Friday, October 20, 2006

42nd Chicago International Film Festival - Part 2: Chicago (1927), Climates, and The Fountain

For me the biggest treat of the Festival turned out to be the original 1927 silent film version of Chicago. A lecturer explained that the story had been written by a journalist-turned playwright who'd originally covered the story of the real-life criminal that Roxie Hart is based on--Maureen Watkins and Beulah Annan, respectively. Velma, the other killer character we know from the recent musical version of the story, is based on another killer named Belva Gaertner. (Trivia: and what was it that pushed Beulah and Belva off the front pages of Chicago papers? Why, Leopold and Loeb. Unbelievable.)

Speaking of the recent movie musical version, it was great fun to see the similarities and differences in the story. (I have to see the Ginger Rogers version sometime and complete my Chicago trifecta.) Large chunks of this story were VERY similar, but there was a section in the middle that was completely different. The biggest difference involves Amos, lovable schlub in the musical. In the ’27 version he’s more of a hero. (And handsome! The actor's name is Victor Varconi, a screen name--could you have guessed?) The film beautifully shows his love for Roxie and what he suffers for that love. He only has half the $5000 Billy Flynn demands to save his wife, so he robs his money back from Flynn at night to pay the “other” half. That action sequence is the major departure—but Billy Flynn figures it out and sends heavies after him at the end. Other big differences: there’s a “good” woman who loves Amos hopelessly as he loves Roxie pretty much hopelessly. Also, Velma doesn’t appear until the end, unlike the recent musical in which they’re in jail at the same time. The film’s a comedy, in the main. The courtroom sequence is a riot--with a trio of gum-chewing flappers transfixed by the goings-on. The genius is in how the story is told using imagery--the way Roxie ingeniously uses her panty hose to solve a number of problems in the opening sequence, for instance. It's a reminder that silent cinema is the purest cinema, in many ways. It's not the subtlest art form, to be sure, but once you adjust to the style and technique, you're in for a grand time. Phyllis Haver is outstanding as Roxie, inventive and riveting in her portrayal of a shameless con artist who thinks she can use sex to get absolutely anything she wants. The film balances broad moralism with sophisticated comedy, an absolute crowd pleaser. If you ever get the chance to see this (esp. on the big screen), you won't be sorry. Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars.

Climates turned out to be about what I expected. I'd seen director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's previous feature, Distance at a previous installment of the festival, and I felt it was visually gorgeous but rather lacking in narrative. It focused one relationship--between two brothers, as I recall. Climates does the same with the relationship between a man (played by the director) and the on-again, off-again romance he has with his young wife (played by real-life wife Ebru Ceylan) and an old flame. The settings are scenic and evocative--since he is studying architecture, they travel to see ancient ruins and temples around the region of Turkey. Some of the camera moves are stunningly powerful--there's a scene in which we see Isa studying a temple and the camera focuses on him until the end, when Isa moves and we finally see what he's been seeing, and it's amazing--but without a more eventful story, I think audiences will be tempted to read too much into every little detail. When a camera move becomes a major event in its own right, what does that say? It's minimalist in its narrative, ok, but it's not really satisfying as a psychological portrait because it doesn't go deep enough. It arouses our curiosity (why is she crying? what makes them behave this way?) without giving us something to further our response. So, in a sense, it's superficial, yet it's refreshingly uncommercial. It feels transcendent and leaden at the same time. I think Ceylan would make somebody a hell of a cinematographer, but here he's like Climates' Isa, a perpetual student who lacks the ambition to get his degree and really achieve something. I'm glad I saw the film if for no other reason than that it turned out to be one of the most gorgeous film I've ever seen (at least since Russian Ark) that was shot on video--in fact, I didn't even know it was video until later. It actually looked just about as good as film, and that's something I rarely say. It gives me hope that cinema has a beautiful future after all. Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

I'm still pondering Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain a couple weeks after seeing it. The film is boldly original, looks great, with good performances (considering the script), but I'm not exactly sure what it's meant to say--and I mean on a basic expositional level. Aronofsky fumbled it in the editing room, that was my first impression. It should have been a bit clearer what the relationship between his 3 storylines is. But as I read and think more about the film, I'm beginning to think maybe it all makes sense, sort of, if you squint just a bit. So that leaves some other problems--what is it saying beyond the expositional level? One, actually two, of the storylines have a conquistador as a hero. Stop. Just think about that a second. Can you really get behind that notion in this day and age? Second, it has the whole damsel-in-distress versus male hero of action set-up (gag), though it is romantically done. Lastly, it has a scientist hero basically trying to exploit the environment for his own selfish gain--he is seeking immortality. He's in denial about death itself. To be fair, though, the film is probably critiquing him on these later points. I hope. Problem is it's not clear, at least to me. It's either the embodiment of some of our culture's worst traits, or it's a haunting depiction of a man trying to overcome those traits and find inner peace and acceptance. I hope for the latter, but I fear the first. All that rather heady stuff aside, the film looks wonderful. The material about the Inquisition is remarkably done, and there are some beautiful cinematic moments--the comparison of two men going to the city to do battle; the image of a man whipering to an ebbing life (its hairs quivering). There's also some really cheesy moments, as when Hugh Jackman meditates Buddha-like in the middle of time and space in a magic bubble. Ugh, I'm turning against the film again just thinking of it. Worst of all, Aronofsky still has this terrible problem of repetitiveness. As in Requiem for a Dream, he tells us this same story in several different storylines at once. Mr. Aronfsky, here's a concept for you: comparison AND CONTRAST! Theme AND VARIATIONS! And I love Rachel Weisz too much to see her reduced to this sainthood and martyrdom act. I'm trying to be generous here, but this is foolishness. Aronofsky is zero for three in my book, but one of the most interesting failures around. Rating: 2 out of 4 stars.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home