Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Monday, April 21, 2014
Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives is the latest in director Apitchapong Weerasathakul’s series of highly personal abstractions. Challenging and eccentric, to put it mildly, the film is an attempt to capture the fevered visions and visitations of a dying man over the last few days of his life. It also deals with the aftermath of his passing, and a return to the banalities of earthly existence by the grieving survivors. Told with Weerasathakul’s patented meek passivity, Uncle Boonmee confounds expectations at every turn, and uses a mosaic of past and present, flesh and spirit, to contrast the mystical with the mundane.
As Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) struggles with organ failure at his farm in remote northern Thailand, he is visited by a number of family members, both living and – somehow "dead” is not the right word – long departed. As a scrawny cow humorously demonstrates sentient characteristics, even the trees, bushes and livestock at Boonmee’s estate seem to sense an imminent date with the ultimate. A group of ape-ish humanoids with glowing red eyes skulk about the jungle like shy Sasquatches, preparing to escort Boonmee on his upcoming journey. This hairy band is led by a reconstituted fellow named Boonsong (Geerasak Kulhong) Boomee’s son who has been missing for years.
Meanwhile, Boonmee’s mind begins its own meditative walkabout, attempting to sort and define a life that is drawing to conclusion. At an ancient waterfall, a beautiful princess is seduced by a smooth-talking catfish; their tryst bathed in poetic blue-green moonlight. At Boonmee’s insistence, his family embarks on a spelunking expedition, where deep recesses of solid rock serve as a launch point to a vaporous new dimension.
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life deconstructed the boundaries between time and space, while Uncle Boonmee connects planes of existence, creating a reality where people and poltergeists freely intermingle. But Weerasathakul turns the horror film dynamic upside down: his spirits are kindly, but in a condescending sort of way; their temporary return to the physical world a dreaded chore, like a trip to the dentist. But eventually, the goblins depart and life goes on. After a brush with mortality, television shows and hot showers provide solace and a reminder of life’s necessities. Weerasathakul once again uses a Buddhist monk as an unlikely source of comic relief, this time as foil for the glories of hamburgers and karaoke.
Compared to 2007’s Syndromes and a Century, Uncle Boonmee seems a lesser work; its palette not quite in Weerasathakul’s comfort zone of quirk. It lacks the absurdist set pieces that made Syndromes such an enjoyable blend of high art and low comedy. But comparing Weerasathakul’s films to each other is a silly enterprise, almost as silly as comparing him to any other director. His mind simply does not work like any other filmmaker's. His ideas are not conceived over long lunches at fashionable L.A. eateries. He doesn’t calculate, or particularly care, how audiences will react to any given scene. He simply proceeds in his quiet, gentle way; reveling in the wonders of existence, the splendors of creation, both in this world and beyond. He does so in ways that often hold deep meaning only for him. And he’s OK with that. Artistically speaking, Apitchapong Weerasathakul has balls the size of your head.
Thursday, April 17, 2014
I'll be doing my annual Field Guide in a few days, but here's a quick peek at the films selected for this year's festival. New stuff from Ceylan, The Dardennes and Assayas has me jazzed, but Tommy Lee Jones' western The Homesman may be the most intriguing of all…
Un Certain Regard
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Saturday, April 12, 2014
12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet’s tension laced set piece from 1957, would be derided by talk radio as liberal claptrap if it were released today. The story of a lone juror (Henry Fonda) who seeks to impede a jury’s rush to judgment in a capital murder case, 12 Angry Men is a drama that grows organically from tiny seeds; seeds that 90 minutes later produce a harvest of shameful revelations. Through clever and telling details, Reginald Rose’s script strips away his characters’ thin veneer of civilization and exposes the racism and class warfare that lies beneath. With the fate of an accused murderer in the balance, each juror is forced to look into the dark mists of his own soul and ultimately issue a verdict; not just in this case but on the whole of humanity.
As a testament to the property’s enduring relevance, 12 Angry Men has been remade and rebooted several times over the years, both on film and on stage, including a padded, meandering Russian version in 2007, complete with a young Chechen defendant. The script originated as a teleplay in 1955, broadcast live as an installment of CBS’ Westinghouse Studio One, and has evolved into the status of a true classic. Now available in a handsome Criterion blu-ray, 12 Angry Men retains its riveting dramatic currents with new clarity and detail, and the film’s superb acting and flawless construction burst forth with unprecedented vividness.
The physicality of the production couldn't be simpler - twelve jurors sequestered at a conference table trying to reach a unanimous verdict – but that simplicity is deceptive. Through meticulous blocking and skillful performances, the scope of the story far exceeds its spatial confinements, and creates a dramatic web that encompasses the social spectrum. Through an impeccable ensemble cast, Lumet and Rose explore the dynamics of the political spectrum: the entrenched dogma of the extreme contrasted with malleable souls who simply go along for the ride. The script inverts its own logic and sets forth a series of seemingly impossible hurdles, all of which are overcome by one man who refuses to submit to intellectual laziness. Lumet’s frames grow increasingly tighter, eventually isolating each juror as his preconceptions and prejudices are swept aside. Soon, all each man has left is his own self interested acceptance or denial; the intellectually honest concede their errors, while the ideologues battle on with bilious spite. But the tides of change are irresistible, and even the most deep-seated hatreds are powerless against them.
12 Angry Men is an actor’s picture in the truest sense, its unrelenting pressures dependent on timing and technique. Lumet’s brilliant cast, including a few holdovers from the original TV broadcast, features a squadron of familiar faces. Established stars like Henry Fonda and Ed Begley freely mingle with relative unknowns who would go on to long careers in television and film. Over the course of the film, each actor is given his moment to shine, and in vignettes great and small there are no awkward or fumbled moments. Fonda, as thoughtful, empathetic Juror 8, acts as the film’s navigational moral compass; his intellectual cool providing a counterpoint that both infuriates and impresses his fellow deliberants. His polar opposite, Lee J. Cobb, delivers a pitch dark rendering as an authority-worshiper who can’t wait to slip the noose on the young Hispanic defendant; his thirst for vengeance driven more by personal failures than any desire for justice. The great Jack Warden adds another winning performance to his portfolio of regular guy slobs while Robert Webber, as a slick adman, provides the film’s scant comic relief. In a superb sequence, E.G. Marshall’s self-righteously pragmatic stock broker has his Road to Damascus moment when he fails a memory test administered by Fonda, opening a floodgate of second guessing by his fellow jurors.
Any analysis of Sidney Lumet’s directorial style – and his extraordinarily successful 60 year career – starts with great respect for actors, as evidenced by the whole-cloth fashioning of 12 Angry Men’s nameless characters. Some dominate while others recede into the background, yet it’s clear each actor is working from a tightly defined backstory. Their biographies rarely come into play during the narrative, but each man’s history and place in the world form vital building blocks to character. Yet, Rose and Lumet build beyond types, and their jurors emerge as fully human and fully believable; each man a product of unseen experiences held deep in the soul. These hidden layers give 12 Angry Men its pervasive sense of simmering contempt and suppressed violence, and elevate the film into an American classic. It’s a bare knuckle fight to the finish, with the sharp daggers of intellect and decency as the weapons of choice.
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
Le Week-End (2013) ✭✭
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) ✭✭✭✭
Saturday, April 5, 2014
Lee Falk’s The Phantom, created in 1936, was a precursor of the modern superhero concept. Essentially a hybrid of the Lone Ranger and Tarzan, The Phantom pioneered many pulp innovations, including the skin-tight union suits that have become the garment of choice for today’s battery of masked crime fighters. The Phantom’s jurisdiction, a mysterious African jungle rich in precious stones, valuable minerals and ravenous crocodiles, provides a groaning board of narrative possibilities. Over the years, The Purple Knight has battled pirates, poachers, headhunters, witch doctors and, most sinister of all, a number of multinational corporations.
This serial from Columbia Pictures was the first attempt to bring The Phantom to the screen and starred buff Tom Tyler as The Aubergine Avenger. Comprised of 15 chapters and clocking in at 5 hours, the production is a thorough immersion in all things related to The Ghost Who Walks and before it’s through you’ll be able to cite chapter and verse the complex history of the Legend in Lilac.
And you’ll need all 5 hours to figure out just what the heck is going on here, as the serial features not one, but two groups of villains, all competing for our hero’s time and attention. The Plum Protector (stop it! right now!) must also contend with renegade bushmen, surly jungle beasts, numerous pools of quicksand and a naïve band of explorers who always seem to get caught in the crossfire.
One group of baddies appear to be members of some sort of amateur mafia with designs on swiping priceless tribal artifacts. The other criminal enterprise is led by the evil Professor Bremmer (Kenneth MacDonald), who seeks to build a secret airstrip on land sacred to the natives. The exact purpose of this airstrip is not known, but it seems doubtful that tourists were clamoring to spend their precious vacations being eaten by tigers while drowning in quicksand. Tying this convoluted silliness together is some claptrap about an ancient treasure map scrawled on a shattered clay tablet. The majority of the map pieces have been recovered. But the really useful fragment, the one with “X” and all that, remains missing.
As a production company, Columbia was generally considered a cut above its main competitor, Republic Pictures, but neither outfit showered its respective serial divisions with lavish budgets. This production set in remote Africa would pose unique challenges and unintentionally create a bizarre and humorous geocultural mash-up.
Filmed at Beale’s Cut, a popular wilderness area near the confluence of Interstate 5 and Route 14 in Santa Clarita, Ca., the crew staged jungle scenes by augmenting the native vegetation with a few potted plants. The result is an arboreal aberration and the only spot on planet Earth where maple and palm freely intermingle.
Sets from old westerns were recycled as African villages and jungle settlements, making this corner of the Dark Continent look an awful lot like old-town Albuquerque. Even the characters’ names add to the confusion. The main local hustler is a bar proprietor named Singapore Smith which, last time I checked, was no where near Africa, but I concede does sound kind of exotic and cool.
The previously mentioned band of well-meaning scientists are guided by a group of sherpas who appear to be Mexican farmers pressed into service. Why gentlemen from Mexico would be leading an African expedition is anyone's guess, but it does account for the party's tendancy to get hopelessly lost in remote and perilous areas.
But most confusing of all are the tribesman, who look much more Samoan than African. Of course, this is usually the case when one takes overweight, white American actors and dresses them up in grass skirts and face paint, which is an accurate description of the wardrobe department’s efforts here. In fact, I can’t recall a single black actor being employed by this production. If I’m wrong I offer my abject apologies, but I really don’t have the energy to fast forward through the whole five hour shebang again and fact check my assertion.
To evaluate what the serial DOES have, one must start with the performance of Tyler as the Mauve Marauder (I warned you!!), and while his athletic build cuts a fine figure in heroic long johns, his Phantom comes off as a bit smug and snooty - the kind of guy who'd go to an amateur musical in Kansas City and then complain that it was much better on Broadway. The script doesn’t help Tyler out very much, as he often utters the equivalent of “Nothing can go wrong now” in a self-satisfied delivery, just before everything goes horribly wrong.
Despite moments of prissiness and lousy prognostication, The Phantom is exceptionally skilled at fisticuffs, which is a good thing since in every episode some miscreant attempts to kick his amethyst ass. Our hero generally does well in the early going, scoring with vigorous body/head combinations. But the Violet Vigilante (please, please stop) has a bit of a glass jaw, and just one punch from his opponent will send him reeling backwards and crashing into a dining room set. The primitive African huts in this production are oddly replete with such furnishings, and it’s a good thing too, since Tyler destroys enough tables and chairs here to keep the assembly line at Broyhill humming for months.
Accompanying The Phantom is his somewhat faithful dog Devil, a beast who seems bored with the entire endeavor. Devil doesn’t have much of an attention span, and often wanders off precisely when his owner needs him the most. Actually, Devil’s attitude is quite sensible if you think about it. Why should he rush in to fight a freaking tiger? The Phantom got himself into this mess…
Truth be told, I’ve never been a big fan of The Phantom. I always found his complex adventures difficult to follow in the comic strips. Probably had something to do with the fact that we only got the Sunday paper at our house, which meant I missed 6 out of every 7 installments. Still, I didn’t see anything here that caused me to reassess my opinion. After 5 hours with the Fuchia Firebrand I still found him odd, creepy and, in the realm of superheroes, squarely second-tier.
Join us next time when we discuss a leading light of the cape and tights crowd; a hero who is still packing movie theatres to this day. A crimefighter of such popularity that his street cred cannot be destroyed, no matter how lousy the serial….
Thursday, April 3, 2014
Farhadi is becoming something of an Ozu for this rough and tumble new millennium, with sharply observed, understated dramas of families attempting to cope with the pressures and emotional wounds, often self-inflicted, of modern life. Part soap-opera, part detective story, The Past carefully constructs an enticing web of seemingly ordinary lives fraught with misunderstandings, deceits and deceptions. Is it as great as A Separation? Not quite, but The Past offers its own beguiling moments of insight and discovery as we watch hard working, well-meaning people make a complete hash of their lives.
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
The Wall (2012) ✭✭✭✭1/2
Meticulously produced and beautifully videographed, Julian Pölsler’s film is a spellbinding allegory with allusions to the Holocaust, feminism and humanity’s uneasy coexistence with the natural world. Martina Gedeck, who is always terrific in these moody dramas, gives a virtual one woman show as a vacationer who finds herself trapped in the wilderness by an invisible energy barrier spawned by an implied apocalypse. With many layers offering many interpretations, The Wall is one of those movies that stay with you for a long time.