Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sergei Eisenstein's IVAN THE TERRIBLE

Before Kill Bill... Before Che... Before The Godfather... there was little ol' Ivan:

In Sergei Eisenstein's epic double-feature, we're thrown right into the 16th century Baroque-setting of the Russian Czar and the Boyars who just couldn't stand him.  Right from the start in the first part - the one that's supposed to be "lighter" to a degree but is still a dark and somewhat stilted portrayal of the period - there's the air of deception in the air and mistrust.  Ivan (Nikolai Cherkasov) is given the title of Czar, and already has a good idea of what to do in reclaiming Russian territory that's been taken by the Kazans, an outlier group.  But even with such an ideal, those around him - primarily the blood-sucking Boyars who look to their lineage in the Russian hierarchy as being 'better' than whatever Ivan represents - don't trust him, and matter of fact would feel much better off if he were suddenly 'gone'.  Or if, you know, someone close to him was gone like his wife...

It's from this that Eisenstein builds his story of Ivan's rise to power, and those loyal to him are quite loyal.  Until, say, one of them betrays him and goes off, or another packs off to a monastery.  His closest ally really is his wife, and ultimately she becomes poisoned (spoiler - sorry, no way to write about this and part two without it).  Throughout the story Eisenstein is moreso interested in what these faces represent, and in just getting faces and costumes and settings together it is a masterful work of art.  He often shoots these people, particularly the Boyers but sometimes Ivan too, in close-ups and angles that have them in the corner of a screen or the lower half of the frame.  They're a little distorted in their own way, though he doesn't use any crazy lenses for it (didn't exist at the period). 

His mood is what I would think is pure-Baroque-quality, and with an emphasis on the image.  What I mean to say is that he is less interested in the nuances of the acting.  Eisenstein comes out of the silent-era and as with Alexander Nevsky did not adjust to sound-film the way his contemporaries did.  This isn't to say he doesn't misuse it either; the music composed for the film gives the Baroque-feeling ultimately, from Sergei Prokofiev (if not as epic as 'Nevsky' still with its wonder and moments of charm and dread, the themes resonating in the themes of the film).  But I was, and I'm sure others will be too, caught off guard by the acting, where the players often have faces that are beaming with emotion but not naturalistically.  It's like they're caught in a bubble of history where people acted BIG, like paintings that have come to life. 

It's acceptable though since the acting is never exactly 'bad', just over the top in certain respects, like how they play to an audience that is far-reaching outside the camera (if it was theater it would be just about right).  Not to mention it is set in the regal setting of a Russian palace in Moscow, and when characters declare something, usually against someone else and even in hushed tones, it's meant to be noticed if only in the eye movements and how they jut-out.  Especially note(and praise) worthy is Cherkasov as Ivan, who goes from a fresh-faced Czar to one with a big beard and with a mind that has to stay sharp to keep ahead of those conniving against him.  He especially goes to town (and, frankly, does come close to being mock-worthy with how BIG he gets) when he becomes sick, somewhat suddenly after such a successful military campaign against the Kazans, and everyone is plotting around him.  As he goes all about his bed-chamber declaring how he'll die and what will happen and so on it's the work worthy of an Oscar AND a Razzie at the same time.

But hey, Eisenstein wasn't known for directing his actors with the best aplomb anyway.  What Ivan the Terribe part one succeeds most at is creating a sense of dread in the atmosphere, how a character's face or body language says as much if not more than what they intend to do.  And the direction with the camera is gripping in certain instances, such as the battle scene against the Kazans (a little too brief but still captivating), and how he handles crowds is always amazing (director of the Odessa Steps, come-on).  As for it being propaganda like his past films in the silent era, there could be something to it but it mostly was lost on me; I more-so got the impression of it near the end of the film, when he tries to appeal to the people in a kind of grandstanding manner that, I suppose, would have been to Stalin's fancy as propaganda for the people (a 'mad' ruler uniting the people due to how gullible they can be maybe?)  Or maybe it's just in how the Tsar's Aunt (a great villainess, by the way, in Serafima Berman) wants to make her idiot son into the new Tsar as a 'pure' boyar, and that for Stalin was like 'ahh, I know what that's like, people always trying to usurp me and shit.'

To me the propaganda wasn't as obvious as the silent era films, which I appreciated, however it isn't until part two it becomes more prevalent - for the better, mayhap - while here it is more of a character study, of what Ivan was like in his early years and how the boyers always disdained him, if nothing else because he wasn't a 'real' boyer or whatever.  Ivan the Terrible part one can be dated in its acting and in some of its dialog (lots of declarations more than actual conversations, people staring in awe-eyed wonder at whatever's being said), but the filmmaking is top-notch and inventive, and the director continues to push forward with an exciting style that is less based on montage (though there is some of that) than more based around all of these faces in their big beards and big robes and their big grabs for power. 

Which brings me to part two:

Part two continues right where part one ended - with Ivan still surrounded by untrustworthy bastard boyers and having come out of where he was waiting, which was not in Moscow (he left so as to try and gain public support behind him).  He returns being bitter and alone now that his wife died by drinking a poisoned cup, and with his former allies deserting him.  This doesn't mean he doesn't have some around him to give him some advice, like one big-bearded guy, Kolychev, formerly a monk, who tells him to dispense with some of the peskier boyers - such as the ones who might have conspired against him and his wife (or, more to the point, against his mother, who we see in flashbacks was given the short-end of the shit-stick as no one looked at Ivan as 'pure' since his father was called a waste).  Ivan knows his enemies, chiefly his conniving Aunt Euphorysne (the impeccably evil-faced and acted Birman), and knows that he has to stop them if he is to rule completely.

While Ivan is never shown exactly as 'wrong' there was a reason that is not hard to miss why Stalin, after so becoming a mushy-rabbit to the first Ivan movie, was so against this one.  It shows a Czar in charge who rules without feeling, and if he must he'll kill whoever he will including those closest to him to hold on to power.  He finally, indeed, takes hold of the mantle others have laid upon him with the "Terrible" title, and runs with it.  In the big set-piece of the film, about an hour or so in for those who want to find the clip on Youtube, Ivan has a big party in his royal quarters with a big group of singers and dancers who chant about the boyers and it's a dance scene (in COLOR no less!) that displays a kind of deliberately twisted view of the "joy" in fascism.  If I were an evil tyrant killing millions of my own people, I'd imagine I'd be unnerved by the this bizarre pageant of absurd rule and how Ivan ultimately without emotion wipes out his one big villain to rule with an iron fist.  That it's all mostly in red-tint and lighting makes it a true "hell" up high. 

Ivan the Terrible part two takes everything that was exemplary in part one and, I think, improves upon it.  The performances are still in a manner that is playing to the BIG-ness of a person, but it seems to work better this time: there's more at stake, even more than in part one, as Ivan is surrounded in dread and paranoia, and his Aunt becomes a twisted kind of demon feeding her idiot son the ideals of becoming King of All.  Maybe it's also a matter of pacing; Eisenstein is able to work the flashback just right early on in the film and it gives just the right amount of context.  Then once it sticks to the story of Ivan vs. Traitors it gains steam leading up to the big party scene and Vladimir's "Coronation" as the new Czar.  On top of this he goes further with moving the camera, tracking around in scenes when in part one he would stay put.  There's drama, tension, and everything else in political intrigue with just how the camera's paced and cuts from shot to shot.

And no wonder that Eisenstein saw this as the Big EPIC of his life (a third part was planned but never shot as he died before it was to be, though not before Stalin banned this film), and in this second part ups the ante on being subversive.  By this I mean there's something to commenting on not just Stalinism but the fall of the Bolshekik revolution.  How much can change actually occur when so much, even our "hero", is poisoned through his place of power?  He's meant to be a hero by the end of the film by overcoming those around him, including his pathetic excuse for an Aunt (Berman, I must reiterate, really gives the best performance here, especially in one scene where she serenades her son Vladimir with a tune about a Beaver and how it should lead to him being Tzar somehow).  But whether it's from Ivan's body language or through just how he talks to the camera (his "audience") he seems corrupted now; despite wiping out his opposition and uniting Russia, it's like 'what else is there now, punk!' 

It's a powerful treatise on Power in general in hierarchical rule, and the tragedy of it all.  Going from the fresh-faced ruler to a guy who looks like a freaky-bearded fuck, Ivan is caught in Eisenstein's lens as having little choice left to rule the way he does, and neither for the boyers who want to crush him especially after he orders some executions of dissidents.  And all the while Eisenstein keeps up the precisely constructed shot compositions that make faces and rooms seem a little more than usually distorted: expressionistic in lighting and how a person will be in a frame and another will come in to the same shot, eyes often wide and pondering, planning, scheming. 

And I mentioned the color, but I should mention it again, as coming off of a film that is already very good the choice to suddenly jump to this Bi-Color format (rather it's not three-strip technicolor of the period, rather it brings out the blues and reds, especially the reds) takes it up another notch: we're suddenly dropped into a living-nightmare of Ivan's choosing, and quietly whines that he's all alone "without pity" as his minions sing like evil court jesters.  The dancing especially is bewildering, like a frenzy of fascism in one room.  I first saw the scene as part of Slavoj Zizek's Pervert's Guide to Cinema and was transfixed by the fast vibrancy and movement, like a sick parody (and rightfully so) of the excess of rule, especially under Stalin. 

Nothing about Eisenstein's style is 'subtle' and all the better for this part two.  Yet I would say that it wouldn't work as well as it does without part one, setting up this setting of the castle and its robed figures with their long beards and angular faces (at one point in part one especially as Ivan is supposedly dying I couldn't not think of a similar scene from The Dark Crystal, a demented, baroque example of parasites around a ruler).  It's overall combined together a flawed masterpiece, working off of history and making it work for an almost modern setting.  If one were to take out the dialog it would even be a great silent film.  As it stands it's often very good, manic, and disturbing in the best possible ways.   

Monday, March 28, 2011

Googolplex Gulag: LIMITLESS and SUCKER PUNCH

Once again my friends the shows that sometimes end, depending on when the lights are cut off or when people stop lite-up phones.

This week brings two movies that deal with consciousness expansion, in forms with directors who have high-minded visual sensibilities.... and uh, here are the results:

Limitless comes our way from a director that has only proved himself somewhat before - The Illusionist (not the animated one, the one from 2006 with Edward Norton as a magician in combat with Christopher Nolan's The Prestige), a competent and interesting but unremarkable tale of magic-stuffs. But here with Limitless, which is, for all intents and purposes, a 'drug movie', takes its visual approach seriously and with innovation.  As its lead character, Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), takes a drug that has one of those pharmaceutical names though is on the 'Black Market' and increases his IQ into 'Four digits, director Neil Burger takes the approach of something like The Who song "I Can See for Miles": literally, the guy can seem to see for miles and miles in New York City.  And with all that pollution that's something!

All kidding aside, Burger does a very good job of making an inventive use of how this character's perceptions change once he gets on this drug.  Even when he first takes it the perspective, through use of a wide-angle lens and/or some computer fx and a whole lot of bright lights and possibly some undercranking with the camera, it's jarring and something we may have seen before (thanks Gilliam) but not quite like this.  And once he gets hooked and, one day, forgets really where he's been or where he's going as his brain is moving at a WTF speed, the 'See for Miles' perspective pays off quite nicely.  He might not be David Fincher just yet, but he's getting there, as far as a flashy-auteur who knows his camera pyrotechnics.  That and his use of a certain Black Keys song 'Howling for You' makes him a smart cookie indeed.

As for the story - also very interesting, for the most part.  Morra is a writer who can't seem to write his next book, after being dumped by his girlfriend and moping around in his shitty Chinatown apartment (actually many of us would want to live there, maybe, possibly, not really).  He runs into his ex-wife's brother by chance on the street, him being a sleazy drug dealer in snazzy suits, and offers up the drug which starts with an NZ and ends with some number at the end.  He takes it and it "opens up your mind to use the other 80% of your brain you don't use."  Sure, through neurological science it's probably crap, but it's a fucking movie so you can take the ride or not.  I did, and it came out as really being a kind of All-American Morality story, like if Frank Capra were plugged into the 21st century and was given a shit-ton of cocaine.  And like any Good American, he goes from being a creative genius to (after that's not enough anymore and the ideas keep spinning) a financial genius.

Bradley Cooper - not just the president of Alphabet Soup - he's also a client ;)

How Eddie gets to where he is works very well, since his character and how Bradley Cooper (an actor mostly known for comedies and the occasional dramatic turn like Midnight Meat Train) plays him to be a sympathetic guy even when he's tweaking on this drug.  His narration is also helpful, if on occasion slightly unnecessary, to illustrate where his head was at as the story's being told backwards ala Fight Club on the precipice of demise.  I even liked the relationship he has with his girlfriend (Abbie Cornish) who likes him, but as 'Eddie Mora', not as the super-brain who at one point instructs her to take one of the pills so she can evade some creep trying to kill her in Central Park.

By the end of the film it reaches a point I didn't expect, and really enjoyed due to how it broke with a convention I expected (albeit the last thirty seconds was unsatisfying just cause of a character's choice that didn't make sense), as Eddie basically becomes an X-Man only front and center in the American World as a success that won't give up what he's got.  The only real big flaw is a sub-plot involving the Russian Mob which, while sometimes funny, kind of distracted from what else was working with this character's sorta-journey and his own sub-plot with Robert De Niro's finance veteran.  Some of it is funny, but only near the end goes it becomes entertaining to see what they do against Eddie in a guilty-pleasure sort of way.  Up until then, Limitless is a surprise dramatic thriller, that's sharp on what people, smart people, Americans most of all, do with their wealth of Super-Intelligence in this day and age. 

That it also felt like a big-budget remake of a film I made back in college is something else... I'll link it at the bottom.

But at least Limitless has things going for it - good actors knowing what they're doing, a story that makes sense (for the most part), and a director whose visual palette is in sync with the story.

Not so much for another film I can mention... not - at - all.

 Sucker Punch is something unique in our cinematic landscape at the multiplex; usually if one sits down to see a 'bad movie', one hopes that it at least can entertain through it's bad-ness (Drive Angry 3D) and not do the boring snooze-fest kind of bad (Battle LA from what I've heard). 

What I couldn't expect, something of a surprise, was to get what Vincent Canby once described Cimino's Heaven's Gate as: an unqualified disaster.  Actually, is that true?  Maybe it can be qualified: Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Dawn of the Dead, that Owl movie from last year that was good but no one saw) has opened up his mental floodgates for a story that is kind of toxic in Hollywood, where an auteur's crazy but pretentious visions mesh with what Hollywood covets so much: appealing to ADD 13 year old males who have just discovered the wonderful things they can do with their genitals.

The film is a visual fiasco; even when just a little is going on screen (and, to be fair, there are certain little moments in scenes where Snyder can direct, kind of, with actors and steady camera movements, it's rare but it's there), it's a drab affair.  He has three palettes he's working with, and none of them are really pleasing to the eye or express much visual imagination past geeky-WTF-Land: the first is where the main character, um, 'Baby Doll' is all she's credited as (Emily Browning) is sent to an insane asylum after killing her sister by accident (the bullet meant for her scumbag father after the death of her mother), and we see little snippets of her time there... in a minute or less I'd say, until she's sent to a room to get a lobotomy. 

You know when you have that dream where you're stuck in your underwear in a Zack Snyder movie...

But in that second before she gets the thing drilled at her head, it suddenly flashes to... a burlesque club being run by the same creep who is the warden at the asylum (Oscar Isaac, chewing up enough scenery to make Animal the Muppet jealous), and who makes the girls there dance and slave over stuff (others include Jena Malone, Jamie Chung, Abbie Cornish(!), and Vanessa Hudgenkiss).

So that's two palettes.  The third... oh Jesus Fucking Christ, it's a vision I guess or some other thing that happens when Baby Doll is about to dance, the camera does this wrap-around thing close-up at her face as a bad cover of a pop song (or, GODDAMNIT, The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows") as she's flashed to a, uh, I guess video game cut-scene is the only way to describe it, or maybe the shit-end of the visual stick that was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.  If maybe some of this felt real, or if there were actual stakes with the girl characters in their skirts and hot leather and swords fighting these, uh, samurai with guns and giant metal robot-rabbit things and airplanes and shit-brown-sky had some stakes, it might be fun... but it isn't, not for a moment.

The world after their peek at Snyder's magnum opus

I wanted to give Snyder the benefit of the doubt; he's not made a movie I've completely disliked until now; Dead was a decent romp through the familiar territory of George Romero's Zom-Mall satire; 300 is goofier in retrospect but at the time was somewhat unique as a CGI-Roman thriller with lots of blood and bare-chests for the ladies; Watchmen surprised me as a super-faithful but still somehow engaging adaptation of Gibbons and Moore's masterpiece, with actual human emotion this time with the characters, if not without its flaws; The Owls of Ga'Hoole was a fun throwback to 80's animated movies that straddled the line for kids and adults (kind of a watered down Secret of NIMH).  I mention all of these films in part cause he hadn't pissed me off yet (though never blown me away) and I was curious to see what he would do with a project that wasn't an adaptation or remake or whatever.  Then I saw the trailer... and tried to stay positive... then I saw the reviews, and grit my lip like Homer Simpson chasing the pig with the apple in its mouth ("It's still good, it's still good!")  And then sitting there...

I was stunned, speechless, except when ready to throw things at the screen.  There's nothing at stake here, nothing that really gets to the heart of the matter that these girls are in an asylum in the 1950's and are being horribly mistreated by the staff there.  But until near the end, we don't know what's going on in this 'First level" so that what goes on in this second burlesque level, and then especially in the third level which is just video-game bullshit (the kind that you might glance at being demo'd at a convention but then you go on with your day).  One is reminded of two 2010 movies (and both with Senor DiCaprio) which handled the style of storytelling much better: Inception and Shutter Island, both dealing with repressed emotions, multiple levels of story, and the scarring of a location like a drab mental institution.   But Snyder tries to aim too high and nowhere near far enough at the same time.

His eye is mostly engaged in doing the same monotonous action that is much more suited for a music video or (again) a video game, and yet he sees this as his big personal epic of some sort, with Scott Glenn tagging along in the video-game scenes as a sort of David Carradine guru with platitudes that make fortune cookies look like fucking Slavoj Zizek quotations, and nothing about the action or settings makes much sense to how it corresponds in the various levels... until it is explained near the end, and it STILL doesn't make much sense except in a stupid logic involving I guess some kind of astral projection of the mind to "escape".  But escape into what exactly?  How is a girl in the 1950's - who we don't know much about anyway due to there being ZERO character development past 'oh, she's like, meek and stuff and tragic and emo and so on' since the first five minutes is like a music video in editing and staging of characters - able to conjure up this burlesque club along with all of the other girls, and THEN flashed ahead to some weird barren wasteland-planet thing?  How are they connected?

Maybe they shouldn't be, but you know what, I'd rather have a director not going for logic at all, like David Lynch in Inland Empire, who can take the audience on a wild ride in the mind but has a dozen interesting things about it, than a director who thinks the audience with 'get it' or... or maybe not that either!  This reeks of 'Passion Project' all over it, like M. Night Shyamalan with Lady in the Water or Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, or, again, Heaven's Gate: a director whose hubris escapes him and runs rampant, and whether the audience wants to go along it's their problem, not his.  But this time I think the studio also is culpable here: it's like a meshing of what Hollywood LOVES to dish out: adrenaline stuff with hot girls (though not *too* hot, PG-13 and all) in lots of action and a thin story to appeal to the coveted Pubescent-Boy demographic, not to mention geek-related.  It's like a Heavy Metal magazine lacking in anything relatable or human.

That it's also meant to be a "Woman Empowerment" movie is another slap in the face, as it's all the same a view of women through an intensely male gaze, one that sees that the way for girls to get their empowerment on it to dress in short skirts and leather and to flash their panties as their shoot guns at robots and soldiers in desaturated dreamscapes.  Um... no.  Sucker Punch fails as entertainment, as artistic inspiration, and as anything relating to reality.  And I wanted to be 'wowed' by a video game I'd stay at home and play Bio-Shock again - moreover if I wanted to oogle at hot girls I'd just look at Carla Gugino's Sin City naked pictures again.  In fact, if not for her own over-the-top performance here as a Polish(!) burlesque instructor, I would have taken that cyanide I take with me on special occasions like this and downed the motherfucker.

Bottom line: this has 'Crest of Senses' all over it (scroll ahead to 5:43 into video):