Sunday, November 27, 2016

Black Mirror (San Junipero)

San Junipero is the fourth episode in series three of Black Mirror.  This program strikes so close to integral aspects of human desire as to be very hard to watch at times.  There are no disturbing images in the program and nothing frightening or disgusting.  But the basic theme will, I think, come too close for comfort -- at least, this was my impression.

A shy young woman enters a bar in a seaside town called San Junipeo.  It seems to be around 1986 -- the movie theater is showing The Lost Boys and, in a store, we see a display of TVs on which Max Headroom appears.  The young woman meets another girl who is fleeing an obnoxious ex-lover.  This girl, who is Black, invites the shy young woman to sit with her to repel the boy.  The two women are attracted to one another and the Black girl, dressed in the fashion of Prince's Apollonia in Purple Rain, makes a sexual pass.   The shy girl retreats but is obviously intrigued. A week later, she returns to the bar and finds the Black woman and they drive out of town to a lavish beach front house where they have sex.  It is the shy girl's first sexual encounter.  A week later, the shy girl looks for her lover but can't find her.  She returns week after week to San Junipero, a gorgeous-looking resort, but can't find the other woman.  She even goes out to a place called The Quagmire, a BDSM bar next to an oil refinery spouting hell-fire.  But she can't find her lover there either. Someone suggests to her that she try other times.  This is the first moment in which we sense that there is something peculiar about San Junipero, something uncanny other than the town's majestic beauty, nestled in mountains next to a turbulent southern sea.  (The film was shot in South Africa.)   A week later -- and each trip to San Junipero occurs at weekly intervals -- the shy girl goes to San Junipero in 1970.  We know the era by the movie showing in the theater, by the clothing and hairstyles, by the music in the disco, and by the type of video games in the bars.  She doesn't find her lover in 1970.  She comes back to San Junipero in 1996, but, also, can't find the Black girl.  Finally, she meets her in 2002.  The Black girl says that she doesn't want a permanent relationship because she was married for a long time and wants to honor the memory of that marriage.  There is a fight and the shy girl climbs up onto a building, perhaps, threatening suicide.  The Black girl ascends to sit next to her on the cornice of the theater.  They talk about the people in the street below and the Black girl speculates that, at least, 80% of them are dead.  Then, they agree that they will meet in their real lives. 

If spoilers bother you, stop reading here.

We learn that both women are elderly and suffering from dementia.  As therapy, the women have been equipped with a memory stick inserted into their skulls and, once a week, the computer stimulates their brains to imagine that they are young again, sexually active, on the prowl in bars looking for lovers in the fictional San Junipero.  (This is a variant on nostalgia therapy now practiced at memory care centers with Alzheimer's patients.)  When you die, you may elect to have the memory stick permanently implanted in the computer simulation (or virtual reality) of San Junipero.  As it happens, the African-American woman was married for 41 years.  After a rich life, the woman's husband died and, because he was religious, refused to "pass over" into the computer simulation, preferring, presumably, the promise of Christian Heaven.  His widow feels guilty that she is not willing to gamble on Jesus and Heaven and, instead, is inclined to opt for San Junipero.  The shy woman is a lesbian who came-out to her religious family when she was 21, was rejected by them, and became quadriplegic after a car crash -- she was paralyzed before she could have sex.  The emotional charge contained in San Junipero's final ten minutes is overwhelming.  The fundamental question is whether the African-American woman will elect to join her husband in Heaven or decide to "pass-over" into San Junipero. 

This issues raised by this show are central, heart-breaking, and almost unbearably poignant.  Christianity insists upon the "resurrection of the body" -- we say this every Sunday in the Apostle's Creed.  Hence, there is a sense, even in Christianity, that no good life is possible without the pleasures of the flesh.  Thus, in Heaven we will be restored to our bodies.  But what bodies?  The decrepit flesh of our old age or the vibrant, sexually energized bodies of our youth?  If you could live forever in a wild night chasing through bars full of beautiful people and, then, at last finding the perfect one, would you want this?  Don't think about these things too much or your eyes will  brim with tears and, for a time, you will be unable to go forward. 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and where to find them

The latest installment in the capacious Harry Potter franchise, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016, David Yates) is author J. K. Rowlings' first venture into screenwriting.  The film is likeable but conflicted:   Rowlings doesn't know exactly how dark to make the picture and, so, there are really two movies uneasily combined into one.  The first film is whimsy -- a young wizard named Newt Scamander arrives in New York City in 1926 with a valise full of magical beasts.  Some of the beasts are cute; others are scary as that term might be employed by a nine-year old child.  The beasts escape and run amok in Manhattan with various comical consequences -- about half of the film chronicles Scamander's attempt to corral the unruly beasts and return them to his suitcase.  In this effort, he has the help of a practical, down-to-earth girl witch and a Muggle (inexplicably called "Non-Mages" in this film), a plump and cheerful baker called Kozlowski.  This team is amusing and their byplay appealing and this part of the film is wildly inventive and by far the best part of the picture.  The second plot entangled with this first, whimsical story is much darker:  a cruel woman is trying to stir up hatred between the wizards and ordinary mortals.  She has a 12 foster children some of whom seem to have magical powers that she is trying to beat out of them.  There are all sorts of sinister edges to this story, a kind of allegory about self-loathing and racial bigotry.  The cruel woman has a servile son who seems to be just about the her age -- she leads him around with a dog leash that apparently doubles as a lash.  (Because the woman, who is supposed to be the boy's mother, seems to be about the same age as her slave, the relationship between the two has a sickly sado-masochistic edge.)  The servile young man has suppressed his wizardry, creating a kind of ferocious, deadly id called an Obscurus.  Yeats used the term "fabulous, formless darkness" and the Obscurus has this nature -- it's a kind of hairy darkness, a combination of a mass of writhing snakes and black worms and animate pubic hair.  From a Freudian perspective, it's pretty clear what this medusa-like Obscurus symbolizes -- it appears to be some kind of mother-monster, a horror that correlates to female genitalia, the "fabulous, formless darkness" that men can see but that they can't quite understand or imaginatively visualize.  As one might expect, the Obscurus gets loose and wreaks massive havoc before being repressed once more -- we see a whiff of it escaping, presumably into a sequel.  The Obscurus is vanquished, not surprisingly, by an overtly phallic monster -- a kind of winged snake, or Quetzalcoatl beast that has the capability of engorging itself to "fill any space in which it is confined."  When we see the winged snake battling the maternal Obscurus, it has a twin tale that looks surprisingly like testicles dangling down from the bird's phallic breast and beak (or pecker).  The snake defeats the animate female mons veneris and, then, the wizards have to impose "obliviation" -- the film's term for repression into the sub- or unconscious -- on the populace of New York.  The phallic snake penetrates a cloud, and like the Father God, Zeus, throws thunderbolts causing rain to fall.  The rain symbolizes repression -- when it touches the bodies of the non-Mages, they can no longer recall the cosmic battle between animated genitalia that took place in their city.  This second story, sutured to the cheery beast fables of the first narrative, is far more formulaic and involves much tedious hurling of bodies across space.  There is even a subtext about an evil sorcerer concealing himself in Colin Farrell, the leader of the wizards -- guess who he contains?  Johnny Depp in pancake make-up.  The movie's special effects are brilliantly achieved and the characters are picturesque -- Kozlowski's aborted romance with a beautiful blonde flapper witch is touching in its own way.  (Ron Perlman has a wonderful cameo as a nasty gangster troll who runs a speakeasy).  The film recreates New York City in 1926 with spectacular and pointless fidelity and each shot swarms with interesting background details.  The female leader of the witches and wizards seems to be Jennifer Lopez, although, in fact, the role is played by the British actress who played Martin Luther King's wife in Selma.  It's a reasonably entertaining film but too long by a half-hour and utterly forgettable except for the unintentional Freudian imagery that bursts forth toward the end of the film.  No doubt, Rowlings is concealing great and awful abysses in her work -- she has a toxic imagination, it seems, and I would like to see her draft a horror movie for adults.   


Arrival (2016) confirms my view that Denis Villeneuve is one of the most interesting directors working today.  Villeneuve makes moody, even austere, art house films employing big name Hollywood actors in pictures that exploit genre conventions while subtly undermining audience expectations.  Prisoners was a crime film with a revenge plot that undercut the notion of revenge; Sicario was a morose thriller that applies the logic of a play by Samuel Beckett to the war against drugs.  Arrival is a science fiction film about first contact with intelligent beings that embraces all the clichés of such movies -- it's like The Day the Earth Stood Still updated to the age of Trump that ends up some place wholly unexpected although in a way that is logically (and, even, schematically) developed.  It's an excellent film, although, perhaps, a bit too gloomy for most people's taste.  The audience with me in Austin, Minnesota where I saw the film was clearly baffled by it and left the theater muttering that they didn't exactly know what had happened -- the viewer keeps waiting for violent special effects and some sort of cataclysm but what happens is strangely anti-climactic, a curiously philosophical denouement that is moving, but pictorially flat, intentionally unimpressive. 

Vast black spaceships that look something like bisected watermelon seeds on a colossal scale have appeared at 12 locations on earth.  The space ships hover over cities and vacant wasteland and no one can figure out what they want.  A female linguistics professor, played by Amy Adams without make-up and with no gesture toward any kind of glamor, is drafted by the military to communicate with the aliens.  She is taken by helicopter to a remote valley in Montana where one of the 1500 foot long space-ships is hovering next to an impromptu military base.  There she encounters the aliens in their ship and, ultimately, deciphers their system of writing.  The various nations encountering the aliens become increasingly fearful -- the bad faith of colonialism hangs over the more developed countries and they hypothesize that the space-men have come to spread dissension in the world, to get the nations to war with one another and, in that fashion, conquer the planet.  The fragile alliance of military men and scientists from different nations dissolves into paranoia and, it seems, that China and Russia are about to attack the space-ships and trigger a war with the aliens.  Things are not helped by right-wing media ala Fox Network stirring up viewers -- some disgruntled GIs put a bomb in the throat of the Montana space-ship, detonating it and killing one of the two aliens in the vessel.  Everything is poised on the brink of an international crisis and blood-bath when the potential conflict is suddenly and decisively defused by the heroine's actions.  Averting war is much less dramatic than commencing a war and, so, the film's climax is a little bit disproportionate to the astonishing visuals that precede it -- the heroine makes a cell phone call from a kind of decontamination chamber and the threat of holocaust dissolves.  Intercut with this story are scenes showing Amy Adams with her daughter, a beautiful child that we learn has died as a teenager. 

Arrival is visually impressive, although everything seems calculated to be darker, less bright and colorful, and stranger, than an audience would likely expect.  Adams is a teacher and the aliens arrive while she is standing in front of an empty lecture hall -- the students are all watching TV or scrutinizing the news on their cell-phone.  We see her go home and rest in bed, catatonically watching hazy images of the big space ships.  Everything is rain-soaked, wet -- the opening shot shows a dark wooden ceiling made with tongue and groove wood like a floor; the camera glides along the ceiling to reveal a window opening in cinemascope ratio onto a misty lake surrounded by pine trees in the fog.  (It seems to be somewhere on the Puget Sound.)  This shot is later mirrored by images inside the space-ship in which the camera glides along a surface that might be a floor or a ceiling to frame the cinemascope ratio of a kind of pale, foggy aquarium in which the space creatures are floating -- it's the same form of image and suggests that everything takes place, as it were, in the womb of the black space vessel.  (A pair of wine-glasses in still-life at the corner of the opening shot establishes a romantic subtext crucial to the film.)  A helicopter panorama of the space craft in the valley in Montana shows a lush trough between low wooded ridges over which great masses of fog are rolling like rivers -- at the head of the swampy-looking valley the great space ship is suspended like one of Magritte's great rock boulders silently floating in mid-air.  It's a remarkable image and haunting, particularly because understated and not overtly spectacular.  The interior of the space-ship, an immensely long tube that is like an Escher print -- you walk on the wall and it becomes the ceiling underfoot -- leads to sealed chamber where we can dimly descry the space-creatures.  They look at first like elephants in the mist and, then, sometimes like banyan trees -- the aliens are called heptapods and are featureless octopus-like creatures with delicate tentacles that themselves are fractal miniatures of their bodies.  The tentacles open into seven smaller tentacles and disgorge sprays of black ink.  The ink shapes in pictograms that look like rings encrusted with filigree-shaped patterns -- this is how the creatures communicate.  Unlike many films in which the strangeness of the aliens is squandered by familiarity, these fabulous beasts remain intensely other throughout the entire film. 

If spoilers bother you, now stop reading.

Viewed objectively, Villeneuve constructs the film from pretty well-worn and threadbare materials.  The space creatures bear some slight resemblance to the space monsters orbiting earth every Halloween in the Simpson's Treehouse of Horror episode -- they don't have one eye and aren't visibly slathering, but the creatures in Arrival are standard versions of the space octopus or space-squid, a tentacle-monster fairly well-known in sci-fi.  Furthermore, it turns out that the monsters are, in fact, Tralfamadorians from Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, the movie in which the hero's contact with dime-magazines aliens causes Billy Pilgrim to become unstuck in time.  (Indeed, the plot resemblance to some aspects of Slaughterhouse Five is so close that Vonnegut's novel deserves a credit.)  The film's premise, possibly disputable but interesting, is that our grammar confines us to a linear view of time -- we have past and future tenses and this traps us in an illusory reality in which all moments of time are linear and not simultaneously available to our perception.  (The space-squids' use their ink to make circular forms -- the circle is their grammar suggesting that past and future are a single serpent-like worm Ouroboros devouring its own tail.)  As the heroine becomes immersed in the space-squids' language she becomes unstuck in time.  Like Billy Pilgrim, she can perceive all moments in her life as a simultaneous array -- thus, she can participate in the future as well as the past at will.  In this way, the language of the space-creatures becomes a kind of grammatical time machine.  The baby girl that we see in the first scenes in the move is, in fact, the product of sex between the heroine and hero that occurs after the crisis caused by the aliens is averted -- it's an encounter that happens in the house with the misty window on the lake and the two wine-glasses.  (Amy Adams is accompanied by a theoretical physicist played by Jeremy Renner -- he is father of her child.  Renner's part is so underwritten as to negligible.  You can't call him a love-interest because all the passion arises outside the plot of the movie.  In effect, he's just a sperm donor.)  The aliens' agenda is that they will need the united peoples of the earth to assist them in 3000 years and so they have come to us today to unify the world in a great, peaceful alliance -- in effect, the people from the future have come to us to save ourselves from lethal conflict.  This plot element occurs again recursively as well -- the overriding theme is that the future reaches back to correct the past and avert calamity just as Amy Adams calls the Chinese general with an enigmatic message that he whispered to her at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony several months after the aliens have peacefully departed -- it's the Chinese generals message from his future self to his past self (as conveyed by the heroine) that saves the world. The heroine knows that her beautiful daughter will sicken and die as a teenager, but she nevertheless conceives the girl knowing about her future suffering.  This raises a philosophical question about our duties to the future and to our children -- it's a question that has divided the heroine from her spouse:  they seem to be separated for much of the girl's childhood precisely because the father knows that the child is doomed to suffer and die.  This quarrel, implicitly represented (very obliquely) as having ended the happy relationship between the physicist and our linguist heroine, shows that the man is unable to grasp the significance of the Heptapod grammar.  If we accept the Heptapod grammar, then, the girl who we see dying in the hospital is always alive, happy and vibrant in some moment of time that will always be completely accessible to her mother.  The child's father can't accept this proposition, it seems, and this ruins his marriage.  (Of course, the problem with accepting the ever-presence of the daughter's happiness and vibrant life is that these jewels in time must co-exist with the girl's suffering and pain and the mother's grief that are also always present and tangible.  The dilemma that the mother faces is the one that Nietzsche addressed when he argued that the highest duty of the Will to Power is to will the "eternal reoccurrence of the same" -- that is all our passion and joy together with all our suffering and despair.)

Friday, November 25, 2016

Black Mirror (Season 3)

Black Mirror is a "speculative fiction" anthology show.  I have written about it before.  Netflix, recognizing the brilliance of the first two seasons produced by the BBC, has ordered another series of shows -- in this case, thirteen episodes.  (The BBC-produced shows had only six programs per season).  I'm not sure the high quality of the show can be sustained across 13 episodes -- this will remain to be seen.  So far I have seen three episodes -- one was frightening but routine, one brilliantly realized but shallow, and a third a nasty kind of classic. 

The frightening but routine show, Gametest, is formulaic and predictable.  An American kid goes on the lam from an unhappy household and travels around the world. He ends up down and out in London where he meets a friendly, and generous, young woman.  The boy gets into a romantic relationship with the girl and, then, runs out of money.  She urges him to take a temporary job testing a new computer game that is under development at a tech company improbably occupying a manorial house in the suburbs.  The boy has played some of the company's games and so he is enthusiastic about the gig.  Reporting to the sinister country mansion, the hero meets an inscrutable Japanese CEO and his factotum, a fat Jamaican girl.  They tell the young man that they are going to subject him to a test -- a game that operates by contriving an adventure out of the player's deepest fears.  (If you get a chance to play a game like this, I recommend that you demure -- a weakness in this show is that it is inexplicable why anyone would agree to the test that comprises that last half of the show).  Needless to say, the hero finds himself half-insane with terror when the game dredges up terrible stuff from his subconscious and makes him interact with it.  There are some horrific special effects and I thought the program was too frightening and gory (and not witty enough) to be entertaining.  In keeping with the clever dystopian nature of the TV show, the young hero's most terrifying apparition turns out to be closely related to his dilemma at home, the same dilemma from which he fled to travel around the world and, so, the program makes the point that shadowy assassins and huge drooling spiders are scary, but not as scary as effects churned up from bad relationships with family members.

Nosedive is bright, pastel-colored satire about the need that people have to be "liked" on social media.  In this show, a world is imagined that is segregated by castes determined on the number of "likes" that you can amass.  Everyone carries a cell-phone and uses it to "like." and rate, everyone else.  The conventional heroine needs to have a rating of 4.5 to be considered for an apartment that she desires.  (She starts out as a 4.2.)  The heroine contacts an old girlfriend, who is a 4.7, and finagles an invitation to the woman's upcoming wedding.  Her scheme is that she will deliver an inspiring toast at the wedding, get "liked" by people who are themselves highly ranked, and improve her status.  Unfortunately, things deteriorate for her at the airport where she is not allowed to board the crowded plane -- her seat has been given to a 4.3.  This leads the heroine to abuse the gate agent -- she is docked a full point for her obscenity by TSA personnel and finds herself demoted to a 3.2.  Attempting to rent a car, she learns that the premium vehicles are reserved for 3.5 or better and, so, she is given a little electric Smart-car that turns out to be missing an adaptor and so can't be charged.  The girl ends up hitchhiking to the wedding in her increasingly bedraggled maid-of-honor dress.  After falling in the mud, the girl reaches the wedding late and tries to deliver her speech but is ejected because by this point her ratings have dived to less 1.8.  Dragged away to jail, she shrieks obscenities at an African - American prisoner -- instead of "liking" everyone in the hope of being "liked" in return, she now heartily "dislikes" her fellow prisoner.  But both of them seem happy to be honest at last and there is something congenial about their mutual insults.  The show is a shallow critique of a shallow phenomenon, brilliant and nightmarishly realized, but without a while lot of substance.  (The program's co-writer was Rashida Jones, an actress who first appeared on Parks and Rec and one of the daughters of Quincy Jones.) 

The terrifying Shut up and Dance involves a young man who uses his laptop to masturbate to pornography.  The laptop has been hi-jacked by some unknown (and never revealed) hackers who immediately promise to post a video that the computer has shot of the boy's masturbation to all of his contacts -- including his employer and mother.  In order to avoid this outcome, the young man agrees to follow the commands of the hackers.  These commands put him in contact with an older man who is being similarly blackmailed because of this attempt to hire a hooker on the internet.  The blackmailers make increasingly vicious and savage demands including forcing the young man and his accomplice to rob a bank -- the kid is so terrified that pisses in his pants during the robbery.  The boy ends up in a lonely woods atop a hill, monitored by a sinister drone, and commanded to fight to the death with another victim of cyber-blackmail.  All of  this is shot in relentlessly realistic style, the various cyber-blackmail victims rushing wildly about town to meet arbitrary deadlines imposed by the blackmailers.  The show is brutal about the way that people can be shamed and humiliated by the computers that they use -- it's a variant on Black Mirror's trademark, program, the horrific The National Anthem in the first episode in which social media and the kidnapping of a royal force the prime-minister of Britain to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live TV.  The program's plausibility and it's technique of ratcheting up the dread factor as the cyber-blackmailers' demands become more and more cruel is the stuff of nightmares.

All of these programs were excellent -- one is classic.  The question whether Black Mirror can sustain this level of achievement. 

The Fall (series 3)

A criticism of popular entertainment is that it is relentlessly violent but never portrays the effects of violence.  Of course, this is because TV and movies are "entertainment" and what results from fistfights and shooting is not photogenic and too sad to be entertaining.  Series 3 of the BBC crime show, The Fall, available on Netflix, violates this principle.  So far the results are gripping and dire, but not particularly entertaining.  Of course, this review is provisional -- I am only half-way through the series and, in the past, the show has proven to be compulsively interesting, if depressing.

Series 3 begins in media res -- a gorgeously handsome serial killer, Paul Spector, has been captured by the police but, then, shot several times in the belly by an assailant (the husband of one of Spector's victims).  Spector was shot while in the custody of Stella Gibson played by Gillian Anderson and the reason, of course, that I am watching the program.  (If you are my age, you fell in love with Gillian Anderson when she appeared as Scully in The X-Files).  Stella seems to have been more attracted to the Byronic murderer than her current boyfriend (really just a casual fuck-buddy) who reproaches her for running to the side of the killer when he was also shot. "I knew you would recover," Stella coldly says, "but I didn't know about the suspect", masking the fact that she is obsessed with the violent sexual sadist that she has been pursuing in seasons one and two of this show.  The program moves at a snail's pace -- it seems recording events in real time and, although I have denounced this tendency in other shows, particularly Westworld, the grave adagio pace of this program somehow seems right given the exceedingly melancholy, even clinically depressed, nature of the show.  Stella's tendency to pick out men, have sex with them, and, then, abandon the poor guys (who always fall hopelessly in love with her) has wreaked havoc on half the show's characters -- in particular, the lovelorn chief of police, played by the hopelessly sorrowful, John Lynch, seems inconsolable.  The first two episodes, in which the murderer (played by Jamie Dornan) is unconscious and inert is an up close and detailed account of surgical procedures, filmed graphically, and, then, a procedural on intensive care nursing.  In the third episode, the killer is alert, but seems brain-damaged -- he can't recall anything that happened during the previous six years.  The Belfast police think he is feigning this amnesia and there are some clues, perhaps, that the serial murderer is cleverly contriving his disability for legal advantage.  So far about half of the program has been concerned with the most detailed minutia of intensive care treatment and nursing -- it's clear that the show is grooming a pretty, and very kind, nurse for a larger part in the plot; in fact, the nurse may be falling in love with her handsome patient.  Everyone in this show whispers -- no one uses a normal tone of voice -- so far the only dialogue recorded in a normal voice are some tentative courtroom proceedings (the judicial system wrestling with Spector's claim that he can't recall any of the crimes we  have seen him commit.)  The program is rich with secondary characters -- we see Spector's wife, apparently, planning to murder her children and commit suicide (just another happy day in Northern Ireland), Spector's teenage girlfriend and assistant in crime, Gibson's hapless young lover who has been shot through the arm, various lawyers and their assistants, the pretty nurse with a perpetually wounded expression on her face (perhaps, she has seen too much suffering) and a promising new character, a Swedish forensic psychiatrist who is apparently going to probe the secrets of Spector's perverse mind.  So far Gillian Anderson hasn't had much to do except look very worried, mouth a few feminist lines, and appear exceedingly mournful -- the director, writer, and producer, Alan Cubbit, must grasp that male viewers of this show want to see more of Stella:  we do get some glimpses of her swimming in a pool and, in the third episode, she appears briefly in grey silk negligee -- an image that just about knocks you out of your chair.   

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Zero Focus

Zero Focus (1961) is a Japanese crime film directed by Yoshitaro Nomaro, a director previously unknown to me.  Nomaro worked for Shochiko Studios and did his apprenticeship with both Kurosawa and Ozu.  On the evidence of Zero Focus, he seems to have been influenced by Hitchcock, although this film also has a rough-hewn, brusque documentary texture, a bit like Kurosawa's crime films of the same period.  It's a puzzling film because of its extreme emotional reticence.  In effect, a remake of certain aspects of Hitchcock's Vertigo, the movie eschews any sort of strong emotion -- in fact, the picture's affect is bizarrely depressive.  Vertigo deployed every possible cinematic effect to depict obsessive love; Zero Focus, reprising a similar plot, strips the story to its cinematic skeleton and avoids any display of emotion at all -- this is peculiar because the movie involves a number of killings portrayed as suicides committed by doomed lovers.

The premise of Zero Focus is that a young woman has been married one week when her husband departs to a distant part of Japan, Kanekawa, ostensibly for a business trip.  The young woman doesn't really know much about her husband and there is never any suggestion that she has grown to love him (the marriage was arranged) -- indeed, their parting in the train station is strangely without passion.  The husband, Kenichi, never returns and, in fact, we really don't see him except for glimpses in the rest of the film.  The bride, Teiko, waits four or five days and, then, departs by train to look for the missing man.  The husband's firm, which makes ceramics, sends a company man to assist Teiko.  The audience expects that some bond will arise between the bereaved widow and the salary-man appointed to search for the missing executive -- but nothing happens and, after forty minutes, the company employee is no longer needed to develop the byzantine plot and, so, he disappears from the movie.  Teiko has a romantic interest in Japan's far north where this story takes place -- she has mentioned to her husband in one of their few scenes together that she would like to see the Northern Sea.  Her husband tells her that the northern promontories are lonely and desolate and this is what the film shows -- ugly looking fishing villages with their backyards in the turbulent sea and grim, frigid cities with heaps of snow piled higher than the roofs of the houses.  Ultimately, the bride discovers that her husband either committed suicide or was killed at a place called Noto Cliff, a nasty stretch of rocks where local people hurl themselves into the icy ocean.  Noto cliff plays the role of the Mission bell-tower in Vertigo -- it's the primal scene to which the action keeps reverting in a dreamlike, surreal way.  (It's also a bit like the churning waters of San Francisco bay into which Kim Novak hurls herself in Vertigo.)  We learn that the missing man, Kenichi, had a common law wife in the far north and that she was a former prostitute, a streetwalker who plied her trade near an American military base.  A number of the women in the film have this background, something of which they are ashamed and that they have concealed.  Kenichi's marriage threatens to expose the shady past of a factory owner's wife who was also a streetwalker profaned by her contact with American GIs.  This woman turns out to be at the center of the elaborate plot.  As in Vertigo, the complex story involves mistaken identities and a botched attempt to forge a new identity.  The plot, also, involves lengthy exposition and, in fact, the last third of the film takes place on the windswept and icy edge of Noto Cliff where the heroine harangues the villain and explains how she has unraveled the mystery -- it's like the coroner's summation in Vertigo expanded to a thirty minute set-piece and conducted on the parapet of the fatal bell-tower at the Mission.  The emotional aspects of the film are confused -- the heroine, particularly as an avenger, is strangely unattractive and the audience ends up siding with the Lady Macbeth-style multiple murderer (we have the sense that all the killings were essentially unintended).  The film, as cold as the landscapes that it portrays, ends with a voice-over reminding us that most people carry within their hearts "a sea of sorrow".  The film is extremely well-made and relentless -- it's basically a series of ninety second encounters between the heroine and those attempting to conceal the motive or nature of the killings from her.  Some features of the movie are inexplicable -- for instance, we don't see the villain's death even though it would seem a simple thing to show this to us.  I recommend the film but with some hesitation -- it's Hitchcock without the swooning excess, the x-ray or diagram of a Hitchcock movie.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Das Rheingold (Minnesota Opera -- November 19, 2016)

The audience emerges from Wagner's operas a little dazed, shaking off an experience that was intense and, perhaps, even a little unpleasant.  The effect is that of escaping from an altogether overwhelming and immersive experience.  At least, this was my feeling after the new production of Das Rheingold mounted by the Minnesota Opera Company at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul on November 19, 2016.  What accounts for this sense of being overwhelmed and enraptured in the work is the weird lifelikeness of Wagner's greater operas, the feeling that we are participating in wholly coherent world built according to certain laws that may not be rational, but that are, nonetheless, predictable.  Wagner's universe is constructed note-by-note, on a molecular basis as it were, with his famous leit motifs.  These tiny fragments of melody signify various emotional states, characters, and physical entities in his operas -- in effect, they are tiny themes attached to the components of the narration that re-occur innumerable times in ways that vary according to the precise emotional valence required by the plot.  This short-hand method of composition was a necessity, I suppose, for the construction of towering edifices requiring that a million or more notes be set in place just so -- the immense length of Wagner's scores probably would not have been possible except for the leit motif system that enabled the composer to recycle previously established melodic elements hundreds of times to create his effects.  That said, Wagner is with Peter Tschaikovsky one of the greatest of all inventors of memorable, "ear-worm" melodies -- his operas swarm with catchy snatches of tune; one aspect of listening to Wagner is that after an hour or so, you can't get his themes out of your head -- the effect is somewhat disconcerting and, even, a bit irritating.  Furthermore, Wagner's trick of characterizing his heroes and their surroundings, cloaking them as it were in bits recyclable melody, is to make his protagonists uniquely memorable and strangely distinct.  When we meet someone and come to know them, of course, the experience yields a series of impressions that can't be put into words -- we experience the world sensually.  Wagner's gods and mortals are all defined by whiffs of melody -- we smell them as it were.  We can't describe exactly what it is about Siegfried's melody that is uniquely defiant and proudly heroic -- this is the way we experience real life as impressions that can not necessarily be reduced to words. We experience love or despair but can't put those emotions into exactly accurate verbal formulation -- rather, we are confronted with a complex compound of elements that are not primarily verbal.  So similarly, Wagner's operas confront us with heroes and villains characterized not by their words or, even, by their actions, but by musical emblems that can't be reduced to mere description -- these musical emblems may shift and vary according to the circumstances, but they remain sufficiently true to their original formulations as to cause us to sense an underlying unity of character behind the different moods and tonal nuances expressed by the leit motifs.  After an hour of Wagner, the audience is overwhelmed by a vast and musically coherent structure that seems to represent a powerfully realistic -- because unified -- world, a world in which its inhabitants are defined by sonic tags more profound than any mere verbal description might be. 

Das Rheingold, of course, poses massive technical challenges.  It's plot ranges from the heaven of Walhalla to the hell of the dwarves and the show is presented as one continuous act without intermissions -- actors have to somehow make themselves invisible, turn into massive fire-breathing dragons and toads.  There are giants and gods and dwarves on the stage -- the only thing that the opera lacks in dramatis personae are human beings.  We are in primordial cosmos, seeming before (or, perhaps after) humanity.

At the Ordway, the first technical dilemma arises from the size of the orchestra, players too numerous to confine in the tight pit beneath the stage.  It is a commonplace that Wagnerian opera treats the orchestra as a character itself -- that is, as an agent of action and drama.  Accordingly, this production simply plops the orchestra center-stage.  The conductor stands with his back to the audience on his podium and the orchestra, divided into two wings with an aisle down the center, is arrayed under the proscenium arch. This solution requires that action spill out onto a thrust stage erected as a ceiling or cap over the orchestra pit.  The thrust stage has two waist-deep indentations -- rectangular pits that can simulate either Rhine river, when foaming with dry-ice mist, or the craters of the dwarf's realm.  Since the orchestra occupies the entire stage, there isn't really any room for the performers to move around, gesticulate, or act -- this isn't too much of a problem because Wagner's music-theater is largely static:  the singers tend to stand motionless in one place or another while they navigate their complex and stentorian parts.  At the Ordway, a metal bridge was cast across the stage, a steel truss about 15 feet off the floor to provide a platform for the gods -- throughout the production, they stood on the bridge spaced at intervals as required by the action (or rather non-action) and simply declaimed their parts from that height.  Erda's appearance toward the end of the opera was accomplished by having the actress simply appear in the aisle between the wings of the orchestra -- in that way, the singer was aligned with the cosmic, prophetic music signifying the twilight of the gods that resounds in the orchestra; I thought it was a good effect.  The notorious transition scenes are accomplished by way of two projections.  First, a scrim was lowered in front of the orchestra and could be used as a translucent surface on which images were projected -- the scrim simulates a cavern when Loge and Wotan descend into Alberich's realm.  At the opera's opening, gears are projected onto the scrim to signify the many complex moving parts in the Cycle and, then, undulant waves to represent the Rhine.  The rear screen is used for a projection of Walhalla, buttresses and domes mostly concealed by mists and, then, for various patterns that tracking upward or downward signify Loge and Wotan's elevator to (and from) the dwarves' Nibelheim.  The rear screen a dozen feet behind the truss bridge is used to project a great fiery dragon when Alberich turns himself into that beast and, also, various orange and yellow neon flashes that signify lightning.  When the gods march into Walhalla over the rainbow bridge, the effect is achieved by clearing the fog away from the titanic structures projected behind the bridge and built over a vast, obsidian-black crevasse. Walhalla very slowly approaches during the last ten minutes of the opera until the gods on their bridge are directly opposite a great door.  Beneath their feet, we see sprays of colored light that mimic the rainbow.  The doors to the castle open majestically and a great golden radiance pours out so that the gods appear as mere shadows in a flood of light.  I thought these effects, with the mighty music accompanying them, were exceedingly effective.  (And throughout this final scene, the Rhine Maidens appear below, in their troughs of  bluish fog on the thrust stage, lamenting the loss of the Rheingold.)  The costumes of the dwarves and gods were basically derived from the couture of the Mad Max films -- leather jackets, safari pants, aviator goggles.  The Rhine maidens, zaftig and robust girls, wore what looked like pajamas, however, with Empire styling.  The giants, Fafnir and Fasolt, were merely large louts with bald heads, also clad in utilitarian leather overcoats and wearing black goggles.  They held forth from the thrust stage after first setting up a camera in front of them like a surveyor's transit -- this camera transmitted images to a big screen mounted on the extreme left side of the truss-bridge.  In this way, Freia could be threatened while standing mostly immobile on the bridge by the monstrous giants remote from her on thrust stage below them.  This would have been an impressive effect had I been able to see it -- however, my seats are partially obstructed with respect to action occurring on the extreme left of the stage, an area, unfortunately, where lots of interesting things often occur. 

Wagner's Ring often gives the impression of extreme majesty combined with the most squalid and trivial bickering.  The singers deliver mighty bursts of sound and the orchestra blazes brilliantly, but, sometimes, the subject of all this Sturm und Drang is underwhelming.  The most famous example of the mismatch between the music and the puny interpersonal strife can be found in the Third Act of Die Walkuere where Wotan lectures Bruennhilde interminably about her disobedience as his daughter, all to titanic musical accompaniment.  Similar discordance exists throughout Das Rheingold.  Wotan has built Walhalla primarily as a sop to Fricka, his wife.  Fricka is disgusted with Wotan's extra-marital affairs and her husband builds her the spectacular mansion as recompense for her wounded feelings.  Wotan finds himself in a profound conflict when he tries to breach his construction contract with the Giants, conveniently forgetting that the runes on his oak staff are the warrant that contracts (and oaths) must be kept and fully performed.  The mighty gods are perilously weak -- if they are deprived of Freia's golden apples, they weaken and risk perishing.  Alberich's petty vanity allows Loge to get the better of him and the whole cosmic catastrophe is caused by minor-league sexual bullying --the Rhine maiden's unfortunate teasing of the hapless dwarf, Alberich.  I thought the production didn't do justice to the strange beauty and uncanny sentiece of the Rhine-gold -- the gold seemed to be a Mylar beach toy, an inflated beach ball floating in the froth of the dry-ice mist on the thrust stage.  The Rheingold motif is a burst of powerful light, something much vaster and more profound that the little Mylar balloon drifting around in the mist.  I think this effect was intended as ironic -- when Alberich seized the Rheingold, the beach ball deflated and clutching the crushed and ruined talisman, he runs off stage departing through a side door under a red Exit sign.  I thought Alberich's exist in the first scene was a little too emphatic since, of course, he's not decisively gone and will return later in this opera and in the Ring cycle in general. 

The singers were all good.  Greer Grimsley playing Wotan is physically too small for his role and the mighty music that he must intone but, nonetheless, sang majestically.  Denyce Graves, appearing as Erda, was also excellent; her appearance and the portent of the twilight of the gods was thrilling.  The two giants (Julian Close and Jeremy Galyon) also declaimed their parts in appropriately rich, deep, and giant voices.  The fire-god Loge (Richard Cox) had an odd affect -- he seemed like a sardonic and unreliable butler.  This impression may have been caused by his peculiar head-gear -- Loge wore a blue skull-cap from which protruded many slender forked antlers of orange metal, apparently, intended to simulate flames flickering about his head.  In Wagner, the orchestra always seems either too loud or too soft -- but here, I thought, that the balance was mostly fine.  The audience did not disappoint.  Some came dressed in Viking's horns -- on one man's horns, a small raven was perched.  In front of my seats, in the box, a smallish hobbit took his place.  The hobbit was wearing an Edwardian black tuxedo with black bow-tie and wore white gloves; he was carrying a cane with a silver knobbed head and wore a black cape.   

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Abominable Dr. Phibes

Sometimes, it seems, no one is minding the till in the wilder, and more remote, boondocks of genre and exploitation cinema.  Otherwise, what accounts for an artifact as utterly peculiar as the 1970 horror film, The Abominable Dr. Phibes.  Made in England, and featuring Vincent Price, the movie is a mash-up of The Phantom of the Opera, the old Karloff and Lugosi film, The Black Cat, and a variety of mad-killer/revenge films such as Circus of Horrors and Horrors of the Black Museum.  (There's a strong resemblance between Dr. Phibes and Brian de Palma's 1974 Phantom of the Paradise; Phibes also seems to have influenced the grand guignol horror movie, Seven, as well.)  An exercise in sheer, flamboyant style, the film is designed as an opera staged in a style of advanced, surreal decadence:  it's as if Oscar Wilde and Joris Huysman were enlisted to write a gory, sadistic revenge drama. Phibes luxuriates in eye-popping sets, astounding costumes, and elaborate instruments of death and torture that seem to belong in Richard Strauss' Elektra or Salome -- the film's décor overwhelms its feeble and ridiculous plot:  it's a horror movie made according to the voluptuous dictates of the Vienna secession, a Jugendstil or Art Deco nightmare, featuring sleek symmetrical interiors decorated with the stylized faces of somnambulant dreamers, elongated women of the kind you might see in a painting by Egon Schiele or Klimt or Alphonse Mucha.  Certainly, I've never seen anything like the sinister and ominously beautiful sets and surrealist incidental apparatus displayed in this film.  Here's an example:  Phibes must murder a nurse who is being kept under the house arrest for her own safety.  He dons a monastic-looking hood and robe and sneaks into a room above the place where the woman is being guarded.  Around his neck, Phibes is wearing a cloisonné necklace with a pendant that is marked with a word in Hebrew, gilt letters spelling out "locust."  Phibes unscrolls an elaborate diagram of a completely naked woman and sets that image on the floor. Then, he drills through the image's face, penetrating into the room below where his target, the nurse is sleeping.  He inserts a complicated-looking glass funnel through the hole and, then, pours some kind of bright green viscous substance through the funnel.  In huge close-ups, we see the absinthe-colored syrup fall on the sleeping woman and, ultimately, encase her head in the stuff -- the vibrant green is luminous in the dark room.  Phibes, then, unsheathes a glass tube filled with foot-long locusts -- he forces the locusts down into the apartment below.  (We have earlier seen that the green syrup is a distillate of Brussel sprouts.)   Phibes slinks away.  A few minutes later, we are treated to huge close-up of a skull to which a little flesh is still clinging -- fat bronze locusts are sitting on the skull and we are given to believe that they have feasted on the nurse's face.  This sequence is characteristic of the entire film, piling one uncanny image on top of another in delirious sequences that are risibly absurd.  Apparently, the team that produced this film thought that they were making a macabre comedy, but the style is so overwhelming and the tone of the picture is so unrelievedly morbid and sadistic that the spectacle really isn't funny.  (Gary Fuest who directed the picture was a set designer and assistant on the epochal British TV show The Avengers and Dr. Phibes employs many similar effects, particularly the strange conflation of Pop Art and ultra-modern architecture and costumes -- think Emma Peel's leather cat-suits -- and Edwardian vehicles and etiquette.)  As in The Avengers, you can't ever pinpoint when the film is supposed to be taking place -- the police are dressed like John Steed, that is as Edwardian detectives, but there are hyper-modern paintings on the walls and the soundtrack includes music obviously recorded in the late nineteen-forties (for instance, "One for my baby and one for the road").  

Phibes' plot is formulaic and utterly derivative.  A great musician -- like all madmen he plays the organ -- Phibes went mad when his wife died on the operating table due to medical malpractice.  Phibes drove his car off a cliff and was supposedly incinerated -- in fact, he was merely horribly disfigured in the crash.  He has now come to London to kill the ten people who were in the operating room when his wife perished.  For some inexplicable reason, Phibes has decided to kill his victims in accord with the ten plagues visited on the Egyptians by  the angry God of Moses when Pharaoh refused to let the People of Israel go -- thus, there is death by boils, hail, locusts, rats, frogs, etc.  After each killing, Phibes hangs a necklace around a wax model of his victim -- this necklace has as its pendant the cloisonné Hebrew character correlating to the plague visited upon the dead person.  Using a blow-torch, Phibes melts down the wax effigies -- a reference to Vincent Price's role in the fifties' remake of The Mystery of the Wax Museum.  Phibes has a female assistant, mute, although she plays the violin as a threnody at each of the baroque murders -- the assistant is picturesquely named Vulnavia and, at one point, she is literally dressed as the Woman in the Sun wearing a tiara with radiating golden rays.  Vincent Price quotes John Donne love poems, gurgling them through an instrument attached to his throat since the fire has burned away his lips and tongue.  He wears a mask that looks just like Vincent Price, although his (fake) skin seems wrinkled and immeasurably old, something like the wrinkled face of the mummy in that thirties'  horror film.  Price's eyes are red with weeping and, when he dances with the beautiful Vulnavia, he sips champagne, apparently by pouring it into a hole in his neck somewhere behind his ear.  Price plays an organ mounted on an elevator lift and enclosed by scarlet red scallops in his Jugendstil mansion.  The end of the film involves acid seeping like red honey through an elaborate coil, surgery performed under threat of this acid bath, a pale youth strapped to a table locked under the acid spigot, and Price sashaying about in a brilliant purple robe.  At the climax, Price rips off his mask and displays his charred face while the acid pours down to shower Vulnavia, melting her into a puddle.  A band of automatons plays songs from the twenties and thirties:  "Darktown Strutters Ball", for instance, and, then, Phibes embalms himself alive in mirrored sarcophagus where the corpse of his wife is arrayed in lingerie -- this sequence is scored to "Somewhere over the Rainbow."  The sarcophagus glides shut showing an inlaid image of a gemstone sun eclipsed by the moon -- this is the plague of darkness and the film's final fade-to-black.  The picture features Terry Thomas, not as a suave gent, but a brute along the lines of Benny Hill -- after watching a hootchie-cooch girl make love to a boa constrictor, he gets exsanguinated.  Joseph Cotton plays the surgeon who is scheduled as the last victim ("death of the first-born").  There are a couple of cowardly and useless cops who always happen on the murder scenes a little too late. 

Friday, November 18, 2016

The Mark of the Vampire

The Mark of the Vampire is so telegraphic in its presentation, so concise and succinct, that, if you blink, you will miss key plot points and be completely baffled by the narrative.  This exceptional brevity (the film clocks in at about 60 minutes) is characteristic of Universal Studios horror films from the decade of the 1930's.  Apparently, the studio felt that no one should be forced to endure fear in the darkness for more than about an hour -- and, indeed, this hour should also contain some sentimental romance, a little slapstick comedy, and some humorous byplay between veteran character actors.  Tod Browning directed The Mark of the Vampire and the difference between his nonchalant and brusque approach to the material (and that of fellow Universal director, James Whale) is about as remote from the way something like HBO's Westworld is directed as can be imagined.  With Westworld, you can leave the State, even the country, and pick up on the show after missing two or three weeks and the plot will have advanced only marginally -- sure lots of stuff will have happened; you will have missed out on loads of gratuitous sex and violence involving minor characters, may even have been deprived a chance to see a tangential subplot develop, climax, and resolve itself, but the main trajectory of the story will have moved forward only by a couple of small incidents.  By contrast, if you went out to get popcorn during The Mark of the Vampire and missed three minutes of the film, you would likely be completely confused by the twists and turns the plot took in your absence.  I watched the hour long film from beginning to end and parts of it were so disorienting I had to run the film back on the DVR to figure what had happened.

In The Mark of the Vampire, a Balkan grandee of some kind is found dead, two pinprick incisions in his throat, and drained of blood.  Everyone is this neck of the woods believes in vampires and, indeed, several of the monsters have been recently sighted.  A vampire-slayer like Van Helsing is brought in to diagnose the problem and kill the monsters -- this character is played by Lionel Barrymore in his most grandiose mode.  Midway through the movie, we see Bela Lugosi and his pale daughter wandering like sleepwalkers through a dismal castle infested with scurrying rats, spiders, and beetles -- the place is hung with nets of cobweb through which Lugosi and the girl plow their way, descending dark and Gothic stairs to a tomb below the ancient fortifications.  There are a number of close-ups of Lugosi and he is genuinely frightening in this film, less a Continental seducer than a terrifying, if stately, living corpse on the order of Nosferatu.  And Lugosi's daughter is very disquieting -- she has strangely feral and asymmetrical features; indeed, she actually looks something like a bat with glaring eyes and a funny, ill-shaped nose.  We also see her in big close-ups and these images are terrifying to the point that you want to look away -- with her waist-length black hair and stark white face, the woman also looks like an animated corpse.  Some detectives appear at the castle and the film takes a remarkable and startling twist in its last three minutes.  Browning has fooled the audience -- the film is not about vampires but about solving a weird murder.  In the last shot, we see Lugosi and his unearthly daughter packing away their horror gear in a trunk that advertises them as a traveling troupe of actors.  Lugosi tries to make a joke and sputters indignantly, as if in recognition that the plot isn't even faintly believable, and his corpse daughter smiles wanly -- they want to persuade us that the vampire stuff was just an act.  But I'm not persuaded and, in fact, unless I was hallucinating, in one swift and alarming shot, I saw the corpse-girl actually cavorting in the dust of unhallowed graves with bat wings on her shoulders.  The curious thing about this little, and oddly defective, film, is that when it is displaying its supposedly ersatz and phony vampires to us, they are scarier than the real thing in Browning's earlier Dracula

The Mark of the Vampire is not coherent.  Lugosi appears with a huge bloody wound on his brow, something never explained by the story.  Apparently, in the 80 minute version, there was an implication that Lugosi became a vampire after committing incest, a "monstrous crime" with his daughter.  This Byronic theme was too much for the censors and they forced Browning to cut out the explanation for the gory-looking wound.  This sort of editing creates some of the makeshift surrealism, the dream-like ambience, that we sense in these early sound-era horror films.  (And, another point is worth mentioning:  Browning's 1935 picture is a remake of a lost silent version produced in 1926 and set in London.  This film pulls the same scam on its viewers:  Lon Chaney's vampire is, in fact, a cunning detective setting a trap for a murderer.  The earlier version was lost in the 1967 fire in the Universal vaults -- William Everson, the silent film historian, saw both pictures and said that the 1935 version was actually the better of the two.)

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man (1933) is one of Universal Studios canonical horror films, part of the cycle of movies that include Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Mummy.  James Whale directed the movie  and the picture displays his customary grace and aplomb:  the movie is brilliantly concise, witty, and casually brutal.  The story, derived from the novel by H. G. Wells, is a variant on the Herodotus' ancient tale, the ring of Gyges:  a man discovers a potion that makes him invisible.  Power over others conferred by invisibility leads the man into crime and, finally, madness.  (There seems little doubt that J. R. R. Tolkien had this movie in mind when he invented the character of Gollum, a creature driven into insane egoism as a result of mistaking the curse of invisibility for some kind of sinister blessing.)  Whale stages the first half of the film as kind of low, rustic comedy -- a man swathed in bandages from head to toe and wearing dark glasses staggers through a wintry landscape.  This is the invisible man wearing the bandages, hat and glasses to give himself an outline.  The script starts in media res -- the invisible man is already insane, power-mad, and trapped in his cloak of invisibility:  he can't make himself visible.  The anti-hero hides at an Inn associated with a pub, a setting that gives Whale an opportunity to use his British character actors for comic relief.  The various barflies speculate about why the new tenant is swaddled in bandages while the Innkeeper and his shrewish wife find themselves facing ever more eccentric, and bizarre behavior by their strange guest. In the first unveiling sequence, the invisible man cackling insanely peels off the gauze covering his face; the local constable on patrol remarks "He's all eaten away." This is an understatement to be sure.  Ultimately, the invisible man flees the Inn and pub and embarks on a reign of terror -- he blithely strangles police officers or hurls them off cliffs, causes a riot by throwing stolen banknotes onto a busy street, and, then, acting from sheer, unmotivated malice, manipulates railroad switches to trigger a spectacular train-wreck said to kill over a hundred people.  Thousand of police pursue the invisible man to no avail.  At last, the police use the invisible man's scientific partner, a feckless and cowardly fellow who has betrayed his former friend, as bait.  The psychopathic hero easily evades police traps and kills his disloyal partner after first luridly explaining to him the stages of mutilation that will precede his death.  The picture ends anticlimactically -- it's cold and the invisible man is naked and, when he takes shelter in a barn, a rustic (the sort of character Shakespeare called "a clown") hears the villain snoring, calls the police, and, when they see the invisible man's footprints marking the snow, gun him down.  The dying man is taken to a hospital where he is briefly interviewed by his fiancée, Flora -- she has a thankless role that requires her to do nothing more than fret melodramatically and weep.  "I meddled in things men should let alone," the invisible man says, dying.  Gradually, we see his skull, then, tendons and muscles covering that skull, and, at last, the handsome and boyish face of Claude Rains -- until the film's final ten seconds, we have not seen him except as a grotesquely bandaged and cloaked figure.  Rains doesn't get to act in the movie except through his voice but his performance is effective:  he oscillates between suave menace, childish singing and nonsense rhymes, and vicious harangues:  he speculates that an army of invisible men could rule the world with an iron fist.  Consistently entertaining, the film is not really frightening -- it's more an explication of the dangers posed by exercising an unbridled will to power.  The dialogue is funny and the Falstaffian milieu of the tavern and inn, a place frequented by various drunks, greasy scullery maids, and blowsy cops is closely observed.  The snowy landscapes are picturesque and invisible man's spree of mass murder is both chilling and not taken too seriously -- the train crash, for instance, is accomplished with beautifully-lit miniature effects:  it reminds me of the scene in which King Kong derails the elevated commuter train.  In every respect this is a witty, sophisticated and brilliantly realized entertainment.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge (2016(, a relentless and simple-minded war film directed by Mel Gibson, raises questions about the role of suffering. Certainly, the last hour of the film dramatizes many forms of horrific physical and emotional suffering. Gibson is a believing Christian, apparently a reactionary Catholic, and his film is ultimately an exercise in practical theology played out against an allegorical landscape of hellfire and torment. Suffering does not induce salvation; the hero’s convictions as a pacifist Seventh Day Adventist are never really in doubt and never challenged – the film is dogmatic in demonstrating the inviolable sanctity of its hero. Rather, the ability to endure the most awful kinds of suffering, and the willingness to embrace even more suffering, seems a warrant or guarantee of the hero’s virtue. It’s an austere and terrible message: salvation is demonstrated by good works and the ability to overcome suffering in the pursuit of these good works is a measure of the hero’s sanctity. Gibson’s points are as simple as they are disturbing but there’s no benefit to denying the film’s power. With single-minded intensity the film drives home its message – a man is measured by his convictions and those convictions are meaningless unless they require the sacrifice of enduring extreme emotional and physical pain.

The tow-headed hero of Gibson’s allegory is a skinny and naive young man named Desmond Doss. Doss is a hillbilly raised in the Shenandoah Valley near Lynchburg, Kentucky. His father, who was awarded medals for heroism at Belleau Wood, is a mean drunk, beating his sons and his wife – Doss senior suffers from what we would call PTSD; he hasn’t recovered from the trauma that he experienced in World War One. Doss’ mother is a pious Seventh Day Adventist and, after he nearly shoots his father in a violent domestic altercation, Desmond swears that he will eschew all violence – although the point is made obliquely, he is apparently also a vegetarian and will not harm animals either. When World War II is declared, everyone in rural Lynchburg enlists. Doss, who is in love with a pretty nurse at the local hospital, also volunteers for service, declaring himself a concientious objector and demanding that he serve as a medic. During his basic training, Doss is taunted and savagely beaten for his pacifism by the other enlistees; his refusal to even touch a weapon is thought to compromise the esprit d’corps of his unit. At a court martial trial, Doss is acquitted of insubordination and allowed to serve with his platoon as a medic. The troops end up fighting in a brutal battle at a place called Hacksaw Ridge on the island of Okinawa. After the infantry is slaughtered in futile attacks and counterattacks, the remnants of Doss’ unit withdraw from the battlefield. Doss remains on the ridge, however, and scuttles around in the darkness dragging wounded men off the field and, then, lowering them down an eighty foot cliff to a beach under American control. In this way, he saves 72 injured soldiers, including some Japanese. (The injured Japanese saved at great risk by Doss are simply murdered when they reach the bottom of the cliff.) The platoon returns to battle and the Japanese are defeated. By this time, Doss is regarded as a hero by his fellow soldiers and, later, receives a Congressional Medal of Honor from President Truman. In an extended epilogue, we see the real Desmond Doss, hear him recalling the battle at Okinawa, and are shown photographs of the actual man with his wife and family. (He died at 87 in 2006.)

Gibson’s obsession are on view without any real effort at disguise. Doss looks exactly like a young Mel Gibson – he has the same thousand candle-watt smile and aw-shucks hairdo. Gibson’s film, in large part, is literally about blood. The hero is smeared with blood in an early scene when he helps to rescue a man pinned under a jalopy – the guy has severed an artery. He first sees the love of his life, a radiantly beautiful-looking nurse all in white while he is covered with someone else’s blood. He courts the woman while donating blood – a procedure shown in big close-ups. In the opening scene, Gibson’s drunken father smashes a whisky bottle on the grave of a dead WWI comrade and lacerates his hand – we see his blood dripping all over the white gravestone. As the troops climb up toward Hacksaw Ridge, ascending a great rope ladder, blood drizzles down on them from above. And, then, Gibson stages a protracted battle sequence involving every possible kind of wound and mutilation, shredded limbs and entrails scattered all over a battlefield that is a wasteland of craters, stripped and barren trees, and heaps of burning rubbish. Life is in the blood and, as in Gibson’s savage Apocalypto, the film is a testament to the power of blood sacrifice.

For better or worse, Hacksaw Ridge is a combat picture and, although the entire movie is handsomely made and very effectively staged, the enterprise rises or falls with its battle scenes. These sequences are spectacular and, probably, represent a kind of horrific lyriscim that has not been seen, or attempted, on the screen, since the death of Sam Peckinpah. (Indeed, some parts of the battle scenes harken back to Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron.) Gibson’s second unit films everything using a telephoto lens – this flattens the images into a kind of continuous frieze, everything pushed up close into the foreground. The combat images are crowded with writhing soldiers, all planes of action flattened into a single tapestry of frenzied motion – it’s as if the Parthenon frieze had come to life, men wrestling with one another in tangles of action interspersed with great gusts of orange fire. These sequences are extraordinary, although their very flamboyance undercuts some of the film’s dour and ascetic message. But the centerpiece of the movie eschews all spectacle for something equally compelling – the agon of Doss, his passion as he drags mangled soldiers one after another off the smoky and blackened battlefield, lowering them down the cliff by rope and, thereby, maiming his own hands, ripping the flesh off his fingers and palms, and drenching himself in gore. At some moments, Hacksaw Ridge resembles Terence Malick’s equally uncompromising The Thin Red Line – in both movies, the director comes to accept that the only valid response to combat is something like prayer, a kind of musing stream of consciousness combining exhortation, and supplication to God: Doss’ prayer, uttered again and again, is "let me get one more of them", a cry from the depths that he answers by yet another trek across the smoking hellscape of the battlefield. (The most powerful effect in the movie is the simplest – it is very moving to hear the real Doss as an old man repeat the exact prayer that we have seen in the movie.)

The film has weaknesses – Doss’ character is too simply drawn and the strong admixture of defiant pride that must have been integral to his personality is suggested, but never really dramatized. Further, Doss’ convictions are overdetermined – Gibson is not willing to let Doss’ pacifism arise from simple reason and his Christian beliefs. Rather, Gibson creates a double backstory to support Doss’ defiant non-violence. First, he shows Doss almost killing his brother with a brick when the boys are roughhousing – the injury that Doss inflicts on his brother causes him to stare at a framed image of the Ten Commandments, focusing particularly on Cain’s attack on Abel and the commandment that "Thou Shalt Not Kill." Later, Doss threatens his father with a loaded revolver when the older man is beating his mother – this event also inspires in Doss a repugnance for all forms of violence. It’s as if Gibson has to apologize for Doss’ non-violence, as if he has to find other sources for it than merely a conviction that the Gospels mean what they say about "turning the other cheek." Gibson goes too far with some of the scenes – I don’t think we need a graphic hara kiri sequence, although I suppose that scene is inserted into the film as a sop to the Japanese audience. A movie of this kind, although powerfully made with real conviction, doesn’t speak to me – it’s too simple-minded and the film’s message is too schematically made: the film has a high wordless angelic chorus that we hear at one point on the soundtrack and, near the end, we see Doss literally ascending into heaven – the camera whirls down below a stretcher bearing Doss from atop the ridge to the beach and the descending camera creates an effect that Doss is rising up into the bright light of the heavens. This sort of imagery is over-emphatic and distracts a viewer like me, although, perhaps, others would find these shots inspiring. But, if nothing else, the film lacks any kind of cynicism and, unlike too many movies made today, it is memorable and has the courage of its flawed convictions.

Dr. Strange


Dr. Strange, the latest film in the Marvel Studios franchise, is mildly diverting as drama. Of course, the narrative aspects of this movie are unimportant. What matters is the spectacle and, by that measure, the picture is astonishing. Dr. Strange demonstrates the vast degree to which special effects have outstripped story-telling – there’s nothing new in the world of narrative and, in fact, the plot to this movie is simple-minded and ancient, a tale that would not have surprised Homer except with respect to its naivety and lack of complexity. The Odyssey is a hundred-times more sophisticated in terms of storytelling, thematic development, and characterization. But that’s beside the point – the schematic and literally cartoonish story is merely an armature on which to hang special effects and some of the imagery in Dr. Strange is indescribably beautiful: the story is meaningless but the pictures are absolutely remarkable and, I suppose, a sensibility very different from mine might be able to find graphic profundity in this film, a new way of seeing, and, therefore, a new sort of imagination and, perhaps, a renovation of our vision. Two sequences stand out: first, there is a duel between bad guys and the hero in New York City – the hero enters some kind of alternative reality in which the city streets tilt and, then, break into cubist fragments, a mosaic of whirling tesserae of buildings, sidewalks, and whole city blocks, slipping and sliding apart, some of the blocks forming planetary islands rotating in space, a revolving landscape with neither up nor down, abysses opening and closing between facades that are suddenly rotating with a grave and awful motion. The city seems to have been shredded and its elements cast into a enormous, complex and mirrored kaleidoscope – intersections becomes strange gears, architectural features replicate themselves like the stages of motion in a Muybridge stop-action photograph. The effect is one of complete chaos that is nonetheless intricately ordered, like a vast crystal. At the end of the film, another fight takes place in a city that has been entirely destroyed by violent explosions and peeled apart by unearthly forces. Dr. Strange reverses time and so we see the (forward motion) battle between good and evil occurring against a landscape in which everything is running backward – corpses are hurled back into smashed cars and, then, sealed inside windshields that reassemble themselves from sprays of glass fragments, explosions suck pieces of debris together and form them into objects, streets, buildings. The combination of the forward motion fighting and reverse motion reconstruction of the smashed city is literally mind-blowing – it’s a kind of visual counterpoint for the eyes, a sort of fugue too complex to understand, but immensely spectacular all the same. A number of other sequences come close to matching these two episodes for visionary splendor – there is a sequence in which Strange tours the galaxy and a climactic battle with a cosmic evil presence in which time loops again and again in a sort of nightmarish frenzy of destruction. In one episode, Strange enters a fractal universe, looks down at this hands, and sees that his fingertips have become hands and the fingertips on his fingertips are also sprouting hands in an infinite recursive sequence – it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Monster

The inmates have taken over the asylum in The Monster (1925), a silent film so peculiar as to be virtually impossible to categorize.  The picture is best enjoyed as a thoroughly surrealist venture, chock-full of bizarre images that seem to emerge full-blown from a nightmare -- and, yet, the picture is clearly intended as a comedy.  Thus, at the outset, the viewer is confronted with an extreme incongruity -- a nightmare that is, also, supposed to be as funny as possible.  In the first five minutes, all audience expectations are confounded:  we see a kind of zombie, a hideous living corpse, perched like a buzzard in a tree.  He lowers a mirror wreathed in branches onto the highway.  An approaching car sees its own headlights in the mirror, veers to the right, and crashes.  Then, two scuttling black shadows seem to emerge from the ground itself, hauling away the unconscious victim of the crash.  All of this occurs in the darkness and the images are very frightening.  Then, there is an intertitle explaining that "in Danburg, the disappearance of Dr. Bowman was the biggest news since the milk man eloped with the bootlegger's daughter."  The words are printed on a title showing a small town with a cheery-looking sun rising over it.  For the next fifteen minutes, the movie is a well-observed social comedy -- an effeminate store clerk yearns to be a detective and tries to court his boss' rather sharp-featured daughter.  There's a party at which the hero is spurned in favor of a man in a tuxedo who looks exactly like a slightly larger version of our tiny, slim-shouldered hero.  The heroine leaves with the man in the tuxedo and they end up crashing on the desolate country highway, lured off the road by the corpse with the mirror.  The cowardly hero has pursued the couple and finds himself alone with a grinning madman (Daffy Dan as he's called in the titles) on a dark lane in the middle of thunderstorm.  Ultimately, both men and the heroine end up in a spooky asylum over which the hyper-volatile if debonair surgeon, Dr. Ziska (played by Lon Chaney) presides.  Ziska, of course, is a psychopath who has taken over the madhouse and the film reprises the old Poe yarn "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether" -- lunatics have imprisoned the actual staff of the asylum in a nasty-looking subterranean oubliette and now are seeking victims for an experiment plotted by the insane Dr. Ziska:  he intends to kill a man in an electric chair and somehow surgically implant his soul in the body of a young woman.  Ziska is aided by the living corpse, Daffy  Dan, a madman who continuously mimes rolling an invisible cigarette, and a huge Sinbad the sailor deafmute, a muscle-man who fancies himself the slave of Ziska (the burly man with oiled chest and bald head looks like a genie freshly escaped from his bottle).  There are many remarkable and terrifying images in the film -- disembodied arms appear out of furniture to hold victims down; a man walks a telephone line like a tightrope in a storm; a madman tied to a post in a downpour gibbers wildly; Lon Chaney gloats over his helpless female prey, sliding his hands over her body but without ever touching her in a spray of clinically white light; people slide down hidden chutes, climb long ladders and fly, slapstick style, on the ends of pendulums through windows; ]Roman candles ascend into the night sky while lightning flashes; a madman is trapped on a roof in a downpour; nightmare faces peer out of oval openings in the wall and windows automatically shut with a guillotine-like drop of huge wood panels; a boulder hangs on a hook over a pit and one of the madmen is hoisted by his heels and writhes in mid-air.  Even in the scenes designed as bucolic comedy, there are weird touches -- the hero, played by Johnny Arthur, is a slight, trembling, young man, almost comically slender, who would be posited as homosexual except for his interest in the town's maiden:  when she enters his shop, she pointedly asks for "pansy seeds" and, on the wall, we see displayed a big sign touting Mazola oil.  At the party, Johnny Arthur mimes total horror when he sees his rival, a man that looks exactly like him, albeit six inches taller, arrive as a "sheik" in a tuxedo.  (In some scenes, we can't tell the two men apart -- this casting must have been a conscious decision, but why?)  Lon Chaney wears the mask of sanity, but it is always trembling and only notionally in place -- at one point, Johnny Arthur says that Ziska "must be mad" and Chaney drops the ruse:  his famously agile features contort into a rictus of madness, he twitches uncontrollably, and glares in close-up at the camera, then, slowly, and with immense effort, pulling himself together (although his eye still twitches) to feign sanity.  It's an impressive scene and shows the viewer why Lon Chaney was a big star in the twenties.  The Monster is a remarkably interesting film:  it's only 86 minutes long, but not paced right.  (The movie is based on a stage show that must have featured all sorts of effects contrived to occur in a single Gothic set -- although the film is short it drags; the premiere version was twenty minutes shorter and probably better:  without the rather lame continuity, the movie's intrinsic surrealism would have been enhanced.)  In the final scene, the hero has won the girl and is touring a country with her in a jalopy.  The local constable, an old toothless man, incongruously mounted on a motorcycle has set a speed trap on a muddy rural lane.  The effeminate hero with his girl drive past him and the constable gives chase.  The driver slams on his brakes and the motorcycle violently crashes into the rear of the touring car -- this is supposed to be uproariously funny but we see the force of the impact in the whiplash motion of the hero and heroine's necks.  And, on that note, a shock to the system, the film ends.  (The film was directed by Roland West, the man accused of having murdered his lover, Thelma Todd about ten years later -- a Grand Jury refused to indict but everything suggests that West killed the actress and, then, staged her death as a suicide by carbon monoxide.)   

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Hidden Blade

Yoji Yamada is a work-house Japanese director, reliably efficient and professional.  He has made several of the most popular and best loved Japanese films ever produced.  Yamada directed about a dozen films in the Tora-San series, including the first and best of these pictures.  Tora-San is a loveable loser, a Japanese everyman, who never exactly succeeds in achieving happiness -- the Tora-San movies have an unique bittersweet tone, are sentimental, and the comedies were mostly enormous successes at the box-office.  After the death of his leading man, Yamada turned to other endeavors and capped his career with a distinguished A-List trilogy of samurai films -- these movies were also immensely successful in Japan and have received just about every award that the Japanese film industry issues. 

The second of these prestigious samurai films is Yamada's The Hidden Blade (2004). The picture follows Yamada's very successful The Twilight Samurai (2001) and the suite of movies was concluded with Love and Honor released in Japan in 2007.  The films share certain characteristics:  all are set in the mid-19th century when the samurai system was waning and its adherents were regarded as foolish anachronisms.  In each film, a member of the samurai class must face, and adjust to, various social dislocations that will ultimately eliminate them as a caste.  The film's all feature extravagant love affairs filmed in the most melodramatic style -- indeed, all of these movies are much more closely aligned with Hollywood melodrama of the forties and fifties, so-called women's pictures, then the classic chambara sword-play film.  The movies are exceptionally beautiful, shot in splendid, muted colors, and intensely elegiac.  As far as I can determine, the acting is flawless, extremely naturalistic when compared with the barking voices and stylized gestures in many samurai films -- for instance, most everything starring Toshiro Mifune.  I have seen all three films and have concluded that they are masterpieces within the genre -- each extremely affecting and emotionally complex.  Finally, and most controversially, the movies have almost no violence -- there are no showy battles between a lone samurai and mobs of attackers.  All three films end with a final duel, a showdown for which the audience has been prepared, and has been waiting, for the duration of the movie.  These duels are exceedingly realistic, gory, and suspenseful.  In some ways, the pictures resemble classic Westerns from the fifties -- the entire film points toward a final shoot-out and, when that battle occurs, it must bear the weight of emotional meaning for the whole picture. 

In The Hidden Blade, the hero is a samurai who has never fought a duel and hopes to go to his grave without blooding his sword.  In the film's milieu, the samurai are mostly hapless bureaucrats -- because of their code of honor they have been relegated to the task of managing the accounting for clan projects involving infrastructure:  the calculus seems to be that the samurai are either too stupid, or too honorable, to steal and so they can be trusted with administering payroll on quasi-municipal projects.   The hero's family is under a cloud of shame.  His father was entrusted with paymaster duties on the construction of a bridge, couldn't account for some of the proceeds, and, so, had to commit hara-kiri.  The hero lives with his elderly mother, his sister, and a servant girl from the mercantile classes.  The hero obviously loves the servant girl, the radiantly beautiful Takako Matsu, but can't marry her due to his bushido code.  When the girl is married-off to a merchant, her husband abuses her after she has a miscarriage and her mother-in-law starves her until she is half dead.  The hero rescues the young woman, restores her to health, and installs her in his household.  One strand of the plot, accordingly, depicts the love between samurai and the servant girl, an account of passion that is as chaste and virtuous as it is powerful.  In another strand of the story (the film seems to based on several related short stories), the hero's best friend has traveled to Edo to serve the emperor.  In Edo, there is a rebellion and the disloyal samurai  who has joined the rebels is returned to his home town in a wicker basket, an object of public derision. The man is starved and tortured and kept in a cage on main street.  Ultimately, the rebellious samurai escapes, taking hostages, and defying local authorities.  The film's hero is dispatched to kill his best friend.  The two men have dueled in practice many times, and the hero won a swordsmanship competition with the rebel, but he understands that an actual battle to the death is a different matter and that his opponent is more ruthless and, therefore, more likely to win the fight.  Accordingly, the hero takes counsel with a samurai sensei, a master swordsman, who has withdrawn from the caste and is now living as a humble farmer.  The master swordsman teaches the hero a combat technique called "the hidden blade" since he knows that his protégée lacks the proficiency necessary to defeat the fanatical rebel.  Rounding out the tale is a loathsomely corrupt official from Edo, a vicious little man who is completely dishonorable himself but who demands that his samurai warriors adhere in the most strict, and hopeless style to their outmoded code of honor.  A third strand tangled into these stories involves an attempt to train the local samurai in European combat techniques and technology -- this part of the film is very funny.  The samurai are ordered to march in step, something completely incomprehensible to them -- furthermore, they have to be taught to run since a proud samurai warrior might, perhaps, lope in a slow trot toward a battle but, certainly, would not exhaust his honor or dignity in an all-out sprint.  The three strands of the story come into sharp focus and culminate during the horrific duel scene that climaxes the movie. 

The Hidden Blade is very slow and long -- it's 132 minutes, but, I think, it is an excellent film, indeed, one of the very best samurai pictures ever made.  The movie is exquisitely designed in smoky green and brown colors -- everything looks muted, earth-colored and one of the pleasures of the film is landscape and nature photography documenting the change in seasons.  The duel scene is fantastically frightening and spectacularly choreographed in long takes, the camera tracking alongside the men as they whirl and stab at one another.  The fight begins in mist with the figures as shadowy forms fighting in the fog, but as the combat continues, the air clears and we can see everything with painful clarity.  It's extraordinarily difficult to depict a man of ordinary decency and virtue -- but this is what the movie shows and, I think, Yamada's long history dramatizing the travails of poor old Tora-San probably stands him in good stead in showing the hero's essential kindness and goodness.  The film's title is ambiguous -- it might refer to the secret ploy that the hero learns from the master swordsman or, instead, might signify a dishonorable assassination technique that the hero employs against the corrupt official.  The movie asks the viewer to meditate on the nature of honor and codes of honor, addresses questions about social caste and love, and is successful, I think, on all levels.

Barb Wire

Barb Wire (1997) is an exploitation movie starring Pamela
Anderson Lee, one of the Baywatch babes subsequently infamous for a sex tape that shows her impaled, apparently alive, on the Rock-and-Roller Tommy Lee's massive phallus.  (I haven't seen this tape, by all accounts not much better than the more professionally mounted Barb Wire -- a piece of pornography damaged, I am told, by the heroine's dogged sincerity in her strenuous labors.)   Dressed in dominatrix-black leather and studs, the protagonist, a woman warrior named Barb Wire, rampages across a dystopian landscape -- the United States in 2017, a nation embroiled in a nightmarish Civil War that seems to pit denizens of a Star Wars movie against the inhabitants of a Mad Max picture:  soldiers in BDSM gear fight Jabba the Hut in a vast, burning junkyard.  The film's title sequence delivers the goods -- that is, the heroine writhing in a spray of chilly, nipple-stiffening water and we get to see her formidable breasts, more or less, naked for a couple of minutes.  After that sequence, ending, jauntily, with Ms. Anderson Lee, hurling a stiletto-heeled into a bad guy's forehead, the heroine covers herself up, cinches her corset about her waist, and doesn't show much other than cleavage for the duration of the movie.  The first ten minutes of the movie promise trash heaven -- everything's luridly lit, people get tortured, and there are grotesque bad guys with faces that look like images from a Dick Tracy cartoon; the action scenes are expertly shot and edited and have a real kick.  And, then, it's as if the entire rest of the movie were designed, shot, and cut by someone completely different.  The movie isn't just sex and violence -- it turns out to have a complex, even labyrinthine plot, based (astonishingly enough) on the classic film, Casablanca.  It's impossible to follow what is happening -- the story has something to do with evading identification by retinal fingerprinting through the use of contact lenses.  The film's MacGuffin, the object of contention, is a stack of contraband contact lenses.  The film takes itself seriously and seems interminable -- it is deeply, profoundly, and relentlessly boring.  In the end, there are some gaudy explosions, a fist-fight atop a crane that's about 25 stories high, and some Hum-Vee chases.  But, by this time, the audience has long since ceased caring.  Pamela Anderson Lee is appealing enough in her iron-lady way -- she resembles Fox News' Valkyries -- Megyn Kelly and Gretchen Carlson -- but the movie lacks all charm; it doesn't even have the kinky appeal of a film so bad that it's good. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales)

Wild Tales (2014) is an omnibus feature-film directed by the Argentine TV and movie-maker, Damien Szifron.  Szifron, who is presently 41, is well-known in Argentina for his work directing TV series including the highly successful Los Simuladores (2001-2003) -- a show about a group of grifters who use their criminal skills to extricate ordinary people from commonly experiences irritations and nuisances in life (overly nosy neighbors, too importunate lovers, etc.)  Clearly, Szifron's work in TV has trained him in the art of punchy, efficient narrative-- particularly in short formats.  Wild Tales seems an extension of Los Simuladores -- the movie is comprised of six episodes, each featuring some kind of revenge.  (Aristotle called revenge "wild justice" and this concept motivates the vignettes that we see.)  Some of the film is exceedingly funny and the entire picture has an unpredictable, scary edge -- it's story-telling at its purest with tales that seem variants on stories that date back to Chaucer and Boccaccio at least.  The movie is shot in bright clear color, edited for clarity, and with actors who playing one-dimensional, cartoonish roles and it's all exceedingly entertaining.

In the opening episode, a group of travelers find themselves on a plane.  After the plane has taken-off, the passengers find that they all have something in common -- they have all wronged a certain man, the man who seems to be flying the airplane.  This is very funny and scary.  The second vignette involves a gangster who makes the mistake of stopping at a lonely café where one of his victims works as a waitress.  It's called "Rat Poison."  The third episode is probably the strongest -- it's a variant on Spielberg's old made-for-TV movie Duel, a study of comically exaggerated road-rage on an empty stretch of desert and mountain highway.  We see a well-to-do man tooling around in an expensive car on a remote stretch of highway -- the man insults a peasant driving an old, ratty-looking sedan.  The opening shots are all cut to a soundtrack that rips-off the Eagles' Hotel California and the gliding tracking shots impart to the images a sense of menace.  When the wealthy guy's car has a flat tire, he has to pull over next to a little bridge over a river flowing down from the barren Andes.  Of course, the burly and aggrieved peasant shows-up and all sorts of ultra-violent mayhem, staged like a Laurel and Hardy two-reeler, as increasingly brutal tit-for-tat ensues.  At one point, the two men are trapped in a car dangling down from a dirt cliff each pounding at the other's face with fists or tire-irons -- the two assailants are so cramped together that they can't really swing their weapons effectively and so they can merely bruise one another:  it's a brilliant image of the futility of revenge and, perhaps, the futility of violence itself.  Wild Tales slackens a little in its second half, but it's still entertaining.  The fourth episode involves an unjustly towed automobile; unfortunately, for everyone involved, the victim of this bureaucratic SNAFU is a specialist in demolition using high-explosives.  The fifth story is about a hit-and-run accident.  A rich man tries to exculpate his son from responsibility by persuading a servant to take the blame for the crime.  (This story reprises the plot line of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's film Three Monkeys).  Everyone is corrupt and tries to bilk the rich man with the result that he reneges on the deal. (This episode seems only remotely connected the film's general theme and is, probably, the weakest of the six stories.)  The last story involves a wedding that goes seriously awry when the bride realizes her husband has invited another woman with whom he has been sleeping.  Wild Tales is shallow and doesn't exactly live up to the promise shown by its first half, but its wonderfully entertaining and effectively made.  (Damien Szifron has been lured to Hollywood where he seems to be slated to direct a remake of the old TV show starring Lee Majors, The Six-Million Dollar Man -- a project well-suited to this director's pop sensibility.  Adjusted for inflation, the cyborg hero is now called The Six Billion Dollar Man.)