British Empire in Film Blogathon: “The Heart of the Matter” (1953)

This post is my hopelessly late contribution to the excellent British Empire in Filml_47066_ebf103e2 Blogathon (thank you, crippling four-day migraine). Go check out some of the other fine entries! When you’re done reading this one, of course.

George More O’Ferrall’s The Heart of the Matter is an adaptation of Graham Greene’s wonderful 1948 bummer of a novel of the same name. As a representation of colonial Sierra Leone, where the whole story takes place, it isn’t especially illuminating…except of course for the marked absence of black characters or local events impinging on the plot in any way. On the one hand, it’s not a bad adaptation of the novel—it does a fine job of preserving what is arguably the core of the novel, that is, Scobie’s struggle to do right by his Catholicism in the context of his extramarital affair (and, er, British imperialism). On the other hand, the film has chosen to eliminate any of Greene’s meditation on colonialism or race, which is, in the novel, intimately tied to the narrative of Scobie’s Catholicism. (For instance, in the film, Scobie has an affair with a young white woman, Helen. The novel’s Scobie has an affair with a Sierra Leonean woman, who is, naturally, black.) I try not to judge movies based on how well they do something they weren’t trying to do in the first place. It’s hard, though, to forgive a movie set in colonial Sierra Leone with a colonial policeman as its protagonist that isn’t interested in either of those things. Of course, to act as though those things go without saying is a very colonial attitude. And take a look at the film’s poster with its realistic representation of the white characters and the anonymous, stylized natives below them.

The fine Trevor Howard plays Henry Scobie, a colonial police officer in Sierra Leone during World War II. Howard is a strong argument for watching this film. Conveying the internal struggle of someone wrestling with questions of eternal damnation and the suffering of others is no small achievement and he does a remarkable job. Being properly British, Scobie isn’t given to displays of emotion but we can tell, even when his face goes stony, that he is suffering. Scobie’s stiff-upper-lippiness is in stark contrast to his wife, Louise. Played by Elizabeth Allan in a thankless role, she is shrewish and unstable, partly as a result of the being ostracized by the colonial community. Mostly she’s just unlikeable.

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Scobie being importuned by wife Louise.

Greene’s protagonist is filled with a sense of duty motivated by the pity he feels for others—his wife, the young woman with whom he starts an affair, the law he’s charged with upholding. This is a familiar theme for Greene. It is the motor that drives the hero in his novel Ministry of Fear, a characteristic which does not show up in the Fritz Lang’s film version (which I wrote about here). It’s nice to see somebody take the Greene malaise seriously. At the beginning of the film Scobie is already in the unenviable position of being married to someone whom he doesn’t love and who makes him miserable and, because he’s Catholic, someone he cannot divorce. (I do wish people would stop misspelling cannot as can not.) Scobie believes he is responsible for the unpleasant person Louise has become. In order to fulfill his sense of obligation to her, he borrows money from an unscrupulous Algerian trader Yusef, so that she can travel to South Africa. Yusef (Gérard Oury) is almost as interestingly complex as Scobie. He is a product of French colonialism and, though he is the closest thing to a villain here, we sense there is a corner of him that wishes he weren’t so corrupt. That corner wants to be Scobie’s friend. There’s an excellent shot of Scobie returning to his bungalow, where Yusef is waiting for him. The staging makes Yusef an unseemly bump in Scobie’s path to the better person he so desperately wants to be, the corruption that spreads itself out over everything in Scobie’s life.

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Publicity still of Helen (Maria Schell) and Scobie (Trevor Howard)

Scobie is convinced that he is responsible for his wife’s misery and for the misery of the woman he truly loves, his mistress, Helen (Maria Schell, sister of actor Maximilian Schell). When Louise, a practicing but less conflicted Catholic, insists Scobie accompany her to Mass, Scobie is faced with a theological dilemma. If he goes to Mass and accepts communion without having confessed, i.e., in a state of mortal sin, he damns himself for eternity. If he doesn’t accompany Louise, she will know something is wrong. Neither can he simply confess his transgression. For his confession to be absolved, Scobie must truly mean it when he promises to stop committing adultery. Otherwise, he remains a mortal sinner. Because Scobie can’t stand the idea of adding to his wife’s misery by exposing her to his affair, he is literally damned either way.

One of the triumphs of Greene’s writing, and, I think, Howard’s acting, is that we sympathize with a character whose deepest-held beliefs are ones we likely don’t share. Indeed, Scobie’s actions may seem unfathomable in their unnecessary self-destructiveness. Partly this is an effect of making Scobie such a sincere and devout Catholic. Howard makes us believe that Scobie’s doomed attempts to live up to his God are necessary, for him. He never expects anyone else to live up to his strict Catholicism—it is his belief, not others’. He believes he is causing others to suffer, and that if he does “the right thing,” he will be able to ameliorate their suffering. It’s the paradox of a kind of magical thinking: the arrogance of believing we have magical power over things we can’t control combined with the selflessness of someone overwhelmed by pity for those around him.

There are some wonderful, less miserable moments in the film, as when Scobie reads to a boy rescued from a torpedoed ship in the British hospital. Scobie is provided a morally uplifting book titled A Bishop among the Bantus: Twenty-five Years in Africa. The boy, who, like many children, has very firm ideas about how the story should go, inspires Scobie to some artistic license so as not to disappoint him.

“Is it a murder story?” the boy asks hopefully. Scobie offers him the title, claiming that Bishop is the name of the hero.

“But you said A Bishop.” Honestly, the child is remarkably alert given that he’s been floating on wreck off the coast of West Africa for forty days.

trevor1“Yes,” Scobie pauses. “His name was Arthur.”

“What a soppy name.”

“Yes, but then he’s a soppy hero.”

“Heros aren’t soppy,” the boy insists.

“The real heroes are the Bantus.”

“What are Bantus?”

“They’re a ferocious gang of pirates.”

“Does Arthur Bishop pursue them?

“Yes, he’s a secret agent. He—er—dresses up as a seaman and he—er—sails away on a merchantman so that he can be captured by the Bantus, and he discovers all their secret hiding places so that when the time is right, he can betray them.”

“He sounds a bit of a cad.”

“He is. And you know he falls in love with daughter of the captain of the Bantus. That’s when he turns soppy. But there are bags of murders before then,” he assures his now-eager audience, and proceeds to invent a suspenseful yarn about Arthur Bishop pursuing Blackbeard, the Bantu.

It is during this moment of freedom from worry and spiritual conflict that Scobie seems the most himself. It’s no accident that this is also the moment he meets Helen, another rescued passenger, who falls in love with him. I wouldn’t mind Trevor Howard reading me bedtime stories, either, especially if they’re filled with bags of murders and ferocious pirates.

The film also offers an impossibly young and slick—and unlikeable!—Denholm Elliott.

The film also offers an impossibly young and slick—and unlikeable!—Denholm Elliott.

The film uses only ambient sound, so all the music in the film is local to Sierra Leone. It’s quite wonderful and there’s a fair bit of it. Something else in the film from Sierra Leone is John Akar, who plays Scobie’s valet, Ali, the only black part with anything resembling character development. Akar would later become Director of Broadcasting in Sierra Leone.  In case you’re wondering, as I was, Sierra Leone achieved independence in 1961.

The movie is streaming free on Amazon Prime and definitely worth a watch.

Don’t forget to read more of the British Empire in Film Blogathon posts!

 

 

 

 

AFI Fest 2014: November 11

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Day Four: Takashi Miike’s Over Your Dead Body (2014)

I had a ticket to Song of the Sea, the new animated film by Tomm Moore (The Secret of Kells, 2009) but couldn’t make it. I’m looking forward to seeing it, albeit on a much smaller screen, when it comes out on DVD. I don’t expect it to come to Santa Barbara, but I’d be delighted if it did. Maybe it’ll be in the Santa Barbara International Film Festival lineup in January.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgbXWt8kM5Q&w=560&h=315]

…and now for something completely different.

I love Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins (2010), although I haven’t yet made it through his brutal Ichi Ichi-The-Killer-Poster13-Assassins-Posterthe Killer (2010) and not for lack of trying. (And I haven’t tried Audition [1999], either, though I mean to.) Miike has a great eye, and he constructs breathtakingly beautiful mise-en-scènes. Over Your Dead Body is no exception. It’s a gorgeous film. Of course, the other thing Miike is known for is gore, often sexual in nature. Over Your Dead Body is also no exception in this regard, but the gore was (for me) manageable, and in retrospect, I think the gore really did matter in the context of the story. The film is a sort of cross between revenge-driven horror (a Miike staple, from what I understand) and what some film scholars have called “body horror.” Body horror would include lots of Cronenberg and films like Carrie (1976) that focus on horrors that originate within the human (and most often female) body.

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Ebizô Ichikawa as the cruel Kosuke/Iemon

It’s unfair to focus on the gore, however, even though it may be the first thing one remembers, because the majority of this film is gore-free. The film meanwhile makes use of a number of sub-genres, most noticeably that it’s structured as a play-within-a-play. The main characters are rehearsing for a live performance of Yotsuya kaidan, one of the most famous of the more recent Japanese ghost stories (rather than 18th-century ones that became films like Mizoguchi’s wonderful Ugetsu [1953]). These traditional tales often start with romance and end in some richly-deserved and bloody revenge, not unlike Over Your Dead Body‘s frame story, the affair between the play’s lead actors, Kosuke (Ebizô Ichikawa) and Miyuki (Ko Shibasaki). The actors’ affair mirrors or doubles or is maybe caused by the relationship between their characters Iemon and Oiwa and which the actors play again and again. (In addition to being a play-within-a-play, Yotsuya kaidan is said to be based on actual events, adding another layer to the story.) There is some supernatural influence here (keep your eye on that creepy doll), but Miike never offers an explanation for the events, which I think works just fine. The film creates a trance-like sense of suspended animation, and an “origin story” would undo the effect, diluting it into a dreary One Missed Call (2008) sort of affair.

maxresdefault-1The acting is excellent, particularly Ichikawa as Kosuke/Iemon, but it’s the art direction/staging (by Yuji Hayashida and Eri Sakushima) that blew me away. One of the most interesting things about the film is the way it cheats at being a play. We watch a lot of the performance unfold as though we were an audience at a live play—but an audience with an unnaturally mobile eye, contributing to our growing sense that something here is just…off. The camera weaves around the actors and through the set, avoiding any sense of a static adaptation of a drama. When the camera tracks back to include the rest of the warehouse rehearsal space (see above) with its rows of desks for the director, actors, and technicians, it’s often jarring because we’ve forgotten they’re there. But by the last third of the film, that off-stage space has become part of the play’s stage for us, as well as for Kosuke and Miyuki, apparently trapped in the roles they keep performing.

teaser-overyourdeadbodyHardcore Miike fans may be disappointed if they’re looking for gore, but as a film and as a story, it’s excellent. (Most of the gore is based in the 19th-century story, the result of Oiwa being poisoned.) If you’ve enjoyed other horror films based in Japanese folklore (which is a lot of ’em nowadays), this will be right up your alley. It’s also worth seeing if you’re interested in the interplay between stage and screen, though you may have to avert your gaze when Miyuki/Oiwa goes looking for the fetus she’s convinced she’s conceived with Kosuke/Iemon (and I’m guessing that’s not an episode in the earlier version).

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I do want to hunt down some other adaptations of Yotsuya kaidan, as I love Japanese ghost stories almost as much as I love more well-known fairy tales. But in the meantime, I have my final Fest film to write about, Villa Touma, the only film I saw, I am sorry to say, that was directed by a woman.

Also coming up, my much-delayed entry in the British Empire in Film Blogathon, George More O’Ferrall’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Heart of the Matter (1953). And eventually, I’ll get to Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die. Eventually. Villa Touma and Heart of the Matter were not light-hearted romps, so I may well need some frothy-Lubitsch-type palate cleanser before tackling Lang’s Hangmen (which is, in comparison, almost a light-hearted romp).

Thanks for reading!

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljT3sxER6fA&w=560&h=315]

AFI Fest 2014: November 10

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So this is the movie I took my Mom to.

Mind you, that wasn’t the original plan. We planned to see Mr. Turner, Mike Leigh’s new film about the painter J. M. W. Turner. That was before we realized the film was 149 minutes, and we agreed we weren’t ready to commit to almost 3 hours of sitting. The Iranian Fish & Cat was what I had tickets to next, so Mom figured she’d tag along. We whiled away the time before the film with some very nice drinks at the Roosevelt Hotel across the street. I had a Spiced Cucumber Collins (Hendrick’s Gin, lime, shishito pepper, cucumber, and mint) which was quite refreshing. I heartily recommend trying to recreate it at home. Yum.

flyer_largeThere was a healthy line for the film, which the AFI schedule advertised as a “horror comedy art film,” like “a Friday the 13th installment directed by Alain Resnais.” While that is one of the finest descriptions I have ever come across, I suspect that it did the film a disservice by attracting people who were expecting more Friday the 13th and less Alain Resnais.

It’s hard to say much about the film without utterly ruining it. Here goes.

The film has been making the rounds of festivals and doing very well, but there is no sign yet that it will be distributed. It certainly should be. However you want to categorize the film generically, it’s worth seeing for the formal experiment. The 134-minute film is one take, but what’s really interesting is how the director, Shahram Mokri, uses that formal restriction to play around with time. The assistant programmer who introduced the film argued that it has flashbacks. I’m not so sure that’s what they are; regardless, there is something tricky (not gimmicky) and fascinating happening with the element of time. The film mostly follows its characters around, often literally from behind, slowing down and elaborating on the “West Wing” walking and talking method of shifting from one character or group to another. This allows the viewer to “return” to scenes that have already happened, from a different perspective.

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Yes, they are each missing an arm, in case you were wondering.

 

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An earlier set of creepy twins (“The Shining,” 1980).

 

0Aside from its formal value, the film is beautiful and often darkly funny. I was enchanted by Babak, one of a trio of possibly murderous restaurant owners, played by Babak Karimi. If you’re familiar with Iranian film, you may recognize him as an editor and actor. (He was in Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 film A Separation.) That’s Karimi in the poster up on the left. He has some wonderful sequences, including the beginning—a riff on American horror films, in which a car full of young adults who have gotten lost on their way to a campsite stop at a run-down restaurant to ask for directions. Babak’s response to the young man’s request for directions is to ask for his ID. Repeatedly. And to ask him whether or not the gate they passed was closed. Repeatedly. The kid is lucky he got his ID back.

I spent the first 40 minutes or so chafing against my expectations (more Friday the 13th), but once I let go of them, I enjoyed the film immensely. So did my Mom. If it does get picked up, I do hope that whatever tiny marketing campaign it gets does it justice.

If you’re interested in finding a screening of the film, check out the film’s official website hereVariety has a brief write-up of the film here.

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I’m still really looking forward to seeing Timothy Spall make this face on a big screen. (And the paintings. Of course. Obviously.)

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Bluebeard in Black and White: Fritz Lang’s “Secret Beyond the Door”

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This is my contribution to the Fairy Tale Blogathon hosted by the always-fascinating Movies Silently.

Check out more of the posts there!

Let me start this post about Secret Beyond the Door by blaming the enchanting Angela Carter. Carter (1940 – 1992) wrote some of my favorite books, including The Bloody Chamber (1979), which is a collection of feminist (and often erotic) revisions of fairy tales. If you’re familiar with Bluebeard, you’ve probably figured out that the title of that book is also the title of a story that revisits the Bluebeard fairy tale. Carter is an amazing writer; she (re)wrote a lot of fairy tales as well as writing about how they work and why they’re important. You might have heard of her story “The Company of Wolves,” a version of Little Red Riding Hood from the same collection, made into a peculiar and magical film by Neil Jordan (1984), or her novel The Magic Toyshop, turned into the equally unsettling film by David Wheatley (1987). I think Carter’s may have been my introduction to the Bluebeard story, which is doubtless why it’s one of my favorite fairy tales.

As with so many fairy tales, it’s not a great template if you’re a lady: The Bluebeard figure, an older, often ugly or darkly handsome, wealthy, and mysterious fellow, courts and marries a beautiful young woman and spirits her off to his desolate castle, country house, log cabin, or what-have-you. At first the new wife is dazzled by the jewels, the dresses, the fancy parties (or she is miserably isolated, depending on the version). Soon, the husband has to leave for business. He entrusts his wife with all the keys to the house except one. Never, ever open the door to this one room, he says. Well, obviously, that’s the only door she is interested in opening. She contrives a way to get into the room and discovers the dismembered corpses of Bluebeard’s many and sundry previous wives (suggesting a tiresomely predictable terror of women who seek knowledge). When the husband returns and (somehow instantly) realizes the betrayal, he murders her. Or, in some versions, the wife’s brothers come galloping to her rescue. The punishment of the woman is typical, as is the Victorian-ish addition of male rescuers. Meh.

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If you’ve read any books like, say, Jane Eyre, or seen a movie from the 1940s, like, say, Gaslight (1940), this plot will probably sound pretty familiar. According to scholar Maria Tatar, another wonderful author who writes an awful lot about fairy tales and folklore, Hollywood in the 1940s was rife with Bluebeard stories, and for good reason. Women were marrying strangers—beaus who had returned from the war not quite the same as when they left—and married women were discovering that the man they’d married, recently home from the war, had become a stranger. Part of the strangeness was this new undercurrent of violence—in the men’s dreams or nightmares, stories they told or wouldn’t tell their families about their war-time experiences, and sometimes that violence that spilled over into the family.

Now that we’ve got that out of way, let’s also take a moment to blame Fritz Lang. It’s been sort of a Lang-y month around here. I recently wrote about his 1944 film Ministry of Fear, I went and saw Hangmen Also Die (1944) at the Skirball Cultural Center (which is hosting a noir exhibit focusing on its many émigré artists—if you’re in the LA area, go, go, go!), and now Secret Beyond the Door (1947), Lang’s version of the Bluebeard tale, or his “wife-in-distress film,” or “paranoid’s woman’s film,” depending on which critic you read. Lang is a master of mood and lighting (assisted by some fantastic cinematographers), and for me, this is what carries Secret. It doesn’t hurt that it stars Joan Bennett (a sometime Lang favorite) and Michael Redgrave, but the plot is so goofily Freudian that if Bennett and Redgrave weren’t adrift in Lang’s parallel universe, the film probably wouldn’t work.

7614704076_5ffbd86407_zIf you’re willing to accept the film as a kind of nightmarish Freudian fairy tale, it’s quite something. The opening sets the mood: an animated pond with submerged flowers (created by Disney specially for the film) and Celia (Bennett) speaking in a dreamy, hazy way about her wedding, as though it’s a memory. In fact, she is approaching the altar, about to marry Mark (Redgrave). As if waking from a dream, Celia’s voice-over worries, “I’m marrying a stranger.” Like all therapy sessions, the story begins in the past.

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What could go wrong?

The trouble starts on the honeymoon when, as a joke, Celia locks Mark out of her room. Thus begin the lying, the silences, Mark’s locking himself up away from his new bride. All she really knows about Mark is that he’s an architect, and he “collects” rooms, “felicitous rooms for felicitous people,” he says. He theorizes that the way spaces are built can determine what happens in them. Celia quite sensibly tells him he’s touched in the head. When they return to Mark’s isolated manor in the States, Celia realizes just how little she really knows about her husband. I won’t spoil the series of surprises that await her, but rest assured, they are Jane Eyre-sized revelations.

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Oh. That.

I will tell you that Mark’s collection of rooms (all but one) are introduced to Celia and their housewarming party guests. Each room is an exact replica (with as many of the original furnishings as possible) of a murder room, a room in which a real man murdered his wife, his mistress, or his mother. Nothing weird about that. When Celia points out that he used the word felicitous to describe the rooms, he explains that the word means “apt,” or “well-suited.” (“Look it up, darling,” he says rather snottily, but to be fair to Celia, the word can mean either apt or pleasantdelightful.) Mark’s architecture magazine is, in fact, named Apt. 

Secret Beyond the Door hits most of the Bluebeard marks: naïve young woman’s sexual awakening, marriage to a mysterious man who keeps secrets, including the room he won’t allow her to go in. The new husband is moody and unreasonable. She is isolated out in the country, and her only family, her brother, dies before she meets Mark.

25Tatar notes that Secret Beyond the Door, like many of the 1940s Bluebeard film plot lines, is actually female noir. Rather than a damaged man set irrevocably on a destructive path, helped along by a suspicious and very attractive woman, the Bluebeard pattern gives us a psychologically unstable or masochistic woman who succumbs to the initial charms of mysterious (and older) man. One of the things that’s interesting about this is that it can give the female character a lot more agency than you might expect. Celia puts up with a lot of crazy from Mark, but she is impressively strong-willed and once she decides to stick with him, she is determined to figure out what happened to him, to help him overcome his, well, frigidness. Mark becomes more and more helpless in the grip of some mysterious neurosis, and, risking her own life, it is Celia who must save him. The shift is visible in Lang’s placement of Celia and Mark relative to each other as the couple snuggles in the hammock at their hotel, first on their honeymoon at the beginning, and then when they return to the same hotel at the end of the film (see below).

As you might imagine, Lang and his cinematographer, Stanley Cortez, turn what might have been a warm, even cozy house into a nightmare labyrinth of claustrophobic, shadowy rooms and hallways. We often find Celia lingering in doorways and hallways, liminal spaces that emphasize her unstable status in the household and how uncertain she is about who she has really married. Many conversations between characters are abruptly interrupted by a third character and never finished, adding to the atmosphere of invisible menace.

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The family’s collection of creepy masks: Nope, nothing to worry about here.

Celia’s rising alarming is mirrored in our own sense of instability in this narrative, in which things are not as they seem. Who is the victim? Who is the villain? Who is(n’t) crazy? And what do those lilacs represent? Mark’s career as an architect also calls our attention to how spaces are used, and not just those dark hallways or murder rooms. Mexico, where Celia and Mark meet, get married, and briefly honeymoon, is a Mexico of the mind, or perhaps of the libido—an exotic otherworld in which the natives are passionate and untamed. (It’s a convenient and creaky stereotype for the picture’s symbolic system, and it could just as easily have been Spain or a country in Africa, as Lang’s version of Mexico has nothing to do with the real place or its real people.) The scenario in which Celia and Mark meet is terribly contrived, but that’s part of why it works—Celia and Mark were destined to meet. Joan Bennett is wonderful as a woman who appears trapped in a dream she can’t quite get a grip on, and Redgrave manages to be loftily aristocratic, manic, and, in rare glimpses, charmingly down-to-earth.

Don’t pay any attention to reviews that call the film “a pretty silly yarn.” It is a pretty silly yarn, but so are most fairy tales. The plausibility of the story line is beside the point. Like all fairy tales, the film’s power comes from its imagery and the pull of the strong but often submerged instincts and emotions that fairy tales have always narrated. (I also think the film works better than Spellbound in its use of psychoanalysis–everything Beyond the Door is overdetermined from the get-go. There are no half-measures with Lang.) Give yourself up to the film and enjoy the beautiful and unsettling ride.

Before.

Before.

The making of Secret Beyond the Door was nearly as fraught as Mark’s psyche, with Bennett’s marriage to producer Walter Wanger breaking up, Lang having an on-again off-again affair with the screenwriter and bullying his cast and crew. The TCM article has some juicy details.

If you’re interested in Bluebeard (or other fairy tales), check out some of the many versions, with illustrations and

After.

After.

lists of related novels and films at fairy tale compendium Sur La Lune.

In addition to the 40s films noted above, other versions of Bluebeard include magician Méliès’ Barbe-bleue (1901), Ernst Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), which I wrote about here, a 1944 Edgar G. Ulmer version I can’t wait to watch (streaming via Amazon Prime), and Catherine Breillat’s 2009 Barbe blue.

More Bluebeardiana:

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AFI Fest 2014: November 9

AFIFEST2014logoMy two Sunday movies at the Fest were Run, written and directed by Philippe Lacôte, and then A Hard Day, written and directed by Kim Seong-hun, both from this year.

I was excited to see Run not only because it sounded great, but because it’s a movie from Côte d’Ivoire and there just aren’t very many of those yet. One of the things I love about films is the opportunity to see places that I’ll never go from the perspective of someone who lives there. Run was filmed in Côte d’Ivoire and neighboring Burkina Faso, and it is beautiful country. The film was beautiful—the colors and the shot constructions. The director was at the screening and took some questions afterwards. He explained the film is meant to operate on three levels of reality: personal, social, and mystical, and that each of the three “acts” of the film represents part of the country’s history.

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The film stars Abdoul Karim Konaté as Run, whose coming of age story in some ways mirrors his country’s history. The film is largely a series of flashbacks after Run murders the Ivorian Prime Minister (formerly a paid thug) at the beginning. As a child, Run wants to become a rainmaker. The local rainmaker takes him as an apprentice, and this section of the film offers some of its most breathtaking landscapes. When that doesn’t work out, he goes to work for Gladys the Greedy, a beautiful and enormous professional eater, played by Reine Sali Coulibaly in a funny and touching performance. (Lacôte explained that Gladys, who was originally going to be played by Gabourey Sidibe, is based on a real [male] professional eater who came from Mali.) In the third section of the film, one of my absolute favorite contemporary actors, the incomparable Isaach de Bankolé (a regular in Jim Jarmusch’s films), plays the last of Run’s mentors, Assa. De Bankolé was born in Abidjan, the largest city in Côte d’Ivoire, and where much of the film’s action takes place.

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Gladys (Reine Sali Coulibaly) and a young Run (Abdoul Bah)

With any luck, the film will get picked up at the festival and lots more folks will be able to see it. Here’s a clip:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SDrpfbnKUk?rel=0&w=560&h=315]

 

 

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A Hard Day was my second film—another midnight screening. The director was also in attendance at this one. Unfortunately, given that the screening ended just before 2am, no one had the stamina for a Q & A. The audience loved the movie, and it’s definitely the most fun I’ve had so far. I’m a big fan of South Korean crime thrillers, starting with The President’s Last Bang in 2005, which I saw at the always-excellent Wisconsin Film Festival. A Hard Day is a really good film. The first twenty minutes or so are especially impressive and the rest of the film does justice to its great opening. This is going to sound like I’m ruining the plot for you, but what I’m about to describe is really only the beginning of what is a very long bad day for the main character, so trust me and read on.

A corrupt cop (Lee Sun Gyun) has left his siblings to finish preparations for their mother’s funeral in order to drive back to his precinct to hide some incriminating evidence from the Internal Affairs officers who are about to show up. His sister calls and gives him a (justifiably) hard time about how soon he’ll be back. He also gets a call from his young daughter, Mina, to remind him to bring her a chocolate cake. And his fellow corrupt cops back at the precinct are calling about the evidence that will incriminate all of them and is not being hidden. Unfortunately, our hero, Detective Ko, is the only one with a key to the drawer containing said evidence, so all the other cops can do is stare despondently at the drawer. In the middle of all this, his car slams into something, cracking the windshield and denting the front end. It turns out that Detective Ko’s day has gone from bad to much, much worse. He has accidentally killed a man. When Ko sees a police car heading towards him, he hides the body…by putting it in his trunk.

Shortly thereafter, Ko is back at the morgue with his family and an extra corpse. His colleagues show up to discuss the impending catastrophe and alert Ko that the Internal Affairs guys are on their way to him, now, at the morgue. In a panic, Ko makes another really bad decision—to hide the corpse in the only place no one will look: his mother’s coffin. He is wracked with guilt—and in a particularly hilarious moment, he promises his mother’s corpse that he will make it up to her. What ensues is a genius combination of genuine suspense and something close to slapstick, involving yellow balloons, a noisy toy soldier, and the cross from his mother’s coffin.

2014+-+A+Hard+Day+(still+2)Like a number of fine South Korean crime thrillers, A Hard Day masterfully blends the thrills of a crime story with some very dark humor (my favorite kind). But the drama wouldn’t work if we didn’t actually care about Ko—and we absolutely sympathize with him. We want him to escape the Internal Affairs cops, get the dead guy out of his mother’s coffin, and make it home to his daughter with her chocolate cake.

For whatever combination of reasons, American action films don’t seem interested in offering their audiences real characters anymore, and so the movies are hollow and unsatisfying, however good they may look. The last action heroes (sorry) I can remember caring about from an American movie are Nic Cage and Sean Connery in The Rock, which was almost 20 years ago now. (Oy vey, I’m old.) Hollywood, take a lesson—this is how you make a real action movie.

 

Coming up next: The weirdest Iranian film you’ll probably never get to see.

 

Trailer for A Hard Day

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33xuvdscFqQ?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

AFI Fest 2014: November 8, 2014

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I’m not sure why every screening at the AFI’s annual Fest isn’t packed, regardless of the day or time. It’s FREE. F.R.E.E. I have a ticket to see Sophia freakin’ Loren honored at a screening of Marriage Italian Style (1964, Vittorio de Sica). Technically, it’s a voucher, and I have to pick up a ticket and start standing in line early enough, but whatever. It is free. AND THERE ARE STILL VOUCHERS AVAILABLE. What is wrong with people? You can take a drink into the shows at the Chinese cineplex (which is most of the screenings), and the Fest is a great for spotting celebrities. What’s not to love?

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My first film this year was Quentin Dupieux’s new film Réalité. Dupieux is indie-famous for his film Rubber (2010), about a murderous rubber car tire, which, admit it, is the greatest premise you’ve heard in a long time. AFI are fans of Dupieux, and his film Wrong played at the Fest in 2012. Réalité is cut from the same cloth as those films–it’s got the same unsettling combination of real humor and surrealism. “Real humor” because often films that are surreal fail embarrassingly at incorporating humor. David Lynch is the master of brilliantly combining humor and surrealism. Needless to say, most people aren’t David Lynch. (And YAY for new “Twin Peaks” episodes in 2016!!)

There is a fantastic bit at the beginning of Réatlié that felt like a Jacques Tati gag. An aspiring director, Jason (Alain Chabat), is pitching his film to a producer, Bob (Jonathan Lambert). Bob asks Jason to describe his film, but before Jason can get a word out, Bob insists that he have a cigar. Jason doesn’t want a cigar. Bob offers him a cigarillo. No, thank you. Not to worry—for non-smokers, Bob has regular cigarettes. (It’s like Dean Martin as an alcoholic on the wagon in Rio Bravo just sticking to beer.) Bob insists that Jason have a cigarette. Not wanting to offend the producer, Jason relents. Within four seconds, the producer has snatched the cigarette out of Jason’s mouth, complaining that Jason is such a poor smoker, it’s no fun to watch him. Pointing out that the air is stale, Bob then suggests they go out on the balcony for Jason to pitch his idea. Every time Jason is about to start pitching his film, Bob interrupts. It is both very French (both actors are French) and very funny.

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“I’m your pusher man.”

The movie involves several intertwined plots that may actually all be the same plot. Characters wake up from dreams that involve other characters that had appeared to be part of a sub-plot. Eventually Jason begins encountering another version of himself as he goes about trying to fulfill the producer’s one condition for signing a contract. Jason’s film is about murderous television sets (sound familiar?) that make people stupid the more television they watch. (“So it’s sic-fi,” says Bob.) Soon, the homicidal televisions start killing people with “waves.” People are in agonizing pain, they bleed from every conceivable orifice, and then they die. Everybody on the planet. The End. Bob’s only condition for producing this masterpiece is that Jason find the perfect groan of agony for these stupid human victims. “I want an Oscar for that groan, Jason!” he says with not a trace of irony. (Jason later has a dream of receiving an award for the best groan, but he can’t go up to get it because he’s stuck to his seat.) In an attempt to help Jason relax so that he can find the perfect groan, he and his unsympathetic psychoanalyst wife go to see a movie. Playing at the theater is a movie called Waves, and of course, it is his movie. He stands up in front of the screen and tries to convince the audience that they need to stop watching the film because it doesn’t exist yet. And that the groans will be better when he’s finished. His wife is mortified. I didn’t think of it at the time, but it all sounds very Woody Allen.

Is Réalité a good film? Absolutely, and I enjoyed it. But it’s a style of film—I don’t think it’s quite a genre—that I don’t love. Maybe the color and the violence of a Lynch film make the Möbius-strip-like quality of the narratives more palatable. Maybe I got impatient because it was a film about making films and involved too much navel-gazing. I liked a lot of things about the film, including John Glover (“Smallville”), of all people, who plays an ex-documentary filmmaker named Zog working on a new film for Bob (starring a girl named Reality). There was something kind about his character, his insistence that Bob be patient while watching the rushes. So much of the film’s humor depends on cruelty towards the characters, I wish there had been a little more of him.

 

FaithbookI hung around for the midnight movie, Alléluia, a thriller directed by Fabrice Du Welz, starring Laurent Lucas and Lola Dueñas (an Almodóvar regular), and shot in 16mm. It’s based on the same story, the Martha Beck-Ray Fernandez murders, as the pulpy The Honeymoon Killers (1969). Alléluia was riveting in a demanding sort of way—so much so that the film sometimes felt like mostly a tight close-up on Dueñas’s Gloria, sometimes just her eyes. (Though there was of course less of that than it seemed like there was.) That demanding intimacy was perfectly apt—Gloria is willing to overlook a lot in a fella, including being seduced, conned, and abandoned, but when Michel (Lucas) sleeps with other women in order to con them, while Gloria lurks about posing as his sister, she loses whatever is left of her mind. Almost immediately after meeting Michel, she drops her daughter with a neighbor, and she and Michel set about fleecing lonely women. But Gloria can’t stomach the part of the con that involves Michel’s infidelity. She is crazily possessive from the moment he seduces her. The morning after, he cons her out of some cash. In a brilliant moment, once she is out of his line of sight, she runs breathlessly up and down stairs to get for him, then stops before he can see or hear her to catch her breath. Handing him the money, she smiles, saying, “If you don’t help the people you love, you don’t really love them.” This is exactly the response that Michel’s manipulation is intended to elicit, but when he doesn’t call, she tracks him down. Michel confesses who he really is (not a shoe salesman, as it turns out) and she seems to accept him as he is. It is their mutual acceptance that seems to doom them (and, of course, the women Gloria will later slaughter).

ALLELUIA-AFF 120x160.inddMichel is a Humphrey Bogart fan. He has film posters; he takes Gloria to see The African Queen (1951)a film about another pair of misfit lovers. I’m hoping the über-creepy scene of Michel and Gloria laughing at the film, intercut with Katharine Hepburn and Bogart laughing at Bogart’s hippopotamus imitation hasn’t ruined The African Queen for me. Michel also reads crime fiction—Simenon’s Maigret stories. We know serious trouble is brewing when Michel and Gloria set their sights on a beautiful widow who also reads Simenon, and has a daughter almost the same age as Gloria’s. The assistant programmer who introduced the film pointed out that Lucas is reminiscent of Klaus Kinski—”but handsomer,” she was quick to add. There is definitely something around the mouth that is Kinski-ish, and that sort of shiftiness that Kinski had (you never knew when he would just go off) makes Michel seem simultaneously insincere and vulnerable.

Both the leads are tremendous. Gloria at first elicits our sympathy; she seems naive…and then absolutely terrifying. Michel is at first appalling and then sympathetic (though not redeemed, not by a long shot). He has a wonderful speech on his first date with Gloria about being able to tell what sort of person one is based on their choice of footwear. He’s got Gloria’s style pegged, and we don’t know if he’s been stalking her or if he really does understand her in some way. It’s an impressive narrative/directorial feat, making those two sociopaths sympathetic, and making their relationship so compelling, while still maintaining a moral center, not allowing us to excuse any of the pair’s crimes simply because they’ve found each other. I’m interested in seeing Du Welz’s first movie; Calvaire (2004) is a horror film, and given Alléluia, I’m looking forward to being horrified.

 

All in all, not a bad first day. Up next: Philippe Lacôte’s feature debut, Run, and another midnight screening, this time A Hard Day, a crime thriller directed by Kim Seong-hun.