A Christmas Tale, The Dead, and Gomorrah
Talking Out of Frame:
The holidays are upon us, and no corner of the film world is safe! Doesn't matter how low or high your brow, there are movies for the season out there. Below find a round-up of some of these, along with other choices from the artier side of the aisle.
One of my favorites for this time of year is John Huston's final film, The Dead. It was released in 1987, mere months after the veteran director's passing. Adapted from a story by James Joyce, The Dead takes place in Dublin, Ireland, on Christmas Eve 1904. Three sisters (played by Helena Carroll, Cathleen Delany, and Ingrid Craigie) are hosting a dinner for family and friends. The guests come, they enjoy a little song, and then they partake of a goose feast. Amongst the guests is Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann), the nephew of the two older hostesses, and his wife, Greta (Huston). Throughout the meal, the many attendees share their love of music and their memories of favorite singers, discuss religion, and largely get on well. It's what happens after the dinner, however, a revelation of Greta's lost love and the flight of melancholy in inspires in her husband that shows us how fragile life can be.
The Dead was nominated for an Oscar for Dorothy Jeakins' costume designs, and a large part of why this film works so well is the meticulous attention to detail paid by Jeakins, as well as production designers Stephen Grimes and Dennis Washington. The clothes and the sets are elaborate without being ostentatious. They make the story believable without ever overshadowing it. The whole of The Dead is understated in a way that makes it all the more realistic. It is not as attention grabbing as most costume dramas are, John Huston prefers the focus to be on the writing and the people and not the setting. His is a quiet film, one that grows quieter the longer it runs, from the sounds of a party all the way to silence. The final image is of snow falling in the sky, no words, only accompanied by plaintive music that hangs on to the very end, then stopping for a breath, the sky turning to nothing.
Note, there was a bit of a glitch with this first release of The Dead on DVD, but check the full review for info on how to exchange faulty discs. There is a Santa Claus!
A more recent holiday choice is A Christmas Tale, Arnaud Desplechin's multi-leveled yet somehow easily assembled family drama that tracks the Vuillards over the course of four days, December 22nd through 25th--not including the considerable history they bring with them to their holiday celebration. Desplechin sets the table for this feast in the very first scenes, using cut-out puppet theatre to catch us up on the family dynamic. The heads of the clan are Abel (Jean-Paul Roussillon), who is in the fabric dye business, and Junon (Catherine Deneuve). They had four children together, though their oldest, Jonathan, died of a rare condition when very young. Neither his parents nor his sister Elizabeth (Anne Consigny) could offer him the transfusion he needed, and even little Henri (Mathieu Amalric) was tested in the womb to see if he could help. No dice, Jonathan passed, and his specter has haunted the family ever since, particularly settling on Henri, who was born right at the same time, yet somehow leaving the next down the line, Ivan (Melvil Poupaud), alone.
When A Christmas Tale picks up in real life and real time, the kids have grown up and mother Junon has been diagnosed with a cancer much like Jonathan's. Once again, there is a scramble to find matching marrow. There are complications, however, Henri has been in exile for six years, his sister having banished him in return for assuming his debts. He is a drinker and a screw-up, and everyone else has gone along with Elizabeth even though they don't have any idea why she chose to be so extreme. Henri is about to return to the family, joining them for Christmas, a move largely precipitated by Elizabeth's teenage son Paul (Emile Berling). Paul has recently been diagnosed as schizophrenic, apparently at the same age that Ivan had similar mental problems. It would appear that when it comes time to fill out a hospital form, the Vuillard's can check "yes" next to "a history of mental illness."
In terms of holiday movies, A Christmas Tale hits some major points. It's about family coming together, and it's about a hope for a better tomorrow that comes through reconciling the past. There are also elements of magic that tie into psychosis, something we see in films as far flung in time as Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and Bergman's Fanny & Alexander (here, it's Paul's visions). Arnaud Desplechin is playing it a little coy at the finish. The final scene between Henri and Junon ends with raised eyebrows and a question, and the very end of the film has Elizabeth quoting Shakespeare, wondering if anything is truly mended or if this dream merely cycles into another one. Whether or not you walk away from that deciding A Christmas Tale reaches a positive or negative conclusion is down to you. It's how you choose to make your own peace that makes all the difference, something that puts you right in line with the Vuillard family dynamic.
For those of you not wanting to give up on Halloween and transition into the yuletide just yet, you can always try out the new vampire movie from Old Boy-director Chan-Wook Park. It's an adaptation of Emile Zola's Therese Raquin to boot. As Chris Neilson's explains it, "Thirst is more than a modern retelling of Zola's tale of sex and murder; with the introduction of vampirism and Catholicism, it's essentially a genre-defying, convoluted morality play. Sang-hyeon, played by Song Kang-ho (Memories of Murder), is a Catholic priest posted to a hospital where he ministers to the ill and dying. Though universally beloved by the patients and their families for his compassion and devotion, Sang-hyeon feels called to do even more. When he volunteers as a test subject for an ultra-risky medical experiment to find a cure for an Ebola-like blood disease, Sang-hyeon is accidentally infected with vampirism. Seemingly returned from the dead, Sang-hyeon finds direct sunlight intolerable, craves human blood, is overwhelmed with carnal desires, and imbued with superhuman strength and powers of regeneration.
"The confused Sang-hyeon begins covertly helping himself to the blood of coma victims at the hospital a pint at a time, but his world really turns upside down when he visits his childhood friend Kang-woo (Shin Ha-kyun). Kang-woo is a slow and sickly man who lives with his domineering mother (Kim Hae-sook) and his beautiful young wife Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin), an orphan taken in by Kang-woo's mother as a girl and later married off to him. Despite Sang-hyeon's best efforts to keep his desires in check, he and Tae-ju begin a torrid affair. Eventually, Tae-ju manipulates Sang-hyeon into helping her kill her husband, and convinces him to make her a vampire too. Before long, Sang-hyeon is living with Tae-ju and her now paralyzed mother-in-law and the materialized ghost/guilt of their crime, the drowned Kang-woo.
"At one-hundred-and-thirty-four minutes, Thirst is at least a half hour too long, but it's a psychologically engaging, visually innovative, and cliché-free vampire romp. Alas, this bare-bones, visually middling, release from Focus Features will be a disappointment to Chan-Wook Park's ardent fans who will have to decide whether to settle for this, or wait for a Korean-release special edition." (I didn't like Thirst as much as Chris when I reviewed the theatrical release, but I still recommended it.)
Christmas in the Italian slum that is the centerpiece from the new Criterion release of Gomorrah is probably not all that great, but as Thomas Spurlin discovered, the movie is something special in its own right. "[The film] bases its content on Robert Saviano's partly non-fiction novel of the same name, an exposé on the Camorra organized crime syndicate and its Neapolitan underground dealings. It focuses on five interlinked stories that tackle different corrupt elements: training and recruiting young upstarts to the gang, sketchy waste disposal, monetary distribution to imprisoned gang members' families, the Camorra's foot-in-the-door with popular culture textiles via a couture designer (Salvatore Cantalupo), and the ways that the lifestyle's greed can appeal to and contort teenage minds. Director Garrone zeroes in on an observational manner with soaking in the dialogue and witnessing the myriad of character reactions, concentrating on the damaging human effects that the cutthroat, heartless network of activity has on individuals.
"Within its length and grace of motion, Gomorrah becomes a highly demanding crime drama. Dialogue mixes half and half with deliberate close-ups and wavering camera movement, creating a sense of both disorientation and awe within the viewer witnessing the realistic, gritty modern-era portrayal of the Camorra's many layers. Leanness isn't exactly a claim to its visceral success, however there's something beguiling about its earnest capturing of Naples' troubling underbelly. Energy doesn't come barreling around every single corner, though a slow, gut-churning burn can be felt from start to finish as we watch illegal waste dumps. Instead, strategic bursts of force are experienced throughout the film, and every last one of them becomes memorable because of their precise placement. " (Also available on Blu-Ray, reviewed by Jason Bailey.)
More lightheared is Toi & Moi, a French comedy by Julie Lopes-Curval that tries a little too hard to make itself seem like more than it is, as if it were above the romantic-comedy genre at the same time that it is an active part of it. Julie Depardieu stars as Ariane, the author of cloying photo comics in the romance magazine Toi & Moi. Her scripts tell the twisty tales of lovers in peril, of heartbreak and the easy soothing of class division that comes with unexpected, but apparently all-too regular, financial inheritance. The implication of the fantasy is that the windfall of love will cure all. Scoundrels will be routed, and an endless supply of rich aunts and uncles will fall so that even the lowliest gardener may find love.
Of course, Ariane is no good at making her own daydreams real. Her long-term love affair with Farid (Tomer Sisley), a Muslim whose commitment issues may be faith, but may also just be down to him being a jerk, leaves her confused and alone most of the time. Her sister is no better. Lena (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard) is a cellist who is content to be in the orchestra where she can fade into the music, rather than a soloist out front. She has settled into a similarly anonymous relationship with Francois (Eric Berger), a schoolteacher. That is until she meets handsome violin virtuoso Mark (Jonathan Zaccaï), who hears the music in Lena that no one else hears. Skyrockets in flight! The connectiona and re-enactment of Ariane's romantic stories ends up being an unnecessary conceit, and to be honest, it makes Toi & Moi come off as a little lazy. The comics give Lopes-Curval a shortcut around the difficult stuff. She wastes a very good cast on trite scriptwork. The basic plotting is fine, this story could work, but there is never any real passion nor any real gravitas to make it more than any other average romance film on the market. The fact that one sister gets a happy ending while the other doesn't is no salvation, either. Again, there's that wink. Lopes-Curval might as well appear and point it out. "You see what I did? You thought it would be all sentimental, but only one girl inherits her true heart's fortune." Blech.
Much stronger narrative machinations are to be had in the Israeli drama Lemon Tree. In Eran Riklis' drama, the contrived social structure and the divisions between people is part of the point. Hiam Abbass, recently seen in The Visitor and also this month's release The Limits of Control (see below), stars in Lemon Tree as Salma Zildane, a widow whose children have grown and who spends her time tending to a lemon grove planted by her father. Her world is turned upside down when the Israeli Defense Minister (Doran Tavory) moves in next door. Soon there are armed guards, secret service agents, and surveillance cameras keeping an eye on Salma's lemons. Seeing the trees as a place for terrorists to hide, the security force decides it would be best if they cut them down. They expect Salma to just roll over and take it, as so many Palestinians have been made to do before. Instead, Salma hires a lawyer, Ziad Daud (Ali Suliman, The Kingdom), to fight this action. They end up taking it all the way to the Supreme Court, igniting a media controversy and stirring up trouble in the Minister's home. His wife, Mira (Rona Lipaz-Michael), is shocked by her husband's inhumanity and his quick capitulation to policy.
Eran Riklis, who co-wrote Lemon Tree with Suha Arraf, could have easily turned this movie into a cheerleading political polemic. At one point, Ziad compares Salma's battle to that of David versus Goliath, and it would have been no great leap to ratchet up the crusading and give the audience a big cause to get behind. It's been done before, and it's been done well. It's also something pretty easy to do bad, and while Riklis doesn't entirely keep Lemon Tree from getting preachy, the grandstanding moments evolve naturally from a story that is more nuanced and complex than your usual heavy-handed agitprop. Salma is a quiet woman with a simple goal, one that makes perfect sense compared to the kneejerk, self-serving establishment that is standing against her. Mira even tells her husband that she would sue him, too, if she were Salma. Her case is justified, plain and simple, no need to overdo it.
International politics also get some attention in Unimistaken Child, a documentary reviewed by Elizabeth Neilson. The movie "...follows the 4-year journey of Tenzin Zopa, a gentle 28-year-old monk tasked with finding the reincarnation of his renowned Tibetan master (Lama Konchog) who died in 2001. Tenzin is provided a variety of clues: there are signs in the cremation ashes and a Taiwanese astrologer predicts that Lama Konchog will return to a region with the letters TS and be born to a father whose name begins with an A. Equipped with these leads, Tenzin searches for his master throughout the astonishingly beautiful countryside of Nepal, providing a rare glimpse into the ancient traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.
"While on his quest, Tenzin inquires about children between the ages of 1 to 1 ½ in the hopes of finding a candidate who can pass rigorous, ritualistic tests (recognizing favorite belongings from the previous life and sometimes recognizing people they knew before) meant to distinguish enlightened beings. When a rosy, chubby toddler in the Tsum Valley is found watering a tree planted by Lama Konchog and correctly identifies the monk's prayer beads and hand drum, it's the beginning of juxtaposed tranformations. The cherub embarks on a new life to regain his previous knowledge and reduce the world's suffering; Tenzin emerges from a devoted disciple who feels unworthy and unsure about finding his master, to become a confident mentor who is prepared to teach his reborn, spiritual father. Some viewers may be frustrated that Baratz doesn't tackle certain issues (for example: what happens if the toddler grows up and - having sacrificed family and traditional childhood for monastic life - comes to regret or rebel against his circumstances?) However, I found the film's gaps to be trumped by the story's compelling arc - the tremendous devotion Tenzin has for Lama Konchog, the deep grief following his death, and Tenzin's commitment to finding and serving his master again."
Another documentary about enlightenment is the somewhat more cheeky Enighten Up!, a film about accepting change as it comes. As Chris Neilson explains, "Documentaries in their initial concept and final form often diverge, but rarely more so than in filmmaker Kate Churchill's Enlighten Up!. Churchill, a longtime devotee of yoga, intended to make a documentary about the transformative power of yoga. Her plan was to follow a yoga novice, 29-year-old unemployed journalist Nick Rosen, for six months as he sought out a spiritually transformative yoga practice. But that's not how things worked out. How Churchill's plan went awry and the theme which emerged to take its place, fortunately, make for an interesting story nonetheless.
"[Yoga] novice Nick Rosen, with Kate Churchill's camera crew in tow, embarks on his search for a transformative practice with visits to several of NYC's premiere yoga studios. Though the studios are filled with enthusiastic students with the kind of limber and lean-muscled bodies rarely seen in the malls of America's heartland, the new-age claptrap espoused by many of the NYC gurus featured is at best unpersuasive to Rosen. It's at this point that one can begin to sense Churchill's growing misgivings about selecting Rosen who as a professional journalist, religious agnostic, and adult child of former back-to-the-land hippies, has a degree of skepticism far exceeding that likely of most others who might have signed on for Churchill's project.
"Unable to bend Rosen's experiences to her preconceptions, Churchill spent 30 months working with editors Khari Streeter and Jonathan Sahula to turn the 500 hours of footage into a coherent documentary, albeit one very different from the kind Churchill set out to make. In listening to seven hours of Rosen reading his daily journals, and the many conversations caught on camera between Rosen and Churchill never intended for inclusion in the documentary, the trio in the editing booth refocused the film on the personal dynamics of Rosen and Churchill's working relationship, and their unique expectations and experiences during those six months together. The final product is actually a fairly brave choice for Churchill who frequently comes off looking frustrated and hectoring in comparison to Rosen who always seems amiable, curious, and even-keeled."
Speaking of a stories with gaps or that fail to conform to expected narrative lines, not all cinephiles are going to love Jim Jarmusch's latest, The Limits of Control, but I found its mysterious nature to be extremely compelling. Isaach De Bankolé stars in the movie as the "Lone Man." He is some kind of deliveryman, a gangster, a solitary traveler who is the connecting thread for a puzzle that takes him all the way across Spain. He meets a variety of characters, trading matchboxes with them. In each box is a coded message, and sometimes payments. The new agents in this plot also deliver cryptic instructions. "The guitar will find you," "The Mexican will bring the driver," etc. Who these people are, what their goal is, it's never explained. Jarmusch runs through an international cast for his messengers: Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, Paz de la Huerta, Hiam Abbass, John Hurt, and Bill Murray all make appearances. They come, they go, and if they are seen again, it's usually not good. The Lone Man continues on regardless, mostly silent, unfazed. In a way, the comings and goings remind me of Jarmusch's own anthology film, Coffee & Cigarettes, in which randomly placed pairs of people come together for short conversations.
The Limits of Control may appear to be aimless fluff to some, but those who stick with it will see that the Lone Man's journey does have a purpose. Jarmusch is wrestling with metaphysical and philosophical ideas, questioning how we perceive the world and our place in it. I also thought the movie was intended to make a statement about the artistic process. The Limits of Control is Jarmusch punching at the ghosts that haunt moviemaking. The Lone Man seeks to create something beautiful, but his path is beset by challenges from unseen forces who have little idea of how a true artist gets results. When the Lone Man finally reaches his target, he finds a corporate stooge that can't even fathom how this mysterious stranger penetrated his world. "I used my imagination" is the Lone Man's reply. Imagination is a difficult commodity to quantify. Jarmusch even gives it bigger implications, adding a political wrinkle that would suggest that the same stranglehold the moneymen have on the motion picture industry is choking the human spirit worldwide. The control they take is at the sacrifice of your own power and destiny.
Control is a key word for two of Criterion's releases this month. First is the Robert Redford vehicle Downhill Racer, about a professional skiier, a sport that requires rigorous attention. Casey Burchby reviews the disc: "Michael Ritchie's debut feature...is a quietly thrilling, beautifully-shot film about a particularly American theme. What does it mean to be a champion? Is it a worthy goal in and of itself? These questions are posed in a far more elegant fashion within the film, but what's interesting about them is the fact that they are in a 'sports film' at all. Downhill Racer is a rare film. Anchored by a character who doesn't do a whole lot of talking - and therefore dependent upon a skilled performance by Robert Redford - the movie takes us inside a highly competitive mind and reveals the empty places therein."
The other place where control takes on real importance is live televison. The Golden Age of Television is a three-disc collection of eight rare broadcasts from the 1950s. The collection is named for a PBS series that showcased this exciting time. The original presentations were performed live on the East Coast, shot with multiple cameras, but in the days before video tape, so no clean way to capture what was happening. The filmmakers edited as they went, it wasn't on film. What PBS resurrected and what they showed when this series first ran back in the early 1980s, bringing these vintage teleplays back to the air for the first time in decades, were recordings called "kinescopes." Essentially, kinescope was a process of photographing the broadcast by pointing a special camera at a video monitor. Like if you took a camera yourself and set it up in front of your TV and recorded a show. It wasn't perfect--you can sometimes see the curve of the screen, or a speck of dirt on the glass, or any number of glitches--but it was the only way to prevent these programs from just disappearing into thin air.
The material here is the cream of the crop, chosen from hours of television. Amongst the shows, we get early scripts from writers as revered as Paddy Chayefsky, Ira Levin, and Rod Serling, direction from future legends like John Frankenheimer, and performances by Ed Begley, Andy Griffith, Rod Steiger, Elizabeth Montgomery, George Peppard, Paul Newman, Julie Harris, Kim Hunter, Jack Palance, Mel Torme, and Piper Laurie in roles both big and a small. There are also small-screen turns by established big-screen stars like Everett Sloane, Edmond O'Brien, and Mickey Rooney. Structured more like the legitimate theatre, these high-wire acts show a precision of craft and a dedication from the talent we don't see all that much anymore. There were no do-overs. They only got one shot.
The thing about watching The Golden Age of Television is that you would never know these productions were recorded live if you weren't told. They aren't gimmicky or shambolic, they aren't simply one-room sets like filming a stage play within its confined space. What is still amazing to see is how deftly these filmmakers pulled this off, how seamlessly they move from one location to the next, from character to character, never letting the cracks show. These are fine-tuned productions, expertly rehearsed, carefully honed to come off without a hitch. These dramas were meant to compete with motion pictures--and they do. Quite easily.
Thomas Spurlin takes a look at another potent drama, Shohei Imamura's Black Rain, a film that looks at the aftermath U.S. dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and "delivers one of the strongest narratives that I've encountered in foreign cinema. This intricate masterwork does innumerable things correctly where other war films go awry. Instead of slapping on too much material and lambasting the viewer with ridiculous levels of military stratagems, Imamura's piece instead concentrates on afterthoughts and character reverberations through an acute visual style. Outside of the condemnation of military strife, this film serves more as a portrait of the time period instead of a message-based delivery. However, Black Rain does take on a theme revolving around the effects of human inflicted devastation, and the willpower it takes to combat succumbing to hardship.
"Black Rain can be looked at predominately as a dramatic insight into humanity's capacity to cope with such a past, as well as a dissection of how they suppress both physical and emotional repercussions from the attack. However, it's also effective as a disturbing physical film displaying the direct horrors of atomic warfare. When a younger boy stumbles up to his elder brother with skin dripping from his bones, chills trail up and down your own skin at the thought -- and at the dramatic implications. It's not just the unsettling vision of his body, but also the evocation felt for the normal child swallowed whole by this menace. Imamura doesn't just show this to invoke fear or grotesqueness within the viewer; he thrusts this boy, as well as an implausible number of other bodies, in hindsight to illustrate the extreme effects of the atomic explosion, effects that would be mildly infused into each and every victim. "
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. His most recent work is the forthcoming hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, drawn by the incomparable Joelle Jones. This follows his first original graphic novel with Jones, 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, all published by Oni Press. His next project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.
Special thanks to Jason Bailey, Casey Burchby, Chris Neilson, Elizabeth Neilson, and Thomas Spurlin for their contributions.
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