4th 08 - 2014 | 2 comments »

A Most Wanted Man (2014)

Director: Anton Corbijn

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The entertainment world and fans of thoughtful, fine acting mourned mightily this past February when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose at the age of 46. During a prolific career that encompassed small roles and large in crowd pleasers like Twister (1996) and Mission: Impossible III (2006), as well as serious-minded films like Capote (2005) and The Master (2012), Hoffman brought a complexity and intelligence to his creations that always made them memorable. A Most Wanted Man, his final film, was an apt one with which to end a career of great accomplishment thwarted by the weaknesses that flesh is heir to.

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A Most Wanted Man promises an exciting story of international espionage from its opening sequence—a young, haggard-looking man dragging himself from the water at Hamburg, Germany and threading his way furtively through a lot of cars waiting overnight for the morning a ferry and finding one to sleep in. His entry into Germany has been observed by German intelligence and his identity confirmed as a Muslim rebel of Russian-Chechen background, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). What he is doing in Hamburg and how he will be dealt with becomes the concern of Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), the head of a small cell of intelligence operatives, whose low-key, painstaking tactics are at loggerheads with the punitive, action-oriented methods of Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), a heavy-handed colleague Günther openly ridicules. Günther’s approach wins out.

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This development will be an enormous disappointment to the adrenalin junkies whose ideas about spy work have been shaped by the M:I, Bourne, and even James Bond franchises. However, fans of John le Carré, the author whose book formed the basis of this movie, will be right at home. Le Carré, the creator of George Smiley, a gray, anonymous member of Britain’s MI6, knows that spy work is more a drab waiting game than a thrill ride, a psychological gambit that preys insidiously on vulnerable informants and nervous targets. Although the powers that be—in this case, the Americans and Russians—have not abandoned brutal interrogation and imprisonment, Günther bucks the establishment to follow his leads upstream to what he hopes will be the heads of Islamist terrorist operations in the Middle East.

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Günther and his team have gathered intelligence on a Muslim humanitarian named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) who appears to be using a shipping company to divert a portion of relief supplies to Islamist groups to sell to fund arms purchases. Günther learns that Karpov is the son of a Russian official notorious for his brutality and criminal activities, and that he has come to Hamburg to seek help from a banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose father laundered money for the elder Karpov. Issa has a sizeable “inheritance” in Brue’s bank, but wants nothing to do with it—he only wants to be able to stay in the West and out of the reach of the Russians who tortured him. Günther uses his “friendly persuasion” to ensure Brue releases the money to Issa, who will then be persuaded by his attorney, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), to transfer the money to Abdullah. Günther plans to seize Abdullah after the transaction and persuade him to reveal the Islamists to whom he has been diverting resources, but he must persuade skeptical German and American intelligence officials, led by American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), to go along with his plan.

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There is abundant, real-world evidence that “extraordinary rendition,” an extraordinarily obtuse term for government-sponsored kidnapping and torture, is highly ineffective in extracting useful information from suspected terrorists, and that Günther’s methodical approach—combining a mild threat with offers of help in exchange for cooperation—works. Günther knows how and how much pressure to bring to bear to get his reluctant informants to go along with his plans; he even manages to bring Abdullah’s son Jamal (Mehdi Debhi) into his network. But the violence of 9/11 and the racial and religious hatred that has only grown in the ensuing years has left the major powers with itchy trigger fingers. Sullivan has already blown Günther’s entire network in Beirut with her cowboy tactics, forcing his removal to Hamburg; Günther doesn’t want to trust her, but he really has no alternative.

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A Most Wanted Man is slow and methodical, just like Günther and his team, making for a sometimes too sedate ride. Moments that could have been amped for more tension with music or quick cuts, like Annabel’s capture by Günther’s team, play out with a low unease. It’s true to life, which is its virtue, but rather undramatic. We’re not sure whether or not to root for Günther, who uses repugnant techniques like kidnapping, surveillance technology, and coercion to “make the world a safer place.” Yet, anyone who has watched “Law & Order” or any of its offshoots will recognize the same techniques and have to own up to the fact that we tend to sympathize with the cops because they are almost always on the side of the angels as those shows are written. The ambiguity of Günther’s position is that we see the seams of his good cop/bad cop routine, an act he shares with his civilian aide-de-camp Irna (the criminally underused Nina Hoss), and virtually all of the characters he is manipulating are fairly well-intentioned people who are completely out of their depth in the world of geopolitical espionage.

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For example, Dobrygin plays Issa as a damaged, haunted man who took up the Chechen cause against Russia because of his father’s brutality to his Chechen mother and who, through Islam, has tried to find inner peace from his past and the horrible torture he endured. It would be tempting to think of him as another Raskolnikov, except that his crimes are those of a psychologically vulnerable freedom fighter, not a student with theories about human nature and moral relativism. Rachel McAdam is brilliant as an idealistic public-service attorney who goes above and beyond for Issa. Her attempts to assert her authority are as weak as her concern for Issa is strong and motherly, though she threatens to pull focus from the other characters simply because she’s so pretty and photogenic. Dafoe is his usual excellent self, creating a somewhat weak character who is trying to redeem his business from its nefarious past one client at a time.

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Hoffman, playing an obese smoker and drinker, fits the mold of the intelligent outsider who blends into the background—the perfect guise for a spy. It is much to Hoffman’s credit that he manages to retain some of our sympathy while arousing a bit of our scorn. Hoffman keeps Günther’s motives somewhat obscure—is he just another kind of cop or is the spy game something that he does as a strange kind of sport? He takes incredible pride in his work, perhaps to the detriment of his cause when he openly insults people he believes to be his inferiors, and his belief in the rightness of his methods places a considerable blind spot in his way. When faced with Sullivan’s abrupt, cutting authority, he tries to work her the same way he does his informants by allying his interests with hers. Wright makes the most of this small, but crucial role, reviving the Ugly American in all its nasty glory. Yet it’s also easy to see that Sullivan and Günther are cut from the same cloth and know the same tricks—what separates them may be down to the very different roads Germany and the United States took with regard to the dignity of the individual over the last 30 or so years.

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We see a bit of the Muslim community, and it is as work-a-day and ordinary as any other ethnic enclave. Abdullah is thought to be a good man with just a little bit of bad, enough for more radical Islamists to exploit. That, to Günther, makes him a useful side street to the center of terrorist activity. Abdullah’s sincere sympathy for Issa softens our hearts to these men who seek some kind of healing for their community, but are misguided in their methods. Dobrygin and Ershadi’s one significant scene together is perhaps the most moving of the film; only the horror of Issa’s badly scarred back—partial proof to Brue that he is who he says he is—is more moving.

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The final scene of the film offers Hoffman the catharsis, the break from the even-toned professional, we knew was inevitable. He howls, hating his world. From that howl, we hear perhaps an echo of what drove him to his fatal addiction, a man too sensitive to face the world without a potent veil before his face.


6th 05 - 2012 | 3 comments »

Exposed (1983)

Director/Screenwriter: James Toback

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The past few days have been something of a cinephile’s paradise—at least for this cinephile. Australian film scholar and critic Adrian Martin made a very rare appearance in town to give a lecture at the University of Chicago entitled “Cinema Invents Ways of Dancing,” which this dance/dance-on-film enthusiast couldn’t wait to attend. The next night, Martin joined a panel composed of Girish Shambu, Elena Gorfinkel, and moderator Nick Davis at Northwestern University on film criticism and its relationship to academia. Both talks were interesting and illuminated the choice of film Martin made to follow the panel: James Toback’s little-seen, but often derided thriller Exposed. Martin is a big fan of Toback’s work, and puts him in his own pantheon of neglected American directors who deserve praise and study. He commented before the film that Toback projected his usual protagonist—a man attracted to adventure and danger, only to find himself in over his head—onto his female protagonist in Exposed, Elizabeth Carlson, played by Nastassja Kinski at the height of her fame.

Exposed is an engaging film that moves at a pace made brisk by the absence of the extraneous. Somewhat ironically, Exposed, a title that superficially refers to the fact that Elizabeth gains fame as a fashion model and cover girl, seems to me to be a snapshot of the American psyche circa 1983. It mixes overnight fame and fortune with very little sacrifice and no college degree; offers supermodel worship, including a cameo appearance by the self-proclaimed first supermodel, Janice Dickinson; and capitalizes on ripped-from-the-headlines topicality by involving Elizabeth in hunting European terrorists. Perhaps Exposed was too calculated for its own good because it was a big flop, but aside from some laughable performances, particularly by the director himself and trick-casted Rudolf Nureyev, the film deserves more attention and respect that it has gotten to date.

Elizabeth is the first-generation American daughter of Swedish parents (Ron Randell and Bibi Andersson) who is dying to get away from their Wisconsin dairy farm and become a classical pianist. She quits college, and with it, her affair with her controlling English professor (Toback), and heads to New York City, where she is almost immediately mugged. Economic necessity requires her to do what so many aspiring artists do in New York—she accepts a job as a waitress. Fortunately, she waits on Greg Miller (Ian McShane), a photographer out with a bevy of models (all of them real NYC models), who recognizes her potential. She soon becomes a famous model, and at an exhibition featuring Miller’s photos of her, Elizabeth meets a mystery man (Nureyev) who pursues her in a provocative way, which includes breaking into her apartment. The man, Daniel Jelline, is a classical violinist, and after dazzling her with his virtuosic playing, seduces her. When she awakens in the morning, Jelline is gone, replaced by a plane ticket to Paris. She flies there to meet him, only to learn he is actually a child of Holocaust victims who is seeking revenge against a terrorist named Rivas (Harvey Keitel), whose gang planted a bomb in a Paris cafe that killed Jelline’s mother. She joins his search, and the film revs to its inevitably violent conclusion.

Some of elements of the story traffic in cliché, except that behind some of these clichés is fact, lending more weight to the story. Toback’s English professor is, stereotypically, having an affair with the prettiest student in his classes. But Toback really did teach English at the university level, and his coded lecture, a hidden and irritating conceit that he is screwing Elizabeth, seems like something that would really happen. Elizabeth’s rise from farmer’s daughter to high-fashion model also seems clichéd, except that one of the models cast in the restaurant and photo shoot scenes is, much to my surprise, my college friend P. J. Shaffer, who was a cornfed daughter from rural Illinois. Falling quickly and passionately in love with a seemingly bad boy is another cliché, but the love takes on depth when his musical artistry, tragic past, and dedication to a mission answer an unfocused longing in Elizabeth. A final shoot-out of outlaws in an isolated street in Paris is the inevitable quote from films of the French New Wave, but the lingering realism of the violence makes the scene a sober meditation on vengeance and political terror.

Adrian Martin’s talk the night before the panel and screening helped me understand why he might be particularly attracted to Exposed. Elizabeth is a modern woman in touch with her sexuality, and expresses it in dance before she meets Jelline. Martin talked about the everyday movements and settings that many choreographers and filmmakers turn into dance, and in this scene, Toback creates a believable occurrence that illustrates Elizabeth’s life force. She is working out on an exercycle and talking to her mother on the phone. After she hangs up, she moves to her stereo and puts on a recording of Betty Everett’s “The Shoop Shoop Song.” The lyrics, talking about how a girl can tell if a boy loves her by his kiss, inspire Elizabeth to dance with an imaginary man in the form of a chair, her exercycle, a wooden support in her apartment—a personal imitation of the self-conscious prop dancing Fred Astaire made iconic in film. Her dancing generates the heat she longs for with a man, and leaves her spent and a bit frustrated on the floor.

The sexuality in the film works on several levels. Elizabeth locks eyes with a blonde woman on a photo shoot in Paris whom she later encounters on her return trip to the city. This woman, Bridget (Marion Varella), is a member of Rivas’ gang and the woman who planted the bomb in the opening scene, and it is her lesbian attraction to Elizabeth that causes her unwise decision to take the model to the gang’s hideout. In addition, Kinski and Nureyev were both sex symbols, the latter particularly for gay men. So Toback ensures that there’s something titillating for everybody. Unfortunately, both foils for Kinski are terrible actors. In particular, Nureyev’s enunciation of English is atrocious, his lovemaking with a woman awkward, and his acting wooden. Because of his central role in Exposed, Nureyev seriously hampers the film with a performance that led to derisive laughter in our audience. If Toback had cast someone with the chops of Keitel and McShane in the role of Jelline, this film might have had a very different reception.

Kinski offers a decent performance, but as a former model and then-current sex symbol, she becomes more than a competent performer. She is the screen for our cultural projections, a symbol of restless youth, liberated women, easy money. Toback subverts all she represents in the final scene—surrounded by death, he desaturates the color until all is grey, like the photo of Jelline’s dead mother in a newspaper and the victims of the Holocaust Jelline shows Elizabeth. The hollowness of the terrorist aims, Jelline’s vengeance, and Elizabeth’s attraction to danger come through clearly on her ashen, sad face, and the film whimpers to a close.


6th 07 - 2011 | 5 comments »

Odd Man Out (1947)

Director: Carol Reed

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In life and art, the blackest of humor has always been a part of the Irish sensibility. Although the lace-curtain Irish have fought for respectability against the more anarchic elements that surface regularly from the Irish collective unconscious, their own rioting at the premiere of John M. Synge’s patricidal and immodest Playboy of the Western World shows a nature that simply won’t be denied. Odd Man Out provides another unflattering portrait of the Irish, mixed with the noble image they tend to have of themselves and their struggles. In the end, only love proves honest, if not entirely honorable.

Johnny McQueen (James Mason) is the head of an unnamed organization no one could fail to recognize as the Irish Republican Army (IRA). He has barely paused to take a breath following his release after a long stretch in prison before getting back to business, meeting with his compatriots at the Belfast home of Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan) to plan a payroll robbery to help fund the organization. Guns are issued, and as Pat (Cyril Cusack) brandishes his buoyantly, Johnny scolds him not to be quick to use it. Johnny’s second in command, Dennis (Robert Beatty), urges him to sit out the robbery, observing that he seems shaky. Kathleen, who is in love with Johnny, agrees with Dennis, but Johnny feels that he needs to assert his command and that his rightful place is alongside those taking the risks.

Johnny and his three co-conspirators walk into the mill they plan to rob and empty the contents of the office safe into their valises. As they make their way down a hall, the alarm sounds. As the others exit and hop into the getaway car, Johnny is momentarily dazzled by the sunlight. A guard catches up with them and wrestles with Johnny, shooting him in the shoulder. Johnny draws his weapon, kills the guard, and is dragged alongside the car by two of his men as Pat speeds away. Pat takes a sharp turn, and Johnny is flung free of the car. As Pat argues with his comrades about his fears of capture if he backs the car up to rescue their fallen leader—making his argument legitimate by wasting oodles of time—Johnny staggers to his feet and disappears around a corner.

Johnny’s gang exemplifies the opposite of the discipline and loyalty that would have characterized the IRA when Johnny and Dennis were coming up. Dennis is aghast that the gang left Johnny behind, but it’s clear that Pat was only thinking of himself. Pat’s lies to Dennis about why Johnny didn’t make it back with them forces Dennis into the streets to find his comrade.

Johnny evades capture when Dennis, having located him, lures the cops away by pretending to be the injured Johnny and rather carelessly sacrificing his own freedom by punching a couple of cops on a crowded bus. Johnny gets past a roadblock in a hansom cab that the police searched earlier. The cabbie (Joseph Tomelty), astonished to see Johnny in his cab, settles him into a washtub discarded in a dump on the edge of town. There Johnny sits, ridiculous, with snow falling around him, until a ratty little man named Shell (F. J. McCormick) finds him and contemplates whether to turn him in to the police to collect the sizeable reward on his head or negotiate with Father Tom (W. G. Fay), the priest the Catholic community turns to when looking out for their own best interests.

At this point, the story veers sharply from the IRA story and transforms into a strange burlesque in which Johnny becomes almost incidental, serving merely as the catalyst by which we view the Irish character as it is constellated by a talented and varied cast. Shell favors amusing, elliptical blarney to communicate his insider information, for example, bringing one of his pet birds to Father Tom and using it to allude to his discovery of Johnny in the washtub. He goes from planning to claim the £50,000 reward to agreeing to come to terms with the priest, though it’s pretty clear that he’ll probably get nothing but a florid thank-you. Is he inept? A fool? A patriot? McCormick dances with the highly literate dialogue provided by F. L. Green, screenwriter and author of the novel on which the film is based, and transforms Shell into a Beckett character, waiting for his ship to come in, yet seeming to conspire to ensure that it won’t.

The other half of this Godot pair is the iconic mad artist, here named Lukey and played broadly by Robert Newton. Lukey lives in the same tenement as Shell and waylays him whenever possible to pose for endless hours as a model for a series of Christ paintings. When he finds out that Shell has a lead on Johnny, Lukey is overcome with the idea of being able to paint the eyes of a dying man. The machinations that get Johnny out of a private booth in the Crown Bar (shot on location in Belfast) and in front of Lukey are too absurd to detail here. The stereotypical Irish thirst for booze and brawling takes the spotlight as Johnny hallucinates the heads of people he’s spoken with during the day in the bubbles of beer spilled on his table.

The outside world is a mixed bag that Reed carefully locates with his set decoration in the various strata of Belfast society. Two women trained in first aid during the war come to Johnny’s aid, and bring him into their thoroughly bourgeois home. Their goodness won’t allow them to turn him in, but they disapprove of him and don’t want to be mixed up in his criminality. War profiteer and vice lord Maudie (Beryl Measor), on the other hand, lives in a resplendently tacky home that has its own phone booth. Maudie is a Mother Courage knock-off—not so far from Reed’s most famous character, Harry Lime—selling Pat and his comrade out to protect her interests with the police. In this sense, what goes around comes around for the selfish and stupid Pat.

You couldn’t ask for a better-looking, more atmospheric film than Odd Man Out. Many noirish elements, including deep shadows, nighttime exteriors, shooting down stairwells, skewed camera angles, cages, and bars mark Johnny as a trapped animal. During Johnny’s fevered meanderings through Belfast, director Carol Reed treats us to frightening and absurd hallucinations, like the aforementioned, surreal “bubble heads,” but more poignantly, Johnny’s hallucination of his jailor as he hides in the air raid shelter and imagines it is his cell. We come to understand Johnny better from his imaginary conversation with this jailor than in many of the real-world interactions he has.

James Mason emphasizes his character’s weakness, not strength, his foolishness, not his resolve. Johnny’s self-defeating pride, his wavering commitment to armed resistance to achieve a united Ireland while failing to take his own advice to Pat, his offhandedness about Kathleen’s love, and his relative passivity as he’s passed around like a hot potato by wary locals make him less a Christlike figure than a pawn, an idea.

But it’s not that he doesn’t have a prayer—in fact, Kathleen intends to escort him to Father Tom while they wait for a boat that will take them to freedom. Of course, the symbolism of the boat signals death (one is reminded of James Mason on another boat—a cursed ship in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman), and Kathleen provides an angel’s love to escort him beyond life to a place where she can protect him for all eternity. Kathleen seems to be the moral center of this film because of the purity of her love that seems very motherly (is she chaste as well?), but the life of the guard Johnny killed means nothing to her in the grand scheme of her devotion.

Most of the characters in this film seem quite childish. In an early scene, a group of children are playing soccer in the street when their ball lands at the feet of a grown man. Instead of passing it back to them, he kicks it as hard as he can in the opposite direction—a nice device that eventually will lead to Dennis’ discovery of Johnny, but also a needlessly mean and infantile reaction from the man. Late in the film, Johnny quotes a famous line he learned from Father Tom: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Ironically, Johnny’s pangs of adult conscience and an awareness of mature feelings for Kathleen are only awakened when he is at his most helpless and dependent—in the last hours of his life, after he learned he had killed a man. Odd Man Out is an Irish tragedy indeed.


24th 05 - 2011 | 2 comments »

Rage (2009)

Director/Screenwriter: Sally Potter

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The only film I have watched twice in a row, waiting only 30 minutes for my mother to show up for my second viewing after I rousted her with the order to come over NOW, was Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson (1997). As tango and art lovers, Mom and I were mesmerized by the dancing and Robby Muller’s evocative black-and-white cinematography. But we were even more thunderstruck by Potter as a self-assured, determined woman romantically involved with a younger man. Because so few films provide women over 40 with positive images of women like themselves, I took it as a personal attack when critics called Potter self-indulgent for casting herself in the lead and showing off not only her dancing skill, but also her fantasy of seductive power, capped by a grandly over-the-top sequence where she is dancing with three men. (Strangely enough, another reviewer has yet again pronounced Ms. Potter to be “self-indulgent,” oh, and also “silly,” with her latest creation, Rage. It seems to me that some reviewers are becoming self-indulgent with that default pronouncement themselves.)

Rage represents an experiment in accommodating the cellphone viewer of movies. It was shot in seven episodes, uses actors delivering monologues to a cellphone camera against individually color-coded backgrounds, and premiered on mobile phones around the world. An intertitle introduces each episode, typed with mistakes that are deleted and retyped as though being texted on a cellphone. Rage is also directly linked to The Tango Lesson as the film Potter was working on when she changed her focus to tango and romance. Gestational scenes of Rage in the earlier film feature three high-fashion models wearing statement designs of different primary colors, with epic-length wigs to match, created by a legless fashion designer. One by one, they are gunned down during a photo shoot in Paris. Potter pitches this film unsuccessfully to some Hollywood honchos, and then later declares that she doesn’t care because she wrote a film she didn’t want to make. I’m glad she reconsidered.

Rage is the shortened title the fictitious director of the film, Michelangelo, decides on instead of “All the Rage”; the earlier title would have been fine for a film about the preparation and staging of a fashion show introducing a new fragrance called M, but not for what Michelangelo, a high school student doing the film as a school assignment, witnesses over seven days of shooting. To wit: The show is first derailed by the accidental death of a weepy model who gets her scarf caught in the wheel of a motorcycle driven onto the stage by Krishna-colored Vijay (Riz Ahmed), the personal pizza delivery boy to the show’s self-dramatizing designer Merlin (Simon Abkarian). Then, the second attempt to put on the show is cut short after the shooting of another model. Third time’s certainly not a charm, as workers protesting the unfair labor practices of the fashion house’s owner, “Tiny” Diamonds (Eddie Izzard), and the young people who have been following Michelangelo’s coverage on his website, converge to destroy the show and anyone connected with it.

Rage has a large cast of types. Among the more memorable is Dianne Wiest as the sweet former owner of the fashion house who pines for the good old days when the company belonged to her parents and clothes were made in America, not China. Diamonds reminded of me of a cross between Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump, buying businesses of every type just because he can and offering his unsolicited business advice to the pubescent filmmaker. Otto (Jacob Cedergren) is a self-important public relations flunky who consistently mispronounces Michelangelo’s name and thinks everything needs to be kept secret and under his control. Merlin himself is a caricature of dancer Pablo Veron, Potter’s costar in The Tango Lesson, amusing in his abstractions and down-to-earth exasperation over designing to marketing department specifications. Jude Law is a revelation as a drag queen supermodel called Minx who employs a fake accent and brings a genuine poignancy to the proceedings with his coming-out saga while undercutting it with the supremely narcissistic notion that he caused the mayhem because he wished the two unfortunate models dead. Judi Dench as fashion critic Mona Carvell is the height of cynicism, offering a critique of Merlin’s aesthetic to Michelangelo, knowing that she can circumvent traditional media through Michelangelo’s website when Diamonds ensures that her opinion will be censored by her publisher.

It’s interesting to see how Potter’s ideas about Rage have evolved. The original setting in Paris would have highlighted the economic and social importance of fashion to the French capital, making the killings both more significant and more dramatic. Moving the show to New York and highlighting a fragrance as the center of the supposedly provocative show reduces fashion to just another commodity, a fact driven home by the interchangeable marketing personalities played by Bob Balaban and Patrick J. Adams and their miserably uninspired ideas, as well as by the cellphone format itself. Talk about cutting fashion down to size! Potter tries to maintain a relevant edge by bringing in off-screen protesters heard along with many of the wonderful sound effects and asides that contribute to an insistent and lush sound design, but having talking heads relate the dramatic events undercuts any gravity Potter may have been going for. Bringing a complaining, over-the-hill war photographer (Steve Buscemi) on to shoot the fashion show further trivializes the event, even though it does, in fact, become a massacre worthy of his talents.

Several of the characters question themselves about why they are talking to Michelangelo, but the new technology and the ubiquity of reality TV has accustomed just about everyone to displaying their egos for an audience. Some of the characters, like Carvell, see how to work this technology to their advantage, while others never even seem to consider that their interviews are public domain as soon as they open their mouths. Seamstress Anita de los Angeles (Adriana Barazza) says little, refuses to carry on her life in front of a camera, and seems to be the only one completely in touch with the outside world, though anime-faced Lettuce Leaf (Lily Cole) hides out with Michelangelo until she can get out of town, very sensibly not wanting to be the next assassinated mannequin. The challenge to Michelangelo that he has blood on his hands for revealing so much to his Internet audience is laughable, and yet tracks with ideas about cyberbullying. Movements can indeed be launched and sustained on the Internet, but in Rage, the bastards have hung themselves.

In general, Rage is a comedy filled with great performances and superb writing to flesh ideas and observations that are rather obvious. Like most information we access on the Internet, Sally Potter’s film is ephemeral, but well done and a lot of fun.


3rd 04 - 2010 | 2 comments »

Hadewijch (2009)

Director: Bruno Dumont

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Love has subjugated me:
To me this is no surprise,
For she is strong and I am weak.
She makes me
Unfree of myself,
Continually against my will.
She does with me what she wishes;
Nothing of myself remains to me;
Formerly I was rich,
Now I am poor: everything is lost in love.

The above poem, “Love has subjugated me,” was written in the 13th century by Hadewijch of Antwerp (or Brabant), who was associated with a movement called Minnemystiek (“love mysticism”). Hadewijch carried on in the tradition of the romantic troubadours and formed a potent influence on Dutch literature. She was almost certainly a beguine—a devout lay woman of noble birth who lived in poverty and ministered to the physical and spiritual needs of the community. There is evidence in her writings that she was somehow separated from her beguine companions, though the circumstances of her “exile” are unclear.

Bruno Dumont, who was born and raised in Bailleul, France, seems to have absorbed deep influences from the country just across the border from his home town—Belgium. Not only has he used Belgian Hadewijch’s name for his film and either his main character or the convent in which she is a novitiate (this is a little confused in the film), but he has also crafted a sly comedy that echoes what modern Belgian troubadour Jacques Brel incredulously thought when some said his song “Ne me quitte pas [Don’t Leave Me],” was the greatest love song of the 20th century—that it’s a song about a man who humiliates himself, not a love song at all!

Céline/Hadewijch (nonprofessional actress Julie Sokolowski), a painfully devout teenager, is in trouble with the sisters of her convent for disobeying the rules against self-injury by fasting and scourging herself. “There can be no question of you taking final vows now,” the Mother Superior (Brigitte Mayeux-Clerget) says as she sends Céline back into the world to find out who she really is. Céline walks through a wood outside the convent crying in agony and stops at a ratty-looking cage with pieces of cloth tied to the bars: a statue of a dead Jesus is reclining in the makeshift cave, peeling paint and bird shit marring his visage.

She returns to Paris and moves back into the ornate period mansion of her wealthy parents—her father (Luc-François Bouyssonie) is a minister of France. One morning, when her mother (Marie Castelain) asks her what she is going to do that day, Céline, in a laugh-inducing moment, answers, “Pray”—and then does, in all earnestness. Afterward, she goes to a café, and three Arab boys invite her over to their table. One of them, Yassine (Yassine Salime), invites her to listen to a concert on the banks of the Seine that evening, and she agrees. All the boys comment on how agreeable she is even though she doesn’t know any of them, an uncommon characteristic for a Parisian, they say. Yassine gets the idea that she’s “easy,” which we see at the completely laughable concert—the band’s frontman rocks out on an accordian (how French!)—when he tries to kiss and put his arm around Céline. She fends him off and later tells him she’s a virgin and will to stay that way the rest of her life because she is hopelessly in love with Jesus Christ.

It would be easy to get very serious about this movie because of how the plot draws Céline into the terrorist plans of Yassine’s brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis) and seems to be making a parallel between the two varieties of religious fanaticism. Nassir’s is borne of hate at what the French have done to Algeria, but when he flies Céline to a bombed-out part of his country to meet his co-conspirators, she shrinks in horror.

Céline is, in fact, a very normal teenage girl whose raging hormones are doing to her what they do to all girls her age—turned her into an erotic creature who is barely awake to her own appetites or those she stirs in others, and lost in a mist of romanticism. Just take a look at a post-pubescent fan of Twilight, and you’ll get a pretty accurate picture of the girl Sokolowski is playing. All of Dumont’s close-ups of her, reminiscent of the penetrating gaze Dreyer turned on Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), reveal ardency. But in service of what? In a cryptic conversation Céline has with Nassir after she has run tearfully out of a lesson he is giving on the meaning of the invisible in Islamic teachings, she stops short of saying that what she really wants is for Christ to become corporeal so she can fuck him. Instead, she hugs Nassir close, an action she will repeat with Yassine, and eventually with an ex-con named David (David Dewaele) who works at the convent. It is in this final hug, which occurs after David has saved her from drowning herself, that we see that she is pretending she is dead and hugging Christ as one would a lover.

I know that Céline would like me to call what she is suffering from true religious love of one’s fellow man, but I am forced to conclude that the old nuns who threw her out of the convent were right. She has fixated on Christ in a way that preadolescents try on sexuality by becoming attracted to animated characters. Although on the surface she would seem to have much in common with Hadewijch of Antwerp, her love is of a much more earthly variety.

Luis Buñuel said that romantic obsession, though painful for the obsessed one, always looks foolish from the outside. His films deftly mix the agonies and horrors of such obsessions with dark-hued comedy to create a sublime catalog of sex farces. Indeed, Dumont seems to share something in common with the perverted old master. Like Sylvia Pinal’s character in Viridiana (1961), Céline seeks a pious life divorced from men, but when pushed by her own good intentions into an encounter with violence, she awakens from her haze.


27th 06 - 2008 | 1 comment »

The Paper Will Be Blue (Hîrtia va fi albastrã, 2006)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Radu Muntean

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

December 16, 1989, was the beginning of the end of the reign of horror Nicolae Ceauşescu began and intensified over the 25 years he was the Communist dictator of Romania. On that day, the citizens in the town of Timişoara rose up against their abusive government. So severe were the deprivations to which Ceauşescu subjected Romanians, so outrageous the handling of dissent, that Ceauşescu would be the only ruler in the crumbling Communist bloc in Eastern Europe to suffer violent overthrow and execution.

Current Romanian cinema has focused a good deal of attention on the Ceauşescu regime and its downfall. From 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, to 12:08 East of Bucharest, to The Way I Spent the End of the World, Romania’s filmmakers have looked at various facets of this seminal time in their country’s history. Now we have The Paper Will Be Blue, an intriguing, accomplished film that takes us to ground zero of the revolution, recounting a fictionalized version of a true, widely publicized incident that occurred on December 22, after violent protests that finally shook Bucharest began.

Without an understanding of what happened, The Paper Will Be Blue can be quite confusing. Therefore, here’s a capsule summary I put together with the help of Wikipedia:

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The morning of December 21, Ceauşescu addressed approximately 110,000 disgruntled Romanians from the balcony of the Central Committee building. He condemned the December 16 uprising in Timişoara. During the speech, sudden movement came from the outskirts of the crowd. Explosive sounds also could be heard. Bullhorns were used to spread the news that a “revolution” was unfolding, persuading the people to join in protest. They soon rioted.

The speech was broadcast live, with an estimated 76 percent of the nation watching. Although censors attempted to cut the live video feed, parts of the riots had already been seen. More people took to the streets. Soon the protesters were confronted by soldiers, tanks, and other security forces, though the army was split between those who were loyal to the Ceauşescu regime and those who wanted its overthrow. Through the night, forces considered to be loyal to the old regime (spontaneously nicknamed “terrorists”) opened fire on the crowd and attacked vital points of sociopolitical life, including the television station.

The Paper Will Be Blue takes us to this point in time. An armored car is stopped on a street, facing a tank and some soldiers milling around behind a roadblock. Two men emerge from the back of the armored car to stretch and have a smoke. Suddenly, gunfire explodes. One of the men from the armored car drops in place, another is blasted out of the car through a side window, and the third, wearing a civilian’s jacket attempts to escape and is hit. Yells of, “Whose firing? Who started firing?” are heard, probably from the soldiers behind the roadblock. Several come over to inspect the perhaps accidental damage.

The next scene shows the same armored car and its small complement of ordinary militiamen patrolling a Bucharest neighborhood. As evening falls, they spend their time smoking and checking the IDs of motorists who come through their checkpoint. One of the men makes a date with a woman he has stopped for the next evening. Word of the attack on the TV station reaches the unit. The commander of the unit, Lt. Neagu (Adi Carauleanu) is trying to get through to his section leader, Lt. Voinescu (Alexandru Georgescu), on his close-circuit radio, to find out what, if anything, his unit should do.

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One of Neagu’s charges, Costi (Paul Ipate), the son of a connected surgeon who has been placed in the militia to keep him farther out of harm’s way, becomes fired with patriotic fervor. He wants to join the protesters who are trying to defend the TV station, he insists on it. Neagu, a fatherly leader, tries to stop him, but eventually lets him have his way. Forcing Costi to turn in his weapons, Neagu turns him loose, half expecting that Costi will change his mind. When he doesn’t, Neagu pulls his gun out to try to stop him. But Neagu’s a sweet marshmallow of a man, and lets Costi go. Nonetheless, worried about Costi’s safety and about getting in trouble for letting one of his men run off, Neagu and the rest of his unit search for him, driving to the TV station and then to Costi’s house.

The rest of the film toggles back and forth between Costi’s experiences as an instant revolutionary and Neagu’s mission to bring back one of his lambs gone astray. Both parts of the story are laden with miscommunications and cases of mistaken identity that convey both the chaos and confusion that comprise the beginnings of revolution and the level to which Ceauşescu has fallen out of touch with the Romanian people.

Communications devices work faultily or not at all throughout the film. Neagu can’t hear Voinescu, eventually having to drive to the Triumphal Arch where he thinks Voinescu is stationed to get his orders. He’s given a new password, “The paper will be blue,” that later will fail to be acknowledged by an Army unit (“It won’t work,” says Neagu, “they have their own.”). Telephone dial tones must be waited for patiently, but at least they eventually sound.

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Costi, stripping off his uniform jacket for a street coat, also inadvertently discards his identification. When he and another freedom fighter named Georgescu (Gabriel Spahiu) go to a house captured by the revolting Army, they are recruited to take out a sniper firing on the house from the street. Then they are accused of being terrorists for the other side because Costi, spying the Army uniform of a man they injured, says the men they are firing on are on the side of the revolutionaries. Because Costi can’t produce his ID, he and Georgescu are taken to the basement and tied up. Georgescu is accused of being an Arab, though he is actually a Gypsy. Both men are repeatedly asked how they came to speak Romanian so well; the pair sit silently, exasperated.

In another scene, Neagu and Bogdan (Tudor Istodor), one of the unit’s men and a personal friend of Costi’s, go to Costi’s home to see if he has turned up there. They are greeted by Costi’s mother (Mirela Oprisor) and his girlfriend Angela (Ana Ularu) and invited in for something to eat. Dorina apologizes for having little to offer them. “If only Ceauşescu had fed them, this wouldn’t be happening,” she says of the rioting, implying the stupidity that caused the conditions for revolution.

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The film, shot in 16mm, has a grainy, realistic feel. The film enfolds the audience in the dead of night during which most of the film takes place, adding a slightly surrealistic element to the absurdity of the actions. But the daylight that eventually ends the film does not increase comprehension in this riot-torn city. If anything, it makes human actions seem more senseless than ever.

Throughout the film, characters talk about the coming New Year. Neagu promises his men they will have leave on the New Year. He saves a bottle of wine they have taken with them from Costi’s home. “We’ll open it on New Year’s Day,” he says. Romania has seen a new year and a new day. However, not everyone who was there at the dawn had that chance.


8th 06 - 2008 | 3 comments »

Knife in the Head (Messer im Kopf, 1978)

Director/Co-Screenwriter: Reinhard Hauff

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Following the massacre at the Munich Olympics and the domestic insurgency of the Baader-Meinhof gang, West Germany—not yet united with the East—reverted to some of its bad old ways. Any group who protested against the loss of freedoms under a more vigilant government and police force could find themselves under threat of physical violence and imprisonment. It is the story of one man with ties to one such group that director and co-screenwriter Reinhard Hauff takes up in Knife in the Head.

Biogenetist Bernhard Hoffman (Bruno Ganz) putters about in his laboratory one evening, putting away cells he has been working on and closing things up. He makes a phone call. We don’t hear the other end of the conversation, but he says, “I’m coming to pick you up.” Where he is headed is a community center rife with anti-oppression slogans. The police have surrounded the building and are holding back crowds. Hoffman is initially stopped from going into the building, but he breaks away and enters as a man and a woman being pushed into a paddy wagon yell his name. He moves to the back of the community center, in which police are scuffling with civilians, presumably to look for the person he spoke with. At that moment, the frame freezes and a loud gunshot is heard. Fade to black.

When we next see Hoffman, he is on a hospital gurney, his head in bandages obviously applied in the field, and being rushed to surgery. Apparently, a policeman was stabbed by Hoffman and shot him in self-defense. He’s being attended to as well. Hospital personnel can’t say whether either man will make it.

The next time we see Hoffman is postop. He’s just waking up, and the two people we saw yelling to him from the paddy wagon are there to visit. Ann (Angela Winkler) appears to be Hoffman’s wife. The man, Volker (Heinz Hoenig), protests as the police make them empty their pockets. Just to show him whose boss, a cop pats him down for weapons. Ann and Volker don gowns; Ann goes in to see Hoffman. His eyes are deeply bruised from the surgery, and he has an almost greenish look about his skin. His lidded eyes look at Ann without recognition. She kisses him. He sputters out imperfectly, “Those bastards” and “Ann.” His life still hangs in the balance.

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Once he is over the first hurdle—surviving—his long rehabilitation commences. His verbal and motor skills have been damaged, as well as his memory. He looks at a picture book and repeats with his therapist the words that match the pictures, “dog, spoon.” He has trouble with “banana.” He writes with his left hand, considered progress until Anleitner (Hans Christian Blech) his lawyer and friend says, “he used to be right-handed.” No more of that—his right side is mostly paralyzed.

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More of Hoffman’s larger story starts to emerge as he relearns just about everything. His wife and he separated several months before the incident, and she is living with Volker. She visits Hoffman dutifully but does not intend to take care of him for long after his discharge. Oh, and officials are claiming Hoffman is a terrorist working with the community center group, whose headquarters they plan to raze. Hoffman becomes something of a minor celebrity in the hospital. When he is practiced enough to walk, he goes to the patient lounge on the neurosurgical ward and orders a beer. One fellow patient asks for his autograph on an article that has his picture and the headline, “Bernhard Hoffman – Terrorist?” and purports to tell of his double life.

As the pressure comes down hard on Hoffman’s doctor (Eike Gallwitz) to release Hoffman to a prison hospital, Anleitner works hard to persuade zealous detective Scholz (Hans Brenner) that Hoffman was not involved. Scholz assures an incredulous Anleitner that he not only thinks Hoffman is a terrorist, he “knows it. Don’t let the absent-minded professor act fool you.” In a face-to-face confrontation, Hoffman has been positively identified by Schurig (Udo Samel), the stabbed officer, as his attacker. Soon, in an attempt to take back control of his life, Hoffman escapes from the hospital, and after a difficult reunion with Ann and recapture, eventually confronts Schurig to find out if he is indeed a knife-wielding terrorist or simply has a knife in his head.

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The script and direction of this film layer it with ambiguity and suspicion. We don’t know who Ann is at first. When she and Volker come to the hospital to see Hoffman, the estrangement between the married couple seems more like an activist trying to take advantage of a brain-damaged man. For what purpose, it’s hard to say, but her insistence that Anleitner get him out of the hospital as soon as possible might indicate that Hoffman has something she wants or could reveal something damaging to the police—or maybe something else entirely. Right before his escape, we know his wits have returned to him in some measure when he finds the policeman guarding his hospital room playing chess with himself, and handily puts the guard into checkmate with one move. His escape isn’t particularly difficult because he seems to be counting on hospital staff to assume he is too handicapped in mind and body to attempt one. Is Hoffman really a terrorist adept at fooling people, or is he just gaining back some measure of the intelligent man he once was, as well as the desire to be free?

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It would be easy to sympathize with Hoffman if Ganz had portrayed him as the type of brain-injured victim we are used to seeing in movies. Think Regarding Henry, and you’ll know how wrong and false it is to think that injury is ennobling. Ganz’s performance is nothing short of miraculous. His rehabilitation is slow and painful to watch, his frustration palpable, his desire to become a whole man—including a sexual being who can win his wife back again—relentless. We can’t really be sure of the reality of his double life until the very end of the film because we don’t see him before his fateful night. That superb choice by Hauff keeps us focused on Hoffman as a complex man with unfortunate ties to a political enemy of the state who can arouse doubt as well as sympathy in us.

Last year’s Oscar-winning foreign language film from Germany, The Lives of Others, is heir to Knife in the Head. As that win shows, the paranoia and police-state measures that have reemerged in modern times have made Knife in the Head relevant again. Bruno Ganz, with his uncanny ability to play everything from a devil to an angel, always was. l

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22nd 03 - 2006 | 13 comments »

V for Vendetta (2005)

Director: James McTeigue



By Marilyn Ferdinand

V for Vendetta is one of the most talked-about new movies of the year. So why am I talking about it? Don’t I usually champion the overlooked film, the ancient film, the foreign film that Americans don’t want to read? Of course I do, and that’s why I’m not going to give you the kind of review of this film that other outlets have. Forget all the fanboy details about who wrote what and who disowned what. Forget about the Ebert/Academy Award for the message film that “may just change the world.” If V for Vendetta has a message to deliver, it’s that we just love a down and dirty game of good cop/bad cop.

First off, I want to say that I liked V for Vendetta. I thought Natalie Portman was convincingly scared as Evey, and the shaved head showed off her lovely, swanlike neck. Hugo Weaving showed a surprising range of attitude and emotion even though he spent 100% of his time behind a mask. But I liked Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), too, also set in London and, perhaps not coincidentally, also starring John Hurt. Hurt played the rule-breaking minion in a totalitarian society in the latter film; in V for Vendetta, he plays the rabid dictator. See what I mean? Good cop/bad cop.

The biggest difference between these films is the existence of the superantihero V. The new film was made from a comic book, I mean graphic novel, after all. V is a cross between the darker version of Batman and the accidentally power-endowed Spider-Man. V means to get revenge on the people who disappeared him behind prison walls and tortured him, Josef Mengele style, in the name of science. He also wants to bring down the world his tormenters have created, a world of surveillance and fear. The parallel with the Bush Administration certainly couldn’t have been lost on the liberals who flocked to this film, but what of the conservatives? They just wanted to see things get blown up and blood spurt out of people’s necks. Truth to tell, so did the liberals.

I note that Roger Ebert in his backhanded three-star review of V for Vendetta thought that blowing up Parliament was a real shame because it’s such an historic, old building. Some other reviewer thought the scene was in poor taste given the somewhat-recent London subway bombing. I say, “It’s an imaginary building on a flat screen, and V took care to ensure that no one would be in the building anyway.” Watching explosions is very entertaining. That’s why a planned building collapse shows up on the TV news whenever one occurs. Notice the cheers that follow the implosion. We like destruction.

But I do think a lesson can be learned from this movie. Terrorists, insurgents, rebels, freedom fighters, whatever you want to call them, are made in the forge of state cruelty. V was made in a government prison, and he made Evey the same way, ending her conversion with a baptism in the rain. It is important to remember that governments make terrorists who work for them every bit as much as they make terrorists who work against them—they are called soldiers. Good cop/bad cop. If you think force is sometimes necessary, make sure you know what you’re fighting against and why—because cruelty started by a state never really ends. It just grows a few more Vs. l

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