Monday, August 29, 2011

Overlooked Gems #3: Fearless

Grade: 94 (A)

Australian filmmaker Peter Weir arrived in America fresh off the art-house hits Gallipolli and The Year of Living Dangerously to conquer the world of prestige pictures. The excellent Harrison Ford vehicle Witness killed at the box office and was nominated for Best Picture, Director for Weir, and Actor for Ford (his only nomination). His 1989 film Dead Poets Society preached the obvious and featured a lousy performance from star Robin Williams but managed to succeed on all fronts as well, and Weir’s 1990 film Green Card managed to get him a screenwriting nomination. But Weir hit a speed-bump on the way to further Oscar-nominated glory with The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World: 1993’s Fearless. The unsettling drama was not of the same cloth as the crowd-pleasing fare Weir had delivered, and it did not feature a major star on the same level as Harrison Ford, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey or Russell Crowe. The darker-themed film starred Jeff Bridges as a man who loses his connection to reality after surviving a plane-crash. Fearless was released to mostly strong reviews but struggled at the box-office. When awards season came only Rosie Perez was recognized for her terrific performance as a grieving mother, and Fearless fell into footnote territory in the career of a great director. But Fearless deserves better than that, as it is easily the strongest of Weir’s American films and a career-highlight for the great Jeff Bridges.

The film begins in a cornfield as a group of dirty, frightened people are led by Max Klein (Bridges) to the wreckage of their crashed plane. Max holds onto a child with one hand, a baby in another, but neither child is his. He brings the child to safety and searches for the baby’s mother. Meanwhile another survivor, Carla (Rosie Perez) screams frantically as the wreckage explodes; her baby was on board. As Max makes his way past charred corpses, frantic survivors, and odd miscellany, it’s clear that there’s something off about him. He denies having been in the crash and brings the baby to its mother. It is not Carla. Max gets into a cab and leaves the horrific scene. After showering, Max looks into the mirror in a near trancelike state and says, “You’re not dead.” Later, in the desert, Max spits into the ground and rubs the small bit of wet dirt between his fingers, almost as if he can’t believe he’s still on earth. Max drives at a high speed whilst blasting the Gypsy Kings at top volume, seemingly unconcerned with the danger as he sticks his head out the window. Max has breakfast with an old friend clearly unaware of his accident. They shoot the shit while Max eats a breakfast of strawberries. When his friend notes that he nearly died of an allergic reaction to strawberries years ago, he simply states “I’m past all that”.

Max is eventually tracked down and returns to his wife (Isabella Rossellini, rarely better) and son. A well-meaning psychiatrist (John Turturro) and a sleazy lawyer (Tom Hulce) await him, one to help heal, the other to sue the airline for damages. We learn that Max’s business partner died in the crash, and that Max saved several lives on the plane. We also learn that the formerly neurotic Max let go of all of his fear as the plane crashed, accepting the fact that he would die. When Max begins to engage in reckless behavior such as running through highway traffic and dancing on the edge of rooftops, it is because he feels invincible, as if God has failed to kill him. Max’s behavior alienates his family and those close to him. The only person he can connect to: Carla, whose 2-year-old son died in the crash, and whose grief has driven her to near-catatonia. Carla and Max’s thoroughly unsentimental friendship never delves into expected territory, such as an affair or even unrequited love. The devoutly Catholic Carla and atheist Max bond through their shared disconnection from the world and their unexpected loss of loved ones (Carla’s son in the crash and Max’s father when he was 13), and Max helps Carla move past her grief. But only Max’s family can save him.

Those expecting the Peter Weir of Dead Poets Society to see a man letting go of petty neuroticisms were undoubtedly perturbed by Bridges’ erratic, frequently disturbing actions. Fearless is an often harrowing journey, with Bridges playing an often unlikable man inconsiderate of others’ feelings. Bridges, one of cinema’s all-time great actors, plays a man liberated from all of his fears and social mores, but this includes his status as a husband and father. Called by Pauline Kael “the least self-conscious screen actor that has ever lived”, Bridges does not endear himself to the audience. And yet it isn’t impossible to understand his character’s behavior. Max has survived a terrifying experience, and feels as if he can no longer waste his life. Weir has often dealt with the theme of seeing the world in a new way (Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show), but rarely as effectively as here.  In the film’s climax, Henryk Gorecki’s gorgeous  Symphony No. 3 plays as the crash is finally shown, juxtaposed with a final crisis for Max. In a truly moving moment, a connection is rebuilt, and despite all the loss and grief, a little light finally shines through.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Overlooked Gems #2: Dogtooth

Grade: 90 (A-)

Children grow under the influence of their parents, more often than not adopting their views until adolescence, when their lives are shaped by their hormones and growing sense of independence. Mostly. But we also live in a world where hateful groups can raise their children any which way they desire. A white supremacist parent can infuse their children with enough hate for a lifetime. The Westboro Baptist Church raises their children under the belief that homosexuals, soldiers, foreigners, etc. all belong in hell. And in groups as insular and radical as a cult, outside influences are so hard to come by that one can only wonder what it would take for someone to break from the influence of that group. What outside influence could change the views of those born and bred in their tiny, horrifying bubbles?

The Greek film Dogtooth takes this question to an extreme: one family. A father, mother, son, and two daughters. These children have lived in isolation their whole lives. They have never left the confines of their home. Their yard is fenced off from other neighbors, and they have no contact with the outside world. Their mother and father have decided to raise their children this way as a way of controlling them. No outside influences are allowed. Obedience is stressed. Often they play mind games with their children as a way of dominating over them. For example, everyday items are given new names (a salt shaker is referred to as a “phone”). The children are told that airplanes are toys. The only videos they have are home movies. A Frank Sinatra recording is said to be a recording of their grandfather, and since none of the children speak English, the father “translates” the song into a new meaning. The children play games under the order of their parents. The parents refer to a “brother” next door who is never seen or heard from. It would be a terrifying experiment if the parents were likened to scientists, but the truth is far more sinister: they want their children to obey them and to grow under their influence and theirs alone. If there’s an award for worst film parents, these two would be difficult to trump.

Of course, a creepy portrait of a cult-like family could only go so far without becoming a mere freakshow on film. The stasis must be broken for the story to go anywhere. Enter Christina, a young woman who works as a security guard at the father’s factory. The father pays her to perform sexual favors for his growing son. Christina goes outsider the boundaries of the relationship and begins to interact and unwittingly influence the daughters. As with any adolescents experiencing a sexual awakening, ignorance can only last so long.

From there, it would be best to go into Dogtooth without knowing where it’s heading. The film is an oddity: a truly unpredictable experience at a time where films around the world have grown increasingly predictable. In the 96-minute runtime, Dogtooth is full of shocks, horrors, and scenes full of such strangeness that they cannot be explained. Best be forewarned: Dogtooth is as disturbing a film as there is today. It is cut from a similar cloth as Michael Haneke’s Cache or Funny Games or Lars von Trier’s Dogville (albeit without Haneke’s schoolmarmish scolding or von Trier’s glee in making his characters suffer). It is, without a doubt, not a film for all tastes.

Perhaps some astute filmgoers will note that Dogtooth may stretch the definition of “overlooked”. It was released to wide acclaim in 2010, was a surprise Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film, and became a word-of-mouth art-house hit. And yet I include it anyway, firstly because it’s a blast to talk about, and secondly because it’s a recent enough release that many may not have yet discovered it. It is now available on DVD for those brave enough to seek it out. If nothing else, it would be a more palatable experience to squirm in the comfort of your own home rather than in a theatre.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Overlooked Gems #1: Empire of the Sun

Grade: 92 (A)

Steven Spielberg spent the first decade of his career releasing the sublime, heartfelt popcorn entertainments of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, and his masterpiece E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. He made his bid as a “serious” filmmaker with his respectable but overpraised adaptation of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Roger Ebert named it the best film of the year, and the film was nominated for 10 Oscars (Spielberg himself was strangely snubbed for Best Director). After the success of The Color Purple, Spielberg set his sights on a more difficult adaptation: J.G. Ballard’s memoir Empire of the Sun, based on Ballard’s account of his survival after the Japanese invasion of Shanghai and his experiences in an internment camp. Those expecting the same warmth of E.T. or The Color Purple exited the film scratching their heads, many critics disliked the film (Gene Siskel exclaimed that he didn’t know what the film was really about after viewing it), and the film’s showing at the Academy Awards was disappointing. The release next to John Boorman’s similar, humorous, more immediately satisfying Hope and Glory didn’t help. And in the years since Spielberg’s acclaim for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Empire of the Sun remains mostly unrecognized; an oddity that paved the way for future triumphs only to be Spielberg’s most overlooked film. It may come as a surprise to some, as it did to me, that it is also one of his most beautiful, rewarding, emotionally mature works.

1941: Jamie (later “Jim”) Graham (a young Christian Bale in a remarkable debut) lives in British occupied Shanghai. Jim comes from a wealthy family and is well educated. He is an innocent young boy, but not a particularly kindly one. He is spoiled, arrogant (his mistreatment of the Chinese servants in his home early on separates him from previous Spielberg protagonist Elliott from E.T.), and his questions about a beggar outside his home comes more from curiosity than concern. His declaration of his atheism to a wealthy friend comes more from a way to impress and provoke than anything else. More than anything else, Jim is fascinated by airplanes, and when he finds a downed plane near a friend’s home, his first instinct is to play in it.

Jim’s parents and many other Britons attempt to escape when Shanghai is invaded, but Jim is separated from his them in the chaos. Spielberg had dealt with children in frightening situations before, but here Jim is in the middle of a war zone, alone. When Jim returns home, he finds the servants are taking what they can find of his parents’ possessions. Jim confronts one he disrespected earlier. She slaps him, giving him a well-deserved come-uppance and a wake-up call: this is no longer your home.

Jim survives alone before meeting an American rogue named Basie (John Malkovich), who first tries to sell Jim into slavery before finding use for him. Jim and Basie wind up in an internment camp along with other Americans and Britons.

Empire of the Sun is one of Spielberg’s darkest films. The relationship between Jim and Basie is comparable to that of Fagin to the children of Oliver Twist: one of continuous exploitation. Jim uses skills learned from Basie to survive while Basie uses Jim to gain advantage over others. The internment camp is disease-ridden and dirty, and that’s the safe place to be. A sequence in which Jim struggles to find a way into the camp is particularly frightening. What makes the film such a harrowing experience is that it is the first Spielberg film to deal with the end of childhood innocence rather than celebrate it. The child survivors of Schindler’s List, Private James Ryan of Saving Private Ryan, and David of A.I. all branch off from the need of Jim’s childhood to end for him to survive a traumatic experience.

Yet for all of its horrors and all of its sadness, Empire of the Sun is full of lovely, lyrical sequences. Spielberg has always been a masterful visual storyteller, and early on he uses the servants’ involuntary waving to Jim’s family as a way to show the inequality of Shanghai and the dynamic of the world. Jim’s fascination with airplanes is framed with such wonder and awe that some gorgeous images at the end of the first act only heighten the impact of Jim’s fall from grace. John Williams’ score, one of his finest, is full of achingly beautiful moments, sadness and joy. Perhaps one of the greatest touches in the film, though, is the use of the Welsh lullaby “Suo Gan”, first as an introduction, then as a salute, and finally as a source of catharsis. Jim has seen horrible things, but he has survived, and now, through love, he can heal.