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.