The Essentials – April 2014: Jonathan Demme

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Each month on The Balcony, I explore one filmmaker through a handful of their finest films in a feature called The Essentials. In odd months, I explore the works of international directors. In even months, the films of American auteurs take centre stage. Last month, I examined three works from recent Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón, who began his career making sexy but topical comedies in his native Mexico, and has most recently brought us two of the most audacious and compelling science fiction films of all time, Children of Men and Gravity.

This April, I return to a beloved American filmmaker, a man best known for some sterling concert documentaries and for directing what may be the creepiest Best Picture winner of all time. Jonathan Demme is one of the most eclectic filmmakers in contemporary cinema, moving from suspense-thriller to topical drama, romantic comedy to indie character study with aplomb. This year, Demme will make his first mainstream film in more than a decade, a drama called Ricky and the Flash for screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno), starring a little known actor named Meryl Streep.

To celebrate the director’s return to mainstream cinema, I wanted to explore two of his adored concert documentaries and at least one of his Oscar-nominated dramas. Masterful with actors, leading eight of them to Academy Award nominations (and four of those to wins), and a visionary of the concert film, Demme remains one of American cinema’s most influential filmmakers.

This April, I will examine four of Jonathan Demme’s finest and most essential films:

  • April 4, 2014: Stop Making Sense (1984)
  • April 11, 2014: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
  • April 18, 2014: To be determined (either Something Wild (1986) or Rachel Getting Married (2008))
  • April 25, 2014: Neil Young: Heart of Gold (2006)

Stay tuned.

The Essentials: Y Tu Mamá También (2001)

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“Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea” – Luisa (Maribel Verdú)

Y Tu Mamá También is probably the single greatest coming-of-age tale in contemporary world cinema, yet also a film that can only be appreciated when one comes of age. The first reason is it contains some of the arousing, stimulating sex scenes ever committed to film, so teens should probably stay away from it despite the promise of titillation. Secondly, the film weaves beautifully between the liberating rush of youth and the painful demise of the possibilities and expectations of adult life, with a grace and honesty that the viewer can recognize. Alfonso Cuarón’s finest film is raw and truthful, a perfect vehicle for his continuous, hand-held camerawork and pointed commentary of Mexican culture. It is also sexy without a hint of sensationalism, devastating without an all-encompassing sadness.

The story follows a ménage a trois, namely two teenage Mexican boys and a Spanish woman around 10 years older heading on a road trip across Mexico to find a secluded beach. The boys are Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal). Their girlfriends have flown off to spend their summer in Europe, so the horny best friends decide to use this free time to get high, get drunk and get off. They entice Luisa (Maribel Verdú) to accompany them on the trip when they meet her at a lavish wedding. The boys want female company because they want to get laid; she wants some time to revel in the glory of the country and forget about her cheating boyfriend.

From the synopsis above, Y Tu Mamá También sounds like an ordinary teen comedy interested in exposing skin; in fact, the film is just as interested in exposing the social, economic and cultural problems in Mexico. Also the film’s co-screenwriter, Cuarón often uses an odd storytelling device: voice-over narration. The narration does not come from a character in the film yet it is one. Narrated by Daniel Giménez Cacho (the protagonist from the director’s debut film, Love in the Time of Hysteria), the voice-over comments about the histories of the characters – their families, painful moments from their youth – and what their futures will hold, much of which is sad news. Y Tu Mamá También is a film focused on the exhilarating rush of being young, confident and free-spirited. As a result, every time the sound cuts out abruptly and the narration begins, Cuarón balances out the ecstasy with the agony, the “petite mort” with feelings of death.

The steamy sex scenes are also unique, as the director betrays any sense of voyeurism, that fetish of viewing sex from a dominantly male perspective. Instead of glorifying the female body, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki does not glamorize a thing. He keeps the camera mostly still. None of the sex scenes have any cuts, or even angles that would frame Luisa in an overly sexualized way, ridding any sense of Y Tu Mamá También‘s being an adolescent fantasy. The prolonged display of the teens’ awkward sexual interactions with Luisa give the female protagonist a passion and power over her less experienced trip buddies. Although the teens boast of their bravado with their girlfriends – the title of the film translates in Spanish to “And your mother too,” a sexually charged insult between the two – Luisa later exposes them as pathetically inept.

Y Tu Mamá También also peers at Mexico’s class structure with pointed precision. Lubezki’s camera is a casual observer, sometimes deserting the main trio to follow small events on the side of the road or to walk alongside maids and butlers doing their everyday duties. In one scene, as the camera focuses on servants at a prestigious wedding ceremony eating the leftover hors d’oeuvres, the narrator discusses the agenda of Mexico’s president – present at that wedding – who will soon fly to a globalization conference. On the road trip, the camera drifts from the energy of the central summer escapade to look at how the rest of the country, poor and crime-ridden, lives.

The set decoration and lighting, meanwhile, portray two lifestyles: the dingy, messy, dimly lit middle-class homes and the brightly lit, elegantly furnished spaces of the rich and powerful. Julio, a middle-class boy, is dating Cecilia (Maria Aura), who lives in a plush home with parents who watch over her with such prying eyes that their early sex scene has to be especially quick, before mom and dad come upstairs to investigate. Tenoch, from a powerful (and politically corrupt) family is dating the middle-class Ana (Ana López Mercado), whose disheveled living space is perfect for their torrid love affair, a startlingly intimate scene that opens the film. Meanwhile, the blue ground that glimmers Luisa’s bare apartment reveals both her loneliness and a desire to bask in the ocean.

Julio and Tenoch’s different socioeconomic backgrounds come into the fore when the two get into a shouting match with each other halfway through the road trip. Although a small part of their relationship, this difference bubbles up at a key breaking point and showcases how fleeting their friendship really is.

It is fitting that the film ends at a beach, a common icon in cinema and literaure to represent freedom. An empty beach was the perfect setting to conclude The 400 Blows, a classic French New Wave film about adolescent liberation and confusion with a spirit Y Tu Mamá También often recalls. The film is ultimately a blissful, brilliant exploration of two different experiences: that of the energetic adolescent crusader, with a sunny expectation of life, and that of the blossoming adult, looking back at her life as she hopes to find a different kind of personal fulfillment, knowing that the naivety of youth will soon fade.

Review Monday: 3/24/14 (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Divergent, Bad Words)

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If Spike Lee makes joints, then Wes Anderson makes puff pastries – except his pastries are so stuffed with flavour that referring to them as a “puff” delicacy is misleading. The idiosyncratic director behind Rushmore and Moonrise Kingdom has served his most overstuffed concoction with his latest treat, The Grand Budapest Hotel (B+), which is marvelously constructed, magnificently acted and more than a little madcap.

Anderson has a loyal niche following, except his style is so notable to mainstream circles that Saturday Night Live can get away with poking fun at his characters’ literary pretensions and his films’ precise, symmetrical look and droll sense of humour. While other artists excel by moving between a variety of genres, Anderson has made the same sorts of films for his whole career: workmanlike in their precision, whimsical in tone.

The Grand Budapest Hotel takes its name from an illustrious hotel in the (fictional) republic of Zubrowka. The film begins in Communist-era Europe as an aging author (Tom Wilkinson) rewinds to his younger self (Jude Law) in the late 1960s meeting the proprietor of the titular hotel, which has been mostly abandoned and mainly exists as a prim pastiche to the heyday of pre-war heritage buildings. The Grand Budapest’s owner is a modest older gentleman, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Mr. Moustafa, over dinner in the hotel’s posh ballroom, rewinds to his story as the protégé of the hotels’ revered concierge, Gustave H., narrating to Law’s curious novelist.

Gustave is played by Ralph Fiennes, who has the deft comic timing, exalted voice, trim look and mustache to accurately portray Charlie Chaplin without much tampering. Fiennes has not been this good in years and the British actor, known for roles of villainous magnitude in Schindler’s List and the Harry Potter film series, has never been such a delight. Gustave runs his decadent hotel with authority and eccentricity, training a young Zero (Tony Revolori, in a breakthrough role) how to competently, yet discreetly keep the lobby in order and treat the hotel’s upper class, mainly senior citizen clientele. Gustave speaks with zip and has a penchant to quote poetry off-hand, although Zero, with his hushed voice and a pencil mustache, becomes his most trusted aide.

However, in the wake of World War II, one of Gustave’s closest friends and lovers, Madame D. (an almost unrecognizable Tilda Swinton, made up to look frightfully old) dies. Wealthy and wizened, Madame D. bequests a painting to Gustave, which offends her salt-tongued son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and sets a series of suspicions, crimes and misdemeanors into motion. To spoil more of this frivolous story would ruin its telling. Just know that Anderson regulars Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe and Jason Schwartzman show up, but I will leave the roles and the source of their casual entrances to your surprise, too. First-timers for the director include Saoirse Ronan as Zero’s enchanting love, Agatha, and Mathieu Almaric as a butler with mysterious motives.

Anderson attempts to compress all of these characters within a convoluted caper story that unfolds through the film’s next two acts, although some of the actors (Ronan and Brody, in particular) feel slighted by the brisk pacing that rushes through some of the subplots. As packed as this picture is, though, it is dazzling to behold. There’s a bitter irony that the most plush-looking film of Anderson’s career – with vast sets more colourful and textured than many of the characters in this wartime farce – are hard to appreciate due to the quickness of the storytelling. The film runs just over 90 minutes when 120 would have been more suitable. However, The Grand Budapest Hotel‘s frenetic pace is also part of its charm. Anderson nimbly creates a plane where a prison break drama, a dark revenge thriller, a murder-mystery and a slapstick comedy can all co-exist yet never have their varying tones collide.

Meanwhile, as fleeting as much of Anderson’s farce is, there is a deeply evoked nostalgia. With the frothy feel of a Lubitsch comedy and the rich colours of a Powell and Pressburger adventure, the filmmaker hopes to bring to mind an earlier time, before war devastated Europe and the theatricality of its culture. (There is also some of Chaplin’s influence: besides Fiennes’ close appearance and attitude, the comical prison scenes owe their fabric to Modern Times, while Anderson’s mockery of Nazi Europe recall moments from The Great Dictator.)

Twice in the film, Gustave tells Zero that, “There are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity.” As the authors who open the film and some of the other characters address, often speaking right to the camera in the middle of the frame (one of Anderson’s trademarks), the past is something that can only breathe in the stories of the time. Anderson obviously feels a kinship for a classical style and probably feels the present is just as morose as his characters do.

To him, this world was a fantasy ruined by fascism – although as in any of Anderson’s idiosyncratic, imaginative adventures, the light outweighs the dark.The Grand Budapest Hotel is more quick than quirky and often more sly than soulful. Yet, it is a slice of decadent fun, a kind that few other directors can manage with such lightness of spirit and substance of style. His films are delicious concoctions, so tasty that even one as overstuffed as this one has the taster yearning to taste it again.

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Entertainment website We Got This Covered also has two new reviews of mine, for the highly anticipated young adult adaptation Divergent (C+) and Jason Bateman’s profane directorial debut, the comedy Bad Words (C). Both films disappointed me: the former for its lack of imagination and ineffective pacing, the latter for its rotten sense of humour, which rarely rises to more than a chuckle. You can check out my take on those films here and here.

The Essentials: Love in the Time of Hysteria (1991)

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Long before Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki won Oscars, they made one of the most daring romantic comedies of the 1990s, the Mexican sex farce Love in the Time of Hysteria. The film tried to blend the feel, look and energy of a ribald romantic comedy with blistering pokes at the dangers of the AIDS crisis. Its Mexican title, Sólo Con Tu Pareja, translates to “Only With Your Partner,” which was a slogan from one of the country’s public-service campaigns about the dangers of AIDS. It was no wonder the Mexican government initially refused to release the film and no North American studio would distribute it, either – although Cuarón did get to show this directorial debut at the Toronto Film Festival in 1991.

Love in the Time of Hysteria shares conventions with a lot of hyperactive American romantic comedies – it even ends with a couple entangled on the rooftop of the Latin America Tower, a dead ringer for the Empire State Building. However, even with its cheeky, sexually suggestive sense of humour, the film dealt with issues of morality surrounding the AIDS crisis. The protagonist, bawdy playboy Tomás Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is a poor ad man but an excellent Don Juan. He is sexually liberal to the point of hilarity; in several scenes, he fetches the daily paper by stripping off his rope, running down the steep, spiral staircase of his apartment, dancing and spinning around on the main floor as he picks up the paper and jogging back up. Tomás is also a slacker with a messy apartment and gets distracted easily, throwing darts instead of throwing together slogan ideas for a campaign on jalapeños.

Tomás is absent-minded and sex obsessed. He is the kind of man who can seduce the bride right before she goes to the altar, and the neighbours often joke about his promiscuous reputation. “He’s been featured in several pap smears,” a jokey but sweet-hearted doctor, Mateo (Luis de Icaza), tells a nurse. Cuarón, working with his brother Carlos on the screenplay, will later put a twist on another romantic comedy convention – that of a man going on two dates simultaneously – as Tomás tries to romance a nurse, Silvia (Dobrina Liubomirova), and his beautiful boss, Gloria (Isabel Benet). Gloria is in one apartment two doors over from the one Silvia is staying in, and Tomas navigates between the two via the ledge outside. Silvia, however, will be so infuriated by Tomás’s betrayal in the bedroom that she does something dastardly and dangerous: she marks a copy of his blood test as HIV-positive. The results return Tomas to anguished sobriety.

As he walks between the apartments, Tomás notices that a sexy flight attendant, Clarisa (Claudia Ramirez), has moved into the flat between the two rooms. He watches Clarisa from the ledge while having lewd fantasies about her pre-flight safety demonstration. In one of Tomas’s dreams of Clarisa, she escorts him to a plane where he encounters various characters in the film, former lovers and noted people from Mexican history. One wonders if he mistakenly took too many of the jalapeños he’s trying to sell.

Sex-fueled comedies were a novelty in Mexico by the time of the film’s release, but Cuarón’s film set off a firestorm in the country due to the provocative humour, with jokes focused on suicide as a result of an AIDS prognosis. Cuarón’s mix of this stained, edgy subject matter with a farcical comedic tone does not always ignite, but there are several moments of squirming, nervous laughter. One scene when Silvia gives the picky, sensitive-to-the-touch Tomás a blood test, hits this mark. As she pricks him with the needle, he is subservient to her power. His moaning and deep breathing sound like it comes from the bedroom and Silvia enjoys watching him react in pain. The scene shows how Cuarón could be dark, funny and erotic at once.

Tomás also boasts the same frisky energy as the filmmakers. Lubezki’s nimble camera captures the vitality of the character as he bounces from bed to bed, although the atmosphere and flair sedate when Tomas finds out about the positive test result. The cinematographer even experiments with long takes; although there are not many, we notice spots of inspiration that allude to his future status as one of the most innovative camera operators in cinema. Love in the Time of Hysteria also foregrounds the colour green, which normally implies something new and freshly planted. With various references to blood in the dialogue interjecting on this colour, Cuarón hints at how the spread of HIV-AIDS infringes on the natural growth of a vibrant earth.

The film moves between a cheery score reminiscent of a romantic romp, as well as reflective Mozart compositions that speak to the bitterness and uncertainty of the protagonist’s aimless life. Tomas has a rather nihilist view of death; as he contemplates taking his own life and remarks how much time he wasted, the sorrowful classical music plays above him. Later, as Tomás contemplates suicide by sticking his head in the microwave, he goes through a rather bizarre pre-death ritual. He decides to write the names of his romantic conquests on a long manuscript, although he struggles to get all the names right.

Even as Cuarón attempts a glossy, lighthearted genre, Love in the Time of Hysteria does not have a slickness that lowbrow romantic comedies do. There is an urgency and energy, as well as a shifting tone that mirrors the film’s relationship to the vibrant, vulgar Mexico City lifestyle. It is a lewd but acerbically funny film that happens to deal with questions of mortality – perhaps not as deep as Cuarón would later explore in Children of Men, but with a more surprising backdrop. It is a striking, subversive, pitch black debut from a director who will, sadly, never attempt the Almodóvar-ian mix low comedy with melodrama in the same way.

A Rant of Rhyme and Reason: Why Hannibal Is The Most Important Show on Network Television

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When Quentin Tarantino burst onto the moviemaking scene with 1992’s Reservoir Dogs, one scene in his bloody, profane film inspired walkouts. It is a scene when Michael Madsen’s character tortures a police officer and cuts off the cop’s ear. The irony is that this moment is one of the least graphic in the film: the camera pans away from the actual moment of the slicing. It may be a suspenseful scene, but Tarantino shies away from gory depravity.

Today, you may think that if a television series had graphic violence as sickening as Tarantino’s 1992 classic, the only place you could find it would be on cable. Dexter, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad have featured some of the most originally gruesome deaths in the history of the medium. However, last Friday night, one television series showed a character going through a murder scene and nonchalantly slicing off a man’s ear. It may surprise you that this show is, in fact, on network television. In addition, that ear slicing is far from the most shocking moment of that episode.

NBC’s Hannibal may be the most violent show on television now, even including cable series. The grisly crime scenes are startling – but that is just one of the major elements that makes the show must-watch TV. Further, there are chilling, powerful performances, haunting cinematography and set decoration, intriguing character dynamics and a complex exploration of violence and victimization. But, the series’ thirst for graphic violence, along with the shortened, 13-episode seasons and the psychological drama that emphasizes “showing” over “telling,” proves that the series can work on a level equal to gritty cable dramas yet succeed on a network level.

More often, media commentators warn that network television as we know it is at its end, due to DVRs skipping through commercials, the quality of cable programming and the vastness of the television landscape. But what if there was a show that could deliver the daring drama usually found on FX or HBO, but in a network time slot? Hannibal fits that bill; often, when comparing it to similar procedurals like The Killing, Dexter or True Detective, Hannibal has the upper hand in visceral, visual storytelling.

Hannibal Lecter, played with chilled class by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, is not even the main character on his titular show. Instead, the protagonist is another of author Thomas Harris’s beloved characters, special agent Will Graham. Hugh Dancy portrays Graham as a somber, insecure mess who can invade the mind of a killer to solve heinous crimes but who could be just mad enough to kill on his own. The character’s psychological instability (and unpredictability) makes him an even more fascinating study than Lecter, whose screen time grew over the first season as he befriended (and later manipulated) Graham.

Graham and Lecter’s knotty relationship is riveting, and it is surrounded with precise direction, writing and pacing. Creator Bryan Fuller had a compelling vision for how the stakes of the first season would build and unfold, and the first three episodes of season two have only reinvigorated the show’s adept direction and effectiveness as a character study.

Unlike procedurals like Criminal Minds and CSI, the characters on Hannibal react to gruesome violence in powerful and sometimes unexpected ways. Often, the reaction is unimpressed: the characters spend so much time dissecting the prerogatives for crime that they just accept brutal acts as run-of-the-mill. In last week’s episode, Fishburne’s Jack Crawford looked drifted as he watched an inferno consume two of his agents. Death lurks and feels inevitable in every scene of this show. The killings are also disturbingly innovative – a deformed, mutilated bunch of serial murders that reminds one of the lurid corpse constructions from David Fincher’s Se7en.

The show is also a stylistic treat, using sound and music to subjectively situate the viewer in Graham’s mind as he tries to envision what happened at the crime scene. Wet, red-like colours stand out against grayer backgrounds, especially with the carved-up meals that Hannibal serves when he has friends over for dinner. Hannibal is quite the food connoisseur, and the show lights and frames the meaty items on the plates he serves in a way that makes us hungry, even as we realize what kind of meat Dr. Lecter serves. The show is ominous yet its visual palette never makes it a burden to watch – that is, unless you cannot stomach some of the brutal violence.

HBO’s first anthology of True Detective also featured a cerebral investigator who had moments of vivid psychosis, a murky atmosphere, pulpy dialogue and some dazzlingly dilapidated set design. But that show only had eight episodes to prove its merits – and despite some stellar performances and some nifty storytelling tricks, turned out to be more about its parts than the sum of those parts. Meanwhile, Hannibal continues to push forward with surprise with its visual and (stunningly) emotional depth each week.

It is not surprising that Hannibal is struggling to find a large following and its 10 p.m. time slot on Friday nights feels deliberate to help grant the show an early cancellation. However, NBC would be betraying a first-class crime series filled with daunted characters and daring moments of brutality, both of a kind that police procedurals rarely approach on any network. Hannibal has the gore of The Walking Dead, the nihilist atmosphere of True Detective and Dexter’s macabre humour without feeling like a neutered network re-tread.

Hannibal is, appropriately, not a show for everyone’s tastes, but it has managed to be arrestingly bleak and beautiful. It is gory but not gratuitous, character driven without meandering into languid speeches and slow pacing (another feature of True Detective, a very good show that’s not great enough to live up to the hype). It is a show that embraces the evil of the characters and entices its audience not to recoil. More twisted and psychologically compelling than almost anything else on the air, Hannibal has proved that anything a cable show can do, it can do better… with even more bloody brilliance.