Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)

A SEPARATION (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin)        B+             
aka:  Nader and Simin, A Separation
Iran  (123 mi)  2011  d:  Asghar Farhadi                       Official site

My finding is that your problem is a small problem.      —Judge (Mohammad Ebrahimian)

A thoughtful, slowly developing film that is largely sustained by scenes set in small, inhabited rooms where people actually talk to one another, where in this film what they choose to openly acknowledge makes all the difference in the world, as tiny omissions are the secret ingredient that add essential drama to this often subdued story.  Not sure why all the unanimous praise for this film, as his earlier efforts are equally superb, but it’s a small, completely unpretentious film, largely one giant squabble that opens the film and continues unabated until the supposed justice is rendered in the lingering final shot, told in an extremely realistic style, mostly through piercingly honest, nonstop dialog written by the director, where there are few traces of stylistic flourish, simply an exposé of everyday life, easily comparable to KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979), though without the histrionic element, as this doesn’t highlight post divorce aftereffects, it deals with all the pre-divorce ramifications.  In fact, had people paid attention, as there are opportunities for reconciliation all throughout this story, the results would largely be different.  What makes this film so essential is the degree to which choices matter, and not in larger-than-life, long drawn out fights to the finish which are obviously contentious, but in the kind of ordinary talk that takes place every day in people’s lives.  In this film, it’s the small moments that matter.  Never passing judgment, which is key, the director allows people and their various points of view to interact, where the accumulation of small details eventually escalates into something larger and potentially life threatening, where all reason seems to explode into thin air and self-preservation takes over.  While there are small, honorable moments throughout, they are matched by equally despicable moments of lies and deceit where human behavior can become an endurance test for the last one standing.  What’s especially unusual is the high quality of acting by all represented parties, where no one really plays the lead, as everyone becomes equally significant, also the relaxed and informal view of Iranian justice at work, as there are no lawyers used and each side is free to speak directly to the judge or one another, but will be removed by a guard if they threaten violence.    
Opening in an unpretentious room where a judge calmly listens to an otherwise well-educated and loving mother and father offer their disagreements about their family’s future, where the wife Simin (Leila Hatami) wants to take their teenage daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi, yes, daughter of the director) out of the country in pursuit of a better life, while the husband Nader (Peyman Moadi, who wrote the screenplay to Saman Moghadam’s excellent 2006 film CAFÉ SETAREH), agrees to let her go, if she insists, but their daughter stays with him, as he must stay to look after his own father who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.  Since there is no unanimity of decision, the judge orders them to go home and work it out between themselves.  What’s clear from the outset is that is something neither one of them intends to do, as Simin anxiously packs while Nader tries to find a housekeeper to look after his father during the day while he’s at work, both avoiding one another while their daughter sits in the corner and trembles.  Perhaps the initial sympathy lies with the husband, as he can’t simply abandon his father, and the daughter has chosen to live with him, so the mother is the odd one out when she leaves, though never ventures far and remains involved.  The beleaguered Razieh (Sareh Bayat) is the housekeeper, obviously over-challenged on the first day, as she can’t keep up with full-time demands of an incapacitated elderly patient and look after her own small daughter at the same time, where she’s stymied by the idea of having to clean up after he soils himself, wondering if it’s a sin, a violation of Islamic law which forbids the touching of any man except your husband.  Her harrowing experience is made all the more difficult due to her own pregnancy, where lifting this guy around all day is just not possible, agreeing to stay on for a few days until they can find somebody else.

After the initial introduction of the principal characters, the rest of the film is a continual shift of truth and perception, where events occur that require lawful intervention, where the courts attempt to determine the truth, but the testimony offered may not be the full truth, where there’s an interesting difference in class division pitting a modern, more affluent family against a more oppressed, fundamentally religious, and economically challenged family, where friendships may sway a neighbor’s or family member’s testimony, where the injured parties feel slighted and dismayed at some of the counter accusations, where both sides continually place blame on others, rarely taking responsibility themselves, where escalating charges may be brought and people imprisoned.  In this nightmarish scenario of quickly shifting events, the audience’s sympathies are challenged due to each individual’s circumstances, where the idea of blood money is raised, an ancient idea of reaching an honorable accord between families through the payment of money, which supposedly wipes the slate clean, but individuals have reservations, often hiding something from loved ones.  The court has interests in pursuing the truth, investigating and interrogating various parties, each family has their own needs and interests, and there’s a moral or spiritual truth that each individual must answer to.  All of these interests collide in a stunning web of moral complexity where no one wants to admit they’re wrong, or see someone wrongfully charged, but people take desperate measures, where children are used as battering rams in the pursuit of justice, where all they want is for their parents to stay together, no matter the cost.  It’s an intricate design how all these pieces of the puzzle, when moved in a different manner, will result in a differing outcome.  But how can anyone predict the future or know what’s best?  And even once justice is rendered, is this any kind of acceptable outcome?  A microcosm of society at large, this flawed and deeply humane view of how people’s lives and interests intersect becomes a highly personalized view of the pursuit of justice.     

Monday, January 30, 2012

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE        C                    
USA  (129 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Stephen Daldry        Official site

The post 9/11 movies worth considering are Spike Lee’s 25th HOUR (2002), Paul Greengrass’s UNITED 93 (2006), Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011), also the video of Paul Simon singing Sounds of Silence at the 10-year Memorial Event  Paul Simon's Heartbreaking 'Sound of Silence' at Ground Zero ..., - - and that’s it.  You can forget the rest, which don’t so much examine the consequences as manipulate the viewer with plenty of tearful guilt that is really insignificant filmmaking, basically telling the viewer what they already know about losing someone, reminding us in many different ways just how bad it feels.  According to an interview with actress Sandra Bullock (The Cast Of 'Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close' Talk Navigating ...), “I think a lot of people haven’t been able to grieve.”  Just who are these people, and are they the same undecided voters who can’t make up their minds until they walk into a polling booth?  There have been endless discussions, news reports, magazine articles, radio chat sessions, online essays and personal recollections, fragmented memories, tributes, memorials, photos and video reminders, not to mention endless merchandising of the event, so certainly there has been time to process the event.  What we haven’t had before, which this film provides, is a child’s perspective, where despite the gravity of the event, this is almost exclusively viewed through the eyes of a child—not just any child, mind you, but a borderline autistic child whose brilliance is only overridden by his meticulously obsessive nature, where he views the world through a catalog file system that is nearly perfectly mathematically arranged.  In this way, the writers are allowed to paint with a broader brush, as this isn’t really a child so much as an overly mature young adult, but also one for which there is always a logical expression, where his brain continues to compute until everything makes sense, where the events of 9/11, of course, send the faculties of his brain into utter turmoil, where the computer does not compute and literally goes haywire.  

Despite an utterly maudlin story that tearfully shows a brilliant and highly sensitive 11-year old boy Oskar (Thomas Horn), with few social skills, on a journey through the streets of New York to find the connection between the father he lost on 9/11 and a mysterious key he found in his father’s belongings in an envelope identified only by the name “Black.”  In his mad rush to make sense of it all, he organizes everything with meticulous detail, like inventing a Dewey Decimal system for tracking down all the families named Black in the entire city, cataloging their addresses, where if he contacts each of them on foot only on weekends, taking no weekends off, he figures it will take him three years to complete his project.  Initially allotting 6 minutes per visit, he soon discovers that people offer him sympathy and hugs, have their own stories to tell, which takes considerably more time.  And while he enjoys the collective efforts to connect with him and offer some degree of comfort and friendship, snapping photos of those he meets along the way which he places in a scrapbook, all he really wants is to find out what the hell the key opens.  While the diverse population he encounters does resemble a portrait of those that lost their lives on that day, only two really stand out.  The first is Viola Davis as Abby Black, perhaps the first one visited, where Oskar bursts into her apartment with the subtlety of a blitzkrieg, forced to endure his non-stop, incessant chatter while already moved to tears by the impending separation with her husband who’s about to walk out the door, where she simply hasn’t the strength to send him on his way, so she endures both events happening simultaneously.  The other is an old and feeble man who can’t speak (Max von Sydow representing the unspoken voice of the dead), who may be his grandfather, though he claims to be a renter in his grandmother’s apartment, where he’s forced to write hand written notes for Oskar to understand.  Oskar asks him to tag along on his visits, which turn into carefully choreographed mime routines.     

Oskar runs everywhere he goes, never tiring, blurting out words like tiny explosions, where occasionally he tries to use his words to outrun his thoughts, where in his excitement the adrenaline takes over, creating a frenzied rush of near panic as he continually relives the events of that fateful day, telling perfect strangers what happened to him on 9/11.  Well how do you expect people to react?  As the film is a recording of his journey, we hear Oskar recall what happened to him over a dozen times, each one adding a significant detail left out of the last version, where the sum accumulation loses any hint of subtlety and starts pounding into your skull like a sledgehammer, where this literally becomes overkill.  Forcing the audience to re-live 9/11 over and over again in a movie theater through the repeated exploits of an overeager but delicate child is not exactly great theater, as we re-live the photos and the news reports and Oskar’s own personal recollections, all of which has some cathartic quality, one assumes, except that for many it doesn’t.  One’s reaction to a nationwide catastrophe is much too intimately personal, where none of us match the weird and eccentric personality traits of this overly precocious kid, nice as he may otherwise be, but he’s not us and he can’t be made to stand for us.  He’s who he is and he makes it understandable by making a child’s pop-up scrapbook of photos and memories, which he calls by the movie title, taking something that’s messy and condensing it all into something nice and neat and clean.  Unfortunately, there are many who survive the horrors of war, incest, rape, torture, the Holocaust, or Japanese-American internment camps, and can never utter a word about their experiences to their respective families.  For those many individuals who don’t believe America’s collective sentiment can be neatly compartmentalized or rolled into one and the same experience, this movie is something of a disgrace.  As a children’s story, this may have more value due to the originality of the child’s-eye view, but there are few kids who can identify with his bizarre personality, where as he ages, he’s only going to become more and more of a social outcast, and that has nothing to do with 9/11, but the reality of his psychological condition.  So while the film plays to a populist theme, it’s another example of oversimplification, ultimately little more than merchandising trauma. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne (Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne)

(Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne)                      
France  (84 mi)  1945  d:  Robert Bresson 

A rather insufferable melodramatic chamber drama that struggles with a suffocating, contemptible tone and a monotonous interior theme, where love is used in a cruel and manipulative manner as a blunt instrument of revenge, where characters jump back and forth between friendship, loathsome feelings for one another, and downright distrust, yet they continually end up back in one another’s company, even after vowing to never see one another again.  At the center of it all is a French film star, Maria Casarés, born in Spain, forced to flea from the Fascists, taking refuge in Paris where she starred in Marcel Carne’s LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS (1945), later playing Death in Jean Cocteau’s ORPHEUS (1950).  Here she is an aristocrat, Hélène, a woman of means and social status who uses her wealth like a sledgehammer, continually reminding others of the power she possesses while pretending to offer a helping hand through friendship.  The object of her wrath is her ex-lover, Jean (Paul Bernard), a suave, galavanting opportunist who is tricked by Hélène into admitting he’d rather remain friends than lovers, which sends her into a swooning caricature of wicked cruelty, sneering behind the scenes while pretending to be looking out for his best interests.  High on her list is finding the right woman who will bring about his downfall, someone who can pass for polite society and cultural refinement with a secret past that can blow up in his face. 

Enter Agnès (Elina Labourdette), a young cabaret dancer living with her mother who dreams of performing at the opera, but dances in nightclubs and reportedly sleeps with men for money in order to pay the long overdue rent.  Hélène feigns friendship with the mother and agrees to pay their debts and move them to a new apartment near the Bois de Boulogne park, which, unknown to them, is a neighborhood known for prostitutes, so when they do move, it’s more like a prison, as they can never leave without an everpresent reminder of what they’re running away from.  Meanwhile, Hélène cleverly introduces Jean who can’t take his eyes off young Agnès, so the trap is set.  Loosely based on Denis Diderot’s short story Jacques le Fataliste et Son Maître, the film is at times a play, at other times a variation on the French comedy of manners with the literary dialogue written by Jean Cocteau, giving the characters a modern, somewhat novelistic subtext, where each is beset with their own emotional complexities.  Despite the dour feeling of hopelessness throughout, the comic element is not forgotten, occasionally veering towards farce, reaching epic proportions of melodramatic hysteria by the end.  A much better drama about a woman hellbent on revenge is Jean Moreau in Truffaut’s THE BRIDE WORE BLACK (1968), a Hitchcock tribute where the husband is murdered on the steps of the church just prior to the marriage ceremony, where she spends the rest of the film tracking down each and every man responsible, becoming a ferociously black comedy by the end.    

A more recent film that takes a rags to riches revenge melodrama to hilarious extremes is Ozon’s ANGEL (2007), a deliciously exaggerated, campy tribute to Douglas Sirk, immersed in flamboyant color schemes that attempt to express the inexpressible through overblown melodrama, where he uses artificial means to get at the truth that is hidden underneath the repressed surface of human love and anguish.  Bresson’s film doesn’t have the element of delusion and hysteria for a farce, yet all the characters are deluded from reality, each blinded by their own selfish obsessions, where love is an illusion, yet even at the moment when all is revealed, when Jean embarrassingly realizes he’s been tricked, there’s a ridiculous sequence where he gets trapped from making an escape by parked cars, where Hélène, of all people, blocks him in, where he makes 3 or 4 attempts to turn the wheel to free himself, each time returning to the exact same shot of  Hélène gloating through the car window at his pathetic state of frustration.  The actual finale couldn’t feel more artificially contrived, as no one deserves redemption in this film, as both Hélène and Jean feel like contemptible, overindulged aristocrats who are so used to getting their way, they feel too pampered by the luxury of always having money to help them out of a jam, as if money is the real redemptive modus operandi in this movie.  This is an overly solemn and somewhat grotesque caricature of good and evil, easily the least compelling Bresson film, where the angelic goodness of Agnès eventually rises above the cloud of suspicion and human deceit, expressed with all the consumptive subtlety and melodramatic fatalism of Camille, everything he eventually railed against, but it does typify Bresson’s love of setting innocent characters in a downward spiraling morally corrupt world. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Les Anges du Péché (Angels of the Street)

LES ANGES DU PÉCHÉ             B+             
aka:  Angels of the Street
France  (96 mi)  1943  d:  Robert Bresson

Bresson’s first two feature films are both overwrought melodramas from the 1940’s, also both feature the presence of professional actors for the last time in his career as well as an orchestral soundtrack, all features he eventually eliminated in creating his minimalist style that strips bare all but the most essential elements.  Of his two early films, this one most accurately resembles his Bressonian film style, where characters are nearly indistinguishable, there’s plenty of uniformity in action, nuns laying prostrate on the ground before their superiors, where the camera routinely follows people moving down long corridors or climbing up or down stairs, where the physical movement itself creates the rhythm he was looking for, also in the directness of addressing his subject matter, in this case spiritual redemption.  What distinguishes this film from all other Bresson films is that it was made while under Nazi occupation “during” World War II, similar to Rossellini’s OPEN CITY (1945), which was shot shortly after the German army vacated Rome, or Dreyer’s DAY OF WRATH (1943) which was shot during the Nazi occupation of Denmark and released to the public when the Danish government had resigned in protest, where the film became a symbol of the nation’s resistance.  Curiously, after spending more than a year as a German POW, this film was released in Paris June 23, 1943, a full year before D-Day, June 6, 1944.  Surprisingly, French cinema thrived under the occupation, especially with a German ban on foreign, particularly American, films.  There are no references to the war, no political mention of any kind, and the film, which began as a documentary, takes place nearly entirely within the grounds of a real-life Dominican convent of the Sisters of Béthany, where the interrelation between the nuns comprises the narrative, an idea supposedly brought to Bresson from Raymond-Leopold Bruckberger, a Dominican priest from Paris, shedding light on an unusual ministry that cares for women prisoners while welcoming former convicts into their Order.  The personal reference to Bresson's own life in prison is the final shot, where a wayward nun hiding out from the law finally turns herself in, finding spiritual salvation in the form of handcuffs and a life spent in prison. 

While this, Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d'un curé de campagne) (1950), and perhaps Mouchette (1967), the latter two both written by the same Catholic author, are his most Catholic oriented films, in each one must overcome the non-believer sentiment and self-doubts, where even the most faithful are challenged and forced to take unpopular actions, where going against the grain leads them to the redemptive path, not following any rigid church hierarchy.  The social structure within the convent might surprise some, as it’s filled with unkind rumors and backstabbers, where purely jealous motives may drive one to undermine another, as another sister’s popularity or social ranking may irk them, feeling they are more deserving.  Sounding a bit like cliques from high school, many of these sisters were deprived of a normal or typical social background due to damaged family relations, while this particular order of nuns seeks renewal through the rehabilitation of female prisoners.  It’s there that the idealistic and ever cheerful Sister Anne-Marie (Renée Faure) is called upon to save the dour and unrepentant prison inmate Thérèse (Jany Holt) who insists she’s innocent of all charges, rejecting and belittling Anne-Marie’s obvious naiveté, but the sister doesn’t back down, becoming obsessed with saving Thérèse’s soul, immediately befriending her when she suddenly and rather unexpectedly joins the convent.  Thérèse, on the other hand, remains chilly towards Sister Anne-Marie, hiding from all the fact that once out of prison she murdered the man responsible for putting her in prison.  Linking the salvation of the two together, the saint and the sinner, Bresson intercuts a shot of Anne-Marie praying in the chapel and Thérèse walking down a hallway on her way to commit the murder. 

Thérèse has a poisonous presence within the convent, leading a conspiracy against Sister Anne-Marie, turning everyone against her, using the rigidity of the rules as a way to subvert her more free-spirited and open hearted approach, resulting in a punitive critique by others who are jealous that the Mother Superior holds her in such high regard, where supposed nitpicking of rather minor infractions leads to a personally humiliating and demeaning public condemnation.  Strict obedience to the monotony of daily routine overrides any sense of leadership or moral assertiveness, becoming an absolutist, dictatorial agenda (like an Occupation) from which to impose harsh and punitive judgment.  This blindsides Anne-Marie and many of the nuns who find her cheerful optimism a source of refreshment and spiritual renewal.  Bresson finds transcendent moments in his very first feature, a highly provocative work accentuating dual moralities, filming a cinematic choreography that highlights an ascending moral path for both, though in decidedly different directions.  It should be noted that French director Bruno Dumont’s recent film Hadewijch (2009) may draw heavily from the provocative themes of this film, in particular blurring the lines between sinner and saint, both equally deserving of spiritual renewal, as it also partly takes place in a convent and features a deeply religious teenage Bressonian character who couldn’t be more innocent and pure that becomes exposed to religious fanaticism, drawing a fascinating parallel between the extremism of an austere, cloistered life and a similarly devout Muslim believer who is willing to die for a cause as a martyr, creating a powerful and emotionally cathartic final sequence that rivals Bresson’s own, another film reflecting dual possibilities, the human and the Divine, creating a bridge between heaven and earth. 

Friday, January 27, 2012


HAYWIRE                  B                     
USA  (93 mi)  2011  ‘Scope  d:  Steven Soderbergh

While Gina Carano will not make anyone forget about Jennifer Lopez as Karen Sisco in OUT OF SIGHT (1998), she may be a logical extension of her badass personality, though never reaching the elevated Pam Grier echelon.  In fact, rather than accentuate her feminine traits, she comes across as just one of the guys, a former marine/private contractor/mercenary hired for delicate operations where the best in the business is desired.  She can be counted on for her intelligence, discretion, and thorough nature, where she leaves no loose ends behind.  It doesn’t hurt that she’s also gorgeous.  Soderbergh, with his second release in the past 6 months, has hinted on retirement after wrapping up these last few films, but his signature stylization is all over this film, a sleek, fast paced action thriller that easily moves to various on-location sites around the world, where from the opening sequence Carano continually fights her way out of jams, with the pulsating, jazzy soundtrack by David Holmes.  In fact, it would fit nicely with the international globetrotting themes of the memory challenged but ballsy action of the BOURNE Trilogy (2002 – 2007), but since it shares a similar actor in Antonio Banderas, the film it likely compares to is Brian de Palma’s FEMME FATALE (2002), featuring model/actress Rebecca Romijn-Stamos in an action role, where De Palma wipes the mat with the alluring sexuality, body doubles, and a much more intricate and complicated web of deceit, an homage to Hitchcock that was off-the-wall entertaining.  This film pales in comparison, largely because Carano never explores the sex factor and tellingly doesn’t attempt much complicated dialogue or acting interaction, instead she can be counted on for terrific ass kicking sequences, more in line with her brief career as a mixed martial arts star, formerly seen as Crush in the American Gladiators (2008) television series.   

Even Tarantino, or Russ Meyer for that matter in FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! (1965), have fun mixing female action with clever or humorous dialogue, but despite a B-movie script from Lem Dobbs who wrote Soderbergh’s best film, THE LIMEY (1999), there isn’t a trace of memorable dialogue here.  While entertaining, to be sure, this is not heady stuff, despite surrounding Carano with some of the top actors working today, where it’s likely to be a split decision as to how well she pulls it off.  The fight scenes were overseen by Aaron Cohen, a specialist in providing counter-terrorism training to the U.S. military.  From an opening restaurant scene gone wrong that recalls PULP FICTION (1994), Soderbergh introduces a flashback sequence where Carano pulls off a hostage rescue operation in Barcelona with the guy she’s beating the crap out of in the restaurant (Channing Tatum), where they worked successfully as partners with no hitches, but suddenly her team has inexplicably turned against her, which she discovers in another highly suspicious undercover operation in Dublin with Michael Fassbender, as she moves invisibly through a world of espionage, double agents, government cover ups, and secret identities.  Never trusting anyone, she develops a secret sense, but unlike so many of the other action movies, she doesn’t seem like a super hero, as she gets hit frequently and knocked down, even smashed against walls and windows, but she has a way of sustaining the battle until she gains the upper hand, where her action sequences look real instead of choreographed and computer enhanced.  She’s an interesting figure, running through the gamut of men in this movie, but something of a lone wolf, where the double crosses by the employers in her line of business, namely Ewen McGregor and Antonio Banderas, have a way of playing themselves out, where she has to sit tight and make her move when they least suspect it. 
Even Michael Douglas, looking more like his father’s gruff intensity as he ages, is another player on the scene who has to cut his losses and regroup due to unexpected backroom deals that eventually lead them to the Santa Fe desert home of Carano’s father, Bill Bixby, a former marine who is not easily fooled by all this monkey business.  It’s a beautiful home with a stunning landscape, another glass-windowed, Architectural Digest pick, like the spectacular Big Sur home on the edge of the woods overlooking the ocean in THE LIMEY.  But for all the meticulous detail prevalent in Soderbergh films, the rooftop chase sequences, her miraculous escapes, the brilliant locales, the alternating time sequences, the upper tier cast of characters, the mano a mano fight to the finish on the beach, and even a steady hand behind the camera that doesn’t resort to handheld movement to capture the physicality of mood, which is instead captured by the natural grace of Carano’s fight sequences, all of this overshadows the lack of interior character, which was the biggest selling point of Terence Stamp in THE LIMEY, as he was a man driven to do the impossible.  Not so here, as Carano is simply a well-trained professional that gets double crossed, something that happens all the time in the give and take of international power struggles, corporate takeovers, and government corruption.  This heavy style over substance is the ultimate undoing of the film, though it’s perfectly enjoyable, just not particularly memorable, unless, of course, you're a teenage fanboy who prefers watching this over playing video games, where the director is attempting to tap into the YouTube generation.  Oh, and Soderbergh has 3 more films lined up in post production—so much for retirement—at least none of them are in 3D. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur)

THE WAGES OF FEAR (Le Salaire de la Peur)          B+                  
France  Italy  (131 mi)  1953    French restoration (156 mi)  Director’s Cut (148 mi)   
d:  Henri-Georges Clouzot 

In the manner of GREED (1924) or THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), this is a film that pits men against their most primal instincts, themselves, pitiless victims who are tragically unable to control their baser instincts, set against a larger canvas of enveloping darkness that is all but waiting to envelop them—capitalism.  Like an entryway to Hell, the film opens in a godforsaken, backwater town in the middle of nowhere, supposedly somewhere in South America, a place one could legitimately call the end of the road, filled with penniless, out-of-work men, mostly European exiles with expired or non-existing visa’s lining the streets desperate for money and a ticket out of there, instead sitting on their hands in a kind of involuntary purgatory of the down and out, a way station where there’s no telling how long they’ve been stuck there like prisoners.  Set in two parts, where the initial scenes have the claustrophobic feel of men continually getting on each other’s nerves, a hopeless and monotonous life where day after day nothing ever changes, where perhaps the only consolation is the pretty barmaid, played of course, by the director’s wife Véra Clouzot (actually born in Brazil), the object of every man’s desires, yet continually mistreated by the sleazy bar owner who treats her like property and Mario (Yves Montand), who she actually cares for.  When a white-suited big shot from Paris arrives into town, Mr. Jo (Charles Varnel, penniless like the rest of them), milking it for all it’s worth, as yet to be exposed as a fraud, he strikes up a friendship with Mario, as they are both French con men at heart.     

What transpires next is the kicker, as a seedy representative from an American oil company arrives with armed guards and is looking to hire experienced truck drivers for a delicate mission hauling 200 gallons of highly explosive nitroglycerin over 300 miles of rocky, mountainous terrain.  It seems a handful of men have already died and nearly a dozen more injured in a massive oil rig fire, a little known fact the company wants kept secret to avoid a public relations disaster.  More to the point, a.) the oil company has trucks but no shock absorbers or safety equipment, b.) nitroglycerin is highly unstable and explodes if shaken or spilled, but c.) is needed to put out the oil rig fire, as a carefully induced explosion can suck the oxygen out of the fire.  Oh, and the company is willing to pay $2000 to any man who can deliver the goods without getting blown to bits.  Despite being a suicidal mission, every man in town lines up for the job and are angry about being turned away.  The company hires four drivers for two trucks, a Corsican (Yves Montand), a Parisian (Charles Vanel), a German (Peter Van Eyck) and an Italian (Folco Lolli), where those turned away are angry, knowing this is their only ticket out of town, where one of the rejected drivers commits suicide while another may be murdered so that the Parisian can take his place.  From the outset, it’s a dirty business where you have to resort to any means just to have a chance to get yourself killed, and with luck, survive.  The trucks pull out in the dead of night, where what follows is a highly charged suspense thriller where the director delights in placing unforeseen obstacles in their path, upping the ante in exposing just what men are willing to do for the money. 

Turning into a truck lover’s dream, where we follow trucks and nothing but trucks for the last hour and a half, where at any moment catastrophe awaits, this also becomes a battle of nerves and wits that plays out in the minds of the drivers.  Sitting in the self-enclosed driver’s seat, the conversation resembles an existentialist play like Sartre’s No Exit, as you can’t predict what’s in the twisted minds of these desperados, where both sets of drivers maniacally push the other to the limit, introducing daredevil tactics that only tighten the screws of the already unbearable tension, as they continually tempt death throughout the journey.  Adapted by Clouzot and Jérôme Géronimi from the novel by Georges Arnaud, this is a nailbiter of a movie, unusual for the adventure format as mostly nothing happens, but the anticipation cleverly instilled in the audience’s minds is searingly intense.  The bravado of the men comes into play, where Montand turns into a kind of reckless hotshot as his partner Vanel wilts under pressure, visualizing every rock and crevice along the road, while the other pair barely know one another at the outset and are highly suspicious, refusing to be undermined by the other’s lack of will or sheer incompetancy, but become fast friends, brought closer together by sharing the danger and the difficulty, where they eventually learn to respect each another.  Not so Montand and Varnel, where they are continually at odds with one another.  Overwhelmingly bleak and exhausting, the fatalistic atmosphere of doom is everpresent, stuck in one of the more barren landscapes ever devised for a film, occasionally broken up by moments of levity, where a nice touch thrown into the mix is Clouzot’s incessant use of cigarettes, as these guys continually light up in front of such volatile explosives, much like casually smoking around a gas pump, where any spark could set off a massive explosion.  And in this artificially devised waiting game, Clouzot does not disappoint.      

Norwegian Wood

NORWEGIAN WOOD          B+                  
Japan  (133 mi)  2010  ‘Scope  d:  Tran Anh Hung 

Tran Anh Hung is the only Vietnamese filmmaker to ever receive an Academy Award nomination in the Best Foreign Film category, received for his first film, THE SCENT OF GREEN PAPAYA (1993), though the filmmaker emigrated to France at age 12 following the fall of Saigon.  Known for his lush visuals and languorous pace, this film is no exception, adapted from the Haruki Murakami novel which is interestingly set during the student protest movement of the 1960’s along with the accompanying air of sexual liberation.  Feeling almost like two separate films, the first half establishes the characters and sets the tone for the rest of the film, beautifully shot by Hou Hsiao-hsien’s cinematographer Lee Ping-bin, a visual extravaganza narrated by Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama), a socially aloof but conscientious and bright college student in Tokyo whose boyhood friend commits suicide, where he falls in love with the dead boy’s emotionally fragile girlfriend Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi) who mysteriously disappears after their initial sexual encounter apparently brings back painful memories, leaving no trace of how he can find her, so he writes letters to her known addresses hoping they would be forwarded to her.  Through the letters we get an understanding how deeply he feels for Naoko, believing he’s somehow responsible for her pain.  Living in a college dormitory, he is dragged along with others where he meets other girls, namely Midori (Kiko Mizuhara), who actually pursues him, where initially the audience feels this is a much better match for him as she’s so outgoing and confident, where the pair actually seem happy together, but in a startling confession, they each claim to love another, which places their aspirations on the back burner, which gives rise to letters from Naoko, who is living in a remote retreat of some kind in an attempt to heal her wounds.  

Throughout the film is a remembrance and lavish tone poem to first love, where the extraordinary visual beauty interweaves with the irrationality of obsessive longing, where Watanabe and Naoko feel a desperate need for one another, both clinging to hopes of reuniting, yet there is an overriding sense of futility that accompanies their feelings, as if weighted down by the death of their friend.  There is also plenty of sexual experimentation, where much of the dialog attempts a kind of abrupt confessional honesty.  Featuring another superb musical score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, this is one of the quietest and youthfully tender film experiences in recollection, exceeded perhaps only by Naomi Kawase’s SUZAKU (1997) which is even more fragile, but both of these two lovers remain damaged goods throughout, where initially there is a spirit of hope, accelerated by the gorgeously optimistic presence of Midori, which offers Watanabe an option, but one he fails to recognize, as he insists he will not abandon Naoko as her deceased lover did.  This road is a perilous journey, as Naoko hasn’t recovered, needing the spiritual guidance of others to get through each day, where Watanabe can visit her, but only in the presence of others, as she still loses herself in her troubles, falling ever deeper into psychological turmoil.  One of the best scenes of the film is when her friend plays the Beatles song “Norwegian Wood” on the guitar, where Naoko is sitting on the floor with Watanabe lying next to her in a moment of quiet relaxation, but to Naoko the lyrics are simply crushing and overwhelming, creating a hyper-sensuous personalized moment, like an acid rush, where her past traumatic recollections come streaming into her head all at once leaving her devastated and alone.   

As the audience begins to realize the seriousness of Naoko’s condition, this leads us into the second half of the film which could otherwise be called the descent, taking on maudlin, melodramatic aspects that will likely turn off many Western viewers as lengthy, over the top, and unnecessary, bordering on pretentious, as it remains bathed in such a luminously beautiful setting, featuring plenty of walks through green fields or forests in natural landscapes, also including similar ventures in the wintry snow, where every shot glows in an idealized light.  Despite the downward trend, a meandering turn towards futility and utter pointlessness, which becomes the pervasive theme, happening suddenly, like dropping off the edge of a cliff, this remains faithful to Japanese sentiment—when honor has been soiled, suicide remains a noble option—where Naoko waffles back and forth between appreciation for the attention paid by Watanabe, and her hints that it’s all a waste of time and that he should get on with his life without her.  The initial pangs of romantic love have evolved into pathos and paternal obligation, where he has a highly developed sense of responsibility which continually paints him in a good light, but he’s aboard a sinking ship, and while valiantly trying to stay afloat, he remains lost in a cloud of death and denial, where his life is a charade of pretense and make believe, putting on a happy face for the ever dour Naoko.  When the two talk of the happiness they bring each other, there’s simply no sign of it any more, drowning in a sea of sorrows and regret.  The exaggerated sense of doom has a heightened sense given this artful design, as it perfectly matches youthful idealization, where disappointment can be catastrophic when hopes and dreams are undone by the sheer inadequacy of reality, leading to an emotional paralysis, where one remains in a permanent, near catatonic state of heartbreak.   

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

King of Devil's Island (Kongen av Bastøy)

KING OF DEVIL’S ISLAND (Kongen av Bastøy)           A-             
Norway  Sweden  Poland  France  (120 mi)  2010  ‘Scope  d:  Marius Holst

A different side of Scandinavian films that we rarely see, one that is as brutally harsh as the bleak wintry landscape, where fortitude is built by learning how to survive in the worst circumstances, where in this part of the world surviving the elements is a continual test of character.  Based on a true story in 1915, set on the island of Bastøy on the North Sea inlet south of Oslo, they run an Alcatraz style prison for delinquent boys, where some may be orphans, some have mental health issues, others may have been caught for petty crimes, or may just be poor, but boys from 8 to 18 languish on this penal colony for years paying a kind of eternal penitence, where getting lost in the system is an understatement, as their release depends upon the discretion of the sadistic Governor in charge, Stellan Skarsgård, who firmly believes hard work and a firm stick will somehow transform these unruly boys into model citizens.  His job is to mold them into compliant citizens that obey rules and follow orders.  The truthful severity of the brutal acts against children make this kind of film off limits to American filmmakers, as this honestly exposes a kind of monstrous inhumanity within Norway’s own history that’s missing in American films.  Some of the best remembered prison films are A MAN ESCAPED (1956), THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963), COOL HAND LUKE (1967), IF… (1968), ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975), SHAWHANK REDEMPTION (1994), where each one raises the question of prisoner escape, seen by the other inmates as an act of heroics, yet not so the warden who must make an example to deter similar actions, resorting to ruthless measures if caught, making one think twice about ever doing it again.  Each of these movies suggests men can only endure so much torture and relentless oppression, resorting to wit and bravery to conjure up improbable acts of escape, but not so here, as someone instead irrationally refuses to escape when the door is left wide open, where this may have you on the edge of your seat.

Unraveling as a story within a story, where a young harpooner aboard a Moby Dick style whaling ship marvels at the endurance of a whale that has been shot 3 times, yet still manages to elude them throughout most of the day, a theme turned back upon the humans, as it is their own beastly behavior that takes centerstage in this film.  With the arrival of two new inmates, a burly young sailor Erling (Benjamin Helstad) immediately disrupts the balance of power by challenging the status quo, threatening escape almost immediately, which places the other boys in jeopardy, especially Olav (Trond Nilssen), who is given responsibility over his dormitory as he’s expecting his release soon, considered a model prisoner.  What’s especially interesting is the interplay between these two, as they are polar opposites with uniquely compelling viewpoints.  They immediately test one another with a kind of LORD OF THE FLIES (1963) psychological battle of wits, while at the same time the Governor is testing the rebellious nature of Erling, continually adding harsher work details which makes his workmates miserable, but he continually takes the brunt of it, routinely given added punishments where he’s mindlessly ordered to move a pile of rocks ten feet away into another pile, only to be instructed afterwards to move them all back again.  The viewer soon discovers the island is a child labor camp, where they perform farming and forestry work details, with society getting a special bonus out of their cheap labor.  Except for the leads, most of the kids are non-professionals, where with little dialogue the director subtly weaves into the fabric a sense of community from the boys point of view, as they’re all victims of the same inhumane living conditions, where what’s missing is the capacity to look out for one another.       

What’s especially effective is the gorgeous ‘Scope camerawork from John Andreas Andersen whose sweeping panoramas and wintry landscapes look brutally cold, where winter never looked harsher and more ominous, where these are boys, after all, continually punished and brutalized in the name of some utterly fictitious social good, the Governor’s goal of making them “honorable, humble, and useful Christian boys,” as if he could beat them into submission.  While the tense build up of the inevitable rebellion may be held back too long, as there’s little doubt the floodgates at some point will open, when they do it comes with a flurry, all precipitated by extreme abuse to the weakest among them, a boy violated by the housemaster, Kristoffer Joner, in a role reminiscent of Donald Sutherland’s sick portrayal of a fascist baby killer in Bertolucci’s 1900, especially when the peasants turn on him.  So it’s not heroics but abuse of power, a cowardly cover up, where contemptible lies are met with anger and disgust, which has an initial liberating effect, but a bit like Haneke’s FUNNY GAMES (1997), the initial wave of hope is crushed with even harsher and more barbaric methods, making things seem hopeless before a sea change of communal emotion comes swiftly crashing through the gates like a raging flood, an apocalyptic response to the torrent of sins heaped upon them.  The chaos that follows is just that, a sprawling, sweeping flow of events that comes to resemble the image of that wounded whale ferociously fighting for its last gasp of freedom.  Holst is at his best in the extremely personal finale, pitch perfect and beautifully staged, thrilling to watch, where he judiciously takes his time allowing events to play out, becoming a poetic reverie of innocence lost.  Shot mostly in Estonia, the music by Johan Soderqvist is especially captivating, offering a somber lament at exactly the right moment, adding a layer of quiet intimacy to a beautifully accomplished film.