Archive for the ‘Films’ Category

Kids’ Games

December 6, 2007

Nightmaster
Directed by Mark Joffe
1987

bakinakwa says:

More Nicole Kidman.  This time the year is 1987 and the film is Nightmaster, originally titled Watch The Shadows Dance.  It begins with an ominous introduction that incorporates ambulance sounds and a montage of industrial buildings and landscape.  This leads to more crazy 80s music, suddenly a guy does a flip and then, voila, Kidman with a paintball gun.  At this early point in her career, Kidman is becoming synonymous with unbelievable hair.  Over the course of 87 minutes we get some entertaining gymnastics and trampoline jumping, a fair amount of homo-eroticism, drug deals, murder and a half-assed love triangle between teach Sonia Spane (Joanne Samuel) and two of her students.  That’s right, odd is just the tip of the iceberg for this film.

This is a highly convoluted movie, an unnecessarily complex story for such a simple message.  The concept of students playing karate games in an abandoned warehouse by night is treated pretty well, but it’s not exactly fresh.  Probably wasn’t in ’87 either.  The script builds up some gentle mystery around “Deep Coup”, and a wheelchair-bound game maestro (it’s symbolism) enlivens the idea a bit, but not enough.  The lead actor, Tom Jennings, had some charisma as star student Robbie Mason, but he’s also kind of pouty and annoying.  Kidman does stand out in her scenes, making it obvious how she was eventually able to work her way out of the doldrums of roles like these.  There are pockets of humor and interesting ideas, but mostly it’s just an overly ambitious, awkwardly structured 80s film with very little to offer of truly memorable worth.  The ending is cute, if totally expected, with a pretty good final shot.  Only the love-triangle between Spane, Robbie and Kidman’s Amy Gabriel struck me as somewhat original.  It had the potential to be subversive, but director Mark Joffe’s decision to deal with it by suggestion and allusion kept it from making such an impact.

Like BMX Bandits, worth seeing for Kidman’s early performance, just don’t expect too much.

bakinakwa’s rating: 3 Stars

lakelia says:
 
Not bad, for a movie that wasn’t all that good. It didn’t have the charm of BMX Bandits, but its darker and less predictable plot kept me interested. Deep Coup, the late-night game of stealth, strategy, and paint-ball guns that the teenage characters play after school, seemed at first to be the sort of fantasy-adventure world where things might get too real before they saw it coming, where danger could sneak up on them. This story of “The Game” is intertwined with the story of their safe and structured, if overly driven, pursuit of excellence in gymnastics and martial arts. It’s here, though, that danger actually lurks. Their teacher has a dark side – drugs, obsession, rage. While this film could have turned into a warning against getting carried away with dangerous games, it became more of a thriller-as-cautionary-tale about that archetype of the charismatic, too-good-to-be-true leader, and the lonely, talented person who falls under his spell. Tom Jennings, the actor playing Robbie, was not exactly stellar, but I was moved by the pain that showed on his face when he saw what his teacher had done, when he still wanted to believe in the man, still wanted to save him.
 
Nightmasters had some decent entertainment value outside of all that heavier stuff, too. Deep Coup looked like a pretty fun game, for one thing; there were some good moments of banter between the main kids; and it still makes me shake my head and laugh to think about the pouty guy who was reluctant to call the police because they might shut down The Game, while his friend sits there bleeding, a knife sticking out of his shoulder. The last scene, although it was suspenseful and ultimately had a poignant climax, was far from perfect. There was a major continuity problem with Amy lying on the ground, maskless, then in the next cut standing up and pulling her mask off. And how the hell did she even live from that last fall, not to mention look so pretty and clean?
 
Oh well, the bad guy’s dead, the guy gets the girl, there’s been a pretty good helping of bad-assery, and we’ve all learned something – that’s what really matters, right?

lakelia’s rating: 3 Stars

Oh, Don’t Be A Creep All Your Life

December 2, 2007

BMX Bandits

BMX Bandits
Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith
1983

bakinakwa says:

My interest in this film stems purely from the fact that I consider Nicole Kidman to be one of her generation’s greatest actresses.  Sure, she takes roles every so often that are beneath her (The Stepford Wives remake, most glaringly), but she also steps outside the bounds of expected roles (The Others, Birth, Bewitched, etc.) and goes out of her way to work with major directors like Stanley Kubrick, Lars von Trier, and, they say, Wong Kar Wai, not to mention her breakthrough with Gus Van Sant.  With that in mind, I’ve long wanted to acquaint myself with her beginnings, however humble (read: cheesy) or mediocre they may have been.  With The Golden Compass on the horizon, it felt like a natural time to begin a trip through her life’s work.  BMX Bandits being her first full-length film role, it’s the obvious starting point.  If the preceding reads like a disclaimer that’s because it partly is: back in the day I enjoyed BMXing up the block just as much as the next kid, but childhood passions do not necessarily make for great films.  If Kidman weren’t in this film, I would’ve probably gotten around to seeing it eventually, but certainly nowhere near as soon as now.

For the most part, I have no regrets.  I don’t feel taken advantage of.  The film is highly enjoyable.  This is the kind of film for which adjectives like “amusing” and “cute” were invented, and I use them not to damn with faint praise but because they most accurately convey my reaction.  I could try to tackle this film with something resembling meaningful criticism, but that would be a waste of time.  I think a play-by-play of what stood out to me would be much more fun, thus: the opening scenes with the BMXs is hilarious.  I already confessed to owning a BMX as a kid, but we never biked like the actors in this movie.  How do they bike?  They bike funny.  They have Aussie accents, not surprising for an Australian film but still remarkable.  Nicole Kidman’s hair is nuts.  Nothing will prepare you for that.  The scene of Kidman’s Judy and James Lugton‘s Goose discussing horror movies in the dark is good.  Zombies.  Major highlight: Goose tries to make a move on Judy while they’re trapped in a crypt with two goons running around.  At some point, some one utters “If only we had our wheels”, and that got a pretty good-sized laugh out of me.  Reality check: it’s impossible to believe the criminals pulled off a bank-robbery and can’t contend with a few kids on bikes.  Gotta love the breakneck-paced 80s music.  The bikes make laser noises, mine never did that.  What a concept: an army of BMX bikers coming after big time criminals.  Just begs for a remake.  Couldn’t believe I watched them attack the criminals with flour.  Foam fertilizing everywhere.  End: Nicole Kidman walked away with the biggest trophy.  A sign of things to come, perhaps?  The best moment of all comes near the beginning, when Kidman says the line we’ve chosen for our title; I’m not ashamed to admit it made me hysterical.

Verdict: highly entertaining, in unexpected ways.  I imagine that this film would be enhanced greatly by watching it with a few kids who had just recently gotten their first BMXs and would be wowed by the bike tricks and hair-dos.  Worth seeing for chuckles, for Kidman or if you yourself happen to be a BMX fanatic.

bakinakwa’s rating: 3 Stars

lakelia says:
 
This movie was nothing short of entertaining, and more so than I’d expected. I think what I enjoyed most was recognizing those staples of movies for the 8-13 age group – cheesy montages of something awesome (perfect choice: bike tricks), chaste flirtation and the suspense of who-likes-who, corny puns, the fat kid chowing down on ice cream, and the hallowed Home Alone tradition of incompetent villains variously crashing into things and having things crash into them, thanks to some kids’ heroic and unrealistic stunts. In this case, a quick-thinking girl distracts her kidnappers with a summary of a horror movie plot, while her army of BMX-biker friends is on their way to attack the criminals with…bags of flour. BMX Bandits had a few of its own above-average comedic moments, as in the series of mishaps that occur when the kids’ walkie-talkies invade other conversations on the same frequency – at one point, a construction worker is waiting to be told, “Now,” before he drops something from a crane…need I say more? – or when a drunken man sees the spookily-masked villains climb out over the gates of a graveyard, takes one look at his liquor, and pours the rest out.
 
I liked seeing Nicole Kidman in this early role, recognizable but dated enough to get a laugh out of me, with her rounded young face and that curly, curly red hair. Her accent was a blast. Accents are always a blast. And what a master of them Nicole Kidman is. There’s no way to know if she was that good when she made this film, but hearing her Australian accent reminds me how amazing it is that she manages to sound like a native U.S. English speaker in so many films, and I feel sure I’ve seen her pull off other accents too. I’m looking forward to hearing her British one on the big screen pretty soon…
 
lakelia’s rating: 3 Stars

Do Look Back

November 22, 2007

I’m Not There

I’m Not There
Directed by Todd Haynes
2007

bakinakwa says: 

Having been too young to pay attention to things like film and music during the 80s and early-to-mid 90s, it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when Bob Dylan was unpopular or, worse, irrelevant.  Since the dawn of the new millennium he’s had two critically revered albums, a best-selling autobiography, a much raved-about radio show on XM, appearances in ads for products it would be beneath me to mention, hundreds of sold-out concerts and now, with Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, the second of two film treatments from major directors.  Is Dylan at the height of his appeal?  Let me put it this way, when it came time for Haynes to create a soundtrack for I’m Not There, the majorest of major talents in indie music not only came out of the woodwork, but they spent the entire time doing their best to ape Dylan’s delivery on his classic recordings: names like Cat Power, Stephen Malkmus, Antony of Antony & The Johnsons, My Morning Jacket‘s Jim James, members of Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Wilco‘s Jeff Tweedy, and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs seemed more than happy to offer their best Bob impersonations.  Hell, even Sufyawn Stevens took a break from writing Christmas songs.

All of this is mere background to what really must be considered one of the most ambitious films of this year.  No one would’ve expected Haynes to turn out something ordinary, but I’m Not There still manages to seem weird, at least to someone who hasn’t seen Superstar.  There’s the oft-ballyhooed multiple actors playing Dylan, the complete lack of chronology or literal plot-line and countless liberties taken with the life and times of the man being biopic-ed.  By the end of the picture, however, that weirdness feels more like a veneer, a sheen, a stylistic touch meant to compensate for a lack of genuine content.  The end result of I’m Not There reads like a bullet-point presentation of Dylan the myth.  Meeting Woody Guthrie on his deathbed?  Check.  An inflammatory jump to electric music replete with Pete Seeger lookalike wielding an axe?  Check.  ’66 motorcycle accident?  Check.  Failed relationship with ex-wife Sara Lownds?  Check.  Conversion to Christianity?  Get the point?  All of these highlights and more get air-time, but not one is enhanced with anything resembling insight or revelation.  One could obtain the same information with less confusion from a good Dylan biography, like Clinton Heylin‘s Bob Dylan: Behind The Shades Revisited.  Also like Heylin’s book, these things and more are approached with that air of gossip and rumor that darkens nearly every discussion of Dylan: the man wrote the book on obscuring the truth to such an extent that even those closest to him don’t know what did and didn’t really happen, or if they do they’re not telling.  Reading Chronicles, his autobiography, it often seems that Dylan himself might not even know what’s true, and unlike Martin Scorsese‘s No Direction Home, I’m Not There doesn’t appear to have much in the way of source material or firsthand accounts.  Nothing is revealed, indeed.

Which isn’t to say I’m Not There isn’t enjoyable.  It’s not a bad film in the same way that No Direction Home wasn’t exactly good: when it comes to making a film about Bob Dylan, I suspect that representing the truth is the least necessary tool for good film-making.  What I’m Not There does is literalize the Dylan myth: it does it efficiently, it does it incorporating beautiful sights and sounds, it does it freewheelin’ly and it does it with flair and humor.  Which ought to be enough, I suppose, but it would’ve been nice if it had sacrificed the rest (well, maybe not the sights and sounds) and just done it with purpose.  As a Dylan fan(atic), I appreciate Haynes’ effort.  Any film that allows me to listen to sizable chunks of Dylan’s discography over those gigantic theater speakers is worth my money.  It’s just that I really can’t imagine anyone not already heavily invested in the artistry of Dylan getting much from this picture.  Does that matter or does that just suck for them?  You’re asking the wrong person.  The way I look at it, I’m Not There is like the Star Wars sequels: films targeted at a cult-like audience that, ultimately, isn’t as concerned with quality as they are with reveling in the opportunity to spend some time with their leader.  It just so happens that Yoda is a bigger icon than Dylan, so the film about my guy still retains that air of in-joke about it.  A film for Dylanists made by a Dylanist.  What else do you need to know?

I suppose now would be a good time to say something about the actual film.  Well, the six actors “are all Bob Dylan” approach is nowhere near as controversial as one might’ve guessed.  In fact, it makes sense.  Several of the actors do try to impersonate Dylan, but mostly they seem content to play their small part in the grand scheme of Bob.  Only Cate Blanchett goes overboard.  Yes, she ends up looking the most like Dylan and most accurately conjures a specific Dylan (the Dylan of D.A. Pennebaker‘s original Dylan picture Dont Look Back), but she’s also the only one who really overshoots the mark.  Her delivery and mannerisms attempt to mimic him so completely that her performance ends up offering the least resonance.  The scenes between her and the press are evidence of this: she had Dylan’s phrasing and jittery combativeness down, but she still lacks the feeling of effortless wit and wonder the real Dylan embodied.  Richard Gere and Marcus Carl Franklin, however, come off the best: Gere because he seems the least interested in doppelgangery and Franklin because he offers the most original conceptual take.  Of the non-Dylan’s, Charlotte Gainsbourg deserves mention for both the vibrancy and joie de vivre of her earlier scenes as well as the sadness and emotional vulnerabilty of her later scenes.  Gere’s scenes in the town of Riddle, however, stood out as the most engaging because it was here that Haynes best approximated, without actually duplicating, the mood and feeling of a Dylan period.  That period, of course, being The Basement Tapes era, and the approximation made possible by a kaleidoscope of colors, sounds, masks, animals, lyric-bits, sight-gags and more.  From the vantage point of Gere’s Billy the Kid we observe such brilliant images as giraffes emerging from behind buildings and crates of meat.  It’s about imagery, and Haynes does very well here at recalling the swirl and rush of images that one gets from the best Dylan songs.

Indeed, the highlight of the picture, the funeral scene (from which the picture above is culled), takes place against this backdrop; once Jim James’ take on “Goin’ To Acapulco” kicks into high gear backed by the gorgeous horns of Calexico, Haynes finally hits with the emotional punch of Dylan at his best.  If only more of the film were like this it might have risen above the level of homage to something more meaningful, something able to stand on its own.  As is, it’s yet another companion piece to a body of work that needs no companions.  In the same way that we only have Homer‘s retelling of The Iliad and The Odyssey to go on, it wouldn’t surprise me if Haynes’ picture became the dominant Dylan document in the future.  The film’s unrestrained creativity makes it a captivating enough film to be that, but that’s ultimately all it is: an excellent retelling of a story that those of us who care already know by heart.

bakinakwa’s rating: 3.5 Stars

lakelia says:

I was enjoying this movie, interested in some of the characters’ fates, intrigued by the imagery and music, having fun recognizing the references to Dylan’s many stories, until somewhere around the time that Jim James stood up on stage in the town of Riddle and sang “Goin’ to Acapulco.” From then on I was truly impressed. First of all, Jim James has an amazing voice. I’ve always liked it, as much for its straightforward beauty and expressiveness as for that strange quality it has of sounding almost electronic – like it’s a setting on a synthesizer, or maybe coming through a speaker twice. But his voice was especially amazing singing this song. Mournful and sweet and yearning, it swung out above this scene of James on stage with his face painted white, the girl in the casket whose eyes looked sometimes forward and sometimes up and away, an uneasy and aching moment in a Halloween town – I loved it.

It was also right around this time in the stories that Pat Garrett said to the Recluse Formerly Known as Billy the Kid, “You think you’re speaking for the people? We have ways of dealing with scoundrels like you.” I guess when I first heard that line I vaguely interpreted it as pointing out how the public, or the media, or whoever, had made Dylan pay a price for “speaking for the people,” even though he himself had never, as far as I know, said anything at all along the lines of, “I am the voice of my generation.” I’m by no means an expert on Bob Dylan, but I’ve learned enough to know that it’s not a good idea to try to say anything about what Dylan did or did not (or does or does not) think about himself as a public figure. So, that fairly direct interpretation of Pat Garrett’s line isn’t really why it stood out to me. It was more that it seemed to be a transcendent line, something that touched all six Dylan-people. Somehow, it unified the different stories for me into all being about one multi-faceted thing – the mythology around Bob Dylan.

I can’t imagine seeing this movie without being able to recognize references to Dylan’s story/stories, both those the public watched and those Dylan made up at one time or another. I doubt I caught all the references, but I did see them fairly frequently and it was a lot of fun. The photograph of Julianne Moore in profile as Joan Baez, although one of the most obvious, was one of my favorites, just for its cheekiness and humor. During most of the film, the six different stories seem totally unrelated and, aside from the love story and the story of 11-year-old Woody, were rather thin on plot, so it was the little in-jokes thrown out to Dylan fans that kept me having fun.

Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of Dylan was fun to watch, but its quality could only be called excellent for something about the length and depth of a Saturday Night Live skit. The look was good, the mannerisms were a well-done caricature, but I didn’t believe her most of the time. She did have some great moments written for her character, though – I loved when she rolled around on the grass with The Beatles, all of them talking in little helium voices. And saying to Jesus on the cross, “Why don’t you do your early stuff?”…well, that speaks for itself. I also thought the exchange between Blanchett’s character, Jude, and the BBC journalist about whether Jude actually cared about anything was one of the most interesting displays of tension and ideas. The way this scene then transitioned into a sort of montage-as-music-video for “Ballad of a Thin Man” was excellent.  It combined more faithful mimicry of Dylan footage (this time, his 1966 performances), images from young Woody’s story and a humiliating indictment of this journalist as a manifestation of Mr. Jones.

Overall the movie was greatly creative and very enjoyable. Even though there was nothing besides my own familiarity with Dylan’s history to hold the six stories together, none of the scenes dragged. There were a number of moments that were like Dylan’s songs – the giraffe coming out from behind a house in the Wild West being the one that stood out the most. The whole film even was a bit like a Dylan song. Moments of insight, moments of humor, and something that, taken all at once, can really work your senses and your psyche.

lakelia’s rating: 4 Stars

Ha Ha, The Poisoned Bait

November 9, 2007

Brigitta
Directed by Nick Millard (as Nick Phillips)
1967

lakelia says:

This was an odd one. I could call it “bizarre,” but I’m not sure it was enough… enough whatever it was to merit that meaningful a word. At first it seemed to be just a mediocre older movie about a young woman whose boredom and unhappiness might be tiresome to watch (I thought of The Forest for the Trees), but not too far in it turned into a soft-core porn, and then belatedly became, of all things, a morality play. It told the mildly interesting story of a young woman in Munich who is swept off her feet (and enjoyably drugged) by a handsome stranger. After he convinces her to sacrifice her own morals and self-respect to help him pay off a debt, he proceeds to betray her with another woman. She takes this as a good reason to become what men want and expect anyway: a whore. (As in Malèna and Millie, the title character seems to think, “If being good gets you treated badly anyway, why not have the benefits of being bad?” Or maybe the motivation is more, “If I can’t make this injustice stop, at least I can deserve it.” That would be one way to escape the pain of knowing something isn’t fair.) Eventually, the friend Brigitta talks into joining her in her new profession contracts an STD and passes it on to Brigitta’s former boyfriend for revenge. And then Brigitta gets hit by a car.

Okay…

I actually enjoyed the way this story was told: completely through voice-over narration, accompanied by continuous jazz music, while all the “dialogue” between characters passed underneath it like a silent movie. Eventually I got so used to this first-person storytelling – like reading subtitles – that I forgot it was anything unusual not to be able to hear what was coming out of the moving mouths. The story started to plod, though, in the unreasonably extended scenes of watching the stripper from Strasbourg, and of the porn-within-a-porn that Brigitta and her friend watch together. I thought I had the measure of the movie when I saw how much attention these scenes got, but then the last twenty-five seconds made an abrupt (and very weak) attempt to send a message. Maybe the idea was to rope in anyone who likes such sinfulness as prostitution and pornography and then – bam! – let them know the price they too will pay. Or maybe the idea was to have the fun of prostitution and pornography and then do a little rationalizing for anyone who’s offended. Or maybe, I suppose, it wasn’t a message at all but just a tragic ending for a tragic figure.

Who knows.

 

I can say this for Brigitta: it’s nice once in a while to have something to compare the good stuff to.

lakelia’s rating: 1.5 Stars

bakinakwa says:

Brigitta is a film that I was initially attracted to purely for its cover, which, to paraphrase that old saying, is no way to pick a film.  I prefer to go into films knowing as little as possible – plot, personnel or otherwise – so as not to spoil anything.  In this instance, however, wow was that dumb.  This film is absolutely dreadful.  With the possible exception of a few shots of Munich citylife in the 60s, there is nothing to recommend this film.  For starters, there’s no dialogue.  The entire film is narrated by Elke Cole in voiceover against a backdrop of mildly pleasing lite-jazz.  The decision to forgo dialogue is especially bizarre considering that all of the actors appear to be doing quite a bit of talking during several scenes.  Perhaps all of the actors were chosen for their looks and had such horrible speaking voices that the director decided their dialogue was unusable.  I doubt it, but how else does one explain such a stupid choice?

Ms. Cole also acts in the film as the titular character, though I use the word act incredibly loosely here.  Mostly she behaves like someone unaware that she’s being filmed.  Her sex scene with Bize, for instance, amounts to little more than flopping around on the sofa like a dog when its human isn’t home.  For a film that puts gratuitous sex out there as a substitute for anything resembling a plot or characters, absolutely none of the sex scenes are even remotely sexy.  They’re not even titillating, they’re just boring.  I found myself waiting for the film to end halfway through, and that’s with a mere hour and one minute runtime.

To top it off, the ending is a completely bizarre and unexpected attempt at turning the film into a morality play of sorts.  Apparently, getting hit by a car is a perfectly normal comeuppance for turning to a life of prostitution, lesbianism, and drunkenness.  Or maybe it’s payback for having spread a “social disease” for revenge.  Whatever.

bakinakwa’s rating: 1 Star

Maybe We Belong Together

November 3, 2007

Love Is Colder Than Death

Love Is Colder Than Death
Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder
1969

lakelia says:

I really have no idea why this film bears its title. There was love, in one or two of the many senses that people use that word, and there was death, more than once, and throughout the story there was definitely coldness. But I couldn’t say why these ideas are strung together this way in the title.

This film, the first one I’ve seen of Fassbinder’s, didn’t offer me much in the way of plot, or dialogue, or ideas. I found the story to be rather boring. Maybe the handful of examples (or has it just been one or two?) I’ve already seen of the they-dabble-in-crime-and-then-go-overboard-and-then-they-pay story have pretty much sated my appetite for the genre.

I did find Fassbinder’s stylistic touches to be interesting, though. From the first scene on, I was struck by the way that the film seemed like a play. There was a series of simple sets, each scene staying put on its own, without much change in camera angle. There was absolutely no blood, despite the numerous gunshot wounds. There were many long holds of close-ups on faces, before or after the character spoke. That touch of directing was probably the one thing I found most unique and interesting about the film – although I can’t say it held my interest very long. Of course, I can get caught up in just about any story while I’m reading or watching it, I am still very much enjoying listening to German and picking up a familiar word or phrase here and there, and it will be interesting to have seen this early film when we see more of Fassbinder, so it wasn’t all for naught.

lakelia’s rating: 3 Stars

bakinakwa says:

Another leftover from German Film Month, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s debut full-length feature also happens to be my first taste of the work of the famed director.  In all honesty, beyond name recognition and the fact that he is considered by many to be one of the greatest German directors, I didn’t know much about him going in.  After seeing Love Is Colder Than Death, I still don’t, but now I do know I’m interested to find out.

Despite the fact that Love Is Colder Than Death is a thoroughly unexceptional film, it at least introduces the elements of his œuvre.  Or, more accurately, what I suppose will be the elements of his œuvre: alienation, oppression, yearning and violence.  In short, everything that makes life great.  Right?  Throw in some sexual tension, some homoerotic undertones, a few unintentionally comic action sequences and a strong attempt at social criticism and we’ve got an ambitious picture on our hands.  I do like it, but Fassbinder’s first attempt comes across primarily as undeveloped.  Love Is Colder Than Death works best when taken more as a collection of unrelated vignettes: Bruno and the woman on the train, Bruno and Franz cruising the streets of Munich and, the crown jewel, Johanna and Bruno shopping (and shoplifting) at the supermarkt.  When the film chases the plot, it’s just another story about three misfits rebelling without a snowball’s chance in hell of getting out alive.

On the plus side, Hanna Schygulla is a pleasure to watch throughout, with or without her blouse.  Humor seeps in through surprising ways: the thrice-fooled attendant at the glasses counter and the secret deal made over pinball, to name two examples.  Also, several of the longer shots, such as the one of the three protagonists ambling down a deserted road, cast visual spells and strike emotional chords at the same time.  In the scene I mentioned in the supermarkt, the camera’s eye follows Johanna and Bruno around the store in one long shot that rises above the plateau the rest of the film exists on.  To me it symbolizes both the sterile infrastructure the three main characters are unwittingly lashing out against as well as the tremendous potential for alienation in the modern world, eloquently conjured by the untold distance between Johanna and Bruno even as they stroll the aisles side by side.  For my money, it’s the highlight of the film.

Other than that, I would consider myself more intrigued than impressed.  It’s easy to see without looking too hard that Fassbinder had the potential for greatness from the beginning.  Word of mouth says he subsequently lived up to it, so I guess that leaves me looking forward to discovering what the world already knows.  If this is what Fassbinder is all about I can see myself getting into it.  I’m alone too.  Maybe we belong together?

bakinakwa’s rating: 3.5 Stars

Be Happy Something’s Happening

November 2, 2007

Schultze Gets The Blues

Schultze Gets The Blues
Directed by Michael Schorr
2003

bakinakwa says: 

One thing lakelia and I did this summer was visit family in Germany.  We declared the month before we left German Film Month and limited our viewing to films that we thought might help to prepare us for German language and culture.  Films like Downfall and Good Bye Lenin!, among many others.  Schultze Gets The Blues was a film we intended to watch during German Film Month but, for whatever reason, we didn’t get to it before trip-time.  It’s too bad too because Schultze, more than any other film we did see, paints a straightforward portrait of the German countryside and its inhabitants, circa these days.  Of course, I only know that now, having experienced it firsthand.  In that way, I suppose seeing it after our return also worked out quite nicely.

I wouldn’t be telling the full truth if I didn’t admit that I expected something more from the film.  I attribute this to the huge splash the film made on my radar in 2005 when it finally received limited release in the United States.  At the time it felt like everywhere I turned there was Schultze with a rave review or, later, on a year-end list.  My experience with Schultze is proof positive that expectations serve no purpose quite so well as spoiling an otherwise pure reaction.  That reaction with Schultze was one of delight.  The concept, the characters, the acting, the music – I’d say everything about this film is endearing, perhaps to a fault, but certainly not in any way that takes away from its appeal. Horst Krause in the lead role is the definition of one-dimensionally charming. When he hears that new sound on the radio for the first time and cocks his head, he’s laugh-out-loud funny in the least familiar way.  He is completely watchable and relatable and by the end of the film I felt more than a little attached to him, yet his demise didn’t evoke sadness in me so much as acceptance spiked with confusion, and that’s with it being completely unexpected.

Why does this film leave one wanting more? Many will point to the pacing, which I’m sure tugged/will tug at the boundaries of the attention spans of US critics and audiences, but that wasn’t a drawback for me. Nor was the relative lack of dialogue. To wit, I read the entire script in less than five minutes, but that is no matter. No, for me Schultze disappoints for the same reason it appeals: it’s quite content to tell its simple story about the last days of a quiet, charming musician. Nothing more, nothing less. Schorr directed this film armed with the knowledge that not all lives flare out or rise to dramatic, do-you-have-any-last-words heights in their final moments. Some just stop. That’s true, and Schultze never comes off as complacent in that truth, but nor does it offer much reason to ponder that truth for much longer than the first half hour after the film ends.

There is one area in which the film succeeds unconditionally though, and that is as an aural experience. Shots of landscape and sky are accompanied by crisp, clear sounds that build until finally their cause is revealed. Minimal background is used allowing the real sounds of the story to be heard.  Ordinary sounds, from breathing, eating, walking, the wind and lawnmowers, to the sound of bicycle tires on road to, of course, Schultze’s accordion are given the utmost opportunity to make their presence felt in a natural, honest way. The main reason it’s remarkable is because other films don’t sound like this; they muck it up with expensive schlock (an oxymoron, I know) and unnecessary noise. I applaud this film for having the ears to forgo all that.  To a lesser extent than it succeeds on an aural level the film also succeeds visually: the shots of Schultze cruising the swamps (or are they marshes?) are a real feast for the eyes.

I must add, nothing Schultze plays or is exposed to in Texas sounds like the blues so much as it does Zydeco, which basically defeats the purpose of the film’s double entendre title.  Indeed, the jambalaya he prepares and most of the music used in the film support the idea that the title was chosen more for its catchiness than for its accuracy.  Anyone coming to the film expecting to see Schultze sing or play the blues will be left hanging.  Other than that, Schultze Gets The Blues is a-okay in my book.

bakinakwa’s rating: 3.5 Stars

lakelia says:

I think that when people are in an unfamiliar setting, attempting to communicate in a foreign language, there’s a childlike quality about them. I’m thinking of a few recent examples – myself, for one, arriving in Munich this summer with maybe a few more words in German than Schultze had in English, some tourists who tried to get directions from the driver of a bus I was on a few weeks ago, and Schultze himself, lucking out that “zupa-markt” sounds reasonably close to “supermarket.” Between the lack of vocabulary, the inability to have or understand nuanced conversation, especially jokes, and the earnest hope for understanding, a definite vulnerability, even innocence, comes through. This foreign lostness accounts for some of Schultze’s charm in the latter portion of the movie, but the truth is he was endearing in Germany too. The sight of him sitting in the garden near his little gnome, coughing intermittently; the expression on his face when he went back for the second and third time to hear the alarming music coming out of the radio; the way he listened obediently to the televised instructions for cooking jambalaya; and his bewilderment and self-consciousness at his newfound musical passion – all made quiet Schultze lovable from the beginning.

So it happened that as the credits to Schultze Gets the Blues started rolling, I felt saddened, a little bereft, vaguely indignant. It seemed something had been tugged suddenly away from me, a small and recent treasure that I was quickly growing very fond of. Now it was disappearing without even a just farewell. No resolution. But, no particular lack of one either. Schultze ended the way it was throughout – bare, simple, and slow, with no more or less meaning than all of our everyday experiences.

Schultze was strikingly lifelike. Great emotional and psychological events took mundane forms, and no explanation followed. Generic moments of daily life got the same cinematic treatment as Schultze’s wordless, troubled turning of his father’s picture to face the wall. The ending could be said to have been foreshadowed, or not – sometimes a cough or a radio program about what happens to coal miners’ lungs indicate something about the future, and sometimes they don’t. I know I didn’t expect it. Schultze seemed utterly realistic, and yet it was also fantastical. His meandering through the marshes had the quality of a mythological journey, from the unexplained appearance of a boat to the revolving cast of characters he came upon and asked for aid. These last few days – or weeks, or however long it was – of Schultze’s story were like a dreamy tangent from his former life. Fascinated by a foreign music, hampered by familial and cultural expectations, with an unprecedented amount of time on his hands and some supportive long-time friends, Schultze drifted away to another world, struggled silently with his memories and creativity and self-consciousness, wandered, and departed.

Some might leave this slow-paced film like most of Schultze’s acquaintances walked away in the final scene – chatting, distracted, already moving on; but I felt more like Schultze’s two closest friends, who hung back, trying to let it sink in.

 

lakelia’s rating: 4 Stars

And Now I’m In This Dream Place

October 20, 2007

Mulholland Drive

Mulholland Dr.
Directed by David Lynch
2001

bakinakwa says: 

When it came time to choose our inaugural film, the choice wasn’t immediately obvious.  We could go with our namesake, of course, but that would be a clichéd and not at all unexpected selection.  We had already decided to do a film we actually own, so what were the options?  Donnie Darko is a film we’ve both loved, but we’ve seen it not too long ago, so that’s out.  Bob Dylan‘s Dont Look Back would be cool, but there must be a better kick-off.  Casablanca?  No, that’ll have to wait for Humphrey Bogart month.  Lost In Translation?  No, we want to go back and see The Virgin Suicides first.  What then?

We settled on what was probably the clear choice all along: Mulholland Dr., a film that, since seeing it in theatre on November 24, 2001, I have consistently maintained is my favorite of all-time.  lakelia is less enamored with it (I think), but as a starting point it simply felt right.  So, what made me regard it so highly immediately after my first viewing?  Considering that I probably hadn’t seen but a few dozen films previously, it could hardly be attributed to any sterling critical faculty.  Leaving the theatre, walking out into the chill, after-midnight southern California air, I felt energized, excited, invigorated, challenged and, here comes another cliché, alive.  I remember it now as a visceral, physical reaction.  To the unprepared imagination, Mulholland Dr. is dynamite, single-handedly exploding the boundaries of what a movie can and should be.  While critical reviews and my friends’ reactions at the time felt mired in dissecting the plot and chronology of the film, I felt satisfied just getting comfortable in the intensely emotional and mysterious place within myself that David Lynch’s wrecking-ball had cleared.  A year later I saw it twice during my first year at college, but it was that first experience that set me on a personal quest deeper into the realm of cinema.

The obvious question facing me this time around was, after so long, would it still hold up to my ideal of it?  The answer, I found, is a resounding yes.  Mulholland Dr. is a film that, to me, genuinely defies logic.  It can be fun to attempt to parse, but that’s really beside the point.  In fact, the only question I leave the film with isn’t “Is it supposed to be a dream?”, but rather “Isn’t it a dream?”

The acting, the shots, the music, the overall mood of Mulholland Dr. deserves to be devoured without questions, without restraint.  Lynch’s combination here of the mysterious, the humorous, the absurd, the romantic and, yes, the erotic, is nothing short of a masterful balancing act and quite possibly unparalleled.  The entire film courses with those five elements, resulting in a provocative blend that for me pulled off the ultimate trick of making the world beyond the screen – my own world, reality – more lustrous and compelling.

Naomi Watts deserves special mention; this is the role that took her from the doldrums of Children Of The Corn sequels to recreating Fay Wray‘s part in mega-director Peter Jackson‘s King Kong, not to mention the numerous to-die-for roles between the two.  The trajectory of her character, whatever her name is, is heartbreaking, and Ms. Watts’ understanding of the that arc is simultaneously instinct with abandon and nuance.  She brings passion and hunger to the role, but mostly she brings the right stuff for each individual moment.  Laura Elena Harring too is outstanding; if the path her character travels is much shorter, that ultimately takes nothing away from how right she was for the part or the chemistry shared between her and Watts on-screen.  Then there’s Los Angeles.  Speaking as someone who mostly detests the place, L.A. never looked so gorgeous.

The film’s defining moment?  I would say the astonishing performance given by Rebekah del Rio at Club Silencio.  That scene in particular is a damn-near perfect distillation of Lynch’s way with music, chiaroscuro and the surreal.  The other music in the film is also great and well-used, but del Rio’s song is reason enough to either scoop up the soundtrack or get lost in a perpetual cycle of rewinding and re-watching her scene.  I did both.

I realize I’m just gushing at this point, but I love this film.  I probably won’t get to say this too often in the coming posts, but this is one film that is an utter and complete joy to behold.  Now how’s that for clichéd?

bakinakwa’s rating: 5 Stars

lakelia says:

Whatever it’s about, Mulholland Dr. is riveting. The visual experience, the pace of the story, and the acting, most especially Naomi Watts’ acting, are stellar. It is a beautiful film, and an unsettling one. I think what I associate most strongly with it are the distinctive mood it creates in me – quiet, uneasy, mesmerized – and the colors David Lynch captures so vibrantly – city lights seen from above, bright faces against dark sky, the red of Rita/Camilla’s lips, the blue of the box and the key.

The image above is from the part of Mulholland Dr. that’s fairly followable – the fantasy in which Betty, innocent, generous, and talented, and Rita, bewildered and in need, get swept away by soft love and investigative adventure. In which a bizarre criminal network run by men who barely speak, a man’s horrible hallucination behind a diner, an incompetent hit-man, and a Hollywood director bullied by a lone cowboy all intertwine into an inscrutable combination of the mysterious, the humorous, the sweet and the sinister. The connections between all these scenes isn’t explicit, but it seems perfectly reasonable to anticipate an explanation.  Then the most beautiful singing I have ever heard heralds a transformation, and everything – everything – gets turned upside down.

There is an explanation for Mulholland Dr. in the sense that there is an explanation for dreams. As soon as the idea that Diane dreamt herself as Betty took hold in my mind, it made perfect sense. Some brew of guilt, longing, grief, and good ol’ free association could well give off the vapors of the first half of the film. Someone told me about this explanation a few years ago, and it sounded reasonable. Reading about the theory tonight, it really does account for almost everything. But I feel about it the way I felt after seeing the director’s cut of Donnie Darko. Satisfied, enlightened, but a little let down. A mystery is at least as fun to wonder about as to have come clear, and in the case of Mulholland Dr., this clarity is a little lackluster for such a powerful film. I’d like to think that as with dreams, as with dreams’ connection to reality, as with reality itself, there might be something greater going on. Who is the blue-haired lady in Silencio? Why does the man behind Winkie’s have the blue box at the end? Maybe Diane’s vivid imaginings and free associations are more than the sum of their parts. Maybe not. But at least it’s something to wonder about.

There are films I’ve loved more, but Mulholland Dr. is undeniably a masterful work.

lakelia’s rating: 5 Stars