Friday, March 30, 2007

Flesh + Blood (Verhoeven, 1985)

The title may as well be a concise summary of the career of director Paul Verhoeven, as it tells us very little about the actual film. Known mostly in the United States as the director of such exercises in excess as Robocop, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, Dutchman Verhoeven here works for the first time in the English language. His cast is peppered with notable American actors like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruno Kirby and Brion James, as well as a rather notable Dutch holdover in Rutger Hauer. Somewhat comically, Verhoeven’s film is set in a location no more specific than “Western Europe” sometime during the Medieval Era, although ultimately intricacies of history and geography are of little consequence to the tale Verhoeven tells.

His primary characters are a lusty group of commoners who have been duped into participating in a dangerous siege by a nobleman who refuses to reward them for their efforts. They are the sorts who in these tales always seem to be laughing heartily, exposing a wretched set of teeth, while they clutch a large, half-eaten drumstick in one hand. They are the kind of people for which the term ‘ragtag’ was coined. Led by Hauer and a beat-up statue of St. Martin that they look to for timely omens, the group exacts their revenge by making off with the dowry intended for the nobleman’s son, and (unwittingly) the bride-to-be herself, played by Leigh. Soon, they take over a castle and set up a makeshift home, living the life of royalty.

Much of this is trademark Verhoeven schlock - heavy on the rapes and vulgarity, low on plausibility and insight. However, the film grows surprisingly more engrossing during its second half, largely due to the interplay between the extraordinary duo of Hauer and Leigh. Leigh in particular plays a character who, if not exactly complex, is certainly captivatingly conflicted. Hauer’s Martin quickly fends off his companions to make his abductee his concubine. Leigh’s Agnes goes along with his advances, initially - it seems - to spare herself from violent repercussions. However, as she receives a crash course in sexuality, her participation seems to grow more eager and unrestrained.

Having previously pledged herself to her groom-to-be in a pseudo-tender scene that takes place beneath two decaying corpses hanging from a tree branch, Agnes is forced to convince two different men that her love for them is real in the hopes that one of them will rescue her from the conflict. The question is: which one of them is the rescuer and which the villain? As the tide turns for either side, Agnes’ affections seem to drift back and forth. She maneuvers carefully to avoid being exposed as unfaithful, all the while dropping subtle hints to convince the other that her actions are being coerced. Truth be told, it is little more than a shallow game set against a generic medieval background, but for some reason – most likely the charisma and skill of Hauer and Leigh – the whole silly thing works.

The viewer is unlikely to be enlightened or moved; however, Flesh + Blood does offer Ladyhawke-era Rutger Hauer brandishing medieval weaponry, copious Jennifer Jason Leigh nudity and the sight of diseased dog meat being catapulted over castle walls. Every once in a while, depending on your mood, those just might be the ingredients for an ideal viewing experience.


Monday, March 19, 2007

The Host (Bong, 2006)

A careless chemical dump in a Korean river leads to the creation of a gigantic fish beast that also has the ability to hang upside down like a bat, swing around like an especially acrobatic monkey and run on land like a charging rhino in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host. The Host is a peculiar kind of monster movie in that it reveals the full abilities of its creature early on, letting the beast go on a rampage in broad daylight. Although it makes for a somewhat exciting opening sequence, it also proves to be somewhat disastrous for the film as a whole. It shifts the emphasis away from our thrill in discovering more about the newfound threat and places it squarely on a family of misfits who never grow or change in any meaningful way. It is film that wanders aimlessly from drama to comedy to horror to science fiction to political allegory, never finding a satisfying fit and consequently ending up as a largely incoherent mess.

The film starts out promisingly enough. After a thankfully brief back story and character introduction, we are soon amused by the sight of dimwitted city dwellers mistaking the beast for an unusual kind of dolphin and luring it towards them by tossing beer nuts into the river. The creature leaps onto land, sending the panicked masses scurrying and treating the viewer to about five to ten minutes of nicely orchestrated mayhem. At the conclusion of this sequence, the beast takes off with a key character, leading the others to presume her dead, and it is shortly thereafter where the film reveals its first signs of trouble.

We see a makeshift public shrine where the families of the creature’s victims have placed pictures of their missing loved ones. Rather than opting for a simple moment of humanity, Bong inexplicably tries to mine the moment for farcical comedy. Our central characters are so loud and demonstrative with their mourning that they begin to disrupt those around them. The scene is played for comedy, but where are we supposed to find humor? In the fact that this family has just lost a family member? In the fact that they are mourning ‘improperly’? The overall effect is to seemingly reveal to the audience information that we should not know. If the victim was really dead, the filmmakers wouldn’t treat the moment so flippantly, would they?

Eventually, however, we realize that The Host is woefully inconsistent about its attitude towards human life. In some horror movies, victims are dispensable, used merely as prey so that the filmmaker can engineer thrills. In other films, we are provided with real flesh-and-blood humans who embark upon a journey that actually means something. We invest in their fates because the decisions they make and the way that they grow actually has purpose. The Host rests at some unsatisfying point in between.

Unlike George Romero’s Land of the Dead, which wittily offered us a zombie polemic or Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer, which at least gleefully committed to its own over-the-top cartoonishness, The Host is whatever it wants to be at any given moment. It shifts around from dopey to creepy to sensitive to callous to humorous to earnest. It dabbles in drama, comedy, horror, sci-fi, paranoid political thriller and environmental cautionary tale without ever being completely satisfying in any one area. It sends four poorly written family members on a quest to find a fifth and then offers us an ending that renders the whole journey meaningless. It is as if each scene was shot without any thought to how it would fit together with all the others. Indeed, the film would probably work best for someone with the short-term memory loss suffered by Leonard in Memento. It is a film that is only concerned about the next five minutes, disregarding any sort of internal consistency. Consequently, The Host offers little tension and leaves little impression.


Monday, March 12, 2007

Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette, 1974)

Considered Jacques Rivette’s most famous and beloved work, Celine and Julie Go Boating is a curious creature. It is a film that ultimately works despite the fact that approximately two hours of its runtime is utterly superfluous and often tedious. In spirit, it is reminiscent of Vera Chytilová’s Daisies, although it lacks that film’s political consciousness, as well as its economical punch. Nonetheless, it gives us two attractive young women who form a unique bond and then pit themselves against mainstream society. Whereas Chytilová’s Maries were anarchofeminists, Celine and Julie are simply whimsical pranksters who spend a lot of time giggling. For the better part of the film, it appears that Rivette will be content to bounce around aimlessly between situations that range from cute to insufferably cute. However, in the final part of the film, the Ritalin kicks in and he at last settles into something approaching a purpose.

When we first see Julie, she is sitting on a park bench reading a book about magic when who should happen by but Celine, a small-time magician. Celine drops a couple personal items behind her, leading Julie to retrieve them and follow her in the hopes of returning them. This, I suppose, is as good a reason as any to bring the two together. Why though does Celine refuse to stop, thus leading Julie on an extended tour of the city? Possibly it is because Celine and Julie (with the guidance of Rivette) will instinctively choose the path that is most adorable and precious.

Eventually Celine and Julie move in together, cause a disruption at the local library, play a trick on one of Julie’s suitors and do lots and lots of giggling. Although much of the film’s first half is meandering and inconsequential, two standout sequences involve first Celine and then Julie appearing at a local cabaret club. With comic indifference, Celine smoothly endures a heckler as she works her way through a decidedly unambitious magic routine in which the focus is clearly not on her tricks, but on her legs. Later, Julie steps into her companion’s place to vamp, mug and improvise her way through a rough approximation of the former’s performance. Because she is able to keep in constant motion, linking one idea into the next, allowing one emotion to drift into another, it takes her audience a long while to realize that what they are watching not only contains no magic, it also contains no sense.

Out of all this whimsy, it comes as something of a surprise when an actual plot arises in the film’s final hour. At a mysterious house, a stilted melodrama is being played out repeatedly day after day in which an innocent ends up murdered. Alternately, Celine or Julie visits the house and then emerges with no memory of what has occurred until they suck on a magical candy that awakens their memory. Unfortunately, they are only able to remember fragments, thus keeping the murderer’s identity a secret. Eventually, in the film’s comedic high point, Celine and Julie find a way to infiltrate the house together in the hopes of altering the plot and rescuing the victim. This portion of the film works wonderfully because at last we have a tangible object of satire. The ghostly figures that maneuver their way coldly through a bleak chamber drama could possibly be figures out of Bergman, or they could be intended to represent an outmoded French theatrical form. (Indeed, there is a brief smattering of inexplicable applause that would suggest the latter.) No matter what target was specifically intended, the situation pits the dusty old conventions of the past versus the fresh, rambunctious spirit of Celine and Julie.

But to answer what is undoubtedly your most pressing question, Celine and Julie really do go boating. Honest. Like so many other things in the film, the title is something of a comic non-sequitur. But when the moment comes, pay attention to who else goes boating. And take note of the fact that they are traveling in the opposite direction.


Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Lives of Others (von Donnersmarck, 2006)

The winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, The Lives of Others is the debut feature of German director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. You may have trouble remembering that name, but you will certainly not have the same trouble remembering the film. Von Donnersmarck has crafted a thoroughly engrossing tale of a governmental spy in early 1980’s East Germany. When we first see Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler (played by Ulrich Mühe of Funny Games), he is leading a lecture, instructing students in proper interrogation technique. A subject that sticks to the same answers, we are told, is actually lying, because this demonstrates that he has rehearsed his story. We also see Wiesler preserve the seat cover sat on by the subject during the interview so that the scent may be used later by dogs trained to track down enemies of the state. Guilt, in this time and place, is presumed. Innocence requires devotion to socialist ideals in every waking moment of your life.

Soon Wiesler is assigned to Operation Lazlo, a surveillance mission in which he has been asked to spy upon writer Georg Dreyman and Christa-Maria Sieland, his actress wife. Dreyman is considered by the government to be the last non-subversive playwright in East Germany. Indeed, Georg and Christa have learned how to operate within the system, choosing their words in public extremely carefully and submitting to certain arrangements that are humiliating at best, soul-destroying at worst. Listening in from a makeshift surveillance center in the attic above their apartment, Wiesler notes down every small detail that could point to disloyalty to the state. However, when he discovers the true purpose behind his assignment, his perspective on the couple undergoes an unexpected change. He begins to empathize with their situation and admire the sacrifices they make to be able to continue their art. He even weeps when they experience extreme sorrow.

The Lives of Others achieves its power by pitting two longtime rivals against each other: the artist and the state. As always, the state has technology and weaponry and brute force. But, the artist, von Donnersmarck argues, holds a different kind of power. It is a power that is not coercive, but rather seductive. It requires participation, but once experienced, it can disarm any thug. Playing a beautiful sonata on his piano, Georg remarks that it would be impossible for anyone to hear the piece – fully take it in – and not be a good man. Although he does not know it, his words (and the sonata) have been heard by one of his most dangerous enemies. Von Donnersmarck’s master stroke is that Wiesler does not just experience the art – in a sense he actually becomes the artist. With his subsequent actions, he takes on the roles of his assigned subjects – playwright and actor – and alters all three of their lives forever.

The Lives of Others builds towards a tense, emotional climax that is both thematically and dramatically satisfying, although more finicky viewers may question the plausibility of the extraordinary risk taken by one of the key characters. There is also the question of a highly serendipitous clue that leads to a conclusion that some may find pat. However, these seem like trivial complaints in the face of a remarkable and passionate expression of the way that art can access our core humanity, pushing us inevitably towards empathy.


Friday, March 02, 2007

Crazy Love (Deruddere, 1987)

There’s really only one explanation for the fact that Belgian director, Dominique Deruddere’s debut feature (based on the writings of Charles Bukowski) is not remembered fondly as one of the 1980’s great statements on the painful awkwardness of adolescence and budding sexuality. It is because the film builds to an act that is so taboo that it seems unimaginable that it actually occurs in the real world. And yet it must, for how else would we have a word for it? It is an act that has caused Crazy Love to be released in a DVD package that trumpets the film’s credentials as a piece of bizarro cinema, comparing it to David Lynch’s Eraserhead. And yet, in truth, the film is not schlocky or surreal, neither exploitative nor extreme. Apart from some comically disturbing acne makeup, Crazy Love is surprisingly restrained and tender considering its subject matter. Make no mistake: it is certainly frank in regards to sexuality. However, it is not a cynical film, taking as its protagonist a man who is a romantic at heart despite the intense resistance he finds in reality.

When we first see Harry Voss, the year is 1955 and he is in the cinema watching a film in which a prince and princess head off towards a fairy tale ending. The impact is so great on the twelve-year-old boy that he steals a promotional movie still from the theater’s display case and takes it home with him. His older friend, more knowledgeable about sex, is unimpressed noting that the couple in the picture still has their clothes on. In the film’s first thirty minutes, we see young Harry come to the disheartening realization that physical attraction in the real world bears little resemblance to what he sees in the movies. His father is not a handsome prince, but rather a gruff looking, overweight man who snores loudly on the couch. His parents do not exchange passionate kisses bathed in a heavenly glow. On the contrary, they grunt and sweat under the covers in a fashion that seems decidedly utilitarian. His older friend, willing to instruct him in the ways of human sexuality, takes him to a nearby carnival to gaze upon female wrestlers and drunken lovers. The setting for this portion of the film is noteworthy as young Harry comes to consider human sexuality to be something of a grotesquerie. He takes in as much information as he can, hoping eventually to discover the beauty that lies underneath. By the end of the film’s first section, Harry is a little bit wiser about the world that surrounds him. However, he is not necessarily happier because of it, his naïve joy transformed into reluctant acquiescence.

The film’s middle section takes place later in Harry life, on the night of his senior prom. Still a romantic at heart and a practicing poet, Harry is cursed with a case of acne so bad that it nearly qualifies as a physical deformity. With a wicked sense of humor, Deruddere has pushed a common teenage affliction into the realm of the absurd. Little children stare on the bus in amazement. Harry’s female classmates recoil in disgust. Although the blemishes more closely resemble a new strain of the plague than something out of a Noxzema commercial, his doctor instructs him to be patient and let nature take its course. But for Harry, that is precisely the problem. Nature has taken its course and caused him to be intensely attracted to a beautiful girl that, in realistic terms, he cannot ever approach. He has composed poetry, using the letters of her name as inspiration and yet the thought of asking her for a dance fills him with horror. This may seem like familiar territory for a teen comedy; however, what separates Deruddere’s film from something more typical is not only his gift for black comedy, but how he demonstrates the way that these moments of intense social awkwardness can define us for a lifetime. Even when Harry is able to attain a small victory, he must do so through a desperate and heart-breaking act of self-parody.

Be warned: other reviewers will reveal openly what occurs in the final section of Crazy Love where we see Harry as a drunken outcast, rapidly approaching middle age. Personally, I am of the opinion that this development is best left for viewers to discover and experience within the flow of the film. I will, however, suggest that this section is effective at accomplishing much more than a cheap shock. It is the culmination of a narrative that suggests that the way we behave as adults is indicative of the way we are able to transition from youthful idealism to something more pragmatic. As Harry’s mother tells him, there are still beautiful things in life, even if they fall well short of our wildest fantasies. When we last see Harry, he is still stubbornly clinging to a notion of purity and romance that has long since died. We see that he has never successfully assimilated into a world that is decidedly imperfect and think to ourselves that it is no wonder that so many great poets have imploded so early in their lives. Don’t let the bland title or sensationalized marketing fool you. Crazy Love is a highly watchable film of great sensitivity, a seemingly forgotten gem of 1980’s world cinema.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

Rescue Dawn (Herzog, 2006)

For his most recent film, Werner Herzog returns to a subject that he covered in the 1997 documentary (unseen by me) called Little Dieter Needs to Fly: a German-American fighter pilot who is shot down over Laos in an ill-fated bombing run and then organizes an escape from the POW camp where he is being held prisoner. It is the kind of film that must have seemed like a dream project for actors Christian Bale, Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies. They would have the opportunity to grow their hair out and film in an exotic location with a legendary director who would no doubt have high expectations, but, all the same, would allow them performances that bordered on indulgent. When you’re going nuts and starving in a Laotian prison camp, who’s to say how much is too much? For Herzog fans, the premise may seem promising as well. After all, hasn’t the director excelled at finding poetry in the way that man can be swallowed up by the wilderness?

Rescue Dawn starts out promisingly enough with an opening sequence that shows the view from a plane as bombs are dropped from above and incinerate what lies beneath. What is odd about this scene is that there are few detectable manmade targets and so the effect touches upon Herzog’s pet theme of man vs. nature by showing us fiery explosions that plume amidst trees and wilderness, weapons directed seemingly at the Earth itself. Unfortunately, much of what follows resembles something that could have been directed by Ridley or Tony Scott. Some may not consider that to be such a bad thing. For me, it is a plunge from the sublime into the banal. Indeed, the early scenes of Bale’s cocky fighter pilot watching a military training film alongside his Navy buddies resembles nothing so much as the latter Scott’s own Top Gun. Our expectation is that once the exposition is over and Herzog ventures into the wilderness, he will be able to find some kind of underlying philosophical significance in Dengler’s arduous journey, some kind of insight or magic that only he can offer. Unfortunately, the tale never grows to be much more than what it appears on the surface. It is the story of a man who is captured, endures imprisonment for a while and then escapes. Nothing more. It is frequently well-shot and occasionally well-acted (with the more subdued performances of Zahn and Davies outshining Bale’s off-pitch bravado), but never particularly thought-provoking or inspiring. Herzog has made films much worse than this and he has made films much better than this, but I can’t recall a film he has made that is as safe as this. From one of the cinema’s great risk-takers, Rescue Dawn is quite possibly the last thing I expected: passable entertainment.