Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Alexei German Files: Trial On the Road

Originally filmed in 1971 but not released until 1985 thanks to those awesome censors that the USSR had in place during this time, Alexei German's sophomore film deserves to be seen no matter when. Vladimir Zamanski is Lazarev, a Russian soldier who, at one point towards the end of the war, was captured by the Germans and forced to work with them. A unit of partisan soldiers- comprised partly of war weary veterans and fresh faced village boys- recapture Lazarev and place him under arrest, not sure whether he can still be trusted. It's only when the unit is faced with the huge task of re-routing a train supply line that they place their faith in Lazarev's new found patriotism. Filmed in German's usual method of stark black and white, "Trial On the Road" expresses both the physical and psychological pressures on men during World War 2. The dynamic between Lazarev and the partisans is presented from both vantage points. We can understand how each side is supremely distrusting of the other. And right up to the violent ending, we're never quite sure if Lazarev will be true to his intentions of helping the partisans or not.

Like the best war films of Russian cinema, "Trial On the Road" excels in presenting the elemental nature of war. Sight and sound are magnified aspects of the experience, such as the hissing noise a spent machine gun makes when it hits the snow covered ground or the completely terrifying image of a German death patrol suddenly emerging in front of a partisan soldier during white out conditions. Filmmaker German ensures these small details are etched into our memory and "Trial On the Road" creates a host of them.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

An Appreciation: Alejandro Jodorowsky

Fando and Lis  (1968) ***- The entry point to Jodorowsky’s cinema is a difficult one. Not too far removed from one of those awful looking student films of the late 60’s, there is something deeper in this parable about a man and paralyzed woman making an arduous journey over a dirty, barren, rock-filled landscape in search of the mythical city of tar. The dynamic between Fando (Sergio Klainer) and Lis (Diana Mariscal) begins as one of child-like affection and love between them, but before long, they become squabbling, pitiless partners. Along the way, they meet and interact with a host of unusual people in what I feel is Jodorowsky’s main theme of the film- the repercussions of external sources to ultimately sour a genuine relationship. If nothing else, this is a theme he’ll be chasing in his unique films for the next 40 plus years.

El Topo (1970) ***½ - A western of dazzling subversion, toying with the very nature of the genre through religious iconography and avant garde hallucinations. Jodorowsky himself stars as the unnamed gunslinger, traveling through the desert first as blood letter and then eventually as the savior to a village of under-privileged and deformed people.  While “Fando and Lis” wants to provoke and challenge, “El Topo is Jodorowsky maturing as a filmmaker, honing his distinctive eye and collapsing so many themes into a compact work. If I don’t like it quite as much as his other work, it’s only because the first half (where he meets and fights a successive group of master gunfighters) feels a bit redundant before hitting its perverse stride in the second half.

The Holy Mountain (1973) **- With “The Holy Mountain”, Jodorowsky’s mythological clap-trap begins to parody itself. A man, seemingly to be Christ, finds his way to a magical tower where its keeper (Jodorowsky himself) takes in the man and introduces him to nine other powerful individuals from each planet of the galaxy. Together, they embark on a journey to find immortality on the legendary holy mountain. Mordantly funny at times (especially in each vignette showcasing the history of the nine chosen) and downright bonkers at others, “The Holy Mountain” seems to be Jodorowsky at his most playfully contempt. The idea of modern greed and technology sullying our lives is well taken, and its probably the perfect film for the dying gasp of ‘hippie-dom’, but too much of it feels like provocation for the sake of LSD inspired intellectualism.

Tusk (1980) *- After his two midnight movies, Jodorowsky re-emerged eight years later with a much more accessible effort. Going in a new direction can be admirable at times, yet “Tusk” only reveals Jodorowsky’s shaky grasp on grounded acting and linear storytelling. The idea of dual nature between man and animal is seized upon at the very beginning when a baby elephant and girl Elise (Cyrielle Clair) are born on the same day. As they grow up, they both deal with various inhumanities, including a group of tusk traders wanting to kill the elephant and Elise’s moral contempt for her father’s empirical landowning practices as a British man in India. In typical Jodorowsky flair, there are elongated scenes of animal cruelty and over-the-top villainy that hammer home their message, but the film fails to elicit any real strong emotions for either man or beast. Not available on home video.

Santa Sangre (1989) ****- An art house slasher film populated by circus rejects. That twitter-like description of the film doesn’t do it’s underlying beating heart justice. Jodorowsky’s own son Axel stars as Fenix, the son of a circus couple who endures a nightmarish childhood when mom catches ringleader husband cheating. Mom is then murdered and dismembered by husband as son watches. It’s no surprise he has troubles adapting to a normal life. Underneath the sordid themes, “Santa Sangre” becomes a twisted love story as well when Alma (Sabrina Dennison), a childhood friend to Fenix, resurfaces and tries to help. Jodorowsky touches on universal themes of unrequited love and childhood psychosis to spin a macabre yet moving fairy tale of sorts. And for all his pop sensationalism, Jodorowsky still has the ability to aggressively comment on all things worldly such as the funeral of an elephant turning into a meat-filled scavenger hunt for the onlooker peasants.

The Rainbow Thief (1990) **½- Virtually disowned by Jodorowsky, “The Rainbow Thief” was his shot at mainstream filmmaking with a modest budget and a name cast. The results are far from disastrous- in fact some of Jodorowsky’s personal touches remain on the film even through his restrictions- and “The Rainbow Thief” emerges as a unique fable with a dash of magic realism for its finale. Starring Omar Sharif as a vagrant and petty thief, he meets Meleagre (Peter O Toole)… a man who has walked away from his family’s fortune and chosen to live without propriety since he overhead the petty squabbles of his family over the comatose body of their patriarch (Christopher Lee, glimpsed only in the wild and excessive opening). The two men form a bond and live underground together, plotting to one day re-emerge and lay claim to the family’s fortune. But the vagrant’s mixed dealings with various lowlifes, pimps and of course midgets, continually gets in the way of that. A bit tone deaf at times, with certain scenes carrying on far too long, the weaknesses of Jodorowsky are glaring. But there’s a weird sweetness to the whole film, never venturing into dark territory or avant garde malaise. Never even released in American theaters and given only a marginal European release, “The Rainbow Thief” deserved a much better fate than that. Not available on DVD.

The Dance of Reality (2013) **- Autobiographical and intensely personal, perhaps “The Dance of Reality” is Jodorowsky’s version of “8 ½”. Split into two distinct portions, the first half deals with a young man’s strict childhood with his father. Since the father is played by Jodorowsky’s own son, Brontis, and features himself in certain ghost-like monologues, the levels of ‘meta’ increase rapidly. The second half follows the father as he embarks on a journey to find himself after he realizes the totalitarian regime that controls his life and his unhappy relationship with his family. How Jodorowsky chooses to fictionalize his obviously painful childhood is interpretative… and looking over his long career, its no surprise “The Dance of Reality” is an amplified excursion of half awake dreams, weird characters (including his mother who sings all her dialogue in opera) and allegorical sight gags. But, the episodic nature of the film continually works against the momentum it occasionally establishes and never fully engaged me. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Performances of the Year...So Far (the women)

With a month or so to go, I know they'll still be one or two performances that knock me over. Yet, for the sake of numerous other year end lists, here are a few roles from the ladies that really shook me up this year. In no order:

Tatiana Pauhofova in "Burning Bush"

As the lawyer fighting against the dynamics of a Communist regime in late 60's Poland, Pauhofova exerts so much with her eyes and guarded body language. The story of Agnieszka Holland's "Burning Bush" is powerful enough, but Pauhofova adds a steely justice fighter to the mix.
Jessica Chastain in "Interstellar"
Christopher Nolan's ambitious but heartfelt epic (one of my very very faves of the year) can make one's head spin with its loopy science and bouncing time lines, but its the performances of all involved that transcend the large-scale ideas. Jessica Chastain- also getting huge buzz for two other films this year, the still largely unseen "A Most Violent Year" and "Miss Julie"- nails her role as the daughter of Matthew McConaughey struggling to put together the pieces on Earth. Her first confessional scene to daddy in space breaks me apart every time... and I saw the film three times in one week, each time knowing what was coming and still succumbing to her pain.
Ah-sung Ko in "Snowpiercer"

In a largely wordless performance, Ah-sung Ko is my fanboy pick of the year for kickass chick. Regardless of the more athletic nature of her role, something clicked with me. Her large, expressive eyes and her ability to telegraph emotion through body language was a revelation.
Chloe-Grace Moretz in "Laggies"

Despite taking a back seat to the precocious relationship between Sam Rockwell and Keira Knightley, Moretz shined as the daughter caught between the adults' arrested development. Still able to hone the uncomfortable silences of a teenager (such as the great scene when she finally visits her estranged mom) while balancing the believable poise of a girl approaching womanhood, Moretz saves "Laggies" from being a colossal bore.
Felicity Jones in "The Theory of Everything"

Felicity Jones has been garnering attention since earlier this year in "The Invisible Woman". In "The Theory of Everything", she plays the wife of Stephen Hawking (whose memoirs the film is based upon) and not only, IMO, out-acts Redmayne, but is the beating heart of the entire affair. Just watch as she strides across a croquet court to steal the mallet from young Hawking or the tremors of resolve that swirl across her face as she makes a decision late in the film.
Marion Cotillard in "The Immigrant"

I love how one early review compared Cotillard in "The Immigrant" to Ingrid Bergman in Rosselini's films. The comparison is apt, not only because of the early 20th century aura (and lighting) of the film, but in the way director Gray frames her face and eyes. It's a flagellate role... manipualted, abused and confined by the realities of a harsh New York City, but Cotillard creates a brave and soulful portrait within the callowness.

Andrea Riseborough in "Birdman"

In a film full of snazzy performances, Riseborough's is the least amplified but the one that's stuck with me the most. It may be Michael Keaton's breakdown, but she inhabits a small portion of his unverse with depth and precise reaction shots.



Thursday, November 13, 2014

70's Bonanza: L'Attentant (The Assassination)

Like the best French thrillers, they move at their own pace, elevating scenario, dialogue and Machiavellian politics above action. Yves Boisset's "L'attentant" (aka "The Assassination" or "The French Conspiracy") is a clear example of this. There are some gunshots and chase sequences, but the ultimate pulse of the film lies in the complicated dynamics of how someone is set up and then the various machinations between state, police and general citizens conspire to see their plan to the end. Ripped from real-life headlines- the vanishing of Moroccan politician Mahdi Ben Barka in Paris in 1965- "L'attentant" mixes an international cast (Roy Scheider, Jean Seberg and every popular French male actor of the time) with a dialogue laden script whose serpentine authenticity feels just as modern today.

Starring Jean Louis Trintignant, he's the slightly complex anti-hero drafted into the plot by a government agency to sell out his friend, Sadiel (Gian Marie Volonte). Upon luring him to Paris and becoming more and more upset at his involvement in the large scale deception, Trintignant attempts to free his kidnapped friend. Like his previous role in Bertolucci's "The Conformist", his character is a man compromised by the state due to the transgressions of his past. While the idea is much more oblique and abstract in Bertolucci's hands, Boisset maintains a fairly rudimentary arch for him in "L'attentant". He plays a man trapped by his past sins during the Algerian War. His relationship to nurse Jean Seberg is affectionate when it needs to be, then savagely distant the next. Like this main charachter, the entire film is a clean, simple affair. Though the revolving merry-go-round of faces can be overwhelming at times, Boisset and screenwriter Ben Barzman maintain control on the narrative. There's nothing flashy or complicated about the mise-en-scene.  Darker themes are hinted at in conventional camera setups, such as one tracking shot that follows an eavesdropper's long walk to a telephone, passing a dozen other men sitting at desks listening to phone conversations.... the insidious nature of the state's agencies developed through a five second clip. This is exactly the type of slow-burn, exposition heavy thriller I appreciate. In fact, the only thing amplified in "L'attentant" is Ennio Morricone's spruced-up score.

Like his contemporary in Italy, Francesco Rosi, filmmaker Boisset seems accustomed to the non dramatic brushstrokes of the political thriller. In "L'attentant" (like Rosi's "Hands Over the City" or "The Mattei Affair"), the currency is not action but the delicate nature of bargaining and emotional complicity. There's a terrific moment that snaps Trintignant's resolve from being just one of the guys involved in selling out his friend into a committed person to make things right. It's that course of action that propels the second half of the film, and leaves one to wonder if the title of "The Assassination" refers to the political captive or Trintignant's own sinking moral center. It's just one of the delicate pieces examined in Boisset's drama.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Last Few Films I've Seen.... October edition

Rage (1972)- George C. Scott's directorial debut and he stars in it... about a father who takes revenge on the establishment after his son dies. Good stuff. Scott should have gotten the opportunity to direct more.

Fury (2014)- hated it. hated it. walks the uneasy line between John Wayne like jingoism and new liberal Hollywood bullshit. Anyone who reads one iota on the SS knows a final act reprieve is just mind boggingly bad. See previous review.

St. Vincent (2014)- Bill Murray doing Bill Murray which is never a bad thing.

Laggies (2014)- In the span of a couple days, watching this and John Carney's "Begin Again", I think I reached my Keira Knightely quota. This one is the more shaggy-dog indie wannabe of the two, with Knightely flashing that awkward smile and contorted cute face with much more manipulation than usual. For the record, I think I liked "Begin Again" more.

Nightcrawler (2014)- Robert Elswit's cinematography aside, this film turned me off completely. Gyllenhaal doing method acting to the T (even losing weight), Rene Russo playing cliche to the extreme and obvious potshots about our nation's nightly news penchant for the grotesque feel like themes from 1999.

Money Movers(1978)- Lean Aussie crime film about the robbery of a cash counting house. If only I could've understood the Aussie-speak a little more.

Yakuza Wives (1986)- The idea is an interesting one. After thirty years of yakuza films dissecting each other and one-upping the violence, Hideo Gosha decides to frame one entirely around the idea that the wives of the imprisoned bosses are the real ones in charge. Still plenty of violence, though.

Rocco and His Brothers (1961)- When I was 16 or 17, I read the gratitude that Scorsese has for this film and watched it. I think alot of its greatness was missed on me then, but not now. The intimately epic way in which Visconti builds each character and the passing of time is magnificent. It's also brilliant how each section is named for one of the brothers, but its ostensibly about the powerful effect the other brothers have on him.

Burning Bush (2014)- Agnieszka Holland's stunning mini series about the actions of a Polish student in 1969 lighting himself on fire in reaction to the country's political landscape. The defiant, radical act is shown and finished after the first ten minutes. The next four hours involve his family's quest for judicial recognition. As the lawyer representing the family, actress Tatiana Pauhofova is outstanding, and "Burning Bush" becomes an anger-inducing look at how a political machine easily destroys the individual.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

On Birdman

The struggling artist on film has been an especially ripe subject for filmmakers since the medium learned how to refract the light back onto itself. Alejandro Gonzales Innaritu’s “Birdman” joins that procession, and not only does it create a visually stunning universe of backstage politics and shifting emotions among actors in a New York play, but it pinpoints something deeper in the psyche of leading man/writer Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton). Battling his own inner demons while trying to maintain the week leading up to his opening night, things aren’t made simpler by his inner voice… a stream of conscience rally that wants him to return to his glory days as action film star Birdman. Thrown into the chaotic mix are controversially edgy co-stars (a wonderful Ed Norton), a daughter fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone) and an arts critic just itching to take down his play because Hollywood actors don’t belong in the theater. “Birdman” balances the natural with the supernatural, sometimes with Keaton’s head games taking over the film. But regardless of its flights of fancy (literally at times), “Birdman” is a real triumph of human emotions, anchored by a tremendous performance from Keaton.

For a film that largely takes place inside the head of its leading man, filmmaker Innarritu adopts the same go-for-broke visual style that exists in our own free-floating noggin. Seamless long takes, gliding tracking shots and magnified close-ups not only give us that dreamlike sense of thoughts and dreams, but it also breaks the barriers of “cinema” and stages everything in theatrical cues. Instead of the curtain dropping, we get a time lapse view of the New York skyline or a deceptively subtle crane shot that places actors in two places at the same time. By film’s end, we not only feel like we know every nook and cranny of the St. James Theater, but the jarring difference between energy inside and out. The emergence onto the New York streets outside are adventures, filled with tense, booze-ridden diatribes and nervous half naked walks, as when Keaton (in the film’s slapstick highlight) becomes stuck outside in only his robe and has to fight his way back in for the final scene. But stylish is one thing. “Birdman” also emanates with genuine depth from everyone involved. Each person gets their big scene…. and Emma Stone’s is the best, tearing into her dad with a rant, then slowly allowing her face to register remorse and confusion. Edward Norton, as the hot shot actor brought in last minute to fill the shoes of another, gives his best performance in a long time, alternating between bullish cockiness and naked honesty. The soap opera melodramatics are dialed up to ten, yet “Birdman” is a serious meta-self exploration, angry at times (even towards the audience) and softly affectionate the next. I’ve seen it three times now and each time something new and startling emerges from it. I can’t wait for a fourth viewing.