Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Riccardo Freda's Murder obsession (Follia omicida) (1981)

Michael (Stefano Patrizi) is acting in a scene with Beryl (Laura Gemser), and something within Michael takes over while he's strangling her. "You seemed as if you really wanted to murder her," says director Hans (Henri Garcin) to his leading man, after it takes half the crew to pull Michael's hands away from Beryl's throat. Michael cools out at his flat, strumming his guitar, when a sudden gush of wind blows through the window. This gush of wind prompts Michael to want to see his mother, Glenda (Anita Strindberg) after many years without. Michael and his girlfriend, Deborah (Silvia Dionisio) drive to Michael's childhood home, where they are greeted by the manservant, Oliver (John Richardson). Glenda's ill and has desperately missed her baby boy. Michael's going to scout some film locations around the villa's countryside, so Hans, Beryl, and Shirley (Martine Brochard) are invited to the villa for both business and pleasure.
Riccardo Freda's Murder obsession (Follia omicida) (1981) is a mess. Highly influenced by Dario Argento's previous films, such as Profondo Rosso (1975), Suspiria (1977), and Inferno (1980) in terms of themes, style, and atmosphere, Murder obsession lacks Argento's inimitable and singular style and atmosphere; and unfortunately for Freda, he's unable to direct a film that's an Argento-esque mess (a whole other level of sublime beauty). Murder obsession is bits and pieces of a lot of motifs and genres which escalates to a surprisingly focused ending; yet for all its ending's focus, it reaches the heights of incredulity. Black-gloved killers and sexual obsessions are side by side with psychic phenomena and the occult and a black mass, which are further indulged by hallucinatory dream imagery from dated Gothic horror and as much bloody gore and special effects that can be sculpted and then shot. Like Michael making an associational link between a gust of wind to calling his neglected mother of many years, Murder obsession works in the same way: completely irrational (and certainly supernatural), the film is a lot of guilty fun.
Patrizi's Michael is a complex and enigmatic character, only because Freda (and his co-writers Fabio Piccioni, Antonio Cesare Corti, and Simon Mizrahi) doesn't know in what direction to take his main character (or his film, for that matter). Michael's initial sequence on the set while strangling Beryl curiously hints to Michael having a psychological affliction or some supernatural possession. Freda plays to both. Michael's father was murdered when he was a child and he was present at his father's death, along with Strindberg's Glenda. Michael has grown up to become a dead ringer for his father. Apparently, Michael was quite fond of his mother as a child, and now as an adult and at the villa, he's rekindled a strong attraction to his mother (Strindberg, incidentally, looks the same age as Patrizi or only slightly older). Glenda is also taken with her grown son, and although bed-ridden and ill, she immediately begins her subtle seduction. Michael's somewhat Oedipal upbringing combined with his childhood trauma could be the source for his "murder obsession" that is blossoming. However, Freda's treatment, like the mysterious gust of wind, dreamy flashback sequences of Michael's childhood, and the over-dramatic use of music hint also that perhaps not only does Michael look like his dead father but might be literally becoming the dead man. (It's later revealed that Michael's hidden secret is related to his father being abusive to his mother.)
Gemser's Beryl, Brochard's Shirley, and Garcin's Hans appear in Murder obsession, seemingly, to provide a body count or a red herring. Gemser's character is not developed at all and has really no depth. She wakes frightened from a sound (or a dream) to have Brochard's Shirley suggest that she take a bath. While in the bathtub, a black-gloved killer hides in the shadows and attacks her. Gemser's Beryl survives the attack only then to be placed in a giallo signature voyeuristic scene with Michael. Michael emerges from the woods with knife in hand to encounter the contemplative Beryl at lakeside. Michael pockets the knife, and without words, the two embrace and have sex. The two sleep after lovemaking to only have one wake up. Brochard's Shirley has even less depth than Gemser's character, although Freda and company intimate in a few scenes that Shirley and Brochard are having an intimate relationship (only hinted at, again, and never developed). Garcin's Hans, revealed in a long dialogue sequence with Strindberg's Glenda absent from the English-language print of Murder obsession, is not only a film director but also quite interested and knowledgeable about the occult. Hans has several strong beliefs about reincarnation and death. Foreshadowing? No. Hans and the occult do not commingle again in the film. When chainsaw appears, however, innocuously in the hands of Richardson's Oliver cutting wood, it does make an appearance again...as a murder weapon. Score one for Freda.
Among a cast of actors (all of whom have made notable appearances in European cult cinema), Silvia Dionisio stands above all as Deborah with her performance. (Dionisio's performance, like Strindberg, appears to be one of her last.) Deborah is a great character, and if Freda could have found some focus and development to match Dionisio's talent and enthusiasm, Murder obsession might be more well-known (and subsequently appreciated). When Michael first introduces Deborah, it is to Oliver as his "girlfriend." However, when Deborah meets Strindberg's Glenda, Michael introduces her as "his secretary." Dionisio's Deborah immediately and intuitively picks up on Glenda's jealousy, and the two become rivals for Michael's affection. The few scenes that the two have together are charged and tension-filled (Strindberg gives a fantastic performance, as well). Deborah's both sweet and smart: she knows that something is wrong with Michael, and despite his attempts to push her away, she's still affectionate and caring towards him. The best sequence of Murder obsession (and also Freda's most indulgent) comes with a very long dramatization of Deborah's nightmare that she tells Michael upon waking. Dionisio's Deborah descends into the deep, dark Gothic catacombs of the villa where she is being chased by a caked-face figure in a shroud. She spies a beautiful, Eden-like garden on the outside, only to have her path blocked by a giant rubber spider and its web. Through a foggy, sinister thorn forest, she ends in the hands of two dark figures in the midst of a black mass. Real snakes and a motorized spider lay in front of the bound Deborah, as the dark duo prepare their sacrifice. Utterly amazing. Dionisio carries the sequence, despite the laughable effects and ridiculous settings. Wide-eyed and frightened, most actresses would be unable to conjure as much credible emotion as Dionisio. All of her scenes within the film are welcomed. Sensuous and beautiful, it's hard for me to take my eyes off of her.
Included on the Raro release of Murder obsession is the longer Italian-language cut of the film without the options of English subtitles. An English language audio track is included, and for the scenes cut out of the English-language version, English subtitles are provided for the Italian audio. A short scene is included from the English print, absent from the Italian, less than thirty seconds, dark and murky of just really Gemser splashing in the bathtub. The highlight, and only other extra is an interview with Sergio Stivaletti, who worked (uncredited) on Murder obsession's special effects with Angelo Mattei. Mattei, according to Stivaletti, had previously worked with Dario Argento (apparently created the corpses for the underwater scene in Inferno.) Stivaletti describes Murder obsession as his first break, working with Mattei and Freda, and anecdotes about the production. The film is presented non-anamorphic and letterboxed. It doesn't have the sharpest picture or most clear audio, but I found it more than acceptable (considering the title's obscurity).

Saturday, December 26, 2009

David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

The genesis of David Lynch's Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) seemed both anti-climatic and enigmatic. The most simple plot synopsis would say the film is a chronicle of the final days of the life of Laura Palmer (leading up to the events of the pilot episode of the first season of the massively-popular Twin Peaks television show). No inherent mystery in that synopsis (her killer would be discovered during the show's run). Lynch would reveal several clues, however, within Fire Walk With Me about the mysterious "Black Lodge" and its denizens. Many professional critics (amongst whom it was not favorably received) saw Fire Walk With Me as at least an opportunity for Lynch to include imagery of sex and violence (and kink) that he was unable at the time to show on the small screen. (While this argument is not wholly persuasive, it is not without merit.) At its heart, the essence of Fire Walk With Me lies in this exchange between Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and Albert (Miguel Ferrer):

Albert: Will the next victim be a man or a woman?
Cooper: A woman.
Albert: All right. What color hair will she have?
Cooper: Blond.
Albert: Tell me some other things about her.
Cooper: She's in high school. She is sexually active. She's using drugs. She's crying out for help.
Albert: Damn, Cooper, that really narrows it down. You're talking about half the high school girls in America!

Albert's final line in this exchange is quintessential Albert, and the chuckle it receives detracts from Cooper's final line in this exchange. Sheryl Lee gives a phenomenal performance as Laura Palmer which is strongly buttressed by an equally powerful performance by Ray Wise as Leland Palmer in the focal relationship of Fire Walk With Me. When I initially saw the film during its theatrical run, I was near the age of Laura Palmer. Seeing it today, Fire Walk With Me still has resonance beyond the quirks, characters, clues, etc.: it's an intimate and sensitive portrayal of (real) characters dealing with addiction, abuse, and love in the foreground of an absurdist background.When Lee's Laura makes her first appearance in Fire Walk With Me (about thirty to thirty-five minutes into the film), Lynch presents her typical school day. (Interestingly, Lynch mirrors almost all the same events on her final day in a radically different fashion.) At the conclusion of her first day, however, Lynch presents two scenes back to back which would read on paper as totally innocuous. The first is Laura's would-be dinner with her mother, Sarah (Grace Zabriskie), and with her father, Wise's Leland. Leland chides his daughter ridiculously about not washing her hands before coming to the dinner table and probes her possibly inappropriately about her half-heart pendant around her neck. "Is it from a lover?" he asks. The performances and the low-key treatment by Lynch carry the darker tension within the scene. Lee perfectly becomes immediately terrified by her father's touching and piercing questions. Ineffectual Sarah shrieks and squirms uncomfortably while Leland, quite sinister, hovers over his daughter. Within minutes, the viewer is well aware of what goes on in this house after night falls, even without having to see Lee's Laura moved to complete tears while washing her hands. Lynch wisely follows this scene with the three at bedtime. Sarah is still ineffectual, and Wise's character gives a pivotal change with just the expressions on his face. Seen rocking on the bed, his expression goes from demonic glee to pitiful regret. He immediately goes to his daughter's bedroom to tell her very tenderly that he loves her. Not only do these domestic scenes hint at the darker goings on (from the other place), but they are also the very depiction of dysfunction with their strong emotions, violent mood changes, and conflicting behavior.Perhaps the most representative scene of Laura's descent into her addiction and also the the film's most visually intoxicating scene is the "Welcome to Canada" nightclub scene, where Donna (Moira Kelly) follows Laura during an evening's escapades and Laura reunites with Ronette (Phoebe Augustine) with whom she's invited for a fateful rendezvous. Words perhaps cannot adequately describe the experience of this sequence within a theatre setting; since I first witnessed it during its original run, I have never forgotten it with its strong red colors, flashing lights, pulsating and haunting score, muffled voices with subtitled, surreal dialogue, and the strangest character interactions. Completely intense. A viewing experience that can never be replicated outside of a theatre. Perhaps many of the professional critics walked away from their screenings with this memorable sequence in mind: although Lynch goes to great lengths to show the consequences and emotions of his characters' actions, he certainly does love to depict their self-destructive and kinky behavior. Likewise, this sequence is powerfully sensual, like watching Lee's Laura give a slow dance to her suitor, who slowly disrobes her on the dance floor or when she beckons her suitor with a finger wave to pleasure her under the table. Like a strong addiction, the nightclub sequence is completely alluring and simultaneously extremely dark (and dangerous). The treatment of this scene was a real artistic risk for Lynch, as it could (and did for some) overshadow the subtle and more intimate scenes of the film.Finally, Fire Walk With Me has few scenes with Laura and her true love, James (James Marshall), and these scenes are another tightrope walk for Lynch. He's able to balance sweet sentimentalism and genuine emotions between the two characters, as their dialogue goes from flighty ("gobble, gobble") to intensely and directly real. The opening thirty minutes of the film, an investigation of the Teresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) murder by Agents Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) are a lot of fun. (Harry Dean Stanton, Lynch, and David Bowie appear in over-the-top, standout roles.) These opening minutes give lots of clues to the mysterious happenings at the "Black Lodge" and are important to the Twin Peaks mythology, but I much prefer the Laura Palmer chronicle. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a phenomenal (and perhaps underrated) film from David Lynch both rich in its subtle, emotional content and richly wild in its visuals.

Jess Franco's Sexy Sisters (1977)

Edna (Pamela Stanford) is not paying attention to the typically surreal floor show at the club, two nude females in interesting poses and donning demon masks; she is far more interested in Joe (Kurt Meinicke), after draping her leg over his chair to attract his attention. Edna requests a light for her cigarette and a drink, only to have both turned down. Joe's ears prick up when she finally and bluntly requests a shag, and the two go back to Edna's villa. Edna works him up in the living room; her maidservant serves bubbly champagne and undresses Joe; and then, Edna introduces Joe to Milly (Karine Gambier), Edna's sister who is bound to her bed and locked in a cozy cell. Joe and Milly have sex. Dr. Carlos Barrios (Jack Taylor) visits Milly the following morning to treat her physical symptoms and her "nymphomania." Milly is also apparently suffering from powerful sexual hallucinations, a symptom of possible paranoid schizophrenia.
Jess Franco's Sexy Sisters (1977) is one of a baker's dozen (or so) films that Franco made for Swiss producer, Erwin C. Dietrich, who paints this portrait of the Spanish film maker while under contract with Dietrich. When asked, "Was he [Franco] obliged to deliver a certain kind of film while under contract to your company?" Dietrich responds:

Well he pushed himself to work as much as possible. That was also because whenever he was on a set, he knew he had enough to eat. The money he could spend each month was far more that I usually live on, but it still wasn't enough for him. So, naturally he had a lot of financial troubles, overdue bills he had to pay. Several producers were hunting for him because he still owed them large sums. Every once in a while he just disappeared from the hotel where he was staying without paying the bill, leaving his suitcases and personal belongings behind. I can remember once seizing one of his suitcases from a hotel in the South of France from which he had done a moonlight flit. I sent a guy down there to pay Franco's bill and fetch the luggage because Jess told me it contained the negative of a film I had already paid for. Of course there was no negative in the suitcase (laughs). At least he was no longer wanted by the French police. Whenever he was shooting, the production paid for his food. That's probably why he wanted to work so much. He always came to me with new stories saying "I will shoot this, I will shoot that." I always gave him a free hand when he worked for me. I could use every type of film and as many of them as possible. (from Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco)

So I suppose Dietrich's answer to the direct question asked is "no" as evidenced by the last sentence of his answer. Dietrich's accompanying anecdote and description of Franco paints the portrait of a desperate, sometimes indulgent, and derelict artist. Not surprisingly, Sexy Sisters appears a desperate, sometimes indulgent, and derelict film. Not all the Franco/Dietrich collaborations are like this, however. Jack the Ripper (1976) with Klaus Kinski is perhaps their best known, while Doriana Grey (1976) and Blue Rita (1977) are two highlights (and personal favorites), for example.
Sexy Sisters begins visually and thematically in classic Franco style: dreamy, disorienting, and hypnotic. The opening floorshow and the odd, contrived sequence of events leading Joe into Milly's "quarters" are fantastically over-the-top. Franco familiar-face, Jack Taylor's appearance is welcomed, and his initial sequence with Gambier's Milly is fun. Taylor brings as much reservation to his role as he can muster (presumably to keep from laughing), while Gambier is totally uninhibited on camera. In fact, Gambier steals all of her scenes within Sexy Sisters and her presence would merit a viewing of the film alone. While the substance of Franco's compositions is wild in the Franco way, his camera is static. Dietrich is later asked in the same interview in Obsession whether he would work again with Franco, today. Dietrich would but says he would not let Franco shoot his own films. Likewise, Dietrich didn't let Franco shoot Sexy Sisters (Peter Baumgartner would shoot the film, a frequent Dietrich collaborator). When Franco shoots his own films, the result is most certainly from the "right side of brain," and the films are always as interesting visually as thematically (and usually poetic). Dietrich obviously disliked Franco's occasional shot out of focus or the poorly-lit, blurry shots which pop up, here and there, in Franco's flicks. Dietrich's style, which he uses in his own directed films, is very "left side of the brain": meticulously-composed, well-lit, and glossy (and usually not very interesting). Franco's static, Dietrich-style filming hurts Sexy Sisters, giving the film an air of coldness and detachment. Sexy Sisters begins a dark and provocative tale. Edna and Milly are true adversaries in the guise of caregiving Edna and pitiful and sick Milly. Edna's elaborate seduction of Joe is revealed to be passive-aggressive torture of Milly. Later, Edna has sex with her maidservant behind the bars in front of Milly with a wicked smile on her face. Later, Edna invites another man over to the villa to have his way with Milly (but this time, he's someone from Milly's past whom she hates very much). Taylor's diagnosis of Milly developing paranoid schizophrenia is fueled by Edna's deeds. Taylor's character thinks Milly's escapades are hallucinations that she is truly believing are real. Edna is doing nothing to dissuade the doctor. Why? The answer to that question comes with the final two-thirds of the film, as Sexy Sisters descends into a tired, formulaic, and predictable plot. Sexy Sisters becomes totally unengaging on a narrative level (and Franco's powerful, discursive visuals are absent to supplant the narrative). Franco is able to steal the occasional flare, but he's hampered by too much of a seeming desire to make a typical softcore film. It doesn't help either that virtually all the male actors, save Taylor, give absolutely atrocious performances. Stanford and Gambier are the real stars here and are shouldered with delivering Sexy Sisters with nearly all of the film's energy. As it stands, Sexy Sisters is completely uneven, undoubtedly entertaining and engaging at times, and truly overshadowed by myriad Franco films in his diverse filmography.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Marco Ferreri's The Harem (1967)

Margherita (Carroll Baker) calls off her wedding to Gianni (Gastone Moschin) the morning before the ceremony. She loves him but she admits that she's afraid of getting married. Margherita is friends with Gaetano (Renato Salvatori), who's happy that she's not getting married, since a woman should be independent and make her own decisions. Gaetano loves Margherita very much, and she loves him. Mike (William Berger) has returned from Kenya with a baby cheetah for Margherita and hopes for a little rest and some lovemaking. Mike takes up residence with Margherita's "eunuch," Rene (Michel Le Royer), who queries Margherita on whom is her perfect man. She doesn't know, so she goes to Yugoslavia on a holiday with Rene, only to invite the trio of Gianni, Gaetano, and Mike to visit.
Marco Ferreri begins his film, The Harem (1967), quite sweetly. Baker's Margherita is kind, caring, loving, and affectionate. Likewise the male actors play stereotypical roles: Gianni is an engineer who's successful, logical, and egotistical; Gaetano is a lawyer who loves to pontificate and advocate on abstract ideas; and Mike is a handsome, impulsive, unemployed artist-photographer. In fact, all the characters were so innocuous and likable during the first half of The Harem that I wondered if Ferreri was ever going to be able to create any dramatic conflict between them. I had no idea where the film was going, but around the halfway mark, I thought if it continued its semi-lite tone, the film would soon move into tedium, because it wasn't funny enough to be a serious comedy and not serious enough to be a drama. However, the events in The Harem did change during the second half, and the would-be tedium of the first half of the film was a set-up for its ultimate theme and subsequent ending.
In 1967, with sexual mores and gender roles being called into question with the cultural changes of the Sexual Revolution, the motif of having one woman who loves three men equally and wishes to have each in her life is potentially provocative and progressive. Ferreri doesn't settle on making an initial socio-political statement with his film: he's not going to present his female lead character as one who is making a conscious choice to love three men equally as an assertion of independence and power but to present his character as one who genuinely loves three men in three different yet equally strong ways, despite the consequences.
The characters' time at the villa is spent with the leisure typically associated with a holiday vacation. Mike, Gianni, and Gaetano (and Rene) despite being jealous suitors of Margherita begin to bond and subsequently become quite close. Their bonding seems to be what Margherita planned to have happen, and she became free to be among all of them peacefully or be alone with one intimately. The male characters do not bond, however, through a positive kinship: each overtly or subtly finds Margherita's attitude towards relationships absurd, immoral, or hostile. Their behavior, especially collectively, becomes over the course of the holiday more hostile towards Margherita, first as light teasing then ultimately openly degrading her.
Having his female lead character lack a raison d'etre associated with any socio-political statement (free love, female empowerment, female independence) gave Ferreri's ultimate theme more weight. Despite her open and loving actions, Margherita is punished for them. The males' actions aren't a reaction to her assertive actions: the males must assert continual power over females in order to maintain the status quo. Society or culture, then, is ultimately quite determinative and very reticent to change.
Carroll Baker's performance in Elia Kazan's Baby Doll (1956) brought her both critical acclaim and notoriety. Among cult film fans, she would have quite the career in European cinema, and I believe The Harem was her first European production. For example, Baker would collaborate with director Umberto Lenzi on four notable films: Orgasmo (1969), So Sweet... So Perverse (1969), A Quiet Place to Kill (1970), and Knife of Ice (1972). Baker is beautiful and charismatic and professional. Gastone Moschin I will always associate with his intense, brooding performance in Fernando di Leo's Milano calibro 9 (1972), but The Harem reminded me how funny Moschin can be (as in Stelvio Massi's Fearless Fuzz (1977), for example). Handsome William Berger would be a stalwart in European cult cinema up until his death in the early 1990s and made many a notable film (too numerous to list here), especially his roles in Westerns. Subsequent to The Harem, Marco Ferreri would go on to make some of the oddest, most thought-provoking, and aesthetically-challenging European films of the 1970s and beyond. While The Harem is dated and a little too contrived for my tastes, I believe it shows some very creative talent and boasts excellent performances by all.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Herman Yau's Rebellion (2009)

A select few of likewise unhappy people can relate to being alone and drunk on their birthday like Po (Shawn Yue), the bodyguard for recently-shot and critically-injured crime boss, Jimmy (Yuen-Leung Poon). Jimmy is one of five bosses in a closely-knit district which has, up until his shooting, been functioning peacefully and successfully in the underground. Jimmy's lady, Wah (Ada Choi) is vacationing in Taiwan and as soon as she hears of the shooting, Wah makes plans to come home. Until her arrival, she appoints Po as temporary head of the crime family, much to the dismay of the family's second-in-command, Blackie (Chapman To). Blackie is more than happy to take over the operation: in fact, he's willing to go to war with the four other bosses, despite having no evidence linking any of them to Jimmy's hit. Poor Po has to sober up quickly, find Jimmy's shooters, and keep the status quo until Wah gets back into town. The last thing reluctant Po wants is to be a crime boss; and just about everybody in the district is going to take the opportunity this night to shake him down.
Written and directed by Herman Yau, Rebellion (2009) is another successful and exciting film delivered from him (from this year alone). Veteran Yau crafts a character-driven drama, brimming with local color, an attentive eye to detail, about a local and insular crime syndicate, which is really a big dysfunctional family about to have all its closet skeletons exposed (in one night, no less). Shawn Yue turns in one of his best performances of his young career as Po and contributes to nearly all of the excellent and tension-filled action sequences.
A short exposition begins Rebellion, letting the viewer know who's who in the syndicate and how the power dynamics work in their relationships. Beyond that, Yau lets his characters do all their own exposition through their actions. There is very little that one can say about one who chooses to be drunk and alone on his birthday: either that character really wants to be alone and drunk or either that character is unhappy. Yue's Po is in the latter camp. He doesn't have any ambition or desire to be the top man in his organization. His current job, as Jimmy's bodyguard, he stepped into reluctantly. Po's an orphan, and like many, he's been dependent solely upon himself for care. Pretty Ling (Elanne Kwong) works at a local restaurant, where over the years the bosses meet for Mah-jong and business, and has watched Po over those years. Ling was present at Jimmy's shooting but didn't see anything. When she sees Po struggling to stay focused and taking a turn or two to gag and vomit, as he tries to gather information and keep people in line until Wah arrives, Ling offers to help Po and accompany him. Of all the people that Po encounters that evening, Ling becomes the most important. Their relationship feels genuine, and while watching, it was Po and Ling on whom I wanted Yau to focus. Yau didn't disappoint me. The other characters, especially the other crime bosses, are also well-drawn. Each has his own quirk and habits, which makes each instantly identifiable, and how each interacts with Po over the evening, speaks about his inner character and his own personality. Choi's Wah is a standout character with a standout performance. Choi is such a fun and charismatic actress that she's easy to watch do anything (she's also a favorite of mine).
The characters of Rebellion speak loudly with their words and actions but visually, Yau puts such an attentive eye to detail, these characters speak with their image. Yue's Po literally looks defeated with tired eyes and his sloppily opened dress shirt and sneakers. His attire says a lot about his character. Mr. Tai (Austin Wai) is the syndicate's head and dresses the part as dapper as any fancy gangster. Blackie's attire is as wild as his character. The true hustlers of the street are dressed appropriately for hustling, and the world of the small district within Rebellion really comes to life.
Yau adopts a low-key, smoky visual style with little overt flare, save the fantastic action sequences. Yau owns and commands action cinema, and in an especially well-executed scene, Po fortuitously rescues Blackie from a group of armed thugs on the street. Po and Blackie flee on foot while the group gives chase, and they hide in a store behind the after-hours, steel shutter. Po and Blackie have enough time to smoke a cigarette and collect their thoughts, until with a nifty audio cue, tires are heard screeching. A split second before a car comes crashing through the store's shutters to dispatch a crew to kill Po and Blackie, Po pulls him away. Beyond the excellent, overt action sequences, Yau continues to show his command of creating a heavy atmosphere of tension. Any director can shoot explosions, but only a creative few, like Yau, can create the perfect set-up for them: when two characters confront each other in Rebellion, it's felt by the viewer.
Herman Yau, I will continue repeating this over and over, is making some of the most exciting cinema coming out of Hong Kong (or really anywhere). His cinema is always unexpected, irreverent, playful, creative, and rewarding. He does it so often, and again with Rebellion, that I'm at risk of being spoiled.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Lars Von Trier's Antichrist (2009)

Black and white, slow motion, and an operatic voice singing, following a title card which reads Antichrist, with its "t" the gender symbol for woman, a man (Willem Dafoe) and a woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) are fucking. Despite the absence of any sound from the film's participants, who also include a baby boy, it is quite obvious that the couple is making a lot of noise, from knocking over a bottle, to fucking up against a clothes dryer during full spin, beyond their own shrieks and moans. A baby monitor transitions the scene from the couple to the baby's bedroom, as the child knocks the monitor with his toy and crawls out of bed. The child comes within earshot of the man and woman; and he crawls upon a desk in front of an open window, whereupon he knocks off three statues, each reading "pain," "grief," and "despair," respectively, to the floor. The child is not heard as he steps upon the window's threshold, before plummeting.
New title card, Chapter 1, Grief. With color, the couple is presumably walking away from the child's funeral. The woman collapses and is hospitalized. Her physician thinks she is "atypical" and has put her on a series of medications. The man thinks her physician is over-medicating her and that "grief" is a natural emotion that she should experience. The woman believes that the man "thinks he's so much smarter than the other doctor." He tells her that he loves her. The man takes the woman as his patient to undergo therapy, despite their shared belief that therapists shouldn't counsel their own family members. Back at home, the woman is not adjusting well with her grief and she accuses the man of being indifferent to his child's death. Her accusation could be true, as it initially seems as if the man is focusing on the woman's grief and emotional state as a way of not dealing with his own (later when an autopsy report comes in the mail, the man folds the letter and places it unopened in his jacket). She also accuses him of being distant towards her in the past, and now, only as his patient, is the man taking in interest in her. The man doesn't outright deny her accusation, and it would initially seem that she's correct. The man believes that it is his duty (as a therapist or her lover or both is unknown) to help her through the post-tragedy stages, such as "grief" and "pain." Despite his lack of showing of these stages, himself, the woman is going to initiate (or help bring out) these stages of emotions from the man, after they take a trip to a forest named "Eden." Lars Von Trier's Antichrist (2009) has some seriously overt and obvious symbolism and seems a film adaptation of Nietzschean philosophy. The intimate, signature Dogme scenes of the man and the woman alone, sharing their feelings and being vulnerable with each other, seem distractions from the meticulously-crafted and contrived scenes, like the film's subjective renderings of the woman's therapeutic sessions as she walks in the forest. Antichrist is also the very definition of provocative, but what emotions or feelings this film is attempting to provoke or elicit from the viewer is unknown to me. Visually, Antichrist is stunning. All compositions feel meticulously composed and nearly every frame could stand on its own as a beautiful still picture.
As the film descends past its first act into the forest with its lush, overgrown greenery, whatever individual identity both the man and the woman are initially shown to have begins to disappear. Likewise, the natural imagery receives more attention from Von Trier, and the lighting becomes more seamless, so everything on screen becomes slightly darker and murkier (or even a heavy fog comes in to cover the scenery). Nature and humanity become close to becoming one. Whatever is at the essence of either nature or humanity ain't that pretty.
Von Trier's post-Dancer in the Dark (2000) films feel to me extremely mean-spirited, and Antichrist continues his streak. Mean-spiritedness is an emotion, like enthusiasm, which is very difficult for the artist to hide with his or her work. I once believed that the same filmmaker who made the brilliant Breaking the Waves (1996) and The Idiots (1998) was the finest living film maker: Von Trier's work personified everything I admired in an artist: playful, socially-critical, creative, and risk-taking. Von Trier's work is still like that, but he's added another another dimension, and it's to his detriment.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jess Franco's La maldición de Frankenstein (1972)

Dr. Frankenstein (Dennis Price) and his assistant (Jess Franco) have just brought life into their creation, a silver-skinned hulking monster (Fernando Bilbao). Almost immediately after the beastly creation has breathed its first breath, Melisa (Anne Libert) and Caronte (Luis Barboo) murder Dr. Frankenstein and his assistant and take the creature back to their master, Cagliostro (Howard Vernon), an evil guru with the power of mind control. Doctor Seward (Alberto Dalbés) and Inspector Tanner (Daniel White) are hunting for clues for Dr. Frankenstein's murderer, and the dead man's daughter, Dr. Vera Frankenstein (Beatriz Savón), has returned. She will avenge her father's death.
This is a bare-bones set-up for Jess Franco's tale of the Modern Prometheus, La maldición de Frankenstein (1972), which was, according to the authors of Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco, "idiotically retitled 'Erotic Rites of Frankenstein' by Robert de Nesle," the film's French co-producer. The authors of Obsession continue, "Shot in a number of versions more erotic than the last "Frankenstein's Curse"...is a literal adaptation of Italian erotic comic-strips (which are not known for their intelligence). Obviously shot too quickly, the film soon sinks into the picturesque and cannot be taken seriously. It contains Lina Romay's first appearance, in a single scene of the Spanish version." Franco's simple narrative of La maldición de Frankenstein allows him to "sink into the picturesque," where the film holds its primary power in its visuals.
La maldición de Frankenstein is one of a handful of films that Franco collaborated with French producer, Robert de Nesle, who according to the authors of Bizarre Sinema: Jess Franco El sexo del horror, after meeting Franco, "immediately organized the shooting of a set of sexy fantasy-horror movies" inspired by "the world's most successful comic-books of the time, from the stories featured in American magazines like Creepy and Eerie to Italian adult comic strips such as Jacula and Oltretomba." In addition to La maldición de Frankenstein, some of the other Franco/de Nesle collaborations are the sublime A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1971), Dracula contra Frankenstein (1971), the sensuous La fille de Dracula (1972), and Sinner (1972). Many of the films of this period were shot within Portugal with Lisbonian production house Interfilm (fact from Bizarre Sinema) and had many of the same participants with the roster of La maldición de Frankenstein being representative.
"Veteran British actor Dennis Price weighs in as Doctor Frankenstein," writes the authors of Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies, 1956-1984. "As the amoral cad in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Price had displayed his cool English savoir-faire. The Erotic Rites caught him at the end of a career slide; bloated and booze-raddled, he staggered around hazily as Doctor Frankenstein." Price has few scenes in La maldición, and the observations of the authors of Immoral Tales are astutely and painfully correct. Beautiful Britt Nichols has few scenes, as well, primarily as the victim-cum-reanimated-captive of Vernon's Cagliostro, who intends to make her the mate of Dr. Frankenstein's monster (who in turn will seed a race of superpeople who will conquer the world!). Lina Romay, opposed to the Obsession authors' description, has several scenes (shot presumably in one location as one sequence and cut into several scenes) in the Spanish-language version that I saw via the region-one DVD from Image Entertainment; and her role could be cut completely from the narrative as non-essential (but the opportunity to view her essential presence through Franco's camera eye would have been lost). Howard Vernon "turned in one of his best performances as the wizard Cagliostro," writes the authors of Immoral Tales. "Rising above the drawbacks of a cheap goatee, he managed to deliver half-baked lines with wide-eyed compulsion. No matter how gonzoid the action, Vernon was always believable (Immoral Tales)."
Anne Libert (who was the lover of Robert de Nesle according to Bizarre Sinema) is the true highlight of La maldición de Frankenstein as Melisa, Cagliostro's henchwoman. Libert's Melisa is a blind, half-woman/half-bird siren who has telepathic ability. Libert is a gorgeous actress and brings an amazing amount of energy to her role, frequently nude save a sparse covering of well-placed bright-green feathers and a dark cape (Libert is seen sans cape in the "alternate scenes" included on the Image DVD. Like a lot of Spanish cinema during the period, scenes were shot "clothed" and "unclothed" for different markets. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall during some of these productions to see directors like Franco or Klimovsky or de Ossorio give direction like, "Okay, let's do it again. Same scene. This time butt-naked." However, I digress.) Libert brings almost all of the eroticism to La maldición, and virtually all of her attacks upon unsuspecting victims are imbued with her sexuality. Her character is vampiric, mysterious, sensuous, and surreal.
The simple narrative of La maldición, while the film doesn't possess the strong, dark, and provocative thematic elements of Franco's other work, allows Franco to focus on the comic-book imagery to excellent effect. The color scheme is brilliant and runs the spectrum, and the artificial colors are often focal and bright, offset by the sombre colors of the genuine Portuguese locations. The light reflected upon the characters or reflected off their elaborate costumes makes them look like comic characters straight off of a paper panel. Hulking Bilbao, as Frankenstein's monster, is stunning visually with his massive frame and silver-painted skin. He looks like a giant toy action figure come to life. Franco's camera takes his characters as its focus, and with wide-angle lenses and jarring compositions, the characters look like monsters. La maldición looks artificial and feels superficial and is a tremendous amount of Franco fun.
All objective facts and quotes are from their sources as cited within.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Jean Rollin's Lips of Blood (Levres de Sang) (1974)

Jean Rollin writes, "I think that Levres de Sang is my best story because it recalls the world of childhood memory and first love." Producer Jean-Marie Ghanassia approached Rollin with the idea of making a film together with a small budget and giving its director complete freedom. Ghanassia had previously seen Rollin's earlier work and admired what he had seen. Four weeks were allocated for the shooting of Lips of Blood (1974), but unfortunately, a week before shooting one of the film's financiers fell out of the production (Rollin cites the producer declaring bankruptcy). Rollin would have to completely cancel the film or shoot the film in three weeks. Rollin agreed to the shortened schedule, and he writes, "It was almost unthinkable: entire scenes were axed or boiled down to two or three sentences. We had a different set-up every day. It was raining. Things had to be tightened."
Frédéric (Jean-Loup Philippe) attends a soiree with his mother (Nathalie Perrey) where he spies a perfume promotional poster depicting a photograph of some ruins. Frédéric has a Proustian moment, and his memory hearkens back to himself as a twelve year old. One cold evening, lost and scared, young Frédéric seeks solace at the ancient location. Behind its barricade, Frédéric meets gorgeous young Jennifer (Annie Belle) who comforts him and wraps him in her shawl. He spends the night and slightly before dawn, Jennifer wakes the child. Frédéric leaves his toy with the young woman and tells her "I love you." He runs home, promising to come back but never returns. The photographic image and the subsequent memory awakens Frédéric to a powerful obsession to revisit the location and visit a certainty--the young woman is still there. "This is the first film where I was deliberately trying to elicit an emotion," Rollin writes, "the nostalgia of childhood."
Rollin admits Lips of Blood is uneven. The film feels hurried and most of the plot revelations come from the characters' lips. Rollin writes, "Three scenes were replaced with a long off-screen explanation by the mother. It was such a jumble that my assistant confessed that she didn't understand the film anymore." Putting the burden of the characters carrying the plot was perhaps too much for its principal actors, Philippe and Perry, as their scenes together feel like an attempt to generate emotion with their words which Rollin could produce much more powerfully with images. Subsequently, their performances aren't very good and are a jumble of emotions: Frédéric appears at times like an child in an adult body, a momma's boy, and an obsessed lover. Perry is saddled with the primary task of delivering the exposition and the plot revelations.
However, the images do survive the jumble and are aided by its genuine locations. Rollin writes, "There were breath-taking locations: the ruins of the Chateau Gaillard where Marguerite de Bourgogne was strangled; the decimated old Belleville with its empty streets and boarded-up houses; the aquarium at the Trocadero, a childhood favorite of mine. It's no longer around, but it was a magic place. I believe that the only existing record of it is in the scene from Levres De Sang." Rollin fails to also mention the beach at Dieppe (hauntingly beautiful and used several times as a location for Rollin), and the authors of Immoral Tales reveal possibly why Rollin wishes not to revisit this memory:

The final scenes take place on the beach at Dieppe, and Rollin had to fight tooth and nail with the film's backers to be allowed to shoot there.
In fact that last scene almost led to the end of his career. The producer had hired an expensive coffin...The waves were fiercer than had been expected and soon it was obvious that the empty coffin was being pulled out into deep water. When Rollin dived in to rescue it a particularly vicious wave brought the coffin crashing down on his head, knocking him unconscious. He was only saved at the last minute by his lead actor, Jean-Lou Philippe, who dived into the waves to rescue him. (I edited out of this passage a brief clause which contains spoilers.)
Frédéric's initial memory of the meeting with the young woman at the ruins is bathed in soft blue light against the night backdrop. Belle's Jennifer is beautiful, and with Rollin's imagery, she becomes memorable. The Belleville sequences are as Rollin describes them, and the introduction of the four female vampires donning shear fabric walking amongst their shadows are disorienting and intoxicating. Watching the beautiful young actresses, so full of life, playing the undead, like little children amidst the rubbled surroundings is a highlight. The Castel twins play two of the four vampires and again, Rollin falls in love with them. They have a wonderful sequence in a hospital. The Dieppe beach sequence is hampered by some awkward character compositions (perhaps from the hurried schedule and some hostility at the location?). Nonetheless, Belle captivates during this sequence and takes focus, despite the gorgeous natural scenery (which must have been extremely cold as Belle gives more than a few shivers).When the characters aren't speaking and delivering plot exposition, Lips of Blood shows Rollin's poetic ability with the camera. Rollin conceived his best story to match his superior visual talent. External problems with the production hampered his narrative, yet the imagery survives and is, again, powerful, beautiful, and surreal.
The quote from the first sentence, the parenthetical note in the fourth sentence, and the quote from the sixth sentence in the first paragraph are from Jean Rollin's essay on Lips of Blood from Virgins and Vampires, Crippled Publications, Germany, 1997, edited by Peter Blumenstock. All other objective facts from the first paragraph about the production are from Immoral Tales: European Sex & Horror Movies, 1956-1984 by Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs. The final sentence quote of the second paragraph is from Rollin's essay from Virgins and Vampires, as are all facts and quotes from the third paragraph and the first quote in the fourth paragraph. The anecdote about the Dieppe location and the block quote are from Immoral Tales.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jess Franco's Macumba Sexual (1981)

Jess Franco's Macumba Sexual (1981) is a powerful and creative corruption of Bram Stoker's Dracula tale with Lina Romay playing the Jonathan Harker role, Robert Foster in the Mina Harker role; Jess Franco in a Renfield/Van Helsing role; and Ajita Wilson, as Princess Tara Obongo, substituting for the Count. The authors of Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco see the film as a "reworking" of "(Vampyros Lesbos, 1970, the first--and perhaps only one--of its kind: a sun-sea-and-sex art vampire film.) Here the seaside is replaced by a desert, and the vampire theme by voodoo and witchcraft." I do not disagree with Obsession's authors. However, I do believe Macumba Sexual is more than a mere "reworking" of Vampyros and shares a stronger tie to Stoker's novel, which Franco adapted to screen previously in 1969 as El Conde Dracula which he "intended to be the most faithful adaptation to date" with Christopher Lee, Herbert Lom, Klaus Kinski, Soledad Miranda, and Maria Rohm, for example. Macumba's genesis seems a hybrid of the themes in both Vampyros and Dracula with the result being a looser adaptation of Stoker's narrative with the typically strong obsessive Franco themes and atmosphere. Interestingly, Franco during his featurette interview included on the Severin disc of Macumba Sexual describes Ajita Wilson as "a kind of female Christopher Lee," who was very tall and "very much deep inside alive...She wasn't an actress. She was a presence." The Spanish production company, Golden Films, gave Franco complete freedom to shoot Macumba as he wished as long as Franco completed the film within budget limitations. Perhaps this freedom subconsciously inspired Franco's creative imagination and combined with Wilson's powerful presence and the atmosphere of Macumba's shooting location, the Canary Islands (which Franco describes as "fantastic"), Franco was let go to create this gem. In the Canary Islands, as Franco relates, there is a strong population of people from Senegal from whose culture Franco was able to find genuine art (such as the islands' statues) and artifacts to create his atmosphere. The iconography is not Christian churches and crosses but voodoo elements and their deities.
In shadow against the backdrop of the sun with her hands held high above her head, Princess Obongo introduces Macumba Sexual. Obongo is beckoning. Alice (Romay) writhes on her bed, absorbed completely in a dream where she meets Obongo in the desert. Alice awakens startled and seeks comfort from her writer husband (Foster). The two are vacationing, and Alice gets a poolside telephone call from her boss who summons her to complete a real estate transaction with the Princess at a slightly-deserted and nearby town. Alice meets the mentally disabled innkeeper (Franco) at her destination, and he speaks in slight gibberish, cryptically a warning about, a disavowal of, and an inducement to see the Princess. Alice and the Princess soon meet.Macumba Sexual is a continuous juxtaposition of voodoo and sexual imagery, equally powerful and provocative. The film is layered with seduction. Obongo's beckoning of Alice through Macumba is an elaborate act of such. Through esoteric and powerful iconic imagery combined with Franco's compositions, the viewer becomes seduced also. The imagery of Wilson's Princess with her two collared male and female nude slaves whom she lets slip upon on an unsuspecting Alice is appropriately jarring and terrifying during Alice's nightmare; yet it is no less unsettling when Alice cordially first meets the Princess and requests a bath. The Princess's two slaves appear to attend to Alice's needs, both looking identical to Alice's nightmare imagery yet standing upright and affectionate (in a different way). Alice's husband succumbs to the Princess's power, and with her two slaves, she has her way with him, ending with a willing Foster allowing himself to be collared as her other two.The ritualistic sequences involving Wilson amongst the desert backdrop are haunting and beautiful. Franco attends to quite a bit of detail to the Princess and her icons, specifically a white phallic statue, as she engages in behavior simultaneously worshipping, beckoning, and sexual. Franco relates his perception and knowledge towards voodoo: "Macumba is when you ask for the protection of a god. And a god which is not an occidental god but a kind of little god from the--from the waters, from the forest. There are some gods there and you ask for their help and their protection. And sometimes you ask also the destruction of your enemies." It's unknown to me how Franco's later relation of his view of voodoo informs the depiction within Macumba Sexual, but it's interesting. The reappearance later of the Princess's statue (a deity?) in a powerful sexual sequence with Alice is a consummation (of what the Princess reveals to Alice near the end of the film). The graphic sex scene is also a consummation of the themes and the juxtaposing imagery within the film, creating one. The Princess holds both a supernatural and a truly human sexual and seductive power. As to which Alice finally succumbs to is unknown: Obongo reveals to Alice her intentions with words, yet with their body language and behavior, the two speak to something else.Macumba Sexual is the very definition of intoxicating, and Franco's imagery is dreamlike and disorienting.Within the first paragraph, the quotes within the second and fourth sentence are taken from Obsession: The Films of Jess Franco. All quotes and objective facts about the production, beginning with the sixth sentence of the the first paragraph and continuing throughout this entry, are from Franco's interview featurette on the Severin DVD release of Macumba Sexual.