Saturday, February 28, 2009

Battle for Haditha - DVD Introduction

Battle for Haditha (2007) is Nick Broomfield’s concise, lucid, devastating depiction of the Haditha massacre. If you follow the news, you know the basic facts: November, 19, 2005; IED; one Marine killed and two wounded; twenty-four Iraqi men, women, and children killed in response to fear, vengeance, and the inscrutable factors that motivate men under fire.

The film is divided into two main acts: November 18th and November 19th, with a brief resolution showing the repercussions. The first act depicts the day before the massacre and follows the soldiers involved; the Iraqi families who were victims; and the Iraqi insurgents who buried the bomb and set it off.

The Marines begin their day, November 18th, with what has turned into a cliché of the modern war film: American soldiers cruising along (often in helicopters – humvees, in this case) to the pounding, ear-splitting din of heavy metal. We also get the inevitable horsing around, but this is accompanied by sobering talking-head declarations of fears and confusions connected with the frustrating war in Iraq involving an unclear enemy living amidst non-combatants. As in the Vietnam War, the soldiers state how a woman or even a child, strapped with a bomb or concealing a weapon, can be a combatant. We meet the specific Marines who crew the humvee that will meet destruction on the 19th, but the film focuses on Corporal Ramirez, played by Elliot Ruiz, who delivers a performance that is engaging, poignant, and naturalistic, as he expresses his feelings of dread and disgust for the situation in Iraq.

We also follow the insurgents – who seem almost comically inept to the point that you wonder about their motivations. One is an overweight father with little children. His friend and accomplice is a dim-witted young man who works in a video store. Next to the the Al Qaeda, who are orthodox and fanatical, more physically fit and tough looking, the gray-haired man and his young friend look like clowns. Nevertheless, they are taught how to rig a cell phone to a bomb and their adventures, as they smuggle the bomb through the city and a roadblock to where they bury it, provide tense moments.

The sequences that set this film apart from other films and TV shows about the war in Iraq are the ones that follow the Iraqi family members through their day’s errands and routines. The camera following these characters invites us into their lives and culture. We see women buying live chickens to be served up for a circumcision party that evening. We see an old man reading the Koran and later lounging around with his grandson, their bare feet together as they nap. Some sequences are like lucid depictions of customs in National Geographic documentary; we see the circumcision and subsequent celebration that includes jubilation, dancing, singing, and eating. Other sequences are touchingly intimate. A pregnant mother (Yasmine Hanani), expresses her fear that her husband won’t find her attractive when she is hugely pregnant, but her husband affectionately convinces her that he will.

Since we know what will happen on the 19th, the second major act immediately carries a heavily ominous tone. As the Iraqi men, women, and children rise to the new day and go about their routines, the Marines get ready for their day’s patrol. I will say little here about what unfolds after the last humvee in the column is ripped apart by the explosion though I will say that the ensuing sequences are tautly directed and gut-wrenchingly disturbing in many ways.

What happens and why it happens are matters that I cannot judge. War is most horrible when its effects touch the innocent and the young, but I am in no position to judge the actions of young men, sometimes unwillingly placed in harm’s way, who respond to factors and emotions that are beyond my experience. What I like most about Battle for Haditha is that it doesn’t leave the viewer with a simple explanation, nor does it suggest exoneration for those involved. The film lets you come to your own conclusions as it compellingly draws a factual illustration of a chain of mercilessly inexorable events.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Moviegoer's Journal - Part 3: The Class and Taken

5. The Class (2/19)

I’ve been a teacher for thirty-three years so I admit I’m kind of touchy when it comes to film depictions of teachers. Although I enjoy a number of John Hughes’s films – especially Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – Hughes set back the image of the teacher for decades with his depictions of the us-against-them conflict between teenagers and educators, the latter often portrayed as nerdy losers. In 1988 Edward James Olmos as math teacher Jaime Escalanate established the image of the educator as a funny, clever, dedicated (to the point of jeopardizing his own health) savior in Stand and Deliver. Although Dead Poet’s Society (1989) - hugely popular with students – presents the image of the English teacher as a man of inspiration and emotion, I feel Robin Williams’s portrayal was another setback, suggesting to students that teaching English is all about getting students to tap into their inner selves and express their deep feelings. But Robert Keating is my least favorite teacher character, and the film is more fantasy than reality. He never really teaches! Where’s the grammar? Where are the essays? Where are the pop quizzes that ensure that students have been doing the reading? (Shortly after the film came out, I remember students in one of my English classes expecting me to forget curriculum and sit around and read poetry all day.)

To date, my favorite film portrayal of a teacher is Jack Black’s Dewey Finn in The School of Rock. Unlike Keating, who spouts shallow inspirations more than he does any practical teaching, Dewey Finn teaches. He teaches his students a lot about music, using tried and true teaching methods: clear diagrams on the blackboard (see the image above); audio-visual presentations; group work; practical homework assignments; hands-on activities; and, most importantly, his passion for his subject as a motivator. Unfortunately, if there were a teacher like Dewey Finn, he wouldn’t last very long in a formal institution.

If you want to see the real deal in action, see Louis Cantet’s The Class. Part reality show, part fictional film in which people play themselves, the film follows the teaching year of real-life teacher and screenwriter François Bégaudeau, who essentially plays himself with the fictional name Mr. Marin. In a school situated in a disadvantaged district of Paris, Marin faces lack of motivation, learning disorders, and cultural frictions as he teaches French language and literature. In addition, not all of his students are native French; a number of them are from China, Morocco, Mali, and Algeria. Even without these added difficulties, the film makes it clear that teaching is a challenge under the best of circumstances.

Teach grammar and you have to argue its function in modern society. Ask your students to write a self-portrait and you get accused of prying into their personal lives. Ask a student to read aloud and you run into resistance fueled by a bad mood. And it’s not enough just to know how to teach a lesson. You have to be a psychologist; you have to be a quick judge of character; you have to be a great debater. In the heat of the moment, responding to a student who is clearly in the wrong, your response has to be couched in the most diplomatic of terms; say the wrong thing, and then you are in the wrong.

Playing themselves, the teachers in this film are not caricatures. They gather at the first teachers’ meeting of the year and introduce themselves – the veterans acknowledging the realities of the school, the rookies seeming to realize that they are in for a big challenge. In one of my favorite moments, an enthusiastic new teacher suggests that Marin and he coordinate their curriculum. Marin could teach Voltaire while the history teacher covers the Enlightenment, but the more experienced teacher winces at such an impossible proposition. Also portrayed very realistically are the parent-teacher conferences (parents with any number of problems at home hoping to hear good things about their children) and the review of student progress (teachers trying very hard to be positive about students who put forth very little effort).

François Bégaudeau depicts Mr. Marin/himself as a passionate teacher dedicated to trying to teach a love of language and reading while at the same time trying to encourage his students to see the positive things about themselves and their peers. A vocabulary lesson turns into a discussion of how people treat each other. A reading from The Diary of Anne Frank becomes directed toward the students examining their own identities.

But Bégaudeau doesn’t present himself as perfect – and this makes the film one of the best teaching movies I’ve ever seen. He makes mistakes. Though he’s trying to get to the heart of the matter, he lets arguments go on too long. One of his biggest mistakes is confronting two girls on the playground and bringing up their previous rudeness. Of course, this heated discussion draws a crowd, and soon it leads to a free-for-all attack on Marin. But this is the collateral damage that comes with caring so much for his students and trying to reach them. Marin always tries to reach his students, sometimes rashly saying the wrong thing. He also tries to save one student in danger of expulsion. In his eyes, we see Marin’s disappointment that there is only so much that he can do.

Filled with humorous moments as well has moments of sharp reality, The Class is a thought-provoking, entertaining film, though at times it is rather claustrophobic and it might have benefited from a greater variety of locations. Most of the scenes are interiors, the great majority of them in Marin’s classroom. And as the classroom banter gets lost in long convolutions, you find yourself in need of a shift of location and a break from the talking.

But the film is always real, always touching. Imagine a school with no more outdoor space than a narrow concrete courtyard where the only recess choices are standing around talking or joining in the crowded soccer game going on in the middle of the space, the ball often bouncing into the groups of talkers. The film ends with such a scene. It’s the end of the year and the teachers are participating. Everyone seems to be having a good time, while up in Marin’s classroom, the empty desks and chairs stand in a jumble – a minimalist still life reminding us of the sometimes volatile but always enlightening exchanges of differing attitudes, heated words, and perceptive ideas that went on in the class.

6. Taken (2/22) is also set in Paris, but unlike The Class its story lies far beyond the realm of credibility.

At the beginning of Pierre Morel’s thriller, ex-CIA operative Bryan Mills (a miscast Liam Neeson; he isn’t buff enough for the action in store for him) brings his seventeen-year-old daughter, Kim, a birthday present at her step-father’s swanky L.A. mansion. Bryan gives her a karaoke machine – a well-intended gift somewhat beneath her age. Her wealthy stepfather gives her a horse. Poor Bryan is shot down when it comes to birthday gifts. But when his daughter goes off to Paris and is kidnapped by human traffickers, Bryan has the gift she needs – his “special skills” that ensure he will find the bad guys and kill them.

Indeed, he does. He destroys a makeshift whorehouse at a construction site and massacres the thugs that run it; he shoots up a house full of Albanian gunmen; and he lays waste to a boatload of Arabs. Though Bryan’s ability to karate chop and shoot his way out of any fix makes Jack 24 Bauer’s daring escapes look entirely plausible, I was with Neeson’s Bryan from the first suspect he thrashes – he’s trying to save his daughter afterall – and I went along for the non-stop, sharply edited ride and never flinched when he shot down ridiculous numbers of bad Frenchmen, Albanians, and Arabs. If only all our enemies could be so clear to us. If only there could be a happy ending for all poor victims of cruelty. I guess that’s why we go to the movies… sometimes.

To be continued.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Moviegoer's Journal - Part 2: The International

Still the February Limbo. Horror movies are joined by thrillers in this pre-spring release season. The Oscars air on Sunday. The big winner – most likely Slumdog Millionaire – will continue its extended run, and then the marquees will be cleared of 2008 releases. We’ll be all set for the springtime and early summer offerings. Here’s wishing all moviegoers a happy new year for movies.

4. The International (2/16), directed by Tom Tykwer, pits Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and FBI agent Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) against a powerful bank that brokers shady deals for countries in need of shady deals and controls them by keeping them in debt. (We all know about the controlling power of debt.) Enough said about the plot. This is a thriller, and the plot is usually made perplexingly convoluted in order to fool you into thinking it’s complex and intelligent. But plot is not essential here; a thriller’s job is to thrill. So, does the movie thrill? Beyond the confusing plot, The International incorporates a number of ingredients usually found in satisfying thrillers though some are more successfully developed than others. Here are the typical thriller elements that this thriller employs:

a. A character we care about. We care about Louis Salinger. He’s obsessed with his case, determined to pursue his quarry. He wants justice. He’s not a very developed character; all we know about him is that he can be rash and he never has time to shave. But I certainly cared about him as he pursues leads from the Berlin Hauptbahnhof, where he receives a nasty and surprising whack in the head, to Luxembourg, New York City, and Istanbul. All this time he is unshaven and we never see him take the slightest sip of water or the tiniest bite to eat. I worried about him.

b. Foreign locations. Mentioned above.

c. A shady German villain. If you’ve seen the preview, you know that Armin Mueller-Stahl divulges the insidious extent of the bank’s dastardly machinations. That he does this in his rich German accent gives the film a, well, rich German accent. “Everyone is inwolved.” He’s the most developed character – a faithful Stasi from Communist East Germany days ironically working for powerful capitalist profitmongers.

d. An attractive heroine. Naomi Watts fills that role – but her part in the story is minimal – and beyond holding Louis’s hand when he’s at the end of his tether, there’s no romantic involvement. She’s got a manly house-husband at home who makes a brief appearance to carry away one of the sleeping kids while Eleanor is working late on a crucial text message to an informant. Huh? What’s the point of showing that Eleanor is a mother with a husband who looks like a male model? Now I feel even sorrier for Louis.

e. Mystery. The film starts out with an interesting mystery in regards to how Louis’s agent friend is killed in front of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof. We even get a flashback to the scene as Louis tries to remember what happened. There are chilling possibilities here – you know, with those flashbacks that show alternate versions of the incident; then the mystery is dropped. We never find out how the bad guys did it. Huh? This is as perplexing as Eleanor’s husband.

f. Shootouts. There’s a fair bit of shooting in this film, but the film’s set piece shootout takes place in New York City along the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim – and this scene makes the whole film worthwhile.

The Guggenheim Shootout:

(Spoiler alert)

Many recent films have suffered from a lack of patient set-up and development of an action scene. Things happen too suddenly. This is not the case here. Louis and his two buddy detectives follow a lead to an address that turns out to be a flattened lot. Then, after this setback, the pursuit begins afresh – taking us to the Guggenheim where it all goes down.

Once inside the Guggenheim, Tykwer takes a cue from Hitchcock and plays around with the dramatic potential of looking: we see what the characters are going to see seconds before they do. Then all hell breaks loose, but the action is always clear. In recent thrillers, the action has been ruined by stylistic camerawork and editing: jerky handheld style; faster-than-the-eye-can-follow cuts; and too many close shots that rob the viewer of the big picture. Here, Tykwer always makes it clear what is happening and what is at stake. He shoots up close for intensity, and then he pulls long to show Louis’s progress and what he’s up against.

The location is integral to this shootout. With its white walls, spiraling ramp, and glass cupola, the Guggenheim is a wonderfully atmospheric stage for a shootout. Also, like Hitchcock, Tykwer knows that a readily recognizable location adds drama to a scene of suspense. For practicality, the spiraling wall provides cover for the shooters all the way down.

The sound is tremendous. You get the euphony of cinematic gunfire. Add to that the tinkle of broken glass building to a crescendo of shattering panes.

Throw in an allusion to the Odessa Steps and you’ve got yourself a memorable action scene.

Thus, see The International for the Guggenheim shootout; the rest of the film is fairly engaging but mostly derivative.

(To be continued)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Moviegoer's Journal - Part 1: The Uninvited, Push, and Coraline

Welcome to my coverage of all the movies I see in theaters in 2009 – the good, the bad, and the dreadful. In 2008 I saw 73 movies in theaters, which was down from my 2007 record of 87 different viewings. (There were fewer films that interested me in 2008.) How far will I get this year? It depends on what’s released.

Reviews will vary in length from the very brief to the more extensive for more noteworthy releases. At times, under the heading of The Experience, I might interject comments about the theater location or the audience. Note: the date in parentheses indicates when I viewed the film.

It’s February and that means Oscar-nominated films are enjoying extended runs. Meanwhile, studios take advantage of this less-competitive movie limbo before the spring releases by slipping in low-budget thrillers and horror films.

I gave The Unborn and My Bloody Valentine 3D a miss, but a gnawing need to see something invited me to The Uninvited.

1. The Uninvited (2/1) plays around with the genre of the slasher-nanny/nurse who likes to do away with the kiddies so she can have daddy all to herself. This one spreads layers of red herrings and then hits us with a twist that offers a modicum of fun when the story starts to slow down. Getting there is full of elements we’ve seen before – the haunting premonitions featuring a chopped up body in a garbage bag, a bleeding keyhole, big shiny butcher’s knives. Something we haven’t seen before is Elizabeth Banks stabbing a huge rare roast beef with a fork and slamming it down on the kitchen counter. Now, that’s got to be clear evidence that she’s a psycho! For the most part, she is serviceable as Rachel Summers, the obsessive-compulsive nurse who has taken over household and husband (David Strathairn) after the death of his terminally ill wife. Emily Browning and Arielle Kebbel play sisters Anna and Alex who resent Rachel’s takeover.

Seems like films of this genre always take place at an isolated property on the water. This one takes place in Maine (filmed in British Columbia), and the locations as well as the creepy nightmare sequences provide some texture in an otherwise bland story whose main strength is the performance of Browning (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events). With her gorgeously haunting eyes and voluptuous lips, Browning could easily provide memorable support in a more significant film. Strathairn is relegated to the role of the clueless, easily led father who weakly succumbs to Rachel’s obsessive charms. He, too, deserves better roles.

This was a bad choice for first viewing of the year. Last year started with a satisfying bang with Cloverfield – one of my favorite films of 2008. Hopefully there will be something more inviting than The Uninvited up ahead.

2. In Push (2/8) Chris Evans (the awesome Mace in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine who sacrifices himself for the good of all humanity by immersing himself in super-frigid computer mainframe coolant) plays Nick Gant, a fugitive with telekinetic powers (a Mover) hiding in Hong Kong from an evil federal agency called the Division that’s running a program by which individuals with psychic powers will be power-boosted with a drug so they can be used as a super psychic army. (Evil federal agency… psychic powers… super psychic army: all sounds familiar.)

Seems that Hong Kong is full of poor psychic refugees hiding from the Division led by Henry Carver (Djimon Hounsou) who has a psychic power of his own. He’s a Pusher and he can alter another person’s intentions. Dakota Fanning plays Cassie Holmes, a Watcher, who can see the future. Camilla Belle (the stunning Evolet, the genetically enhanced Cro-Magnon, in 10,000 B.C.) plays Kira Hudson, also a Pusher. Together, Nick, Cassie, and Kira band together to locate a stolen syringe of psychic power booster drug so that they have something to hold over the Division, I guess. Not that it matters because the plot makes little sense and it’s easy to get confused as to who the bad guys are and what their powers are. The psychic specialists go on and on; there are Sniffers and Bleeders (alas, no Breeders) and Stitchers and Shadows, oh, my!

But this is kind of a cool movie to watch and I enjoyed it for the following reasons:

a. The cinematography and editing are slick and innovative: fast cuts, sped up motion, nifty camera angles.
b. The Hong Kong locations are refreshing and different; there is a lot to look at. Don’t you get tired of films set in L.A. or New York City?
c. The action is fun: exploding fish tanks shattered by nasty Bleeders who break things apart and make people bleed from the ears by means of high-pitched screams, a collapsing bamboo scaffolding, a shootout with floating guns.
d. It’s interesting to see Dakota Fanning sort of grown up. No longer the cute innocent kid from films like Charlotte’s Web, Fanning tries on a cocky toughness that’s kind of, uh, cocky. She takes a stab at acting drunk and fails. She delivers every line in a sort of bored, world-weary monotone, and I couldn’t figure out why until I noticed she was trying not to move her upper lip so as to hide her upper braces. (In the image above, Fanning is getting swept away in a flood from the aforementioned exploding fish tanks, so she has to open her mouth to scream, thus revealing the braces.)

3. Coraline (2/9) is the unsettlingly bizarre and frightening story of a girl named Coraline who finds a secret passage to an alternate home and family where the rooms are bright and cheery, the food is always delicious, and her Other mother and Other father are attractive, cheerful, and always there to please her, unlike her real parents who ignore her by spending all their time on the computer. (A warning there – don’t spend too much time on the computer at the expense of children and/or loved ones.)

Dakota Fanning’s talents are well employed as the voice of Coraline, expressing youthful indignation and innocent wonderment. Here Fanning is much more expressive than in Push because she can open her mouth without worrying about revealing her braces.

Visualized by Henry Selick’s animation of spindly, often grotesque, caricatures, this film offers images unlike anything you’ve seen before as it takes you into a world that’s like one of those dreams you had when you were younger and stayed home from school with a high fever. At times you might notice a jump in the motion – for example, when Coraline’s parents pull away from their daughter’s bed. For an instant, it looks as though you’re watching an 18-frames-per-second silent film. But this slight imperfection indicates that you are watching images rendered by means of painstaking stop-motion animation – a very old special effect that provides a refreshing contrast to the computer-generated animation we see all the time.

Even the film’s “real” world is bizarre. When Coraline’s parents move near Ashland, Oregon, to live in a sagging old house in a muddy, foggy, drab landscape, and mom and dad fix themselves to their computers to work on a gardening catalogue (of all things! – now, movie blogging I could understand!) and crab at their daughter to leave them alone, Coraline must fend for herself, making the acquaintance of Wybie, a gloomy neighbor boy whose head is always tilted to one side, a pot-bellied Russian acrobat, and two hugely bosomed vaudeville actresses who own a legion of Scotties both alive and preserved by taxidermy.

In the Other world that Coraline finds when she grows weary of crabby parents, sloppy casseroles, and Ashland, Oregon, her mother is always cheerful and well dressed in a creepy Stepford wife sort of way, and her charming father plants a magical garden that is like something out of Alice in Wonderland. Meanwhile, the weird neighbors are even weirder, and the old thespian ladies perform vaudeville numbers scantily clad, presenting images that might make you wince with discomfort but will definitely leave you wide-eyed with astonishment. This is all too much for Coraline to pass up and she returns again and again to her Other home until she learns that the price for staying there is to have buttons sewn in place of her eyes. Particularly frightening is the scene when Coraline attempts to flee the Other world by hiding under her blankets – which we see from her point of view underneath the covers, a chilling depiction of how we all hid from that childhood monster in the closet.

The above-mentioned elements plus the film’s genuinely scary finale could easily freak out the little kiddies, so I worry about the PG rating. Not only is Coraline’s Other mother a literal witch who turns into a mechanical spider, her real mother is downright mean. For more mature viewers, the film is a feast for the eyes with some pretty serious commentary about parenting. Though my eyes were always soaking up the fantastic images, I felt overloaded visually and removed from the story at times. While I marveled at what I saw, I acknowledged that some of the nightmarish sequences seemed self-indulgent and overlong – such as when the Other father plants the weird garden. But the action and suspense mount up when Coraline flees from her fearsome spider-witch of an Other mother, and the ending is a dark and gripping one.

(To be continued)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Black Narcissus - 1947

These amazing images from Black Narcissus (1947) were created by matte paintings under the art direction of Alfred Junge (no CGI here) and the cinematography of Jack Cardiff.

The dizzying image directly above is one of my favorite shots in any film. (Click on the picture to blow it up.)

Go to Only the Cinema to read Ed Howard's review.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Over at Film Experience Blog, via a link on Tractor Facts, I notice that “We Can’t Wait #13” (The Most Anticipated Films of 2009) is The Road, my most anticipated film of 2009. I was all ready to see it last November but then it got held over until this year. Its release might have made 2008 a richer film year, but now I can look forward to it all over again. Why is a film about a father and son surviving in a grim post-apocalyptic world my most anticipated movie? Simply, I love post-apocalyptic books and movies. (I like to see how people survive under extreme circumstances; I guess I’m getting ready for the apocalypse.) Also, I love the novel by Cormac McCarthy. Thus, in anticipation of my most-anticipated film, I offer the following observations about the 2006 book upon which it is based. (In order to avoid all spoilers, I will say little about the plot.)

The Road takes place in a post-apocalyptic America where a man and his son wander across an ash-covered wasteland. Here survival has been reduced to two imperatives: find food and hide from roaming bands of cannibals. The disaster that caused global devastation is never explained – most likely it’s the Deep Impact scenario without the happy ending. The book focuses on the extent of the human will for survival and upon a father’s implacable love for his son and his determination to keep him alive, shielded from the horrors around him, safe from bands of man-eaters – the “bad guys” as the boy innocently calls them. (When I read the novel for the first time, I found myself thinking of War of the Worlds and the extent to which Ray Ferrier goes to save his daughter.) Pushing a shopping cart loaded with tarps, blankets, tools, and canned food, the man guides his son across the dead land. The only protection he carries is a revolver with only two bullets left – which presents him with an agonizing alternative day after day.

McCarthy’s previous novel, No Country for Old Men ends with a dream. The Road begins with a dream. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eyes of a spider. Right away, McCarthy evokes a sense of horrible dread. However, as grim as the worlds depicted by McCarthy in Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, they are nowhere near as grim as the world of The Road which fixes itself indelibly in the reader’s memory.

McCarthy’s prose, more straightforward than that of Blood Meridian, consists of vivid fragments and Hemingwayesque litanies of concrete actions and images. They settled under a tree and piled the blankets and coats on the ground and he wrapped the boy in one of the blankets and set to raking up the dead needles in a pile. Periodically, McCarthy still hits the reader with more elusive passages that might cause you to sit back and scratch your head. He took great marching steps into the nothingness, counting them against his return. Eyes closed, arms oaring. Upright to what? Something nameless in the night, lode or matrix. To which he and the stars were common satellite. Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must.

Some might call McCarthy’s prose deliberately pretentious. I call it awesome. But whatever you call it, it effectively and memorably evokes a world of dreadful grimness in which humans have been pushed to incredible physical extremes. It is the kind of introspective prose that Terrence Malick might envy, and I hope the film version of The Road is Malickesque in its use of imagery to enhance theme and meaning.

Hopefully, too, the film will do what the book does best – make you feel the catastrophic darkness, the icy rain, the choking ash, the painful thirst for fresh water, the gnawing hunger, the cloying dampness, the overwhelming fear. Then they set out upon the road again, slumped and cowled and shivering in their rags like mendicant friars sent forth to find their keep.

In addition, the book is full of stark images – a field day for a film’s art director. Vividly though tersely etched are the abandoned towns, the decaying houses, the dark landscapes covered with ash. He got the binoculars out of the cart and stood in the road and glassed the plain down there where the shape of a city stood in the grayness like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste.

In the seemingly hopeless futures depicted in the films Children of Men and I Am Legend, hope is found. Is there hope in The Road? Whatever the outcome, the book evokes the power of the human soul as manifested in a father’s compassion for his son in the face of overwhelmingly perilous circumstances. He held the pistol at his waist and held the boy by the hand.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

April Wheeler - Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road is not so much about how a young couple – Frank and April Wheeler – meet, fall in love, have children, move to the suburbs, and get sucked into the stranglehold of meaningless sameness; how they hatch a plan to live and work in Paris so that Frank can discover his true passion. The film is about April Wheeler. She’s the one who wants a different life.

When April first meets Frank and listens to him talk with passion about how alive people are in Paris, she is attracted to that idea more than to him. She’s the one who truly wants to discover her passion in life. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) is happy to follow the path of least resistance. He gets caught up in the plan when it makes him feel like a hotshot holding the power of his departure over his boss and colleagues, but when he is offered a chance to be a hotshot closer to home – closer to the traditional lifestyle his father led – he’s not so excited about leaving. For all his reckless behavior – he engages in a dalliance with a secretary – he is the pragmatic one, the one who wants to maintain a conservative stability.

It’s April – as played by Kate Winslet – who serves as the pith of the film – and it is her performance that is solidly sincere throughout. Indeed, the film starts with conflict that is all about April – whose name is ironic because her soul is suffering a harsh winter. She is an aspiring actress in a play that flops – and her sadness over this failure leads to the first big blowout between her and Frank. She jumps out of the car. She wants to be left alone. She wants Frank to shut up. She’s the one who is suffocating.

The film’s chief strength lies in the complexities of the characters of Frank and April evoked by the gripping performances of DiCaprio and Winslet. But DiCaprio takes time to work his way into his character after a stilted beginning in which he seems to be playing up the stereotype of the 50s hubbie – though this might be the director’s fault more than DiCaprio’s. Winslet’s presence and her establishment of her character are more sincere from the beginning. Thus, from the middle of the picture to the very end, the actor and actress famous for portraying the most famous star-crossed lovers in recent film history do a tremendous job of portraying the most divided couple in recent film history. The film contains what I think is an allusion to Titanic - when April explains to her children that they will be moving to Paris and that they will have to go on a big ship across the ocean. Winslet is subtle enough so that it’s not silly, but I’m glad it’s there because it is a reminder of the wonderful rise of the most talented actress in the industry.

However, the two leading performances are not solidly assisted by the supporting cast. Kathy Bates is awkward as Helen Givings, the prying real estate agent who seems to involve herself in the lives of the people who buy her houses. She comes off as stereotype as does neighbor-hubbie Shep (David Harbour) whose name and role fit right into stock suburban soap opera. Meanwhile, her schizophrenic son, played by Michael Shannon, seems less of a character and more of a contrivance implanted to haunt Frank and April for copping out on their dream.

But Helen Givings, the real estate agent, functions as a vehicle to set Frank and April down in the house on Revolutionary Road that becomes an ambiguous symbol. Supposedly, the house, “nestled on its little slope,” holds a unique quality that represents the uniqueness of the Wheelers – but April is the different one; she’s the one who looks up and down the street, notices this unique little house is not much different from the others, and realizes that she wants something different. The important function of the house on Revolutionary Road comes back to us in the very last scene when Helen, the real estate agent, says she’s happy that the house has finally found suitable owners (that is, sweet and conservative); she seems coldly uncaring that Frank and April – who at least attempted to pursue passion – are gone. They ruined the house’s image of stability and so it’s good riddance to them.

Another strength is the film’s vivid visual contrasts. The dazzling lights of New York City promise excitement and passion in the film’s opening shots; but April’s failed stage performance is followed by a shot of Frank and April walking down a long drab school corridor. After April runs into the woods across from the house, her inner turmoil stands out painfully in contrast with the soft greens of the trees. A montage of shots showing the rooms in the house – quiet stills devoid of life – suggest a sterile stability (you can almost smell the clean carpets) that is marred shockingly by a splotch of dark blood.

Overall, though the film as a whole does not achieve greatness, the performances of DiCaprio and Winslet do.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Jules and Jim and the Hamlet Factor

When I was an undergrad majoring in English at U.C., Berkeley, in the early 70s, there was a story going around the English Department that went like this – a grad student finally reached the culmination of all his hard studies; he was going to take his oral exams. Tense but prepared, he endured hours and hours of demanding questions and he aced them all. He was nearly done. It came down to the last question – a question on Hamlet. There was a silence. “What’s the matter?” asked one of the examiners. “Uh,” said the grad student, “I haven’t read it.” “What? You haven’t read Hamlet! Why not?” “Well, you see, it was a challenge I set for myself. I wanted to see how far I could get through undergraduate and graduate studies without reading it, but I guess I didn’t get far enough.”

Point is – we get far into our movie-watching careers, and sure we’ve seen the most-talked-about classics, but there’s always one that, for one reason or another, we haven’t seen. For me, one of those iconic films that I had neglected to see was Jules and Jim. Something about it just wasn’t attracting me. Finally, I got it from Netflix, and I was glad I did. The beauty of Netflix is that you can get just about anything and you can fill in your knowledge of film history by watching those old classics you’ve missed. I encourage you to do so.

Here’s my review –

Jules and Jim, directed by Francois Truffaut, released in 1961, is the thoughtful, lightly paced, elegiac portrait of two friends, Jim (Henri Serre) and Jules (Oskar Werner), and the woman they both adore – Catherine (Jeanne Moreau) – a free-spirited, insecure, self-destructive woman who yearns for harmony but only succeeds in creating emotional discord. For the most part, however, the film does not point ominously toward tragedy. Most of its images are memorable snapshots of rural tranquility: fields, cottages, woods, beach, a lake – with the touchingly distant shot of Jim, Jules, Catherine, and daughter Sabine casting stones from a spit extending into the placid water.

You can see how the film touched the 1960s zeitgeist. Its tone is at times broodingly poignant and yet the film is always instilled with a visual lightness. As audiences viewed the film repeatedly during the turbulent 1960s, they must have found refuge in the story’s many sequences of light-hearted freedom – despite its backdrop of World War I and its brief images of the rise of Nazism. And Jules’s choice – to nurture a relationship between Jim and Catherine in order to ensure that the wayward Catherine will remain close by – might have been taken as an example of 60s sexual freedom. As Jules sits by good-naturedly while Jim sleeps with his wife, the 60s audiences might have justified this as a desirable ideal – though audiences today might be distanced by it.

At the same time, the film’s carefree tone is ironic. The story is interspersed with tragic notes. Jules, a German, and Jim, a Frenchman, are separated by World War I, which is covered by masterful use of archival footage: lines of troops going over the top, again and again, and a mesmerizing montage of explosions. Toward the end of the film, Jules and Catherine meet Jim in a cinema where they are watching a newsreel of book burnings in Nazi Germany.

Yet, throughout all this, the lightness shines through as we follow numerous sequences in which Jules, Jim, and Catherine frolic over fields, go on carefree bicycle rides to the beach, and chase each other through the streets of Paris. Meanwhile, Francois Truffaut, auteur of the French New Wave in cinema, turns his film into a tribute to film. We see a tribute to the silent era in the way this black-and-white film feels like it’s silent: the soundtrack includes dialogue and narration but there is often no background sound effects. We see a tribute to Charlie Chaplin in the sequence in which Catherine dresses as a man and she joins Jules and Jim to try out her disguise. And in the cinema lobby, we see a poster for Un chien andalou – the famous French surrealist film.

Whether you are touched by the film’s story or not, Jules and Jim must be viewed for its role in film history. (I found myself deeply touched – especially by the shots of the three friends’ idyllic times together that soon will end, yet I found Catherine’s heartless self-centeredness distanced me from the film at times, though I suppose that is a tribute to the depth of her characterization.) As you watch the film, you will find yourself remarking to yourself again and again, “Now that’s where he got that,” as you note how the film influenced later filmmakers. The rapidly delivered narration, the whimsical elements of the plot, and the use of smaller inset frames to show scratchy images of Paris make you feel like you are watching Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amelie or A Very Long Engagement. The inclination is to say that Jules and Jim, with its liberal love triangle, is very French; then another 60s movie comes to mind. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch, Sundance, and his lover, Etta Place, hide and travel together, but it’s Butch and Etta who share the bicycle. And, too, the film brings to mind Steven Spielberg’s sentimental touch – and his misty lighting. When the three friends leave the chalet for the train station, light from an open doorway casts a misty beam of light outside. Whether or not this image inspired Spielberg, we know that Spielberg honored the French auteur enough to give him a cameo in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Seeing Jules and Jim for the first time – forty-seven years after its release, I found myself thrilled by the experience of seeing many other films, spanning nearly five decades, reflected in Truffaut’s story, characters, and images – though I wanted to reach into the frame, grab Catherine, and slap some sense into her.