Sunday, July 29, 2007

Review of The Innocents

Director Jack Clayton made an about-face from his landmark ‘angry young man’ tale “A Room at the Top” (1959) (highly recommended) with the chilling gothic horror film “The Innocents” (1961). The movie is based on the novel “Turning of the Screw” by Henry James and screenwritten by Truman Capote. With Scottish starlet Deborah Kerr in the lead and a cameo by Michael Redgraves, “The Innocents” has too much talent behind it to fail. It doesn’t, but a great deal of the credit goes to cinematographer Freddie Francis and the amazing sound team.

In the opening scene, Miss Giddens (Kerr) is asked to be the governess for two sweet and adorable children who have no parents to care for them. Their uncle is rich, but despises children and their most recent governess has died. Flora and Miles, the two young children, desperately need affection and attention as they have been languishing away at boarding school and their enormous blissful estate. Miss Giddens accepts despite her initial misgivings and quickly comes to love the position. That is… at first. It bothers her that Miles has been expelled with little explanation from his school. Also troublesome is that Flora somehow presciently anticipated his return. Giddens begins to lose her fix on reality as the darks secrets of the past and the supernatural ongoings of the present consume her imagination.

[Image: If this boy isn’t a lovably pretension little scamp then I’ll eat my pigeon hat.]

Now I know what everybody is thinking at this point, because I thought it too. I reacted with something along the lines of, “Not another stupid old haunted house movie” and “Wow, I bet it will be really surprising when the children turn out to be satanic. I wonder if they killed the previous governess. Duh!” To be honest, I’m not familiar with Henry James’s work but I figured that I would be jadedly familiar with any gothic horror story that heralded from before the 1900’s and I quickly set about polishing my scoffing monocle. How wrong I was.

In truth, the plot is not really worlds away from your typical haunted-house/satanic-child setup, but in execution, James, Capote and Clayton have fashioned some brilliant variations. The film combines high-pitch psychological realism, controversial Freudian implications and an unreliable narrator into a fusion of terror, humanity and ambiguity that works better than dozens of lesser attempts.

The film is not really subtle, due to the bold acting and sound mix, though I feel driven to claim otherwise. The performances are eventually thrust to the brink of hysteria, though the rise to the cliff’s edge is so gradual that it feels quite natural. The role of the kindly (though not without her limits) Miss Giddens, is the perfect unreliable point of view from which to experience the escalating tension. It becomes difficult to shake the feeling that Giddens is insane (her last act solution to the horrors she perceives is just as as illogical and inexplicable as the problem), but equally hard to ignore the formless creepiness of the children. Though Flora and Miles are outwardly charming and have a reasonable excuse for their every possible misdeed (and endearing accents), there is an unwholesome intelligence manipulating from somewhere deep within. Or am I just paranoid too?

The lack of any comic relief, distracting subplots or narrative omniscience keeps us trapped in the upward spiral of both fear and doubt. Freddie Francis pins us to the tight network of characters with invasive camera positions and uncomfortably deep focus shots (sometimes even resorting to “Citizen Kane” (1941) style matting and optical printer tricks). The crisp black and white, with strange contrasts from foreground to background, conjures a lingering sense of evil compulsions as often in bright daylight as at dusk. Long before there is any evidence of wrongdoing, and one would be hard put even to produce the evidence, something feels wrong at the manor.

Much of the mood is derived from the sound mix. An oft-repeated children’s nursery tune pervades the film, quite memorably in a scene where Flora’s humming begins to harmonize with the rising buzz of a ghost on a rear-ground island. With versions done as a song, hum, piano piece and music box, you’ll get no shortage of innocence = evil audio insinuations. The sound crew went far beyond this, however, and included whisperings, voices, drones, ambient sounds, sudden silences and atmospheric music in dense, unrelenting layers. The mixture was so potent that “The Ring” (2002) sampled the sound mix for its haunted VHS tape. My favorite scene has the young Miles soberly reciting a poem about the undead with his pitch slightly deepened and a touch of reverb added.

Henry James’s story succeeds by giving a wide berth to the genre staples of straightforward mystery, gory deaths, secret chambers and otherworldly special effects. When you step back from the film one realizes that it is rather down-to-Earth and realistic. Everything supernatural might have a natural explanation or at least a psychological one. Clayton plays the ambiguity at just the right volume, constantly suggesting and unsettling. The full implications are quite controversial indeed, though very little is made explicit enough for the audience to consciously think about the possibilities during the moment-to-moment tension. The director never tips his hand, never pushes the performances into camp or caricature and wisely avoids tidying everything up into a neat little ending. Though I was expecting a parade of obvious ghost clichés, I finished already excited to start again and peer into every detail.

Walrus Rating: 8.5

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Twist List

I love twist endings in films and especially new or cleverly renewed ones. I find this is true of almost every modern film goer. We like to be surprised. Usually we complain if we figure out the ending in advance although we are often times unreasonably proud when we do. I think a common mistake is to judge the entire film by the ending (and especially by whether the viewer figured it out in before it was revealed), but there are cases where the conclusion can make a mighty difference.

Some of my favorite genres, like the giallo and film noir, have blazed the trail for the murder mystery twist ending and so I wish to pay homage to them while avoiding spoilers. Without including any specific titles or context, I've compiled a list of frequent twists types that show up in murder mysteries (or any other crime with an issue of identity). Please leave a comment if you think of other things that should be included, but please, no examples or titles.

Guilty parties:
- The protagonist
- The chief investigating officer (non-protagonist)
- Priest
- Butler (or most loyal, quietest or most humble suspect)
- Close family member
- Mob justice (multiple killers)
- Faceless corporation or government (conspiracy)
- Last act introduction of new character
- Supposed victim killed second person to fake death
- Suicide
- Accidental death
- No murder actually took place

Versions and Variations:
- Least obvious suspect
- Most obvious suspect (initially rejected)
- Collecting insurance or inheritance
- Multiple personality disorder or other mental illness involved
- Supernatural elements involved
- Murder committed in self defense
- Solved, but with wrong motive or method
- “Solved,” but only the audience figures out the real truth
- Never find out (ambiguity)
- Actually, the victim deserved it (truth not made public by protagonist)
- Alibi that is almost equally incriminating
- Prime suspect becomes next victim
- Previously unmentioned relationship (kin, romantic, military) revealed
- Loved one tries to take the fall for real killer
- Killer dies (often ironically through his/her own mechanizations) before being arrested
- Connection exists to old closed or unsolved case

- Presumed sex-crimes (or just beautiful victims) actually committed by woman

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Review of On Dangerous Ground

“How about buying me a drink? I’m all dry,” says a teen prostitute near the beginning of “On Dangerous Ground” (1951) as she looks detective Jim Wilson up and down (with an emphasis on the down). “How old are you,” he asks. “Old enough.” That’s when I knew I was watching a film noir by Nicholas Ray. Sure, it could have been by Samuel Fuller, but few other directors in the early 50’s had such a dark outsider status and flagrantly anti-code attitude.

Sadly, Ray will always live on in the popular consciousness solely as the creator of “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), a film that has always felt overrated to me, especially in light of the director’s stunning career. While casting about for some noir to watch off Netflix, I found “On Dangerous Ground” and couldn’t resist. Any noir by Nicholas Ray is likely to be interesting, probably unusual and certainly riddled with psychological angst and agony.

Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) is a big-city cop whose life on the beat has worn him to the emotional bone. Without family and increasingly alienated from his coworkers, Jim applies himself to his work single-mindedly, though without satisfaction. While he rummages around for clues on a cop-killing case, the audience can see the frustration pooling in the recesses Jim’s face. He is hated by the public despite his ‘protection’ of them and finds little solace within the department which is busy distancing itself from his brutal, bullying methods.

Wilson’s contempt for the criminal scum he has to mop up leads him stewing in rage and disillusionment. "Garbage, that's all we handle, garbage," he declares. In a scene later borrowed by the Coen brothers for “Miller’s Crossing” (1990), Jim Wilson confronts Bernie, a crook with a clue behind his sealed lips. A few ruptured organs later, Wilson knows the location of the cop-killer, but needs a place where the police chief can keep him out of the public’s attention. Our dour lead is assigned a case up north, in a snowy nowhere of rural fear and isolation.
If you’ve seen “Insomnia” (the versions from either side of the ocean leaned strongly on this material), then you know that no detective ever gets a calm and restive vacation out of an exile to the artic wasteland. Jim Wilson is no exception, and the quick manhunt soon places him in the awkward position: spending the night in a secluded house with only a trigger-happy relative of the deceased, a beautiful blind girl named Mary (Ida Lupino) and possibly her brother, the killer.

[SPOILERS] The lonely cabin makes for an excellent climax and the friction between justice, revenge, romance and redemption is palpable. The brother/murderer is a classic Nicholas Ray criminal: young and misguided. His psychological turmoil makes him strangely sympathetic. Wilson, finally dissuaded from his blood-thirsty brand of crime-fighting, spares the boy, but must then contend with the victim’s retribution-bent pa. The boy tries to flee and accidentally dies during the final chase.
[Image: A chase scene up the world’s shortest mountain.]

Mary forgives him and it appears that Jim will move in and become her new guardian, assistant and lover, but in a tragic twist of fate the minor’s death is ascribed to Jim’s over-enthusiastic methods and he is jailed for life. Not really. That is how the movie should have ended, or at least one idea that could have improved it. In reality, Jim simply returns to Mary after her brother dies and the two live happily ever after.

The film’s ending largely undermines its impact and seems out of place both within Ray’s canon and the film noir tradition. While neither of these things are inherently a problem, the mismatch with the style and themes of the movie make the ill-fitting ending a major gripe. Jim’s fatalistic self-destructive spiral, the aborted intimacy of the lovers set against a bleak tundra and the dark, momentous score have all cued us for an entirely different conclusion. One can’t help think that the studio (RKO) mandated the feel-good wrap-up.

The acting is all around pretty solid, with Robert Ryan serving as the convincing, if not particularly engaging, anchor. Ida Lupino (herself a talented director) gets to play one of the most vulnerable and sweet roles in a noir, a welcome break from scheming femme fatales and underdeveloped good girls. It isn’t hard to see why Jim Wilson would fall for her after his experience with the bruised and rouged ‘dames’ of the city who spout amazing quotes such as, “I like to stink myself up” (referring to an ample perfume collection).

[Image: Which one of these women is the good girl and which is bad one? Here are some hints you probably don't need:
Hint 1: Note the necklines.
Hint 2: Note the clothing colors.
Hint 3: Note the hair colors and styles.]

The problem lies in the interaction between Jim and Mary. The beautiful blind girl feeling the face of the hard-cut brute and falling in love with his inner knight is too familiar to an audience of today. Their budding love involves far too much dreamy gazing and saccharine promises. It doesn’t allow for genuine emotional connection and it makes it painfully obvious that their plans are going to go awry.

Nicholas Ray smartly keeps the editing fit and trim. You can feel the low budget in the heavy reliance on in-car conversations (poorly rear-projected), but the rapid pace, high action quotient and brief running time (82 minutes) help pick up the slack. The downside is that there are major shifts in setting and story (the reassignment north, the morning after arriving at the cabin), that abandon all the work on character and atmosphere previously expended. Subplots are left behind (like an extended period of attention bestowed on a fellow cop’s injured arm), opinions are changed with a disconcertingly blithe breeziness and sections have the discrete independence of a multi-act play.

[Image: One of the best shots in the film shows the cop and redneck following the footprints of the killer.]

I admired the polar-desert photography in the second half, but the contrast with the poorly-shot, mismatched urban imagery from the first half ruins any visual unity. Even the outdoor chase through the northern countryside has some lame rear-projection, an obviously sped-up crash and some blatant cuts between different times of day (the shadows never match up). The indoor footage is mostly the typical ‘scary, wooden house’ type of thing one expects from horror movies, but with a warm romance sapping the tension away and rendering the under-decorated set mundane.

Credit goes to Bernard Herrmann (better know from Hitchcock’s films) who provides an amazing score. The all-brass musical pieces are assertive and invigorating, but largely wasted on unexceptional car chases.

[Image: Ida Lupino would up the ante on car-ride noirs the following year by directing “The Hitch-Hiker” (1953), one of her best films.]

Ultimately, “On Dangerous Ground” feels like less than the sum of its parts. As a straight-forward film noir with an original feel and emphasis on internal struggles over gangland gunfights and investigative procedure, the film will satisfy. However it never probes very deeply into Jim’s mind and presents too easy an out for his alienation. As for the visuals and filmcraft, Ray could have done better but the basic principles of his intended look and feel are interesting. For a better Ray noir, try “In a Lonely Place” (1950) or look into his twisted inverted western “Johnny Guitar” (1954).

Walrus Rating: 6

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Review of Demons

My relationship with the 1970’s has had its ups and downs. While I never met the decade personally, I’ve lived in many of that were influenced by it. When I was young, I regarded the 70’s as object of ridicule, a time when fashion and films were at a low. The movies were often grainy, dingy and unpolished. The women were all anorexic. The men all had mustaches.

My opinion changed (somewhat) as I grew older. I came to appreciate the artistic innovations, the rise of low-budget indie films, the cultural upheaval and the music. I still can’t stand the fashion, but at least I’m on better terms with the 70’s. My love of the giallo, which experienced its heyday in the decade, largely contributed to the turnaround.

But the giallo had faded fast as the decade waned and the 1980’s saw a surge of a whole new type of horror film: the special effects vehicle. Serial killers and men dressed in monster costumes were out. Slime-spewing animatronic robo-goblin-aliens were in. As a creature of the 80’s myself, I can’t help but love those hideous technological wonders. They represented an era of gruesome ingenuity and low-brow revelry with a charm of its own; when eyes weren’t being gouged out, they were winking at us.

Italian horror easily adapted to the new climate and what better example of 80’s cinematic magic than Lamberto Bava’s “Demons” (1986), written and produced by Dario Argento. Lamberto, the son of the great Mario Bava, makes up for the talent he failed to inherit with effects that are gleefully repulsive, scoring shrieks and retches with everything from throbbing pustules to bursting demon-spawn.

[Image: In her opening scene, without uttering a single line, Natasha Hovey establishes herself as one of the worst actress of all time.]

The plot of “Demons” is pretty simple: demons kill theatergoers. It begins with Cheryl arriving in Berlin and immediately sensing a stalker. The perpetrator is no killer, despite his half-metal face (yeah, I don’t know), but a man handing out free movie tickets. The film has no title and is playing in a theater, the Metropol, that has been shut down for years, but that doesn’t stop the enthusiastic Cheryl from skipping class to attend.
The venue is a mildly menacing sight from the outside, but it’s within that the kickin’ 80’s awesomeness (and later the blood-splattering terror) begins. The centerpiece of the lobby is a headless samurai driving a motorcycle with a katana in one hand and a creepy demon mask in the other. As Cheryl flirts with a pair of Italian cheesballs, a pimp and his two women horse around by the manikin. One of the prostitutes tries on the mask and gets a small nick on her cheek.

[Image: Despite the elf costume and creepy stare, this usher is actually not involved with the evil shortly to be unleashed.]

The movie turns out to be a tiresome low-budget horror film involving the tomb of Nostradamus. Ironically, the audience makes fun of the bad acting. When a character in the movie tries on a mask (the same as in the lobby) and gets a tiny cut and the on-looking prostitute gets understandably nervous. She excuses herself to the restroom and soon finds herself transformed into a bloodthirsty demon that vomits green slime and has enormous teeth… just like in the movie! Go figure.

The carnage escalates with murderous abandon. In one of the best scenes, the movie-in-the-movie is showing a killer tearing down the outside of a tent with a knife destined for the throat of a screaming damsel. From behind the screen, one of the demon’s first victim is crying for help and trying to break through the canvas. Her screams are mistaken for the movie’s audio and her pressure on the screen only looks like an intentional distortion. She is killed at the very moment she bursts onto the stage, simultaneous with the onscreen knife slitting open the tent. She soon rises up, now transformed into a red-veined, orange-eyed beastie. The metaphor of cinema giving hideous birth to unspeakable evil is a sly stab and gentle nod to horror film detractors.

From here on out, the whole movie-horror-meets-real-horror is quickly done away with and any thematic leverage is discarded in favor of elaborately staged death scenes. You get your classic 80’s-style slaughter of brainless, unsympathetic characters who are doomed from act one, but take an hour+ to finish fleeing, screaming and dying. It should go without saying that everyone is trapped in the theater (the doors turn out to be solid walls) and though no one can get out, a fresh injection of new victims (in the form of drug-abusing punks led by a Sylvester Stallone look-alike) are eventually allowed to restock the demon-fodder.

The script is largely awful, but much attention and love has been put into the makeup and special effects. Many of the demon visages have withstood the test of time, and easily outdo the armies of zombie/monster/hellspawn creatures of the period. Each demon is unique in its own way while remaining highly unified as a cohesive villainy that spreads like a virus and kills in a storm of gore and viscera. It’s often gross, but somehow fun. The whole ordeal is so enthusiastically over-the-top and emotion-free, that the audience will inevitably spend more time marveling than cowering.

The story is dull and clearly patched together from a handful of mediocre ideas, the best of which is the horror-movie-come-alive suggestion that rapidly peters out. The collection of movie posters in the lobby, including Herzog’s “Nosferatu” (1979), Argento’s “Four Flies on Grey Velvet” (1971) and “Metropolis” (1927) testify to some of its influences, as does Lamberto’s pale mimicry of his father’s colored lighting. The director, writers and actors rarely get anything right, however, and yet somehow succeed by sticking steadfastly to their predictable premise.

The liberal dousing of kills and action set pieces do their best to make up for the lack of locations and story ideas. One particularly desperate moment has a wide-angle lens in a bare room getting used to make things look claustrophobic. It sort of works. At least Bava overcomes the fact that neither he nor the audience is invested enough in the characters to care whether they live or die by endlessly outdoing himself with ever more demons and craziness. The culmination, which involves a motorcycle rampage, a helicopter and a demonic apocalypse, is satisfying in its 80’s adolescent indulgence. To finish things off in high style is an epilogue that widens the scope significantly and a little post-credit surprise.

[Image: As the running time ticked down, Bava must have realized he hadn’t yet squeezed in a helicopter scene. Never fear.]

Outside of the SFX, the film really shines in terms of music. The hard rock soundtrack features Claudio Simonetti (formerly of Goblin), Pretty Maids, Motley Crue and Billy Idol. The music is loud, like the acting, and really gets the blood pumping. Though the whole thing is already dripping in 80’s kitsch, the music really ties the knot. That tracks actually fit well and sound polished so if you are into screeching electric guitar riots, this one should not be missed.

Walrus Rating: 6.0

Friday, July 20, 2007

The St. Louis Film Scene I

For those St. Louis readers out there, I’m going to do a couple of reviews of local film events. There isn’t as much of a scene in St. Louis as NY or LA, but I love the city and with a little bit of effort one can find plenty of interesting cinematic pleasures. With my cult film club Splice now in the hands of fresh blood at Washington University, I’ve tried to support my local community by hitting a few of the film venues and even doing some volunteering. In this post, I’ll review two recent events: “Strange Brew: Cult Films at Schafly Bottleworks” and “Trivia Night Hosted by Cinema St Louis.”

First, though, I should promote the upcoming 7th Annual St. Louis Filmmaker’s Showcase bankrolled by AT&T and organized by Cinema St. Louis. It runs July 21 to 26 with films in the four center days. It’s a great chance to see films by and support local St. Louis talent ranging from theatrically distributed features to low-budget shorts. I’ll be there.

Strange Brew: Cult Films as Schafly’s Bottleworks

Schafly Bottleworks is at 7260 Southwest Avenue in Maplewood. Yes, it is a real bottleworks and you can take a tour if your curious. The building also serves as a restaurant and bar and shows cult films (thanks to the Webster Film Series) at 8pm on the first Wednesday of every month.

Movie Selections:
Strange Brew has been around for some time, but I never got around to going because their definition of cult tended to be so accessible that they’d rarely show anything I hadn’t seen. That said, their selections are usually quite good and the credit belongs to the excellent programmers at Webster. The films tend to be American, but there is a variety of genres and time periods. I saw “Fantastic Voyage” (1966) (review coming) this July 11th. The next screening is the excellent Marx Brother’s comedy “Animal Crackers” (1930) on August 1st. Tickets are $4-$5.

Schafly’s is a big structure and so there’s plenty of room to fit the brewery, restaurant, gift shop and museum (seriously), but the screening room is relatively small and makeshift. It has a built in bar and you can order food, but the chairs and tables are the type of bulky wooden stuff dragged in from the dining portion and lacking in long-term comfort. Don’t expect any fancy sound equipment or a theater-size screen, but there tends to be enough room for everyone to squeeze in and see the screen decently.

The food is about what I imagine mountain men eat and it consists of things cooked with beer and large piles of meats like bison and timberwolf. The couple of times I’ve eaten there have been more miss then hit (I liked the Venison cheese steak). At the “Fantastic Voyage” screening I tried the Venison chili and found it to be pretty awful, but the fault was at least half mine for thinking it could be anything else.

The decor fits the burly, he-man theme and I enjoy it more on a kitsch level then in any seriousness, but it is fun. The “lively” atmosphere advertised by the film series is pretty tame. There isn’t nearly as much shouting at the screen as I find for mainstream fare at the Esquire 7, but there is plenty of good natured laughter. The upside is that you can generally make out the dialogue, a plus for first-time viewers of the films.

Parking and seating can be difficult so come at least ten minutes early. You can always peruse the excellent beer selection at the bar while you wait.

Film Trivia Night

Trivia night is an annual fundraiser run by Cinema St. Louis, who keeps quite busy around town if I might say. It has been around for years, but this was the first time it was held in Cinema St. Louis’s own digs, downtown at 3547 Olive St. The fundraiser was costs $20 per person and lasts from 7pm to 10pm (or 11pm if the year is this year). About 120 people turn out in teams of 8 and compete in 11 rounds of 10 questions each. There are prizes, raffles, auctions, beverages and popcorn.

The event itself ran pretty smoothly. Mark Bielik coordinated the event. While young, he already has experience at Cinema St. Louis and showed plenty of enthusiasm, organization and confidence. The MC, on the other hand, was a mild disaster. Slightly drunk and a bit in love with the spotlight, he dragged the film over an hour late with unfunny banter and interminable pauses.

As for the trivia, the round categories were sadly uninspired (Harry Potter, John Ford, Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, romantic comedies, animated films, etc.), but the actual questions were quite good. They plotted up and down the difficulty continuum with a remarkable variety pulling from minor roles, soundtracks, biographical information, lesser known films and general pop culture with an eye for what a typical American film buff would find interesting and relevant. You can download the questions here for a limited time.


The building, The Centene Center for Arts and Education is bit inaccessible (no parking lot, one-way street) and not in the best part of town, but the interior is nice. The event had mingling room with beverages and prizes and an open 4th floor balcony. The competition took place in a nearby room that was full up, but with room to get in and out.

The atmosphere was very positive, with lots of laughter, noise, revelry and rivalry. The teams generally bring dinner items like subs and share tables where they work together on answers. I was impressed by the cinema smarts in the room. Several teams scored about 90% correct. My mental tally (from my rear wall volunteer post) placed me somewhere in the lower-middle of the rankings, but I didn’t have seven teammates to help me.

Overall, I’d recommend both events: Strange Brew for the movies, Trivia Night for the factoids.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Hall of Strangeness Part XVI

Kind Hearts and Coronets – (Robert Hamer) Often considered the finest dark comedy of the 1940’s, “Kind Hearts and Coronets” has since gained a devoted cult following. To satisfy his lust for respect and power, Louis Mazzini must murder the eight distant members of his family (all played by Alec Guiness… even the women) in line for succession to a dukedom. The British Ealing Studio put out this dry regicide comedy that showed cultured morbidity for ahead of its time.
Artistry: **** Fun: **** Strangeness: **

Kontroll – (Nimrod Antal) Hip and dark, Kontroll is a Hungarian thriller in the breathless vein of Run Lola Run that’s set entirely within the claustrophobic confines of the Budapest subway system. The protagonists are a small band of eccentric losers who work as thankless ticket checkers that randomly sample subway passengers and deal with everything from juvenile pranksters to thuggish pimps. The leader, Bulcsu, harbors a mysterious past and may or may not be the serial killer that he glimpses out of the corner of his eye when alone. The chance for redemption appears in the guise of a stoic love interest in a bear costume. A vigorous techno score and sharp cinematography generate a stylish superficial sheen while the metaphoric implications allow for deeper engagement.
Artistry: **** Fun: ***** Strangeness: ***

Koyaanisqatsi – (Godfrey Reggio) Filmed over the course of several years, Godfrey Reggio creates a transcendent commentary on the clash between nature and civilization. Without characters, plot or narration, the film glides effortlessly between awe-inspiring time-lapse sequences showing canyons, mountains, cities, factories and people. A deft and intelligent example of how to make a message film. Two sequels followed as well as “Baraka” a similar film done by the former cinematographer.
Artistry: ***** Fun: * Strangeness: ****

Lady Terminator – (H Tjut Djalil) Indonesia made a bid at the international market with this exploitive rip-off of Terminator. The lady in question is the Queen of the South Sea, a sexually irrepressible witch with a penchant for killing her mates. Her weapon of choice is an eel that she sheathed in a remarkably uncomfortable place. 100 years after her eel is turned into a dagger (don’t ask) she’s back for revenge and nothing (from bullets to 80’s music videos) will stop her. Nudity abound.
Artistry: * Fun: *** Strangeness: ***

Last Year in Marienbad – (Alain Resnais) This influential French art film exposed the infinite possibilities of ethereal ambiguity in an attractively filmed package. A male guest at a luxurious hotel tries to convince a skeptical woman that they had an affair one year earlier… perhaps at Marienbad. A stunning, though often pretentious, meditation on memory. The sharp, formalist camerawork is provided by Sacha Vierny, one of my all time favorite cinematographers.
Artistry: ***** Fun: ** Strangeness: ****

Monday, July 16, 2007

Review of Paprika

After far too many delays "Paprika" (2006) finally came out in St. Louis. An unaccountably staggered and severely limited release has all but slit it throat in terms of sales and buzz, but I can't say it arrived damaged or limping. Satoshi Kon's latest animated cerebral adventure through psychology, history and pop culture hasn't lost the electrifying energy or breathtaking audacity that has positioned him as one of the world's most creative anime directors.

The plot, courtesy of novelist Yasutaka Tsutsui, is perfect for Kon: a psychiatric device that can gain access to dreams (called the DC Mini) is developed and no sooner than the prototype is finished it falls into the wrong hands. The premise seems weirdly similar to the rather patchy, but worthwhile, "The Cell" from 2002, but Kon inevitably spirals from traditional thriller/sci-fi genre territory into the type of post-modern, global-scope insanity that makes his films so unique, enthralling and relevant. However, while the director's most fruitful bounty comes from his voracious pan-cultural appetite, I fear that it may also contain the seed of his downfall. I'll get to that later.

Firstly, I should gush a little about the film. Kon relishes in experimenting at the borders between reality and fantasy. He mines the region for a couple of good insights and a lot of brilliant visual plays. Though the film doesn't have the sheer technological specs to wow audiences with fine-grain textures, shimmering lighting effects or jaw-dropping realism, Kon nevertheless pushes the medium of film to new limits by giving us something on which to gorge our mind and our eyes. Pixar may have visuals; Kon has vision. It is his boundless ingenuity of presentation and his ability to bring imagination to life that dazzles.

The charismatic centerpiece of this combination of creativity and chaos is Paprika, the dream-version idealized alter-ego-of-sorts to scientist Chiba Atsuka. Fan will recognize popular voice actress Megumi Hayashibara of "Cowboy Bebop" and "Neon Genesis Evangelion" fame, doing her usual grade-A work. Atsuka is a quiet, restrained professional who developed the DC Mini in the real world, but becomes a sexy, savvy action hero when she enters into the realm of dreams. Her transformation is a bit like that of a superhero, but with the darker implications of a repressed splinter personality and the almost embarrassing indulgences in ego-spurred fantasies. Though the film suffers quite a bit from a lack of character development (one character, Himuro, is never even introduced before we are expected to care about his possible defection and/or death), Atsuka enticingly hints at a complicated and interesting persona that I only wish could have been further expounded.

Paprika, though far more cool, is fairly two-dimensional (that's a joke, but not even that funny if you've seen the movie). As a literal character (rather than a dream construct) she is probably too awesome to provide any tension or risk. I can't deny that she's genuinely irresistible to watch as she leaps into posters, channel surfs into TV screens, transitions into advertisements and merges into paintings. It is astounding to watch, especially in the opening credits, well worthy (as Mad Dog points out) of making it on to my recent list of favorite credit lead-ins. It also serves as the perfect fit for Kon's own self-reflexive play on the nature of film as a medium.

Oh, were you wondering whether Kon's love of movie history was waning? You probably weren't, but let me reassure you anyway. "Paprika" follows the cinephilic pattern of "Perfect Blue" (where a pop star turns actress only to have her life, career and "art" crammed into a blender and set to puree), "Millennium Actress" (the biography of a fictional actress told through an alternation of cinematic and political history) and "Tokyo Godfathers" (a contemporary Japanese social drama remixed for the thirteenth time out of a screenplay that has, more often than not, been filmed as an American western!). Kon's latest includes a handful of direct nods like poster art and revisionist scenes from such classics as "Tarzan" and "Roman Holiday," and plenty of other references both obscure and overt. Plus one of the characters, I won't reveal who, has a connection to the film industry that is both touching and original.

"Paprika" is not without it flaws, but I hope I've already established by this point that it is well worth everyone's time and ticket/rental expense. If you haven't seen "Millennium Actress" (2001) yet, go out right now and see that too. The primary inkblot on the cel is the failure to anchor the film to any significant reference point in reality. The characters aren't well enough defined or given enough time to interact for us to believe the vendettas and romances that play out. More significantly, the film lacks the sense of an outside world with off-screen people, current events and everyday life.

It opens with a magnificent dream sequence and within minute establishes the presence of a dangerous force able to manipulate reality and tamper with the character's consciousnesses. By bursting out of the gate full-speed, Kon gets a chance to maximize the ground he covers in terms of dream imagery, visual distortions, optical illusions, clever juxtapositions, comical surrealism and unsettling horrors, but he misses his chance to make us really care about the characters or appreciate their circumstances. Strange as the events we witness may seem, the lack of contrasting reality makes the dream world somewhat arbitrary and confusing. Some symptoms (generally shared by "Perfect Blue"):

1) The sense that there are no consistent rules that the characters must obey. Their adventures are stirring, yet inexplicable.

2) The inability to distinguish which feats are simple versus difficult. (How easy is this dream device to operate anyway? Can you really do anything in the dreamworld?)

3) The feeling that the movie never gets any further or closer to resolution (the narrative arc, while fast and engaging, is utterly flattened).

One could argue these minor complaints by saying, "Well that's exactly how dreams and dream logic works!" but I don't consider that a good enough excuse for poor structure and loose plotting.

Though I wouldn't necessarily call it a flaw, there is also a certain amount of repetition that seemed expendable, especially since the film trades so heavily on being infinitely fresh from scene to scene. The opening dream sequence I mentioned earlier loses some of its luster on the third round. Alternatively, there is a crazy parade led by a refrigerator and populated by Japan's entire commercial GNP (you know, stuff like amphibian flutists, doll thrones and TV-headed robots) that is so delightfully cluttered and intricate that the repetition doesn't lose interest. The same goes for the soundtrack's two best pieces (the film theme and parade theme by composer, Susumu Hirasawa, distinguish themselves from the rest of the crowd), that are so dense and irrepressible that their frequent reprisals never failed to get me grinning.

Finally, though I generally dislike using a review of movie X to make comments about movie Y, I will indulge myself. I can't help but draw some comparisons to "Ratatouille," another animated movie current in theaters that takes its title from the kitchen. While I loved Pixar's latest, as I usually do, I felt that the company has really started to lose some of its originality and wonderment in recent installments. The film is fun, shiny, uplifting and all that, but fundamentally formulaic, overly sugary and a bit empty. It's kind of like riding a pogo stick with a cookie cutter on the bottom. Sorry; but there were too many adjectives to fit a better metaphor to. Anyway, though no one should miss "Ratatouille," I think "Paprika" is the better film and ultimately the one I'll go back to again and again.

Walrus Rating: 8

Friday, July 13, 2007

Review of Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary

First of all, I should mention/warn that there has been a recent slowdown in my writing, which will probably increase the spacing in my posts for a little while. I have been busy working on another computer program (see Delivergrid and Urban Blight) and when it is finished I will make it available as usual on this site. It isn't movie-related (again, as usual), but the topic (cryptography) has been of great recent interest for me. And now onto the review!

Over the years there have been many interesting interpretations and appropriations of the vampire mythology (see “Martin” (1978) for instance), but very few of them have been ballets. Canadian director Guy Maddin’s version is. Other films have updated Bram Stoker original tale for the modern day, Maddin’s 2002 “Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary” adapts the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s version of the popular story for an audience of the past. Specifically, a silent era audience.

After a credit sequence of faces superimposed onto antique frames, the film kicks off with a faux-alarmist series of intertitles lamenting the “invasion” of Britain from the East. “Immigrants! Others, from Other Lands!” With typical Maddin absurdity, his vampire tale masquerades as a metaphor for xenophobia, a sentiment not treated with much seriousness by the director, but granting the film an impression of subtextual hysteria.

[Image: Evil blood, of course, represents the oozing encroachment of Oriental/occult influence.]

Lucy Westernra (subtle) is the first of Dracula’s victims. Her newfound reckless behavior manifests itself at a ballroom dance where she playfully rejects three suitors in favor of Renfield (an asylum patient who eats bugs) while swinging on a suspended chair. After biting her fiancé and collapsing from illness, Dr. Van Helsing is called in and you can guess his diagnosis.

A long series of blood transfusions restores some rosiness to Lucy’s cheek, but a bed full of garlic can’t save her from that night’s invasion of gargoyles. Dracula is mistakenly invited into the home by Lucy’s dying mother (who then dies) and is reunited with his chosen midnight bride. The vampified Lucy goes on a baby-killing, man-seducing streak before Van Helsing catches on and leads a posse to free her soul from her animated corpse.

[Image: It’s like Where’s Waldo but with Waldo replaced by a Victorian belle and the elaborate scenery replaced by garlic cloves.]

Having staked his beautiful foe a few times over, Van Helsing determines to get to the real (other) heart of his troubles, by tracking down Dracula. Torturing Renfield proves fruitful, revealing that the next victim is Lucy’s friend Mina. She has recently set out for a convent where she hopes to nurse her fiancé, Jonathon Harker, the diary-writing virgin of the title. The two lovers get interrupted barely a dance number after their reunion by the caped Asiatic vampire. Van Helsing arrives and together with Harker he sets off to Dracula’s lair.

Fans of Maddin’s work will already be quite familiar with the general style: black and white cinematography with low-key (high contrast) lighting, color tinting, irising, vignetting, expressive acting and intertitles. Everything you could want to recreate the look and feel of vintage silent era European cinema. The visual extremities are a mixed bag. While I liked the dyes and soft edges, it didn’t seem to have much consistency, meaning or added value.

The CG enhancements range from pleasantly subtle (I love the gentle pink of Lucy’s cheek as she starts to revive, romantic but with a hint of the darker blood-tones more frequently shown) to painfully distracting (Dracula shoots his red cape at the scene for one transition). A scene involving computer-inserted snow lacked any sense of depth and ruined the atmosphere by having camera movement. Unfortunately, the snowflakes unnaturally parallel the camera and appear to move horizontally in perfect uniformity. Generally I think that the CG should have been avoided where it draws attention to itself, clashing with the otherwise olden techniques.

Maddin brings his trademark idiosyncratic humor, overturning the cinematic conventions of yore with nods and winks at his audience. There are plenty of sly absurdist touches like the sign of the cross transformed into a dance move or a castle gate with loaded with overt sexual symbolism.

The central gimmick around which the film revolves (beyond the antiquated style) is the ballet choreography set to Gustav Mahler. Viewers can either admire the ballet for its own sake or at least appreciate its unusual application. Standouts include a synchronized exorcism, pole-dancing gargoyles and a line of dancing men exploring a cave with choreographed flashlight movements.
Though highly original, ambitious and well executed, one can’t help but feel that the ballet could have been so much more. None of the sequences stands out as a brilliant show-stopper and most suffer from a bit of a repetitive encirclement motif. Though the cast is comprised primarily of the original theatrical ballet performers, nothing particularly impressive or eye-catching happens in the choreography other than synchronization. At 75 minutes, the film is far from tedious, but more effort could have been done to innovate and vary the routines.

Another problem is that Maddin’s style does not particularly compliment the dancing. His quick and choppy editing and virtuoso cinematography distract from the performances and reduce whatever expert choreography is going on into a sequence of blurred (courtesy of Vaseline applied to the lens), fogged, softly-focused, overshadowed, brief and jarring images. The clarity and grace of the dancing is often undermined unnecessarily. While other films, like his 2000 short “The Heart of the World” used the quick cutting to imitate/celebrate/lampoon Soviet Eisenstein techniques, the speed feels inappropriate here. In some sequences, like the one involving pole-dancing gargoyles, the full potential for visual humor or even artistic admiration was lost in the obscuring darkness and some important shots are even outright eclipsed by foreground material.

So while the film easily sustains itself and provides no lack of stylish atmosphere cobbled from gothic literature, German Expressionism and Maddin’s lush imagination, it felt like it didn’t fully cash in on its premise and potential. The narrative is disjointedly divided into two halves, Lucy’s and Mina’s, with neither really rising above the oft-told story or seriously attempting deeper levels. The dancing is enjoyable, but not breath-taking. The visuals are arresting, yet not fully polished are well integrated. The dry humor and dense surrealism are probably the highlight, but they don’t live up to the Canadian’s masterpiece, “The Saddest Music in the World” (2003).

Fans of Maddin, ballet or vampires should definitely see this film. For others it will probably be more of an interesting artistic oddity (a fever dream according to the film) than an entertaining or enlightening experience. It gave me a much-needed dose of one of my favorite directors, almost enough to cure the sorrow at finding out Maddin’s latest work, “Brand Upon the Brain” (May 2007), will not be coming to any theaters in Kansas or Missouri.

Walrus Rating: 7