Volume 3, Number 26
This Week's Reviews: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Crazy/Beautiful, Baby Boy, The Gleaners and I, The King Is Alive, Songcatcher.
This Week's Omissions: Pootie Tang.
|A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
(Dir: Steven Spielberg, Starring Haley Joel Osment, Frances O'Connor, Jude Law, Sam Robards, Jake Thomas, William Hurt, Brendan Gleeson, and Daveigh Chase, and voices include Jack Angel, Ben Kingsley, Robin Williams, and Meryl Streep)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Everyone knows Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra," a fanfare made famous by Stanley Kubrick by using it to segue into space for his 1968 masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. What people often don't know, however, is that there is more to the piece than the fanfare they know -- half of the actual orchestrations are of an eerier sense, a type of music that fit the later moments of 2001. Now with A.I., Steven Spielberg has made another place where Kubrick could have used that "Zarathustra" opening -- even more than 2001, the opening theme fits A.I. almost perfectly.
By now, the stories of Spielberg collaborating with Stanley Kubrick on A.I. have been documented ad nauseum. No longer does it matter how the two worked or what happened when Kubrick died soon after finishing Eyes Wide Shut, the true importance is in the final product and whether it is the glorious, yet cold perfection that each director would have brought to the film on their own. Yes, the film is dedicated to Kubrick and carries a production credit (unusually might I add, the actual credit is "An Amblin/Stanley Kubrick Production), but the actual production was completely helmed by a Steven Spielberg trying desperately to be his mentor without losing his own touch.
The final creation is something of note -- an amalgam of two men in a story that would have touched each one in completely different ways. Spielberg, the wide-eyed optimist, the child forever working in the biggest playground he could ever imagine, would have probably made the film differently had it come to him without the previous work of Kubrick (who had been working on the film since the 1980's after giving up on his Napoleon project). Kubrick, the life-beaten pessimist, the cynic constantly obsessed with human nature's continued destruction, had worked on the film for so long that even his original vision had fallen to the wayside with various contributors including sci-fi writers Ian Watson, Bob Shaw, and Brian Aldiss (whose "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long" was the story that set Kubrick off on the film in the first place), as well as 2001 co-writer Arthur C. Clarke. Their pairing is both miraculous and annoying -- each one has their own credits and debits and the mixing of these two almost throws the film off. A production of less grace and virtue would have probably folded under the dueling styles.
The ad campaign for A.I. has been rather ambiguous, as has always been the case with Kubrick films. All that can be told from the two trailers and four TV spots is that it is a futuristic Pinocchio story -- an artificial child yearning to become real. However, there is so much more to the film beyond expectations based upon these few visions Warner Bros. and DreamWorks have shown.
When the film opens, a narrator (Kingsley) tells of the world's problems following the melting of the polar icecaps. Major cities are under water, small countries completely fall, and larger countries are forced to find new ways to take care of universal starvation. In New Jersey, a company called Cybertronics is hard at work on their next line of human-like robots, a business that has boomed over the years with robots that can become menservants as well as lovers. The head of Cybertronics is Allen Hobby, who has a dream of creating child robots that can love their "parents" like a real son or daughter.
Flash forward twenty months (an arbitrary amount of time that definitely sounds Kubrickian). Cybertronics scientist Henry Swinton (Robards) brings home the pilot version of these robots to his wife Monica (O'Connor). Their biological son Martin (Thomas) is currently frozen awaiting treatment for his terminal disease and they can only sit and hope that a cure can be discovered soon. Henry thinks that bringing in this cyborg son will help Monica in dealing with the loss of their child (his cure seems rather doubtful) and Monica almost dutifully accepts him, though does not care for him. The boy, named David (Osment) by Cybertronics, obsesses with learning how to be real -- he sips an empty cup, eats from an empty dish, and considers every moment of indignation to be nothing more than a game. After some time falling for the small child, Monica begins to love him and brings out the paperwork to 'imprint' him, an action that will cause David to love her back unconditionally and forever. After holding the back of his neck and speaking a seven-word code, David begins to love her; he begins to call her 'Mommy.'
Through some events that I will not tell -- if the ad campaign is going to be kind and not give away beyond the first 30 minutes, neither will I -- David begins to dream of becoming a real boy through the magic of The Blue Fairy, the mystical person that made Pinocchio become a real boy in the story that Monica often reads to her two sons, one comatose, one mechanical. He has two friends to help him on the way to finding his fairy: Teddy (voiced by Angel, delivering a better sidekick than Wilson in Cast Away), a smart mechanical teddy bear that was once Martin's, and Gigolo Joe (Law), a lover robot that has been framed for the murder of one of his 'Janes.' Their journey takes them through many different worlds, places where they find either help or harm from various characters including the Vince McMahon-like Lord Johnson-Johnson (Gleeson) and a computer generated wizard (voiced by Williams).
For nearly two hours and fifteen minutes, A.I. remains consistently engaging and enthralling. The many scenarios, with the possible exception of David's meeting with Johnson-Johnson, seem perfectly Kubrickian. Spielberg makes the mood cold and the shots (with a great deal of help from genius cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) flow like Kubrick would have made them. Certain scenes, especially the more domestic ones, feel like The Shining meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with a closer association with The Shining. During this 85 percent of the film, A.I. is perfection, its tone and style seems perfect to the story through the eyes of someone who is the antithesis of this tone and style. And then, in the last moments, Spielberg kicks in and the film begins to lose some of its touch. There is a beautiful moment that would have served as a great last shot, but Spielberg instead continues.
A.I. definitely features some of the best performances from an ensemble this year. Jude Law plays his character over-the-top but only until he brings memories of Alex in A Clockwork Orange with heart, albeit a mechanical one. William Hurt seems all knowing, but yet sentimental at his lack of knowledge, possibly his best performance since Kiss of the Spider Woman. The normally forgettable Frances O'Connor does her first really respectable work since the 1997's Aussie indie Kiss or Kill.
But by the end, the only real performer that comes to mind is Haley Joel Osment -- he carries the entire film gracefully. Anyone that thought he was nothing more than a cute moppet should just catch his work as David, which goes far beyond his Oscar nominated turn in The Sixth Sense. Osment balances both realism and artifice at a perfect level. Spielberg has a long history of hiring youths for major characters in his films and this is the first one to hold up beside Christian Bale in Empire of the Sun.
It's weird thinking back on A.I. -- at times I'd
swear I just saw a new Kubrick film, at other times I'd say that it was a new Spielberg
film. However, once you get beyond the ending, the occasional sentimentality, the garishly
brilliant Johnson-Johnson sequence, and the child in peril theme, the Spielberg
comparisons end and A.I. becomes another masterpiece of Stanley Kubrick. All the
debits seem Spielbergian, most of the credits seem Kubrickian -- but I do not think that
Steven Spielberg should be denounced for his efforts. To almost perfectly pull off the
style of Stanley Kubrick without hindering your own style is tantamount and, though
definitely his most challenging, A.I. may prove to be his finest non-WWII
creation in decades.
(Dir: John Stockwell, Starring Jay Hernandez, Kirsten Dunst, Bruce Davison, Taryn Manning, Lucinda Jenney, Rolando Molina, Keram Malicki-Sánchez, and Joshua Feinman)
BY: DAVID PERRY
John Stockwell's teen drama Crazy/Beautiful seems to be one of the most auspicious films in the genre at first, but ultimately ends in an air of respectable failure. As much as Stockwell and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi may try, Crazy/Beautiful is not The Graduate for the Cruel Intentions generation. In fact, by the end, it's not even their B.S. I Love You. The easiest film to compare Crazy/Beautiful to is the alarmingly similar 1995 monstrosity Mad Love in which a film tried to convince us that Chris O'Donnell was a straight-laced intellectual. Forbidden love has spawned good films like Scott Hicks' Snow Falling on Cedars, Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet, Cameron Crowe's Say Anything..., David Lynch's Wild at Heart, and Richard Brooks' Sweet Bird of Youth -- too bad that those are nearly the entire list of good films from the genre that is used countless times a year.
But that is one of the reasons that the final missteps of Crazy/Beautiful hurt so much -- the film is more than a by-the-book genre peiece. In fact, it strives to be so much more, using style and tone that is rarely showed in films aiming at the teenage romantic genre crowd. It is not a bad film by any means, just a flawed one, with grace and beauty that remains consistently engaging in the films expository sections.
The film follows the relationship that begins between Nicole Oakley (Dunst) and Carlos Nuñez (Hernandez). She is a Pacific Palisades wild child; he is a Boyle Heights model student. Carlos is very dedicated to his studies -- he does not go to his local school because he wants a better education, taking a two-hour commute everyday to attend the Palisades school, where he balances school with football. The two meet for the first time, despite going to the same school, when he is hanging out with his friends and happen to catch her doing community work because of a DUI.
There is much more to Nicole than just being uncontrollable -- she is also the daughter of a U.S. congressman, Rep. Tom Oakley (Davison). She is not very proud of her background -- her mother committed suicide years ago, her father is never there to really help her, and her stepmother (Jenney) has her own child to dote on. But Carlos sees this as a blessing: though it has nothing to do with the fact that he loved her well before learning her family, he knows that Tom Oakley could give him the needed recommendation to get into the US Naval Academy in Annapolis.
But things are not that easy -- Oakley sees his daughter as someone that can ruin not only her life, but also those she's involved with. Carlos comes to his office expecting to have a nice meeting before receiving the needed recommendation and instead gets an ultimatum: if he cuts ties to Nicole, he'll get the recommendation. It is not that Tom is worried about his daughter; but that he worries that she will ruin a youth so intent on a bright future.
Kirsten Dunst pulls a performance that people might not have anticipated from the Bring It On star. Of course, those who actually saw her breathtaking performance in last year's The Virgin Suicides knew the range that the young actress has and that she is much more than a bubbly blonde bombshell. Like Anna Paquin and her early work on The Piano, the Dunst we normally see today is nothing like the one we saw seven years ago in Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles and Little Women. Since then she has showed prowess with sly comedy (Drop Dead Gorgeous, Dick), cutesy guilty pleasures (Bring It On), and engaging drama (The Virgin Suicides), while still throwing in the occasional nice cameo (Wag the Dog) and career-continuing teenybopper roles (Get Over It).
Dunst does not play the character like someone of the range of, say, Rachel Leigh Cook might have. She uses raw emotion and allows her ugly duckling side to come out. This is not a cute character to sell to teenage boys like she has used before in her wider releases. Dunst's Nicole is noticeably abrasive, alarmingly knowing, and saddeningly self-destructive. She gives the character heart and spirit, a soul that would have been lost on other, less talented actresses.
Perfectly matching Dunst is newcomer Jay Hernandez, whose career has mainly been in television. For a relative unknown, Hernandez does a great deal with his performance, giving it a subtle touch of inner emotion without really emoting. I do not see him as remaining in the spotlight for too long, his compassionate acting matching with a look that is more handsome than cute should defer him from heartthrob status and knock him out of the minds of young girls. Unless he starts taking some roles more akin to Tobey Maguire than Freddie Prinze, Jr., Hernandez might be another one-hit acting wonder.
Bruce Davison gives an interesting performance. Understated, without a doubt, the fine character actor delivers enough compassion to the role, one that could have easily been much more clichéd, like the stepmother character is. Davison has been throwing out rather intriguing roles over the last few years. Not only does he have the recent work on The King Is Alive, but his turns in Apt Pupil, At First Sight, and X-Men have been notable. Sure, he is no David Morse, but Davison does have a nice tendency of bringing out the best in otherwise iffy characters.
Director John Stockwell and cinematographer Shane Hurlbut
do infuse the film with some nice colors to set the mood with the screenplay, but the
continuous use of blue hues becomes redundant after a while. Stockwell, though, does not
do too well with the camera set-ups. His previous work, the absolutely horrible TV-movie Cheaters,
still makes me cringe and at least he does a little better here. Trying to mix his two
title adjectives creates a respectable little film at first, but once the craziness
overshadows the beauty, Crazy/Beautiful flounders.
(Dir: John Singleton, Starring Tyrese Gibson, Taraji P. Henson, A.J. Johnson, Ving Rhames, Omar Gooding, Snoop Dogg, Angell Conwell, Tamara LaSeon Bass, and AlexSandra Wright)
BY: DAVID PERRY
John Singleton jumped onto the scene exactly ten years ago, it was the summer of 1991 when he unveiled his then-explosive exposé of life in the 'hood. Boyz N the Hood was the first gem of the year and would even ride Singleton into a surprise Best Director nomination, making Singleton the youngest nominee in the history of that category, not to the mention being one of the few African Americans to receive a nomination in a major category.
Surprisingly, Singleton never recreated the critical acclaim that came with Boyz -- the next year, critics' black poster child Spike Lee made Malcolm X and proved that he was going to be more than the director of Do the Right Thing, and they quickly went to work heralding Lee again. In his mere four films after Boyz, Singleton tried only two more times to keep with his character traits from his first film and both came with some backlash (Poetic Justice was bad, but Higher Learning is not nearly as mediocre as was thought in 1995). His last two films have been definitely different from his first three -- Rosewood, his second best work under Boyz, is a dark, violent historical drama, and Shaft is a poor attempt at recreating black exploitation films. A few themes still pop up in all of his films -- especially the oppression that has come to the black male, whether it be in the form of a white supremacist or a lynch mob or the justice system or other angered black males -- but his settings have been slightly different on each try. John Singleton has not decided to be like Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese in mainly working with one setting.
His new film Baby Boy is the first time that he has even set a camera back in the housing of the crime-plagued LA South Central district. The main character in Baby Boy, Jody, knows South Central the same way Justice in Poetic Justice, Malik in Higher Learning, and Tre in Boyz N the Hood knew it. Singleton at 33, though, has toned down some of his imagery since his debut at 23. Baby Boy becomes more of a reference point, an alternate look at South Central black males and their problems. Where Tre seemed uncertain of his future but willing to push himself to succeed, Jody lacks that initiative.
Singleton opens the film with a nude Jody (Gibson) in his mother's womb. No, this is not a look at Jody when he was still there, but a metaphor for Jody's confinement in a child-like state. Through the problems that have incurred in his life -- whether it is the gangsta-life surrounding him or the one-parent home -- Jody has not been able to grow as a person. Singleton, in the film's opening voice-over, states that most black men are like this, not only physically, but also mentally. He even throws in some examples in the black vernacular: a lover being a 'mama,' friends being 'boys,' and the home being 'the crib.'
Jody lives a rather sedated life -- at 20, he regularly sits in his childhood bedroom and makes models. His time away from his mother's home is when he goes to visit his best friend Sweet Pea (Gooding) and his girls. He has two main girlfriends: Peanut (Bass) and Yvette (Henson), both of whom bore a child from him. He is not really interesting in continuing a relationship with Peanut even though she was his later bedfellow, but he does love Yvette, even telling her that she is the one that he may one day marry. Yet, there is something holding him back, perhaps his immaturity or a bit of resentment towards Yvette (who, though raising a child, has a car, an apartment, and a job) or a little of both. Nevertheless, Jody cannot seem to commit. In fact, from our point of view, he uses her more than anything.
There is also a fire simmering in Jody's own home. His mother Juanita (Johnson) has recently found a lover that gives her everything she needs. She is only in her mid-thirties, and she still wants to enjoy her youth while she can, especially since her son is at the age when he should be able to take care of himself. But things do not go well with the relationship between Jody and Melvin (Rhames), an ex-con who thinks that he has something to teach Jody even if the 'baby boy' does not want to learn it yet.
Tyrese Gibson gives a great performance as Jody -- he plays his role naturally and does not feel forced on the audience throughout the film. Tyrese is actually a singer and his inclusion in the cast is part of a regular Singleton casting choice, adding musicians to portray his characters. I get the impression that Singleton believes that if someone can set forth their complete emotions through a song, they can do equal work in a movie role. Following in the footsteps of Busta Rhymes (Higher Learning, Shaft), Janet Jackson (Poetic Justice), Ice Cube (Boyz N the Hood, Higher Learning), and Tupac Shakur (Poetic Justice), Tyrese gets the fine notice of being the best singer-turned-actor in a major Singleton film.
However, Gibson is not the only one-time vocalist to appear in Baby Boy. Playing Yvette's former lover Rodney, rapper Snoop Dogg delivers a chillingly serpentine performance. He appears to welcome in the third act and the film never really gets over him. I would have never expected Snoop Dogg to do such incredible work in a film performance, but he definitely shows off acting prowess comparable to late friend Shakur, who became a type of demagogue to the gangsta-rapper lifestyle. After seeing his final performance in Gridlock'd, I thought that Shakur would have had a bright future -- I have the same feeling after seeing Snoop Dogg in this.
Most of the supporting players show great understanding of their roles. Though the disappearance of some of the characters for long periods of time make them forgettable in the long run, three supporting players other than Dogg remain in the mind well after the film ends. The tough-love that Johnson portrays, the yearning to believe that is found in Henson's performance, and the balking yet seemingly effortless work that Rhames delivers are just as important to the story as Jody's actions. Each of the three show strong work in roles that could have easily been thrown in as background filler to Jody's story.
Some people have criticized Baby Boy for lacking any
redeemable qualities in Jody. Yet, I think John Singleton does something magical with his
film: he creates an impressive character study with a main protagonist showing few
admirable features. Yes, this can be off-putting in most situations, but Jody seems so
realistic that it is hard to be disgruntled with his depiction. If Singleton is going to
be matter-of-fact enough to portray the life on the streets true-to-life, it can only be
expected that the same storytelling technique go into the characterizations.
|The Gleaners and I
(Dir: Agnès Varda, Appearences by Agnès Varda, Bodan Litnanski, and François Wertheimer)
BY: DAVID PERRY
Agnès Varda is a gleaner, like nearly every person that she documents in her spry and often funny film The Gleaners and I. The original French title is Les Glaneurs et la Glaneuse, meaning The Gleaners and a Female Gleaner -- she happily, and perhaps thankfully, stands tall as a gleaner. Her life as a filmmaker has been a joyous pleasure for all of us who get to view her works -- we can comment on the grace in which she gleans.
Gleaners were the people who came by after the harvest and picked the remaining fruits, vegetables, and other foods. King Henry IV on 2 November 1954 made it completely legal to glean as part of the French constitution and later the gleaners would become the subjects of paintings by artists such as Alexander Mann and Jean-François Millet, capturing groups of women assembling to pick some grain to take home to their families. They do not mind that they are picking what is essentially not theirs, they are more there for the experience.
And that is exactly what Varda attempts to create with her film: an experience. Her modern day gleaners are not the same as the elders that are captured in paintings. One particular group of gleaners do not even deserve the title -- their actions of vandalism (they knocked over huge trashcans to get the unwanted food from a supermarket) do not come near the way the rural gleaners are doing it. Even those out in the country, picking apples or potatoes or wine grapes, fail to continue the traditions of their forbearers. When people gleaned in the 16th century, they did it as a group project, something for the entire area to commune at. Now people do it as a sort of individual hunger action. The American ideals of personal usage and individual reliance have crossed over to the French -- many of the modern gleaners are doing so for the same reason that the homeless people in Chicago and New York and Atlanta go through dumpsters, just they have a written legal right to do so.
Agnès Varda was the only woman in The French New Wave and stands as one of the few remaining. Godard recently made a new film while Rohmer and Resnais recently made what looks to be their final films, but these three have never really gone back to their roots. The personal feelings behind Rohmer's films are more in tune with the Nouvelle Vague sensibilities, but his films are still films, Varda has taken her New Wave ideas another step, into actually documenting personal feelings. Amidst all the stories about gleaning, Varda reminds us that she is there and that this is about gleaning to her. She gleans in two ways: first she takes the occasional trinkets and foods that her subjects are taking, second she is capturing these people's story after life has left them behind.
Varda hit the scene in 1954 with La Pointe Courte and then became famous with 1962's Cleo from 5 to 7, her Jules et Jim, her Hiroshima, Mon Amour, her Pierrot Les Fou. Varda is a huge person in the world of French cinema -- while some of the more melodramatic modern names like Régis Wargnier use styles more akin to the American dramas, the more defiant names like Benoît Jacquot and Erick Zonca continue their old French traditions. The works of Resnais, Varda, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer, Vadim, Malle, Godard, Demy, and Rivette began a time in French film that finally made the country's art comparable to German Expressionism and Italian Neo-Realism. Every person in the New Wave created a part of the puzzle that now stands as French cinema.
One part that Varda uses that is especially personal is her employment of private remarks. The director has admitted that parts of the film were filmed and recorded when she was by herself because the remarks were so personal to her. But the New Wave came in when it became apparent that the most personal a feeling is also the most realistic part of a New Wave movie -- she admits that her own mortality is often in her mind. She even films her wrinkled hands to remind us that the end is not too far away: "My hands and hair keep telling me that the end is near."
But, however weighted the situations may be, Varda never
allows her film to become a statement. I think that the main reason the film works is that
fact: we feel more like onlookers in Varda's excursion than audience members at a movie.
This kindly old lady has invited us to join her on a little trip around France to look at
something that is currently interesting her, and we can only sit back and enjoy the
|The King Is Alive
(Dir: Kristian Levring, Starring David Bradley, Romane Bohringer, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Davison, Janet McTeer, David Calder, Chris Walker, Lia Williams, Brion James, Vusi Kunene, Peter Kubheka, and Miles Anderson)
BY: DAVID PERRY
"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Kristian Levring chose Shakespeare's King Lear as the starting point for his film The King Is Alive, but as the film progresses, it becomes more apparent that Macbeth would have been a just as suitable choice. Perhaps Levring meant his film to be a spin on Lear's question: "is man no more than this?" But by the time the credits roll, and by the time the sound and fury has come to an end, it is easy to see that The King Is Alive signifies nothing.
Levring is the final director from the Dogme 'vow of [filmmaking] chastity' after the other three had long finished their works (as the production of The King Is Alive came to an end, Harmony Korine was already making his Dogme-wannabe julien donkey-boy). And, what is most disturbing is that the film is the least dogmatic and the next to least remarkable. While Levring certainly does a better job than Lars von Trier did with his horrendous The Idiots, The King Is Alive is definitely no Mifune or The Celebration. Those two films, by Søren Kragh-Jacobsen and Thomas Vinterberg respectively, epitomized the ideals of Dogme without becoming sweepingly cinematic. Of course, this makes sense, the Dogme 95 manifesto was meant to provoke films that are not cinematic, but instead are extremely realistic in scope. Levring excuses his digital camera, lack of filters, unbuilt sets, and natural lighting to make a Dogme film that David Lean might have been proud of. For the first time, a film completely made on digital video looks like a cinematic experiment of vast proportions -- an epic of the humblest medium.
The King Is Alive follows twelve people as they fight the elements and each other while stranded in the African desert. When a navigational malfunction leads them out of their way and a mistake in preparation leaves them without fuel, the dozen strangers must set-up life in an abandoned German mine as their only survival expert, Jack (Anderson), sets out to walk the 5 miles between them and the nearest town. As Agatha Christie might have written: and then there were eleven.
Making the lion's share of problems are two married couples, one American, one British, one from Edward Albee (Davison and McTeer), one from Vladimir Nobokov (Walker and Williams). They are joined by a group of singles all making a few more problems: the British husband's estranged father Charles (Calder), the vindictive French intellectual Catherine (Bohringer), the ditsy American tease Gina (Leigh), the African bus driver that got them in the mess Moses (Kunene), the sickly American businessman Ashley (James), and the wild-eyed but well-meaning British actor Henry (Bradley). I added the character names for some notation, but in this film, like Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors, the actual names are unimportant, just the characterizations.
Before Jack left, he told them there were five things that they had to have for survival: water, food, shelter, signals for help, and good spirits. The area gives them water (they set-up containers to collect the morning dew), food (the miners left behind some cans of carrots, though some of them are now contaminated), shelter (the abandoned mining houses still stand), and the signal (the mirror from the bus can be used as well as smoke from a fire), but the good spirits are the real problem. Henry comes up with an idea: they can act out King Lear in the meantime since he happens to know a great deal of the play from memory. Though few are really excited by it, everyone agrees and accepts their parts.
The King Lear move in The King Is Alive seems weird on paper, but it actually works in some form for the film. Though comparing the Shakespeare story to the one Levring and Anders Thomas Jensen (who also co-wrote Mifune with its director) put forth is fruitless, the ideas share a common bond -- people can do a great deal of damage by being self-seeking. It's easier to find connections between this film and Flight of the Phoenix, The Lord of the Flies, and Lifeboat, but none of these movies are as happily referred to as Lear is in The King Is Alive -- Levring actually credits Shakespeare and King Lear with an "Adapted from" credit in the end.
The visuals found in the King Is Alive really show that there is more to DV than the Dogme and the Haxan boys have shown in the past. In the earlier Dogme films, the directors seemed quite content in creating their worlds with the vow of chastity and therefore created equally as inauspicious films. The heart of The Celebration, still the best Dogme film, was in the story and the performances, though it used the DV style to create visuals to show the mood. Levring takes a different approach -- his finer moments are in the sweeping, non-story moments while his more mood-driven scenes fail. At times the film actually becomes more restricting to the audience than it seems to want to be. Levring has gathered a great cast that strives hard to work their material, but he nearly pushes them out with his directorial burdens. I have little doubt that the man can make a pretty picture, but his actual work with anything of depth falls desperately flat.
It's weird, when I wrote about Mifune early last
year, there were only four Dogme films according to the Dogme 95 website -- I had also
heard that a couple more, including a French Dogme, were in the works. Now, doing research
for The King Is Alive, I notice the number has risen to an alarming 24, including
some more from Denmark, and entries from the United States, Sweden, France, Italy,
Argentina, Switzerland, Norway, Belgium, and Korea. Who knew that the movement had grown
so much? Even in the wake of a disappointing Dogme film, it heartens me that this style
has grown so much. Many critics scoff at the movement as a pretentious mess, I instead
feel that it is a moment in Scandinavian cinema that may someday compare to the French New
Wave and the Italian Neo-Realism in scope.
(Dir: Maggie Greenwald, Starring Janet McTeer, Aidan Quinn, Pat Carroll, Jane Adams, Greg Cook, Emmy Rossum, Taj Mahal, Katherine Kerr, Iris DeMent, Stephanie Roth Haberle, David Patrick Kelly, Muse Watson, and Michael Davis)
BY: DAVID PERRY
A great deal of my time has been spent in Tennessee -- in fact the last couple years, I have been commuting between Knoxville and Nashville almost every two weeks. In my time in the area, my Yankee mentality has seen a bit of a culture shock -- around here country music is not a business, it's a way of life. The old country songs display a tradition that goes back for centuries. While the genre has definitely had a more contemporary turn as of late with the likes of Shania Twain and Reba McIntire, the real country music that lives on is in the older songs, the ones that the people living up in the Appalachian Mountains passed down to their children and grandchildren.
In Songcatcher, it is noted that these songs actually originated as old English and Scottish songs before immigrants took them to the mountains. As associate professor Lily Penleric (McTeer) awaits learning of the university board's decision on making her a full professor, she works on the ideas embarked on by another musicologist. The main interest in the scholastic music world is in these old English tunes -- finding them in the wilderness of the United Kingdom has become a type of search for Atlantis in the minds of some of these professors.
Lily does not get the professorship, though, and in a maddened state, leaves the university to visit her sister Elna (Adams). Perhaps some time away from the hustle and bustle of her daily life will make things easier to stand -- not only did they turn her down for the professorship, but she also failed to get the support of her board member lover. The only real problem with visiting her sister is that she lives up on top of a mountain in the North Carolina, where she has joined another lady, Harriet Tolliver (Kerr), to set-up a free school to take care of the local youths who have never been able to learn to read and write. They have even had a chance to house an orphan with their especially advanced student Deladis (Rossum).
On Lily's first night there, Eleanor asks Deladis to sing a song, something that she is rather gifted at. As fate would have it, the song happens to be the same old English song that Lily plays occasionally for her students at the university. Using her doctorate in musicology, a rather nice demeanor, and her local family connections, Lily sets out to document all the songs that are being sung around the mountain -- they may be the purest representation of the old English songs available.
But one thing that Lily does not expect to happen is that she begins to fall for the area and the people that she meets there. This definitely refined lady has spunk and the mountain area is one place where a defiant woman can become the joy of women and the grief of men. One man that she is most aggravating to is Tom Bledsoe (Quinn), who was out of the mountains during the Spanish-American War and believes no good can come from those outside of the mountains. Of course, these two banes slowly but surely become lovers and he even begins to see some worth in her efforts to get this music (at first, he believes that she is simply there to exploit his people) and she begins to help him in his efforts to stop a mining company from taking over the entire mountain.
Songcatcher won a Best Ensemble award at the Sundance Film Festival last year and that stands as one of the most unusual choices the Sundance judges have made in past years. Besides McTeer, Adams, and Rossum, the cast is passable at best. The characters seem one-dimensional and the performances are nothing short of boring. Quinn is especially unnerving -- his constant out-of-focus performances have marred many good films and this is no exception.
McTeer gives a delightful performance, one that is actually better than her Oscar nominated turn in Tumbleweeds in 1999. I like McTeer's style; she can play pompous with the least amount of pretension. This low-key film will not give the English actress another nomination, but she does deliver a performance deserving one.
The biggest problem with Songcatcher is that for
its long 110 minutes, nothing really seems to happen beyond some localities shining. There
is a lesbian subplot that fails miserably and the romance between Lily and Tom shows
absolutely no chemistry. Director Maggie Greenwald seems too content creating a
liberationist story that she loses sight of doing anything beyond creating strong female
characters. While I did think that there is a great deal of worth in the film -- beyond
the three performances, the direction is a nicely subdued tone and the music is nice to
hear -- the finality to it seems all too sweet. I had not really hated the experience, but
I was definitely not unhappy to see it come to an end.