Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Top 10: 1996

1. Dead Man (Jarmusch)
2. Fargo (Coen)
3. Breaking the Waves (Von Trier)
4. Scream (Craven)
5. Welcome the the Dollhouse (Solondz)
6. Trainspotting (Boyle)
7. From Dusk Till Dawn (Rodriguez)
8. Jude (Winterbottom)
9. The People Vs. Larry Flynt (Forman)
10. Mars Attacks! (Burton)

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Hi! Are you a fairy?

I fear that the Pale Man will be haunting my dreams for a long time to come. If you've seen the trailers for Pan's Labyrinth, you've seen the Pale Man, a faceless, contorted figure whose eyes rest in his hands like an extra from Beetlejuice. In Pan's Labyrinth, the Pale Man plays the role of the sleeping monster that Ofelia (Ivana Banquero), the film's preteen heroine, accidentally awakens. In his brief appearance, the Pale Man is both an effective summation of the film's real-life horrors (mindless violence triumphing over creativity, perception buried in the hands rather than the mind, and by extension, the heart) and a terrifying, visceral beast destined to burrow its way into our collective nightmares. And director Guillermo del Toro achieves a tricky balancing act throughout the film, creating a visually sumptuous fairy tale rooted in our very real need to escape into worlds of our own creation; the result is intellectually and emotionally exhilarating.

The labyrinth of the film is of the Borgesian sort, weaving between the objective world and an intricate fantasy world; while this conceit has been used in films from The Wizard of Oz to Brazil, here it is not only used to demonstrate the contrast between dreams and waking life but also something knottier. Set in 1944 Spain, the film joins Ofelia as she arrives with her pregnant mother Carmen (Ariadna Gil) at the secluded estate of her new stepfather, Captain Vidal (Sergi López), a cruel megalomaniac capable of unflinching violence. With her mother dangerously ill and violence between Vidal's men and republican guerillas erupting in the woods aroud her, Ofelia's unremittingly bleak existence is the perfect backstory for a fairy-tale heroine. So it makes a certain amount of sense when she is led by an insectlike fairy to a hedge maze on the periphery of the estate and introduced to a six-foot-tall faun (Doug Jones) who has a very specific purpose for her. This leads Ofelia into a series of journeys into another world, where she must solve an increasingly complicated puzzle even as reality becomes more and more unbearable. The brilliance of Pan's Labyrinth rests in the way that it subtly demonstrates how each world is altered by the other, with Ofelia acting as a literal door (Jungian alert!) between them. The horrors of the fantasy world are amplified by their connection to Ofelia's very real fear of annihilation; at the same time, Ofelia is empowered by her magical quest in a way that makes her stronger, more resourceful and better equipped to outwit her real-life wicked stepfather. Del Toro makes a very powerful argument for the importance of faith and imagination (dismissed as childish by Ofelia's mother) in confronting our everyday monsters. It's not only a convincing defense of the geeky Mexican's monster-filled body of work, it also announces del Toro as a fantasist of unshakable maturity and depth.

The art direction, makeup and visual effects departments do a breathtaking job of bringing various otherwordly haunts to life, adding details (such as the discarded shoes of the Pale Man's previous victims) that make each moment creepily believable. But while the real-life story usually suffers in films like these, here it's just as strong. Ofelia befriends Mercedes (Maribel Verdu), Vidal's maid, who admits that she once believed in the same stories but no longer can. Their scenes together are sweet and subtly sad, underscored by a longing for the return of innocence. Pan's Labyrinth is also the second recent film (after Children of Men) to suggest that a more feminine approach to life might not be a bad idea; while Vidal asserts his dominance through unspeakable cruelty and the guerillas, justified as they may be, ravage the countryside with destruction, it is the women who achieve something resembling peace. Banquero is amazing here, creating the most nuanced, sensitive performance by a child since Anna Paquin in The Piano. López is deeply disturbing as the methodical military man who becomes the face of a very modern form of evil - power in the absence of true vision. And Doug Jones deserves a great deal of credit both for the Pale Man and the faun, whose motives are uncertain as he guides Ofelia through the labyrinth.

For the first hour of Pan's Labyrinth, I was entranced but uncertain as to how del Toro would work the seemingly disparate elements of wide-eyed fantasy and brutal violence together. But as the narrative progresses, it reveals a fearful symmetry that builds to a stunning conclusion. The less said about Pan's Labyrinth and the secrets it contains, the better; suffice to say that if you choose to take its journey, it will likely shake you to your core. Del Toro has always been great for his infectious sense of unpretentious fun - hell, he even made a Blade movie that I actually liked. Pan's Labyrinth is an enormous sense forward in this sense; it's incredible, the way the film completely disarms you, leaving you totally immersed in its world. The result is something like wonder, and that's one thing of which we could always use more.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Top 10: 1986

1. Blue Velvet (Lynch)
2. The Fly (Cronenberg)
3. Sid and Nancy (Cox)
4. Betty Blue (Beineix)
5. Aliens (Cameron)
6. Stand by Me (Reiner)
7. Platoon (Stone)
8. Jean de Florette (Berri)
9. Ferris Bueller's Day Off (Hughes)
10. Big Trouble in Little China (Carpenter)

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Madame Bovary is not a slut.

Little Children references Flaubert's Madame Bovary at great length during a book group discussion attended by the film's protagonist, and it's easy to see how Flaubert's conflicted heroine is mirrored in Winslet's character. But it's also a clue about the fragile, often paradoxical tone of the film; Flaubert's work is characterized by the conflict between romanticism and realism, and that conflict is at the heart of Little Children. Suburban tragicomedies have become their own subgenre, and director Todd Field acknowledges recent films like American Beauty and Happiness in sly ways. But Little Children is a far tricker work its predecessors, blurring the line between bucolic humanism and ironic detachment. The result is perhaps the most challenging film of 2006: it's flawed yet indelible.

Sarah Pierce (Kate Winslet) is a liberal-minded bookworm who dropped out of grad school to marry Richard (Gregg Edelman), an older, successful businessman who is also (as Sarah discovers) a porn aficionado and a bit of a pantysniffer. Sarah is befuddled by her upper-middle-class existence and ambivalent about her relationship with her daughter Lucy (Sadie Goldstein), who is as sweet and needy as toddlers tend to be. Sarah spends her days at the playground with Lucy, trying to ignore the banal chatter of fellow moms; the mononoty is broken one day by the arrival of Brad Adamson (Patrick Wilson), a stay-at-home dad known to the moms as the "Prom King." Sarah strikes up a conversation with Brad in order to shock her peers, but what begins as a joke quickly turns serious as Sarah and Brad find themselves urgently attracted to each other. Before long, they're engaging in sessions of enthusiastic sex while the kids nap. Brad's wife Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a documentary filmmaker increasingly frustrated by her husband's repeated failures at the bar exam, begins to suspect that something is afoot. It's a familiar premise, but Field and co-writer Tom Perrotta (adapting his book) approach it with understated insight. While it'd be easy to judge Sarah and Brad for their infidelity and questionable parenting, Field also gives Winslet and Wilson the room to create a palpable, almost spiritual connection. The sex scenes are sweaty and vital, and they bring the film's understated visual strategy (lonely houses, treetops against a gray sky) and dry observation of playground routines (narrated in brilliant deadpan by Frontline's Will Lyman) into focus. We exist outside of the narrative until Brad and Sarah's affair allows us in, and even then our ability to engage in the story is determined by our capacity for empathy.

It's a complex challenge that Field presents, and Little Children complicates matters further by juxtaposing Brad and Sarah's story with the arrival of Ronnie McGorvey (Jackie Earl Haley), a "sex pervert" who has just been returned from prison to live with his long-suffering mother, May (Phyllis Somerville, great in a brief role). From the scene where Ronnie decides to take a dip and promptly clears out the town pool, Field masterfully plays upon our conflicted sympathies - Ronnie is capable of horrible things, but he's no less recognizably human than Larry (Noah Emmerich), an ex-cop who harasses the McGorveys out of an inflated sense of self-righteousness (not to mention guilt over his own sins). All of this could have played as a painfully simplistic work of moral equivalency, but again, Field gives us room to measure the divide between the characters' intentions and their actions on our own terms. Haley does excellent work here; living in a Rockwellian nightmare of ticking clocks and passive, smirking Hummels, Ronnie is a man slowly unravelling and threatening to break at any moment. When he finally does, it seems that Field is asking (in no uncertain terms) what parts of ourselves we must discard in order to put away childish things.

I realize that I've made Little Children sound more like a Sociology 101 midterm than a fun night out. Indeed, it is a difficult film to embrace, and its ambitions make its flaws (Mary B. McCann's stilted, obvious performance as the leader of the soccer moms, for instance) more glaring. At the same time, it's refreshing to see a film that places an enormous amount of faith in the audience's intelligence. Perrotta's screenplay is sharply funny, and Field demonstrates a flair for satire unseen in his good but delibrately somber first feature, In the Bedroom. Wilson does hilarious work as a "primary caregiver" pretty enough to dismiss the importance of beauty and goofily enamored with contact sports and skaters. Connelly's icy presence is perfect for Kathy. And Winslet is the heart of the film, giving another in a series bold, uncompromising and insightful performance; when Sarah begins to cry outside Brad's house, you can see the tragicomic soul of Little Children on her trembling face, which reveals both the child she was (and still is) and the grownup she might someday become.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Top 10: 1976

1. Carrie (De Palma)
2. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Roeg)
3. Taxi Driver (Scorsese)
4. Face to Face (Bergman)
5. 1900 (Bertolucci)
6. The Bad News Bears (Ritchie)
7. Network (Lumet)
8. Marathon Man (Schlesinger)
9. Rocky (Avildsen)
10. Bound for Glory (Ashby)

Monday, January 08, 2007

Shantih, Shantih, Shantih.

There's an almost inaudible ring on the soundtrack of Children of Men after each of the film's sudden bursts of violence. It is, as one character explains, the last hurrah of ear cells about to die. The sound is at the heart of Children of Men, a film set in a near-future where humanity is on the verge of ending not with a bang but a whimper. It's an unflinching vision of our darkest fears about the direction our world is headed in, yet the film never feels oppressive or nihilistic. Instead, director Alfonso Cuaron has made a film that inspires genuine faith in the potential of the human spirit in the face of its own self-destruction.

Based on a novel by PD James, Children of Men takes place in 2027, when war and environmental destruction have left most of the world in chaos (the screenplay wisely avoids much exposition, as the characters mention catastrophic events around the world with the same familiarity that we reference 9/11). The only city left standing is a London overrun by violence; the city has become a place where refugees are imprisoned in internment camps and suicide pills are available over the counter. The film opens with news of the death of the youngest person on the planet - "Baby Diego," age 18. For unknown reasons, women are no longer able to conceive, and the end of humankind appears to be just around the corner. Theo (Clive Owen), a former activist who now works as a low-level government drone, has responded naturally, living in a state of depressed indifference. He spends his days getting drunk and occasionally visiting his friend Jasper (Michael Caine), a dope-smoking peacenik who lives in a secluded house with his catatonic wife. Theo's routine is interrupted when he is suddenly contacted by Julian (Julianne Moore), his ex-wife, who now works for a subversive pro-immigration group called the Fishes. Julian wants Theo to help her secretly transport a young refugee across the country. Theo eventually learns that the young woman, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), is pregnant, and it becomes clear how much is at stake.

The film is structured like a classical Hollywood thriller, as Theo and Kee race across England, pursued by revolutionaries who want the child to help advance their own cause. But in many ways, Children of Men is an incredible step forward in the art of cinema, both technically and emotionally. Cuaron and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki employ a remarkable strategy of desaturated colors, handheld camerawork, and natural light to create a future that feels remarkably immediate, underscoring the connection between this possible future and our own uncertain present. And the much-talked-about, seemingly unbroken shots that last as long as ten minutes aren't a gimmick as they were in Russian Ark, for instance. They strengthen our identification with Theo as he ends up in increasingly nightmarish situations. What Cuaron has achieved here cannot be underestimated; it's not that he invented the techniques on display here, but rather, as Welles did with Citizen Kane or Kubrick with 2001, he gives them newfound conceptual depth. He has made the camera an invisible, ground-level presence; we barely have time to stop and marvel at the cinematic trickery, immersed as we are in the world of the film. Cuaron, director of the wonderfully horny Y Tu Mama Tambien and the best Harry Potter film, reveals himself here as a pioneer, and Children of Men is a milestone in the evolution of cinematic language.

That said, the emotional weight of the film rests solely on the shoulders of Clive Owen, who rises to the occasion admirably. Theo is a man whose sould has been deadened by personal and global tragedy, and Owen wisely underplays every moment. The performance recalls Bogart in Casablanca (a film that shares a great deal of DNA with this one); it's exhilarating to watch Theo, who once tried to change the world before giving in to grief and apathy, rediscover his soul. Julianne Moore is heartbreaking as Julian - with a minimum of exposition, you can see the entire history of their relationship in her eyes. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Pam Ferris and Peter Mullan do strong work in complex supporting roles. Michael Caine appears to be having a blast as Jasper, and lends the film considerable warmth and poignance. And Claire-Hope Ashitey is funny and sweet as a refreshingly unsentimental savior (her one-line dismissal of any Christ allegory is perfect). Ashitey is also the subject of the film's most indelible image - standing nude and swollen with child in a barn, surrounded by cows, Ashitey becomes a painterly summation of the conflict that drives Children of Men - between the animal and the divine, the profane and the sacred, chaos and symmetry.

It's true that Children of Men is incredibly prescient, but if the film will live beyond its topical relevance (and I believe it will), it's because it is more fundamentally about our constant fear of the future (irrespective of what war we're currently fighting). The violence in Children of Men is as jarring as that in Psycho - it forces us to confront the overwhelming weight of our own anxiety about what comes next. But the film also offers a great deal of real hope, arriving at a moment of grace that serves to remind us of the faith we place in our children to make the most of this broken world they've inherited. Children of Men has a vital, pulsing spirit, infused with an eclectic mix of ideas, a concordance's worth of references to art both high and low (love the flying pig), and the subtle, witty suggestion that a world repopulated by the children of women might not be a bad idea. The subject matter of Children of Men may be bleak, but it is nevertheless the most joyous cinematic experience I've had in a long time.