Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Killer

John Woo's The Killer is like the epitome of the 80's action movie while also being the father of many a 90's action movie. The story concerns Ah Jong (Chow Yun-Fat), an assassin who accidentally blinds lounge singer Jennie (Sally Yeh) during a shootout at one of his hits. He tries to help her with surgeries to get her failing sight back, and agrees to take on one last hit to pay for her surgery. He's double crossed by the people that are supposed to pay him, while also crossing paths with Detective Li Ying (Danny Lee) who's on the case of the contract killings. It's a textbook late 80's thriller, with all the ridiculous cliche that accompanies such action fare. And it's also completely awesome.

And when I say cliche, I mean the super believable kind like how the hero never has to reload his pistol because it magically has a clip capacity of a thousand. It's sometimes comical to see Chow Yun-Fat unload on a bad guy with 8 or 10 shots, only to keep going with innumerable more shots afterwards. The body count on the movie is supposedly 120, and the movie is less than 2 hours long. But there's also the 80's music, freeze frames, slow-motion, guys wielding double pistols, cheap sound effects, a screaming woman who won't just stay down and hide, quick flashbacks to things we haven't had time to forget yet. Seriously, the first flashback is like 8 minutes into the movie, flashing back to something that literally happened 3 minutes ago. It almost feels like a parody of these kinds of movies because it's done so well and has so many of the cliches in it, but that just lets you know where a lot of these came from.

Still, even with all that seemingly negative stuff (which aren't negatives here), this movie is awesome. The church finale is particularly over-the-top, bloody, unbelievable, ridiculous, amazing, and one of the high points of action cinema. And heading the whole thing is Chow Yun-Fat at his coolest. Even as cheesy 80's-ness is happening all around him, the dude is just badass and magnetic. What a wonderful ride this movie is.

Thursday, August 27, 2015


 "It's not over till it's over" is a famous saying, but a movie like Katyn shows that it's not even over at that point. During WWII, the Soviets massacred thousands of Polish citizens, both soldiers and civilians, in the Katyn forest in April and May of 1940. The estimates on how many were murdered is between 12,000 and 22,000 people. The Nazis, as the relationship with the Soviets turned south, exposed the genocide and used it as propaganda against them. When the Soviets took control of Poland after the war, however, they turned and claimed the Nazis were the culprits, committing the crimes in 1941. In post-war Poland, to even suggest that your brother died in Katyn in 1940 was considered treason, as the Soviet backed government propagated the lie covering up their actions in Katyn.

Among those murdered was Jakub Wajda, the father of 14-year-old Andrzej, who would go on to be the most important filmmaker in Polish history. Andrzej has said he knew he needed to make a movie about the Katyn massacre, but he wasn't able to tackle it until 2007, at the age of 81. What he gave us is one of the most powerful war movies I've ever seen because, although the movie takes fictionalized characters to tell the story, it sees the reality of how war spreads over people like a plague. Once the war is over, it's not really over because now we have to live with the consequences of war. And that's how we see this story, often playing out through the women: wives, mothers, sisters, daughters of those killed. Some holding out hope, some trying to move on, some just wanting the closure that truth brings. Katyn is a powerful movie that plays on us like no other WWII movies have.

The movie is gorgeously made, Wajda is obviously a master filmmaker of the highest order. But what I keep coming back to as this movie grows in my mind is the complexity of everything. Wajda has said he wasn't sure how to approach the subject, whether to make it about the massacre (his fathers story) or the aftermath and the lie continued afterwards (his mothers story), ultimately settling on both, which I think was his own story.

But he also doesn't shy away from showing the massacre itself, in fact ending the movie with it. Roger Ebert said it was "a scene of relentless horror, showing the assembly line of execution." Because these people weren't murdered in mass, but one at a time. Wajda leaves us with the senseless brutality of bodies falling and being thrown into mass graves, the sickening dull thud as they hit either the dirt or bodies already down there. It's not a numbing downer of an ending as much as it sounds. It's emotionally powerful and driven because we know that death didn't give any of these people peace, and all sides used them over and over again (the graves were dug up multiple times) as propaganda pieces. Their families weren't given any peace, they couldn't even talk openly about the truth of what happened until Poland's independence was gained in 1989.

Katyn serves as a powerful emotional experience, and a fascinating study on how the horrors of war don't go away once one side "wins". The war is over halfway through the 121 minute runtime, but I hope some peace was gained through the making of this movie. At least the truth, both factual and emotional, is able to be out there now.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Cafe Lumiere

The joy of people watching. That's what Hou Hsaio-Hsien's movies are about at their core. His movies have been called minimalist, meditative, slow, boring, and many other things. But he pretty much takes the same languid approach to all of his work, and I find him fascinating. His stories may change, but the feel is the same. You know you're going in to see a Hou Hsiao-Hsien movie and know what you're gonna get. Impeccably framed shots, whether inside homes, in the countryside, or even in the bustling city. His movies are gorgeously filmed, even when they're not extravagant.

Cafe Lumiere, Hou's first movie outside his native Taiwan, is a tribute piece in honor of the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, whose Tokyo Story is often cited as one of the best movies ever made. It concerns things important to Ozu, like the subtle clash between the new and old, children and parents, and also trains. There are a LOT of trains in this movie. We follow our heroine as she goes home to visit her parents, informing them that she's pregnant and steadfastly refusing to marry the father, something that would've been unheard of to anyone of her parents generation. But the story is never the star in a Hou movie, the long, slow takes and deliberate pacing are.

Which brings me back to the joy of people watching. There are those of us who enjoy becoming a momentary voyeur in big crowded areas and watching people who don't know we're watching them, for no reason other than to see what they do. I find myself performing a much more intimate version of this when watching Hou's movies. It's like we've been dropped into these peoples often unexciting lives (just like our generally unexciting lives) and we watch them live. Something about it gets me every time. Or at least every time I'm in the mood. Watching a Hou movie when you're not in the mood for slowly paced, unconventional, movies will bore you to tears before the 30 minute mark is up. But if the circumstances are right, and you're in the mood. I find few filmmakers more consistently watchable than Hou.


Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville is one of those movies, like Kurosawa's Rashomon, that I find more interesting to talk about than to watch. It's not boring to watch, but it's not particularly engaging either. It's fascinating to think about and talk about, but I found myself rather disengaged from it as a viewing experience. It's neat to see how Godard turned present (well, 1965 present) day Paris into a futuristic dystopian city without any special effects, but I felt a distance from the movie as a whole.

The movie isn't that much new in its basic plot, it's a dystopian "one disillusioned man, finding love, saves the world" kinda thing we've seen and read a million times. But Godard's fresh take on creating his world, and since it has no SFX it has a real lived-in, tangible quality that a lot of sci-fi misses with its sets and effects. The grounding performance from Eddie Constantine as our hero Lemmy Caution also helps this. He's kinda like Bogart, but a little older and tougher and no nonsense. It works well. Sci-fi and noir have always made a great combination, and Alphaville is no exception.

But again, the movie didn't engage me like I wanted it to. Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood for it, I'm not sure. Since I need to delve more into Godard's work, of which I'm painfully ignorant, I'm sure I'll revisit this again some day. For now, it's admirable and I didn't think it a failure, but it did leave me a bit cold.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Beauty and the Beast

"Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us. They believe that a rose plucked from a garden can plunge a family into conflict. They believe that the hands of a human beast will smoke when he slays a victim, and that this will cause him shame when a young maiden takes up residence in his home. They believe a thousand other simple things. 

I ask of you a little of this childlike sympathy and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood's "Open Sesame":

Once upon a time..."

So opens Jean Cocteau's 1946 take on the classic French fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. The earliest screen take on the tale, Cocteau's movie is magical in every sense of the word. He created a fairy tale real world, where Belle comes from. And he created a darker, slightly creepier, but also whimsically fascinating world for the Beast's castle. The basic outline of the movie will be familiar to most people thanks to the famous Disney take on it, so there's no need for plot description. I'll say that Cocteau took me to a world I wanted to see more of, and told me an engaging and delightful tale while I was there.

Although Belle (Josette Day) is probably thought of as the main character, it's the Beast that's the star of the show. The Beast was played by Cocteau's long time lover, Jean Marais, who also took on the villainous role of Avenant (this movie's equivalent of the Gaston character from Disney's movie). And it's amazing the kind of magnetic charisma he radiates as the Beast, and the back stabbing sliminess we feel of his Avenant. When the Beast is ultimately transformed into a prince looking like Avenant (it makes sense in the dreaminess of the movie), we, like Belle, are disappointed. Reportedly, at the premiere, when this happened, Marlene Dietrich, while holding Cocteau's hand, yelled out "Where is my beautiful beast?" And I have to agree with her. It kinda left a bad taste in my mouth, but it really points to how terrific the Beast is here.
I would still recommend this movie to anyone who thinks they might be interested in it. It's not the big showy crowd pleaser the Disney version is. This one is a tad darker, filled to the brim with symbolism one could spend hours dissecting But it's also magical and romantic and wondrous It's also got great imagery and sets and costumes. When the Beast is carrying Belle up the stairs is my personal favorite sequence, and that's not taking into account the creepy human arms holding candlesticks, the statues that watch Belle (are they a victim of the same curse as the Beast? Is the whole castle haunted? Is the castle the origin of the magic? Many questions to think about since Cocteau lovingly gave so much to this world creation) It's just like a fairy tale movie should be. Not shiny and sanitized, although I wouldn't accuse the Disney version of being that either, but filled with as much depth as you want it to be, so that it can appeal to everyone at any age. A wonderful movie.

Thursday, August 20, 2015


 I had previously seen Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer's short film Jabberwocky, adapted from the Lewis Carroll poem. So I knew what to expect when diving into his Alice, based on Carroll's most famous work. Heavily surreal, impressive stop motion animation, general disregard for plot in favor of image, and that's pretty close to what I got here. I'm not sure how much of a fan I am, but it's undeniably impressive viewing.

The movie is silent for a good portion of its runtime, as the familiarity of the Alice story unfolds when she follows the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole (or down the desk drawers in this case). Alice is the only human character, other than the narrating mouth that shows up annoyingly when anyone talks, adding "Alice said" or "The Queen demanded" or whatever. All the other characters are animated, in stop motion form, from various starting points. The White Rabbit is a taxidermied white rabbit that has come to life, and there are others done this way as well. The King and Queen of Hearts are like living cards, there are dolls for some characters and many other things brought to life through what must've been painstaking and terrific animation by Svankmajer.

The problem, as it always is with Alice, is that there aren't really any characters. There are impressions, dreamlike of many characters, and Svankmajer captures that in his creepy stop motion work. But there's nothing but a set of weird things that happen, and we then move on to another weird set of things that happen, and then it's all over and none of it mattered or meant anything or really makes much of an impression. Honestly, if I'd just read the book instead of seeing the countless adaptations that've been made of it, I would have almost no memory of the story because there really isn't one. It's just kinda weird and dreamlike and then Alice wakes up. I don't find it very engaging. I was hoping that Svankmajer's supremely odd sensibility would bring something new to Alice for me, and while his imagery is certainly new, I simply didn't care.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Taste of Cherry

Abbas Kiarostami is one of the most revered filmmakers in all of world cinema, and my first exposure to his work was last night when I watched his 1997 masterpiece Taste of Cherry. Starring (at the time) non-actor Homayoun Ershadi as a man driving around looking for someone to do him a big favor, to either bury him after he's committed suicide or help him out of the grave he's already dug if he ultimately decides against it. It is a slow moving, deliberate movie, but so engaging in its slowness and silences and thought that I was fascinated from beginning to end.

The lonely, but intelligent, eyes of leading man Ershadi (an architect friend of Kiarostami's who starred here and has since gone on to a successful acting career) tell us all we need to know about our main character. There's no backstory, we never know why the character, Mr. Badii, wants to commit suicide. It was a bold movie choice in the first place, making a movie in fundamentalist Iran about a subject forbidden by the Quran. And it works, though I'd be fascinated to hear the backstory on how Kiarostami got to the point of being able to make the movie, much less getting it released worldwide (where it won many awards, including the Palme D'Or at Cannes). But back to the movie, we don't need to know anything about the man. He's undergoing an internal crisis, does it ever really matter why? Does the why change anything or even develop our understanding? No, it doesn't. Ershadi is fascinating to watch in the way he leads us through this journey.

There's a lot of loneliness here, the actors even often filmed alone in the frame as the camera cuts back and forth at the conversation. Suicide, of course, is a lonely act. Many are driven to it by their feelings of being alone. Mr. Badii, despite offering substantial amounts of money, is even having a hard time getting someone to help him in his quest, another layer of being alone. It's a powerful, thought provoking, brilliant movie. Possibly the best in this quest so far.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Knife in the Water

Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar (though it lost to Fellini's 8 1/2), Roman Polanski's debut feature Knife in the Water is a low key and fascinating little movie. It's a 3 actor showcase, about a husband and wife who pick up a hitchhiker on their way to the lake to sail for the day. Despite a rocky start, they take a liking to the young man and invite him along to join them on the water. What follows is a slow dissolving of the couples marriage as the husband and young man subtly and not so subtly fight over the wife that doesn't seem overly interested in either of them in the first place. 

The husband, Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk, the storytelling gypsy from The Saragossa Manuscript), is quietly domineering towards his wife Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), and at first takes the young hitchhiker (Zygmunt Malanowicz) as an angry "you'd pick up this crazy hitchhiker if YOU were driving, so let's pick him up!" kinda deal, but sees an opportunity to look good to his wife in comparison by all the things he'll be able to do better than the younger man when it comes to handling the complexities of sailing a small boat. It's an understated pissing contest that he may not even realize he's setting up, and certainly doesn't foresee the consequences. 

This is a tense, claustrophobic movie. We rarely leave the boat and it's a testament to Polanski's talent that even though he was just 29 when he made it, it is remarkably accomplished in its visuals, never feeling boring despite the tightly confined area. At a brisk 94 minutes, Polanski also had great command of the pacing of the piece. I like that we're not quite sure what's gonna happen after we fade to black too. We're not sure what everyone thinks or feels about what happened nor what they want to do going forward. Although I wouldn't rate it as high as it is often rated (Empire magazine put it in its list of 100 greatest movies in world cinema, at number 61), it's a highly recommended movie and one I'm glad I rewatched on my world cinema quest.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Saragossa Manuscript

Now here is a surrealist film that I can not only get behind, but love wholeheartedly. Having previously seen director Wojciech Jerzy Has's 1973 film The Hourglass Sanatorium, which I enjoyed but felt flawed and yet its imagery and atmosphere help it grow in my mind the more I think on it, I wanted to see more from the man. This led me to his most famous film, 1965's The Saragossa Manuscript. A 3 hour surrealist shifting narrative journey brought to us from the supposedly unfilmable book of the same name, written piecemeal by Jan Potocki between 1805-1815 before being left unfinished at the author's death. It stars "The Polish James Dean" Zbigniew Cybulski, just two years before his death. Well, it kinda stars him. Let's get into that...

The movie is framed as two soldiers come upon a book while fighting in the Spanish town of Saragossa in the Napoleonic Wars. One soldier realizes the book is written about his grandfather Alfonse (Cybulski), whose story we begin to see in flashback. We follow his journey to a supposedly haunted house, encountering ghosts (or maybe demons? The devil himself?) in the form of two incestually bisexual sisters who claim Alfonse is their cousin and he must marry them both to further the family name and keep it pure. Alfonse later meets a one-eyed man seemingly possessed by the devil, who has a similar story, having taken place in the same haunted house. Alfonse also tries to ride across the land to Madrid, but finds himself captured by the Inquisition, but somehow freed by the sisters from his haunted house. He ultimately finds safety in the castle of a man who may or may not have sinister plans for our hero.

We spend the majority of the second half of the movie listening to the stories of a gypsy who arrives at the castle, all seen in flashbacks. This is where the movie switches from surreal, dream-like storytelling, to puzzle box, Russian doll kinda storytelling. At one point we are watching a story within a story within a story within a story within a story within a story within a story (I think that's how deep it went, if I counted right). Alphonse himself even expresses his deliriousness in trying to keep up, saying "it's enough to make you crazy."

Crazy, maybe, but happily so. Wojciech Jerzy Has's direction is so superb that we are invested in every story within a story, and he keeps them moving so fast that even if you aren't, this one won't last long and there's another coming up that's different. It reminded me a lot of the grandfather's description of the story in The Princess Bride. Here we have demons, ghosts, sultans, battles, sword fights, gorgeous women who aren't always totally clothed, dreams, nightmares, and I haven't even mentioned that the movie has quite a few laughs in it as well. Also, Has's camera movement and control is some of the best I've ever seen from a filmmaker, often switching from long static shots to sudden huge camera movements around, in, or through a building. It's absolutely first class filmmaking and I can see why it was such a favorite of Martin Scorsese's, who has obviously been greatly influenced by Has's camera work.

This is one of the great epics of world cinema, one that's sadly underseen, despite that it's not hard to find, and has a wonderful looking transfer on the DVD I got from my library. And if I can find this in my library in central Oklahoma, wherever you are you can easily find it there as well (or through Netflix, sadly the only Has movie they have). Go see it!

El Topo

El Topo is a 1970 Mexican surrealist western from filmmaker and artist Alejandro Jodorowsky, who wrote and also stars in the title role. The movie is filled to the brim with strange, violent, symbolic imagery and has been a midnight movie staple since its release. Jodorowsky once described himself to Roger Ebert as "born in Bolivia, of Russian parents, lived in Chile, worked in Paris, was the partner of Marcel Marceau, founded the 'Panic' movement with Fernando Arrabal, directed 100 plays in Mexico, drew a comic strip, made 'El Topo,' and now lives in the United States -- having not been accepted anywhere, because in Bolivia I was a Russian, in Chile I was a Jew, in Paris I was a Chilean, in Mexico I was French, and now, in America, I am a Mexican."

So Jodorowsky has lived a strange and varied life that is very much reflected in the movie, which is all over the place symbolically and narratively. Because of this, I don't feel like the movie works. I don't feel like his imagery is powerful enough to sustain not having a propulsive narrative. He substitutes violence for story and imagery for depth. I'm sure the symbols mean something to Jodorowsky himself, but they seemed too varied and not cohesive or meaningful to me. This makes the movie's 2 hour run time feel muuuuuuuuuch longer than it is or should feel.

I was sad to react this way to this movie, as I love westerns, violence doesn't bother me much, and after loving The Hourglass Sanatorium (which still grows in my mind) and Mulholland Drive, I was thinking maybe I'd just not been exposed to the right surreal art for me. As it stands, however, I guess only a certain kind, or maybe a certain approach, works for me.

Foreign film crazy!

I've recently started getting back into watching a lot of foreign cinema and will be writing about my experiences. It all started out wanting to see more Polish cinema after loving Ashes and Diamonds and The Hourglass Sanatorium last year. But it has rekindled my love of world cinema and I'm throwing in French, Japanese, Chinese, and more Polish movies into the mix. Often these will be classics of world cinema, usually my first time viewing them, so here we go...