Archive for February, 2011

Biutiful

Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Biutiful
Movie review by Greg Carlson

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s fourth feature “Biutiful” retains the director’s long-windedness while dispensing with the criss-crossing, interlocking approach to multiple plot threads that he employed in the loose trilogy comprised of “Amores perros,” “21 Grams,” and “Babel.” Inarritu, whose preoccupation with death hovers over all of his features, inscribes “Biutiful” to his father, but despite the closeness shared between audience and principal character Uxbal (Javier Bardem), the movie struggles mightily to sustain its nearly two-and-a-half hour running time. Set in a gritty Barcelona a world away from the sun-dappled paradise inhabited by Bardem’s Juan Antonio in Woody Allen’s terrific “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Biutiful” explores the end of a life not particularly well lived.

Bleak is assuredly the most commonly applied adjective in reviews of “Biutiful,” and Inarritu relentlessly constructs one nearly unbearable crucible after another. Close to the outset, we learn that black market fixer Uxbal has but a few months to live, as his prostate cancer spreads throughout his body. Unable to rely on his mentally unstable ex, whose parenting skills will give any mother or father the shudders, Uxbal turns to Liwei (Luo Jin) and Ige (Diaryatou Daff), undocumented aliens, to look after his two kids while he juggles daily conflicts arising from his shady business dealings.

Several detractors have pounced on Inarritu for what might be perceived as cultural opportunism, especially in the way the Chinese and Senegalese characters are engaged as exotic wallpaper in Uxbal’s colorfully wretched journey toward oblivion. While one subplot involving a secret relationship between two of Uxbal’s Chinese partners vexingly goes nowhere, Inarritu devotes enough time to Ige for her own plight to resonate with the viewer. Also in the director’s defense is the narrative’s unwavering dedication to Uxbal, whose shoulder and point of view are almost never abandoned.

As a guiding motif never more than a breath away, death announces itself in several manifestations throughout the movie. Uxbal makes additional cash as a clairvoyant who communicates with the departed, and while some skeptics cry foul, Inarritu wants the viewers to know he is a believer: frightening apparitions float near ceilings, and some of the ghosts communicate directly with Uxbal. In one sequence, Uxbal literally touches the face of the father he never met when an exhumation provides a surreal once-in-a-deathtime opportunity. In many ways, this memorable moment is the closest “Biutiful” comes to expressing Inarritu’s gift for synthesizing the grotesque and the transcendent, although regular collaborator Rodrigo Prieto’s photography frames cockroaches and asphyxiated sweatshop workers with a “fearful symmetry” that finds beauty in the unlikeliest of images.

In one unmistakably strange set-piece, Uxbal visits a club that might as well be called Purgatorio. Accompanied by the deafening thump of Underworld’s “Shudder/King of Snake,” Uxbal somnambulates through the crowd of sweaty revelers while gyrating dancers appear as sexual monstrosities, nipples sprouting from buttocks and giant breasts where heads should be. The entire outré enterprise carries Inarritu’s emotional manipulation past the point of bluntness, but then, whoever accused this filmmaker of subtlety? Fortunately, Bardem is a monumental screen presence, and his previous work, including “Before Night Falls,” “The Sea Inside,” and even “No Country for Old Men” indicates a pattern of suffering that reaches some kind of apex – or nadir – in “Biutiful.”

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/28/11.

Unknown

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

unknown2011
Movie review by Greg Carlson

Hilariously specific and wildly improbable, “Unknown” stars coasting underachiever Liam Neeson (“Release the Kraken!”) in another of his recent paycheck-generators. Oskar Schindler may be long out of sight, but Neeson’s choices make for a fascinating and motley collection of historical personalities and fictional firebrands. From Michael Collins and Qui-Gon Jinn to Alfred Kinsey and the majestic lion Aslan, Neeson is no stranger to characters with incredible self-confidence or mighty ego – and sometimes both at the same time. “Unknown” provides the appealing performer with another protagonist whose sensitivity and decency collide with the necessity of physical violence.

Neeson – now approaching sixty – plays biotechnology researcher Dr. Martin Harris, an academic visiting Berlin for a major conference. Leaving behind much younger wife Elizabeth (January Jones) to check in to the hotel while he attempts to retrieve a mislaid briefcase from the airport, Harris experiences serious trauma when the taxi in which he is riding plummets into a river. Four days later, the groggy and disoriented victim makes his way back to Elizabeth, who shockingly denies ever having met him. Stranger still, Elizabeth is in the company of another man identified as Martin Harris. Undeterred, Harris aims to uncover the truth, which turns out to be a pretty ripe caper involving a blight-resistant strain of, yes, corn.

Based on a novel by Didier van Cauwelaert titled in English as “Out of My Head,” which alludes to an impishness the film never musters, “Unknown” is the second Dark Castle Entertainment-branded title directed by Jaume Collet-Serra to deal with the concept of double personalities. While it is certainly an improvement over “Orphan,” “Unknown” is instantly recognizable for the movie-world convenience provided by a konk on the noggin. It really doesn’t matter whether Neeson is Harris or not, given the constant presence of danger and peril that rockets the man from one dilemma to the next.

“Unknown” also takes itself more seriously than it should, and its few flashes of humor – most of which belong to the wisecracking Diane Kruger in her role as Gina, the Bosnian cabbie whose fateful fare involves her in farfetched espionage – are drowned out by plot convolutions and action thriller genre requirements. Car chases and assassination attempts alternate with quieter scenes, several of which focus on the tremendous Bruno Ganz as a weary former Stasi agent invigorated by an opportunity to revisit the kind of deception with which he dealt decades ago. Ganz’s single-scene confrontation with Frank Langella is a delightful slice of Black Forest ham.

Welding “The Bourne Identity” to several of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest “wrong man” scenarios, “Unknown” demonstrates for the umpteenth time the tonal challenges that the Master of Suspense made look so effortless. One immediately recognizable problem lies in the romantic inclinations of the “faithful” Harris toward the woman he thinks is his wife, even as the story insists that he and Gina take turns rescuing one another from all manner of serious bodily harm. In his prime, Hitchcock would not have commenced shooting until the sexual gamesmanship was honed to a fine edge of innuendo and double entendre, an element sorely missing from “Unknown.”

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/21/11.

The Illusionist

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

illusionist
Movie review by Greg Carlson

Inspired by a script written by Jacques Tati, animator Sylvain Chomet’s “The Illusionist” strolls through the wistful melancholy of a bygone era. An itinerant rabbit-and-hat performer’s act of kindness for a rural chambermaid named Alice leads to a chaste and gentle relationship that parallels the timeless tug between the outdated and the modern, the past and the future. While Chomet’s resolute commitment to missed opportunities, personal humiliations, and the crushing weight of failure distinguish “The Illusionist” from the majority of animated features, cinephiles should find much to admire in the movie’s exquisite design. More contemplative than Chomet’s “The Triplets of Belleville,” “The Illusionist” is also more rewarding.

As we follow the fragile acquaintance of the older man and the younger girl, Chomet casts his adopted country as the principal character. Few films have rendered Scotland as lovingly as “The Illusionist.” Filtered through the gauze of its late 1950s settting, Chomet’s nostalgic, romanticized Edinburgh is much closer to the leisurely picnics of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” than the needle dens and filthy toilets of Danny Boyle’s “Trainspotting.” Painstakingly researched, the movie’s cityscape is a stunning simulacrum, from individual buildings to clothing styles and automobile makes and models.

Chomet constructs “The Illusionist” with remarkable restraint in an era of manic, computer-generated hallucinations populated by hyperactive, chattering beasts caroming through pinball machines built from dated movie references and shiny pop song montages. In “The Illusionist,” one is hard pressed to spot even a single facial close-up, and Chomet’s deliberate distance from the human beings has put off any number of critics quick to label the film airless, empty, and repetitive. Instead, the filmmaker mimics the wide shot staging favored by Tati predecessors Chaplin and Keaton (especially visible in a scene that alludes to the motorcar mayhem of Keaton’s 1922 “The Blacksmith” without surrendering to total chaos).

In an essay for Senses of Cinema, Tati biographer and Princeton French literature professor David Bellos complains bitterly, perhaps jealously, that Chomet has done literally “nothing” with Tati’s source material, and that the “transposition of a Tati gag from the medium of mime to the medium of animation changes its nature entirely – and makes it just a bit pointless, too.” Bellos goes on to argue that Chomet has insensibly conflated the lead character in “The Illusionist” with Tati’s signature M. Hulot persona, most probably through signifiers that include the replication of a number of Hulot gags and the film’s lack of spoken dialogue.

It must be noted, however, that the magician in “The Illusionist” shares Tati’s unaltered surname Tatischeff, not Hulot’s, and Chomet’s purpose with the character departs significantly from Tati’s careful erasure of Hulot’s “trade, profession, activity, or social integration of any sort” (as Bellos puts it). In one of the most enjoyable moments in “The Illusionist” the old conjurer hides from Alice by ducking into a screening of “Mon Oncle.” The animated figure regards his projected, live-action doppelganger with a seemingly contradictory blend of surprise and recognition, and in this single moment, Chomet reiterates his artistic prerogative to honor Tati with homage rather than mount a futile attempt at a “pure” Hulot feature.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/14/11.

Another Year

Monday, February 7th, 2011

anotheryear
Movie review by Greg Carlson

Mike Leigh’s polarizing style moves and inspires some as surely as it alienates and bores others, and “Another Year,” the prosaically titled Academy Award nominee in the original screenplay category, falls short of several of the filmmaker’s features, including “Happy-Go-Lucky,” “Vera Drake,” “Secrets & Lies,” and cult favorite “Naked.” Divided into seasonal quadrants leading up to an inevitable winter, “Another Year” bluntly compares the comfortable existence of an aging couple with the misery and loneliness of a frequent dinner guest. Deliberately selected quotidian content shapes the narrative in a decidedly low-key portrait of domesticity, and audience enjoyment will depend on tolerance levels for the prickly and often unlikable characters populating the film.

As Tom and Gerri, Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen reek of blissful, long-term partnership. Employed, stable, and affectionate, they often entertain their sad sack pals at cookouts featuring the bounty of their well-tended and symbolic garden allotment. Chief among the losers is Mary (Lesley Manville), a souse whose dreams of romantic partnership are so desperate she openly flirts with Tom and Gerri’s thirty-year-old son Joe (Oliver Maltman). While Mary’s encyclopedia of woe charts one futile letdown after another, a visit from Tom’s old buddy Ken (Peter Wight), a wheezing, chain-smoking lush, makes her plight look – for a moment – sunnier by comparison.

No reviewer hated Leigh’s film more than the Village Voice’s Karina Longworth, whose blood-draining demolition compared “Another Year” unfavorably with “The Human Centipede.” Longworth might have a point with her criticism of the entitlement, self-righteousness and condescension demonstrated by Tom and Gerri to their less fortunate acquaintances, but she misses the man’s point when bemoaning the ambiguity inherent in the writer-director’s own sympathies. One of the film’s pleasures is the concluding scene’s alliance with Mary in her emotional isolation, which unfolds as a grim epiphany (or perhaps anti-epiphany) that would be right at home in “Dubliners.”

After spending the entirety of the narrative as an object of pity, scorn, and even ridicule, Mary sits in the midst of a group meal as the soundtrack fades to silence. Far from Longworth’s description as “totally awful,” Mary has perhaps glimpsed a kind of future to which she may resign herself. Branched into a pair of possibilities in which a tenuous connection to Tom’s quiet brother Ronnie (the excellent David Bradley) opposes the resignation of continued solitude, Leigh renders enough vagueness for the viewer to wonder whether Mary will continue to search for some elusive joy that sits just out of reach.

Additionally, Leigh shares a clue to his concerns with the cameo appearance of Imelda Staunton, whose brief screen time sets up the gulf between the well adjusted and the chronically depressed. As Janet, a patient counseled by Gerri, Staunton’s stone-faced matron is asked to rate her happiness on a scale of one to ten. When “one” comes as the practically unhesitating reply, viewers should – via Leigh’s casting choice, especially since Staunton never returns to the story – understand the implications of the tired woman’s response. Leigh drapes her grave self-assessment over the proceedings like a shroud, indicating that one should not necessarily take comfort in the cheerful banalities of the “lucky” Tom and Gerri.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 2/7/11.