Saturday, March 3, 2018

THE LIMEY (Steven Soderbergh, 1999, USA)

A father journeys into his own heart of darkness, a seeker of answers tainted by regrets and mistakes, searching for the truth of his daughter’s death and finding only himself to blame. Director Steven Soderbergh envisions a stark and violent character study of an obsessive father who must know why his daughter died…and who was responsible.

Terence Stamp’s bravura performance as Wilson the vengeful patriarch is violently empathetic, at once imbuing the protagonist with intense outbursts and gentle repose, his gunpowder retribution existing outside the metaphysical realm of moral order. Stamp carries the film with his Cockney slang and subtle inflections, at once imposing a riposte humor contrasted by his inhuman brutality. The supporting cast plays against his persona perfectly with Luis Guzman and Lesley Ann Warren as his only links to a disintegrating reality, and Peter Fonda as the object of his murderous desire. Soderbergh utilizes disparate editing techniques to induce frisson: flash-forwards and flashbacks dominate the narrative structure, and dialogue is often juxtaposed out of sequence. This unorthodox editing heightens the suspense as the pieces finally fit together to deconstruct the crime thriller genre by giving us an introspective and thoughtful climax: the payoff is not what we expect.

The sparse soundtrack is an ominous and lonely dirge of self-destruction, punctuated by sixties rock zeitgeist as defining the antagonist and his free fall from grace. The background sound often speaks in the lulling whispers of the ubiquitous surf, a soft accusation that condemns two men for their transgressions (and aggressions) but offers them hope. Wilson growls: “Tell me about Jenny” while Valentine grovels on the rocky shore, but Wilson already knows the answer. Satisfied, he understands that the thing he thinks he wanted wasn’t that thing at all. He lives free to keep his daughter’s memory alive: for Jenny.

Final Grade: (A)

Saturday, February 10, 2018

HEAVEN'S GATE (Michael Cimino, 1980, USA)

The DEER HUNTER is a tale that focuses upon character, specifically the love story between two men: the war is a means to propel the characters towards resolution. But here at HEAVEN’S GATE, Cimino is concerned with the war first, the grand sweeping epic that deconstructs American Mythology; the characters of Averill, Nate, and Ella exist as secondary elements, as a means to reflect upon the injustices and frustrations of the main theme.
The plot of HEAVEN’S GATE is based very loosely upon the true account of the Johnson County War in 1892. But Cimino is only tangentially interested with historicity (like THE DEER HUNTER, this is not a film based on fact but based on theme) so he makes dramatic changes to the characters and plot. However, he is very interested in making a real world of three dimensions for the tale to inhabit, of birthing a dirty and sodden reflection of the American West which is atypical in historical dramas or genre films. The plot involves the Association, a morally bankrupt organization that has the backing of the US President and his Cabinet which becomes a doppelganger of the US Government itself. This organization hires a cadre of criminals to execute without warrant or trial 125 immigrants named on a Death List. These citizens are accused of stealing cattle and procuring and settling land that is needed to propagate the Association’s big business opportunities. Cimino shows two distinct scenes of local immigrants stealing or possessing the Association’s cattle but the reason is quite obvious: they are poor and starving. What Cimino quite rightly points out in the narrative (and Averill mentions more than once) is that there is a lawful remedy for the Association. It’s called the Rule of Law. But the Association has its own ideas about Law and decides that vigilante Justice is the quickest and most economical Final Solution.  
James Averill is a rich man playing at being poor and Nate Champion is a poor man playing at being rich. This is a story of outsiders, of people struggling to attain equal rights, to become something more, to struggle against the situation they are born into. This is the gateway to salvation (not starvation) where immigrants risk everything to come to America, the Land of (In)Opportunity. Averill is a wealthy man who comes to Johnson County as a Sheriff, to fight against injustice, to stand up for the rights of the poor immigrants. He is a good practical man who is respected but he has another life: he has a home elsewhere. This is explained through a photograph of his Harvard days that he keeps by his bedside, as he smiles next to a beautiful young lady beside a tree. (Which is a visual cue for the entire conflict: from the mock battle in the first act at Harvard twenty years before to the slaughter in the final act. Here Cimino joins the past and present, in one simple image, metaphor and reality are superimposed). Though Averill may have the best of intentions (and he does) he remains an outsider to the community, arguing against an armed conflict that cannot be won. It is revealed that he at one time belonged to the Association but he was banned because he stood up against their unethical practices.
Billy is a minor character who is a friend of Averill’s but still belongs to the Association, but he also stands against their decision to execute immigrants for stealing cattle. Billy doesn't quit, he follows along in a drunken haze, never participation and offering only a tepid voice of irony and sarcasm. Billy is also an outsider to this country: he’s English and therefore a neutral observer (because that war has already been fought and won by our county). He acts like a cipher of reason and subverts the events with barbed humorous insights condemning this travesty without actively participating. It’s no coincidence that Billy is shot in the jaw during the final battle while taking a slug of whisky: once again spoken truth is obscured and irrelevant and makes no difference to this Final Solution.
Nate Champion is an immigrant himself who now works as a hit-man for the Association. He is raised above the impoverished community and has made a place for himself, saved money and brought civilization to the wild. He executes farmers who steal his company’s cattle without warrant to charge, arrest, or trial. He is a specter of Death riding the range. Cimino aggravates (in a good way) our expectations by revealing Nate as a complex human being, a man who is not a cold blooded killer but one who struggles to become something more than his caste. Though he murders a man in his first scene, he spares another young boy in another. He curses at the wagon trains of immigrants to go back to where they’re from (a modern American sentiment) though he’s one himself.
Ella is also an outsider in her own community: she is a Madame of the local brothel. Cimino relies on the typical Hollywood clichĂ© of the beautiful hooker with a good heart but this doesn't seem to upset the narrative. Excellently portrayed by Isabella Huppert, she also becomes a complex persona and not a trite characterization. She provides a service for the community and takes money and cattle as payment: unfortunately, much of the cattle are stolen property. The men would rather fuck than feed their families it seems. But she is largely irrelevant to the story until the halfway point of the film when Averill and Champion both visit her. Not only do they know her but they are friends with each other, or were close at one time. They both love her and Champion asks for her hand in marriage while Averill only wants her hand, her physical body, to remove her from the danger.
This affair is only one variable of the whole equation. Ella agrees to marry Nate because she wants to stay at Heaven’s Gate, to be a part of the community of her peers and not a stranger in Averill’s strange land. When Nate takes her to his home (which sits outside of the town, isolated) it is wallpapered. He says this brings civilization to the wilderness and she smiles touchingly. So in a later scene when the building is on fire, the call-back is important: the fire curling and blackening civilization: the wilderness (or chaos) has won. Ella is a reactive person and joins the entire community (she warns them too) in the final battle.
In a typical story, this love affair would generate the fuel for conflict and would be important to resolve but here Cimino focuses upon a much greater theme. This anarchic narrative structure baffles many viewers who would prefer to be spoon-fed exposition, to be given every narrative link in an orderly fashion to reach some understanding of the linear story. But Cimino deconstructs the typical Western melodrama by revealing these character interactions much later in the film because the story is not about their love triangle: it is about the (still)Birth of a Nation and its impact, as these characters become victims of a corrupt notion, avatars of a repressed and impotent society. It is the Rule of law that levels the playing field and when it is manipulated by the powerful few (the 1% in modern terms) then Justice can never prevail and oppression is the norm.
Cimino’s use of circular motion fulfills at least two important functions for his theme of a class conflict. First, it ties together the privileged graduation celebration and the mock battle in the first act and the Immigrants roller skating dance and very real battle later in the film. This contrast between the rich and wealthy dancing to a classic waltz for entertainment, to come together and join in community, is exactly like the citizens of Heaven’s Gate who join together around their own folk music. This juxtaposition alludes to the elite and poor being not so much different after all. The use of The Blue Danube also hints of the European influence upon the upper class, that they are (or are children of) immigrants into this great Melting Pot. The fact is that the only true American is the Native American Indian, and they are not overtly represented in this narrative. So the circular motion of each dance thematically overlaps to become one, tying together two disparate social classes into one shared school of thought and emotion. The two battle scenes (the mock scene were Averill climbs the tree and grabs the bouquet) and the brutal conflict upon the windswept and bloodstained field (were Averill never reaches the tree) are also circular, possibly representing the corruption of society, of group conformity spiraling out of control. The motion also agglutinates the battle and dance, violence and entertainment as one movement, a prescient audience desire that often confuses the two, confounding both meanings. After all, this is a movie about war and people go to the movies to be entertained (at least viscerally or superficially). I believe this post-modern reading of the film stretches Cimino’s intent but struck me as visually and emotionally acute.
The title of the film denotes a Christian belief concerning the entrance to the ethereal realm of Heaven, an allusion that here in the United States is the gateway to a better life. But the reality of the gritty narrative seems pessimistic and pejorative, that this allusion is nothing but an amoral illusion. God is either absent or dead and the nearly powerless victims are left alone to fend for themselves. Bu the immigrants come to the New World with the best of intentions and work ethic, to raise families and own their own parcel of land, to gain a modicum of equality and political power. Since it’s self-evident (though not explicitly stated) that the town was named by the immigrants, the title of the film is full of hope and promise. Cimino subverts the original intent and offers a cynical reading: HEAVEN’S GATE is often the name of cemeteries too.
The original one-sheet poster (see above) is also very interesting in what it depicts or, more precisely, what it redacts. The film is advertised as a passionate romance between Kris Kristofferson (as James Averill) and Isabella Huppert (as Ella) that reflects and encompasses their patriotism (which comes a close second). The story does indeed mirror their relationship and their patriotic fervor but not in a melodramatic way: the tragedy of their romance is contrasted against their (and our) national tragedy. Also, the All-American love story that the poster wants to promote is actually exposed upon viewing the film to be a sordid extra-marital affair, subverting the message from romantic ideal to polemic concerning patriarchal authority and entitlement. Then there’s the ghost of Nate Champion haunting the frame, a monochrome spirit imposed over the US flag. Note the three stars of the flag to hint at the lover’s triangle. Again, the image promotes a story that is but a shade to the film’s true narrative, revealing a love story that isn't even mentioned until the half-way point of a nearly 3 1/2 hour film! Does this represent the fracture between Cimino’s intent and the studio’s vague understanding of his vision? This could help to explain the misunderstanding and misinterpretation of HEAVEN’S GATE upon initial release. It’s like expecting to see Lean’s DR. ZHIVAGO and being shown Godard’s WEEK END instead. Both are masterfully constructed but for competing purposes, and audience expectations are set quite differently. The poster can also be read as the joining of two cultures or social strata, Averill the wealthy and Ella the poor, with the obvious Capitalist dominance of the privileged protagonist in the composition, towering above the meek and nearly powerless.
The final act depicts Averill arguing against an armed battle with the Association and their hired guns. He seems to be as frustrated as the townsfolk but here he is powerless, as his station as Sheriff is now an empty philosophy. He can do nothing but leave because, as I stated before, Averill has a home to return to. He cannot even save Ella from the coming storm because she is already home, an outsider now subsumed into this microcosm. Her intention is also one of revenge, of anger in discovering Nate murdered.
Averill does indeed join the final battle which revolves around a large tree, analogous to the tree at Harvard during his youthful idealistic days. Cimino once again displays a circular motif as the battle goes round and around like clockwork, as if metaphorically this is a conflict that will last forever. The people and places may change but the war is always the same. Averill is able to bring his education to bear and help build wheeled fortifications as shields to advance and attack. He is able to help the immigrants go on the offensive. And they almost win a Pyrrhic victory.
Suddenly the cavalry arrives to save the day, the American flag snapping in the cold hard wind. But the soldiers are not here to save the victims: they arrive to save the criminals. The government does end this cowardly charade but fails to right the wrongs, to see that the guilty are held accountable. It supports the status quo.
Cimino begins and ends the film with James Averill. He is full of lightening energy in the opening shot as he races through the maze-like streets of Harvard to attend his graduation. He is brimming with reconstructive anticipation towards a better and brighter future, not just for himself but the country. As the pretty women look on, Averill wins the bouquet during the mock battle scene as he climbs the tree, playfully pummeled and beaten by his adversaries. His bloody nose is a badge of courage and victory. Then Cimino cuts to twenty years later and the road map of frustration and violence has been written upon his face. Averill has experienced the real world but still holds on to his ideals. The final shot of Averill upon his yacht floating upon a calm sea has the feel of a funeral barge. As if the proceeding lifetime was nothing but a fever dream, unreal, and he has only ever existed in this purgatory of quiet desperation.
James Averill has suffered the death of his passion and ideology. Is the fruit of his labor corrupted by the poisonous tree? 
Final Grade: (A+) 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Korova Award Winners: Best Films of 2016!

  1. THE LOBSTER (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK)
  2. AMERICAN HONEY (Andrea Arnold, UK)
  3. CERTAIN WOMEN (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
  4. PATERSON (Jim Jarmusch, USA)
  5. THE WITCH (Robert Eggers, USA)
  6. THE HANDMAIDEN (Park Chan-wook, South Korea)
  7. RAW (Julia Ducournau, France)
  8. THE SALESMAN (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
  9. TONI ERDMANN (Maren Ade, Germany)
  10. VICTORIA (Sebastian Schipper, Germany)

Thursday, December 7, 2017

THE MUMMY'S GHOST (Reginald Le Borg, 1944, USA)

Amina’s body houses the ghost of Kharis’ lost love Ananka, a centuries old Egyptian taboo that is reincarnated into 20th century middle-class America where modern society has devolved into misogynistic social mores. It’s interesting to note that Ancient Egypt considered men and women as equal under the law yet here 4,000 years later in Mapleton, Massachusetts circa 1944 our heroine Amina is treated as nothing more than a victim, her Rights diminished and domestic choices preordained. Director Reginald Le Borg toys with the tropes of the horror genre but more importantly calls attention directly to the misogyny and hypocrisy of 20th century American male in the process.

The plot is fairly silly and routine for a B movie: an Egyptian High priest must call the mummy Kharis forth by burning nine tana leaves on the full moon then reunite him with his lost love Ananka whose mummified body is held in a museum in Mapleton. The twist comes when the physical body of Ananka crumbles when touched by Kharis and it’s revealed that her spirit must haunt some other fleshy abode nearby. Death and destruction ensue.
Amina is a college girl of Egyptian descent (though she has no physical characteristics that would ever lead one to believe it!) who is trying to finish her courses at the local college. She is dating the local hunk with the good old American name on Tom Hervey. Tom treats his intelligent and sometimes traumatized girlfriend (soon to be fiancĂ©) as a child by diminishing her needs by asserting his typical male bigotry. There is not a scintilla of chemistry between the two of them and she looks more distrustful of him than lovelorn. This may be the fault of the actors (Actress Ramsey Ames was a last minute replacement) but it fits the theme of the film very well. If you break down our heroine’s name Amina to its enunciated parts, a Mina is an ancient unit of weight and value equal to 1/60th of a Talent. So our protagonist is only 1/60th of a person…and she’s treated as such by the men in the story. Her fears and desires aren’t realistically considered by Tom and she’s often chided for being silly and superstitious.
As the story progresses and the mummy wreaks havoc upon small town USA, the townsfolk set up night watches and patrol the streets at all hours. But it begs the question: how far can a slow walking, limping foot-dragging mummy really go? But there are some nice flourishes. The local sheriff actually recruits the help of a college professor and they attempt to lure the mummy by secretly burning tana leaves (like the priest and another victim earlier). The posse digs a pit and camouflages it in an attempt to trap the mummy since it has superhuman strength. I suppose no one thought to just trip the creature and chop a leg off! But a rather good plan all things considered. Another scene has the museum’s night watchman listening to a murder program on the radio (“Someone will die tonight!”) and reading a lurid pulp.  It’s a bit of self-referential trope since we know the mummy is nearby and the guard is about to become one more victim.
But it’s the finale that really propels this B movie to a Grade A film! As Kharis kidnaps Amina whom he now realizes to be the reincarnated Ananka, Director Le Borg cross cuts with the confused posse, the forlorn lover Tom, the rascally dog Peanut who was given to her as protection, and the limping Mummy with his armful of flesh stumbling towards his hideout. It’s Peanut that is competent, the dog leading Tom to his mistress while all of the men of the town practically run around in circles carrying, not pitchforks and torches but lanterns and shotguns. Tom is decked by Kharis and tumbles unconscious into the bushes while Kharis gets away. Amina is slowly transforming into the spirit of Ananka: her hair which earlier had a white-streak (ala bride of Frankenstein?) is now snow white. Then we get close-ups of her hand growing veiny and decrepit as Kharis slowly approaches a swamp. Tom even regains consciousness and during the chase trips in the mud thus subverting the classic horror trope! The impotent men can do nothing to help Tom or Amina as we get one final look at her visage, now aged and mummified like Kharis, just before they are submerged in the brackish waters. The men pat Tom on the back in despair and walk away from the swamp but it’s only Peanut who sits faithfully by the water’s edge, waiting, watching, and hoping his mistress will come back to the shore.
The men have failed. Kharis has taken back his property. Amina is dead. The music swells and the End credits roll. This nihilistic ending must have shocked audiences at the time and, I suppose, can still shock audiences today.
Final Grade (A)

Friday, October 13, 2017

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017, USA)

The first film concerns a man trying desperately to retain his soul; this one depicts a Replicant vainly trying to attain one. Denis Villeneuve directs this masterful sequel to one of the greatest science fiction films of all time by re-creating a sadly beautiful world of counterfeit realities and soul-crushing despair.
PLOT: The story involves a Replicant Blade Runner named K (which is short for his serial number) hunting down a rogue android and retiring it. Upon searching the residence he finds evidence that turns out to be a buried Replicant who died in childbirth many years ago. The first act plays like a police procedural as K tries to solve this mystery which could upset the delicate societal imbalance between ersatz slaves and their human masters. As the LAPD try to solve and suppress this secret another organization is at odds with the investigation: Niander Wallace has usurped Tyrell Corporation long ago and wants this secret to in order to breed more Replicants for use Off-World. K with the help of his hologram companion discovers that Rachel is the mother, the Nexus model that escaped with Deckard in 2017. So the task is now to find Deckard with Wallace's psychotic Replicant not far behind. Herein begins the narrative friction but there's so much more beneath the story's skin.
IN UTERO: If Rachel gave birth then where is this hybrid child? As the investigation deepens into the murk of memory, K soon believes HE is the child. What many viewers miss completely is that as he, a Replicant, begins to consider the possibility that he was born (not manufactured) he attempt to act like a human. In short, K hopes he has a soul. He fails his baseline testing with the LAPD, he begins to fall in love with his hologramatic partner (whom he can never touch), and he even makes love to what he believes to be a human girl. But this is revealed to be completely ephemeral.
K's memory becomes reality when he discovers a small carved wooden horse with a birthdate inscribed on the bottom. This date matches one found at Rachel’s' burial site. He has a distinct memory of hiding this toy as a child but cannot distinguish between faux memory and real experience. This is the subject of nearly every PKD story and novel! He soon interviews the woman responsible for creating emotional memories for Replicants and she determines that his memory is real. 
In an earlier scene, K visits Gaff (Deckard's aging partner from the first film) and Gaff avers that he knows nothing of Deckard's fate while lazily crafting another origami clue: a horse! Now things began to come together. Or do they? BUT, if Gaff knew of this memory then he knows of the child. Which makes sense because he also had access to Rachel's file previously. Though his fate is elided, we can deduce that Wallace would have eventually found and tortured him for information.
"She won't live. But then again, who does?" Gaff's mysterious comment from BLADE RUNNER now has an added significance: is he insinuating that he knows Rachel won't survive childbirth?  
THE UNICORN: This brings me to the Unicorn clue in the first film. A Unicorn is a mythical creature so it's not possible to have a memory of one, right? But it is a symbol of virginity; as in, Rachel's a prosthetic virgin! I believe the Unicorn isn't a memory but the name of Rachel's unique file/Nexus designation. So Deckard could be imagining a Unicorn when thinking about Rachel’s potential for love and Gaff would also make an origami Unicorn to tell his partner he knows about the file. After all, Gaff can't read Deckard’s mind! So the Unicorn is an objective fact not a subjective memory or dream.
THE TIN MAN: K is an intelligent creature of design. He is not human. The film leaves no doubt concerning this fact. But Ryan Gosling portrays our protagonist in seemingly one a robot. Again, this is misconstrued by many viewers: of course he seems heartless and soulless because he isn't human. He is a Tin Man that desires to be human. This is the key in understanding the entire premise of BLADE RUNNER 2049! When he tracks down Deckard in the ruins of Las Vegas, where the aged and all-to-human Deckard slowly lives out his life of unsplendid isolation, K believes he is meeting his father. Villeneuve leads the audience into believing this to be the most likely explanation too. But K is in for another rude awakening! K unwittingly leads Wallace's Psycho Nexus unit to Deckard who is captured and taken to Wallace. K is left non-functional in the rubble after the fight. Sometime later he is discovered and revived by a band of Replicants trying to break their programming and human bondage. This is the Rebellion. K is told that the memory of the toy horse is indeed an implant: he is a Replicant.
THE POWER OF MEMORY: It is intimated that other Replicants have this same memory and also thought, through their journey towards freedom and self-discovery, that they were Rachel's child. This leads to a really intriguing premise: that the surviving child (now a woman in her early 30s) has purposely shared her memories in order to help Replicants break free from slavery. So she must have access to people in Wallace's organization...or work for him herself. I can't stress this enough: she is designing memories from her own experience (she knows what she is) that may help Replicants become more human and less likely to be dominated. K is told that the closest thing to being human is self-sacrifice, so he makes the ultimate compassionate decision and not only saves Deckard but takes him to his daughter. K gains nothing from this except his own demise. Unlike Roy Batty's death, K's is silent amid gently falling snow...but no less powerful. K has gained his soul but lost his life.
FORM/STRUCTURE: The look of the film is quite different from Ridley Scott's masterpiece. Gone is the penumbral noir-ish lighting as Roger Deakins fills the screen with harsh colors and vibrant decay, garish illusions amid squalor. He doesn't recreate the world exactly; he reimagines it 30 years later. It's beautiful in its decomposition! Villeneuve also tells the story in a straightforward way utilizing only one flashback: K's childhood memory. This is shown because Villeneuve gives us the modern set-piece from the exact same angles so we know K is walking through a place he thinks he's already been. A Replicant with Deja vu! This also encourages the audience to believe what K is beginning to suspect which helps to surprise us later. The sound design and score is evocative of BLADE RUNNER utilizing many of the same effects and sound cues to set us firmly in Deckard’s world that is now 30 years older. There is no cross-cutting or convergent narrative just this tangible and violently transcendental journey. Editing and framing pays homage to the original without seeming like trickery. And yet, Villeneuve doesn't dazzle with style; he's quite reserved and a Replicant himself. It all comes together quite nicely. 
BLADE RUNNER 2049 is a masterful film and worthy successor to both Ridley Scott's seminal film and the spirit of Phillip K Dick's novel. This is a film that begins, like K, without a heart...before we discover that the Tin Man had one all along.
Final Grade: A+

Saturday, October 7, 2017

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (Tomas Alfredson, 2008, Sweden)

Oskar’s troubled life is like Rubik’s cube, its many permutations seemingly unsolvable until he befriends Eli who bleeds tender mercy…and violent hunger. Director Tomas Alfredson crafts a gentle coming of age story tinged with archaic bloodletting, as Oskar and Eli slowly form a mutual bond of trust and love, both outcasts who haunt the periphery of reality’s penumbra.

Their relationship builds slowly while we experience a few gruesome murders: young men captured and bled like cattle, the thick rush of life force collected into a plastic container. A rip current of angst and mischievous horror lurk just below the surface tension, as we discover our dark eyed heroine stalking a darkened underpass, feeding upon unwary strangers and spreading her infection. Eli is in the care of a mysterious father figure: though never explained, there seems to be some incestuous affair as he murders to quench her cursed hunger. Oskar is being bullied at school, and it’s Eli whose reserved passion gives him strength to finally take a stand, to fight back and no longer become victimized.

But this tangled web of horror begins to unravel as the neighbors discover Eli’s freakish secret, and together Oskar and Eli must escape to a new life…or undeath. This is a beautifully shot film that relies on characterization and pacing without need to resort to CGI or flash-cut editing: the few images of horror are quite shocking and the true fear is in the soft animal sound of Eli’s growling thirst and her struggle to master this supernatural instinct.

The mystery deepens in the depths of a swimming pool: suspended in his watery grave and lungs slowly filling with certain death, a ripple of salvation lifts him back into life. Oskar has finally found his niche, and carries his love in a heart shaped box to an unknown destination…towards a better (a certainly bloodier) future.

Final Grade: (B+)

Friday, October 6, 2017

RETURN TO OZ (Walter Murch, 1985, USA)

Dorothy’s emerald eyes mirror her aching soul, longing for the marvelous Land of Oz only to find herself condemned to the tortured screams and electric fear of a madhouse. RETURN TO OZ is not a sequel to the musical but an inspired homage to Baum’s classic series, combining elements of Marvelous Land Of Oz and Ozma Of Oz to create a dark fable as Dorothy struggles to save the magical kingdom from Mombi and the Nome King.

Wickedly inventive, Director Walter Murch takes Dorothy on a tumultuous journey across the Deadly Desert and to the crumbling Emerald City, where she faces the strange Wheelers and is saved by Tik-Tok: Murch imbues nearly every scene with some interesting Oz detail and design from the original W.W. Denslow illustrations. The surreal and often stunning visuals and the bizarre characters could have lurched from the subconscious of Terry Gilliam! Dorothy Gale survives the tempest and discovers her old house, rotting and decrepit like the broken brick road, and is saddened to discover that her friends have been turned to stone…or kidnapped by the wicked King. As the narrative progresses darkly, she and her companion Billina the talking Hen adventure with Jack Pumpkinhead (Jack Skellington, anyone?), Tik-Tok, and Gump: Dorothy must use her wits and ingenuity and, with a little help from her friends, restore the rightful ruler of the Emerald City and ends up saving Princess Ozma.

The gentle innocence of Fairuza Balk as Dorothy works wonderfully, and Nicol Williamson as the Nome King (he is also Merlin from EXCALIBUR) is fiendishly enjoyable. Walter Murch is an Academy Award winning Editor and it shows: the film’s pacing and cutting creates just the right amount of suspense while catapulting the plot towards its celebrative conclusion. The final parade is a who’s who of Oz lore and it’s heartbreaking to acknowledge that more sequels were never produced, that these characters shall always remain background ornaments for this decorative finale.

As Dorothy washes back upon the shores of consciousness, we see Mombi’s despicable doppelganger being carted away in a horse drawn prison, her leering toothy grin like splinters of bone. Dorothy is restored to Aunt Em and Uncle Henry but Princess Ozma has granted her willful passage to the wonderful realm…as long as Dorothy keeps her head.

Final Grade: (B+)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


If people’s selfish and degrading acts were reflected upon their visage, what monstrosities would haunt the streets? Dorian Gray makes a pact with a strange god, its catlike grace frozen forever yet its ubiquitous presence stalks his nightmares: be careful what you wish for, it softly purrs…

Dorian is a young man who wishes to never grow old, to let his beautiful portrait age and bare his afflictions whilst he remains physically unchanged. A Faustian bargain that can end in no other way than tragedy: Dorian’s good intentions become corrupt and he poisons his intimate friends, time his second worst enemy…the first being himself. A very young and pretty Angela Lansbury is his first victim; he truly falls in love and becomes her Knight In Shining Armor, but begins his brutish downward spiral, which ends in her suicide. As the story progresses, Dorian becomes indifferent to pleasure and pain, tasting debauchery and excess and filling up his empty vessel with ignoble desires at the expense of others.

The black and white deep focus cinematography is grand, displaying myriad mise-en-scene shots that convey suspense with an imaginary devilish quality: watch the scene where he confronts his portrait, the stoic cat totem is peripherally framed in nearly every shot. The watchful eyes of this god are always upon him. The Technicolor inserts of the portrait as it changes and becomes a grotesque human mockery are shocking; we see what Dorian has become, his leprous morality seeping pustules upon the image. Dorian eventually commits the final despicable act of murder, and the masterful lighting submerges his face in darkness and light as the gas lamp swings back and forth: the corpse’s shadow printed indelibly upon the wall behind him. The child who loved him but is now a grown woman (which is a bit disturbing) searches for her father, but he is dead in Dorian’s locked room.

With one violent thrust, Dorian finally commits one good dead in his lecherous existence: he stabs his portrait through the heart. When discovered, his body is an abomination with tumorous growths defiling his face: but his portrait is forever young and innocent.

Final Grade: B+

Friday, September 22, 2017

NIGHT MOVES (Kelly Reichardt, 2013, USA)

Three Eco-terrorists play dam busters with little regard to the repercussions of their explosive act of violence. Kelly Reichardt explores the emotional and intellectual landscape of three radicals whom are chillingly not far removed from ordinary peaceful protesters.

The plot concerns Josh, Dena and Harmon as they plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam because of its environmental impact. Their goal seems to be a purpose in and of itself: that is, the act is the purpose and not the outcome. They feel justified in destroying this artificial construct without considering the destructive fallout to the environment and the potential to harm other people. Thus the characters fail to consider the irony of their actions. Director Kelly Reichardt tells an anti-action story: instead of relying on the typical conventions of the Action genre she brings the story into sharp focus, her lens peering into the dark silences and mundane routines of three lives about to change dramatically. From purchasing the titular boat named NIGHT MOVES to securing 500 pounds of fertilizer to build the bomb, Reichardt portrays how typical and rather easy this task becomes which makes the story all the more frightening! When it comes, the explosion is only heard off-screen, which allows a detachment between the act and its implications.
Director Kelly Reichardt also drains the story of melodrama by refusing to reveal or exacerbate the relationships between the characters. It’s never explicitly mentioned that Josh and Dena are a couple (or in the process of becoming one) though they are often shown together. Reichardt takes this implication and undermines this trope by keeping the information out of the story. We only learn that Dena comes from a rich family when they are talking about paying cash for the boat. So is she just a hanger on or a romantic interest? When Josh discovers Dena and Harmon screwing he seems a bit disappointed but again, this is only through subtle body language and not confrontation.
The final Act becomes incredibly tense as the three split and vow to have no contact with one another. The camera focuses tightly upon Josh who is afraid that Dena will succumb to her guilt and confess their crime. Turns out, an innocent man was killed by the flood waters and day by day the newspapers and newscasts are filled with stories of this man’s life and family. This drives Josh past the point of endurance as he is driven to one desperate fatal act. He becomes fueled by self-preservation and not idealism; Josh tracks Dena down and makes sure she remains quiet…forever.
Reichardt frames the murderous act in extreme close-up forcing the audience into a violent conspiracy: here, she does not give us the luxury of emotional detachment or objectivism. Dena’s gurgling sound as Josh strangles her to death is gruesome but strangely the killing seems rather mundane, like the earlier “gunpowder” plot. We are given clues that Dana probably told her friends (it lead to Josh being kicked out of his commune). Josh takes off and is last seen in another part of the state, looking for work. But it seems he is destined for a mobile life of paranoid conspiracies…but it may be better than no life at all.
Final Grade: (A+)

Monday, September 11, 2017

COME AND SEE (Elem Klimov, 1985, Russia)

COME AND SEE is the most brutal and disturbing war film ever made: we experience Florya’s fiery baptism from boyhood into insanity. Director Elem Klimov shows us the horror of the Great Patriotic War untainted by Western propaganda (or at least its ignorance). 

Klimov films in a tight 4:3 frame and packs every shot with information: we are not spared the bodies, the slaughter, the deep wailing sorrow, and the emotional filth of war. His close-ups into vacant eyes and burned faces croaking reprimands are unsettling. The soundtrack is often an ambiguous thrum, a deep scream through nature; when music is revealed it is often ironic. Florya is a young man who wishes to defend his country from terrorists, these Nazi invaders who are destroying everything in their path. We experience the film entirely from his perspective; we feel what he is unable to put into words. His heartbreaking scream as he tries to shut himself out from the world, hands clawing futilely at his ears, to refuse the knowledge of his family’s gruesome butchery, is utterly compelling and unbearable. He and another young girl join the survivors of his village who are hiding in a swamp, starving, without hope. 

Klimov gives us pure instinctual survival, he defines the human animal, and Florya stumbles directionless through the film becoming less and less human. Klimov films mostly with a Steadicam with minimal editing giving the film a very realistic rhythm, choreographing complicated sequences with hundreds of people. The final half-hour is almost too much: the retreating Nazis burn an entire village including a church full of women and children in vivid detail. Klimov packs us in this tight space with Florya and we smell the stench of fear and gasoline, and the cries echo in our hearts forever. This dichotomy is mercilessly crosscut with laughing and taunting soldiers, who not only feel no remorse but are jubilant and ecstatic, whose joy at this murderous parade is gut wrenching. Florya survives and witnesses the Partisan’s retribution as they execute the Nazis but they take little happiness from this act. 

Florya never fires his rifle the entire film until the end when he discovers a muddied picture of Hitler. He points the weapon into the camera and shoots, reversing time, the Great Patriotic War rewinding, the Blitzkrieg retreating back into Germany, the Versailles Treaty being unsigned, and back to Hitler’s childhood. He pulls the trigger and each time these images rewind and his face glows with madness. But the final picture of Adolf as a child, cradled lovingly in his mothers arms…Florya can’t kill this image. Unlike the Nazis, he has retained his humanity; he is no child killer. The film ends as the Partisans march into the forest: the Steadicam follows them from the muddy road of fall, through the trees, and suddenly the snow is falling and a new season beckons. A wonderful shot without an edit, as the Russian winter is their final weapon that defeats the monstrous invaders. 

Final Grade: (A+)