Sunday, January 28, 2007

Film Review #79: The Dead Girl
Director: Karen Moncrieff
Cast: Brittany Murphy, Marsha Gay Harden, Rose Byrne

It’s all in the lede, print editors will tell you. This rule of thumb for securing rapid attention applies to cinema too in an impatient, information-glutted age. For example, Film Comment’s current issue lists last year’s 20 Best Unreleased Films, a nod to those made elsewhere that haven’t gotten to the US yet or even found a distributor here. The New York Times’ A.O Scott has just written about this shrinking film horizon. And it’s a rare film festival anymore whose application process lingers past watching a prospective entrant’s first five minutes – although where I live, the burgeoning three-year-old Syracuse International Film Festival has reversed this trend by offering a time and labor-intensive round of preview screenings for community input into the final mid-April competition program.

One casualty of the growing habit of giving up early may be director Karen Moncrieff’s The Dead Girl. A much better film than either critics or audiences are giving it credit for, this minor key miracle of ensemble acting and gracefully mirrored, incisive structure released theatrically in late December in Manhattan. I fear it may not see its early 2007 national roll-out because its opening vignette is so off-putting and grim. An anthology of five interlocking stories comprise The Dead Girl, about a serial killer’s young addict-prostitute victim and those people her death touches. We don’t actually see Krista (Brittany Murphy) until the final vignette, except fleetingly as a corpse in the opening.

Announced simply as The Stranger, this opening depicts the grisly discovery on a seedier stretch of sea-side dunes near Los Angeles by Arden, a lank-haired, radically depressed woman trapped in tending her sadistic, wheelchair-bound mother (Piper Laurie). First I thought, we have seen Toni Collette in roles like this too often. Really it’s just that roles like the one she had in The Night Listener go such a long way. Off-setting that, Giovanni Ribisi is thoroughly startling as Rudy, lean, tattooed, overly pushy grocery clerk aroused by Arden’s mere proximity to murder, a character whose reversal alerts us to look past easy plot predictions.

Four more distinct segments get us finally to Krista herself and her final day. Such interlocking stories are increasingly common as one departure from straightforward narrative. Rodrigo Garcia, most recently in Nine Lives, and Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity come quickly to mind, and of course Babel. The Dead Girl is also first cousin to Emilio Estevez’ Bobby, which structures its assassination tale by examining the network of people surrounding the event, yet leaves the mystery at its heart intact.

But it’s more than that. People leaving the theater during the opening vignette is especially ironic because The Dead Girl, more than another exercise in chopping up narrative, is really a film that meditates on cinematic endings. Last summer the Washington Post’s Charles Taylor wrote thoughtfully about how Hollywood fetishizes endings and how some films now resist that – Michael Haneke’s Caché, for example, or Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. As Taylor notes, other art forms like opera print the ending right in the program. The so-called problem of “spoiling the ending” often constricts filmmakers and certainly audiences. The Dead Girl is one of the more successful efforts I’ve seen to explore this in the sense that, if you hang around past the opening vignette, its shifting point of view maintains a requisite suspense even in the face of knowing Krista’s end.

After The Stranger, the subsequent vignettes are these. In The Sister, Rose Byrne plays Leah, a young student whose desperation to solve her older sister’s disappearance years ago has driven her to working in a morgue and performing post-mortem exams. Her parents’ obsessed belief – especially her mother (Mary Steenburgen) – that the sister will return alive has them all on hold. Fleetingly – most hope in this film seems fleeting – a physical similarity convinces Leah this corpse is her lost sister. As fleetingly, attentive watchers will see the sister’s drivers’ license among the killer’s memorabilia twice, the second time as it burns.

In The Wife, Ruth (Mary Beth Hurt, in a performance widely admired but surpassed by several others here) wastes away waiting for her silent, often missing husband to return to their trailer with its storage container business in the back, her fears and anger coiling ever tighter. As Melora in The Mother, Marcia Gay Harden (one such surpassing performance, along with Rose Byrne’s and, finally, Murphy herself) seeks out the effects of her runaway daughter Krista, discovering a girlfriend (an excellent Kerry Washington) and a child. Terrified, awkward, often nearly overcome, she inches forward with each revelation. This is some of Harden’s best work ever.

All these characters are women whose lives have been held in abeyance, who make a leap of faith. Most don’t clear the chasm. The literal presence of a morgue and then a storage container business as occupational settings in such a film is risky, but Moncrieff – who cut her directing teeth on episodes of HBO’s Six Feet Under after breaking out of an acting career on daytime soaps – finesses this handily.

It’s no wonder that Brittany Murphy works a lot (she has five features releasing in 2007, including Sin City 2). Here, she nails a certain jittery, gulping energy as Krista’s strung-out, impulsive, sometimes violent, needy prostitute, trying to get a stuffed animal to her little girl. Knowing what we do when Krista finally arrives, full-tilt, nothing gets in the way of this last clean slice of action. “Yes, I’ll take you, but first I have to make a stop,” the driver tells Krista. It’s not that you like it, but it’s worth the wait.

The Dead Girl is playing in limited release. Also see Agnes Bruckner, precocious star of Moncrieff's first feature, Blue Car, all grown up in the new release, Blood and Chocolate. This review was written for, where it appeared on 1/25/07.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Film Review #78: Sophie Scholl: The Final Days
Director: Marc Rothemund
Cast: Julia Jentsch, Fabian Hinrichs, Alexander Held

Two young German students have their ears against a radio speaker, straining for the lyrics of an American jazz tune. Their foreheads almost touch, swaying side to side with the beat. “Sugar, my sugar. . .” The dark-haired one, Sophie, though she’s laughing too, is concentrating hard. She’s the one who catches the chorus and sings the fast part perfectly. The next day, when the Gestapo arrest Sophie Scholl (Julia Jentsch) and her medical student brother Hans (Fabian Hinrichs) for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets at Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilian University, Sophie’s stunned friend Gisela looks away as Sophie passes close by.

Director Marc Rothemund’s dramatization of the capture, interrogation and show trial of three members of The White Rose does not use the heavy, tragic Wagnerian score you’d expect from Hollywood for such a subject. Besides the opening scene’s light-hearted jazz, Sophie listens to Schubert. Then a spare, percussive theme recurs – it first infuses the moments when she and her brother place stacks of flyers in the university’s massive stone atrium with a sudden electric tension about the danger of an action we take for granted. The same theme repeats austerely, accompanying this small woman as she’s hustled across vast plazas and into tiny cells in the story’s straightforward march to execution.

Already having won major European awards for Best Director and Best Actress, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days opened in the US last February on the anniversary date of that arrest and was Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.

German audiences know the story of the White Rose well and particularly revere Sophie for her grit. On February 17, 1943, Sophie and Hans were caught almost at once after she impulsively shoved one stack of flyers from a balcony ledge, thereby catching an irate janitor’s attention just as students from a huge lecture poured into the hall’s center atrium. During the first of three days’ questioning, this self-possessed 21-year-old out-foxes her seasoned interrogator, Robert Mohr (Alexander Held). Once Mohr shows her Hans’ signed confession, she reverses herself and confesses too, but proves more than Mohr’s match as he tries to argue and offer her a way out. Apparently Mohr really did wash his hands in a corner sink when she refused to save herself.

Rothemund says dialogue between Sophie and Mohr comes almost verbatim from Gestapo transcripts, accessed in 1990 after East Germany’s regime fell. Though both Jentsch and Held are adept stage actors, they manage a riveting, understated dual in close-up. Two previous German films – Michael Verhoeven’s The White Rose and Percy Adlon’s Five Last Days (both 1982) – do not attempt to imagine these sessions and conclude, respectively, at Sophie’s arrest and before the trial.

Hans, Sophie and a third resister, Christian Probst, went before Roland Freisler (Andre Hennicke) – that judge’s first chance to impress Hitler by conducting a show trial intended to deter others. The DVD, released in November, has extra archival footage of Freisler’s trademark savage tirades in another proceeding. Far from crumbling in tears, Sophie answers that the German people want peace and dignity. Rothemund’s camera pans the courtroom’s mostly military audience when she says this and catches a ripple of fidgeting and looking down. All three were beheaded on February 23rd, six days after Sophie learned that jazz tune.

In late January 1943, Germany was reeling from hideous military defeat at Stalingrad, Russia, with 230,000 casualties. Official claims of victory persisted until February 3rd, when the Reich simply broadcast funeral music. On the 17th, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels called for “total war” – we hear snatches of this speech on radios when police are first processing Sophie. The White Rose had friends in six German cities and hoped to contact other resistance groups outside Germany, but were essentially a handful of student friends and their Munich professor, Kurt Huber. Sophie’s younger sister Elizabeth and White Rose survivor Franz Muller, both interviewed on the DVD, don’t make Sophie’s motivation a big mystery. Says Muller, “Anyone could tell the nation was headed over a cliff.”

If the film also has fewer Nazi trappings than you’d expect, this is more than low-key cinematic style. Rothemund, who says he makes films “to explore current issues,” wanted audiences to “slip right into the action” instead of watching from a safe historical distance. As if history is ever safe.

This review appeared in the 1/25/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in Make it Snappy: DVDs You Should Get Around To, a weekly DVD column reviewing films that never opened theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Best Film of 2006: Children of Men

Perhaps all mothers see their sons as Michelangelo saw David. Amidst horrific collapse and mass grief for a childless future, director Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men provides a moment of startling access to that vision. The priceless marble statue sits horded in a citadel called the Ark of the Arts. Damaged in its rescue and transport, part of the left leg is gone. A shiny metal rod connects the foot and knee – as if David had crossed paths with an IED on his way to meet Goliath. For a rushing, brilliant instant you glimpse how irreplaceable, in his mothers’ eyes, is every young soldier. This helps set up the plausibility later when soldiers lay down their weapons at the sight of a baby.

In another scene, Clive Owen’s Theo walks down an abandoned school hallway over trash, muck and crunching broken glass. Minutes ago he had put on flip-flops, the only footwear around. Cuarón’s strategy to have us take in panoramic devastation involves such details. Without ever showing Theo’s feet during this short walk, Cuarón has you curling your own toes, squeamish about those nearly naked feet.

Another scene: around a corner Theo refills his whiskey pint and overhears his friend Jasper tell the pregnant ‘fugee girl Kee how Theo’s son Dylan died. Echoing the boy’s mother Julian, also dead now, Kee says about the baby’s photo, “He has Theo’s eyes,” while Mahler’s Songs on the Death of Children plays over Jasper’s stereo.

I had been fiddling with a likely list of top films, no single one quite away from the pack, when I saw this one. Beyond “I know it when I see it,” it may be the unflagging aesthetic precision and the reciprocity of such images, that finally earned my tears. Not everyone agrees – it takes a willingness to let the film have you, like the wary affection that grows up between Theo and Kee. Theo and Julian met at a 60’s protest rally – of course their son was named after the singer Bob. At the end, when Kee names her little girl Dylan, I thought instead about the poet not going gentle into that good night.

Written for's Top 15 Films of 2006, published there 1/16/2007.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Film Review #77: One-Eyed Jacks
Director: Marlon Brando
Cast: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Katy Jurado

We first meet Rio (Marlon Brando) lounging elegantly against a counter, eating a banana. After he drops the peel, the camera pulls back. He’s covering two women with his six-shooter as Dad Longworth (Karl Malden) empties the bank’s gold into saddle-bags. Though 1880s Sonora, Mexico is a likely enough spot for a 1961 Hollywood Western, the story will move to Monterey, California – as several characters pointedly remark, those 800 miles are a long way from Sonora.

Back in the bank, one of Rio’s hostages tries to hide a diamond ring in her bag; Rio smirks and takes it. As soon as he starts walking, Rio’s spurs jingle. Whether it’s fancy spurs or prisoner’s chains, some musical sound usually accompanies Rio’s movements. There’s the rushing wind too, rustling his long neck-scarves. Later, the Pacific’s crashing surf is a backdrop. It’s always a fresh revelation to see the young Brando. (In one scene he drops cat-like over a second-floor balcony.) But One-Eyed Jacks also shows him tattered and smelly from a prison break, his back bloodied by a public flogging and his gun hand smashed with a rifle butt. One-Eyed Jacks is much more than a vanity project, and as a young thug in gaudy, ill-gotten finery, Rio merges with biker Johnny in The Wild One (1953), even achieves an Alpha Dog immediacy.

One-Eyed Jacks is the only movie Marlon Brando ever directed, and its first scenes quickly sadden you about that fact. While he gets the action rolling, he packs in rich details of visual style, sound and character that unfold and echo throughout, like that ring Rio steals and the differing ways he and Dad approach women. Before long, a Mexican posse traps them; Dad abandons Rio to five years of prison and “picking the maggots out of the sores on my ankles every morning.” A gorgeously-shot sequence sets this pursuit and capture in a swirling dust-storm that literally dissolves the landscape and story expectations along with it.

Five years later Rio arrives in Monterey. Dad Longworth is now the sheriff, lounging in a hammock on his own ill-gotten porch by the beach. Like some sleazily charismatic ex-addict preacher, Dad brags, “Everybody knows I was a bandit once.” Dad has a Mexican wife (Katy Jurado) and step-daughter Louisa (Pina Pellicer). Part of the film’s suspense and contemporary punch is its complex working out of Rio’s plan for revenge in tandem with his evolving relationship with Louisa. This film is remarkably like James Marsh’s 2006 film The King, about a modern-day half-Mexican, Elvis (Gael Garcia Bernal), abandoned by his now respectable preacher father, whose revenge includes impregnating his half-sister. As David Sterritt writes in Guiltless Pleasures, much of Rio’s story is about performance, rehearsing, bluffing and reinvention – like the Wild West itself. His exchanges with Dad sizzle with anger. But Rio’s struggle to get real means that neither Rio nor we know for some time whether he really loves Louisa.

That swirling dust in Sonora made Dad’s betrayal less genre-bound, more universal. Moving to the Pacific coast accomplishes more. Classic Hollywood Westerns were set in landscapes of grandeur, mountains or (once John Ford started using Monument Valley) generic deserts or prairies often simply labeled Texas or Mexico. Part of revising Westerns was changing and cramping the place – landmark efforts like Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995), for example, both occur in Pacific Northwest forests. Moving Rio’s story to Monterey highlights often absent historical Spanish California (several characters display anti-Mexican racism; Rio hides out with immigrant Japanese fishermen up the coast). It also backs that mythical endless frontier right up against the surf. This is a surprisingly relevant image about the outcome of national dreams – just have a look at last year’s modern-day California riff on the Western, Down in the Valley.

For years, critics called the Western movie dead. But in a post-9/11 world looking more and more like the Wild West, we’re also seeing HBO’s Deadwood, Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Australian John Hillcoate’s brilliant The Proposition, and the upcoming Seraphim Falls. Brando starred in four other Westerns too, but of them all One-Eyed Jacks is perhaps most a film for today.

Besides earlier VHS editions, One-Eyed Jacks has been released on DVD at least ten times between 1999 & 2003. This review was written for Make it Snappy, a weekly DVD column reviewing recent films that never opened theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth; it ran in the 1/18/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Film Review #76: Notes on a Scandal
Director: Richard Eyre
Cast: Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett, Andrew Simpson

It’s almost a throw-away line, one you could easily miss from a lesser actor. But by now our eyes are glued, saucer-sized, to her every move as if we were in a check-out line, not a movie theater. History teacher Barbara Covett (Judi Dench) drops her consummate battle-ax thunder to a murmur and answers her visitor’s social banter. The younger, prettier woman, new art teacher Sheba Hart (Cate Blanchett), trying always to please, has just exclaimed, “Oh you have a cat!”

“Standard issue for spinsters,” says Barbara softly, surgically, precisely. In a single phrase, she manages a disorienting half dozen or so messages. She’s acknowledged she fits a certain cliché, cast herself above it by saying so, suggested that Sheba can’t really be that surprised, made herself invitingly self-deprecating to the less confident woman, implicitly mocked the attitude that married women are happier, and denied her own deep affection for this cat, whose demise a ways down the pike will trigger a great deal of bodice-ripping and worse between these two so-called friends. For the longest time, Sheba is no match for “Bar.”

Nor for Steven Connolly (played by teen Andrew Simpson). In a film often called a guilty pleasure because it taps so accurately into our own wayward impulses, Sheba Hart has to juggle two stalkers. After some years married to Richard (Bill Nighy), the London college professor whose first marriage she broke up, Sheba’s now on the edge of middle age, with a pouty teen-aged daughter and a Down syndrome son. She’s inherited a nicer house than most of her teaching colleagues, half-heartedly turned the potting shed into a potter’s studio – “my lair,” she calls it – and now tries teaching. Nothing has really turned out. Her new students are unruly and won’t behave. Close-up, golden-haired Sheba – Barbara saves a single strand, tucked in her diary – has become indefinite and hesitant.

There is one boy, 15, whose family has come to London from the North of Ireland for factory work and lives in a high-rise project he doesn’t want Sheba to see. He pursues her with the same steamy single-mindedness one imagines she once applied to Richard. Cate Blanchett’s scenes with this boy are uncomfortably convincing. Meanwhile Barbara – as self-deluded as she is calculating – hopes Sheba’s desperate fear of exposure will somehow turn to gratitude and love. A string of melodramatic reversals, discoveries, manipulations and increasingly distraught confrontations ensue. Frankly I cannot imagine the whole thing not collapsing under its own weight, except for the edgy performances of Dench and Blanchett. And the long moment in their front doorway, when Nighy’s Richard finally lets Sheba back in to their marriage with the smallest jerk of his chin, nicely brackets the action by echoing Barbara’s early murmur about cats and spinsters.

Having solidly built his career upon stage-work, Richard Eyre has transitioned to television and film by directing classic drama adapted to screen, such as Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, King Lear) and Chekhov (The Cherry Orchard). He’s worked with Dench before – see his 2001 film bio of novelist Iris Murdock – and he directed the witty, many-layered film, Stage Beauty (2004), about the tensions between natural and enacted femininity via Elizabethan-era theater conventions. We could expect Eyre to come up with a complex and stagy villain in Barbara Covett, adapted from Zoë Heller’s novel. Between Heller, screenwriter Patrick Marber, Eyre and Dench – like Blanchett, stage-trained – we have a Covett at home with her own villainy in the way that Richard III or Iago are at home with theirs. In an eerie mirror of the out-sized staginess of the characters, the attraction that both Covett and Steven feel for Sheba is really more that of a fan than an intimate – one’s connection and future together largely imagined and one’s thwarted adoration quickly turned to rage.

The grand staginess and tabloid blowsiness of Notes on a Scandal threaten to obscure something else. Like a number of recent British films, this one comments upon history and what we make of it. Some US films express similar concerns with stories both more literal and more removed – revisiting World War II and subsequent early Cold War spy days of a half century ago. But English films are tackling history’s meaning sideways and metaphorically, with tales of how the young fare in the possible near future (Children of Men) and the recent past (both Notes on a Scandal and The History Boys occur a couple decades ago – explicitly not now). One character in The History Boys argues that no era is more difficult to fathom than the recent past, but Barbara Covett – after all a history teacher – hands in a mere half-page curriculum report concluding that history at St. George’s School needs no revision whatsoever.

And the result of Barbara Covett’s brand of rote history, in her case a prism of class resentment that explains everything and examines nothing? When Sheba Hart is first getting to know Covett, the lonely younger woman relaxes into a too-easy confidence, telling Covett more about her personal life and disappointments in one rainy afternoon than wiser adults might. Covett contemptuously lays this to Sheba’s enervated, undisciplined upper-class background. A considerate person might stop Sheba, refrain from taking advantage of her shaky sense of self. Ever the entrepreneur of others’ weakness, Barbara gathers evidence instead of exercising empathy. Her relation to the arts, itself a kind of shorthand, is telling too. We last see her on a park bench dangling a Sunday night chamber concert – the trappings of a finer life, presumably – as bait before her next target. US audiences might easily miss Notes on a Scandal’s astute dissection of recent-past class shifts and attitudes, distracted by its more operatic side. That would be a shame.

This review was written for, for 1/18/07.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Film Review #75: Clean
Director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Maggie Cheung, Nick Nolte

“I’m completely in your hands,” says Albrecht Hauser (Nick Nolte), the bear-sized boat-maker from Vancouver. He’s holding up his own rough hands, palms open, as he looks down at tiny Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung) on a wintry Paris street. He’s taking a huge risk: he’s going to let Emily take her son Jay – the grandson he’s raised from birth – for the weekend, even though Emily is a heroin addict in shaky recovery, even though six-year-old Jay thinks she killed his musician father Lee, even though Albrecht told his wife, hospitalized in London, that he took the boy to Scotland for the weekend.

Only minutes ago Emily bolted, overcome with her own fears about this reunion – a long tracking shot follows her running down escalators and through a dense holiday shopping crowd before she changes her mind and returns, just as frantically, to find Albrecht. “You’ll have him back by the 3:40 train on Sunday?” asks Albrecht. It’s clear by this point in Clean that few people have ever spoken to Emily with such economy and direct force of attention. Emily promises she will have the boy back on time, and of course she nearly doesn’t.

Writer-director Olivier Assayas’ Clean opens a year or so earlier, as Emily and her partner Lee (in real life, musician James Johnston, who now plays with Nick Cave’s band The Bad Seeds) land in a small unspecified industrial city during an already fatiguing tour. Their motel’s dreary. The club they’re booked in is cramped and seedy. Their tempers are frayed. They argue and Lee reminds her that he’s 42 now. Their manager and other musicians think bitchy, dope-shooting Emily is the reason Lee’s career is skidding – an opinion that persists after he fatally overdoses, Emily spends six months in prison for possession, and nearly everyone writes her off.

Wisely, Assayas skips Emily’s prison time. Instead, we see the continuing jolt of her trying to put together a very different life after. She returns to Paris, waitresses in an uncle’s Chinese restaurant, works her way through methadone and pain killers, gets some scraps of help from old music friends while others blow her off, clerks in a mall boutique, harbors hopes of reviving her own music. Emily comes to grasp that she will never see her son until she gets clean.

Clean is one of several 2006 films that address the reliably devastating topic of addicted adults and the children within their reach. Besides Off the Black (another Nolte film just released last month), Ryan Fleck’s Half Nelson portrays a crack-addicted teacher’s ambiguous relationship with a student who becomes his dealer (out on DVD on 2/13) and Laurie Collyer’s Sherrybaby features Maggie Gyllenhaal’s brilliant performance as another young ex-con addict who wants her small child back (out on DVD on 1/23).

Far less acclaimed than Fleck’s and Collyer’s US-set films, Clean burns longer than both. Clean portrays the pull that both music and heroin exert, and it relies less on the drama of downfall, more on enduringly quiet scenes: the near-documentary feel of rock’n’roll road life that Assayas establishes immediately, Albrecht’s confiding to his wife that kids scare him because “they know what you’re thinking before you say it,” Emily’s fragile persistence, Jay’s confrontation with her in the Paris zoo, and the wonderful exchanges between Emily and Albrecht.

Seeing Nick Nolte as Albrecht Hauser is startling after his memorable string of alcoholic-addict roles. He was harrowing in Affliction, droll and sorrowful in The Good Thief, and he carries last month’s Off the Black. Even though Maggie Cheung won Best Actress award at Cannes for Emily and there's some Oscar-buzz now, the pivot here is Nolte’s Albrecht, an artisan model for his musician son who also crafts a sturdily sea-worthy relationship with Emily.

Assayas has worked with Maggie Cheung before (they were married briefly before making Clean), first directing her in Irma Vep (1996) and expanding her international reputation beyond Hong Kong. Set in London, Paris, Vancouver and San Francisco, Clean has opened in nineteen other countries since its 2004 Cannes premiere and prior to its limited US theatrical release in late April 2006.

The DVD, also released last April, has excellent interviews with Assayas, Cheung, Nolte, the English pop star Tricky, and the band Metric (who play themselves in the opening scenes). Real musicians play all the musician roles in Clean. A Metric members reflects, “Music is more addictive than any substance – it will justify the most destitute existence.” How Assayas works that out on-screen is worth the trip.

This review appeared in the 1/11/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly in “Make it Snappy,” a weekly DVD column reviewing recent films never released theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Film Review #74: The Red Shoes
Directors: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger
Cast: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring

I loved Rize, I can’t wait for Stomp the Yard, and that last dance number in Idlewild is dazzling even if the final credits do roll right over it – what were they thinking? The list is longer. We’ve had no shortage of good dancing on-screen over these last several years. But you have to go back a ways further for the mother of all dance films. The one that convinced director Brian DePalma he wanted to make movies. The one that Martin Scorsese looked to when he needed a template for fighter Jake LaMotta’s experience inside the ring for Raging Bull. The one that led to Gene Kelley’s 18-minute ballet finale to Gershwin in An American in Paris. The one whose empty theatre seats during rehearsals A Chorus Line copied when that Broadway production went on-screen. British filmmaker Michael Powell’s The Red Shoes was 50 years old in 1998. In observing that, the British Film Institute said it was still the definitive movie about ballet.

As ever, a young unknown gets a big break and must choose what their art means to them. Shortly after World War II ends, London dancer Vickie Page (Moira Shearer) joins the touring dance company of Russian impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). The figure of Lermontov is based loosely on Sergei Dhiagilev, charismatic and controlling manager of the historic Ballet Russe. Lermontov also brings on young composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring) and commissions him to score a ballet based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale of the girl bewitched by magical red shoes who dances herself to death. Despite the show’s great success, Lermontov and Craster’s rivalry over Vickie provokes a split, an eventual reunion and showdown for her loyalty. Vickie’s seemingly bewitched death echoes her ballet role.

The Red Shoes includes a performance of the entire original ballet within the film, instead of a few abbreviated scenes where actors, with enough coaching and the right cutaway shots, might credibly pretend to be dancers, a few twirls at a time. Dhiagilev’s real company ballet master, Leonide Massine, has a major dancing role in the film, as does then-famed ballerina Ludmilla Tcherena. Moira Shearer had never acted in film and was reluctant to leave her own blossoming career as second dancer (after Margot Fonteyn) at Sadler Wells in London. On the 1994 Criterion Collection DVD’s rich and excellent commentary track, Shearer relates how Michael Powell pursued her for a year to play Vickie Page.

Moreover, Jake Cardiff – who had incidentally never filmed dance before The Red Shoes, though he was already England’s premiere color cinematographer – gives us an absorbing full dance performance that quickly morphs into fantasy and magic. No theater-bound audience could ever fully take in such a live performance’s changes of scene and perspective from their seats, nor logically believe them if they did. But then, The Red Shoes is about what dancers experience inside an artistic world and its consuming collaborative effort, and only afterward about whatever partial glimpse the audience has from beyond the footlights. In contrast, a film with similar themes adapted from the stage like last year’s Rent disappointed because its camera careened aimlessly, just because it could.

The Red Shoes emerged in a dance-receptive, post-war era when both British and US audiences looked to art and entertainment to relieve years of strain and privation. In 1946, when Powell and his Hungarian-born collaborator Emeric Pressburger launched this project, England created a national arts council. The same year George Balanchine started the New York City Ballet. Although ultimately popular in England, The Red Shoes perturbed film critics there at first, with its pioneering mix of genres and flights of fantasy and a tragic ending distastefully “out of place” in a musical. But opening stateside in October 1948, The Red Shoes filled New York City’s Bijou Theater for 110 weeks in a row, was Oscar-nominated for best picture and editing, and won for art direction and original score.

Powell and Pressburger, who wrote The Red Shoes script, made 22 films together in their production company, The Archers. The Red Shoes comes out of their richest period in the 1940s. Their war-themed films had already confounded critics and politicians with “overly sympathetic” portrayals of the enemy – good to recall when you see Clint Eastwood’s brand new Letters from Iwo Jima. The Red Shoes is an entrancing gateway.

This review was published in the 1/4/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle in the column Make it Snappy, a weekly DVD review of recent films that never opened theatrically in Syracuse & older films of enduring worth.