Thursday, July 05, 2007

Alice in Twisted Land

Tideland, Terry Gilliam 2005.

I have been a long time fan of Terry Gilliam's work. His animation work in the Monty Python series never ceased to delight and once he moved into feature length filmmaking, his creative genuis only shined that much more brightly. From classics like Brazil, Time Bandits, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen to the picaresque gem The Fisher King and Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, an excellent reimagining of Chris Marker's La Jetee, each of his films captured my imagination and helped to reshape what I thought was possible within the medium of film. So, it was with an unbridled enthusiasm that I rushed the DVD of Tideland from my mailbox directly to my DVD player.

For those of you who are unaware, Tideland is the 'other' Gilliam film released in 2005 (the well known one being The Brothers Grimm). Based upon a book by Mitch Cullin, the film's protaganist is a young girl named Jeliza Rose. Her father Noah, played by the always excellent Jeff Bridges, is a junkie who, when conscious, spins tales of travelling to Jutland. A country that seems equally mystical to Noah as it does to Rose.

The film wastes no time in announcing what is in store for the audience. We see Rose manuevering her way around her decrepit environment, preparing her father's drugs for him, and then injecting him with them while he rambles on about Jutland and vacations. Better skilled then some nurses who've drawn blood from me, Rose performs this activity adeptly while also reacting quickly to redirect Noah's slumping hand, causing his cigarette to land in the ash tray rather than on the floor.

Next up for Rose is to perform the same task for Queen Gunhilda (Jennifer Tilly), who I believe is supposed to be her mother (it is a little unclear in the film). Gunhilda is downright revolting, and in a scene that induced the first of many moments of recoil, she smothers Rose against her armpit, blows smoke in her face, crys about how she loves Rose, and then smacks her in the face while yelling "You little bitch!" because Rose had the audacity to reach for some of Gunhilda's chocolate. Mind you this is after Rose had just massaged Gunhilda's legs and then shot her up on methadone. It is no surprise that Rose spends her time reading Alice in Wonderland and talking to her friends who are just the heads of dolls she keeps on her fingers.

And that is the first act, ending with the abrupt overdose of Gunhilda a couple hours later. Not knowing what else to do, Noah and Rose leave the body to embark on a journey, potentially all the way to Jutland, although one is given the distinct feeling that while Jutland may be the destination they will never reach it.

Up until this point in the film, I felt that it had great potential. It turns out that their first stop is Rose's grandmother's house. Upon arrival there is a great, touching moment where Noah, in an explosion of frustration, kicks some furniture and then smashes on a severely out of tune piano. He then completely receeds into himself, staring down while the camera holds in an intmate close-up of his face. I thought this moment was one of the best in the film and one that foretold of the possibile direction the movie could take between Noah and her daughter. How wrong I was.

What unfolds is a story that spirals away from Bridges's character (he's still there just not in the way you might expect) and envelopes Rose in a world that includes her finger puppet/doll head friends, a metally challenged boy obsessed with killing the great shark, and a one eyed woman of black who easily would have filled the role of the 'crazy woman' that the neighborhood kids thinks is a witch, except that in this film she really is psychotic.

Through twists and turns it is revealed that every character in the film is psychologically traumatized in one way or another and Gilliam simply follows Rose around as she navigates through one potentially warping situation to another through the innocence and imagination that only a child can have. It's all here really, child abuse, drug use, necrophilia, take your pick.

Gilliam is no stranger to mind bending journeys of the imagination but he has always kept these films grounded in deeply personal, character driven stories. He attempts that here and unfortunately I feel that he failed in that attempt.

It appears as though the relationship Rose forms with the mentally challenged boy, Dickens, is supposed to carry the story through the second act, but instead of being touching and funny it most often just caused me to have the shivers and consider taking a shower to feel clean. The only real investment I had with any of the characters was Rose, but that was only in the sense that I just wanted her to get out of her situation as quickly as possible, which of course would have caused the movie to end.

So I sat for two hours, repeatedly cringing, or physically recoiling from the screen. Not that there isn't its bright moments, and yes I even laughed occasionally, but when it was all said and done I felt the cringe worthy moments far overshadowed the film's bright ones. That's not to say cringe worthy moments are generally a bad thing, but in the case of Tideland I felt it was.

While I am not sure if it was added for the DVD or if it was also on the theatrical relase, Gilliam appears before the film to essentially give a warning to the audience. He walks a fine line in this film and unfortunately I don't think he walks it successfully. Perhaps my opinion of that could change over time and with repeated viewings, but this is where it stands at the moment.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

Pan's Labyrinth, directed by Guillermo del Toro 2006.

"He who thinks he knows the ending of things when he is just beginning them, is either extremely wise or extremely foolish. Either way he is an unhappy man for his has put a knife in the heart of wonder." -Tad Williams

Perhaps because what I've seen from Hellboy didn't impress me, I was more than a little surprised by how overwhelmingly good this film is. There are so many elements to this film that are done right I'll point out the one little nit-picky complaint I could come up with as I left the theater.

The premise is deceptively simple. A girl, in war torn Spain, starts to experience the phenomena of having fairy tales come to life. Is it real or imagined? Thankfully the film and script go way beyond this simple premise intertwining to distinctly parallel story lines that are seperate yet distinctly connected. For the sake of clarity I'll refer to the second story line as Mercedes's story.

Mercedes's story is starkly 'real' in relation to the heavily fantastical elements involved with Ofelia. The violence in particular scenes will be sure to shock some...The Chronicles of Narnia this is not. My complaint is with the length and pacing of this particular story line.

There is a point in the story where it appears Ofelia will never see any fairies or Pan ever again, the narrative switches back to Mercedes and stays with her for an inordinate amount of time. There is no doubt in my mind that Ofelia is the central character of this film and it is odd that in a film so well crafted del Torro would choose to abandon his main character for such a lengthy period of time. I do not mean to suggest that Mercedes's story becomes boring at this point, which couldn't be any further from the truth, but to point out that you begin to wonder if there was any real point to all the fantastical elements of the film.

And that's it, my one complaint. Everything else I could write would be simple gushy blather, ruining some of the surprises of the film in the process. You could spend another 10 minutes 'listening' to me go on about how I loved the soundtrack, cinematography, acting etc. or you could be on your way to the theater to see this film, I'd rather you opted for the latter.

I will say this becomes increasingly rare these days for a film to actually surprise me. I found myself constantly trying to figure out the multitude of different possibilities a particular scene could play out and inveriably Toro would have it unfold in a way I hadn't even thought of....and so I found myself thinking of the quote from Tad Williams. You could go into this film with preconceived notions of what it will be, but if any film cries out for you to recapture that sense of wonder, I'd argue it's this one.

Rating: (This film should be in the Best Picture category for the Oscars)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Little Children

Little Children, Todd Field 2006.

Every once and awhile I will see a film that really crawls under my skin. It makes me fidget in my chair, uncomfortable, uneasy, and disturbed. Todd Field's Little Children is one of those films. It could be that this is a a purely personal reaction, striking at things that are close to me and not close to others, but I think in many ways this film dwells on subject matter that, in its own unusual way, is universal. Don't get me wrong, this film isn't gruesome or brutal, its simply poetically nasty in soft subversive strokes.

For those of you who have or will see the Little Children and also happen to read this review, you will probably proclaim me an idiot for suggesting there is anything 'soft' or 'subtle' about this film and then proceed to give me a good whack to the head. I wouldn't blame you. It's just the way I feel/interpret this film. It is after all, mentioned in different variations throughout the film that (paraphrasing) it isn't about this, its about something else. This is how I interpret the film. This isn't about infidelity or failed, miserable marriages its about something else, but I am getting ahead of myself.

The film has two central characters, Sarah (Kate Winslett) and Brad (Patrick Wilson), although in the end Sarah is the main character. There are other important characters in the film, notably Jackie Earle Haley's disturbing yet touching role as Ronnie, but ultimately these characters and stories revovle around the hub that is Sarah and her impending affair with Brad (I don't think I'm giving anything away here).

Each of these characters are stuck in marriages that are stale, routine, and lifeless. In Sarah's case, her husband is either working or feeding his internet porn addiction. In Brad's case his wife, Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), has more of an emotional connection with the kids she is filming for her latest documentary than she has with him.

Brad is completely immasculated within his relationship with Kathy. The stereotypical gender roles have been reversed with Kathy going to work every day while Brad stays home and takes care of their son. He's also a good cook, going so far as to even cook the meal when dinner guests come over. His wife forces him to cancel his subscriptions to any sports magazines, and to really make matters worse, Brad is completely invisible to Kathy when she is home, unless of course she is concerned about his progress with the bar exam. The women at the playground call Brad prom king, but in this relationship, his son, who wears a crown, is the prom king. And wait, just to really pile things on, Kathy's mother is rich and she sends money to help the family out (documentary filmmaking evidently isn't very lucrative). It is little wonder that Brad is willing to embark on a new frienship with Sarah. In an interesting parallel it is important to remember there is one other character who is immasculated in the film, Ronnie.

Ronnie's storyline really unveils the idea that this film has little to do with the actual act of infidelity. Instead it has everything to do with fate, choices, our past, and most importantly our future. The woman at the book club calmy state that Madame Bovary is trapped, fated to the end she reaches, and Sarah calmly says there is something to be said for fighting against that fate, drawing obvious attention to the comparison between Sarah's character and Madame Bovary, but more importantly vocalizing the issues that have been present throughout the film.

Brad is trying to recapture his past to reinvent his future. Ronnie is trying to escape his past to reinvent his future. Are they doomed by fate or is there the possibility of choices? The idea of impending fate has been marked in the film by the constant presence of clocks, their clicking giving audible note to the time weighing down on the characters. There is also the ethereal, and sometimes physical, prominence of trains in the film, the train horn appropriating the emotional weight of "For whom the bell tolls". Ultimately, there is no definitive answer given, but there are suggestions for your to explore either way.

Little Children will not win any awards for 'feel good movie of the year', but it definitely is the most intriguing and thought provoking film I have seen thus far. It should be noted that there is extensive use of voice-over near the beginning of the film, but I found it stopped just as I was beginning to get annoyed with it. Don't shy from this movie under the belief it is simply about adultery, it is, if anything, about everything else but adultery. A deeply layered film, I am discovering more and more things even as I write this, I highly recommend it.

(as a side-note, I apologize if the second half of this post is a little jumpy, blogger was kind enough to erase 3/4 of my original review for this film right before I posted it so I had to start over).

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Ostre sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains)

Closely Watched Trains, Jiri Menzel 1966.

Splattered with the dark, yet lighhearted humor that seems to pervade everything Eastern European, Closely Watched Trains is one of those rare films that manages to simultaneously completely entertain the audience while carrying a level of subtext that is rich and pointed.

Milos Hrma comes from a family filled with great men. His great-grandfather got pelted in the head, his uncle managed to stop the invasion of Prague through the power of his hypnotism, and his father was a renowned train operator. This puts a fair amount of pressure on Milos to succeed in his new job as a train dispatcher.

Of course there is also pressure of other sorts growing on Milos. He happens to have no sexual experience, yet as he starts his new job it seems that wherever he turns he is confronted by sexuality. Much of the film centers around Milo, and his difficulties with woman, but it is done in a restrained and subtle (relatively, depending on how you look at it) way.

This story is set during World War II, so Czechoslovakia is currently occupied by German forces. Much of the subtext arises from this area of the film. The Germans are obviously simply symbols for the Soviet's who were occupying Czechoslovakia at the time. In a nice little twist, this is boldly given away by a poster of a twisted hand reaching down from above with a hammer and sickle near the wrist. This could plausibly be explained simply because the German's and the Soviet's didn't exactly get along as the war progressed.

Following along these lines would lead me to believe that Milo's impotence has as much to do with the occupation of the Germans/Soviets than any personal nervousness. It is not until Milo faces the SS that things begin to come together for him on the sexual front. In fact, the character most succesful with women is the character deeply involved with the partisans who are fighting against the occupation.

Its a hilarious film, so if you're looking for a classic comedy I'd give it a shot, but there is also a lot there, so if you're willing its one of those films that would be fun to delve into.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Kabul Transit

Kabul Transit, directed by David Edwards, Gregory Whitmore, and Maliha Zulfacar.

Last night I had the pleasure to attend a special screening of the documentary Kabul Transit at which two of the directors, David Edwards and Greg Whitmore were in attendance.

Coming in at just under a hour and a half, this documentary, shot on location in Kabul over the period of almost 4 months, is a mostly successful and gripping work. Most importantly it offers the viewer a glimpse into a post-U.S. invasion Afghanistan that is rarely seen.

Choosing to avoid any sort of traditional narration, the film is highly fragmented in nature. It jumps from person to person showing little moments of their lives and their surroundings. These fragments are not really tied together by anything other than the fact that it all occurs in Kabul.

Still, through a careful balance of close-ups and momentary wide shots of Kabul and its surroundings, the film manages to keep the audience gripped in what is occuring on screen. It is at times funny, but I found myself most often disturbed by what I saw. There are definitely moments when the film manages to crawl under your skin and really get to you.

However, it also suffers from its structure. The film never really goes anywhere and it while it accomplishes what it set out to quite successfully (present what it is like to be in Kabul) I felt it suffered from a lack of higher purpose or motivation.

It should also be mentioned that the film was beautifully shot, making sure there is not a moment where you are not captivated by something on the screen.

Overall I liked it, and if you have the opportunity I think it is definitely important and worthwhile to jump on the chance to see it. Currently it has not obtained distribution, but I know it has been playing on the festival circuit. If you are curious to learn more you can always visit the official website:

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Third Man

The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed 1949.

Generally regarded as a classic of cinema history, I wasn't sure what to expect from Carol Reed's The Third Man. I openly admit I really knew nothing about the film going into it. It just happens to be one of those films that has somehow escaped my notice when it probably shouldn't have.

As the credits rolled I got rather enthused upon seeing that the film starred not only Joseph Cotton, but Orson Welles as well. Perhaps it was due to this excitement that I was a little disappointed that Welles never physically shows up on screen until perhaps the last 30 minutes of film. In a way its a shame because the dynamic tension between Cotton and Welles lights up the screen with its brilliance. But I am getting a little ahead of myself.

The story is a classic suspense/thriller in which the main character, Joseph Cotton, arrives in Vienna only to discover the friend he is supposed to meet with had been run over and killed by an automobile. Cotton quickly becomes suspsicous and starts snooping around in business that will only lead to trouble. Soon enough he discovers there was a 'third man' at the scene of the accident and Cotton becomes convinced that his friend, Harry Lime, was murdered.

All in all the story moves along well enough and at times I really got sucked into things but overall I found it also falters, seriously at times, leaving me with a mediocre taste in my mouth.

Some of this I attribute to the script. There are too many rough edges. Cotton's character is a hack writer who no one has ever heard of. After so much is made of this fact it is almost entirely dropped for the rest of the film. They play on the fact that Cotton is now living out the type of story he himself might have written, except it is not executed very well. The primary scene in which Cotton finds himself launched into the Q&A presentation he forgot he agreed to do echoes Hitchcock's The 39 Steps but failing to be as nearly as effective.

The other aspect that I had issues with was the directing/cinematography. Watching the film it felt like there were literally two people making the decisions behind the camera. At times I would in awe of the images unfolding on the screen but then there were other times I cringed and could only scratch my head at what was happening. Particularly the excessive use of dutch angles got annoying after awhile. At first I figured there most be some active reasoning in the choice of the shots but after consciously following and marking when dutch angle shots were used it became increasingly apparent that it was random. Perhaps Reed saw it as 'edgy' and therefore appropriate for the material that he was working with, and perhaps the audiences felt the same way at the time, but it definitely has not aged well.

There also seemed to be some indecision with the character of Anna Schmidt. For such a significant part I was surprised how ambigous the character actually is. It's as if they couldn't decide if they wanted her to be a femme fatale or not and so ended up just leaving things somewhere in the middle.

All that being said, I did enjoy the movie, particularly when Orson Welles finally arrives. The gravity and presence he commands on screen is almost overwhelming at times. In a few short minutes he is able to communicate one of the most delicously twisted villians I've seen on screen for a while. Please though, don't let my negative comments about the film dissuade you from seeing it. The Third Man definitely has its moments, I just expected more of them.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Flickering Lights

Flickering Lights (Blinkende lygter), directed by Anders Thomas Jensen 2000.

I'm beginning to think that the Danes are starting to develop a monopoly on action/comedy films that are character pieces rather than special effects vehicles and slick killing sprees. The Pusher Trilogy is a prime example of this type of work, but I feel it is safe to say that no one does it quite like Anders Thomas Jensen.

I first had the pleasure of being exposed to Jensen's work while at the Sydney International Film Festival. By far my favorite film of the festival, Adam's Apples was a breath of fresh air (you can read my review of that film on this site as well). The type of thing you hadn't even realized you were missing so badly until you are confronted with it.

So when my step-mother asked me if there was anything I had in mind for my birthday, the two Jensen films available on were the first thing I mentioned. Several weeks later the long-awaited package arrived. Inside waiting for my viewing pleasure was Flickering Lights and The Green Butchers. I decided to start with the earlier film and work my way forward and so in went Flickering Lights.

It's always dangerous going into a film with really high expectations, but thankfully Jensen did not disappoint. Though I have only seen two of his films he is quickly sky rocketing to the top of the talent pool in my opinion. His directing is spot on, and his writing perhaps outshines his directorial talent.

Flickering Lights follows the adventures of four men, low level thieves and thugs, who just can't seem to get out from under the thumb of the local big wig crime boss. While committing a robbery for the crime boss the boys take a peek inside the suitcase they are to steal, revealing millions in cash. Seeing their opportunity to escape they decide to make a run for it.

What appears to shaping up to be a action/adventure road movie turns into something else entirely when their van breaks down in the middle of the woods. Shacking up in a cottage, they have to learn to blend in with the locals until they are able to leave. The only problem is each one of them slowly realizes they don't want to leave. They'd like to stay, open up a restaurant, and start a new life.

At its heart the film is about the sometimes funny, sometimes touching relationship between four men that has developed since childhood. Coming from severely dysfunctional families, they found each other and formed a dsyfunctional family of their own.

It's about facing personal demons, realizing each person has their own quirks, that some may see as character faults, but others see as endearing. It's a feel good movie that comes in the most ridiculously anti-feel good movie packaging.

Cows may be shot, people's faces may smashed in repeatedly with shattered beer mugs, people will be murdered, but through it all you might be surprised to find yourself being as moved by the movie as Stefan is by the book of poetry, Flickering Lanterns, that he reads to pass the time.