Saturday, March 31, 2012

Harlem Nights and Days

Film: Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Precious, officially named Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire is one of those films in the Hollywood genre of “important.” It doesn’t much matter if the film is a drama, a slice-of-life, or any other potential genre out there; Precious is an important film with roots that go back through other social commentaries on the poor and disenfranchised, the troubled and troubling, and the African-American experience in the United States. It is a film that is relentless in its pursuit of a desired happy ending that simply doesn’t exist. Instead, it is misery piled upon misery, a parfait of social and familial evils served to us in a tulip glass made of guilt. It’s also really powerful and moving, but that doesn’t change the fact that it uses everything it can to manipulate us into an emotional response.

Claireece “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe in the very definition of a break-out role) is an illiterate, overweight, abused girl living in government-sponsored housing in Harlem with her abusive and cruel mother, Mary (Mo’Nique). Within the first ten minutes of the film, we learn that Precious has a vivid fantasy life, in part because she is regularly being raped by her father and is pregnant by him for the second time. Her school is a warzone where no learning happens. Her mental world in which she is famous, beautiful, rich, and loved is her only escape. These fantasies come throughout the film, and generally when her real life has become so terrible that there is nowhere else for her to go.

Precious is removed from school and, because she appears to have some talent in math, she is offered a place at an alternative school to help her get her GED. It is here that the depths of her illiteracy are discovered, and she begins slowly working on learning how to read with the only-in-a-movie-could-she-have-this-name teacher Blu Rain (Paula Patton). She finds another mother figure in social worker Mrs. Weiss (Mariah Carey—yes, that Mariah Carey), who takes an interest in her case, particularly when she discovers the source of Precious’s children. We also get a decent turn from Lenny Kravitz as a nurse in the maternity ward when Precious delivers her second child.

But, of course, the uphill struggle that Precious finds herself on will be filled with obstacles, most of them thrown in her way by her evil, sadistic mother. Eventually, Precious gains the personal strength to leave her mother’s house, and just when the sun starts to come out on this story of pain and struggle, the floor drops out in a way that I will not reveal. The film tries to end on an up note, but really, that up note would not be difficult considering the depths of the well in which this film spends the bulk of its time.

I said before that this is the definition of a break-out role for Gabourey Sidibe, and it is, but hers is not the only truly noteworthy performance. However, hers is central. It is she who spends the bulk of the time on the screen, and it is through her eyes that the story of the film takes place. Sidibe is natural on the screen, as if she is not acting. Her speech is soft at times, as if she is scared of speaking to call too much attention to herself, and it is entirely believable. It’s worth noting additionally that a part of me wants to see more roles similar to this one available. The Hollywood model for women’s roles is for all women to be achingly gorgeous and a size 0, to be unobtainably beautiful. Sidibe is real, and while the world of this film is dismal and horrible and awful, I can only hope that she continues to find powerful roles for herself and continues to create a presence for women who are not the movie icon ideal.

The same can be said for, believe it or not, Mariah Carey here. Up to this point in my life, the single value I saw in Mariah Carey’s entire career was being used essentially as a sound effect/siren in the Emergency Broadcast Network’s video compilation/song “Get Down Get Down.” Beyond that, she had as much use for me as a kickstand on a blender, but I have to respect her performance here. She appears almost without cosmetics and sounds like she chain smoked a carton of Luckies before her scenes. She makes it work. Surprise, surprise.

The true performance here, though, comes from Mo’Nique, who has made most of her living in the public eye as a comedienne. Here, she plays a villain on par with virtually any over-the-top movie creep ever conceived, and creates something so vile and yet so completely real. It is the sort of thing that makes me wonder where this came from, and why she never did it before. She is an awful creature in this role, hateful and cruel and ugly, and the performance is one of the most riveting things I have ever seen. Mo’Nique in this film is a train wreck, and I mean that as a compliment. She is awful and terrible, and absolutely compelling. It is a thing of awe and wonder.

Of course, I have a couple of complaints. First, I’d have loved to see the same sort of reality in the character of Ms. Rain. Paula Patton is the sort of gorgeous that doesn’t teach in New York City schools. She’s good in the role, but too beautiful to be believable in it—the sort of anti-cosmetic magic done on Carey would have served her well here, because she’d not only have the acting chops for the part, she’d look the part.

Additionally, the film is the sort of misery buffet that I tend to avoid. All movies have conflict and problems, and while there are plenty of movies that pile trauma on trauma, few do it with the steam shovel that Precious uses. It’s hard to think of five consecutive minutes in this film that don’t involve some sort of indignity, pain, or degredation. Yes, I know there are lives like this, and yes, I see the importance of the story, but at some point, I just want a little light.

I also object to the formal name of the film. I understand why it happened—there was another movie out around the same time called Push, so there was a need to differentiate. But it would have been fine to just call the movie Precious without the unnecessary “look at me!” subtitle. In fact, it got so ridiculous, that reprint copies of the book were called “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” despite the fact that the reprint copies were indeed the novel “Push” by Sapphire. Oh, Nick Jobe, where is your meta-commentary when I need it?

EDIT: Squish Lessard at The Film Vituperatum, in his review of The Color Purple, which has similar themes, called this film Promise: The stupidly long title based on a book with a different name and here's the author's name in the title. I told him I'd steal that line someday, but at least give him credit. It reminds me of my computer gaming days. When Trilobyte released the game "The 11th Hour," it was the sequel to their enormously popular "The 7th Guest." We knew that because the official title of the game was "The 11th Hour: The Sequel to The 7th Guest." It makes my brain go all stabby. The fact that this game was the death knell for Trilobyte? Draw your own conclusions.

Why to watch Precious: There are lives like this and most of us don’t know it.
Why not to watch: The self-aggrandizing full title is mind-blowingly annoying.

Shattered

Film: Pasazerka (Passenger)
Format: VHS from Amherst College through WorldCat on big ol’ television.

Andrzej Munk is not a name that gets knocked around much except for those cinephiles who look for the obscure and out of the way. Munk’s career was tragically short—tragic because he was killed in a car accident at the age of 40 during the filming of his sixth feature film. That film is Pasazerka (Passenger, sometimes called The Passenger). Much like Jean Renoir’s Un Partie de Campagne, what remains is a fragment, although this fragment is much longer than Renoir’s. What’s different is that Munk didn’t finish because of his death rather than simply not completing it.

In this case, what Munk had created was pieced together by others, putting as much as possible into as much a semblance of order based on the script as possible. Unfinished scenes are replaced with voiceover narration and stills, bringing to mind a film like La Jetee. The finished scenes, though, play out as Munk (evidently) intended.

The story is an unusual one. A married couple is crossing the Atlantic on an ocean liner. The woman, a German, is returning to Germany for the first time since World War II. She catches a glimpse of another passenger, and this triggers something in her, causing a host of memories to flood her. We soon learn that she was, by early 1940’s standards, a good German citizen. By this I mean that she worked for the SS and helped run Auschwitz. The passenger who she sees triggers her memory because this passenger looks exactly like one of her prisoners from a decade and a half previous.

What follows is two versions of the prison guard Liza (Aleksandra Slaska) and prisoner Marta (Anna Ciepielewska). In the first version, Liza (pronounced LEE-za) tells her husband about her experience in the camp and her experience with Marta. This is a rose-colored-glasses version. We learn that Marta’s fianc√© Tadeusz (Marek Walczewski) is also at Auschwitz, and Liza arranges for the two to be together, if only temporarily. Eventually, Marta gets ill and is taken to the infirmary, where the care for political prisoners like her is sketchy at best. Eventually, Liza is transferred back to Berlin and the heart of the Reich and she assumes that Marta is killed like so many of the others. In this version of the story, Liza is extremely kind to herself, claiming not to know the main purpose of the camp until much later, and claims to be appalled by it.

The second version occurs almost exclusively inside Liza’s head, and because of this, feels like the much more trustworthy version of the story. Here, Liza is engaged in a titanic struggle, an epic battle of wits between her and Marta for some measure of supremacy in which Marta seems to continually have the upper hand. In this version, Liza is vindictive and cruel, but spends a great deal of the defensive, trying to counteract Marta rather than attacking where she can. This develops into an extremely interesting game of mental and emotion cat and mouse.

And then, sadly, the film ends just as suddenly as it began. We’re told by the narrator that there is no real way to know what Munk wanted to do with the film and that we will have to be okay with having this fragment to speak for the film.

Due to its fragmentary nature, it’s almost impossible to have much to say about this film. It is not an easy watch not because of the nature of the subject matter or Liza’s former occupation as a leader of Auschwitz but specifically because so much of what Munk intended was never created, leaving not just the film but the story it tells a cipher. We know only that the passenger who may or may not be Marta leaves the ship at one point and Liza sails on with her husband. We know nothing of any changes to Liza’s story or of the reality of the two stories she does tell. We are left instead with ambiguity.

It’s tragic. It is entirely possible that Pasazerka could have been one of the most powerful and moving documents on the Holocaust. Instead, it is the frame of a jigsaw puzzle, giving us a glimpse of the intended final result without showing us how the pieces fit together. The loss of Munk thus becomes a loss for all of us just as Marta’s appearance on the ocean liner reveals the gaps in Liza’s soul that lie in contrast to her evident serene outward appearance.

Why to watch Pasazerka: You owe it to Andrzej Munk.
Why not to watch: It’s incomplete.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Slumdog Hundredaire

Film: The Harder They Come
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I’ve never been to Jamaica, but I’ve been to the Bahamas. When I was there, I came back with a raging lung infection. My doctor told me that if I spent time in places that were unclean, the chances were better than average that I’d get the same thing again. Pleurisy hurts a lot, and I don’t look forward to having it again. That being the case, the closest I’ll likely get to Jamaica is The Harder They Come.

If you guessed that the plot of a film taking place in Jamaica would involve reggae music and bales of marijuana…good guess. Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin (reggae great Jimmy Cliff) moves from the country to the city looking for work. Specifically, he wants to get into the recording business. The difference between him and most of the other people who want to cut a record is that he actually has talent (I mean, him being Jimmy Cliff and all).

To get started, he gets the name of a preacher (Basil Keane) who gives him a little work and a lot more trouble. The preacher is the guardian of Elsa (Janet Bartley), who is sheltered and an innocent. It’s evident pretty quickly that Ivan wants her and the preacher wants her, too. When she lends Ivan a key to the church to practice his song, the preacher accuses them of knocking boots and kicks him off his property. The problem for Ivan is that this means the loss of his bicycle, one that he built himself and put his own money into. He gets into a fight with another man and wins pretty convincingly, but bloodies the other man so severely that he’s punished by the law. Rather than lock him up on a first offense, he’s given eight lashes with a cane, a fact that will come to be important as the second act closes.

So Ivan runs off with Elsa and he eventually cuts a record (the title track for the film). However, the recording industry is so corrupt that he’s paid only $20 for the record and is forced to sign away all of the rights. Knowing that he has to work, he gets a job trafficking in the ganja from an acquaintance named Jose (Carl Bradshaw). Ivan doesn’t do well in the trade, though. He wants too much and wants to move too fast, which gets him in trouble. The trade, of course, is controlled through the police, so when Ivan gets out of hand, Jose sics the po-po on him.

So remember that part at the start that I said would become important at the close of the second act? Yeah—Ivan decides that he doesn’t want anything more to do with the police or law enforcement, so he shoots the motorcycle cop trying to pull him over. In the following pursuit, Ivan kills two more cops and then chases down Jose and essentially destroys him.

I’d rather not go into the rest of the film, which essentially consists of Ivan on the run, living far above his means and not caring because he is both outlaw and celebrity, and his sudden notoriety has caused his record to become a hit. But, of course, the noose begins to tighten, and as the third act draws to a close, the film comes to its inevitable conclusion.

There are echoes of films like Super Fly in this, echoes that would be picked up in later films The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and even Boyz N the Hood. There is a blending here of desire, poverty, crime, and murder that makes the comparison impossible to avoid. The Harder They Come is in many ways more primal than these other films. It’s dirtier than the other films for sure, the poverty and death and heat and squalor is far more oppressive and brutal here.

The film is partially subtitled because a great deal of it is in a Jamaican patois that is virtually impossible to understand by someone who doesn’t grow up around it. There’s a beauty to the sound of the voices and the lilting patterns it makes despite it being completely undecipherable.

Perhaps the strongest part of the film is the soundtrack, which introduced America to reggae music in the 1970s. It ranks with the great soundtracks of the ‘70s certainly, and also with the great soundtracks of all time. Cliff performs the title song, of course, but there are a number of other greats here, too—songs like “Pressure Drop” and “Johnny Too Bad.”

The acting is clunky at times, a bit ugly and unprofessional. This is countered by some very good acting in many of the characters as well as the unmistakable charisma of Jimmy Cliff. I’m hard pressed to call this a great movie, but it is a noteworthy one and an important one, and well worth seeing, if only for the chance to see Jimmy Cliff before most of the world outside of Jamaica knew who he was.

Why to watch The Harder They Come: Life on the bleeding edge.
Why not to watch: If you turn off the subtitles, you’ve got some difficulties.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Serendipity

Film: Magnolia
Format: DVD from NetFlix on big ol’ television.

I’d heard of Magnolia.

I’d heard of it, but I’m not sure I was entirely prepared for it. This film is overwhelming, and I mean that only positively, only as something that is true and not as something critical of what Paul Thomas Anderson created with this film. This film is relentless and unrelenting and doesn’t stop except for brief moments. And it’s three hours long.

I’m not going to attempt a plot summary here, because Magnolia is not about plot. It is instead about a series of characters whose lives all intertwine at a single point in time. It is about the power of coincidence and chance, the failure of people and their brutality to those who they love the most, abuse, and the failure of fathers to their children. As the movie spins around and around, jumping from character to character and story to story, it becomes gripping almost in spite of itself—these stories have no real obvious connection in general except in the ways that some of the characters are related. So rather than go point by point, it’s a better idea to give a sort of story through-line. Essentially, there are two twined stories here that meet at the end.

We have quiz show host Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), host of the longest running quiz show on television. The show pits three kids against three adults. Jimmy is dying of cancer that has metastasized into his bones. Jimmy’s daughter Claudia (Melora Walters) is a cocaine addict who may have possibly been molested by her father. In any event, she’s not on speaking terms with him, and won’t accept him into her apartment when he tries to tell her that he is dying.

Claudia’s apartment is investigated by Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly). Kurring is a decent cop who doesn’t get a great deal of respect from other officers as we learn in an opening scene. Called to Claudia’s apartment on a call from neighbors, he decides that he likes her and would like to see her, not knowing about her drug issues (although it’s evident that he suspects).

Meanwhile, Donnie Smith (William H. Macy), a former champion on Jimmy Gator’s quiz show, is down on his luck. Fired from his job and destitute, he has put his entire being into the idea of getting braces in the hopes that it will help him land the male bartender with whom he is infatuated. But even here he is shot down and mocked by an effeminate barfly (Henry Gibson).

One of the current kid champions of the game show is Stanley (Jeremy Blackman), who is oppressed in many ways by his father (Michael Bowen). Now close to earning a small fortune on the show, Stanley is browbeaten by his father to keep performing because he needs the money. In the game that we see, Stanley, nervous and emotionally abused, pees himself right around the same time Jimmy Gator collapses on stage.

The other set of connected stories begins with former television producer Earl Partridge (Jason Robards), who is dying and bedridden. His wife Linda (Julianne Moore) steals his medication and has some of her own. She married the old man for his money, but has since decided that she truly loves him and wants to rewrite the will so that she gets nothing just to prove it.

The problem is that if she has the will declared invalid, everything goes to Earl’s son, Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise), a professional womanizer who has created a series of misogynist self-help guides and seminars teaching men how to essentially trick women into sex. Virtually disowned by his father and of no interest to the step-mother, Frank spends a good deal of the film being interviewed, lying about his past, and being called on his lies by a woman named Gwenovier (April Grace). Additionally, he is contacted by Earl’s live-in nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman) to be informed that the father he has essentially disowned is dying.

And all of this, assisted by a rain of frogs, comes together at the end.

It’s a lot to keep track of, and the film offers little or no warning when switching from one story to the next. As mentioned earlier, this film is relentless in showing us all of these characters at their most vulnerable moments. This culminates in an emotionally devastating scene of the characters, each in his or her turn, singing along with Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up.” Few scenes in movie history are this powerful or poignant, or as painful, or frankly as beautiful. If the rest of the film were terrible, it might be rescued by this scene.

What’s truly astounding here—more than these intertwined stories and the emotional intensity, that is—is the performances across the board. John C. Reilly, for instance, is an underrated dramatic actor, and proves it nowhere better than here. It’s also probably Tom Cruise’s best performance in his career, and that’s coming from someone who, in general, likes Tom Cruise as an actor. The same could be said of Julianne Moore, which is again, remarkable considering her career. There are also some great bit roles from actors I like quite a bit. Patton Oswalt shows up for a minute or so at the start, for instance. I also need to mention the great Ricky Jay, who plays the quiz show producer and the narrator who bookends the film. If you don’t know who Ricky Jay is, look him up on YouTube. He’s one of the greatest card trick magicians to ever walk on a stage. Don’t believe me? Watch this.

Magnolia is about those moments of vulnerability when we are at our weakest and our strongest. It is about all of us at our best and our worst, and how for many of us, those two things happen at the same time.

I’m overwhelmed. I’m also stunned that it was nominated for only three Oscars, lost all three, and wasn’t nominated for Best Picture. Stupid Academy.

Why to watch Magnolia: It’s holy-shit good.
Why not to watch: If you don’t pay attention the whole time, you’ll get lost.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Comedy Set Pieces

Film: Mon Oncle (My Uncle); It’s a Gift
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen (Mon Oncle); DVD from NetFlix on big ol’ television (It’s a Gift).

I understand that there are many people who do not appreciate the particular comic style of Jacques Tati. I understand this even though I am not of that opinion. Tati’s work was groundbreaking in its own way, a unique blend of pantomime, timing, sight gags, and auditory humor. While most people in the States (and I imagine around the world with the possible exception of France) are unfamiliar with him, his influence is pretty wide-ranging. Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean is a direct descendant, for instance (and for good or ill, depending on your point of view), as is much of what was done by Monty Python.

Mon Oncle (My Uncle) is the second of Tati’s films concerning the life and struggles of Monsieur Hulot (an uncredited Tati), a bumbling, but well-meaning man of no means existing in his own little world in the middle of Paris. Hulot is a makeup-less clown, a fool, and a man who never met a person, place or situation he couldn’t further destroy or screw up. In this film, Tati pits him against the perils of modern (at least for the late ‘50s) and mechanized living.

Hulot is, at least in terms of character, set against his sister (Adrienne Servantie) and her husband (Jean-Pierre Zola), the Arpels. They live in an ultra-modern house filled with every possible mechanized contraption imaginable. The house itself is virtually empty and is more of a show piece than an actual place to live. Their furniture, for instance, is completely modern—it’s sleek and attractive—but it’s also uncomfortable and virtually unusable. Every possible task has a push button—Madame Arpel, for instance, pushes a button to flip a steak on the stove, and must rush to another button to open the door when someone arrives. Their garden is similarly modern, set out in geometric shapes that contain either low hedges or identically colored patches of rock. The centerpiece is a fountain of dyed-blue water that spouts from the mouth of a fish. At least it spouts when someone arrives who Madame Arpel wishes to impress.

The Arpels have a son named Gerard (Alain Becourt), who is bored in his own house and truly comes alive only when Uncle Hulot is around. Gerard gets into minor trouble outside of the home, but inside, is incapable of expressing anything more than boredom because of the sterility of his environment and the consumer- and convenience-minded thinking of his parents. The plot, such as it is, concerns finding Hulot a job with his brother-in-law’s company and/or finding him a wife in the person of the Arpels’ next-door neighbor (Dominique Marie). And, as is the case with Tati’s character in all situations, insanity, madness, and chaos are the result of his very presence.

Mon Oncle strikes me as a natural follow-up to Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. Tati is recognizable as the same character despite a slight change in outfit—while the pipe is still ever-present, he always wears a tan overcoat. Throughout the film, Hulot is blamed for things he did not do and gets away with many things that he did, suffering a sort of karmic justice for his bumbling errors in other places.

For all of its mania, Mon Oncle moves quite slowly. There really is not much of a plot here, and Hulot and the neighbor do not meet until well into the film. Indeed, while the film is unquestionably a comedy, there is little here that is laugh-out-loud funny. But that’s not really the intent of the film, or the intent of what Tati did. Instead, we are given a series of set pieces that indicate the absurdity of everything going on in the world of the film, and thus the world at large. Tati’s Hulot is a ridiculous character, a buffoon, but he is no more ridiculous than the rest of the characters on the screen with their dreams of a perfect modern life and pretentions of having and being more than they do and are.

So, because it is what it is, I understand when people tell me that they are turned off by Tati’s work or that they don’t find it funny. In many ways, it’s not intended to be that. It can be difficult to follow as well, since most of the dialogue is merely a murmur and what we see and the sound effects are far more important than the words being spoken. Tati worked with both sight gags and sound gags. The humor comes not from the situations per se, but from the implications of what is happening. Given a drink holder that is to be plunged into the ground, for instance, Hulot manages to stab the main water line of the fountain, and is thus relegated to keeping his foot on the new hole. When showing off her kitchen to her guests, Madame Arpel is forced to shout over the sounds of her machinery. Sure, there’s convenience and even a stark, modern beauty in the house. But at what cost? And that’s more or less the point.

It’s satire and subtle commentary on the world through an absurd lens. While individual scenes are not riotous or even memorable, what is is the overall production itself. Mon Oncle is much greater than the sum of its parts and scenes—it works to combine all of its elements into a greater picture and impression. In many ways, while we are smiling at the antics of Hulot and the Arpels, Jacques Tati is looking through the screen and laughing at us.

W.C. Fields was a very different comedian from Tati, in that his work was rarely silent. Additionally, he didn’t always cause the chaos around him, but suffered from other people creating that chaos. However, the results of his comedy are remarkably similar to that of Tati in many ways. While the two approached the nature of comedy from very different directions, their films work almost exactly the same way.

It’s a Gift, generally considered a high point in Fields’s career, is remarkably similar in tone to Tati’s work in that there is sort of a through line of a plot, but the plot is really secondary to everything else that is going on. This film, like many others in his career, is merely an excuse for Fields to do his routine in front of a movie audience rather than on stage. The point is not to see what happens by the end of the film, but to see what happens to Fields moment by moment and how he reacts to it.

As with many comedies, the story is ridiculously simple. Harold Bissonette (Fields) runs a small general store, has a self-centered daughter (Jean Rouverol), a noisy and annoying son (Tom Bupp), and a shrill harpy of a wife (Kathleen Howard). In other words, except for his occupation, he’s every W.C. Fields character ever. His one dream in life is to own an orange grove in California, and when his Uncle Bean dies, he gets his chance. Over the objections of his wife and daughter, Bissonette (pronounced bis-o-NAY by his social climbing wife) packs up the family and moves to the new property only to discover that it is worthless for growing oranges. However, there are developers very interested in purchasing his new property, allowing for the requisite happy ending of an early comedy.

But again, the plot really isn’t that important. While everything is essentially loosely connected to this story, the family doesn’t get in the car to move until there are about 20 minutes left, and doesn’t get to California and the bum orange grove until nearly the very end. Why? Because it’s not really about that. It’s about seeing Fields traumatized by his neighbors. The middle sequence of the film consists of Fields attempting to get a little sleep on his porch and being disturbed by a series of accidents, neighbors, passers-by, and other minor calamities. This sequences goes on for a very long time, making a substantial portion of the film, and has nothing to do with the family heading out west. It’s there so that Fields can be Fields.

The Fields persona is in full force in this film. He keeps up a nearly constant patter of dialogue, some of it remarkably funny, even now close to 80 years after the fact. His grumblings touch on everything and are liberally sprinkled with anger toward everything around him and constant apologies and explanations to his shrew of a wife. As with Tati, the film moves from set piece to set piece—the shaving sequence, the blind man in the store, the car that won’t run—and weaves back and forth around the plot without really worrying whether or not the story is advanced.

It’s a Gift is essentially pointless, but it’s also funny. It doesn’t need to be anything more than that, honestly.

Why to watch Mon Oncle: There’s a unique, absurd charm to the work of Tati.
Why not to watch: It doesn’t go anywhere.

Why to watch It’s a Gift: W.C. Fields was a unique performer.
Why not to watch: It’s silly, short, and overacted by everyone not named W.C. Fields.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Out, Damned Spot!

Film: Kumonosu-Jo (Throne of Blood)
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve reviewed a few Kurosawa films for this blog before, and I’ve liked all of them that I’ve seen. I was pretty gushing about Rashomon and Ikiru, for instance, and with reason. They’re great films. I have a tendency to bring up Kumonosu-Jo (Throne of Blood, although the name translates more accurately to “Spider Web Castle”) when Kurosawa comes up in conversation. There’s a reason for this. I think it’s his best film. I knew going into this that I really liked this film a lot, but I’d forgotten exactly why, and exactly how damn much I really like this film.

To wrap this film up in a nutshell, this is Kurosawa’s take on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Pretty much anything that happens in Macbeth happens here, with the main difference being that it takes place in feudal Japan, which means there’s a ton of samurai running around. Macbeth is already really bloody, and when you add in a bunch of samurai it’s only going to get bloodier (and thus far more awesome). It’s possible that you are not familiar with Macbeth. If that’s the case, first, shame on you. Go read it. Second, I’ll give you a quick-and-dirty on the story as told by Kurosawa.

We open with a feudal lord being besieged by his enemies. The tides of battle do not favor him and his various fortresses are being assaulted. However, suddenly, hope dawns. Miki (Minoru Chiaki), the commander of the second fortress, is fighting back. Better, Washizu (legendary actor Toshiro Mifune), commander of the first fortress is routing the enemy. Victory comes in the hands of these two men, and for their valor, they are summoned to the notorious Spider Web Castle. It is called this because it is in the heart of Spider Web Forest, so named because of its twisting, complicated paths that are a significant part of the castle’s defenses.

Washizu and Miki get lost in the forest and come across an evil spirit spinning thread. He tells them that their fate is that Washizu will be named commander of the garrison—a huge honor—and that Miki will be promoted to commander of the first fortress. Additionally, he tells them that Washizu will someday command Spider Web Castle itself, and that Miki’s son is destined to rule after. They aren’t sure that they can believe these tidings, but when they do finally reach the castle, they receive the promotions that were foretold.

And now, as the saying goes, shit gets real. Washizu’s wife, Asaji (Isuzu Yamada), in a particularly passive-aggressive manner, tells her husband that if he is to command Spider Web Castle, the best way is to kill the great lord. After all, the great lord will certainly kill him if he discovers Washizu’s ambition to rule. And, she questions how much Miki can be trusted, since he has a share in this destiny as well. Washizu doesn’t want to listen, but fate intervenes. The great lord comes to the garrison to stay, as he is planning an offensive against the enemy who attacked at the start of the film. For this attack, he gives Washizu the honor of leading the charge, with Miki to command Spider Web Castle itself.

Sounds like an honor, but it’s immediately twisted by Asaji, who says that this is merely a ruse. Put Washizu at the head of the attack, and he is certain to be killed, allowing Miki to usurp the position. Slowly, a plot is hatched, and Washizu kills the great lord, laying the blame at the feet of another samurai leader. It doesn’t really fool anybody, but Miki seems to go along with this in return for having his son named as heir.

And then the wheels come off. Asaji slowly starts to go insane and Washizu begins to become overwhelmed with paranoia and fear. He begins seeing ghosts, and has Miki assassinated to prevent further betrayal. More and more, he confines himself to the castle where he rules, and more and more on the outside, his enemies start to confer with each other and plan to remove Washizu, causing the new great lord to seek the counsel of the forest spirit again. Any more than this would go into spoiler territory, and it’s not worth the risk. Really, if you don’t know what happens in Macbeth, you should find out for yourself, not by having me spit it out for you.

There is very much to love in this film. Mifune, of course, is terrific as always. He goes through a number of mood changes, and he plays them all believably. Particularly at the end, when his madness is growing, he is especially effective. It helps greatly that Mifune looks the part of a samurai lord; he’s believable on its face. He expresses equal parts fear, rage, and insanity in the second half of the film, frequently all at once, and most effectively in the banquet scene. Here, he encounters Miki’s ghost. This is a wonderfully filmed sequence, because it clearly shows us that only Washizu sees the ghost. It can thus be interpreted any number of ways—his guilt, perhaps, or maybe he truly is seeing the ghost because he ordered the assassination.

The best part of the film, aside from the impressive hail of arrows at the end, though, is Asaji. She is almost unique in film. With her heavy kimono and eyebrows painted high on her forehead, there is a real sense that she is very much an evil spirit, too. She is always calm and calculating (except at the end), offering her terrible advice with a sort of studied practice. She moves slowly and deliberately for much of the film, a fact that only adds to the dream-like nature of her performance. More than that, she’s so plainly wicked that it’s almost impossible not to respect her based on that alone.

If I had two wishes regarding this film, they’d be easy to make. First, while I love the crisp black-and-white of this film, I’d also love to see it in color. There’s a unique pageantry to the samurai costumes and pennants, and to have those in color would be great. Second, early in the film, Miki and Washizu are lost in the forest. This sequence, while only a couple of minutes long, gets tedious. The two ride up in a fog, stop their horses, then ride off in a different direction. Then again. Then again. Then again. I understand why this happens—since it comes after the encounter with the spirit, there is a sense of the pair needing to get back to the real world. It also emphasizes the complexity of the forest itself. But a minute could go from this without much lost.

But really, that’s it. Everything else here borders on perfection.

Why to watch Kumonosu Jo: Because it represents a high point not just in Japanese cinema, but in world cinema.
Why not to watch: The fog scene gets old very quickly.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Another Award?


Taste of Cinema is rapidly becoming one of my favorite blogs, and David, who runs the place, dropped my name for the 7 x 7 Link Award. Like any good web-based award, there are rules to follow, so here they are:

RULE 1: Tell everyone something that no one else knows about you.

RULE 2: Link to one of the posts that I personally think best fits the following categories: Most Beautiful Piece, Most Helpful Piece, Most Popular Piece, Most Controversial Piece, Most Surprisingly Successful Piece, Most Underrated Piece, and Most Pride-Worthy Piece.

RULE 3: Pass this award on to seven other bloggers.

So...

Part 1: Something no one else knows about me: There was a time in my life when I seriously (really!) considered going into full-time linguistic research. I took a class in historical linguistics, and my instructor, a guy named Cecil Brown, allowed us each the opportunity to explore one language family. I got one of the last choices in the class, and I selected Austro-Micronesian languages. By the time I finished my research, he told me that, based on what I'd done, I was one of the top 50 living experts on that particular language family. But then he retired, and his replacement wasn't nearly so supportive, so I moved on into theoretical linguistics.

Part 2: This will not be easy, as I have more than 500 posts to sift through. I'll do my best.

Most Beautiful Piece: This is probably the most difficult for me to pick. I'm not a particularly beautiful writer. If I have to pick one, I'll pick the reviews I wrote on my birthday in 2010 for three of my favorite films ever. I don't do any of them justice, but I can't think of another place where my love of film in general is more evident.

Most Helpful Piece: I don't know really how helpful these are, seeing that my blog isn't used in the creation of the various editions of The List, but every year, I suggest 10 films that should be included. Here's the latest of those.

Most Popular Piece: I have no idea why, but my review of Candyman has gotten more hits than any other. Go figure.

Most Controversial Piece: I'd have thought this would be Hugo since I'm evidently the only person in the world who didn't join in the Scorsese bukkake on this one, but it turns out that I caught more hell for my review of Chicago than any two other posts combined.

Most Surprisingly Successful Piece: Just as I can't explain the popularity of my Candyman review, I have no idea why the fifth most popular entry point to my site is a review of two old films about mental illness. However, it seems that there are a few fans out there of Shock Corridor and The Snake Pit.

Most Underrated Piece: When I write a review of an obscure film, it doesn't surprise me when I don't get a lot of comments. When I write a review of the one Bollywood movie that everyone's heard of and get no comments, I'm a little hurt. And yet, to date, no one has anything to say about what I said about Monsoon Wedding.

Most Pride-Worthy Piece: As a critic, I stand on the shoulders of giants. A lot of what I have to say about a film is informed by critics who have come before me. However, I do have an insight every now and then. As far as I know, I'm the first person to connect Hitchcock's The Birds to the start of the zombie movie phenomenon. It's there--really--and it's an observation that's entirely from my own brain, even if someone else said it first.

Part 3: So, who should do this next?
Squish Lessard at The Film Vituperatum
Nick Jobe at Random Ramblings of a Demented Doorknob
Jason Soto at Invasion of the B Movies
Nolahn at The Bargain Bin Review
Klaus Ming at Movie Reviews in About 100 Words or Less
Dan Heaton at Public Transportation Snob
Kevin at BigHominid's Hairy Chasms

Fut the Whuck?

Film: Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

As evidenced by the current state of where I stand, I’ve made a real effort at watching the earliest films on The List, and have virtually completed the first 100 films. However, Un Chien Andalou (An Andalusian Dog) has, until tonight, remained unwatched. My brother Tom is going through much of this list on his own (I think he has the fifth edition), and when I spoke to him a couple of weeks ago, he wondered at the fact that I hadn’t bothered to get through this short little oddity yet. I confess that the reason has been fear.

I know how this film starts. It starts, notoriously, with a man slicing a razor blade across an eyeball. Now, I know this is an illusion of sorts; a cow’s eye was used for the effect. That doesn’t make it any easier for me to watch. In fact, I sat for several minutes with the film frozen just before that moment, trying to steel myself for what was to come. It’s thankfully quick, but still pretty awful, especially if you have a thing with eyes.

Un Chien Andalou is essentially plotless, a series of images that follow one after the other. A cloud slices across the moon and the razor blade slices across the eye and suddenly eight years pass. A man falls off his bicycle, then ants crawl from a hole in his hand (a reference to a French idiom for wanting to kill someone). A severed hand appears in the street, and a woman is run down while the man watches. The man makes sexual advances on the woman from the start of the movie, alternately imagining her clothed and unclothed. He then drags a pair of pianos with a dead donkey on them toward her. There are a couple of priests involved in this as well. More ants in the palm. Hands through a wall act as a doorbell, or are shaking a drink.

You know what? I don’t know. The images seem sometimes related to each other, but often are simply random and have only the meaning I think we ascribe to them. They aren’t particularly meaningful in and of themselves but are only given the meaning that we give them. That, in many ways, is the nature of surrealism, at least to my mind.

I’m not sure I want to ascribe a great deal of meaning to it, really. I know that this is considered one of the great moments of surrealist art, and there’s reason for that. But most of us, myself included, want to ascribe meaning to what we see. We quite naturally want to put a story together, or make some kind of narrative, or at least generate a meaning for what is put in front of us. And there’s no meaning here intentionally.

It makes this film difficult to judge on its face. I’ve seen it now, and I know there is value in what I have seen, but there’s no real desire in me to see it again. I mean, I like it when the man covers his mouth, then pulls his hand away and his mouth is gone. But really, what’s the point of having the woman’s armpit hair appear in its place? And do I really want to create a personal meaning for armpit hair on the face? I think not.

Why to watch Un Chien Andalou: The first instance of real surrealism in film.
Why not to watch: Sliced eyeball.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Workers of the World, Unite

Film: Czlowiek z Zelaza (Man of Iron); Oktyabr (October)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen (Czlowiek); DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player (Oktyaber).

The world, in reality, spins through space, pulled into its constant orbit by the gravity of the sun, and to a lesser extent by gravitational forces exerted through the rest of the solar system, the galaxy, and the universe. But societies, governments, and countries don’t spin. They exist on a sort of pendulum that swings back and forth from one extreme to the other. We’re seeing that in American politics right now, but even in times of the pendulum being relatively centered in the U.S., we can see the same phenomenon in other countries and cultures around the world. When the pendulum gets too far in one direction, revolution results.

Czlowiek z Zelaza (Man of Iron) is the story of one such revolution, in this case one that was huge news around the world when I was quite a bit younger. The Solidarity movement in Poland was the first time I remember a crack appearing in the Iron Curtain of eastern Europe. The name that everyone heard was Lech Walesa, and Walesa does appear in this film in stock footage (and briefly in a marriage scene between two characters), but he is not the main focus. Instead, we concentrate on Maciek Tomczyk (Jerzy Radziwilowicz). Tomczyk is the son of Mateusz Birkut, the subject of Andrzej Wadjz’s earlier film Czlowiek z Marmaru. (It’s also worth noting that Jerzy Radziwilowicz played Birkut in that film, and in this film—he plays the father and the son.)

Much of the story comes from the point of view of Winkel (Marian Opania), a journalist sent by the Polish government to to a hit piece on Tomczyk. The reason is that Tomczyk is leading a workers’ strike. Winkel is fed as much information as he can get, and poses as a sympathetic ear to the strikers to learn as much as possible about Tomczyk as he can. Initially at least, Winkel is hampered by the fact that the striking workers have called a moratorium on the sale of alcohol, which presents a real problem for the alcoholic Winkel, causing him to spend most of the film either rtrying to scrounge booze or suffering from severe withdrawal. In an early scene, for instance, he drops a bottle, mops up the spilled vodka with a towel, wrings it into a glass, and drinks it.

Since Winkel’s job is to find out everything he can about his target, a great deal of the film is told in flashback through the memories of the people Winkel interviews. Much of this is told through stock footage and historical footage of the actual striking workers, both in the early 1980s with the Solidarity strike and the earlier shipyard strike in 1970. The 1970 strike becomes important, because it informs a great deal of what happens through the rest of the film. We learn, for instance, that Mateusz Birkut was killed in the 1970 riots around the strike at the shipyards, and now Tomczyk is essentially causing the same strike to take place in the film’s present. We see Tomczyk hauled off in a straightjacket, allowing the government to manufacture the story that he is mentally ill.

Of course, the truth lies somewhere not quite exposed in the film. Winkel learns a great deal of the reality of the Solidarity movement, but also knows that his career (if not his life) will be jeopardized by a favorable report on the movement. The film quite obviously sides with the workers and against the communist system, a piece of irony, since the original communist movement was an appeal to the workers as well.

Czlowiek z Zelaza was made at a strange time in Poland’s history. The film was created and distributed during a short period during which such criticism of the government was allowed. It is surprising, in fact, how critical the film is of the Polish regime, essentially exposing it as a corrupt institution and in need of the continued rebellion by the workers.

Essentially, while Tomczyk may be the focus of the film, it is Winkel who is the real subject. Suffering from DTs and desperate for a drink, he experiences all of the fear and paranoia we might expect from a man living under the heel of an oppressive government and operating in the position he has. His every possible move is one of betrayal; anything he does will either betray him to his government or to the ideals he is learning throughout the film. It’s an interesting study in the life of this man.

And let’s not forget for a moment that despite the let-up in Polish censorship at the time, that creating a film this critical of the ruling class was amazingly ballsy. Even if the film weren’t interesting from a character and historical perspective, it would be worth watching for that alone.

Of course, if the Bolshevik Revolution hadn’t happened in the middle of World War I, there’d have been no need for the Polish workers to strike or create Solidarity. Sergei Eisenstein’s Oktyabr (October) is a heavily propagandized version of the Soviet upheaval and eventual takeover in Russia. The film was shot 10 years after the revolution with the communist regime firmly in place. Thus unlike Czlowiek z Zelaza, this is a film that takes an intense pro-communist stance, blaming all problems on the bourgeoisie and giving all virtue to the workers who took the reins of state.

The plot of the film really doesn’t stray too far from the basic history of the coup—those in power resist and use the power of the provisional government to continue the war against Germany. Slowly, we see the Bolsheviks rising up, forcing the hand of the government to act essentially locally, but by then, it’s too late.

Plotwise, this is a difficult movie to comment on, because it follows such a specific path. There are no real surprises here if you’re aware that the communists took over Russia in October, 1917. Knowing this, and knowing that this film is intended in many respects as a propaganda piece for the Soviet Union, it’s not difficult to see where it’s going at all times. It’s going to the actual coup by the Bolsheviks, and said Bolsheviks will have an almost melodramatic flair, being always good, right, true, and moral while their enemies will be the opposite at all times.

So, since the plot is essentially a cleaned up version of history, it makes more sense to discuss the way that Eisenstein filmed this story instead. Oktyabr is firmly rooted in the montage style, and Eisenstein makes liberal use of dramatic close-ups, almost always shot from underneath to imply both power and nobility of the Bolsheviks so filmed. The film was released in the same year as Abel Gance’s Napoleon, and the two show some distinct similarities in the way that rapid cuts and almost subliminal scene lengths are used to heighten dramatic moments.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t spend at least a little time discussing the score by Dmitri Shostakovich. It is consistently loud, overwhelming, and laden with brassy instruments, adding both a martial air and a feeling of great importance to everything happening on the screen. It’s frankly a little overwhelming.

This is a hard film to recommend, really. It’s worth seeing only by true students of film or those deeply interested in the Soviet montage style. For those with the patience to delve into what Eisenstein did with the look and feel of the film, with the cinematography—the crowds of running extras, the fact that there are times when it becomes difficult to tell if Eisenstein actually filmed something himself or used stock footage, it’s pretty remarkable. But I also think there’s a good chance that all but the most serious student will find this rough going.

Why to watch Czlowiek z Zelaza: Gripping history that consistently repeats itself.
Why not to watch: If you’re not old enough to remember Solidarity, you may not care.

Why to watch Oktyabr: Because it’s Eisenstein.
Why not to watch: If you know history, there are no real surprises.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Braveheart II: This Time, He's Roman

Film: Gladiator
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

When the Academy Awards for 2000 rolled around, I don’t remember there being a lot of doubt that the ultimate winner for Best Picture would be anything but Gladiator. There may have been a little buzz around the other films, but Gladiator was the one on everyone’s lips. I drank the Kool-Aid as much as anyone. I remember watching it with my wife and being surprised at just how much she got into it as well.

Like many a historical epic, Gladiator takes some license with the source material. A great deal in this case is made from whole cloth in that most of the characters (including the bulk of the major cast) are simply representative of the time and history. While I cannot be sure, only Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) existed in the real world. License was taken with him, but less than you might expect. His reign was short and plagued by political intrigue, and some historians have determined his reign as the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire.

Regardless of this, the film is one that doesn’t specifically require historical accuracy to be entertaining. The film follows the life of Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), a general in the Roman Army, serving under Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). After a victory in Germania, the dying Marcus visits his general. Here he tells him that the fate of Rome lays in his hands—he intends to make Maximus the protector of Rome until the Senate and the people of Rome are ready to rule. This does not sit well with Marcus’s son, the aforementioned Commodus, who kills Marcus Aurelius, and then sentences Maximus to death for not swearing allegiance. He also has Maximus’s wife and son slain.

But of course Maximus escapes his execution and returns home to see his family murdered. Wounded, tired, hungry, and sick, Maximus collapses and is picked up by a slave trader and sold to Proximo (Oliver Reed), who owns a stock of gladiators. And so now the great warrior Maximus has been reduced to the lowest state of a warrior. As a gladiator, he meets two men—Juba (Djimon Hounsou) and Hagen (Ralf Moeller)—who will become his friends.

In the rest of the world, Commodus becomes emperor, his treachery suspected but unproven. Intrigue abounds, in part because Commodus displays himself as inept as a ruler. Part of this (at least for the audience) is the fact that he has obvious designs on Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), his sister, and makes no mistake of the fact that he would like her to rule beside him in every incestuous sense of the word. Lucilla, of course, is a former lover of Maximus, and there's still some evident feeling between them. There’s also quite a bit of infighting between Commodus and parts of the Senate, particularly Senator Gracchus (Derek Jacobi). As the film continues, these two spar with increasingly high stakes until Commodus is left with no alternative but to move against Gracchus. Frequently, Lucilla is used as a pawn in this, as is her son Lucius (Spencer Treat Clark).

Of course, the greatest pawn in all of this is Maximus himself, who hides his identity for the bulk of the film, and is known among the gladiators and to Proximo as the Spaniard. His own progression is shown mainly through his progression of gladiatorial battles, each one becoming more and more vicious, more and more extravagant, and up to a point, bloodier and bloodier. This, even more than the story, was the original selling point of this film to the masses. In some ways at least, we in the audience were much the same as those Roman citizens who sat in the Coliseum and watched avidly for the bloody spectacle of death.

I’m not trying to sell this short; the arena combats are fantastic, and are a selling point of the film for a better reason than the fact that they are battles. They are hyper-kinetic contests of speed and brutality, and exciting in a way that only movie battles can be exciting. Today, 12 years after the film was released, they are still one of the major selling points of the film and for the exact same reason. Put plainly, the battles kick ass.

So if the battles are the reason to watch the film, what about everything else? Tonight was the first time in probably a decade I put Gladiator in the spinner, and while I certainly remembered the film, there was quite a bit that I had forgotten. For instance, I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the brief appearance of Richard Harris in this film; he brings an air of wisdom and of serenity to this film much as he did in the first few Harry Potter films. I also had forgotten much of the character of Proximo. I remember now that he was one of my favorite parts of the film when I first saw it, and he was one of my favorite characters this time as well.

The film is a showcase for Russell Crowe, of course, and one that more than any previous turned him into the major star he is today. Certainly he had roles in films like L.A. Confidential before this one, but this was the film that turned him into a household name, and with reason. It’s a star turn like few others.

Ultimately, Gladiator is a film that plays out a great deal like Braveheart of a few years before. It’s evident early on how the film will play out and once Commodus is impressed enough to meet the “Spaniard” after a gladiatorial combat, there’s really only one way the film can end. There’s a great deal of melodrama here, a bit more difficult to recognize because of the intensity of the bloodshed, but melodrama it is.

You know what? Who cares. It’s bread and circuses, but they’re damn fine circuses.

Why to watch Gladiator: Ridley Scott, Joaquin Phoenix, and Russell Crowe at their best.
Why not to watch: The path of this story is pretty evident after 20 minutes.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Panic

Film: Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly)
Format: DVD from Geneseo Public Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass portable DVD player.

When it comes to the experiences of a film, I try very hard not to be squeamish. Blood and guts doesn’t really bother me too much, although I tend not to enjoy it if it is completely gratuitous. But there are things that I find almost too much to bear. For instance, when my wife wanted to watch Buried because of her Ryan Reynolds fetish, I had to back away. That sort of thing—physical encasement—sets me to panicking. Thus it was not without a certain amount of fear that I encountered and started watching Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly).

This is the relatively true story of Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric), who suffered a massive stroke at 42. The stroke left him with something called “lock-in syndrome” which essentially paralyzed his entire body but left his mind entirely intact. Bauby was left able to only blink his eyes. However, even this was reduced by half—since his right eye wasn’t irrigating correctly, the doctors sewed it shut, leaving only his left eye. Slowly, he learned to communicate through a painstaking process of blinking—one blink for yes, two for no.

We soon meet his speech therapist, Henriette (Marie-Josee Croze), who develops a painstaking way for Bauby to speak. She reads off the alphabet, arranged in order of the most commonly used letters, watching for him to blink at the letter he wants. In this way, letter by letter, he can communicate with the outside world. We are also introduced to Marie (Olatz Lopez Garmendia), who tries to work with him to get him to move small muscles, hoping that he can eventually regain movement in his mouth and head.

Naturally, a great deal of the film takes place inside Bauby’s head. He remembers a great deal of his life, for instance, and much of this is shrouded in guilt at missed opportunities and the way he treated others. He never married the mother of his children (Emmanuelle Seigner), for which he constantly beats himself. A friend (Niels Arestrup), once taken hostage for years, visits him and tells him to hold on to his essential humanity. Even this brings him guilt—he never called the friend once released from bondage.

Under contract to write a book, a modern retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo from a female perspective, Bauby decides instead to dictate a book regarding his condition. His publisher contracts an assistant (Anne Consigny) to take his dictation letter by letter, and the pair get through about a page and a half per day. Of course, this is based on reality—Bauby truly did dictate a book (of the same name) this way, and lived just long enough to hear critical praise before dying of pneumonia.

A great deal of the film comes from Bauby’s perspective, including virtually all of the first third. While he cannot communicate with the outside world, he communicates with us constantly, telling us what he is thinking and how he relates to his new condition. He likens it to an old diving suit (the diving bell of the title), where he is essentially completely insulated from the outside world and has only a limited vision of what is around him. The butterfly comes not from him, but from those around him, who see the beauty of his spirit and determination that is somehow transforming and escaping from his body.

The performance from Amalric is surprising. While we see him in flashbacks and memories acting normally, interacting with his children and lovers, shaving his infirm father (Max von Sydow) who is trapped in his apartment and unable to walk down the multiple flights of stairs to the outside. In his interior life, he can walk, move, and interact. But much of the time, he is seated motionless in a chair, one eye behind a translucent lens in his glasses, the other constantly staring, his mouth dragged down by the result of the stroke.

I won’t mince words. This was a hard watch for me. The reality of this condition scares the living shit out of me, and mid-way through the film I had a pointed conversation with my wife about what I would want should this happen to me, and that’s constant drugs to keep me unconscious. But a hard watch or not, there is a surprising beauty in this film, a reality that the human spirit can be—can—be one of the most surprising and uplifting things in the world.

I did not enjoy this film, but I respect what it is. I will probably not watch it again, but I will remember it for a very long time.

Why to watch Le Scaphandre et le Papillon : Surprisingly beautiful and introspective, but of course, it had to be.
Why not to watch: If the idea of it freaks you out, it’s not an easy watch.

Movie of the Month?

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Breaking and Entering and Hanging Around

Film: Juyuso Seubgyuksaguen (Attack the Gas Station!)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on kick-ass portable DVD player.

What do you get when you take a gang of four miscreants with nothing to do? My guess is that you could come up with hundreds of possibilities and not get close to Juyuso Seubgyuksaguen (Attack the Gas Station!, a film of surprising originality. This film takes the basic premise of four young men with nothing to do and a desire for easy money and gives it free reign, allowing the improbable to become both inevitable and ridiculous.

The film begins with these four guys robbing and vandalizing a gas station. They terrorize the workers and the owner, take all of the money, destroy a couple of signs and the vending machine, raise havoc, and then run off. A few days later, sitting in a restaurant and bored, they decide to do the exact same thing to the exact same gas station. However, this time, there’s no money. While they try to intimidate the owner into giving them the cash, a customer pulls up and asks for gas. One of the four goes out and pumps the gas, the customer pays and drives away, and an idea dawns. And thus our four miscreants decide to stay at the gas station they are robbing, service customers, and just leave with the money at the end of the night.

As the night wears on, stranger and stranger things start to happen with our four characters, and we learn just enough about them to help keep them distinguished. Actually, each of the four is completely different in appearance, but initially difficult to distinguish. The first goes by No Mark (Sung-jae Lee). He is the definite leader of the gang, the one the others defer to, and the one who tends to have the ideas about what they will do next. We learn that he is an orphan and was once a baseball player of some talent before a cruel coach essentially pushed him out of the game. Mu Dae-po (Oh-seong Yu) isn’t very bright and is used mostly as muscle. He carries a large stick of wood that he uses to beat others into submission. He has a real problem with being called stupid, and exacts revenge for such a slight.

Also in the gang is Paint (Ji-tae Yu), a failed artist who was kicked out of his parents’ house for not pursuing a real career. Paint, with his shock of white hair, is relatively calm throughout the film and spends a great deal of his time redecorating part of the gas station. Finally, Ddan Dda-ra (Seong-jin Kang) is a failed musician, and he looks the part with his wild hair and unusual clothing choices. His temper is just a notch lower than Mu Dae-po’s, probably because his career was destroyed because of some bad financial decisions.

But the personalities of the four characters are really secondary to everything that is going on at the gas station. They leave Mu Dae-po in charge of watching the gas station workers, and drag out one of them to teach them how to use the pumps. Deciding it’s too much work, they instead resolve to just fill up everyone’s tank and charge them the money, cash only, since they don’t want to have to deal with (and won’t profit from) credit cards.

As the night wears on, they start collecting more and more hostages. A gang from the local high school shows up to bully one of the workers, and they’re kidnapped and shoved up into the upstairs office as well. Other customers who complain are similarly captured and carted off or put into the trunks of their own cars and placed in an alley. The four order massive amounts of Chinese food and refuse to pay, which irritates the delivery boy. He in turn calls up all of the other delivery boys he knows and plans revenge. Similarly, one of the high school bullies escapes and gets more help, who in turn get even more help. And, of course, the police show up multiple times in all of this.

Juyuso Seubgyuksaguen is improbable and silly, but is also wildly entertaining enough that the odd premise really doesn’t matter too much. At each turn, things get more and more complicated and interesting, and more and more people start to get upset with the men at the gas station. Essentially pressure builds until the last fifteen minutes or so when everything comes to a head all at once in a completely ridiculous conclusion that ends in a massive melee.

And really, that’s all this movie is—it’s about putting something entertaining on the screen rather than making a particular statement about much. Oh, there’s a bit of a statement in there, mostly economic as concerned Korea in the late 1990s, but really, this is about seeing just how far this premise can be taken before it essentially explodes. Because it is so unpretentious, it’s wildly fun. This is a movie to sit back and watch with a huge bag of popcorn. It’s ridiculous and silly, and ends in an unexpected way. It’s also a reminder of just how much I like South Korean cinema.

Why to watch Juyuso Seubgyuksaguen: More proof that South Korean cinema is the most interesting national cinema around.
Why not to watch: It’s impossible to know if you should laugh at it or be disturbed by it.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Freddy's Dead

Film: A Nightmare on Elm Street
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I’m constantly amazed at how little respect Wes Craven gets as a director. He’s a favorite among horror fans, of course, but for the rank and file movie person, Craven’s name rarely comes up as a director of note. Yet, Craven has been at least partially responsible for some of the most influential and innovative horror movies in the genre’s history. In addition to today’s classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven also wrote and directed the original versions of Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes and directed Scream, the most important current series in the genre. Why he’s not better respected, I can’t imagine.

While Scream is the current king of the slasher film genre, A Nightmare on Elm Street is arguably his best film. The idea, like many great ideas, is ridiculously simple. In a small town, teens are plagued by a series of nightmares. When the teens start dying in extremely gruesome ways, a mundane reason for the deaths is sought. But, of course, the real reason is hardly mundane. Instead, a killer from the town’s past has returned and is haunting the dreams of the kids. Why? Because the parents of these children killed him years before. There are subtle touches here, primarily the fact that the dream world of the killer and the waking world are tightly intertwined—events in the one significantly affect those in the other. This allows Craven to play with reality in significant ways and keeps us as the audience guessing about the reality of the events that unfold in front of us.

Okay, so that’s the basics. So let’s talk about the specifics of what makes this film so good and what makes Craven such an innovative director. We start in the dream of Tina (Amanda Wyss) and get our first short look at our killer, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). And from this we assume that Tina will be the character we follow through the rest of the film, because this is a pattern that has been established for us by a decade of slashers up to this point. But Tina turns out to be the first victim. The wounds inflicted on her in the dream are made manifest in the real world, and in one of the great horror scenes ever filmed, she is flung about her bedroom, dragged up the wall, and essentially gutted on the ceiling before falling back down to the bed. It’s both unexpected in terms of its visual effects and unexpected in terms of the victim.

It then becomes evident that our real main character is Tina’s friend, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp). Nancy’s father (John Saxon) is the local police chief and her mother (Ronee Blakely) is a bit of a lush. It’s slowly revealed that there’s a real backstory here. Years earlier, a series of child murders led to a man named Fred Krueger, who was arrested, but then released on a technicality. Reacting to this, a gang of parents cornered him and burned him alive. And now, Nancy has realized that he has found a way back, and found a way into the dreams of the children of his killers, and is knocking them off one by one.

As a premise, it’s a pretty simple idea, and it’s a perfect premise for a good spook story. But again, Craven is far too smart to let just a good premise be enough for his film. Rather than rely on that, he plays constantly with the audience’s expectations of what is happening and whether or not any given moment is waking reality or someone’s dream. What this does is create a situation where there is always something at stake. Krueger is essentially all-powerful inside the dream world, making that world terrifying. And because our characters realize this and attempt to stay awake for as long as possible, they frequently drift off into waking dreams—and it’s almost impossible to tell precisely when we shift from one to the other. What this does is give those shock moments a great deal of extra punch.

Craven also doesn’t skimp on the blood. Tina’s death is brutal and terrible, and because it happens early, it sets the tone for the rest of the film. A later death, that of Nancy’s boyfriend Glen (Johnny Depp in his first role) comes complete with enough blood to fill a bathtub. The gore, of course, is part and parcel with the genre and expected, and because the violence occurs in dreams, Craven is free to exaggerate it to his heart’s content.

The true genius of this film, though, is the creation of Freddy himself. Freddy Krueger became a household name almost instantly and quickly became far more important than the film and the franchise itself. While he eventually became little more than a carnival barker and a sideshow attraction, in this film, Englund plays him with a sort of maniac glee, a very evil little boy who has finally managed to get away from his parents for a time to cause a little mischief. Eventually, this would give way into mugging for the camera and fan service, but in this original, Krueger is a figure of real menace. Even more, he knows he’s a menace and he’s significantly powerful when his victim is at his or her most vulnerable.

And so there you have it—a film that is visceral and fun, innovative but plays straight with genre conventions. It’s genuinely one of the great films from the 1980s.

Why to watch A Nightmare on Elm Street: One of the most original horror visions every created.
Why not to watch: The series quickly became self-parody.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Boom Goes the Dynamite

Film: Sabotage
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on rockin’ flatscreen.

It’s interesting to watch the early work of a great director. With some directors, you can see where they are headed long before they get there. With Hitchcock, for instance, a film like Sabotage (sometimes known as The Woman Alone) gives a clear indication of precisely where the man wanted to go with his films. While his films eventually became very dark at times, there was always an edge to them, and with this film, he goes very dark, indeed. While his themes would become more refined over time, Sabotage shows that he was steering in the direction he’d come to be known for even at this early stage.

The film is a modified retelling of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent. A saboteur with a network of other agents in London essentially hides himself in plain sight by posing as a business man. It’s not clear where the man, Karl Verloc (Oskar Homolka) is from, but there’s a definite hint of Bela Lugosi in his voice. Anyhow, he and a few other men are planning a series of bombings in London. To avoid suspicion, they are posing as business men in a London district. Despite this, there is some suspicion, as Scotland Yard has posted an agent named Ted Spencer (John Loder) at a nearby grocery to keep tabs on the suspects.

Two people who don’t suspect him at all are his wife (Sylvia Sidney) and her kid brother, Stevie (Desmond Tester). After all, he’s been good to them. But, Verloc is most certainly guilty, and is responsible for a power outage throughout London at the start of the film. But a power outage really is little more than an inconvenience. He and his cronies plan a bombing on the Tube underneath Piccadilly for a larger impact on the greater London area. Even more nefarious, because of delays on his end, he puts the bomb in the hands of the easily distracted and rather slow-witted Stevie.

The last 20 minutes or so of the film are really the crux of the film, and rather than risk spoiling anything, I’m going to leave them alone. It’s the last half hour of the film that really makes the film what it is, though. While this is still rudimentary Hitchcock just getting his legs under himself in the directing business, there’s evidence of the man’s sense of creating tension and building suspense. We know (because he reminds us) that the bomb Stevie is carrying is going to go off at 1:45. And as Stevie unknowingly transports the bomb from one end of town to the other, we get constant reminders of exactly what time it is. Over and over, we see him pass by clocks, with time ticking down inevitably to the fateful moment when the bomb will detonate. It sounds pretty standard, really, but it’s quite gripping.

If the film fails anywhere, it’s in the person of many of the characters on screen. It’s the bad guys, particularly Verloc, who are the interesting characters here. Mrs. Verloc is timid and fairly tepid, not showing much in the way of emotion or personality until the film draws to its climax. Similarly, Stevie is a baby step or two above a complete halfwit. And the story has trouble hanging together as it should. There’s plenty going on here that doesn’t really fit too well, like Spencer’s conduct around the still-married Mrs. Verloc.

The good news is that Sabotage for all its pre-war message about vigilance against the red menace, is all about the visual style of the film. The reason is that even at this early point in his career, Hitchcok had a penchant for rough stories and brutal, unflinching looks at the stories he undertook.

Sabotage is not a film that anyone will consider adding into the pantheon of great films or even of top-level Hitchcock. However, as an artifact of something early in Hitchcock’s career, films like sabotage show the direction in which he was headed long, long before he ventured into the full thriller and intrigue set of films.

In other words, Sabotage does nothing to advance the portrayals of characters in the world of the cinema. It really is a great indication of the direction he was going in thanks to his dedication to the basic story of innocents hurt and killed for political reasons. I’m not ready to put this on a high pedestal; it deserves at least a little love.

Why to watch Sabotage: Is there a reason to avoid Hitchcock?
Why not to watch: His early work didn’t show the promise of his later career.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Oh, Ingmar!

Film: Sasom i en Spegel (Through a Glass Darkly)
Format: Streaming video from Hulu+ on laptop.

As I think I have mentioned before when discussing Bergman, there is a perception of the man’s films. The stereotype of Bergman is that it will be black-and-white, featuring Max von Sydow, and deal with bucketloads of existential angst and heady philosophical topics. And thus we have Sasom i en Spegel (Through a Glass Darkly). In terms of what people tend to expect from Bergman, this one hits on all cylinders.

The events of the film take place over a single 24-hour period, a single day in the life of a very disturbed family. Central to this narrative is Karin (Harriet Andersson). There is something distinctively off about her, and we learn early that she has recently been released from an institution. Karin is a schizophrenic, and indications are that she will never really be cured of her delusions. At least this is what her husband Martin (von Sydow) has been led to believe. He tells this to Karin’s father, David (Gunnar Bjornstrand).

While Karin’s insanity is the true prime mover of the film, It is his relationships with the other characters through the film, it is his reaction to them as well that drives the narrative throughout. Naturally the characters have a relationship with each other, but they are in many ways defined by their relationship with David. Karin, for instance, sees him in many ways as a protector initially, but discovers in his diary that he knows she will not be cured of her delusions, and that there is a part of him that wishes to watch and record this process. David’s relationship with his son Minus (Lars Passgard) is also critical. Minus is in his late teens and filled with the sort of insanity of all teens. He is energetic and wishes to please his father, but has no idea how to do so. He’s also sexually frustrated, which becomes an object of fun for Karin.

David’s desire to watch Karin deteriorate comes between him and Martin, and does so rather firmly. Martin believes that this attitude is cruel and callous, which it really is. But it is in many ways David’s inability to truly express himself. He confesses that Martin is right in many ways, but also that he considered suicide, but could not actually kill himself; now that he has passed through that particular trial, what sustains him is his love for his family—a love that seems to be unable to be expressed.

Of course, we’re going to spend a lot of time dealing with Karin’s insanity. During the night, for instance, she wakes up and heads to the attic. While there, she believes that there are voices coming to her from underneath the wallpaper. There’s also some indication that at one point in the film, with her splintering sanity starting to crack again, that she seduces her frustrated younger brother, which is really damn creepy.

Bergman, of course, is all about the pain and fear of our own existence. A lot of this also seems to come from what seems like the stereotypical Scandinavian inability to express emotion. Certainly, while Karin has no problem expressing her feelings or bizarre impulses, and Martin is fairly easy to understand, David is emotionally closed off to the point that Minus believes it is impossible for him to have a meaningful conversation with him. This only serves to further exacerbate the problem. In a sense, David’s inability to communicate with his son becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. He cannot communicate with Minus, so he simply does not communicate with Minus. Minus says at much at one point, wondering if every person is trapped inside his or her own private cage.

Of course it’s depressing, even if it genuinely attempts to end on an up note. After all, it is a Bergman film. Why? Because it seems very much that at least for some of the people, Minus is correct. Karin in particular is in her own little world of schizophrenia, knowing that there's no way for her to be cured of the disease. The others certainly try to reach her, but she is unreachable. There's an attempt at resolution, and we even get a little at the end. However, ultimately, each one of us is alone. Cheery thought!

Why to watch Sasom i en Spegel: It’s what you think of when you think of Bergman.
Why not to watch: It’s also as weird as you expect it to be.

Monday, March 12, 2012

History vs. Narrative

Film: Braveheart
Format: VHS from personal collection on big ol’ television.

In this world, post Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic, drunken tirade, it’s difficult to remember that Gibson was once an extremely talented actor and filmmaker. There was a time when people would go to see something specifically because he was in it, and more often than not, they’d be happy with the results. Gibson made a transition from good looking action guy to more thoughtful fare slowly. Even his more cerebral, meaningful stuff, like Braveheart, comes with a load of action and violence. Gibson’s name was crap for some time, a reality that he’s still sort of fighting against (last year’s The Beaver grossed less than $1 million). It’s instructive at times to remember why this guy was so damn popular and seemed to be made of Teflon for years. Even his shitty movies didn’t seem to affect his popularity, drawing power, or appeal.

No film cemented his reputation as a serious actor and filmmaker more than Braveheart. This was Gibson at the height of his acting chops and at the moment he became not a guy making movies but a true filmmaker. In many ways, Braveheart is sort of a tipping point for Gibson’s career. Up to this point, with a few forays into other genres, most of Gibson’s output was action or the occasional action-fueled comedy. After, Gibson seemed set on essentially remaking Braveheart in other, more American, patriotic forms or going the full-on religious route, with Apocalypto being a noteworthy exception.

This makes Braveheart important in Gibson’s career, but it’s an important film for other reasons as well. It is in many ways a return to or at least a continuation of the concept of epic filmmaking that had returned to vogue in the ‘90s. Braveheart clocks in at close to three full hours, and along the way, it goes through some very specific segments of film style. There’s no doubt from the opening scenes and narration that we’ll be going to war eventually, but that’s not where we spend much of the first hour.

We start with the young William Wallace (played as a youth by James Robinson). His father (Sean Lawlor) and brother (Sandy Nelson) head off to battle and come back dead, leaving William in the care of his uncle, Argyle (Brian Cox). Argyle takes William on pilgrimage to Rome and through France, and William returns later in life, ready to settle down and raise (as he says) crops and a family. And now he’s Mel Gibson. He encounters a few old friends, particularly Hamish (Brendan Gleeson), Hamish’s father (James Cosmo), and Murran (Catherine McCormack), who he has rather carried a torch for in his long absence. There is a brief, whirlwind romance between the two, and they marry in secret to avoid the problem of primae noctis, allowing the feudal lord bed rights for any woman on the night of her wedding.

Of course, it all goes to pot when Murran is accosted by a few English soldiers and fights off a rape. Wallace comes to her aid and tries to lead the soldiers away, but Murran is captured, accused of inciting rioting against the king, and has her throat cut. And this action, which happens relatively early in the film, fuels Wallace’s rage for the next several hours.

Of course, it all comes down to unbridled rage at the English king of the time, Edward I, called Longshanks (and played by the strikingly awesome Patrick McGoohan). Longshanks is depicted in the film as a brutal tyrant, capable of any atrocity to expand his own territories. His son, who would eventually become Edward II (Peter Hanly) is effeminate and depicted as gay and weak, which is one of the few aspects of this film that is at least marginally correct; Edward II is historically thought of as bisexual. Regardless, Edward’s queen, Isabella of France (Sophie Marceau) is often sent into diplomatic missions with the idea that she might succeed, but if she were to be killed, she’d be no real loss.

And there’s lots of fighting. Wallace fights the British, the British lay traps for Wallace, and he kills pretty much anything that stands in his way or appears to stop him from killing more English people. It’s all about the death and destruction here, and Braveheart really pulls not a single punch. The war scenes are filled not with gratuitous violence, but realistic violence. We see limbs and heads removed, skulls crushed, and blood aplenty. No one dies with a sword through the ribs and a spot of blood. Instead, we get military picks driven through helmets and into the brains beneath. Battles end with everyone covered in gore.

There are a few other things worth mentioning here as well. I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the role of Robert the Bruce (Angus McFadyen). Of all the characters in the film, he is one of my favorites because of the way in which he is depicted. This is a man who would eventually become the king of Scotland, but in this film is merely learning what it means to be a ruler of men. He gets advice from his father (Ian Bannen), who remains hidden due to leprosy. His advice seems to come directly out of Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Robert finds himself perpetually battling between doing what his father wishes and doing instead what he feels is right. Of all the characters in the film, it is Robert the Bruce who undergoes significant changes, makes mistakes, pays a price for them, and learns from his errors.

I also need to discuss Stephen (David O’Hara), the insane Irishman who shows up around the middle of the film. Stephen is borderline insane, but also cunning and a hell of a warrior. He injects a necessary bit of insanity, levity, and comedy into the final mix. While certainly there are those who might not be his fans in the world, I don’t know any of them. I think the guy is great, and he easily makes the film for me, if only because he’s not so completely serious all the time once the killing starts.

It is the end of the film that most people remember, of course, because it is the end of the film that is the most powerful. Wallace, finally captured and to be put to death faces his stoutest test, and, of course, finds a way to inspire the masses when he meets it. If you’ve seen this, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, well, you should watch it.

The biggest issue with Braveheart as a film is that it is completely inaccurate in almost every aspect. Yes, there was a guy named William Wallace, and he did fight against the English. He was eventually captured and executed. And just about nothing else is true to the narrative. Even the essential plot element of primae noctis is a fabrication—the rule certainly existed, but there’s no evidence that Longshanks ever used it. Couple this with the fact that Edward II married Isabella after Wallace’s death, and you’ve got a film in which virtually all pieces of accuracy were sacrificed on the altar of narrative. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it’s a true thing. It also makes me wonder if the real story isn’t compelling enough, why film it?

If I want to go disturbing on this, there’s some evidence that this film was instrumental in a rise of Scots nationalism and anti-British sentiment. Couple this with some of Gibson’s later behavior, and one has to wonder if perhaps this film wasn’t the beginning of Mel Gibson going controversial and dividing as well as entirely historically inaccurate. Food for thought, no?

Why to watch Braveheart: Mel Gibson at his best and before the crazy set in.
Why not to watch: To paraphrase John O’Farrell, it couldn’t be more historically inaccurate if it included a clay dog and were named William Wallace and Gromit.