All posts by Bryant

Angels and Insects

Near the beginning of Angels and Insects, our romantic protagonist courts the object of his very sexual affections in odd fashion. That scene, which involves a veritable swarm of butterflies and moths crawling across the woman’s clothing and skin, is a good indicator of the film’s ambitions. Putting a Victorian estate under the microscope, Angels and Insects postulates that this family unit, with sons, daughters and servants all tending slavishly to the needs of a bloated matriarch, is something less sophisticated and more distasteful than your average backyard ant farm.

William Adamson (Mark Rylance) is an outsider among the blueblooded Alabasters, the family whose patriarch, Sir Harald (Jeremy Kemp), rescued the young naturalist from a disastrous shipwreck. He is allowed to live with the Alabasters as Harald’s assistant, and swiftly falls under the spell of the oldest daughter, Eugenia (Patsy Kensit). This courtship among the insects is the film’s most direct metaphor, and its most satisfying conceit. As William confesses his love to Eugenia, he looses upon her what first seem to be the world’s loveliest butterflies. But soon, Eugenia is beset by the unsightly male counterparts to the beautiful females, which crawl across her body, drawn by female pheromones.

The trauma of that experience isn’t enough to derail the romance, which unfolds to the chagrin of Eugenia’s brother, Edgar (Douglas Henshall), who considers William an unfit suitor. Edgar’s sneering insults grow more and more provocative, but William resists his verbal exhortations to physical battle and marries Eugenia. His assimilation into the family is thus made literal, and Harald seems rather fond of the young man — but Edgar won’t let up, spouting continually about how little William knows of the world, and the significance of his improper breeding.

This socio-scientific Darwinism is as much a key to Angels and Insects as are the butterfly and ant-farm metaphors (when Eugenia proves herself to be less than an ideal lover, William bides his time with a detailed study of an ant colony on the estate). For the first hour or so, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, gamely tracking all of the asides, double entendres, and allegorical declamations. Philip Haas’s screenplay tries to cram all the thematic concerns of its source material (the novella Morpho Eugenia, by retro-Victorian scribe A.S. Byatt) into the two-hour space of a feature film, but it’s a little much.

Those concerns spill over from the story and dialogue into the film’s visual grammar, as well. While the overall production design is sumptuous and striking, the movie’s infatuation with its own color sceme grows tiring. For instance, when Kensit turns up in one of her show-stopping gowns, an unlikely peacock blue fringed in blood red, the effect is an imperfect distillation of the Peter Greenaway Effect — decidely garish in appearance, but relatively graceless in execution. More effective for my money is the less specific sense of dread that infuses the proceedings, especially in the scenes leading up to the marriage of the unlikely lovers.

So maybe it’s because the film wore me out in its first section that I found the second half fairly tedious. It’s mostly a waiting game. We know that Kristin Scott Thomas (she plays Matty Crampton, the family tutor) gets billing above Kensit, so her role will soon become prominent. The ad campaign has assured us that there’s a “startling” revelation in the final reels, but the punch is telegraphed across most of the movie. And, of course, we know that something’s got to give — and it does.

That having been said, the movie does have its pleasures. The performances are decidedly less mannered than we’ve come to expect from costume drama, and Rylance and Henshall make deliciously credible intellectual adversaries. I’ll even go out on a limb for Kensit, whose vaguely unsettling concupiscent charms have never before been put to such perfect use. The cinematography is lush and surprising, and the atmosphere is boldly creepy.

The opening credits sequence, which flash back to Adamson and a troupe of Amazonian dancers frolicking in the firelight, is more honestly sexual than anything that follows, and we get the sense that he was never happier than he was among the natives (as if to underscore the point, the titular letters spelling out Angels cross the screen in front of the dancers). This sequence, beautifully edited by the director’s wife, Belinda Haas, helps us understand the libidinous freedom that Adamson craves, even as he takes a luscious wife in an ostensible paradise. While the inhabitants of a less seething Victorian tableaux might negotiate apparently charmed paths to a satisfying but unlikely happy ending, we are made to grow more and more certain that the only resolution to the Victorian dilemma postulated by Angels and Insects is escape.

Twelve Monkeys

I’ve just about herniated my brain in the days since I saw Twelve Monkeys. Like most other stories that dabble in time travel, it presents a cracking conundrum having to do with the relationship of history to the future and the feasibility of someone traveling back to the past in an attempt to influence the formation of their own present. But unlike those other stories, Twelve Monkeys is the creation of auteur Terry Gilliam, the irrepressible fantasist in charge of the similarly temporal shenanigans of Time Bandits, the urban pain and redemption of The Fisher King, and the lobotomized despair of his great suffocating masterpiece, Brazil. Continue reading

City of Lost Children

The best poster art of 1995 is unquestionably the composite still featured on ads for The City of Lost Children, showing a muscular redheaded man purposefully rowing a boat across a sea peppered with floating mines. At the bow of the vessel, a younger girl, perhaps 10 years old, looks back over her shoulder almost balefully. They’re en route to what looks like a cross between a mist-shrouded palace and an oil rig, matte painted in silhouette against the moonrise. It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but this one teases, offering glimpses of a story that exists in the imagination, and is not necessarily dependent on the “reality” established by the film it’s meant to promote.

That picture isn’t taken directly from the film, but it may as well be. Its evocative power is indicative of the real strengths of the filmmaking duo of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. These two headstrong fantasists cut their teeth on music videos and television commercials before settling in to make the much-admired Delicatessen (1991), a black European comedy about cannibalism. Accordingly, American audiences had their first real exposure to Jeunet and Caro when art houses nationwide were blitzed with that film’s trailer—a set piece drawn straight from the movie itself, and involving the apparent rhythms of lovemaking in an apartment building from hell and its impact on everyday life in adjacent rooms. To this day, even movie fans who never saw the actual movie still harbor vivid memories of seeing the brilliantly entertaining trailer to Delicatessen.

That mastery of imagery and montage is what keeps Jeunet and Caro’s newest film from being a mere clutter of dazzling images. The City of Lost Children is something of a fable set in a city in either the future or an alternate reality. The movie has to do with a scientist named Krank (Daniel Emilfork), who is aging prematurely because he lacks the ability to dream. Fighting to reverse the aging process, he sends his blind minions out to kidnap the city’s most potent dreamers—the children—and bring them back so he can invade the children’s dreams and make them his own. Circus strongman One (Ron Perlman, the beefy guy from the posters) gets involved when his adopted brother, little Denree (Joseph Lucien), is abducted by the Cyclops, who see the world through one electronic eye and do Krank’s bidding. Events turn, and One teams up with the orphan Miette (Judith Vittet) on a mission to invade Krank’s laboratory and rescue his beloved brother. The other characters in the laboratory include Krank’s assistant, Miss Bismuth (Mireille Mosse), a disembodied talking brain floating in a fish tank (given witty, world-weary voice by Jean-Louis Trintignant), and a battalion of clones (all of them played by Dominique Pinon).

The actors are more than up to the challenge of breathing life into the concept. Perlman, a busy actor whose credits include The Name of the Rose, Romeo is Bleeding, and last year’s Cronos, is entirely credible as the simple strong man driven to his quest by love for a child. Daniel Emilfork’s Krank is a bizarre yet pathetic creation, and our distate for his persona is mitigated by our understanding of his desperation (after all, we’re the ones who paid money to visit someone else’s dream for an hour or two). And whether it’s Vittet playing an orphan who’s become wise and jaded beyond her years, or Lucien as the toddler who’s mostly unfazed by the pyrotechnics that have the other kids screaming, the children here defy the Hollywood standard of cinematic children who are by turns cutesy pies or obnoxious hams. Since the children are the film’s center, the metaphorical imaginative core of a society that has perhaps forgotten the value of its dreams, it’s reassuring that the actors give unmannered performances that put the histrionic antics of celebrity brats like Macauley Culkin in proper perspective.

Aided and abetted by Jean-Paul Gaultier’s costuming, Caro’s art direction ensures that this city truly is something to behold, although our visit is fragmented so that we have little opportunity to get a sense for a whole environment. For the most part, Caro and Jeunet create their nightmare world by stacking their most striking visuals on top of one another in a shot-by-shot montage that amplifies the chaos. But the real show-stoppers are the sequences that stretch the film’s tightly constrained sense of location while staying within the episodic format (the best involves a spider’s web, a shipwreck, and a healthy sense of wonder), though even that doesn’t shake the constant feeling that we’re watching master craftsmen at work, not peeking into another universe.

But when they work, oh boy, do they work. Jeunet and Caro have a keen sense of their characters, from the lead roles all the way down to the bit parts, and the crucial dream sequences are marvelously surreal, right down to the accompanying sound mix. (It’s fitting that Sony is releasing this one just before Christmas, because Santa figures in a couple of the dreams, for better or for worse.) Angelo Badalamenti’s music is surprisingly effective throughout, and Miette’s final nightmare is nothing short of breathtaking. The film contains a remarkable number of digital-effects shots, and indeed, is surprisingly reliant on technical wizardry, whether it’s allowing Pinon to play six different parts on-screen at the same time, or enabling show-stopping close-ups of Fleakins, the bug who offers up a flea’s-eye view of the world before shooting characters up with a strange poison. The rich, shadowy cinematography, which is a key part of the weirdness at work here, is by Darius Khondji, who shot Delicatessen but also, probably more famously, this year’s Hollywood hit, Se7en.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, there’s a story that needs to be told, and the one here is just a little humdrum. For all its whacked-out creativity, The City of Lost Children is a bit short on ideas for what to do with itself. The dream thievery is reduced to a child-in-peril excuse to get our obligatory hero into the laboratory, and Krank’s invasion of dreams isn’t even fully distinguished from what we might expect from a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel. And at the climax, we’re treated to a pretty rote escape-from-the-madman routine that ends in a big explosion a la any number of American action movies. Would that a movie this wondrous weren’t simultaneously so formulaic.

I’d hate to discourage any fan of the surreal from buying a ticket, since it’s a truly impressive piece of work. Still, something very important is missing. It’s all well and good to break out all the wide-angle lenses, run amok with the set design, and frighten a few children, but I do wish there was a little more light at the end of the tunnel. It seems that Jeunet and Caro are very satisfied with what they have wrought, but it’s hard to experience the film on a very personal level, because we’re never given the sense that anything real is at stake, or that there’s anything in the rather unpleasant world presented to us that’s really worth fighting for. For all their formidable skills, Jeunet & Caro need to balance all of the nightmare and grimace with just a little bit of hope and magic. I’m rooting for them to deliver the goods next time—but I’m not sure they have it in them.

To Die For

Nicole Kidman and Matt Dillon in <em>To Die For</em>

To Die For is an ambitious little flick about the seductive lure of stardom, the suggestive power of Nicole Kidman’s lips, and the promise of liberation held by a teenage flunky with a handgun who’s willing to lose everything for your love. The movie is ambitious, and sounds terrific on paper, but director Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) can’t pull everything together to make any impact at all. It’s enough to make you wonder what he’s doing with this script in the first place.

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Leaving Las Vegas

In Leaving Las Vegas, Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin, an alcoholic who’s lost his family and his job and moves to Las Vegas to quite deliberately drink himself to death over the course of four weeks’ time. While he’s there, he meets a hooker named Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue, who’s cast adrift, so to speak, when her boyfriend and pimp (Julian Sands) is finally murdered by the thugs he owes money to. Since these two are just about the neediest people on the planet, they immediately fall into a codependent relationship. Ben agrees to vacate his room at the $29-a-night Whole Year Inn (in an unusual moment of lucidity, Ben reads the sign as “the hole you’re in”) and move in with Sera on one condition — she can never ask him to stop drinking.

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