Saturday, November 20, 2010

Review: Agora

Agora, Spanish-made but filled with the king's English, tells the mostly forgotten story of the female astronomer Hypatia, a proto-feminist and secular aristocrat who teaches the fledgling science of the heavens to classes full of men in ancient Alexandria, a city boiling over with religious strife. Brought heroically to life by Rachel Weisz, Hypatia is an intellectual and political force to be reckoned with. She wades headlong into the male-dominated seas of philosophy and religion in the face of radical Christian leaders who loudly declare the dominion men must have over women. This creates tension right from the start, and you get the sense that at any minute the fanatical masses will rise up to put Hypatia in her place.
One thing I did not expect was all the stoning; there is a lot of stoning. Christians stoning Pagans, Pagans stoning Christians, Christian's stoning Jews, Jews stoning Christians. Apparently it was the mass murder weapon of choice in those days. The sound of the stones is so strange and benign, like fat raindrops, as they cast death. 
Lensed by cinematographer Xavi Gimenez, the film is unfailingly gorgeous. Director Alejandro Amenabar, however, shows his greatest aptitude with actors, especially in the quieter, subtler scenes. Moments between Hypatia and her slave, Davus (Max Minghella), who falls hopelessly in love with her, are particular tense and riveting. 
For a swords-and-sandals picture, Agora is admirably fresh and accessible; the acting and much of the dialogue is natural, the production design is robust and lived-in, but what stands out most is the cinematography. The lighting and shot-making really give the action room to breathe. It's rare to see a film set circa B.C. that is not stuffy or overly ponderous.
The film's major flaw is its overall pacing; most individual scenes have a good flow to them, but the picture as a whole feels uneven, at times too slow and at others jarringly rapid. There must be a steadier director's cut tucked away somewhere, and indeed the cut that screened at Cannes last year was longer by 20 minutes, but given its lukewarm critical and box office reception (in this country, at least), I fear this or any better version may never see the light of day. 
There is an excellent film lurking just beneath the surface. Agora should have risen to Gladiator-type levels of praise and cultural relevance; alas, it is largely lost in the sands of time, much like Hypatia herself.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Review: Boxing Gym

Each great film creates a world, which the audience marinates in for the length of the picture. Documentary director Frederick Wiseman's Boxing Gym meticulously and beautifully constructs the rhythmic world of Lord's Gym in Austin, Texas. As is his style, Wiseman uses no interviews, voice overs, or title cards to explain the action; he simply captures it, then cuts together a narrative from what he gathers. 
There is no musical score, but then there doesn't need to be, for the soundtrack pulsates with the human beats of fists on punching bags, sparring boxers' shifting feet, and exhausted grunting breathes. The images cut clearly and obviously, but the sound melts together to form a delicious aural collage which swaddles the whole film like a sonic blanket. 
The star of Boxing Gym is Richard Lord, the wise and crusty old proprietor of the gym that shares his name. When he's not talking to perspective and longtime members in his charmingly cluttered office, Lord floats around training kids, giving advice, and overseeing the place from which he is inseparable; he is the gym. 
The gym's patrons represent a microcosm of Austin, and indeed America. There are new moms, aspiring Army Rangers, high school kids, veteran boxers and people of all colors who simply want to better themselves. There is such harmony in this place, such a sublime come and go, peppered with idle and profound talk between strangers and old friends. I wanted to live in this world forever.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Passion of the Silent Era

Last week I had the chance to watch the silent, 1928 French film The Passion of Joan of Arc, starring the talented and awesomely named Maria Falconetti as Joan. The print we saw had been rescued from a janitor's closet of some Norwegian mental asylum in 1981, a bizarre piece of trivia that helped to set the mood for what turned out to be a gloriously strange cinematic experience. The film depicts Joan's trial and execution at the hand of the English, and it is told almost exclusively in close ups on the actors' faces. If you are a filmmaker, and you want to know what a close up should look like, see this film. Apparently, the director, Carl Theodor Dreyer, insisted that his actors not wear make up, a subtraction which simply was not done during that eon of cinema. Add to this the use of then-newly developed panchromatic film stock, and you get 82 minutes of the most emotionally resonate and harrowing close ups the art form has thus mustered.
On the rare occasion that Dreyer does cut to wider shots, in part because of their infrequency, they have a breathtaking impact. This director's sense of movement, both with the camera and people inside the frame, is so modern and ahead of its time that one can hardly accept it was achieved so early as 1928. The cinematic bravura on display in The Passion of Joan of Arc is so complete and intense, it dives so deep, that it gives us a small window into where film might have gone had sound not crashed the party a year earlier. I was talking to my friend after the movie about what a shame it is that the silent era had not lasted longer. Once we could hear the actor's talking, filmmakers got lazy, cameras grew immense and far less versatile, and the art died a little. Imagine the innovations that could have been made; think of all the vocabulary that could have been written into the cinematic language had the crutch of sound not crippled us. We may be just now doing things with movies that might have come about in 1940 or so were it not for evil, easy sound.
Another thing I realized while watching this masterpiece is that silent film is not given nearly the respect and appreciation it deserves. Firstly, almost no one realizes that most films of that era were shot and projected at 18 frames per second, not 24 as we are used to today. It is such ignorance which is to blame for the ridiculous, sped up look we have become accustomed to when watching silent films. Unfortunately, this formerly asylum-bound print fell victim to this practice; it was clearly shot at 18 fps, but then transferred at 24 fps. So, though it was Dreyer's original cut of the film, I still have not seen it as he intended. Ignoring the original frame rate is just as destructive to a film as inflicting pan-and-scan on a letterboxed movie to make it fit 4:3 televisions. Hopeful someone who knows what they're doing will get their hands on this print and release a correct transfer on DVD. If we had been watching silent films at the proper frame rate all along, I have no doubt that modern audiences would take them millions of times more seriously and be more willing to fold them into our collective memory of cinema.

(Above: Maria Falconetti as Joan of Arc in a still from The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Box Office Mojo is a depressing website

I was filled with a new level of dread about the state of popular cinema today on a visit to the perfectly benign looking Box Office  First I saw this weekend's top 5 grossing films:
3 sequels, two of which are in 3D, and Red, based on a comic book, leaving Clint Eastwood's Hereafter the only original film in the bunch. I thought, good god, this sequel/franchise and 3D mania has really gotten out of hand, so I took a look at the top ten grossing films of 2010 so far:
7 mostly 3D sequels and/or remakes, one 3D based on a book, and one 3D with an original story (and by original, I simply mean not a derivative work; I'm making no judgments about the actual story of Despicable Me). Only Inception is both completely original and 2D, and its all the way down at number 5. 3D aside, the mere sight of so many franchise films at the top of the financial heap is distressing. But this must be a recent trend, right? Surely Hollywood must be going through a phase. So I went to look at the top grossing films for each year of the past decade or so: