Saturday, July 31, 2010

How Sharper than a Serpent's Tooth.

During Akira Kurosawa's long eclipse during the 1970s, a period during which he made one film as an exile and made one suicide attempt, the director occupied himself with refining the designs and storyboards for two films he didn't know if he would ever make. At the time, he had only made two films in color, and one can imagine him beginning to burst at the possibilities of color that he might never get to realize on screen. The two films* that eventually resulted from this long obsession play as if the director had taken a gun, put it in his mouth, and splattered both his disillusionment and his pent up ambitions onto the screen in eyeball-searing color.

My local art house has been running a Kurosawa retrospective this summer, consisting of six films. Of these six, I own five of them and have seen all of them on the big screen at one point or another. The sixth is Ran, Kurosawa's 1985 version of King Lear, which I have only ever seen on television and don't own. I skipped the others, but went to Ran.

There is a valedictory quality to Ran. There are so many disparate theatrical elements plucked from his long career and from his national cinema that it seems as if Kurosawa, in this one film, was trying to live up to the criticism that his career was like watching the history of Japanese cinema running in reverse. The theatricality of it is at odds with his early films, but of a piece with them, too. The theatricality of it was always there in films like Seven Samurai, but it was hidden, perhaps because they were in black and white. A great many of the shots in Ran seem decorated rather than composed, as if the director had spent years and years working and re-working them. The volume of Kurosawa's art from this period shows that this is indeed what happened. The director enlisted his friend, Ishiro Honda, to realize many of these pieces on screen, thus, perversely linking this particular apocalypse with the various catastrophes inflicted on Japan in Honda's kaiju films.

There are odd notes, from the androgynous Fool (the actor who plays him was in fact a noted female impersonator), to the grandly theatrical make-up worn by Tatsuya Nakadai, to a Tôru Takemitsu's score that sounds like nothing Japanese at all and most resembles Jerry Goldsmith's Planet of the Apes score. This is a weirdly feminine movie, too. The aforementioned Fool is part of it, but the movie hinges on the two female characters, Lady Sue (Yoshiko Miyazaki) in the role of the murdered innocent and Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) as a descendant of Lady Macbeth. Lady Sue has hardly any screen time, but the pivotal role of the murdered innocent is implacable in a Shakespearean tragedy. Lady Kaede, on the other hand, steals the entire movie from all comers, even the wildly overacting Nakadai. I categorize this all as odd because Kurosawa was never a filmmaker with much interest in women, and yet they dominate his valediction. All told, this assemblage of oddities has a mounting effect, like a top that begins with small wobbles spinning into wildly eccentric gyrations. It would be a mistake to think that this effect is an accident, because, after all, the title of the film translates literally as "Chaos."

Ran is a great movie, no doubt about it, but I'd forgotten just how much of a downer it is. Not all of that can be laid at the feet of William Shakespeare, either. Oh, the broad outlines of Lear are still there, though it changes Lear's daughters into sons and kinda sorta changes Richmond into Lady Kaeda, one of the cinema's most jaw-dropping monsters. Lear is already something of a total negation of life, in which even the villains are inconsequential in a godless void. Its dominant words are no, not, nothing, and (memorably) never never never never. And in spite of all this, Kurosawa goes it all one better. The last shot of the movie has a blind man teetering on the precipice of a ruined castle, having accidentally dropped an image of the Amida Buddha he had been given to keep him company. Rarely has a filmmaker ever matched himself so keenly to the material. Ran is Kurosawa howling in the wilderness.

*The other is Kagemusha (1980)

Friday, July 30, 2010

Floral Arrangements

I've been on kind of an Almodovar kick lately. I came late to the party with Almodovar, so I'm having to view some of his older films through the filter or his recent work. It's an interesting kind of parallax. I don't know that my old opinion of Almodovar was necessarily wrong, just that I wasn't seeing or wasn't "getting" what he was up to. In this regard, his 1995 movie, The Flower of My Secret is a kind of Rosetta Stone. It stands as a kind of nexus between his older films and his current, mature style. The director was always evolving towards a kind of Sirkian melodrama, even in his more outrageous earlier films, and here you can see him groping for the effects he would attain in over the next decade and a half. Hell, it sometimes seems like he had those films already written in his mind from the evidence of this film.

The movie itself concerns Leo, a romance writer who has become disillusioned with her work. She wants to write more realistic, more literary work, but her contract with her publisher prevents it. Compounding this problem is her disintegrating marriage with her absent husband, with whom she has raging fights after it becomes clear that he no longer wants her. On a whim, she takes her writing to the publisher of a newspaper and lands a gig reviewing her own latest novel, which she excoriates as "typing," a la Truman Capote's famous put-down of Jack Kerouac. Her editor at the newspaper, on the other hand, loves her romance novels (even though he doesn't know that she's the writer) and begins to fall for her.

The details of this movie are telling. Her best friend stages training performances for doctors to rehearse their bedside manners (this recurs in All About My Mother). The one performance we see concerns the mother of a boy who is in a persistent vegetative state (All About My Mother again for the grieving mother, and Talk To Her on the disposition of a boy in a coma). The dance sequence at the end also anticipates Talk to Her. And most telling of all is the plot of Leo's "literary" novel, in which a girl murders her father who is molesting her and her mother covers the crime by hiding the body at a friend's vacant restaurant (this is more or less the plot of Volver). During the course of the movie, these echoes of the future make it clear that Pedro has placed himself in the movie as multiple characters. Leo is certainly an avatar, as is Angel (her editor), and Antonio, who steals the idea of Leo's novel and sells it for movies. All of this is also evidence of a director who never throws anything away; a true auteur.

Unfortunately, this isn't one of Almodovar's better movies. Don't get me wrong: It's totally watchable. Compulsive, even. You want to know what happens next at any given point of its running time. The trouble with it is that none of the echoes of the future cohere into a satisfying narrative and when this finds its way to an ending, my first impulse was to ask, "That's it?" Almodovar falls victim to his own success, I think. The emotional content and the heights of melodrama presented earlier in the movie seem to cry out for some kind of epic catharsis of some kind. Instead, the movie kind of fizzles out, as if it wasted all of its fireworks and had nothing left for a finale.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Films of Robert Aldrich: The Choirboys

Skipping ahead to the end of Aldrich's career this time, to The Choirboys from 1977 (which also saw the release of Twilight's Last Gleaming). Aldrich only made two more movies after this one. There's no getting around the fact that The Choirboys is a pretty unpleasant movie. Based on Joseph Wambaugh's novel, this lets Aldrich's anti-authoritarianism loose without any restraint. Wambaugh famously disowned the movie, and speaks ill of it to this very day. I get the feeling that Aldrich approached the book the same way he approached Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly, which he is known to have hated. I think he saw in it a hagiography for authoritarianism, which is totally against his nature. The resulting movie tears down the veils that hid the fault lines in American culture in the post-Vietnam/post-Watergate era. To some extent, those fault lines are still there. This is a racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic morass, in which all of these impulses are given complete license. This is the cop movie crossed with Salo. It's all id.

The story here follows a precinct full of rowdy LA cops. The members of this precinct hold "choir practice" after hours, in which they drink, womanize, and play vicious pranks on each other. There's not much plot at first, just a rambling series of episodes. It's a picaresque. It acquires a plot in the second half, in which Vietnam vet Don Stroud freaks out and kills a gay teen in the park. His fellow cops then feel obliged to cover the crime. This is only the most extreme of the private failings on display here, but it's all of a piece with the cop who's into kink, the cop who thinks he's Dracula, the lieutenant who dabbles in hookers, the drunks, the lechers, et cetera. Aldrich doesn't paint a pleasant picture of cops. The main trouble with the movie is that he doesn't provide a means of entry into this world. There is no characteristic anti-hero railing against authority here, no individual railing against the system. I get the feeling that Charles Durning's retiring cop is intended as the sympathetic protagonist, but he's not on screen enough to work in this capacity. Like many of Aldrich's anti-heroes, Durning is compromised by his own moral outrage, then unconvincingly redeemed in the end. It doesn't really work. At only one point does the misanthropic mask slip, when Burt Young's grungy sergeant books a scared gay teen. This one moment informs the nastiness of the film's last act, given that the gay teen is Stroud's victim. This is played against a troubling taste for gay baiting elsewhere in the movie, with a stereotyped flaming gay, complete with pink poodle.

From my own theoretical point of view, this has a lot in common with the Gothic elements of The Dirty Dozen. It's an all male film--all of the female characters are bit parts--and one gets the feeling that the crucible of masculinity has driven these characters insane. This is certainly suggested in the homophobia manifested on screen. It's an even more extreme version than The Dirty Dozen, though, because it spreads the psychosexual manias among multiple characters rather than confining it to one sex maniac. It should be noted that there are some interesting actresses in the background of this movie, including Blair Brown and exploitation goddess Cheryl 'Rainbeaux' Smith.

In any event, it would be a horrifying movie to watch if it weren't so willfully goofy. On the one hand, the antics of the cops in the first half of the movie are juvenile and unfunny. On the other, the actions of the cops in the back half of the movie are reprehensible. It's an irreconcilable tension that the movie simply cannot resolve. It's also one of Aldrich's grottiest movies (he made a lot of grotty movies during the 1970s), one that still manages to look a bit like it was made for television, though the content of the movie would never play in prime time (this was a staple in the early days of HBO). It would be easy to count this film as evidence of the director in decline. Certainly, his days of masterpieces were over by this time, but this is still not without interest. It's just not very good.

Post script: The Choirboys has been out of print for years and has never been on DVD, so far as I know. It is, however, available for streaming on Netflix. This may be the wave of the future for deep catalogue movies where the rights-holders don't see a financial upside of pressing a disc.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Shock and Awe

The first time I encountered Shock (1946, directed by Alfred L. Werker), it was in a plagiarized form in E. C. Comics as "Mute Witness to Murder." Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines weren't above swiping their material wholesale when they were under the gun. They were pretty shameless about it. They only got caught once, I think, when Ray Bradbury called them out for it and started taking a piece of the pie. Anyway, "Mute Witness to Murder" showed up on HBO's Tales from the Crypt, too, starring Patricia Clarkson in the lead, and it's pretty good. It has an instinct for the jugular that's missing in the original. Shock was done on the cheap and features a depressing literalism. It's one of the founding films in the psychiatric ward noir (most recently on screens as Shutter Island), in which a woman witnesses a man murder his wife, goes catatonic, and discovers that the murderer is the psychiatrist charged with treating her catatonia.

For the most part, the movie's not worth going out of your way to see, save for one small detail: it stars Vincent Price. Price was in the ascent at the time, after toiling in supporting parts for other Fox films. With this film, and Dragonwyck from the same year, Price graduated to leading roles of a particularly sinister bent. This is one of the first urbane villains in his portfolio. He's not a horror star yet, but you could see the seeds of it. He pretty much steals Shock from everyone, in spite of playing a character who is fundamentally weak (a spiritual brother to his gigolo in Laura perhaps), and it's fun to watch him work.

Also of interest is a dream sequence toward the beginning of the film, one of those surreal phantasmagorias that were really the only genuine experimentation Hollywood indulged in during the classic period. Come to think of it, they're also a hallmark of the psychiatric noir, too (see also: Spellbound, Shock Corridor). This one, as I say, is depressingly literal-minded, and functions more as exposition than poetry.

Still and all, it's a fun movie that doesn't over-stay its welcome.

Talk to Her (2002) might be Pedro Almodovar's most perverse film (and that's saying something). Mind you, it's a startling portrait of love and loss, but it also asks the question: if you were shrunk to the size of a couple of inches tall, would you climb into your lover's vagina only to be lost and smothered? This shows up in another of Pedro's films within a film, this time imagined as a striking silent movie recounted by one of the film's twin protagonists to his comatose patient/love object. I had to stop the movie for a short time because I was laughing so hard, which is a nice tonic to what is otherwise a fairly tragic movie.

The film follows two men in love with women who are comatose: Marco's girlfriend is a Lydia, a bullfighter who has a disastrous encounter in the ring. Benigno is a nurse caring for Alicia, a ballerina with whom he has been long obsessed. The two men strike up a friendship. Both men begin the movie watching a ballet in which a man moves chairs out of the way of a blind dancer, and both wind up in much the same position, caring for helpless women. Unfortunately, both men are headed for grief. Marco's girlfriend, he learns, was trying to break up with him at the time of her accident, favoring her ex-lover with the promise of marriage. Benigno, unfortunately, follows his obsession with Alicia over the cliff, raping her and getting caught because she becomes pregnant. He comes to a bad end.

The movie moves through successive layers of grief. It's kind of a shock to arrive at the end of the movie to discover that it has entirely healed that grief. There's a tantalizing hint of uplift that sends the viewer away happy. It's an amazing balancing act, made doubly difficult by the moral quagmires the movie sets up. Benigno is unquestionably a rapist, but does he see that in his mind? Can he help himself? The scenes where Benigno cares for Alicia have an elegant beauty and an uncomfortable jolt at the same time. And can the audience get behind Marco's loyalty to his friend? This could be a disaster in other hands, but Almodovar doesn't drop a single stitch.

And is there a filmmaker making as much use of widescreen as Almodovar? I can't even imagine a pan and scan version of this film. It's weird: I used to think that Almodovar was an empty stylist. In the last dozen years, though, I finally see the humanity behind the over-the-top colors, I finally feel the emotions evinced by the outlandish situations. His movies get more and more beautiful by and by.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

What's In a Name?

I think it was William K. Everson who put The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue (1974, directed by Jorge Grau) on my radar when he wrote a glowing blurb for it in The Classics of the Horror Film. Everson thought it was a better movie than Night of the Living Dead, and it's hard for me to overlook that kind of endorsement. It took a LONG time for me to track the film down. I didn't have a good copy until Anchor Bay put it out on DVD under the title Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and when I finally did, I was surprised to discover that it was a film that I'd already seen. The movie has had an encyclopedia of alternate titles. I originally saw it on a fly-by-night VHS edition under the abbreviated title, "The Living Dead," in the early-90s and didn't even realize it. The titling of the movie is a huge part of its relative obscurity. It's hard to build a brand on that kind of confusion.

In any event, I had a mind to revisit the film this week.

What's immediately apparent to me about The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is how uneasy a combination of elements it is. With the benefit of hindsight, it's easy for me to see what Everson liked in the movie. He was a reactionary when it came to horror movies, and this movie reassembles the radical break with tradition one finds in Night of the Living Dead into a more traditional Gothic form, so of course he's going to prefer it. Unfortunately, this retrogradation of the new radical horror movie (well, new in 1968, anyway) tends to dull the impact. It dates the movie badly. Which isn't to say it's bad, mind you, just that one needs to make allowances. The overall effect of the movie is what you might get if one of the baby Hammer studios--Amicus, for instance, or more probably Tigon--tried to reverse engineer Night of the Living Dead.

The story here follows George, an antique dealer, on a trip to the Lake district, where his motorbike meets with an accident when a woman backs over it with her car. He impresses the woman, Edna, to take him on to his destination, but before they can arrive, they're waylaid by the events of the movie. First, they encounter a Ministry of Agriculture machine that's using low-level ultrasonic radiation to kill insects, then they encounter the living dead. The machine, it seems, stimulates primitive nervous systems, so it drives newborn children at the local hospital insane and it raises the recently departed and drives them into a homicidal rampage. Unfortunately for our heroes, the law thinks they're responsible for the ghastly murders in the area. The Inspector on the case doesn't like George's looks; he thinks his hippie hair and his "faggoty" clothes are emblematic of the moral rot in the world. Unfortunately for our heroes, bodies start piling up.

Unfortunately, this never makes it to Manchester, unless that's supposed to be Manchester in the prologue. This is strictly rural, which gives the film part of its character. This was filmed in Derbyshire and the landscapes in this are spectacular. In fact, all of the locations in this are picturesque, which lends the film its old-school Gothic ambiance. By placing its Romero-esque zombies in this context, the film takes on a quality of medieval horror, more akin to The Tombs of the Blind Dead than Night of the Living Dead. The zombie sequences are pure Romero, though.

Our first glimpse of the living dead is deliberately styled after the opening of Night of the Living Dead, in which the drowned zombie wanders into the frame like Romero's cemetery zombie to attack our heroine. It's still an effective sequence at second hand. The later zombie feast when the policeman buys it in the cemetery cements the association. In general, the zombie sequences in this movie are very effective; they turn the screws tight and are pretty violent. Grau doesn't pander to gore hounds, per se, but he certainly doesn't disappoint them, either. The fate of our heroes at the end of the movie are also deliberate echoes. It's too bad that the filmmakers didn't stop there, because there's an illogical coda to the movie that turns it into an E.C. Comic and diffuses the impact.

Grau is one of the few first-wave European inheritors of Night of the Living Dead to recognize that film's social critique, and he builds a similar critique into his film. The shots of the city in the prologue are designed to emphasize the pollution and alienation of our civilization (an effect amplified by the contrast with the scenery in the rest of the film). When a streaker disrobes and runs into the street, it's not even remarkable. The story itself is stridently environmentalist, with our hero standing in for Ibsen's archetypal enemy of the people. The Inspector, of course, is the oppressive hand of the old order, intent on crushing dissent and stifling the young. Grau uses a heavy hand when it comes to his symbols. This stridency fixes the movie forever in its time. Still, Grau began his career in Franco's Spain, which I'm sure colors his viewpoint when it comes to authoritarianism. He's probably entitled. This also puts me in mind of the depiction of the Yorkshire police in the Red Riding trilogy. While I was watching The Inspector in this movie, all I could see in my mind was the characters in Red Riding toasting themselves and "The North! Where we do what we want!" So maybe it's not as strident as it could be.

That all said, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue is a pretty good movie that deserves better than the obscurity to which it's been consigned.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Grand Gestures

For a movie constructed from so many things that I love, I Am Love (2009, directed by Luca Guadagnino) sure left me feeling disappointed at the end. I mean, it's chock full of architecture and food and cinephilia and Tilda Swinton, and yet I still found myself thinking, "Is that it?" as the credits rolled. The entire gist of the movie, save for one key plot point, is there in the trailer: plot, visuals, music, everything. What you see in the trailer is a conflation of Visconti and Sirk, with a hint of Hitchcock and pumped full of steroids. The movie itself calls to mind Ambrose Bierce's definition of a novel as "a short story, padded."

The story is familiar enough to anyone who has seen Sirk's All that Heaven Allows (substitute a lower class chef for Rock Hudson's handyman), though this movie gives it a different ending. The visual metaphors the movie employs--empty rooms of the affluent are dominant, though the seasons are important, too--are pure Sirk in a slightly different key. That's where Visconti comes in, because this is also a movie about a wealthy family coming to grips with changing times. The same visual metaphors apply, with the furnishings of affluence providing a glimpse of a past that's slipping away. The comparison with The Leopard is well nigh inescapable.

At the center of all of this is Swinton in fine form, playing the Russian bride of a Milanese textile merchant. In marrying into his family, she abandons her identity. Her husband even provides her with a new name. Swinton's character, it should be noted, shares a name with Flaubert's Madame Bovary: Emma. She seems to have no connection to her husband, but she loves her children. One of her children is questioning the direction of the family business in a globalized world. The other is in the process of coming out as a lesbian. Her son's friend is a chef who catches her eye, first with food, then with his looks. Tragedy ensues.

The movie is on its firmest ground when it focuses on Swinton, watching her behavior. It's the small scenes that play the best: when she finds a letter from her daughter in which she discusses falling for another woman, when she has the dialogue of an American businessman translated for her (a very meta moment, given that the actress is one of the most articulate of British actresses), when she's lost in the taste of food. That she's a Russian in Italy makes her a stranger in a strange land, and it amplifies her isolation and ennui. One wishes that there was more of this sort of thing. A lot more. For the most part, the plot is an excuse for the form and they don't really support one another. Or, rather, the form dominates.

This is a film of seasons. The opening movement is set in the winter, and in the midst of cold, modernist architecture. The second movement is set in the spring and the ornate architecture of the baroque period. The third movement is set in the summer, in the low, picturesque villages of the countryside. Fall is rainy, and the architecture is sepulchral. Through it all is an emphasis on food. The moods of the picture are conveyed by food, as is a key plot point at the end of the movie that precipitates the movie's tragedy. As a visual object, I Am Love is excellent, but perhaps a bit too arch with it its symbols. Still, the film does come to vivid life, especially in the erotic sections where Swinton proves to be a very unself-conscious actress. Her love scenes are surprisingly uninhibited. I don't know that I can imagine another actress of her stature in these scenes, but she inhabits them effortlessly. The movie overplays this, though, by using the natural world (particularly insects on flowers) the way it uses architecture, mostly as a bludgeon.

I mean, I'm all for the grand gesture. I'm all for taking a swing at the fence. I'm not going to fault the film for its ambitions. Hell, I wish more movies took these kinds of chances. I wish I liked this film more. But I don't.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Marriage Counselling

What a perverse set of mixed messages one finds in The Blood Spattered Bride (1972, directed by Vicente Aranda), one of the more interesting adaptations of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's "Carmilla." On the one hand, it presents a set of arguments that feminists everywhere will recognize as our heroine, Susan, marries a lout and lives to regret it. On the other hand, it totally plays to patriarchal male fears about women who take control of their own sexuality. It wants it both ways. It's very clever about it, though it may not be clever enough.

The story follows two newlyweds on their honeymoon. Right after the wedding, they head to a kind of modernist hotel for their wedding night, where Susan, the bride, has a disturbing rape fantasy that wigs her out. She insists they leave, so they continue on to the groom's ancestral home. Susan's rape fantasies turn out to be a premonition of her married life, because her new husband is a total horndog who insists on sex at the drop of the hat, sometimes forcefully. Susan's future looks to be one of sexual abuse. Meanwhile, she begins to dream about a sinister woman with a dagger, who she comes to believe is her husband's ancestor, Mircalla Karnstein, who killed her husband on her wedding night for demanding "unspeakable acts." These dreams coincide with the appearance of a dagger, upon which she fixates as the weapon Mircalla used for the crime. Her behavior becomes erratic and her husband calls in a doctor who dopes her up and pronounces her "anxious" about her new marriage. Nothing more. Meanwhile, her husband finds a naked woman on the beach who has no memory of how she got there. The woman says her name is Carmilla, and she and Susan soon form a connection. Soon they're taking midnight strolls together, much to the consternation of Susan's husband and doctor. The doctor follows them one night and witnesses the pair indulging in unspeakable acts. Soon, the two are being hunted by the men, after they kill the doctor. Susan's husband eventually finds them curled up together in Mircalla's crypt and takes his revenge.

This movie has a bifurcated narrative. In the first part, Susan is the protagonist, in the second, it's her husband. This has a built-in flaw, because the first half of the movie prejudices the audience's view of the husband (he's never named, by the way). After the movie shows him basically forcing his wife to fellate him, after showing him pursue her through the grounds of the mansion with copulation on his mind, after showing him to be a thorough going cad, the switch in viewpoint is bound to fail. The first half of the movie is a list of grievances in support of a feminist point of view on marriage, and it's a LOT stronger than the second half's point of view. The second half of the movie adopts the point of view of a man threatened by his wife's sexual awakening and by her realization that she really doesn't want him. It constructs a revenge fantasy around masculinity under attack, and the countervailing list of grievances in this half of the movie--that women who throw off their men are man-hating, castrating lesbians comes off as shrill and absurd. Plus, the way the movie is structured suggests that the husband gets everything that's coming to him. Interestingly, he survives the film, while our lesbian vampires do a number on relatively innocent men.

The movie isn't subtle about its symbolism. This is probably the salient image from the first half of the movie:

While this is the image that sticks with you from the second half:

Juxtaposed with each other, these two images are the poles of the ideological spectrum, the first one radical, the second one reactionary. The first image of the caged bride is a familiar kind of image from more realistic films. It's the sort of image that the filmmakers of the French New Wave favored. The second is over the top, catering to irrational fantasies of male inadequacy. It's one thing to be cuckolded, it's quite another to be cuckolded by another woman. This kind of over-the-top exaggerated male anxiety is made explicit in the dialogue when Carmilla exhorts Susan to "Kill (your husband)! Kill him! Destroy his manhood!" and when the doctor suggests that Susan is under the influence of a "Dominating lesbian, a dangerous pervert." We later see Susan blow the testicles of a man off with a shotgun. It pretty much goes all in with its homophobia, misogyny, and castration anxiety.

The second half of the film is so broadly ridiculous that I wonder if there's not a double game at work here. I wonder if the second half of the film isn't actually a critique of patriarchy rather than an endorsement. This line of argument is supported by the grievances presented in the first half of the movie. I suppose one could argue that the extremity of the film's final five minutes, in which all of the women in the movie are wiped out, that we're watching the all-destroying patriarchy responding in character when threatened. I'd feel a lot more comfortable with that idea if it hadn't gone to such pains to justify it in a way that men find primal. It's not just that the women are threatening the patriarchy here, they're also going after the gonads. And that, to some men, is likely unforgivable.

My initial reaction to Despicable Me (2010, directed by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud): Must we have treacle with our brimstone? Hmmm? Meh.

I can't say I'm impressed. If you're going to make a movie about an arch-villain, I think it behooves you to make him villainous. And don't turn him into a wuss by providing him with three adorable children. This is another of those movies where Hollywood demonstrates its daddy issues, methinks, and another in a long line of cartoon families with no mother and no procreative reasons for the dad to have the kids. Cartoons are weird about this sometimes.

Still, it's mostly harmless. Our "hero", Gru, seems like he walked out of a Charles Addams cartoon--he bears a close resemblance to Addams's Uncle Fester, and his pill-shaped minions provide the movie with its best laughs. Plus, it takes pot shots at Bill Gates, so it's not all bad. It's just kind of bland, though.

Also, I think I'm done with 3-D. This pains me, because it means I'm probably going to miss Toy Story 3 in the theater (there are no 2-D showings nearby), but I'd prefer to enjoy the movie without a vague sense of nausea. That's sure to color my opinion.

Anyway, all I can say about Despicable Me is that my nephews liked it. Take that as any kind of recommendation you like.

Shameless Self-Promotion #2

While it doesn't indulge in the same kind of thematic miserablism of other movies about transgender sex workers, Olaf de Fleur Johannesson's The Amazing Truth About Queen Raquela (2008) still can't avoid the fact that at least part of its narrative--arguably the dominant part--is constructed from a cisgender man's preconceptions of who transgender people are. The conceit of the movie is that it's half documentary and half fiction, mixed together in such a way as to obscure the lines between the real and the fake. The director himself calls this shambolic portmanteau structure a "visiomentary." You can probably see the flaws in this approach without even seeing the movie, but I'll elaborate anyway.

So begins my latest post over on The Second Awakening. Check it out.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Blind Leading the Blind

I have to admit that I'm a complete sucker for Zatoichi, the blind swordsman, but I always find it odd when someone else besides Katsu Shintaro reprises the role. I mean, Katsu played the role in 26 movies and a television series. He pretty much laid claim to the role for all time. It just seemed wrong to see the character kinda sorta updated for the West in Blind Fury, with Rutger Hauer in the role, and more traditionally with Takeshi Kitano in the 2003 revival. It's awkward. This problem is sidestepped in Ichi (2008, directed by Fumihiko Sori), in which the blind swordsman himself is absent, replaced by his daughter. She has the same lethal sword stroke and the same blindness, but because she's NOT Zatoichi, the cognitive dissonance is largely absent. That's not to say the movie doesn't have problems of its own.

The basic plot should be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a Zatoichi movie. Ichi (Haruka Ayase) wanders the countryside as an itinerant musician rather than as a masseuse. There is the obligatory gambling scene in which Ichi can hear whether the dice are odds or evens. There is the band of yakuza thugs terrorizing the town. There is the hidden sword and the hidden skill with the sword. All of this isn't so much a formula as it is a ritual. With this being a distaff version of the character, some changes have been made. The biggest change is that Ichi herself isn't the deadliest swordsperson in the movie. In fact, she gets her ass handed to her by the leader of the Yakuza. Takao Ôsawa plays the hero/romantic interest of the piece. He's better than Ichi, too, though he's kinda sorta castrated by a trauma in his past. He can't draw his sword until the very end of the film. The confrontation between him and the bandit leader turns into one of those heroic bloodshed moments that so enamoured Chang Cheh and John Woo.

For the most part, this is completely sexist, and it's surprising to find this iteration in Japanese genre film, which sometimes fetishizes its death-dealing heroines. Still, Haruka Ayase seems a good deal softer than Meiko Kaji ever did, I guess. Be all that as it may, it's disappointing that this becomes about the men and their problems rather than Ichi herself.

Ichi's story is interesting enough in itself to carry the movie, but it serves here mainly as a counterpoint to the way the movie downgrades the archetype. She sets out on her own to find her father after being sexually assaulted and killing her attacker. The movie makes a good deal of hay out of her "disgrace," though I don't know that it endorses the notion. There is a good deal of violence against the women in this movie, but the movie refrains from really turning Ichi into an archetype of female revenge even as she chops up the rapists and exploiters throughout the movie. I'm a bit troubled by the regressive way it places women in the background, even its ostensible heroine. I mean, if you're going to do this, what's the point of creating this particular character in the first place.

I'm also kind of bothered by the way this movie turns into a romance and with how it perpetuates the myth of the regeneration of manhood through violence. Maybe I'm just being picky. Maybe I'm letting feminism get in the way of enjoying the action.

As befits an updating of Zatoichi, this film is almost classical in its approach to filming action. It eschews the fast cut shaky-cam style of contemporary action films in favor of a more Kurosawan approach. It rarely gets closer to the action than a medium two-shot, but it does indulge in slow-motion. There's blood, but there aren't the geysers of blood from the balmier days of the chambara. The blood here is digital, but it's not overly intrusive.

This approach is appealing, but it has a drawback. Lacking the eye for mise en scene and editing of a Kurosawa (or even a Fukasaku or a Misumi), this approach has a kind of flattening effect. The movie never really wows the viewer with either the action or the style. In this regard it's almost exactly like a mid-period Zatoichi movie, but that shouldn't be counted as a compliment. Much as I love those movies, I'm under no illusions about their aesthetic merits, just as I'm under no illusions about this film, either. Still, it's an attractive movie and an entertaining chop-em up. I wish I could like it better than I do.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

There Are No Strings On Me

All things considered, Jonathan Mostow makes movies that really should be better. This is true of his very sinister Breakdown, of his ill-advised Terminator 3, and of his 2009 sci-fi thriller Surrogates. Mostow is competent, and he puts together appealing genre exercises that are just good enough to whet the audience's appetite for a much better movie. Surrogates suggests so many interesting avenues of exploration that one longs for it to have been made by a Kubrick or even a Spielberg. Instead, the interesting ideas all provide plot points.

The story posits a future in which robotic bodies are driven from afar by users as a means of presenting younger versions of themselves, of being indestructible in the face of dangerous occupations and passtimes, and even of exploring polymorphous sexual identities. In the course of the film, someone manages to attack one of the surrogates in a way that kills the user. Enter FBI agents Greer and Peters, who follow the crumbs to both VSI, the company that builds the surrogates, to that company's exiled founder, Dr. Canter, and to the Dreds, a cult that abhors surrogates. In the course of the movie, Greer's surrogate is destroyed and he has to take to the street as his flesh and blood self, navigating the mystery without the benefit of indestructibility. This causes some friction with his wife, who he hasn't seen in the flesh in some time. Peters, for her part, meets with a different misfortune, and her surrogate becomes an agent of chaos in the back end of the movie.

Given that short summary of the plot, any reasonably imaginative person could extrapolate any number scenarios from the comic to the apocalyptic to the transgressively kinky. Hell, the filmmakers are obviously aware of all of the possibilities inherent in their premise because they occasionally touch on just about all of them. But the film doesn't take it any deeper than points on the line of a police procedural. From my own perspective, the scene where they discover the first victim taken out by the murderer is a huge prick tease: the surrogate is a bombshell of a woman, but the user is a middle-aged white guy. This scene is over in about thirty seconds, and passes almost without comment. It says something to me about a movie so overloaded with untapped ideas when it clocks in at under an hour and a half, as this one does. It means that the filmmakers couldn't even be bothered. Pity.

In any case, as I say, the whole thing is competent. Mostow stages the action sequences in a perfunctory manner, and he doesn't intrude on the plot with anything approaching style, but in an era of over-edited run and gun filmmaking, you could make an argument for the classical austerity in this approach. And the movie does occasionally have an arresting image or two. Most notable--and the most creepy--is the way the movie's special effects make both Bruce Willis and Radha Mitchell into perfect versions of themselves. The surrogate version of Willis appears to be about 38, while Mitchell's appears to be about 29. Surprisingly, I find Willis at his actual age to be considerably more attractive, but that's just me.

The film has to perform an interesting inversion of this on Rosamund Pike as Willis's wife. She probably doesn't look far off from her barbie-doll surrogate, but they have to age her considerably for her flesh and blood counterpart. One of the film's more arresting images is the broken doll stare of Pike's face after her surrogate has been disconnected.

So what we have here is a genre programmer that should be a mind-blower. Damn you, Mostow. Would it hurt to even try once in a while?

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The Bad with the Good

One of the reasons that I don't assign letter grades or stars or whatever to movies is because the experience of watching movies--for me anyway--is often unduly influenced by the circumstances of my life at the time of viewing. I don't trust myself to quantify my movie experience in those kinds of concrete terms. While I don't mind spinning a verbal impression of the experience, it may not have any bearing on the actual merits of the movie itself. This explains why I'm having such a hard time with Jee-Woon Kim's The Good, the Bad, and the Weird (2008). On the face of it, I should have had a great time. I love star Song Kang-Ho, who is one of the world's great movie stars right now. I've loved Kim's other films. Hell, the idea of a Korean quasi-remake of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly fills me with a kind of manic glee. It should have worked. I should have walked out of the film with a huge, goofy grin on my face.

But I didn't. I had a pretty bad time. I don't know that I can blame the film.

I went to this movie with my long-suffering partner. She sometimes has serious problems with violent movies. I'm not sure what triggers this, though I can make some guesses. Suffice it to say that it's pretty random. She has no problem with, say, John Carpenter's The Thing, but she can't take random kung-fu movies. Going to violent movies with her is like navigating a minefield. The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, unfortunately, was one of those movies that set off whatever internal trauma that haunts her. She had to leave the theater about two-thirds of the way into the film. She waited for me in the lobby. Needless to say, this colors my impression of the movie. I spent the remainder of the movie feeling like shit for bringing her to see it. This kind of makes it hard to enjoy what's on the screen.

The movie itself is a cartoon. It's a spaghetti western crossed with Looney Tunes and set in 1930s Manchuria. It starts with a chase, puts its foot on the gas, and presses "go" for the rest of the movie. The story follows three characters: the "good" is Park Do-Won , a disillusioned Korean freedom fighter who is drowning the loss of his country in his work as a bounty hunter. He cuts a fine figure as a cowboy.

The "bad" is Park Chang-Yi, a merciless assassin obsessed with his place as the most dangerous man in Asia. He's kind of a dandy, with hair always spiked just so, like a refugee from anime.

The "weird" is amiable thief Yoon Tae-goo, who is the object of the chase. He's the most open of the characters, but he's the one with the deepest secrets. He hides them behind a steampunk get-up that makes him seem like a clown.

Yoon Tae-goo has stolen a map that everyone in Manchuria wants. This includes black marketeers, a colorful menagerie of bandits, a spymaster in a house of love, and the Imperial Japanese army. The movie starts with a train chase, then escalates from there into increasingly complicated action set pieces in a teahouse, in the warrens of the black market, and finally in an elaborate cavalry battle in which all comers collide. As does its role model, it ends with a three-way stand-off above the treasure. It writes a slightly different ending, though, one that suggests that the violence of the entire movie has been one long exercise in futility. This isn't a new development for Jee-Woon Kim. His last film, A Bittersweet Life has a similar dialectic between the futility and the thrill of violence (and, truth be told style versus substance).

I think that last part is what turned off my companion. I think she was hip to the fact that none of the characters was worth rooting for (I don't necessarily agree) and that whatever their ultimate end, it just wasn't worth the trip. She may have a point, given that that's the conclusion reached by the filmmakers themselves, too.

Still and all, I can still watch action for action's sake, and some of the action in this movie is staged with amazing panache. The sequence where Yoon Tae-goo makes his escape from the ghost market inn over walls and roofs is a bravura piece of filmmaking and the one damned thing after another way it goes about escalating its situations has a certain droll comedy to it. The downside of ever escalating action sequences is that if they go on too long, they start to either drone or pummel. At well over two hours, this film is probably too long.

It sometimes seems like would-be horror auteur Brian Yuzna has been trying to be Stuart Gordon for all of his career. I mean, he worked with Gordon as a producer during Gordon's salad days, so you would think that Yuzna would have learned a thing or two from sheer proximity. Unfortunately, it seems like he still hasn't learned anything. 2005's Beneath Still Water, Yuzna's most recent film at this writing, finds the director taking a break from Re-Animator retreads in favor of ripping off Gordon's Dagon. Set in a sleepy little village in northern Spain nestled downstream from a dam that eradicated another town that had been full of depraved cultists, it finds whatever slumbers under the lake stirring on the eve of the dam's fortieth anniversary. In a related plot thread, the head of the cult has returned to wreak his vengeance on the granddaughter of his archenemy. The hero of the piece is a British photojournalist who is haunted by the death of his son. He finds himself drafted into the role after a disastrous dive in the sunken town delivers him into the middle of a boating "accident" investigation. It's all very convenient, and very stock.

While it may want to evoke Dagon, more often it evokes Piranha and Zombie 2 rather than anything Lovecraftian. At the very end it jumps the rails into one of those kinds of party scenes that Roger Corman used to like, only with a cast of European actors who have no qualms about getting naked and getting kinky. On balance, it has a pretty good underwater setting (and the special effects that create it are mostly convincing). It has an agreeable cast of faces familiar to anyone who follows recent Spanish horror movies. It walks an uncomfortable line by having everything in English, but that's the deal Yuzna made with the devil when he went to Spain, I guess. There are lots of gooey effects, too, courtesy of Fantasy Factory. What it lacks is mood and atmosphere, which drags things down considerably. On the whole, it's not horrible, but it all feels like the filmmakers are playing with somebody else's toys.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Hearts and Bones

They vary wildly, but William Hjortsberg's novel, Falling Angel, and the movie version by Alan Parker, retitled Angel Heart (1987) for the big screen, share one thing in common: they take the familiar generic tropes of both the hard boiled detective story and the horror story and push them to a stylistic limit. This is a step beyond expressionism--the film movement that influenced the styles of both the horror movie and film noir--it's over the line into the baroque. The rococo, even. The movie is so drenched in style that it almost doesn't need a story and for a long period it seems like the one it has is a dead end anyway. Parker is one of those directors who doesn't do "subtle."

The plot here follows low-rent private detective Harry Angel into the underworld, searching for a vanished musician named Johnny Favorite who is in the debt of Louis Cyphre, Harry's sinister client. Angel tracks Favorite to a mental hospital where his doctor has been covering up his absence for a decade, then to New Orleans, where Harry comes face to face with a voodoo cult and with some fairly unpleasant facts about himself. The whole thing plays out like one of those hard boiled mysteries where things go from bad to worse in short order, but unlike, say, a Chandler mystery or a Ross McDonald mystery, Harry is no white knight. This literalizes the downward spiral of Jim Thompson or David Goodis and superimposes it over the romantic hard boiled story. And then it jumps out of hard boiled all together in favor of the horror story.

At the time this was filmed, Mickey Rourke was at the peak of his career. He was still gorgeous, if in a disreputable and disheveled sort of way. He always looks like he just fell out of bed after a bender the night before in this movie. He's also populated his portrayal of Harry Angel with a lot of method actor-y tics, though this all serves a function in the movie. Angel doesn't have the steely resolve of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. He's essentially weak. This comes across in the performance. This is in stark contrast to Robert De Niro's Louis Cypher, who is calm, soft spoken, and implacable. Part of the impression De Niro makes in this film stems from the visual design of the character: his beard, his long hair slicked back, his long and polished fingernails, his choice of expensive black suits, his jewelry, all of this provide hints about him. One side effect is that it all makes him look a little bit like Martin Scorsese and I wonder if that's deliberate. A lot of ink was spilled at the time about Lisa Bonet's role in this movie, coming as it did during her stint on The Cosby Show. I don't know that this film helped or hurt her career. I don't know that she went much of anywhere after this, which is a pity, but she's good here in a difficult role. Like Angel and Cypher, her Epiphany Proudfoot is another character name that's loaded with significance, a fact sometimes obscured by the display of her naked flesh. The supporting cast is loaded with interesting faces, including musician Brownie McGhee and the evergreen Charlotte Rampling. It's a good ensemble.

Parker fractures the narrative in the best tradition of film noir. He omits key pieces of information until the exegesis at the end, but he films it in such a way as to elide them. He's not cheating, really, so much as he's engaging in cinematic legerdemain. It's all right there if the viewer cares to infer it (and if the viewer is apt to decode the hints that litter the movie). Parker also intercuts the film with ominous symbols. The fan is the most prevalent, and there are shots of ceiling fans and table fans and box fans through out the movie, representing, I presume, wheels within wheels, or perhaps are favored for the light and dark patterns of shadows they cast. Wheels also figure into the film's other symbolic leitmotif, a descending elevator that torments Harry's dreams. It's all overcooked; that much is a given. But does it work? I think the key to that is whether or not the audience is hip to what's going on and whether or not this is a house of cards built on a single plot point. Does this hold together for a viewer who already knows what's happening? Or is this a one trick pony once you know the punch line. That, I cannot say. I've seen Angel Heart more than once, and sometimes I'll groove on the style or I'll get annoyed with Rourke's performance, and sometimes I'll fast-forward to the scenes with De Niro. This is a movie where the mood of the viewer is sometimes just as important as the mood generated by the film.

The archetype of the hard boiled detective as knight errant shows up in yet another iteration in Debra Granik's dark Winter's Bone (2010). In this case, the unlikely detective is one Ree Dolly, a seventeen year-old girl in the Ozarks of Missouri whose father has skipped out on a bond that threatens to put her and her family out on the streets (or, as she says, "sleeping in a field like dogs"). Ree sets out to find him among an increasingly threatening social web of meth-cooking white trash kin that finds our heroine on a descent into the underworld, and that finds the movie itself sliding into the territory of the horror movie.

This is the hard boiled crime story as sociological document. The desolate picture of rural Missouri here is the decaying result of late capitalism and the filmmakers make a point of examining the wreckage in minute detail. This is a new dark ages, the film suggests, and I don't know if they're wrong. Some viewers might view this as a kind of "poverty porn" designed to appeal to liberal guilt, but I live in Missouri and I've been to West Plains in the winter, where this was filmed. The filmmakers aren't inventing anything. It's just as bleak a landscape as you'll find here, no exaggeration required. Granik is canny enough to include some of the region's rich musical heritage as a hint that we're not talking about someplace devoid of civilization, just devoid of gentrification.* There is a terrible beauty in some of the shots in this film, just as there is a terrible beauty in those 1930s-era shots by Walker Evans and Margaret Bourke-White. Misery is sometimes photogenic, even in digital.

Perhaps less obvious than the film's depiction of poverty and crime is the subtle feminist leaning of the film. This is a movie about women left to their own devices to clean up the world of shit their menfolk have left for them. At one point, one character asks Ree "Ain't you got no men to do this?" "No, ma'am, I don't," she says, before stubbornly getting on with her task. Part of her task is keeping her family together. Her mother is an invalid and her sister and brother are too young to take care of themselves, so Ree fills the void. It's very, very subtle, but Ree is a kind of everywoman in spite of her youth. It's interesting, too, that the movie doesn't give her any kind of love interest. She's on her own, to make do the best that she can. It's good that she has a strong streak of stubbornness, because a shrinking violet would not be up to the task. Also interesting is the fact that Ree's primary antagonist, Merab, is also a woman and kind of a monster to boot, but one that displays the same characteristics of doing the dirty jobs that men leave undone. The ultimate confrontation between them finds them united in a task so horrible that it transcends their animosity. Men, for their part, are mostly useless, though the movie is surprising in so far as the two men who the viewer initially thinks are the biggest problems turn out to be Ree's best allies: her no-account uncle, Teardrop, and Satterfield, the bond agent, while the one who seems the most sympathetic at the outset, Sheriff Baskin, turns out to be as weak as all the rest. It's a surprising arrangement of roles.

The filmmakers are smart to marry all of this to a genre story where time is ticking away, because it makes what might otherwise seem like a strident polemic into a thrilling movie. Once the audience is hooked to the gills, it makes all the difference in the world.

Visually, this is about as close to a black and white film as you can get in color. It's desaturated to the point of high style, and it further links the whole enterprise to film noir. Director Debra Granik populates the film with faces that are familiar, but largely unrecognizable. There are no big stars in this film, at least, not until Jennifer Lawrence rides the acclaim of this film to bigger and better things once the awards start rolling in next year. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you your 2010 Academy Award winner for Best Actress. At least, in a perfect world that would be true. You can never tell with Oscar. The most familiar faces here are John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, and Sheryl Lee, all of whom have done their more famous work in the background as character actors. The rest of the cast contains a menagerie of memorable grotesques, and while the bones of Winter's Bone are undoubtedly descended from Chandler, Thompson, and even Flannery O'Connor, there's also a hint of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in the decor and in the behavior of some of the film's less seemly characters. Hell, chain saws make an appearance as an integral part of the plot. In any case, it makes an impression.

But make no mistake, this is Jennifer Lawrence's movie, and Granik puts her through the ringer. In doing so, she puts a neat spin on the private eye archetype. It's one thing to see a tough guy getting the shit kicked out of him by the thugs employed against him, as happens as a de rigueur element in many noir detective stories, it's quite another to see a seventeen year old girl go through the same treatment and emerge on the other side. There's a world of difference in the power dynamics involved. Ree is just about as low on our society's pecking order as you can get, but she's possessed of that indomitable rightness of purpose you find in any proper knight errant. The movie subtly offers temptation to her and she consistently follows her own moral compass away from it. It's probably what saves her life, actually, but it's also what puts her in the bright circle of crime film heroes. It's been a good year for strong women as heroes, actually. You can put Ree Dolly next to Lisabeth Salander in the pantheon.

*I saw this at Columbia, Missouri's Ragtag Cinemacafe. They brought some of that music to their first showing of the movie. They had Marideth Sisco and her band play a set prior to the movie. I don't have any footage of that, but here's the band:

And here's the movie's trailer, for good measure: