zaterdag 27 oktober 2012

Breathing new life into Tim Burton

Frankenweenie: ****/*****, or 8/10

Moviebuffs familiar with Tim Burton's oeuvre will probably remember how one of his earliest projects for Disney backfired on him, though it ended up setting him in the right direction for a very fruitful career. In 1984 Burton directed a 29 minute family film named Frankenweenie, an homage to the iconic original Frankenstein films from the Thirties, involving a boy who loses his beloved dog but revives him via electricity, to the shock of his neighbourhood. Though it was a simple horror story for all ages, Disney was dismayed and deemed the short film too disturbing and scary for its target audience, denying it a theatrical run (but for some reason still giving it a home video release). Burton was fired from the studio and looked for jobs elsewhere, soon setting himself on the right track as he directed a number of smash hits, including Batman (1990), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Batman Returns (1992), eventually becoming a major player in Hollywood despite (or because) continuing to utilize his own unorthodox visual style and displaying his love for outcasts and their encounters with the bizarre. Leaving Disney may have been the best thing that ever happened to Burton, but it didn't stop him from revisiting the failure that basically started his career, remaking his own short into a theatrical movie in an even darker and more off-beat fashion 28 years later, but still for the same Walt Disney Studios that didn't think much of him or his work all those years ago. Apparently Burton's acclaimed career, plus an earlier cooperation between the pair when doing the highly successful Alice in Wonderland (2010), ensured Disney gave Burton the benefit of the doubt and the chance to bring Frankenweenie back to life in an even more spectacular way than the dog in the story is reanimated.

For despite the film now running 87 instead of only 29 minutes, surprisingly little has changed in terms of story. Warning! Spoilers! The protagonist is still a little boy named Victor Frankenstein, a nerdy and imaginative kid whose best buddy in the whole world is his dog, called Sparky (there's more than a little 'nomen est omen' in there somewhere I reckon). Together they do anything from just playing around on the streets to making home movies wherein the canine stars as a dinosaur slayer protecting cardboard cities from plastic monsters. Of course with hobbies like that, Victor isn't the most popular kid in school, but as long as he has Sparky, he doesn't mind. But soon, tragedy strikes and Sparky is fatally run over by a car and laid to rest, leaving an inconsolable Victor all alone, despite his parents' assurances Sparky moved on to a special place in his heart. However, when he learns of electricity and its effects on dead tissue at school, the boy turns to the dark art of science to bring his pet back to life by having its soulless body struck by lightning. Against all odds, the experiment is a success and his best friend is given a second chance at life, though not in a perfect physical state as parts of him occasionally come loose. Despite his efforts to keep Sparky's resurrection a secret, the rest of the town soon finds out and is appalled by this abominable obstruction of everyday life, turning into a typical angry mob out to make sure the dead dog stays dead this time. Tracking the pair to an old windmill, the construction catches fire and traps Victor inside until Sparky gives his second life to save his young master. Touched by his courage, the townspeople are convinced Sparky deserved to live, after which they help Victor restoring him to life once more in a total feel-good happy ending only Disney can deliver (though it's maybe a bit too cheerful for a Tim Burton picture).

Though the plot has hardly changed, there couldn't have been a bigger difference in execution, as Burton turns to the much admired art of traditional stop motion animation for his second incarnation of Frankenweenie. Hardly a stranger to this type of filming, having produced The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and directed Corpse Bride (2005) before, Burton's use of stop motion turns out fully justified as it gives the movie a stylistic and visual edge over both the movie's predecessor as well as many a “regularly” animated Disney movie. The film's look is simply stunning, with some of the smoothest stop motion work to date, and it also fits into Burton's oeuvre in a completely consistent manner: the various characters, both human and animal, are all typically Burtonesque with their big eyes, pale faces and generally caricaturized physical features, while their brooding, often Gothic surroundings make no mistake Tim Burton's signature stamp is all over this film. Frankenweenie might as well be called Corpse Bride's twin sister, were it not for the fact that, unlike that film but like the original short, Frankenweenie is also shot in black and white to make it appear even more distinct, as well as perfectly in sync with the horror classics of old – particularly James Whale's brilliant original Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), to which the movie knowingly owes more than a little, on the narrative side – the movie keeps referring to throughout the piece. While many a gag referring to such narrative and stylistic forebears, albeit visual or in dialogue, is undoubtedly missed by younger members of the audience, those even slightly versed in the genre will recognize a multitude of little nods and in-jokes softening the overall gloomy mood the style and story prescribe. That doesn't mean there's no fun to be had for the kids or the more uninformed spectators, as they too are treated to many an outrageously zany moment triggering a few good laughs.

At the same time, despite the many humourous occurrences, the movie isn't afraid to downplay its moments of grief, and much to the credit of the animation crew such instances are shot with the full range of emotion they necessitate, making even the toughest viewers feel sad as we witness Sparky's death – which fortunately remains largely obscured from vision, instead of seen in more detail than is necessary, underscoring the power of suggestion which Burton has also mastered – and the sorrow it inflicts on those left behind, the high point of tragedy remaining a simple shot of Sparky's neighbour dog, a female poodle with whom he used to play ball through a hole in the fence separating them: the poodle nods the ball through the hole, then waits for a return nod that never comes. Maximum emotional effect achieved through stylistic simplicity, and nobody ought to keep a dry eye.

Despite the overall story remaining largely identical to that of the original short film, a longer running time does warrant the inclusion of a few subplots to flesh things out just a bit more. The most noticeable difference in narration is the science contest dominating events in Victor's class as his school mates are all attempting to outthink each other in making the most spectacular contribution to science, encouraged by their new substitute teacher with his unpronouncable but decidedly Eastern European sounding name (impeccable voicework done by Burton veteran Martin Landau, who won an Academy Award for his role in Burton's masterpiece Ed Wood (1994)). When the word gets out on Victor's achievements, even though they were a personal project to be kept hidden from the rest of the town, the all too natural reaction of the other kids is imitation, as they understandably decide to resurrect their own deceased pets as well. However, their actions are motivated more by the desire for fame and glory than they are by heart, while their teacher explained to Victor the outcome of his experiment was fueled primarily by the love for his subject instead of the lust for self-enrichment. Naturally, the various rival experiments result in the creation of many monstrous mutations soon terrorizing the town, including a cat/bat hybrid and a giant dinosauresque turtle, enabling Burton and his partners in animation to go all out with the stop motion process, continuing the age old tradition of stop motion applied for breathing life into monsters, as pioneered by special effects legends like Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen. It also results in a grander overall scale of the film, clearly setting it apart against the simpler original short movie, plus it adds some dynamic action for those audience members who find it hard to sit through all the genuine emotion the movie keeps evoking, if any. Ultimately though, Frankenweenie doesn't need such spectacle since its core plot about a boy and his dog is moving enough in itself and remains the picture's heart and soul, despite the additions made to make a short film longer.

Only a few months ago, I critiqued Burton's Dark Shadows and feared his signature style was overused by himself (and nowadays, by many others, too), which led to a deterioration of quality in his recent films, culminating in Dark Shadows ending up as one of Burton's biggest disappointments of the last decade. I'm only too glad to find myself positively surprised by Frankenweenie, one of his most delightful films to date, which has proven this director is still fully capable of delivering a satisfying viewing experience when his heart is truly in it. Getting even at Disney while coming full circle from the start of his career to the point where he is now clearly made sure Burton was fully invested in this project, and he is proven right after a quarter century: Frankenweenie was a thoroughly enjoyable short movie then as it is a full theatrical film now, for audiences both young and old. Apparently, in Burton's case revenge is a dish best served dead, and revived.

Sidenote: life is not without its cruel little ironies. For example, I got to watch Frankenweenie the same week I had to let go of (yet another) one of my cats. 2012 is not a good year for me, pet wise. Since I happen to like animals more than people – if you know me and this notion offends you, don't take it personally, it's just the way I am – I'm having some trouble letting go, even though it wasn't my favorite cat. In fact, the pet in question, poor little Akka, was always drooling, generally unhygienic and somewhat obnoxious, but I still loved her in her own right, and I will naturally miss her presence (unlike the other cats, who don't seem to miss her at all). Considering Frankenweenie revolves around the troubles of letting go of your beloved pets, it got me thinking. If I were a creative little boy and I lived in Tim Burton's imaginative world, I no doubt would go for the solution offered in the film and resurrect the hell out of my dead cat. However, I am not and I cannot, and even if it were scientifically feasible, I would not. Especially not after the animal in question had been rotting underground for a week (even if protected by the cover provided by a wooden box, as Sparky was given). After all, letting go when somebody or something dies is just a part of life, the dark side of life of course, but still life.

What would be achieved by keeping dead animals alive? Sure, you can stick to their presence forever, but would it really be the pets you knew and loved? As Frankenweenie showed, Sparky's resurrection, instigated by love or not, was the result of a lucky shot, while the same experiment failed with all the other ex-pets. Monstrous mutations were the result, creepy crawlies and towering behemoths that looked nothing like their living predecessors. Moreover, if they had been healthy and happy like they used to be, death would lose its impact. You could just keep on recharging your dead pet to breathe a semblance of new life into it over and over again, which would keep you from letting go and forming new special bonds with other animals. But of course, new animals would still be born, and soon the number of zombified creatures would grow to excessive rates and leave less room for the living. Death may not be a nice thing, but there is a definite natural purpose to it. My cat had a decent life for over 16 years and she got to live to a fair old age. It's more than I can say for my previous cat, who succumbed to organ failure at age nine, which was far too young for my taste. Instead of focusing on resurrecting pets, it seems more reasonable to turn attention towards extending the natural lifespan of pets, which usually lasts for only one or two decades, while their masters' life outlasts them for many more years. For the same reasons as stated above I feel it shouldn't be attempted by artificial means though. Besides, natural human lives last far longer nowadays than they did centuries ago. I reckon the same is increasingly true for pets' lives, who receive better care and food than they did in days gone by. Who knows, with a little luck cats will eventually live for many more years than they do today. And if not, the memories of a good cat will last a lifetime in that special place in our heart. Even though we would have preferred them to stay here with us in the flesh...

And watch the trailer here:

zondag 21 oktober 2012

Doing the Judge justice

Dredd 3D: ****/*****, or 7/10

In the annals of cinema, you'll find few instances of remakes surpassing their predecessors in quality. The lack of creative originality and the general feeling of déja vù all too often prohibit a remake from living up to the name of its forebear, usually rendering them highly derivative products produced simply for making more money by cashing in on an established franchise's name. However, one of the latest additions to the ever growing but already overly long list of remakes, reboots, re-imaginings and the like, Dredd 3D proves a pleasant deviation from the norm in this regard. However, it will surprise few people familiar with the former Judge Dredd movie from 1995 (which starred Sylvester Stallone as Dredd) that its successor improves upon that film on just about every level, considering it ranks considerably high on nigh on every list of 'worst comic book adapations' in existence. Judge Dredd is just an easy movie to top, and Dredd 3D does so with a vengeance appropriate for its titular character.

Transporting us to a typical post-apocalyptic future world where humanity has made a big mess of things via nuclear war and global pollution, we are introduced to the setting of the film, a vast metropolis named Mega-City One, where the remaining 800 million people live in a state of near anarchy on the remains of the world-that-was, huddled together in slums and giant skyscrapers. Of course so many people in a single spot is a recipe for crime running rampant, but fortunately for the decent citizens of the city (if any) the Hall of Justice has a small army of Judges patrolling the town, acting as judge, jury and if needs be, executioner in any conflict.. Sporting intimidating outfits with eerie helmets to match, a wide range of explosive weaponry and an overall 'don't fuck with us' mentality and attitude, this future police force roams the street delivering swift justice to any offenders unlucky enough to cross their path; which is still only a small percentage of total crime levels, aptly indicating the need for such a seemingly excessive justice system. Among the hardened veteran Judges is a character simply named Dredd, a paragon of virtue even amongst his fellow law enforcers, highly skilled in making sure criminals get their just due if he happens upon their shady activities. Playing Dredd is Karl Urban, who, given his fairly impressive resumé of similar Sci-Fi action flicks (examples include Priest (2011), Doom (2005) and The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), though he's undoubtedly best known for his performance as Eomer of Rohan in the two final installments of The Lord of the Rings trilogy), seems the perfect choice for the role, which fits in neatly with the rest of his oeuvre. His Dredd carries the neccessary gravitas for the character of an uncompromising badass cop, meeting out punishment with a total lack of prejudice, simply adhering to the laws in a dystopian world where very few seem to care about said law, so he refuses to shy away from intimidation and violence if warranted.

Of course such a character proves difficult to feel much empathy for, so we – and Dredd himself – are introduced to rookie Judge-in-training Anderson (Olivia Thirlby, The Darkest Hour (2011)) to help guide us into this gritty, bleak future world, working alongside Dredd on her first day as he assesses her qualities as a potential Judge. Though she failed for her first exams in training, Dredd's superiors are eager to keep her on the force since she is a mutant, possessing psychic abilities to read minds and such, which would make her a great asset to the force. That is, if she survives her first day: unfortunately she and Dredd stumble upon quite a tricky situation as they are faced with a vicious gang murder in a skyscraper which proves to be just the tip of the iceberg in a huge narcotics operation under control of the highly dangerous psychopathic Ma-Ma (another terrific, and horrific, bad lady for Lena Headey, who once played the protector of mankind's future in her own series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, but since her performance as the devious, scheming Cersei Lannister in the superb HBO series Game of Thrones ironically excels at playing convincingly evil dames). When she learns these Judges are onto her, she immediately seals off the enormous building from the outside and, in order to get rid of the evidence most effectively, orders her legions of creepy minions to kill them both in whatever nasty way they see fit. All too soon, Dredd and Anderson find themselves cornered and have to mow their way through scores of bad guys, while attempting to break the perimeter and call for back-up. If this story sounds somewhat familiar, it's not because this movie is a remake, but because much of the plot is overly reminiscent of the recent Indonesian action hit The Raid: Redemption, which featured a police squad under siege in an apartment building on the orders of a ruthless crime lord who orders the local tenants to exterminate the law enforcers. Were it not for the fact both movies were produced more or less simultaneously, the plethora of similarities would seem just a little too suspicious. Luckily, Dredd 3D at least differs in its execution by its future setting and the fact the plot is less used as a showcase for impressive martial arts and more as a standard Hollywood type action flick (though the film was produced independently from the studio system) applying “ordinary” gun fights and stunts as its main visual draws.

Speaking of visuals, it's ironic drugs offer the most successful FX shots of the movie, despite the protagonist's insistence on shutting this drug operation down, thereby aiming to end the fabulous visual flair applied to the effects the drugs in this film have on its characters for the audience to enjoy. The drugs in question are nicknamed 'Slo-Mo' and their effects revolve around the apparent slowing down of time to a fraction of its actual speed. This results in the movie's most stunning 3D shots (it's called Dredd 3D after all), where we see the image slowing down accompanied by a glittering haze that adds some much desired colour to this otherwise dreary and bleak future. Whenever Slo-Mo is used, dazzling, almost lyrical visuals brighten the gloomy mood, allowing for wonderful dimensions of visual depth to be revealed, which are however also applied for further enhancing the levels of gore, already disturbing at times. When we see characters fall to their death from the great heights of Ma-Ma's complex, we're both fascinated and revulsed by the image of seeing them hit the ground and splattering across the screen in the graphic depth and detail such slow-motion effects allow for. It takes a strong stomach for sure, but such shots form the visual highlight of the film, and their ingenuity in 3D justifies the '3D' in the film's title, considering for most of the film two dimensions appear to suffice.

Ultimately, such visuals plus the basic action and violence are Dredd 3D's main assets, since both the story and the character development leave something to be desired. As for character development, Dredd basically has none. One might say the title is grossly misleading, considering it's really not Dredd's story at all, it's Anderson's. Though we see the film from both their perspectives, it's mostly about her. It's her first day on duty, being trained in the ways of the Judges by her mentor. For Dredd, it's all in a day's work, while for Anderson, it's a life defining experience that sees both her physical and her mental faculties tested to their limits as she must confront one creepy criminal after another, almost getting (mind) raped in the process, while Dredd, who simply shoots and maims his way through the baddies, experiences no such ordeals. Credit must be given to Thirlby for playing such a demanding role (especially considering she has never done this type of film before, unlike Urban who we already know revels in it) and pulling it off compellingly, thus adding some heart, cause and emotion to the film (though we would like to have seen a bit more explanation on the role of mutants like her in Mega-City One, something the movie alludes to on more than one occasion but never fleshes out sufficiently), whereas Dredd stays a rather bland character throughout. However, in Dredd's case, revealing more about his persona isn't at all necessary. Staying true to the comics on which the movie is based, nowhere in this film is he seen removing his helmet or showing his face, other than his mouth – which houses a well suited grumbly, raspy low voice (think Christian Bale as the similar themed Batman character in the recent Dark Knight trilogy) – since as the truest servant of the law, he must feel like something beyond simply human, more like an ideal than an actual man of flesh and blood. Dredd is made out to be just that by staying underdeveloped, unexplored, a walking talking enigma, a man without a past and without clearly defined motivations, who only lives to uphold the law, the one thing holding this screwed up society together. Undoubtedly such a character has a colourful past to explain his one sided rationale, but explaining that all away would defeat Dredd's effectiveness in this film: it would remove his helmet metaphorically, so it's as much a no-go as is removing his actual helmet, something Stallone back in 1995 had less issues with in his take on the character, which is one of the reasons his Judge Dredd failed to properly adhere to the character.

In short, Dredd 3D is a decent new shot at adapting the original comic book, superior to its feeble predecessor. It offers little new material to the genre though, since both the story and the dystopian future setting have been done before (and better) in the past, but that doesn't stop the film from being a wholesomely entertaining Sci-Fi action flick, sporting some thoroughly thrilling scenes of violence and gore and impressive visuals at times, aiding the otherwise hardly noticeable 3D effects. The unfathomable Dredd as played by Urban proves a memorable re-imagining of the iconic comic character, a sentry of the law making a lawless city just a little bit safer. Considering its various plot similarities to The Raid: Redemption, Dredd 3D fortunately also renders the much dreaded American remake of that particular film redundant. Sadly Dredd 3D underperformed at the domestic box office, so it may be quite a while before we see Dredd in action again, but until that time, this is without the doubt the best rendition of the character, effecting some much needed justice upon the franchise name by making us completely forget the lackluster 1995 film.

Sidenote: despite its shortcomings, consciously or not, Dredd 3D ultimately proved to be inspiring. Taking the metro on the way home at night, I noticed a woman harassed by some vagabonds. I stood at some ten metres distance, but nobody appeared to come to her aid (though there was quite a number of people around), despite her obvious distress. I simply walked down the tram towards the incident and demanded to know what was going on. The assailants told me in a rude and agressive tone to fuck off, but I stood my ground and told them to end their intimidation and public disturbance, at which point they directed their attention toward me. Though I got increasingly nervous, I didn't let them notice and simply looked at them very sternly uninterruptedly. The forbidding relentless eye contact clearly made them unhinged and though they continued slinging (racist) insults and threats my way, they didn't go so far as to resort to more physical measures to underscore their intentions. My tactic proved effective as several other people joined me in pointing out the hoodlums' faults in the matter and when reaching the next station, the agressors made a swift though noisy departure, clearly intimidated by the now greater numbers opposing them, exposing them for the cowards they were. Looking back, I seemed to have quickly judged the situation and acted upon it, likely extinguishing an explosive situation publicly, and I didn't need a cool helmet (quite the opposite in fact), a gun or other weaponry to do so.

Or did I? When the loudmouths had left, I realized I unknowingly had zipped open my coat's left pocket and had clutched a pen I always keep in there. Though one wasn't necessary in the end (thankfully!), I apparently unconsciously had looked for a weapon to defend myself with if it had come down to a brawl. Maybe my antagonists had noticed and feared I harbored something more formidable in there, thus hastening their decision for a quick exit. I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if it had come to a fight. A pen may normally not constitute a lethal weapon, but people have been severely hurt with less. I'm just grateful I never had to find out how such alternate situations would have developed. Unlike is usual for Dredd, this particular incident only warranted his typical quick assessment and unrelenting domineering posture to bring it to a happy end (as the woman thanked me and I received credit from numerous people on the tram for my action). But then, Amsterdam is hardly Mega-City One. Still, if I had seen a different motion picture in the hours before, would I have been in the right mood to defuse a potentially violent situation like this...?

And watch the trailer here:

zondag 14 oktober 2012

Provadja's Past Presentations

Autumn continues to deliver a rather sad stream of unremarkable movies wedged in-between a great summer and a hotly anticipated winter that will conclude the otherwise excellent year of 2012 with a much anticipated bang. The lack of appealing movies has kept me from going to cinemas for a few weeks now, something I hope to remedy soon. However, it's also caused me from revisiting this blog much too often of late, and that's not what I intended. Thank heaven for Wednesday nights though, since they offered me a solution! Running the show every week at the local arthouse theater Provadja provides for something to occupy my thoughts with so I can use my experiences there in times of cinematic drought like these. The downside is I'm watching these films from the projector's booth where the movies' sound is being drowned by the noisy humming of the machines, plus I occasionally leave the room to check on other things, at which point I am likely to miss scenes of interest if not importance to the overall picture. Therefore, I can't consciously write an in-depth review of such films since I just didn't get to fully appreciate the film as it was seen by the regular audiences and I might have missed vital clues that upon closer inspection harbored the filmmakers' intentions, which I would be likely to misinterpret. However, I do get to see enough of these films to form a decent opinion on the overall narrative (if any (eh, Holy Motors!)), the general direction and the actors' performances. That gives me at least something to work with here. So which films did I get to project for Provadja's clientele lately? Here's a few from the last month.

Et si on vivait tous ensemble?

Rating: ***/*****, or 7/10

Stéphane Robelin wrote and directed this socially engaged movie, released in France a year earlier than it arrived in the Netherlands. This thoughtful dramedy (drama with a comedic note to keep it from becoming too much to bear) provides an intriguing solution to the question what should be done with old people. Rather than stick them all together in a retirement home, the seniors in this movie (played compellingly by such notable actors as Jane Fonda, Geraldine Chaplin and Pierre Richard) decide they might do better spending their last days and defeating the isolation commonly associated with old age by living in a small commune where they can just keep an eye on each other instead of having to hire total strangers to do it for them. Of course having five headstrong and short tempered elderly people sharing the same house also isn't the best of ideas, as they soon discover a level of intrigue and discord between them they had not anticipated, which ultimately ends up in a revelation of some sordid secrets from the past that might shatter their friendship.

Fortunately they had the good sense to hire the young German ethnology student Dirk (Daniel Brühl, Inglourious Basterds, Good Bye Lenin!) to do the housekeeping in exchange for the opportunity to study the elderly up close for his research. Dirk manages to keep the old folks from falling out with each other entirely, indicating the younger generation should still take good care of their predecessors, without placing restrictions on their lives as is done in retirement homes. The difference between the protagonists' life style and the situation of their peers behind lock and key for their “own good” is effectively made clear when one of their number falls ill and his friends rescue him from the clutches of ruthlessly institutionalized elderly care as they break him out of a shamefully prison like facility. Of course growing old it's not all as depressing as this, as Dirk finds out when one of the old ladies supplies him with ample details on her sexual activities for his research, much to his embarrassment (and ours!). Robelin's call for mutual understanding between the old and the young is laudable, but the movie fails to fully answer the question whether old people becoming each other's room mates would truly be a workable solution. Age detrimentally catches up with everybody after all, and as the movie perfectly illustrates with the character of Dirk, the intervention and guidance of the young remains vital, even though many seniors wouldn't want to admit it. However, Robelin's suggestion we can and should do better in our attempts to care for the elderly is decently underscored: nobody would want to whither away in retirement homes, certainly not without their dearest friends closeby.

This movie was distributed in Holland under the shorter and simpler title Tous Ensemble, while it was released accordingly as All Together in most English speaking territories.

To Rome with Love

Rating: ***/*****, or 6/10

Woody Allen continues to pay homage to the great cities of the world and this time directs his attention to Rome, where he has an ensemble cast of noted actors play in four different stories set in the Eternal City, though never overlapping one another.

First, famed architect John (Alec Baldwin) revisits Rome where he supposedly meets a young student of architecture Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and guides him in his ever complicated dealings with his girlfriend and her friend Monica (Ellen Page, always a joy) who he quickly falls in love with, despite his intentions not to. Question is, is John simply reliving his Roman experiences of thirty years past and criticizing what he should have thought about Monica then?
Second, the young American Hayley (Alison Pill) and Italian Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti) decide to get married, after which her parents Phyllis and Jerry (Judy Davis and of course Woody Allen himself) fly to Rome and meet his family, including his father Giancarlo, an undertaker. Bored to death in retirement, Jerry overhears Giancarlo singing operas in the shower and quickly plans to make a star out of him, but since his talents only work in the shower, Jerry is forced to make unorthodox decisions to allow his plans for fame and glory to come to fruition.
Third, newlyweds Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) and Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) visit Rome on their honeymoon, but events swiftly separate them, setting both of them on their own adventures as Antonio is mistaken for somebody else by a prostitute (Penélope Cruz) after which he applies her talents to ensure a good business deal goes through as planned, while his new wife finds herself ensnared by a famous Italian actor and is lured into a passionate affair, only to be interrupted – and saved – by a robbery.
Fourth, average Roman citizen Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni, love him or hate him, as usual) lives a mundane life but all of a sudden finds himself the centerpiece of attention for the media as he rises to full-fledged but short-lived stardom for no reason whatsoever.

Utilizing Rome's many fabulous settings to great effect, Allen's various stories prove to be less compelling, driven by simple and predictable plot twists. In the hands of a lesser director this would only spell doom for the film, but in Allen's capable hands it at least results in a cheerful viewing experience as the cast fully embraces and enjoys their roles (and their pleasant stay in Rome no doubt). Still, the quality of the four stories differs considerably, with the tale of Milly and Antonio the film's high point as both characters are swept off their feet by Rome's turbulent life offering them ample opportunities for inappropriate passion, with the both of them struggling to escape fate's ironic turn of events to return to their true love. Aided by Penélope Cruz' joyful and memorable performance as a hooker this story stands out the most, while at the other end of the spectrum the tale of Jerry's attempt to bring Giancarlo's voice to full on-stage recognition results in the predictable answer of having him perform operas while showering, a resolution only appreciable for those not familiar with Donald Duck comics. And while the story of Leopoldo offers plenty of opportunities to critique the Italian paparazzi media Allen forgoes this chance in favor of a simple story of a normal man living his fifteen minutes of fame which blows over as suddenly as it started, resulting in Benigni jumping through the Roman streets with his pants pulled down in hopes of recapturing his glory that so unexpectedly has come and gone. To Rome with Love makes it clear Allen, who was offered to direct a film in Rome with full financial support of local distributors, never intended for this film to be more than the sum of its rather bland parts, but it's a credit to his capabilities as a director and the quality of his assembled cast the film at least succeeds in giving us two hours of simple fun in the Roman sun. Accept it as Allen's way of sending the world a postcard, from Rome, with love.

And watch the trailers here:

Et si on vivait tous ensemble?:

To Rome with Love:

zaterdag 6 oktober 2012

The life of an actor, or something like it

Holy Motors: ****/*****, or 8/10

For those of you who were wondering whatever happened to Leos Carax after his last film Pola X (1999) sadly flopped, wonder no more, for Carax has returned from obscurity with a vengeance. Of course, you must have heard of him before having been able to miss him, and considering the general inaccessibility of his often experimental work in cinema, his mere existence will have gone unnoticed to many. His latest project, the hallucinatory Holy Motors, deserves to change such neglect, considering it's nothing short of a mesmerizing night drive through Paris. By limousine, no less.

The protagonist, if there is one specific protagonist to speak of, is a man referred to only as Mr. Oscar (excellent performance on multiple levels by Carax regular Denis Lavant). When night falls, this shadowy, enigmatic character is picked up by his personal limo driver Céline (Edith Scob), who takes him from one strange job to another, with little or no apparent connection between them. Successively, we see Mr. Oscar as Motion-Capture performer, madman, assassin, musician and deathbed mourner, among other things. For each outing, Mr. Oscar is supplied with the necessary make-up, costumes and accessories to finish his task, without the audience knowing who orders him around and why exactly he does what he does.

In his “exile” from the film industry, Carax on several occasions started to develop new projects and wrote material accordingly, but it always failed to materialize in a finished film, his ideas being turned down every time. Though his persistence at least produced a number of short features, the final product that is Holy Motors clearly reveals the diversity of ideas that haunted the director for over a decade, resulting in a kaleidoscopic two-hour piece that is open to as many interpretations as it offers story threads. This leaves the spectator ever unable to fully account for them all when suggesting a consistent story line that explains the lot of them, but such a loss to come up with a final solution for this film's narrative whole – something which clearly was never intended to be found – only makes the film a greater joy to behold. That is, for those members in the audience who want to be surprised and can swallow a lack of coherent diegesis. It must be said, this film surely is not for everybody: when viewing this picture, as many people left the room as remained in their seats, the latter no doubt utterly captivated by Carax's bizarre joy ride through their minds,while the former undoubtedly found themselves repulsed by this attack on their sanity, or proved just generally unable to cope with what they experienced. For those that stayed, it also helped to be treated to many a superb image of Paris by night, the director utilizing light and shadow to maximum effect to achieve a sense of constant ill-at-ease paired with total fascination, both 'Verfremdung' during and unquestionable acceptance of the full 115 minute trip we take as we escort Mr. Oscar from one sketch to the next.

What do I think is going on here plot wise? I must firmly state that I believe Holy Motors does never intend to deliver us a full-fledged narrative which allows itself to be entirely rationally explicable. That said, I believe the film revolves around the act of seeing and being seen as an actor, the question remaining who but ourselves is watching Mr. Oscar, assuming he's actually supposed to perform for anybody's pleasure at all. As Mr. Oscar, Lavant is being maneuvered from one play to another, having to rely on all his skills as an actor while often enduring excessive make-up and clothing, without ever being watched by an audience explicitly. Mr. Oscar is clearly acting, but he's not being filmed, as if he's simply running around practicing, trying to 'stay in shape' as any athlete would without there being an actual contest involved. At the same time, Carax seems to expose the lies of being an actor, as Mr. Oscar is moved from one project to another without time in-between to be himself, taking on so many roles but never living a life of his own. His roles are as variable as are his multiple personae, and considering he should have died twice in his line of duty, as he is both violently shot and stabbed, it's certain this can't be anything but acting. Certain actions Mr. Oscar plays out serve no true purpose for anybody: in the role of the horrifying madman, Oscar eats flowers, bites off fingers and subsequently abducts and sexually assaults a beautiful model (Eva Mendes' most oddball role ever), but such actions are devoid of reason other than playing the madman. The only spectators enjoying them, or being completely freaked out by them, are we, Carax's viewers.

Anything conclusive about Carax's supposedly serious comments on the busy life of a professional actor we might think we can distillate from this film is inexorably shot down in the closing scene when Oscar's limo, along with many others limousines from other people sharing his incoherent occupation, is collected back by the Holy Motors company and stored in their huge warehouse until further notice: using their lights, the cars communicate about their day and the various roles their occupants played, some of them at the same time urging their peers to be quiet because they want to sleep. Whatever philosophical or metaphysical message you thought you could discern in Holy Motors, this ending makes it perfectly obvious there's no point to take this film overly serious. As this final scene clearly illustrates, the last laugh is for Leos Carax, who with this grotesque but terrific film proves there's still room left for inexplicable, near-experimental cinema.

Directed by Leos Carax
Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob, Eva Mendes
France/Germany: Pierre Grise Productions, 2012

And watch the trailer here: