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.