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Archive for October, 2011

So many movies… so little time. To lighten my load (and yours) I’ve decided to condense some reviews and cut out my backlog. You get a French noir classic, a quirky horror-thriller, an incisive glimpse into the Italian Mob, and a bio-pic about a notorious French gangster. Each one in a 100 word snack-sized portion.

Cheers.

Alphaville – 1965

A strange, sci-fi noir with the stylistic mark of French master Jean-Luc Godard. Very stylish, very weird. Huge influence on movies like Blade Runner and The Matrix for its pioneering mix of French absurdity and style with the more American driven genre of science fiction. Ostensibly an examination of a dystopian society (France – 1990s) through the lens of a NY secret agent (Eddie Constantine). What transpires is myserious, erotic, and a fascinating imprint that far outlives the hap-hazardly employed plot. Shot with a magnificent eye for detail – particularly Godard’s muse Anna Karina (here a love-deprived automaton).

Paranormal Activity – 2007

A real treat when I saw it in theaters back in the day. I thought it suffered from small-screen exposure, but I also knew the plot. Created more twinges of fear than the chills it elicited in the first go-round, but a second watch offers a chance to marvel at the talent of low-budget filmmaking and investing in characters. Makes a real treat out of the experience in getting to know a character and their journey. Can’t afford for the hokeyness – but you have to credit the film for its ability to make creaking furniture absolutely terrifying.

Gomorrah – 2008

Presented by Scorsese – an examination of mob violence in Italy. Hardly stylish, this is gritty and unglamorized brutality. Five plotlines – a young boy, two killers, a tailor, a conflicted waste management worker, and a money-counter all portray different (violent) aspects of the mafia. Hard to watch, partially owing to the fact it makes virtually no compromises for the audience in terms of juggling the five stories. Dimly lit film, though that may be the naturally muted colors of Italy. Multi-cultural cast shot in near-documentary style lends it vivid grit. An important, socially-conscious, and uncompromising piece of European cinema.

Mesrine: Killer Instinct – 2008

Part one of the bio-pic about legendary French bank-robber Jacques Mesrine. Follows his early years as a French soldier, amateur thief, failed bankrobber, and ultimately a national celebrity. It’s fast-paced and violent, but with a dash of French eye for theatrics. Has a terrific, expansive feel (and an “Oh my God, he really did that?” one, too). Benefits from strong, malleable acting by Vincent Cassel as Mesrine and a world-traveler motif that carries the audience to Algeria, the US, France, Spain, and Canada. Misogynistic and unrelentingly masculine, it can feel hyper-aggressive. Saved from fluff, violence-porn territory by terrific production values and Cassel’s complex charisma.

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Dororo – Vol. 1 (1967)

Osamu Tezuka, everyone.

One of the pioneering manga authors of the last century has been serialized in America fairly sporadically. In the last two years a lot of his big-books have come out, and while I wouldn’t rank this one in my top half it’s still pretty cool.

This is from Tezuka’s middle-period (roughly) and mixes both his characteristic slap-stick routine with his more sophisticated humanist touches. It’s the story of a young boy who has his limbs sacrificed to demon Gods and must learn to live without limbs. Sound kooky? It’s firmly rooted in the more horror-oriented aspects of 60’s manga. In this first volume he hunts around the Japanese countryside for demons who, once killed, will restore his 48 limbs one at at time.

The boy, Hyakkimaru, also gains a sidekick in the form of Dororo (a childish pronunciation of the word thief). Dororo is a young bandit who joins forces with Hyakkimaru in hopes of capturing a rare sword. As the two venture through the land they decide to share their childhood stories (Hyakkimaru is an orphan with prosthetic body parts, Dororo is the child of a noble bandit). They also kill a few demons, including a sword-demon and a shape-shifter, to get back some of Hyakkimaru’s limbs. That informs the plot pretty well. There’s some backstories set up, but mostly it seems like it’ll be the story (hopefully not too much of a tower-quest) of a young man regaining his body and discovering a sense of self in a world of demons and monsters.

As a piece of art there’s not thing really wrong with Dororo per-se, but it has certain tendencies I don’t favor. For instance, the tendency towards slap-stick is higher here than in his later work, and the artwork is closer to messy and frantic than the more thoroughly drawn later epics. I’m not a huge fan of the horror genre (though there’s some Junji Ito and Kazuo Umezu I enjoy) so I’m probably not the ideal fan. That said, I have to love Tezuka’s tendency to insert himself into the art and make contemporary references (to cyborg manga, for instance) as they keep things light and fresh. They can also make things feel a little too light (again, why I don’t care for his slapstick) but the stylish mix of humanity and Japanese folk-creatures is pretty sweet. The handful of page-length panels are also lovely, proving Tezuka could pull off sophisticated work (and here it’s monsters – especially cool) long before his auteur works.

Finally, I think this makes an interesting statement about disability, Japanese identity, and robots. One, that you have a boy composed of parts (cheekily, Tezuka references it with his own dialogue) who is both shunned by his peers and manages to overcome his own limitations with equally useful and powerful abilities of his own. He is, almost to a tee, the definition of an empowered hero and the mix of technology (here the limitations of a medical doctor) that would later become the assembled robot/cyborg. Yes, the ultimate goal is for him to return to his body, but it’s the unique powers and skills he attains through his harsh childhood that allow him to vanquish his demons and regain his humanity. And in a post-war setting, with images of cannibalism and war-torn villages just a short two decades after WW2, I think this is a keen reminder of the war-stained psychology very much in effect at the time. It’s not always my cup of tea, but here renowned master Osamu Tezuka leaves his yearning, human mark on the land of ghouls.

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“I’m thinking that I exist.” – Angela (Anna Karina)

Jean-Luc Godard! How delightful.

Here we have an homage and adaptation of the American musical. A love letter to a French beauty. An exploration and erosion of cinematic walls. In other words – explosive, playful cinema.

You won’t find the most dense plot here. Angela is a stripper who would like to have a child. Not so for her beau Emile (Brialy). The two fight, make up, and generally run round the mulberry bush of feelings. It’s French comedy, with the occasional musical number or visual sequence thrown in for flair. It’s also a film enjoying the very nature of cinema. There are references to Burt Lancaster, Godard’s friendship with Truffaut, and an almost insurmountable number of direct winks to the camera.

With only three main characters (there’s also hopeless Alfred [Belmondo]) you’d think it might get a little stale. But it’s such a visually striking thing, and the actors are so playful, it really does have the effect of an unfurling diary entry. We play in Godard’s head, exploring his loving and pessimistic musings on the nature of the female. So Karina is beautiful, elegant, absolutely dazzling when lit in her dance sequences. Visually, it manages to outdo films nearly half a century later by pure virtue of ecstatic vision.

Sound, too, is a curious thing. The crew is apparent in the clicking and cluttering, and the stylish French pop music meshes well with the simultaneous nods to old and new. This is also true for the content, a grab-bag of old romanticism and modernist aspic. There’s no easy resolution here – in fact it’s that cyclical play that creates both the attraction to form and repulsion to whim that kept me watching. So intoxicating are their simple lives, the trifles of Angela, that I felt compelled the whole way through.

That’s to say little of the stylish, seductive reach of the film. It brings you in close, nuzzles a little, then backs away demurely. Much like Anna Karina or most truly beautiful women. Like good movies, or good love, you can feel Godard softly brimming as he gently feels out his own filmmaking possibilities.

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“Tread on a flower. Suffer for a flower.” – Narrator

In which we get a good look at Daigoro. This is his story, one that starts out rather dark before settling into a familiar and inky groove of the early LW&C period.

After being separated from his father Daigoro goes wandering to various temples to try and find him. Unsuccessful, he is discovered by a man who notices his powerful eyes of a killer. When Daigoro nearly gets himself killed in a grassfire, the man watches from afar to see if the young samurai will survive. Ultimately, he decides to challenge Daigoro to a duel. And with the introduction of Itto at the last moment, the man reveals himself to be proficient swordsman – Iki Jizamon. The two duel, and after Jizamon is killed Itto takes some time to nurse Daigoro back to health. The overarching message of the story – the will of a samurai and his tragic path.

Fairly straightforward installment. Kind of cool to hear Daigoro mention “The Gateless Barrier” (he talks about Itto killing the Buddha), as that’s a reference I’m sure I didn’t notice the first time. Elsewhere, note the impressionistic, gauzy style of the first half of the chapter and the inky, Umezu-esque nature of the second. Dank atmospheres are mixed with detailed forests and grass, and the full-length pages of fire are very cool. Jizamon is standard fare, but what’s new is the inclusion of Shishogan (killer eyes) and the role they’ll play as an identification tool throughout the series. Also, we get one of our first (nearly) all Daigoro chapters. These are pretty rare, but the writing in them is usually pretty strong. I like the stylistic breaks in this episode.

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“Don’t let it blow away!” – Pascal (Pascal Lamorisse)

Something of a classic in the film world. This little bugger features almost no dialogue, little visible storyline, and rested on the strength of child actors and inanimate objects. It’s also absolutely marvelous.

There’s no need to propel it into something it isn’t. This is a story of friendship, of a balloon and a boy. When Pascal (son of director Albert Lamorisse) finds a red balloon he wanders the streets of Paris meeting all manner of people. He gets into trouble at school, home, and around town as a result of it, but he and the balloon become fast friends. The two are separated, reunited, and in a triumphant final sequence Pascal is literally carried into the heart of Paris.

If it sounds French… it’s rather quintessential. The minimalist dialogue, slight soundtrack, and reliance on a peculiar gimmick are all typical French touches. What’s shocking is just how effective they are. The balloon itself, almost hauntingly human, provides a masterclass in the magic of movement and setting to create character. Likewise, Pascal is terrifically played by the younger Lamorisse as sensitive, sweet, and genuinely sentimental. It’s a feat that we care so much with so little, but it’s a profound effect.

And Paris looks beautiful. The palette is fascinating, and the scenes of the town itself echo a griminess and post WWII wear totally at odds with the wonder of the young boy and his balloon. In many ways, that’s the magic. That we as an audience can become so attached through simple storytelling and camera trickery – no need for high-minded theatrics. It’s a beautiful, sentimental journey into the heart of a child. Pure film wizardry.

Winner of the 1956 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and Palm d’Or for Best Short Film, The Red Balloon is well worth your time. Watch the entire 34 minute short below –

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“He was the first person who was famous for things you were supposed to hide. He was gay, he was a junkie, he didn’t look handsome, he shot his wife, he wrote poetry about assholes and heroin. He was not easy to like.” – John Waters

William S. Burroughs. Hero, madman, alien. Grandfather to Punk, Beat Poetry, and all things weird. What inspired his strangeness and place in the holy trinity of fifties writers alongside Kerouac and Ginsberg? And how, in almost every way imaginable was this man counter-cultural? Step into the mind of a true original, a solitary maverick.

His story is aided by a host of acquaintances. Besides the biggest names in Beat Poetry there’s also David Bowie, Tom Waits, Keith Richards, Peter Weller, Gus Van Sant. There are echoes of Hunter S. Thompson, John Waters, The Clash. As one of the most influential voices in the last fifty years, influencing everything from punk-rock to contemporary art. Poetry to queer lit.

But this is not a straightforward doc. That is, while it operates with similar stylistic flourishes to Gonzo (affection for guns, messy art style, even some odd wire-frame transitions that mirror the obscure hand-drawn depictions of Thompson) it’s a little less focused. Gonzo played fast and loose with the later years of Hunter S. Thompson, but it effectively charted Thompson’s early years with the Angels, king of the Freaks, Rumble in the Jungle, et al. Not so with Burroughs. We skip through his childhood, his accidental murder of his wife, and spend a good deal of time near the end of his life dwelling on his new-found happiness. There are also glimpses into Burroughs’ sexuality and the occasional mention of his writing. It’s a mixed bag of memoir and talking-head fest. Enlightening via intimacy, not through structure.

And it is liberating, at least occasionally. Burroughs makes a fascinating counter-cultural icon for homosexuality. Interviews with his boyfriends are often less than revealing. But hearing Waters (a terrific interviewee in this film, as is musician and friend Patti Smith) talk about his pioneering attitude toward sexuality (later bolstered through talks with Andy Warhol) makes the case for a pioneering (if limited) view of anti-gender thinking. Likewise, he makes a strong statement for originality and freedom in his embracing of heroin culture. It’s glamorized here, and documented (like his murder of his wife) very sketchily. It’s all sort of in the ether – we get snippits of his life rather than an elaborated story. To that end, the photography and imagery of the film is almost entirely grounded in photos of Burroughs post-60. This ignores, of course, the fact that he worked for an extended period of time. It just feels terribly rushed and stitched together.

The documentary reveals Burroughs as a man of immense contradiction and progressive influence. It’s not incredibly illuminating in regards to his work, and the timeline is awfully gummy, but the sheer depth of his experience adds character to ramshackle coverage. Burroughs stands, ancient, wise, and wasted, as a pioneer of art and freedom. But more puzzling, and equally revealing, is the man alone. The obsession with death, the attachment to despair. The contradictions, as we’ve so often explored, make the man.

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“We must tear apart the past before we can truly deserve a future.” – Louise
“Exactly! God, that’s beautiful. Who said that?” – Donna
“Hitler.” – Louise
“…Wise.” – Donna

Episode two. Curious.

A big part of what I wanted to see was just how the show navigated the nature of sketch versus structure. It would seem they’ve chosen light structure, but of course that may change as things go on. The episode runs a fairly straightforward plotline for each of the characters (Louise and the man Karen slept with, Karen and her job, Donna searching for new work, Karl getting over Donna… sort of).

In that respect it felt kind of plain. Still funny, but very low-key. I liked the Louise and Karen subplots (I wonder if Karen will end up with the guy at her workplace?) I still think the lady who plays Karen is a really terrific actress. It’s a very distinctive character. Louise isn’t half-bad either, as I think she’s very sympathetic. I do hope they’ll do away with Karl, though… I think the broken boyfriend plot-line will only work for so long. And wasn’t Donna supposed to be getting out there? So much for that. It’s pretty much just Karen.

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