Saturday, January 25, 2014

Jesse and Siddhartha's Excellent Reincarnation: "Little Buddha" (1994)

Bernardo Bertolucci returned to the same fertile ground that garnered his outstanding "The Last Emperor" Oscar gold, and comes up with a half-hearted attempt to tell the story of Siddhartha.

In Bhutan, Lama Norbu (Ying Ruocheng, the only cast member who should have been awarded an Oscar nod) receives good news. Thanks to a vivid dream from another Buddhist monk, Norbu is convinced that his deceased teacher may have been reborn in Seattle, Washington. He flies to the United States, meets with some American monks, and they set upon the brand new house owned by Dean and Lisa (Chris Isaak and Bridget Fonda), and the object of their inquiry- Jesse (a pretty good Alex Wiesendanger). The monks are very nice, and win over Lisa right away. Dean is having problems at work, and isn't warming up to the idea that his blonde six year old is the reincarnation of some Buddhist monk. Norbu leaves a children's book for Jesse, and we are introduced to the parallel story of the film.

The book tells the over-two-thousand-year-old story of Prince Siddhartha (Keanu Reeves), a pampered young man who is hidden from the negativity of the world by his father, until he finally ventures beyond the city gates one day and discovers that the world does not exist merely to make him happy. He takes it upon himself to end suffering, and in the process becomes "enlightened," a Buddha. Bertolucci cuts back and forth between the story of Jesse, who eventually finds himself in Bhutan to see if he is in fact the reincarnation, and Siddhartha, who sits and meditates a lot.

I don't mean to be flippant about Buddha, or the religion that sprung from Siddhartha's teachings, but when the film itself careens so wildly from epic to silly domestic soap opera, it is hard to take the proceedings seriously. Miscasting abounds. Reeves certainly looks exotic, sporting more eyeliner than a glam rocker, but when he asks "what is...suffering?," I had to stifle a giggle. Same with Isaak, whose music is more emotional than his acting. His frustration at schlepping his kid to a Buddhist center and his big scene where he learns a boss/coworker has died, play the exact same. He had one constipated emotion, but works that single facial expression with everything he's got. Fonda is barely here. She disappears half way through the picture, and I wondered if something happened during production that explained the actress' absence from the screen.

When the film does work, it is as magical as "The Last Emperor." Ying Ruocheng is wonderful as the humble monk looking for his spiritual guide. Every time he is onscreen, his scenes click and interest is raised. Vittorio Storaro's cinematography is clunky and obvious (Siddhartha's scenes are warm and wonderful, the Seattle scenes are so cold and clinical, I expected to see the actors' breath in interior shots). Ryuichi Sakamoto tries to copy his "The Last Emperor" score, with sporadic success.

The film is an education, and I learned a lot about Buddhism. The structure should have been an epic telling, but both story lines only shoot for mediocrity, and at the film's end, I wondered "well, what now?" This wasn't an open, ambiguous ending, but an ending not worthy of the emotional investment I put into the characters- both modern day and ancient. "Little Buddha" takes the middle road, and so does my review. (* * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Malcolm Xperimental: "Death of a Prophet" (1981)

Morgan Freeman portraying Malcolm X should have been a sure thing, but his very good performance is swallowed up in this awkwardly staged experimental film.

On the surface, and the myriad DVD covers (this film is in the public domain and subject to a ton of releases), this hour long drama chronicles the last day in the life of Malcolm X before he was gunned down in New York City during a speech. However, writer/director Woodie King, Jr. throws in many anachronisms, turning this into a strange drama. Freeman wanders around 1965 Harlem, but encounters both hippies, and discusses the deaths of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. The automobiles in the film are obviously contemporary to when this was made. Malcolm X goes about his mundane errands, and the camera follows, making this hour-long film seem longer.

Freeman looks wrong in the role (he looks more like Cornel West than anyone), but he brings a nice gravity to the film. We don't get to hear his distinctive voice until almost a quarter of the way into the story, but Ossie Davis and Amiri Baraka are present to talk about the day Malcolm X was shot, and its effect on the black community.

Technically, the editing is sloppy, the sets are cheap, and characters are introduced without any backing information (the assassination conspirators are given almost as much screen time as Freeman). Yolanda King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., plays Betty Shabazz pretty well. It's unsettling to have scenes concerning a firebombing of the couple's home, and the way Betty Shabazz died decades later.

As a stand-alone film, "Death of a Prophet" is an interesting failure. (* *) out of five stars.