Friday, May 27, 2011

Papa Mike's Video #2 - THE LADYKILLERS (1955)

Is there any "way" to make a madcap 'black' comedy?  The original The Ladykillers from the mid 1950's seems to want to be the example to show to everybody else how it's done.  And with this premise how could it not be at least trying: a lovely little old British lady (how can she not be lovely save for if she's a wicked witch of the govn'r) is looking for a tenant for her spare room, and in from the shadows (literally, his first appearance is like a gaudy parody of Peter Lorre's silhouetted entrance in M) comes Alec Guinness as Professor Marcus, a supposed classical musician who takes the room and occasionally (that is to say ALL the same) has guests performing music... but oh, they're not performing music, they're plotting a heist of lots and lots of pounds - 60,000 all told - right under the old lady's nose.

Every step of the way this doesn't pretend to be other than a comedy of manners, except when it's being macabre, which is quite often.  While on another side of Europe (France) Clouzot was doing his macabre-way with a bathtub in Diabolique, Alexander Mackendrick (later director of the classic Sweet Smell of Success) was having a big, dark larf at the heist movie, and the extremes of human nature.  With this story you have the little old lady who is so kind and thoughtful and never gives a second thought to want to do the right thing, though albeit with a little moment's thought when presented with a sorta-proposition by Guinness' character regarding the money.  But the other men, the thieves, the "Unholy Five", are all crooked to one degree or another, and yet when faced with the little old lady they're for if but a brief moment caught in their tracks.

Hello.. soon I will kill you, I mean, erm, how many pounds for the room, yes!

There is a good deal of comedy that comes out of this tension that is more on the end of the criminals in the early scenes, such as when they're tasked to get one of the Old Lady's birds from atop a book-case, and then later it's... just awkward.  She finds out about the whole situation just by the means of putting two together - she sees (in one of the biggest laughs I've ever had with a movie) the money go flying out of a briefcase stuck on a door - and has some old ladies over somewhat unexpectedly, and the men have to be 'gentlemen' and stick around for the tea party.  And there is just so much that Guinness, who shows here if nowhere else how great he was with precise, smooth comic timing all based on looks and the use of voice, is able to milk here with his interactions with Katie Johnson that it boggles the mind.  It's a master's class in moral contrasts that in another, more traditional, context could make for a solid thriller.

But Mackendrick is after showing how the British go about mucking things up.  These guys should have it down how to pull off this heist, and for a moment by some other dumb luck (i.e. the bumbling marketplace man with his horse that the Old Lady is so bothered by and makes a big scene of it) it looks as if the Unholy Five will get away with it.  But where's the fun in that, eh?  In part it stems from when Guiness is introduced, having a bit of the Lorre stature (and maybe a slight visual nod when he arrives to Hitchcock's The Lodger), that gives the film its twisted undercurrent.  Then it continues as they keep getting interrupted while "playing" classical music.  And once the cat is out of the proverbial bag, the comic insanity reaches a feverish pitch (where it could spill over, and probably does, into full-on thriller territory) in the last half hour as the men have to decide how to "get rid" of the woman.

"This is an EX Parrot!" "Wrong sketch!" "Oh, right, right, carry on then."

The sort of plan the Professor devises won't be new at all to those who saw the Coen brothers inferior (could it be any other way) remake with Tom Hanks, only there it was over a river bank.  Here the mood that is reached here is not very funny, but feels just about right for what Mackendrick and writer William Rose are going for.  The foreboding sense of "the end" of these people is in such stark contrast to the nearly saintly innocence of the Old Lady that it practically takes on the air of a nasty little fairy tale, with the Professor the Big Bad Wolf with Bad British Teeth (which is Redundant in Caps).

With his minions like Peter Sellers (who, somewhat surprisingly I should note, is not the funniest thing here but merely a good, amusing side character with a few keen reaction shots), it's at once a wonderful comic caper and a sly statement on good and evil, and if the lines can ever blur - at least when the Old Lady's former Old Man is staring down from the picture (and no, unlike in the remake, he doesn't goofily change his facial expression with every glance).

"My, you sure have changed since the 90's New Kids on the Block!" "Uh, yeah, right, that's Donnie over in the hat."

I don't mean to harp too much on the remake, by the way, as that film has its own merits (J.K. Simmons for one, who is funnier than any of the supporting crooks in the original), and yet is brought down by just trying to do *too BIG much* where a tightrope walk of comedy and thriller is needed (ironically the Coens reached that perfect pitch much earlier in their careers with Raising Arizona, but I digress).  But what makes this 1955 film stick so much in the mind after it ends is, yes, the performances from Guinness and Johnson, and also how sharp it is in its sensibility.  If it weren't so damn funny (or maybe because of it) it would be downright haunting as British film-noir goes.

PS: Fun fact: William Rose wrote the script after having the entire movie play in a dream he had... freaky, and righteous too...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Googolplex Gulag with FAST FIVE, THOR and BRIDESMAIDS

Haven't done this in several weeks- due to lack of funds and lack of time- but now it's summer baby, so watch out.  Time to flood the multiplex with sequels, reboots, remakes, rip-offs, knock-offs, and those little cupcakes you might want to buy when you pass by the window on the corner shop.


Fast Five, from Def-Jam records.

This is not just a popcorn movie.  Oh no, that's not enough for Justin Lin doing his third Fast & Furious franchise movie that is now in its fifth gear (see what I did there).  This is popcorn smothered with tons of butter and salt and grease, and then a large one that has ridiculous steroids pumped in that give one extra muscles while watching the movie and then makes one sweat steroid juice the way Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's head does here.

Fast Five is dumber than a box of bricks and happy enough to be that, and while it doesn't have quite the amount of racing as the past films it has, well, a heist plot of ridiculous (but appropriate) proportions, Rio di Janeiro locations, Paul Walker's stone-faced "acting", the return of Tyrese(!) and Ludacris(!!) to the franchise, and... did I mention the Rock?

Apparently this is still going on - this scene, I mean - and it's two weeks since I've seen the movie.  "SUP!"

In short, or as short as I can so I can get back to the rest of the review, the duo of Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Brian O'Connor (Paul Walker) are now in Rio after O'Connor engineered a super-daring WTF escape from a prison bus for Dominic, and now they're on the FBI wanted-WTF-list, being chased by Super-FBI-Cop-Sweat-Bulge Luke Hobbs (Johnson/The Rock).

But there's another problem in that Rio is being run by Super-Drug-Douche Herman Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida, or 'Guy Movies Get To Play Evil Spanish Businessman-Drug-Lord-Whatever), and that his men basically try to kill Toretto and O'Connor.  So, there's payback time as they bring in the rest of the crew from ALL of the past movies - 2 Fast 2 Furious' Tyrese and Ludacris, one of the Asian guys from Tokyo Drift (sorry I didn't see that one), and a couple others - and make a daring plan to heist all of Reyes' monies in Rio.

If you have any other reaction other than 'Cool!' you don't need glasses.

How this happens, and how they try to dodge Sweaty-McRockpants is what the movie is, and it's up to Lin and his writer Chris Morgan.  Do they make it work?  Yes and no.  No in that the movie is really stupid in how it gets out of certain plot jams and how it eventually tries to make Luke Hobbs not so much a "good" guy but not as Super-Raging as he is earlier and one-track-minded (indeed for a little while I was reminded of my friend's webseries Kyle Sands: Raptor Hunter with the kind of hilarious fervor The Rock pitches here).  And near the end the movie almost cops out with a detail I won't put forward here.  But I would say 'Yes' in that I could forget about some of the shit that didn't make sense and focus on the stuff that does: Machismo, fast cars, a few hot female bums, and a wonderfully ludicrous heist plot that is like Ocean's 11 on... what else can use aside from steroids?

It also helps that the actors are having fun with the material too.  Sure, as I mentioned, Paul Walker has the personality of lead, and Vin Diesel isn't that much better (but hey, at least he can kinda, sorta smile, which is like seeing the T-800 trying to smile in Judgment Day), but the supporting cast has good camraderie and their 'training' stuff to get prepared to heist Reyes' loot is fun in an escapist-silly sort of way.  Even the Rock seems to be getting into it as he waddles from one set piece to another - he can't really move much as us regular folk do being that he's a Super-Rockinator now - giving orders and/or kicking ass, and when he finally has his bitch match-up with Toretto, it turns into a wrestling match that made me giddy for the days of WWF.

But yes, I've been a little vague on this heist element.  What is it they're stealing.  Well, a bank vault.  ALL OF IT.  ACROSS THE ROAD FOR MILES!  Yes, you read that right.  And while I can't be sure a monster truck, let alone two cars, can really drag an entire giant bank vault across town, it's enjoyable to let go and just admire the sheer tenacity of the makers to pull it off.  And hey, who needs violence with consequences anyway when there's such a super-thing at stake?

A part of me should try and not be so sarcastic, but it is the only way to ignore the fact that this is one of the most violent films you'll see this year... that is PG-13.  Indeed this is one of those Hollywood movies without any consequences really, save for maybe one death of a character.  But people are shot (a lot), stabbed, punched, and knocked about town with a giant safe... but it's alright, cause it's sans-lots-of-blood.

So on a moral level Fast Five is hard to excuse.  But as a form of entertainment that travels on its fast looks, fast action and sometimes deliberate pacing midway through... it's not bad.  I wish I could hate it, but it's kinda hard to do so.  Justin Lin's direction is smart about being so fucking stupid, and understands at this point in the franchise it's good to just keep the action strong (and, compared to other super-fast-cut action fare, it is), and dialog lean and meaty.  I admire that, even as I don't rush out to ingest such things as Vin Diesel and The Rock having big 2-dimensional words in a 2D setting. 


::turns to audience:: Everybody got that?
I knew of Thor here and there in the comics - haven't really read what he's done on his own, maybe a little Avengers here and there - but I did know Odin through a friend of mine, who actually is (or at least was) an Odinist, believing in the mythological Gods of old Norse times and for the usual things that come with it: like Vikings and raping and pillaging the lands and being cool-looking in blonde hair and giant hammers and swords (in other words, Masters of the Universe minus Skeletor).  But that is in another form, what about the Marvel Thor?

Well, he's kind of similar, in that in Odin is his father, Loki his brother, and they all live in this other dimension on a 'realm' called Aasgaard (not to be confused with its porno equivalent, Assgaard - see what I did there).  And they're the keepers of the Peace, by being bad-ass warriors who know when to fight to protect their lands.  In this film, directed by Shakespeare disciple and now master Kenneth Branaugh, there is inbalance in the kingdom as headstrong Thor (Chris Hemsworth) goes too far in provoking the Ice king and his soldiers, and so is sent by Odin to Earth in banishment.  His Hammer is sent to Earth, too, but unable to use it or lift it up from the rock it's crunched in due to his lost immortal power.  But back on Aasgaard, what about Loki, Thor's (not-quite so it turns out) brother?

Anthony Hopkins as Anthony Hopkins in his Hopkinsiest performance since Beowulf (and now with more eyepatch!)

Again, I must mention that I didn't read the comics, and so I went in with a fresh perspective of just getting the straight story with some context being the world of the Avengers (which will be coming out next year from, ::geek drool::, Joss Whedon).  The effort by Branaugh and company, including writers Mark Protosevich and J. Michael Straczynski, is for good, if not great, result.  It has two kinds of modes, one that takes place in the Norse-Mythological planet (and please don't think me as too joking in comparing to Masters of the Universe, it has such a He-Man vibe I suddenly got flashbacks to a youth I barely had with them), and the one on Earth that involves scientists Natalie Portman and Stellan Sarsgaard who find Thor and are befuddled by how he could've come to Earth.  The real balance here that works is between the serious, B-movie style of acting and design of Aasgaard, and the comedy of what happens when the big Norse fish is out of water.

I was glad about that since my one real worry, going in with limited expectations aside from the excitement of Branaugh directing, was that it would take itself *too* seriously when it's got mythological Gods and giant robot-men controlled by other Gods and a hammer that act as (no joke) helicopter during battle.  It helps keep things grounded to have Thor being up against such things as common human etiquette or walking into a pet-store and demanding a horse.  While some of the comedy could be a little too much (reactions from one-dimensional Kat Dennings), it keeps a good way about the story by cutting between the drama back on the home planet with the dastardly shit Loki finding out about his real past and using it to his advantage, and Thor's comic-serious path to redemption.

Um.... line?

So the action is pretty tight and exciting, such as when Thor and his other warriors Sefi and the Three Warriors (I think that's their name) go after the ice people, and I liked how SHIELD, the organization that plays the big Administrator role (with great deadpan work from Clark Greeg as Agent Colson as always) in the Avengers universe, works its way into getting Thor into it (and hey... is that Jeremy Renner!)  There are some scenes though that do feel a little 'chopped' as it were, as if Branaugh didn't (or just didn't period) have final cut with some of the Aasgaard storylines with Odin and Loki.

The one big criticism I'd have of the direction is an over-use of what's called the 'Dutch' angle, or the tilted shots.  You know the ones from Terry Gilliam movies or (goddamnit) Battlefield Earth.  Sometimes these angles can be effective, but there is a point about halfway through Thor when it just loses whatever meaning Branaugh and his DP mean for it.  I was screaming inside "WE GET IT!  DYNAMIC!  LOKI - EVIL! FINE!"  And it just wouldn't stop.  It's basically the Star Trek lens flare problem all over again.

::Insert Black Swan joke here::

But overall, Thor works as a solid little piece of the bigger puzzle Marvel is putting together.  They've introduced through a charismatic and *good* actor Chris Hemsworth a character that will endure for at least a while in the right proportions, and it's fun to see him kick some serious ass when he does.   Some of it very silly, and you may half expect Queen to come on the soundtrack ala Flash Gordon.  But it's a smart silly, as if Branaugh is sitting next to you jutting you side going, 'Ahaha, look at those big actors saying big things, isn't it a hoot!"  Yes it is, Kenny boy.


and third:

Six women. One of them is not who they say they are.  K-Billy's Super Sounds of the 70's continues...
Judd Apatow productions are not all completely alike, but enough are by this point since the release of 2005's The 40-Year Old Virgin among others that one sees how Bridesmaids is the way it is.  It's a mix of what Apatow's movies do their bestest to combine: Cassavetes-inspired improvisation scenes that go on for a while longer than even most other comedy movies (sometimes for great effect, sometimes, as with Cassavetes, actors' indulgence), and TV inspired plot and character devices that has a certain formula to it (for example every one of these movies has a scene, or maybe more, where the main character messes up big time and gets into bad times with other characters, and then they'll redeem themselves or something else will happen to straighten things out). 

But with Bridesmaids, a story of a flawed 30-something (Kristin Wiig) watching as her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) about to get married and the trouble she has with the well-off 'new' friend Helen (Rose Byrne), the problem is tone, and sometimes length, and with characterization.  The film boats a wonderful cast, mostly brought over from TV from various walks of work - Mad Men (Jon Hamm), The I.T. Crowd (Chris O'Dowd), Melissa McCarthy (Gilmore Girls), Wiig and Rudolph (SNL), Terry Crews (with an AMAZING guest appearance/cameo, Everybody Hates Chris) - and most of them have at least something interesting to do on screen, whether it's just one scene (McCarthy's heart-to-heart that is more like a near beating to Wiig's Annie) or throughout (Rudolph is always charming, Hamm gets to milk every scene for comic gold which is a nice surprise from him).

But what it came down to for me is... I just never liked Annie, or at least the film worked pretty hard for me to not like her AND like her at the same time.  Wiig's performance isn't to blame so much as her writing, which makes her into such a self-centered and shallow kind of person that even the shit we should be on her side for - such as a plan involving France/Parisian stuff for a wedding shower that is snatched from her by Helen - that I found it hard to be on her side as the progonist when it comes time for the usual Apatowian reversal-of-drama in the last act.  It's a movie that is supposed to kind of take on some of the tropes of these awful romantic comedies, where the female characters become so bitchy and backstabbing, but with Annie it was hard for them not to fall into those same tropes.  And they do.

Maybe too it has to do with the other male interest, Chris O'Dowd who finally breaks through after years on The IT Crowd, being such a wonderful guy (the kind, you know, that she probably shouldn't deserve), or that the obstacles for her character should be so clear and yet she acts bitchy when there's no real reason to, such as at her job.  To be fair before I go much further on this tract, Wiig being talented as she is does make this character funny when she goes over the top (even when I hated her the most, when she flips out at the bridal shower tearing about a giant cookie, I was chuckling if awkward), or at least can write some funny situations.  One of those, which finds a nice melding of the long improv and comedic timing in Apatow movies, is when Annie and Helen after so soon meeting at an early pre-wedding party get into a competition of congratulations to their friend.  It feels like it should be going too long, but the comic momentum and the timing is what saves it. 

Not so much a scene that involves, well, shit, and vomit, as the girls get food poisoned at a Brazilian BBQ Annie unwisely chooses for the bridesmaids to go to, and that definitely goes on for too long with little to make it work.  But then as much as I can (and do) complain about the Annie character, there is still stuff about the movie that makes me want to recommend it to people just looking for a good time (maybe, as an aside, this is the theme of this week's Gulag - quasi-turn-off-your-brain-Hollywood-spectacle), as with the actors I mentioned or how the situations wind up funnier than expected like a protracted ecstasy trip Annie has on an airplane ride.

It's a case really of the parts being much better than the whole, which goes on too long, has other parts that could just be cut (what's with those not-funny British roommates of Annie's anyway, aside from the eventual plot pay-off?), and it being much too much to get past the characters faults.  The tone thing with that is that, perhaps, if it had been more of a straight dramedy it could have worked, looking at a person like Annie being at rock-bottom and overcoming her personal shit to be there for her friend(s) at such a crazy time.  But it's still a gross-out Apatow production with servicable Paul Feig direction, and it doesn't go anywhere that is interesting with the characters past some inspired comic set-pieces.  That may be enough for some.  For me a good many jokes and gags started to fall flat after the half-way point (or the Big Shit scene), and I just got tired of it really.  It's a true mixed bag.

Also, two more little things: 1) this is NOT "The Hangover: Chick Edition" as advertised (albeit it's not one of the Sex & the City movies either so that helps), and 2) near the end the movie pulls a big gag involving Wilson Phillips that just made me really pine for a similar (and MUCH funnier) bit from Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.

PS: RIP Jill Clayburgh

re: Raptor Hunter:

re: Queen's "Flash Gordon:

re: Harold & Kumar:

Monday, May 23, 2011

R.I.P. Train: Leonard Kastle (1929-2011 - director of THE HONEYMOON KILLERS)

It's a sad thing when any director dies, but something nearly singular (or I should say rare) when the director of only one film has died.  There aren't too many in history who direct just one movie and move either don't do it again for various reasons or die, but there are a handful of notables for better (Jean Vigo, Charles Laughton) and worse (Hal B. Warren, whoever that motherfucker was who directed After Last Season).  Now there is another to add to the list.

The director of the 1970 film The Honeymoon Killers has passed, Leonard Kastle... and he only directed this one film (and according to small obits I perused he was mostly a composer), ironically brought in after none other than Martin Scorsese was kicked off for taking too long with master shots.  It was a small independent release back when it came out, and it became after a time a cult film that was praised none higher than Truffaut who called it the best American film of the past 20 years (that being 1950 to 1970 I suppose, the quote can be found somewhere online).

Reprinted below is my review from from 2007.  I gave it, in the traditional star rating system, 3 1/2 out of 4 stars, with only minor complaints on what is in general a wonderfully written, directed and acted film:

"*** This review may contain spoilers ***

To get right out of the way, the quibbles I had with The Honeymoon Killers: once or twice in Leonard Kastle's direction the bravely amateurish quality goes into the unnecessarily over-dramatic (the drowning scene in the lake is the most extreme example, maybe the only one worth noting here); a slow start as far as emotional engagement to the story (it's a slightly weak start in terms of the relationship between mother and daughter Beck); a scene towards the end where right after the murder of a crucial character- and presented in a perfect way with the absence of malice- dialog is exchanged that feels inappropriate for immediately after such an event that's just happened (or rather, it would be a fine exchange of words- last words spoken directly between Martha and Ray on screen- if it were in another room or a cut-away).  But these aren't big gaping flaws so much as minor criticisms of what is really a passionate debut where exact knowledge of craft isn't as crucial, though it is filmed wonderfully by Kastle and DP Oliver Wood in black and white, as are the very truthful performances.

According to Kastle on the DVD interview, the film is more or less accurate to real events, meaning that certain facts involving the murders are real, but there are small details slipped in for dramatic effect. It's a major credit that nothing feels false, however if suitably dramatic, in a form that edges somewhere between drama and documentary, never too at ease in slipping into one genre or the other. The mood is foreboding a lot of the time, with the limited lighting and tight, lingering close-ups and shots accentuating Martha's fleshy arms. Adding to the atmosphere greatly, and perhaps as the best reasons to see the film, are the leads themselves, with Shirley Stoler giving a second best performance of her career (the best would later be in a less demonstrative but perfectly cold turn in Seven Beauties) as a nurse who falls for a skeezy con-man named Ray (Lo Bianco is also powerful in his role, as well as totally appropriate for the role in an occasional toupee), who lures lonely women into his trap and gets their money.

It's a story about the couple's duality of ego and disintegration within their combustible deal going on. They're heavily in love, or what might be considered love, but neither side will give in totally for the other's desire- Martha to settle down with Ray and for him to stop his scheming and getting close with women, and Ray to get enough money so the two of them can move on to somewhere else. It's a impactive psychological analysis not just because of how the characters are and act in their real world settings in such a low-budget and non-studio settings, but because the actors are the farthest from being beautiful or pretty to look at.

As what Kastle called decidedly anti Bonnie & Clyde casting, Ray and Martha look like they were pulled out of a local deli kitchen, with enough attitude to knock out anyone in sight. It's a fascinating story and fairly well told, and whatever slip-ups Kastle runs into in terms of not telling the greatest story or little things with the style are made up by the immediate nature of the material. It's raw, rough, lurid and disturbing work."

(If you'd like you can watch the whole film below, in 11 parts):

NY TIMES OBIT (much more detailed than I could write-up)

Papa Mike's Video #1 - RW Fassbinder's THE BITTER TEARS OF PETRA VON KANT

Time to start blogging more on here as I've been slacking on writing and reviewing (or I should say busier than a tornado in Alabama), so I'll try and stick to a new themed blog-post: Papa Mike Video.  This is a somewhat personal reference since my father-in-law is named Michael and is also called Papa by someone close to him and me (a hint: it's my wife).  But why a whole review series?  Well, like me, he is a dedicated film buff, and has quite the collection of videos and DVDs and so on, with TV (Mad Men) and 50's sci-fi (The Wasp Woman) and lots of other things like Scorsese, Altman, old film-noirs, etc.  And I sometimes borrow some of his wares, but I haven't gotten around to see all of them that I've borrowed... until now.

and with that, review #1, of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1972 Golden Berlin Bear nominated feature, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

One of director RW Fassbinder's great attributes was to make tragic bigger-than-life characters (if only so to themselves) and place them in a dramatic environment that has the air of melodrama fused with a more grounded reality than something like one of the director's idols, Douglas Sirk.  This isn't to say that Fassbinder doesn't want to make his characters and style unsubtle.  The emotions in his films run deep, but at the same time he's influenced by a mood that can be called... well, anguish really.  A film like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul is a very different creature emotionally than All That Heaven Allows, even as it's an adaptation of that similar material.  The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant fits perfectly into Fassbinder's realm of obsessions of characters caught in alienation, made for by their own design or by the people around them, and it's nothing short of memorable on all artistic fronts.

The film is a chamber piece set in the house/apartment (could be either, maybe easier to settle on loft) and all about the fashion designer of the title (Margrit Carstensen), as Petra sits or stands or leans back in bed while she orders around her servant Marlene (Irm Hermann) and spends her time doing... well, not exactly 'work' per-say, though she does love to get the newspaper to see her latest work on display.  She mostly leans back with a friend, like also fashionista Sidonie (Katrin Schaake) and complains about her ex-husband who she divorced ("He stank of man," she declares dramatically, among other put-downs), and acts her arrogant way she does.  But then one day she meets a model, 23 year old Karin Thimm (Hanna Schygulia), who has a tragic past involving her parents and needs some help adjusting in the new city she's in.  Petra takes her in, and falls madly in love... too mad, perhaps, as Karin is still technically married to her husband.

As the film is nominally about how Petra gets into this relationship, it becomes more about The World According to Petra, and about how she is on the surface a drama queen but possibly more tender and easy to hurt than many might realize.  Or maybe not; maybe what we see with Petra is what we get, except for one factor: Marlene.  This is the aspect of Fassbinder's direction and writing that makes things most peculiar and fascinating; in a sense Hermann is the most subdued but fascinating actor to watch in the film, almost as if she's  playing Liv Ullmann to Carstensen's Bibi Andersson ala Persona.  She doesn't say a word through the entire film, but whether it is because she is mute or chooses not to speak ever is left unclear (and rightfully, wonderfully so).

She is the one who has been with Petra the longest up until now; while she has a daughter, who we only really know exists and see in the last act of the film on Petra's birthday, and the ex-husband she so derides to her friend, Marlene, being there for three years, has definitely had more than she can bear.  It's in the body language, and how she just looks at Petra at times, particularly when Petra is talking about her past relationships.  She's almost, whether by choice or by just the general hard nature of living with this difficult person, like a droid in a Star Wars film minus the beeps.  There's one scene where she just stands and leans against a door, silhouetted in black, looking on at her master without Petra seeing her, and finally snaps out of it as she is called to duty to do something else: make coffee, type something, even paint one of the dresses meant for design.

Well, we didn't say it'd be the 'happy' tears, did we?
Or, perhaps, she's like a living ghost or some other part of Petra's own psychology.  This may even make it more personal for Fassbinder than one think, as he for years had a kind of personality (this is according to reports) that was like a combination of Petra and Marlene: an alienated loner and a pushy drama queen (with a little of the black relationship bit thrown in that Karin eventually fesses up to to her would-be lover).  But how personal, or the incredible details of how fast Fassbinder put the film together (written in *twelve hours* and filmed in ten days), doesn't matter so much as how truthful the whole film feels.  In essence Petra shouldn't be any deeper than a Sex & the City female, but she feels so because of how Fassbinder photographs her, often with Michael Ballhaus' brilliant long takes and the choices in hard, bright light and darker tones in the rooms, and how she just looks at people and relates to them.

And speaking of direction, how Fassbinder frames his women and has them interact physically in the frame is very important.  Sometimes they're quite close, and sometimes far apart in a setting, or a head may appear on one side and then another.  And then there's the aspect of these bodies being the way they are in a room (a cut-away at a crucial moment to two mannequins in an 'embrace' is startling and important), or how Petra is in an empty room with nothing except a telephone, picking up and hanging up as she expects to hear from her obsession Karin.  It's a closed-off world that Petra has made in her loft, but the camera is not entirely stationary (though when it is it's for good psychological reason); sometimes it will move for emphasis, or Ballhaus will do a rac-focus that is meant to stun as when Marlene is looking on in her sad (or just empty?) face from a point across the room, it zooms a little bit out from her, and then goes to Petra's face in the same frame: pale, eyes excited and/or delirious.  It is THE Petra after all.

Yet the film wouldn't be quite as great as it is without the performances here.  Most of the actresses I could see were Fassbinder regulars, most notably from the also-shot-in-1972 Merchant of Four Seasons.  It is, by nature of the character and how she fits in her own story, the Margrit Carstensen show, and she takes Petra into a realm of hyper-drama at times; she can be gentle and cool and understanding, but usually with a cruel undercurrent, mostly at Marlene, and then later can be one of those 'force of nature' women that is comparable to a character out of a Bette Davis movie.

She's a character who tries to hide her weaknesses- of being completely alone and without hope, which she very well could be- by acting outward and lashing out at others who do help.  And even with Karin she has a scene (one of the more explosive ones in the film) where she goes too far and pushes her away.  For Castensen it's a chance-of-a-lifetime performance and she takes it wholly.  And so, too, for Schygulia, who basically has two scenes but sticks out wonderfully (especially as she wears a 'fashionable' golden neck-brace in a scene), and Hermann, who unlike the others has to underplay everything so much that she gives possibly the best performance of anyone.

In the director's vast-but-short body of work (a few dozen films from the late 60's to 1982), this stands as one of the films that encapsulates so much of what is daring and resonant by Fassbinder.  We can hate these people, or love them, or both, but we can't reject them or act so indifferent, and his style of direction and camerawork to keep everything tight in closed quarters is the correct choice.  The world of Petra von Kant, set mostly in a bedroom or in a living room and tinged with bi-sexual (or any sexual) indulgences with flamboyant dresses and wigs, is not very pleasant, but people may come, and may return, because she is powerfully, painfully human, for all of her wants and neediness and flaws.