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)

Monday, February 3, 2014

THE QUIET EARTH (Geoff Murphy, 1985, New Zealand)

Scientist Zac Hobson’s world ends with a bottle of pills at precisely 6:12 A.M. but he awakens to a new reality: he is seemingly the last man on Earth. Confused, he explores this strange geography not sure if this is some internal dimension or an external result of the failed Project Flashlight, a unilateral experiment involving countries across the globe.

Zac begins to slowly lose his mind to the madness of isolation, becoming god of the empty streets and echoing lifeless cities. The gunmetal taste of suicide brings him back to sanity and he begins to monitor the world around him, taking measurements of the now pulsating sun. He meets Joanne and Api and their base human conflicts threaten to push them apart, to isolate them in a world of silence and create an emotional vacuum filled with the ether of despair. Through dialogue, they discover the reason for their existence; they all died at the moment the Project malfunctioned, preserving them in this empty world. Soon Zac discovers that this electromagnetic pulse is going to reoccur and their only hope for survival is to destroy the facility.

Director Geoff Murphy films in long shots of deserted streets and towns, lending an air of realism to this somewhat trite narrative. As Zac explores an empty house, a torrent of water flows from the kitchen ceiling, homage to Tarkovsky’s masterpiece SOLARIS. A crashed jet plane, abandoned vehicles, burning wreckage, and a still hot coffee pot, inform the audience that everyone just disappeared without a trace and which adds a level of realism for such a small budget film. But it’s the character’s juvenile emotional turmoil that almost unravels the story, which removes us from any sympathetic coherence: the three protagonists aren't very likable. Though we know more about Zac than Joanne and Api, we are still too detached from caring about their dilemma. Finally, Zac disappears in a mushroom cloud but awakens once again to an alien terrain where spidery clouds caress the violent blue surf and a ringed planet rises above the gentle mist.

Final Grade: (C)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

NOSTALGHIA (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1983, Italy)

The mathematics of faith reduced to an irreducibly complex equation, where two men become of belief lost in the present tense, yearning for a past once but never was. Andrei Tarkovsky's melancholia is a spiritual melanoma, yearning for a Motherland that drove him away, a place of childhood memories that carry the weight of light and air, like the burden of guilt for loving an abusive parent...but unable to forgive.
Through a dream vapor darkly walks Andrei, a Russian poet who weaves a tapestry of elusive symbols, desperately trying to decipher his own subtext. Andrei's ailing heart beats to its own pentameter, a lonely rhythm without reason or rhyme. He has traveled to Italy to research a 18th century Russian composer, a man who gained his creative freedom in exile only to forfeit his life upon his return to Mother Russia. Here, Andrei meets a mad saint who sacrificed his family to save the world and discovers the volatile Molotov of religious conviction. He drifts casually from his dream world into a shared unreality, confounding identity and purpose, attempting to walk upon water while carrying the hallowed flame. His reflection preaches atop a stone mount, cursing the time when mankind went astray and the need to return to simple values of the past, to return to Eden and replace the forbidden fruit, then expunges himself in hell fire.
Tarkovsky's lens captures the human animal in the garden of earthly delights, surrounded by nature. Images of a statuesque Virgin birthing a flock of birds, discarded wine bottles swallowing drops of water, or a gentle fog crawling upon the landscape evoke memories of things past, where events needn't have happened to be true, a state where borders no longer exist with the convolutions of dreamscape. Water is a prime mover, a fluid thematic element, from a warm pool polluted by refuse hidden within its murky depths to a torrent that beats nervously upon the psyches of drowning men. Tarkovsky siphons Beethoven and Verdi through a nightmare machine, a grinding cacophony, a syncopation of sin where fallen angels dwell. And like Andrei, welcome the past imperfect and remain forever trapped by the stone walls of faith.

Final Grade: (A)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Korova Award Winners: Best Films of 2012!

Best Film 2012: THE MASTER
I’m a year behind on my top ten because I was tired of redacting my list a few months into every new year. Since I don’t get a chance to see many of these great films during their theatrical run I have to wait months for them to be released on disc. Sometimes I can see a film (like Haneke’s AMOUR) before its US release thanks to having a region free Blu-ray player but this is rare. Usually it is 4-6 months after release that I watch a film and that pushes it past my end of the year deadline so my Top Ten is always incomplete. So I decided my list would be a year behind which is beneficial to everyone since by this time the films are easily accessible through streaming or disc.

So much for the preamble! This year’s list is the first time a director has won the prestigious KOROVA AWARD for the second time. Paul Thomas Anderson takes home the coveted award for his none-too-subtle critique of the cult of Scientology. Cristian Mungiu once again makes the cut (see 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS, 2 DAYS) with a brutal and non-judgmental portrayal of an Orthodox convent in his native Romania where a young woman dies during an exorcism. No, this isn't a “period” drama as this archaic practice still takes place in the 21st century. Mungiu’s BEYOND THE HILLS is based upon a true story. Kathryn Bigelow and Michael Haneke are two of my favorite directors and are both represented in 2012 with daring and controversial films concerning morally “justified” murders. From first time directors such as Leos Carax and Nuri Ceylan to make my list to favorites like David Cronenberg and Wes Anderson, I believe every film here is worth at least a small amount of your time to check out.

Viddy well!  

  1. THE MASTER (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)
  2. BEYOND THE HILLS (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)
  3. ZERO DARK THIRTY (Kathryn Bigelow, USA)
  4. AMOUR (Michael Haneke, France)
  5. HOLY MOTORS (Leos Carax, France)
  6. LOVELY MOLLY (Eduardo Sanchez, USA) 
  7. ALPS (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece)
  8. MOONRISE KINGDOM (Wes Anderson, USA)
  9. ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)
  10. COSMOPOLIS (David Cronenberg, Canada)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

THE RULING CLASS (Peter Medak, 1972, UK)

Peter Medak’s militant parody is a scathing attack and indictment of the British noblesse oblige and society’s infantile religious beliefs. Peter O’Toole is the paranoid schizophrenic black sheep of the family who thinks he is Jesus Christ incarnate. When his father dies (in a masturbatory auto-erotic asphyxiation scene) he is left the entire estate…but the extended family has other plans. The uncle comes up with a foolproof plan to have his deluded nephew marry his (the uncle’s own) mistress, father a child, then have “JC” committed to an insane asylum. While in custody, his Psychiatrist attempts to cure him of his god-complex by having him battle another patient who refers to himself as the Electric Messiah. When our protagonist loses this epic battle of faith and miracle, he finally acknowledges his real name Jack. The doctors believe this recognition of self is ultimately the cure for Jack. But he actually becomes Jack the Ripper, then murders his aunt and condemns the butler for the act. Now that Jack is “perfectly normal” he fits right in to the British Elite and joins the House of Lords.
The film plays like some bizarre stream-of-consciousness sermon and much of the dialogue seems improvised, insane, and wildly idiosyncratic. O’Toole hangs from his cross and spouts religious non-sense and non-sequiturs with the invigorating belief of any priest at Sunday Mass. JC is crazy when he teaches peace, love and understanding but Society only accepts him when he becomes Jack the homicidal maniac. The final scene with the decaying corpses in the House of Lords depicts the rotting Patriarchy in which Jack is now accepted. THE RULING CLASS condemns both Religion and Capitalism with Jack as the avatar of a Church and State gone mad, birthing a fanatical elitism from their incestuous Union.

Final Grade: (B+)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

TRANCE (Danny Boyle, 2013, UK)

Danny Boyle’s latest film TRANCE is completely underwhelming. The film is wonderfully filmed and edited, the actors quite good but the flaw lies with the story itself: it asks us to change our allegiance to the protagonist in the third act. That is, the moral center is skewed and we’re asked to despise the character who’s POV we've been experiencing from the start. The characters we’re eventually supposed to connect with are not sympathetic once the plot is broken down. 

TRANCE is well constructed and paced with the typical Boyle flourish. The soundtrack thrums with energy during the action sequences yet can slow down to evoke a subtle emotional response, or lapse into silence to empower a scene. Boyle’s editing isn't quite as flashy as his past films and he often holds on a scene in medium long shot to allow the actors a larger canvas (so to speak) on which to act. He also eschews shot/reverse shot dialogue and utilizes minimum cuts which allow him to edit the film “in the camera”. He uses a nice transitional scene several times of an overhead shot of cars on a cloverleaf at night: the lights look like neurons following their tenebrous pathways. This fits perfectly with the plot of the film which ultimately asks, what is identity? Elizabeth the Psychotherapist nails it: “We are the totality and consistency of our memories”. And Boyle fucks with memory just not in a believable fashion. 


The whole idea of Hypnosis is a Deus Ex Machina: it becomes “magic” or whatever the story wants it to be. I just could not suspend my disbelief over the fact that a therapist would become involved with a client, the relationship turn abusive, the therapist would try to hypnotize him and then keep him as a client even after a violent breakup. Sorry folks, I don’t find that credible. It’s also impossible that Simon ‘forgets” his entire relationship with the therapist: it’s just a device for the plot to turn on unexpectedly in the final act. And someone should have told Danny Boyle that a dead body reeks, that it would have been detected within a few days as it decomposes in the trunk of a car. Why this slipped through the writer’s or director’s mind boggles mine. 

I guess we’re supposed to find the ending satisfying but I sure don’t. I find it a cheat. The therapist is left with the painting and may reconcile with Frank (Simon’s nemesis throughout the film). But Elizabeth (the therapist) shows no remorse or sadness over the death of a totally innocent woman: she acts as if everything worked out for the best. She is also in possession of another’s stolen property. Elizabeth suffers no consequences for any of her own actions. But the permutations that get us to the ending are just too unbelievable. I’m not buying it…nor should you.

Final Grade: (D+)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

MOTHER (Bong Joon-ho, 2009, South Korea)

A mother must tear down the wall that imprisons her son while facing the fact that she helped build it in the first place. Director Bong Joon-ho once again focuses upon an unfocused family: like THE HOST, the film’s conceit is a masquerade that conceals the familial trauma boiling underneath.
Hye-ja is an aging widow, her beauty fading beneath the veneer of time who must care for her only son, a mentally handicapped young man incapable (so she believes) of living independently of her crushing attention. Do-joon is physically a man in his mid-twenties (alluding that she had him later in life) but burdened with a mind that ceased growing in grade school. She has taught him to fight, to stand up for himself, but she is always there to bail him out of trouble though he is rarely the cause. She smothers him with love and affection, even sleeping in the same bed together like a baby, never wanting him to grow up and leave the nest. But one day a girl is found murdered and evidence leads to Do-joon’s arrest and conviction.
The film becomes an investigative procedural as Hye-ja avers his innocence because she cannot accept the possibility that her son is a murder. The police quickly close the case and she begins to uncover her own evidence to acquit her son, following the path of least resistance whose convoluted path becomes a journey of self-discovery. The story is literally teaming with red herrings, oblique motives, tortured testimony, and false leads whose conclusion becomes an inexcusable morality, shifting culpability and audience compassion. Hye-ja finally knows the facts but cannot accept the truth, redacting her own guilt and dissecting the corpus delecti, leaving the audience in the position of jury to decide if Justice has been served.

Final Grade: (B+)