Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I'm Not There (2007)

A cartoon in a recent New Yorker mag depicted two bums leaning against a wall, one saying "So which Dylan do you want to be?"

Which one indeed...such is the subject of Todd Haynes' audacious film I'm Not There, in which six actors play various aspects of the many personas of Bob Dylan.

I would love to know what Bob Dylan thinks of this film. Todd Haynes has created an audacious experimental film about an icon, which (for me at least) is one of the best American films I'd seen in years, and also one of the most imaginative.

In exploring the various "lives" of Bob Dylan, Haynes imagines and reimagines Dylan as a young black Woody Guthrie-inspired teenager (Marcus Franklin); a sell-out film star (Heath Ledger); a funny interviewee named "Arthur Rimbaud" (Ben Whishaw); a born again lost soul (Christian Bale); a Billy the Kid inspired Old West hero (Richard Gere) and the most inspired casting choice of Cate Blanchett as a "Don't Look Back" mid-1960's Dylan named Jude Quinn.

Needless to say this film is not a bio-pic but a fantasia on persona(s). It doesn't really matter if you don't know much about Bob Dylan's life, but it does help to catch some elusive references (i.e., the collaboration with the Band and "The Basement Tapes" totally eluded me, until a fellow film fanatic brought it up).

The film is episodic and enjoyable while not following a linear narrative. Ideally it should be watched on a late afternoon, and the images pour over you like late winter sun. Enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Une vielle Maitresse (2007)

(Directed by Catherine Breillat, France, 2007)
(New York Film Festival Notes, Part 2 of 2)

"Une vielle Maitresse" is a wonderful period piece directed by Catherine Breillat, who had a modest success here some years ago with the films "36 Fillette" and "Fat Girl".

Based on a novel by the 19th century French writer Barbey d'Aurevilly (best known for "Les Diaboliques" among other works that remain untranslated), the film starts with the legend "A story from the ancien regime" then proceeds to depict a story set in the height of French Romanticism, around 1830's - 1840's. Disconnect starts early in this film. "Une vielle Maitresse" tells of the romantic affair between a dissolute rake, Ryno de Marigny (Fu'ad Ait Aattou)and the wilful Vellini (Asia Argento) that creates problems when Marigny decides to marry Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), from a wealthy family. Vellini just keeps popping up during the newlyweds' Normandy home and inadvertently creates devastating consequences for all concerned.

First of all, I liked the period detail in this movie: the two leads are strikingly androgynous: Argento, with her handsome allure is very George Sand-ish and Aattou looks younger, very feminine in features to her character's mannish boldness. The affair is told through a flashback that Marigny narrates to the Marquise de Fler (Claude Saurraute, daughter of the novelist Nathalie Saurraute) and Hermengarde's relative. The witty dialogue throughout this scene is a delight, as well as the sumptuous visual decor and narrative. The two leads have some rather odd sex scenes, but Asia Argento is rather sexy, at times she reminded me of a prettier Anna Magnani; and seems to outshine every scene she's in. The actor playing Marigny, while being overpowered, smiles obligingly.

Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days (2007)

(Directed by Cristian Mungiu, Rumania, 2007)
(Winner of the Palme d'Or, Cannes Film Festival, 2007)

New York Film Festival Notes Part 1

At the last minute, an enterprising friend of mine took me to the 45th New York Film Festival. Getting past the unfortunate choice of venue (Rose Theater), we saw "Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days", a Rumanian film that won the Palme d'Or this year at Cannes.

Mungiu's film is set in Bucharest during the waning years of the Ceasescu Regime. Ottila (Anamaria Marinca) is a young student constantly negotiating for things on the black market, especially a treasured pack of Kent cigarettes. The camera relentlessly follows her around in long shot, while she runs around negotiating with a hotel clerk who is rather rude to her; another hotel clerk and a shady businessman. The director spoke before the screening about how he wanted to show everyday life in Rumania during the late 1980's: this is a Rumania where you need to use your i.d. for everything, where you are questioned after dark (especially if you are a woman), and where the bureaucratic order is mind-numbingly enforced.

It gradually becomes apparent what Ottila is really negotiating for: without trying to give too much away, she is attempting to obtain an abortion for her friend Gabita (Laura Vasilu). Since abortions were illegal in the years that this film depicts, it is an act of brave desperation that Ottila performs, involving a shady 'doctor' inappropriately named 'Dr.' Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). The so-called Dr. insults the women when they have failed to comply with his implicit instructions, has a melt-down when it is revealed that the self-involved Gabita is late in term: (hence, the film's title) and then becomes a bit fatherly once the deed is done. Ivanov's performance is rather a short, knock-out performance, equal to Marinca's performance.

Mungiu's film is full of long-shots meant to evoke real-time and becomes a bit more revealing with Ottila's running around, until the last devastating half-hour. I would like to recommend this film, but can't really find the words to describe its simple shocking power. The female friend I saw it with was just as disturbed as I was after the conclusion. Writing about it a few days after viewing it, it's still hard to grasp the apparent simplicity of Mungiu's filmmaking, an apparent simplicity that is devastating to watch in its cumulative effect.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Savage Messiah (1972)

(Directed by Ken Russell, UK, 1972)

"Savage Messiah" is an intriguing film from director Ken Russell. After a trio of great films: "Women in Love", "The Music Lovers" and "The Devils", "Savage Messiah" was a failure. The film depicts a fictionalized version of the pre-modernist artist and sculptor Henri Gaudier (as played by Scott Antony). At the very beginning of Russell's film he meets a Polish poet Sophie Brezska (played by Dorothy Tutin) in the Bibliotheque National in Paris and they lived together in London, he eventually co=opted her name to his, and is now known as Henri Gaudier-Brezska.

If one can get past the annoying British accent of Antony's portrayal of Gaudier, the film is a rather high-spirited portrait of an artist trying to defy poverty and create. While not a strict bio-pic on an artist, Russell tries to give a visual rhapsody of the artist creating in an absolute vacuum, combining a total lack of recognition on the part of British art critics and snobs of the Edwardian period and the existence of an artist's absolute poverty. While not at all true to life, (what Ken Russell movie is?) it is exhilarating to watch, as an invention of one filmmaker's response to an artist he truly admires. The highly visual sets support this, (thanks to Derek Jarman, set designer for this film): several scenes take place in a garret reminiscent of a setting for the "Lower Depths" and a 'Vorticist' nightclub that wouldn't be out of place in a German Expressionist film (say "Cabinet of Doctor Caligari").
Helen Mirren is on hand in one of her early roles as a suffragette, and an unlikely patron of the sculptor.

"Savage Messiah" ends abruptly with the mention of Gaudier's death during the First World War and the camera cuts several times to Brzeska crying and to a memorial exhibit of the sculptures. It's a very moving sequence, visually taking Gaudier-Brzeska's sculptures from the realm of the film into the here and now. The sculptor was one of the more unfortunate casualties from the First World War, he died an early death at the age of 23.

This film deserves to be seen, and is ripe for a re-evaluation, at least as a genuine DVD release. I can't think of any other film on an artist that is so joyful, so crazy and so colorfully vivid as this film.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Halloween (2007)

(Directed by Rob Zombie, 2007, USA)

Usually I try to never see sequels because I am sure to be disappointed.While having very fond memories of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), I guess I should have stuck to my basic rule: NO WATCHING REMAKES.

Rob Zombie's Halloween starts off with good intentions, but doesn't go anywhere. Yes, we see the young teen Michael Myers with his unhappy homelife: drunk stepdad (William Forsythe), slutty sis Judith (Hanna Hall), lil' baby Boo and stripper Mom (the ever watchable Sheri Moon Zombie). The first act of the movie focuses incessantly on the young 12 year old Michael Myers and his upbringing: torturing and killing animals and eventually turning on the people who pick on him at school. He comes under the care of Dr. Samuel Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) and eventually is institutionalized after the usual family blood bath. Everyone is killed except for stripper mom and baby. Needless to say, little Mikey is sent to a state hospital for the criminally insane.

Fifteen years later, Mikey Myers gets out to wreak his revenge by going home. There is very little connection to why Michael Myers returns home: he's (I think) looking for the baby girl (?), his sister and doesn't care who gets in his way. Typical slasher mayhem ensues. It's incredibly not interesting.

It was very hard for me to watch this tepid remmake without thinking about John Carpenter's original: with a lesser budget than this movie and practically no special effects. This remake was the ultimate curse of a horror film: it was dull, and just not really interesting, not even in its climax. By focusing on how Michael Myers became the killing machine, the director neglected one basic fact: we want our horror movie killers to be killers, not have some mopey, artsy background, explaining why they did it, what turned them into this....blah blah blah. The final girl was no Jamie Lee Curtis either: in the original, Curtis is resourceful; here in the remake, the girl screams a lot, lets the kids she's babysitting to fend for themselves and you really don't care.

Stick with Carpenter's original, you won't go wrong.

Friday, August 31, 2007

No End In Sight (2007)

(Directed by Charles Ferguson, 2007, USA)

"No End in Sight" is an amazing documentary about the aftermath of the Iraq War, from the US involvement post-9/11/2001 to the current Iraqi Occupation. There are various interviews with former Washington 'insiders': generals, government officials and a few marines, giving their views and insights on the occupation. While wisely not focusing on the reasons the Bush Administration went to war, the documentary instead gives an indictment of the failure of this current administration's foreign policies in regards to Iraq and the calamity that followed: poor planning and bad decisions that led to the intensification of conflicts between Shi'ite and Sunnis and the ultimately ruinous decision to disband (not disbar) the Iraqi military.

It is difficult to watch this documentary and not feel anger and disgust at the incompetence and sheer stupidity of the Bush Administration in allowing Iraq to completely disintegrate into its current fragmented state. Yet, there are clips of Donald Rumsfeld saying that he "doesn't do quagmires" and using the dictionary for the definition of that word. How disgusting is that? Reports are compiled by administration experts and parsed into one page summaries that an arrogant president not only does not read, yet speaks at a news conference that the report information is 'not factual'. One of the most chilling episodes is home video footage of government approved private contractors shooting at Iraqi civilians on a road while Elvis sings "Mystery Train", just another hunting day for Haliburton or other corporate warmongers.

This documentary was shown at the Film Forum, the evening I went there were six people in the audience; in an ideal world there should have been more. This documentary shows what went wrong and, without pointing blame, it gives you the answers for who is ultimately responsible: our no-accountability administration.
It deserves to be seen and given as wide a release as Michael Moore's Sicko.

Lacombe, Lucien (1974)

(Directed by Louis Malle, 1974, France)

Lacombe, Lucien is a powerful study of life under the Vichy Occupation of France, during the waning years of the Second World War. Lucien (Pierre Blaise) is a country hick who tries to get involved with the Resistance and, failing that, goes to work with the local collaborators. Being a young, naive farmboy hick, he does not realize the implications of his actions: the first being that he informs on his old teacher, the one who advised him not to join the Resistance.

The Nazi collaboraters are holed up in decadent surroundings in a provincial hotel, wherein (in on of the early scenes) the wife of a police head is reading the daily mail, consisting of notes from informers spying on their neighbors: to make things ever more surreal, there is a letter from a man informing on himself. Lucien becomes a mascot to them and, with the connection of the son of a French nobleman, meets the family of Albert Horn, a Jewish tailor in hiding. He falls in love with Horn's daughter France and there the complications ensue. Lucien is a blank slate, someone so young and stupidly naive, that he has no conscience or judgement on his actions, he just tries to fit in, allowing himself to be used for an ideology that he doesn't bother to comprehend. Completely apolitical, he doesn't bother to register that his actions are noticed by the Resistance movement that rejected him at the beginning of the film. In the course of the film, his actions are devastating to those around him.

This was Malle's first film about the French Occupation, the other being Au Revoir les Enfants. . While the latter film is rather tender (being based on a sad childhood memory of the director), this film is rather tough, rather ominous and open to interpretation. The Criterion release is rather fantastic, cleaned up but without any extras. Thirty years plus later, this is still an important French film, skillfully done and engrossing to watch.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Band of Outsiders (1964)

(Original Title: Bande a Part, Directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 1964, France)

Band of Outsiders is a happy-go-lucky anomaly among Jean-Luc Godard's early 1960's work, made between Le Mepris (Contempt) and Alphaville. The film is a modified gangster story (based on a crime novel) that never quite seems to take itself seriously and contains numerous inside jokes. Two pals Arthur (Claude Brasseur) and Franz (Sami Frey) persuade a student in their school Odile (Anna Karina) to help them commit a robbery at Odile's aunt's home. Along the way there are a few jokes about film sound (Karina feeds a tiger one hears before seeing); a "moment of silence" in which the film's soundtrack goes literally silent. A few classic moments as well that were shamelessly quoted in later films: a run through the Louvre and the ever fabulous fun sequence of the trio dancing "the Madison" in a Paris bistro, complete with requisite voice-over by Godard himself, explaining each characters interior life.

As an almost frivolous 'stylistic exercise' (think Raymond Queneau), Band of Outsiders is a study of a film, but is enjoyable to watch as the film invents and seems to re-invent itself. Godard would only be this playful again in the later film Masculin/Feminin, and would begin to pursue the (then) fashionable Marxist societal critique of his later 1960's work. At least, Band of Outsiders, (besides giving Quentin Tarantino's production company a name), is a 'transitional' film in the work of one of cinema's true innovators. And Karina dances very well too.

The Criterion DVD release is quite commendable: while not containing the usual 'commentary', special features contain a 'behind-the-scenes' short feature with Godard (which contains the only known footage of the making of "Band of Outsiders"), and interviews with long-time Godard cameraman Raoul Coutard and Anna Karina, as well as a silent movie parodic sequence lifted from Agnes Varda's "Cleo from 9 to 5" starring Godard, Karina and Frey.
Now, if only Rialto Pictures could restore "Une Femme Mariee" life would be ....

Monday, August 20, 2007

Multiple Maniacs (1970)

(Directed by John Waters, 1971, in lovely Baltimore, USA)

I knew I just couldn't stay away from great trash, so "Multiple Maniacs" was watched again recently, during one of those ever more frequent "there's nothing on TV" nights. As a real cinemaphile, I never saw a John Waters movie until "Polyester" came out with the tacky scratch-n-sniff cards in the early 1980's. I knew right away that Divine was fantastic and I had to see everything Waters did (thanks Steve, I still blame you!). In the words of the late, great Divine: "I've enjoyed every fucking last minute of it!"

This is John Waters' second feature and first talkie with Divine and co. previously there was a short campy film called "The Diane Linklater Story" and the non-sync sound "Mondo Trasho". Divine plays Lady Divine, owning a "Cavalcade of Perversions" overseen by her boyfriend Mr. David (David Lochery) serving as a two-timing ringmaster/emcee. Lochary does a good job trying to entice suburban Baltimore audiences (most of whom play major roles later: Mink Stole, Cookie Mueller, Mary Vivien Pierce) and the sideshow tent focuses on perverted (at the time) acts: two homosexuals engaged in a kiss, a heroin addict going cold turkey, a woman sniffing and licking a bicycle seat and a puke eater (no explanation needed there). The sideshow is just an excuse for Lady Divine to rob the audience (even resorting to shooting a recalcitrant audience member if necessary). Mr. David is about to have an affair with Bonnie (Mary Vivien Pierce)a self-described "auto-eroticist" trying to join the Cavalcade, and Divine tries to keep him in line by telling him he's involved with the Manson family murders, (unsolved at the time of filming), while crashing at her daughter Cookie's apartment (Cookie Mueller), she threatens to tell all. A bar owner (played by Edith Massey in her first Waters film) phones Divine to inform her that her David is fooling around and it sets in motion another cavalcade of perversions involving Divine and the other characters.

Among the many highlights: religious imagery in the form of a little boy dressed ceremoniously as the "Infant of Prague" seen after Divine is raped by a junkie couple (a woman and man in a dress), leading her to a church where she has a 'rosary job' performed by a self-described "religious whore" Mink Stole (don't ask) as the Stations of the Cross are recited. The low rent blasphemy continues as a dream sequence occurs of both "Sermon of the Loaves and Fishes" complete with Wonder Bread loaves, tuna fish cans and later a visual recounting of Christ's crucifixion (with Edith Massey as the Virgin Mother!).

Multiple atrocities abound: Mink and Divine get hassled and then murder a harassing cop, Bonnie shoots Cookie (mistaking her for Divine), Divine kills David and eats some of his entrails, and nearly everyone dies save for Divine who becomes: "A Maniac!" after being raped by a large noisy wooden lobster ("Oh No! LOBSTORA!") To the strains of Holst's "Mars", Divine goes on a Godzilla-like rampage: stealing a car, terrorizing a couple parked on a date, all the while she is dressed in a mink coat and lingerie in what looks like winter. She is finally brought down and shot by the National Guard to the strains of Kate Smith warbling "God Bless America".

This early Waters film is a bit of a satiric time capsule on late 1960's/early 1970's mores, and occasionally works. A lot of the movie is cheap: cheaply shot, acted in one take (with flubbed lines included) and shakily edited. It's not as smooth as later mainstream Waters movies (Polyester, Hairspray, etc.) But there are many endearing moments amid the semi-surreal and campy, sacriligeous plot. The ending I took to be indicative of its time and place, with echoes of 1968 Chicago riots and Kent State. Divine's 'acting' is rather raw here, but you can see the seeds of Babs Johnson or Dawn Davenport in embryonic stage.

It's a fun watch and a must for John Waters fans. It gives a basic blueprint for his later sardonic style, but here it's rather raw. All that and a lobster that creaks like the Coney Island Cyclone.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

L'Avventura (1960)

(Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960, Italy)

L'Avventura continues to have a polarizing effect on viewers since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival 47 years ago: either you like Antonioni's masterpiece or you don't. On the internet movie database page for this film, the plot keywords give it all: unsolved mystery, very little dialogue (a personal favorite), island, missing person, human relationship (perhaps in the plural?) and realization. All of these generalizations just scream out: art house film.

Yes, socialite Anna (Lea Massari) disappears within the first half hour of the film while visiting an island on a cruise with her upper class friends, among them: her fiance Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) and her best girlfriend Claudia (Monica Vitti). Her disappearance is never explained, it just happens. Sandro and Claudia remain on the island in an attempt to find her, searching false leads in town; eventually Sandro makes a play for her, Claudia is guilty, and after rejecting Sandro, she decides to be in a relationship with Sandro, he is caught 'in flagrante delicto' by Claudia, and she forgives him.

This synopsis is comically inept, deliberately so (like the plot keywords quoted above). This film is a journey as the title implies, the viewer is along for the ride, as narrative disappears like Anna and Antonioni's style becomes increasingly prevalent during the course of the film. Shots of the barren coast of Sicily are impeccably and beautifully presented, long shots become ordinary and L'Avventura settles into a 'longeur', an epic mood of Italian upper-class 'l'ennui and randomness, nearly shot in real time. At times, on re-watching this film, I felt that Antonioni was attempting to recreate some of the surreal landscapes of the painter Giorgio De Chirico, paintings empty of people, devoid of normal life but containing a focus on absence, therefore rendering the places mysterious. The cinematography by Aldo Scavarda was extremely effective in realizing the dreamlike pace of this film, especially during the search for Anna on the barren Sicilian island. The exterior shots are like a volcanic wasteland, one of the most striking sequences earlry on is of Claudia shouting Anna's name in the rain, surrounded by the rain and rocks.

Monica Vitti's Claudia is an emotional anchor for the film: it is implied that her friendship with Anna might be more intimate, and she is the first one to notice that Anna has disappeared. Her anxiety and fear is portrayed subtly, as well as her disgust initially with Sandro's advances. This is a nuanced performance and Vitti gives a credible performance throughout. I wish I could say the same for the actor Gabriele Ferzetti playing Sandro, although he does seem to come into his own during the second half of the film, his style is a bit too low-key.

One aspect I noticed during this viewing of "L'Avventura" was the way that Antonioni's script focused almost pointilistically on relationships: at the very start of the film, Anna and her father have a tense, inconclusive dialogue, Sandro with Anna before the cruise saying that words are unimportant for them, the casual intimacy mentioned before between Claudia and Anna, the rather callous way that Patrizia parades her affection for other men under the nose of her husband. The subsidiary characters have their moments too: as Sandro follows a lead to a small Sicilian town, the owners of a pharmacy bicker about their memories, you get the feeling that they've been doing it for years and it seems is their only means of communication. One implication I felt on viewing this film is that Antonioni is forcing the viewer to watch the minutiae of daily lives: as this is something perhaps he feels we are programmed into taking for granted. When something happens to disrupt the social fabric: say Anna's disappearance (or in literary parallel Gregor Samsa's transformation), Antonioni seems to suggest life goes on, even with major disruptions. It is rather an existential, cynical view, which is why I believe that only Claudia and Sandro alone from the boating party search for Anna, the others want to get on with their cruise. The other characters are sketchy and seem too self-centered to care for Anna to even bother searching for her, nor (as at the beginning of the film) does Anna care for her social circle and makes it clear (at the very start of the film) that she is rather dissatisfied with her life. Anna's disappearance besides providing the central mystery of L'Avventura, (and the catalyst for the action), is one of the great disruptions in cinema, equivalent to the murder of Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho: with the main exception that Hitchcock never conceals anything from the viewer in Psycho, Antonioni presents his concealments as matter of fact.

In summary, Antonioni provides us with a film that is open-ended, unresolved. Like most of life, L'Avventura is continuously open to debate and interpretation, after its premiere 47 years ago. How many current films invite us to do that?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Pigs and Battleships (1961)

(AKA Hogs and Warships) (Buta to Gunkan, Directed by Shohei Imamura, 1961, Japan)

The late, great Shohei Imamura was one of the leading directors in 1960's Japanese cinema. In a ten year period he directed films as
Pigs and Battleships
; The Insect Woman,
Intentions of Murder, The Pornographers: An Introduction to Anthropology, A Man Vanishes and The Profound Desire of the Gods. As a director whose work has mainly stayed outside of the mainstream due to his critical views of modern Japanese society, his films are rarely shown outside of film classes amd retrospectives. With DVD releases in recent years on the Criterion label of The Pornographers and the later serial killer crime film Vengeance is Mine, hopefully this situation will change, and more audiences will discover the earlier, great films of Shohei Imamura.

Pigs and Battleships is a good example of an Imamura film: at once a critical view of post-war Japan and creeping Americanization (the U.S. occupation in Japan post-World War II). Pigs and Battleships focuses on the lower class: Haruko, trying to keep her guy Kinta from getting involved with the local yakuza who deal in black-market pigs. Kinta is drawn into the gang's plans and finally dies in a tense, noirish shootout complete with a stampede of pigs through the local nightclub district. Haruko herself is no heroine, but will prostitute herself for enough money, including getting gang-raped by three American sailors (with whom she unsuccessfully tries to rip off).

The movie is rather comical despite the bleakness, with elements of black humor and low comedy surrounded by port town seediness. In the end, Haruko does escape but-given the film's milieu - she won't get far before trying her old tricks. The film is amazing in showing the corruption surrounding the young couple, and the characterizations are brilliant. Just don't expect a typical Hollywood ending here, in the world of this film, it doesn't work.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Cries and Whispers (1972)

(Viskningar och rop, Directed by Ingmar Bergman, 1972, Sweden)

Agnes (Harriet Anderson) is dying and her two sisters Karin (Ingrid Thulin) and Maria (Liv Ullmann) take turns watching over her as well as a servant Anna (Kari Sylwan), in an upper-class manor in turn of the century Sweden. From this premise, Bergman explores relationships between the three sisters and the aftermath on them following Agnes's death.

"Cries and Whispers" is not an easy film to watch. Many viewers would describe it as a typical Ingmar Bergman film, and they would be correct: Bergman deals his usuak obsessions here: dying, psychoanalysis, a hostility of religion and the total absence of god. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the filmic narrative could become cliche, if it were not so focused and geared in raw, emotional pain. The relationships between the sisters is explored through flashbacks and fades to red that seem more like hypnotic Strindbergian dream sequences, and Bergman conveys much complex detail about them very economically, impressionistically. In the course of the film, the sisters reveal themselves, masks are dropped and the intimacy of the film is excrutiating in plumbing the pain upon confronting death. At the center of the film is an intensely emotional performance by Harriet Anderson as Agnes, at one point screaming in agony "Can't anyone help me?" The repressed Karin and immature Maria obviously cannot, Agnes can only find solace in the comfort of servant Anna, (herself having lost a child) who selflessly tends to her mistress and gives her the warmth that her two sisters cannot.

Karin and Maria are problematic characters: Maria is shown as being manipulative and cruel: at one point the family doctor (Erland Josephson) rejects her attempts to restart their affair. Leading her to a mirror, he deconstructs her face; this is one of the most excrutiating close-ups in a Bergman film. Liv Ullmann smiles as the doctor slowly tells her that her smile is one of cruelty, scorn and hatred of others. She won't drop the smile, nor what the accusation signifies. As an actress, Ullmann carries the scene off completely, but it is rather hard to watch. In another flashback it is revealed that Maria's earlier affair with the same doctor has led her husband to commit suicide in her presence: frightened, she runs away after he asks for her help, after stabbing himself.

Karin is shown trapped in a loveless marriage to a diplomat whom she detests; salvaging a piece of broken wineglass after a routine upper class dinner, she repeatedly mutters scornfully "It's all a pack of lies" and proceeds to self-inflict genital mutilation, smearing her blood gleefully on her face as her husband looks on. The piece of glass is shown on a silver tray, in Karin's bedroom, it is shot with all the solemnity of a ritual: in the film this is an act of violence only equal to Michael Haneke's main character's self-mutilation at the climax of The Piano Teacher. The most disturbing aspect is Karin's face, smeared with blood and laughing in triumph at her act. Many viewers are reminded of this scene, and over thirty years later, it is still disturbing.

Maria approaches Karin in an attempt at reconciliation and, while first rejected, the two sisters open up in an attempt to communicate, after Agnes's death.

This softening between them is erased away later towards the end of the film, when Karin reminds Maria about it and Maria cruelly dismisses it as something that just happened, no more no less.

In an extended dream sequence, Anna imagines Agnes calling for someone to warm her: both sisters reject her, Karin disgustedly refuses and Maria as usual, confronted with the horror of death, runs off screaming. Only Anna remains to hold her dead mistress in a shot reminiscent of a pieta.

At the end, Anna, after the funeral is stoic after the remaining family members try to buy her off. Anna is patronized and offered a keepsake of Agnes's, but she refuses. Only when the black-dressed funeral party has left does Anna open the memento she has kept from Agnes: the diary that Agnes was writing at the beginning of the film. She reads aloud, providing the film with a coda: a diary entry where Agnes wrote of a happy time during her illness when, surrounded by her sisters, she felt most alive and happy. Coincidentally, this is the only time the camera shows all four protagonists outside of the house. It is shown to be a beautiful day. The bell that rang at the beginning of the film now sounds again to signal the film's end.

"Cries and Whispers" can be seen as a filmic narrative that is stripped down to essential elements: death, the fear of death and pain - both psychic and physical and also the lack of communication that makes up much of our daily lives. Bergman gives short shrift to any conventional narrative development within his film, but gives his four main actresses equal time, showing just the essential scenes necessary to highlight his themes. In this respect, the film resembles a string quartet in its hypnotic intimacy, a pointilistic one at that. The late great Sven Nykvist won a much deserved Academy Award for his work on this film, and his camerawork flows effortlessly, in all the red dissolves that accompany the dream sequences and the stark, lifeless late Victorian interior settings. The film was rather received with a polar effect: either you loved it or you hated it. Roger Corman (of all people) was instrumental in having the film open in New York before it showed in Sweden, Pauline Kael wrote one of her caustic reviews about the film.
I hadn't seen "Cries and Whispers" in years, and didn't particularly enjoy it the first go round. Seeing it again, in the Criterion DVD release has changed my mind: it is the work of a major filmmaker at the top of his craft, confronting death and life with equal weight. That the film has been open to so many interpretations, especially on the Internet Movie Database, justifies its existence as a work of art.
I may not want to experience the film again for a while but will be interested to see how it holds up probably given more time, perhaps in another five years.

In Memoriam

Ingmar Bergman (July 14, 1918 -July 30, 2007)
Michelangelo Antonioni (September 29, 1914 - July 30, 2007)

Cinema High and Low is rather depressed to report that two giants of cinema past have passed on to that great screening room in the skies.

The fact that Bergman and Antonioni died rather within hours of each other on the same day is rather ironic. Both explored the human condition and both took different paths in doing so (The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Persona for Bergman; L'Avventura, L'Eclisse and Identification of a Woman for Antonioni)
These films are quite striking examples of their directors' visions, visual styles, and approaches to cinema.

Cinema High and Low wants to celebrate these twin masters of cinema and will report on revisiting some of their classic films.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Sicko (2007)

(Directed by Michael Moore, 2007, USA)

Michael Moore's latest documentary "Sicko" is rather depressing to watch, as the realization that 47 million Americans are without health insurance (a point mentioned at the beginning of the film). Well at least I was depressed. Moore makes the case that the American system of health care is broken, corrupt and needs to be fixed. Sure, that's very much what everyone knows, and (after dealing with health care officials recently), he's pretty much preaching to the converted with me.

After showing various health care horror stories, he goes on a travelogue to examine the health care systems for Canada, England, and France. Propaganda (or should I say ad hominem arguements) that socialized medicine is better than what we have in the good ol' USA. Of course it is, but then he lost me when he went on to get his digs at Hillary Clinton when she was trying to push for that in the Clinton White House and (while not bothering with the censuring and demonizing she encountered when she proposed National Health Care), he claims she's been bought out for her silence over the failure of her bill (and now she's getting endorsements from health care companies as a reward). Holy revisionist history, Fatman! I mean Batman!
Moore tried similar tactics with "Fahrenheit 9/11", stating as 'pseudo-fact' that no congressional reps read the "Patriot Act". Yeah, well that's true but it's a disservice to just report that fact and either willingly deny or avoid the real facts of the case: most politicians do not read everything put forward to them (they have aides for that) and most egregiously, the Patriot Act was pushed through in a relatively short time. To ignore that fact and bend truth and facts to suit your argument is just basically dishonest. And Moore does just that with extolling various health systems of Canada, France and the U.K.: he just mines the surface with his "golly gee" schtick and doesn't bother to show any underside. Why are taxes so much in Canada and France? Duh...

"Sicko" is a pseudo-documentary masquerading as another 'public service' announcement. It might behoove Moore if he actually made agitprop documentaries like the late Emilio de Antonio did, but then he wouldn't get the corporate bucks funding to continue with his jester activities. As it is, his argument is rather weak and shallow: the U.S. health care system (like America in general) is in trouble, it's too bad that this 'documentary' doesn't give you a complete picture. Yet we as Americans these days get the president and the 'entertainment' we deserve, this just follows suit apparently.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928)

(Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928, France)

This classic silent film existed in a few different versions for years until a print was discovered in an insane asylum in Norway. The version shown today was struck from that one and restored by the Cinematheque Francaise sometime in the mid-1980s. It is a vast improvement from the muddied one I saw on a rental during film school. A short prologue showing a medieval manuscript which intertitles inform us is a record of the trial of Joan of Arc, revealing Joan of Arc as a human being in her own words. Eight years previously, in 1920 Joan of Arc was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church and this might have prompted renewed interest in Dreyer to examine the historical record for film. However the legacy Jeanne d'Arc has left in collective memory in over four centuries since her death at the stake seems never to have abated: given the many representations of her: in opera, novels,theater, and film.

Dreyer's film stands out for the ascetic purity and economy in the film: the use of extreme close-ups, a very sparse set, bright almost harsh lighting and an equally sparse outdoor set. There is a slow rhythm bulding between the interior shots of the trial as Joan answers questions posed to her by the clergy seeking to find her guilty of sacrilege and it builds in intensity until the eventual death at the stake before a sad, reverent crowd that riots after the burning of Joan.

The actors do not wear makeup which, from all that I've read of this film, was rather unheard of for the silent film era. Dreyer psychologically pits Joan against her captors by filming both in extreme closeup: low angle for Joan, higher angle for her judges. It is very effective, emphasizing how powerless Joan is in the grand scheme of things. The filming is rather economical in that regard too, consisting of point of view back and forth extreme closeups.

This was Maria Falconetti's only film and as Joan, she gives one of the greatest performances ever seen on film. Her acting consists in (similar to most silent actors) acting with one's eyes (and in this case, face), yet she also conveys a huge amount of emotion in her restrained performance: she never ever 'mugs' for the camera but gazes head on, with intelligence, emotion, sadness, and fear that the historical Joan must have met her judges with and also a measure of the simplicity of a medieval peasant. She is alternately touching, heartbreaking and devastating in the end to watch, just superbly unforgettable. The austere beauty Dreyer gave to this film and Falconetti's devastating performance are justifiable reasons to watch this late silent film masterpiece.

Out of the silent film era, there are several films that redefined the cinema and raised film to the level of art. Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc remains one beautiful shining example of what cinema can achieve as art.

God Told Me To (1976)

(Directed by Larry Cohen, 1976, USA)

"God Told Me To" is a good example of a neat B-movie thriller going off the cinematic rails into plot insanity after a good hour or so of murder and mayhem.
Tony Lo Bianco plays a detective investigating a series of murders wherein random, seemingly normal people start killing others for no reason except that God told them to. How can you go wrong with that?

A lot of ways, definitely. The opening shot (hehe) starts off with a visual bang representation of Andre Breton's surrealist dictum of the ultimate surrealist act: firing a revolver into a crowd. In this case it is a sniper on a watertower picking people off around mid 1970's Bloomingdale's. Our intrepid detective climbs up and talks to said sniper only to hear the reason why he's doing this: "God told me to".
There is a great setup here, and even better when the same occurence happens at the St. Patrick's Day NYC parade with an unknown (yes, it's really him) Andy Kaufman going nuts, picking people off in police uniform. And God told him to of course.

The movie starts to combine different elements: the love life of Detective Lo Bianco involving a girlfriend Deborah Raffin and an ex-wife played by the late great Sandy Dennis, alien abduction, a Sylvia Sydney cameo, scary sci-fi elements, a short journey into blaxploitation territory and a weird quasi-early David Cronenborgish finale. As an ambitious B-movie, all of these said plot elements do not cohere together competently. On the Internet Movie Database page for this movie, I did feel happy that a lot of viewers didn't understand what was happening in the ultimate scene. I guess you can chalk it up to an ambitious director's screenplay trying to cover everything: for me, it was nice to see Lo Bianco in a lead role, NYC in the 1970's,the weird religion-gone-wrong vibe. It's admittedly a cult film, but the first part doesn't match the second part. I give props to Larry Cohen, thirty-plus years later after this low-budget film was released, it is still being argued about.
For a good hour, it's really good, but ultimately sinks under the weight of its ambition. Fun ride though!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Last Picture Show (1971)

(Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, USA, 1971)

Another birthday and I had nothing to do so I watched this because it was on. It's interesting that this film had so much impact when I was a 'youngun' and now the shock value seems to have completely diminished. I think the main brouhaha was about premarital sex amongst teens (and frank talk about it) in a dull 1951 Texas small town being shown on film and that make a lot of people upset, mainly Roman Catholic folk. Wow, people actually had sex! send out the National Guard!
Since I had never seen it before all the way through, I must say that it really holds up and is a great and moving film.

Peter Bogdonovich adapted Larry McMurtry's novel and works with a superb ensemble cast: Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn, Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cloris Leachman, Eileen Brennan and a young Randy Quaid and Cybil Shepherd. Cinematography was by the great Larry Surtrees (who shot "The Graduate" "Summer of '42" and the underrated horror film "The Other"), in vibrant black and white: this gives the movie a general moodiness and is very effective in the opening scenes: conveying a sense of the complete emptiness of a small Texas town. It also helps to underscore the actors naturalism, since it's not soft light, effectively pushing their acting into the forefront. It's tempting to say that "Last Picture Show" is a coming of age movie with Hank Williams on the soundtrack, it's richer and more interesting than most other movies made in that period. There are several standout performances in the episodic structure of this movie: Ben Johnson gives a steady performance, Ellen Burstyn as his old love interest is sexy and believable, Cloris Leachman's neglected wife, having an affair with Bottoms is heartbreaking in her intensity. Hers is a nuanced performance, very skillful without descending into sentimentality. (She and Bottoms won supporting Oscars for their work).

In 1990, nearly 20 years after "The Last Picture Show", Bogdanovich filmed McMurtry's sequel, another novel involving the same characters in "Texasville", but apparently that sequel did not do so well. "The Last Picture Show" is now regarded as a classic of the 'new Hollywood' of the early 1970's. They just don't make 'em like this anymore.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Ossessione (1943)

(Directed by Luchino Visconti, 1943, Italy)

"Ossessione", Luchino Visconti's first film is the also the first filmed adaptation of James M. Cain's potboiler "The Postman Always Rings Twice". It is slightly different than the 1946 John Garfield/Lana Turner version or the 1981 Bob Rafaelson/Nicholson/Lange version, but the basic plot stays the same, except moved to Italy. To me it's amazing that this film survives, since it came out during strict Fascistic rule and also Cain's novel was still under copyright at the time, so it was never shown in this country until the 1960's.

The plot (as in the other versions) concerns a drifter Gino(Massimo Girotti) meets and has an affair with a roadside cafe/diner owner's wife Giovanna (Clara Calamai) and after an attempt to run away from the boorish but 'nice guy' husband Giuseppe(Juan de Landa), Gino goes back on the road, only to meet up with the couple and, in the spur of the moment, return back to their diner, and eventually (on Giovanna's egging on) kill Giuseppe and make it look like an accident. Like many twists in classical tragedy, the plot unravels and the adulterous couple meet their doom.

Unlike the 1946 version, this version deals much more freely with sex, between the strapping leading man and his adulterous paramour. Since this was made in 1943 during the height of the war, this sexuality was contained in mainly glances, body language, and very candid sensuality.

It also helped that this is considered the first film for "Italian Neorealism", setting the stage for the post-war Italian classics to follow: "The Bicycle Theif", "Umberto D.", "Bitter Rice", and so many others. This is a haunting film, and still sexy to boot. Unfortunately, the Image DVD release had some problems, (at least mine did), freezing and unfreezing several times at the near end of the film. The print used looks slightly washed out but still clear. This is a landmark not just of Italian neorealist cinema, but also contains some aspects of film noir, if you can see it, by all means do so!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Lola Montes (1955)

(Directed by Max Ophuls, 1955, France)

"Lola Montes" was Max Ophuls's last movie, a critical flop on its theatrical release. It is a remarkable achievement, the first French widescreen Cinemascope release and beautifully shot in majestic color. The film depicts the legendary 19th century adventuress Lola Montes, (a Victorian Paris Hilton without the money), forced to tell her scandalous life story in the confines of a circus, presided over by a young Peter Ustinov as an acerbic ringmaster; audience comments make her relive her past, which revolve in nonchronological flashbacks to her affairs with Franz Liszt and King Ludwig I of Bavaria, as she relives and performs her life on stage nightly.

At the center of the film is the curiously remote actress Martine Carol, a 1950s French sex symbol who was dethroned by Brigitte Bardot. Many commentators describe her in this role as a blank slate which men project their desires on. While true in one sense, in the film's flashbacks she is shown as a strong woman who wants her independence, yet needs the comfort of being a 'kept woman'. Her remoteness is a calculated effect, that of a "femme fatale" (as the circus ringmaster reminds the audience), who continually moves on, from man to man. For such a larger than life subject, the circus setting is appropriate: a place where Lola wanders in her memories surrounded by the gaudy circus atmosphere. Amid the multiple memories and the circus world of performance and artiface, there is the backstage small talk and the 'sotto voce' conversations between the ubiquitous ringmaster and Lola. The multiple worlds of the film are handled in a very sophisticated manner and carries the sweep of the movie forward. This is a majestic and wonderfully beautiful film.

Unfortunately, the only DVD available is from Fox/Lorber and is 110 minutes, while the uncut version of the film (released only in Europe) is 144 minutes. Ophuls argued with producers for the longer cut, and died two years after the film was released. "Lola Montes" is a worthy example of a film that needs restoration, hopefully in the future, a company like Criterion will release a fully restored version.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

(Directed by Harold P. Warren, 1966, USA)

Ouch! my brain still hurts!

This dreck is so bad it makes many B-movie cheesy flicks look like fine cinematic masterpieces. After this 16mm celluloid crime was lifted from obscurity (where it should have remained for all eternity) as the subject of a famous episode of MST3K in the early 90's, "Manos" still retains its awfulness among the true cinematic offal. Whatever you do: DON'T SEE THIS!

Well, if you must: it concerns the story of Mike (the movie's director, Harold P. Warren), his 'wife' Margaret (Diane Mahree) and their daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman) and Debbie's rather lackluster puppy driving around endlessly and getting lost until they finally reach a 'shack' in an isolated area, caretaken by someone named Torgo (John Reynolds). Torgo (who claims he's caring for the place while "the Master' is away), has a tendency to repeat everything twice, like "It'll be getting dark soon. There's no way out. It'll be getting dark soon..." etc. Torgo (for unidentified reasons) has huge knees and an incredible case of either the fidgets, DT's or Parkinson's Disease. After warning the unfortunately lost and clueless family ominously (sort of), about "the Master being displeased", he is ordered by Mike to bring the family's bags out from their car into the shack. And ordered to bring them back to the car again. And vice-versa. At this point my brain rebelled and I needed to go somewhere else for awhile, for about 5 minutes. Unfortunately the movie was still on when I returned. The Master (Tom Neyman, in an awesomely bad performance) eventually does awaken from his rest with his wife posse: all six of them. The wives engage (after arguing in geese voices) in an epic catfight: meanwhile, the puppy gets killed, Debbie vanishes, Debbie reappears with a Doberman that runs away (smart dog); Margaret gets molested by Torgo, and on and on: it's the first horror movie wannabee shot in real time. Or something like it. While going on and on for 69 minutes, through the magic of synergy, the actual running time seems to extend into 3 hours of viewing, or what feels like standard paint-drying time.

For me, the highlight of the movie was Mike getting knocked out by Torgo: how many times have you wanted to see really bad directors get popped into unconsciousness? but that gratuitous act of violence didn't stop this movie, no sirree! After many non-scary moments, let's just say it all ends with a twist and then the credits roll (with the requisite "The End?" postulation), and some Shirley Bassey-type lounge singer singing "I'll forget you"....yeah, sweet consolation.

I've often wondered what really makes a bad movie: Manos seems to contain all the elements: bad script (why does the master have six wives? why are they asleep or to quote Torgo, "not alive on this plane", are they satanists? Free-love swingers gone bad? the undead? from New Jersey?); bad continuity: people standing in a frame for a full 10 seconds before realizing they need to speak their lines, and then a rapid cut repeatedly to something else, then back to more dead air dithering: Mike and Margaret stare for so long at a painting of the Master and a Dobermann, it seems like they're meditating and the camera cuts to a bored Debbie...and over and over again, several times. atrocious acting: Margaret's role consists of continually yelling "Help Mike!" throughout the entire movie. The Master seems to have wandered in from "Master Thespian" class and intones in a stagy voice, the voice of DOOM. And then there's Torgo, helpfully repeating his lines as if we didn't get it the first time. Bad camerawork : The camera used was a 16mm Bell & Howard that could only film for 30 seconds and the camera's sound recording was broken, causing for choppy editing and out of snc sound. One blogger said hilariously that the director was follwing the "Zapruder School of filmmaking"
The subsequent dialog sound was dubbed with three voices: it really sounds that way. Oh yes and then there's that cheesy Manos parka with the hands outstretched has the makings of a wonderful Halloween costume.....NOT! Needless to say, no one in this atrocity ever acted in a movie again, it's just for the best. If you must see this, it might scar you for life, but an ideal viewing might consist of getting a group of friends together along with the poison of your choice: whoever makes it through the entire movie still awake with relatively functioning brain cells wins!

If you're looking for the worst of the worst, you can't go wrong with this incompetently made turkey. Just remember: you won't forget the experience, no matter how much you want to.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Grindhouse (2007)

(Planet Terror directed by Robert Rodriguez,
Death Proof directed by Quentin Tarantino,
Trailers: Machete directed by Robert Rodriguez,
Thanksgiving directed by Eli Roth,
Werewolf Women of the SS directed by Rob Zombie,
Don't directed by Edgar Wright. USA, 2007)

"Grindhouse" consists of two movies: "Planet Terror" directed by Robert Rodrigues and "Death Proof" directed by Quentin Tarantino. Along the way, amid vintage '70's coming attraction notices are trailers, spoofs of imaginary films: "Machete" directed by Robert Rodriguez; "Thanksgiving" by Eli Roth (of the "Hostel" and "Saw" franchises fame), Werewolf Women of the SS" directed by Rob Zombie and my ultimate favorite "DON'T" directed by Edgar Wright (of "Sean of the Dead" and the recent "Hot Fuzz").

I saw this for free and would like to say I enjoyed it... but I didn't. OK, "Planet Terror" was fun, except that Rose McGowan doesn't get her machine gun leg until nearly the end of the movie, later she returns as a blonde for Tarantino's "Death Proof", and ultimately gets dispatched. "Planet Terror" was good trashy fun, "Death Proof" was rather boring and I snoozed through a small part of it. "Planet Terror" does take on every 1970's zombie horror movie cliche and gets a lot right. "Death Proof" is more of an homage to "Two Lane Blacktop", "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry" and other 1970's car chase road flicks. "Death Proof" neatly divides itself into two: the first part with the grisly demise of radio female disk jockey Jungle Julia with a few gal pals by 'Stuntman Mike' (Kurt Russell channeling Kris Kristofferson)in his suped-up 'death proof' car and the second part deals with Stuntman Mike getting his comeuppance by a stuntwoman and her badass gals who take him on. Along the way, there is talk, driving, more talk, circular talk, circular talk with circular camera pan...around that point I snoozed for a few. The ultimate showdown speeding life-or-death car race (after the first brutal part of the movie) is a bit of a let-down, but then we're seeing the theatrical version; the 'new and improved' version of "Death Proof" hasn't been released yet. Tarantino fans should be overjoyed. Others will feel nostalgia and turn on any dreaded late night movie....oh no! INVASION OF THE BEE GIRLS!

"Grindhouse" just made me long for the real thing, it was fun but a carbon copy of something that shouldn't be copied in the first place.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Rain (1932)

(Directed by Lewis Milestone, 1932, USA)

Ah! Pre-code Hollywood! Was there ever a time that Hollywood movies were unexpectedly naughty and inexplicably innocent at the same time; with dialogue full of coded sexual innuendo?

For pre-code unbelievabilty, there is the recently restored and released "Baby Face" from 1933 with the immortal Barbara Stanwyck (eventually I'll write about that classic later).

However, as part of our Joan Crawford reconsideration series (after viewing "Mommie Dearest), "Rain" is the sultry tale of Sadie Thompson, the hooker with a heart of gold and her showdown with the holy-roller reformer Alfred Davidson. Based on a novella by Somerset Maugham, the movie is about the clash of moral values set in a tropical zone, in this case Pago Pago.

The aforementioned Sadie Thompason is stranded in tropical paradise for a spell with the reformer couple Davidsons and a troop of bored marines, one of whom Sadie 'fraternizes' with. The heart of the movie is the clash of the free-spirited Sadie with Reverend Davidson (played by Crawford and Walter Huston respectively). He wears her down, discovers a secret from her shaded past and attempts to reform her.
It works briefly, until the final twenty minutes of the film.

Crawford was on loan here from MGM and considered "Rain" to be one of her early flops (since it made no money at the box office). It's interesting to see her in this before shoulder pads, the red gash lipsticked mouth and all the other things we've come to expect from viewing Joan Crawford movies. Her performance here is fresh, slighly raw and believable. The fact that she was following in the footsteps of legendary stage actress Jeanne Eagels, who made a great stage success portraying Sadie Thompson, didn't help matters either. The public still associated Eagels with this role and she died four years before this film was made. To her credit, Crawford tried to make her character believable, and her toughness works for her here, from her first seductive "He-llll-o boys" to her unrepentant last line.

It is the showdown with Walter Houston that makes this stagy movie fun, the two extremes: vice and hypocrital virtue make for very lively viewing. It is rather sad to realize that fundamentalists are still as bigoted today as they were depicted here, 77 years ago.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Brand Upon the Brain! (2006)

(Directed by Guy Maddin, Canada, 2006)

The Canadian director Guy Maddin seems to make movies for film geeks and afficionados, obviously being one himself. His films are beautifully photographed, while his stories are deliberately over the top, so much so that they defy any attempt at synopsis and analysis.

His latest work "Brand Upon the Brain!" is being shown theatrically in two ways: as a live multimedia "happening" complete with live celebrity narrator, foley artists and small theater orchestra and also as a prerecorded narration by the wonderfully voiced actress Isabella Rossellini. If I ever directed a silent film, I would want her to narrate it.

Well, dear readers, I saw the latter version. An older 'Guy Maddin" returns home to the isolated island where he grew up, to paint the lighthouse where his parents kept the "Mom and Pop Orphanage", he will refresh the place with a fresh coat of paint. And then the memories start coming back and the movie is an extended flashback to Guy's childhood and the subsequent baroque intensity/insanity. As with most Maddin's current work, this involves a lot of Freudian complexes worked into the plot as well as a lot of absurdist plot complications as well. Some are resurrection, weird substance abuse and anti-aging serums, a Nancy Drew character dressing as a boy and entering into a lesbian affair with Guy's sister SIS and other assorted mayhem.

It's nice to say that Maddin has improved on his editing since the earlier "Cowards Bend the Knee", indeed this film is reminiscent of the earlier one: with rapid fire montage, very deadpan title cards and beautiful images recalling some of the earliest surviving film images and silent film techniques. Some surrealism is apparent too in this film: the 'aerophone' that distorts everything coming out of it and holds on to earlier spoken commands and the sentence "Father was replaced by a hamster and a metronome" among others.

Let's just say you can watch this film as you experience a dream, letting each successive image wash over you. If this is not your cup of tea, there's probably another movie ending with '3' awaiting you at the multiplex.

The live show sounds like fun, if it's playing at a theater near you, see it!

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Mommie Dearest (1981)

(Directed by Frank Perry, 1981, USA)

What can be said about "Mommie Dearest" that hasn't already been said? Since I've never read Christina Crawford's 'tell-all' memoir, I can't really compare between her book and the campy, cheesy cinematic train wreck/adaptation that is this cult film. Yes, 'it's so bad it's good' comes to mind, Faye Dunaway does an exceptional acting job channelling Crawford except when she crashes off the rails (at least three times during the movie). I do admit that Faye gives an awesome performance here, even when she is 'over the top', not just acting: she lives, breathes and IS Joan Crawford that, on a recent youtube search, many posters lampooning this movie thought that she WAS Joan Crawford. It's unfortunate that she refuses to talk about this movie after 26 years and no longer wishes to be associated with it. Besides the scenes where she soars completely over the top (the notorious 'No wire hangers!" scene, the garden butchery, and the scene where she tries to strangle Christina in a reporter's presence), she is totally convincing. Yes, we remember this film for the alleged child abuse depicted, but there are also scenes where Dunaway shows the character's vulnerable side. These scenes occur during the second half of the film featuring the actress Diane Scarwid as the teenaged Christina, the first part of the film featuring Mara Hobel as a younger Christina are the most excruciating to watch. There is a 'laundry room scene' where a tearful Joan confides about her future to the teenage Christina and, towards the end of the film when she visits Christina's NYC apartment with a gift of pearls.

Yes, and then there are the famous lines, which I don't need to repeat here (they can be found on the Internet Movie Database entry for this movie). My favorite comment comes from the real-life Christina Crawford who (after seeing this movie) declared: "They turned it into a Joan Crawford movie!" (not sure if this is true or not, but it's great that Joan C. gets revenge from beyond the grave!!!).

When the bestseller "Mommie Dearest" came out (around 1979), there were two Crawford camps: for and against. The book and subsequent movie did a great deal of damage to the memory of Joan Crawford and her posthumous fame. Being a Bette Davis fan, I never really saw much of Crawford's films until cinema studies classes and TCM. I remember a summer night watching "Mildred Pierce" in Bryant Park and the audience cheering on her every move. A revival of Nicholas Ray's "Johnny Guitar" was revealing: how bizarre it was to see two strong women duke it out in a western no less. "Mommie Dearest" makes you want to rewatch "Mildred Pierce" and other Crawford films, you want to discover who this woman was, what made the actress unique, why she was such an icon for so long.

The "Mommie Dearest: Hollywood Royalty" DVD is a real hoot, with a hilarious commentary from John Waters, and a few features on the making of this movie and its continuing 'popularity' as a high camp classic.

It's hard to watch this without feeling that queasy reaction of not knowing whether to be shocked or to laugh, it just continues to tread that line between camp and melodrama.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ipejji) 1926

(Directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, Japan, 1926)

As my first entry , I am pleased to offer an appreciation of "A Page of Madness", an avant-garde Japanese silent film from 1926, directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa.

The Backstory

Supposedly made without knowledge of the current silent cinema of the time, "A Page of Madness" (aka "A Crazy Page" or "A Page Out of Order") is a classic work of silent Japanese cinema that was way ahead of its time. The legend has it that the film was lost for 50 years (believed to have been destroyed in a fire) until a print was discovered in 1971. Kinugasa's film has often been unfairly compared to Robert Wiene's expressionist silent classic "The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari" but it is much more advanced in film language than the German 1919 film. For one, the film employs numerous techniques that were state of the art for that time: multiple exposures, distorted perspectives and camera angles, mysterious and bizarre visual juxtapositions.

Perhaps one of the most revolutionary aspects to this film is in its montage editing, somewhat reminiscent of Eisenstein's great early works (i.e., Potemkin and Strike). The film relies on rhythmical and rapid editing, similar to musical themes developing within a given sonata or symphonic work. Given the presentation of a rather disturbing story and its radical cinematic presentation, "A Page of Madness", while nearly breaking Kinugasa finacially (since he self-financed this film), the film was a huge hit in Japan. Kinugasa made a similar film, translated as "Crossroads" ("Jujiro") but it is unavailable in the West (even though it was the first Japanese film to be released in the West). As director, he had one of his greatest successes with "Gate of Hell" (1953).

The Story

"A Page of Madness" concerns an elderly man, formerly a sailor and now a janitor at an asylum whose wife is an inmate. His wife has drowned their infant child long ago, which triggered her breakdown into madness. Their teenage daughter visits and is trying to marry, she is unaware that her father is working at the asylum. Her visit triggers memories and flashbacks in the older man of happier times. In one of the films' saddest scenes, the janitor forces his wife to escape: he literally drags her from her cell, while she screams at being confronted by the stormy outside world, until she meekly crawls back to her cell and four walls. The janitor fantasizes about killing the young doctor at the asylum, dreams about happiness and finally is resigned to his fate, and his monotonous chores in the asylum.


This is a very hard film to write about. Besides the main story, the film contains no intertitles or dialogue cards. The film is very dream-like, as it shows the distorted views of the inmates. The first person we see in the film is a dancer:

After a lyrical, rhythmic montage of a storm and a car travelling through the storm, the camera settles on a costumed woman in a surrealistic night club scene (complete with large fuzzy ball with a zebra stripe), at a certain point there is a shot of her shadow flashing outside of a cell and the camera settles on the dancer in rags, dancing herself either to death or exhaustion. This is one of the most striking instances early in the film and later on, the same dancer causes a riot before her fellow patients:

The view of her becomes distorted, bending into abstract shapes and the viewer realizes that these distorted hallucinations are what the patients are seeing. There are a few instances of this in the film and it is visually striking.

After its rediscovery in 1971, the film played at the New York Film Festival, and occasionally resurfaces at various film fests and societies around the worl. As far as I know, the only copy available is a VHS copy from Facets Multimedia. Once seen, you will not easily forget it.