Great Scene: John Adams

In the American character today, there are few things in shorter supply than political courage.  Indeed, the depth of partisan conformity in Washington, D.C., has made the very idea of “going against the grain” all but unpalatable.  Yet since America’s founding, there has been the occasional profile in stately valor, in which the leaders of the time did what was not merely unpopular, but which carried enormous negative consequences much worse than the prospect of losing the next election.

The first and foremost of these was the founding itself.  The 2008 HBO miniseries John Adams, based on the engrossing 2001 book by David McCullough, does many great things in re-imagining the life and times of the most underappreciated of founding fathers, but perhaps the most fundamental is to show the absolute nerve it took to declare independence from the mighty British Empire.

John Adams is packed to the gills with drama and excitement to make even the most casual history buff breathless with curiosity, but the central event in the series—the vote by the Continental Congress to adopt the Declaration of Independence—is so intrinsically significant, and so painstakingly established by the filmmakers, that its dramatic force springs from within.  The moment, when it comes, carries a surprising emotional impact, in part because it is so flabbergastingly simple.

Political courage comes in two forms, and John Adams gives voice to both.  The first, and by far the most celebrated, was the Continental Congress formally denouncing George III as a tyrant and declaring the thirteen American colonies “Free and Independent States,” just at the moment when the king himself declared that any such insurrection would be met with the execution of every individual who took part.  When the rabble-rousers in Philadelphia pledged “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor,” they were not speaking rhetorically.  Lest we forget, the idea of revolution in the summer of 1776 was, by all accounts, neither remotely feasible nor especially popular outside the convention hall.

At the same time, the Continental Congress bore witness to another face of moral daring—that of the skeptics who shared the rebels’ disdain for the king but viewed independence as perilous and foolhardy.  Then, as now, speaking against a partisan consensus was no easy task.

The rhetorical leader of this faction, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, is portrayed in John Adams as an honorable and honest man who believes to his boots that betraying the English crown will lead to ruin for the American colonies, and who concedes publicly that his illustrious reputation will likely be destroyed by his steadfast opposition to the emerging Glorious Cause.  Although Dickinson agrees to excuse himself from the final vote—in an eleventh-hour deal to ensure the declaration is passed—he does not compromise his principles.  Adams, a man of principle if ever there was one, would never allow such a thing to happen.

The eloquent objections of men like Dickinson—and the seriousness with which they are considered—are essential to the climactic roll call’s effect, punctuating the full significance and audacity of this decidedly treasonous act.  As the final, unanimous vote is recorded and the clerk announces, “The resolution carries,” the hall becomes deadly silent, as we are invited to read the curious looks on the various delegates’ faces.  Having just made the most momentous decision of their lives, knowing not how things will turn out, their unspoken recognition is that this act might well have been their last.

The roll call

Great Scene: Alice

Who is the curious girl we follow down the rabbit hole?  Many people of my generation probably picture Disney's well-behaved blond soprano, and now we can add Tim Burton's bare-shouldered adult heroine to our Alice repertoire.  None too sinister young ladies: the world Alice's imagination creates can be scary, but it's full of reassuring and whimsical characters.

The Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer's Alice seems no less benign at first, though she doesn't go out of her way to be cute: her pink frock is a bit grubby, her face unemotive. Very soon, we sense something a little off. While the Alice interpreted by Disney holds a charming one-sided conversation with a kitten to vent her boredom, Svankmajer's Alice sits in a silent, dusty room under a humming light bulb and throws pebbles into a cup of tea.

Svankmajer is a political filmmaker--he was banned from work for seven years for using documentary footage that Soviet authorities preferred to keep hidden--and it's easy to see the tense environment at the beginning of Alice as a critique of his society's living conditions.  Were the answer so simple, Alice could escape into her own imagination.  But something is rotten in this Alice's Wonderland.  After falling down the "rabbit hole" (here, a desk drawer in the middle of a plain of rocks), the girl wanders through what seems to be an poorly maintained, infinite apartment building, no less decrepit than her own "real" bedroom.  Silence is only broken by ticks, creaks, and animal footsteps; rooms are filled with a sickly electric light; everything exists amid dust and roaches.

Throughout, Svankmajer mixes organic and inorganic life forms, dead and living flesh, and comic and grim violence.  What makes Wonderland terrifying is its stop-motion fauna: skeletal monstrosities such as a fish on spindly legs and a deer skull on top of a femur that drags itself along the floor; socks transformed into caterpillars, frog- and fish-footmen with mouths permanently agape, and moldering puppets. The heroine herself periodically turns into a doll which finds itself in danger of being captured or broken. Even the full-sized Alice must face the Queen of Heart's decapitation fetish in a trial scene heavy with arbitrary political menace.

To the surrealist, children are no innocents, and Alice's curiosity leads her into her own internally logical fantasy whose common denominators are threat and force.  Her guide is the iconic White Rabbit, who turns out to be the Queen's executioner. Svankmajer shows himself at maximum perversity in his interpretation of the Rabbit as a taxidermied zombie perpetually leaking sawdust out of his dry, sutured belly.  This Rabbit, unlike Carroll's, does not appear out of nowhere but starts as Alice's possession; he already belongs to her world. The mutilated Rabbit rips out the nails pinning him inside his glass display case, nearly disintegrating in the process.  Here is the moment wherein we discover a new Wonderland, in which a child animates the decay around her with the violence already developing in her psyche.

-Julia Zelman

Meet Svankmajer's White Rabbit here


Kick Ass

I’ll start by addressing the pun that will be made by so many bloggers over the next few weeks: No, Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass does not kick ass. It is a flawed but mostly enjoyable film that is better than most of what is currently playing in the major theaters, but you’d lose nothing by waiting for DVD. Its trailers promised a hyper-violent, tongue-in-cheek superhero movie, and it delivers, just much better on one count than the other.

This is the story of Dave Lizewski. Dave, played by Aaron Johnson, is a normal high school student, with no particular talents or interests beyond hanging out with his friends, reading comic books and masturbating. In his voice-over, Dave muses “Like most people my age, I just existed.” But one day Dave has an idea: If there are real villains in the world, why can’t there be real heroes? And so, with nothing but a silly costume and a desire to do some good, Dave brands himself “Kick-Ass” and decides to go out and enact some vigilante justice. Unfortunately, while stopping his first crime, Dave is stabbed and hit by a car. The accident damages his nerves, making him less sensitive to pain, and allows him to draw interest from his crush, Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca), who just happens to think he’s gay. Once he’s healed, Dave puts his suit back on and finally succeeds in stopping his crime, which leads to a youtube video of his exploits, national attention and a Myspace page full of people requesting help (yes, seeing Myspace does make it feel a bit outdated).

But Dave is not the only vigilante in town. Damon and Mindy Macready (Nicolas Cage and Chloe Grace-Moretz) have been preparing for years to wage a vigilante campaign against New York’s biggest mob boss, Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong). Even though Mindy is only eleven years old, she is as tough and violent as anyone else in the film. As his henchmen begin to get killed off, Frank suspects that it’s the work of Kick-Ass, and sends his son Chris (Christopher “McLovin” Mintz-Plasse) out as a superhero named Red Mist to find Kick-Ass. As Dave struggles to balance his relationship with Katie and his new lifestyle, the war between the vigilantes and the mob grows increasingly intense, leading to a series of betrayals and hyper-violent shootouts.

As you would expect from a story about a bunch of nerds dressed in costumes fighting crime, the film is full of supposedly comedic references to other superheroes and superhero culture in general. Unfortunately, these are the film’s weakest points. Throwing in an occasional reference to Watchmen doesn’t seem particularly interesting when your film itself is so obviously influenced by the classic comic.  The film straddles an odd line, as it tries to force much of the comedy on the audience (a lot of it does work) and maintain a serious tone through the second half. There are other flaws, most notably some poorly handled exposition and the development of Chris and Katie, both of whom make various decisions throughout the story that seem completely contradictory to their characters. Thankfully, in both cases the actors are strong enough to overcome these script flaws. While there are some laughs from just seeing McLovin as a superhero, Mintz-Plasse moves beyond the role that made him famous and adds a little depth to what could have easily been just another less likable nerd. Fonseca has proven with this and Hot Tub Time Machine that she has enough comedic timing to make a name for herself, and she does a better job with the more dramatic take on the normally dull “superhero’s girlfriend” role. The real standouts of the cast though are young Chloe Grace-Moretz and Nic Cage. Mindy is the film’s most violent, foul-mouthed character, and many people have expressed outrage at such a young girl behaving like this, but it’s her strength as an actress that stops it from being exploitative. Mindy is an immensely damaged young girl, probably warped beyond repair, and there are few young actresses that could get that in alongside the comedy inherent to an 11 year old superhero. Cage, of course, has always been excellent in the right role. Most of these roles have been in smaller films that didn’t make it to the local multiplex, so it’s refreshing to see him at his best in a film like this. In fact, it may be the best performance he’s ever given in a mainstream film. Like his daughter, Damon is a broken person who should not be anywhere near the apartment full of guns where he and Mindy sleep, and like his young costar, Cage captures that insanity and hides it behind a face of madcap hilarity. His Shatner-style delivery while in costume is one of the funniest parts of the film, and is by far the most successful reference to other superhero films, making fun of Christian Bale’s ridiculous growl in the recent Batman films.

Matthew Vaughn made his name producing Guy Ritchie’s late 90s output, and his first feature, 2004’s Layer Cake, owed heavily to Ritchie’s annoying post-Tarantino style of filmmaking. Thankfully, unlike his friend, Vaughn has matured as a filmmaker, and this is among the most aesthetically pleasing superhero films to come out of Hollywood. This doesn’t come through in the more tongue-in-cheek first half, but rather in the second, which is far closer to a regular superhero film. There are sequences here that almost rival Michael Mann’s Collateral, arguably the best looking American action film of the last decade, if not ever, in terms of how Vaughn films the action. And oh what action it is. The strongest moments in the film come when it drops the obvious irony and allows the audience to appreciate the simple joy of watching an eleven year-old girl brutally killing a room full of henchmen or the amazement that will come after the film’s final kill, one of the most amusing I can remember in a movie. Thankfully, the film does not condone the actions of Damon and Mindy, who seem to enjoy slaughter, but instead asks us to laugh at them. There’s some discussion of the psychological motivations of the vigilante, but Vaughn and Mark Millar, who wrote the comic that the film is based on, avoid that territory, already so thoroughly covered in Watchmen (the comic, not the movie). That would not fit in this film, even if it would be an easy road to cover. At its worst, this is a film that tries to do too much, by throwing jokes where they aren’t needed and adding drama to funny moments, but at its best, Kick-Ass is simply fun, and occasionally that’s enough.

-Adam Burnstine

Kick-Ass is rated R for strong brutal violence throughout, pervasive language, sexual content, nudity and some drug use - some involving children.

It opens everywhere on April 16th, 2010.

Directed by Matthew Vaughn; written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn; based on the comic book series by Mark Millar; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Eddie Hamilton and Jon Harris; original music by Ilan Eshkeri and Henry Jackman; art director, Russell De Rozario; produced by Matthew Vaughn, Brad Pitt, Adam Bohling, Tarquin Pack, David Reid and Kris Thykier; distributed by Lionsgate. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes.

With: Aaron Johnson (Dave Lizewski/Kick Ass), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Chris D’Amico/Red Mist), Chloe Grace-Moretz (Mindy Macready/Hit Girl), Nicolas Cage (Damon Macready/Big Daddy), Mark Strong (Frank D’Amico), Lyndsy Fonseca (Katie) and Clark Duke (Marty).

Stanley Cavell at Harvard

On April 6, I learned who provided Boston-Cambridge cinephiles with one of our most adventurous venues. The Harvard Film Archive celebrated its thirtieth birthday with a talk by the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, who has written extensively on cinema in Pursuits of Happiness: the Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage and The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. The Archive's director Haden Guest introduced Cavell as one of those directly responsible for the institution's existence. For the Archive's anniversary, Cavell asked to lecture on one of his favorite films, Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game, which was screened after his succinct speech.

To Cavell, The Rules of the Game establishes "the ascension of the cinema over theater," cinema's ability to view action "from the wings" as well as from the front.  Cavell cites as two of the film's most important aspects its frontality and its theatricality, embodied in the famous "danse macabre" sequence in which a group of aristocrats put on a musical performance for their friends.  By cutting from the frontal angle--the audience's point of view--to its reverse behind the stage actors, Renoir shows film's ability to take us behind the show: beyond the farce of social pretensions and into the tragedy they produce.

Toward the end of The Rules of the Game, the normally genteel protagonist Marquis de la Chesnaye madly pursues his wife's would-be lover through the halls of his chateau.  He is distracted momentarily by his servant and his gamekeeper, who are, like him, brawling over a woman. "Stop this comedy!" shouts La Chesnaye to his butler Corneille who, nonplussed, replies, "Which one?"

La Chesnaye may not recognize his own hysteria in his servants' uproar, but the butler certainly does.  Stanley Cavell posits Corneille's name as Renoir's somewhat mocking allusion to the conventions of the French stage.  But even if Renoir reveled in the camera's ability to surpass theater in complexity of point of view, his superb storytelling owes something to the classical idea of unity.  Despite the disparate spaces and times of film narrative, the interlacing of The Rules of the Game's subplots demonstrates a familiarity with the traditions of theatrical comedy.  And except for the exposition, the film takes place over one weekend in a large chateau--a tribute, perhaps, to the unity of action, time and place that French drama adopted from the Greeks.

The Rules of the Game doesn't bewilder its audience with all its upper- and lower-class romances, infatuations, friendships and grudges, which the screenplay establishes with an economy that classical Hollywood must have envied, before driving them to collisions. The opening of the film passes the narrative so smoothly from character to character that, within ten minutes, we have received a whole picture of a bourgeois marriage and the lies and jealousies that threaten it. André Jurieu, the heroic pilot who pines after La Chesnaye's wife Christine, bemoans his unrequited love during a radio interview at the site of his plane landing; the film cuts to Christine listening to the broadcast with her maid Lisette. The passion of male characters for these two women creates a set of intersecting relationships too complex for the term "love triangle." I have just drawn a chart linking all the romantically involved characters and found that the figure would need to be open and seven-sided. But I digress.

To continue: Christine anxiously goes to her husband, who is listening to the radio broadcast. When he reassures her of his trust in her, she is so grateful that, touched, he hurries off to call his mistress in order to end their liaison.  After the phone call, the film breaks off to follow his mistress and eavesdrop on her male friends, who discuss the La Chesnaye couple while the radio plays in the background. I give this summary only to demonstrate the deftness of the narrative: we already know Christine, La Chesnaye, the mistress, the would-be lover and--through the crowd at the plane landing, the mistress' friends, and the relationship of Christine and her maid--a bit of the world in which they live.  But the recurrence of the radio broadcast unifies the exposition, anchoring everything to Jurieu's declaration of passion.

In the adroitness of the storytelling itself, Renoir suggests the facile, superficial quality of relationships among these aristocrats.  But not all the film passes so quickly, especially not the famous scene of the hunt. La Chesnaye's weekend guests are assembled to shoot pheasants and rabbits on the grounds of his chateau.  Renoir's camera dwells on the animals' apprehension as the beaters approach off-screen.  The creatures begin to run and are slaughtered on camera.  One particular shot lingers on the grotesque stiffening and twitching of a rabbit's limbs during its death throes.  The suffering horrifies us, but not the bourgeois shooters or their servants.  For them, hunting provides relief.  The vengeful face of La Chesnaye's (now ex-)mistress as she shoots delivers the point: she must respond calmly to his rejection, but she can vent her anger with a rifle.

We begin to understand this society as one that rigidly regulates emotional catharsis, while everyday relations are reduced to frivolity and pleasantry--a kind of light "theater." La Chesnaye embodies this world, its elegance as well as its silliness. Jurieu calls him a "liar," a "snob," and an "idiot" obsessed with mechanical birds; more disturbingly, one of the servants at the chateau sneeringly refers to his Jewish grandfather.  But aristocrat or actor, La Chesnaye spends the film in a struggle to be as kind and civil as possible.   Cavell is right to insist on "his vulnerability, his humanity, and his sincere willingness to please."  Placing him next to bouquets of lilies in several scenes, Renoir suggests his delicacy and fragility. His refinement depends on an unstable peace threatened by brutishness and violence.

And La Chesnaye himself inflicts some of that violence.  But the last few images of the film allow us to see him at his best, if also his most absurd: inviting his friends to come in from the cold and forget the terrible "accident" that has forever ruined the illusion of harmony.  La Chesnaye's way of life cannot survive real conflict, but Renoir shows that some of his ideals--generosity, refinement, grace--are worth preserving.

-Julia Zelman

The Headless Woman

Earlier this year, amid all the hype surrounding Katherine Bigelow’s Oscar win, another, possibly more impressive, achievement by a female director went ignored in the mainstream media. In a poll of hundreds of New York’s film experts to determine the best Latin American films of the last decade, the top spot did not go to standards like Y Tu Mama Tambien, City Of God or Amoros Perros, but rather to Lucrecia Martel’s 2001 debut, La Cienaga. In fact, all three of her films wound up in the top ten of that list. 2004’s The Holy Girl, in my opinion her best work yet, finished ninth, and 2008’s The Headless Woman, which is playing at the MFA this week, finished eighth. No other director had more than one in the top ten. I highly recommend seeking out copies of her first two films, but it’s the third that concerns us at the moment.

People have spent the last decade comparing Martel to Michelangelo Antonioni, and it would appear that she’s taken some of that to heart. Aside from some more interesting aesthetic and thematic choices, the basic plot of The Headless Woman bears some similarities to that of L’Avventura. Vero, a blonde (like Antonioni’s muse Monica Vitti) dentist may have struck and killed a young boy with her car. After the accident, she continues driving for a few minutes while the handprints of a child appear on her window, possibly from her daughter playing in the car before and possibly as a message from a ghost. We then see her being driven to the hospital during a storm and checking into a hotel for a few days. Immediately after the accident, Vero apparently cannot remember anything, including the members of her family, and she develops a detachment from the world around her. Like L’Avventura, we never know if she actually hit the child. Even when she tries to find out, the men in her life—her husband and his cousin who she has an affair with, try to cover her tracks, despite not completely believing that she committed any crime. This blurred line of reality, in which the audience has no idea what to believe, is reflected in the final shot of many of the main characters through the thick glass doors of a restaurant. The space between the doors is still clear, but every other image we see is completely distorted, just like the concept of truth in the film.

Of all the comparisons between Martel and Antonioni, the most important is their shared ability to place the characters within the environment of the film. All three of Martel’s films have been set in the same sweltering area of Argentina where she grew up, and that swamp-like atmosphere (La Cienaga means ‘”The Swamp” in Spanish) controls every aspect of the characters’ lives. It’s so muggy that they can simply fade in and out of focus, moving back and forth between our In-focus perception of the screen and the world of the film itself. Antonioni’s characters are always in focus, but still less prominent than their surroundings. In a sense, they simply become a part of their environment, souls trapped between the promise of the future of and the false morality of the past. Martel does this in a more obvious way. In keeping the focus on one character in each scene, the others can walk in and out of the oppressive atmosphere around them, only occasionally stepping forward into full focus. Highlighting the oppressive nature of the atmosphere also connects Martel to Eastern European filmmakers like Bela Tarr and Sharunas Bartas, who use the cold industrial wasteland of post-Soviet Eastern Europe in almost the exact same way that Martel uses the stifling heat of Argentina. While The Headless Woman is not her best film in my opinion, it does represent a step forward as a filmmaker in this sense. La Cienaga focused mainly on the environment, and how it affected the characters, and The Holy Girl was mostly concerned with moving its characters in and out of focus, but here Martel does both, moving her characters around their decaying environments and randomly into and out of each other’s lives. That decaying environment is also reflected in the lives of Vero’s family. They are all cheating on each other, going insane, falling ill and having a generally unpleasant time, which seems to make perfect sense when you consider the atmosphere around them.

The shallow focus makes it clear that each character exists in his or her own universe, suffering from an Antonioni-like alienation from the universes of the other characters. Of course, they do occasionally come together, but you must always look into the out of focus background, where characters less essential to the scene will still be acting out their stories. This was more prominent in The Holy Girl, where the isolation was more absolute, but The Headless Woman uses this technique to a different effect. Almost every shot of the film is focused on Vero, and there are many instances in which she silently stands in the foreground as the supporting characters talk about their lives, even though we can’t see their unfocused faces. Because of this, we are granted a far deeper understanding of Vero’s character, and we are ultimately able to ask if she has been complacent in everything that happens after the crash. The magnificent performance from actress Maria Onetto adds layers of depth to the character because she decides to leave the question of blame for everything that happens after the accident up to the audience.

In the end, it seems like Vero has become complacent in the possible cover up by doing almost nothing. The men in her life seem to be the only ones who do anything illegal, possibly removing her files from the hospital and erasing her from the hotel’s database. The film frequently attacks the “male gaze” by keeping Vero’s head literally cut off by the frame or shadow, so only her body remains visible. There are also many highly voyeuristic over the shoulder shots of parts of Vero reflected in mirrors. The men in the film watch her and profess to love her, despite the fact that she almost never shows any trait particularly worthy of love. She’s cold, distant and uninterested in those around her, and they only serve her for physical reasons, and they could care less if they don’t see her head. It would thus seem that Martel is criticizing men for our wildly irresponsible behavior regarding women. Vero’s mostly white family is both dependent on and repelled by their darker, native servants, and thus there’s obviously a deeper criticism of Argentinean society on the whole as well, but I know little of the subject, and don’t feel fit to discuss it. After just three films, it seems clear that Lucrecia Martel will be playing a major part in the future of cinema, and as her fame grows, I can only hope that more of her films receive proper releases, but at the moment, I must encourage you to take a chance and see The Headless Woman, which really is one of the great films of the last few years, during its limited run.

-Adam Burnstine

The Headless Woman is not rated.

It will be playing at the Museum Of Fine Arts until May 8th, and is currently available on Netflix Instant Watch.

Written and directed by Lucrecia Martel; director of photography, Barbara Alvarez; edited by Miguel Schverdfinger; art directior, Maria Eugenia Sueiro; produced by Pedro Almodovar, Lucrecia Martel, Agustin Almodovar, Tilde Corsi, Veronica Cura, Esther Garcia, Cesare Petrillo, Enrique Pineyro, Vieri Razzini and Marianne Slot, distributed by Strand Releasing. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes.

With: Maria Onetto (Veronica), Claudia Cantero (Josefina), Cesar Bordon (Marcos), Daniel Genoud (Juan Manuel) and Ines Efron (Candita).

Great Scene: Moonstruck

moonstruck_ver4Norman Jewison’s 1987 film Moonstruck, a landmark romantic comedy, is positively bursting with insight on matters of love and marriage in the modern world.  At its core, the movie makes two central assertions about the mysteries of the human heart.  First, that love and happiness are dependent almost entirely on luck; and second, that men cheat on their wives because they fear death.  The film’s grand finale considers both.

Of the two women who infer these twin theses, Loretta Castorini (Cher) has perhaps the more pressing issue:  She has fallen in love with her fiancé’s estranged brother.  Considering that the fiancé is Danny Aiello and his brother is Nicolas Cage, we can understand her dilemma.  In vintage freak-out mode, Cage hurtles into Loretta’s life at the exact moment when she has no use for him, even as they are drawn to each other with a passion and immediacy neither saw coming.

The tragedy, the movie implies, is not that Loretta is cheating on her future husband, but rather that she has found the right man at the wrong time, with her boring fiancé as an innocent and unfortunate bystander.  By agreeing to marry Aiello without quite loving him, Loretta gambled that her happiness died with her first husband.  When Cage turns up and proves her wrong, she views the whole situation as a terrible inconvenience.

Meanwhile, there is another infidelity percolating through Moonstruck, conducted by Loretta’s father, Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia), and suspected all along by his wife, Rose (Olympia Dukakis).  As a sign of the film’s maturity and intelligence, there is never a moment when Rose “catches” Cosmo with his mistress.  She doesn’t need to.  She has been married to this man for most of her life and knows when he is not telling her the whole truth.  Her theory that men do this because they fear death is hardly consolation for her.  After all, the only man in history who successfully avoided death was a bachelor.

In any event, what we finally get, in the movie’s great climactic showdown, is Rose’s plea for Cosmo to knock it off.  Sitting across the breakfast table, surrounded by family, Rose musters the bravest face she can summon, looks Cosmo straight in the eye and says, “I want you to stop seeing her.”  In a lesser movie, this would be a moment of high melodrama, with all the hysteria and mayhem that comes with it.  Not here.  Cosmo rises, slams the table, sits back down and responds simply, “Okay.”

The key to this tense exchange—and, in a way, to the whole movie—is to realize that Cosmo brings down his fist not in anger, but in guilt.  It’s not just that he knows his philandering was wrong.  It’s that he still truly and wholeheartedly loves his wife, and knows she is worthy of his faithfulness, just as she has deemed him worthy of hers.  Their partnership might be depleted of its earlier passion, but not its responsibilities or mutual affection.

Loretta, at the other end of the marriage arc, shares both her father’s guilt and her mother’s weariness, and takes heed in Rose’s half-tongue-in-cheek advice about men, “When you love them they drive you crazy, because they know they can.”  Rose and Cosmo married for love and have suffered the consequences ever since, but what Loretta comes to realize for herself is that sometimes marrying for love is worth it, if only because the alternatives—marrying without love or not marrying at all—are almost unbearable.

-Dan Seliber

The great scene, in full:

Vincere Review

vincereI first fell in love with the work of Marco Bellocchio after viewing I pugni in tasca (Fists in the Pocket, 1965), a masterpiece of Italian cinema that perfectly captured the psychological disturbances of its characters.  My fondness for the director’s work was reignited after his 2003 drama Buongiorno, Notte (Good Morning, Night), which also beautifully presented the turbulent states of mind of the main characters.  Needless to say, I had high expectations for Bellocchio’s most recent work, Vincere, which followed the tragic life of Ida Dalser, the first and secret wife of Benito Mussolini.  Hoping to see the same in-depth (almost frightening) psychological analyses of the film’s historical characters, I was disappointed in the lack of character development, as well as the confusing plot structure.  Despite the efforts of Giovanna Mezzogiorno, who plays Ida, the performance falls short of expectations, as Ida is portrayed as a psychologically two-dimensional and co-dependent woman, merely obsessed with her idol, rather than a victim of Mussolini, as was supposedly intended.

The film’s powerful beginning—a young Mussolini (Filippo Timi) challenging God to strike him dead within five minutes to prove His existence—immediately captures interest and curiosity.  We are introduced to Mussolini (before his rise to power), who captivates Ida Dalser with his political beliefs and charisma.  The film jumps between two moments that occur years apart: Ida’s first and brief encounter with Mussolini, and their reunion.   The two fall passionately in love, just as World War I erupts.  Ida proves her love for the emotionally-distant Mussolini by selling her home, business, and belongings to fund his newspaper.  Over time, Ida has a son, named Benito Albino, whom Mussolini recognizes.  However, after leaving to fight in the war, Mussolini abandons Ida and the young Benito for Rachele Guidi (Michela Cescon), whom he eventually marries.  Ida, understandably outraged, writes letters to any and every authority (including the Pope), claiming to be Mussolini’s true wife, but to no avail.  As Mussolini rises to power, Ida and Benito Albino are first placed under strict surveillance and later separated, with Ida being placed in an asylum and the young Benito being sent to a boarding school.

Despite Mussolini’s denial of their marriage (and of course he then denies that he is the father of Benito Albino), Ida continues to write to the authorities, claiming that Benito Albino is Mussolini’s true heir.  After years of torture and imprisonment, Ida has the opportunity to be released if she admits that she is not the wife of Mussolini.  Although very little screen time is devoted to the young Benito Albino, he does receive some attention as a young man.  In a powerful scene, a college-aged Benito (also played by Filippo Timi) presents a compelling impersonation of his father for his mates.  The impersonation proves the resemblance between father and son (after all, children are always the best at impersonating their parents), but also shows the psychological state of a young man after years of isolation.  The film’s conclusion is as strong as its beginning, though I must warn you, it is not uplifting.

While the story of a dictator’s secret wife and child is—I would argue—inherently interesting, Vincere’s plot is sometimes confusing, as Bellocchio jumps around temporally and often assumes that the audience is familiar with the life of Il Duce.  That being said, Vincere is by no means a history lesson of the life and career of Mussolini or of a fascist Italy.  After Mussolini abandons Ida and his son, very little screen time is given to the dictator other than brief scenes and some archival footage of the real Mussolini.  Although this absence of Mussolini establishes Ida as the main character of the film, it becomes difficult to discern Ida’s relationship to Mussolini both during and after his rise to power.  Also, characters’ names and titles are often unclear.  We do not learn of Ida’s name until well into the film, as she sells her possessions for Mussolini’s newspaper, and several government officials are inserted into the film without explanation.

Most important, the proof of Ida’s marriage to Mussolini is extremely ambiguous.  A wedding scene between Ida and Mussolini is depicted late in the film (Ida is already institutionalized and her sanity questioned), but could this be a dream or a flashback?  Also, Ida claims that government officials ransacked her home on Mussolini’s command, stealing all of her documents, and therefore she cannot produce a marriage certificate.  However, several characters suggest that the very document that could prove Ida’s truthfulness and save her and her son is tucked away in a known hiding place within the home, leading me to wonder why they did not simply present the marriage certificate and save Ida.  Could this ambiguity be the result of a plot hole or merely a matter of translation?

However, there are also several aspects of the film that deserve recognition.  The rapid Eisensteinian editing of archival footage of Mussolini’s rise to power and Italy’s role in both World Wars is particularly interesting, capturing the political fervor of the population, as well as the vulnerable state of the nation.  However, it must be said that the lack of resemblance between Filippo Timi and the real Mussolini can potentially be confusing to those unfamiliar with Il Duce’s appearance.  Many scenes are beautifully shot, often using chiaroscuro lighting (particularly in the opening scenes).  A particularly beautiful image occurs late in the film, with Ida imprisoned within the dark asylum, yet a window to the outside world shows a beautiful Christmas Eve’s snowfall.  Such shots almost allow for us to forgive the film of any faults…almost.

The confusing plot structure and ambiguities detract from Ida’s character.  Rather than a woman victimized and ruined by Mussolini, Ida often seems unnaturally obsessed with the dictator, idolizing him as a teenage girl might obsess over a Hollywood heart-throb.  To be clear, I am not justifying Mussolini’s treatment of Ida.  However, throughout much of the film I found myself wanting to tell Ida to move on with her life without Mussolini.  Because of her obsession with Il Duce, it is difficult to discern Ida’s sanity, and, as a result, she does not have our complete sympathy.

Overall, Bellocchio’s Vincere is thought-provoking and beautiful to watch.  While it does not capture my affection as his earlier works, it definitely provides us with something to talk about.  I personally appreciated how the film refrained from judging Mussolini politically, therefore avoiding a preachy tone.  Rather, it focused on the dictator’s treatment of Ida, allowing us a glimpse into a little-known aspect of Mussolini’s history.  Finally, while it may have fallen short of my (high) expectations, Vincere nevertheless reminded me of why I love the work of Bellocchio in the first place and encouraged me to re-view those films that sparked my appreciation of this gifted director several years ago.

-Melissa Cleary

Vincere opens at the Landmark Kendall Square Theater on March 26, 2010 and is not rated.

Directed by Marco Bellocchio; story by Marco Bellocchio; screenplay by Marco Bellocchio and Daniela Ceselli; director of photography, Daniele Cipri; edited by Francesca Calvelli; original music by Carlo Crivelli; production designer, Marco Dentici; produced by Christian Baute, Mario Gianani, Hengameh Panahi, and Olivia Sleiter; released by IFC.  Running time: 122 minutes.

With: Giovanna Mezzogiorno (Ida), Filippo Timi (Mussolini and Benito Albino), Corrado Invernizzi (Dr. Cappelletti), Fausto Russo Alesi (Riccardo), and Michela Cescon (Rachele).

Repo Men Review

repo_men_ver7In recent years, timeliness has been high on the minds of most box office prognosticators. Last winter, some blamed the box office disappointments of films like The International and Confessions Of A Shopaholic on how they related to current events. The International was deemed too timely with its story of evil bankers trying to take over the world coming just months after the bank-fueled collapse of Wall Street. On the other hand, Confessions was widely criticized for its pre-recession notions of spending as a way of life. Of course, I’d like to think that both disappointed due to the simple fact that they were bad films, but if I’m wrong, then it doesn’t speak well to the box office chances of Miguel Sapochnik’s debut feature Repo Men, a film that portrays the business side of medicine as so evil that it may as well have been funded by the Obama administration. On the other hand, it may fail because, once again, it simply is not a good film.  In fact, for large portions of its runtime, it is a spectacularly awful one, although it eventually rises above this to become simply bad.

The film is set at an indeterminate point in the future, although the city it’s set in is exactly the same as the 2019 Los Angeles of Blade Runner, so I’ll assume it’s set there. An opening montage tells us that order is collapsing and the outside world is in a chaotic state, but this is never shown or alluded to again. The Union is a corporation that sells people artificial organs. They work perfectly, but cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and if you don’t pay, The Union sends their repo men to take back their property with no consideration for human life. Jude Law plays Remy, the best repo man in whatever city the film is set in. His life seems pretty good. He makes good commission, has a beautiful wife and son, and he gets to work with his best friend Jake, played by Forest Whitaker. His wife begins to question his job, and he decides to ask the boss, Frank (Live Schreiber) to switch from repo to a lower paying but morally acceptable job in sales. Before he makes the switch, Remy goes on one last job, to get the heart of a musician named T-Bone, played by RZA in a random cameo. Something goes wrong with the electrical wires, and Remy is shocked so strongly that he needs an artificial heart, which his sales job won’t pay for. He tries to get back into the repo game, but has a change of heart and realizes the amorality of his job. His wife takes his son and leaves him because he went back, but Jake still tries to help Remy out. However, he still can’t pay, so he goes on the run with Beth (Alice Braga), a woman who is more forgan (I’ll let you guess what it means) than real. They’re supposed to be attracted to each other, although it’s never explained why, since Remy had only seen her once before. Remy and Beth try to hide in the underground of people running from The Union while Jake and Frank try to catch them, and the second half of the film focuses mainly on this chase. Eventually, Remy realizes that they can’t beat the system from outside, so they go into The Union’s headquarters to destroy the database and bring everyone’s debt to zero.

For most of its runtime, this is an awful film, but, at the very least, Repo Men could have been much worse. With about fifteen minutes left, I was ready to tear the film to shreds. The first ninety minutes follow nearly every cliché of the man-on-the-run sci-fi sub-genre. We never have any reason to care about Remy because, no matter how sincere his turn around may be, he was still too selfish to realize that he was killing innocent people until  it happened to him. Most of Beth’s fake organs are either cosmetic or the result of something that she did wrong, but she is so poorly developed that I doubt we were meant to care for her anyway. Jake and Frank make acceptable, but not memorable villains, although both actors give it their all. The questions about the separation between life and death are handled with the shallowness you’d expect of a Hollywood action film. Remy’s narration is far too comedic for a dramatic story, even though there are a few attempts at dark humor throughout. The film is visually uninspired, as Sapochnik does little but take shots from better science fiction films and try to fit them into the plot.

Most of the attempts at humor fail, but, near the end, they start to work, allowing the film to redeem itself to a certain extent. I’ve already mentioned the obvious Blade Runner influence, but that isn’t the only film reference here. The plan to blow up the credit headquarters seems to be ripped straight from Fight Club, and there’s a very familiar adrenaline shot to the heart sequence near the end, but in between is something a bit more interesting. As Remy and Beth try to get to the mainframe to shut it down, they are encountered by a group of armed repo men that they must kill (which, of course, destroys the film’s message about the value of human life). The initial shot shows them from a side-scroller perspective, and made me think that Sapochnik was actually going to recreate the famous hammer fight sequence from Oldboy. It started as such, but soon cut to a more traditional angle. The fight was amusingly violent, and, at the very end, Remy does kill some of them with a hammer, completing the homage. Of course, it’s never a good sign when one of the best scenes in a film is a half-assed homage to a better scene in a better film, but at least it was interesting. The film’s best moment, however, comes right after that. Remy and Beth realize that they cannot just destroy the computer, and thus have to scan in their own organs, which are still inside their bodies, to break free. What follows is best described as a blood orgy, and is one of the more surprising moments I can think of in a big-budget film. Regrettably, the film then rolls out an obvious twist which ruins all the fun and, unfortunately, ten minutes of amusing craziness are not enough to make up for one hundred minutes of banality. Outside of those two scenes, the film offers nothing interesting in terms of style (not even the over-the-top visual flourishes you’d expect from someone making their first film), nothing particularly memorable in terms of performance (all though all three male leads are pretty good) and nothing but triteness in regards to dialogue. Those ten minutes of goodness prove that the film had potential, but I’m sorry to say that it is just another sci-fi film trying to get by on idea over execution, and, like so many in recent years, it fails to do so.

-Adam Burnstine

Repo Men is Rated R for strong bloody violence, grisly images, language and some sexuality/nudity.

It opens everywhere Friday March 19th.

Directed by Miguel Sapochnik; written by Eric Garcia and Garrett Lerner, based on the novel Reposession Mambo by Eric Garcia; director of photography, Enrique Chediak; edited by Richard Francis-Bruce; original music by Marco Beltrami; art director, Dan Yarhi; produced by Mary Parent and Scott Stuber; distributed by Universal Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes.

With: Jude Law (Remy), Forrest Whitaker (Jake), Alice Braga (Beth), Liev Schreiber (Frank), Carice Van Houten (Carol),  Chandler Canterbury (Peter) and RZA (T-Bone).

Great Scene: Hannah and Her Sisters

hannah_and_her_sistersSince taking his first foray into seriousness with Annie Hall in 1977, Woody Allen has been nothing if not upsetting, morally and emotionally.  His earliest films were one laugh riot after another—ingenious, cheeky, odd—but he really hit his stride when he embraced his inner Ingmar Bergman in the late 1970s and beyond, asking the Big Questions with an uncommon, mature solemnity.  Manhattan surveyed the emotional wreckage of a man whose wife left him for another woman.  Crimes and Misdemeanors implied that murder was an acceptable solution to a mistress problem.  Match Point argued that morality is meaningless in a world dominated by luck and happenstance.

These one-line synopses are deceptive, however, because they suggest Allen’s serious projects are devoid of his legendary humor.  They are not.  To see a Woody Allen production is not to choose between comedy and tragedy, and his collected works are not so easily divided into categories as are, for example, William Shakespeare’s.  Unlike Bergman, whose films have almost no humor at all—perhaps that’s the reason some are considered “dated” in today’s irony-strewn culture—Allen sees comedy and tragedy as the yin and yang of life.  Film, which reflects life, should contain both.

Accordingly, I offer 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters as the best movie Woody Allen has ever made, due in large part to its understanding of that very fact.  Amongst an enormous and distinguished cast, it is Allen himself who is involved in the film’s key scene.

As Mickey Sachs—a screen variation of Allen’s own persona, as ever—Allen plays a TV producer paralyzed with fear about his own mortality.  Called simply, “The hypochondriac,” worried that the fact of death renders life meaningless, Mickey embarks on a hapless odyssey through New York to find an answer that might put his mind at ease.  He tries religion—his own, Judaism, has long failed him—then calls upon the likes of Plato and Freud, but nothing lifts his spirits.  He’s too clever and pessimistic.

Finally, Mickey has a breakthrough, and the way it comes about shows Allen’s knack for blending tragedy with comedy.  Following a failed suicide attempt—the rifle slides off his forehead because he is sweating so much—Mickey escapes his apartment, takes a long walk and eventually wanders into an art house theater, which happens to be showing the great Marx Brothers farce Duck Soup. In voiceover narration, Mickey describes watching the film—“I had seen it many times as a kid and always loved it”—with new eyes.  How dare he despair, he hears himself say, when life offers such treasures as Groucho Marx?  Mickey’s life improves immeasurably from this point onward.

Is this a cop-out?  Hannah and Her Sisters has been noted—and faulted, by some—as being Allen’s only “serious” film with a happy ending.  In his New York Times review, Vincent Canby described the movie as “warmhearted,” which is indeed a characteristic that often eludes Allen’s work, even when successful.  It is noteworthy that Allen’s two biggest idols and influences—Ingmar Bergman and Groucho Marx—are as far removed from each other, thematically, as can be.  Bergman stands as a modern monument to tragedy, while Marx’s career was a zenith in American comedy.

Yet both men inhabited the same world—simultaneously, for 59 years—and were able to reach audiences who enjoyed them both.  That the ideas and ideals of both men could be merged into one is a tribute to Hannah and Her Sisters as a film, to Woody Allen as a filmmaker and to the much larger truth that comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin.

-Dan Seliber

J’ai tue’ ma mere (I Killed My Mother) Review

i-killed-my-mother-posterIf you plan to see J’ai tue' ma mere with the hopes of seeing a film about matricide, you will be disappointed.  The protagonist does not kill his mother, physically at least.  But Xavier Dolan’s directorial debut, J’ai tue' ma mere, has won international attention and for plenty of reasons.  The plot may not be the most original—a teenage boy has a strained relationship with his mother—but the powerful performances of Dolan and Anne Dorval, combined with the intensely colorful and artistic images interspersed throughout the film linger in the mind long after the film has ended.

Dolan not only writes and directs the film but also stars as Hubert Minel, a sixteen-year-old high school student with a gift for writing and art.  Hubert lives with his single-mother, Chantale (Anne Dorval), and the two seem to search for ways to frustrate the other.  But above it all is the question of love: what does it mean to have the love of a mother or son?  Is it possible for someone not to be meant to be a mother?  The poor relationship between Hubert and Chantale is juxtaposed with the mother-son relationship of Antonin (Hubert’s boyfriend, played by Francois Arnaud) and Helene (Patricia Tulasne), who are more like best friends.

The relationship between Chantale and Hubert becomes even more strained when Chantale accidentally learns of her son’s homosexuality from Helene.  What troubles Chantale is not that her son is gay, but that he did not or could not tell her.  Rather than confront Hubert, she decides to keep this information to herself until her son is ready to discuss it.  But the relationship continues to suffer.  Neither Chantale nor Hubert seems to know what to do or say as gestures of love and friendship disintegrate into screaming matches.  Finding herself at a parental dead end, Chantale and her ex-husband decide to enroll Hubert in boarding school.  The farewell scene between Chantale and Hubert as he departs for boarding school is the most moving of the film.  Angry with his mother, Hubert forbids Chantale to accompany him to the bus.  He cruelly asks, “What would you do if I died today?” and leaves his mother alone in the parking lot.  To herself, with tears in her eyes, she replies, “I’d die tomorrow.”  At this moment, if you are not already crying, you are heart-broken for Chantale.  As we are caught up in Hubert’s struggle (the film is mostly from his perspective), this glimpse of Chantale’s unconditional love shifts our sympathy.  In fact, for the remainder of the film, I was constantly flip-flopping between sympathizing with Hubert and defending Chantale.

The conclusion of the film is hopeful, but ambiguous.  But after ninety minutes of watching a mother and son struggle with communication, it is hard to imagine the film ending neatly, with a concrete solution to years of frustration.

As previously stated, Dolan’s autobiographical film is not exactly the first of its kind.  However, the writer/director/actor is keenly aware of this, even inserting images of James Dean, Hubert’s obvious Rebel Without a Cause idol.  The placement of artwork throughout the film is meticulous and depicts the characters’ relationships far better than Hubert’s ever so emo videotapes.  Ultimately, the strongest feature of the film is the acting.  Anne Dorval gives a solid performance that could move the most angst-ridden teen to tears, and Dolan of course does an admirable job of basically playing himself.  But what is most amazing is that Dolan accomplished such an impressive and moving film at the age of 20.  I can only imagine what this Canadian filmmaker has up his sleeve for the future.

-Melissa Cleary

Directed by Xavier Dolan; written by Xavier Dolan; director of photography, Stephanie Anne Weber Biron; edited by Helene Girard; original music by Nicholas Savard-L’Herbier; produced by Xavier Dolan, Carole Mondello, and Daniel Morin; released by Regent Releasing.  Running time: 96 minutes.

With: Xavier Dolan (Hubert), Anne Dorval (Chantale), Francois Arnaud (Antonin), Suzanne Clement (Julie), and Patricia Tulasne (Helene).