Sunday, January 31, 2010

28) Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and 30) The Vanishing (1988)

28) The Phantom of the Paradise (1974) Dir: Brian De Palma Date Released: October 1974 Date Seen: January 28, 2010 Rating: 4.25/5

30) The Vanishing (1988) Dir: George Sluizer Date Released: October 1990 Date Seen: January 30, 2010 Rating: 4.5/5

Saw both and enjoyed both immensely for an impending list of films where the protagonists get "buried alive." Check it out at Ugo.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

27) Corpse Mania (1981)

27) Corpse Mania (1981) Dir: Chih-Hung Kuei Date Released (DVD): October 2008 Date Seen: January 26, 2010 Rating: 4/5

A lesser film than Kuei's The Boxer's Omen but an equally entertaining one in its own right. See my review of it for my "The Deep Cut" column for Ugo.

26) Creation (2009)

26) Creation (2009) Dir: Jon Amiel Date Released: January 2010 Date Seen: January 25, 2010 Rating: 1.75/5

Sets the bar for middlebrow mediocrity in 2010. See my review for The New York Press.

25) District 13: Ultimatum (2009)

25) District 13: Ultimatum (2009) Dir: Patrick Alessandrin Date Released: February 2010 Date Seen: January 24, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

I liked it more than I probably should. Gotta decide where my forthcoming review goes. New York Press or House Next Door. Something.

24) The Hit (1984)

24) The Hit (1984) Dir: Stephen Frears Date Released: March 1985 Date Seen: January 23, 2010 Rating: 4/5

Being trapped on a long one-way trip to certain doom with a deviously serene Terence Stamp, a stoic John Hurt, a snot-nosed Tim Roth and a busty, bitey Spanish prostitute would have been on its own a uniquely unnerving experience. But The Hit has burrowed underneath my skin not because of where it intends to go but where it ends up. I'm haunted by the disorienting but meticulously blocked explosions of white and its treacherously straight-forward trajectory to a unexpectedly abrupt dead end. The salient black-and-white color patterns in the characters' wardrobes alone will have me busy trying to tease out new, enlightening ironic meaning from the characters' respective life philosophies now that I know what happens--how it ends with a whimper, a cold sweat, a guitar and several bangs. What appears to be a movie that endorses Stamp's "let yourself go" worldview is in fact a a Beckett-esque noir where there is literally no exit in sight. Bleak as sin and laughing all the way. It's amazing that I ended my birthday eve festivities on this blackest of notes. The clock struck midnight on my 23rd birthday as the end credits rolled. Wotta world.

Note: I'm especially struck by the overhead shot of Hurt struggling with the prostitute after she makes her big escape attempt. It's too close to be truly distant from the action but too far away to see the characters as anything but oversized ants. It's as if it's filmed from the ledge of a nearby building, halfway between the white of the sky and the dirt of the ground.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

23) The Shooting (1967)

23) The Shooting (1967) Dir: Monte Hellman Date Released: XX 1966 Date Seen: January 23, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

Even though I watched a really bad video/audio transfer of The Shooting, the impact that the truly horrible sound/picture quality had on me was minimal. The film's biggest asset is its Twilight Zone-esque dialogue, which stands apart from its generic compatriots in that it's more about an invisible menace than a tangible one with a six-shooter and spurs. Jack Nicholson's script, which I've heard he "meticulously" researched for period-specific details (commence eye-rolling here), crackles with the kind of straight-forward intellectual brawn of Rod Serling's great serialized drama. As in The Twilight Zone, he tension in The Shooting is purely imaginary, never really a matter of visualized terror or gore, not of sight or sound, but of mind. In that sense, the film deviates a bit from its tightly-scripted and largely suggestive build-up and gets a bit high on its own fumes by the end during its big psychedelic reveal but otherwise, it's a steady and consistently funny acid western.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

22) Silent Running (1972)

22) Silent Running (1972) Dir: Douglas Trumbull Date Released: March 1972 Date Seen: January 23, 2010 Rating: 4/5

Silent Running is such a stirring character study because it allows Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) to languish in his isolation, to take stock of what he has only to have that abruptly taken away from him for no reason. Though Trumbull's movie has its fair share of plotholes (Why did they need to blow up the forests in the first place if they could have jettisoned them into space like Dern does at the end?), the way Lowell confronts his own mortality is devastating. His only friends are robots and even they can't survive or coordinate themselves well enough to provide him with the companionship or the support he needs. Like the forest he sets out to protect, Lowell realizes that he can't stop everything from happening and eventually has to give up, even if he does manage to teach Huey how to care for the forest once he's gone. He knows that he can only do so much and after he does it, he resigns himself to an early death back among a homogeneous future where nothing fluctuates because everything is artificial. Suck on that, diehard Moon fans.

Monday, January 25, 2010

RV!: Basic Instinct (1992)

RV!: Basic Instinct (1992) Dir: Paul Verhoeven Date Released: March 1992 Date Seen: January 23, 2010 Rating: 4/5

This movie is a terrific guilty pleasure of mine. Verhoeven has a knack for aestheticizing some of the most lurid aspects of the noir genre. In Michael Douglas he finds a perfect Spillane-type dick, a man whose personal demons don't so much excuse his bad behavior as they permit further carnal debauchery. Douglas has a riled-up quality here that's effectively winsome in spite of everything. He delivers sleazy-ass quips with a barely sublimated urge to vent his anger on someone, anyone, quick ("I think she's the fuck of the century. What do you think?"). And of course there's Verhoeven's unrepentant affinity for sexual decadence, which fits right in here with the film's Hitchcock ala Mike Hammer vibe. The film really hits its stride in its last act but it's never not a flirty blast of hot air.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

RV!: Southland Tales (2006)

RV!: Southland Tales (2006) Dir: Richard Kelly Date Released: November 2007 Date Seen: January 23, 2010 Rating: 4.25/5

My fourth viewing. I will never be convinced that this film isn't an intellectual stew about the destruction of history and an amazing comedy about preposterous ideas. See my wild and excited comments during my pre-birthday live-tweet by searching #rkstales.

21) Legion (2010)

21) Legion (2010) Dir: Scott Stewart Date Released: January 2010 Date Seen: January 22, 2010 Rating: 3.5/5

There's a brash glee that sustains the apocalyptically stupid Legion, a film best described as The Terminator by way of Assault on Precinct 13 except with ornery angels instead of misanthropic robots. Basically: God's winged monkeys, I mean messengers descend to Earth with the intent of murdering humanity's last hope, now still in the womb, but Michael (Paul Bettany), a rogue angel with a very good tailor, won't let them!

There is absolutely no coherent rhyme or reason to Legion beyond a very shallow point but it doesn't need logic--it's ideologically streamlined that way. Director Scott Stewart careens through demented action scene after action scene with an abandon and wanton zeal that deserves much praise considering how patently turgid the film's nonsensical obsession with finding the goodness (ie: faith) in humanity is. Yeah, yeah, the film's about the redemption of humankind in the face of certain divine punishment/extinction, right, right. But hey, did the good guys just open fire on a group of brainwashed Hot Topic punx and then cut off the thumbs of a sweet little boy? Suh-weet!

Legion's biggest asset is its raucously puerile sense of humor. An old lady scampers up a wall after screeching "Your baby's gonna burn!" and then a demonic ice cream man attacks a diner full of heavily armed Mid-Westerners. Bettany's clearly having a great time here, delivering his hyperbolically somber dialogue with Shakespearian gravitas as he mows down angels with semi-automatics and rocket launchers (the role is a breath of fresh air for the actor after his literally self-flagellating role in The Da Vinci Code). Even Dennis Quaid, who plays the boss of the mother-to-be (Adrianne Palicki) of the next John Connor, manages to make his constipated, cock-eyed bulldog schtick work here where in ways it hasn't in years. If morbidly curious readers can do as Quaid, Mr. Ex-Lax himself, did and just go with the flow, a fun time is sure to be had.

20) The Tooth Fairy (2010)

20) The Tooth Fairy (2010) Dir: Michael Lembeck Date Released: January 2010 Date Seen: January 20, 2010 Rating: 0.75/5

I took a bullet for fellow Slantketeer Nick Schager by reviewing this film. I bleed and yet I only really feel bad for The Rock. See my review for the new and improved Slant Magazine.

19) It's Alive (1974)

19) It's Alive (1974) Dir: Larry Cohen Date Released: October 1974 Date Seen: January 19, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

The most accessible of Cohen's horror satires that I've seen so far. I can dig it. See my "The Deep Cut" review for Ugo.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

18) The Book of Eli (2010)

18) The Book of Eli (2010) Dir: Albert and Allen Hughes Date Released: January 2010 Date Seen: January 19, 2010 Rating: 1.75/5

I should have known something was up when I heard that the Hughes brothers had made a moderately decent film. Strike two, boys. See my review for The House Next Door.

17) The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)

17) The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) Dir: Mario Bava Date Released: May 1964 Date Seen: January 19, 2010 Rating: 4/5

By explicitly creating a kinship to Hitchcock through the film's title, Mario Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much reminds us why he's the best of the crop of Italian filmmakers that advertise explicitly their kinship to the "Master of Suspense," more so than Lucio Fulci and a lot more than Dario "Do You Like Hitchcock" Argento. Like Hitchcock, Bava directs films like a sadistic chess player. His method of storytelling is all about playful feints and red herrings, as with the film's amiably silly coda, which posits that the events of The Girl Who Knew Too Much might all have been one long, pot-induced bad trip for its wide-eyed, impressionable female protagonist. He deluges you with a meticulously controlled flow of information, all filmed with a visible intent that makes you think anything and anyone might be significant. Bava delights in bursting the viewer's bubble at every turn, mischievously building up certain clues only to deflate their importance an instant later, as with the man who offers "the girl" pot disguised as cigarettes. We immediately meet him on an airplane right after we're introduced to our "gialli"-addicted heroine. A few short minutes later, he's being dragged away by airport security for smuggling pot into Rome. The whole film is similarly a playful and masterfully executed game of cat-and-mouse, one which expresses the mean-spirited sense of play that Hitch loved and is sorely wanting in both Fulci and Argento's films.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

16) Hardware (1990)

16) Hardware (1990) Dir: Richard Stanley Date Released: September 1990 Date Seen: January 17, 2010 Rating: 3.25/5

I find myself as unimpressed with Hardware, Richard Stanley's minor claim-to-fame, as some people were with Avatar. Specifically, I identify with one memorable putdown of James Cameron's bank-busting, game-changing extragavanza. The commenter, whose name I'm forgetting, lamented, and I'm paraphrasing here, how moviegoers have become so conditioned to accept mediocrity that they're ready and willing to accept a crappy story so long as it looks good. I similarly don't see anything in Stanley's career, er, cult-making film that makes me think he's anything more than a talented stylist with a lousy tendency to confuse thematic content with heavy-handed pontificating. Hardware is pretty joyless once you get past its gorgeously desiccated sets and costumes. I mean, who thought Christian doomsaying and cyberpunk would go well together? The moral condescension of the former takes all the fun out of the latter. They, like, cancel each other out, or something. The robot's kinda cool-looking but I hate how Stanley cloaks his haughty cynicism in obtuse Biblical quotes.

14) The Sentinel (1977) and 15) End of Days (1999)

14) The Sentinel (1977) Dir: Michael Winner Date Released: January 1977 Date Seen: January 14, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

15) End of Days (1999) Dir: Peter Hyams Date Released: November 1999 Date Seen: January 15, 2010 Rating: 4/5

I enjoy both of these films for the questionable ideas that they hurl pellmell at the screen but I love the latter film especially. Some Hyams's fans say End of Days is a big lowlight of his later career but I think it's my favorite of his films. End of Days is completely deranged, totally off-its-meds and a lot of funny, full of smart-ass ideas that may or may not be intentional. And good God, I love older Arnie. He curses, he yells a lot more and he looks more pissed off than ever. What's not to love? See my mention of both films in my upcoming feature for The Onion NY AV Club called "When the Rapture Comes to Town" about five films where Judgment Day comes to NYC.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Bottom of '09 Listicle

This is pretty self-explanatory but considering how many stinkers I saw theatrically last year, I figured I'm more than capable of discerning the worst of the worst. Because let's face it: I may think Antichrist is just more cinematic spooge from Lars but it's certainly not the worst thing that I saw in 2009. So here's a list of films you should actively avoid or check out because you're a masochist like me.

6) Donkey Punch (2008)
7) 2012 (2009)
9) The Golden Boys (2009)
11) The Stepfather (2009)
12) The New Twenty (2009)
13) Surveillance (2008)
14) The Collector (2009)
16) Bride Wars (2009)
17) Grace (2009)
18) Departures (2008)
19) Saw VI (2009)
20) (Untitled) (2009)
22) Orphan (2009)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

13) The Paranoids (2008)

13) The Paranoids (2008) Dir: Gabriel Medina Date Released: January 2010 Date Seen: January 13, 2010 Rating: 4/5

Medina's meticulous scripting, blocking and pacing perfectly relates the perfectionist, control freak, autistic, er artistic temperament of the character. See my review for The L Magazine.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

12) Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965)

12) Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965) Dir: Joseph Cates Date Released: September 1965 Date Seen: January 12, 2010 Rating: 4/5

In each scene, a new complex emerges and several new intimations of sexual deviance arise. Shows off its intelligence like a preening peacock; a cross between Psycho and A Woman is a Woman. See my review for The L Magazine.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

10) The Road (2009) and 11) It's Complicated (2009)

10) The Road (2009) Dir: John Hillcoat Date Released: November 2009 Date Seen: January 10, 2010 Rating: 2.75/5

11) It's Complicated (2009) Dir: Nancy Meyers Date Released: December 2009 Date Seen: January 11, 2010 Rating: 2.75/5

Tonally, there aren't two more disparate films amongst last year's crop of awards season titles than The Road, John Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's much-lauded novel and It's Complicated, the latest fizzy romantic comedy about an older woman's libido from writer/director Nancy Meyers. But in a strange way, they could not be more alike. The Road and It's Complicated are "His and Hers" nightmare-fantasies. They both present their protagonists, both older parents, with overwhelming brave new worlds that are secretly their masochistic dreams come true. The Road's "Man" (Viggo Mortensen) might as well be called "Father," as he, like so many other protagonists in McCarthy's novels, sees the world through droopy grand-fatherly eyelids hatcheted by wrinkles and corneas blurred by glaucoma. Man fears so much for the safety of his child that he imagines a world where the rape and cannibalization of his son, "Boy" (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is inevitable. On the opposite end of the hormonal spectrum is It's Complicated's Jane (Meryl Streep), an amiably burnt-out divorcee now tending to her long-neglected post-menopausal sex drive after the youngest of her three children has graduated from college. Along the way, she's wooed by her pot-bellied ex Jake (Alec Baldwin) and her fey architect friend Adam (Steve Martin). Man and Jane collectively groan and grit their teeth a lot but secretly, they relish the stress of their new lives at the end of world. They get to externalize their egos and drain their respective worlds of all moral complexities because the emotional apocalypse has come to town and they need to do their living now while the living's good. Mame Dennis would have been proud but even that great fictitious armchair bohemian would hasten to call either neuroses-prone parent's scenario especially complicated.

The Road warrants more attention than It's Complicated not because it's a better film but because it takes itself more seriously. Screenwriter Joe Penhall's adaptation of McCarthy's novel is insightful in that it sheds light on the seductive central fallacies at the heart of McCarthy's fiction. In The Road, we see Man's world through his eyes before we're allowed a pseudo-objective look around. Through two self-sufficient, narratively ungrounded flashback sequences and one scene of inner monologue, we learn of Man's deep-seated paternal inadequacy. He can't provide food or shelter for his child, not when his wife hightails it out of their marriage because she insists that both she and their son will be raped, murdered and/or eaten by whatever scavenging survivors remain. Man's terror is so great that it becomes elemental in nature: it's naturalized in the landscape surrounding, having sprung from his mind and firmly taken root in the no longer good earth. The terrain he and Boy trudge through is desiccated beyond credible belief because Man and his wife "Woman" (Charlize Theron) know it's a wasteland ("When you dream about bad things happening, you know you're still alive, that you're still fighting."). And so it is.

Man accordingly treats the world like an ever-escalating worst case scenario, one whose inevitable conclusion he pridefully fights against every step of the way. In his hard-hearted struggle to reach the West Coast, he shields his son by reducing the world to "Us" and "Them," "Good guys" and "Bad," making anybody the eensiest bit grey more black than white. Somebody is following them, an unknown assailant fires on them with a bow and arrow without any warning, a fellow survivor steals their supplies while they sleep and gun-toting scavengers (One of whom even wears a balaclava!) are eyeing their lemon drink. Conversely, in Man's world, good things come in only one color: Oasis Pearl. The discovery of a long-forgotten but still somehow carbonated can of cola or of a completely abandoned house on a hill chockfull of canned goods are the kind of miraculous moments of Survivalist joy that Man lives for. When he gives Boy these little treats that would otherwise be taken for granted in, say, Meyers's materialistic world, he knows his son can actually appreciate them. Man wants to keep his Boy pure in every way possible because, as he tells us early on the in the film, Boy is his only proof that God ever existed.

Penhall acknowledges that there's something fundamentally wrong with Man's extremist mentality and the film's ending mildly rebukes the violent conclusion its grizzled protagonist knows is just around the corner by never letting it come. After Man conveniently collapses somewhere on the coast, though he's never exhibited signs of debilitating fatigue or illness before then (It's an Allegorical Illness, silly!), Boy finally meets the people that have been following them and they adopt him. These people have children of their own so when their patriarch tells the boy that he has to take it on faith that they can be trusted, we know that Boy can. But that ending comes too little too late. Almost every scene right up until that crucial reversal of fortune paints Man's actions as grimly heroic at best or darkly romantic at worst. You can tell which way the filmmakers wants your heart-strings to be plucked when Boy says goodbye to his "papa" and we're meant to cry with him as weepy instrumental music is laid over the scene with the delicacy of a steamroller over wet cement. Hillcoat's film is seductively bleak but I really have no use for a film that champions a faux-archetypal macho that makes Clint Eastwood's onscreen persona look like a pussy.

It's Complicated is no less slight though slightly more entertaining for all its pains (Nictate was right: Meryl's smile really does make even the worst tripe go down more smoothly). Jane's quest for a new lover is one she continually frets over but its never more anxious for her than pealing Jake, the more over-excited of her two lapdogs, from her calves or coquettishly applying romantic peer pressure (ie: flirting) to Steve so they can share a joint, the first one either one has had in 27 years (OMG! They're, like, old and uptight and stuff!). Compared to the salted-earth countryside of Man's world, Jane's life is typified by extravagant abundance. To be happy, she just has to choose between idealized, fawning, overly effeminate and very, ahem, mature lovers (Baldwin in particular is often wearing more make-up than Streep, making for a very perplexing androgynous look, especially considering how sultry his voice normally sounds). Jane doesn't want passion: she wants to enjoy the sensual things in life, from home-baked pies and good vino with the gals to bitchin' doobies with her new guy pal. She learns she doesn't need to sacrifice anything or pick anyone to get those things and so she doesn't. Just like Man, she can have her hot chocolate croissant and eat it, too. So what?

Monday, January 11, 2010

9) Wolfen (1981)

9) Wolfen (1981) Dir: Michael Wadleigh Date Released: July 1981 Date Seen: January 10, 2010 Rating: 3.75/5

Wolfen is a striking predecessor and more than likely an under-appreciated influence on Michael Mann's signature style of hyper-sensual filmmaking. Wolfen was released three years before Mann's Miami Vice began and five years before Manhunter, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Wolfen, especially in the latter film's action sequences and director Michael Wadleigh's use of ultra-violet photography to show what Manhattan looks like through the eyes of a lycanthrope. The very concept of having predatory creatures, especially wolves, roaming the streets of Manhattan and pouncing on people in slow motion while Det. Dewey Wilson (Albert Finney) and a few good men, in this case unconventional cops that use heat vision scopes and new sound technology to help them sense things that wolves perceive naturally ("You got your technology but you lost your senses"), learn to identify with the wolves and accept them, has Mann's name written all over it.

What separates Wolfen from Manhunter, which is still one of his most stylistically mature and engaging films, is the fact that the former film strikes a more emotive and infinitely more seductive pose. Wolfen has a very pulpy heart, having been adapted from Whitley Strieber's novel by David Eyre and an uncredited Eric Roth, and it breaks down rather neatly along dime novel conventions (The fact that we alternate between Wilson's POV and the wolves' is especially striking; it's a sleazily literary trope that works better on cheap paper than on the silver screen). Wilson is a wisecracking, sour dick on the outs with the police force that plays by his own rules and shares his insights with partners Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora) and Whittington (Gregory Hines). He's New York's answer to Dave Robicheaux: outwardly sleazy but thoughtfully analytic and armed with more connections than he needs. The film's anti-climactic ending leaves room* for future stories with the character, drastically diverting the trajectory of the investigation from identifying and explaining the recent rash of murders in the city to understanding how they affect Wilson, the man investigating them. The answers Eyre and Roth provide aren't particularly enlightening as they conform to Mann's tendency to have his characters look terribly ruminative to reflect their skin-deep world-weariness. But detective stories are never about answers so much as they are about acquiring them.

Wolfen is a slick little procedural that walks like a horror flick. Wadleigh turns Mann's characteristic displays of relatively raw sensory stimulation on its head. Here, the inability to construct an intelligible picture of the world according to the wolves beyond a beautiful, ever-shifting pool of cascading noises and liquid hues, is terrifying. That kind of overloaded aesthetic is seductive, yes, but it's also tainted with emotional excess. Our view of the city as a wolf oozes with sensation and hence isn't sensibly coherent because it's a flood of lights and sounds, making it an exciting and memorably gaudy view of the city after dark.

*I'm not going to say that it sets up another story with Wilson but it does allow the viewer to think that there could be more stories where Wolfen came from. I really wish that were true.

8) The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009)

8) The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009) Dir: Terry Gilliam Date Released: December 2009 Date Seen: January 9, 2010 Rating: 3.5/5

There's something about Terry Gilliam's signature sour humor, strong-arm didacticism and distortion of classical, fable-like storytelling that completely disarms me. Admittedly, in his older age, his films have only grown more scruffy but there's always a spark of unctuous energy that draws me in to a point. Despite being a minor work on a giant scale, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus is Gilliam's most enjoyable film since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and while it lacks that more visionary film's teeth, it has a pomp and a luster that makes it comfortably staid material from Gilliam. As a master cartoonist, now even more disgruntled and feverish after years of being on the outs with American studios and fans, his vision of the terrors of bourgeois centers of distraction--bars and super-markets--are especially effective. Here he drives home his point about the necessity of a gypsy lifestyle forcefully but rather well, using gently swaying digital camcorders and lots of low-angle shots to show you how foreign and disorienting his world, in this case the dilapidated, traveling sideshow of Dr. Parnasuss (Christopher Plummer), looks when everything is so woefully grounded in materialism and distraction (Spike Jonze owes much of his aesthetic to Gilliam).

And once you step behind the mirror into the film's world of pure CGI imagination, you get a sense of the fittingly terrifying limitless freedom that comes with that technology. By now, Gilliam knows that the promise of CGI is problematic, or in his lexicon, a deadly Siren's call. It comes with a catch, one that overtly resembles the easy out the Devil (Tom Waits, stealing every damn scene) provides his victims, a quick fix that Parnassus, Gilliam's avatar, wearily challenges. By making it so easy to for these characters to visualize their dreams, Gilliam cannily makes their world gaudy and more than a little slight. The sense of wonder of these dull housewives and brain-dead gangsters ,whose egos we probe in not-so great detail behind Parnassus's curtain, are all withered-up trifles that only become memorably lurid when Mr. Nick shows up and threatens to take their imaginations and their souls away. That threat of change has always lit a fire under Gilliam's ass and while here it's a little boring to see him chastise his audience, it props the film up enough to keep his meta-story alive and kicking.

Friday, January 8, 2010

5) Knife in the Water (1962), 6) The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and 7) The Tenant (1976)

5) Knife in the Water (1962) Dir: Roman Polanski Date Released: October 1963 Date Seen: January 8, 2010 Rating: 3.25/5

6) The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) Dir: Roman Polanski Date Released: November 1967 Date Seen: January 8, 2010 Rating: 3.5/5

7) The Tenant (1976) Dir: Roman Polanski Date Released: June 1976 Date Seen: January 8, 2010 Rating: 4/5

When I originally planned yesterday's Polanski triple bill, I had no intention of analyzing the well-regarded filmmaker's controversial personal life. I already know what I think of what he did and I don't particularly want to judge the man for it. The half-baked notion of using the artistic merits of his films to balance the scales of my personal judgment of his actions never crossed my mind. In all honesty, I was just looking for two other films to go with Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers, which I had recently bought with a gift card. I had had my eye on Knife in the Water and The Tenant for some time, so whammo, there you have it.

What I didn't expect to find in these films is an overt, semi-self-deprecating and always playful act of mock-self-analysis. Knife in the Water in particular seems like a film about a young man, credited as "Young boy" (Zygmunt Malanowicz), coming to terms with the fact that he secretly wants to become the bourgeois authority figures that he vocally resents. He's told as much by his would-be conquest Krystyna (Jolanta Umecka), who mostly smirks quietly in the corner over the course of the film, knowing that her husband Andrzej (Leon Niemczyk) and "Boy" are fighting over her. Because she rarely speaks at all, it should be noted that this one time she says anything truly revealing is all about "Boy" and not her. Considering how the film is mostly comprised of blunt but comparatively delicate exchanges between the brash "Boy" and the domineering, reactionary Andrzej, Krystyna's thunderous outburst, characteristically scripted in broad strokes by Jerzy Skolimowski, brings the film's house of cards down on top of "Boy"'s head. Here's his secret fantasy of attaining Andrzej's status without his preening attitude in ruins, a daydream that ends as abruptly as it began ("Boy" practically becomes Andrzej's sedan's hood ornament when he tries to flag him down by standing squarely in the middle of a dirt road).

Taken on its own terms, Knife in the Water's tendency to focus on "Young Boy" may not suggest an autobiographical link to Polanski but it does reveal a lot about his regular preoccupations with sexually incompetent tyros. "Boy" craves Kyrstyna's attention but she shoots him down by sizing him up as quick as you can snap your fingers. He can't have her because he can't face the fact that he's not mature enough to do everything he thinks he can. His laughably egomaniacal self-image as a Christ-like journeyman that can literally walk on water is his undoing.

The same is true of Alfred, the apprentice character Polanski plays in The Fearless Vampire Killers. To overcome his clammy sexual insecurities, which manifest in the form of his failure to stake the vampires that his wizened old master Prof. Abrsonsius (Jack MacGowran, made up to look like a rejected Asterix character) commands him to, Alfred becomes obsessed with rescuing the buxom Sarah (Sharon Tate), the local inn-keeper's buxom daughter. This misguided sense of chivalry ends up getting him turned into a vampire, as the film's mischievously booming voiceover narration states in no uncertain terms ("Thanks to him, this evil would at last be able to spread across the world," it says about Abronsius, but realistically, Alfred is the one to blame).

That heavy-handed narration is striking as it's not seen or heard throughout the film, only bookending its events. One of it's more telling insights to the film's events comes when it tells us that Alfred is "under-appreciated" in his work, which is funny considering how inept he is at it in the film. This is best expressed in the film's slapstick humor, which reap the best gags in Polanski's otherwise lopsided comedy (the set pieces are all marvelous but the film is more than a little drawn-out). He craves recognition very badly but he's clearly not worthy of any just yet.

Still, of the film's many displays of Alfred's absurd impotence, one gag stands out: his seduction by a gay vampire, whose effeminate singing entrances Alfred but only until he discovers the gender of the idle crooner. I might be able to dismiss Polanski's attitude toward the character as a one-off gag but the gay vamp's father sarcastically mocks him as a "a gentle, sensitive youth," hinting at an ugly kind of apathetic intolerance that only finds further expression in The Tenant, in which Trelkovsky (again, Polanski) goes mad and winds up cross-dressing because of his rampant persecution complex. This is intended to be one of the many cruelly funny manifestations of Trelkovsky's urban paranoia, the kind that drives him insane with the whispers of nosy neighbors, both real and imagined, but it just comes across as a thoughtlessly bigoted slap in the viewer's face.

That having been said, The Tenant is probably one of my favorite of Polanski's films, right behind Chinatown but above Rosemary's Baby. It has a pervasive sense of black humor, which kicks into overdrive in the film's masterfully obnoxious ending, that nicely tempers the film's heady depiction of Trelkovsky as a far-too acquiescent young cave/apartment-dwelling urbanite struggling in vain to establish a sustainable social community for himself. He fails and it drives him out of his mind and his window (twice) and when it does, he wails so abrasively that it's hard to imagine who in their right mind imagined the film as a straight-faced thriller (No hot chocolate for this man; just give him the coffee!). In its non-chalant brutality, its merciless execution and its cast's skillfully heavy-handed performances, The Tenant wrings out buckets of the kind of squeamish humor that seems so ill-fitting in Rosemary's Baby's balloon-buster of an ending ("All hail Satan," indeed). It's not as elegantly simple as Repulsion but in its cynical ambition to completely crush Polanski's young avatar, it's pretty staggering.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

4) Duel in the Sun (1946)

4) Duel in the Sun (1946) Dir: King Vidor (and, unofficially: Otto Brower, William Dieterle, Sidney Franklin, William Cameron Menzies, David O. Selznick and Josef von Sternberg) Date Released: December 1946 Date Seen: January 7, 2010 Rating: 4/5

There's something very rewarding about watching something as artificially and self-consciously constructed as Duel in the Sun succeed in spite of its many tonal inconsistencies and perplexing dalliances into camp. Duel is clearly a vanity project for producer, co-writer and even uncredited co-director (one of many) David O. Selznick. His script, un-officially co-adapted from Oliver H.P. Garrett's novel by Ben "Notorious" Hecht, has an emotional palette as sprawling as his ego. And yet, that's why it's so stunning. It's a real head-scratcher, one whose lack of sustained tonal resonance is thankfully not too off-putting but is through and through a melodrama for people that prefer emotions to overwhelm narrative logic. No wonder Almodovar loves this thing so much.

Considering that so many cooks were ushered in and out of Selznick's kitchen to make it, it's hard to say if Duel in the Sun is consistently about something. Nevertheless, there are prevailing themes, the most important being the way protagonists' form and sustain their allegiances to one another and to their ideals. The McCanles boys, Lewt (Gregory Peck) and Jesse (Joseph Cotten) have different priorities, the former valuing the permissive council of their father Sen. McCanles (Lionel Barrymore) while the latter decides to serve the newly founded state of Texas's needs by aiding the construction of a cross-country railroad. Their father could care less about anything but his property, though he does have a pseudo-chivalrous weakness for the duty-bound men of the Cavalry.

And then there's Pearl Chavez (Jennifer Jones), a heroine whose frail self-image and sexual neuroses are the real star of the film. Amongst such proud men, Pearl looks about as hard as a wet sponge. She tries to fulfill her promise to her dying father (Herbert Marshall), who is executed after he murders his wife in cold blood because they didn't raise Pearl right, to leave behind her seedy past as a shiftless half-breed dancing in unseemly dens of iniquity and to live like the chaste white woman she should've been raised as.

And she fails pretty miserably.

Though Lewt makes a point of showing her that he can have her whenever and however he wants, he both rapes her and seduces her because Pearl actually likes it, or at least, she's so afraid of her burgeoning sexuality that she convinces herself that she likes it. Duel's titular shoot-out shows that while she spends most of the movie trying to get Lewt to marry her and then not to marry her and back again, she does love/hate him deeply. She wriggles like mad as she agonizingly crawls her way to him, bleeding out across the sand she's so vigorously and absent-mindedly humping in her struggle to recreate Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam" with Lewt. But seriously, folks, she and the filmmakers are sincere about her passion, if nothing else. Sincere in what way is a good question but really, there's something so vitally lurid and inexplicably riveting about Pearl's writhing and overtly sexual dark romance with Lewt and the submerged passion she has for Jesse. Something weird and maybe even a little great.