Saturday, November 24, 2007

Death Proof (Quentin Tarantino, 2007)

***
USA



Tarantino's Cannes-endorsed half of the quickly buried Grindhouse double-bill is technically set in the present day, while he works hard to convince you it was filmed in the early 1970s. He puts in plenty of blips and scratches, colour drop-outs, 'missing reels' and brazen, extended close-ups of comely women's asses wiggling in hot pants.

Tarantino piled on roughly 20 minutes worth of footage from the cutting room floor to transform his half-movie into a stand-alone feature. It's essentially two hardcore action sequences pitting a homicidal stunt driver against said comely women, padded out with about an hour's worth of a high-school-girl's conception of sassy Sex-and-the-City talk. Since there's no plot or character to speak of, it would appear that the talky segments were put in for purposes of tawdry atmosphere and iconic posturing - except that the dialogue is inane in a very flavourless way, and there is nothing iconic about the ladies dishing it out. Few of them muster up much screen presence and several of them - particularly stunt-woman-turned-bad-actress Zoe Bell - are plain grating. So once the long-awaited reel comes about where they fall into mortal danger, the movie's tension is compromised by the realisation that their death would mean their forever shutting up.

That said, none of them get to do much acting or speaking during the chases, joy rides, dismemberments and head-on collisions. These are thrilling in the best empty-visceral Tarantino fashion.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (Dušan Makavejev, 1971)

****½
Yugoslavia/West Germany



"Comrade-lovers, for your health's sake, fuck freely!"

Probably the most fervent cinematic avowal of the 'make love not war' credo as well as the best film to ever showcase hardcore sex scenes, a lecture on Wilhelm Reich, documentary footage of the cult he has spawned in rural America, a Communist manifesto, Nazi footage of electroshock therapy, an ode to Stalin and close-ups of a large erect penis set to be reproduced into a dildo.

Psychedelic doesn't begin to describe it. But this Dušan Makavejev quote maybe does: "[it's] a black comedy, a political circus, a fantasy on the fascism and communism of human bodies, the political life of human genitals, a proclamation of the pornographic essence of any system of authority and power over others." The zeal and dizziness with which Makevejev attacks ideals held sacred by the two world powers - namely Communism and consumerism - puts him in a delicate and pretty delightful position.

The subtle, telling details of day-to-day life in Yugoslavia that marked Makavejev's earlier masterpieces are sadly missing here, but all the same, it's one of the key works of 1970s counterculture and arguably of cinema in general.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Bridge (Bernhard Wicki, 1959)

***½
Germany


Bernhard Wicki's account of an overlooked battle in the closing days of WWII, which resulted in the senseless deaths of seven schoolboy soldiers. The first hour, charting the psychological state of rural Germany in April 1945, is undermined by weak acting. But the battle scene that takes up the closing half-hour is vivid, confronting, shattering.

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The Murderers Are Among Us (1946)

**½
Germany

Cinema is yet to present us with a more radiant and porcelain-skinned concentration camp survivor than Hildegard Knef. In this - the first drama produced in Germany after the War - she symbolises forgiveness and optimism. As an alcoholic doctor traumatised by atrocities he witnessed while serving for Hitler's army, Ernst Wilhelm Borchert represents guilt and paralysis. The German people's responsibilities towards humanity after the war are addressed in very explicit and very crude terms.

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Fanfares of Love (Kurt Hoffmann, 1951)

***½
Germany



The German gender-bending original that was remade into Some Like It Hot. It's awkward compared to Wilder's film (which does, in fact, borrow many scenes) and Borsche and Thomalla have lesser range and much more prominent Adam's apples than Curtis and Lemmon. But they're lots of fun in their own right.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai, 1994)

****½
Hong Kong






Overwhelmed by a turgid, gargantuan costume soap opera he'd been commissioned to direct, Wong Kar-wai decided to take a break and in his down-time came up with this Godard-inflected breath of fresh gorgeousness.


It has two strands: one where a young, lonely and very pretty policeman grows infatuated with a shady drug-dealing femme fatale with a funny wig; and another one where a fast-food waitress, played by the entrancing Faye Wong in her big-screen debut, grows infatuated with a second young, lonely and very pretty cop, Tony Leung (before his international exposure). The connection between the two strands is in feeling more than narrative. The first tale is fresh, lovely and very seductive as it sets up the loose, gaudy visual style and the shivery, jump-cut-happy dynamic. But it's the second chapter that packs most of the film's resonance as it reaches its achingly, intoxicatingly romantic finale and shifts the focus from hazy, unfulfilled, vaguely longing ciphers onto breathing, burning, intensely huggable people.

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Beaufort (Joseph Cedar, 2007)

**½
Israel



In May 2000 Israel was forced to evacuate its mountaintop fortress in Southern Lebanon and, if you were to believe Israel's official Academy Award submission for the year, the soldiers that still remained were exclusively the most photogenic men in the country.

Like all credible anti-war filmmakers, Joseph Cedar avoids pointing fingers and taking sides and focuses instead on the frail, weary humanity of his soldiers. The script he has co-written with Ron Leshem and adapted from his own novel is moderately sober, all them pretty men in the cast are solid performers and the sets - which, for obvious reasons, had to be custom-built - are detailed and scream big budget. And therein lies the problem. The grit feels manufactured. The picture is glazed in a Hollywood sheen that is polished, eminently exportable and ideally suited to a video clip. But when it comes to earnest drama, it only serves to take away from the immediacy.

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The Long Day Closes (Terrence Davies, 1992)

***
UK



Through a thinly-veiled pubescent alter ego, Terrence Davies presents his memories of growing up poor and introverted in 1950s Liverpool. Essentially the film is a nostalgic selection of pop hits from the period stitched together with impressionistic vignettes of working-class life in post-war England the way it may have transpired in Davies' severely aestheticised brain. Interspersed throughout are hints of Davies Jr.'s conflicting feelings of affinity and isolation from his environment, defined as they are by his tight-knit family, the abuse he suffers at school and his encroaching desire for boys. There are also a couple of sequences meant to celebrate the escape and rapture that cinema can offer.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Davies' intentions - it's an interesting and imaginative enough conceit in stylistic terms. The trouble is in the execution. The prissy, self-conscious formalism very quickly grows suffocating. Every composition has the oxygen studied out of it, every scrap of dialogue is cutesy and simplistic, and every scene revolves around Leigh McCormack's vacant face that stares back at you the way a deer does at headlights. It's evocative of the film's overarching feel of crude, mannered preciousness. That said, some feeling does slip through the formalism and even at his most stunted, Davies can dazzle you enough to have his film stay with you for longer than other - perhaps even better - titles tend to.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Variety Lights (Federico Fellini, Alberto Lattuada, 1950)

****
Italy

Federico Fellini's first directing gig was in collaboration with then-established but since-forgotten neo-Realist Alberto Lattuada. It's a cosy, tender portrait of a bunch of unflappable, perennially squabbling variety show performers, with the plucky, womanising, egocentric Peppino De Filippo at their head.
Both directors cast their wives in principal roles: Carla del Poggio (a Rita-Hayworth look-alike) as an ambitious small-town beauty-queen who worms her way into the troupe, then sleeps her way beyond it; and the great Giulietta Masina as the fading star and committed partner to De Filippo's deluded showman.

Certainly Lattuada's contributions must not be underestimated, but a lot of Fellini sticks out in the the detail, the warmth, the atmosphere and the humanism.

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Lola Montes (Max Ophüls, 1955)

***½
France/West Germany




Andrew Sarris once pronounced this the greatest film ever made. It's an odd assertion and a tricky one to back up. It would have been fascinating to see him try.

Max Ophüls' final film, this opulent, expensive melodrama charts the scandals, affairs and gradual destitution of an exotic dancer and courtesan who in real life bedded Liszt, Ludwig I of Bavaria and hundreds of influential men around the globe. The film boasts vast, gaudy, meticulous sets, grand personages, grander statements and Ophüls' signature sweeping, gliding camerawork. But it's undone by a blank-faced vacuum at its centre.

You can sense Martine Carol's hunger for fame, to be admired and thought beautiful. And it's not a giant leap for the imagination to conceive her sleeping her way to the top (how else could she have gotten this role?). But she doesn't show any special kind of spark that would make you understand why a king would stay til morning.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

The River (Jean Renoir, 1951)

***
India






The first film Jean Renoir made during his period of post-Hollywood recovery was also his first foray into Technicolor. An adaptation of Rumer Godden's semi-autobiographical novel, it was shot on the banks of the Ganges and it chronicles the dramas that befall the family of a British jute-factory manager during his wife's pregnancy. The focus in particular is on his daughter's plunge into puberty.


With irreproachable poise and diction, a lady named June Hillman reads out in voiceover sections from Godden's novel, which serve to ground the film within the realm of quaint, leaden exotica. It's a colonialist's view of Bengal, so the natives are given a single, unanimous character of serene docility. Their lovely dances and mysterious stories about life and death are used for decoration.


The cast is a mix of non-professionals and bad actors. Their performances though, are uniformly paltry.


Nevertheless figures as forbidding as Pauline Kael and Martin Scorsese have gushed over the film, chiefly due to its lyrical use of colour. Its use of colour is indeed lyrical and accounts for several pleasing passages where no one is speaking or where it's easy to ignore the person who is.

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The Lost One (Peter Lorre, 1951)

***
Germany

Peter Lorre's sole directorial effort is this fascinating, fact-based but confounding indictment of unofficial Nazi politics. At the beginning of the picture he's a doctor with a patently nasty secret who comes face to face with a shady figure from his past. After a rambling conversation follows a rambling flashback, which morphs from espionage melodrama to serial killer psychodrama to conspiracy melodrama. It's difficult and only occasionally interesting to follow. The Expressionist-flavoured visuals though are arresting.

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