Friday, April 29, 2011

Flesh + Blood (1985)

Flesh + Blood (1985), directed by Paul Verhoeven, is a film which has absolutely no faith in humanity but overflows with a tremendous love for humanity. It is also a film which invites pizza, beer, and like-minded friends for cult-movie night, as its excessiveness and sensationalism invites hearty jeers and laughter. There are enough themes, tropes, and innovations during the opening siege sequence of the film alone to satisfy the most conservative traditional film critic. For the arthouse intellectuals, Flesh + Blood is full of popular themes such as politics, religion, gender, and identity.

If this short introductory paragraph makes me sound like more of a pretentious, pompous asshole than I normally appear, then perhaps it is intentional and merited. This review has gone through many drafts, many in my head with a few on paper. While I was researching information on Flesh + Blood I found myself drawn to Paul Verhoeven by Rob van Scheers (translated by Aletta Stevens, Faber and Faber, London, Boston: 1997.) Van Scheers’s work is by far the best writing on Verhoeven to be found anywhere and it comes with my highest recommendation. However, as I was reading and collecting its data by making notes on the production history and collecting quotes from the film’s participants, I found myself making notes in the book’s margin, attacking Van Scheers’ criticism: Van Scheers is a critic firmly-rooted in the Marxist school of philosophy. Michel Foucault is a personal hero and I often find myself aligning myself with this school of thought. However, like any school of thought, this philosophy has serious limitations. One of the reasons why Foucault was so influential is because not only did he espouse philosophy, he continually questioned it. By recognizing a philosophy’s limitations, it actually liberates it. Van Scheers is a very strict adherent to his philosophy, and in my opinion, it hampers his criticism. Nonetheless, it is still very persuasive and fine writing, and I again urge all interested to seek it out. This will be the last that I mention of it. The end result of my research has fueled me to again attack film criticism, instead of write my own. As I’ve always been in the strict minority in my views on cinema, I believe that this flame within me will never go away. After two years of writing, I believe that Quiet Cool is just my attempt to affront the majority and enjoy myself while doing it. I surrender and openly admit this notion, now. I would like to thank Paul Verhoeven and Flesh + Blood for facilitating this admission and now back to me being pretentious and pompous asshole in a more focused direction.

Time to get medieval: the nobleman Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) sits outside of his castle while his opponents hold the throne. Desperate, Arnolfini promises a rag-tag group of mercenaries, from whom Martin (Rutger Hauer) and Hawkwood (Jack Thompson) stand out, the opportunity to loot the kingdom’s wealthy inhabitants in exchange for putting Arnolfini back on the throne. The mercenaries heartily agree and are successful. When his power has been restored, Arnolfini reneges on his promise and he successfully persuades Hawkwood to exile his own companions from the castle. The rag-tag group leaves under duress with no loot and no hope. They band around Martin as leader and plot revenge against Arnolfini. Arnolfini’s son, Steven (Tom Burlinson) is promised a young bride, Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is arriving forthwith to the castle. Martin and his motley crew of bandits intercept Agnes’s caravan and kidnap her. Martin’s crew also seriously injures Arnolfini in the raid. Steven becomes incensed at both his father’s injury and Agnes’ kidnapping, so he recruits Hawkwood to help him track down Martin and get revenge.

Let’s do the nasty, first. “We all have the strange idea that the Middle Ages were romantic, but that is nonsense,” says Verhoeven (apparently in his pitch to American production company, Orion). “This is due to heroic stories such as King Arthur, but that is literature, a feigned reality. Flesh + Blood is going to be a counter-fairytale.” (166) Rock on. What does a counter-fairytale look like? Here is a possible representative scene:

During the initial siege of the film, Hawkwood enters a bedroom chamber with his longsword in his hand. He notices that someone is hiding behind a curtain and he strikes the person with his sword. The victim falls out of the curtain and she is revealed to be a young chambermaid. Hawkwood has pierced her skull and caused a massive injury. He summons the doctor and begs the doctor to save her. She is removed to a bed for treatment. In order to treat her head injury, the young chambermaid is stripped completely nude. “What a pretty little thing,” muses Arnolfini in an absolutely lecherous tone. (Hilbeck gives a fantastic performance.) The doctor is able to treat her injury, and the young chambermaid survives. Unfortunately, she will be simple-minded when she completely heals. Arnolfini sees the young chambermaid as his inducement for getting Hawkwood to help him remove the mercenaries: the nobleman gives Hawkwood the deed to a remote property in the kingdom, where Hawkwood can begin a peaceful farming life. More importantly, the young and attractive and now simple-minded chambermaid may accompany Hawkwood to his remote location. Wink, wink.

However, while watching Flesh + Blood one questions how much “counter” and how much “fairytale” Verhoeven actually displays. For all of the film’s nastiness and brutality (of which there is quite a bit), there is a tremendous amount of romanticism and heart within. When Jennifer Jason Leigh appears as Agnes in the film, she becomes the main character. Leigh is indisputably one of the best actresses of her generation. She chooses diverse roles which are always interesting and her performances are frequently amazing. I always admire her bravery and her vulnerability with every role. Orion, the American production company who co-financed Flesh + Blood, wanted either Nastassja Kinski or Rebecca de Mornay for the role. (168) Verhoeven wanted Leigh after seeing her impressive performance in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. (168) Verhoeven won his casting decision when de Mornay made her acceptance of the role conditional on the acceptance of her then boyfriend, Tom Cruise, being cast as Steven. (168) Leigh not only brings the heart into Flesh + Blood but she imbues the film with its humanity. Although it is never stated in the film how old Agnes is, it is safe to presume that she is a teenager (the film is completely explicit in noting that she is a virgin and was raised in a convent). Like any teenager, she has a burgeoning sexuality and is in the formative years of her identity. Questions about sex and love are completely natural, and Verhoeven doesn’t hide these sentiments: in his lengthy exposition sequence of Agnes’s character, he devotes his screen time to Agnes and her maid. Agnes’s questions are about sex and love, as she knows nothing of them. (In a humorous yet kind of creepy but sweet sequence, Agnes commands her maid to fuck one of the attractive caravaners in the bushes, so Agnes can watch.) In one of the film’s oddest sequences, which is the complete rendition of a “counter-fairytale,” Steven and Agnes have a sweet and flirtatious encounter. It’s their first meeting and both are talking about love. The setting, however, dominates the would-be tender moment: under a tree where two rotting corpses are hanging, Agnes kneels in the shade. They have an endearing conversation about love potions, yet neither appears rattled by either the appearance or presumably offensive odor the two corpses are emitting. I suppose that Verhoeven is saying that death and putrid flesh is common during this period, and people adapted quickly to its commonality. By attempting to create some emotional intimacy between Steven and Agnes, I further suppose that Verhoeven is saying that the culture has not lost its humanity despite this attitude towards death and the like. The sequence is too visceral to really convey that sentiment, like most of Flesh + Blood.

Agnes learns about love with Steven and with Martin. Steven is young and soft, smart and sensitive, and kind and caring. Burlinson is also very handsome. Martin is older, experienced, impulsive, passionate, and extremely virile. I have to admit Rutger Hauer is damn sexy in Flesh + Blood. He has a gorgeous body and has never looked more handsome. As the story of the film unfolds, with whatever traditional narrative it possesses, Steven and Martin are pitted against each other. Neither appears as completely as a hero or as a villain, but they are clearly depicted as opponents. Are they fighting for Agnes’s affection and love? It’s unknown. At times, Steven appears wholly driven by a desire for revenge for Martin’s actions against his father. Martin’s character oscillates with his intentions. In a dinner sequence, after Martin and crew raid and pillage the home of a noble family, Martin sits at the table devouring his food with his hands. He stares across the table at Agnes who is using her knife and fork to eat, and Martin is enamored with the elegance of Agnes’s technique. He becomes more enamored when she begins to discreetly flirt with him: she rubs his crotch with her foot under the table. Hauer’s reaction to Agnes’ action is precious: one can easily tell by the expression on Hauer’s face that he finds Agnes’ affection completely sexy. Martin’s having different feelings, as Agnes is a woman to whom he is unaccustomed. The woman who comprise his crew, like tragic Celine (portrayed by Susan Tyrrell in an affecting performance), are like Martin: unrefined, impulsive, and overt. Does Martin fall in love with Agnes or the idea of Agnes? It’s unknown. There is ample evidence to support either view. I do believe that Agnes falls in love with both men (the final sequence of the film confirms it for me). As there is a lot of conflicting emotions within Flesh + Blood, there is also a lot ambiguity and uncertain answers. Is this uncertainty about the characters’ emotions a commentary on humanity? Is it a representation of humanity? I don’t know. The emotions might be conflicting and might be complex but they are definitely realized and true emotions.

Any viewer is truly going to labor through Flesh + Blood to find the heartfelt sentiments, however. Agnes’s rape scene is brutal. Later in the film, Hawkwood executes a brilliant and effective attack upon Martin and his company. It is also completely unorthodox and its rendition is vomit-inducing. In arguably the film’s most affecting scene, after Martin and his crew raid the noble family’s home and begin to pillage, the nursemaid of the family takes the young daughter in her arms. During the chaos of the raid, only Agnes notices the maid and the child running away. Agnes gives chase only to witness the maid jump off of the top of one of the castle’s towers. The maid’s intention was to kill herself and the child. It’s obvious that the maid feared for the child’s fate which she believed would be worse than death. Verhoeven had previously shown the depravity and violence that the bandits were capable of. Flesh + Blood has no real heroes, no real romance, and no clear answers. The film appears raw and unformed, and there is no tonal nor thematic consistency.

Subsequently, Flesh + Blood makes it appear as if Verhoeven has no idea what is he doing or he is a complete genius. I can say, however, with certainty that I absolutely love this type of cinema: arthouse aesthetics and ideas combined with sensational sequences. Flesh + Blood is at times completely offensive and at other times, it is genuinely heartfelt and real. There is some aspect within which appeals to every critic and viewer, but its end result is an appeal really to no audience. However Flesh + Blood is approached, it is undeniably compelling. So, of course, Verhoeven will always get love here.

All parenthetical numbers following sentences are references to facts and quotes taken from van Scheers’s book on Verhoeven as noted above.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Santo High Spots

The last time that I had written upon cinema's greatest superhero, El Santo, I was suffering. I either had an intestinal virus or food poisoning or something like that. I was only capable of writhing in my bed. gripping my stomach in the fetal position, and while in between bouts of writhing, I'd run to the bathroom. For two days or so, this shit went on. I have a stack of Mexican wresting films on DVD and I watched a bunch during this period. During the last night of my illness or so, I wrote an entry on Santo en el hotel de la muerte (1961) and Santo en el museo de cera (1963). I never published it, and it is still saved as draft on my account. It is an absolutely terrible post. This was from July of last year. Since then, I have not revisited the cinema but a few days ago, I developed what I can only describe as a "crick" in my back. Every time that I would move my back, I would feel a sharp pain and then yell the F-word multiple times. I sought solace in the cinema of El Santo, again, and I watched a lot of them. I am better, now, and I am certain that I have Santo to thank. By the time the 1970s came around, Santo was in his fifties and was still wrestling and making films. In his fifties, Santo possessed an agility and athletic prowess equal to someone half his age, but intuitively, I knew that this man had a lifetime of wrestling bumps and bruises under his skin. Undeniably, he woke up everyday feeling the aches and pains of a real working wrestler. It took little to convince me that Santo was cinema's greatest superhero, but perhaps he was a real-life superhero, too. In any case, it was inspirational and a key to my recovery. Since I watched so many over the last few days, I'm not going to post any traditional reviews. Instead what follows are "high spots," to borrow a wrestling term, of many films: beautiful touches of sublimity in a cinema of grandeur of El Enmascardo de Plata, the multitude's hero, El Santo.

Santo vs. las lobas (Santo vs. The She-Wolves) (1972)

A personal favorite. Santo vs. las lobas can stand on its own as a traditional horror film. Its atmosphere is more Euro than American. It appears that no sets were used, and the authentic locations really enhanced a sense of small-village dread. Here is the set-up for the scene which always makes me audibly cheer when I witness it. This is the ending of the film, by the way; and if you have any intention of seeing this film, then it's best to stop reading. Licar, the Transylvanian head of las lobas, has come to the village to fulfill destiny. The pack needs a new queen, and she is down in the village, so they decide to raid the village during the Red Moon. They also plan to kill El Santo, The Man in the Silver Mask. Werewolves have this thing against silver, apparently. Santo intends to protect the women and children and defend the village from the attack (along with the men of the village). The wolves attack, and the village succeeds in repelling them. In the final minutes of Las Lobas, Santo must chase down Licar and destroy him to end the wolves' curse. In a day-for-night sequence at sunset, El Santo chases Licar to the top of a mountain. At the mountain's summit, with the Red Moon shining brightly in the background, the two fight in shadow. A few brutal punches ensue from each, until Santo picks up Licar onto his shoulders. In a rare power move, not normally seen from Santo in the ring, Santo tosses Licar off the side of the mountain. Santo stands with the Red Moon shining brightly behind him at the apex: victorious again, and silently, the word, "Fin" appears. If there is one frame from El Santo's cinema I could keep forever, then it is this one:
Santo vs. la hija de Frankestein (1971)

Gina Romand is la hija de Frankestein. She is continuing her ancestor's work by making monsters and the like. Her primary scientific triumph is, however, the creation of a serum that completely retards the aging process. She shares this serum with her henchman and because each covets his eternal youthfulness, she has earned their devoted loyalty. Each henchman must receive doses every three months to sustain his youth. Freda Frankenstein, however, has been using the serum longer (she is well over a hundred-years-old). As a result of the serum's long use, it has lost its potency. She must take the serum more frequently and she fears that eventually the serum will cease to work completely. Freda saw Santo wrestle years ago and noticed recently that Santo is still as virile and athletic as ever. She surreptitiously stole a sample of Santo's blood and with testing has concluded that it is the key to a new youth serum. In the film's most provocative and rich scene, Freda has successfully caught El Santo. She has chained him in a chamber in her underground lab. Shirtless, sweating, and bound, Santo is confronted by Freda. At first she teases. Look at me, she says, a fragile woman standing in front of El Santo. "You are not fragile nor are you a woman," says Santo. This is a bluff on Santo's part, as the latter is clearly not true. Gina Romand is mad crazy sexy. She has a head full of beautiful blonde hair: it is reminiscent of Rapunzel, as if she is vulnerable like the maiden of the German fairy tale. However, Freda Frankenstein is quite powerful: intelligent, adept, and sensuous. El Santo must resort to bluffing to counter her power. Although Santo's words pierce her heart, Freda does not waver. She offers to share her power in exchange for Santo's blood. To this offer, Santo refuses. In a brilliant sequence, she removes Santo's mask and gazes upon him. Santo is obviously amazingly handsome, according to Romand's reaction (she gives an excellent performance), and she laments that she cannot have him. She steals a long kiss from Santo. These two acts, the mask removal and the passionate kiss, earn Romand's Freda Frankenstein serious notoriety as one of Santo's greatest villains. Despite however Santo vs. la hija de Frankestein plays out, Santo has clearly lost this battle.Santo y Blue Demon contra el doctor Frankenstein (1973)

No one scene truly stands out in this one. Several fragments tell the tale. Blue Demon is relegated to sidekick status, which is a shame. Santo has a gorgeous girlfriend, played by Sasha Montenegro, and she has been kidnapped by Doctor Frankenstein. Doctor Frankenstein's intention by kidnapping Santo's girlfriend is to lure Santo into his compound. After Doctor Frankenstein captures Santo, he will remove his superior brain to implant into his own hulking monster, making a super creature. Montenegro's character gets kidnapped very early into the film. She is missing well over twenty-four hours before her boss at work reports her disappearance to the police. The police are the ones who inform Santo that his girlfriend is missing. By the time Santo figures out what is going on, at least thirty-six hours have past. El Santo is appearing at this point as kind of a shitty boyfriend. More evidence appears to support this theory. Two very attractive female police officers head the investigation of the disappearance of Santo's girlfriend and other missing female victims. Blue Demon and Santo accompany the two on the investigation, and in an odd directorial touch, these scenes match previous ones of Santo and Blue Demon on a double date with their girlfriends. The two police officers later attend Santo and Blue Demon's tag team match during the investigation. They sit at ringside. One gives a cute smile and a wave to Santo while he stands at the ropes. Santo waves back. Well, Santo's girlfriend is out of sight and out of his mind. He is going to have some serious explaining to do when he rescues her, one would intuitively think. Perhaps also, she is going to whip his ass after he explains. Check this out, though: after Montenegro's character is rescued, she is seen at ringside with both female police officers. Each is giving a cute smile and waving. El Santo, a man of the people, and probably a very happy man later that night after his bout. I could probably ramble on more about cinema's greatest superhero, El Enmascardo de Plata, El Santo, but I will not. I will certainly revisit this cinema, again, and hopefully, I will not be in such poor shape to begin with. Viva El Santo!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009)

One evening, during my youth, I was living in New Orleans and I came home completely inebriated. I lived in an old house in a bad neighborhood and am fairly certain that I was stumbling and shuffling to bed rather than walking. I remember turning on the light in my bedroom; and it must have been cold outside, because inside, there were two gigantic spiders, one each on a separate wall. As a testament to how fucked up I was, I have either exaggerated how big the spiders actually were or the spiders were so large that I was shocked into temporary sobriety...for at least a second. In any case, I passed out on the bed amongst my new neighbors. I came to in the morning with a massive hangover but I was spider-bite free. I rarely hallucinated when I was fucked up on non-hallucinogens, so I'm fairly certain that the spiders were there the night before. While my cottonmouth was subsiding that morning, I imagined that the two spiders had a dialogue over my unconscious body the night before. After discussing whether or not to envenom my body and drink my blood, they concluded to not do so, as drinking my blood would, ironically, cause toxic shock to their own systems and instantly kill them. They decided to peacefully squat in my bedroom, rent-free, for the evening and at dawn, the duo slipped out of the house and back out on to the streets.

There is a moral or a lesson to the above story, I'm certain; but I could care less what it is. There are two reasons why I relate that story now: 1) I like stories; and 2) I recalled this memory while watching The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009) and felt it was appropriate to relate in this review.

Nicholas Cage is Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans police officer who suffers a back injury in the line of duty; and as a result of his injury and courageous (?) act, he is promoted to Lieutenant in the police force. His back injury is only treatable by pain management, and McDonagh develops a fondness for narcotics. This burgeoning fondness for narcotics has enhanced rather than retarded his corrupt police nature, which includes gambling, shaking down citizens for the drugs on their persons, blackmail, and other related activity. He has a soft spot for gorgeous, high-class prostitute, Frankie Donnenfield, portrayed by Eva Mendes. After his promotion, the dramatic action of the film begins.

German filmmaker, Werner Herzog, directed The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, who was, by 2009, a veteran filmmaker whose work often surpassed both his contemporaries and predecessors. His work is so unique that while viewing one realizes that only Herzog could create the images shown. There are few whose work is this unique. What is so beautiful about Bad Lieutenant is that there is evidence of an older filmmaker’s conservatism and staid technique combined with his youthful vibrancy and playfulness. Let’s start with an example of the crazy shit, first.

Reptiles. I can only imagine hearing that familiar German accent tell his film crew that he wants to shoot the P.O.V. of an actual alligator. No, he is not going to use the camera’s point of view to substitute for the alligator’s point of view. The director, with the technological tools at his disposal, is going to affix a camera near the alligator’s head and shoot footage. I wonder if the alligator was cool with that. Probably not. I wonder whom in the crew would perform this daring act for his director and further wonder if that person was cool with it. The answer to the latter question is moot, because Herzog actually includes that daring shot within Bad Lieutenant. I suppose the alligator P.O.V. inclusion kind of goes with the tone of the story: dreamy and funky and drug-addled. Cage’s McDonagh probably has narcotics in his system throughout the whole picture, and the world must look this way to him from time to time. Then again, is Herzog just having fun? The reptilian P.O.V. continues in a later scene with two lizards, and Herzog literally puts on the ritz with the lizards. The lizards are obviously scared having a camera in their face (and being manipulated by crazy humans), so they hiss and shiver during the scene. Herzog plays a jazzy tune during this sequence, and it appears as if the lizards are dancing. In one shot, while one lizard hisses, it appears to be crooning along with soundtrack. This is just funny and playful and quintessential Herzog.

Behind all the wonderful visuals and the sensational scenes of drug use and violence and related insanity, there is a really affecting story. The primary relationship in the film is between McDonagh and Frankie. Initially, I thought that Mendes would replicate her role from Training Day and be the sexy girlfriend to the crooked cop, making a short appearance. Wrong. In a masterful scene, three thugs come hunting for McDonagh at Frankie’s apartment. The main goon demands fifty-thousand dollars in cash from McDonagh as compensation for an earlier disrespectful act. In addition to the fifty thousand, the two sub-goons want to fuck Frankie. McDonagh tells the main goon that Frankie looks like shit, so it would be best to let her clean up first and he summons Frankie to the bathroom. While Frankie is out of the room, McDonagh buys himself two days to come up with the fifty-thousand dollars and persuades the main goon to agree to let his cronies fuck Frankie during that later date. Alone in the bathroom, Mendes stares into the mirror putting on eye liner. She looks as if she is about to cry. As an endearing touch, she highlights with her pencil her beauty mark on her right cheek. After the thugs leave, McDonagh comes in to comfort her. It’s bittersweet, because she cannot tell if McDonagh was being serious or bluffing. Would he really let those two thugs fuck her right then and there? Does he really care about her? The answers come later in the film. Needless to say, Mendes is pretty terrific in the film, and I was quite impressed with her performance.

Cage deserves kudos as well. He really looks like a monster in Bad Lieutenant. He is always grinding his teeth and always oscillating in tone, from tired to animated. The back injury that he suffers at the beginning of the film is always present to the viewer. It’s a clever and subtle touch--this is a character who always has to be quick on his feet to come up with a lie or get out of a potentially dangerous situation. Yet, Herzog has his main character shuffling and limping throughout the whole picture.

I’m glad that I saw Bad Lieutenant far removed from its premiere. I initially regretted missing an opportunity to see it at a New Orleans film festival but now am not. I cannot remember anything that I originally read about it, and the hype wasn't present to cloud my viewing. Bad Lieutenant was refreshing and unexpected during its whole runtime. Most importantly, Bad Lieutenant made me think Herzog thoughts and recall Herzog-ian memories. What a filmmaker.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Jennifer Eight (1992)

Jennifer Eight (1992) is really two films. One the one hand, it is a mystery. John Berlin (Andy Garcia) is an ex-Los Angeles police officer, recently relocated to Northern California, where he begins his first investigation. He believes that there is a serial killer targeting young, blind women. During his investigation, he meets a potential witness to the identity of the killer, Helena Robertson (Uma Thurman), who is also young and blind. After she is interviewed by the police, Helena catches someone spying on her while she is in the bathtub. Berlin believes that she is the next target for the serial killer and attempts to protect her during the course of his investigation.

On the other hand, Jennifer Eight is a drama. John Berlin's relocation to Northern California is the beginning of a new life. Back in Los Angeles, his marriage ended very badly. This fueled a bout of alcoholism. Berlin has never let go of these old feelings even in his new surroundings. He begins an obsessive investigation of murderer who may not even exist. With the smallest pieces of evidence, Berlin makes very tenuous links to build his case. He can find no support for his investigation, not even from his closest friend on the police force, Freddie Ross (Lance Henrikson). Beyond the lack of support, all of Berlin's colleagues eventually turn their back to him, as each believes that not only has John gone too far but is becoming completely incompetent as an investigator. Everyone sees Berlin's attachment to Helena as Berlin trying to control a woman who cannot leave him: Berlin scares Helena into thinking that someone is actually targeting her; and because she is blind, she becomes dependent on Berlin to protect her, creating a false intimacy between the two--a relationship fueled wholly by dysfunction.

Beautifully weaved, these two narratives could create at its conception at least a minor classic film with Jennifer Eight. From his own script, director Bruce Robinson, who had previously written and directed the prestigious Withnail & I, would be aided by two actors, Andy Garcia and Uma Thurman, who appeared on the verge of becoming breakout stars. Jennifer Eight never lived up to its potential and as a result it is almost forgotten today. Instead of two narratives beautifully weaved, Jennifer Eight is two films fighting each other: the dramatic narrative hurts the mystery and vice versa. As an amateur critic, I have two films' worth of flaws to critique, and I ain't doing that. Here's a representative problematic scene:

As a follow-up interview, Berlin visits the institute for the blind, where Helena lives and works, to see if Helena remembers anything since their last meeting about the identity of the killer. As a kind gesture and perhaps as a romantic one, Berlin invites Helena to a seaside diner for lunch. After her interview at the institute during which Berlin gathers little in the way of concrete evidence, Helena asks, "If I go to the diner with you, would you bring me back?" This line doesn't convey Helena's distrust of Berlin as a stranger: it's designed to engender pity for Helena. Obviously people have treated Helena poorly in the past, and she's scared. Berlin says he would, and Helena accompanies him. At the diner, Helena opens up and becomes vulnerable. She tells Berlin that she feels as if she is sitting in the middle of the restaurant and everyone is staring at her. Confidently, Berlin tells her that no one is looking at her, except him. Thurman's Helena is immediately warmed by Berlin's words. Conversation resumes. Helena asks Berlin if he was once married. He says he was and prefers not to talk about it. So, Helena talks about poetry and then prayer. When she brings up prayer to Berlin, Garcia's Berlin goes into intense mode and begins an "abandonment by God" diatribe. Director Robinson begins a slow close-up on Helena's reaction, and Berlin's words are obviously scaring the shit out of her.

The end result of scenes like this have the viewer sitting there thinking maybe Berlin has really lost it. How can the Berlin investigation scenes begin again? These scenes are played in earnest, like any investigative mystery. In other words, the viewer is watching a traditional investigative, deductive mystery with the expectations of a traditional pay-off: a conclusion which includes the revelation of the identity of the killer. Inherently, that presumes that there has to be a killer. The viewer doesn't question Berlin because of his flaws. The viewer questions Berlin. Garcia's Berlin doesn't always come off as obsessive and intense. Often, he appears unhinged or creepy. The viewer can follow Berlin as sleuth and pick up the clues with passive complacency. When dramatic scenes ensue, the viewer can watch Berlin lose his shit with an active, critical objectivity. Viewer sympathy, and then viewer repulsion.

One of the other problems is Berlin and Helena's relationship. It's clearly intended to be a romance, but it comes off more as a protective parent/child relationship. In one scene, Berlin locates Helena to his own home to protect her. While sweet classical music plays on the stereo, the two sit silently by a fire. Berlin is looking at Helena on the couch. His gaze, I suppose, is an attempt to be evocative of a growing love (aided by the mood created by the music). I don't know about anyone else, but when people stare at me, eventually I begin to grow uncomfortable. Helena is blind, so Berlin can stare at her without her feeling discomfort. Staring blankly at people is creepy. Staring blankly at an attractive blind woman is creepy. If Jennifer Eight is seeking to demonstrate the fine line between sweet and creepy, then the participants have wholly succeeded. However, I doubt that was their intention.

There are other seriously detracting flaws within Jennifer Eight, but they do not matter. What is so unfortunate about the finished film is the evident creative talent both in front of and behind the camera. In my opinion, Jennifer Eight needed a lot more work at its conception, as the execution just never works. I discovered today, however, that Bruce Robinson's latest film, an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's novel, The Rum Diary, starring Johnny Depp, is premiering in theatres later this year (according to the IMDB). Sweet and creepy certainly has a lot more potential with Thompson and Depp thrown into the mix.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I Love You Phillip Morris (2009)

One of the aspects that I greatly admire about Jim Carrey is his diversity. There are few actors who genuinely take risks with their roles. Jack Nicholson's work in the 1970s is a prime example. Often those artistic risks are defined by whether they are successes or failures, but that misses the point. The act of taking a risk is an essential part of the creative process. A lot of people who would identify themselves as creative are extremely afraid of taking a risk, as taking one can end a career as much as totally elevate one. Artists who take risks will always get love here, and what do we talk about when we talk about love? One of Jim Carrey's latest films, I Love You Phillip Morris (2009).

Jim Carrey is Steven Russell, an adopted son, who grows into a law-enforcement officer with a wife (Leslie Mann) and a daughter. After a near-fatal car accident, Steven decides to stop living that life: he only became a law-enforcement officer to learn the identity of his biological mother and he has also decided to be openly gay. "Being gay is expensive," Russell quips in voiceover, so in order to maintain his opulent lifestyle, Carrey's character begins a life of fraud. This behavior lands Russell in prison where he meets the love of his life, Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). After his release from prison, Russell frees his lover by fraudulent means. Russell graduates to becoming the CFO of a Fortune 500 company, and he and Phillip are able to live a very comfortable wealthy life. Of course, Russell earned his position and his money the old-fashioned way: he cheated and stole most of it.

From the book by Steven McVicker, directors John Requa and Glenn Ficarra pen the most literate script. As a testament also as to how charismatic Carrey is in his performance, I had to recall some of my old Literary Theory courses (in reflection, however) in regards to first-person narration and reliability and credibility. It is very easy to forget who is telling this story in voice-over: a criminal with an exceptional specialty in fraud. I was instantly charmed by not only this character but by Carrey: he could have sold me sand at the beach. In a brilliant sequence, Requa and Ficarra show Carrey’s character, as a CFO, tell a very simple joke to his secretary, who immediately turns to her assistant and tells the same joke and begins to flub it. In a subsequent montage sequence, Carrey hears his joke from myriad different lips, and each time the joke is more distorted and corrupted (in escalating ridiculous fashion). The real joke is that it shows how Carrey’s Russell was able to perpetuate his fraud on almost everyone: people hear what they want to hear, see what they want to see, and believe their own versions. Carrey’s Russell became what people wanted to see and none was the wiser.

I Love You Phillip Morris is a dark comedy in American Independent Cinema Fashion: the film is character-driven and quirky, and the set-piece stands out. A lot of the film takes place in prison where there are some fantastic sequences. Russell and Morris’s first meeting, in the law library, is completely endearing. Carrey and McGregor have an immediate chemistry. Russell eventually becomes Morris’s cellmate; and in a hilarious sequence, Morris gets his neighbor to play a song so he and Russell can slow dance in their cell. The camera stays on Carrey and McGregor while they embrace. The audio cues in the background, behind the music, are of the neighbor in the cell in a violent confrontation with the guards: here are the two lovers, oblivious and blissful, among their dangerous and absurd circumstances: an almost representative scene for the whole film.

Requa and Ficarra deserve praise, also, for giving Carrey’s character some humanity. Despite the fact that when you think about it, Carrey’s Russell is a fairly despicable character, but like almost everyone, he is able to engender sympathy or empathy. In a totally unexpected and short sequence, Russell is shown at the bedside of his lover who is in his final days, dying of AIDS. I can only imagine what it is like to watch someone that you love literally waste away. It is a tender sequence, and one could imagine that this is the kind of hurt that never goes away. In an earlier sequence when Russell confronts his biological mother, the awkwardness and dysfunction become focal: there is no real way to prepare to meet an estranged parent, and Russell performs as best as he can. How do you tell someone who you do not know that you’re my mother and I want to get to know you? Requa and Ficarra and Carrey’s rendition is interesting. When Carrey’s Russell goes back to his car after the confrontation, he steals the “Welcome” mat, because, as Russell puts it, “this is obviously not true.”

Jim Carrey delivers another fantastic performance. His comedic timing and his spontaneity are at its peak. Like many of his previous roles, as Andy Kaufman or as the Cable Guy, for example, he really embraces his character and gives an intense, in-depth performance which appears totally natural. It is difficult to watch his performance and not consider him an artist. Ewan McGregor deserves a lot of praise, as well. Like Marisa Tomei’s performance in The Wrestler, when the central performance is so strong and focal, there is a tendency to either forget, belittle, or neglect the other performers who are often giving equally strong performances. McGregor is simultaneously charming, endearing, and mysterious: one has to remember that Phillip Morris is ultimately Steven Russell’s one weakness and his undoing as a criminal mastermind. McGregor imbues that quality, and he is very lovable. I Love You Phillip Morris is totally unpredictable and satisfying, both in its execution and its expectations.

I was able to view I Love You Phillip Morris as an On Demand Rental via the Zune Video application via the XBOX Live Marketplace.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009)

The following review is written with the intention that its reader has seen the film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009); and discussion of the film under review, The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009), will entail plot revelations of the former but not of the latter.

When The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) premiered, I was eager to see it as the film seemed promising as one of the better films to appear in this millennium. While the novel(s) by Stieg Larsson were sold and consumed by readers as if they were bound-and-printed crack cocaine, I never read the source material. When I finished watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was completely disappointed: two characters appeared within who were obviously brilliantly conceived: the journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, portrayed by Michael Nyqvist, and the computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, portrayed Noomi Rapace: a hero and heroine worth rooting for. The character of Blomkvist seemed like a journalist with integrity and also a man truly capable of sympathy and understanding. Lisbeth was highly capable, resourceful, intelligent, and was receiving, to put it very mildly, very poor treatment by the world. Her character appeared more misunderstood than mysterious, as there were obviously strong emotions stirring inside her. Blomkvist was a character capable of drawing those emotions out Lisbeth (she was also capable of helping him elicit his own). The seeds to a satisfying cinematic relationship were sown only to have a tired mystery plot keep these two from ever truly consummating. The real energy of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was with these two characters (and the actors giving the performances); and the film, for me, was ultimately unsatisfying. I was chided by the film's fans, however, who told me that the film was part of a trilogy and that I should reserve judgment until I had seen the other films. I believe this was a very fair proposition, and when I decided to give my Netflix Instant subscription some mileage with the best of an open mind that I could muster, I watched the second film in the trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009).

One of my main grievances with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the depiction of Lisbeth's rape in the first act of the film. It is a brutal depiction with attentive and meticulous detail to emphasize that it is an anal rape occurring on screen. When the aftermath scene of Lisbeth shuffling home appears, she is barely able to walk because of the trauma. By this scene, the energy of the sequence is overdone, and the whole inclusion of the rape scene in the movie appears sadistic. However, when Lisbeth exacts her revenge on her attacker, later on, this rape scene makes its sense: it's fuel for the viewer. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo wants you to feel a satisfying emotion of revenge with Lisbeth. I didn't know how to feel after viewing Lisbeth's rape scene, and I didn't really know if I wanted the contrived revenge scenario, either.

Nonetheless, The Girl Who Played with Fire begins with events directly relating to that rape scene, as Lisbeth has come back to Sweden and has another encounter with her attacker. During this incident Lisbeth makes some threats towards her attacker but she commits no violence. Meanwhile, back at his magazine, Blomkvist is helping a young journalist and his girlfriend write a story, exposing a sex trade ring involving forced prostitutes of Eastern European immigrants and local johns of varying important political power. Blomkvist eventually finds the young journalist and his girlfriend shot dead. Lisbeth’s attacker is soon found dead by the police. Lisbeth is the prime suspect for all three murders, since her fingerprints are found on the murder weapon. She is in hiding, and Blomkvist wants to help her and find her. They both begin parallel investigations.

At the conclusion of The Girl Who Played with Fire, I cannot say that I was disappointed. The best and fairest way to describe my reaction to the film is to say that I am probably not the ideal audience for this film(s). During Lisbeth’s investigation, she learns the identity of man holding a potentially important lead. She breaks into his apartment and subdues him. As she questions him, I couldn’t get past her appearance. She is wearing ghoulish makeup, grey skin paint with black circles around her eyes and lips with a bright-red streak of paint across her face. Her image is arresting, but I cannot get past the fact that her whole appearance makes no sense. It just looks fucking cool, like she’s a true badass. At another location, Lisbeth gets caught stealing some documents by two bad-guy bikers, donning stereotypical biker garb. She makes quick work of the two chumps with a close-up shot of her stun gun to the crotch of one of her attackers. The following scene becomes a money shot: Lisbeth is seen riding on one of the motorcycles with her attacker’s helmet and sunglasses on: she is a warrior celebrating the victory of battle by stealing her slain opponent’s armor as a trophy. The funniest scene in the film is totally unintentional: Blomkvist tells his editor that he is worried about Lisbeth and needs to find her. Why? Um, she hasn’t been caught by anyone over an hour into the film, and the viewer has not been given any indication that she’ll be found anytime soon. Want to know how intelligent and resourceful Lisbeth gets caught and suffers a setback: by the very definition of a deux ex machina. Her stun gun crotch attack doesn’t work a second time.

Noomi Rapace is a beautiful and talented actress. Her performance as Lisbeth has been the shining moments of both Girl films that I’ve seen. She has the potential to be a true breakout performer with her natural charisma and her ability. Unfortunately, The Girl Who Played with Fire feels like a feature-length adaptation of Lisbeth’s original revenge scenario from The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo: too much time is devoted to watching little Lisbeth getting the upper hand on supposedly bigger and more powerful foes. The film wants its viewer to feel those revenge feelings, but I wanted something else that was hidden in that original film of the trilogy: some human feelings and some vulnerability. These aspects are pretty rare and are the bigger risk for the film makers. I’ve got the final film of the trilogy in my instant queue with my fingers crossed. We’ll see what happens.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)

I was able to view Hobo with a Shotgun (2011) via the Zune Video application on XBOX Live Marketplace as an On-Demand rental. I was perusing the selection in Zune Video this morning and was intrigued when I saw this film's title. I clicked the selection for further information and watched a preview which featured star Rutger Hauer. My interest piqued, I went to look up more information on the film at the Internet Movie Database. From that site I learned that Hobo with a Shotgun (2011) is a feature-length film of one of the fake trailers shown in between Planet Terror and Death Proof as part of the theatrical release of Grindhouse (2007). I never saw Grindhouse during its theatrical run, so I had no idea that this release was inspired by that fake trailer. The director of Hobo with a Shotgun is Jason Eisener who also directed the fake trailer for the Grindhouse release. As this film flows from the Grindhouse universe, I believe that it is at least arguable that any criticism of the film will invite comparisons to other films, as the genesis of the Grindhouse films want to recreate and evoke a specific cinema of old. However, it seems that most readers find obscure, film-geeky references irritating, and I will be only making general comparisons in the following review. None, I hope, is too geeky. Without further ado--

Rutger Hauer is the hobo and rides into a new town on a boxcar, freight train. The actual name of the town alludes me, because often street signs and the like have the first portion of the town's name stricken, and words like "Scum" and "Fuck" are graffittied over. Hauer's character grabs a shopping cart and begins to collect recyclable material, while taking in the sights of his new town. It's pretty fucked up. There's an asshole with a video camera, filming two homeless people fighting, and he waves some cash in Hauer's direction to get in on the action. (Thank God that there aren't people in the real world like this). The street life really livens up when a bloodied man with a manhole wrapped around his neck runs frantically into the street seeking help. Two stooges in a hotrod sports car roll up to confront the guy, Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (Nick Bateman). These two stooges are the sons and henchmen of the local crime boss, Drake (Brian Downey). Drake appears and wants to set an example by offing the manhole-draped victim in front of everyone. Repulsed and intrigued, Hauer's hobo follows Slick to his den to learn more. Within Slick accosts local prostitute, Abby (Molly Dunsworth), and Hauer's hobo saves her from a vile fate. The hobo brings Slick into the local police department but is greeted by corruption. Now bloodied and beaten, the hobo hits the streets and finds Abby. She shows the hobo kindness and tends to his wounds. Soon after, the hobo is inspired and goes to the pawnshop to purchase a lawnmower (after degrading himself for the money). While in the pawn shop, some ski-mask toting thugs pop in for a robbery. The hobo abandons the idea of a lawnmower and grabs the shotgun. The hobo loses his shit, and blast, blast, a vigilante is born.

Ever watched Troma movies from the 80s, like Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke 'Em High? If you haven't, then Hobo with a Shotgun will serve as an adequate representative, as I believe 80s Troma films are its true inspiration. Troma films are wonderfully offensive; not necessarily because they are graphically violent and excessive (they certainly are though) but because of the vehicles delivering the violence. Most of the Troma villains of those 80s films are the asshole icons of our youth: the bully. Even if we weren't their victims, these are the kind of people most wish would go away, for like forever. When you see Ivan and Slick in Hobo, they are the quintessential cool-kid bullies: varsity jackets and Ray Bans and slicked-back hair. They love making stupid jokes and love beating people up. In Troma fashion, however, they are full-on sick psychopaths. At Slick's den, Ivan asks Slick to check this out: Ivan has a victim strapped to a chair with the victim's bare foot over a hole. With a sledgehammer and a squishy smash, Ivan turns the victim's foot into piecemeal. Slick's not impressed.

The most impressive aspect of Hobo with a Shotgun is the photography by film director and cinematographer, Karim Hussain. He is really able to capture the look of those 80s low-budget features. The saturated colors, the tracking shots side by side with the handheld work, and the odd distorted look from a wide-angle lens in a close-up. Hobo with a Shotgun looks like it was shot on Super-8 or 16mm and blown-up. It gives the film a washed-out, cheap feel which only compliments the action. I actually was impressed to see smoke-machine work in the background in Hobo, knowing that those machines got quite the workout in the 80s from low-budget cinema to music videos.

Beyond its visual appeal or perhaps because of its visual appeal, Hobo with a Shotgun kept me numb during its whole running time--either because it is so slick and rich visually, one cannot help but to look at it; or either because so much detail is put into the visuals and the style, Hobo cannot transcend being cosmetic. Here is my last comparison: When I use the words, "vigilante" and "street prostitute," is there a famous film which comes to mind? In that film, two disassociated characters are actually able to achieve emotional intimacy and a human connection, despite the fucked-up circumstances around them. Hobo wants to recreate the feelings from this relationship, but cannot quite do it. For example, in one scene, Abby gets injured and is in the hospital. By this point in the film, the hobo and Abby have formed a bond. As a gesture of kindness or love, the hobo gives Abby some flowers--some dead weeds and dandelions in a disposable drinking cup. The sentiment is genuine, but like the entire relationship, it is never felt. Hobo can never transcend its cosmetic qualities. I suppose that the details are so well-done that one cannot get past looking deeper into them.

With no accuracy at all can I judge others sensibility or sensitivity, but I would be remiss not to mention how violent Hobo is. Hobo is violent with violent-in-italics violent. Its runtime will make you desensitized to violence. I might have made my point. Also, I watched Hobo alone in the comfort of my home. I have no idea how this film will play to a packed audience (according to the film's official site, it opens theatrically wide on May 6th). Perhaps the energy of a crowded movie theatre will fuel the action. When the hobo grabs the shotgun and starts blasting people, I can see people cheering; or when some gross-out moment occurs or a bad joke delivered, I can see people giving an uncomfortable laugh. Rutger Hauer is a brilliant actor and gives another stellar performance. I also quite like Dunsworth as Abby. She's really sassy and cute and never comes off as ditzy. Not one that I want to revisit again, but I'm sure Hobo will provoke a reaction out of all those who see it.