Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

2006 Film Round-Up, Part 2: The Top Four

Letters From Iwo Jima: While war makes for one of the most inherently dramatic situations, it’s pretty hard to break into the pantheon of great war movies because the standards are high and comparisons can be tough. On its own, Flags of Our Fathers (reviewed separately below) makes a good compliment to the pantheon, but Letters From Iwo Jima enters it with ease. Together as a diptych, the two films form an impressive achievement. As do most great war narratives, the deceptively straight-forward Letters... takes a pro-soldier, anti-war stance, where going to war might be the necessary thing to do, but unnecessary death is not glorious and anyone who wants to go to war is a complete idiot. Stately but unglamorous, Letters... features several memorable characters, but focuses particularly on General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), a highly educated, professional warrior, and poor baker and enlisted man Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya). Saigo has an expressive, open face, a gentle nature and is something of a joker. Recently married and missing his wife, he’s no natural soldier; he’s just trying to survive. The taciturn Kuribayashi’s intelligence and position allow him a much clearer, broader view than Saigo, but his goal really isn’t much different. Most audience members will know the overall outcome, especially after watching Flags of Our Fathers. Yet we still hold out hope for the individual characters, whose fates may be less fixed. Like Flags..., Letters... features some flashbacks, but they’re the exception, and very clear and contained. Its overall narrative is much more linear, which works well as the trapped and overwhelmed Japanese soldiers try to make their way progressively to the north, and more and more of them fall along the way. As critic Kenneth Turan puts it nicely, “It's not that we want the Japanese to win the war; it's that we absolutely do not want these men we've come to know intimately to lose their lives.” Some of the scenes are brutal, in part due to violence, but mainly because of this human dimension. When you care about the people being shot, violence isn’t abstract, cartoonish or something to cheer about.

The Japanese apparently liked the film, but it’s the added aspect of watching things from “the enemy” perspective for Americans and other Allied nations that gives Letters... special poignancy. All Quiet on the Western Front, Das Boot and other films do the same, but here is a film made in Japanese by an American icon about a battle legendary in the U.S. military. There’s a moral complexity to this film, because it does highlight individual courage and honor along with the recklessness and foolishness of the war leaders. Kuribayashi discovers the high command won’t even tell him the truth. The sad historical reality is that even after the war was hopelessly lost, the Japanese commanders still thought they could win if they could only force the Allied forces to mount a ground invasion of Japan. There’s a difference between sacrifice and waste, and there’s a terrible harshness to a code that insists suicide is preferable to surrender. Like Hamlet, Sisyphus, or (for the Japanese) one of the Forty-Seven Ronin, these characters cannot choose their fates, only how they face them. Eastwood has become one of our great filmmakers, and this is one of his best.

(Here’s Eastwood on Fresh Air. Here’s screenwriter Iris Yamashita in an online discussion. The Los Angeles Times article ”War is hell for the enemy too” gives some nice background. Kenneth Turan’s review is linked above, and New York Times critic A.O. Scott also delivers a nice one, invoking Kurosawa, Mifune and John Ford.)

Pan’s Labyrinth (Labyrinth of the Faun/ El Laberinto del fauno): In Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, there’s a character who observes “Little boys have fantasies in which they’re faster, or smarter, or able to fly... Now little girls, on the other hand, have different fantasies... Their parents are not their parents. Their lives are not their lives. They are princesses. Lost princesses from distant lands. And one day the King and Queen, their real parents, will take them back to their land, and then they’ll be happy for ever and ever.”

The brilliance and power of Guillermo del Toro’s film is his ability to invoke the magic and horror of classic fairy tales while also playing against the genre at times. Unless your last name is Mengele, here’s about the wickedest stepfather you’ll ever seen, Spanish fascist officer Capitán Vidal, played by Sergi López with menace and a brutal, selfish ruthlessness. Someone might lose their life merely for interrupting his dinner; when his full cruelty is engaged and focused, it’s even worse. He cares about getting a son from his pregnant wife Carmen (Ariadna Gil) much more than he cares about her, and cares about his bookish stepdaughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero, in a fantastic performance) not at all. Pan’s Labyrinth balances out reality and fantasy with a deft touch, and it’s never quite clear whether Ofelia’s visions of fairies and monsters are real, or a imaginary world she’s constructed for her very emotional survival. Is the Faun who gives her tasks to complete to regain her role as princess real, or not? (The Faun is not the Greek Pan, but the studio didn't think "faun" was familiar enough to American audiences.) There are few contrasts starker than the faerie world and fascism, between imagination and authoritarianism, dreams and conformity (I was reminded of a Russian animated short featuring Don Quixote trying to fight his way through barbed wire fences and guarded walls). Vidal is a villain you’ll love to hate or just plain hate, but Ofelia has a few allies besides her ailing mother, notably the brave Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and compassionate Dr. Ferreiro (Álex Angulo), who both take risks in an environment where following honor instead of obedience can be fatal.

This is a fairly tale of the early, non-Disney-fied Brothers Grimm variety, violent and disturbing and not for young children unless you aim to terrify them. The unexplained arbitrary prohibitions of fairy tales (“Whatever you do, don’t do [X]”) make an appearance, leading me to my usual response, “why the hell don’t you tell Ofelia why she shouldn’t do that if it’s so damn important, that’s really stupid of you,” but that’s part of del Toro’s point. He wants us to question blind obedience, whether it’s demanded by Capitán Vidal or the increasingly sinister Faun. This film has its magic, but much of it is dark. Its poetry is at times rapturous but at points intensely sad. If you want to feel something, this film is for you; if you only want to “feel good,” it’s not. It’s not easy creating such an engrossing, unique world, but I found myself captivated by this one and intensely invested in the fates of the characters. Like Spielberg, Terry Gilliam and a handful of other filmmakers, del Toro has a wonderful feel for a child’s perspective as he delivers this dark, dazzling and moving fairy tale for grown-ups.

(I’d highly recommend the del Toro interviews on Fresh Air and The Treatment.)

Children of Men: Isaac Asimov remarked that what many traditional critics miss in science fiction is that the background, the world, is often as important as the characters and main story. That’s not quite the case in this science fiction film based on a book by a primarily non-science fiction author, P.D. James, because characters are still the center focus. Still, part of the triumph of Children of Men is that we buy it. We believe this world, and most of all we believe these characters — the film presents “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Perhaps the future dystopia Children of Men depicts is sadly too familiar, but there’s a grit to the landscape and weight to the actors that grounds the entire affair. (The closest equivalent may actually be 28 Days Later, because both films are stripped of all glamour.) In a world where women have been infertile for close to two decades, the possibility that a woman may have finally become pregnant throws the existing, oppressive order out of whack.

While Clive Owen’s a reliably solid actor, he makes a good noble-against-his-better-instincts protagonist here as Theo Faron. Juilanne Moore is always a boon, Michael Caine is lovely as Jasper Palmer, Chiwetel Ejiofor adds to his fine career as Luke, and Claire-Hope Ashitey as Kee and Pam Ferris as Miriam deliver memorable performances. Some of the plot twists are genuinely unexpected, and your views on certain characters will sometimes radically shift in a single scene. It’s also extremely refreshing to see characters who are smart. Theo in particular gets stuck in some very difficult situations, but it’s never due to stupidity on his part, and he’s either very sensible or very creative in tackling these problems.

Matching the solid acting and character focus is an impressive technical acumen. Emmanuel Lubezki’s camerawork is amazing. The 2004 Hong Kong film Breaking News kicked off with an action sequence that’s one astounding, unbroken camera shot, but Children of Men features several. This adds to the you-are-there feel, but adds even more during the centerpiece sequence. Depicting an elaborate battle with a barefooted Theo ducking through rubble from gunfire, the sequence's technical virtuosity underscores the import of Theo’s efforts, but the unbroken shot also helps the emotional weight build. The sound design is masterful throughout the film, but if you get a chance, watch this sequence and pay special attention to the sound and the shifts Cuarón sneaks in. The commonplace becomes miraculous, which is precisely the point of the film. My one caveat is that this film is awfully bleak (not King Lear bleak, but perhaps Dickens bleak). You will likely care about the characters, and they have their triumphs, but this is not a “nothing-here-to-upset-you-just-feel-good” movie.

(Final thoughts: I can’t speak to this film as an adaptation. As a general rule I’m wary of contemporary science fiction written by non sci-fi writers, just as I am of critiques of sci-fi literature by critics, who tend to be both simultaneously snobby and ignorant of the depth of the genre (there’s tons of crap in it, but there’s much splendid work as well). As a general rule, even the more serious Hollywood sci-fi rarely truly thinks out its premises and its world. I’m not sure Children of Men as a film does either, because its focus is character, but that’s clearly the right choice for it. When I first saw the trailer, and heard the premise, my honest reaction was, “oh god, here’s another one that could really suck.” When I saw the full team involved, it heartened me. The trailer does spell out the premise clearly, yet isn’t very representative of the film as a whole, but admittedly that might be problematic. In any case, my worst fears were unfounded, and if you’re up for a good drama in a sci-fi setting, check out Children of Men, one of the best films of 2006.)

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) : This winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is a powerful and important film about the costs inflicted on human relationships, art and identity by not only oppressive political regimes but capricious men in power. It's an impressive, moving and memorable piece from German writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (whew!). In East Germany before the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall, leading playwright Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) is an intelligent idealist, an individual but loyal to the ideals of the party. When Minister Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme) lusts after Dreyman's girlfriend, famous stage star Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), he asks the Stasi, the dreaded East German secret police, to rummage around into Dreyman's life in hopes of finding dirt to take out his rival. Lieutenant Anton Grubitz (Ulrich Tukur) of the Stasi knows the investigation is ridiculous, because Dreyman's completely clean, but he also knows how the game is played and that he'll earn advancement if this plot succeeds. Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe), assigned to head up the actual surveillance, is more conflicted. He's a true believer in "the cause," an expert interrogator, accomplished surveillance man, dedicated to precision and procedure, and willing to scare the hell out of others with threats to get his job done. However, the abuse of the system he's dedicated his life to starts to trouble him, all the more so as he starts to admire both Georg Dreyman and Christa.

While the film is not based on specific real events, the activities it depicts are sadly all too real, and the Stasi was nearly as bad as the NKVD of Stalin's Russia (a precursor the KGB). No character is spared a moral dilemma, even if some agonize over them while other give them no thought. Dreyman is loyal to the party, but fights to find work for a friend who has fallen out of favor, and has to question the injustice of it all. Christa conducts an affair with Minister Hempf, feeling she must to protect her career and Dreyman's. She and Dreyman love each other, she feels guilty, he doesn't want to blame her because he knows it's not her fault, but of course it pains him nonetheless and he doesn't want her to let it continue. This is an oppressive environment where intellectual, artistic and personal honesty can be extremely dangerous, and even the strongest, most beautiful of souls can be ground down over time. Completing the central triangle is Stasi agent Gerd Wiesler, the Pontius Pilate figure on whom everything hinges. He admires Christa as an actress, and as he listens to Christa and Dreyman's most intimate moments unseen, they begin to move him. He begins to question the morality of his assignment, but his conscience conflicts with duty (as well as self-preservation). What can he do? And what will he do? Will Dreyman, as he gets angrier, risk writing subversive pieces? Will Christa break off the affair with Minister Hempf? Will her relationship with Dreyman survive the strain if she doesn’t? Will they lives be destroyed if she does? All these dilemmas make for gripping cinema.

The supporting characters are often fascinating as well. Lieutenant Grubitz is captivating because, like O'Brien in 1984, he knows the game and how wrong it is, but doesn't really care. However, in contrast to the weary, haunted cynicism Richard Burton imbued O'Brien with in the underrated 1984 version of 1984, actor Ulrich Tukur and Donnersmarck give Grubitz a dark sense of humour, all the crueler because of the nonchalance with which he toys with others' lives (a scene in a cafeteria is unforgettable). While some characters work to recognize each others' humanity, there are others who strive to obscure and eradicate it. It's also important to remember that all the suffering in the film is the result of one selfish, callous man willing to abuse his vast power without the slightest twinge of conscience. If Wiesler is Pontius Pilate and Grubitz is O'Brien, the shadowy Minister Hempf is a passionless, porcine Salieri, more than happy to destroy anything and anyone beautiful if he can't possess them, body and soul.

The Lives of Others does have its minor blemishes. I would have liked to see more of Hempf, because he really is the chief villain, but it's somewhat appropriate that he sets the wheels of a merciless machine in motion and then mostly sits back and waits. Also, the final section of the film is protracted, with the pacing really suffering since it seems as if the emotional climax of the film has already passed. However, this falls into the excusable-in-cultural-context category, as the final section focuses on reading-through-one's-own-Stasi-file. For East Germans, this is an incredibly powerful, culturally monumental act, comparable to the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in South Africa, or discovering Holocaust records on one's family, or discovering who owned one's slave ancestors. Heroism can be performing virtuous deeds with no hope of recognition or reward, but for several generations of Germans, it can also entail coming to terms with the past.

There's a powerful line near the end of the film: "To think that men such as you once ruled a country." Sadly, they still do in many places, and as with Animal Farm, the greatest mistake would be to assume that the important dynamics captured in this impressive film only apply to other countries, and the lives of others.

(I highly recommend this interview with writer-director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck on Fresh Air. It doesn't give away the ending, of course, but provides invaluable background on the Stasi and at least one actor's own experiences with them.)

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