Thursday, August 30, 2007

Film Review #120: Before Night Falls
Director: Julian Schnabel
Cast: Javier Bardem, Oliver Martinez, Johnny Depp

Before Night Falls opens on an apparently simple scene set in Cuba’s northwest Oriente Province, 1943. The camera’s eye gazes skyward as sun glints through deep green forest canopy far overhead – lovely, with a slight gentle wind – then sweeps down to a tiny year-old boy, sitting naked in a mud pit. The camera pulls back and up, away from this make-shift playpen isolated in a field, some ways from a shack. No one’s nearby this pit that’s open to sun and rain. In a single fluid arc, this opening establishes a twin image – the imagination and freedom that by our nature we seek, inspired and unlocked in the natural world, against a harsh, essential solitude. Our eyes in the shimmering tree tops, we sit trapped in the blunt mud.

The film’s opening, so painterly in handling these prototypic images, comes courtesy of writer-director Julian Schnabel, who leaves his painting every few years to make a film about another artist. Here, the naked toddler left in the pit by his young mother while she works in the fields is the eventually – against all odds – prolific dissident Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (played by various Schnabel offspring and then as an adult by the great Javier Bardem). Schnabel wrote the script, based on Arenas’ memoir of the same title, with the writer’s close friend Lázaro Gómez-Carriles (played onscreen by Oliver Martinez), to whom Arenas dictated the manuscript when he became too ill with AIDS to type.

Previously Schnabel made the cult favorite Basquiat (1996/DVD 2002) about graffiti artist and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat (aka Samo). His 1980s prominence in Manhattan’s art world overlaps Arenas’ sojourn there; the writer landed in New York via the 1980 Mariel boatlift by which 125,000 Cubans left their nation. (After a long period of harassment and friction with Castro’s regime partly stemming from being openly gay, Arenas was able to secure exit permission by declaring himself homosexual and therefore undesirable.) Both men died in 1988, Basquiat by heroin overdose, Arenas by a drug overdose suicide that the film portrays as assisted.

For a first film, Basquiat was an embarrassment of ensemble acting riches, starting with Jeffrey Wright’s remarkable screen debut in the title role. His scenes with David Bowie (still the best Andy Warhol portrayal short of Warhol himself), as these two wary confidantes talk over painting and fame, are unmatched. Basquiat also commented explicitly on celebrity commercialization through art critic and self-proclaimed Basquiat discoverer Rene Ricard (Canadian actor Michael Wincott, who appears in all three of Schnabel’s films), whose voice-over narration comes directly from Ricard’s 1981 writings in ArtForum.

Wincott returns as Cuban writer Herberto Zorilla Ochoa in Before Night Falls, in which Schnabel addresses the fate of dissident art and lifestyles under Castro’s revolution. Zorilla, a mentor to Arenas, was tried in the 1960s for violating the penal code’s Article 243 – forbidding assembly of more than three persons – because he had hosted a reading in his home of his own and some friends’ writings. When he publicly renounced his own work, Zorilla’s wife leapt to her death off a balcony. Shortly after this, Arenas – he had published one book in Cuba, winning a national honorable mention – began smuggling his own manuscripts to France with a painter who admired his work and had sought him out during a visit from Paris. Eventually arrested in 1973 on the pretext of molesting some boys at a beach, Arenas was sentenced to prison for “ideological deviation” and publishing abroad without permission. Escaping prison once, Arenas then served almost two years in the infamous El Morro. (Johnny Depp’s dual cameo roles – as the blond queen Bon Bon and the prison’s sadistic Lt. Victor – are incisive special treats.)

Arenas was extremely active in 1980s literary New York, as he had been in Cuba. Before Night Falls concentrates on his deeply deprived youth (once he survives that mud pit, his grandfather chops down the trees on whose trunks he carves poems when his teacher tells the family he has a special gift); his early years of writing (mentoring older writers coached his efforts and tutored him in world literature); his part in the burgeoning gay scene in Havana and its collision course with Castro’s regime; his grueling imprisonment (an acquaintance who worked as a psychologist in Cuba tells me Schnabel’s portrayal of El Morro doesn’t go far enough); his efforts to leave Cuba and his eventual relocation in New York with his enduring friend Lázaro, who nurses him in his final days. Arenas had a long, on-again-off-again relationship with a wealthy Errol Flynn look-alike with a white convertible to match, Pepe Malas (Andrea di Stefano), whose various repeated betrayals thread through the story.

Though cinematically stronger because of it, Schnabel’s film also leaves a good deal out, including positions Arenas held in journalism and in editing two Cuban magazines, that substantiate the international reputation Arenas gained, especially in Europe, before he ever left Cuba. Published three years after Arenas’ death, his memoir Before Night Falls was named one of that year’s ten best books by the New York Times. Right now, lists 74 Arenas titles in print, many re-issued since the film’s release.

Javier Bardem was Oscar-nominated for his performance as Reinaldo Arenas and picked up a Special Jury Prize in Venice, among a raft of critical kudos. Actually not Bardem’s first portrayal of a gay man – in 1999, he appeared in a far more overtly sexual Spanish film, Second Skin – this role is more remarkable for his eerie recreation of Arenas, with whom he shared little physical resemblance. Besides a splendid commentary track – Schnabel plus Bardem, Gómez-Carilles, both DPs and composer Carter Burwell – the DVD also contains a clip of a 1983 interview with Arenas when he was 40.

In the long twilight of Castro’s presidency, reassessments and remembrances can only accelerate. We can liken Before Night Falls to Jonathan Demme’s hugely under-appreciated documentary, The Agronomist (2003/DVD 2005), about assassinated Haitian radio journalist Jean Dominique, an early Aristide supporter who cooled amid the rising corruption, violence and dissembling of his hero’s regime. No part of the political spectrum has a monopoly on hardened positions, of course – the US embargo on Cuba has also meant that the films of Cuban master director Humberto Solas have reached US screens slowly when at all.

Schnabel’s third film opens in the US in December, having taking Best Director at this springs’ Cannes. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly recounts how a high profile French fashion magazine editor endured a paralyzing stroke in the mid-90s.

An abbreviated version of this review appeared in today’s Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Film Review #119: Shoot the Piano Player
Director: Francois Truffaut
Cast: Charles Aznavour, Marie Dubois, Albert Rémy

There’s the sound of frantic running in the dark on pavement. A car’s headlights and gunning engine chasing someone. Suddenly this guy runs right into a street lamp, knocks him out cold, and another guy, shifting an armful of roses, helps him up. And so these two strangers stroll for a bit, discussing marriage and how the rose-carrier finally fell in love with his wife. They part, and the chase resumes. Later on, two thugs will kidnap a boy and, side-tracked in their enthusiasm for gadgets, drop their stern demeanor to brag about air-conditioned hats and such, but by then we’re used to impromptu chats and fanciful insertions.

Before Bonnie and Clyde, there was a little French film called Shoot the Piano Player. Bonnie and Clyde’s 40th anniversary earlier this month has caused a flurry of film magazine and newspaper movie-page comment about that 1967 film. Based loosely on the exploits of notorious bank-robbers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who ranged across the Midwest prairies during the Great Depression, Bonnie and Clyde remains a landmark in US film-making, both for its controversy and adoption of new film techniques. In the title roles, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are attractive, witty and, like their real-life counterparts, derided banks as institutions of the rich that stole the money and land of ordinary working people. Like their real-life counterparts, the celluloid duo courted media coverage as folk heroes. Further, Bonnie and Clyde depicted violence more graphically than US film had done before, even in the 1903’s-era B gangster movies it fondly recalled, both with the ending’s shockingly prolonged execution and a number of shots directly in people’s faces during the story. For the first time, a US film used “squibs,” tiny explosive charges, attached to bags of red paint, which detonated to simulate gun-shot wounds as they occurred.

Bonnie and Clyde also adopted story-telling techniques from French “new wave” filmmakers working a bit earlier that decade – sudden shifts in tone from comic scenes to extreme violence, jump cuts and chopping editing – that were disconcerting then because they broke down storylines and barriers between art and real life. Tapping Arthur Penn for director certainly worked out – besides the film’s immediate and durable popularity, its showing at the Oscars was immense – but star-and-producer Warren Beatty’s first choice had been François Truffaut. This was largely based on Truffaut’s 1960 film, Shoot the Piano Player, itself a tribute to US 1930s gangster films and an adaptation of a 1950’s American pulp fiction novel by David Goodis, Down There.

Shoot the Piano Player was only Truffaut’s second feature, released a year after The 400 Blows. Not well-received initially, it didn’t open in the US until mid-1962, carried on the wave of his third feature, Jules and Jim. Before his death in 1984, the man who made those three films in his first three years also made films like Fahrenheit 451, Mississippi Mermaid, the five Antoine Doinel films (starring Jean-Pierre Leaud) and my personal favorites, Day For Night (1973) and The Story of Adele H (1975). But in his essay for Criterion's 2-disc set in 2005, Kent Jones has called Shoot the Piano Player – at 84 minutes, Truffaut was already getting the job done fast – “the skeleton key” to all Truffuat’s work. Despite that set’s feast of bonus interviews and commentary, the movie’s eminently watchable more than once all by itself.

It’s a wisp of a story. A sad-eyed, very private Charlie Kohler (Charles Aznavour), is playing honky-tonk piano in a bar, far from the tuxedoed concerts of his career as Édouard Saroyan. He’s raising a younger brother, and getting more than eyed by both the golden-hearted prostitute who lives next door, Clarisse (Michèle Mercier), and the barmaid Léna (Marie Dubois). Like the actor who plays him, who’s known mostly to Americans for his singing, Charlie comes from an Armenian-French clan. His older brothers, Chico (Albert Rémy) and Richard (Jean-Jacques Aslanian), hide “like wolves” at a remote farm between badly botched hold-ups. Charlie wants out of their scrapes and hasn’t seen them in four years when Chico – he of the lamp post – pursued by two thugs he’s double-crossed, Momo (Claude Mansard) and Ernest (Daniel Boulanger), bursts into the bar. When Chico escapes, the thugs pursue Charlie, then Léna, kidnap Charlie’s little brother, and in various vehicles all head through the winter night to a showdown at the farm.

An old poster from his concert years in Léna’s room prompts Charlie’s flashback of his career and its costs – the suicide of his wife Thérèse (Nicole Berger) – and he shares this with Léna. In a scene that surely influenced another, later film – Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), also starring Beatty – the thugs stalk those hiding inside the peaceful, snow-covered Saroyan farm, then spot Léna running through the forest and shoot her, so that her snow-covered face is where the camera comes to rest.

Along the way, Truffaut has embedded rich, sometimes earthy discussions about relations between the sexes along with comic escapades in wildly unlikely spots, Charlie’s regret, tender romance, and the cost of fame and guilt and family loyalty. Vintage stuff.

This review appeared in the 8/23/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films without a theatrical run in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Film Review #118: You Kill Me
Director: John Dahl
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Téa Leoni, Luke Wilson

As movie directors go, John Dahl is a cult classic kind of guy, even leaving aside his debut of three stunning noirs over five years beginning in 1989 with Kill Me Again, followed by Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. Dahl tried his hand at terror with Joy Ride and made a credible entry in the World War II revival with The Great Raid two years ago. Just as his 1998 Matt Damon-Edward Norton poker buddy tale, Rounders, found its post-theater fans by word of mouth along with the rise of televised poker championships, You Kill Me is destined for a following among those familiar with escaping the grip of demon rum via the 12 step method.

The script from writing team Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely has seasoned for a decade or so. Dahl prowls many a cliff but never pitches over the edge into the arch satire, easy slapstick, tragic melodrama or earnest soap to which movies about addiction are so susceptible. Instead, You Kill Me contents itself with an understated knowing about early recovery, wrapped in a decent gangster yarn. And really, what could be more appetizing for the desperados that all sobered-up drunks with a little time under their belts secretly know themselves at heart to be? One of the pleasures of watching this film in a dark movie theater includes the small pockets of rueful, appreciative laughter where Dahl has gotten it right. You Kill Me premiered in late April at Tribeca, opened in theaters in late June, and at its peak in late July graced 252 US screens. Now at lower Manhattan’s Angelika Theater three times daily for the tail end of this respectable if diffident run, You Kill Me should have enough critical mass for an early DVD release.

Take for example the first church basement Alcoholics Anonymous meeting of professional hit man Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley), the visual equivalent of an old Plymouth’s slant-six engine wheezing and popping its way back to life after a few seasons at the end of the driveway. Frank slides resentfully into a folding chair in the back row – exiled to San Francisco, which is how he sees it, from wintry Buffalo – and there he slouches, studiously disinterested, armed folded, chin tucked in, his torso bent to one side so he’s even shorter. His eyes, less windows to his soul than periscopes, scan the room in slow motion. A woman at the front of the room speaks and Frank starts to listen. Without the slightest bit of mugging, instead bafflement, irritation, surprise, dismissal and disbelief cross his face and roll through his body – a sharp squint when he actually hears what she’s saying, a weary half chuckle at this fool, a soft snort at this scam, a bending of his head and a hitch in his seat he can’t quite contain. To Dahl’s credit the woman speaking has little to say that’s quotable or extreme, but Kingsley’s cement-faced, long-solitary killer has almost imperceptibly, against both his better judgment and intentions, softened.

As Frank’s sobering up goes on – he finds improbably that something’s spoiled his drinking, he gets a sponsor (Luke Wilson as we should get to see him more often) who holds impromptu discussions at the door of his Golden Gate Bridge toll-booth, he impulsively speaks at a meeting and explains that he kills people for a living, he has a slip and almost loses a girl, he makes a return trip to Buffalo where he seeks out a hometown AA meeting, and he more than survives a drink thrown in his face in a deserted lounge on the grayest of afternoons – this first encounter with mindfully sober people repeatedly proves itself a sound anchor.

All his life Frank has worked for his uncle, Roman Krzeminski (Philip Baker Hall), head of Buffalo’s Polish mob. A gruff, old-school papa with a Brill Cream pompadour, Roman later locks his son out of sight in the cellar and awaits his own slaughter in an armchair in his cramped, dark vestibule when he realizes his rival boss is coming through the front door. Frank’s steady vodka consumption converges with this challenge to his uncle’s lucrative control of city snowplowing by upstart Irish thugs and their new-comer Chinese partners. The winter Buffalo scenes were actually shot in Winnipeg, but Dahl captures the look and ambiance of western New York’s scrub trees, old working class neighborhoods, city streets and parking lots.

Early on, Frank botches killing the rival O’Leary (Dennis Farina), a sadistic sociopath of the sort Dahl has specialized in since Michael Madsen’s Vince Miller in Kill Me Again. Frank is so loaded he passes out in his car on the appointed chill and starless night. Hauled before his uncle in the snowplow garage, his protests, promises and pleas – all requiring an excruciating effort from one so hung over – fall on deaf ears. Never rising from this hot-seat – actually we’re witnessing what’s known as a family intervention – Frank finally subsides, leans forward and throws up on the drain grate conveniently under his feet.

So Frank is sent west to San Francisco. There, the family’s fixer, Dave (Bill Pullman, a Dahl regular), sets him up in an apartment as gray as Buffalo’s winter. A tiny window over the kitchen sink lets in a patch of California sun. Frank unpacks by opening a new quart of vodka. He intends to kick back on the gray couch and wait out his exile. Instead, Dave drops him off to that church basement, then hauls him to a job at a modest funeral chapel. Here he is good at making corpses presentable and lends a surprisingly stalwart presence to calling hours. And here Frank meets Laurel (Téa Leoni, who holds her own with Ben Kingsley in a delicious performance of great range, bite and nuance). To please her mother, she’s dropping off a pair of bowling shoes (stolen, way too big) for her despised step-father’s burial outfit. She tells Frank all this in the embalming room’s doorway. Frank’s first flirtation – you have to pay attention here, as she is, to appreciate how these soul-mates recognize mutual connivance – consists of assuring Laurel’s mother at calling hours, in front of Laurel, that the shoes “fit like a glove.”

The tart and wary Laurel, herself a survivor who navigates the cutthroat world of media advertising, is Dahl’s sweetest and most hopeful woman character yet, capable of both tenderness and the grit needed to follow Frank back to Buffalo when his cousin calls for rescue from O’Leary. She is miles from those mesmerizingly toxic femme fatales of Dahl’s early noirs – Fay, Suzanne and Bridget. Laurel’s presence is also part of how Dahl balances comic elements so that the film refrains from caricature and stops short of something we’d sum up as “madcap.” The script provided plenty of opportunities. You Kill Me opens, for example, with Frank incentivizing the chore of shoveling his front sidewalk by tossing his vodka bottle a few feet ahead of him into still-virgin snow drifts. He can’t turn down a drink from a family of imbibing mourners and winds up dancing. He coaches Laurel in assassination techniques by slicing a watermelon. Coerced by Dave into nudging a real estate deal along, he shows up in a stuffy businessman’s office in his shorts.

Entertaining as these scenes are, they’re also signs of a life wildly out of whack. A little to the left with Laurel and we’d tip into conventional happy-ending land, not the richer, harder-won, surprisingly vivid smile that opens Frank’s face when he says he now has something worth hanging onto to.

This review appears in today’s

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Film Review #117: Lonely Hearts
Director: Todd Robinson
Cast: John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Jared Leto

Granddaddy of today’s speed date and chat room, America’s Cold War-era lonely hearts club catered to socially hesitant World War II widows and worried aging singles by discreet postal newsletter. As is still the case, this was fertile ground. In 1948 Martha Beck, a registered nurse, joined such a club in New York City and soon met toupee-clad con man Ray Fernandez. Unlike his previous marks, the full-figured Martha followed Ray after he robbed her, igniting an obsessive mutual passion. After she dropped her two small kids at the Salvation Army, Martha managed Ray’s dates, and posed as his sister to reassure skittish prospects. By the time they were arrested outside Grand Rapids in 1949, this duo had industriously fleeced three dozen women of their bank accounts. Charged with 20 murders, tied to three more, they admitted to 12 – these involved poison, bludgeoning, shooting, drowning and dismemberment. After a failed insanity defense, they went to Sing Sing’s electric chair in 1951 for killing wealthy and ostentatiously religious Albany widow Janet Fay.

At least three movies tell their tale – the first two released in 1970 and 1996. The latest, Todd Robinson’s Lonely Hearts, went quickly to DVD on July 31st after a theater run both long-delayed and brief. Writer-director Robinson is the grandson of Nassau County Detective Elmer “Buster” Robinson (John Travolta), who – with fellow cop Charlie Hildebrandt (James Gandolfini) – finally chased down Ray and Martha (Jared Leto and brilliantly-cast Salma Hayek). Then he quit police work. In five years he’d worked 1000 homicide cases.

Lonely Hearts premiered at New York’s 2006 Tribeca Festival to good reviews but didn’t reach theaters until this April, when it hit an apparent wall of fatigue with similar stories. Despite popularity on-screen of World War II battles and Cold War espionage, recent attempts to explore parallel upheaval in private life during that same period – often through noir-ish treatments of actual unsolved murders – haven’t been as sure-footed. Intervening films like Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia (about Elizabeth Short’s 1947 murder), Hollywoodland (Ben Affleck’s vehicle about Superman actor George Reeves’ 1959 death) and even David Fincher’s under-appreciated Zodiac (somewhat later California serial killings) have been less warmly embraced by audiences.

Robinson’s film deserves another look. It’s beautifully shot, with uniformly fine performances – including Laura Dern as Rene, Buster’s girlfriend-under-wraps. And Buster’s story provides a new, edgy parallel meditation on obsession and its price for “the rest of us,” an approach neither earlier film took. Robinson sets this up at once, opening his film with Buster’s wife’s suicide on their anniversary in 1947 – off working, he’d missed dinner once too often, and came home late to find the table set and her body in the tub. The film introduces Buster to Ray and Martha’s handiwork a year later via another woman shot dead in a bathtub. The echo hits Buster hard. Director Robinson’s film evades the question of whether his grandfather was already seeing Rene Fodie before his wife’s suicide or simply started afterward with unseemly speed – less, I think, out of any family reticence than correctly intuiting that his film is dramatically stronger for focusing on the detective’s secretiveness and Rene’s demands for attention as mirrors for Ray and Martha.

A kind of ricocheting comparison develops. When Martha discovers Ray in bed with another woman – this leads to her first murder – he exclaims, “Jesus, Martha! I was working!” Fed up with Buster’s all-consuming work, Rene resorts to leaving instead of murder – but at the worst possible moment, when Ray and Martha have just surfaced in Michigan, having killed a cop. Rene announces, “I’m leaving. I’m going to live with my sister in Rochester. Say something to stop me!” Buster manages only, “I don’t want you to go. I’ll be back in a couple days.” Early on, Charlie reminds Buster, “Just do your job!” That’s always more than anyone bargains for.

All three films select some variation on these key murders in the duo’s malignant career – their first, then that which sends them to Sing Sing, and the final fiasco with Delphine Downing (pregnant with Ray’s baby) and her small daughter. All three films convey convincing animal heat between Ray and Martha, but the earlier two place them in distorted, suffocating isolation, decisively defining them as pariahs rather than markers of a new post-war darkness in American life. Though Robinson had seen the previous two films, when he declares Lonely Hearts is “not a re-make,” that is surely a starting point for why not.

Leonard Kastle made The Honeymoon Killers (1970/DVD 2003) because he judged Bonnie and Clyde (1967) “revolting” and “fake” for glamorizing violent criminals. Kastle used grainy black and white film, shooting a manipulative, hysterical Martha (Shirley Stoler) from unflattering angles so she looked even blowsier. For his only film – Kastle works in opera and orchestra production – he adapted Mahler’s 6th symphony for the score, calling it as “over-baked” as the story. An extraordinarily articulate Kastle explains in detail on the DVD how the film was made and his own series of choices as writer and then director.

Respected Mexican noir specialist Arturo Ripstein’s Deep Crimson (1996/DVD 2005) set his version in 1949 Mexico, with Coral (opera singer Regina Orozco) and Estrella (Daniel Gimènez Chaco). Lurid peach and purple skies, splashes of red transform a blood-soaked towel flung over a chair to simply part of the décor. Like Kastle, Ripstein lingers on Martha’s heft as an outward sign of excessive, unrestrained appetite – both directors devote lengthy scenes to her gorging. Like Kastle’s cult favorite, Deep Crimson is about abnormal psychology, not empathy.

Casting slender Salma Hayek as Martha – Jared Leto’s skinny, jittery Ray reinforces this – allows Robinson to use physical mass differently, conveying visually how irredeemable promises and sorrows weigh men down. Charlie and Buster – Travolta added pounds for this role – are dense, ponderous men, oxen, enlarged yet again by their trench coats and brimmed hats and the deep shadows they daily traverse. This is the first of the three films that includes substantial treatment of the police themselves. In doing so, Robinson explores what happens during interaction with personalities such as Ray and Martha over time – exactly how they are socially toxic beyond their individual horrific crimes. In contrast, Kastle’s film virtually excludes police, while Ripstein simply equates his back-country lawmen with the duo. This is Robinson’s first feature-length film – he previously made the Oscar-nominated documentary Amargosa and some TV movies – and that makes his next effort something to look out for.

This review appears in the 8/16/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing recent films that didn’t open in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Film Review #116: The Passenger
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider

It’s one of the most penetrating stares on-screen this side of the Vulcan mind-meld. TV journalist David Locke (Jack Nicholson), annoyed that his hotel room’s shower has no soap, has gone next door to borrow some. In search of a civil war whose guerilla forces keep melting away, he’s just walked miles back to this sweltering, dirty, fly speck of a town through the southern Chad desert. His guides have left him. His Land Rover sits mired fender-deep in drifting sand. Locke’s had a few drinks with this guy, David Robertson (film producer Charley Mulvehill, who resembles Nicholson), and instead of soap Locke finds him dead.

Hovering above Robertson’s face, Locke sees they look enough alike to pass for one another. In that moment, as he later tells a character named only “the girl” – an architecture student who provides him with some background on the bizarrely irregular Barcelona buildings of Antonio Gaudì and then briefly becomes his lover (Maria Schneider, fresh from Last Tango in Paris) – he traded himself in for a “new one.” Switching passports, belongings and rooms, Locke correctly assumes that Europeans look alike to the desk clerk. Soon he’s catching planes, keeping the dead man’s appointments – Munich, Barcelona, finally the Spanish town of Osuna. Now he’s an arms smuggler for the rebels who eluded him as a reporter. Once Locke’s wife collects his effects and sees the doctored passport with its photo of a stranger, she pursues him, as do the dictator’s agents. In a single seven-minute tracking shot that squeezes through the grate in Locke’s hotel room window and finally meanders back, all these and miscellaneous more converge in Osuna’s dusty plaza, where a car’s muffler back-firing might instead have been an executioner’s shot.

The Passenger premiered at Cannes in 1975 to great consternation because, to the tastes of that day, it left so much unresolved. Not Michelangelo Antonioni’s best known film, we now recognize it as among his best-made and, as Nicholson notes on one of two commentary tracks (the other with screenwriter Mark Peploe), as fresh as yesterday’s headlines – right down to the gun-runner’s date book with its eerily significant September 11th appointment at the Hotel de la Gloria. With Antonioni dead last week at 94, it’s the film I went back to first and it’s the one I’d want someone to start with.

The Passenger has a past whose contortions mimic the film’s own explorations of what comprises the "full story." Sony Pictures released its DVD in 2005 after special screening at Lincoln Center’s 43rd New York Film Festival and limited theatrical runs on both coasts. The theatrical trailer for that choreographed re-entry hailed The Passenger as a “lost masterpiece” and advertised the “director’s preferred cut.” Not exactly.

Antonioni’s four-hour original emerged in an edited version just under 150 minutes – then pared to 126 minutes, finally stripped some more to 119 minutes at MGM’s demand for North American release. Although that film played art houses for a decade, Antonioni would condemn those deep cuts in 1983 – the same year Nicholson’s Proteus Films bought the negative. Nicholson then acquired world rights in 1986, sat on the film until VHS licensing (and a single Japanese DVD edition) expired in the 90s and finally made a deal with Sony. Sony’s current 126-minute version restored Locke’s secret trip back to his home in London (where he discovers his wife Rachel’s lover Stephen via a note taped to the bedroom door), but another 20 minutes that Antonioni judged crucial still remain missing.

Yet The Passenger shows a master’s hand and eye. While Antonioni has really been branded at this point as a purveyor of ennui and elusiveness, there’s an almost lyrical quality to this film. Locke’s quest for freedom remains at the heart of all the twisted, dirtied paths he takes. Speaking as Robertson the first time, this man who from the first is usually clad in aviator’s sunglasses says, “I’d like to inquire about flights.” In Barcelona, he escapes from his former producer Martin behind a rack of caged birds at a sidewalk market. Antonioni’s camera catches Locke, arms stretched like wings over the water, from above the cable gondola he takes across a bay on a sunny afternoon. And a delicate birdsong outside Locke’s window commences the last scene.

Remembered with admiration by his London colleagues for his professional “detachment,” Locke hears from the rebel Achebe, honored to finally meet “Robertson” in a Munich church, that the gun-runner is “different from the others – you care about our cause.” When Locke has missed Robertson’s other appointments – Achebe has been arrested – and thinks he’ll walk away once more, the girl reminds him that Robertson “believed in something – I thought you wanted that.” Locke’s interview with the dictator – which Martin intends to excerpt for a documentary memorializing Locke – is a failure in his wife’s eyes and his own, precisely because he accepted obvious lies about a civil war the dictator assures him does not exist. She reminds Martin, “I was there for that interview,” and then Antonioni obligingly offers a flashback of what transpired outside the frame.

And The Passenger is a brilliant, prophetic catalogue of the ways truth morphs, distorts and erodes when politics and media meet, through the expectations and collusion of both reporters and their audiences in making intelligible images to explain events. In what becomes a litany of accusation against the reliability of so-called evidence, in a film full of mirrors’ reflections and window panes through which we see the story, one “document” after another – passports, hotel registers, journalist’s interview tapes, official governmental assurances – fails to sustain proof when we look behind its surface.

The film’s elasticity even invites new meanings – jostling whatever post-9/11 viewers bring to Robertson’s date-book, for example, that might reinforce today’s stereotypes about Africa and other non-Western cultures, about Muslims, about terrorism and rebellion. Some reviewers have also suggested that Robertson’s datebook echoes Pinochet’s military coup in Chile. But there's a closer-to-home reference, since Antonioni uses the buildings of Barcelona-born architect Gaudì so extensively. Gaudì’s buildings have great visual power as settings for a story of a man whose reality has become warped. ThatThe Girl offers some historical details about who the architect was invites us to go ahead and do the same - that architect was an ethnic Catalan nationalist in a region once a sovereign nation, until defeat by Spain forces on September 11, 1714. That date is still mourned annually in that region. In fact, Gaudì was arrested on September 11th in 1924, two years before his death, for speaking the banned Catalan language at a banned church service commemorating the date. Antonioni uses Gaudì’s work to remind us that the heart of darkness under which official suppression of truth occurs is, as Robertson tells Locke, pretty much everywhere. Antonioni’s work is ever new in urging us to look again.

This review appeared in the 8/9/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Film Review #115: 3 Needles
Director: Thom Fitzgerald
Cast: Olympia Dukakis, Stockard Channing, Lucy Liu, Chloë Sevigny

Near the end of Thom Fitzgerald’s film about the global spread of HIV, the missionary nun Hilde (Olympia Dukakis) wonders why, in this time when the virus threatens us all, we have not joined together to fight it. The dilemma of whether a just, compassionate God could allow such suffering among innocents – ancient as the Old Testament’s Job and routine ever since in the form of persistant genocides and plagues – is not Fitzgerald’s concern here.

Instead, in three 40-minute vignettes, he offers illustrations of what sainthood might look like in an imperfect world. It’s Hilde who observes that saints were “ordinary people once, not divine, who somehow lived beyond their flesh, if only for a moment.” It’s her voice-over narration –from beyond the grave because she is brutally raped, her body discarded, contemptuously half sunk into the mud of a riverbank spot where baptisms had been conducted – that pulls the three stories together, beginning on the South African coast with a tribal circumcision rite that includes the boy Huku, and ending, after detours to China and Montreal, with Huku’s joyful wedding procession across a meadow overlooking the ocean. The ironic titles of the stories – “The Fortitude of the Buddha,” “The Passion of the Christ,” and “The Innocence of Pagans” – suggests that our earthly dogmas and judgments comprise a good share of the “flesh” that saints live beyond.

First, a blood smuggling gang in a small, remote village at the southernmost tip of China. The pregnant Jin Ping (Lucy Liu, in a more subtle performance than most Americans see in her usual films), who carries the virus herself, has rising qualms about the haphazard blood collection procedures and finally walks away. As villagers sicken and die, one farmer loses his assertive and humorous daughter, his closest companion. A stern military officer, who crosses paths with Jin in the opening scene, is sent to restore order and is moved to help the weakened, despairing father with his rice harvest.

Then, an HIV+ Montreal porn actor named Denys (Shawn Ashmore) continues to work, out-witting monthly testing to supplement his mother’s scanty waitress wages. He’s discovered and fired when his invalid father dies. In this event also converge his mother Olive’s accidental discovery of the nature of his job and his HIV status. He comes home to find her watching one of his videos in the parlor as his father’s body still lies in bed. She (Stockard Channing) infects herself with the virus in order to sell her large life insurance policy and support him.

Back at that South African village, where enterprizing children are re-packaging and selling infected syringes back to the clinic, three missionary nuns, Hilde, Mary (Sandra Oh) and the novice Clara (Chloë Sevigny) have a singular mission. With Africans dying at such a rapid rate from the virus, they aim to convert as many as possible so their souls aren’t condemned to Purgatory. Hilde and Clara soon diverge over their mission’s scope – first Clara wants to help the women sell their baskets, soon she’s bringing orphan’s home and eventually she has sex with plantation owner Hallyday (Ian Roberts) in exchange for medical supplies and the arrest of an HIV+ worker who had raped a child. Once released, that worker and a friend retaliate against the nuns.

Born in New Rochelle, Fitzgerald has lived in Nova Scotia since 1986, making films widely respected in Canada but not so much known here until recently – 3 Needles should be a turning point, even though belatedly, on that score. As a writer-director, Fitzgerald has an uncommon capacity to observe detailed daily life in local cultures and to leaven earnestness with wit. He coaxes powerful, often largely non-verbal performances from his actors – Jin’s exhaustion and resolve, the playful bond between Tong Sam and his daughter, Olive’s discovery of her son’s HIV status and then her own, Clara’s decision that sex with Hallyday supports her spiritual mission.

Not yet forty, Fitzgerald has already made a half dozen thoughtful, original feature films with the who’s who of Canada’s best actors, confidently entering foreign cultures, and exploring alternative stories within a single frame, the twin tyrannies of propriety and social acceptance, and what genuine compassion demands of us. In The Hanging Garden (1997) a young gay man returns to Halifax for his sister’s wedding after ten redemptive years in Toronto, with his recollection of the suicide he might’ve committed instead taking tangible form. Beefcake (1999) spoofs 1950s male physique magazines. Bloodmoon, originally make for TV in 2001, uses side-show freaks and were-wolf lore to examine our addiction to normalcy. The Wild Dogs (2002), set in Bucharest’s post-Ceausescu ruins, uses some actors from Bloodmoon and weaves a multi-strand plot about a dog-catcher, a pornographer (Fitzgerald himself), a diplomat’s wife (Alberta Watson) and some maimed gypsy beggars. The Event (also 2002), set in Manhattan and also with Dukakis, addresses HIV and assisted suicide.

Fitzgerald movies are worth getting to know. Besides, as Hilde says, you could be a saint right now, and not even know it.

This review appeared in the 8/2/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a weekly column reviewing DVDs of films that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Film Review #114: Gypsy Caravan
Director: Jasmine Dellal
Cast: Esma Redžepova, Juana la del Pipa, Nícolae Neascu

About two-thirds of the way through this documentary of a North American concert tour in the fall of 2001 – the opening moments inform us concisely that it deals with four countries, five bands, 35 musicians, nine languages and 16 cities over six weeks – there is a short clip of the film’s two real divas, sitting side by side in the cramped, lurching tour bus. On-stage, each has been a glittering, towering, singular presence, rousing sold-out, cheering audiences to their feet. Each is a commanding cultural figure in the far-flung, thousand-year-old Roma diaspora – Juana la del Pipa central to a legendary flamenco family ensemble from Spain’s Andalusia, Esma Redžepova a five-decade veteran of some 20 albums and six films in Macedonia and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee for her work with Kosovo’s 5,000 Roma refugees.

On that bus, sitting together, glancing affectionately at one another, these two middle-aged ladies seem much like long-lost friends, albeit reunited after a millennium torn apart by the Roma’s migration out of northern India and persecution nearly everywhere they went. Such delighted mutual discovery among the tour’s musicians gets as much attention from filmmaker Jasmine Dellal as she gives to concerts. That is just what the producer of this tour and its 1999 predecessor, World Music Institute’s Robert Browning, intended, hoping it would “encourage them to group together as a people.” While the concert performances are often electrifying, some of the most telling moments occur as participants rehearse together, share steps and tunes and food, and recall their own struggles and losses. These moments in turn act as gateways to frequent cinematic excursions back to their homelands.

Often known simply as Esma, Redžepova hails from Skopje, Macedonia. It’s her rendition of the Roma anthem, “Djelem, Djelem” (“I went, I went”) that opens the concerts. Her recording of “Caje Šukarije” was the featured song in last year’s film Borat, and Esma’s currently suing Sasha Baron Cohen for using it without permission.

Juana la del Pipa performs with her nephew, Antonio El Pipa, who runs a flamenco school in the city of Jerez de la Frontera. A massive woman with a raw wail of a voice that takes getting used to, Juana’s description of her mother fits herself: “When she stood up, she was like a cathedral.”

The string-based Taraf de Haidouks (literally, “band of outlaws”) is one of two groups in the film from Romania. Formed in 1989, shortly before Ceauşescu’s demise, their music largely supports their village of Clejani. Patriarch and senior violinist Nícolae Neascu first tapped his incredibly fast protégé, nicknamed Caliu, when the latter was too poor to afford a burial for his infant daughter. Sally Potter used them in her film with Johnny Depp about Nazi massacres of Roma in France, The Man Who Cried. Depp appears briefly in an interview about working on that film.

The 12-piece brass band Fanfare Ciocärlia (Romanian for “skylark”) won the BBC Radio 3 World Music Award for Europe last year with their CD “Queens and Kings.” Dellal takes us into the farm kitchen of one of these musicians after the tour, where a woman sits singing while she chops food and the tuba player cuts hay with a scythe. Filmmaker Emir Kusterica has used their music in the soundtracks of his Time of the Gypsies and others.

Maharajah comes from Rajasthan in India’s northwest desert. Here, in their original home, the Roma were members of the dancers’ caste, says Harish Kumar, the group’s dancer. His work on-stage involves cross-dressing and make-up as a traditional female character and a dazzling swirl across the floor called “the Knees Dance” that he says only two people can perform. As an outgrowth of the tour, this group is now collaborating on the Maharaja Flamenca project with Antonio El Pipa.

Footage of the 2001 tour traces that bus northwest from Manhattan to highlights in Toronto, Niagara Falls, Ann Arbor, the flight south to Miami and Austin, and return to the road to Oakland and up the coast through redwood forests and along the Pacific coast to Oregon. Dellal – with master documentarian Albert Maysles as her DP and a sizable camera crew – uses this tour as the organizing frame. Each week’s “chapter” features tour footage as well as individual profiles and leisurely detours to the musicians’ home communities abroad. This structure does organize an unwieldy amount of material even if the chronology is occasionally confusing. For example, Dellal inserts the funeral in Romania of the elderly violinist Nícolae Neascu before the tour’s closing concert in Portland, though Neascu died a year later in December of 2002. This suggests the considerable “background” footage was shot after the tour concluded, also accounting for the film’s release occurring only now.

Once a student of the great Marlon Riggs, the British-born and New York City-based Dellal has spent the past decade immersed in filming Roma culture. In large ways and small, this makes Gypsy Caravan a film for new-comers and Roma alike. The lovely shots of birds wheeling through a peach-colored dawn sky that open the film and recur, for example, provide an image of lonely wandering, but they also evoke an ancient fable that the Roma were birds who turned themselves into people. Both image and fable echo in a music teacher’s lament in Harish’s home that so many Roma today can’t read when he adds, “In ancient times we had our own scholars – one transcribed the notes of birds.” In a characteristic Dellal transition, his students’ singing then fades to Harish performing the same delicate melody beneath stage lights. In another scene’s gentle visual rhyme, the poking heads and necks of geese watching a speeding train on the Romanian horizon fade into swaying tubas on-stage.

Dellal’s previous documentary, American Gypsy (1999), helps explain the enormous access she clearly enjoyed in making this film. That aired in August 2000 on PBS and has screened widely at festivals. For five years, Dellal followed a family of Spokane car dealer Grover Marks after police raided and trashed their home and son Jimmy embarked upon a lawsuit unprecedented for its sustained and very public challenge to Roma ill-treatment. For that film she also interviewed scholar-activist and fellow-Brit Ian Hancock, who introduced the term Porajmos (“the devouring”) in the early 1990s to distinguish the Roma counterpart to the Holocaust.

In Gypsy Caravan, Esma relates how her own father was the sole survivor of a mass execution in the town square. Still, it’s a mistake to think that Roma persecution ended with the Nazis. Dellal specifically dedicates her second film to the Decade of Roma Inclusion, a compact of nine Balkan nations, begun in 2005 and supported by George Soros’ Open Society, the World Bank and the UN, that addresses poverty, housing, education and health. Amnesty International continues to report burnings, police beatings and other violence against Roma as a significant problem in a number of countries.

Meanwhile, Time Magazine has compared the emerging growth and popularity of Roma music to the birth of jazz. Dellal’s films should do much to fill in the background about the people and communities producing this music, and focus greater curiosity on Roma as cinematic subjects. Europe has produced a rich body of film about Roma, but this presence has been fragmented at best in the US and it will take more than The Riches to fix that. For example, Algerian-French director Tony Gatlif’s pioneering 1993 documentary on Roma music, Latcho Drom (Safe Journey), is still hard to find here. However, several other of his films – the charming Crazy Stranger (1997), Vengo (2000), and Exiles (2004), fiction features which explore Roma culture and music in Romania, Spain and Algeria respectively – are available on netflix, as are a few classics like the Russian Emil Loteanu’s 1975 Gypsies Are Found Near Heaven. Gypsy Caravan is a treat, an achievement, and it opens a world.

Gypsy Caravan opened theatrically in the US on June 15 and is still screening on both coasts. Dellal’s first documentary, American Gypsy, releases on DVD in August. This review appeared in on 8/1/07.