Archive for January, 2010

Cobra (1986)

“Cobra” (1986)

IMDb

flat toughness

I’ve been consuming a fair amount of action, because i’m interesting in following the trends. This specific 80’s though guy type was fully present during my childhood, and for better and worse, it is a good part of my earliest cinematic memories. Well, you don’t choose what it comes to you, at such an early age.

Within than trend, this Cobra might be its most clear cliché. That’s because this film is all about all the other 80’s action films that starred one action vase, like Stallone. It’s like it was written by a couple guys who’d just seen Sly’s previous films, plus Seagal’s, plus Chuck Norris’… let me me get adolescent about it: justice is rotten, unless someone, Cobra, The man, takes it into his own hands; “this is where justice ends, and i begin…” the guy is ruthless, but morally superior, ignores the rules, only to make the fair thing, and protected the oppressed. The bad guy is a total scumbag, physically menacing. Oh and he has a crew of motor bikers, a kind of flat version of the wild one crew. The final fight is mano a mano, between the cop and the bad guy, kind of a Boss fight at the end of a video game level. The menacing set, filled with dangerous elements, this case an iron foundry. At a point, we have a paired runaway, where the hero has to protect a woman, first as strangers, but later falling in love, thus revealing the more human nature of the tough hero. The woman exists as both an object to be appreciated by male audiences and the guarantee that the same audiences will look upon the hero as a desirable subject (idol). OK that’s it.

This is consumable, and eventually it was what it aimed at, as a space filler. But there is not much to see here. Stallone was already at this point a man trapped by his own self-invented character, wanting to get out (as he himself assumed) without being able to. The fight and action sequences are boring today, and i there was already much better at the time.

There is the interest of watching how Stallone and the (in those days) seductive Brigitte Nielsen act together. They were married, and i suppose in love. There is a positive tension in how they face each other, remarkable in the bedroom scene that anticipates the final sequence.

My opinion: 2/5

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Peur sur la ville (1975)

“Peur sur la ville” (1975)

IMDb

Popeye goes to Paris

There is a very interesting relation between American and french cinema of the 60’/70′. We all know it began with the new wave guys, first as critics, leading by the remarkable Bazin. They were great in how they put unacknowledged masters, merely considered as competent craftsmen; Hawks, Ray, Hitchcock(!). Than as filmmakers, and that’s where things got hot. Godard, the more radical, took us to a self-referential world of cinematic citations. Belmondo was the central character of that Breathless depiction. Curiously, by quoting Americans, the french guided the trends throughout the 60′, and made the Americans go after them. But i think the french revolution was thinner than what initially promised (actually as many french revolutions!), and after the excitement of having explicitly oriented to be about films, the enthusiasm vanished. So, way before the end of the 60, the french new wave was, in its original core, worn out. Godard lost babbling about naive idealism, Truffaut, Resnais, Demy… doing their own personal things, actually more interesting (to me) than the original stuff, but totally away from what the new wave wanted. That’s when some Americans regained the lead. Coppola, Scorcese, Lucas, of course. But remarkably, we have a trend of action films which are really worth watching. Siegel, Frankenheimer and the incredible Friedkin. Those set the trend for what we have here. So this film is a very curious, and interesting product, a product born from the symbiotic relation between American and french trends. Belmondo is the heritage of the original nouvelle vague, even in his (actually awkward) characterization (the cigarette, the hard boiled posture), as well as the cinematic explicit quoting; right at the beginning, the Jean Gabin bit. So already it is good to watch if you know the context, if you know the references.

But in its core, and from the investors point of view, this is an action flick, that buys the tendencies of action those days and, to my view, does a very good job. It has a plot, which is discard-able, except for the output of the two cops working together (good-bad), and the general feel to it. Some killer, crazy traumatized, and one interesting aspect. The story announces that its very solution is the eyesight. So Minos is a one eyed fellow, who actually gets tracked down when Belmondo proves the glass eye connection. The very first time the killer shows, near the beginning, we have an eye on screen, to show us that. So the hint is that we’ll have something in the eye.

And we have that materialized in the action sequences. Here we have some impressive stuff. The trick is to extend the chasing sequences as long as we can, changing sets, changing locomotion medium (foot on roofs, cars in the city, subway/train). One specific long sequence is quite remarkable. It’s really well engineered, well integrated in the city, it has carefully framed moments. It’s really good fun to watch, and it makes it on a visual way. Usually i don’t summarize films, but here i think it’s worth looking closer at the scene. *spoilers herein* We have Belmondo surprising Minos, who had just killed another woman. He chases him through rooftops, some shooting moments, acrobatics on top of rooftops, and some delicious glimpses at the city, Paris. Than we have a transition to Lafayette, through a clothing dummies storage, in which the dummies are actually used. We have the Lafayette bit, now we are in public domain. The killer grabs a motorcycle, Belmondo and his partner start the chase in the car. Now we are in the city, ground level, lots on establishing points (remarkably the Paris opera). i enjoyed how they shot the tracking shots inside the chaser’s car. At this moment there is another parallel chasing taking place, of an old crook Belmondo was seeking to get. Two other cops follow him while Belmondo still chases the killer. The interesting thing here is how, if you know your Paris, you’ll understand through the lines that both chases are close one to the other. So you’ll know why at a certain moment Belmondo gives up on the killer to start pursuing his personal vendetta. So he does that, this allows us to refresh the chasing, which by now is already probably 10 minutes long. we have a little bit more of car chase to connect us to the new chased subject, and we get into the subway. Subway and surface trains. Belmondo on the train, tunnels, he gets in, he shoots the guy. End of story. It is complex, it is highly engineered, with a good sense of placement in the city. Belmondo has physical skills, he does his own stunts. This sequence was clearly aiming at the similar car chase of French Connection. That one is fresher, but this one is more complex, it’s an extrapolation over the original one. It’s worth watching.

My opinion: 3/5

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Guantanamera (1995)

“Guantanamera” (1995)

IMDb

the honesty of the vision

If you care about the evolution of thinking regarding social organization, you will necessarily have to go through the biggest fracture in the post-ww2 world. the iron curtain. it’s up to you making your own opinion regarding what each side had to offer, and which sides on each side you support. To help you make up your mind you have to rely on the stories told by those who lived in the flesh the problems and advantages of those worlds. I mean the honest thinkers, or people with honest stories to tell. If you deepen your research on the soviet branch of the curtain, you will necessarily face the cuban case. It’s a fascinating story. And within that story, there are a few honest storytellers. Korda, and Gutierrez-Alea are the most meaningful, they work with images. But while Korda is fundamentally important because he followed the process, the revolution, Gutierrez is someone who was at the beginning, and kept telling his honest version of the reality until his death. Just before that, he made this beautiful film.

So, we know we will watch in his films the narrative of someone who never ceased to make questions, and denounce what he believed was bad, as much as he had denounced the pre-Castro abuses, and as much as he had genuinely embraced the revolution. This is his vision, in the mid 90′. Disenchanted, cynic, ironic. Few times has the road-trip been so metaphorical, so invested with the notion of journey, through time(s), hardly through physical space. Also you can invest any symbolic weight to the corpse they transport. But what i care about is the pure talent Alea had as a true cinematic storyteller. My bet is that he started with images, loose disconnected images that he wanted to pass. Just like the final shot in this film. Than he worked hard on building a narrative structure than could competently, coherently and, y say, poetically, integrate all his multiple visions. The fun thing about his film is that the multiplicity of visions from the same beautiful mind is reflected in the various story lines we follow, each with its own tone, and mode. We have the soap opera story that surrounds the funny life of Mariano, multiple women that mean sex, to him, and one platonic love, reluctant to be consumed. We have the cynic critic to the regime totally invested in the stupidity of the whole funeral service business. That business about inventing rules to spare fuel; all that represented by the frigid bureaucratic husband, a sad portrait to a by now (and than) sad system. Than the heaviest drama falls upon the most delicate soul in the living characters, the old widow, husband to a late artist, the one who never ceases to care about people, eventually the one true love in the story (i’m not sure to consider the teacher a woman in love). Alea doesn’t spare on the cynic posture, so the black humour with the corpse, near the end, really grows an uneasy feel on you. All these lines are perfectly integrated by a well managed road trip, and a good adaptation of an eternal song, which incidentally is an avatar for the cuban soul.

This is like an Italian post-modern “sweet” film, but better, because it is more meaningful.

My opinion: 4/5

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The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (2009)

“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” (2009)

IMDb

Central subjects

We have less and less people going to movies these days, yet more and more films coming out every week. Odd world, this one. In the middle of this craziness, i make a habit out of trying to guess which ones, among the avalanche of films in catalog, will be worth it. Some are easy choices, because they have people i care about participating. Others are pure chance (i like to call it intuition). This is such. Oh, it has Robin Wright, who impressed me in my re viewings of Breaking and Entering (not so much the first time i saw it, i have to rewrite my comment on that one). Still, this was a shot in the dark. But sometimes, fate and some ability to predict make an experience worthwhile, even discarding its contents. So, I got watch this one in a totally empty last session medium projection room. It was great. And the film is about surrounding multiple conceptions of loneliness, of spiritual emptiness, of empty goals. This film is a valid gift. It was given to me, just to me, i was alone only until the film begun.

We have a central life, of a woman who seems to affect the lives of all the people that surround her. Unwillingly. She gets what happens to her, not what she predicts. That is both her doom and the brightness in her. To play this woman, the director (herself a woman) chose a vivid and interesting young woman, Lively, mirrored in a very interesting person, Wright Penn, whose major quality as a performer is in her face. So we start the film on her face, in extreme close-up. Her expressions will tell us all we want to know about where the character stands in those moments. Two types of acting, one external, by Lively, another one internal and focused, by Wright. So, in perfect coherence with the idea of a woman who apparently erased herself out of true existence, true life, to become the shadow of someone who at a tragic moment in existence saw his life bound to her. Sensitive choices.

The big question here might be of self referential nature. Empty lives means those that create nothing? After all, Pippa feels the same kind of frustration her husband did, when he realized he wouldn’t become a writer. Several times that question comes to mind, notably when Sam asks the young Pippa what is her creative business, to which she just answers she works in a clothing store. Ultimately, the creative light that surrounds Pippa is herself, as a subject, and as the dynamo to her surrounding lives, someone who stirs and perturbs. That’s what Julianne Moore’s character is there for, to highlight Pippa as the subject, not the maker of art. Incidentally Moore is perfect because she herself is hardly a puppet in the middle of the art where she moves. She plays important roles as maker of art herself. Self reference, again.

We have the mother, unhealthy, drug addict, and obsessed with her daughter, we have Sam, always in love, we have Arkin’s character, who materializes in Pippa the frustration of his artless existence. We have Bellucci’s character, herself a competing central subject, who can’t stand being replaced.

All this is Rebecca Miller, who wrote a book, eventually as a projection of herself, and extended the notion to a film, personal, intuitive. A good experience.

My opinion: 4/5

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Sherlock Holmes (2009)

“Sherlock Holmes” (2009)

IMDb

Actor, and Placement

Somehow, i’ve always avoided the cinematic (or TV) presentations of Sherlock Holmes. I find the character fascinating, but i always felt it was more invested in literature, not cinema. His deductions, the way he surrounds the worlds he investigates are a feast for thinking minds. Even when the deductions are over the top (which happens often!) one can’t stop smiling at the cleverness. More than that, the character is a perfect piece invested in a clever, irresistible and fascinating world. London. That part is visual, and a good ground to invest a cinematic world. But, unlike for example anything by Agatha Christie, Doyle’s cleverness is rooted in pure deductive logic, not on the mechanics of the world. Notice that Christie’s crimes are many times a matter of understanding how things happened, spatially (murder on the orient express is the zenith of that). I suppose Doyle formed his mind before cinema had any significant impact on how our minds work.

So the challenge for any modern filmmaker, and actor, who wants to update Holmes, is to make the character more cinematic, more appealing. Several tricks are used here, most of them successful, even if straightforward. One is the most obvious, making Holmes an action character (which actually is in its original dna, even though TV productions usually ignore that). This might be a flop, and make the version laughable, but by now there is a sense of irony and self awareness in Ritchie’s films (sincer Lock Stock) that allows him to support a xxi century action figure in Holmes clothing that actually is watchable. A minor trick here is the association of the deduction with the very process of physical fighting, which creates some Matrix moments. Well, their watchable, though not particularly interesting. In the greater arc, there are good action sequences, because, as any competent action these days, considers the elements of the surrounding space, and uses them.

But there are two big things in this film, which take it to new levels of interest.

One is the acting. Jude Law is a clever guy, an interesting actor whose greatest quality is how he merges anonymously with the context he is intended to integrate. He willingly becomes a piece of a larger tapestry, and that really is something to look upon. There are not many actors who can claim they can do this competently. But the king of the game is Downey Jr. He is the gold piece in the puzzle of updating Holmes. There certainly will be a before-after Holmes character, with this film. The man is capable to work his performances on several directions, and each of them is a perfect link to its surroundings. So he gives in to Ritchie’s demands, and introduces humour, irony, and self-awareness in the character, to make it usable for the director’s winks at ironic action. He invests totally on the creation of a character who merges with the textures of the context, while being distinct from it. And while doing it, he folds us into his game, so we do everything with him, side by side. We deduce, we smile, we run, all with him. So, if the film hadn’t other qualities, Downey Jr would still make it worthy, because he, alone, solves one the most basic problems with any film: to find a channel audiences can safely cross into the game someone (director) proposes. He is one of the best ever.

But there is another great thing here, which i suspect has a lot to do with several guys involved in the process of making the film. The result is an incredible sense of placement. London, XIXth century. All those dirty muddy streets, all the dirt. The fascination of the inner locations, namely the midget’s laboratory. How those sets are usable, in the action scenes. That’s all competent, more than competent. It’s perfectly rendered, carefully photographed, it sounds overly artificial, but it’s a matter of taste, i suppose. But what was really striking was the use of the London bridge. Notice how it is announced, early in the film, with a similar perspective to the one we’ll get in the end. Than, the great sequence, when Irene Adler goes through the sewage, goes up, and we end up with a close up of her, in an unidentified location. The angle opens, we move away, and we are set up in the location for the final fight scene, which in its own merits is interesting enough. So, this was a unique way to actually use an establishing location, instead of merely showing it. I mean, how many films have shown the Eiffel towers? countless. How many actually use it? not so many. This is one of the best London cities we’ve seen lately.

My opinion: 4/5

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Body Double (1984)

“Body Double” (1984)

IMDb

blind eye

There are only a few themes which are more suited to cinema than to any other medium, or form of art. Of those themes, voyeurism is certainly the one that has been more explored, and thus has more solutions and experiences. That’s probably because it is seductive, and allows for so many different approaches (unlike for example space exploration). Also, voyeurism is marketable and can be made into quite different genres. And it is a terribly effective way to fold an audience onto a screen, because no matter who, or what is the voyeur in the film, we as spectators become voyeurs. So i suppose the fact that voyeurism suits cinema better than any other art form is a purely technical thing, related to very characteristics of the medium; but the fact that we are so fond of voyeurism is because we ourselves are voyeuristic by nature.

Because of all this, making something about being voyeur that is interesting and original can be something quite difficult. But de Palma tries. He tries hard, is clever enough to learn from every previous experience, and is bold enough to try new things once he achieves something with what he made. Unfairly, to me, he has the fame of copying masters, tackling their thing and making something close. I don’t think he does that, or ever did. He picks up concepts others (usually great directors) used, and performs those concepts with a totally renewed (and new!) vision (many times literally a new eye). Sometimes he outdoes the originals. This strategy produced one of the best films ever made on story construction and eye: Blow out, a transformation of Antonioni. Because that film was so successful in achieving what was intended, he moved on.

Here he tries Hitchcock. Not the guy from Rear Window, more the one who made Vertigo. There is a world, unknown to us, unknown to our surrogate in the film, the watcher. He builds a story, he understands the world, by looking at it. Just by looking at it, his involvement in the development of that world comes very late in the game, and is not that important. He has the detective’s eye. And the world he is supposed to find is placed so he can find it, even though neither him or us know that at the beginning. So here we get into the territory of noir, the placing of the elements of the world in such ways that we/him necessarily have to find them. Here the trigger to the interest of the character is sex, as it often is in straight voyeuristic stories.

So de Palma knows where he is going, he is experimenting on solid grounds. But he doesn’t pull this off, not here. Apart from the basic structure of what he intends to do, almost everything else plays against the idea. His camera is not fluid, sensitive, snaky like it had been in Blow out or how it would become throughout the 90′. There are some cleverly conceived shots and sequences, but they are only worth on their own, without integration in a larger structure. Melanie Griffith won’t do it for me. I much rather prefer Karen Allen, specially when Brian was in love with her, that transpires into the movie. Griffith is wobbly, insecure. She is just adolescent, not with the Lolita fascination, just plain naive, and that sets her aside from the story. The soundtrack is terribly, one of the worst i’ve heard, worse than in many of the b movies that this one is stylistically close to.

My opinion: 2/5 if you know de Palma well enough you will appreciate the general concept here. But there are better places to go to see the ideas here flourish.

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