Guy Maddin, cinema’s contemporary master surrealist, has returned with another feature that unfolds like a dream while exploring Freudian symptoms of psychic malaise. Though still influenced by early silent cinema, Keyhole seems like Maddin’s chattiest film yet. He still works with black and white images, and it suits the film’s scenes well. Keyhole brings to life a haunted house where all the occupants seem to be ghosts. Fittingly, shadows are a great part of the cinematography, and Maddin knows how to make the most of black and white to highlight the relationship between light and darkness. In the right hands, shadows are laden with subtext, and here comes a film far beyond literal interpretation using that and many other aspects of cinema to their utmost potential. Maddin has only made one film in color (Twilight of the Ice Nymphs) and seems most comfortable in black and white.

This is an adventure story. The quest is as fantastical, human and emotional as anyone could conjure from both the unconsciousness of the dream world or waking, traumatic life experiences following the finality of a loved one’s fatal loss. After death, how does one make amends? That’s what the ghosts of Keyhole are illustrating. This is what ghosts do when people are not looking. If they are creepy, it only comes from the mystery of their origin. Keyhole is something far more abstract, complex and deep than a horror film.

The darkest, most mysterious character must be the patriarch of the clan (Louis Negin) and father-in-law of the hero, Ulysses Pick (Jason Patric) searching to reconnect with his wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini) after a life of crime, adultery and neglect. The patriarch, whose craggy wrinkles even cast shadows on his own features, is fittingly credited with two obtuse names: Calypso and Camille. Wearing only white briefs or arbitrarily nothing at all, Calypso / Camille is never seen without a thick chain draped over his body. “I’m a part of the house,” he says early in the film. “It would be misleading to say I live here.” Between his solitary creeping around in some distant chamber of the large home, whispering, “Remember, Ulysses, remember,” Ulysses arrives in search of Hyacinth. The film opens with multiple layers of superimposed scenery and the cacophony of a shootout. The images blur and flash in quick cuts. All the while, images of the old man appear, as he whispers: “Remember, Ulysses, remember.” It makes for an abstract, expressive set-up. After the shootout, Maddin shows his wit and profundity by having a character ask all of those inside the home to line up against a wall. Those who have died in the shootout are told to face the wall. He tells them to go to the morgue, and they walk out of the scene. “They’re the lucky ones,” someone says. For, as the film will show, death is not a solution in this movie at all, and, as the ghostly father notes, “forgiveness [is] much worse than revenge.”

Maddin does more than flashy cinematic tricks to channel the surreal. He creates atmosphere in subtler ways as well. The voices are warped or have a strange flat quality with no echo, like early talkies. Jason Staczek’s orchestral score seems to emerge from another dimension. The instruments vary from horns to piano to vibes. They play dynamic melodies that sometimes warp and stretch and do not always gibe with the images. Sometimes they seem to emit from some distant radio, off-screen.

The setting of a large home with many rooms makes for the ideal setting for Ulysses’ quest to return to his wife and sons. Rooms in dreams are symbolic of the unconscious, and distances covered by Ulysses inside the home seem extended beyond earthbound physics. He arrives carrying a drowned woman over his shoulder, Denny (Brooke Palsson). It takes a long time for him to cover the ground between the front door into the dining area where a host of gangsters and hostages await him. Though Denny is blind, she provides a psychic guide for him through the home. The home feels labyrinthine, as the quest continues from room to room and encounter to encounter. Ulysses also carries his son Manners (David Wontner), who spends most of the film gagged and bound to a chair. There is even a swampy garden secluded among the interior’s twists and turns, where more traumas lurk buried under a pond of murky water.

Though it plums some dark depths of the psyche, Keyhole still has room for humor. At one point in his quest, Ulysses is weighed down by carrying a stuffed wolverine named Crispy. Maddin glazes over the de rigueur phallic symbol in a witty moment as Denny leads Ulysses down a hall. They approach a small erect penis protruding out of a wall. “Cyclops ahead,” deadpans the girl.

“That penis is getting dusty,” notes Ulysses matter-of-factly, as he passes it by.

The actors serve the film well. Their faces are filled with mystery and sometimes a subtle befuddlement. Maybe they are trying to make sense of the dialogue, which still works for this film that explores the dream world even better and more honestly than Inception. Sure, the film seems incongruous, as its logic, like the best dreams, never allows the viewer any insight toward where it is headed. Maddin constantly changes the rules of the narrative. By doing so, he heightens and maintains the mystery throughout the film as marvelous sequences parade by. No one should expect any concrete, definitive answers in a film by Guy Maddin, just a bold and confident expression of the complexity of human relationships. Keyhole captures the Maddin tradition well and exploits the potency of cinema as the physical, temporal manifestation of dreams.

Hans Morgenstern

Keyhole is Rated R and runs 94 min. Opens Friday, May 25, at 7 p.m., at the  Miami Beach Cinematheque, which hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. It opens at the same time in the Miami area at the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema. It is also currently showing at select theaters across the US.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Mysteries of Lisbon offers a cinematic statement like no other film the 21st century has offered. The theatrical release is actually an abbreviated version (at four-and-a-half-hours!) of the six-hour European TV mini-series, based on a three-volume novel of the same title by Portuguese writer Camilo Castelo Branco, which has never been translated into English. The fact that a film adaptation arrives in this lengthy, literary (at least in a cinematic sense) form by the late, prolific and intelligent director Raúl Ruiz, should be something to celebrate. In his “preface” to Mysteries of Lisbon from the film’s press book, Ruiz, a Chilean who directs the actors in the movie in Portuguese and French, offers dense insight into Branco’s approach to story-telling, revealing how well attuned he was to translate it to the cinema. About his own experience reading the books, he said, “[W]hen I try to summon the characters and the twists and turns of Mysteries in my memory … I am only able to find fragments of ghost stories that were never written.” In turn, Ruiz has left movie-goers with a similar sensation with this lengthy, meandering film.

Ruiz offers literate reasoning behind his decision to film not just a complex story, but a complex loom of stories, woven together by— if anything— circumstances. In his preface (not to mention the film itself) he goes on to damn the traditional Hollywood narrative, as defined by famed cinema academic David Bordwell, which dictates a movie must have a single protagonist (or group of protagonists) who must overcome a variety of obstacles to reach a single goal, causing conflicts meant to entertain the audience (see Armageddon, for instance). “When [producer] Paulo Branco asked me to direct Mysteries of Lisbon, I understood that I had in fact been waiting for this kind of offer for years … for an eternity…”

Unfolding over many years, before, after and around the turn of the 19th century, across countries as diverse as Portugal, France, Italy and Brazil, the film opens as a priest, Father Dinis (Adriano Luz), decides to tell an orphan boy named João (João Arrais) about his origin. A slew of shifting characters emerge, from the boy’s mother (Maria João Bastos), a countess who later becomes a nun, to the assassin (Ricardo Pereira) turned wealthy businessman assigned to kill off the bastard child sent off to Dinis’ boarding school. Father Dinis undergoes several transformations, from the life he lead before becoming a priest as a gypsy to an enlightened man searching for spirituality beyond God, after leaving the priesthood. Hence, characters emerge within characters, but Ruiz never dwells on the transforming conflicts that births these “new” characters. The boy himself grows up to take on another name altogether when he appears later in the film as an adult (José Afonso Pimentel).

You could try to grasp for a common thread between these characters. One that jumps out of the proceedings is that these are stories of parents lost to give birth to lost children, and when the connections happen between the characters, not to mention their evolving and shifting identities, it is almost epiphenal. Again, in his notes, the director states, “the characters that form the social fabric of Mysteries of Lisbon go through three stages: birth, betrayal and redemption … But does this explain the jubilatory tingling triggered by the accumulation of stories that are in turn disparate, truncated, labyrinthine and baroque?” The film can indeed feel exhilarating to watch unfold, and it leaves this viewer wondering what other treasures were left on the cutting room floor in the 90 minutes of footage excised from the European mini-series version of this movie.

As the action unfolds, a recurring moody, melancholic orchestral theme often swells up. The music has a droning atmosphere about it and appears like those over-the-top musical stings do in the soap operas this film comes close to spoofing. It goes to show Ruiz’s wit when handling one of the most complex narratives ever committed to film while also adding a surreal mood to the scenes. Throughout, the film tests the audience’s attention, as there are no cinematic devices like title cards to reveal leaps in time and place (the sets in the film are simple but capture the eras of the 1800s and 1900s well, especially with the help of the dynamic costumes the actors don). The shifting characters are also so extreme as to involve name changes, leaving one to wonder if these are only the same actors playing other characters. In some ways, this might be accurate, but the best way to experience Mysteries of Lisbon, is not to over-intellectualize the events and enjoy the unrelenting journey that unfolds over an amazing marathon pace for a theatrical screening (there is a pause for an intermission). Keeping the pace brisk is a restless camera that constantly pans and swivels around the action, which is mostly dialogue, though there is some hitting and even a couple of duels to liven up the drama.

But, ultimately all these cinematic tools work to serve story, and the story of Mysteries offers something beyond anything I have ever seen in a movie theater. It is much more than a linear storyline. One might imagine it follows a path that can only be illustrated in a three-dimensional cone that begins as a dot and spirals wider into a curlicue with gaps while branches sprout off the curls and twirl off in their own twisting manner into a dark abyss. One of these little branches ripe with mystery appears when Father Dinis takes João out for a walk, early in the movie, as he begins to explain his origins. A little boy interrupts to ask João if he would like to come with him to see something. After Father Dinis nods his permission, the boy leads João to a nearby gallows. “It’s my father,” says the boy, pointing to one of three hanged men. Though it appears only briefly, this little boy’s shocking story offers a penetrating encapsulation of the extreme stories and mysteries that saturate this film. So many of these stories, no matter how brief or long, are swollen with implication and possibilities.

The movie’s layering of stories comes across almost dream-like, recalling a recent Hollywood movie that excited movie goers by diverting from the traditional form of blockbuster films, by meshing together layers of ever-shifting settings and even goals: Inception. Like Inception, when the finale in Mysteries of Lisbon arrives, the audience is left to wonder:  was all that happened really a sort of fever dream, brilliantly adding a layer of infinite possibilities to the proceedings with another surreal bow on top.

Mysteries of Lisbon tries its damnedest to illustrate the complexities of the world by never offering a concrete definition of character, who all still change in dynamic ways. No one can ever rely on anyone else, and things that seem as life-defining as a marriage are just a point in a single person’s existence. It was Orson Welles who said: “We are born alone … and die alone.” Not many films succeed in illustrating this reality, but Mysteries does so in spades.

Hans Morgenstern

Mysteries of Lisbon is unrated and opens today, Friday, Oct. 7, in South Florida exclusively at the Coral Gables Art Cinema. It will play for one week only. See the cinema’s website for screening times, which vary by day. If you live outside South Florida, the film’s official website lists screening dates across the US (you can also download the full press notes and see the film’s trailer).

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

My top movies of 2010

February 27, 2011

I decided the best time to reveal the best movies I saw last year is ahead of the Oscars®, as I am skipping the guessing game this year. It’s just so predictable. Though I admit the tight race between two certain best picture nominees. Also, I did see all those nominees, and a lot of them are on this list. Still, the greatest movie I saw released in 2010 was not even nominated in the foreign film category…

1. The White Material

This film handily surpassed everything I saw this year—pure poetry in cinema. When a ragtag group of child soldiers emerges from the jungle brush to a melancholy jazz-like tune by Tindersticks, I could not help but think, These are the true Lost Boys. Shot for shot, Claire Denis’ film blew me away with its composition. A consistent sense of dread permeates every scene until Denis ratchets it up to pure horror. The White Material is an amazing portrait of awful effects of colonialism to its extreme. Rarely have I heard so much spoken in imagery alone. The only time the movie may have dragged for me was when there was dialogue (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

2. The Social Network
With one dash of creative license at the end of this movie based on an admittedly inconsistent array of facts, director David Fincher has once again created a film that shines a penetrating light into our current society. Somehow many in this world have fallen off the tracks of solid ground. The bumps and dust of earthen soil below our feet no longer provide the satisfying footing to live on. Today’s “true” social life exists somewhere in a much more elusive place: in the layers of a false reality. Fincher presents us with the profile of a man who seems to have it all, except true human connection (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

3. The Fighter
OK, pardon the Oscar® reference, but Christian Bale has earned the award. Few actors disappear into their roles as well as Bale, and he stole the movie with this amazing performance. (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

4. Greenberg
A dark glimpse into a man who only seems misanthropic but is actually more in love with his sad, negative self over  anyone else around him. The titular character is a walking pile of hang-ups he constantly projects on others. What Greenberg (Ben Stiller) hates about people is what he hates about himself. Director Noah Baumbach has turned one of the darker corners of his film career, but shines an amazing spotlight on human behavior (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here; I also wrote a review for the film ahead of its release).

5. The Kids Are All Right
The movie speaks beyond sexual orientation and looks at the strength of union between two halves of a couple. It’s a delicate look at how the thin cracks of a lengthy marriage can so easily, yet harshly come apart only to reveal a hidden strength within– a rare topic in Hollywood movies, which often hype the falling in love part of a relationship and end it there. Buoyed by fine performances all around, especially by the two actresses at the heart of the story, director Lisa Cholodenko knows where to find the drama in a long-term relationship (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here; It was the first movie I saw last year that I had thought deserved Oscar® notice, and it got it).

6. Carlos – 5 1/2 hour Roadshow Edition
An amazing study of the disillusionment of an idealist (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

7. Wasteland
A powerful documentary about the freeing power of art (support the Independent Ethos, buy the DVD here).

8. 127 Hours
The crowd at my preview screening broke into cheers when Aaron Ralston (James Franco) cut that last bit of pesky flesh to find his freedom. Director Danny Boyle does incredible work to set up self-mutilation as a grand victory. I doubt another filmmaker will tell a story about such a subject this well for a while to come (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

9. Black Swan
Give Natalie Portman’s performance credit for making this predictable movie interesting. Director Darren Aronofosky is getting a bit repetitive in his themes. But this is probably his tightest tale of obsession turning to madness he has told (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

10. Inception
Over-hyped as too difficult a movie for the Hollywood-fare-craving masses, Inception was lazily relegated by many as an attempt to tell a confusing story most will not understand. In fact, rarely has there been a script so well-suited for the principles of the medium of cinema. Movies are, after all, simply dreams rendered in physical form. With it’s reliance on edits to make sense of an experience broken up by cuts in time, there is no better way to tell a dream than in the form of a movie (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

11. The American
Despite the A-list Hollywood actor fronting the American (George Clooney) this film comes from a world of the more atmospheric cinema of European cinema (director Anton Corbijn is Dutch after all), not to mention the early seventies. It fills the viewer up like a fine and tenderly cooked meal, instead of the usual greasy junk from Hollywood that only tastes good in the mouth but soon enough makes you want to throw up. There is a mesmerizing pace to the American. Corbijn allows the camera to linger longer on the takes, impregnating the scenes with emotional and psychological depth (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here; I also wrote a review for the film ahead of its release).

12. Kick-ass
The most harrowing film I saw this year. Never has becoming a “super hero” felt so wrong and idiotic. This film captured the lunacy of those exploring that venture to an even scarier degree than Watchmen (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

13. True Grit
The Cohen brothers do it again: witty dialogue, dynamic storytelling, great characters and genius casting with a bonus of much due respect to the Western genre (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

14. Please Give
Nicole Holofcener’s tightest film to date. It’s any amazing criticism of all those better-of and their hollow sympathy for those they perceive as in need of help (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

15. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World
Utterly underrated. It celebrated youth culture while wittily subverting it (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

16. Toy Story 3
I still don’t get why grown men are reportedly and sometimes admittedly weeping at this movie. I’m sure the Pixar team behind this melodrama with toys are laughing all the way to the bank, seeing as they knew how to hold on to their imagination and carry it into their professional careers (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

17. A Solitary Man
Michael Douglas made a man who should be reviled sympathetic. I hated everything about this rich douche, but I still found myself rooting for him. It stands as a real shame the award-givers never acknowledged Douglas for this role. I guess he was too busy fighting cancer to maintain the high profile needed to be recognized (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

18. Let Me In and 19. The Last Exorcism
Few “horror” directors know how to grab the pit of your soul and shake it up. These two films certainly did that (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray of the former here and here for the latter).

20. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (trailer)
Yes, I never saw the film, but the trailer was its own little cinematic poem unto itself. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films seem to activate multiple levels of consciousness in the viewer. They unfold in a place somewhere beyond straight narrative. By not trying to mimic the “real world” as most mainstream films do, his cinema works on a more vibrant level of existence. In effect, I have never felt more alive and aware while watching one of his movies, which draws repeat viewings like a well-crafted album invites repeated listens. I hope to finally see this movie in some form in the US where it will surely appear on my list of favorite films of 2011 (support the Independent Ethos, buy the blu-ray here).

(Copyright 2011 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Satoshi Kon was the only other director in the anime genre I knew by name besides Hayao Miyazaki. Now Miyazaki has become the only living anime director I know by name. As I learned today perusing the “New York Times” weekly movies e-newsletter, I noticed one of the first features was an interactive piece focusing on the trailers of Kon’s films. I wondered why they would come up with this now. Scrolling further down revealed his obituary. He died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 46 just this past Tuesday.

It came as a terrible shock, as I took for granted that I would be seeing more of his work on the big screen soon. I am honored to have seen Paprika on 35 mm, even if only three other people were in the theater with me at the time. A true masterpiece of cinema, his final film explored the notion of a machine that could bring dreams into the natural world and the havoc that they might wreak. Tokyo had never had it more rough since the days of Godzilla.

Though it was based on a manga, the cinematic quality of controlled edits added a more appropriate medium to depict the sensation of the dream state, and the layers of stories pre-dated that of the dream worlds of Inception.

Appropriately enough, Kon had been working on his followup for years, which was supposed to see release in 2011, entitled The Dreaming Machine (Yume-Miru Kikai). It would have been the first of his movies to be based on an original story (all four of his other feature films were based on already published mangas). It was actually about robots set loose to roam a world after humans had gone extinct (Read more).

Kon would actually would leave a letter behind pardoning his too early exit. In the letter, which was mostly translated into English here, he seems to portend that this final movie will most likely never see the light of day, as he felt it still remained mostly unfinished, despite what you see in the still images here, which was first publicly released almost a year ago.

If only we could still get more from him, but what he left behind was on a whole other level in the world of anime, and even his first film, Perfect Blue, rewards repeated viewings.

Satoshi Kon was the only other director in the Anime genre I knew by name besides Hayao Miyazaki. Now Miyazaki has become the only living Anime director I know by name. As I learned today perusing the New York Times weekly movies e-newsletter, I noticed one of the first features was an interactive feature focusing on the trailers of Kon’s films. I wondered why they would come up with this now. Scrolling further down revealed his obituary. He died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 46 this passed Tuesday.

It came as a terrible shock, as I took for granted that I would be seeing more of his work on the big screen soon. I am honored to have seen Paprika on 35 mm, even if only three other people were in the theater with me at the time. A true masterpiece of cinema, his final film explored the notion of a machine that could bring dreams into the natural world and the havoc that they might wreak. Though it was based on a manga, the cinematic quality of controlled edits added a more appropriate medium to depict the sensation of the dream state, and the layers of stories pre-dated that of the dream worlds of Inception.

Appropriately enough, Kon had been working on his follow-up for years, which was supposed to see release in 2011, entitled The Dreaming Machine (Yume-Miru Kikai), which would have been the first of his movies to be based on an original story (all four of his other feature films were based on already published mangas). It was actually about robots who roam a world after humans have gone extinct (Read more).

Kon would actually would leave a letter behind pardoning his too early exit. In the letter, which was mostly translated into English here, he seems to portend that this final movie will most likely never see the light of day, as he felt it still remained mostly unfinished, despite what you see in the still above, which was first publicly released almost a year ago.

If only we could still get more from him, but what he left behind was on a whole other level in the world of anime, and even his first film, Perfect Blue, rewards repeated viewings.

(Copyright 2010 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)