Friday, January 23, 2009

Burn after Reading

In Burn after Reading (2008) bumbling people get involved in situations more complex and dangerous than they can imagine, yet even these situations are not that complicated, compared to others. One of the reasons this film met with lukewarm reviews, I think, was that it was difficult to pigeonhole. Following directly on the heels of No Country for Old Men, it might have led critics to expect some sort of follow-up at least in tone and subject. Instead the Coens give us comical, inept characters played by George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Frances McDormand. On the surface, much of the film might seem like a comedy, yet it is hardly comedy. Burn after Reading is a tragedy masked as comedy. It's a movie about spies and the CIA that is in fact only indirectly about those subjects. It's a film in which horrible things happen to people too naïve and too dumb to merit their fates. It leaves us confused and uncertain how to react.

Frances McDormand plays a trainer in a physical fitness center obsessed with finding a life partner. She never says husband, but it's clear husband, or at least long-term partner, is what she wants. She believes that to make herself attractive to a man she needs extensive cosmetic surgery and much of her motivation in the film focuses on finding a way to fund the surgery. Brad Pitt plays a trainer in the same gym. He's wonderful at playing this character without much substance at all. When he discovers what he believes are secret documents lost by a C. I. A. agent, he and Frances decide to contact the owner and return them in hopes of a reward. Things develop from there.

It would be easy to discuss this film without any reference to spies and espionage. Two characters suffer failing marriages. George Clooney plays a Treasury Department agent who brags that although he carries a gun he's never had to shoot it, even though he's trained to shoot "without thinking." Clooney's character is obsessively dedicated to habit—in everything he does and says. He is vain, narcissistic, unscrupled, and wholly superficial. He is married to a successful children's book author but is constantly looking for ways to hook up with other women. He's building a most unusual present for his wife, whom he doesn't believe knows about his extramarital habits. John Malcovich plays the C. I. A. agent whose attempts to write a memoir are discovered in the gym by Brad Pitt. Malcovich doesn't leave them there—the secretary of the private detective hired by Malcovich's wife loses them—she's planning to divorce him. She's also sleeping with Clooney, who's also sleeping with McDormand.

Key scenes in the film occur on a tree-lined boulevard in Washington, D.C. This is where people go to meet the dates they have arranged via Internet social sites.

All the principal characters in Burn after Reading function in a state of relative ignorance and incompetence. They regard themselves as more savvy, more important, more significant than they really are. As they become increasingly caught in complicated entanglements, they never realize that they're in over their heads, until it is too late. Clooney's character has two such moments of realization. In one he discovers that the person who has been tracking him is a private detective hired by the lawyer whom his wife has employed to represent her in a divorce suit—he has no idea she plans to divorce him. In the second he realizes a connection between himself and a friend of Frances McDormand, with whom he is having an affair. The realization drives him batty—the paranoia he already seemed given to takes over, and he screams at McDormand "Who are you?" and runs in panic down the street away from her.

The most pathetic example of a person in over his head is the manager of the fitness center. He is a retired Greek Orthodox priest who is secretly in love with McDormand's character—she has no inkling of this fact and constantly confides in him about her desire to find the right man. The unrequited lover's attempt to aid McDormand goes fatally wrong.

Malcovich plays a C. I. A. operative with relatively low-level security clearance. His decision to write his memoirs, after being reassigned to a desk job for apparent alcoholism, is a sign of his own failure to recognize his unimportance. When a high-level C. I. A. supervisor learns that the memoir is being peddled to the Russians, he loses interest as soon as he learns Malcovich's security clearance level.

All the lead and secondary actors in this film are excellent, Pitt and Clooney in particular.

Rather than comedy or spy thriller, Burn after Reading is really film noir. No one comes to a good end. Even the C.I.A. supervisor is uninterested in the fates of these people who make the mistake of believing that their lives might mean something.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Encounters at the End of the World

Early in Encounters at the End of the World (2007) Werner Herzog explains that he agreed to make a film about Antarctica as long as it didn't have to be another film about penguins. Oddly, penguins figure significantly in several scenes. In one, Herzog is interviewing an expert on penguins well known for his reserve. Trying to get the man to open up, Herzog asks whether there are "gay" penguins and then whether penguins ever lose their minds, go insane. The man pauses and answers that although he has never seen an insane penguin he has seen penguins become disoriented and confused and wander off from the group. If you pick them up and try to turn them around, they persist walking in the wrong direction. They will walk for miles, and often this results in their deaths.

This reference to me formed an analogy to the main focus of this film on the odd and motley assemblage of researchers and workers who live at McMurdo Station near the South Pole. Philosophers, artists, scientists, all have their reasons for living threre, and all, in some way, are analogous to the penguins. Parts of the film reminded me of an earlier Herzog documentary, Grizzly Man (2005), about the young man who spends years living near grizzly bears, believing that he has achieved a harmonious rapprochement with these wild animals, until one day they attack and eat him. Herzog had little sympathy for the bear researcher, and although he has a clear interest in the people he meets in the Antarctic, he doesn't seem to have much real sympathy for them either.

Landscape photography plays only a minor role in this film. There are impressive sequences shot underneath the Antarctic ice cap, but they are not really beautiful or inspiring and instead are eerily creepy and weird. The world beneath the frozen ice cap is as strange a place on earth as one is likely to find.

What fascinates Herzog about the Antarctic is the desolate isolation and the contrast between the frozen wastes and the small and fragile human settlements. He spends much of the film interviewing people he meets there: a truck driver who was once a philosopher, a British scientist who dresses in tweeds and does research near an active volcano, two biologists who rejoice in their discovery of new single cell species, researchers who relax by playing rock music on the top of a building, and so on.

Herzog finds ecological significance in Antarctica—even in a small settlement of slightly more than 1000 residents there is commercial and chemical pollution. He addresses the subject of technology and explains his certain conviction that the human race will someday soon become extinct—though he never quite connects this conviction to the subject of his film.

Herzog's is the narrating voice of Encounters at the End of the World. The film is loose and wandering in structure as we follow the director from one subject to another. This is not a flaw but an attribute—the film seems structured in just the right way. Herzog often seems to have his perverse tongue in cheek as he asks researchers and other residents of McMurdo Station questions about their lives and what they do. It's clear that he finds these men and women living at the South Pole to be eccentric and odd, but in the context of the film Herzog himself seems equally odd.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Claustrophobia and entrapment are two dominating sensations in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007). The film is told almost exclusively from the viewpoint of Jean-Do, a man suffering from "locked-in" syndrome, the result of a severe stroke in the brain stem that leaves him entirely without control of his body, excepting one eye, which he can blink. With the eye he and a speech therapist devise a means he can use to communicate. She reads out the letters of the alphabet, and when she comes to a letter he wishes to use, he blinks. In this laborious fashion, he composes words, sentences, and then a book. This is his only way to communicate, although he can see the outside world, and observe everything and everyone around him.

One of the amazing achievements of this film is that it doesn't descend into maudlin despair and pity. On the other hand, it doesn't quite achieve what I think it means to—convincing us that through his imagination and capacity for thought Jean-Do can compensate for his physical limitations, freeing himself from the body that entraps him. His plight is never anything but horrible. But through his thoughts, his contemplative abilities, he achieves a kind of accommodation with his situation. This comes as the result of a plea whispered in his ear by a colleague, "Hold fast to the human inside of you, and you'll survive." The film argues that what makes us human is not our physical existence, but our sentient self, our mind. Yet it also demonstrates (perhaps this is not its intention) that without control of the physical dimension, our existence is significantly reduced and minimized.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is told almost entirely from Jean-Do's viewpoint, starting with the moment he awakens in the hospital after his stroke and slowly realizes that he cannot move or speak. We hear his thoughts, and they serve as the narrating voice of the film. The film tracks him as he struggles to deal with his dire situation, undergoes physical therapy, develops a relationship with his speech therapist, is visited by his wife and children, receives a phone call from his mistress (who can't bring herself to visit). The film occasionally departs from this perspective, mainly in flashbacks to Jean-Do's former life as a magazine editor.

In the course of the film we come to know Jean-Do both as he was before the stroke, and as he became afterwards. Mathieu Amalric portrays him. At first I thought all Amalric had to do was appear convincingly inert, but gradually we become aware of the subtle ways he uses facial tone and the movements of the one eye to convey the emotions of his character. His performance is impressive.

It would be wrong to describe The Diving Bell and the Butterfly as depressing, though depressing it is. Instead, it urges us to contemplate Jean-Do's entrapped existence. Director Julian Schnabel succeeds by refusing to sentimentalize his subject, by the use of a method that places the viewer in the locked-in mind of Jean-Do, and that allows us to understand both the limitations and potentialities of his plight.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

It has been years since I read the second volume of C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. Its title was Prince Caspian, and it was essentially a continuation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I never read the books as a child, but I did read them aloud to my oldest son. I remember being struck with the way in which Lewis was able to appeal to the fanciful imaginations of children, the narrative force of the early books in the series, the effectively camouflaged nature of the allegory, and the power of the lion Aslan as a character, a symbol, and a veritable deus ex machina. I also remember being struck by the failure of imagination in the later volumes, where the allegory became more pronounced, more dogmatic, more obviously flawed. But in Prince Caspian we had not reached that point.

I don't remember much of the novel Prince Caspian. What is clear about the film The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (2008), a sequel to the moderately successful The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, is that action and battle largely replace allegory. Aslan reappears, but for the most part he holds back and allows the children and their allies in Narnia to resolve their problems with the evil forces that have taken over the land. It's odd both in the film and the book that when the four children return to Narnia they find themselves in a time centuries later than the time of their first visit. The people and places they remember have disappeared or are in ruins. An evil power has taken over. The film illuminates this aspect of the children's return effectively. But it dispenses with much of the novel and turns into a fantasy battle film. In contrast to Lewis' novels, the girls take an equal roll to that of the boys, which is all for the good.

The film also preserves the perplexing element of the novel that prevents children who have entered adolescence, the onset of sexual maturity, from returning to Narnia or being able to "see" or "believe in" Aslan. I suppose the notion here is that when reason and logic overtake imagination and fancy, all is lost. For Lewis, the age of sexual maturity, especially for young girls, was the age of sin, of the fallen world, and he couldn't have sexually mature creatures running around in Narnia.

Prince Caspian is somewhat entertaining. The special effects are good. The action is fast-paced and unrelenting. The children are all charming, especially the younger girl. But for the most part Prince Caspian has little in common with the novel on which it is based, which is neither here nor there. It doesn't have to closely resemble the novel to be a successful film. But it manages to avoid and dispense with some of the narrative elements that made the novel a successful children's book, in so far as it was.


In Sunshine (2007), set at some point in the distant future, a desperate mission struggles to deliver a payload—a huge bomb—that will reignite the failing sun. The earth has become locked in a perpetual frozen state, and if the mission fails, life will fail with it. Never in the film are we given much of an explanation as to why the sun is failing and why or how the bomb—perpetually and consistently referred to by the crew of the Icarus as the "payload"--will set things right with old Sol.

Early parts of Sunshine seem promising—the isolation of the Icarus and its crew, their inability to communicate with earth, the perilous nature of their mission. But gradually, as systems begin failing on the vessel, the film transitions into one of those Agathie Christie-type plots that basically focuses on the question of who will die next. This is the standard plot of many a horror and science fiction film—Alien, Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, et al, and this one is no different.

It also turns out that the Icarus is the second vessel sent to the Sun—the first one disappeared without explanation. Eventually it is discovered in orbit around the sun, and when the oxygen supply on Icarus dwindles to the point where the mission is endangered, a rendezvous with the derelict first vessel becomes necessary. Numerous complications ensue. The underlying premise of the film (and the underlying premise of many science fiction plots that depend on advanced technology) is that however advanced the technology may be, human error is the Achilles heel.

Sunshine is the sort of film where you can predict events before they occur. Some of the crew members are interesting. Some of the special effects are impressive (some are not). In the end, it just doesn't work.

Babylon A.D.

To know that a film is a Vin Diesel film is to know the following: explosions, fast cars, gunfire, mayhem, tattoos, monosyllables, thick monotone accents. There are scenes in Babylon A.D. (2008) that could be exchanged with scenes in Fast and Furious or The Chronicles of Riddick without anyone's noticing. There's a fundamentally generic and formulaic quality to these films. Diesel's brutal physicality gives him a certain exoticism that also suggests a vulnerability, a nobility, that sooner or later these films get around to discovering. In Babylon A.D. he's some kind of mercenary named Toorop who is hired to escort a young woman named Aurora (Mélanie Thierry) from a hidden convent somewhere in eastern Asia to New York City. It's unclear exactly when this film is set—somewhere in the not too distant future is good enough—but the world has declined into dystopian disorder and mayhem. It's a slightly more advanced world that that of the Mad Max films, a world strongly reminiscent of Los Angeles in Blade Runner, a film far superior to this one. For reasons never made quite clear (probably because no one who had anything to do with Babylon A.D. bothered to figure it out), the young woman in Diesel's charge (she is, of course, winsome and beautiful and possessed of certain powers) is being sent to New York so that she can either save the world or by giving birth to twin daughters who are the product of an immaculate conception help found a new religion. One thing leads to another—explosions, attacks, car chases, kung fu battles (courtesy of Sister Rebekah, played by Michelle Yeoh), an inevitable and unconsummated near love scene, incredible amounts of scientific and religious nonsense, painfully awkward plot twists, and so on. To travel from the hidden convent to New York City, we climb into a ragged sedan. A helicopter toting a giant magnet attaches to the car and hauls it aloft. I still have not figured out the logic of this particular means of transportation.