Saturday, December 30, 2006

Film Review #73: Brother to Brother
Director: Rodney Evans
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Roger Robinson, Daniel Sunjata

Film can be a double-edged sword. In 1991, when George Halliday’s videocam captured Los Angeles police beating Rodney King, it provided visual evidence that was intelligible and convincing to large portions of the public, which in turn arguably made possible the prosecution of four of the officers. At the same time, that grainy image reinforced other mainstream media stereotypes. Throughout the long Simi Valley trial, the LA riots that followed the officers’ acquittal in 1992, and the national soul-searching and community organizing about police behavior in the 90’s and since, Rodney King has been persistently reduced to that eternally transient, one-dimensional figure – a “motorist.” Mainstream movies have the same pull. Despite the chopped-up chronology and multiple story-lines of a film like Babel, more often audiences, reviewers and investors have remained uncomfortable with layered, messier plots that reveal connections instead of keeping life’s parts roped off.

With that thought in mind, it’s not surprising that we meet Brother to Brother’s main character, Perry (Anthony Mackie), on that East Coast equivalent of the LA freeway – New York City’s MTA. As Perry rides along sketching another passenger across the aisle – the two young black men eye each other just a little – an older man looks back and forth between them and smiles knowingly, nostalgically maybe, before he gets off. Perry’s father has kicked his gay son out and the shuffling, rumpled older man lives in a homeless shelter, but this is not going to be another story about rootless outsiders that stays in its box.

Perry is an art student at Columbia, talented, curious, seeking his own roots and his own way. Pretty soon Brother to Brother director-screenwriter Rodney Evans has Perry arguing in Black History class with another young man who doesn’t see why Perry must keep bringing up the gay black subculture at the heart of the 1920s cultural movement we call the Harlem Renaissance. Brother to Brother uses wonderfully shot and acted flashbacks of ground-breaking, now-revered figures like writers Langston Hughes (Daniel Sunjata), Zora Neale Hurston (Aunjanue Ellis) and Wallace Thurman (Ray Ford); they meet as excited, brilliant young people, live together in a brownstone they dub “Niggerati Manor,” struggle with artistic and commercial ethics, and publish a radical magazine called Fire!! that first earned them withering scorn for its style and content.

Perry learns about this vividly when he makes friends with that old guy from the train, a semi-fictionalized Bruce Nugent (Roger Robinson, with Duane Boutte as the slender, elegant, younger version in the flashbacks). Nugent’s poetic short story, “Smoke, Lillies and Jade,” was the first published African American literary work on gay themes. He recites part of it and then Perry recognizes the passage, and his identity, in an anthology.

Nugent was also a painter; here, he takes Perry to the now-deserted building where he once lived and worked and the two artists paint one another – a profoundly loving act as imagined across the generations by Evans. The director spent two years researching this film at Harlem’s Schomburg Center and Nugent’s executor, Tom Wirth, gave him access to thirty hours of video interviews with Nugent.

Nugent died in 1987 and at first glance Brother to Brother is set roughly in the present, but it might as easily be a decade earlier – during Nugent’s life or in the early 90’s, contemporary with Rodney King’s era. Two movies that influenced Evans – Marlon Riggs’ great Tongues Untied and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho came out in that period (1990 and 1991 respectively); another, Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven (2002), came out as Evans shot this one. When the film premiered in late 2004, Evans said, “I am not really into films having one simple message.” Perry’s jolt of recognition that Nugent is not “just” an old bum – along with issues of class, interracial romance, straight friendship, family cut-offs, gay-bashing, and what gets into the classroom and the bookstores – comprise this film’s many anti-“motorist” moments.

Skittish investors meant Brother to Brother took six years to make. Then some jittery reviewers had reservations about those multiple themes. Experienced as a documentary director and editor, Evans followed a careful course of festival entries (Special Jury Prize at Sundance), limited theatrical release, national PBS airing (on Independent Lens in June 2005), then rapid DVD release. As Bruce Nugent did for young Perry, this film will open a world.

The Syracuse City Eagle weekly published this review on 12/28/06 in Make it Snappy, a regular column reviewing DVDs.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Film Review #72: The Best of Youth
2003 (Italy); 2005 (U.S.). Miramax DVD release 2/7/2006 (2 discs, 368 min., color, Italian & French language tracks with English & Spanish subtitles, Region 1).
Director: Marco Tullio Giordana
Screenplay: Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli
Cinematographer: Roberto Forza
Editor: Roberto Missiroli
Producer: Angelo Barbagallo
Cast: Luigi Lo Cascio (Nicola Carati), Alessio Boni (Matteo Carati), Jasmine Trinca (Giorgia), Sonia Bergamasco (Giulia), Maya Sausa (Mirella), Adriana Asti (Adriana Carati), Andrea Tidona (Angelo Carati), Fabrizio Gifuni (Carlo), Lidia Vitale (Giovanna Carati), Valentina Carnelutti (Francesca Carati)

Giordana’s The Best of Youth opens in Rome with rock music – the Animals’ "House of the Rising Sun" – as brothers Nicola and Matteo Carati prepare for college term exams and a summer trek to Norway’s remote North Cape. It’s 1966. After Matteo impulsively liberates the young woman Giorgia from a psychiatric clinic, their trip falls apart, though Nicola goes partway alone. In 2003 Matteo’s son Andrea completes that journey. In vignettes every few years between those dates, the Caratis and those dear to them endure Italy’s late 20th century convulsions. In Italian cinema, implicitly the family = the nation, especially the brothers. The Best of Youth falls firmly within a lineage of films such as Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960), Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976), and Francesco Rosi’s Three Brothers (1981) for its governing plot. And quite early, one scene establishes Giordana’s governing principle. Nicola Carati learns he passed his exam with an A “because of the sympathetic factor.” His medical professor says he means that “in the Greek sense – to share in the pathos.” To be unsympathetic, he tells Nicola, “is the worst thing a doctor can be.”

Giordana apparently thinks that goes for filmmakers too. In a movie covering decades that saw protesting students join labor strikes and clash with police, inflation, radical industrial reorganization, attacks by the terrorist Red Brigades, natural disasters like the winter floods of 1966 in Florence that threatened irreplaceable artistic treasures, the rise of consumerism and mass culture, the first trial in the world that allowed mental patients to testify about shock treatment, political scandals, and the Mafia wars, temptations to go two-dimensional with characters and events, or employ a certain condensed tunnel vision, must be constant.

As just one example of history’s weight, two recent documentaries have acquainted US filmgoers with matters that have been deeply polarizing in Italian life. Marco Turco’s Excellent Cadavers, also available on DVD, opened theatrically in Manhattan last July to warm reviews. Marco Amento’s The Last Godfather: The Ghost of Corleone has toured the festival circuit for the past year. With somewhat different emphases, both use the car-bombing of state prosecutor Giovanni Falcone and four passengers in Sicily on May 23, 1992, as centerpiece and narrative turning point.

It’s hard to overstate the flashpoint importance for contemporary Italy of Falcone’s assassination. Two factors especially served to concentrate public attention and revulsion. Photos of his bloody corpse, head thrown back and still seated in the car wreck, were repeatedly printed and televised, paralleling those of JFK’s assassination and of course the 9/11 plane strikes. Turco’s film highlights Sicilian photojournalist Letizia Battaglia, whose thousands of photos of Mafia doings helped prepare the ground. Then, the widely seen, scorching outrage of Falcone’s bodyguard’s widow, Rosaria Schifani, who insisted that the Cardinal saying their funeral Mass publicly denounce the assassins, goaded comment from the Pope himself.

The resulting upheaval hardly destroyed the Mafia – Amento’s film investigates how Bernardo “Tractor” Provenzano eluded capture for decades – but it did uncover the Mafia’s long-time deal with ruling Christian Democrats to suppress Communists in the south since post-war days. And it led to some legal reforms, which Berlusconi, coming to power in 2001, promptly dismantled. Also in 2001, in October, the influential Aperture Gallery in New York exhibited Battaglia’s Mafia photos, querying what art can do about violence. Battaglia traveled to Manhattan too, expressly in solidarity with New Yorkers after 9/11; her photo book, with its cover portrait of the now-iconic Rosaria Schifani, was reissued here in 2003.

Such background may make watching this film richer and historically more coherent. The Best of Youth includes footage of Schifani, provides one scene that dramatizes how entire congregations recited anti-Mafia pledges at Mass, presents the oldest Carati sibling – Giovanna the magistrate – as having just joined Falcone’s team, and has (as the mother of Matteo’s son) Mirella, a photojournalist living in Palermo and covering these events. At the same time, there is something deeply satisfying in noticing that this film includes the Falcone assassination, but is not just about the Sicilian Mafia. I think The Best of Youth achieves a maturity and generosity toward its characters by this. Giordana’s work depends upon its Italian viewers to already possess some foundation about historic events. As for the national trauma that some have been, we could say that Giordana makes a film that is not stuck, that integrates horrific events into the whole with enough room left for characters of quite extraordinary detail and appeal. So for example, Giorgia remains in the brothers’ lives for many years in quite complex ways, calling forth the best and worst in each, actually grasping the brothers’ bond as no one else does. And Nicola sees how Matteo, who enters the army and then the police, is really most like his own lover Giulia, who leaves him and their four-year-old daughter Sara to fade into the Red Brigades. So at ease with nearly everyone, Nicola can interrupt neither the despair nor lethal choices of the two most dear to him. Growing up, Sara displays a streak that’s alarmingly like both. It’s not only that she’s ruthlessly competitive at cards and fencing. “Why are you so severe?” Nicola asks Sara when she’s happy to let her mother rot in Spoleto Maximum Security Prison – even though he has put Giulia there himself. Two days before Sara marries, Nicola effects her reconciliation with Giulia. “Are you happy? Then now is the time to be generous.” This might be either a rite of passage to adulthood or a nation integrating its past.

Originally envisioned as a television mini-series, The Best of Youth gains by the straightforwardness of that medium and by the current trend toward screening novelistic feature fiction film in various formats. Chance meetings and simple declarations about what happens next move things along economically that might as well so move. Adult characters age four decades mostly by the style and color of their hair; it seems a small matter.

On the other hand, The Best of Youth often displays considerable visual finesse. Giordana, cinematographer Roberto Forza and editor Roberto Missiroli have produced several remarkable intercut sequences that are tense and moving – particularly the moments leading up to Matteo’s New Year’s Eve suicide as he moves about his flat, waters his plants, surfs his TV, while the family he briefly visited celebrates elsewhere with a raucous card-game that humors the kids, then slips suddenly over the balcony rail as though casually stooping to tie a shoe.

The pervasive pleasure of other visual treatments emerges gradually. The motif of the courtyard – architecturally the heart of Italian structures – recurs repeatedly when characters look around some courtyard’s walls as though searching their own hearts, reinforcing that the name Carati has a root meaning heart as well. The day Nicola comes home to a grim, smoky political meeting in his living room and little Sara stashed in the kitchen, he scoots her out for some fresh air with a jovial dance step that echoes the Charlie Chaplin poster on the hallway wall. Characters who are emotionally outside frequently look in on intimate, warmly-lit scenes from a hallway, themselves shot in dark silhouette; this has the curious effect of joining us kindly with them, as though we were standing there in the hallway too. The night that Giulia leaves Nicola, she steps past him from their dark foyer through an open door that – illogically – lets in a blaze of red light, as though stepping into a furnace. When Nicola must tell Giorgia that Matteo is dead and Giulia arrested, Giorgia approaches the weeping man from behind as he sits on a garden bench; we watch parts of her come from over his shoulder – first her shambling feet, then one hand laid on his shoulder, then her palm on his cheek, after twenty years of not letting anyone touch her – long before we see her face. It is unsurprising that filmmakers so attuned to visual nuance would also give us characters – especially Matteo and Mirella – who make sense of the world by taking pictures.

The Best of Youth is a long film, here presented on two discs that run a tad over three hours each. Miramax has shaved a half hour plus off the European version, which runs at 6 hours, 40 minutes. This DVD set plays well on a large screen with lots of detail, rich color and good sound. The subtitles are legible; the end credits barely so. It has no extras at all.

Cineaste Magazine published this review in its Winter 2006 issue.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Film Review #71: Hail Mary
1985; DVD 2006
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cast: Myriem Roussel, Thierry Rode, Philippe Lacoste, Juliette Binoche

Even with its holiday season release, The Nativity Story is faltering at multiplex box offices. What is has going for it is Keisha Castle-Hughes as Mary (she debuted in the New Zealand film Whale Rider) and director Catherine Hardwicke, whose sharp eye for contemporary young people brought us Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown. But you have to go back twenty-one years for most bracingly modern Holy Family.

In Hail Mary, Jean-Luc Godard’s 1985 take on the Nativity, Joseph drives a night-shift cab from the airport. Marie, whom we first see during her high school basketball team’s game, works nights in her father’s gas station on the airport road. After two years at arm’s length, Joseph is desperate and confused. One day he flings at her, “You don’t even care if we’re together! You don’t care if I’m sick or I die!”

In the age-old way of young men in love, Joseph (Thierry Rode) is by turns tender, demanding, pleading, petulant and accusing, all to get in Marie’s pants. Then he threatens to drown himself. Marie (Myriem Roussel) is unperturbed, answers with a gentle smile that she doesn’t think he will really jump in the lake.

Part of Joseph’s confusion is that he has no model to understand Marie’s seeming lack of desire, except his own indifference to another young woman. A luminous young Juliette Binoche, not quite believable here as spurned, plays Juliette, whose fervent pursuit of Joseph mirrors his pursuit of Marie. He does not want sex with Juliette because he does not love her, so he decides that Marie does not love him. Joseph’s insecure panic over rivals surges when the stranger Gabriel (Philippe Lacoste) arrives by night plane – Marie hears his jetliner passing overhead and pauses mid-motion – to announce Marie’s pregnancy. Rough as a Dutch uncle, swarthy Gabriel materializes suddenly in rooms and yells at pouting Joseph about having trust. “And some love, you jerk!” he adds, shoving Joseph and slapping him in the back of the head. Godard also injects a parallel story about a professor’s doomed affair with his student that comments on how inadequately intellect alone explains our origins and satisfies our longings.

Hail Mary was modern in more than its dress and setting. Godard spear-headed the French New Wave in the 60’s with films like Weekend and Breathless; two years ago he directed his eighty-ninth movie. He made Hail Mary in an era when interest in psychology made possible this kind of exploration of Joseph and Marie’s inner turmoil with their destiny and one another – complete with symbolic trappings of radiant sunrises, the moon and wind rippling the marshes. Godard frankly drew on the writings of Francoişe Dolto’s 1977 book,
The Gospel is Confronted by Psychoanalysis.

He also looked to the past, basing some views of Mary on Michelangelo’s Pieta and drenching the story with Bach’s and Dvorak’s soaring music. For all its neon and rain-soaked asphalt, Hail Mary contains surprisingly few trendy fashion details that would frankly date it as mid-80’s. With the hindsight of two decades now, Godard’s use of some modern components has had the reverse effect of creating a certain timelessness.

Pope John-Paul II condemned Hail Mary as blasphemous. Besides subtler subversions, the film contains scenes in which Mary is naked or close to it, including her crucial exchange with Joseph about love’s meaning in which she teaches him to pay attention, her gynecological examination by her doctor – accenting her youth, Godard has Mary keep on her school-girl knee-socks while in the stirrups – and a late scene in which Mary, her mother and her new baby swim naked together. The Boston Roman Catholic Diocese made sure the film didn’t play there. Like Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ, made three years later, Hail Mary often faced pickets and protests at theaters.

In October, New Yorker Films issued Hail Mary on a new DVD that also contains an interview with Godard about his aims and sources and some clips from the filming, plus another short film. Avoid the multiplexes and head for the rental shops, where you can get the real deal on faith’s demands and pitfalls.

This review was written for Make it Snappy, a weekly DVD column reviewing films that never opened theatrically in Syracuse and older films of enduring worth, in the 12/21/06 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Film Review #70: The Painted Veil
Director: John Curran
Cast: Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Toby Jones

There’s a scene in The Painted Veil in which you can watch a man think something over and change his mind. As Dr. Walter Fane, bacteriologist attached to England’s Colonial Office in 1920s Shanghai, actor Edward Norton delivers his most economical, resonant performance to date. As Fane and his wife Kitty (Naomi Watts) argue over her affair with Vice-Consul Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), Kitty persuades him to consider that it’s unreasonable to blame her entirely when he’s insisted on seeing her as other than she is. In an unhurried beat, Norton’s wounded, rational, earnest doctor considers that. Suddenly unsure, he cocks his head, gazes downward, then looks up again – just about three simple moves – then quietly agrees she’s right. The acting is wonderfully deft, and forecasts much of what happens between these mismatched two when they travel far inland to the city of Mei-tan-fu during a cholera epidemic and a wave of anti-Western anger.

Based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel of the same name, The Painted Veil has been an ensemble effort from start to finish. In that saga’s bare bones version, screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) and producer Sara Collecton (Showtime’s Dexter) acquired rights and began adapting Maugham’s book eleven years ago. In 1999 they recruited Norton, already a China enthusiast, who worked on the script and eventually played Fane. He brought on Watts. In early 2005, she landed director John Curran (We Don’t Live Here Anymore), an ex-pat New Yorker who started making movies in Australia in 1990. Curran anchored the on-screen story’s anti-Western political unrest, left vague in the novel, to British troops’ actual massacre of Chinese demonstrators in Shanghai in May 1925. Shot on location in Shanghai, in southern Guangxi Province’s green hills along the Li River, and on Beijing sound stages, The Painted Veil is the first Western film co-produced with the Chinese Film Bureau, with a largely Chinese crew.

You don’t have to read Maugham’s relatively short novel to enjoy this satisfying film, but that further illuminates what transformative adaptation from text to screen looks like at its best.

The film radically alters the story’s structure, quickly defining this as much cultural encounter as personal drama. Instead of opening with Kitty’s “startled cry” within her shuttered bedroom – outside, Walter has just turned the locked door’s knob while her lover’s inside with her – the film strands Walter and Kitty in a long shot at a rainy crossroads en route to Mei-tan-fu, helpless without porters, exchanging uncomprehending stares with local workers digging in the muddy hillside. The film adds anti-British gangs who chase Kitty (and teach Walter that he cares to protect her), and expands the figure of Colonel Yu (Anthony Wong) who must juggle warlords, Englishmen, local superstition and cholera. Gone is the novel’s protracted ending – another melodramatic encounter with an even more caddish Charlie, an ocean voyage in which China becomes “unreal,” Kitty’s mother’s death, and Kitty’s planned departure for the Bahamas with her father, where she imagines having a daughter she’ll raise to be independent. The film cuts all this away, assuming today’s audience can immediately envision these characters whole and viable in the Chinese setting. It provides Kitty with a five-year-old son in the London epilogue, relieves her of the novel’s highly compromising friendship with Charlie’s wife, and makes China a living presence instead of a backdrop by turns ornamental and “decadent, dirty and unspeakable.”

Edward Norton has said the producing ensemble sought to “liberate” Walter and Kitty’s story from the novel’s limitations. In the film’s newly opened space, Walter and Kitty arguably grow into love before he dies; in the novel, Kitty emphatically never comes to love him – and arguably couldn’t.

What core remains of Maugham’s novel? First, a string of gem-bright exchanges whose dialogue the screenplay lifts almost verbatim from Maugham’s pages. What spoken words pass between Kitty and Walter, Kitty and Charlie, Kitty and Waddington the Customs officer, and Kitty and the French convent’s Mother Superior play as convincingly or better on-screen as on the page. Second, the seemingly blasé Waddington (Toby Jones) and the patrician Mother Superior (several double takes reveal that’s Diana Rigg of Avengers fame) are characters whose alliance is provocative rather than merely eccentric – and inspired casting. Finally, the filmmakers preserve Maugham’s final judgment of Charlie Townsend through Kitty's eyes as “unimportant.” If anything, the film strengthens this assessment by having Kitty use it as a cooler, reassuring word to her son as the story closes, instead of the hot epithet she throws at Charlie in the book. All along Kitty has pleaded that, compared with such misery surrounding them, her sins are surely minor though the pain she has caused Walter is not. By the film’s end, she’s earned that position.

The Painted Veil also succeeds because its makers overcome several obvious temptations to excess that might doom a hastier project. The film refrains from making Kitty into Eleanor Roosevelt. Her transformation is right-sized – she humbles herself, tries to help the nuns and the orphans because she feels bored and useless, and she gets some unexpected joy for her efforts. Metaphorically, we could say the film never confuses her tinny piano ditties for the orphans with the score’s languid, lavish solos by pianist Lang Lang. This allows Walter and Kitty a brief romantic kindling that’s plausible instead of sentimental.

The filmmakers also wisely refrain from a voice-over narration by Kitty drawn from Maugham’s rendering of her inner thoughts. In sharp contrast to the dialogue, what the novel’s Kitty tells herself or imagines she would like to tell others is sometimes clueless, shallow, unbecoming and frankly racist.

Finally, Curran and company refrain from the epic effect. The Painted Veil does not try to be, say, Lawrence of Arabia. This means when a wife asks her husband to think about something, he can pay attention, and we can pay attention to him. People will watch this more muted film a long time.

The Painted Veil opens in New York on December 20 & goes into wide release in January 2007. This review was written for & appeared there on 12/20/2006.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Film Review # 69: Joyeaux Noel
Director: Christian Carion

As a type, the war movie exposé usually depicts atrocities or other scandalous behavior that’s been covered up. In the flood of documentaries about the Iraq war, for example, noted filmmakers Rory Kennedy (The Homestead Strike) and Errol Morris (The Fog of War) both have upcoming movies on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. Brian DePalma based his 1989 Casualties of War on an incident in which US soldiers raped a Vietnamese woman. And last week Days of Glory opened in New York City; Algeria’s official Oscar submission for best foreign language film dramatizes the racist treatment during and after World War II endured by conscripted “indigenous” troops from Algeria and other French colonies in North Africa who fought for France.

Last year’s Joyeaux Noel is a second kind of war movie exposé, not nearly as common. In this film peace breaks out and – equally as riveting to watch – is rapidly and decisively suppressed. You’ve probably heard the story. One Christmas Eve in France during World War I, enemy troops started singing, and declared a local truce that night. As often as you’ve heard this, someone has probably said, “Oh that didn’t really happen, it’s like one of those urban legends.”

The Oscar-nominated film's director, Christian Carion, belongs to Noel 14, a group that is documenting instances of such spontaneous truces among enemy soldiers. They claim that about 90% of these contacts occur because one group of soldiers sings and the other side applauds or sings back.

The extraordinarily moving Joyeaux Noel dramatizes one such incident on Christmas Eve 1914, in which the noted German opera tenor Nikolaus Sprink, serving in the German army, sparked some treasonous fraternizing among German, French and Scots troops by his singing.

Joyeaux Noel opens with schoolchildren reciting patriotic verses that castigate their nation’s enemies since, as South Pacific reminded us, you have to be carefully taught. In a highland village, one Scots brother excitedly tells another that war’s been declared. Their priest, Palmer (Gary Lewis), follows them into war as a medic, taking along his bagpipes. In Berlin, military announcements on-stage interrupt Sprink (Benno Furmann) and his fiancé/singing partner Anna Sörensen (Diane Kruger) ; soon Sprink is fighting in France. There, a French general’s son, Lt. Audebert (Guillaume Canet), is so frightened that he vomits before first leading his troops into artillery fire.

These characters meet outside the city of Lens, their trenches just a few hundred yards apart, deadlocked from summer into winter over possession of the bombed-out Delsaux family farm. Millions died in such trenches, filthy, freezing, wet, rat and lice-infested warrens that gave us the term “shell shock.” Carion’s camera moves quickly among his three companies, tying each brief scene to the next by some noise that’s overheard in the neighboring trench. This prepares us for Christmas Eve. So does the oddly persistent lure of deadly no-man’s land, where one soldier after another seems pulled, whether to spy or retrieve the dead and wounded.

Carion creates a celebrity fiancé for Sprink who engineers a ritzy holiday concert for officers, retrieving Sprink for a night. When he returns to the trenches, improbably Anna goes along. There, the Scots’ singing and bagpipes trigger a musical call and Sprink’s response across no-man’s land. Heads peek above earthworks. Soon they’re mingling, answering the responses in Palmer's Latin Mass. The next day, they share soccer, cards, family photos, and bury their dead. It is hard for them to go back. Lt. Horstmayar (Daniel Bruhl) invites the Allies to shelter in his trenches when artillery fire first resumes.

Can’t figure out why the Sunnis and the Shiites are killing each other? This film’s Europeans share more than Christmas songs and growing up with the Latin Mass. Each furious military superior immediately ships out or disbands their regiments, intercepts their mail and orders silence. An incensed Anglican bishop suggests Palmer leave the priesthood, then preaches to fresh troops from Mathew, “I come not to bring peace. I bring a sword.”

You have your Holocaust deniers, your My Lai deniers – and your Christmas Eve 1914 deniers. If you think about it, they are usually of the same stripe. They are the ones who would make a no-man’s land of our hearts and minds, a place where war’s consequences are neither very bad nor war’s flukes very good either, where instead war itself is simply normal. Joyeaux Noel is one of cinema’s better answers to that.

Published in Make It Snappy, a regular DVD column in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, on 12/14/06.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Film Review #68: Apocalypto
Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Rudy Youngblood, Raoul Trujillo, Dalia Hernandez

Have you noticed that we’re getting back to basics? Blood Diamond’s Danny Archer tosses off some fancy driving and James Bond’s glove box might stock a defibrillator, but this winter season’s three major action movies really like their high speed chases best on foot. Like Bond himself, Casino Royale’s opening sequence is eventually over-done. DiCaprio’s diamond smuggler, unable to make the summit, is carried the last few feet by Djimon Honsou’s African innocent until – in a quite respectable echo of Gary Cooper’s Robert Jordan from 1943’s classic For Whom the Bell Tolls – he refuses escape to hold off murderous pursuers. Then there’s Apocalypto. Now here is the Cadillac of foot chases – hyper-extended, heart-bursting, masterfully suspended at just the right brief intervals of rationed exposition, audacious.

Apocalypto is the story of young Jaguar Paw (the arresting Rudy Youngblood) and his run. Jaguar Paw is a sort of primeval crown prince, first seen leading the young men on a hunt in his father’s Mesoamerican jungle circa 1500, last seen turning his back on the coast and leading his wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and their two boys into what he hopes is the safety of the deep interior forest. In between, Mayan warriors sack his people’s small camp and haul him to the nightmarish capital, intending to rip his heart out in ritual sacrifice to the sun god. Because Jaguar Paw kills Zero Wolf’s son while escaping, this Mayan general (Raoul Trujillo, channeling Charleton Heston in his better days) goes after the young hunter with ferocious obsession. I know he terrified me. When Zero Wolf jumps right over that waterfall after him, my eyes widened just like Jaguar Paw’s did on-screen.

There is a lovely and powerful sequence after this when the forest forcibly takes Jaguar Paw back as its own, swallowing him in quicksand. When he emerges after a long moment, a muddy hulk, he has found his own ferocious clarity and sets about picking off his pursuers. Meanwhile, Jaguar Paw’s pregnant wife and little boy hide in a deep rock crevice, unable to run anywhere. Gibson checks in on them with short, nuanced interludes whose stillness and close-up intensity effectively counterpoint the headlong rush through the jungle above. Gibson has an often overlooked gift for coaxing delicate, moving performances from women that are oases in violent mayhem – recall the scene from The Passion of the Christ (2004) in which Mary quietly mops up her son’s blood from the cobblestones.

Mel Gibson says he first wanted to make a “high velocity action-adventure chase film” and then sought an ancient culture in which to place it. He settled on the Maya because of parallels he perceived with current-day excesses and the opportunity for parable. So he prefaces Apocalypto with historian Will Durant’s remark, “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within,” and in closing dedicates the film to the Biblical Abel, slain by his brother. The order of Gibson’s approach helps explain why Apocalypto’s rousing power as a chase yarn doesn’t extend further and match the deeper resonance of, say, Atanarjurat: Fast Runner, the 2001 film produced by Canadian Inuits in which the central chase across the icy wasteland arises organically from that culture’s legends about an evil spirit menacing the community. As ever, Gibson’s own preoccupations, in league with his considerable talent, lead him astray.

The film’s first weekend is instructive of the film’s allure and its contradiction. The day after Apocalypto opened on December 8th, the Washington Post published a lengthy article laying out the concerns of Mayan researchers from a half dozen US universities. On Sunday Apocalypto slid into the #1 US box-office spot and its distributor, Disney Studios, estimated the first weekend’s revenues at $14.2 million.

Gibson does not claim outright for Apocalypto the rigorous historical accuracy that he did for his Passion. You can read analyses elsewhere that debunk exactly how Gibson structures that film’s exaggerations and savagery to anti-Semitic ends. Even so, I know of no other film that captures as convincingly how remote an outpost Jerusalem might have been to the Romans – how seedy and dilapidated. Gibson brilliantly sets Pilate’s meeting with Jesus in a formal public courtyard that’s a crude, badly proportioned copy of vaster, gleaming Roman public sites, with steep, ungraceful stairs and dirty pillars. As powerful cinema, does this add depth to Pilate as Christ’s reluctant antagonist or make blaming the Jews easier?

In the Washington Post, William Booth details how the experts see Apocalypto’s careless history and wonders about its impression on viewers new to the Maya. Instead of acknowledging the thousand-year reign of a complex, subtle, even avant-garde civilization, he says Gibson depicted the Mayan capital – disease-ridden slums, children foraging in sewage and the most zombie-like pagan worshipers this side of Peter Jackson’s King Kong – as a “ghoulscape.” Where Jaguar Paw grasps his fate in the temple by reading murals, Gibson has digitally altered a major historic Mayan fresco to show a warrior king holding a dripping human heart when his hand really holds nothing. Gibson got many fashion details right – the tattoos, facials scars, ear plugs – but key scholars disagree on whom the Mayas targeted for sacrifice, say there is no evidence of large-scale slavery and no evidence of the Nazi-style mass open graves that Jaguar Paw stumbles into at the capital’s edge. Their concerns include significant confusion of time periods, ritual, art and architectural styles, even a haphazard confusion between the Mayan and Aztec cultures. Booth says some worry how today’s six million Mayan descendants in Central and South American will view Apocalypto when it’s released there next year.

Likewise, Apocalypto’s extreme violence is a relentless, subliminal and time-warping argument to absolve those Europeans just off-shore in advance. The scene is which a delicate fountain of blood sprays straight out from the most sadistic Mayan foot soldier’s spiked temple is a window on someone’s dedication to the uses of illusion. See, they did it to themselves. Talk about getting back to basics. This is why Socrates wanted to ban the artists.

Published at, 12/13/06.
Make it Snappy:DVDs You Should Get Around To

Last month The Redhouse offered a Master Directors Film Festival over a 12-day period and invited me to lead one of the talk-back sessions after a screening – mine was Kurasawa’s Rashomon (1950). We in the media didn’t do a very good job publicizing that little festival series – it was under-attended and audience members complained about almost missing the whole thing. Some had caught Rashomon before on DVD but almost no one had seen on a big screen. And they wanted to stay and talk about the movie. We have a cinema-friendly and a cinema-hungry community here. (Witness the pre-screenings that the Syracuse International Film & Video Festival holds throughout Central New York in selecting final festival entries, a labor and time-intensive process that almost no other festival engages in.) Syracuse is, sadly, no longer a first-ranked national test city, getting the range of theatrical openings we once did. But besides a wealth of university film series, we have several robust small independent theaters, and multi-art houses like The Redhouse and Community Folk Art Center make film part of their agenda. Emerald City Video, also locally owned, has an especially fine collection of both videos and DVDs. And of course, God bless netflicks. Make it Snappy: DVDs You Should Get Around To is a new weekly column, devoted to films that never got here in theatrical release, or might deserve another look because of their enduring quality and influence.

We open with a movie that editor Walt Sheppard suggested, the original 1946 version of Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers. The movie has Hemingway’s name in the title because it’s based on his nine and a half page story from 1927, although the story only narrated events from the opening scene, in which two hit men enter a small town diner at suppertime and terrorize the few men there by announcing their intention to find and kill another man named “the Swede.” Hemingway’s story is terse and menacing, and his writing style matched the way in which German ex-pat director Robert Siodmak told his stories on-screen. The film takes off from this initial vignette, and the Swede, Ole Andreson (Burt Lancaster’s first film role) accepts his fate passively even though he’s warned by a diner patron who races through back yards, leaping fences to out-run the killers. An almost obsessed insurance investigator, Jim Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) teams up with a retired cop, Lt. Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene) to ferret out why the Swede didn’t run when he was warned. Unfolding in a series of flashbacks, the film details how the Swede’s boxing career collapsed and he turned to small time heists, infatuated with the two-timing Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner). It is quite a convoluted story, with a mysterious green handkerchief keepsake and several reversals.

The Killers was quite successful at the box office in its time, won four Oscar nominations and Miklos Rozsa’s dramatic musical score features the dum-da-dum-dum that the TV series Dragnet later borrowed for its theme. It was one of that series of increasingly darker, starker, more fatalistic and hopeless US films that the French saw after World War II and dubbed “film noir” before Americans really had a name for it. This movie is one of the best introductions you could have. Despite being 60 years old, it is stunningly modern – from the opening scene you’ll be reminded of films like Sin City (2005), which clearly take their lighting, their ambiance and a while lot else from films like this one.

The Killers was remade in 1964 for television, which meant a major shift to color and very bright lighting, and a shift in approach, as the two hit men (lee Marvin and Clu Gulager) decide to figure out their victim’s passive acceptance of his death. The 1964 version changed the Swede to a race car driver named Johnny North (John Cassavetes) and featured Ronald Reagan in his last screen role as the crime boss. It makes sense to see them together.

The Killers is available through in the 2003 Criterion Collection 2-disc edition or in several VHS issues if you can find them. The Criterion edition is a better bet because it includes Don Siegel’s 1964 re-make, and a wealth of extras, notably Stacy Keach’s reading of the Hemingway story, a 1948 radio adaptation, several recollections and commentaries, especially Paul Schrader’s 1972 essay, notes on film noir, the first take by an American on this style of filmmaking.

The first Make it Snappy was published in the Syracuse City Eagle weekly on 12/7/06.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Film Review #66: Copying Beethoven
Director: Agnieszka Holland
Cast: Ed Harris, Diane Kruger, Matthew Goode

For many years, I thought that director Martin Scorcese, whom I admire greatly, might have an evil twin. This was how I formulated for myself the seemingly inevitable presence of wildly fluctuating scenes within a single film – always at least one clunker in amongst the gems. With The Departed, Scorcese has laid that to rest, killing his darlings along with most of his characters. Though I would not normally pair these two directors, I bring up Scorcese’s split because Polish director Agnieszka Holland’s Copying Beethoven is a film that also seems at odds with itself.

I went to Copying Beethoven expecting, even wanting to like it. Some of it I did like. Immediately, Holland’s usually sure hand is evident in the magnificent opening scene. A closed carriage careens along a muddy road in the 19th century Austrian countryside, past poor trudging women who peer after it as they get out of the way, past fields and woods – past daily life – and beneath wheeling birds whose startled flight matches the passenger’s own urgency. It’s 1827 and young Anna Holtz (Diane Kruger), musical copyist and aspiring composer, is rushing to the death-bed of her “Maestro,” the renowned Beethoven (Ed Harris). But more than anything this carriage scene is about the vivid, almost overwhelming awakening of her senses. It’s chilly, and we are roughly thrown about in Anna’s careening coach along with her, catching flashes of sky and branch, nearly smelling the steaming horses, and above all, hearing everything. Every hoof beat, every crow’s call, every squeak of the carriage, every sudden brief lull, pant and rustle – all of it picked out clearly and then mingled with soaring music. Anna Holtz apprehends the world fully just as the man who’s shown it to her lies on the razor’s edge of death. You see, she has just grasped what he has to offer, barely in time to repay his gift by telling him she got it.

“I heard it like you hear it, Maestro,” she tells him, once she arrives in his cramped upper room, with the little window just over his shoulder past the bed. She is sure of it. At the film’s end – after the movie’s story, when Anna Holtz recalls the intervening three years – she’ll see her own reflection in that window and go out walking in a sunny meadow, rejoining the world. Meanwhile, somewhat miraculously, before the movie even really starts, Holland has made us hear it too, as if for the first time. Holland says this was her goal – a tall order when you consider that in our jaded age there are more than 100 recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to choose from (the one we hear in this film is the 1996 Decca recording with Bernard Haitink conducting). But this first dazzling scene of Anna in the carriage by herself is far more successful than most of what follows – even the centerpiece scene of Beethoven conducting the Ninth premiere that’s gotten the most attention – and it compactly mirrors how Beethoven’s own innovations disrupted the way people heard music.

Most of the action occurs in flashback to 1824, when the composer debuts his Ninth Symphony and then goes on to write his later string quartets. The Ninth turned out to be both a comeback for Beethoven and a hinge moment in music itself, audaciously adding chorus to symphony, extending symphonic length, rearranging its forms and more. The film places us in the frantic days before that debut, with sections of Budapest dating from the 12th century and other Hungarian locations standing in for Beethoven’s Vienna. Long made solitary by his hearing loss, ill-tempered and difficult in the extreme, disorganized, demanding, obsessed, Beethoven needs help to get his score copied out for the orchestra.

The film posits that a young woman has persuaded her respectable family to let her study musical composition. She is able to lodge at a Vienna convent because her aunt seems to be the Mother Superior there. Then Beethoven’s publisher recommends her as his new copyist. At first, and for quite a long time too, Beethoven is irascible, dismissive and living in the midst of trash and rats. (As an aside, while Ed Harris is convincingly boorish, I would not say he is convincingly Beethoven. Recently a local paper wrote that Scarlett Johansson was “too modern” for The Prestige, and after Copying Beethoven I know what they meant.) Anyway, Anna Holtz gets her chance, saves the day by secretly conducting the Ninth from the orchestra pit, and becomes his student and assistant in the writing of the later string quartets. Along the way, Beethoven demonstrates to Anna Holtz that her fiancé, Martin (Match Point’s Matthew Goode) is an untalented architect as well as a possessive boyfriend, and is himself fleeced by his cynical nephew Karl. Perhaps most creepy is the scene in which Beethoven, reclining Pieta-like, asks Anna Holtz to bathe him.

Some of this is historically true and some, not. As anyone knows who’s heard of this film, “Anna Holtz” is a composite figure, based on two male students who assisted Beethoven from time to time, and also inspired by the story of Karoline Unger, a singer at the debut of the Ninth who gently turned Beethoven to face the audience so that he could see the applause he could not hear.

It’s a subtle touch, but Beethoven calls Anna Holtz by both her names throughout the film. This suggests that he has trouble knowing quite where to place her. Anna Holtz is a problem, but I’ve decided this is not Diane Kruger’s fault. For US audiences who don’t know her work abroad, Kruger may still be living down Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, but she quietly holds her own in this part and we’ll see more of her. As Anna, Kruger also plays a figure whom Holland holds with some congenial intimacy. Holland told GreenCine’s Steven Jenkins, when the film opened several weeks ago, that she had a maestro in film school herself. “I feel myself in Anna’s boots when she challenges Beethoven.”

The problem with Anna Holtz is larger and more amorphous than her character. She’s supposed to be a device that allows us to enter Beethoven’s solitary world, to personify a young audience’s encounter with his music. Instead, this film’s approach largely recasts the composer into the same marketing terms that many shrinking, cash-strapped US symphony orchestras are busy employing to attract a younger “demo.” In place of parties, dinners and prizes to draw subscribers to live performances, this film invents Anna Holtz. I’d like to know whether the investors or the character came first. At least her carriage ride crossed the screen first.

This review was written for, where it appeared on 12/6/06.