Sunday, October 21, 2007

2 films worth your while

We had the pleasure, this weekend, of watching two excellent films that – while they could not have had more different subject matter – were moving, important, fascinating, and worth every moment of the time we spent watching them (these days, with our busy schedules, that is about the highest compliment I can give a movie – I didn’t feel like I should really have been doing homework!). They elevate the medium to that level of art that is at times disturbing and always polarizing. They are both stories told using heightened reality but that reveal truth about the human condition. OK, no more suspense: here are my mini-reviews.

The first is Across the Universe, which we saw in the theater yesterday. I’ve been excited about this film since we first saw the trailer and our eyes bugged out. It looked so similar to Moulin Rouge!, my favorite flick of all time – plus, it was Julie Taymor, whose “Lion King” blew my mind. Well Universe does not disappoint, if these are to your taste. It is a full-blown musical, with definitely more singing than speaking, and a new song every few seconds. Of course, they are all Beatles songs, which is about the most genius thing ever. I am not as much of a Beatles fan as J, so he was catching lots of little references that I missed (e.g. the character named Max banging with a silver hammer, another character trying to draw a half an apple – the logo from their label, and more we keep tracking down and/or remembering), but I tell you, it made me appreciate their music all the more. You really realize how truly masterful their melodies and words are, because they can be sped up, slowed down, and completely rearranged and still make beautiful music. J even preferred several of the movie arrangements to the originals, because he “finally understood some of the lyrics.” Yes, many people are complaining about covers of Beatles songs never living up to the originals; I am glad that the band is not so sacred to me that I can’t see the genius in many of these arrangements. It made me like the Beatles more than I previously did, and gain a new respect for their songwriting abilities. I understand it’s doing the same for a new generation never exposed to their music.

I just found myself going along for a completely enjoyable ride. I’m not at all surprised that teenage girls are seeing this movie in packs – I kept thinking, if I were in high school, this would be my favorite film. It plays wonderfully to the teenager in me, but that’s not to say that it lacks deep resonance (the teenager in me is smart, anyway). The comparisons between the war in Viet Nam and our present conflict are unmistakable, and the climate of the film feels eerily familiar. A scene in which men are marching across the fields, carrying the Statue of Liberty, and singing “She’s so heavy,” was extremely poignant. The song “Let it Be” is also used to tremendous effect as a gospel funeral dirge – it was possibly the most moving moment of the film.

The characters are all, as is well known by now, named for persons in Beatles songs, and many of their anthems are sung (but not all, so some of the mystery is retained). The singing overall was outstanding (perhaps with the exception of Evan Rachel Wood who was a bit weaker than the rest but certainly adequate). It is a terrific cast, but of course, the direction and the overall mood of the piece really steal the show. I am a sucker for bright colors and psychedelic situations – I love a heightened reality, something that can’t be done in any other medium than a motion picture. It is unexpected to see something so strange as masks and androgynous white-painted bodies floating in the water and find your heart breaking. But that’s Taymor’s gift – she uses unusual materials – including the songs – to create an artwork unlike anything you’ve seen that is both surprising and moving.

If it’s not apparent, I heartily recommend this film, especially as something to see with teenage daughters. It’s even PG-13 (there’s some brief nudity, mostly from the side – and less nipple than Titanic – and there’s as much male as female!).

OK, moving on. This next one is going to be a surprise. But I can’t deny that it’s among the best films I’ve seen in recent years.

The movie is called Black Snake Moan. You may remember its ad campaign, prominently featuring a scantily-clad Christina Ricci tied with a chain to Samuel L. Jackson. Hm. What was I thinking?

Well I am not sure why I rented it, but I am so glad I saw this movie. I don’t know who I can really recommend it to – it is too much for most people I know. The nudity and sex offends conservatives, and the misogyny offends liberals. Why did I love such a piece of trash?

Because this movie drags you through the filth and the mud to arrive at a point. It is not gratuitously chaining up characters or beating the hell out of them. It is a film about personal hell, about exorcising demons. Every character has their pain to work through. And it will take us to the deepest darkness of each before it lets us into the light (and the light does come, at precisely the right moment).

The situations are heightened reality, not of the happy break-into-song variety (although it is a musical of sorts, with ingenious use of blues music), but of the fairy tale or fable sort that make their mark by showing us something that makes us extremely uncomfortable, makes us think, makes us hate or root for characters. There are characters of light and of dark, and some that journey between.

The main characters – Ricci and Jackson – are purposely paired to make us uncomfortable and disapproving at every turn. She’s young, he’s old. She’s white, he’s black. She’s tiny, he’s large. She’s like a cat in heat, he’s full of anger. She’s been abandoned and betrayed by everyone who should love her and…so has he. Or so he thinks (his wife, at least, has left him for his brother).

They save each other. She gives him a purpose, something to love and to care for, someone who he – at first – can dominate, but later learns to let go. Exactly what he needs. And she gains someone she fears and is required to mind (which she actually needs), and eventually a guardian who protects her and accepts her even in her damaged state.

About that infamous chaining up of the woman. It’s grotesque, yes. It’s inappropriate. Of course it is – that is the point. I believe it is more about the abductor’s issues than those of the one who is chained. And in a very strange way, it becomes a safety net for Ricci’s character, who begins to see it as her lifeline – her only chance at escaping a life of abuse and error. This is so important to her that it becomes her symbol of redemption, something she embraces fully as her salvation. This is not a case of a woman falling wrongly for her kidnapper or abuser – the film comes out strongly against abuse, and their relationship remains strictly on the level of a true father-figure. Jackson is not harming her – he saves her. And she knows it.

The greatest compliment to the movie was that my husband didn’t think it was too long. He thinks everything is too long – even films he enjoys watching (like Universe). But every single scene was germane, every shot carefully planned, and they all added together to tell a precise story that was pitch-perfect in tone and pacing. The music – oh! the music! – was a revelation. Not unlike my new appreciation for the Beatles, I now also feel I’ve had a little glimpse into the depth of the blues. The director mentioned in one of the interviews on the disc that the blues is about “sex, God, and the relationships between a man and a woman,” and that’s pretty much a sum of the film too.

So if you can handle pretty raunchy stuff, I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It is probably going on my top ten list. I think the best descriptor we came up with was to think of it as Pulp Fiction – with all that film’s darkness, over-the-top sadism, and discomfort – meets Tender Mercies (a film with a wonderful redemption story but is pretty inaccessible to present audiences – it’s just too slow). Yes, it skewers the South; it skewers racial relations; it skewers relationships between men and women. It holds nothing sacred. Or so you think – until you realize that forgiveness and redemption are possible. And guess who helps with that? Yep, the preacher. God’s love wins over these seemingly unforgiveable sinners. In the end it is God to whom they turn (represented by his man in the church), who encourages them to bring their pain into the light so they can move past it.

The greatest thing is that the film does not neatly wrap up – there is a happy ending, but the demons are still there, lurking. The depths of the abuse and trauma suffered by these characters is not going to be wiped away in one happy day. They will still deal with it. But they learn to deal with it. They learn how to keep living – and more importantly, how to keep it from destroying their lives.

It’s simply one of the best redemption fables ever told. Keep in mind that it’s not supposed to be literal – and you will find yourself drawn in and, ultimately, deeply moved.

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