February 26, 2011

Devil's Advocate

by Steve Dollar

I Saw the Devil

As the new Korean thriller I Saw the Devil opens, a young woman sits in her car by a snowy roadside in the proverbial middle of nowhere, waiting on assistance to deal with a flat tire. She passes the time by chatting with her husband-to-be, a special agent on security detail at a fancy hotel who ducks into the bathroom to sing a syrupy love song over his cell phone. The cross-cutting heightens the tone of self-conscious gooey-ness—emphasizing the impossible cuteness of the moment and the model-pretty actors—even as the inevitable looms. Everyone knows what happens when attractive female motorists get stranded in the middle of the night in movies called I Saw the Devil (or in the cold open of any episode of any CSI or Law and Order franchise). Momentarily, a yellow short-bus pulls up and a spooky, if seemingly kindly fellow emerges. She gently refuses repeated offers of help, which is what any sane person would do. So the Good Sam turns Freddy Krueger. Windows smash. The victim screams amid a feckless effort to escape. And… blammo! It's hammer time.

I Saw the Devil The bloody hammer is practically a trope in Korean cinema these days. It was fetishized in Park Chan-wook's Oldboy, in which the title character, played by Choi Min-sik, swung it with brutal fury, exacting vengeance after a mysterious 15-year imprisonment by unknown captors. It's also the weapon of choice in The Chaser, Na Hong-jin's 2008 whack-fest in which an ex-cop-turned-pimp pursues a serial killer kept killing by a corrupt police department. The same year, Kim Jin-Won's The Butcher imported pig masks and chainsaws into the repertoire, framing the carnage as an underground POV snuff flick. The tool also supplies the coup de grace in Breathless, an underseen, tough-guy character study from 2009. People, it's gnarly.

I Saw the Devil Choi returns, hammer at the ready, in Devil. Only this time, he's the psycho: a relentless serial killer named Kyung-chul. Again and again, he deceives his prey with his choice of vehicle and gentle demeanor, even as he gives them the willies with his ratty, homeless dude coiffure and probing eyes that never take no for answer. As the film slowly unfolds, director Kim Ji-woon reveals Kyung-chul's method in—excuse the phrasing—bits and pieces. He's got a ritual, perversely enacted in a dank abattoir, where the cranially dented victims are stripped naked as the killer savors their pleading, as well as other things. Then: Off with their heads. Before the latest noggin turns up floating in a rural pond, a ring flies off a limp finger into a blood-drenched gutter. He doesn't know it yet, but Kyung-chul has invoked the wrath of super-cop Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun). That head belonged to his fiancée.

I SAW THE DEVIL director Kim Jee-woon This meticulous, deliberate and stylishly composed introduction sets the stage for a clash of wills that feels at once hyperbolic and excruciatingly intimate. Like so many Korean films, its runtime appears to be infinite. Yet, it's one of the very few I've seen that justifies the length (two-and-a-half hours). It takes that much cinematic expanse to play out a sadomasochistic pas de deux of escalating violence and devastating collateral damage, as the putative good guy transforms himself into a ruthless and brutal stalker in the name of vengeance. Director Kim, whose last effort was the wacky Spaghetti Eastern The Good, the Bad, the Weird, pulls out all the stops. I Saw the Devil previewed last night at Brooklyn's BAMcinématek, part of the six-film retrospective "Severely Damaged: The Cinema of Kim Jee-woon," which takes its cue from the Korean government. The film censors threatened to ban Devil because its scenes of graphic torture could "severely damage the dignity of human values." That's the best review a movie like this can have. But to accommodate, Kim trimmed seven minutes of footage. Yet, this symphony of grievous bodily harm isn't about shock and exploitation. The director's skills as an image-maker are highly stylized, imbuing the unthinkable and graphic with a disturbing poetry that makes the most overplayed plot points in the genre feel charged with vitality. The old "cop versus psycho" theme is pushed to the hilt: To catch a monster, you must become a monster.

I Saw the Devil The two terrific (and apparently indestructibly superhuman) leads make an ideal pair. One torn and frayed, a hulking wound. The other a pop idol in forensic drag, blinded by rage. The story's twists and the committed performances toy with audience sympathies as the pain threshold is pushed to the max and beyond. Instead of desensitizing, the incessant instances of torture (mostly inflicted on Choi, like some human pincushion) are framed in a way that cranks up their sensory immediacy. After the second or third go-round, you might reasonably be concerned about what's happening to your nervous system. There's a lot of rough humor, squishy special effects and elegant action choreography—not to mention disbelief gets suspended maybe 20 minutes in—but nothing finally distracts from profound questions about violence and its justifications.

It's almost a spoiler to reveal that the final few minutes cash the enormous check the previous 140-something have written. But they do. The Korean government was right. This one's gonna hurt.

[I Saw the Devil opens March 4 in limited release, from Magnolia Pictures.]

Posted by ahillis at 11:23 AM

February 25, 2011

OSCARS '11: The Shorts in Review

by Craig Phillips

The Gruffalo

LIVE ACTION:

It's noteworthy that four out of the five Oscar-nominated live shorts center around children or adolescents, and the 5th around immature adults. I'm not sure what this means, exactly—coming-of-age slices of life tales are easy fodder for films in brief. Each of these nominees seems eerily old-fashioned in their perspectives, though there's enough freshness in their style and presentation to make them worth watching.

God of Love At first glance, God of Love looks like it stars the Williamsburg imports from the "Look at This Fucking Hipster" website, but Luke Matheny's humorously neurotic, black-and-white variation on the Cupid story is quite enjoyable. The filmmaker stars as sad-sack, lounge-singer and dart-thrower Raymond Goodfellow; his fast-talking, curly haired, clownish demeanor makes him seem the love child of Jeff Goldblum and Elya Baskin. The character's amusing, though he has so many quirks and tics and manipulative means (who can blame him?) that I found it harder to root for him romantically than I expected. Ultimately, God of Love is hard to resist, like a love dart.

Wish 143 I admit to being wary of British filmmaker Ian Barnes' Wish 143 when hearing it was a tale of a cancer-stricken teen getting the opportunity to have wishes granted (Patch Adams, anyone?), but the film manages to walk a tonal tightrope with great humor. Despite the premise, it rarely gets too silly or maudlin. Newcomer Oliver Arundale is just right, as a boy whose wish is the very human desire to lose his virginity; the ubiquitous, hangdog-nosed Jim Carter also shines as the lad's very understanding minister. This doesn't become a ribald sex comedy but a simple, heartfelt tale. Okay, maybe there is an escort with a heart of gold, and if there's an overall weakness, it's how child-like the outlook seems to be about complex ideas (death, romantic longing), but the actors manage to keep the proceedings amiable.

If not the best of the lot, The Confession is arguably the most beautifully shot, crisply filmed with a real cinematic eye. Estonian filmmaker Tanel Toom made this 26-minute short in England, and won Best Foreign Film at the '10 Student Academy Awards. The story centers around a boy who has to make his first confession and the film gets at—or is arguably even about—how undeniably absurd it is to think 9-year-olds having anything to confess ("Forgive me Father, I drank a bottle of Scotch and wanked to pictures of priests"...?) It actually turns dark about a third of the way through, jarringly so, even from the more gullible, sensitive POV of a boy. I didn't find the horror elements worked quite as well, though Toom does maintain an effectively creepy atmosphere. The very ending could feel like a cop-out, but talented young lead actor Lewis Howlett gives it emotional resonance at least. The symbolism is burdensomely obvious: a scarecrow hangs like Jesus on a cross, but for any of such flaws, Toom definitely seems one to watch in the future.

Another short about children, Ireland's school-set tale The Crush plays like an even sweeter variation on The Confession. (Heck, I think I have a crush on the teacher in this film.) However, the story is neither developed in a compelling way nor even unique: Kid crushes on Teach, teacher is engaged to an age-appropriate but unappealing partner, kid fancies himself a cowboy (really?) and challenges said beau to a duel, surprising the chap when he's determined to carry on with it. Michael Creagh's film has heart, but unfortunately grates.

Na Wewe The one film featuring non-white castmembers, Na Wewe, is made by Belgian filmmaker Ivan Goldschmidt, who has a multifaceted background in art, writing, theater and advertising. It starts with an annoyingly chatty Belgian being picked up on an African road after his car breaks down, and is given a ride with a van full of locals. They are accosted en route, caught up in the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic war. The film's take on cultural identity is a bit banal (one man's proclamation is translated as "He's got to be stamped out like the others of his race!"), and if anything, not as realistically harrowing as the situation might entail in real life. It's often worrisome when a white Westerner makes a film about Africans—we've seen that before with varying degrees of versimilitude. But Na Wewe also comes with a bleak, absurdist sense of humor, beautiful cinematography, and a palpable sense of humanity.

ANIMATION:

The Gruffalo, an undeniably cute British short based on a children's tale, is also undeniably too long—at nearly half an hour, it occasionally feels as if it moves in slow motion. The look is charming and the characterizations are led by a renowned UK voice cast: Helan Bonham Carter plays a mother squirrel storyteller, James Corden is Mouse, his Gavin and Stacey co-star Rob Brydon is Snake, Tom Wilkinson and John Hurt are Fox and Owl (respectively), and Robbie Coltrane voices the titular animal, an aesthetic blend of Maurice Sendak's wild things and the Harry Potter series' half-giant Hagrid (also played by Coltrane, natch). The animals from which the mouse escapes with his storytelling ability seem rather gullible to me, but hey, it's for kids. It's a snake-eat-mouse world out there.

Madagascar, A Journey Diary Madagascar, A Journey Diary is the most freeform in nature of the animated noms. Using a rotoscoping technique a la Waking Life, the film features an distractingly attractive mix of mediums (watercolor, ink, etc), sometimes appearing as three-dimensional as a pop-up book. Bastien Dubois, a French programmer who based the film on his trip to the island nation, offers a hypnotic, dreamlike feel and an episodic structure that's not always easy to connect with, but it's at least a rhythmically appealing work of art. The lovely Malagasy music score helps bop everything along, too.

Bay Area animator Geefwee Boedoe's Let's Pollute mimics the form of an old-school educational filmstrip (featuring a "professor of pollution" from Northsoutheastwestern University). A sarcastic ode to the joys of pollution, this one-joke short is slight and only briefly amusing (there are a few laughs), but like the world's contamination itself, a little goes a long way. I was reminded of an anecdote from screenwriting professor Richard Walter about a student who said she wanted to write a script about pollution. "What's it really about, though?" he asked. "Pollution." Is this going out on a limb as a controversial concept? Perhaps it is, since EPA-violating corporations are skewered in the film. Its cartoony, Curious George style is appealing, though.

Day & Night: Pixar is almost unilaterally solid in this category every year; their shorts play before their feature films and are often just as memorable. While Teddy Newton's Day & Night may not be their best or most hilarious effort to date, it's still a sheer delight. The rivalry between anthropomorphized versions of daytime and nighttime starts out playful, but quickly turns fiercely competitive, then zigzags in other surprising directions. The medium is a mix of cell animation and CGI, reminiscent of those playful Chuck Jones one-offs (From A to ZZZ; Dot and Line). With its sweet punchline—a message of compromise and friendship—the film clocks in at a perfectly brisk 5:55, even shorter than a Looney Tune; unlike the other nominees, not a moment feels wasted within.

Lost Thing Aussie animators Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan's industrial-looking CGI Lost Thing (15 mins, based on Tan's book) is set in a sort of steampunk future (or past?) more Brazil than 9. A beachcombing man, like Barton Fink in baggy pants, finds a giant, bizarre, mechanical "thing" full of arms and openings (Think Howl's Moving Castle, but smaller), which becomes the man's friend. I liked the look and feel of this one, brown and grey tones splashed with accent colors, and Miyazaki-worthy whimsy. The only drawback, as with Gruffalo, is its lethargic lack of energy. The VO narrator is almost too laid back, and there's a gentle bleakness throughout. Yet the ending is surprisingly affecting, and there's more than enough creativity and intrigue to make Lost Thing worth finding. It's the standout among the five nominees, but if Day & Night wins, the Oscar would still feel deserved.


These short films are now playing in select cities, including the Landmark in LA and the Lumiere in San Francisco.

Posted by ahillis at 2:13 PM

February 22, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Temptation of St. Tony

by Vadim Rizov

The Temptation of St. Tony

Veiko Õunpuu's second film, The Temptation of St. Tony, offers special thanks to Pier Paolo Pasolini and Luis Buñuel in the end credits. That's apt for a film whose skepticism about religion as a redemptive force resembles the latter and which pays explicit homage to the former in a song cue. Odetta's "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," used during the Nativity sequence of The Gospel According to St. Matthew, plays over a cannibalism scene directly reminiscent of Porcile. Despite that double-barreled reference, Õunpuu denies any direct influence: in an interview last year, he allowed that "the homage to all of them" (Tarkovsky, Fellini, Lynch and Bresson as well) "is there, whether I like it or not."

The Temptation of St. Tony He very much does like it. His first film Autumn Ball reveled in post-Soviet architecture and dour, lifeless color. Despite one character's outburst that "Baltic consciousness" is a failed attempt at pinning down a collective Eastern European identity where none exists, the film very much existed in the same beaten-down key as any made about violence, entropy and hopelessness in the former Soviet bloc. The Temptation of St. Tony ventures gleefully over the entire European continent and into a whole cinematic tradition; counter-intuitively, shooting in black-and-white really peps Õunpuu up.

The Temptation of St. Tony The morbid joke is that middle manager Tony (Taami Eelmaa) really does want to be a better person, but no one will tell him what to do, or even what he might consider. After attending his father's funeral, an unnerving encounter with a bleeding car accident survivor shakes him up: suddenly, owning a car with all-white leather seats no longer seems like much of an achievement. His quest for meaning bears no fruit. Accordingly, the film spirals down into increasingly hallucinatory terrain, as Tony mostly avoids work and tries to sort himself out. His wife hates him, a potential girlfriend rejects him, and even the church is useless. A priest starts giving advice at one point (after saying he hasn't been visited by God in a while), then attacks Tony's "middle class manager" mentality and stalks away, walking up a column (shades of Simon of the Desert). Tony innocuously comments that Uncle Vanya is a play "that really makes you think" (after sitting through a dismally melodramatic, pretentiously designed Kraftwerk-esque production), only to be smacked down by his friend as "an angel among us" because of his defenselessness. Tony tries to do the right thing, but he can't even figure out where to start; there's no room for spiritual life anywhere, whether in romance, art or religion.

The Temptation of St. Tony For Õunpuu, though, that allows him to plunder from a wide range of directors concerned with similar themes. In the rural opening, he seems to be nodding to Bela Tarr, setting up a leisurely tracking shot in a rural field with one man walking slowly trying to walk a cigarette, another behind him singing a really annoying Russian song about the dear old days at home, and another coming from far away, climbing over a fence and staggering forward. Elsewhere, he pays meticulous homage to Lynch multiple times, with sped-up night-driving and frame-shaking from Lost Highway and a homeless guy breaking up a dinner who is almost as freaky as the blue dude waiting outside the Denny's in Mulholland Drive. (There's also this bit of dialogue: "The trees are not trees and the houses are not houses." The priest forgets to mention that the owls are not what they seem.) One recurring dream bit—a disorienting shot of a black-haired, Japanese woman advancing with ritualistic, Kabuki patience—appears to be a wholesale rip of a similar shot in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse; the same woman later starts floating, just like in Tarkovsky's The Mirror. William Blake is quoted, noise band Magik Markers make an appearance and the climax splices their Wings of Desire-esque performance (the new Nick Cave!) with Eyes Wide Shut. (This is, admittedly, the silliest part of the film: there are only so many times you can hear evil old men preaching about how the darkness of the universe means we should all have murderous orgies before you've heard enough.)

The-Temptation-of-St-Tony-Denis-Lavant.jpg Temptation pays systematic tribute to some of (mostly European) art cinema's most excessive and expressive moments. It's to take nothing away from many of the last decade's high achievers to note that in their by-and-large restrained realism, you wouldn't normally expect to see a Cafe Silencio freakout—as happens here, with Denis Lavant camping it up in German. The Pan-European arthouse tradition feel is reinforced by the plenitude of languages: English, Estonian, Russian, German and French are all heard.

The Temptation of St. Tony That all this isn't overly clever or hyper-referential for its own good speaks both to Õunpuu's compositional skills (frequently stunning, with shimmering black-and-white) and his fundamental puckishness: this is a secular film that won't relinquish the richness that spiritual iconography and theological agonizing can convey. Temptation butts up post-Soviet rapaciousness (an entire factory fired for being less than 1% under their profit quota) with dreams and aspirations not just from another time, but from entirely different cultures. In the end, religion won't save Tony, but cinema just might, giving voice to a whole legion of frustrations he can't articulate. This is as fun as holy despair and meaninglessness gets.

Posted by ahillis at 11:40 AM

February 21, 2011

PODCAST: Xavier Dolan

HEARTBEATS director and star Xavier Dolan

Montreal-based actor and filmmaker Xavier Dolan was only 20 when his semi-autobiographical 2009 feature debut, I Killed My Mother, won three awards in the Directors' Fortnight section at Cannes. A talented whippersnapper to say the least, the not-yet-22-year-old Dolan again wrote, directed and stars in the hip romantic drama-cum-farce Heartbeats (Les Amours imaginaires), which premieres in limited release this Friday:

Francis (Xavier Dolan) and Marie (Monia Chokri) are close friends. One day, during a lunch, they meet Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a young man from the country newly arrived in town. As one rendezvous leads troublingly to another—whether real or imagined, the signs are all bad—each of the two friends slides deeper into obsessive fantasies around the same object of desire. And the deeper they slide, the more their once cast-iron friendship begins to crack under the pressure of competing for the new kid on the block.

Xavier Dolan's second film, HEARTBEATS, is a study of the fall into love. We follow each stage of the typical love story’s progress—it starts with a meeting and ends in tears. The film reveals a fundamentally simple intrigue that careers through a whole gamut of poetic craziness: passions unleashed, expectations, sorrow, humiliation and, finally, loneliness.

In the downtown Manhattan lobby of the Mercer Hotel, Dolan and I sat down to discuss love, style, his amazing coiffure, how he really feels about film criticism, and dubbing the voice of a South Park character for French-Canadian television.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (15:32)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Dalida: "Bang Bang"
OUTRO: The Knife: "Pass This On"

Posted by ahillis at 12:54 PM

February 18, 2011

Cinema con carne

by Steve Dollar

We Are What We Are

Everyone thinks they know what to expect from a genre exercise. Horror films have their codes. The subdivision of cannibal flicks, chalked off like a crime scene by The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, is its own peculiar terrain of terror. What do we talk about when we talk about Leatherface? The unknowable grotesque. Mutant derangement. Stupid kids. Smokehouse barbecue! Working south of the border, Mexican director Jorge Michael Grau approaches the subject with a fresh appetite.

We Are What We Are We Are What We Are—which flows off the tongue more poetically in the Spanish, Somos Lo Que Hay—brings the arthouse to the charnelhouse. Set in a shadowy precinct amid a Mexico City of decaying sprawl and fetid alleys, the film introduces the audience to the knowably grotesque, and not even quite that. It's more of suspense drama than a bug-eyed shocker, intent on humanizing the inhuman by emphasizing the primal necessities of a binding social structure and three squares a day. Only, in this case, the abiding unit is a family of flesh-eaters. The clan experiences a massive freakout when its patriarch collapses and dies on a city street. As the camera watches from a slight remove, the body is efficiently gathered up, blood washed away as if nothing ever happened. Only once the corpse is sliced open for an autopsy does it give up its secret: an undigested finger.

We Are What We Are This marvelous moment arouses the suspicion of a pair of buffoonish cops, who go off hot on the trail, as if—in a city where thousands of people vanish every year without a trace—it's really going to matter. Meanwhile, back in the dark apartment, the bereaved have little more than tears to sop up. By profession a clockmaker, the father also brought home the bacon in other ways: He did all the hunting and killing, presiding over a mysterious dining ritual that accompanied every slaughter. When mom (Carmen Beato) laments that her husband was ruined by his whores, she means it like most of us might disparage spicy food. But she can't keep a leash on Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro), the eldest, who determines to take charge of the family's needs, spawning a feud with his equally headstrong sister (Paulina Gaitan) and younger sib Julian (Alan Chavez) over various aspects of proper operating procedure. Grau insists on showing rather than telling, letting the gravity of the situation gradually accumulate meaning for the viewer.

We Are What We Are How exactly does one hunt a human? The kids don't know. In a jarring comic-horrific sequence, Alfredo goes after the default prey—a random, unlucky streetwalker—plucked from a familiar corner. Speeding off while the working gal screams bloody murder, the boys give new meaning to the phrase "fast food." But in a parody of sexual initiation, once they get her back to the house, they don't know what to do with her. Though she vividly describes what she'd be happy to do with them if they only let her free. Mom’s pissed, but also pragmatic. Whacking their victim in the skull, she quickly decides which side of the "pets or meat?" debate she's on.

We Are What We AreThe bleak, if irresistible, humor resonates with a gothic sitcom punch, and doesn't miss a shot at ironic existential touches, as when a religious crazy on a bus hands Alfredo a scrap of paper with the motto: "You are alive." But it's also purposefully offset with genuine coming-of-age flourishes and an eye for anatomizing the lower depths of Mexico City as surely as our protagonists indulge in grisly dismemberments. Obscuring the gore for the most part, Grau instead brings to (extremely low-level) light the human stain. As the clocks tick-tock in a maddening chorus, cops circling the cannibal compound before one of the most ill-advised house calls since The Human Centipede, Alfredo bolts off on an adventure—stalking a cluster of pretty young men to a disco. The last third of We Are What We Are becomes a thrilling display, as Grau and his cinematographer Santiago Sanchez wind through alleys and perch voyeuristically, fluid motion nimbly tracking the action through penumbral locations that would have done Val Lewton proud.

We Are What We AreHere's a bit of a spoiler, but it's essential to give Grau credit for investing his characters with a sympathetic complexity. Alfredo's apparent struggle over zeroing in on his target may have more to do with revealing his sexuality than diet preferences. That frission rhymes nicely with the sleight-of-hand employed to keep us guessing about what all goes down in the cannibal lair, a candle-lit abattoir which is finally explored in the midst of a shoot-out.

Enough remains ambiguous that We Are What We Are practically compels a repeat viewing, as if stirring a pot of soup for an errant scrap of meat. Dare I say it? The movie makes you hungry for more.

[We Are What We Are opens in limited release today, from IFC Films.]

Posted by ahillis at 12:26 PM

February 15, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: I Wish I Knew

wishiknew3.jpg

By Vadim Rizov

Jia Zhangke began working with official government sanction in 2004, but his films after that year's The World haven't grown more accessible; if anything, they've grown more mystical and hermetic. Viewed collectively, Still Life, Useless, 24 City and I Wish I Knew all constitute elegies for functional communist architecture and its connotations. Over time, these eyesores accrue meaning by default. There's an analogy in Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg, where Maddin laments the loss of the Winnipeg Arena (1964-2005) and its replacement with the MTS Centre. Both buildings are equally hideous: only nostalgia drives Maddin to decry the replacement's ugliness. Similarly, 24 City had sincere love for awful factory buildings, intercut with the chain-smoking former workers left to fend for themselves. The buildings being dismantled in Still Life in preparation for the advancing Three Gorges Dam only gain resonance when they're destroyed as no longer functional or valuable to the people forced to live there for years.

With the exception of the perfectly paced, despairingly funny Still Life, Jia's films since 2004 have been uniformly patchy, prone to longeurs of all kinds. Pop culture references from outside China have long since been elided (no more Pulp Fiction shout-outs, as in 2002's Unknown Pleasures). In Still Life people bond over cell phone ringtones of long-dead TV shows (unknown to American viewers, but the characters recognition gave off a feeling of TV-childhood warmth). Since then, Jia's heavily fictionalized documentaries have formed a kind of continuous sketchbook: last impressions of formerly ubiquitous architecture and the people who went down with the buildings, interspersed with past cultural impressions of the same territory.

wishiknew2.jpg

Where 24 City and Still Life asserted deadpan gazes at strictures often literally in the process of destruction, I Wish I Knew, which opens in New York on Friday, is exponentially more stylized and occasionally hyperactive. During one sped-up POV shot from a boat passing under bridges where ominously unhappy girls look down, the vibe is momentarily between a Tony Scott movie and J-horror. This isn't what you expect from Jia, which also creates one strikingly cheesy sequence of 19th-century port laborers toting what look like flour sacks in shots, all of it meticulously digitally colored to one shade of gray. (All scored, incidentally, to synthesizers worthy of a mid-80s Cannon film.) Jia is always consistent; these interjections aren't as strange as, say, the building that turns into a rocket and blasts off in Still Life.

All that style is appropriate for Jia's most overtly intertextual film yet, one which includes clips of Tung Wang's 1996 Red Persimmon, Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Flowers Of Shanghai (and interviews with the latter two Taiwanese directors) and Days Of Being Wild. These clips broach the sensitive issues of China's relationship to the outside world (and its continuous unresolved claim on Taiwan), away from Shanghai and China's much-trumpeted growing urban economy. Even more so than the unannounced interpolation of actors among the ostensibly real testimonies in 24 City, I Wish I Knew juxtaposes sometimes spellbinding, othertimes vaporous testimonials with big aesthetic setpieces.

wishiknew1.jpg

Jia's camera glides down streets aping New York City's architecture or crowded overhead with wires going to structures in progress, never actively seeking out people (outside a cafe, it catches a woman telling him to just come on in already). Shanghai is a jumble of clashing architecture, from abandoned industrial sprawl to towering arrays of skyscrapers, linked by the wandering of Jia's constant actress/muse/model/stand-in/partner Zhao Tao. Her moody walks smack, more than expected, of contrived linking device, but this time — as opposed to her part in Still Life, searching for a missing husband — she has no narrative purpose. She's the ghost of her own past parts; Jia has xeroxed her and the material too many times.

Given that Jia's gaze — both in static repose and gliding motion — is one of the most formidable working today, it's worth putting up with all the filler. The films of the last five years layer off each other, a series of notes on the destruction of a society's literal foundations. Added up, the sum omits all the dull parts, all the films merging into one long dreamy memory at events of notable physical scale. If I Wish I Knew is the last dispatch, it's entirely of a piece. Like the three films he cites — all nostalgic recreations of past eras — Jia's gazing at and recreating the end of an era alongside the real thing.

Posted by cphillips at 10:42 AM

February 12, 2011

Jesus, and Jesus' Son

by Steve Dollar

Klaus-Kinski-Jesus-Christ-the-Savior.jpg

"Jesus is just alright with me" goes the refrain to the Doobie Brothers' 1970s sing-along, a cheerful ode to the only begotten son's Nixon Era vogue as a pothead's antihero. Hippie Jesus branded rolling papers and bonded groovy seekers at folk mass. And he apparently inspired that most demonic of actors, Klaus Kinski, to dedicate a one-man show to the Prince of Peace. The year was 1971, and in Peter Geyer's documentary Klaus Kinski: Jesus Christ Savior, the occasion was anything but a love-in. Kinski, then 45, was winding down a prolific year with 10 movies released, most of them spaghetti Westerns with names like Il venditore di morte and Giu la testa … hombre (whose tagline read: "A fistful of DEATH"), plus a few psycho thrillers on the sleazy order of La bestia uccide a sangue freddo. Maybe he wanted to reconnect with a passionate role. Instead, his Nov. 20 performance in a large hall in Berlin was a screaming rage-fest, a fourth-wall obliterating extension of the blood-letting that made Kinski the forbidding presence in scores of B movies. And, with his murderous scowl and lacerating tongue, an unexpected warm-up for his next star turn in Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God - the role that would legitimize the actor as a legendary force of nature.

The infamous meltdown is one of 26 films featured in Film Comment Selects, the off-season festival curated by the editors of the bi-monthly magazine published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Besides the requisite serious stuff, there's plenty of extreme and offbeat fare on the calendar, which offers up new films from Sion Sono (Cold Fish), Kim Ji-woon (I Saw the Devil), Alex Cox (Straight to Hell Returns) and a sneak preview of Machete spin-off Hobo with a Shotgun, with Rutger Hauer as a homeless vigilante.

Jesus was homeless, too. As Kinski reminds his audience in the opening moments of the film, he was accused of "anarchistic tendencies, conspiring against the authority of the state," with "scars on both hands and feet." The heckling begins immediately. "I want my 10 marks back!" "Asshole!" "You still got to earn your 10 marks, dude!" Kinski, eyes aflame, challenges a man to come onto the stage and repeat himself. The fellow does just that, calmly denouncing Kinski for his anything but Christ-like behavior. "You stupid pig!" the actor responds, and soon stalks off the stage.

Thus the masochistic pattern begins. "Heil Satan!" they cry, and still Kinski comes back, reciting lines for a 30-page script that's half scripture, half grandiose self-identification with Jesus as bohemian culture hero. The stunning accomplishment of the performance is how Kinski turns beatitudes into brickbats, evoking the wrath of God as he imagines the offending "riff-raff" to be the same rabble that persecuted the Biblical Jesus. Explosive, insane, chilling, idiotic, it is - as might have been said of some high-quality weed at the time - righteous shit.

I-Only-Want-You-To-Love-Me-Fassbinder.jpg

The parable of a man pushed to the self-destructive brink by the denial of affection, I Only Want You To Love Me could as easily serve as a theme for Kinski. But it's actually another rarity from the German New Wave: a 1976 Rainer Werner Fassbinder TV production that, in a variation on a frequent theme, demonstrates the slow crushing of a needy soul who only wants to please. Peter (Vitus Zeplichal) can't escape the fact that his mother never loved him, and that his father didn't offer much, either. He builds a house for his saloon-keeper parents, but as the intertitles reveal, that only won their love for two weeks. Then they forgot.

Zeplichal's kicked-dog performance is at once mannered and matter-of-fact, much like the film, which loops back and forth in time without warning, as Peter takes a wife, moves to Munich, and works himself half to death on a construction site while he sinks deeper and deeper into debt lavishing his bride with installment plan purchases. Extended credit at high interest rates is colder than death, the budding family discovers, but love-starved Peter can't help himself. Tragedy looms. A social critique with Sirkian flourishes, the story seems prime for adaptation to the circa-2008 financial crisis. For now, it's another errant RWF title to rack up - not screened in New York since 1994 and only available as a used VHS on Amazon.

Velvet-Underground-and-Nico-Warhol.jpg

From Jesus … to Jesus' son: Lou Reed, his sunglasses as iconic an accessory as for Ray Charles, sits in a chair strumming his guitar for more than an hour in The Velvet Underground and Nico. The rest of his bandmates are there in Warhol's Factory: Sterling Morrison, John Cale, and Maureen Tucker, looking strangely Bieberesque sitting behind the drum kit. Warhol, who is sort-of dealing with the camera, doesn't seem to care that much about them. The music, a drone overlaid with chugging rhythm guitar parts, scarcely varies and goes on and on into nowhere. So we're left with the obvious, which is Nico.

Even in this detached mode, all awkward, arbitrary zoom shots and monkeying with the focus, the Teutonic chanteuse is a luminously compelling subject, ice blonde amid the New York City scruff. It was 1966, and you'd be lucky to be there hanging out, even for a boring jam session, because now it's history. White noise aside, the 70 minutes of footage are the antithesis of Kinski's unholy communion. But both performances end the same way. The cops show up. Those anarchic tendencies will get you ever time.

Film Comment Selects runs from Friday to March 3 at Walter Reade Theater in New York.

Posted by cphillips at 7:28 PM

February 8, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: Carancho

By Vadim Rizov

Carancho

The most striking moments in Carancho are bursts of luridly unashamed, sometimes comic violence. This isn't an accident: the two main characters make a living out of artificial calm, but their more excitable instincts always get the best of them. That they snap despite knowing better is part of the joke. In one corner: Sosa (Ricardo Darin), whose balding pate and slouchy comfort with middle-aged sadness recalls French actor Jean-Pierre Darroussin (The Town is Quiet). In the other: young doctor Lujan (Martina Gusman), who graduates from paramedic to 48-hour hospital shifts trying to get hysterical relatives to stop screaming in the emergency room.

Carancho Sosa is an ambulance chaser ("carancho" means "vulture"), whose sleazy path of business brings him into Lujan's path. She's as likely as Sosa to profit from death. Carancho's best conceit is to have these two reluctant scavengers of death fall for each other. Sosa wants out, and Lujan isn't sure she wants to keep working overtime to make staff doctor. Their romance puts Carancho somewhere between an offbeat film noir/romance (think Gun Crazy, which is quoted, inadvertently or intentionally, in the final shot) and social commentary—a specialty of director Pablo Trapero. Trapero sometimes likes to pretend he's Wong Kar Wai, gazing at rows of out-of-focus streetlights, but he's better at slumming. Carancho largely sticks to San Justo, a particularly dismal, mundanely nightmarish area of Buenos Aires. The hospital is deserted save for various ominous-looking types roaming the halls, its floors slicked with blood and other less identifiable liquids. The surrounding world is drab in the extreme, but that doesn't stop death at its most florid from being a regular visitor. (In other words: savage beatdowns and ownage make regular appearances.)

Carancho As the titles announce, over 8,000 people die in Argentina in traffic accidents annually; nonetheless, social activism this isn't. Instead, we get to see the spectacle of a cold-blooded scavenger feeling bad enough to compromise his entire livelihood on behalf of the poor, and a nurse who knows exactly what kind of obstructions overemotional people can cause in the emergency room repeatedly acting like a hysterical child. This makes for abrasive viewing, but it's funny, too. Lujan tries to triage two guys from a street fight, only to realize they're the source of each other's damage, brought separately: the two get up and start fighting again, and then someone's gun goes off. That's high comedy.

Carancho The first 20 minutes hew surprisingly closely to the lowkey feel of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, as Lujan argues with a stocky and arbitrarily unhelpful head nurse over whether the hospital can admit her patient. Lujan and Sosa meet at the same accident site, which is a new gloss on "meet cute." Trapero diligently makes sure they're equally flawed: Lujan, like so many doctors, gets by with some speed, while Sosa stages accidents to collect large settlements. That's actually the more ethical part of his job: those accidents are for friends, who get to keep most of the money. The less ethical part is chasing down the truly unfortunate and their relatives, getting authorization to collect the settlement checks themselves, then keeping the bulk of the money.

Carancho Like Michael Clayton, Carancho is a reasonably heavy-handed movie about businesses callously profiting from human suffering. But while Clayton was glossy and high-toned, Carancho is pleasingly lurid, even if its idea of dramatic irony gets a bit excessive towards the end. This is basically fatalistic filmmaking, so the frequent jolts of violence and admirable insistence on looking as every last stitch is sown up is welcome. The arthouse can use all the exploitation it can get, and Trapero—working in the ever tricky field of agitating for social justice—understands righteousness won't get him everywhere. Scummy as his trade may be, Sosa takes the only job he can get.

Carancho In between its systemic indictment of the many ways auto accidents can be exploited (an argument, in passing, for the importance of calm: dangerous driving is also a loss of temper and judgment, which makes the final shot a punchline), Sosa gets the best lines. Sitting on the couch with Lujan before the third act kicks off, they're bantering. "Tell me something about your past," she asks. "No." "Why not?" "Because we're having a good time and I don't want to ruin it." Charlie Kaufman would like that line, scrambled in there between a lot of gore and some nasty underworld crime.

Carancho kicks and screams, but it's the productive kind of abrasion: sometimes over the top and downhill in the last act, but far less portentous than the hypothetical American equivalent.

Posted by cphillips at 3:28 PM

February 4, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: Poetry

by Steve Dollar

Poetry

Those darn Koreans. They'll get you every time. After watching a trailer for Poetry, Lee Chang-dong's follow-up to the 2007 (but only distributed in the US last year) Secret Sunshine, I was a little wary. OK, so a meek, long-suffering grandmother discovers she's slipping into Alzheimer's, only to find solace and an autumnal spiritual awakening by attending a weekly poetry workshop at the local community center. Real triumph of the human spirit stuff, for sure, but ripe for overt sentimentality and the quasi-tragic grand performance that—translated to Hollywood cliché—almost instantly conjures an Academy Award nomination.

Poetry Instead, Poetry—which took the prize for best screenplay at last year's Cannes Film Festival—is the kind of movie that makes me glad to set aside knee-jerk critical prejudices. It's not about Alzheimer's, even if the disease serves as a crafty narrative device. The framing premise is a nice contradiction: an older woman kindles her love of precise literary observation at the same time she begins to lose her grasp on verbs and nouns. Yet, from the very first frame, the film is deeper, more expansive, and so subtly rich in its emotional and psychological nuances.

Celebrated Korean actress Yoon Jeong-hee came out of retirement to play her first screen role in 16 years as Yang Mija, a 66-year-old woman who favors fancy floral dresses and hats that belie her professional station. She's a housemaid and part-time caretaker for an aged stroke victim who struggles to speak, but still manages to pop a Viagra and make sexual advances that repulse the well-maintained matron. Mija shares her modest apartment with her sullen and selfish grandson, a high school student left in her care by a daughter who lives in another city. No explanation is given for this arrangement, but it underscores what seems to have been a life of constant servitude endured by Mija, whose attitude toward life appears to be one of passive acceptance. But two things happen. In the opening scene, a young girl's body is found floating in a rural river. It's a suicide. Poetry The same day, Mija decides to talk her way into a poetry class, almost immediately after her doctor has expressed concern about her bouts of memory loss. On her way out of the hospital, she sees the mother of the dead schoolgirl screaming and distraught. As Mija will soon learn, there was a diary left behind. In it, the girl documents how a group of six boys raped her repeatedly. One of the boys was Mija's grandson, and now the fathers of the other five boys are pressuring her to contribute 5 million won (about $4,500) towards a payoff to the victim's family. There are no expressions of remorse. Instead, the affair is handled as if it were a simple business transaction, with a lot of awkward gestures and facile pleasantries to plaster over the monstrousness of the moment.

Right in the middle of the discussion, Mija's face goes blank and she wanders outside, where she picks up some flowers—attentive to her poetry instructor's directive that she closely observes her surroundings, and be open to inspiration at a moment's notice. It's this juxtaposition that Lee plays like verse-chorus-verse, as Yoon marvelously hits the ambivalent notes: Is she spacing out on dementia or is she having a lyrical epiphany? Poetry The performance, which is mostly wordless, is a concentrated and masterful plunge into what could be murky depths of introspection, but Yoon keeps her face alive with feeling and recognition—we're just never quite sure what's going through her mind. Again and again, whether at a poetry open-mic Yoon attends, or in the classroom, the characters that give color to her creative getaways talk of nature, sensuality, and the elevated language poets use to express beauty, even in the blatantly sexual. The words themselves are lovely and captivating, none of that poetry-slam crap. The film generates an honest kinship with what Mija is responding to, even as she is saddled with an impossible task: to find the money that will keep her grandson's name out of the newspapers. The beautiful imagery is in stark contrast to the other scenes of physical engagement: a Middle Eastern blood feud on the news; the horny old goat with his twisted face, begging to have sex one more time so he can feel like man again; the dead girl floating in the river. The touch of evil in Poetry is not the crazed brutality of Korean genre movies, or even the more modulated violence of, say, Mother, for which this film plays like a flipside. Somehow, that only makes the tone more heart-wrenching.

POETRY filmmaker Lee Chang-dongNo third-act spoilers offered here. Although they'd be relatively minor ones, every key point in the last half hour or so is a step through some of the crummier situations in the human morass toward a resolution that embraces the beatific: scattered raindrops accumulate into a pattern on a notepad, and a casually devastating commentary on the taste of apricots fallen prematurely from a tree becomes awfully resonant in the context that Lee carefully and thoroughly creates. Amid all this, Yoon's performance is so effortlessly touching that it will leave a little mark on your soul. A red one, like roses that fade.

[Poetry opens in New York today, with more dates to follow, from Kino International.]

Posted by ahillis at 1:30 PM

February 1, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: The League of Gentlemen

by Vadim Rizov

The League of Gentlemen

The League of Gentlemen In 1957, Jack Hawkins led a coordinated Allied attack on The Bridge on the River Kwai, and three years later, he led a coordinated private attack on a British bank. The film was The League of Gentlemen (included in Basil Dearden's London Underground, a smashing new box set from Criterion/Eclipse), in which Hawkins rounds up seven equally unpleasant, mostly meta-cast men to assist. The recruits comprise a microcosm of various, superficially resilient members of the British way of post-war life. One is Nigel Patrick, perhaps best known at that point as a mindlessly brave test pilot in The Sound Barrier, a sacrificial lamb to the stiff-upper-limb ethos to the last. He's Hawkins' aide, clinging to his pre-war aristocratic status by being paternally glib to the other men and looking foolish in the process. Other members: Terence Alexander (in real life a member of the 27th Lancers, wounded in combat), Roger Livesey (star of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and hence the self-conscious representative of the prototypical British soldier, however satirically), and already respected screenwriters Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes (the latter of whom also served as this film's writer).

The League of Gentlemen Here's a cast of ex-Queen's Men, all trained to wreak specialized military havoc, recruited for skills they learned at the army's expense. Peacetime has served them ill, as it has the reluctant gangland soldiers of They Made Me a Fugitive, Flamingo Road and other films about angry demobilized British soldiers who miss the excitement of war. Hawkins is smug, big-chinned and annoyingly all-knowing and all-judging: his men aren't unjustly scorned, but endlessly flawed. (The flaws are a product of their time: the convicted homosexual is portrayed with as much scorn as the guy convicted of gross public indecency.) All are shown in one snippet of private life apiece: thereafter, they're members of a corps once more, their individuality reduced to a war movie's sacrificial platoon of standard types, all rendered seedier by post-war life. There's the horny one, the hen-pecked husband, the slimy gigolo, etc. Their social and professional positions make no difference; when it comes down to the final raid, they're all equalized by bullets.

To bring the men together, Hawkins sends out invitations to a business lunch and comes late: until his arrival, the increasingly uneasy men are considering leaving. (Shades of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, where ten criminals are invited to an island getaway by the sinister "U.N. Owen," or "unknown." It ends badly.) Once Hawkins shows, we're in firm caper territory, as the men execute a series of "missions"—studying 16mm footage of their bank target, constructing smoke bombs, stealing trucks and equipment from an army base—in a barracks-like retreat. The point is to immerse themselves back in the military mindset of "a bloody good war"; their heist succeeds, partly by creating warlike conditions on peacetime streets.

The League of Gentlemen Unlike the cycle of post-war British noirs (more cynical and desperate), League is Ealing with a twist. It was a hand-me-down project: as Alan Burton and Tim O'Sullivan note in their book The Cinema of Basil Dearden and Michael Relph, it originated on commission for American screenwriter/producer Carl Foreman (High Noon, The Guns of Navarone). It was a cheap production of some £192,000 and performed well. Burton and O'Sullvian note that the heist is an allegory for the film's production—quick-witted irregulars profitably thumb their nose at the establishment—but it's also exactly what it presents itself as: a group of disaffected British film industry veterans who know they're on the verge of being pushed aside by equally angry but younger men. The World War II mentality, persisting 15 years later, overlooks the dreary '60s realities of industrial blight and pervasive drabness embodied in the same year's Saturday Night & Sunday Morning. It lingers in the '40s mentality rather than paying attention to the newest forms of disaffection.

Yet League tackles the same inert society, just from a different angle. Pleasurable as it is, the heist itself isn't the film's true focal point (as in, say, Ocean's Eleven) or the inherent venality and untrustworthiness of men (as in umpteen heists from The Asphalt Jungle onwards). The men carry out their mission with the expected military precision. But the real fun comes in one of the most remarkable post-heist third acts on record. Without spoilers, things fall apart in large part due to the blithering intrusion of one Brigadier "Bunny" Warren (Robert Coote). The League of GentlemenHere the heavily ironic title meets its match: an old-school, blithering military man whose nickname hearkens back to the Victorian era and the Boer War. Bunny was most famously a name associated with the companion of Victorian burglar A.J. Raffles; both men eventually shipped off to that colonial conflict to do their patriotic duty. Nowadays, the Boer War is not remembered as one of Britain's more justified military excursions, and Brigadier Bunny is a tiresome drunken blowhard, whose "good war" was clearly nothing like the league's.

As the clock ticks down and he blathers on, you finally get the point: these fuming middle-aged men have as many pricks to kick against as any of John Osborne's ticked-off youth. That The League of Gentlemen makes all that despair and decay a crackling entertainment is its biggest achievement.

Posted by ahillis at 2:51 PM