Grand Piano (2013)

grand-piano-2013USA/Spain

2.5*
Director:

Eugenio Mira
Screenwriter:
Damien Chazelle
Director of Photography:
Unax Mendía

Running time: 90 minutes

Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano has a central conceit that has been incredibly effective in other thrillers, most notably Speed, Nick of Time and Phone Booth, but it squanders the potential of its idea by drowning it in style and spectacle without eliciting any fear or thrill in the viewer (not unlike the disappointing single-setting but visually extravagant Buried, which producer Rodrigo Cortés directed). In fact, one character’s actions during the climax are so wildly melodramatic, we cannot help but laugh at the utter absurdity of the staging and the lack of credibility.

The plot sees prodigious piano player Tom Selznick (Elijah Wood), who has not performed in five years after having had a breakdown during his last show, coming back to the stage to play the piano his late maestro, Patrick Godureaux, so cherished. He is expected to play a piece titled “La Cinquette,” which will require him to do strenuous finger movements at a superhuman pace right at the end of the piece, and he is understandably stressed out.

In an effort to calm him down, his conductor tells him that no one expects him to play perfectly, and that the audience never notices tiny screw-ups in a piano performance anyway. However, Tom is about to get the fright of his life when he takes to the stage and opens his sheet music. There, in bright red ink, are little scribbles that tell him to play every single note perfectly lest his actress wife, Emma (Kerry Bishé), beaming with pride from her seat in one of the boxes, gets shot to pieces by a state-of-the-art laser-equipped rifle.

Tom suspects this is a joke, but when he notices a little dot of red light dancing around the piano, and then on his wife’s face, he breaks out in cold sweat. In one of many moments that repeat throughout the film, he runs offstage to audible gasps from the audience, while the orchestra continues playing, to his dressing room, where he finds more evidence that his life is in danger, as well as an earpiece to follow the instructions of his would-be assassin, voiced by John Cusack.

For the rest of the film, Tom will be sitting in the spotlight, from the looks of things speaking to himself but actually communication with the man he cannot see and whose intentions he knows nothing about, except that they may lead to his own assassination. But both this mysterious man and Tom are very talkative, and it would seem little concentration is required to play all the right notes, or perhaps this pianist is just unusually gifted, as there is a continuous back and forth between the two with no sign of Tom, whom the voice in his ear provocatively, playfully and punnily refers to as “a man of note,” missing a beat, or more importantly, a note.

But what starts out as a very strong premise for tension is properly drenched in style, as Mira’s camera flies across the stage with wild crane shots, again and again surging over the orchestra towards Tom, and whooshily swirls around his one-in-a-million piano that contains the key (another pun the film plays with a bit too often) to his survival.

Elijah Wood’s big eyes are perfectly suited to the material, as the obvious curiosity he exudes fits with the enigma his character is trying to get a grip on. However, the character of his wife, Emma, is a big joke, and in a last-ditch attempt at tension during the climax, she is central to one of the most bizarre moments in the entire film, as she seems to pleasure herself with a song, performed impromptu for an adoring public, while her husband is running around trying to save them from looming execution. This detour into insanity will either have the viewer in stitches or make her cringe with embarrassment, as we simply cannot fathom how a story with such a serious premise could plumb such depths of farce.

Grand Piano has spectacle but no tension. We do not share the point of view of the audience but rather of the pianist, who on top of playing the most difficult piece of his life, seems to cope very well indeed with having his and his wife’s lives threatened by a lunatic who seems to be very handy with a gun. But wait until you hear what the assassin actually does for a living — one can hardly things could get much more preposterous! If Mira had defined his film more clearly as comedy, perhaps it would have been more enjoyable, but the strange combination of a life in danger and hilarious comedy in the final act make for an uneven viewing experience that few members of the audience will find satisfying. 

In a Bedroom (2012)

In a BedroomPoland

2.5*
Director:
Tomasz Wasilewski
Screenwriter:
Tomasz Wasilewski
Director of Photogaphy:
Marcin Martinez Swystun

Running time: 72 minutes

Original title: W sypialni

Not to be confused with the striking, New England-set 2002 masterpiece In the Bedroomdirected by Todd Field, the Polish In a Bedroom is a film that seems determined to gives us too little information every step of the way, using jump cuts not to create a sense of energy or rhythm but rather repetitive ellipses that quickly become tiresome and render the action uninvolving.

Edyta is a call girl who finds men over the Internet, but at their homes she drugs them and either takes their money or their food, or uses their out-of-town wife’s face cream. She doesn’t seem to have any particularly villainous intentions, but the reason she behaves this way is left unexplained until late in the film.

In the meantime, her anxious demeanour — which Tomasz Wasilewski conveys well enough and even manages to transfer to the viewer in a minimalistic but well-crafted scene taking place at a supermarket, where Edyta surreptitiously eats and drinks without paying — often makes her seem like she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and yet we know not why. Until she takes her first drag of a joint and immediately spills her secret: She has a son, somewhere, doing something, and she is not a part of his life, but she doesn’t want to talk about it.

“Let’s not say anything important,” she asks Patryk, a very nice young man in whose company she spends the second half of the film. Her involvement with him starts off in a sequence so fragmented and opaque, we simply cannot root for them to be happy together, because so much information has been withheld. We meet Patryk for the first time when he knocks on the bathroom door, where Edyta has taken refuge while waiting for her date-rape drug to take effect.

But this moment comes at the end of a mysterious yet interesting sequence of moments in which we see her — always wearing the same dress — next to or close to men sleeping on their beds next to her, and once, bizarrely, dressed in a towel, next to a woman on a couch in the living room, whom she tries to wake her up. We don’t know whether these moments are real or not, but they end with the brutal intrusion of Patryk.

Such brutal intrusions occur from time to time, and Wasilewski is adept at using them to both utilise an emotion generated by his story and present it in a way we were not expecting. One example is when Patryk is on the phone to a friend who may  have located his brother Bartek. He slams down the phone, and when he looks up, he notices Edyta around the corner, who has been eavesdropping. Instead of screaming at her, the cut to him in the rough seas, the camera loudly bobbing up and down in the water to the rhythm of his shortness of breath on the soundtrack, is a very good transition, but the scene lasts only a few seconds, and we don’t know when this takes place or even whether Edyta accompanied him to the beach.

The film is set in Warsaw, though Edyta is from Gdynia, and her being out of place is certainly significant, although we too frequently lack the detail to understand her behaviour or her desires. The camera is handheld but only slightly unsteady, which creates an unease that is difficult to pinpoint at first but a very good decision on the part of Wasilewski and director of photography Marcin Martinez Swystun.

The main problem In a Bedroom has is its presentation: The editing sometimes makes it seem this is only half a film, and all the interesting bits that connect the different shots and would have created a more cohesive narrative have been excised. The uneasiness this creates is of course the goal of the director, but for a viewer who knows very little about the central character and is saddled with her compulsive lying, we cannot even guess that what she says when she seems to be honest is in fact the truth, a fact that continues to alienate us until the very end.

This may be one of the most prudish hookers we’ve seen since Fellini’s Cabiria, but while a character arc would have helped us immensely to understand how she feels when she does this job, the disjointed narrative comprising wholly disconnected moments does little to inspire any kind of empathy, especially when she rejects the care of good Samaritans. A moment in an Internet café, when she is speaking to a potential client but we cannot hear the other person, is gorgeous, because it emphasises her utter loneliness, but in the end, the lack of empathy we have for a character whom we cannot understand and who does little to confront the pain and sadness in her own life except to keep running is not interesting at all.

We Have a Pope (2011)

Habemus papamItaly

2.5*
Director:
Nanni Moretti
Screenwriters:
Nanni Moretti
Francesco Piccolo
Federica Pontremoli
Director of Photography:
Alessandro Pesci

Running time: 102 minutes

Original title: Habemus papam

The election of a pope is nothing to be flippant about. Even for non-Catholics, the brief period of time that marks the end of one papacy and encompasses the conclave — during which a successor is chosen — and the eventual appearance of the new pope on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square piques interest like few other events.

When the College of Cardinals has chosen a new pope, by secret ballot and with all the cardinals in the running, white smoke rises from the chimney on top of the Sistine Chapel. In Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope (from the Latin “Habemus papam”, the phrase spoken by the protodeacon of the College of Cardinals to announce the election of the new pope), the cardinal who is elected has a panic attack moments before he is to appear on the balcony and flees to his chambers to shun the burden the office brings.

Such anxiety is to be expected, of course, and in fact it is normal for the elected pontiff to break down in tears upon realizing what he is about to take on, namely dominion over a billion subjects. However, in this film, the cardinal, named Melville (Michel Piccoli), is out of his depth and has such insecurity that his staff seeks out the help of a noted psychoanalyst (Moretti) to help the Holy Father through this difficult time and eventually get him to the balcony.

The rest of the film is a long wait for the big moment. While we wait, we learn very little about the mystical figure that is Cardinal Melville, though it becomes clear he would prefer to act rather than pontificate. The psychoanalyst’s hands are also tied because he cannot use the normal psychoanalytical tools in this case: Questions about Melville’s relationship with his mother, his fantasies and his sexual desires are, naturally, all strictly verboten.

When Melville loses his way in Rome and ends up on a late-night bus, mumbling to himself, we see a very human (not only vulnerable, but frail) side to him, and though he seems to be a gentle soul, the idea of him writing an encyclical is quite absurd. This man cannot be pope. He is not only emotionally and psychologically but also — and this is where the film utterly fails — intellectually ill-equipped for the papacy.

This last piece of information is problematic in light of the fact that the cardinals have spent a great deal of time with him prior to his election, but have elected him nonetheless. Whatever the viewer’s personal beliefs about the possibility of a pope elected by divine guidance, it would seem patently obvious this situation is very unlikely to occur if the cardinals had some sense of their colleague.

Unfortunately, we are not afforded any such look at the man who would be pope and cannot accurately judge whether the cardinals were mistaken or blind. Even if one believes the conclave works according to the will of God, the film remains flawed because the ultimate resolution will be deeply unsatisfactory.

The idea of being pope, of having such immense power, must leave one breathless, and thus there is ample room to empathize with dear Cardinal Melville. In a very powerful moment, during the conclave, the fear the other cardinals have that any one of them will be elected is communicated to the viewer by means of a very effective voiceover that mirrors Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asks his father to let “the cup pass from [him].”

But never again do we see the future pope ask anything of God (he thanks God for even less), and though there may be speculation he has lost his faith, the film provides too little for the viewer to assume anything; on the contrary, We Have a Pope revels in its own timorousness and defies our expectations to get any closer to Melville than the cardinals or the psychoanalyst.

The humanization of the pope is a wonderful starting point, as was Nicos Kazantzakis’ treatment of Christ in his novel The Last Temptation of Christ, for example, but no one simply gets dropped inside the College of Cardinals, much less elected pope, if he has not proved some leadership skills. Such leadership, alas, cannot be detected in the role played by Piccoli, and therefore the whole premise of the film is undermined.

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

Sexual Tension: Volatile (2012)

Tension sexual volatilArgentina
2.5*

Directors:
Marcelo Mónaco
Marco Berger
Screenwriters:
Marcelo Mónaco
Marco Berger
Director of Photography:
Tomás Perez Silva

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title:
Tensión sexual, Volumen 1: Volátil 

Didier Costet, who co-produced Beauty, a 2011 film in which a middle-aged man from rural South Africa stalks one of his daughter’s male friends, is also the production muscle behind this anthology of short films about gay attraction. Only two directors took part in this project, which accounts for the generally homogeneous tone, one that is usually missing from anthology films with a larger variety of voices and visions.

The two directors are Marcelo Mónaco, who has helmed raunchy films from the sexually explicit Porno de autor to the gay porn film Cum-eating Rancheros; and the more commercially oriented Marco Berger, whose films, like Ausente, have dealt much more with tension and lust than sexual release.

While Berger has stated in the past that he is often conscious of making gay films for a straight audience, Sexual Tension: Volatile is very clearly targeted at a gay audience, as the tension is not really between the characters but rather from the side of the viewer, who wonders whether there will be a spark between two characters, even when such a turn of events would be narratively implausible.

The anthology consists of six short films:

Ari, by Mónaco
El Primo (The Cousin), by Berger
El Otro (The Other), by Mónaco
Los Brazos Rotos (Broken Arms), by Berger
Amor (Love), by Mónaco
Entrenamiento (Workout), by Berger

Each is around 15 minutes in length, and the film ends on a very playful note, just as the tension is about to be broken.

The opening short is very silly, with a young twink who goes to get his first tattoo falling in lust with tattoo artist Ari and fantasising about him. The tattoo parlour looks like little more than an empty studio, and the fantasies are nothing to get excited about.

It is only by the time of Berger’s short film, El Primo, that we can sense it might be worth our time to watch the entire compilation; in fact, this may be the best film of the entire bunch, although Mónaco’s Amor comes a close second. The object of affection is a boy who never speaks (something that can work wonders in a film of this length), but whose crotch outline seems to be everywhere the lustful visitor (Javier De Pietro, who has matured physically and professionally since his stint in Berger’s Ausente) casts his eyes. Berger’s films are often interested in crotch outlines – in swim trunks (“Platero” in another anthology film, Cinco; and Ausente) or in underwear (El relojPlan B) – and have become a trope in his canon. De Pietro, who sometimes pushes his glasses back up his nose to see better, conveys some nervous energy, and in this case his expressionless face helps the film a great deal by allowing him to act as a screen for our projection of anxiety.

El Otro demonstrates that Mónaco can produce some gorgeous moments, as two best friends Kevin and Tony talk about their sexual escapades. Kevin is complaining that he isn’t getting sex from his current girlfriend, but Tony, having just seen what a big member his friend is sporting, wants to help him out by showing him positions and suggesting phrases to help things along. The catch is, Kevin has to try it on Tony. The actions are not always credible, and neither is the blocking, but there are two long takes, both two-shots, that look beautiful and show directorial promise, even though the camera more often objectifies the two boys completely by focusing on their crotches throughout.

Los Brazos Rotos is a bizarre inclusion and seems too artistic – even for a gay audience! There is no dialogue, although only the arms of the main character are (more or less) supposed to be broken, and not the soundtrack. Berger shows his cinematographic range, as he did in El Primo, by playing more with shadows and darkness than co-director Mónaco; however, shots like the one in the bathroom, which shows a man being washed by his male nurse while we look at it in a mirror, with a bottle of shampoo strategically placed to obscure our view of his private parts, seems almost amateurishly titillating. We only realise the intimacy of the situation afterwards, when the nurse does, but while it is going on, you may just want to hit the fast-forward button.

Amor certainly has the best-looking pair in the entire film. At a bed and breakfast in the countryside, a youthful man and girlfriend are escaping dreary city life by sleeping in late. When she is on the phone to her mother, she asks the manager of the place to wake up her sleepy boyfriend, but in the bedroom the two accidentally touch each other, without being repulsed by it. It is a beautiful, innocent moment that creates tension and questions, none of which is properly resolved, but these issues don’t seem at all misplaced.

Berger’s final film, Entrenamiento, sees two men very interested in building muscle spend all their time together. At first, we may think they are boyfriends, but they soon start sexting with girls who demand to see more and more skin. When they take pictures of each other, from up close, we question their sexuality even more. However, as in all the other films, no one is ever shown to be hard, so perhaps the situations are as sexless as they seem, and it is only the viewer whose tension the title refers to.

This is the first volume in what is supposed to be a series, and a second collection of shorts, titled “Violetas”, about attraction between women, was released early in 2013. What the title’s “volatile” means in this case is wholly unclear. All the crotch shots are probably meant to entice us, but that would make this a kind of porn, without the sex, and that’s not really any fun, is it?

Taxidermia (2006)

Hungary

2.5*
Director:
György Pálfi
Screenwriters:
Zsófia Ruttkay,
György Pálfi
Director of Photography:
Gergely Pohárnok

Running time: 91 minutes

How seriously can we take a film in whose first scene a character makes love to a candle and shoots fire out of his penis?

Director György Pálfi has produced a film that doesn’t look half bad but he has put all his eggs in one basket and forgot to fashion a proper story. There are many random episodes of obscenity and downright senselessness, but the film also contains moments that bring to mind a director with visual flair such as Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Taxidermia is a word that doesn’t mean anything in English, nor in Hungarian, except to suggest the job of one of the film’s characters, Lajoska Balatony, who is a taxidermist. By the end of the film, the viewer will have realised that the title is actually the name of an artwork, the production of which brings the film to a very gruesome climax.

Basically, the film can be separated into three stories that centre on three different characters. Besides the terribly gaunt Lajoska, who is in the last story, we also see his father, Kálmán, a champion speed eater, and Kálmán’s harelipped father (Lajoska’s grandfather), Morosgoványi, who is a soldier by day and pleasures himself at night so that his hard member can either breathe fire or shoot its seed all the way to the stars.

While the first act is all about sex, and ends with a very ambiguous scene in which Morosgoványi seems to fantasise having sex with his lieutenant’s wife before waking up and finding that he has committed an act of bestiality with a dead pig, the second act is about food, and lots of it. Kálmán, who was somehow conceived during his father’s fantasy encounter, was in fact born of a woman but with a pig’s tail. His stepfather, the lieutenant, clips his tail shortly after birth, but then the story skips forward a few decades to a speed eating championship in Communist-era Hungary, where the event itself is as interesting (and as grotesque) as the post-match purging behind the curtains.

Don’t watch this film if you have an upset stomach.

The main interest of the film lies in its unconventional subject matter and the beauty with which such obscenity can be represented. But for all its interesting little incidents, the film lacks a narrative thread and, most importantly, fails to link the three main characters in any significant way. It is an easy comparison to make, but the taxidermist’s job of removing an animal’s hide, and using it without the original meat that it used to cover, mirrors the film’s hollow innards.

Taxidermia is fond of its extreme close-ups, but very often we cannot easily figure out what is going on because the camera refuses to reveal the bigger picture. However, the special visual sequences, such as a spinning bathtub at the beginning of the film, are dazzling and gorgeous to look at, until we realise that they serve to real purpose beyond the immediate jolt of visual stimulation. I also would have appreciated fewer shots of baby genitals.

The film would have benefited from a more tightly controlled screenplay, since there are numerous possibilities to explore, but none is really given the opportunity to develop, until the last act when the film seems to finally settle down and focus on the story and the characters at hand. I applaud this film for coming up with a character even more obese than Gilbert Grapes mother, and for that character (Kálmán) to deliver the most memorable line of the film: “I had a vomiting technique named after me!” – a source of great pride for the speaker. The instances of body horror are also enough to give Machete a run for its money. However, the film’s final scene, in which a sculpture that looks like a monstrous combination of the Venus de Milo and Michelangelo’s David is offered as a work of art, is dangerously close to pretension.

IP5 (1992)

France
2.5*

Director: 
Jean-Jacques Beineix

Screenwriters:
Jacques Forgeas
Jean-Jacques Beineix

Director of Photography:
Jean-François Robin

Running time: 119 minutes

Original title: IP5: L’île aux pachydermes

Poor Jean-Jacques Beineix. Perhaps he thought that this would be his , and that is why he indicated in the title that it would be his fifth film. Supposedly, the letters represent the initials of his girlfriend at the time, supporting the romantic element of the narrative. But ultimately such self-indulgence does little to enhance the experience of watching the film, except to make us shake our head. The film has three wonderfully entertaining central characters, but the director doesn’t quite know whose story he wants to tell, and he ends up failing us on all counts.

The three characters are Jockey, barely in his teens; Tony, in his mid-twenties; and the sage old Mr Marcel, who might just be a tree hugger who escaped from an insane asylum. Tony, played by Olivier Martinez looking like a young Elvis, is a professional “tagger”, a graffiti artist who is constantly on the run from the law but merely wishes to create his art on the walls of his city. Jockey, the son of an always drunken immigrant, lives in the same block of council flats as Tony and wants to have a good time, even if this involves a bit of petty theft now and then.

And then there is Mr Marcel, played by Yves Montand, who died shortly after the shoot. One night, Jockey and Tony steal a car only to discover in the backseat Mr Marcel, a man who very politely but insistently refuses to leave them alone. Mr Marcel is mysterious and presents signs of clairvoyance that might be construed as traces of something divine, but as the film proceeds, this initial hypothesis falls apart rather quickly; unfortunately, the film itself does not provide any useful information to explain his behaviour and especially his insight.

The full French title translates as “IP5: The Island of Pachyderms” and “pachyderm” is a term I know from Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist play, Rhinocéros; it means “thick-skinned mammal”, but alas, we don’t get to see any of them. And it isn’t a certainty that we’ll get to see the island either. The film is about memory and desire, but such a statement makes Beineix’s film sound much more clearly defined than it actually is. While Mr Marcel and Tony are both on a journey to reclaim the loves they lost, their journeys are quite different, and so are the women, and the reasons they haven’t seen each other for 40 years (Mr Marcel and Monique), or, well, barely 40 hours (Tony and Gloria).

The film’s only relationship that we care about, though to a very limited degree, is the one between Mr Marcel and Monique, and once that part of the story has been resolved, we suddenly find ourselves remembering that the film started out being about Tony’s journey, from Paris to Toulouse, to find Gloria. At this point, at the end of the second act, the film starts to drag, because there is no real desire to see Tony’s “love”, based on two or three very brief encounters, when it was made very clear to Tony that Gloria couldn’t care less about his feelings towards her.

As is to be expected from the director of Diva and Betty Blue (37°2 le matin), the colour palette is strikingly beautiful, and there are particularly attractive shots scattered throughout the film, including a moment when Mr Marcel stands, preacher-like, in the middle of the forest during a rainstorm and lets the “lustral rain” purify him while he is lit up like a Christmas tree. This is, however, one time where his crew let him down and one can spot very odd changes in lighting on Montand’s face.

IP5 contains too many coincidence for the story development to be credible, and while Mr Marcel could have had a mysterious air about him that might make us believe in a supernatural force at work, the questions generated by the film are never answered but rather lead to a very banal conclusion that – considering the film’s energetic opening – is not at all satisfactory.

Ulysses’ Gaze (1995)

Greece
2.5*

Director:
Theo Angelopoulos
Screenwriters: 
Theo Angelopoulos
Tonino Guerra
Petros Markaris
Giorgio Silvagni 
Kain Tsitseli
Directors of Photography:
Giorgos Arvanitis
Andreas Sinanos

Running time: 176 minutes

Original Title:
Το βλέμμα του Οδυσσέα
Transliterated title:

To Vlemma tou Odyssea

Theo Angelopoulos has a very seductive visual style that often consists of long scenes and little dialogue, not unlike the work of Béla Tarr. But whereas Tarr uses mud, rain and small episodes presented as very long takes, Angelopoulos’s films are visually very clean, less episodic, and the long takes are fewer and farther between.

When a film isn’t episodic, in other words, when there is a macroplot rather than many microplots, then the overarching narrative better be worth the viewer’s time. In the case of Ulysses’ Gaze, an unnamed director (no, he does have a name: “A”) travels across the Balkan countries to locate three film reels of the first directors in the area, the Manakis brothers. The Manakis brothers worked there at the beginning of the 20th century, and their very first works, according to this film that rewrites history for the sake of drama, as many good films have done, are somewhere in the Balkans, waiting to be discovered. Why have they not been the object of more interest by the different film archives in the Balkans? The film doesn’t say.

A, played by Harvey Keitel, is a director who had grown up in the Balkans and does speak Greek, but he has spent most of his life in the United States producing films that many Greeks, for whatever reason, deem extreme and even “evil”. He learns of the missing film reels and decides to undertake the journey to find these elusive traces of the origins of the Balkan cinema.

In the process, he travels across Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The film’s title hints at an Odyssean dimension to the journey, but this is wishful thinking. At one point, he ferries a woman wearing a black cloak across the river, where they find the first signs of destruction in the former Yugoslavia, and of course this scene is meant to evoke the episode in Hades, either of them being Charon, but the metaphor is tenuous, if not altogether confusing.

He meets various women, all played by the same actress (Maia Morgenstern), but the roles and the acting are below standard as the actress frequently has to portray a woman who is drawn to A without knowing why, and more often than not breaks down in tears for no apparent reason.

No reason for A’s stubborn desire to find these missing reels is provided either, and yet he risks life and limb to track them down, all the way into a war zone. The film was made in the Balkans in 1994, so it’s not very difficult to guess which war I’m talking about. But even though we know that A is on his way to Sarajevo, upon his arrival in a big city that is completely devastated, building shots down to their skeletal remains, armoured UN vehicles, and people running down the streets to avoid sniper fire, A stops to ask these people, “Is this Sarajevo?” It is, of course, a question of identity, a theme that is relevant to the film, but the question seems ludicrous in the context and makes A seem rather thick-headed.

A is a very alienating figure, especially when he recites some of his lines like a grave incantation of some sort. The only moment where his character really seems human is around the halfway mark, when he meets an old friend on the banks of the Danube in Belgrade, who piggy-backs him for a few paces. For the rest of the film, A is a very serious character who almost never smiles.

The film is interested in identity across the Balkans, and there are many scenes where the past slides in and out of the present, as characters change and seem to channel figures from the past. Angelopoulos is going for a kind of magical realism, I suppose, but he doesn’t tell the story very well, and we are left with many questions and never get a firm grasp on A’s heritage.

Ulysses’ Gaze does contain remarkable scenes staged so that they may be noticed as such, including a shot at the beginning of the film in which an audience watches A’s latest film, captivated, standing in the rain as if frozen, everyone in black clothes with identical black umbrellas over them. In another scene, in which A is transported back to the end of the Second World War in Bucharest, Romania, a single shot in the foyer of the family home suggests the passage of five years by means of different small events in the background.

Angelopoulos could have been a great filmmaker if he had spent as much time cultivating his story as the staging of his images. At one point, an enormous statue of Lenin is transported in various pieces on a barge that goes upstream. We don’t know where the statue is headed, and for some strange reason Angelopoulos’s camera seems to worship the colossal monstrosity – even allowing it to face in the same direction as the barge, a strange choice indeed. Overall, the film is thin, plodding along through its more than two and a half hours, but the images are gorgeous. However, compared with his other important film, Eternity and a Day, I prefer the latter.

And one final note: For those who suspect me or the filmmakers of making a mistake: the possessive form of Ulysses is indeed Ulysses’ – without another possessive s, because it is a mythological/classical name. For all other names that end in an ‘s’, spelling depends on your chosen style (i.e. an apostrophe only, or an apostrophe and another ‘s’, are both valid).

Lolita (1997)

USA
2.5*

Director:
Adrian Lyne
Screenwriter:
Stephen Schiff
Director of Photography:
Howard Atherton

Running time: 137 minutes

Adrian Lyne’s 1997 adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel plays as a farce, with Jeremy Irons headlining as Humbert Humbert, the middle-aged gentleman infatuated with his teenage daughter-in-law, Dolores, aka Lolita. While the problem of paedophilia – or more accurately, hebephilia, the love of children in early puberty – is certainly serious and consequential, the film deliberately undermines its own seriousness. This self-subversion is sometimes funny, but often it is rather pointless fun. No review of Lyne’s film would be complete without reference to the Kubrick adaptation in 1962, and I shall come back to such a comparison later in this review.

We all know the story of Lolita. Humbert Humbert arrives in New England and prepares to teach French at the university. He moves in with Charlotte Haze, a widow, and her teenage daughter Lolita (a sexually assertive Dominique Swain), with whom he proceeds to fall head over heels in lust.

But the story, as presented by Lyne, is both more complicated and also less interesting. Lolita, who is supposed to be around 14 years old, looks much older. She has a sexual confidence that is lacking in any other female character in the film, save perhaps her mother, and enjoys manipulating Humbert to the point of locking lips with him barely 30 minutes in the film. At the same time, Humbert, who is quite indecisive and weak, allows himself to be dominated by the little nymphomaniac dominatrix whom he first sees in the garden, lying under the sprinklers on the grass, flipping through a magazine, her loose-fitting dress stuck to her wet skin.

Humbert is presented as a much more feeble character than the one in Kubrick’s film. In a scene at the hospital, late in the film, when Humbert finds that Lolita has left him, his behaviour is as erratic as it is pitiful, and one can’t help but laugh at the events onscreen.

According to numerous sources, Lyne’s adaptation is closer to Nabokov’s original novel than Kubrick’s version. Of course, that shouldn’t matter to anybody, since films are judged on their own terms and do not become better because they are closer to a different medium. In terms of character development, the most significant difference from Kubrick’s film is found in the character of Clare Quilty, who, here, cuts a much sillier figure and prances around his mansion in his night robe (which doesn’t always cover him as much as one would have liked).

I would argue that Humbert is taken advantage of by Lolita, who knowingly sexually harasses him for her own entertainment. This fact is the reason why I find one of the film’s final scenes, when Humbert tracks her down, so phony, because Lolita somehow seems to think that she had been wronged by her stepfather and had had no part in her own loss of innocence. Ennio Morricone’s sweeping music also seems completely out-of-place at this point.

The film is comedy, not drama. Sex is as absent as it was in Kubrick’s film, but as far as nudity goes, we get a full frontal of Frank Langella as Clare Quilty – not a pretty sight, trust me. The story has its twists and turns that almost make the whole thing bearable, but the quiet desperation of Humbert in Kubrick’s film has disappeared (because they have sex…off-screen) and, with it, the tension that kept the viewer’s attention.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

USA
2.5*

Director:
Preston Sturges
Screenwriter: 
Preston Sturges
Director of Photography: 
John Seitz

Running time: 90 minutes

This is my first Sturges film, and I like the Capra quality of the thing. There is something very warm and fuzzy about the story, even though it deals, albeit obliquely, with the idea of poverty. I also like films that deal with the film industry, and Sullivan’s Travels is a comedy about the commercial infeasibility of making films that deal with socially relevant topics rather than straightforward comedies, which almost inevitably do better at the box office. However, whereas Capra had a comedic way of presenting dramatic and important messages (Mr Smith Goes to Washington: “Stand up for what is right!”; It’s a Wonderful Life: “Don’t ever think that you haven’t made a difference!”; It Happened One Night: “Down with the walls of Jericho! We are in love!”), this film by Preston Sturges doesn’t quite rise above its comedic simplicity.

The film was made at the beginning of the Second World War and was released at the end of 1941, around the time of the Pearl Harbor attack that escalated the American military’s participation. Social issues, such as unemployment and low income, are raised in the film (this was at a time when U.S. unemployment figures, of a population still rattled by the Great Depression of the 1930s, were around 15%), but the central character regards everything from a comfortable distance. Sure, he mingles with the hoi polloi and even shares a table with them, but there is very little – if not a complete lack of – interaction between him and those he wants to represent on the big screen.

In fact, one can easily forget that Sullivan is actually a director. He doesn’t seem very awkward in his scenes with the homeless, and such moments of uneasiness as there are (at the communal dinner table, for example) have very little screen time and do not communicate much except a little comedy. Chaplin dealt comically with the life of a tramp, but even his films have emotions and insight into the life of someone who is homeless to a much deeper degree than anything in Sullivan’s Travels.

Sullivan’s Travels opens with a marvellous scene: Two men, accompanied by very loud, very enthusiastically bombastic music, are fighting on top of a train advancing at full speed through the dark night. This turns out to be the final scene of another film, screened for some producers. Such metatextuality is refreshing, considering the banal nature of most of the rest of the film.

The film contains at least one very bad scene. In prison, where there is a lot of hardship (although the only real hardship we ever see inflicted on anybody is on John Sullivan), the prisoners go to watch a movie one night: cartoons by Walt Disney. The moment the picture starts, the prisoners burst out laughing, to such a degree you might think they are having seizures. It is an absolutely ludicrous way to communicate the message (comedy works, even in hard times), and I found it thoroughly simpleminded.

Based on my experience of Sullivan’s Travels, a film that is supposed to be Preston Sturges’s masterpiece, it is very easy to come to the conclusion that he was no Frank Capra, and while there is some amusing banter between Joel McCree and Veronica Lake, in the spirit of screwball comedies, the film never seriously investigates the social milieu its main character wishes to study.