Sunday, May 30, 2010

On the Big Screen: THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2009)

The Academy Award for Best Foreign Film has never been a reliable indicator of the actual best film made outside the Anglophone world in a given year. The nomination process, each country choosing one representative film and the Academy nominating five from the whole, inevitably excludes many worthy contenders. Sometimes the award is a consolation prize for a film also nominated for Best Picture (Life is Beautiful, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon). Much of the time having something to do with the Holocaust guarantees a victory. Sometimes the Academy makes an inspired choice. For 2006, for instance, I assumed that Pan's Labyrinth would win easily, and was shocked to see the Oscar go to The Lives of Others. Once I finally saw the latter film, however, I conceded that the better film, by a small margin, had won.

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.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

ONE DEADLY SUMMER (L'Ete Meurtrier, 1983)

If my selection of movies seems random to the point of incoherence, that's because I often don't know in advance what I'm going to watch in a given week. Blame that on the Albany Public Library, whose ever-growing selection of foreign films inspires many "What the hell is this? Let's take a look!" moments. One of the library's newest acquisitions is a film that won four Cesar awards, France's answer to the Oscars, including the Best Actress award to star Isabelle Adjani. It's the work of Jean Becker, a second-generation director whose work has been unknown to me. The box cover promises an erotic revenge story with some serious twists, and I've seen the film described as a prototype erotic thriller. I can see the point; set aside the rural French setting and the full frontal nudity and this could be the plot of a Lifetime Original Movie.

Adjani is Elaine, the 19 year old daughter (the actress was 28) of a crippled father and a German mother. They've just moved into the sort of small town where the dance hall has no air conditioning, where the nearest cinema is so far away that kids fall asleep on the trip back, and people will call a German woman "Eva Braun." Elaine is the typical seductive newcomer who insinuates her way into an unsuspecting family. In the typical Lifetime saga this character convinces everyone of her benevolence before her mask slips to revel Evil beneath. In One Deadly Summer there's hardly a mask because Elaine is clearly unstable from the beginning. There's a kind of belligerence to her seductiveness, as if she were asking an aroused populace, "Are you not seduced?" She flaunts her eminently flauntable body indiscriminately, and nearly everyone in sight is a potential erotic target. The situation is made all the more provocative because this backward burg is a place where there's not a lot of indoor plumbing. Elaine will drag her portable bathtub into her new family's kitchen to draw a bath, then strip naked and take a soak in full view of her future mother-in-law -- the one person who's outright hostile toward her. She is way too intimate, still inclined to nurse at her mother's breast in needy moments. She also has screaming fits in restaurants and has a savantish knack for adding large numbers together. And if that's not the mark of a lunatic I don't know what is.

When she seduces our hero Pin-Pon (a quaint nickname; he has a brother named Boubou), who narrates much of the story, you assume she has an ulterior motive for faking a pregnancy and so on, and so she does. She's really interested in the family's barrel organ, which it acquired back in 1955. The timing matters, because Elaine's mother was raped by a gang of movers who were transporting just such an instrument back in that year. That's how Elaine came to be (the film is set in 1976, which may have been when the source novel was written), and it has complicated her own family life ever since. Dad has never granted her his own family name despite his clear affection for her, and that almost guarantees that his affection could develop in the bad-touch direction. In fact, he happens to be crippled because he did get a little bad-touchy toward innocent glasses-wearing Elaine a few years back, only to have her answer his affection by cracking his skull with a shovel.

Strangely enough, you can see how this may have inspired her own predatory manner of seduction, which she's also applied to her female schoolteacher, a hapless woman who still carries a torch for her -- she gives Elaine a cigarette lighter for a wedding present with the inscription, "Let me be your flame." Our antiheroine proposes to seduce her way into the confidences of the two surviving rapists of 1955; the third, Pin-Pon's father, is already dead. Her father convinced her mother never to press charges against them, and Elaine's idea of making up to both of them is to track down these rapists, now small businessmen in their own rights, and destroy them.

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?...

As I've hinted by equating it with Lifetime movies, the story of L'Ete Meurtrier has to be told carefully to avoid coming out hopelessly camp. I'm not sure if Jean Becker fully succeeds in dodging all the pitfalls, but I don't know if any writer or director could. The story is so full of extremes that it can never be taken seriously by everyone. It doesn't seem like the kind of film that wins French awards, but it has one powerful thing going for it. Of course, that's Isabelle Adjani.

I wasn't confident in her at first. Yes, she was hot on sight, even before the clothes came off, but there was a vacuous quality in her early scenes that made her an unlikely ruthless avenger. But by her scene in the restaurant with Pin-Pon (a game effort by pop star Alain Souchon) she had sold me on Elaine's madness. She never turns into a calculating villain, and she never fully loses that vacuous quality, but what we see isn't stupidity but a real and alarming void where something more humane should be. If anything, Adjani comes on too strong, since Pin-Pon and his fellow villagers don't catch on to her lunacy until well after the audience has. But the story really needs her to go over the top, because hers is a kind of madness that spreads like a disease, something the film itself conveys by sharing the voiceover track among several narrators, some commenting in past tense, some expressing their thoughts in real time. This fractured narration keeps us questioning who knows what at any given point in the story. That's what separates One Deadly Summer from the TV movies that superficially resemble it. Those potboilers too quickly dismiss their antagonists as Evil outsiders whose removal can restore a benign normality, while Becker's film shows a woman whose madness was shaped by the world around her and will affect others after she leaves the scene.

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

SON OF MAN (2006)

Mark Dornford-May's movie, only his second feature, is a retelling of the Jesus story in 21st century Africa. Stylistically it's most likely inspiration is Pier Paolo Pasolini's Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), which, while ostensibly set in the correct historical period, embraced anachronistic elements (like American gospel songs on the soundtrack) while paring away the opulent details that characterized Hollywood gospel films. Son of Man is a very musical film, its range extending from spiritual ecstasy to choral defiance. The music carries much of the burden of the film's spirituality. The story, as told here, is arguably more mundane.

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.

It looks like we've been dropped in the middle of a familiar story in well-established modern cinema fashion, but this opening proves more of a prologue, a preliminary to Jesus's decision to be born in the African kingdom of Judea, a nation torn by strife pitting King Herode against a shadowy foreign-backed Democratic Coalition. In a village a woman flees from machete-wielding dancing killers. She plays dead in a schoolroom full of massacred children, and the soldiers (and Satan) miss her. Just when she thinks she's safe an angel, a child adorned with white feathers, performs the annunciation. She and her husband (his role as minimal as ever) become refugees, and she gives birth in a shed as a host of child-angels summon shepherds to the scene. A few years later the family barely escapes a massacre of children at a checkpoint. The child angel appears again, offering little Jesus his protection. The boy rejects it, reaffirming: "This is my world!"

From this point, Dornford-May and his writing team try to have things both ways. Jesus retains his own divine powers, enabling him to heal, exorcise and revive. But while he's clearly a supernatural being, his kingdom is very much of this (or "my") world. In fact, he hardly talks of a "kingdom" at all, of God or otherwise. His is a political mission. He denounces Herode and his foreign-manipulated successors in turn; he denounces the imperialist mentality that dismisses Africans as mere tribal savages; he denounces the U.S. for blocking the production of cheap medicine through the use of commercial patents. "We have been lied to," he repeats, "Evil did not fall." His answer is solidarity, justice and nonviolence. Some of his own disciples have been guerrilla fighters (some of the others are women); he makes them give up their guns. As videos of his sermons circulate and stories of miracles boost his credibility, the Democratic Coalition sees him as a political rival. They want their inside man, Judas, to get the evidence they need to justify taking Jesus down. The Passion, or at least the opening act, will be televised -- or at least it could be later....

As a non-believer, it may not be my business to say whether Son of Man gets Jesus "right" or not, but two things about it struck me as peculiar. First, the concept of Jesus as a primarily political actor is bound to be controversial. The idea of a Jesus who really says nothing about God or God's supposed love for man, will be a deal-breaker for many Christians. For my part, I do wonder whether it misrepresents the historical Jesus, but some people say the Gospels misrepresent him, also. Second, Christianity is going to have a very different history in the video age. The African Jesus is sometimes surrounded by camcorders, and some of his sayings, at least, can be recorded indisputably. But because the filmmakers are bound by the traditional Jesus narrative, they don't really explore the implications of an Incarnation in the Information Age.

Son of Man is ultimately a cultural rather than a religious document, though it could be described as liberation theology. Its effort to make Jesus relevant to contemporary Africa tells us as much about the filmmakers' vision of Africa as it does about their idea of Christianity. As a Jesus movie, some viewers will find it more palatable than the more gruesomely faithful Passion of the Christ. People who admire the Pasolini Gospel may find Son of Man a natural next step, though they might be surprised to see the end borrow the long shadow symbolizing resurrection from the Nicholas Ray King of Kings. For people who are students or fans of the Jesus genre, as I am to an extent, Son of Man is obviously worth seeing, but I'd also recommend it as a film of interest, if not necessarily a great film, to anyone interested in politically-committed African cinema.

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


My friend Wendigo sometimes claims that I don't hold up my end of our continuing survey of vampire movies. We're supposed to alternate between films from our respective collections, but he owns more vampire films than I do. He playfully orders me to buy more, and when I saw Mill Creek Entertainment's new Undead:The Vampire Collection at the store I decided to comply. I already have most of the films in other Mill Creek sets, but Undead has at least four unique items that neither Wendigo nor I have seen before, staring with El Vampiro de la Autopista (literally "The Vampire of the Highway'), directed by Jose-Luis Madrid and available here in a worn widescreen copy of the English dub, which has a profoundly misleading title, since the title bloodsucker is neither particularly horrible nor sexy in the least. But for pure bad-movie entertainment value this film alone may have justified my $6.99 expenditure.

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.

We next see her on a morgue slab with something like teeth marks dug into her neck. A police inspector and the coroner compare notes on the killing, the latest in a series.

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.

Adolf and the new Inspector have a shared interest in getting to the bottom of the mystery of the castle. But while the Count is soon given cause to believe in the curse of the Winningers, the Inspector defiantly, petulantly resists any supernatural interpretation of the murders. We have our standard conflict of belief vs. skepticism, enacted by two idiots. The Inspector is Wendigo's favorite character, both for his self-evident fatuousness and the extraordinary dialogue the role imposes on a game English voice actor. Once Oblensky starts seeing the HSV, the Inspector dismisses him as a drunk. "I'm no alcoholic," he protests; "Everybody who drinks too much says that," the Inspector replies. If anything, this official is more obsessed with Oblensky than with catching the killer. Despite being convinced that he's innocent, he still has an army of cops stationed around the castle, so he can tell the Count's English girlfriend Susan: "If you feel you're in danger, just open a window and start screaming."

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 we've been treating the Horrible Sexy Vampire like something you have a choice to believe in or not. Winninger has an agenda of his own, but it doesn't seem to include meeting any every-28-years quota of corpses. He has an unusual skill set. The invisibility does have some folkloric roots, Wendigo notes, as does the strangling. But Winninger also has issues. He's fulfilling some compulsion beside the need to drink blood (and no one mentions the victims being drained of blood). He never attacks a woman without first giving her a chance to strip, and after strangling one victim (after!) he strips her, the camera cutting away just as he's about to pull off her panties.

This hint at horrible sexuality is as close to the English title as the film gets.

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.

We found ourselves anticipating a downer climax, anything from Adolf missing the dematerializing Winninger and staking Susan by accident, or the Inspector shooting someone by mistake, or Adolf turning into a vampire ... just because. The film even sets up a scary finale when Adolf mentions that Winninger's victims ought to be turning into vampires themselves about now. We seem clearly set up for something shocking while the camera lingers on Adolf and Susan filling their car with gas. But then it just ends -- stops might be a better word. Maybe there's more in the original European version, but to American audiences the irrelevance of the ending probably seems the most European thing about it.

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...?

Another mystery: Why is Daphne wearing Velma's clothes?

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


I still remember my experience on the set of Max Ophuls's final film.

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.

* * *

A bit of a tall tale, I admit, but so is Lola Montes. It's been something like twenty years since I first saw it and I remember being disappointed by it, even though I could not get the music out of my head. George Auric's theme song, especially its bombastic circus-band rendition, was my most indelible memory of the film over the years. Seeing it again at last on a Criterion DVD, I recognized the circus theme as the same tune that played more softly and romantically over the opening credits. It's an impressive opening gambit to introduce this lovely piece of music, then parody it a moment later. It sets the tone for this mad gambit of a movie.

As the supplemental materials tell us, Ophuls was compelled to use color, Cinemascope, and leading lady Martine Carol by producers who improbably looked to him to create a global blockbuster. He responded to the imposition with megalomaniacal inspiration when it came to filming the circus framing sequences. Lola's circus is a surreal avalanche of color, costume and choreography on a Mammoth scale, a regimented riot of grotesquerie that may have given Fellini ideas but looks less like his work than a late Kurosawa adaptation of Dr. Seuss. Ophuls reportedly had 3,000 extras in the audience, and his instant mastery of the wide screen deepens the sense of enclosed vastness. The circus scenes are on such a higher level of artistry than the rest of the film (which I do not disparage) that you're tempted to wish that Ophuls had anticipated Lars von Trier and filmed the entire story under the big top.

George Annenkov's costumes give Lola Montes's circus scenes much of their fantastic quality.

But turning the entire film into a circus would lose the point of contrast. There are at least two, and more likely three contending narratives of the career of Lola Montes in play in Ophuls's film. There's the lurid narrative of sin and scandal sold by Peter Ustinov's ringmaster and illustrated by the circus performers; there are Lola's own flashbacks; and there's what I take to be an "objective" account of her time in the court of the King of Bavaria (the sublime Anton Walbrook). The supplements explain that Ophuls originally wanted to do a modest-budgeted black and white film about Lola's adventures in Bavaria, so I interpret the long final flashback as a remnant of the old idea and not one of Lola's subjective flashbacks. The other sequences -- a scene from an unspecified past recounting her amiable breakup with Franz Liszt and an account of teenage Lola's rebellion against her mother and first romance (with her mom's paramour) -- are more clearly from Lola's point of view. They establish her restlessness and aversion to permanence and set a pattern of perpetual travel that helped make her real life kind of a circus, at least in Ophuls's opinion.

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).

Lola Montes strikes me as more mercilessly satiric than the other more compassionate Ophuls films I've seen. Apart from the childhood flashback in which the very adult Carol plays the teen Lola and is treated as even more of a child by her mother, the main character isn't very sympathetic and her fate at the end of the picture, kept in a cage so yokels can kiss her hands for a dollar, comes across as a fitting comeuppance rather than a tragic fate. But there is something tragic about Lola, and I suppose it's what reminded me of The Wrestler when Lola, like Randy the Ram, chooses to make a climactic jump that might kill her even if she does it right. In either case, I guess, the tragedy is that the show must go on, the show being an alternative to, an escape from, ultimately a parody of real life.

Ever since the film's disastrous premiere, nearly everyone has said that Martine Carol was miscast, including the actress herself. I've never seen her in anything else that I can recall, so I can judge her only by what I see here, not previous works or preconceptions of her star persona. She's quite convincing, at age 35, as a pretty but worn-out trouper, but I can see why the same actress might not convince as the sex goddess of the 1848 generation. But she still works in those flashbacks that express her retrospective point of view. Also, I think part of the point of the film is that Lola in the flesh doesn't quite live up to the hype that was building around her and made her, like Marie Antoinette, a provocation for revolutionaries. Lola Montes was a legend in her own mind as well as a scandalous legend for the western world, but Carol's rather demoralized presence in the center ring hints at the pathetic truth behind the legend. I don't think hers is a great performance, but it works for Ophuls's purposes.
The main reason to see Lola Montes isn't anyone's performance but the tremendous visual achievement of Max Ophuls at the unwitting end of his career. It's a one-of-a-kind spectacle that was ahead of its time yet influential in spite of its initial box-office failure. An additional reason to see the Criterion DVD is an amazing 1965 French TV documentary on Ophuls. It features reminiscences from Carol, Ustinov and actors from earlier Ophuls movies, all with a busy circus backdrop inspired by Lola Montes, along with dancers representing his other films. Its nostalgia for Ophuls evokes his own nostalgia for times and places he never really knew. Lola is not his best film, but it has some of his best filmmaking, and that's some of the best you'll see from anybody.
Here's a trailer for the 2008 restoration, straight from the Criterion Collection:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

COP IN BLUE JEANS (Squadra Antiscippo, 1976)

Tourists in 1970s Italy considered it their lucky day, and perhaps the highlight of the entire trip, if they managed to catch a glimpse of a man defecating in public. Japanese visitors especially, according to Bruno Corbucci's film, were so fascinated by this picturesque slice of la dolce vita that they'd drop everything and forget their surroundings in order to take snapshots. Unfortunately, once an eccentricity becomes a trend, the criminal element takes notice. Highly organized snatch-and-grab gangs would send men out in broad daylight to drop trou and squat near hotels or wherever foreigners congregated. While the cameras flashed, the pseudo-pooper's fellow perps swooped by with practiced efficiency, relieving the tourists of their luggage before the decoy had zipped up and buckled his belt. For native victims, the plans were less elaborate: flour in the face in the marketplace, for instance. Or they dispensed with advance preparations entirely, simply snatching or grabbing on their motorcycles. Even dogs got into the act -- for what reward, who can say?

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....

The most surprising thing about this film is that it inspired 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

Wendigo Meets RISE:BLOOD HUNTER (2007)

Apart from debating the merits and flaws of The New World, I spent my time with Wendigo last weekend resuming our vampire-viewing after a few demoralized weeks in the wake of Mama Dracula. It was now time to take one from his pile, and on top was Sebastian Gutierrez's film, which saw a limited theatrical release in the U.S. before hitting DVD. I had low expectations going in, which the film easily exceeded.

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.

This was just one stop on a vengeance trail that began when Sadie, a reporter for the L.A. Weekly, wandered into a nasty part of Koreatown to investigate the disappearance of a computer hacker pal who'd been investigating a "Feeding" that would commence at a certain residence. She's captured by a cohort of villains including James D'Arcy, Carla Gugino, and the mighty 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.

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."

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....

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.

Wendigo has come to appreciate the more low-key vampire films like this one and Vampire Diary that do without wirework, CGI grr-faces and the like. The main special effect in Rise is gore, and it has plenty of that in the right places. He liked the low-power vampires and the mystery of why and how they're killed by the special crossbows created by the more mysterious Arturo. While I thought that the D'Arcy as the film's villain was too low-key, too bland or generic (Brit accent included), Wendigo finds that an advantage. D'Arcy is no Prince or Count but a small-timer who has apparently pushed Arturo out of power in their little group. It's suggested that Arturo helps Sadie as part of a play to regain power, but it's never clear whether we should take this at face value, and the truth may have been saved for a sequel that'll never be made. In any event, Wendigo fits this into a subgenre of "white trash vampire" or "modern gypsy" stories that downplay the fantastic elements in favor of a noirish lowlife milieu.

Sex is an important element in Rise, but also an ambiguous one. Sadie's sexuality is left a mystery. We see her seducing both a woman and a man, but in each case it's a means to a more sinister end, and we notice that the female vampire who turns her seems to have a fatal-attraction crush on her. We can't tell how Sadie swung in life, but it almost seems irrelevant to the vampire's hunting habits. We were looking at the "Unrated Undead" edition of the film, which is nearly a half-hour longer than the theatrical cut, with much of the extra footage featuring a topless or nude Liu. That gives Rise a little of the look of "urban fantasy" fiction but dispenses almost entirely with the literature's toolkit of supernatural races and hierarchies. It may have evolved more along urban-fantasy lines if it had actually launched a series, especially if they kept Chiklis as Liu's partner. He grounds the story in the noir tradition by playing an archetypal flawed and obsessed lawman. Chiklis is good in the role, and helps maintain the low-key tone by not freaking out at discovering the supernatural, but you can't help feeling that the film doesn't get its actor's worth. You can't help but wonder how 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


For some movie lovers, the burning question of 2010 is whether Terrence Malick's new film, The Tree of Life, will be released this year. Malick has released four feature films in the last 37 years, but he's picked up the pace lately. His first film, Badlands, appeared in 1973. I was first attracted to it by the juxtaposition of Carl Orff's music and a tale of a spree-killer and his girlfriend in 1950s America. It used to be on TV fairly frequently and I remember liking it whenever I saw it. Days of Heaven came out in 1978. I was less impressed by that one when I finally saw it but I admired the cinematography and the recreation of early 20th century rural America. Malick then fell silent for twenty years. He broke the silence with The Thin Red Line, the second film version of James Jones's novel. This promised to be an epic moment, especially since Steven Spielberg had already thrown down a mighty World War II film, Saving Private Ryan, earlier in 1998. I hastened to the multiplex for the opening weekend of Malick's film and was crushingly disappointed. It looked as nice as all his films, and I understood that he had different concerns on a different scale from Spielberg's. But as I saw it there had not been such an awkward juxtaposition of lofty ambition and crass commercialism since The Greatest Story Ever Told. Malick had loaded the film with major star cameos, some (like George Clooney's) of alarming brevity. Worse, he seemed more reliant on voiceovers than ever, and these internal monologues were often breathtakingly vapid. But many people revere the film, and not just as a club to beat Spielberg with. Some viewers were simply overwhelmed by the visuals, and others sympathized with what I took to be Malick's pantheistic "one big soul" worldview.

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.

This is Malick's version of the Jamestown epic, the legend of John Smith, Pocahontas and John Rolfe. At first it reminded me too much for comfort of The Thin Red Line, as it opens with similar underwater footage of frolicking natives. It looked, too, like Malick was setting up the now-conventional conflict of rapacious, hypocritically savage Englishmen with harmonious Natives (or "Naturals"). With this available, I thought, who needs Avatar? -- and I mean that visually, too, since cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki does wonders with the locations and seasons that really compare favorably with what I've seen of James Cameron's idyll. The New World is one of the most beautiful films I've seen in a long time, but for a while it threatened to be a beautiful emptiness, which pretty much describes Colin Farrell as John Smith. This man's alleged stardom has long baffled me. Is it his big soulful eyes? Does he project a sensitivity to which I'm insensitive. I really don't get it. I got it still less when he played Malick's conception of Smith as more of a naive seeker than a swashbuckling freebooter. Much of the time Farrell does little but wander about and stare at the landscape or, more understandably, at Pocahantas as the inevitable voiceovers droned on.

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


It's been a long time since I saw an African film, and as I try to catch up with the late decade in order to compose a Top 25 for the Wonders in the Dark poll I thought I should check out the final movie by Sembene Ousmane, the Senegalese auteur generally hailed as the father of the African feature film. This valedictory effort got a lot of positive attention in the art house community when it reached America because Sembene was tackling the subject of female genital mutilation and taking the understandably progressive view that it's a bad thing. He was bound to be cheered for his message alone, but how was Moolaade as cinema?

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.

The village has an ambivalent relationship to the modern world. Their main daily link is the local merchant, Mercenaire, who seems to make most of his money from batteries and day-old bread from the big city. The batteries run radios and the radios play modern music and commentaries that challenge local traditions. The elders will blame radios for subverting their authority and confiscate them from their wives, building a mound destined to become a bonfire of vanities. Mercenaire himself has seen the wider world; he was a UN peacekeeper who was busted for exposing corruption among his superiors, or so he says. We learn later that he's ripping off the villagers, overcharging them for the bread and probably for other stuff. On the other hand, he clearly disapproves of how the elders (including the female Salimbana) try to break Colle's will, and he's the one who finally steps up to defend her when her husband publicly whips her (albeit goaded himself by his cousin) in an attempt to force her to say the word that will revoke the Moolaade. He pays a dire price for interfering. But while Mercenaire is scapegoated as a representative of subversive modernity, the village is really very dependent on the chief's son Ibrahima, who brings home the big bucks by working in France. Among the things he brings home on his latest visit (when Colle's daughter hopes he'll marry her) is a TV set. Ibrahima is quite westernized, switching back and forth from native to European dress and recognizing Mercenaire's literary references. You expect him to become the hero of the picture, but Mercenaire beats him to the punch, and his own conflict with his father sometimes looks like that of a spoiled brat with a petty tyrant bickering (literally) over TV privileges. It's not until a critical mass of village women take Colle's side after another botched Purification that Ibrahima takes a decisive stand that seems to assure a happy ending.

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.

Watching the film in cinematic-tourist mode, I was dazzled by Moolaade's artistry. Its village setting (in Burkina Faso) at first seems so abstract to the western eye, what with its eccentric mosque and Gaudi-like giant anthill, that it looks like a Tim Burton set. In time it takes on a lived-in quality and its strangeness doesn't stick out as much, but Sembene still exploits the architecture for starkly powerful effect. The defining shots of the film may be those that juxtapose three rival monuments: the mosque, the anthill (said to house the spirit of a defeated king) and the growing pile (later pyre) of radios -- some of which the elders don't even bother turning off. Sembene and cinematographer Dominique Gentil also have a strong shared eye for color in landcape and costume; this film is always great to look at. The actors are constrained by their good guy/bad guy assignments. Fatoumata Coulibaly is appropriately stalwart as Colle, but Dominique Zeida nearly steals the film, in my eyes, as Mercenaire, the most complex character.

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: