Saturday, December 9, 2017

POLICE, ADJECTIVE - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for my Confessions of a Pop Fan blog in 2010 as part of my coverage of the Portland International Film Festival. 


A lot of people are going to call Police, Adjective boring, and I am not going to pretend I won't be one of them. That said, I may be alone in declaring it boring and saying I liked it anyway. Is that possible?

Dragos Bucur stars in Police, Adjective as Cristi, a drug-enforcement officer who is on a case following high school students around, wondering where they buy their hash. He wants to see the chain through and arrest people who really deserve to go to jail; his bosses want him to pick up the pace and arrest the kids for using. Apparently, in Romania, smoking a joint on the street can get you up to eight years in jail. Cristi doesn't want to destroy a kid's life for something acceptable everywhere else in Europe, his superiors bust his balls, and he's forced to make a decision.

Pretty straightforward stuff, but director Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest) takes a lot of time hanging around the subject and wondering what it's all about. Long stretches of the film are devoted to Cristi silently tailing his subjects, and equally long chunks of time are given over to mundane tasks. Cristi eating dinner, waiting for a meeting, literally doing nothing. There is one scene where his wife plays a schmaltzy song three times in a row. One more, and I was going to get up and look for the pause button.


These things are dull, even if I can't say I was entirely bored. The real quandary is why they are even there. Isn't there more to this story than the cop's sullen routine? Porumboiu is apparently saying no, there isn't, and using these mundane scenes as an illustration of Cristi's predicament. There is nothing else, so why the fuss? Many will ask the same of this movie. Police, Adjective's saving grace in these sequences is its gritty realism and voyeuristic framing. Apparently, there is still something inherently intriguing about spying on other people's lives.

Cristi is kind of an interesting character, even if his actions aren't all that interesting. He is wrestling with an abstract concept, one his boss boils down to settling on the correct meaning of the words "law," "moral," and "conscience," and reconciling those definitions with the duties of the police. The closest Police, Adjective comes to a climax is a long semantic argument. It mirrors an earlier drunken debate between Cristi and his wife over that song, in which the officer is seemingly incapable of grasping the concept of poetic metaphor. Why can't things just be what they are, why must they be something else? It's the same schism he feels in his brain. Thus, is there any real question what he will do when faced with the same query? If you are police, be police.

Then again, isn't that "police" as noun?



Friday, December 8, 2017

NOSFERATU: A SYMPHONY OF HORROR - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2009's as part of a piece on Kino's Murnau boxed set.


1922's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is a wholly original cinematic beast. The prototype for virtually all vampire movies to follow, this unauthorized borrowing of the Bram Stoker Dracula novel is a frightful classic. With Max Schreck in the title role--the legend surrounding the performance later recreated by Willem Dafoe in Shadow of the Vampire--Nosferatu achieved a lower temperature of chills than the early movie industry was used to.

The story is likely familiar to anyone who has seen any of the many Stoker adaptations: young real estate agent Hutter (Gustav v. Wangenheim) is sent to a distant land to aid the bizarre Count Orlock (Schreck) in acquiring British property. Failing to heed local folk tales about the scary Nosferatu, Hutter goes to Orlock's castle and is soon trapped in the Count's nocturnal world. Seeing a picture of Hutter's wife, the strikingly beautiful Ellen (Greta Schröder), Orlock heads back to England to take possession of the woman, leaving dead bodies in his wake.


Schreck's amazingly perverse turn as the vampire, which was so believable that many have believed him to be a real creature of the night, is a wonder to behold. Wearing all kinds of prosthetics to elongate his features, giving him jagged teeth and demonic nails, he looks utterly inhuman without any of the cracks showing in the illusion. To see him rise up out of a coffin without aid or the use of his own limbs is a scary movie moment even now. Beyond Schreck's total role immersion, the thing that is most striking about Murnau's Nosferatu is it's all-pervasive atmosphere of terror. The director has created a rarefied world where nothing is as it seems and the scent of fear inches across every frame. He also employed clever and surprisingly convincing special effects to make Count Orlock a creature who is not bound by spatial relationships or time restrictions. Playing with film speeds, double exposure, and other early effects tricks, Murnau practically splits the screen in half, showing us the realm of the undead on one side and the more grounded reality on the other.

In addition to Schreck, Alexander Granach is fantastically mad as Knock, Hutter's boss and Murnau's version of Renfield. I was also quite taken with Greta Schröder, whose Helen comes off as more than a virginal beauty. Her dark hair and eyes give way to hints of a darker interior life, that there is something in this troubled woman that makes her compatible with the bloodsucker. She is not just drawing him in because of her beauty, but because maybe they are more simpatico than anyone realizes.



Wednesday, December 6, 2017

AMOUR - FILMSTRUCK

This review originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2009.


German/Austrian director Michael Haneke has become notorious for making films that are, essentially, extended meditations on discomfort, in which the lives of his fictional characters are marred by unspeakable violence and the minds of the audience are jarred by self-reflexive story twists. Films like Funny Games, Cache, and, most recently, the acclaimed The White Ribbon [review] all definitely fall into that clichéd love-it-or-hate-it pigeonhole. I generally find it hard to discern whether or not Haneke has a legitimate point to make, or he just enjoys screwing around. We are the flies, and he the vicious schoolboy plucking at our wings.

And so it's with pleasure that I can say the biggest surprise of all in his new film Amour is that there is no big surprise at all. The con man has put away his shells and left all of his secrets exposed. It makes for a powerful drama, one that has rightly been topping many critics' polls and gathering up awards, including a Golden Globe for best foreign film.


In essence, Amour is the final stage of a love story, the tail end of a lifelong romance. Most films about love deal with the initial rush of emotion, when cheeks and hearts burn hot, with that thing that has been termed, most horrendously, as "meet-cute." (Whoever came up with that term needs to end up meeting the cute side of my foot.) Haneke's film is as far away from first-date territory as one can get. It doesn't even wallow in nostalgia. There are no rote scenes of parents telling their kids of how they fell in love. Amour is, instead, trapped in the here-and-now of old age.

Esteemed French actors Jean-Paul Trintingnant (The Conformist, Three Colors: Red [review]) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) star as Georges and Anne, married senior citizens, former music teachers, now retired. As the movie opens, they are returning from seeing their most accomplished pupil (Alexandre Tharaud) performing in concert. They are on a high, so much so that they don't even let the fact that there is evidence someone tried to break into their apartment bring them down. It's a none-too-subtle omen. Their lives are about to be invaded by circumstances they can't control.

The following morning, Anne suffers a stroke that leaves her right side mostly paralyzed. She returns to their apartment for in-home care, and makes Georges promise to never send her back to the hospital--a vow he stands by, even when their daughter (Isabelle Huppert, White Material [review]) tries to sway them to look for an alternative. Taking care of his wife is going to be tough on Georges, and his responsibilities will only increase as her condition worsens. He's prepared to take on the challenge, however, because that is what life partners do for one another.


I know that, based on the synopsis, Amour sounds like a bit of a downer. I'm not going to lie, that's not entirely wrong. There is not a lot of joy to be found in watching an old man take care of a dying old woman, spoonfeeding her and changing her diaper, while she cries out in distress that may or may not be real. The impressive thing about Amour is that Haneke, who writes as well as directs, manages to avoid making a serious exploration of grief seem oppressive. The subject is heavy, but the film rolls along rather lightly. Haneke eschews any gross physical details and never lingers morbidly on the damage illness is causing Anne's body. Nor does he indulge his performers to treat the difficult material as a flashy showpiece. Emmanuelle Riva is remarkable. As Amour progresses, Anne's body essentially closes in on her. She can barely move and speech becomes increasingly elusive. Riva's portrayal becomes more and more astonishing the less she has to work with. The pain she conveys in the final scenes are unnerving.

For his part, Jean-Paul Trintingnant is a rock, maintaining a composed outer appearance while still managing to wrestle with the deeper internal struggle. Haneke's script confronts all the complexities, all the conflicting emotions, including the selfish impulses that are unavoidable even during selfless action. Illness locks these two lovers in their nest, where they struggle to define a dignified end and keep outside interference at bay. It's a look at old age that we rarely see in movies. These are not randy grandparents popping Viagra and chasing each other around the pool, but real people making the best of what time they have left, even when everything is at its worst. Amour builds toward an inevitable conclusion, and when it gets there, Haneke delivers it quietly, without comment, but to great effect.



Sunday, December 3, 2017

THE LURE - #896


A new twist on an old tail, The Lure is an updated The Little Mermaid with all the ferocity restored. This full-length debut of Polish director Agnieszka Smoczyńska is a musical extravaganza borrowing from the early days of MTV and cable television horror flicks. It’s a colorful manifesto, a cautionary fairy tale, and a bizarre character study all in one. The Lure is also fun and surprising. While some outcomes are predictable just by the nature of the material, you aren’t likely to guess the turns Smoczyńska and screenwriter Robert Bolesto will take to get to them.

The Lure begins at the water, as two teenaged mermaids, Golden (Michalina Olszańska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek), entice two men with song. Once rescued from the water, these men and their female companion (King Preis) take the girls to their place of business--a skeezy nightclub where they perform as the backing band for burlesque acts. Seeing a moneymaking opportunity, the band’s drummer (Andrzej Konopka) and the club owner (Zygmunt Malanowicz, Knife in the Water [review]) put the girls on stage, creating song and dance numbers that build up to their sliding into a pool of water, restoring their fish tails for all to see.


This new act is a hit. It’s sexy and taboo and altogether unexpected, so why wouldn’t it be? Naturally, based on myth as The Lure is, the girls coming to land is not without its price. As Silver is enticed to join the human world, finding a bit of romance with the band’s mercurial bass player (Jakub Gierszal), Golden embraces the more animalistic side of her nature. Mermaids, as it turns out, are predators, feasting on the hearts of unsuspecting victims. One girl turns toward love and assimilation, the other embraces her internal power and devours the living symbol of that love--the one catch being that if Silver sacrifices her true self, there will also be consequences for Golden. She can’t let her sister break up the act.


Of The Lure’s many themes, the most prominent is that of exploitation. The humans take advantage of the creatures they have found, but they also find they are not so innocent; likewise, the mermaids are exploiting their human hosts, to a degree. They quickly learn to get what they want by using their sensual charms. There is also much to be examined in how the human world pollutes these women of the sea--smoking, drinking, lust. At one point, Silver even asks why they aren’t being paid. How will mankind’s temptations alter them?

Smoczyńska’s gleefully gruesome tableu isn’t just a joy to watch, but also a marvel to look at. Its 1980s stylings are creative and colorful, owing as much to pop music videos as to classic movie musicals. For a horror film, The Lure is very bright. Kuba Jijowski’s cinematography embraces the glitz of its showbiz settings, contrasting it with the dark of the natural world (we only return to the river at night) and the drabness of the backstage environment. You’d think with such a squalid existence that the band would be dazzled by these unbelievable beings entering their lives, but they so quickly absorb them into the normal routine, even the violence is easily accepted. In the end, they don’t deserve the magic being made available to them. What’s the old joke about how if humans can’t fuck it, they have to kill it?


Most effective, though is Golden’s solo musical number. The film turns monotone as the scene freezes and we enter her mental landscape. It’s personal and slightly terrifying. Special kudos should be given to the translators who made the Polish lyrics still flow as English subtitles, with clever rhymes and pacing the lines to match the music. The characters in The Lure may be bored of the entertainment they’re participating in, but the presentation, even as it stretches across borders both physical and cultural, ensures that we are not.


Music also play an important role in Smoczyńska’s 2007 student film Aria Diva. In this half-hour short, a housewife begins a friendship with the opera singer that moves upstairs. It’s a complicated relationship, with some challenging maternal overtones, but also an undercurrent of romanticism. Here we see hints of the director’s interest in the transactional nature of performance, as well as another instance of someone who is “different” moving in and out of the life of someone more “normal.”

Opera is likewise the subject of Smoczyńska’s 2010 short documentary Viva Maria!, profiling Polish diva Maria Foltyn as she passes the torch to a successor. Archival footage of the singer at work directing in her younger years shows us just how deep her passion ran--and still runs.



Sunday, November 26, 2017

LE SAMOURAI - #306


It’s not the silence that gets me about LeSamouraï, it’s the stillness. Sure, it takes ten minutes before anyone says a word in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 crime masterpiece, but that’s not really what makes Le Samouraï so riveting, so impossible to look away from. That would be the economy of movement, and the willingness of the camera, along with everyone in its lens, to remain perfectly still. Particularly Alain Delon, playing Jef Costello, the hitman that leads this thing. He spends much of the movie with his hands in his pockets, staring straight ahead. It’s a performance absent of gesture. He only moves when he acts.



As with his heist film Le cercle rouge [review], Melville builds this noir knock-off around a Japanese proverb, this time borrowed from the Bushido, the code of the samurai warrior (or, at least purported to be, since apparently Melville made it up). “There is no solitude greater than that of the samurai unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle...perhaps....” Jef is a man without personal relationships, only connections. He lives alone with a chirping bullfinch that acts as his canary in the coal mine, its behavior tipping him off to any intruders. His clients can be anonymous, and the man he kills at the start of Le Samouraï, the nightclub owner, is a stranger to him. He’s a lone wolf (no cub).

Each step toward the hit is part of a methodology: getting an untraceable car, establishing an alibi, picking a route that will make it less likely for him to be seen. Step by step, Jef goes about his business. Only the unpredictability of others is his real enemy. This particular job starts to go haywire when a piano player in the club, Valérie (Cathy Rosier), is in the hallway when Jef exits the boss’ office. Her vague description of the killer causes police to round up any usual suspect that matches the brief. Except, when Valérie sees Jef in the line-up, she changes the details of her story to protect him. He doesn’t know why, and neither does the detective (François Périer, Orpheus [review]) pursuing the case. He’s sure Jef is his man, and he starts hunting the jungle cat with the a precision to match Jef’s own (provided, again, others don’t screw it up for him).



Breaking it down, Le Samouraï is a portrait of a cold-blooded killer having his blood warmed. Though Jef tracks Valérie down ostensibly to find out who his clients are after a double-cross, presuming they paid the musician to lie on his behalf, their encounter has a different effect on him. Jef sees the kindness in the woman, and he begins to understand that there is benefit to not always being alone, people can care about you and help you. At least, for me, this would explain his actions in the film’s final scene. He has fallen in love with her, such as he understands it. So he takes care of her in the only manner he understands: kill or don’t kill. (She wears animal print in early scenes: is she another predator or prey?)



It’s funny, because the first time I’d ever heard of Le Samouraï was when I was editing the comic book series Red Rocket 7. Michael Allred’s sci-fi comic was a tour of rock history through the eyes of an alien clone. Allred is an expert retro stylist, the sort of guy who would watch Melville’s immaculately designed film and see things he could use in his own work. In this case, the author opens an issue of Red Rocket 7 with Red’s girlfriend telling him “I love you” while in a movie theater. The movie they are watching in this moment of potential emotional panic? Le Samouraï. On the screen behind him, Jef Costello has a gun pointed at his head, held by the man who betrayed him. It’s a smart parallel. This kind of emotion is just as deadly for Jef as it feels for Red (though romance has more purchase in Allred’s world).



Le Samouraï is a cool film. Not just hip, but I mean in temperature, in look. There are no vibrant colors in the movie. The skies are gray, Jef’s apartment is green and brown, the nightclub is silver and blue--perhaps the most colorful image is Valérie’s white gold dress. It’s sparkly in much the same way the nightclub décor sparkles. It’s sleek and fancy and modern, but not necessarily space age. The club itself presents a different world, one that is clean and shiny. Everywhere else Jef goes is grimy and dank, with maybe the exception of the apartment of Jane (Nathalie Delon), his alibi. Its feminine details are soft and lean toward lighter hues, in contrast to the masculine, utilitarian, beige and gun-metal grey police station--hence, the police destroying the peacefulness of the flat when they invade. Every set is designed to let you know whom you are dealing with the moment you step through the doors. Those coming to this edition of Le Samouraï for the high-definition upgrade will be pleased to see how much the image has improved. (NOTE: The screengrabs here are taken from the 2005 DVD release.)

One last thing before I cease my ramble--AND THOSE WHO FEAR SPOILERS PLEASE LOOK AWAY NOW AND COME BACK LATER--but let’s talk that last scene.


The death of Jef Costello is its own odd style choice. In one sense, it recalls the end of Breathless [review], when Belmondo falls backwards in the street after being shot. Of course, Melville appeared in Breathless, and Jean-Luc Godard looked up to the older director, so is it possible that the end of Le Samouraï is some kind of metatextual answer to the conclusion of the revolutionary nouvelle vague classic? Delon does not go down with the same improvised realism of Belmondo. Rather, in much the same way that Michel’s death in that earlier film reflects the freeform aesthetic of Godard’s mis-en-scene, Jef’s death has a more rigid, theatrical styling, befitting both the aesthetic of Le Samouraï but also of a more classical filmmaking technique. With the small trickle of blood on his mouth, clutching his chest with gloved hands, Delon almost looks like Bela Lugosi sinking back into Dracula’s coffin. Is it the death of a warrior, or the finale of a horror movie?

Then again, perhaps it’s nothing. But if Jean-Pierre Melville is as precise as the character he gave life to, we know it has to mean something. Even if it’s just a sacrificial pose or that Jef is as unmoved by death as he is all else.



This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

PARADISE: LOVE - CRITERION CHANNEL


So, it’s only taken several years for me to backtrack and watch the first installment of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, Paradise: Love. While the order seems almost immaterial, Love does set the whole thing up by putting all the women the series features in one place and sending them on their journies.

Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) is off on a trip to Africa for her 50th birthday. There, she plans to lounge on the beach with other Austrian women her age, a few of whom have been there before and can show her the ropes. Specifically, how to purchase her own local lover. Young men in the area accept cash and gifts to be these women’s companions, all the while professing their love, selling a thin illusion that the women aren’t necessarily buying, it just comes with the package. Teresa’s friends giggle over the boys’ naïveté and joke about them in German so they can’t understand what they are saying. Teresa isn’t sure about the whole thing at first, she wants to be treated a certain way, but pretty soon she goes from kidding herself about the affection she receives to being just one of the gals.


Seidl applies a sharp satirical edge to the ugly tourists here. The ladies don’t mask their true feelings, particularly with the language barrier to hide behind. They treat resort staff like performing animals, and the boys they hire like property. Which is easy enough to get agry about, but Seidl’s camera is wide enough to look at both sides, making Paradise: Love a more intriguing puzzler than the simple premise might suggest. The real trick of this movie is how often it flips the audience’s allegiances. While first we judge Teresa, as we eventually see her nervous bedroom habits, we begin to feel sorry for her. Tiesel portrays Teresa’s longing with quiet empathy. She could really use the love that the young men claim. We also see the two-way flow of bartering here, as her second relationship with a quiet, calming fellow named Munga (Peter Kazungu) turns from nights spent in bed to days spent doling out charity to Munga’s family, all of whom demand more than Teresa is able to give--and even insulting her from behind their own language barrier. While she is indulging in ghetto tourism, he is taking full advantage of her loneliness and her motherly instincts. (Initial love scenes with each man she couples with all turn into tutelage rather than passion.)


Of course, Teresa doesn’t react well to discovering Munga’s con, and so she goes back to trawling the beaches for a new hire. There’s a sad willingness on her part to believe each man will treat her better than the last, that he is sincere because he says so, to a degree that the hustlers are almost in sync with one another, refining the sales pitch with each new encounter. It’s a weird cycle, because for a bit we believe, too. Maybe it will be better. Maybe she’ll be better. But no, Teresa’s failures don’t improve her failings; she is no kinder to the others she meets. The whole thing culminates in her birthday party, where the women literally purchase a man for a night of fun and games, ridiculing and humiliating him. All the while, he pretends to like it, but other parts of his body betray that smile on his face as a forced lie.


As with all the Paradise films, one is left to ponder what exactly Seidl is saying about love. His laid-back presentation offers no real editorializing, and though he does show some sympathy for Teresa, his narrative does not take a side. Is his view of human relationships so cynical that he sees love as a series of transactions rather than a genuine connector? Or is the point here that there is a greater divide in the world than we care to admit, that different races and nations, as it stands, can’t possibly come together on equal footing?

Probably a little of all that. In Teresa’s individual case, she’s definitely not getting what she wants, but as the song goes, she sometimes gets what she needs. And perhaps that’s the underlying factor of all the films, that these big concepts like love and hope and faith are not as easily contained as we’d like, but maybe if we got honest with ourselves, we’d get just enough to get by.


Screencaps taken from Christopher McQuain's DVDTalk review of Paradise: Love.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

PARADISE: HOPE - CRITERION CHANNEL

This review was originally written for DVDTalk.com in 2014.



Austrian director Ulrich Seidl completes his downer of a film trilogy with Paradise: Hope, the most youthful story of the three Paradise movies, though no less downbeat for its age or the better tomorrows falsely promised in its title.

Melanie Lenz stars in Paradise: Hope as Melanie, an adolescent girl whose mother has sent her to a diet camp for the summer to lose some weight. (Mom has gone to Kenya, as seen in Paradise: Love [review]; her aunt is the main character in Paradise: Faith [review]). Melanie joins the a dormitory of girls, all of whom are as unmotivated to be there as she is. The camp is a kind of prison, where food and activity are regulated. Phone time is limited, and days are spent learning about nutrition and performing often humiliating exercises. You know that old ditty "if you're happy and you know it clap your hands"? At diet camp, it's "clap your fat." Thighs, belly, bum.


Looking to get out of exercising, Melanie goes to the facility doctor (Joseph Lorenz) feigning a stomachache. He is clearly skeptical of this ailment, but he examines the girl anyway, making playful, possibly flirtatious, use of his stethoscope. Melanie is smitten, and she returns to see him regularly. In their private sessions, he seems to like her, too; in public, he rebukes her. Theirs is an unhealthy relationship no matter how you cut it, signifying a hopeful future as out of reach as Melanie's intended weight loss.

Seidl portrays the diet camp with the same dry brushstrokes as he used in the preceding films, but the dispassionate rendering makes the setting seem surreal and almost satirical. The grinding routine only succeeds in making the kids feel bad about themselves, and in the absence of food, they become obsessed with sex and other mischief. Underlying all their talk about the grooming habits of the opposite sex and past dalliances, however, is the same basic yearning: each child really just longs to be loved and made to feel safe. Even at her most reckless, Melanie is looking to attract affection and attention. In his way, the doctor provides these things, even if we never are exactly clear on his motives.


Lenz and her young castmates perform with a natural comfort. Much of what Seidl captures comes across as genuine horseplay, as if his troupe is merely living out the summer camp scenario he created for them. This makes the emotional danger in Paradise: Hope feel even more crucial, even if some of it is a bit cartoony. (At a bar, Melanie is victimized by two greased-up juvenile delinquents lifted out of a 1950s exploitation movie.) This realism also makes it all the more deflating when the film draws no conclusions for its young protagonist. She is just as alone and helpless in the end as she was in the beginning, only now more hurt and disappointed. In terms of ironic stingers, Paradise: Hope is the bleakest.