Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Paradise Now

Dir: Hany Abu-Assad

A little over a month ago, we were privileged to attend a screening of Paradise Now, sponsored by the USC Center on Public Diplomacy. The movie, by Dutch-Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad, relates the final few days of two childhood friends recruited to be suicide bombers. We expected to hate the movie: it has won awards and accolades from all the wrong people and Abu-Assad has refused to condemn suicide bombings, describing them as "a very human reaction to an extreme situation." But the film turned out to be not only well-made but surprisingly subtle. It is unfair in some places, and there is one overarching anti-Israel theme which is difficult to justify, but it is a smart movie unworthy of the condemnation it's received from some reviewers and bloggers.

The film opens in Nablus (where it was in fact shot), as two childhood friends, Said (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman) are told that they have been chosen for a suicide bombing in Tel Aviv "together, as [they] wanted". The boys accept, but this review, translated at Davids Medienkritik is unfair when it states that they "don't hesitate a moment when" they're told they have been selected for the operation. Quite the opposite - Nashef and Suliman do a superb job conveying precisely how torn they are through long, sad looks and faltering steps - hesitations that the terrorist leaders steadfastly pretend not to notice. The clear implication - that there are doubts which neither friend feels comfortable or safe expressing - is confirmed the first time that their caretakers allow them to be alone, when the two air their doubts aloud.

It's not an accident that, from the second that Said and Khaled are told that they're going to be suicide bombers until that moment (at the fence to Israel), the terrorist leaders never leave the friends alone. Jamal (Amer Hlehel), an Islamist terrorist leader, announces to Said that Said has been selected. He then insists on not leaving Said's side for the entire night or the next day - and we later find out that the same is true with Khaled and his handler. The terrorist leaders are clearly unwilling to give the young men which they "honor" with the "duty" of suicide bombing the time or room to reconsider. The humanization of Palestinian terrorists and the abstraction of their Israeli victims - something we've criticized when it's done by the media - is here used to explore the very real dynamic by which Palestinians are trapped between the genuine hardships of Israeli military occupation and the cynical terrorist leaders who manipulate young Arab men's senses of honor to murder Jews by proxy. At times the movie is very subtle on this point: there is a scene in which Hiam Abbass, who plays Said's mother - a fairly modern, secular Palestinian widow - is sitting outside with Said in the morning. Jamal comes out of the house to meet them - at which point Said's mother quietly but hurriedly wraps her hair out of deference to the encroaching fundamentalism seeping into daily life in the West Bank.

Nonetheless, the movie is about what drives Palestinian men and women to become suicide bombers and it's by a pro-Palestinian filmmaker - so the blunt theme is that Israel's Occupation is broadly evil, while a more muted theme, which is still thoroughly anti-Israel, is that military occupation coupled with poverty turns Palestinians against one another. There's some intellectual dishonesty in the film: repeatedly the suicide bombing is described as an attack on soldiers, and the last scene indeed shows a bus filled with armed and uniformed soldiers. But the vast majority of suicide bombings - in restaurants, in front of nightclubs, and yes, on buses - have been against civilians, many of them teenagers. In another scene, Jamal states that Said and Khaled's suicide bombing will be the first one conducted by the group in two years, the implication being that Israel created the motive for the attack (and the loss of Said and Khaled's tragic lives) by assassinating a leader of the group at the very beginning of the film. However, the terrorist group is clearly Hamas (it's an Islamist group powerful in Nablus, there's a reference to the schools they run, etc) - and of course, since the Intifada began, there has never been a two-year gap in Hamas's mass murders. But since Abu-Assad never comes out and says that the group is Hamas, he can create a fictional universe in which Israel is solely responsible for instigating Palestinian violence.

Which is the one, overarching theme with which we have concerns: the insistence that the Israelis have forced the Palestinians to wage war. There is a moment during Khaled's recorded martyr's speech when he states outright that the reason he has to become a suicide bomber is because the Israelis will never offer that the Palestinians their own, viable state. This claim is demonstrably false:
What actually took place at the failed Camp David peace summit in July of 2000 has been a matter of contention. The conventional wisdom - that Israel offered generous concessions, and that Yasser Arafat rejected them to pursue the intifada that began in September 2000 - prevailed for more than a year. To counter the perception that Arafat was the obstacle to peace, the Palestinians and their supporters began to put forward a "revisionist" view of what took place at the summit. Firsthand accounts of the events, proposals, and responses of the participants in the summit have become more available in recent months, and they have by and large confirmed the Israeli account of what transpired, debunking several of the myths circulated by Palestinians and "revisionists" in the process...

The U.S. plan offered by Clinton and endorsed by Barak would have given the Palestinians 97 percent of the West Bank (either 96 percent of the West Bank and 1 percent from Israel proper or 94 percent from the West Bank and 3 percent from Israel proper), with no cantons, and full control of the Gaza Strip, with a land-link between the two; Israel would have withdrawn from 63 settlements as a result. In exchange for the three percent annexation of the West Bank, Israel would increase the size of the Gaza territory by roughly a third. Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem would become the capital of the new state, and refugees would have the right of return to the Palestinian state, and would receive reparations from a $30 billion international fund collected to compensate them. The Palestinians would maintain control over their holy places, and would be given desalinization plants to ensure them adequate water. The only concessions Arafat had to make was Israeli sovereignty over the parts of the Western Wall religiously significant to Jews (i.e., not the entire Temple Mount), and three early warning stations in the Jordan valley, which Israel would withdraw from after six years.
And on this issue the entire film turns: even an impassioned debate on the ethics and utility of suicide bombings between Khaled and Said's love interest Suha (played beautifully by Lubna Azabal) is only about the right tactic with which to fight Israel - Suha states that the Palestinians must wage a "moral war" while Khaled ridicules her as naive. The idea that the Palestinians don't have to wage war at all - that the only reason the two sides are still fighting is because Yasser Arafat turned down a historic peace offer in order to launch a premediated war largely supported by the Palestinian public - is never considered. Nor is it pointed out that before the Palestinians launched that war and Israel had to reinvade the West Bank, previous Israeli withdrawals had ensured that 97% of Palestinians lived under the control of an elected Palestinian government. And here the movie fails its audience, because the point could and should have been made - there are plenty of Palestinians in plenty of cafes who are more than willing to dismissively blame their leadership for failing them or angrily ask why Hamas leaders don't send their own children to die as suicide bombers.

But even with its anti-Israel leanings, this movie is not propaganda and it's not hateful. It conveys the banality and heartbreak of a crumbling society soaked in machismo and terrorism - from wild conspiracy theories traded in taxis to the cost of renting video tapes of collaborator lynchings, from grandiose claims of honor to the best place to buy water filters. It unfairly blames Israel for the entirety of that situation, but it poignantly demonstrates how the most touching of childhood friendships is shattered by two young men's belief that they only way they can truly live is to die.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

War of the Worlds


Dir: Him

Is this the first time that I Just Saw has doubled up on a movie? I think so! Went back and read the von Burg, which I had skipped since I hadn't seen the thing yet.

Ron sees the movie as a story of matriarchs, sort of. I don't disagree, but it was the narrative of masculinity that left an impression with me. If Hitch was about the everyman thrust into heroics, this film is about the screw up in the same condition. It was fun to watch a lead character so flawed, and for whom the move to savior is not miraculously transformative like coming out of the phone booth as Superman. Cruise has bumps along the way and is never completely transformed but still changes during the movie. Of course, the disaterous way the movie ends does much to deligitimize this transformation, a very sour note to the best part of the film. And it really is tragic; the ending makes zero sense and undercuts the meaning of the film as badly as I have ever seen happen in a film.

Sure, the effects are fine. Lots of stuff blows up good. That is par for a movie of this size.

The film, though, does succumb to one of my pet peeves. I want the writers to have the subjects react to situations in character, not as a matter of plot convenience. Dakota Fanning's character is criminally negligent in this regard. This girl is both freaked out and screams at the drop of a hat (I want to sleep in my own bed, Why won't daddy tell me where we are going?) and at the same time holds steely nerves and uncanny perception (Look at the trees, the aliens are coming; yes, there are creepy aliens crawling around five feet from me, but I won't say a word). I can understand this if the character grew more resolve after being tested over the course of the film, but here the daughter's nerves are turned on and off at will by the writers depending on whether they want the raise tension or lower it. The son, as well, rebels and reconciles with his father as the flow of the story dictates, not the character's own development. I know why the screenwriters do that; they have to be more worried about manipulating the tension levels in the audience than in telling the story during a blockbuster. But it bugs me. So there.

All right, I'm probably wrong. But the effects are really the only things keeping this movie going. And that's not enough.


The Polar Express


Dir: Robert Zemeckis

Tom Hanks and Zemeckis present what is apparently a classic children's book about a doubting boy who learns the true meaning of Christmas. Fancy that in a Christmas movie. There is the story, and there is the tech; reverse order here.

The motion capture animation here is certainly in the conversation for the best I have ever seen. While much of the human movement, lips especially, is still stiff, just about everything else is really gorgeous. Since the setting is magical to begin with, the North Pole and all, much of the background animation seems appropriately ethereal, even more effective that film might have been. For example, moonlight reflecting off snow can look more like I think it ought to in a digital environment, shimmering far more brilliantly than all but the most forunate moments in the real world. A lot of the movie happens at speed (fast trains, falling down hills, etc.) and those scenes are aided by the freedom of the digital camera as well. If they could ever get the humans down, there would really be something here.

The story, well, it's a kid's movie. You know it already, even if you haven't seen it. There are some things worth noting, though. Santa's operation is oddly corporate. We normally see the elves hunched over stools with hammers handcrafting wooden trains. Here, giant assembly plants are run in militaristic fashion, with some elves barking orders and everyone marching lockstep. When Santa shows up, the elves all gather in the town square and engage in mass chanting and proclamations to the conquering hero. Santa is like Pinochet, without the torture (I hope). While distrubing at first glance, I found myself appreciating the author's attempt to make the Santa story more plausible in terms of an economy of scale. And since the film is about overcoming doubts, then I can endorse that move.

Not one fart joke or talking animal in the whole film, which makes it one of the best movies for kids in the last five years. Only for adults with a desire to check out the animation.


Sunday, November 27, 2005

This Is Spinal Tap


Dir: Rob Reiner

"I do not, for one, think that the problem was that the band was down. I think that the problem may have been that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf. Alright? That tended to understate the hugeness of the object"

BCE (other than Blazing Saddles)


The Straight Story


Dir: David Lynch

Absolutely one of my favorite movies of all time. I have been revisiting a few favorites lately, especially the lesser known character study films that I love so. I have seen few films that rival this one in terms of sheer beauty; everything about it is loving and tender, wise yet subtle. It is a true artistic triumph.

Richard Farnsworth, in real life aged and near death, portrays Alvin Straight, whose own impending death sends him on a journey of reconciliation across Iowa to visit his estranged brother. The story is told through brief chance encouters on the road with all manner of people, each one illuminating some well earned knowledge that Straight has accumulated in his life. But at no point does the movie become sentimental or silly. This is not a "old people are people too!" piece of populism. Straight's stoicism is translated into the script, which mostly hints at the lessons and makes its main character shadowed and complex. One scene, realting to WWII, gives us full access to the man, and it is all the more powerful for its uniqueness.

And even though Farnsworth pulls off one of my most favorite acting performances, it is Lynch's camera that leaves the greatest impression. Here is man used to directing in novel ways, using metaphor and technique to show us something different and challenge our ability to interpret a text (see Mulholland Drive, etc.). In The Straight Story, those same skills of telling a tale through direction are deployed. What emerges is some of the most sensuous, meaningful camera work I have ever seen. The opening shot is worth tracking this movie down all on its own. I verbally exclaimed "What a loving move. What a carress!" when I saw it again. Straight is slowed by age anddogged purpose; so too is the pace of this film which comes off as much like a painting as a movie, something to sit down in front of and contemplate.

David Lynch has so much skill. Perhaps too often those skills are applied to the weird. Here, it is applied to the human condition. The result is his finest film, and one of the greatest of the 90's.


Saturday, November 26, 2005

Walk the Line

Rob Gordon: Hey, I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm certainly not the dumbest. I mean, I've read books like "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "Love in the Time of Cholera", and I think I've understood them. They're about girls, right? Just kidding. But I have to say my all-time favorite book is Johnny Cash's autobiography "Cash" by Johnny Cash.
-High Fidelity

Directed by James Mangold and featuring stellar performance from Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line is the story of the early part of Johnny Cash's career. His father, played by Robert "T-1000" Patrick, is an overbearing drunkard who blames Johnny for his older brother's death. Cash's rise from nothing into a huge country star is the stuff of typical Hollywood biopictorials but it makes for a compelling story. The recipe is simple: Mix equal parts parental pressure, anti-familial temptation, drug abuse, and allure of fame and you have a biopic. Walk the Line is Ray set to country music- and thats not a bad thing. But what really drives the story, as in Ray, are the central performances and here Phoenix is Cash. What really strikes you when you watch this movie is that Phoenix sounds just like Johnny Cash, belting out every line of "Ring of Fire" or other assembled hits of Cash's. And while I am too young to speak authoritatively on the matter, Reese Witherspoon's performance as June Carter is very impressive, representing a strong woman forced to develop fierce independence and be the mature shepard of the wayward, drug addicted Cash.

Ultimately, I liked this movie but found it rather slight, almost a trifle. It was very good but was definitely saved by the performances. Ultimately I guess these biopics are formulaic but thats OK- they end up entertaining and inspiring- and its tough not to get excited by a prison full of felons waiting to here "Walk the Line".

Monday, November 21, 2005

The Comedians of Comedy


Dir: Michael Bleiden (first film)

Disappointing documentary following stand-ups Patton Oswalt, Maria Bamford, Brian Posehn and Zach Galfianakis as they go on tour. All of these are performers are, in my mind, extremely gifted. The talent in the film had me expecting a very interesting examination of comedic craft or life on the road, or anything. The documentary suffers greatly by the lack of talent of the film maker and the low production quality.

Bleiden apparently entered with the theory that his subjects were so funny that you could just leave the camera running and the comedy would be unstoppable. Editing? You can't tamper with genius! Asking questions of your subjects that are heuristic, or at least not filled with stumbles and awkward pauses? As the lowly interviewer, I cannot bring anything to the table! Any insights in the movie are purely accidental, and are lost within (for example) ten minutes of footage of the subjects shopping for comic books. Not that we got to see that riveting scene, mind you; the store owner kicked the cameras out and Bleiden left the scene in the movie, just giving us the audio. Comic book shopping, not funny shopping, just shopping!

This could have been a good idea if there was enough footage to sift through and cull out 80 funny minutes. But the whole thing was filmed in four day, apparently. Not even these great comedians do enough funny things driving to a gig or eating dinner to make a good documentary in that time. Trying to do this with that few resources being deployed is silly.

The stand up bits are not bad, if too brief to be representative of the performers' talents. A few scripted skits are passible. But this movie is like giving The Last Waltz to Michael Bay; talent on stage, but none behind the camera.

Apparently this documentary was pitched to Comedy Central and it is now an Insomniac style reality show. Watch at your own risk.


Sunday, November 13, 2005

The Sting


Dir: George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Slap Shot)

There are two axioms that are too often overlooked in cinema. The heist film is perhaps the greatest genre of cinema, and Paul Newman is the greatest actor living today (for he is our last link to classical Hollywood; he makes the world a very beautiful place to live). Thankfully, this film understands both of these principles.

In a crowded movie season (Last Tango in Paris, Mean Streets, American Graffiti, The Exorcist, Cries and Whispers), The Sting managed to nab seven Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. But like the Lord of the Rings, the film only received one acting nomination (Robert Redford). Yet again, the Academy demonstrates the tragic myopia that plagues most of their decisions, forcing them to give make-up Oscars to glorious actors in subpar roles (Newman for Nobody's Fool).

The Sting relies on numerous double-crosses and suprise turns, so a clear summarization of the plot would do violence to one's viewing pleasure. This film spends as much time winking at the audience as the characters do to each other. The sets are spectacular, seemingly ripped from the pages of the Saturday Evening Post. The dreary undertow that drains the optimism from most films dealing with the Great Depression is wiped out by the cheeky charisma of Newman and Redford; rehaps the best on-screen buddy duo (that even includes Turner and Hooch).

Certainly, the film made the appropriate nods to a more cynical generation, but I think the Sting really stands out as a film 4 years too late or 8 years too early. Many of its contemporaries relied on heavy doses of helplessness and nihilism to demonstrate a now belabored point. Granted, I love those types of films-some are my favorites of all time-but I am glad the Sting got its props (occassionally, the Academy gets it right).

With that said, I love Butch Cassidy more.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Haunting


Dir: Robert Wise

Roundly acclaimed as one of the scariest films ever made. And the acclimation is correct (my first time viewing). This has all of the elements of a genre defining film, able to stand up to the test of time given its reliance on character and tension as opposed to effects or cheap tricks.

Four folks shack up in a house to verify if it is haunted or not. One, played by Julie Harris, is very nearly insane, a condition being in a haunted house does little to improve. Only Russ Tamblyn's character is one dimensional, a fact adding greatly to the story. Wise has selected good material (Shirley Jackson wrote the novel), and so the movie succeeds both at telling an interesting story of the characters and at scaring us. A lesbian sub plot is surprisingly overt for 1963, but remains tangential to the story.

It is the horror itself that elevates the movie. Hill House haunts from behind doors, with sounds. No ghouls pop out from inside the cupboard, no hounds appear and rip human flesh apart. The terror is psychological and as a result the movie is able to stand up to the years. At times things were very reminiscent of the Blair Witch Project; confine your subjects in a small space and have things going on outside them, letting neither them nor the audience know what their nemesis is. The imagination is always more terrifying than special effects.

Lots of small touches really help the film. The House, we learn, was designed to include no right angles. So the set is always slightly out of kilter, aided by carefully shaded camera angles and quick edits. Statues are to be found everyone, so that the ghostly pupil-less eyes of marble busts always gaze on the scene. Wise has let atmosphere dictate the horror, always keeping the audience slightly off balance and letting the subsequent tension build.

Horror when done bad is just silly. When done right, it is terrific entertainment. The Haunting is the latter.


The Sweet Hereafter


Dir: Atom Egoyan (Exotica; Felicia's Journey)


I have noticed myself drawing connections back to this movie lately, so through the power of Netlfix (BCE) I queued it up. I watched it several times when it was new, but had not revisited it for several years. Upon further review, it is quite simply one of the most heartwrenching and beautiful works of creativity I have ever encountered.

Ian Holm gives the performance of his lifetime as a lawyer traveling to a small town where a school bus accident has torn the community apart. Holm's lawyer brings his own family tradgedy with him, and all of the characters must work through their own grief and mourning and reckon with their mistakes against a snowy and tragic backdrop.

The premise is simple, but the complexity of the insights delivered by the movie are astounding. Ruminations about the law, family, death and fate are not delivered through overwrought speeches, but queitly between sobs and through revealing looks, implied through character development rather than forced through dialogue. Everything seems so real that we cannot help but experience the grief with the families. Nothing in this film seems artificial or distant, or even dramatic. The only thing that reminded me I was watching a film at all is the exquisite camera work.

The chronology of the movie is disjointed, but not in a gimicky way. By allowing us to understand the grief of the parents before the accident happens, it make that momentous scene all the more shocking. It is one of most indelible images I have ever seen in a movie. Not gratiuitous, but powerful.

There are some major plot points that I will not reveal, but suffice it to say that the story is just a way to explore the characters and to reveal the complexity of human interactions, even in a seemingly unified community. The film is ambitious, powerful, gorgeous, important, and especially moving, the most imporant thing a film can be,

I cannot more strongly urge everyone to experience The Sweet Hereafter.


Jurassic Park


Dir: Senor Spielbergo

Somewhere along the way, some dinosaurs showed up in a kids' movie. So let me discuss those two elements separately.

The dinosaurs are what I expected. And the film stands in an odd moment in CGI history, where the tech is available to make pretty crappy animated animals and some incredibly cool animatronic ones. Speilberg resists the temptation to overrely on the new toys unitl the end; otherwise, he could never have done the closeup work with the T-Rex that has become the movie's trademark. That scene in the rain is without a doubt the standout of the film, with the more computer oriented Raptor/Kitchen scene overlong and far less believable. I guess the action is pretty good, but not great. This part of the movie is supposed to be a disaster thing; but I'll take the Posieden Adventure or the Towering Inferno or the last hour of Titanic over this anyday.

The kids' movie, though, I did not expect. The first half hour, where we explore the park as an attraction, is manipulative in a good way. There is so much joy and wonder expressed by the actors, the score so schmaltzily choreographing our emotions, the camera panning at just the right speed to communicate astonishment, that one can't help but feel youthful and excited. Even when the adventure commences, it feels more like Jumanji than King Kong, with kid heroes and comic relief after every close call; only bad guys are hurt and family love trumps all in the end and youth is the predominant theme. This is Speilberg stuff all the way, and probably one of the reasons I imposed the irrational prejudice on him in my own youth.

Is that kids' stuff bad? No, I have grown more tolerant in my middle ages. And in my eyes it gave the film an interestingly disonant quality, where the intensity of the T-REX scene seems inappropriate, too intense for the target audience. The cynic in me says this dynamic is why the movie was so successful; adults who do not like to be challenged by movies appreciate the pre-pubescent themes and mentality, but also like cool dinosaur robots. But I am abandoning cynicism. So hooray populism!

Irrational prejudice? Plausible, but in this case not warranted.


Friday, November 11, 2005

The Terminator


Dir: James Cameron

Not an irrational prejudice (I was 9 when the movie came out), but more a "slipped through the cracks" film. Either way, this was my first time viewing it.

How cute! Having come to expect giant blockbuster spectacle from these types of films, I was surprised to see how quaint and shoestring this was. While no doubt cutting edge at the time, the make-up and special effects come across now as refreshingly home made, something out of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts. They are fun, as opposed to something that is supposed to dazzle me or blow my mind. This is one year after Jedi, and The Terminator looks like Plan Nine From Outer Space in comparison. I must admit that I usually prefer this approach. A director doing the best with what he has gives me lots of room to suspend disbelief. I am rarely blown away by the technical aspects of a film; but I am always willing to have with one.

It is The Terminator as a character that drives the film, not the cyborg as a special effect. The Gov is decidedly bad ass, and the concept of the unstoppable killing machine creates terrific tension throughout. I wish the movie had done some more sophisticated ruminations on the future it envisions, or on time travel per se. The Matrix, in comparison, really emerges as a special movie, having both broad and intellectual appeal. But the concept must have been quite original at the time, and if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, than this movie is blushing.

An unintended down point of the film is the continual 1980's time signature. The worst decade of them all is in full gaudy display here; New Wave and hairspray saturate every frame. Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn are truly awful actors. But Arnold makes up for all of that. He is the only possible choice for that character, turning all of his weaknesses into essential character traits of the cyborg. Easily, the best part of this movie was watching him work.

Necessary viewing for historical purposes, but I doubt the DVD will be on my Xmas list.


Monday, November 07, 2005

Red Beard


Dir: Akira Kurosawa

So rare a movie is this. I have seen my fair share of them in my time. I have seen them explore every possible emotion, conflict, relationship, event or meaning. And certainly movies have been made that have trod the same ground as Red Beard. But few. And even fewer this well.

Kurosawa's final film with Toshiro Mifune is about kindness and compassion in a bleak world. And where most movies might have focused on the crushing weight of poverty and abuse, Kurosawa chooses to focus on how we treat each other as we die, letting acts of charity and selflessness stand as testament to the goodness of some people when goodness is needed most. Yuzo Kayama plays a young doctor assigned against his will to a remote and poverty stricken health clinic run by the venerable Red Beard. The transition of Kayama's character from ambitious theorist to compasisonate caregiver is told through a series of encounters with patients. Each has their own story of woe and each has their own way of facing death. Lacking a grand plot, a cynic might view the movie as a "true meaning of Christmas" bit of triteness. But that person would have no heart. In fact, this is my favorite kind of movie; show me stories and people from whom I learn and understand myself better. Simple, clean and pure, those are the qualities that are the hardest to pull off in a film, and the most satisfying when done well.

The episodic nature of the story makes the movie feel like a novel or, even better, a collection of short stories where we learn about the cross section of humanity through representative anecdotes. As a result, the film's three hours are never heavy or slow; none of the episodes misses that mark and each is sufficiently distinct. As always, Criterion has done a perfect job of transfering the film and editing the sound. Kurosawa uses shadow and make-up to render the death scenes both incredibly creepy and oddly beautiful; one easily sees here the Japanese ghost aesthetic that would dominate their horror genre fifty years later.

For Red Beard, curing the disease is the least significant part of health care. It is the soul, worn down by the world, that is both the cause of illness and the key to care. Kurosawa approaches a Freudian explanation for mental causes, and pulls no punches in his Dickensian tales of neglect, poverty and familial destruction. But the preaching and politics is always done in the interests of character development. Transformation comes in doing whatever one can in making this particular person's life worth living, if only in the final moments.

No samurais. No Western motifs. Just a compelling story that finds beauty in even the darkest moments. An inspiration of a film.


Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Barbarian Invasions

2004 Oscar Winner Best Foreign Language Film

Dir: Denys Arcand (Jesus of Montreal; The Decline of the American Empire)

I had the idea to watch the Decline before watching this film, its sequel. I am so glad that I did. Not only is The Barbarian Invasions a triumph in its own right, but stands as one of the great sequels I have ever seen, a wonderful extention and improvement on the first. The movie is smart, moving, and so prescient in its unflinching observations on contemporary North America.

Remy Girard reprises his role as the philandering history professor, but this time on his death bed. His cancer has brought his scattered friends from that fateful dinner party back together. His estranged family as well has returned to Montreal, even his very rich son, with whom the father hardly speaks. In this sequel, the conversations between the characters are not marked by the cavalier acceptance of pain and suffering of their youth. Everyone has, in some way, learned a lesson, come to peace with their self destructive sexual practices of before. The display both a notaglia for the good old days but a wisdom of how they weren't all that good..

The families, though, have never healed. Marriages remain broken, and most importantly the children are destroyed. Either cold and calculating, or wandering, or lost in drug addiction, the selfishness of Girard and others in Decline now comes to be the main obstacle to overcome in his final days as he seeks forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a story that is made all the more moving by the two hour character sketch from the first movie, that in my mind only serves as the backstory so that we may know in depth and complexity how these families came to be so estranged, and how hard it will be to reunite.

Another powerful theme in the movie is the inability of the Canadian bureaucracy to render paliative care to Girard. He cannot get a PET scan, and must travel to America for it. He cannot get a room, so the son bribes the unions and the bureaucrats to make up an abandoned floor of the hospital. He cannot get pain drugs, so the son arranges with the police to get heroin for his father. Money talks and the same ruthless skills that made the son a corporate raider are now trained to get his father good care. Somewhere in that process, father and son come to trust each other again, and the tranformation is subtle and clever.

While hedonism was the mark of an Empire in Decline, the Barbarians have arrived at the palace gates in this film. 9/11 is cited as the first time that enemies of North America have struck the home soil (using actual footage of the WTC that continues to pack a punch with me because we see it so rarely). Like Rome, the siege has begun. This empire is now corrupt and incapable to doing anything effectively. One bureaucrat, when offered a bribe, chides the son by saying "This is not a third world country." Once the bribe is increased, she accepts. The story is provocative and not incorrect, a rare thing.

The balance of politics and the personal story line is just right. The resolution to Girard's life is touching and appropriate. And the character development in Arcand's movie is a model for how to do sequels. What emerges is a grat play in two acts, a novella. It is great cinema.

My highest recommendation, but only if taken together.


Friday, November 04, 2005

The Decline of the American Empire


Dir: Denys Arcand (Jesus of Montreal; The Barbarian Invasions)

Thought provoking Francophone Canadian film about the sex lives of various history professors meeting together for a dinner party. So many movies in recent years have explored this subject matter, the Big Chill and on and on. Middle aged adults get together and discuss love and sex, realizing that they have hurt each other and helped each other in ways they did not know. Often these things are painfully bad, offering needlessly depressing observations of human nature and expoliting the audience's voyeuristic tendencies to embarass and humiliate the characters. Arcand's movie is better than that, but still suffers from the way the genre inevitably brings those issues to the fore.

The men in the movie are serial cheaters. With a pride they discuss their inability to avoid prostitutes or students while at their academic conferences. Each has a different way of reconciling their behavior with the constraints of married life, but their desires still control their lives. The women are all exceedingly intellectual and yet must take different and desctructive measures to compensate for the lack of love in their marriages or single lives. One sleeps around herself, one is withdrawn, one is in denial, one experiments with light bondage, etc. The first half of the movie segregates the gender groups and allows them to discuss the other. When they are brought together later, our observation of their interactions is informed by the secrets that had just been revealed.

The title refers to an academic theory that a culture gets more hedonsitic as it begins to decline, as excess makes the citizens soft and selfish. Canada, on the periphery of the emipre, both is sucked into this trend and attempts to stand apart from it. I would have taken lots more exploration of this issue, which is more implied than developed in the movie.

Some find love, some lose their marriage; you can imagine how it all turns out. You have seen it before. There were times when the movie made an observation or constructed a scene that was very intriguing. But taken as a whole, the film remained for me cold, bleak and cynical. Love here is a game, a deception, a contact sport where few win and everyone sustains an injury. That may be true, and it is certainly important to explore that subject matter in film. But it is not the sort of thing I really enjoy watching. The film is very well written and acted, but its entertainment value is lowered by its worldview.

Recommended for those in a good mood.


Tuesday, November 01, 2005

No Man's Land

2002 Oscar Winner Best Foreign Language Film

Dir: Danis Tanovic

Slovenia won an Oscar. Yep. Didn't deserve it, but they won it.

No Man's Land succumbs to the tempatation to be self important. The premise is great. In a trench between the lines of Bosnian and Serbian forces, three soldiers are caught. The Serbian has booby-trapped the corpse of a Bosnian by laying him on top of a land mine; except, he isn't dead. When he comes to, the soldier's are faced with the consequences of war and their own ethnic hatred. So long as the film dwells on this issue, it is very interesting if not brilliant.

But, then the film wants to make a point. The UN is called in to deal with the situation, and suddenly a dark comedy breaks out. The French won't get involved for fear of provoking one side or the other. The British UN General is more concerned about PR than lives. And a Christiane Amanpour stand-in is there to turn the trench into a media circus. All of this satire is rather heavy handed and simplistic, and not funny enough to warrant the comedic turn of what had started out as a good metaphor for the dissolution of a country. Contrast the critique of contemporary humanitarian military intervention in this movie with Black Hawk Down; no contest on sophistication or appropriateness.

It is odd to see Oscar reward a film for this kind of politics. The UN comes off as not interventionist enough, unwilling to get involved for fear of taking a side. But what is the implied alternative? More assertiveness, maybe (gasp) actually acting against genocide (which is very vaguely referenced in the movie's first half)? The movie leaves that question open, and I wonder if the supporters of this movie are willing to really comtemplate the answer.