Exiled: gangster movie about honour, loyalty and brotherhood celebrates life in the face of a chaotic and indifferent universe

Johnnie To, “Exiled” aka “Fong Juk” (2006)

Set in Macau territory just before its return by Portugal to China in 1998, this gangster film is a well-constructed and stylised work drawing on film noir and Westerns in its investigation of honour, loyalty, brotherhood and self-sacrifice. Gangster Wo (Nick Cheung), in exile for trying to kill Boss Fay (Simon Yam), has just settled in Macau with his wife (Josie Ho) and newborn child. On hearing that Wo has returned from overseas, Fay orders Blaze (Anthony Wong) and Fat (Suet Lam) to kill him but their efforts are thwarted by Wo’s pals Tai (Francis Ng) and Cat (Roy Cheung). After a brief fight in Wo’s new house, the four men reconcile with Wo: it turns out all five of them were childhood friends who grew up together and became hitmen together.

Hiding from Boss Fay who is furious that Wo is still alive, the five men take on an assignment to kill Fay’s rival Boss Keung but this fails spectacularly in two highly choregraphed series of bullet blasts. Wo is severely injured in both attacks and his friends rush him back home where he dies. Wo’s pals then flee and by happy accident pull off a gold heist at Buddha Mountain – a job they had rejected earlier in favour of killing Keung – and the foursome look set to retire from a life of criminality permanently. Unfortunately in the meantime Wo’s widow has embarked on her own form of vengeance against her husband’s friends by establishing contact with the brothel owner who gave them the assignment to kill Keung. Fay and Keung immediately take her and her child hostage and threaten to kill them both if Blaze, Fat, Tai and Cat don’t return. The quartet don’t even think twice that they’ve been set up – they know they must save Wo’s widow and son.

The film’s style is very artistic with carefully staged sets and action: even the neighbourhood where Wo lives is very picturesque though depopulated in the manner of a ghost-town in Western movies where everyone hides beneath the windows in saloons, saddlery shops and stables though here they’d be hiding behind doors of tea shops, video rental places and consumer electronics retailers. Unusual camera angles including bird’s-eye points of view and slanted viewpoints where people have to look down or look up are a feature as are also camera shots that emphasise shadows and drawn curtains in night-time scenes of suspense. Viewers are continually aware of the environment Blaze and his gangster pals move in, whether it is the lavish hotel with its internal balconies, the grim desert they flee to in a stolen car after Wo’s death or the semi-tropical greenery at Buddha Mountain where the men hijack the van carrying the gold bars. Of course the shoot-outs are carefully choreographed, often in slow-motion as if to mimic the highly theatrical sword-fights of Chinese historical dramas, but the artwork isn’t done to excess and the gunfights are over in a matter of minutes and look fairly realistic, at least until people get up and viewers realise the professional hitmen are either incompetent shots or deliberately avoided hitting certain folks like, you know, the main characters. The preceding stand-offs may be done to excess jokingly, with several camera shots of hands sliding soundlessly into holsters to pull out guns, particularly in the restaurant and underground clinic scenes.

The overall effect of To’s direction and the film’s theatrical style is to create a self-contained universe where self-interest and greed rule, and gangland networks are riven by shifts in loyalty and rivalry, and to survive in and make sense of such a world where anything and everything can happen, and luck determines whether one lives or dies, men must make and stick to their own code of ethics that emphasises blood-brother friendships and loyalties even though this can be used against them (as happens in “Exiled”) and may lead to their own downfall and death. Constant and unexpected plot twists stress the random and capricious nature of the universe in which people must find and give meaning to their rat-race lives; the whole film becomes a series of sketches with each sketch having consequences that set up the next sketch. Coin flips drive the point home rather too obviously; this viewer had the impression that the coin-flip results simply legitimise what the gangsters have decided to do anyway. A running gag with two cops emphasises the ineffectiveness and corruption of police in this world and the heist scene where Blaze and Co co-opt a guard shows how casually ordinary people can slip into a life of crime when the wider world is so suspicious and indifferent to the individual that a person can be judged a criminal just by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One would expect with the emphasis on plot that characters will be cardboard stereotypes and the acting correspondingly bare-bones minimal and efficient. Even the clothes worn conform to gangster-movie stereotypes with Blaze wearing the obligatory sunshades and tan-coloured trenchcoat and his mates in black leather. With most of the cast the minimal acting is the case but Wong stands out as the world-weary and cynical tough-nut Blaze despite doing and saying very little that’s out of the ordinary for his character. Ho as Wo’s wife is the other main acting highlight – she has a silent scene to herself which is heartbreaking in its anger, sorrow and sense of wasted life – and her personal pursuit of Blaze and Co, while not well defined, is a subplot that parallels the quartet’s quest for justice for Wo. Like the men, the women in the “Exiled” universe must make their own way and secure their niche in life in whatever way they can, often by prostitution or by becoming gangsters’ molls: either way won’t necessarily provide long-term security and comfort but it’s often the best the women can do.

The musical soundtrack is a mix of urban blues, Spanish-style acoustic guitar melodies and plaintive harmonica tunes that link “Exiled” to its Italian spaghetti Western inspirations. Other sounds in the film such as the thud of dropped bullets are beefed up in volume to sustain suspense and tension; they may also be a referential joke on To’s part that recalls previous Hong Kong gunfight action flicks.

For all its references, influences and cardboard cut-out people inhabiting a familiar noir world of bureaucratic and police corruption and complacency, mafia communities that make huge demands on one’s loyalty but give little in return and individuals who try to come to grips with the chaos that abounds in this world, “Exiled” never feels like a stale stitch-up job and is actually very absorbing. Perhaps it’s because in spite of their circumstances, Blaze and his fellow gangsters live life to the full in the knowledge that the next five minutes may be their last. The reckless way in which they live their lives and throw caution to the winds doesn’t guarantee a long life expectancy but they do it with enthusiasm and child-like enjoyment. The film finds room for slapstick comedy that serves to defuse tension and which makes pertinent social comments about police conduct and definitions of masculinity. Perhaps surprisingly for a gangster movie filled with violence and bloody deaths, “Exiled” is a celebration of life.

La Jetée: a brave experiment in film-making about the nature of time and memory as it depicts a tragic romance

Chris Marker, “La Jetée” aka “The Jetty’ (1962)

Unusual in its use of still black-and-white photography to tell its story of time travel, this short movie is a study of the nature of time, memory and notions of past, present and future and how these intersect. In the future, World War 3 has brought many cities, Paris among them, to irradiated ruin; beneath the surface that was once Paris, survivors have been gathered, mostly as prisoners, into concentration camps under authoritarian rule. In one such camp a group of scientists conduct experiments on inmates to send the prisoners’ psychic beings or conscious selves into the past or the future where they are “reborn” in adult form to get help or provisions that can be brought through the time vortex back to the present to help the camp survive. One nameless prisoner (Davos Hanich) willingly submits to the experiments despite the risk of death or madness as he happens to be haunted by a childhood memory of seeing a man shot dead on a jetty at Orly airport and a beautiful woman (Hélène Chatelain) witnessing the murder in horror. This man whom we’ll call D hopes to go back into his past to meet the woman – let’s call her H – and learn more about her and the murder victim and the possible connection between them.

After several sessions of time travel, D meets H and they become close friends. Astute viewers with experience of watching films about time travel will quickly figure out how the friendship fares and its link to the murder on the jetty. A subplot in which D travels into the future and brings back a power generator for the camp slots into the story. Sketchy hints that the camp leaders and scientists don’t trust D when he ventures into the past repeatedly to see H and suspect that he might try to escape the camp physically as well as psychically (he can manifest physically to H in the past and to other humans in the future). The deterministic loop the plot falls into calls forth questions about predestiny and how memory, dreams and imagination can influence one’s decisions and behaviour, and ultimately one’s fate. When D discovers his life is in danger, he receives an offer of escape into the future but rejects it.

The film is at its best in its early scenes when the narrator (Jean Légroni) recounts the destruction of Paris during WW3 over a series of photos of ruined buildings and neighbourhoods. As the plot narrows to D and his travels, the photos become repetitive and there is a risk of viewers becoming bored with the flat monotone narration, the repetition of images and the slow pace of the film once H is introduced into the plot. The photographs often flash across the screen too quickly while the plot slowly unfolds. There are background sounds but they appear as if by accident and are not used as an integral element of the plot. Major plot developments suddenly pile on one after the other in the film’s last five minutes and viewers may be left wondering why all of a sudden the camp leadership wants to get rid of D so much that it sends somebody after him.

The film might have worked better if Hanich had delivered the narrative from his point of view rather than use an unseen speaker: we would then learn more about the character D and why the memory of the murder means so much to him. We would discover how intense his love for H is and learn earlier of his fear of his pursuer. We would learn why he repeatedly and obsessively visits H to the extent that the camp leaders and scientists suspect him of using her as a means of permanent escape. We would learn how he uses his visits into the past to reconstruct it, to create a love and happiness that in reality perhaps never existed, and how he uses the love to gain freedom (and thus arouse the jealousy and suspicion of the camp leaders).

In a film relying solely on stills, atmosphere should surely play an important role in creating despair and a sense of hardship and oppression in the camp scenes and in building warmth, a sense of connection and happiness in H and D’s scenes together. Yet this viewer had little sense of the film having a definite ambience with mood changes as the plot scrolls along. Quick editing, repetition of images and a failure to use the background sounds and the soundtrack music as integrated elements in the story don’t help.

Viewers do get a sense of how the camp where D is a prisoner operates and how it uses and abuses its inmates like disposable units. Once D outlives his usefulness, the camp leaders decide to kill him. The future society that D visits appears to be a very conformist one in which individualism and freedom are non-existent. Yet how much free will does D exercise anyway, given that his traumatic memory drives him to do the things he does which endanger his life and seal his fate?

For all its flaws and the uneven and predictable Moebius-strip plot, “La Jetée” is a brave experiment in film-making that is very moving in the way it depicts a doomed romance with rich if repetitive imagery.

 

The Planet of Storms: lowbrow 1960’s Soviet sci-fi film with high production values and slight subtext

Pavel Klushantsev, “Planeta Bur’ ” aka “The Planet of Storms” (1962)

In the early 1960’s Soviet space exploration was focussed on sending probes and eventually manned spacecraft to the planet Venus and this little B-grade number was commissioned by Soviet film authorities from Pavel Klushantsev who rose to fame with his 1958 science education film “Road to the Stars” which was a mix of fact and fictional speculation of future space travel and exploration. “Planeta Bur’ ” is the only full-length feature Klushantsev made. With his background in special effects engineering, it’s no surprise that the film has excellent production values with advanced special effects simulating a volcano explosion with lava flow and credible background sets of an alien world. The robot in the film has a very technical design though by Western standards of the time it must have looked quite clumsy and comic. Much more impressive is the flying passenger craft, complete with see-through glass shields that double for protection and as entry/exit hatches, which travels across land and sea. Not through sea as the cosmonauts later discover when their little flyer is forced into the water.

Shame then that the plot is very comic-cartoon stuff with characters that are essentially clones of one another in spirit if not in looks. Three spacecraft are on their way to Venus when a stray meteorite comes and blasts one of them into smithereens. The crews of the other ships are very depressed at the disaster but continue onto Venus nevertheless. The crew of one ship land on Venus and begin exploring with their robot John (not “Ivan” perhaps?) but lose contact with the crew of the other ship so they too must descend in a rocket and land to find the lost men while a lone crewmember – the lone woman on the mission – pilots the main craft. While she whiles away her time floating about (literally), the men contend with hydra-like vegetation, bipedal reptilian swamp monsters, an octopus, a pterodactyl and a dinosaur relic to find their companions and explore the planet for signs of life and maybe intelligent life.

Yep, it’s that sort of comic-book sci-fi movie! – except the fauna and flora don’t put up much of a fight and wisely flee when the cosmonauts use shotguns or knives on them. In those days, AK-47s were still limited to the Soviet Army. The men’s real enemy turns out to be John the robot which after being doused by an unexpected downpour of rain (presumably acid) goes demented: it proposes a plan to build a concrete highway across the planet and calculates the cost of construction in terms only Wall Street bankers might understand; it then expounds on creating a world government with itself as prime minister. Talk about having prescience! Later the tinpot tyrant baulks at carrying its human companions, ill though they are with fever, through a river of hot lava and prepares to let them deep-fry; in the nick of time, the crew from the other spacecraft arrive to rescue the men and leave the rebel robot to sizzle alone. Thus a sneaky attempt to impose capitalism on an ideologically and politically innocent planet is thwarted.

There is a hilarious subtext about gender relations: the cosmonauts criticise their lone female crew-member Masha (Khyunna Ignatova) among themselves for violating HQ instructions and leaving the main orbit around Venus to try to rescue them, saying that robots have greater powers of thinking than women do. At the same time the men search for signs of intelligent life and find none, though they find evidence enough that a civilisation once existed on Venus. On renewing radio contact with Masha, the men prepare to meet her ship: after they have blasted away from Venus, intelligent life emerges from its hiding place – in a skilfully prepared camera shot focussing on a pond – and though appearing upside-down in the pond reflection it clearly looks female! Brief moments where the cosmonauts ponder on the destiny of humans and intelligent life generally to travel into space and on how civilisation must have come to Venus appear here and there.

For a pulpy sci-fi flick of its type, “Planet …” clearly emphasises the co-operation and camaraderie among the cosmonauts and their determination to succeed and save their companions against what look like despairingly insurmountable odds. Thankfully the local wildlife accept the cosmonauts as part of their furniture – which animals in real life might well do once they’ve got over the initial shock of seeing, hearing and smelling human intruders – and the really aggressive types are the pot plants with their woody tentacles. The swamp lizard beings briefly defend their territory but once the action moves away from the mud pools, they appear no more. Perhaps the idea of active and voracious plants and rather passive animals appealed to the script writers – it certainly parallels the gender reversal subtext. The film is not stridently propagandistic and this reviewer’s impression is that Klushantsev fought to keep as much scientific veracity and a spirit of co-operation among the crew members (who are a mixed Soviet-American bunch) as he could in the plot and the characterisation. The actors do what they can with the script which requires them to be heroic and straight-faced and to spout lines they might have laughed at most of the time.

Overall this is an entertaining piece that shows the kind of technically sophisticated science fiction movie that film studios in the Soviet Union were capable of making in the early 1960’s. Still with regard to plot and message, “Planeta …” had to cater for most levels of taste and knowledge and pass muster with government authorities. The safe way out then was to produce something that was straightforward and heroic if somewhat lowbrow with just a hint of a politically innocuous subtext for some perceptive people to chew over.

Midnight Cowboy: satirical character study of two men pursuing their particular American Dreams

John Schlesinger, “Midnight Cowboy” (1969)

Over forty years ago when this movie was released, it was seen as gritty and ground-breaking but these days “Midnight Cowboy” comes across as no more than a straightforward urban-buddy character study of two men of very different backgrounds, each searching for his own version of the American Dream, who join forces simply to survive in the bleak and seedy underground of New York City in the late 1960’s. Naive cowboy wannabee Joe Buck (Jon Voight) leaves his dish-washing job in a Texan diner and travels to NYC hoping to make a living as a gigolo to rich old ladies but ends up being hustled out of money and shelter by various odd characters. He meets up with a small-time crook Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) who offers him shelter and together they scrape a living on the hard streets of NYC.

The film consists of various episodes in which Joe tries his luck as a hustler and repeatedly fails. At one point in the film, the men’s luck takes a brief turn for the better as they get an invitation to a party and Joe gets an assignment with a rich socialite type (Brenda Vaccaro). Generally though the direction in both men’s lives is down, down, down as Rizzo’s health steadily deteriorates and Joe does what he can to get money for food and medicines. Eventually they scrape and steal enough moolah to pay for the coach-trip to Miami but even there Fate deals a cruel blow to both men and Joe finds himself pretty much back where he started near the beginning of the movie when he first got off the coach.

Although Voight and Hoffman put everything they have into their characters, Joe and Rizzo do come over as rather stagey and a bit over-acted at times to the point where they are caricatures. At least Joe has enough back-story in various flashbacks that explains among other things his over-reactions to the would-be pimp who turns out to be a religious fanatic and the businessman who offers him a religious icon. Joe’s sensitivity towards Rizzo and his violence towards others are quite credible. The script doesn’t flesh out Rizzo’s background much beyond stating that his father was a shoe-shiner but “Midnight Cowboy” is very much Joe’s story after all. What character development exists seems to be very small though the impression I have by film’s end is that Joe the starry-eyed naif has become more hardened when it comes to surviving yet in a way has learned something about true friendship and the corrupt values of the world. By the time he and Rizzo arrive in Miami, he’s no longer thinking about hustling for a living and is talking about taking on a real job for a change.

The film may be seen as a satire of the American Dream and of capitalist society and its values. Joe imagines he can make easy money by selling his body to bored rich people. Sex is the only thing Joe is good at – his ex-girlfriend has told him so – so that’s what he tries to sell by trading on his “cowboy” image … which only attracts homosexual men. Even then, selling sex requires Joe to, uh, “position” himself correctly in the market and research what his would-be clients require, and that’s what he fails to do. Rizzo dreams of leaving New York and making easy money in Miami doing the kinds of odd jobs Joe was doing in Texas (that’s an irony). Of course the reality is that life in The Big City is hard and unforgiving and grinds down the individual. Only by bonding together do Joe and Rizzo survive (but only just). Money is the only thing that gives the men an entree to the life they dream of. There is an underlying subtext of Joe not coming to terms with his latent homosexuality as a result of his upbringing and a past traumatic experience of gang rape.

The use of flashbacks (mostly in black and white) with quick editing is very good and the party scenes are psychedelic as would be expected of films made in the late 1960’s that feature parties where guests spend most of their time smoking joints and popping pills. The movie is very colourful, maybe too colourful actually, and scenes of poverty and desperation might have come across better if they had a more bleached or grey-ish look.

Overall this film is a modest effort at recording something of the marginalised underbelly of New York City in the 1960’s. If it had covered some of the poverty and discrimination faced by other individuals, particularly other gay men, black people or other minorities, the movie would have been a more valuable historic snapshot of what conditions were like for the underprivileged.

Fermat’s Room: a light and entertaining if not completely satisfying film about professional rivalry and intellectual obsession

Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sapeña, “Fermat’s Room” (2009)

Three brilliant mathematicians and an inventor, each already having solved a difficult problem, are invited to dinner together with a mysterious host called Fermat (Federico Luppi) in a barn on a remote island. Given pseudonyms of Galois, Hilbert, Oliva and Pascal, the foursome enjoy their meal with Fermat who then invites them to solve an enigma. Suddenly Fermat’s cellphone rings, he answers and has to excuse himself from the meeting in order to go to hospital to see his injured daughter. While he is gone, the guests discover he has locked the door and they are trapped; another cellphone and they answer it to find out that they are to solve a series of mental puzzles and riddles, each within one minute. If they run out of time or get the wrong answer, the walls in the room move towards them, shrinking the room. The quartet quickly realise they must solve the riddles and at the same time work out why they have been brought together by Fermat in the one place to be killed.

The actual puzzles in the film are not very complicated and many viewers will be able to solve them faster than the supposed geniuses do, though they have the luxury of not facing certain death if they take their time or get a wrong answer. The film quickly slips into a formula with Oliva (Elena Ballesteros) doing most of the brainwork on the riddles while the other characters (played by Lluis Homar, Santi Millan and Alejo Sauras) try to work out the connections among themselves and between one another and Fermat. In the meantime as the room becomes smaller, the guests try to stop the unseen hydraulic presses from pushing the walls closer to them by piling and arranging the furniture in ways to counteract the push. Past professional jealousies, the single-minded pursuit of an answer to an age-old intellectual enigma, an unfaithful lover, a car running into a pedestrian and other personal peccadilloes arise in the various back-stories that the foursome spill out to one another.

As might be expected the plot contains a red herring and a twist in that the real villain is not who the foursome suppose him to be. The twist relates to the general theme of professional rivalry and single-minded competition, and the fear that one’s lifework, built up over many years, even decades, can be eclipsed or demolished by a young upstart’s brilliant discovery. After the twist, the film then becomes a mad dash to escape the room with perhaps not even half the riddles the guests are supposed to solve having been completed. The true climax actually comes very close to the end of the film with those guests who have managed to escape pondering whether some papers they have taken with them should be published under one person’s name or another name. Some viewers will be able to guess that there is a third alternative.

In spite of the action taking place in just one ever-shrinking room, the movie doesn’t feel at all claustrophobic and the characters remain more or less level-headed as they work out the puzzles and work out their connections to one another. This can be a disadvantage to some people’s enjoyment of the movie: they may find the relative lack of emoting gives the impresson of the guests as being not too concerned with their dilemma. The acting can be uneven and Homar and Millan, playing Hilbert and Pascal respectively, flesh their characters out better than the younger Ballesteros and Sauras who play the young ex-lovers Oliva and Galois. Some viewers may query why two mathematicians have to be young and, in Galois’s case, tempestuous and testosterone-charged; they probably need to read something of the life of the real Évariste Galois, the brilliant mathematician who died at the age of 20 in a duel fought on behalf of a woman.

There is suspense and the puzzle-solving can be very absorbing and entertaining so the film moves more quickly than a synopsis of the plot would suggest. The whole project might have worked better and with more depth if there were more players (two, maybe three more people would do) and the room had been expanded to a maze with shifting walls. There could be a couple of deaths along the way – they need not be shown in all their gory glory – which would ratchet up the suspense and tension. The characters could have tried to beat the game rather than go along with it, with consequences both beneficial and detrimental to their survival. As it is, being Piedrahita and Sapena’s first full-length feature film together and made on a small budget, “Fermat’s Room” is an entertaining if not very satisfying film. The conclusion can be very hurried and some loose ends remain, well, loose.

 

Marnie: rehash of many Hitchcock themes, ideas and methods showing the master in decline

Alfred Hitchcock, “Marnie” (1964)

Not a bad psychological thriller / character study of a compulsive kleptomaniac with deep-seated fears and flashback memories, this film is very like the earlier “Vertigo” in some ways but shows evidence of a decline in Hitchcock’s film-making powers. The look of the film is of a beautiful and quite epic fantasy though the subject is highly personal and on paper best suited to a scaled-down approach. The title character Marnie (Tippi Hedren) is a young woman who works for one employer after another using various assumed identities with intent to steal from each employer she works for. At the beginning of the film she’s just fleeced one employer, Strutt, changed her appearance and name, and then applies for a job with another employer, little knowing the connection it has with Strutt. She’s accepted by Mark Rutland (Sean Connery) at the firm and starts work as a typist but in a short while she’s gone and pilfered money from the company safe. Rutland quickly discovers the theft and, intrigued by her nature, forces Marnie to marry him. He discovers she has various psychological issues and determines to find out the cause of them so that she can be healed and become a normal human being.

The movie looks unreal and several scenes, in particular the horse-riding scenes, seem bizarre and old-fashioned but it’s all meant to reflect Marnie’s disturbed point of view and experience of the world around her. She is more at ease with animals and especially with horses (always a handy symbol of sexuality: in Marnie’s case the love of horses might indicate a sexual immaturity) than with humans, particularly men whom she fears and will not allow to touch her. Episodes in which she experiences flashback memories with their resulting traumas whenever she sees blood or bright red colours are highlighted with red filters over the camera lens, a ploy carried over from “Vertigo” where filters of several colours were used in the psychedelic dream sequence. The role is a complicated one and Hedren carries it off as best she can: she often goes blank in scenes where other actors might over-act and contort their faces in extreme emotion but then it’s hard to predict how disturbed individuals might react in situations that cause anxiety to them. Her icy silvery-blonde looks at least are ideal for the role: she seems a vulnerable child-woman whose normal development has been stymied by trauma, repressed memory and a neglectful mother (Louise Latham) who has little understanding of her daughter’s needs.

The other significant role of Mark Rutland is played well by Connery who combines charisma and charm with a controlling and predatory nature. His motive for wanting to protect and at the same time train Marnie to become a “normal” functioning human is never clear  and it seems he has a clinical if creepy scientific interest in changing and controlling her. He may be an investigator with an interest in animal psychology, having studied zoology, but then not all such students would apply their learning to manipulate humans! He is dead keen on finding the source of Marnie’s kleptomania, sexual frigidity and phobias and how he finds out through his contacts in Philadelphia and Baltimore about a past murder case and puts two and two together to get an answer beyond four appears rather too easy to be realistic. There is a parallel with Hitchcock’s earlier movie “Vertigo” in which a detective makes over a young woman into his ideal love object: the control over Marnie is more subtle and looks far less sinister than that movie and though it’s arguable that Marnie must some day face her fears and seek help, the way she’s forced to confront her past by Mark and the methods he uses can be just abusive as the detective Scotty’s control of the young woman Judy. Perhaps Mark is attracted to Marnie precisely because her disorders make her the intelligent, intriguing and headstrong individual she is.  The irony for Marnie is that she’ll be no different from other “normal” women (read dutiful Stepford-wife types) once she is “cured” of her disorders and Mark will get bored with her and cast her aside for another flawed woman to study and manipulate.

Of the minor characters, Mark’s sister-in-law Lil (Diane Baker) hasn’t much to do besides smoulder with what looks like desire for or resentment at Marnie – there’s possibly a hint of unacknowledged lesbian-ish desire there – and invite the Strutts for dinner behind Mark and Marnie’s backs for who knows what reason.  What Lil happens to be doing at her father-in-law’s home with her husband well out of the picture (literally) is never made clear though Dad and Mark don’t mind having her around. What the whole family is doing living together, Dad, two brothers and their presumed spouses, isn’t clear though the house has plenty of room for them all and a whole batch of guests for a fox-hunting weekend.

The Freudian psychology covered in the movie looks simplistic and is applied in a way that explains everything about Marnie’s disturbed inner world very glibly. A diagnosis that would take a trained psychoanalyst several years to reach and several hundred or a couple thousand dollars each year to be coughed up by the  patient takes several minutes for an amateur sleuth to work out with the help of a few textbooks and a visit to the patient’s mum, no fee charged. Perhaps that says something about Hitchcock’s opinion of psychoanalysis in particular and psychiatry generally! Marnie’s association with horses and what that implies about her nature, desire for freedom and individuality, and her sexuality is laboured over and over throughout the film. The scene in which Marnie is forced to shoot a horse becomes all the more shocking and tragic because in essence she is giving up her freedom.

As well as the emphasis on Freudian psychology and the subject of men’s control over women under the appearance of romantic love and attachment, familiar Hitchcock themes include the fragility and fluidity of identity (Marnie takes on and drops several identities at will); deception in the form of thievery, sexual blackmail, identity fraud; the portrayal of sexuality by symbolic means (in this movie, through horses); the association of sex with violence and bloodshed; and the influence of a mother on her child’s psyche. As in “North by Northwest” and “Psycho”, romantic attraction and sex become a business transaction: Mark blackmails Marnie into marriage on the threat of turning her over to the police.

Technically the film is very well done with a lavish and colourful style, a musical soundtrack that is romantic and sometimes very annoyingly intrusive and Hitchcock’s typical filming methods and tricks which include the voyeuristic camera sneaking on Marnie as she searches for Mark’s safe near the film’s end and a completely silent scene of Marnie on one side of the camera’s view stealing money from her new employer while on the other side of the camera’s view the cleaner is mopping the floor. (The humour behind this scene is that the cleaner is deaf, hence the complete silence.) The main flaw though is that several scenes are very long and the editing throughout the film could have been tightened up much more, chopping at least 15 minutes off the film’s 2-hour running-time. Filming techniques that were innovative and fresh when used in films like “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest” now seem repetitive, awkward and heavy-handed.

In its ideas and style, “Marnie” is a rehash of “Vertigo” which was a better film technically. “Marnie” may be a subtler creation with respect to theme but in other respects it repeats some of Hitchcock’s themes, ideas and motifs from “Vertigo”, “North by Northwest” and “Psycho” in a ham-fisted way. If only it weren’t so long and repetitive, “Marnie” might have been a great film: the acting performances are very good if not great and the sets are colourful and hyper-real. The world in which Marnie and Mark move is a place of glamour, wealth and privilege where money can buy freedom, keep people away from police and solve problems.

 

 

Mid-2011 Milestone: over 100 films seen and reviewed this year!

Hi all,

Just done a rough count of every movie I’ve reviewed from the start of January to the end of June and I figured I’ve seen and reviewed just over 100 films so far!

A pretty good selection if I may say so, including some old Hitchcock silents and flicks from the early 1930’s that he’d probably prefer we didn’t know about if he were still alive today, heh-heh! – but as examples of a film-making career in developing a distinctive style and voice, they are for better or for worse part of his legacy to us all whether film-makers, technicians, actors and viewers alike. Also seeing some old favourites like Sergei Parajanov’s “The Color of Pomegranates” and Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira” again was a treat.

Some of the movies I reviewed are available on Youtube.com either as complete movies or in parts. Others I borrowed on DVD from my local library and the rest are from watching TV. So don’t despair if you can’t find them on DVD or can’t get them on free-to-air TV or cable channels.

I’ve had many compliments about my blog site and its appearance and many of you have asked how you can also create your own blog sites. Mine was kindly set up for me by a friend on WordPress.org which offers a tremendous range of themes to help you design and customise your blogs’ appearances.

Once again, I’m very happy that so many people have stopped by to comment on my reviews and the choice of films to review. Thanks again and hopefully over the next six months I’ll be reviewing some more very interesting films. For starters, I’m hoping to find some old Eastern European sci-fi films like “Ikarie XB-1” and “A Bomb was Stolen” so stay tuned. If you can recommend some movies and movie genres that don’t get very much attention in the mainstream film-reviewing press, I’d be glad to investigate those.

Cheers, Nausika.

Repulsion: slow but very good psychological horror character study of sexual attraction / repression

Roman Polanski, “Repulsion” (1965)

A good psychological character study of a young woman suffering mental illness and falling apart while alone and isolated in her sister’s apartment, “Repulsion” was the English-language debut for both director Roman Polanski (his second full-length directing feature) and lead actor Catherine Deneuve who was 22 years old at the time she made the movie. The plot is a basic one that just manages to sustain the 105-minute running time though there are a fair few passages in the film that could have been edited for length. In much of the latter half of the film there is not much dialogue and Deneuve herself utters no words as her character gradually loses the power of speech.

Carole Ledoux (Deneuve) is a recent migrant working as a manicurist in a beauty salon in London and lives with her older sister Helen (Yvonne Furneaux) in a busy part of London in the 1960’s. Their life is precarious: they are always behind with the rent payments and Helen is having an affair with a married man Michael (Ian Hendry). Michael moves into the apartment, much to Carole’s disgust. She has an aversion to men and there are hints throughout the film that she is both repelled by and attracted to men in ways she can’t understand or control; on top of that, men themselves are attracted to her because of her beauty and blonde hair and misinterpret her timidity and whispery voice as provocative come-ons. Michael and Helen go on a holiday to Italy, leaving Carole to fend for herself in the apartment. Losing her job at the salon, Carole is cut off from the world around her in the apartment: her social and physical isolation combine with her sexual fantasies, feelings, traumas and paranoias to bring 0n a full-blown mental breakdown which has catastrophic consequences when two men, a would-be boyfriend (John Fraser) and the landlord (Patrick Wymark), enter the apartment on separate occasions to confront her.

Deneuve does a great job carrying the film as the fragile Carole. Initially she is shy and dreamy and viewers see her discomfort in a world that has no time for dreamers and dawdlers. Indications of her disintegrating mental state come early with nail-biting, scratching, chewing her hair and repetitive actions suggestive of wiping or cleaning herself. The camera often focusses closely on Deneuve’s flawlessly sculpted face with its frequently blank expression and wide-open vacant stare. Something of British director Alfred Hitchcock’s influence might be seen in the opening and closing scenes of the film with the camera lingering and then respectively zooming out of or into Carole’s eye. There may be a mix of under-acting and 0ver-acting on Deneuve’s part throughout the movie but most of the time she has a blank look that does not over-strain for effect. Carole’s actions throughout the film are filled with horrific portent (and are sometimes blackly humorous with sexual suggestion as in a scene in which a co-worker at the salon sees a rabbit’s head sticking out of Carole’s hand-bag) but seem credible. One can almost believe Carole is capable of murder in her increasingly addled state. The support cast is very good if deliberately one-dimensional to emphasise the lack of empathy and the single-minded pursuit of pleasure and material goals among the people Carole lives and works with.

With most of the action taking place in Helen’s apartment, background details are important and as Carole descends into madness the apartment’s dimensions change from cosy and cramped to wide with cracked walls and floors. The cracks that suddenly rip across the walls have much blunt sexual symbolism as do the hands that reach out from the walls in the hall-way. Indeed the apartment’s floor-plan suggests the interior of the female reproductive system with rooms leading off from the hall-way which itself ends in the bathroom. Needless to say the bathroom ends up in a very sorry  state of mixed fluids.

The film can be slow in its early stages, setting up the social context in which Carole lives and works and building her character and the various social interactions between herself and others, and among the various characters. Women express disgust with men and their sexual aggressions and behaviours, men talk about women as if they are animals to be broken in and controlled roughly. With all this talk going on around Carole, it’s no wonder she decides to retreat from the outside world into her own world once Helen goes away. The problem though is that Carole’s inner world is filled with more horror than the outside world is: flashback memories or fantasies of rape and control play out over and over in her mind. The repetition can be overdone – we only need to see Carole’s rape fantasies twice perhaps to realise her mind keeps dwelling on them – and it’s not necessary for the camera to pause repeatedly over the rotting rabbit on the plate to indicate Carole’s forgetfulness and mental confusion over household routines. Suspense and tension exist but the film’s slow-ish pace, some over-long scenes and the repetition tend to dissipate the build-up of tension.

The soundtrack is significant in the film: bells, alarms, phone ring-tones and the sound of spoons being clapped by a group of wandering musicians pop up from time to time to remind viewers of real life as opposed to Carole’s “reality” and to measure the extent to which Carole recedes from the outside world.

“Repulsion” is well-named, there are several meanings here: repulsion as in rejecting and / or avoiding sexual urges and impulses, memories and fantasies of rape and assault, and the double standards of sexual behaviour that apply to men and women in 20th-century Western society. A lonely and alienated figure, made so by the consequences of those double standards perhaps, rejects this world for her own traumatised world in which memories and fantasies interact and play out over and over. Plus the more Carole withdraws from life, the more the outside world claws at her; even when she is unconscious, there is a suggestion that Helen’s lover Michael finds her sexually irresistible. This is Carole’s tragedy and the “comedy” of the film, that as much as she tries to resist her desires, fantasies, past traumatic events and men’s attention, she keeps ending up in situations where she can’t avoid them.

 

 

 

 

Kiki’s Delivery Service: charming film about maturity, finding oneself and never giving up hope

Hayao Miyazaki, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989)

A charming coming-of-age film about a young witch who undergoes a series of challenges, not the least of which is learning to trust in her inner self, “Kiki’s Delivery Service” likely had a lot of personal significance for its creator Miyazaki: previous films were mostly aimed at a very young audience and the films that came after “Kiki …” were more epic and featured very complex story-telling. “Kiki …” might be considered transitional between early Miyazaki and later Miyazaki with some of the features of both: on the one hand it focusses on personal issues and features mostly ordinary characters, albeit ones with dreams or an unusual talent and on the other hand there are elements of a wider fantasy world that would be expanded on in future Miyazaki projects.

On turning thirteen, the young witch Kiki must fly out into the world as part of her training as a witch and adopt a community as her own where she has to develop a special talent. Arriving at a seaside town somewhere in Europe – the look and feel of the town suggests the 1950’s or 1960’s as might be portrayed in a Jacques Tati movie – Kiki is befriended by a couple who run a bakery and who offer her lodgings. With the help  of her familiar, a black cat called Jiji, Kiki sets up a courier service for her hosts to deliver bread and cakes to their customers. She meets helpful folks like the teenage boy Tombo who dreams of flying, an artist Ursula who wants to paint a picture of Kiki and two elderly ladies who bake at home. With the main characters established, the slim plot presents a series of tests for Kiki to learn how to live with strangers, where she fits into the town that accepts her and ultimately find herself.

The glories of “Kiki …” lie chiefly in its realisation of the world in which Kiki settles: Miyazaki and his creative team have brought a beautiful and picturesque town with its own distinctive atmosphere into being. The pace of life might be more frenetic than it should be and there’s no Latin flair about the seaside town – the background music suggests the resorts of Mediterranean France and Italy were the inspiration for the town though according to Wikipedia the town of Visby in Sweden was the actual inspiration – but there’s a definite summer-holiday feel about the place. Colours are vibrant and the landscapes, historic houses and urban scenes with the clock-tower and the traffic in the narrow streets are very detailed and look realistic. Yet there’s a dreamy quality to the town where in spite of the traffic there’s not much air pollution and the skies look very clean. At the very least one can believe a small witch can fly in and introduce herself to the people without having to show her papers or spend several years in an asylum for illegal migrants who jump the queues, just as one can also believe later on that sticking giant propellers on the handlebars of a bike will enable it to fly or that dirigibles are floating and buzzing overhead without eliciting noise pollution complaints or concerns about a repeat of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster.

The rather cartoony-looking characters are not very well developed in personality and Kiki can be maddeningly Pollyanna-ish, at least until she becomes self-conscious about her dowdy appearance compared to the wealthy teenagers she sees, resulting in her witchy powers deserting her and causing her depression. Why Tombo should develop a romantic interest in Kiki and Kiki reject him at first is never explained; the romantic sub-plot seems very half-hearted and superficial, based on Tombo’s love of flying and Kiki being suspicious of his friends. Other characters are well-meaning and helpful clones of one another and the couple running the bakery are little more than parent substitutes. Only Ursula the artist and Tombo the dreamer (and later, damsel-dude in distress) offer opportunities for Kiki to grow and mature and trust in herself.

Parts of the plot can seem like afterthoughts, particularly towards the end where Kiki sees the dirigible in trouble on TV and Tombo hanging onto the dirigible’s rope as it floats out of control and crashes into buildings (without causing any fires, one notices). Then it’s Kiki to the rescue! – but can she regain her power of flight in time to rescue Tombo? An interesting sub-plot that might involve a cat and dog becoming friends develops but is ditched in favour of Kiki meeting and working for Ursula.

In all this is a heartwarmer suitable for a young teenage audience who will readily identify with Kiki’s initial chirpiness and pride and learn along with her about dealing with difficult situations and getting along with people. It’s a film about hope and believing in one’s talent and resourcefulness and finding one’s niche and inspiration in life. It may not be as powerful and involved as other Miyazaki films like “Laputa: Island in the Sky”, “Princess Mononoke” or “Spirited Away” but in its downscaled way it’s a thoughtful and intelligent film.

 

Witchfinder General: dark and serious low-budget exploration of corruption, abuse and violence

Michael Reeves, “Witchfinder General” (1968)

Loosely based on the exploits of the English 17th-century witch-hunters Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, this movie is a dark low-budget exploration of personal corruption, abuse and violence in a society wracked by civil war and the collapse of political stability and law and order. Hero and villain alike are undone by taking the law into their own hands, no matter how justified the reason may be. In the year 1645 Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price) and assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) roam eastern England hunting out witches in various villages: their techniques include brutal torture to induce false confessions of men and women accused of witchcraft. They ride toward a place called Brandeston and a trooper come from there, Richard Marshall (Ian Ogilvy), who has just visited his fiancee Sara (Hilary Dwyer) and her uncle John Lowes (Rupert Devies) the village priest, shows them the direction. Once there the witch-hunters round up Lowes and others accused of witchcraft, throw them into jail and torture them sadistically. In spite of Sara’s attempts to save her uncle, he and the other accused are executed and Hopkins and Stearne move on.

Marshall returns to Brandeston, learns from Sara what has happened to her uncle and vows to hunt down Hopkins and Stearne. From this moment on the movie becomes a cat-and-mouse game in which Marshall risks his career – and possibly his life – pursuing the witch-hunters who in turn plan to trap Marshall and Sara by accusing them of witchcraft. The double plotting sounds very silly but the serious tone of the movie, the level of credible violence that has occurred by this point in the film and the depth of characterisation make the second part of “Witchfinder General” no laughing matter and indeed quite powerful as viewers are left to wonder how intense and melodramatic the climax will be when Marshall and Hopkins confront each other.

Though made for commercial purposes on a small budget, the film has excellent production values: the cinematography is good with long stationary shots that take in wide swathes of peaceful countryside with historic buildings that give the movie a distinctive English flavour, and the few bright colours of the film which tends towards dark colours and shadows hold up well after over 40 years. The use of long static shots gives the film a staged look which may well be the intention – the Puritan rulers of England from 1649 to 1660 closed down all theatres – though there is one excellent scene in which Stearne stumbles into a forest after taking a bullet in his arm: anticipating his pain, the camera pans away from him to the forest background while he extracts the bullet and screams, then pans back to him. Reinforcing the film’s commercial intent, the music soundtrack is very dramatic, overbearing and old-fashioned in style with melodies straight out of American horse operas: the association with Westerns may be deliberate as here, the government as represented by Marshall and Hopkins are routing out elements hostile to it just as the US government routed out and shoved indigenous Americans into reservations two centuries later.

For a highly melodramatic plot in which screaming is an unfortunate constant, the acting is restrained and well done with notable performances from the male leads. Price is grim and implacable as Hopkins yet commanding, charismatic and not above exploiting Sara when she offers sexual favours or cheating on others including his assistant. Russell is suitably nasty as the vicious  Stearne. Ogilvy acquits himself well in the meaty role of Marshall and his final scene is a surprise shocker. The main characters are delineated in detail so that though they commit unspeakable atrocities, viewers at least understand their motives, however gross they are, and can indentify with them: Hopkins and Stearne are unlikeable but we all know of people who would behave in similar ways in similar contexts.

The film doesn’t attempt to explain witchcraft but instead focusses on the accusations, the use of torture and particular torture methods by witch-hunters and the punishments they carried out. For all that there is a theme of how witch-hunts (figurative as well as literal) can occur in insecure societies and how some individuals can use violence, ignorance and belief in rumour for selfish personal reasons. Torture and violence take a toll on people’s psychology, corrupting and degrading them as a result. Viewers may feel relieved that the movie versions of Hopkins and Stearne are punished for exploiting people but Marshall gives up his humanity and is no better than his enemies. No-one can feel happy about his fall from grace and the hint that the social and political situation in England at the time, stressed by the voice-over narration at the movie’s start, is in part responsible for Hopkins and Stearne being able to flourish and create havoc is strong. In spite of the film’s age – the acting, the film’s style and even some accents can appear old-fashioned to modern audiences – the intended message is as important as ever and is more so in an age of continuous war across western Asia and northern Africa, ongoing global economic crisis that slowly grinds people into poverty and a cowed news media peddling propaganda, scare stories and lies, all of which surely benefit political and economic elites who are careful to hide their motives and interests.

The real-life Matthew Hopkins was much younger than the man who appears in the film and assisted John Stearne who was originally a landowner and farmer. Hopkins died from pneumonia in his late twenties in 1647 though there has been an intriguing rumour that when general opinion in England turned against him, he emigrated to the Plymouth colony in eastern North America and instigated witch-hunting activities that led to the Salem witch trials.