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Monday, January 01, 2007

Four Recent Films: Extraordinary Images - and Brutality

So many movies have opened in the last few weeks that it will take me a while to catch up. But I did see these four noteworthy ones between Christmas and New Year’s. Interestingly, they are all rated R for their violence (as are two others I haven’t yet seen, Apocalypto and Blood Diamond) – not light-hearted holiday fare. Several also feature extraordinary, phantasmagorical imagery – it’s been a fine year for brilliant cinematography. And more than one will be on my best-of-the-year list.

Pan’s Labyrinth
This is one of the most stunningly well directed and most daringly original of recent films – even though many of its elements and textures are direct homages to earlier films, paintings, stories and genres. A dark, scary fairy tale set in 1944 during the Spanish Civil War, Pan’s Labyrinth has an entrancing and spellbinding narrative power. Two performances are extraordinary: Ivana Baquero as the young girl who discovers an alternate reality of fairies and monsters, and Sergi Lopez as the black-hearted villain of the piece (the evil stepfather of many a fairy tale, here also a fascist military officer). And the photography and design couldn’t be improved upon. I felt a bit let down by the conclusion, in part because the first three-quarters of the story is so strong. But this is absolutely one of the year’s best films.

The Curse of the Golden Flower
Because Miramax had delayed the release of one of them for more than a year, US filmgoers were treated to two romantic masterpieces by Zhang Yimou in 2004: Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Extravagantly and very beautifully designed, with scenes of deliberately stylized and exaggerated martial arts action, they seemed like two cousins of Ang Lee’s wonderful Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Hero retold a myth about the origins of Chinese nationalism via multiple perspectives, each with a distinct (and stunning) design scheme. It was my favorite film of 2004. Not far behind was the slightly more conventional House of Flying Daggers, with extraordinary action sequences incorporated into a tale of tragic romance.

Now Zhang’s third foray into historical action fantasy has opened here. Although much less satisfying dramatically and emotionally than its predecessors, it is if anything even more astonishing to look at. A slow-simmering (and occasionally ridiculous) melodrama of court intrigue in the 10th century, it features some of the most wonderful sets and costumes ever filmed. The star power of Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat is used to full advantage in the first two-thirds of the story, involving a jaw-droppingly dysfunctional royal family. But when the extravagant battle scenes arrive at the end, they lack emotional power. One is left admiring the pretty pictures – almost never the case in Hero or Flying Daggers. So this is definitely a disappointment, but nonetheless not to be missed if you set your expectations accordingly.

Children of Men
It’s hard to think of three films less alike than Y tu mama tambien, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Children of Men. Yet they are the three most recent works of the same director, Alfonso Cuaron, and their uniform excellence marks him as one of the most versatile and skilled filmmakers around. Children of Men is deceptively simple in its approach, and, expecting something darkly magical like the Harry Potter movie, I was puzzled at first. But the director’s technique here, without often drawing attention to itself, builds extraordinary tension and power, and by the end I was in tears.

A dystopian vision of the near future, Children of Men is based on a novel by P.D. James, best known for her superlative detective stories. The year is 2027, and all the women on earth have become infertile. In London, one of the few cities to escape destruction from unspecified war and terrorism, police state conditions exist, particularly for illegal immigrants (and apparently there are few if any legal immigrants). Our protagonist, Theo (Clive Owen), gets pulled into an underground rebellion against his will, finding out that the world’s infertility is not so complete after all – and to describe more of the plot than that would be unfair.

The style could be described as docudrama much of the time (with a few lyrical beats), and the immediacy of the brutal violence really packs a wallop. The performances are very effective, and although five screenwriters are credited, the tightly knit script doesn’t have a patchwork quality at all. Emmanuel Lubezki, the master cinematographer of Sleepy Hollow and The New World, provides exactly the right harsh, vivid look for this story. My only complaint is indicative of how well executed the whole piece is: there’s barely room to think, or breathe, during the 109-minute running time. Like me, you may find yourself wanting to turn to the novel for more background and detail. But don’t let that stop you from seeing this excellent film as soon as possible.

Letters from Iwo Jima
Told in Clint Eastwood’s signature low-key, “classical cinema” style (in some of his movies, it has seemed to me more like the lack of a style), Letters from Iwo Jima is quietly, deeply moving, a very effective meditation on the horrors of war. For an American director, particularly one associated with conservative politics and a strong, silent type of macho, telling a World War II story from the point of view of Japanese soldiers carries some significance just by doing it at all – and by doing it well, Eastwood can force viewers to reexamine their own feelings about war and patriotism. Along with its somewhat less focused and less effective companion film, Flags of Our Fathers, this movie builds a complex, thoughtful mosaic with multiple perspectives.

The performances are very good, especially Kazunari Ninomiya as the young draftee Saigo and Ken Watanabe as General Kuribayashi. The script does not always avoid the obvious and the unsubtle, especially in flashbacks to the soldiers’ lives before Iwo Jima, such as the tale of one man’s being branded a coward because he refused an order to kill a family’s pet dog. But the feeling of inevitability, of impending doom, of the tragic waste of lives, is well captured. Tom Stern’s desaturated color cinematography, closely matched to that in Flags of Our Fathers, is among the best of the year.


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