Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Film review | Metropolis (1927)

Twilight of the Gods: Metropolis Redux

by Thomas Delapa

Of all the great silent films, few approach the curiously hip appeal of Metropolis, director Fritz Lang’s 1927 futuristic German classic. It was the Cleopatra or Heaven’s Gate of its day, nearly bankrupting the studio—Ufa—that produced it. Yet its influence, principally in Lang’s extraordinary visual design, has been monumental. More than 80 years after its release, Metropolis remains the Citizen Kane of the science-fiction film.

Despite its influence on such movies as disparate as Blade Runner, Dr. Strangelove and Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, some present-day audiences may yet agree with the famed British author H.G. Wells, who called it a “most foolish film.” Its campy, ponderous absurdities are no less apparent in a historic new edition, which adds 25 minutes to the extant two-hour version first released in 2002.

Like too many cinematic milestones, Metropolis has suffered a long and torturous post-production history. Originally 2 1/2 hours at its Berlin premiere, it was almost immediately hacked down by its American studio backers (principally Paramount) to 90 minutes for international release. But like any good Hollywood monster, the film refused to die. It’s been resurrected several times, most notoriously in a 1984 pop version by music producer Giorgio Moroder. The latest reincarnation comes amazingly by way of Buenos Aires, where archivists in 2008 unearthed a scratchy 16mm print that’s as close to Lang’s original as exists. That print, digitally cleaned up and married to an existing 35mm master by Germany’s Murnau Foundation, has produced a 147-minute Metropolis, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February and is now touring U.S. theaters.

Achtung, cinephiles: Before you jump on the autobahn, take note that this is exclusively a digital—not 35mm film—release. In Denver, for example, Lang’s masterwork screened in a tiny matchbox theater and the digital projection was a mere shadow of Lang’s (and cinematographer Karl Freund’s) richly hued black-and-whites. If this is the dystopian future of the world’s cinematic legacy, we were far better off in the reel analog past.

What’s still fascinating about Metropolis isn’t the kitschy pseudo-mythology of screenwriter Thea von Harbou (Lang’s then-wife), but its trend-setting technical innovations and deliriously Expressionist architectural pastiche. Set in the year 2000, the story itself is a rickety synthesis of Christianity, Marxism and Freud. In a stunning skyscraper city crisscrossed by elevated highways (said to be inspired by Lang’s trip to New York), a class of downtrodden workers toil away in underground factories for the moneyed elites, who lead lives of luxury and decadence in the world above. The feared “Master of Metropolis” is tycoon Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel), a merger between John D. Rockefeller and Goldfinger.

In von Harbou’s heavy-handed allegory, relations between the owners (the “brain”) and workers (the “hands”) need a mediator (the “heart”), and her chosen one is Fredersen’s epicene son, Freder (Gustav Frolich). He sees the light on first glimpse of the saintly Maria (17-year-old Brigitte Helm) preaching a message of brotherly love amid a horde of orphans. Down to the underworld Freder goes, exchanging places with a worker while nearly crucifying himself (“Father, will ten hours never end?”) on a giant, clock-faced machine that literally demands “hands on” attention. Clocks are central to Lang’s compositional mise-en-scene, brilliantly representing how modern man has been made a slave to time.

For feminists, the alarming part of von Harbou’s script may lie with the creation of the beatific Maria’s robot doppelganger, madly brought to life by the scientist/sorcerer Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) on Fredersen’s orders. Tapping into the dark side of the archetypal female duality, the false Maria is a sexy, leering vamp who drives men wild with lust and unleashes a Pandora’s Box of chaos onto the city. Though Fredersen’s scheme to sabotage the workers’ secret gatherings seems diabolically illogical, Lang’s visual bravura is electrifying. Along with the metallic art-deco robot, Rotwang’s laboratory—crammed with boiling beakers and flashing electrodes—virtually invented the look of the Hollywood horror and sci-fi genre, beginning with Universal’s Frankenstein in 1931. The closed-circuit surveillance cameras that Fredersen uses to spy on his minions are frightfully prophetic.

Explicitly designed to rival the 1920s Hollywood blockbusters (complete with an astounding 36,000 extras), Metropolis was engineered by a German cinema second only to America’s in status and influence. But with the film’s disastrous failure, the Ufa studio and Weimar filmmaking were toppled from their airy perch, the crowning blow arriving in 1933 with the demonic whirlwind of the Third Reich.

Classic zeitgeist-minded critics like Siegfried Kracauer have argued that movies such as Metropolis covertly portended the rise of Nazism, and keen eyes will notice just how cynically anti-democratic (as well as anti-Marxist) the film is. Lang’s downcast, machine-like masses are easily duped by the phony Maria; transformed by her hysterical, Hitlerian harangues into a mindless mob. Only the heroically individualistic efforts of Freder and the good Maria can save the city—and another horde of kids—from apocalyptic destruction.

Not uncommon in today’s “director’s cuts,” the extra scenes added to this classic are important historically, helping to unravel some gnawing plot tangles, but on the whole they subtract from the overall impact. Fringe subplots involving a spy and Fredersen’s secretary reminded me of the long, marginal “plantation scene” that director Francis Ford Coppola restored to Apocalypse Now Redux: chaff added to an already overgrown crop.

After the film’s box-office failure and re-editing debacles, Lang went on to make several more films through the crippled Ufa, triumphing in 1931 with M, his first sound film, but soon after made his getaway to the West. Legend has it, Lang’s escape from Nazi Germany (he was half-Jewish) came after a job overture from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Lang eventually wound up directing in Hollywood, where he continued his career until the 1950s, though never again on the lofty, ubermensch scale of Metropolis.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle 7/23/10

Friday, July 23, 2010

Film Review | Inception

Say Goodnight, Leo
by Thomas Delapa

Even before the summer started, perhaps no other major Hollywood release created more anticipation than Inception, a potential sci-fi blockbuster about a team of cerebral thieves who break into people’s dreams and steal their deepest, most lucrative secrets. With Leonardo DiCaprio on board and writer and director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) at the helm, this was the sort of movie that box-office dreams are made of.

Chock-full of surreal settings, mind-bending special effects and roller-coaster action, Inception definitely won’t put you to sleep. But like most dreams, you’re likely to forget about it in the morning.

You never know which way is up (or out) in this mega-budget fantasy spectacular, which might even leave Freud scratching his head. Nolan’s fractured plot conjures up dreams within dreams within dreams, giving audiences the slightly nauseous feeling of being trapped inside artist M.C. Escher’s impossible, Mobius-strip staircases. Too glib for his own good, Nolan rarely provides as much as a handrail.

Double-espresso intense, DiCaprio is Dom Cobb, a troubled dream weaver haunted by memories of his wife (Marion Cotillard). A high-tech Ulysses in exile, Cobb just wants to go home and live with his two kids. To do that, like many a Hollywood crook before him, he’ll have to pull one last job. Hired by a Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe), Cobb and his impossible-dream team must get into the head of a wealthy heir (Cillian Murphy) and manipulate him into breaking up his father’s energy empire. To fully buy into Cobb’s madcap pseudo-scientific methods, you’ll have to more than suspend disbelief: You’ll have to expel it entirely.

The uncanny affinity between dreams and the cinema seems to be on Nolan’s mind, at least at Inception’s intriguing beginning. (How ironic that Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams appeared in 1899, only four years after France’s Lumiere brothers first screened motion pictures.) Like movies, dreams have a logic and reality all their own, create fabulous worlds and can magically whisk the dreamer from place to place and time to time. Desperate to keep his wife’s memory alive, Cobb artificially clings to his own dreams and memories of her. Yet her presence is so strong, at times sinister, she stubbornly pops up at the most inconvenient times while he’s on his illicit dream jobs.

With a slew of exotic locations from Morocco to Tokyo and the trippy special effects, this production must have been a nightmare to shoot. It also must have been Nolan’s dream to whip up a Matrix-like box-office phenomenon. Ever since Memento, his memorable 2000 breakthrough, the British director has all too readily merged into Hollywood’s fast lane, passing up novel, low-budget substance for mass-market pulp. His recent comment to Entertainment Weekly that “it’s not a film that confuses people” still has me scratching my head. In fact, that’s all Inception does, especially when he tacks on a predictable twist that’s far from rousing.

Anyone not daydreaming will notice how often the characters are forced to explain the plot, primarily because the spectacularly overblown action can’t. Cobb and his crew constantly invent and reinvent the rules for their fantastic voyages into the unconscious, tossing out so much arcane jargon (“the kick,” “limbo”) that you’ll feel like you’re in a Scientology psychology class.

So after all the resounding sound and fury that struck me like a James Bond movie on L.S.D., you may be forced to wonder, as one character does, “Whose subconscious are we going into, exactly?” If you think Nolan really has a good answer, well, dream on.


Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 7/22/10

Saturday, July 17, 2010

A Chilling Winter's Bone

By Steven Rosen
(Adapted From Cincinnati CityBeat)

Winter's Bone (Review)

The Sundance Film Festival has always offered a friendly home for naturalistic, rural/small-town-set family dramas with strong suspense/thriller elements; think Ulee’s Gold and last year’s Frozen River. Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone — winner of the Dramatic Film Grand Jury Prize and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at this year’s Sundance — continues that tradition, improving upon it in some ways but also coming on a little too strong.

Based on Daniel Woodrell’s novel, it tells of 17-year-old backwoods Ozarks girl named Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) who needs to get her missing meth-cooking father to a court date or her family will lose their log-cabin-style home because he jumped bail.

Because her mother has had an apparent breakdown, it’s up to Ree to take care of a younger brother and sister. She could also save the homestead, alternately, by finding proof dad has died — maybe in a messy squabble with other drug dealers, of whom the picturesque but impoverished Ozarks has its share.

The film manages well at incorporating an insightfully sociological -- and evocatively cinematographic -- sense of place, yet not getting bogged down either "meaning" or a rapturous take on nature. As Ree’s search for her father quickly takes hold, putting her in contact (and conflict) with some very tough (and haggard-looking) adults, the suspense elements rise.

Granik — who also co-wrote the screenplay — moves the action and terse dialogue around quickly and economically; you have to stay alert to keep abreast of what’s happening. And the characters are never cheap stereotypes — even the meanest are rendered with subtlety.

The outstanding Lawrence, who has a refreshing fresh-scrubbed innocence (she looks a bit like a young Jewel) to match her character’s spunk and grit, gets some strong support from John Hawkes, who plays her dangerous uncle Teardrop with the ferociousness yet smartness of a young Harry Dean Stanton. The film has some moments when Ree seems far tougher than her years, as when teaching her younger brother how to gut a squirrel. Other times, as in a wrenching climactic scene in a boat when her father's fate is put in her hands, she conveys a child's horror at the cruelty of her world.

But for all the emphasis on naturalism, that world depicted here seems too cut off from the rest of America as we know it to feel totally authentic. That’s brought home in a brilliant scene when Ree tries to enlist with a wise military recruiter — is this the only contact with the greater government (other than a small-town police officer) that she has? These aren't Davy Crockett days. Her total backwoods isolation doesn’t quite ring true for our modern times. Still, Winter's Bone reminds us that Americana can be chilling.

Grade: B-plus

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Enter the Movie Theater; Exit Through the Gift Shop

By Steven Rosen

(From Cincinnati CityBeat)

Street artists tend to be one-trick ponies — guys (mostly) who develop a signature, identifying image that they affix to urban outdoor surfaces as a form of making their mark. The “Obey” posters of Shepard Fairey, who currently has a retrospective at Cincinnati's Contemporary Arts Center, are a key example.

But then there is Banksy, the secretive British street artist who belongs in a class all his own. Not only are his stenciled images (and accompanying graffiti) full of visual and political complexity — teeming with both humor and anger — but he also has a sense of pranksterish conceptualism to rival Marcel Duchamp and of pop-art put-on to recall Claes Oldenberg and Andy Warhol.

He also has formidable organizational skills — the new “street art disaster film” Exit Through the Gift Shop shows him and a crew surreptitiously disassembling and reassembling a blood-red London phone box to look as if it had been murdered in the street, an axe sticking in near one of its glass panes.

Exit Through the Gift Shop might be one more of his pranks — or it might be a straightforward documentary about street art. Or some of each. Whatever, it’s an entertaining and frequently very funny.

At its heart is the tug for artists between doing and documenting; between rebelliousness — defying authority — and being rewarded financially for reaching an audience. It wonders whether street art should lead to something commercial, even while its existence is evidence of that very process.

It also addresses the question of whether the public can be suckered into believing trendy crap is art. But beware: The film is not as obvious on that subject as it might seem. Actually, it’s sort of a fairy tale. The impish tone of actor Rhys Ifans’ narration underscores that.

Exit, which debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has gone on to become a sizeable “documentary” hit on the art-house circuit, is listed as “a Banksy film.” He financed it and, according to its narrative, took over the direction to shape the movie after its would-be auteur — one Thierry Guetta — a French-born clothing-shop owner in Los Angeles — couldn’t coherently put together his years of video footage chronicling street art. Banksy made a devil’s-bargain swap with Guetta: Banksy would assemble the film and Guetta would become a street artist called Mr. Brainwash.

But Guetta becomes a successful artist, having a big show and landing on the cover of LA Weekly with his (painted by hirelings) repetitive Punk-meets-Warhol portraits of celebrities. That troubles Banksy. Warhol, the ghost who haunts this film (and, apparently, Banksy’s psyche), “repeated famous icons until they became meaningless, but he was iconic in the way he did it,” Banksy tells the camera. “But then Thierry made it really meaningless.”

Or did he? Because of its twisty, topsy-turvy, house-of-mirrors take on its subject matter, which might remind you of the structural games of Adaptation, some have wondered if Spike Jonze — a lover of street-art culture — might have had a hand in this. Others are seeing it as a scripted, art-world variation on Borat.

On whatever level you buy into the film, its structure well serves its narrative. Banksy provides funny commentary, but his voice has been altered and he is photographed hooded and surrounded by a Darth Vader-worthy blackness, even when his room is bathed in light. In footage of him performing his art, his face has been pixilated.

Guetta, however, is happy to show his chubby, mutton chop-sideburn-covered face, usually while wearing a porkpie cap and saying guileless and unintentionally hilarious things in a French accent. He seems like a John Belushi character. The film presents him as a family man making a fortune selling high-mark-up clothes at a hip L.A. store (Beck is glimpsed as a customer).

He also has an addiction to video-recording virtually every waking moment — he even shoots the inside of his refrigerator. When he discovers a cousin in France is a street artist named “Space Invader” — he affixes tile depictions of that video game’s pixilated characters to buildings — Guetta starts to follow him and other street artists.

Soon, he’s found his calling documenting a new, exciting counterculture. He’s meeting Fairey and learning his tricks. And he’s following around many others, endlessly shooting footage of their nocturnal art-making escapades atop billboards and buildings. But he’s not good at it — they have to admonish him to turn off his camera’s light.

Eventually, according to the film, Guetta is able to meet Banksy, who wants his help in selecting the best walls in Los Angeles for stenciling. Guetta, in turn, starts to film him.

As a straightforward documentation of Banksy’s ephemeral work, Exit is pretty valuable. It contains footage of his now-famous 2006 “happening” in Los Angeles, where he painted an elephant and placed it in a warehouse. Guetta also chronicles Banksy sticking an Abu Ghraib-like prisoner doll on a Disneyland ride, freaking out the tightly policed amusement park. While Banksy runs away, Guetta endures four hours of questioning by security.

The film grooves on all of this for quite a while. Then Guetta makes a startling confession. He has no idea what to do with his videotaped footage, which he has stored in a sea of boxes — the camera pans the clutter. Worse, when he eventually assembles a movie — he calls it Life Remote Control — and shows it to Banksy, the artist opines that, “Everything about it is shit. You don’t know where to start.”

That is when, according to the film’s narrative, Banksy takes over the movie and Mr. Brainwash emerges. But we realize we have been watching “the Banksy cut” of this movie all along. It just takes its time revealing itself. How much it reveals and how much there is to reveal are questions you won’t be able to easily answer. But you will know, as you exit Exit From the Gift Shop, that this Banksy is one fiendishly gifted artist.

Grade: A-
(Photo of Banksy provided)
Posted by Steven Rosen at 11:58 AM

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Film Review | I Am Love

That's Amore
by Thomas Delapa

When people talk about our so-called postmodern era, one presumption is that creative artists have somehow absorbed the modernist triumphs and now borrow from them in all sorts of self-conscious ways that range from clever pastiche to flagrant piracy. That may have been true in the heady sixties and seventies, but the creative arts today seem marked by a blissful, almost smug ignorance of the past, as if the works and accomplishments of modernism were, at best, ancient history. Not only do today’s artists want to drive around in fast modernist wheels; they also think they’ve invented them.

Originally written as a vehicle for the ethereal British actress Tilda Swinton, I Am Love is this year’s model in a long feminist line stretching back to Ibsen's A Doll’s House, with a racy detour to D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Director and writer Luca Guadagnino’s luscious Italian import is a sensualist’s delight, a feast for the eyes, but you’ll have to overlook the warmed-over love story.

Instead of a doll's house for his trapped heroine, Guadagnino places her in an opulent Milan villa fit for a queen. It’s Christmastime in the city, and the rich and powerful Recchi family is celebrating the retirement of its patriarch (Gabriele Ferzetti). Outside it’s forlornly gray, but inside Guadagnino and his gifted French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux give the Recchi mansion all the shimmering trimmings. This is a portrait of the yeasty Italian good life and la bella figura, and Guadagnino lets us drink it all in, from the elegant family to the silver soup tureen and glowing dinner table.

Framed by Le Saux’s fluid, darting camera, the film’s tactile pleasures are indeed a movable feast, shot in vibrant earth tones that evoke a verdant paradise that would turn Gauguin green with envy. Yet in this urban Eden lurks original sin, or at least the makings of one. The Russian-born Emma (Swinton) looks the dutiful wife and mother, but those still waters roil with pent-up Latin passion.

In a summer of sticky bubblegum movies like Eclipse, Guadagnino’s film arrives in theaters like a rapturous valentine, tantalizing audiences with vibrant images and driven by an urgent, impulsive modernist score by American John Adams, composer of Nixon In China. In the city of La Scala, I Am Love soars to chic film opera at its high notes.

But before anyone starts singing Guadagnino’s praises, it’s also painfully apparent that he falls madly in love with his own images, even when they’re florid and stale. He sells his heroine short, sending her on a hackneyed sexual journey into the swarthy arms of Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a budding gourmet chef and friend of her beloved son Edo (Flavio Parenti). When Emma first tastes Antonio’s succulent sautéed prawns, she’s hooked. Emma’s colorless husband (Pippo Delbono) is almost entirely out of the picture, no more a character than the soup tureen.

After saucy international hits like the Oscar-winning Tom Jones and Mexico’s Like Water for Chocolate, the equation of food and sex by now has been served up to excess in the movies, yet Guadagnino gives us yet another helping, gilding the lily with a long kitschy scene of Emma and Antonio trysting in the nude among an unadulterated natural world of wildflowers and honeybees.

Pass the treacle, please.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 7/6/10

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Film Review | Winter's Bone

Cold Mountain

by Thomas Delapa

Almost six months—and two seasons—after it won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury prize, Winter’s Bone has been tossed into theaters, where its reception has ranged from frosty to feverish. That’s not surprising. By now, even art-house aficionados might be wary of Sundance’s predilection for dour independent dramas that are almost impossible to warm up to.

In bringing Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 “country noir” novel to the screen, director Debra Granik is visually diligent to extremes, sacrificing plot and character for bleakly naturalistic atmospherics. Set in the Missouri Ozarks, the bare-bones story sends one young woman on a lone, near-mythical quest to save her family from ruin. Before she’s done, 17-year-old Ree Dolly will have to summon the gumption to face down everyone from the local sheriff and burly bail bondsmen to icy neighbors and even her own crooked, meth-cooking clan.

Habeas Corpus might be a better title for this low-budget feature, since it’s the mysterious disappearance of Ree’s father that sends Ree (Jennifer Lawrence) on her perilous journey. Habitual criminal Jessup Dolly has jumped bail, and he’s put his family’s scruffy log-cabin homestead down for collateral. If Ree doesn’t find him right quick, she and her family will be left out in the Missouri cold.

Audiences simply looking for a scrupulous rendering of backwoods mid-America will find it in Granik’s dense, arresting visuals. Seemingly frozen in time (and attitudes), this is the sort of backwards Americana that the rest of the country has tried to forget, where rusty Ford pick-ups rule the dirt roads and locals skin squirrels and pick on banjos. But Li’l Abner has long since flown the coop in this mangy and decayed Dogpatch. Both the men and women folk have turned from raising chickens to cooking up “crank,” including Ree’s father.

At every turn in Ree’s twisted journey, she runs into dead ends, cold stares and flat-out hostility. Repeatedly turned back in her quest, she returns home, where she teaches her two younger siblings the fine art of gutting a squirrel. Proud and feisty, she refuses to take no for an answer, even if it means putting her life at risk. “Never ask for what ought to be offered,” is her drawling motto. Now the woman of the house, Ree is forced to take care of her withdrawn, emotionally disturbed mother.

But Granik and her co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini work backwards, building the film from the outside in and overlooking the dramatic forest for all those Missouri pine trees. They don’t piece together Ree’s meandering journey into a narrative whole, and nor are their supporting characters much more than a motley collection of grizzled backwoods types who look the part, but don’t do a lot else. As much as Granik would like to turn Ree into a kind of mystery-solving Ozark Oedipus (or Electra), she never blossoms as a full-bodied, flesh-and-blood heroine, no matter how gutsy she acts.

While it may have worked on the page, Granik’s grotesque, cold-blooded climax—accessorized with chain saw—is, hands down, the unkindest cut of all on the film’s credibility as drama.

Originally published in Conducive Chronicle, 7/3/10