Wednesday, June 29, 2011

THE DEADLY SPAWN


Douglas McKeown, 1983
Starring: Charles George Hildebrant, Tom DeFranco, Richard Lee Porter, Jean Tafler, Karen Tighe, James Brewster, Elissa Neil

Despite all of my misconceptions, this movie is amazing. Also known as Return of the Aliens: The Deadly Spawn, it is not actually a sequel, but like several other horror films in the '80s, the studio attempted to link it to other films (Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, anyone?) with a tricky name change. It has nothing to do with Ridley Scott's Alien.

Using a tried and true plot device, a meteorite crashes to earth, unleashing a holocaust of demented alien beings that look like a cross between the Shai Hulud and Venus flytraps. And by a holocaust, I mean a handful of creepy crawlies that infect a small, suburban neighborhood. They find a nesting place in a family's basement, growing large enough to do some real damage and eating the occasional family member who wanders downstairs. The primary victims are a group of hormonal teenagers and a luncheon for older vegetarian ladies.

Though the acting and dialogue are terrible, I couldn't help but root for the characters. There are some nice effects and some truly hilarious moments that get better the higher your blood alcohol content rises. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of Evil Dead II, Peter Jackson's early films, and most '80s horror that straddles the line between gore and comedy. Also, anyone who enjoys fun should like it. Visit the awesome website and check out the DVD, which has some amazing commentary.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

COUNT DRACULA


Jess Franco, 1970
Starring: Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, Soledad Miranda, Herbert Lom, Maria Rohm, Fred Williams

Normally I'm right there with Jess Franco. His films might not be the most popular, but I usually respect what he's doing and leave his movies feeling entertained and like I've shared some sort of private joke with this anarchistic director. That was sadly not the case with his rendition of Count Dracula. I suspect a large part of the problem is that the world absolutely does not need another Dracula adaptation.

You know the story. Jonathan Harker is hired to travel to Transylvania and aid Count Dracula in securing several properties around London. The Count turns out to be a vampire, puts the bite on Harker, travels back to London, and spreads his vampiric plague, namely to Harker's wife and her hot friend. Harker, with the help of an eccentric doctor and some friends, tries to stop him. Blah blah blah race against time, gypsies, blah.

Count Dracula is a flawed, but entertaining attempt to make a successful adaptation of Stoker's novel. Like Macbeth, I'm pretty sure Dracula is cursed. Instead of accidents and deaths, Dracula is plagued with a dozen "faithful" film adaptations, none of which really try to stay true to the novel. Count Dracula comes relatively close, but Franco and Harry Alan Towers still felt the need to change a number of things in the script, which infuriates me. I know it's irrational, but why claim you're faithfully adapting a novel if you're not going to. Plus, I'm pretty sure Franco has no business adapting anything. His original films are always the most interesting, bizarre and rewarding. Vampyros Lesbos puts this film to shame.

With that said, there's a great cast, which makes the film worth checking out at least once. Lee shines as Dracula, though feels strangely out of place in this German/Italian/Spanish co-production. I expect him to be surrounded by a bevy of generously-bosomed British babes, not exotic beauties like Franco regular Soledad Miranda. She is lovely, as always, though she should have gotten more screen time. Fred Williams, another Franco regular, is perfectly cast as Jonathan Harker, though, like his character, is a bit bland. Herbert Lom is only second to Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Klaus Kinski was pretty much born to be Renfield. He's insane.

Moody, but kind of slow, it's at least worth watching to see such an interesting combination of actors under Franco's direction. Interestingly, this is the first film to show Dracula as he is in the novel -- an older man, growing younger only when he gorges himself with blood. It's also one of Franco's most beautiful films, despite the crushingly low budget. Check out the cheap DVD that claims to be a "special edition."

Thursday, June 16, 2011

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN


Mel Brooks, 1974
Starring: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars

I was going to start this review off by talking about how Young Frankenstein stars the great Gene Wilder -- and he is great -- but upon reflection, so is everyone else in this film. Arguably Mel Brooks's best work and certainly the best horror spoof ever made, this is one of those films that, if you haven't seen it, I demand you stop reading and go watch it, immediately.

Wilder stars as Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced "Frahnk-en-steen,"), a brilliant scientist who gives impassioned lectures at an undisclosed American medical school. When a strange man contacts him about his grandfather's will, he is forced to return to Europe, despite his deep disdain for his grandfather's attempts at science -- reviving the dead -- which he regards as ridiculous superstition. He sadly parts with his fiancee, the vain Elizabeth, and is soon greeted by Igor, a servant descended from his grandfather's famous hunchbacked henchman. They also meet with Ilsa, a sexy lab assistant, and Frau Blucher, caretaker of the castle. After a series of disturbing dreams, Frankenstein discovers his grandfather's hidden laboratory and notebooks and embarks on an attempt to recreate the famous Frankenstein monster. Of course this goes wrong and the monster escapes. When the townspeople get a whiff of what's happened and his fiancee arrives, all hell breaks loose. Can he find the monster and put things right before it's too late?

Co-written by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, this is one of the funniest films I've ever seen, though it does help to have a familiarity with the Universal Frankenstein films, as it references both Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and some of the lesser sequels -- plus it was shot on some of the same set, amazingly enough.

It's really difficult for me not to ruin any of the jokes by quoting them incessantly, so I'm going to quit while I'm ahead. Needless to say, there's a ton of brilliant humor in the film. It's widely available on DVD in a cheap region 1 from 20th Century Fox.


WITHNAIL AND I


Bruce Robinson, 1987
Starring: Richard E. Grant, Paul McGann, Richard Griffiths

The first time I saw Withnail and I was a few years ago when I began my crusade to see and own every Criterion film ever made. While that battle is still on going, I like to revisit my favorites time and again. I'm a compulsive re-reader and re-watcher and I'm not ashamed. With Withnail and I I'm happy to say that the humor, acting, and charm has held up. However, a couple of years later, as someone who does a lot of drinking and spends a lot of time around other people doing a lot of drinking, it is, if anything, a hell of a lot funnier. Or at least more relevant. And vaguely depressing.

Richard E. Grant plays the titular Withnail. Though he claims to be an actor, this hilarious, disaster of a drunk uses his considerable intelligence and wit to look for booze, drink it, and then deal with the inevitable hang overs instead of acting or going on auditions. Paul McGann costars as his unnamed roommate, a nervous, passive fellow who does much of the same and is in the same profession. While he is at least a little more responsible than Withnail, he follows along with Withnail's schemes with a kind of submissive mania. The two decide they are reaching the pinnacle of unwell and need to take a vacation. They persuade Withnail's urbane, gay Uncle Monty to let them use his country cabin for a time. When they get to the cabin, nothing is as they expected. It is cold, raining, and muddy. They have no food, firewood, or fuel, and little booze. The locals are unfriendly. The situation slowly begins to turn around, but Monty shows up and throws another kink in their plans. What will become of their accidental vacation?

If you've never seen this film, get on it immediately. There are an appalling number of instantly quotable lines and should you meet anyone out at a bar who has seen the film, you will probably make an instant friend. It richly deserves the cult status it has achieved, as well as its Criterion release, which I recommend buying as soon as possible. The documentary, "Withnail and Us" is almost as funny as the film itself.

It's amazing that this was Grant's first feature role and probably his best performance to date. Despite the fact that he is an avowed non-drinker and I believe is allergic to alcohol, he's perfect as Withnail. McGann is also quite good as his roommate, hovering constantly between paranoid, drunk, and outraged.

This is definitely a black comedy, but if you hate British humor, it doesn't really fall within the same boundaries as most films of that category. It's more drinking-because-life-is-miserable-and-I-hate-my-job-or-am-unemployed humor than anything else.

I leave you with two of my favorite scenes:



WILD ZERO


Tetsuro Takeuchi, 2000
Starring: Guitar Wolf, Bass Wolf, Drum Wolf, Masashi Endo, Kwancharu Shitichai

This has pretty much everything I've ever wanted in a move: zombies, gore, aliens, a punk band, transgender love, a drinking game, motorcycles, muscle cars, guns, hot Japanese dudes, and the spirit of true rock'n roll. It's an absolutely fun time and bears a lot in common with the spirit of Return of the Living Dead. Anyone who likes that film will surely enjoy Wild Zero (and anyone who doesn't like Return has no business reading this blog).

Ace (Masashi Endo) is the biggest Guitar Wolf fan in the world. While he is following them on tour he runs afoul of some zombies, who have come to earth because a flying saucer crashed somewhere in Japan. He has to protect Tobio, a cute girl he develops a crush on. Guitar Wolf, who are actually extra-terrestrials with super powers, become blood brothers with Ace and come to his aid. They wind up in an abandoned warehouse with a rag-tag band of people who have managed to survive the zombie invasion. Can they fight the zombies and the Captain, a club-owner and drug dealer who has come to defeat Guitar Wolf once and for all?

It's utterly ridiculous and joyful. I love this movie. It borrows mercilessly from Western horror, particularly over the top films like Evil Dead II and the aforementioned Return of the Living Dead. There are a couple things you need to know. First Guitar Wolf is a real band. They're actually pretty awesome. It's a mix of rockabilly, punk, and noise. In the film they play "themselves": Guitar Wolf, Seiji, the singer and guitarist, Bass Wolf, who is now deceased and has been replaced by a dude named U.G., and Drum Wolf, Toro.

Instead of the normal method of contagion found in Western zombie films -- toxic chemicals -- a couple of Japanese movies feature zombies that comes from space and are brought to earth by crashed UFOs. It seems a little ridiculous at first, but you get used to it. Wild Zero and Zombie Self Defense Force (2005) are my two favorite examples of this plot device. If you like to consider these things, it says a little something about cultural differences and unconscious fears. Obviously we aren't as concerned about things falling from the sky. But then, we've never been hit with an atomic bomb. Let alone two.

One of the best things about the movie, ridiculous though it may be, is its message: love has no boundaries. It openly supports love regardless of race, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender. Fuck yeah, Guitar Wolf.

I'm reviewing the Synapse DVD, which has a number of cool special features. The best of which is a drinking game you can select like a commentary track. A little foaming beer mug pops up in the corner anytime someone drinks or combs their hair, says "rock'n roll," a zombie's head explodes, anything explodes, or fire shoots out of something. Supposedly there are about 100 drinks total. I've made it halfway through with serious drinking and all the way through with little sips of beer. Hang over city.

I leave you with this...

Vincent Price - Happy Vincentennial!


Today, Vincent Price turns 100. Well, would if he were still living, though as far as I'm concerned he lives on in the multitude of great films he left behind and the people whose lives he touched. Yes, that is cheesy, but I really don't care. If I had to pick a single figure in the horror world who has forever changed my life, it would be Vincent Price. Sure, there's a long list of writers and directors whose work is near and dear to me, as well as a smaller list of actors, but Vincent Price has been there from the beginning and has always been the most beloved.

Along with his dear friends Peter Cushing, whose birthday was yesterday, RIP, and Christopher Lee who is also celebrating an amazing 89th birthday today, Vincent Price brought charm, class, talent and heart to a business that is frequently maligned, misrepresented and grossly under-appreciated. I grew up watching his films, still watch them as often as possible and always love introducing his work to newbies.

It's well outside my ability to write an article length memorial for the great actor, but I had to add something to the hundreds of articles already on the internet for this wonderful man who always brings a smile to my face. He's incredibly inspiring to me because of his genuine enthusiasm and love of the horror genre. He gleefully accepted starring roles, cameos and guest spots alike and is also known for his work in the theatre. He is well-known for his passionate love of the arts - he was a voracious collector and has a museum named after him - and his talent for gourmet cooking.

There's nothing I can say that you don't already know or can't find out elsewhere in more detail, so I thought I'd just give a video retrospective of some of my favorite highlights from Price's fabulous career.

Though his first horror film was the Boris Karloff vehicle TOWER OF LONDON, I prefer his first horror starring role in THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS:



In the '40s he established himself as a villain in some classic films before moving on to straight horror in the '50s. He was also in a ton of television this decade, including an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "The Perfect Crime." 1953's HOUSE OF WAX is one of my favorite films. It's also notable for being the first color, 3-D feature from a major American studio.



Though THE FLY is pretty amazing, Price's next film, William Castle's HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, was one of my first favorite films. It's in the public domain, which means you can watch the entire thing for free right now.



He closed out '59 with THE BAT, RETURN OF THE FLY and another William Castle great THE TINGLER. Watch the whole film below, including the amusing introduction by Castle.



The '60s is probably Price's greatest decade. It includes the Roger Corman series of films for AIP that adapted a series of Poe stories and started with HOUSE OF USHER (1960).



Next came one of my favorites, THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961), where Price co-starred with the ravishing Barbara Steele.



Then the anthology film, TALES OF TERROR, with the great Peter Lorre, which you can watch here.



While the TOWER OF LONDON remake starring Price is recommended for serious fans only, THE RAVEN with Lorre and Karloff is kind of a ridiculous treat that I try to watch every year around Halloween. DIARY OF A MADMAN is also of minor note. None of these really have anything to do with the Poe cycle, though AIP tried squeezing THE RAVEN in despite the fact that it has little to no connection with Poe. Next up is the wonderful Lovecraft adaptation, THE HAUNTED PALACE, that I recently reviewed. It's another one of my favorite Price-Corman films. Watch it below.



We move back to anthologies with the Hawthorne inspired TWICE TOLD TALES and then to the silly comedy/horror mash up COMEDY OF TERRORS. It's a bit ridiculous, but I love it. How can you deny Price, Lorre, Karloff and Basil Rathbone in one film?



LAST MAN ON EARTH, an adaptation of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, takes a more serious turn as Price is confronted not only with hordes of vampires, but with the last woman on earth who may not be what she seems. Watch it below.



Next comes another one of my favorites, THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, which I recently reviewed and had the pleasure to watch on both DVD and laser disc. It also brings us back to the increasingly amazing Corman-Price-AIP Poe cycle. This is certainly one of the loveliest horror films I've ever seen. Watch it below.



TOMB OF LIGEIA is the last in the Poe cycle and I'm happy to say that the series goes out on a strong note. I'm also happy to say that this is another Price film that you can watch in its entirety on the internet!



After this ol' Vinnie lightened things up with the hilariously wonderful DR GOLDFOOT AND THE BIKINI MACHINE, which went on to spawn two sequels. He also had a cameo on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and had a regularly occurring role as the villain Egghead in the original Batman series.



His only film of '68 is the impressive, mean-spirited WITCHFINDER GENERAL, probably the only time I've ever actually been afraid of Vincent Price. It's also one of the greatest masterpieces of British horror. Watch it below.



Next came a series of pleasing, but average films, THE OBLONG BOX and SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN, both of which co-star the clearly bored Christopher Lee, as well as CRY OF THE BANSHEE, another attempt to put Price in a witch-hunter role. He also hosted the memorable Canadian children's show, The Hilarious House Of Frightenstein. This show has a cult following and I recommend seeking it out.



1971 brought us one of my all time favorite Price films, the legendary ABOMINABLE DR PHIBES. It is surely one of the cinematic loves of my life and has to be seen to be believed. I must have seen this a good thirty times over the years, but it never gets old. Watch it below.



I also recommend the sequel, DR PHIBES RISES AGAIN, co-starring the hammy Robert Quarry. '72 also ushered in the average, but entertaining AN EVENING OF EDGAR ALLEN POE, which he narrated. He also starred in a few Night Gallery episodes that year. THEATRE OF BLOOD, which hit theatres in '73, is another film high on my list of Price greats. It shares a lot of similarities with DR PHIBES, but is more violent and less goofy. Watch it below.



I also recommend the much sillier MADHOUSE, where Price stars as an aging horror actor attempting to revive his career while being framed for murder. Or is he? Peter Cushing and Robert Quarry co-star. "To those among you who are easily frightened, we suggest you turn away. Now."



The early '80s brought the painful MONSTER CLUB and the whimsical HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS, both of which are generally lame attempts to cash in on the past success of various horror stars and are fortunately saved by Price, despite the absurd scripts.

Despite his age, Price kept working. He narrated the Tim Burton short "Vincent," recorded some dramatizations of Poe stories and poems, lent his voice to Alice Cooper's Welcome to My Nightmare and Michael Jackson's Thriller, then narrated some episodes of Faerie Tale Theater, which is where I first encountered him when I was a child.



Another place I let him terrify me was on the Scooby-Doo spin off The 13 Ghosts of Scooby Doo, where he had a regularly occurring role as Vincent Van Ghoul.



I also want to mention his somewhat earlier contribution to The Muppet Show, which is amazing and needs to be seen by any Price fan. He was on a few episodes and here's a good one. Coincidentally, The Muppet Show is the only place Vincent Price ever played a vampire! I love The Muppets almost as much as Vincent Price, so the two of them together blows my mind.



While we're still on the subject of Price and children's film, he had a co-starring vocal role in the wonderful Disney film THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE. This is the part where I start giving away my age. He plays, of course, the Napoleon of Crime. Growing up as a kid obsessed with Sherlock Holmes, I just about lost my mind when I realized who Professor Ratigan's voice belonged to.



He sadly finished his career with EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, after he finally succumbed to lung cancer. Did I mention he loved to smoke? He looks so old and feeble in this scene that it breaks my heart to watch it.



He was truly an inspiring man. He performed his own one-man stage play, Diversions and Delights, about the sad end of Oscar Wilde's life, where he was broke, ill, socially stigmatized and love sick. I've already written about that here.

I've already posted so many videos I'm sure my head is going to explode if I post any more, but I'll wrap it up with these.

Price's brave stance against racism in 1950 on a radio broadcast of The Saint:



An episode of The Price of Fear, Price's mystery/horror radio show. This is the first episode and is particularly amusing.



I mentioned his art history prowess and here you can take a brief class with him.



He was also a hilarious man and put his cleverness to use in TV interviews, namely on Johnny Carson. Here he's witty, urbane, and talks about his love for horror.



I could keep going, but I'm going to stop myself. Check out Vincentprice.org, the biography by his daughter Victoria and this great interview with Roger Corman on Cinefantastique for the Vincentennial.



I love you, Vincent Price! Happy birthday!

VENGEANCE (2009)


Johnnie To, 2009
Starring: Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong, Simon Yam, Gordon Lam, Lam-Suet

If you like triad/crime/action neo-noirs, then Johnnie To's newest effort, Vengeance, is for you. I had the fortune to see it during the Danger After Dark festival a few weeks ago and it definitely benefited from a theater audience.

Francis Costello (Johnny Hallyday), French chef and ex-hit man, comes to Hong Kong to get vengeance on the men who put his daughter in critical condition and killed her family. He has no knowledge of Cantonese or the Hong Kong triads, so he hires three native hit men (Anthony Wong, Gordon Lam, and Lam-Suet) to help him out, offering them all of his worldly goods which are extensive. They agree, mostly because of some sort of hit men camaraderie and set out on a dangerous, yet frequently warm and funny path to track down the Triad hit men hired to kill Costello's daughter, and eventually their boss, the adorably bratty Simon Yam. Unfortunately things don't go as planned. It is revealed that Costello is suffering from some neurological damage he sustained from a bullet to the head twenty years ago. He experiences increasing memory loss and is forced to take pictures of everyone to remember who they are. SPOILERS: When it gets too bad, the hit men deliver him safely to the island home of a young woman who cares for orphaned children. They return to complete the mission, but are ambushed. The young woman and children help Costello track down the Triad boss once and for all, but can he hold out long enough to complete his vengeance?

Overall I very much enjoyed Vengeance. It isn't anything new or special, but is a solid genre film and is populated with actors I would watch in just about any shoot 'em up noir/crime drama. The directing and cinematography are successful and enjoyable. The film is charming, entertaining and is worth watching, but only if you're in to the genre. There's a particularly fun fight scene at night, in a park, that is one of the high points of the film.

The real problem is the script. Apparently there was a lot of on set improvisation, which just doesn't work. It results in some shoddy, stilted dialogue that ups the cheese factor immensely. The writing is also not doing anyone any favors. What starts off as a solid film goes downhill about halfway through when the memory loss idea is conveniently introduced after the first major fire fight. It's what I like to call a convenient inconvenience. A character is doing too well and is provided with an obstacle, usually a cheap twist he or she has no control over that is randomly introduced halfway through the film. The drama is increased because the margin for success is much smaller, but this doesn't hold up to any sort of critical scrutiny or plausible character development. Casablanca is a noteworthy exception.

In retrospect, the script is split strangely in half. The first half is funny, unpredictable, and bad ass. The second half loses most of the humor, throws in weirdo plot twists and sends all the characters to hell in a hand basket in annoying, implausible scenarios.

Vengeance bizarrely opened at Cannes, which is not known to embrace genre films. Despite that, it garnered mostly positive reviews, probably due to a theatrical release in Hong Kong earlier this year and screenings at the Toronto International Film Fest last year. It also reunites a lot of the cast and crew from To's previous, much loved efforts Exiled and Mad Detective. It is also the third installment in a loose trilogy with The Mission and Exiled, insuring at least a rental from To fans.

Vengeance also has a close knit relationship with Jean-Pierre Melville's wonderful noir Le samourai. It's star, Alain Delon, was originally supposed to take the role of Costello, but allegedly turned it down due to disliking the script. Delon's character in Le samourai is named Jef Costello (like Francis Costello) and looks and dressed quite similarly to Vengeance's Costello. They are both hit men, though Delon's Costello is a young man in his prime.

For some reason I really get a kick out of productions, of which their are many in Hong Kong, split between different countries, cultures, and languages. Vengeance is co-production between France and Hong Kong, so that characters jump back and forth between Cantonese, French, and English, which everyone except Anthony Wong speaks badly and with a heavy accent.

If there is any real reason to see this film, it is probably the star power. It's directed by the great Johnnie To, stars Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong, Gordon Lam, and Simon Yam. What more do you want? For those of you who don't know any of these names, Johnnie To is a Hong Kong director and producer, most famous for crime/Triad films, for which he has gained a cult following. He has a distinctive style, but is usually able to say something interesting and relevant about Hong Kong society. Critically, he's known for his ability to combine commercial accessibility with artistic vision. And gun fights. If you want to check him out, rent All About Ah-long, his first action film with Chow Yun-fat, Exiled, Election, Mad Detective, The Mission, and Fulltime Killer, which is ridiculous, but is one of my favorite. Most of these are available on Netflix.

Johnny Hallyday is probably lesser known to Americans, but he's basically the French Elvis. He's been insanely popular in France and has branched out into acting, also like the King. He was influenced by Elvis and '50s rock and has had about a billion platinum albums in Europe. As an interesting side note, Jimi Hendrix opened for him on an early tour! He has also hired the likes of Jimmy Page, Peter Frampton and the Small Faces to play with him on studio albums.

The real reason I went to see this, aside from the fact that it's To's newest film, is Anthony Wong. I love him. He's a super famous Hong Kong actor who sometimes gets typecast as villains because he's half-English and half-Chinese and you can't really blame the Chinese for hating the English. He was in Hard-Boiled, The Heroic Trio, The Untold Story, a bunch of Johnnie To films, Infernal Affairs, etc. He is also a director and screenwriter and has produced some Chinese exploitation films. How can I not love a man who made a film called Raped by an Angel 4: The Raper's Union? I'm not kidding.

Finally, it's also nice to see Simon Yam and Gordon Lam. They're both regular supporting actors in dozens of Hong Kong action/crime films, though fans of the genre will probably recognize Yam from To's Fulltime Killer and Lam from Infernal Affairs. I realize it's probably confusing that they have similar sounding last names. Also, I almost forgot to mention Sylvie Tested, who plays Costello's injured daughter. She's a famous French actress and Western audiences should recognize her from La vie en rose, where she plays Piaf's troublesome best friend.

Vengeance is available on DVD and Blu Ray in France and Hong Kong (regions 2 and 3, respectively), but there's a cheap region 1 DVD available from MPI.

UNFAITHFULLY YOURS (1948)


Preston Sturges, 1948
Starring: Rex Harrison, Linda Darnell, Rudy Vallee, Barbara Lawrence, Kurt Krueger

Rex Harrison, how I love you, let me count the ways. Though he's wonderful in most things, Unfaithfully Yours is basically the Rex Harrison show and comes highly recommended for fans of the late, great actor, as well as for anyone who enjoys black comedies from the '40s and '50s.

Harrison plays Sir Alfred de Carter, a well-known English composer. He has recently married Daphne (the lovely Linda Darnell), a younger, beautiful American girl. Despite their social differences and age gap, they have a loving, romantic marriage. Sir Alfred, who has recently been away touring Europe, has an unfortunate meeting with his stuffy brother-in-law. When Sir Alfred casually asked him to look after his wife while he was away, his brother-in-law took this to heart quite literally and sent a private detective after her. In a rage, Sir Alfred scathingly admonishes his brother-in-law and tears up the report without reading it, though a seed of suspicion has been planted in his mind. Soon he accidentally comes across the real information. They live in a fancy hotel and his wife was in another man's room late at night, wearing lingerie. This man, as it turns out, is his private secretary, the young, handsome Anthony. Almost instantly, he is transformed from a loving husband into a jealous maniac.

During a sold out concert, while conducting pieces from Rossini, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky, Sir Alfred has a series of fantasies of how he will deal with the situation. First, he dreams up a diabolical plot where he murders Daphne and frames Anthony. Second, he imagines himself as sad, but forgiving. He writes Daphne a large check to support her and Anthony and willingly lets her go to the younger man. In the third fantasy, he forces Anthony to play Russian roulette, but takes his turn first, resulting in suicide. After the concert, the now frothing mad Sir Alfred flees home and begins to prepare for his wife's murder as he imagined it in the first scenario. Nothing goes as planned and Sir Alfred unintentionally destroys his apartment in a lengthy comedic scene. When his wife returns home will she be able to set things straight? Or will Sir Alfred succumb to his murderous rage?

Of course he won't. This is a black comedy, but it's still a comedy. And a damned enjoyable one. Though it is available streaming on Netflix right now, I'm reviewing the Criterion release, which is obviously the best available edition. It is the single disc, special edition version of Unfaithfully Yours, but is more reasonably priced than most Criterion releases. Granted, the extra features aren't really that special, other than the commentary by Sturges scholars -- but I'll take whatever Rex Harrison-Criterion combo I can get.

The Valerie Project


The Museum of Modern Art, New York City, NY
October 28, 2007

Bizarre construct of film screening and live music performance, The Valerie Project is one of the most beautiful experiences I have had in a long time and if I could go back and see it every week I would die happy.

The Film:
From the moment I saw Czech film Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a tyden divu, 1970), it catapulted itself up into the list of my favorite movies. It is is magical, beautiful, erotic, sad, and transformative. And, in my opinion, absolutely perfect. I flat out refuse to say anything about the plot, other than that it is about the young Valerie and a very surreal week where she realizes her family is not what they seem. In the style of horror influenced “adult” fairy-tales like Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural and The Company of Wolves, Valerie is the queen of them all. Directed by Jaromil Jires and based on surrealist Czech writer V√≠tezslav Nezval’s book of the same name, this is a one of kind, new-wave, surrealist experience. The film is available on Region 1 in a serviceable release by Facets, but it was also finally re-released in by Second Run. It comes with a much needed new digital transfer, new subtitles and a really cool booklet that includes an essay by my friend Joseph from Exhumed Films/Diabolik DVD.

The Music:
The Valerie Project’s band doesn’t really have an independent name; rather they are a collective of ten musicians from the Philadelphia area. Fronted by Greg Weeks, the members are from such Philly bands as Espers, Fern Knight, and Fursaxa. Though the musicians seem to consider themselves indie and/or folk, the Valerie soundtrack is none of these things. With strange and seemingly organic sounds, Weeks and his companions forged the music of Valerie out of cellos, flutes, harps, a variety of bells, subtle female vocals, and more conventional electric instruments. It is a beautiful soundtrack to accompany a beautiful film and I think Weeks was successful in every way with this composition. There is a touch of classical, folk, actual soundtrack style sounds and a big dollop of the surreal. The CD and double LP were released by Drag City.

The Performance:
I had seen Valerie once before at the International House in Philadelphia, but the Museum of Modern Art’s production put that screening to shame. The music was crisper, louder, and in a more acoustically appropriate venue. The print of was flown in especially from the Czech Republic and looked brand new. The only thing I can complain about is the audience. The theater was packed and many people were standing, but the New York audience was definitely not as receptive to The Valerie Project or as captivated by the film as the Philadelphia audience. Some of the people around me laughed uncomfortably during more surreal parts of the film, which I found idiotic and immature. There was also a good deal of whispering and cell phone checking. What gives, New York? There was also a crowded after party featuring free food, drinks, and music, as well as a lovely numbered print by Tracy Nakayama whose artwork graces the posters, flyers, and CDs.

I hope I get to see this again at some point!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

THE TEMPTATION OF ST. TONY


Veiko Ounpuu, 2009
Starring: Taavi Eelmaa, Ravshana Kurkova, Tiina Tauraite, Sten Ljunggren, Denis Lavant

Phua Tonu kiusamine is an impressive, difficult to classify and difficult to fathom Estonian film, though it is technically a Swedish-Finnish-Estonian co-production. It is Veiko Ounpuu's sophomore directorial effort and was also penned by the award winning director. Tony or Tonu (Taavi Eelmaa) is a middle class, middle age, mid-level manager. He wears a suit, has proper manners and proper morality, drives a nice car that seems to be the center of his existence, and is otherwise utterly boring. Due to a series of comically absurd events, he finds a pile of severed human hands in the forest and everything changes. He inadvertently finds himself questioning life and morality, which leads him to a number of unexpected places.

I saw this wonderful film at the Danger After Dark fest in Philly and left the theater in a complete daze. Did I love it? Did I hate it? How could I get my brain to start functioning again? It's rare for me to not make a snap decision about a film. Usually, as was the case with Antichrist, if I leave the theater thinking about a film for three or four days non-stop, it means that even if I can't distinguish whether or not I like the film, it is probably a successful work of cinema. This morning I woke up pretty sure that The Temptation of St. Tony is a masterpiece, if a somewhat flawed one.

It could loosely be described as a black comedy, but that really doesn't do it justice. There are elements of the surreal and the absurd. The film is beautifully shot and has a definite Tarkovsky influence. Almost more a series of tableaux than a cohesively narrative film, the stark, lovely scenes lead Tony further downward into a spiral of confusion and questioning. In a strange way, it also reminds me of Pasolini's Teorema. Both films openly sneer at bourgeois life and morality, both deal with the difficulty of religious and spiritual searching in a modern, capitalist age, and both have troubling, ambiguous endings.

If I had to pick, I have three favorite things about this film. First, the performances are tremendous. In a lot of ways they are very physically grueling and require a certain amount of stiffness and awkwardness with a layer of roiling emotion underneath. Second, I love a director who's not afraid of stillness. In this way, Ounpuu is like Haneke. He doesn't beat us over the head with soundtrack or dialogue. He gives Tony time to be quiet. My third favorite thing is the incredible range of emotion in the film itself. It goes from moments of the mundane, the absurd, the comic, the pathetic, the depressing, and, most impressively, to some truly creepy and disturbing moments. The ending scenes at the hellish club, Das Goldene Seitaltern (The Golden Age), verge on terrifying. Sten Ljunggren, a Swedish actor using German dialogue, casts a particularly memorable impression.

Supposedly The Temptation of St. Tony will be released on region 1 dvd in January of 2011. I can't wait to see it again. You can keep up with the film at its webpage, which is available both in Estonian and English.
Edit: Here's the DVD!

Side note: When I was preparing to write this review I realized I knew very little about Estonia, which is apparently a magical place. It borders Finland and is similar in language and culture. To me the language sounds a lot like Elvish. The country is full of lakes, borders the Baltic Sea, has a temperate climate, and lots of snow. It is considered multinational. Since the Middle Ages a lot of other European countries have had their hands in Estonian government, namely Rome and Sweden. The country was hit hard by World War II and ranks as the largest percentage of casualties in Europe. It was occupied by Germany and later by the Soviets. Incidentally, Estonia currently takes part in what they call "e-government." Voting for elections is done ON THE INTERNET. The income level is rated high by the EU and the economy is steadily growing. The population is low, supposedly the smallest in the EU. Apparently they are also big on freedom of religion, women in government, freedom of the press, arts, education, and barbecuing in the summer. I'm moving to Estonia. Your lesson is over. See you soon - I mean, head aega!

THE STENDHAL SYNDROME


Dario Argento, 1996
Starring: Asia Argento, Thomas Kretschmann, Marco Leonardi, Luigi Diberti, Paolo Bonacelli

It sounds cheesy and ridiculous, but LA SINDROME DI STENDHAL is a film that changed my film-viewing experience. It was the first horror film I had ever seen go through the eyes of a victim in a respectful, realistic way and still remain a horror film. The first time I watched STENDHAL I expected a dud, because of its bad critical reception. I was actually floored. If you are expecting something beautiful, violent, sometimes funny and with a ripping good mystery like most of Argento's other films, that is not what you are going to get from STENDHAL. It is a realistic descent into one woman’s madness, self-loathing, identity loss and paranoid delusion. It is jarring and difficult to watch and not the type of horror film to see with your buddies and a case of beer. For maybe the only time in his career, Argento manages to capture female victimization from a feminine perspective. Maybe it’s because the role was played by his daughter?

Roman detective Anna Manni (Asia Argento, whose character is bizarrly named after her real-life dead sister) goes to Florence in search of a serial rapist turned killer (played by the beautiful Thomas Kretschmann). During her search, she is led to the famous Uffizi Gallery by the killer, but then is struck by the Stendhal syndrome. This syndrome is an actual psychological ailment that is caused by a work of art and gives the victim amnesia, dizziness, fainting spells and usually pertains to a larger question of identity loss and dissociation. While Anna is afflicted with this, she is in a foreign city and has no way of defending herself from the serial killer now stalking her. Grossi, the killer, rapes and kidnaps her. She escapes and undergoes some serious personality changes. She cuts her hair, dresses like a man, breaks up with her boyfriend and cuts herself. The police department punish her, in a way, for her ordeal, first by giving her a desk job and then by sending her on leave to her family home. Here Anna descends further into depression and begins painting. In a truly creepy scene, Grossi kidnaps her again and takes her to his secret hideout in the countryside where no one will ever be able to find her.

This film is full of beautiful, poetic and dream-like imagery. There are plenty of distorted reflections, splatterings of blood, breaking glass, a fixation on lips and the constant appearance of artwork. Anna’s immersions into these painting is just another element that sets STENDHAL apart from other cat and mouse serial killer films. The use of language is also important. She barely speaks in the film and usually limits herself to one sentence phrases. Language is also constantly manipulated. Things her therapist says are repeated by Grossi and things Grossi says to Anna during her ordeal become part of her internal vocabulary.

There aren’t many bad things I can say about this film. The acting is very good. Asia pulls off an incredibly grueling performance with only a little beginner’s stiffness. Thomas Krestchmann is wonderful; he is insanely creepy, intense and sexual. How can you forget the razor in the mouth? The settings are all beautiful and overwhelming and in this film Argento finds a way to unite his characters with the setting. Ennio Morricone’s score is one of my favorite. Apparently the style of writing he used is based on a type of Spanish music that can be played backwards as well as forwards. The unsettling, Diamanda Galas-style voices especially freak me out.

The question everyone seems to ask in connection to this film is whether or not it is weird that the director’s daughter plays a repeatedly exploited rape victim? To be honest, I’m not sure. I think he treats both his daughter and the character respectfully. Though it is clear what is happening to Anna, the most nudity in the film is a partially exposed breast. Most of the rape scenes are implied rather than shown, with the camera focusing only on one actor at a time. This is definitely not IRREVERSIBLE. My biggest qualm has nothing to do with the rape scenes, it actually has to do with Stendhal’s syndrome. While this adds layers to the film in theory, it is visually very difficult to pull off. When you first see STENDHAL it is a little confusing and the digital effects used to make the paintings come alive feel very dated. And thankfully the Italian language track is included, because the dubbing is terrible.

I'm reviewing the two disc version, which is well worth it for all the special features. The second disc is chock-full of interviews. It begins with Argento, who discusses how he heard about psychologist Graziella Magherini’s book The Stendhal Syndrome and how it inspired him to write a script. He briefly addresses working with his daughter. The second interview is with Magherini. She started a study of the Stendhal sydrome after treating multiple patients for the then unknown ailment at a hospital in Florence. Most victims were tourists who developed the symptoms while viewing art. After several years of documenting and researching this new malady, she chose the name Stendhal’s syndrome from Stendhal’s book From Milan to Reggio Calabria, where he discusses his experience with the symptoms. Next, Sergio Stivaletti is interviewed about his special effects. He talks about his long relationship with Argento, Bava the Younger and Soavi. Mostly he discusses the difficult effects and how they were acchieved.

STENDHAL's assistant director and long-time Argento collaborator Luigi Cozzi tells a lot of interesting stories about the early days with Argento, particularly working on FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET and FIVE DAYS. He also did a lot of work on PHENOMENA and TWO EVIL EYES and runs Argento’s shop in Rome. The final, extremely candid interview is with production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng. When asked to talk about films such as CONTAMINATION and MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD, he laughs and says that they are “bullshit.” I’m a little disappointed that there are no interviews with Asia or Kretschmann.

THE RED SHOES


Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948
Starring: Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring

A lot of you may be skeptical that I'm reviewing a ballet film from the '40s, but this is easily one of the most beautiful films of all time and comes with the highest recommendation possible. If you are unfamiliar with the work of Powell and Pressburger, this is one of their most famous films and is a great place to start. Known as The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger formed a long lasting artistic partnership, where they wrote, directed, produced, and edited a series of wonderful films.

The Red Shoes is based on the Hans Christen Andersson fairytale about a girl who dons a pair of cursed red dancing shoes that cause her to dance to death. A young ballerina, Victoria Page, auditions for a prestigious ballet company and gradually wins the attention of the impresario owner, Lermontov, who helps her become famous. She also begins to fall in love with the company's genius new composer, Julian. Lermontov is enraged at this match and fires Julian, forcing Vicky to choose between love or ballet. When they flee and marry, Victoria's heart is torn in two. How can she chose between dancing, her life, and her husband, the love of her life? When Lermontov woos her back for one final performance of "The Red Shoes" she has to make an ultimately impossible choice. Within this narrative plot is also the ballet of "The Red Shoes," which is where Vicky dances her most important role as a ballerina and Julian writes his first important score.

The cinematography is by the late, great Jack Cardiff who used Technicolor to its best effect and it is unlikely that you will see this film's visual equal. Certain effects are dated, but this is undeniably the finest performance/ballet related film ever made. Pressburger originally wrote the screenplay for the great Alexander Korda and his wife Merle Oberon, but when Corda didn't use it the Archers made the film themselves. It is considered a classic and is one of the highest grossing British films in history.

Another amazing element of the film is the use of famous dancers like Massine and Tcherina. Helpmann, who was involved as a dancer, also choreographed "The Red Shoes" ballet. A lot of the extra dancers and corps de ballet were from the Royal Ballet. Particularly brilliant was their use of a professional ballerina as the star. Moira Shearer is one of those unique performers who was a talented ballet dancer, capable actress, and beautiful woman. She is perfect as Vicky and solidifies the film.

Actually, all the performances are wonderful. Marius Goring's portrayal of composer Julian Craster is energetic and sympathetic, partly because he doesn't fit what I would think of as a standard leading man type. My personal favorite is Anton Walbrook's powerful performance as Boris Lermontov. Walbrook was a Powell and Pressburger regular and is one of my favorite actors from the period. He is charismatic and powerful, drawing the artists to him like moths to a flame. Allegedly his character is based on Sergei Diaghilev, the enigmatic but temperamental leader of the Ballets Russe. Pressburger may have used the famous story of the scandal that occurred when Nijinsky married a lead ballerina in the company. In a rage, Diaghilev fired them both.

This is absolutely one of my favorite films of all time. During a recent day sick in bed, I watched the film three times in a row and still got new things out of it. There are strange undercurrents of repressed sexuality and exacting morality, as well as a constant air of foreboding. Lermontov's absolute denial of sex, love, and emotion in favor of the creation of art is something that threatens Vicky, but she is tempted to give herself over to it. The creation of a legacy through art vs biological, sexual reproduction is a serious choice for her, arguably as it is for all artists, particularly female artists of the time. When women married, they were expected to give up any professional life or career. Though Julian loves Vicky, this is also what he expects. She cannot have both, though he is allowed to purse his career as a composer and conductor.

This ultimate sacrifice propels The Red Shoes towards its fabulous ending that is sufficiently ambiguous. Is Vicky responsible for the tragedy or is it the shoes? Everything in this film is subtle and complex with intense emotion churning constantly under the surface. Even if you have no special love for ballet, see this film. It is particularly relevant for anyone who understands the feeling that one's art is as critical to life as breath.

After a lengthy process, it was completely restored and released by Criterion. The edition is wonderful and includes a lot of exciting special features. There is an amazing commentary with cast and crew, a novelization of the film and the original story read by Jeremy Irons, tons of press material, etc. Buuuy iiiiit noooow.

THE PILLOW BOOK

Peter Greenaway, 1996
Starring: Vivian Wu, Ewan McGregor, Yoshi Oida, Ken Ogata

I passionately love Peter Greenaway. A lot of his earlier films are on my list of favorites, particularly
The Draughtsman's Contract, A Zed and Two Nought, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. While The Pillow Book doesn't quite fit into this category, it's still a solid entry in Greenaway's canon.

The half-Chinese, half-Japanese Nagiko (Wu) was raised in a traditional Japanese family, where she was expected to be a submissive young woman, marry, and effectively transfer ownership of herself from her father to her husband. Early on, her artist father instilled a deep love of calligraphy in her, so deep a love that it has become more of a sexual fetish than an artistic appreciation. Under her aunt's influence, she also develops a love of pleasure and begins keeping a diary of her lovers, known as a pillow book, which is based on
Makura no Soshi (translated as Pillow Book), the famous diary kept by eleventh century Japanese court lady Sei Shonagon. Basically a pillow book is a poetic collection of notebooks that details a person's private life and, in the case of Shonagon, develops into an interesting and pertinent historical document.

When Nagiko openly fights with her husband, he discovers, reads and destroys her pillow book, prompting her to leave him and her traditional life forever. She moves to Hong Kong and supports herself by becoming a secretary, then a model, known for her beauty, free spirit, bad temper, and love of calligraphy. Soon Nagiko meets Jerome (McGregor), a beautiful, multi-lingual British translator. She dares him to write on her body, but he does a poor job. Nonplussed, Jerome challenges her to write on his body, but she balks and walks out. She is intrigued despite herself and begins to incorporate this into her sexual affairs. A Japanese photographer, Hoki, becomes infatuated with her. Though she refuses to take him as a lover, he convinces her to explore the possibility that she should compose a novel, though it later gets rejected by a publisher. Angrily determined, Nagiko discovers that Jerome is the publisher's lover and assistant. She seduces him, but quickly develops feelings for him. Jerome's calligraphy and language skills have improved and Nagiko realizes she has found a perfect match. She tells Jerome the truth and he is delighted to help her get published.

At this point the film splits into a series of chapters, one for every chapter of her book, which Jerome decides will be written out on his skin and then sent to the callous publisher. He is delighted and has her unique, beautiful book copied out and published. He demands a few nights of pleasure from Jerome as part of the deal, but when Jerome loses track of time and doesn't return to Nagiko when promised, she takes it as an extreme betrayal. She begins to write the next few books on other men, which makes Jerome insanely jealous. She refuses to see him or speak to him. Hoki suggests that he fake his own death, a la Romeo and Juliet, to spark Nagiko's interest and frighten her. Hoki gives him some pills and he stages a dramatic scene at her home. He begins to write a long letter to her and loses track of the pills he has taken: one for every page.

When she returns home, ready to forgive him, it is too late. Jerome has overdosed and Nagiko is devastated. She writes the sixth book, The Book of the Lovers, on his dead body. After his funeral, the publisher has him secretly exhumed and flayed, so he can create a pillow book from Jerome's skin.* She is horrified and becomes determined to possess the book. Still an anonymous author, she offers to trade the publisher the missing books for Jerome's skin. He agrees and a series of messengers, all bearing more artistically dramatic versions of the books, appear to him. Meanwhile, Nagiko realizes she is pregnant with Jerome's child. In the thirteenth and final book, she reveals her identity and accuses the publisher of his many crimes, including those against her father, her Japanese husband who he influenced and corrupted, and Jerome. Deeply shamed, he gives her the pillow book and kills himself. Nagiko buries Jerome under a bonsai tree and gives birth to their child.

There are a lot of beautiful things about The Pillow Book. The obsession with writing, beauty, books, and pleasure all struck a chord with me. The love for and expression of eroticism trails throughout Greenaway's films and is the main focus of many of them. I also enjoyed the artful, diverse use of language. Most of the characters are multi-lingual and explore their identities by using different written and spoken languages. It is appropriate that the film is set in Hong Kong, as it geographically unites the merging of Nagiko's Chinese and Japanese body with Jerome's British one, as well as the love both have for the exploration of multiple cultures and languages.

I really did enjoy this film, but it is deeply flawed. Greenaway simply tries to do too many things at once and the story would be better serviced in a mixed media style novel rather than a film. He tries to incorporate the art of Japanese calligraphy, which takes enough time to explain, as well as the history of Sei Shonagon and Makura no Soshi, which provides a critical current for the film and Nagiko's personal development and goals. The Hong Kong photography and modeling world is another backdrop, as well as books, writing, and the publishing world. All of these are critical to the film, but the plot is slowed to a crawl by constant exposition.

Greenaway also treads some dangerous ground with his wanton mixing of Asian culture and iconography, leaping back and forth between Japanese and Chinese imagery. Though I haven't read a lot of academic criticism of this film, I can see the giant, red danger light it will likely set off for many film scholars. A white, British director writing a film about a Chinese-Japanese woman is a little risky and he doesn't handle it as well as he could. Casual audiences will likely not care about this, but the level of exoticism is distracting, particularly when he uses long segments early in the film to do strange montages of Asian cultural imagery.

The plot is also needlessly complicated and meandering. I enjoy his frequent rejection of strict narrative structure, but I think it would be better served with a much shorter introduction. The core of the film is Nagiko's relationship with Jerome, the sexualized calligraphy, and the series of dramatic events that occur around the books she is writing. How she gets to this point is important, but doesn't need the drawn out opening sequence it is given. The narration is also tedious. It gives the film a diary-like quality that I love and appreciate, but there is rather a lot of narration and a lot of exposition. Character is another issue. What I can't stand about Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is the same thing I hate about The Pillow Book. Selfish characters make stupid mistakes, turning a simple situation into a ridiculously dramatic one, which makes the potential tragedy seem more like a farce. In some ways Nagiko and Jerome are able to transcend the spoiled, selfish teenage tropes that Romeo and Juliet embody and these are the best parts of the film.

Greenaway, even at his most masturbatory and pretentious, always makes me think critically about the use of certain themes in film and in my own life. I think he beautifully captures the selfish impulse of artistic and intelligent people that, though dramatized in a work of fiction, also exists in real life. Because Nagiko initially is different and doesn't adapt to socially prescribed roles, she gains a level of self-preservation that evolves into utter selfishness and keeps her disconnected from real emotional relationships, at least until she meets Jerome. Jerome, unfortunately, is mostly a cipher for Nagiko's character development. His own selfishness, drama, and need for attention is his downfall and gives him an element of complexity. Nagiko is able to spin his needless destruction and her deep grief to a positive conclusion that constructively changes her life and the lives of people around her. Though there is no way I find the publisher's suicide believable.

The film is visually beautiful and worth watching because of the lovely imagery and direction. Though the soundtrack has a very '90s feel, I also enjoyed it and thought it was perfect for the film. I generally like Vivian Wu, but she was flat in this role, though that is probably the fault of the writing. Ewan McGregor, young, beautiful, and fearless, was a joy to watch, as always. I'm reviewing the Sony single-disc DVD, which, as far as I know, is the only one available in region 1. Greenaway's work is difficult to find for American audiences, though Zeitgeist has happily been changing that in the last two years. Film connoisseurs and collectors will likely be annoyed by the changing image size, which is due to the fact that the film was shot in different aspect ratios. Regular genre fans and more conventional film viewers will also probably be thrown by the constantly changing languages - English, Japanese, Chinese, French, etc. But if you can't keep up with the language changes, this is probably not a film for you in the first place.

*A note on skin flaying. This needs a certain amount of explanation for Western audiences. Skin flaying, particularly anthropodermic bibliopegy, the practice of making books from human skin, has long been associated with the worst kind of punishment in the West. Flaying was a way of taking war trophies from defeated foes and was a common punishment for traitors in medieval and early modern France. Foucault's wonderful Discipline and Punish talks about this happening up to the eighteenth century. Everyone has heard of the rumored lampshades and books the Nazis made from some of their Jewish victims. This has a different connotation in Japanese history. Flaying has never been a popular means of capital punishment. Irezumi, a specific type of Japanese tattooing, usually done by hand instead of machine, is paradoxically considered a serious art form that has well-established masters, but is currently associated with the yakuza. It has had different fads in Japanese society, starting out as a means of punishment, but was briefly popular in the Imperial court for decoration or between lovers. Irezumi, in the elaborate form we now know it, developed in the Edo period and gradually became a traditional art form. It isn't a terribly common practice, but throughout the last few centuries a number of these tattoos have been preserved, collected and displayed by irezumi masters and members of the Japanese aristocracy. It's exactly how it sounds. Dead men are flayed, which is apparently another old Japanese art that has been passed down to doctors by word of mouth, and their beautifully tattooed skin is preserved and framed for private collections. Currently Tokyo University's medical museum has the largest collection of these, though I'm pretty sure it is not open to the public. On the other hand, if you want to see some books bound in human skin, you can visit University of Pennsylvania's rare books library, though I believe you need an appointment. If you're travelling in New England, they have a sizable collection at Brown and a few at Harvard.

THE HEADLESS WOMAN


Lucrecia Martel, 2008
Starring: Maria Onetto, Claudia Cantero, Cesar Bordon, Daniel Genoud, Guillermo Argeno, Ines Efron

La mujer sin cabeza aka The Headless Woman is a recent Argentinian film by emerging talent Lucrecia Martel (Holy Girl). It's an ethereal, haunting film that borrows from Hitchcockian suspense, film noir, and ghost stories, but doesn't fit into any particular genre. Vero (Onetto), an aging, statuesque blonde accidentally hits something with her car and comes to believe she has killed someone. Her husband and cousin, with whom she has an affair at the beginning of the film, assure her that nothing happened, but as she slips in a sort of trauma induced amnesia, they manipulate and change things to protect her and cover up a crime she may or may not have committed.

On the surface this is a simple narrative that encloses a wealth of visual detail, political allegory, and troubling questions about identity, independence, and personal responsibility. There are an amazing amount of visual clues and hints throughout the film. Probably my favorite example happens immediately after the car crash. The once clean driver's side window is now smeared with small hand-prints. It's incredibly creepy. Though many of the subtle visual details are clues about the story, they also provide a rich subtext about Vero, her identity, the role of femininity in Argentinian culture, and the role of family. While I think most directors would have gone with a more literal subplot, Martel masterfully ingrains most of her subtext in the visual world of the film. It's also the kind of film you will probably have to watch twice to pick up on everything.

The sound design is incredible. Martel creates a jarring, suspenseful film through sheer use of sound, ignoring a lot of the visual and textual tropes used in a more blatant suspense or thriller films. Vero initially gets into an accident because she is trying to answer her cell phone. Throughout the course of the film, a normally commonplace, mundane telephone ring becomes a source of palpable anxiety. The camera work is claustrophobic and somewhat reminiscent of Chantal Akerman's work from the early '70s, like the masterful Jeanne Dielman. Instead of the camera adjusting to the actors, the frame is set and the actors are forced to move in and out of it.

This is really the kind of film you have to watch in a certain mood, for instance on a dark and stormy night, preferably all alone. It is ghostly and captivating, but I could see how it would seem sluggish and confusing in the wrong environment. You have to pay close attention, because there is very little exposition. A lot of things are expressed visually and simply never stated by the characters.

The Headless Woman also works on different psychological levels. Martel says a lot about identity, femininity and family -- much of it negative. Vero doesn't seem to have any independence whatsoever. Everything is taken care of by the men in her life, her large, extended family decides what she will do on a daily basis and her nearly invisible household servants and office assistants do everything for her.

The film also has a strong undercurrent about the Dirty War. Extending from the mid-'70s to early '80s, the Dirty War refers to the bleak period of Argentinian history where state-sponsored violence against leftists and sympathizers was common place. People were kidnapped, babies were stolen and bodies were dropped from airplanes into the ocean. Thousands of people were murdered or disappeared. The shadow of this atrocity still hangs over the country and has been expressed numerous times in film and fiction in the subsequent years. One of the main issues in the film is personal responsibility. Vero may have killed a young boy, but goes along with the efforts of the men in her family to cover up this crime, giving in to self-imposed amnesia with relief. This willingness to forget recalls the long list of people -- final reports put the possible total at 30,000 -- who didn't make it out of the Dirty War and the reluctance of their friends, neighbors, and coworkers to uncover government-sponsored crimes.

The Headless Woman comes highly recommended. It's a powerful film from a very accomplished director. If you want to see some real technical prowess both in terms of sound and visuals this is a great place to go. It has also been newly released to single disc DVD and is currently streaming on Netflix.

THE GHOST WRITER

Roman Polanski, 2010
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall, Timothy Hutton

For those of you who don't already know this, I'm cuckoo for Roman Polanski. He's one of the greatest living directors and is responsible for some of my favorite films:
Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby, The Tenant, The Fearless Vampire Killers, etc. Sure, he's had a few questionable efforts, but nothing I would outright call a bad film. When I saw the trailer for The Ghost Writer, I had mixed, but optimistic feelings. I went into the theater feeling nervous, but it's a wonderful film. It's a near perfect thriller and you should get your ass to the theater before it closes and you have to wait for the DVD release.

The Ghost Writer is an adaptation of Robert Harris's novel The Ghost and he co-wrote the screenplay with Polanski. A writer (McGregor), whose character is not actually given a name, is hired to finish the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang (a transparent stand-in for Tony Blair). The original writer, Lang's assistant, has recently washed up on the beach with a stomach full of alcohol. Accident? Suicide? Murder? No one seems to be sure. The writer is flown to a small, New England island where Lang's high security home and compound is located. In addition to a large number of guards and a handful of assistants, Lang lives there with his wife, Ruth (Williams), and his personal assistant/mistress, Amelia (Cattrall). The writer is given limited access to the manuscript and an increasingly ridiculous deadline to finish the book.

Coinciding with his arrival, Lang has been accused by a former colleague of crimes against humanity, of purposefully delivering potential terrorism suspects to the CIA for torture and interrogation. The resident writer is swept up in all of this with increasing urgency, as he attempts to interview Lang, finish the manuscript, and deal with the growing realization that everything is not as it seems. He stumbles across a number of clues that Lang has a shady relationship with the CIA, something of critical importance in the face of so many serious, legal accusations. Against his better judgment, the writer follows the breadcrumb trail of clues, which leads him somewhere neither he nor Lang expect.

The Ghost Writer is part thriller, part murder mystery, and definitely borrows from noir. The writer is, unusually, a character without real motivation or, it would seem, emotions. He's an Everyman slapped down in the middle of an extremely tense political and personal situation that he has absolutely nothing to do with and no relationship to. The previous writer haunts him in a physical sense. In a predictable though very uncomfortable sequence, he is forced to move into his predecessor's room and make due with a closet full of the dead man's clothing. Emotions in the film are cold, tense, and unpredictable. There is a definite sense that everyone is hiding something, even our writer. Sexuality is a powerful force in the film, though not at all as you would expect. It quietly seeps through the film, expressing itself through power relationships, rather than emotional bonds. The only real sex scene in the film is probably one of the least erotic things I've ever seen in my entire life and for that alone is quite masterful. It's amazing how uncomfortable a scene can be with almost no real physical interaction, nudity, or sex.

The acting is solid. Apparently Ewan McGregor replaced Nicholas Cage a few months before shooting began, which gives me a deep and abiding sensation of relief. He's a little understated, but perfect for the part. Pierce Brosnan, who I usually want to punch in the face, is actually very good. His best role is clearly in Mrs. Doubtfire when he gets hit in the back of the head with some fruit, but he definitely gets points for his portrayal of Adam Lang.

The real star of the film, however, is the set. It is absolutely incredible. Most of the film either takes place during a storm or in Lang's disturbing, postmodern house. The bizarre paintings and sculptures give the set a real level of menace and sexuality, particularly considering that they are coupled with extensive security equipment. There are also a lot of enormous windows, which gives the set a further level of surreality. Characters inside appear to be outside, usually in the middle of a threatening storm or on the desolate, gray beach.

I really can't say enough good things about The Ghost Writer. The score is perfectly Hitchcockian. The pacing is pretty brilliant, though a tad slow in the middle section, though you'll forget about that as soon as Polanski amps the plot right up to eleven. The shots and film itself are surprising: there are a lot of close ups which, due to the film quality, almost appear to be in 3-D, giving the characters a looming, claustrophobic feel. Though this is technically a political thriller, Polankski brings it to the level of the personal. There is the constant threat of terrorism and media that gives the film a distinctly paranoid edge and a subtle, biographical note, even though the story is not Polanski's own.

The film has received positive critical reception and it won the Berlin Film Festival's award for Best Director, which is also where the film debuted in early February. Amazingly, it was completed while Polanski was under house arrest. There are also a number of stand in locations, due to the director's limited ability to travel. Polanski has clearly become the heir to Hitchcock. His technically impressive film work and menacing writing ensure his status as a master of suspense. Here's the DVD. Buy it now!!!