Sunday, March 20, 2011

Certified Copy

One of the tragic realizations in the early stages of my movie fanaticism was the precious lack of great films that I had the chance to see in the theaters. For years, the only film that met that criteria for me was the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I'd call that a small consolation compared to what it must have been like to watch, oh, say Chinatown or The Third Man or The Red Shoes when they first hit the town. But I don't know if it's because of my move to Chicago (most likely) or that movies in general are just on the upswing (entirely possible) but the last few months in the theaters have been the best stretch I've ever had.

Yesterday's feature was Certified Copy, and those who know anything about my taste in film won't be surprised that this one's been on my most anticipated list for a very long time (for those who don't, the short and sweet of it is that I could watch Juliette Binoche remake Jeanne Dielman as an 8-part miniseries and stare wide-eyed every minute of it). Bias prevailed - as it often does - and already as soon as March, 2011 has a film to rival the three goodness-to-gracious masterpieces that 2010 produced (which ones those are, you'll have to wait a few weeks for my yearly awards to find out). But if I know I loved it, I'm not entirely sure why, and it's telling that the primary thought on my mind as I strolled out of the theater was "I've got to find time to re-watch this." That's not happened yet, so bear with me as I stumble through this dicey recap.

There's a few things you need to know about Certified Copy and a whole mess of things you don't. The former are the facts, just the facts, and the later I will skirt around as much as possible while attempting to persuade you to find out for yourself. It's a very international film. Director Abbas Kiarostami, widely regarded as the greatest Iranian director of all time, has not only made his first film abroad, but also his first with an actress of professional caliber, and they don't come much more professional than Ms. Binoche. She's of course French and her onscreen partner James is played William Shimell, a British opera singer by trade. Their story (if it's really their story at all) plays out on an afternoon tour of Tuscany, a little in French, a little in Italian, and fair share in English too.

The result is something more accessible than I imagined, but I mean this more in the sense that I was never bored and I don't think most interested moviegoers would be either. Sure, there's a lot of intellectual debate on the nature of originals and copies raging on throughout the film, but Kiarostami seems to find amusement in undercutting these dry points whenever possible, so the conversation continues to play on while the camera (or, more often, Binoche) finds something new to preoccupy her attention. The result is that instead of blasting us with some cosmic point to it all, these ideas of duplication quietly lodge themselves in our subconscious, continually breeding reassessment of character dynamic as it morphs from one thing into another entirely.

A lot of people have been comparing this to Before Sunset, but that doesn't sit right with me. Spoken with due respect to the Linklater film (which I love), there's just a whole lot more going on in Certified Copy. Maybe if Before Sunset collided with Last Year at Marienbad while it had its nose buried in Walter Benjamin's essay "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" we'd be somewhere closer to the truth. What that makes this is a member of the elusive genre of puzzle films, albeit a rarity even there because this is largely an emotional, not an intellectual, exercise. My desire to revisit it pronto has less to do with walking out befuddled than with the knowledge that there is definitely more here to be gained by repeat viewings.

All this has totally sidestepped what makes Certified Copy so intriguing. Suffice it to say that it's a very dynamic film, one in which the characters are not necessarily what they seem. This would almost certainly not work with a lesser actress than Binoche, who bears the full emotional heft of the movie squarely on her shoulders. I'm not kidding around when I tell people she's the greatest actress alive, and I can't fathom anyone else hitting the same joyous and tragic notes she delivers, all while being able to throw blind trust toward her director and screenplay. In that sense, I'm reminded much of Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr., and this may just be the best performance since that perfect-storm ten years ago.

I'll wrap by reiterating that I'm dying to see this again, but also that I'm dying to sit down with someone else who's seen it and bounce thoughts off each other until new meanings and interpretations begin to eclipse everything I initially imagined. It's just that kind of film, and if that sounds intimating, I apologize, because all this analysis trash that I'm talking is ultimately irrelevant. The film, however, is not, and it deserves to be seen. This cannot be stressed enough.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Film Review: Jane Eyre

The European Film Festival is currently in bloom at the Gene Siskel Center and last night (the festivals 3rd) was a singular showing of the upcoming release Jane Eyre, starring a brooding Michael Fassbender and the lovely Mia Wasikowska, who I might just think is even more lovely for her presence, along with director Cary Fukunaga, at the post screening Q&A. I'd been looking forward to the screening all week and made sure to catch both Fukunaga's directorial debut, the lush and harrowing Sin Nombre, as well as a few of Wasikowska's episodes on In Treatment in preparation for the event. The one thing I didn't attempt, however, was to read Jane Eyre, one of many literary classics that I've never crossed paths with in any way; not the novel, not any film adaptation, nor even The Wide Sargasso Sea. Whether that put me at an advantage or disadvantage, I'm not sure, but it's always nice to approach an adaptation without the inevitable comparisons to the source material weighing on your mind.

Through some artfully arranged chronology, if a bit confusing to those unfamiliar with the book, the film opens with a fantastic flight across the countryside, a series of visually arresting landscapes that seem practically to swallow Jane whole. After this gorgeous opening, the film briefly holds an uneven pace while cutting back and forth between her early life and her time spent later with St. John Rivers (played by Jamie Bell, who has spent the last five years growing gigantic muttonchops instead of acting). When we at last arrive at Thornfield Hall, the story settles down as the famed romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester begins to take root.

Wasikowska rightly emerges as best in show. Jane Eyre is her vehicle all the way, and a much better one than either of her 2010 films can claim to be. A definitive role it's not, but she finds the perfect measure of strength within Jane, and her conflicted longings for Rochester are entirely believable. It's the kind of performance that Abbie Cornish couldn't quite pull off in Bright Star, so I'm glad to see Wasikowska nail it here. I've got no complaints about the rest of the cast, save for the stray observation of how underused Judi Dench and (especially) Sally Hawkins were. Honestly, between this, An Education, and Never Let Me Go, it's like she's good for two scenes tops and then clears out completely. C'mon, she only gave the best performance of the last five years. Let's not let talent like that go to waste.

As for Fukunaga, it seems crazy to compare a film like Jane Eyre to Sin Nombre, and in the Q&A he made a point of saying that he wants to go out of his way to never make the same film twice, but I think it's in his approach to location that the similarities shine through. A quick look at both films an you'll be overwhelmed by his landscape shots. He frames his vistas like Bruegel frames paintings, the lush landscapes surrounding the senses, making you wish you could linger on just to study them. The long stretches of the film that play out in the flickering candlelight of Thornfield Hall drag somewhat without the eye-popping visuals to captivate, but every now and then Fukunaga seizes on a window, and his eye for natural light makes us long to escape from the manor. He also manages to avoid sensationalizing in many of the areas you'd expect. In this regard, I imagine he drove the producers mad, but it was an interesting choice to downplay the both the fire and the dark secret of Thornfield Hall the way he did.

Much like in 2010, I started my yearly movie watching with a Mia Wasikowska movie, only this one was actually quite good (disclaimer, I don't blame her in the slightest for Travesty in Wonderland). This year though, I learned a valuable lesson: don't pass the first few months of the year watching trash. It's what happened last year, and by the time summer came around I was overrating half the releases I saw just because they didn't suck. Not so, 2011, I'm starting the year right and don't intend to be fooled by any of your mind-bending blockbusters come summertime.