Image of the Day

Screencap from Ecoute Le Temps

Fissures (Ecoute le temps, 2007)
[Screencap via DVD Beaver.]

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Under the Skin (2013)

Poster for Under the Skin

This is a difficult film to write about without spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet and are planning to, you might want to skip this review. It’s probably best to see it with as little preconception as possible, although I’m sure it works fine even if you have some idea of what’s coming. I knew what the basic scenario was, anyway, even though I avoided reading reviews before I saw it.

Anyway, I’m tagging this as science fiction despite the fact that the evidence within the movie itself is extremely ambiguous. It would probably be more accurate it to tag it with some kind of higher level genre category such as John Clute’s favorite term, fantastika. One reason the film is being called science fiction is because the book by Michael Faber that it’s based on is unambiguously a work of science fiction (says Wikipedia). Writer-director Jonathan Glazer and his co-writer Walter Campbell have stripped out all overt explanations and references to who or what the unnamed character played by Scarlet Johansson, or her unnamed male colleagues, are. She isn’t human, that’s for sure. It could be that she’s alien (as she is in the book), or perhaps a robot of some kind, or who knows what. The film opens with some highly abstract and schematic visuals that might represent stars and planets in orbit, but it’s hard to say.

The basic scenario is that this female character drives around Scottish streets in a van picking up stray men (it seems to be important that they have so few social connections that nobody will miss them) and leading them on with the promise of sex to a room where they sink into a black substance. Again, the purpose of this process is never spelled out, although one sequence implies that the bodies of the men (but not their skin) are reduced to red goo. (Wikipedia tells me that in the book the captured men are slaughtered like cattle and eaten by the aliens.) Because nothing is explained, what we get is a very abstract set of images of sexual predation in an emotional atmosphere of extreme alienation and numb lack of affect. On that level it seems like yet another depiction of urban isolation and disconnection and sexual dysfunction. (Ho-hum.)

However, because of the fantastic elements that don’t fit readily into this typical avantgardist scheme it doesn’t quite reduce to a depiction of alienation. Or rather there are elements of alienation that go above and beyond the usual avantgardist critique, as in the long sequence in which the predator completely ignores the drama of a family of three dying in the background while she focuses single-mindedly on her prey. This is so utterly inhuman that it can’t be read as mere sociopathy. There’s also an interesting tonal shift when she apparently starts feeling empathy for or curiosity about humanity and her apparent resemblance to her victims. There are some fish-out-of-water comedy moments that sit uncomfortably with the horror that surrounds them.

I thought the tonal shift worked well to momentarily displace the anxiety that had been built up, even as the long time science fiction reader in me didn’t think it really added up on a logical level. But this is yet another movie that doesn’t give a damn about plausibility. It’s a nightmare about predatory sexuality and the death instinct that uses fantastic elements to create cognitive estrangement (as Darko Suvin calls it). I’m of a mixed mind regarding the depiction of sexuality as something almost completely horrific, aside from a moment or two of comic absurdity. This is the femme fatale turned up to 11 — a completely blank and dispassionate persona who seems to be pimped out by the mysterious motorcycle men who bring her to life in the beginning. Yet I’ll give Glazer credit for also showing boys with their vulnerable hard-ons (still a startling sight, even in an arthouse movie theater, in this day and age), stumbling yearningly to their doom. There’s perhaps a hint of Tiptree’s cold equation: love is the plan, the plan is death. I guess, come to think of it, the female monster is revealed in the end to not actually be female at all. But why does it only prey on isolated men? Whose nightmare is this?

 

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The Raid 2 (2014)

Poster for The Raid 2

The first movie in this series, which was released in the US as The Raid: Redemption (2011), was an instant martial arts classic. Directed by a Welshman named Gareth Evans who works in the Indonesian film industry, the film takes a few minutes to set up the basic premise of a Jakarta SWAT team entering an apartment tower controlled by a gangster named Tama and then turns into one long, bloody battle as the cops fight their way to the top of the tower. The action is brutal and unrelenting, and over the course of the film it switches from a John Woo style hail of bullets to a martial arts punch and kickfest. It’s an exhilarating movie that builds to a very satisfactory peak in which the protagonist, who is a rookie cop named Rama played by Iko Uwais, confronts the aptly named gangster fighter Mad Dog played by Yayan Ruhian. Uwais and Ruhian shared action choreography credits with Evans.

In the sequel Rama goes undercover in one of the Jakarta gangs to root out political corruption. The pace of the second film is very different from the first. It takes more time to set up who all the different parties are (cops, politicians, and multiple gangs — including a Japanese gang, in one of the film’s several nods to Indonesian multiculturalism), and the action is interspersed with the usual plot mechanics of undercover cop stories, instead of coming as a nonstop onslaught as in the first film. The opening sequence was pretty confusing to me, possibly because I didn’t remember all the details from the first movie, but maybe because it’s just told in a confusing way that keeps cutting between various story threads without giving us enough information to see how they relate. Eventually it settles into more of a groove, although it still has some odd structural shifts, as when Yayan Ruhian shows up as a new character whose storyline seems pretty tangential to the main thrust of the plot. The other structural problem with the film is that Rama’s mission is supposedly to find out which politicians have been corrupted by the gangs, but the story we actually see is about a succession problem in the gang he infiltrates, in which the hot-headed son of the gang boss feels his ambitions are being thwarted by his pragmatic father. This conflict is exploited by an upstart gangster who wants to set the established gangs at each other’s throats, which again doesn’t have much to do with political corruption.

That all said, the main attraction of a martial arts movie is the action, and the action sequences are great. The fighting is fierce, inventive, and graceful, and Evans does a good job of building it up to a peak, introducing the three main gang fighters in extraordinary set pieces (one of which is the upshot of the Ruhian tangent). The film also looks great, and Evans and his cinematographer have a sharp eye for interesting compositions that go above and beyond what’s needed in an action film. They find interesting settings in and around Jakarta, creating a strong sense of locale. This a very violent, gory film, but it has a twisted sense of humor to it that had the audience I watched it with hooting with appreciation. The final fights with Hammer Girl, Baseball Bat Boy, and Double Sickle Man are explosive, and then they are topped by some surprising twists in the climax.

So over all I didn’t think this one was quite as tight and focused as the first, but it’s still a powerful piece of film-making in its own right. Evans is trying something a little different here, and while not all of it worked for me I have to say that I didn’t notice how bloody long the film was until I looked at the time after it was over. If you are a fan of violent martial arts films, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

[Good discussion in comments on Outlaw Vern's review, where it's argued that the whole point of the film is that Rama's goal to clean up political corruption is shunted off into endless gang warfare. Nothing has changed, and he barely refrains from becoming just another murdering thug himself. That is, he tries to clean up the corruption but it's all he can do to save himself from being corrupted.]

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The Retrieval (2013)

Poster for The Retrieval

To tag The Retrieval as a film about slavery is slightly misleading. The three main characters are freedmen, not slaves. But slavery hovers over everything in this story, which is set in 1864 and focused on two former slaves (one of them 15) who help a white bounty hunter capture escaped slaves. At the start of the film they are hired to find Nate, who is a former slave now working for the Yankee army burying soldiers killed in the Civil War. They’re job is to bring Nate back alive so that the bounty hunter can kill him and collect the rich bounty on his head.

It’s never explained, as far as I recall, why Nate has the bounty on his head or who is offering it. He tells Will, the 15-year-old, that when his master died, his master’s wife freed him. Who would be offering a bounty on him? In any event, the central narrative tension in the story is generated by Will’s qualms about helping the bounty hunter capture escaped and freed slaves like himself. As the the three men travel cross country by foot (I didn’t catch which state it was), dodging skirmishes in the war along the way, Will gradually learns Nate’s story and tells Nate his own. Will’s uncle is the man he works with, and Marcus remains a cynical, amoral enigma. We never learn his story. Will is hoping to find his father, who was freed years ago and headed north. Nate feels remorse about a woman he loved but abandoned when he was granted his freedom.

These backstories are unveiled slowly, and the journey the men are on has its own dramatic incidents. Mostly the story feels uneventful, however, and is more about the milieu and Will’s burgeoning sense that what he’s doing is wrong. On that level, I thought the drama was a bit too internalized. There were too many shots of Will looking conflicted, and not enough, well, dramatization of the conflict. It didn’t make sense to me that he had such a hard time making up his mind what to do, and I think part of the problem was that there wasn’t a strong reason for him to be doing what he’s doing. It’s perhaps implied that he needs the money in order to go find his father, but this is unclear. Will’s indecision and anguished face get a bit tiresome after a while.

Still, the characters and their histories are interesting. The landscape they travel through is beautiful, and the score is very nice as well. The way the Civil War is something happening in the background and never commented on by the characters creates another fascinating tension. The ending surprised me, and I’m still turning it over in my mind. Probably at its deepest level the film (like just about every movie about slavery, it seems) is about broken families and the attempt to recreate them in an unforgivingly racist social system. On that level, the ending packs quite a punch, even if what leads up to it is little undercooked.

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In the Blood (2014)

Poster for In the Blood

Gina Carano first made a splash on the big screen in Haywire (2011), but before that she’d made a name for herself as a Mixed Martial Arts fighter. Thus she was touted as someone who could really fight and do her own stunts, not just a pretty face who is transformed into a fighter by the magic of Hollywood camerawork and editing. I thought she had great screen presence, and she was a big reason that I saw Furious 6 (2013), where she had a key supporting role as the Rock’s bad-ass lieutenant. Now she gets a second shot at playing the lead in In the Blood — an entirely by-the-numbers action thriller that provides her with space to kick plenty of ass and to expand her acting chops as well.

Carano plays Ava, who was brought up to be a bad-ass by her bad-ass father (Stephen Lang). We meet Ava as she’s about to get married to Derek (Cam Gigandet), who is the scion of a wealthy family whom she met in Narcotics Anonymous. Ava has had a hard life, and Derek is the first good thing that’s ever happened to her. Cue a montage of their happy honeymoon on a Caribbean island. Things start to go awry in a local night club when Big Biz (Danny Trejo) attacks Derek, unleashing Ava’s kickass on Big Biz and his cronies. Before you know it, Derek has disappeared, and Ava has to delve into the island underworld to find him. A fair amount of punching, stabbing, and shooting ensues, as you would expect in an action movie.

But again, as rote as the scenario is, it still gives Carano a chance to do a few things that she wasn’t given to do in the other two movies. She gets to be in love, for example, and she gets to grieve. She’s got the chops to do this, so she’s not just a fighter any more than she’s just a pretty face. In fact, one of the unusual things about her for an American actress is that she’s a big woman, or at least she’s not slender. Appropriately enough for a tropical setting, in this film she’s frequently dressed in shorts and sleeveless shirts, and so we get a good look at her powerful thighs and upper arms. She has a fighter’s build to go along with those classic good looks. That’s probably not as unusual as I think it is, especially for modern action movies, but the fact that she’s the headliner and hero rather than the villain or sidekick still does seem unusual. In Furious 6 the other bad-ass women were skinny things, and we’re given the ludicrous (but still well-executed) proposition that Michelle Rodriguez could hold her own in a fight with the much more powerful Carano.

The plot of In the Blood is not one you probably want to spend a lot of time thinking about, but another interesting aspect of the scenario is the island underworld. Apparently director John Stockwell has a thing about the Caribbean, but it’s not just a glossy resort view of things. He takes us into the dirt poor neighborhoods of illegal immigrants and gives us a little slice of life from the point of view of the inhabitants. This is still the story of the suffering of privileged white people, but there are some interesting bits of commentary, as when a local police chief played by Luis Guzmán tells Ava that torture may be okay in America, but it isn’t okay on his island. There are other deft touches in the direction, as when we see Ava creeping away in bloody flipflops after killing someone offscreen. For all the onscreen violence, this bit may be the more effective for leaving the killing moment to our imaginations.

Carano gets to show her fight moves, and in particular the fight in the nightclub has some great moves in it. Maybe as a whole the fight scenes aren’t all that great (and the finale was in fact a bit disappointing from an action standpoint), but there are plenty of effective moments. I thought it needed a coda to show Ava punching Derek’s asshole father (Treat Williams) in his stupid face, but if, like me, you left Haywire wanting more Gina Carano action, this is well worth checking out. An average action movie, but a fascinating new star.

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Image of the Day

Screencap from Colorado Territory

Colorado Territory (1949)

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Image of the Day

Screencap from Marth

Martha (1974)

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Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Xi you xiang mo pian, 2013)

Poster for Journey to the West

This is the second time Stephen Chow has been involved in an adaptation of material from Journey to the West, the classic Chinese novel about the bringing of Buddhism to China, and while it isn’t as brilliant as the first, A Chinese Odyssey (Sai yau gei, 1995), it’s still a worthy successor. The previous effort was written and directed by Jeffrey Lau, whereas this one is written and directed by Chow himself. Chow doesn’t act this time, handing the lead role to Wen Zhang, who plays the monk Xuan Zang who will also be known as Tripitaka — a reference to Buddhist scriptures.

In this version of the tale Xuan Zang is a demon hunter who attempts to use nursery rhymes to tame demons rather than kill them. This method doesn’t appear to be very effective, and in his initial confrontations with a river demon and a pig demon he is rescued by a beautiful demon hunter named Miss Duan (Shu Qi). Miss Duan falls in love with Xuan Zang, and begins an amorous pursuit, which he fends off because he believes in the Greater Love of Buddha, not the Lesser Love of a woman. Much of this — both the demon hunting and the love story — are played for laughs, with plenty of slapstick pratfalls and borderline homophobic parody of gender norms. Yet mixed in with the comedy are martial arts, melodrama, and some pretty strong elements of horror, including references to Jaws in the river demon section. Chow does very little by half-measures, and while the killing isn’t gory per se, it does involve the death of small children and the emotional reaction to same. The film frequently shifts gears between slapstick and melodrama in a way that seems very Chinese to me.

Chow builds on the use of CG effects that he perfected in Kung Fu Hustle (2004), not only heightening the martial arts action as before but also creating a number of impressive animated creatures, including the fish, pig, and monkey demons who will become Tripitaka’s companions on the adventures into India that this film is the prologue to. The action of film is very good, and builds to an epic climax that even manages to up the ante on the Buddhist Palm finale of Kung Fu Hustle. I’m not sure whether this was released in 3D in China, but there were certainly sequences that looked as though they were designed for it. The visual design and effects are quite spectacular at times. The impact of the action sequences isn’t all about the CG either, as the brutality of the Monkey King, once he gets unleashed, is just as breath-taking as the river demon’s bloodbath at the beginning and not nearly as funny.

If there is a major weakness in this film I think it lies in the sexual humor and the love story, which at times seemed a little unfocused and tangential. However, it pays off big time in the end, so I’m actually not sure that it doesn’t work. In fact, the finale and denouement are really well crafted, creating both a visual and emotional (and perhaps even religious) sense of order restored. The religious aspect is interesting too, especially compared to films like the Chinese Ghost Story series from the ’80s where the Taoists get things done and the Buddhists are oppressive frauds. Here the Taoist priest is the fraud, and Buddha rules. Probably true to the novel, I guess, but I’m curious where the Party stands on religion these days. Well, I guess Buddha rules okay by the Chinese censors, because the ending is unequivocal.

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Image of the Day

Screencap from Cry Danger

Cry Danger (1951)
[Screencap via DVDBeaver.]

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The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Poster for The Grand Budapest Hotel

In my review of Wes Anderson’s previous film, Moonrise Kingdom, I speculated that “Perhaps Anderson’s obsessions are gradually coming into align with my own over time, or vice versa,” and The Grand Budapest Hotel is more evidence of this. I do think with his last three films he’s really hit his stride. Maybe adapting somebody else’s work (Roald Dahl in The Fantastic Mr Fox) gave him a new perspective. His characters seem more sympathetic now. They’re still damaged goods, still — as with Gustave H. in this one — narcissistic, but perhaps Anderson is more forgiving of their failures, more observant of their triumphs.

His perspective has broadened throughout his career, encompassing more and more of the world, including the past. Moonrise Kingdom was his first period piece, and The Grand Budapest Hotel heads back even further into the past. However, it does it in stages, and one of the signs of Anderson’s growing sophistication is that he has now added narrative frames-within-frames to the the visual frames-within-frames he’s always been famous for. In fact, I don’t feel I completely understood the narrative frames. We open with a woman visiting a cemetery, where she visits a tombstone with a bust. We then cut to 1985 and the face of the man whom the bust memorialized. He begins to tell a story about something that happened to him in the Grand Budapest Hotel in the ’60s, and within that story he’s told a story about the old hotel concierge, Gustave H, and what happened to him in 1932. Who is the woman in the opening sequence? We see her again at the end of the movie, but I missed any clues as to her identity. Ah well, just another reason to see this one again!

There’s an added layer of complexity to the visual frames as well. Michael Chabon has observed, regarding the frequent comparisons between Anderson’s internal frames and Cornell boxes, that the important thing about a Cornell box is the box itself. “The box sets out the scale of a ratio,” says Chabon, and in The Grand Budapest Hotel Anderson plays with the ratio of the frame of the entire picture, which changes with each narrative frame and matches the standard ratio for films of the era the sequence is set in, starting widescreen and ultimately arriving at the old 4:3 Academy Ratio for the sequences set in 1932. So Anderson has built a little film history into his visual scheme, which creates some new compositional challenges and opportunities for him as well. The boxier, taller 4:3 ratio is, amongst other things, very appropriate for a film set in the mountains and seeking to emphasize height and verticality.

1932, by the way, was the greatest year in Hollywood, and the fact that Anderson set his main story in that year had me (in my obsessive way) looking for similarities to the films of that era beyond the aspect ratio. The imaginary Middle European setting and Continental attitude toward sex reminded me constantly of Ernst Lubitsch’s Pre-Code operettas (One Hour with You was made in 1932), while the farcical, not to mention lascivious, nature of the hijinks reminded me of the Marx Brothers’ parodies of Lubitsch (okay, fine, Duck Soup was actually 1933). Thus Anderson gives us Maurice Chevalier as a charming gigolo (Ralph Fiennes) to Margaret Dumont’s doddering dowager (Tilda Swinton). But Anderson’s allegiance with Lubitsch runs even deeper, as he merges the frothy romantic comedy with the kind of black humor about fascism that Lubitsch pioneered in To Be or Not to Be (1942).

Indeed, there’s a strain of savage (if also slapstick) violence in The Grand Hotel Budapest that seems fairly new to Anderson as well, although there were hints of it in Moonrise Kingdom. There’s also a continuation of the action-adventure elements from the last two films, but still run through that Marx Brothers wringer (especially the ski/sled chase that diverts into a loopy Winter Games course, and the victimless shootout at the end). Has he ever created a villain as nasty or scary as Willem Dafoe’s Jopling? The comedy-cruelty almost seems Coenesque at times.

Not that everything works equally well in this film. A few gags seem strained (e.g., “Don’t flirt with her”), and a few of the large, jostling cast of characters seem underdeveloped (e.g., Saoirse Ronan’s Agatha). Yet what holds it all together is the character at the center of all the frames, Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave, who is both a shameless gigolo and a fundamentally decent man. Again and again, his kindness and gentility (and attention to detail) are rewarded against all odds, and he shows true courage in the face of fascism. He is a hero, and whatever ironies Anderson weaves around the character, it does not diminish the heroism. In the past Anderson seemed to despair at the cruelty of his fellow humans, even as he found black humor in it. Now he seems to be recognizing the importance of at least trying to counter the cruelty with acts of decency.

Well, The Grand Budapest is a lot to absorb. More visits are called for.

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