Thursday, May 31, 2007

Eight Random Raves

Fellini, Kubrick, Kusturica and Gilliam all rolled into Alfonso Cuaron! The most harrowing escape scenes in "Children of Men" are also the simplest – Clive Owen's Theo not getting the car started, unable to squeeze through a half open door. This is the stuff of universal nightmares, not science fiction, a display of the same humanity Cuaron brought to "Y Tu Mama Tambien”. It’s just a shame the directors representing the new, Mexican revolution in film (Cuaron, del Toro, Gonzalez Innaritu) differ from their Italian Neorealist and French New Wave counterparts in one key way. Rossellini and Truffault never felt the global pressure to create their masterpieces in any language other than their own native tongue. However remarkable Clive Owen’s ability to carry “Children of Men” squarely on his strong shoulders, several Latin actors could have easily done the same (and without the added distraction of a miscast Julianne Moore). Penelope Cruz once gave an interview in which she expressed the inevitably of her working with Javier Bardem. After seeing Cuaron’s epic vision, I couldn’t help but think the perfect vehicle had passed them by.

The indie flick “Hustle and Flow” about a Memphis pimp striving to become a rapper took me by surprise with what it lacks – condescension to its main characters. The director, bestowing nothing but respect upon the “daddy and his ho’s,” presents them as street savvy businesspeople, not as helpless victims without a choice (much like another wonderful indie film “Maria Full of Grace” in which the eponymous heroine becomes a drug mule of her own free will). “Hustle and Flow” is subversive if for no other reason than its PG-13 rating. To make a film about a pimp and his hookers without sex and with very little violence is to make one hell of a radical statement – and to render a truer portrayal than what Hollywood puts onscreen.

Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” is perhaps the closest the director has come to his masterpiece, a philosophical mind trip in the guise of a road trip. Like James Stewart in “It’s A Wonderful Life”, Bill Murray plays a man who is more a ghost as he wanders through “what could have been,” through lives that might have been his. A reflection of us all, his character Don Johnston will always be curiously aware (if not actively searching), wondering about the “unknown son,” what the other path would have been like. (And speaking of what could have been, the movie version of "Fast Food Nation" suffers deeply from the didactic Richard Linklater at its helm. This film needs an Alex Cox brush stroke, a hyper-real "Repo Man" take. A less polemical, more philosophical Jim Jarmusch or Wim Wenders could have provided that missing artistry.)

“The Proposition” is a nice little gem of a film – the bloodiest movie I’ve ever seen without a single scene of gratuitous violence. That screenwriter Nick Cave and director John Hillcoat have a long artistic history together is obvious. The script and the directing are completely seamless (a rare feat when the scriptwriter isn’t also the director). Watching “The Proposition” unfold was like listening to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds play, all elements melding in perfect harmony. Nick’s vocals fusing to Blixa’s guitar chords is no different than Nick’s dialogue playing through the mouths of Ray Winstone, Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Emily Watson and the rest of the brilliant ensemble cast. And Cave and Warren Ellis’ soundtrack proved effective precisely because of its subtlety, not a word of Cave’s dark crooning to be heard until the closing credits appeared.

“Police Beat” is a fantastic, multilayered debut – an existential journey deserving of the cult following garnered by the less accomplished “Donnie Darko”. It is a “Repo Man” for the 21st Century – a study of one man’s mental disintegration in the midst of a thankless job, with a perfectly executed assimilation twist.

The Dardenne brothers’ “L’Enfant” is a dynamic sociological study in the form of a fiction film. The visual metaphors, the long shots of the protagonist pushing an empty baby stroller, an empty motor scooter, carrying his unconscious girlfriend, carrying a half-drowned boy – trying desperately to rid himself of burdens only to keep acquiring new ones. The stillness of his environment, waiting in long lines, desperate for something when nothing ever happens, contrasts wonderfully with the leading man’s restlessness. The character is running a thousand miles a minute in his head, is always moving, dashing towards danger, dodging it, so we experience his life as one long suspense thriller. I can’t think of another film that portrays the hustler mentality so perfectly.

I'm a sucker for smart showmanship, a la Hitchcock. The Nolan brothers are the kings of the unreliable protagonist. "The Prestige" should have received an Academy Award nomination for such intricate editing, performed with the precision of a surgeon with a knife. Their films are defined as much – if not more – by what’s not shown onscreen than what is.

As for the smartest script of all the 2006 Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Film, well that would belong to Deepa Mehta's "Water". It’s tight, ingenious in its structure. The film draws you in, lulls you with its cute, “Whale Rider” feel-good, “little girl against the misogynistic culture” premise. Almost insidiously, from moment to moment, you start to have an awakening – a parallel enlightenment to the one from the Dark Ages that the new rebel Gandhi is preaching. You realize there is a bigger story here. The characters transform into the larger picture of India’s struggle for independence – against Britain yes, but more importantly, against itself. It is a cultural history lesson in the guise of entertainment.

By the time you reach the film’s spectacular ending, which unfolds with the unstoppable motion of Gandhi’s physical and metaphorical train, you’re shocked by the realization that all the characters, all the storylines you’ve been focused on, were mere red herrings. As slowly and quietly as a passive revolution the true protagonist, the character whose journey represents India’s own – from dark to light – emerges. At its core “Water” contains a technically breathtaking piece of writing.

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