Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

A kitchen-sink kick in the pants, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame keeps so many plates spinning at once that you don’t really mind that a few of them are pretty wobbly.

Unlike other recent imaginings of Chinese history, like Red Cliff or Curse of the Golden Flower, Detective Dee has no delusions of grandeur, just a bedrock appreciation of spectacle, a love of martial arts, and an irreverent sense of humor. That humor lightens things up right from the start, as the opening voiceover sets up the situation (China’s first female emperor is about to be inaugurated into office and her many enemies, who think no woman is fit for the job, are plotting against her) in the formal diction of historical credit sequences everywhere and then ends with a flippant: “All hell was about to break loose.”

And that may be an understatement.

The action sequences are directed by the great Sammo Hung Kam-bo, who directed the action on the Ip Man movies and Ashes of Time and assisted on Enter the Dragon and Kung Fu Hustle, among many others. The half-parkour, half-martial arts wire fighting that predominates here has been done better – including on some of Sammo’s other films – but it’s still plenty fun to watch here, especially in a fight over water that starts with a rain of telephone-pole-sized logs. Even when they’re not fighting, the main actors move with a gymnastic fluidity that’s a beautiful sight in itself.

So are the elaborate costumes and monumental sets, which the camera often gazes up at or down on or lingers over, inviting us to stare. And what is there to gawp at? A giant Buddha statue anchored by an 82-yard-high metal pole, magical deer that can talk, killer beetles, a noble albino, and that mystery of the title, which the empress hires our man Detective Dee (the always intense Andy Lau, playing straight man to the rest of the cast) to unravel: Why are so many people, most of them key ministers of hers, spontaneously combusting in broad daylight? (Those talking deer may look laughably fake, but director Tsui Hark has an excellent thing with the burning effect, and he knows it: We see several people and a songbird go up in smoke, and it never gets old.)

There’s also the excellent cast, starting with Lau but also including Richard Ng, Tony Leung Ka Fai, and Carina Lau. And, as Joe Bob Briggs might point out, there’s all that kung fu, including woman warrior fu, blind beggar fu, even magic deer fu. (Though seriously, dude, we’re supposed to think you’re tough because you can beat up a bunch of deer?)

Like the empress, Dee is a real historical figure, though it’s probably safe to assume that the real guy couldn’t defeat several enemies at once in hand-to-hand combat, in part by leaping about like a giant (wire-assisted) frog. He’s portrayed here as a pragmatist who doesn't believe in magic or divine intervention, but keeps looking for the rational or mechanical explanation for all the apparently supernatural things he keeps encountering – and finds them. There’s even the hint of a theme there about this period maybe being the beginning of the modern age in China, what with the first stirrings of real empowerment for women, the amazing advances in technology, and the rise of rationalism.

But Tsui isn’t really interested in pursuing that sort of thing. He’d much rather play around with who’s doing what to whom in a death-match power struggle that involves constantly shifting identities and allegiances. And if some of those twists and turns get a little confusing at times, you can always just sit back and luxuriate in the movie’s visual pleasures.

Written for The L Magazine

I’m Glad My Mother is Alive

Based on a tragic true story, I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive is a Grand Guignol horror show staged as reality TV.

Made by, say, Antichrist’s Lars von Trier, this overheated tale of unrequited love between a mother and the son she gave up for adoption when he was five would have been a hot and spicy psychological soup kept at a rolling boil. Instead, mostly for better but sometimes for worse, it’s filmed in a stripped-down, doggedly realistic style almost as severe as the one laid out by von Trier’s dogmatic Dogme rules. No music is audible to the audience that isn’t heard by the characters, sets look realistic to the point of drabness, no artificial light is apparent other than what comes from lamps controlled by the characters themselves, and hair, makeup and costumes are carefully calibrated to make beautiful actors look ordinary.

That last effort is particularly noticeable with Sophie Cattani, who plays Julie Martino, the mother of the title. In flashbacks to her son Thomas’s early childhood, when Julie was a young party girl, Cattani’s strong, Slavic-looking face looks model-gorgeous, the way Thomas remembers her looking. But when a near-grown Thomas (played by a smoldering Vincent Rottiers) shows up at Julie’s door 15 years later, leaking a volatile mix of fury, grief, and repressed sexual attraction, she’s someone you’d pass on the street without a second glance, with her baggy sweatpants, stringy hair and lined, slightly lumpy face. Has life has aged her prematurely, or was she never the glamour girl her young son saw her as? Either way, her transformation works, helping us understand that Julie is a shape shifter and can never be the emotional anchor Thomas longs for.

If the Dogme-lite approach works there, it slows things down when the narrative should be heating up. The film maintains the same neutral tone as Thomas tries to blend in with his rediscovered mother and five-year-old half-brother while keeping his adoptive mom, Annie (Christine Citti), at bay, slapping away the unconditional love she keeps offering him. The film starts to feel as stuck as Thomas as he shuttles back and forth between the two houses, occasionally ranting at one of his mothers but mostly keeping his emotions reined in.

Meanwhile, we toggle back and forth between the present and frequent flashbacks to Thomas’ childhood. The flashbacks start out informative and vibrant, conveying five-year-old Thomas’ perspective pungently. We see his mother and her lover the way he does, mostly as torsos bending over him or pairs of thighs passing by, their motives and words mostly inscrutable. And when his mother leaves pre-school-age Thomas alone for several days with his infant brother, charged with caring for him, it feels just right when the five-year-old first plays with the baby and then yells in frustration, throwing something when the crying baby can’t be consoled.

After a while, the flashbacks start to have rapidly diminishing returns, providing less significant information and feeling more like random anecdotes. But just as you’re almost lulled into thinking that nothing is going to happen, Thomas erupts, doing something that seems to surprise him as much as anyone. The scene is shocking precisely because it feels so realistic: It’s as if you went to sleep watching a movie and woke up just in time to witness an actual assault.

Written for The L Magazine

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Night at the Opera

"Ocean Liners on Screen" is a brilliant idea for a film series, and it begins today and continues through Tuesday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. A Night at the Opera screens today at 5, and tomorrow morning at 10:30.

Directed by Sam S. Wood (who? Exactly) and, more to the point, produced by Irving Thalberg, A Night at the Opera, from 1935, is the Marx Brothers’ Maginot line: an elaborate structure constructed in hopes of avoiding the decline that inevitably followed.

Their loose-limbed, thrillingly anarchistic Paramount films had just peaked with Duck Soup when the box office flop of that masterpiece sent them scurrying to MGM, primed for grooming by prestige-happy Thalberg. Instinctively allergic to authority and entitlement, the brothers only bent over so far even for the Boy Wonder: After Thalberg made them wait for him once too often, he returned to his office to find himself locked out while the brothers sat inside, naked, roasting potatoes in his showy fireplace.

But MGM’s conventional plots and creamy production values eventually proved too much for the brothers, drowned them in a tub of canned corn, and the first few niblets started falling here. This is one of those movies that’s best seen at home, where you can fast-forward through the bit where Harpo and Chico play piano and harp for a crowd of condescendingly exalted salt-of-the-earth types in steerage, the camera ogling kitschily costumed cherubs who materialize to smile fixedly for the camera. And then there are all the sappy looks and highbrow warblings exchanged by teddibly sweet young Rosa (Kitty Carlisle) and her hunky beau, Ricardo (Allan Jones). They’ll give your fast-forwarding finger a workout, since the plot revolves around Rosa and Ricardo and their thwarted romance/musical ambitions. (They just want to duet, you see, both onstage and off, but they keep getting thwarted by the evil star of their opera company.)

That effectively makes the Marx brothers supporting characters in their own movie, but their old pals George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ruskind give them plenty to do around the edges. Kaufman and Ruskind’s screenplay is full of brilliantly absurdist exchanges (“You remind me of you. Your eyes, your throat, your lips. Everything about you reminds me of you. Except you,” Groucho croons to Margaret Dumont in the opening scene), and the brothers’ horseplay occasionally erupts into the kind of choreographed chaos they did as well as anyone ever has, before or since. One of the best scenes in the movie, in which all three wake up in one hotel room, floats above the rest of the film like a blimp, with only a tenuous connection to the plot. The brothers seem loose and relaxed as they run through a series of farcical bits, starting with a breakfast at which Groucho watches in awe while Harpo eats everything in sight. (“He’s half goat,” Chico shrugs.) “You know, I’ve been looking forward to this breakfast. I’ve been waiting all morning,” Groucho says to nobody in particular, eyeing Harpo with a half-apprehensive, half-delighted fascination that looks unrehearsed.

The classic stateroom scene is in this movie, and it’s a classic not because of how many people are crammed into Groucho’s cramped cabin, all determined to accomplish whatever they came there to do, though that is pretty funny. What makes it great is how Harpo sleeps through the madness, winding up on a catering tray like a crowd-surfing stoner, while Groucho keeps welcoming more people in, as unflappably polite and bemused as the Dalai Lama.

The film ends with another prolonged sight gag as Harpo wreaks havoc backstage at the Metropolitan Opera, ruining the evil singer’s debut. Slashing his way down backdrops like Douglas Fairbanks Jr. riding his sword down a sail in Sinbad, Harpo’s impeccable timing and simian agility are genuinely impressive, but where they were always the point with Fairbanks, they’re just a lagniappe here. The real joy of this scene is in watching Harpo demolish the pious production onstage. It’s an exhilarating display of the triumph of the (un)common man.

If only he could have done the same thing in that steerage scene…

Written for The L Magazine

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Hedgehog

Like its title character, the prickly concierge of a high-end Paris apartment building, The Hedgehog is hard to warm up to at first. The film, which is adapted from Muriel Barbery's global bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, ends badly too, sputtering to a halt after a gimmicky climax reduces the concierge to the Gallic version of a Magical Negro, her compelling story a mere life lesson for the precocious 11-year-old tenant she's befriended. But every time your attention starts to break free, the film's stellar cast reels it back, their acting waging a heroic battle against a clunky script.

Garance Le Guillermic is nicely acerbic as Paloma, the 11-year-old prodigy who announces in the movie's opening scene that she plans to kills herself on her 12th birthday to avoid following in the footsteps of her hopelessly bourgeois family. That setup feels contrived, and Paloma's supposedly offhand remarks are sometimes painfully overwritten (she says the concierge is "prickly on the outside, a real fortress, but I feel that inside she's as refined as that falsely lethargic, staunchly private and terribly elegant creature") or on-the-nose (the thumbnail character descriptions she whispers of her narcissistic sister, oblivious mother, and workaholic father while filming them for her documentary on the emptiness of their lives don't tell us much we haven't already gathered). But Le Guillermic earns our sympathy anyhow by playing straight down the line. Free of pandering self-pity or cuteness, she shows us the loneliness of a child prodigy who is nagged when she tries to retreat into herself and scolded or gawped at when she speaks her mind.

Togo Igawa uses warm eyes, ramrod posture, and a politely tentative way of speaking to infuse Kakuro Ozu, an elegant Japanese widower who homes in on Paloma and the concierge soon as he moves into the building, with a compelling mixture of directness and reserve. But the real standout is Josiane Balaska as the concierge—or, as the subtitles put it, the janitor, as if the class divide between her and her new friends needs to be widened any further. Balaska's Reneé Michel starts out reclusive, grim, and convinced that happiness is too much to hope for. She winds up basking in the companionship and appreciation she has gone so long without, and watching Balaska slowly relax her guard is a real pleasure. (Her first laugh, which takes place in Kakuro's bathroom, is as transformative as Garbo's in Ninotchka.)

Yes, cats and Russian novels are clumsily fetishized, and recurring themes like the goldfish in a too-small container and the mother too busy talking to her plants to see her own daughter are un peu exagéré, non? But then we get something like the lovely embrace between Paloma and a grieving Reneé and all is forgiven, as Reneé's complicated reaction to the arms the little girl fastens stubbornly around her puts the facile hugs littering Hollywood movies these days to shame.

Written for The L Magazine

Friday, August 19, 2011

Mysteries of Lisbon

R.I.P Raul Ruiz, who died today at 70, defeated by the liver cancer he was battling while making this film. Here's my review.

In movies, as in any form of storytelling, it helps to have a good tale to tell, but what really counts is telling your story well. Their aggressive lack of imagination is what makes all those Frankenstein’s-monster summer sequels and superhero movies so tedious, with their obligatory explosions, mind-numbingly generic characters and dialogue, and by-the-numbers crises and resolutions.

In sharp, refreshing contrast, the expertise of longtime director-producer partners Raul Ruiz and Paulo Branco makes Mysteries of Lisbon one of the most absorbing movies I’ve seen this year, although it’s ultimately just a high-class soap opera, produced as a six-part series for Portuguese TV and boiled down to a little over four hours for the big screen.

Ruiz, a Chilean expat who has been making movies since the 1960s, is famous in his adopted homeland of France and among cinephiles worldwide, though few of his more than 100 films have made it to the United States. An intellectual filmmaker prone to quoting Bertolt Brecht and other seminal thinkers, Ruiz says Mysteries of Lisbon is “probably one of the most theoretical films I’ve made,” yet it never feels the least bit dry. Beautifully shot and acted and expertly paced, it pulled me in and kept me close with the ease of a seasoned seducer.

A few of the things people say in this movie, like “That’s what youth is all about: Naivete and arrogance,” are worth chewing over, but in general words are used more to obfuscate than to clarify. In the opening scene, contradictory reports of a war being waged offscreen are left unresolved: We don’t know which version to believe — if either. That’s a fitting introduction to this meandering movie, in which the minimal present-day action is constantly being interrupted so yet another narrator can deliver another in a series of incomplete, sometimes conflicting, almost always engaging tales about dissolute nobles, doomed love, children separated at birth from their parents, and other melodramatic staples.

Whether they’re prisoners of social convention or self-invented free spirits, the people in these stories are rarely what they seem — or maybe it’s just that whatever they seem to be at any given moment is only a small part of the picture. Even the main character, a boy called Joao (Joao Arrais), is a shapeshifter whose true identity is as elusive as smoke. Shortly before we learn that his real name is Pedro, he introduces himself by saying: “I was 14 and I didn’t know who I was at all.”

As Pedro and Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), the wise priest who raised him, search for answers to key questions about their lives, stories within the story unfold. The first, the fairy-tale tragedy of Pedro’s high-born, low-status parents, leads to others in ever-widening, overlapping circles.

Ruiz and screenwriter Carlos Saboga keep all that talk interesting, partly by switching from narration to re-enactments but mostly by balancing the melodrama inherent in the material (the screenplay is based on a novel by popular Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco) with a wry authorial reserve. People — most of them servants spying on their masters — often peer at or eavesdrop on one another through windows and doors, creating another layer of distance between us and the narrators and reminding us that, for all their troubles, they are the lucky ones, part of the ruling class in a society where social standing is paramount. The result is an unusual mixture of emotional investment and contemplative reserve that pulls you close without making you feel as if someone’s playing Twister with your intestines.

The excellent cast helps maintain that balance, delivering a grave and stately style of acting that fits the formal, somewhat antiquated dialogue. Their characters may be hard to pin down, but they’re never less than fully human. When a society lady feigns a faint in the midst of a party, we see the wounded pride, sheer panic, and faint hope of rescue that motivate her.

Ultimately, though, it’s the mysteries in Mysteries of Lisbon that give all that drama psychological depth, leaving you with the rare and satisfying sense of having seen a whole life unfold. Pedro’s story is sometimes tragic and sometimes ridiculous, but its telling is suffused with the bemused and loving wisdom of old age.

Written for TimeOFF

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood on finding the story in Kesey’s Magic Trip

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney has a gift for taking chunks of recent American history that we think we know all too well and making them feel new, either by clarifying complex issues (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) or by showing old facts in a new light (Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer). He’s at it again in Magic Trip, the story of how Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters helped ignite the ‘60s, starting with their cross-country bus trip in 1964. I talked to Gibney and Alison Ellwood, his editor on five earlier films and his co-director here, in New York City last week.

This seems like it would be a hard movie to market because Baby Boomers might either go or skip on the assumption that it’s a nostalgia trip, which it really isn’t, and younger people are sick of hearing boomers go on about how great things were in the ‘60s. What are you doing to try to break through those preconceptions and convince people to see the film?
Alex Gibney: The trick is to try to get them to hear that this is not another ‘60s nostalgia film. This is the origin story, or one of the origin stories.
Alison Ellwood: The kids I talk to say that they’ve heard a lot about the ‘60s, but it’s so mythologized to them. This is the closest that they’ve come to feeling like they’ve actually gotten a real taste of it.

In the film, you call Kesey “The man who invented the ‘60s.” Of course, history is never created by a single person.

But one person can help crystallize something that’s in the air and push it in a certain direction. How do you think Kesey influenced the way our culture evolved in the ‘60s?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a classic ‘60s novel. It’s all about –

Fighting back against corporations.
Yeah, the combine. And it’s about freedom—personal freedom. That’s what Kesey was really into. Part of that is sort of bedrock Americana, but part of it is what the counterculture became: We want to wear our hair long; we want to paint our buses. At the same time, as much as he advocated for broad cultural change, as a person, I think Ken was very distrustful of moments or movements that proscribe for people what they should be. I always think of him more like Bob Dylan, who was the ultimate shape shifter. Every time the culture seems to catch up with him, he gets uncomfortable and moves off someplace else.

One of the ways he was ahead of his time is that the Merry Pranksters filmed every step of their journey and then shared it with as wide an audience as they could. Their weekly screenings afterward at Kesey’s farm of the movie they made of the trip were about as viral as a film could get before YouTube. Do you think the way they mythologized themselves, documenting everything they did and assuming other people would find it fascinated, was an important part of their appeal?
I don't know if the narcissism was part of the appeal, but I think Kesey understood the power of mythmaking. On the one hand, you can look at that footage and say: This is just a bunch of kids going on a road trip. But I think Kesey was already starting to imagine it as something bigger.

The problem was, it was very hard for anyone except for the Pranksters to get anything out of those movies. They were filling in the blanks, but everyone else was, like “What’s all this jittery camera stuff?”
AE: “What are they doing? Where are they going?”
AG: Yeah. Nobody had any kind of context for the story.

So was it just kind of playing in the background of a big party?
AE: They put it together for themselves, so it only made sense to themselves. It was complete inside baseball. I told Alex the scariest part for me on the project was when their films started making perfect sense to me. [laughs]

I was really impressed by how you took a tangle of old footage and turned it into a coherent story about American culture. Sometimes this does just feel like a bunch of kids on a road trip, but the context you bring to it makes it more than that, by picking out trends like the birth of the drug culture and the reflexive distrust of authority and the DIY movement that rose up in reaction to slick consumerism and mass production. And you really stick a pin into the birth of that moment where, as Kesey puts it, “the trip became more important than the destination.” How did you find a story in all that footage?
well, we had the chronology of the trip, there and back, and we had certain events that happened after they returned as it got later in the ‘60s.

So you knew from the start that that chronology would be a narrative thread?
Well, we weren’t going to have them start in New York. [laughs] They had a destination, they got there – and there was a dramatic turn, because they were excited to get to the World of Tomorrow, but it’s the world of yesterday. And they’re the world of tomorrow, so they need to go on and find tomorrow.

But how to context to help give it a bigger meaning, that’s what took the longest time. If you understand that this bus was exploding out of the ‘50s, not out of what we think of as the ‘60s, that’s a huge thing to know. The Yellowstone thing was a big turning point for us in figuring out how to tell the story. When they go through Yellowstone and Ken sees the sign: Beware of the bear. And he says, what did that used to mean? It used to mean, “Be aware of the bear.”
And now it means, “Be afraid of the bear.”
Yes. We said, okay, each scene has to have that kind of double meaning, deeper meaning.

Yes, it was really interesting what he was saying about how Americans were becoming much more ruled by fear. You cut from his quote to the famous daisy ad that helped get LBJ elected.
Fear was really in Ken’s mind. He felt that one of the things they were trying to accomplish with the trip. They were going out and saying to everyone: “Come on out of your bomb shelters and join us. Have some fun! Play—we’ll do some magic tricks.” Everyone was too afraid. And the antidote to that was being ready, willing, and able to play.

It’s kind of ironic that it was the CIA that turned him on to acid in the first place.
that is very ironic. I think that contains within it a certain larger irony about the ‘60s itself: That acid, which was seen as a force of liberation, was being developed by the CIA as a force of just the opposite, a force of imprisonment and interrogation.

One of the contrasts you play with a lot is the one you just brought up – that the Pranksters are the face of the future, while this World of Tomorrow world’s fair they’re headed for in New York is anything but. Is that contrast something the Pranksters themselves were having fun with in the films they made of their trip, or is that something you guys drew out of it?
I’m not sure they had the sense at the time that they were the future, but they continued to explore. That’s what’s so interesting about this trip: It really is a big exploration. They didn’t quite know what they were looking for, but they were doing stuff that would later become very fashionable.

In fact, the things that they thought would be the most meaningful often turned out to be the least, like their “summit” with the East Coast acidheads.
Right. That was a bust. Kerouac: disappointment. World’s Fair: disappointment. Leary: disappointment. Everywhere along the road, they’re trying to make connections with people they think are their guiding lights, and, whether they realize it or not, they’re the ones who are more vital. So they just keep on going. Later on, Kesey looks at his own group and says, “Maybe we’ve gotten stale too,” and then he moves on. But they were constantly looking for inspiration.

Did you tape any new interviews for this or did you use only old ones that you found?
We started out doing it in a much more conventional way, which was to videotape interview with the survivors and get them to talk. We even played around, for a trailer, with an interview we had with Tom Wolfe from Gonzo. We intercut it with the material, and it didn’t look right at all. The footage kept looking much more present and interesting than the commenting upon it. But at the same time, the footage on the own wouldn’t explain itself. We had to find something. We found these audiotapes, which had been recorded not too long after the bus trip.

Who were they recorded by? Where did you find them?
Kesey had them. A guy named John Teton had gone out and recorded interviews with all the Pranskters – some of them very bad quality, which necessitated having actors re-record them. We couldn’t go back to the original people, even if they were still alive, because their voices would have been much too old. Some of them, only the transcripts survived. But if we could, we used the real voices.
AE: He did them for research purposes. He was doing something called Further Inquiry, which was basically a screenplay—
AG: —for a movie they kept trying to make. Part of the beauty of them, for our purposes, is that as they were recording [the people making the tapes] would show [the Pranksters] the footage. That would spark their memories – oh, I remember this! There’s Sandy scratching his balls. Or I remember this: That day didn’t do anything for me.
AE: Or, in Stark’s case, I remember this; I don’t remember any of that. [laughter]
AG: The music of that time is kind of interesting, because 1964 is right at the moment when things are changing. The Beatles come in that year. We put in a lot of songs that people might recognize, but the versions are different because they’re the original R&B versions. Like Twist and Shout – it’s not the Beatles; it’s the Isley Brothers. R&B was just being discovered and made into rock and roll by white kids. Also, jazz was still very present then. Jazz kind of disappears in the later ‘60s, but for these guys it was really present. And there are kind of half-country, half-blues songs, like King of the Road. It was a moment that was kind of right on the edge.

I remember hearing some music that was on their radio.
Yeah. Some of it is just on the soundtrack – it’s what they were listening to. A lot of Coltrane is like that.
AG: We would pick stuff based on the kind of stuff they listened to. They did listen to a lot of R&B. And you could hear Cassady singing Love Poition Number 9 as they’re going up the Jersey Turnpike.

That was also an interesting year because so many historically significant things were happening then, not just in music but that was right after JFK had died, and the year MLK was marching.
It was a really tumultuous time. That was one of those moments where you needed just enough context. That moment with Martin Luther King, Jr. was much longer in an earlier cut.

It’s like, let’s focus on this and see something that’s a little bit different than maybe we all remember. The stereotype has been so prevalently conveyed. Those shots of Haight-Ashbury used to be a longer section too, but we realized that Haight-Ashbury is so familiar that you get it in a second. All you need to do is show a little bit of it and then you can move right on.

Interview conducted for TimeOFF