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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Heart of Glass - transparently mesmerising

Werner Herzog personally hypnotized every actor in this film before each take, with the exceptions of the prophesier and glass blowers. Apparently many of the cast were non actors and while hypnotized Herzog would feed them their lines for the scene before rolling. What appears on screen then is a mass of haunted looking actors, some remote, others looking like they may fall asleep. Every action and gesture is this film is loose, dream-like, uncensored and surprising.

There are few directors who are able to depict nature with such power, mystery and danger as Herzog. Even the art of glass blowing becomes a kind of magic before his lens.

I essentially understand nothing of what this film is "about" but Herzog at his best always transports me to different worlds, to the brink of madness or revelation or human beings striving for the impossible. My favorites so far are The Enigma of Kasper Hauser, this, Woyzeck and Fitzcarraldo. Like Harmony Korine, Herzog has the ability to show me something I've never seen before, and for that I am eternally grateful for his films.

Reality - Burning Rubber

I'll preface this review by saying I wasn't a fan of Quentin Dupieux's Rubber back in 2010, I thought it abused a high concept (The impossibly sentient tire who just as inexplicably kills people) by acknowledging the fourth wall and having a gang of spectators observe and comment on the tire from afar. I felt the latter was unnecessary dressing and that the central concept was engaging and absurd enough to sustain a film on it's own. The observers actually took away from my pleasure of seeing a simple horror trope playfully skewed.

Both Wrong (2012) and Wrong Cops (2013) escaped my attention, I didn't even know the director had followed up Rubber until I found out about this latest effort from a film site I frequent.

Thankfully, in Reality the central conceit is acknowledging the fourth wall and playing around with cinematic conventions, so their inclusion works for rather than against the film.

I was initially frustrated by Dupieux's reluctance to settle on a story thread: is our tale about Jon Heder in a rat suit possessed by delusions of eczema, or the little girl who spies a mysterious blue video tape in the disemboweled entrails of a hog, or the aspiring film director (Jason played by Alain Chabat) charged with recording an Oscar-winning scream to secure funding for his feature film? Dupieux does finally settle on the third thread as our main line of inquiry, but not before confusing the little girl story by calling her "Reality" and having her as the subject of a film being screened for the producer who has promised Jason film funding.

Once you realize that the film is a deliberate play on confusing reality, dreams and cinema, you simply relax and enjoy how skillfully Dupieux surprises and plays with these various levels. At one point Jason calls the Producer of his film during an earlier meeting between the Producer...and himself. The earlier Jason tells the Producer to assure later Jason that he is simply having a nightmare and will wake up soon. In another section Reality is sitting before the Principal for attempting to play the tape at school. The Principal asks for the tape and Reality threatens to tell everyone the Principal dresses as a woman and drives around in an army jeep - but she couldn't possibly know this, because this was a dream the Principal had. She only featured in the dream, she couldn't possibly have been there for real, right?

Nothing is properly explained or tied up by the film's elliptical end but this, like Holy Motors, is one of those rare surrealist/absurdist films where the ride is so enjoyable you don't really mind if it doesn't make sense.

It loses a few points for being a little bit full of itself and not being particularly profound or insightful.

I Come with the Rain - bit of a wash out despite beautiful ambition

Despite a reviewer on Letterboxd suggesting this film fails due to an overuse of style by the director (Tran Anh Hung), I disagree, his typically sensual style and lush, saturated color scheme works well, its simply that this film tries to do too much with it's narrative, symbolism and philosophical questions.

Hung wants us to invest in a story where not only do we have an ex-cop perusing a missing son (Said ex-cop related too much to the serial killer he pursued, becoming "contaminated" in the process), a ruthless crime boss with a sincere and consuming love for his drug addict girlfriend, but we also have to suspend disbelief for a man who can absorb the wounds and illnesses of others and recover from them (and who later becomes a literal Christ figure). Even accepting a potential audience in people like me who adore watching weird cinema and are prepared to take faithful leaps into new territory, this is a lot to demand of an audience for one film, especially one that by and large adopts a naturalistic tone. The Cop becoming killer aspect alone would be subject enough for one film, never mind the miraculous aspect of the healer he's charged with finding.

The Cop's descent into madness comes across as forced and out of place and is hindered by the uninvolving Josh Hartnett (Who I've never rated and can't think of one performance where he's "wowed" me). The actress who plays the crime boss's lover is also a bit weak, you just don't care when she experiences trauma, she doesn't draw you in to empathize with her.

When in the final third of the film Hung attempts to get us to buy into Biblical stories recreated by our leads, it just feels like too much of stretch. It almost works but doesn't quite gel, which is a shame because the level of ambition here is admirable and I will always a praise a film maker trying to show us something different.

It's difficult to work out who this film was aimed at, presumably with an American lead, the detective tracking down missing persons plot and the Asian actors speaking English (often jarringly), Hung and the producers were looking for some kind of crossover appeal and mainstream success. But when you throw a "relating to serial killers" theme and Colonel Kurtz-esque figure into the mix, along with the healer and biblical references, you immediately alienate anyone who wont sit through anything weirder than Gone Girl. The violence is extreme (I.e. beating a homeless man to death with his dead dog) but no more so than the majority of Asian crime cinema.

Ultimately this film is about the beauty of human suffering (Said as much by the serial killer, a solid and typically creepy Elias Koteas), that we all suffer despite our various stations and their is profound humanity and complexity behind our suffering. Pity the film handles this statement rather clumsily.

As the Gods Will - Miike back in fine form!

"As private parts to the Gods are we, they play with us for their sport". Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett , Blackadder 2.

This got a pretty meager rating on IMDB (6.5) but to my mind it's Miike at his best: imaginative, disturbing, darkly comic, brutal, unusual and deeply philosophic. If you're looking for gore and weirdness, this is up there with Ichi and Gozu. It's kind of like Battle Royale with deities. A stunning return to form for Miike after the rather dull and tepid 13 Assassins. It also features the best and most consistent use of CGI in any of his films.

Strange Colors fail to mix

The Strange Colors of your Body's Tears is a truly beautiful film whose unfortunate use of aggressive stylizing ultimately distances you from being engaged with the story. Don't misunderstand me, the constant close-ups of eyes (which elicit a paranoiac response in the viewer) and oblique action combined with the detailed soundtrack keep you constantly on edge - it's an unnerving experience throughout that attacks the nervous system - but these devices don't make you care about the lead much less remain interested in what's happened to his absent wife.

That the film's narrative doesn't coalesce until the last half hour makes following this particular plot point very tedious indeed. Much of the film is taken up with experimental images and editing, and there are quite a few story deviations (From the mysterious old woman upstairs, the detectives recounting of an earlier case) before we pick up the threads of the wife's disappearance. They are fun but ultimately distracting.

As pure execution of style, in terms of photography, framing, color, set design, lighting and editing, the film could well be peerless. This is a dizzying and intoxicating visual feast, it's simply that much of it doesn't serve the story. The film's look, editing and sound design is quite obviously a homage to 70's Giallo horror films and fittingly an atmosphere of dread, of something lurking nearby is palpable throughout.

The film ultimately seems to be about a resident who develops some sort of fear/fixation with period blood on a young girl he meets in childhood, which leads into sadomasochistic exploits with women and ultimately murder. One of the women he exploits apparently becomes a killer herself. At least that's what I took away from the film's bizarre conclusion.

Existence is futile and frequently hilarious

Winner of Best Film at the Venice Film Festival, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence is a very funny and refreshing film, with an extremely dry, black absurdist sensibility pervading throughout. The "Pigeon" could refer to the first sequence of the film, where an impatient wife watches her husband inspect a Natural museum exhibit featuring a pigeon, or the story a girl tells her Teacher for a school presentation. It could also refer to the general meaningless of life presented in the film: a pigeon sat on a branch reflecting on existence; So what? Does it matter? Did the pigeon learn anything? Has that act changed anything?

The film is constructed from a series of seemingly disconnected vignettes, always one continuous shot, always static (Bar one barely detectable dolly in the Charles XII sequence), nearly always with underplayed actions.

At the fore philosophically is the ridiculous absurdity and senselessness that often pervades life: a man dies from a heart attack attempting to remove a wine cork, a young man is inappropriately touched by his dance teacher yet no-one else in the class intervenes, a Sea Captain is continuously too early for a meeting in a restaurant. The sequences themselves never add up to anything, but combined give rise to a palpable sense of absurdity and feeling of pointlessness in all human endeavor.

Another brilliant device is the recurring phone conversations composed of simply establishing that each party is "feeling fine" and "Well, I'm glad you're feeling fine". One elderly business man with a gun is seemingly interrupted mid-suicide to take this inconsequential call.

Wisely, the film maker gives us a few recurring characters to follow from scene to scene, allowing for a sense of continuity and character development absent from similar vignette films (For example the brilliant but flawed "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life"). Our two "leads", as such, appear to be the double act of Sam and Jonathon, two dour faced middle aged Swedes who attempt to hawk novelty gag items (For example their vampire teeth with "extra long fangs", the "classic" laugh bag and "a new item that have a lot of faith in, the 'Uncle one tooth'", a ridiculous latex mask - you hear this uninspired sales pitch a number of time throughout the film). Jonathon, with his high-pitched, swallowed nasal voice is the sensitive "cry-baby" to Sam's brusque, business mined bully, and just like any friendship, they fight, split and by the film's end are re-united - largely because Sam becomes lonely.

The casting for this film is excellent and paramount, characters are largely established by clothes and stance, maximum impact for their relatively brief time on screen. A lot of care appears to have been taken in composing bodies in each frame, arranging their posture to establish interesting shapes and characters. The color scheme is also brilliant; muted, desaturated pastels reminiscent of Stasi offices during the time of the GDR to my eye. They reflect the bleakness of the film and characters.

Man's savagery is also explored in the last quarter, with a chimp regularly electrocuted in a seemingly senseless science experiment while the technician has that familiar "Well, I'm glad you're fine" phone conversation nearby. We then see African slaves being loaded into an enormous revolving cylinder perforated with gramophone horns. The cylinder is then lit from below, the slaves inside walk the cylinder to escape the heat and the revolving chamber produces beautiful music enjoyed by a crowd of rich geriatrics nearby. We then learn this is possibly a traumatic dream experienced by Jonathon (Only it "feels like it happened" to his mind), who asks Sam and the receptionist of the building he occupies: "Is it right using people only for your own pleasure?" Much like anyone attempting to challenge the status quo, or attempting to ask important questions, he is told that it's an inappropriate discussion for the middle of the night and that "some people have to work tomorrow morning" Any question that could upset the natural order is pushed aside, ignored.

If I had one complaint it's that the mid-way sequence inside a modern Cafe where the historical figure of Charles XII appears, is so elaborate and filled with action, that the remaining static film suffers from the change of tempo. I would have structured this sequence as a climax. Overall the film makes me hungry to seek out director, Roy Andersson's other work.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Dance of Reality - Welcome back Jodorowsky!

Welcome back to cinema, Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Financed largely through crowdfunding, this is the realization of one of Jodorowsky's autobiographical novels "La Danza de la Realidad". I haven't read the source material (Was only available in Spanish back when I was reading Jodorowsky's novels) so I don't know how the film compares, but I have read both "The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky" and "Psychomagic" - the latter detailing the therapeutic technique he developed combining psychology, shamanism with a focus on active symbolic acts.

The film begins with ruminations on the scourge/blessing of money, and then young Jodorowsky and his tyrant Father at the circus, in scenes which appear to open the film with a flourish of spectacle, and remind the world where we left off with Jodorowsky (In this case Sante Sangre, which these scenes visually resemble. I wont count The Rainbow Thief, his actual last film, because I doubt even he would). It creates a sense of continuity with his film making and doesn't feel self indulgent.

What could have been self indulgent, especially for an autobiographical film, is the device of Alejandro (as himself) appearing in the film, relating to and often directly manipulating his younger self. Thankfully Jodorowsky is simply too inventive for this to occur; he keeps his appearances brief and his comments add another layer of poetry to the film. He even interjects at one point to place a gun in his Father's hands, possibly suggesting his recognition of shared violent impulses with his Father or to remind us that this film is Jodorowsky's therapeutic act upon Jaime, Alejandro is guiding this therapeutic journey.

It must be said here that Brontis Jodorowksy's (Alejandro's son) performance as Jaime is excellent, an explosive force of anger, frustration, self-loathing and sensitivity. His passion onscreen is palpable and the level of expression in his body and movement is impressive.

Twenty-three years on the bench have not dulled Jodorowsky's film making one bit. I challenge you to find another modern film maker who fills his films with the sheer force of life that is on display here.

Invention, spectacle, spiritualism, violence and passion are the hallmarks of Jodorowsky film making, however violence and spiritualism take a back seat here, and the relationships between Father, Son and Mother take precedence. It really is a story of redemption and therapy for Jaime Jodorowsky.

So what's new film technique wise here for Alejandro? Well, in the 70's and 80's he didn't have access to computer generated imagery - but before you go fretting about an excess of lazy CGI, ala Lucas, know that it used sparingly and for dazzling effect. It's not the greatest CGI in the world but is used to create a huge wave and hundreds of flapping fish attacked by seagulls on Chilean shores. In opening scenes young Alejandro throws a rock into the sea and is admonished by a figure representing the tarot image of The Queen of Cups: "You silly boy, one stone can kill all the fish in the sea", which it does for spectacular impact.

Steadicam shots now punctuate this film, whereas static or dolly shots were his preference in the 70's. There are also a few helicopter shots, a resource Jodorowsky presumably didn't have access to before.

The bold color schemes and art direction are back, use of masks and elaborate costuming, as well as the inclusion of amputees and other marginalized figures like transsexuals and little people.

The potentially annoying device of Alejandro's Mother singing all her dialogue was actually a joy throughout, and heightened the passion and melodrama. A mere Brechtian device (I.e. designed to take you out of the performance to focus your thought on the text or meaning) no doubt borrowed from Jodorowksy's theater days, but here feels fresh and surprising.

Inventions like this permeate the film: another sequence features Jaime rolling stockings over two upturned mannequin legs on a tabletop, becoming aroused and then launching into the implied image of intercourse with a woman on her back. This is effortless visual invention, evocative and filled with the virility that is another hallmark of Jodorowsky's film making.

But his sensitivity is also on display here: the haunting look of young Jodorowsky in the blonde wig tying him to his Grandfather (Who his Mother believes he is a reincarnation of), Jodorowsky cradling his younger self and stopping him from throwing himself off a rock into the sea, even the moment of tenderness from the despot towards his ailing horse moves us with its unexpected gentleness.

There is so much crammed into this film experience that I can't possibly hope to do it justice here. Jodorowsky films have always been the most filling, satisfying cinematic meals and I pray we'll get a few more before he leaves us - much like he does at the the film's conclusion, bending out of sight behind the figure of death on a boat which recedes from view.