Monday, September 28, 2009

Odds and Ends

Catching up on last week: I've been slowly delving back into my vast VHS archive and transferring it to DVD. Two of this weeks viewings were watched during this process.

Ringo Lam's Burning Paradise (1994) was a huge failure when it was originally released, but it's an interesting failure none the less. Ostensibly a kung-fu movie set in the aftermath of the burning of the Shaolin temple, this is really a horror movie in disguise. Most of the action is set in the Red Lotus Temple, which has been turned into a prison by the ruling Manchus and is ruled by the monstrous Elder Kung. The hero of the film is that ubiquitous wu xia hero, Fong Sai Yuk, who is incarcerated with the rest of his fellow monks. The temple is a house of horrors, in which the monks are toyed with by the jailers with a myriad selection of ghastly traps, the most baroque of which is a statue of the Buddha rigged to mow down the supplicants who give offerings, but there's also an appearance of that famous tool of mayhem, the flying guillotine. This is a Tsui-Hark production and it has the look of some of Hark's other movies, but the director imports his own, gritty sensibility to the violence. It may look a bit like Once Upon a Time in China, but at its heart, this is a redux of Prison on Fire. I quite like it.

You have to squint to see the familial resemblance between La pointe-courte (1954), Agnes Varda's first film, and the other lions of the New Wave, but it's there. Varda wasn't a cineaste, like the Cahiers crowd. She was a photographer. The difference in approach shows through; this isn't a reflexive film, but is rather a very carefully controlled one. It is very different from the chaos (or freedom, if you prefer) of Godard or Truffaut. But the similarity is there in the way Varda uses found images. The instance that jumps out at me is the sudden squeal of a slowly moving train. It's inserted for texture, just for the hell of it, because the director CAN insert it, and that's the soul of the New Wave. Which is all well and good, but this film also seems like one of those films at the nexus of all cinematic realities. The background story, about a fishing village that's fishing in polluted waters, is reminiscent of Visconti, while the central character arc seems positively Bergmanesque (including a shot that anticipates a very famous one in Persona, a decade before the fact). It's like this one film, placed at a very precarious point in time, is some weird kind of singularity sucking up all of the European cinema around it.

It's a lot of fun watching Ruth Chatterton walking with a swagger that would be the envy of most men in Female (1933, directed in turns by William Dieterle, William Wellman, and Michael Curtiz). A hard as nails automotive CEO, she has little time for “feminine” niceties. When she sees a man she wants, she takes him. All well and good, but this one goes all weak in the knees in the end as our heroine meets a man who makes her want to be more “feminine,” which is disappointing, and a little reprehensible given the way it puts her business in the lurch. But cultural norms will out, I guess. It's still fun for most of its running time. Even so, Chatterton's profligate career was completely unacceptable to the Breen office, and rather than castrate the film on re-release, it was simply banned. Alas.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

West is West

One of the funniest scenes in Buster Keaton's Go West (1925, directed by Buster Keaton) finds Keaton on the wrong end of the gun held by a man he has just caught cheating at cards. The man says "SMILE when you say that." So Keaton attempts to smile. He has to use his fingers to turn up the corners of his mouth. That's The Great Stone Face for you.

The genius of Keaton, on full display in this movie, is that he's an existential everyman. He is Sisyphus with his rock, pushing it eternally up hill only to have it roll back over him so he has to start again from the bottom. Keaton's films are rarely about romance. They're often about work--Keaton usually has a job to do in his films, and, suited to the work or not, he does it. Go West finds him trying to be a cowboy. Mostly, he fails, but in the end he succeeds through sheer determination.

There's more sentiment in this film than is usual for Keaton--he forms a bond with a cow named "Brown Eyes"--but I wonder if the sentiment in this film is a poke at Chaplin. I wouldn't put it past him. Plus, it gives Keaton a means of completely deflating whatever romance might creep into the movie. There's a girl, as it so happens, but she loses out to the cow.

A lot of silent comedies end with a set-piece designed to set the audience's jaw to hanging open, and this one is no different. Keaton finds himself solely responsible for herding a thousand head of cattle to the stockyards through downtown Los Angeles. How he does this is one of the film's cleverest surprises.

I saw this at my local art house, accompanied by The Rats and People Orchestra. They wrote and performed the score live. It was a pretty terrific score, and seeing this movie with an audience was fantastic. I watch a lot of movies on video out of practical necessity, but it's no substitute for the communal experience of a good theater audience. This is especially true when it comes to seeing comedies.

They prefaced Go West with one of Keaton's two-reelers, "The High Sign" (1921), in which he falls afoul of the Blinking Buzzards, a dastardly gang of extortionists. The end of this movie is almost like watching a live-action Looney Tunes short. It's all kinds of insane, and all kinds of hilarious. But don't take my word for it. You can see it on YouTube:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Money in the Bank

Whenever I start to get annoyed at our local art house (Columbia, Missouri's Ragtag Cinema), I need to remind myself of how completely awesome they are from time to time. Oh, sure, their main features occasionally leave me less than enthusiastic--a problem with the indie sector more than with our art house specifically--but they really do go the extra mile sometimes. They have two series in particular that make me inclined to forgive everything. The first is their "Ragtag 101" series, which is similar to TCM's "Essentials" series, but which tends to be a bit quirkier than that. The other is the "Passport" series, which focuses on contemporary foreign films. Both series are a godsend to this wicked little town.

I hadn't been to one of the Ragtag 101 films in a while, but I was damned if I was going to miss The Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, oddly enough, directed by Mervyn LeRoy), which is one of my very favorite films. I mean, really, what can you say about a movie that starts with Ginger Rogers dressed in a gaudy outfit made of coins singing "We're in the Money" in Pig Latin? It's one of those completely out of left-field things that makes movies from the Pre-Code era a constant delight. There were no rules yet, so anything goes (as Cole Porter would later write).

In truth, this film's predecessor, 42nd Street, is probably a better film, but this one is the better movie. It's certainly more in love with surreality. The accomplishment of Busby Berkley in this film, and others, is to reclaim the "cinematic" for movies. Most early talkies are stage-bound. They unlearned everything from the silent era and had to re-learn it all over again. The Gold Diggers of 1933 is is a stark break from that. Even though the musical numbers are presented as diegetic, as performances on stage within the film, there's no way these were ever performed on a stage. There's no way they were designed the way that they are to be seen from down in a theater audience. The camera roams too freely for that. It becomes an active participant in creating the image, particularly from deliriously abstract overhead shots in which dancers become moving design elements. Parts of this film look like it was designed by Dr. Seuss.

The musical elements alone would be fun enough. But this is an interesting movie for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with the musical numbers (or, reasons that feed them). It's a film of pretty stark contrasts, made in the deepest part of The Great Depression. Like many films, it presents an escapist fantasy for Depression audiences. Unlike many films--particularly those made by MGM, which would never have made a film like this--this film doesn't shy away from the Depression, either. Part of this stems from the movie's parent studio, Warner Brothers, who were New Deal populists (in contrast to MGM's Louis B. Mayer, who was a Hooverite), and took it upon themselves to speak for the little guy and to deflate the rich and pompous. A good deal of this film's plot is devoted to exactly that. Anyway, as a stark reminder of the world outside, the "We're in the Money" number is shut down by the show's creditors, putting our showgirl heroines out of work before the show even opens. The placement of the musical numbers suggests a kind of yin and yang, too. The film is front loaded with the exuberantly upbeat "We're In the Money" and "Petting in the Park," but it finishes up with "The Forgotten Man," which is as dark a number as I've ever seen in a musical. The host for this showing, a pretty smart guy named Lokke Heiss who teaches film at the University here, prefaced the showing with documentary footage of the "Bonus Army" that Hoover had forcibly removed from Washington (with tanks, no less), as a means of providing context:

This is the state of the Union just before this film was made, and it adds a good deal of desperation to the "Forgotten Man" number at the end of The Gold Diggers of 1933:

Beyond all that, the film itself is typical of the pre-Code movies, in so far as it has a knowing sophistication and freedom of sexuality that would vanish from American movies a year later. The double entendre is employed like a razor in this movie, often by Aline MacMahon's Trixie, the comedian, but also from squeaky clean couple Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, and from Joan Blondell, to whom the film ultimately belongs.

Powell plays the scion of a rich family who would cut him off if they found him composing for and appearing in a Broadway show, which is the movie's McGuffin. Powell is fine, but Warren Williams has a much harder role as his uptight brother, who begins as a complete snob and thaws as the movie plays out. He manages the difficult task of becoming a character the audience actually likes.

All of which adds up to a film that would be my favorite movie musical if Singin' in the Rain didn't exist.


The Passport Series brought me The Chaser (2008, directed by Hong-jin Na) last week, a Korean film in the mode of Memories of Murder. Like that film, it tracks the investigation of a serial killer. Also like that film, it goes to great lengths to show the strain the investigation exerts on the cops. But from there, it parts company. The hero of the film is Joong-ho Eom (Yun-Seok Kim), an ex-cop turned pimp who starts to get worried about the number of his girls that are disappearing. The latest to disappear wasn't even supposed to be working, and he takes it on himself to find her before the killer does her in. The rest goes to great pains to subvert the serial killer procedural, sometimes to the film's detriment. This is especially true of the film's ending, which seems gratuitous, though, admittedly, it's the kind of ending that would NEVER fly in Hollywood (there's an American remake in the works, unfortunately).

What the film lacks in, well, "heart" for a better word, it more than makes up for in forward motion. This is director Hong-jin Na's first film, but the narrative pulse he gives it is sharper than what many veteran directors can manage. It helps that the streets of Seoul at night represent a terrific noir background. There's a palpable sense of danger in the setting. The character arc of our hero is good, too, and Yun-Seok Kim invests him with a world-weariness that suggests that his choice of professions is taking a spiritual toll on him.

Worth seeing, in any event.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

End of Summer

Anyone who follows the movie industry probably already knows that there are "down" periods, when the big studios start unloading the stuff they don't have any confidence in. Some clever studios counter-program during these periods, but the conventional wisdom is that these periods are wastelands. Usually, these fall in February through early April and late August through early October. Lately, though, I've been very interested in these periods, because some of those throwaway projects are a LOT more daring than the stuff from blockbuster season and award season. Case in point, two movies I've been mulling over for a couple of weeks.

The visitor's mother ship hovers over Johannesburg.

It's taken me a while to write about District 9 (2009, directed by Neill Blomkamp) because I've needed to divorce myself from the actual experience of watching it. I saw it in a theater with state of the art equipment, one that seems to have resurrected the old Sensurround process that rumbles through the audience with such force that it vibrates the fillings out of one's teeth. The screen itself was huge, though it was a shade smaller than an IMAX. In all, the equipment at the theater was pummeling. In truth, it gave me a headache, which wasn't helped by the visual conceit of the movie, which posits a cross between Alien Nation and The Battle of Algiers. Given the distance of a couple of weeks, I think I can divorce all of this from my reaction, and focus on the actual content of the movie.

What this is is a political allegory, though what the symbolism actually means is a matter of interpretation. The film is pointedly set in South Africa, where the "District 9" of the title calls to mind the ghettos during Apartheid. Certainly, the brutal tactics shown by the authorities towards the alien visitors confined here are deliberate echoes. The story itself follows a minor functionary who is tasked with clearing the alien visitors from the ghetto. This guy, one Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copely) calls to my mind Hannah Arendt's evocation of Adolph Eichmann as "an efficient bureaucrat." Evil is banal, after all. Wikus, though, has a political awakening after he's infected with alien DNA, which makes him able to operate the alien's technology. His transformation--literalized on screen as he begins to morph into an alien a la Seth Brundle in The Fly forms the moral argument of the movie. The other major character in the film is an alien named "Christopher Johnson," who has an agenda all his own. He's a pretty expressive character for being a computer generated avatar. This is all very interesting, but at some point, I began to wonder what was the point. I mean, it's a protest movie, of sorts, but in protesting Apartheid, it seems to me that it's waving its arms at the train after it has passed. Apartheid has been dead for a while.

So obviously it has something else on its mind.

The aliens in this film could be any demonized "other." The techniques used by the authorities--many at the hands of private contractors--seem very timely given revelations about how the United States has conducted the so-called "War on Terror." But some of these themes are undermined by the depiction of itinerant Nigerian gangsters, who are portrayed as cannibals. This seems a pretty racist depiction, really, but maybe the rest of the world has different standards of racism. This film is an international film, after all. I think it's a pretty confused movie, but it's not one without pleasures. Certainly, Wikus is a fun character to watch, all the more so because he's not a very likable character who manages the not inconsiderable feat of becoming a hero. He reminds me a bit of the lead in Peter Jackson's Braindead (Dead Alive to Americans), though he's more of a prick. He almost has to be for the audience to enjoy watching him slowly stripped of his privilege as the movie progresses. And, of course, the movie blows shit up real good. It mercifully shys away from the run and gun approach to action, which is odd given its hand-held shooting aesthetic. In a lot of ways, the climax of the film takes its cues from Japanese Animation rather than Hollywood action films.

In any event, it's an interesting movie.

Shoshana (Melanie Laurent) contemplates her revenge.

The other interesting movie is Quentin Tarantino's latest film, Inglourious Basterds (2009). Whatever else the film may be, it's a conversation piece, and not just for its willingness to re-write the end of World War II. I wasn't really sure there was anything there as I walked out of the theater, but I've had more discussions about this film than I have about any film in recent memory.

I don't really have any recollection of the details of Enzo Castellari's prototype. I saw it on HBO in the dim and distant dawn of cable television. I remember being titillated by nekkid women with machine guns, and I remember Bo Svenson because I had seen one or the other Walking Tall movies at about the same time, but of the plot, I remember nothing. Not that it matters, because this film doesn't have anything in common with Castellari's film apart from a title with the spelling slummed, and cameos by the director and by Svenson. This isn't a "remake" in any sense of the word.

The movie itself has two story tracks. The first is the story of Shoshanna Dreyfuss and Colonel Hans Landa, respectively a Jewish girl and an SS officer tasked with tracking down hidden Jews. Landa massacres Shoshanna's family leaving only her alive. She survives and shows up several years later as the owner of a Parisian movie house. A chance meeting with a German soldier who is also a movie fan sucks Shoshanna back into Landa's orbit and she conceives of a fitting revenge. Meanwhile, the other story track unfolds. This is the story track that gives the film its name. The "Basterds" (sic) are an elite unit of Jewish soldiers assembled by good ol' boy Lt. Aldo Raine and tasked with killing Nazis. Because of their position, they become the point man for "Operation Kino," a plot to kill the entire Nazi high command at the premiere of one of Goebbel's propaganda films. Obviously, these two plots have a collision course, but something odd happens near the end of the film: they never really connect. In more than one of those conversations that I've had about his movie, I've speculated that the movie might be better if the entire "Basterds" plotline were removed wholesale, because it's by far the weakest element of the film.

It doesn't take a genius to look at that plot synopsis and conclude that the movie is yet another of Tarantino's odes to his favorite movies. You can already find catalogs of all of the allusions online. I won't go into them here. The question I was asking myself when I left the theater was: "Okay, what is this actually saying about the movies?" My initial, knee-jerk reaction is that this was an example of pop eating itself, but that's too facile, because, whatever else it is, the way this movie re-writes the end of the war is too big a fantasy convention to be meaningless. And it's really no more offensive than the way war movies have always re-written the war, in spite of the way it takes it to an extreme. Our perception of World War II, now that it is receding from living memory, is always, always going to be drawn from movies, and I think this film is acutely aware of this fact. I might even be tempted to claim it as Inglourious Basterd's central thesis.

As pure abstraction, it's a showcase for all that Tarantino has learned from movies, and even though they're pastiche, he makes his found images uniquely his own. I'm not one of those people that thinks Tarantino gets all of his ideas from other movies. His preference for long takes, for example, is distinctive. So is his recurring foot fetish. The director has also relearned the potential of conversations to build suspense. The threat of death seems a bit more serious than it did in the Kill Bills.

As I say, I don't think much of the men on a mission part of the movie, though I like Brad Pitt just fine. He gets a good joke out of his southern accent late in the movie. Eli Roth (who directed the "Nation's Pride" film-within-a-film) apparently used up the production's entire budget for eyeliner. The other half of the movie, though, is fascinating. Landa is a charismatic monster, and Shoshanna, as played by Melanie Laurent, is basically Marlene Dietrich to Tarantino's Von Sternberg. The ending, in smoke and fire, is a love letter to Laurent's face, echoing an earlier sequence in which that face is made up to the strains of David Bowie's theme from Cat People.

All told, it's a prickly movie. Greatly flawed, admittedly, but it has people talking about movies in a way that they usually don't. It's certainly Tarantino's first really important film of the decade, just in time for the next decade to start.