Friday, October 23, 2009

Film Review: A Serious Man [A-]

Film / Review

A Serious Man [InRO]
Director: Joel & Ethan Coen
Year: 2009

In comparison to just about every other film Joel and Ethan Coen have directed in the last fifteen years or so, "A Serious Man" seems at first glance to be small and maybe even minor. It follows on the heels of the two biggest films the Minnesotan brothers have helmed thus far—which happen to be two of the most different films the same two people could possibly make. First, 2007's austere Texan serial killer saga "No Country for Old Men" became their biggest critical hit since 1996's "Fargo," even surpassing that film in the eyes of many by clinching the Best Picture win at the Academy Awards. It topped so many critics' lists and dominated the Oscars so thoroughly (in addition to Best Picture it also took Best Director, Adapted Screenplay and a Supporting Actor trophy for Javier Bardem and his terrifying haircut), that for some the parade of praise became a little boring, and though 'No Country' has endured my repeated viewings and intensive scrutiny, its slavish perfection can also be a bit distancing, and its frigid efficiency is easier to admire than to love. While the brothers' "Fargo" has the jovial Frances McDormand to provide some relief from the nihilism, the morally-steadfast but far more stoical Tommy Lee Jones can't quite do the same for 'No Country.' And in a banner year for American films, more messy, ambitious works like Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," and even David Fincher's "Zodiac," remain, to me at least, slightly preferable.

Then the Coens turned the expressiveness dial far in the opposite direction for their looney, cartoon follow-up, last year's "Burn After Reading," a farcical FBI romp that stacks the deck with characters just as removed from our own emotional plane as those in 'No Country,' but ones who are also frequently unpleasant and only sporadically funny. The star-studded ensemble cast—which includes two of the three "Ocean's 11" remake headliners—ensured the film a hefty box office intake, but I think most were surprised and even disheartened to see it become the brothers' highest grossing film to date. (Not to mention disappointed by the fact that because of this, and for a long time to come, 'Burn's' title will sit alongside 'No Country's' and the words "from the makers of" on all promotional material for upcoming Coen films.) Few will deny that the brothers' comedies are more divisive than their dramas. Their special brand of hyperactive humor can jive with the project they apply it to ("O Brother, Where Art Thou?"), or the resulting film could be reasonably compared to a Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn romp on crack cocaine ("Intolerable Cruelty"). 'Burn' unfortunately registers as closer to the latter extreme than the former, and on repeated viewings it only seems more bombastic and tiresome.

Now, "A Serious Man," a film I've already seen twice and one my opinion of hasn't changed. It's not an adaptation of a major literary work by a respected American novelist and it's not a flashy, over-the-top star showcase. Its actors are largely unknown to big screen audiences, with lead Michael Stuhlbarg more recognizable for his work in the theater, and many of the supporting players either making their professional acting debut or primarily known for bit parts on various television shows—and yet all are uniformly excellent. The Coens are working from one of their original screenplays, and though that didn't serve them very well with "Burn After Reading," the material they've written here is decidedly more personal. The story is set in 1967 and involves a Jewish family living in a Minnesota suburb—around the same time of the Coens own Jewish, Minneapolis upbringing. It centers on Larry Gopnick (Stuhlbarg), a devoted family man and professor of physics at a local university, who seems contended enough until he suddenly finds himself beset with "tsuris," a litany of troubles that test his faith and his general resolve as a serious man.

This particular series of unfortunate events begins when Larry fails to notice a slyly placed envelope of bribe money from his frazzled Korean student (David King) after refusing to alter his pupil's failing grade. The inadvertent transaction serves as the catalyst of Larry's misfortunes—whether that be coincidence or fate is entirely up to you to decide—and when he returns home that evening, he's confronted by his wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), who suggests they get a divorce. Soon, more bad news: Larry learns someone's been sending dissuasive letters to the school board, urging them not to grant his tenure; Judith informs him of her intention to remarry family friend and widower Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed); Larry gets angry phone calls requesting payment for a monthly record club he didn't join; his young son (Aaron Wolf) almost botches his Bar Mitzvah by smoking pot beforehand; and his brother (Richard Kind) finds himself in trouble with the police for unlawful gambling. Angry and increasingly inquisitive over the meaning of his existence, Larry seeks council from a hierarchy of three rabbis (young, old, and the heavily guarded, ancient Rabbi Marshak), in the process becoming mired in legalities and overwhelmed by guileless lawyers.

The Coens have faced almost as many accusations of misanthropy as Lars von Trier for putting their characters through the ringer, but detractors should put away the knives this time around—"A Serious Man" is different in a crucial way. There's something of a realization that at least I had watching the film, when your sympathies for earnest, answer-seeking Larry shift, and you begin to understand the perspective of the rabbis, who urge him, basically, not to ask so many questions. "Receive everything with simplicity that happens to you," the film's seemingly aloof opening mantra reads, but if your experience watching "A Serious Man" is anything like mine, that advice takes on a quietly powerful resonance, as it's put into action in at least two crucial scenes.

The first is the film's bizarre, entirely in Yiddish, opening anecdote, a prologue set in a European shtetl as geographically removed from the film's main action as it is temporally. Thematically, however, there's correlation: A Bear of a man arrives home to his frumpy wife and regales her with a story about meeting their elderly neighbor on the road and inviting him for supper. When he tells his thus-far-disinterested wife the man's name, she turns sheet-white and explains that the man her husband speaks of has been dead for three years. Soon, a knock on the door announces the arrival of their guest, who the wife promptly deems a "dybbuk"—which Wikipedia defines as "a malicious possessing spirit, believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person." The segment ends with one of the Coens' characteristically abrupt acts of violence, as the wife plunges an ice pick into her guest's chest, to which he responds by chuckling warmly and wandering off into the thick of a snowstorm. ("A man knows when he's not welcome," he concludes.) The Coens neither confirm that this visitor was indeed a dybbuk, as the wife seemed so certain he was, nor do they suggest that the woman has committed a grave error and killed an innocent man. The unspoken punch line: Who cares? And it's that exact line that we hear later from the Rabbi Nachtner (George Wyner), in response to Larry's inquiry about the outcome of his equally bizarre story—involving hebrew text found inscribed on the back of a goy's teeth.

What works extraordinarily well in this deftly plotted and impeccably paced film is the Coens' fusion of their considerable comedic and dramatic powers, maybe the most satisfying blend of the two they've yet concocted. The dialogue takes on an almost rhythmic poetry—no other filmmakers could use the line, "He's a fucker," to establish the tempo of a scene—as suggested in the brilliant trailer's comical repetitions. For maybe the first time, the Coens manage to duck both the oppressive seriousness of 'No Country' and their noir "The Man Who Wasn't There," while also avoiding the dreaded Coen-screwball impulse, which has manifested itself in films as disparate and equally unsuccessful as the aforementioned "Burn After Reading," the misfire rom-rom "Intolerable Cruelty," and the somewhat appropriately screwball, but no less disastrous, "The Hudsucker Proxy." On the contrary, "A Serious Man" is understated without being drab, and it's smart-funny without being intellectually distancing—as I often find, say, Charlie Kaufman screenplays. It's a relatively simple, straightforward parable, but the philosophical implications are as rich as those some read into 'No Country.' Personally, I read "A Serious Man" as the Coens' attempt to navigate the tricky contradictions of a Jewish man's devout spirituality and need to comprehend things on a logical, tangible level.

But the Coens are storytellers, not philosophers, and though their films grapple with some big ideas, they'll probably be the first to tell you, 'Don't look to us for the answers.' The ending of "Burning After Reading" anti-climaxes with the line, "What did we learn?" The ending of 'No Country' finds its thoughtful sherif resigned if not defeated by the horrors he's seen. And the end of "A Serious Man," well, it's even more open ended than any of their previous conclusions (and, side note, its impending maelstrom establishes a weird similarity with Robert Altman’s underrated “Dr. T. & the Women”). But even if one of my favorite endings this year doesn’t work for you, there’s so much else in “A Serious Man” that should, from Stuhlbarg’s kite-in-the-wind performance to the canny use of Jefferson Airplane songs, and the big pay-off they provide. If you find your head filled with even more questions by the end of the film than you had at the start, that’s kind of the point. Just remember what the dormouse said.

Film Review: Antichrist [B-]

Film / Review

Antichrist [InRO]
Director: Lars von Trier
Year: 2009

"Antichrist" is an exorcism of the foulness and unmitigated hatred stewing inside notorious provocateur Lars von Trier. Its production follows a crippling depression which stifled the Danish master's output for two years, following completion of what could be described as his only conventional film, 2006's office comedy "The Boss of it All." This new work finds von Trier coming out the other side of the woods and leading us in: "Antichrist" is set in the heart of a spooky forest ironically referred to as "Eden." The film's proverbial Adam and Eve (the cast lists them as "He" and "She") are played by the willowy Charlotte Gainsbourg and previous von Trier collaborator (in 2005's "Manderlay") Willem Dafoe. The couple recently lost their only son (a tragedy depicted while they have uninhibited sex in the film's heavily-stylized black and white prologue), and the wife has been stricken with inconsolable grief. Her husband (also her therapist, who arrogantly decides to treat her) attempts to console and rehabilitate his spouse, repelling her sexual advances and embracing her firmly each time she awakes from vivid nightmares. But after the doc's usual tricks prove largely ineffective (he instructs, "make a list of what scares you," and, "exhale on the count of five," but the woman's violent episodes persist), it's decided that the couple must pursue a more severe approach and face these terrors head-on. He leads his wilting wife to a cabin in the woods—into the forest of Eden, the place She claims she fears more than any other.

Unsurprisingly, what the couple find in their foliage-ensconced retreat is nothing less than hell on Earth; a fiercely primal series of brutal acts which She inflicts upon Him in some kind of possessed fury and misguided vengeance. Lars isn't fooling around: within the first five minutes, brief penetration is shown on screen (goodbye R-rating), and later on, one character is forced to ejaculate blood and another takes a pair of shears to their genitals (hello NC-17). All this ultra-violence is given some context through Gainsbourg's pained whisper of a warning: "Nature is Satan's church." Sentiments like these are more than appropriate considering that von Trier has dedicated "Antichrist" to Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky, whose films were often heavily influenced by their natural environments. Acts of carnality and physical abuse are suggested to be provoked by the influence of Eden's foreboding landscape, which complements the film's primal urgency (especially in regard to the un-sexy and desperate sexual encounters, of which there are many). It's frustrating than that von Trier introduces a more academic motive for the wife's horrific behaviors: we learn that She was working on her Masters Thesis, regarding the mistreatment of 18th century woman, which suggests that all this mayhem may be the result of some kind of demonic possession (and/or just some good ol' misogynistic statement on Lars’ part).

And then there's the Three Beggars, a trio of recurring woodland creatures (a deer, a fox and a crow) who pop up in horrific succession during the film. Their implication here is riotous: a fox actually talks at one point (the only point; "Chaos reigns!" he groans, covered in blood from eating himself alive), which understandably has been met with ample parodying. This is a consistent failing of "Antichrist": the more serious and provocative moments are too ridiculous to be taken as such, and thus often come off as comical, and we have to assume that's not what von Trier was aiming for (though who knows with this guy). Yet however dubious the usually on-point von Trier's symbolic implications may be in this equally dubious return to the horror genre (isn't he past this phase of his career?), his craft is still undeniably accomplished. Both the opening and closing sequences of "Antichrist" have an elevating quality to them that could easily excuse whatever comes between, but von Trier further stuns with his impressionistic therapy sessions, which find the husband instructing the wife to visit the forest in her mind and let it absorb her body—a sort of catharsis before the storm. And when a tempest of brutal, unrelenting violence does hit (like a brick to the dick, literally) its depiction is just as arresting as the more tame sequences. It's a nasty bit of business for sure, frankly depicted without an ounce of irony, and sure to be the cause of many a sleepless night and heated debates between cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike. But the fact is, this is moving cinema; whether you're moved to love it, moved to hate it, or it just churns your stomach with wretched bile, "Antichrist" will undoubtedly inspire a passionate reaction. So even if Lars von Trier isn't the "best film director in the world," as he so boldly and, I would assume, tongue-in-cheekily proclaimed at his Cannes press conference, he's still unquestionably the boss of it all—a unique artistic force who plays by his own rules and answers to no one.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Film Review: 35 Shots of Rum [A]

Film / Review

35 Shots of Rum [InRO]
Director: Claire Denis
Year: 2009

The work of Parisian auteur Claire Denis has been cause célébre for many film critics over the last two decades. Her adoring supporters do backflips with the arrival of each one of her films, while detractors bemoan her frequent tendency to favor oblique narratives and veiled expressions (read: emotional and thematic complexity). Now, Denis is 61 years old, and with each new film she gravitates away from the "provocateur" tag slung at her years ago, a label which never really fit her in the first place. Of her nine films thus far, only one (the bloody, vampire-erotica cautionary tale "Trouble Every Day") could really offend anyone, and it's also her worst film: a mixed attempt at moody euro-horror, though one that deserves more than the angry decries of exploitation its been charged with. It explores some certifiably provocative ideas (the thin line between sex and violence) and features an orchestral-jazz score by Tindersticks' Stuart Staples, as well as the sumptuous, rosy lensing of Denis' trusted cinematographer, Agnes Godard. The auteur calls on both names again to add mood and texture to her new film, the delicate family drama "35 Shots of Rum." And to hopefully no one's surprise, one of modern cinema's great trifectas doesn't disappoint, augmenting what might be Denis' most mature and measured work with their own brand of movie-magic.

It's obvious from the opening scene that this is the work of a uniquely great filmmaker: trains rush past each other, down deserted tracks and through tunnels. A man (Alex Descas, visibly older than he was in "Trouble Every Day") looks on in earnest, finishing a cigarette and then sticking around as Staples' harmonic score hums about him. Evening turns to night in this quaint locale somewhere on the outskirts of Paris, and still the man – and Denis with him – lingers. It would be a credit sequence, if there were actually credits during it. It would be an establishing shot, if it did serve to establish a specific location (no Eiffel Tower in sight, so we could really be anywhere). Instead, a sequence like this is meant as a mood-setter, indicating the tone of "35 Shots of Rum" as being calm and a little melancholy. In Denis' 2005 epic "The Intruder," a similar, wordless passage at the beginning served to create a sense of confusion, unrest and mystique; in 2003's liberating sexual reverie "Friday Night," the first shots of a city-wide traffic jam echo the protagonist's sense of claustrophobia. Each Denis film is a very different animal, but it’s sequences of Pure Cinema like these that get at why none could be made by any other filmmaker.

The term "pure cinema" has always been a bit hard to pin down, but applying it to Denis' films I think complements her incredible sense of emotional clarity through complete aesthetic control. "The Intruder," for instance, is all heady existentialism and abstract collage, but Denis grounds the film with identifiable images and associations that give a distinct sense as to where her head's at. In this way, "35 Shots of Rum" may be her purest film yet. Most of Denis' work tends to straddle the line between narrative obligation and artistic indulgence – certainly the case with "Trouble Every Day," its impeccable rhythms frayed by a sometimes clunky plot – and though she rarely fails to find that compromise, not since her career-defining masterwork "Beau Travail" has she gotten it all so right: she lingers on a face or figure only as long as she has to; she cuts just when it feels necessary for her to do so; and, excluding the handheld takes, she moves her camera ever so slightly, and always with purpose. Denis is truly at the height of her powers, and '35 Shots,' coming nine years after "Beau Travail," completes a decade in her career that I can only assume will be looked at in retrospect as her absolute artistic peak. And as the films which mark the beginning and end of that period, these two could hardly be anymore different.

"Beau Travail" finds Denis liberally adapting Herman Melville's "Billy Budd." She relocates the story of jealousy and mistrust to a French Legionnaire camp in Djibouti, and in the film's long, imposing takes of the soldiers synchronized exercise routines – their bodies caked in the dry dirt of a parched African landscape – Denis unearths the homoerotic undertones of her source text. Simultaneously, she renders the muscular male form with austere authority, a kind not seen since Michelangelo put chisel to stone. In contrast, "35 Shots of Rum" is a film of a much quieter strength, as Denis chooses understatement over broad gestures, and winds up with the most affecting film she's ever made. Yet it's the spectrum covered by the two that's most impressive, blanketing everything Denis has done in the interim: fetishization of skin ("Trouble Every Day"); dreamlike mirages ("The Intruder"); intoxicating sexual and romantic longing ("Friday Night"). Her cinema has always been about the senses, so it's not surprising that "35 Shots of Rum," the auteur's culminating work of the decade, is a masterpiece of sensory cinema.

Descas plays Lionel, a train operator living in a modest Parisian apartment with his shy, virginal daughter, Jo (Mati Diop). Lionel begins to worry he may have sheltered his daughter too much as she, already in college, seems unwilling to strike out on her own. But when he urges her to "just feel free," he later has difficulty accepting that freedom as she tries to exercise it. It's a relationship as real and unsentimental as any depicted on the screen, and recalls the father-daughter bond of Yasujiro Ozu's classic "Late Spring," if only because "35 Shots of Rum" is in fact meant as an homage to the Japanese master. Which is fitting since Denis, like Ozu, is intent on taking her time, letting the scenes between Lionel and Jo play out with graceful precision; she pays extra attention to the way one's hand strokes the other's, and gives a charge of empathy to a father's long gaze at his daughter. And if you're wired right, in Denis' unhurried rhythms you'll find a reflection of life effortlessly captured, a mastery exemplified in the extended centerpiece at the heart of "35 Shots of Rum."

The occasion of a concert brings together Lionel, Jo, Tall French and Oily neighbor Noé (Grégoire Colin, the hypnotic center of "Beau Travail"), and their landlord Gabby (Nicole Dogue). Noé's advances toward Jo have been received with trepidation thus far, and Gabby's heart-on-her-sleeve affections for Lionel, whose also her old fame, have faired just as poorly, but their night together will bring all these emotions to a boil. It starts when the car breaks down on the way to the concert in the middle of a torrential rain. Through the window they spy the vibrant red curtain of a small café, almost magically suggesting a warm paradise away from the misfortunes of their night. Inside, a radiant hostess offers them towels to dry their bodies, which glisten in the café's hot yellow light. "Siboney" creeps through the jukebox as Lionel dances playfully with Gabby, and then affectionately with his daughter. Lionel eyes the beautiful hostess and she notices him back. Then, just as The Commodores' soulful and seductive "Night Shift" wafts in, the whole mood of the room changes. Noé cuts in on Lionel to dance with Jo and the two kiss. Lionel looks on disapprovingly, then takes the hand of the hostess and they dance together slowly. Gabby, from her seat at the bar, looks crushed. But if it sounds like a melancholy scene, it isn't; there's too much love in this room for bad vibes to drag it down, and as a lyric from the indelible "Night Shift confirms, "It's gonna be alright."

A stretch toward the end of "35 Shots of Rum" is almost as good. Jo drives to Germany with her father to visit her mother's grave, and a flow of naturally beautiful images passes across the screen: Jo and Lionel adorn the grave with flowers; they camp out under the stars in a patch of tall grass, as Jo suggests, "We could live like this forever"; and finally, a parade of children with glowing red lanterns march over a hill set against a sunset-orange sky. The film heads back to Paris for its equally stunning coda, and it all ends on a note of uncertainty about the future, as any film which hopes to capture real life probably should. Where Denis chooses to take her career from here feels just as uncertain; '35 Shots' seems like the end of an era for the auteur. Her prior films found characters unable to directly express how they feel, hindered by race or class distinction, stubbornness, jealousy, or an unfortunate disorder (the sexual-desire-cum-violent-impulse of "Trouble Every Day"). "35 Shots of Rum" then feels like the point at which her characters stop groping around for the right gesture – at least comparatively – and find a way to express how they feel. And since Denis has spent more than two decades studying and parsing that obscure object of desire, a little openness is something she’s thoroughly earned.

Film Review: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind [B+]

Film / Review

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind [InRO]
Director: Hayao Miyazaki
Year: 1984
Part of: Hayao Miyazaki: The Art of Optimism

On some level, it's personally satisfying for me to review one of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's films. I rarely discuss it anymore, but there was a time when I was something of an "anime" enthusiast, drawn to the challenging visual and thematic territory the medium often explores. This led to my appreciation of cinema on an aesthetic level, and years spent watching anime the way it was intended to be watched – in Japanese, with english subtitles – made crossing over and exploring the depths of foreign language cinema that much more of a natural extension. Before all that, however, I consumed more than I would like to admit. Some of it in retrospect is particularly embarrassing, while a few series I still remember fondly (taking in all 26-or-so episodes of "Cowboy Bebop" and "Neon Genesis Evangelion" had to be more stimulating than half of what played in local theaters). Of course, that time in my life is behind me at this point, and aside from sporadic viewings with friends who still harbor love for the stuff, I usually find it hard to appreciate the medium as I once did. Still, there are some names whose work hasn't lost any of its cache with me. Satoshi Kon is one, his "Millennium Actress" being arguably the pinnacle of animation this decade, along with Studio Ghibli auteurs Isao Takahata (director of the 1988 masterpiece "Grave of the Flies") and Hayao Miyazaki. Of that group, Miyazaki is king; he's pumped out far more films than the notoriously slow Takahata, and has amassed a good deal more work than Kon as well. He's given us at least one incontestable classic (2002's career-summing "Spirited Away") and only a single misfire (2005's "Howl's Moving Castle," which he did not write). Even Pixar, that other standard-setting studio of animation excellence, acknowledges Miyazaki's supremacy, as even their impressive canon (specifically 2007's screwball Marx Brothers riff "Ratatouille" and the twin 'Toy Story' films of the 90s) can't match that of the master.

So it's with some disappointment that revisiting Miyazaki's second feature, 1984's "Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind," seemed to yield diminishing returns. This was the first (unofficial) production of Studio Ghibli, the first film to unite Miyazaki with Takahata (here serving as producer) and the first to time the director worked with his indispensable music collaborator Joe Hisaishi. Still, watching the film for the first time in many years, there's little doubt that 'Nausicaä' represents Miyazaki's aesthetic in chrysalis. The filmmaker embeds the same environmentally-concious themes which have earned him legions of ardent fans, and exercises his already impeccable animation chops and impressive attention to detail. But it's hard not to recognize the conflict between the ever-expanding forest (here dubbed "The Sea of Decay") and the people living at its fringes and not think of the far more robust treatment a similar plot received in Miyazaki's 1998 feudal epic "Princess Mononoke." Just as it's hard to not see the titular Nausicaä, a strong-willed girl with a powerful hold over nature, as similar to a half dozen other Miyazaki protagonists, each progressively more complex and memorable, leading up to his perfecting of the character with Chihiro in "Spirited Away." The same could be said in regard to Miyazaki's always meticulous craft, here applied to every roughly drawn line characterizing his legion of insect creatures, but later animating his human characters and lending them seemingly insignificant but cumulatively meaningful behavioral traits, which in part make Chihiro such a fully realized character.

At the start of his film, Miyazaki quickly establishes narrative context through on-screen writing, which explains the setting as being "100 years after the collapse of industrial civilization." To me, this has always been a novel idea – envisioning a future that's actually less advanced technologically than our own present – and it can be seen as one of many sign posts throughout Miyazaki's body of work pointing to his fear of modernization. He follows this move with an even more potent storytelling technique, presenting a collage of cave drawings for the camera to pan over slowly, accompanied by Hisaishi's symphonic and resonant score, which loses none of its grandeur despite twinges of dated 80s cheese. This could be considered a form of that age-old cinematic device known as "doubling." Miyazaki presents us with information in one way, and then another, using a different medium. The effect is not one of redundancy, but of immersion; during the opening credit sequence we already feel like a part of this world Miyazaki has created, and understand it to be a variation on our own. All this confirms the man's faith in the capacity for pictures – drawings – to tell a story without words, and his faith in his younger viewers' ability to comprehend that story. Miyazaki has never talked down to children in his films, and that's always been one of his greatest strengths, as well as an attribute few if any filmmakers share.

The film proper begins with a peaceful image of clouds drifting through a clear blue sky. Nausicaä comes sailing through on her jet-powered, one-person glider, and Miyazaki tracks her until she lands gracefully on the ground, confronting a dense, Dr. Seuss-esque jungle of purple plumed palms. Nausicaä unsheathes a rifle from the wing of her glider and presses on. It's clear immediately that this is not a Disney princess or any damsel in distress – Nausicaä, like Miyazaki himself, is an adventurer, and the filmmaker wants you to be aware of this from the first frame. He furthers this female empowerment by setting up a situation in which Nausicaä rescues a drifter from a giant bug/crustacean crossbreed. She swoops in and stuns the attacker, using a special whistle to lull it out of its rage – noticeable by glowing red eyes that fade to blue – and driving it into the jungle from whence it came. The creature is later revealed to be one of the planet's most feared: an "Ohmu," guardians of the Sea of Decay, said to stampede the cities of those who attempt to destroy their territory. This becomes central to the film's plot, as the man Nausicaä saved turns out to be the girl's old friend and teacher Lord Yupa, who brings news to Nausicaä's village, the titular Valley of the Wind, that the pervasiveness of the Sea of Decay has led to the destruction of whole kingdoms at an increasingly rapid rate.

The Valley of the Wind is one of few bastions of peace and prosperity left in a world plagued by war and pollution. The deadly spores which populate the Sea of Decay emit a toxicity that makes the land inhospitable, and as it spreads, the human race's extinction becomes all the more imminent. In the Valley, the people live modest, earthy lives. They're ruled by a bed-ridden king, Nausicaä's father, and their robes and castles instantly recall medieval-era Europe, but as is so often the case with these too-good-to-be-true utopias, tranquility is fleeting. When a neighboring empire's advanced airship crashes into the rocks outside the village, it brings with it burdens previously unfamiliar to Nausicaä and her countrymen. Yupa, however, being a nomad on a never ending quest to discover the secret truths of our world, is all too aware what this accident means, and is able to identify the disturbing cargo the crashed ship carries – as well as its apocalyptic implications. He knows that Nausicaä, who possesses both a mysterious gift which allows her to communicate with nature and, as a princess, the power to unite a people, is humanity's last hope for survival, and likely "the one" he's been looking for to fulfill a certain prophecy.

Admittedly, 'Nausicaä's' plot is its least interesting aspect; largely because the friction between various human tribes is more complex, and the encroaching presence of nature more richly employed both thematically and visually in "Princess Mononoke," which also features a warrior princess as the determining factor in humanity's future. But 'Nausicaä' is more interesting when considered in the context of that later work, and it should not be looked upon as a first draft but as a more idealistic film from a younger filmmaker. In "Princess Mononoke," all the characters look older and more battle-worn. The violence is unsparing, more pronounced than in any other Miyazaki film. The tone is darker, and compared to the pastel shades of 'Nausicaä,' so are the colors. The warrior princess is fierce and animalistic in 'Mononoke,' possessing none of the personable qualities of Nausicaä and certainly not the latter's altruism. It's not altogether unfounded to assume that Miyazaki was, at the time of 'Mononoke's' production, less optimistic about the future of our planet than he was when he made 'Nausicaä.' And comparing the two films yields much of interest: Whereas 'Nausicaä's conclusion is largely one of peaceful compromise brought about by an individual's martyrdom, 'Mononoke' ends on a note of uncertainty, with the push-pull dynamic of nature and humanity's coexistence sure to be tested again. Likewise Miyazaki is less idealistic about the romance in 'Mononoke,' a different-sides-of-the-tracks relationship met with resistance on both sides. In 'Nausicaä,' the bond the protagonist shares with a gunship pilot from another country seems almost an afterthought, and their union comes with no sacrifice.

But somehow all this is OK; there's enough of Miyazaki's unmatched and boundless imagination on display in both the rendering of colorful creatures and expansive landscapes, as well as the carefully designed airships and vehicles which bear the filmmaker's distinctive mark. Miyazaki emerged out of the gate a great animator, and as early as in this film and even in his debut, 1979's 'Lupin III' installment "The Castle of Cagliostro," he's displayed a gift for visual invention matched only in the live action medium by perhaps Guillermo Del Toro. There may be no scene here quite as jaw-dropping and memorable as the sight of the Forest God's celestial patterned body decaying all over the land in "Princess Mononoke," or that of "Spirited Away's" gluttonous No Face digesting all manner of food and frogs, but 'Nausicaä's' most striking moment, in which a "Giant Warrior" fights to obey his human master's command as he decomposes on a hillside (due to the folly of said human's impatience), is nearly as meticulously drawn (by, of all people, 'Evangelion' creator Hideaki Ano) as anything Miyazaki's overseen, and coneys the same quintessential Miyazaki ideal. Neither nature nor humanity is infallible. Each relies on the other and hopes for a state of symbiosis not easily achieved. More than anything though, you have to appreciate Miyazaki's unwavering commitment to this specific project; it's based on a manga book series which he wrote and drew, serialized over the course of 13 years; and only the first quarter was finished by the time of the film's production. Every Miyazaki film feels like a labor of love, but perhaps none more than 'Nausicaä,' which in effect breathed life into Studio Ghibli and brought significant awareness to the career of one of today's most valued cinematic artists.

Festival Coverage: Toronto '09

This is my third year (Luke’s second) attending the Toronto International Film Festival, and though the other majors have various things going for them (the overwhelming prestige of Cannes, Tribeca’s...well, I’m sure it’s got something), to me Toronto is the big one, and the one I always look forward to the most. Once you get your tickets (and make it past the “lottery” stage which thoroughly screwed over Luke this year, as any gambling proposition can) and make all the necessary reservations (flight expenses were way down this year, so cheers to that), navigating the festival is relatively easy, and its organization certainly impresses me more than *sigh* that of Tribeca.

More importantly, Toronto almost always has a great lineup: Cannes may trot out enough high-profile names each year to make the paparazzi say grazie, but Toronto grabs only the best from that group, and adds to their schedule a host of films not completed at the time Cannes entries are due. To me, the most exciting name on that list this year is Claire Denis, whose latest film has had Venice-bound journalists like Guy Lodge calling it a “masterpiece.” Not necessarily a surprise since Denis already has one of those and two that are close enough. This will be the French auteur’s second film at the festival in as many years, a distinction she shares with (among others) Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, whose odd-sounding Cannes carryover “Air Doll” premiered on the Croisette less than 12 months after his “Still Walking” had its premiere in Toronto.

Then there’s the bigger, awards-baiting stuff which will certainly get the lion's share of blog coverage; this year that includes Jason Reitman's latest, slick-talking seriocomic George Clooney vehicle "Up in the Air" (already getting raves out of Telluride, so probably not one to sneeze at), more Clooney action in "The Men Who Stare At Goats," and that poor, unfortunate and much delayed Harvey Weinstein acquisition "The Road," which hasn't faired as well with critics in Venice as Weinstein probably hoped it would. Speaking of Cormac McCarthy adaptations, the Coen Brothers have a new film in Toronto too, which is perhaps a bit more anticipated than “Burn After Reading” was this time last year. However, both Luke and I are missing that one because a.) it opens not too long after we get back, and we like to see things that don't; and b.) Toronto denied us a ticket (damn lottery), as they did to the latest Pedro Almodóvar as well, which I'm destined to miss just as I did in Cannes.

Obviously there are more Oscar hopefuls, some less hopeful than others I would assume, and some so far under-the-radar (comparatively) that it will take an audience award and we-are-the-world schmaltz to propel them to a Best Picture victory. Y'know, like that Bollywood movie that wasn't a Bollywood movie. In any case, there's no denying the bearing Toronto has on the awards race, so if you happen to be interested in that kind of thing, prick up your ears and read along. [InRO]

FIlm Review: District 9 [D+]

Film / Review

District 9 [InRO]
Director: Neil Blomkamp
Year: 2009

The summer movie blockbuster with half a brain, or the one that suggests its audience actually has one, is often revered like the one-eyed man in the valley of the blind. Especially by critics. The latest "Star Trek" reboot is a good example of this, as a film that doesn't do much of anything new – in fact it cops a good portion of its plot from the first two original "Star Wars" movies – but one that supplies audiences with the standard summer-movie thrills minus the typical deadening thud of stupidity we critics would look bad championing. I'm never explicitly on the lookout for "that film" – the one blockbuster to laud for its comparative superiority – I just look at summer as my least favorite time at the movies, as I'm part of an increasingly small minority who don't get overly excited about the meal-sized serving of superhero pictures trotted out by the studios week after week for a three month period. Generally speaking, the special-effects-heavy popcorn sequels (and prequels and reboots) don't give me the charge they do so many other people. There are, of course, exceptions. Some films, like those of "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, muster a genuine grandiosity that's hard to ignore, while others manage to straddle the line separating escapist and intelligent filmmaking in surprisingly successful ways.

But for every surprise, like Tony Scott's "Vertigo" riff "Deja Vu" and the Watchowski brothers' spirited "Speed Racer" adaptation, there are countless productions that serve as mere fuel for the action junkie, bereft of both style and substance, and when those two things are lacking, it's hard for me to care. You can call me pretentious, but I think in order for me to fit that description I would have to be more dismissive towards others' enjoyment of this fare. "Star Trek" and "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra" may not be tailor-made to my specific interests, but I don't necessarily consider either to be a bad film. Just as I certainly wouldn't suggest I'm some how superior to the numerous action fans out there who do get a rush from these movies. That would be pretentious. There has to be something far worse than a lack of imagination in a film for me to really get out the red pen. And this is where "District 9" comes into the conversation.

Neill Blomkamp's high-concept sci-fi is a film I'm not as apathetic towards. It aims to be the summer's one-eyed man; a film of supposed intelligence to the weary film critics, who've been bruised and beaten by the 'Transformers' and 'Terminators' of the cineplex all summer long. However, "District 9" amounts to little more than a messy hodgepodge of contradictory ideologies, genre cliches and inconsistent style. The director obviously has ambition, as evidenced in his film's initial premise, and this premise does, admittedly, intrigue: Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson (a long way away from the elves and hobbits of his 'Lord of the Rings' series) imagine an alternate history defined by an event that took place in 1981 involving an alien mothership that broke down above the city of Johannesburg. For reasons left comically unexplained, the ship just floats there in mid air, even after the alien race that resided inside (bug-like humanoids we dub "Prawns") are extracted. Enter the titular District 9, the zone the aliens are confined to which, several years into their stay, begins to look like a colorful slum akin to the Rio de Janeiro of Fernando Meirelles' "City of God." An apartheid soon follows, as the human citizens of Johannesburg call for the removal of these "foreigners."

All this information is presented to us in a film-within-a-film conceit, as a pseudo-documentary begins to take shape in the first 30 minutes, intercut with fake newsreel footage and incredibly unsubtle talking heads interviewed about the alien crisis. One of these subjects explains, "Now to everyone's surprise the ship didn't come to a stop over Manhattan or Washington or Chicago, but instead coasted to a halt directly over the city of Johannesburg," and with this statement Blomkamp heavy handedly announces the correlation between "District 9" and vaguely similar events that took place in Cape Town during the 1970s, when an apartheid regime forced 60,000 residents to relocate to "District Six." Likewise, in Blomkamp's film the Prawns are ordered by the government to pick up and move to a new area, later revealed to be little more than a glorified concentration camp, and at least at first we're led to believe the film might center around this politically-charged event.

During this time, we're introduced to pencil pusher Wilkus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley), our unwitting "hero," who's assigned by his company, Multi-National United (MNU), to single-handedly take on the task of serving the Prawns their "eviction" notices. Seriously. And if any Prawn refuses to sign the paperwork? Wilkus is backed by a battalion of soldiers with heavy artillery to help be persuasive. It's around this point that Blomkamp abandons the documentary film-within-a-film approach of his first act in favor of shaky handheld camerawork, and employs a more narrative driven approach revolving around Wilkus. Blomkamp's new visual aesthetic suggests a first-person perspective realism, but this contradicts the film's soon established scope – there are plenty of scenes that could not possibly be witnessed by a documenter, most notably those involving the aliens, alone in their homes – and nothing here resembles reality.

Wilkus, while performing his task as delivery boy, investigates one Prawn's home, and makes a discovery that changes both the trajectory of "District 9's" plot and the stability of our protagonist's otherwise average life. For those poor souls that still want to go see this thing, I won't spoil what happens; instead, I'll just make it clear that this particular development shifts the film thematically, steering it away from its vague promise as a social commentary toward a more traditional and largely derivative action movie framework. Its director does, however, stay committed to sci-fi tropes, referencing a half dozen of the genre's true classics ("The Fly," primarily, and there's a nod to "E.T." as well), but never managing to carve out a unique identity of his own. Those claiming "District 9" to be a classic itself are either just desperate for a work of quality from this genre or they're missing the insulting and conflicting nature of the values presented here. Blomkamp feeds us a finger-wagging do-un-to-others lecture and then hopes we eat up his on-screen violence just thirty minutes later. In trying to present both a critique of the injustice with which we treat those different from us (the proverbial "other"), and at the same time trying to satisfy the frothing bloodlust of American audiences with nihilistic brutality meant as entertainment, Blomkamp discredits his film under the banners of both intelligent cinema and escapist popcorn fluff.

"District 9" is more manipulative in its construction than almost any film this year, aiming for liberal sympathy with force in its opening, then catering to the gore hounds for the majority of its runtime with sickening gratuity, and finally working hard to pull the heart-strings with a ludicrous development of inter-species camaraderie in the third act, a relationship that feels not only entirely unearned, but explicit in its bid to overshadow the aforementioned nihilism of the picture. By measure of critical and audience approval, this tact worked. But let's say I give Blomkamp the benefit of the doubt and just assume his vision is muddled, not calculated; he still crafts scenes that display flagrant indecency without purposeful commentary, and whether this was intended or not means little. It's particularly telling that in a movie all about racial acceptance this director stoops to creating ethnic caricatures. There's something of a subplot in "District 9" involving Nigerians bartering with the Prawns, trading cans of cat food (again, seriously) for advanced alien weaponry. And like so many depictions of Africa's people, the Nigerians here are rendered to be the equivalent of comic-book villains, grinning and evil practitioners of voodoo and other ooga-booga barbary, complete with eyes abulge. Like the recurring central villain of the film – a tough-talking military general who kills for fun – the natives are cartoonishly one-dimensional, another sign of Blomkamp's inept perception of social commentary.

Most distressing is the cruelty with which Blomkamp treats his protagonist, subjecting him to a series of sadistic psychological tortures. Wilkus is experimented on by government scientists who don't even bother to give him a sedative as they talk casually about selling his body parts to different countries; and to further the shock and exploitation, the sequence is shot largely with close-ups of Wilkus' terrified face, in effort to absorb every moment of horror in much the same way Eli Roth and James Wa choose to shoot their torture victims in the equally vile installments of the "Hostel" and "Saw" franchises, (ir)respectively.

The employment of the close-up here should be seen as an aesthetic crutch, excusing Blomkamp from the hassle of composing a scene in any sort of artful way. This approach isn't new; the 'shaky-cam' style saw application in mainstream cinema as early as 1999, in Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's landmark pseudo-found-footage film “The Blair Witch Project,” and was used to great effect in last year's similar and very underrated J.J. Abrams produced monster movie “Cloverfield,” directed by Matt Reeves. The difference is that many filmmakers, including Abrams and Reeves and also John Erick Dowdle with his horror remake "Quarantine," commit to their style, limiting the scope of their films in effort to experience the story from the perspective of an individual. It's a gimmick, sure, but its application can create a visceral and unique experience that validates the relative disregard for traditional cinematic form. Every woozy sway and skewed angle in "Cloverfield" serves to create tension, the filmmakers' jerky movement acting as a form of choreography and in effect substituting for traditional composition. In contrast, Blomkamp neither commits to his stylistic device nor uses it for any particular reason. His narrative is otherwise totally conventional, and the pacing of the film doesn't differ from the typical Hollywood formula.

"Cloverfield" is a good film to compare "District 9" to because it's just as analogous – though many people, bafflingly, don't seem to catch the meaning of Abrams and Reeves' film. It should be impossible for any American to watch "Cloverfield" (shot at the eye-level perspective of a man on the ground, through his digital video camera) and see people running terrified through the streets of New York City from an enveloping cloud of debris, without thinking of 9/11. We've all seen that footage, and the filmmakers (refreshingly) trusted their audience to detect the link between the chaos created in their film and that during the Twin Towers' collapse. Abrams and Reeves largely succeeded at capturing a sense of overwhelming panic. and more specifically, at constructing a disaster in which the overriding feeling is very familiar: NYC is being attacked by something it doesn't understand. The connection between "Cloverfield" and 9/11 is never explicitly announced within the film, but it's there for anyone with enough imagination to connect the dots between a monster attacking the city and people we've come to dub as "monsters" who attacked the same city. And it's both the perspective and chosen cinematic form in "Cloverfield" that make the film's connection between its fantasy and its historical context all the more prevalent. Blomkamp, on the other-hand, says nothing in "District 9" through the use of his hand-held camera, and instead chooses to communicate his ideology through that extended opening sequence; a collage of synthetic news footage which begins to seem like less the film's innovative strength and more its cross to bear: leaden exposition establishing a level of political and social relevance the film seems fully incapable of living up to, and eventually contradicts. And that's really "District 9's" big problem: it passes a hint of righteous ambition off as intelligent execution, and most of you seem to have bought it.