s hands—is the right thing to do. Much of the thrilling suspense Inception offers comes from our fear that our heroes will be “killed” in the dream and stuck like Sleeping Beauty in something called limbo forever.

In American Psycho, barely perceptible differences in various black-type, whitish-paper business cards form a literal case of life and death. The derisive laughter of a woman at Bateman’s impassioned treatise on the depth of Whitney Houston’s music dooms her as well. Bateman represents a type for whom marketing has become gospel to such an extent that he convinces himself of the profundity of the superficial. He complains, for example, that a hooker he has picked up for an evening threesome is not drinking his very fine chardonnay without even realizing that labeling a wine by the grape used to make it is a generics marketing strategy of recent vintage that disassociates the product from the producer.

In both Inception and American Psycho, the central character starts to lose control of himself. Cobb can’t keep thoughts of Mal out of the engineered dreams of his team, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by the imaginary people Fischer deploys like white corpuscles to rid his mind of their foreign presence; Bateman can’t control his irritation with people and finds himself in the throes of an uncontrollable bloodlust that will see him shoot, chainsaw, eat, blow up, and dismember, by his own count, 20 or more people. Yet, it is the original murder of Allen that has him the most worried about getting away with his crimes, as a police detective has been snooping into that one. We can see a rough correspondence between Bateman’s guilt over Allen and Cobb’s guilt over causing the death of his wife.

Yet, Mary Harron implicates the audience in Bateman’s nightmare by allowing us many moments of black humor to distance us from his sickening deeds. Bateman’s dissertation-like dissection of the lyrics of a lot of catchy, meaningless tunes (“Take the lyrics to ‘Land of Confusion.’ In this song, Phil Collins addresses the problems of abusive political authority.”) while giving orders to two prostitutes is one of several comic vignettes bordering on genius, recreating the bread and circuses of the 1980s that distracted citizens (“don’t worry, be happy”) and allowed radical conservatives to begin their assault on America’s political, financial, and social landscape. She reinforces the madness of that assault and the delusions that clouded our judgment by presenting a final nighttime action sequence, complete with exploding cars and shattering plate-glass windows, and then making us wonder if Bateman hasn’t been imagining everything we’ve just seen. His nearly incomprehensible conversation with a man he made a rambling confession to over the phone may be entirely in his head, or his very identity and life as Bateman may be fictitious.

The final lines of the film coming to us from the go-go 80s are portentous of where we are today: “My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone, in fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape, but even after admitting this, there is no catharsis. My punishment continues to elude me, and I gain no deeper knowledge of myself, no new knowledge can be extracted from my telling. This confession has meant nothing.” Thanks to the deft handling of this despicable story by Mary Harron, the confession is hardly meaningless. Bateman’s desperate grasping at externals has driven him to a psychotic break, one, she seems to suggest, we may all be headed toward if we don’t find ourselves in time.

Inception’s final moments are simply a plot twist that may involve a person to whom we have never been properly introduced who has, perhaps, solved a personal problem we can’t trust is even real. And/or he perhaps really has saved the world from a dangerous corporate monopoly through some kind of scifi magic no one can take seriously. This is not progress of thought or introspection. As we shoot impotently into the giant maw of international corporate rule, it looks like the Batemans have won.

13th 07 - 2010 | 8 comments »

Election (Hak se wui, 2005)

Director: Johnny To

By Roderick Heath

Johnny To has emerged in the past few years as a master of Hong Kong genre cinema, filling the void left by the departure and disgrace of John Woo and other industry notables in Hollywood adventures. To and Woo share characteristics, both concentrating on bristling macho dramatics, each analysing fundamental social, business, and personal bonds through the charged metaphors of the gangster film, and both channelling the influence of foreign masters like Ford, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Leone into their localised aesthetic. They’re very different in other respects, however: where Woo is usually an operatic executor of movies that are fundamentally about movies, reverent of the given structures and precepts of the genre film, To is much more of an ironist, willing to play games with his audience’s expectations in laying out standard elements and then executing simple, but brilliantly effective twists. To’s as strong a stylist as any in modern cinema, but a purposeful, efficient one, saving pyrotechnics for the moment of maximum impact, and with his dancing camerawork, lightning editing, and keen mise-en-scène, he barely wastes a frame. Election proved something of a breakthrough for him in terms of overseas attention, and it’s not hard to see why.

The story is fairly simple, but To keeps his pieces moving on the board so fast it’s a challenge to stay focused. The Wo Sing triad, one of the most notable—but far from only—illegal organisations in Hong Kong is having an election for its chairman, who serves for two-year spells. The tradition of the election is over a hundred years old, and the codes that bind the triad members together go back even further, to the days of resistance against the Manchus and the rebellions of the Shaolin monks. The two candidates to replace outgoing boss Whistle (Chung Wang) are Lam Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), two temperamentally disparate kingpins. Lok is calm, disdainful of showy expressions of power, the kind of guy who walks around his neighbourhood and converses with shopkeepers without a weapon or bodyguards, a detail which speaks of his certainty of power. He keeps a fine apartment with his son Denny (Jonathan Lee). Big D is far less restrained: married to a potent kingmaker wife (Maggie Shiu), he’s a man who smiles and cajoles with excessive pleasantness and explodes in childish tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants. And he doesn’t, when, in spite of his carefully administered bribes to some of the “uncles” who form the decisive circle of triad chiefs, Lok wins the election as the most honourable and respectable of the choices.

Big D decides to dispute the election, and kidnaps two of the uncles he blames for his loss, cranky old Long Gun (Yuen-Yin Yu) and dissolute Sam (Robert Hung), whom he’d bribed but who failed to vote for him because there wasn’t enough money to go around. He nails them inside wooden crates, and rolls them repeatedly down a mountainside until they’re bloodied, dazed messes. Calling up Whistle, he threatens their lives unless Whistle helps him in challenging the triad’s guardian of tradition, Teng Wai (Wong Tin Lam); Whistle responds by having a subordinate hide the carved dragon-motif baton that is the symbol of authority in the Wo Sing in mainland China. Big D senses he might still stake a claim to the governorship if he can get hold of the baton by proving that he has the muscle and guts to snatch the baton to those who would still deny his authority.

Getting wind of an impending clash between the quickly polarising sides, the police, commanded by stoic Chief Superintendent Hui (David Chiang), drag in all the uncles, including Lok and Big D, who, still raging at his fellow uncles who he thinks betrayed him, begins kicking Whistle in front of reporters whilst waiting to be taken into the police station. Whistle flees the violence, but is run over by a car and critically injured. The cops, desperate not to see a gang war start, only want to force the uncles to find a way to sort out their problems. But events threaten to spiral out of everyone’s control as rival bands of men loyal to Big D and the other uncles try to fetch the baton from its hiding place in Guangzhou, and an embittered Whistle tries to blab from his hospital bed.

To’s quick eye takes in a raft of small details that fill out the universe of the triad bosses with alternatively disarming and dismaying effect. Most of these gangsters aren’t actually very tough or especially good at their jobs—they’re mostly middle-age men whose days of roughneck street warfare and standover work are behind them. Amongst the younger ones, who include young punks with something to prove, and genuinely fierce warriors in need of a watchful eye, the slickest is the preternaturally cool Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo), who distributes bribes and collects debts whilst also attending seminars in finance. Small and large rituals—Teng Wai making tea for the uncles to seal their election decision; a later, full-on, religious-flavoured, blood-brother ceremony—define and seal their society. The power of ritual and tradition is simultaneously endangered, illusory, and still binding in subtle and supple ways. The governorship of the triad is established by totems and oaths, and but these are only emblems of real things, and the competition to command the emblems will finally express the reality of those symbols. As the film plays out, the meanings of those symbols become thoroughly apparent.

Election also hints at broader meanings through its title: the election, the illusion of democracy, is a sanctified ritual in the triad. But it’s only possible because of the mutual consent of powerful men, and To encompasses the history of Hong Kong and the relationship of Chinese society to centuries of hegemonic rulers both foreign and domestic. Simultaneously, what adherence to a creed means is taken seriously all the way through, even though the drama is driven by upstart Big D’s refusal to accept the rules, a breach of the creed. He threatens that if he doesn’t get his way, he will break away and form his own triad, a potent threat indeed as no one wants a war. The police know they can’t stamp out the triads, and are happy to act as something like referees in this game to reduce collateral damage; their attempts to corral the uncles before the situation combusts prove partly successful. In a moment that’s both ribald and telling, Long Gun, whilst berating Sam and Big D for failing to give a big enough bribe, orders a nubile young prostitute to jump up and down for him: those old farts are happy as long as their pockets are stuffed, their dicks are wet, and the world’s jumping to their regulated beat.

In the film’s sustained, exhilarating central movement, the battling factions and the police try to beat each other in ferrying the baton out of China, leading to the teeth-gnashing moment between two intermediate members. Kun (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung), functionary for a boss who’s signed on with Big D because he’ll sell their drugs at a higher rate, beats Lok loyalist Big Head (Suet Lam) with a log to get him to give up the baton, whilst Big Head recites the words of their triad oath, explicating the bizarre bond of corporeal grit and spiritual adherence that keeps the Triad bound together. But then Kun gets a call from his boss, telling him the plan’s changed: he’s now to make sure that the baton comes home to Lok, and he has to apologise to the bloodied, battered Big Head before immediately leaving with the baton, knocking over a policeman in his relentless drive back to Hong Kong. He then passes the baton on to motorcycle-riding, hard-as-nails kung-fu warrior Jet (Nick Cheung), who was first glimpsed in the film taking offence to Big D’s patronising jokes, which caused him to crush up and eat a ceramic spoon as a fuck-you to the wannabe overlord; we know then he’d rather die than let Big D get the baton. With Jimmy Lee, who manages to intercept him, they beat off a mob of his men, Jimmy stuffing one heavy into a barrel and stomping on the lid until he’s trapped like a Looney Tunes character and Jet finishing up with a machete jutting from his shoulder. But the pair’s grit sees them victorious and Lok gains the baton. It’s the most generically satisfying part of the film as a blindingly executed piece of action.

Terrific little details flitter by at high speed, like the “you’re full of shit!” look Jimmy wears in listening to Uncle Sam’s swearing he’s not going to gamble any more, or Teng recalling how the baton once had to be sprayed down with insecticide after the last election because the former holder was such a slob. There are points in Election where even fierce attention won’t really reward a first-time viewer. Many of the bosses and their henchmen are swiftly introduced and barely distinguishable, though that’s probably intentional. Lok’s supine calm and Big D’s hot-headed smarm are, on the other hand, very carefully contrasted to carefully manipulate initial impressions. Lok, with his calm demeanour and general reputation for honour and chivalry within the triad, seems by far the better man, yet one senses that Lok’s security in his sense of power gives him a great capacity for ruthlessness. This is proven when, to make sure Whistle doesn’t blab to the cops, he has Whistle’s son run down by a truck and threatens that his daughter will be next, causing Whistle to commit suicide by pulling out his own life support. Once the baton’s in Lok’s hands, he reaches out to Big D, bringing him into his plan to expand the Wo Sing’s turf by taking over another triad’s territory: Big D pretends then to make an alliance with that triad’s boss, Brother Dinosaur (Bo Yuen), only to team with Lok to kill him, Big D relishing stabbing and kicking the dying man. All suddenly seems right in the Wo Sing world again.

But To saves his most brutal and amazing flourish for the very end: when Lok, Denny, and Mr. and Mrs. Big D share a bucolic afternoon fishing, Big D, pleased by how things are going, suggests that he and Lok share the Wo Sing governorship as some other triad bosses have done. Lok says they’ll have to talk it over with the fellow bosses, and then, when Denny and Mrs. D are momentarily absent, he picks up a huge rock and bashes Big D’s head in with it. Mrs. D sees him and tries to run away, but Lok catches her, throttles her, and buries her with her husband in an unmarked grave, before calmly driving home with his son, who witnessed his violence, in glazed, silent trauma, into a blood-red sunset.

The ending is both a ruthlessly concise trash job on the veneer of gangland civility that brings to mind the climax of Scorsese’s Casino (1995)—indeed, the thought of Scorsese having remade this film rather than the far less inspired Infernal Affairs is a tantalising one—with its galvanising, surprisingly prolonged, and truthful violence, but it’s also a coldly logical culmination of all that has proceeded. Lok’s unremitting execution of his rival and his problematic wife is both power politics defined, and obedience to the creed of the triad. Big D has violated the society’s laws and defied the judgement of the uncles, and he pays the price for that violation in the same way that Big Head defended the laws: at the cost of having his body pummelled, but this time unto death. This hardly leavens the final disturbing vision of Lam Lok as a brutal psychopath, his son’s haunted look saying all that’s necessary about life in this world even as they slip back into their social roles. The savage excellence of this coda elevates Election far above the pack. l

21st 06 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Nowhere Boy (2009)

Director: Sam Taylor-Wood

By Roderick Heath

Something that’s always struck me about the music of the peace-and-love era’s pop artists, particularly British ones like Roger Waters, Pete Townshend, and John Lennon, is how much anger, confusion, and frustration often radiates from their lyrics. I got some insight into this through my own father and his experiences as a young British male, a personal key for glimpsing a generation that often felt they were raised like the proverbial mushrooms, kept in the dark and fed on bullshit. “All John Lennon Needed Was Love” states Nowhere Boy’s threateningly facile tagline, but it’s not such a long bow to draw an immediate link between the Beatle’s overt longing for a fellowship of Man and his emotionally bereft, often disturbingly abusive low points. A trait of his generation was the way in which a sense of their own psychological integrity was vitally linked to the state of the world around them, and Lennon exemplified that: the ’70s were, for him, the ultimate bad trip after a euphoric high. It’s clear in hindsight that a private psychodrama that eroded Lennon’s achievements and consumed much of his later life, began in Lennon’s adolescence. Sam Taylor-Wood’s debut directorial feature attempts to discern through Lennon’s experiences a more general bildungsroman: how does the way we’re brought up affect us? Do we sense lies and mysteries in spite of all efforts to hide them? Is it useful to channel these problems into creation, or is that merely self-crucifixion?

Lennon’s life, and others like it, represents heavily-trodden ground for rock biographers, journalists, and memoirists, but not so much for filmmakers. A few ’70s films, especially the fictionalised versions of Lennon’s life That’ll Be the Day and Stardust (both 1974), and Quadrophenia (1979), Franc Roddam’s riff on Townshend’s themes, evoked the teenage highs within the tawdry world of the first Brit-Rock era with immediacy and grit. Alan Parker’s film of the Waters-masterminded Pink Floyd opus The Wall (1982) described with inspired breadth of vision the psychic landscape of a burnt-out ‘60s rock star. Backbeat (1993), a minor, but well-directed and acted account of the Beatles’ crucial years in Hamburg (especially by Ian Hart, his second stab at playing Lennon after the 1991 telemovie The Hours and Times). Backbeat makes for a virtual prequel to Taylor-Wood’s film, which ends with Lennon setting off to Hamburg. Someday, I suppose, someone’s going to take on the unenviable challenge of trying to squeeze the history of pop music’s most definitive band into a feature film, but so far, movies have been content to describe the edges of that phenomenon. Lennon’s status as an avatar for his age’s confused masculinity could, nonetheless, be a cultural lightning rod in the right artist’s hands as much as it was in his own.

Nowhere Boy recounts a defining triangle that’s well known to anyone who’s ever read about Lennon’s life: his relationship with his stern bourgeois aunt and guardian Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and his mostly absent, free-spirited but fragile mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). Julia left John to live with Mimi amidst the wreckage of her marriage, another part-victim of the Second World War’s chaotic impact on settled lives, and also of Julia’s own mental instability; these reasons are at least in part motivations that John (Aaron Johnson) has to discover in a variety of emotional detective story, because they’re deeply hidden under layers of protective propriety. The sudden death of John’s father figure, his Uncle George (David Threlfall), proves a catalyst for John as he’s passing through his middle teens; his behaviour becomes wilder and angrier, and he glimpses Julia for the first time in years, hovering at George’s funeral. When his cousin Stan (James Johnson) pries John away from Mimi for a day trip to Blackpool, he tells John he knows where Julia lives. When John calls on her, she grasps onto him with famished eagerness. After he’s suspended from school for touting pornography, John starts hanging out during the day at Julia’s place, and she introduces him to playing the banjo. That cosy arrangement ends when Mimi finds out what’s going on and confronts the pair; John momentarily spurns Mimi, but is forced to return to her when Julia’s husband Bobby (David Morrissey) worries that having John around might cause another of her breakdowns.

In the meantime, John doodles in notebooks, practises funny voices, cuts class, seduces girls into elementary sex in the park—there’s one of those “fish and finger pies”—and bubbles with latent creativity. He stoically dismisses his headmaster’s abuse by calling himself a genius. As rock ‘n’ roll soon becomes John’s obsession, he finds it’s also Julia’s love, and she gleefully explains the etymology of the phrase. His channelling of his unruly, rebellious, creative energy into that despised art form is partly informed by the alternatives Julia offers, and her own wayward, undisciplined joie-de-vivre and porous boundaries. Discomfortingly, a spark of something suggesting attraction between him and Julia percolates unconsciously as the sensual older woman encounters the good-looking young bloke she barely knows. John, having found a constructive form of rebellion, announces to his mates when they’re gathered for a smoke in the school toilets that he’s going to form a skiffle band. When they prove surprisingly enjoyable at a public performance in a local park, with John’s charismatic, enthusiastic performing drawing real interest, they soon attract Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and an alarmingly young George Harrison (Sam Bell). They have prodigious instrumental skills Lennon smartly adopts forthwith, but he’s also jealous of them when he notices they can turn attention, including Julia’s, away from him. Meanwhile, John’s increasingly aggressive, brittle behaviour drives Mimi to ineffective punishments and widens the gap between them.

Nowhere Boy is most distinguished by a smart psychological grasp on its protagonist, depicting aspects of Lennon’s behaviour that would recur throughout his life, and positing the reasons why. Taylor-Wood does bend over backwards to avoid the usual tropes for foreshadowing future greatness, portraying Lennon and McCartney’s first meeting as a deft mix of shy friendliness and power-playing, and the one moment in which a future song is preordained is an ugly one, when John attempts to drunkenly apologise to one of his girlfriends, only for her companion to pull her away dismissing him as a loser. Lennon and McCartney’s crystallising understanding commences when John learns Paul’s still grieving for his recently deceased mother, and is finally sealed, ironically, when John clobbers Paul and then embraces him with desperate self-disgust, in the wake of tragedy. The narrative builds steadily toward a night of crisis that is Lennon’s 17th birthday; Julia throws a party for John and his friends, but John’s seething frustration begins to boil over, and he slams a washboard over a friend’s head, insults Julia and confronts her over her abandonment of him, and then leaves in a fury. Returning to Mimi, he finds she prepared a birthday feast, too, and bought him a new electric guitar. Julia turns up desperate to heal the rift, resulting in a tempestuous airing of dirty laundry that reduces Julia to pleadingly explaining her mental problems whilst being dragged along the floor. John, dazed and forlorn, wanders into the night and awakens in the dawn light on the Mersey bank.

That’s a sustained and effective depiction of the way youthful rites of passage can sometimes turn into eruptive opportunities for catharsis. Duff and Scott-Thomas are excellent at portraying opposites of character and social expectation conjoined in their pained, fractious sisterly relationship, and the preternaturally unusual and infuriating young man they share. Particularly admirable is the scene when the two sisters finally sit down together, Duff’s Julia registering Mimi’s unexpected kindness with the faintest of tremors running through her face. It’s a pity then that Nowhere Boy finally sets its sights rather low, both stylistically and thematically. A common problem with biopics is that they rarely muster anything like the invention of their subjects, and Nowhere Boy is the kind of middle-of-the-road, tasteful piece of work Lennon would likely have mocked. Similar to the pre-Swinging-60s sociology of another recent film, An Education (2009), it fails to recreate visually and convincingly the milieu in any but the most prettified and flavourless of fashions. Like Anton Cobijn, who brought a pungent, yet unforced verisimilitude to Control (2007), his film about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Taylor-Wood is a former photographer. This fact usually entails an advanced visual sense and much less advanced drama-shaping skills, but oddly the opposite seems a problem here. Taylor-Wood doesn’t do anything to grit up the long-since deindustrialised environs of Liverpool, and the necessary recreation of the tactile, gritty world that produced the Beatles is missing. There’s not much invention or poetry to the visuals, and though the performance scenes are convincing and enjoyable, there’s little electricity or sense of a talented but inexperienced band getting better.

Taylor-Wood does offer one excellent little flourish, when Julia’s given John his banjo and he strums it clumsily and makes progress in snatches of real-time whilst Julia’s household whirls in time-lapse around him: it’s a strong vision of the kind of self-removal and obsession-mastering any art requires. If Taylor-Wood had mustered more such invention, Nowhere Boy might have added up to more, but it feels like a movie that’s over before it’s getting started. More subtly, it fails as a specific portrait. Johnson’s performance is terrific in its way, in his period mannerisms, playful imitations, and deft reserve of Liverpudlian obscenities, but he never quite seems to have a handle on Lennon’s individualistic humour and spiky intelligence, and he emphasises glowering teen angst to the point of tedium: Lennon’s snaky charm is too often missing. Still, there’s an effective vision of a young man growing into his skin when Johnson’s Lennon, after wasting so much energy trying to appear tough and defiant, walks away from the art college he’s now attending clad in rocker hairdo, blue jeans, and Buddy Holly glasses, clearly, suddenly, stridently in control of his persona and his mind, if not his emotions.

The failure to add up to much is exacerbated by the film’s last-act weaknesses and pat scripting, particularly the common fault of foreshadowing tragedy—Julia’s death in a car accident—with scenes that amble along in just such a way that lets us know something bad’s going to happen purely by their lack of urgency. The very conclusion is airbrushed into a standard-issue crisis resolution, with John seeming to have accepted Mimi as parent and setting off to conquer the world. Completely avoided is John’s later, pained encounter with his long-absent father. Modern films are under the spell of giving us closure, even when it’s inappropriate, and it’s inappropriate here. Although Taylor-Wood’s debut is filled with engaging touches, it still required more daring and personality. The guy who wrote “I Am The Walrus” as well as “I’m A Loser” deserved as much. l

20th 06 - 2010 | 9 comments »

Murder on a Sunday Morning (Un coupable idéal, 2001)

Director: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

By Marilyn Ferdinand

One Sunday morning in May 2000, the Stephenses, a Georgia couple in their 60s who were vacationing in Jacksonville, Florida, left their room at a Ramada Inn for some coffee. They were confronted by a man who demanded money and, tragically, Mrs. Stephens was shot and killed. With little to go on besides a description of the killer—young, skinny, black, wearing dark shorts and a t-shirt, and carrying a Derringer-type weapon—police stalked the neighborhood near the motel for someone who fit the bill. Patrol officers spotted 15-year-old Brenton Butler, skinny and black, walking on the street and decided to stop him. They asked him if he lived in the area (yes) and if he would mind talking to the investigating officers to offer any information about the neighborhood he might have (no). Butler got into the squad car and was driven to the motel. Mr. Stephens took one look at Butler seated in the back of the squad parked 50 feet away and identified Butler as the killer. Police brought Butler closer to Stephens and asked him if he was sure. “Yes. I wouldn’t send an innocent man to jail.” That ended the police investigation. Butler signed a confession and was put on trial for first-degree murder and armed robbery.

When news of the arrest was broadcast, Jacksonville public defender Patrick McGuinness was driving to his office. He recalls thinking that this young man had thrown his life away and the life of his victim. But McGuinness would soon have a change of heart: “As I learned more, I became increasingly angry.” He and Ann Finnell, a 23-year veteran of the Jacksonville public defenders office, made righteous use of their anger to defend Brenton Butler to prevent a travesty of justice from taking place.

Murder on a Sunday Morning, winner of the 2002 Oscar for best feature documentary, poses the kind of story that must have had a natural attraction for French director De Lestrade, sharing as it does similarities with Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s classic tale of criminal justice run amok. Of course, the fictional Jean Valjean, who is hunted relentlessly by police inspector Javert when he escapes from prison, did commit a crime. But, his crime (stealing bread for his starving family) and his punishment (eventually, a death sentence when his escape attempts were taken into consideration) reflected a repressive society that was willing to condemn a man just for being poor and trying to take care of his family. In the Stephens case, Brenton Butler was brought into the criminal justice system for the crime of being black near the scene of a crime, thus, the more ironically apt French title, The Ideal Culprit.

As Finnell eloquently puts it near the beginning of the film:

Officer Martin came in and candidly admitted that the only reason Brenton Butler was even stopped that morning was because he happened to be a black male walking in the neighborhood. Now think about that. That means for every African American in Jacksonville, Florida, if they happen to be walking down the street lawfully going about their own business, not doing anything wrong, that they are subject to being stopped and asked to get into a police car, and driven away from what they’re doing, and subject to being shown to the victim of a crime with the possibility that that victim would identify them under the most suggestive of circumstances, that being that they happen to be sitting in the back seat of a police car and most victims would think that they wouldn’t be sitting in the back seat of a police car unless they had done something wrong, right? So that’s where we are today in Jacksonville Florida, and I personally find that to be disgusting and reprehensible.

The film offers straightforward coverage of the pretrial preparations and trial itself from the point of view of the defense. McGuinness and Finnell are shown examining evidence collected at the scene of the crime, questioning the man who found Mrs. Stephens’ purse in a dumpster on his daily rounds of collecting aluminum cans for recycling, marking the time it would take for Butler to get to the crime scene from his home based on when his family saw him in the morning, and so forth—in other words, conducting their own investigation. The police didn’t check the purse for fingerprints, and they never recovered the murder weapon. Butler’s attorneys also tore into the confession, wondering why a young man on his way to fill out a job application at a local Blockbuster would bother after just making off with $1,200 of the Stephenses’ vacation money. Nothing added up.

De Lestrade takes us seamlessly through the knowledge and logic the defense attorneys used to reconstruct what happened after Mrs. Stephens died. Tourist killings in Florida were making the news domestically and internationally (no doubt, this is why De Lestrade learned of the case), and the police needed to put people in jail to protect the tourism industry. With a witness ID, the system could move swiftly to conviction and incarceration. Lazy, more inclined to believe a white witness than a black defendant, and skilled at getting confessions through intimidation from black defendants through a black enforcer, Det. Michael Glover, the police acted with impunity to railroad Brenton Butler. Their shoddy work and cruelty—including a beatdown by Glover of Butler—make McGuinness’ disrespectful attacks on their professionalism and character a pleasure to watch.

Particularly satisfying is McGuinness’ cross-examination of Det. James Williams, who wrote the confession that Butler signed, one that he claimed was in Butler’s own words but finally was forced to admit was his own creation. McGuinness relates in one of his typically interesting and caustic comments to the filmmakers that he and Williams talked before the testimony in the hallway. Williams, no fan of the public defender, sarcastically remarked on McGuinness’ smoking “another one of your cancer sticks.” McGuinness replied, “I always like a cigarette before sex,” accurately predicting that he was going to screw Williams in the courtroom.

It’s sad and sobering to see the Butler family deal with their ordeal. Brenton is stoic until his mother takes the stand to testify to his whereabouts on the morning of the murder. As she starts to cry, the camera moves to her son, his face wet and streaming with tears. His father prays with him from across the thick glass in the prison visitors room and says, “God don’t make mistakes,” a belief that many people, including me, would find hard to take given the circumstances of this trial. Frighteningly, the indifferent police work meant a real killer was still out on the streets able to kill again. Again, McGuinness makes this point for us. I admit, I’ve gotten so used to documentary directors narrating and inserting themselves into their films (the curse of Michael Moore), that I was jarred—in a good way—by De Lestade’s decision to let his subjects do all the talking for themselves.

Since Brenton Butler was tried and exonerated in less than an hour, we’ve seen some big changes in race relations in the United States. But the pushback has been hard, and this case is sadly echoed in the recently passed Arizona law that could see a lot of innocent people stopped, like Butler, for walking while Latino. The question of police torture and forced confessions is alive, if being given a low profile in the cowed media, in Chicago, as the trial of former Area 2 Commander Jon Burge for allegedly torturing more than 200 criminal suspects (many of them black) between 1972 and 1991, to force confessions is underway. The judge in Butler’s case, when thanking the jury for its service, called the U.S. criminal justice system the best in the world. That may be true on paper, and the judiciary worked in this case, but we’ve got quite a ways to go before we can truly claim that reputation.

16th 06 - 2010 | 7 comments »

A Home at the End of the World (2004)

Director: Michael Mayer

By Marilyn Ferdinand

At 200 and a half, the United States that was founded with hope and idealism by independent thinkers and adventurers in a land rich with human and natural resources is just about gone. Convulsing through two extremely violent centuries, overtaken by corporate and ideological extremists, and plunging through its second Depression in less than a century, even the small hopes pinned on the historic election of a multiracial president can’t flush the toxins out of our system in time to save us. A Home at the End of the World, by its very title, content, and the timing of its release, suggests an elegy for the vigor and promise of America.

The story begins in Cleveland in 1967, the year that gave us the Summer of Love and a resurgence of idealism and independent thinking that we can look back on now as the Indian Summer of the fast-to-winter American Dream. Nine-year-old Bobby Morrow (Andrew Chalmers) is awakened by some moans coming from his brother Carlton’s (Ryan Donowho) room. He walks in and stands wide-eyed and frozen as he watches Carlton’s naked girlfriend Emily (Asia Vieira) ride a blissed-out Carlton to a certain climax, that is, until she notices Bobby and hastily dresses and climbs out Carlton’s window. Carlton asks Bobby if he is freaked out. “No…a little.” Don’t worry, Carlton reassures him. It’s just love, the most natural thing in the world.

Bobby worships and trusts Carlton, accepting a hit of window pane from him as they hop their fence to Carlton’s favorite spot in the cemetery next door and listening to him expound upon how alike and present the living and the dead are. One evening, Bobby’s hero-worship is put to the test when Carlton tells him not to be such an asshole by hanging around at their parents’ party. Angered, Bobby runs upstairs. Carlton follows him and tells him that their parents need some adult time. Placated but unwilling to be left out, Bobby sneaks down to the party and hides near the patio doors to watch his brother climb on the fence between the graveyard and their yard and then jump down and run back to the party, not noticing that the glass door has been closed. He smashes through it, pulls a piece of glass out of his neck, and bleeds to death on the living room floor.

The film skips ahead seven years. Bobby (Erik Smith) has taken up his brother’s hippie mantle and, quite at random, invites Jonathan Glover (Harris Allan) to leave school to smoke a joint with him. When Jonathan first brings Bobby home, his mother Alice (Sissy Spacek) says a shocked “I’m sorry,” on learning that Bobby’s mother has died the year before. “Why?” Bobby asks, not understanding why she feels personally responsible. “I’m sorry…in a general way…for your loss.” Still uncomprehending, but accepting, Bobby simply compliments her on the bread she’s baked and chows down unself-consciously. Bobby and Jonathan become fast friends, jerking each other off during a sleepover in a shy, sweet scene. When tragedy strikes Bobby again—the death of his father—the Glovers take him in.

The film shifts nine years. Jonathan (Dallas Roberts) has made good on his promise to leave Cleveland as soon as he can and is living in New York City. Ned Glover (Matt Frewer) has developed respiratory problems, and he and Alice are moving to Arizona. When Bobby (Colin Farrell) asks what he’s supposed to do, Alice gently pushes him out of the nest: “You’re 24. You should be out living your own life.” Like a homing pigeon, Bobby lands on Jonathan’s doorstep. A love triangle soon forms as Clare (Robin Wright Penn), Jonathan’s “fashion-forward” roommate, tenderly takes Bobby’s virginity in her quest to get pregnant and ends up falling for him, only to realize later, after they’ve all moved to a house in Woodstock, that Bobby is the love of Jonathan’s life and, perhaps, the feeling is mutual.

Adapted by Michael Cunningham (The Hours) from his own novel, the film makes a necessarily truncated, but nonetheless novelistic survey of the times of its principal characters. Jonathan was a fortunate teen to find an accepting boy with whom to explore his homosexuality, and he does not hesitate to explore the gay free love movement of the 1970s and ’80s. Clare is afflicted with Pretty in Pink syndrome—quirky clothing and design sense abetted not by poverty (she has a trust fund), but by a desire to escape her proper Philadelphia roots and be artistic.

Bobby, however, is stuck in the past, and not even his past, but rather his brother’s. His one overt passion is rock music, and he is awed that Clare was at Woodstock. (“What was it like?” he asks with starry-eyed enthusiasm. “Muddy,” is her—and the standard—reply.) Bobby, having lost his own nuclear family and internalized the hippie sense of family—one created among friends through mutual love—slips easily into any situation, an ability Clare comments on with a mixture of envy and disapproval. While Clare and Jonathan run from tradition, it is the lack of a centering principle in their ’80s philosophy of life that sends them plunging right back, as they find themselves unwilling to share Bobby. In the end, Bobby is truest to the memory of what his brother meant to him and the long-ago vision he had while tripping that everything is connected, both living and dead.

It’s hard to know where to start praising the many fine performances in this film. Sissy Spacek is a marvel as the kind of housewife The Feminine Mystique described—accepting her role as wife and mother and then surprising her incredulous son by accepting a joint from Bobby and dancing with him to Laura Nyro. The moment she decides to do so is an acting lesson in itself, asserting that she’s Jonathan’s mother and then letting her reserve melt when a very sincere Bobby, played with a beautiful wistfulness by Erik Smith, says she’s more than that, acknowledging her personhood. Alice suggests to Clare when they finally meet that her arrangement with the two men is a better way to go; she won’t be stuck one day wondering why she spent her life doing laundry.

Wright Penn has a difficult job of suggesting a faux bohemian. It’s a thankless role, and she never quite overcomes its fey aspects. Her declaration that she was so in love with Jonathan comes a little out of nowhere and relies more on the audience’s knowledge of fag haggery than on character development. But in her sexual initiation of Bobby, she hits all the right notes, echoing Carlton’s philosophy that “it’s all good.”

Dallas Roberts does a superb job of playing a real man, not a gay stereotype. He’s mature and understated, counteracting Clare’s flamboyance, and a scene in which they are choosing a paint color for the nursery is realistic, not a sitcom moment. His love for Bobby doesn’t spill out all at once, but as a suppressed anguish when he finds Bobby and Clare in bed. He’s cautious about Bobby’s affectionate kisses and hugs, not really knowing what Bobby’s sexual preferences are. He loves Bobby, but he doesn’t really understand him.

The character of Bobby is done enormous justice by the three actors who play him. While young Andrew Chalmers has the least screen time, he captures the curious follower quality that will characterize Bobby for the rest of his life. As the film progressed, I was quite reminded of the character continuity Michael Apted captured in his Up series of documentaries. Erik Smith is very natural and open, playing beautifully off the intentionally stiffer Jonathan of Harris Allan, a gawky young man Bobby teaches to accept himself and those around him. Perhaps being uptight is a necessary characteristic to growing up, however, because it shows society has worked its socialization influence. Bobby seems largely untouched by social expectations, though he is easily influenced by those he loves and wants to please. Colin Farrell is miraculously good at playing this gentle soul who becomes a baker because Alice taught him how to bake one sleepless night and who has no particular ambitions except to love and be loved. He’s the “Nature Boy” Nat King Cole sang so affectingly about, real, yet not completely in the world.

Michael Mayer, a relatively inexperienced director, is to be commended for meshing the performances of the actors who play Bobby and Jonathan through the years so well and for helping to fill out the slightly underwritten roles of the actresses—though, of course, Spacek and Wright Penn are wonderful actresses who know how to make the most of what they have. His mise-en-scène isn’t terribly interesting, though the set decoration and costuming are dead on, and he doesn’t trust the audience as much as he should—we really could have figured out that Carlton would bleed to death without having him show us the shard of glass in his neck. The ending, a mental flashback that must have been lifted from the book, was unsuccessful and ruined the elegiac mood of the winterscape set-up, but by that time, I was so in love with this film, it really didn’t matter.

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25th 05 - 2010 | 14 comments »

Che: Part One/Part Two (2008)

Director: Steven Soderbergh

By Roderick Heath

With the success of Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, Steven Soderbergh helped make American independent film into a minor religion. He followed that debut up with a battery of peculiar, uneven, but interesting works in the ’90s before finding new traction with 1999’s The Limey, a cryptic and stylish but finally featherweight film noir. Actually, I could attach those adjectives to most of his films, which are definable by their refined surface approximations and which made him a mainstream darling with 2001’s oddly empty sociopolitical panorama Traffic and the wittily styled, equally shallow Ocean’s Eleven. Soderbergh has found a niche in the last decade as a polished pseudo-auteur and pet ringmaster for various movie stars, specialising in ironically deadpan satires, genre works clad in retro chic, and occasional returns to indie cinema realism. Last year’s The Informant! was interesting chiefly for combining the disparate halves of his oeuvre and preoccupations, with its genuinely probing sense of modern American values and expansive, concerned sense of political culture, mixed in with jaunty ’70s-ish music and candy-coloured, caricatured visions of Midwestern suburbia.

His colossal Che Guevara project, on the other hand, seemed a total rejection of his Hollywood side, and it’s largely a success as that: Che looks for much of its length like something Ken Loach might have made, minus his up-the-proles sentimentality, but failing to generate the kind of gritty tragedy and rousing sense of fighting for a cause that Loach managed in his Land and Freedom and to a lesser extent his The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Che as a whole seems precisely designed to alienate the people who might have paid to see it—young faux-radicals wearing Che t-shirts—as the flavour of Soderbergh’s work is purgative, studying in unremitting detail the arduous experience of Guevara as victorious and tragic revolutionary warrior. The approach to the project, coproduced by star Benicio Del Toro, is an attempt at total resistance to any whiff of romanticisation, aiming merely for tactile realism and elemental narrative. It’s also equally possible to label Soderbergh’s cool, procedural approach as avoidance of controversy. Certainly, cautionary examples are on offer, like the infamous 1969 Richard Fleischer film Che! It is, however, a coherent unit of his career, and one that casts some of what he’s been trying to get at in new light.

Like Traffic, Che questions the cost the triumph of the United States and consumer culture has had on poorer neighbours and points out the dubious aspects of postwar American hegemony (even his otherwise totally disastrous The Good German had that element). As in many of his other films, it offers a doomed hero locked in a battle with combines and conspiracies—with the obvious difference that Guevara was a real man, one idolised and vilified with equal fervour. It’s possible either way to discern more than a dash of nostalgia in Soderbergh’s film for foreign antagonists of the U.S. and alternate political creeds about something more substantial than bristling religious prejudice and hazy geopolitical spite, for the days when even such opposites as Guevara and a U.S. senator (in this case Eugene McCarthy, played by Jon DeVries) could converse with firm but polite discourse, and for the thrill of new possibilities when Latin American socialism didn’t bring to mind the horrors of the Shining Path on one hand and the egotisms of Hugo Chavez on the other. That nostalgia is, however, troubling in itself: what exactly Guevara’s journey means to the contemporary landscape other than, in strict terms, lessons on how to fight, win, and lose guerrilla wars, is only suggested in animating spirit rather than concrete depiction. Moral necessity and moral cost are questions kept at a very distant arm’s length. One thing is certain after the film is finished: the man was determined. And even if the film’s precepts are backwards-looking, Soderbergh attempts to realise Guevara’s trials as the most immediate kind of cinema.

The ironies of Guevara’s career are captured with some dexterity. Guevara is still venerated, and comrade-in-arms Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) has become a faded figure of sclerotic despotism, largely because Guevara gave up the tricky arts of management to keep on with the gritty arts of war. Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) is heard to say early on in the film that “revolution is not exportable,” in the sense that each form of revolt has to be specific to the soil from which it will spring. Yet Che forgets this in ignoring warnings that Bolivia is too xenophobic and peculiar for it to accept a simple repetition of his Cuban success. The film’s diptych structure is stimulating not only as a study of diverse outcomes, but also of perspective: what looks heroic and determined in one case looks foolish and pig-headed in the second. Present is the suggestion—not analysed—that Che’s desire to bring the revolution to Bolivia is motivated by its proximity to his native Argentina, whose sleazy dictatorship he would have held in contempt.

The screenplay by Peter Buchman, with Benjamin A. van der Veen contributing to Part Two, is adapted with few digressions and little psychological or sociological portraiture from Guevara’s own diaries and accounts. Part One is punctuated by flash-forwards to Che representing Cuba at the UN and being interviewed by journalist Lisa Howard (Julia Ormond) in New York, his air of ruffled but towering dignity and paramilitary clothing cutting a swath through that city’s chattering classes. This stands in counterpoint to the finicky business of the actual revolution: telling off sloppy soldiers, weeding out unpromising recruits, executing criminals, listening to the tales and complaints of Cubans he and his men encounter, and a hundred other tiny aspects of turning a band of uninspiring adventurers into a popularly supported, effective army, one that he finally leads to victory in a memorably filmed sequence of street warfare in the town of Santa Clara. Che, in New York, is absorbed by Soderbergh’s camera as faintly dissociated, weary, haunted, and happy in ways that are all indefinable, whilst still fierce enough to take on the cabal of petty dictatorships and hypocrites that comprise the other American delegates—out of place at parties and amusingly exasperated by his translator’s constantly absenting himself to see the town. The suggestion is there, too, that Che’s fame came as much out of the impact he made in being seen in that environment, packing the spirit and the firm corporeal rigour of the revolutionary into his intimidating person in an incongruous context, as it did from any anecdotal triumph.

The contrast, with the younger, beardless Che and Fidel speaking seriously but amiably about their plan in an apartment in Mexico City before embarking on their Cuban adventure, is telling in itself, and even more so is the vision of Che in Bolivia, increasingly gaunt, grizzled, and wheezing in crippling asthmatic fits, engaged in what looks awfully like the kind of quixotic bourgeois adventuring he would have disdained. There he’s aided by some hangers-on of dubious relevance, like a German socialist dubbed Tania (Franka Potente), as he and all his warriors take on pseudonyms and too little organic contact with the Bolivian radicals they’re supposed to be aiding. The film takes care to note that the Soviet-backed local Communist Party refused all aid to Che, whose style and aims by this time were all too clearly as offensive to the Eastern Bloc as to the West (at least so the films suggests, whilst many historians feel that Che’s committed Marxism had the opposite effect on the Cuban revolution). The Communists instead instigate a strike that results in the massacre of miners. Meanwhile, in perhaps the film’s most pointed scenes of contemporary relevance, American military and intelligence personnel advise and aid the Bolivian army in tracking down their insurgents.

Soderbergh’s deliberately happenstance sense of continuity, though sometimes bewildering, is convincing in portraying a world where faces and events whip by and out of view: even Che’s battlefield romance with Aleida March (Catalina Sandino Moreno) is only vaguely, tangentially suggested. “We’ve only won the war,” Che tells a cadre when Batista’s fall is announced: “The revolution starts now.” The irony there is that Che soon runs off to another war, bringing up the possibility it’s war that he’s truly best at and is now more comfortable in such situations than in his home life, and certainly not in the impersonal squabbles of governing and diplomacy. Soderbergh constantly notes Che’s immediate, interpersonal sense of decency that both inspires loyalty and hero-worship amongst his soldiers and the people he meets, and renders his sensibility finally inimicable to the kind of personality-cult leadership that Castro radiates. He also retains a good little middle class boy’s propriety for private property, as noted in the first part’s amusing coda, when he tells off some of his men for embarking on their triumphant ride to Havana in a stolen hotrod. The revolution will not be a joyride.

Soderbergh’s visual discoveries are sometimes quietly revelatory. The Cuban half is defined by a sense of dynamism, with the intercutting between war and present endowing all the bits and pieces with a sense of direction and meaning. Even the denseness of the jungle is as enclosing and reassuring as it is frustrating and arduous, for it hides the revolutionaries from their enemies. The purposefulness of the structure as well as the described narrative is always apparent, as Che and his army leave behind that jungle for the flatter hinterland and, finally, the clean white streets. In Part One, Che is shown learning how to punish transgression with some neatly disposed court justice, when he quickly shoots two of his soldiers who have turned to stealing and raping, thus prefacing his eventual comfort executing hundreds of state enemies as the militarised, expedient ethos of the battlefield became the defining key of the new nation.

In the Bolivian half, no such reassurance is present. Che and his soldiers move in less definable directions, and are as often as not discovered sitting or standing about in patient but discernable cluelessness about what to do next. Their one ambush of Bolivian soldiers is a tragicomic interlude where the enemy soldiers’ hated officer blubs and cowers, and the men are finally marched off without their guns and gear. The Bolivian landscape, often as unforgiving but more arid and less enveloping, invokes in itself the failure of Che’s efforts to flourish. He and his band are finally caught in a canyon by Bolivian soldiers whose advancing ranks, picked out in an effective long pan, are reminiscent of a similar army that appears to crush the rebels at the end of Spartacus (1960).

Che’s two parts have definite conceptual rigour in the balance and contrast that define its hemispheres, and the project retains a compelling, hypnotic flow that suggest that by stripping himself of all obvious supports, Soderbergh found a kind of purity. But conceptual rigour doesn’t guarantee depth of purpose, and what the Che diptych finally achieves is questionable for a work of such scope and heft. As a plain portrait of a man of war, it’s an undoubted success, one charged with a kind of spare poeticism and effervescent melancholia. On the other hand, it’s a film that might have infuriated Che, at least to the extent that it’s so disengaged from any personalised, dramatised sense of what he was fighting for. If Walter Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) reduced young Ernesto Guevara to a gap-year holiday-maker who once read a political pamphlet, it nonetheless captured a sense of a man whose sensibility was fed by interaction with the world. What that world, and Guevara’s politicised interpretation of it, means to him, is much less vaguely defined here, for Soderbergh’s approach owes less to neorealism than to television documentary, where everything is depicted through snatches of interviews and wobbly glimpses of chaos. Che’s cause is explicated through recited rhetoric and snatches of sloganeering: the meaning of Guevara’s politics, both to himself and to the political business he got involved in, remains a given—and a ghost, tantalisingly and finally irritatingly out of reach. Whilst Soderbergh’s focus is coherent in intent and effective in result, he finally seems to have worked himself into a corner, where the most interesting reasons for making a film about El Che—to wrestle with recent history and understand the revolutionary appeal—have been excised.

Perhaps it’s because Soderbergh’s clearest similarity to Guevara is how both men quickly became dissatisfied with past achievements and must move on to new projects. Soderbergh’s wild pace of work in the past few years, playing with styles and technical challenges, feels the trait less of a radical than of a craftsman out to test his skills. The great amount of time and effort that Soderbergh takes to say some obvious things (revolution is hard work, failing and dying is a pain in the ass) is partly vindicated by the many small treasures he unearths along the way, but finally Che adds up to a fascinating and occasionally superb failure. It’s less suggestive of a creative mind avoiding cliché than of a process one witnesses too much these days: an artist-intellectual arguing himself into an expressive dead end. l

23rd 05 - 2010 | 9 comments »

Offside (2006)

Director: Jafar Panahi

By Marilyn Ferdinand

As many people in cinematic and Iranian circles know, noted Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been incarcerated by the Iranian government for nearly three months, where he has been tortured and, until a couple of days ago, denied an appearance before a judge and visits from his lawyer and family. The jury of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, on which he was to sit, left a chair empty in symbolic protest and was one of the first bodies in the film community to protest his imprisonment. There can be no doubt that he was jailed to prevent a repeat of his highly visible protest of the repressions of the Iranian government at the 2009 Montreal Film Festival. The government started to bow to pressure when the world reacted to Panahi beginning a hunger strike to the death last week; he said in his letter announcing the hunger strike: “I will not tolerate turning into a lab rat, where every minute I am accused of the most insane crimes and where I am under constant mental and physical torture.” Another Iranian filmmaker, Mohammad Nourizad, has undergone similar treatment for an even longer period, and his sight has been damaged from the severe beatings he has endured.

These two men and every other Iranian filmmaker who wishes to make films in their own country must endure censorship and restrictions. None of Panahi’s films can be shown in Iran because he has filmed around the restrictions, and his defiance of government repression is what has placed him in his current predicament. Besides joining groups calling for his release, I decided to write about Panahi’s work that by posing questions by example, illuminates what sorts of “insane crimes” ordinary Iranians are being accused of these days and allows us to reflect on the customs and religious dogma that harm and oppress women not only in Iran, but also throughout the world.

The plan to make Offside came to Panahi when his daughter was refused admission to a soccer match. With Iran in contention to make the finals of the 2006 World Cup, Panahi took his chance and filmed clandestinely at Tehran’s Azadi stadium during the match between Bahrain and Iran to determine which national team would go to Germany to play for the championship. He chose nonprofessionals to portray the soccer-crazy girls who try to sneak into the stadium, the soldiers providing security, and the male fans.

We find ourselves inside a car in which an older man (Mohammed Moktar Azad) tells an unseen driver to catch up with a bus and block it from continuing. He gets out of the car, saying he won’t be long, and looks up and down the bus for his daughter, who has taken off to see the big game. The car he started out in takes off, and the bus driver lets him ride to the stadium so he can search for his daughter. “You know what they’ll do to her if they catch her.” That sounds ominous and makes us worry about a girl (Sima Mobarak-Shahi) on another bus whose disguise fools no one. A young man on the bus is sympathetic, as is the vendor who takes the risk of selling her a ticket, but overcharges her for it and forces her to buy one of his posters as well as a cover for their conversation. She watches another girl get in using her elderly father as a cover, and attempts to attach herself to some others going through the gate, but balks when a soldier goes to frisk her. She runs, but is apprehended and taken to a holding area, already occupied by several other girls and guarded by one soldier from a rural area near Tabriz (Mohammad Kheir-Habadi) who barks orders at them and another, a city boy from Tehran (Masoud Kheymeh-kabood), who can see the game and narrates it for them.

Between the play-by-play coverage, the arrival of another disguised girl, personal histories, and the screams of an angry father, a very interesting conversation takes place between the rural soldier and one of the more defiant and masculine girls (Shayesteh Irani). Clearly intimidated by his city setting and concerned about threats to his father’s farm, we see how the government works in the outreaches of Iran. The Tehrani girl openly smokes and has cut her hair. She learns that foreign women are allowed into the stadium, even though they will also be exposed to the coarse language and naked arms and legs of the men attending the game that are the excuses the soldiers give for the exclusion of Iranian women. They also will be sitting with strange men around them. “But they will be with their brothers and husbands,” the soldier shoots back, not considering that this could also be the case for the detained girls. “So, the only reason I can’t go in is because I’m Iranian,” the girl says, hitting the nail on the head. It’s all about government control, of course. As Panahi has said in an interview, there is no law saying women can’t attend soccer matches. It has become an unwritten law that through intimidation is becoming custom. As long as Iran remains under religious rule, laws will not matter and interpretation of religious law will be at the discretion of the few men who hold power.

Offside explores these deep issues the way reasonable people might, through conversations that could be taking place in coffee houses, dorm rooms, or dinner parties anywhere in the world. The film also takes some very well-aimed pokes at the absurdity of the situation at hand. One of the girls (Ayda Sadequi), a soccer player herself, has to use the rest room. Of course, there are no rest rooms for females, so the Tehrani soldier disguises her by taking the first girl’s poster of a soccer star and turning it into a mask—one the girl can’t see out of because the holes he cuts in it don’t line up with her eyes. The scene in the bathroom is hilarious, as the soldier tells the girl not to read the graffiti-speckled walls, pushes an ever-growing crowd of men wanting to relieve themselves away while she’s in the rest room, and overhears a strange conversation in one of the stalls that sends the soldier from door to door, listening and finally bursting into one stall, only to find an old man having his wheelchair adjusted by his grandson. The girl takes her chance to run away while the soldier is surrounded by men wanting to use the facilities, and as he looks through the stands for her, we get a glimpse of the soccer match. At this moment, it dawned on me that I felt as deprived as the girls at not being able to see the action on the field—an interesting bit of empathy Panahi slyly put in motion from the moment we reached the stadium.

Because the game was real, Panahi and his cast had two possible endings, for victory or defeat. Either, I’m sure, would have been great, but victory allows us to see the street demonstrations of a proud nation and the jubilant yells of the girls—all real soccer fans—as they are being hauled off to the Vice Squad along with a boy who was detained for his repeated use of fireworks at soccer matches. Beautifully, he lights a firecracker in the paddy wagon that the soldier missed during his search, and produces sparklers. When the soldiers are compelled to join the revelers in the street, the prisoners file off the bus holding the lit sparklers. This moving last scene offers Panahi’s hope that the Iranian people will eventually emerge victorious into the light. I’ll be lighting a candle of hope for him as well. l

JAFAR PANAHI is the group on Facebook that is providing information and updates on him and Mohammad Nourizad. BREAKING! Panahi is being released on bail!

5th 05 - 2010 | 10 comments »

Jennifer’s Body (2009)

Director: Karyn Kusama

By Roderick Heath

I might have been alone in anticipating Jennifer’s Body as a project offering a fine opportunity for a trio of au courant It Girls—screenwriter Diablo Cody and actresses Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried—to strut their stuff in gamier material than crass blockbusters and middling Indieville fare. My solitary position seemed more than confirmed in light of the film’s poor box office performance, yet my curiosity didn’t abate. The film, now that I’ve seen it, seems an odd, deeply flawed crossbreed that doesn’t work, but it is also far from being the contemptible disaster many were happy to dismiss it as. Sold as a femme-centric reclamation-cum-subversion of the high-school-themed horror subgenre, that description doesn’t really cover what Jennifer’s Body sets out to do: indeed, in terms of monster-woman biz it doesn’t do anything that Species didn’t cover years ago. Nonetheless, the material that Cody tried to jam into her script, and the efforts of director Karyn Kusama to keep it all in balance, demands a brief pause to take stock before launching into critical assessment.

Lack of ambition isn’t one of the film’s faults, unlike Cody’s previous, tiresome Juno (2007), for in addition to its core as a generic riff, the screenplay tries to encompass a knowing panoply of sardonic observations on modern standards of cool and social prestige, on orgiastic celebrations of communality around calamities that are more properly sources of shame, and the schizoid fixation of our media-soaked life with grotesque calamity and libido-exploiting pretty things. One key joke of the film is the sight of monstrous über babe Jennifer (Fox) strutting through her high school hallways in contemptuous oblivion of the despair and horror around her, and this being taken as a given, simply replicates the cognitive dissonance I have whenever I turn on a commercial TV news programme or open up my MSN home page these days.

Nonetheless, Jennifer’s Body is adorned from the outset by Cody’s questionable idea of smart banter, with BFFs Jennifer and Anita ‘Needy’ Lesnicki (Seyfried) skewered by Chastity (Valerie Tian) as “lesbigay” for maintaining their goofy smile-and-wave friendship, rooted in their “sandbox love” as infants, into their final high school year. Jennifer has bloomed into a drop-dead sex magnet and Needy has retained a dowdier aspect, at least partly in deference to Jennifer’s need to be the most gorgeous one in the room, and also because she has feet planted firmly in the nerdy side of the student body. Who is actually the needy one of the two is, of course, soon called into question, with Jennifer happy to use her looks to conquer police cadets, bartenders, and rock musicians with equal abandon. But Fox equips still-human Jennifer with a rapid little laugh as if astounded by her own audacity and how people let her get away with it to remind us she’s still little more than a child, although she’s no longer even a “back-door virgin.” She’s happy enough, however, to pretend to be Little Miss Purity when the members of a cute indie rock band called Low Shoulder, in town for gig in a seamy local bar, are overheard speculating about her virginity. Jennifer drags Needy to their gig, only for the bar to catch fire during the performance.

Needy manages to spirit a shell-shocked Jennifer out of the place, but several others die and Jennifer is swiftly snatched away by the band. Needy, alarmed and scared, goes home. Jennifer turns up, bloodied, bedraggled, wearing a demonic grin and vomiting grotesque black bile before disappearing again. The next day, however she’s immaculate and uninterested in the mass mourning of the fire victims that’s commenced among their schoolmates and their township. Their town becomes a cause celebre thanks to the disaster, and Low Shoulder start becoming very famous as one of their songs is declared the “unofficial anthem” of the healing process. The locality’s infamy extends when young men keep turning up with their entrails gnawed from their body by some lunatic. Guess who’s been possessed by a succubus after her sacrifice to Satan by the misinformed wannabe pop gods?

“They’re basically, like, agents of Satan with really awesome haircuts,” Jennifer describes Low Shoulder, who, as revealed in flashback, tied her up in the woods and stabbed her to death. That scene is actually the best in the film, one where Kusama intelligently has Fox play it deadly straight as a mortally terrified victim of the band, led by the unctuous pretty boy Nikolai (Adam Brody), who lay out their frustrated desire to make it big as if playing in a sitcom, and explain their decision to make a pact with the devil to accomplish their aims. They casually read out the prescribed invocation for the sacrifice as downloaded from the internet, and Nikolai bitches about how hard it is for an indie rock band to make it “if you don’t get on Letterman or on some retarded soundtrack,” a joke that would hit harder if this film’s soundtrack wasn’t stuffed full of bland indie rock. The bandmates then excitedly sing out the lyrics to Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny” whilst slaughtering Jennifer like a hog. Here, the blend of satiric humour and genuine nastiness is at its most bizarrely compelling.

Similarly odd and compelling is the sequence that cuts between Jennifer seducing and then torturing and eating a young Goth-styled writer, Colin (Kyle Gallner), whom Needy had liked, and Needy and her sweetly ineffectual boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) engaged in clumsy beginner sex, with Needy afflicted by hallucinatory visions of Jennifer and her victims, her moans of fear mistaken by Chip for groans of coital pleasure: “Am I too big?” he asks with concern, but with a slight self-impressed smile on his lips. Cody’s love of slasher films, noted but (unfortunately!) not realised in Juno, is blended with a wry, antipodal take on the coming-of-age genre, with the familiar hopped-up sexuality and rigid social roles usually described in teen-oriented horror movies both recapitulated and dismantled. A long shadow is still cast on the teen horror flick by Wes Craven’s Scream (1996), with its razor-sharp Kevin Williamson screenplay, as Jennifer’s Body attempts to give that model an equally ironic but more overtly deconstructive tweak. But perhaps a better, and more appropriate, forebear to the ideas behind Jennifer’s Body is Brian de Palma’s mighty adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie (1976).

Interestingly, especially in light of the well-publicised design of the film to reverse the usual gender dynamics of the slasher flick (which might suggest that Cody and Kusama would offer up for Jennifer’s consumption a raft of chauvinists, sex offenders, and other stereotyped male jerks), and the sharp metaphors about misplaced trust and date rape for overly self-confident, undersupervised teen girls, Jennifer’s actual targets are, however, nice young men, one of them grieving his dead friend, another showing up hopefully but with relative innocence for a plain old date. These targets are a fairly brave choice, especially considering that unlike the usual horror movie murderer, whose intentions are usually bleakly impersonal and swift even when viciously moralistic, Jennifer’s killings are personalised, sexualised, and prolonged, without the usual distancing devices usually employed with presentations of raw feminine violence.

Needy’s conspiracy/conflict with the demonic Jennifer is infused both by her resentment of Jennifer’s pre-eminence and self-centredness, and also by a bubbling bi-curious attraction that actualises in a scene of extended girl-on-girl snogging. That’s a moment which revels in its own willfully trashy appeal, but also suggests a curious nexus of the genre with the gay-friendly demeanour of so much indie film from which Kusama and Cody sprang, and also reproducing the familiar contradictions notable in many lesbian vampire flicks over the years. The two girls evoke more actual passion than the other couplings in the film, infused with layers of gamesmanship: Succubus-Jennifer trying to distract Needy and keep her on the hook so that Needy will not “narc her out,” after seeing Jennifer drenched in blood, and goody-two-shoes Needy, bewildered at first by her friend’s attentions, drops on Jennifer for a second bout with amusing directness. Needy’s boring nicey-wicey boyfriend Chip soon becomes something of a pawn between the two, for Jennifer is envisioned as an extreme incarnation of the evil-bitch-queen boyfriend-stealer back-stabbing nonfriend.

Around this central ménage a quoi spins plentiful social satire on the processes by which overnight superstars are made, particularly by exploiting tragedy in the way many recording artists made dubious capital out of post-9/11 shock and patriotic fervour (“Low Shoulder are American heroes!” declares Chastity in protest at Needy’s cynicism), the way the emotional ambiguity following disaster can be trampled by lockstep official sentimentalising, and how repetition dulls social response to disaster. At his funeral, Colin’s mother (Gabrielle Rose, good) abuses and sends up two of his fellow Goths after they make an overwrought eulogy over his casket, a scene which, like the scene between Allison Janney and the nurse in Juno, spoils a “things we’d like to say” moment in taking the mickey out of Goth culture self-obsession and facile morbidity, with its unfair, hectoring employment in a loaded setting, and ludicrous dialogue.

In truth, the film rather painfully confirms Cody’s limitations as a writer quite apart from her much-abused dialogue style. Set-ups are often vague, and then amateurishly developed: that Needy explains for the audience Jennifer’s dictation of her appearance rather than giving some carefully written scenes to describe this subtle coercion displays why screenwriting teachers deride the voiceover as a lazy technique. Many scenes are detached and hardly seem to affect the next, with a broken-up, skit-like air inflecting many sequences. Major characters are introduced about a half-hour too late, and the script is littered with peculiar gaps: why isn’t anything about Jennifer’s home life, her parents, or whether they’ve noticed her recent bizarre tendencies even briefly described?

More problematically, the core characterisations, especially Jennifer’s, barely cohere. The filmmakers don’t seem to know whether to pitch Jennifer as a demon conveniently mimicking a personality, as Jennifer herself taken to the Nth degree with evil liberation, or a confused, Jekyll and Hyde blend of girl and monster. Kusama offers curious cutaways to Jennifer looking pained and sorrow-stricken in quiet moments, but can’t construct a successful dialogue between the aspects of Jennifer. As such, in spite of Fox’s evident enthusiasm in a role that suits her fierce beauty and capacity to project sharklike sexuality, Jennifer never becomes the galvanising villainess she’s supposed to be. Likewise, the need to maintain a clear good/bad girl dichotomy results in making Needy fastidiously—and a bit unbelievably, in light of her literate, cynical outsider status who articulates like a 30 Rock character—clean-mouthed and strait-laced. What then ought to build to a thumping emotional and physical denouement instead results in sloppily achieved climactic scenes, as Needy tries to save Chip from Jennifer’s predations and then breaks into her bedroom to stab her to death in revenge.

Even a slim hold on the necessary melodramatic impetus of a horror narrative seems to slip out of Kusama and Cody’s grasp by the end, with confrontations between Needy and Jennifer and then the members of Low Shoulder thrown away with zestless laziness. The latter villains meet their ends during the credits, for crying out loud! What should be a big, bristling showdown that lets its actresses off their leashes instead peters out in a weak bedroom tussle, where Needy pitches herself through a window like a superhero: her tearing the emblematic friendship necklace from about Jennifer’s neck seems to dispirit her and she lies prone under Needy’s knife. Her generally uninspired work on Jennifer’s Body hardens my opinion of Kusama, who made her debut with 2000’s interesting Girlfight, but then delivered the all but unwatchable Æon Flux (2005), as a director who doesn’t instinctively grasp the necessary mechanics of building tension and intensity in genre fare – and that’s a real problem here.

Perhaps the project would have been better off slapped into shape by a hardy genre salt like Craven or Robert Rodriguez, or if, as it seems to have been, it was important to keep it an all-girl affair, Kathryn Bigelow. The most unsettling images in the film, tellingly, are expressive ones from its lead actresses, with Fox’s malevolent grin and raw sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain matched at the very end by a now somewhat crazed and partly monstrous Needy, caught in a surveillance camera readying to assault the band, her eyes aglow with otherworldly retribution for herself and her friends. The movie is mostly sustained by its performances, especially Seyfried’s, and good miniature character turns by the likes of J. K. Simmons as a hippie-ish school teacher and Cynthia Stevenson as Chip’s flip, solicitous mother. Jennifer’s Body is thoroughly watchable and likable, but considering that it so eagerly wishes to be embraced as a cult item, I can’t help but wonder which cult it was aiming for. It’s still an interesting film, for me. Perhaps that’s all the cult it needs.l

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