Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Review of Accumulator 1

Jan and Zdenek Sverak are one of the few major international successfully filmmakers for whom movies are almost a family business. Sure, there are the Coppolas, the husband-wife team Straub-Huillet and the various brother duos (Coen, Farrelly, Quay, Dardenne, Fleischer, Boulting), but long running father-son pairings are few and far between. Rarer still are cases where the son directs the father.

Zdenek Sverak was already a well-established and highly-popular actor and screenwriter (voted the 25th greatest Czech in a television poll) when his son, Jan, made his directorial debut. Jan Sverak naturally leveraged his father’s talent for the script and acting in “The Elementary School” (1991), which brought him quick acclaim. They’ve reprised their director + actor/screenwriter formula to great success, creating some of the best-known Czech films of recent history such as the Academy Award winning “Kolya” (1996) and the record-breaking big-budget “Dark Blue World” (2001).

One of their earliest films, “Accumulator 1” (1994), never saw a US release, though it’s available on international DVD. As if one father-son director-actor relationship wasn’t enough, it stars Petr Forman, son of the Czech Republic’s most famous director, Milos Forman. Zdenek Sverak costars.

“Accumulator 1” is a light-hearted sci-fi comedy that includes elements of modern fairy tale and New Age spiritualism. Olda (Forman) is an average Joe who undergoes a near-fatal spell of depression. He attributes this, credibly, to the fact that his girlfriend dumped him for his best friend. However, this is little more than the trigger that put him in front of his television, which is methodically sapping away his life. The culprit is a parasitic alter-ego partying inside television-land, a place where everyone who has appeared on television cavorts amongst TV aspect-ratio boxes of simulated reality.

The idea is that everyone has a personal energy reserve that can be powered-up by exercise, nature, music, sex, etc. This is a fairly typical New Age concept that would have struck me as only mildly interesting on its own, but the Sveraks add an interesting dark side: a mirror world inside the TV that subsists by sucking this positive energy out of viewers. Olda doesn’t realize what’s going on until well into the movie when his mentor (Sverak), comes across the theory. His low-key adventures begin with merely finding the willpower to resist lounging into oblivion and culminate with a dangerous plan to overload the television world and thus destroy it.

The premise is simple and glib enough that it won’t scare away the scientifically handicapped, but sly enough to be original and amusing. The SF aspects take a distinct backseat to the romance and comedy at the heart of the film, mostly serving as a staging platform for cute, quick scenes that earn frequent chuckles.

The tone is endearing, if somewhat mismatched. Particularly the juxtaposition of gooey love-story with even gooier interior shots of what’s going on inside Sverak’s body (often hilariously in-your-face and unsparing) and the tongue-in-cheek “TV is bad for you” moralizing with just enough sex and nudity that it would get an R in the States. For my money the combination works. I’d rather kids were watching this type of film in their formative years than the commercialized violence and eye-candy of most Hollywood SF or even the watered-down “wholesome” films that promote bland conformity.

I wish more time had been spent on the TV world, however, which seemed like a fascinating idea for an alternative reality, but which is ultimately glimpsed only in isolated spurts. The TV-world Olda is completely underdeveloped, perhaps to prevent us from relating to him overly much (he’s kind of the bad guy) or because the screenplay introduces him too late to give him his own story arc. Maybe the point is that TV-world doppelgangers would be devoid of personality and nuance… like most characters on TV.

What shines through as the best aspect of “Accumulator 1” is the whimsical humor, which would not be out of place in an Edgar Wright film. The movie has several moments of inspired weirdness just silly enough to work, like a shootout where Olda tries to turn off a storefront of energy-sucking televisions with his personal arsenal of remote controls or a dentist convention where drinks are mixed with a giant electric tooth polisher that goes haywire.

Walrus Rating: 7.0

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Review of Footprints on the Moon

[Image: Scene from a giallo!?]

When I first learned that there was a sci-fi giallo with Klaus Kinski called “Footprints on the Moon” (1975) I thought to myself, “Surely I must be dreaming!” This thought continued to occur to me as I attempted to interpret the oneiric assortment of ambiguous visions liberally sampled from Freudian psychology, Cold War conspiracies and the usual giallo imbalances. While reflecting on the film afterwards it continued to feel as though I was recalling a dream, complete with the frustration of logical inconsistencies, the incompleteness of waking just before the resolution and the nagging suspicion of deeper meanings that probably don’t exist. It took a second viewing before I felt I understood it all.

The film stars Florinda Bolkan (staple of “Investigation of a Woman above Suspicion,” “A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin” and “Don’t Torture a Duckling.”) in a particularly high strung performance as Alice. She loses her job as a translator when her boss informs her that she walked out of a conference and was out of contact for three days. Shocked, Alice realizes that she has no memory of the lost time and must use a few odd clues (a torn postcard, a missing earring and a bloodstained yellow dress) to reconstruct what happened.

[Image: (Top) Florinda Bolkan in “Footprints on the Moon” with uncharacteristically short hair. (Bottom) An alternative photo presented purely as a point of comparison. :)]

The hunt leads her to the seaside tourist trap of Garma, where she meets Harry, a handsome stranger, and Paula, an odd child. Several people mistake her for a woman named Nicole.

Most gialli are inherently confusing, a byproduct of the contrived, byzantine screenplays tangled with suspects, ruses and interlocking schemes. “Footprints on the Moon” struck me as particularly disorienting, despite having only a small number of characters, almost no crimes and scant intrigue. The reason is that we know very little about the lead character and her perspective, through which we experience the film, is untrustworthy. Given the especially high level of difficultly I had following the plot, I’m going to present a detailed plot summary at the end of this review for anyone searching the internet for a concrete explanation. It’s something I should consider doing more often.

For those wishing to remain spoiler free, let me just say that Alice is haunted by visions of a lunar landing conducted by a ludicrously evil Klaus Kinski. Her trip to Garma is really a journey of self-discovery in which she has the opportunity to come to terms with her past. The structure of a character investigating herself provides a curious change-up from the usual murder mystery format. There’s very little sex or violence to distract the viewer, but there still manages to be a wealth of red herrings, blind alleys and misleading implications to keep us on our toes.

Directors Mario Fanelli and Luigi Bazzoni (who will inevitably be referred to as the Mario and Luigi from here on out) have a different set of priority than most giallo directors. That’s certainly there artistic license, but they struggle at times with a rudderless plot that remains excessively coy. They’re highly skillful at creating an uneasy ambiguity and paranoia about what is going on. However, the lack of action, minimal plot progress and the difficultly in discerning the direction the film makes the middle section a chore. The weirdness and the visuals do most of the work drawing in the viewer.

The cinematography is provided by Vittorio Storaro whose work speaks for itself: “The Conformist” (one of the best looking films of all time), “Apocalypse Now,” “The Last Emperor” and “Dick Tracy” amongst others. Even compensating for the second-rate taped-from-TV transfer that I watched, this one is not his best work, but its far better than one could hope to expect from a relatively unknown Italian thriller.

Particularly distracting was the extreme use of vivid blue day-for-night scenes, though I half-suspect that these are intentionally dramatic and otherworldly to match with the eerie blue moon sequences. In contrast to the blues and pale tones are occasional yellow and orange highlights. Interestingly, red, the Italian horror color par excellence, is almost entirely absent.

[Image: Alice’s yellow dress standing out in an otherwise dingy apartment. Other yellow/orange examples include Alice’s bright yellow paperback (of the type that give “giallo” the name), her gaudy amber pin, quite a bit of orange-red hair and several sepia-toned “happy” flashbacks.]

Storaro is the savior of the film, often painting over the flaws in Mario and Luigi’s screenplay and Florinda Bolkan’s performance. He brings out the best in architecture, often focusing our attention onto buildings while the human figure is reduced to incidental detail. Reminiscent of “The Conformist,” Stararo makes poweful use of background texture and scale to create compositional beauty tempered by an inhuman, forbidding quality.

[Images: Characters are always on the move in Mario and Luigi’s film, with Alice clopping across flat, telephoto surfaces or funneling towards a vanishing point in wide-angle shots. Not only does this help us pick out the characters in Stararo’s distant images, but it imbues Alice’s investigation with a sense of momentum it doesn’t really have.]

With “Footprints on the Moon” Stararo makes particularly widespread use of silhouettes; allowing us to see Alice’s position and gestures, but shifting our focus from her expressions to the backdrop.

Exterior setting often displaces our interior (psychological) access, meaning that the audience must share Alice’s distressing fear that she doesn’t know what’s in her own mind. This is a technique that appears rather often in gialli, but this film has a remarkable variety of examples, from modern skyscrapers to ornate hotel; from expansive mosques to overgrown ruins. Though it isn’t always clear that these locations have precise meanings that give insight into Alice, but the ending scene certainly does. I won’t spoil too much, but it involves the horrifying transformation of a simple beach into a lunar landscape.

Even without understanding “Footprints on the Moon,” I found myself really enjoying it. Discovering, on second viewing, that it really made decent sense was like an added bonus. Ultimately, I think I appreciate Mario and Luigi’s character study approach. Having since seen their other giallo, “The Fifth Cord,” I can confirm that they are fond of casually tossing aside important details and indulging confusing misdirection. Still, with Stararo’s visual acumen and the oddly experimental tone, “Footprints on the Moon” casts a mighty enticing spell.

Walrus Rating: 7.5

Detailed Plot Summary (warning: spoilers):

Two or three days before the film begins Alice is translating at an international astronomy conference. One topic, about mankind’s ability to survive in harsh conditions, recalls a science fiction movie named “Footprints on the Moon” that made a profound impression on Alice. In the film, a scientist named Blackman (Klaus Kinski) is conducting an experiment where they abandon astronauts on the moon and watch them react to the desolation and gradual asphyxiation. Alice saw the movie when she was young and never saw how it finished, but the sense of abandonment, loneliness and death on the moon becomes her ultimate fear.

The film becomes the fixation of her first (that we know of) paranoid schizophrenic episode accompanied by the onset of a dissociative identity disorder. This is fueled by the last line that she remembers of the film, in which Blackman sends out his agents to find a new guinea pig. Alice, believing that Blackman is pursuing her for the same fate as the astronaut, undergoes a mental breakdown in her translation booth. She retreats into a second personality, Nicole, and flees to a half-forgotten place from her childhood where she was safe and happy. The Nicole personality is a combination of disguise (hence the name change, new clothes and wig) and regression (hence the loss of memory, the reverting to how she looked when younger and the return to a childhood refuge).

Nicole/Alice heads to Garma where she experienced her first love with a young boy named Harry while on vacation as a girl. (Throughout the film she claims she’s never heard of Garma, which is true, since she stayed in a different village and Harry took her sailing to his manor near the city.) How Nicole retraced her way to Garma is unclear, but after arriving she buys a yellow dress (she remembers that Harry liked yellow), new shoes and hats and a wig. She also buys a pair of scissors as self-defense. She finds the beach near where Harry would dock his boat and makes a fire in some old village ruins. There she burns her old clothes and the remaining documents from the astronomy conference (she was still carrying them presumably), thus obliterating all remaining links to her past.

Nicole eventually does find Harry and he’s happy to see her again and soon realizes he is still in love. Yet he also notices Nicole/Alice’s erratic, paranoid behavior (not to mention her change of name) and is worried for her sanity after she tells him that she is being persecuted by Blackman and his space agents. While trying to dispel her delusions or trying to get her professional help, she comes to think he is an agent and fights with him. She stabs his hand with her scissors and loses an earring in the struggle. Nicole flees back to her apartment and wakes up as Alice.

We are now finally caught up to where the movie begins. Alice soon finds out that she has “lost” several days. She discovers a torn postcard of the Garma hotel at her house (with the text “Garma” pointing her in the right direction) as well as a single earring and a yellow dress (bloodstained from after stabbing Harry) that she doesn’t recognize, but which fits her. She begins having nightmares about the moon movie every night, and begins taking sleeping pills to overcome the dreams.

Retracing her steps to Garma once again, she quickly encounters Harry, but doesn’t recognize him. He is startled by this new turn of events, but plays along and makes sure to bump into her often and make himself available to help her. He tries to jog her memory by pointing out his stab wound and repeatedly asking whether she has been to Garma before.

Alice also meets Paula, a young girl who thinks Alice is a woman named Nicole. Alice initially dismisses this after learning from a local that Paula has an active imagination and a former imaginary friend. Paula also lies that her name is Mary (so Alice, Harry and Paula all adopt other identities at some point, forming something of an identity duality theme) and recants her belief that Alice is Nicole after being questioned roughly. I attribute Paula’s timidity and odd behavior to various clues that her father or brother abuses her.

Paula’s dog, while digging up bones from the village ruins, also picks up a scrap of paper from when Nicole was shredding her astronomy documents and burning her clothes. A bit far-fetched, but whatever.

Alice slowly pieces together that she is Nicole, after finding the dressmaker, the wigmaker and others who claim to have met her recently. She also discovers the shop where she bought the postcard. This shop, she learns, is also the source of a package that has been alluded to by others. She asks for another of the same, and discovers that her purchase was a pair of scissors. Alice puts the new one in her handbag.

An old lady notes that Alice must have been to the island as a child since her pendant, custom made with “ALICE” written on it, is local workmanship by a silversmith now long dead. The pendant was presumably given to her by Harry when they were young lovers. Memories of her childhood began to trickle back in as she goes searching in the woods for Harry’s house. She passes out in exhaustion and frustration.

When she wakes up, she’s inside Harry’s house near a stain glass image of a peacock, which has frequently figured in Alice’s clouded memory. Harry helps her recall their childhood time together. He explains that his own reluctance to come right out and tell her about their past was due to his embarrassment that she had forgotten him. They have sex.

That night, Alice wakes up and finds Harry is not in bed with her. She goes to the bathroom and find her missing earring, causing her to realize that she must have been here as Nicole (something which Harry hadn’t mentioned). She becomes scared and begins slipping into another schizophrenic episode. She once again dons the wig.

Alice creeps downstairs and overhears Harry on the phone with a doctor/psychiatrist. He must have talked to the doctor previously, when tending to his stab wound and searching for Alice/Nicole earlier that week, but he assures the doctor she is now better (no longer calling herself Nicole or raving about Blackman) and in his care again. He finishes by saying that she “can’t get away this time.” This is one of Blackman’s lines in the moon movie and it fully triggers her second schizophrenic episode.

Harry tries to explain to her about the phone call, now being totally honest about their last encounter, her paranoia and previous attack. Alice begins to doubt her sanity, but the paranoia is taking over and her suspicion of Harry grows (and let’s be honest, he is kind of creepy). After hesitating on the verge of accepting his offer for care and love, she stabs him with the scissors and kills him. She flees from the manor as her hallucinations take over.

We “see” Blackman discover her Nicole identity and zoom in on her with his space station viewscreen. Agents beam down onto the beach and chase Alice as she re-enacts her greatest fear: being imprisoned on the moon. The final shot echoes the astronauts collapse as he dies on the moon, complete with slow-motion that evokes low gravity.

I initially toyed with the idea that Blackman might the psychiatrist that Harry calls on the phone and that she is actually being captured and straightjacketed at the end by real people taking her into professional care, but I don’t think this is actually the case. Blackman exists only as a character in a movie that she projects into her reality. The ending chase is all inside Alice’s head. Harry appears to be a legitimate friend, genuinely in love with her and trying to help. The rarity of conspiracy thrillers where the protagonist really is unwarrantedly paranoid made me overly skeptical the first time through.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Need A Couple Thousand Films To Fill Your Christmas Break?

The last post reminded me that I wanted to talk more about lists. An exhaustive discussion will have to wait, but I want to mention two lists I really like.

Let me start by saying that most straight-up Top X Films lists are not that interesting to me if they don’t have a specific theme or some added personality. Oft-cited lists like the IMDB 250 and the AFI 100 Greatest American Films are so boring and stultifying that sometimes I fear they do more harm than good. If you’re going to make a list of best films with no modifiers or warnings about how these are personal “favorite,” you need to choose a number so high that you can cut past the obvious. You need a number like… 1000.

The top 1000 list I respect the most is the one compiled by They Shoot Pictures Don’t They, an organization that composites hundreds of other critic lists to try and find an objective (or at least critical consensus) of the best films ever made. The list is updated every December and the latest version was released just a few days ago. It involved a lot of new additions onto the list that give it a more accessible flair (like Toy Story and The Matrix), though not all of them are entirely welcome with me. And of course many masterpieces were bumped off the list and so I must bid fond farewell to El Topo, The Saragossa Manuscript, Blood Simple, The Tingler, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Baby Doll, Riff-Raff, The Remains of the Day, The Red and the White, Pixote and Irma Vep amongst others. Couldn’t we have spared some of the John Ford films instead?

Still, TSPDT is my favorite top 1000, due to its breadth and variety, and I recommend everyone take a look. As a bonus, it comes with a 250 quintessential noirs and a list of the top 250 21st century films. It’s often a bit obscure and stuffy, but it has introduced me to no end of great cinema I’d never have seen otherwise. It’s been my goal to eventually watch everything on the list (I’m at 844 currently), though it’s no easy task. Blogger Kevin Lee is also hard at work on the same agenda and last I knew (before this year’s update) he was at 941. An anonymous film magazine editor is apparently in the lead with 994.

The top 1000s by The Guardian and the authors/critics behind “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” offer more populist takes that are quite interesting and well-worthwhile in their own ways. I’m a little less into the US-centric New York Times 1000 (More than 75% of it is in the English language, which I find a little hard to justify). Halliwell’s provides the most conservative top 1000 and easily my least favorite (don’t expect any surprises or cult gems there). Former highbrow heavyweight Jonathan Rosenbaum also has his own personal 1000 Essential Films, the absolute hardest and most obscure in the bunch, which is a fascinating alternative to the status quo. I maintain my own evolving and fairly eccentric list of 1000 favorites as well, but it’s not ready for a general release quite yet.

The other list I wanted to mention is a bit more specific. It’s the Top 100 Animated Shorts as decided on by about 30 experts in the field at the 2006 Annecy Festival. It’s a remarkable list, far superior to Jerry Beck’s more limited and conventional “The 50 Greatest Cartoons”. If I’d have known about Annecy’s list when I was working on Poor Little Animated Shorts, I could have offered a better overview (I’d only seen 39/100 at the time). Fortunately, you can now torrent almost the complete compilation in one 10 GB batch, much of which is technically legal.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

An Alphabet of Elitism and Entertainment

I’ve been watching all my favorite bloggers play the alphabet meme, where they pick their favorite film for each letter, and my own resistance has finally broken down.

There is basically no organizational criteria for listing movies that I won’t get behind. Listing post-apocalyptic films by the number of survivors? Ranking action films by the line-up of bad accents? Categorizing James Spader movies by creepiness level? 1950’s SF by scientific inaccuracy? Italian horror films by zooms? Count me in.

And since the best players have taken it upon themselves to add some clever twists (see Cinebeat’s vampire alphabet or Filmbrain’s hilarious Nikkatsu action film alphabet), I’ve put a spin of my own. I’ve chosen two films for each letter, the first being a “serious” film and the next being a “fun” pick, a way of resolving my Janus-esque love for the both art house and genre cinema.

Titles will be based on accepted English titles with one exception (X is hard!), in a minor violation of the original rules. And I should admit that these are not necessarily my absolute favorites for each letter (which move around a lot anyway), since I’ve shuffled things around to hit an optimal number of my favorite directors and to make particularly absurd pairings. I mean, who wouldn’t want to find out how Munchausen would have dealt with Vietnam or to attend a double feature of “Jules and Jim and Johnny Guitar” or to witness a back-to-back screening of the most disparate medieval combo: “Marketa Lazarova” meets “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

A Apocalypse Now / The Adventures of Baron von Munchausen
B The Battle of Algiers / Barbarella
C The Conformist / Chungking Express
D The Double Life of Veronique / Deep Red
E The Ear / Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
F Forbidden Games / The Fall
G The Godfather / The Great Dictator
H Heart of Glass / Harold and Maude
I I Am Cuba / Ikarie XB-1
J Jules and Jim / Johnny Guitar
K Koyaanisqatsi / The Knack… and How to Get It
L Last Year in Marienbad / The Lady from Shanghai
M Marketa Lazarova / Monty Python and the Holy Grail
N The Night of the Hunter / The Nightmare Before Christmas
O Olivier, Olivier / Once Upon a Time in the West
P Possession / Pan’s Labyrinth
Q Quiz Show / The Quatermass Xperiment
R Rashomon / Run, Lola, Run
S The Saragossa Manuscript / The Saddest Music in the World
T The Third Man / Tampopo
U Ulysses’ Gaze / The Unbelievable Truth
V Videodrome / Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
W Woman in the Dunes / Who Framed Roger Rabbit
X Xich Lo (Cyclo) / X2
Y Yi Yi: A One and a Two / Yellow Submarine
Z A Zed and Two Noughts / Zulu

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Review of The Cremator

It’s rare for my diverse tastes for things like surrealism, art horror, dark comedy and Eastern European cinema all intersect at the same point, so it isn’t particularly surprising that such occasions are shoo-ins for Film Walrus favorites (see “Possession,” for instance). Juraj Herz’s Slovakian film “The Cremator” (1968) might just be a top ten. It tells the fascinating, disturbing and uncomfortably hilarious story of a radical Buddhist psychotic serial killer who runs a Czechoslovakian crematorium in the years leading up to WWII.

Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrusinsky) is the type of person most people naturally avoid. Although he seems to be a family man with a passion for music and his work, the somewhat morbid operations of a successful crematorium, his unctuous mannerisms and creepy habits mark his as a deranged individual. Rudolf Hrusinsky really makes the character his own, giving one of the greatest performances I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing. One never doubts Karl’s strangely cohesive personality, and yet it remains impossible to fathom. Herz thankfully never tries to explain him in psychoanalytic terms, nor to portray him as either overly sympathetic or superhumanly evil.
When we first meet Karl he is babbling to his wife at their anniversary outside a leopard’s cage. The camera assembles a collage of close-ups, breathlessly leaping from foreheads, lips and hands to the animals, iron bars and nearby foliage. We’re lost from the first instant. We’re adrift in a chaos which may correspond to the vagaries of Karl’s addled mind or the fragmentary reality of the transitioning Europe that produced it.

Our only guide is the incessant, wheedling voice of Mr. Kopfrkingl, which will accompany us from this point onward and account for 90% of the dialogue. And if his whimsical refrain of how it takes 75 minutes to reduce a human to ashes at his affectionately-named “temple of death,” his eerily-interpreted ideas selectively pilfered from the Tibetan Book of the Dead and his hyper-impressionability to Nazi rhetoric are any indication, this is not a guide that’s going to lead us across the moral high ground.

Karl’s idiosyncrasies could fill a psychiatry manual. Quirks like his passion for funereal music and his obsessive career ambitions might be harmless enough, but his overbearing personality and casual hypocrisy (including monthly visits to the brothel) clearly take a toll on his family and coworkers. More dangerously telling is his inclination to blur distinctions between the living and dead, which manifests in a compulsion to apply his pocket comb to himself, others and even his corpses, often in quick succession. As we come to realize that Karl is either hallucinating or haunted by the specter of death, portrayed as a woman with long dark hair, our fears about his pathological descent are confirmed.

[Image: Karl’s private muse or the looming angel of death?]

Eventually Karl gives over wholly to his devotion to death, believing that it is his mission as the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama to free flesh-bound souls from pain and suffering. He easily adapts himself to the burgeoning Nazi movement as a way of furthering his cause, thought it’s clear he has little interest in the politics or ideology behind it. With offhand cunning and resourcefulness he begins to put his philosophy into action at home, starting with the cold-blooded elimination of his half-Jewish wife and quarter-Jewish children. The ending leaves no doubt as to the future direction of his mania.

[Images: Excerpts from the montage sequence where Karl murders his son, a sequence that rivals and even surpasses the Odessa Steps sequence in terms of controlled schizophrenic technique and sophisticated, visceral impact. Also notable is the layers of foreshadowing that lead up to this point, which include a Grand Guignol carnival attraction.]

Despite a cast of darkly humorous supporting characters, this is really a one-man show with Herz endeavoring to filter a fairly vast scope of historical and social issues through the warped lens that is Karl. In that spirit, the camerawork is inflected with an insanity befitting Mr. Kopfrkingl erratic derangement. Its warped wide-angle shots and imperfection-magnifying close-ups convey the urgency of Karl’s crusade for purity and death.

The editing is reminiscent of “Diamonds of the Night” (1964), especially in the way it reflects the character’s subjectivity. It also occasionally borrows Nemec’s trick of playing out possibilities, most of which won’t happen in reality. One example sees Karl contemplates where to hang a picture, prompting the camera to play the reel of choices running through his mind.

[Image: The portrait is of the President of Nicaragua, but Karl claims its Louis Marin “former minister of pensions” whenever questioned by his Nazi friends.]

Long takes like those that appear “Diamonds of the Night,” however, are almost entirely absent. Herz favors the short chop; shuffling through a succession of images that are exquisitely lit and composed. It’s always clear what we’re looking at, but we are kept off balance by the unpredictable movements across space and time. Dialog cross-cutting, for instance, is almost wholly discarded (since the monologue replaces conversation, it isn’t particularly useful) to be replaced by shots that intersperse Karl’s POV with images that feel like random pages torn from his self-congratulatory diary.

[Image: Karl having a vision of himself as the next Dalai Lama.]

Perhaps most disorientating is the hiccups forward in time. A frequent technique in “The Cremator” is a cut that looks like a reaction shot belonging to the current scene, but which is revealed (by a zoom out, pan or subsequent cut) to be part of a later scene. There is never any fade or transition to signify the jump, and it is often conspicuously less jarring than cuts within the scene. The gap in-between sequences might be hours or months, but we rarely know until context informs us. To keep track of time without the usual cues viewers must either strain for revealing details or accept a certain detachment from all outside events not directly relevant to Karl.

[Image: An example of the type of infinitely morbid humor in “The Cremator.” Karl hangs his wife by asking her to examine a broken ventilator in the bathroom. His cat, upon which he dotes, considers her dangling shoelace to be a wonderful cat toy.]

The somber atmosphere we might expect for “The Cremator” is made, intentionally inappropriately, bouncy and jovial as a result of both the brisk editing and Karl’s deliriously optimistic outlook. Despite the ominous and macabre moments, the absurdity of Mr. Kopfrkingl’s life is often quite hysterical. One laughs, but feels immediately guilty. The gallows humor is set against the formal rigor of the cinematography and Zdenek Liska’s score (there he is again!) that reassures us that Herz is not merely being flippant.

[Image: That’s the “Hell” panel of Heironymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights” in the background of the film’s most historically monstrous revelation.]

“The Cremator” is the type of film you might like if you have an appetite for eccentric villain with art horror sauce and a side of New Wave experimentation. It comes with a mug of humor served pitch black. This is the preferred diet of domestic film walruses. For a lighter meal of cremation comedy cuisine, try “The Loved One” (1965).

Walrus Rating: 10

[Image: A gallery of urns.]

“The Cremator” is available from Second Run (who give it their usual luxury treatment) on PAL region 0 DVD.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Review of The Pyjama Girl Case

Flavio Mogherini’s 1977 “The Pyjama Girl Case” (aka, “The Girl in Yellow Pajamas”) might be one of the most ambitious and innovative gialli ever made, though it’s so unpleasant and disheveled that it is destined to remain a neglected outlier. It’s exactly the type of failure that’s fun to debate; the type of cult movie that has plenty of originality and hardly any talent to pull it off. I find my simultaneously wanting to pan it and defend it from my own attacks. It begs to be remade, or at least plundered for its twists.

The plot revolves around a real life homicide that captured national attention in 1930’s Australia, although it has been reset to the modern day. An unidentified corpse (a girl wearing yellow pajamas) was found on the beach resulting in a much-publicized and highly controversial search for the identity of the woman and her killer. The case was closed after a decade, and the truth is still not entirely resolved. I'm might be imagining it, but I think it had an influence on Twin Peaks. “The Pyjama Girl Case” borrows many of the actual grisly details, including the body being suspended in formaldehyde and placed in public display, which seem almost too lurid to be true.

The movie stars Ray Milland and Dalila Di Lazzaro in parallel stories. Milland plays retired detective Thompson, a man determined to crack the case no matter how much legwork, stagnancy and disappointment must be endured (warning: it will be a lot). The DVD packages makes sure we remember that Milland won an Academy Award (“The Lost Weekend,” 1945), though it doesn’t mention that he’d spent the previous two decades making films that could be called, at their best, amusing schlock.

Di Lazzaro (“Phenomena”) plays Glenda, a friend of the pajama girl who’s currently involved with three different men, each of them potential suspects who also knew the victim. Her restless relationships with an older sugar daddy, a humorless handsome laborer (who she marries) and his worldly macho best friend don’t seem to bring her any contentment or fulfillment. Early in the film, she recalls an awkward sleepover with the pajama girl, who dons the iconic yellow pajamas and makes an overt lesbian pass. Because of the pajama girl’s pre-existing travel plans, none of her friends seem to think anything of her conspicuous absence, which remains almost totally unmentioned in their subplot.

Now I’m going to spoil the story’s main two twists, as I’m figuring most readers will not actually see the film. However, if there’s even a chance you will, you might want to skip this section as the twists are probably the only truly compelling reason to see it. OK, here we go:

Detective Thompson dies about halfway into the film. He is run down by the killer just before being able to confirm his identity. The audience is left totally in the dark and story switches to the other subplot for the remainder of the film. Considering that Ray Milland was the top-billed main lead, the only name star and the driving force behind solving the mystery, this is quite a shocking turn of events. I rewatched “Psycho” a few days after seeing this, and I have to say “Pyjama Girl” is nearly as surprising a star death, despite the sequence being relatively poorly handled and emotionally neutral.

But wait, there’s more. Late in the film Glenda receives her friend’s yellow pajamas in the mail, confirming our growing suspicions that the two stories are not actually parallel at all. The cross-cutting between her story and the detective are jumping from opposite sides of the murder. Indeed, Glenda’s friend is still alive and our female lead is actually the victim to be. Her story ends with her getting brutally killed the night before the detective’s story starts. The murder’s identity, which we had assumed would be the main twist, is really far less interesting. I’ll leave it unspoiled.

Mogherini’s ability to upturn our expectations and assumptions is particularly notable because it’s contingent on the structure of the film. While gialli are noted for their twists, they’re usually dependent on the identity, psychology and methodology of the killer: the who, how and why of the crime. When these questions are finally answered in the film, they are almost a let down. Compared to the elaborate and fancy climaxes of Argento or Martino, this one seems downright banal.

Having opted to avoid a flamboyant style in favor of a real world gritty realism, Mogherini stews us in a squalid atmosphere of melancholy, sleaze and hopelessness. Thompson’s trail of clues gets colder and more abstruse as the case wears on and on. Glenda’s sex life becomes gradually more uncomfortable to spy on. It seems to me that Mogherini systematically removes the typical thrills and pleasures of the genre until we are faced with one of the ugliest image of our world that I’ve seen in a giallo. By the time the lead finds herself prostituting at a grimy diner, I was left with the type of dirty feeling I usually associate with fodder like cannibal or torture films.

Yet Mogherini sights remained aimed above exploitation. Even as he turns our stomachs, he’s clearly hoping to be taken seriously. Why else would he misguidedly bank so heavily on character development? Milland performance is all saggy stoniness and undue caginess, but we’re supposed to respect him as a dogged, detail-oriented recluse who’s past his prime, but unwilling to give up. Di Lazzaro gets even more screen time and dialogue, and she tries her inadequate best to give a troubled, sophisticated performance that makes us care for, not just desire, her character.

Unfortunately, Mogherini and his cast are just not up to the task. Despite a lot of shouting, gesticulating and “deep” musical montages, no one in the film can command a scene or deliver the type of gravitas that their ambitious themes and subject matter demand. The minor characters are all grating and unlikable. The story seeps in around the actors, drowning them with excruciating slowness. The script can’t save them; it’s pre-occupied elsewhere. Meanwhile, the visual inventiveness that enlivens similar giallo duds is MIA.

But while I don’t think it comes together as an entertaining movie, I applaud Mogherini risks and revisionism. I admire the concept of his twists. I respect him rewriting the traditional giallo formulas with uneasy injections of police procedural, fallen-woman melodrama and true-life crime. Furthermore, the decisions to shoot on location in Sydney, Australia, to feature balladic music narration Ritz Ortolani and disco queen Amanda Lear and to keep the action infrequent and subdued are all gutsy, even if they fail to pay off.

This is a film that I can’t recommend and which I didn’t particularly like, but which I can’t hate, or even dismiss. Perhaps the best praise I can give “The Pyjama Girl Case” is that it’s more interesting than most generically good films.

Walrus Rating: 4.5

Monday, December 8, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Wrap-Up

Just like last year, I’d like to provide a summary of my festival experience as a whole. I’ll start with the ranked list of films running through three simple categories. This isn’t necessarily the same order you’d get just by looking at my numerical scores, but other than that I’m done with issuing disclaimers.

Highly Recommended:
1) From Inside
2) Timecrimes
3) The Wrestler
4) The Custodian
5) Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
6) Slumdog Millionaire

7) The Trap
8) Special
9) Alone
10) Vanaja
11) All for Free
12) Opera Jawa

Not Recommended:
13) The Pope’s Toilet
14) Yesterday Was a Lie
15) The Juche Idea
16) Stranded
17) Heartbeat Detector
18) Interkosmos
19) Shadowland

I felt that overall SLIFF has only improved since 2007. I saw five fewer films than last year, purely because I was trying to exhaust myself less, but overall I'm satisfied with the 19 I chose out of the ~260 that screened. Audiences were noticeably larger in general, but I thankfully only missed one film I was dying to see, “The Class,” due to not purchasing a ticket early enough.

Either because of better selections or my own increased pickiness about what to see, I encountered fewer forgettable films that I’ve no intention of seeing again, recommending or discussing. The top-tier films I saw were more rewarding than in 2007, though both years had excellent standouts. Even the “Not Recommended” films from this year were more interesting.

One of my biggest complaints in 2007 was the rarity of cult and genre films to break up the stodgy art house line-up. That was well-addressed by strong doses of sci-fi, horror and noir. I didn’t have any trouble staying awake through marathon sessions this time around, which is certainly one measurement of success. I did notice that there seemed to be less American star vehicles, but those don’t interest me much so it didn’t matter.

I’ve provided a genre breakdown like last year. The categories are a little subjective since I only allow each film to fall under one heading. “Heartbeat Detector,” for instance, might fall under [corporate] thriller for some. Then, too, the lines dividing drama, comedy and romance are always vague. It’s certainly a much more diverse batch this year than the ~50% art house drama glut of 2007.

Total (19)
Art House Drama: (5) Heartbeat Detector, Mishima, The Pope’s Toilet, Vanaja, The Wrestler
Dark Comedy: (3) All for Free, The Juche Idea, Special
Light Comedy: (0)
Shorts: (0)
Documentary: (1) Stranded
Romance: (2) Opera Jawa, Slumdog Millionaire
Horror: (2) Alone, Shadowland
Sci-fi: (3) From Inside, Interkosmos, Timecrimes
Noir: (3) The Custodian, The Trap, Yesterday Was a Lie
Action, Mystery, Thriller, Western: (0)

Looking back on my typical tenets for consuming a well-balanced festival diet, I find myself forced to reconsider some of my goals. I’ve listed them below.

Goal: Try to see more local St. Louis productions and works by St. Louis directors.
Result: Despite one of the largest and most prestigious local crops this year, all four St. Louis related films I saw (Interkosmos, The Juche Idea, Shadowland and Yesterday Was a Lie) fell under my “Not Recommended” heading. In retrospect, I wish I had seen “Adam Resurrected” and “The Unknown Woman,” instead, especially since I dragged my guests along and ended up somewhat disappointed.

Goal: See at least one documentary:
Result: “Stranded” also didn’t make the cut for me. Much as I want to support documentaries, I think I might let all but the most interesting pass through a couple more filters before I commit again.

Goal: See at least one film from a country I’ve never seen a film from before.
Result: Both “Stranded” and “The Pope’s Toilet” were from Uruguay, a new national cinema for me. I don’t regret “The Pope’s Toilet,” but neither film really impressed me. It’s only getting harder each year to keep up this goal!

Goal: See at least one set of shorts.
Result: Failed. Kind of sad since this is one of the things SLIFF is best known for.

What has paid off?
Seeing winners from Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Toronto.
Hitting afternoon art house stuff and late night screenings of genre films.
Seeing every film that appeals to my personal tastes over generic dramas with lots of buzz.
Taking occasional chances on new directors.
Avoiding big-name directors when the name is the sole appeal and not the movie description.
Relying on a little bit of research to filter out duds and to find diamonds in the rough.

Well, that’s my take on SLIFF 2008. I look forward to next year!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 9

Title: From Inside
Director: John Bergin
Country: USA
Score: 10
Graphic novelist Bergin adapts his own nightmares into an animated feature film with a half-dozen crew members, Maya 3D software and a whole lot of patience. The result is one of the best movies at SLIFF, though it was largely tucked away in the same time slot of the buzz-generating “Waltz with Bashir.” Nevertheless, I was determined not to miss it after reading the synopsis (a destination-unknown train traveling through a surreal post-apocalyptic wasteland) and watching the trailer. I couldn’t help resonating powerfully with the film, though I am clearly more biased towards it than I expect others would be (I love trains, surrealism and post-apocalyptic landscapes. Also, my own student short, based on my nightmares, had a similar premise).

“From Inside” uses a combination of CG and hand-painted watercolors from Bergin’s graphic novel to illustrate the haunting locomotive voyage of a pregnant girl. She doesn’t remember where her train comes from and neither she, nor the passengers nor even the engineers know where it is going. Outside the windows, a featureless landscape passes by. It is eventually overtaken by startling locations: a rusting bridge, a sea of blood, flooded ruins, a monumental refinery, an endless tunnel and more.

Our introverted protagonist provides narration in lieu of dialogue, keeping us in claustrophobic isolation from the other passengers. We spend our time in her dreams and private reveries instead of the roaming omniscient perspective audiences are used to. Her voice has an eerie, hypnotic quality that ties together the bleak, but imaginative, artwork. Though it completely eschews notions of hope and salvation, “From Inside’s” disturbing imagery and brooding score still reaches a spiritual crescendo that is profoundly moving.

After gushing to the sound designer afterwards, his wife gave my brother and me unofficial copies of the film. I’ll be watching it often. The From Inside website should have information on the official DVD when it becomes available.

Title: The Wrestler
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Country: USA
Score: 9.5
Aronofsky’s latest film may be his most mature, and it certainly managed to convince critics (it took the Golden Lion at Venice) of what cult audiences already know: that Aronofsky is one of the most important directors of the last ten years.

“The Wrestler” is Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke), a WWF-style professional wrestler 20 years past his prime. Sitting at a sparsely-attended merchandise signing, he notices that most of his peers have leg braces, wheelchairs and other evidence of their fading health. Randy isn’t immune either; his rigorous tanning and toning doesn’t disguise the fact that his body is breaking down. He wears a hearing aid and stuffs himself with drugs to sustain everything from fists and folding chairs to barbed wire and staple guns. Most threatening is his failing heart. Outside the ring his life is also a mess: he is frequently locked out of his trailer, works odd hours at a grocery store to make ends meet and has an estranged lesbian daughter who hates him.

Marisa Tomei plays Randy’s romantic interest, a stripper nearing retirement age. Far from being a simple plot device for their mutual redemption, her character has a life nearly as full of complications and contradictions. She definitely goes all-out in her role, giving Rourke a run for his money and one-upping her eyebrow-raising role in “Before the Devil Knows Your Dead” for sheer nudity. I’ve got more than a little bit of a crush on Tomei, and I can guarantee that anyone who shares that sentiment will go away happy.

Aronofsky’s approach is touchingly realistic, reminding me of the unsentimental humanism of the Dardenne brothers. Mickey Rourke gives a career performance as The Ram, not just looking the part perfectly, but imbuing the character with a likability that I would have thought impossible (as I hate wrestling). Randy is a throwback to the 80’s, a decade he desperately misses both for its culture of reveling in devil-may-care extremism and for his personal stardom. Yet Aronofsky manages to do a lot more than merely play on nostalgia (he wisely does without flashbacks) or to harp on how pathetic Randy is (I even sensed an affectionate tone at times), by making us care about a character we’d normally laugh at.

The film brings the boxing genre (I’m defining it loosely) into the present day. It leaves films like “Cinderella Man” and “Rocky Balboa” weeping in the locker room, revealing them to be mere has-beens compared to the freshness and defiance of this film. “The Wrestler” owes more to “Raging Bull” (1980), a film Aronofsky consciously references in one of his funniest scenes: a continuous tracking shot of Randy entering, not a stadium, but a deli. I imagine that Aronofsky can sit back for a while and just let the Oscars come pouring in.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 8

Title: The Trap
Director: Srdan Golubovic
Country: Serbia
Score: 8.0
Even if I live to be a hundred, I’ll probably never get tired of noirs featuring an essentially good man who tries to do the right thing, but makes one wrong decision that sends his soul spiraling towards damnation. “The Trap” is an excellent example and superb companion piece for Wim Wenders’ similar “The American Friend.”

Mladen is a state engineer who can’t possibly afford the 26,000 Euros price tag when he discovers that his son will die without a rare operation. In spite of his pride, Mladen’s wife puts a help ad in the paper. Eventually there’s a response… from a man who wants Mladen to assassinate in exchange for the money.

“The Trap” tries a little too hard to justify Mladen’s actions, when it’s a foregone conclusion that he’ll accept the assignment (since otherwise this would be a different kind of movie). I think Golubovic is a bit too insistent when he tries to convince us that we would do the same thing in the same circumstances. Still, at least the motivations are realistic enough and it leads us to the consequences, which is where the film really comes alive.

Every goes wrong, of course. The victim turns out to be a husband and father. Mladen likes (and maybe even has a crush on?) the wife. Meanwhile, the stress and secrecy causes Mladen’s own marriage to fall apart. The criminals don’t come through with the money. The police don’t buy his story. And all the while his son is still dying.

The shift from dealing with tough decision to tough consequences is pessimistic, but uncompromising. One finds it irresistible to get caught up in Mladen’s plight and to share his frustration and despair. There’s a sense that his tale is a metaphor for the way individuals are crushed by fate, society, economy and other forces beyond their control, but it’s never too blunt to distract from the personal crisis.

A lot of the symbolism is handled in interesting ways. Mladen’s son, for instance, draws countless pictures that are brightly-colored and full of fantastic imagery in contrast to Mladen’s increasingly bleak reality. I particularly liked that the night before Mladen agrees to do the hit he sits in the rain at an empty intersection and eventually runs a red light (confirming, on an infinitely smaller scale, that he is ready to break the law). Later, he will remain stopped in front of a green light as he comes to accept that his life is at a dead-end.

The acting is really quite well done, never crossing over the line into excessive histrionics. The worst part may have been the makeup, which is inexplicably overly purple all the time (cold lips, tired eyes, bruises) and takes away some of the attention from Glogovac’s (as Mladen) highly facial performance. The film also make good use of shallow focus, dirty locations and bad weather to give off a sullen noir atmosphere.

Title: Yesterday Was a Lie
Director: James Kerwin
Country: USA
Score: 5.0
Note: After several responses noting the conspicuously personal tone I took in my original review, I’ve modified it to be more in line with the type of writing that I would prefer to read and disseminate. For more details, see the discussion in the comments section.

No combination of beautiful blondes, cerebral sci-fi and hazy noir can really be all bad, but Kerwin’s pretentious, ambitious hybrid manages to be a lot worse than it should be. The film features Hoyle, a platinum-haired female detective on the hunt for a dangerous notebook that may hold the key to rearranging the universe. Her unstable ex-lover, the unfortunately-named Dudas, appears to be in on the case. A mysterious nightclub singer, played by “Star Trek: DS9” fanboy fuel, Chase Masterson, attempts to help Hoyle out. Meanwhile Hoyle’s dreams may provide a clue into the shifting realities and cycling time paradoxes that ensnare her.

“Yesterday Was a Lie” tears apart at the seams under the weight of its multifold contradictions. Some I found pleasurable, like the combination of 1940’s era cars, fedoras and locales with modern computers and cell phones. Others are just senseless mindgames, like the erratic, slippery, faux-intellectual plot. Still others are intolerable, like the attempts to seem mysterious and fluid while forcing us to listen to clunky, condescending monologues on science, literature, psychology and art.

I felt that the dialog ran closer to pop-science and pop-psychology, than the type of illuminating prose I was hoping for. The film’s references, for instance, are obvious and facile. He uses T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” as reoccurring motifs. Not only are these references achingly cliché, but the film does not indicate a particularly deep understanding of them.

Worse still are his outright incorrect claims about Jungian psychology and quantum mechanics. After “tantalizing” us with a “mysterious” reoccurring number, we are treated to painful conversations about how Planck’s constant is THE fundamental constant of the universe (I guess the speed of light and the gravitational constant are less fundamental?) and how it represent the frequency at which the whole universe vibrates. We are told other realities, like our dreams, vibrate at different frequencies. Of course, anyone who has taken physics 101 can tell you that the Planck constant is not a frequency, but a ratio between energy and frequency. If everything in the universe actually had the same frequency, we wouldn’t have many important things we know and love, like color and a distinction between light and matter.

If Kerwin had just tried to tell an engaging and clever genre hybrid rather than trying to impress audiences with the equivalent of literary and scientific buzzwords, his film could have been, for me, the thought-provoking cult sensation that lurked just out of reach. As it stands, he’s created an intriguing mess with an egotistic undertone. I would recommend better works in this vein (“Pi,” “The Following,” “Zentropa,” “Death and the Compass,” “Element of Crime” to name a few) to those who are interested. It has done well on the small-festival circuit, interestingly, and boasts an exhaustive list of prizes on the director’s Wikipedia page.

I suspect that Kerwin will go on to make a film I’m on board with. Adapting “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” the Czech play that gave us the word “robot,” is certainly a promising direction.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 7

Title: The Custodian
Director: Rodrigo Moreno
Country: Argentina
Score: 9.5
As I discovered last year, the bustle of the festival and running about from theater to theater after work while still trying to fit in food, sleep and life can make it difficult to ease into the pace of slower, meditative films. Festival season tends to make me particularly conscious of poor editing, excessive length and lugubrious pacing. Yet every once in a while a film like “The Custodian” comes by and reassures me that it’s not my attention span that’s the problem; some films can be slow and minimalist and still be utterly fascinating.

The custodian (or “minder” in the more direct translations), Ruben, is a personal bodyguard for Artemio, an important minister. Ruben has managed to erase almost all outward evidence of his identity, forming himself into a diligent, silent, opaque presence that it variously ignored and abused by the family he is sworn to protect. Ruben quietly suffers each indignity without comment. For instance, he must wait outside while Artemio conducts extramarital affairs and must watch silently when Artemio’s daughter messes around with a boy in the backseat of the chauffeur’s car.

Ruben’s own family, a neurotic sister and her untalented daughter, offers no comfort or understanding. What goes on inside his head is not known. He remains a mystery, although we discover hints: he’s a talented sketch-artist (his pictures reveal possible romantic and sexual fantasies), was once a hero in the military and he cares more about the world than he lets on.

Moreno’s direction and Barbara Alvarez’s cinematography is some of the best I’ve seen this year. They shoot scenes with nearly mathematical precision (overhead shots of Artemio’s parking arrangements are frigidly geometric) in cold clean colors and 90 degree arrangements that are emotionally neutral. Unusual close-ups and shallow focus guide our attention to unimportant details, creating an atmosphere that reflects both Ruben’s boredom and his observant nature. A clever thematic touch is that Ruben never passes through a door while the camera is watching, putting him and the audience forever outside the action.

“The Custodian” is actually so hypnotic when almost nothing is happening, that I actually had a twinge of regret when the action picked up. When Ruben is given scenes like a family dinner party and a visit to a prostitute, I felt that these more overt “events” broke the spell of the gentle rhythm. The ending twist, however, feels right and sort of justifies the rising action.

Fans of Jean-Pierre Melville, Fabian Bielinsky and Bela Tarr should like this one.

Title: Timecrimes
Director: Nacho Vigalondo
Country: Spain
Score: 9.0
Hector has just moved into a new house with his loving wife. He’s lounging around in the backyard when he thinks he spots a woman stripping in the woods. His natural voyeurism takes over. He goes to investigate, only to be stabbed by a bandaged killer and forced to flee into a secluded laboratory. The only person on staff, a suspicious young scientist, encourages him to hide in a strange cylinder of fluid. He emerges earlier that same day and gradually comes to accept that he has traveled through time. While trying to prevent any paradoxes from occurring, he inadvertently commits a horrible crime and must complicate things even further to undo the past.

Vigalondo’s three act screenplay (with each act covering the same handful of hours) is one of the funnest and cleverest time-travel plots of recent memory. The first act features all sorts of strange, unexplained details, allowing TT veterans to anticipate how they are going to fit into the timeline. The second act then follows through in a manner that I think is intentionally predictable and familiar. Then the third act comes along and makes mince meat of the other two with post-modern humor and surprising twists.

The plot is quite entertaining in itself, but Vigalondo accentuates it’s with a very distinctive brand of humor that does almost entirely without dialogue-based “jokes.” I laughed out loud several times, often purely due to the beautiful timing and symmetry of the action (the storyboarding and editing must have been excruciatingly rigorous). The balance of the cast (there are only four actors) is quite neat, with Hector’s development taking center stage. The way he transforms from naïve pawn to steely mastermind as he learns the ins and outs of time travel, is perfectly displayed by his body language and, quite literally, his body, which becomes increasingly bruised and bloodied.

Vigalondo has done all the hard work for us behind the scenes. TT veterans will be pleased to discover that his screenplay is free from obvious plot holes, while TT newbies should find the complicated plot relatively easy to follow. Since it is both more playful and less mentally strenuous, I’d call this (wait for it…) a good primer for “Primer.” Both films are excellent investigations of the scientific and moral complexities of TT, but while “Primer” is so dark and challenging as to sit permanently in the cult corner, “Timecrimes” is already slated for an American remake. Word is that David Cronenberg will direct, which would be seriously cool, but see this first (and then see “Primer,” which is even better).

Sunday, November 30, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 6

Title: The Pope’s Toilet
Director: Cesar Chalone and Enrique Fernandez
Country: Uruguay
Score: 6.0
Beto is a smalltime border smuggler just this side of Uruguay from Brazil. His “work” consists of heart-pounding 60 mile bicycle trips across the open countryside with the risk of raids and financial ruin on any voyage. He lives in a small shack with his devout wife and unhappy daughter, who longs to become a reporter. When news comes out that the Pope will be stopping in their remote village to give a speech, everyone in town plans to pull themselves out of poverty by selling food to the tens of thousands of projected visitors. Beto plans to capitalize on the situation from the opposite end: by charging for use of a homemade restroom.

The simple setup allows plenty of time to get to know the family and to witness the humor and pain they cause each other. The film’s greatest success is its honest, unsentimental portrayal of poverty, where limited resources cause harsh competition and families are so desperate to escape their conditions that they will risk everything on inflated hopes. The casting of non-actors works beautifully and each of the central three characters gives fresh, realistic performances.

However, I was annoyed at the directors’ decisions in how they portrayed this based-on-a-real-life story. Whether it’s intentional dramatic irony or not, I never for a moment believed that a happy ending was possible. The tension and buildup for the inevitable disappointment felt hallow and manipulative to me. Ill-advised music rubs the disaster in our face. I found that I was holding myself back from emotionally connecting with the characters because I was conscious of the directors’ intentions from very early on.

Title: Stranded: I Have Come From a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains
Director: Gonzalo Arijon
Country: Uruguay
Score: 5.0
Arijon’s much-hailed documentary revisits a headline that captured international attention in 1972. A rugby team from Uruguay crash-landed on a snow-covered Andean mountain and survived for 72 days before they were able to contact civilization. Untreated injuries, starvation, extreme-cold and depression plague the stranded boys. Two-thirds of the passengers die and the remainder resorted to cannibalism to survive.

I’m occasionally accused of being too tough on documentaries, and I’m likely to draw that complaint once again. Let me first say, though, that the story of these survivors is absolutely captivating and inspiring. When I rate a documentary, however, only a small amount of the score is based on the topic chosen while the primary thing I try to judge is the presentation of the subject. For that reason, I was not much impressed by “Stranded,” which looks and feels like a routine television special.

Arijon’s re-enactments are particularly uninspired. He uses vague, shaky clips where you can’t really see any details and grainy filters try to convince us the footage is old or damaged. This material doesn’t capture anything of the reality, not even the atmosphere or terror, and serves very little purpose except as filler. I’m sure the idea was to temper the talking heads syndrome that is brought on by trying to tell the story through interviews decades after the fact. The most interesting visual moments, notably, are the authentic photographs and the news footage near the end.

I think a full-scale paid-actor/set-recreation treatment would have been worthwhile and compelling. In fact, I’d have probably liked a film adaptation more than any documentary version, but that’s purely personal taste. As a documentary, I felt it relied too heavily on the emotional emphasis and didn’t give enough facts to really appreciate the situation. Despite the film’s totally unnecessary 126 minute run-time, I was left still fairly clueless and curious at the end:

How cold did it get at night? How much battery power was in the radio? Did they build snow-shoes or sleds to travel over the snow drifts? Were they able to build fires? How did they decide which direction to head off in? What was the decision hierarchy like? Did they converse or invent games to pass the time or sit in silence? How far away were they from the nearest village? Do they keep in touch today? Etc, etc, etc.

Friday, November 28, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 5

Title: Opera Jawa
Director: Garin Nugroho
Country: Indonesia
Score: 6.0
This adaptation of a love triangle from the Hindu epic Ramayana has enough to intrigue almost anyone into giving it a try, but it’s a rare instance of a film almost too exotic for me to take. Siti is a gorgeous pottery maker who is loved by her modest husband and a ruthless butcher magnate. The latter’s seduction scheme leads to sorrow, battle and death. Every line of dialogue is song (a bit like an oriental “Umbrellas of Cherbourg”) and every movement is choreographed. The costumes and sets are allowed to be equally expressive.

While I really like the idea of this film in theory, the simple story adapts poorly into a two hour movie and most of the scenes are consequently irrelevant to the narrative. This isn’t a problem if the presentation sufficiently wows you, but I my ignorance of Javanese traditional music and language had me feeling like all the vocals sounded pretty much the same and the choreography looked like bad modern dance. That said, I really liked the exotic instrumentation and the decision to model the acting after animals (a particularly good example is done in shadow silhouette).

The set design is imaginative, if not as consistently impressive as Parajanov’s work. I did enjoy the use of ceramics, wicker cones and crimson wax heads as reoccurring visual motifs. There are a handful of scenes that make for unforgettable imagery, like a room full of candle skulls or the beach finale inside a sheer yellow tent.

Yet all the sound and colors didn’t seem to make for a consistent story, mood or pacing and I ended up with the dissatisfying feeling that I’d just beheld one of the world’s most visually resplendent bores. I don’t understand it. I usually love visually resplendent bores! I think “Opera Jawa” is the type of film that I’ll engage with better on DVD, where I can appreciate its charms without the bustle and exhaustion of the festival.

Title: Heartbeat Detector
Director: Nicolas Klotz
Country: France
Score: 5.0
“Heartbeat Detector” (also known by its literal translation “The Human Question,” which I prefer) had already made so many waves in Europe, that my expectations were perhaps a bit too high. I didn’t like it, yet so far it’s the festival film I’m most interested in discussing.

The first hour of the film is a corporate intrigue thriller without the intrigue or thrills as we watch a company psychologist for a large faceless organization deal with his relationships and an investigation into the sanity of his own CEO. Eventually the film stumbles its way into a series of revelations about Nazi ties amongst the executives, but it doesn’t actually get interesting until the movie turns into a polemic indictment of corporate culture in general.

The clumsy interrogation of this one idea, that fascism and capitalism can come to disturbingly similar conclusions, is just about the only redeeming debate to emerge from the film. It taps into our innate mistrust for powerful entities of any variety, and our suspicion that companies, bureaucracies and hierarchies may be intrinsically and profoundly evil. “Heartbeat Detector” never really covers enough ground or goes far enough to say anything new or provocative on these subjects, but its mixture of fear, doubt, regret and loathing is sincere and potent.

Sadly, the unremarkable story goes along way towards undermining the themes, especially by making the references to Nazism so terribly literal. In movies since the start of WII Nazi villains are dragged out for audiences to boo and jeer at so that we can feel even more self-righteous. The really scary thing is no longer onscreen Nazis caricatures, but the implication that offscreen, we may be slipping into the same “I’m just trying to get by” cog-psychology that makes inhuman totalitarianism possible.

The boilerplate bits of script are equally indigestible, featuring 2.5 hours of a blank-faced protagonist that we’re thankfully never asked to care about and a bunch of elderly executives who are cryptic and depressing. The worst are the lead’s pointless girlfriends, who stop existing for the main character (and the screenwriter) the moment they are offscreen. The cinematography is murky and underlit, probably an attempt to enforce the somber mood. The gray and black color scheme, rectilinear locales and sleepy emo soundtrack would probably have accomplished this anyway. The lack of proper lighting just makes the film feel frustrating and unprofessional. I was amused to see that the screenshots used for the poster and DVD have been digitally brightened.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 4

Title: All for Free
Director: Antonio Nuić
Country: Croatia
Score: 7.0
After the good luck I had with last year’s “Fine Dead Girls,” I decided to try another shot-on-digital Croatian character study and once again found it to be quite satisfying. This one features Goran, a friendly slacker who spends most of his time drinking and hanging out with his tight-knit quartet of local friends. One night at their favorite hangout, one of his pals shoots the other two dead. Goran is shocked out of his complacent stasis and haplessly scrambles for some meaning in life. With nothing to keep him in town, he decides to sell his house and buy a travelling beverage stand where he’ll give out drinks “all for free.”

Goran’s mellow adventures are full of ironic character observations as the citizens of each new town turn their suspicions upon him. Each customer is sure that there’s some catch or hidden agenda. Nuic’s sense of humor is smart and deadpan, a little like Jarmusch or Kaurismaki, but more incisive. Their isn’t much expectation that anything will happen, and true to form, very little does. The story slowly evolves a romance and rivalry, but it never really abandons its core as an existential reverie.

“All for Free” is probably too slow and too comically sparse for most, but I found it pleasant and thoughtful. It never tries to be anything more than what it is and it’s just wise enough not to outstay its welcome. “All for Free” strikes me as a good example of what a tiny budget and a reflective personality can do.

Title: Special
Director: Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore
Country: USA
Score: 7.51 (to make sure it rounds up)
Les Franken isn’t exactly happy; he’s just not unhappy. He works as a meter maid, reads comics and watches TV. He has the sensation that his soul is slowly seeping from his body and decides to enroll in a clinical trial for a new antidepressant, Specioprin Hydrochloride.

The medication has unexpected results: Les develops a multitude of superpowers. But while Les acclimates himself to his newfound powers, others see nothing but a young man with a screw loose. The directors strike an inspired comical duality between the world as Les sees it and the sad reality. Thus, while Les believe that he can run through walls (and we watch him do so), we also can’t help but notice that he has a bloody nose and bruises afterwards.

This setup makes for quite a variety of great scenes, like a visit with his clinical supervisor who suggests he immediately cease taking the drug. Les suddenly develops telepathy and believes that the doctor is mentally telling him just the opposite, but to put up the pretense of quitting since an enemy is listening. This enemy turns out to be the suit-wearing financiers behind the drug, who don’t want Les to create a media embarrassment. When they try to kidnap him, Les converses with a version of himself sent back from the future, who advises not to trust them. Michael Rapaport is well-cast in the lead role and is convincingly sympathetic as a deranged nerd whose desperate need to feel special may actually make it true.

“Special” is the type of indie comedy that alternates making you laugh and feel depressed, a combination I happen to like. It deals in the type of quirky irony where dream sequences are painfully normal (like riding in an elevator), and when the protagonist suddenly wakes up, it’s in a much stranger reality. The small budget may be the film’s biggest liability, especially towards the overly-padded, uninspired ending. With a longer, loopier second half and a few more subplots, this could have been a real favorite.

Monday, November 24, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 3

Title: Slumdog Millionaire
Director: Danny Boyle
Country: UK/India
Score: 8.0
Boyle continues his successful string of high-energy entertainment with this slick Indian production based around “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Ironically, contestant Jamal Malik, a poor orphan raised on the tough streets of Mumbai, is more interested in reuniting with his lost love from childhood than winning the money, but he just might get both wishes. The inspired structure has Malik narrating his life story to the police, as a way of explaining how a “slumdog” with no formal education could know each answer without cheating.

As with all of Boyle’s films (“Shallow Grave,” “28 Day Later,” “Sunshine”) the style is unabashedly populist, characterized by rapid cutting, throbbing music and aesthetic hedonism. While it isn’t surprising that this formula worked well for his films about gangsters, zombies and astronauts, I was surprised how easily it integrated with the more serious setting of India’s megaslums. It helps that the writer took care to channel the excitement, humor and optimism of youth even as he bares the pain and viciousness of poverty and crime. Even the visuals manage to strike a unique beauty, finding splashes of joy in human faces and dyed cloth against backdrops that include sprawling dumps and open sewers.

The final third of the movie becomes more subdued and saccharine, turning into a more conventional love story complete with overtures about destiny, smirking villains and tragic sacrifice. It’s likely to rub the wrong way with many who enjoyed the freshness of the rest of the film, but I suspect that it’s an intentional nod by Boyle towards the traditions of Indian cinematic romances. The ending credits are done as a Bollywood music video, making a more explicit reference to Indian pop culture.

With his kinetic storytelling, emotional range and engaging story, Boyle’s likely to have another hit on his hands. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he walked away with the SLIFF audience award. At the same time, I suspect the critical elite will turn their noses up at the flashy style, cheesy ending and occasionally hokey acting and they’d probably have a good point… but I have to say it was one of the most entertaining releases I’ve seen this year.

Title: Alone
Director: Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom
Country: Thailand
Score: 7.0
The Pisanthanakun/Wongpoom team (“Shutter”) continues to make a name for themselves in the international horror scene with this creepy tale about cojoined twins and the strange separation anxiety and survivor guilt that results when only one survives into adulthood. Pim seems to be doing well with her loving husband Wee, but when her mother becomes critically ill and they return from South Korea to Thailand, painful memories of her twin sister Ploy begin to drive her towards insanity.

Though “Alone” is unmistakably genre-bound, it is far less interested in the grotesque body-horror possibilities of its premise than the intensified intimacy of its relationships (twin sisters, husband/wife) and their psychological ramifications. This is more “A Tale of Two Sisters” or “Sisters” (1973) than “Basket Case” or “Dead Ringers” (1988) (interesting to note that this split seems to run down gender lines). The directors are quite skilled, if not particularly original, at developing atmosphere, tension and curiosity around their setup.

Horror fans will be particularly pleased by the sheer quantity of scares, which are thankfully not all hoarded for the finale. These are almost all of the loud-noise/sudden-image variety that I’m not usually impressed by, but I give “Alone” credit for actually scaring me time and again. I wish the directors would have tried to sustain the terror, however, since most of the fear-climaxes lasted only a single shot (sometimes with a reaction shot) and I was too often able to assure myself that “it will be over in just a second.” Though the film tarries a little long in the one-scene, one-scare purgatory of horror set pieces, the directors get the plot out of a rut and managed to admirably surprise me (and everyone with me) with a solid final act.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

SLIFF 2008 Coverage Part 2

Title: Shadowland (2008)
Director: Wyatt Weed
Country: USA
Score: 1.5
“Shadowland” looks to be an early frontrunner for my least favorite film of the festival. The SLIFF website describes it as an amnesiac mystery. It leaves out any reference to vampirism, which is odd, because this is a vampire movie. I would have seen it anyway (in fact, I would have been more interested). My primary motivation for checking it out wasn’t the plot, but that it was made locally and I wanted to try and see more native St. Louis films this year.

The scraggly story involves a young woman who emerges from a hidden churchyard grave with no memories, but a desire to head towards “main street.” She meets a friendly diner waiter, a pushy hobo and a snobby retro clothing clerk along the way. A professional vampire hunter named Julian and eventually the police are on her trail. Meanwhile, she struggles to remember the circumstances that led to her “death.”

Despite a surprising amount of production polish for a local film, “Shadowland” is ultimately closer to the Sci-Fi channel’s original programming than something you might want to see even for throwaway thrills. The acting is consistently embarrassing, especially the “period” flashbacks (signaled, of course, by overused streak-blur transitions). The writing is unimaginative and devoid of personality, exacerbated by over-earnest performances.

The special effects are of the quaint TV variety. I think the film really should have gone the less-is-more route, since the conventional fake fangs and bad contact lenses were bad enough without the fast-motion running and CG wings.

Ultimately, the main pleasure came from spotting the familiar locations. I got to see my street on a sign and a scene set at a diner where I tried to eat right before the film. Sadly, this wasn’t enough to make the movie legitimately good (pay attention, New Yorkers reviewing NYC films) and I can’t recommend it to anyone.

Title: Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Director: Paul Schrader
Country: Japan
Score: 8.5
Despite being well-aware that “Mishima” is 23 years old and that Criterion has put the restoration on DVD, I really wanted to see this on the big screen and was not disappointed. The movie weaves together three time periods, each in its own style. Mishima’s life growing up in shown in black and white. His final day plays in color, detailing his carefully plotted attempt to rally a pro-emperor military coup and his infamous ritual suicide. Most beautiful of all are the scenes from three of his best-known works, “The Temple of the Golden Pavilion,” “Kyoko’s House” and “Runaway Horses.”

Schrader expertly weaves together Mishima’s biography and philosophy, creating a mesmerizing investigation of a body-building, hyper-nationalist, homosexual artist fixated on harmonizing life and art through suicidal glory. The soundtrack by Philip Glass is central to the mood, and feels perfectly at home with the themes of trance-like passion and transcendence. The theatrical staging of his novels, while confusing at first, melts into the spirit of the film and is ultimately more revealing about the author than the more strictly biographical segments. The sets for these vignettes are precisely geometric and richly color-coded islands in a sea of black.

Last year, Paul Schrader’s “The Walker” left me pretty unimpressed, so I’m glad this one restored my faith in him. I didn’t see “Adam Resurrected,” his latest film, when it played Friday night, but I’ll probably visit it on DVD. The only other directing work I’ve seen by Schrader is “Affliction” and “Light Sleeper,” neither of which stand out in my mind as great works. I suspect, therefore, that Schrader is getting this year’s SLIFF lifetime achievement award as much for his writings on and for cinema as for his directing. It’s interesting that SLIFF [almost] gave last year’s award to Peter Greenaway since the two are probably the most vocal directors when it comes to declaring the death of cinema. The film walrus does not agree.