Alps (2011)

Alps (2011) movie poster

director Yorgos Lanthimos
viewed: 04/24/2012 at Kabuki Sundance Cinemas, SF, CA

Alps is the latest film from Greek film maker/writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos.  It played as part of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, so even without knowing much about it, I was very interested in seeing it.  His previous film, Dogtooth (2009), was one of the two best films that I saw on DVD last year, and I’ve been reading about the rise of Greek cinema and its strangely surreal nature.

Alps is not unlike Dogtooth in that it also deals with people and reality and does so in a darkly comic, somewhat disturbing tone.  Whereas in Dogtooth, a father kept his adult children hemmed in on a property away from the rest of the world, a world that he portrayed with various falsities and lies to keep them at home, Alps is about people who strive to participate in the lives of others, playing roles of the recently departed.  As part of a very formal yet probably unofficial troupe of four, each of the people attempt to fill roles in lives in which people have died.  It’s part service and therapy, but it’s also a codependent fulfillment for the actors, particularly the woman played by Aggeliki Papoulia, who lose sight of themselves and their own worlds.

There is a plethora of absurdity and flatly delivered interactions.   At one point the young gymnast of the group attempts to mimic Prince, but does so very shabbily, not being recognizable by her peers.   The men tell her that Prince is not dead.  She then argues that he is dead (you’re only supposed to imitate the dead.)  Another sliver of a break from an understanding of reality.

The best scene, perhaps, is after Paloulia plays through a dialogue with a man in a lighting store, going over an argument, reeling lines as if from a script in flat, unemotional specificity.  When the argument ends, they retreat to the basement and engage in a similarly stilted scene of sex.  The man tells her, as he administers oral sex to her, to say something like “Oh, it feels so good.  It’s like heaven.”  But she gets it wrong and says, “Oh, it feels so good.  It’s like paradise.”  And he stops and corrects her.  Even for the people who are reliving moments with a stand-in for a lost loved one, the scenes are denuded of emotionality.  They are much more like going through the motions, but needing things to be a specific way.

My friend who I saw it with didn’t care for the film, finding it disturbing.  The film has a subtle undertone of violence, from an early threat from the coach to the gymnast, the brutally bloodied body of the tennis-player teenager after her car crash, and a brutal smack in the face with a club towards the end.  More than physical violence, though, the film plays in the area of discomfort and unease, with characters whose motivations seem to emanate from a different psychology.  Would a family who’ve just lost a young daughter accept the offer of her nurse to play her role for a while?  There is definitely a perverse quality in those who hunt like ambulance-chasing lawyers for opportunities to craft their art.

As the leader of the team anoints the group “Alps” because the Alps could stand in for any mountain, but no other mountain to stand in for the Alps.  He of course takes Mont Blanc, the largest of the Alps for himself.  I was brought to mind oddly of Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) wherein a group of renegade young people pretend to be mentally retarded in some strange sociological or performance piece.  While The Idiots never discuss what they do, there is this weird parallel of a troupe of people operating on society’s fringe in an ambiguous manner for equally ambiguous reasons.

Me, I actually liked the film.  Maybe not quite as much as Dogtooth, but then again maybe so.

The Lost World

The Lost World (1925) movie poster

(1925) dir. Harry O. Hoyt
viewed: 05/05/09 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

As part of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, this showing of The Lost World, the silent film version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s story about a “lost world” of dinosaurs, was screened with a live accompaniment by the band Dengue Fever.  I’ve been to a couple of live performances now accompanying showings of silent films.   Last year, it was Black Francis of the Pixies performing alongside The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920).  I also caught Sherlock, Jr. (1924) presented with the Club Foot Orchestra last year, and before that it was Jonathan Richman performing with The Phantom Carriage (1921).  So, I’m getting a bit familiar with this sort of thing and gauging from last night’s sold out audience, more of these presentations are to come.

The film I had never seen before, but had seen in clips and stills, mainly the notable stop-motion animated dinosaurs, developed by Willis H. O’Brien, the man most noted for his work in King Kong (1933) and the mentor of Ray Harryhausen, whose films I have been watching with the kids a lot lately.  I’ve always liked “monster movies”, as I used to call them as a kid, so I’d always been interested in this stuff.  The film is something else!

And I mean that in a good way.

Really, The Lost World is sort of a prototypical special effects action film, the kind that are now the summer movie stand-bys that makes Hollywood all their money these days.  And it’s interesting, because if you think about it, this film really is a prototype for a film like Jurassic Park (1993) and its several sequels, and even an inspiration point for the coming summer film, Land of the Lost (2009), adapted from a children’s show from the 1970’s that probably riffed on Doyle’s original concept.  Even all the Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) and their offspring harken back to this concept, a way of visually re-creating the image of living dinosaurs, monstrous creatures that really existed on our planet but who we know only from their fossils.

And the amazing this is that The Lost World is a pretty good, goddam version of the same thing circa 1925.  Certainly the acting and story and comical and campy and anachronistic in its style and age, but the visual effects are really awesome.  Though quite cartoony and less anatomically “correct” than conceived of today, the creatures are lushly detailed and vivified with great personality in O’Brien’s hands.  And there is plenty of action in the jungle!  But perhaps most exciting, we even have a brontosaurus rampaging in London, crashing London Bridge into the Thames!  I posit that this might be the first time a giant creature rampaged in a major city on film.  Though I could be wrong.

And the film uses real animals within the story well, too, certainly exotic, but in featuring real, live animals sort of leads up to the spectacle of the animated monsters.  We see pythons, jaguars, alligators, bears, and monkeys, again with very effective integration in the story.  And I developed a significant soft spot for the animal “hero” of the film, Jocko, the monkey, who performed many a scene and stunt.

The whole thing was great fun.  The Dengue Fever music actually helped propel the film along, keeping a toe-tapping beat through some of what might have been slower portions and really energizing other sequences when the music really kicked in.  The band, whose music is described as influenced by 1960’s Cambodian pop psychedelia, seemed a potentially odd mixture with this film about London adventurers in the Brazilian rainforest, but really, it was great.  Perhaps the most fun of any of the live performances that I’ve witnessed with silent films, odd as it may sound.

Really, very cool, all the way around.

The Golem: How He Came into the World

The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920) movie poster

(1920) dir. Carl Boese, Paul Wegener
viewed: 04/25/08 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Believe it or not, this is a film that I had been wanting to see for years and years, almost all of my life.  As I have often noted, I grew up loving “monster movies” as I called them at the time and read what books I could find (in the children’s sections) about monster movies and the occasional copy I found of Famous Monsters of Hollywood.  I longed to see the original films, particularly the early Lon Chaney films, which my mother took me to see on the University of Florida campus back in those days and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) (referred to as “the first ever horror film”) and Nosferatu (1922) (referred to as “the first ever vampire film”) and director Paul Wegener’s The Golem.  I did manage to see the other two films on video in the late 1980’s and was introduced in my first film class to the terminology of German Expressionism and Film Noir, and thus developed a new context for these long-lived interests.

For some reason, I never managed to see The Golem, which I now understand to have been a series of films by Wegener, with which this one, his third and a bit of a prequel, The Golem: How He Came into the World, is apparently the best known.  So when the San Francisco International Film Festival hit this year, with a showing of the film with a new live score performed by Black Francis of the Pixies, I knew the time had finally come.

The film does indeed feature some wonderful set designs, echoing of Dr. Caligari, though less spartan and more lush.  The most fascinating thing about the film is its specificity with the world of the Jews, set in the ghetto of Prague, a walled off section of the city and a people who are oppressed by society and the government.  It’s largely sympathetic, though of course, the rabbi summons a demon to bring to life a monster, the clay-built superhuman, the golem himself.

Based on a Yiddish(?) legend, the golem and Judaism, though sympathetically depicted as oppressed and restricted, also reeks of mysticism and black magic.  Oddly, the violence that the golem enacts is at random against many people, assumingly both Jews and gentiles, though most dramatically in the throwing of the would be suitor, the knight who comes from the oppressive kingdom, from the top of a tower.

And coming from Weimar Germany, at a peak of cultural explosion in many arts, the positioning of such a story only two decades before the Hollocaust seems interesting.  I don’t doubt that much has been written on both the mythologies and this film in academic and even popular literature.  My quick web research hasn’t offered me enough to go deeper here other than to point out that this is the most interesting of aspects of the film, that and its design.

Compared to the films of Robert Wiene and especially of F.W. Murnau, The Golem is very good, but nowhere as striking and iconic, so it is not so surprising that it is less known and less available than the others.  It is still a brilliant film and I am very glad to have seen it.

As for Black Francis’ live score, it was interesting, though not ideal.  He riffed on some commentary during the performance which was kind of annoying and not so funny and the music, with lyrics, was perhaps more akin to the scoring that Queen did for Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) back in the 1980’s, a “rock” approach to accompaniment.  And not to say that this couldn’t work or that it shouldn’t be done, adding lyrics to accompany a narrative isn’t exactly adding to it but more distracting.  I’d be interested to know what other people thought.

The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage (1921) movie poster

(1921) dir. Victor Sjöström
viewed: 04/27/07 @ The Castro Theatre, SF, CA

As part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Castro Theatre showed a new print of the silent classic, The Phantom Carriage, which, to be perfectly honest, I’d never even heard of.  But on top of showing it, Jonathan Richman scored and performed alongside a small orchestra a live support to the film.  All in all, it was certainly above and beyond most experiences in the cinema.

The film itself is amazing.  It’s quite a compelling experience, especially with this stunning and amazing color tinting on the enormous images.  This was a practice in the Silent Era that was pretty common, to help indicate, night, day, indoors, outdoors…and it used to seem kind of hokey to me.  But, once one gets beyond any preconceptions about films and accepts these practices and indicators as part of the regular language, it works.  And the film is visually beautiful.  It was fantastic to see it on this scale.

It’s a moralistic story about the pains and degeneracy associated with alcoholism, though it’s told in a flash-back-laden A Christmas Carol sort of fashion, based upon a belief that the last person who dies before midnight at the end of the year has to drive Death’s carriage the following year, picking up the souls from every sad and gruesome scene.  Victor Sjöström, beyond directing the film, also stars as the once happy family man now turned to vice and cruelty, brought down by booze.  While this narrative, especially with the saintly Edit, the Salvation Army nurse who loves him and tries with all she can to “save” him, could easily have been pedantic and overbearing, somehow, and perhaps this is the performances as well as the direction, this situation carries weight and emotional impact.  There is even a sense of contemporary-ness to this story.

The morality pulls a strong Christian theme, mixed with fantasy and mythology, to deliver and very powerful and moving story of redemption and hope, all against a very downbeat, sad narrative of length.

The more that I’ve read about Sjöström, the more I understand his context in Swedish cinema.  I didn’t realize that he was also the star of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, or that he had such status in the Silent Film era as a master.  I certainly can percieve that now, having seen The Phantom Carriage.  It’s a brilliant and beautiful, unique film.

And the live accompaniment of Jonathan Richman’s score was also unique and excellent.

The Man Without a Past

The Man Without a Past (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Aki Kaurismäki
viewed: 04/18/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

I saw this film as what will probably be my only venture out to the San Francisco International Film Festival this year. I would love to have seen some more films but my schedule isn’t working with the festival’s schedule this year. It’s a shame, because I would love to have gone to see more films, but that’s the way it goes.

The Man Without a Past is a sweet-natured, simple comedy, somewhat absurdist and intentionally off-beat. Shot almost entirely in Helsinki and largely down at the industrial waterfront of the city, Kaurismäki paints a picture of the world of the financially marginalized in Finland’s capitol. It’s not a “realistic” portrait, not one steeped in a naturalism or even a faux naturalism, but rather a portrait that teeters on the surreal, reckoning of the lighter side of David Lynch or Jim Jarmusch perhaps. I’d only seen one of Aki Kaurismäki’s other films, Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), but I get the impression that his narrative style might well be aligned with those directors more than not.

The film follows the character of M, played by Markku Peltola, who develops amnesia after being severely beaten upon arriving in Helsinki. He builds a life among the slums of the city, living in a shipping container near the industrial waterfront. There is a gentle quirkiness to the people that he meets and the life that he develops, inflected with a sort of disgarded music soundtrack of obscure American rock and roll from the late 1950’s to early 1960’s (I am guessing at its period).

The story is almost naïve-ist in its tone and content, evoking humor from small moments and strange juxtapositions. Kaurismäki ‘s portrait of the people that live on the outskirts of the city of Helsinki and Finnish society in general shows them as good-hearted and decent, odd but kind. The film is sort of “softly” political, in that regard, though not confrontational at all. There is a great simplicity to it and an easy charm, perhaps there is a sense of naïveté in not just the film’s tone but the film’s construction. If so, it is one that is quite appealing.

Fulltime Killer

Fulltime Killer (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Johnny To, Ka-Fai Wai
viewed: 04/28/02 at AMC Kabuki Theater, SF

Fulltime Killer, which I saw as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, was one of the first new Hong Kong action films that I had seen in some time.

I had been quite the aficianado of HK films through much of the 90’s (like, apparantly, most people), but I had dropped off my viewing of HK films right about the point when Hong Kong was handed back to mainland China. Jackie Chan, John Woo, Ringo Lam, Chow Yun-Fat, and Tsui Hark all started producing work in Hollywood to varying extents, so a significant portion of the talent pool had been drained, and quite a lot of buzz said that the heyday of HK film had come and gone.

So, I don’t know exactly why I hadn’t been out to see a HK film in such a long time. Ironically, the last one that I had seen had been really good (Beyond Hypothermia (1996)), so I don’t have a better explanation.

The film was pretty slick and entertaining, featuring Andy Lau, Takashi Sorimachi, and Kelly Lin. Interestingly, or maybe oppositely so, one of the screenwriters was an American, Joey O’Bryan, who helped adapt the script from a popular novel or something. I am supposing that he is the perpetrator of the Quentin Tarantino-esque, heavy- handed filmic reference-dropping that gave the film its rather clumsy psuedo self-referential side. It seems like a particularly American thing.

Ironically, dropping cultural references into films in such blatant fashion seems to finally have gone out of fashion. The film handles it in particularly gauche style, inserting it into dialogues by the flamboyant villain. After stabbing a guy in the hand with a knife at the bar, he tells him to go check out this Alain Delon film, from which he got the idea.

Oddly enough, one of the funniest parts of the film arises out of this very sequence, when later that guy who got stabbed comes back yelling at him that he looked all over town for the film and he couldn’t find his stupid movie.

I thought the film made some pretty good use of location filming, shot in numerous places in Asia from what the titles said.

I found the film lacking in some respects, like lacking much real meaning. Outside of the heavy-handed, rather self-conscious attempts at clever self-reference, I don’t know what else to say.

While it was indeed a fairly entertaining film, it is a far cry from the heyday of HK film-making, Or maybe it is simply a less talented team that produced this film. I note that Johnny To also helmed the directoral chair for The Heroic Trio (1992) & Executioners (1993), two pretty fun action/fantasy flicks which did come from the HK film heyday. So who knows?

Spirited Away

Spirited Away (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 04/21/02 at Castro Theater, SF

Hayao Miyazaki’s film, Spirited Away, is both his newest and very possibly his most-brilliant.

Miyazaki, for those that do not know it, is a Japanese feature filmanimator who could finally perhaps be the filmmaker that rescues feature-length animated films from the gigantic rut that Disney has dug for them.

Miyazaki creates wonderful fantastic images, that are truly unlike those of any other filmmaker. And Spirited Away is replete with such wonderful invention.

The story is about a girl, Chihiro, who relocating with her family to a different part of Japan, moving away from her friends to a new place. The family takes a wrong turn and ends up exploring and falling into a spirit realm that is ruled by an evil witch, who turns Chihiro’s parents into pigs. Chihiro has to work for the witch at her business, a bathhouse for the many native gods of the country.

It is a story, while original, echoes of traditional Japanese culture, like a classic fairy tale. Miyazaki was said to have been inspired by the “lethargy” of a young girl that he met, by her lack of understanding and interest in traditional Japanese culture, and it seems a significant aspect of the source and style of the narrative.

The landscape in this film is also very Japanese, supposedly based on an older region of Japan, one not far from his Studio Ghibli. Environment is always a significant theme for Miyazaki, and settings are always rendered in loving detail.

The spirit world of Spirited Away is populated by an utter menagerie of fantastic characters. There are too many to begin to enumerate.

This is a brilliant film, fantastic, surprising, beautifully rendered, sweet, scary, tremendous.