Month: August 2010

Satan’s Brew

One of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever seen by one of the most refreshingly bold filmmakers of the past forty years, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I love Fassbinder because he doesn’t give a rat’s ass what you think. Satan’s Brew might not be a coherent or even compelling narrative, but there’s so much kinetic lunacy in every frame of it that it’s hard to look away — Fassbinder has made a car wreck of a movie but it’s a beautiful car wreck. And I have to hand it to his repertory of actors — they’re fearless and fantastic, willing to go to the extremes of the comic and the grotesque towards with their director bids them.

The movie is, vaguely speaking, about a delusional and destitute poet, his cynical wife and his idiot man-child of a brother (at least I think it’s his brother). When the poet’s editor refuses to advance him any more money till his book is finished and when the prostitutes he frequents refuse him service, he goes to his sugar mama — a sexual masochist — who he accidentally kills (or does he?) in a fit of passion. Anyway, it’s not long after that a detective comes snooping around and the poet himself is seized by the delusion that he is a reincarnation of a 19th German Romantic poet. His new “identity” draws a small but fanatic group of devotees towards him, whom he orders about and abuses, just as his man-child brother attracts and kills flies for his fetishistic reasons. Meanwhile, the wife cooks and cleans and slowly wears away. Still, the insanity continues and Fassbinder doesn’t relent, throwing at us one twisted bit of melodrama after another–the movie feels like a parody of a serious movie and that’s what so fun about it.

Fassbinder has serious themes at work here about the cult of celebrity and our blind adherence to it, about man’s cruelty, stupidity and the bleakness of life in a lockstep society — his great and lifelong themes. If you’re new to Fassbinder, this one may catch you off-guard, but if you love the guy, here’s another to scratch your head over and chuckle mischievously along with.

Grade: B

Directed by: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Written by: Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Cast: Kurt Raab, Margit Carstensen, Helen Vita, Volker Spengler, Ingrid Craven, Y Sa Lo

The River

I was lucky enough to see a pristine print right off the 3-strip Technicolor elements of The River on the big screen. It was the first time I saw it, and I’m so glad I waited for just this occasion to catch it. Renoir adapted a novel by Ruth Godden, who grew up in Bengal, East India, and it’s really a scrapbook of reminiscences of her coming-of-age amid the spiritual and pastoral tranquility of the Ganges. Renoir’s movie is a respectful ode to India, never condescending or cynical or ironic — all those things that make up the ugliest qualities of Western thinking. His film coalesces into a delicate tapestry of images that evoke a different way of life, of thinking, and of relating to the world.

Centering the story is Harriet (Walters), a gawky teenager going through an awkward phase of pubescence, who develops a crush on Captain John (Shields), an American army veteran who arrives at their Bengali estate on a visit. Captain John, one-legged thanks to a war injury, has demons of his own to exorcise and seems on a kind of spiritual journey to do just that. While the Captain is drawn to Harriet’s older and prettier sister Valerie (Corri), he feels a deeper attraction to Melanie (Radha), the reserved Hindu daughter of his white cousin.

You might be thrown off by the awkward, amateurish performances (I think Renoir went with non-actors for this movie) but that, I feel, is part of Renoir’s intention to draw you into this exotic land where everyone relates awkwardly to each other as they try to understand the mysteries of life and of the world around them. Overall, The River is exceptionally honest about itself, made by a director who — like all great artists — knows enough to subordinate his ego to the demands of the material at hand.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Jean Renoir
Written by: Jean Renoir, Rumer Godden
Cast: Nora Swinburne, Esmond Knight, Arthur Shields, Suprova Mukerjee, Thomas E. Breen, Patricia Walters, Adrienne Corri

Ray

A loving, beautifully rendered study of Ray Charles’ rise to stardom as he battles his inner demons of guilt and shame, his consequent addiction to heroin and the adoration of women. Jamie Foxx is excellent, and sturdily supported by White’s script all the way. Ray does, at times, feel like it’s running the paces of the conventional biopic, but, even its less inspired stretches are enlivened by Taylor Hackford’s passionate direction. I admired this movie and how it tried to tie together themes in Charles’s life, though it does leave some threads dangling (e.g. whatever happened with this relationship with his new, and presumably venal, record manager?). Also top-notch are its cinematography, art direction, and costumes.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Taylor Hackford
Written by: James L. White
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington, Regina King, Clifton Powell, Terrence Howard, Harry J. Lennix, Bokeem Woodbine, Aunjanue Ellis

Primer

Interesting concept but absolutely nothing else fuels this “story” about white-collar white guys secretly inventing a time-travel device and then getting mixed up in ridiculous, confusing, vaguely noir-ish nonsense about doppelgangers, murder, and temporal distortions. It gets all its mileage from its brooding angst-filled tone but then sputters out when Caruth is required to put his story-pieces together into something coherent and meaningful. A cop-out if there ever was one: Caruth gets our attention but he can’t plug in the holes of his swiss-cheese storytelling. Then, before it peters out, it’s clear that Primer is just a gee-whiz vanity project, all surfaces–littered, as it is, with pseudo-scientific gobbledygook–and no substance.

Grade: C-

Directed by: Shane Carruth
Screenplay by: Shane Carruth
Cast: Shane Carruth, David Sullivan, Casey Gooden, Anand Upadhyaya, Carrie Crawford

A Prairie Home Companion

It looks and feels like an Altman film, but one made completely on a pointless lark. If Keillor’s blandly subverted corn-fed comedy in all its bucolic quaintness floats your boat, then have at it. But for the rest of us, for whom a small dose of it goes a long way, Altman’s backstage take on Keillor’s live radio series is a tough pill to swallow.

The filmmaker’s familiar tone of wry detachment is in effect here as he follows the actors in Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion repertory, their bantering and by-plays, as they perform their revue, as Keillor’s script would have it, for the last time before their theater closes down, taken over by corporate interests. The whole evening is strung together through the wanderings and mock-noir narration of the rep’s security detail, aptly named Guy Noir (Kline). Kline models his stalwart detective more after Clouseau than Chandler’s private eye, and steals the show with his comic blunderings and non-sequiturs. What a shame then that the rest of Altman’s apparatus is nowhere as fluidly or sharply funny, and gives Kline nothing and no one of equal flair to work with. Against the backdrop of the show’s closing night, we get a pair of doddering show business sisters, Yolanda and Rhonda (Streep and Tomlin, respectively) who wax nostalgically over their old stage days, and dote over Yolanda’s downbeat daughter Lola (Lohan). Their rapport, snarled with line readings that are muddling and overlapping in typical Altman fashion, is sometimes amusing, often tedious. Lohan is serviceable in her role as a misfit ingénue, but her presence here smacks heavily of casting-against-type gimmickry. For whatever reason, after The Bridges of Madison County, Meryl Streep has become increasingly grating, whether it’s in a movie or an appearance on an Oscar telecast. Her shrill work here does not buck that trend, though it’s palliated somewhat by Tomlin’s quiet goofiness. Doing their singing-and-joking cowpokes schtick, Harrelson and Reily do their amiable best, goofing and guffawing dutifully, but Keillor’s script is so toothless, so devoid of purpose over and above its “radio days” send-up, that they more often than not loiter amid the scenery like uncomfortable (and flatulent?) guests at a dull party. And what’s with Virginia Madsen playing that trench-coated mystery savior-cum-angel of death? Her character may be Keillor’s way of personifying his theme of the passage of time, the replacing of old, benevolent, community-minded forms by new, ruthless, profit-minded ones, but the syrupy surrealism involved is obvious and embarrassing. There’s nothing worse than a character who spends the entirety of a film uttering cryptic, vaguely profound premonitions. Such characters demand but deserve no patience, and, worse, Altman’s confused depiction of her–corporeal one moment, and ghostly the next–feels like a forced attempt on his part to comment on his own approaching sunset.

In the corridors and dressing rooms of Prairie Home’s setting, he expertly stages competing lines of action and dialogue, even choreographing counter-pointing actions within single shots; this is Altman’s style working to effect. But, unlike, say, Nashville, 3 Women, or even Gosford Park, we never sense a larger struggle of class and culture at play here. That greater socio-cultural context is what’s given Altman’s style, so girded with irony, its savage humor and bite. A Prairie Home Companion, rather, calls to mind a clubhouse peopled by harmless codgers, hermetically sealed from any outside reality, crooning ditties and swapping jokes, but saying nothing to us of any relevance. Don’t waste your time on his mash, and go watch Altman’s two dozen or so better and worthier titles.

Grade: C

Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Garrison Keillor
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Tommy Lee Jones, Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Lindsay Lohan, Virginia Madsen, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin

Pather Panchali

Pather Panchali inaugurates Ray’s legendary Apu Trilogy. This first installment introduces us to Apu, an innocent, sensitive Bengali boy born into a poor family, who, not long into his young life, must deal with issues of death, grief, dislocation, yearning and heartbreak. As the trilogy goes, it builds in narrative power. Pather Panchali is concerned mainly with the travails of Apu’s family, in particular his relationship with his sister, Durga — pretty, resourceful, and who slowly climbs out of her tomboy shell and comes of age in the course of the story. The second installment of the trilogy, Aparajito portrays Apu’s budding adolescence, and his curiosity about the wide world as it conflicts head-on with his duties to his mother and family after the death of his father. The most emotionally magisterial of the three, The World of Apu shows Ray in a form so sublime few in the history of cinema have ever equalled it. I’ll talk more about it separately, in the World of Apu section.

I’m glad I took in a recent screening of Pather Panchali at L.A.’s American Cinematheque, because it re-confirmed to me what a genius Ray was. I recall watching Panchali on tape (after I’d seen a 16mm print in college), and thinking it was somewhat slow and unfocused. But, as is so often the case in experiencing Ray’s movies, the problem is one of immersion and resistance: If you’re not going to allow yourself to flow along to his cinema’s gentle but majestic currents, you’ll be left dead in the water or twiddling your thumbs on the shore. Thankfully, I gave myself in this time.

First time out of the gate, the then-novice filmmaker Ray already wields a sure and steady directorial hand. The performances are at once naturalistic, in the Neo-realist vein, and stylized in that Soviet-Eisenstein way. Ray’s imagery, as photographed by Subrata Mitra, has a pure poetic beauty whose rhythms he modulates precisely. He paces his sequences out slowly and surely, then ramps up their emotional wattage, using sound, music and composition in raw, genuine, expressive ways. Ravi Shankar’s music score throughout the trilogy is sweet, simple, and devastating.

There is no room in Ray’s cinema, especially this trilogy, for flashy razzle-dazzle or twists of irony. His concerns are humanist and his art transcends both the medium and even the moment in which you’re experiencing it. The effect of his work goes deeper and stays with you for a lifetime. It’s something to go back to, nourish yourself with every now and then in your life.

There is a faith in the art form here, a pure, loving, embracing faith that really restores my own faith in movies. Fellini, Kurosawa, Bergman, they all made great movies. But none of them made movies quite like Ray. Unfortunately, due to weaker distribution links in the West, he does not share their awesome reputation here in America. The Apu movies are small, exquisite gems whose emotional power will knock you out and haunt you long after you’ve seen them. That no other filmmaker has ever achieved anything of their power is testament enough to Ray’s quiet greatness.

Grade: A

Directed by: Satyajit Ray
Written by: Satyajit Ray
Cast: Kanu Bannerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Subir Bannerjee, Uma Das Gupta, Runki Banerjee

The Passion of the Christ

Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a demanding movie but not for reasons you might expect given the outcry in the media over its violence. The violence, as graphic as it is, is quite appropriate to the material and, frankly, not that repellent in an age when we’re bludgeoned with far worse in our movie culture. No, Gibson’s movie is demanding for reasons more essential to its storytelling.

The story itself is simple: Jesus is arrested by the Jewish priests because they see him as a threat to their power. After a severe beating, they take him to Pilate, the local Roman governor, and demand that Pilate condemn him. Pilate just wants peace and order, and he doesn’t find cause in Jesus’ message and his actions to warrant any politically sanctioned punishment. To appease the Jewish elders, he has Jesus flogged–in a particularly brutal sequence–to a broken, battered pulp. When even that doesn’t sway the priests, he sends him to Herod who also sees in Jesus little cause to fret over. He shoos Jesus away. Still, the priests demand his crucifixion. Pilate’s now in a real pickle, fed up as he is with regional uprisings: he desperately wants to keep his subjects from fomenting agitation. He gives the priests a choice: either free a notorious murderer, Barrabus, or Jesus who, at worst, is a loon with a Messiah complex. They choose to free the murderer and condemn Jesus. So, Jesus picks up the cross and off he goes.

As Jesus, Caviezel takes his lashings convincingly and exudes an aptly noble presence. Gibson’s direction, however, is prone to frequent shows of dramatic silliness: His representation of Satan, for example, as a hooded, androgynous creature, slithering along the edges of this story eying Jesus with a mix of malice and seductiveness, is just too broad to take seriously — more in keeping with a comic-book villain than a truly captivating personifications of evil. And what’s with that hideous man-child Satan’s toting around? These are simply unfortunate decisions on Gibson’s part that undermine the emotionally resonant material that forms the backbone of his story.

The political aspects of Jesus’ persecution are also very sketchily developed: the Jewish priests, for instance, are but caricatures, and Herod is but a preening she-male. Gibson never delves deeper into the issues of Jesus as a Jewish threat. I realize that may be overstepping the bounds of The Passion but, having said that, those very bounds restrict the dramatic obligations of this material. To simply depict the torture of Christ is not enough to support a feature length movie: it makes Gibson’s devotion seem fetishistic, obsessed with the gory physical details of torture and crucifixion.

In his defense, however, The Passion is not anti-Semitic. Gibson’s script is actually quite balanced: true, the Jewish priests are absolutely villainous (drawn rather like farcical Shylocks). But there also are so many sympathetically portrayed Jews–whether believers or just average citizens — absolutely mortified by the treatment inflicted on a peaceful man. The question of anti-Semitism is irrelevant and ill-placed here. On that note, Gibson’s portrayal of his Roman torturers is just as cartoonish as that of the Jewish priests so, in a sense, the two balance each other out.

The worse thing about The Passion is its haphazard script with respect to its politics and its character development. Jesus is not adequately humanized, or really fleshed out beyond this angelic presence who constantly utters profound aphorisms to his disciples. I wanted more from Gibson, particularly because Caviezel is so clearly dedicated to this material. It’s a disservice to Caviezel and also to the rest of Gibson’s terrific cast that their roles and interrelationships are not fully and compellingly developed.

Again, this is not the purpose of The Passion: It assumes that the viewer is already intimately aware of these details as prerequisite to watching the movie. But, on the level of storytelling on film (which is the standard that Gibson should be accountable to, at least from a film critic’s viewpoint), it’s a fatal flaw. The only dynamic that is truly affecting, and fully developed, is the one drawn between Jesus and his mother. It is devastating to see her anguish as she watches her son go to his death. It’s an elemental relationship that anyone can immediately latch on to despite the flaws in The Passion’s script. Maia Morgenstern’s performance is tremendous, transcending Gibson’s sparse material.

Rather than dwell on the minutiae of torture and suffering, Gibson should’ve more keenly focused on the history and politics surrounding Jesus’ death, as well as on character and backstory, and on the resounding and life-affirming message that Christ wanted to convey. In short, Gibson’s passion is all over this film, and his faithfulness to text is admirable, but his resorting to mawkish, superficial tactics blows the tone off-course from time to time. Still, the marvelous cast thoroughly devoted to the material compensates, setting Gibson’s material right and redeeming it ultimately.

Grade: B-

Directed by: Mel Gibson
Written by: Mel Gibson, Benedict Fitzgerald
Cast: James Caviezel, Maia Morgenstern, Hristo Jivkov, Francesco De Vito, Monica Bellucci

Osama

While watching Osama, it occurred to me how the dominant shot scale in the few Iranian films–and now this one Afghan film–I’ve seen so far is the wide-angle shot. There are only a few close ups in these movies, and I wonder if that has to do with the self-denying nature of these societies and, more to the point, the aesthetic and psychological effect that living in such societies has on a filmmaker’s sensibilities. Perhaps. In any case, Osama is an immaculately photographed series of living snapshots of Kabul during the reign of the Taliban. The story follows the tribulations of a teenage girl who shears her hair and assumes a male identity (taking on the titular name) so that she can work and earn money for her impoverished mother and grandmother (whose home has been emptied of its men by the anti-Soviet resistance). The director culls together vignettes from a variety of true-life sources, all of which comprise a cohesive study of an intimate human tragedy that, it is clearly implied, is occurring rampantly on a national scale. Writer/director Barmak has an assured grasp of the medium (Italian Neorealism in equal doses with Russian cinema is all over Osama). Sustaining a subdued, often mesmerizing, tone and a rigorously truthful storytelling ethic, he follows Osama’s bitter indignities and rips off the guise of self-righteousness that the Taliban — that gang of infuriatingly misogynistic and exploitative thugs — long kept themselves shrouded behind as they terrorized millions of demoralized and downtrodden people. A wonderful and riveting movie experience.

Grade: A-

Directed by: Siddiq Barmak
Written by: Siddiq Barmak
Cast: Marina Golbahari, Arif Herati, Zubaida Sahar

Ocean’s Twelve

A self-indulgent lark if ever there was one. Lucky for us Steven Soderbergh is at the helm. The script-by-committee feels sloppy, roughed-up, and not at all how heist films should feel. Having said that, I think Soderbergh was trying less to make a heist film than just a fun diversion, albeit one that over-indulges its megastar cast. The snarled story has to do with how Danny Ocean (Clooney) and his cohorts must recover the $160 million that he stole from Terry Benedict (Garcia) in the first movie, plus interest. The only way to do it is to leave the county and plunder Europe where his identity is less known. When he and his Eleven make it to Amsterdam, they soon realize that a well-known and notorious French thief, the Night Fox (played smoothly by Vincent Cassel), is on to them and very jealous, not to mention zealous about securing the crown as world’s greatest thief. So, it comes down to a race between the Night Fox and Ocean’s Twelve (the Eleven plus Tess, Danny’s wife) to nab a Faberge egg from a Rome art gallery. Tangled into this brouhaha is a Europol detective played by the luscious Catherine Zeta Jones (a former flame of Brad Pitt’s Rusty and a woman scarred by the childhood disappearance of her father) determined to capture the Night Fox and corral Ocean’s gang while she’s at it. It’s all fun ‘n’ games, but one gets the feeling that Soderbergh is merely indulging (there’s that word again) his stars at the expense of respect for his audience and for the needs of what should’ve been a tighter, more streamlined effort. Generally sloppy performances give the impression of a bunch of rich movie stars set loose on a very expensive playground…and presuming we want to watch. Still, Soderbergh has a good eye, and a solid enough grip on style and on his material to make this a fairly watchable, amusing outing.

Grade: C+

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: George Clayton Johnson, Jack Golden Russell, George Nolfi
Cast: Brad Pitt, Catherine Zeta-Jones, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Andy Garcia, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, Shaobo Qin, Bernie Mac, Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Carl Reiner