Saturday, December 28, 2019

CERTIFIED COPY (Abbas Kiarostami, 2010, France)


An author an his nameless companion spend an afternoon immersed in an imitation marriage, a certifiably tumultuous affair, an emotional tsunami that destroys preconceptions and expectations. Writer and Director Abbas Kiarostami deftly navigates the murky terrain of affection and passion, a puzzling odyssey that leaves both characters (and audience) pondering seemingly vacuous terms of endearment. 

The plot is fairly simple: James Miller is a writer who responds to a note of a female admirer (wistfully performed by Juliette Binoche). The two then begin a casual journey of interlocutory attraction before their playful dialogue becomes choleric, questioning the veracity of this seemingly innocuous affair. Kiarostami manipulates the tropes of the typical romantic independent film, anticipating probabilities before reconstructing the narrative into an intimate fallacy. Kiarostami seemingly focuses on a potential love story between beautiful strangers, a writer and antique dealer, whose differing opinions will lead them towards love’s delightful embrace: from the uncomfortable silences of first attraction which finally end in a hotel room, their desires irresponsibly quenched. 

The story’s axis balances on the mundane dialogue and participatory travelogue, a zero momentum whose kinetic energy eventually clashes and catapults the two into competing vectors. Many viewers are lost in the puzzle as we begin to realize that these two characters have met before. After they are mistaken for a married couple it becomes evident that there is some unspoken (more importantly, some untold element that Kiarostami purposely conceals) dilemma that haunts this tempestuous relationship. 

Are they married? This is the superficial question that the film is designed to deconstruct, to confound expectations. We are given a few clues, both verbal and non-verbal, that reveal that she is a mistress who hasn’t seen him for many months (years?) and has born his child. The woman remains nameless throughout the film and this fact divulges an insight into James’ spurious nature: she opens her heart to him demanding to be loved and he is closed off, an imitation husband. Kiarostami seems to imply that their physical coupling (and its byproduct) is a certified copy of a marriage that carries the same responsibilities and emotional baggage. The film ends with reflection and introspection and offers James no easy answer to his ethical conundrum. 

Final Grade: (B+)

Monday, December 16, 2019

BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (Sam Peckinpah, 1974, USA)


Alfredo Garcia is the Patron St. of Money; the purveyor of one broken down man’s ticket to salvation…but the price soon becomes too high. Director Sam Peckinpah begins the film with a languid camera pan across a beautiful lake, the soft musical score underlining this heavenly estate, before focusing upon a young pregnant woman relaxing casually on the shore. As she is lead to the family Patriarch, we could be witnessing a scene from the late 19th century: a huge mansion full of servants and guards, the women sullen and servile. But young Teresa is tortured into revealing the identity of father of her baby and in one wonderful edit, the anachronistic illusion is shattered by modern cars racing down the dirt lane, their goal a million dollars for the head of Alfredo Garcia.

The journey takes us to Mexico City where Bennie, an acquaintance of the fugitive, decides to sell himself out for a ticket to the “good life” in the form of $10,000 dollars. He visits the promiscuous Elita, who can lead him to his cohort, and he unwittingly involves his girlfriend in this nihilistic tale of revenge, duty and greed. The first half of the film is a travelogue, as Bennie and Elita grow together, their past a dark mirror that casts no shadow, their future to be shared in Holy Matri-Money: but Elita is hesitant to desecrate the grave of her one-time lover, to tamper with the spirit of the dead. They are being stalked by two sweaty men in a green car, its rapacious reflection like the color of money whose evil root strangles Elita’s life: this sets Bennie on a path of violent redemption and gunpowder justice.

One of Peckinpah’s most intense films, Bennie transforms from hunted into carnivore, delivering the rotting head of Garcia not for the money…but to follow the bloody trail to the vicious source. As he degenerates into madness, he holds conversations with his compadre, though the only response is the buzzing of flies and reeking perfume of death. The savage shootouts are vintage Peckinpah, an orgy of slow-motion blood and rapid gunfire, the camera capturing this unrelenting destruction, a convulsing vivisection of human nature. Bennie finally faces the family Patriarch, and while Teresa and her baby watch, he murders the old man and his entourage: his moral duty towards Elita has been fulfilled. Bennie finally understands that revenge is a dish best served in cold blood...even if it’s his own.

Final Grade: (B+)

Saturday, December 14, 2019

UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD: DIRECTOR'S CUT (Wim Wenders, 1991, Germany)


Claire escapes her congested life of materialism and embarks upon a great adventure from one end of the world to the other. Director Wim Wenders' ultimate travelogue mixes science fiction with a film noir detective story and adds a healthy dose of familial melodrama into this celluloid potpourri. With the world on the brink of annihilation from a rogue Indian satellite, whose radiation could contaminate the Earth if shot down by the United States, Claire begins her own nihilistic journey towards oblivion. She leaves her cheating boyfriend Eugene, a novelist whose words have become more important than living, and encounters bank robbers and a fugitive scientist named Sam Farber: a man who has stolen a device that will allow his blind mother to see once again.
 
Filmed in 1991 but set in the future of 1999, Wenders' set details and technological innovations are laudable with the foresight of GPS and laptop computers, digital cameras and web cams, years before their practical use. The set designs of a world gone mad with the dance of the dead, a population who thrives upon the momentary breath of life that could be extinguished any moment, of infrastructure falling into disrepair scrawled with physical graffiti, must have influenced Alfonso Cuarón’s CHILDREN OF MEN. Claire becomes enamored with Sam’s predicament and follows him while Eugene and a private detective are stalking them. They finally end up in the desolate Australian Outback, deep in a cavern after the nuclear fallout whose magnetic pulse could have destroyed the world. Sam is slowly going blind as he helps his mother to see, utilizing a device invented by his father: Sam is desperate for his father’s love and respect but it’s Claire who invites salvation.
 
Wenders' film is about the power of the individual, as she and Sam become addicted to their own electronic dreams, and yet are able to detach themselves from these currents and reach independent goals. It is also about technology and its usefulness…and destructive powers. The surreal dream imagery evokes the spirit of Edvard Munch’s works, like a silent scream of torment. Meanwhile, Eugene narrates the film in retrospect and we finally understand that he is writing the film from a good old-fashioned typewriter during his stay in the Outback, his insights and observations revealing more about the characters than they themselves acknowledge.
 
The excellent cast invigorates the script with powerful performances from William Hurt, Max von Sydow, Solveig Dommartin, Sam Neil, Jeanne Moreau, and a host of others. Sometimes the dialogue is a bit stilted and languid, falling like prose upon a blank page: that is, they often speak like characters in a book…but this could be explained by the fact that the film is Eugene’s novel in progress, a story created letter by letter as it speaks with metal teeth of an anachronism, whispered through a writer’s mind. The beautiful cinematography brings this fictional future to vibrant life, and the powerful soundtrack underscores their desires that float on ethereal wings. Finally, Claire reaches for the Heavens and becomes guardian of a toxic Earth that is healing itself…much like her own damaged but fiery spirit. 

Final Grade: (B+)

Saturday, December 7, 2019

SECRET CEREMONY (Joseph Losey, 1968, UK)


Two women share a damaged and parasitic psyche, fearing the vast empty spaces of a lonely existence, ghosts like a residual haunting who putter about dreary routine for eternity. Joseph Losey's psychological drama is set inside a huge Victorian mansion whose rooms are weighted down with the anchor of past lives, where two women drown in self-inflicted guilt.

The film begins in a graveyard and ends at a funeral as the specter of death stalks the characters, an uneasy feeling heightened by Losey's taught direction and eerie soundtrack. Nicolas Roeg's masterful DON'T LOOK NOW comes to mind with skewed perceptions and dread foreboding. Losey utilizes many extreme angle shots, reducing and enlarging characters who never quite seem to be in the right frame of mind. Elizabeth Taylor is a emotional hurricane, able to convey impotent rage one moment and soul crushing grief the next: she is the ugly American dressed up in the trappings of the British socialite. Taylor is Leonora, a prostitute who still grieves over the loss of her child and carries this burden like a dead weight. She is approached by a young waif named Cenci, deftly played by Mia Farrow, who believes Leonora is her mother who died a few weeks ago. Here is a woman in search of a daughter to ally her guilt and grief, and a daughter in search of a mother for protection and care. As the role play progresses, a devilishly clever and bearded man completes the ménage a trio. Robert Mitchum as Albert is Cenci’s step-father with an unhealthy physical attachment to his daughter, and sets about to destroy the uber mater so he can inherit Cenci’s fortune.

Leonora confesses her professional sins but is not motivated by greed for Cenci’s money, only her own desire to heal this fractured girl. In the final touching scene, Leonora describes her own suicide attempt while Cenci slowly dies from ingesting a handful of pills, unbeknownst to Leonora. It is heartbreaking for Leonora but to Albert it is a heart "breaking" judgment.

Final Grade: (B)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

AND SOON THE DARKNESS (Robert Fuest, 1970, UK)


Two young English women fall victim to a stranger in a strange land as they cycle through rural France for a little rest and relaxation. Director Robert Fuest deftly captures the crowded isolation of the protagonists who are separated by language and protocol from the local population, unaware of the danger until it is too late. Though set amid the fertile fields and archaic villages of France (refreshingly eschewing traditional locations!), this could be any small town on Earth where tourists intrude upon the privacy of the locals. Jane and Cathy both sense a veneer of contempt shellacked over every encounter: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!
Pamela Franklin as Jane steals the movie with a bravura performance as the strong willed and independent survivor who makes believable decisions and reacts with proactive violence when confronted by the killer. Fuest doesn’t allow for too many genre conventions to distract from Franklin’s solid characterization. Michele Dotrice portrays Michelle, the best friend, but she isn't around long enough for much character development. However, the contentiously petty interaction between the two women lends veracity to the story by introducing a complex human relationship instead of mere avatars that are nothing more than fodder for fear. Fuest also imbues the audience with the same ambiguous fears by purposely redacting subtitles so we feel a constant separation between characters.
The plot itself is fairly straightforward but Fuest is concerned with creating narrative momentum with suspense by insinuation and elision and not superficial sadism. The murder scene itself relies on moments of suspended observation or tricks of the imagination by Michelle, allowing the viewer to experience the tense scene from her perspective (of course, we have the foreknowledge that she will be killed; after all, we’re watching a horror film). So when she reaches for her panties drying on a branch and they’re missing but her bra and other undergarments are still there, we know some unidentified person took them but Michelle is just beginning to get suspicious. She looks on the ground as a close-up reveals her expression: maybe the panties are still in her saddlebag. A few branches scrape together and she hesitates alone, Jane miles down the road after an argument, and we feel her sudden recognition of isolation. Fuest doesn’t show the viewer a dark shadow or evil eyes peering from the bushes: he wants us to feel what the character feels. Her bicycle suddenly falls over and she jumps but again, it could just be the wind. She sighs in relief until she picks up her bike…and sees the mangled spokes. Now she knows absolutely that someone is lurking nearby and her dread is palpable, a fight or flight reaction that becomes overwhelming. Fuest shoots from a low–angle framing her reaction-shot through the broken spokes and twisted rim. This is a powerful scene that is the crux of the story as the killer’s identity is kept hidden. The remaining story becomes Jane’s fear for her missing friend and discovering who is responsible.
AND SOON THE DARKNESS is a nice little thriller that I understand was remade in 2010 utilizing the same title but to seemingly different results. Relying on allusion over contusion, Fuest’s film exploits that undiscovered country between our perceptions and our paranoias.

Final Cut: (B+) 

Monday, October 14, 2019

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (Irving Pichel, 1932, USA)


Bob Rainsford learns that the world is indeed divided into two kinds of people and on a mysterious island the predator becomes prey. The title is a double entendre representing the exploits of two Big Game hunters whose machismo is reinforced by hunting dangerous animals and the competition (or game) that will soon exists between these men. Bob Rainsford is a world-renowned hunter whose ship is purposely lead astray upon a coral reef: as the only survivor he swims ashore towards an island and stumbles upon an archaic castle, looming above the jungle like some barbaric idol. It’s here that he meets Count Zaroff, a man who not only knows Rainsford but also considers himself to be the best hunter in the world, and soon a contest for survival ensues. 

Director Irving Pichel utilizes all the horror tropes of early cinema: the haunting castle, the evil henchmen, the dank torturous dungeon replete with severed heads, the evil and cunning genius, the beautiful scream-queen whose survival depends upon our protagonist, but instead of leading the narrative into the supernatural…he leads it into the realm of the hyper-natural. Though the setup is easily contrived, Count Zaroff and his henchmen of Russian caricatures, there is an interesting subtext to the film. As technology moves into the modern age and we homo sapiens dominate the world, the only natural predator of our species has become ourselves. Zaroff's mens rea is explained with moral ambiguity, suffering a head injury that may have cause his homicidal impulses. Or did this only allow his true self to emerge? 

Count Zaroff decides to hunt Rainsford and the sultry Eve Trowbridge, and she is the voluptuous prize whose fate is to be raped by this despicable coward. If the two can survive until sunrise, Zaroff promises to give them the boat to the mainland but he reminds them that he has never lost this “chess game”. But Rainsford is resourceful and this mano-a-mano confrontation wastes no time creating tension: our protagonists set pits and deadfalls to kill Zaroff but to no avail. He hunts them with a bow but sensing defeat, retreats to his domain and gets a high-powered rife with a scope while his henchmen bring the dogs. The victims escape into the foggy swamps rendering the rifle useless but the dogs hunt them through moor and vine choked trees, until they are trapped upon a treacherous precipice. With one shot, Rainsford seems to fall to his doom as the sun rises, and Eve’s light is dimmed by the coming of Zaroff’s violent ecstasy. Finally, poetic justice is served as the boat races from the harbor and Zaroff becomes the food of the dogs. 

Final Grade: (B)

Sunday, September 22, 2019

MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY AND GIRLY (Freddie Francis, UK, 1969)


Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly live a life of disintegrating values and dehumanizing games, and become victims themselves of a sexual revolution. Freddie Francis’ bizarre brood of British banality is a delectable hybrid of Luis Bunuel domestic surrealism as written by Tennessee Williams.

The film begins with the unnamed protagonists (known only by their titular sobriquets) playing in a zoo and teasing the animals…and humans. These two teenagers act and speak like children, uttering annoying baby-talk with a riptide of sexual urgency. An unnerving implication of incest is revealed with finger-sucking aplomb while they search for a playmate. After discovering a drunken bum on a park bench, they bring him back home to Mumsy and Nanny to complete the Patriarchal pastiche, a nuclear family unit whose fuse is set to purposely implode. But Girly and her brother blackmail another man whose mannerisms are all to manly, seducing all three women and finally playing them one against the other, as sex becomes the greatest weapon.

Freddie Francis creates a claustrophobic fear in the shuttered mansion, where chilling details like boarded-up doors and locked rooms foreshadow events. Sex is juxtaposed with violence, as the shrill baby-talk barely conceals the murderous events. The fault of the story is that there is little sympathetic context, no character that becomes the focal point of audience attention. The events are orchestrated for effect; for physical detachment (like the head, for instance) and not emotional attachment. We just don’t care about anyone but applaud their comeuppance.

A black comedy of unique proportions, GIRLY upsets Christian values and redefines the family structure, as sex becomes the currency for survival, the man’s tool leveraging power and transforming the matriarchal structure where the daughter now usurps the throne.

Final Grade: (C)

Saturday, September 7, 2019

LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (Alain Resnais, 1961, France)


Restless spirits rendezvous, victims haunting a grand manor that looms above them like Hill House, ghosts lost amid a maze of elliptical memories and infinite corridors. The protagonist is frozen outside of time, tortured like the prisoners of Dante’s ninth circle of Hell, his emotions icily detached from any human concerns except traitorous desire. The others who stalk the carpeted hallways, their footsteps and tremulous whispers absorbed by this mortuary that swallows the last vestiges of their humanity, seem to dress in the funeral attire of the upper class. The musical score is a dirge that is often antithetical to the visual montage; beautiful art-deco adorations of the nouveau riche contrast this sullen march towards perdition. The inhabitants cast long shadows that seem to stalk them; ghastly creatures that have consumed their souls…or possibly these shadows cast them?

The nameless protagonist pursues his lover throughout the endless passages, his voice-over narration opposing the film’s reality, as if he is trying to convince himself that by repeating this mantra he can change his past, present, or future. Burdened by guilt of rape and murder, his victim dressed as a feathery angel, he is startled and falls from the crumbling balcony. In one great match cut, the jilted lover turns and aims his gun at a target then Resnais cuts to the woman gliding gently down the hall, implying that she is the object of his violence. The “husband” seems to be the grand tormentor, always winning at Nim and holding power over his prisoner, as the Devil incarnate. When the final game is lost, the protagonist makes the sign of the cross with the game-tiles, as if to drive away the consuming evil.

Director Alain Resnais has crafted a mysterious film that demands the viewer to imprint his own psyche upon this celluloid canvas. The gorgeous deep focus black and white cinematography lets focal points disappear into dark mirrors and long passageways, while the slow tracking shots remain obtuse and disembodied. Though many people seem trapped in this immaculately kept netherworld, they are spiritually isolated…and whoever walks there, walks alone.

FINAL GRADE: (A+)

IDIOCRACY (Mike Judge, 2006, USA)


Luke Wilson in literally an average Joe, a victim of the military’s unnatural selection for a cryogenic experiment: he awakes to a nightmare of ubiquitous obtuseness, a future society where stupidity has evolved as the status quo. Mike Judge’s dunce capped satire is over-the-top hilarious but not far from current cultural trends where Reality TV dominates and Conglomerates consume the landscape.

Isaac Asimov wrote about the decline of human intelligence years ago, as college graduate working couples nurture fewer children than the religiously fixated and miseducated who birth and rear new monstrosities on a regular basis. Multiply this by a few centuries and this militant satire, though impossible (an elite class would still be needed to run the computers and maintain the infrastructure), still resonates with a tone of truthfulness and ill-humor. The attention to detail is farcically incisive: clothes slathered with advertising, grunts and inane slang as a common denominator, sex infusing every facet of society (such as Starbucks and Fuddruckers), Costco’s huge warehouse crouched amid the rubbish-strewn environment like some Lovecraftian horror, and the redacted history that literally depicts Chaplin as THE GREAT DICTATOR and has UN (pronounced monosyllabically) dinosaurs saving the world from fascist behemoths wrapped in Nazi regalia. Though funny, this prescient warning should be headed as we see the rise of Creationist Museums that vomit their religious myths as fact: the human race is becoming lost in a blink of a cosmic eye, stumbling towards extinction by our own hands!

Unfortunately, the voice-over narration is annoying, as Mike Judge seems to have contempt for the very audience he wishes to reach: we don’t need omniscient explanation. But Luke Wilson as Joe and Maya Rudolph as Rita are excellent as they exemplify the empathetic human spirit, this emotional connection that otherwise would leave the audience to despise the entire species. IDIOCRACY is sinfully smart and those who rave about 90 day FiancéEx on the Beach or Ghost Hunters…just don’t realize the joke is on them.

FINAL GRADE: (B+)

Friday, September 6, 2019

IN BRUGES (Martin McDonagh, 2008, UK)


IN BRUGES is a Hieronymus Bosch triptych: three characters caught in a static loop unable to escape the Garden Of Earthly Delights. After Ray bungles his first contract by accidentally killing a child, he and his mentor Ken are sent to Bruges to await their next assignment. Ken is deeply moved by the city’s peace and tranquility while Ray is impatient and frantic with boredom: Heaven and Hell is a matter of perspective.

Writer/Director Martin McDonagh has created a deeply philosophical film that (I believe) has been mostly misunderstood: this is not just a wise cracking, slick talking PULP FICTION style comedy! McDonagh explores beliefs in Theistic Existentialism and Buddhism because the characters are brought to a turning point in their lives…by their own hands. They also hold the key to their own salvation but keep repeating the same destructive behaviors. And it’s fate that ultimately brings the three together. Bruges is an allegorical Purgatory, an inescapable dreamlike place that exists between worlds where the three characters are trapped by their own rigid moral codes and ideals.

As the violent drama nears its bloody climax, Ray, Ken, and Harry are each given a chance to redeem themselves but ultimately fail. I imagine this story playing out for all eternity (think GROUNDHOG DAY) until one is able to change and attain enlightenment: Ken almost achieves Nirvana by self-sacrifice but he also remains embedded in Samsara. The labyrinthine canals are like the city’s veins, the people it’s flesh, and the crumbling ancient structures its bone. The tower provides an omniscient view of the city and points the way towards salvation while the mysterious caverns lurk somewhere below the park while the suffering happens in-between. The film does not spare the brutality and gore and devours the characters like some demented Boschian nightmare.

FINAL GRADE (A+)