Twelve Monkeys

87/100

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

55/100

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

45/100

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

80/100

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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Strange Days

81/100

There’s a lot of sex in Strange Days. A lot of sex, and a lot of violence. Director Kathryn Bigelow and her screenwriter cronies James Cameron and Jay Cocks understand well that the sleekest new technology is immediately turned to the seediest purposes. Their protagonist, L.A. ex-cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), understands it too, and he’s the consummate salesperson for virtual sleaze, circa 1999. When Nero watches a potential client “jack in” — a contraband silver rig on top of the mark’s head wires the contents of a mini CD recorded with the full sensory experience of another person directly into his brain — he sports the sharp grin of a guy who loves the junk he’s dealing as much as the junkies do. After the client’s spent a few quality moments feeling himself up through his business suit, Nero cuts off his feed. “You were just an 18-year-old girl taking a shower,” he tells the client. And, of course, there’s more where that came from. Continue reading

Se7en

95/100

Se7en

David Fincher, whose brilliant career as a director of music videos encompassed such highs and lows as Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Rick Springfield’s “Bop ‘Til You Drop,” has helmed an almost overly stylish thriller about the evil that men do and the myriad ways to punish them. And this thriller is so unlikely on its surface that when the machine kicks into high gear and the characters really start to matter to us, its impact seems all-encompassing and lingers for days after viewing.

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Unzipped

65/100

Who would have thought that one of the year’s most satisfying movies would be a 79-minute documentary about a clothing designer? A year ago, who would have guessed that Robert Altman’s fashion industry barbecue, Ready to Wear (then called Pret-a-Porter), would seem so baggage-laden, and that unknown documentarian Douglas Keeve’s doting portrait of Isaac Mizrahi would seem lighter than air?

Your mileage may vary, but for this jaded moviegoer, Unzipped is an unmitigated treat, as much a relief from the practiced heaviosity of Hollywood buckbusters as an air-conditioned movie house is from the burning city streets. Keeve’s movie feels so free because it’s a portrait of the fashion industry from the inside, from a vantage point that those with cynical intent could never reach (it’s no secret that Keeve and Mizrahi were in the throes of a relationship during the shoot, but any reference to this has been excised from the finished product).

This is perhaps the most absurd of all big-ticket industries, and Keeve shows what it feels like from the inside, when it lets its guard down. Mizrahi looks as much like a Peter Pan as any pop superstar, using Nanook of the North as a springboard for his fall collection or cavorting with beautiful supermodels as though all the streets of New York lead to Neverland. What’s at stake, though, is his professional reputation. In the opening scenes, we see a little clowd following Mizrahi through Manhattan as he reads the decidedly unflattering reviews of his latest collection. This tragedy in miniature sets the story in motion, as we watch Mizrahi struggle to recreate his own image as well as some cool clothes.

Followers of the biz will no doubt enjoy seeing Mizrahi at work, expounding on his personal philosophy, switching into depressive mode when he learns that Gaultier may beat him to the “Eskimo chic” punch, and confessing to his mother that he used to steal money from her purse as a child (home movie footage reveals that he sported that Eraserhead ‘do even then). Douglas Keeve works stylishly enough to suck in the unconverted, as well, with sometimes-arty composition within the frame and occasional inserts of film leader to remind us of the documentary process.

The centerpiece is the all-important fashion show in New York’s Bryant Park, captured in full brilliant 35mm color with swooping crane shots and a throbbing soundtrack. The glossy shots of the catwalk itself are intercut with more jittery footage from backstage, as the models struggle to change from outfit to outfit, and Mizrahi himself hops around, coaching them like a high school drama teacher. These scenes are breathtaking, and Keeve helps us understand what all the fuss is about, even if we still believe the whole business is a little weird. We come away feeling like we know a little bit about Isaac Mizrahi, even if the movie concentrates conspicuously on painting a picture of the fashion industry as a perfect world, and turning Mizrahi into a hero. But when you consider the standard Hollywood alternatives for hero worship (Stallone, Segal, et. al.), that might not be such a bad thing after all.

Three Colors: Blue

98/100
Juliette Binoche in Three Colors: Blue

It’s hard to defend the artiness of Blue. With a Kieslowski movie (maybe with all Kieslowski movies), either you get it or you don’t. If you get it, you’re a fan. The movie becomes a mystical, dream-like experience. You recall the most indulgent camera angles and close-ups at the oddest moments of your day. Perhaps you hum a few bars of Zbigniew Preisner’s formidable score as you drink your coffee in the morning, or you have a nightmare about the kind of car crash that sets this story in motion. And when a friend doesn’t appreciate the film — in fact, they think it’s a dull, pretentious throwback to the French New Wave or somesuch — you find yourself speechless. It’s hard to use words to explain the cinema’s moments of great beauty, and you may as well give up before you begin.

Three Colors: Blue is the first film in Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy built around the precious themes of liberty, equality, and fratenity (the second and third films are White and Red, respectively). The concepts correspond to the three colors of the French flag, and the conceit is actually less a stricture than a simple excuse for Kieslowski to make a set of movies that meditate on love, loss, and our essential humanity. Liberty is personified in the newly-widowed Julie (Binoche), who survives the automobile accident that kills her husband Patrice (a famous composer) and daughter Anna. This sea change in her life drives her to divorce herself from familiar people and surroundings, but she’s dogged by an unwelcome artifact from her husband’s life. His unfinished composition, Song for the Unification of Europe, is the subject of intense interest, and although Julie disposes of Patrice’s notes for the piece (and tries to dispose of all her own memories), it continues to insinuate itself into her life until she confronts the music as well as her own devastated psyche.

It sounds very color-by-numbers, but the film is actually anything but. Kieslowski is a bold filmmaker, with a knack for hypnotizing an audience. As much as Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique seemed concerned with lenses, this one dwells on reflections — Julie’s face reflected on the curve of a spoon, a doctor’s face reflected in the iris of her eye, filling the screen. The richness of imagery occasionally rivals that of a novel (Julie touches a sugar cube to coffee; as we watch, the sugar turns the luminous color of her own skin). And Kieslowski works at capturing the essence of memory and the passage of time. At four moments during the film, the screen fades completely and music swells – Patrice’s unfinished piece – and then the music cuts, and the scene fades back in at exactly the moment where it faded out. It’s part of the mystery of the film that a viewer can have an immediate and intuitive grasp on such an abstract device.

Intuition, indeed, is the driving force behind Kieslowski’s films. The relationships and imagery are drawn so intricately that the pictures reward repeated viewing, and it’s only on the second or third time around that the whole power of one of these films really becomes apparent. It’s easy to belittle a film like this, with its languid pace, elliptical dialog, and propensity for introspection (navel-gazing?). Don’t these somber sequences substitute a content New Age-ism for any real statements in response to the questions they pose? Isn’t Kieslowski living in a blithe, egocentric dream world? How can we be expected to identify with the rich widow of a French composer as she mourns her way through Paris?

Yet through Binoche’s performance and Kieslowski’s guidance, we do identify. We feel Julie’s aloneness even as we understand her resolve to cast off her sentiment and distance herself from the inexorable sadness. At the end of Blue, as Preisner’s music swells up on the soundtrack, all of the disparate characters and situations that make up Julie’s story finally come together. Pictures recall pictures as Julie is finally reflected in the eyes of another, and the delicate shape of another character is traced on a video monitor, echoed in shades of blue. These final moments articulate character and contradictory emotion in one crystalline, irrefutable passage of images, absolutely wordless — the very definition of great cinema. If you’re asking the same questions as our director, the simple clarity of such images provides answers enough.