Saturday, April 29, 2006
It's a fact that Wenders's standing in film history has been somehow diminished by the steadily decreasing displays of genius that catapulted him to auteur stardom in the 1980s with his Wings of Desire, followed by mildly received and sometimes disappointing numbers such as Faraway, So Close!(1993), The End of Violence(1997), The Million Dollar Hotel(2000) and Land of Plenty(2004). It seems like the German director, despite his knack for making films that appear 'culturally important' perhaps stuck to hard to the post-modern boat which made him famous but which by the 1990s had become rusty and dated.
Don't Come Knocking looks almost like an 1980s period film, when the Talking Heads made True Stories and Jim Jamursh became the epitome of cool. I mean that as a compliment; Wenders is good at playing with iconography and making poetry out of it, no doubt a great achievement for an artist working with moving images. But what he gets wrong when dealing with the cinematically saturated vistas of America is his self-perception as a traveler when he is, in fact, a tourist in a foreign land.
Shepard plays Howard Spence, a veteran Western actor on the wrong side of the fifties, but who still retains his rugged good looks, despite all the boozing, drugs and womanizing, which we find out in a sequence where he leafs through a book of clippings about him.
Howard seeks refuge at his mother's house (Eva Marie Saint) after running away from the set of his latest production. We have to accept that Westerns are still being made as well as Howard's standing as a contemporary star cowboy, but Wenders is dealing here with a mythical, hyper-real America which justifies this lack of anchorage in factuality.
His mother, who he hasn't seen him for thirty years (except for the newspapers stories she collects), puts him up in her home overlooking the brightly lit town of Elko in Nevada while an investigator called Sutter (Tim Roth, a somewhat wasted character in the movie thanks to a rather sloppy performace by Roth) tries to track him down.
From Elko Howard heads for Butte, Montana, and then the reason he left the set becomes clearer. He wants to track down a son whose existence only came to his knowledge when his mother mentioned a phone call from a woman years before. The town of Butte is a real-life film set and it looks almost like Wenders made the film as an excuse to photograph this old mining town with its imposing buildings erected alongside wind-blown streets that stretch into gigantic vistas – this architectural aspect of the film alone justifies its viewing. It's a kind of synthesis of the Americana Wenders is obsessed with.
Spencer tracks down the mother of his son, Doreen (Jessica Lange), a contently settled and resigned waitress whose life moves to a completely contrary tune to Spencer's. He finds his son singing in a pub during a scene that is redolent of the one in which Nick Cave plays in a club in Wings of Desire, singing a sultry country blues ballad to a carefully arranged, staring small audience (the rather haunting score is by T-Bone Burnett).
The Butte-set section of the film fills the rest, as well as most, of the running time, with Howard drifting around town. Besides Earl and Doreen, there's also a young woman called Sky (Sarah Polley) who follows Howard around while cradling an urn with her mother's ashes in it. By then we got the idea of the film and it all starts to grind a bit until we finally arrive at the culminating scene that shows Howard sitting for hours on a couch in a deserted street until the camera finally does a circular pan around him to usher in the moment of revelation provided by Sky.
So, is this film about a middle-aged man trying to reconstruct his past and a metaphor of American rootlessness? Perhaps. But reading too much into it would be like trying to find life in a dull, abandoned town. I'd rather simply remember Don't Come Knocking as a filmic equivalent of a Bourbon-soaked blues ballad with a dash of Teutonic melancholy. If that's a good or bad thing, it's up to each individual viewer, but there's definitely something to be savoured if we look from this point of view.
Don't Come Knocking is currently playing in the UK.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
Monday, April 24, 2006
Friday, April 21, 2006
Hell's angels: the three sisters in L'Enfer
The impressive opening sequence of Hell (L'Enfer), an extreme close-up sequence in the style of nature documentaries that normally capture what our naked eyes cannot to, provides a synthesis of the film it ushers in: a baby bird falls off the nest just after hatching the egg. What should look like a picture of innocence and life itself is bolstered with connotations of cruelty.
Some film goers may run for the exit at the sound of yet another French film indulging in philosophical meanderings, but Hell, despite the occasional lapse into clichéd symbolisms, is saved by the fluid way the kaleidoscopic script strings together as well as the polished cinematography. This is also the kind of film that makes it seem like feminism never happened, considering how obsessive women are and how men humiliate them (including an older ugly men rejecting a very pretty young girl), but such impression is disproved by the fact that men are shown as weak and childish. Rather than misogynist, Hell is more of an illustration of the awfulness of human nature, although it is not exactly an exercise in misanthropy.
The film was based on a script written by Krzysztof Piesiewicz based on a collaboration with Krzysztof Kieslowski as part of a trilogy that included 'Heaven' and 'Purgatory'. Kieslowski's idea was not to direct any of his three screenplays, but to write them for young European directors. As Hell was set in Paris and was supposed to be shot in French, director Danis Tanovic jumped at the opportunity to use it for his second film (his debut was No Man's Land, 2001) and as the first production for his newly created company A.S.A.P.
The story is hinged around the lives of three sisters living separately until one event brings them together at the end of the film. Emmanuelle Béart (who also appeared in Claude Chabrol's eponymous 1994 film) plays Sophie, the oldest sister and the jealous wife of photographer Sébastien (Guillaume Canet) who she accurately suspects is having an extra-marital affair. Marie Gillain plays Anne, the youngest of the sisters who is driven into despair when the illicit affair she is having with one of her tutors (and whose family is close to her) is terminated by her lover.
The third sister is Céline, played by Karin Viard, a librarian type who takes the same train journey everyday to look after a woman in a wheelchair (Carole Bouquet). She becomes the main piece in the puzzle when she is befriended by a stranger called Frédéric (Jacques Perrin), whose revelations pertinent to the sisters' family past will force them together for the final sequence and trigger a confrontation with their mother.
Hell is a somewhat paranoid, angst-ridden film that seduces with its intelligently engendered narrative. Using a staple motif as the motor of the drama - a family trauma - it constructs a fragmented collection of feelings and stories in an attempt to allude to the idea of tragedy, which as one of the characters says at some point, is impossible in the modern world because we have "lost faith in the gods". There is a textual reference to Medea to make sure the audience gets the idea, but despite the lack of subtlety, Hell forms a beautiful organic unity and provides stimulating, elegant entertainment.
Hell (L'Enfer) is released in the UK today (21/04/06).
Bizet's famous opera Carmen has been the subject of a few film adaptations, but the story of the cigarette girl from Seville can very easily be destroyed by rose stem-biting Spanish clichés and a foreign, idealised vision of Latin-ness. The music is undoubtedly and deliciously cheeky, but blowing a new lease of life into such a famous and archetypal opera is no mean feat.
And that's exactly what Mark Dornford-May's South African adaptation of the opera does, with superb results and moments of pure musical transcendence. It also beats previous efforts such as Francesco Rosi and Carlos Saura's re-readings of the story. The winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival 2005, the Xhosa language U-Carmen Ekhayelitsha achieves a perfect symbiosis between music, characterisation and mise-en-scene, with a degree of realism and authenticity that is absolutely rare in genre cinema. It could almost bear a Dogme 95 certificate because of its fluid camerawork and a strong sense of immediacy.
Shot in the township of Khayelitsha near Cape Town, home to half a million people, the film is also a triumph for local talent, from where the director pooled the cast for his Dimpho Di Kopane company. It is this combination of experience and new talent that gives U-Carmen eKhayelitsha a special type of energy; it comes across as a collective project which everyone involved seems to have given their hearts to. It works.
The producers also succeeded in their experiment with distribution. U-Carmen eKhayelitsha had its South African premiere in Khayelitsha in March 2005 in the very same building in which the last scene of the film is shot. A month long roll out in the same venue followed, with audiences of 1,500 people per day coming to see the film, and an extra screening time per day added in the last week. South African distributor Ster Kinekor snapped up the rights within Africa and U-Carmen eKhayelitsha opened at selected outlets last May. And the rest is hysteria.
Dornford-May faithfully includes elements of the original story with a great economy of signs – the bullfight in particular was very ingeniously re-written. Pauline Malefane, who also translated the original and wrote the script, is an earthy black Carmen who works in a tobacco factory - a talent to watch out for. A religious Bible-reading police officer falls prey to Malefane's Carmen who lures him to a drug trafficking operation. Sexuality is also adapted to the codes of black culture, with a sophisticated effect. Just imagine the erotic grammar of rap culture minus the bling.
Besides all the technical and artistic merits of the film, the idea of an European totemic cultural artefact being improved in Africa has a symbolic ring of inverted colonialism. Confident and rich in innovation, U-Carmen Ekhayelitshais genuinely a tour-de-force. Impossible not to be seduced by this Carmen.
U-Carmen Ekhayelitsha opens in the UK today.
Watch the trailer.
Saturday, April 15, 2006
Between a horny devil and
the blue sea: still from
Cockles and Muscles
The characters are played by a real coup of a cast. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi is a vision of languidness and debonair attitude as the liberal, pot-smoking Béatrix. She and her husband Marc (Gilbert Merki) are spending summer holidays in Marc's family cottage in the Côte d'azur with their two teenage children, Martin (Edouard Collin) and Laura (Sabrina Seyvecou). Martin's best friend, the openly gay Charly, joins the family and ignites a series of character entrances that mark the narrative shifts and plot twists that propel the film forward in a pleasant, rhythmic way. Charly, who represents the type of post-New Queer gay character whose sexuality is a given and not a source of conflict, nurtures a platonic love for Martin, who pretends to be gay to his parents so that they leave him alone. Meanwhile Laura, who is on screen only as a sporadic support, is more interested in copping off with her motorbike-straddling stallion.
Once the scene is set, after a few showers (an important motif in the film) and the recurring sounds of doors being slammed, a couple more characters enter the fray to protagonise new episodes. Saying exactly who they are and what they do would spoil the unexpected surprises that the script generously provide but what happens during the holiday changes the family dynamics for good as well as the notion of what makes a 'family movie'.
One of the pleasures derived from watching this film stems from the precise timing of the actors and the often quirky dialogue exchanges. Ducastel and Martineau prove with this new addition to their filmography that they definitely are a force to reckon with in French cinema, evidence of which was clear with the tender road movie Dróle de Felix (2000) and the experimental video diary Ma vraie vie à Rouen (2002). In Cockles and Muscles, they use elements of gay culture, such as Charly's dress code, Jean Marc Barr's clone-ish Didier, trips to a cruising spot etc, and strip them of any political or moral connotation, something that comedy is more apt to do than drama. Clichés are used with a well-measured dose of irony and appear completely acceptable because of that as well as the comic effect they create.
There is no confrontation in Cockles and Muscles, only interaction and a sense of discovery that the characters find in each other, especially the older ones. Martineau said that when writing the script he tried to find a balance between Jacques Demy's action-ridden style and Rohmer's wit. It's safe to say that his intention to do that was accomplished.
Cockles and Muscles (Crustaces et Coquillages) is currently showing in the UK.
Monday, April 10, 2006
Amid the latest wave of documentaries and all the related irrelevant debris swept on our cinema screens, fortunately there are the exceptions that make up for them. New York Doll, like the proto-punk band New York Dolls on whom the title is based, sparkles against this often dull scenario. The debut feature of director Greg Whiteley, New York Doll focuses on the band's bassist, Arthur 'Killer' Kane, who's got to be one of the most unlikely rock and roll figures in the genre's history. Rich in real pathos, Whiteley's compassionate and delicate treatment of his subject matter is on par with the best works of contemporary downbeat fiction.
The New York Dolls, whose unofficial UK fan club was once headed by the young Morrissey (more of him later), was a seminal, pared-down rock band in early 70s New York, an anomaly amid the long-haired dictatorship of progressive rock that dominated the musical landscape in the dreariness of the hangover decade. Like the Stooges, the band injected some raucous, raw energy into rock music by taking it back to its simple guitar-drums-bass get-up and adding tons of make-up and women's clothes to it.
It's easy to forget how more than thirty years ago what a bunch of gender-bending freaks they must have been perceived as when they hit the scene. Their look has been so copied by cheesy hard-rock LA bands and the Glam Rock contingent that it seems like the music industry had always been happy to embrace that kind of feistiness. But it hadn't and as true pioneers, the New York Dolls paid the price for being, as the cliché goes, ahead of their time.
They disbanded after their second album, Too Much Too Soon (1975) without having made any money. Burnt-out by drugs and alcohol abuse, some of the original members managed to pursue further careers. Vocalist Davind Johansen morphed into Buster Pointerdexter, Sylvian Sylvian continued to play professionally and guitarrist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan founded the influential punk band The Heartbreakers. Arthur, in his turn, faded into obscurity, ventured on some failed musical projects and took the beaten route to alcoholic dissipation which nearly killed him. As he says at the beginning of the film, he hit rock bottom, both figuratively and literally (he fell off the window of his flat at some point).
The story behind New York Doll started when Whiteley heard about Morrissey taking over the curatorship of the London Meltdown festival at the Southbank in 2004, a summer festival where each season a guest curator is given freedom to present a programme based on his or her own taste (John Peel, Nick Cave, Laurie Anderson have all been at the helm of the event). Morrisey then launched the invitation for the band to reunite under his auspices. Whiteley had befriended Arthur at the Mormon mission they both frequented (he converted in 1989) and decided to follow him around with his camera during his preparation to come to London.
We encounter Arthur in Los Angeles, working at the Family History Center Library. His tragi-comic personality coupled with his dowdy office attire creates instant empathy. He is the man who is known amongst rock fans and specialists as 'the only statue in rock and roll' in reference to Arthur's wooden posturing on stage. But Whiteley never takes the easy route to show Arthur as a 'loser'; instead, his 'humdrum' life comes across as a rounded existence, as the affection of the two elderly ladies who work with him, and who pop up in the film a few times, reinforces.
The narrative builds up swiftly, rippling out to create a picture of his present life and his past, but also steadily heading towards the culmination of the film in London. This gives the story an amplitude that transcends the mere biopic, resulting in a poignant, respectful portrait of an individual. The reunion of the band in New York to rehearse for the gig after a 30-year hiatus is one of the highlights of the film. It's moving to see affection forming between that haggered lot so quickly. When they finally arrive in London, as a viewer you are desperately hoping that the concert will work and Arthur will see his long-nurtured dream to be a rock star again, even if fleetingly, fulfilled. A feeling of exhilaration enters the movie when they walk on stage to a rapturous audience. As a viewer, you share the same feeling. Watching Arthur play the bass (with a wooden posture, for sure!) is like witnessing a child receiving their most desired present. Extremely moving, New York Doll is a film about broken dreams and fandom (courtesy of Morrissey) whose integrity renders it into something nearing the spiritual. A must-see for both music and film fans.
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
Watch the trailer.