Sunday, August 29, 2010

IT WOULD TAKE A DUMBER MAN THAN EVEN I TO ATTEMPT TO ANALYZE "LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD" HERE. I may be an idiot, but I'm no fool! However, some impressions would not get me into too much of a quagmire. I hope. But wait. . .haven't I already written about this film before??? Yes, certainly. You remember. You were leaning on a stone balustrade and reading my blog about it. Yes, I'm positive it was you. Don't you remember???
LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD was made by director Alain Resnais after HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR and released (belatedly) in 1961 only after the film company refused to release it and then changed their minds after it won the Lion d'or in Venice. Peer pressure and all that -- and a big "I told you so" from Resnais. The story of the film is . . . . well, the story goes . . . . oh no, you're not going to catch me up there. The "story" can be debated (and has been) forever. Let us just say that the action takes place in a . . . . well, I can't really tell that either. You see, it's apparently a hotel. Where, we don't really know. Possibly in Marienbad. Or Fredricksbad. Or Baden-freakin'-Salsa for that matter. And it could be some sort of palace or palatial estate. Or not. No, it's a hotel. A vast, sprawling hotel of endless corridors and door after door after door. You see, we are shown an awful lot of it but we never really "see" it in it's entirety; the camera gives us slices of it. A patch of ceiling here, a portion of rococo frieze there. And that sculpture garden. Even film buffs who have never seen the film probably have seen the stills of that garden. Figures casting shadows standing immobile as if they were Magritte people. Stone statues and bushes sculpted in tall pyramids and spheres; almost like the 1939 New York World's fair had morphed its trylon and perisphere into leafy green. The wide avenues of white made up of gravel. Then, of course, there's that game. A game which, at the time of the film, apparently became quite a rage after people watched the movie. A game which can be played with cards or matchsticks or what have you. A game which is driving me batty; I've got to figure out the secret to that game. Unless I know it already. Which is possible.
Speaking of possibilities, we come to some of the many theories as to what is actually happening in this film. MARIENBAD opens with a play (actually an Ibsen play) being performed in the hotel and watched by many hotel guests who appear either somnambulant or oddly mechanical. There have been theories that everyone in the hotel is dead and this is some sort of limbo. Makes sense from watching the film. Others have speculated that the hotel is populated by automata or mechanical human robots. Makes sense too. Or perhaps there's some sort of time loop in which the characters are caught? Or, perhaps one of my favourite theories states that the character "X" becomes aware that he is trapped inside a movie called LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD and spends the entire film attempting to alter the behaviour of the other characters and even in some cases alters the cutting of the film. Freeeeeeeaky. Basically, there are three main characters: in the script they are referred to as "X" (Giorgio Albertazzi), "A" (the exquisite Delphine Seyrig) and "M" (Sacha Pitoeff). "A" is married to "M". "X", meanwhile, is trying constantly to convince "A" that they both had an affair last year in Marienbad. Or Fredricksbad. Or Baden-Salsa. Or Hoboken, for all I know. "A" resolutely denies any such affair happened but "X" is relentless. This brings us to another feature of the film: endless repetition. Director Resnais uses repetition all throughout the film almost in a musical way; lines are repeated and repeated again in differing (but somehow similar) situations. Delphine Seyrig's performance is purposely mask-like; she remains sublimely still throughout most of the film. In fact, everyone performs as if their faces were masks. The emotional uncertainty and impassivity of the characters is palpable. This lends a dreamlike quality to the film -- can this all be a dream??? Another possibility. Sometimes the actors' movements seem like they can almost be underwater. Is "A" really dead and "X" is Death himself -- the Grim Reaper -- who somehow granted "A" one year extra of existence last year in Marienbad; but he cannot collect her soul until he gets her to remember??? Yet another of the endless theories as to the meaning of the film.
LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD never explicitly explains things; a hallmark of Resnais' work as a director. We are left to come up with our own theories. At various times since the film premiered, Resnais himself has propagated various theories which he then has publicly denied in favour of others . . . which he again denied. Resnais is apparently something of a prankster. The director also relies heavily on the writers of his films; in this case Alain Robbe-Grillet. The script for this film was published in book form after the movie came out. I've never read it but by all accounts it didn't clear up much. And, of course, it was never meant to. The strange, almost nightmarish world of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD is meant to be experienced on its own terms and the viewer is left with his or her own thoughts and theories about the whole thing. Love it or hate it (and the film has been widely polarizing over the years), one has to admit that the film makes one think. And isn't THAT a nice and novel experience when watching a movie nowadays. I will probably check back in with LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD a few more times in the future and see what strikes me about it next time. Who knows, maybe a whole new set of theories will seem more likely each time I watch it. And that, for my money, would denote a rather rich filmic experience. And if you think THIS was a roundabout way to look at a movie, just be grateful I didn't set my self the even MORE impossible task of talking about MURIEL!!!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

RED SUN (1971) I'D FRANKLY NEVER HEARD OF. You know the situation: you're watching something on TV and it ends but you leave the channel unchanged until something else begins. This is what happened to me on one of those countless movie cable channels. The movie started -- RED SUN comes on the screen -- OK it looks like a western. The credits begin and it's starring Charles Bronson. OK, I thought. The next name on the screen is Ursula Andress. A little unexpected, I thought, but whatever. The next name on the screen was then Toshiro Mifune. WHAT?!?!?!?!!!!! Toshiro Mifune?!?!?!?! Star of countless classic Akira Kurosawa films not the least of which was SEVEN SAMURAI which was remade as (*surprise*) THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN with (wait for it) Charles Bronson in it! OK, this is really interesting. And then the next name on the screen was Alain Delon. OK, now I've really slipped into some kind of Twilight Zone. The French actor who starred in my favourite film: Antonioni's L'ECLISSE as well as Melville's LE SAMOURAI -- together in one film with Charles Bronson, Ursula Andress and Toshiro Mifune?!?!?! By this point, the appearance of tragic French actress Capucine and British character actor Anthony Dawson were incapable of surprising me. So, needless to say, I was going to have to sit down and watch this movie.
Now, before we start I want to say that this is not a great movie by any means. In fact, it starts out rather . . . well, OK I guess but not spectacular. But the sheer interest level of a western with THIS cast compels one to watch. And the nice thing is that, although RED SUN never becomes a classic Western, it DOES get better and better as it goes along. Thumbnail synopsis: a band of outlaws led by Link (Charles Bronson) holds up a train. On board happens to be the ambassador of the newly-opened-to-the-West Japan; this man is bringing a gift of a gilded ceremonial sword to the U.S. President. Before the train robbery is completed, however, Link's second-in-command Gauche (Alain Delon) double-crosses Link and blows up the train car Link is standing in; Gauche also makes off with the prized sword after killing one of the two samurai guarding the ambassador. Link is not killed, however, and is revived by the ambassador; who tells Link that he must help his samurai Kuroda (Toshiro Mifune) recover the sword in 7 days or else he'll have Kuroda cut Link's head off and the entire Japanese delegation will commit hari-kiri. Link and Kuroda set off on foot tracking the treacherous bandits while sparring with each other verbally and physically along the way. It's basically your "odd couple" thrown together by circumstance. After several deadly encounters, Link and Kuroda abduct Gauche's "girlfriend" Cristina (Ursula Andress) and propose to trade her for the gold and the sword.
Director Terence Young is probably most famous for directing a trio of James Bond films (DR. NO, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and THUNDERBALL) as well as THE VALACHI PAPERS with Bronson and the rather abysmal BLOODLINES. Young's directing here is rather uneven; the bickering relationship between Bronson and Mifune as they travel through desert wastes can sometimes come off a little twee while at other times it works beautifully. Ditto in the form of one awkwardly-done scene alternating with a truly skillful one. Bronson is nowhere near as effective as he was in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST but he is still rather charming and good fun. Mifune, however, is very impressive and his samurai commands the screen just as if he was in a Kurosawa film. Particularly in the fight scenes Mifune conducts himself beautifully with an impressive physical performance; he also provides the single most moving bit of acting in the film as he gives a speech explaining how his illustrious family have fought and died honourably for 400 years and the samurai way of life is slowly disappearing now that Japan has opened itself up to the West. Also there is nothing like seeing a sword-wielding Toshiro Mifune hacking his way through a band of outlaws or charging through attacking Comanches with sword a-flashing. Simply beautiful. Ursula Andress is suitably treacherous and rather badass in her role as basically the villain's moll; she gets her kit off which is also appreciated. Alain Delon seems to be having a good time as he gets to (very slightly) ham it up a little. Stir into this international stew noted film composer Maurice Jarre who did the score. Unfortunately for Jarre fans, this score is rather repetitive and not one of his best efforts. Another interesting aspects is filming the climax in a field of tall grass which surely must force the viewer to recall the waving grasses of ONIBABA.
For the simple novelty factor alone, RED SUN is worth watching. I mean, where else are you gonna find Bronson, Mifune AND Delon in the same movie together. And as long as you're not expecting a classic, this western is something every film fan will probably appreciate.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

IS IT JUST ME?!? I mean, why is it that Hollywood just doesn't know how to make a good movie anymore; by that I mean they seem incapable of making a movie in which we care remotely about any of the characters, in which the editing and pacing aren't completely botched and the buildup of tension and suspense is nil. Case in point: the remake of CLASH OF THE TITANS. I would describe the experience to be akin to watching a 2 hour video game that somebody ELSE is playing. One is simply a spectator . . . and a rather bored one.
We all know that Hollywood is still worshipping at the altar of CGI; that bloodless, ephemeral, lightweight form of special effects which is peculiarly unengaging and lacking in any sense of reality, weight or substance. The original CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981) was not what I would call a classic; however, at least the "dynamation" of the creatures by Ray Harryhausen has a feeling of reality and weight which CGI cannot match. Harryhausen's stop motion figures also have their own unique personalities which ALL of the CGI effects creatures in the remake sorely lack. Can it really be possible that nearly ten years after Peter Jackson's LORD OF THE RINGS Hollywood is STILL lagging so far behind in the CGI department. I would liken the CGI creatures in CLASH OF THE TITANS (and most of the other recent Hollywood blockbusters, for that matter) as shadowy, insubstantial creatures that have only slightly more interaction with the live actors than rear-screen projection monsters in KILLERS FROM SPACE! But enough about the woeful CGI debacle. . .
The acting. This is another problem Hollywood seems to have and that is they can't seem to find anyone who has a personality. Their are only two "name" actors in CLASH: those being Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes. Both men have done fine work in the past. While Neeson is not anywhere near as somnambulistic as he was in 1999's STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM SCREENPLAY, he is not much better here. Fiennes does a slightly better job only in that he hams it up a little (and God knows this movie needs SOME life pumped into it). It's disconcerting, however, to speculate that Fiennes may have stolen Anders Hove's vocal performance as Radu in the SUBSPECIES series of films. Our "nominal" hero of the film is Sam Worthington (as Perseus) and he is as bland, lifeless and lacking in any spark of personality as he was in that other yawnfest called AVATAR. Granted, actors nowadays are pretty much second thoughts in movies of this kind and the special effects are meant to carry the film. However, as I've mentioned, the not-so-special effects certainly DON'T carry the film so we would like to see at least a couple actors stand out. And this brings me to my next point: there are a passle of guys hanging around Perseus. Apparently they're from the army of the city threatened with destruction. I'm not going to go into the actors who played them or the characters' names or anything like that because all during the movie I never knew their names or if, in fact, they were meant to be anything but interchangeable stick figures. So that's pretty much that.
The director is Louis Leterrier: the "household name" who brought us the underwhelming THE INCREDIBLE HULK a couple years ago. Another needless remake since the 2003 Ang Lee HULK was lightyears better. But that's another tale. Anyway, Leterrier doesn't seem to know how to a) tell a story properly, b) instill any sense of threat or suspense or, indeed, any involvement on the audience's part whatsoever. He has a frequent habit of lapsing into handheld camera for no particular reason; I suppose the cameraman was a drunken Spartan with burrs in his sandals. By the end of the film when the final credits ran, I was still waiting for the movie to start. Unfortunately, it never did. After seeing the events of the movie unfold before me, my overwhelming response was "So what". And oh, the look of the film. It certainly doesn't help when the overwhelming colour scheme of the movie is brown, brown and brown. If you're a fan of mud, you should love it! But for the rest of us, the unrelenting sameness of the film's look is extremely tiring.
Now about the story. Or screenplay. Or whatever. If you have even a passing familiarity with Greek mythology, this movie will annoy the living shit out of you. Someone please tell me why Hollywood seems to think that a story which has stood the test of time for over 2000 years needs to be screwed with. Now, if an improvement is made then I'm all for it. Unfortunately, every "alteration" in the Perseus myth is for the worse and, even more to the point, doesn't make any sense in the movie itself. Let's not get into the fact that they portray Hades (Ralph Fiennes) like he's the Dark Lord Sauron when Hades was never evil (at least no more evil than any of the other Greek gods). Let's not discuss how Perseus is made to be some anti-gods iconoclast who hates the Olympians (even though he is the son of Zeus) but, at the same time, takes aid from Zeus. (Huh?!?). Let's not discuss how the giant monster scorpions are fought for about 5 minutes and then spend the rest of the movie being ridden around by our Greeks like Shetland ponies (!). Do we need mention how Medusa has the face of a Valley Girl, apparently? Is it necessary to go on about the stupidly conceived "power struggle" which finds Hades trying to "overthrow" Zeus in order to . . . what I wonder? Who knows. He's already Lord of the Underworld and the dominions of Zeus, Poseidon and Hades were amicably agreed to by the three brothers eons before this point. Oh, and there's that little thing about Hades not being evil in the first place. There can be no real explanation as well for Zeus' "knight in shining armour" appearance because, as we all know, this kind of armour was the latest fashion in ancient Greece. And finally, don't ask me why Pegasus is there since the famous flying horse doesn't really feature in the plot. If all of these little plot points seem to you to read like a hot mess, then you have a vague idea of what sitting through the movie will be like: you will be shaking your head and mouthing "What?!?" about every five minutes or so since there isn't any real internal logic in the film itself.
I went into CLASH OF THE TITANS hoping I'd like it (especially since the original 1981 version was, well, flawed). However, the film was just sooooooo dull and uninvolving that I ended up just getting more and more annoyed. Hollywood has once again managed to turn a rip-roaring adventure tale into a CGI yawn. The viewer would be much better served by passing up this bit of cinematic styrofoam and seeking out last year's History Channel dvd of the documentary series "CLASH OF THE GODS" in which many different myths (including the Perseus tale in the episode concerning Medusa) are depicted with style, artfulness and a great deal more fun, adventure and imagination. How badly does THAT bode for the creative bankruptcy of Hollywood's "Dream Factory" these days when a TV documentary series on the History Channel can out-fun a major Hollywood blockbuster. I hear there's a CLASH OF THE TITANS 2 in the pipeline. If you go see THAT one, you deserve whatever dreck you get.