Timecrimes (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Nacho Vigalondo
viewed: 04/10/09

Stumbled upon, I think, because it blew through San Francisco theaters a few months ago, I must have queued this film up.  It’s a Spanish Science Fiction film, a time travel thriller, low-budget-ish, I’d say, smarter than the average bear.  Not smart enough to achieve true brilliance, but a decent thriller, more thoughtful than many.

A man who is just moving into a rural Spanish home, discovers a semi-nude woman in the woods, and goes to investigate.  The next thing he knows, he’s being tracked by a masked man in a trenchcoat with a pair of stabbing scissors, and zapped back in time by a handful of hours.  It’s handled in a compelling and efficient manner.

Time travel is a trippy subject when handled correctly, and though there is really no connection, 2004’s small budget Primer also tackled the sort of head-trippy narrative qualities of time travel creating multiple instances of an individual and the havoc that that can potentially create.  Timecrimes is definitely set in a finite little universe, like Primer, but handles the drama and suspense in a fairly engaging way.

However, plausibility is a problem.  I know that if you have a plausibility issue with time travel, you’re going to have plausibility issues all over the place with this film.  But for me, the plausibility is more in the characters’ decisions and actions, which start on a normal plain, but swiftly switch to actions that help the narrative but don’t make a lot of sense.  Like why just assume that now you’ve got to play along with the story, just because you think it happened this way the first time through.

Actually, one of the more interesting ideas that sprung to mind while watching the film was the concept of fatalism within the film.  Once the original set of circumstances have played out, does the protagonist “have” to follow the script?  Isn’t fatalism going to drive him that way anyways?  I mean, what sets this whole thing into motion initially?  Is it because it’s already happened and it’s just time to watch through the film’s second camera, the other angle of the scene previously played out as the primary narrative?

Nacho Vigalondo, who wrote, directed, and plays one of the key characters in the film, seems to have almost hit the nail on the head here.  It’s a close enough sort of thing that makes for an interesting film, but it does lose some credibility in its illogic.  And this illogic is more in how the characters act rather than the entirety of the story.

It’s a decent discovery, a director to keep an eye out for, but not the next coming of Christopher Nolan.

Made in U.S.A.

Made in U.S.A. (1966) movie poster

(1966) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 04/04/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I don’t know why it’s taken so many years, but I’ve finally become smitten by the French New Wave.  Mostly, actually, via the films of Jean-Luc Godard, particularly his earlier works, starting with Band of Outsiders (1964) and most recently with Pierrot le fou (1965).  And while I’ve actually seen about half of the films he produced in the 1960’s.  Mostly, I am catching up on DVD, but when opportunity arises, I like to see these films theatrically.

So, when Made in U.S.A. was being shown at the Castro Theatre, I thought to myself “I am so there!”  And I was.  But oddly enough, Made in U.S.A. actually harkened more of one of the first of Godard’s films that I’d seen, his 1967 film Weekend, which I saw in film school and then again on some other trope, probably film school again, and I really didn’t care for it.  It’s a more politicized film, less romantic, full of chaos and random “noise”, a dissonant film that was not meant for “pleasure”.  And really, in Made in U.S.A., you have a similar sensibility at work, not yet as fully as we see in Weekend, but one that is moving in that direction.

I think that this is what set me away from Godard initially.  I think that I assumed that all his films had a politicized, unromanticized, anti-cinema aesthetic that went with them, one in which visual pleasure or cinematic enjoyment were incisively challenged.  And it’s not that there are not aspects of his working against many of narrative cinema’s mechanisms in all of his films, but in some, especially Band of Outsiders, you see joy and love amidst the critique, and there is visual pleasure, comedy and fun as well.  It’s this sort of character of his films that has drawn me towards his work more of late.

Made in U.S.A. is really a half-way point between these two sensibilities.  This showing of the film in the United States is essentially the film’s first release here.  Godard borrowed a narrative from a Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald E. Westlake) crime novel and reanimated it with uber-irony and comic play, a lens through which his critiques and ideas are formed here.  Apparently, due to having never paid Westlake for the rights, the film was never allowed into the United States, perhaps furthering the irony of the title and possibly part of the film’s critiques.  It’s also the final feature film of his that starred his beautiful then-wife Anna Karina, with whom he was going through a divorce at the time of the film’s production.

Shot in vivid color, the film does in fact “play” a lot.  At one point, there is a comment that the film is like a crime film directed by Walt Disney or something.  It’s saying quite literally what it’s playing with, Americana and the detective genre, but strange, cartoony perhaps.  Karina is usually wearing bright colors and is often off-set by bright background colors, often primary colors, of painted building facades, or signage.  Advertising imagery, pinball machine decorations, pop art, all played out against a paint-by-colors detective story, yet still one where information needs to be uncovered.  There stands the simple genre structure, deconstructed, yet utilized.  Of course, the mystery is much less about what happened to Anna Karina’s lover Richard (as the narrative tries to unfold), but the mystery is much more about what the heck is going on in the film?

Godard drops cultural references all over the place from characters named David Goodis and Otto Preminger to Richard Nixon and Robert McNamara.  There are stabs are broader humor, which are (intentionally) flat.  And ultimately there is a politicized dialogue/monologues about “the left” and “the right”, the Communist Party, and a was in Algeria.

The mixture is also interspersed with acutal noise.  Richard’s last name is always bleated out by airplane noise, car horns, or machine gun noise.  Airplane noise is a constant as well, and the taped recording of a voice is highly dissonant as well.  When contemplating the film’s qualities, the question arises about the amount of intended pleasure versus the amount of intended displeasure.  And the other question is about how much of the film’s actual “meaning” is meant to be understood.  Or is the film mainly playing to open dialogue, inspire questions, or just make one constantly aware that they are watching a film that is nothing like a relaxing movie-going ride that one might be more used to.

Like Weekend, I think the film has much intentional dissonance, visually, audiably, and even intellectually.  From some early moments, it feels like it still wants to have fun.  Perhaps they were having fun in making it.  But the experience on the outside is one of not so easy answers, not so easy responses, and certainly no belly laughs.  Do I “get” this film?  I don’t know.  Did I enjoy it?  Not so much.  Does that mean I think it was not good? Not necessarily.  Would I recommend it to anyone? Serious filmgoers only.  Not the casual approach to the French New Wave.  Perhaps this is a place in which the French New Wave starts waving goodbye, moving into the politicized late 1960’s, influenced by the Vietnam War, and the social revolutions and changes taking place.  It’s no longer the suave and hip late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the honeymoon (and the marriage) is over.  The social criticism is ripe, and cinema is no longer as beautified and idolated.  It’s time to get radical.


Dillinger (1945) movie poster

(1945) dir. Max Nosseck
viewed: 04/03/09

In preparation for the coming Michael Mann directed Johnny Depp film about John Dillinger, Public Enemies (2009), arriving this summer, I decided that I would delve into the prior bio-pics about Dillinger to be ready and all viewed-up for an informed slant on the new one (which looks quite good from the trailers).  It’s kind of the opposite approach that I developed going into my Jesse James film venture a year or so ago, in which I caught up with the history after the latest film had come out.

Dillinger, like James, is (or was) a figure of populist account, a criminal who caught the public’s fancy, and like other bank robbers such as Bonnie & Clyde, The Ma Barker gang, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and George “Baby Face” Nelson, were big Depression/Prohibition Era heroes/villains for the public.  So, to me, it’s an apt trope and analogy.

Some years ago, I think I saw the 1973 film by John Milius and starring Warren Oates about John Dillinger, which at this point isn’t available from Netflix, disappointingly.  It followed along the styles of using significant facts, notable tales to create the story of the true American anti-hero, and probably falling more closely with a film like Bonnie and Clyde (1967).

Dillinger, I assumed would be more akin to the gangster films of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and probably more like the earlier of the Jesse James films I’d seen.  However, it’s kind of disappointing, really.  It’s not great thing of art, more a standard-issue quality B-movie of the time, a genre flick with all the ear-marks of a workman-like production.  Nothing is particularly inventive.  But beyond its qualities or lacking qualities, it’s also not cut of the cloth of idolatry that makes the anti-hero film intriguing.  In fact, it makes Dillinger not to be a “Robin Hood” type, but just a surly, unlikeable criminal and killer.

The film, from what I’ve read, is not one that is particularly historically accurate either.  It’s highlights feature Dillinger’s escape from jail using a gun that he carved out of wood and blackened with shoe polish, and his infamous gunning down in front of the Biograph cinema, betrayed by “the lady in red”.

It’s not the best of films, not even really all that interesting, and perhaps made somewhat redeemable if being able to see the John Milius film before the new one comes out.

Our Man in Havana


Our Man in Havana (1959) movie poster

(1959) dir. Carol Reed
viewed: 04/02/09

After reading the novel Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene on the recommendation of a friend, I thought it would be interesting to see this 1959 film version of the story.  Directed by Carol Reed, with whom I am obviously not familiar enough only having seen his classic noir thriller The Third Man (1949) (also adapted from Greene), the film is an interesting counterpoint to the more prior film.

The story is a great comedy of Cold War politics, in which an operative for the British government, here played by the pitch-perfect Noel Coward, seeks out a fellow countryman in Havana, a vacuum salesman and single father, played here by the brilliant Alec Guinness, to be a spy.  The whole thing is about how this poor fellow, needing money for his daughter’s care, gets pulled into this ridiculous situation.  And at the suggestion of his close friend, makes up stories, characters, other spies that he’s recruited, even drawing up a plan of some bizarre futuristic substation (modeled after one of his vacuum cleaners), to feed the hungry British spy circle.

The book is very good and quite funny, and here is an example of an excellent filmic adaptation.  With Noel Coward, Alec Guinness, Burl Ives, Maureen O’Hara, Ernie Kovacs, and Ralph Richardson…it’s kind of like: how could you go wrong?  In the deft and intelligent hands of director Reed, and shot on location in Havana, only shortly after Castro’s revolution, it’s a prime sampling of top notch comic spy stuff.  While it’s not one of those “laugh out loud” or “falling out of your seats” sort of comedies, it’s clever and cutting and the performances are perfect.

And, like the novel (Greene adapted the screenplay himself), the film turns dark toward the end, when all the fantasy spy action gets a little too real, and everyone is believing, people start dying, and the line between the fiction and the actual become utterly enmeshed.

Again, I think this film might be an interesting contrast with Reed’s earlier Greene adaptation The Third Man because whereas that film plays on a more purely dark and villainous world, also shot on location exquisitely, we have this comic debunking and critique of the spy service and orginizational espionage.   It’s a great book, a great movie.

Lady Terminator

Lady Terminator (1988) movie poster

(1988) dir. H. Tjut Djalil
viewed: 03/31/09

After watching the sanitary Twilight (2008), I felt like I needed to cleanse my palate with some good old trash cinema.  As I’ve mentioned before, the Castro Theatre has a series of films that they call Midnites for Maniacs, which is curated by local Jesse Hawthorne Ficks and leans toward films from the 1980’s, pre-digital FX and lost “treasures” of camp and horror.  When I’d read about the feature showing of Lady Terminator, with which I only had the vaguest of familiarity, I knew I’d have to queue it up, since I wasn’t too likely to make it to the midnight showing there.

It’s probably more bizarre than he even plays out in his promo description.

It is an Indonesian film, apparently one of many Indonesian horror/exploitation films made in a brief heydey in Indonesian cinema that ran roughly from the 1970’s to the 1980’s.  The company that released the film on DVD provided an informative documentary on the disc, so this is where my information comes from.  Starring some Causasian actors (who according to IMDb never made another film), the film is populated with many Indonesian actors as well.  It doesn’t really situate itself in Indonesia in the narrative, so it’s just kind of a guess where all this is taking place and why there are so many Polynesian-looking faces in the film.

What is interesting is that it’s a mixture of traditional mythology and 1980’s cheap special effects, guns, and a straight-up female twist on The Terminator (1984), a good 15 years before the American series gave us a female “terminator”.   There is the South Sea Queen, a succubus-like character, who lives at the bottom of the sea who cannot be sexually satisfied, but is voracious.  And when she terminates the sex act, an eel comes out of her vagina and bites off her lovers’ penises.  When she is tricked by one lover, who captures the eel and turns it into a dagger of sorts, she curses his family and leads us to the present day.

In the present day, we have the Caucasian anthropologist (“I’m not a woman, I’m an anthropologist”), who scuba dives to discover the legend of the South Sea Queen, only to become her eel-in-the-vagina terminator slave, who seeks out the progeny of the aforementioned lover, to exact revenge.  While at first she runs around naked, finding men and snatching their penises, she eventually grabs a machine gun and a leather outfit and goes all Arnold Schwarzenegger on the whole world, shooting and shooting and killing everyone.  She’s also indestructible, but not because she’s a robot, but because she’s some reincarnated evil goddess.

The film is hilariously bad, with laugh-out-loud dialogue and camp up the yin-yang.  It’s a terrible movie indeed, but a pretty damn entertaining terrible movie.  It’s little wonder than none of these people ever went on to other films, though whatever happened to them, one has to be curious.  And while the documentary on Indonesian cinema was intriguing (it seems there are many more films out there like this), one has to expect that they are all of the catalogue of camp and comedy, the kind of films that are fun to laugh at but aren’t necessarily so rewarding.   Still, my kudos to Jesse Hawthorne Ficks.  He’s got a good eye for the lost effluvia of 1980’s cinema.



Twilight (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Catherine Hardwicke
viewed: 03/31/09

Twlight is “the” teenage vampire film, based on the best-selling novels by Stephenie Meyer, and is one of the current fads du jour among teenyboppers (or so the press would have you understand).  I hadn’t really had a lot of intention of seeing it, based on reviews, but after seeing the excellent Let the Right One In (2008), the prepubescent Swedish vampire movie, I felt that it would be an interesting counterpoint and cultural touchstone.  Sometimes it’s better to make references to things that you actually have some experience of, rather than simply casting aspersions because some things “sound” lame.

Directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who got her start and notariety directing “teen” films with Thirteen (2003), which I considered highly dubious, the film is meant to appeal to the age bracket and target audience of the books, teens and pre-teens and the people who still identify with teeniness.  Hardwicke attempts to capture the experience from the perspective of the teens, making it more than anything, a “teen” film.  Parents are somewhat in the ether, either traveling and communicating by phone or present by unable to comprehend their lives.  Oddly, and this is probably an age thing, I felt identifying with the parents a bit more than the lead girl, Bella, played by Kristen Stewart.  But then again, Bella is a sullen, pouty girl, who really is quite charmless.  Robert Pattinson who plays Edward, her vampire love, is broodingly chiseled and angular, but capable of charm.

Interestingly, as a teen film, the teen perspective and the absentee parents are normal tropes going back for decades.  What is interesting in this fantasy romance is that Edward’s vampire family are more present, caring, and an intact family unit (albeit with a snarky sister).  They smile, are welcoming, and are protective, meeting Bella for the first time in their house.  Maybe this is the irony of an “unbroken” home?  Of siblings?  And a fantasy modern house?  And, heck, they even play baseball together.  How all-American can you get?  This is an idealized family unit.

One of the critiques of this film is that it’s sexless.  The vampire mythos being based on very sexualized metaphors, we have a family of “vegetarian” vampires (by being “vegetarian”, they only eat animals, not people — ironic, no?), which goes along with our truly vegetarian heroine (and author who shows up briefly to order a veggie sandwich).  So, they’re not monsters, they tamp down their cravings, and Edward can’t get into any heavy petting without getting a little too much bloodlust going, so they’re sexless too.  They’re kind of a repressed vampire clan who’ve made chastity promises.  No wonder this swings in middle America.

Hardwicke goes heavy in the romance department, but uses a cinematic color palate that is mostly blues and greens, with each character more pale than the next.  But where she is worst is in the action and special effects department.  The FX are worse than most shows on the SciFi Network shows, so cheap that it doesn’t even look like they cared to make it look good.  She does seem to like the woods and waterfronts of the Pacific Northwest, though.

As clunky and bloodless as the film is, it’s still not awful.  Though I found Bella to be lacking in charisma, other characters seemed to carry it out a bit.  I guess it works for the target audience.  But for me, it was just another genre film with modest slants and perhaps more interesting as a “teen” film than a “vampire” film.  Whereas Let the Right One In spoke somehow to me about isolation and loneliness and love, this film plays it out, acts it out, like a high school production of Romeo and Juliet, with lots of brooding and pastiness.