Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Imposter

The Imposter, a deftly crafted and often tongue-in-cheek documentary by Bart Layton, unravels one of those stories too bizarre to be anything other than true. A 13-year-old Texas boy goes missing in 1993, only to show up four years later in Spain, claming to be the victim of a military-run international sex slavery ring. Overjoyed at the boy’s return, the family welcomes the shell-shocked youth, despite a few nagging discrepancies, such as brown eyes in the place of blue and a French accent instead of a Texas drawl. Lie upon lie mounts into a wobbling tower of deceptions. The child is revealed to be a 23-year-old French conman named Frederic Bourdin, who by all accounts is a pathological liar and smiling sociopath with a fondness for assuming the identities of abused and orphaned children. Unwilling to accept that his fraud has been revealed, Bourdin fights back with a new lie to cover the old, accusing his false family of an even more horrendous crime. After all, why would a family willingly pretend a stranger was their own kin unless they had something of their own to hide?

Rationalization is a powerful drug, and everyone in the film is a full-blown junky, from the grieving family to the hoodwinked FBI agent and even Bourdin himself, whose incredulous description of his own actions suggests he has never fully grasped how much pain he has caused (or equally likely, just doesn’t care). Everyone has a lie to tell, but more importantly, everyone has a lie to believe. Through unnerving editing tricks—Bourdin’s body language during an interview is intercut with similar movements during a recreation of events—Layton implicates his subjects in the creation of a past that was never what it seemed. This is all just a story they’ve told themselves over and over again, and it’s a whopper. No wonder the defunct television tabloid Hard Copy once planned to do a piece on the boy’s miraculous return. The lie is as compelling as it is unbelievable, its power increasing as it grows more absurd. Most shocking of all, Bourdin’s deceptions live on to this day. The film ends with a private investigator digging up a backyard in search of a body he’ll never find, the camera craning upwards in what is either an over-hyped dramatic reveal or parody of same. One supposes the next stop on this ludicrous corpse-finding tour will be Al Capone’s vault.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Three Crowns of the Sailor

Raul Ruiz is a filmmaker of exile, but he’s clearly found his homeland in the delirious fantasy world of Three Crowns of the Sailor. These are his compatriots: a 90-year-old man aging in reverse as long as he doesn’t eat, a burlesque dancer who isn’t fully naked until she removes her sex, sailors who sweat worms (which become butterflies, which poison the seagulls, which the sailors then eat). All are bit players in the titular sailor’s tale of misadventure aboard a boat manned by the dead, as recounted to a murderous student. Funny and morbid, Ruiz’s film is driven by death, even as his camera embraces life, cartwheeling wildly through each digression. One minute it’s underfoot, the next it’s upside down as the sailor enters a hallway where gravity momentarily reverses. Perhaps the film adds up to little more than a series of surrealist bagatelles, but that need not be a liability. Watching his ship sink—don’t worry, it’ll be back later—the sailor sums up the entire cockeyed plot when he remarks that life is just an absurd wound. But does he mean a needless injury like shooting yourself in the foot? Or is he referencing a pain so ridiculous it ceases to be pain at all, and transforms into something beautiful? Cut a man and liquid clocks dribble out from the veins instead of blood. Let it bleed, Raul, let it bleed.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Cloud Atlas

Is Cloud Atlas the most ambitious mainstream film in years, or just the longest Saturday Night Live sketch ever made? The truth lies somewhere in between. Under the direction of the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, a ludicrously stacked cast jumps into multiple roles traversing the realms of time, space, and gender, and the results can’t help but sometimes resemble a big-budget adaptation of Where’s Waldo? (Spot the Oscar winner and get a prize!) I’m sure having Halle Berry and Tom Hanks on the marquee must have been a big help when it came to securing financing, but these aren’t exactly the sort of actors who disappear into a character, you know? If you stick Tom Hanks in a bunch of bad wigs, you don’t get a succession of different people—you get Tom Hanks in a bunch of bad wigs (the cockney accent doesn’t help). Still, the real topper has to be Hugo Weaving in drag doing a Nurse Ratchet imitation. Oh, Mitzi Del Bra, has it truly come to this?

The other big downside to the distracting disguises—aside from the unintended comedy, I mean—is that it makes the film’s notions about reincarnation tediously literal. Six different plotlines stretching from the past to the future are woven together into a grand tapestry of tyranny and revolt, but apparently the audience can’t be trusted to piece this together without some fuzzy talk of past lives. Plus, one of the film’s most ingenious conceits makes this whole convoluted karma-machine completely unnecessary. Throughout each era, the events of the past pop up again in novels, journals, and films, each previous act of resistance mutated by the passage from reality to myth. This link between storylines is all the more powerful for its subtlety, at least relative to more ham-handed tactics, such as the recurring birthmark shaped like—I shit you not—a shooting star. Unsurprisingly for such a bloated behemoth of a film, the best moments are often small and seemingly tangential: a dream set loose in a china shop, or a geriatric rebel’s rallying cry of “Soylent Green is made of people!” It’s funny until you realize that the film really does have its own version of Soylent Green, and it really is made of people. And then it’s hilarious.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Fear and Desire

Fear and Desire, the 1953 cinematic debut of Stanley Kubrick, was famously derided by its director years later as “a bumbling amateur film exercise.” Made when its young auteur was a mere 24 years old, the film certainly bears all the hallmarks of juvenilia—clumsy construction, overreaching ideas, and a desperate need to be taken seriously above all else. One can scarcely see the film’s true face, boyishly round and acne-riddled, presumably, behind the thick veil of portentous voiceovers and literary allusions (mostly John Donne and The Tempest, for those keeping track). Yet there are also unnervingly powerful moments where Kubrick’s talent exceeds the thin material and his strengths slam into his limitations. If only all amateurs could be so brilliantly inept.

The greatest liability is the script, which is as vague and abstract as the title. A group of soldiers crash behind enemy lines, winding their way through an eerily bright and calm forest on a journey back to safe ground. Inevitably, there are encounters along the way: a friendly guard dog, a silent young woman, an enemy camp housing a general who will become the target of an improvised assassination attempt by the lost soldiers. Individual scenes sometimes resonate, even if the film feels disjointed and disconnected from any real-world concerns. This is that most dreaded of all war films—not war-is-hell or war-is-work but war-is-metaphor, which translates into a lot of rambling about islands in this case. Pay it little mind, and you may yet find pleasure in this mess.

Stylistically, Kubrick is still decades removed from the gilded long takes of Eyes Wide Shut or prowling tracking shots of The Shining, instead bearing the influence of Soviet montage. (A fight scene punctuated by stew dripping to the floor in a viscid splatter even directly quotes from Lev Kuleshov’s By the Law.) Perhaps this is simply a result of the director leaning heavily on his experiences as a photographer, privileging lighting and dynamic compositions over camera movement. Certainly one of the strongest features of the film—which is never less than gorgeous, for all its other flaws—is the soulful close-ups regularly afforded of the cast. In fact, this tendency also gives birth to one of this solemn film’s best jokes: as the enemy general scolds his dog for going AWOL, Kubrick cuts to a reaction shot of the moping pooch, looking embarrassed in a sorry-I-shit-the-carpet way.

Equally notable—although markedly less funny—is Kubrick’s use of point-of-view shots to rattle viewers. Rather than show the perspective of the lost soldiers, the film instead slips into the eyes of enemy combatants and civilians who suffer at the hands of our supposed heroes. A covert raid of an enemy guardhouse is punctuated with shots of the soldiers jabbing the camera lens with their bayonets, for instance. Even more unsettling is the film’s centerpiece—a feverish sequence where the men capture a local village girl, tie her to a tree, and leave her to be guarded by the youngest soldier (a wild performance from future director Paul Mazursky). As the other soldiers build a raft and hatch their assassination plot, the young soldier desperately tries to make the silent girl like him, pantomiming pompous generals in the hope of making her laugh. Confused and distressed, she just stares at him, and Kubrick slips into her perspective from time to time, aligning the audience with her helpless terror at the young man’s rapid descent into madness. Everything reaches a kinky peak when he holds up a handful of water for her to lap out of his hand like a kitten, and from there it’s a quick jump into sex-and-death land.

Alternately clunky and powerful, beautiful and fumbling, Fear and Desire remains too potent to dismiss even as it frustrates with its youthful stumbling. Its charms wage close combat with its failings, but it’s never less than fascinating. There’s a rare pleasure in seeing a top talent like Kubrick thrashing through ideas, learning what works through the time-honoured art school of falling on your face once in a while. But it’s certainly no surprise that the director would be embarrassed by the film (or even, as some rumours suggest, might try to suppress it by buying up all the prints he could get his hands on). So much of Kubrick’s later work is distinguished by an aura of all-consuming mastery, where even bad ideas can become plausible because they are pursued with such confident force and executed with such careful control. Yet here he is in his clumsy youth, as careless as he is calculating, as reckless as he is ambitious. This is the film that contains Kubrick’s darkest secret—it turns out he was human after all.