The Maid, Stan Brakhage, and Jim Jarmusch
Talking Out of Frame:
It's summer now, and that means the multiplexes are filled with big budget movies that are loud, brash, and over the top. Those aren't necessarily bad things, but let's not forget that there is more to cinema than that. Like, how about the experimental? You can't get farther away from this mentality than Stan Brakhage, whose short films are full of special effects, but not the kind that you need a computer or a lot of money to make. Criterion released a collection of his influential short films several years ago, and they have now come out with a second. Blu-Ray fans will be happy to hear that they have put both sets together as one and called it By Brakhage: An Anthology, Volumes One and Two. Adam Tyner tackles this challenging subject, and ranks it with the highest mark DVD Talk gives: "My familiarity with Stan Brakhage was limited largely to his reputation: the name more closely associated with experimental film than any other and a man responsible for producing several hundred of them over the course of nearly a half-century. Like most anyone who'd taken a film class at one time or another, I'd seen Brakhage's Mothlight, but those few minutes represented the entirety of my direct knowledge of his work. My true introduction to Brakhage came through this Blu-ray release of fifty-six of his many films, and I'll admit that a review of such a sprawling, challenging collection with a deadline bearing down is far from an ideal way to first experience his work.
"Brakhage had an appreciation for traditional dramatic narrative but didn't feel that it represented art...didn't believe there had been any new ground broken on that front since the time of the Greeks, let alone since the dawn of cinema. Brakhage tested the outermost boundaries of what film is capable of producing. Using the medium to advance his concept of 'moving visual thinking,' the imagery in Brakhage's work is often shapeless...nameless. You aren't meant to recognize or immediately, consciously comprehend what's being splashed across the screen...it's there to evoke a certain emotion. Inspired by the pioneering work of Sergei Eisenstein, Brakhage also explored the concept of montage -- cutting between multiple images that combine into a single truth -- and further built upon this foundation by superimposing layers of images on top of one another. Frequently throughout this collection, Brakhage doesn't give the viewer the opportunity to fully process an image at first glance; propelled by the rhythm of his visual poetry, the filmmaker is ready to move onto the next image at times within a fraction of a second, well before the audience likely is. The frame may be out of focus, awash in one hue or another, or violently explode with color. The frame periodically drops to complete black, as if Brakhage had exhausted his eyes and needed at long last to blink. Brakhage didn't feel the need to tether himself to the traditional tools of a filmmaker either, and quite a number of the work showcased here was produced without the aid of a camera. With supreme skill and patience, he'd paint directly onto strips of 16mm film. More than once he'd collect small objects on strips of tape -- stems, leaves, blades of grass, moth wings, and the like -- and have that transferred to film that he could later project. Brakhage used film as a medium in ways few else have, etching directly into it, baking the celluloid, and distorting it however his project at the time demanded. His final film, Chinese Series, was produced by a bedridden Brakhage with strips of film, saliva, and his thumbnail.
"There is no longer a comfortable point of reference. There is no clearly structured narrative. There is no dialogue and rarely any people to speak of in the frame. There are frequently no recognizable shapes, and the overwhelming majority of Brakhage's films are entirely silent. Everything you know is wrong. Brakhage's work demands an entirely new way of seeing...of processing information... and this is why I feel as if I've failed. Brakhage assaults with one barrage of strange and wonderful imagery after another. The visuals are all there is because to Brakhage, all that is, is visual...we're all light."
Less experimental in approach, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's family drama Tokyo Sonata still plays around with structure and the traditional notions of a family film. Thomas Spurlin writes: "Kiyoshi Kurosawa's subtle talent begins with a dash of imagery at the beginning of the film, showing a woman (Kyôko Koizumi) in a typical Japanese home cleaning up the mess made by a rain shower -- suggesting a 'storm' is brewing, one that might spark her curiosity to look face-on into her conflicts. At first, it seems as if the majority of the picture will zone in on the downsized father, Ryûhei (Teruyuki Kagawa), and how his lie-riddled attempt at maintaining his family's esteem creates his storm. Teruyuki Kagawa's talent suggests this with his piercing, downtrodden eyes and coarse vocal delivery. We watch him limply listen to a job placement officer suggest fast food management and security officer jobs, as well as witness how he reacts when he bumps into a high-school friend who's also an unemployed professional. Moments with his wife and two sons, one a middle-school boy who finds his way into trouble and the other a late-teens kid staying out late while 'at-work,' are conservatively incorporated early in the story. They seem minor, more like pieces moving around Ryûhei's plummet.
"Tokyo Sonata, contrary to its opening assumption, pivots into a versatile character study that explores each of the four members of the Sasaki family, showing how the father's 'hidden' transgressions dictate the manner in which he controls his family -- and how they all develop around his change in behavior. For the most part, this concerns each of his sons and how he latches them down from their dreams. Each of them sees differing paths for themselves, the youngest as a piano player and the oldest as a solider, which goes against the father's desires for them to become secure, company men, like himself. These are just 'whims' to Ryûhei and cannot possibly lead to a future like the one he's created, which, ironically, he's defending even though cheaper employment sent him spiraling into this vortex of lies and falsely-postured 'respect.' This respect is, obviously, important early on in the picture when the father takes a blow to his stature in the family, but it festers even more amid his hypocritical lies.
"Kiyoshi Kurosawa keeps Tokyo Sonata astonishingly genuine through impeccable performances from all his actors, while also maintaining a tonal motif that encapsulates despondency in a very real fashion. He's a master of mood, yet his talent has mostly centered on crime horror pieces such as Cure and Pulse; the experience earned in those clearly shows in this burdened portrait of family collapse, as the stagnant and unnerving anxiety swimming about Ryûhei leaves the film with a haunted feeling. Much of that comes in the way that Kurosawa and Akiko Ashizawa keep a nervous focus on the vast number of shots in the film, retaining the fire in each character's eyes amid seemingly tame conversations. Tokyo Sonata goes for the throat and drapes depressing employment lines and the conversations in the Sasaki house with rousing harshness, yet also with faint glimmers of very dark humor."
Traditional structure also takes a beating in the new indie Uncertainy, reviewed by Jeremy Mathews: "You can't fault Scott McGehee and David Siegel for lack of ambition. In writing and directing Uncertainty, the duo didn't merely attempt to crosscut between two simultaneous stories about the same couple of lovebirds, following two ways they could spend their Fourth of July holiday. They also tried to merge into one film a quiet drama of familial routine and an adventure with fantastical thrills. The marriage may have been as ill-fated as one between the Montagues and the Capulets, but it also shares a reckless, often exhilarating passion. The film starts off with a young New York City couple, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lynn Collins, as they stand on a bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn, mumbling with no conviction about what they're going to do. The prologue ends with a coin toss--she runs toward Manhattan, he toward Brooklyn, and when they get to the other side, they meet alternate versions of each other. The two stories that follow are identified through dominant colors: yellow for the wild ride through the city's island, green for the pleasant family barbecue." "
Jeremy explains that the film diverges into two parallel stories, one where the couple get involved in a mystery and a chase, the other more traditionally romantic. But it's a gimmick that doesn't totally work. "By choosing to make one of the storylines a thriller, the filmmakers cornered themselves into the requirements of the genre. The goal of these scenes is to get the adrenaline flowing, to gradually build the tension and raise the stakes. But the thrills vanish every time they cut to the other, more mundane potential timeline. Perhaps there simply aren't that many good breaks to take in a story about characters on the run from bad men, especially when it only spans 24 hours. But the moments at which the timelines switch are rarely organic and usually frustrating.
"Neither timeline is quite strong enough to carry itself, let alone the film. The chases aren't inept or stunning, lacking the cleverness needed to overcome the film's small budget. The setup trivializes the family picnic because who cares when guys with guns are chasing you? While Gordon-Levitt and Collins are both fine actors, their mushy characters and improvised dialogue eventually grow tiresome. Uncertainty is often interesting, but just as often frustrating."
Uncertainty sounds ambitious, to be sure, and ambition is a big part of what makes "art house" films so interesting and often so beyond the norm. No one can accuse veteran filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola of having no ambition, as his latest, the self-financed Tetro attests. Casey Burchby reviews the movie. "Francis Ford Coppola's Tetro is a beautiful surprise. This film flew under the radar during its initial, limited theatrical run, and was recently released on DVD and Blu-Ray without fanfare. Over a career of extremes, Coppola has created at least four unquestioned masterpieces (all in the 1970s), several entertaining, moderately-successful pictures (mostly in the 1980s), and a handful of flops (mostly in the 1990s). These highs and lows have made Coppola unpredictable from a Hollywood perspective, and had a direct impact on Tetro being a low-budget ($15 million), independently financed production. Coppola has been forced by his excesses to efficiently channel his huge talent and the result is a controlled, polished movie that tells an exciting, moving story. To those who doubt the great man as a bigger-than-life auteur who turns his film projects into enormous resource-drains, Tetro should prove that he retains all of his filmmaking skills after a couple of shaky decades.
"17-year-old Bennie Tetrocini (Alden Ehrenreich) tracks down his long lost brother Angelo (Vincent Gallo) in Buenos Aires, but Angelo - now known as 'Tetro' - isn't exactly thrilled to see him. For the last decade, Tetro has cut off all contact from his family, starting a new life in Argentina with his common-law wife Miranda (Maribel Verdu). Bennie is dumbfounded, having had only a single letter from Tetro since he left home, one that promised to come back for him someday. Needless to say, that never happened, and Bennie is somewhat bitter. But Tetro has changed; he crankily refuses to explain himself or talk about their shared family with Bennie. When Bennie discovers Tetro's unpublished (and autobiographical) writings, he unlocks their tortured family history. Bennie writes a play based on Tetro's work, which brings their touchy relationship to a head.
"Filmed in beautifully modulated black-and-white (with flashbacks and dance sequences in color), Coppola's family story is consistently compelling and marked by a capable set of performances. Coppola's command of atmosphere is just stellar here; working with photographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr., and editor Walter Murch, he creates a noir paradise out of the film's Argentine locations. Delicately-arranged lighting and shadowed exteriors lend a mysterious weight to Tetro's commitment to self-destructive secrecy. The formal polish of the movie also suggests a bygone era of classics like Casablanca and The Third Man - both of which also dealt with characters trying to escape their pasts. Along with direct references to the work of Powell and Pressburger (especially The Tales of Hoffman), Coppola's visual approach is heightened, operatic, and supremely stylish."
Operatic history? How about a samurai epic? John Sinnott reviews Ultimate Samurai Miyamoto Musashi: "Miyamoto Musashi, the famous Japanese sword fighter, has been immortalized in many books and movies. In the US, the most well known adaptation of his life is Hiroshi Inagaki's three film cycle Samurai that has been released on DVD by Criterion. Animeigo has just released another multi-film biopic of the warrior's life, Uchida Tomu's five-movie Miyamoto Musashi series. Going into the set I didn't think it would equal the excellent Samurai films, but I was pleasantly surprised. The 10-hour saga is wonderful, presenting a conflicted and multi-layered character who sacrifices a lot in order to stay on the path he's chosen to follow. With a very nice transfer and some good extras, this set is a must-buy.
"There's actually a lot more going on in this series than the [main review's] overview suggests. There are several subplots that are expertly woven through the series. These include Musashi's feelings for Otsu, Obaba's quest for revenge against Musashi, and the life that Matahachi ends up living. These various plots keep the film series lively and interesting while director Tomu manages to his story from sinking into melodrama or turning it into a glorified soap opera, which is good and not that easy to accomplish.
"The films also resist turning Musashi into a superhero (thought they come close a couple of times.) He's a great warrior, but they show him worrying about the outcome of upcoming battles and feeling regret for some of his victims. This is especially true with one man who he wounds seriously, though non-fatally, who was significantly below his ability. His inner conflict is shown when he announces in a soliloquy that he shouldn't have battled such a weak opponent, but at the end exclaiming proudly that he won! There are several other times when Musashi questions what he's done and if he's on the right path, and it all builds up to the surprising conclusion he reaches at the end of the last film. The samurai also is forced to make some hard choices and sacrifices much over the course of the movies. He has to not only eschew comfort, stability, and security, but also love and to a large extent friends too. "
In the hands of a lesser director this film series could have turned into a melodrama, mindless action flicks, or turned out slow and ponderous. Uchida Tomu, who is described in the commentary as being criminally neglected in the west, a view I whole-heartedly agree with after seeing his work, does a magnificent job. Not only is the pacing and tone consistent through the series, but it's an absolutely beautiful film to watch. Some of the exterior scenes are breathtaking but even when they move to a sound stage the compositions are wonderful. The way Tomu pays attention to framing and using the scenery as almost another character in these films reminds me of some of the best work of John Ford, which is a high compliment."
An altogether different Japanese series, but one that takes us back to the experimentation we led this column with, is the new Eclipse boxed set Oshima's Outlaw Sixties. Continuing its tradition of focusing on specific filmmakers at distinct points in their careers, Criterion's Eclipse Series has gathered together five films by Japanese provocateur Nagisa Oshima. Made between 1965 and 1968, Oshima's Outlaw Sixties is a profile of the controversial director as he broke away from the studio system in Japan and started making complex and daring narrative/anti-narrative films that explored taboo subjects and extreme reactions to modern life under his own umbrella. "Provocateur" is not a term I use lightly in this case, Oshima was part of a rebellious zeitgeist. Referred to early on as "the Japanese Godard," his cinematic explorations were of a similar mindset to the Nouvelle Vague crowd, and his independent spirit was in line with what John Cassavetes was doing in New York. Cinema was changing worldwide, and Nagisa Oshima was one of the flashpoints.
Oshima's Outlaw Sixties begins with the intriguingly titled Pleasures of the Flesh (1965), the first film Oshima made via his own production company. He wrote and directed the feature, basing it off a novel by Futara Yamada. The movie contains some stylistic choices that would allow Oshima to tap into the popularity of the naughty "pink" genre (essentially, softcore shots of sex and a healthy dose of skin), but at its core, Pleasures of the Flesh is a potboiler, a strange crime film with a unique central concept. Oshima and cinematographer Akira Takada shot Pleasures of the Flesh for widescreen, with garish, fully rendered colors and often startling, abstract compositions. Some of the storytelling is experimental, and so in terms of narrative structure, the film is a little weak. The lock-step construction of your average crime film, where events lead one to another until often the crook falls under the weight of his own guilt, is absent here, replaced by a more breathless rush from one scenario to the next.
The first film sets the tone, and over the next three, Oshima's style grows more abstracted, until we get to the last movie in the box, Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968) (a.k.a. Sinner in Paradise), a bizarre political movie that owes at least a small debt to the Monkees. Opening with three guys walking arm and arm on a beach while a sped-up pop tune rattles along underneath, I couldn't help but think of the PreFab Five. Seeing the seemingly random comedic events that follow, the comparison stuck. Though, let's call it out: the Monkees' full-length Head's discombobulated narrative is practically lucid by comparison. p>Three Resurrected Drunkards is like an angry art school comedy. Three new graduates--O-noppo, Chu-noppo, and Chibi, a.k.a. Big, Middle, and Tiny, a.k.a. actors Kazuhiko Kato, Osamu Kitayama, and Norihiko Hashida--go for a swim, only to have a mysterious hand come up out of the sand, take half their clothes, and replace them with other clothes and cash. Left with no choice but to put on the new outfits, O-noppo and Chibi are mistaken for two illegal Korean immigrants ("stowaways"), a soldier (Kei Sato) and his companion, who ran from South Korea rather than join U.S. troops in Vietnam. The Koreans try to kill the boys to cover their tracks, but the boys escape assassination only to be deported. They also get entangled with a Korean girl (Mako Midori) who helps them, despite having her own problems. The odds are stacked against the trio, but Oshima gives them a Bunuel-esque out. Midway through the movie, Three Resurrected Drunkards resets, taking us back to the beginning. This time, though, the guys begin to alter events. Their main change: admitting they are Korean. This is a shift that was set-up by a faux-documentary digression where the actors take to the streets to interview people and challenge them as to how they define their national identity.
On paper, Three Resurrected Drunkards is a daring experiment in gonzo filmmaking; in practice, it's dated and makes for lethargic viewing. Were this really a Monkees jam, it would be a lot more manic and silly, and while that may not have been Oshima's intention, it might have been a little more palatable than the self-satisfied seriousness that is here instead. Everything seems too dialed down, including the more dramatic second half. O-noppo's crush on the girl, for instance, is too reserved, and so his anger when he sees how horrible her guardian (Fumio Watanabe) treats her doesn't have much impact. Oshima is building to a startling conclusion, one that drives home his anti-war message and boils with the anger he feels in regard to Vietnam and the historical mistreatment of Korea, but like most of the films in Oshima's Outlaw Sixties, it takes too long to get there, and the view along the way gets tiresome.
From the Japanese New Wave to the Czech New Wave, Chris Neilson looks at the UK import of Diamonds of the Night, "...a study in minimalism. Though based on a conventional novella written by Holocaust survivor Arnošt Lustig, first-time filmmaker Jan Němec stripped the screenplay down to the bone. Excised are the protagonists' backstories save for a few repeated snippets of wordless images. Gone also is nearly all the dialogue. What remains is a story of two nameless, nearly wordless, young concentration camp escapees on the run, chased by the authorities and a posse of old men."
"With no more than twenty lines of dialogue retained, the viewer is compelled to intuit the story almost entirely through visual cues. The film begins with the protagonists, two teenage boys, sprinting up a wooded hill with gunshots ringing out behind them. Seemingly exhausted, the boys crash through the woods, repeatedly stumbling and falling. Filmed handheld by a cameraman who sometimes follows and sometimes pulls even with the boys, the effect is to remove the distance between the viewer and the protagonists. We are not detached observers watching them from the comfort of our couches, but comrades in peril.
"Once beyond the immediate danger of the initial pursuit, our protagonists seek sustenance. A lengthy but unspecified period elapses (at least one day, perhaps more) before a fateful encounter at an old German farmstead. As the viewer, we accompany the bolder of the famished boys as he barges into the farmhouse kitchen to confront a middle-aged woman home alone. Unexpectedly, the boy unleashes his murderous and libidinal desires, or seems to, until we realize that these images are of thoughts not deeds. Four times we see the boy strike the woman and after each attack we see her body lying in an increasingly more sexually-suggestive heap. But we also repeatedly see her not dead, not hurt, and probably not touched, giving the lie to this fantasy. In reality, the inscrutable woman appears to render the boys aid giving them milk and bread, but perhaps she also thereafter raises the alarm enabling a posse of old men to successfully hunt the boys down. Once caught, the boys are led by the old men to their summary executions, but again perhaps not. The final images are of the boys running through the woods once more, and we are left to decide for ourselves whether they have suddenly and unexpectedly been released or escaped, or whether this is just another wish or delusion of desperate boys in their final moments."
Jason Bailey looks at complex political ideas from another vantage point, a contemporary documentary called Defamation. "Yoav Shamir's Defamation is a fascinatingly honest and open personal documentary that seldom steps wrong until its final moments, when he kind of blows it [see full review for more on that]. Shamir, an Israeli director, takes on the broad and difficult concept of anti-Semitism--specifically, is it a prevalent and terrifying threat that could tip the world into another Holocaust, or a scare tactic used for purposes of guilt, fundraising, and attention to agendas?
"The truth of the matter is, it's probably somewhere in between. Shamir's film is distinctively homemade (right down to the handwriting style of the on-screen text), but he certainly doesn't lack for ambition; he travels from Israel to America to Moscow to Poland to points in between, talking to school kids, fellow journalists, activists, professors, and his slightly crazy grandmother. He spends a great deal of time with Abe Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, sitting in on meetings and accompanying him to forums. He tries to find a case of anti-Semitism that he can follow ('Every film needs a drive,' he explains to a lawyer).
"But the story that he ends up telling is one of in-fighting and voices of dissent. Foxman represents the voices of those who feel that the ubiquity of anti-Semitism is a continuing threat to the Jewish people. But then he meets Professor Norman Finkelsetin, the controversial author, who theorizes that anti-Semitism is a ploy used to silence critics. In the struggle over their warring ideologies, Shamir finds a powerful conflict to hang his film on."
One of the most famous voices of dissent and one that also gets a lot of criticism is, of course, Charles Darwin, and Brian Orndorf tackles a biopic about the evolutionist called Creation. "It has been said that Charles Darwin was the man who killed God. Creation is not a picture that reloads the gun, sharpens the nails, or freshens the noose; it's a sensitive portrait of a controversial figure, meant to strip away over a century of accusation and condemnation, returning Darwin's essence back to its original home of trembling doubt. It's a film open for easy dismissal, but Creation is not an anti-religion screed, only an intimate drama of a man who found himself at a crossroads between the answers of science and the comfort of faith. There's no show of teeth, no hateful agenda. Creation returns Charles Darwin to his humble origins in the vessel of art-house cinema, allowing the cast and crew to interpret the man through careful thematic consideration and often compelling domestic drama.
"With a flurry of scientific ideas buzzing around his head, Charles Darwin (Paul Bettany) is having trouble writing a book touching on his theories of evolution. While a devoted family man to wife Emma (Jennifer Connelly) and his many children, including beloved daughter Annie (Martha West), Charles finds himself slowly degenerating due to illness, which slips into occasional bouts of madness. Faced with extra pressure from publishers urging him to complete his book, titled 'On the Origin of Species,' Charles fights through his numerous ailments and the disapproval of the local Christian community (Jeremy Northam) to put his science to paper. When Annie becomes gravely ill, Charles finds his faith put to the test, causing a rift in his marriage, which further clouds the purpose of the book.
"What's so immediately striking about Creation is how even-tempered it is. Perhaps this is caution at play with such a hot-potato subject, but the soft approach to Charles and his contentious work from director Jon Amiel offers more than simple religious histrionics and scientific fervor. Creation seems to fear a ruckus will obscure its intent, so it selects a silent path of introspection, studying Charles on the cusp of fame, fighting sickness and uncertainty as he sculpts his life's work. The stillness of the picture is disarming, perhaps even glacial at times, but the tempo finds a purpose to accurately encapsulate the journey Charles was on, where he faced unimaginable displays of mortality and disapproval (his worst fear being the loss of support from devout believer Emma) as the book came together after decades of near-spiritual research."
John Hillcoat's The Road also tackles a famous book, though probably one that isn't nearly as controversial. (Oprah liked it, after all.) Thomas Spurlin reviews the Blu-Ray, including some notes on the novel that inspired it: "Getting acclimated to Cormac McCarthy's language in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Road can be tough as he weaves through lengthy comma-free sentences and dialogue without quotations, but the raw clarity in which he paints his post-apocalyptic environment leaves very little to the imagination. He lightly scatters pensive ideas into his book, critiques on humanity's dog-eat-dog nature and the like, yet the real point in reading it comes in the nail-biting, breathless experience generated by a father and son trekking through gritty desolation. That roughness likely pulled The Proposition-director John Hillcoat to the helm of this film adaptation like a magnet, a fitting match for the material due to his affinity with stark atmosphere. What he's created with The Road is a collage of all the memorable moments -- well, most of them anyway -- from McCarthy's work, drenching our journey through decaying America in disheartening beauty and feverish intent.
"The narrative itself can be abridged in one sentence: a nameless father (Viggo Mortensen, The Lord of the Rings) and his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), after losing the mother (Charlize Theron) amid a disaster that claimed the lives of most people on earth, set out on a journey of survival to the coast in search of food, habitable locations for sleep, and 'good people.' Since this story centers on the darker recesses of the situation, we experience little of the optimistic and a slurry of the depressing as the pair endure frigid cold and starvation -- all while scurrying from packs of nomadic cannibals that frequent the road. Inside of that, however, lies the story of a father teaching his son how to survive with the items he carries in his knapsack or rolling cart, teaching him how to 'carry the fire' if he dies and whether suicide seems like a wise use of their two bullets.
Yes, The Road can be relentlessly gloomy, but Hillcoat's adaptation could've been more so. To pack McCarthy's story into a 110-minute film, a suitably brisk runtime for material of this magnitude, he's forced to limit the width of its visceral nature and concentrate on the moments that resonate. He retains key sequences from the book that are terrifying, such as one that entails discovering starving 'victims,' whom we assume have been captured for cannibalism, locked up in a dank basement, and another with The Man washing his son's hair of blood in a cold river following a violent incident. They're distressing to witness; conversely, though, Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall have also curbed the amount of the father's provocative and copious narration, veering away from the book's graphic descriptions of things like washing a dead man's brains from his son's hair. Similarly, the element of suspense generated in the book from nervously following the pair's fruitless scavenging for food, wondering if they'll actually eat or not, has been condensed into well-detailed but brusque snippets.
"But, along with a grasp on the audience's pain threshold, this shows a fine quality of filmmaking that knows what lines to cross, and not, in projecting The Road on-screen. It's impossible to stave off enough of the narrative's mood to make it completely accessible, but John Hillcoat comes devastatingly close by striking a fine balance between reverence to McCarthy's intents and restricted intensity. He gets so many of the dreary images right, from the endless cart-rolling on the road and the heart-rending sight of their thinning bodies to the simple back-and-forth banter around frigid campfires, that it mirrors the impressions one might get after reading the novel -- not including the context breath-for-breath, but illustrating a nuanced eye for what's important. And, amid the ashen coldness, he lets in faint, end-of-the-world level brushes with warmth and hope. It requires our focus to point them out of the harshness, but they're rewarding nonetheless."
Though Alain Cavalier came up around the same time as many other young French filmmakers of his day, he never earned the name for himself that the more boldly experimental directors of the Nouvelle Vague garnered. Cavalier began as an assistant director for Louis Malle on many of his earlier films, and Malle returned the favor by being a sort of supervising director on Cavalier's debut feature, 1962's Le combat dans l'île (a.k.a. Fire and Ice). Yet, the pupil hadn't really caught up with the teacher.
Le combat dans l'île is a reactionary picture. It was made amidst the political turmoil that was erupting in France in the early 1960s at the end of the Algerian occupation. Cavalier's story is one of a young man duped into some dirty fighting for conservative extremists. Clément (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Z) is the angry young son of a wealthy industrialist, and the family business is under assault by unions. This may be part of the reason that Clément joins the right-wing cause, he's taking action to get back at his father for failing to retaliate against the liberals. Clément is part of a cabal of twelve who plan to use terrorism to keep France from caving to the commies or sacrificing its imperialist power.
Clément governs his personal life with the same fiery temper as he does his political life. His wife Anne (Romy Schneider, What's New Pussycat?) is a former actress who likes to have a good time, and her alleged flirtations incite Clément's wrath. They split at the start of the picture, but she returns the night Clément is to assassinate a politician (Maurice Garrel) on the other side of the fence. The mission fails, and Clément and Anne must go on the lam. They hide out at the country home of Clément's childhood friend Paul (Henri Serre, Jules et Jim), and when Clemént decides to leave Anne there to pursue revenge against an ally who betrayed him, her affection shifts to Paul. These men are the fire and ice of the title: Clément runs hot, Paul runs cool. The latter advocates peace and change whereas the former is all about violent rigidity.
While his contemporaries were experimenting with cinema verité , Cavalier took a much more traditional approach to Le combat dans l'île. Outside of some choppy editing, the movie sticks to the rules of classic narrative. Actions have future consequences, and each scene logically rolls into the next. The political backdrop is just that, an exotic locale against which a rather conventional love triangle can take shape. By the end of the film, Clément has entirely abandoned his ideals, instead pushing for a showdown straight out of a western or a crime movie--though like most of the rest of the movie, this duel is too neatly arranged to inspire fear or get the blood boiling. The pieces all fit together nicely in Le combat dans l'île, and everyone has constructed their portion of the puzzle with the utmost of craft, but the image that Cavalier leaves us with isn't all that memorable. It's a neither/nor kind of movie--neither truly classic nor boldly modern. It's a journeyman's movie made by a neophyte: good storytelling, but not much of a story. In cinematic history, Cavalier was whispering while all those around him were shouting.
Then again, some directors are practically famous for their mumbling. I love me some Jim Jarmusch, so color me jealous that Bill Gibron got to tussle with the new Criterion Blu-Ray of Mystery Train: "While he's hardly the true 'King' of rock and roll (Little Richard, Fats Domino, and dozens of much more influential and important African American musicians would argue with his sole claim to the throne), it's impossible to deny Elvis Presley's cultural impact on a post-War American society. From his amazing voice to his scandalous sexual swagger, he was the antithesis of the clean cut white flight phenoms clogging up the pop charts. Five decades later, his image may be tarnished by pills and a constant desire to redefine and revise, but Elvis is still Elvis, no matter how you envision him. For Jim Jarmusch, indie icon and fascinating maker of films like Night on Earth, Stranger than Paradise, and Broken Flowers, the boy from Tupelo will always be attached to Memphis, the town that took all the fledgling forms of music coming out of the South and fused them into a raucous combination of rockabilly and R&B, with labels like Stax and Sun showing the way. His paean to said past, Mystery Train, may only reference these facets as glimmering ghosts, but their lingering impact on the trio of stories told is almost impossible to shake.
"During a particularly nondescript summer in Memphis, Tennessee, three intertwining stories are told. The first features a pair of Japanese tourists who have pooled their meager monies to travel across America visiting the famous places in US music history. This time around, it's the home of Elvis, Carl Perkins, and the studios that sealed their legacy. They end up at the funky fleabag Arcade Hotel after an exhaustive day of walking. Next, a newly widowed Italian citizen is stuck in the town after her flight to Rome is postponed. After being victimized by several local hustlers, she winds up sharing a room at the Arcade with a flighty young woman who is leaving her brutish British boyfriend for someone - or something - a little more secure. During the night, they are visited by a familiar apparition. Finally, the spurned Englishman, who also just laid off from his job, goes on a drunken bender with a couple of less than enthusiastic buddies. They wind up in a desolate liquor store, gun in hand, trying to hold on to the last vestiges of their dignity. They hole up in the Arcade when things don't go quite as planned.
"Of all his films, Mystery Train may be Jim Jarmusch's most personable. It's not overloaded with monotone meaning or determined to force its fancy flatness on you. Instead, like the equally engaging Night on Earth, it takes us to a place where we'd probably never get to visit ourselves and interacts with individuals who might not ever enter our sphere of influence otherwise. Sort of being a purebred classic, it remains a masterwork of substance and the slightest stylistic support. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, it is scant steps away from walking off with a DVD Talk Collector's Series score. For a movie not necessarily created to celebrate the man often referred to as 'The Pelvis,' Mystery Train is still a work of reverential quality. It may not literally channel the man or his muse, but its gets to the heart of his myth better than any other attempt at cinematic adoration out there."
The Chilean film The Maid (La Nana) was a surprise hit on the festival circuit last year and a Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign Language Film. Written and directed by Sebastian Silva, it stars Catalina Saavedra as Raquel, a live-in maid who has worked for the same family for the past two decades. Having moved in when she was 21, a year before her employers had their first child, she has given up her whole life to serve her adopted clan. There are four children now, plus the mother Pilar (Claudia Celedon) and the fussy professor father (Alejandro Goic). Everything Raquel does revolves around her household.
"Revolves around" is kind of a key phrase, as it's clear from the start she's not really a part of the family proper. The "help" eats dinner separately, sleeps in a small room tucked away in the back, and she is always dressed in a drab uniform. Even in photos, she hovers around the edges, never equal, always separate. The Maid is a subtle satire about the divisions of class, and Raquel is a surprisingly intriguing character. Having forsaken her own people and, really, her own experiences for her job, Raquel has never truly lived. This secondary family is all she has. Which is why she fights for them, though in ways that often make her seem crazy. As she enters middle age, things aren't going so well for Raquel. She's always at odds with the eldest daughter Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro), and she's getting too old to cover the whole house herself. Pilar keeps hiring other housekeepers to help her, but Raquel hazes them until they run off. The stress is weighing on her health. Raquel is suffering from headaches, and a mid-movie collapse makes it impossible for her to fend off a second maid any longer. Luckily, this new hire, Lucy (Mariana Loyola), will end up offering Raquel a friendship that will remind her of everything she is missing.
Silva pulls his film together with a slender thread. The Maid's narrative is as delicate as the model ship the professor is building in the movie. Each piece is exactly where it needs to be, and at any point, there is a risk that the film could either go too far over the top or withhold too much. The movie's most outrageous scenes come when Raquel tortures the other maids. She locks them out of the house, disinfects the sinks and the tub after they clean themselves, and pulls other acts of sabotage. The saddest scenes are when Raquel alienates one of the children or when we see that she longs to be treated with greater dignity. It's not that the family is mean, it's just they are so comfortable with her servitude, they consider very little about her. Catalina Saavedra is wonderful as Raquel. Her sour face brings heartbreak to even the happiest scenarios. Seeing her try on Pilar's sweater and looking at herself in the mirror brings out all the sadness and longing without her having to say a word. It's all in the look she gives herself in the glass.
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 most recent release 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, Bill Gibron, Jeremy Mathews, Chris Neilson, Brian Orndorf, John Sinnott, Thomas Spurlin, and Adam Tyner for their contributions.
Fantasia, America Lost and Found, and Guy Maddin
Chaplin, John Cazale, and Metropolis
Alain Resnais, David Bowie, and Ingmar Bergman
Coco Chanel, Red Riding, and Fantomas