Sunday, March 11, 2012

Coriolanus and Pina (with just a bit of We Need to Talk about Kevin)

     “Wanna see Voldemort do Shakespeare?”  “Sure, but then I
      gotta dance with a chair!”  (But watch out for that Robin Hood
      wannabe over there in the gym.)
                    Reviews by Ken Burke           Coriolanus 

A lesser-known Shakespeare play comes to gruesome life, transposed to the modern world of political warfare but with ancient problems of treachery intact in the telling.

A documentary about German choreographer Pina Bausch, who died just as filming began so this is a tribute to her creativity from her very talented company of dancers.
            Time to put the romantic comedies and action-adventures on hold and delve into some higher art—as well as catching up on a couple of Oscar-nominated films that weren’t in local release prior to the ceremony—beginning with that old (well, Renaissance actually) English guy, William Shakespeare.  (And I warn you now that this review is going to be very heavy on parenthetical commentary.  What’s new about that, you say?  Well, this time it’s likely to be worse than usual because these films speak more to me about things they remind me of rather than things I know a lot about, so be prepared for frequent side trips into the ozone.)  To start with, for many of us when the names “Fiennes” and “Shakespeare” come up in the same sentence the quickest connection might be to Joseph Fiennes starring as The Bard in John Madden’s 1998 Shakespeare in Love(This was a big Oscar winner including for Gwyneth Paltrow as Best Actress as Willie’s brief romantic infatuation, Viola De Lesseps, and Best Picture, beating front-runner Saving Private Ryan [Steven Spielberg, who did win Best Director], resulting, some claim, from a very successful ad campaign by Harvey Weinstein, back when he was still running Miramax—a claim that might be repeating itself in this year’s GOP primaries where Mitt Romney seems to be making great inroads against more likely candidates among conservative voters by way of some brutally effective ads.  But, regarding Saving Private Ryan and the Oscar, let’s just say that if all it takes is a good ad campaign to make Hollywood voters not fully appreciate the sacrifices of the “Greatest Generation,” then to paraphrase Mr. Robinson in The Graduate [Mike Nichols, 1967], “Well, that doesn’t say very much for my father, does it?”  See, I told you we’re going to take some sideways excursions … but now back to our regularly scheduled programming.)  In Coriolanus, however, the Shakespeare connection is with older brother Ralph Fiennes—famous for being a despicable Nazi in Schlinder’s List (Spielberg again, 1993), a physically and emotionally damaged tragic lover in The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996), and of course as the notorious facially-challenged evil wizard Voldemort in several Harry Potter and … movies (2005-2011).  Fiennes has not only taken on the powerful lead role in this military blood bath but also makes his directorial debut, quite a challenge with this lesser-known Elizabethan Era sociopolitical critique.
            OK, now we’re already to the part where I start admitting my ignorance of the source material, having never studied nor seen this play and only having read about it and skimmed through it once to see how well it’s correlated to the film (surprisingly well, given how Shakespeare’s originals are often modified drastically for the logistics of the commercial cinema).  So, these are impressions of Coriolanus are based mainly on what I encountered on screen, with the locale now “A place calling itself Rome” in contemporary times, where the vicious and vengeful events taken straight from the original play could easily imply the brutal border warfare in Kosovo and Serbia in the late 1990s or Chechnya and Russia into today.  In Coriolanus the struggle is between the Romans, with Fiennes as military-hero-turned-hailed-then-spurned-politician Caius Martius, and their neighbors the Volscians (also called the Volsces), whose leader is Tullus Aufidius, played with grim glee by Gerard Butler.  Our film begins with some tight closeups of Aufidius sharpening his knife and flexing his tattoos as he watches TV coverage of Rome in a state of emergency where crowds revolt against grain being kept locked away from the hungry populace for the benefit of the wealthy benefactors of Roman society (sound familiar?).  What emerges in this historically-dislocated film as a reflection of our “Occupy” movements against the powerful 1% is a near riot, put down by the brutal enforcement of Fiennes who counters the “Better to die than famish” sentiments of the angry mob (“curs” in his opinion) with his own leadership philosophy of “Who deserves greatness deserves your hate.”  (And considering how the WWE is building up their April 1 Wrestlemania spectacular with warring diatribes from grappler-turned-movie-star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vs. the love/hate kid of our new century, John Cena [“Let’s go, Cena!/Cena sucks!”], they might want to ask Fiennes to buy some ad time in order to keep his poorly-seen film alive at the box office as well as to play into WWE’s calculated grudge-match mentality with both TV and film viewers.)  Everyone seems to harbor a grudge in Coriolanus too, where half the cast is in green fatigues (hard to tell the armies apart) and everyone is in a combative mood, leaving no character as particularly sympathetic nor motivated by anything much beyond anger and fear (and for today’s Republicans in California there’s the extra fear factor of a bald and older Fiennes looking a lot like Governor Jerry Brown, considered by many on the far right of the Left Coast to be an equally unloved head of state—hmm, now the asides are really beginning to ramble, but you were forewarned so read on if you dare).

            I’ll compress the narrative (given that it wasn’t always that easy to follow anyway because of the eloquent but unfamiliar language patterns) to simply these facts:  Border warfare leads Caius Martius into Volscian territory where the battle scenes are violent (Hurt Locker [Kathryn Bigelow, 2008] level) and he and Aufidius fight mano a mano with no resolution (just like the WWE again, setting up tensions for the big payoff later); Caius Martius comes home a war hero after vicious slaughtering of the enemy, then through the machinations of influential family friend Menenius Agrippa (Brian Cox) is given the honorary surname Coriolanus; his fortunes quickly reverse as he is first appointed Consul (the highest office of government under the Republic, which I take this to be given that there is no Emperor present and the Senate seems to have decisive authority, at least at times [another parallel to our current dysfunctional governmental actions]) and praised by the crowds, then driven into exile by traitorous Tribunes Sicinius (James Nesbitt) and Brutus (Paul Jesson); whereupon he makes a pact with the Volscians in order to take his revenge on Rome, allowing him to now be a butcher of his former countrymen (thus this photo above of Coriolanus in his “Demon Barber of Fleet Street” pose); but his advance on the capitol is halted after a passionate plea to his lingering patriotism by his government-invested mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave, who, along with his wife, Virgilia [Jessica Chastain, possibly the most seen screen actress of 2011], and son show their loyalty is to the state rather than to Coriolanus as family patriarch, whom Mom fawned over when he was Rome’s hero much to Chastain’s distain); leading a heartbroken Coriolanus to sign a peace treaty; which results in his return to the Volscians where he’s assassinated by a knife-wielding gang of soldiers and his old enemy (“Et tu, Aufidius?” so to speak) who finally gets to use that sharp blade from the opening shots.  Now that’s how to run a press-worthy political campaign, if not a military one!

          In actions that are all too familiar to anyone who watches current news reports, in this film the citizens of Rome are insulted by their arrogant leader, their uninformed loyalty is easily swayed by conniving strategists, a once-revered military protector takes arms against his own people in cooperation with his once-sworn enemy, a son/husband/father is abandoned by his mother, wife, and child who all retain their loyalty to the same state that banished the epicenter of their family, and old wounds are not forgiven when the spoils of war are spoiled by a peace that comes too soon for the vengefully recalcitrant pseudo-allied Volscians.  Everyone loses except for the powerful king-makers who run the Roman society, just as little gets accomplished in our political capitol except decisions that protect the capital of the elite who replace one icon with another as needed but don’t open the grain stores for the starving “rabble” of our society.  Yet, all of this, sadly also just like today, is wrapped in valor and the nobility of fighting for what the elite define as a just cause—or as Coriolanus puts it, “If any think brave death outweighs bad life and that his country is dearer than himself, let him alone”—so that the easily-led public will follow this warped line of thinking where nobility of action is the rationalization for every heinous act imagined.
            Like mother, like son in Coriolanus in the sense that Volumnia praises valorous sons who would die for their country, a choice seemingly more valuable than her own son whom she defends upon his banishment but opposes when he comes back leading the Volscian army, not willing to grasp why he’s turned so bitterly against kin and country.  Her persuasive speech is Redgrave’s crowning moment in this film, the likely reason for her Best Supporting Actress nomination (although neither she nor any of the competition had much of a chance against Octavia Spencer’s Minnie the maid from The Help [Tate Taylor], including Help-mate Jessica Chastain as white-trash outcast Celia Foote).  Some might complain that Redgrave’s nomination shouldn’t ride on just one powerfully-delivered speech, in that she’s not that prominent in the rest of the film, but reaching back again to Shakespeare in Love we find Judi Dench getting the Supporting Actress Oscar as Queen Elizabeth with only about 8 minutes of screen time (and Beatrice Straight needed only 6 minutes to get hers as the angry, jilted wife of TV news executive William Holden in Network [Sidney Lumet, 1976]), so the considerations rest with quality, not quantity (but we surely couldn’t have done with any less of Minnie and her chocolate pie in The Help where her active screen presence was an anchor throughout the film, including her scenes as Celia Foote’s maid after being fired by the queen of mean, Miss Hilly Holbrook [Bryce Dallas Howard]).  Like a compressed version of Octavia Spencer, Redgrave has a commanding presence in her limited screen time in Coriolanus and, unlike some of her co-stars, doesn’t need to be victorious on the battlefield to make an impact, although she does look equally commanding when she also shows up in uniform, giving us a sense of where the iron will of her son originated, although he proves to be a less-than-irresistible force when confronted with her as an immovable object.  If Coriolanus in its entirety had the intensity of this one mother-son encounter I’d probably find it more satisfying overall, but as is it’s just too much relentless antagonism to shine as brightly for me as Shakespeare’s more well-known works, which just shows that even an artistic genius doesn’t always fully succeed with every offering although there’s nothing inherently inferior about this cautionary tale, just a sense that the constant bloodlust produces too heavy of a regular drumbeat.  At one point Coriolanus is described with the words “There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger”; this could be said of the play and the film as well.

            All this talk of Oscar winners and also-rans brings me to the final major parenthetical aside in this review and the chance to slip in one more look at a 2011 film while supposedly exploring Coriolanus, but I will work in some reasonably rationalized connections to Fiennes' film while I’m rambling.  (Maybe I’m channeling Hunter S. Thompson stream-of-consciousness here [Hunter may be dead but is not gone in our memory, although some would say he was gone in his own self-consciousness long before he died.]  But before presenting that diversion, here’s another one in which I must admit that Coriolanus is a gruesomely powerful tragedy of the more oppressive aspects of human nature but doesn’t resonate with me as much as some other, more nuanced cinematic Shakespearian dissections of our flawed nature such as Richard Longcraine’s 1995 Richard III, with Ian McKellen as the devious king, or the 1996 Hamlet where Kenneth Branagh [another Oscar contender this year in Simon Curtis’ My Week with Marilyn as Laurence Olivier—who, of course must be noted for his own stately 1948 Hamlet] directs himself as the indecisive prince.  OK, that said, here’s the intended diversion, which brings us to another film entirely.

          (The other character, along with Redgrave’s Volumnia, I’d like to note from the final cluster of 2011 successes just now making it into theatres in most markets, with a performance from Tilda Swinton that should have led her to Best Actress contention but somehow didn’t [sorry, Rooney Mara, but good as you were as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you should have to wait until you’ve at least played with fire before you take a nomination away from Swinton], is the beleaguered mom, Eva Khatchadourian, in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin [and while Ezra Miller is homicidally scary as the teenage Kevin, I just hope that what I saw from Jasper Newell as the 6-8 year-old version is accomplished acting, because if this kid is that scary I’d never want to run into him on a dark playground.]  Like Coriolanus, Eva faces a hostile threat to her stability in her withdrawn, mean-tempered son [who manages to almost destroy everything sane about her previously successful life, just as our Roman soldier is almost destroyed by his own society, before his earlier enemy finally completes the circle] and finds little solace from her chief family connection, her husband Franklin [John C. Reilly, in another successful role as a clueless dad, as with his work in Roman Polanski’s Carnage, reviewed earlier in this blog]), just as Coriolanus ultimately finds himself in unanticipated conflict with his mother, which changes the course of his life, just as Eva’s life collapses around her due to unavailable support from Franklin [who enjoys a functional relationship with Kevin so he provides no comfort to Eva because he can’t believe what she tells him about their son’s hostility toward her] even as the hostile boy twists every good thing his mother tried to give him into a horrible rampage later in high school, reminiscent of Coriolanus at his worst. 

          (In retrospect, We Need to Talk about Kevin, with a lot of powerful performances and constant beautifully-composed ethereal images, will have to push Midnight in Paris off of my 2011 Top 10, with 4 of my 5 stars [5 being the highest pinnacle to attain using my pentagrams; we're talking Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) or Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977) here] so 4 equates to tops in most other ratings systems [apologies also to Woody for dumping Midnight in Paris, but he’s now gotten another Best Original Screenplay Oscar for his literary time-travel story—as if he even cares—so that will have to comfort him for now, even though I know how much he hangs on my every word].)  OK, enough on this superhighway-sized aside and enough commentary on the remaining, unexamined films of last year … except just one more that’s far too good to omit.
            As with Tilda Swinton not getting a deserved Oscar nomination, I have to wonder if Pina didn’t get a deserved Oscar win as Best Feature Documentary, although I haven’t seen Daniel Lindsay, T. J. Martin, and Richard Middlemas’ Undefeated, about an inner-city high school football team in North Memphis, TN.  I’ve read that it’s a very powerful story of overcoming social and personal adversity (one glowing review is at,0,4992367.story; although another one notes that it raises problematical comparisons to John Lee Hancock’s 2009 The Blind Side’s fictionalization of another football story, see, but I have to wonder if it holds together as well as Pina does as a pure cinematic experience.  Unlike my ramblings on Coriolanus, I’ll have to be more to the point on Pina because it’s such a compelling audiovisual experience that really doesn’t translate too well into words, at least words that I can articulate, possibly because this is a film about dance and choreography, rather than literature or theatre, brought into a cinematic structure.  So much of what makes Coriolanus work as well as it does is the reality that it’s based on an eloquent construction of otherwise ordinary elements of the English language—words—which are then spoken and accompanied by bodily gestures that can rather easily be conveyed, or at least mimicked, by other words in the attempt to translate one communicative form into another, from film to review.  With dance, the translation from pure bodily movement, often accompanied by music, into the verbal mode is much more distanced, more abstracted from what needs to be seen to even begin to be appreciated.  (This is further complicated for me by my self-chosen lack of exposure to contemporary dance, despite having ample opportunities at Mills College and throughout the San Francisco Bay Area [films have been my priority, with a good bit of theatre in second place, and then there are Oakland A’s baseball games, so until retirement finally frees me up a bit, my dance attendance will likely continue to suffer].  About all I can offer here is seeing Merce Cunningham and his troupe in Austin, TX in the early 1970s—Holy Toledo! What an experience; however, for me not much since then.)  But what German New Wave master Wim Wenders (foreign-film fans might have followed his career since the 1970s but to others he’s likely best known for Paris, Texas, 1984, Wings of Desire, 1987, and/or Buena Vista Social Club, 1999 [another performance-based documentary]) has created here is a collaboration with his subject, so that he’s not just giving us a cinematic account of the works of another artist but he’s structuring a unique collage of her dance work into another form of dance entirely, one that takes what is captured by the camera but then orchestrates it into a film that stands on its own as a series of choreographed movements that take on a new life beyond the individual pieces taken from the company repertoire for this remembrance of their creator.
            Pina Bausch (1940-2009) was an acclaimed contemporary dancer and choreographer, most known for her ongoing work with the German Wuppertal Dance Theater, but Wenders’ intention to celebrate her life’s work took an unexpected turn when she died just before filming was to begin.  Therefore, while we see her in some archival footage this tribute isn’t so much a biography as an homage to her vision, with longer presentations of some of her more famous pieces interspersed with new works by her company in styles they felt were conducive to her unique vision for the fluid aesthetics of bodies in motion.  The first of the long dances is Pina’s version of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet, The Rite of Spring (Le sacre du printemps), a passionate piece, controversial in its Paris premiere on May 29, 1913 as performed by Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, led by Vaslav Nijinsky (and sanitized of its sexual implications in Disney’s 1940 Fantasia, with a version of the music set to erupting volcanoes and battling dinosaurs).  In Pina’s production the stage is first covered with soil, so as the dancers go through the process of implying the sensual sacrifice of the lead woman in a red dress they all end up essentially covered in dirt or mud as a result of their violent movements, making this into an organic, if not orgasmic, experience for all concerned.  The next longer piece is Café Müller presented on a large stage that implies a room empty of everything except a large number of chairs which become interactive elements as various dancers enter and leave the space, interacting as well in some manner with each other or being completely alone along the back walls or on the floor in union with the walls.  Odd as both of these larger works may sound, they are relatively stable and conventional compared to the many short pieces, usually with just a few performers at a time, that are interwoven throughout the film; these are the tribute pieces, where Bausch’s dancers devised their own expressions, done in a manner resonant with her sensibilities.
            Neither the long pieces nor the interludes are necessary shown in full, so that we go back and forth among many of them throughout Wender’s composition, which is what makes this film so much more than a documentary to me; instead it’s as if he’s constructing a cinematic collage of related elements that only feel fulfilled upon viewing the complete film, with each long or short segment adding to the rhythm and identity of the whole.  At times the dancers are in city street traffic islands with cars driving by them as random elements of the motions on screen; however, as an elevated train goes by these street dancers we may suddenly find ourselves in a coach of that train, with another piece involving a woman stomping on a large pillow while a man wearing cardboard donkey ears looks on.  Other unlikely encounters take place in nature with a glass table at the edge of a river, or in a river with a large mechanical hippo, or in an abandoned subway, or in the yard of a factory, or on the edge of a quarry, or simply on an escalator, at times with vivid red or yellow dresses on the female dancers.  It’s all a bit confusing upon first viewing, with no clarification that these were not pieces intended to be seen by a live audience but only by us in a movie theatre (Ah, the wonderful insights to be gleaned from an online press kit!), but after awhile you just sit in awed amazement at both the grace of movement no matter where the setting and the utter audacity of the original choices made in celebration of the inspiring master, Pina.

            As Pina continues to evolve we find our spacious stage again in Kontakthof, but now the chairs are against the back and side walls (as with Café Müller, emphasizing the traditionally-missing “fourth wall” through which we view the action) with formally dressed people sitting in them while at first individual soloists move to center stage, then over time there are large numbers of people in interaction as if this is a very abstracted version of a high school dance in the gym.  As best I understand it, the original work alternated large groups of much younger and much older performers in the space, but through the ease of film editing Wenders can cut back and forth between these separated generations in a manner that reminds us that while this film may be about Pina and her ensemble it is still a film made by someone else who has his own vision of how to compose and present all of this stunning flow of motion.  The last of the major pieces to emerge within this cinematic composition is Vollmond (Full Moon) which begins with a few dancers in concert with a large rock, then grows to a larger group and increasingly more water rained onto the stage which somehow collects in depth in some areas allowing it to be flung around the performance space in a truly “fluid” manner.  Pina Bausch’s mantra was “Dance, dance, or you will be lost.”  You may be a bit lost if you try to make too much sense of what you get scene by scene in this marvelously created, engagingly edited film, but if you just let yourself flow with its graceful pace, its constantly surprising locales, its successful use of non-flamboyant 3-D that properly enhances the integration of the dancers into their varied environments, and its loving embrace of the artistry of the departed center of this life-on-stage story I think you’ll be well rewarded with this Oscar contender (just as you’d be impressed with Redgrave’s Oscar-nominated contribution to Fiennes’ estimable adaptation and Swinton’s sadly-overlooked depiction of household trauma that escalates into community tragedy when Kevin's archery skills turn homicidal).

          The finer arts have rewarded us well with these varying levels of spectacular showcases, but soon it will be time to return to more pressing commercial matters so start saving up your oxygen for a trip to Mars with John Carter next week.

          If you want to know more about Coriolanus here are some suggested links:

          If you’d like to know more about Pina here are some suggested links:  (This is one of several sites that offer you opportunities to watch the entire film either whole or in segments; I’ll leave that choice to you to explore how you might want to do that.)

          I didn’t talk much about We Need to Talk about Kevin but if you’d like to delve in more here are some suggested links:  (From this site you can download the full press kit.)

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