Movies


Persona can be a difficult film. Like Buñuel and Deren before him, Bergman tossed out the conventions of filmmaking and reinvented cinema on his own terms. This leaves viewers (especially those with no avant-garde experience) with little familiar turf from which to appreciate the movie. Also, its narrative and characters are secondary to its technique: a self-conscious deconstruction of film art.

And so, Persona begins with the lighting of a carbon arcs and rolling film reels. Then we see images that represent many uses of the moving picture: documentation (a spider, moving hands), entertainment (a Chaplin-esque silent comedy, a children’s cartoon), propaganda (hands being nailed into wood, evocative of Christ’s crucifixion), arousal (an erect phallus), provocation (carving open a sheep, and a shot that reminds of the famous eyeball-slicing scene from Un Chien Andalou), and art (a still, painterly shot in a Swedish forest). Shots of sharp fence bars and a mound of dirty snow also foreshadow the stark, desperately cynical nature of the movie, and of the stage in Bergman’s career that began with the hopeless end of his previous film, 1963’s The Silence.

Next we see several corpses lying in what could be a morgue, and a boy lying in one of the beds wakes up. He stares at the camera (another Brechtian alienation technique to upset the fantasy of the film and remind us that it is a construct), then moves his hand over a large image of a woman’s face, which morphs into another face and back again. This may reference Bergman’s inspiration for the film. In a hospital, he was struck by the similar faces of the women who became his leads for Persona, Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann.

Finally, the credits sequence. Titles are in extremely high-contrast black and white, with more split-second images displayed between each title. The music, expectedly, is jarring, contemporary avant-garde composition.

And then the story begins. Part of the fun of Persona is its openness to interpretation. I’ll begin with a literal reading.

Actress Elizabeth stops speaking during a performance of Elektra and months later is sent with Nurse Alma to an island house for therapy. Alma cannot get Elizabeth to speak, but finds in her a good listener, and in this way they become friends. While bringing mail to the post office, Alma reads Elizabeth’s outgoing letter. Elizabeth sees their roles reversed; she is studying talkative Alma. Alma is angered by this, and later leaves broken glass for Elizabeth to step on. Finally, frustrated that Elizabeth refuses to speak, the two fight, reconcile, embrace, and leave the island.

Though the literal reading works if you grant poetic license to this poem in images, Persona gives us many opportunities for creative interpretations that may work even better. No movie has more replay value than Persona.

My favorite is a popular theory, that Elisabeth and Alma are the same person – two personas that split when the actress stops acting. She stops acting for a living, but also stops acting for the outside world. Alma represents the outer, interactive persona. Elisabeth represents the inner, quiet, stronger persona. The film is a metaphor for the interaction between these two personas within a single human being. The outer character is comforted by the quiet inner strength, but frustrated that it does not give answers. Each scene shows a dialogue between the inner and outer. And when the actress’ husband arrives, she recognizes Alma, and doesn’t notice Elisabeth, who is merely a metaphor for the inner character of the actress. This unity is represented by the cinematography, which often positions the two lead faces overlapping each other, until finally they are superimposed over each other in a startling shot.

According to this interpretation, the child at the beginning of the movie may represent the actress’ aborted child, looking upon the dual personas of his mother from beyond the grave.

We are never allowed to forget that this is deconstructionist cinema. At one point, the film breaks down and burns up entirely, shows brief clips from the opening sequence, then returns to the story. At one point, a scene plays twice in a row from different camera angles, indicating the subjective possibilities of art. And at the end, the reels stop and the carbon arc goes out.

I have barely begun to explain how specific scenes may be interpreted, including the dreamlike bedroom scene, the vampirism scene, and the beachside chase scene. I leave that to curious minds.

In its relentlessly deconstructionist presentation, its brilliant portrayal of psychology, its inventiveness, its openness to interpretation, its cinematography, its powerful lead performances, and its frightening originality, I believe Persona is the greatest film ever made. I might have to write a scene-by-scene commentary to seriously make such an argument, and perhaps I will.

But if you’re not ready for Persona, try Mulholland Drive, a modern masterpiece that shares a multitude of strong similarities with Persona.

King KongHoly Harryhausen, the SPECTACLE! Jackson’s King Kong goes so far beyond what has come before in CGI character and action, I’m surprised it didn’t cost $350 million. It will be as daunting to direct a spectacle movie after King Kong as it was to write a symphony after Beethoven. The eye-popping T-Rex sequence alone should make the producers of next year’s blockbusters weep, then beg their studios for another $50 million so their pictures can hold up to the new standard. Alas, the visuals are where praise must end for Kong.

Apparently, I’m one of the very few who thought the 1933 original was trash, and Jackson loved it enough to make his rehash similarly horrid. The dialogue is just as insipid, the editing is just as cliché for its time, the plotting is ridiculous on moment-by-moment and sequence-by-sequence scales, etc. The score was the only interesting part of the original and here it is simply mimicked. Plus, Jackson added more than an hour of superfluous waste developing dispensible characters and rendering pointless action sequences – paramount among them an outrageous creepy-crawly battle wisely excised from the 1933 film. Like its title character, King Kong is big and stupid.

Still, things could be worse. Ann Darrow could be played by one of the multitude of currently popular bimbettes rather than a real actress. The action could be less creative. The dialogue could be of Lucasian abhorability. And of course, the special effects could be merely “impressive”.

There are precisely three good scenes in King Kong. First is the opening sequence, which juxtaposes caged zoo animals with destitute tramps in their shacks, and wanders a stunning Depression-era New York while Al Jolson sings “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” Second comes after Kong has run off with Ann. He pounds his alpha-male chest, and she wins his heart with a vaudeville act. The emotional progression of Kong here, who out-acts anyone in the movie, is heart-rending. It also gives the romance between beauty and beast the verve lacking in previous installments, which is unfortunately squandered in the scenes to follow. Third is a true landmark in animation and action, where Kong wrestles with three T-Rexes. Return of the King looks simple and puny now.

Is King Kong racist? Jackson accurately represented good vs. evil as white vs. black in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and again chose whites for heroes and blacks (or whites in blackface!) for ugly, mindless, murdering savages in King Kong. Frankly, one would expect those involved in the movie and shipping industries in 1933 New York to be white, just as one would expect indigenous people on an undiscovered South Pacific island to be dark-skinned and uneducated. So, one can hardly fault Jackson for these decisions, especially as they conform to the original film.

Nevertheless, the precedence of special effects to story and filmmaking in Peter Jackson’s monstrous King Kong lends new meaning to its closing line: “Twas beauty killed the beast!”

The Lion, the Witch, and the WardrobeI want you to enjoy watching movies. But I also want you to oppose bad movies and encourage filmmakers to make better ones. Alas, with Narnia you can’t do both. Instead of making the choice for you with my review, I’ll let you decide! If you want to enjoy Narnia, stop reading at the ***.

Fans of the C.S. Lewis novel will be content with this fairly faithful adaptation about four English children who venture through a wardrobe into a magical land of talking animals under the icy thumb of a witch. Christians will be pleased to find all the theological allegory in tact, along with direct quotes from Lewis’ novel and even the Bible. Others will see an inventive children’s story with great themes like courage, duty, forgiveness, redemption, and the authority of good over evil. The film encourages you to look deeper, and more is there. But you may not have time to find it all: stuffed with humor, suspense, family drama and epic action, Narnia is a brisk 140 minutes that may surprise those expecting another overlong Peter Jackson fantasy epic.

Adamson has done a Zeffirellian job of finding faces worth watching, and Dakota Fanning is blessedly absent. Georgie Henley as Lucy and James McAvoy as Tumnus the faun are especially engaging. And really, I’d be hard pressed to think of a more evocative voice for Aslan than Liam Neeson’s.

So put away your artistic pretensions, your source-reverant nit-picking, your unfair comparisons, and enjoy Narnia.

***

Damn I hated this movie.

Imagine Lord of the Rings. Now, strip away all depth of character, history, geography, lore, culture, langauge, and story. Reduce all special effects to Hulking incompetancy and the score to one of Titanic boredom. Use sock puppets for actors. Write every scene to maximize audience incredulity and confusion. Redesign every set as a third-rate Legend of Zelda ripoff. Above all, don’t give the audience time to care about anything happening on-screen. Finally, imagine you’re like me and didn’t think Lord of the Rings was that great to begin with, and you’ll have some inkling of the hell Narnia put me through.

Disney wants to drink from the lucrative box office wells of fantasy epics, explicitly Christian film (uber-blockbuster The Passion of The Christ), and kid flicks in general. But Narnia fails as a fantasy epic for being inferior to Lord of the Rings and even Harry Potter and Revenge of the Sith. It fails as a Christian film for replacing the insight of the novel with an exactingly careful niceness. It fails as a kid flick for its nightmarish terror, intense emotional drama (I heard crying from the seat behind me), and brutal violence.

The actors were well-chosen for their faces, yes, but only Henley shows signs of acting. The multitude of CGI characters each look plastic and soulless after LOTR’s Gollum. There is never life in Aslan’s eyes.

Both Shreks already feel dated by their irritating pop soundtracks, but Adamson has learned nothing: Alanis Morrisette (yes, of 1995 fame) peppers the movie. And the only non-diarrhetic segment of Gregson-Williams’s “original” score is a 3-second queue for Aslan’s forces rescuing Edmund that sounds clipped from John Adams’ glorious Harmonielehre.

Blech.

Lord of WarA trailer for Jarhead, about an American soldier in Desert Storm combat, preceded the matinée showing of Lord of War I saw two years ago. During the trailer, a U.S. marine passionately shouts, “We are the righteous hammer of God and that hammer is coming down!” A man behind me in the cinema responded, “Amen, brother!” I hope Niccol’s insinuating Lord of War helped him reconsider.

The film’s opening sequence takes us through the manufacture, shipment, and firing of an assault rifle cartridge from its own perspective. By placing us behind the bullet, from the factory to when it enters the skull of an African boy, Niccol implicates us in arms sales, genocide, and terrorism. And why not? The United States is the leading arms exporter and willfully ignores – if not supplies – most world terrorism.

Nicolas Cage’s performance as arms dealer Yuri Orlov also helps to reveal our complicity in worldwide violence. Niccol describes the process of selecting Cage for the role: “I thought, ‘Who can make the devil charming?’ It’s Nicolas Cage.” Yuri is an unsympathetic, heartless man who seeks from the start to profit from the greatest evils. But he is a pragmatic salesman, and Cage’s seductive performance soon finds the audience adopting Yuri’s blind-eye coldness. “It’s not our fight,” Yuri tells his brother. And somehow we believe him. When Yuri finally confronts his vain justifications, we are forced to confront our own.

But whatever Lord of War’s considerable moral and political implications, is it a good movie? Sadly, it isn’t; but screenwriting gurus Syd Field and Robert McKee would surely be impressed. Niccol has always written about strong concepts: a genetic totalitarianist future in Gattaca, a man who doesn’t know his life is a sitcom called The Truman Show, a digitally artificial movie star named S1m0ne, a trapped foreigner living in an airport Terminal, and now an arms trafficker “at war with himself” in Lord of War. Niccol’s characters are full-figured and memorable, his dialogue is sharp and ironic, his pacing is solid, his themes are significant, and he brings the audience plenty of fascinating behind-the-scenes how-to.

But Niccol’s trademark weaknesses accompany his “strengths” into Lord of War. He flaunts every nuance in the film, bringing them each to a painfully obvious forefront and leaving nothing for repeat viewings. When Yuri must convince his pilot to make a rough landing on a gravel highway, he yells, “You can do it, Aleksei! You’re the shit! You’re the shit! You’re the shit!” Then, in voice over: “Of course he wasn’t the shit…” And when Yuri removes a toy gun from his sleeping son’s bedroom because he doesn’t want young Nicolai to grow up into his father’s industry, we also see Yuri drop the gun in the waste basket, and later we see Interpol agent Jack Valentine retrieve it from Yuri’s trash. Niccol won’t take the chance that his audience won’t notice a writing tidbit he’s proud of conceiving.

He also relinquishes plausibility to squeeze superfluous “cool” or “intense” moments into the movie. When Yuri’s pilot makes that emergency landing on a highway, the jet’s front tires stop inches from a baby sitting in the road. And when Yuri must quickly switch flags on his ship to avoid Interpol’s suspicion, it so happens that it’s best for Yuri to look like a Dutch ship, and he has every flag but a Dutch one, but of course he can make a French flag look like a Dutch flag by hanging it sideways. And, on two occasions, Yuri happens to make a major arms sale only a few yards away from where murders are taking place at that very moment. Paul Thomas Anderson is a master with the cinema of coincidence; Andrew Niccol is not.

He’s not a master director, either. Borrowing heavily from David Fincher, Niccol’s style is visually flashy in gimmicky, overused ways. While the concept of the opening sequence is worthy, the execution is flawed. The close-up CGI bullet looks as fake as the digital elements in long, CGI-populated shots from Fincher’s Fight Club and Panic Room. A time-lapsed shot of a giant jet being stripped to the bone overnight is entertaining, but Niccol clearly belongs to that depraved school of film direction that seeks for “what looks cool” in each scene without considering the thematic, emotional, and artistic consequences of its decisions. To be fair, it sometimes seems we must we travel as far as Greece (Angelopoulos) or Iran (Kiarostami) to find good directors who haven’t spawned from that school.

The performances, at least, bear no complaints. Cage is reliable as ever, Jared Leto (Yuri’s kid brother) is as good a drug addict as he was in Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, Ethan Hawke (Interpol agent Jack Valentine) reveals a deep character with little screen time, and Ian Holm nearly steals the show as rival arms dealer Simeon Weisz. Bridget Moynahan is “just pretty,” but that’s her character (”cover girl” and Yuri’s wife, Ava Fontaine).

But all the supporting roles are tiny; it’s Yuri’s story, and he carries the film. In fact, there’s not even much plot. The movie is a montage of events that shape Yuri and reveal his attitude toward the world, propelled by his lengthy but thought-provoking narration. A wholly corrupt protagonist is a rare treat (though better handled in Noé’s I Stand Alone), as is an antagonist who is wholly righteous (Valentine). And Yuri’s presentation of African conflicts is just callous enough to suggest the importance of genocides unknown to the West without being self-important like Hotel Rwanda. Yuri’s character is what makes the movie worth seeing despite its flaws.

Lord of War is not great art, not a good film, not a significant film. But it’s not terrible, which, in today’s mainstream movie wasteland, is significant.

Naturally, I can’t make a list of “Favorite Movies of 2006″ because I won’t get around to seeing even half the promising titles of 2006 for at least another year (including what may prove to be one of my favorite films of the decade, Lynch’s Inland Empire). And you’ll notice I’m not nearly as picky about movies as I am about music. Here are my favorite movies that I watched for the first time in 2006, in descending order of awesomeness:
 
 
 

Come and See
1985, Elem Klimov: Soviet Union
 
Pulverizing. You may think you’ve seen a war movie like this. You have not. This blows Saving Private Ryan to smithereens. Follow teen Florya as he desperately survives the Nazi onslaught in 1943 Belarus.
Borat
2006, Larry Charles: USA
 
It’s possible I haven’t laughed this hard since Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s a partly scripted, partly improvised, politically incorrect romp across the United States, starring comedian Sacha Baron Cohen as Borat, a clueless Kazakhstani documentary filmmaker. Cohen pounces on the key ingredients for uprorious laughter: raising the bar for shock, surprise, and discomfort while simultaneously being genuinely funny.
Sátántangó
1994, Béla Tarr: Hungary
 
Satantango patiently observes a poor village during the fall of Communism in Hungary. It is an awe-inspiring work of long, exquisitely composed shots, sort of like Tarkovsky but with a hint of black comedy. I had planned to watch this 7.5-hour butt-number over the course of a week, but I ended up watching the whole thing in one stretch; I think it even pussifies that show-boating Sokurov (whose 96-minute Russian Ark consists of a single shot wandering a museum of four live orchestras and hundreds of extras).
The New World
2005, Terrence Malick: USA
 
The New World is Malick’s fourth feature film in 32 years. Like Kubrick, Malick makes only films that impassion him, and for which he has a clear artitic vision. His tale of the Smith / Pocahontas / Rolfe love triangle is a delicate symphony of crashing societies and cultures. Some directors make cool movies (say, Peter Jackson), others make serious films (say, Martin Scorsese), and Malick makes art.
Begotten
1991, E. Elias Merhige: USA
 
The most disturbing film I have ever seen. It’s the dialogue-less, gruesomely shot story of God disembowling himself to birth Mother Earth, who deposits Flesh On Bone (Jesus) on the planet, both of whom are eventually molested, raped and killed by creatures of the earth. It is extreme, poetic, and perfectly soundtracked. It is “filmed in speckled chiaroscuro so that each image is a seductive mystery, a Rorschach test for the adventurous eye” (Richard Corliss). You may think it’s garbage; I think it’s among the most profound things ever shot.
Brick
2005, Rian Johnson: USA
 
Like Down With Love, this is a daring fusion of old and new styles that looks terrible on paper but works so well in the hands of a talented director. Brick is a modern high-school melodrama told through the lens of film-noir. The writing and timing are so perfect that I couldn’t keep my face from holding a big stupid grin.
Underground
1995, Emir Kusturica: France, Yugoslavia, Germany, Hungary
 
Several Belgrade families survive WWII shelling by producing weapons safely underground, while just two of them, Marko and Natalija, risk travelling aboveground to sell the weapons and bring in new materials. All share in the profits. But the operation is so successful that Marko neglects to tell his neighbors when the war ends. Underground is a brilliantly creative comedy, and an excellent film.
Woman in the Dunes
1964, Hiroshi Teshigahara: Japan
 
An absurd, existentialist masterpiece in which an entomologist is trapped in a giant pit between sand dunes by desert villagers. He cannot escape, so he resigns himself to his fate and seeks ways of collecting water for he and the woman in the house in the pit. Never before have I seen sand shot so personally and terrifyingly.
Inside Man
2006, Spike Lee: USA
 
Spike Lee is taking the Scorsese journey: his early years produced several edgy, unique masterpieces, and now he is settling into a pattern of crafting less daring but more formally perfect (and Oscar-baiting) work. While Inside Man can’t compare to the likes of Do the Right Thing, I’m all too happy to enjoy such a smart, well-acted, well-directed, well-written, flawlessly-paced action drama! This is the only movie on the list I’d feel safe recommending to almost anyone.

 
 
 
Also loved: The Hand, Amateur, Paris, Texas, Ellie Parker, When the Levees Broke, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Manderlay, Hukkle, The Celebration, V for Vendetta, Stalker, Sparrows, and The World.