Inarritu Finds His Wings, Riggan Falls Flat (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman)

Inarritu’s visual symphony aims for the stars, but the burden of a tedious central character sends it plummeting back to Earth.  The result is an intense and frequently stunning, yet ultimately exhausting  experience.

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“There’s nothing here about technique! There’s nothing in here about structure! There’s nothing in here about intentions! It’s just a bunch of crappy opinions, backed up by even crappier comparisons,” faded movie star Riggan (Michael Keaton) retorts to esteemed theater critic Tabitha (the ever-excellent Lindsay Duncan).  In a display of power and petty resentment, Tabitha has cast professional ethics aside, deciding in advance to pan his virgin foray into the cruel world of Broadway.  Or maybe she just likes watching him sweat.

I wish I could say the same.

There can be no denying that technique is masterful throughout Birdman, a meticulously well-crafted piece of filmmaking, with some high-caliber performances, and virtuoso cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki that strives to elevate the work to the highest echelons of cinema.

At times the form is subtly audacious and enthralling, as we watch complex action unfold around a mobile camera in perfectly executed extended takes (the whole movie appears seamless), at others the form becomes conspicuous and self-consciously spectacular, soaring awkwardly into the realms of magical realism.    The melding of styles is visually exciting, but is the content worthy of the form?

Birdman, ostensibly a satire, is essentially a portrait of an unlikeable character: “entitled, selfish, spoiled,”  as Tabitha nails it.  So far so good.  Alas, Birdman is also a portrait of an uninteresting character.  In an interview published in Variety, Inarritu speaks of his desire in making the film to create an “inescapable reality” and take the audience with him.  This is exactly where we spend the next two hours: trapped inside Riggan’s head.  Unfortunately he is a nauseating bore.

A man of few redeeming qualities, Riggan is so self-obsessed he is incapable of perceiving a world beyond his own petty problems.  He is even a failure as a narcissist, lacking the charisma to captivate a dazzled circle of admirers .  Guided by his ego and indeed his alter-ego in the form of the Batman-like Birdman, Keaton spits through his performance as Riggan lurches from one delusional tantrum to the next, with little discernible character arc beyond growing desperation and a faltering grip on reality.

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Perhaps the only good thing to be said about Riggan, is that he doesn’t lack courage when it comes to putting his own neck on the line – if only as part of his overarching, immature quest for external validation.  Teetering on the verge of a possible comeback, Riggan is hoping to gain universal acclaim for his adaptation, direction and performance, showcased in a new play based on a Raymond Carver story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

It is a bold risk.  But Riggan’s comeback is the definition of a vanity project, which is what irks Tabitha so. He chooses Carver not for his admiration of Carver’s talent, but for Carver’s supposed admiration of his.  A (possibly drunk) Carver once flattered Riggan when he appeared in a juvenile production, by sending a signed note on a cocktail napkin praising his “honest performance”, thus causing Riggan’s talents to soar in his own estimation.

As broadway actor and critics’ darling Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) astutely posits – or possibly borrows from some contemporary tweeting version of Dorothy Parker, given the prevalence of technology in the film – “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige”.  Riggan is a man who has given up massive popularity, hoping to exchange it for prestige, but never making the grade.  Brave?  Foolish?  He tries to rectify this with the supposed authenticity of the theater.  An association Tabitha believes he has not earned: “You’re no actor, you’re a celebrity. Let’s be clear on that,” she chides him.

Birdman does not lack for humor and wit, and could perhaps best be classified as a black comedy.  The dialogue is often gratingly crass but littered with gems such as “how do you know Mike?”… “We share a vagina.” However, on balance, these comedic elements offer only temporary relief from the intense claustrophobia of being stuck with Riggan through the course of his meltdown.  This sensation is enhanced by the ambitious musical score featuring Antonio Sanchez’s frenetic jazz drumming, which is both impressive and effective, yet becomes increasingly abrasive.

As the flowing camera tracks through the corridors of the dingy theater or along the bustling streets of New York City, I couldn’t help wishing it would change tack and spend the rest of the film following one of the supporting characters, or float off into those city streets and find a compelling character with a fascinating story.  There is certainly a world of contrast between the lead characters in Birdman and Inarritu’s 2010 portrait film “Biutiful”.  Javier Bardem’s gut-wrenching performance as the complex, flawed and compassionate Uxbal blows this bird out of the water, exposing Riggan by comparison as fundamentally shallow and dull.

As for Keaton’s performance, the near-universal praise he has received is not unmerited.  It would be easy to underestimate the rigor demanded by the technical challenges involved in shooting extended takes with an ever-moving camera and no room for editing.  And he is entirely convincing as the deeply tedious, insecure actor, trying to make the most of what he secretly fears may be mediocre talents.  But Riggan’s pathetic tantrums, which involve shouting and throwing things (telekinetically or otherwise) are all one-note, and it is telling that when Norton’s Mike Shiner has his own tantrum, he steals the show.

Norton is excellent as incendiary method actor Shiner, infuriatingly more intelligent, talented and younger than Riggan, having already attained that elusive prestige.  Like Riggan he is an egotist, but Shiner is driven to relentlessly push for the authentic moment in ways Riggan initially can’t even imagine.  Typically this involves offending people, shocking them, or frightening them.

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Riggan & Shiner square off

In a memorable scene that also serves as a metaphor for many elements of the movie, Shiner engages with Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone) in a little game of truth or dare.  Danger and truth are a lifestyle for Shiner, ‘the real deal’ at least on stage, which he claims is all that is real for him.  Apparently it is the only time he can get hard.  When he seemingly makes an unsuccessful attempt to rape his girlfriend on-stage during a performance, Shiner’s aim has nothing to do with rape and everything to do with eliciting adrenaline and genuine fear.

This brutal methodology undeniably gets results for Shiner – after all, an “honest” performance is a holy grail for “serious” actors – but what of Riggan’s process?  If there is any character development, it might be found here.  His acting in the play at first seems borderline bad, but improves with each rehearsal, as he become increasingly unhinged offstage.  He certainly learns a few things from Shiner, and attempts to imitate and even outdo him towards the end of the story.

The space of the theater itself is shown as a self-contained world which, Birdman growls, “smells like balls.”  This olfactory dud is really a sanctuary for Riggan, where he generally can be the center of attention and gets to be, if not idolized, at least indulged by those around him.  These accommodating “theater pussies” include Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough), as Shiner and Riggan’s girlfriends respectively.

Riseborough in particular has fun with her character, and despite being Riggan’s lover she is able to take life’s ups and downs more lightly than the tortured actor and those caught up in his aura.  “I wish I had more self-respect,” Lesley laments after Shiner’s hair-raising assault; Laura’s reply is simple: “You’re an actress.”  Most understated is Zac Galifianakis, bringing a calm, reassuring presence to Riggan’s loyal, long-suffering friend and lawyer Jake.

Stone is outstanding in the strong cast as Riggan’s 20-something, recovering addict daughter Sam.  A tough new Yorker, with the requisite bird and arrow tattoos, stick-thin frame, leather jacket and tousled blond rock-hair, she is always low-key.  Despite or perhaps because of her troubles, Sam emanates an inner confidence that makes her seem the adult in her relationship with Riggan, and more than a match for Shiner with whom she ignites some fiery chemistry.

Stone is undeniably sexy in the role, but her body hovers worryingly close to anorexia, a physical transformation that seems to make her eyes huge in her face, not unlike a treefrog.  Lubezki’s cinematography  wisely capitalizes on this bug-eyed look which gives her the appearance of struggling to contain a thousand ineffable things.  This culminates in the iconic final shot of the movie, where she enters a state of rapture, an example of the sublime in cinema that stands on a par with the masters (Herzog, Kieslowski, Dryer) and as such would be worthy of a much more profound movie.

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And here is the essential problem with the work: much as it strives to transcend the mundane it remains mired there.  The magical realism is heavy-handed, slugging the audience in the face with unearned metaphorical meaning.  Birdman opens with Riggan in his dressing room, casually levitating, in a shot reminiscent of Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006).  This would seem suggest a spirituality about the character, perhaps a calm and oneness with the world.  If anything, it can only be read as a sign of Riggan’s delusion, later expressed in as many words as he literally flies over the city, that he is above ordinary mortals, looking down on them.  A god, even.  This is where we find him, and also exactly where we leave him.

Sam’s rapture at the movie’s close seems counter-intuitive, because of all the characters, Sam is most aware of her fathers’ spiritual bankruptcy.  The only meaningful actions he takes towards his daughter in the movie are betrayals of the most terrible kind.  In one scene, Riggan’s desperate quest for relevance is brutally outlined by Sam: “let’s face it, Dad, it’s not forthe sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. Well, there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! … You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what?  You’re right.”

I must admit that by the end, I found it impossible to care what happened to Riggan.  The denouement felt like kind of a cheap shot, and I had a feeling I’d seen this all somewhere before.  That said, given Riggan’s apparent hallucinations, and the numerous visual metaphors and allusions in the film, it is certainly a juicy treat for those who enjoy analyzing and delving into theories of meaning.

Suffice to say, the magical events we experience are witnessed only by Riggan himself, until the final scene, where something has changed.  Suicide is a constant specter in the film, referenced in scene after scene, and in much of the film’s more abstract imagery.  The idea of self-annihilation has particular relevance to nirvana-seeking Buddhists and truth-seeking actors, and as such one might interpret this as Riggan’s quest.  But I never had the sense Riggan was the spiritual type, and when his ex Sylvia (Amy Ryan) tells him he “confuses love for admiration” she reveals his tragic flaw and the banal quest he will sacrifice anything to pursue.

Many will hail Birdman as proof that Inuarito is a genius.  And perhaps it is.  But when all is said and done, I came back to that conversation between Riggan and Tabitha.

Riggan asks “Did I did something to offend you?”

Tabitha replies “As a matter of fact, you did. You took up space on a theater which otherwise might have been used on something worthwhile.”

Though overly harsh, I can relate to her sentiments.  Given this is an outstanding piece of filmmaking I wish Inarritu, Keaton et all had directed their considerable effort and undeniable talent into a more interesting character or at least allowed this one to take wing and soar to a heightened awareness.

Since I’ve devoted so much energy to bashing his (lack of) character, and shown no kindness to the fragile soul, perhaps it is only fair that I let Riggan have the last word – although with the caveat that there are no wrinkles on this bird, man.

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 “You write a couple of paragraphs and you know what?  None of this cost you fuckin’ anything!  The Fuck!  You risk nothing! Nothing! This play cost me everything!  So I tell you what, you take this fucked-up malicious cowardly shittily written review and you shove that right the fuck up your wrinkly tight ass.”

A Fine Gone Girl (Gone Girl, directed by David Fincher)

gone-girl-teaser-posters-slice            “Re-alignment of perception” is a notion hot-shot defense attorney Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry) believes is the key to saving the neck of his client, the beleaguered and possibly wife-murdering Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck). This idea is central to the narrative of Gone Girl, which takes the disappearance of a seemingly devoted wife and continues to realign our perception of events through each new revelation.

Nick and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) smugly believe themselves to be the perfect couple. But when recession prompts a move from NYC to the relative backwaters of Carthage, Missouri, the strain of the transition takes its toll on their marriage. And when Amy disappears on their 5th anniversary, leaving an iron hot on the board and a roomful of broken glass, police fear the worst. Husband Nick is soon swept up into the ensuing media storm where he is alternately seen as the saintly bereaved husband and the lying cheating wife-killer.

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Gillian Flynn’s best-selling novel was quite the phenomenon, a darkly humorous page-turner, that kept the reader guessing with every twist and turn of the plot. David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en) has a track record of excelling with twisted material, and he seems the perfect choice for director, or at least, the obvious one. He doesn’t disappoint with his deft handling of plot, tone and pacing.

Tone is key here, and Gone Girl fluctuates between thriller, horror story, black comedy, satire and cautionary tale. Fight Club illustrated Fincher’s adept mastery of tone and he captures the whip-smart cynical style of the original with little deviation. Every tiny visual detail is deliciously perfect in his recreation of Flynn’s world. But all in all, the film perhaps stays a little too close to Flynn’s flawed, absorbing novel for its own good.

The structure is a pastiche of different perspectives on the developing events following Amy’s disappearance/murder, incorporating flashbacks from the beginning of Nick and Amy’s relationship leading up to the present day, when events align in a linear fashion. The entire work is an exploration of the unreliable narrator, and once you know the ‘facts’ of the story they are impossible to forget, making the book the ultimate spoiler for the movie.

This makes it difficult to gauge exactly how the film will be experienced by those fresh to the story, however the narrative toys effectively with casting shadows of doubt, and will probably engage the uninitiated in all the narrative head-games of Flynn’s bestseller. That said, one abrupt realignment of perspective is handled very bluntly by Fincher, and feels cringe-worthy, a showy ‘ta-da!’ moment where a more nuanced and gradual approach might have sustained the sense of intrigue and credibility.

Thematically the film explores the inherent difficulties of living in the context of a marriage, especially one that is in the process of unraveling. The emerging battle of the sexes verges on the clichés Nick and Amy so abhor at the beginning of their self-consciously cool romance, and their relationship gradually descends into a parade of tired sexist paradigms: is Amy simply too good for Nick, or is she a controlling shrew? Are all men pigs? Hath hell no fury like a woman scorned?

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If these eventually come to border uncomfortably on misogyny, this is no accident. Populated with strong and weak characters of both genders, the film is completely self-aware and takes relish in the idea that when love becomes a battlefield, the smarter, stronger character will ultimately win – though the hard-won prize may be of questionable value. Make no mistake, this is a cynical, rather superficial film.

Absent at the heart of Gone Girl is any intimate relationship with our ambiguous leads, Nick and Amy. They convincingly act out every sequence in the book, but to come to life on screen, these characters need more space to develop and deepen. Perhaps a few minutes of screentime with each simply being, with less doing, would allow the audience to bridge the divide and find a level of connection that would make them more real and the events that follow more shocking. But then that’s not really Fincher’s style.

Affleck nevertheless does a fine job portraying Nick as the inscrutable murder suspect, or possibly the hapless maligned innocent. The numerous supporting characters are all well-portrayed and will not disappoint fans of the novel. As in the book, it is Go (Carrie Coon), Nick’s twin sister, who is the most alive and real, seeming to come from another film entirely than Amy, with whom she barely interacts.

Pike is certainly well-cast as an Amy type, or a type-A, and her performance is quite good, but as in the book at a certain point the character begins to waver on the edge of plausibility. Had Pike perhaps made Amy more her own creation and less the embodiment of Flynn’s, adding something here and taking away something there, Gone Girl might have surpassed its source material, moving beyond a deliciously twisted narrative to become a haunting and unforgettable work.

Even so the film is more believable than the book, not least because of Flynn’s considered adaptation of her original drawn-out ending, which she wisely chooses to simplify by leaving out some hard-to-swallow elements that felt silly in the original. Despite this judicious restraint, the ending of the film skates too much on the surface, where some great performances could have spun out moments of spine-tingling tension from seemingly mundane situations.

At this point the film can’t really decide how seriously it wants to be taken, there is a tongue-in-cheek element which prefers to draw out the irony of its own elaborate sick joke, rather than taking the situation in absolute earnest.

The film boasts an appropriately unsettling atmospheric score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and fine cinematography Jeff Cronenweth, which in Lynchian tradition creates a sinister magic around the former marital household, the suburban town of Carthage, and a dilapidated abandoned shopping mall populated by junkies.

Over all, Gone Girl is very good, perhaps a little better than the skillfully conceived and executed book. Like the book it is intriguing, entertaining, warped, smart, funny and cynical – but for all that essentially implausible. Audiences are sure to enjoy the ride in exactly the spirit in which it is intended.

But with a few more risks and a little more space between the action we could have had a much better film. Maybe even a new classic.

American Hustle: Over-Comb with Emotion

In David O. Russell’s warm-hearted and hilarious film, con-artists Sydney and Irving are lovers entrapped by an ambitious FBI agent and forced to participate in a far-reaching sting.  The action goes down in a lurid 1970s New Jersey teeming with sexual tension and Serious Hair.

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In American Hustle’s opening scene, the inimitable Russell presents us with a strangely enthralling spectacle: conman Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale in his latest physical transformation) preparing his comb-over in a suite at New York’s Plaza Hotel.  When Irving’s partner-in-crime and lover Sydney later describes said comb-over as ‘elaborate’, she kindly understates the case: this is surely the mother of all comb-overs.

A partially bald, paunchy man in a velvet suit, Irving sports unruly back-combed rat-tails protruding from his dome in every direction to form an unsightly Medusa’s garland.   To address this unfortunate reality, he applies what appears to be a merkin to his exposed pate.  This being The Seventies in all its hideous glory, it could perhaps be a piece cut from an afro wig.  Still, it is short and curly, so draw your own conclusions.  Through a fascinating process involving glue and persistence, he achieves the seemingly impossible, ultimately resolving the hair situation admirably, even heroically.

Comedic value aside, I have the nagging feeling a key to the film is hidden amongst the characters’ uniformly over-prepared locks.  Suffice to say this movie raises the question of whether it is possible for hair to be epic, and it is nothing short of a travesty that American Hustle wasn’t nominated for best makeup and hairstyling at this year’s Academy Awards.  Throughout the film, Russell shows us characters constructing their identities with their hair, and all the inherent vulnerability this entails.

The opening sequence mercilessly exposes our romantic lead to the point where he becomes an object of ridicule.  Did I say romantic lead?  American Hustle is an exuberant, entertaining, wickedly funny con movie on the surface, but Russell has given us love story on the sly: a deeply romantic film and humane film in the guise of a caper.

As the scene continues, we introduce the Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, outstanding, in a film where the performances are excellent across the board) and Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) completing the film’s first love-triangle.  The unlikely threesome are getting ready for a high-stakes meeting at the Plaza Hotel.  Blood is running high.  Tempers flare.  Comb-overs are dislodged.  Violence is a heartbeat away.  The other cheek is turned in another easily overlooked heroic act.  And we go back, back, back to the beginning.

The beginning, is… when just a whippersnapper, Irving started smashing windows around town to drum up business for his father, an honest window salesman.  ‘From the ground up’ he became a different kind of man from his father.  A sleazebag, or an unlikely hero?  A dishonest man willing to exploit people to get ahead?  Indeed.  A man taking control of his own destiny?  Certainly.  A corrupt man helping the people he cares about in the most pragmatic way?  Undoubtedly.  In particular, Irving is a man who is constantly underestimated and frequently reduced to a caricature by people who aren’t really paying attention.

The beginning, is… when Sydney and Irving meet at a suburban party in New Jersey… Bale lets it all hang out here.  He is an overweight, sweaty, badly dressed, balding man.  Yet as Sydney says, she fell for him because he was entirely himself, and entirely comfortable with himself.  Something Sydney believes she is not, though her actions show her otherwise.

She likes Irving and accepts him as he is. They bond over Duke Ellington.  Later, he takes her to his dry cleaners, where she tries on clothing and with them identities (a recurring theme in Russell’s work), for she feels she can be so much more than what she is.  They share a tender moment leading to a soulful kiss as clothing swirls around them on a seemingly infinite rack. What we have is the beginning of an extraordinary romance.  A story of survival, and kindred spirits.

As with the comb-over, necessity is the mother of invention.  Our lovers are deeply grounded in their acceptance of reality, and their relationship is real and adult.  Accepting Irving as he is means Sydney must accept Irving as a married man.  Accepting Irving as a con artist means she must reinvent herself as the charming and aristocratic Lady Edith.  She talks about choices when you come from a place with limited options.  We see her choice was to work on stage in a strip club.  Sometimes, she tells us, it felt sexy, “There’s a boldness to it.”  And bold is sexy, as the movie goes on to show.  Fashion notwithstanding, we have at least three characters with big hearts, and big cojones to match.

Irving and Sydney choose to steal from desperate people.  The film doesn’t address the moral questions this raises except Sydney’s suggestion that these are not good people and consequently don’t have good karma.  Karma must be immediate for Irving, who rips off acquaintances in his own neighborhood.  But even closer to home, he is an honest man, with a generous heart which has seen him adopt the son of former single mother and wife Rosalyn.

Rosalyn is a woman entirely different from Sydney – divorced from reality, ungenerous – but like agent DiMaso, though she may not have a big heart, she is endowed with balls of steel.   This is a woman who uses her child as leverage over Irving, whom she feels infinitely superior to.  This despite the fact he is constantly putting himself on the line to provide for their family, whereas Rosalyn contributes next to nothing, and is so careless she is always one step away from burning the house down.

Rosalyn believes she is smarter than she is, and acts in the most harmful way, feeling – sometimes understandably – that she has the moral right.   A deeply toxic woman, yet warm, appealing, sexy, and charming, as played in an inspired performance by Jenifer Lawrence.  She makes Rosalyn a great comedic character, vivid and vital and clumsy.  Whether obsessing about the smell of nail lacquer topcoats, or seething in an encounter with Sydney, she is never less than compelling.  Eventually, there is redemption and a fresh start for Rosalyn.

But, back once more to the beginning, which is… when Sydney and Irving are entrapped by an ambitious FBI agent, and he gives them a choice.  A very limited choice, as the other option is jail, but a choice nonetheless.  Enter stage left: the fake sheik.   Agent Di Maso recruits the couple to work undercover in a sting operation that eventually draws in all sorts of powerful players, from prominent politicians to mobsters, and most notably another flawed hero, a ‘corrupt’ mayor fighting passionately for his constituency in the most pragmatic way.  Mayor Carmen Polito eventually becomes the moral center of the movie, and Irving’s chickens come home to roost when he must face up to his betrayal of this kindred spirit.

When they first meet, Sydney feels an initial attraction to DiMaso, but we are left guessing as to her true motivations as the film progresses.  I think Sydney gives us enough information.  While he manages to use extreme stress techniques to drive something of a wedge between Sydney and Irving, hell and high water are surely nothing new to her.  Sydney is comfortable using her sex appeal to get what she wants – it’s a simple trap for suckers, and deeply pragmatic Sydney is never above using it.  In fact, Sydney’s uniquely seductive wardrobe forms a hilarious running joke throughout American Hustle.

It is interesting to note the original title was ‘American Bullshit’.  That would never do justice to the sincerity of the characters, liars one and all, in this unique and entertaining film.  More than just a con, Hustle was the dance of 1970s America, the strut of Saturday Night Fever, the hot move of a generation of people trying to become something bigger.  But despite all the brazen hustle and bustle, and the nod and a wink at Scorcese, it is authenticity which wins through.

Reinventing the Real: Life of Pi

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            From the enchanting opening sequence, introducing the animals populating the Pondicherry Zoo, we are swept up in Ang Lee’s mesmerizing spectacle.  Every frame is important and magical, and it is fitting that we begin the film reveling in the diversity of creation.  Lee is a director attuned with the wonder and captivating beauty of the world, and the grace and subtlety with which he employs 3D immediately establishes itself as something unparalleled in contemporary filmmaking. 

Based on Yann Martel’s unforgettable novel, the story is an uplifting, surprising, humorous and frightening allegory on human nature, taking the approach of magical realism and imbuing it with a unique brand of hyper-realism.  While our narrator may be considered ‘unreliable’, his story has a truth to it that connects on a deeper level of credibility than the purely factual.  Like Pi, Ang Lee spins us an incredible and absorbing narrative: Life of Pi is a film about storytelling, and promises a story that can make a person believe in God.    

Pi is a curious boy in every respect.  His narrative is framed through an interview with a writer, looking for inspiration, who has been guided to meet the middle-aged Pi at his home in Montreal.  Through this device we are treated to a colorful pastiche of his boyhood in India, a land of dreamlike and mysterious beauty. 

Pi’s family own a zoo in a botanical garden in the Bay of Bengal.  As a boy Pi is inspired by religions and their many stories and majestic ceremonies.  The Gods were his superheroes, he explains.  This is one of the most sympathetic portrayals of religion and its splendor I have seen.  Pi’s parents function as the perfect ying-yang of masculine and feminine values.  Pi’s father, a man of science, tries to explain to Pi why he cannot follow all religions at once… one of many comic scenes , not least of which is the story of how Pi acquired his name. 

Pi grows up.  He falls in love.  Calamity strikes: he must leave his beloved India, perhaps forever, for the icy land of Winnipeg.  Pi’s painful exile thus begins with a boat trip, the poignant departure of a boy losing his entire world.  Pi’s loss is compounded by the sudden loss of his family in a breathtaking sequence which leaves Pi shipwrecked with a tiger, a zebra a hyena and an orangutan.  This is no joke: it is here some of the more horrific events in the movie transpire.  Life of Pi is frequently mis-categorized as a fable, but the animals here are wild animals, and there are scenes here to give children nightmares. 

Throughout Life of Pi there is seamless incorporation of animation, both in the traditional sense – fetchingly animated creation myths – and in the creatures brought to life through computer generation.   Watching Richard Parker, the Tiger, we find him so expressive we are inclined to believe Pi when he says he looks into his eyes and sees a soul.   I found it difficult to accept he was a purely digital creature, and the other animals are brought to life with such realism and understanding of the nuances of animal body language it feels impossible they could be mere illusions.  No creatures have ever looked more alive.

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It is distressing and ironic that Rhythm and Hues, the company responsible for bringing these creatures to life and realizing the other groundbreaking visual effects in the film, went bankrupt and laid off over 200 workers even as the film was receiving its Oscar.  How can such work be valued so little?  It is a sad comment on the state of the industry, and generated much controversy as crowds gathered outside the Oscars to protest.  Lee himself was criticized for not acknowledging the company in his acceptance speech and also for complaining about the high price of visual effects. 

Politics aside, Ang Lee is complete master of his medium: it is as though he has spent his life creating 3-D cinema, and in reality what this film shows us is how well traditional cinematic techniques can transfer themselves to the adapted medium.  The use of old-school optical techniques such as superimposition, focus pull, contra-zoom and dissolve which Lee has managed to incorporate in his 3-D vision lend a new level of continuity, taking the great traditions of cinematic art to the next dimension . 

These effects quietly add to the beauty of the experience and do not draw attention to themselves – leaving much to notice on a repeat viewing.  Where 3-D and depth of focus has so far posed an irritating distraction – as the audience instinctively yet vainly attempts to bring out of focus objects into sharper relief – Lee turns this to his advantage. 

He is a virtuoso in the use of surfaces, especially water and sky, and exploits all the possibilities offered by the format.  One sublime sequence takes place at the Piscine Molitor, a swimming pool of such beauty it is said to refresh your soul just to swim in it.  Photographed from below, the swimmers appear to be swimming in the very sky.  And when Pi is out on the water, the ambiguity of sea and sky makes for stunning visuals.

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Pi is out on the water a long time: 227 days alone with a hungry Bengal Tiger.  Or, close to half of the film’s running time.  What emerges most clearly in these scenes is the courage and spirit Pi must develop to survive, the uneasy understanding that evolves between him and the tiger, and the constant presence of the Divine.  This is most evident and spectacular through the heart of a raging tempest, in the still quiet moments of dead-calm seas, and in one manna-from heaven scene involving thousands of flying fish. 

As an adaptation of a novel considered by many ‘unfilmable’, Life of Pi is an unqualified triumph.  The film is perfectly cast and beautifully acted throughout, and captures the spirit of the novel in a series of unforgettable images.  And like the book, it leaves several mysteries unsolved.  Essential viewing. 

Prometheus: Has Scott Lost the Plot?

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Creation of Adam, hands in detail (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Marketed as something of a prequel to Alien, Ridley Scott’s visually stunning new film, Prometheus, offers some unforgettable scenes but ultimately has the recycled,  deja-vu feel of a second-grade spin off.  While it is in another class to Alien v Predator, it never comes close to the brilliance of Scott’s 1979 space-horror masterpiece.

Prometheus presents itself as a deep and searching exploration of Questions that Matter, about the origin and meaning of human life, and the nature of The Creator.  This gives the characters something to talk about, in dialogue that is generally on-the-nose, but there is nothing for the audience to engage with here.  Essentially what we have is a futuristic action-adventure.

Where Alien was a horror film at heart, set in a sci-fi world, Prometheus is less about suspense and rising action and more about constant peril, especially in the dragging third act.  It does have a slower-paced and intriguing setup, and could have made a compelling science fiction but falls far short of best of the genre.

Where Alien was based a coherent set of ideas, and premise involving well-established rules, Prometheus is a hodge-podge.   Yes it involves aliens and spaceships, but offers none of the social or human commentary of films like District 9, or Minority Report, and fits more comfortably into the typically sloppy fantasy genre, where pyramids and aliens and gods and monsters collide – think Stargate or Vin Diesel actioner Pitch Black.

Prometheus opens in prehistory, as a lone, humanoid creature, swathed in druid-like robes, walks upon an apparently barren earth and sacrifices himself to seed life.  This sequence is alone worth the price of admission, establishing an unusually discreet and effective use of 3-d which is sustained throughout.

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Moving on to the future, scientists study cave paintings and discover a pattern.  Millennia and continents apart, there is a story of a man pointing towards a distant constellation.  A corporation finances a trillion-dollar mission to explore a planet in a distant galaxy that seems to match this constellation, and search for extra-terrestrial answers to the mystery of the origins of life on earth.  They dispatch a rag-tag crew of scientists and so on to check it out.

The beginning is intriguing, and by far the best segment of the movie.  As the crew sleep in cryo-stasis, a lone man studies every known language in a successful effort to attain universal fluency.  We later discover he is an android, but this is not much of a spoiler.  He models himself on Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.  His character is perhaps the most interesting in the film, but sadly underdeveloped.

Once the ship arrives at its destination, we transition into an episodic movie lacking coherent narrative development, as plot-lines are raised and then abandoned.  Where Alien established a real space crew with real concerns (contractual obligations etc.) real routines and real relationships, the ensemble of characters in Prometheus are fairly uninteresting and lack dimension.

In any film bases its story on characters in peril, it is essential we root for the characters, and watching smart characters make smart decisions is the way to make these films compelling.  In other words, screen logic, which boils down to respect for the audience.  The trouble with Prometheus is that the mission is a gung-ho shambles, lacking scientific reasoning or any kind of protocols.  It is difficult to believe a mega-corporation would send these people so far at such expense without any kind of plan, and allow emotions and impulses to entirely take over.  Upon arrival, the corporate CEO drops a bomb, saying the boyfriend / girlfriend ‘scientists’ are in charge – not his on board corporate rep, an ice-cold Charlize Theron.  Here the ground is laid for a tremendous power struggle which never happens.

The crew enter the atmosphere of a moon which may be inhabited, or at least may once have been.  They have no survey of this moon.  For all they know there are cities, functioning or relics, all over the place.  Yet they stop and land at the first structure they see without conducting any further exploration.

At this location they make amazing discoveries which will forever change the understanding of the origins of human life.  Yet they sulk in disappointment because they cannot talk to these life forms – these are archeologists who devoted their life to studying cave paintings, and these relics should speak volumes to them.  They should be fascinated, delighted and see these things as sacred.  Yet their every move is characterized by recklessness.

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Soon after arrival, they discover perfectly preserved head of an authentic alien life form (perhaps the most beautifully rendered vision in the film).  This alone is worth the trillion dollar cost of the mission.  Do they make efforts to preserve it?  Hell no – they blow it to smithereens.   After risking their lives to retrieve it they stick electrodes in it and randomly experiment with pumping up the juice, in the hopes it will be ‘tricked into thinking it is still alive’ and speak with them.

Especially incoherent is the handling of alien life forms, with a life cycle as muddy as the black goop that pervades this film.  The goop seems to be DNA related, sometimes to the aliens and at other times to the humanoid Creators.   In Alien, an egg hatched a face hugger which attached to a host, implanting the seed of an alien which developed inside the body eventually bursting through the chest.

In Prometheus we have black goop that can be consumed in a drink form, either causing the drinker to explode and seed DNA, or transforming a human into one of these humanoid creatures.  When someone has drunk this goop and has sexual intercourse with a woman, she becomes pregnant with an Alien-like creature in her womb.  Snake like creatures also arise from this goop and extend phalluses down human throats, as does the womb-born alien which looks entirely different.  What is going on here?

All this nonsense at least provides an intense and harrowing ‘abortion’ scene where Noomi Rapace uses automatic surgery to extract the alien from her womb before it kills her.  It seems odd that, having escaped this fate, she never sees fit to inform the crew of the presence of this sinister creature which surely needs to be dealt with.

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Alien was exceptional in that it was a film about female strength, ultimately culminating in a fight between two women which the sequel more playfully cast at moments as a bitch fight.  Here refreshingly unglamorous Rapace is meant to stand in for female power, and she is brave and seemingly indestructible, but never as believable as Sigourney who was tough from the outset.  Interestingly the Creators are by all outwards appearances exclusively male, though this is never commented on or questioned by the crew.

Clearly, someone saw a great opportunity to create a money-spinner here.  In an excruciatingly dull final act beset with unnecessary and random peril (oh no, they’ve shot down the space ship but now it’s going to roll on top of them!) we are primed for a sequel which may perhaps serve to better explain some things about this film.

Prometheus offers more than the average blockbuster – audiences will find much to enjoy in the visuals, intriguing conceptions of future technologies, and some genuinely edge of the seat moments.  But in inviting inevitable comparison with Alien it is promising so much more than it even attempts to deliver.  This makes it a  frustrating and disappointing film, and although there is clearly some passion that has gone into its making I can’t help feeling Scott has lost the plot.

The Deepest Division: In the Cut, by Jane Campion

The Suez Canal crosses the Suez isthmus

The Suez Canal crosses the Isthmus (Image via Wikipedia)

Initially I was infuriated to find ‘In the Cut’ an absurd narrative constantly hinting at depths it did not possess.  Despite some quality filmmaking, including a strong performance by Mark Ruffalo and effectively murky cinematography, the premise is the tired stuff of recycled thrillers and the story so riddled with improbabilities it doesn’t mesh with the naturalistic style of the acting.

At first appearances, In the Cut is trying to be two films: a who-dunnit thriller about a serial killer, and an erotic drama founded in realism.  As a drama there is great potential, but the parts are greater than the whole, as evidenced by many memorable scenes which do little more than tease us with how good this film might have been.  Alas, the killer-thriller element keeps rearing its head, undermining the drama by killing its credibility.  In this clash of genres, it seemed to me the indisputably talented Jane Campion, who co-wrote the script with the author Susanna Moore, did not respect the reality of the world she went to such lengths to create.  To my surprise, on a second viewing, I encountered the ghostly presence of a different film altogether.

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Meg Ryan plays Frannie, a cynical teacher of English, still sexy but beginning to approach the end of her prime as an object of desire.  No longer an inexperienced young woman, she has evolved into an apparently confident and attractive woman in her forties.  Frannie is single and appears to be highly-sexed, though for reasons unexplored she has been bottling this up and has not had enough satisfying experiences in some time, if ever.  She comes across as both sexually voracious and curiously naïve, and consequently seems ripe for some form of erotic awakening.

The plot is kickstarted when Frannie, looking for the ladies room in the basement of a bar, witnesses a man enjoying a blowjob from a woman apparently possessed of (to borrow a phrase from Detective Malloy) a good ‘sense of cock’.  While both participants remain faceless, the scene is portrayed in surprisingly graphic detail usually reserved for hardcore porn.   I think the intent is to provide the visceral shock Frannie experiences stumbling on the vignette, and in this respect it is very effective, placing the viewer with her in the role of voyeur.

Frannie watches, apparently turned on by the woman’s enthusiasm and the man’s sexual confidence.  Her face gives nothing away, but we can draw this conclusion from the fact she stays to watch, and the details picked out by the subjective camerawork.  The uncertainty played up here is the identity of the man, and on a more subtle, implied level, whether he is aware of Frannie watching.  His face is obscured in shadow, whereas Frannie’s is not, and she notices a tattoo of a three of clubs on his inner wrist.

Overnight, this consensual act of pleasure is transformed into something monstrously sinister: the faceless woman becomes the headless woman, murdered and dismembered, some small part of her turning up in Frannie’s garden.  This provides her second link to the killer, and also brings the inappropriate and rude detective Malloy to her door – probably the sanest character we encounter in Frannie’s New York.

Frannie is suspicious of his unexpected arrival and makes Malloy wait outside while she verifies his identity.  This is the one time she acts in the interests of her own safety – for the rest of the movie it seems she will allow any man access to her apartment – and while she places the phonecall, it is unclear if she actually waits for verification before letting him in.  Malloy tells her of the murder and ‘disarticulation’, and she notices the tattoo on his inner wrist: a three of clubs.

While she makes no acknowledgement of the implications of Malloy’s tattoo, ‘disarticulation’ is a word Frannie, who lives in a world of language, considers important enough to write down.  It describes pulling apart at the joints, and linguistically suggests other meanings, standing in opposition to the root, ‘articulate’: the notion of clear communication.  Malloy proceeds to hit on Frannie, eventually asking her to a bar on the pretext of looking for clues.

Frannie is clearly intrigued by Malloy, in part because she identifies him with the man in the basement.  We are privy to a masturbation scene where she fantasizes about Malloy as the faceless man, suggesting she projects herself into the role of his female counterpart.  But when she learns Angela Sands has been murdered and decapitated, does Frannie begin a more dangerous fantasy, projecting herself into the role of murder victim?  She never gives us a clue.

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I had to wonder, could the victims possibly be as disjointed as Frannie?  She repeatedly fails to deal with stalker “ex-boyfriend” (they had sex twice), John Graham, who waits outside her window, approaches her in the street, lets himself into her apartment and awaits her in bed.   She allows suspect men to drive her around the city, and when John seems to be the likely killer she doesn’t mention this to anyone.

He approaches her outside her apartment, agitated and talking about asking her sister Pauline out on a date, whereon she leaves him to find Pauline brutally murdered.  The murderer brought two knives because he knew the texture of human bone.  John is training to be a doctor.  If it strikes Frannie there might be a connection she says nothing about it, instead continuing to work her way through a series of encounters with virtually all the murder suspects.

On the level of realism, Frannie is frustratingly illogical, a poor judge of situations who apparently can’t tell a good man from a homicidal maniac and has no regard for her own safety.  It is left for the viewer to try to construct some explanation for her behavior.  One possibility is that the danger of being murdered is some kind of turn-on, but the rest of her reactions are so inconsistent it seems more likely she is just wandering around in something approaching a stupor.  Perhaps she is on tranquillizers, perhaps she is so jaded that she has to turn sex into a near-death experience to feel anything, perhaps both.  We are entirely left to guess.

I can’t help but wonder, how did Meg Ryan feel, faced with the challenge of approaching this character?  I imagine given the screenplay, she may also have struggled to grasp Frannie’s motivations.  My guess is, she went for the only safe interpretation: to make her as opaque as possible.  That is not to say Frannie is entirely flat, just inaccessible: Ryan manages to flesh her out a little with intelligence, tough-talk and a tangible vulnerability.

The frequently crude Malloy is a more touchable character.  He is highly sexed and thinks he recognizes a familiar in Frannie, hence his attraction.  His approach to her in the bar is direct and unpatronizing, so it is certainly articulate and in its way respectful, if suggesting to a woman the kind of things you’d like to do to her can be respectful.  Malloy’s seduction technique consists of putting himself at her service, for whatever sex, romance or even platonic intimacy she desires.  He suggests he is experienced and knows things, eventually living up to that promise, but it transpires that his attraction, while initially sexual, is based in a longing for something deeper.

When Frannie asks Malloy about his tattoo, he says it means he belongs to a club.  But when he denies being in the basement with murdered girl, seemingly implicating himself further, it either does not occur to Frannie, or for unknown reasons seems to be irrelevant, to ask who else might belong to this club.  Malloy later says caring for Frannie is making him a bad cop, and too right.  Whoever the killer is, there is some unquestionable link with Frannie, yet there is never any attempt at a methodical exploration of potential suspects.

Malloy’s partner comes crashing in on their ‘date’ and commences some male-bonding followed by gross sexist banter, leaving Frannie trying to negotiate her position in high heels and a flirty dress.  This throws us headlong into what I now believe is the true subject of In the Cut: prevailing undercurrent of the ‘gender-wars’.  Between Rodriguez’s rudeness and Malloy’s intuitive alliance with him – closing off his attention, which was trained exclusively on Frannie only moments ago, to join in demeaning banter casting women as literal sex objects – Frannie is driven out.  Malloy in this scene is a product of a culture which sets men against women in a stratified battle of the sexes where the love is the hallmark of a victim not a winner.

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Rodriguez at one point asks Frannie if she knows what an Isthmus is.  She doesn’t answer, but it is a narrow strip of land dividing two bodies of water.  Frequently, to connect the two, a canal has to be made.  In this movie, it is as though men and women are two bodies of water divided by an Isthmus.  They are always trying to cross the divide with sex, but ill-equipped to do so with friendship or love.  Consequently sex and gender is consistently placed before humanity in every interaction.

Take Frannie’s sister Pauline, certainly the warmest character in the film.  Working in and living over a tittie bar called the Baby Doll, she is half-mad for love, besotted with a married doctor who has taken out a restraining order, yet still optimistically giving Frannie relationship advice.  Jennifer Jason Leigh is excellent and fittingly tragic in the role.  Pauline makes 11 appointments with her doctor, and steals his tan suit from the dry cleaner, commenting ‘this is what I do to get a dick inside me’.  Yet that is an aim easily achieved by any half-presentable woman, and Pauline’s desperation is for a less temporary connection.  Her mistake, in keeping with the rest of the film, is to confuse sex with the intimacy and loyalty she really craves.

The half-sisters are tied together by a father who always mistreated women.  Frannie is half-obsessed with a story her mother told about the day she met him.  It is supposed to be a great romance, with her dashing father proposing to her beautiful mother middle of a skating pond.  But we sense Frannie has been polluted from the start, as this charming vignette also involves him ditching his disposable fiancé and using the same engagement ring to propose to her mother.  Only to dispose of her further down the road.  It is not until the end of the film Frannie’s fantasy is destroyed perhaps offering her greater hope.

Pauline merely wishes he’d married her mother, wondering if a husband is too much to ask for in life.  She gives Frannie a charm bracelet – a ‘courtship fantasy’, with a little wedding bell, a house, and a baby carriage.  Fantasy is right word, because both women view these things as something unattainable.  The tender and loving scenes between the two women are among the most affecting in the film, illustrating how intimacy is more easily achieved once sex is removed from the equation.

When Frannie says to Pauline, ‘I admire you, you live out your unconscious’, to me this became a key to unlocking the movie, the idea that many of the ‘events’ are a depiction more of Frannie’s inner world than anything else.  While there is little in the tone or presentation of the film to suggest this, it suddenly begins to works if we accept that rather than being a thriller or a realistic drama, most elements are symbolic, the murders particularly so.  Viewing ‘In The Cut’ as a psychological fantasy loaded with symbolism, each element of mis-en-scene and each line of dialogue seems a meticulously placed exploration of male and female insecurity leading to inevitable isolation and loneliness.  Even Frannie’s character begins to make sense.

Love is a battleground.  When Frannie is driven past women in the streets, they are running, or dressed in combat gear.  Student Cornelius (the name means ‘horned’), claims to have ‘bitch vision’ and describes Frannie as an Amazon.  When he holds up the money he owes her from the bar tab, she flinches as if she’s being taken for a prostitute.  Later, he describes serial killer John-Wayne Gacy as a victim, of desire.

Visually the film offers a floaty world of ambers and blacks, often in shallow focus.  It is lush and obscure, with the woozy feel of insobriety.  Amidst this confusion, symbolism abounds, a strange wedding party on the subway, a comically phallic image of a lighthouse, and a funeral wreath the size of a person reading ‘MOM’.  When Frannie’s father eventually left her mother, according to Frannie, he ‘killed’ her.  He has the same modus operandi as our serial killer: he offers women engagement rings and then disposes of them.  In the case of the murderer, it is as if the unfulfilled need for love has driven him insane.  He is the embodiment of women’s fear of being disposable.

In the danger of crossing Isthmus, fear of emasculation is a major obstacle: we learn Rodriguez tried to kill his wife, so they took away his ‘gun’ turning him into a ‘house mouse’.  What triggered his violent outburst?  She messed with his San Juan Man of the Year Award.  Malloy describes his initial panic in a sexual encounter with an older woman, realizing “she’s a real woman… she’s got pubic hair… I want to get the hell out of there”.  Homophobia is another divisive byproduct of this fear, Malloy commenting he “had to park on C Street, with 100 fucking faggots looking to suck my dick”, and becoming self-conscious about his soft, “faggot hands”.

Tenderness is considered at odds with masculinity, but Malloy is braver and perhaps more ‘feminine’ than Frannie in this respect, daring to tell her a little thing like “I missed you.”  When he takes her to a park and tries to kiss her, she goes for his belt-buckle, prompting his response, “you’re here for the sex, right?  You wouldn’t go nowhere with me I didn’t fuck you”.  His crude come-on line casts some light on the choice that is on offer: “you want me to romance you, take you to a classy restaurant, no problem.  You want me to be your best friend and fuck you, treat you good, lick your pussy, no problem.”

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The elements are all in place for a searing jndictment of the tragic cultural disarticulation that exists between men and women in present day America.  We are shown a world in which the basic human need for love has been relegated to the extent that all attempts at connection have become corrupted, with most of the characters resorting to out-in-the cold positions of stalking, voyeurism or assault, where courtship or even the seemingly impossible, friendship, should be.  Because there is an important choice, where gender is concerned, from which flows everything that follows.  Either men and women are first and foremost people, and gender comes second, or it is the division, the cut, which comes first.

There are certainly enough clues to make a complex reading of the movie on this level.  But I can’t help feeling the film is more rewarding to analyze than it is to watch, and we are ultimately left to extrapolate the film Campion might have put on the screen.  Somehow, In the Cut never quite made it into the can.

Silence Fell… with a “Bang!” – The Artist

The Artist takes a risky and intriguing concept, and attacks it with an overwhelming passion for cinema and a great sense of fun.  In the process, the filmmakers create an innocent crowd-pleaser most contemporary blockbusters can’t hold a candle to for entertainment value or charm. 

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There was a real danger that making a silent movie in for 21st Century could have been a gimmicky one-note joke, even an out-and-out disaster.  While the filmmakers draw inspiration from the past and the project is inevitably nostalgia-laden, the decision to make a silent film in 2011 is really a radical act, and on this account The Artist could not afford to be even a partial failure.  Thankfully the film has been beautifully conceived and executed, from the screenplay through the casting, production design, cinematography, acting and editing.

If silence is a virtue, the virtue in this case is to effect a return to the essential qualities of cinema as a unique artform, distinct from literature, and in particular from television.  Without sound, the filmmakers are forced to rely on visual storytelling: the power of the close-up, the composition of the frame, the rhythm of the editing, a sequence of moving images captured through a lens, no more and no less.   Consequently everything about this movie is bold.

The plot will be familiar stuff to classic movie fans, the story of a silent movie star at the peak of his career who finds himself on the fast-track to down-and-out, going from man-of-the-moment to obsolete relic in a heartbeat, with the advent of talking pictures.  Meanwhile, a young ingénue with a voice rises to stardom.  Expect a rise and fall complete with dancing elephants and burning filmstock, an abundance of laughs, and of course a romance.

Perhaps the most unexpected delight of The Artist is that it is so playful, thanks in no small part to director Michel Hazanavicius, who had so much fun with Dujardin on the OSS117 series of French spy-spoofs.  The filmmakers play endlessly with the muted concept, replete with sight-gags (including a backstage sign reading ‘Silence Please’), inter-titles such as ‘we need to talk’, and at one point a wickedly clever use of the single word “Bang!”  The few occasions where synchronized sounds are used in the film, in a dream sequence and in the very final scene, are hilarious.

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Countless times The Artist descends into melodrama without losing its touch: everything is Dramatic, but nothing is overdone.  With a tone that is frequently airy light, warm and almost giddy, where Scorcese’s Hugo resorts to slapstick The Artist offers a more sophisticated take on physical comedy: it is all about the art of the gag.  Watch closely and you will see what a fantastic grasp the filmmakers and the editor in particular have on that key concept, ‘comedy is timing’.  In this respect, the editing is pitch-perfect, each sequence a masterclass.

Of course movie is not silent in the purest sense; there is music throughout – silent films just aren’t very engaging without it, and there are severe technical challenges to exhibiting a soundless movie.  During the few dead-silent moments, you quickly become aware that cinemas are not sound-proof, especially if there is a thundering bassy score to compete with from the actioner next door.  I have seen The Artist twice, once in a packed cinema where the audience reaction added its own element to the soundtrack, and once in a deserted cinema which changed the experience slightly.  Though it was excellent both times this film is a special joy to see with a full theatre audience, as it is so much a film about audiences.

The opening sequence, which take place at the premiere of George Valentin’s latest film, is particularly powerful.  It had to be.  It is here the film lays out a contract with the audience and tells them what they can expect from the rest of the movie.  To this end we are assured of a degree of complexity to the storytelling, lush cinematography, and above all entertainment.  I loved the opening shots, which use the silver screen to create the centerpiece of a multi-leveled scenario, dividing the theatre where an engrossed audience laps up George’s every flourish, and the backstage, where the actors and filmmakers anxiously await the moment they can step forward to take their bows.

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George’s film, an adventure-romance, is excellently constructed and camply hilarious, accompanied by audience reaction playing in beautiful shots, with perfect composition and rich depth.  As the film-within-a-film reaches a frenzy of suspense, the filmmakers cut to the expressions of the audience, implying a delightful surprise on the screen but leaving the details to our imagination.  Here as in other places, it’s all about the faces.   Successful portrayals of cinemas on film can be especially powerful (think Cinema Paradiso) and this stands with the best of them as an entirely worthy love letter to cinema.

The grandiose cinematography is frequently reminiscent of Citizen Kane, not only through the use of outmoded multi-layered montages, but through the use of contrast – of scale, of light and dark, of foreground and background.  It really stands on a par visually with that film.  When it is not light and jazzy, the music provides an emotive and sensationalist score that might have come from the 1940s, there’s excess a-plenty but handled skillfully enough that it never grates.

As a film of faces, we are given many to enjoy: notably James Cromwell as George’s faithful chauffer, and John Goodman as a growling teddy-bear of a producer.   But the casting masterstroke has to be the pairing of Dujardin and Bejo (as rising star Peppy Miller) for the beguiling leads.  Both actors bring dazzling physical presences and offer an abundance of radiant million-dollar smiles, nuanced glances and charismatic, high energy performances.   They are a pleasure to watch.

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This is a very physical film, reveling in the poetry of motion, and almost has the feeling of a dancical – a fascinating genre of film that exists mostly in my imagination.    We have a great routine involving a ‘disembodied’ pair of legs, and a beautiful scene where Peppy sneaks into George’s dressing room and crafts a fantasy lover out of his coat and top-hat.  Describing it cannot do it justice, it really has to be seen, but it is moving and funny and exquisite all at once.  Two other dance scenes act as bookends for the romance between Peppy and George.  And there is an Oscar-worthy turn from little dog Uggie – refusing to be outshone even by Dujardin he hams it up with the best of them, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Asta, the terrier-star in Bringing Up Baby, Topper and many other comedy classics.

Light as it is, is the film shallow?  I don’t think so.  But it is a simple pleasure, and a bona-fide melodrama, dishing up a naïve love story in which our heroine loves our hero from the beginning through to end.  Peppy is the emotional core of the film, and the tension between her and Valentin is a factor of his wounded pride.   He is a man who really doesn’t exist without an audience.  When she goes to watch his final flop of a movie and it moves her to tears, we really believe she is in love with him, and wish she could be audience enough.  After a fire in which George is nearly killed, she goes to visit him in the hospital, clinging to the only piece of film he saved from the fire, outtakes from a dance sequence that tell the truth about his heart.

As two Oscar-nominated films looking back reverentially at the roots of cinema, comparisons with Hugo are inevitable.  Simply put, The Artist outshines Scorcese’s movie.  Where Hugo looks back in a studied way at they hey-day of the Lumieres and Melies contrasting these with the advent of 3D, The Artist takes the opposite tack to suggest that audiences have not changed as much as films have since the heyday of the silent era. *UPDATE* Pablo Berger’s gorgeous 2012 silent movie, Biancanieves (Snow White) makes a more interesting comparison and is arguably ‘purer’, less meta and self-referential than the Artist.

Is this a film for the ADD generation?  Difficult to say, but anyone who truly loves the movies will find much to enjoy here, no effort or training required.  Hollywood, let this be a lesson: if it can effect a return to well-crafted, thoughtful, populist filmmaking, then silence really can be a virtue.

Français : Jean Dujardin au festival de Cannes

Well may he smile… Dujardin at Cannes (Image via Wikipedia)

Bloody Genius: Quills, at the Cotuit Center for the Arts

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Image via Wikipedia

        Back in springtime, before the dune roses were out, I noticed The Cotuit Center for the Arts was planning an October production of Doug Wright’s play, Quills, about the Marquis de Sade – if you aren’t familiar with his work, The Marquis is the man sadism was named for.  I’d seen the excellent movie version (starring Geoffrey Rush), charting the increasingly extreme methods employed by an asylum doctor and a young priest to stop the Marquis penning his scandalously pornographic, violent brand of literature.  It’s racy, compelling stuff.

Billed as ‘a provocative theatrical experience for mature audiences’ featuring graphic language, nudity, and, erm, ‘situations’, this was a refreshingly risky proposition for local theatre on Cape Cod, and I’d been looking forward to seeing if they could pull it off, so to speak.  When I took my seat it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, because something told me this production had to be either be a gutsy hit or a cringe-worthy shambles.

I read somewhere that the state of suspense can cause terrible stress, so to alleviate that I’ll cut right to the chase with a theatrical cliché – the play is a triumph.  Wright’s excellent and award-winning script was treated to a most engaging and effective staging, by turns bawdy, funny, dark, thought-provoking and surprising, with never a dull moment.  As well as being thoroughly juicy, Quills is meditation on the nature of morality, art and hypocrisy, with wit, irony and contemporary relevance to spare.

If you are able to catch it in its final days, here are some of the more lurid treats in store:

Salacious storytelling

The entire second act performed in the nude by the Marquis

Oral sex

A cacophony of lunatics echoing cries of ‘Succulent oyster, succulent oyster, succulent oyster…’ (this was the only moment that reminded me I was on Cape Cod)

Dismemberment

Necrophilia

A devil with three a three-pronged schlong

A killer ending

Fun and games aside, the play functions on two levels as a morality tale, one focusing on freedom of expression, oppression and the accountability of the artist, and the other centering on the idealistic Priest and his ultimate corruption.

This second tale is brought about by his weak-minded concessions to the manipulation of an unscrupulous authority figure, and calls to mind atrocities committed under the Nazi Regime and countless others, a phenomenon documented in the notorious 1960s Milgram Experiments on obedience to authority.  We chart the naïve priest’s decline into inhuman cruelty and eventually insanity in the name of a cause, in this case God.  As this once gentle man begins to relish acts of cruelty like a true Sadian protagonist, his moral disfigurement is revealed as a byproduct of the suppression of the darker impulses of his nature which the Marquis gives such free reign.  Yes, it’s that old chestnut, where lies the true nature of humanity?

Imaginatory portrait of the Marquis de Sade
Image via Wikipedia

Where the play enters a discussion on art and censorship there are no easy answers, and when a crazed fan reenacts scenes from the Marquis’ fiction upon a flesh-and-blood victim there is no doubting that art has consequences.  The Marquis himself is given a secret heart of gold and an irrepressible spirit, and though hinted at in the opening, his past atrocities are largely glossed over (he felt his blue blood gave him the right to murder those of lower castes for sheer pleasure).  The intent here is not biographical but allegorical, so the nature of authorship and it’s relation to audience is rightfully given more weight than posthumous attempts at character evaluation.

Firs page from Justine (Justine ou les malheur...

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The play makes the most of a small cast of characters, brought to life with solid performances and a florid delivery.  Aside from the excellent Marquis we have the Doctor, trying to assuage his beautiful wife’s infidelity by building her a luxurious chateau, the architect he employs to spend his ever diminishing fortunes, and the Marquis’ wife.  She literally holds the purse-strings here, longing desperately to walk down the street ‘without falling debris’, lose the moniker of Satan’s Bride, and become the toast of that ‘fickle mistress’ Parisian Society – all impossible as long as the Marquis continues to publish.  There is also a nubile chambermaid who relishes the Marquis’ fiction after a hard day’s work, gleefully reveling in its wildest excesses alongside her mother (this lye-blind washerwoman remains an off-stage character as do the other lunatics that populate the asylum).

Perhaps most impressive was the staging, which made great use of the small space available, working in all three dimensions and employing excellent sound design to exploit the possibilities of suggested space off-stage.  There was also clever use of lighting to emulate effects more common to the cinema such as split-screen and intercutting.  Quills is presented in the gothic tradition of the Grand Guinol, the ghost-train of the theatre world, complete with mechanical rats.

There are several moments near the end of Quills which might make a suitable ending, but I was longing for it to go out with a bang I was not disappointed; the play satisfies with an unexpected and sensational climax, courtesy of effects director Richard Archer.  Quills runs until October 23rd and is accompanied by an art exhibition, sadly little time remains to see it.  Kudos to the cast and crew, the playwright and especially to those in charge of programming at the Cotuit Center for the Arts.

Lost in the Jungle of Mortality: Tree of Life by Terence Malick

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                Requesting tickets to Tree of Life, I was offered the following caveat – ‘I just want you to know, before you buy the tickets, this movie doesn’t really have any kind of story, it’s very slow and arty, more or less abstract really, so if you’re looking for entertainment or a plot you might want to pick a different movie’.  The last time I experienced anything like this was on the DVD for Tidelands, when beleaguered and evidently paranoid director Terry Gilliam introduced his work by way of an unwarranted 10-minute apology.

‘Wow, you really know how to sell it’, I said, ‘I’ll take three please, before my friends change their minds.  Do your movies always come with a disclaimer?’

‘It’s just that so many people have asked for their money back’, explained the teenage clerk, ‘I wanted you to know what to expect.’

Apparently people had been demanding refunds all week, on the shaky grounds that they didn’t like the movie.  I’d have been less surprised if I’d been at the mall, but I was at the Nickelodeon, known for showing independent movies and as close to an arthouse cinema as anything the mid-Cape has to offer.  In theory, this is where people go to seek out filmmakers of uncompromising vision.  Yet they found it appropriate and necessary to preface Malick’s latest film with a lame pseudo-apology.

In my world, a new movie by Terence Malick is a major event.  Considered by some a master of cinema, he is a bold visual filmmaker with a rare ability to capture the tiniest ephemera that form the tapestry of life, and the vast forces capable of tearing it apart. Malick made two films in the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, taking an extraordinary 20 year hiatus before returning with 1998’s The Thin Red Line.  Notoriously private, a certain mystique has evolved around his career and personal life.  I was already excited to hear that Tree of Life was on release, and determined to catch it on the big screen it was made for.  I was now desperately curious to see it.

*****

As the story begins – yes, there is a story – we are introduced to the O’Brien family through a moment of great personal loss, the death of one of three brothers shattering their world through a familiar, almost clichéd, telegram scenario.  We are shown moments of drama, already presented as something of a montage: the father, struggling to hear the news above the din of plane propellers, and the look on his face when he finally comprehends; the efforts of neighbors to console the inconsolable mother or stoic father; the young sons climbing the tree in their back yard.  These are religious people in the age of the traditional Nuclear Family, when a man was a provider and disciplinarian and a woman was a wife and mother, and in this case a source of ethereal beauty.

The impressionistic opening doesn’t stray too far from the conventions of cinema, but I didn’t have to wait long before it became apparent where Malick loses a chunk of his audience.  And it is exactly this passage where the film enters the realms of the extraordinary and spectacular, or for some, the grandiose and pretentious:

Out of blackness emerges a shifting, luminous shape, a nebula cloud perhaps, which could equally represent the creator.   In a sequence reminiscent of Olaf Stapleton’s novel Starmaker, we have time to absorb and contemplate each successive image as we move through a bold sequence lasting 12 minutes, which uses pure montage and lush abstracted imagery in an attempt to show us nothing less than God, the cosmos, the creation of Earth, and the evolution of life.  Though similar conceptual ground was covered in a sequence in Adaptation for one, the ambition and scale is entirely different here, as is the role of the viewer.

It is not just the length of the montage which proves initially disconcerting, but the time we are ‘abandoned’ to contemplation of each individual image.   Watching the abstract requires entering a different mindstate, both meditative & receptive, and the effect is almost Brechtian as we realize this is no short segment but a major chapter of the film.  If you can make this perceptual shift and allow the visuals to wash over you, the imagery is entirely successful.  There has perhaps been nothing like it since the Stargate sequence in 2001, which to my mind it far exceeds in beauty & coherence.

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I’ve worked in abstract filmmaking and found it easy to appreciate the fantastic richness and composition of the images, especially the way the production manages to preserve an organic appearance almost throughout.  I was interested to see that my two friends – one forever in search of the unique and challenging and one whose tastes tend more to the mainstream – were each able to appreciate and enjoy these passages.

In many ways, Tree of Life is a companion piece to The Thin Red Line, sharing various stylistic techniques and thematic preoccupations.  Often heralded as a masterpiece in its own right, The Thin Red Line deals with the beauty of life and the incomprehensible horrors of war, and may even have been something of a warm-up piece for Tree of Life (in his 20-year career ‘break’, Malick reportedly had been developing a project known as Q which in time became Tree of Life).  In both films, Malick is attempting to communicate a sense of awe with nature and creation, and mortal humans’ eternal search for meaning in the face of overwhelming and seemingly impartial forces.  While both are successful in terms of the imagery, Tree of Life is especially stunning in its scope.

Where the extravagant visuals offer pure cinematic pleasure, and the music is at least adequate, what is less successful is the use of voice-over, which plays like a weak rehash of the The Thin Red Line.  When I first saw that film I cringed through the voice over, which felt like a cheesy device masquerading as something far deeper, though I’ve warmed to it a little in subsequent viewings.  In Tree Of Life, the voice-over takes on a similar role – lost, sad voices, asking big, generalistic questions directed seemingly at God, if indeed God is in residence: “Lord, why?”  “Where are you?” etc…  While it gets the point across, it is by way of an over-earnest sledgehammer, and though I hate to say it, lazy filmmaking.  I’m not sure what else he could have done, but I wish he’d come up with a different solution.

This open vagueness is at least in keeping with his thematic interests both as a filmmaker and in this film in particular – of the universal vs. the specific, the fleeting vs. the eternal, in essence the big vs. the small.  While the specific is present in every unfolding detail of the family’s life, it emerges in this sequence only through the potentially distracting dinosaurs which are given two very odd ‘cameos’.

In one a large dinosaur encounters a smaller dinosaur, possibly injured and apparently hiding, and steps on his head in an almost comical fashion.   Apparently capable of crushing the smaller dinosaur, he (a relevant gender assumption) does this again and again, asserting his alpha-dominance over the vulnerable other in an encounter which is tense yet ultimately tender in the alpha’s care not to cause real damage.  This scene parallels the interaction between the brothers and also the father as it develops later.

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In another odd vignette a dinosaur stands fatally injured on the shore, bleeding red into the water in the aftermath of an attack.  The dinosaur’s reaction seems to be one of confusion, as the hapless creature attempts to lick or even eat the flesh about the cavernous wound.  In a sense this is a dino-equivalent of so many moments in The Thin Red Line where characters meet their unexpected demise with a bewilderment that is somehow touching.

One of my friends who adored the film felt the dinosaurs were the worst part, as one of the few places that calls attention to the digital effects, yet the strangeness of their interaction made them more realistic than others we’ve seen and serves to link the common experience of life and death throughout all evolved species – ultimately suggesting that the question asked of ‘God’ was being asked wordlessly and without any concept of god, since the beginning of intelligent consciousness.

Malick goes on to present us with a smorgasbord of intimate family moments as bubbles in the ocean of time.  Each is unique yet speaks of universal human experience, and the environment figures as a major character throughout.  The family home and surrounding neighborhood, a lovingly rendered 1950s idyll, throws into sharp relief adult Jack’s overwhelming sterile cathedral of a work place, and modernist home.  My friend who grew up in the 1950s says it reminded him of the ‘golden age’, though I imagine Malick chose this era not because it represented some lost American ideal but because it captures the world of his own childhood.

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As the film progresses, the flaws in paradise are revealed.  As the children literally frolic in DDT, we see clearly how the defined gender roles of the time provide stability and closeness on the one hand, yet limit the possibilities for freedom and authentic spiritual relationships.  While underpinned by love the relationship between the parents is somewhat sterile, and their relationships with the children are troubled as they grow increasingly alienated, the father eventually approaching the status of tyrant.

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There is solid acting and insightful examination of gender-based interactions: brother-father, brother-brother, mother-son and husband-wife. Yet one thing is lacking in a film that attempts so honest an exploration of human relationships, and that is the sex.  Where is it?  Is it not part of the tree of life?  I’m not suggesting we see the main characters or indeed the dinosaurs getting it on, but it’s a strangely sexless world inhabited here.  Traces we see are limited to the Mother as archetype, the sexual evidence provided by babies and a walk-on girlfriend, a certain discomfort between the parents and the children that seems related to sexuality, and the boys approaching puberty and the ensuing oedipal confusion.  Somehow leaving us to fill in all the blanks doesn’t seem in keeping with the approach of the film.

This is a film replete with riddles.  Events occur in the family’s life that are sometimes ambiguous, and we float freely (as does the camera) between memories, dreams, and the subconscious world.  Surviving brother Jack (Sean Penn) seems to be the main character, but it is unclear who’s mind, if any, we are in at any given point.  Most troubling is a beach scene that plays as The Afterlife but looks like a family gathering for the shell-shocked or Valium-popping, as characters mill about gormlessly.   Here Jack seems to be the dreamer or newly-dead, because everyone else is aged as though drawn from some moment lodged in his memory.  Yet the importance of his perspective in the narrative seems arbitrary.

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Whether this scene is meant to be symbolic or literally transport events onto a spiritual plane is one of many questions posed about religion.  The film takes a Christian perspective because this family happen to be Christian, but does it go deeper than that?  It is left for the audience to take what they will, but in the opening we hear Mrs O’Brien discussing two ways, the way of Nature and the way of Grace.  According to her, the way of nature is the lower, and the way of grace, of imposition of human will onto nature, represents the higher path.  But contrasting the inherent magnificence of nature with the petty property borders imposed by Mr O’Brien on the family’s yard, we have to question this.  As Mrs. O’Brien helpfully informs us, unless you love, your life will flash by.   And love, be it grace or nature, shines through here as the great animating force.

Magnificent?  Pretentious?  Awe-Inspiring? Grandiose?  Ground-breaking?  Facile?  Success or failure, one word defines this work: risky.  It is only in the voice-over that Malick attempts to create a safety net and arguably compromises his vision.  One can look for similar ambition in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyanisquattsi, or the work of Tarkovsky or Herzog.  Whatever we feel about their films, we need filmmakers like these because they are unafraid try to capture the awesome beauty of this world on film, however presumptuous that may be.