The last film I can remember having left me feeling as puzzled and intrigued as Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty was Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. I would go on to see Eyes Wide Shut at least 10 times and write an in-depth seminar paper in grad school using the psycho-analytic theory of Jacques Lacan to illuminate the film’s message and finally gain an appreciation for it. I still have not grown tired of that film, which too many have simply brushed aside as Kubrick’s weakest. I’d call it a masterpiece.

But that’s another article, and though I would not consider Sleeping Beauty as existing on the same level as Eyes Wide Shut, I can understand why critics are so similarly divided on it as they were with Eyes Wide Shut when it came out. When Warner Bros. released Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, just before Kubrick’s death, the director had long achieved the status of one of the handful of true master filmmakers whose influence and regard was guaranteed to last throughout the history of cinema. Sleeping Beauty, however, is Leigh’s first film, and though she proves her skill at handling mystery* in a story, which she also wrote, the film falls just short of the transcendentalism of Kubrick or another filmmaker well know for his mysterious quality, David Lynch. That said, Leigh still has much to offer in abstract, eerie atmosphere in this odd psycho-sexual tale of the darker corners of humanity, and, if she goes on to direct more films, I can see critics re-evaluating this movie more favorably in hindsight.

The film follows Lucy (Emily Browning) on a path into prostitution in order to makes ends meet. We first meet her in a laboratory as she volunteers to swallow a medical device on a long cable. She chokes it back centimeter by centimeter, fighting one gag reflex after another as a young man in a lab coat (Jamie Timony) assures her she is doing great.

It’s a twisted set up that brazenly foreshadows the clinical and sexual film that lies ahead. The film establishes that Lucy is studying at a university and cannot keep up with the rent while struggling at jobs in the copy room of an office and waiting tables at a cafe. She is probably taking part in a medical study for some extra cash too. Oh, and she also dabbles in sexual favors for money at a bar and abuses cocaine.

This is all quickly established in several, efficient, stagey scenes, with the camera mostly at a distance, fetishsizing props, like rows of stacked chairs on tables at the cafe during closing time and neat rows of tables in the lab, which has almost symmetrically equal equipment on each side of the screen. Lucy and the other characters stand mostly fully framed in the shots with distance between them, as they speak in curt sentences laden with shared history.

This odd pacing is always interesting, set among one dazzling staged backdrop after another. The surreal atmosphere grows more heightened when Lucy answers an ad for work as a “model.” Following a brief interview in a wood-paneled office with Clara (Rachael Blake) about Lucy’s sex and health, the woman that will be her madame orders her to strip. As a man (Eden Falk) examines her limbs, Clara assures her that in this job, “your vagina will not be penetrated. Your vagina is your temple.”

The distinctive, clinical but warm art direction, the film’s steady pacing, the slow and delicate zooms and pans of the camera and the mysterious dialogue between the characters are all elements Leigh seems to make her own and serve the ominous mood of the film well. A still image of the scene described above, indeed captures the meticulous quality of Leigh’s mise-en-scene:

From the actors in the foreground, their postures, faces, hairstyles, not to mention their dress, coupled with the dynamic contrasts of background, the image breathes forth an evocative quality typical of the movie. Throughout the film, as events grow more twisted, even the distant camera does not detract from the chilling action.

Leigh is a certain kind of storyteller, one who has immense faith in her audience, offering an almost abstract experience of story that invites viewers to bring their baggage to the proceedings. Before this movie, Leigh had already established herself as a novelist of high regard. Her debut novel, the Hunter (1999), did a heck of a job to put her on the literary map, bringing her praise and awards from across the world. The Australia-based writer only recently followed it up with the 2008 novella, Disquiet, a book I happened to have read over the course of a single weekend a couple of years ago. I can personally speak to an odd surreal quality and economic power to Leigh’s prose that is also on full display in this, her first movie.

If there are short comings in Sleeping Beauty, it comes when fleshed out characters fail to materialize, as those that populate the world of Sleeping Beauty seem to walk through it in a haze of mystery that overshadows any insight to their individual motivations. For some reason, Lucy chooses to burn her first hundred-dollar bill she earns. For someone set up as so desperate for money, the effort seems a costly over-symbolic move that contradicts her actions, including a moment when she pleads for more work from Clara. In conversation with Clara, one of the elderly men who sleeps with Lucy (Peter Carroll) gives a rambling monologue that does not seem to add much of anything to the film. The director seems more in tuned with the female characters than the men and would have done just as well to leave them alone as the tools they are in the machinations of the story.

These ambiguous scenes (and there can be more or less of them, depending on the viewer) can be a detriment for those searching for story, but I would posit something beyond story rises above these shortcomings. This is the stuff of female nightmares. Imagine taking a potion that puts you to sleep with no memory or even dreams, laying down naked in a bed, where you know men have paid to be in your presence to do anything they want so long as they do not leave a mark or penetrate you. That is the job Lucy has signed up for, and what happens in the various scenes with three different men varies, but all send shivers down the spine. In the interest of the power of imagination, I shall spare the details, for there is nothing like the shock of the unfolding proceedings as Lucy submits her nude body to the whims of these old, damaged men, one of the angriest of whom admits to Clara the only thing that can get him an erection nowadays anyway is if a woman used her fingers to penetrate him.

Browning deserves a special award for acting while limp. She never flinches while her character suffers extreme abuse by these men. No doubt as there are some who will be left disturbed, others might feel turned on. However, the innocuousness of the set design and the calm movements of the camera, be they slow zooms, pans or tilts— are all patient, gradual and pregnant with audience implication (or director’s) gaze. Any sexuality is couched in voyeurism. There are no thrusts when Lucy works, and, as Clara tells all the men who “sleep” with her girl, “no penetration.” This is not a film that celebrates or exploits the female body. It repels just as much as it titillates, recalling a similar statement film by another great surrealist director: David Cronenberg, the aptly titled A History of Violence.

Though the elusive quality of the film does seem to get in the way of an unshakably definitive statement, Leigh offers a strong reach that recalls Lynch without coming across as a blatant copier. The amount of Lynch imitators (not that she is one directly or consciously) often steer their train way off the tracks and brew up embarrassing stupidities of films (I guess many of which I have thankfully forgotten). The calm and control of Sleeping Beauty save it from becoming another one of those movies.

This elusive line where transcendence occurs in a film is difficult to define without close examination of a filmmaker’s technique. Kubrick, Lynch and Cronenberg are all master craftsmen with an almost superhuman insight into the human psyche, and rare is the film in their oeuvre that does not deliver. As for Sleeping Beauty, the moments of shock that arrive hit at a gut level, tapping deep into the unconscious, the source of nightmares. Though Leigh does not really hit the subtle note for true primal chills and a grand end statement, she comes close. But even without a powerful, final moment of transcendence (and the film tries for one), the techniques in story, pace, art direction, camera work and characterization shows Leigh has all the right moves. Sleeping Beauty maintains an ominous sense of abstract but riveting mystery reeking of sexuality that will keep the adventurous viewer hooked.

Hans Morgenstern

Sleeping Beauty is rated R, runs 101 min., and opens in South Florida Friday, Dec. 16, at 9 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review, and the Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, on the same day and time.


*As far as the word “mystery” in cinema, do not expect a whodunit type of film. Sleeping Beauty concerns itself with the darkest, most primal drives of sex.

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

2009 top 23 films

December 26, 2009

Since the end of the year is upon on us, and the lists are starting to pop up in all sorts of media, here is my list of favorite films of 2009. I have included links to buy on Amazon where appropriate, so you can support this blog in an easy way (Note: some links are pre-orders or pages where you can sign up to be notified when a release date for the item has been announced).

1. (500 Days) of Summer

Buy: DVD or Blu-ray

An omniscient narrator sets the film up early on by noting “this is not a love story,” but few films ever capture the feeling of falling in love as well as this movie. Director Marc Webb proves himself a deft craftsman of the stale genre of romantic comedy, which too easily becomes formulaic. The couple in (500) Days of Summer share some beautiful, subtle moments of tenderness as well as heart-rending moments of disconnectedness that never comes across as heavy-handed. The movie constantly reminds you that these are two different people with different ideas of a relationship, yet they stubbornly continue dating while remaining lovable all the same thanks to the wit of the script and the strong chemistry between Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel.

2. Inglourious Basterds

Buy: DVD or Blu-ray or 3-Disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray

Inglourious Basterds is a true film lover’s film. Quentin Tarantino has always shown a deft ability to exploit the tools of cinema for maximum effect on the nerves through action and suspense while showing a true affection for movie-making. I’ve come to feel that whenever he is fully involved in a movie (not just writing a script), he can do no wrong. I saw this movie toward the end of its run in theaters, and even in a small movie house with a sparse audience, when the final scene ended the audience broke out in applause. Great writing, performances and pacing throughout Inglourious Basterds shows a movie’s run time matters little when the director can make it entertaining throughout.

3. The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Buy: DVD or Blu-ray

No one does awkward as artistically as Wes Anderson, and his foray into stop-motion generated  story-telling raises his lovable, damaged characters to a new level. In the strange alternate world of Fantastic Mr. Fox, the characters’ self-conscious struggles with their own shortcomings never fit more comfortably into an Anderson-directed flick. The challenge of appreciating Anderson’s work depends on how willing the audience is to acknowledge their own faults in the self-deprecating humor that drives his movies. With Fantastic Mr. Fox, he ingeniously disguises that premise behind fuzzy animals with human qualities. However, the film never sugar coats their animal behavior with innocent cuteness.  The sharp delivery of dialogue between the characters sometimes slips toward wild unpredictable primal behavior, which wittily treads the line of silliness and danger. Unlike so many movies for kids, this movie felt organic and authentic, and what do kids need most but true, heart-felt honesty, even if that truth might have its dark places? As Fantastic Mr. Fox continually reminds us, “We’re wild animals.”

4. Syndromes and a Century

Buy: DVD

My only regret about this film is that I had to catch on DVD to experience it. It must have looked amazing on film. Still, the movie rises above most other films on DVD through its transcendent use of sound and vision. Never have I seen a film capture the sense of observing as strongly as Syndromes and a Century. The film lingers on landscapes, objects and people in a trance-like manner that compels the viewer to activate their internal eyes.

5. Broken Embraces

Buy: DVD or Blu-ray

I really think Pedro Almodovar can do no wrong. His twisting tales wind from comical situations to deep insights into humanity while stopping at interesting and entertaining detours in-between. Broken Embraces, a story about family connections hidden in a near Hitchcockian-mystery is one more in a series of recent masterpieces by Almodovar. It’s hard to say if I think it is better than Talk to Her, Bad Education and Volver. He is one of the few directors currently working whose only competition is himself.

avatar-half-profile6. Avatar

Buy: DVD or Blu-ray

George Lucas must be crying. His much-hyped Star Wars prequels fell short of their supposed revolution in digital filmmaking, and now James Cameron’s Avatar comes along to swoop down and take the recognition. Where the new Star Wars films felt like nothing more than live action and animation clashing together, Avatar feels absorbing and nearly organic (still missing in these digital characters is the actual sense of physical weight. Even in this movie, the digital creatures feel as if they are floating in the frame, instead of weighted to the ground by gravity). With Avatar, we again have the recycled hero-myth story, as also seen in the original Star Wars movie from 1977. The difference in the effects utilized to tell the story in Avatar, however, are so absorbing (especially in 3-D) that it’s enough to make anyone who saw the original Star Wars in the theater suffer a heart attack.

7. Star Trek

Buy: DVD or Blu-ray

I had grown tired of the Star Trek films years ago. I think part of the problem of these film adaptations was that they were TV shows given the high gloss of cinematic re-envisioning. They were just fancy TV shows with the same cast members. With a new cast of actors and a springboard originating in the movie house, this movie felt like a true blockbuster worth repeated viewings in the cinema and now on DVD and Blu-Ray. I think credit lies in director JJ Abrams’ lack of preciousness for the TV series. During interviews for the movie he was quick to note he had never been a fan of the TV show, and it shows, as he breaths new life into the stale series with a newfound tension among shopworn characters.District 9 poster

8. District 9

Buy it: DVD or DVD Special Edition or Blu-ray

This sci-fi film felt like something done by the matured audience of the E.T. generation. It’s E.T. with a social conscience, not just a romanticized kids’ adventure film. Director Neill Blomkamp asks deep questions through the notion of aliens landing on earth, subsequently adding deeper stakes to the action sequences, which made for one of the more harrowing sci-fi films in the genre’s history.

9. Up

Buy it: DVD or DVD Special Edition or Blu-ray

I think the opening prologue of Up, yet another Pixar success story, was one of the greatest set up pieces in cinema. A marvelous bit of character development unfolds almost wordlessly, and you soon know what is at stake when old Mr. Fredericksen takes flight to South America in a floating house. You can tell the movie has a talented group of animators with true pumping hearts, unlike so many kiddie films cooked up by committees whose low brow attempts to humor their young audiences so often falls flat, cold and dumb. Up is one of those rare cartoons that transcends its digital images to reveal a living, breathing soul.

10. Tokyo Sonata

Buy it: DVD or Blu-ray

Kiyoshi Kurosawa took his filmmaking to a higher level with this family drama that unfolds during these economically crippling times that affected all corners of the globe. There are no surreal, supernatural elements to lean back on here (as much as I love his strange, unrealities that speak to the deeper core of our realities), just true family drama and crippling repression (both psychological, not to mention financial) .

Moon poster11. Moon

Buy it: DVD or Blu-ray

Like District 9, Moon feels like a sci-fi film looking for something more than simply flash and entertainment. It fits best among the sci-fi dramas of Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a terrific achievement by newbie feature director Duncan Jones (who got his degree in philosophy and then went into advertising). Jones has a lot to offer as a young sci-fi director. He seems much more focused than the much-hyped Richard Kelly, who serrendiptously stumbles through his convoluted plots. High hopes abound for this young, new talent who is already at work on his next sci-fi film entitled Escape From the Deep.

12. Ponyo

Buy it: DVD available now or DVD preorder or Blu-ray preorder

The revered Hiyao Miyazaki returns with another animated fable that deals with man’s ecological impact on the planet couched within a love story at its most innocent: a boy fascinated by a weird-looking goldfish that wants to be human. Miyazaki and his team at Ghibli Studios indulge in their talents of hand drawn animation that eschews technology with just as much sincerity and pure love as that between the boy and the fish. The results are amazing and beyond what digital work can capture. In one scene, the waves in the angry sea undulated with incomparable organic rage that most likely would be lost in cold computer algorithms.

13. The Headless Woman

Buy it: DVD

Lucrecia Martel proves herself a master of upper crust alienation with her latest film, the most focused of her career. The extreme situation of a hit and run that may or may not involve a little boy is a catalyst for the title character’s actions or, better put, inaction. Actress Maria Onetto does an amazing job portraying a woman who tries to carry on her routine despite the mystery of her actions gnawing at her psyche. Martel’s distant and purposely unfocused manner of storytelling never found a subject more apt to her style.

14. AntichristAntichrist_photo_1_hires

Buy it: DVD or Blu-ray

I came away from this movie thinking I saw an attempt at something deeply probing into the psychology of marriages. It felt a bit like the same feeling I had when I saw Eyes Wide Shut for the first time (I’ve seen it countless times since and count it among Kubrick’s masterpieces). I’m still figuring out Antichrist. I got stuck with a bad screening plagued by technical difficulties during the film’s digital projection, which did not help matters. But I have a feeling this film could have been a rich experience into the dark well of the unconscious.

15. Watchmen

Buy it: DVD Director’s Cut or DVD Ultimate Cut or Blu-ray Director’s Cut or Blu-ray Ultimate Cut or the graphic novel

If anything, no matter how much director Zach Snyder tried, this movie proves you cannot make a faithful film interpretation of a comic book masterpiece. There are just too many key elements in this story that are so grounded in the comic book medium to effectively translate to a movie audience. Still, there are some excellent characters and ideas in here that came from a genius mind: original comic book writer Alan Moore, who rightfully refuses to attach his name to the cinematic version. Ironically, it is his ideas that give the movie its deeper quality, hence why I am including a link to buy the book, which truly is the best way to experience this story.

16. I Love You, Man

Buy: DVD or Blu-ray

I Love You, Man was a hilariously uncomfortable bromantic comedy out of Hollywood for men who are not afraid of feelings. Yes, these jokes are nothing new or groundbreaking, but they had never been committed to celluloid with such genius comic timing, thanks mostly to the performances by Paul Rudd and Jason Segal, who did none too shabby as the apple of Rudd’s eye. But, make no mistake, this is a true love story among straight men, the only kind of relationship that could come out of a mutual appreciation of Rush’s music, mind you.

julia-poster17. Julia

Buy: DVD

Director Erick Zonca and actress Tilda Swinton do a remarkable job at creating a hero out of a self-absorbed, even psychopathic alcoholic. Julia takes the idea of the deluded alcoholic and enhances the mal-perceived invulnerability, not to mention the paranoia and desperation, of the afflicted lush by throwing her into an extreme situation involving a kidnapping. The situation inevitably goes awry, taking her over the border to Juarez, Mexico where things go from bad to worse, forcing her into some kind of redemption. Besides the deftly wound story, the powerful performance at its core by Swinton will undoubtedly and criminally go over-looked during awards season.

18. Where the Wild Things Are

Buy: DVD or Blu-ray

This much-hyped kids movie even went so far as making it to 3-D and IMAX screens and topped the box office during its opening. But, man did it disappoint people, ultimately losing close to $25 million (see box office mojo). When I saw it, I overheard a man sitting behind me, who brought a pack of rowdy kids with him, declare: “That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen!” God forbid a kiddie film actually holds up a mirror to the savage nature of children. Director Spike Jonez and writer David Eggers’ take on Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are is a collision of darkness, adventure, wonder, fear, aggression and mystery. With its few famous words (338), the book can only lend itself to interpretation. What you put into it, is what you get out of it. The movie is the product of two clear lovers of the book (a film sanctioned by Sendak), and with its spare story and the raw reactionary behavior of its characters, it continues to ask the audience if they are in touch with the wild thing within them.

19. A Serious Man

Buy: DVD or Blu-ray

Hyped as a personal film by the Cohen brothers, supposedly the closest they have come to producing a movie based on their childhood, this film proves to be one of their more puzzling works of art. I recall being accosted on the way out of the movie by a group of elderly Jewish people who asked me “What does it mean?” Mind you, I am not Jewish, nor do I look it (though when I worked at the Miami Jewish Film Festival, people thought I was an Ashkenazi Jew based on my Latin looks). Two women lead the questioning, looking at me like I was keeping some secret. As they continued to ask “What does it mean?” the older men just stood behind them. All I could think was how this made an even better ending to the great, cryptic ending of the actual movie. I’ll keep my answer to the ladies between them and me.

20. Away We Go

Buy it: DVD or Blu-ray

This movie felt larger than the funny notion of putting a pregnant couple into a road movie in search of the ideal place to raise their family while visiting their dysfunctional relatives and friends across North America. Away We Go shows how we live in our own realities and dreams and how uncertainly they fit into theaway still world. The best anyone can do to cope is by finding the true self, in the Jungian sense. The greatest home one can find is within the partner one chooses to share a home with. The final scene is transcendent in the way it captures these characters taking their realities into a dream, as a family unit. It felt surreal and powerful and much deeper than some witty road movie.

21. Up in the Air

Buy: DVD or Blu-ray

This is probably Jason Reitman’s tightest film yet. I think the power of it lies in the humanity of his characters. They are less cartoonish than those of his other acclaimed works, Juno and Thank You For Smoking. Reitman not only handles the cold downsizing of today’s corporate environment with an evenhanded yet emotional quality, he also peers deeply into the soul of a man who can deliver the notices without feeling any guilt about it while continuing to enjoy the hollow experience of travelling between assignments.

22. Paranormal Activity

Buy: DVD or Blu-ray or DVD Limited Edition

I have to give Paranormal Activity its due for its technical merit in creating a nerve-wracking horror movie without the cheap, in-your-face gore. It wasn’t only in the bedroom scenes that unfold in the dark, as you see the effects of the things that go bump in the night. The set-ups were brilliant with a so-called expert in the paranormal showing his wariness to enter the house and the simple scan across images from a demonology book, hinting at what this entity might look like. Paranormal Activity was a fun, creepy ride that proves nothing is scarier in the movies than what you cannot see.

23. The Road

Buy: DVD or Blu-ray

An exercise in desolation that puts you in the uncomfortable philosophical and psychological position to consider the question “What would you do?” On what appears to be a dying planet Earth, God has seemingly abandoned man both spiritually and physically. Nothing can thrive on the planet except man. All the vegetation has somehow ceased to grow and the animals have all died off, leaving the few human survivors to cannibalize their fellow man or scavenge for any edible scraps left from the previous society. As a father and son (played with melancholy desperation by Viggo Mortenson and Kodi Smit-McPhee) search for some hope at the coast, one cannot help but wonder what lies at the core of human nature: good or evil. Probably the most hopeless movie ever made.

*  *  *

In many ways, this is not a definitive list for 2009. It’s a personal favorites list. Also, there are so many movies from 2009 that have yet to play in Miami or I missed opportunities to see: Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Jane Campion’s Bright Star, Lorna’s Silence from the Dardenne brothers, Tulpan, Police Adjective, Black Dynamite, The House of the Devil, An Education and on and on, so this list is bound to change or, better yet, grow.

Everyone will have his or her own list. If you feel passionate about something I have not included or included, do share. Also, share your own lists, while you are at it. They can be mere top 10s, too.

(Copyright 2009 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)