Tuesday, July 10, 2018

BATTLE ROYALE

Some of the excitement on American shores for the World Cup always makes me wonder. It's a common complaint that suddenly people who exhibited no enthusiasm whatsoever for soccer suddenly (and I mean suddenly) cancel all appointments to dive in for a month. The idea seriously floated in 2014 by right-wingers that it was an Obama plot to distract from...(I just started laughing, so can't/won't finish that sentence). I sometimes believe that it's the inherent drama of an elimination tournament that is so absorbing. Every sport has its playoffs, and every playoffs has a huge viewership. So it's not a stretch to suggest that the World Cup has all of the drama of any sport's playoffs, without the drag of a season leading up, with added global involvement and stakes. Interest accumulates as you see 16 parties compete for 8 spots, then 8 for 4, then 4 for 2, then the final battle, and even if the party you root for is eliminated early, part of you lingers just to see how the whole contest turns out.

There are a number of great movies that explore and mine the inherent drama of the elimination tournament. The first that comes to this reviewer's mind is Kinji Fukasaku's Battle Royale, in which a class of students, selected randomly in a government program, are stranded on an island, armed, and forced to hunt and kill one another. Fukasaku tells us much about each character in a very short time and balances our stakes in their fates with the inherent thrills of an elimination tournament: some of the students become rootable heroes, others embrace the kill-or-be-killed format and become despicable villains, and still others are wild cards that keep us guessing. Their teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) presides over the action, but even his joking, cynical commentary can't disguise his growing ambivalence and shame. And as the body count rises and the action hurtles toward its bloody conclusion, Kitano is forced to come to grips with even more than his own personal failures.


For all of the movie's violent, visceral thrills (and make no mistake, Battle Royale has them in abundance - Quentin Tarantino called it his favorite film ever), it's no less politically charged than Kinji Fukasaku's Yakuza movies. Though the movie's based on a novel set in a dystopian future, Fukasaku moved the action to the present, seeing its story as a comment on a Japanese government that regularly lies to, disenfranchises, and otherwise screws over its youth. Members of the Japanese parliament played right into Fukasaku's hands when they condemned the movie as the product of a media whose irresponsibility was a direct cause of a rising tide in youth violence. Other adults, however, saw past these pronouncements, and some educators gratefully acknowledged the movie for the directness with which it addressed problems facing their students.


Battle Royale moves like a blockbuster, but it balances its intelligence and politics deftly with its thrills. It's keenly aware of the mechanics of the elimination tournament being played out within it, and uses our own awareness of those mechanics to engage us with its action and its politics. (Every so often the movie pauses to list the names and grade status of the dead so far, a gesture that both engrosses and implicates us in the game being played.) For all of its superviolent gestures and exploitation cinema tropes, Battle Royale keeps us engaged with the humanity of all of its characters, and ultimately enlists us in its revolutionary crusade. And for all that, it's utterly thrilling.

(Incidentally, when someone insists to you that The Hunger Games ripped off Battle Royale, you may safely ignore anything else they say. This knee-jerk comparison speaks more to the observer's innate need to bash something popular to praise their own cultish appreciation than either of the items under scrutiny. Both movies riff on the same very general premise, but neither is the first to take the elimination tournament to lethal extremes. And to its credit The Hunger Games is as squarely focused on exploring American dysfunction and inequality as Battle Royale is on its own culturally specific societal malaise. What the movies truly have in common is that neither one bullshits the young people they're aimed at about the problems they're facing. And that's a similarity to be celebrated.)

Monday, June 25, 2018

Dredds

Funny how we can't praise one movie without bashing another. Or how we can't praise the current iteration of a character/franchise without smearing the reputation of those that came before.

Case in point: Judge Dredd, the anti-hero from the pages of British comics weekly 2000 AD. Patrolling the sprawling future metropolis of Mega-City One, never cracking a smile from beneath his helmet (we haven’t seen his face since the strip premiered in the 70s), and empowered to dispense justice on the spot, Dredd is one of comics’ greatest icons. In its 30-odd-years-and-counting existence, Judge Dredd has covered about every genre imaginable, from futuristic action to social drama to wacky comedy to epic horror. It was only natural that the strip would eventually be adapted for the screen.


The first attempt, starring Sylvester Stallone in the title role, hit in 1995. Many fans who had been keen for a Dredd flick had issues with Stallone, not just because he's Stallone, but because he removed his helmet. Many felt that putting a face on the character betrayed him, and further felt that imposing a physical presence though Stallone was and is, he simply wasn’t/isn’t Dredd.

And yet, like a Shakespeare tragedy with a bad actor in the lead but a solid supporting cast, there was plenty for fans to enjoy in the margins. The movie went out of its way to capture many of the iconic occurrences and characters of Dredd’s sizable universe: Chief Judge Fargo (played by Max von Sydow, no less) resigns in disgrace, taking the Long Walk into the wasteland outside the city; Judge Hershey (often Dredd’s conscience in the comics) is given dimension and grace by Diane Lane; and the murderous outlanders in the Angel Clan are also vividly, accurately realized, right down to the dial on the Mean Machine’s head. Hell, the movie went OUTSIDE Dredd’s milieu and into the pages of 2000 A.D.’s other worlds to recast the ABC Warrior robot Hammerstein (gorgeously realized via animatronic effects) as one of its many colorful villains.


And yet Stallone’s admittedly distracting presence at the center of the movie remained most fans’ abiding memory of it. Which is part of what made the recently released Dredd such a pleasure for those fans. The title role was played here by Karl Urban (previously seen in his downright uncanny performance as Dr. McCoy in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek). Fans were immediately reassured by Urban’s initial statements that he was taking the role quite seriously (being a fan himself), and assured viewers that, as in the comics, Dredd would never, ever remove his helmet.

Once the movie arrived on our screens, fans rejoiced: Urban WAS the stoic, unstoppable force for justice they knew from the comics. (And Olivia Thirlby was quickly noted to be equally as impressive as Dredd’s more humane, less experienced cohort Psi-Judge Anderson.) Limited somewhat by its budget, the movie focused on gritty urban action, reducing Mega-City One to a single imposing city block. This strategy and the ensuing gritty action were familiar to action connoisseurs from recent fare such as The Raid: Redemption and even Attack the Block, and worked remarkably well as an evocation of Dredd’s world.


Longtime Dredd fan that I am, I was just as pleased by this film as any other member of its smallish but passionate cult. In addition to the virtues named above, its use of 3-D was novel and thrilling, and its pedigree was unmistakably Dreddian. And yet I wished we’d been able to see a bit more of the decadence and desperation of the ’95 Mega-City One. Though Dredd was deemed “the perfect Judge Dredd film”, I felt a truly perfect Dredd film would bring aspects of the ’95 edition. But any such arguments were quickly swept aside by fans who went out of their way to slam the earlier movie as a means of expressing their love for the new one.

Perhaps the world of comics is more forgiving than that of movies. After all, Dredd has gone through a number of writers and countless artists, all of whom have brought their strengths and perspectives to bear on the character. Perhaps it’s because with Dredd in the comics you only have to wait a week for a new interpretation to come by; thousands of stories in comics form versus two cinematic adaptations perhaps breeds more patience and breadth on the comics front. And maybe there’s just a vocal minority of cinephiles who are simply incapable of praising one movie without bashing another.

Regrettable though this tendency is, I am of a piece with the rest of the Dreddcult in hoping that a sequel does eventually manifest. Urban is no doubt ready to take on Judge Death, who’d look magnificent in this new, grittily urban MC-1. (UPDATE TO ADD: the creative team of Arthur Wyatt, Alex De Campi, and Henry Flint just completed this story in comics form: The Dead World wrapped its fine six-issue run in the pages of the Judge Dredd Megazine last month.)

In the meantime, where the hell's my ABC Warriors movie?



This post previously appeared on another workblog.

KRULL (1983)

From this desk, the two best reasons to become an actor are Shakespeare and fantasy cinema. These worlds often intersected in the late 70s through the 80s, with many an outlandish fantasy given dramatic heft (and perhaps a dose of grounding realism) by expert, classically trained thespians. Star Wars balanced the work of its talented newcomers with performances by British veterans Alec Guiness & Peter Cushing. Brian Blessed makes the strongest impression in the 1980 Flash Gordon as the bombastic King Vultan, but he's not the only classically-trained actor giving his all to that berserk, colorful fantasy. Even the makers of the gaudy and delirious StarCrash were canny enough to bring in Christopher Plummer for a crucial role. (Props to Max von Sydow, who seems to have accepted every sci-fi role offered him.) And had Jodorowsky's Dune been distributed by someone rich and insane, it too would have married the work of some of its era's finest fantasy artists with a stellar cast able to truly run riot within the world imagined by those artists.

1983's Krull is well-remembered (both fondly and disparagingly) by those who came of age around that year. There was some critical resistance to Krull, which cited both the movie's bloated budget and its busy script as drawbacks. But at least on the two-pronged front being considered here, Krull delivers.


There's something lovely and otherworldly happening in every scene in Krull. The movie reportedly had 23 different sets built in England to create Krull's fanciful, Dark-Ages-yet-sorta-high-tech world, from the richly realized palaces inhabited by its characters to the teleporting fortress housing the Beast, Krull's glistening, evil antagonist. Even the designers of the weaponry went above and beyond, manifesting equally in the the single-shot laser spears wielded by the Beast's army of Slayers to the frankly awesome 5-pronged Glaive tossed about by the heroic Prince Colwyn. Look at this damn thing:


No one actually saw Krull in 1983, but everyone who did wanted a Glaive.

The story is packed, the world is vividly realized, and everyone in the cast just runs with it. Ken Marshall is fleet-footed but earnest as Colwyn, and everyone in the band of adventurers that gels around him during his quest gets at least a moment to shine. Freddie Jones holds the Ben Kenobi role with ease, guiding Colwyn with generous elder wisdom (and holding his own in the movie's most spellbinding sequence, a reunion with a former love presided over by a giant crystal spider). A band of thieves that falls in with Colwyn is led by Alun Armstrong, moonlighting from acting duties at the Royal Shakespeare Company and fully inhabiting the arc of a potentially tertiary character. (You'll recognize youthful Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane among his fellow thieves, and see strong hints of the leading men they'd become.) Beloved stage actor (and Carry On mainstay) Bernard Bresslaw is, naturally, covered in effects makeup as a cyclops, but endows the character with indelible pathos. Even Ergo the Magnificent, a third-rate wizard serving as comic relief, is given a rich character arc, beautifully realized by comic veteran David Battley from inflated egomaniac to a team player, able to sprout teeth when the chips are down. And Lysette Anthony makes the most of what could have been a rote damsel-in-distress, finding real strength within her innocence to survive as captive of the Beast.

Against this blockbuster era in which beloved books are stretched into multi-movie events, a movie like Krull that packs so much detail into a scant two hours seems, unfairly, quaint. The thing's been part of my life for so long that I can hardly be objective about it. And yet I like to think that its charms wouldn't be lost on a generation weaned on digital effects. That we haven't been so blinded by CGI that we can't recognize the abundant imagination of an older movie like Krull, its world beautifully conceived and built by hand, and inhabited by a cast that makes even the smallest roles seem larger than life.

(Ported over from a now-defunct work blog. There will be more.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

THE MAGIC FLUTE

Kind of a metamovie day this last Saturday - reading the lovely essay "On Moonlight Bay", in which Jonathan Rosenbaum charts his responses to the same movie over four viewings over three decades, so do I head to Berkeley to see Ingmar Bergman's The Magic Flute, for the first time since its mid-70s theatrical run in the US.

At four years old I'm pretty sure The Magic Flute was my first arthouse movie (though considering my parents, who knows?) There were only a few images from the movie that I remember from my first viewing, but I do recall being as obsessed as a four-year-old could be with the opera, listening to the album while reading the libretto (my father told me that my position in the libretto was always where the music was). What could possibly have been firing my synapses with regards to either Mozart's opera or Bergman's film at that age is lost in memory. And yet even after four decades of learning more about both Mozart and Bergman, having seen the opera performed live at least once, and having revisited Amadeus earlier this year, there were a couple of resonances between my viewings, then and now.

I remembered this dragon, for example, though as you can imagine it seemed a mite more fearsome to my four-year-old eyes. (And the thing resonated in my dreams - at some point in my childhood I vividly dreamed the opening of Act I, played out in a light show across a closed theatre curtain, a square of projected light representing Tamino, a long line of projected light representing the dragon pursuing him. A fun conflation of opera, avant-garde theatrics, and 4-bit video game.)

The fairy tale aspect of the opera is beautifully amplified in the film - the whole thing feels pitched to four-year-olds on one level. But it's rife with the experimental touch Bergman brought to earlier movies. It takes in both the story of the opera and the lives of the singers and crew backstage. The audience of the opera is seen as well, and Helene Friberg (who was only a little older than I when I saw the film) appears in close-up throughout, her reactions serving as a chorus to the thing.

Bergman explodes the theatrical space as wildly as Busby Berkeley, though where Berkeley went macro, sending his musical numbers into a gigantic cinematic space, Bergman goes micro, framing his characters in closeup, rendering their props with more minute detail than any prop handler would muster. Perhaps as a nod to the opera's Masonic elements, an occult connection is played up through various images and the recurrence of prime numbers: there are three ladies (of the Queen of the Night) and three child-spirits, seven ladies in attendance, and Bergman ups the ante in act II by giving us thirteen priests.


Familiarity with both the opera and Bergman's work gave me many more ways into the film than I had at four. The story of the opera as presented in Milos Forman's Amadeus stuck with me, suggesting that Mozart's association with the Theater auf der Wieden began when he attended a parody of one of his operas the company presented. I mused that The Magic Flute was therefore Mozart's Dark Room opera (given my own association with that local, parody-driven but fun theatre), and I was pleased that the film did nothing to dispel this impression. The film also felt like Bergman's own "Lady From Shanghai," a sub-genre of movies, somewhat instinctively defined by me, modeled on Welles' film: a genre-driven film, sometimes compromised or on the cheap, in which a great filmmaker finds space to flex his/her aesthetic muscles.

Through this viewing, of a new DCP struck by Swedish cultural authorities, I found myself amused by the subtitles (by Annika Brant, I stuck to determine). They of course conveyed what the singers were saying, but I noticed that, unusually for subtitles, they were plotted to the meter of the music, placing character names exactly where they occurred in the lyrics. The subtitles added another layer of fun to the whole thing as I counted off beats with each syllable in the subtitles (which went truly above and beyond in making it all rhyme!). Once again, over four decades later, I found myself scanning the words closely, staying on point with the words and action on screen, resonating in mind and heart with the unfolding opera. The beat goes on.

Monday, May 7, 2018

cinephile at large, again!

"Farewell, my liege. Now no way can I stray;
Save back to England, all the world's my way."
--RICHARD II, I, iii


And so the ace film programmer Joel Shepard (and his trusty assistant, yours truly) are exiled from Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, who have chosen to place their film program "on pause" before they convene to reimagine it along lines similar to their other programming.


Even before I started working there with Joel, I had, to the point of tedium, opined that his film program was one of the best in the country. He's been a visible figure on the scene for the 22 years he's helmed the program, and I've been pleased by the number of tributes being paid to him and the volumes of words in support on line (flattered, also, by the number of people acknowledging my own contribution to the program).

On pause it may be, but life continues for your proprietor, who has given himself a little time off to get re-centered. It is necessitating some adjustment, I tell you what. But if nothing else, it'll give me more time to update here more regularly.

And I suspect there'll be some recollections of memories of the YBCA film program over the years. As these are not archived anywhere it may be useful to put even my own selective memories down here. Meanwhile, I'm going to give Joel the last word, and reprint from his final statement to YBCA's stalwart staff (and note that you can replace the SF-specific venues with your own local film programs, who just as surely need your support.:

"Movies matter. Please support the theatrical exhibition of independent and foreign film. Please patronize the Castro, Roxie, PFA, SF Cinematheque, Landmark theaters, YBCA’s future screenings, and the work of all the beautiful weirdos out there keeping this impossible dream alive."

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

NORTH BY NORTHWEST

Revisited Hitchcock's NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) last weekend and even on the House's less-than-stellar video it captivated me yet again. It's a movie I've returned to many times in the three decades it's been in my life. Made by Hitchcock during his peak period (and coming on the heels of VERTIGO, a psychologically complex and hugely personal statement), it could have been a throwaway comedy-thriller. But Hitchcock and many of his key collaborators were in too powerful a groove to just throw a project off. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman joined Team Hitchcock with this picture, with the declared goal of writing the ULTIMATE Hitchcock thriller - the script takes in many of Hitchcock's favorite themes (the wrongly-accused protagonist chief among them), and gives everyone involved a chance to take their game to another level: Cary Grant, in his final film for Hitchcock, carries the lead thru sheer charm; Bernard Herrmann follows up his operatic music for VERTIGO with a score more than suitable to accompany the dance Grant must make across half the US; and cinematographer Robert Burks continues to expand his palette across urban landscapes, desolate cornfields and (thrillingly) the faces of Mount Rushmore.

But I wanna talk about Eva, and Eve.

Eve Kendall is the protagonist of her own picture: the story of a party girl at a crossroads, pressured by the government into an undercover assignment. She seems close enough to Philip Vandamm to know the trouble that George Kaplan is causing him, and must have raised an eyebrow when George Kaplan suddenly had a face, splashed over the newspapers. Perhaps she puts on the same face she always wore for Vandamm when she runs into Roger Thornhill on the train. She's seductive but icy, intimate but not easy to know. Roger doesn't understand quite why this incredible woman is helping him. And Eve's poker face is so strong that he doesn't realize how hard she's working to keep him alive.

As breezily as the whole thing moves, it takes a few viewings to really grasp the depth of Eve's story. And keeping all of the above in mind, it's clear that Eva Marie Saint has internalized it all, and behind her fully composed masque she's calculating all the steps she's going to have to take to keep this idiot from being murdered. She starts to crack in the auction house sequence, clearly hurt when Roger expresses his bitterness over what he believes to be her betrayal (and probably frustrated and angry) and trying to keep her emotions at bay. (She's keeping it inside, but she's dancing every bit as hard as Roger.)

There's a relief that comes when Roger and Eve meet face-to-face in some Keystone forest, at last on the same page and at the same point in time. Though surrounded by thick trees they finally, truly see each other. They're still beset by an incredibly hostile and dangerous world, reflected in the increasingly distorted and disturbed faces of Mount Rushmore they must scale during the movie's climax, but even in this moment, maybe the most traumatized expression by Hitchcock of a world in chaos and uproar, Roger and Eve are finally dancing together.

Friday, January 19, 2018

January.

Observed through the windows of the House, this mid-winter month:

--Your proprietor can't believe it took a second viewing to grasp how wonderful (and
how squarely aligned with his interests) Powell/Pressburger's BLACK NARCISSUS is. It's an exotic Technicolor travelogue, for sure, and a marvelous tale of culture clash, but in the end it's a Gothic horror through and through. The thing finally became a favorite, and kicked off a year of rep viewing on a perfect note.

--Similarly pleasing was THE COMMUTER, the first 2018 movie enjoyed this year. After so greatly enjoying THE SHALLOWS year before last I excitedly boarded the Jaume Collet-Serra train, joining a small but growing cult around the man's work and technique (among other things, JCS fans seem nicer and refreshingly less strident than the Nolan cult). THE COMMUTER sees Liam Neeson (in his fourth film with JCS) as a worn-out, increasingly desperate Everyman forced to seek out a passenger who doesn't belong on his train, for reasons that he (and we) slowly determine to be more and more sinister. Whatever fundamentals we lose through JCS' approach are more than made up for with some gorgeously stylish flourishes (here including a marvelous and efficient portrait of a marriage during a gracefully packed opening credits sequence, and a marvelous done-in-one fistfight). Perhaps because I wanted to be taken in I was engaged, even enraptured, throughout. If this movie establishes a baseline of quality through the year, then we're pretty much set.

--It feels strange, however, to prefer THE COMMUTER to PHANTOM THREAD, the latest work by Paul Thomas Anderson. It's a keenly, hermetically designed tale of a mid-50s fashion giant (Daniel Day-Lewis) whose routine is unraveled by the arrival of a quiet, but equally formidable woman (Vicky Krieps). As meticulously artful a work as it is, there's something stifling about its perfection. It helps that the movie is dryly but deliberately funny; among other things, Day-Lewis seems to have the lead in THE RON MAEL STORY all sewn up with his fastidious performance here. And its portrait of a powerful romance threatened by an unwillingness to shuck off interiority was a painful reminder of this viewer's own mistakes in that arena. But there's a sense of experimentation and risk-taking that's missing here, which is keenly evident in my favorite Anderson films such as MAGNOLIA and PUNCH-DRUNK LOVE (it certainly abounds in THE COMMUTER), which I realize is one of the main things I go to movies to experience. I'm pleased to have seen PHANTOM THREAD in its artisianally-preferred 70mm film format, and can't imagine it being anywhere near as satisfying otherwise. I may yet revisit it, and find my eyes opened to its greatness (as I did with BLACK NARCISSUS), but at the moment THE COMMUTER is the new movie that resonates most powerfully.