Sunday, November 20, 2005

Wings of Desire

Beautiful and poetic. Amazing cinematography- some of the images look like they were ripped from a lost Murnau film. Some of the voiceovers are obtuse to a degree that makes Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green sound like Raymond Chandler, but they're always thought-provoking and grounded in human concerns.
Bruno Ganz- what can you say? The perfect actor to play a lovestruck angel. His love for humanity and the little details of earthly life becomes love for a profoundly lonely woman, which gives him the chance to experience the fullness of life as a child of God. There's more than meets the eye; I'm sure Wenders is also making a statement about the state of Berlin in the late '80s, but what stands out to me is the sophisticated richness of the human relationships in the film.
Along with Paris, Texas, this proves that Wenders was once capable of a degree of sensitive humanist characterization reserved for Jean Renoir, John Cassavetes, and Kenji Mizoguchi. And who knows, maybe he still has a few gems in him. I'm looking forward to Don't Come Knocking.


One reviewer says that the scariest thing about the film is the way the ghosts move. Certainly there is a palable creepiness to those scenes and to the images that appear on computer screens. But I think the most unsettling thing is the lack of sensationalism. Like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's other films, Pulse is a true original in the horror genre, and it deserves recognition as more than just a genre film. With the exception of a few viscerally shocking moments, everything unfolds with a chilling indifference, as if the characters don't realize the seriousness of what is happening to their friends. People disappear and become black smudges on the wall and everyone seems so terribly bored. The effect is completely terrifying, both in retrospect and while watching the film; it drains the viewer emotionally and makes the end of the world feel right around the corner. The apocalyptic vision of the film is one of the most unsettling ever put on the screen. Much of the mood of the film is created by Kurosawa's typical visual techniques, pushed to extremes: lots of deep-focus long shots where individual elements of mise-en-scene are manipulated in single takes, and dull whites and grays making up most of the color palette. Overall, it's a shockingly effective critique on modern loneliness and isolation, and especially the effects of technology. In the end, what matters isn't really that the explanation of the ghosts makes sense, but the way that the characters react to what is happening around them.

If there is a major fault to the film, it's the overly abrupt ending. After a slow burning 100 minutes of build-up, I would have liked to see a more well-paced transition into dystopia on the open seas, and a better introduction to the Koji Yakusho character. And that song at the end credits- HORRIBLE. Almost as inappropriate as the song at the end of "Audition".

I still think "Cure" is his masterpiece (and I hope more people seek it out now that Kurosawa is getting a higher profile in the media), but "Pulse" is the most unique horror film of recent years, and one of the best.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Commitments

Can a bunch of working class Dubliners in the 90s revive the spirit of 60s soul? That's the main premise of this film, although it raises more issues as the plot unfolds. In the end, the film is about the ability to transcend circumstances, through music in this case. It has a few things going for it; an excellent (amateur) ensemble portraying unique characters, focused pacing, and, needless to say, a fantastic soundtrack featuring Motown classics like "Too Many Fish In The Sea" and "Nowhere To Run", among several others.
But what I really liked about The Commitments was the true enthusiasm for soul music. I can sympathize with the character of the manager, who wants to "spread soul to the Dublin masses". Why? Because there is a life-affirming quality to the classic R&B songs of that time period. Although much of the music is fairly dark in its lyrical musings, being derived from the blues, there is an undeniable joy that drips from the speakers when something like "Sugar Pie Honey Bunch" is playing. For the musicians in the film, music makes life extraordinary. That enthusiasm for the music is evident in small moments, like when the tour bus breaks out in a chorus of the Marvelettes' "Destination: Anywhere" or when the band's pianist plays Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" on a church organ, and the priest starts talking about the lyrics of the song.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Angel Heart

This film is a very good entry into a sadly underused genre- horror noir. Other good examples would be Constantine, Seven, and Split Second. It's strange to me that more writers and directors haven't taken advantage of the close relationship between horror and detective films.
It also belongs to another sub-category of films that I have an unexplainable affection for, what you might call forgotten identity films; this includes Oldboy, Obsession, Fight Club, and several others where the protagonist eventually arrives at a viscerally horrific moment of self-discovery. It's a very effective storytelling technique that could justly be called manipulative, but I admire films that can do it well- remember F For Fake.
Riding on a fantastic performance by Mickey Rourke as the gumshoe antihero, a wonderful supporting turn by Robert DeNiro, and good Chandler-esque dialogue, Angel Heart is one of the best horror films of the last couple decades, as well as one of the most stylish noirs. Through associative editing and murky cinematography, both staples of the genre, director Alan Parker establishes a foreboding mood that doesn't let up until the inevitably horrifying climax (credit must be given to the sound design at well, which is chilling). While viewers may have "guessed" either of the major twists of the ending, the acting is so solid, especially from a tough but naive Rourke, that we still feel the shock of the characters' realization.
Finally, it should be noted that the film makes better use of voodoo and its New Orleans location in establishing mood than any other horror film I've seen, including The Skeleton Key, Fulci's The Beyond, Panic in the Streets, and The Serpent and the Rainbow. I Walked With A Zombie would be the exception, although I don't remember if it's set in LA.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Samurai Rebellion

Another genre classic from Masaki Kobayashi, one of the most versatile and skilled post-war Japanese directors. Like the great "Harakiri", "Rebellion" is an anti-samurai film, setting up a complex situation in which the prevailing system is seen as cruel and unconcerned with the sufferings of individuals. Like Renoir, Kobayashi seems to have the rare gift of making films about social injustice without catering to a partisan agenda or de-emphasizing character.

The film is driven by two great performances, Toshiro Mifune as a patriarch and Go Kato as his son. Additionally, there is a brilliantly cathartic showdown at the end between Mifune and the great Tatsuya Nakadai (the star of Harakiri and Human Condition, taking a lesser role here), which is kind of the samurai film equivalent of Marcello Mastroianni and Alain Delon going head-to-head in a battle of masculine cool.
God bless Criterion for putting out so many Japanese films this year.