Sunday, December 27, 2009

Broken Embraces

(Pedro Almodovar, Spain, 2009)

A virtuosic performance by Almodovar and his cohorts (especially Penelope), but while the film is sumptuous and eye-catching and jam-packed with internal references and echoes, there is very little dimension to the characters. They are all put through the emotional wringer, more or less, but it doesn't feel as if anything vital is at stake - the characters feel like they're theoretically complex, but the director fails to make us actually care about them. Of course, it isn't clear that 3-D characterization is Almodovar's top priority - it seems more that he's content to dazzle us on a formal level. That's all well and good for about two thirds of the movie, but it isn't enough to make the whole thing hang together, and the experience ends up feeling rather flat.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Almodovar is actually interested in a cake-and-eat-it kind of deal - that he's fascinated by all the inter-textual resonance and cool detachment, and that he wants us to be fascinated too, but he's also trying to tell a good, juicy story. But the themes that he touches on (without ever really exploring at any depth, ie. performance and identity, the irretrievability of the past, and patrimony, to name a few; there are plenty) are intrinsically heavy, and their emotional significance ends up being muted. There are moments and scenes in which the emotional stakes are very high, but they feel desultory, bracketed by clever little melodramatic and comedic trifles. Both of these are strong suits for Almodovar - comedy and melodrama - but in Broken Embraces he doesn't manage to compose anything that hangs together - it's elegantly slapdash, but still slapdash.

That sense of inconsistency is the root of the problem. It's as if Pedro has contracted a case of cinematic ADD - he's trying everything in this film without ever investing his full attention in the piece overall. This incoherence extends to the film on a formal level - there are several shots that display his expert sense of visual balance and rhythm - but there are others that stood out as awkwardly edited, even some genuine visual non-sequitors that smacked more of error than of idiosyncrasy.

All of which shouldn't be taken to mean that the film isn't enjoyable - it is, mostly. But it's frustrating for not being as enjoyable as it could be if the director would just take a deep breath and concentrate on doing something besides impressing everybody. Trust the story, Pedro. Less is more.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


(James Cameron, US, 2009)

Well, it has finally arrived, and I'm happy to say that despite no small amount of initial skepticism, I heartily enjoyed Avatar. It's hard to adequately judge this film at the moment, being as I'm still in the process of decompression from the experience, but this will be an "immediate reaction" kind of post. And my immediate reaction is: pretty freaking impressed. My expectations were met and mostly exceeded. I found myself easily forgiving all of the obvious foibles - cheesy dialogue, on-the-nose allusions, the resounding similarity of the plot with a dozen other similarly themed sci-fi adventure stories. (It's worth exploring those allusions, too - they're so on-the-nose that they almost manage to transform the film into some kind of spectacular polemic against American imperialism, but a discussion of all that will have to wait.) And that's usually a pretty good marker for the overall quality of a movie - how much can you bring yourself to love it, despite how bad some of it may be to your taste and sensibilities? It helps that I'm pretty much in the tank for Cameron's apparent politics, sure, but I'm not usually so swayed by such wide-eyed fantasy.

As of right now, I can say that Avatar has two very major points of interest - two things that Cameron does very well. One is technical, the other one is more formal. Technically, Avatar is a masterpiece. It is not uniformly beautiful - at times, it crosses over into opulence, and there is a kind of uniformity to the environment that feels, well, limited in the human-limitation way (imagine that.) But it is gorgeous enough to knock the pants off of any current contender to the throne of computer-generated visual splendor. Some of the best moments in the film occur when Jake is exploring Pandora for the first time - his first foray into the macro-sized rain forest, which begins in quiet wonder at the exotic lifeforms and culminates in a frantic exit-pursued-by a-hammerhead-alien-rhinoceros. Cameron and his mighty legion of animators, shaders, designers, colorists and so on ad infinitum even manage to top this when Sully (the protagonist), stranded in the forest at night, fashions a torch and then has to run like hell again, this time with a pack of alien jackal creatures nipping at his heels. The movement of the "camera" (here, as in much of the rest of the film, the camera is a computer-generated construct, and almost creepily accurate in its recreation of lens flares, shakiness, and shifting focus), combined with the eerie ambient light AND the light from Sully's torch, makes for pure cinematic gorgeousness. Cameron's shrewdness is especially apparent here in his allowing for the artificiality of CGI to work in his favor. Rather than marshsalling all of his mighty processing power to completely mimic the depth and detail of a real rain forest, he lets his animators make an environment that feels exotic, alien, dreamlike, in other words, appropriately un-real. It's a different kind of beauty, of course, than what you'll get in the cinematography of Nestor Almendros or Gordon Willis, but that's exactly the point. It's the first time I've actually felt somewhat congenial towards the idea of a totally virtual enviroment, and while there is an element of trepidation to such a sensation (a healthy reservation, I believe) it was nevertheless truly inspiring to see what wonders human minds are capable of creating.

The other big factor in Cameron's favor is his full embrace of the genre - in this case, action adventure of the kind pioneered by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Cameron is not a ground-breaker or even a rule-bender in this regard, and actually, on a genric level, he's pretty much breaking with his earlier work, which tended to be gritty and harsh and distinctly dystopian. In Avatar, he plays things very much by the book - carefully constructing a world that is fake enough for us to believe it. The embellished parable, as it might be called, is a form that film does very well. People who complain about the shallowness of the story (a shallowness that is worth noting, but not complaining about) are missing the point. It's a fable, a pageant. It's not interested in psychological depth or narrative twists and turns. It's simply presenting, as Cameron himself has noted, a straightforward account of the history of aggression in humanity - one group invades another because it wants the other's resources. This is a story that is not told often enough, contrary to what several critics have been harping on.
Yes, yes, of course, though: it could have been so much more. It could have had an interesting philosophical slant. But that wasn't what Cameron was after.

Then there's the theme. This is where things get a little more interesting. The notion of, essentially, rooting for the aliens, of favoring them over the humans, does make for an interesting sort of empathy experiment. What does it say about our connection to the earth, about our need for scientific veracity, about our desperation and seeming inability to know ourselves until it's too late -until we're ruined, mind and body, and in doing so have ruined the world that we were born in? More to come.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Werckmeister Harmonies

(Bela Tarr, Hungary, 2000) Two features in and I still don't know what to make of Tarr. Damnation had moments of startling beauty, but its cinematic gracefulness buckled under the atmosphere of gloom. Here, the gloom isn't quite as thick, although the apocalyptic theme remains. Tarr has developed a lighter touch, but at the same time seems to have lost some of his former precision. The camerawork in Werckmeister Harmonies is often labored and meandering, and the various set pieces seem strung together and ponderous. A lot of the imagery and dialogue is just oblique enough to avoid being obvious, but that only makes it feel like a dodge, and all the more pretentious for that. Are we dealing with a rehashing of the Moby Dick allegory? Is the sinister Prince meant to be emblematic of all charismatic leaders? The central conflicts are familiar - choas vs. order, peace vs. violence, innocence vs. evil. Tarr's worldview seems to be oddly similar to Werner Herzog's - a universe that is predominantly depraved and chaotic, with the hapless humans going about their futile business of finding meaning.

Color me underwhelmed. This film has been popping up on Best of the Decade lists everywhere, and while I suppose I can understand some of the furor (it has several hallmarks of The Important Art Film) I can't bring myself to join in. The visuals didn't sweep over me and I wasn't moved by the fleeting moments of humanity. I don't think Tarr is a poseur - I'm willing to grant some credibility to his seriousness and his commitment to his project. But he's an artist without much to say, or one who's too bottled up and bound by his preoccupations to say anything of lasting relevance.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Road

(John Hillcoat, US, 2009)

An interesting film to talk about, but a trial to watch. From a purely technical standpoint, there's a lot to admire, provided you can survive the brutally depressing mood that it evokes. The performances, set design, and editing are all top-notch; in fact, only the music fails to satisfy - it verges on maudlin, abetting the fugue of despair that pummels your feelings into submission. I can't heap enough praise on the mighty Viggo, whose performance is deserving of the term heroic. Part of that sense of heroism, however, comes from an impression of his having struggled for so empty an endeavor. The problem isn't that it's a poorly-made film, or one made with anything but good intentions, care, and sincerity. Indeed, it's almost shockingly sincere, and that's part of the problem.

Can we talk about the notion of a novel being unfilmmable? I'm reminded of a line from the film Jurassic Park (based on a book that practically screamed to be adapted to the screen) in which Jeff Goldblum's character chides the genetic scientists for being "so concerned over whether or not they could that they forgot to think about whether or not they should." I think that the same injunction ought to apply to adaptations of certain novels, and it's one that Hillcoat should have thought more about before they made this film. Of course, in this day and age, there is no greater prize for a literary work than being made into a movie, so it's unlikely that people will start being more circumspect any time soon.

But the question remains - why? It's not to say that subject matter as solemn and terrible as the The Road's off-limits to cinema, but here the steady progression of harrowing situations feels unduly oppressive. It's not all horror, of course, and the film handles the moments of hope carefully, without spilling into sentimentality. All the same, the glimpses of redemption don't do much to leaven the gloom, with the possible exception of the ending - but really, by the end we're so emotionally downtrodden, we'll leap at anything suggesting survival. But is just surviving enough? Is it worth it if no hope exists? Such questions, raised so explicitly and starkly, aren't adequately worked through.

This is sort of the idea behind my earlier comment regarding Viggo having struggled heroically towards dubious ends. The movie is a powerful, overwhelming experience, but it doesn't feel like a great film - it feels like walking through a third-world slum, full of beggars and whores and suffering at a pitch that you really can't adequately imagine. It's not cathartic, it's just awful, and you find yourself feeling spent and mournful rather than fulfilled. While watching the Road, I couldn't help but think that minus the apocalyptic catastrophe, such horrors exist right now. From vicious rape and murder to the unthinkable suffering of starvation, to the quotidian desperation of the homeless - it's all here in this pre-apocalyptic world, just outside the comfort and the joy and the mild inconveniences of the few and very fortunate.

Maybe that should speak in favor of The Road as real art - it did made me feel, and it made me think. Maybe my stance toward the whole film-representation of terrible things is reactionary and unnecessary. But I can't avoid thinking that the unrelenting despair of the film, in all of its perfectly crafted realism, constitutes a kind of transgression against the suffering that is real - a bad-faith manipulation of our capacity to feel pity and sorrow. Can a film this bleak and uncompromising have a greater utility than its ability to make us grateful for running water and electricity? Something so visceral, immediate, so commanding of our instinct to fear violence and privation, doesn't have the detachment* that allows us to adequately respond to these questions - and that's where the Road finally fails.

*A detachment, I should note, that is built-in to the experience of reading a novel, which does not have cinema's fixed dimension of time. Again, this isn't to say that the subject matter itself is too much of anything - too terrible, or despair-inducing - to be given a treatment in cinema. Just that such a treatment has to be very carefully modulated. It has to give the audience a fair shake; some amount of imaginative space to move in, so to speak. Paradoxically, the excellent craft of the movie version of The Road is actually to its detriment. It's a law of diminishing returns kind of thing - the more convincing you make this particular fictional world, the less you give to the audience to do on their own, in terms of feeling as well as thinking.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Sun

(Alexander Sokurov, Russian/Italy/France/Japan, 2005)

It's the eve of Japan's surrender to the Allied forces, and the emperor Hirohito passes his days in a lonely windowless bunker, preoccupied with regret, worry, and doubt. He's beginning to get the feeling that he's not descended from the Sun goddess after all, and is just a mortal like everyone else. His servants and generals insist on his celestial lineage, but the Emperor is worn-out and disappointed, and he knows it won't be long before the Americans come knocking. He does get a bang out of his chief hobby, that of an amateur marine biologist, but his family has been sent away to avoid the Allied bombing, and his only companions are a doting, elderly hand servant and a sycophantic aide.

The film sticks almost claustrophobically close to the Emperor, who is depicted with great prowess by Issei Ogata, but for all of the time spent lingering on his every move and word, little is revealed. Sukorov, who directed and photographed the film, presents the character as a man who has spent his entire life in a dream - simultaneously monstrous and childlike, capable of ordering the death of thousands with a single word and yet dazzled with joy over the beauty of a hermit crab. The contrast between the spoiled tyrant and the gentle recluse is apparent, but the film produces no greater effect than mild curiosity, which can't carry it for the almost two-hour running time. It has all the ingredients for an epic tragedy, but nothing occurs to produce anything like pity or awe. What remains instead is a dolorous mood piece, abetted by the repetitive, ominous score and the desaturated, flat cinematography.

Except for a couple of abrupt, striking moments (the apocalyptic dream sequence is truly terrifying), there isn't much here to admire. I was struck most by the ramshackle production quality - the choice of camera placement and use of lighting is bizarrely amateurish, and the editing is obtuse and out of sync with the overall tone of the story. Having seen (and been exquisitely bored by) Russian Ark, I know that Sukorov at least knows rudimentary staging and image composition, but none of that is apparent here - for the most part, it looks like it was directed and shot by a sophomore film student. Part of this has to be by design - the pale, milky imagery is obviously intentional, and it suggests the foggy quality of antique photography - but it still just looks cheap and sloppy. I'm tempted to chalk the whole mess up to an artistic misstep, since it's clear that Sokurov is both serious and committed to his subject. But that doesn't change the fact that the film is a mess - it's full of passion but is absent of rigor, precision, or anything really special to say.