by Greg Muskewitz
With coverage of The Tulse Luper Suitcases Episode 3: Antwerp, Grimm, Sin Ton Ni Sonia, Moi César, Details, Gozu, Elina, Evil, Sleepless Nights, A Talking Picture, and Crimson Gold.
The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Episode 3: Antwerp. The fizzle in this 16 part series has arrived already, mostly by re-using the entire closing 30 to 40-minutes of The Moab Story as the beginning of this entry. Considering the Proustian extremities Peter Greenaway is going to, because, as he’s said, there’s just so much depth to go into, why then is his third episode borrowing so heavily from the first two? He seems to be spreading himself too thinly too soon for all the massaging he’s giving his ego. If the point were to provide a re-cap of the previous goings-on, a brief summary is plausible. But Greenaway has taken the last chunk of film, exactly the way it was, and placed it as this film’s start. Even if I had not seen Part 1 two days before, even if this was meant to be seen a year down the line, my memory needn’t be jogged that much. The questions that persisted from the first go-round (arguments over Kafka and Beckett, just to name one) remain just as inscrutable the second time; no clarity is to be gained or confusion removed (only added to if you hadn’t seen the first part) in its inclusion. Television is one of the avenues Greenaway plans to continue his oeuvre, but how feasible would it be for “Alias” to replay the entire close of the previous episode before finally getting on to the present one? Antwerp picks up in 1938, once all the verbatim catch-up is caught, and Luper is freed from his detention to further be seduced by Passion Hockmeister, and used as a pawn by her family; it’s still undecided, on a scale of greater importance, whether or not he is the spy that caused him to be locked up in the first place. Little else of the story is memorable, between the continued cross-cutting, image-splicing, super-imposed text, broken record-editing, image-shifting, discoloration, super-imposed boxes that pop up one atop the other like internet ads, etc. And as expected, the continued naked offerings. Aside from the truncated scope of this entry, all of the things that were used to tinker with in The Moab Story have quickly become repetitious and tiresome here when it’s all that’s being relied on. Boredom rapidly ensues once all thoughts of the progression of storytelling are tossed away, and stasis persists when attention is only spent on visual construction and erection (pun intended). With much of the zeal of the project’s outset dried up already, only the promised use of players such as Isabella Rossellini, Sting, Kathy Bates, Victoria Abril, William Hurt, Don Johnson, Amanda Plummer, and Molly Ringwald, begin to entice any possibility of a return. With JJ Feild, Caroline Dehavernas, Jack Wouterse, Drew Mulligan, and Valentina Cervi.
Grimm. Not a grim Grimm, but a jocular, jovial Grimm. Writer/director Alex van Warmerdam and co-writer Otakar Votocek put yet another contemporary, and this time, comedic spin on the Hansel and Gretel tale; the twentysomething pair (Jacob Derwig and Halina Reijn) are abandoned in the woods by their father with only a note from their mum telling them to search out an uncle in Spain. After some business with local farmers (a scenario not too distended from a Farrelly brothers sketch), they hop on a little moped through the wintry Dutch region before riding under a bridge and on the other side — voila, they’ve hit Spain. It turns out their uncle is dead (and they find this out, of course, because they speak fluent, flawless Spanish, too), but in the blink of an eye, Reijn has caught herself a doctor beau and they move in to his villa compound. Clearly being more flippant in the treatment of the fairytale, the black comedy finds itself far away from the terrain of its typical home. And for a while, this proves a worthwhile path to peruse, with van Warmerdam’s iconoclasm and tendency for the non-sequitur giving rise to a few unexpected laughs. Too soon for its own good, however, like the desert they find themselves, the humor dries up and Grimm drags on. The clever set ups and transplants are traded for a hugger-mugger style of improvisational folly. The feeling of storytelling spontaneity propounds not just a lack of vision, but of total inconsequentiality. Its gags no longer zing with well-honed execution, but the attitude is of an insouciant whatever happens, happens. Van Warmerdam’s exposition is so lightweight, so of-the-moment, is has no constitution (especially straying so far from the fairytale), it collapses. It ends with moral bankruptcy. With Henri Garcin.
Sin Ton Ni Sonia. Idiotic Mexican comedy about a philandering, non-committal Spanish-language TV dubber and his holistic nutty girlfriend (she worries about the race of man being non-biodegradable), and continued examples of why their relationship does not work. (The only scenes that have any intentional humor that occasionally slip through are in the dubbing room, but that’s such an easy target to make fun of, the real dubbers usually do it themselves.) Somewhere in between their failed romance, they each have a rebound, with baggage of their own, and there’s a cop subplot that involves an organ-thieving nun named Mama Rosa. In addition to being so poorly scripted, acted, directed (the first and last-mentioned by Carlos Sama), the abstinence of laughs easily results in shoddy work all around, connecting no rhythm between any of the characters in any of the various plotlines. Its attitude of tongue-in-cheek translates to lengüeta-en-culo. With Juan Manuel Bernal, Mariana Gajá, Cecilia Suárez, and Tara Parra.
Moi César. Absolutely the most delightful and winsome film out of the Palm Springs batch, it’s a French comedy along the lines of an Amélie, Jr.; seen through the jaded but naïve eyes of its 10-year-old protagonist (4’6”, 10 pounds overweight, etc.); his parents couldn’t decide between naming him Julius or Cornelius, so they went with César (Caesar) instead — with the surname of Petit. The beginning stretch of the film (after the beautifully shot credits sequence, winding down overhead) substantiates its influence of Amélie by the pansophistic voiceover, the larger-than-life platitudes, the sweeping and uplifting score, the fantasy elements (including a Pulp Fiction-inspired videogame dream), and of course, the très likable César. The initial misadventures involve a dysfunctional household where César’s parents are constantly fighting, and where he mistakes his father’s hush-hush business trip for a row up the creek without any paddles, and then the typical scholastic endeavors with his best friend (along with their typical autodidactic anatomy lessons and homemade sketches of the vagina with the functions of its holes). School is where things change in the film, giving the story its driving impetus; an adorable new student arrives, that both César and his best friend vie for the affections of, and ultimately, lead their newfound adventures with (recess, sleepovers, birthday parties, secretive trips to London to find the best friend’s father that he never knew, etc.). Actor Richard Berry directs and co-writes, casting his daughter Joséphine as the student both boys fall in love with, and it’s clear that the showcase also comes around to displaying his love of his daughter, and similarly making the audience fall in love with her. And it’s easy enough to fall for her and this lovable movie in all of its enchanted, warmhearted, charming, and affectionate joyeux de vivre. Even though it is adults putting sight behind the eyes of youth, it is a rare occasion that they remember what childhood was like themselves, the ups and downs, without the need to be overbearingly precocious. Sure, in the end it plays like a Big Picture fairytale, but when you’re actually the child looking back upon your own memories, your story is remembered the same way. Most importantly, the whole thing is just plain fun, able to mix the carefree attitude of a child’s salad days with moments of grounded realism (the search for a paternal figure, treating the subject of violence with violence, parental communication with children — not to them — and even twitterpated amour), so that even when a tired gag of breaking wind is used as a neurotic fantasy, it’s genuine and funny without feeling displaced. Also by the end, it additionally manages to establish its own identity and adventure apart from its stylistic fountainhead, Amélie. With Jules Sitruk, Mabo Kouyate, Anna Karina, Maria de Medeiros, and Jean-Philippe Écoffey.
Details. Stodgy piece of Swedish cinema, likened to the pensive trademark of Ingmar Bergman. Based on (an apparently) famous set of plays by Lars Norén, Kristian Petri directs the story of two pairs of lovers who coincidentally switch places, on their way to, and derived from, tragedy. Rebecka Hemse and Michael Nyqvist are a married couple in 1989 Stockholm, where Pernilla August and Jonas Karlsson are lovers; the merge takes place when August, a writer, approaches Nyqvist, a publisher, about her transcript the company he works for was sent. He eventually leaves his wife, a nurse, who treats Karlsson for his heroin addiction, and eventually they get together. It takes a lot of time for any of this to get established, and is intercut with scenes from the afterlife of the two women and Nyqvist conversing over what led them there, and the whole journey is a total draining bore. The script is full of character reflection, deluging the dialogue with weighty and endless existential questioning. (Every statement is analyzed to tedious ends. Nyqvist, of his company: “We take that very seriously”/ “Who are we?” Or, “Can you say you love me?”/ “Can I?”/ “Will you say it to me?”/ “It hurts”) Childbearing is subject matter that is often returned to (Hemse couldn’t conceive, they had to adopt; August goes to great lengths to conceive) and there is a startling image of August bloodsoaked from sudden miscarriage, the whole thing well-filmed by Göran Hallberg. And there are some damn solid performances from August (her beauty completely concealed and wasted in The Phantom Menace), Nyqvist and Hemse, but the film is absolutely too cold, too impalpable, too spiritless, and too lassitudinous to have any weight but of that which sinks the viewer.
Gozu. It begins in the expected perverted style Takashi Miike has so well carved out, when a crazed yakuza gangster warns his boss that the snow-white little Pomeranian outside is a “trained yakuza-assassin dog,” proceeding to handle matters himself by hurtling the pup onto the concrete repeatedly, before re-attaching his collar and swinging him overhead, like chopper blades, until flinging the dog against the restaurant window — to the horror, naturally, of the audience, as well as the dog’s owner and the yakuza gangsters. From there, things take a much quieter, downright monotonous turn off, as the crazed gangster is taken on a trip by his aniki (yakuza talk for brother, fraternal) where he is intended to be offed, but makes a deal to instead whack the sex-crazed head gangster. (You see, he likes sex, but must use the handle-end of a ladle stuck up his ass to keep him firm.) A near accident appears to cause the premature death of the older, crazed brother, but while the younger one dines in a transvestite restaurant, the other brother disappears, leading to an ultra-dull investigation. There are the occasional touches of Miike’s perversity thrown in (the inn proprietor who squeezes out breastmilk, the character with the body of a human, but the head of a cow, etc.), but it’s done as filler — a quick shock to rouse the audience before dropping off the radar again. Eventually the brother shows up, but in the form of a woman. From there, the general feeling of strangeness is always present, and Miike gives his signature stuff a workout (a tortuous death for the old gang boss, predictably with the ladle getting jammed in a little too far; the woman yakuza giving birth to the full-grown brother she was before, sparing no grotesqueries except the actual visage of a vulva — but hey, it’s Japanese cinema), but the boredom through it all is even more present, and simply inescapable. Miike’s love for the absurdly shocking lacks the seriousness and dexterity of Audition, and the comic ridiculousness of Ichi the Killer. I guess that’s what happens when you spread yourself thin in making five movies in one year. With Hideki Sone, Shô Aikawa, Kimika Yoshino, Shôhei Hino, Renji Ishibashi, and Keiko Tomita.
Elina. Wholesome film for kids, with adult appeal, about a little girl (Natalie Minnevik) in 1952 Lapland, Sweden, who has just overcome consumption, the death of her father, and is itching to go back to school. She’s a headstrong girl, and said to be foolish for following in her father’s footsteps, but she takes that as a complement as she clashes strong wills with her vengeful headmistress. (The teacher takes dutibound pleasure in her sadistic and condescending contribution to the students — punishment for speaking Finnish; she switches writing utensils from the left hand to the right. The character is richly subtle, with little details like denying to hold Elina’s hand as she enters the classroom for the first time.) Everything about the film is didactic and simplistic, but not to a fault. It’s a gentle, innocent story of character and general alienation from the people and society one is surrounded by. Elina has all the traits of a generic kid’s movie — the misunderstood heroine, the villainous headmaster, the friendly new teacher, the family’s impecunious background, etc. — but of the content itself, there isn’t much to rigidly adhere to that makes it a bad option. Director Klaus Härö isn’t so much trying to get a message across as he is caught up in this beautiful little tale, and the beauty in which he can tell it. The film is gorgeously photographed by Jarrko T. Laine (though the obligatory swilling score does get to be much), with rich colors, a steadfast camera, and an overall crisp image, making the most of Minnevik’s light complexion and flaxen hair. Apart from the lack of ornamentation (the only real stylistic choice is the framing device that keeps Elina’s imagining of her father, headless), it’s just a sweet story focusing on the dimension of people — little more than people-watching — and an overall teary affectionateness for its inhabitants, including the mean-spirited teacher who is able to admit her fault in the face of Elina’s indomitable will. The ability to do that, to humanize and make humble the obstacle-making villain, is a lesson (if we’re to get one out of it) that not many children’s films care, or are able, to do. And the film smartly ends at 77-minutes before exhausting its small premise. The cast is wonderful (Bibi Andersson as the headmistress, Henrik Rafaelsen as the new teacher), especially Minnevik and Tind Soneby (as Elina’s younger sister), whose innocence and calm natural abilities in front of the camera don’t suggest any of the attention-hungry and typically precocious aspects employed by most American child actors and characters. Finland’s official Oscar submission. With Marjaana Maijala and Peter Rogers.
Evil. A Swedish Rebel without a Cause confronting the violence and anomie in redress of the same time period’s state of social democracy following the removal of Nazi occupation. (It’s also Sweden’s official submission to the Academy Awards.) A troubled teenager who uses his fists at school (but is whipped at home by his step-father) is expelled, and determined not to be pacified any more, his mother sends him to a private boarding school. There, the rules are of a different diktat than the schooling in Elina — it is the students who run the show to the instructors’ negligence. The student body, however, is run by the upperclassmen, who see it to make it an endurance of hell for those beneath them, as it is a vicious cycle of being knocked around in the lower form and making up for it later. While the tough-minded protagonist tries to avoid conflict, he is too strong-willed (are you seeing a trend of unswallowable pride amongst the Swedish?) to be subjugated to their tortures, and to his burden, fights back. Where it’s lacking in aesthetics, director Mikael Håfström dives headfirst into achieving staggering realism. (Additional support in the realism department comes from Andreas Wilson in the lead, near always wholly believable.) His examination into the manifestation of rage, angst, and this so-called “evil,” is diplomatic and doggedly rooted in a contextual cause-and-effect. Little is done as embellishment or exaggeration, and Håfström’s decision to avoid straying from the realms of the portrait is arguably an asset. It takes some dedication on the viewer’s part to stick around from slowness early on, but the reward is higher at the very end. With Henrik Lundström, Gustaf Skarsgård, Linda Zilliacus, and Marie Richardson.
Sleepless Nights. A connubial portrait from Egypt of four couples suffering roadblocks in their current state of affairs. Conservatively produced (a kiss is seen from behind a frosted glass frame), the subject matter it takes on full force is not so veiled and protected in this very mature (a/k/a sluggish, adult, pedantic) work. As the one couple who is not married says about the institution, “There are no guarantees.” No joking around. The crossover to a bonding commitment is their own stumbling block. The other three marriages have issues of other sorts: the wife of a cheat must deal with his infidelity; another couple struggles through unfulfilled sexuality; and the last have issues of clashing class backgrounds and parental disapproval. Though far more nuanced than that alone, director Hani Khalifa goes to diplomatic extremes in favor of all eight characters, and evenly between the sexes (though he isn’t afraid to show a lack of sympathy to those wrong). The four men are all friends, whether through long-course relationships, or because of the connections through their wives, and after the birthday party of one couple’s little girl, each couple suffers a disastrous series of fights, sending the men — either by force, or by choice — out of their homes in Cairo for a trip to Alexandria. There are some exquisite characterizations, strongly written by Tamer Habib, who is clear to give each person a distinct and well-developed personality. Relying heavily on spoken action instead of physical action, the pertinent themes of any given marriage — here, a partner’s change, or lack of, the past, indecisiveness, unclear expectation, conflict of interest — are in fact explored through the consequences of their actions. (How nice to see the concuspient and sybarite portrayed without needing to show every example of it.) And through its pedestrian topicality, Khalifa’s decided clinginess to strictly deal with the norm as though it isn’t a norm to his characters, Sleepless Nights attains a grappling truthfulness and honesty. But getting back to his diplomacy, it also sees that every length of fairness is sought, which can and does drag this to an unbudging 130-minutes. (Egypt’s Oscar submission.) With Mona Zaki, Hanan Tork, Sherif Mounir, Gihan Fadel, and Ahmed Helmi.
A Talking Picture. True to its title, Manoel de Oliveira’s film is like a talking postcard, though a better title might have been A Talky Picture, or even A Talkative Picture. The nonagenarian filmmaker, official the world’s oldest working director, takes us along on a cruise with a history professor from Lisbon (Leonor Silveira) and her single digit-aged daughter (Filipa de Almeida), as they sightsee on their way to meet up with her husband, a pilot, in Bombay. We make port in France, Greece, Egypt, Istanbul, Italy, Aden, we see the Castle of the Egg, the Temple of Apollo, Vesuvius, Acropoulis, Egyptian pyramids, and much, much more. We also get the history of many of these sites and places, delivered through the dialogue of mother-to-daughter exposition or daughter-to-mother inquisition (“What’s a myth?”), and other insight from locals or travelers they encounter. Like history, it’s a bit dry, it’s a bit lecture-y, it’s a bit dull, but it is irrefragably educational and brimming with knowledge, which is in itself of high nutritional value. The discourse tend to go on, but the viewer cannot deny they are getting a workout, a real lesson, that proves very appropriate to where de Oliveira is going with it. Every place that is visited is examined for its history, its past, and shows the modern result of where these countries have ended up. The sites are ruins, relics of war and destruction; de Oliveira is addressing the post 9/11 world — not the U.S., not any individual country, but its aftereffects on the whole world — and the beginning of the results and repercussions from that date of infamy, as is the learned lesson that history repeats itself. For the most part, he treats it subtly and demurely during the journey, only a hint of what’s to come. In the meantime, at several dockings, the ship has picked up a trio of fictional cosmopolitan celebrities — all real-life international celebs, Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour), Irene Papas (Into the Night), Stefania Sandrelli (The Last Kiss) — who will later gather to speak at length, and in their own languages, with the ship’s captain (John Malkovich). The polyglot speech is of theology, philosophy, celebrity, language, the gamut of conversation. It, too, proves interesting, if not also slow-going like the film. A Talking Picture is very nicely filmed, unadorned in its photography of the historical sites; very little is actually done with the camera, but its steadiness does not detract from the silent passenger we participate as. Silveira’s and de Almeida’s performances are wonderfully natural and serenely an unobtrusive presence to the aforementioned destinations; they both perform as excellent tour guides. As to briefly reference the ending without spoiling it (and knowledge of a “surprise” ending in itself does nothing to unfairly give anything away), it is undoubtedly an out-of-the-blue incongruity that is a veritable shock with an exclamation mark. It’s riveting and sends chills through the body like few endings have ever done before. An excellent choice for Portugal’s Oscar submission.
Crimson Gold. Often described as the most important director working today, Abbas Kiarostami only writes the script here, based on an Iranian newspaper article. The movie begins with its chronological end, as one of two “thieves” is trapped inside the jewelry store he was trying to rob; he puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger. That scene alone lasts near an eternity, scattered and disjointed with the camera all over the field, the image too dark and hazy. Then, at a pace applicable to those in the afterlife, it jumps back to the real start for what’s expressed as a look at Iran’s present injustice of the separation between classes. (The thief is a pizza deliveryman, and during one of his drop-offs, he proves to be far too patient and dedicated in waiting to enter a building where a police operation is going, eventually, after all of that standing around, to give away the pizza to the cops.) Each subsequent scene drags on and on, lingering through repetitions and little to no movement forward. (There’s a phone conversation that we overhear one side of, which consists of the same arguments shouted over and over.) Whether my attention was lost completely on the demerits of this movie, or perhaps because this was the final movie on the final day (for me) and my exhaustion bled through, I don’t know. I do know I don’t often find Kiarostami boring (and I thought something, though not a lot, of Jafar Panahi’s The Circle), so I’m willing to brave this again when it press screens locally, where I will have my definitive word. With Hossain Emadeddin and Kamyar Sheisi.
However, definitively, that brings an end to my week in Palm Springs, and all of the 30 films I saw. With the looks of what’s on the local slate, I don’t want to hand over my passport yet.
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=961
originally posted: 01/29/04 19:17:40
last updated: 02/02/04 15:47:03