Of Mills and Crosses

Films depict historical events, great works of literature, flippant works of pulp, true life accounts, biographies, and so on. How often do we get a film based on a painting? Maybe not often enough. Tarkovsky sort of did that in Andrei Rublev (1966), Svankmajer made some bizarre shorts in the style of Arcimbaldo, and Ivan Ivanov-Vano accomplished a truly staggering feat in his short The Battle of Kerzhenets (1971). All this to say that it can be done and it has proven to be a fascinating experiment when it is done. Why are not more paintings adapted to the big screen? After all, Fantasia (1940) and Allegro non Troppo (1976) are based on classical music compositions.

The Mill and the Cross (2011) was directed by Lech Majewski to cinematically represent Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Way to Calvary, painted in 1564. Rutger Hauer (Ladyhawke, Blade Runner) plays Bruegel and Charlotte Rampling (The Verdict, Melancholia) and Michael York (The Three Musketeers, Austin Powers) costar. This is a strange sort of film. It doesn’t really flow like a conventional plot with readily understandable characters. It is less of a movie and more of a tranquil lingering in every beautifully realized square inch of the painting that inspired it.

We gradually move from one detail to another as we explore Bruegel’s work through different angles, richer context, and multi-historical meanings. It is as much a depiction of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition as it is a representation of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. This is a tough sell. It’s masquerading as a film, but really what Majewski is doing is forcing an audience to pay attention to the details. How many people wander a vast art museum, approach a great work, gaze at it for a few moments, take note of the artist, date, and materials used, and then simply move on? How many of us take the time to seriously consider and interact with seemingly trivial details in great works of art? The Way to Calvary is one of those biblical accounts where the people still look like they are living in the Renaissance or Medieval times. This could be for a few reasons. One might be that widespread knowledge of the fashions and architecture of bible times was not available. Another might be from the simple fact that Majewski seems to be saying that Bruegel might have been comparing the passion account with his own contemporary world.

It is a beautiful film. Many special effects shots are used to integrate the rich beauty of the Bruegel painting into the film. The film very much resembles a painting. Many shots even appear to composite actual elements of the original painting into the background. This gives The Mill and the Cross a very distinct look and feel. In addition to looking great, the film takes its time. As I’ve said, this movie likes to linger on subtle, strange imagery and just let the moving pieces perform their bottled dance. There is minimal dialogue and it moves slowly and deliberately and does not explain everything right away. You have to stick with it and trust Mejewski. I, for one, was never bored by this smooth and impressively visual film.

Watching it, I realize it will probably not be for everyone, but I certainly enjoyed it and I think it is a noble experiment that leads one to appreciate art more and think differently about it. It is also a fine pseudo-account of the crucifixion narrative. I cannot tell if this is a better spiritual film or historical film…or maybe it is merely meant to be an art film. Whatever it is, it makes Bruegel’s painting come to life and delves deep into its obvious meanings and its more elusive symbolism along with carefully containing the era in which Bruegel lived. The Mill and the Cross truly teaches us that there is more in a grand old painting than what meets the eye in the first few moments one encounters it. There is much sophistication and beauty and pain and history. It’s a bold film no matter how you look at it and I think one that will be hard to forget.

For those with a keen eye for artistic imagery and a patience for the arts this is a must see. The Mill and the Cross is a pleasing art history lesson.

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Generic Belgian Boy Sleuth and the Quest for the Implausible Rube-Goldbergian Action Set Pieces

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)When I was a kid I loved The Adventures of Tintin. Hergé’s colorful, mystery-filled world was the perfect amalgam of The Hardy Boys, Johnny Quest, and Emil and the Detectives. I always preferred the boy reporter, Tintin, to Johnny Quest because of the cool time periods and atmosphere. The jury’s still out on whether Snowy is better than Bandit. It was everything a young boy loves: action, adventure, danger, mystery, and rapidly shifting exotic backdrops. Both the comics (published between 1929 and 1976) and the animated series from the early nineties are excellent fun.

Indiana Jones director, Steven Spielberg, it would seem should be the most logical choice to bring the beloved character to the big screen (with aid of one Peter Jackson). Sitting in the theater I can see where people might have some quibbles with the film adaptation. It is jam-packed with wild action sequences and gun play and explosions and very little character development and some of the old-timey flavor and sensibilities might not be what modern audiences are craving. Like most things, there are positive things about Tintin and then there are negative things.

For those uninitiated into the world of Belgian artist Hergé’s Tintin they might not experience that same surge of nostalgia. A film should not be dependent on that surge, especially for a character that might not be as familiar in the United States. Tintin is a flat character. He always was. Even in the comics. One is meant to be experiencing the adventures through Tintin’s eyes. He is a blank cypher so we can more readily assign our own personalities to him. It works in the comics when you’re a kid. This idea may not work so well on the big screen. Despite Tintin’s apparent innocuousness and infernal purity he still looks good on screen. Daniel Craig (Casino Royale, Munich) plays the evil Professor Sakharine but his motivations are silly and he’s not a particularly memorable screen villain. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) are the bumbling identical detective set of Thomson and Thompson and they play the parts very true to the source material but they do not add much new. Fortunately not all of the characters are so bland. Andy Serkis (The Two Towers, Topsy-Turvy) gives an extremely enjoyable and kooky performance as Capt. Archibald Haddock.

The animation is incredible. I don’t generally like motion-capture films (with the exception of Gil Kenan’s Monster House) and I am not a fan of the current 3D trend, but most of my misgivings regarding motion-capture are gone for Tintin. The photo-realistic textures donned upon Hergé-inspired cartoon features actually work well and gone are the glassy-eyed stares that gave everyone the willies in Robert Zemekis’s Polar Express. The colors pop and the world looks sharp and clear. There is a healthy balance between characters who look real and characters who look like cartoons. Visually it all works. With animation the camera is able to go places and do things that would never be achievable in a live-action film. This glorious freedom of the camera unencumbered by logistics of any kind enables the filmmakers to film the action in incredibly new and exciting ways.One big complaint is that there is too much action. It is a smoke screen to disguise the thinness of plot and absence of engaging personalities. The action does become rather exhausting after awhile and towards the end of the movie I was wanting it to wrap up so I could go home. Instead of mood and solid atmosphere we get action. Instead of a clear objective and understandable character motivations we get action. It’s pretty much wall to wall action once it gets going. It reminded me of the first and last 20 minutes or so of Temple of Doom in that regard. I generally see 3D as a gimmick for rides and shows at Universal Studios or Busch Gardens so I treat The Adventures of Tintin as a big, long, exciting ride that features some of my favorite characters from my childhood. I do feel that although they really wanted this ride to be worth the cost of admission the spectacle does go on about ten minutes too long. I wanted a more satisfying and final conclusion.

So what do I really think about The Adventures of Tintin? I liked it. Thank God it’s not a pop-culture onslaught reboot like The Smurfs and such. It stays extremely true to its source material and would be a good escape for children young and old. Although it’s not nearly as good as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), in many ways it is everything Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was supposed to be but just outright refused to deliver. Perhaps Tintin is Spielberg’s apology and way of saying the whole Crystal Skull business was all George Lucas. For all its faults and limitations The Adventures of Tintin is a fun adventure that hearkens back to classic action-mystery stories of childhood yore. I don’t think Hergé would have had many objections to the film. I hope kids will like it. It’s about time American kids got a little bit more exposure to culture.

The Abduction of Zack Butterfield by the Coed April McKenna

I really love bad movies sometimes. I feel like they get me. I love Plan 9 From Outer Space, Troll 2, Birdemic, Starcrash, The RoomTurkish Star Wars, Night of the Lepus, the whole Godzilla series, you name it. I genuinely like these guys. They get strange and seemingly inexplicable cult followings too. Naturally, I have a dedicated perimeter of friends who are always on the lookout for new potential entries into the pantheon of cinematic crapdom.

There is a new movie. It is the progeny of writer/director/producer/editor (always a dangerous sign) Rick Lancaster. It is The Abduction of Zack Butterfield (aka The Last Days of April) (2011). I saw this film with some friends and fellow Chroniclers on its first run at the Laemmle on Sunset Blvd. It was one of the few theaters we could find that would even screen it. Half of our party was fighting illness, but the trailer had so enticed us. We took a wrong turn getting off the 101 freeway and we were running late as it was, but we simply had to get there. We parked in the wrong structure too and so could not get our ticket validated. The fates bellowed and laughed, but we purchased our tickets anyway and marched into the darkened theater just as the opening credits started. We made it. Take that, fates.

Can I put my shirt back on?

Can I put my shirt back on?

 

It takes place in upstate New York (ah, me old stomping grounds). The film was the story of a 15 year old boy who gets kidnapped by former mercenary, April, with a sad (and boring) backstory that leads her into insanity. She wants to make the perfect man for herself so she can recapture her lost teen years. . . so get ‘em young, right? April has an explosive necklace attached to Zack so he won’t escape and then she forces him to do chores around the house in some truly nauseating tight bicycle shorts. There is NO need for a codpiece to be that accentuating. They bang a few times (which is extra gross because Zack looks like he’s about 10 years old), but he only does it to lull her into a false sense of security and plan his escape.

The police frequent Zack’s home to remind his parents that there is little hope they will find him. The tubby sheriff was my favorite character. I could almost picture his face after climbing a flight of stairs. You can even see the lav mic peeking around from behind his tie when he sits down. What else, what else…hmm…oh, the acting is terrible (naturally), the characters are laughable, and the dialogue is hilariously awkward. The plot is stupid and completely devoid of tension, suspense, atmosphere and there is little art in the setup of any shot or scene. I get that they’re trying to be edgy and Misery-esque, but nothing works. It’s wall-to-wall awful. I will say only this of Zack Butterfield, it’s definitely wretched and I laughed quite a bit, but I doubt it will have the cult following of some of the classic baddies. The filmmakers had to be either a group of prepubescent boys or else they were criminally irresponsible perverts. I can see a group of 12 year old boys thinking, “wouldn’t it be cool if we like made a movie where there was like a hot chick who like kidnapped you and made you have sex with her? That would be cool, dude.” Anyone beyond puberty should be locked up for this garbage.

"Love is like a truck." What the heck was that about?

“Love is like a truck.” What the heck was that about?

One more thing! The theater actually had at least one person who genuinely enjoyed the film as a serious dramatic psychosexual thriller. He mumbled every time we made a joke or laughed at this ludicrous, pedophilic trainwreck. I couldn’t believe someone would view this film un-ironically. Even if someone absent-mindedly wandered into the theater with no pretext you would still think they would eventually realize that what they were looking at was bad. Maybe not. Perhaps there is a real audience for this film and I’m just missing something.

Perhaps the film does have a certain weird realism to it. A lot of real people are this dumb and would probably act and react the way the characters do in this movie’s situations. No heightened drama and no super elaborate plan conjured by unbelievable (but enjoyable) intelligent people. This is real cinéma vérité, ladies and gentlemen! And it’s near unwatchable. To each his own, I suppose. I just don’t see it. You should watch the trailer anyway.

If you love great indie thrillers. . . look somewhere else. Somewhere very far.

I love Los Angeles.

 

Native American disguise!

Native American disguise!

 

For more Alternative Chronicle questionable movie reviews check out: C.H.U.D.S., The Beast of Yucca Flats, For Y’ur Height Only (although I really love this movie), Endhiran, the complete Planet of the Apes, and more.

http://www.theabductionofzackbutterfield.com/moviestillsthumbs.html

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 30, 2011.