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Michael Keaton’s Great in the Flashy Birdman

Before there was a Birdman, there was a Batman — several, in fact, though the best was played by Michael Keaton in the two Tim Burton films in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Since then, Christian Bale’s somber strutting and
muttering, as seen in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, has — go figure — become the gold standard of Batman performances. But there’s no vitality in Bale’s brooding; he’s dark in the way wet coffee grounds are.
Keaton played Batman as a hero who, save for a somber twist of fate, might have been mischievous and joyful and confident — he wanted to be all of those things and just couldn’t. Instead of stumbling around in his own self-pitying darkness, he kept turning, in futility, toward the light. His suffering had the keen, metallic edge of a migraine.

In Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Keaton pours all of
Batman’s simmering disquietude into a different form: that of Riggan Thomson,
a has-been actor who hopes to reclaim his reputation by staging an ambitious Broadway show, an adaptation — one he’s written himself — of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Things aren’t going so well. The play is about to go into previews, and
Riggan knows that one of his actors is a dud — a replacement, Edward Norton’s Mike Shiner, steps in, and while he’s
dazzling, he also gives Riggan’s authority
a kick in the pants. Meanwhile, the show’s producer (Zach Galifianakis) frets, with a great deal of justification, that he’s about to lose his shirt. Riggan’s two actresses, Naomi Watts’s Lesley and Andrea Riseborough’s Laura, flounce about radiating moonbeams of actressy insecurity. His daughter, Sam (Emma Stone), has just been sprung from rehab and spends her days being bitchy at the world, and at him.

Those are all problems that Riggan perceives and addresses in some fashion, but there are even bigger ones that he doesn’t: The movie character that made him famous, a superhero costumed in a breastplate of molded feathers and a beaked mask — the Birdman of the title — has been taunting him in a shadowy monotone that actually sounds like Bale’s Batman, pestering Riggan to admit that his theater project, not to mention his whole life, is a sham. This beastly, winged Marley’s Ghost urges Riggan to accept that he is Birdman and will never be anything more.

Have I mentioned that this psychically distressing apparition may also have vested Riggan with the power to move objects, Carrie-like, with his mind? There’s a lot going on in Birdman, though the somewhat harsh truth is that Riggan’s agitation and torment are really just an excuse for the pyrotechnics of the filmmaking. Its novelty: It was shot (by cinematographer extraordinaire Emmanuel Lubezki) as
one continuous sequence. In other words, the film appears to consist of a single long take, though Iñárritu and Lubezki have done some subtle piecing-together. Not that you’re likely to notice the seams, and not that you should go looking for them: Part of the fun is giving in to the illusion, allowing yourself to float and swoop with the camera through backstage corridors, onto outdoor balconies lit with that faux-daytime Broadway glow, and even on a mad dash along a block of Times Square.

The script — by Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo — doesn’t go as deep as it purports to: Like so many stories about existential crises, Birdman suffers from a kind of generic listlessness. And it whacks a little too obviously at some of its targets — the noisy emptiness of blockbusters and the obnoxious supremacy of social media, for example.
But Birdman has humor on its side — it’s mischievously, darkly funny, as when Norton’s hotshot, loose-cannon scene-stealer literally destroys a stage set after launching into a “None of this is real!” tirade. Just as his tantrum reaches its climax, he throws open the door of a badly assembled kitchen cupboard and the whole thing, dishes and all, comes crashing to the floor. It’s an exhilarating bit of slapstick madness. Stone is wonderful, too: She’s like a Dickensian waif with serrated edges.

It’s a relief to see Keaton in a role worthy of him. As it turns out, the insecurity of aging actors figures in a number of about-to-be-released movies: In Barry Levinson’s
The Humbling
, based on Philip Roth’s novel, Al Pacino plays a floundering actor who tries to restore his mojo by kindling an ill-advised romance with a young academic (Greta Gerwig). That movie isn’t as technically dazzling as Birdman, but maybe it’s the lack of fancy packaging — plus Pacino’s eternally woebegone eyes — that makes it more piercing. And in Olivier Assayas’s upcoming Clouds of Sils Maria, Juliette Binoche plays an actress who’s haunted by a character she played 20 years earlier. The aging-performer motif takes on a different texture when we’re talking about a woman who feels less desirable — or simply feels less and less of something — with each passing year.

Birdman is a marvelously entertaining picture, a work of “look at me!” bravado that’s energized every minute. Its proficiency, the mechanically fluid kind, works against it in some ways. But none of that diminishes what Keaton does. His Riggan is like a grizzled nerve ending, frayed
and whiskery but alive. Now and then, when we stop to take a breath and look into Keaton’s eyes, we can see all the ecstatic anguish there, as if the comedy and tragedy masks had been morphed into one. No wonder he’s the darkest knight.

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Biutiful More Bloated than Babel, Even with Bardem

Biutiful, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s first film since he split from screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, with whom he created the fractured, parceled-out, time-toggling—and increasingly globe-hopping, multilingual, and portentous—trilogy Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel, stays in one place (Barcelona) and follows one main character (Javier Bardem’s Uxbal) in a linear storyline. Though its structure may be whittled down in comparison with the earlier works, Biutiful is even more morbidly obese than Babel in terms of soggy ideas, elephantine with miserabilist humanism and redemption jibber-jabber. Beyond dying of prostate cancer—a situation that calls for several scenes of Bardem peeing blood and his pants before affixing an adult diaper—Uxbal must contend with a bipolar wife who’s sleeping with his brother; serve as the black-market point man for Senegalese dope-peddlers and two venal Chinese sweatshop overseers (who also happen to be d/l lovers); and communicate with the dead—a burdensome gift that comes in handy after a horrible incident at the sweatshop. Through this relentless, manipulative muck, Uxbal tries to be a stable, loving parent to his two tykes, especially after Mom gives one of them a shiner. For all the hand-wringing hooey, Iñárritu says nothing more complex than this: Father feels worst.

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For Gordon-Levitt and Deschanel, Love Still Hurts in (500) Days of Summer

Seemingly similar to most factory-made rom-coms, former music-video director Marc Webb’s first feature is actually far less interested in the will-they-or-won’t-they and more concerned with the why-can’t-they. Its lovers—Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Tom and Zooey Deschanel’s Summer, natch—are perfect for each other, yet are perhaps still not meant to be. He is forever in search of his soulmate, influenced by too much mid-’80s Britpop and an incorrect reading of The Graduate‘s finale. She insists she’s looking only for a commitment-free good time, no doubt the result of a childhood spent being the object of everyone’s affection. Webb, working from a screenplay by the men responsible for The Pink Panther 2 (sweet fancy Moses!), employs a storytelling gimmick to render his movie palatably unconventional. The director introduces us to Tom and Summer mid-breakup, then takes us back to the moment when they share their first glance, then back and forth and back and forth and beyond, till each glimpse is recontextualized, and thus reconsidered. Very Sundance-y. But the real surprise of (500) Days of Summer isn’t the presentation—this isn’t exactly Steven Soderbergh or Alejandro González Iñárritu territory here. It’s more like a love story in a blender. What is unexpected is the sincerity beneath the modest conceit that, yup, love hurts.

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LIVIN’ LA VIDA  CINEMA

Latino filmmakers are sure getting tons of attention these days, ever since three top Mexican directors—Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, and Alejandro González Iñárritu—scored the sweetest five-picture, $100 million deal in Hollywood last year. The interest in the Latin POV has propelled Calixto Chinchilla’s New York International Latino Film Festival into its current position as the largest urban Latino film event in the nation. Now in its ninth year, the festival is showcasing more than 100 films (which this year include documentaries on Big Pun and Celia Cruz), and it’s also launching the Hola México Film Festival. The actors taking part include John Leguizamo, Harvey Keitel, Laurence Fishburne, Taye Diggs, Wilmer Valderrama, Melonie Diaz, and Jay Hernandez.

July 22-27, 2008

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Knocking Down the Tower of Babel

In Martín Boulocq’s The Most Beautiful of My Very Best Years, Victor (Roberto Guilhon) tries to force Wong Kar Wai’s Fallen Angels onto a Cochabamba video store’s clientele. “Dude, who’s gonna buy a Chinese flick unless it has fights and kung fu?” one man winces. Maybe Aki Kaurismäki? “Dude, what do we know about Finland here in Bolivia?” says the same guy, before his ears perk up at the promise of Devastating Penetration Due to the Caliber of the Beast. The clerk’s struggle to enlighten his customers is flippant, but it’s also the struggle of this year’s Latinbeat festival, and of the filmmakers trying to break through—or defy—what’s considered fashionable in Latin-American filmmaking: the Amores Perros Model (otherwise known as “Mi Casa Looks Like Tarantino’s
Casa”).

The notion that no films worth seeing came out of Mexico between the time of Buñuel’s return to Europe and the release of Amores Perros is the same casual racism that inspired the popular media to dub Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guillermo del Toro, and Alfonso Cuarón “the Three Amigos” and put Gael García Bernal’s unconventional Mexican mug on the cover of fashion glossies. Food for corrective thought, this year’s Latinbeat sidebar—a tribute to four breakthroughs from Mexico’s New Cinema—is one part reality check and three parts wish fulfillment, recognizing as it does the popular impact of Amores Perros but also fancying an alternate universe where the comparably less chic cultural visions of Fernando Eimbcke (Duck Season), Carlos Reygadas (Japón), and Maryse Sistach (Violet Perfume) command similar attention and wield the same influence.

Though the Film Society of Lincoln Center prides itself on giving a home to distinctly un-Babel-ish portraits of Latin- American crisis and endurance, this year’s program is not without its populist pandering. Patricia Riggen’s Under the Same Moon stars Kate del Castillo as a Mexican illegal doing Crash--style cleaning duty in the home of a ghoulish Angeleno. Back in Mexico, her young son Carlitos (Eugenio Derbez) hitches a ride into the States under the backseat of a tuition-starved America Ferrara’s van, soothing the savage heart of the Mexican illegal who accompanies him on the preposterous road trip from Texas to California and trivializing immigrant dreams.

More grueling is García Bernal’s Deficit, the sort of indulgent lark we might expect from an actor with time and money to burn, but not from one of González Iñárritu’s and Walter Salles’s disciples. Beware, McCarren hipsters: This travesty of Soderberghian proportions may forever turn you off to pool parties.

Consider, then, the documentaries Soy Andina and My Grandmother Has a Video Camera as necessary palate cleansers—the former a quaint portrait of two women reclaiming their ethnic Peruvian heritage (see Tania Hermida’s How Much Further for its fictional analogue), the latter an insightful chronicle of a family’s cross-cultural disillusionment, told through the moving images that a Brazilian filmmaker and her avó photographed during their many years in America.

You can see Kaurismäki and Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan drollery in both Duck Season and Pablo Stoll and Juan Pablo Rebella’s Whisky, but the latter’s portrait of middle-class Uruguayan disaffection exudes a homegrown personality and humane tenderness that are uniquely its own. Marta (Mirella Pascual), a woman whose repeated invocations of God’s will points to a deep-rooted sense of emotional resignation, accepts her employer’s request to play house when his more charming brother comes to town in order to tend to their mother’s tombstone. Suggesting a generation’s death throe, the storyculminates in a bittersweet act of rebellion made all the more wrenching in light of Rebella’s suicide last year.

Argentina continues to bogart the Latinbeat lineup this year with a series of alternately cerebral and flashy sociopolitical and gender studies. But it is Brazil that reigns supreme. Sandra Kogut’s Mutum tips its campesino hat to Cinema Novo legend Nelson Pereira dos Santos, fixing lucid light on the brutal distress that the poverty of Brazil’s Sertão region inflicts on a young boy and his family. Elegiac and playful in equal measure, Kirill Mikhanovsky’s Fish Dreams is a more immaculate immersion in Latin-American experience, casually enthralled with a young man’s daily grind—fishing, drinking, cocooning from the world in love-struck melancholy. In his poignant vision of a village’s fragile subsistence, Mikhanovsky expresses unease at the global forces that threaten such unspoiled land (the film builds to the disposal of a ginormous television set that lulls everyone into submission). This is, after all, the kind of paradise gringos go crazy for.

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Communication Breakdown

Time perhaps scrambling it’s for Alejandro González Iñárritu to stop his narratives. After making an exciting debut in 2000 with Amores Perros—a movie whose gimmicky Tarantino-esque tinkering with structure seemed fresher en español and grounded in gritty Mexico City location shooting—González Iñárritu apparently decided to devote his feature-film career to telling multipart stories in initially disconnected fragments. In theory, it’s an ambitious gambit: a method that can cut off a viewer’s dependence on narrative bottle-feeding.

In practice—at least in Babel, González Iñárritu’s schematic new tract on the world’s ills—it’s like Crash rewritten by Yoda. The cheap ironies and rigged coincidences remain, only shuffled in sequence to produce easy mystification and a succession of late whammies. What starts as a kaleidoscopic study of tone-deaf culture collision and dislocation gives way to a hammy grand design parceled out on a need-to-know basis. It’s conspiracy theory masquerading as humanism.

Taking a cue from the wrathful God of Genesis—the original union buster, who made the Tower of Babel’s builders speak in unknown tongues, thus dooming their scaffold to heaven—Babel scatters its tapestry of thwarted communication to the opposite ends of the earth. In hardscrabble wilderness, a Moroccan goat herder sends his young sons (Said Tarchani and Boubker Ait El Caid) out to guard the flock, armed with a high-powered rifle. His only instruction: Keep the gun hidden.

A world away, in a ritzy San Diego home, a phone call strands Amelia (Adriana Barraza), a conscientious nanny and off-the-books illegal, with her privileged charges (Elle Fanning and Nathan Gamble) just before she’s to leave for her son’s wedding in Tijuana. A cut away, married Richard (Brad Pitt) and Susan (Cate Blanchett) sit in brittle discomfort at a Moroccan café, cut off from each other by recent tragedy. In the most intriguingly extraneous plot thread, deaf-mute Tokyo teen Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) seethes with fury at her classmates and widowed dad (Koji Yakusho), masking her misery with bursts of exhibitionist bravado.

Babel keeps the entwined import of its four subplots compellingly vague for at least an hour. A more sure-footed exploration of fragmentary storytelling in its early scenes than either Amores Perros or its follow-up, the fatally overwrought 21 Grams, the movie tantalizes with the possibility that for once González Iñárritu and his longtime screenwriter, Guillermo Arriaga, won’t feel the need to connect every strand—that they’ll allow some of life’s actual messiness to scuff their carefully faked disorder. Two bravura sequences in particular—a boisterous idyll at the Tijuana wedding celebration, filtered through the Anglo kids’ exhilarating confusion, and Chieko’s ambient prowl through a dance club’s muffled beats-per-minute murk—have an immersive texture unlike anything González Iñárritu has dared: a sense of human beings’ complex interaction with a world of often contradictory stimuli.

Alas, they’re also unlike anything else in Babel, which stacks contrivance upon contrivance as it trip-wires and time-shifts a series of climactic calamities to unfold almost in unison—an apparent bid to out-intolerate Intolerance. The director and screenwriter mean to show the butterfly effects of American arrogance and post–9-11 solipsism throughout the world. Thus wealthy Californians Pitt and Blanchett turn their life-or-death dilemma into an international cause célébre, other tourists or citizens be damned, while the sweet blond children end up in a border-patrol wasteland. The Americans’ linguistic helplessness becomes a dully literal metaphor for I-stand-alone isolationism.

Meanwhile, anti-terrorist hysteria places the Moroccan lads and their guiltless family in crosshairs. Only the lives of Americans matter, the movie wails: The filmmakers expect you to feel guilty when the white kids survive.

Yet the sentiment is less galling than the narrative contortions that put it across.
Puzzle master Arriaga may be the Will Shortz of globalized hand-wringing, but the by-now-predictable jigsawing of his scripts reeks of desperation. In his 2000 feature Code Unknown, Michael Haneke splintered his narrative even more radically, with jagged pieces that ended abruptly in blackouts. But those pieces encouraged a viewer to search for the connections that Haneke withheld— their open-endedness produced something akin to cautious optimism.

Arriaga’s script for Babel offers only ham-handed determinism—the inevitable outcomes not of imperialist indifference but of a screenwriter’s (one) trick bag. The pieces of the story are just a booby trap snapping into place. Amelia, therefore, will have to do the most impractical thing possible whenever she’s confronted by authorities, to fulfill her conception as a martyr; a ne’er-do-well nephew (Gael García Bernal) is trumped up to ensure she makes all the wrong choices. The movie’s characters don’t have any rights, but it ain’t Uncle Sam who took them away.

Babel‘s globe-trotting may dwell on the obvious—Morocco is dusty, Tokyo glossy—but cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto seeks out particulars of light, texture, and location that go beyond mere tourism. And the actors bring some warmth and empathy to their narrowly conceived roles: Tarchani and Ait El Caid, affecting in their quaking transformation from bored kids to wanted men; Barraza, a terrified runner in deepening quicksand; Pitt and Blanchett, appealing even when their star power is used for ugly-American self-incrimination. In the end, though, they’re simply dots to be connected, as if global unrest were just a cosmic game of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Deserve better they all.

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Before the Revolution

CANNES, FRANCE—Every film festival produces its quintessential film. For Cannes 2006, it was Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Babel. Maximalist cine-globalism, Babel was shot in four languages on three continents by a Mexican director with an international cast, including Hollywood top dog Brad Pitt.

The movie is a monument to unintended consequences. A hunting rifle left by a Japanese tourist in Morocco wreaks havoc around the world. As Babel‘s multi-part, densely edited “simultaneous” narrative recalls D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, so González Iñárritu’s enthusiastically received third feature conjures many of the festival’s big themes, including terrorism, illegal immigration, and gringos in the desert. There’s even a critique of American entitlement; in threatening to kill off most of his characters over the course of a long and brooding 160 minutes, González Iñárritu cannot be said to fear attacking his audience. Call it art with a fuckin’ A, man.

Cannes’s 2006 competition may not have been the strongest in recent years but it was certainly the most relevant. Over a third of the 20 films vying for the Palme d’Or took war or civil disturbance as their subject; both the most conventional entry, Rachid Bouchareb’s effective World War II combat flick Days of Glory, and the most experimental one, Pedro Costa’s challenging exercise in Straubian neorealism Colossal Youth, concerned the situation of colonial peoples displaced in Europe.

Would a Coppola Palme d’Or establish Cannes’s first dynasty? Featured on the cover of half the mags at the local kiosks, touted as a certain winner by Coppola family retainers, accorded maximum praise by rival journals Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif, boasting a drop-dead hip cast (Rip Torn as a swaggering Louis XIV, Asia Argento impersonating Madame DuBarry, and Coppola cousin Jason Schwartzman playing the diffident Louis XV, with Steve Coogan and Marianne Faithfull in other roles),
Marie Antoinette was the most anticipated movie of the festival’s second week—and consequently, the biggest disappointment.

Kirsten Dunst thoroughly inhabits the piece of Austrian “apple strudel” imported to marry the French dauphin as an American teenager. For much of the time, Coppola “documents” Dunst’s clueless boredom as, her marriage unconsummated, she takes some solace in jewels, clothes, and sweets. (The sugary mise-en-scéne is more Fragonard than Watteau.) When the hapless dauphin ascends to the throne, Marie A. becomes queen of the all-night rave; with motherhood, she creates her own domain, the carefree proprietress of a miniature play farm.

For its first hour, Marie Antoinette is a graceful, charming, purposefully hermetic movie, with a number of witty performances and a pop score to match. (The opening chords are supplied by Gang of Four.) Shot in as well as at Versailles, the movie’s sanitized view of 18th-century hygiene is as tasteful as its deferential Francophilia. (It was aid to the American Revolution that bankrupted the country.) Then, as the French Revolution approaches, Coppola’s attempt to redeem her heroine’s shallowness reveals her own.

Cake is not enough. The queen’s gravitas arrives like a bolt from the blue, signaled by her reading Rousseau to her ladies-in-waiting; the movie crashes definitively to earth at the moment Dunst’s Marie, when informed of her legendary one-liner, turns all, like, serious: “I would never say that.”

Never say never: Among other things, Cannes is a bourse for investing in critical reputations. (A journalist may calculate his or her own by the type of pass awarded and the not unrelated quality of one’s party invitations.)

The sense of Sofia Coppola as a child of privilege will not be dispelled. But to judge from the intensely favorable reaction to the mildly likable Volver, Pedro Almodóvar has moved from auteur to maestro; the generally warm response given Aki Kaurismäki’s extremely slight Lights in the Dusk suggests that the Finn man occupies a somewhat lower spot on the slope of cinema’s Mount Olympus. The serious, if selective, attention accorded Climates indicates that Nuri Bilge Ceylan—one of the very few filmmakers to have his strongest work to date in the competition—will be the first Turkish director to begin his ascent toward immortality.

González Iñárritu’s manipulative we-are-the-world tragedy gave his rep a major boost; Bruno Dumont’s declined with his less successfully brutalizing Flanders—a graphic look at clods at war and in love, if that’s the word for the movie’s instances of Hobbesian tendresse. In The Life of Jesus and Humanité, Dumont’s cinema of stupidity seemed kinda inneresting. Now it just seems stupid—or rather, moronic.

Richard Kelly’s cult status will only be enhanced by the widely reviled
Southland Tales
, especially since it seems the Cannes version of this film maudit will next be shown on DVD. Richard Linklater took a hit for his insipid
Fast Food Nation but recovered and then some with his animated
A Scanner Darkly
—not just the best Philip K. Dick adaptation since Total Recall but an adaptation that brings quite a bit to the original. This paranoid drug-opera will soon be coming to a theater near you, improving the summer movie season even more than it did Cannes’s American presence.

Given that last year’s surprise success was The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, it was not surprising to see new Romanian films in both the Directors’ Fortnight and Un Certain Regard sections. In other trends, Iran’s stock plummeted, and despite the presence of Wong Kar-wai and Zhang Ziyi on the jury, China’s declined: Cannes passed on Jia Zhangke’s latest and, the flawed Summer Palace aside, the Chinese movies in the official sections were mediocre. Spanish-language movies, however, are up—particularly the Mexican and Argentine varieties. It seems more than likely that a Spanish-speaking filmmaker will win the Palme d’Or. For the first time ever there are two Mexican directors in competition, González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro (whose touted Pan’s Labyrinth has yet to screen); meanwhile, Israel Adrián Caetano’s competing Buenos Aires 1977 was picked up midfest with appropriate fanfare by the renascent Weinstein brothers. Over in the Directors’ Fortnight, Argentine experimentalist Lisandro Alonso received a rapturous reception with his made-to-order Fantasma, in which the Indian antihero of his 2004 festival hit Los Muertos wanders around a Buenos Aires office building in search of a screening room playing . . . Los Muertos. (That the 31-year-old director already has disciples was demonstrated by the funky minimalism of Paz Encina’s first feature, Hamaca Paraguaya, which plays like Beckett without the jokes.)

And what of the festival itself, only one year shy of the solemn and crass ceremony sure to mark its 60th edition? Pre-revolutionary as Cannes’s customs may be, the festival remains almost millennial in its underlying credo. Cinema à la Cannes aspires to the universal and transcendent—the medium is something more than a business and beyond entertainment. For 12 carnivalesque days, movies aren’t just cake, they’re the bread of life and even sacramental wafer.

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Heaven Can Weight

Predicated on the magic of disjunctive editing, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams is as much jigsaw puzzle as movie. This fractured soap opera demands an active viewer. The soundtrack hiss at the New York Film Festival press screening was the whisper of people explaining it to each other.

No less showy than the young Mexican director’s 2000 debut, Amores Perros, but not nearly so brutal, 21 Grams (written by Guillermo Arriaga, who also scripted Amores Perros) opens somewhere in America with Paul (Sean Penn) and Cristina (Naomi Watts) alone together in bed; the movie spends much of the next two hours working its way back (or forward) to that scene. The first 30 minutes are a bewildering but not uninteresting succession of inexplicable situations involving spouses, children, hospitals, drugs, and the tormented ex-con former gangbanger turned Pentecostal, Jack (Benicio Del Toro).

Iñárritu’s tight camera focuses attention on the individuals rather than their context; his movie unfolds as a series of sharp vignettes, similar to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (also edited by Stephen Mirrione). Paul is seen awaiting a heart transplant, donating sperm, and suffering from a beating—not necessarily in that order. Cristina is shown haggardly coking up and cheerily packing her kids off to school. Paul’s angry wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) wants to get pregnant by her dying husband. Jack languishes in jail and gets fired as a caddie because the country club swells object to his neck tattoo. Despite the unsorted jumble of temporal and causal relations, there is the sense that some fragile security is about to be destroyed. The mysteries deepen even after it becomes apparent that Cristina’s family has been obliterated by an accident that, as in Amores Perros, provides a mystical link between the three principals.

As Jack agonizes over his “duty to God” and Paul ponders his debt to his anonymous heart donor—the same premise employed by Clint Eastwood in Blood Work—Iñárritu ruminates upon the mystery of life. Accident or divine plan? Paul, a mathematician, flirtatiously tells Cristina that “there are so many things that have to happen for two people to meet.” (He doesn’t mention that he’s hired a private detective to facilitate their crossed paths.) The movie’s dubious philosophical treatise draws conviction from its high-powered cast—although no one could make convincing Penn’s final voice-over, explaining the title as the mass the body loses at death. Watts, who has the most difficult scenes, is splendidly mercurial; what’s surprising is that those professional storm clouds Penn and Del Toro are here as powerfully restrained as she is electrifying. (All three won acting awards when 21 Grams was shown in competition at the Venice Film Festival.)

The movie’s temporal logic is associative rather than structural—closer to chestnuts like Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad or the Julio Cortázar novel Hopscotch than the recent brainteasers Memento and Irreversible. Still, at once withholding and merciful, Iñárritu postpones the expected violence until the final act. A rush of tabloid nightmare images flashes by as a crucial motel-room brawl is shot with a brilliant absence of sound. You spend the movie dreading the sight of one thing, so of course you’re given another.

A straightforward 21 Grams would pack less emotional wallop. Indeed, given a linear progression, the movie’s New Age mysticism might seem merely sentimental. “How many lives do we live? How many times do we die?” It’s a measure of Iñárritu’s canniness as a cine-impresario that he understands that movies function as mass-produced recurrence and marketable eternity. 21 Grams is a sad puzzle, but then, so is life.

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Memory and Desire

TORONTO—Derailed a year ago by the September 11 attacks, the Toronto International Film Festival last week found itself fumbling to accommodate rituals of remembrance. Screens remained dark Wednesday morning, trauma counselors set up shop, and evening galas were given over to thematically appropriate material. This being a film festival, controversy was reliably close at hand: One of the anniversary items, the shorts compendium 11’09″01, turned up pre-certified by Variety and the New York Post as “anti-American.”

As it turns out, the French-produced omnibus—11 films from 11 countries, each lasting 11 minutes and nine seconds plus one final frame—was neither especially polemical (apart from Youssef Chahine’s blustery sermon on U.S. foreign policy) nor as trivializing as most self-styled aftermath art (notwithstanding marquee contributor Sean Penn’s idiotic let-there-be-light reverie).

Two entries distanced themselves from the pack. In Ken Loach’s segment, a Chilean exile in London writes an open letter to the loved ones of the 9-11 victims recounting the bloody 9-11-73 overthrow of Salvador Allende’s elected socialist government by the Pinochet-led, CIA-backed coup. The even-keeled, plainspoken missive concludes with a pledge and a plea: “On September 11, we will remember you. I hope you remember us.”

Orchestrating a traumatic black-screen requiem, Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu floods the soundtrack with a sickening crescendo of prayer chants, news reports, eyewitness hysterics, and final phone calls; the only images are flash cuts of bodies falling from the twin towers. After a year of narcotic CNN immersion, González Iñárritu’s vortex-like film—a genuine shock to the system—seems both disjunctive and unmediated. He presents the horror in near-abstract terms, and in so doing, renders it, once again, all too real.

Last winter, Anne Nelson’s autobiographical play The Guys, about a writer who helps a fire chief compose eulogies for the men he lost, served not least as a Lower Manhattan mourning rite. It’s harder to ignore the flaws in Jim Simpson’s film version, which resembles a Times Portrait of Grief that repeatedly shifts focus to the journalist who wrote it. Sigourney Weaver’s protagonist goes from myopia to solipsism. “This is all I know how to do: words!” she tells Anthony LaPaglia’s firefighter, describing her “crisis of marginality”—a condition for which there is apparently no better cure than a stiff dose of self-congratulation.


Elsewhere, the crisis of marginality was being explored in more expansive ways. Lee Chang-Dong’s Oasis, a highlight of the strong Korean sidebar and a multiple winner at Venice earlier in the week, chronicles the forbidden romance between a mildly retarded troublemaker and a young woman with cerebral palsy. Lee’s film has a generosity and bitter lucidity worthy of Fassbinder—equally attuned to the dreamlike textures of the couple’s secret life and to the petty cruelties of the fraudulent world that has no place for them.

Doomed love is also the subject of Dolls, Takeshi Kitano’s Bunraku-derived triptych of romantic injury and superhuman devotion. His sparest and most painterly film yet, characterized by emotional rather than physical violence, it reveals itself as a beguiling search for visual exaltation—patiently biding its time as seasons change (and in effect sentimentalizing the infinite quest of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry). Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo) strives for tawdrier thrills in A Snake of June: A prim help-line counselor becomes phone-sex slave to a former client. At one point, she shops for phallic produce with a vibrator inside her while he operates the remote control.

Sex is most forcefully linked with abject terror in the miserablist double whammy of Lukas Moodysson’s Lilya 4-Ever, a relentlessly feel-bad evocation of cyclical despair in the former Soviet Union by the erstwhile Swedish maestro of feel-good, and La Vie Nouvelle, French director Phillipe Grandrieux’s seamlessly wretched tour of an Eastern European sex club and its apocalyptic environs. Shot in quavering camera paroxysms and under owl-vision levels of illumination, Grandrieux’s film prowls a netherworld of battered prostitutes, murderous canines, and silent screams that go on forever. Reprehensible as its uninterrogated explosions of violence may be, the tactile, ferociously sustained atmosphere of dread and fear is unforgettable. You don’t watch La Vie Nouvelle so much as squint and flinch your way through it—which perhaps counts as its own kind of recommendation.

But who says art film is all joyless fucking? Ecstatic, sex-positive displays were in surprising abundance. In Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s lackadaisically rapturous Blissfully Yours, a leisurely road trip and jungle picnic give way to uninhibited outdoor sex. Claire Denis’s Vendredi Soir, meanwhile, uses a Paris traffic jam as foreplay to ardent, fully clothed sex in a budget hotel. The real star of Denis’s film, a marvel of microscopic, magnified gesture, is Agnès Godard’s camera—alive with possibility whether trained on overheating engines, wet asphalt, or the alien landscape of a naked body glimpsed for the first time.

Speaking of which, the festival’s most heartening surprise, Ken Park, sees co-director Ed Lachman presumably playing the role of tenderizer to Larry Clark’s chicken hawk. Unlike Kids and Bully, Ken Park (from an old script by Harmony Korine) averts moralistic payback and invests unprecedented compassion and pathos in the characterization of its teenage fuckups: the boy who spends his mornings contentedly eating out his girlfriend’s mother, the sensitive skate kid abused by his thuggish dad, the bondage queen with the Bible-thumping father, the auto-asphyxiator (and literal money-shot provider) given to unconsolable fits of rage. Ken Park‘s much discussed hardcore ménage à trois arrives without explanation, but its vision of painkilling sex in an erotic safe haven is irresistibly logical. (Clark’s clueless absentee parents are replaced here by troubled aggressors.) The sequence unfolds like a lazy-afternoon daydream, in a cresting wave of euphoria and sweet release. For all its confrontational flirtations with pornography, this sad, funny, moving film ends up advancing the most modest of proposals—that love just might be the drug.


More Voice Coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival:

Fling Time in a Quiet Town
‘8 Mile’ Lines and On-the-Job Bondage in Toronto
by J. Hoberman

Body Blows
Looking for Trouble
by Jessica Winter

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Pulp Nonfiction

“Ten years ago this was a peaceful city,” says director Alejandro González Iñárritu about Mexico City, the exhilaratingly complex canvas of his Oscar-nominated Amores Perros. “As a result of the socioeconomic inequality and the corruption of the government, this is a society that has lost its innocence. To live in Mexico today is to live in fear.” González Iñárritu has become something of a national hero for depicting Mexico’s painful recent economic upheaval and commanding the gringo Academy’s attention. But Amores Perros‘ success also represents a triumph for the nation’s struggling filmmakers—high box office numbers and international distribution put the movie at the forefront of a renaissance in Mexican cinema.

“I have been a victim of violence, not through videos and comics, like Tarantino—my family has been held up, my mother was beaten,” says González Iñárritu, bristling at early reviews that compared Amores‘ triptych narrative to Pulp Fiction‘s. The 38-year-old director is part of a not-so-young generation that is finally able to make films that speak to a new urban Mexico. But while the kidnappings, murders, poverty, and homelessness that punctuate Amores Perros are the fallout of free-trade economics, it was a proto-NAFTA shift in policy that precipitated the current film-industry boomlet.

In the early ’90s, Mexico’s movie theaters, previously a state monopoly, were privatized and ticket prices were deregulated. The once run-down theaters—which showed government-funded art films by directors like Arturo Ripstein and Jorge Fons to sparse audiences—were cleaned up, new ones were built, and despite a rise in ticket prices, what passes for the middle class returned to the movies. Hoping to take advantage of this new environment, Alfonso Cuarón made Solo con Tu Pareja (Love in the Time of Hysteria), a surrealist comedy about a womanizing yuppie who mistakenly discovers he is infected with HIV.

Cuarón funded his film in the only way Mexican directors could at the time, through Imcine, the film institute of the Mexican government. But he was frustrated by the corrupt ruling PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), which also had a hand in the mid-’90s economic catastrophe. “The relationship between the state and artists was a paternalist one—they determined who could make projects and who couldn’t,” says Cuarón from his New York office. “When I had the audacity to say my movie should be exported, the Mexican state called me an imbecile because Mexican film was not of interest to anyone outside of Mexico.” Imcine delayed the movie’s premiere for two years and Cuarón, who had taken the film on his own to the Toronto Film Festival, escaped to El Norte, where he made The Little Princess and Great Expectations. Soon afterward, Guillermo del Toro, who opened eyes abroad with the vampire movie Cronos, also landed in Hollywood with the bug flick Mimic.

Despite the international attention garnered by Cuarón and the ubiquitous Like Water for Chocolate, by the mid ’90s, film production in Mexico hit historic lows. Gems like Jorge Fons’s Callejón de los Milagros (Midaq Alley) barely kept Mexico on the map. In a last-ditch attempt to shore up the industry in late 1997, President Ernesto Zedillo created a $16 million fund for Imcine to administer. In 1998, Titán Films went into production on Sexo, Pudor y Lágrimas (Sex, Shame, and Tears), partly funded by Imcine. The yuppie sex comedy set the all-time Mexican box office record and wiped out its stiffest American competitor, Star Wars: Episode I. The film also received private funds, proving that a Mexican film could actually provide a return on a local investment.

Meanwhile, the Mexican conglomerate CIE (Interamerican Entertainment Corporation) partnered with the venture-capital arm of the Grupo Financiero Inbursa (owned by Carlos Slim Helú, whom Wired called “Latin America’s richest individual”) to create Alta Vista Films, which coproduced Amores Perros. “We wanted to make films that would communicate directly with a mass audience,” says Alta Vista’s Martha Sosa. “We found a lot of young filmmakers who had original and easy-to-make stories—they’re influenced by American cinema and are not shy or ashamed about that.”

The current revival has implications undreamed of during the Golden Age of the ’40s and ’50s, when more than 100 films a year were produced. Both Alta Vista and Titán believe that the growing Latino population in the U.S. will be drawn to Mexican films no longer typified by pastoral haciendas and romanticized rural poverty. Titán head Matthias Ehrenberg, an associate producer on Before Night Falls, believes that a pool of Spanish and Latin American actors is forming. “The old star system is coming back,” he says. “People want to see films because of Javier Bardem or Penélope Cruz or [Sexo, Pudor y Lágrimas star] Damien Bichir.” Amores Perros‘ Gael García is starring in Cuarón’s return to Spanish-language film, Y Tu Mamá También, and is currently shooting in Argentina with All About My Mother‘s Cecilia Roth.

As for Imcine, the institute has scaled back its involvement with Mexican film, announcing last April that it was focusing attention on auteurist projects. The success of Titán’s Sexo, as well as an embarrassing scandal surrounding the Sundance prizewinner La Ley de Herodes (Herod’s Law), prompted the shift in policy. Highly critical of the then ruling PRI, the film was the subject of a botched censorship attempt: Imcine threatened to remove all funding and was accused of showing distorted prints at last year’s Acapulco festival.

For now, the focus remains on Amores Perros, a film that Mexico’s filmmaking community is hoping will make significant inroads on the U.S. market. While the new Mexican cinema has successfully incorporated Hollywood’s light-entertainment formulas, Amores Perros is something of an anomaly. González Iñárritu says, “This movie wasn’t made as a product of marketing, nor is it a global cinema that is homogenizing film.” It’s a movie that was made not just for the new Mexico, but as its epilogue says, “because we are also what we have lost.”