The return (or, "Where the hell have you been?")
(Warning: Unusually long blog post ahead)
I'm back on the job after a doctor-ordered month-long leave. I spent most of that time in bed, due to the heavy-duty meds I was taking. I attended my first screening in more than a month on Saturday, when I saw Star Trek, which is lots of fun (it's the first Trek movie that didn't bore me at some point or another).
But I did watch an average of two DVDs a day while I was out, so I have a month's worth of old and relatively new movies swimming around inside my head I need to purge.
For example, I haven't been able to stop thinking about Martyrs, director Pascal Laugier's horrifically violent French-language thriller, which caused a few disgusted walkouts when it screened at the Toronto Film Festival last year. Laugier shows up to introduce the film on the DVD, and he seems to be a sane and amiable fellow. But although he warns the viewer that some people may hate the movie they are about to see, he doesn't tell you it might make you puke, too.
Making even the worst moments in Hostel and Saw seem like an episode of Teletubbies, Martyrs is one of the most viscerally punishing films I've ever seen - enough that I actually had to look away from the screen a few times, and I have a high tolerance for gory flicks.
What kept me watching to the end was not the violence, which would have become boring and tiresome in and of itself, but the film's intriguing and unpredictable structure, which pulls the rug out from under you in a major way five minutes in, then repeats the trick an hour later. Laugier is obviously talented (the film is exceedingly well-shot), but he overestimates the viewer's tolerance for brutality, and he overreaches in trying to invest that brutality with meaning.
There is an interminable sequence in the film, lasting 10 or 15 minutes, that consists of nothing else but the systematic abuse and torture of a young woman. As it turns out, there's a "reason" why so much screen time is devoted to her suffering, but it's not enough to justify having to sit through it. Martyrs is part of the ongoing French new wave of horror films (and may well top them all in terms of graphic violence), but unlike most of its counterparts, which aim to do nothing other than scare you, this one aspires to a profundity that is far beyond its reach. The only thing worse than a bad horror picture is a pretentious one.
Another French thriller that fares infinitely better is Tell No One (Ne le dis a personne), which I missed during its brief theatrical run last summer, but which would have certainly made my year-end top ten if I had seen it. The term "Hitchcockian" gets thrown around a bit too easily by critics sometimes, but this one genuinely deserves the compliment. French actor-turned-director Guillaume Canet preserves the fiendishly tricky twists and turns of Harlan Coben's source novel without once ever making you think "Oh, come on..."
The potential for preposterousness was great in this story of a doctor (Francois Cluzet) who discovers that his wife, who was murdered eight years earlier by a serial killer, may still be alive. But although the complicated plot wobbles a bit in retrospect, there isn't a moment while you're watching the movie when you're not utterly engrossed. A Hollywood remake is already in the works, but there's no need to wait for that when the original is available now. The Blu-ray edition boasts a fantastic transfer, along with an excellent hour-long documentary not found on the regular DVD.
I was a big fan of Danish director Ole Bornedal's Nightwatch when it was shown at the Miami Film Festival in 1994, and I even enjoyed the neutered Hollywood remake he directed himself in 1997. But I had forgotten all about Bornedal in the ensuing 10 years, so I was pleased to find not one but two movies directed by him in my always-towering To Watch pile of DVDs.
The first one, 2007's The Substitute, is a horror movie made for children, or at least family audiences, although just because kids are the target demographic doesn't make this one any less intriguing. Aided considerably by Paprika Steen's lead performance as the sixth-grade substitute who may be - OK, is - an alien from another planet, The Substitute is terrific, fantastic fun, with enough dark wit to render the obvious comparisons to The Faculty pointless.
The movie was obviously a low-budget affair, since it appears the filmmakers ran out of money while shooting the climax (there are some noticeably choppy edits and missing bits of continuity during the last five minutes). But those flaws are not enough to detract from the film entire, which features the kind of completely believable kid actors too often missing from Hollywood pictures.
The other Bernadel film I saw was 2007's Just Another Love Story, which just hit DVD this week (the front of the DVD jacket uses a photo that contains a gigantic spoiler; they should have gone with the original poster art, shown at left). Kind of like Vertigo in reverse, the movie centers on a forensic photographer (Anders W. Berthelsen) who becomes obsessed with a woman (Rebecka Hamse) involved in a car accident he inadvertently caused.
Rendered amnesiac and nearly blind by the accident, the woman is easy prey for the lovestruck photographer, who passes himself off as her boyfriend in order to get closer to her. Bernadel tricks out the movie with lots of stylistic tricks and ingenious cross-cutting between unrelated scenes to amp up the suspense, and the ending is as inevitable as it is satisfying. In film noir territory, happily-ever-after endings are a rarity.
After watching No Country For Old Men again in the new two-disc "Special Edition" Blu-ray that recently came out, I was inspired to revisit the Coen brothers' canon - specifically the movies I didn't like the first time around - and see if time had changed anything.
Maybe it's just that some movies work better on video when you're watching them from your couch at 2 a.m., but I've completely turned around on The Man Who Wasn't There, which I found tedious and monotonous when I reviewed it eight years ago, but which I now consider to be one of the Coens' best efforts.
I was particularly impressed by Billy Bob Thornton's lead performance as the cuckolded barber: Rarely has an actor conveyed so much while doing so little. Roger Deakins' cinematography adds immeasurably to the film (he deserved an Oscar just for the way he played with shadows in the prison scenes). The movie is so beautifully shot, you could watch it with the sound turned off and still be entranced.
I also warmed up to The Ladykillers, arguably the slightest and least memorable of all the Coens' movies, but a lot funnier when viewed with lowered expectations. It helps, too, to watch the DVD with the subtitles turned on, so you can understand everything Tom Hanks' ostentatiously verbose thief is saying. The movie is ultimately too mild for its own good, but there are a couple of priceless sequences in it, and I appreciated the way the Coens make sure every subplot and character thread pays off by the end.
I discovered I still don't like Barton Fink (too hermetic and self-consciously odd) and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (too precious and erratically paced). The Man Who Wasn't There left me in a film noir mood, so I watched Sunset Blvd. again for the first time in more than 20 years and came away unsure whether or not it qualifies as a true noir. The story elements are all there, and it certainly looks like noir. But the fatalistic mood that is a requisite of the genre isn't there, and Norma Desmond isn't so much a femme fatale as she is a kind of decaying Hollywood gorgon. This is probably still the best movie ever made about the film industry, though.
Qualifying as a textbook example of noir was 1946's The Killers, which encapsulates every distinctive element of the genre into an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's short story. Director Robert Siodmak does some radical things with his use of light and shadow (that first shot of the killers outside the diner is a stunner) and Ava Gardner's maneating schemer is one of the most formidable villainesses ever, in part because she seems to do so little for so much of the film.
The folks at the Criterion Collection recently started releasing their films on the Blu-ray format, and one of their first titles happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time. Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1953 masterpiece The Wages of Fear (La Saliare de la Peur), about four men driving nitroglycerine-laden trucks through the jungle, is so suspenseful it still makes me gasp every time I watch it (the bridge sequence in particular makes me squirm).
The transfer on the Blu-ray is fantastic, with the movie looking sharper and more detailed than ever before. The film is accompanied by an informative host of extras, including a detailed list of all the supposedly anti-American content that was cut out of the movie during its original U.S. theatrical run. The only thing that would have made this disc better is if they had been able to include William Friedkin's infamous 1977 remake Sorcerer, which I am now jonesing to see.
Another of Criterion's Blu-ray releases, 1976's In the Realm of the Senses, was new to me. Highly controversial in its time (and still banned in its native Japan), I was expecting the hoopla to be much ado about nothing, the way decades-old controversies usually are. But this one definitely lived up to its billing - and then some.
It took me a little while to get used to the graphic nature of the film's sex scenes, but once I did, I was able to focus on what director Nagisa Oshima is doing, which is to use those scenes to chart the destructive relationship between his two lead characters. Here, finally, is a film in which the sex and nudity really are an integral part of the story (hell, the sex is the story). The eyepopping transfer on the Blu-ray boasts some startling colors, although this probably won't be a disc you'll reach for when showing off your home theater to company.
I finally caught up with The Outsiders: The Complete Novel, in which Francis Ford Coppola reinstates more than 20 minutes of footage he was forced to chop out by the studio the first time around. I first read The Outsiders in the seventh grade and remembered the movie fondly, but had always wondered why Coppola had left so much stuff out.
The reinstated footage does make The Outsiders a lot more faithful to the book, although I didn't care for Coppola's decision to replace much of his father Carmine's lush score with period rock-and-roll tunes. The new music dramatically changes the tone of some of the movie's critical scenes, and it also diminishes the larger-than-life, Gone With the Wind-sized dimension the movie was designed to have. Coppola's widescreen compositions remain awe-inspiring, though: This is a beautiful-looking movie.
I tried watching Sidney Lumet's 1981 drama Prince of the City eons ago, when I bought my first VCR and was renting VHS tapes like mad. But I remember not understanding it and pulling the plug after 10 or so minutes. This time around, I was able to follow the plot, but just barely: This is one dense, complex policier, a precursor to the storytelling style used in TV shows like The Wire and The Shield. The movie itself, a fact-based story on a New York City police corruption scandal, is OK, but it's got nothing on Lumet's Serpico, maybe because Treat Williams is no Al Pacino.
I could go on, but I think I'll stop here. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to make it out to the theater very much, which means I still haven't seen Watchmen. It's still playing at one theater in Hialeah: Maybe I'll head over there and check it out Thursday after I
slog sit through a screening of Angels and Demons.