Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Informer















THE INFORMER        B+                   
USA  (91 mi)  1935  d:  John Ford
 
The influence of German filmmaker F.W. Murnau is renowned, who emigrated to Hollywood in 1926, producing SUNRISE (1927), listed at #5 among the greatest films ever made in the recent BFI Sight & Sound poll in 2012 (The Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time | British Film Institute), and certainly American filmmaker John Ford was highly impressed by the German Expressionist movement of the 1920’s, featuring dramatically stylized and symbolic films, perhaps best represented in Ford’s murky adaptation of Eugene O’Neill Sea Plays in The Long Voyage Home (1940), almost completely told through light and shadow, where humans are mere shadows on the wall, evocative of Plato’s allegory of the cave.  THE INFORMER has a similar claustrophobic feel of impoverished Dublin streets literally saturated in a constant blanket of fog, where the low budget production uses this technique to cover the cheaply designed sets, creating a gloomy atmosphere of poverty and despair that pervades throughout the entire picture, where the real brilliance of the film shot by cinematographer Joe August is the moody haze of confusion clouding the better judgment of the lead character, Gypo Nolan, played by Ford favorite Victor McLaglen.  The film is based on Liam O’Flaherty’s 1925 prize winning novel, winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, adapted by Dudley Nichols, who also adapted O’Neil’s Sea Plays.  The Irish source material defines both films, O’Neill through the broken dreams continually haunting men at sea, while O’Flaherty examines one man’s guilty conscience and his anguished effort to escape the invasive forces of doom, a reference to the war-torn Irish nation that was continually caught up in a bloody confrontation between the Irish Republican Army and the Black and Tan British forces.  Ford had an especially close relationship with his screenwriters, working with Frank Nugent and Dudley Nichols on 24 feature films, personally selecting and training them to develop an instinctive understanding of his style, where Nichols in particular helped elevate the depth of his work that was lacking during the Silent period, heightening the sense of drama.  The film was not an instant success, but received glowing critical reviews afterwards, winning Academy Awards for Ford as Best Director, Nichols for Best Screenplay (but he refused the Oscar due to a Screen Writers Guild strike at the time), McLaglen for Best Actor, and Max Steiner for Best Music, bringing Ford a critical reputation that he would sustain throughout his career, becoming one of the iconic leaders of the industry.  This film has fallen out of favor from the heavily idealized portrait of the IRA as the common man’s alternative to British oppression, but it’s one of the smaller, more psychologically interior films Ford ever made, using expressive visuals to enhance the drama, eventually discarding his interest in expressionism for his love of location shooting, framing his characters against the backdrop of the rugged Western frontier. 

Ford’s personal connection to Ireland was through his parents, both Irish-born, where there’s some reason to believe McLaglen’s robust portrait of a heavy drinker with a volatile temper, but also an affable charm, is based on his own father.  Ironically, McLaglen wasn’t even Irish, but was born in England, becoming a prizefighter who actually fought Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson before becoming an American actor.  The only real Irishman in the film is J.M. Kerrigan, a little man who plays the same despicable freeloader role in The Long Voyage Home (1940), a repugnant, slimy hanger-on to anyone with money in their pocket.  But the film belongs to McLaglen, who became known for playing lovable drunks, who was apparently bullied by the director into giving a great performance, often told by Ford he was off schedule, where McLaglen was prone to drink in his down time, but would then be called back to the set, forcing him to work in a semi-drunken condition, often filming what the actor thought were rehearsals, appearing overly weary, bewildered and confused, searching for his lines, which is exactly what Ford was looking for.  This story may be more of the myth and John Ford lore that seems to accompany his films, but McLaglen’s physically demanding performance dominates the screen, playing the well-intentioned but dim-witted Gypo as a big brute who loves to be the center of attention, a gentle giant with a soft spot for tenderness, whose weakness is he can’t resist flattery.  Outraged to find his best girl Katie (Margot Grahame) reduced to prostitution to pay her bills, he’s equally humiliated by getting thrown out of the IRA for refusing to shoot a traitor, especially someone he’s known from the neighborhood.  But when he sees a poster offering twenty pounds (equivalent to over a thousand dollars today) for the whereabouts of IRA gunman Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), probably Gypo’s best friend, he gets delusions of grandeur, dreaming of marriage and an ocean voyage, especially when the poster is right next to a travel agency advertisement offering voyages to America for only ten pounds, which is one of Katie’s dreams, as she wants a better life.  Making up his mind that he’ll do it for her, Gypo reluctantly turns in his friend, who is killed instantly when the Black and Tans go to pick him up.  Conscience-stricken and ashamed, he curls into the corner of a saloon with a whisky bottle quickly drinking himself into a stupor. 

Gypo descends into a nightmarish delirium of human degradation, goaded on by the irrepressible cynicism of J.M. Kerrigan, the Iago-like voice that purrs niceties in his ear about what a popular guy you are when you buy everyone a drink, and a meal, and then more drinks, getting more ploughed and his pockets emptied as the night progresses.  Nonetheless, for a moment at least, he’s King Gypo, the most generous guy in town, which quickly draws the attention of the IRA, who suspect Frankie was killed by an informer and are counting every penny that Gypo spends.  All drink and bluster, the big lout remains sympathetic even as his actions are contemptible, as inside he’s dying of remorse.  Like Fritz Lang’s M (1931), where it’s the criminals themselves who track down a detestable child murderer and force him to stand trial before a jury of his peers, Gypo is brought before an IRA tribunal, where his plan to pin it all on some other pitiful chump falls apart and he’s left to explain the unexplainable, where half mad with fear, McLaglen is at his wits end trying to find any words that make sense to the people standing in that crowded basement room, but only ends up incriminating himself.  The sickening descent into the Hell of one’s conscience is a road paved with guilt and personal torment, where McLaglen is a pitiful sight, pitied by all who are embarrassed by what he stands for, a coward, a bully, an alcoholic, expressing weakness, mistakes, human frailty, where there’s no place for that when fighting stronger, better financed, and better organized forces of tyranny with only political slogans and a few firearms.  Shot in just 17 days, the film was director Sam Fuller’s favorite movie, filled with melodramatic overreach, made during a time when sound cinema had not yet discovered its own identity from the Silent era, as acting was just as exaggerated.  Drenching the toxic atmosphere with such a pervasive feeling of doom, characters seen through the haze choking on their own murderous intentions only enhance the tragic nature of the human condition.  For its time, the film is unmistakably bleak, but the warmth and childlike innocence of McLaglen’s Gypo, played as an everyman, has a heart rendering quality to it that feels authentic and sincere, especially considering the horrible aftermath of the Irish Civil War in the 1920’s which brought no historical resolution, only ruthlessness and brutality, leaving a desolate looking future in a divided nation without any hope of peace or reconciliation. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Movie 43















MOVIE 43                  C+                   
USA   (90 mi)  2013  d:  Bob and Peter Farrelly           Official site       co-directors:  Elizabeth Banks, Steven Brill, Steve Carr, Rusty Cundieff, James Duffy, Griffin Dunne, Patrik Forsberg, James Gunn, Bob Odenkirk, Brett Ratner, Jonathan van Tullekin

America has always had a love affair with stupid comedy, from an assortment of cartoons to The Three Stooges or Laurel & Hardy, slapstick and physical comedy that emerged out of turn of the century burlesque and vaudeville comedy acts, to the hapless shtick of the elaborately choreographed Jerry Lewis movies of the 50’s and 60’s, the star-studded vehicle of IT’S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD (1963) where audiences could watch celebrities behave like idiots, to the more fast-paced, visual and sight gag oriented satirical comedy of AIRPLANE! (1980), to the moronic buddy movie of DUMB AND DUMBER (1994) written and directed by the Farrelly brothers, who have never been afraid to use toilet humor.  The Farrelly brothers have their hand all over this project, which began a decade and a half ago with their producer Charlie Wessler, who came up with the idea of several short films using three pairs of directors, South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Airplane’s David and Jerry Zucker, and Peter and Bob Farrelly.  The studios, however, wouldn’t back the idea of R-rated movies targeted to teenagers, where Wessler pitched his idea to various studios, but no one understood what he was trying to do until four years ago when Peter Farrelly and producer John Penotti took their idea, along with the script for about 60 short skits to Relativity Films, which gave them the green light.  Certainly one of the most amazing feats of the film is collecting so many big name actors, from Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman to Halle Berry, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gerard Butler, Greg Kinnear, Johnny Knoxville, Seann William Scott, Liev Schreiber, Uma Thurman, Elizabeth Banks, Kristen Bell, Anna Farris, Chris Pratt, Richard Gere, Terrence Howard, Justin Long, Dennis Quaid, Common, Jason Sudeikis, Kieran Culkin, Emma Stone, Kate Bosworth, Josh Duhamel, and Naomi Watts.  This year’s Academy Award host Seth MacFarlane plays a small part, while both Jackman and Watts are up for Academy Award nominations this year in other films.  As Peter Farrelly appropriately notes about Jackman, “You're not gonna see him at our premiere, he's got things to do.”  Most were attracted to the idea of working outside their comfort zone, also the idea they were only in small sketches, requiring short shooting schedules, also the idea they would not have to promote the film afterwards, something most actors hate to do.   

So working for scale, actors mostly donated their time for this film, knowing only their own scenes, not any of the other scaled down 16 vignettes that comprise the film.  In order to accommodate all the actors, some of whom were having second thoughts, like the South Park team, Colin Farrell, and George Clooney, who reportedly told them to “Fuck Off,” 'Movie 43': Peter Farrelly on His All-Star Cast, and Why Clooney Told Them to 'F**k Off', shooting took place only when actors were available, waiting an entire year for Richard Gere, offering the convenience of moving the entire production team closer to the actor, so the filming of the whole movie took several years.  While this film has tanked at the box office in only the first week, receiving some of the worst reviews of the year, where Richard Roeper in The Chicago Sun-Times wrote There's awful and THEN there's 'Movie 43', while Peter Howell from The Toronto Star is calling it Movie 43 review: The worst film ever gets zero stars.  David Edelstein from New York magazine asks, “Was someone holding Kate Winslet's children hostage?” Edelstein on Movie 43: Were These Actors Blackmailed to Appear in This Raunchy Fiasco?, while finally Peter Farrelly took to Twitter to defend his gross-out comedy dubbed the ‘Citizen Kane of awful’ Movie 43 director tells press to 'lighten up' after his film is savaged ..., suggesting “To the critics: Movie 43 is not the end of the world. It’s just a $6-million movie where we tried to do something different. Now back off,” adding: “To the critics: You always complain that Hollywood never gives you new stuff, and then when you get it, you flip out. Lighten up.”  Hyperbole aside, the jokes range from stupid sight gags to crudely infantile and from extremely risqué to borderline offensive gross-out humor.  Perhaps in its original conception, the movie was prefaced with the idea that several teenagers are fooling a younger kid into believing there’s a banned, black market movie out there somewhere on the Web called Movie 43, so their search to track it down leads to these randomly discovered skits, none having any relation to any others, most shot by different directors, though the Farrelly’s may have shot 3 or 4 sequences.  The opening segment with Jackman and Winslet is a classic and sets the tone for lowbar comedy, as the bar doesn’t get much lower than this—still, it’s hilarious throughout and is easily one of the better sketches, as both are superb in handling the misdirection and perfect timing.  According to Time Out Chicago critic Ben Kenigsberg, Movie 43 | Movie review - Film - Time Out Chicago, “Hugh Jackman garners far more sympathy than he does as Jean Valjean.”

Most of the rest are uneven and hit or miss, with some stronger than others, but many of these ideas are *out there,* pushing the boundaries of bad taste to the point of being off-the-charts unacceptable.  Certainly there is foul humor, profane language, and there is crude violence, but there are also some excellent special effects, especially with Halle Berry and Stephen Merchant in a blind date that veers into the surreal.  With this film along with Cloud Atlas (2012), Berry has become somewhat of a standout star in what are otherwise abysmal movie failures.  One of the few actors willing to comment on the horrible trauma of making this movie, Merchant commented, “I had to spend two days looking at Halle Berry. It was a living hell.”  Most of the sketches are framed with the idea of a desperately insane Dennis Quaid refusing to accept rejection while pitching his zany stories to a studio hack Greg Kinnear at gunpoint, apparently the only way to get his attention, a rather apt metaphor for the picture itself.  While the film is deserving of its R-rating, at its absolute worst, it is fixated on infantile fart jokes and toilet humor, an overly gross genre that in itself has always captured a certain niche in American society, but it likely turns off many, many more.  Gabe Toro of the Playlist The Playlist [Gabe Toro] has interestingly observed “characters begin to react in increasingly inexplicable ways as the narrative falls away, walking in and out of the short without rhyme or reason, until a fourth-wall breakdown in the narrative, a tactic that feels less like a comedy skit, and more like a distant, dopey relative of Dennis Hopper’s THE LAST MOVIE (1971).”  Still, it’s impressive to see so many familiar faces, even if what they’re up to is foolishly inane, where the haphazard style never feels connected to an overall whole, but thankfully, each skit is short enough that even if it doesn’t work, new faces are sure to show up in the next segment offering a completely different direction.  The film is not timid, nor does it hide its lowbrow intent, where it basically provides exactly what it sets out to accomplish, feeling somewhat experimental without a cohesive narrative, where it instead comes across like a live stand up comedy act, where often, the more outrageous you delve into the world of the bizarre, the better.  The bold tone of experimentation and outrageousness of the film does work, such as the drop dead hilarious use of a sickly perverted, X-rated, animated cat, but overall, it’s so brazenly offensive that it’s often more stupid than funny, still, nowhere near the worst ever, and actually inspired in parts.  

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Hurricane (1937)















THE HURRICANE                B                     
USA  (110 mi)  1937                      uncredited co-director (listed as associate director):  Stuart Heisler

The South Sea islands, the last hiding place of beauty and adventure.         
—Girl on ship (Inez Courtney)

No jail can hold Terangi very long — if it has a window in it, he’ll fly away! If it has water around it, he’ll swim away!        — Marama (Dorothy Lamour)

I represent a civilization that cannot afford to show confusion or conflict to the people it governs.       — French Governor Eugene De Laage (Raymond Massey)

How can I be your judge? You’ve sinned, but others have sinned more against you. You weren’t meant for evil, you were made to do evil.             
—Father Paul (C. Aubrey Smith)

Other than the most recent Tabu (2012), another filmmaker influenced by F.W. Murnau’s TABU (1931) is none other than American movie icon John Ford who traveled to the South Pacific to make this film, specifically the village of Pago Pago on Tutuila Island in American Samoa, while also constructing an artificial native village on 2 ½ acres on the United Artist back lots where according to Life Magazine, special effects wizard James Basevi was given a budget of $400,000 to create his effects, spending $150,000 to build a native village with a lagoon 200 yards long, and another $250,000 destroying it.  Pre-dating the tornado sequence in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) and the modern era Weather Channel on TV, no one had ever seen such a vivid recreation of a tropical storm, more correctly called a cyclone in the South Pacific (hurricanes are in the Atlantic), where the real thrill is an incredible 15-minute hurricane sequence that was actually directed by Stuart Heisler, perhaps best known for his film noir remake of The Glass Key (1942) starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd, but also the rarely seen early performance from Susan Hayward in Among the Living (1941).  Ford usually liked to personally supervise all of the filming on his movies, so Heisler’s ability to simulate a savagely fierce island hurricane is particularly noteworthy, as it’s one of the best uses of special effects in early cinema.  Adapted from the Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall novel, the same duo writing The Mutiny on the Bounty, an Academy Award winning film in 1935, the film is a highly picturesque South Seas island melodrama that borrows liberally from TABU, especially the contrasting views of “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost,” as seen through two marriages, young Polynesian newlyweds Terangi (Jon Hall, an American actor who was actually raised in nearby Tahiti) and Marama (Dorothy Lamour, a former Miss New Orleans who became associated with roles in sarongs) and the more “civilized” European couple of French Governor Eugene De Laage, the ever dour Raymond Massey wearing a white suit with matching pith helmet, and his wife Germaine, Mary Astor.

Set during the colonial era in the South Pacific on the French Polynesian island of Manakoora, with the sweeping musical theme of “Moon of Manakoora”
Alfred Newman - The Moon Of Manakoora - YouTube (3:08) playing throughout the movie, the lushly visualized island village has a sandy shoreline with swaying palm trees where the glimmering seas never looking so romantic, a picture of innocence and hope.  Yet according to Turner Classic Movie’s Robert Osborne, the story resembles Les Misérables “with a relentlessly sadistic villain in constant pursuit of an unfairly hounded victim.”  The same could be said about an earlier Ford movie shot the previous year, THE PRISONER OF SHARK ISLAND (1936), which features another unjustly accused man attempting to escape from prison, where interestingly John Carradine plays the sadistic warden in each film.  Told entirely in flashback, the film is given a near mythical characterization, where the islanders are seen from an outsiders point of view as childishly naïve and overly happy, mostly without a care in the world, yet a cultural divide seems to have been bridged in several examples of perfect harmony, where Terangi is seen as an indispensable first mate on a European vessel traveling back and forth to Tahiti, and in a gorgeously exotic marriage ceremony between Terangi and Marama, where literally hundreds wore gardenia leis around their necks and every woman had flowers in her hair, as they are given the blessing of both the Catholic Church and the tribal chief.  However, viewers may cringe when they hear Terangi proudly announce to his new bride, “In Tahiti, when I sit down in a café with this cap on, I’m just the same as a white man.”  Overall, the natives are seen as docile and obedient to authority, where they submit to the rule of an intractable and extremely narrow minded Governor who sees the law in absolute terms.  It’s unclear why such a small island would even have a French Governor and why people would so easily submit to his authority, especially without any police or militia at his disposal.  Early on we see the tribal chief cooperating with the jailing of a native for theft, when the evidence suggests he was using a canoe to romance his girlfriend under the moonlight.  One wonders how this is considered a crime, especially since all the canoes are owned by native islanders and none were pressing charges.  Most likely the idea of property ownership is strictly a European principle, so a distinction is clearly made between the tyrannical colonizers who make the rules and the submissive natives who must adhere to them, especially when the law is unjustly applied.   

Ford builds a strong case for resistance to imperialist tyranny, as the moral divide only grows larger and more untenable when Terangi is arrested in Tahiti for slugging a drunken white man making racial slurs, where the offended party is politically connected in France, leading to a 6-month prison sentence for what might be considered justifiable assault.  Assigned to back-breaking labor and treated with all manor of abuse by Carradine, Terangi makes multiple escape attempts, seen diving off cliffs into the ocean, only to have more time added to his sentence each time, eventually totalling 16 years.  Ford insisted the violent whippings actor Jon Hall endure be real, wanting no fake acting, but unfortunately the realism was so severe the censors forced the scenes be cut due to their brutality.  Despite the disparity of an excessive sentence for the original crime, the Governor refuses to intervene, making no exceptions, going strictly by the book, despite the pleas of his wife and a sympathetic island doctor, Dr. Kersaint, Thomas Mitchell, seen as a philosophizing lush, a world-weary man who’s been away from civilization for too long, something of a preliminary run-through of his Academy Award winning performance for pretty much the exact same character in Ford’s STAGECOACH (1939).  When Terangi does manage to cleverly escape, making a heroic journey in only a canoe, he is sheltered by the village priest and the natives, who are seen celebrating his escape, which only enrages the Governor, even more maniacally insistent on tracking him down and bringing him to justice.  Nature’s response to man’s feeble attempts at implementing justice is harshly judgmental, showing a force of Biblical proportions, where the entire island comes under siege.  The ferocious devastation is brilliantly realized with a massive hurricane sequence that must have been indescribably intense when initially seen in the theaters, as no one had ever seen anything like it.  To the sound of crashing waves and gushing winds, Ford used the most powerful propeller-driven wind machines ever designed generating winds up to 150 miles per hour and 150,000 gallons of water to lambaste his actors, where no stunt doubles were used.  The force of the wind is astonishing, probably Ford’s best special effects sequence throughout his entire career, where cinema’s promise to create awe and spectacle is actually delivered.  The sequence literally overwhelms the rest of the picture, making everything else seem like an afterthought, but the contrast between the idyllic peaceful tranquility on the island and the monstrous roar of the waves remains utterly spectacular.   

Saturday, January 26, 2013

West of Memphis



 
(Left to right) Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley and Jason Baldwin speak to the media after being released following an 18-year imprisonment in the murder of three boys in 1993 in West Memphis
 
















 

WEST OF MEMPHIS             B             
USA  New Zealand  (147 mi)  2012  d:  Amy Berg                   Official site

WEST MEMPHIS THREE is a film that has the luxury of twenty year hindsight and a bankroll of celebrities, that was originally brought to the world’s attention on HBO TV by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky in an astonishing film PARADISE LOST:  THE CHILD MURDERS AT ROBIN HOOD HILLS (1996), a film with a limited budget that outlines the details of a gruesome triple murder in 1993 of three 8-year old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, including the arrest and subsequent trials of three accused teenagers, best friends Damien Echols (18) and Jason Baldwin (16), along with Jessie Misskelley (17) from the same high school, who were all supposedly involved in a Satanic cult.  Based on the horrific brutality involved, where the boys were sexually mutilated, the region was in an uproar, stirred into a hysteric frenzy vowing blood, demanding the electric chair for whoever did it, eventually convicting all three in an atmosphere resembling a public witch hunt.  Berlinger and Sinofsky went on to make two follow up films, PARADISE LOST 2:  REVELATIONS (2000) and PARADISE LOST 3:  PURGATORY (2011).  It’s impossible to separate this new film from the earlier Trilogy, as they’re all dealing with the same subject matter.  What’s unique about this film is the active involvement of the producers, specifically New Zealand filmmaker Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh, where Jackson actually hires a private detective to uncover background evidence that the police overlooked, also hiring a forensic team in 2007 to examine the existing DNA on the case, while Walsh is an unseen narrator heard throughout the film.  In addition, co-defendant Echols and his wife Lorri Davis are co-producers, so there is nothing to suggest this film is remotely impartial.  While the forensic tests reveal there is no DNA evidence whatsoever connecting any of these three defendants to the crime, a motion filed to have the case reconsidered in 2007 was denied, as the state of Arkansas refused to consider new evidence, including one of the primary witnesses, Vicki Hutcheson, who in 2003 recanted her original testimony that a Satanic ritual was involved, claiming she made it up in exchange for local police dropping suspected credit card theft charges against her.   

It was only then that the case drew public attention, not only LORD OF THE RINGS (2001–3) director Jackson, but high profile actor Johnny Depp, the Dixie Chicks, and Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, all raising money and drawing public attention.  Questions raised about the original trial reveal the State brought in an expert on the occult to testify the murders were in fact a Satanic ritual, while a knife was brought into evidence as the murder weapon, though the prosecution had prior knowledge that it had been thrown into the river a year before the murders took place.  Perhaps most egregious was the biased testimony of the Medical Examiner, a supposed forensic specialist that in the state of Arkansas works for the office of the prosecution, so no independent inquiries were ever conducted, concluding the knife was responsible for the sexual mutilations and the large quantities of blood on the victims’ bodies.  It was Peter Jackson who hired 7 of the top forensic experts in the nation to examine the evidence, all of whom concluded there was no evidence of a knife at all in the murders, that there was instead inflicted head trauma where the cause of death was drowning, suggesting the mutilations occurred after death, most likely animal bites, specifically snapping turtles that were known to be in the vicinity, leaving various bite wounds on the body consistent with animal bites.  A more considered approach to examining the evidence instead reveals none of the 3 defendants were present at the murder scene, there was no Satanic cult, and there was no sexual mutilation inflicted by human hand, which is certainly a different scenario than what was presented at the trial.  Even the parents of the children were beginning to believe the three convicted kids had nothing to do with the killings, but they continued to languish in prison anyway, as Arkansas refused to grant them a new trial. 

In a highly unorthodox documentary approach, Jackson himself unleashes his own investigation, which uncovers two other potential suspects whose DNA was present at the scene of the crime, including Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the boys killed (Stevie Branch) as well as his alibi witness.  While Hobbs informed police of nothing but marital harmony, the private investigator revealed otherwise, uncovering battery charges against both a former spouse and the murdered child’s mother, who years later divorced Hobbs due to the inflicted beatings.  In fact, he has a trail of uncontrolled violence and possible sex abuse, as he likely abused his stepdaughter from a young age, but she’s so acutely damaged by drugs she can hardly remember if it’s real or all in a dream, currently undergoing treatment, but not altogether off drugs yet which she uses to forget the nightmarish things that happened to her.  Hobbs inflicted plenty of brutally harsh punishments, especially to Stevie, inducing welts from a belt, where he often hid in the closet due to his extreme fear of Hobbs.  Nonetheless, even after this uncovered information, the State of Arkansas has never really brought Hobbs in for serious questioning, as in their eyes, they already convicted the killers.  Raising many of the same questions as The Central Park Five (2012), where convicted teenagers spent as many as thirteen years in prison for crimes they never committed, these three spent 18 years behind bars for crimes they never committed before they reached a deal with Arkansas prosecutors in August of 2011, a somewhat archaic and questionable agreement called Alford pleas, where they have to admit guilt while still pleading innocence, but are immediately released from prison, where the State has a guilty plea on the books and is not liable for subsequent lawsuits.  Perhaps the most devastating revelation is hearing the Arkansas prosecutor Scott Ellington gloat afterwards about their all-important guilty plea, which will be hoisted on a law and order banner of honor come election time, where political ads will run showing a prosecutor who gets tough on crime, where wrongful convictions hardly seem to matter to an uneducated electorate in Arkansas that will be sold a bill of goods.  This kind of win at all costs mentality lacks any moral authority and is a hollow charade parading around as justice.  There wasn’t a hint of remorse or contrition for sending three innocent men to prison for 18 years, so the real crime is he’d do it all over again in a heartbeat, and probably has already several times over, where it’s the State that is a repeat offender.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Sansho the Bailiff (Sanshô dayû)















SANSHÔ THE BAILIFF (Sanshô dayû)             A                                         
Japan  (125 mi)  1954  d:  Kenji Mizoguchi
           
The origin of this legend of Sansho Dayu, the Bailiff, goes back to medieval times when Japan had not yet emerged from the Dark Ages and mankind had yet to awaken as human beings. It has been told by the people for centuries and is treasured today as one of the epic folk tales of our history.
—opening title sequence

A magnificent film, a monumental work of Shakespearean depth, poetic, epic, with unbearably poignant, haunting contrasts at play throughout the entire film, where striking images of grotesque evil and violence are followed almost immediately by serene beauty and peace, revealing a wonderful sense of time and off-camera space, one of the more emotionally wrenching experiences one could ever see.  So much of the film is pure feeling, with visual and aural motifs, the everpresent sound of the flute represents the feeling of the father, a song of anguish represents the presence of the absent mother, while the ballad of Narayama, the subject of Imamura’s 1983 Cannes Palme D’Or winner, is a particularly haunting portrait of death, with skulls and bones, the sounds of carrion birds, and the enormous wooden gates that swing open and closed leading to the graveyard from which the two children make their escape, camera by Kazuo Miyagawa, music by Fumio Hayasaka. 

Set in 11th century Japan, the story reveals a title-bearing noble family torn apart by political upheavals.  The father, who represents the conscience of the family, is a governor exiled by political enemies for refusing to send starving peasant farmers into battle under the military service of the Prime Minister, as every man is needed in the fields, while the mother, the emotional center, is sold into prostitution while the children are sold into slavery.  From this utter devastation, the mother and children struggle not only to survive, but to maintain the father’s mission, to put into action his powerful sense of humanity, where the self-sacrificing women are portrayed as the redeemers of men.  Of interest, the title of the film bears the name of the villain, the ruthless overseer of the slave camp, revealing the director’s tragic vision of virtue tortured, altered, emerging only partially triumphant, suggesting the past is never really past.  In the end, flutes play in an orchestra, the camera follows an isolated cove where the beachcomber cares for seaweed in silent, meticulous motion.  There is a perfect harmony in the endless beauty of the ocean, a final image of affirmation, transcendence, eternity, a small piece of serene harmony in a violent world of disturbance and turmoil.

Known for its fluid camera movement and endlessly beautiful long shots, the film is an essential work and one of the greatest Japanese films ever made, where New Yorker movie critic Anthony Lane acknowledges “I have seen Sansho only once, a decade ago, emerging from the cinema a broken man but calm in my conviction that I had never seen anything better; I have not dared watch it again, reluctant to ruin the spell, but also because the human heart was not designed to weather such an ordeal.”  Winner of the Silver Lion Award at Venice for the third consecutive year, this movie is a special favorite of Terrence Malick, who once adapted it for the stage.  A harrowing work, essentially a heartbreaking Medieval fable with modern political and psychological undertones, it is the picture of a horribly difficult life making its way through an unforgiving world littered with terrible cruelty and human suffering.  With a focus on interior strength, as proclaimed by the father, “Without compassion, a man is no longer human,” this is nothing less than a morality play with sublime camera movements and visually lyrical imagery following each character’s personal journey for family redemption that mirrors Mizoguchi’s own experience, where at age 13 his father sold his sister into prostitution.  What a saga to regain the family honor. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari)















UGETSU (Ugetsu monogatari)             A                    
aka:  Tales of Moonlight and Rain
Japan  (96 mi)  1953  d:  Kenji Mizoguchi

There is in this film, first and foremost, the amazing musical soundtrack by Fumio Hayasaka, which is one of the most avant garde, particularly considering its era from the early 50’s, which at times feels like a Japanese classical Noh version of the Velvet Underground, with a dissonant sounding electric violin crashing against our senses, veering out into its own territory painfully out of tune, as if wounded, crying out in helpless agony.  This imbalanced psychological sound implant helps us understand the anguished, out of control mindset of the characters.  The film combines two original stories by Akinari Ueda, originally published in 1776, set during the feudal civil war era of the 16th century, the first being The House in the Thicket, a Ulysses-like adventure where a man leaves his wife for seven years while he travels to make money by selling silk.  When he returns, he is greeted by her ghost, leaving him reeling in guilt, loss, and remorse.  The second story, A Serpent's Lust, features a man seduced by a demon woman posing as a princess.  Mizoguchi and scriptwriter Yoshikata Yoda reframe these two stories into one, creating an effective portrait of misguided ambition, showing men who are willing to abandon everything driven by their own greed, without ever concerning themselves with the consequences of their families.  With an almost IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) second look at their lives, these irresolute men who leave their families in search of their own selfish dreams discover later what they overlooked during their journey. 

Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) becomes obsessed with earning unheard of profits selling his pottery at local markets, risking his own life as well as his family’s at the chance to sell even more at the inflated prices induced by war, taking advantage of the misfortunes of others, ignoring warnings to seek safety from an oncoming army that is ravaging the villages, while his rather foolish brother Tobei, Sakae Ozawa, has designs on becoming a great samurai warrior.  When the war comes to their village, they both greedily fill a boatload with pottery and travel with their reluctant wives to a city across the lake.  But on their way, a fog descends onto the lake leaving them engulfed in an eerie mist where they encounter a ghost-like floating vessel with a dying passenger onboard who in his last breath warns them of mortal dangers ahead.  Inexplicably, despite the same warnings from the war ravaged region they left behind, they both return, deciding what lies ahead is no place for women, dropping off their wives to fend for themselves before returning alone to cross the river to sell their wares. 

Time passes as the men eventually blend into the landscape pursuing their dreams while forgetting about what they left behind on the other shore, which we see in graphic detail, as the opportunistic peacefulness of one shore contrasts against the brutalization and murder on the other, where one wife is killed almost immediately while the other succumbs to prostitution.  This causes a rift in consciousness that expands to supernatural levels as Genjuro falls under the possessive spell of the mysterious ghost princess Lady Wakusa, the superbly enticing Machiko Kyô, who resides in the surreal opulence of the Kutsuki Manor, a castle on the outskirts of town where Genjuro becomes ensnared, like a spider in her web, while led to believe these are the happiest moments in his life, “I never imagined such pleasures existed!”  Meanwhile, Tobei finds his own rewards as well, although through deception in a Falstaff-like manner, taking credit for murdering a rival lord that he just accidentally happened upon.  Over time, both regret the loss of what they’ve left behind.  When Genjuro expresses his desire to leave the castle, Lady Wakusa’s fury knows no bounds.

Eventually both men find their way back to their original homes, stripped of all possessions, now strangely quiet and empty, beautifully captured in one long take by cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa, as we follow Genjuro’s haunting entrance to his home as he scans the premises and finds nothing, yet the camera doesn’t stop searching, slowly feeling its way around the edges of the rooms until we rediscover an apparition of his wife, Kinuyo Tanaka from The Life of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna) (1952), waiting patiently for him to return.  As with many other Mizoguchi films, there’s a sense of almost comic overacting from his characters, perhaps overly theatrical, as if they’re onstage instead of in front of a camera, which may work in an artificial setting, such as the highly exaggerated Lady Macbeth-like stage of Lady Wakusa, but seems oddly out of place in an otherwise realist aesthetic.  Yet in this film, with its shifts alternating from ordinary, everyday life to the supernatural, which feel seamlessly integrated, it’s the lurid world of the ghost princess that rises above everything else, as her anguished internalized pain, reflected by that amazing musical score that seems to stand for every woman whose life and dreams have been abandoned altogether, left to wither and die without ever bearing fruit, without anyone ever considering what their dreams may have been.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Life of Oharu (Saikaku ichidai onna)



















THE LIFE OF OHARU (Saikaku ichidai onna)                  A-             
Japan  (136 mi)  1952  d:  Kenji Mizoguchi

Princess Morning Glory answered the nobleman
She plucked the flowers and offered them
For a long time
She stares pensively at the flower in her hand
Can this be real
It is her fate to wither in the shade
Day and night
She stares at the deutzia blossoms
They fill her heart
By good fortune she is given to the Imperial palace
What a lucky flower
How enviable, how lucky you are
Reluctantly she offers the flower in her hand
But this flower is only the go-between
In fact, your face is the flower that captured my heart.

—musician singing in Bunraku puppet play

My sad fate is pitiful indeed
My pillow is soaked with tears

This painful world of transience
How pitiful I am
I’m growing old
This life full of regrets
Will evaporate
Like the morning dew

—street beggar singing, eventually becoming Oharu

Mizoguchi considered this to be his finest work, his first to gain international renown following Kurosawa’s Venice prize-winning film RASHOMON (1950) in 1951, making him a cult hero with the Parisian Cahiers du Cinéma crowd, winner of the Venice Festival International Award in 1952, based on a 17th century novel by Saikaku Ohara, The Life of an Amorous Woman, but differing substantially.  Saikaku’s novel is a collection of episodes narrated by an elderly nun recalling her decline from a promising youth, ending with a scene of a prostitute entering a temple and hallucinating the faces of former lovers in the idols there. This film is a harrowing chronicle of the oppression of women, following the misfortunes of a single woman, Oharu played by Kinuyo Tanaka, the daughter of a respected samurai, whose fall from grace is filmed in slow, meticulous detail, using hauntingly beautiful compositions, showing remarkable insights into Oharu’s psychology, balancing social criticism with serene formal beauty.  Mizoguchi earned a reputation of being a “Stroheim” on the set, firing his assistant Uchikawa Seichiro when he complained about last minute changes of studio-built houses, also of the replica built for the garden of Kyoto’s Koetsu temple.  With ornate use of historical costumes and signature tracking shots and long takes, achieving formal perfection, compressing into a single shot what might normally take two or three different takes, making extraordinary use of period architecture, with a heavy reliance on ritual, where submissive gestures such as bowing often define one’s character, the film is actually driven by the expressive music written by Ichirô Saitô, using Bunraku puppet theater percussion and flute, where the mournful lyrics heard throughout from pieces of songs offer the poetic themes of the film. 

THE LIFE OF OHARU is a sad and forlorn tale of sin and retribution imposed by an unforgiving feudal society that views love outside one’s class more as ill-advised lust during this historical period, a heavily repressive society for those who marry outside their aristocratic nobility.  When Oharu falls in love with a lowly page, Katsunosuke (an unrecognizable Toshirô Mifune), the Imperial family is so outraged she is banished in court, her husband beheaded in disgrace, and her family permanently exiled from Kyoto.  With no other means of income, her father is forced to sell Oharu into prostitution where she becomes a courtesan in Edo period Japan.  Just a few years before his death four years later, apparently driven to produce greatness after Kurosawa’s recognition a year earlier, this is the first of three masterpieces starring Tanaka that Mizoguchi directed in the early 1950’s, followed shortly afterwards by Ugetsu (Ugetsu monogatari) (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (Sanshô dayû) (1954), where in SANSHO, perhaps the director’s finest, it reiterates familiar themes where a wife is sold into prostitution while her children are sold into slavery.  Mizoguchi was heavily influenced during childhood by his family’s decision to sell his older sister into geisha house prostitution, where the subject of women's suffering is fundamental in all his work, none more so than this film which in effect mirrors the life of his own sister, thoroughly exploring the humiliating ramifications of a woman’s downward descent.  Tanaka is nothing less than brilliant, where the psychological depth of her performance continuously adds unspoken complexity, becoming the dramatic heart of the film without ever relying on melodramatic sentiment, following up her performance by becoming Japan’s second female director, after Sakane Tazuko, in a film called LOVE LETTER (1953).         

Told nearly entirely in flashback as Oharu reflects upon her life, Mizoguchi examines with some scrutiny the effects of male dominated rule, where often marginalized, self-sacrificing women play a redemptive role in Japanese society, yet Oharu is cruelly informed in no uncertain terms that she can be “bought like a fish on a chopping board.”  Reduced to material goods that can be bought and sold, every woman in town is subject to an intense personal inspection when Lord Matsudaira (Toshiaki Konoe), whose wife is barren, is seeking a concubine for the purpose of bearing an heir to the family name.   The exact specifications desired make this one of the more pathetic, but also amusingly exaggerated sequences in the film.  Oharu meets a completely different kind of inspection from the Lord’s wife, Hisako Yamane, who coolly dismisses her at first at first sight in a beautifully extended shot, but her enraged jealousy is plain enough to see, carrying into an operatic Bunraku sequence, after which she produces a son, but is quickly told to pack her bags as she is “draining” the Lord’s energy.  The film is not entirely downbeat, where some of the novel’s comic elements have been retained, such as a big-spending counterfeiter who visits the brothel, or an overly proud woman whose wig is cleverly stolen by a cat, but the tone of the film mostly goes from bad to worse.  This cycle of temporary appreciation before being ultimately discarded repeats throughout the film, as this pattern nearly defines the life of a prostitute, whose value is exceedingly high during their blossoming youth, but fades quickly as they age, “As the story goes, the morning's pretty face is a corpse by evening.”  Finding a way to heighten the reality of every scene, expressing tremendous sympathy for women, Mizoguchi’s film composition was never more stunning, as the film exposes a crisis of conscience in postwar Japan, examining Oharu’s painstaking mistreatment as a way of seeing their way through some kind of reconciliation and national accountability, using socially relevant material to examine historical patterns of behavior that could use a revised outlook, replacing ingrained social injustice with a modernized, more equitable vision towards the future.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Rocco and His Brothers













ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS        A  
Italy  France  (175 mi)  1960  d:  Luchino Visconti

Luchino Visconti was heir to one of Milan’s richest families, as his mother inherited the Erba Pharmaceuticals fortune, where young Visconti grew up training and breeding racehorses before fashion designer Coco Chanel introduced him to French filmmaker Jean Renoir, where he began his career as Renoir’s assistant director.  Despite living in great luxury in a palace on the Italian island of Ischia, where today there is a museum dedicated to his work, possessing original works by Picasso and Gustav Klimt, he was also an avidly outspoken Communist after the war and openly gay, where throughout his film career he also worked as a theater and opera director.  This apparent contradiction in class consciousness lies at the heart of his films, as along with Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini, Vittorio de Sica, and others, they forged an Italian neorealist movement in the late 1940’s, much of which was forced upon them as they had no money, featuring non-professional actors, or poorly paid stars, often shooting on the street as many film studios were destroyed by the war, mostly in the rundown sections of urban areas, featuring the plight of the poor and the lower working class, focusing on their everyday struggles to survive the economic disaster that was postwar Italy.  Despite his connection with neorealism, Visconti also revealed an operatic flair for artificiality, beautifully expressed in White Nights (La Niotti Bianche) (1957) which was shot entirely within the artificially constructed world inside the Cinecittà studios.  Visconti is acknowledged to be one of the greatest directors of women, including Clara Calamai in OBSESSIONE (1943), Anna Magnani in BELLISSIMA (1951), Alida Valli in SENSO (1954), Maria Schell in White Nights (La Niotti Bianche) (1957), and Annie Girardot in this film, where the latter two, Austrian and French-speaking, were both dubbed in Italian.  Manipulating men for sport, in each case these women are representative of dominating forces men can neither resist nor overcome.  Released the same year as Antonioni’s L’AVVENTURA (1960), which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA (1960), which won the Palme D’Or, the film was up against stiff competition, winning the FIPRESCI and Special Jury Prize at Venice. 

Often viewed as a flawed masterpiece, there remains an unreconciled tension between the realist, near documentary-style vision of a Marxist society and several over-the-top melodramatic moments where characters exhibit an operatic flair for excessive theatricality.  While not ruining the film, the exaggerations stand out as obvious contradictions to the otherwise low-key and brutally realistic style.  Adapted from the Giovanni Testor novel The Bridge of Ghisolfa, the story has an historical but also epic sweep about it, spanning more than a decade, following the continuing hardhips of the Parondi family as they leave behind their traditional rural home in Southern Italy for a major city in the industrial north, apparently one the first films to portray a North/South migration, where the nation’s so-called economic miracle occurs almost entirely in the North.  The film captures the essence of postwar Italy and the politics of class, set in the housing projects and working class sections of Milan, the city of Visconti’s birth, becoming a historically relevant time capsule portrait of a vanishing era.  As the title points out, there are five brothers, each represented by a different chapter in the film, including the oldest, Vincenzo (Spiros Focás), who is already living in Milan, in the midst of an engagement party with the family of his fiancé, Ginetta (Claudia Cardinale), when the rest of his family arrives in mass out of the blue, carrying all their belongings as they pay him a surprise visit.  It’s a surprise, all right, when the perspective bride’s family realizes they haven’t come to congratulate the happy couple, but to migrate permanently to Milan, where they certainly pose an immediate logisitics problem of where they can stay.  As quickly as they are welcomed with glasses of wine, the proud mother, Rosaria (Katina Paxinou, whose stereotypical long-suffering matriarch routine is almost cringe-worthy), realizes they’re seen as a financial burden and angrily grabs her sons, vowing never to return. Thus the family conflict begins. 

Given the ingenious advice by a relative to move into the cheap housing projects by paying first month’s rent, but after awhile, if you stop paying, they won’t throw you out on the street, suggesting this was quite common in Milan, as they’re already living in the city’s cheapest housing.  Simone, Renato Salvatori’s best role, is the next oldest, becoming completely smitten by the sexual exploits of a willfully manipulative local prostitute Nadia (Annie Girardot), whose family lives upstairs but continually kicks her out, so she takes refuge prancing around this house of brothers where Simone can’t take his eyes off her, much to his mother’s regret.  Jobs are scarce, but Simone picks up a few bucks in the boxing ring, but his first few wins go to his head, as he spends all his winnings on Nadia, filled with the deluded notion that his future is lined with victories.  But he drinks, smokes, and womanizes, refusing to train hard, which eventually catches up to him.  Enter the next brother, Rocco (Alain Delon, also dubbed), the quiet one with the pretty face, who initially works in a dry cleaners run exclusively by women who are all enthralled by his presence.  When Simone steals some clothing to impress Nadia, Rocco can’t go back to work there, so he follows his brother into the ring.  This habit of forgiving his brother and bailing him out of jams that he continually gets himself into is the central theme of the film, as Simone’s troubles only escalate, contrasting the traditional macho sexuality of animalistic men who think they own women as their exclusive property with those who feel genuine love and respect for them.  Envisioned by Visconti as the saintly Prince Myshkin from Dostoyevski’s The Idiot, “a representative of illustrious goodness as an end in itself,” Rocco is seen as the only saving grace holding the family together, even persuading Nadia to give up prostitution after spending a year in prison. 

But the story only grows bleaker, as Simone’s trajectory spirals further out of control, becoming a drunken brute that turns on his brother when he takes an interest in Nadia, enraged that Rocco is stealing “his” girl, as if he still owns her, even though he hasn’t seen her in years, leading to a horribly violent rape of Nadia in front of Rocco, followed by a vicious beating when his younger brother won’t apologize for what he’s done.  In a strangely baffling and utterly appalling moment framed atop the Milan cathedral, Rocco changes course and urges Nadia to return to Simone, knowing he’s a toxic entity, thinking this is somehow good for the family.  This is perhaps the key moment in the film, as Rocco’s saintly concern is not for Nadia, who’s been brutally raped, but for his brother’s fragile lack of self esteem.  The result is pathetic, of course, becoming a devastating critique of masculinity as seen through the lives of both Rocco and Simone, the two most developed characters of the film, especially when Simone and Nadia move under his mother’s roof, bringing nothing but endless shame to the family.  This is underlined further through a homosexual subtext, where a wealthy boxing promoter is attracted to Simone’s descent, where the promoter’s ultimate satisfaction is sexually taking advantage of fallen fighters that are so desperately in debt they’re willing to submit to anything.  This corrupt promoter ends up blackmailing the family afterwards, where Rocco signs away his future boxing earnings to pay off his brother’s enormously inflated debt.  In doing so, he becomes another wage slave while also abandoning his dream of returning to the South and reclaiming their lost land. 

The highly mobile, black and white cinematography by Giuseppe Rotunno veers between ultra realism and heavily stylized film noir effects, with heavily darkened scenes during particularly murky moments, while Nino Rota’s musical score continually finds the right emotional counterpoint.  The film is clearly an influence of Martin Scorsese’s RAGING BULL (1980), where in each the fight sequences are beautifully handled, and also Francis Ford Coppola who chose Nino Rota to score his epic GODFATHER (1972, 1974) films.  At nearly 3-hours, allowing thorough exploration of the characters, the true scope of the film is an apocalyptic Greek tragedy played out within the context of larger historical forces, where perhaps the key to understanding the family’s psychological descent are the social circumstances they have to deal with, where the horrors of urban existence are all too common as jobs remain scarce.  But as Pauline Kael noted, it’s sexual passion that destroys the family, where the performances by Salvatori and Girardot are nothing less than stunning, culminating with a scene right out of Georg Büchner’s play Woyzeck, a bleak, working class nightmare where in a crazed, jealous rage the protagonist kills the woman he loves, refusing to allow anyone else to have her, where it’s suggested this is due to the accumulated effects of poverty and economic exploitation, continually being beaten down by a society that allows him to have nothing.  The surreal nature of the act defies all moral boundaries and may be an irredeemable sin.  Simone’s crime destroys the unity of the family and their hopes of ever returning home, beautifully expressed in the bleak emptiness of the elegiac final shot, suggesting freedom, as represented by Rocco’s idealized hopes and dreams of being able to save Simone and/or his family, exists only in the abstract, while working class people must walk to the beat of the factory whistle where being a wage slave, exactly what they left the South to avoid becoming, is the only reality.