Paul Robeson (1898-1976) was one of the towering figures of African-American art, culture, and politics in the 20th century. An All-American collegiate athlete and attorney, he became a star of the dramatic and musical stage, an international concert luminary, recording artist, and the first black leading man on film. But his outspoken opposition to segregation and his support of Russia’s Communist regime made him a pariah during the Cold War ‘50s; the U.S. State Department lifted his passport for nearly a decade, until the Supreme Court overturned its action in 1958. Only near the end of his life did his singular achievements begin to be recognized without the taint of racial or political prejudice.
Robeson’s 1924 appearance in the Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones launched him to stardom. He portrayed Brutus Jones, a Pullman porter turned murderer who becomes the despotic ruler of a Caribbean island. The expressionistic 1933 film production recreated that heralded performance, and was expanded to include several musical numbers featuring Robeson’s peerless, profound bass voice. The last 15 minutes of the film is essentially a soliloquy by Jones, who, hunted by rebellious natives, is terrorized by “haints” from his past; it’s an acting tour de force.Continue Reading
What will the Europe of the future look like? In the opinion of the great Dane Lars von Trier Europe will be polluted, plagued, and riddled with an existential numbness preventing connection of any kind between its inhabitants. Life for Europeans will vacillate between madness and extremism and boredom and anonymity. Von Trier’s prognostications are manifested in his Europa trilogy: The Element of Crime (1984) set in the future, Epidemic (1987) set in the present, and Europa (1991) set in the fall of 1945 after the German surrender to the Allied forces. In Europa, von Trier extrapolates his fears for the future of Europe from its past, finding parallels in the alienation and chaos of post-war Germany replicated in the angst of modern Europe. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Western Europe was facing the same problem of the Allies after WWII: now that you’ve won, how do you turn the enemy you vilified into a trustworthy ally?
Von Trier describes the theme of the Europa trilogy as “the story of an idealist who tries to save people, but it all goes wrong.” Element of Crime features a cop intent on proving the viability of the controversial, psychologically debilitating crime-solving techniques of his mentor; in Epidemic a director (played by von Trier) wants to bring to life the story of a doctor (also played by von Trier) intent on stopping a deadly plague who ultimately turns out to be the carrier of the disease. Europa is less conceptual and is in fact the most conventional of any of von Trier’s films. Leopold Kessler (Jean-Marc Barr) is an American of German descent who travels to Germany just after the war’s end with the vague goal of showing kindness to humanity. Kessler soon gets a job as a sleeping car conductor with the help of his fellow conductor uncle, so apparently showing kindness includes taking a job that could have been filled by a starving German. Kessler is soon invited to dinner at the house of Herr Hartman, the former Nazi collaborator who owns the Zentropa rail company where Kessler is employed. Kessler soon falls for Hartmann’s daughter, Katie (Barbara Sukowa), a sexpot who isn’t hesitant to admit that she was also once a collaborator. Kessler’s desire to save Katie from her past pulls him into a milieu of intrigue and betrayal that pose the ultimate challenge to Kessler’s altruistic weltanschaung. In plot, Europa is a Nazi spy thriller in the vein of Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die and Hitchcock’s Notorious, but because of a strong technical choice, von Trier gives it a new, singularly postmodern collage aesthetic.Continue Reading
In 1962, only a year after his hugely successful and critically acclaimed breakout film, Viridiana, Luis Bunuel created Exterminating Angel. It was fairly well received and admired in the initial release, but it would take over a decade of films to follow in its wake for Exterminating Angel to be considered one of Bunuel’s best films and as a masterpiece of surrealist cinema.
The story is simple: guests of an upper-class dinner party find themselves unable to leave. Why? Well, no one can figure that out. More importantly, no one is willing to make an attempt to figure it out. And from this absurd circumstance, Bunuel weaves together a story filled with biting satire, debasing interactions, and a subtly repetitive time structure. In typical Bunuel fashion, humor and sadness occupy the same emotional terrain, feeding off one another in the same scene, creating a tense and anomalous atmosphere as the movie progresses.Continue Reading
Doctor: " What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets." Cecilia: "Obviously, doctor, you’ve never been a 13-year-old girl." -- Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides
Flesh for Frankenstein
If ever trash could have class, this movie would meet the criteria for it. While it boasts a ridiculous concept, even for horror, it plays with aesthetics and story in a truly merited way. This may come as a shock to most, but this is my first "Frankenstein" movie, and I am certainly glad that it is. Somehow the desire to see Frankenstein movies has not yet exceeded curiosity, and that may be due to the similarities between them all. From the first few scenes, it's clear that this movie is unique among the batch, and was therefore a special treat.
The Baron Frankenstein (Udo Kier) and his wife/sister (Monique van Vooren) live in Serbia with their two creepy children. The movie starts off quite slow and shows the two children's obsession with their father's medical tools and laboratory as they perform mock operations in secrecy. From there, we see the Baron and his assistant, Otto (Arno Juerging), in the lab among several incomplete corpses. It just so happens that the Baron is a perfectionist who's gone off the deep end and wants to create a super-race that will be under his command. His wife knows nothing about his medical experiments, but is frustrated about the excessive amount of time he spends in the lab. Finding a man and a woman to breed the new race was impossible, so the Baron decided to piece together the best parts of several human beings. The zombie female was easy enough to find, as was the body of the male one. Once those two transformations were complete, the maniacal team begins the search for a man's head—equipped with a one-track mind that could turn no woman down.Continue Reading
Hausu is not for everyone, though, if you find anime films and series to be amusing and tasteful, you'll probably enjoy this quirky Japanese horror flick. The comparison to anime is based upon the shared characteristics that this film has with the genre. Aside from the dizzy colors and characters with zany nicknames, it also sports a team of girls who fight against a docile villain. It seems as though anime always has this creepy bad guy in the shadows who has a glossy stare and speaks like an intellectual zombie. Like anime, House also has no real plot; the meat and potatoes is in the action and the effects.
However, it would be unjust to say that this movie is simply a live-action anime. Besides being a unique horror film, it also comes off as a Japanese ghost story, except the phantom is symbolized by a mythical cat named Blanche, the reincarnation of some evil spirit. Nobuhiko Ãbayashi, the director, also added a personal touch by working in a bit of his own history to the film. As a former pianist and medical student turned experimental filmmaker, the movie features a menacing piano that dismembers a character, and plenty of animated limbs. Ãbayashi should not only be praised for the artistic direction here, but for the fact that, like Spike Jonze, feature films weren’t always a part of his craft. The director is most prominent in Japan for his experimental films and TV commercials, the latter casting several big American stars, such as Kirk Douglas and Charles Bronson. House is actually his directorial debut, so you can imagine the liberties taken when he didn't have to cram all of his ideas into a few minutes.Continue Reading
In the Realm of the Senses
"The concept of 'obscenity' is tested when we dare to look at something that we desire to see but have forbidden ourselves to look at. When we feel that everything has been revealed, 'obscenity' disappears and there is a certain liberation. " --Nagisa Ôshima
The true story of Sada Abe has been interpreted into film several times, including Noboru Tanaka's film A Woman Called Sada Abe a year before this one, and Nobuhiko Obayashi's Sada in '98. Sada Abe was convicted in 1936 after killing her lover, Kichizo, while performing erotic asphyxiation. When arrested days later she was found calm, carrying his genitals in her handbag with a glowing smile on her face, claiming that she couldn’t take his body or head with her, so she decided to take the part of him that had the most vivid memories. In Oshima's interpretation of their story, which is still banned in its uncut form in Japan, the tale was given not only a fresh face, but a wholly realistic new perspective. In it, Sada (Eiko Matsuda) is, as in real life, an ex-prostitute who found work as a servant in the home of a seemingly upstanding couple. The master, Kichizo (Tatsuya Fuji), becomes interested in her sexually and the two begin an affair. In attempts to avoid suspicion from his wife, she leaves their employ and the two set up shop at a nearby inn. There they are consumed by their unabashed lovemaking until Sada's nymphomania turns into a quest for sadomasochism. As their love inflames them, so do the dangers of its nature. Pain and punishment ultimately become the source of their newfound pleasure, and arguably, self-hatred.Continue Reading
Jubilee is like a savage Shakespearian play where the past and present are joined in a marriage of destruction; a pas de deux of chaos.
Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre) is given a gateway by her Lord, John Dee (Richard O’Brian). With his powers he manifests the angel Ariel (David Brandon) who is able to take her from the past into the future in order for her to see the outcome of a world overturned by an absence of rulers and order. Throughout her journey, he acts as a sort of Greek chorus, yielding actions and prophesying bleak ends.Continue Reading
Kiss Me Deadly
In the world of noir a good mystery is so much more about the journey than the destination. I couldn’t really explain to you what was happening through every scene of Mulholland Dr. or who did what in The Big Sleep but those films are such superb examples of atmosphere as a blueprint for understanding the director’s vision that nothing is lost by not understanding every last scene or plot twist contained within. A first rate noir is more than the sum of its double crosses and knifed backs. In fact without that brilliantly unnerving atmosphere it’s just another run-of-the-mill whodunit. Noir is atmosphere certainly more than it could be called a kind of plot which is why films as conceptually different as Sweet Smell of Success and The Killing are both considered to be part of the noir canon. Kiss Me Deadly is director Robert Aldrich’s adrenaline charged mystery set in a mid-'50s Los Angeles of sun-seared nuclear paranoia. It's a detective story but it’s also about an era of America defined by its paranoia over the possibility of impending nuclear holocaust.
Mike Hammer (played by Ralph Meeker) is a hot shot Private Investigator who makes his living snooping around and catching people with their pants down. He’s the one that the jilted wives of L.A. go to when they want proof that their husbands are cheating. It’s a dirty way to make a living or so he is constantly told but he doesn’t seem to mind. He’s out for his own gain. He likes cocktails, race cars, women, and his unbelievably cool apartment. If he had a code of ethics it probably boils down to “the ends justify the means.” A woman on the run winds up in Mike’s car one night and before too long he is embroiled in a mystery that ensnares gangsters, the FBI, a murderous blonde, and pretty soon the fate of the entire world. Everyone is after what Hammer’s girlfriend terms, “the great whatsit.” When it’s found it takes the fatalism of noir to a whole new realm.Continue Reading
Make Way for Tomorrow
One of the things I love about discovering old movies is finding something that seems well ahead of its time. It’s always revelatory to find cinematic evidence that not every film can be easily placed into an obvious time frame. Sometimes the writing or acting can just seem more modern than one would have thought for the era in which the film was released. Citizen Kane changed everything about what one could do with a movie and it looks even more incredible when viewed in comparison with the other films that were released at the same time.
Make Way for Tomorrow, in a modest kind of way, is such a film. It’s a family centered drama about a rather unremarkable situation and that alone is rather unique when compared with the kinds of historical epics and glamorous escapist fare that was the norm for what people expected when they went to the movies in 1937. It’s a film that has more in common with the films of, say, James L. Brooks than anything that was contemporary with the film. An elderly couple loses their home and each must move in with one of their adult children. Their separation and the agony it causes them are barely understood by their children with their own families who live in different parts of the country and seem entirely oblivious to the sadness the situation has caused their parents.Continue Reading