Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Korova Award Winners: Best Films of 2013!

Now that we're past the halfway point of 2014 I've finally caught up with films from last year! So here's my Top Ten of 2013.

Carlos Reygadas has impressed me with his last two films with influences such as Ingmar Bergman and more specifically Andre Tarkovsky. I believe Reygadas' films lack the sentimentality of Tarkovsky yet retain his ethereal and dreamlike visions. And Refn's last film DRIVE awed critics yet this one left most cold and agitated. I think it's a beautiful meditation on the mythology of violence and deserves a review...which I may write someday. Harmony Korine delivers an anarchist vacation from reality and depicts a world of souls lost in neon and bikini wax. And James Franco proves he can act as he focuses his stoner character from FREAKS AND GEEKS to epic proportions! I feel he should have been nominated for an Academy Award. Shane Carruth finally delivers his ssophomore effort after the enthralling no-budget masterpiece PRIMER. The film's theme seems as elusive as the meaning of the title itself. Noah Baumbach passes the Bechdal test and breathes life into a real and complex woman whose primary concern isn't what man she is in love with. Woody Allen may tell an ordinary tale but it's his characters that come vividly to life as Sally Hawkins, in a supporting role, steals the entire picture. Park Chan-wook's first English speaking film is a wonderfully creepy coming of age tale, focusing on a young woman who blossoms into a poisonous flower. After the spousal debacle of OLDBOY, my wife actually sat through and finished this one: I told her no tongues get cut out. I think she liked it! Alexander Payne paints a picture of a still life come to life, as he frames rural Americana in all its inglorious beauty. Alfonso Cuaron still hasn't topped CHILDREN OF MEN but this one is a technical masterpiece and one you can't take your eyes away from even for a second. It's that engaging. George Clooney is the weak link here with his incessant chatter. The ending confused some but rest assured...she died at the start of the third act; the rest was a death-dream. And my Top Ten ends with one of the most gripping documentaries ever made as the Directors not only interview soldiers who massacred thousands of people but have them re-enact the atrocities in the actual locations where they happened. This brings the past and present into a collision course that will haunt you for days...maybe forever.

01. POST TENEBRAS LUX (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico)

02. ONLY GOD FORGIVES (Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark/France)

03. SPRING BREAKERS (Harmony Korine, USA)

04. UPSTREAM COLOR (Shane Carruth, USA)

05. FRANCES HA (Noah Baumbach, USA)

06. BLUE JASMINE (Woody Allen, USA)

07. STOKER (Park Chan-wook, USA/UK)

08. NEBRASKA (Alexander Payne, USA)

09. GRAVITY (Alfonso Cuaron, USA/UK)

10. THE ACT OF KILLING (Joshua Oppenheimer & Christine Cynn, Denmark/Norway/UK)

Saturday, August 23, 2014

BLUE RUIN (Jeremy Saulnier, 2014, USA)

One man transposes retribution for justice in order to silence the demons that have driven him to the fringes of society. He learns that only Death is the great equalizer. Director Jeremy Saulnier strips the revenge motif down to its basic core concept, exploding genre motifs and allowing us insight into the protagonist’s slow descent into ruin.

The film begins with a disheveled man bathing in a tub: his beard and hair are tangled and unkempt. The bathroom looks perfectly nice middle class and the disparity seems a bit unsettling. It’s not until the scene cuts to a family coming home and the man jumping out of the tub and through the bathroom window that we realize he had broken in. This is how we meet Dwight. Saulnier lazily follows Dwight through his routine of sleeping in his rusted blue car by the beach, eating out of trash bins, and resting under the boardwalk. When a police cruiser stops by his parked car we expect him to be arrested for Trespass but Saulnier has another surprise for us. With a gentle voice the officer wakes him and asks Dwight to come with her. She takes him back to the station not to arrest him or interview (as Dwight suspects) but to let him know that the man who murdered his parents just finished serving his prison sentence and was released.

Dwight’s journey of self-destruction began twenty years ago with the crime. Saulnier lets the rusted blue car stand as a metaphor for Dwight: it’s in such bad condition that it surprises us when it actually starts! It may be dead on the outside but it can run just a little while longer, perhaps to complete one final task.  And it does. But it’s final task is not to kill (unlike Dwight) but to save.

Yet Saulnier doesn’t amp up the adrenaline to unbelievable proportions as in typical thrillers but allows Dwight move and breath at his own pace. The characters are realistically proportioned and look like real people and not the steroid infused bodybuilders that flaunt Hollywood action thrillers (another convention turned upside-down). Information isn't given in static exposition but discovered in pointed conversation, revealed almost casually and without exclamation point! We know this man Wade Cleland murdered Dwight’s parents but we don’t know why. In the first truly tense scene Dwight follows Wade and his family from prison to a dingy bar. Dwight sneaks in and hides in the bathroom. Instead of some lengthy confrontation with excuses and apologies, Dwight attacks viciously with a knife and stabs him to death. The scene is brutally realistic and over very quick. Saulnier shows the spurting arterial spray as Wade slowly and violently concedes his life. But now a war has begun between Dwight and the Cleland Clan putting Dwight's sister and her children at risk.

The confrontation between Dwight and the surviving Cleland family consumes the final two acts with a dehumanizing slow motion fury. From Dwight being shot in the leg with a crossbow bolt (and attempt to pull it out with pliers) to his kidnapping of Wade’s brother and this man's subsequent brain-splattering death (because that's what bullets do)murder has become contagious like the Bubonic Plague or Ebola. Isolation is the key to recovery and the final act ends in a distant lonely house owned by the Clelands. Dwight’s friend advises him earlier to shut up and shoot, no monologue or you’re dead as this isn’t a movie. But Dwight is fractured and broken and forgets his friend’s plea.

The truth is revealed and Dwight understands that Wade didn’t kill his parents: Wade’s father consummated the dead and his son Wade confessed and did the time. Dwight now wants the killing to stop but it’s too late. Shadows paint the wall like ghosts, formed by the muzzle flashes as the final gunfight leaves all but one dead: the youngest Cleland…who is just the right age. Dwight lets his half-brother live and mutters through a mouthful of blood, a mantra (or prayer)that hopefully saves this young man to leave  vengeance behind and to live a better life. The blue ruin has completed its final task.

“The keys are in the car….”

Final Grade: (A) 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

L’IMMORTELLE (Alain Robe-Grillet, 1963, France)

A nameless French man haunts the mazes of his own memory reliving and experiencing the same trauma repeatedly. Istanbul becomes his purgatory where the ancient crumbling structures are like bleached bones of some mythical beast and the language a secret code he is unable to decipher. For him, there seems no escape as even death brings the cycle full-circle once again.

Alain Robe-Grillet creates the same ambivalence and erotic mystery as his classic LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD which was directed by Alain Resnais from very detailed shooting script. Robe-Grillet included specific instructions concerning camera movement, framing and editing. Once again, Robe-Grillet elevates Form over Substance as the mystical power of L’IMMORTELLE is not in understanding and connecting narrative links but in being immersed into the way it is told. The film begins with a long tracking shot of jagged ruins partially buried in the hillside. It is obvious that the shot is taken from a car as it speeds along a flat road. The opening credits are superimposed over this scene. As the credits sequence ends we hear the disparate sound of squealing tires and crashing metal; it’s as if the car we’re riding in as the POV crashes! Yet, there is no gimmicky camerawork to sustain this POV so it’s possibly another car crashing off camera. Without explanation we cut to a man without introduction, standing in a darkened room and looking through the wooden slats of a window as if he doesn’t want to be seen. Below is an older man sitting on a chair by the seaside. Suddenly, a beautiful woman’s face then interrupts this viewpoint through the slats. It’s an impossible physical image so it must be a dream or memory belonging to this nameless man. She stares at the camera (or man) and a playful smile dances across her lips. This is the beginning of a tale that cannot be explained, a mystery that cannot be solved but a visual adventure worth undertaking nonetheless.

L’IMMORTELLE is a beautiful film like a dream captured on celluloid in stark black and white detail. Robe-Grillet often crosses the axis and creates a disorienting spatial relationship between characters and the audience. He often utilizes a slow 180 pan with a character on the far left and as the camera moves slowly right the same person shows up on the far right, engaged in another conversation or behavior. Grillet also cuts scenes so it looks as if a character is crossing the room only to meet himself sitting or lying in bed. Often, small details have changed such as the drawing of a tulip pasted to the wall or the lighting has dimmed, conveying a possible change in time but not place. We also experience, like the nameless protagonist, the same actions and conversations but from different perspectives; Grillet often changes some small barely noticeable detail from each angle; it’s as if Grillet is showing the malleability and the impermanence of memory. Characters also physically disappear from scene to scene and sometimes contradicting the same temporal continuity.

The story is open to interpretation and is quite possibly meaningless. I believe that our nameless protagonist N is a ghost wandering back to the last few places he visited in his brief life: N is not aware that he is dead. He interacts with an exotic woman and other benign and sometimes weirdly stoic people who are also ghosts trying to show N that he has passed. Here people stop and stand silent as he passes as if life has become still as the grave, turning in his direction as he wanders past. He seems oblivious or at least unconcerned about this strange behavior. N is immersed in himself, his ego keeping him from “passing on”. Like JACOB’S LADDER years later, the people can seem cruel or kind depending on your perspective. Here, Istanbul is an ancient crumbling city full of ghosts.

L’IMMORTELLE is not a film for everyone. It’s a film for cinephiles, for people who love the style and Form of movie-making, and for those who see film as contemplative and sometimes rebellious. Alain Robe-Grillet has transmuted the dream-world into a physical reality to view…but something is always lost in transubstantiation.

Final Grade: (A) 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

CRUEL STORY OF YOUTH (Nagisa Oshima, 1960, Japan)

A young couple collides and splits like a nuclear reaction; their brief lives a violent tale of a youth culture which has become irradiated by a poisonous post-war dream.

The film begins with blood red credits superimposed upon a montage of newspapers thus placing the narrative contemporaneously and projecting the film’s title as a lurid headline. We are then thrown into the story without introduction as we see two young girls getting into a car with, we soon realize, an older man who is a complete stranger. The first girl is dropped off and instead of taking the second girl home he drives to a hotel. She jumps out of the car and the man chases her down and physically dominates her, grabbing and slapping her until a young man comes to her rescue. The older man apologizes after being beaten and when they threaten to call the police he throws money at them and quickly departs. Oshima films the assault between the two men in medium shot and with one camera: there are no cuts. This long take without edit brings an immediacy and realism to the fight. There are no close-ups or inserts during this assault; just a minute of brutal wrestling and punching. Oshima will use this technique throughout the film by minimizing his cuts with long takes as the camera slowly pans or tracks the action. As the older man drives away Oshima focuses the camera upon the money now lying upon the ground. As the boy picks it up we see it awash in the blood red neon glow of the hotel sign. We now have the basic elements and moral landscape for this teenage wasteland.

We now understand that these two characters, the girl Makoto and the boy “savior” Kiyoshi are the protagonists. Though we are meant to sympathize with them Oshima subverts our expectations in the very next scene. We see a long shot of a motorboat speeding out into a lake packed with freshly cut timber. Oshima reveals their carefree attitude (this is the story of youth, after all) but soon focuses upon Kiyoshi’s cruel behavior and Makoto’s submission. The two teenagers are soon balancing precariously as they walk upon the floating logjam. Kiyoshi pushes Makoto into the water when she won’t have sex with him and she begins to drown, pleading that she cannot swim. In one long tracking shot with a hand-held camera (it is bravura cinematography!!) he kicks Makoto’s hand away from the logs as she floats downstream and attempts to pull herself to safety.  Kiyoshi remains indifferent until she agrees to sex. He then pulls her to safety and rapes her. This sexual assault occurs after she is dehumanized and powerless; her consent is stolen from her like her virginity. Oshima’s paradox is in allowing sympathetic contact with both characters who continue to make bad decisions and do bad things (especially to each other).

Soon Kiyoshi is in debt to a gang who wanted to take Makoto into their prostitution racket (her wishes be damned) and he needs to pay them off. He and Makoto create a scam to steal money from rich old perverts: she picks them up and just before they sexually assault her Kiyoshi steps in and demands money to “keep quiet”. This racket echoes the first scene of the film and closes the circle as it also leads to their demise.  Oshima’s use of Form and Structure is masterful in creating a volatile personal and larger social tension. Not only does the film scorn its very protagonists but the larger Paternal Hierarchy that leaves women powerless: this racket is seen as taking back power, of subverting the “victims” by using their guilt and public image as weapons. Otherwise the scheme falls apart: you can’t blackmail someone who does not suffer guilt or fear judgment.

Oshima then introduces Makoto’s older sister Yuki who is also a maternal figure in her life since their mother has passed away (information we glean obliquely). Yuki both reprimands her little sister for her behavior and admires her for carrying through with her adolescent rebellion. It seems that Yuki experienced much the same thing after the War but finally accepted her place in Japanese society. In one emotionally charged scene Makoto has an illegal abortion performed by the Doctor whom Yuki was once involved with. As Kiyoshi and Makoto lie in a bed together (her on bottom) he begins eating an apple, partaking of the “original Sin” attributed to the woman. As he devours the apple, Yuki and the Doctor speak in voice-over about their failed rebellion as youths and what has led them to their dreary adult existence.

Oshima is not going to let our young protagonists get out of here alive. Of course, this is a strict departure from the youth films of the 60s in Japan and US. Could you imagine Ray’s REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE with a prostituting Natalie Wood being raped by James Dean, both of whom die at the end? Oshima’s powerful editing in the final scenes depicts some type of extra diegetic link between the two: as Kiyoshi is beaten to death, Makoto rides in a car with a man whom she has already slept with. She’s expecting Kiyoshi to save her at any moment but instead she looks suddenly towards the back seat. Cut to: Kiyoshi being beaten. Then, as if she hears him scream Oshima cuts again and she looks frightened, somehow sensing the murderous drama that is being played out elsewhere.  As Kiyoshi lays dying, cut back to Makoto opening the door to the moving car as she leaps to her death: an anti-Romeo & Juliet love affair if ever there was one. It’s a grim finale to a genre film which must have surprised the audience of the time. However it loses little of its power even today if understood contextually. This is an Auteur in total control of his Art.

CRUEL STORY OF OUR YOUTH is exactly what it claims to be. Without romanticism or sentimentality Oshima reveals the demons lurking in a rebellious subculture. And this brutal adolescent energy cannot be contained to Japan alone.

Final Grade: (A)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

THIS SPORTING LIFE (Lindsay Anderson, 1963, UK)

Frank Machin is an evolutionary aberration, reverting towards primal instincts, a great ape who stalks the rugby fields but who dreams of becoming (and remaining) a man. His violence is poetry on the muddy turf but it stains his personal life, inseparable from his obsessive relationship with his widowed landlady, a woman whose grief condemns Frank to paying tenant. She polishes her late husband’s shoes…shoes that Frank will never fill. The qualities that make Frank a great footballer are the very qualities that make him an egocentric and harsh person, never able to rise above emotional poverty.

Director Lindsay Anderson utilizes stark black and white cinematography, his camera holding upon Frank’s fractured visage in close-up or filming on location, a muddy football field dominated by the cooling towers of a nuclear reactor which brings an added depth of grittiness and realism to the drama. Anderson is able to seamlessly edit archival rugby footage into his frantic close-ups so we feel connected to these athletes as they pummel and scrum upon the gladiatorial field of combat. But Anderson is not concerned with making a sports film: he focuses instead upon Frank Machin and his need to escape his social standing, to use his talent to become something he could not otherwise achieve. Here Anderson utilizes the tropes of a Romantic Drama but quickly subverts them as anger replaces passion, gentle words are screamed in disgust and sex becomes violence (or violence begets sex). It’s as if every fragile thing that Frank touches is broken in his meaty grasp or embrace. Soon, Frank learns he is just another product of the team’s owner Weaver; a rich man who peddles flesh and blood for other old men’s enjoyment.

The story’s apex concerns the relationship between the widow Mrs. Hammond and our protagonist, a physically and emotionally tumultuous climax whose existentialism is reminiscent of Bergman’s THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY: only this time the spider-god is crushed under a clenched fist. Frank Machin then sinks to the bottom of his own spiritual abyss as we (and Frank?) ponder Mrs. Hammond’s death: was her brain aneurysm brought about by Frank’s punishing blow? Her death counterpoints Frank’s own head injury early in the film which then brackets the narrative. Much of the story is drug-induced remembrances while he undergoes anesthesia to pull broken teeth from this injury. The elliptical editing patterns disrupt the narrative and we are often confused as to events occurring in flashback or real time which immerses us into the fractured timeline: it makes us pay attention to every detail.

Richard Harris’ performance is wonderfully virile and tainted with an egotistical sexual aggression while Rachel Roberts as the beleaguered widow suffuses her character with mystical profundity, a quicksilver quality that is both spiteful and touching. Though Frank has temporarily escaped the grinding machines of the coalmines, he is destined to wander the hard barren fields of his own personal purgatory…forever. 

Final Grade: (B+)

Saturday, April 26, 2014

OVER THE EDGE (Jonathan Kaplan, 1979, USA)

Strange creatures haunt the wide streets and narrow minds of a perfect community, their shadows as thick as smoke with flammable intentions that sting like fire. Jonathan Kaplan pushes adolescent ennui and the emotional violence of puberty like a drug that fuels an epic meltdown between those who protect…and those who are served.
OVER THE EDGE is a powerful film because it’s a powerful story that doesn’t rely on trite characterizations and maudlin generalizations. Kaplan focuses his camera upon these young boys and girls and is compassionate to their cause, allowing natural dialogue and body language to communicate their problems and desires. He composes mostly in medium shot with long takes, allowing tracking shots as these teenagers move and speak in a relaxed and realistic manner. When projected onto a large screen, the cinematic elements coalesce into a feature narrative as opposed to feeling like it was made-for-TV which often plagues wordy “message” movies. The child actors are especially wonderful though it’s the adults who veer towards stereotype.
The film begins with Cheap Trick’s low-slung guitar riffs pulsing through the suburban imagery as we’re introduced to the prefabricated community of New Grenada. This dichotomy sets the tone for the entire film as one of placid waters concealing a violent riptide beneath. The credits end with a teenager shooting a BB gun at a police car and again Rick Nielsen’s blistering guitar accentuates Robin Zander’s growling scream of introduction: “…are you ready or not!?” For teenagers we fist pump with the adrenaline rush of complicity but as adults we feel the sudden stabbing pain of anxiety and fear. No wonder this was a film that scared the studio into a limited release which quickly buried the film from national attention. It would find life a few years later on pay channels and become recognized as a classic worthy of rediscovery.
The narrative is mostly filtered through the life of our young protagonist Carl and his friend Richie (a young Matt Dillon). Carl comes from a middle class home with successful parents and Richie lives in suburban housing with a single mother who hides her stash in her Ford Bronco. It’s clear that Kaplan is blurring the lines between the two social hierarchies and depicting the kids as one general group: classless but bonded by their communal dissatisfaction with adults and authority. The kids hang together in the local Rec Center where they can shoot pool, smoke, drink and socialize without their parents around. This is their hideaway. Julia is the Director of the Rec Center and the only adult who is shown respect by the kids because she respects them! The story stumbles through Carl’s school daze and adventures outside of school like getting high, going to parties, looking for the cute redhead he has a crush on, all with Richie by his side. We see the clash of parents mostly through Carl’s family as his mother pleads for understanding while his father rants about the downturn in his Cadillac business. Carl’s home life is lost in his earphones where Cheap Trick, The Cars and the Ramones make everything bearable. Fuck, who can’t relate to those feelings! There is little driving force throughout the story just infractions that lead to the final confrontation and conflagration.
OVER THE EDGE is both dark and humorous at times, showing these kids interacting in realistic ways. In the film’s most famous lines Richie states “Any kid who tells on another kid is a dead kid”. Carl doesn’t squeal but gets assaulted by the shooter (in the opening credits sequence) anyway. Later in the film Carl gets his revenge and the adolescent scales of justice are balanced once again and the two become accomplices. These kids see the adults who are more concerned with property values and secreting their children away from the wealthy investors as the true enemy. It is a battle of generations that was fought by Dean, Hoffman, and now Dillon: a battle that will always rage between the dying of the light and the rising of the sun. Finally, New Grenada explodes like a grenade, its shrapnel wounding all in this teenage wasteland.

Final Grade: (B+)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

THIEVES LIKE US (Robert Altman, 1974, USA)

Three violent convicts escape from hard labor, their morality chained to the selfish impulse of profit at any cost: each knows the evil which lurks in the hearts of men. Bowie is the protagonist, the youngest of the three criminals who is doing a life sentence for the murder of a clerk during a robbery: he offers no excuse or apology for this act, only cold and emotionless acceptance. But Bowie is still a boy, a follower who is mixed up with Chicamaw and T-Dub, two career bank robbers and believes there is still honor among thieves. When Chicamaw murders two police officers, Bowie accepts responsibility (transference of guilt) because he was present and did nothing to stop it, and he understands that his desire to be free outweighs the harm and injury to others. After T-Dub is killed and Chicamaw is captured, Bowie settles down with Keechie who soon becomes pregnant; a new life is possible for these two lovers…but Bowie’s criminal intent is like part of his DNA and he soon devises a plan to free his “friend”.
Director Robert Altman focuses his camera in long gentle pans and zooms upon the young couple, a slow dance macabre whose volatile climax ends in staccato gunshots. The soundtrack is composed of programs and music of this Depression era, often diegetic sound crackling through Zenith radios and phonographs, adding an immersive realism to the narrative. Based upon a novel of the same title, Nicholas Ray made the film THEY LIVE BY NIGHT from the same source material but presented a less ambiguous morality play, showing Bowie and Keechie as victims of their dire circumstances. Instead, Altman impels the audience to understand their complex relationship and circuitous mistakes, and this multi-layered personification makes the couple into desperate but real people: we are both repelled and sympathetic to their situation. We empathize for them like we would a trapped man-eating tiger; content that others are safe but sad that this creature’s true nature has damned him. Keith Carradine and Shelly Duval imbue their characters with naïveté, unable (or unwilling) to understand that there is no future for them together, and the final shot of Keechie disappearing into the crowd, climbing towards a road to nowhere, is heartbreaking.

Final Grade: (B+)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

THE SIGN OF LEO (Eric Rohmer, 1959, France)

Pierre lives his life day by day, one handout away from poverty and homelessness. He is awoken one morning by a telegram (he doesn’t even have change to tip the delivery boy) stating that he has inherited his aunt’s fortune. His luck soon changes from good to bad and he finds himself alone and disenfranchised with no one to turn to for support, walking the filthy streets of Paris on a road to nowhere.
Eric Rohmer’s first film introduced the world to the French New Wave, a cinema verite style of seemingly unscripted natural dialogue of bohemian artists living on the edge of a static society, a self-expression that at once condemns the status quo while appealing to the hearts and minds of a new generation. While Chabrol, Godard, and Truffaut conquered the box office, Rohmer’s feature was critically acclaimed but a financial failure. Devoid of sentimentality, Rohmer’s film depicts the end results of a middle aged artist whose life of self-acknowledged laziness leads to an empty existence, a life one twist of fate away from becoming a drunken bum, a laughing stock whose dignity is discarded like ragged clothing.
Rohmer’s style owes more to Neo Realism than any of the other early Nouvelle Vague, his camera roaming the streets, alleys, and busy sidewalks of an unscripted Paris. He utilizes long tracking shots that focus upon Pierre, isolating him even in the large crowds that haunt the nightlife, while often cutting to a reaction shot or POV as the camera pans the pedestrian and faceless mob. Rohmer reveals the ugly and gritty streets of the iconic city eschewing maudlin cinematic tropes. To put it simply: THE SIGN OF LEO is depressing. But it’s not without its rewards.
Pierre is an American musician and generally a hanger-on who lives by his whims and immediate desires. He is heavy and middle-aged (another fact differentiating the story from others in the burgeoning genre) as his years of sloth have added to his girth. Jess Hahn who  plays Pierre isn't an unattractive man but not typical of a feature protagonist, unlike Jean-Paul Belmondo or the uncanny Jean-Pierre Leaud. His casting gives the film a realism and immediacy that hot-wires the narrative; it’s slightly off-putting but totally believable from the first rumpled scene. As we invade Pierre’s life and celebrate his luck, we soon digest the empty calories that are his friends, people who seem to share little in common except wine and cigarettes. Godard shows up in the apartment as a nameless cohort who plays the same chorus over and over again on a record which becomes a metaphor for Pierre’s life. The talk is mundane and at one point Pierre picks up a violin and attempts to play a sonata he dreamed the night before. His friends are surprised at his talent which shows that they only understand each other superficially: these are party people.
Rohmer uses Pierre as a cipher to forge his message that luck and justice are both blind, that anything can happen in anyone’s life at any moment. Pierre doesn’t deserve what happens to him as the punishment and reward fail to meet the crime of his laziness and exploited friendships. At one point Pierre collapses after walking all night and on the wall is a map of Paris. Rohmer zooms in on the map to show Pierre’s location and then slowly zooms back, as if a ghost rising from his corpse to see the entire city from a godlike perspective. We suddenly understand just how insignificant one person is in this great big world.
Pierre’s pride and dignity are slowly torn away as he finally concedes defeat and becomes that which he always feared: homeless. He is saved from a slow death by a friendly but quick talking bum who performs drunken soliloquies for handouts, a man who has forsaken his own dignity for survival, a man whose soul now nestles safely at the bottom of a whiskey bottle like a drunken genie. Even Pierre looks down upon this man but soon becomes his cohort, grudgingly joining in his intoxicated performances for sustenance. Pierre’s pride is his downfall, his road to madness as he struggles futilely against the rock of the city, against the immovable fate that has brought him low in this middle age. But fate is soon to raise him up once again.
Pierre said that he never made a cent from his music but it is his music that brings him his fortune. As two acquaintances search for Pierre after discovering a registered letter that exclaims his newly acquired inheritance (at the death of his cousin), they overhear his violin sonata outside a restaurant where two drunks perform for handouts. Pierre is at his wits end and runs away, despising himself and what he’s become, angry at the world and ready to kill himself. He is rescued and whisked away to an unknown fate of wealth where happiness isn't guaranteed. His drunken friend is left standing alone, asking Pierre to not forget him and become his salvation, to lift him from poverty as he lifted Pierre from death. Rohmer never gives him (or us) an answer as he pans upwards to the indifferent stars, to the constellation of Leo. 

Final Grade: (B+)

Saturday, March 8, 2014

SOMEWHERE IN TIME (Jeanott Szwarc, 1980, USA)

Richard Collier desperately bids for time’s return, his lost love reduced to an anachronistic penny worth only hopeless thoughts. Richard Matheson, better known for his novels I AM LEGEND and WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, adapts his own prose into film with French director Jeanott Szwarc: the result is an emotionally powerful yet rather straightforward narrative that dilutes the horrific essence of the source material. But a few dark elements remain, and herein beat the heart of the story because romance and tragedy walk hand in hand, the joy of love contrasted by the eventual death shroud that parts us from our soul mate, as we then fear to walk the world alone.

Matheson redefines his character Richard Collier to accommodate Christopher Reeve’s strengths: he imbues the protagonist with a healthy dose of humor and kindness and removes the obsessive possessiveness and tumorous dread that haunts the novel. He also replaces Mahler with Rachmaninoff, amending the death theme that runs its poisonous course through BID TIME RETURN. Szwarc also replaces the Hotel del Coronado with the Grand Hotel, transposing the clean lines of modern architecture upon the magical towers and gables of the novel’s environment.  Jane Seymour as Elise McKenna is a beautifully rendered portrait of perfection, her diminutive stature incongruous with her fiery independence. She is also a victim of The Moirae as her love affair is cut short by Atropos’ fateful shears, her affair dwindling away into the recesses of future time: her only memento a lovely pocket-watch that will be a gift to the future Richard Collier, which will ensure that he will “come back to her”. 

Isidore Mankofsky’s lush color photography brings the past to life, making it more “real” by contrast with the modern time-frame which is infused with harsh and oblique lighting. The world of 1912 seems more alive and romantic with the vivid costumes (though Collier’s is at least ten years out-of-date!) and set designs, as Szwarc attempts to keep anachronism out-of-frame and is largely successful if one doesn’t look too closely. For me, suspension of disbelief  came easily thanks to the wonderfully nuanced performances by not only Reeves and Seymour but the entire supporting cast! If one takes a darker view of the story that this is all a death-dream, the anachronisms then become keys to understanding Collier’s lack of detailed knowledge of the past his mind resides in. 

A flicker of doubt remains: did Richard actually transcend time, or did he starve to death, isolated in his own world of fantasy? The final scene could exist as a death dream, a wish fulfillment as his consciousness fades towards oblivion. But for romantics, it‘s the perfect ending. 

Final Grade: (B)

Monday, March 3, 2014

THE BAD SLEEP WELL (Akira Kurosawa, 1960, Japan)

"Alas poor Nishi, I knew him Itakura!"
Nishi is consumed by more than a new identity; the cold breath of revenge fills his lungs and clouds his mind, contaminating his true nature with toxic tragedy. Akira Kurosawa condemns the cankerous contemporary Corporation, a conglomeration of poisonous individuals who subsume public funds to deposit in their own trust. It has become a prescient tale of Wall Street run rampant without regard, where the love of money is the tangled root of human bondage, people willingly enslaved for profit at the expense of others.

Kurosawa begins the film with an elaborate wedding that serves two purposes: first, it introduces the characters and their status in the Corporation; second, it explains a past crime and every major character’s alleged involvement. This is done by a chorus of reporters; in SCANDAL, Kurosawa decried journalism as a corrupt institution but here, the writers are after the truth and newspapers are the ultimate weapon to fight Corporate Greed. The wedding culminates with a huge cake in the shape a building with a black rose like an accusation, inserted in a window on the seventh floor. The businessmen gasp and sweat profusely, as all becomes quiet as the grave because this is a representation of the past crime, a confectionery accusation. 

The story is a bleak parable as Nishi rejects his own nature and becomes a weapon of mass destruction, his fuse ignited by an unquenchable fire. He has married the Vice President’s daughter under an assumed identity just to get inside the organization and murder those responsible for his father’s suicide. He has planned this for five years, willing to sacrifice innocents to see the guilty punished. Nishi is lost in selfishness, convinced that the means justify the ends. He marries the crippled Yoshiko but she and her brother do not share their father’s guilty burden and they become collateral damage. Nishi uses everyone (including his best friend whose identity he traded) for his own purpose: he kidnaps, tortures, steals, and becomes the very thing he despises; the abyss not only peers into him…it devours his soul. 

Kurosawa depicts Nishi’s penultimate failure off-screen in bloodstained twisted steel and this narrative blunt force trauma hammers the audience with existential dread. Though the VP loses his son and daughter, he gains a promotion as Big Business continues to sleep well with politics. 

Final Grade: (A)