De Palma's Mission to Mars; Erin Brockovich Is Julia, All The Time
Orphans' Scots funeral storyline contrasts extremities of grief and optimism yet it's unexpectedly funny and becomes a surprising means to our deepest feelings. Mullan's use of the humor and idiosyncrasy debased by such films as There's Something About Mary and American Beauty puts us back in touch with humanism. His story goes from life to death to life. Watching four adult siblings on the night before their mother's funeral, writer-director Mullan makes life on Earth exultant and exciting. He emphasizes individual temperament but the characters' fascinatingly detailed nature also reveals a particular aspect of Glasgow.
Each grownup child in the Flynn family suffers parental loss distinctively. Thomas (Gary Lewis) the bullying older brother recalls Mullan's own bantam ferocity. (It's the most autobiographical casting since Tom Hanks discovered Tom Everett Scott in That Thing You Do!) An arrogant sentimentalist, Thomas commandeers any space?be it chapel or pub?to display his wounded, indomitable pride. The Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe" becomes his maudlin signature, prompting a bar fight that sends second brother Michael (Douglas Henshall) prowling the city unable to resolve his working-man's complaints or his personal screw-ups. John (Stephen McCole), the educated one, seeks a violent outlet but finds himself unable to make the immoral leap; and Sheila (Rosemarie Stevenson), the incapacitated one, ventures in her wheelchair to a world of her own childlike imaginings. These disparate experiences (including John's carousing with angry cousin Tanga played by Frank Gallagher) give Orphans a constantly surprising emotional expanse.
Twist-and-turn anecdotes delight, while etching a sense of community. They suggest Bill Forsyth correcting Pulp Fiction, but I'll go higher in praise of scenes that evoke Joycean wildness and spice?Michael's scrap with a rude bar-owner, the bitter old lady cursing her neighbors. Such moments achieve a perfect balance of maudlinity and wit. I can think of few filmmakers who have demonstrated an appreciation of life's absurdity that is as humane as Mullan's. This may partly derive from the sympathy that trained actors like Mullan's learn to develop for all sorts of characters; plus Mullan's cultural pride (he accepted his 1998 Cannes Best Actor prize wearing a kilt) may have given him a deeper sense of ethnic pride than other Brit comic filmmakers. As a culturally astute, grassroots artist Mullan displays a complement of pride and responsibility?the integrity that many hiphop filmmakers in America are unable to even conceive.
Every narrative flourish in Orphans occurs accompanied by a dramatic sense grounded in social perception. It's the essential truth sought by Denmark's pretentious Dogma 95 movement (and disgraced in Harmony Korine's supposedly authentic American subcult films). The funeral ritual in Orphans sets up an encompassing view of Scottish manners from religious piety to after-hours boldness. Each sequence features the special perspective of the sibling at its center. All are remarkable, but the most audacious and memorable is probably Thomas' lone pallbearing burden in the cemetery. ("She ain't heavy, she's my mother," he boasts.) As Thomas squats to the ground under the casket's weight it's a scene worthy of Dubliners, yet one that only movies can inscribe. A stark, witty image of emotional stress, it's purely cinematic?a quality Brian De Palma has mastered, but that few independent filmmakers ever attempt.
This is where Mullan (who starred in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe and Mike Figgis' Miss Julie) asserts his independence from the paltry model of other actor-driven projects?he directs vividly. Orphans is not actorish and theatrical; rather, Mullan's filmmaking is as compassionate as his acting. He and photographer Grant Scott Cameron capture mood and authentic behavior: John and Tanga's intrusion upon a dysfunctional marriage explodes with sexual outrage, intimate details of fear, disgust and pity. The old lady's sense of ego and property fits into a tenuous, credible depiction of true neighborliness and complicated family life. Sheila's sequences?featuring her being swept into a nighttime parade?limn the surreal and the all-too-humane, while Michael's labor and filial anguish are expressed in the right poetic images. (In the film's most ambitious, poetic stroke, Mullan goes from factory anomie to an unsettlingly lyrical scene of Michael's detachment as he floats precariously down a river.) Throughout these adventures Mullan's sense of the comic?Thomas taking on his family burden, gluing together a crumbled Virgin Mary statue, a group of barflies seeking revenge?certifies his distinctive, lusty interest in the everyday. Mullan's Scot verisimilitude amounts to an understanding of how society works and how people adjust themselves to its structure and accidents. It's a folk wisdom that, in its larger reflection, is equal to global sympathy. Calling Orphans the richest comedy I've seen century is only partly a jest; it's been a very long time since there was an example of a social tale with such emotional amplitude.
"To stand in a new world and look beyond it to the next one." This could be the motto for how Orphans brings Scots culture to our consciousness but it's actually from an astronaut's wish in Mission to Mars. Humanism distinguishes both these movies. The pristine emotion De Palma distills from sci-fi fantasy is as substantive as Mullan's rambunctious regard of sorrow and perseverance in folk cinema. De Palma's exploration of what life and human interaction are worth complements Mullan's sympathy for the orphaned family to which we all?at our most existentially desperate?feel we belong. So much junk comes to us at the movies we forget their potential for beauty and independent meaning. These two films redeem Brit working-class comedy and the sci-fi flick and will gauge the remaining year. In esthetic range and moral terms, cinema gets no richer than Orphans and Mission to Mars.
"Life's one long turd that you have to take a bite of every day," says Mifune's pretty prostitute-turned-housekeeper Liva (Iben Hjejle). She's advising the younger brother she works the streets to support?a parallel to the sibling rivalry of her new employers, the urbane Kresten (Anders W. Berthelsen) and his mentally retarded brother Rud (Jesper Asholt). This kind of bald-faced, homiletic summation of family tension is the consistent theme of previous Dogma 95 films The Celebration and Julian Donkey-Boy. But the bluntness (and maybe even the wisdom) of Liva's turd-creed doesn't come close to the emotional astuteness that makes Orphans special. Despite Dogma 95's concentration on natural lighting, no background music and supposedly believable acting, the proposed realism and authenticity are not as effective as the expert, sincere artifices of "conventional" filmmaking like Mullan's.
Mifune is actually more conventional and formulaic than Orphans; only the Dogma 95 precepts give director-writer Soren Kragh-Jacobsen any claim to freshness and originality. The title comes from a game Kresten plays to calm Rud; he pretends to be Toshiro Mifune from the brothers' favorite film The Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa. But Mifune doesn't use pop art to express authentic cultural attitudes, like the songs and film references in Orphans; Kragh-Jacobsen's film savvy provides no additional insight. From Kresten's hectic wedding ceremony, raw honeymoon scene and quick marriage dissolution that begin the film's portrayal of sexual dishonesty and humiliation (consistent Dogma 95 themes), Mifune is as predictably "realistic" as those 19th-century Scandinavian plays that now seem archly theatrical. Kragh-Jacobsen, like his Dogma brethren Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, is more impressed by coarse human behavior than students of Ibsen and Strindberg ought to be. Their technical credo covers up a new era's naivete about domestic relationships.
When Liva goes through her pimp-turmoil, then her sisterly-matriarchal struggles, the film still seems formulaic: social dysfunction among hookers and pimp, cretinous relatives, and sexual revenge are routinely followed by a ray of hope at the end?like The Celebration, a stale old story in uninspired form. The crude artifice is followed by other, deliberately vulgar admonitions: "Never feel so sorry for yourself that you piss on others?especially those who love you," Liva goes on. That line could have been spoken (perhaps more delicately) by Joan Blondell in any WWII Hollywood movie. It's advice that might also be applied to Dogma 95 itself. The insistence on esthetic harshness isn't an intelligent accommodation of new video technology; it's really just a smartass way to piss on impressionable audiences and critics. It unnecessarily deprives contemporary moviegoers of the beauty they have every right to expect from modern filmmaking.
Ironically, Mifune is easily the best-looking Dogma 95 film so far. That's because Kragh-Jacobsen forsakes the relatively crude digital video technique to actually shoot on film. His cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle displays the splendid palette that is still possible and incomparable with film stock?the outdoor sequences are so vernal and sun-bright that they do honor to the movie's subtle tribute to Kurosawa. Mifune's colors are as vibrant as those of Rhapsody in August and the Van Gogh sequence of Kurosawa's Dreams. Dogma 95's usual verite look is naive about interpretation and expressivity; such truly postmodern issues have not yet been completely resolved during this transition from film to digital video. Mifune looks good in an old-fashioned way that's still fascinating. Apparently this is only because Kragh-Jacobsen insisted on using film as opposed to video. He may not have any novel ideas about family, but his celluloid stubbornness is the best advice Dogma 95 has yet imparted.
Working Girls. The day after seeing Katrin Cartlidge play an exploited Irish immigrant prostitute in Claire Dolan, I saw Julia Roberts jiggle?rack forward?throughout Erin Brockovich. Two terrific actress in less than terrific movies made me think back to the landmark summer Jane Fonda appeared in Klute playing Bree Daniel, a New York call girl and struggling actress. Introduced strutting toward the camera in shag haircut and full-length jacket, Fonda redefined female identity on the screen. Klute isn't much better than Erin Brockovich or Claire Dolan but neither Cartlidge nor Roberts has achieved Fonda's breakthrough. They're trapped in an accommodationist culture. See Fonda in Klute (showing March 14 & 15 in Film Forum's "Neo-Noir" series) to understand how principle paced with art can be revolutionary.
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