Friday, March 27, 2020

letterboxd backup (28)

Harnessed Rhythm, Jacques Tourneur, 1936

Analytic filmmaking exploring the power of close-ups and freeze frames organically leading into full-blown blockbuster affect. All of this is constantly undermined by an extremely irritating voice-over, but that might have been part of the challenge.

Cats, Tom Hooper, 2019

Everybody makes fun of Hooper, but by now it should be obvious that he makes truly eccentric cinema not by chance but out of conviction. Even a very bad film like THE DANISH GIRL almost comes alive if one manages to disconnect the interplay of overwhelming painterliness and carnevalesque performances from any notion of a social reality. Here, of course, we're in the realm of the aesthetic gaze from start to finish. This might just be the film he was born to make.

To be sure, I was susceptible to all those charms from the start - the trailer already was evidence not only of style, but of a willingness to commit to style no matter what. The cat designs indeed never lose their enchanting weirdness (I suspect the most important part are the sensuous human lips, flanked by whiskers), the choreography might be rather clumsy sometimes and the sets feel closed-off, but there's a different sparkle to every scene, a texture and variety modern effect films almost never have. Best all-out CGI in a non-Tsui-Hark-directed big budget film? Maybe an overreach, but even so: whoever makes fun of this deserves 1000 years of Disney rule.

So, going in I already expected to be pleased on some level. What I neither knew nor expected, though: CATS is a fucking great musical. The best thing about it might be the lack of plot. For once, we get a big budget effects film without any action-adventure hero's journey bullshit, Instead it's all about a cipher - slender, elegant and almost translucent - discovering a world of wonders. She enters a space of pure self-expression and finds happiness. (Sometimes I thought of, of all films, Hubert Franks 70s erotica extravaganza VANESSA... this might actually make for a nice double bill...)

"Born into nothing / At least you have something." How can one not be affected by this?

Trilogy of Terror, Dan Curtis, 1975

Karen-Black-themed anthology film with every subsequent part becoming even more Karen Black. A nice concept, somewhat undermined by the fact that the third and final part isn`t just the best one, but so obviously superior to the (okay) first and the (boring) second that it makes them vanish into oblivion instantly. In fact, it makes the whole world and everything in it vanish, except for Karen Black, a voodoo doll, and a telephone.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Philip Kaufman, 1988

I haven`t given the issue much thought, but I suspect that faux european art films made in Hollywood are almost always way more fun than the real thing. This one is unashamedly horny in a very 80s way. Daniel Day-Lewis really lost his way when he followed this up with award bait after award bait instead of with a string of direct to video erotic thrillers.

Dance With Me, Shinobu Yaguchi, 2019

Somewhat shines whenever Yaguchi leaves behind the high-concept premises and focuses on the smaller moments. The best song is just both leads singing along to the car radio, filmed in a static medium shot. Even this one fades out rather early, though. Generally, the film doesn't seem to trust its own musical numbers, most of the time rightly so. Unfortunately, at the same time, it desperately tries to be a full-blown musical. The result is a constant mismatch of form / style and ambition that might even be interesting in its own right on some level, as it might point toward a deeper, structural mismatch of social conditions and genre. Music is a medium of pressure, not of release, here.

Danger Circuits, Abdullah Al-Salman, 2018

A decidedly modest police procedural, even the short running time doesn't save it from being rather dull. The best part is a running gag about the slow-wittedness of a rookie cop. Generally, Al-Salman probably would've been better of taken his cues from workplace sitcoms instead of network procedurals.

(Although this one didn't do much for me, I'd like to find out more about the Kuwaiti film industry.)

Parallel World Love Story, Yoshitaka Mori, 2019

The emotional arcs may not really hold together, especially toward the end, but I was intrigued throughout. Love and memory and technology and fear of intimacy and Mayuko Tsuno's quiet pose, with her face turned away from the reluctant camera.

And Your Bird Can Sing, Sho Miyake, 2018

Frustrating because there clearly is something, here. The dark glow of the urban night, music as a decentering force, suspending time and subjectivity, even some of the dramatic moments, especially the ones focussing on Sometani, a much less strained presence than the other too leads... if it weren't for the absolutely atrocious sub-mumblecore script with every single scene being set up as a small reveal about one of the main characters. The images are curious, the film isn't.

BrainWaves, Ulli Lommel, 1983

Lommel's VERTIGO... the plot is only vaguely similar, to be sure, but it's shot in San Francisco, there's a faux Bernhard Herrmann score, and Vera Miles (Barbara Bel Geddes probably wasn't available) plays a Hitchcock mother. Slow but not quite as somnambulist as most of his other films I've seen, this feels a bit muted. Too much plot, the real Lommel strangeness only shines through once in a while (most clearly in the scenes with the blond tristkind).

Strangers in Paradise, Ulli Lommel, 1984

This is much more like it: Lommel's very own rock opera, a self-sufficent aesthetic/political cosmology forged with unflinching conviction out of material both autobiographical (Sage's backstory is based on the life of Lommel's father) and, for better or worse, ethnographic. As crude as this is as social satire, Lommel's fascination with american everyday culture is clearly real and a main driving force of all of his american films.

Strangely enough, the film also works as a touching self portrait: Lommel as the detached, ageless deadpan magician, forever calm in the eye of the picture-storm, curating the world around him with his remote control.

Warbirds, Ulli Lommel, 1989

Lommel's parallel cinema enters its Godfrey Ho phase with WARBIRDS, a TOP GUN ripoff built around aerial stock footage. The fascinating fight scenes somehow take the fighter jets themselves out of the equation, so we get lots of disembodied aerial shots intercut with explosions, but almost no shots of planes actually in the air. As if the gaze itself triggers the mayhem, without any intermediary physical-mechanical reality.

The non-fight scenes might be even stranger, especially the macho and buddy routines of the young pilots, no-name actors (some shared credits with d'Amato's New Orleans films - totally makes sense) fully embodying every line of the cardboard dialogue. I was especially taken with "cocky" but vulnerable Vince Costello (Cully Holland from d'Amato's wonderful DIRTY LOVE).


I often wonder if cinema generally suffers from a certain overeagerness: it takes a lot of effort to make films, and once you get one of the ground, you therefore tend to stay on point no matter what. Even shoddy commercial (ie the best kind of) cinema often leans toward a notion of total vision that proves, more often than not, constricting. Lommel's cinema provides an alternative: films somehow willed into being without much obvious effort, not quite films without a reason, but films with a very private reason, films that mostly don't communicate their reason and that thereby free us to approach them differently, like objects from a hidden world coextensive with our own.

King of Boys, Kemi Adetiba, 2018

Synth score cross-cutting matriarchy! Nollywood blockbuster that turns out to be a sprawling, at times gloriously chaotic gangster epic about a woman who made it and who now rules the world by way of her facial expressions. So much energy.

Pierre et Jean, Andre Cayatte, 1943

A beautifully crafted diptych of desires and movements, some mirrored, some antipodal. In a way it's very much a film about the possibility of moral action during occupation: It all boils down to ignorance being bliss (and Noël Roquevert really is ignorance personified, here), because it's always the one who knows who has to bear all the weight, who has to make a decision and bear the consequences.

Shades of PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE in the first half, but Cayatte is after something completely different: his characters are not, like Renoir's, of the world, they are taken out of the world and put into an abstract moral/narrative space, where they are being set in motion through a number of push-pull-movements.

Renée Saint-Cyr is a strange presence and Jacques Dumesnil is huge.

Sleazy Dizzy, Chor Yuen, 1990

Somewhat uneven... The producers seem to have decided to go with the easy-listening-funk sampler someone picked up from the bargain bin instead of with a real soundtrack, and I'm not even sure Chow is cast in the right role while Kuan Tai Chen clearly isn't in his element. Sibelle Hu is great, though, and when the comedy-action-routines work, and they often do, this has a smooth deadpan flow. At the very least it merits a better transfer in order to find out how good it really is.

Der Priester und das Mädchen, Gustav Ucicky, 1958

A film of small images, of images of smallness, a drop from the rain gutter rippling the water surface of a rain barrel, a dying candle-light, secured behind a plastic cover. In its best moments a film about private retreats into loneliness and small gestures of liberation, like Winnie Markus removing her shoe and stretching out her foot. "Feelings have their own lives". Both Markus and Marianne Hold have their moments, but against the trinity of teutonic 50s masculinity - Rudolf Prack, Rudolf Lenz, Willy Birgel - they just don't stand a chance.

As much as I am on board, generally, with reappraising what was thought to be papas kino, sometimes the label does fit (even if this is, technically, an austrian film). The hard hitting, fateful, enraptured close-ups in the end evoke, if only fleetingly, the kind of german doomsday melodrama that mostly died with nazi cinema. Rightly so, of course, but DER PRIESTER UND DAS MÄDCHEN negates its own doomsday aspirations so thoroughly and unimaginatively, that it remains always already stilted, a film made in order for us to "be able to look back at the past without regret".

Underwater, William Eubank, 2020

A fetish film with the main fetish being texture rather than Kristen Stewart, a film about water pitted against solidity, water rushing along bolted frames, water tripping off surfaces both soft and hard, about light being diverted, fractured, splintered until it is indistinguishable from matter. We do not have receptors for the sensorial triggers the film provides, but we feel that we could have, that we could train ourselves to become these bodies, move like them, dive into darkness, face the Gigeresque monster (that is somehow suddenly transformed, in the film's most beautiful moment, from something out there and huge into a private fantasy). In another life.

Symphonie in Gold, Franz Antel, 1956

Rather watchable despite the complete dullness and sexlessness of the central romantic couple, with Fuchsberger being Fuchsberger and Germaine Damar sucking every bit of energy out of every scene she's in. The main saving graces are the ice revue numbers, starting slow but growing into full, blissful dementia during the last half hour. Even the scenes in between often held my interest, Antel's uninvolved direction leaves enough room for Moser and Philipp and Nicoletti and a modest collection of small excentricities.

Ist Geraldine ein Engel?, Steve Previn, 1963

60s sex comedies about playboys living it up are often hard to bear, and this really fits the bill down to the rapey vibes of some scenes. Still, the film is strangely affecting, mostly because of Froboess investing a lot in her seemingly throwaway character. All of her songs are confessionals, basically. Also Steve Previn´s smart, dynamic american mise-en-scene makes these Schlagerfilm stets move like they normally never do.

Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi, 2019

This is so dull and witless - every attempt at a joke that tries to move beyond "nazis are evil but also stupid" falls completely flat - that it took me some time to realize just how terrible it is even beyond its unappealing surface. Turning Hitler into a clown is in itself no reason for moral outrage. But installing Hitler as a dematerialized, ahistoric metacinematic gadget while at the same time positioning Elsa as the bearer of historical truth, the center of the main emotional arc and the point where all the fun stops really is kind of insidious. Because Elsa is, of course, the real falsification: the perfect wish fulfillment fantasy, she not only introduces the boy into adulthood, like myriads of smart, flirtatious, tomboyish-sexy indiewood girls have done before her, but also redeems, by way of her very survival, a whole nation from antisemitism. Elsa, not Hitler the buffoon, is the true obscenity here.

Also: not just dull and witless, but also ugly. Those rack focus shots hurt my eyes.

Zauber der Montur, Rudolf Schündler, 1958

A farcical military comedy that also features extensive crossdressing, a talking parrot, trap doors, a knight´s armor, people hiding in hay carts, a skeleton, a "catchy" title theme and Gunther Philipp really should end up with more than two and a half stars. Unfortunately, with the exception of a short bedroom scene, the direction is clumsy as hell, Juhnke is miscast in the lead role, and except for Philipp the supporting cast seems to be strictly the b-team. Lowkey fun only because some of the ingredients just cannot lose their flavor, no matter how bad the cook and how mediocre the recipe.

Blond muß man sein auf Capri, Wolfgang Schleif, 1961

Just wonderful... a treatise on sexual mores both joyous and conflicted, that would make a perfect companion piece to BARBARA - WILD WIE DAS MEER, the other great (ok: even greater) German island film of 1961.

Oversexed german secretaries travel to Capri in order to be wooed by oversexed Italian playboys. (To remind everyone just whom they fled from, Gunther Philipp also tags along. He mostly leeches around Ruth Stephan, though.) Only Karin Baal is reluctant to join in the fun, when entering Capri, she hides her hair under a phenomenal hat, but her stylish eyeliner gives her away. She is an introvert who likes to retreat into her private fantasies, but she is curious, too, and of course she scores the top Italian playboy - only to suddenly flee back to Germany in a hurry, into a fascinating, almost freewheeling third act. After Capri, things can never be the same again. Once you enter the dark woods of desire, you can never really come back.

I was really surprised to be that enthralled by a Wolfgang Schleif movie. I´m still not sure if he is a genuinely good director... the dialogue is clumsy at times and the "touristic" imagery is mostly a bust. But I still love almost everything about this, also because there´s so much of it, so many attractions: Birgit Bergen as an incredibly horny faux blonde, Inge Meysel and Walter Gross as Baal´s rumbling parents (Gross dreams about moving into a villa "with ten rooms and twenty toilets"), the Italian playboys putting on a "muscle show" and letting their bodies be measured by the secretaries... Even Baal`s German fiancee, to whom she, of course, has to return to once her Capri adventure is getting a bit too real, is wonderful. A character like this would be absolutely unbearable in most German films of the time, but Helmuth Lohner absolutely kills it with a melancholic krypto-slapstick performance.

Das Posthaus im Schwarzwald, Rudolf Schündler, 1958

Definitively some Jürgen Enz vibes in this one, though clearly not as personal a vision. Maybe a few Straub / Huillet vibes, too... those repeated, achingly slow pans over a Black Forest scenery that somehow remains unconquered, that refuses to be turned into sentimental, glossy spectacle....

Thankfully, there´s a lot of Kessler twins material. At one moment, they dance to an especially sassy tune, and then Gunther Philipp shows up - wearing a knight´s armor! This is, of course, almost too good to be true, and you´d think that surely it will be over in just one or two shots, but the scene goes on and on, for several minutes! When it is finally decided, after this extended cinematic blessing, that Philipp should be peeled out of his shell, Rudolf Lenz (who is nominally the lead but has virtually nothing to do in the film) is anxious: "Let´s be gentle, or he might get hurt."

Sperling und das Loch in der Wand, Dominik Graf, 1996

Loose bills flying through the streets of a 90s Berlin that is still all grey, grimy and brittle (the painted palm on the door of an ugly, unglamorous nightclub feels like a sardonic joke). There´s a surplus of capital drifting through the film, unattached, freewheeling, multiplying money that almost always tends to accumulate at the wrong places. Capitalism has won, but it isn´t a completely organic part of everyday life yet, it is something external, something excessive, it´s rules are still being negotiated (see the great scene with Pfaff and Ratzke playing rock-paper-scissors late in the film).

The buildup is slower than usually, but in its double focus on the economics and affects of crime this is a prime Graf-Basedow collaboration.

Der kühne Schwimmer, Karl Anton, 1957

More supreme silliness from the guy who brought you BONJOUR, KATHRIN. This time around, unfortunately, there´s only one truly out there musical number - a haunted house sfx extravaganza with Mario Bava colours! Otherwise it´s mostly long shots of cheerful misfits busy confusing each other and embarassing themselves. Except for Walter Gross´s contributions, who is supposed to be funny because he says everything twice - everything twice, he says! - the comedy is surprisingly lively and Karl Anton, too, has the good sense to place Gunther Philipp in the vicinity of a knight´s armour. Also featuring: a joke about the nazi era, a rather rare pleasure in German cinema of the 50s.

Wenn Poldi ins Manöver zieht, Hans Quest, 1956

Dull adaptation of a Nestroy play, focussing on the overcomplicated plot instead of the spirit. Philipp´s double role can´t save it, although he gives the film his best, pro that he is.

Bloodsuckers, Ulli Lommel, 1997

At the same time hardly watchable and something close to a masterpiece... a Lommel no-budget vampire film that feels like a bizarro Harmony Korine project not at all interested in conventional notions of hipness, a psychedelic young adult offshoot of the no future subculture 90s, sex without desire, drugs without a lasting high, everyone´s lowkey depressed but too far gone to have any chance of rejoining the mainstream. The no-name cast is once again great. Michelle Bonfils is like someone out of a gothic Amy Heckerling film, and Lommel miraculously dug up Samantha Scully, the lead from Hellman`s SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 3. As he did in STRANGERS IN PARADISE, the director himself plays, with detached deadpan-sexiness, a masters-of-ceremony-type figure.

The pretty abysmal, colour-bleeding version floating around looks like it was partially shot and especially edited - Lommel inserts Marilyn Monroe home movie clips and behind the scenes footage of a porn shoot at random intervals - on video, although it probably wasn´t.

Das Go-Go-Girl vom Blow-Up, Rolf Olsen, 1969

Olsen probably is better with adventure / crime stuff than with overly comedic stuff, but this is immensely watchable. He flirts with topless Munich 60s slacker cinema and even tries out a student protest side plot, only to quickly ease into a smooth, agile slapstick mistaken identity farce like straight out of the 50s. Philipp and Arent easily dominate the film, the nominal young leads don´t stand a chance. Secret weapon Voli Geiler.

Aus der Tiefe der Zeit, Dominik Graf, 2013

Munich is crumbling. One of the fiercer Graf crime tv hurricanes, no more solid ground anywhere, although all those zooms and swish pans can´t quite hide the fact that the script doesn´t come together as well as usually. The switch after two thirds from urban sociology to historical investigation might make sense conceptually, but there´s just not enough meat there to justify it. The final twist feels like a cheap stunt. Graf probably would´ve been better off focussing on the dynamics of the faux bourgeoise family from the start, because everything with Meret Becker and Erni Mangold is absolutely wonderful. Becker especially is completely unhinged - an identity-shattering earthquake of a performance that should be celebrated like Adjani in POSSESSION.

Zwei Herzen und ein Thron, Hans Schott-Schöbiner, 1955

Well-oiled and especially beautifully shot if never really inspired fluff.

Hangup, Henry Hathaway, 1974

I had been looking for Hathaway´s swan song for years (I even briefly considered a transatlantic flight when a print was screened in New York in 2014). Now a 16mm transfer has surfaced... and while the aspect ratio is off and the runtime is almost 20 minutes short of the imdb listing, it allows for an okay first impression. At the very least it makes clear that this isn´t a rush job, but a thoughtful and at least intermittendly intense drug drama turned exploitation thriller held back by a few obvious weaknesses.

Elliott is a smooth, adequate lead, but Marki Bey´s character is the true center of the film and also its main problem. She´s somehow both the engine and the victim, the subject and the object of the plot, the focus of desire (and of a variety of gazes), but also the one who, by way of her actions, keeps everyone else one step behind most of time... To pull this off, she would have to be positioned as some sort of cipher or at least as a femme fatale, but Bey mostly goes for over-the-top soapy acting, thereby constantly calling attention to the improbablilty and constructedness of her role.

The film mostly falls apart in the last 30 minutes and while some of the problems might be due to the print (there are some obvious gaps, especially toward the end), I don´t think this was ever a complete success. Still, it´s a fascinating find, both as a somber, disillusioned take on blaxploitation and as a late Hathaway film, another one of his attempts to make sense of the new codes of violence and sexuality suddenly invading cinema. The two big action scenes especially are expectably great, especially the first one that has Elliot pushing (wunderfully puffy-sleazy) Michael Lerner several times straight into a television set.

Would make a fascinating double feature with Demy´s MODEL SHOP.

Bad Boys for Life, Adil el Arbi & Bilall Fallah, 2010

The whole film is like Martin Lawrence: completely inconsistent, overeager even when chilling but engaged and adaptive enough to make even mediocre jokes work - to be sure, almost all of the jokes are mediocre at best, just as everything else plays out like a stupider, livelier, and much less elegant version of GEMINI MAN. The action scenes aren´t all that over the top and generally a bit better than in most recent blockbusters. Some of the garish Florida colour schemes are quite nice, too. Also, El Arbi and Fallah do have an eye for comedic acting (mostly of the self-deprecating kind), and this goes a long way, most of all with Lawerence (who, between this and THE BEACH BUM, clearly is due for a major comeback), but also with the wonderful Pantoliano, while Smith struggles a bit in the more operatic scenes.

Make no mistake, a lot of this really is way too stupid, especially everything involving the team that insists on tagging along despite its obvious redundancy. The ending makes it clear that Sony tries to set BAD BOYS up as a FAST & FURIOUS style franchise, which is a terrible idea and will probably result in a couple of very bad movies somewhere down the line. This, however, mostly works against most odds.

Das Mädchen ohne Pyjama, Hans Quest, 1957

One thing I love about middle of the road cinema of the 30s to 50s: Even largely uninspired films often have at least one or two standout scenes, a few minutes engaging / eccentric enough to almost redeem the whole thing. In this case there`s Philipp meticulously and fuzzily measuring, by way of a crab-like gripper-arm, the "stocking-tension" of scantily clad female feet models, whom he only addresses with the numbers he has assigned to them... Some of the scenes of Philipp and Karlowa are very nice, too, especially her wacky seduction dance. Otherwise, dullness reigns. The quest to find a good Quest film continues.

Mikosch im Geheimdienst, Franz Marischka, 1959

As good a place as any to take a (probably not all that long) break from all those web-rips of german language klamauk, in order to grant my quickly melting brain some relief. This might even have been some sort of watershed movie back in 59: not just the first Franz Marischka film, but also the first Franz Josef Gottlieb film (he`s credited as "Mitregisseur"). Indeed, there`s some sort of new energy present, at times a darker exploitation undercurrent shines through and also quite a few of the jokes are actually inventive. The tone is crass in a refreshing way, less paternalistic, less inhibited, maybe even less sexist (not everyone will agree on that one, probably). Fast, shameless, and pleasure-oriented - I approve.

Shogun and Little Kitchen, Ronny Yu, 1992

Perfectly attuned sentimental action comedy, switching back and forth between Yuen Biao acrobatics, folksy Ng Man-Tat humor and Leon Lai´s more dramatic storyline. A film that makes a scene of Ng and Maggie Shiu discussing Shiu´s "boyishness" in the midst of a raging fire feel completely natural and touching.

In Hongkong cinema, cooking often is one of the best allegories of show business in general and the film industry in particular. Here, it´s all about the threat of pure, unhinged showiness, propelled by a surplus of capital and unhinged from tradition.

Marked for Murder, Lee Chiu, 1994

Tight bare-bones action, with a few Ninja´s thrown in (the director frequently worked with Godfrey Ho). It´s about HK and mainland police joining forces to battle a magnificently crazy looking villain. The set-up is straightforward ideological, an invocation of pan-chinese authoritarian sexiness, but when the plot gets rolling, things do not quite work out that way: The decision to include mainland troops in a hk police investigation inevitably leads to perpetual confusion, a series of doublings and misunderstandings, a climate of fundamental insecurity only temporarily glossed over by all those heroic shootouts. Beneath the muscular surface, paranoia reigns.

The action scenes are marvellous, the last one especially is all-out gorgeous. Early 90s Hongkong cinema never disappoints. Where else in film history could a super obscure low budget film without any star power have had access to this level of craft?

Tiger on the Beat 2, Lau Kar-Leung, 1990

Much less intense than part 1 (which I haven´t seen in many years, though), a routine thriller with a strangely subdued emotional arch, adequate, humble performances, dynamic action and incredible stunt work.

Conan Lee´s failed jump that put him in the hospital for several months is included in the final film not once, but twice, from different angles, followed by a shot of him bouncing back up on his feet completely unharmed. A perfect example of the necessary entanglement of truth (profilmic space) and lie (montage) in cinema.

The bruises of Ellen Chan, who has the fitting screen name "Sweet Dream", look way to real, too. At one point, she gets literally thrown under the bus several times.

Oyuki the Virgin, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1935

Mizoguchi`s STAGECOACH starts with a few pronounced bursts of energy, images of destruction triggering a burst of autonomous sound followed by vectors of linear, decisive movements, which are soon deflected, though, transferred into empty male gestures and inexpressible female interiority, helpless glances, ornamental stasis, floating cherry blossoms.

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