Sunday, February 04, 2007

Recent Screenings

Laberinto del Fauno, El [Pan's Labyrinth] (2006) - Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, starring Ariadna Gil, Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, and Ivana Baquero.

It's the 1940s, just after the Spanish Civil War, and a young girl in an isolated area of Franco's Spain spends much of the time in her own imagination, encounters monstrous creatures, and comes into contact with remnants of the Republican anti-fascists who are now being hunted down.

While that could be a summary of Pan's Labyrinth, I'm actually talking about Victor Erice's beautiful and haunting classic, El éspiritu de la colmena [The Spirit of the Beehive]. The poetry, subtlety and humanity of Erice's 1973 film have been replaced in Pan's Labyrinth with a comic-book sensibility and an aesthetic partly lifted from the Harry Potter films, principally the darker hues of The Prisoner of Azkaban, although the mandrake from The Chamber of Secrets makes an appearance as well. (I hope the mandrake is at least getting scale for his work.) Obviously, Guillermo Del Toro was trying to make a very different film, but part of the story has been done before.

How you feel about Pan's Labyrinth probably depends on how much you like fantasy and comic-book movies. I've enjoyed some of them, especially the Spider Man and Harry Potter films, but I've grown a bit weary of the genre as a whole. Moral complexity isn't exactly a hallmark of the George W. Bush era, and I suppose it makes sense that simplistic fables with easily identifiable good guys and bad guys would be popular. Ambiguity of experience has been replaced by intensity, heightened by special effects. Adulthood and its attendant difficulty of sorting through the murky, grey areas of life is rejected for a never-ending adolescence in which expression has a limited emotional range.

Pan's Labyrinth is supposed to be different, an "adult" fairy-tale that blends fantasy with reality. But beyond some brutal violence and an R-rating, I don't see much adult here. It's the same old comic book version of good and evil. It's hard to imagine a more villainous bad guy than Sergi López's Fascist "Capitán Vidal." On the other side, you have an amorphous bunch of heroic "rebels" up in the hills. There's no hint at all of the political complexities among the real anti-Fascists in the Spanish Civil War that led them to fight each other almost as much as they did Franco. While the fantasy segments work well enough, the "reality" part of the film suffers terribly from its heavily clichéd narrative. An excellent Spanish cast is sadly wasted on boring, simplistic characters who conjure up little genuine emotion. Only Ivana Baquero, as the young Ofelia, makes much of a mark. The visual aspect of the film has been highly praised, and it's quite good at times, but I don't see anything new in that regard either. In fact, I walked out of the cinema feeling like I had already seen this movie over the course of a dozen different films.

At least one reviewer has mentioned Pan's Labyrinth in the same breath as Cocteau and Buñuel, but we're a long way here from Orphée or The Exterminating Angel, two works that I would consider "adult fairy tales." What's the difference? Poetry, I think. Cocteau and Buñuel were poets working in film. Erice's El éspiritu de la colmena is a poetic work. Poetry, like life, is full of ambiguity. It can be difficult to understand. You have to work at it sometimes, wrestle with it like Jacob did with the angel. You have to take your time and allow for some meditation - and allow for some unanswerable questions. Is it any surprise that a culture that has a hard time dealing with poetry would find the adolescent, comic-book worldview of George W. Bush appealing?

Pan's Labyrinth is a moderately interesting film, worth watching if you like the fantasy/comic book genre. It's vivid, if nothing else, and some of the scenes have remained with me for a while. I respect that in a film. But it still feels like a teenager telling the tale . . . a teenager who's watched a lot of other fantasy and gore flicks, and read about the Spanish Civil War on Wikipedia. If you want to encounter the world with a little more emotional and intellectual depth, I suggest you look elsewhere.

And do check out Erice's Spirit of the Beehive. It's a quiet, beautiful and haunting film that's sadly unknown in the United States.

De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté [The Beat That My Heart Skipped] (2005) - Written by Jacques Audiard and Tonino Benacquista, directed by Jacques Audiard, starring Romain Duris, Linh Dan Pham, Niels Arestrup and Emmuanuelle Devos.

Thomas Seyr is an intense young man involved in shady real estate scams that sometimes require roughing up others. He's learned the trade from his father and basically grew up in this milieu of second-rate, borderline mafia types. After about ten minutes of watching this film, I thought, "Oh boy, this is going to be one of those really intense films that just leaves you feeling brutalized." Then, a strange thing happened, the movie totally switched gears. By chance, Thomas runs into an older man who used to be the manager for Thomas' mother, who, we suddenly discover, had been a concert pianist. The man asks if Thomas still plays the piano, and if so, to come by sometime for an audition.

The rest of the film deals with the growing tension between the two seemingly disparate parts of Thomas' life - his love of and talent for music, and his background as a small-time thug. He employs a young Vietnamese pianist, a recent arrival to France, to help him get ready for his audition. She can't speak French, and the two are left to try and communicate through music. It's tough going for Thomas. He's an edgy, almost ADD-type who has little patience for anything. His energy and violence make it difficult for him to capture the subtlety and grace required by the music he has to perform. He knows this may be his only chance to change his life, yet he slowly becomes aware that his background and temperament are at cross-purposes with his artistic desires. His desperation grows palpable. Meanwhile, his real estate scam buddies are trying to close a big deal, and his father has crossed paths with a real member of the Russian mafia, who Thomas knows is way out of their league and very dangerous.

As the film progresses, you also get bits and pieces of the story of Thomas' mother and what happened to his parents. You watch as he struggles with conflicted feelings towards his father, who has been his mentor and teacher on one hand but has also raised him in a violent and thuggish environment and is becoming more and more dependent on Thomas as he gets older. It's a fascinating relationship, and Niels Arestrup won a César (the French film award) for Best Supporting Actor as the father.

The film won eight Césars in total at the 2006 ceremony, including Best Film, Best Director, Best Writing, Best Music, Best Cinematography and another acting award for Linh Dan Pham as the Vietnamese pianist. Roman Duris was nominated for Best Actor and gives a riveting performance as Thomas. His energy and intensity drive the film, yet he also shows great sensitivity and a wonderful ability to portray the growing conflicts within himself as he navigates between the world of art and the world of hoodlums.

The director, Jacques Audiard, does a magnificent job developing the many layers of the story as we watch Thomas' transformation throughout the film. Unlike the stylized, cartoon violence of Tarantino and most Hollywood productions (and Pan's Labyrinth), Audiard shows us both the disturbing realities of violence and its impact on people, and the very human temptation of resorting to violence to gain power. His use of violence actually works towards an artistic purpose, as a way of developing character.

The Beat that My Heart Skipped is an intense film that moves at times with the breathless pace of an action flick. Yet Audiard gives the viewer a chance to breath now and then as we watch Thomas working on his music, and he and the young Vietnamese woman develop their unusual relationship.
With deep currents of emotion and fascinating questions about art, violence, power and family ties, it also offers a number of surprises, plot twists and dark humor that keep it from being too heavy or pretentious. It's a marvelous piece of movie-making. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Quai des Orfèvres (1947) - Written and directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, starring Louis Jouvet, Bernard Blier, Suzy Delair and Simone Renant.

Henri-Georges Clouzot directed two of the greatest thrillers of all-time, Le Salaire de la peur [Wages of Fear] (1953) and Les Diabolique (1955). He's often referred to as the French Hitchcock, and the two actually had a bidding war over Les Diabolique, but the comparison seems too reductive, as he also directed a famous documentary about Pablo Picasso, Le Mystère Picasso (1956), which included time-lapse footage of Picasso at work and was chosen as a French National Treasure in 1984. He also directed this delightful noirish piece.

Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) is an ambitious music hall singer married to a somewhat dull but jealous pianist named Maurice (Bertrand Blier.) Their friend Dora (Simone Renant) runs a photography studio, where Jenny meets and flirts with an older, well-connected man who turns out to be a creep into pornography. This drives Maurice mad. Jenny goes to the wealthy man's house to meet with him against Maurice's wishes. Maurice follows her. Dora follows both of them. There is a murder and we're never really sure who killed who, or if the victim was killed at all.

Thus enters Inspector Antoine, played wonderfully by the great Louis Jouvert. He's a beat-up old cop who spent time in Africa and came back with only a young black boy and malaria to show for it. He also happens to be an excellent detective, though he comes off like a rumpled failure to other people. About halfway through the film, I suddenly realized that Peter Falk's Columbo had to have been patterned after Inspector Antoine. They share several characteristics, as well as a ratty old raincoat, a propensity to lose the raincoat, and the same way of starting to walk out the door and then asking, "One last thing . . ." Who knew Columbo came from a 1947 French film?

What makes this film so delightful are all of the little details and sub-plots. Dora, played terrifically by the beautiful Simone Renant, seems awfully friendly with Maurice while Jenny's away, but then she seems awfully friendly with Jenny while Maurice is a away. The element of lesbianism is done tastefully, with humor and humanity. In fact, the film seems way ahead of its time in several areas. Jouvert's relationship with the young African boy is somewhat mysterious and touching. Is he his son? We're never really sure. The film has a great sense of humor, mixed with a wonderfully human side to most of its characters. Antoine encounters a photographer who murdered his entire family and they have a fascinating conversation about art. Jouvert's Inspector Antoine is a marvel, and you enjoying spending time with him while he's on screen.

While Quai de Orfèvres may not be as powerful as Wages of Fear or Diabolique, it's an excellent film and easier to watch than the other two, which are classics and should be viewed but are not "light" films. This one is marvelously written and beautifully photographed, with great acting all around. The setting among Paris music halls is a lot of fun and features some wonderful 1940s French music. Definitely RECOMMENDED.

Little Miss Sunshine
(2006) - Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, starring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carrell, Alan Arkin and Abigail Breslin.

While quite funny at times, this was a darker, more serious film than I expected. It's a simple story - a dysfunctional family travels from New Mexico to California so their young daughter can perform at the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. A suicidal brother-in-law (Steve Carrell) and a foul-mouthed, drug-using grandfather (Alan Arkin) go along for the ride. It's a good film, with strong ensemble acting. Carrell particularly shines. Both Arkin and Abigail Breslin, who plays the little girl, were nominated for acting Oscars. The film may be a little too clever and earnest in the end. I enjoyed it but came away feeling like it wasn't as good or as deep as it thought it was. Perhaps this is what happens to "independent" films after Hollywood totally co-opts the movement.

Thank You for Smoking (2005) - Written and directed by Jason Reitman, starring Aaron Eckhart, Maria Bello, William Macy, Robert Duvall, Rob Lowe, Sam Elliott.

A pleasantly nasty and politcally incorrect film. This dark comedy, based on Christopher Buckley's novel of the same name, concerns a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, played by Aaron Eckhart. What the film does really well is show up hypocrisy across the board - among tobacco lobbyists, other lobbyists, politicians, the media, and - surprisingly for a Hollywood film - even among ourselves, the public. Maybe because I wasn't expecting much, I really enjoyed this. It's well written, with an edgy sense lacking from so many Hollywood productions these days. The casting is excellent, with several actors turning in great performances in smaller roles, particularly Sam Elliott as a former Marlboro Man dying of cancer and Rob Lowe (someone I don't care for) as a Zen-Hollywood super agent. And, amazingly, the film actually gets you thinking - if only for a moment.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006) - Directed by David Frankel, starring Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci and Emily Blunt.

There's not a lot to this film, and certainly nothing new, but it's a decent comedy, with some good lines now and then, almost all of them delivered by Stanley Tucci as an effeminate (surprise!) fashion designer. Anne Hathaway (Hollywood's answer to Charlotte Gainsbourg?) plays a young woman just out of college who wants to be a serious journalist and kind of falls into her job as assistant to the all-important editor of a major fashion magazine. We follow her transformation from a somewhat frumpy but earnest Midwestern girl to a chic, 20-something New Yorker attending gala balls and meeting famous people. Of course, she's slowly losing her soul, which causes conflict with her drip of a boyfriend and her "aspiring artist" girlfriend. This bunch may be the most pathetically drawn "poor but cool" young New Yorkers ever put down on film. She and the Drip manage to live in a perfect "Bohemian-style" Manhattan apartment that they could never afford in real-life, just to add a little more Hollywood in-authenticity to this Fairy Tale of the Big Apple. I have no earthly idea why Meryl Streep received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. I guess the Academy feels bad that she's only been nominated 13 times (and won twice). She does fine in the role, but where's the challenge? A good Friday-night flick you can forget about without any guilt by the time you wake up Saturday morning.


Liam said...

Hmmm... You liked the French films... What a surprise.

Sad to hear about Pan's Labyrinth, but I'm not overly surprised. There's an obsession with the Guerra Civil in Spanish cinema, and it tends to be very black and white and simplistic.

I liked Little Miss Sunshine quite a bit, especially for the ensemble acting. I have a huge soft spot for Alan Arkin, and this was a very fun role for him.

We actually watched a real film this weekend -- Derzu Uzala. Very nice. Filius imperatricis pulcherrimae Africae occidentalis proved he can be a very cool 11-year-old on occassion, as he really loved the Japanese movie in Russian with subtitles.

Much better than the crappy football game on Sunday.

cowboyangel said...

Hmmm... You liked the French films... What a surprise.

I liked those two French films, yes. I don't like all French films, contrary to what you may think.

Sad to hear about Pan's Labyrinth

Well, come on, it's me. Mr. Hard-To-Please. Mr. I-Don't-Like-Films-
Everyone-Else-Likes. (Actually, that's not true, but you think it's true, and I suppose there's some truth in it.) Who am I to argue with A.O. Scott and every other critic? I think Denby in the New Yorker is the only one who actually found any fault with the film, and he still liked it. And it's already #66 on the IMDB Top 250, so I'm obviously the freak.

Actually, that's not true. I've talked to 5 people who've actually seen the movie, and none of them were particularly impressed. All of them are pretty good film critics, I would say. And all are over 40, too - I've wondered if it's a generational thing, as IMDB tends to skew towards 20-somethings. Or people who are emotionally and intellectually equivalent to 20-somethings.

Of all people, I'd really like you to see it, so we can discuss it.

Or I should say, so we can get into a drunken brawl about it at Grassroots Tavern. But I would be curious to know what you thought. Although now that I've said I didn't like it that much, you'll probably WANT to love it!

I have a huge soft spot for Alan Arkin

I was listening to Three Dog Night's Greatest Hits over the weekend (no, I'm not making that up), and I saw that a David Arkin was one of the co-writers of "Black and White," one of 3DN's #1 hits. ("The ink is black, the page is white, together we learn to read and write...") It turns out to have been Alan's father!

You know, I've never seen Derzu Uzala. Got to watch that one of these days. Don't know why I haven't yet. Oh . . . right, the wife HAS seen it and never wants to watch it again. (Though she said she liked it.)

Glad to hear L liked it. That moves him up quite a bit on my Cool-Meter. Any 11-year-old who digs Kurosawa wins major points.

Much better than the crappy football game on Sunday.

Game? I think you're mistaken. There was no football game yesterday.

Liam said...

Well, Romell has wanted to see P's L for some time, so maybe we will see it eventually. Sergi Lopez is one of my favorite actors (did you ever see "Lisbon" with him & Carmen Maura & Frederico Luppi? He's great in it and the subtitles are supurb). Still, like I said, I'm cautious about Spanish films about that period at this point.

El espiritu de la colmena is a masterpiece.

So, I liked running the kickoff back 92 yards for a touchdown. And I liked the greased-pig fumbles in the first half -- if I'm not going to see good football, I like seeing Keystone Cops football. After that, it was just finding out why everyone has been dissing Rex Grossman.

cowboyangel said...

the subtitles are supurb

Hopefully, the brilliant but unnamed translator used spell-checker on the "supurb" subtitles.

BTW, I think we should make an entry for you on IMDB and add you as "English Translator" on all the films you did. Seriously.

I would not recommend taking L to see Pan's Labyrinth. You and the Empress should see it first. It's excessively violent at times. This is not Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. It's more like Saw as a fantasy film.

if I'm not going to see good football, I like seeing Keystone Cops football.

Technically, the National Football League of the United States of America requires two teams to participate in a "game." There must be an offense, a defense, and a QB on each side. One excellent kick returner and 52 other "non-professionals" dressed up in football costumes doesn't qualify as a "team." I think what you're actually referring to was the Prince Concert broadcast on Fox Network yesterday. There seemed to have been a pre- and post-Concert "football" exhibition connected to the event, but there was no actual "game," per se.

crystal said...

Derzu Uzala! :-)

I thought Thank You for Smoking was good too ... the MOD squad - heh.

Jeff said...

Wow. I really do need to get out more. I haven't seen any of these movies.

I admit it. I like almost all French movies. The pace always seems to work for me, and I just love to hear the language. The problem is, I've hardly seen any since the 1980's, when I was going out every weekend. Take Betty Blue for example. A picture that catches your attention immediately, and isn't easily forgotten. I really do have to wonder if Beatrice Dalle is just as mad in real life as she was in the film.

All of Gerard Depardiue's bad films are in English. Well, almost all of them. And all of the ones in English are bad.

But that shows how dated my perceptions are...

The football farce in the monsoon! They don't call him Train Rex for nothing.

Prince has no vocal range anymore, but he can still play the hell out of a guitar.

cowboyangel said...

Derzu Uzala!


No sneezing in the Comments section, please. Especially in other languages!

Crystal, Did you ever wind up seeing Pan's Labyrinth? I know you posted something on it when it first came out. I want to talk to someone about it.

Steve Caratzas said...

I really wanted to like Pan's Labyrinth, but it just wore on me. Great photography, excellent acting, but somehow empty. I don't know if it's possible that a film about a labyrinth can be successful (see the David Bowie version).

The Beat That My Heart Skipped didn't do it for me either, particularly as it is based on the (to my mind) far superior Fingers (1978), directed by James Toback and starring Harvey Keitel. I do love French films, though.

cowboyangel said...


There have been one or two good films since the 1980s, it's true. But I'm not sure you've missed that much.

I'm sure you have your own entertainment at home!

I've never been a Prince fan, and his "concert" last weekend didn't change my mind, per se. I did like him playing part of "All Along the Watchtower," in a dual nod to Dylan and Jimi. And i was impressed that he wasn't A) electrocuted in the rain B) disfigured by stray fireworks. They must have spent more money on fireworks than I make in 5 years.

He was more interesting, however, than the amateur football exhibition that took place the same day.

cowboyangel said...

Steve! Long time no hear. Glad you dropped by. Hope you're doing well.

I wanted to like Pan's labyrinth, too. I saw Del Toro being interviewed, and he seemed like an interesting and articulate guy. But, like you, the film did seem to wear on me as it went along. I blame the facile script and an intellectual laziness, which surprised me after his interview.

Interesting that you didn't like the Audiard film. Was it just in comparison to the Toback film, or were there other reasons? I've never seen Fingers and had actually never heard of it until I read reviews about this one, so I had no comparison to make. I'd be curious to check it out. Have you seen Audiard's Sur mes lèvres (2001) [Read My Lips]? I liked that as well and will probably comment on it soon.