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Vidas Secas (1963)
An itinerant family's search for a better life seems to lead nowhere. The husband finds work as a cowhand, the wife wants nothing more than a leather bed to sleep in.
The stark, black and white cinematography with which the sun-bleached, barren landscape was shot underscores the poverty the family is trying to escape. Kudos to the director who was able to coax an admirable performance from the family's dog. It's a totally engaging film w/ effectively subdued performances from the principals. Reminiscent of Italian Neo-Realist cinema, this makes for rewarding viewing, a cure for the summer blockbuster syndrome.
Of the two movies I saw today, "Grindhouse" merits a mention here simply because it's a hoot! Conceived as an 'hommage' to 70's B double features, the movie consists of two full-length features helmed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. Taking it further for the full B effect, the movie featured simulated scratches, missing frames or even entire reels making the action jumpy and frustrating to watch right at the most crucial moments. And that's part of the fun, if the viewer "gets" it. There were quite a few walkouts from the theater, maybe it's just not for everyone. But those who stayed LOL'd all throughout.
The two directors' characteristic elements of gore and violence are there in spades but w/ an R rating, the teen audiences that would go for this kind of thing are shut out. Hilarious too, by the way, are the extras--trailers for non-existent movies ("Werewolf Women of the SS")concocted to make for a complete viewing experience reminiscent of those times when you could spend the entire afternoon in one of those 3rd-run theaters specializing in movies you'd never heard of but attractively promising silly entertainment. And that's all you get, because that's all it was intended to be. You pass the entire afternoon laughing yourself silly in air-conditioned comfort to escape the summer heat, then go home and forget all about it. Then you go to another theater featuring a different double feature the following afternoon for another silly ride.
Basic Instinct 2 (2006)
Basically Awful 2
Never a fan of the misogynistic and psychologically pretentious "Basic Instinct" which took in millions--of viewers, that is, I had some hope for the reworking of the much-delayed project that languished in development for years. After all, I don't think Sharon Stone is that bad of an actress.
A friend has a DVD copy of "Basic Instinct 2" which I now regret borrowing. The opening scene seemed to me funnily prophetic: A stylish vehicle careens out of control, crashes and...sinks. The most readily apparent thing about the movie is its stylishness: It is artfully blocked, lit and shot, production design is sumptuous, Sharon Stone looked even more so, and the building where the analyst holds court appropriately phallic. Alas, the plodding pace and dialog failed to keep my eyes open, or maybe it's just last night's festivities that hung a heavy cloud of somnolence over my viewing experience. No matter. When the twist at the end came, it had about as much gasp factor as someone breaking wind: Someone is relieved, others are offended.
Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)
Camping out for two weeks in another town...
What the heck were they thinking? Oh, I get it: Take the success of "La Dolce Vita", infuse it w/ the elements of a behind-the-scenes look into the tawdry goings on of a troubled Hollywood production and transplant it back to Rome (Say, "Cinecitta", boys and girls!). And for good measure, have a director w/ an Italian sounding name take responsibility for it.
Trashy camp only begins to describe the little seen(and therefore intriguing to self-confessed cinephiles--we have TCM to thank) "Two Weeks In Another Town"(1962), but what a gloriously colorful bit of camp it is. Director Vincente Minnelli is an acknowledged master of color and---I don't know what else. The dialog has to be heard to be believed("Don't swallow all those pills! The doctor will have to come up and pump your stomach. You know how much that sickens me!"). Everybody spits, dribbles and sweats acid in this movie. Need it be said that everyone overacts? It's a wonder anything at all was left of the scenery after they chewed it up! And having pretty boy George Hamilton play a knife-wielding bad boy is a bit much, no? One exception is the young Daliah Lavi who left the bad acting to the two other women principals (Cyd Charisse and Claire Trevor)and just let her natural charms show through. She's even more fetching here because she looks to have more meat on her bones than in her subsequent roles( The Detainer in the OTHER Casino Royale).
Kirk Douglas as the main character who gets to do the thankless job of saving a movie in trouble after its director(Edward G. Robinson) suffers a heart attack tries to do the same thing w/ this movie and barely succeeds. A plus, though, is that he tools around in(and gets to trash) a cool-looking Maserati convertible. Watching that car alone is worth it. As for the rest of the movie, it's like bad tabloid reportage. We know it's trash, but we can't keep our eyes off it!
Marie Antoinette (2006)
"Off with their cakes! Let them eat--"
Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette" is an entertaining exercise in anachronism and incongruity. There, that's it. Maybe I should stop now.
How else to treat the subject of incongruity pertaining to a teen-age Austrian princess thrust into the French court at Versailles but to go all the way: The dialog goes from period to contemporary idioms, the music switches from Rameau to rock, the young queen and her ladies act like catty, giggly high school seniors uncomfortably costumed for a prom where they do ballroom dancing to rock music. Although the costumes and production design are sumptuously executed, you could almost expect a cellphone's ring tone to interrupt a scene at any moment. And it wouldn't be out of place either.
The intricacies and contretemps of court protocol are executed with obvious relish and self consciousness, the acting even more so. So why not show the whole enterprise as nothing more than a bunch of people playing pretend at royalty? The stylized incongruities certainly suit these cynical times. And yes, for good measure, the much-rumored Converse high tops (at least I agree that's what they look like) make their fleeting appearance among the young queen's exquisite footwear.
The movie takes on a semi-serious, idyllic turn in the scenes where the young queen indulges her fantasy of a peasant's life in the artificial village around the Petit Trianon, milking cows and gathering eggs, all soft focusy and dream like--a brief, happy period before she awakes to the realities of the impending revolution. It may only be fitting that we are spared the gruesome details following her departure from Versailles. Better to remember the grand times rather than a severed head.
And who knows, "the little Austrian" might have found this biopic amusing.
Observing the observations of the observed(or obscuring the obfuscation of the absurd)
A street scene where nothing really happens goes on far longer than it's supposed to. Or does it? Is it prolonged "dead time"? Did the picture freeze up? It develops that the street scene is a videotape being watched by two of the main protagonists of "Caché", themselves being watched by an unknown observer who keeps leaving surveillance videos at their doorstep. The viewer's point of view becomes the characters' point of view which turns out to be, in turn, the unknown observer's point of view. Thus the implied complicity among the audience/viewers, the voyeur/observer and the observed subject, is rendered explicit. Or is that too pat and simple and not relating to anything at all?
We find out further that the subject of this surveillance is a TV talk show host, someone who is comfortable about being watched by millions but finds palpable menace in the seemingly ordinary footage of his everyday existence. Do the mundane and the banal take on the character of a threat once close attention and interest are vested in them?
The film's rhythm seems uneven. Cuts jump with a jarring suddenness from one scene to another, not seeming to follow the implied narrative. Did the editor insert scenes in the wrong places? Did outtakes somehow jump of their own volition off the cutting room floor and insinuated themselves into the final cut? Some scenes seem to "happen" without anything "happening" in them. But that is not a novel concept, of course: Do the scenes bear a closer look? Will a dead body materialize among the jumble of foliage in a corner if we freeze the picture and blow it up?(Huuuwwiiinngg! Antonioni alert!)
The film's director, Michael Haneke, would not disclose anything other than that it is a morality tale, how one deals w/ one's guilt, or how one's guilt is affected (or not) if both parties are culpable. He obviously revels in the film's ambiguous elements, particularly the film's seemingly unresolved conclusion. "There are 1000 truths", he says in an interview featured in the DVD, echoing the iconic Kurosawa film, "Rashomon", where each character had his/her own "truthful" version of an incident. The supposedly subjective quality of "the truth" is, again, not a novel concept.
There was another movie I saw long ago, a psychological drama where a character talks about the three kinds of secrets: The ones we don't tell other people, the ones we don't tell ourselves and finally, the third secret is the truth. Maybe that's the secret the director was proposing with this film, in his jagged and elliptical two-hour way. Surely this will be the subject of discussions among cineastes for some time; it may even become a classic(!).
But what if this movie was a joke tossed in the general direction of pretentious intellectuals? Was it a lark, a spree, was it very clear to see? Do you see a pair of dancing elephants in the ink blot? Or maybe this: It's a Hitchcockian thriller with a socio-political subtext fed by an undercurrent of guilt, a commentary on a national psyche's paranoia induced by past misdeeds. Or finally, to quote Hitchcock himself, this: "It's only a moooooovie!"
L'année dernière à Marienbad (1961)
The persistence of memory and the mutability of time in the twilight zone...
A bunch of store mannequins (from Neiman-Marcus or some such) dared to dream that they were humans spending an unusually chilly summer(there's this constant chatter about the pond freezing) in a sumptuously-appointed European spa. Problem is, they're a confused bunch--not knowing which is what, where, when with whom and which feelings/emotions go with which actions. The story randomly focuses on M, A and X (I'm sure other letters in the alphabet would have done just as well). A and X do a sort of protracted mating dance while M just looms menacingly. For all their dreaming and their imaginary conversations in elegantly-accented French, they can't leave behind the fact that they're store mannequins and can't keep themselves from posing in tuxes and fabulous Chanel gowns every chance they get while trying to make sense of what really happened last year at Marienbad. Or Frederiksbad. Or Baden-Salsa. Or is it going to happen next year and they're just imagining it already happened while in their putative dream state? I bought the VHS copy years ago and now have the DVD. I think I'll send my VHS copy to my old Prof in Creative Writing. She just might get inspired in striking a few poses in class while wearing Chanel knock-offs...
The Appointment (1969)
Good or bad...
...this movie deserves a DVD release. I saw it on TV(missed the opening credits) years ago and years after its theatrical release. I had to call a friend to find out who this "European" director was. Surprise--Lumet? Still, I found the ambiguities and open-endedness intriguing. Glacial pacing? Bad acting? I've seen worse. Cinematography and narrative arc were unusual for an American director. The beautiful Anouk Aimée is always eminently watchable and for that alone we should be able to watch this again. Anyone out there have the wherewithal to get this out on DVD? I'm sure others would like to give this one another go and reconsider their opinions.
The Mercenaries (1968)
Missing scene(if you call these spoilers)?
I saw this--what I've always thought to be a very violent--movie a few years after its initial release and then again more than a decade later on late night TV. I've always been intrigued by a lobby card I saw(one of several pictures from the movie actually posted in the theater lobby when theaters still did that)which looked like a scene missing from the movie. Yvette Mimieux's character(if memory serves)makes her first appearance through the binoculars of one of the characters as she ran, filthy and with torn clothing, through tall grass to catch the train. The intriguing lobby card, however, depicted her struggling and hanging upside down in her underwear while one of the rebels sat at a piano, his gun slung by a strap over his shoulder, pretending(?)to sing and play a tune. The implication--that she was brutalized before she escaped to catch the train--is obvious and I can only guess at the degree of brutality and violence depicted. I'm wondering if this scene was ever in any of the versions seen by the others who posted here. Even w/o that scene, however, I thought this movie was violent enough, at least to my impressionable mind when I was younger.
This movie might be pointless, meaningless fluff but it was entertaining enough to warrant a DVD release. I remember seeing a much shortened version on late night TV a long, long time ago and laughed myself silly, especially at the scene w/ Jack Lemmon in drag trying to make it to a dental appointment in between takes of a "Some Like It Hot" kind of movie, while Cantinflas, mistaken for a carhop, wreaks havoc in the parking lot w/ Lemmon's girlfriend's Jaguar. "There goes my girl's car!", he exclaims and then as the car crashes, "There goes my girl!". By the way, I don't think the preceding was a spoiler. It's fun to enjoy mindless entertainment from time to time, too bad it had to be at the expense of the talented Mario Moreno/Cantinflas who was presented as a racial stereotype. If you can get past that, there is a whole parade of stars who were THE stars during that period which, I'm sure, we all look back to w/ nostalgia. If only for nostalgia's sake, I vote for a DVD release of this movie.
Billy Two Hats (1974)
Visually compelling on the big screen
I haven't seen this movie since I saw it in its initial release where it was playing to a nearly empty theater. It was shot in widescreen, the format appropriate to the genre and the movie would undoubtedly suffer if seen on TV. Granted that the foreign location gave it an odd quality but the desert vistas are no less magnificent. I'm not a particular fan of the western film genre but this one seems to have clung to my memory. Peck's Scottish burr seems forced at times but it does not detract from what is essentially a visually compelling entertainment. If it becomes available in DVD(widescreen) format, I'll certainly buy a copy.
Private Show (1985)
A visually inspired first effort from a film school-literate director.
The director did an "Alan Smithee" on this one for some reason, not wishing to put his real name on the credits. I saw it on its initial release and was impressed by the cinematography, owed in no small part to the director's having studied film at NYU. The influence of Italian neorealism(of which the director is a confessed admirer)is readily apparent and the film may even be taken as an homage, albeit something set in a 3rd world Asian country and dealing with seamy characters.
Said characters are participants in private sex shows where paying audiences can watch "actors" in various hardcore sex acts. The subject of an innocent lured by the city into depravity is an industry favorite and is given the usual treatment here with only a little variation on the theme to make it a little different. The young Jaclyn Jose, in one of her early roles, positively glows in the role of the exploited innocent. I haven't seen this director's subsequent films but this initial effort certainly merits kudos. "Where have you gone, Sixto Kayko--a nation turns its lonely eyes to you, hoo hoo hoo...!"
Kulay dugo ang gabi (1964)
A word on the color-sepia-color switching...
Sorry to demystify the cinematography but it was a question of COST. Color film stock was prohibitively expensive then and the producers couldn't afford to shoot all the scenes in color. This practice was prevalent in the Philippine film industry in the late 60's/early 70's. I remember a billboard advertising a comedy as "filmed in partly color"(sic). If the visual inconsistencies tended to enhance the narrative and add to the creepy character of the movie, well and good. So, there it is--another mystery gone.
Incidentally, it is not widely known that Gerry De Leon was an MD but never practiced this profession. His family was in the movie business and he promptly went into it after graduating from med school.