Friday, July 28, 2006

Two Ladies


Filmmaker Olivier Assayas' "Clean" is a powerfully understated masterpiece, evoking calibrated performances from Maggie Cheung and Nick Nolte in a drama that could've fallen apart at any moment. Cheung plays a low level indie rock producer addicted to heroin. After the sudden overdose of her likewise mid-level rock star boyfriend (James Johnston), she's put in prison for possession and when she re-emerges, slowly attempts to piece her life back together, driven by the desire to make amends with her son who lives in Canada with his grandparents (Nolte). Assayas is a filmmaker who documents the mundane with fly-on-the-wall precision and Cheung carries the entire film, never straying far from the camera that seems perched on her beautiful shoulders. And though the plot mechanism seems like something just barely removed from a Lifetime channel entry (rehabilitation, child custody issues), the truth of "Clean" lies in the unexpected actions of Nolte, a man who understands the nobility of nuance acting. As grandfather and father, his quiet performance counteracts the energetic, nervy mannerisms of Cheung and their scenes together (especially the climactic one outside of a hotel) maximizes the falsity of so many other dramas dealing with the same issues. Assayas (a filmmaker of great authority at the young age of 42 with films such as "Irma Vep", "demonlover" and "Late August, Early September" under his belt) breathes vitality in every moment of "Clean". Just watch the ease with which he films Beatrice Dalle in a single take as she saunters around a pool table with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, or the care in which he rotates the camera lovingly around Cheung in the final studio recording scene- these scenes tempt me to compare Assayas with Godard in the 60's (something I never do). Both filmmakers are clearly imbued with the passion and vitality of femininity on screen, and their films reflect a calculated sense of time and place. With "Clean", the time is now and the place is the warm space of Maggie Cheung as she struggles to survive and redeem herself. Her redemption ranks as one of the more moving experiences in recent cinema.

Lady In the Water

Misunderstood? Poorly executed? Too fantastic to believe in these more hardened times of political corruption and Middle East turmoil? These are the slurs that could be thrown against M. Night Shyamalan's "bed time story" called "Lady In the Water". I don't think any of the above comments applies to his latest feature, a film that does require some suspension of disbelief in narrative, but winds through on such a moving and inventive note, that you have to give the director credit for slowly pushing his cinema away from the shock and awe of "The Sixth Sense" and migrating towards a more complex series of images and ideas. I think I'm one of the 5 people who thoroughly enjoyed Shyamalan's "The Village", a film so pointed in its political commentary of a society cutting itself off against the madness and instability of the modern world, that it could double as propaganda in less civilized times. "Lady In the Water" poses a different message- one of spiritual intervention and the need to forgive our past guilts and hang ups. Cleveland Heap (Paul Giamatti) is a superintendent in a sprawling apartment complex who begins to hear some one splashing in the pool one night. Upon inspection, he slips and falls into the pool, knocking himself unconscious. Upon waking, he sees a beautiful young girl (Dallas Bryce Howard) and the adventure begins. This is a film that requires that you believe in sea people known as 'narfs', giant grass dogs whose purpose is to kill the narfs and a giant eagle that will eventually come and try to save the narf. I'm not joking. All of this Grimm Fairy tale voodoo is presented in straight-forward fashion, and your degree of care about "Lady In the Water" depends on how much of the story you buy. I bought all of it. I respect Shyamalan for the numerous loopy ideas in play here. I admire him for slowing the tempo down a little, measuring certain scenes with a pace that gives cinematographer Christopher Doyle the opportunity to create some stirring images. And when the cathartic moment comes with Giamatti and Howard (in a scene that speaks on several levels about past and present)it's a tremendously bracing example of acting and emotion overtaking the flaws of the story. This is a film that will be called an artistic misfire (as audiences and critics alike are already doing) and that's a shame. It's too great for those shallow dismissals.

Monday, July 17, 2006

An Appreciation: Michael Haneke

There’s a revealing moment in the beginning of Michael Haneke’s 1997 “Funny Games”- a bourgeoisie family is traveling in their Expedition through the countryside playing a game of ‘guess what opera song is on the radio’. In between the calm singing of that style of music, a screaming death metal tune interrupts their game on the film’s soundtrack and the title “Funny Games” splashes across the screen in huge red letters. It’s this collision of domestic casualness and violence that seethes throughout Haneke’s cinema. His films confront and assault the viewer, which is not always a good thing, and only a handful of filmmakers successfully straddle this provocative line (Cronenberg and Gaspar Noe also spring to mind).

His first film, “The Seventh Continent” (1989) establishes a majority of motifs early including his predilection for objects over people, his rhythmic editing style coupled against hypnotic fades, distaste for narrative exposition and a reliance on television and video images that evoke strong reactions. A wealthy husband and wife, for inexplicable reasons, gradually descend out of society and take their unwitting daughter with them. This is explained only in a voiceover as the wife reads her final written letter to her in-laws. “The Seventh Continent” is metaphorical (there are only 6 continents) and it eludes to a state of mind that draws people towards cataclysmic decisions. The final 20 minutes, as Haneke methodically films the man and wife breaking their house apart with hammers and hands, are hypnotic and terrifying. As with so many future Haneke films, the violence is unsettling because he doesn’t gives the viewer a rational starting point. One could call his films true domestic horrors.

Next came “Benny’s Video” (1992) in which a young boy, fascinated by a home video clip of his family slaughtering a pig as well as violent action movies that run on a continuous loop on his bedroom tv, meets a girl in the local video store. He takes her home while his parents are away, awkwardly flirts with her, then uses his video camera to film his murder of her. Like many murders in future Haneke films, the desolation of the act is never seen, only heard (which makes it all the more terrifying as we’re forced to absorb the murders in his films on a much more visceral level, allowing our minds to fill in the horrid blanks). But the real vitality of “Benny’s Video” is not the first 45 minutes, but the final as his father and mother decide to cover up the murder for him. His mother takes him to Australia while his father stays home and disposes of the body. The scene as Benny’s parents rationalize the cover-up is actually more chilling than the murder itself. Once again, Haneke forces us to confront violence and its reverberations on an intelligent and cerebral level.

In 1994, Haneke released “71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance”- a film that weaves several narrative strands together as the film’s characters eventually end up in a bank where a young man inexplicably enters and kills several people. If I’d seen this film earlier, it may have made more of an impact, but the idea of a multi-faceted drama whose characters bounce in and out at a seemingly random pace, echoes the heavy handed narratives of Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson. Still, the film’s final image- an overhead tracking shot as the killer stumbles across a busy street and back into his parked car in a gas station, leaves one with an emotionally distanced outlook on the proceedings that doesn’t minimize the rest of the film, but enhances it.
With “Funny Games” (1997) Haneke uped the ante of passionless violence unleased by young people on the upper class. A man, woman, boy and dog retreat to the French countryside. On their first day there, a young man arrives at their doorstep asking to borrow some eggs. Since the woman had seen this man in the neighbor’s yard earlier in the day, she lets him in. Soon, another man shows up. What begins as annoyance soon towards violent as the two young men invade the house, beat up the father and begin playing manipulative games with the family. It’s in “Funny Games” that Haneke’s understanding of the medium comes full circle. The way he uses long shots (one take lasting 11 minutes that is a devastating and gut wrenching scene), mannered dialogue and old fashioned suspense (as the family’s son makes a short-lived escape into the neighbor’s house) exemplify his emergence from obsessive object infatuation to a filmmaker more satisfied with the actors and the pace they lend a film. While his first 3 films displayed a keen sense of mood and place, “Funny Games” feels like Haneke trusted his actors a little more. Gone are the long shots of hands and objects, replaced with the tension of the human face.

Is next 3 films, “Code Unknown”, “The Piano Teacher” and “Time of the Wolf” may deserve another viewing. While all three are competent studies in isolation, and the various effects of violence, they feel like rigorous re-treads on topics done much better in the past.

Then, this year saw the release of “Cache”. One of the best films of the year, Haneke morbidly dares the viewer to relax. Right from the opening image- a static exterior shot of a house that slowly turns into a videotaped image- reverses our expectations of what is real and what is dated. This videotape turns out to be shot from an unknown source, and delivered to the owners of the house (brilliantly portrayed by Juliet Binoche and Daniel Auteil). More videos arrive. Georges (Auteil) begins to (maybe) piece together the intruder, deciding the perpetrator is his childhood friend, a young boy taken in by Georges’ family during the Algerian war. There are several “oh shit” moments within “Cache”. This is not a film that startles, but slowly crawls under your skin and begs you to question each and every image. “Cache” is truly an interactive movie, effectively warping each and every theme throughout Haneke’s career into an intelligently crafted masterwork. And much has been made of the film’s final scene… as the credits roll (when most filmmakers breathe a sigh of relief and fade to black) the camera watches a stream of people come and go from a school. In the left corner of the frame, 2 characters from the film meet and briefly talk. It’s not too hard to figure out in my estimation. Taken in context with Haneke’s fascination of violence propagated by youth, “Cache” is yet another clinical dissection of this theme. And while his predisposition of image over formal dialogue often overtakes the proceedings, this is one time that the image is more alive than any words possible. It opens up and out, creating a whole new interpretation of the previous 119 minutes. Isn’t that the greatest thing a movie can do?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Appleseed cast- FLTGS

Has the Internet ever been so enjoyable than it is now? Blogs, interactive services like MySpace and now YouTube, a place where you can search for a relatively little-known band named The Appleseed Cast and get 1400 video clips? So, here's a clip of one of the many new bands I'm championing right now. I'll be seeing them live next Saturday in Denton.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Mann Does It Again?

The early reviews are beginning to come in on Michael Mann's "Miami Vice". First, there was the strong buzz from Jeffrey Wells on his blog. Then, David Poland weighed in with his opinion. Now, Ain't It Cool News has another compliment to Michael Mann's latest digital crime thriller. Since early May, this film has been touted as the film of the summer for us serious minded film geeks. And who in a million years would've thought that a film entitled "Miami Vice" would get the blood boiling? But the bottom line is that Michael Mann (outside of Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson) is a singular presence within modern filmmaking whose films oooze style, mood and exhilerating grace. Go back and watch the first 20 minutes of "Ali", as music, jump cuts and nervy handheld camerawork build to an electric crescendo. Pick any moment out of "Heat" or "The Insider". Stare at the beauty of the possibility of digital film in "Collateral". And for the really adventurous (as well as seeing where the roots of a character like Neil McCauley stems from) go back and watch Mann's 1981 mini-masterpiece "Thief" starring James Caan and Willie Nelson. That's right... Mann had the foresight to recognize the acting prowess of Nelson back in 1981. It's hard not to get excited over a new Mann film when you study his ouevre. Every film nails time and place perfectly. And, for the sheer logistics of a shoot-out, no one films things quite as brazenely and honestly as him. July 28th. Mark it on your calendar.