PICK OF THE WEEK
The Sacrifice (A)
Sweden: Andrei Tarkovsky, 1986, Kino/Kino Lorber
In the mid-1980s, Andrei Tarkovsky, the greatest Russian cinema artist of the post-war era, traveled to Sweden to make what proved to be his last film, The Sacrifice.
He was only in his 50s when he went to Sweden, but Tarkovsky, son of the famous Russian poet Arseny Tarkovsky, had already scaled the heights of world cinema, while becoming increasingly alienated from the values and politics of his homeland, the Soviet Union. Despite those difficulties, he had managed, since his directorial debut in 1962 with Ivan's Childhood -- the film that won the top prize, the Golden Lion, at that year's Venice Film Festival -- to make some of the most profound and beautiful movies in the history of cinema, and to make them almost without compromise.
The Sacrifice is one of his masterpieces, and together with the semi-autobiographical The Mirror (1976), it's one of his most personal, heartfelt works. Yet, like all his work, it's difficult. You need to bring something to this film, to make a kind of sacrifice yourself.
The rewards are well worth it. Made on a Swedish island, Gotland, with a cast and crew drawn partly from Ingmar Bergman's regular film company and repertory troupe, this is a hypnotic, lovingly wrought drama of an artist (Erland Josephson as the writer and actor Alexander) who stares into the abyss and tries to stave off death: a man who may be mad, but who may also be sacrificing himself and what he loves most to save the world and his family from destruction.
The film's biggest action scene is the burning of a house, shown almost completely in one take, without editing (the last scene Tarkovsky ever shot). And its most sublime moments involve the planting of a Japanese tree, an act accompanied by the celestial harmonies of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion."
Bach and Bergman (and later, Da Vinci) are fitting inspirations here. The Sacrifice, like many of Bergman's '60s-'70s works, is a chamber drama-film, and it takes place over the course of a day, a night and a morning. It begins and ends with images, bathed in crystalline light, of that tree, which is being planted near a Swedish shoreline, by Alexander and his child, a small boy nicknamed Little Man (Tommy Kjellqvist). Their idyll is interrupted by the eccentric postman Otto (the wonderful Bergman actor Allan Edwall, the sexton in Winter Light) who muses on life and drives his bike around them in circles, as they walk.
Then they join Alexander's troubled household at his isolated home, a group that includes his British actress wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood), his doctor, Victor, with whom Adelaide is in love (played by Sven Wolter, later the Alzheimer's-stricken composer in Bille August's A Song for Martin), Alexander's daughter Julia (Valerie Mairesse), and the servants Marta (Filippa Franzen) and Maria (Gudrun Gisladottir), whom Otto insists is a witch.
It's Alexander's birthday, and the family and guests take the occasion to muse on his withdrawal from life. Now a writer, he gave up a stellar acting career after scoring his two greatest triumphs, in roles by Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky -- and they discuss the wisdom of his exit.
Sometime toward the end of the light of the day, the TV and radio become full of alarm and tumult, and we and the characters learn that World War III is under way, and that nuclear apocalypse may be imminent. We don't see any of this, except for distant TV images we can barely make out, but we don't doubt (at first) that it's true. Some of the people crack; some don't. Alexander, alone, falls on his knees in the darkness in agonized prayer and promises God that he will make great personal sacrifices, giving up his family and his world, if God will turn back the clock to before the attack, and stop the war.
This is Alexander's dark night of the soul. This is the Sacrifice of the title. And the next day, something remarkable happens.
Like almost all Tarkovsky's work, The Sacrifice breaks many commercial and artistic rules. It's a sometimes excruciatingly slow movie composed of elegant long takes that go on and on. (The movie's opening shot is over nine minutes long, and the burning house scene lasts more than six; many shots in Hollywood movies, by contrast, last only seconds.) It has a soundtrack full of silence and Johann Sebastian Bach (as well as Japanese flute music and Swedish folk chants), and a fictional world populated by enigmatic people who talk sparely, but with unusual intelligence and deliberation, and who move and speak and ride bicycles as if they had all the time in the world -- which, as it turns out, they may not.
Neither did Tarkovsky, who was dying of cancer when he made The Sacrifice.
The Sacrifice is the kind of art film that smart-alecks like to ridicule -- as if the very idea of making a film that aspires toward art and tries to tackle meaningful themes and deep spiritual feelings was too absurd for words -- or for images. Perhaps. Making a movie like The Sacrifice is certainly more difficult than churning out fancy trash for mercenaries, while titillating audiences and making compromise after compromise.
But trying, with passion, to make cinematic poetry, that's not easy at all -- especially if, as was the case with Tarkovsky during much of the shoot here, you're facing death and the loss of everything you love in every scene. Like Rodin sculpting a last statue, Rembrandt in poverty finishing a last painting, Chekhov or Tolstoy in illness writing a last story or play, or Beethoven completing a last symphony (even as deafness enveloped him), Tarkovsky did finish The Sacrifice, at the end conferring with Nykvist and the others from his deathbed, before the brain tumor took him at 54.
Should we wonder? This is what Andrei Tarkovsky did all his working life. He made films, under very difficult conditions, working under a tyrannical government (the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev years) in an often doctrinaire film industry -- but all the while, creating a string of motion pictures unmatched for their sheer poetry, artistic mastery and high spiritual ambition: Ivan's Childhood, Andrei Rublev (his greatest achievement), Solaris, The Mirror, Stalker, Nostalghia and The Sacrifice. Few filmmakers in any country, at any time, made films as personal, or movies that probed more deeply into the spiritual dilemmas and personal quests of humanity, especially its artists, its intelligentsia, its ascetics, its soldiers, its prisoners, its visionaries, its Bergmans and its Trakovskys.
If film is an art, then Andrei Tarkovsky was one of its greatest artists. And The Sacrifice is one of his greatest poems. We watch it, we listen, we marvel. The tree takes root. The boy lies beneath it. The sun blazes on the water. Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" fills the air. Life, we feel -- if only for a moment, or if only for the duration of a single shot -- does not end with seeming death. In Swedish and English, with English subtitles. (Extras: the documentary Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky; galleries; trailers.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
X-Men: First Class(C+)
U.S.: Matthew Vaughn, 2011, Fox
Maybe I'm getting tired of super-heroes and super-heroines. Or maybe X-Men: First Class just has too many of them. In any case, the latest Marvel movie, by my reckoning, puts a first-rate cast into a third-rate story, nearly saves it with first- or second-rate production values, but ultimately sinks into -- by my count -- second- or-third-rate entertainment.
I'm not trying to be snobbish here. I fully realize this movie made a kazillion dollars. Listen: Marvel Comics and Stan Lee's original comic-book-writing -- from which the original X-Men derives -- were actually among my early '60s favorites.
But this movie -- directed by Matthew Vaughn of Kick-Ass, and assembled by six writers, including Vaughn and the first X-Menmeister Bryan Singer -- isn't up to Stan Lee. Lee's best writing has a brashness, zing and nose-thumbing humor this movie doesn't even touch. (To be fair, most of the other Marvel movies don't touch it either, except for the first Iron Man.) There's nothing very original or exciting about X-Men: First Class -- an origin story that takes us back to the creation of the super-mutant group fussed over by Professor X, a.k.a. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) -- despite its very expensive attempt to reboot '60s Marvel Comics and James Bond.
X-Men: First Class does throw around a lot of money and flex a lot of technical prowess, and it shows us, in great, dubious detail, how these young mutant super-supers were recruited and came together and how they got their names. (If you want proof that X: First isn't first-rate writing, check out those naming scenes.)
For all of ice-babe Emma Frost's (Jones) glittering diamond skin (diamonds really are her best friend), and Beast's (Nicolas Hoult's) weird feet, and Mystique's (Lawrence) blue face and flaming hair, I also found it hard to warm up to these people -- hard to warm up to anybody except, occasionally, the super-intense Erik, the brainy and bemused Charles and Bacon's cheerfully odious super-villain, who at least seemed to be having a good time. I'm also a little amazed (though happy for his career prospects) at all the slavering over Fassbender for this movie and part, when he's obviously so much better in less-seen films like Hunger and Jane Eyre.
X: First does try to ram some significance in by drawing parallels between the mutant kids and various victims of prejudice: Jews and gays and even intellectuals, as well as people with blue skin and silly helmets. "I'm mutant and I'm proud" is one of the show's signature phrases, and, one character says of his mutant gifts, "They didn't ask, so I didn't tell." Daring? Or trivializing? Or both?
Director/co-writer Vaughn -- who made an amusing show out of Kick-Ass -- does his job fairly well here. The movie is slick and fast and good-looking (not as good-looking perhaps, as it should be), and it has a genuinely exciting though dopey last act: that crazy three-cornered American-Russian-mutant battle off Cuba, with President Kennedy delivering the coda on TV. That scene shows that JFK still has more star power than either Fassbender or McAvoy. Or Kevin Bacon.
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (B)
U.K.: Craig McCall, 2010, Strand Releasing.
A tribute to one of world cinema's greatest cinematographers, Britain's Jack Cardiff, who started his official career with three masterpieces -- Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's staggering Stairway to Heaven, their beautiful Black Narcissus and their ravishing The Red Shoes -- and kept on for more than half a century, distinguishing himself as cinematographer (The African Queen), director (Sons and Lovers) and, above all, as a master of color and Technicolor (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, Vidor's War and Peace), before ultimately making stuff like Rambo and Conan the Destroyer (in his 70s) look better than they deserved, winning the only career Oscar for camerawork, and shooting almost right up to the end.
Cardiff was 21 when he shot, uncredited, a bit of Schoedsack-Cooper's 1935 The Last Days of Pompeii, and his last IMDB credit is the 2007 miniseries The Other Side of the Screen, released when he was 93. Lots of good archive and interview footage here and very eloquent recollections from Cardiff himself. My one complaint: However they were reproduced, many of the clips of Cardiff's work here don't look as rich and lustrous as they should be. Nobody, of course, not even Vittorio Storaro, shot color better. (Extras: interview with Craig McCall, by Ian Christie; featurettes; Jack Cardiff actress portraits; photo galleries; trailer.)
Your Highness (C+)
U.S.: David Gordon Green, 2011, Universal
What price silliness? What price prurience? What price sheer knuckleheaded balderdash?
Whatever the price, Your Highness -- a sword-and-sorcery movie which sometimes seems geared as lowbrow comedy for frat boy idiots -- pays it. This movie was so badly reviewed one would have thought, from the tone of the attacks, that director David Gordon Green and writer-star-executive producer Danny McBride had made the cinematic equivalent of a Ponzi scheme sold to nunneries, or a drive-in restaurant specializing in deep-fried caca.
Certainly few of my colleagues liked it. Most loathed it. Your Highness -- the title is a thickish play on words, with an obvious marijuana allusion -- is set during a time when princes and princesses romped in castles, warriors quested, wizards sorcerized, dragons spit flame and everybody made jokes about penises and homosexuality and various other forbidden topics (at least forbidden at the time of Danny Kaye's The Court Jester, a funnier, cleaner 1956 period satire), while riding around magical forests and observing genre conventions.
The story of the movie, courtesy of scriptwriters McBride and Ben Best, is the kind that usually comes to you when you've had a few too many -- and is perhaps best appreciated that way too. Prince Fabious (James Franco, in his blissed out Pineapple Express mode, but without visible ganja) is a wondrous hero beloved by all, specially his doting father, King Tallius (Charles Dance). Prince Thadeous (Danny McBride) is his younger brother, a shameless asshole, bone-lazy, incompetent at almost everything, and consumed with venomous ill will -- accompanied by his squire Courtney (Rasmus Hardiker), whose haircut is the worst joke in the movie. Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel) is a beauteous babe of a bride, kidnapped by the wicked wizard Leezar (Justin Theroux), who is clearly up to no good.
Also along for the bride-ride is Isabel the foxy Warrior Princess, played and dressed without visible shame and with some seeming enjoyment by Natalie Portman, whose keen warrior-babe outlaw expression suggests that at any moment, she might be moved to cry "Oscars? We don't need no stinking Oscars!"
Your Highness, which uses so many four letter words it might properly be dedicated to George Carlin, seemed to offend so many critics -- and perhaps so many audiences too -- because it was so full of dirty juvenile stupid jokes. Well, dirty juvenile stupid humor has a place in the world, and so do dirty juvenile stupid humorists (certainly a thriving profession) and audiences. Green does have more to offer. After winning his spurs with subtle and uncompromising art films like George Washington and All the Real Girls, and psychological dramas like Undertow and Snow Angels, he's obviously trying to show different strings to his bow (some warped), and incidentally work with bigger budgets. Green may flub it all, many have, but I think he's earned the right to explore his inner nitwit. (Extras: commentary with Green, McBride, Franco and Theroux; "Making of" documentary; deleted scenes; alternate scenes; gag reel.)