Alice (Neco z Alenky)    2008-03-02 21:36:03 ET

I have no problem with dark interpretations of children's classics, provided they're done right. This, to me, means using the darker elements that are already there without shying away from their implications, but also without overblowing them into something the original author wouldn't recognize. It's way too easy to degenerate into pseudo-goth silliness (I'm looking at you, American McGee).

Jan Svankmajer is a strange man who makes strange movies. His creepy stop-motion and puppetry films did little to endear him with the powers that be in Communist-era Prague, but they never actually stopped him and he's still working his eldritch magic today. His adaptation of Faust is one of the most hypnotically weird things I've ever seen. So what happens when someone like this tackles "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland?"

I'll skip the plot, since you know it already. In this version of the story, almost all the action takes place indoors. Alice (Kristyna Kohoutova) chases the White Rabbit around what seems to be the dusty, unused back rooms of an Eastern European cottage. This goes on for a good hour or so, to the point that you think all the other characters have been excised completely. Then, with twenty-five minutes left, the Caterpillar, Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Queen of Hearts (and her court) make appearances. I would compain about this more fervently, but adapting even one of the Alice books involves a lot of editing, and some semblance of the original plot does remain intact. It takes a hell of a lot of liberties, but it's far from the worst adaptation I've seen.

The real reason to watch this is for the creepy visuals, and boy howdy does this movie deliver. As previously stated, everything is dark, gray, and dusty, with lots of display cases and jars holding unidentifiable items. It could almost be called "Alice in Cabinet of Wonderland." The White Rabbit is a stuffed and mounted taxidermy rabbit come back to life, complete with a hole in his gut where the sawdust leaks out. The Mad Hatter is a marionette, the Queen of Hearts is actual playing card art, and the Caterpillar . . . well, the Caterpillar might well be the most horrifying thing I have ever seen. Ever. Most of the random, nameless creatures Alice meets seem to be made of animal bones and household objects.

There is so much visual detail and deliberate ambiguity that a few paragraphs don't really do this movie justice. Since a long "WTF" list is outside of the scope of my review, I'll just end this here by saying it's a very odd but not invalid interpretation of the story, it's not for the squeamish, and it could be the basis for a good drinking game. Take a drink whenever we see a closeup of Alice's mouth, or whenever she goes to open a drawer and the knob comes off in her hand. Take two whenever the White Rabbit licks the sawdust off of his pocket watch.

Also, the version I saw was dubbed in English, which offends me, but apparently the original Czech version is almost impossible to find.


 Bab'Aziz: The Prince That Contemplated His Soul    2008-02-28 23:35:39 ET

I don't know much about Middle Eastern film. I've seen a few here and there, but nowhere near enough to make an informed opinion. I know nothing about Sufist film, because possibly, as a genre, it doesn't exist. Here is a film that is Middle Eastern (and North African) and Sufist, and I have to say it's pretty good.

Bab'Aziz (Parviz Shahinkhou) is a blind old man on his way to a meeting of dervishes. He doesn't know where it is, but has a Zen-like belief that if he keeps walking he'll find them. His granddaughter Ishtar (Maryam Hamid) is keeping him company. To help pass the time, he tells her the story of a prince (the one who contemplates his soul and an entirely different person from Bab'Aziz, no matter what the title implies). Along the way they meet various other people, some of whom contribute their own stories, "Canterbury Tales"-style, and others who go off on their own adventures that the movie follows.

I try not to overuse the word "beautiful," but here it is: this movie is beautiful. You can take literally any screenshot and submit it to a fine arts photography exhibit. It's unclear where exactly the movie takes place (presumably Tunisia or Iran, since that's where it was filmed), but it comes off as exotic and gorgeous, with stark deserts, dusty ancient cities, and the occasional oasis. I've heard several comparisons made between this movie and "1,001 Nights", and stylistically it's spot on. This movie looks like the images those stories conjure up. It's apparently set in the present day, so the occasional bus or motorcycle shows up, but even that seems to underline the sense of tradition and continuity. The same goes for the music. It's all very traditional, yet enthralling and surprisingly upbeat. I don't know if they released a soundtrack, but I'd gladly buy it.

The cast is uniformally good. Shahinkhou as the grandfather is immediately likeable (as wise old men with turbans and thick long beards tend to be in these types of stories), radiating a sense of slightly mischievous wisdom. While Hamid as Ishtar is a little iffy on a few of her line deliveries, she nails her role physically. Whatever part of the world you're in, kids are kids, and we see it in her. Each of the character parts, from the madman seeking his princess at the bottom of a well to the poetry competition champion searching for a lost love, are written and performed well. It's really an ensemble piece, and there are no weak links. Also credit needs to be given for what could possibly be the cutest kitten ever committed to screen. He's only in a couple scenes and almost never the focal point, but I'm not afraid to say he made me melt a little.

The main theme of this movie is searching. Whether it's searching for a dervish meeting, or true love, or the man who killed your brother, every character is searching for something. It would be easy to write it off as a metaphor for enlightenment or meaning or something ethereal, but I think that's missing the point. It's partly that, but partly more concrete, like the objects of search really should be taken (at least partially) at face value. The simple act of travelling has been celebrated in many stories; this movie seems to be doing the same with the act of searching. I'm not a Sufist, but I think that is an interesting idea, and pretty deep.

Anyway, I highly recommend this movie, for all of the above reasons. Definitely one of the best I've seen so far this year.


 Asphalt    2008-02-28 17:47:58 ET
It's no secret that I love silent German expressionist movies from the 1920's. "Metropolis", "Nosferatu", T"he Cabinet of Dr. Caligari", that kind of thing. They're beautiful and creepy, and just some amazing films that still look great today. But did those mad geniuses at Ufa ever make anything that wasn't scifi/horror? Apparently yes.

"Asphalt", one of the last of the wave of expressionist film, is the story of an honest cop and the girl who seduces him. Basically Albert Holk (Gustav Frohlich) is a good kid and upstanding police officer who busts a Louise Brooksian shoplifter (Betty Amann) at a jewelry store. She manages to convince him to swing by her place so she can pick up her papers. She tries and fails various plays at his sympathy, so she "seduces" him in exchange for letting him go (although it looks for all the world like she flat out rapes him). Afterward he hates himself for betraying the badge and she runs into some problems of her own, and the drama begins.

Okay, let's just get this out of the way. The story is crap. It's cliched and silly, and we've seen variations on this a million times, and the fact that it was made eighty years ago is hardly an excuse. It's cheesy melodrama. I'm personally amused by the title. It doesn't actually have anything to do with the story, yet it seems to be trying for a "Tales of the Naked City" sort of idea.

Despite its thematic failings, it's a great movie to look at. Like most of the expressionist films, they got very creative with their imagery. There isn't anything like the beautifully bizarre set designs of "Dr. Caligari", but the camera work and editing have some wonderfully inventive moments. Most notable is the very subtle direction in the seduction scene. Director Joe May gets a lot of mileage out of the looks in Betty Amann's eyes, at least until she attacks the poor kid.

So I have mixed feelings on this one. It doesn't begin to compare to the great expressionist horror films, but there are some beautfiully directed moments. Fraulein Amann is the Weimar It Girl, and a joy to watch. Also keep an eye out for the best ever use of a Pekingese dog statue.
1 comment

 Through a Glass Darkly    2008-02-22 15:38:38 ET

Ingmar Bergman films are odd. They're glacially slow, basically action-free, and have more angst than a room full of fifteen-year-olds. It's been said that to properly understand ABBA you have to have survived a Swedish winter. I've never been to Scandinavia, but I think Bergman movie come awfully close to replicating the experience. That said, I love Bergman. He could direct character drama like nobody else, and his films are riveting.

"Through a Glass Darkly" concerns a family, presumably staying at a summer home on a small island. They seem happy enough, but within the first five minutes we see this is not to be. Karin (Harriet Andersson) is having a short reprieve from an unspecified but incurable mental illness. Her father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand) is a modestly successful author who has been putting his career above the happiness and well-being of his family. Younger brother Minus (Lars Passgard), a beginning writer himself, desperately wants a close and loving relationship with his father, which seems completely out of his reach. Karin's husband Martin (Max von Sydow) can only watch in helpless frustration as his wife sinks deeper into insanity.

Bergman describes this movie as his chamber play, and it's an apt description. There are only four characters, and the action takes place around the house over the course of roughly twenty four hours. The film is a short one at a little less than an hour and a half. That said, it's a very dense film, and a lot happens within those constraints. While Karin's insanity is the main focal point, everyone's problems and flaws get a full development and a chance to bounce off each other. The last ten minutes are especially harsh, and yet the film does have a few bright spots of optimism.

As a small cast in an intensely character driven film, all the actors have to be great, and they are. Max von Sydow, worried and more or less ineffectual, is still the anchor around which everything else unravels. Passgard is sympathetic yet slightly creepy, and Bjornstrand creates a beautifully subtle performance as a man who is beginning to realize he's ruined his kids' lives. However, it's Harriet Andersson who steals the show. Something of a Swedish Audrey Hepburn, she veers from bright and happy to despairing to scared out of her wits beautifully. While she's done several movies with Bergman, this is the one where she really makes her mark.

I admit the subtleties of cinematography are mostly lost on me, but Sven Nykvist deserves much credit here. The black and white footage of the Swedish island is gorgeous. One sequence in particular, involving dinner outdoors by candlelight is especially memorable.

At no point during this film will you forget who directed it. It's dark and angst-ridden, but it's an amazing movie and not to be missed.

 Clean Slate    2008-02-20 13:58:38 ET

No, this isn't the Dana Carvey movie. "Clean Slate" (Coup de Torchon) is, rather, a study of the corrupting influence of power and the slippery slope of revenge. Let's take a look, shall we?

The movie concerns Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret), the head, and apparently only, cop in a small French colony in 1930's Africa. He's lazy, ineffectual, and not particularly bright, and gets bullied by everyone, from his unfaithful wife to the local pimps. This doesn't seem to bother him much, as he'd rather eat and sleep and make passes at the rich farmer's wife than keep order. However, at a friend's suggestion, he shoots a couple of criminals out in the woods and everything changes. He now has power and a means of dealing with the annoyances that have plagued him for so long, but also a secret that he has to keep hidden at all costs.

Noiret's performance as the cop is surprisingly likable. A ringer for Bob Hoskins, he comes across as a likeable sad-sack that no one would ever suspect for multiple murder. Indeed, he seems very surprised himself for the first third of the movie. Isabelle Huppert is also memorable as the object of his sometime affections, who can switch from crying victim to seductive temptress literally in seconds. She and the rest of the female cast only reenforce what I've always said about French actresses.

While there is a pretty compelling plot here, the movie is first and foremost a character study. As Cordier gets more and more embroilled in the life of a vigilante/serial killer, he reveals, or perhaps develops, a surprising cunning. We see someone go from a place of absolute weakness into becoming a truly dangerous character. There are moments that indicate he sees himself as an instrument of divine justice, and he can be truly disturbing. However, and this is more of an observation than a complaint, the story ends in a different place than perhaps we would like it to. Don't expect much closure.

Apparently the movie is based on "Pop. 1280" by Jim Thompson, a novel set in rural America in the 1910's. Other than a change in location, I'm told the movie is very faithful. I'm curious how this affects some of the subtext in the film. For example, as members of a French colonial government, the main characters are all part of a more-or-less openly racist white minority. The protagonist, flawed as he is, seems to be the only one who is not immediately dismissive of any of the black characters. While it is certainly plausible that the racial tension would also be present in the book, I wonder if it carries the same impact.

While not nearly as dark as it could have been, this movie is an interesting and, at times, distrubing character study, and definitely one that I would recommend.

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