Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser

Werner Herzog's 1974 film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser was his follow-up to the all-time great Aguirre, the Wrath of God, starring Klaus Kinski, and Herzog's first of two collaborations with Bruno S, the other of which (Stroszek) I recently reviewed. These leading men are two of the most remarkable, impressive, intriguing, and fascinating of actors. Neither could've really made their mark in history starring in movies other than those by Herzog. Sure, Kinksi was in literally hundreds of movies, but how many non-Herzog roles is he remembered for? Bruno pretty much starred only in these two Herzog movies, and yet that was enough for him to become a known name in movie history. And it is with good reason.

I wrote of Bruno in Stroszek "He seems particular. There was only one of this guy made" and spoke of his "extraordinary performance of great focus and intensity" "with a look of intense and impenetrable depth" and that much is true of his work as Kaspar Hauser as well. Kaspar is a real historical person, found in 1828 in Nuremberg holding just a Bible and an anonymous note with vague details of his life. He spent the first 20 or so years of his time on Earth locked in a cellar, no interactions with other people or animals or nature, a toy horse to play with, and only a man in a black cloak and top hat who would come give him food. One day that man releases him from this prison after teaching him the concept of writing, and teaching him the phrase "I want to be a gallant rider like my father was before me." He otherwise has no concept of speech, animals, even eating, until the kind people of the town take him in and he begins to learn. But much like his character arc in Stroszek, it seems like this world might be too much for this man.

It's a very sad story, filled with profound, odd, and strangely affecting observations from Kaspar. "It seems to me that my coming into this world was a very hard fall." "The music feels strong in my heart... I feel so unexpectedly old" or when the gentle family he's staying with is giving him his first bath in years "Mother, my skin is coming off" or even the omniscient opening caption "Do you not then hear this horrible scream all around you? This scream that men call silence." It's peculiarly haunting in much of its time. Bruno being teased by the drunk local men, spending time being shown off in a circus attraction, or in high society as a different kind of circus attraction. Kaspar thinks and feels deeply, but doesn't have the lifetime of experience to have learned how to process everything around him. It lends a childlike wonder and stubbornness and fear to him.

This is, aesthetically, a rustically beautiful movie, as Herzog's always are. He has a way of finding wonderful images and ones that stick in our minds. Here, I'm thinking of the painterly boat ride Kaspar takes while a lone swan swims in the distance. Or of his dreams, sometimes slightly out of focus, of nature scenes. Also Kaspar's dream of innumerable people walking up a foggy mountain to find Death at the top, before walking back down. Herzog's movies play in our minds in an unspoken way much like music. His work worms it way into our minds in the best possible manner. It's what makes him one of the truly singular and best of filmmakers.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Take Care of My Cat

2001's Take Care of My Cat is one of those movies that doesn't sound like it'd be extraordinary, but it is. It's about a group of 5 young women in South Korea, just out of high school, and how they grow, work, and basically how they handle the world at such a transformative age. It has no love story, but contains characters that I want to see more of. It's just under 2 hours long, and that times flies by. Coming-of-age movies are one of my favorite genres, and this is right at or near the top of the heap.

The friends, as can happen in school and sadly not so much later in life, are all of differing social classes, and may even sound like clichés, even though they're not. There's the rich girl Hae-joo (Lee Yo-won), the poor girl Ji-young (Ok Ji-young), the dreamer Tae-hee (played by the amazing Doona Bae, from The Host and Cloud Atlas), and the twin sisters Bi-ryu and Ohn-jo (Lee Eun-shil and Lee Eun-jo). The sisters get the short stick, development wise, but the other three are really wonderfully drawn and played by the actresses. They grow and change and develop in perfectly believable ways, never a false note or false drama, though there were many times it could've gone that way. It's a great trio of leads, even though I can't quite put my finger on why it's so good.

And that's kind of the whole thing about the movie. Writer/director Jeong Jae-eun has crafted a startling movie that has nothing startling in it, really. It's just SO good. The music is impeccable, the framing of the shots, the cinematography, everything is top notch. I want to see this movie over and over again throughout my life. I know it's going to be one of those that really stays with me. Which is a remarkable thing to say about the movie because what do I know or can relate to about being a 20-ish Korean girl? Nothing whatsoever. Yet I was moved by these actresses and their story. Jeong has created herself a truly amazing movie that plays on us like music. We may not be able to articulate what makes it special, it just is.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson makes movies like no other. They don't look like other filmmakers' movies, they don't feel like other filmmakers' movies, and the characters don't talk like other filmmakers' characters talk. I've been hit and miss on his movies over the course of his career, loving a few, hating one, and the others falling somewhere in between. I've often said that the Wes Anderson-ness of his movies keeps them at a distance from real emotions and characters and thus keeps us in the audience at a distance from his movies. The Grand Budapest Hotel is the most Wes Anderson-y of his movies yet, and his most extraordinary.

Reminding me a bit of The Saragossa Manuscript in its Russian doll-like unfolding of the story, though not nearly as down the rabbit hole as that movie can be, we eventually arrive at the central story of Monsieur Gustav, who is played by the great Ralph Fiennes in what might be his greatest performance. Gustav is funny, profane, intelligent, well put together, and always in control. His protégé Zero (Tony Revolori) narrates a good part of the story, even though it's done by the older Zero, played by F. Murray Abraham. What follows is a series of funny, exciting, ridiculous, thrilling filmmaking of the highest order.

Anderson assembles a great and large cast, as always. But this is his largest, and greatest cast yet. All of the regulars are here, Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, and others, but thankfully even when they're mere cameos (as they are by those actors) they fit within Anderson's crazy world of a movie. And he gets wonderful work out of all of them, most particularly Abraham, Revolori, and Fiennes. This is also, by far, I think, Anderson's best looking movie. That the budget for this movie is listed at $30 million is ridiculous when thinking about how distinct every part of this movie is, and how bland movies with many multiples of that budget are. The sets, costumes, locations, everything is impeccable and I wouldn't have been surprised if I'd seen a $100 million budget attached to it. But Anderson does so much with what he has, proving that cinematic creativity isn't dependent on budget in the slightest.

I laughed out loud many times while watching this movie. It is simply a delight from start to finish. I found myself resisting a bit at first, almost even thinking I may not be in the mood for a Wes Anderson movie right now, but he won me over with this magical, wonderful movie.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Jerk

I'm a big fan of Steve Martin. But The Jerk, often his most acclaimed movie, even though a couple of the gags work, mostly just sits there assuming it's funny inherently. The opening works thanks to Martin's ability to lovably and believably play the idiot. There are many funny bits in the beginning, as Martin's Navin finds out that the black family that raised him actually adopted him when he was a baby "You mean I'm gonna stay this color?" he whines. Good stuff. Or when he decides to start his hitchhiking to the big city of St. Louis from the white picket gate of his family's front lawn, his family having dinner inside hours later wonders if Navin is doing okay, and they're able to just call out the window and ask him if he's alright. There are a few bits like that in the opening section that really sing.

Speaking of singing, the sweet scene of Martin and Bernadette Peters singing "Tonight You Belong to Me" on the beach is really wonderful. But the previous stuff of Martin working in the carnival, about 90% of it doesn't work. And that's how it goes for the rest of the movie. It doesn't outstay its welcome, the movie is only 94 minutes long, but it doesn't zip along either. And that's because so little of it is funny. The really funny bits are there ("Just this ashtray... And this paddle game. The ashtray and the paddle game and that's all I need... And this remote control...) but they're sandwiched between stuff that isn't funny. Martin is brilliant at playing the idiot, but that really only gets us so far. Steve Martin the writer really lets down Steve Martin the performer in that way. And the direction from Carl Reiner is simple and unimpressive in any way.

Seeing this movie for the first time in a long time has made me hesitant to revisit beloved Steve Martin movies from my childhood like Three Amigos! or The Man with Two Brains, although I know I still love movies like Bowfinger, Roxanne, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, having seen them many times as an adult. But I was sorely disappointed by my revisiting of The Jerk.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Lessons of Darkness

Werner Herzog is one of the great filmmakers we've ever been given. His Lessons of Darkness is about 50 minutes long, and one of the best science fiction films I've seen. Herzog filmed in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in the early 90's, showing bombed out buildings, oil fields aflame, broken people, and more remnants of the destruction of war. No special effects. How Herzog frames the story, however, is that of an expedition onto a foreign planet, and seeing the destruction that a war has brought to this strange land.

Many of the images are barely recognizable as our planet. Others you don't want to recognize as something we've done to each other and ourselves. Herzog narrates in that odd, beautiful Bavarian accent of his, but the narration is minimal. Mostly he uses classical music pieces from Wagner, Schubert, Verdi and others. It's a really extraordinarily transportational experience, as Herzog takes us to another land and an often breathtaking and heartbreaking journey. Another filmmaker could've easily made this movie feel exploitative of the war, but Herzog makes it allegorical. He shows us ourselves by trying to show us something else. He plays on our emotions and our imaginations, making the movie even more impactful than it would've been as a straight documentary about the war.

I found myself speechless and slightly disturbed by the movie, in a good way. It's quietly operatic, contemplative without being boring or too heady. It's a simple movie. Extraordinary in every way. One of Herzog's best, and that's really saying something.

Monday, October 12, 2015


I have been a big fan of Christopher Nolan's movies since I first saw his backwards told Memento in 2000 or 2001, and although each of his movies is flawed in certain ways, I've liked or loved them all. That doesn't really change with his latest movie Interstellar, which I only caught up to now a year later, but I wish I loved it. I won't bother with a plot description, since most people who are going to see the movie already have. So let's jump into it.

The movie boasts a lot of things: flawless special effects, fine performances (from a tremendous cast all doing great work), and an interesting plot straight out of the spirit of classic science fiction literature. My biggest problem with the movie is actually aesthetic, and it's that Nolan just isn't a visual artist. He has the soul of an engineer or a puzzle builder, but not a poet or a painter. And I think in the translation to cinema, space exploration sci-fi needs visual inspiration. It needs the awe that Spielberg, Herzog, or Kubrick (in their various ways) bring to their work for it to really achieve transcendence. Nolan has created some great images in his time, the shot of The Joker hanging out of the cop car in The Dark Knight, or the rotating hallway in Inception. But this movie is very flat, visually. There's not a single image in the 169 minutes that I'll vividly remember. There's no curiousity in the creation of the thing. Nolan already has the answers and he's just telling it to us, which gives everything a certain sense of inevitability and of being controlled within an inch of its life that prevents the movie from expanding our minds or imaginations beyond what is on the screen at any given moment.

All of that said, I do think it's a really good movie. I don't always buy Matthew McConaughey as the smartest guy in the room, picking up downed drones to reprogram into farm equipment and whatnot, but he still sells things overall. The women really shine nicely though, Anne Hathaway is terrific at displaying intelligence and determination while also projecting a sensitivity and emotion. It's a tricky performance that has gone really undervalued in the assessment of the movie by most people. And the 3 actresses that play Murph at the different stages of her life (Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn) are all wonderful and real and impressive. Not just because Foy and Chastain look like they could be mother and daughter, they really inhabit an intellect, and the most curious of the characters. Matt Damon, surprisingly, considering I think of him as one of our finest star actors, is underwhelming in his supporting role as a rescued astronaut. There was something about that performance that was just a bit off.

Another drawback for me was that Nolan's dive into the area of sentimentality isn't quite something he can pull off. He isn't sentimental, though all of his movies have moments of (often tragic) emotion, the lovingly sentimental is trickier. Even the King of Sentiment, Spielberg, doesn't always pull it off successfully. But ultimately, it's a minor quibble. I know it sounds like a lot of complaining and maybe even nitpicking, but I really do like the movie. It has interesting ideas in its head, and that's more than can be said for most major Hollywood blockbusters. I just wish Nolan was more of a dreamer and less of a thinker.