Attenberg (2010)

Attenberg (2010) movie poster

director Athina Rachel Tsangari
viewed: 07/28/2012

Attenberg, a film from Greek director/producer Athina Rachel Tsangari, is cut from a simliar cloth to the films of colleague and countryman, Yorgos Lanthimos.  Tsangari produced both Dogtooth (2009) and Alps (2011), Lanthimos’s surrealist visions of present day Greece.  Dogtooth utilized the same cinematographer, Thimios Bakatatakis, and furthermore, Lanthimos appears in Attenberg.

They share much in aesthetics and discourse, as well as in tonality.  Attenberg differs in that it addresses itself much more plainly and clearly to Greece itself, whereas Lanthimos’s films take place in a more generalized society.

All of the films focus on people living outside of society, either socially inept or ignorant, people who crave connections but whose only access to human relationships are tweaked and bizarre.  In Attenberg, 23-year old Marina (Ariane Labed), has one friend, Bella (Evangelia Randou), with whom she shares a strange, close but unusual relationship.  They practice kissing, singing, spitting, walking/dancing in rhythm throughout the film as if their relationship is a codified practice, not an emotional connection.  Marina is very close to her dying father, Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis) but similarly has awkward communications with him, most comfortable when she and he watch animal documentaries and act like the creatures of the films of David Attenborough.  Spyros is a former architect, who wonders aloud if his profession is really all about building ruins.

The acting style is deadpan, broken away from naturalism, further suggesting the discomfort of relationships and human connections.  For all of Marina’s trying, she seems to make progress, starting a relationship with an engineer she meets (Lanthimos), though she really doesn’t know what she is doing.

I realized at some point, while watching the film, that it would probably strike others as particularly weird. Marina and Bella’s marching/dancing/routines, which intercut throughout the story, are really never outwardly explained.  It’s quite bizarre in its own way.  And quite comical.  Though it’s executed with utmost seriousness.

Attenberg, like Lanthimos’s films, I think are pretty interesting.  They are disconcerting, dealing with weird, complex emotions about dysfunctional human interactions.  They craft surreal world views in a recognizable space.  And despite their disquieting qualities, invoke humor and are also aesthetically pleasing.  These three films could easily be shown together, in any order, in any pairing and evoke similar sensibilities.  Strange, evocative, oddness.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012) movie poster

directors Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor
viewed: 07/22/2012

After having to think a lot about The Dark Knight Rises (2012), it’s kind of a relief to use so few brain cells to consider a different 2012 superhero film, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

Sadly, it’s also a disappointment, not that anticipation or expectations were particularly high.  But mixing the over-acting goofiness of Nicolas Cage with the over-the-top insanity editing and directing of the team Neveldine/Taylor who brought us the koo-koo Crank (2006) and Crank: High Voltage (2009), the potential for madcap, grinding chaotic nonsense, set to pulse-pounding beats and hyperactive cuts and visuals…seemed a match made in…well, maybe not heaven but somewhere.

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance has its moments.  Maybe more than Ghost Rider (2007), maybe fewer.  Cage chews the scenery, revels in delivering some of the pithier lines like, “So, You’re the Devil’s babymama.”  He’s having fun, so it seems.  He’s still the most entertaining thing in the film, though that designation is less and less of a challenge in many of the films he’s been in lately.

Actually, I was rather struck by how much the plot seemed vaguely like that of Drive Angry (2011), another deal with the devil in which a child must be saved.  Drive Angry was probably more fun.

I was struck by what a palette-cleanser this kind of nonsense can be.

Dragonslayer (2011)

Dragonslayer (2011) movie poster

director Tristan Patterson
viewed: 07/21/2012

A generation (or more) ago, Stacy Peralta and numerous others in the suburban desolation of Southern California invented pool skating, and about a decade ago, Peralta documented that in his very good film Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001).  Peralta situated the birth of skate culture and punk in the LA suburbs as something reflecting the cultural malaise of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.  It’s a fine film which I recommend.

Dragonslayer, by director Tristan Patterson, might prove a fascinating contemporary companion piece.  The film follows the exploits of semi-professional skater, Josh “Skreech” Sandoval, a 23-year old inheritor of Dogtown’s legacy.  Skating, broke, drinking and taking drugs, bored, poor, with a fairly bleak future, Sandoval represents a Southern California culture that has changed and has not changed, whose options may or may not be any better than 30 years before.

Scoping out empty swimming pools from Pomona to Fresno, trekking to Portland and Sweden, he is of a skate scene world that has grown since Peralta’s youth.  Patterson paints a somewhat freeform image, told in 11 titled segments, ranging from the instructive to the poetic.  Though you might come to your own opinions of Sandoval, who has a year-old son named Sid and a strange ability to attract pretty younger girls, Patterson isn’t casting his own judgment here. If anything, he’s hopeful for the guy, though Sandoval is the kind of guy from whom parents warn off their daughters.


The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 07/21/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Much has been made of Christopher Nolan’s Batman as a post-9/11 superhero. One who deals with modern, global terrorism, the state of militarized reaction, corporate insinuation in the whole.  The Dark Knight Rises is the final film in his trilogy, attempting to channel not just these realities but also the zeitgeist of the Occupy movements, the banking disasters, and responsive justice, vigilante or otherwise.

Sadly, the meta narrative has expanded beyond anything that Nolan and his collaborators have created for the film.  The attack that occurred in Aurora, CO during a midnight premiere of the film brought terrorism physically into the movie theater.   The post-9/11 superhero film now has its own new precedence, a brutal act infamous on its own.

I watched The Dark Knight Rises at a Saturday matinee, a day and a half after the shootings in Colorado.  Long before the chaos had subsided, long before anyone could begin to eke meaning from it.  I felt its echo throughout much of the experience.

There had been so much preamble to this film already, largely by fans, largely on the internet, spawned by the passionate reception to The Dark Knight (2008) and its predecessor Batman Begins (2005).  Next to Prometheus (2012), it’s hard to know if there was a more hotly anticipated film this summer.  With Heath Ledger’s death prior to the release of The Dark Knight in 2008, tragedy has shadowed the films, but has not obscured their impact.

Nolan has definitely tried to tap into societal currents of strife and fear to define his version of Batman through his three films, quite specifically via chaotic terrorism wrought against the people of Gotham (City) a.k.a. New York.  In Batman Begins and now again in The Dark Knight Rises, the villains are connected with the “League of Shadows,” a group that wants to destroy Gotham in madness and bloodshed, a politicized doctrine, essentially a judgment on Western civilization, couched in language not dissimilar to that of some radicalized Islam.  Ra’s ah Ghul led a siege on Gotham in Batman Begins, invoking literal terror by means of toxins supplied by The Scarecrow that would cause the entire population to hallucinate nightmares and go mad and murderous.

This time the hulking mercenary Bane (Tom Hardy) plans to destroy the world order by destroying Manhattan.  In both films, the motivation for the onslaughts arise as judgment on the decadence of Western Civilization, as embodied in “Gotham”.  In aligning any of this rhetoric to intimations of a “class war” or touching on the Occupy movement’s tones of protest over disparities between the rich and poor, Nolan leaves room to project upon the film various ideological stances. Various pundits have been grasping at the straws to espouse their own agendas (even before the film came out).  Much had been made of how hard it is to understand Bane when he speaks (through his mouthpiece), but the ideological statements that he espouse are doubly muddled.  Is there meant to be meaning to his madness?  Or does Nolan intentionally muddle Bane’s verbalized politics to suggest these platitudes are as garbled as his voice?

And then what about Catwoman (Anne Hathaway)?  She’s another voice of the proletariat, though one in flashy outfits.  Is she hypocritical, too?  She speaks of the coming storm, the devastating chaos meant to purge the world of its decadence.  She’s very well-heeled for one of the 99%.

I think that the Joker was a much more apt and uncanny terrorist.  There is no rhyme or reason, just madness and chaos, to his method.  Random senseless violence.  Largely without explanation.

Frankly, I found the film a bit disappointing.  Though it has a lot of power and style, the film is long, overlong perhaps.  If you ask me, The Dark Knight hit a high point for the franchise.  So it’s not unrealistic to have had heightened expectations going into a follow-up so full of self-importance and rabid anticipation.  The Dark Knight Rises is portentous. It booms onscreen and on the soundtrack with great emphasis.  But for my money, it was even more convoluted, illogical, sprawling.  This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy it.  Just not as much as I’d hoped, not as much as The Dark Knight.

I’ve probably spent more time (though it may not show) editing this post than any one other of which I can recall.  For many attendees of the film over the last weekend, a police presence accompanied screenings, further physical reminders of terror wrought and the vigilance engendered in response.  The screening I attended had no police presence, but all the same, the shadow of those events were inescapable.


William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010)

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within (2010) movie poster

director Yony Leyser
viewed: 07/18/2012

Director Yony Leyser’s documentary, William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, seeks to humanize a man whose mythos, largely based in fact as they are, tower significantly above the reality of the man himself.  The film works with what interviewees are still available, a number of notable musicians and artists largely affiliated with punk or pre-punk or post-punk, all of whom derived influence from Burroughs’ work but also many of whom all actually knew the man.  Burroughs himself, of course, appears only in archival footage, alongside Allen Ginsberg.  The Beats now are all but dead and it’s these secondary resources from whom we are left to glean.

Among the less famous names and faces, Leyser also interviews some of Burroughs’ lovers, in particular James Grauerholz.  The significance here is that Burroughs, the least sentimental of people, is shown to “have a heart,” even writing in his very last journal about the potential and power of love.  The “softer” side of Burroughs isn’t easily extracted, but those who knew him, like Patti Smith and Genesis P-Orridge, evoke sentiment about him and of him.

The film has little moments illustrated by stop-motion animations by Aimee Goguen and Dillon Markey, simple images like wire caricatures come to life, which are nicely done.  And the film delves into aspects of Burroughs’ life that have come to add to his legend: his drug use, his cut-up style of writing, his accidental murder of his wife, his open sexuality. Director John Waters muses about a certain sainthood for Burroughs for those in certain marginalized locations in society to whom he’ll always be an icon.

It’s an earnest affair and an interesting one.  Not itself ground-breaking but well-intentioned.  Straight-forward, both humanizing and deifying.

Erotikon (1920)

Erotikon (1920) movie poster

director Mauritz Stiller
viewed: 07/15/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

First off, Erotikon sounds like something it’s not.  What it is: a modern (for 1920) comedy of the sexes.

From Swedish director Mauritz Stiller, one of the two most important silent directors from Sweden in the silent era, it’s a surprisingly light romp in the homes of the well-heeled society of the time.  It centers around an entomologist, his wife, her would-be lovers, and a rather precocious niece in a romantic pentagram or quadrangle that is constantly morphing shape.  The entomologist, at one point, explains in a lecture the sociology of particular type of beetles what turns out to be a ripe metaphor for the levels of friction in the human world.  Apparently the beetles are happy polygamists, with two or more females on hand, never happy with just one (the amusing intertitles featuring bugs and other amusing illustrations make this even more comical).

Not really knowing where the film is going made for a bumpier, odder ride.  In some ways, it’s a comedy of miscommunication and misunderstanding, kind of like a former Three’s Company, if you will.  What is as amusing as anything in the film is its resolution, a charmingly brisk and cheerful break with societal norms, which turns out to be the only way for everyone to find happiness.

The film has been noted as an influence on many that came after it, most significantly Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu (1939).  It’s far lighter and fluffier than that film, in fact, it’s pretty much a cinematic confection.  It’s cute and quite amusing, though its title certainly lead you to imagine otherwise.

The Docks of New York (1928)

The Docks of New York (1928) movie poster

director Josef von Sternberg
viewed: 07/15/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

My second favorite film that I saw this last weekend at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was the second Josef von Sternberg film that I’d seen there in recent years.  A couple of years back I’d seen his film Underworld (1927), which I had liked.  Both Underworld and The Docks of New York starred George Bancroft, but the real impact of the film, its heart and character arise from its female lead, Betty Compson.  Like Underworld, the film was introduced by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation, was a much more astounding, moving, and remarkable film.

The film opens in the shadowy depths of a stokehold on a steamship, where the stokers pump in the coal and start planning their night ashore with women and booze.  When Bancroft’s big, brawny stoker rescues Compson from a suicidal drowning, carrying her limp form to a soft warm place above a teeming, seething, lusty waterfront beerhall.  When she rouses, she regrets having been saved, but Bancroft promises her a world of fun, talking her into joining him for a night out.  Bancroft’s character is a brute, barely passable as a gentleman, though he’s certainly refined in contrast to the captain under whom he’s served.  Compson is a stark contrast in a sense to the flapper girl of Clara Bow from Mantrap (1926).  Compson’s character isn’t much older but is a thousand times more played out and experienced.  Beyond world-weary to world-worn.

Filmed entirely on a soundstage, von Sternberg controls the aesthetics of the docks to a dark, dismal place, though a place not without poetry.  The image of Compson we first see, is her reflection in the water before her jump, a nameless,faceless female amid the shadows and darkness.  The tracking shots entering the beerhall are beautiful and elegant, deftly crafting this contained, imagined world into something concrete and recognizable.

As Muller noted before the film, it’s slim on plot.  The couple rush into an impulsive marriage among the booze and boozehounds.  The hopes and realities play out against each other, and the tragedies or near tragedies are the stuff of movie magic.  There is a poignancy to Compson’s lost soul, as there is to the brutish modicum of a soul beneath the hunk of a man of the stoker.  I really enjoyed the film a lot, romantic or anti-romantic as it may be.


Mantrap (1926)

Mantrap (1926) movie poster

director Victor Fleming
viewed: 07/13/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

My favorite of the five films that I saw at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this year was Victor Fleming’s Mantrap.  Adapted from a novel by Sinclair Lewis, the film is a comedy of the sexes starring the wonderful, amazing Clara Bow at the top of her “It girl”, “Perfect Flapper” heights.

There are many other charms of this 86 minute film, which features James Wong Howe’s typically vibrant cinematography.  But this film belongs to Bow.  Noted in the film’s introduction from clips of the time, Variety stated “Clara Bow just walks away with the picture from the moment she walks into camera range.” And per Photoplay “When she is on the screen nothing else matters. When she is off, the same is true.”  True then, true today.

Mantrap of the five films I saw was by far the most modern of the films.  From the opening shot of a female client’s foot scaling her attorney’s (Percy Marmont), the play and verve of the film feels more like a whip-quick 1930’s screwball comedy, sharper, more clever, and pointed.  Bow herself is a sex bomb of her time.  When she leaps into the lap of her backwoods sugar daddy, Ernest Torrence, she’s more woman than any of the men in the picture could handle, all in the young, tiny, self-sufficient package.  Fleming gets a lot from the character actors who make up most of the background of the film, the hilarious inhabitants of Mantrap, Canada.

What can I say about Clara Bow that hasn’t been said before?  All I really need to say is that Mantrap is top fun and that if you haven’t seen it, you really, truly should.

The Loves of Pharaoh (1922)

The Loves of Pharaoh (1922) movie poster

director Ernst Lubitsch
viewed: 07/13/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Each year that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival rolls around, I eagerly look through the schedule to see what most tickles my fancy.  Usually, I’m picking and choosing, having neither time nor money (nor endurance) to sit through the entire program (no matter how much I would like to).  This year, I scheduled three in a row for Friday and took the day off.  After watching Little Toys (1933), it was time for Ernst Lubitsch’s The Loves of Pharaoh.

Lubitsch is a name that I’m very familiar with, but not actually a director whose films I’ve actually seen.  I’ve had them in my rental queue for years no doubt, but from his classic American films to his prior German films, I’ve never seen any, famous or obscure.  The Loves of Pharaoh comes from his German years, though the film was actually financed by Hollywood with the intention of bringing it and him there as Hollywood culled the European filmmakers of the day.

Once considered a “lost” film, it played at the Castro in a digital reconstruction, which looked amazing.  For all its reconstruction, the film is still missing about 10% of its footage.  While the print reconstructed these missing scenes with intertitles and still images (when available), it actually made for a significantly diminished experience.  The film is an epic, with massive sets and a cast of hundreds (maybe thousands), including star Emil Jannings.  And while it’s still very instructive to see the film, it’s hurt by its broken rhythms and “lost” sequences.

The epic drama at times builds to dramatic moments, some of which exist, some of which are simply explained.  This is what it is.  Film preservationists have for years been cobbling together these lost films, masterpieces or not, finding pieces of usable footage in one place, another in another, working from shooting scripts, whatever documentation that they have available to put the thing together as completely and as true to its original form as possible.  For historians like Kevin Brownlow, who has dedicated much of his life to this kind of work, it’s a nearly eternal process.  Even the versions that I’ve seen in recent years of Napoléon (1927) and Metropolis (1927) both suffer still from missing much of their original breadth.  And who knows whether they will ever get any closer to their original states than now.

For The Loves of Pharaoh, the breaks and missing elements suck away at the film’s potential power.  Perhaps if I was better familiar with Lubitsch I could better appreciate what was on screen rather than purely yearning for that which was not, but such was the case.  It’s an epic about a selfish Pharaoh who falls in love with a slave girl who belongs to the king of Ethiopia (a rather embarrassing Paul Wegener (The Golem (1920) dressed in a crazy African get-up.)  It’s certainly enjoyable enough and entertaining but it’s a lot harder to fully appreciate without its missing parts or without enough context to override them.

Little Toys (1933)

Little Toys (1933) title image

director Sun Yu
viewed: 07/13/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The first of five films that I was to watch at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Sun Yu’s Little Toys was the first Chinese film that I have seen from the silent era, though the festival often features Chinese or Japanese films.  I was unfamiliar with the period of the heyday of Shanghai film-making in the 1930’s, unfamiliar with the directors and even the stars, Lingyu Ruan and Li-li Li.  While the film itself is a tragedy, the introduction of the film included some interesting notes about the tragedy of Lingyu Ruan who went on to take her own life at the age of 24.  There is always a little additional haunting when such facts are added to the viewing of a film.

Little Toys tells the story of Sister Ye (Ruan Lingyu), a creative toymaker handcrafting her wares in a small village.  She is wise and good-hearted, shunning a lover for her family, offering thoughtful advice, being the sole driver for the income of her village, raising her two children alongside.  The tragedies mount as her husband dies and small son is abducted (in a very leering, creepy moment in the film), and in many ways it only gets worse.  But Sister Ye pushes on, often addressing the camera directly as she falls into intense reveries about the right things to do.  As her daughter grows up (then played by Li-li Li), she channels her mothers spirit, leading the children of the village in play and exercise, developing her own skills in toymaking, and speaking as well of the proper, “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” sort of self-motivational drive, punctuated with the good old “thumbs up”.

The film is strikingly propaganda-like, or maybe just very clear in its ideological messages.  The direct address of the audience leaves little question to whom Sister Ye is really addressing.  And in the film’s notable final sequence, in which still, even in this version that we saw in the theater just this weekend lacked key intertitles, Sister Ye proclaims in crazed, manic terror, for the people to take up arms because the enemy (in this case, the Japanese), are coming yet again to destroy and wreak havoc.  The final sequence is the culmination of the drama, in which Sister Ye, has lost everything, and though she’s being delusional, the crowd around her (and by suggestion, us the audience) see that she is actually predicting something real, sending a warning message like some sibyl on the street.  And in that sense it’s very prophetic, coming only a couple of years before the Japanese again invaded China at the onset of WWII.

Sister Ye also seems to be critiquing the coming of mass production, representing as she does, the artisanship of traditional crafts.  The message here is a little muddier, though modernization and industrialization become conflated with military aggression and weaponry.  Children “want” little toys of the fighter planes and tanks that devastate the land and the people, toys that have to be produced by machines and mass industry.  These asides are also part of the bald ideological elements.

Something beneath all of that, though, that struck me, was how the film centered so much around women, strong women who are the core of everything of the film.  Sister Ye is a creative force, ingenius and innovative, but also wise and deep, helping others to understand the world around them and what is right and wrong.  Sister Ye and her daughter are the industry of their village.  The men are like hangers-on, helping out, hunky or sad-sacks, but they are clearly nowhere as full of wisdom and energy.  I don’t know if this is something particular to this film, this period, this director, Ruan Lingyu.  Like I said, this is the first Chinese film of this period that I’ve seen.  I still thought it was most striking, especially watching other films from throughout the world where women are codified and “typed”.

Little Toys is a very moving film, sad, striking, very interesting.  There are numerous moments, shots, images that stand out considerably.  But nothing more so than the culmination of the tragedy in the final sequence.  Ruan Lingyu cries out at us and the drama is hard to forget.