Monday, January 29, 2007

The 79th Annual Academy Awards: Monster House & Dreamgirls

One of three 'Best Animated Feature' nominations, Gil Kenan's Monster House is without question the underdog of the group (even with its citation by the mighty Florida Film Critics' Circle) in spite of its association with executive producers Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis. Never mind, Monster House is one of the better Hollywood features of 2006 -- animated or otherwise -- containing both assured classical direction from thirty year-old first-time director Kenan and one of the year's finest screenplays, authored by Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab and Pamela Pettler. Regarding the latter, Monster House sustains its admirable sense of humor throughout, generating a number of the funniest lines of 2006: my favorite has to be love interest Jenny to pubescent pals D.J. and Chowder, "are you two mentally challenged? If you are, I'm certified to teach you baseball." Others demonstrate expert delivery by the film's actors (for instance the exchange, "what's your problem?" "Puberty, and I'm having lots and lots of puberty"; or Kevin James' overweight officer, "I was in the forest wrestling with a bearclaw. I was eating a donut!") in additon to more generally off-beat humor -- Jared Hess' video game nerd opines "you make me wanna vomit in some tin foil and eat it," while a sign advertising a development exclaims "we drained the lake!"

At this point, it might be worth noting that Monster House utilizes motion capture technology (cf. Zemeckis' The Polar Express, 2004), where the animation is layered over live performances. Indeed, in moments such as D.J.'s attempt to step lightly as he crosses the "monster house," the benefits of the technology over traditional animation become clear -- we see the light pressure that the boy puts on the ball of his foot. Then again, Monster House, as its title should make obvious, very much trades on animation's ability to make the impossible possible, bringing to life the titular structure in a picture that might be best described as Mon Oncle meets The Goonies, with more than a touch of The Incredibles (2004) thrown in.

Of course, in Kenan's hands, Monster House is far more than high-concept 3D animation; Monster House is first rate Hollywood pop filmmaking, manifesting a highly creative manipulation of a classical point-of-view structure. Among other highlights, one of the most inventive examples is D.J.'s point-of-view as he is felled by Mr. Nebbercracker, who collapses as he is choking the boy. Likewise, Kenan's introduction of the house as a malevolent creature also represents a moment of acute directorial skill: the boy collapses on his bed in the left side of the frame, beside a window overlooking the house. Slowly, we see a black spectral sheet seep through the window before the room turns to crimson.

Monster House also includes moments of exceeding tension, many of which are quite frightening -- for instance, D.J. perilously swinging on a cable over the carnivorous house. Indeed, Monster House is not exactly a children's movie -- especially when one considers the sophisticated humor -- even as its presumed target audience (my guess boys around ten years of age give or take a year or two) might not be so quick to see animation of this sort. Nevertheless, Monster House deserves a wider audience than its relatively underwhelming $73 million box office tally indicates (fellow nominees Happy Feet and Cars have grossed two-and-a-half and three and-a-half times that number respectively). Whether a nomination will deliver greater popularity in home video -- particularly among adults -- remains to be seen.

In an entirely different strata of Oscar co-dependence, Bill Condon's Dreamgirls was anointed 2006's de facto 'best picture' well before critics, let alone audiences had the opportunity to see the director's adaptation of the 1981 musical. If pundits were basing their hopes on the earlier Broadway incarnation, they have not been disappointed, assuming of course that these analysts expected a film bearing the unmistakable texture of the early 1980s (call it Muppets Take Manhattan with a Motown twist). Remarkably, Condon has succeeded -- or failed ? -- in producing a film version that does nothing to modernize the story; had say Herbert Ross made the film on the heels of Footloose, I'm not so sure the end product would have been any different.

Obviously, Dreamgirls circa 1985 would not have included the startlingly beautiful Beyoncé Knowles and her occasional attempts at emoting or the Oprah-orgasmic performance of Jennifer Hudson (who remains the prohibitive favorite to walk away with an Oscar statuette next month) though perhaps Eddie Murphy could still have been cajoled. Nevertheless, what we have is a film that is fabulous for about the fifteen minutes of back-to-back-to-back musical numbers, before Condon's televisual handling of the material really becomes apparent. Ultimately, Dreamgirls was made for an Oscar telecast montage of high points, which the film's failure to secure a 'best picture' nomination has eliminated. In that format, Dreamgirls would have been tough to beat. As a feature-length film, less so.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Ivan's Childhood: For Beauty In The War Film

To introduce this year's Slate Movie Club, critic Dana Stevens felt the need to proclaim her dislike of the war film. That she would frame the argument in this fashion confirms the genre's centrality to current assessments of the state of cinema, and particularly its activist value. Indeed, in the present environment, anti-war films secure automatic vitality; they speak to us in recognizable slogans that most aficionados of "cinema" (as opposed to "movies" or heaven help us "flicks") readily endorse. War is hell. War wreaks devastation. War effects the poor, the weak, women, children and the elderly unduly.

Of course, with this rhetoric comes a visual imperative to show this hell, this devastation and this collateral impact. For contemporary combat films, Saving Private Ryan (1998) has become the template, satisfying the above through a style that mimics the photographic record of the Second World War, while offering a simulation of the visceral experience of war that makes extensive use of CGI. Saving Private Ryan and its followers are in short war films in the image of video games.

I am a fan of neither Saving Private Ryan nor of combat (or really any, save for golf) video games, so in this respect I would side with Ms. Stevens. Where I depart somewhat is in my appreciation of a second tradition in the war film genre, which I will admit is far from a major one: the war film as platform for transcendental or universal themes. Among films that belong to this sub-type, the major recent example is certainly Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line, the other great war film from 1998. (For my money, of course, The Thin Red Line is the only great war film of 1998, and indeed one of the finest American pictures of the decade.)

In a similar mode, I recently caught up with Andrei Tarkovsky's Ivan's Childhood (1962), which establishes, along with The Thin Red Line, the possibility of beauty in this ugliest of genres. While let me say now that there is a place for ugliness in the arts surely -- what would painting be without Grunewäld, Goya or Picasso's Guernica, after all -- a genre precluding beauty would strike me as a limitation. Not so for either Malick or Tarkovsky's films, which incorporate the beautiful through digressions from the generic topic of combat. In The Thin Red Line, it is the author's contemplation of the violence in nature that yields the beauty in nature above or against the ugliness in combat, whereas Tarkovsky establishes beauty through the subjective fantasies of the child protagonist.

Among these, one of the most startling is a sequence featuring the child Ivan (Nikolai Burlyayev) in an apple cart with a pretty young girl -- they are both what has come to be called "tweens." Tarkovsky shows the pair besieged by rain, before an obvious back-projection photographic negative image, thus confirming the distance between the sequence and the reality of the wartime Soviet Union. Further, Tarkovsky adds clear Biblical connotations to the scene -- that is of a prelapsarian Adam and Eve. However, Ivan will not live long enough to sample the experiences that this sequence prefigures. Tarkovsky, in other words, suggests the tragedy of war through the poetry and beauty of these images. In fact, he will return to this conflation of the water motif and Ivan's lost childhood in a sequence where we see the child cavorting with other kids on the beach, before he chases and then surpasses his girlfriend as they sprint through a stretch of extremely low water. In short, while there may not be any metaphoric meaning to the water, it serves to connect the scenes thematically. It is analogical, which is to say poetic, and as such essentially Tarkovsky-ian.

Of course this watery theme reoccurs in the indelible marshes through which the young Ivan passes in his work as a war spy, and in the puddling that surrounds a series of ruins that is likewise distilled in an image of a free-standing door and frame. With respect to the former, Tarkovsky again produces images of exceeding beauty, particularly when we see the reflections of the flares traced on the water's dark surface. These landscapes, it is worth noting, confirm the picture's Belorussian setting, as do the similarly gorgeous birch wood forests, which more specifically act as a symbol for Mother Russia.

In the final marshland scene, where Ivan and his two adult companions must cross the swamps without the Germans noticing, Tarkovsky eliminates all light, which significantly refuses the spectator any clear view of what is happening on screen. In other words, we cannot see whether or not Ivan is safe, and yet, in the irony of Tarkovsky's mise-en-scene, this cover of darkness protects our protagonists. In other words, we don't want to see our hero as this would make the boy visible to the Germans as well. Thus, Tarkovsky takes away the substance of his art and we as spectators are grateful.

As such, Tarkovsky has transformed his form according to the desires of his spectators. More often, however, Tarkovsky's style adheres to a baroque program: time and again, we see a figure blocked in the foreground, in medium close-up, who sets off additional figures behind he or she in the middle and deep distances. In many of these scenes, the director places his camera below eye-level with large visible shadows. In short, this is not yet the director who looks down on his subjects from a God's-eye view as Chris Marker noted in his 2000 documentary One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevitch. Then again, in the film's utilization of Biblical imagery, to say nothing of the situation of much of the film within a ruined church, Tarkovsky's Christianity is already apparent. As such, it becomes clear that Ivan's Childhood is about more than the devastation of war -- it is at once a condemnation of Stalin's ambivalence toward the loss of life in World War II (not exactly controversial at the time) and also a critique of the violence done to the religious life in the Soviet Union.

Friday, January 12, 2007

New Film: Pan's Labyrinth & The Science of Sleep

Continuing 2006's general lack of critical consensus, Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth was named the year's best film last week by The National Society of Film Critics, the country's highest regarded critical organization. Representing only the second victory for a foreign-language film in the past twenty years -- the previous victor was 2000's Yi Yi, still one of the decade's finest films -- the selection of Pan's Labyrinth makes obvious sense as one of the year's most visceral popular entertainments. Of course, Pan's Labyrinth is not simply The Lord of the Rings Mexican redux, though it is an elaboration of the cycle exemplified by Peter Jackson's trilogy and continued in The Chronicles of Narnia.

In fact, like these sources, del Toro's picture is essentially Christian allegory: when 12-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero in a marvelous performance) sneaks a couple of grapes, she is prevented from finishing the three tasks set before her, and thus from receiving "eternal life." However, Ofelia is subsequently offered a second chance to complete the final task, wherein the titular faun Pan demands that she sacrifice the life of an innocent. Suffice it to say that Ofelia is this, though she isn't so fast to comply with the faun. Indeed, her family's housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) warns her too be wary of these creatures, though she earlier tells Ofelia that she no longer believes in many of the things she did as a child. (The film presents a double focalization structure through both Ofelia and Mercedes.)

This prior admonition is particularly significant as its establishes the film's self-conscious logic: Pan's Labyrinth is a fairy-tale created expressly for adults, compelling its spectator to accept the veracity of a series of fantastic creatures. Importantly, del Toro's narrative refuses to delineate those sequences featuring these fictional beings and separate passages which resolutely occupy the real world. In other words, the adult spectator of Pan's Labyrinth does not need to rationalize their existence in the film, but rather to accept that as a narrative, as a fairy-tale, fairies, fauns and various other monsters are all permitted. Magic is real in the world of the film.

Ultimately, del Toro's narrative does affirm a separation between reality and fantasy, however, as Pan's Labyrinth is very much concerned with representing the truth of the world. That del Toro situates his narrative in Spain 1944 confirms his belief that reality is crueler than anything we could ever dream up. As such, Ofelia's fascist step-father is a far more terrifying villain than any of the creatures which populate her parallel world -- in our introduction to the scope of his brutality, Captain Vidal smashes a hunters face in with a bottle before executing both the gentleman and his father on screen. To be sure, Pan's Labyrinth features more than its share of sadistic violence, with the worst of it perpetrated outside the girl's fantasy world. For this reviewer at least, Pan's Labyrinth is superior to 2006's other high-profile torture pic, Jean-Pierre Melville's 1969 Army of Shadows.

In the end, Pan's Labyrinth represents not only a reflexive continuation of the epic fantasy genre and a straight-forward Christian allegory (completed by the Princess's reign in her father's kingdom -- the redemption for the cruelty of this world) but also a note of caution for its adult spectators: that they not blindly follow authority, be it the Captain or Pan. Del Toro presents this message in an essentially classical popular form notable for its masterful use of invisible wipes that along with the director's ever-mobile camera work, secures the fluidity of his hybrid world.

Likewise committed to a representation of fantasy that eschews any clear demarcation between reality and fiction, Michel Gondry's The Science of Sleep is in turns exceedingly romantic, heart-breaking, irritating and finally hopeful. With the exceptional Gael García Bernal and Charlotte Rampling as its star-crossed couple, Gondry's picture demonstrates a greater interest in -- and indeed a closer affinity with -- the visual arts' current specificity than does any semi-commercial film in a very long time. The fantasies of García Bernal 's Stéphane Miroux (a clear reference to surrealist master Joan Miro) take the form of a video art instillation, while the picture's comedy speaks to a Dadaist inspiration. In short, The Science of Sleep reminds us just how far cinema remains from the visual arts, for better or for worse.

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Film: Children of Men & Night at the Museum

Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men has becoming something of a cause celeb among art-focused film critics, who see its current award season neglect as inexplicable, particularly when one considers the buzz generated by such middle brow fare as Babel and Little Children. Indeed, the title for J. Hoberman's review of the film summarizes the current sentiment perfectly: "Don't Believe the (Lack of) Hype." This is a film, as it defenders might argue, that has original aesthetics ideas -- which are virtually unprecedented in studio (Universal) filmmaking -- that attempts to reinvent its dystopian generic sources and that contains vital political commentary. In other words, Children of Men is precisely the sort of filmmaking for which the art-minded branch of the liberal humanist film criticism establishment has been waiting throughout the Bush administration. As Hoberman puts it, quoting an unnamed acquaintance, Children of Men is a "disaster film for NPR subscribers."

And indeed, it is not only in these latter terms, but indeed as a work of formal invention and experimentation that Chidren of Men succeeds. Specifically, Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's (Y tu mamá también and The New World) technique of using long tracking shots brings an element of international art cinema that is typically foreign to studio filmmaking. In perhaps the film's best set piece, Clive Owen's protagonist must push his escape vehicle down a gentle incline as he and his pregnant charge flee from the radicals who are set on using the latter for political purposes. (To summarize, Children of Men depicts a world where the world's women have become mysteriously barren, until a young immigrant woman magically finds herself with child.) As such, Cuarón and Lubezki have reinterpreted action-oriented science fiction not only through the use of mobile long takes, but even in slowing down the chase to the measure that technology fails the protagonists. In this way, then, Children of Men follows in the tradition of Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965), wherein the past is figured in the future as technology has come to show its age, while reproducing the long take aesthetic of Andrei Tarkovsky and Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979).

However, unlike Tarkovsky's work in particular, Children of Men does not produce a cogent allegory. To be sure, Children of Men often references contemporary European and American politics: immigration is curtailed in the picture (an important theme for both spheres, and a natural subject for a Mexican director working outside his country of origin); child birth, again, has disappeared (while the situation is not quite this dire in Europe, many nations do remain well below the replacement rate); Abu Ghraib is directly reference in the prison camp that the protagonists break into; proto-fascism is ascendant; etc. Thus, while Cuarón suggests that we are to read the present into his 2027 setting, few if any of these themes are worked out to effectively rend allegorical meaning. Why do these women stop having children -- is it a consequence of some unnamed ecological disaster? Does it figure a world at war? What is to be made of the pregnant immigrant woman Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) -- is Cuarón suggesting that there would be no children without these populations? What of its quasi-religious connotations? (Also in evidence is the film's anti-war sentiment, which is clearest in the sequence where Owen, the mother and her child pass through a sea of soldiers who are transfixed by the miracle of life; implicitly, Cuarón argues that if only we would understand this very miracle, then war would be rendered obsolete.)

Ultimately, Children of Men operates therefore on the basis of anxiety, suggesting the possibility of a dystopian future without exactly showing why such a future might come into being. (Some might say that this makes it open ended and certainly, most of its advocates may be able to cite reasons why the world is headed in this direction.) In other words, Cuarón suggests a reading of the present without factoring the implications of his themes. Interestingly enough, the director's previous studio blockbuster, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) represents a fully-formed allegory. In that work, thematically consistent with the director's highly-praised Y tu mamá también (2001), Cuarón formulates an allegory of tolerance towards homosexuality instantiated in the figure Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) that does not simply connote but indeed makes an argument. In this respect, Harry Potter is the more politically coherent work, though its visual style, while dazzlingly baroque for an installment in the series, does not even suggest the ambitions of the later film. Perhaps some of this progression is the product of Lubezki's maturation as an artist (he did not collaborate on the Potter film, for what its worth). As with The New World (2005) there can be no disputing the flamboyance of the cinematographer's artistry, though also like that film, it is not exactly clear what if any meaning derives from those visuals.

There is no similar problem with Shawn Levy's Night at the Museum, which to be fair has neither visual élan nor does it make any attempt at allegory beyond the generic contours of the children's film. It is a kid's film pure and simple, where the comedy derives from things being bigger or smaller than they are in real life, though one with supporting performances that should resonate more with its adult spectators: Ricky Gervais effectively reprises his vocabulary-challenged David Brent as the museum director, while the not-dead Mickey Rooney appears as a recently-terminated night watchman, fond of using such words as "butterscotch" as put-downs. For their performances alone, to say nothing of the spectacle of Ben Stiller fighting with a monkey -- which he slaps... tisk, tisk -- Night at the Museum rates as above average studio fare, and a welcome box office champion during this holiday season. With respect to said performances, moreover, Night at the Museum may be preferable to Children of Men for some viewers (though I can't quite say that I am such a spectator): that is for those who might not look favorably upon Michael Caine's hippie shtick. In my view at least, what's the good of a dystopian future if hippie potheads can survive twenty years of world war? I suppose this is what makes it dystopian.