Sunday, November 8, 2009

Black Moon (dir. Louis Malle, 1975)

Black Moon is a chimerical, hallucinatory concoction from French director Louis Malle. Malle's work includes, among many other notable films, the ultimate conversation movie My Dinner With Andre, which I cite for a very specific reason. Andre is one of the quaintest, most economically sound movies you will ever come across; a feature length display of good old fashioned conversation between two friends enjoying a fine dinner, each others company and the simple pleasures of the spoken word. Now, if you will, traverse the cinematic panorama to its other side. On this side of the landscape, oblique paths twist in on one another. Plots hover in the air and trail off, shapeless objects dripping acid. Phantoms abound, and it always seems to be cloudy. You are now in the land of Black Moon. Meet Louis Malle, cinematic trekker. His versatility is not to be denied.

In only the very loosest sense of the word is a "plot" present in Black Moon. It involves a young woman named Lily (Cathryn Harrison), who is on the run in a world where a literal war between the sexes is taking place. Overcast skies fill the screen as Lily stumbles upon a group of women in army drags beating a male prisoner around and laughing. Male soldiers gun down defenseless women in the streets, their army tank looming in the middle of the road like an over sized reaper. Lily flees from both scenes with equal fervor, and soon finds herself in a strange forest where she sees a few odd things, among them an overweight unicorn and a herd of naked children chasing around a massive pig. She follows these harbingers to a lonesome house, and from here the strangeness gets turned up quite a few notches. In this house dwells a loony old lady in a bed (Therese Giehse), babbling incoherency and trying to communicate on an old radio. Odd animals of all shapes and sizes and linguistic talents roam around the manor, as do a silent young man and woman (Joe Dallesandro and Alexandra Stewart) also named Lily (yes both of them). The couple appear to care for both the old lady - a disturbing breastfeeding is included - as well as the children, and their erratic behavior is alternately compulsive and calculated as they communicate with Lily in the barest, most abstract of ways as she tries to figure out the puzzle that is this mysterious situation she's found herself in.

There are indications throughout the movie that all of this is taking place in the head of Lily. The highly coincidental names of the silent strangers aside, there are a few instances where Lily is engaged in an activity with the strange animals and children, only to have the camera cut to a point of view showing her all alone, her behavior suddenly taking on a psychotic tint. Indeed, the inclination while watching Black Moon is to approach it in the same vein as something like Mulholland Drive or Repulsion, as an abstract and/or allegorical treatise of a disturbed woman slowly losing her mind. However the movie ultimately comes across as such a hodgepodge of symbols and ideas (it invokes- among other things - Alice In Wonderland, Tristan & Isolde, Garden of Eden mythos, medieval imagery, Alchemical symbolism etc.) that it feels ultimately futile to attach any significance or psychological underpinnings to the images presented. This borderline freeform melange is certainly interesting and occasionally fascinating, but it's madness never quite gels into a whole as interesting as its parts.

In many ways, Black Moon also plays out as something of a grab bag of elements from other surrealist masterpieces that Malle has clearly drawn from. The wordless opening 15 minutes, with its stark open roads, background war noises and images of quiet, left behind fires simmer with an apocalyptic quality that is clearly an homage to Godard's Weekend; the cast of random animals sauntering in and around the house with more moxie than its occupants recalls Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel; and the extraordinary house, a character itself, with its strange, ghoulish inhabitants and untold secrets feels like a relative of the house so important to the mystery at the center of the great Rivette film Celine & Julie Go Boating. That one of the names given a writing credit on the film is Joyce Bunuel should come as no great shock.

Malle is clearly indulging himself with Black Moon. He is having fun throwing this assortment onto the screen while simultaneously paying respect to those whose own creations inspired it, and what the movie lacks in resonance and coherency it makes up for with a charming, unabashed exhibition of imagination and appreciation. It also feels like an extremely personal film from Malle, the exorcism of a distinct creative impulse bred from the verve of the Nouvelle Vague movement and a thirsty, exploratory movie mind. It didn't surprise me at all to learn that the house and property used in the movie belonged to Malle himself. It'd be tough if you didn't know better to peg Black Moon as the director's work, but sure enough, there he is in every frame.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ten Halloween Treats

If you are like me, then that distinguished period of time every year starting around mid-October and lasting through Halloween evening brings with it, aside from the obvious indulgences of candy, costumes and parties, the opportunity to immerse yourself in your favorite horror films for days on end. It is in celebration of this that I present you (in chronological order) ten excellent horror films that may have slipped under your radar for one reason or another:

The Seventh Victim (dir. Mark Robson, 1943)

Producer Val Lewton's masterpiece is this menacing, moody offering starring Kim Hunter as a student who must abandon her Catholic schooling to embark on a search for her missing sister in a dreary Manhattan infested with devil worshippers, ominous shadows and things that go bump in the night. With an incredibly bleak conclusion even by today's standards, The Seventh Victim generates the type of movie experience that sticks in your head for many days.

Night of the Demon (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1957)

As he was so often apt to do, here Tourneur takes a smallish budget and fairly hokey plot and spins out of them an eerie and effective example of minimalist horror. Dana Andrew stars as Dr. John Holden, a psychologist and supernatural skeptic who, after the suspicious death of a colleague, finds himself in way over his head with local cultists and supposedly only a few days to live. Curse of the Demon, as it was renamed when released in America, has 15 key minutes trimmed out, so be sure to get the Night version if you seek it out (which you obviously should).

The Innocents (dir. Jack Clayton, 1961)

Clayton's brilliant adaptation of Henry James' s equally brilliant novella The Turn of the Screw is not only my favorite horror movie of all time, but also the most genuinely unsettling one I've ever seen. Deborah Kerr gives her greatest performance as the new governess of a lonesome and (possibly) haunted country mansion, watching over the two children who live there. Is the place truly haunted by the ghosts of its sadistic sex-crazed former employees? Is Kerr possibly projecting her own sexual frustrations and inadequacies onto the children? The Innocents weaves its Freudian themes in spellbinding fashion, leading to a controversial ending that is all at once frustrating, cathartic and utterly terrifying.

Kwaidan (dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

Quite possibly the most gorgeous horror movie ever made, Kwaidan (based on the writings of Lafcadio Hearn, a 19th century Japanese folklorist), is an anthology of four tales, expressionist in nature, with horrors that for the most part lie dormant yet throbbing just below the surface, giving the film a pervasive, indelible sense of dread. Each segment is a visual marvel, filmed using meticulously crafted sets with vibrant, popping backdrops, adding up to a dreamy and ethereal experience.

Cuadecuc-Vampir (dir. Pere Portabella, 1970)

This otherworldly piece of surrealism from Spanish experimentalist Portabella was cobbled together using documentary footage shot during the making of Jesus Franco's innocuous Count Dracula. Using high contrast b&w film stock and plenty of gothic imagery (making it somewhat of a distant cousin to Dreyer's Vampyr), Portabella sketches his own haunted version of the Dracula story, layering it with his unique sense of humor to create something strikingly original.

Tourist Trap (dir. David Schmoeller, 1979)

One of the weirder horror movies you're likely to come across. I saw this when I was younger and it's stayed with me ever since due to the completely offbeat yet undeniably creepy subject matter (involving lifelike mannequins) and the deranged, maniacal performance Chuck Connors gives. The story involves a group of teens who go looking for a missing friend and stumble upon a strange museum owned by Connors. A disturbed little sleeper of a movie.

Scarecrows (dir. William Wesley, 1988)

Criminally underappreciated 80's classic is a claustrophobic and tense-filled exercise in using mood and ambiguity to evoke terror instead of hollow shocks and gore. The excellent production values are evident in every shot, especially those where the camera slowly pans in on the uber-creepy scarecrows placidly hitched to their stakes. Look closely...are those damn things breathing? Well crafted and worth seeking out.

Ghostwatch (dir. Lesley Manning, 1992)

This infamous BBC production caused quite a stir when it hit British airwaves and fooled the country in 1992. Essentially a 90 minute scripted drama posing as a documentary special investigating a supposedly haunted house, Ghostwatch utilized well known BBC personalities playing themselves to pull the rug out from under its viewers with a grisly denouement, sparking controversy and even causing post-traumatic stress disorder in some children, subsequently leading to a decade-long ban on the program. Even if knowing it's all fake takes some of the juice out of the experience, this is still an effective and prescient artifact from a time when audiences were a little more naive, and bit just a little harder.

Regarde La Mer (See the Sea) (dir. Francois Ozon, 1997)

This superb little shocker from Frenchman Ozon has been referred to as Rohmer by way of Hitchcock, which is about as good a description as I can imagine. Sasha Hails stars as a young mother taking care of her baby at a beautiful seaside home while her husband is away on business. A mysterious female hiker knocks on the door one day asking to setup her tent for a few days, and what develops after is by turns nefarious, poetic and uncompromising. You'll never look at your toothbrush the same way again.

Silent Hill (dir. Christophe Gans, 2006)

Unfairly maligned upon its theatrical release, Silent Hill was pigeonholed by critics as just another lousy video game adaptation, which it most definitely is not. What it is however is a masterpiece of phantasmagorical imagery and art design that is destined to be rediscovered by future film lovers as an authentically haunting aesthetic experience. Set in a world saturated with fog where ash falls from the heavens like snow and ominous, piercing alarms sound off at a whim signifying something very bad, Silent Hill crafts a masterful, borderline transcendent experience that climaxes with a deliriously extravagant Grand Guignol sequence that few horror movies would have the stones or originality to pull off. And if it occasionally falls into the genre trappings of stock dialogue and plot developments, we can forgive Silent Hill for simply providing us with a world this fully realized and immersive.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Haze (dir. Shinya Tsukamoto, 2005)

One word you will occasionally hear when someone describes a movie is "claustrophobic". Sometimes this can refer to action that is contained to few characters in unsettlingly intimate living quarters (The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, to cite a recently seen example), other times it can obviously mean when a character is trapped in a tiny space, unable to move (scenes in Spoorloos, Kill Bill 2 etc.). And then you have a movie like Haze, which so fully embodies the term and so effectively paints the essence of claustrophobia in all its frozen terror and anxiety-ridden glory, that the horrors seep through the screen and fully into the psyche of the viewer to such effect as to make one feel worthy of an Olympic medal for having simply endured it.

The movie opens up thrusting the viewer immediately into the muck. Our unnamed protagonist (played by director Tsukamoto) awakens in darkness. Now whereas most movies in a scene like this would give our hero something, a lighter or match, to slightly illuminate the screen and provide something of a visual context for both the character and viewer, Haze is satisfied with a momentary patch of light, giving us a brief glimpse at our guys wide, terror-filled eyes before plunging him back into a world of complete darkness, his heavy panting and uneasy sounds saying more than any words could. He feels his way around the narrow corridors of this dark and mysterious place with his limbs as best he can, stumbling into barbed wire and other little traps, inadvertently setting himself up in some extremely cringe-worthy situations (the worst involving teeth and pipes) as he searches for anything at all that will make sense out of the predicament he has found himself in.

If it is not a wholly original concept, the execution is anything but stale. Tsukamoto's digital photography is unrelenting. The first half of the movie (which only runs about 45 minutes total), is primarily filmed in grainy, visceral closeups in near complete darkness. You can never really be sure exactly what you are looking at at any given time. It is disconcerting for sure and frequently frustrating, but make no mistake, Tsukamoto knows exactly what he's doing and his unwillingness to give the audience any piece of tiny freedom or context that our hero is not given feels fresh and admirable in a very committed, mind warping way. To give away much more of the "plot" would be a crime, but I will say that our hero finds that he is not the only person trapped in this place, and efforts to find out exactly what is going on and why give the second half of Haze its shape and focus.

Shinya Tsukamoto is probably best known for his cult series of Tetsuo films, none of which have been seen by me (I am anxious to see them now). If Haze is any indication at all, Tsukamoto has that distinct ability to craft not only a movie (a very good one at that) but an experience entirely unto itself. The most remarkable thing about Haze is that as immediate and intense, as in your face and unyielding as this material is, it still finds the perfect blend of poignancy and meditation on which to end, and it doesn't for even a second feel manipulative in the least. In fact, for all of the darkness and misery experienced, for all of the pain and anxiety felt, it probably shouldn't have ended any other way.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Sleepwalk (dir. Sara Driver, 1986)

Sleepwalk is the first feature film from Sara Driver AKA Mrs. Jim Jarmusch. Released in 1986 and clocking in at a mere 76 minutes, this quietly mystical fantasy is set in the Chinatown area of New York. Secret manuscripts, shady gangsters, possessed offices, ancient curses, kidnapping, murder and Steve Buscemi, everything but the kitchen sink is present in Sleepwalk, yet the film never feels overstuffed. On the contrary, it is a leisurely paced tale that makes great use of its atmospheric locales and quirky cast to deliver the type of enthralling natural storytelling that makes one seriously wonder why Mrs. Driver never gained anything close to an ounce of her husband's indie-god renown.

Following a voice over intro explaining in puzzling detail something about The Year of the Dog, we are introduced to Nicole (Suzanne Fletcher) who works in a typing/printing store, putting in long hours in front of a computer and pecking away at her keyboard day after day while her young son Jimmy sits at home under the care of Nicole's money-hungry roommate of questionable immigration status, Isabelle (Ann Magnuson). One particular day two men come into her store. They are Dr. Gou (Stephen Chen) and Barrington (Tony Todd, of Candyman fame). Being aware of Nicole's fluid Chinese, the two hire her to translate an ancient manuscript they have come into possession of through less than honest means. The manuscript, which stinks of almonds, must never leave her sight the pair warns her, and she has three days to complete the translation for an unspecified yet promising amount of money. Nicole begins to translate the writings, and what at first appear to be innocent fairy tales and legends quickly become portends to ominous events that will soon bleed into Nicole's everyday life.

All of this could have easily added up to Sleepwalk being nothing more than a hokey B movie filled with bad effects, a cardboard plot and stock dialogue, but Driver has something quite different in mind. As I said earlier, she is a natural storyteller with an excellent sense of pacing and a keen surrealist touch, and the events themselves happening in the film are not of extreme importance to her. Rather, Driver is interested in small, moody moments and the face of her lead actress, which is often working under muted emotions and detached dialogue in the wake of all the craziness around her. It is an enigmatic and effective performance from Fletcher and is the anchor for the air of dreamlike ambiance that often permeates through the film.

The streets of Chinatown are almost ghostly in Sleepwalk, and they provide a wonderfully mysterious atmosphere. They are often shown as desolate stretches of pavement filmed almost exclusively during the night where children and other peripheral characters wander around aimlessly like lost souls without a home. A small boy asks Nicole to help him cross the street, only to run right back to the other side again. A young girl tosses confetti into the air in a magical little moment. A businessman stops, turns towards Nicole and barks savagely for no apparent reason, which if nothing else reminds us that it is indeed The Year of the Dog, and strange things are happening. Sleepwalk is sprinkled with little moments like these that only add to the ethereal textures of the film.

At some point the plot itself becomes secondary while the movie focuses on following Nicole (and to a lesser degree, her son and Isabelle) and her journey. The best sequence of the film comes during an elevator ride Nicole takes from her seventh floor apartment down to the ground floor. The elevator begins mysteriously stopping all by itself upon every descending floor, opening its doors to reveal things increasingly sinister and surreal to the bewilderment its sole occupant. The scene bathes Nicole in the elevators shadows, allowing just enough light for her wide white terror filled eyes to pierce through the screen. All of this leads up to a pitch perfect cliffhanger (or maybe it's not) ending that gives the film a circular quality and leaves us with a unique brand of poetic resonance that only filmmakers of a high caliber are able to deliver. Driver's only other feature film was something from 1993 called "When Pigs Fly". I will definitely be searching that out, and in the meantime let's hope that she decides at some point in the future to try her hand at directing once more. After all, most directors should be so lucky to have a movie as special as Sleepwalk under their belts.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Poison (dir. Todd Haynes, 1990)

"The whole world is dying of panicky fright."

- Opening line from Poison

Poison is the conceptually interesting yet uneven 1990 feature film debut from Todd Haynes. The film attracted me for two primary reasons: first Haynes directed what I consider to be quite possibly the finest film of the 90's (Safe) and two outstanding films from the 00's (Far From Heaven and I'm Not There), and secondly the broad outline of the plot appealed to my guilty pleasure for horror anthologies. The film deals with three seperate stories, each told with an entirely different narrative model and visual look, spliced together to create a thematically consistent yet spiky and jumbled whole.

The first story entitled "Hero" is the most compelling of the bunch, and it is told in documentary format revolving around a young kid named Richie Beacon (remaining unseen for the majority of the story), who apparently one morning finds his mother and father having a fight, shoots and kills his dad, and flies out of a window towards the sky to never be seen again. This segment is made up almost entirely of establishing shots and talking heads giving testimonials, but it is effective in the way it slyly hands out little nuggets of info which put Richie and what may have transpired that fateful morning into a bit of perspective. We learn Richie was bullied, picked on constantly and made a staggering amount of visits to the hospital. Other secrets are shared and the questions continue to mount, all leading up to a splendid shot ascending towards the sky that closes the film and marks the one, true moment of beauty we are offered from Haynes.

"Horror", the second story, deals with a doctor (overtly named Dr. Graves) who has isolated and liquidated the essence of the human sex drive, and one day accidentally ingests it. What follows is a send up to the low-budget monster movies of the 1950's era, with a constantly swirling camera obsessed with close-ups and the appropriate black and white photography. As Dr. Graves quickly turns into a leprous, contagious monster, he finds himself the target of a manhunt while dooming the one woman who still loves him, all spiraling towards an inevitably tragic ending. It is tongue in cheek for sure, but not without charm as Haynes hits his stylistic bullseye and provides assuredly the most techinically competent segment of the film.

The last story comprising Poison is titled "Homo", and it deals with two prisoners in the early 1900's who knew each other when they were kids, but find themselves forced to reconnect in a much different environment. They quickly develop a cruel and sadistic, doomed sexual relationship that provides a few stomach churning moments and more than explains the films NC-17 rating. "Homo" is based on the writings of Frenchmen Jean Genet, and it is only with the emergence of this story that we begin to see exactly what Poison is going for. Haynes, an open homosexual, seems to be painting us a kind of mad, enraged allegory. We can speculate with a bit more ammo what exactly it is that may have tortured young Richie Beacon. The "Horror" story now quite obviously becomes a metaphor for the AIDS virus. Victimization, transgression and being outcast by society are the threads that tie these stories together, and I'd be lying if I said Haynes doesn't provide us with some particularly interesting things to say on these topics.

The problem is that it all failed to come together for me, and I believe the editing is the major reason why. The film constantly jumps from one story to the next in a manic frenzy, spending no more than three or four minutes on any given sequence while never allowing the opportunity to invest in any of the situations or characters. I just couldn't help but feel as though had the stories been given more room to breathe, perhaps giving us 10 minutes at a time between cutaways or even showing them in their entirety one at a time, it would have added up to a more cohesive and digestible whole. The pieces are here and they are interesting, but they are not in place, and while this doesn't take away from the importance of the statement Haynes is making, it does lead to a disjointed and rather frustrating viewing experience. I mentioned earlier that I was drawn to this film out of my love for horror anthologies, but here we are presented with a horror of a much different type, a very real horror. Though Poison will stand to me as a failed experiment, it still represents a challenging and noble first effort from one of the most important contemporary directors we have.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Bakery Girl of Monceau (dir. Eric Rohmer, 1962)

"One represented truth, and the other a mistake, or so I told myself at the time"

- From "The Bakery Girl of Monceau"

Eric Rohmer began his famed Six Moral Tales anthology with The Bakery Girl of Monceau, by far the shortest of the six films at only 23 minutes. Each of the six tales in the collection stand on their own as individual achievements, but collectively they make up one of the richest of all cinematic works dealing with the ineffable attributes of the language of love. Indeed a common thread running through each of the works involve a man inevitably drawn to a woman who is either just out of his grasp or a little too easy. They are often contemplative and dialogue heavy with self reflexive voice-over narrators, but they are never boring, and despite The Bakery Girl of Monceau's brief running time, it remains one of the most biting, potent entries into Rohmer's ambitious and important series.

The story itself is simple enough. An unnamed law student (Barbet Schroeder) hangs out with his buddy at a cafe day after day and admires Sylvia, a beautiful young woman whom he crosses paths with frequently. He desires the courage to speak to her and one day fakes bumping into her to get things rolling. They like each other and make implied plans to arrange a date the next day when they cross paths, however she never shows and sends the student into a state of mental turmoil and obsession. To quell his longing, he begins to frequent a local bakery and indulge in their pastries, and the sweet, doe-eyed, frumpy-yet-still attractive bakery girl begins to make subtle flirtations. He acquiesces to her overtures as something of a game, he admittedly has no interest in her, and is even offended that she would think he might be interested in her, but he nevertheless leads her on out of boredom and as part of some self satisfying revenge on Sylvia, who still weighs heavily on his mind. One day, after making dinner plans with the bakery girl, the student runs into Sylvia in the street and hits it off with her once again, ditching his plans with the bakery girl, forever wondering if she was watching him through the bakery window as he walked down the street with his future wife.

It ranks, to me, as one of the greatest short films of all time. Watching it again today, the thing that stuck out most to me was the gentle jazzy minimalist rhythm that flows throughout, the same style that would be a template for Rohmer's future work, and that here gives the film the reflective poignancy and impact that allows it to stack up against the best stuff of his career. The reason it works so perfectly is that Rohmer, unlike the vast majority of synthetic "romantic" dreck that Hollywood processes these days, has a genuine insight into and fascination with the nuances of relationships and the nature of the sexes. He is wise to the fact that words can sometimes be more effective aphrodisiacs than anything on a physical level, and the verbal cat-and-mouse games that usually develop in his movies are by and large more satisfyingly realistic, complex and unpredictable than any of the American by-the-books romantic procedurals churned out by the dozen. Influencing the likes of Mamet, LaBute and on down the line, The Bakery Girl of Monceau remains a microcosm of the importance Rohmer brought to film, and is a premium example of one not needing a feature length to make a lasting impression.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

After Dark, My Sweet (dir. James Foley, 1990)

"I'd like to correct an erroneous impression you seem to have about me. You see, I’m not at all stupid. I may sound like I am, but I’m really not. "

- Kevin Collins, After Dark, My Sweet

He is right, he is not stupid. But you can understand the need to explain himself. He is Kevin Collins (Jason Patric), former boxer and recent escapee from a mental ward. Stumbling down a barren road with no apparent destination, he soon finds himself in a bar, enjoying a beer and making awkward small talk. An attractive woman walk in. Her name is Faye (Rachel Ward). Kevin's brief chat with her no sooner results in an attempt to toss him out of the bar, however Kevin "The Kid" (as he was known during his former glory days) lays out the bartender with a mean right, and soon finds himself back on the road, a wandering mumbling mess. Faye is not through with him however, and chases him down. And from here their lives will take very dark and drastic turns as this absorbing opening sequence sets the stage for James Foley's brooding, stylish noir-thriller.

Faye is a widow and has some housework for Kevin to take care of. Needless to say this isn't all she has in mind, and soon Kevin is introduced to the slimy Uncle Bud (the wonderful Bruce Dern), an acquaintance of Faye and former cop who still has connections on the inside, and who always seems to be wearing a fake smile and grumbling out of the side of his mouth something about a scheme. A romance seems to be on the horizon, however one night Faye tells Kevin to leave for good, hinting at something ominous involving the Dern character, and he follows her wish. There is a side plot involving a caring doctor (Bruce Dickerson) who meets Kevin in a diner and quickly pegs him as mentally unstable. He offers to help out, and may or may not have his own selfish reasons for doing so. He convinces Kevin to stay with him for awhile to keep out of trouble, but Kevin is lonely and in need of companionship on a level the doctor can't provide, and he soon leaves to seek out Faye once more.

For all of this interesting setup, the central plot ends up being fairly transient. Faye and Uncle Bud have a plan to kidnap the son of a wealthy couple and hold him for ransom and they need Kevin to pull it off. After Dark, My Sweet is primarily concerned with atmosphere and characters, particularly these three, who by themselves are simply an alcoholic, a petty schemer and a mental deficient. Collectively, they are in over their heads before they even know it, and it is fascinating to watch, mainly because much care and thought have gone into the wonderful screenplay by Foley and Robert Redlin (based off a Jim Thompson novel) into making these characters complex, layered with nuance, and entirely unpredictable. The actors are more than up for the challenge. The script also provides some of the most deliciously hard-boiled dialogue I've come across. Take this example, said in voice-over by one of the characters during a key scene later in the film:

"We sat there for another half hour or so, and he was talking every minute of it. The words poured out of his mouth, and they didn't mean a thing to me. They were just a lot of noises coming from a sickish-looking face. What other people said had never meant a thing to him, and now it was his turn. Now he was meaningless and what he said was meaningless."

How can you not love that? It's a scene that will knock your socks off.

I want to go back to the performances. They are revelatory. First and foremost, Jason Patric gives probably the performance of his career. Kevin "The Kid" is a fully realized character and the strongest source of intrigue in the film. Simultaneously explaining his actions and desires in 5 year-old minutia ("I am hungry...for food"), while sharply and deliberately putting the screws back to anyone trying to take advantage of him, we ask ourselves, which one is the mask? How much is an act? Is there anything even wrong with Kevin? Is he up to something sinister or is he just a rebel? Perhaps the answer is something much more interesting than that. Patric deftly crafts the intricacies of the character to perfection, and it is a hypnotizing performance. Rachel Ward and Bruce Dern bring equally subtle, thoughtful approaches to their roles. The fact that you actually feel anything remotely resembling sympathy for Uncle Bud at some points is a true testament to the strength of the writing and acting on display.

When all the elements come together as seamlessly as they do here, we are left with a truly engaging experience. Despite its portrait of a bleak world, there is a very redemptive spirit at the core of After Dark, My Sweet. It is a film to be applauded, a near-masterpiece of modern noir with a perfect mixture of hope and despair, of dread and relief, that carries us on the back of its keen visual touch and astute characterizations to the type of richly rewarding viewing experience that makes one fall in love with the movies in the first place.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Music of Chance (dir. Philip Haas, 1993)

"When I was driving, nothing could hurt me anymore."
"Then you met me."
"And then I met you."

-Jim Nashe and Jack Pozzi in The Music of Chance

As the title suggests, chance in life plays so often like music, having a melody and it's own distinct rhythm. It can be a lush and symphonic presence, with fast, aggressive tempos and overwhelming crescendos. Oftentimes it is slow and monotonous, leaving you to wonder where all the years and opportunities have gone. But it is always there, a constant. Keep your eyes open and your head on straight, The Music of Chance warns us, before chance thrusts you into a situation of unthinkable absurdity, created entirely of your own making and at the same time completely out of your hands.

The film begins as we follow Jim Nashe (Many Patinkin), driving through a scenic stretch of an unnamed state. He passes Jack Pozzi (James Spader) on the side of the road. Pozzi is beaten, bruised, and caked with dry blood. Nashe offers him a ride. Pozzi, a card shark, was in a poker game and cleaning up, before thieves robbed everyone and left him broke. Too bad, he tells Nashe, he had a scheduled poker game in a few days with a couple of clueless, rich businessmen. It was a guranteed major pay day. He needs at least 10 grand to sit down in the game, and after thinking it over, Nashe decides he's going to back Pozzi with the last bit of money he has to his name. It's a compelling start to this seemingly straight story, providing intentional ambiguity in Patinkin's character. Why does he have almost 100,000 miles on his car if he bought it brand new less than a year ago? What does he do exactly? Why is he so anxious to give Pozzi (a less than savory character in both appearance and attitude) his trust and money?

The pair arrive at the mansion of the two businessmen for the game. They are Mr. Flower (Charles During) and Mr. Stone (Joel Grey, appearing as sinister as ever). They hit the lottery years ago and through big business are making more money than they ever dreamed. Pozzi and Nashe take a tour of their opulent estate, and here is where things start getting a little weird. They are introduced to a large scale model occupying a single room, referred to as The City of the World. "Everything in it happens at once" explains Stone. Contained within the model are little figures of Flower and Stone at different points and landscapes in their lives, existing at the same time. The City of the World also has a few other creepy touches, such as a prison where all of the prisoner figures have smiles on their faces and "can't wait to be rehabilitated". They explain a space cleared on the portion of the model representing their current property for a wall they aspire to build, or rather a monument in the shape of a wall. "A wall of 10,000 stones" Stone himself says through a creepy self-referential gaze. It is an eerie scene, and well establishes the mood of unpredictability that will ripple throughout the rest of the story.

And then the poker game begins. "We took lessons" Stone proudly proclaims, and it shows. The pair clean out Pozzi and Nashe for everything they have and more. Before we know it, they are stuck in way over their heads, owing an ammount they can't possibly pay off. Flower refuses to take credit from the pair, and a quick brainstorming session ensues. With no money or possessions, how can they possibly settle the debt? "There's always the wall" says Stone, "Someone has to build it."

To say anything more would be doing a disservice to this film, which has a remarkably refreshing impact stemming from it's wholly unpredictable plot developments and character revelations. It's just not everyday you come across a movie where you truly have no idea what's coming next, and it is out of this quality that The Music of Chance takes on a kind of hectic ebb and flow that, despite (or maybe even because of) the absurdity, gives it the feeling of life itself. And make no mistake about it, the plot is absurd. You could argue perfectly reasonably that there is no one in their right mind who would endure the impossible situation that Nashe and Pozzi find themselves in. And yet the film hits the right note time and again because at its heart it's not really interested in the circumstances. It's interested in its characters and how they handle themselves admist the chaos and ever evolving conditions. In the world of The Music of Chance, there is no destiny, no kismet. Only people and chance occurences. Random roadside meets and the turn of a card. And when it rains, it pours.

Director Philip Haas and his wife adapted their screenplay from a novel by Paul Auster which remains unread by me. The great crime perpetrated against The Music of Chance is that it has, to this day, never received a DVD release in America, and thus until it does so will remain unseen by all except the few who have the means to purchase and watch the UK disc or those lucky enough to catch an ultra-rare once in a blue moon cable broadcast. This is one of the great, unsung films of the 1990's, a work of deranged affirmation that certainly deserves to be seen by many. Cross your fingers that one day this gem will receive a proper release.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Phantom of Liberty (dir. Luis Bunuel, 1974)

"Madrid was filled with the stench of -pardon my language - food. It was indecent. "

- Le professeur des gendarmes, "The Phantom of Liberty"

A professor and his wife arrive for a gathering at a friends house. We think they are preparing to have a meal. Instead they all drop trow, have a seat on the toilets mounted around the table in place of chairs, and begin to converse and tell stories as they go about their natural business. A few pick up magazines to browse through. A little girl tells her mother she's hungry and the mother scolds her for her bad manners. The professor stands, pulls up his pants and excuses himself from the table, discreetly asking the maid for the location of the dining room. There he finds a chicken dinner, a bottle of wine and complete privacy. This is just one possible example of the horrifying potential of evolving morals and customs, according to the professor in probably the most famous scene from The Phantom of Liberty, the surrealistic masterwork by legendary Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel.

"The idea came to us to make a film which would...go from one story to another story, but leaving a story when apparently it becomes interesting". So speaks screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere on an exclusive interview for the Criterion DVD release of Phantom. Indeed this is a concept that consistently flows throughout the movie. We are introduced to a character, follow them for a bit until they are ostensibly drawn into one crazy situation after another, only to abandon that character for another in a flash, right as the action seems to be approaching a crescendo. If it sounds familiar to you, Richard Linklater also employed a similar style in his 1991 cult hit Slacker, a film I admire but have found to wear a little thinner upon each of my three viewings. It is a premise that in lesser hands could have easily felt manipulative and unnecessary, however for the most part The Phantom of Liberty feels throughout the duration of its 105 minute running time both fresh and inspired, in the style of its execution as well as the ideas that pour out of it. This is a movie of an astonishing creative vision that none other than Bunuel himself could have made.

And now I must be completely honest. I was underwhelmed the first time I watched this movie. I saw it one tired night during the peak of a week long Bunuel marathon I recently and proudly endured, and my initial reaction was that while it had moments of genius (which is to be expected from anything with Bunuel's name on it), much of it felt dull and ponderous. A tired journey with no seeming destination or point. As I noted, I was exhausted during this viewing and ended up probably mentally checking out by the midway point. However I was anxious to give it another chance, as parts of it had lodged themselves in my brain and stayed with me. Particularly my absolute favorite sequence in the film, involving Bunuel regular Julien Bertheau (the priest with a green thumb in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), playing a man who may or may not be a police commissioner, who on the day of the fourth anniversary of his beloved sister's death receives a telephone call in a lonesome bar from someone claiming to be her. The voice on the phone knows intimate details that no one else could possibly know, and Bertheau is compelled to follow directions leading him to his family's vault in the local cemetery. It is a masterfully directed and hauntingly comic sequence, even if the payoff is purposefully enigmatic.

During my second viewing I found myself quickly enveloped by the hypnotic, deliberate pacing of the film. Parts that had initially bored me now seemed rich with subtle detail and surrealist touches, such as the sequence where a little girl apparently becomes missing at her school, prompting her parents to race there in a panic. In fact the girl is in school and in her desk in plain sight like normal, but that doesn't stop her parents and teacher from conducting a full-on police driven investigation, with the adults occasionally shushing the young girl, who pleads with them, not unreasonably, that she is in fact right there and perfectly fine. This situation is typically Bunuelian, and ripe with comedic moments that had been completely lost on me during my initial, hopeless viewing.

Nevertheless there were moments that still did not work for me this second time around. An extended scene, set at an inn which occupies the most time any location is given during the film, between a nephew and his aunt apparently engaged in an incestual relationship is overlong and comes across as a bit gratuitous, bringing the pace of the film to a quick halt. The part where a sniper kills numerous people from the top of a building, is arrested and sentenced to death, only to be met by photographers and people asking for his autograph on his way out of the courtroom still feels overt and way too easy for Bunuel. However these did not deter my enjoyment of the film, rather this time they simply felt like a few minor, off color brushstrokes on an amazing canvas painting.

So after all of this, what does the film mean? Along with the title, the first scene provides a clue: set in 1808, Spanish soldiers arrive to liberate the city of Toledo. When a handful of the inhabitants refuse liberation, they are lined up and executed, shouting "Down with freedom!" before the triggers are pulled. Bunuel seems to be asking us if alongside everything wonderful coming with liberty, do we likewise lose something? It is a difficult question, one that doesn't have an easy or even tangible answer, but an interesting one to ponder nonetheless as we fall under the spell of Bunuel's meticulously woven work of art.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Noroit (une vengeance) (dir. Jacques Rivette, 1976)

"It is the Judas of the hours, wherein.
Honest salvation is betray'd to sin."

- Thomas Middleton, "The Revenger's Tragedy"
as spoken in "Noroit"

See if you can follow this. In the early 1970's, Frenc
h filmmaker Jacques Rivette conceptualized a four film project to be titled "Scenes de la vie parallele" ("Scenes from A Parallel Life"). Each film was going to revolve around a battle between two goddesses, one of the moon and one of the sun over a special diamond that had the ability to both take away and give mortality. Each of the four movies was to be fashioned after a particular genre, those being a love story, noir, pirate revenge tale and musical. In that order. Because of a nervous breakdown suffered by Rivette, and a subsequent abandonment of the project, only two of them were filmed and released. The first, released in 1976, was Duelle (une quarantaine), the film noir, which was chronologically the second part in the series. The second and only other movie in the project to be produced in it's intended vision was Noroit (une vengeance), the pirate film. Also released in 1976, it was to be the third installment of the doomed-to-be incompleted project.

A quick browse through my top 25 list should reveal the high esteem in which I hold Rivette as a filmmaker, and Duelle is indeed one of his richest accomplishments. An intoxicating, mystical air breathes in every frame of the film, apparently leading up to a promisingly epic battle between the two goddesses which in fact never ends up taking place. Finally getting a copy of Noroit recently, I was obviously excited to watch it. Could it induce in me the same breathless wave of awe Duelle had done as I watched it for the first time, and then once again over a single weekend?

In a word, the answer would be no. At least not u
pon an initial viewing. That is not to say that the film isn't brimming with magical moments. If anything, Rivette's charmingly bullheaded refusal to play by anything resembling the rules of a traditional narrative structure are at a peak here, and it works in creating many isolated moments of beauty that stand outside of any attempts at moving the "story" along. In fact, Noroit is the most beautifully photographed Rivette work I've seen to date, often punctuated with small, silent moments of the swaying sea against the backdrops of lush green hills while people wait silently in the shadows for mysterious meetings involving secret agendas the viewer is never completely let in on.

The story, to the extent that there is one, invo
lves Morag (Geraldine Chaplin), the victim of a mostly-female pirate gang who apparently inhabit their own colony, and her attempt to exact revenge against them. Specifically, their sinister leader Giula (played by Bernadette Lafont, so wonderful as Sarah in Rivette's towering masterpiece Out 1: Noli me tangere) who is mostly a quiet, sulking presence throughout the film, only displaying at the rarest of moments (mostly involving bloodshed) a wicked and menacing cheer. One or both of these characters may be goddesses and have possession of a certain powerful stone, but unlike Duelle, Noroit is content to play oblique cat and mouse games with identities, only revealing it's true fantasy core in the final act.

I must mention my favorite aspect of the film, w
hich would be the music. Or rather, the way in which Rivette has decided to soundtrack his film. In both Duelle and Noroit, Rivette has chosen the method of having the music scoring any given moment to be played by actual musicians appearing in the scene, always lurking around the periphery of the frame. In Duelle, you would occasionally hear the haunting, jazzy piano improvisation of Jean Weiner, and if you looked hard, sure enough there he would be in the background of the frame, hunched over his piano playing away. In Noroit oftentimes a scene will be playing out to the tune of a trio of stringed instruments and a flute, only to have the camera finally pan to a section of the room where the men will be huddled in a corner or off to the side, either looking away or passively watching the scene unfold just as the viewer is. It is a startling effect at first. One would think this could take you out of the film, or perhaps make it hard to concentrate. Strangely enough it transcends this notion and ends up being a stroke of inspiration, with the troubadors seeming at times to play the role of Greek Chorus, giving the material an almost mythical quality. Their constant yet disconnected presence is one of the films most potent touches.

So all of this is to say that I was visually captivated by Noroit from beginning to end. And yet it missed a beat for me. The rhythm was a bit off. It lacked the playful charm of Rivette's masterpiece Celine & Julie Go Boating, the magnitude of Out 1 and the aesthetic perfection of Duelle. Something felt out of place, and it will almost assuredly take at least another viewing to put my finger on exactly why. Nevertheless it is a worthy companion piece to Duelle and fascinating in it's own right. One can only use their imagination as to how the entire "Scenes de la vie parallele" series would have panned out had it been completed. Luckily using your imagination is something you almost certainly will have no problem with after viewing any single Rivette film.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Top 25 List

The Blue Vial is my attempt to keep an online journal of the films I watch, and to revisit the films I love (or have otherwise strong opinions of). In the interest of fairness to any potential readers, I would like to share what currently stands as my top 25 all time films.

Film lists are tricky things. They can serve as documentation for some, forever solidifying any given film into its rightful numerical place in the heart of its author. I've known some people to spend five minutes drawing up a list of their favorite films and spend years referencing it in any relevant conversation. "You haven't seen The Last Picture Show? Why that is my seventh favorite film of all time..." etc.

My list would in fact be the very opposite of that. A litmus test if you will. Fluid. It is often changing, re-arranging and very much has an "out with the old in with the new" type mentality. That is not to say that I simply cast aside my love for any of these films in favor of a newfound treasure or that I operate under any kind of "Flavor of the Month" modus operandi.

Rather, the world of film is simply that rich and voluminous. Just when you think you have it all figured out (if you are in fact that arrogant), a Jacques Rivette movie will fall into your lap and completely change the way you view the potential of cinema. You will watch something by Chris Marker and question the nature of films themselves...are they simply fabricated memories? Your brain and imagination will be stretched a thousand different ways by a thousand different filmmakers, all with something just a little bit different (or in some cases MUCH different) to offer.

And so needless to say, the following 25 films are of monumental importance to me. They either had a profound effect on me cerebrally or emotionally to the extent that I've no choice but to include them on this list. However none of these, save the top 2 or 3 (and even those are subject to change) are set in stone. This is simply a starter guide to the type of material you should expect to see me discuss on this blog. So with all of that said:

The List:


Mulholland Drive (dir. David Lynch, 2001)

The absolute pinnacle of Lynch's wonderfully bizarre career, both creatively and aesthetically. Never has a film intrigued and arrested me on virtually every human level possible quite like this one. Lynch's masterpiece is all at once a murder mystery, an identity crisis, a scathing indictment of Tinsletown and a surrealistic nightmare. Or maybe it's none of those. The Club Silencio sequence is the most hypnotizing and gut wrenching I've perhaps ever seen in my life. An absolutely perfect film.


Celine & Julie Go Boating (dir. Jacques Rivette, 1974)

If there were ever a movie that Mulholland Drive owed a debt of gratitude, it's Jacque Rivette's mesmerizing 1974 adventure/ghost story/fairy tale hybrid Celine & Julie Go Boating. With a running time of over three hours and an intentionally irrelevant narrative structure, it may seem like a daunting task. However those with the wherewithal to make it through the occasionally meandering and confounding first half will, in the second, be treated to some of the most magical and wondrous images and ideas that have been captured by a filmmaker. Equal parts Alice in Wonderland and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, you will have a smile for hours on end after you experience Rivette's mystical construction.


The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (dir. Luis Bunuel, 1972)

Bunuel's surrealistic skewering of the French upper class follows six charachters who are constantly trying to sit down and enjoy a meal, but for one reason or another can never quite get the food on the table or that bite in their mouths. Bunuel's direction is as masterful as ever as he deftly balances playful vibes and haunting moods in equal measure. There is an incredible fluidity to the "story" and the patchwork of tricks and tones on display here keep the film amazingly fresh. I could watch this repeatedly and never tire of it. Bunuel's masterpiece.


Playtime (dir. Jacques Tati, 1967)

A staggering achievement of set and sound design. Visually, the most diabolically complex and meticulous yet satisfying movie I've ever seen. Make sure to view it on as large a screen as possible, as each frame is overstuffed with sight and sound gags. One of those films you could watch a thousand times and pick out something new every viewing. It truly blows my mind the amount of effort that had to have went into making something like this a reality.


Days of Heaven (dir. Terrence Malick, 1978)

The most gorgeous film ever shot. Simple as that. You could take any single shot from Days of Heaven, frame it, and hang it in a gallery. Your mouth will drop time after time watching this at the sheer poetic beauty of the images presented. Malick is a legendary filmmaker and each of his movies are materpieces in their own right, but this has been and most likely will always be my favorite.


Claire's Knee
(Eric Rohmer, 1971)

There is no substitute for class, and Eric Rohmer has it to spare. The plot is simple enough: Boy likes girl, boy wants to touch girl's knee. In fact he becomes consumed with touching her knee. The fact that he is much older and never comes close to appearing as a pervert is a testament to the tact and grace of Rohmer, one of the greatest of all the French New Wave directors, and here he has created perhaps the most lighthearted and insightful fetish film of all time.


Sans Soleil
(dir. Chris Marker, 1982)

One of the more enigmatic films you will ever see, Marker takes documentary footage shot from various countries and splices it together, draping them over a voice over narrative involving a woman receiving letters from her unseen travelling friend. More a meditation on memory and how imagery and our capacity for retention play crucial roles in not only our day to day lives, but in our very views of the world than an attempt to tell a story, it remains a fascinating, frustrating and endlessly complex work.


Cemetery Man aka Dellamorte Dellamore (dir. Michele Soavi, 1995)

If David Lynch, Shakespeare and George A. Romero had a kid and he made a zombie film, it would probably look something like this. Cemetery Man follows Francisco Dellamorte as he works in a cemetery where every seventh day after a body is buried, it comes back to life, leaving him to dispatch of it a second time. The mixture of gore and philosophical musings are exciting to watch, you just don't see films like this well.......ever. As the story gets crazier and crazier, it reaches something of a mad purity before leaving us with probably the greatest head scratcher ending ever


Hoop Dreams (dir. Steve James, 1994)

Documentary (famously snubbed at the Oscars) following two inner city youths with loads of talent and NBA aspirations over the course of four years. Goes to prove the saying that real life is infinitely more fascinating than fiction, as this story takes the type of turns, both cruel and uplifting, that you just can't write. The subjects involved here are so engrossing that when the film ends, despite it being almost three hours you just don't want it to end. You want to continue following these kids to see how their lives will turn out, or if they will turn out at all, which is perhaps the highest possible compliment you could pay a movie like this.


Videodrome (dir. David Cronenberg, 1983)

A masterfully directed, nightmarishly seductive parable from Canadian Cronenberg about the potential of the television medium and losing control of your own flesh. Particularly prescient considering the current state of reality tv in america, videodrome starts at breakneck pace and doesn't look back, pulling no punches until its hauntingly transcendent (literally) ending. Cronenberg continues to be one of the most exciting living American filmmakers, and this film is as good an initiation as any into his terrifying universe. One of the quintessential modern horror masterpieces.

The Best of the Rest:

11) The Decalogue (dir. Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1988)

12) The Innocents (dir. Jack Clayton, 1961)

13) Safe (dir. Todd Haynes, 1995)

14) Out 1: Noli me tangere (dir. Jacques Rivette, 1971)

15) The French Connection (dir. William Friedkin, 1971)

16) Eyes Wide Shut (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1999)

17) au Hasard Balthazar (dir. Robert Bresson, 1966)

18) Predator (dir. John McTiernan, 1987)

19) Vertigo (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)

20) Laura (dir. Otto Preminger, 1944)

21) Inland Empire (dir. David Lynch, 2006)

22) Kiss Me Deadly (dir. Robert Aldrich, 1955)

23) Boogie Nights (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 1997)

24) Duelle (une quarantaine) (dir. Jacques Rivette, 1976)

25) Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara, 1992)