Archive for December 2006

Pan’s Labyrinth

December 29, 2006

pans-labyrinth-400a03201The Mexican fantasist Guillermo del Toro has two careers. In Hollywood, he makes diverting but ultimately callow fare like Blade II and Hellboy. Back home, he crafts dark, thoughtful fables like Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and now Pan’s Labyrinth. I much prefer del Toro’s Mexican work, away from Hollywood bean-counters who would insist on stripping the fairy-tale illogic from his films. “What’s the deal with all the fascists?” they might say. “Can’t the thing with eyes in his palms be nice? And why does it have to be in Spanish?”

Set after the Spanish Civil War, when Franco was sending troops into the hills to smoke out any remaining rebels, Pan’s Labyrinth presents humanity at its cruellest and kindest. This is a world in which a little girl can stick a living mandrake root in a bowl of milk, put it under her ailing mother’s bed, and feed it with her own blood so that her mom can get better. It is also a world in which a sadistic captain shows a prospective torture victim which tools he plans to use, and at which point in the proceedings his victim’s confession will finally be convincing. Crudely put, Pan’s Labyrinth is Schindler’s List meets MirrorMask, in which the reality an imaginative girl seeks to escape through fantasy is harsh and foul, and sometimes the fantasy is, too.

Carmen (Ariadna Gil) is pregnant with the child of the aforementioned sadist, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), who has insisted that she be delivered to the mill he and his men are protecting. Carmen brings her daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a 12-year-old girl from Carmen’s previous marriage to a now-deceased tailor. Ofelia hates her stepfather and hates that her beloved mother is stuck with him, but she loves her future brother, who hears Ofelia’s stories in the womb. Ofelia encounters some buzzing insectoid creatures, who soon resolve themselves into fairies out of one of Ofelia’s books, and eventually they lead her into an enchanted labyrinth ruled by a growling faun. Here she receives three tasks, as if her life weren’t complicated enough.

Del Toro constructs Pan’s Labyrinth as two states of being, not always in opposition. The various creatures Ofelia meets, especially the ghastly one sitting at a banquet table just waiting for a hungry little girl to steal some grapes, are meant to be as terrifying as the ruthless fascist soldiers. Women are pushed around by males both human and inhuman. There’s a sliver of hope in Captain Vidal’s housekeeper Mercedes (the excellent Maribel Verdú, from Y Tu Mamá Tambien), whose sympathy lies with the rebels. Is Ofelia’s fantasy world real, or just in her head? It’s real to her, and it’s made real to us by virtue of its very unpleasantness. This is a fantasia only a traumatized little girl — or a director fascinated with monsters with horns and monsters in jackboots — could weave.

The movie will probably strike some viewers as needlessly ugly and violent. I suppose we really didn’t need the scene of a man’s mouth widened by a knife, and the subsequent scene wherein he stitches the wound in horror-movie close-up, not to mention the detail of his sipping a shot of whiskey that leaks out. Some of Pan’s Labyrinth is almost punitively painful; these Mexican directors, like Alfonso Cuarón in Children of Men and Alejandro González Iñárritu in Babel, spray the camera lens with gore (literally, in Cuarón’s case) in the sanguinary Catholic tradition of a lot of Mexican art. Del Toro’s fairy tales are red in tooth and claw; those who seek fizzier, stomach-calming seltzer at the movies are advised to look elsewhere. Others, like me, will surrender gratefully to the black and bloody enchantment. 5

Children of Men

December 25, 2006

The theme of 2006 could have been “Children of Orwell” — not just on the world stage but in cinemas, which gave us such bleak visions as V for Vendetta, The Road to Guantanamo, and Children of Men. The latter is a technically virtuosic, if slightly overpraised, parable in which futuristic Britain “soldiers on” despite worldwide infertility. It’s 2027, and the maternity wards have been silent for eighteen years; the last human to have been born has been knifed to death, and the world mourns, though one character pegs him (probably accurately) as “a wanker.” Still, as hope goes, so goes the world, which has collapsed into general chaos. But then, from the throngs of illegal immigrants, emerges hope for the future: a pregnant woman.

Children of Men has been streamlined from P.D. James’ elegantly composed novel into an action-thriller that speaks the abrupt, clattering language of war movies and dispenses with the usual flashy dystopian visions. This is “soft” science fiction, beginning with a dire premise and avoiding hardware in favor of the humanity affected by the premise. Our stubbly hero, corporate drone Theo Faron (Clive Owen), is content to shuffle about, lukewarm coffee in hand, as the universe disintegrates around him. Fate, and the plot, have different designs in mind for Theo: he’s pressed into service by a revolutionary group — whose number includes his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) — to help deliver the aforementioned pregnant woman, with the rather on-the-nose name Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), to safe harbor.

As directed by the gifted Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mamá Tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), the movie scarcely pauses to take in its own depressed trappings; the clutter and violence are never rubbed in our faces — they’re just part of the texture, taken as a given. Such shout-outs to the current age as Abu Ghraib hoods and vans marked “Homeland Security” are only glimpsed, providing a backdrop of dread. But the story, whittled down by Cuarón and four other writers, ends up not saying much about the world it presents. It sprints with enviable momentum — it certainly never gets bogged down. But it feels like a hunk of fat-free narrative carved off of a larger and more thoughtful vision.

That said, Children of Men offers a wealth of diversions, starting with Michael Caine, happily tucking his scenes into his shirt pocket, as an aging hippie with an abundance of weed and a box of government-produced suicide pills called Quietus, just in case. Caine’s final, slyly defiant scene is all the more effective for unfolding entirely in long shot. Alfonso Cuarón’s technique here is to hide his technique. Many critics have justly geeked out over the phenomenal sequence set inside a car during a particularly brutal and bloody chase; most of it is over before you’re aware that the whole thing has been captured in one unbroken camera move. Cuarón works hard to deromanticize combat, giving us the random pops and cracks of a war zone, the bullets spiderwebbing the soundtrack with an angry hum. Even during the movie’s most overtly redemptive sequence, we can still just barely catch a rapt onlooker in the background as he or she falls to a stray bullet.

I think I prefer P.D. James’ quieter take on the same material, but Cuarón’s Children of Men is its own rough beast, slouching towards a literal Bethlehem where the first infant in eighteen years emerges into the world limp, as if acquiescing to the hopelessness of her surroundings, and then shakes herself alive and emits a sound no one has heard in a generation. This sound even hushes soldiers in the midst of battle (Cuarón handles this deftly; it isn’t the Shawshank Redemption “everyone stands around speechless and looking stupid” moment it could’ve been). Children of Men is a taut story well-told, a perfectly good movie mistaken for great by critics who’ve been deprived of perfectly good movies all year. Don’t let them oversell it or inflate it: it does the job, it does it well, and the fact that it’s being called a masterpiece for doing so speaks unwell of the current state of movies.

Curse of the Golden Flower

December 21, 2006

After Hero and House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou’s blend of pomp and pulp is coming dangerously close to self-parody. Curse of the Golden Flower is, as usual, ravishing to look at, but it seems to be put together solely so that Zhang can assemble hundreds of people in stately rows, all scurrying in unison to serve their Emperor and Empress. Scores of servants line up for no more exciting reason than to deliver herbal remedies to the anemic Empress (Gong Li), and her ritualistic regimen verges on comical: She swigs one potion, places the cup daintily on a platter, swigs another potion, does the same with that cup, then sips some mouthwash and swishes that around before spitting it into a bowl behind one upraised, gold-embroidered sleeve.

I almost wanted a whole movie made up entirely of such mundane yet solemnly inflated procedures — how many men does it take to attend to the toilet ablutions of the Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat)? And probably Zhang would be only too happy to make such a film; it would be screamingly ceremonial, like a cross between late-period Kurosawa and late-period Kubrick. There is a story here, though, and sadly it neither equals the visuals nor emerges from them organically. Zhang has marshalled heavy troops to tell a very soap-opera tale.

The Emperor is slipping black fungus into the Empress’ remedies to poison her mind. She, in turn, is smitten with her own stepson, the Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), and has apparently seduced him into bed a time or two. The other two princes — the ambitious and ignored young Cheng (Qin Junjie) and the warrior Jie (Jay Chou) — are barely sketched in. Wan has eyes for the daughter of the Imperial Physician. The Empress finds out about the poisoned remedies and launches a counterplan. There are very many other revelations straight out of daytime drama. At one point, one of the princes whines “I hate my brother! I hate you all!” like some emo kid about to stomp off to his room and vent about his totally unfair dad in a MySpace post.

Chow Yun-Fat doesn’t ring any bells as an arrogant, duplicitous monarch — he looks stifled by his beard and robes. So, too, does poor Gong Li, condemned by the plot to sit around crocheting chrysanthemums and trembling. Only Jin Chen, as a shadowy branded woman who brings the Empress the unhappy news about her remedies, is allowed a compelling presence. Everyone else recedes into the design. And a fantastic design it is, yet even the colors don’t pop as much as you’d like — they’re muted, presumably because this is a more “serious” film. Curse of the Golden Flower has a pictorial elegance, but that’s all it has. The imperial beauty is hollow, concealing incest and murder, and perhaps that was Zhang’s subversive aim. But it doesn’t do much for us. If Zhang Yimou wants to preside over gorgeous pageants surrounding beautiful people we don’t care much about, maybe he should direct the next Academy Awards show.

Rocky Balboa

December 20, 2006

You could trace Sylvester Stallone’s life pretty accurately through the Rocky movies. Stallone and Rocky Balboa, the punchy but good-hearted boxer who put Stallone on the map, started out bums and became kings. Then in the ‘80s, the kings became bums — Rocky III and IV were crass junk, exploiting racism and xenophobia, respectively. The films were beginning to reflect Stallone’s out-of-touch decadence. Rocky V was an attempt to return to roots, but nobody took it seriously. With Rocky Balboa, though, the bums become kings again. Easily the equal of its forefather thirty years ago, the movie is more stirring and even more thought-provoking than the grim, overrated Million Dollar Baby.

Those who grew up with Rocky, as I did, will find themselves most susceptible to Rocky Balboa’s charms. It’s primitive, manipulative, simplistic, all the things the original Rocky was. But I also have to admit that when the creaky old Rocky ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art with his newly adopted dog Punchy, reached the top, and punched the air in triumph, I wiped away a tear or two. Because those are not just steps. And Rocky Balboa isn’t just another Rocky sequel — it’s the last¹, coming from an actor/writer/director who, like his character, just wants to go the distance one more time.

Rocky is a widower now — he lost Adrian to “the woman cancer” four years ago. He owns a restaurant (named after Adrian) and hangs out there somewhat haplessly, regaling the diners with his old boxing stories. His brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young), as irascible as ever, paints abstract art during downtime at the meat factory and can’t face the past, which Rocky seems stuck in. His son Rocky Jr., who now goes by Robert (Milo Ventimiglia), toils as a corporate drone and feels negated by his father’s shadow. It’s a pretty bleak picture until an opportunity arises: the current heavyweight champ Mason “The Line” Dixon (Antonio Tarver), who has run out of worthy opponents, is talked into an exhibition match with Rocky after a computer-simulated match between the two puts Rocky on top.

Gone, mostly, is the empty flash of the previous Stallone-directed Rocky films. Rocky Balboa is a classical piece of filmmaking, with stately fade-outs and an attentive eye for dialogue nuance. Rocky chats up a bartender (Geraldine Hughes) who turns out to be Marie, the punky girl he advised to steer clear of the wrong crowd in the first Rocky. Marie is all grown up now, with a teenage son who calls himself Steps. Hughes, a disconcerting dead ringer for Emily Watson, brings some of Talia Shire’s reticence and toughness to the almost-romance that develops between Marie and Rocky. Stallone shoots on the gray, snowy streets of Philly, in its bars and restaurants, harking back to a time when locations in movies had character — the ‘70s. Rocky Balboa is comfortable with the past (it even brings back Spider, the guy Rocky defeated pre-Apollo Creed in the first Rocky).

Then the climactic fight arrives, and after a strong start — in which we genuinely fear for Rocky’s sagging flesh and “brittle” bones — Stallone and editor Sean Albertson get a little too crazy with the flash-cuts and impressionistic strobing imagery. One can imagine grouchy Paulie squinting at the results and growling “What the hell is this? Lemme see the fight!” And eventually Stallone does snap out of it and lets the fight choreography lead the editing. Then again, Rocky Balboa isn’t really about the match, any more than Rocky was (the sequels lost sight of that, at their peril). It’s about a bum turned king turned bum who finds it in himself to reclaim, however briefly, his throne.

¹Well, until the Creed films. But at the time — like the supposedly final Rambo movie — it was sold as the last hurrah.

Letters from Iwo Jima

December 20, 2006

Letters from Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood’s companion film to his earlier Flags of Our Fathers, tells the story of men who know they’re going to die. In fact, dying for the honor of their Emperor and their homeland is their one cold comfort. What happens, though, when that comfort isn’t enough? Having made a World War II movie from the American viewpoint, Eastwood rotates his camera 180 degrees and looks through the eyes of the Japanese soldiers on Iwo Jima, many of whom would much rather be home with their wives and families than defending some rocky island against people they have no personal enmity toward. Even the commander of the defense, Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), has been to the U.S. and counts some Americans as friends.

Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern shoot in near-black-and-white. Iwo Jima is presented here as a grim place with a grim purpose: to prevent the Americans from taking the island and using it as a base. If Iwo Jima is lost, the war is lost. Many of the soldiers, like Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), are young men conscripted into the fight after the war has already ruined their lives. Saigo, who has a wife and baby girl back home, once owned a bakery until the government turned all the metal in his kitchen into weapons. Another man, Shimizu (Ryo Kase), is dispatched to Saigo’s unit, where some of the men suspect him of being sent to spy on them by the Japanese secret police.

Letters from Iwo Jima explores the imperial pathology of the time, expected to be absorbed without question by all citizens and soldiers. Much is made of “patriotism,” and the smallest complaining in the ranks is grounds for swift, harsh punishment. The lower-level officers, hoping to rise in rank, enforce the military will mercilessly; Kuribayashi, however, is older and more worldly. He will do his duty, and expects his men to do theirs, but never forgets that they are men, not robots. At certain points, I couldn’t help reading the Japanese soldiers’ struggle as Eastwood’s sideways method of speaking to the Iraq War — from either side. Together with Flags of Our Fathers, he has made an anti-war monument, a strong argument that violence should be a last resort no matter what the official propaganda — whether Tojo or Fox News — tells you.

On its own, Letters from Iwo Jima is a fine, textured study of war, one that considers the strategic side as well as the human side without sacrificing either. Kuribayashi, who still carries a gun given to him by his California friends, knows most of his men are doomed, and Ken Watanabe is both soulful and commanding. We feel that Kuribayashi sees a younger version of himself in Saigo, played by Kazunari Ninomiya with an intense awareness of how much he’s lost and how much he may still lose. Surrender is the least honorable thing the men can do, given their culture, but Eastwood lets us see the practical honor of it. One soldier speaks of being willing to die for his country, but not to die for nothing; another quotes from a letter sent to a dead American soldier by his mother: “Do what’s right because it’s right.”

If the movie garners top honors at the Oscars — as well it might, and, I think, deserves to (moreso than Eastwood’s previous winner, Million Dollar Baby) — it might be Hollywood’s indirect way of sending an anti-war, anti-Bush message. Far more successfully than Saving Private Ryan, Letters from Iwo Jima takes the measure of war and sums it up as a sad, counterproductive business, grinding average men under the wheels of corrupt leaders. To point that out in wartime Japan was considered dangerously unpatriotic. To point it out in wartime America was, too, a few short years ago.


December 8, 2006

Apocalypto 4Mel Gibson, I think, is missing his true calling as a director of horror movies. He has an eye for arresting imagery (well, he’s got good taste in cinematographers — Dances with Wolves’ Dean Semler does the honors here), he can set up and sustain suspense, and he has a knack for ominous, oppressive moods — impending doom, the looming threat of agonizing physical catastrophe. Say what you will about Gibson’s extracurricular idiocies and Cro-Magnon-Catholic obsessions — the crazy bastard can direct. He has yet, however, to find material that allows him to produce anything more than brutal technical exercises.

Apocalypto comes advertised with all sorts of deep-bass noises about its thematic significance. We’re meant to look upon the desperately bloody experience of the Mayans and ponder why civilizations die. But then the movie — even its title trembles with epic foreboding — offers us a joke about a gullible tribe member eating tapir testicles before the film’s five minutes old. That’s when you remember Mel the prankster and Three Stooges fan. After the high-mass seriousness of The Passion of the Christ, Gibson indulges in a good deal of slapstick in order to humanize the central tribe, who will soon fall to the vicious will of a more advanced city tribe. An idea, arguable but at least interesting, pops up out of this — slavery is the price of civilization — and then dies of loneliness.

What this thing turns out to be is a skimpy action flick, in which the hero Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) must escape his captors and make it back to his forest, where his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and young son wait in a deep hole. Jaguar Paw runs and runs, spurred on by the memory of his father admonishing him to avoid fear. He’s pursued by the fearsome Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), who wears some sort of animal jaw around his own, and at one point regards a fallen tree that’s nearly crushed him and says “I am walking here” — Gibson’s tip of the hat to Midnight Cowboy, perhaps, though Zero Wolf stops short of slapping the tree defiantly.

Rudy Youngblood has hard/soft features and full lips — he resembles Vin Diesel — and he and Dalia Hernandez have some playful early moments. Gibson doesn’t just do brutality — he has a gentle touch. But the gentleness is just there so we can mourn its passing when the violence starts. Apocalypto isn’t nearly as grotesque as you might have heard, unless you haven’t seen any action movies or horror movies in the last three decades. I can describe the events — hearts yanked out, heads lopped off, a jaguar feasting on a man’s face — and they sound harsh in print, but they’re shown glancingly. Whatever else it is, this isn’t Touchstone’s (i.e. Disney’s) answer to Cannibal Holocaust. All the suffering, though, adds up to the usual Mel Gibson template: Lone hero endures immense pain and stands up against impossible odds. Twenty years ago Gibson could’ve painted himself brown and played Jaguar Paw himself.

Apocalypto wouldn’t be “controversial” at all if Gibson hadn’t drunk himself into a Jew-bashing stupor last summer — and in retrospect, that little slip of the lip might’ve helped the movie more than hurt it, because it kept the buzz alive. Gibson has always been dark and troubled, and he’s becoming more volubly cranky as he ages but also more intriguingly transparent in his work. What, for instance, are we to make of the ending, in which our hero triumphs over everything only to face the boats full of Christians ready to ensure that the Mayans either embrace God or die? Gibson gives us a savage, innocent, beautiful culture out there in the forest and then tells us that between violent civilization and encroaching monotheism, that culture was doomed. Whether he says this regretfully or with a kind of “God happens” shrug is anyone’s guess.


December 6, 2006

I’ve never put much stock in dream-interpretation books — the ones that tell you a dream about your teeth falling out means you’re insecure. They may be accurate, for all I know — but to me, dreams should be experienced and felt, not subjected to cold waking logic. So I hesitate to put David Lynch’s new identity-crisis horror epic INLAND EMPIRE (yes, all caps) on the autopsy table and scrutinize its guts. Lynch has spoken of the creative process — how he “gets his ideas” — as “catching the big fish,” and this is his biggest fish yet; you swim around alongside it and on top of it and inside it for three hours, and you come out a bit dazed and confused, seeing everything as Lynch does for a while, focusing on mundane objects and noticing their texture. INLAND EMPIRE reboots your head.

The “plot” can be whisked away in a sentence: An actress (Laura Dern) is filming a remake of a cursed, unfinished Polish movie that got derailed by the murders of its lead actors, and she finds herself re-enacting the film’s story by falling in love with her co-star (Justin Theroux). But this is like saying that Lynch’s Twin Peaks was “about” who killed Laura Palmer. Lynch begins with a mystery — an ear found in a field, a videotape arriving at your door — and then collects odds (very odd) and ends to put all around it, like an artist gluing found objects into a collage. Lynch is an all-around artist, keeping his hand in painting and music and photography and sculpture when he’s not making movies, though his best movies, including this one, combine all those media.

It’s clear by now that, whatever else she does (and she’s been great in other movies like Citizen Ruth), Laura Dern was put here to be Lynch’s avatar, the ideal mix of innocence and depravity. Dern is the prettiest, most surprising fish Lynch ever caught — or, rather, a lure for his idea-fish. Mid-film, she has a lengthy monologue — at that point, it’s up for grabs what character she’s playing, if any — that comes from the nightside of human experience, the world of Frank Booth and Leland Palmer, the grubby under-the-rock “reality” that fascinates Lynch at the same time he works to transcend it. Dern knocks herself out whichever reality she’s in; whichever universe she occupies becomes hers, and Lynch’s digital-video camera isolates her at her most vulnerable, finding beauty in ugliness and vice versa.

Aside from that, Lynch fills the three hours (which fly by — it’s not the endurance test you might expect, provided that you’re attuned to Lynch’s style) with divertissements that have thrown various Internet message boards into orgies of theorizing. There are women (whores? angels?) who launch into a song-and-dance number set to “The Locomotion”; this is preceded by the sound of a train. (Lynch’s use of aural effects, as always, is impeccable; watch this with a good sound system or even headphones if possible.) Various characters speak solemn Polish to each other, referring to events just outside the narrative. Actors like Julia Ormond, Mary Steenburgen, Grace Zabriskie (filmed in tight close-up, her cheekbones linking her with the Radiator Lady from Eraserhead), and William H. Macy drop in more or less inscrutably (Macy is on for all of twenty seconds).

At first, you can tell the difference between Dern’s movie-within-the-movie (a potboiler called On High in Blue Tomorrows, directed by a flaccidly pompous Brit played by Jeremy Irons) and the movie surrounding it: the Blue Tomorrows footage is lazily composed, blandly un-Lynchian, and then, when Dern’s character starts feeling the desires of the woman she’s playing in the scene, Lynch takes over and the camerawork becomes invasive, vertiginous. In time, though, the movie-within-movie conceit falls away and we seem to be watching the original Polish story Blue Tomorrows is based on, sometimes in Poland and sometimes enacted in a Hollywood slum. What may baffle and irritate some about INLAND EMPIRE isn’t that it has no story; it’s that it seems to have three or four different incomplete stories shuffled together, commenting on and echoing each other.

There’s a lot of ominous mood, the usual fixation on electricity and smoke and static (an entire room seems to be lit to resemble a staticky TV screen at one point). Desolate rooms are illuminated by a single lamp casting cones of dirty light across the walls. Two homeless women discuss a bus route across the body of someone bleeding to death — are they heralds of an afterlife or ascension to grace? (Dern’s actress character is named Nikki Grace; she plays another woman named Sue Blue.) The camera disappears into a cigarette-burn hole in silk, just like it did with the ear in Blue Velvet and John Merrick’s hood eyehole in The Elephant Man. A Polish woman watches bits of Lynch’s funny-scary Internet series Rabbits (three actors in bunny heads trading gnomic dialogue as the laugh track bursts irrelevantly) and weeps. It’s an abstract jazz riff, it’s a painting (the slightly pixellated DV images add a certain degraded texture of which Lynch is famously enamored), it’s a monster movie and a musical and a psychodrama and an ellipsis made of black holes.

What does all this mean? Why try to impose meaning on it? Why not just buy the ticket and take the ride? Those who strain to provide the connective tissue for all of Lynch’s digressions and images are, I think, trying to nail down a drop of mercury. They want to break the code, to master this material; but only one person can master it, and he ain’t talkin’. Lynch has said that since life so seldom “makes sense,” people shouldn’t expect the same of art. That goes double for dreams, and INLAND EMPIRE is Lynch’s dream of, as he says, “a woman in trouble.” What will it mean to you? Well, that’s between you and you. I took it as an epic tone-poem about art vs. artifice, and how each informs and warps the other, but I also acknowledge there’s a lot more to it than that. Essentially, once again, Lynch has gone fishin’. Either you go with him or you won’t.