The Forest Mixed with the Sea: 14 Short Takes + A Jacques Rivette retrospective

cassandraposterThe following notices were originally published in Willamette Week between February 2007-February 2008. Except for the Rivette notes at the end, these capsules are in alphabetical rather than chronological order. – NPT (January 2009)

CASSANDRA’S DREAM

Similar in plot yet vastly superior in design to the tawdry Match Point, Woody Allen’s latest London-set foray into the crime thriller genre emerges out of left field as a sustained, tension-filled piece of work. Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell engagingly play off each other as squabbling, working-class brothers whose increasingly expensive tastes lead them to accept a murderous business proposal from their wealthy uncle (a suavely amoral Tom Wilkinson). The movie’s first half feels like Woody’s variation on John Osborne’s kitchen-sink realist dramas of the late ‘50s. Perhaps because of this, Cassandra’s Dream has a moral gravity (however out of style that may be) that was missing from Match Point. It’s possible to care about these blokes, their struggles with debt and depression (Farrell) or with pretending to be rich to impress a girl (McGregor, swooning over Hayley Atwell). But then Woody’s writing here is substantially better than in his last three films, and McGregor has an energetic way of making even the unlikeliest lines sing. As the story grows darker, Farrell, embodying a uniquely male kind of vulnerability, shows us the fear caused by violence—a state of being rarely depicted on screen with as much truth as this.

THE CATS OF MIRIKITANI

catsofjmIntimate and exhilarating, this directorial debut from Linda Hattendorf fuses the personal and the historical as few documentaries have. In January 2001, Hattendorf began filming Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, a homeless Japanese-American artist who worked and slept within the sheer plastic encasing of a Korean grocer’s SoHo storefront. Mirikitani, then 80, continued to paint images of the California desert camp where he and other U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry had been imprisoned during World War II. Hattendorf’s camera follows him from winter into summer; in a brilliant use of time-lapse, shots of his fiery, vivid paintings depicting the August 1945 Hiroshima bombing dissolve to footage of smoke rising from the World Trade Center towers on 9/11, then back into Mirikitani’s eerily prescient artworks. From tragedy flows an almost Odd Couple-like comedy of filmmaker and subject becoming roommates for a time. One of the great beauties of this film emerges from seeing a personality as feisty and as supremely self-confident as Mirikitani flower before our eyes, be it in the vigor with which he still approaches his work or the tenacity with which he rails against Social Security. It’s a film by turns achingly funny or devastatingly painful; in a few miraculous passages, it’s both at once.

THE COUNTERFEITERS

In this multi-varied re-imagining of concentration camp movies as a film genre, writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky scores both a post-war framing device (on the beach at Monte Carlo) and the main story of imprisonment within Sachsenhausen’s “Golden Cage” to tango music. The choice serves as a remembrance of things past for master forger Salomon “Sally” Sorowitsch (the long-faced Karl Markovics), an artist whose gift for likenesses first grants him status as a portraitist of SS officers, then as the lynchpin for a Nazi operation to flood the Allies’ economies with counterfeit dollars and pounds. Among the treats in this Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film: a group of European Jews snap their fingers, buoyantly singing the spiritual “Down by the Riverside”; and a brief yet infinitely moving scene of Sally encountering another Russian detainee, as the two are transported by cattle car from one camp to another. Instead of bemoaning the horror of it all, the men reminisce about the art teachers who influenced and inspired them.

DANS PARIS

dansparisposterThe pearl-gray skies of Paris in late December are reason enough to take in this intermittently enjoyable bad film about Paul (Romain Duris), a clean young man with neat sideburns who attempts suicide because the unwashed hag of his dreams resents him for taking showers. Ohh, it’s all so Français! Bathing regularly soon leads to a plunge into the wintry Seine. Yet instead of drowning or dying from hypothermia, Paul emerges—ahh, refreshed—like a true Frenchman, as his stinking ladylove, Joana Preiss, clad in black tights and oversized jumper, dances and hops around with all the grace of an emaciated elephant. Sans his Molière wig, Duris looks handsome, as well he should for a role that mandates he spend most of the movie in bed in his boxers. Playing the oversexed kid brother, Louis Garrel sports striking licorice-twist curls that director Christophe Honoré frames against pale interiors and blanched-out, Eiffel Tower backdrops. Honoré’s one-note homage to Jacques Demy musicals falls flat, but the Bill Evans-inspired jazz pianist Armel Dupas infuses the soundtrack with elegantly jaunty rhythms. Marie-France Pisier, gorgeous at age 62, shows up for an invigorating cameo as the boys’ absentee mom. Amazingly, given what a dud it is, Dans Paris has much to recommend.

DELIRIOUS

delirious2In the opening shot, Michael Pitt, as the homeless Toby, wakes up in a yellow, elongated Dumpster, the color of which matches his straw-like hair. He’s been sleeping on top of trash—an ideal emblem for this pitch-perfect satire of losers drowning in the debris of their illusions. After a montage of Toby scavenging in the big city (and writer-director Tom DiCillo’s camera captures the fear and wonder in Pitt’s large blue eyes, the sensitivity mixed with a hustler’s survival techniques) he soon falls in with paparazzi photographer Les (Steve Buscemi). This movie tells the truth about a certain breed of freelancer. A media wank who whores for schwag, Les cloaks his infantile sleaziness in art: “ I got the laser eye…sometimes I see too much.” Toby has a happy-to-be-alive glow when Les snaps up headshots of the photogenic scamp; it may be Pitt’s best performance to date. As Les’s unpaid assistant, Toby accidentally gains entrée to the world of celebrity. DiCillo, a master of radically opposing tones, subjects his characters to sundry humiliations, yet he empathizes with Toby’s stumble into a kind of heaven—with how much it means to the lad, so that we, too, sense that “into the picture” feeling of being inside after so long outside.

A GENTLE BREEZE IN THE VILLAGE

Long, slow, uneventful—this 121-minute children’s movie creeps along with no plot, no believable characters, and no discernible point-of-view about anything. For the first hour, it’s mainly a succession of wide-angle nature shots, a sumptuous survey of leafy treetops against looming mountain vistas. The movie’s based on a manga, which may account for its disjointedness; screenwriter Aya Watanabe trudges from panel to panel without unifying a story. Her insipid dialogue reaches its zenith when a mother ponders, “Dad? Having an affair? I wish he would—and let me rest.” The film’s humor, such as it is, stems from a pinch-faced, bowl-cut tyke who’s plagued by a frequent urge to urinate. After we’ve endured this, the movie tries to extract pathos from this same little girl’s development of a bladder infection, once the older kids make her hold it in.

GOLDEN DOOR

When a clan of Sicilians waves goodbye to the old country, two little boys appear in the doorframe of the rustic cottage that’s being left behind. Their mother bids them farewell, and it becomes apparent after a second or two that the boys are phantoms of children who died young—ghosts who won’t be crossing the Atlantic. It’s the one good scene in Emanuele Crialese’s snail-paced saga of peasant immigrants, and it involves none of the principal characters. Mostly, there’s the butch Vincenzo Amato, as a farmer duped by the 1910 equivalent of Photoshop into believing that America is a land of giant vegetables (in fantasy shots, he floats along on an enormous carrot), and the white as flour, wispy and witchlike Charlotte Gainsbourg, as a runaway Englishwoman. Dressed to the nines in period costume, with a red wig piled high like a fizzled strawberry flambé, Gainsbourg, especially in profile, seems poised to enter a Margaret Hamilton look-alike contest. After interminable interrogations at Ellis Island, Amato and Gainsbourg swim in place in a sea of milk, treading lactose yet never advancing. The camera pulls back to reveal an aerial mosaic of swimmers, dozens, if not hundreds, exerting themselves to go nowhere. It’s impressive, visually. Also, empty.

webberstateMark Webber in The Hottest State (THINKfilm Company)

THE HOTTEST STATE

Mark Webber gives a knockout portrayal of a man in love and lust as William, a honey-toned, ostentatiously seedy young actor who establishes his Texas roots by parading around lower Manhattan in Western gear. Smitten with Sara (Catalina Sandino Moreno), whom he romances at a bar with Star Trek jokes, William is a cherubic bundle of carnal energy; he gazes into his mirror, reciting lines from Tennessee Williams’s Camino Real. And in Ethan Hawke’s adaptation of his own 1996 novel, it’s William who’s more of a sexualized object than Sara. Strutting shirtless across the screen, his caramel-colored chest hair in upswept frenzy, Webber resembles a piece of wild game or a teddy bear gone feral. When the radiant Sandino wears a silk, silver veil over her dark mane, she could be Cleopatra. The movie proceeds in sultry, patient rhythms: there’s nothing prefab in Hawke’s directorial approach or in his off-kilter wit. (The faith that Hawke confers to his audience accounts for why Hottest State has been thrashed by critics, among them Premiere’s Glenn Kenny, who not only sneers at but misrepresents Hawke’s uncorrupted lyricism.) Christopher Norr’s wide-angle cinematography creates such a vivid sense of place that the New York and Mexico locations become characters in themselves. Composer Jesse Harris’s hypnotically beautiful score, which opens with Willie Nelson singing the jazzy ballad “Always Seem to Get Things Wrong,” likewise entwines into the fabric of Hawke’s spare storytelling. For all the sharp dialogue, one of the most searing exchanges occurs between two half-brothers staring at each other on opposite sides of a screen door, standing wordlessly yet speaking volumes.

KINGS

Uglier Than Leprechauns would have been a more fitting title for this turgid blarney in which a half-dozen drunken Irishmen booze it up at a friend’s wake. Occasional flashbacks to 1977 Conmara show them as young, buff idealists immigrating to England, but mostly the film occupies drab, present-day London where these blue-collar blokes, now middle-aged, are some of the homeliest, paunchiest men to don singlets this side of a Philip Seymour Hoffman movie. There are lots of close-ups of hideous faces, perhaps none more pitiable and repulsive than Peadar Ó Treasaigh’s, whose knotted eyebrows of steel wool we come to know intimately.

MY KID COULD PAINT THAT

mykidcouldpaintthatDocumentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev makes several astute choices in tracing the highs and scandal-plagued lows of Mark and Laura Olmstead, a working-class couple in Binghamton, NY, and their adorable moppet daughter Marla, who may or may not be the sole artist in a series of fetchingly executed abstract paintings. No one directly asks Marla the big question: Are the large rectangular canvases, dense with curlicue smears in velocities of interlocking circles, actually her work? After a child psychologist implies it’s all a fake (her rationale being that well-adjusted, button-cute Marla demonstrates none of a prodigy’s odd behavior), the director splits the screen into panels, re-playing an ever-changing collage of older and newer Marla paintings, so that we can see the comparison and draw our own conclusions. The Olmsteads are an intriguing study in parental ambition—he’s a night manager at Frito-Lay; she’s a pert, blonde dental assistant. My sympathies were with her until a jarring sequence wherein she breaks into sobs, then—just like that—turns off the tears and stomps away with an enigmatic statement about “documentary gold.” Bar-Lev must have been as stunned as I was, because he follows this with time-lapse shots of camera and sound equipment being unplugged, packed away—as if to underscore the staginess of “real life” as it plays in the Olmsteads’ living room.

THE ORPHANAGE

“PLEASE DO NOT REVEAL THE ENDING,” screams a line in the production notes for this un-thrilling Spanish thriller. (So much for the review I intended to write, giving away the whole sordid show about a woman, her husband unit, and their adopted son who move into a haunted house, thinking it’s going to become a community center.) The request for secrecy isn’t because the film will be less suspenseful if you know the outcome, but because the distributor fears that critics will alert clueless moviegoers to just how patently offensive this over-produced bomb truly is. Any movie that places an HIV-positive 7-year old child in peril from the undead hasn’t exactly staked a claim to the moral high ground. Rest assured, equal opportunity exploiters, The Orphanage contains at least one parental endangerment pratfall at the hands of an evil, mask-wearing tyke. Poor Belén Rueda, splendid as the disabled attorney in The Sea Inside, royally embarrasses herself here, perhaps especially when coated with the floury bone meal of decomposed skeletons—eeeeaaghhhh, ahhhhhg! What unassailably stinks, however, is that the movie sentimentalizes insanity and one other taboo subject to ensure a “happy ending.” The ending, trust me, will seem happy only to viewers who spent their formative years dismembering Barbie and Ken. At least there’s nice photography of the Asturian mountains and seashore, plus a riveting cameo by Geraldine Chaplin, whose pantomimed psychic trance would do her papa proud.

PRICELESS

My expectations were low, given that I detested director Pierre Salvadori’s last film, the painfully unfunny Après Vous. What a surprise, then, to discover a near perfect light comedy. From the animated opening credits, in which paper cocktail umbrellas lend color to black-and-white ocean waves, this movie has an assurance and an internal logic essential to good fluff. Set amidst Monte Carlo’s jet-setting “beautiful people,” Priceless features a radiantly tanned Audrey Tautou (never better) as a gold-digger, and a sweet, sexy comic turn from Gad Elmaleh as a hotel waiter she inadvertently draws into what might be termed “the hustling lifestyle.” Smashingly entertaining though it is, the movie isn’t without a soupçon of perception. Says one experienced seducer to a novice gigolo: “Don’t you think I know what that look means? I’ve seen it since I was 12 years old.”

steepchamonixSteep climb: On the ascent at Chamonix (© 2007 High Ground Productions, LLC, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

STEEP

This dreamy moon-wisp of a documentary charts the rise of extreme skiing, from the sport’s French origins in the 1970s at Chamonix to its embrace by Americans in the late 1980s and beyond. Steep opens with a shot of sunlight shining through snowflakes, a bauble effect by which to enter the movie’s winter wonderlands. Director Mark Obenhaus introduces us to a dozen or so scrappy ski bums, notably the blond mohawk’d Glen Plake and the imminently photogenic skier-parachutist Shane McConkey, who periodically likes to leap off a bridge with his buddies. Although the movie functions well enough as an ode to these dudes’ gnarly pursuit of good times—it’s a pungent whiff of the ski subculture—Steep serves us best when the camera simply roves over the dramatic spires of Grand Teton, the seemingly sedate charm of La Neige, or the velvet-textured vastness of Alaska’s Chugach Mountains. Hypnotic HD footage of rugged hillsides sculpted by blankets of snow, the rolling “ocean waves” that cascade in the wake of a downhill racer’s swirling lines—these are the main reasons to take it all in. “You can almost get a feeling of flying,” states one skier of gliding some 200 feet while scarcely touching the ground. It’s the moviemaker’s achievement that those of us sitting in the dark taste a bit of that sensation, too.

12:08 EAST OF BUCHAREST

With humor as hearty as sawdust, this nearly chuckle-free Romanian “comedy” traces a late December day in the life of Jderescu (Teodor Corban), a pudgy-faced, full of himself fuddy-duddy who hosts a television talk show. Writer-director Corneliu Porumboiu implies that his countrymen are no better off 16 years after the Ceausescu dictatorship’s end. Porumboiu establishes his basic mode of thought with static camera set-ups parked in front of drab interiors, cutting to occasional tracking shots that reveal city streets as gray, hideous ruins. The most memorable moments belong to a high-school marching band, standing in place as it performs a cheerfully insipid salsa number, and to a confrontation between Jderescu and Chen, a Chinese ex-pat who endures Jderescu’s racial slurs and contentedly sells defective Santa outfits to old men.

Notes from a Rivette retrospective

The Jacques Rivette series at NW Film Center gets off to a gloomy start with The Nun, a 1966 study of torture and thwarted sexual desires within convent walls. Anna Karina stars as Suzanne, a young woman whose parents, evidently broke from marrying off her elder sisters, deduce that she can be a bride of Christ on the cheap; they consign her to a nunnery, despite Suzanne’s absence of religious conviction. Set in the late 1750s, this adaptation of a Diderot novel appears to have been shot with periwinkle filters on the lens. The oppressively blue walls, the omnipresent sound of wind howling, and Jean-Claude Eloy’s “contemporary” score (a discordant drone of electronic blips, throttled trap drums, and tickled piano wires) all add to the sense of being at a horror movie. Rivette often frames the nuns behind gates, lest we miss his point that they’re in a kind of prison. Suzanne’s chief flaw is that she’s rebellious without being assertive, a condition that builds to a stand-out scene near the end, an attempted seduction in the garden in which a Mother Superior quizzes her on her feelings for men and if, on waking, she ever lies back on the pillow to observe how pretty she is.

beartThe series takes a turn for the liverwurst with Gang of Four. A dorky undercover cop infiltrates a sorority of pinch-faced, no-talent acting students who sport terrible ‘80s hairdos. Bulle Ogier gives a fine performance as a tough-to-please theatre coach who harshly critiques the girls, but she isn’t on-screen often enough to salvage the picture. Gang lacks the brilliant humor and inspired insanity of Céline and Julie Go Boating, playing instead like a slasher film that’s had the murders excised. What’s left are long stretches of inanity while we wait for these ciphers to bite the dust—alas, none of them do. Rivette fares better with 1985’s Wuthering Heights, which features a sensationally smoldering Lucas Belvaux (then aged 24) as the orphaned lad whom the rich relations treat cruelly. This sun-parched transplant of Emily Brontë to the 1931 Pyrenees boasts gorgeously lit wide-angle shots of the countryside by Renato Berta; when Rivette sends the young lovers playfully scurrying over hillsides to Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares on the soundtrack, it’s a nice touch. Fabienne Babe co-stars as a sluttish, manipulative Catherine, and a dream sequence, involving her bedside encounter with a phantom, in itself makes this neglected movie a must-see.

As for the overrated La Belle Noiseuse, it has an intriguing first hour filled with nifty epigrams about art (“The forest and the sea mixed together—that’s what painting is”) yet when Emmanuelle Béart and her perfectly dull nude body pose for Michel Piccoli, and he sketches her with a pen that scrapes the paper like a fingernail on a chalkboard, boredom sets in and never leaves. Rivette at least manages a serviceable entertainment with The Story of Marie and Julien, which plays like an NPR-liberal retread of Céline and Julie. Thirty years after that superb farce on life and death as an endlessly looped maze, Rivette reprises the same themes to somber and ultimately trivial effect, with a resolution that reeks of M. Night Schmaltz-yan. Julien, a beefy, square-jawed pig for whom time literally and figuratively stands still, obsesses over Marie. But what is their fantasy relationship based on besides sex? As Marie, Emmanuelle Béart, oozing with false seriousness, does her usual child-woman, non-entity number and once again fulfills a contractual obligation to bare her breasts. Highlights include a cat named “Nevermore” who gives the liveliest, most warmly human performance with his commanding meows, and subtitles so vacuous (“The one who is alive killed the one who is dead”) that they might have been translated by a Roger Ebert understudy. – NPT

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