Sunday, May 30, 2010
I didn't see any of the 2009 foreign film nominees until the weekend before the Oscar telecast. The night before, I saw Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon and acquired a rooting interest in it. A few weeks later the French nominee, Un Prophete, came to town and impressed me nearly as much. By then, of course, I knew that both formidable films had been outvoted by an Argentine mystery directed by a veteran of American TV dramas. From the description, El Secreto de sus Ojos didn't seem in the same league as the other two movies. But remembering my experience with Lives of Others, I resolved to see it when it finally reached Albany.
The film is set in 1999, 25 years after the brutal rape and murder of a young woman. A retired detective, Benjamin Esposito (Ricardo Darin), is struggling to write a novel based on the case and the loose ends lingering after a quarter-century. One of those is his relationship with his superior, Irene Hastings (Soledad Villamil), now the district attorney. Another is the fact that the murderer was caught, had confessed, but was set free by a shady government which had black ops work for him. His whereabouts remain unknown as Esposito writes. He has a personal stake in the story because either the killer or his black-ops cronies murdered Esposito's partner, the lovable alcoholic Sandoval (Guillermo Francella).
Until the halfway point, there was little about El Secreto to distinguish it from the sort of TV fare director Juan Jose Campanella specializes in. There was some stylization at the start as we see scenes from Esposito's novel drafts, which we'll later see as scenes from his life, as if through filters, murkily. There's also some now-conventional non-linearity as the film switches back and forth from present to past and/or novel. But the story itself seemed like the stuff of television until it opened up in dramatic fashion. Sandoval has an insight on the murder suspect based on references in his letters: the man's a fan of a particular futbol team. This sets up an awesomely scaled CGI-assisted tracking shot that starts high above the city and descends into the bowl of the futbol stadium, swooping into the stands to identify Esposito and Sandoval in the middle of a massive crowd, searching for their suspect. Against all odds, they find him, setting off a spectacular foot chase, filmed mostly with hand-held cameras in long takes, with a semicomic detour into a men's room and a climax that takes the action onto the pitch in the middle of the game. It's at least the best cinematic use of a soccer stadium since Jafar Panahi's Offside and it brought the Argentine film to life for me.
Campanella follows up with a sequence that takes him back into TV territory, as Esposito and Hastings try to psyche the suspect into confessing. The opportunity here is to take the action to a level TV doesn't allow. Hastings plays the "bad cop" with reverse psychology, questioning his guilt by belittling his manhood, taunting him as a "pygmy" endowed with no more than a "peanut." You know you're not on TV anymore when the enraged suspect jumps up, unzips, and displays the total package to refute the prosecutor's claims before admitting his crime and punching her in the face. Javier Godino as the murderer nearly steals the movie in this single scene as he progresses from plausible protests of innocence to viciously defensive machismo under constant prodding.
For me, these scenes were the peak of the film. They seemed to point toward more sinister developments once the government springs Godino, but a scene in which he makes an intimidating display of a gun while sharing an elevator with our hero and heroine is practically his last appearance in the movie. He remains an implicit menace almost until the end, but his story resolves itself in a manner almost too Gothic to take seriously. But solving the mystery of what happened to the man gives Esposito a fresh chance to take the chance he couldn't bring himself to take back in the Seventies with Irene Hastings, who fortunately seems still willing after all those years.
This time around the Academy showed no special insight. El Secreto is not in the same league as White Ribbon or Un Prophete. It wasn't a bad film at all, but I ought to be able to say something better about a film now deemed the Best in its class. If you watch it you will most likely be entertained, but beyond that I can't make any claims for its greatness.
Saturday, May 29, 2010
Thursday, May 27, 2010
Elaine's grandiose revenge plot doesn't quite work out. That's because she doesn't know the whole story of her mother's rape. The revelation of the truth is a shattering moment for her fragile psyche. Her entire life from a certain point has been dedicated to a certain purpose, and once that purpose is rendered irrelevant it's as if all those years never happened. We last see her regressed to the mental state of a nine-year old, after nine troubled days of marriage to poor Pin-Pon, whose noirish narration (e.g. "I was about to make the worst mistake of my life.") has not prepared us for a final tragic twist in the tale. Earlier, about to carry out her revenge plan, she'd left a message for him explaining everything -- as she then wrongly understood it. But he doesn't know that she's been proven wrong. In fact, he assumes that she's in that hopelessly regressed state because she failed in her purpose. So what does he owe his love if not revenge?...
One Deadly Summer is a film I can recommend both to arthouse enthusiasts and to fans of the wilder world of cinema. Adjani's performance is sure to impress both groups, perhaps for different reasons. As for the movie as a whole, I can only wonder which faction of fans will like it more....
There's no trailer available online, so the DVD distributor, BayViewEntertainment, has uploaded a short collection of clips to YouTube.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
The opening promises something less mundane. We start with the temptations in the desert, Satan goading a Jesus in robes and whiteface to make stones from bread, jump off a cliff, etc. Jesus (Andile Kosi) has enough, finally, and shoves the Evil One off a sand dune. "Get thee behind me Satan," he says -- familiar enough. What follows isn't: "This is my world!" Satan disagrees, of course.
This trailer, uploaded to YouTube by AiMfilmfest, gives a good idea of the mix of modernity and archetypes throughout the picture:
Monday, May 24, 2010
The film could well be called The Victims of the Highway, since we open with a couple pulling off the road into a motel. A motel demands a shower scene, and Madrid promptly delivers two, the woman first, then the man. And a shower scene in a motel demands a Psycho-homage attack, and here the director delivers...the naked man clutching his throat as if choking, thrashing about a bit, and collapsing:Psycho without the psycho, almost. But the woman sees something so shocking that the film freeze-frames and rolls the opening credits.
Inspector: Apparently, he doesn't kill for any conventional motive. He must be some kind of sadist, I guess.
Coroner: But not a sadist as I know them. The circumstances which he prefers show a more unnatural instinct.
Inspector: What precisely do you mean by that term, doctor?
Coroner: That from the results of my autopsy I think the murderer is not a human.
The coroner is damned coy about what kind of not human the murderer is, and when he invited the inspector to his house for a drink in order to hear his theory, Wendigo and I began to wonder whether this humble doctor might be the Horrible Sexy Vampire. But at chez doctor he hands the detective a paperback copy of Dracula to read, as if that proved something. Despite the inspector's wise caveat that "Poppycock's not the right track," he gets caught up in the investigation of the long-abandoned castle of Baron Von Winninger, who died under mysterious circumstances following a murder spree in 1886. There have been similar sprees every 28 years since then, including the present crimewave. Despite an uncooperative caretaker, the investigators visit the castle and inspect its crypt. The baron's coffin is empty. That's because he's busy killing the cops, invisibly throttling the man in the car, then materializing to stab the inspector and strangle the coroner. "No one may violate the peace of the dead in this place," he says, "Pay with your life for it."
Wendigo says you'll be able to tell Waldemar Wohlfahrt as Baron Winninger apart from his more heroic lookalike by thinking of him as the guy with the John Pertwee look, or the one you can't see most of the time.
At approximately the 22-minute mark of the picture, all of our presumed heroes have been wiped off the board. That's pretty ballsy, or contemptuous toward the audience, and the audacity of it left us stunned for a moment. Fortunately, the film has reinforcements on reserve. The government sends a new inspector (Barta Barri) to Grenitz, which is apparently a snowy suburb of Stuttgart, while from London comes Count Adolf Oblensky, the Polish-born nearest male descendant of the Winningers, to claim the castle. I'd suppose that if you were named Adolf and had lived in Poland and Britain, you'd probably be ready to move, too. Oblensky is played by "Waldemar Wohlfahrt" (aka Val Davis) the same actor who plays the HSV, only with blonder hair and even worse taste in clothes -- and the baron has the excuse of having been dead since 1886.
Fashion tips: a Son of Frankenstein vest (above)does not make a good impression on guests. But Adolf Oblensky is an almost nonstop sartorial disaster, though Susan (below right) may not be in a position to judge.
The Inspector also treats her to his diagnosis of her boyfriend, here transcribed verbatim:
I thought that our friend Count Oblensky in his extraordinary state, might relate with another personality and discard his real one and behave in what he thought the way the other one should behave. Similar cases have occurred.
How can you argue with that? You'd have to understand it first. If anything, Suzy (Susan Carvazal) had been doubting Adolf's mental state herself, but the Inspector's babbling makes her doubt her doubts. Anything sounds more credible than that. Her reaction both to him and to Adolf's ravings convinced Wendigo that she was probably the smartest person in the picture. She may have been the prettiest, too.
But then we get a remorse angle, Winninger explaining to Oblensky that he, the HSV, can't kill Adolf because the count is his blood descendant. Adolf is thus in the lucky position to end poor Winninger's curse, as he explains in his second meeting with the Count, after he's killed more victims. And after encouraging Adolf to come up with some way to kill him, he promptly runs off and kills four more people. Fortunately, Adolf doesn't have to believe in Winninger's remorse in order to destroy him, but the baron did say that he'd be able to put up a fight first. That sets up the thrilling climax, the fulfillment of the promise made when we were introduced to the hero and his look-alike antagonist...who can become invisible. In other words, we get Waldemar Wohlfahrt pantomiming getting his ass kicked -- and he does a pretty good job, actually. He's at least a competent physical presence, even if his English voice doesn't get the idea. In one scene Adolf really gets drunk and staggers about the castle, but the English actor carries on in his slightly priggish voice as if the count had been a lifelong teetotaler.
El Vampiro is an artless film full of gaffes. Winninger's coffin is clearly labeled as such, except in one scene in which the lid clearly identifies the occupant as Baron von Fraumler. Susan is taking a bubble bath and rises from it, her arms covered with soap, when she hears a noise. When the HSV appears a moment later, she's completely rinsed off. In one of the closing shots from inside Adolf's car, a hand appears briefly behind the passenger seat as the cameraman braces himself ... or was it...?
For Wendigo, though, The Horrible Sexy Vampire easily fits into the so-bad-it's-good category. He thinks the dubbed dialogue deserved an award for how strenuosuly its twisted syntax and logic strove to match the actors' lip movements. Winninger's abilities and limitations were also unique enough to make him interesting as a vampire even if Wohlfahrt did little to make him interesting as a character. The Euro-babes aren't exactly an A-list crew, but we appreciate the effort to get them out of their clothes, however baldly exploitative it all was. While it was disappointingly short on blood and blood drinking for a vampire film, it manages a respectable body count. But beyond the blood and boobs (mammarian or otherwise), this is a film Wendigo recommends unreservedly to anyone who knows how to enjoy a mad, bad movie.
This isn't a trailer, but miskavi has uploaded a short collection of clips to YouTube:
Saturday, May 22, 2010
The State Department had sent me on a goodwill tour of Europe, and I was assigned on this particular day to be a special guest at a circus. We did our best to convey to the foreigners that we needed to get to the circus, and by some fluke we got to one, only to find that it was going to be filmed for a movie. As an international dignitary I was introduced to the director. I know my movies and I knew he'd done some back home. "I liked one very much," I told him, "What was it's name?... Letters, wasn't it? Yes! Letter to Three Wives! An excellent film. Congratulations, sir!"
"No, no." he demurred.
"No false modesty, friend. Only I don't see how you end up making documentaries about a circus after that. It's a shame if you're a Commie. I mean that you can't keep working in Hollywood because you are one. If you are, that is. But I suppose I'm only in your way here and you're obviously a busy man."
"Actually," he said, "You're just what I need for this scene I'm filming."
"Oh, I'm no camera hog, Mr. Offals. I don't want to call attention to myself in the middle of your movie and all."
"But you are just right! And you'll be in color and Cinemascope, too."
"You've got Cinemascope?" I was flabbergasted. "We thought you were years away, unless your side has someone inside Fox, that is."
"Have you even been in a Cinemascope film, sir?"
"Why, I was made for the wide screen. Academy ratio can't hold me; just let 'em try! Heck, Cinerama's what you need to get all of me on screen. But no, I haven't."
"Well, that's just why I want you. I need a subject that can fill the screen, and I see you as the first person the people see when they come to my movie, your vast continental embrace welcoming them to the circus. You must do this for me."
Pictures don't lie, so as anyone can plainly see I was cajoled out of my usual modesty. I got to see that circus several times over. But I didn't get to see the movie until about 35 years later, and imagine my surprise! They put in all these extra scenes from outside of the circus. I guess it was to explain how that lady ended up joining the circus. But it fouled up the narrative flow of things, I thought, and some of my best scenes got cut. That's show business, I suppose, and it's why I stick to meatpacking.
Cinemascope gives Martine Carol and Will Quadflieg (as Liszt) room to stretch out more comfortably in their deluxe carriage. Below, the slowest painter in Bavaria extends Lola's stay at the court of King Ludwig (Anton Walbrook, left).
Thursday, May 20, 2010
Crime ruled the streets of Italia '70, but the law-abiding public had a strong fictional line of defense in a host of tough cinematic cops who formed their own film genre in this land of genres. Among these mighty men was Inspector Nico Giraldi, a very plain-clothed detective in the Anti-Theft Squad. As played by Tomas Milian, the Lon Chaney (Sr.) of his time and place, Giraldi is an amiable grotesque. He doesn't hide his influences; his apartment is festooned with Serpico posters, and he has a little white rat of the same name -- no reflection on the historical Serpico, one hopes. He also has a bird named Callahan, but unlike the rat the bird stays home. But if Giraldi wants to be Serpico, he ends up reminding me more of Mick Belker, the feral cop on Hill Street Blues. His slovenliness is a sight gag in keeping, from what you might have noticed, with this film's essentially comedic nature. It makes him an unlikely ladies' man; having scored with one woman he had earlier saved from rape, he sleeps in his wool cap and socks and three layers of sweaters. Why? "I'm afraid the heat'll get turned off." It makes you grateful that Smell-O-Vision did not get more popular.
Tomas Milian as popular series character Nico Giraldi, making his debut in Cop in Blue Jeans. Blame the lousy picture quality on a cheapo DVD set that includes better copies of three Umberto Lenzi cop films.
As a comedy cop movie, Squadra Antiscippo is aimed at a more mature but not really more sophisticated audience than Bud Spencer's Flatfoot series. It doesn't have a very strong storyline and is easily distracted from it. Giraldi's main agenda is to bring down the fences who finance the muggers, but he finds time to settle a mild personal feud with a pickpocket who leaves heckling messages on his answering machine. His hunt for fences puts him on the trail of the Baron, the leader of a robbery gang that appears to bite off more than it can chew when it nabs four billion lira (in dollars) from American gangster Norman Shelley (Jack Palance). We've seen what this remorseless man is capable of; earlier he had put an underling to death by carbon monoxide poisoning by locking him in a car. Terrifying, no? So now it's a race between Shelley and Giraldi to see who can catch the Baron first, and if the Cop in Blue Jeans wins that race, his troubles may just be beginning....
ten sequels over the next eight years, culminating in a film known in English as Cop in Drag. Squadra Antiscippo is a mostly uninspired film with nothing I haven't seen done better in other Italian cop films. The action highlight is when Giraldi chases some muggers up several flights of stairs from doorstep to rooftop of a tenement on his motorcycle, while the climactic battle between Shelley's men and the Squad is utterly by-the-numbers. I may not be getting the full Milian performance due to a weak dub, but Nico Giraldi is pretty drab compared to the monstrous villains he played in several Umberto Lenzi films or his spaghetti western characters. As for Palance, I'm surprised he even bothered dubbing his own voice. He gives a perfunctory performance, but the writers didn't exactly give him much to do. I hope he was paid well for having to sell Milian's knee to the nads in a climactic scene at the American embassy. The liveliest thing about the film is the score by Guido and Maurizio De Angelis, which features a free-jazz saxophone writhing through the action scenes. Like nearly all Italian films from this era, it at least sounds good. But if you're looking for hardcase tough-cop action in the Italian manner, look elsewhere. And if you're looking for more lighthearted tough-cop action, look elsewhere too.
But do the film the courtesy of examining its Italian trailer, uploaded to YouTube by xploitedcinema:
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Gutierrez (a past co-author of Gothika and Snakes on a Plane) breaks his story down in trendy-edgy non-linear fashion, starting us somewhere in mid-story and then cutting back and forth from the present narrative to a flashback narrative until the streams converge. Add that to the film's revenge plot and you have a slight resemblance to Kill Bill. Then add the former O-Ren Ishii, Lucy Liu, as the anti-heroine and the resemblance is somewhat less slight. But the jigsaw narrative has no justification like Tarantino's genre homages. It just seems like the conventional thing to do these days.
Liu is Sadie Blake, whom we first see outbidding Robert Forster for the services of a prostitute. After taking her home and having her strip, Sadie orders her to the bathroom to wash. The shower tub is a trap, and Sadie isn't necessarily a lesbian, but a procuress for a creepy crippled man who intends to "eat" the hooker. Sadie's payment is an address, but her exit is temporary. She returns to kill the creep with a crossbow bolt and free the girl.
Mako in his final film appearance. D'Arcy and Gugino are vampires, and while they usually kill their victims, something about Sadie compels Gugino to let her survive to become a vampire in her own right. Curiously, this was the second film in a row we've seen in which the vampire's only traditional attribute is a failure to cast reflections in mirrors -- though Gutierrez botches this by catching Liu's reflection in a hospital window. Otherwise, vampires heal quicker than people and are a little bit stronger than normal, but not so much so that people can't do serious damage to them. One thing I really liked about Rise was its refusal to go overboard with the vampires' powers. It kept things at a gritty level appropriate to the noirish story.
After Sadie kicks her way out of a morgue slab, she discovers her new nature in gruesome fashion at a homeless shelter. She has no fangs and no weapons, so when the hunger hits her she has to gnaw desperately at some rummy's wrist until the skin comes loose. It's more horrific, I thought, than a present-time scene where she seduces and kills a hitchhiker, but that one's just as grim because it sells the point that Sadie isn't a noble vampire. She wants revenge, but has no illusions about her future beyond that. When she finally hooks up with Michael Chiklis's high-functioning alcoholic cop (whose daughter was killed by the vampires), her main stake (sorry) in the relationship is her hope that Chiklis will kill her after she kills her enemies....
Rise is a kind of sad exit for Mako, one of my favorite character actors and a clearly unwell man in his Renfield scenes here. But as Wendigo says, "At least he was still working."
It's a tough life for a vampire in Rise; above, Lucy Liu struggles with some tough meat, while she squirms through Michael Chiklis's meatball surgery below.
Vic Mackey might have dealt with the undead, but the thought probably didn't occur to Gutierrez.
Wendigo labels Rise a solid, effective modern B movie. Gutierrez resists most of the temptations that his story offers him, telling a disciplined story without that overproduced look you get so often these days. In other hands, this could have been Charlie's Angels with vampires (or Underworld 2), but this time out the director made a virtue of his budget. But those same virtues probably doomed the film before it even had a chance to fail at most box offices. While Wendigo likes the film, he doubts that it would have caught on with the typical multiplex horror/action/fantasy fan, as it lacks a lot of what they seem to like. It deserved better.
Here's a trailer, uploaded to YouTube by nicolemc233:
Sunday, May 16, 2010
That's why it's taken me nearly five years to finally watch Malick's follow-up, which appeared a mere seven years later. It bombed at the Cannes Film Festival, as I recall, prompting Malick to cut The New World considerably for its general release. Both versions are now available, and I've seen the 135-minute version available from the local library. Bad memories of The Thin Red Line and my awareness of the later film's troubled production history kept me away. Worse, my friend Wendigo saw it on DVD several years ago and warned me away from it. After the fact, I asked him what he disliked. He answered that, to him, the film lacked narrative drive, while Malick seemed disinclined to advance the story through dialogue. He found the film's admittedly beautiful imagery repetitive, feeling that Malick, having made a point, would make it many times over to no greater effect. Worst of all, Colin Farrell starred in it.
On the other hand, I've learned that the movie-fan blogosphere has a higher opinion of The New World than the general pubic. It's expected to rank very high in the Wonders in the Dark poll of the decade's best films, while Dave at the highly reputable Goodfella's Movie Blog has named it as both the best film of 2005 and the entire decade. Meanwhile, I stumbled across a cable showing of the film while channel surfing last year, and I saw a battle scene that actually impressed me. I stuck with the film long enough to decide to break off so I could later watch the film in full. My mixed feelings delayed that moment a while more, but I took the plunge at last this weekend.
Afterward, when I talked to Wendigo, I told him he had better steer as far away from The Thin Red Line as possible, because if he hated The New World as much as he did, then the earlier film might kill him. That's my roundabout way of saying that I judged The New World a much better film than the previous Malick.
Sounds bad, huh? For me it was as long as it focused on Farrell. Fortunately, the focus begins to shift, and for the second half of the film Pocahantas becomes the main character. This wasn't necessarily a promising development, since Q'Orianka Kilcher played the princess early on as if directed by D.W. Griffith rather than Terrence Malick, all sickly-sweet innocence and sweeping gestures. Gradually, however, I began to get it. We'd been seeing her, and the land, through Smith's eyes, and Smith, it became clear, had an unrealistically utopian idea of the new world and the Powhatan people. "Real, what I thought a dream," is how he describes it, but Malick, I think, is saying he's still living a dream. The Powhatans are not quite as benign as he thinks, and to the extent that Pocahantas is that benign she suffers for it at her people's hands. Her charity toward the desperate Jamestown colonists leads to her exile from her father's realm. It's then time for her discovery of a new world, not only the Jamestown fort but England itself, where she's received as a princess. In a mirror of Smith's adventure, she's bedazzled by the splendours of the royal court, while in a poignant counterpoint Wes Studi as an ambassador pensively inspects the majestically developed landscape for signs of the English God. The irony of the picture is that Pocahantas, her privileged position notwithstanding, seems more capable of accommodating the intersection of two worlds than Smith is in his perpetual search for the Indies of his ideal. When they meet once more in England, you can tell she still loves the lug despite her feelings for Rolfe (Christian Bale), yet for all that she remains a childish wonderstruck flibbertigibbet you can see that she's matured in a way that Smith hasn't and maybe never will. At the same time, you can't help thinking of how Shakespeare might answer her wonder at a new world and its people -- "Tis new to thee."
The New World looks like no other movie I've seen. I haven't seen so many following shots with character's backs to the camera in a single film, and Malick gets away with it. They give the film something like a three-dimensional quality that might again render Avatar superfluous. I can understand why some people might recommend it simply as a pictorial marvel. At the same time, I can understand criticisms from Wendigo and others. Malick's reiterative approach can easily become either repetitive or redundant; it's the risk he takes by making his film a visual tone poem rather than a novelistic or dramatic narrative. Losing patience with this film is no crime. Furthermore, Farrell is dreadful, though I don't know whether I object more to his performance or the concept of John Smith that Malick directed him to enact. I can't call The New World the best of anything as long as he's in it, though Lubezki deserved every award he could have gotten, but I think I can recommend it to those cinemaesthetes for whom the sensory experience is the main reason they go to movies.
The trailer, uploaded to YouTube by romnitjej, may give you some idea of the visual experience.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
Sembene's main character, Colle, is the middle wife of a middling villager. Like most women, she underwent the Purification as tradition dictates, but it didn't go well. The botched ritual operation by the Salimbana made pregnancies difficult for Colle, who lost two babies before a daughter was saved by caesarian section. That daughter, now a teenager, is a Bilakoro. Never having been cut, she's considered unfit to be a bride. Because Colle got away with sparing her daughter the ordeal, a group of four girls seek her protection when their cutting time comes. She grants them "Protection" by invoking the Moolaade tradition. Whoever crosses the sacred thread to seize the girls will be cursed. The great irony of the film is that Colle's traditionalist enemies are kept at bay by tradition, even while they try to stomp out other incursions of modernity.
They cut girls terribly young in Moolaade's African village, but not if Colle (Fatoumata Coulibaly) can help it.
Moolaade is mainly about female empowerment and it has a bit of an agitprop quality to it. I have to admit that the genital-mutilation question is pretty one-sided one for most American observers, but I can't help feeling that making that the battleground between tradition and modernity kind of stacks the deck in favor of the latter. I'm not saying that I'd be receptive to the case against modernity (what would that be anyway? Powaqqatsi?), but I think a deeper film would give that case more of a fair hearing than Sembene did this time out. I'd also concede that there are times and places when Sembene's approach is the appropriate, even necessary one.
I suspect my mild reservations about Moolaade's agitprop qualities won't trouble most people who give it a try. It's a strong crowd-pleasing story that should have any viewer on its side from the start and a good indicator of what African cinema can do. If someone wants to try a film from the continent, I'd have no problem recommending this one.
The English-language trailer was uploaded to YouTube by k364: