Happy Halloween!

Screencap from Planet of the Vampires Blu-Ray

Planet of the Vampires (Terrore nello spazio, 1965)
[Via DVD Beaver.]

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Conrad Veidt is mesmerizing

Wearing eye makeup that calls to mind his role as the mesmerized somnambulist Cesare in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), the great Conrad Veidt plays the mesmerizer in the 1929 romantic melodrama, The Last Performance, about a middle-aged stage musician who falls in love with his beautiful teenage assistant. Directed by Paul Fejos with great visual style at the tail end of the silent era, the main reason to watch the film is Veidt’s expressive performance, which fortunately wasn’t actually his last. Look deeply into his eyes … if you dare!

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The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Kaguyahime no monogatari, 2013)

Japanese poster for The Tale of Princess Kaguya

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the latest and purportedly last film from Studio Ghibli co-founder, Isao Takahata. (We’ll see if Takahata is better at following through on his retirement announcement than his partner Hayao Miyazaki has been.) The source of the story is a traditional Japanese folktale called “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. It concerns an old bamboo cutter who discovers a doll-sized little girl inside a bamboo cane. He takes the girl home to show his wife, and the girl turns into a baby before their eyes. They raise her as she grows with unnatural swiftness into a beautiful young woman. The bamboo cutter also find gold and luxurious kimonos inside bamboo canes, and with the gold he eventually purchases a mansion in the city. The beauty of Princess Kaguya, as the girl comes to be named, soon attracts wealthy and noble suitors.

This is an animated film, and it’s utterly gorgeous. Takahata uses a style here that emphasizes the line and the hand-drawn nature of the line. Backgrounds look like water color paintings. It often looks like traditional Japanese prints come alive. Sometimes it looks like crude sketches come alive. There’s a dream sequence in which Princess Kaguya’s anger seems to cause the world and herself to dissolve into furious scribbles. Something about Takahata’s approach here calls attention to the fact that this animation. As evocative as it is of the natural world, there’s nothing naturalistic about the visual style. Or maybe it’s just that it the simplicity of the look produces its own sense of naturalism.

Simplicity and closeness to nature are perhaps the main theme of the story. The first part of the movie is about the baby princess being raised in the rustic household of the bamboo cutter and his wife, befriending the kids of a nearby family, and exploring the natural world of the mountain forest they live in. The middle part moves Kaguya and her parents to an urban environment, where she gradually loses touch with the simple, natural life of the countryside. Eventually her true home calls to her, and she learns the value of the life that was lost when she moved to the city.

As a city boy myself, I found the critique of urban life and social rules less interesting than the more playful exaltation of nature. Not that there’s much wrong with the middle section, but it did seem to lag at times. The satire of court manners felt a little banal or unfocused, although the animation continued to be fantastic and the humor sweet. The characters are also strong throughout, although again perhaps the father’s obsession with social status felt a bit unmotivated.

But whatever qualms I felt about the middle section of the film, the final act overcame all doubts. For all that Takahata is showing us the value of simplicity, the story he’s telling is emotionally complex. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to call it spiritually complex. The finale takes us into a supernatural realm — the world of the gods — and it is completely serene and utterly devastating. It’s an acknowledgment of death and mortality — the natural end of all our stories, with the overwhelming sense of painful loss and awesome inevitability that comes with it. Mono no aware: the poignant transience of all things.

Watching The Tale of Princess Kaguya, I was struck again and again about how unlike other animated movies it is, other than Takahata’s own movies. Miyazaki does something equally powerful, but he’s stylistically completely different. Takahata has created a style of his own. Contemplating this final tale, a sense of mono no aware arises at the passing of a unique vision. We can be thankful that he shared it with us for a time.

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The Zero Theorem (2013)

Zero Theorem

There’s a lot of religious imagery and references in Terry Gilliam’s latest film, and it doesn’t take much research to discover that the protagonist’s name, Qohen Leth, is a reference to Qoheleth (or Koheleth), the Hebrew name for the book that’s called Ecclesiastes in the Bible. Kohen is the Hebrew word for priest, and the film character Qohen (played by Christoph Waltz) is a man of faith who believes God contacted him on the phone and tried to tell him the meaning of life before Qohen dropped the phone and missed the message. He’s waiting for God to call back, all the while feeling he’s about to die.

The story is set in a dystopian future where everything, even the Occupy Wall Street movement, has become a candy-colored, personalized, you’re-so-fucking-specialized advertisement. Qohen works for a corporation called Mancom, “crunching entities,” which seems to involve solving mathematical equations that are then used in the design of information technology such as virtual reality suits. Eventually Management (Matt Damon) assigns him to the job of solving the Zero Theorem, which proposes that the universe will eventually return to the nothingness from which it inexplicably sprang. Qohen is happy to work on whatever project is assigned to him, as long as he can be near his phone awaiting God’s call.

As I say, there’s a lot of religious business is this film. Qohen lives in an abandoned church that was formerly inhabited by a brotherhood of monks who had taken vows of chastity, poverty, and silence. The name of the corporation, Mancom, seems to refer to the secular world of Man, as opposed to the spiritual world of God. Qohen’s supervisor is named Joby, the first part of which is pronounced like the biblical Job — hero of one of the Books of Wisdom of the Old Testament, just like Ecclesiastes. And what of Qohen’s brilliant teenage co-worker, Bob? Could it be a reference to the Church of the Subgenius? Meanwhile the prostitute, Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), hired by Mancom to relax Qohen, avers a distaste for intercourse, preferring instead a technologically-intermediated tantric relationship.

Ah, yes, the serpent in the garden. Qohen basically leads a monastic life of self-denial himself (or theirselves, since he refers to himself in the the third person plural), but Bainsley tempts him to rejoin the world of carnal pleasures. Paradoxically, the offer only exists in a virtual fantasy world. What’s interesting is how Qohen’s decision to give in to his desires precipitates a crisis. Having watched the film twice now, I’m still not sure why Bainsley makes the choice she does at that moment or why Mancom wants it that way. Perhaps Mancom fears that actual pleasure, rather than the dream of it, will distract Qohen from the faith that drives his work for them. Bainsley seems to represent the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, who concluded that all earthly striving is vanity, so we should eat, drink, and be merry while we can, yet there’s a strange contradiction in the pleasure she offers, perhaps caused by her own confusion and pain.

The virtual world of creative imagination is the main theme of Gilliam’s whole career. In many ways The Zero Theorem parallels the treatment of that theme in Brazil. As I believe John Clute observed, from a political perspective in Brazil the torturers win, although from a personal perspective Sam Lowry escapes to freedom in a dreamworld. Something similar happens in The Zero Theorem, but it’s perhaps more mysterious — more religious. Perhaps this is Gilliam’s agreement with Clute’s critique.  He has said he considers The Zero Theorem not a comedy, but a tragedy.

Or perhaps its just a continuation of his Romantic rejection of the technological world, here embodied in the Neural Network, which is a science fictional advancement on the internet.  For me the final image is ambiguous, much as the final image in Brazil is. Qohen has become one with nothingness, but does that mean he’s a zero? Well, I suppose the use of a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” over the end crawl tips Gilliam’s hand. Qohen has become a god of sorts, but it’s a god of nothing. Perhaps the name Leth is also a reference to the River Lethe, whose waters bring forgetfulness and oblivion.

 

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The Book of Life (2014)

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This family-friendly film is the first feature by the Mexican director Jorge R. Gutierrez, but it’s an English-language film produce (by Guillermo del Toro) in the US. Still, the story is set in Mexico, and it explores the mythology of the Day of the Dead. It concerns a love triangle between the bull-fighter/musician, Manolo, the military hero, Joaquin, and the town belle (who actually has a few surprising talents up her sleeve), Maria. The gods La Muerte and Xibalba make a wager on which of the two boys will end up with Maria, with control of a desirable region of the afterworld as the stake.

As a story, this was a bit too idealized and childlike for my tastes, but it does have a nice sense of humor and a nice cast of goofy supporting characters voiced by some impressive talent (e.g. Cheech Marin). Some of the songs are actually quite nice too, for that matter. The attitude toward death is probably not something you see in your average children’s film, so there’s that.

The reason to see it, if you aren’t a young child or the parent of a young child, is the animation. The characters were made into wooden puppets, and then the puppets were animated with computer graphics, which gives it a great texture and works very well in 3D. The backgrounds, particularly in the various realms of the afterworld, are quite spectacular. Good eye candy, if you’re into animation.

The story is perfectly fine, for what it is, but it’s the visit to the Land of the Dead that makes the journey worthwhile.

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The Two Faces of January (2014)

Poster for The Two Faces of January

The Two Faces of January is an adaptation of the 1964 novel by Patricia Highsmith. It’s set in 1962 and concerns an American scam artist named Chester MacFarland (Viggo Mortensen) who has fled to Greece with his young trophy wife, Collette (Kirsten Dunst), after a con in the US goes bad. In Athens he’s tracked down by a private detective, and he and his wife have to flee with the help of a young American grifter named Rydal (played by Llewelynn Davis himself, Oscar Isaac). In Crete the sexual tension in this three body problem begins to build as the fascination, paranoia, and betrayals mount.

I’ve read that this wasn’t one of Highsmith’s better novels, but good movies can be made from bad books. This is a decent movie, but nothing special. I enjoyed it for the Mediterranean setting and for Mortensen’s performance as the shifty, tormented Chester. The roles of Collette and Rydal seemed underwritten, although that’s probably true of Chester as well; it’s just that Morteneon made it more interesting with his suggestions of inner anguish and uncertainty. The sexual tensions are handled in a subdued way that had its pluses and minuses, and the sense that Rydal sees his father in Chester is also underplayed in a way that teases the expectations. The title is suggestive of Janus, the two-faced Roman god of the threshold — of transitions, beginnings, and endings.

Alberto Iglesias’ music channels Arvo Pärt and Bernard Herrmann, and the latter makes this seem like a wannabe Hitchcock film, which is a standard the film can’t really live up to. As projected at the Varsity, the image had a distracting digital sheen. Perhaps because of the Hitchcockian nature of the story, I kept yearning for a more classical celluloid look.

But if you go in with reasonable expectations, this is an entertaining low-key period thriller. Recommended to fans of Viggo Mortensen in particular.

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Gone Girl (2014)

Poster for Gone Girl

I came out of this one thinking it was entertaining enough in a threadbare way, but the manner in which it played with genre kept nagging at me. It has aspects of romance, but romance so cloying and phoney it’s more like a satire of romance. It has elements of the cat-and-mouse mystery and the psycho-thriller as well, but the romance pops back up when you least expect it. And that’s probably the most interesting thing the movie is doing: it keeps playing with audience expectations, and it ends up in a very weird, ugly place. I’ve seen it described as a story about the difficulties of relationships, and despite the over-the-top absurdity of how it treats this subject, it’s true enough. There’s a point at which a character says, “That’s marriage,” which brought the house down when I saw it. Again, a satire of romance.

The basic scenario is that Nick and Amy Dunne (Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike) are apparently happily married, but on their fifth anniversary she goes missing. Was she abducted, or did he kill her? The film moves back and forth in time as we follow the police investigation and then keep flashing back to Amy’s diary, in which she charts the evolution of their relationship. Our understanding of what’s happened keeps changing radically throughout.

As I say, I came out of this thinking it was fun enough but not fully engaging. I guess it seemed a bit glib to me, the characters weren’t very interesting even as grotesques, and the surprising shifts in the storyline provided only brief thrills. Some of the dialogue is pretty damned funny, and I did laugh. Yet the outrageous ending seemed so contrived that I found myself rolling my eyes at it.

Kim Nicolini has compared it to a famous film noir, and it made so much sense that I’ve started rethinking my reaction. Unfortunately the comparison acts as a pretty big spoiler, so I’m not going to share it here. Perhaps it’s sufficient to say that it made me realize how much of a melodrama* this is, and maybe that was the part of the genre play that I missed. The fact that there’s a lot of satire in it doesn’t mean there isn’t also a lot of pain.

But that brings me back to my feeling that the film is perhaps too glib for its own good. The two protagonists are not quite grounded enough to make the pain real. Amy’s parents are monsters in their own right, but that fact is played more for laughs than for insight. Likewise Nick’s asshole father, who flashes in and out of the movie without illuminating much. Or is his flickering absence more than meets the eye? Maybe there’s more going on under the slick narrative surface than I was able to grasp on one viewing.

I’d be curious to see a demographic breakdown of the audience for the film. There appeared to be quite a few young women in the audience at SIFF Uptown last night. Are they readers of Gillian Flynn’s novel? (Flynn adapted her own novel for the screenplay.) From comments afterwards they seemed to like the movie a lot. Maybe they’re the target demographic.

<b>Update:</b> “The anguish of the female trapped in a role is the central concern of melodrama.” (John Flaus)

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Snowpiercer distribution

Snowpiercer is not only one of the best movies of the year, but it’s come with an interesting controversy regarding its distribution in the US. The typical Don Quixote version of this is ably represented by Grady Hendrix and Kaiju Shakedown:

Taking Korean money, an English-language script, and a bunch of American and British actors, [director Bong Joon-Ho] headed to Europe to shoot, then sold his movie internationally, treating America as just one more foreign territory rather than as the promised land.

Unfortunately, he sold those English-language rights to the Weinstein Company who, in typical Weinstein fashion, declared that American audiences were morons who couldn’t follow the plot and so they’d have to cut 20 minutes from the film and add voiceover narration to the ending in order to render Bong’s film comprehensible to this nation of presumed mouth-breathers. Bong held out for seven months, but finally he took the choice the Weinsteins offered him, trading a wide release for artistic control.

This is more or less the version of the story I saw from very early on at other fan-based sites such as Twitch. Today I was poking around trying to figure out if Snowpiercer had made more money internationally than the $82 million that Box Office Mojo reports when I started running into an alternative story. This story is perhaps best represented by the recent headline at Business Insider: ‘Snowpiercer’ Is Leading A Revolution In The Movie Industry, And It’s Putting Hollywood To Shame. According to this version of events, Weinstein was playing around with a new distribution model that put the film into a limited number of theaters for two weeks and then released it on VOD. With this model the film has so far made a total of $11 million in the North American market ($6.5 million of that in VOD as of the beginning of September), but this is considered big money because of the much lower marketing costs.

I can’t claim to follow all the insidery business calculations of this story, but it’s interesting to read some of the arguments about different distribution strategies. Anne Thompson and Tom Brueggeman at Indiewire published a long piece in July that outlines some of the arguments and tries to crunch numbers about what the film will net in North America this way as opposed to what it would have netted if it had gone for a wide-scale theatrical distribution. They conclude that they could have made $5 million more with the wide-scale theatrical release, but whatever the case Harvey Weinstein is claiming victory (surprise!) and the gist of the articles I’m seeing is that we’ll see more releases like this. It gives more context to the announcement this week that the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon will be released simultaneously on Netflix and IMAX, bypassing the big theatrical exhibition chains.

 

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Image of the Day

Screencap from The Land Unknown

The Land Unknown (1957)
(Via DVDBeaver.)

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Upcoming Movies

The Drop was a nice surprise, so who knows what other unexpected treasures are on the way. Lots of potentially good stuff to look forward to, however.

The Zero Theorem: Terry Gilliam’s latest will probably streak in and out of one theater somewhere hereabouts. Hope I’m in town when it happens.

Poster for Tale of Princess Kaguya

The Tale Of Princess Kaguya: The latest (and last?) film from the neglected co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata. Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Only Yesterday (1991), and Pom Poko (1994) lead me to expect great things from this adaptation of a traditional Japanese folk story.

Into the Woods: Disney does Sondheim? This could go terribly wrong, but I’ll see it even if it’s a trainwreck. The musical is a bit like Terry Gilliam’s Brothers Grimm in that it mashes together a bunch of fairy tales into a new story. Meryl Streep plays the wicked witch, and Johnny Depp plays the well-hung wolf.

Posgter for Maps to the Stars

Maps to the Stars: It’s David Cronenberg, which is almost enough said, but I’m also intrigued that the screenplay is by Bruce Wagner, whose I’m Losing You (1998) was one of the strangest, most riveting Hollywood melodramas I’ve seen in recent years. It also has Olivia Williams, who I’ve had a weird, no doubt unhealthy thing for ever since seeing her play Mrs. Darling in the 2003 Peter Pan.

Gone Girl: David Fincher adapts another potboiler thriller. I adored his version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Pure pop for now people.

Interstellar: I don’t love Christopher Nolan, but this big budget sci-fi blockbuster sounds promising enough. 2014 has been a great year for oddball science fiction, and Nolan will have a hard time topping Snowpiercer, Under the Skin, or The Congress in my personal pantheon.

Inherent Vice: Paul Thomas Anderson adapts Thomas Pynchon. I just read the novel, which I thought was a cool concept with shaggy execution. I’m very curious to see what Anderson does with it.

Big Eyes: This is being hyped as Tim Burton’s return to low-budget non-fantasy territory à la Ed Wood, but the big attraction for me is Amy Adams playing Margaret Keane.

Poster for Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils Maria: Olivier Assayas’ first English-language film is perhaps most intriguing for its casting of Kristen Stewart, who I thought was terrific in Adventureland but completely dull in Snow White and the Huntsman. Everybody is comparing this one to All About Eve.

Song of the Sea: Speaking of unexpected treasures, The Secret of Kells (2009) by Tomm Moore was a total delight that appeared as if out of thin air in my little world. He turns his animated sights on selkies in this one. Selkie stories are for losers.

Poster for Cymbeline

Cymbeline: I have no idea whether this will get a theatrical distribution, but I love Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000), and this modernized version of one of the Bard’s late romances sounds fascinating. Milla Jovovich, Ethan Hawke, John Leguizamo, and Ed Harris? I think so!

Of course there are zillions of interesting foreign and oddball indie films that have played festivals over the past year, and I have no idea when or if they’ll play in Seattle. I never know what’s going to pop up on the schedule in any given week. The surprises are sometimes better than the ones I’ve been long anticipating.

 

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