Monday, December 09, 2013
Herzog's first English language film may be stiffer and less narratively adventurous than his preceding '70s masterworks (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu, etc.), but it may also be his funniest, Bad Lieutenant: POCNO included. This is an "issues" movie, make no mistake, but one with an absurdist's sense of humor at its core. What begins as a documentary-like treatise on Australian Aboriginals refusing to cede a sacred stretch of tribal land to a corporate uranium mining outfit, complete with scenes of stone-faced natives planting themselves in front of revving corporate bulldozers, soon morphs into mild satire as the mining company, fearful of lawsuits and bad BR, attempts to woo the natives into submission instead of steamrolling them to smithereens.
Pretty soon, the corporate brass is treating the elders to nights on the town at expensive restaurants, giving them tours of their towering office buildings (where the elevators keep getting stuck), and buying them digital wristwatches, which have an amusing habit of beeping repeatedly at inopportune times (in court, for instance). But the natives are unimpressed, still refusing to peacefully abandon the land, the place "where the green ants dream." That is, until the tribal elder gets a gander of one of the white man's giant airplanes sitting on a runway. As it turns out, the Aborigines like their bling with wings. Not that any of them knows how to fly the damned thing.
Herzog stokes his topical tale with a few other peculiar diversions-- an old woman who may have lost her dog ("Benjamin Franklin") in one of the mines, random shots of tornadoes from the American Midwest, an ambiguous ending-- that remind you, yes, this is a Herzog film and not a Time magazine article. He also stocks it with lanky Aussie actor Bruce Spence (from my childhood favorite The Road Warrior) as the corporate lackey geologist given the unenviable task of trying to "understand" the Aboriginals. Like his character, Spence has the somewhat thankless role of being the film's middle man, the white man conduit into the Aboriginal world. But he handles it with aplomb and altitude (as mentioned, he's very tall). I was just glad to see the Gyro Captain from Mad Max in starring role, even if it's Herzog (and not the natives or Spence) who's the unmistakable pilot of this plane.
Sunday, December 01, 2013
You know how sometimes a film is so popular, so ravenously attended that theatre management is forced to hold it over long past its intended run?
Well, that's kind of the case with last month's director, Werner Herzog, but for different reasons. I'm holding Werner over for another month due to my own poor attendance and under-attention to this blog...which is due to a massive work project that has kept me away from screens other than my computer for most of last month. More than likely, this one too. There are still a handful of Herzog features I never got to, not to mention a host of his shorts which I fear will also go unwatched this go-round.
What's the big project? Unfortunately, it has something to do with professional wrestling. I'm pretty sure Werner wouldn't approve.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
Werner graduates from hypnotizing chickens to hypnotizing his actors and the audience. The overall effect is somewhere between a post-dinner tryptophan daze and a mild concussion sustained in a touch football game. Characters stare into the camera lens, speak in off-kilter koans. Landscapes from all over the world pass before our eyes. Interiors appear lit from within, by candlelight. An ethereal Popol Vuh score adds to the bewilderment, lulling you into a simultaneously bored-mesmerized state. Even the "action scenes" have their own peculiar lethargic rhythm, like this bar fight that takes what seems like hours to escalate, both participants staring into space and vaguely threatening each other until a beer stein is lifelessly smashed atop one of their heads.
This odd duck of a flick (yes, there is an actual odd duck waddling about in it) needs to be seen to be believed, and then you still might not quite believe it. Was everyone really hypnotized or just acting that way? Did anyone other than Werner understand the words coming out of their mouths? Did Werner understand the words coming from their mouths or his own? It's all as confounding as the recipe for Ruby Glass which throws this Bavarian town into despair and disintegration once the master glass blower dies, taking the "secret sauce" with him.
This is another film, like Fata Morgana, which benefits greatly from backstory (i.e., the DVD commentary). Also, probably a second viewing. And maybe some inebriants of choice thrown in for good measure. Oddly, the most hypnotizing scene in the film does not involve those under suggestion, but a more documentary-like sequence of Bavarian blowers working fresh glass. Just watching one slowly turn a jellied blob of molten silica into the shape of horse with little more than his beer breath and a pair of pliers is one of the most hypnotically fascinating things I've ever seen.
Herzog's take on the famous German foundling who materialized on the streets of Nuremberg with little backstory other than a mysterious note, a few nonsensical phrases and the mental/emotional void that comes from being raised in a dark, windowless cell from birth. Werner hews pretty closely to the recorded facts of Kaspar's case--his appearance, his immediate sideshow status, his emergence into "civilized" society, his unexplained murder--with a only a bit of conjecture as to what Kaspar's pre-society cell life might have been like (children's toys and stale bread, mostly). This being Herzog though, it's no run of the mill biopic. The approach is more deadpan Elephant Man. But where Merrick's dilemma was mostly physical, Hauser's is purely existential.
Casting non-actor Bruno S., a street performer and asylum survivor himself, was Herzog's smartest move. Bruno's widened eyes, long pauses and deliberate line readings work beautifully as a window into Kaspar's undernourished psyche. He is the anti-Kinski, all interiors, whereas Klaus (Herzog's later muse) was more megalomaniacal bluster. Watching him as Kaspar hold a baby for the first time, walk a kitten (see above), then later, once he enters society, argue for the existence of "intelligent apples" or pose new answers to problems of logic is like watching one of those ape-to-man slide shows. Except the first frame and the last frame are question marks, blank slates. Where did Kaspar come from? Who murdered him and why?
Herzog tackles these big questions and Kaspar's ellipsis-strewn biography without too much mystical fuss, giving all the folklore a refreshing matter of fact spin. But, in case you were worried, Werner's not playing it entirely straight. Yes, there is a hypnotized chicken in this. Yes, there is a midget (Helmut Doring from Even Dwarves Started Small). And, yes, there is a shot of a monkey sitting atop a horse with a camel in the background.
Life is filled with enigmas, sure. But, also, one or two givens in Herzog film.
Monday, November 11, 2013
An aborted sci-fi film turned free form documentary. Saharan desert mirages set to Mayan creation myths read in German voiceover. Rotting cattle carcasses interspersed with tongue-flicking monitor lizards and docile fennec foxes (pictured above). A soundtrack featuring a dour, distorted two-piece band and randomly selected Leonard Cohen songs.
This mixed bag collage of image, sound and text boasts some mesmerizing sequences. Also, some tedious ones. Sample subtitle: "In Paradise, man is born dead."
Yes...the DVD commentary with Herzog and Crispin Glover definitely helps.
Friday, November 01, 2013
Since I first became fascinated with the cinema of Werner Herzog in college and immediately began to plunder much of his filmography, I have witnessed him do numerous things in search of "ecstatic truth." I have seen or heard him...
- Eat his own boiled boot
- Get hit by a stray bullet during an interview and shrug it off
- Save Joaquin Phoenix from an auto accident in animated form
- In a cave, in three dimensions
- Speak in person, once or twice
- Converse with Crispin Glover on a DVD commentary
- Play a bad guy in a Tom Cruise vehicle
- Read "Go the F**k to Sleep" in his unmistakable German drone
However, I have yet to see or hear...
- The movie where the entire cast is hypnotized
- The other film starring Bruno Schleinstein that is not Stroszek
- Herzog's pseudo-documentary set in the Australian outback
- A handful of his other documentaries
- His latest co-directorial effort set in Siberia
Let's see and hear some more stuff with everyone's favorite mad Bavarian auteur this month, shall we?
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Johnnie To's latest and probably his worst, at least of the fraction of his filmography I've seen this month.
Blind Detective's storyline finds To in very familiar territory...yet another investigator with extrasensory sleuthing powers (ala Mad Detective and Running on Karma), this time the result of his sightlessness (as opposed to insanity or karmic ESP). The big difference here is that To renders it as broad comedy, slapstick pushed to its bumbling breaking point in the vein of bad Jerry Lewis or one of the lesser Inspector Clouseaus. Farce and physical comedy...it's not the best fit for To's talents. And there's only so many stumbles a blind character can take before it seems not just unfunny but genuinely in poor taste.
Speaking of taste...there is TONS of eating in this movie. More than in any other To movie I've seen (then again, I skipped Love on a Diet). When Andy Lau is not stumbling face-first into something, he's got chopsticks to his mouth or a dumpling crammed into his cheek. You have to wonder if actors Lau and Sammi Cheng signed on for the catering alone. Whatever the case, To indulges his long-time stars and their improvisational "chemistry" way too much. There's no reason for a movie this slight in narrative to be 130 minutes long. My gut tells me To outsourced this latest effort overseas to none other than Judd Apatow. I guess we'll only know for sure when To returns the favor in the years to come and ghost directs Unfunny People or This is 40, Too.
Friday, October 25, 2013
What if Pulp Fiction was set during the 2008 financial market collapse? Better yet, set in China during a fictional 2010 collapse?
That's kind of the gist of this To ensemble drama, which takes a page from other interwoven, state-of-the-nation narratives (Crash, Babel, etc.) and ends up with middling results. Here the crux around which everything spins is not a glowing briefcase (though there is a satchel full of yuan which plays a prominent role) but the stock market itself. A struggling bank employee tries to pad her failing sales records shilling dicey, high-risk investments. A henpecked cop whose wife wants him to commit to a new apartment juggles a murder case with multiple downsized players. A low-level mob collector with ever-blinking eyes gets cash, loses it, gets it, decides to learn how to play the market.
Though To's narrative is needlessly tricky at times, his message is pretty mundane: Mindless pursuit of money only brings misfortune. Yeah, tell that to the big bank CEOs that made out like bandits a few years ago. The cop story and mafia goon story are relatively disposable, nothing you haven't seen before. Where To nails the panicked tenor of the times best is in the corporate office scenes, specifically a very queasy one involving his put-upon bank employee selling a desperate older retiree (see above) a worthless, high-risk stock. Watching her recite the bank's torturous disclaimer while recording the old woman's responses, stopping the tape and starting over from the beginning every time she asks a question and doesn't respond "I understand completely," is like watching a coming train wreck in slow motion. It's enough to make you want to hit the ATM immediately, pull out all you've got, stuff it under the mattress and calmly await End Times.
Taking a cue from its nimble avian namesake, Sparrow finds To in light-hearted crime caper mode...a good fit for the genre-hopping director it turns out. A group of Hong Kong pickpockets ply their five-fingered trade with relative ease until the day a stray sparrow flies through the window of leader Kei (Simon Yam) bringing with it bad luck and a beautiful lady (Kelly Lin) with her own set of particular skills. Said beauty quickly goes about turning the tables and splintering the group's affections/allegiances, using them to her own ends...namely, extricating herself from the romantic servitude of a geriatric local crime boss, also with a history of spry hands.
Though Sparrow is not technically a musical, To films many of the pickpocketing scenes as if it were so. There's an upbeat, jazzy choreography to them all, especially the end "pickpocket showdown" in the pouring rain that seems to take its cues from Gene Kelly as much as Robert Bresson. It's a brilliant sequence, replete with spinning umbrellas and hidden, whisking razor blades (muy importante in the pickpocket biz, it seems), To proving you don't need a giant cache of guns to pull off a crime (or a solid crime film). A little cinematic dexterity, an airtight script, a decent rain slicker and a bicycle not quite built for four will do just as nicely, thank you.