Tuesday, July 13, 2010


(Ermanno Olmi - Abbas Kiarostami - Ken Loach, Italy/UK, 2005)

Not bad for an omnibus flick. That's a bit of a lame qualifier, I'll admit, since the omnibus enterprise is pretty much always compromised, or at least is always regarded as being necessarily Less Than, according to the doyens of cinema taste. And such a qualifier is, therefore, a truism; the episodic structure will always be less than the sum of its parts, and inevitably invites comparisons between the parts, which tend to be inflected with matters of personal taste - certain directors will be given a pass, while others will be pooh-poohed in light of what some may consider the company of their betters. On top of all of that, the efforts to tack the separate pieces together almost invariably come across as either hopelessly contrived or annoyingly whimsical at best. So it's a fallen form. So what? Despite all of that, it can be fun, and it has the tendency to take on a kind of quasi-democratic flavor; it might not be the sexiest idea in existence, but it has a way of revealing things that might otherwise remain hidden.

So here goes: the integration isn't ostentatious, it's functional, and that's point one in favor of Tickets working at all. The stories all take place on, you guessed it, a train, during a single trip to Rome. They start in the terminal, and although the majority of the action is confined to the train cars (an inherently cinematic form, with all sorts of nice synecdoches that needn't be too deeply elaborated on here; suffice it to note the shutter-like whirring of the outside world through the windows, the opportunities for chance encounters, the linear structure, which gives a clear sense of space and propulsive motion, as well as a neat metaphor for the inexorable and sometimes blindingly rapid passage of time, which of course is mitigated by fantasy and memory, hallmarks of cinema, etc. etc. - you get the point) there is plenty of the outside world that the stories refer to, be it temporal or spatial, these are all people only partially living in their surroundings.

As should probably be expected, there's a fair amount of political content to the piece, again using, in a way that doesn't quite always prevent cloying emotional cues, the structure of the train: some people ride first class, some second, and the necessary tensions that arise in such a compressed, laboratory version of society. Plus we've got Ken Loach on board, so a certain volume of social rabble-rousing is safe thing to bet on.

And Loach's segment, the last chronologically, is the best by a hair; Kiarostami, ever the enigmatic formal trickster, has great fun and shows his chops without ostentation, but doesn't quite get the same mileage from the medium as Loach. Olmi, whose work I'm not familiar with, proves to be easily the weakest link, and the most glaring example of the futility of overall cohesion when embarking on, yes, the omnibus film. Olmi's piece, which opens the film, is pleasant but overplays its sentimentality. It's not a bad concept, centering around a lonely pharmaceutical chemist on his way to a grandchild's birthday, and who is stirred by a sudden crush on a gorgeous woman who arranges his fare. But the execution is middling at best - its basically a whimsical romance that turns into a humanist pat on the head, and the attempt a depicting autumnal longing feels labored and even a bit bloated.

When the masters come to take their turn, its about as good in both cases as would be expected. An interesting side effect is that both Loach's and Kiarostami's pieces seem to hint at the greatness of the respective filmmakers, but actually do more to highlight their shortcomings. Kiarostami's oblique segment, with its slow reveal of character and circumstances, has some brilliant moments, but leans too heavily on what is unspoken and un-shown. As usual, he creates tension by what he withholds, only here, it seems as if he's teasing us rather than hinting at something truly substantial; as far as I can tell, it's a clever rumination on sexual politics, but it feels minor and overly clipped. It might be that, absent the long stretches of time K is used to having to let his poetic scenes really ferment, the substance winds up feeling a bit weak. This is really a quibble, as I feel there's something I'm missing about this segment, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Which is typical for Kiarostami, the only difference being that usually you know you've seen something profound, even if it's impossible to articulate - here, it's like you've just seen the trailer.

And so Loach also shows some of his limitations; the tendency towards sentimentality is seen quite clearly here, and is especially prominent in one scene. Basically, Loach is a realist who often wears his Lefty sentiments prominently on his sleeve, and to the casual or inattentive viewer, it might seem like that's all that's going on here. But Loach is a deeply empathetic humanist, and his best work achieves a transcendent poetic sparkle that's something akin to an English cousin of Whitman - his deeper subject has always been the empathetic possibilities of the human heart, and the way in which power structures tend to complicate that facet of our character. Here, we see the closest thing to a classical narrative, excellently structured and with plenty of suspense. But once the story's dilemma has been confronted and solved, there's a scene of beautiful and riotous release that seems to string together all the themes of the segment, and even the whole film; people helping other people, and the way in which the human spirit can circumvent and overcome oppression, be it bureaucratic, emotional, or physical.

So not bad for, y'know, one of those films.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Messenger

(Oren Moverman, USA, 2009)

Unfortunately, a string of well-crafted vignettes that never fully cohere. Taken separately, many of the individual pieces deserve admiration. Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are fantastic, deftly playing off each others' bravado and vulnerability. Samantha Morton is, as usual, spot-on, although her character doesn't get the same kind of care the script gives to the two male roles. It's well-shot, evenly paced, and avoids the kind of easy emotional notes that are endemic to the wounded-warrior film, in which characters are given fifty-yard stares and sudden bouts of violence, but not actual development. The Messenger manages, for the most part, to address the emotional toll of combat without reverting to cliche - mostly through its attention to the quotidian details of the protagonists' duties. Unfortunately, these elements, even when combined, don't contribute to a memorable story.

And that speaks directly to the problem - a marked lack of narrative urgency, and a setting that feels far too familiar. We've been here before, heard the stories about guns and bombs and guilt-wracked soldiers, some of whom manage to get by, and some of whom break down. Even if Moverman manages to imbue the genre with appreciated subtlety, it doesn't change the overall sense of exhaustion that an audience encounters when faced with this well-worn territory. Because as well-executed as the film is, it isn't adding up all that well. There's a feint towards an ethical dilemma, where Foster's character becomes attracted to Morton's bereaved wife, but this is treated, like the rest of the scenes, as an episodic interlude, and doesn't significantly contribute to the development of either character. Morton confesses to Foster that she's relieved her husband is gone - that he had become, in her eyes, irredeemably warped by war. But this is revealed in a lengthy monologue that feels theatrical and belabored, for all of its striving towards pathos. I'm aware that this could very well be part of the point - that the story is relating the repetitive drudgery of the death-notifiers work, and the general pointlessness of the war when confronted with the tragic toll in human life, the lack of direction, no end in sight, and all that. And it is effective at generating a sense of outrage over the state of perpetual war that we're currently in. But that's a losing proposition, from the perspective of the audience's emotional engagement. You just wind up feeling spent and bitter. There are genuinely moving moments, but they are counterbalanced by a refusal to show the kind of change of character that would generate some sustained interest.

In the end, it's a frustrating disappointment - one of those films whose heart is in the right place, but one that can't seem to see beyond the benevolence of its intentions and its own carefully-constructed sense of sympathy. It is remarkably well-constructed, but unfocused and redundant feeling. Rather than add up to a vital, multi-layered whole, it remains a series of scenes, like a high-level workshop for writing and acting; related, but not finally essential to, each other .