Saturday, December 22, 2012

#147: David Lynch's Lumière Short (David Lynch, 1995)

Made for the 1995 anthology film Lumière and Company and originally untitled, Lynch's 55-second short film is and will undoubtedly remain the shortest film I review on this site. Later given the evocative titles Premonitions Following an Evil Deed and Monday Morning, Lynch's film was commissioned by French producers for the aforementioned anthology film celebrating the 100th year of cinema. 40 directors from around the world were given one of the original hand-cranked walnut wood cameras created by the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis, when they started making films in Lyons, France in 1895. These directors were instructed to create one-reel shorts using the camera, with three ground rules: 1) The film must be 52 seconds long. 2) The sound must not be synchronized. 3) The filmmakers only get three takes. A few directors break these rules, sometimes purposefully (Spike Lee -- synch sound, Lynch - 55 seconds), sometimes accidentally (Idrissa Ouedraogo -- four takes), but for the most part, the strict parameters are followed. It's an interesting and mostly fruitful creative experiment, and Lynch's short is one of the best.
David Lynch has long been one of my favorite directors. I wish he'd make films more often, but I'm always grateful when another one comes around. Some detractors have accused him of a calculated weirdness for its own sake and an artistic disengagement from the real world, but I feel those critics are misreading him. His films are intensely personal, a multi-part autobiography of one man's dreams, nightmares, obsessions, feelings, instincts, and transformed memories creating a natural marriage of narrative and non-narrative cinema. These works are integrated experiences of light, sound design, shadow, performance, story, emotion, and movement, even a seriously flawed film like Dune. I feel very connected to his work, particularly its darker aspects, and I sometimes feel like he's channeled many of my inarticulate anxieties and fears into animate filmed objects and scenes.
His short film for the Lumière project plays like a distillation of his entire career up to that point, as well as a nod to the earliest Surrealist and imaginative silent films, particularly early Bunuel, early Lang, Murnau, and Feuillade. I'm going to break the 55-second film into its parts and relate it to images and scenes in Lynch's past work. I've embedded the film below so you can watch it first. If you want to see it in a larger version on your television screen, it is available on the Lumière and Company and Short Films of David Lynch DVDs. I recommend both collections. Here goes.
0:00-0:05: Three policemen walk toward the camera and the body of a woman. They appear to be in the yard of a home, possibly in a neighborhood, possibly a rural location. The yard is large, and a tree fills the left side of the frame. The policemen step over a short wooden fence to enter the yard. A house can be seen across the road in the distance. The woman's cheek appears to have a large black dot painted on it. The policemen walk quickly, with purpose. This segment looks the least trademark Lynchian and the most like a classic silent film. The policemen's stiff, synchronized body movements taken at medium shot within the frame call to mind the clipped pace and distance of many early silents, and the neighborhood lacks the crowded overdevelopment of modern life. However, the sound design is significantly representative of Lynch's body of work. His composer of choice, Angelo Badalamenti, provides a very Twin Peaks-esque musical background punctuated by occasional percussive industrial metallic rumbles. The woman's body and strange face paint echo the unsettling, strange discovery scenarios that begin both Blue Velvet and the first episode of Twin Peaks, and we're back in the B&W world of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.
0:05-0:12: A crackling sound calling to mind both a campfire and a needle on a record soundtracks a fade to black, and Angelo Badalamenti's foreboding ambient score continues. The black fades back to white, and an anxious, nervous woman sits on a couch in a modest living room. The frame here is very Lynchian. The woman looks worriedly toward the right of the frame at something we can't see. She wears an apron over her clothes that matches the pattern of the drapes behind her. We may be in the same neighborhood that Kyle McLachlan and Laura Dern inhabit in Blue Velvet, but the century-old camera makes us feel this moment predates that film by many years. The woman also calls to mind a worried Grace Zabriskie waiting to hear news about her daughter in Twin Peaks. Is this worried woman connected to the lifeless woman discovered by the policemen in the previous scene?
0:12-0:23: The screen turns black for six full seconds. The next image we see is far stranger than the preceding images. Two women lie on a bed, one facing the camera, the other with her back to it. A third woman sits on the bed, facing the camera. The bed appears to be outdoors and is framed by trees on both the left and right. The right frame also contains a deer. The women appear to notice something outside of the frame, and the sitting woman stands up and walks toward it. The prone woman facing us gets on her hands and knees and crawls across the bed. Her nightgown is open, revealing her breasts. The frame flashes bright white. Who are these women? What is their role in this narrative? Is it a narrative at all? Why does the screen stay black for so long? Are these women being held against their will? Are these women cousins to the women in danger in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks? The crawling woman's movements echo Bob in Twin Peaks, but she seems the victim, not the aggressor. Her nudity connects her to the use of women's bodies in Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me and much of Lynch's subsequent work.
0:23-0:36: The flash of white turns into smoke. The haze from the smoke provides an incomplete view of moving shapes. The smoke clears after three seconds, and the shapes become five strange beings in identical, nondescript dark uniforms. The creatures appear to be males with strange deformed faces. A nude woman floats in a large tank full of liquid. The beings walk around the tank, one holding a smoking round object while another taps on the tank's glass with another object. For the first time, the camera moves. It glides quickly toward the right, past a small spiral staircase before stopping on what appears to be a dark piece of cloth covering the frame. The deformed faces of the beings resemble aspects of the woman in the radiator in Eraserhead, certain alien species in Dune, and the real deformities of "elephant man" Joseph Merrick. Unlike those referents, these beings seem to have sinister motives. We've moved from possible murder mystery to surrealist abstraction to science fiction in 36 seconds.
0:36-0:55: The dark cloth bursts into flame and burns down the middle (shades of Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks, and what comes after) revealing the living room from the second sequence. The camera is farther from the action than in the second sequence, and we see the woman on the couch again as well as a man in an easy chair on the left. The camera is once again stationary. The woman gets up to answer the door. When she does, a shadowy figure on the outside of the window behind her moves synchronously with her. A policeman appears in the doorway, hat in hand, face grim. As he tells the couple (I'm assuming here that it is a couple) what is surely bad news, the shadowy figure appears in the window again, this time no longer in tandem with the woman but peering in and moving on its own. UPDATE: After watching the film again several hours after writing this post, I realized that the shadowy figure in the window always moves in tandem with the woman. My mistake.
I have my own interpretation of the narrative and the connection between scenes, but I think it would be more fun to keep that to myself and let you have your own fun with it. My polite suggestion is that you pay attention to how long the transitions are between scenes, what form those transitions take, and how it connects and separates the events depicted. I admire this short film a great deal, and I'll stop jibber-jabbering about it now and let you see it.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

#146: Love from Mother Only (Dennison Ramalho, 2003)

Love from Mother Only has gorgeous cinematography, sweaty nudity, demonic possession, intense violence, dark humor, and a great setting and atmosphere, and it accomplishes all this in less than 25 minutes. Dennison Ramalho's Brazilian short film has the confident look and feel of a solid feature. I wish it were longer, but that brevity is a strength. It's better to leave them wanting more.
Ramalho's film is available on the DVD Small Gauge Trauma, a collection of 13 short horror films from around the world that share the honor of making a splash at Montreal's famous genre film festival, Fantasia. I watched half of the features last night, and the quality is pretty high across the board. Ramalho's short is one of the strongest. So far, he's directed two other short films, Nocturnu and Ninjas. I hope this guy gets to make a feature-length film some day. He's good.
Set in a Brazilian coastal village, Love from Mother Only begins with Filho (Everaldo Pontes) bringing his small boat to shore. Though his village is small, it's a hotbed of religious diversity, with voodoo, Catholicism, and Satanism among your choices for local worship. Filho wanders into the forest on his way home and runs into his lady friend, Formosa (Debora Muniz). They have some hot, sweaty forest sex, but instead of a post-coital forest cigarette, Filho is given a tongue-lashing by Formosa. It seems Filho is caught between the differing needs of two women. He lives with his devoutly Catholic mother, who simply refuses to die of old age and simply refuses to let her middle-aged son date anyone. Formosa, a daughter of Satan, wants to blow the rural coastal popstand and move somewhere with a little more action, and she wants Filho to come with her. Small towns are just too boring when Satan's your dad. Filho is deeply devoted to his mother, but he's also way into hot devil sex. He's torn apart inside, and when he discovers Formosa having some hot devil sex with another guy while a second guy watches, he goes berserk. Brandishing a machete, he scares the men away and is about to kill Formosa when she goes into full-on demonic possession mode and commands him to kill his mother and give Formosa his mother's heart if he wants her hot devil booty to be an exclusive thing. Will Filho kill his mother? Will he give Formosa his mother's heart? Will his mother have some tricks of her own? I'll leave that for you to find out.
My plot synopsis sounds a bit low-rent, but Ramalho makes it look amazing. This short is so full of gorgeous imagery and narrative energy that the viewer's adrenalin is amped for its duration. I know it's hard to make Brazil look uncinematic, but Ramalho has a great eye and serious technical skill. Muniz is excellent as Satan's daughter in an intensely physical performance that requires her to contort herself and get into lots of brutal altercations, some of the time while being completely naked. She's pretty freaky when in the throes of demonic possession and her weird semi-backwards walk is wonderfully creepy.
Though this film was released in 2003, it has a classic feel. The short was shot on film, and the combination of the film stock and the absence of CGI effects and spatial incoherence ensure it won't look like garbage 20 years from now. I like the cut of Ramalho's jib, and I'd like to see his other two shorts and hopefully a feature film someday. Well, this review is a bit short, but it's a 20-minute film. I just drank 20 cups of coffee, so I'm going to wrap it up and eat some lunch before I turn into a hummingbird. Rent Small Gauge Trauma. It's good stuff.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Flashback: Triple Your Pleasure Edition

I will be posting a new review tomorrow, but first, here are links to older posts about the next three movies on the list, which have already been reviewed on this site. Of the three, Let's Scare Jessica to Death is the clear champion and is one of my favorite horror films ever. The other two have their moments and some fine entertainment value, but aren't particularly distinctive.

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (Jorge Grau, 1974)

Let's Scare Jessica to Death (John D. Hancock, 1971)

Lighthouse aka Dead of Night (Simon Hunter, 1999)

Saturday, November 24, 2012

#145: Les Diaboliques aka Diabolique (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955)

Henri-Georges Clouzot, often referred to in English-speaking countries as "the French Alfred Hitchcock," was really the French Henri-Georges Clouzot, but the reductive comparison has some legitimacy. Both men made misanthropic but highly entertaining dark thrillers that were formally innovative and visually beautiful, and both men maintained a friendly rivalry in the 1950s and part of the 1960s. They greatly admired each other's films and shared similar obsessions. They also made each other nervous as competitors sharing the same thematic territory and talent. Hitchcock lived longer, started earlier, and created a more substantial body of work, but Clouzot was no slouch, directing such long-lasting classics as Quai des Orfevres, Wages of Fear, Le Corbeau, and Les Diaboliques.
Unlike famous control freak Hitchcock, Clouzot ultimately lost control of his own obsessions during the filming of 1964's unfinished L'Enfer. The film went drastically over-budget and over-schedule as Clouzot kept experimenting with color, black and white, different film stocks, multiple takes of the same scene, rewrites, narrative and avant-garde formal techniques, and color filters, and his obsession with lead Romy Schneider. Male lead Serge Reggiani walked off the movie months into filming, and a major heart attack Clouzot barely survived finally convinced the already terrified financiers to pull the plug on the film. Clouzot took a few years to recuperate, directing only a few television episodes and one much smaller-scale film before retiring from the movies in 1968. He died in 1977. The 2009 documentary, Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno, tells the story of the film's production but also spends half its running time showing completed scenes, screen tests, and unfinished footage from the never-finished film. Clouzot lost control of his movie, but what he managed to complete was stunningly beautiful and inventive. This documentary is amazing, and I recommend it to anyone who has ever tried to do anything creative, loves movies, or has a crush on Romy Schneider, which I think covers every living human with the exception of politicians and corporate executives.
Clouzot had a troubled final decade in the movie business, but the 1950s was his most productive and successful period, a decade in which he beat Hitchcock to the punch twice in three years, amping up the rivalry part of the friendly rivalry. Hitchcock attempted to purchase the rights to Georges Arnaud's novel Le Salaire de la Peur, but the writer wanted a French director to make the film, so Clouzot entered the picture, adapting it as Wages of Fear. (William Friedkin remade this film as Sorcerer in 1977, and it's an underrated classic and a rare remake that isn't garbage.) A few years later, Hitchcock went after the rights to another French novel, Celle qui n'etait plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, but discovered he'd been scooped again by Clouzot. Clouzot filmed this novel as Les Diaboliques, or Diabolique in the U.S., and it made a huge impression on Hitchcock. The film's marketing stressed the importance of not ruining the twists for anyone who hadn't seen it, and Hitchcock used the same marketing gimmick for Psycho, a film he once described as his attempt to "out-Clouzot Clouzot." (Hitchcock adapted Boileau and Narcejac's D'Entre les Morts as Vertigo. The duo wrote the novel especially for Hitchcock to adapt after learning of his failure to acquire their earlier work.)
I am a man who usually thinks marketing can go make angry love to itself, but in these instances, I'm more sympathetic. Can you imagine how awesome it would be to watch Psycho knowing nothing about what's coming? Marion Crane's death would blow minds. Since Les Diaboliques is in French and since the American remake was such a huge flop, the twists are less well known in American pop culture, so I'm going to refrain from spoiling them here. I saw this film for the first time on the big screen at the Paramount Theatre in Austin during its summer classic film series, unaware of the twists, and it was a great experience. Watching it last night for a second time, I had a decidedly different experience. I enjoyed it just as much, but knowing the characters' actions and motives ahead of time made me look for things in the frame and notice shots, plot events, and elements of characterization I wouldn't have noticed that first go-round. It's almost like hearing the same story from two different people, with each person telling the story at a different pace, with different details, rhythms, and chronology.
Les Diaboliques, shot in sharp, beautiful, 1950s black and white, takes place at a small boarding school for boys shortly before, during, and after a school holiday. A wealthy but easily intimidated woman, Christina (Vera Clouzot), owns the school, teaches there, and is one of the two principals. She's a do-gooder, and the school was her longtime dream. The other principal is her husband, Michel (Paul Meurisse), a cruel, short-tempered, rotten son of a bitch who intimidates and bullies the school's small staff, students, wife, and mistress. The latter, Nicole (Simone Signoret), also teaches at the school. Her affair with Michel is common knowledge, even to Christina. Wife and mistress form an uneasy, unusual alliance based on a common goal: the murder of Michel. Despite her fragile, goody-goody exterior, Christina has a burning hatred for Michel that can't be satisfied by divorce. Her emotions trump her ethics and Catholicism. Nicole is a stronger, cooler, colder, more sophisticated woman who has little use for ethics. Michel has started roughing her up, and she's ready for some revenge.
The women travel to the town of Niort, where Nicole owns a home. An older couple rent the upstairs, Nicole occupies the downstairs. The plan is for Christina to call Michel and ask for a divorce. This tactic will enrage Michel enough for him to arrive in Niort. The women have spiked some wine with a strong sedative. Michel will drink it and pass out, the women will drown him in the bathtub, his body will be placed in a large wicker crate, the women will drive back to the school during the holiday and dump his body in the large murky swimming pool, his body will be discovered, the women will have the Niort alibi. Problem solved. You might imagine there will be complications. You will be right, but where those complications occur I will leave for you to discover.
Watching Les Diaboliques, I was continually reminded I was in the hands of a master. The black and white cinematography, the editing, the framing of shots, the performances, the storytelling pace, the tension and release of suspense, the tone, the atmosphere, the settings, all have a relaxed, natural feeling of effortlessness and continuity that can only be the result of tremendous talent, experience, work, and skill. In this era of short attention spans, CGI, and spatial incoherence, a film like Les Diaboliques only gets better with each viewing.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Flashback: Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural (Richard Blackburn, 1973)

I've already written about the next movie on the list, so I'll just reiterate that it's a beautiful, original, expressive film that is maybe one of my favorite horror films ever, is certainly one of the best horror films of the 1970s, and is well worth your time if your taste runs to the offbeat, poetic, and/or handmade corner of the horror film universe. Here's the link to my old review.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

#144: Laughing Dead (Patrick Gleason, 1998)

Laughing Dead does a lot with its very low budget and is so effective at setting up its dark tone that I can forgive its serious flaws. The film's first half is substantially better than its second half, the acting is amateurish and stilted, and the film never quite gels as a cohesive piece, but it has invention and atmosphere to burn. Writer/director/star Patrick Gleason doesn't have the budget to get all his ambitious ideas off the ground, but what a great first half.
The film opens with a man named Hunter (Gleason) washing up exhausted on a beach. He has little memory of who he is or where he came from. He does know that he's sick from withdrawal and needs a fix. He also quickly realizes that the world he's drifted into is, to quote many characters in the film, "fucked." This is a vaguely New York-ish post-apocalyptic wasteland, but it seems the apocalypse was gradual. There are fleeting references to past overpopulation and environmental disaster, but some infrastructure is left. The survivors live in shacks and dilapidated high-rises where they shoot up a heroin-like drug extracted from a black slug-like insect and watch the few channels still broadcasting on television. These consist of nightmarish images of horror, violence, and creepy clowns, laughtrack-heavy sitcoms, and live coverage of lottery winners presented with their winnings -- "tickets to paradise," Eddie Money not included.
The streets are not good places to hang out, and the people on the streets are in search of drugs, televisions, or prostitutes. A mutation in the population has caused some humans to turn into flesh-eating zombies, while others seem to have some sort of leprosy, limbs falling off and skin rotting away. White trucks comb the streets in search of people, and when they find them, "milkmen" carry them away to a mysterious gated compound. An ominous man in a limousine rides the streets, hitting some people for sport, and then returning to that same compound. Also, giant animals resembling rat/wild boar hybrids roam freely, inspiring my favorite line in the film: "Fuckin' street pigs, man." Also, vampires! Shit is, indeed, fucked.
Our protagonist finds himself sharing a shack with two vaguely lesbian women (many things in this film are vague), Joy (Nancy Rhee) and Lisa (Fern Finer). They ask him to get them some drugs and a television. He wanders the streets, collapses, and is sold by a male prostitute to a large, creepy man in a nice car. Following a street pig attack, Hunter is rescued by another man in a car, Phinneas (Rico Cymone), who gets him up to speed on all the ways shit is fucked after realizing the extent of Hunter's amnesia. Phinneas is an interesting character who is dropped from the film halfway through, for no good reason. The film seems to set him up as a revolutionary activist, battling the mysterious man in the limo and his strange compound, but never follows through on this storyline. Hunter finally gets his TV and brings it back to the women, but is soon brought into the orbit of the mystery limo man.
This first half of the film is exciting, creepy, and fun, and Gleason does a lot with very little money. The snippets of unsettling television programs, the street pig, the zombies, the bleak apocalyptic wasteland. All that stuff is awesome. The film's second half bogs down by leaving a lot of these elements and focusing on the relationship between Hunter and the limo man, Vincent (John Hammond). Hammond gives a wooden, hammy performance, and his incessant repetition of the phrase "little brother" quickly begins to grate. The exposition-heavy dialogue in this portion of the film does its actors no favors, though the final scene ends things on a high note.
Laughing Dead is Gleason's only feature film as a director and actor, which is too bad. He showed a lot of potential and is the strongest actor in the cast. I'd like to see what he could accomplish with more money and better actors. I hope he gets another chance, but the 14 years of silence since this film was released don't indicate we'll get another Gleason movie. To add insult to injury, Laughing Dead is hard to track down. I couldn't find it in any local video stores or on Netflix, so I purchased a used VHS copy online. A DVD has never been released in this country, though a UK DVD is available. As you can see from the stills illustrating this post, images from the film are hard to find online. Laughing Dead has a lot of problems common to ultra-low budget independent films, but it deserves better than that. There are some great things in it.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

#143: The Last Horror Movie (Julian Richards, 2003)

On paper, a synopsis of this 2003 British meta-horror makes it sound like a total knockoff of the 1992 Belgian cult film Man Bites Dog. Though the premises are almost identical, the films really are very different in their tone, look, execution, and style. The latter film is a black-and-white, guerrilla-punk, pseudo-verite ball of energy, with a manic, bullying subject, and is a lot more violent, if my memory of a film seen about 15 years ago is correct. The Last Horror Movie is in color, is more satirical and contemplative, less violent, with a subject who fancies himself an intellectual. The film's style is the home movie, with a heavy tribute-to-the-dying-VHS vibe and a lot of commentary about horror movies and how we watch them. Both movies are pretty funny.
The film opens with a newscaster's voice over the credits reporting the prison escape of a serial killer. We then see a woman sweeping up in a '50s-style nostalgia diner after closing time. She gets a weird call on her cell phone and hears some glass break. She checks it out and sees a Halloween mask on the ground. She bends down to pick it up and is grabbed from behind by a crazy-looking man with a knife. Just before the big horror movie payoff, the screen goes fuzzy and the image changes to a smug-looking man in a chair, a shelf of VHS tapes on the wall behind him. He tells us that he has taken the liberty of recording over the generic horror movie we have rented (or "hired," in the parlance of the Brits) and that he has something much better for us. This man, Max (Kevin Howarth), is a serial killer and he and his assistant (Mark Stevenson) are making a documentary about him, his murders, and his everyday life outside of the killings.
Max is the type of guy you know too well if you majored in the liberal arts or do anything creative as either a hobby or a profession. He's an arrogant pseudo-intellectual, extremely pleased with himself, and fond of making obvious points he considers profound nuggets of insight and truth. He's an outsider. He doesn't play by society's rules. Since he is in almost every frame of the film, The Last Horror Movie could have grown tiresome despite its relatively short running time, but it doesn't. Howarth is very funny in the role, and the movie gets lots of laughs from the reactions of Max's friends and family members to the camera pointed in their faces. The film could have made lots of tiresome points about our reality-TV-obsessed culture but instead presents that information as a given. The humor comes from the situations and Max's hubris, not Scream-style po-mo lecturing. The way he holds and smokes his cigarettes is funny in itself.
The Last Horror Movie is also a love letter to renting horror movies on VHS from the local video store and that period in recent history in which someone was filming everything with a camcorder. Some reviewers have criticized this film for being anachronistic, but who cares if it is? The opening scene nails that late '80s/early '90s straight-to-video slasher movie look, and Max's day job as a wedding videographer gets that camcorder look just right. Max videotaping his documentary over a horror VHS and then putting that video back on the shelves for others to rent is a nice touch. There are some inconsistencies and plot holes, but they don't damage the movie much.
This is not a horror classic or secret masterpiece. It's short and relatively minor, and some of the satirical jabs are a little too obvious, but it's got lots of charm. It is consistently entertaining, funny, and knows its audience and subject. Though a postmodern commentary on horror and reality TV, it never devolves into the Wes Craven or Seth McFarlane referential void. The characters all seem like people we know, not ciphers. I recommend this one.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

#142: Lady in a Cage (Walter Grauman, 1964)

Wow. This B&W shocker is a corrosive piece of nastiness with an unrelentingly poisonous worldview, very surprising for an early 1960s big-studio release. I am one of the modern era's premier pessimists, but I'm not a cynic. This film is one of the most cynical I've ever seen, and though I can't share its makers' worldview, I have to admire its unwavering bleakness and complete lack of faith in any human being to do the right thing, particularly considering its vintage. Lest you suspect from my characterization of its blackened heart that the film is a dreary slog, be assured. This movie is very entertaining, very funny, reasonably suspenseful, a little ridiculous, and never dull. I enjoyed it immensely.
Lady in a Cage opens with one of the best Saul Bass ripoff credit sequences I've ever seen. As soon as it began, I said, "Alright! Saul Bass!" and then was confused when Bass was nowhere in the credits. Bass had nothing to do with this movie, but the ripoff artists do a tremendous job of biting his modus operandi and his je ne sais quoi, with sexy results. This opening credit sequence remains fantastic even after the faux-Bass bits. It sets the tone, to make a large understatement. It's Fourth of July weekend in an all-American upper middle class suburban neighborhood. Car after car full of shitty, bratty kids and middle-class married dopes head out to the beach. A firecracker shoots into the air. A little girl rides her roller skate over the leg of a drunken homeless man, semi-passed out in the street. The camera fixates on a dead dog in the road. Car after car after motorcycle after car drive past the dog, looks of either disgust or indifference on the faces of the passengers and drivers. No one stops.
Soon, we're inside the nice, upper-middle-class home of terrible poet Cornelia Hilyard (Olivia de Havilland) and her adult son Malcolm (William Swan). Malcolm is 30, still living at home. He's an "interior decorator" with "many female friends," which is the way major studio Hollywood films told you a character was gay in 1964. (Interestingly, Swan himself is gay and was in a long-term relationship with soap opera and Academy Awards telecast director Richard Dunlap until the latter's death in 2004.) Cornelia broke her hip in a fall several months ago and an indoor elevator has been installed in the home to enable her to move between the first and second floors while she recovers. She uses crutches to get around. Malcolm is about to leave for the weekend, and the exchanges between mother and son reveal Cornelia as a vain, smothering, overbearing, irritating woman. Malcolm is cold and can barely contain his disgust. Meanwhile, Cornelia is oblivious to her son's hatred. Swan is only in the film for about 10 minutes, but he's so good and so memorable in this scene that his presence hangs over the rest of the film. He perfectly captures that look of disgust on the face of an adult child when a parent says something cloyingly infantilizing. Good stuff, Swan.
After Malcolm leaves, Cornelia gets in her elevator to go upstairs, but a carelessly placed ladder from a city employee near a frayed power line cuts off power in Cornelia's home. She is trapped in her elevator between her first and second floor, and her broken hip prevents her from jumping out or climbing up to the second floor. Fortunately, she has an alarm button to push. That button is connected to a loud, clanging warning bell outside with a note affixed to it reading: "Elevator Stuck. Please Call Police." Unfortunately, a homeless derelict (Jeff Corey) who is fighting a losing battle to stay off the booze (he's stamped the word "Repent" all over his hands) happens to walk down the alley and see the alarm bell. He breaks into the house and steals several bottles of wine and a toaster, which he promptly sells at a sleazy pawn shop (featuring an uncredited Scatman Crothers as an employee). Unfortunately for him and Cornelia, a trio of sociopath delinquents (James Caan in his first major role, Rafael Campos, and Jennifer Billingsley) are hanging out at the pawn shop. They wonder where a drunken bum got a toaster and some expensive wine and decide to follow him. The bum enlists a fellow small-time street hustler (Ann Sothern) to help him pick the house clean, but the trio of dangerous creeps follows them to the house. They decided to pick the house clean themselves, torment Cornelia and the two street hustlers, and kill them.
In a film where every character is selfish and cynical, the viewer's allegiances and sympathies are constantly shifting. It's almost impossible to like Caan, Campos, and Billingsley (particularly the ridiculously OTT Campos), but there are times when de Havilland's Cornelia deserves a little punishment, particularly when she tells Caan he's "the offal of the welfare state" and that her tax dollars were spent paying his way through juvenile detention facilities. She'd love the Romney/Ryan ticket. The lousy 47 percent have invaded her home. The tension, black humor, and twists pile atop one another but feel natural and unforced, and the film's ending is darker than a coal mine though the action takes place exclusively during daylight hours in the middle of summer.
Though sometimes hysterically over the top, Lady in a Cage is an unfairly obscure 1960s horror/suspense/social satire with some beautiful camera work and cinematography from Hollywood legend Lee Garmes, who photographed Von Sternberg's Dishonored and Shanghai Express, Hawks' Scarface, and parts of Gone with the Wind. Screenwriter Luther Davis wrote the equally corrosive '70s crime film Across 110th Street, and director Walter Grauman primarily worked in television, directing almost every show you've ever heard of between the late 1950s and early 1990s, including 53 episodes of Murder, She Wrote. This is not quite as grandmother-friendly as that long-running series. Lady in a Cage is a weird, wild movie that deserves a larger cult reputation. If you can get behind a film putting forth the central thesis that all human beings are selfish pieces of garbage, I think you may love it.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

#141: Kairo aka Pulse (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2001)

Like the only other Kiyoshi Kurosawa film I've seen (Tokyo Sonata), which started out as a low-key family drama before turning into a wildly unpredictable dark comedy, Kairo begins as one type of film before slowly and gradually transforming into something else entirely. A very effective horror film about haunted websites and ghosts slowly becomes an apocalyptic sci-fi meditation on loneliness and existential dread in Japanese society. The exciting thing about both of these Kurosawa films is that the changes in tone and genre are so natural. They aren't tricks that sabotage what came before. Kurosawa is a skilled visual stylist and an exciting and unusual storyteller, and I'm looking forward to checking out more of his stuff.
Kairo begins with a cryptic scene that is not understood until the film's closing scene before following two separate story arcs. In the first, a group of young friends who work for a greenhouse haven't seen a friend and coworker for a week and are getting worried. He was working on a computer disk for them but has dropped out of contact. One of the group goes to his apartment to find him there, alone, acting strangely. He directs her to the computer disk before committing suicide. The friends check out the disk, after a surprisingly short period of mourning, and see some strange things. In the other storyline, a college kid with very poor computer skills decides to finally check out this thing called "the Internet," and pops a disk into his laptop that will help him get started. The disk, however, shows bizarre images of young people alone in rooms, moving strangely, with text popping up on the screen asking if he would like to meet a ghost. He freaks out and befriends a pretty computer science major in an effort to try to understand the bizarre disk and its strange effect on his laptop. These story strands eventually converge in the film's final third.
The film's first third follows a familiar pattern of Japanese horror films from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s: vengeful ghosts inflicting harm on people, using technology to transport themselves to their victims (VHS tapes in Ringu, cell phones in One Missed Call, a computer virus in this film). Unlike Ringu, One Missed Call, Ju-On (this one leaves out the technology angle), and their many knock-offs and sequels, Kairo's hauntings are not happening because of a curse. Instead, these hauntings are occurring due to what Kurosawa sees as an isolated, lonely culture, a culture so isolated and lonely that this existential alienation continues after death. The afterlife is simply running out of space to put all these undead sadsacks, so they have to go somewhere else. Why not use the Internet and a computer virus to head back to Tokyo? There are some problems for the living population, however. If your computer gets the virus and you encounter one of these extremely creepy ghosts, you become a shell of a human yourself, shuffling depressed through your day until you commit suicide or fade into the wall or floor, leaving a black smudged outline of yourself where you once stood. Needless to say, this virus spreads like a virus and Tokyo soon becomes an apocalyptic ghost town. This world ends not with a bang, but a whimper.
The film's first half contains some real jolts and suspense. The Japanese do a creepy, unsettling ghost better than any other country, and Kairo is a great piece of evidence to back up this claim. The weird shuffling contortions, the pace of the gait, the long black hair. I love this shit. The second half is more contemplative and distanced and uses dread more than shock and suspense. The characters are a lot less interesting than the unpredictable, multifaceted people in Tokyo Sonata, but Kurosawa's visual skills and ability to tell a compelling story without relying on standard cliches kept me riveted.
Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) has directed film and television since 1975, but it wasn't until 1997's Cure that he received worldwide distribution. That film made him popular with horror fans, and his other horror films have been among his most successful, but he's also directed crime thrillers, dramas, comedies, and indescribable films like Tokyo Sonata, and he's currently working on a science fiction film and a historical epic. Despite some international successes, most of his films are unavailable in this country, which is a shame. Kairo/Pulse and a handful of others are available, however, and I recommend you give him a try.
Apparently, an American remake of this film starring Kristen Bell and co-written by Wes Craven was released in 2006. Anyone seen it? Is it garbage?   

Saturday, September 15, 2012

#140: Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2002)

Here I am with the difficult task of writing about a film before I've managed to organize my thoughts into any kind of coherent position. I don't know how I feel about this movie, and I don't know if I ever will know how I feel about it. I don't share the intense dislike of J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, two of my favorite film writers, but I'm not one of its hesitant admirers (Roger Ebert) or ecstatic enthusiasts (Bilge Ebiri). This is an extremely accomplished, horrifying film that may also be stupid and exploitative. Surface-level shock cinema? Over-the-top pummelfest and narrative gimmick? Or something deeper about human behavior, time, and narrative chronology and achronology? I haven't made up my mind.
A warning: As a lover of form, structure, movement, light, shadow, performance, and directors' personal styles and how they arrange the frame and as a guy who is completely indifferent to plot (though I do also love storytelling and the ways stories are told), I don't particularly care about spoilers. Some of you, however, do care a lot about plot and don't want any big reveals, and I don't want to shit all over your sources of pleasure. I can't write about this movie without writing about what happens, so you may want to avoid this post if you haven't seen the movie yet and plan to see it in the future.
Irreversible tells a fairly horrific but movie-standard story of brutal rape and brutal revenge in non-movie-standard reverse chronological order in a series of 10-minute virtuosic single takes with a camera that (with one notable exception) never stops moving. The film opens with the closing credits scrolling backwards, followed by an extremely disorienting corkscrew view of flashing light that is eventually revealed as an apartment complex, where a nude old man sits on a bed with a clothed younger man, talking about time as a destroyer. The camera corkscrews down to the street below, where numerous police cars and ambulances swarm a gay S&M club called Rectum. In the following scene, two men (Vincent Cassel and Albert Dupontel) frantically storm through the hellish inferno of Rectum (I can't tell whether it's only the characters who have a deep-seated fear of homosexuality or whether it's Noe's hangup) as the disorienting sideways camera work rarely lands on a fixed image. The soundtrack continuously plays a menacing, minimal techno beat while low-level frequencies below the music cause actual nausea in the viewer. (I'm a fan of sound as a tool of audience assault, so I admired this portion of the film even as it made me feel a bit ill.) The two men, particularly Marcus (Cassel), are demanding the whereabouts of a pimp named La Tenia, sought for some unnamed transgression. The men are directed to a crowd of leather daddies and menacing muscled thugs, where La Tenia is confronted. Marcus is grabbed from behind and thrown to the ground, where his arm is broken with a sickening snap and a rape is threatened. Pierre (Dupontel) grabs a fire extinguisher and bashes La Tenia's face to pulp in an extremely graphic scene. What the men never learn is that La Tenia was standing next to them, grinning in pleasure at the murder taking place in front of him. They killed the wrong guy, but we don't find this out until the film's other tough-to-watch scene.
The rest of the film shows us in 10-minute increments the day's events leading to the murder:
A taxi is stolen and driven to Rectum when the driver refuses to take them. He is beaten and taunted with racial slurs by Marcus, while Pierre unsuccessfully attempts to reason with his friend.
Marcus, now joined by two other men, violently coerces La Tenia's identity and location out of a transsexual prostitute while Pierre, again, unsuccessfully pleads with his friend to stop.
The two men leave a party and see Marcus's girlfriend Alex (Monica Bellucci) on a stretcher, badly beaten. Marcus is overcome with grief, and then rage. Two men come up to him and tell him they can find out who committed the assault.
Alex leaves the same party and takes a subway tunnel home where she sees a pimp beating one of his prostitutes. He notices her, the prostitute runs away, and he rapes and beats Alex in an unbroken nine-minute scene, the only scene in the film with a stationary camera.
A wild drink-, dance-, and drug-fueled party rages. Alex and Marcus have an argument and she decides to head home alone.
Alex, Marcus, and Pierre ride the subway to the party and have a long conversation about sex.
Alex and Marcus lie on a bed, naked, after sex. They tease each other, talk. They're at ease with each other. Pierre, Alex's ex and good friend to Marcus, is coming by in 30 minutes to go to the party with them.
Alex finds out she's pregnant.
Alex lies peacefully on a blanket at a park. The camera pans up into an overhead shot of Alex on the blanket and continues to move upward until we're in space. The screen fades to black and then toggles from black to white in an epileptic-fit-inducing strobe effect.
And that's it.
Noe's film, if it had proceeded in a conventional narrative arc, would have been a skillfully told but thuddingly linear piece of adolescent shock exploitation. But is taking that same structure and simply flipping it backwards a gimmick posing as complexity, or is something else going on here? I just can't decide. To Noe's credit, I haven't stopped thinking about the film since seeing it last night.
Maybe I'm looking at it all wrong. Maybe it's not an either/or proposition and the film is both complex and adolescent. I did get a sick energetic jolt from the murder scene. I find movie violence an expressive visual tool and a cathartic outlet for my own stress, but maybe some other creep is getting the same jolt from the rape scene. I don't get any catharsis or pleasure out of sexual violence, but I'm sure some audience members love seeing the stunningly beautiful, voluptuous, famous, and wealthy Bellucci getting hers, albeit in simulated form, though the scene, whether you find it offensive or necessary, is clearly orchestrated to put the viewer in Bellucci's character's place. The film also seems to condemn revenge, a concept too many people, particularly Americans, disturbingly value.
I'm having trouble articulating my thoughts about what the film is saying about narrative and time, but in the simple gesture of reversing the events, complexity (whether intentional or accidental) ensues. The film provides a happy ending (at least until the strobe effect), but it's a happy ending packed with the sadness of what will happen to these people later that day. It's also there in the title, which contradicts the film's very structure. I think there's a lot about how we watch movies and the fantasies we generate in our own lives from those movies in this structure. Could a film have addressed these same issues without graphic rape, face-smushing, and sickness-inducing camera movements and sound frequencies? Sure, but Noe's style is to bash the ever-loving tar out of his viewers, and we always need a few filmmakers to do that.