Tuesday, May 26, 2009

New Releases: Owl and the Sparrow and Offshore

There's little to recommend in the two films I reviewed for Slant Magazine this week: Stephane Gauger's Owl and the Sparrow which brings a distinctly Amerindie aesthetic to its Vietnamese setting and Offshore, Diane Cheklich's misguided look at the effects of outsourcing on a soon-to-be-closed call center in the American heartland.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Cargo 200

For the first two-thirds of its ninety minute running time, Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200 dutifully follows its (unacknowledged) source novel, Sanctuary, to the last detail, making only minor substitutions (a vodka bottle and not a corncob effects the central sexual violation, a lawyer becomes a professor of “scientific atheism”) to adjust for setting. When the film finally departs from the book for its brutal final act, the differences are telling.

Adapting Faulkner’s 1931 novel to the Soviet Union in the “second half of 1984," Balabanov’s film takes the American author’s most sensationalistic offering as a fit basis for its own look at the sick soul of the Soviet era. And just as Faulkner’s novel was long derided as a mere potboiler (not least by the author himself who considered it a “cheap idea… deliberately conceived to make money”) so Balabanov’s film is, on the surface, no more than a pile of lurid details, the stuff of a dispensable exploitation film. But where Sanctuary has since gone on to take its place, if not among the best loved of the Nobel laureate’s novels, at least as a worthy object of study, Cargo 200 seems destined to remain a marginal item, an object of mere cultish adulation. Which is fine, since, given the film’s matter-of-fact brutality and its utter lack of empathy for just about anyone, it could scarcely be otherwise, but as a bracingly acidic portrait of a society diseased at nearly every level and the attendant political implications of such a portrait, it probably shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.

Per Faulkner, the film reaches an early crisis point when a drunken young man takes a woman (the daughter of a high-ranking government official) to a rural bootlegger’s house to pick up some swill. When the man passes out, the woman is left to the mercy of the menacing denizens of the country shack: Aleksei, the head man in the operation - a taciturn individual with odd utopian ideals - his Vietnamese handyman and Zhurov, a blank-faced stranger who shoots the latter with a rifle, blames it on the former and then proceeds to rape the unwitting woman with the aforementioned vodka bottle before kidnapping her and holding her captive in his apartment.

So far, all straight out of Faulkner. But the final third of the film takes things considerably further than the source novel and the effect of these deviations is to offer up a bitter critique of the institutions of the Soviet era that Balabanov lived through. If Faulkner seemed more concerned with offering something like a universal look at the possibilites of evil inherent in human nature, then the Russian filmmaker is much more culturally specific in his concerns. So his first major departure from Sanctuary is to make his principal villain an official in the local police department. While the equivalent character in Faulkner, Popeye, is given no occupation outside the criminal underworld, Balabanov uses Zhurov’s profession to neatly conflate official law and debased immorality, savagely exposing the ruling apparatus of Soviet Russia.

And the savageness of the critique only increases the further Balabanov’s imagination runs wild. Where Faulkner goes relatively easy on his young girl after she's kidnapped, granting her at least a provisional freedom of movement, Balabanov seems to savor the sickening details of Angelika’s unmitigated confinement, which involves her being chained to a bedpost, sharing a bed with two dead bodies (including her fiancé) and being subject to rape. Then Zhurov’s discharge of his official duties is scarcely less debased than his extra-curricular activities. He oversees the savage beating of prisoners and matter-of-factly shoots the bootlegger rather than allow him to go to trial for the crime that he (Zhurov) committed. In Faulkner the resultant court case leads to a miscarriage of justice, but in Balabanov justice can scarcely hope to extend even that far.

But Zhurov is far from the only vehicle of the filmmaker's critique. Balabanov's Soviet Union is a teeming world of industrial waste, misguided foreign campaigns (bodies are shipped back daily from Afghanistan), and cheap opportunism. The film’s characterizations range from the terrifying (Zhurov, of course) to the parodic (the professor of “scientific atheism” who attempts to espouse an ethical basis for the Party) to the merely loathsome (the young boy who leaves Angelika to her fate, then sets off on a petty money-making scheme) but all are more or less dismal and all are more or less typical per the filmmaker’s jaundiced view of his nation’s past. In Cargo 200, the institutions may be thoroughly rotten but so are the individuals who comprise or who aspire to comprise those institutions. Drawing on the classic novel with arguably the least hopeful view of human nature, Balabanov both extends and particularizes his source, taking Faulkner’s study of the contamination of evil and applying it in stunningly vivid measure to a singularly hellish moment in his own nation’s history.

Monday, May 18, 2009


Erick Zonca’s Julia is completely ridiculous, but it’s so consistent in its sense of the ridiculous, so committed to its wonky absurdities, and ultimately so grounded in genuine human need that, despite its often fantastical orientation, it demands to be taken seriously. Built around a stunningly forceful performance by Tilda Swinton as the title character, a woman who spends her nights indulging in memory-loss booze fests, waking up each morning in a strange bed with a different man, the film involves her in a harebrained kidnapping scheme, a border crossing with the feds in hot pursuit, and a second kidnapping, this time perpetrated by Mexican gangsters. The result’s an odd – and oddly satisfying - mix, a sharply observed character study - with Swinton embodying the recognizable tics of a very credible individual - crossed with a wonderfully implausible thriller narrative.

And then there’s the fact that the film’s set pieces often unfold as something like high absurdist comedy. The initial kidnapping scene, as Julia spots Tom, her pre-teen mark, playing in the lake, kills his caretaker by backing him over in her car, forces the boy into her trunk at gunpoint and sets him up at an out-of-the-way motel, is both darkly hilarious and more than a little suspenseful. Although much of the humor in this sequence results from the double-stacked convolutions of the undertaking, the laughs derive in equal measure from the sheer haphazard lunacy of Julia’s off-the-cuff decision making. Swinton’s characterization often involves switching between a tentative thinking aloud and a desperately asserted emphasis designed to cover up her essential insecurity. In the kidnapping scene she plays Julia as a woman caught up in a situation that she hasn’t thought through very clearly, forced to make snap decisions and invest these decisions with instant authority. The result is an uneasy comedy, as Julia commands the boy to drink water, swallow pills and clean the shit off his body (he’s just been locked in a trunk for hours), and the boy, sensing the uncertainty beneath the angry façade, returns a mild, sparring protest.

From there things quickly spiral out-of-control, but as the two head down to Mexico, and Julia begins negotiating a ransom with Tom's wealthy grandfather, something like a relationship develops between the two, although not enough to prevent the woman from leaving her captive tied up in the middle of the desert while she goes to negotiate some business. Until the end, Julia’s got her eyes on the prize: even after the boy’s kidnapped by Tijuana thugs, she attempts to set the negotiations on her own terms. In one second-act set piece, after coolly blowing out the brains of an unwitting informant, she infiltrates the criminal’s base and attempts to broker the release of the captive child, the scene quickly developing into a comically overheated shout-fest, its manic energy aided by Zonca and DP Yorick Le Saux’s ultra-skittery hand-held camerawork.

Only in the final moments does Julia redeem the promise of tenderness hinted at in an earlier scene in which Tom joins her in bed and wraps her in a filial embrace. (Although even this sequence is complicated by an odd sexualizing of the relationship – as one of nude-beneath-the-covers Julia’s breasts pops up and the boy stares blankly at the protrusion.) Our character, a downwardly-spiraling boozer, recently fired from her job, has nothing at the beginning of the film, save the unwanted assistance of a former alcoholic friend who forces her to attend AA meetings from which she doesn’t seem to derive any discernible benefit. And in the end, after all the convolutions of the botched robbery, she has even less, since now she can’t even return home. But in her final bit of decision making, she does at least touch on something like a buried store of humanity, so that even as she drives off to a very uncertain future and the screen dissolves into abstract blotches of primary colors, we’re left with the sense that watching her adventure was about something more than indulging in over-the-top genre kicks. But even if it weren’t, Zonca’s commitment to the sheer wonkiness of the undertaking and Swinton’s compulsively, often horrifyingly, watchable performance would be more than enough to ensure that the film remained continually worth the while of all but the most skeptical filmgoer.


A short piece on Ozu's Good Morning (screening today as part of BAM's Late Film series) has been posted at the L Magazine blog.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New Releases: Summer Hours, Anaglyph Tom and The Brothers Bloom

At least two films opening this week qualify as must-sees, Olivier Assayas' Summer Hours -possibly my favorite new release of the year-to-date and a picture I wrote about back in March - and Anaglyph Tom, Ken Jacobs' digital reworking of the same one-reeler he dissected in his 1969 classic Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son. Less successful is Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom, a mostly uninspired grafting of an explicitly Wes Anderson-derived quirkiness onto a comic caper picture.


Also up: a short piece on Oliveira's I'm Going Home at the L Magazine blog.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Catching Up: Revanche, Three Monkeys, Une Femme Mariée and Adoration


The tale's as old the ages; the telling somewhat less. Two losers (a hooker and the errand boy at her brothel) ditch town, rob a bank and head for the hills. But the woman's shot by a policeman during the getaway and through a logistical coincidence (the cop lives next door to the errand boy's hideout), the latter sets about seeking revenge. Director Götz Spielmann films the early scenes at a calculated remove, fixing the characters in their scuzzy Euro settings with a series of static long shots (a pitilessly icy aesthetic that David Phelps dubs "webcam" cinema). But what starts as a coolly distanced enactment of a classic genre set-up - a post-modernist rendering of a pulpy crime tale - opens up as the film moves from the city to the golden-toned Austrian countryside, the pulp plotting gives way to a more complex emotional geometry and the cop and his wife edge our would-be bankrobber for screen time. As the guilt-wracked policeman (he meant to shoot out the getaway car's tires, not kill the woman) broods endlessly over his victim's photo, the other man just chops wood in the barn, an angry exercise that serves as temporary substitute for action. And when the action does come it's indirect, a round of hate-fueled sex with the cop's dissatisfied wife, carried out table-top in her perfectly turned-out home. So everyone gets what he wants: the man, his measure of vengeance; the woman, some excitement and, eventually, the baby her husband can't giver her; and the cop, perhaps, some measure of closure after a river-side chat with the would-be revenger, even as the latter first goads him to near hysteria. Still, for all their interactions, everyone ends up considerably more miserable than when they started, but by the final frame of Spielmann's genre-piece turned psychological drama, at least they've earned some small measure of self-awareness.

Three Monkeys

Speaking of genre... Turkey festival favorite Nuri Bilge Ceylan tries his own hand at a noir-ish exercise, attempting to lift his material to the ranks of epic tragedy through the sheer force of his portentous imagery. In the past I've been a fan of Ceylan's gorgeously composed, largely plotless works - particularly his 2006 offering Climates - admirably self-consciously arty pieces that dared to court insignificance. But in retrospect, I wonder if that film's beguiling imagery - and the lovingly photographed shots of the director's beautiful wife, actress Ebru - had distracted me from the film's essential emptiness. Perhaps in response to a perceived lack of substance in his films, Ceylan moves in the opposite direction with Three Monkeys, embracing something like a fully articulated plotline for the first time and filming the narrative events with a grave, if elliptical dignity. But while the director's compositional eye is as sure as ever - shooting in HD, working with a muted color palette, he creates a suitably oppressive atmosphere, framing his characters wedged into their close settings or set-off against an indifferent sky or seascape - his roiling aesthetic mixes poorly with the thinly sketched narrative, the latter continually registering as a matter of far less import than Ceylan's dramatic visuals would seem to suggest. Still, I won't soon forget the film's final image - a man standing on a seaside rooftop, a tiny figure in the widescreen composition, overwhelmed by a bleary gray expanse (a blend of sea and sky) as thunder streaks across the heavens and a train whistles by - even if the shot seems specifically designed to bestow a retrospective significance on the proceeding events with which they otherwise failed to register.

In Godard's Une Femme Mariée, the titular character - a cheating suburban housewife - struggles to differentiate between love and physical pleasure, between genuine feeling and the performance of feeling. Lacking much in the way of self-understanding, she doesn't get too far. Godard's never been very generous with his female characters (c.f. the notorious Miss 19 sequence in Masculin Feminin) and Charlotte's not much in the way of an exception. Unfamiliar with the Holocaust, by her own admission concerned only with the present (in Pynchonian terms, we might say she has a narrow "temporal bandwidth"), she spends her time flipping through women's magazines, reading about bust enhancement. But Godard posits her cultural myopia as an inherited condition, common to women of her age and social class. Following the famous montage of underwear ads pulled from her Elle magazine, Charlotte overhears the conversation of two young women - one of whom counsels the other on an upcoming tryst in which she's expected to lose her virginity. As we see the ways in which female behavior slots ever so neatly into its expected roles, it's easy to imagine Charlotte in an analogous situation just a few years prior and to see how such ingrained attitudes lead to her present confusion in which a sexual encounter that is actually pleasurable (unlike those with her husband) can be mistaken for love.

But hers isn't the only voice in the film. Moving beyond Charlotte's limited perspective, Godard introduces a series of documentary style sequences in which the subject addresses the camera directly: Charlotte's husband discussing historical memory vis-à-vis Auschwitz, her gynecologist cautiously advocating for birth control, even her child explaining in his impeccable childlike logic how to "get things done." Taken together with Charlotte's interior and exterior monologues, the result is a multi-voiced take on love, desire, modern life, advertising and performance that also happens to stand as one of Godard's most aesthetically rapturous offerings. Filmed in a slightly grainy black-and-white by Raoul Coutard and scored to a round of Beethoven quartets, the film is filled with any number of stunning passages, none more so than the opening sequence (which Bill Krohn, in his essay accompanying the new Masters of Cinema release, rightly compares to the overture in Hiroshima, Mon Amour) where the filmmaker dissects the anatomy of star Macha Méril, building a montage from isolated glimpses of a leg or a belly button while the woman natters on about the nature of love with her boyfriend.


See Slant Magazine.