Deadly Friend

Deadly Friend (1986) movie poster

(1986) director Wes Craven
viewed: 07/29/10

Deadly Friend is a pretty awful movie but kind of likable as well.  Which is sort of how I’d remembered it from whenever how long ago I had last seen it.

Earlier this year, I’d revisited director Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), prior to watching the disappointing re-make of that film, and I was reminded of Deadly Friend as a film that I recalled not being very good, but having some semblance of an emotional hook that made it vaguely more memorable than many others.  And so, I thought I’d queue it up and watch it.

It’s bad.  It’s badly made.  Much of the cinematography and framings could have come right off of bad television show of the time.  There is no element or essence of a great cinematic eye overseeing the goings-on here, no flashes of genius in a lesser film by a major auteur.  And really, that’s my take on Craven.  While A Nightmare on Elm Street is an arguably great film from the 1980’s, most of his work is junk.  He’s not an auteur, or at least not one of greatness (I’m failing to recall the term used for the next tier down of directors who were not considered auteurs).  What Craven is today is a cash cow.  He’s selling out the remakes of just about every film that he ever had anything to do with, including, I’ve read, this film here.

Deadly Friend is not a bad idea for a movie.  Adapted from a novel by Diana Henstell, titled Friend, the story is about a super-genius teenager who has made his own robot, armed with true Artificial Intelligence, who moves to a new town to attend college.  He befriends a neighbor girl who suffers physical abuse by her oft-drunken father.  But then his robot is destroyed by a curmudgeonly old lady and the girl dies as a result of her father’s violence.  The boy becomes a modern Doctor Frankenstein, implanting the robot’s brain in the dead girl’s skull, re-animating her as a quasi-version of the two dead entities.  But of course, things don’t work out so well and result in some homicidal violence and gore.

I think why the film works at all is a bit due to the casting and the performances.  Matthew Laborteaux plays the teen scientist, Kristy Swanson is the girl next door, and Michael Sharrett plays the boy’s best pal.  While none of the performances is particularly stellar, the cast has a charm and a regular-ness, if you will, that perhaps makes you care about the story, even though the film is ham-fisted and clunky, cheesy, and shoddily-made.  That said, Swanson’s performance as the re-animated robot-girl is pretty outright laughable with her fingers spread to simulate the limited digits that the robot had had and her glassy-eyed stiff robot-acting is worth a good chuckle.

I don’t know.  There is some je ne sais quoi here because this time around, the movie seemed particularly bad to me, and yet I still found myself responding vaguely to the story.  I suppose that the idea has potential in the right hands.  It’s something less of a scary horror film than perhaps an almost tragic Romeo and Juliet, with Juliet doing “the robot” (and none-too-well either).

Breathless

A Bout de souffle (1960) movie poster

(1960) director Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 07/26/10 at the Embarcadero Cinema, SF, CA

In junior college, I took “Film 101” three times.  The first two times I took incompletes, only finally getting a grade for it in the last go around.  “The 3rd time’s the charm,” as they say.

It was in the second of these Introduction to Film classes that I was introduced to Jean-Luc Godard and his seminal 1960 film, Breathless.  And I didn’t like it.  I was 18 probably, and despite the context that the teacher gave to the film, implanting the concepts of “jump cuts” and the general dissonance that Godard brought to “break” with traditional film techniques, I didn’t enjoy the film.  I found Jean-Paul Belmondo annoying, didn’t care for the misogynistic or chauvinistic attitudes, and just, perhaps, wasn’t “ready” to appreciate Godard or the tropes and concepts of the French New Wave.  I know, not very open-minded of me.  But there you go.

Oddly enough, some 20+ years later, after graduate studies in film and any number of movies, books, classes, experience, this is actually only the second time that I’ve watched Breathless.  And here the film is now, in it’s 50th anniversary release, in a newly restored print overseen by cinematographer Raoul Coutard.  And, for me, the experience is a world apart from that of my 18-year old self, watching the film on video, in the confines of a junior college classroom.

One striking aspect of Breathless, which I’ve noted in other French films of the period, is the fascinating “capture” of the world of the film’s present, apprehended largely in the locations in which the filming took place.  And this is powerfully evident in Breathless.  From the Champs-Élysées to Montparnasse to the Place de la Concorde and the many roads and avenues and cafes, the film comprises a multitude of snapshots of a now distant Paris, which of course would have been utter contemporary at the time.  Consider the automobiles, the many that Belmondo’s Michel steals throughout the play of the film, and the dapper styles of Belmondo and the uber-stylish and beautiful Jean Seaberg, the film has an air of pure style and aesthetic that is transporting and almost quaint.

While this is a matter for the present, to look back on a Paris of 50 years ago, to people who are in some cases long-gone, is an element of cinema true in perhaps many old films (if not all), and it may not be the most purely relevant gaze to cast on Breathless, I would say it’s awfully hard not to have a reaction to that style and character.  Godard chose to shoot in the streets of Paris with a film crew pared down like that of journalists of the time, so this capture is not by any means entirely accidental or lacking meaning.

Godard’s more radical cinematic techniques, not simply the jump cuts or the dissonant street noises that obscure the dialogue or the off-screen dramatics that would normally take the foreground in a narrative, but his wholly politicized approach to breaking down the narrative devices of traditional Hollywood cinema still seem quite radical even today.  Because big feature cinema production is still adherent to the traditions and practices established prior to Godard’s film; these discordant approaches, breaking the audience’s connections to the characters and the story still jar us, they still make for a different cinematic experience, one of the self-awareness of sitting and watching Breathless, rather than being caught up and lost in the world and story of the diegetic film world.  While some elements of these techniques became absorbed into the language of film, and this film influenced filmmaker upon filmmaker, film upon film, it’s still quite uncommon to see a film made that is so intentionally challenging of audience pleasure and engagement.

Not that Breathless is the extreme for Godard in this respect.  Far from it.  The film has much of the joy and beauty and pleasure still deeply within it that make many of Godard’s early films quite charming and fun, discordant yet enjoyable, and why they aren’t just a burden to endure as some of his other films might be argued to be.

Godard’s Breathless is well worth seeing for the first time or the second, or simply again.  It’s modernist and modern, post-modern and complex, a glimpse of a Paris now long past, a riff on love and crime and perhaps a cynical existentialism.  It’s pleasure and displeasure, and will probably not strike any two people the exact same way.  And in many ways, this is a testament to the power and innovation of this film, even 50 years later.

Godard has grown on me over the years, and while I’ve come to like some of his films better, or still dislike others of his films more, I have the pleasure of seeing Breathless now and still seeing how understandable it was to react negatively back many years ago was.  But how much better it is to appreciate it here and now.

Mother

(2009) director Joon-ho Bong
viewed: 07/25/10

The latest film from Korean filmmaker Joon-ho Bong (Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006)) is very much in tune with the tones of both of his prior films, a downbeat mixture of drama peppered with odd-feeling comedic elements.  Actually, it reminded me quite a bit of Memories of Murder in general, featuring the murder of a teenage girl while much of the story is about the attempt to solve the murder, as well as it is set in a more rural town, a very non-urban world for the film.

Going into the film, I didn’t know a terrible lot about it other than it was a bit creepy and revolved around a mother’s doting attention on her somewhat mentally deficient young adult son.  And actually, as the movie gets going, it sort of takes a while to sort itself out from a story perspective.  Part of the exposition that sets the characters in place before the major events transpire leave you not entirely sure what the characters are, good or bad, capable of.

Kim Hye-ja plays the mother, a broad-ranging and interesting role, a character not to be pigeon-holed, per se.  She raised her mentally-challenged son in rather hard-scrabble times and seems to be both over-doting, over-protective, and potentially semi-sexual with this man-child of hers, played by Won Bin.  She has lived her entire life for him and tells him flat out that their lives are one in her maternal dedication and self-effacement.

When her son stands accused of the murder of a young girl, a town floozy, and he signs a confession, she is driven to try anything and everything to free her son from prison and clear his name.  The lengths she goes include hiring an expensive, very-uninvolved attorney, but additionally requires her to play detective when the local police are apathetic about the case.  Her investigations lead her to break into her son’s best friend’s apartment, to try to find the dead girl’s missing cell phone (which is said to contain incriminating photos of the numerous boys that she’d slept with and potentially her murderer as well), and ultimately go as far as she has to in order to extricate her son from jail.

While never uninteresting, the film plays out as kind of weird.  The mixture of humor and dramatic tonality (though I’ve noted it before in Bong’s films) is a little hard to get a handle on.  At times the sequences seem to suggest light-hearted silliness, which are then contrasted with rather melodramatic weightiness.  And while this works to strange effects no necessarily bad, it did also leave me a little unsure of exactly what I felt about the film.

I did like how Bong pulled it together in the end, and there are certainly moments or sequences that are stirring and moving.  On the whole though, it wasn’t my favorite of his films, and I think I found a myself somewhat ambivalent about the whole.

The Runaways

(2010) director Floria Sigismondi
viewed: 07/ 24/10

The Runaways is a biopic of the Joan Jett-led all-girl rock group from the 1970’s, adapted from the biography of singer Cheri Currie and told from her perspective.  The film stars Dakota Fanning as Currie and Kristen Stewart as Jett, and is a good excuse for lots of tight jeans, shag hairstyles, heavy make-up, and stumble-worthy platform heels.  It’s also a good chance for underaged sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll all to the tune of proto-grrrl power.

Stewart is pretty spot-on as Joan Jett and seems to have more fun in this movie than any other movie that I’ve seen her in (Adventureland (2009), New Moon (2009), or Twilight (2008)).  Fanning, though, is a little bit of a freakshow here, in that painful area that we all go through between childhood and adulthood, a little skinny womanchild trying desperately to be an adult.  Now, that is her character’s predicament as well, getting her first period in the opening shot of the film.  She’s 15 and having just seen her grow up a bit from a 10 year old in War of the Worlds (2005) through to another gawky young girl role in Push (2009), there is that painful awkwardness fully present in this film that is both hers and the Currie’s.

Actually, as the film opens, Currie and her older sister are such total jailbait little girls, putting on their make-up in a restaurant bathroom, trying so hard to be cool.  The film captures that air of boredom and desperation of being young and wanting to be something else so bad.  And really, the film shines the brightest through the first 45 minutes or so, as these girls, including the skinny little tough gal Jett, try to find their footings, get some respect, and be the daring, stylish rebels that they will become.

And through the early part of the film, this whole thing is a pretty fun ride.  They are introduced to one another by producer Kim Fowley (amusingly portrayed by Michael Shannon), and with a lot of coddling and cajoling, are trained to rock out and channel their piss and their vinegar.  The core of the group is quite good.  I also really liked Stella Maeve as drummer Sandy West, who stood out even in her small role.

But as the girls gain success, start taking lots of drugs, tour in Japan, the whole film starts becoming a series of montages, played out to the tunes of the Runaways and other contemporary and influential musicians of the day.  And within the montages of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, getting hazier and hazier, I assume, to portray the mindsets and perspectives of the further and further drug-addled Currie, the whole thing loses its track as a story.

I guess that the film truncates the story rather significantly for narrative purposes, having Currie drop out of the band and then the band breaking up.  At the end of the film, Currie is working in a shop of some sort, while Jett has gone on to great success with her cover of “I Love Rock’n’Roll” and has moved toward greater stardom and rock goddessness.  The film sort of emphasizes, or seems to, a romantic and sexual relationship between Currie and Jett, which Currie’s quitting of the band seemed to signify as their break-up.  I’d read, I thought, that the film didn’t really delve into Jett’s sexual orientation, but it certainly seemed to in my perception.

It’s a better film than the rock biopic about the Germs, What We Do Is Secret (2007) and quite a bit less depressing than the recent one about Joy Division, Control (2007).  It’s a shame that the whole thing gets off track so early because I really kind of enjoyed the first part of the film.  The awkwardness of teenagehood, the desire to rock out, to be more than they are, boozing, huffing, sleeping around…it’s all very rock’n’roll.

What Happened to Kerouac?

What Happened to Kerouac? (1986) DVD cover

(1986) directors Richard Lerner, Lewis MacAdams
viewed: 07/21/10

I saw this film back in its initial release back in Gainesville, FL at the Hippodrome Theater with my girlfriend when I was a teenager.  It’s funny because I had never been to the Hippodrome (which was primarily a place for plays) for a film before, and I’m not eve sure how much I knew about Jack Kerouac before we went to the movie.  So, it’s an odd little memory of mine from the time.

I decided to re-visit it now because I’d just finished reading The Dharma Bums, the fourth of Kerouac’s novels that I’ve read now over the years, and was remembering about this documentary and intrigued more and more about Kerouac himself and the Beats in general.  Oddly enough, I’d picked up The Dharma Bums at San Francisco’s Beat Museum in North Beach on Broadway, which used to a bookstore that I liked to visit.  The Beats’ legacy locally is part of the San Francisco historical and cultural landscape, which I mostly appreciate with great affection, but regarding the Beats themselves, have always had a vague sense of over-aggrandizement by locals, since it’s a bit of self-importance on the world’s literary stage.  We’re kind of a small town in that respect.

But I’ve grown to appreciate Kerouac on my own terms, having enjoyed On the Road the most of the novels that I’d read and having grown as well to appreciate the local qualities of the stories, of the events, of the people, not because of their importance as literary artifacts, but simply because they are snapshots of the city that I do love, images of its transitory past, and ties to aspects of California and history that have great meaning and depth (I actually read On the Road right after I’d read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which turned out to be a fascinating comparison point from California literature and the changing nature of America of the Depression and post-War eras.  Which I highly recommend.)

Kerouac is a sad figure, a tragic drunk, who managed to completely destroy himself before he turned 50.  And at the time of the film’s production, less than 20 years after his death, his literary legacy was still somewhat in question and many of his contemporaries were still alive to be interviewed.  And actually that is one of the film’s two most “killer apps”, the interviews with Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gary Snyder, and a host of others.  While none of the interviews are pure genius, nor is the film, it’s hard to forget that most of these people are no longer among the living, no longer can attest to their knowledge of Jack Kerouac.  Originary sources no more.

The film’s other strength, in my opinion, is some of the 8mm or 16mm footage that was shot of New York City, Lowell, MA, and San Francisco, whenever it was captured (probably close to the time of the film’s production), but what I can attest to from the San Francisco footage, while perhaps it captured the parts of the city that Kerouac liked: Skid Row, South of Market, the train tracks, it certainly captures elements of San Francisco that have changed in the 20 years since I’ve lived here.  The images capture glimpses of an older San Francisco and certainly a no longer San Francisco, and transposed as they are over the words, spoken by Kerouac himself, reciting poetry about them, there is an uncanny element of the past re-echoed, redoubled.

Additional to these elements are clips from two television appearances by Kerouac in his lifetime.  One from 1959 is on The Steve Allen Show, right after the publication of On the Road in which the still handsome Kerouac reads with some still-intact lilt of the Beat style ebullience (which was interestingly probably at the end of its period just as the publication of the novel “broke” the aesthetics and sensibility to America at large).  The second is from The William F. Buckley Show, from 1968, only a year before his death, in which the drunk and ornery and bloated Kerouac snipes and makes a fool of himself.  It’s a sad glimpse of the man in his growing dissipation.

Kerouac was a zeitgeist.  Was zeitgeist.  And what’s sort of strange and fascinating is that the ideas and sensibilities that he lived, invented, and transcribed all largely lived themselves out before On the Road was ever in print.  All of the ideas and historicality of the Beats has grown since that time, and while Kerouac continued to write for a while afterward, the fame and notoriety helped to speed his end, or so many of his friends attest.  And what you don’t get from the movie, but I did glean from The Dharma Bums, was the loneliness and depression that ruled his life, part of the early, youthful passion and belief in peace and beauty and hope that rode alongside the downbeat, misery, and unhappiness that ultimately claimed his perspective.

What’s not at stake here is whether he was a great writer or genius or merely a “typist” as Truman Capote called him.  What’s not at stake is the significance or insignificance of the Beats and their writings.  The film is more just an investigation into, as the title says, “What Happened to Kerouac?”  But sadly, that answer is all too simple.  Booze.  Drugs.  Depression.  What would be more interesting, I would say, would be a bigger, more robust question of the period, of the individuals, their friendships, and their work.  While they are models for many, what they have come to embody for 20th century America, is an aspect of youth culture, highly poetic and yearning, striving for something amidst the passing landscape of time, their roots in the Great Depression, and the realities of one life in particular, set on self-destruct.

Winter’s Bone

(2010) director Debra Granik
viewed: 07/19/10 at the Embarcadero Cinemas, SF, CA

Debra Grankik’s film Winter’s Bone is a bit of an antithesis to the summer movie (as a type) and in particular to the summer movies of 2010, which is has been released against (alongside).  A small film, made with no major name actors, set in Missouri’s Ozark Mountains, in a world while purely American, is also probably utterly foreign to the average American.  And while the film features no explosions, superheroes, CGI, and does not require digital 3D projection, it does not lack in drama, mystery, or harrowing tension.

Not that such a comparison bears any real fruit, but it’s an interesting contrast to most of the crap that has hit the theaters so far this year.  And it’s gotten the reputation as one of the better-reviewed films out at the moment.

It’s a backwoods story, about a 17-year old girl, Ree Dolly (played by the terrific Jennifer Lawrence), who is caring for her younger brother and sister and mentally-damaged mother.  When the police come by to tell her that her father has skipped out on his bail bond, she finds out that this disappearance signifies not just on the relative unreliability of the man, but puts their house and their land at risk of forfeiture, since it’s what he posted as his bail.  With her mother more or less incapacitated and no other male adult willing to help, Ree is forced to hunt for her father among the secretive and suspicious mountain folk, and she finds that no one is too eager to help her.

The film is both a mystery of sorts and a Western of sorts, with Ree as the strong and responsible figure who has stand up to protect her family, what is left of it.  The people of the mountains are utterly insular and seethe with a violence that is just barely below the skin.  Danger and ruthlessness abound and despite some blood connections to the people she interrogates, she might as well have come from the outside.  She and her mother and siblings are almost at the bottom of the world’s food chain, sniping squirrels for meat, the smallest, leanest source of food that they can readily obtain.

The film has a powerful earnestness to it and takes its world and its characters seriously and humanely, even the more villainous and odious ones.  It’s a frightful world, far away from anything purely modern, with nary a cell phone in sight, and for music and entertainment, old-timey banjo music is played and sung, adding an air of the deeper past to the present of the film.

It’s well-done and quite engaging.  Lawrence is the core of the film, a portrait of strength and self-reliance, but of loss and fear as well.

The Book of Eli

(2010) directors Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
viewed: 07/18/10

The latest from the filmmaking duo known as the Hughes brothers (Menace II Society (1993), Dead Presidents (1995), From Hell (2001))  is a post-Apocalyptic sci-fi flick starring Denzel Washington.  It’s an interesting flavor of this subgenre of science fiction, what with an African-American lead (oddly enough unusual) and sporting a rather pronounced Christian theme.  But even with those angles and slants on the genre, it’s not a whole lot that you haven’t seen before.  And yet it’s also not a dire effort either.

You see, in this post-apocalypse, not only are food, water, fuel, weapons, and sex all the most highly-sought commodities, but apparently, so is the Bible.  And while the idea that religion is a potential commodity of necessity, power, and survival is interesting in this genre, the pure absurdity that after only 30 years of post-destruction living that only one Bible still exists and that only a couple of people old enough to remember “from before” have any idea what it might signify, is just a little beyond implausible.

I guess that the Hughes brothers wanted to give this some flavor of the immediate future, not some hundreds or thousands of years beyond our now for relevance’s sake, and also so there would be some who would remember “from before” all the calamity happened.  It’s just insane to think that the most published book in the world has been reduced to one, or further that the whole of the world has forgotten this incredibly significant set of morals, stories, and meanings altogether…in 30 years.  So we’ve got a major plausibility issue here.

It’s not the only one, though.  The film turns at the end on an amusing twist, but this twist signifies a deeper, more over-arching twist that feels remarkably unbelievable as well.  I’m warning you.  I’m about to reveal it here, simply because it’s something I want to discuss.  So read no more if you fear the spoiler.

The twist at the end is that the one existing Bible is written in Braille.   Which is funny enough, a potential of irony simply in the situation that it could be a lost language of its own, unreadable by the villain who has sought it out.  But beyond that twist, is the further one, that Washington’s character, Eli, the ascetic who has toted this volume for 30 years to find a place where it will be protected and utilized, and who has kicked a lot of bad guy ass throughout the duration of the movie in hand-to-hand combat but also shooting guys with arrows and bullets, … is essentially a blind man.  Um, okay.

This would be one of those twists that would make you go back throughout the film to look for how he handles interactions to hide his blindness, how he manages with heightened senses to whack everybody, sense everything, navigate the world as its most ass-kicking survivalist.  But I couldn’t be asked to go back, even in my mind, over the scenes to see how that level of cleverness was executed.

It underscores the film’s shortcomings, however. It’s a sort of by-the-numbers wasteland, with a somewhat suggested cause of the doom (war).  But what could be the film’s best aspect, the power of the written word, literacy, knowledge even beyond faith (considering that faith doesn’t really exist except for Eli), is just a sleight-of-hand trick, a twist of cleverness, but one that basically forsakes the glaring illogic of the premise that religion and bibles were so rapidly eradicated post-whatever kind of war left the world in ruins.  So, what could have made for an interesting spin on the genre, makes for the film’s greatest weaknesses, and leaves us with a middling affair, mostly unremarkable.  Which is a shame because the Hughes brothers can or at least have done much better in the past.

Inception

Inception (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 07/17/10 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The summer of 2010 has been a dire one in regards to the movie scene.  Christopher (The Dark Knight (2008), The Prestige (2006), Batman Begins (2005)) Nolan’s latest film, Inception, looked to be the potential savior of the summer movies of 2010.  With its striking trailer with M.C. Escher-like visuals of impossible cities and stairways and flying fight scenes that looked to re-invent what’s cool since The Matrix (1999), the complex, intellectual and head-trippy film looked to be the lost hope of big summer movies for this very wan year.

Nolan, since his breakthrough film Memento (2000), has looked like one of the more interesting writer/directors in Hollywood.  The Dark Knight seemed to prove him out to be the intelligent and stylish deliverer of American cinema (yeah, I know that he’s English), or at least to prove out that people responded to that film with the sort of ardor usually reserved for the films of the Star Wars canon.  But frankly, his whole body of work continued/s to show promise and so hope for this film seemed genuinely real and palpable.  And the rest of the summer was making it that much more stark a comparison.

Inception, however, isn’t all that it’s trying to be cracked up to be.  It’s cerebral, sure.  The whole thing is about guys who break into people’s dreams to steal information, but who are put on a job to break into someone’s dream to “plant” an idea.  So this is a complex flavor of science fiction, featuring an ornate set of rules (in a dream, when you die, you wake up, but if you are overly sedated, you might end up in a limbo; for every “dream within a dream” time expands exponentially, etc., etc.).   Lots of complicated innuendo and rules, stuff that makes it hard to follow unless you’re really paying attention in detail, and even if you are paying attention, it still might be hard to take it all in.

That’s the thing, really.  The film gives you a lot to take in and not a lot of time to take it in, and then tries to set its story against that background and expects the audience to be engaged and invested and comprehending.  As good as some of the sequences look, as trippy as some of the ideas, I have to say, Man it’s hard to keep up.  It’s sort of like all the ornateness and complexity assumes that you’re along for the ride.  And maybe if you feel you are, this film is freaking genius.

But from the opening sequence, in which the realities are nested like the Russian babushka dolls, and the levels of awareness of the dream thieves is being rapidly peeled back from the onion skin of the narrative, I was already a little lost.  Leonardo DiCaprio and his team are inside Ken Watanabe’s dream, and the rules and complexities (the dream within a dream, the “kick” sensation of falling that can wake you up), and just what exactly they were up to, I don’t know that I ever fully understood.  Watanabe is their employer, yet he’s trying to hide something from them, and succeeds so they fail and they need to hightail it out of wherever they are and move on.  But then Watanabe offers them another more complicated gig, which DiCaprio is open to because he’s a wanted man and somehow Watanabe can fix that.  It’s a lot to take in.  I mean, I got the gist of it, but in this head-trippy narrative, where you’re constantly meant to be saying “Whoa!” when some new level of complexity is revealed (what is reality? are any of these levels real?), it’s hard to know if you care.

The cast is excellent, with DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Cillian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Lucas Haas, Michael Caine… (many of whom have worked with Nolan before).  And some of the visuals are super-striking and cool.  The fight sequence in which Gordon-Levitt flies at zero gravity with a constantly turning hotel hallway really does look like the most interesting fighting shot since The Matrix re-invented the visuals of the fight sequence.  And when Page’s experimenting with controlling the architecture of a dream landscape, folding Paris onto itself, it’s really pretty cool-looking.

But in the end, that was all in the trailer, what made the film “look” like several strokes of genius and whet the appetites of film-goers and enthusiasts.  I mean, this summer has outright sucked.  And many writers were looking at Nolan as the second coming of Stanley Kubrick.  And so where does that leave us now, with this film, which has a lot going for it, but ultimately isn’t all that one would hope it to be?

Well, less satisfied than one would have hoped.  And thinking that Nolan, who is indeed quite good and quite interesting, has yet to really make a film of the true caliber of greatness (though I’m certainly thinking of revisiting Memento now, because I recall thinking that it really did deliver on its concepts and promise at the time it was released).

But as much as I’m stating disappointment in Inception, I’m not trying to suggest that it, like so much of the films of 2010, that it’s garbage.  It’s strikingly designed, entertaining and trippy, challenging and pretty darn interesting.  It’s just not all that it was hoped to be, and for much of us, that will be a bit of a downer.  What have we to look forward to?  More superhero movies?  I for one, hope that Nolan continues to develop films in this direction, but manages to achieve something more than he has as yet.

Metropolis

(1927) director Fritz Lang
viewed: 07/16/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

A huge event in the world of silent film, by far the most complete version of Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metroplolis that has been seen since its initial release was on display.  Only two years prior, in a Buenos Aires film library, a beaten 16mm copy of the film was discovered, allowing for over a 1/2 an hour of long-lost footage to be reassembled with existing prints, nearly completely reconstructing one of the periods most important and impressive films.  And since its initial showing in Berlin earlier this year and again in New York, this showing at the Castro Theater was about as big an event as you get in the silent film world.

And it was fantastic.

Accompanied by a brilliant performance by the Alloy Orchestra, it was amazing to see this film in its near entirety.  I had only chanced to see it before on video, a version that was released in the 1980’s with a then current pop soundtrack produced by Georgio Moroder, colorized/tinted and with the intertitles changed to subtitles.  As I recall, I turned off the sound and adjusted the picture to try to make it black-and-white again.  And while much of the visual imagery had been intact, with its striking designs and verve, the film wasn’t the easiest to follow as I recall.  I don’t think I then knew that it was as compromised as it was (with a running time of 80 minutes as opposed to the original 153).

Oddly enough, though, I (and perhaps some others my age) owe it to Moroder that the film’s images are as familiar as they are, in that the music video for Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” was comprised of sequences from the film.  It’s funny, but as I was watching the film this time, for the first time in probably 20 years, those images echoed with a familiarity much stronger than I had anticipated.

Metropolis, at the time of its production, is considered to be the most ambitious and radical feature film that had been made up to the time.  Emanating from the Weimar Republic era in Germany, influenced by Expressionism, Art Deco, and Futurism, the designs are still compelling nearly 80 years later.  The film has influenced designs from Star Wars (1977) and Blade Runner (1982) through so many, many more.  And yet nothing is quite like it.

Set in a future world in which the working class lives underground and people work and march like cogs in the giant machine, the story tells of the son of the overseer of the aboveground Metropolis, an idealized modern city in which the children of the elite frolic and play without a concern or knowledge of the world below.  When Maria, a young woman from the underground city appears to the young man, he is intrigued and goes below to find this world of which he’d had no knowledge and the beautiful Maria, the religious leader and center of a peaceful movement to change the world for the better for the workers.

Meanwhile, a mad scientist has created a robot, the film’s most iconic image, a female form, which he has constructed to turn into a replica of his long-lost love, the former wife of the city’s overseer.  However, the overseer comes to hear of the revolutionary movement and convinces the scientist to abduct Maria and make the robot over in her form to control the workers and drive the revolution on so that he can crush it down.  This leads to a manic riot, the destruction of the underground city, and the near destruction of everything.

There are so many amazing images, it’s impossible to simply recount them all.  But married to the rhythmic soundtrack of the Alloy Orchestra, the film has features patterns of movement, a construct of sight and sound, which build and climax in a completely amazing way.  It’s virtuoso stuff.  Mesmerizing.  Dazzling.  Fantastic.

This is really what it’s all about, when you boil it down, the greatest of cinema from any period, any era.  And the true testament to that is how powerful and visionary the film still is, how fresh, how unlike anything else there is in the world.  And this treasure rediscovered, this most-complete version ever found, is a testament as well to film preservation (it’s really the dream come true of film preservationists).  Because even though the newfound footage is much damaged in comparison to the rest of the film, it is a stark reminder of how amazingly unappreciated this material was in its day.  That films were considered throw-away, mincable.  We are lucky, lucky, lucky to be able to see this film, to still have it, to see it on the big screen, and to see the best of the best of world cinema.

The Iron Horse

(1924) director John Ford
viewed: 07/15/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

One of my favorite things is the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, a now 4 day event showing any number and variety of silent films.  I’ve been attending now for a few years and was excited to go to the opening night showing of John Ford’s epic silent Western, The Iron Horse.  I’d never seen it before, but it seemed a great film to check out, an early epic Western by the film director most associated with the genre.

The film retells the tale of the building of the transcontinental railroad, a crowning event in American history, and a fascinating and meaningful story.  Of course, it’s told through the story of the son of a “dreamer” who, while a neighbor of Abraham Lincoln’s, pondered the possibilities of a railroad that connected America’s East with the American West.  But it’s his son who works the railroad, helps to find the passage through a tough area, not to mention some conniving villains which all add this up to a much more traditional “oater” as the writers of crossword puzzles like to call Westerns.

What is fascinating is that the two trains that meet at Promontory Summit the where the “golden spike” was driven in are the two actual locomotives that were at the real event.  Ford has much dedication to this narrative and sought to make it as true to life and accurate as possible from an historical standpoint.  Additionally, according to some of the notes, some of the Chinese workers on the film also participated in the building of the railroad.  But I have to wonder, since the railroad was completed in 1869 and this film was made in 1924, one has to wonder about the potential accuracy of such a statement.  (I also have read that the story about the locomotives being the actual engines is also potential hooey.)

It’s a rather rip-roaring yarn, though, and quite a bit of fun.  One other aspect that is quite interesting is the dedication Ford puts into showing the diversity of the work effort.  Irish, Italians, Chinese, and even the good natured Pawnee indians are on the side of good, and he likes to show the combatative members of each various group of national origin working alongside each other.   A strong melting pot message.  Of course the Cheyenne are the baddies, though the two-fingered main bad guy is supposed to be a white man who poses as an indian.

What’s additionally interesting is the whole of the Western genre, what will continue to be a popular genre through the better part of the 20th century, was already going through its ups and downs.  The festival offers an insightful booklet on the films, plus a slide show of images and facts prior to each film, plus an introduction by experts or notables on each film.  I tell you, it’s a great way to see these movies.  I keep telling people about them and I really think they’d enjoy getting to see these films on the big screen with full musical accompaniment.