Friday, November 27, 2009

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Before we get this bitch-fest started, let me be clear on one matter: Fantastic Mr. Fox is undoubtedly one of the loveliest films you will find playing in the multiplex during this grim season of gloomy Oscar-bait and gaudy holiday cash-ins. Wes Anderson, ever the playful stylist, has created an overstuffed toy box here, brimming with curious inventions and childish wonders. It’s hard not to succumb to the tactile delights of such first-rate stop-motion animation as you watch the fur on Mr. Fox’s face bristle, seemingly nudged by some modest breeze. Anderson’s characteristically flat images have rarely conveyed such a sense of abundance—a fair trade for visual depth, I suppose—and little jokes and details suggest a care and craft that exceeds the vast majority of animated films. Even the vivid autumnal colouring of the film is a satisfying pleasure in itself. (Such a rich confluence of reds, oranges, and browns probably hasn’t been seen on screens since She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.)

But even as I admired these exquisitely composed and executed visuals, I was unable to give myself over to the film’s enchantments. While certainly a step above the usual pop-culture-quoting crassness of most children’s animation these days, the film still indulges in self-conscious gestures that continually break the spell and undermine attempts to build up an enveloping world. Annoying meta-conversations about Mr. Fox’s trademark whistle—itself a fairly irritating flourish—take the viewer out of the story and into a realm of self-commentary the film has no real interest in pursuing. Similarly, the gesture of showing Mr. Fox turning on the little radio on his belt as a cue for the soundtrack is another unfortunate incident of the film giving into self-awareness. Besides, how distracting is it to hear the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” in a rural fable?

Equally disruptive, as Deborah Ross points out in this review, is the use of celebrity voices—a charge I would love to see leveled against more of these star-studded animated films. You can really feel how damaging this tactic can be every time the fox family got together—all I could see were the faces of George Clooney and Meryl Streep and Jason Schwartzman in front of a bunch of microphones somewhere. Even though the performances are fairly satisfying, the celebrity wattage proves detrimental to creating fully realized characters. It was really only characters voiced by unfamiliar names—Eric Anderson’s Kristofferson, Wally Wolodarsky’s Kylie—that truly seemed to belong to the world of the film. By contrast, Clooney's Mr. Fox seemed to hover somewhere just outside this carefully constructed reality.

However, the most significant problem with Fantastic Mr. Fox lies in the script itself—another typical Anderson concoction of neurotic sons craving validation and reckless fathers struggling with responsibility. Once again, we are forced to confront the problem of Wes Anderson himself, a surely talented filmmaker who routinely frustrates and disappoints.

Now, I don’t want to criticize Anderson just for returning to these familiar characters and plots again and again. The family tensions he addresses are timeless, and in theory there is nothing wrong with returning to the same theme if you can justify it. Most great subjects not only reward repeated examination, but in fact demand it. Consider Yasujiro Ozu, who made the family his great theme. His Late Spring follows a woman struggling with the dilemma of marrying and abandoning her aging, lonely father. Later, in An Autumn Afternoon, Ozu essentially retells this story, shifting the emphasis to the father's perspective. Both films are extremely similar in terms of plot, but each one takes on a very different mood—the daughter’s version being more hopeful, the father’s more melancholy.

No one would accuse Ozu of being a weak filmmaker just because he rarely strayed from this terrain, and yet Anderson’s recurring familial obsessions feel like a weakness, not a sign of a singular, brilliant vision. He simply doesn’t bring enough insight to his repetitions. While an artist like Ozu could bring out new depths in stories that are essentially the same, Anderson has resorted to hiding his unimaginative tales behind surface distractions (first an aquatic adventure, then an Indian excursion, now a foxy fable). Why not, for example, try telling one of his neurotic family tales from the perspective of one of his mother figures, and reinvigorate his usual father-son conflicts? Because the mother is always relegated to the background, or altogether absent, leaving us with the same sons and fathers playing out the same dramas.

So all we have here is a visually rich and thematically poor film, and it seems like a damn shame. In Anderson’s world, there isn’t a family conflict that can’t be resolved by simply having everyone break out into dance as the camera pulls back and the film ends (this abused flourish feeling increasingly like a retreat from all the problems Anderson can't address). The cracks in the script are plastered over with a lot of sentimental goop about respecting differences and acknowledging our own animal natures, which sounds lovely except that’s what the problem was in the first place. Fantastic Mr. Fox is at best like a pleasant walk on an autumn afternoon—you see some pretty colours and nice sights, and then end up back where you began, a little rosy cheeked perhaps but otherwise unaffected.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

In the Loop

A very funny and profane vérité farce, In the Loop is a vicious, cynical and thoroughly edifying skewering of the run-up to the Iraq war, albeit thinly disguised behind references to a generic Middle Eastern war and fictional stand-ins for real-life political players. (Presumably, it didn’t want anyone to confuse it with a documentary, so names had to be changed to protect the guilty.) Armando Iannucci directs this adaptation of his excellent BBC series, The Thick of It, transferring a couple of characters from the series and otherwise finding new parts for his usual cast. Perhaps that’s why this film doesn’t feel like a weak retread of the series—as is usually the case with most television adaptations—but rather an expansion into fruitful new realms of comedy.

It helps that the series has yet to really push the juxtaposition between high-powered international politics and mundane local riding affairs—a fairly rich source of comedy, to judge by the film. Scenes set in Washington where officials plot the fate of nations butt against scenes in a British neighbourhood where the collapsing wall of a minister’s riding office threatens to crush an old woman’s greenhouse (Steve Coogan provides a fine cameo as her indignant son). The local scenes do a nice job of deflating the glamour of authority, but even more impressive is how dexterously Iannucci weaves the international and local plots together, providing the film’s gut-punch ending.

But be it on television or in the movie theatre, the primary appeal of Iannucci’s comic creation remains the same—that of a relentlessly verbal comedy that exuberantly savages the power of language in politics and the compromised relationship between press and government. In one notable gag, Tom Hollander’s dithering cabinet minister has to bury his reservations about a war in the Middle East behind ambiguous comments to the press, as per the dictates of his party. As a result of his fumbling evasions, he finds himself turned into a tool in the debate between the hawks and doves in the American administration, both sides using the minister’s cryptic statements as proof of the British government’s support for their own stance on the war. He even gets turned into a bumper sticker, with one of his more baffling lines (“Climb the mountain of conflict”) taken out of context and turned into a hawkish motto. You couldn’t ask for a more concise summary of the problems of reasoned political debate in our reductive age.

Even more to the point is the film and series’ signature comic touch—the imaginative, elaborate torrents of invective spewed by the spin doctors, director of communications Malcolm Tucker (a masterful turn by Peter Capaldi) and Jamie McDonald, his chief attack dog and “the crossest man in Scotland.” Aside from the curious pleasure of hearing thick Scottish accents rain curses down upon priggish Brits and Americans, both characters revel in the brute power of language, each spouting endlessly inventive inventories of where to stick what until the people around them are left cowed. It’s commonplace to laugh at the linguistic manipulations employed in political spin, but the film takes this to new heights of absurdity by showing language used to bludgeon people into subservience.

The handheld camera—The Thick of It is not just a title but also a stylistic manifesto—always keeps the farce from becoming too overdetermined. Jokes jump out of the steady buzz and commotion to grab you by the throat unexpectedly. You might very well find yourself laughing before you even realize what’s so funny. This is a rare kind of comedy, one that is vulgar and yet perceptively intelligent, angry and yet still hilarious. If you think satire means some sort of annoying kind of comedy where you never laugh out loud, this film should put those illusions to rest—along with any lingering notions about the efficacy of the press and government in modern democracy.

Monday, November 9, 2009

El Olvido

Oblivion is first of all a state of forgetting or being forgotten. It is an eternal present in which the past is erased, and the future along with it. It is not the end of history but the complete suppression of it. It’s not forgetting where you put your car keys—it’s forgetting you own a car.

But oblivion is also a place. And in Heddy Honigmann’s documentary El Olvido (Oblivion in English), this place is found on the streets of Lima, Peru, in the crosswalks where children do cartwheels and then beg for spare change, behind the bars of the nicest clubs where the bartender smiles through his contempt for the rich and powerful who he must serve. This is a place forgotten by history, and it’s everywhere you look, as long as you care to see it.

Fortunately, our guide to this land of amnesia—where a bandit can become the president for an hour and people drink frog juice to restore their memory—is someone with so sensitive a touch as Honigmann. The film is tender and lyrical, suffused with sorrow for these people who live their lives outside the walls of history. Outrage grows from empathy, but Honigmann’s anger at the many problems of Peru—which include hyperinflation, dirty wars with guerrilla groups, and corruption and incompetence in the halls of power—arises naturally from these very personal character studies, ideas flowing from observations, not the reverse. This is more poem than polemic.

Focusing on a motley collection of characters, ranging from shoeshine boys to street performers to waiters, Honigmann sketches out the lives of people who exist on the fringes of national history, granted only the role of spectators or, at best, servants to the powerful men who have caused so much despair and damage. We meet a tailor, for example, whose father created the presidential sash worn during inauguration. One day, the government came looking for the man’s father, declaring that he had botched the job: no one could see the emblem because the sash was inside out.

No, the old man simply explained, the president just put it on wrong. Flip it over and the problem is fixed.

It seems so blindingly obvious—after all, how does one make a sash inside out? All you have to do is take it off and put it on the opposite shoulder. But to punctuate this episode, Honigmann shows footage of the inauguration, during which the president puts the sash on incorrectly and then looks down in confusion at the covered emblem, fidgeting awkwardly with the sash as people applaud.

It’s a funny episode, but with a chilling undertone—the president would just as soon blame the maker instead of risking a sliver of embarrassment by acknowledging his own mistake. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the service workers in the film, mostly bartenders and waiters, take a bemused view of their leaders, acknowledging personal niceties (“He was a good tipper”) while laughing and sighing about “semi-democratic elections” and other farces of power. One bartender takes great pride in his story of slipping vodka into an unsuspecting president’s orange juice, causing the man to grow tipsy enough to stumble at a big public event later that same day. “My own coup d’etat,” the man beams.

But the most remarkable moment of all might be when a jovial waiter, a self-described clown who smiles through any insulting customers and forgets their offenses immediately, takes us on a tour of his humble home. He has served the wealthy and the powerful, and yet his house is cramped and dirty, his wife unable to afford to eat where he works. But he is a proud and welcoming host, and when he tells the camera he wants to play a song from his native province for us, you expect a buoyant folk tune, or maybe a sentimental old ballad.

Instead, we hear a fierce protest song, lamenting innocent villagers being gunned down. “The blood of the people,” a woman sings, her voice enflamed, “has a rich perfume…” The man tells of how his sister was murdered by "special forces," a term that seems to include rebels and the police, as no one is quite certain who was responsible for the slaughter.

One wonders how anyone in this situation could even bear the sight of the country’s president happily gorging himself on fine food, let alone pouring the man a glass of wine. Smiling through the insults, indeed—who could function in his position without occasionally accepting a momentary amnesia? Oblivion is also apparently a way of life in this melancholy city.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Wise Blood

Wise Blood, John Huston’s adaptation of the Flannery O’Connor novel, brings to mind Robert Duvall’s The Apostle (probably the best American film about religion) in that both films explore the intersection of hucksterism and faith. And while Huston’s film contains a sardonic touch that distinguishes it from Duvall’s, both maintain complex views of morally complicated figures, avoiding pious judgments and instead reveling in the paradoxes of human nature. Huston, playing the skeptic to O’Connor’s believer, does get his digs in at the exploitation of spiritual fervor, but he’s also fascinated by the peculiar convictions of Hazel Motes, an angry young man who preaches a church without Christ and ends up a martyr to his own esoteric belief system. Brad Dourif taps a rare self-immolating energy in his brilliant depiction of Motes, bringing lacerating intensity to the most mundane conversations. Even something so simple as gassing up his rickety car becomes an ordeal for this man. All of life becomes Motes’ personal Passion play, with himself in the roles of both Christ and Pilate—making for a film that is at once funny, tragic, and gloriously strange.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Limits of Control

The latest from Jim Jarmusch, The Limits of Control exalts the incidental pleasures of narrative filmmaking—mood, scenery, quiet moments and little mysteries—by turning its own story into such an abstraction that nothing else remains. All we are left with is a man walking through glorious architecture projecting an aura of undefined purposefulness. But if we are meant to enjoy this film for its supplementary charms, then why does it seem so drained of pleasures? Is this a work of audacious genius, or merely a stale art-fart of a film?

Or dare I say neither? I find it hard to share in the indignant rage so many critics have unleashed on this difficult, often lovely film, just as I can’t quite work myself up to the impassioned praise voiced by others. Instead, I remain respectfully intrigued. Jarmusch and cinematographer Christopher Doyle seem to be working towards an austerity that would shame Ozu, but I can’t deny that they still held my imagination throughout the stillness and quiet. The empty spaces of this film are eminently inhabitable.

A good thing too, considering how much emptiness you’ll find here. At times, I found myself missing Jarmusch’s usual dry wit, which is all but absent here, with what little humour there is submerged on the formal level. True, there is something droll about the film’s little verbal and visual repetitions, but this is hardly enough to relieve the stifling air of seriousness that occasionally threatens to choke the life out of the film.

Lifelessness, however, is a fitting theme for The Limits of Control, which isn’t so much a living, breathing narrative as a story under glass—a rare creature stuffed and mounted, all the better for us to appreciate its elegant shape and colourful plumage. Similarly, as the Lone Man, Isaach de Bankole seems encased in metal, so stoic as to border on inhuman. It’s rather fitting that his character eats the little encrypted messages he receives on pieces of paper hidden in matchboxes—like a robot, he is fed code and then acts with mechanical efficiency. If you look to this film hoping to appreciate the unruly mess of life, brace for disappointment.

Actually, the film’s refusal to create a vivid narrative is not quite a failing, but really its whole purpose for being. I admit this sounds like making excuses, but bear with me, please—the film’s meaning is easily grasped on broad terms, even if the details are somewhat fuzzy. Jarmusch is primarily preoccupied with the limits of power and perception (interchangeable terms in the cinematic world, where the camera eye exerts god-like control over reality), suggesting that the subjective perspective imposed on the world by any authority, be it artist or autocrat, can’t escape the judgment of arbitrary reality. That might sound like rather vague philosophizing, but this really just means that even the mighty must feed the worms sooner or later, and even the best director must lay down his camera at some point and allow reality to roll on out of sight.

For such a dense and complex delivery system, that’s a fairly plain message, and viewers may wish for something more worthy of Jarmusch’s obscurantist strategies. But this is a film not so easily sunk, despite all the broadsides aimed against it. It remains so resolutely on message that it never betrays its purpose, never suggests that it is aware of its own absurdity. As such, I find it hard to dislike The Limits of Control, just as I would find it difficult to feel fervently against a tree or a rock (this is a film that simply is, implacably and beautifully, itself). Really, all you can do with a film like this is accept or reject its game, and much to my surprise, I’m willing to roll the dice with Jarmusch on this one.