Saturday, January 15, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#15) Gaspar Noe's IRREVERSIBLE

That's how I like my titles: In a fucking mirror!
Ah, Irreversible, what a sweet little slice of life it is.  It was actually suggested by my wife, bless her fuzzy pajama'd self, as she had wanted to see it for years.  I, too, was curious about it, but it was also one of those "dangerous" movies, one that polarized audiences to a maximum level, and in fact was designed to annoy the viewer with its soundtrack (I shit you not) featuring audio that is meant to make people nauseus and have vertigo (the ol' 28Hz, usually found during earthquakes).  It seemed like the cinematic equivalent of that scene from Pee-Wee's Big Adventure where Pee-Wee has to get all the animals out of the pet store, and yet he always sees that tank of snakes.  Some time he has to get to them, but oh Lord, does he really have to?  Don't we all.

Shot in blood-cum-o-vision
My feelings about writer/director Gaspar Noe going into it were also, at best, mixed.  I hated his first film, I Stand Alone, which wallows in the degradation of his protagonist without so much as a morsel of something to actually care about with all of the agony and depression of the character (plus, yeah, some pretentious shots and scripting don't help).  Then his latest film, Enter the Void, actually impressed me with its high-flying pirouetting view of life after death, or life as a some-spirit-thing in the skies of Tokyo, an overlong but visually captivating and gleefully deranged mind-bender through life and death.  So this, too, was a factor in not rushing to see a movie where the main attraction- that is to say its centerpiece and its most notorious point (if not the reason for its existence)- being an unbroken shot of a ten-minute rape scene (give or take a few seconds).

And make no mistake about it: that's why this movie is really here as it is.  It's like when looking back to a movie like Rififi, the classic 1950's French heist movie, where the heist is mostly what people remember about it.  And yet when looking back at Rififi, it's still an amazingly crafted crime story with interesting characters and *about something* when it's not about its central long-ass heist sequence.  Irreversible is different: its lead up to this, that is to say Noe's gimmick of having the action of the film told backwards, is shot so repulsively that it reflects its content and is just shameless (or shameful) exploitation.  And then after this rape scene... the movie actually gets better somehow, or rather it is a little more tolerable and not quite as shocking as before, albeit with some gratutious dialog between characters, somehow improvised, aluding to what happened at the start/end of the movie.

But a problem that Noe has here, or it's just his intention is...





Whew.  Yeah, just getting that out is extreme enough.  But it's so much about how the movie is about its extremeness that decreases what is so compelling and, for a few moments, morally challenging and engaging. That rape scene, the one you've probably heard about associated with Irreversible and featuring the ever brave Monica Belucci before adventuring to watch, is so moving and harrowing and leaving one dead cold in one's seat (as my wife and I were just frozen in position, me grabbing her slanket-covered self, her holding my hand) precisely because of a decision Noe makes with the camera and cutting.  

He never cuts, not once, and it doesn't move for a good five minutes during the "main action" of the assault.  We're forced to confront the horror and torment that all women fear and that men fear for the women in their lives (or that rapists themselves, the ones who go all out, may do one day or have done), and it's not cheap or exploitative.  I'm reminded of how Jean-Luc Godard talked about tracking shots being a question of morality.  I think the same could be said for static shots with a long take (and no, Andy Warhol from the grave, you don't count, sit down).

I praise this sequence, and Noe's intentions, and yet what comes before this in the film, the first half hour, still has my head reeling.  We see the consequences of this rape, the revenge of it by the character Vincent Cassel plays, as he goes to seek the bastard who did this to his girlfriend in a gay club called The Rectum (ho-ho).  Actually more than that, it's meant to be a hell-on-Earth sort of place, loaded with men in bondage and crazy fisting sessions and men in corners doing things I can't write here without washing my hands.  

And yet it wasn't the content that disturbed me so much- although a beating with a fire-extinguisher is brutal to watch (until one notices how CGI-fake it looks as the beating goes on to unendurable length)- but the style.  I'm reminded of what Jim Emerson wrote in his Dogme 95-style blog on new rules for filmmakers, and the first one being about getting a tri-pod, and that when people notice the camera is moving to throw things at the screen.  Believe me, dear reader, in this part of the movie on The Rectum, I could've thrown a piano at the screen and it wouldn't of been enough.

Gaspar's mother reacts to seeing Irreversible
The camera moves around as though it were handled by an apopletic wolverine high on angel dust and upset that the Red Sox lost the World Series for the 100th time.  It swives and shakes and jars and goes into such jagged points of view as to make Terry Gilliam want to blow chunks, and it doesn't nothing, nothing, to really drag one (or rather ME) into the action.  Maybe for some this EXTREME FILMMAKING will work, but it just didn't for me.  It's too all over the place, too jarring, too noticeable in its trying to be extreme and, in its own way, self-important in itself.  If one doesn't know, as Noe doesn't seem to in this particular sequence and then somewhat over to the next/previous scene of Cassell in the cab fighting with the driver, that the style of the camera and the cutting (or lack thereof) corresponds with the material being shown, then one should go back to school and learn how to shoot a fucking scene in a gay club and a murder with a fire estinguisher!  DOGDAMNIT!

Now, on the other extreme side, Noe also calms down somewhat after this big-centerpiece rape scene.  And this is not as intolerable because, as going with the Dome 09.8 creedo, it's not noticeable handheld work and works with telling this story (or what little there is to tell) of this relationship between Alex and  Marcus and somewhat with Alex's ex Pierre (also, a side note, a little weird to see so comfortable conversation between a girl, her ex and their current ex, and about sex no less, but hey, they are French, at least two of them anyway).  The shots are still hand-held but not wobbly or zooming just a bit in and out to make like it's breathing (ugh).  And the actors do what they can with the characters and it does do its best to make the tragedy that comes later/before matter more.

For a moment happy times for Belluci and Cassel and, for us too

What undercuts this though are Noe's frustrating attempts to make it even more depressing and tragic than it already is with references to a) the tunnel itself where the rape happens, b) a certain 'time of the month' mini-drama that feels cheap and manipulative (which includes, I also shit you not, a LOOK-AT-THIS shot of the Star Child from 2001 on a poster above the bed in Alex's room), and c) a certain sexual reference.  If these were cut out the already touching momentum would be there, and it wouldn't be so in-your-face about it.  But Noe in an ironically Hollywood-moviemaker way about him, isn't sure audiences won't get it unless he hammers it into their consciousness; ironic since this attempts to be (and perhaps is) one of those notorious 'controversial' movies, the likes of which back in the 1980's would have been thrown in a trash compactor in Britain nevermind the Video Nasties list, and would be 'that' movie you come across in college... like I Spit on Your Grave.  Shudder.

And no, thankfully, this isn't as bad as I Spit on Your Grave (thank goodness as only the Holocaust and root canal are worse than that travesty), though both filmmakers, perhaps, do share a pretention in common and involving rape.  Thankfully in terms of having an eye and (mostly) knowing how to use it and in letting actors improvise who are good at it, Noe knows his stuff.  But he knows it so well that he's going to piss off an audience who has come to, well, if not entertained, at least get something fulfilling out of it.  By the time the last minutes go by and Beethoven's 7th/2nd (the best music that has been over-used for dramatic effect WAY too long) and the last minute is just seizure-inducing white light, it's enough.  I want to respect this movie, and I do in some part, but its own maker makes it so hard to get close to, like a postulous scab that has little hope except to pus and sore all around.

Harry Plinkett prepares his review of Irreversible after Baby's Day Out

PS: As for my dear wife... she took it less kindly than I did, outright hating it for its pretentions and for it being all surrounding the rape sequence AND for having its non-linear structure wrapped around a thin story (which I can't argue too much, though it does give a "huh, yeah, that thing, I feel bad about that" moment after the preceeding scene, maybe too much I gahter).

Or her comment on seeing a picture of this sums it up:

Gaspar Noe is an evil fetus

Well put, my love!

Olivier Assayas' CARLOS

"You say you want a revolution, well, you know, we all want to change the world." (some British dude)

Showing the life of a 'revolutionary' (or, by all accounts, a self-highly regarded terrorist) can be a tricky thing for a filmmaker.  How does one make an audience sympathetic, if at all, or the other way totally despicable which might be too easy to make for a 5-hour trip?  What could also be subtitled "A Tale of Anti-Imperialism and Cigarettes", Olivier Assayas' mini-series-cum-epic-movie on Carlos Sanchez aka Carlos the Jackal, a man who worked for a while for the Palestinians and then for the Syrians before history caught up with him and the Cold War ended, is in a position of intrigue for how the director posits him for the attentive viewer.  He's not entirely worthy of our praise for being heroic, but he's at times a little too complex to be pegged a total villain.  If he is a villain it's of his own doing.  He's honestly, or as far as I can figure from a piece of dramatization (or at best docu-drama), portrayed as an egomaniac who looked at his struggle as a war and wanted everyone in lock-step with him, including his wife and hangers-on.

For a while we see that his dedication to the 'cause', whatever that might be as a Marxist working for an Arab terror network in line with Palestine and Sadaam-based Iraq, and yet he's not really all that successful.  Unlike Steven Soderbergh's Che, which showed in an epic format a more linear rise and fall saga progress from part one to part two, Carlos doesn't have a particular 'rise' exactly.  He gained notoriety for a series of bombings and organized affronts, and specifically (as seen in part one here) a hostage situation at Opec that involved as its original goal to execute the Saudi oil minister as part of a deal with Iraq.  And yet he has to compromise, and never quite impresses the head of the PFLP who sees him as insubordinate and doing things his own way, gaining press while not adhering to totals dedication.  He dopes have dedication: to himself, and to his own viewpoint on being a soldier in a Marxist war: no super-power is worse than the other, they're the same, but the key is anti-imperialism.  And in this case, Carlos, for a short while, would rather that he be his own empire.

At times his ego-mania is easier to detect than others.  As the anti-hero of the story, Carlos is persuasive, dominant, intelligent, but also ruthless and cunning and, until he has to bend with barely a choice save for his own death at the Opec hostage crisis in 75, uncompromising.  And being that it's the 1970's and anti-Israel being all-in and other affronts to society going on throughout Europe, others join with him, or sometimes turn against him.  He has his share of traitors, like the arab man who is his right hand man for a while (in part one) until he rats him out right to his face in front of the cops.  He also has his lovers, mainly the German anarchist Magdakena Kopp, who becomes his long-suffering wife and would-be soldier in his group until she's put in jail for a botched bombing.  And there are other supporting characters like the flawed but more pragmatic sidekick who got shot during the Opec raid and doesn't want anything to do with Carlos afterward, or the crazy girl, Nada, who finds it to be the greatest injustice that they have to sell out to the Austrians a the Opec fiasco.

There are too many supporting characters to all recount here, some more interesting to watch just for the acting like Ahmad Kaabour as Carlos' first boss, Wadie Hadad, who tries to put him in his place- more like an employee at a typical business (maybe not ala-Lundbergh, but it'll do), with a headquarters acting as the office building and terror training ground like an intern meet-and-greet- and ultimately doesn't come through.  Those scenes carry an interesting flavor all on their own as one can see how stone-faced and professional Carlos is but underneath, in between the lines, is affronted by this challenge of Hadad.  He does care about the causes he fights, but he's not always particular about whom (one German officer remarks that he's merely a mercenary and uncontrollable, kind of like an anarcho-marxist Han Solo).

But then there's something that made me respect Assayas' film even more than I had before, and, despite the occasional lull or a scene that could have been cut here or there (I'd need to watch it again to know for sure, and I wonder when I'd get the time).  It's the last hour or so in part three, following around the time when Magdalena is released from jail in 1985.  By this time Carlos is still doing the here-and-there gun deal like he used to do, but not much in the same way.  He's changed, and this change contiunue into the late 80's and early 90's.  His only comrade left, whispy moustached drunk Hans-Joaquim, says that "the war is over" once they're kicked out of Syria and into the wilderness of limited asylum in other countries like the Sudan.  I wonder if it was even before that that Carlos left it all; he basically sells out in this last hour, burns out with his flab and bad testicles (for which he prefers liposuction before testicle surgery), and feigns at becoming petit-bourgeois while sort of in the underground.

Pre-Testicle Problem
I liked seeing this transformation because, unlike Che and Jacques Mesrine (the latter also given his own epic criminal saga this last year), we see their downfall in the light of a last big failure of some sort.  Assayas could have made this a brief segment of the story, focusing more on the time when he was more in charge of his shit in the 70's and early 80's up until the death of Sadat.  But it's telling, for the character and for the success of the film, that there is so much time given to the decay of Carlos, with his belly and his African hookers and piss-poor teaching to students of Lawrence of Arabia, the only thing left without any kind of struggle or would-be-struggle his own flailing vanity.  Yet there's a little more to it than that as he and Hans-Joaquim have one last drinking binge at a music venue and know they have death sentences on them.  It's two men very aware of where they're at, and what they have left to do it with.  All Carlos was missing was a mansion like Daniel Plainview had at the end of There Will be Blood to ramble "Bastard from a basket" platitudes.

This epic is long, though I would suggest going for the long version as opposed to the shortened 165 minute cut.  While I've yet to see that version, it's better to see the full scope of this project through, how Assayas gives this long story spreading over 25 years the room to breath.  And history buffs will dig how Assayas chooses to cut away to the actual news footage of a scene of a crime: he'll show the process leading up to it, sometimes with a cool montage scope like when the car with the bomb attached is driven all the way from Hungary to Paris (map showing detail included) and stopping in front of its target, a newspaper building, and then it cuts to the original footage from the event.
And yet for the long length it has, and for some points where exposition takes over full-tilt (though never badly written or poorly performed), the direction is often very exciting, taut, and fitting the mood; when it's violent it's shocking in its quickness and realistic blood; when it's sexy it's sexy-as-hell (though only in small bits they're memorable, save for the jokeyness of having Carlos parade around naked in a couple of scenes).  When it needs to rock, it comes on with some surprising flair wth a soundtrack of 70's and 80's "post-punk" or new-wave songs by the likes of the Dead Boys.

Basically, with Carlos you get a powerful reenactment of history done with some very wonderful actors, like the minor revelation Nora Von Walstaten as Magdalena, bringing sex and tenderness to a film that needs it as a basic thriller.  But also, chiefly, the lead Edgar Ramirez, pulling off with conviction and daring how oddly charming, direct, frightening in his cool and anger, and one-track-mind Carlos can be, further demanding a role as it's like Charles Foster Kane, going from youth to (quasi) old age and really transforming into it.  And with this history one can see how ruthless and cruel some could be, how some were crushed by their own consciences, and what it means to be really "Anti-Zionist" or "Anti-Europe" or "Anti-Empire".  And, not too surprisingly, it can often come down to money, or a tainting of principles or what that even means.


(PS: And to emphasize what Roger Ebert pointed out, yes, there is a lot of smoking here (I wouldn't be surprised if it had been MPAA rated that would have gone as a warning before the violence and sex and language).  I can see the point somewhat that smoking is a metaphor for terrorism, but it's more practical looking to me, and more related to the nature of changing history in the film: it was a time when pretty much everybody smoked, usually without thinking about it, but eventually people did it less as it was said "that's bad for you!"... That, or, as they say, A Cigar is just a Cigar, and sometimes it's a Big Brown Dick.)

(PPS: I almost neglected to mention one of the highlights of the year in entertainment comes with a scene that is a perfect demonstration of the horrorific absurdity of terrorism: at one point it's plotted to blow up a plane that's going to Israel with a grenade-launcher, but as the terrorists don't quite know how to aim one they shoot one other plane, and then another, but not their target.  It's so awfully squeamish and tasteless a moment, yet rooted in a modern history where a moment like that is oddly sobering, and blackly funny)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#14) Robert Altman's QUINTET

(Note to any of you fellow Netflix-Streaming people who might be curious to watch this and then wonder 'what is with that foggy or soft stuff on the side of the frames of most of the shots?'  As I can confirm with the guys over at the trustworthy DVD Beaver, this is intentional and to the specifications Altman intended... yep).

You can tell already it's bleak as his blue eyes have gone gray.
Robert Altman doesn't want you to have a "good time" like you might in another quasi-science-fiction post apocalytic (or just post-civilization) movie.  It takes place on an icy exterior, but it's not The Empire Strikes Back's Hoth, nor is it even John Carpenter's The Thing.  His film, which he originated as co-writer through his cool late 70's deal at Fox and his Lion's Gate films (no relation to the now standard Hollywood production company), is so cold and brutal a view of humanity, so violent and without hope - which at one point someone refers to bluntly as an "obsolete word" in this context- that it makes Cormac McCarthy's The Road seem positively dandy by comparison.  Hell, this even has the balls to kill off a main character, or one we think might be a central character, half an hour through the movie!  At least Hitchcock waited forty-five, fifty minutes to kill off his star in Psycho.

"No Dogs Allowed" "... Oh really?"
I try to grasp at straws to find a comparison because, warts and all, this is a unique motion picture experience.  It's a vision from someone who wants to break some ground, to push the medium just a little more forward if only in the sense of how a place feels, how the music is laid with such a harsh force, and how characters behave in decent or evil ways.  The sets are also fascinating to look at, loaded with iron and crude neo-industrial walls and floors, a dirty white like the slush that is unfortunately all over the streets and cars in our areas in winter, and the people walking around are in parkas but also hats that seem like over-done pita-bread shaped domes.  And of course there's that game of the title, Quintet, which is like craps meets Risk (lots of talk of domination and death and conquering, but with dice and a few pieces of rock and crab-shell or other).

It is something adventurous and strange, which I can always get behind, but Altman's problems are two-fold: first, his world is obtuse, with only such limited context that the viewer is forced to immediately understand the grim stakes at hand.   I appreciate that a director doesn't want to coddle the audience with something so quickly understood, but Altman goes the opposite, extreme approach.  I wasn't even sure if it was a post-apocalyptic or post-something or close-to-sci-fi movie (maybe more of a sci-parable?) until quite a ways into the movie, with the only initial hint of despair at the very rare sight of a Canadian Swan in the sky flying north.  And the game itself doesn't need to be completely explained, sure, but at least a hint of what it's main thing is all about.

Uh... yeah I don't get it either
I seem to not be saying what the plot is.  Frankly, it's thin.  What I could gather is that Essex (Paul Newman), a former seal hunter, and his wife are going through the tundra of Nowhere's-Land to find Essex's brother.  They do, but then in the midst of a game of Quintet the place is bombed and his wife is killed (and herself with a very rare with-child!), and after a very moving scene where Essex takes his wife away to a frozen river to drift away (for a reason I'll get to in a moment), he goes to a nearby "hotel" of sorts that has a "casino" (must use quotes) to find something about how this happened, or qhat this more intricate Quintet game is all about.  What he doesn't know is that a few devious masterminds have it to make the game into reality: real people in a game of life and death (mostly the latter), and usually by surprise at night.

In a sense the plot of this movie could be captivating, or in a studio hack's possession kind of silly or trying-to-be-edgy.  I can definitely hand Altman this, the movie has edge, enough to make one wince.  It's also confused in how it shows us this world; the director goes back, I guess, to the soft-focus kind of look he used so well (and not quite as much) in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, a lens effect or slide of some sort that makes the sides of the frames fuzzy.  I can only speculate why he chose to do this: maybe to attain some kind of reverence in this world, or sadness, or of something that was lost, or ironically it being set in some unknowable future a sense of timelessness.  Whatever way it was it just gets distracting to have there.  Only the close-ups, on the likes of Newman and Ingmar Bergman regular Bibi Andersson, seem to lack this effect.

Where's a sexually charged monologue when you really need it?

The other issue is how bleak it is, how relentlessly so, and how it takes itself so goddamn seriously.  This... I didn't have as much of an issue with as I thought, or that I could have expected from the reviews.  I was more annoyed- or I should say, sometimes, just bored- by how Altman doled out the information of the text of the movie.  That is to say characters speaking in platitudes interspersed with scenes of graphic violence (mostly throat-cutting and stabbings by large knives and swords), and punctuated by a similarly jagged score by Tom Pierson.  It is haunting and effective in some parts, and in others like when a character is simply walking around it gets overbearing.

But there are a couple of other aspects that did keep me interested, at least on the whole.  One of these is, naturally, its star Newman, who is able to be there as one channel (or the only one) for the audience to view in on this world; since he's perhaps the only character without his head far up his ass or possibly conspiring for murder outright, he has some semblance of sanity to him, albeit fogged up by one person in a scene pontificating about the "unknowables" or something like it.  But he can hold his own in the role, and it helps, even as he, like us, is perplexed by what he sees.  The other thing are the dogs; like vultures they're the scavengers, the ones in the cast who don't beat around the bush, especially with so many frozen carcasses piling up in the paths and interiors of this world.  They're a fine, dark motif to have in a film that's metee is desolation.

I'm contemplating a 'brrr'.  

So, Quintet isn't much fun, and you may curse Altman for even attempting the project to start with once its two long hours are over.  I can't be dismissive of such a work that has an artist trying to show us something different and odd, possibly innovative in a run-down lived-in Alien-era sort of way, and with a sincerity and style that can be thought provoking and (on occasion) emotionally gripping, mostly thanks to a few key moments with Newman and Andersson.  Yet I also understand where its derisive reputation comes from: it's a work that veers, or steps right over the bright yellow line, of pretention and doesn't give a shit to come back.  As it's a work more about how characters are about in this world than the story itself, it's a tough nut to crack.  It's like a brooding, intelligent 16-year old who has a real gift of drawing, but it's all too grim and gruesome and hard to reach.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


(Hey, it was made for video, but it's feature-length, it counts... though it shouldn't, but I'll get to that in a moment)

I need to read more comics.  That's the first thought that would pop into my head from time to time when watching certain parts of the latest offering from the DC Animated film division, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse. While I of course (no, sorry, OF COURSE!TM) know who Jack Kirby is, this is the first time I've really had an introduction to the villain of this story, Darkseid (sounding more like 'Side', and perhaps just as silly sounding), and the planet of the 'New Gods' on Apocalypse.  At first I thought, perhaps naively, that I would be seeing a progression from the last Superman/Batman animated film, Public Enemies, where Sup & Bats were up against they're own fellow heroes, and now this time they were up against the end of the world.  But nope, it's just a planet, kind of like the one at the climax of Revenge of the Sith: full of lava and hellish reds and blacks, and probably hot though that's not much of a concern to buff practical immortals with armor and jagged jawlines.

That previous made-for-animated-video movie Public Enemies also had Apocalypse's writer, Jeph Loeb (or at least based on his graphic novel, I can't say how much his involvement was as I don't know).  Like that one, this is actually a pretty weak story, and another step down for the most part from the better-quality work of other DC animated films, most notably from this past year, Batman: Under the Red Hood.  This story has both of the flagship DC heroes in action, but Batman only plays a part in a couple of specific instances; it's mostly all about Kara-El, and this being I suppose an origin story for Super Girl (voiced by Summer Glau, who sadly only makes an appearance in memory... ah, memories).

Kara-El comes to Earth ala Terminator-style, all naked, and soon finds she can't really control her eye-laser powers or her urges to be all alien-God-like.  Clark Kent/Superman has to step in to show her a thing or two, but not before Wonder Woman steps in and takes over on her training.  Things seem to be a little shaky (it's Kara-El's very basic "I just wanna do what I want" bitchiness that comes with youth, or just being bitchy), but there's other trouble with Darkseid, a nasty mo-fo on the aforementioned hell-planet, and his minions made of armor and steel and so on.  And they mean business, along with his army of metal-brainless things.  Which (spoiler) Superman knocks out in less than thirty seconds.  L'yawn.

She's all standing there and Batman's like, 'I ain't having it.'

I don't know why I didn't get worked up more by the story.  Maybe it is all on Jeph Loeb, who after The Long Halloween has been churning out work after work with, an exception here or there, has been (rightfully) been met with derisive attack by comics readers.  It's not that he's a totally bad writer, although I'm sure the screenwriter here didn't matter to weed out some of the tackier lines of dialog like... well, it's not all too memorable, save maybe for some lines in the climax (which I'll get to in a moment) or the odd-ended would-be clever line like "I'd tell you to go to hell, but given the situation it would be redundant," that sticks out just because it's... eh.  It's basic stuff, and it should be enough to draw one in who doesn't know much about these characters who were originally created by Kirby.  But it also feels like a shallow danger on this Apocalypse planet; we get the inevitable fall for the young girl and the challenge met via mind-control by the villain, and the  malarkey with a threat to blow the planet that's never met.

You know shit's on cause it's at a Dutch angle!
Sure, there is plenty of action, but there isn't much danger there either.  In fact with the exception of Batman I wasn't sure there was any character here who had any kind of real weakness outside of the ones of semi-or-actual Gods or Aliens or what not.  And it's a lack of solid characterization; we only know Kara-El for so long until she is thrust into this big problem with Darkseid, and it's not quite enough to get on her side.  Maybe there was more in the book.  Maybe it's just too damn faithful.  And the action isn't badly animated, though it is distracting to have Tim Daly and Kevin Conroy once again reprising their roles but in characters drawn quite differently than we've seen them (also an issue in Public Enemies).

It does help that the climax of the movie is almost, for a brief moment, surprising, and this whole ten minute sequence of action has thrills and some unexpected heights of intensity (Superman almost goes to Fist of the North Star levels of punching save for the 'A-ta-ta-ta-ta!' cries of that protagonist).  I got drawn into the drama of it, both the danger for the characters and their fighting back to their full 'Super' powers, which was more surprising as I thought by this point I was going to tune out due to the dullness of the story.  That does help notch it a little above what I had expected, but by then it's still a little too late to make it better than it is, which is a mediocre story crammed into the usual lot of talented artists and voice-over actors at DC... actually, that last part is a mixed bag, too.  When you got Andre Braugher and Ed Asner doing just one dimensional (if not 1/2 dimensional) villains, it kind of grows old fast.

Again, this might not be the fairest review, having not read the comic and only the cursory knowledge of the villains.  And then again, why should that be a problem?  I didn't know much about the Red Hood, or Martian Manhunter (New Frontier) before those films, and it turned out just fine because of the care in the context in crafting the characters, the stakes that were so high.  There aren't very high stakes with Apocalypse, if nothing else because Superman is such a high-octane player to start with, backed up by the two other big guns in the JLA, up against some chumps who are just out to screw with the Kryptonians.  If you're a big fan of Superman/Batman/DC/maybe Super Girl (the two or three of you out there NOT jerking off to pictures of her) it might hit the spot.  For me, this could have just as well been a part of the JLA TV series and been passable, if still forgettable.  Up against the best of the lot of DC animated movies of the past several years, it doesn't come close.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Pulpy Peter Yates (Eddie Coyle & Bullitt)

It's both a shame and a wonder to me that it took this long to get to the late director Peter Yates.  This week I also watched The Hot Rock, thankfully available on Netflix-Instant, but before that I hadn't seen any of his works let alone the seminal ones like I watched tonight (one on loan thanks to my father-in-law, which I borrowed around Christmas, and another I've had a copy of for Dog knows how many years).  He didn't just direct thrillers- he did dramas, some comedy, and ended ironically enough with his final feature film titled 'Curtain Call' in 1999- but these two films are the ones he'll still be remembered for twenty years from now, if there's any cine-justice in this world.  And I was so glad to finally get into both of them: tales of robbers and cops, lowlifes and cool dudes, cars and guns, Boston and San Franfuckingcisco.

"We're gonna rob a fucking bank"

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is 70's cinema at its finest.  You know what I mean, ya bastard.  It's not your kid's generation bank-heist-snitch movie (like the movie that robs liberally from this one, specifically for one shot involving a walk away from a car, The Town by fellow Boston-ite Ben Affleck).  This stars one of the baddest motherfuckers that graced the screen with his laconic but firm presence that took command somewhat unassumingly, Robert Mitchum, and it's a story that's told without too much of a rush for time.  This is also something to be said for Peter Yates' previous if different-toned film, The Hot Rock.  When it comes to staging a conversation, or a practically perfect bank robbery, timing is everything.  This doesn't go all over the place with fidgety camera-work and edits.  It's more attuned to Jean-Pierre Melville's aesthetic, only not quite as detached and with more sideburns and guns.

So in other words it's my kind of crime movie, the uncompromising, dark and edgy and Post-Hayes Code noir.  It's about a snitch, so one should look at him with some disdain.  But Eddie 'Fingers' Coyle (Mitchum) has good reason to snitch: he's facing some serious jail time for a job he pulled with a truck up in New Hampshire.  He thinks if he can just give the understanding if-no-bullshit cop something to work with and he can put in a good word with the judge up in NH, he'll be home free, for a little while at least.  And the guys he's plotting against are no amateurs; they're gun runners and bank robbers, the latter of which we see pull off some jobs that are timed to a T and to such a degree that the slightest error means a few slugs in a chest and a whole bank employee set put in the safe while they get away.

So why feel sympathy for Coyle?  Cause it's Bob Mitchum in the role, that's what.  If it were any other actor, even Lee Marvin or Steven McQueen, it just wouldn't be there despite the practical similar level of 'cool'.  Maybe laconic isn't the word.  It's a weariness that's there, having lived a life and been through with the shit of it (there's a scene where he tells the cop right off he's getting a bum deal and repeats the word, and it sticks), and we want him to come out on top if only as he's the least scummy of the the rest of the scumbags and lowlifes in the picture.  Some may be more professional than others- the bank robbers vs. the guy and gal looking for machine guns to rob banks- and one in particular can sway his allegiance any way as long as the money is good and he's got a dark highway at night.  But It's because of what Mitchum brings to the part that makes it work.

And what that is is hard to precisely describe except that it's screen presence, or an attitude that helps keep the character grounded so much in the reality he's in.  Yates does Mitchum a good one by putting the world he's surrounded in with such an air of despair.  This is actually much darker than a 1940's noir, the Hayes-Code restriction on language or sexual innuendo and violence aside.  It's an outlook, either by the director or dictated by the script, that is a little rougher, a little meaner, and doesn't need to rely on superlative language.  Mitchum is able to make other actors, who are all very capable and good, look sometimes as if they'll crap their jammies, and that's a good gift to have with the character even as he's doing unsavory things.  It's a complex role and the star is in perfect form for it: an existential dilemma with a pretty bleak outlook either way, contrasted (or complimented I guess) by the fall atmosphere and gray, cold skies of the Boston air around him.

The suspense in the film is drawn up superbly, particularly with a sequence surrounding one character's acquisition of machine guns, first in the middle of the night (the way one character deals with this has some of the best lines of the movie), and then the trade-off by a train station is staged with conscious, careful storytelling that suddenly POPS when it needs to.  And all of the characters, even minor ones, are well-drawn by how they behave, the cadence of their speech to one another even in small situations like a gun sale or sitting across at a bar having a cup of coffee or bourbon.

Yates captures such a strong flavor of Boston that the drama naturally flows out of the environment.  And it being the 70's there's two other things one can count on: really cool, jazzy music (sadly not by Lalo Schifrin but it does just as well), and an ending that is not what one would totally expect.  That is to say, again, if this were the 'old days' of film-noir, back when Mitchum wowed audiences with Out of the Past, it might end up different.  But not in this time and place, and not for Eddie Coyle.  It's a cold, nasty little movie that hits all of the right spots.  It's one of the underrated treasures of 1973, a great year in American film otherwise.


Bullitt was one of the first to get there, no doubt about it.  It's one of the first of the real lean and gritty cop thrillers (or Policiers if you want it French), and it's got the tough, frakk-you attitude of its main character that would resonate on with an audience that was building up some anti-authoritarian attitude very quickly (1968 after all).  Its story has got some good double-crosses, mystery surrounding a witness needed to testify at a grand jury who may or may not be dead, and its never a sure thing what will happen up until the end (at least up to a point, depending on who's alive or not).  It's Peter Yates giving an American chase movie with plenty of time for the procedure of things - surgery in a hospital room, looking in a crowd for a perp, walking to get a steak for dinner - with bursts of extraordinary violence.

That isn't to say it's a very violent film.  When it does spring out it's like a coil that has been wound for a while (with one exception early on where the tension leading up to it is unclear), and Yates has a level of realistic integrity to everything.  That is to say it's still a Hollywood blockbuster of the period, but there is an edge to it that was seeing just a little more light coming in to the New Hollywood.  It's not traditional in certain ways even if it's still at heart a procedural with some stuffy stock characters and a good deal of expository dialogue (sometimes needed, sometimes not so much).

Part of this edge, of course, comes from Steve McQueen.  I must admit I only see some of the appeal.  He does look cool in a car, sure, and he can hold his own in a scene with some good players.  As far as how wide his talent or appeal goes will be a little more subjective; he was, and probably still is a cool-ass legend of old who blazed his trail and died too (if not James Dean too) young.  Maybe it's only a personal preference based on his character; it takes a little while to get through the super-cool (almost lukewarm?) surface of McQueen and his Frank Bullitt.  Perhaps that's part of the approach, however I also felt a little too much of a connection to his previous bad-ass anti-authoritarian rider in The Great Escape.  I did grow to like his performance more as the film went on, maybe in part due to a little (if slightly shallow) characterization given to him by his sometimes-vacant-hot-eyed lover played by Jacqueline Bisset.  But I wouldn't go back to him as a favorite cop of the period; Dirty Harry still will be more interesting years from now.

McQueen is an integral part of the appeal of the film, and he does get by well especially when his character buts heads with authority (mainly Robert Vaughn actually who plays an officious prick).  Yet this is not really the reason you would come to Bullitt.  Nay, it has something of a "thing" with it (not a gimmick, just a 'thing').  You hear from friends about this thing in the movie, something that may have something to do with the plot, if one can explain the ins-and-outs of it (er, Cop tries to track down the hit men going after the witness for the trial), and it practically makes the movie.  The car chase through San Francisco is a mini-masterpiece of economy of shots, overtonal montage, and speed.  The thing distinguishing it from a lot of others (or at least the first) is how fast it turns into after a slow but methodical start through the ups and downs of streets.  The cars were going at the speeds they appear to be going, and the intensity keeps on edge.  It's action that could have tremendous consequences, even if one can reasonably assume the outcome.

So, for those who just scrolled down to this point of the review, is it worth seeing the whole movie or just that scene?  Bullitt is a gritty little Hollywood movie that gets uplifted from being a B-police movie into something a little more and more landmark-ish due to its protagonist and his take-no-shit attitude, from those he goes after and those he answers to.  I also liked that there was a feeling of loneliness to it, that Frank wouldn't make many friends by the way he treats people outside of Bisset.  It has lasting power and is very entertaining, if only in seeing the process of how police and hospital workers and so on do their work in realistic terms.  And of course the music is iconic, when it comes on; it's impressive to note how much of the movie is without music, only the sound effects of tires scratching and wheels burning and an airplane about to take off or land in the climactic chase at the airport.  Yet when Schifrin's score comes up, especially in the opening credits and in its smaller doses, it catches the mood just right: the one that one would want to have if riding a cool green car with a cool McQueen face and body and eyes and attitude.

I guess what it comes down to is not being as big a McQueen fan as the rest of critics and audiences out there, finding him in a role like this (that is to say not always) bland, like a tougher Robert Redford.  That shouldn't stop anyone from watching it right away if the urge comes up to watch an "old-school" modern Hollywood action hit; when it comes time for summer and cineplexes will be loaded with several sub-par offerings, it wouldn't be a bad time to load this up and see how a professional can do it.

Like so!

Netflix-a-thon (#12) JOAN RIVERS: A PIECE OF WORK

Tonight I discovered, or just realized, a dirty little secret for myself: I found Joan Rivers incredibly, take-no-prisoners funny.  The documentary on her from this past year, A Piece of Work, follows her along as she just goes about her career, and it shows the ups and downs (frankly more ups than downs in the present tense if not in the past), but what's a revelation for me, one that I have in part from not growing up with Rivers' stand-up on TV, is that she is a filthy, awesomely no-holds-barred comic.  She's my favorite kind of comic, one that, ironically in the press, is derided by some as a "Borshbelt" or "Vegas" comic.  Bullshit.  If she can take apart sex, life, marriage, politics, and with an incisive thought process for absurdity and the outrageous, count me in. 

Does this mean the doc makes her come off totally wonderfully?  Not necessarily.  It's hard not to see her as what she is: a DIVA (in caps), living in a more than comfortable existence in Manhattan, and often complaining about how she doesn't get any work when very quickly it's shown that she takes whatever she can get.  By the end of the movie I didn't know if I especially liked her more than before (the stand-up aside), but I did understand her much better.  And it's hard not to respect someone who, celebrity or otherwise, will lay out the cards of his/her life on the table and what led up to the state they're in now.

There are many entertaining and sometimes tragic stories from her past: becoming Johnny Carson's darling guest host and then in a flash becoming his "competitor" (in his words) and being banished from NBC until her stint on Celebrity Apprentice; her very quick (four day) courtship with Edgar, her husband, and then his suicide in the 80's leaving her so distraught; and the basic troubles of trying to make it into the world of male-dominated stand-up comedy at a time when a woman who could be naturally funny (and on edge for that time) was a rarity.  And seeing Rivers as she goes from gig to gig, talking to the interviewer in her dressing room or getting her copious amounts of make-up, is a lot of fun and her candid sensibility fits right into a documentary form like Stern and Sundberg have here (they're work, by the way, is just fine if not too ambitious, a few nice skyline shots here, a good close-up of their subject there, a basic profile).

Sometimes a story will come up that I almost wish the filmmakers had explored a little more, such as the very odd TV-movie that Joan and her daughter Melissa acted in so soon after Edgar's suicide, playing themselves, going through the same motions they went through before.  It's a very idiosyncratic example of a meta-work that is kind of brushed over (maybe, like her play "Fun City", it didn't get good buzz by the critics), but it also speaks to something that is discussed a bit more in the movie, which is insecurity.  Maybe putting it all out in the open was what she needed, as with her plastic surgery which turned her into the "joke" of it after a while.  Or it was just a form of public therapy.  I would be curious to see the movie one day.  Maybe.

But the real meat and potatoes of the documentary, and why it's so consistently enjoyable, is showing someone at work and (sometimes) their process.  Sometimes we just see Rivers complaining a bit or trying to get something better for her current or upcoming gig, and that's fine if a little repetitive.  Other times the filmmakers just show her doing what she does with a degree of confidence that is staggering; watching her take on a heckler at one of her shows is such a delight, even if after it she feels bad for the heckler (deaf jokes, always a touchy thing I guess).  And then other times, paradoxically, she can be shy and still at 75 unsure of  her full talents.  Most revelatory is to discover that she thinks of herself more, or has more self-esteem issues, as an actress than a comic, or rather is one of those that sees her comic work as part of her acting.  It's all one in the same for a performer, and after forty some-odd years it doesn't get easier.  In fact for her, it gets harder.

That necklace has it's own necklace!
A part of me at seeing scenes like that in the film thinks "oh, please, whatever."  Then another part just goes, "no, that's about right, for any creative person, if anything more celebrity exacerbates insecurity and what attention comes through."  To be sure there is a slant in it being a documentary that is all about her and practically all praise-worthy (and one that, for some, doesn't go that much into the extensive plastic surgery she's had, only with the opening shots with extreme close-ups as if to possibly say 'let's get it out of the way and move on with Rivers).  A Piece of Work refers to her, and exemplifies her, as an artist who like Rickles or George Burns or Phyllis Diller won't stop and will keep going, hot or not, and also in the figurative way.  

Oh, Joan, you old Jewish broad you.  If she was my grandmother it'd be... about the same as now.  Only with more anal sex jokes.  

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#11) MOTHER'S DAY (1980)

(In light of a coming-soon remake from the director of Repo: The Genetic Opera- a movie I could not stand, sorry fans and some friends of mine- I took a look at the original 1980 horror movie, in part produced by Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz of Troma before it was Troma.  Worthy of a remake?  Let's see... PS: If you need further guidance with this movie, I highly recommend the review by the Cinema Snob right here.... oh, and ye be Spoilers ahead for those who care).

Not to be confused with the writer of Adaptation. (or his brother Donald), Charles Kaufman's 1980 film Mother's Day is a weird, curious lot: a movie that has equal amounts of awesome horror-comic violence (whether intentional or not, I'm counting it as comedy as I laughed my head off quite a bit at the timing and absurdity on display) and really stupid or lame attempts to shock the audience, or to make an audience feel the logic.  The premise has the standard quota for an 70s/80's slasher/hick-rape-kill movie: three women, all coming together to reuinite as being former college roommates, are off to spend a weekend in the woods to do some fishing, smoke some doobs, and have some skinny dipping and marshmallows and other fun stuff.

But there's another wily bunch of hick 70-IQ morons in the woods who rape and kill anything they come across breathing, and this time with a doting and kind of super-possessive Mother with a neckbrace who often gets victims by posing as the perennial sweet-little-old-lady.  That's at the start of the movie, in a scene that sets up the tone of the movie, at least what is thought of at first as the movie, and it looks pretty cool for a horror flick: a decent, gruesome twist (the two we thing are predators turn out in an instant to be prey), and some intense carnage and violence.  I guess if there's anything worth doing as a horror flick, even if with no name actors and a measly budget, it's worth trying to do right.

And Kaufman to his credit does have some skill as a director... what exactly I can't pinpoint as a movie like Mother's Day is hard to call art.  In fact it might be hard to defend it.  If you're a particular kind of horror fan who just loves his/her kills sloppy and bloody, or with some creativity like with certain ways to cut off oxygen to the brain, then it's just dandy work.  The actors at least are all in to it, despite the cheesy shit the director has them do.  For example, Ike and Addley, the two brothers (the one with the blonde hair and super-bad teeth, maybe it's Ike), instead of going to work at their female victims, it's off to exercise time!  Yup, complete with montage editing, if not the Rocky music, the Mother takes notes, has them run laps and push-ups and stabbing potato sacks and rustling through bushes.  It's so goofy and dumb I almost admire it.  Almost.

A part of me does have a disliking for this movie quite a bit, just for how off Charles Kaufman can get with his   ideas and logic.  One of the girls is seeming to get away, and comes across a police car - SURPRISE, it turns out to be one of the hicks in police garb.  What the hell is that?  I could buy this if there was some back-up or lead-up, such as the way The Texas Chainsaw Massacre set up that at least one or two of the members in the family led regular jobs and tried to fit in to society to get their sick doings on in the midnight hours.  But there isn't any context for it, and it's barely mentioned again anyway so it just comes off as a cheap stunt to try and throw off the audience, and it's obvious to start with anyway.  Another matter is the last shot of the movie, which is so WTF that I won't go into it here as I am still not sure what I saw.

Other things like the limited characterization of the girls can mostly be excused (oh they're so pranksterish, sneaking up on one another with knives, playing dead, pushing each other naked into the water all wet and... alright, calm down brain).  Maybe it's perspective; if I had to inform a fellow horror movie fan about a flick where it's female power vs. hicks in the woods, I would put this in their hands long (or always) before a true disaster like I Spit on Your Grave.  But is it worth seeing?  I don't know.  It's not something I easily recommend, unless if one is with a bunch of buds with Buds or the 'other' cigarette Buds and want to have a good time.  Certainly there is some genuine tension as the girls try to break out of the house when they're tied up- if, again, needing the suspension of disbelief about how to exit from the house at times- and when Kaufman really is able to he does get some big laughs out of the ridiculous nature of these assholes.  Especially in the climactic battle as they stand little chance against chicks from the city turning all Rambo on their asses.

I also have to wonder how the remake will fare with all of this.  It's not brain surgery, and perhaps it could be improved upon (whether it's by the douche-bag that made Repo: The Genetic Opera I can't say), but among the lot of Troma movies, especially the early-era when Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz were just associate producers, it's not always intentionally bad.  If only it could have totally made up its mind what it wanted to be and stick with it then it could have been one of the greats.  As it stands its a fun but very mixed and flawed bag of sick backwoods malarkey with hammy acting and copious gore.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Netflix-a-thon (#10) Peter Yates's THE HOT ROCK

(In honor of the recently deceased Peter Yates, who directed dozens of films but all, until tonight, not seen by me, I dedicate this review of The Hot Rock to him and, with some time willing, tomorrow will finally watch a double-feature of Bullitt and The Friends of Eddie Coyle, both, I've been told, are fantastic works of pulp - and I don't doubt them as The Hot Rock is also one such work, a director at the peak of his powers)

This K-Billy Super-Sounds of the 70's as we keep on truckin...

The title 'The Hot Rock' might make one (such as myself, stupid ponce) think of something like a seedy disco that plays The Rolling Stones' 'Emotional Rescue' on an endless loop, or just a general track by a group of the rock n roll variety (and indeed just typing 'Hot Rock' in Google-image search pops up a cover for a song or album by Sleatter-Kinney).  But lo-and-behold it's a film, based on a book by Donald  "Bad Motherfucker Point Blank Richard Stark" Westlake, and the 'Rock' of the title is a diamond, the old lingo for it, and the 'Hot' meaning how much of a hard find it is. And so this is a caper/heist movie, but not of the usual variety.  For the avid fan of heist movies, as I am, this not only gives a heist, but *Four* heists.  And with satirical overtones.  Take THAT Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's 11!

But really, this is the kind of story that in other hands could, potentially, be a dramatic and ripping-dark yarn, as Westlake originally intended to write it as another Parker book.  As it is, it's got the thrills and the sincerity to take it seriously.  It's also got Robert Redford as a recently paroled thief who gets immediately roped in by his partner, optimistic criminal George Segal, and they scheme is both "good" and "bad" to Redford's (Dortmunder's) estimation: heist a jewel that is very rare for an African-premier in good ol' Manhattan from a museum in the night, and get it back to him for a cool $100 grand to split four ways between himself, his partner, and two lakeys.

The catch?  Well, by bad luck, or by some accursed fate, the diamond is not taken by Dortmunder or his partner Kelp but by a hapless young long-hair who swallows the diamond for safe-keeping and gets arrested in the museum.  Then he's in prison, so it's time for a prison break, which goes as well as any prison break could go under such tight circumstances and must-be-perfect timing.  After all, how often can one do a prison break with a just-on-the-dot driver who can pick up the escapees and breaker-inners to take them on a fast-speed drive into a truck to hide out for the night?  This goes well, all things considered... until it's revealed the little shit doesn't have the rock anymore.  Nope, it's in a police station holding cell where he left it for safe-keeping.  Is it there?  Oh boy, and here we go again...

This is perhaps best seen as a comedy of errors and classic heist movie hybrid.  This is somewhat mucked around by screenwriter William Goldman (whether it's also in Westlake's novel I can't say) by giving the characters some little idiosyncracies that are fun and goofy but give them a little more to them than your average heist movie, while at the same time not making them *too* goofy to the point that one can't see them pulling off any heist (i.e. Big Deal on Madonna Street, much better comedy than heist flick).  It's fun to watch these guys because, all little bumps here and there condiered like Kelp's tendency to get the shakes while trying to unlock a glass case, they are professionals and they know almost exactly what they're doing.  And, hey, they better, cause Amusa is footing the expenses, and other such things like a helicopter.

I liked the comedy in it, even from someone in a lead role like Redford, who is best at reacting to other calamaties anyway in his dry style.  Better is seeing Segal getting antsy, or best of all seeing Zero Mostel in a really sweet and sleazy supporting role as the young long-haired's father-lawyer who has a cane and bad hair and is conspiring against the robbers for that rock all on his own (sometimes just seeing Mostel's facial expressions are enough; he doesn't have to work too hard for laughs, which is always a treat when he's on top of a scene).  One can believe the world these guys are in, but it's never taken so seriously; it's actually PG rated after all, so it's the kind of tough, gritty heist movie one could watch with one's children, if one were not the loneliest number.... now where was I?  The movie, right right.

What will be appealing to people coming to the Hot Rock for the first time- or distracting depending on your point of view- is that Yates is directing in a style that is complimentary for its 70's period.  This isn't a super-fast and slick heist-comedy like an Ocean's 11.  Yates takes time with his set-ups, and probably takes more of a cue from Jean-Pierre Melville with mounting suspense in real-time (if not the total quiet of a Le Cercle Rouge).  There's also real suspense with these scenes as one of the guys loves to toss off some explosives and smoke bombs into situations as a diversion, never something so bad as to hurt people, just enough to get attention away from the crime at hand, which, as happens until the end, turns out poorly.  Only one sequence felt a little lagging in this approach of taking time with the scenes and that's the helicopter flying from Brooklyn to Manhattan.  It is a sight to see to take in the Twin Towers still under construction- this in a post 9/11 POV- but it just goes on for too long and takes away from the tension from on-the-way to the police station.  An unintentional stop on a wrong roof does get a good laugh, however.

Mostly The Hot Rock has got the good stuff of entertaining genre material, told by a storyteller who is confident with his characters, his actors, and in putting this heist genre on to its head and making it shuffle around until it ticks.  A great compliment with the material comes from the Quincy Jones score, smooth and super-bad and with a rhythm that is not conventional but sticks to the beats needed for scenes like break-ins and getaways, or pondering at a pub for the next move.  The comic situations have real inspiration, and the interest in the capers just increases with each one despite the bungling and problems in the group.  It's an example of how to do "light" filmmaking really, really well.  And, y'know, it does give a good way of making a play at an airtight vault.

Afghanistan Bananastan.  Repeat.  


(Once again, late.  My bad.  Will try better, Lords)

In Imaginary Witness, a documentary about the shaky relationship between Hollywood and the 'Holocaust' movie, or stories dealing with the atrocities of the Nazis and the horrors of the years of the 1940's in Europe for Jews, we see mostly how it comes down to responsibility.  This being how Hollywood treats its subject, what stories it chooses to tell, how it employs the dramatic means of re-representation through actors and sets and shot set ups, and the realism of it all.  The main purpose of the director Daniel Aker's doc is to search through how Hollywood, the main exporter of imagery (the Medium is the Message sort of thing) around the world, has gone through its phases with Nazis and their extermination of the Jews, through the main works and some of the obscurer ones.

And what also is most fascinating, and something I wish could have been expounded on further than just a 90 minute documentary originally made for AMC TV, is how Aker is after what makes us watch and how information is presented and how we as a people, as Americans, as the world, digest these images.  At the start America wasn't interested in what the Nazis were doing; rather it was cause of the Hayes Code that Americans couldn't really see anything "not approved" until the government said so, which was almost until WW2 (there were some exceptions like Confessions of a Nazi Spy).  It's also infinitely interesting to see what was the attitude in the films that were put out there addressing the Nazi menace, such as the precise lack of the word 'Jew' in movies like The Mortal Storm.  Only when Chaplin's The Great Dictator came out was there a work that addressed the real menace of Hitler: not simply "land-grabbing", but, you know, those pesky Jews- all of them.

Hrmph, show off.
The whole history of this tenuous grasp of how to give the stories of the Nazis and the holocaust is one that is filled with the damning and the paradoxical.  For one thing almost all of the studio heads were Jews, and yet they had to treat things with 'kit-gloves' as one interviewee observes, as there was some (if not rampant) antisemitism in America, specifically at the major studio heads and Hollywood in general (not too dissimilar to the every-so-often rumbling one can hear now when people say "Jews run everything in Hollywood" - yes, Mel Gibson, they sure do, what of it?... sorry I digress).  And yet the Jewish studio heads were also some of the (ironically) privileged to go see the death camps right after the war ended, not just with the intention of freaking them the fuck out, but to let them know what was what - in case any of them wanted to press ahead with movies on the subject.

Unfortunately there was no movie that seriously addressed the concentration camps until 1961 with Stanley Kramer's somewhat heavy-handed Judgment at Nuremberg which showed newsreel footage of the camps (unfortunately still no one else had ever seen Alain Renais great Night & Fog, but that's another matter altogether).  Before this there were the odd-and-ended film that dealt with antisemitism, sometimes well-regarded like Gentlemen's Agreement.  But it was in the B-movies, like ones made during and right after the war, where one could find movies that dealt directly with the Jewish experience and the holocaust.  One of the real moments that is striking in Aker's film is footage of a talk-show from the 1950's, THIS IS YOUR LIFE (in caps), having on a guest who was a survivor and then being reunited on the show with a fellow survivor and a lost love.  It's talk-show "surprise" stuff of the 50's variety, but what's important is that it was on live TV for a nationwide audience, and it's little moments like these where one sitting at home is forced, whether wanting or not, to confront with the media, that it connects.

The real highlights of the documentary are 1965- starting with the masterpiece The Pawnbroker with Rod Steiger- through to the big culmination film, Schindler's List.  In this section we see how Hollywood does embrace the Holocaust movie or mini-series, but with the kind of commercial distance that comes with the kinds of stories Hollywood usually tells.  So then one gets the series immediately on the heels of Roots, Holocaust, that has a lot of Americans (mostly in NYC) glued to their TV screens, and even causes a (good) uproar in Germany, but also faces very fair criticism from Elie Wiesel.  This and other works like Sophie's Choice and War and Remembrance are worth watching, the documentary says, but with a slight grain of salt.

Imaginary Witness gets to this very complex, gray-area connection between Hollywood and its subject matter.  One of the interviewees says it best when he notes that in Hollywood movies, for the most part, we want to see good triumph over evil, and yet this is a story where evil did, for a moment, triumph (this is at the heart of the end of Diary of Anne Frank).  Also there is the factor of even trying to dramatize such a thing; one piece of trivia that Aker sadly didn't get to was how one of the great filmmakers, Kubrick, backed off of making a holocaust movie due to a) Schindler's List, and b) just the enormity emotionally and psychologically of trying to make it "seem" real when it's just too hard a subject to approach.

And I liked that the documentary didn't side completely one way or the other.  The segment on Schindler's List highlights this the best as it shows that Speilberg, usually the great commercial showman of Hollywood, took away his usual cinematic devices of cranes and special camera equipment and, as someone else observes, that the violence is so brutal because of its casual quality.  And yet it's also the perennial story of hope due to its ending, one that, according to the documentary is almost "too happy".  I might argue differently, that due to the kind of story that's being told that there has to be something close to redemption, and that anything coming close to a "happy" ending is made bittersweet by all of the horror around it.  It's like the "happy" ending at the end of Dawn of the Dead, for example: sure two characters get away, but it was still in the midst of the apocalypse.

This is not quite the documentary like Not Quite Hollywood that is mostly good for movie recommendations and fun anecdotes.  Some of the movies shown in by Aker I don't know if I want to seek out right away, or the ones that I have watched before I never quite rush out to watch.  It's a subject that some film critics are right to say has been done a lot.  I think simply the right stories haven't been told enough, or done quite right.  When seeing the clips from Holocaust here, it looks too slick, too produced in a way to make a tearjerker, though for some in the audience this is just what is needed to get the message. (I'm also reminded of a recent film I'd rather forget, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas - don't seek it out, it's not worth your time with a Holocaust-based product - instead seek out A Film Unfinished, which I wrote about a few months back on this blog).

It's a fine line with an entertainment for a mass audience of making something that would make one feel awful but with fantastic production value and good personal merit.  Maybe that's why Spielberg and Chaplin are the only ones to be able to make it just right; Lumet and Polanski's The Pianist, while great films, aren't the ones everyone will see right away.  And for some it's a subject that shouldn't be broached at all, as for some survivors its a bitter struggle to want to, or can, remember it.  Aker's best skill here is to illuminate this constant gray-area, and how the vacuum of films that have come out of the immense tragedy have been large and small in scope, tacky and genuinely heart-felt, and a good impression on the 'Medium' theory at work.

Reminiscing about BIRDEMIC!!

Yeah... I saw this movie last year, and now that I remember it it'll probably end up on my worst-of list.  Still, as a movie buff, you got to have experiences like this sometimes.  It's like drinking a bottle of Draino, sure it'll clear you out, but it'll leave you hollow inside.


Come over to HERE to read the review.