Tuesday, March 10, 2020

letterboxd backup (22)

The Ditch, Wang Bing, 2010

Before watching this, I couldn`t really imagine why Wang Bing would want to make a (kind of) fiction film about the anti-rightist campaign alongside the documentaries HE FENGMING and DEAD SOULS (most of which was filmed before THE DITCH). But while it follows the memories delineated in the interview films almost word for word, the reenactment indeed does add something important: here, the focus is on the "reeducation" camps not as an individual, but as a collective, or maybe rather group experience. There are almost no images of lonely suffering and what hits the hardest isn`t the misery, but the solidarity among the inmates, the scenes of them caring for each other, sometimes in a rough, sometimes in a downright tender manner. Of course these attempts at companionship prove mostly futile, and in the film their impact is weakened by the scenes involving the guards, which are the weakest part of the film. (Pretty obviously this is a - probably unsolvable - problem of Wang`s entire project: He can`t provide in-depth portrayals of the perpetrators, let alone an investigation into the inner workings of the CPC of the time. So he is stuck with stock villains.)

Probably the best part, on the other hand, is the lengthy scene depicting the visit of the widow of a recently deceased inmate. This is the closest the film comes to approaching fiction proper and in a way an insertion of Wang`s own persepective.

Joker, Todd Phillips, 2019

Not a good film with its in principal rather decent evocation of New Hollywood textures and pacing constantly being derailed by, among other things, a terribly oomphy score and Phoenix`s one note power acting (the scenes with him and De Niro are interesting, though: film history repeating itself, first as tragedy, then as farce). Still, and not at all surprisingly, it`s not nearly as bad as the discourse surrounding it. To call JOKER a film about "incel culture" and male self-pity is not only wrong (there`s nothing in it that suggests that sex is a major hangup for Fleck), but feels curiously vile, because the one thing Phillips does rather well is evocing the experience of mental illness. Once again, the realization that woke film critics have less capability for empathy than the director of the HANGOVER films isn`t really surprising. Just depressing.

’Til Madness Do Us Part, Wang Bing, 2013

Round and round in quadratic circles.

On the Beat, Ying Ning, 1995

Part nostalgic portrayal, shot in the international style of festival realism, of a city already in the progress of irreversible change (while registering, if probably mostly despite itself, that the "old ways" were inextricably tied to hardcore authoritarianism), part a comedy of bureaucracy that almost could work as a pilot for a hypothetical workplace sitcom.

Night and Fog in Zona, Jung Sung-il, 2015

The most fascinating scenes come rather late, when NIGHT AND FOG turns into a making-of of TIL MADNESS DO US PART: Wang Bing virtually glued to his camera and the person he films, perseverely and often completely immobile, as if trying to establish a symbiotic (or parasitic?) relationship with his subject. Not at all a fly on the wall, but rather a fly on your skin, so close to you that it isn`t worth chasing off... It`s also interesting to see how different ZONA and MADNESS approach the spatial setup of the asylum. In ZONA, the camera`s gaze seems to come much more from the outside.

Jung`s film isn`t interested in a thorough demystification, though. In fact, other passages suggest that Wang works in very different registers, without any fixed master approach.

G Affairs, Lee Cheuk Pan, 2019

"Trust me, Hong Kong is getting worse." - I wouldn't trust this film for a second, but it overpowered me anyway. A curious mixture of post-modern teen drama (some parts reminded me of Japanese youth films) and hyped-up exploitation, I can understand anyone who gives up in this after 20 minutes. Especially because it doesn't really change later on. Still, the relentless perversity of its imagination somehow won me over. (I imagine a story conference: "Well, we want to do something with blowjobs... Just write down everything that comes into your mind. The more disgusting the better.")

Land and Shade, Cesar Augusto Acevedo, 2015

The fact that I'm even more bored by well-meaning festival films when they're generally well-made, too, should probably tell me to just stay away from them in the future.

The White Crow, Ralph Fiennes, 2018

Completely by the numbers and still muddled. The scenes in the beginning of Oleg Ivenko diving into art history are hillarious, though (given that it almost completely sidesteps Nureyev's private life, the film generally feels surprisingly gay) and Adèle Exarchopoulos on valium is also quite a sight.

Stitches, Miroslav Terzic, 2019

Needed a few more decisive gestures to arrive somewhere truly memorable, but thanks to the two main actresses, this manages to be rather engaging throughout. The daughter is even better than the mother: slowly revealing insecurities behind her poulty teenie exterior. Her kind-of flirt with her estranged brother is a great scene, almost too great for the otherwise a bit pedestrian script. Generally, this has a good eye for faces, see also the silent glances between the mother and a red-haired stranger at the beginning.

The colour grading is, once again, terrible.

Flirtation Walk, Frank Borzage, 1934

Lots of parading around in this one. The rest is mostly a Dick Powell show with one larger Berkeley-style choreography (done by Bobby Connolly) thrown in. Ruby Keeler is rather restrained, but when she gets to sing, almost timidly, a few lines toward the end, it is rather touching.

Shipmates Forever, Frank Borzage, 1935

Again a lot of parading, but this time everything flows together much more pleasantly. The main plotline might be even worse than in FLIRTATION WALK, but this time the focus is much more on Powell's roommates at the Academy. My favorite is cheerful-naive Ross ALexander, but the scenes of Eddie Acuff with his fiance are very nice, too. The film constantly shifts between decidedly silly humour and dramatic beats (mostly centered around John Arledge), and Borzage fully commits to both.

The romance of Powell and Keeler might be sketchy, but there are a few Borzagian moments, and Keeler has some extremely energetic dance scenes. Who needs grace when there's that much enthusiasm... There are several memes hidden in her perfornance, especially in the scene at the ballet school...

Gemini Man, Ang Lee, 2019

Strange just how out of touch with today's mainstream cinema this feels. Not just the cloning stuff (including a Dolly namedrop), but the whole Bruckheimer high concept package...

While most of GEMINI MAN does feel tired, the clean, dynamic action is a blessing in the age of greenscreen cgi. At least for me, the big motorbike scene alone, featured extensively in the trailer, makes it worth watching. Aside from that, Ang Lee clearly hasn't the sort of pulp sensibilies a film like this demands. In the end, the only thing that really hits me is the absolute certainty that Tony Scott would've directed the shit out of it in the late 90s.

The Shining Hour, Frank Borzage, 1938

Love as a moral problem that everyone has to solve by oneself. Margaret Sullavan is so much in love, she's almost translucent.

Searching for Padre Pio, Abel Ferrara, 2015

Continuing on Pasolini's tracks. Not fully formed, but enough detail present to wish it would be.

La tarantola dal ventre nero, Paolo Cavara, 1971

A cinematic gaze that tracks the ornamental shape of a floor lamp just as lovingly and obsessively as it registers the trail of fresh, warm blood a knife leaves behind when it cuts through a human belly like through butter. A completely fucked-up imagination that connects the - in all but name - ritual sacrifice of transfixed, doll-like beauty with insects penetrating and devouring each other alive (while also, at the same time, safeguarding a drug smuggling operation; you just got to love this kind of maximum exploitation screenwriting). A silky, feverish, drugged up Morricone score injecting additional poison. A quiet Giancarlo Giannini in the middle of all of this, smoothly exhausted from the start, and gradually being reduced to pure, speechless apathy.

Un maledetto imbroglio, Pietro Germi, 1959

High energy cinema. Even a bit too much so in my case, as I was rather tired yesterday and need to rewatch it under better circumstances one day. It's not just plot-heavy, but also and even more so a non-stop verbal assault, thanks especially to Germi himself, who plays an exuberant cop immediately jumping on any idea or sensual impression registering somewhere in his mind. Obviously brilliant, though, and very funny, especially in smaller scenes not directly related to the main plot.

Cortocircuito, Giacomo Gentilomo, 1943

A pleasant murder farce, very much in the style of Hollywood b mysteries of the 1930s. Compared to the american versions, the focus is a bit less on the plot twists, and a bit more on the neuroses of the various characters. One guy thinks himself to be "like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I'm splitting myself."

It's also excessively self-reflexive: Murder not only as entertainment, but as part of the entertainment industry - a concept especially weird for a film released just three months before the beginning of the Italian campaign; although the slightly maniacal cynicism it embodies probably was topical throughout the whole fascist period.

...e tanta paura, Paolo Cavara, 1976

Although it starts with one of those lingering, carassing tilts, too, PLOT OF FEAR never aspires toward the hypnotic flow of BLACK BELLY OF THE TARANTULA. This is much more wacky and tongue in cheeck, and also constantly inventive: almost every scene has a special something, from Placido's dismal way of preparing pasta to the guy jumbling down not a few steps, but the hole stairway during a chase scene.

I haven't seen enough gialli yet to form a coherent timeline of the genre, but this might already be part of a postmodern rethinking of the genre. Technology has invaded the baroque spaces of the (still rotten) upper class, sex is less about fetishism and trauma and more about gadgets and "special skills", and the kill scenes tend to be short and rather blunt. The ending is particularly interesting: first a descent into almost Lewton-like fog, and then two consecutive twists that introduce a sense of paranoia. It almost feels like an Italian PARALLAX VIEW.

Also, it's an eternal disgrace for German cinema (another one...) that it took an Italian director to recognize "Der Struwwelpeter" as the perfect blueprint for a bizarre horror film.

La coda dello scorpione, Sergio Martino, 1971

Serviceable, but, despite lots of stylish quirks, a bit bland, mechanical giallo. The dense, sun-drenched finale almost manages to put in on another level.

I need more of this.

Violent Virgin, Koji Wakamatsu, 1969

"I felt the recoil"

Daniel, Marine Atlan, 2018

A primal experience and its retranslation into a web of social meanings. This could easily have felt too clever for its own good, especially with the terrorism stuff and even brexit thrown in, but by focussing on young faces (and a few older ones; the dance teacher is fascinating) Atlan manages to stay free from all restraints.

Three Women of the North, Kiyoshi Saeki, 1945

Said to be the last Japanese propaganda film released before the end of World War 2. Defeat is written all over it. Obviously a bare-bones production, which makes the ridiculously great cast even weirder. Divorced from its political context this is a touching, if a bit awkward melodrama of self-denial and female companionship. I wish there was a 1950s film about Takamine and Hara joining forces to keep the civilian Japanese airspace safe.


While Takamine feels a bit lost, Hara obviously can work her magic on any material, which is kind of scary.

La ragazza che sapeva troppo, Mario Bava, 1963

Effortlessly turning a quirky, touristic b-thriller into a dark fairy tale, Bava doesn't yet commit to full-blown fantasmagory, but the playfull, ironic pulp style suits him very well. As if a whole city is playing Now You See Me, Now You Don't.

Le fou, Claude Goretta, 1970

Unobtrusive outsider cinema, with two great pub scenes, one in the beginning, one toward the end. Some of the other stuff feels a bit underdeveloped, but definitely worth following up on.

Folla omicada, Riccardo Frda, 1981

A film made for me. Like Filipe Furtado writes, at heart MURDER OBSESSION isn't a giallo, but a twisted gothic horror melodrama about a bunch of fucked-up people looking for an original sin they can attribute their fuckedupness to. Those oedipal desires are just a starting point...

It's also a supreme mood piece with almost every interior shot organized around candles, bed frames, nettings. Freda aesthetizises desire just as carefully as he did in the 1950s. But at the same time the film is invaded by the imagery of the italian genre cinema of its own time: discontinuous splatter effects, a satanic zombie cult, Laura "purity in filth" Gemser.

With my still rather limited knowledge of Freda I had always been wondering about the disconnect between his extremely delirious horror stuff and the adventure films which are very much a celebration of straightforward, assertive agency. MURDER OBSESSION, while being at least as out there as THE HORRIBLE DR. HITCHCOCK, somehow bridges the gap, because it aspires toward a sense of totality of vision similar to films like AQUILA NERA and TEODORA. Especially that last twist: Freda insists, against all remnants of plausibility, that the nightmare wasn't a nightmare at all, because, yes, there really is a satanic cult in the cellar, and probably even a giant spider, it's all there and it's all part of the immanence that is Freda's cinema.

Secret, Frank Borzage, 1924

The first part, making up almost half of the only surviving, incomplete print, is pure joy: A long, nuanced scene of Norma Talmadge having to deal with both her multi-layered ballroom wardrobe and romantic complications. On the one hand her exorbitant dress serves as a metaphorical prison - the kind of prison that is supposed to become one`s second skin and even a means of seduction: after successfully entering the thing she has to, in a very funny scene, lift it up again in order to "present her legs". On the other hand this very gown of oppression provides her with a chance to escape, as the hoop skirt turns out to be vast enough to hide a full-grown man. Talmadge is all youthfull expressiveness, discovering every feeling, every act for the first time.

I didn`t care much for the rest of the film, but this may very well be because of print issues.

The Cool World, Shirley Clarke, 1963

A rewatch (from a beautiful 35mm print, the only way this should be seen) that enhanced everything at once: the writtenness of some of the scenes and especially the voice over, and also the musical flow of the images. Last but not least the realisation that these aren`t opposing forces: THE COOL WORLD integrates both into its mosaic-like fabric. One of the first and purest spoken-word-pieces of cinema.

Big City, Frank Borzage, 1937

Once again only the beginning is pure joy. In this case it`s just ten minutes of marriage-as-role-playing / role-playing-as-marriage by Spencer Tracy and Luise Rainer. Rainer`s affectation could`ve easily become annoying, but set against Tracy`s rough, slightly stolid tenderness, it works very well. Also, her fragile body and strangely big head is strangely touching next to his broad, well-adjusted frame is strangely touching (a bit like Hayes and Cooper in A FAREWELL TO ARMS).

What follows is a more sentimental version of a mid 30s Warner drama. Not especially memorable except for a shot of Tracy emptying a whole bottle of milk in one go.

Half Nelson, Ryan Fleck, 2006

A terribly overdetermined, calculating script ("aided" by one of the worst uses of archival material I`ve seen in a while), a flat digital intermediate 16mm blowup, an indie soundtrack from hell... and yet I was strangely engaged throughout. Boden and Fleck almost manage to turn all of this into a decent film by focussing on gesture instead of action, and moments of fleeting beauty like Epps riding her bicycle hands-free down a gently sloping, sunny road.

That they almost manage to overcome material like this, but went on to make an atrocity like CAPTAIN MARVEL is another reason to hate Disney.

Le jeune Ahmed, Dardenne Brothers, 2019

The body is the first prison; or: a man who has condemned someone to death, has escaped.
The Dardennes at their bressonian best. That last shot...

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