Saturday, May 30, 2009

Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day (2001)

Claire Denis's perverse Trouble Every Day (2001) really represents what I love in cinema: its simple premise, as a Jekyll and Hyde tale, is engrossing as an intense horror/genre picture; while its provocative and transgressive take on themes such as gender roles, sexuality, and the idea of the "outsider," move Trouble Every Day out of the sensational and commercial arena, exclusively, and into another. I imagine Denis's film sitting snugly on the shelf in between, on the left, Takashi Miike's Audition (1999) and Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl (2001), and, on the right, Walerian Borowczyk's Dr. Jekyll and His Women (1981) and Gerard Kikoine's Edge of Sanity (1989). Trouble Every Day truly is a captivating and divisive film with imagery often simultaneously beautiful and disturbing.
Trouble Every Day opens at night with an anonymous couple kissing, as the soulful music from the Tindersticks plays as the soundtrack. The night imagery continues over the Seine to reveal at dawn a beautiful woman (Béatrice Dalle) at the side of the road. A trucker stops for her, and as night falls again, the cab of his vehicle is open and empty; his corpse lays in a field; and the beautiful woman sits covered in blood in a blood-red field. Above her, a newly-wed couple sits closely aboard a plane, with Paris as their honeymoon destination. Shane (Vincent Gallo) kisses sensuously his wife's (Tricia Vessey) arm, but feeling ill, Shane goes to the restroom to compose himself, where he has a vision of a blood-drenched female. Dawn breaks again over Paris, where Dalle is now in a bedroom, where her lover is meticulously locking her windows. With the opening night and day imagery, Denis presents her tale of Jekyll looking for Hyde. Shane is Dr. Shane Brown and he knows the identity of the beautiful woman, Core. Were they in love? "No," Shane says, "that's not the right word for it. I was attracted to her." Their initial meeting took place over a year ago in Guyana, where brilliant doctor Shane went hunting for a secret serum developed by Core's lover, Leo (Alex Descas). Core has been corrupted by the serum, and apparently Shane has been also. Leo keeps Core locked away as he attempts to develop a cure, but Core escapes frequently with dire results. Shane doesn't seem as if he searching for the cure but for Core, herself. The majority of Trouble Every Day's shocking imagery involves the coupling of sex and violence. Denis shares seemingly my own view of my current culture: while we have abandoned a lot of our traditional Puritanical views towards violence, we have retained quite a bit of those views towards sex and the belief that both genders have different roles and rules in regard to sex. Not surprisingly, then, Denis reverses the traditional roles in Trouble Every Day: Dalle's Core plays the sexual aggressor, locked up and kept away from the world; while Gallo's Shane walks free, tortured by his own repression of his sexual desires. Dalle, as the former, brilliantly executes her role: in arguably the film's most shocking sequence, Core seduces a young thief through the captive wooden planks of her bedroom. Denis films the seduction and the sex scene in shadows and close shots of the two caressing, until Dalle turns violently on her partner. Alternatively, Dalle's Core is beautifully sad in another scene where Leo softly bathes her. She quietly and hauntingly whispers that she doesn't want to live anymore. Gallo's performance is also praiseworthy. The most poetic and agonizing aspect of Core and Shane's affliction is the absence of any affection. Shane cannot make love to his new wife, so he takes myriad opportunities to hug her. He gropes ladies, unsuccessfully, in the bathroom and on the subway. In his saddest scene, he purchases a puppy and holds it closely and tightly. Shane's biggest obsession and one of Denis's most interestingly drawn characters is the young maid, who works at Shane's hotel. The two have several quiet and innocuous encounters which build to the film's climax. The young maid is often shown in her domestic attire, doing her cleaning. Occasionally, she will steal some lotion or soap from one of the rooms and once, she lays in Gallo's bed and smokes one of his cigarettes. Her transgressions are minimal and not enough to put her outside of normal acceptance. Her final encounter with Gallo is shocking and also leaves the viewer with Denis's metaphor about those who step outside of their traditional roles.
Please bear in mind that it is my dumb ass which is overtly propounding underlying themes and not Denis. As I alluded to in the outset of this entry, Trouble Every Day is a seamless blend of thought-provoking drama, deeply-rooted also within the horror genre. Denis doesn't preach or push with Trouble Every Day: the film moves lyrically and leisurely with beautiful imagery and some very beautifully shocking imagery. The writing and the performances are stellar. See it.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Andrzej Zulawski's My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days (1989)

I crawled through the portal, through a stapled, snail-mail, xeroxed catalog, which I found listed in the back few pages of an old copy of Gorezone, that led me into the cinema of Andrzej Zulawski with a film entitled Possession (1981). The portal was small: I based the selection of purchasing a VHS copy of the film on 1)it was in English; 2)its source was Japan; and 3)Dario Argento was a fan of the film. The cosmetic criteria employed by me was ridiculous, but I don't even think that I was fifteen at the time. I don't think, also, that I was quite ready for Possession or for the mind behind its creation, Andrzej Zulawski, but for the nearly twenty subsequent years, I continued crawling through that portal, going deeper into the mind of its creator, searching for his films. Thankfully, quite a few of Zulawski's films are available on DVD in English-friendly editions, today; however, I still find Zulawski as enigmatic and challenging as the first time I saw the opening frames of Possession. His cinema is one of violent and poetic beauty, often with a view that the world and its conventions are absurd; or rather, the world and its conventions turn its characters against it and each rebels often losing his or her own sense of self. I took a recent look at Zulawski's My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days (1989).Lucas (Jacques Dutronc) creates a new computer language, with the prospect of becoming amazingly wealthy because of its creation. However, believing death looms over him after a trip to his doctor, Lucas abandons everything. Sitting in a cafe, he plays word games with beautiful, young Blanche (Sophie Marceau), and the two speculate on the identity of a passing couple (are they lovers? drunks?). Lucas pulls the sunglasses from her eyes and gazes, revealing a profound sadness and depth behind her eyes. Immediately enamored and attracted, Lucas wants to steal Blanche away, but her large entourage keeps her at bay. Blanche must leave Paris to perform in a coastal town casino, as a reluctant flamboyant clairvoyant. Lucas follows her, and the two embark on a spiritual journey together while also falling in love. Blanche is capable of seeing inside of people's hearts, often seeing both their virtues and their vices. In addition, she also feels from each an amazing amount of emotion and Marceau conveys quite a bit of it during My Nights. Her ridiculous entourage, composed of a would-be lover, her possessive older husband, and her indulgent mother, love the spectacle of Blanche performing and its cash potential. Blanche, however, is weary of the pain that she's enduring, while her hangers-on reap the benefits. She's also haunted by a violent childhood memory, presumably of her mother and father in a small apartment, which appears at the start of any of Blanche's visions. Lucas is also haunted by a childhood memory of his parents and over the course of My Nights and with extreme difficulty, he attempts to keep that memory and his painful feelings about it at bay. As the two are making love, in one of the film's most poignant and beautiful scenes, Blanche is able to look into Lucas's soul. She sees the pain hidden inside of him, which Lucas is so desperately attempting to control and failing miserably; and Lucas utters two words with a profound brevity, "words and body." Zulawski takes the most simple themes and grounds each in a profound reality. As a simple and deceptive motif, Lucas's creation of a new computer language becomes his raison d'etre: although he is able to create a new language, Lucas is unable to control his own nor is he able to create a way to fashion his reality beyond language. In a painful yet comedic sequence, Lucas rents the "Imperial" suite at the posh hotel, and in anticipation of Blanche's arrival, Lucas attempts to conform the surroundings to his ideas of suitability. As he goes about the room, speaking aloud the discursive thoughts in his mind, Lucas makes a complete wreck of the room. In a brilliant image, Zulawski shows Dutronc wrapped in sheets and a towel as the "king" of his new surroundings: Often speeches and conversations with Lucas fly into games which usually lead into painful subjects:Lucas, the one with the power of creation of language, has no control, and the real power to gain, by the film's end, is to surrender: Blanche, as a clairvoyant or "seer," allows Lucas to surrender to his feelings and let go of control. In Marceau's most powerful scene and also most vulnerable, Blanche breaks down from all the emotion in the room; however, the most powerful emotion comes from Lucas. Blanche also realizes during this scene that she does not have to bear the burden of others' feelings and actions. The control that others believe that she has or forces her to use, she abandons. The painful memories within each are capable of being let go, and Lucas and Blanche are able to full unite.More than likely, I've misread the film, but with certainty, I will revisit again and again. I am also confident in saying that Andrzej Zulawski is one of the last true and real iconoclasts in cinema. His films are always confrontational and often brilliant. My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days awaits any viewer, night or day.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (1978)

The story of three Detroit auto-workers, each struggling financially, who band together to execute a heist at their union headquarters might be a story pulled off the AP, today. This story is, however, the creation of screenwriter, Paul Schrader and his brother, Leonard, in Paul Schrader's directorial debut, Blue Collar (1978). Unlike a quick news wire story, Schrader's story draws deeply from its characters and their culture: with an observant eye for detail, Schrader takes on American industry, workers' unions, the FBI, and the IRS. Schrader's heroes aren't archetypes: no propagandistic portrait of the working-class. Richard Pryor as Zeke, Harvey Keitel as Jerry, and Yaphet Kotto as Smokey are real folks. Schrader follows the three from the assembly line to the living room to the bar, while allowing the characters to speak for themselves. The seemingly fun and sensational plot line of a heist drives the narrative, but Schrader's presenting a brilliant character-driven film.
Blue Collar opens, fittingly, on the assembly line to introduce Zeke, Smokey, and Jerry working with their compatriots, as the hard-ass foreman, Dogshit Miller, makes the rounds. Cut to the union meeting where the labor leader opens the floor for complaints. First up is Richard Pryor's Zeke and his locker is broken. In fact it's been broken for quite a while. Zeke has to open the locker with his little pinkie and his Bic pens. Schrader gives a shot later of Zeke fumbling with his locker, and Zeke's complaint is quite genuine. Every damn day, the broken locker gets on Zeke's nerves and no one will fix it. Pryor, arguably the greatest stand-up comedian who ever lived, immediately captures the screen with his charisma and humor. Schrader leaves the camera on him and allows him to work his magic. Zeke doesn't let the issue with the locker go, and neither does Schrader. With his attentive eye to detail, Schrader uses Zeke's locker as a motif to drive the story: Zeke's complaint drives him to the union office about his locker (where humorously nothing is done about it), and his complaint also gives him the opportunity to scope out the office surroundings and formulate the idea for a heist. Along the way, Schrader drops his commentary on the corrupt nature of the workers' unions. Also noteworthy is a famous scene with Pryor and a visit from an IRS agent. Keitel's Jerry, like Zeke, is a family man. In a scene that could come off as awkward, ridiculous, or even unintentionally funny, Keitel is having dinner with his son and wife ("How can you still be hungry? Look, this box says it feeds four people.") and he wonders where his daughter is. Jerry's wife intimates that she's upstairs and had a bad day. Jerry goes to the stairs to see his teenage daughter. He lifts his daughter's chin with his fingers, and she opens her mouth to reveal bloody teeth and gums. Jerry's wife tells him that she tried to make her own braces with wire. Sound bizarre? It does. However, upon viewing, the scene comes off as genuine, moving, and sad. From the teary look in Jerry's and his daughter's eyes to his wife's quiet whisper, Schrader in a low-key scene is able to convey the heartbreak of a family that's struggling. Only an adolescent would go to such lengths to be like her peers, and only her father would feel real guilt for not being able to provide such things for his daughter. Kotto, as Smokey, is a bachelor. He's smooth-talking with the ladies and a laid-back kind of guy. He hosts a party one evening at his apartment with three or four ladies and Jerry and Zeke unsuccessfully sneak out of bed from their wives to attend. With a mountain of coke on top of the table and a bunch of willing ladies, the three indulge themselves. In a series of wonderfully bizarre montage shots, Zeke chatters on about how the office security is loose and how all that money is just waiting to be taken. What did the union ever do for them? What about all those promises that each made to his wife? As dawn breaks behind the three from the window, they come down from their high: self-pity sets in and each believes they're never going to get any better. Smokey cares for his friends, and in one of Kotto's best scenes, he goes over to Jerry's house to dish out some punishment to the harassing union lackeys.

Schrader's Blue Collar is his film on the "American Dream." It's not anti-Capitalist but rather it's a film about the recognition that capitalism has both its benefits and its ugly side. Like his social views, Schrader presents his characters the same way: no working-class heroes here, but rich characters with glaring flaws and equally shining attributes. There are three scenes in this film that I don't want to give away, but each made me choke up a little bit. In a general way, Blue Collar is about friendship and unity. Although he came close with the underrated Light Sleeper (1992), Schrader has never topped his directorial debut with any subsequent film. However, Schrader's Blue Collar is one of the finest films of the 1970s and few films have topped it.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Mario Landi's Patrick Still Lives (1980)

So many awful, wonderful and sublime Italian films were born shortly after their higher-budget, legitimate cinematic brothers and sisters. Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) left in its bloody wake, not only the bodies of swimmers, but numerous excellent exploitation films from Italy: Enzo G. Castellari's The Last Shark (1981), Lamberto Bava's Monster Shark (1984), Joe D'Amato's Deep Blood (1989), and Bruno Mattei's masterful Cruel Jaws (1995). William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973) vomited up its own terribly delicious Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977) by John Boorman; but across the pond, Italians delivered Alberto De Martino's The Antichrist (1974), Franco Lo Cascio and Angelo Pannacciò's Cries and Shadows (1975), and Andrea Bianchi's Malabimba (1979). The Italian subsequent features were stripped-down versions of their originals: big shark, littler boat, and more blood and the possessed with an upped ante of profanity, sexuality, and murder. The Jaws and Exorcist are just examples of some of my favorite Italian sub-genres. I recently had the pleasure of viewing an in-name sequel to Australian Richard Franklin's Patrick (1978) by Mario Landi entitled Patrick Still Lives (1980).
Richard Frankin's Patrick (1978) is a wonderful oddity of cinema about a comatose psychokinetic patient causing havoc in his local hospital. Susan Penhaligon delivered an excellent performance as Patrick's nurse. Penhaligon carries the film, while the character Patrick never speaks a word. Patrick delivers odd scares and unique set-ups. I think Patrick is mesmerizing. However, Patrick doesn't scream universal appeal or box-office bang: it's quiet, odd, and quite bizarre. Nonetheless, Mario Landi's genre follow-up to his nasty Giallo a Venezia (1979) was made. Patrick Still Lives is a split-personality film: half slow and brooding a la Patrick and half super-sleazy gore and nastiness. Patrick (Gianni Dei) and his father, Professor Herschell (Sacha Pitoeff) are stranded on the side of the road, with the hood up on their vehicle. As Patrick looks up, a passing truck drives by and its driver tosses a bottle out the window. The bottle connects with Patrick's head, and under a minute of screen time, Patrick becomes a vegetative comatose patient. The Professor moves his son to a remote villa, where in its basement Patrick is bed ridden. Patrick is connected, mad-scientist style, to three other bed-ridden patients via an energy machine, so Patrick has the ability to fuel his psychokinetic powers. The villa also serves as a health resort, because guests are arriving. Voluptuous beauty Stella (Mariangela Giordano) arrives with Peter (John Benedy), a couple in the waning days of their relationship (separate rooms to boot). Politician Lyndon Kraft (Franco Silva) arrives with sexy younger wife, Cheryl (Carmen Russo). Good-looking hunk, David (Paolo Giusti) arrives later and encounters enigmatic Meg (Anna Veneziano) who works at the villa, mostly taking care of two ominous German Shepards. Finally, beautiful blonde Lydia Grant (Andrea Belfiore) runs the villa as the doctor's assistant. The first forty-five minutes or so of Patrick Still Lives treats the viewer to a slow (and mostly boring) insight into unnecessary character exposition and plot lines: there's all this freaky wind blowing through the trees; Meg's telling David to run far from the villa; someone's blackmailing Lyndon and that's why he's at the resort; Cheryl's overstimulated; Lydia is a good worker but she's not allowed in the basement; and Stella and Peter make idle chit-chat. The film feels more like its stalling than setting the viewer up. Landi attempts to channel the atmospheric slow build-up of Franklin's Patrick, by dropping subtle psychokinetic flourishes, such as objects moving around and the various "wind" that builds up and plagues poor Lydia. Landi does not have the patience or the cinematic talent to pull off the tone. I believe that it's more the former that Landi lacks, as the final half of the film is full on straight-up sleaze, no chaser.After the first well-orchestrated yet bloodless murder in a swimming pool, the first scene to grab the viewer is of Stella busting through the door, drunk, donning an open gown with only her panties on, to disrupt dinner. Landi leaves his camera stationary on his tripod and just lets Giordiano let it all hang out: she berates all of the characters and gets into a nasty cat fight with Cheryl on the floor. Giordiano's character makes a one-hundred and eighty degree turn: Stella becomes an aggressive seductress and indulgent drunk. In one scene, she makes her best attempts to seduce David, which ends with both characters repeatedly slapping each other. Stella's wardrobe becomes thin see-through nightgowns or no wardrobe whatsoever. Her death scene, to put it mildly, is completely offensive, gory, and repellent. In fact, all the ladies in Landi's film pretty much favor their birthday suits for the final half and gruesome gory kills become the norm. Sweet Lydia, who appeared initially as a diligent and quiet assistant to the Professor, becomes the sexual desire of Patrick. He summons her from his bed with his mind powers to have Lydia undress and pole dance for him around his bed. Lydia puts on quite the peepshow for not just Patrick but for any aroused viewer. Not much substantive dialogue happens; the would-be sub-plots of the first half fall away, as if they didn't even exist. This half of Patrick Still Lives is most reminiscent of Giallo a Venezia, and this is Landi I know. The first half feels like an Ed Wood cast-off: cheap lighting, poor framing and pacing, and very bad acting (all of which I really love, by the way). By the end of the film, the whole mystery is revealed behind the motives for the murders and it really doesn't matter. Landi's film is a sleazy, exploitive, and offensive film made in the shadow of Richard Franklin's Patrick. Who would have thought that I never saw that one coming?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown (1966)

Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown (1966) is the reflection on the reverse side of the mirror, where on the other side Alejandro Jodorowsky's esoteric, surreal, and sexual El Topo (1970) appears. Like El Topo, Sollima uses the Western genre as a canvas for his social and philosophical views, and like Jodorowsky, those views are blended perfectly within the Western convention. The result: The Big Gundown is one of the finest Westerns ever made. Lee Van Cleef, as bounty hunter Jonathan Corbett, gives one of his best performances in the genre, rivalling or topping his performances in Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), and Tonino Valerii's Day of Anger (1967). However, Van Cleef's inclusion in any Western makes it worth seeing, and his presence might be the sole reason for viewing. Tomas Milian, as Cuchillo, would appear in Sollima's other Westerns, Face to Face (1967) and Run, Man, Run (1968). In the latter, Milian would reprise his role as Cuchillo from The Big Gundown. Milian also gives one of his best performances in the genre, and he is one of the finest actors to work in Italy during the 70s. Sollima would remake The Big Gundown as the very cool, Revolver (1973), a crime thriller, with Oliver Reed and Fabio Testi playing the Van Cleef and Milian roles, respectively.
The Big Gundown opens with three bandits on the lam who stop to take a breath at the top of a hill. Thinking they're safe for the moment with bounty hunter, Jonathan Corbett, behind them, one bandit notices a dead man dangling from a tree and an ominous-looking gunslinger smoking a pipe by a campfire. The gunslinger is Corbett (Lee Van Cleef) and he's going to collect. Whether the bandits surrender alive is completely up to them: Corbett places three bullets on a nearby stump and gives each the opportunity to attempt to kill him. The emphasis in the last sentence is on the word "attempt" and not "kill." In fact, Corbett has emptied the jail wall of wanted posters, leaving no doubt that he's the best bounty hunter alive. What's next for Corbett? The sheriff suggests that he run for Senator. Corbett's invited to a high-class party hosted by wealthy businessman, Brokston (Walter Barnes). Brokston will back Corbett in his political campaign on the condition that Corbett support Brokston's installation of a railway across Texas and into Mexico. Corbett's not completely persuaded; however, he will take the job hunting down another bandit. This time it's for the rape and murder of a twelve-year-old girl, and the suspect is Cuchillo (Tomas Milian), a Mexican with a quick wit and an even quicker hand with the knife.What follows in The Big Gundown is an exciting cat-and-mouse chase that culminates in one of the most satisfying and intense finales in all of Western cinema. While the plot and Sollima's execution is amazing alone, Sollima fills the running time with his socio-political views, especially of the power relationship between the rich and the poor. Nieves Navarro appears in one of the film's most bizarre and compelling sequences. Cuchillo escapes the grasp of Corbett for the second time and happens upon a large secluded ranch in the shadow of a mountain. Navarro, a widow, presides over the ranch in her large home and collection of cattle and ranch hands. Cuchillo wants at the minimum something to eat and drink but is also willing to work, if it's available. The crew at the ranch, much to their chagrin, allow Cuchillo to wrangle the bull in the corral. Coming close to killing him, Cuchillo survives the charging bull and the laughing ranch hands. Navarro invites him up to her home, where Cuchillo can rest and Navarro can take advantage of him. The ranch hands don't like the new visitor having his way with their matriarch, so they decide to whip and beat Cuchillo. When Corbett shows up to capture Cuchillo, Cuchillo is freed. A shootout will solve this problem for Corbett, but Sollima sees a larger one. Sollima paints an initial portrait of a seemingly idyllic view of communal life but with none of the amenities. The ranch is a cutthroat den where the competitors are vying for the top spot. The prize is the affection and attention of the wealthy beauty in the big house. Nieves Navarro is dead sexy and a perfect actress to play this role. Her fiery glances and sexy demeanor make her the perfect object of obsession and as the harsh queen leader. Navarro made other notable performances in Duccio Tessari's A Pistol for Ringo (1965), Fernando di Leo's A Wrong Way to Love (1969), Luciano Ercoli's Death Walks on High Heels (1971), and Joe D'Amato's Orgasmo nero (1980).
As he was in the ranch episode, Cuchillo is poor, misunderstood, and often exploited. Cuchillo is also extremely resourceful and exuberant. Milian portrays his character amazingly, imbuing Cuchillo with a sharp wit and an endearing sympathy. It would be an understatement to say that Van Cleef's performance is also amazing. Over the course of the film, Corbett comes to the realization of the true nature of Brokston's intentions. By the end of the film, everyone is revealed as to whom he really is. The characters of Cuchillo and Corbett become the most reluctant yet totally united brothers at the end of The Big Gundown. Sergio Sollima and Sergio Donati pen the rich screenplay, and Carlo Carlini's cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. Not least of all, Ennio Morricone composes the film's incredible score (which is playing in my head as I write this entry). See it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

Good times. Sitting shaded from the sun in her chaise, Ulrike watches her children play in the water at the beach. Through her sunglasses at the bridge of her nose, she reads a magazine article about the rich Shah of Iran and his stylish wife, who are making a diplomatic trip to Berlin soon. Ulrike writes an article for her husband's publication, voicing her opinion of the leader of Iran and the poor state of the world. At a posh party at her home, she reads the article aloud to a captive audience with applause: Ulrike's a talented writer with a gift for prose; she's a voice for a younger generation who often take to the streets in protest. Their protests are met with violence and soon the younger generations collect together to enact some violence of their own. Gudrun Ensslin is young, beautiful, a mother, and angry. Gudrun is informed about the state of her world and is ready to take action. Her lover is Andreas Baader, who's equally passionate and angry, but angry at exactly what is unknown. Baader wants to live life, like right now, and nothing is going to stop him. Gudrun and Andreas's lifestyle and attitude is attractive to Ulrike and she joins the two. Together they become the titular group in Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008). Uli Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex is a chronicle of the origins of the RAF and their terrorist actions. The film also covers the three's capture and their trial. The inception of the group begins the story, and it ends with the death of the last survivor. Over a decade of events are chronicled within the film, with accompanying shots of television, newspaper, and radio footage. Beyond the historical chronicle, Edel attempts to punctuate his film with intimate portraits of each of the main three characters. Some sequences are brilliant, and the performances are overall extremely well-done. Unfortunately, the balance between historical chronicle and intimate portrayals is uneven and unsuccessful. The final result is The Baader Meinhof Complex is a beautiful but flawed film.Ulrike Meinhof is the film's most interesting character; receives the most intimate portrayal by Edel; and Martina Gedeck gives best performance in The Baader Meinhof Complex. The film's opening imagery at the beach setting with the nude bathers, Ulrike's children playing happily in the water, and her husband giving a roving eye to a beautiful female, without dialogue, set up the idyllic life which Ulrike thinks herself is living. The photograph of the Shah of Iran and his wife in a close-up shot of the magazine, sitting in Ulrike's lap, is an effective juxtaposition of imagery, not only of events to come in the film but also the important role of the media in the events. Ulrike's prose was a powerful force for the RAF and when Gedeck reads a sample of it at the posh party, it doesn't come off as staged or forced. Gedeck really captures the passion of Meinhof with little effort. When Gudrun Ensslin is imprisoned for one of her earliest political actions, Meinhof covers her trial. Another journalist interviews Ensslin's parents, and Meinhof listens in the shadows. The parents comment upon how impassioned their daughter has become and how it seems as if Gudrun is completely "liberated." Behind her glasses, Meinhof gives a longing and jealous look: Gudrun's life of action is ultimately what Meinhof wants. Finally, in one of the more controversial scenes, in which Meinhof officially becomes a fugitive, Gedeck portrays Meinhof as a reluctant conspirator: it's almost as if Baader's impulsive nature is the catalyst for Meinhof's actions, not his political views. Later, when she is put on trial for her actions, Gedeck coveys beautifully a sense of longing and regret for her actions.Unfortunately, Edel doesn't portray Gudrun Ensslin nor Andreas Baader as intimately. Beyond her introductory scene, little of Ensslin's intellectual ability is shown in the film. Ensslin is obviously full of passion, but her dialogue is confined to short terse statements, often a comment, ironically, upon the inability of words to persuade anyone. Perhaps that was a calculated move by Edel, but the end result is a unsatisfactory rendering of her character. Johanna Wokalek gives a competent and professional performance, but ultimately, her character's main purpose is to serve as Baader's love interest in the film. Andreas Baader is an enigma. For someone who was so integral and important to the RAF, Edel, as with Gudrun Ensslin, gives little insight into the make-up of such a complex character. In the majority of the scenes, Moritz Bleibtreu plays Baader as impulsive and impatient. He rarely ever stands still or delivers a line of insightful dialogue. When the RAF makes a trip to Jordan to train at a terrorist facility, Baader has little patience with the arrangements. Segregated dormitories are backwards, and Baader thinks the training is a waste of time. In some ways, he doesn't see the RAF as an army but more like a virus in the system. The portrayal of Baader's character is as an impulsive and destructive anarchist. Seemingly, Edel's The Baader Meinhof Complex respects the historical background of the film and, for posterity, wants to cover as many of the events and its players, as possible. Edel also wants to imbue the film with as much emotion and tragedy that surrounded the original events. Giving an intimate look inside the characters is admirable, but unfortunately, Edel sacrifices characterization for history. Many collateral characters, who are important for historical accuracy, populate The Baader Meinhof Complex and they really burden the film. Edel's intentions are good, but his execution suffers from their inclusion. Even with the myriad of characters, Edel almost completely omits a perspective from the victims of the RAF. For a film that strikes an interesting and even balance of history and intimacy with its characters see David Fincher's Zodiac (2007). Focusing on one character, like Ulrike Meinhof, perhaps would have been the better course instead of such a strict adherance to history.Finally, the rich history of the actual events of this film are beyond the scope of this entry. Beyond what is written here, I express no opinion towards any cultural criticism of the actual events.

Monday, May 18, 2009

John Woo's To Hell With The Devil (1981)

Upon first glimpse, John Woo's cinema became a Pandora's box of wonder for me. Around '89 or '90, as a teenager, in a fanzine or magazine, I read an article on Woo's The Killer (1989) that described the film as hyper-violent, kinetic, and unlike any action movie that had come before it. Hunting down a copy of the video was a nightmare: from searching video stores in New Orleans (nearest cosmopolitan area) to attempting to obtain laser disc copies direct from Hong Kong, the search was fruitless. The Killer later appeared domestically on VHS in a cut, dubbed version, and I snagged a copy and was hooked on Woo cinema. Chow Yun-Fat, with guns firmly in both fists firing at a rapid rate, killed his victims with the most operatic precision, as blood flew everywhere and upon everyone. Woo's HK cinema would be fittingly titled "operatic bloodshed." The article that I had previously read was amazingly accurate and I greedily gathered every Woo film that I could get: A Better Tomorrow (1986), A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987), Bullet in the Head (1990), Once a Thief (1991), and Hard Boiled (1992). The body count of these films is astronomical, but the one thing I remember was how cool these films looked. Miles of dolly tracks must have been laid, as Woo's camera was seemingly never stationary. The camera circled around or followed the characters, either in a gun battle or sitting still smoking a cigarette. Woo's cinema also has a fondness for slow-motion and sometimes an overuse, but more often than not, its use is perfect, as if Woo knew exactly when to slow down the intense action for dramatic effect. Woo's films, finally, were often subconscious love stories between two men, and each often reached the heights of sentimentality. After Hard Boiled, Woo would make the transition to Hollywood with mixed success but has since made his welcome return to China for his epic film Red Cliff (2008). I never sought viewing the back catalog of Woo's earlier cinema. He's been directing since the late '60s, and I recently viewed one from 1981: To Hell With The Devil.

Ricky Hui plays Bruce Lee ("I don't know kung-fu, though"), who's a talented but unknown musician. His love interest is Peggy (Jade Hsu), but Bruce doesn't feel as if he's capable to provide for her. A self-absorbed and arrogant actor/singer named Rocky is Bruce's rival for Peggy's affection. While this triangle plays out on Earth, a disheartened priest, Reverend Ma (Paul Chun), gets a shot at redemption by God, a big white head who looks like Mark Twain: Satan looks like a freaky-deaky version Schreck's or Kinski's Nosferatu: Both God and Satan are battling for souls: Satan wants a collection of corrupted ones, provided by servant Flit (Shui-Fan Fung), and God wants Reverend Ma to save them. Flit and Reverend Ma are desperate to please their masters, and both unfortunately concern themselves with the soul of poor hapless Bruce. Bruce initially rejects Reverend Ma's attempts at salvation; he doesn't want anything to do with the Bible. Flit charms Bruce by giving him whatever he wants in whatever scenario that Bruce desires. Peggy holds Bruce's heart, but Flit can't give Peggy's heart to Bruce. The scenes with Flit and Bruce are the highlight of the first hour of To Hell With the Devil. The slapstick humor of Flit, as he tries to convince Bruce to sign his soul over to him, is sometimes very funny. More often, though, the comedic scenes are tired. Bruce initially becomes a superstar musician, but Peggy shrugs him off as shallow. In the second scenario, Peggy becomes an automaton, who does whatever Bruce says upon command. In the final scenario, Bruce desires a simple life with just Peggy, but she can't take living a poor life. Stanley Donen's Bedazzled (1967) is the better take on this familiar comedy. To Hell With the Devil is also unable to channel the wonderfully awful sublime vibe of Carl Reiner's Oh, God! (1977), Steven Hilliard Stern's The Devil and Max Devlin (1981), and John Herzfeld's Two of a Kind (1983). However, the final third really redeems the film and is worth waiting for, as Reverend Ma and Flit literally battle for the soul of Bruce. Woo's camera flies into motion and the film shifts oddly in tone and design. God bless him for it. The action is relentless, and the battle between Flit and Reverend Ma takes on an old school arcade flavor with the awesome accompanying arcade sounds. Hui's terrific as Bruce. Two of his more notable roles are in Ricky Lau's Mr. Vampire (1985) and Jeff Lau's wonderful The Haunted Cop Shop (1987). Shui-Fan Fung's performance as Flit also deserves praise. Fung is a familiar face in 80s HK cinema, and I loved his performance in Simon Nam's Ghost Snatchers (1986). To Hell With The Devil is a fun flick from early John Woo.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Ronny Yu's Bless This House (1988)

Western viewers, such as myself, recognize Ronny Yu from his most recent Western works, like Bride of Chucky (1998), Formula 51 (2001), and Freddy v. Jason (2003). If you're a little more super-geeky, such as myself, then you noticed Ronny Yu made one of the greatest films of Hong Kong's last golden era (before the hand over in 1997): The Bride With White Hair (1993), starring two of the period's greatest stars, Brigitte Lin and Leslie Cheung. All of the mentioned films share Yu's unique visual style. Yu is an artist with a command of camera and special effects techniques, who also is extremely experimental in his use of camera motion, colors and lights, and frame composition. His ambitions, visually, were met by larger-budget films, and each film becomes exciting to watch not only for its narrative but its unique way of being told. In addition, Yu's use of film's audio techniques exceed most of his contemporaries. However, a more in-depth discussion of Yu's later films and later techniques are for another day, while I take a look at an early HK horror/comedy film of his entitled Bless This House (1988).
Mr. Chang stays up for three days finishing his architectural designs for work. His wife receives a new pool as a gift for their baby girl, Yin Yin, and she wants to plunk it down right in the middle of the bedroom of their small apartment. Meanwhile, Mr. Chang's teenage daughter, Jane, has a new geeky boyfriend named Biggie. Biggie's a big suck-up to Jane's parents, but he'd rather be...anyhoo, Mr. Chang's designs are a big hit at the office. A promotion and new house awaits the Chang family and even Biggie's excited about it. The Changs arrive and notice the house is a little odd, a little dusty, and a little weird. A one-eyed crazy man hangs around outside and tells everyone in the family to leave. Biggie starts breaking everything around the house. Jane begins fixing, and while working on the wallpaper, she uncovers a bizarre child-like mural hidden underneath (like Dario Argento's Deep Red (1975)). After Biggie's molested on the couch, it's time to call in the exorcist.
Bless This House is all over the place, both its plot and its visual style. Watching the exorcist getting his ass whipped (literally and figuratively) by a vacuum cleaner is worth the price of admission alone. Bless This House's combination of slapstick humor and scares is evocative of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead (1981), Stuart Gordon's Reanimator (1985), Peter Jackson's Bad Taste (1987), and Jim Munro's Street Trash (1987). There's barely a lick of gore, however, in Bless This House, but it's not shy on the cheesy make-up effects and mayhem. The jokes are of the supernatural and atmospheric variety: spooky dark nights, ghostly mirrors, objects moving, and the scariest and most humorous, demonic possession. The final fifteen minutes are standout in the scare department. The plot of Bless This House is a mixed bag, but Yu's visuals are something else. The most notable is Yu's use of the wide-angle lens combined with sweeping camera movement. The camera moves closely into characters' faces and with the wide-angle lens the characters' expressions become polarized and bigger-than-life. Raimi used this technique in Evil Dead and Jackson used it well in the The Frighteners (1994). Alternatively, Yu uses a wide-angle lens combined with a still shot and has his characters fall into the camera. Just by keeping the camera still and moving the actors, Yu creates a different, yet still disorienting, effect. Like Robert Rodriguez in El Mariachi (1992), Yu will shoot sequences with three to four camera angles, then edit them together, instead of one long camera shot. This technique hides a lower-budget, but it also makes innocuous and mundane actions seem interesting. Quick cuts are also employed when the camera is sped up, so the characters are looking as if they are flying across the room. This technique also hides the lower budget of the film, but it also adds to its kinetic nature. Like Tsui Hark in The Butterfly Murders (1979), Yu is not content with traditional close-ups and medium shots: faces and characters are framed arbitrarily and normally, characters walk into the still frame from the right or left, rise from the bottom into the frame, or fall from the top. To top it off, Bless This House also has wire work and animation and some seriously cheesy make-up effects.
All of the filmmakers mentioned in this entry went on to become successful directors and all have in common their exhaustive use of creative visual tricks. Bless This House is certainly dated and weak in a lot of spots, but it also shows an extremely talented director near the beginning of his career. Recent low-budget filmmakers could take lessons from Bless this House, and viewers looking for excitement in the CGI age can discover this small treasure.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

F. Javier Gutierrez's Before the Fall (Tres Dias) (2008)

Alejandro goes by the shortened Ale and awakened one morning by a crow cawing at his window, he rises to his mother cooking breakfast and a television with a broken signal. Angry at the prospect of another workday filled with tedious tasks and complaints, Ale sets out with his symbolic ladder and pauses briefly to look longingly at the young pregnant woman standing at her balcony. He curses under his breath and goes to the local bar to fix the television. As Ale stands next to his ladder, the television signal returns with a news reporter who proclaims that a meteor is headed for Earth to impact within three days. The countdown starts to the end of existence. Ale takes perverse comfort in the fact that he does not have to work anymore, but his mother becomes worried about her grandchildren by her other son, Tomas. Her grandchildren live outside the city in the shadow of the cement factory, where a momentous event happened years ago involving Ale, his brother, and a child murderer. The child murderer, freed from prison with the impending apocalypse, prompts Ale's mother to retreat to the countryside to protect the children. Ale accompanies her. As such and as I always do, the majority of the plot should remain hidden and also the choices the characters make in the film, which will undoubtedly divide viewers. F. Javier Gutierrez's Before the Fall's (2008) rendering of the character Ale composes the majority of the film's interest beyond the fantastic story of impending doom. Following Ale's spiritual journey lays the heart of Before the Fall. Ale feels like a victim his whole life (a feeling both merited and exaggerated), stemming from the shadow of the cement factory. Over the course of the final days, Ale finds value in life. Whether its a definite three days or an indeterminate amount of time, the actions which humans make reflect their essential values. Before the Fall shows the negative side of life: what's the point of anything, if it's all just going to be over soon. Ale quickly abandons his friend, in one scene, shouted from a window. His friend needs protection from a group of thugs, but any protection would mean nothing. Protection from what? Ale walks away from his window and lays in his bed in his shadowed room. Ale over the course of Before the Fall abandons this position and eventually learns what he values in life. Before the Fall also speaks to the notions of one's past, present, and future. Ale's past is what makes up his character, and when he learns that the future is limited, the present and the ones that he loves become important.
F. Javier Gutiérrez directed two previous films before Before the Fall, with this being the first of his that I've seen. Like the majority of cinema made today, the film really makes use of modern technology: the cameras used and the techniques employed capture some of the most beautiful imagery. The Spanish countryside, wide and expansive and somewhat desolate, juxtaposed with the crowded Spanish town, with its beautiful architecture and streets full of people, provide the most luscious scenery. Nothing's left to soft focus: the detail in the cobblestones in the streets from watching wind flow through the strands in the fields. In one of my favorite sequences, the camera pans from the characters to the cement factory to the wide open spaces, a powerful scene within the film. I love also the pacing of the film: even with the short time that the characters have to live, the film doesn't move frenetically. Before the Fall takes its time to develop its characters, their character arcs, and the story. Víctor Clavijo deserves praise for his performance. This character truly makes a journey, and Clavijo delivers the subtlety and the emotions of Ale. In fact, all of the performances moved me, especially the child actors. A huge warning: some truly scary scenes of violence towards children happen in the film. Before the Fall is full of interesting ideas and images and will, undoubtedly affect everyone on some level. Stumbling upon films like Before the Fall is one of my favorite things about cinema, and I hope some others discover this one.