Πέμπτη, 29 Οκτωβρίου 2009

THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (1969, NARCISO IBANEZ SERRADOR)



60 minutes in the beautiful Christina Galbo tries to escape the isolated boarding school she's brought to at the beginning of the movie. Is she running from some kind of fate too horrible to contemplate, a monster, black-gloved killer, or supernatural evil? No, she's running from a bunch of bullies. For the OTHER 40 minutes that follow, various figures walk around the school in the dark holding candelabras and looking alarmed or distraught, which doesn't say much in itself perhaps because great movies have been made about just that but if you're going to have characters walking around corridors and staircases you better be Alain Resnais or you better know how to light that staircase in bright apple reds and purples like Mario Bava. We know a killer stalks the perimeters of the school but his body count is pitiful and sparse and in the absence of the visceral horrors one expects to find in the giallo, we get no sense of sinister mysteries/unspeakable secrets festering behind a facade of order and piety and rightness which is the kind of movie La Residencia wants to be but doesn't quite know how to do it. We know something is off because girls are reported missing but we never get the foreboding mysterious atmosphere that says "something is seriously f-cking wrong here, man". When Serrador tries to comment on the sexual repression of the female students, he does so with quick-cutting hysterics and detail closeups of eyes and parted lips while high pitched "this-is-shocking" music blares in the background. None of the aetherial beauty and longing of PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK to be found here. It's all a bit clumsy and aimless, with no real sense of urgency or direction. A number of people are presented as suspects but there's little reason to care for the identity of a killer that goes unnoticed by the characters inside the movie. I like the first kill, the image of a knife hitting target superimposed over the anguished face of the victim as a lullaby chimes in the background, but the rest is too inconsequential for my taste. I have to say Serrador did much better with the killing children and paranoia du soleil of WHO CAN KILL A CHILD?

4/10

THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS (1974, PETER WEIR)



One hour into this movie and I wasn't exactly sure what kind of movie it was trying to "be". It starts off as a smalltown horror mystery of sorts but Peter Weir saddles it with so much absurdist black comedy the mystery all but evaporates and we're looking at something that is more weird/awkward than mysterious/surreal, more slow-ponderous than slow-absorbing, large parts of it reminiscent of Aki Kaurismaki and his static shots, cynical humor, deadpan delivery, and smalltown squalor. By the end of it however, the movie seems to emerge as some sort of societal parable, an allegory to the repression of a close-knit society that values appearances and tradition more than anything else and which must bury secrets in its own backyard to do so, but there's so much distraction and incoherence the point is never made with any clarity or force.

At one point the score turns Morricone circa ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and we get a showdown in the street and young men dressed with cowboy hats. We get Carmageddon-style cars circling the statue of a cannon like Comanches painted for war. We get the vague promise of a subplot about car crash survivors turned vegetables who are kept in the hospital of the small town and who later turn up in a ball masque dressed in hoods and carton boxes (a nod to Shock Corridor?), but it never goes anywhere. Peter Weir went on to make such remarkable films as PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK and THE LAST WAVE, and while this never reaches the hypnotic levels of those films, it's intriguing in its own quirky awkward way. It's like a movie struggling with itself, a cult classic trying to break free from the confines of a forgettable eccentricity.

5/10

Σάββατο, 24 Οκτωβρίου 2009

THE BIG RED ONE (1980, SAMUEL FULLER)



Like most artists, Sam Fuller made movies about personal things he knew firsthand. About the press in Park Row, about pulpy crime stories like those he wrote in Crimson Kimono, about war in a dozen of his movies. The Big Red One may be the most personal of all because he fought with the actual Big Red One in WWII. Those who have a passing knowledge of Fuller's persona will recognize him in Pvt Zab chewing down the end of a cigar throughout the movie. Sam Fuller himself appears as a newsreel cameraman later on. Lee Marvin, aged though he may have been for his role, was another WWII veteran and he was shot in the Pacific in much the same way he's shot in the movie. Now all the jigsaw pieces start coming together to reveal what kind of movie this is.

If it appears a bit anachronistic for its time, in its bland score and vivid bright colors that seem to have escaped from a 60's movie, two years later than Apocalypse Now, five years before Full Metal Jacket, that's because it is. It's not a movie made by young people and it doesn't set out to deconstruct the war movie or search for the primeval archetype behind war the way Coppola did in the jungles of the Philippines. It's wholesome in its own episodic way, a journey of sorts that takes us from the deserts of Algeria to the landings in Sicily and Omaha beach to the heart of the beast. In its own way, it's a journey towards the heart of darkness. The scope is broad (WWII in all the different battlefields of Europe) but the focus is narrow (on a small company of four young bucks and their scruffy sergeant who's haunted by demons he first met in WWI).

In all the various set pieces we're taken through the emphasis remains on the buildup, the suspense and the waiting to kill or be killed rather than the outcome. Fuller experienced war firsthand and he knows war is more about nerve-wracking waiting than spectacular action. Being a director of the old brigade, he stuffs the movie full of everything. Action and humor, drama and suspense, yet nothing feels out of place, even the raid on an insane asylum takes a curious poignant turn by the end when an inmate grabs a semi-automatic and starts firing wildly at the walls. The question the movie asks is simple enough: in war do you murder or kill and is there any difference between the two?


And even though we never become as intimate with the small group of soldiers as we do with the privates in the PBR boat in Apocalypse Now or the platoon in Full Metal Jacket, by the end, when a private discovers a Nazi hiding in a crematorium and Lee Marvin's sergeant takes a Jewish child branded in some concentration camp in his shoulders, the movie emerges as poignant an indictment on the madness and despair of war as any that came before or after. Fuller made several great war movies (The Steel Helmet and Fixed Bayonets! best among them), but this may very well be his masterpiece.

8.5/10

Τετάρτη, 21 Οκτωβρίου 2009

PUBLIC ENEMIES (2009, MICHAEL MANN)



And what looked like it was gonna be another slick overbudgeted gangster movie glorifying a bunch of cutthroats turned out to be unexpectedly great in the hands of Michael Mann. I was never a big fan of his work (I think Heat is merely okay) but this stylized DV-noir bliss, the best use of the medium I've seen, not as a substitute for film but as a canvas of its own, since Inland Empire. The plotting is minimal and the romance between Depp and Cotillard mostly by-the-numbers, and both Depp and Bale unremarkable in their roles, but the moody hyperrealism of hand-held shots and hard lighting, the movie swinging between golden browns and yellows and drab blue grays, underscores a brilliant contradiction/complimenting between Depression-era mythologizing and gritty docu-crime. But for a few details, the movie could be taking place in the 00's. The Japanese term for the new breed of docu-realistic yakuza pictures that replaced the traditional/romanticized ones in the 70's was jitsuroku, which means 'true account'. I don't know (nor do I care much) about the actual historical details of Dillinger's case and how close Public Enemies adheres to them, but the term applies here. It feels like a 'true account' crime movie, gritty and violent, which at the same time doesn't fail to present Dillinger in the bittersweet afterglow of the antihero, of the rebel who did things his way and never backed down. Whether or not Mann falters in this display of sentimentality and how much Depp's puppydog face makes that inescapable is up for debate I guess, but the gunfights are an absolute (literal) blast, a curious mixture of stylized and raw, and the scene in the theater playing a 30's gangster movie where Clark Gable on the big screen seems to speak to and for Dillinger and the way Mann cuts it together is a minor triumph. In the end I like Public Enemies because it's closer in heart and tone to the moody low-key noir of The Driver than the swinging glamour of Goodfellas.


8/10

GHOST STORY OF YOTSUYA (1959, NOBUO NAKAGAWA)



Funny how things change. In 1949 Shintoho was producing prestige films like Akira Kurosawa's STRAY DOG. Ten years later they were producing scores of everything from lurid melodramas to nationalist war movies to cheap gangster flicks to kaidan period horror movies like this. Two years later, in 1961, they declared bankruptcy and closed shop, the first semi-big studio in postwar Japan to do so. Nobuo Nakagawa, along with Teruo Ishii who graduated from the film noir of the Chitai series into full blown sleaze and torture 10 years later, was one of those prolific studio filmmakers responsible for many of their kaidan pictures. His biggest call to fame is JIGOKU from the following year but this is an ample showcase of both the good and the bad of Shintoho film-making.


Based on the classic story by Nanboku Tsuruya about a conniving lowly samurai who is haunted by the ghost of the wife he murdered, a lot of the drama is hackneyed, the characters simple caricatures of good and evil, innocent and scheming, the dialogues delivered on-the-nose. Iemon, the murderous samurai, is played and depicted as the worst villain possible. No grey areas here, nothing morally ambiguous, the movie is melodrama played to the back of the house. And yet, the first appearance of the ghost sent chills down my spine. Ringu and Ju On didn't invent the pale-faced ghost that creeps along the edge of the frame. It was there 50 years ago and in Kabuki theater before that.


With the eye of a stylist, Nakagawa orchestrates a vision of hell on earth, ghosts rising from the ground or peering down from the ceiling, and it's all very stagey and theatrical probably to appeal to an audience already familiar with the story from Kabuki theater and as much creepy/atmospheric as it is graphic, certainly more graphic than American horror would dare to be for the next 10 years (we have blood gushing from wounds, facial deformities, and even an amputated limb), and while the whole is never as good as the parts, those parts should appeal to the horror fan who likes his lighting bright red and torquoise and his ghosts slow-moving and disfigured.
6/10

PORTRAIT OF HELL (1969, SHIRO TOYODA)



No one does 'descent into madness and despair' better than Tatsuya Nakadai. And when it comes to theatrical lighting, expansive settings, and slow-fi supernatural poetics, no one does them better than the Japanese, who had the benefit of a few centuries of kabuki experience before Mario Bava and Roger Corman got there with their cobwebs and color filters. All the elements are in place then and Shiro Toyoda delivers with utmost impunity. In part a not-so-distant cousin of the kaidan genre of spooky ghost stories that proliferated all through the first half of the 60's in Japan, complete with deformed ghostly apparitions that come and go as they please, yet also a bit of a prestige film that can afford beauty for beauty's sake without having to cram plot points in the short running time of a second-bill film, this reflected in the stars of the film (Tatsuya Nakadai and Kinnosuke Nakamura) and the lush sets Toho Studios put in Toyoda's disposal, the vivid colors and accomplished camerawork that suggest a director more talented than his nonexistant reputation in the West implies, all these elements coming together to create a dramatically unsubtle, not really horrifying but tragic and macabre, parable on the unyielding monomania of a perfectionist. A Korean painter is summoned by his Japanese lord to paint a portrait of Buddhist heaven. The Japanese lord becomes smitten by the painter's daughter and takes her for his concubine. The Korean painter pleads for his daughter, this coming across as more the whim of a possessive father than genuine love. Finally he settles for painting a portrait of hell. You just know Tatsuya Nakadai's face is gonna be a mask of utter despair and torment by the end and it's worth the ride getting there because the conclusion is truly ferocious.


Πέμπτη, 15 Οκτωβρίου 2009

BLOOD ON THE MOON (1948, ROBERT WISE)


You can see the film noir lurking behind the western in this western noir in the first plot twist. Behind the facade of a typical western conflict between cattle owners and homesteaders lies a distinctly noirish crime setup, "the big con", and yet it's exactly that kind of inconistency that prevents BLOOD ON THE MOON from reaching the greatness parts of it faintly suggest. Because the conflict foreshadowed in the first act between cattle baron (usually the bad guy in a western) and the conniving leader of the homesteaders is abandoned in the third act so Robert Mitchum's drifter character can hole up in Walter Brennan's shack and exchange shots with the hired guns of his former employer. Because the perenial world-weariness of Mitchum's droopy face is undercut by a Hollywood ending where everything is tied up neatly with a ribbon on top. We're still in good guys/bad guys territory and director Robert Wise opens his cards about who's what way too early, so that the rest of the film and the promise of the good first 30 minutes is squandered in people running hither and thither, to do this or that or prevent those from happening. Gorgeously photographed and watchable throughout, but more of a missed chance than the bonafide western noir classic it should have been.
6/10

Τετάρτη, 14 Οκτωβρίου 2009

KIRU (1962, KENJI MISUMI)


On paper, this may seem like another in a long line of Daiei starvehicles for their leading box office draw, Raizo Ichikawa. Misumihimself had already directed him in a few of those potboilers (theSATAN'S SWORD trilogy). I dunno if it should be ascribed to thezealousness of a young director eager to break free from theconstraints of studio production-line film-making, if Misumi intended itas a calling card that would help him graduate into the A-list clubthat included Masaki Kobayashi and others, or if, concerns about statusbe damned, it should serve as exhibit A in the case many of us havebeen trying to make about Misumi as a righteous auteur with adirectorial voice all his own separate from the bulk of genrefilmmakers, but Kiru screams stylized masterpiece even from its openingprologue and it's obvious it was pieced together with great care andsuperior craftsmanship.

The slow deliberate pacing and eliptical minimalist storytelling onewould sooner find in an art-house film than a chambara is broken bysudden bursts of violence, these emphasizing not bodycount and arterialsprays but beautiful choreography between camera and characters, withthe killings often as not taking place off screen. In filtering hischambara dynamics through a meditative mood, in giving more weight onthe preparation rather than the fight (with duels edited in a Leonefashion a few years before Leone, tight closeups of eyes and bodies etal), Kiru soars above anything else Daiei was producing at the time tooccupy the same stylized moody genre space others like Jean PierreMelville would arrive years later. The gloomy fatalism and visualgrammar is all Misumi's though and it would continue to show up in hiswork in the coming years, although stunning shots like the circularoverhead shot of Ichikawa opening doors in search of his boss wouldrarely be repeated

Misumi may never get the critical acclaim and Criterions other of hispeers who created in genre filmmaking like Yasuzo Masumura (also in Daiei), Masahiro Shinoda (in Shochiku) and Seijun Suzuki (inNikkatsu) have enjoyed because he never got on board the Japanese NewWave wagon, but Kiru is proof enough that he was one of the masterdirectors of his generation.


PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975, PETER WEIR)


I love movies that can be appreciated intuitively on different levels without necesserily shifting into "now I'm reading the movie on a symbolic level" mode. Where the different possibilities for meaningful interpretation are left at the perimeter of the mind's eye never to be fully rationalized, hazy and elusive but nagging the viewer with a presence that can be felt, like glimpses through the shifting rents in a thick fog, bits of vivid and vanishing detail giving no connected idea of the general aspect but suggesting a vague outline. When Miss McCraw speaks about the volcanic rock they're visiting ("quite a recent eruption really, only a million years old. silicious lava forced u from deep below"), I can't shake off the impression that she's talking about the formation of something other than rocks, that it has nothing to do with the rock itself.
There's no solution offered to the mystery of the disappearence of two young college girls and their governess in a picnic in the eponymous hanging rock in turn-of-the-century Australia but Peter Weir offers us something better than a solution. The memory of its absence. We've all heard as children a mysterious/weird story with no definite conclusion ("and nobody knows what happened to him/her") and most of us probably stomped our feet wanting to know the end. The mystery is never allowed to be drawn to the arena of the conscious mind to be subjected there to the laws of reason. It lays there like a gapping black hole threatening to devour everything in the small Australian community. A question left unanswered threatens the stability of the town, as though the mystery of the missing girls is an affront to each one personally and an indictment of civilized man. The unspeakable remains unspeakable. With theories springing up among the townfolks to explain it (a lot of them indicating violence, suggesting rape, or worse), we can see the formation of taboo in society out of pure unblemished innocence.
The juxtaposition of Victorian values and the uncanny alien landscape against which they must fail is interesting on a scholarly level but not of personal value to me. What I like most is the pure mythical symbolism Weir uses in painting a picture of pure innocence (the girls reciting poems of love in their dorm and getting ready for the picnic) before sending it off to an ethereal otherworldly doom. The girls disappear inside the rock without violence or force, seemingly out of their own will, as though in trance or seduced by the rock itself. It reads like a modern parable of some ancient creation myth. All things enter the world pure and innocent but inadvertently have their innocence corrupted by the knowledge of that world. "All things end at the right time".
Despite what the unresolved ending would suggest, instead of the fleeting meaninglessness of life, it's that sense of teleological fatalism I get from Picnic. Some things have answers and some don't but the absence of us knowing the answers doesn't intimate an absence of design. Therein lies the power of Picnic because it's not narratively incomplete but only gives the appearence of being so, because it lingers and haunts while suggesting with a few strokes of the brush broader pictures that cannot be put in words or their magic evaporates, there the power of Weir's symbolism (even at its most hackneyed "swan-for-innocent-girl" metaphore) in never losing track of the archetypal while never allowing it to spiral out of touch with direct reality, in orchestrating a mystical ethereal trance of a movie that mystifies as much as the rock mystifies the girls.

Κυριακή, 11 Οκτωβρίου 2009

DAGON (2001, STUART GORDON)


I like the way Gordon photographs the remote Spanish village and I like all the rain and squalor and general damp dingy blue-ishness of the movie. Decent acting and forgettable dialogue aside, I don't like the silly conclusion and the whole ***SPOILERS*** "I'm your father ZOMG!" plot contrivance which is handled in a soapy manner. As long as the movie remains geared towards "unspeakable horrors/secrets", it's a moody gripping gothic horror affair, the moment we get flashbacks explaining those horrors and see CGI Dagons and fishtails, that edge is mired in too much explicitness. Rumored to be one of the best Lovecrafts, I'll have to watch The Resurrected and The Haunted Palace and see how they match.


Πέμπτη, 8 Οκτωβρίου 2009

GIALLO (2009, DARIO ARGENTO)


The high point in the film comes midway in the form of Adrian Brody's childhood flashback: the camera heaves this side and that inside an amber-lit room as though floating in the air while a music box lullaby that brings back memories of Goblin's School at Night theme from Profondo Rosso chimes in the background. Other than that, the movie might as well have been called "Routine Slasher" because there's nothing that recalls the glorious days of the Italian giallo here, no wink or homage or black-gloved killer stalking distraught heroines in kitsch/chic apartments countryside villas and medieval architecture and certainly none of the Technicolor phantasmagoria Argento and his peers conjured on celluloid 30 years ago because anyone who has followed Argento's career knows he has been working in dark muted DV canvases for the past 10 years, this absence of style flooded with wooden acting bad English from non-English speaking actors and a script the sum of plot contrivance happenstance and logic jumps. Some will argue these have been staples of Argento's career and I will disagree because their place has always been peripheral to a certain grand guignol aesthetic by whose outrageousness, stylistic or otherwise, they have been always relegated to the margins. If Mother of Tears was a bold step in the direction of Phenomena's schizophrenic conclusion, this is a step backwards to the undistinguished workmanlike nature of Il Cartaio and Ti Piace Hitchcock. Everything here is generic. The score sounds like Batman Returns throwaways (Claudio Simonetti's absence is sorely felt), the villain is a curious mixture of pathetic and creepy, Argento's stylized violence is conspicuously absent. This is a serial killer movie trying to balance between crime procedural and slasher such as one may find in Lionsgate's STD catalogue. If you're looking for the giallo homage the title promises, you'll find it in Sleepless. This is a routine affair not worthy of the maestro's name or his fans' time and money and I say this with the affection of a longtime ardent follower.

Σάββατο, 3 Οκτωβρίου 2009

DRAG ME TO HELL (2009, SAM RAIMI)


Imagine a group of unsuspecting honest godfearing citizens and their meek housewives invited for a test screening of Drag Me To Hell in a remote suburban theater, doused in acid, and forced to watch the movie in a humongous screen that occupies their entire vision, surrounded by a wall of speakers 20 feet high, sound booming out on all directions in the levels of a Jumbo Jet taking off. No quarter asked and none given. No escape, no bejesus left in the end. This is the perverse pleasure I take from Sam Raimi's latest. The gleeful satisfaction of being scared out of your skin and watching others being scared out of their skins along with you. I'm talking shivers and palpitations and your guts relocating in your urethra, pure bodily reactions like only porn, fierce substance abuse, and meeting a gang of drunken Hell's Angels in the middle of a raping spree in a dark alley can elicit. And good horror. INLAND EMPIRE did it for me but Inland Empire is subversive and hallucinatory whereas Drag Me To Hell is a celebration of horror in its purest generic/traditional form, at once a homage to Sam Raimi's movies and those he grew up on and a beast that feels completely fresh and modern. Raimi throws every trick in the old horror book but does it with such conviction ferocity and sheer deranged pleasure you'd think he was locked up in an attic after EVIL DEAD for 25 years without food and water and no release until he came up with something to chill the bones of the worst sonofabitch out there. And this is what he came up with. A sheer act of cinematic vengeance. While former horror pallbearers like Romero scratch their heads trying to figure out what made their movies work 30 years ago while their fanbases evaporate in apologetic frustration, three Spider Mans later and Raimi positions himself ahead of the game. The first 30-40 minutes are pure ecstatic horror bliss. The spirit of Jacques Tourneur and NIGHT OF THE DEMON lives side by side with modern horror hijinks, loud jump scares around every corner, curtains blowing in the wind and iron gates rattling, old gypsy curses and Baphomet shadows swirling around, the faces of old women cackling maniacally, pure hellish armageddon, no quarter asked and none given. Raimi orchestrates a symphony of terror playing in a feverish pitch. Even the occasional comedic relief required to break the nerve-wracking intensity and make the movie watchable is nothing short of blood geysers, toothless jaws oozing slime, anvil-smashed faces and flying eyeballs. Awesome.


PERFECT BLUE (1998, SATOSHI KON)



In its combination of fractured female psyches, trauma, and perverse show business glamour (in this case pop singing and Japanese TV) reminiscent of David Lynch, although predating Mulholland Dr. by a few years, Perfect Blue is another take in the always compelling 'woman losing her grip on reality' niche. You've seen before in films like The Stunt Man the meta-narrative tricks of using scenes and lines from a movie inside the movie (in this case a Japanese soap crime thriller) as a tool in showing the protagonist's reality being undermined, but they work marvellously here. There's point where I couldn't tell exactly WHO the protagonist was (pop singer turned soap actress, strip dancer living a wish fulfillment fantasy to cope with post traumatic stress disorder caused by rape) any more than she did. A bit haphazard opening and awful closing line but Japanese animeister Satoshi Kon throws a nice Argento homage in the finale complete with blood gushing from glass shard wounds. I have anime associated with nauseating teenyboppery in my mind but this is superb adult stuff, mindbending with a surreal edge and a directorial eye for detail and style. I wouldn't be surprised if it was a major influence for 00's Lynch.


Παρασκευή, 2 Οκτωβρίου 2009

THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST (2002, AKI KAURISMAKI)


A man beaten half to death in a random act of street violence wakes up with amnesia and drifts to a languid existence at the outskirts of Finnish society. It's not without good reason if the movie seems to be the most widely seen Kaurismaki film, not because it's the fierce white hot culmination of everything he worked towards in his career but for the summation it provides of all those individual quirks and idiosynchracies that make up the Kaurismakian mythos, not the towering elephantian masterpiece that can only be approached in its own terms but the polished user friendly introduction to Kaurismaki's world. A world populated by laconic expressionless faces and grimy locations, stiff dialogue wooden acting and deadpan humor, mullets and mustaches, glacial minimalism and American-bred rock'n'roll, using as vessels stoic characters picked from the mid-lower class not for the reason of parting with some particularly cutting insight into human nature and the workings of the world because Kaurismaki's films never delve deeper than distanced observation but to present the life of the alienated and disenchanted, the anonymous misfits inhabiting the margins of society for whom there's no glory to be had and no real sense of tragedy or triumph to make their mundane lives into big drama even for a short while, and to do this in a poetic way. We see the squalor of Helsinki's poorer districts but only fleetingly and in a smooth romantic glow. Gone are the harsh/drab colors of THE MATCH BOX GIRL. The emphasis here is not on the social/collective but the individual. Not on grand incisive remarks but small passing observations. His characters barely utter a word to each other. They don't have the uncanny ability of Bergman's protagonists to psychoanalyze themselves with such eloquency, and as such, the film is one of pauses and glances, small gestures and few lines. In THE MAN WITHOUT A PAST, Kaurismaki reworks his auterial work of a lifetime but in a more accessible way. Newcomers who pick the thread here are well advised to drift down towards the exhilarating TATJANA YOUR SCARF and ARIEL. Kaurismaki's is a minimalism unashamedly cool, funny and poetic in a low-key way.