Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hall of Strangeness Part XXXI

This is the final installment of the original Hall of Strangeness series. Written around my sophomore year of college, it was my first real foray into film reviewing. I started scribbling blurbs for my friends and family to try and get them excited about the strange and wonderful films that seemed to suddenly pour from the sky when I first started looking past the studio blockbuster roster. Though my scribbles are not always well-written or insightful (even after revising), I'm always happy when I hear that they've accomplished their purpose: sharing my excitement for the possibilities of cinema.

As an alphabetic list, the Hall of Strangeness allowed for less and less expansion as I gobbled up the remaining letters. Most of the potential new additions amongst films I've seen in the last three years have gotten full reviews or been left by the wayside. The Hall of Strangeness is a project I do intend to come back to one day, but for now I plan to retire it. I will probably start up a replacement series (also in the short format) soon.

I want to thank all the readers who found something of interest in these capsules of weirdness, and especially those hardy few who made it through all 155.

Weekend – (Jean-Luc Godard) A married couple on their way to kill their parents, are caught in the world’s worst traffic jam. Mere frustration and boredom eventually leads to mob rioting, revolution and cannibalism. Fictional characters wander out of literature in a chaos that builds to such extremes that the film itself seems on the verge of implosion. This controversial film marked Godard’s turning point from his highly-praised art house period into his less popular political phase.
Artistry: *** Fun: ** Strangeness: *****

Wild Zero – (Tetsuro Takeuchi) Motorcycle greaser and rock-star wannabe Ace falls in love when he accidentally foils a gas station robbery. Unfortunately, alien-summoned zombies attack and Ace will need all the help he can get to survive and reunite with his love. Coming to his aid is a war profiteering femme-fatale and Jet Rock superhero Guitar Wolf, who has problems of his own in the form of an eccentric, lecherous record exec. Ace is pushed to the limit by some revelations about life and love, but it isn’t anything that martial arts, electric guitar picks, bazookas and a katana can’t handle. DVD includes its own drinking game.
Artistry: ** Fun: ***** Strangeness: *****

Zardoz – (John Boorman) Sci-fi and the 70’s collide in a grisly car-wreck, resulting in such unpleasantries as Sean Connery with a ponytail and some painfully lame costumes. Things start out well with a giant stone head named Zardoz preaching the evils of the male reproductive organ and vomiting copious amounts of firearms as its suggested substitute. One of the violent primitives amongst its flock boards the head and rides it through an invisible wall to an eroding utopia where no one can die. After more weird, allegorical adventures than there is room to recount, a final showdown occurs inside a crystal.
Artistry: ** Fun: ** Strangeness: *****

A Zed and Two Noughts – (Peter Greenaway) A pair of twin zoologists start studying the evolution of life and the time-lapsed process of decay after their wives are killed in a swan-related car accident. Set to a minimalist Michael Nyman score and preoccupied with the alphabet, paraplegics and black and white animals. One of Greenaway’s finest and a personal favorite.
Artistry: ***** Fun: *** Strangeness: *****

Zentropa – (Lars Von Trier) A timid youth is caught in a series of plots and intrigues after taking a job as a train conductor, in this hypnotic post-noir thriller. He finds himself falling for the dangerous daughter of the railroad’s owner, who is being investigated for former Nazi ties. Riddle with disorientating visual effects and decadent cinematography.
Artistry: **** Fun: ** Strangeness: ***

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review of Possible Worlds

[Images: (Top) A window washer spies a corpse and (Bottom) a crime scene is cordoned off in the time-spanning fade that opens Robert Lepage’s heady SF mystery “Possible Worlds.”]

Inspector Berkley has had five murder cases recently, but the latest is a little different. There is no motive, no murder weapon and only a single item stolen: the victim’s brain.

The rightful owner of the brain is George Barber (Tom McCamus), a man who is sometimes a brilliant investment consultant; though it depends on which world you catch him in. George Barber is something of an exception; he shares a single consciousness across every version of himself in the infinite set of all possible worlds. He has trouble keeping track of which parallel universe he’s in, but stays fixated on the one constant that anchors him: his love for Joyce (Tilda Swinton), who is sometimes an aggressive corporate day-trader and sometimes a shy and withdrawn scientist. It isn’t clear which version of George Barber has been killed, or at what point in his timeline, or for what reason.

[Images: Character actress Tilda Swinton (Caravaggio, Teknolust) takes on multiple related roles as warm lover, tempestuous swinger and total stranger in the many world’s of George Barber. Reason to rejoyce, says I.]

“Possible Worlds” (2000) is a gorgeous, enigmatic sci-fi film with an inventive take on the parallel universes theme. It’s a surefire hit for SF intellectuals who prefer thought-provoking writing to glitzy special effects. The hipster crowd should take note, as this is perfect material for impressing your peers. It belongs on this generation’s short list of requisite cult SF, though it remains unduly obscure in the US. In Canada, where the film was made by talented director Robert Lepage, it was nominated for a Best Picture Genie.

While I’m here, let me put together what I think that list would look like (in alpha order):
1) Cube (also from Canada)
2) Dark City
3) Donnie Darko
4) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5) The Fountain
6) Pi
7) Possible Worlds
8) Primer
9) Save the Green Planet!
10) Solaris (2002 remake)

Much like the weather in my northern neighbor, “Possible Worlds” is awfully cold, especially for a love story. The film has a blue hue, an aquatic theme and a lot steel modernist architecture all contributing to an atmosphere of emotional distance and drifting humanity. The shallow focus cinematography wraps things in an uncertain haze, a fitting compliment to the shifting realities where relationships, encounters and emotions are always familiar, but never the same.

[Images: I bet the art director has a really clean house.]

Even the dialogue has a whimsical monotone, a little too heavy with coded portents, but cleverly woven into the film’s metaphysical themes. The script has bits of Becket thrown in and scraps of other abstract thinkers as well, and though the odd delivery can occasionally feel like a muddled mindgame, the top-notch cast smooths over the rough spots.

The emphasis on science, deduction and clinical detachment are doubtlessly influences from John Mighton, the mathematician who wrote the original play. He’s no bore though, and he’s clearly as interested in the energy of the imagination and the gravity of the heart as he is in philosophical set theory (from which the title comes). His penchant for deadpan comedy sneaks into dozens of memorable moments, including a absurdist linguistic episode where two men speak in a language of only three words (“slab,” “block,” and quite rarely, “hilarious”) and occasional exchanges between Inspector Berkley and his deputy, Williams.

Inspector Berkley: “Williams, suppose the man you were talking to were having an affair with the wife.”
Williams: “Yes.”
Berkley : “…and he killed the husband.”
Williams: “Yes.”
Berkley : “Why would he remove the victim’s brain?”
Williams: [Long Pause] …I have a few other leads.”

One of Lepage’s most impressive feats is the way he almost begs us to solve the mystery, leaking clues in every conversation, but also in the set design, associative editing and sound mixing. It culminates in a fine twist, one which is fair enough to be worked out by the viewer (though for the record, I was pretty late on unraveling it), without hinging the film’s satisfaction on the revelation. It’s the type of thing that needs to be seen twice, if only to catch all the hints, connections and misdirections.
[Images: What does it all have to do with a coffee machine, a sensory deprivation tank, parallel universes, eternal love and the weather? That’s a secret I won’t tell.]

[SPOILERS, this paragraph only] “Possible Worlds” uses a premise that has appeared elsewhere, specifically in “Open Your Eyes” (1997) and its American remake “Vanilla Sky” (2002). Both of those films, in turn, borrow many ideas exactly out of Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel “Ubik,” without attributing any credit. While “Ubik” is a fantastic novel and a deserving SF classic, neither of its cinematic progeny quite lives up to the potential. “Possible Worlds” was originally written in 1990 (predating the other two films) and with more diverse influences. It develops its ideas in different directions and provides what I consider to be the definitive take on the world-inside-the-mind concept. I would guess that Cameron Crowe was familiar with “Possible Worlds” when he made “Vanilla Sky,” considering the conspicuous cameo role (as an LE case worker) played by Tilda Swinton.

There is a lot to say about the film-craft in “Possible Worlds” if I were going to really cover the ethereal music, the graceful camera movements and the mismatched sequencing. Instead, I’d like to spend a little extra time just admiring the beauty of my favorite scene transition. It takes us from the new age art of Joyce’s apartment into one of George’s dream sequences:

[Images (from top to bottom): (1) A protruding sculpture-painting on Joyce’s wall seen from a side-angle. (2) As the camera pans, it begins to reveal itself as a perspective painting with multiple vanishing points. (3) Seen straight on, the illusion of receding vanishing points becomes complete. (4) Heralded by a thunder clap, the house from the painting springs into being as the dream begins. (5) George enters the cabin, where things will only get stranger.]

If you’re familiar with any of the other films in my modern-hipster SF list above, then you already have a reasonable idea of whether you will like this film or not. I give it a hearty thumbs up and am eager to start lending it around to friends (sadly, it is no available on Netflix, but it can be found easily on Amazon). The only reason why I haven’t already passed it on was that I wanted to take screenshots and I knew I wouldn’t be able to put it in my DVD drive without watching the entire thing again.

Walrus Rating: 9.5

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Cineplexity Board Game

When I’m not wasting my youth watching movies I often enjoy wasting it on videogames. I’ve been a proud gamer since my wee years and I’m convinced that, at their best, they represent the highest potential of art and entertainment. Some paragons have enough story to rival novels, design elements packed with inspiration and ingenuity and an interactive cinematic experience far beyond the limitations of the theater. Of course, most just involve shooting 12 trillion Nazi cyborgs, collecting a hundred of something arbitrary or clicking on jewels really fast.

If you dig through my archives to the early days, you’ll find [probably broken links to] a couple of videogame projects that I’ve programmed as hobbies. I also write the odd videogame review every once in a while, hosted on The Grump Factory.

I’m predominantly an offline gamer, but I still enjoy the mild social buzz of human contact and it finds an outlet in the related world of board games. I’m a diehard Eurogamer, preferring foreign imports with healthy doses of strategy, tactics and balance. Some of my favorites include Tigris and Euphrates, YINSH, Puerto Rico, Bug House (a four-player chess variant), Princes of Florence, Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan and Munchkin. I’ve recently been giving the zombie game Last Night on Earth a whirl.

Today I’m going to mention a newish (2007) board game, though since I haven’t bought or played it before, I won’t be doing an actual review. However, this one is probably a hell of a lot more fun than the last board game I reviewed.

Katie is the one who first told me about “Cineplexity,” a game by Out of the Box, the insanely successful creators of “Apples to Apples.” The idea is very simple: you flip two cards with things like settings, themes and actors and the first person who can name a movie with both elements wins a point. This concept has a lot of appeal for cinephiles like me, because I already play a simplified variant where people try to have relevant conversations with me and I keep saying things like, “That’s just like in Time Bandits,” or “If you like issuing speeding tickets so much, you should see Electra Glide in Blue.”

However, much like “Apples to Apples” the game is so simple there’s no reason to run yourself into the poorhouse by shelving out 25 bucks (an honestly very reasonable price). Katie and I have had a lot of DIY fun with a pack of index cards and a pen, creating our own Film-Walrus-skewed version of Cineplexity. We play our tailor-made copy without any real point system and with the only house rule that you can’t repeat any title until we’ve gone through the whole deck.

Aside from the usual genres, our deck has cards like Giallo, Eastern European, Iconic Hat, B-Movie, Memorable Mustache, Pretentiousness, Cast Against Type, Gorgeous Cinematography, Overt Symbolism, One-Word Titles, Directed by a Hack, Gore, Dream Sequence and Medical Thrills (along with their Psychological, Corporate, Legal and Erotic cousins). We’ve also thrown in a bunch of meta cards like “Embarrassed to have seen,” “Must start with the same letter as the last movie named,” “Can quote from memory,” “Must be able to name at least three cast members” and “Sounds like a porn title” (an admittedly debatable qualification).

For all I know some of these may already be part of the store-version Cineplexity. It has a truly impressive 500+ card deck, whereas my homemade edition runs just over 130.The game has gotten mixed reviews, but I’m sure it’s worthwhile for any fun-loving film ring out there. Its entertaining, scales easily with time and has all the social, interactive, creative, trivia-based and conversation-starting attributes that Amerigamers love and I usually scoff at (though not in this case). If anyone has already checked this out, or does so in the future, let me know if I should buy in.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Review of Marketa Lazarova

“Marketa Lazarova” (1967) is not your friendly neighborhood historical epic. Merchant and Ivory this is not. Nor is this some self-congratulatory cast-of-CG-millions Hollywood spectacle a la “Alexander” or “Troy.” Chivalry and swashbuckling are not on the menu. Nor should you expect to meet any valiant gleaming knights, wizened patriarchal kings, wise-cracking jesters, kindly innkeepers or castle-bound princesses. This is medieval wilderness in all its primitive violence. “Marketa Lazarova” is about putting the darkness back into the Dark Ages.

More specifically, “Marketa Lazarova” is about the desperate struggle for survival amongst the bloody savagery of the 13th century. Bitter cold wraps the hot-tempered villainy, violence and vengeance that plague the land, and even when the snow thaws, there’s little but marshland and roving wolves to look forward to.

[Images: Motes of humanity on the uncaring canvas of nature.]

Kozlik, the scarred and brutish leader of a tightly-packed clan, presides over an insignificant corner of his lord’s uninviting kingdom. After his sons, Mikolas and Adam, massacre a royal caravan and kidnap Kristian, a young bishop, the king sends an army to extinguish the remorseless upstarts. Meanwhile, Mikolas seeks the aid of his neighbor, Lazar, to set up an ambush, but he is repelled by the scheming coward and almost killed. He returns for vengeance, claiming Lazar’s beautiful daughter Marketa for his own rather than allowing her to enter a convent.

[Images (from top to bottom): Kozlik, Mikolas and Marketa.]

Czech director Frantisek Vlacil adapted Vladislav Vancura’s novel to the screen with an unparalleled respect for the era, spitting in the eye of the quaint “costume dramas” that had come before. Vlacil took his cast into the woods, where they spent two years building their sets without modern tools, hunting for food and learning to live by their most primitive instincts. Composer Zdenek Liska created his own instruments from local natural resources and put together an overwhelming score that relies heavily on vocally chilling chants and hymns.

The characters speak in the ragged stripped-down dialect of the time (which Vlacil painstakingly researched) with the minimal dialogue often strangely displaced or overtaken by the eerie emptiness of the terrain (stretched wide like an ominous tapestry by the scope ratio). Most of the main roles are played with the stoic muteness of predator and prey. The two most talkative characters are unreliable and/or insane: Katerina, an ancient witch whose prophecies are more the product of bitterness and senility than foreknowledge or insight, and Bernard a wandering shepherd-monk who mutters prayer-raving and generally spies on the escalating action from the outside.

Bernard may be the closest thing to comic relief, though probably not in the way that involves laughter. At one point the narrator, briefly addressing him directly as the voice of god, chastises him for living in sin with his lonely lamb. Even in his deepest misery, cradling the severed head of his woolen companion only to trip and send it bouncing down a hillside, there is a pinch of absurd humor. His luckless lot is inextricably tied to the warring factions of the swampy hinterlands, though he is rarely directly involved.

[Image: Bernard hugging his sheep’s head outside of Kozlik’s stockade.]

Vlacil uses Bernard and other (usually minor) characters to give the story a grounded POV perspective. The fragmented, unprivileged viewpoints provide an alternative to the traditional history styles of “legendary tale” omniscience or hero-driven character access. This technique is reinforced by the visual motif of peering eyes, watching the tragedy with apprehension and fear. The gaze is less the curiosity of the voyeur than the wariness of the hunter. Vlacil wants us to participate in the unmediated impulses of the eyes and ears, without eloquence or fanfare.

[Images: Peering eyes in the ocean of underbrush.]
From a cinematography standpoint, this provides a chance to slip in a lot of unusual compositions. For instance, there are more obstructions in front of Vlacil’s camera than we are used to, with the viewers forced into peaking through and around objects much like the characters. We stalk their movements, moving in jerky, frantic bursts only to come to rest on expertly framed images that were awaiting us all the time.

At different times Vlacil’s visuals recall so many other great directors (Kurosawa’s textures, Bergman’s existential mysticism, Brynych’s unstable perfectionism, Parajanov’s spiritual surrealism, Tarkovsky’s heavy lyricism, Welles’s depth and density) that I’m paradoxically convinced of his essential distinctiveness. The stunning breath and scope of his imagery may benefit from a wealth of influences, but to deploy them so majestically within a story so devoid of grandeur is a balancing act no other auteur has achieved.

[Images: Despite the variety and complexity of Vlacil’s visual playbook, the film has a seamless wholeness unlike anything in today’s hip borrow-anything post-modernism.]

I think part of Vlacil’s effectiveness comes from his ability to break down our conventional ideas of conceiving beauty and imagining the past. Most directors learn to find the beauty in a subject (a landscape, face, etc.) by idealizing it from a human perspective, but Vlacil instead brings out the traces of nature’s impact: the overgrowth, grit and scars. By refusing to elevate man above nature, he consigns his characters to be overwhelmed by their environment. They must fight tooth and nail for dominance, against the elements and each other.

The female characters, Alexandra (Mikolas’s sister) and Marketa, present versions of romance and religion utterly foreign to modern audiences. Alexandra chooses her lovers with silent unflinching conviction and no regard for social conventions: her brother and the captured bishop are not off limits. Marketa, initially raped by Mikolas after he kills her father, eventually falls deeply in love with him and weds him on his deathbed. These relationships are not condemned by the narrator or director. Neither are Alexandra’s wild pagan rites or Marketa’s coldly pious Christianity shown any favoritism one way or the other. Vacliv declines to project the future onto the past, to judge their world with hindsight.

The strangeness of seeing the past unfettered by our usual assumptions is rather disorientating. In fact, my one main problem* with “Marketa Lazarova” was that I found it so confusing on first viewing. It has a steep learning curve, made especially difficult by the ensemble cast and shuffled editing. Jumps into the past and future upset the timeline, changing POVs transfer our perspective and dreams and visions intrude upon reality. The chapter intertitles occasionally help, laying out the main events that are about to occur, but they often seem to taunt us with misdirection and irrelevancies. I found a second viewing was required to fit everything into place and I highly recommend reading a plot summary directly before your first time.

Despite its inaccessibility, few who find a path into its world would question “Marketa Lazarova’s” status as a daring masterpiece. A 1998 poll in the Czech Republic named it as the greatest Czech film ever made, though it remains virtually unknown in the states (where it has never aired on TV and is not available on any format). Second Run distributes the DVD for the UK market (region-free PAL), and I recommend anyone with an interest in medieval culture or Czech cinema make arrangements to import it. Check out Kinoblog's excellent review of the film/DVD if you are interested.

Walrus Rating: 9.5

*I can actually think of another non-negligible flaw with the film: the title. I’m unconvinced that Marketa’s character occupies the central core of the story in terms of either plot or theme, and it does nothing to draw in the uninitiated.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Three Rants

Not being in a very spritely mood recently, for reasons that will become obvious in one of the anecdotes below, I’ve decided to bring you three shameless rants for the price of one. Though the films are unrelated, the ravings go nicely together because they are shorter, more personal and more experimental than my usual negative reviews. The first two didn’t even start out as intentional rants.

I don’t like to dwell on the negative too often, but it can be quite therapeutic. You might say a threefer seems a bit excessive for a mere cleansing vent, but today I don’t just want to whine; I want to wallow.

Rant #1: “Three Brothers” (1981) by Francesco Rosi

Sometimes I like to pretend that I get to write the plot summaries on the back of DVDs. It took me several tries to mentally prepare a complete description of “Three Brothers,” fully articulating the contemplative tone and deep themes that theoretically sell indie-foreign titles. I was dissatisfied with my final draft. Eventually it struck me that an unedited transcript of my first attempt was more succinct and would actually be more helpful to anyone who was considering purchasing the film. Here it is:

“Three Italian brothers who have led symbolically divergent lives attempt to reunite at their ancestral home after the death of their mother. Familial bonds and politics mix freely in this – zzzzz… zzzzZZZZzzz…”

Rant #2: “Sense and Sensibility” (1995) by Ang Lee

Like many film bloggers who take their hobby too far, I often scribble notes during viewings to help jog my memory when I get around to writing the review. Typically I mark down the exact time of screenshots I want to go back and capture later on my PC, the names of characters (which I forget instantly otherwise) and all the styles, themes and interesting scenes that I might want to bring up. My notes while watching “Sense and Sensibility” look a little different than usual:

Rant #3: “Transformers” (2007) by Michael Bay

Last week, as part of my still-ongoing spell of sci-fi gluttony, I made the mistake of renting “Transformers” from the library. The film sent me into sputtering conniption fits of the magnitude I usually reserve for road rage homicide or the news that UPS accidently delivered a package of fire to my house instead of “Burn!” (1969), like I ordered.

While sinking into the type of minor existential crisis I am fond of, I managed to turn myself towards the silent heavens and ask, “Could there be any experience worse than watching Transformers?” “Could a more excruciating piece of crap even be made?”

No one particularly celestial was listening, but Satan’s ears must have been straining in my direction because he rose to my inadvertent challenge. With his typical flair for dramatic irony and intentional misinterpretation, he (along with a genetic proclivity and a mediocre diet) arranged that I should be the very creator of the more excruciating piece of crap, in the form of four simultaneous kidney stones.

On Wednesday Katie and I hired a team of assassin-urologists to smoke out the offenders with a barrage of ultrasonic waves, but a cadre of vengeance-bent survivors arranged an ambush for me where the pass narrows. A few hours after leaving the hospital I was vomiting with pain, a state I stayed in for several hours while the ER took their sweet time procuring morphine. Work and recreation plans for the week evaporated while I moaned and flopped around on a lumpy hospital bed, until a stent could be rammed up my ureter a few days later.

Which brings us to today. I guess you could say the devil won this round, punishing me in fine Greek-tragedy style for the crime of rash hyperbole in film criticism. And yet, as I piss yet another liter of blood through my stinging genitals, I can’t help thinking that “Transformers” is still worse.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Review of Berlin Alexanderplatz

In November of 2007, Criterion released “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (1980) on DVD. It took me until recently to finish it. This is largely because the film is 15 ½ hours long, easily the longest movie I’ve ever seen. Does it still count as a film at such a length? Well it did get a theatrical distribution, though it is better known as a mini-series and mostly consists of hour-long “chapters” (like television episodes) that have their own titles and credit sequences. Struggling through to the bitter end got me thinking about movie runtimes and how length affects the viewing experience.

“Berlin Alexanderplatz” is based on the work of the same name by Alfred Doblin, a Joyce-style modernist novel once declared unfilmable. It was directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, icon of the New German Cinema movement, who considered it his crowning masterpiece. It was well received by critics in the early 1980’s and the Criterion release generated much excitement and praise. As a huge fan of Fassbinder’s BRD trilogy (which was also granted a stunning Criterion transfer) and a moderate follower of some of his other works, I decided that a viewing would be worth the commitment.

The story follows Franz Biberkopf (Gunter Lamprecht) beginning with his release from jail for manslaughter. Biberkopf vows not to return to the life of crime that first doomed him, but finds life in the economically depressed Weimar Republic to be harsh and depressing. He tries to stifle his loneliness with a procession of women, an abundance of alcohol, an ill-considered flirtation with Nazi politics and the dubious company of the criminals that haunt his favorite bar. None of this heals his damaged psyche and crippled emotions or fixes the underlying factors driving his downward spiral: poverty and unemployment. Occasional odd jobs and fleeting loves prove only temporary tourniquets for his misery.

After a few breakdowns and betrayals, Biberkopf finds himself aiding a heist and loses an arm in the ensuing chase. Though the lost limb is no help to his circumstances, the worse consequence is his striking up a friendship with Reinhold Hoffmann, one of the robbers, who secretly hates him bitterly and draws him into pimping. He is temporarily saved by the introduction of Mietze, a prostitute whose adoration for Franz knows no reason. However, his increased dependency on Mietze for unconditional understanding and love only positions him for a final fall. When she is murdered in a gorgeous forest, Biberkopf plunges headlong into madness.

Gunter Lamprecht’s performance holds the whole film together, occupying the screen in almost every shot of this titanic personal epic. He performs amazingly given the difficultly of the part, which includes hiding an arm for more than half the film, bursting with anger and frustration at intervals and spouting cryptic monologues while staring into space; all tasks that might be unrewarding and obnoxious in the hands of a less talented actor. The supporting cast isn’t too many notches behind, though they slip into the same narrative holding patterns so often that, even with the abundant screen time, they feel underdeveloped and incomplete.

Unfortunately, my praise for the film stops with Lamprecht. Fassbinder’s direction, while daring, turns the biography into a sluggish self-conscious death march. He turns to the Brechtian techniques that often make his work so intriguing and indelible, but exhausts them until they seem trite, pointless and painful. Occasionally throwing text onto the screen (usually quotes from the book) is one of the most obvious, and actually one of the most palatable examples (leading me to believe the book is pretty decent). The worst decision, rendering the film nearly unwatchable for someone like me, is an unremitting reliance on repetition.

Repetition is a killer. It was a lesson I wasn’t always willing to accept when my film professors drove it in, but I’ve since converted. I frequently find it at the root of problems with pacing, script, narrative progression, visual dynamism, interest, excitement, shock, etc. Fassbinder, for either thematic or budgetary reasons, absolutely exalts in it. Flashbacks, camera positions, locations, lines of dialogue, sounds, music, characters and situations all repeat with maddening insistence. Sometimes there is a façade of change, as with the rotation of female characters leading up to the entrance of Mietze, except that they all look the same, act the same and fulfill the same interchangeable purpose in the story. Even the themes get hammered home far too often, like an amateur essayist who thinks restating his thesis is the same as supporting it.

I generally welcome the related Brechtian themes of lack of progress and the inability of protagonists to overcome their obstacles. These concepts are often gutsy, powerful and admirably realistic in an industry that overvalues shallow victories and happy endings. But while I find such avant-garde ideas fascinating at 100 minutes, they are monotonous lessons at 931.

The unquestionable inevitability of Biberkopf’s decline makes all the minor ups and downs in the narrative blur together. The primary reliance on a half dozen relatively sparse sets prevents the viewer from escaping into visual appreciation, though Fassbinder’s camera movement and framing occasionally (not nearly often enough) revive the limited lifespan of the art direction.

Perhaps it’s just me. I know length impacts my taste. I don’t like very many television shows, for instance. One of my main complaints is the amount of filler. Most television shows have to cater to an audience that may be tuning in, possibly for the first time, at any moment. This means that personality traits, character allegiances, back-stories, major plot points, long-term goals, unusual constraints, over-arching themes and important locations have to be constantly reasserted to keep everyone up to speed. In general, the longer a show runs the more baggage it has to carry around and re-explain. Meanwhile, the original ideas and exciting freshness move in the opposite direction, ultimately reducing the viewing experience to character attachment, nostalgia and momentum.

I don’t mind a long film, but I like it to be lean. I even enjoy slow films (efficiency doesn’t necessarily mean rapid pace or dense story), if I’m given a healthy diet of food for thought, eye candy or artistic treats of other varieties. Efficiency is a virtue that can be exercised on any terrain, even in the company of minimalism, grandiosity, realism, poetics, character development or narrative progress.

What I don’t like is inefficiency, waste and repetition. The romantic subplot that exists for no other reason than that marketers think every film needs one. The phone conversation where the listener parrots every word for the benefit of the audience. The oft-repeated line trying to become a memorable catchphrase. The joke that occurs three times with a “surprising” twist on the third iteration. The dialogue that fills in backstory better left implied or gradually revealed. The cuts that serve no purpose except to stimulate the optical nerve. The shots that have no beauty, depth or style, but ensure that we are always looking at THE ONE MAIN THING important to the story. The music that forces an emotion that should be earned and self-evident.

Add length to that equation and it only gets worse. But then “add” isn’t the right word. Length, for me, is a multiplier. If a bad film takes up 90 minutes, that’s a missed opportunity to run some errands, or maybe go out for a nice dinner. It’s a minor offense; an artistic misdemeanor. If a bad film wears on for three hours, that’s a crime. It’s the murder of a whole evening.

“Berlin Alexanderplatz” isn’t terrible, but at 15+ hours mediocrity becomes pretty insufferable. If I was just tallying the highlights, I’d have to give the film a reasonably high score. I think many reviewers operate on that principle: that the sum of the best parts yields the value of the whole. In my mind, you have to divide the merits by the runtime and distribute it over the resources they had available. That might seem harsh for filmmakers. It asks them to maintain a high level of quality on every inch of film stock. It asks them to do more than throw money at the audience. I think it’s a fair demand.

Of course, you can take things too far in the opposite direction. There is no shortage of films that have been butchered on the editing table to meet that wholly artificial 2 hour cap. Hence the frequency of director’s cuts on DVDs that [usually] make films smoother, richer or more deeply felt. It’s a tough balance. It takes real talent to hone a film to its ideal state.

I think “Berlin Alexanderplatz” could have made a great film if Fassbinder had been constrained to a fraction of the time. The final 112 minute epilogue, for instance, makes a very decent standalone film. It's set mostly inside of Biberkopf’s crazed mind, with a compact barrage of surreal imagery and enough flashbacks and back-references to allow the audience to figure out the key events that tore apart his sanity.

Still, I think Fassbinder knew what he was doing. He made the film he wanted to make. The decisions about what to ship and what to snip belong, rightfully, to him and his editor (I’d make an awful producer!). Watching the whole thing just didn’t pay off for me and I can’t recommend it for others.

Walrus Rating: 4.5

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Hall of Strangeness Part XXX

Versus – (Ryuhei Kitamura) A reincarnated samurai turned yakuza thug, escapes from jail to meet up with his aggressive gang in the aptly named “Forest of Resurrection”. When a dispute occurs over a kidnapped girl, one of the flunkies gets killed and quickly returns as a zombie. That’s when it occurs to the rest of the gang that they’ve been burying hits in the woods for years. The plot is mostly an excuse for an endless series of battles involving samurai, gangsters, zombies, vampires, government agents and demon lords to name a few. Exhausting.
Artistry: ** Fun: **** Strangeness: ***

Videodrome – (David Cronenberg) Arguably Cronenberg’s best film, Videodrome features a sleazy television producer looking for the edgiest show he can find. After viewing a torture scene on pirate satellite, he sets out on a trail that eventually leads him to media tycoon Brian O’Blivion, who only appears to the public via television. Our hero gets more than he bargained for when he begins to experience disturbing hallucinations and spontaneous mutations. James Wood and Deborah Harry (Blondie) star.
Artistry: **** Fun: **** Strangeness: ****

Walker – (Alex Cox) The historical story of William Walker (played with crazed intensity by Ed Harris), an American manifest destiny warlord who brought despotic “democracy” to Nicaragua when he conquered the country in the 1850’s, is given shocking, satiric and exuberant treatment in Cox’s (Repo Man) visionary dip into studio funding. Cox’s searing political agenda (the parallels to Reagan era politics are spelled out in the credits) and rule-breaking violations of historical fact (including intrusions by cars, computers and a helicopter) ensured that critics and audiences were baffled and outraged, while the studio system turned their back on him forever. For the open-minded, however, Walker’s blood-drenched surrealism, inspired musical score and Harris’s majestic depiction of madness are unforgettable treats.
Artistry: **** Fun: *** Strangeness: ****

Warning Shadows – (Arthur Robinson) A jealous husband, his flirtatious wife, four smirking male admirers and an unkempt shadow-puppet wizard all gather for a life-altering dinner in this rarely watched work of German Expressionism. After observing the sexual tension in the room, the puppeteer puts on a show, enchanting his hosts and awakening their shadows to act out the tragedy they are about to undergo. German Expressionism’s love affair with shadows reaches its peak in this film, benefitting from Robinson’s decision to work purely with visuals (silent, with no intertitles).
Artistry: *** Fun: ** Strangeness: ***

Waxworks – (Paul Leni) A poet is assigned the task of writing stories for the macabre denizens of a wax museum, and so he immerses himself in three imaginative tales featuring the Caliph of Baghdad, Ivan the Terrible and Jack the Ripper. This silent anthology features an all-star German Expressionism cast that includes Emil Janning (The Blue Angel, The Last Laugh), Conrad Veidt (The Hands of Orlac, The Man Who Laughs ), Werner Krauss (Dr. Caligari himself) and William Dieterle (director of The Devil and Daniel Webster and Sex in Chains).
Artistry: *** Fun: ** Strangeness: ***

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Review of Perversion Story

[Images: Jean Sorel stares blankly while Lucio Fulci’s camerawork does the expressivity.]

It’s almost embarrassing to admit (in giallo circles) that I’m not a huge fan of Lucio Fulci’s gore. It’s not that his maggoty make-up and crimson syrup are poorly sculpted, oozed or splattered, per se, but something about the way he films his money-shots. He goes after his effects so directly and shoves our face into his work so unceremoniously. There is very little coyness; no playful dancing in and out of shadow as the full horror gradually unfolds. A cut-in to a close-up, or more likely a zoom, too often trades tension for revulsion.

As a reviewer who is addicted to horror, but remains fairly uninterested in shock value, I find Fulci’s zombie movies to be consistently less rewarding than his giallo work. His imagination is wasted trying gross me out. Where his creative genius really shines, in my mind, is not in the gore itself, but in the absurd situations and macabre contrivances that bring about such grotesque mayhem. There is something cleverly humorous, horrifying and audaciousness in his best scenes. “Zombi 2,” for instance, is an ugly and bumbling film that fans claim is redeemed by its impressive zombie make-up and vigorous violence. The moments I find compelling are the near-whimsical boldness of the underwater swimmer-zombie-shark battle and the hilariously mellow “assault” by ranks of skeletal conquistadors.

I say all this first to make it understandable why Fulci’s “Perversion Story” (1969) is right up my alley. It predates most of his famous horror work and focuses primarily on the mystery plot and character development. There are only a couple of murders and they are both very near the end. Fulci still suffers from pacing stinginess, refusing to give us any real satisfaction until he is ready to unleash the storm of final twists, but his steady psychological approach makes us care for his characters far more than in his later films.

George Dumurrier (Jean Sorel of “Short Night of the Glass Dolls “ and “Lizard in a Woman’s Skin”) is married to Susan (Marissa Mell of “Danger: Diabolik” and “Seven Blood-Stained Orchids”), though he spends most of his time running a medical clinic. Susan feels neglected and considers her marriage a failure. George agrees, secretly wishing to openly pursue his long-time mistress, Jane, but unwilling to abandon his wife while her health is poor. It seems providence has done him a service when she dies, but his new-found bachelorhood is soon turned upside-down when he encounters a stripper who looks strikingly similar to his late wife.
[Image: (from left to right) Susan Dumurrier, a slightly larger Susan Dumurrier and look-alike stripper Monica Weston.]

The film is clearly an attempt to do “Vertigo” as a giallo (set, as usual, amid the decadent fashion industry) , with a little extra sex thrown in for good measure. The talented team of Sorel & Mell actually pulls it off, their contrasting personalities making the prolonged state of confusion and frequent errands down blind alleys more bearable. Sorel’s character gets to go further into Freudian territory than Jimmy Stewart’s, with his red light district rendezvous leaving him unsure whether he is desecrating or reliving his wife’s memory.
Meanwhile, Marissa Mell weaves together a femme fatale whose off-the-cuff sexuality and seeming simplicity keep us unsure even as the evidence points undeniably towards foul play.

[Image: I’m hoping this performance piece is satire, because it’s scary to think this might be an image from someone’s actual sexual fantasy. My favorite outrageous outfit from the film? A pair of black gloves being used as pasties. Sadly, I couldn’t get a PG-13 screenshot.]

Lacking a herd of character ripe for the slaughter or any appetizer subplots to tie us over, the bulk of “Perversion Story” is slow even by giallo standards. Hanging out in front of the screen while Fulci sets up all the clues that will fall into place in the final act is a bit like trying to pretend you aren’t aware of the preparations going on for your own surprise party.

When we finally get to the scene where the villain reveals how the show was run, the film picks up. The evil plan itself might be plain ridiculous (or perhaps just meticulous), but the delivery is so clearly relished by the writer-director that the audience can’t help but share his enthusiasm. The ending twist is obvious enough (if you’ve seen “Vertigo” and/or any giallo ever), but there is genuine tension in the death-row finale and delicious irony in the final few minutes. It’s a touch of good drama where I was expecting a by-the-books final chase/battle, and the change of pace left me grateful.

The style definitely anticipates future giallo excess, which I’ll simply point out in the following screenshots:
[Image: Some intense deep focus, possibly matted, with eye lines (both directed and vague) used to convey meaning. I love the way the candlesticks add additional theatrics to Mrs. Dumurrier’s already elaborately staged framing.]

[Image: Lombard Street (also known as “that famous curvy street in San Francisco”) demonstrates the trusty giallo penchant for memorable settings, while also further connecting us to “Vertigo.”]

[Image: Color and camera placement designed intentionally to turn the mundane lurid.]

[Image: Oh, and before I forget: there is a brief moment of Fulci‘s classical rotting corpse antics. You can’t blame the man for a little indulgence.]

There may not be any trench-coated killers with black gloves and festering childhood traumas, but “Perversion Story” does have one thing most giallo’s don’t: five-way split-screen. And who doesn’t love that?

[Images: Sophisticated science and steamy eroticism; two things that movie-makers everywhere agree are best conveyed by a lot of random, disjointed angles.]

Walrus Rating: 5.5