Saturday, July 30, 2011
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
Our protagonist is Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), who corrects papers for a correspondence school that relocated its headquarters for the duration. Her husband is gone and she's sent her daughter to be taken care of in the country. With most of the young men gone and with the Italians more an object of curiosity than anything else, the atmosphere isn't exactly oppressive at first. In fact, it seems fraught with transgressive potential to the Barny, who struggles with an unanticipated infatuation with her supervisor Sabine, whom she describes as an amazon and a samurai (!!!). She wants her friends to know that she's attracted to Sabine to the extent that the tall, composed woman resembles a handsome young man -- and this caveat seems sincere, considering that she soon becomes infatuated with one of the few remaining handsome young men in town, our title character (Jean-Paul Belmondo).
Father Morin prefers resisting temptation to resisting occupation for some reason.Leon Morin, Pretre certainly has a different atmosphere from any Melville film I've seen to date. This tale of the Occupation has a perversely idyllic feel. Barny's community is a place where the girls gush over the Italians and their feathered hats, and where Barny's little girl France (where else can a child be named after her country?) befriends a gentle German soldier. Melville makes a point of never showing the Resistance in action, though they're often heard offscreen. We hardly see the bad guys do more than parade or drill; a German hassles Barny at a checkpoint once, but lets her go with little fuss. In fact, her greatest peril comes after the Americans liberate the town; a G.I. is persuaded only with great effort by his buddy not to rape our heroine. We're dealing with people out of the loop of history, who aren't part of the heroic national narrative of Resistance but aren't collaborators either -- for the most part. Life goes on, but not quite, and disruptions like Barny's successive crushes result.
Sexual harrassment or just plain harrassment? The office is Barny's battlefield in this war.
Leon Morin is proof that Melville wasn't a creature of genre but had visual and narrative gifts to bring to any story material. He makes Barny's flirtation with Morin nearly as intriguing as any of his capers or chases in his classic crime stories. I'm not ready to rank this one above his later crime epics -- except perhaps for Un Flic -- but Morin is still an impressive achievement, and one that has me impatient for Criterion to haul in the rest of the Melvilles I haven't seen. How about this time next year?
For now, how about a trailer? This one, with English subtitles, was uploaded to YouTube by ClassicMovieTrailers.
Monday, July 25, 2011
The plot of The Sun is pretty simple. Japan is defeated, and Hirohito (Issei Ogata) goes through his daily routine while pondering a speech in which he would explain Japan's entry into the war and its defeat while renouncing his divine status. As if anticipating The King's Speech, Sokurov presents the emperor as a man of halting speech. Hirohito has a strange habit of mouthing silent words while others are talking -- it's so strange that I was tempted to think some dubbing disaster had been perpetrated, even though the film is largely in Japanese. The idea of a speech renouncing divinity and absolute power is also reminiscent of the finale of The Great Dictator, but in The Sun the protagonist is never shown delivering his big address. We learn, however, that the emperor's sound technician subsequently killed himself. But I get ahead of myself. The first half of the picture is a day in the life of Hirohito. He's woken and dressed by his servants and steered toward a military briefing where army and navy representatives bicker over who screwed up worse. The emperor quotes poetry at them but also warns that the price of peace may be too great to bear.
Then it's off to his favorite time of the day, doing research in his personal marine biology lab, though his impending apologia still weighs on him even here. But his hobby bleeds into his dreams during his nap time in a surreal, Toho-on-acid CGI sequence in which Tokyo is bombed by giant fish, whales and other airborne marine life. Personal time follows, during which he struggles to compose poetry in the ancient aristocratic fashion. He ends up flipping through his photo albums, one of his family (he kisses a shot of his wife and child), one of movie stars. Sokurov pauses significantly over two shots of Chaplin.
The emperor is summoned to his first audience with the Supreme Commander of the Allied occupation, Gen. Douglas MacArthur (a Metaluna-headed and utterly inadequate Robert Dawson). Hirohito attempts to converse in English despite the protests of a Japanese interpreter that it'd be ungodly of him to do so. A preoccupied if not bored MacArthur quickly dismisses him and then wonders aloud: the emperor reminds him of someone, but who? Later, Hirohito agrees to pose for photos by the American press. At first the shutterbugs don't recognize the unassuming figure who shuffles their way, but recognition follows recognition. "Charlie! That's who he is!" one photog yells, "Charlie Chaplin!" Afterward, the emperor asks an aide if he really does look like Chaplin. The aide demurs, explaining that he doesn't go to the movies. Hirohito says the same thing, though the photo album makes his response not perfectly honest, and the question does nag at him. Something gives the next time he visits MacArthur, in a setting more sumptuous than the emperor's own quarters. Left alone for a moment, Hirohito can't resist an impulse to get up and start dancing around the room in what's obviously a directorial nod to The Great Dictator's globe dance and may also be intended as the emperor's own invocation of Chaplin.
The age of the dictators was also the age of Chaplin, a fact memorialized by The Great Dictator, in which the comedian acknowledged some affinity between himself as autocratic auteur and the arch-despot of Europe. As if exorcising some demon he saw in himself, Chaplin split himself in two for that film, playing a Tramp-like innocent as well as Adenoid Hynkel and saving for the climax the moment when the little man mounts the platform to preach to the world. With Hirohito, Sokurov seems to be attempting a re-synthesis of the two Chaplinesque figures. The Russian director is clearly intrigued by a paradox Chaplin had not imagined: the "little man" who happens to hold absolute power -- or something like it -- by right of birth. The closest the comedian came to that was the gag he created to amuse Douglas Fairbanks on the set of Robin Hood, when he had a massive drawbridge lowered across a moat so he could shuffle out and fetch the morning paper on the other side. And A King in New York is not quite the same thing as Sokurov's idea. Yet Chaplin seems to be a key to the resolution of the plot. Arguably, in being compared to Chaplin, even in mockery, Hirohito is still partaking of a kind of divine essence, one he appears to claim for himself by dancing in MacArthur's quarters. A formal renunciation of divinity is just a technicality. While Sokurov doesn't stress this point too much, the emperor will only exchange the mythological divinity of a god-king for the modern divinity of celebrity that Chaplin did much to define.
Pictorially speaking, the stunt nature of Russian Ark apparently concealed that Sokurov, on this film's evidence, isn't much of a cinematic stylist. While Hirohito's dream is an inspired moment, most of the CGI employed here to establish exteriors is much less impressive. Sokurov doesn't seem very interested in the composition of a frame, though some stagings, like the emperor's discovery of GIs on his front lawn, are nicely done. Most of the time the direction is fairly stiff, and the fact that the director is working in two foreign languages probably doesn't help things. An American viewer expects MacArthur to be a stronger, more flamboyant personality even if that doesn't fit Sokurov's scheme of things, but Robert Dawson is hopeless in what proves a thankless role. It's hard to appraise Ogata because of the tics Sokurov imposes on him, but at a minimum the actor keeps you interested in the character and earns a little pathos even as Hirohito proves something of a dunderhead or a boor. Finally, what Sokurov does well is convey ideas through images and editing in the honorable Russian tradition -- that is, if I've gotten the actual point of the film. If I have, it's an interesting enough point and one illustrated subtly enough to make The Sun stimulating viewing and prove Sokurov more than a one-hit wonder.
Saturday, July 23, 2011
In fact, there's a kind of cruel hook for moviegoers in the latest Captain America #1. It features the funeral of Peggy Carter, a long-established figure in Steve Rogers's comic-book history and a prominent character in Johnston's film. Dead of natural causes at age 91, Peggy is survived by her niece Sharon -- who, in a twist moviegoers may find icky, is Steve Rogers's current love interest and partner in action. At her funeral is the "real" Nick Fury, a man who fought at Cap's side in World War II but somehow also attained extended youth and vitality, and an eyepatch, as the head of SHIELD. Moviegoers will recognize the red moustache and derby hat of Dum-Dum Dugan, Fury's right-hand man from the days of the Howling Commandos to the present, also unnaturally well preserved. No matter what number you slap on the cover, there's no escaping history in a Captain America comic, though you can sometimes avoid excessive continuity in getting to the heart of things. Cap is always going to be about history, and the people at Marvel Entertainment know this. That's why they set their story during Cap's glory days of World War II, except for present-day bookends and a dull thud of an ending that mars what otherwise may be the best of the "Avengers" series so far.
With The First Avenger (as the film is known in countries where "Captain America" isn't necessarily welcome on the marquee) you begin to see the cumulative benefit of Marvel's mythos-building. There's a little thrill that an old comics fan may feel more than others at seeing pieces of a puzzle connect, especially in a movie set decades prior to all the other Avengers films. The early invocation of Norse mythology makes Thor relevant to the project in a way the movie from earlier this year barely managed on its own. More significant and appealing is the large role given to Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Tony's dad who was seen in film clips and flashbacks in Iron Man 2 and who here is the spitting image of how Tony Stark himself was drawn in the original Iron Man comics. This is an innovation of the moviemakers, since neither Howard nor Tony Stark existed in the minds of Jack Kirby or Joe Simon (the latter still living as the last major creative figure from the Golden Age) when they invented Cap in 1941. Captain America is the rug that really pulls the room full of Marvel movies together and gives the Marvel movie universe a history distinct from official Marvel history, however often rebooted, or the "Ultimate" variant that has influenced much of the movies' environment, most notably (or regrettably) in the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as the insufferable Nick Fury. The First Avenger actually missed an opportunity to build more mythos by linking Jackson's Fury to a "historical" Nick Fury whom Cap should have encountered with the rest of the Howling Commandos in a Hydra prison camp.
Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely dramatically redefine Captain America in a way that makes the super soldier more heroic and more sympathetic for modern audiences. As always, Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) starts as the proverbial 90-pound weakling yearning to join the military, albeit with more urgency than the original, since here he doesn't become a super soldier until after Pearl Harbor, while Simon and Kirby launched Cap in 1941 to fight Fifth Columnists and saboteurs while America prepared for a war that still might not come to this country. In a tremendous reversal of comics lore, Bucky Barnes, who in the comics was a juvenile Army mascot who became Cap's Robin-like sidekick, is here Steve Rogers's more manly pal, practically his idol, who makes it into the army when Steve can't. In the 1941 origin story Steve is his original sickly self for no more than a page or two, but in the movie he pays his dues in feeble form for nearly an hour, earning our respect for his grit, his enmity toward bullies of all types, his desperate eagerness to serve his country, his bravery (he's the first to throw himself on a grenade in a test) and his intelligence (he figures out how to capture a flag in the most practical way after fellow recruits fail to shinny up the flagpole). All these things impress emigre German scientist Dr. Erskine (a warm Stanley Tucci), who decides that Steve is most qualified to take the super soldier serum because he is not a bully like many of his fellow recruits, because despite his eagerness to enlist he can't answer Erskine's question, "Do you want to kill Nazis?" with a simple yes. Steve doesn't want to kill anyone -- but he'll do it if he has to because he won't let the bullies win.
Steve undergoes the transformation in traditional style, and after the successful experiment Dr. Erskine is killed by a Nazi agent as he was in the original comic. That episode always left me wondering why the saboteur waited until after Erskine created a super-soldier to pull his gun out. Wouldn't you want to stop that from happening? But maybe he had instructions like Moe Berg, the baseball catcher turned spy, had when he was sent to hear Werner Heisenberg lecture in a neutral country. According to legend, Berg was to kill the German scientist only if he inferred from the lecture that Heisenberg was close to solving the riddle of the atom bomb. Why take chances, I'd ask, but I suppose that's why I'm not a super hero. Anyway, in another major diversion from Golden Age lore, the Army takes the creation of a single super soldier as a failure of Erskine's project, and even after Roges makes headlines capturing the Nazi after an exhilarating chase through Brooklyn, Col. Phillips (an effortlessly entertaining Tommy Lee Jones) assigns Steve to tests in New Mexico, only to be overruled by a Senator who sends "Captain America" (so named for the first time) on a War Bonds tour. The picture suddenly becomes a delirious amalgam of Flags of Our Fathers and Tucker: The Man and His Dream as Rogers is compelled to be a musical-comedy superhero fake slugging a fake Hitler in a stage revue as chorus girls cheer him on in song. He goes over big with the civilians, but dogfaces in Europe are far less impressed when the Captain goes on a morale-boosting tour. He'll soon get a chance to change their minds.
Cap is finally in a position to confront his Nazi counterpart, the disfigured occultist Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) who had been Erskine's first experiment, at Hitler's command. Schmidt proved Erskine's theory that the super soldier serum makes good men great and bad men worse by becoming a bald, noseless, red-faced lunatic. In short, he becomes the Red Skull, but the writers are strangely reluctant to so label him. If I remember right, the name is used just once in the entire picture. Otherwise, and even after the Skull gives up wearing his Hugo Weaving mask, he remains "Johann Schmidt" to his enemies. I'm not complaining; I just find it a little odd. Also odd is the movie's contribution to Marvel Comics's overall dehistoricization of World War II. Schmidt is the head (and mind you, there's really just one) of Hydra, the Third Reich's special occult research unit. In Marvel Comics, Hydra was invented in the 1960s as a collective antagonist for The Avengers and SHIELD. There were always former Nazis involved with this group, but Marvel has over time retconned World War II to make Hydra a kind of power behind the Nazi throne. In their current Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes cartoon, an apparent aversion to invoking Nazism in animation results in an extreme rewriting of history in which Hydra itself is the principal aggressor in the war. Captain America doesn't go that far, but it does indulge in the whimsy that Hydra is worse than Hitler because of Schmidt's interest in marrying occult power sources to super-modern technology in a manner much inspired, I suspect, by Mike Mignola's Hellboy mythos. Schmidt soon relegates Nazism to the background as Cap and his new army buddies (including Bucky) have to stop a Hydra-initiated attack from destroying not just the major allied cities, but Berlin as well. By that point I'd imagine that Cap would get some support from the Wehrmacht and the SS, but Hitler suddenly seems to be powerless in his own land, as if the movie, like the cartoon, is uncomfortable with Nazism, or the writers are afraid that Claude Lanzmann or Jean-Luc Godard will take them to task for trivializing the Shoah or something.
So it's all action from that point on, and Johnston deserves a ton of credit for directing it with a clarity and an eye for the dramatic or iconic pulp image that eludes so many other action-spectacle directors these days. The director of The Rocketeer clearly revels in a return to an era he clearly loves, and both cinematographer Shelly Johnson and production designer Rick Heinrichs clearly share the love. The art direction is more of a special effect than the film's modest 3D conversion, and the retro-spectacle of it all should attract movie fans who are otherwise wary of superhero films. The greatest effect of all is the by now familiar and pretty much seamless process that grafts Chris Evans's head onto Steve Rogers's original puny body. Working only with his face, Evans makes the illusion believable, and the actor really is a revelation here. Like Thor, Captain America has to sell its star as someone who can share the screen with Robert Downey next year and not be reduced to wallpaper. Chris Hemsworth more or less passed the test this spring, and Evans passes with flying colors. He is the Steve Rogers of the comics, only more so. With the ordeal of his media exploitation and humiliation following the ordeal of his years of weakness, Evans expresses a frustration with his wasted potential that everyone can identify with in some way while remaining a sensitive soul who's still inexperienced (though not cartoonishly naive) in many ways. His power fantasy comes with constant disillusionment and loss, but neither the power nor the losses compromise his goodness and idealism. It's still an open question how Evans will do alongside Downey, but now it's a question I'm interested in seeing answered -- even if that proves my only reason to see The Avengers next year.
Captain America may have the best ensemble cast of any Avengers film to date. Hayley Atwell gives a star-making turn as the kick-ass glamorous Agent Carter, and Dominic Cooper (the second actor to play Howard Stark) helps energize every scene he's in. All the battle-happy joes of the precociously multicultural Howling Commandos are engaging and likable. Toby Jones bids to be the modern Peter Lorre as Arnim Zola, the Red Skull's chief assistant who's doomed to become a TV-headed cyborg in 1970s comics. Tommy Lee Jones presumably is in this movie for the same reason Anthony Hopkins was in Thor: prestige. But if this movie proves anything, it's that Jones can't phone in a performance. While Hopkins (under a Shakespearean's direction) does little more than yell, Jones plays his lines like curmudgeonly music, and you hang on his every word. Jones may not be the greater actor (though he certainly is now), this star turn may show that he's a greater star, that a "Tommy Lee Jones" part is inherently superior to an "Anthony Hopkins" part. I suppose that if they traded parts we'd really see who's better. But Jones helps make Captain America vastly superior to Thor, as does just about everyone involved in the new film. The First Avenger arrives at a moment of talk about "superhero fatigue," but it'd be a shame if that fatigue causes people to miss one of the most exhilarating expressions of that beleaguered genre.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler, above) loses her honor -- in a more manly sense of the word -- to investigator Beizmenne (Mario Adorf, below left) and reporter Toetges (Dieter Laser, right).
Lacking in subtlety, Die verlorene Ehre is best taken as an artifact of its time, with a good helping of documentary matter like the Boll documentary included on the Criterion Collection DVD. It gives you a strong sense of the troubled times in West Germany and the state-of-siege climate in which the story grew from novel to film. Don't pick this one if you want a nuanced portrait of the era. Schlondorff and Von Trotta were out to make people angry, and on that level, and given the tale's fresh relevance, it's a two-fisted success.
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Chato's Land is the story of a posse's pursuit of a half-breed who killed a racist sheriff and the breed's turning of the tables on his pursuers. Chato shot the sheriff to save himself from summary execution for the crime of drinking in a white man's saloon. As he flees the scene, Gerry Wilson's screenplay takes its time introducing us to the members of the posse. Most prominent and flamboyant, at first, is Quincey (Jack Palance), a former Confederate soldier and more recent U.S. Army scout and Indian fighter. His donning of his old Rebel coat is a sign of bad new, especially given when this movie was made, but Palance's performance is one of many ways the film defies our expectations. We expect him to play a racist fanatic leading the posse to doom, but while Quincey certainly sees the hunt for Chato as a nostalgic chance for fresh military glory, the film is very much the story of his disillusionment. Compared to many of his fellow westerners -- especially the crew led by Jubal Hooker (Simon Oakland), Quincey comes across as an intelligent, moderate and ultimately weak man. The hunt evolves into a power struggle between Quincey and Jubal, in which Jubal's unrelenting hatred for Indians and the loyalty of his kinfolk give him advantages that outweigh Quincey's experience and wisdom. Along with these, the posse picks up a number of people, played by a formidable gang of character actors, who join with different degrees of enthusiasm -- many have work to do on their land -- but a common sense of communal obligation to fight Indians. One family refuses to join, their barechested patriarch chasing the posse away at gunpoint. He makes such a forceful impression that you expect to see him again, but you won't. His sole purpose in the film is to show us the only way anyone could avoid what's to come.
Chato doesn't go out of his way to kill his pursuers. In the first half of the film, he's only interested in getting them off his back. If he can do that by sabotaging their water supply or scaring off their horses, fine. He just wants to get back to his family and back to work catching wild horses. He makes it, but the posse, helped by a half-Yacqui tracker, never falls too far behind. While Chato hunts horses, the posse finds his wife. Jubal's boys are determined to rape her, while Quincey and the others who are plainly appalled by the idea find themselves powerless -- or simply lacking the will -- to stop the atrocity. A posse is not an army, Quincey concedes, and his uniform gives him no special authority over Jubal or his kin. When the rapists stake the wife out naked to insult and lure Chato into an ambush, Quincey insists on covering her with a blanket, but Jubal's crew won't have it. As it happens, Chato creates a distraction that enables him to free his wife, but his partner in the horse business is killed in the fighting. He now has two offenses to avenge, and now he fights to kill.
Along the way, Wilson and Winner have tempted us to differentiate between the real scumbags like Jubal and the men with remnants or rudiments of decency like Quincey. Viewers are likely to divide the posse into those they want to see die and those they'd rather see live. The problem is, Chato doesn't differentiate. As far as we know, he wants to see the whole posse dead, not knowing who did or didn't rape his wife. As the hunted becomes the hunter and the fiftysomething Bronson strips down to wiry, loinclothed virility, the movie becomes a stark, unsettling parable of collective responsibility. If the first half of the film was a fairly familiar Vietnam metaphor, the second half is a nightmare of revolutionary retribution, a rage and a reckoning that'll spare no one. It belies the logic of the traditional western, which is spelled out in lines lifted nearly verbatim from John Ford's The Searchers about how an Indian will only keep after something for only so long, while the American will keep at it to the bitter end. In Chato's Land it's the Indian, the breed -- the Other -- who is unrelenting, just as the posse turns upon itself. The film grows unpredictable as the confrontations we've been long expecting -- Quincey vs. Chato or Jubal vs. Chato -- are denied us, until we're left with the two most sympathetic or least offensive members of the posse, one of whom is killed with sudden bluntness, falling face-first into a fire. The film closes with one man desperately stumbling through hopeless terrain as Chato watches like an impassive, implacable pagan god.
Bronson doesn't have to do much more than be a presence here, but to be such a presence at his age, at that time, is an impressive feat. Among his antagonists, Palance clearly stands out with what may be one of his best performances, but the ensemble that includes Oakland, James Whitmore, Richard Basehart, Richard Jordan and others is uniformly interesting, each developing a distinctive personality grounded in the life he left behind. Some, like Oakland and Jordan, are over-the-top monsters, but that's necessary for the film to have its effect by making other characters more likable but no less vulnerable.
Chato's Land is an American western filmed in spaghetti territory, and maybe a director who is neither American nor Italian is ideally suited to split the difference, combining the brutality and stark landscapes of the spaghettis with the American commitment to more rounded character development and an introspective quality characteristic of the Seventies. The film may look Italian to an extent, but Jerry Fielding's score reinforces its American essence. Audiences in 1972 may have cheered Bronson on here as they would when Death Wish played, but Chato's Land is, in a sense, a more politically correct vigilante movie and a more honestly disturbing one for daring Americans to imagine themselves, to the extent that they identify with any of the posse members, as targets for a revenge that isn't fair, but might be just.
Notice how the trailer makes the posse look like complete aggressors, leaving no hint of Chato's original offense. It comes from the VideoDetective website.
Sunday, July 17, 2011
Wendigo quickly pegged Nadja as having been largely inspired by Lambert Hillyer's Universal horror film Dracula's Daughter. Our title character (Elina Loewensohn) is the daughter of the famous vampire, who is represented in flashback by a clip of Bela Lugosi from the public-domain White Zombie and long shots of a caped man walking on a melancholy cliff. Nadja and her more benign and sickly twin brother Edgar (Jared Harris) were born of the Count's last-chance romance with a gypsy girl centuries ago, their mother's demise having demoralized the master vampire and set him back to his evil ways.
Dracula has just been killed -- in New York City -- by the eccentric Van Helsing (Peter Fonda), "Uncle Van" to his family, who has to get bailed out of jail at the start of the film. His legal jeopardy is one of the main points of resemblance to Dracula's Daughter. Another is Nadja's initial dissatisfaction with her vampiric lot, and another still is her sapphic infatuation with Lucy (Galaxy Craze), the equally dissatisfied wife of Van's nephew Jim (Martin Donovan). Lucy soon develops enhanced strength and speed (the latter illustrated by jump cuts) and even deeper detachment from the world around her, while Jim and Van race against time to save this "apprentice in the realm of darkness" from being totally turned. Meanwhile, assisted by her faithful chauffeur Renfield, Nadja tries to extract Edgar from the care of his beloved nurse Cassandra (Suzy Amis), another of Van's relatives, and get him back on the rare shark-embryo plasma treatment that keeps him healthy. Edgar resists Nadja's control and joins Van, Jim and Lucy in Transylvania, where Nadja has fled with Cassandra in the hope of a new lease on life....
The vampire test: can Martin Donovan see Galaxy Craze's reflection in Peter Fonda's mirrorshades?
Wendigo gives Nadja credit for a good thematic idea that makes the movie as much a satire of Dracula itself as a riff on Dracula's Daughter. Much as Stoker's vampire touted England's vitality to explain his interest in moving there, Nadja is first seen talking about the energy and excitement of America. But over the course of the film, it becomes clear -- if only because Cassandra finally spells it out for us -- that the vitality vampires hope to thrive on has been replaced by a level of alienation and ennui that finally compels Nadja to flee, like Dracula in the novel, back to her homeland. That may also have had something to do with the exhaustion Van Helsing claims to have seen in Dracula himself. Wendigo also likes the idea that vampirism can be inherited through heredity, but not automatically, or at least not in its full virulence. But while Wendigo can give Almereyda some intellectual credit, he feels that the cinematic realization of the idea left a lot to be desired. While he applauds the monochrome cinematography by Jim Denault and the overall production design of Kurt Ossenfort, he thinks that the story lacked dramatic coherence. Ennui is something hard to put on film in a compelling manner, and if anything the actors express it all too accurately. Elisa Loewensohn has an interesting, maybe even a "cool" look, but her performance as Nadja is so low-key that Wendigo found the character unengaging -- though he blames the director for that. She failed to draw this vampire-buff into the picture, and the other actors did even less. Peter Fonda has the impossible task of playing a crazy man in a dull way in keeping with Almereyda's overall tone. He ends up virtually confirming his stoner stereotype with a too-subdued performance in a role that probably needed Dennis Hopper instead -- though Hopper would certainly have been too intense for this movie. Martin Donovan is no better as the male lead, and while the male lead is often dull in this sort of movie, but Donovan renders Jim a spectator in his own story. The other principal females -- Galaxy Craze and Suzy Amis -- made little impression, but were hardly allowed to.
Transylvania: myth and 'reality'
Almereyda is a pretentious director aligned with David Lynch, who has a producer credit and a bit part as a security guard. The product of this union is a picture with much gratuitous pseudo-surrealism, most notably the heavily-pixeled toy-camera shots that Wendigo assumes are meant to represent the "realm of darkness" juxtaposed over our own. More examples of self-conscious absurdity include Lucy's bobble-head Dracula Christmas tree ornament and the director's representation of Transylvania with a shot of a child in Mickey Mouse ears cavorting near a smoldering trash can. These bits do little to enhance the mood or make a point; they are weirdness for its own sake, self-indulgence in the guise of art -- or comedy. The way I see it, a great director could get away with a film about ennui if he can compensate pictorially to give it the life he's denied the actors. Wendigo feels the same way but would rather put it more bluntly: no amount of artistry makes up for the lack of a strong script and good acting. Of the two vampire indies of 1994-5, The Addiction had those in abundance, while Nadja is ultimately less inspired, or at least less inspiring, than it thinks it is.
Here's a "psychic fax" from 1995 -- the theatrical trailer, uploaded to YouTube by gene9000.
Friday, July 15, 2011
The mystery is the shooting of an honest contractor in the road-construction business in a sun-baked Sicilian town. Most people's first instinct is to ignore the crime; a busload of passengers would have looked right past the corpse had a carabinieri officer not also been on board. A young detective from "the north," Bellodi (Franco Nero) is the new officer in charge in town, a position that we soon realize is a revolving door to futility. The local mafioso, Don Mariano (an unwell-looking Lee J. Cobb) has seen the authorities come and go while he remains in power. I mean that literally: Mariano's house in the center of town and carabinieri headquarters look out at each other across a little public square. Bellodi presumes Mariano to be behind the killing of a businessman who wouldn't play ball with the mafia, but he has no evidence yet. However, the killing took place in plain view of the Nicolosi house, and as it happens the man of the house has disappeared, leaving his wife Rosa (Cardinale) alone. Has he left because he was the killer, or was he removed because he saw something he shouldn't have?
Bellodi's methods are manipulative if not Macchiavellian. With further evidence unlikely to turn up, he has to resort to trickery and outright lying to get people to open up or betray themselves. He tells Rosa that her husband has been found dead -- a lie -- just to see how she'll react, who she'll instinctively blame. Later, he'll confront crooks with fake confessions, hoping that they'll tell the truth if they think their pals are tossing them under the bus. His strategy is to compel someone into thinking their only option is to finger the real killer of the contractor or reveal where Nicolosi can be found. But his adversaries are just as good at lying as he is, if not better. They want Bellodi to believe that Nicolosi killed the contractor because the victim was having an affair with Rosa. When Bellodi deduces a different story and has Mariano and his cohorts arrested, the remaining mafiosi form a united front with an indifferent criminal justice system (Mariano is on good terms with the local ruling party) to overwhelm Bellodi's case with their own perjuries. Before long there's a new sheriff in town, so to speak, but a victorious Mariano finds himself missing Bellodi, whom he could at least respect as a worthy foe. The new man, like so many others, strikes the Don as just another "quack-quack-quack" -- like his own minions who quack in amused chorus when the worst is over. Maybe the story should have been called Day of the Duck.
Given the cast and the literary pedigree, Mafia is no B-movie or genre picture and doesn't strive for sensationalism. We have the one shooting, and one corpse found later, and an attempted rape of Cardinale's character that doesn't go very far. Damiani's film stands or falls on conventional dramatic terms. On the director's part, the real strength of the picture is its sense of place. The square with the police station and the Don's house at opposite ends and characters constantly going in and out of jail or paying court to Mariano, is an ideal and picturesque dramatic space. On the outskirts of town, Tonino Delli Colli's cinematography gives you a strong sense of the wide-open, sun-blasted and grungy environment of road construction, the mundane business of a small-town mafia.
Mafia is not a great mafia movie, but it's an interesting pop-culture artifact of 1960s Italy. In a way, it may have been a necessary prelude to the tough-cop movies of 1970s Italy, since it can't help leaving audiences frustrated at the triumph of injustice and probably wishing that someone would just lash out at organized crime. Damiani's film portrays something closer to the glum reality against which cinema would react with a vengeance.
Tuesday, July 12, 2011
In America, Herzog is probably better known as a documentarian than for his epic features of the 1970s and 1980s. Given his cartoonish accent and his globetrotting proclivities, he's our modern-day Jacques Cousteau, or maybe a real-life Steve Zissou. But he also remains a pictorial genius and a postmodern primitive who synthesizes classical narrative cinema and the pre-Hollywood model of the cinema of attractions. He can tell stories, but his first impulse is always to show us something amazing, whether it's the Iraqi oil fields burning or Klaus Kinski dining alone. It was an inspired decision to let him have a 3D camera and enter the Chauvet cave to show us the oldest-known artwork by human beings.
Discovered only in the 1990s, the cave paintings were preserved after a long-ago rockslide sealed the original entrance. To protect the precious pictures from the ravages of tourism, access is strictly limited, and those limitations are part of the genius of Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog has an unparalleled opportunity to work, but he's also under extraordinary constraints. He can only bring three crewmembers down with him, they can film usually only for an hour at a time, and they cannot step off the pathways the preservationists have installed. Under these conditions the director behaves himself. Faced with the mystery of what can be seen on the other side of an overhang which features the only human representation at Chauvet (a woman's rear end), he ultimately contrives a pole which he can extend out to the other side while remaining on the walkway. Herzog is nothing if not a problem solver.
He also makes the best use of 3D that I can imagine. The technology still has its limitations; compositions in depth can still look a lot like layers of transparencies rather than figures in actual space. But Herzog plays to the technology's strengths -- he may even have discovered strengths hitherto unknown. He'll give you what you expect, directing a scholar to brandish a spear at the camera. But what he excels at is the close-up examination of texture, the interplay of light and shadow on contoured surfaces. He believes that the Chauvet painters exploited the contours of the cave walls for effects (hence the necessity of 3D) and wants to convince us that the paintings are not just the earliest human pictures but the earliest moving pictures. As he presents them, you can almost buy his argument. You can believe that the multiple legs on the creatures are meant to represent movement, and you can believe that they might have been part of a presentation in which select images were illuminated by torchlight one at a time in narrative fashion. That's really more my idea than Herzog's, but his ideas get you thinking. In any event, his close-up in-depth shots of the paintings are extraordinary, as are the panning shots that try to catch the paintings in full.
Herzog is famously disparaging toward the work of Jean-Luc Godard -- once saying that there was more pure cinema in kung-fu movies -- but Cave of Forgotten Dreams finds him expressing Godard-like skepticism about the communicative power of images. What can the Chauvet paintings really tell us about the people who painted them? Not much, really. Other evidence tells us that the cave wasn't used as a human dwelling. Did it serve some ritual role? One piece of evidence, a bear skull mounted on an altar-like rock, is suggestive but insufficient. The point Herzog returns to constantly is that we simply can't know for certain what Chauvet was all about, or what forgotten dreams inspired the painters. That radical uncertainty only seems to inspire him to peer more deeply into each image, as if to reproduce for us the effect he and the researchers claim to have experienced, the feeling that they were interrupting works still in progress. Given that some of the paintings reportedly juxtapose images created centuries or millennia apart, it could be argued that Herzog does continue the original painters' work by filming them and suggesting additional layers of meaning. New dreams can be superimposed on the old and forgotten -- but what will the albino alligators make of all this? The irony of it all, which the director probably appreciates, is that the alligators may someday commune with the cave paintings with less restraints than Herzog had, and if they have the mental means, they'll confront the paintings with fresh eyes, long after Herzog's own dreams have been more completely forgotten. For us, here and now, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a look into an abyss of history that may inspire dreams of history looking back.
Saturday, July 9, 2011
Oshima's protagonist is a historical figure, Shiro Amakusa, but seems to have taken liberties with history by making a character who supposedly died while still in his teens a former samurai (Hashizo Okawa) who's regarded as a leader of his peasant community as well as a charismatic prophet. His people are being pushed to the breaking point by a rapacious nobility that blames inadequate tax revenue on Shiro's religion. The local samurai, with one noble exception, compete to devise ways to torture Christians and terrorize them into recanting their faith. One such turncoat, Emosaku (Rentaro Mikuni) has become a court painter, specializing in European-style oil painting which he claims represents a subject's actual personality better than traditional Japanese art. He balks, however, when commanded to paint Christians performing the "straw dance," -- they are wrapped in husks of straw, set on fire and set running -- and is suspected of remaining a Christian. Desperate to save himself, he rats out Christians inside the local lord's household. This undermines Shiro's long-term plan to stage an uprising within the castle to overthrow the oppressive lord, though the plan often seems like little more than a promise of redemption to his angry co-religionists.
Shiro is a conflicted hero with an uncertain understanding of his own religion, despite his mother's constant tutelage. He sends mixed messages to his people, assuring them that their persecution is not the will of God but that an enraged peasant going on a foolhardy mission of revenge was God's will. As the pressure builds for an uprising, he rationalizes it by saying that his people will fight as oppressed peasants, not as Christians in violation of the turn-the-other-cheek rule. Once the fighting is underway, it threatens to get out of his control when a charismatic ronin offers his assistance and more ronin join him. Still straddling the fence, Shiro defers to the ronin on military matters until several setbacks -- including the hostility of European military advisers to the shogun and an alleged excommunication from the Catholic Church -- forces a decisive three-way choice on the Christians. Shall they continue to fight the samurai head-on, as the ronin wants, disperse into smaller inconspicuous groups, as some others want, or fortify themselves in one place to resist a samurai assault, as Shiro wants. When Shiro is finally driven to assert himself violently in a showdown with the ronin, who has called him out as a coward, the feeling is unmistakable that there's nothing left for him to do but die -- and take thousands with him....
Oshima maintains a critical but not negative attitude toward Christianity, but constantly reminds us of the samurai cruelty that drove so many to become Christians as well as revolt against the social order. While many of the "history of cruelty" movies made in Europe focus on the atrocities perpetrated by Christians on others -- witches, heretics, etc. -- in Oshima's film the shoe is on the other foot. The effect is largely the same, however, since for the Japanese filmmaker Christians are the other made objects of empathy. His film really transcends my theoretical genre, rising from a litany of torture to the level of epic tragedy, filmed in appropriate long-take tableaux with theatrical intensity and chiaroscuro cinematography. Scenes often develop in slow-burn fashion, but the payoff, especially in the final confrontation between Shiro and the ronin, is tremendous.
Transcending his historical subject, Oshima also invites his audience to question whether his eloquently exquisite or brutal images can truly capture the spirit of the time or the personality of the players. This proposition is put forth explicitly in Emosaku's explication of the relative virtues of Japanese and European art. He tells his patron that Japanese painting is best for landscapes and "beautiful figures," while the European style is best for portraiture that evokes a subject's true self. Over the course of the film, it becomes clear that Oshima himself is testing these premises, switching frequently from huge close-ups designed to catch profound emotion to vast landscape long shots that reduce armies to ants against the mountains.
Cinema itself is a third thing entirely, and in one sequence of visually "rhyming" shots Oshima implicitly asks whether cinema can catch emotional truth any better than painting.
Between the subject and its representation stands the subjectivity of the artist, and that's what Emosaku really seems to stand for. Does his portrait show the truth of the lord -- the lord himself asks, "Are you trying to say I look repulsive?" -- or only Emosaku's opinion of the man. The question rises again when, after repeatedly refusing to paint a straw dance, Emosaku appears to have a real religious experience during the crucifixion of Shiro's mother and sister, along with Shiro's one samurai ally and his wife on either side of a single cross.
Oshima has illustrated Shiro's reaction, and that of the other Christians, by bathing them in floodlights and leading the camera through a lengthy tracking shot of dozens of despairing or prayerful close-ups.
The painter responds to the scene with a picture of Christ crucified amid a field of crosses as doves rise heavenward and the Virgin watches in the sky. Depending on the witness, his may have been as "true" a report of the event as Oshima's cinematography -- Shintaro Kawasaki did the brilliant actual work. In the same way, perhaps, Christianity is one thing to Shiro, another to his mother, and something else yet to someone else. All of this is a possibly pretentious way of saying that there's a lot going on in Amakusa Tokisada Shiro to make it interesting if not compelling for people without any special sympathy for Christianity. It seems to be a relatively unknown item for Americans in Oshima's filmography -- ignored even by the otherwise Oshima-rich Criterion Collection -- but its neglect is unjustified. The Christian Revolt is a dark epic that deserves wider renown.
No English subtitles on this trailer -- uploaded to YouTube by WorldCinemateque -- but it'll give you some idea of the moving images and the terrific score by Riichiro Manabe.