two movies about nothing

Last Year at Marienbad is infamous for being an inscrutable art film. Endlessly parodied, it introduces us to three people: A, a beautiful woman, X, the man who says they met last year and planned a tryst this year, and M, who may be the woman’s husband or lover. They converse and walk through a dreamy, immense mansion and grounds built around strict geometric patterns, endlessly repeating themselves in variations of what may be the past, fantasies of it, and fantasies of the present and future. In some scenes it seems as if X and A are lovers and did plan a romantic rendezvous, and in others it seems he is pestering her.
Alain Resnais has said the film has no meaning, but it inspires endless conversation. The only other film I’ve seen of his was Night and Fog, the brutal documentary about the Holocaust that remains the best film made about it. In Marienbad, he makes masterful use of tracking shots, mirrored compositions, reflections and frames where the actors pause while the camera slowly tracks around them. The cinematography makes the mansion seem endless and confusing, the gray outdoor scenes recall a house of purgatory lost in the mist, as in the ghost tale The Others. The slow tracking shots were an obvious influence on Kubrick for The Shining, and like his haunted Overlook Hotel, the very setting here seems dreamlike and unreal.
Like a cross between the ennui of L’Avventura, where the people are so shallow that they might disappear into the background, and the emptiness of the suits in American Psycho, where one can be mistaken for another, Last Year at Marienbad could be about the mutable persistence of memory, as Dali painted it; one party drifts into another, one year of vacationing at Marienbad is like the next, and who’s to say what was promised, and who forgot whom? Was someone shot, and did we flirt, and make plans we never meant to keep?
There are obviously many interpretations and this is the kind of film, like Doubt, which claims the final act is the discussion you have afterward. Ebert loves how gripping it is, and it is true- though little happens, like the other infamous film of this sort My Dinner with Andre– which is merely a conversation over a meal- it can be hard to look away. The narration- something Resnais is masterful at using, as in Night and Fog– and the incredible camera work and framing, whether it is A’s face or watching the men play endless, fruitless games of matchsticks- draw you in. “Seinfeld” was famously a show about nothing- a bare framework that master comedians and writers used to prove that even with nothing, they could make us laugh. And here, with barest semblance of plot, characters drawn from archetype, and dialogue that circles in on itself and goes nowhere, a masterful director can make us watch.
It helps that A is a stunning beauty, and X, who narrates, is a master seducer. M, by contrast, has a severe brow and resembles Peter Cushing at his most villainous. We are told little, but we begin to think of him as her husband or lover, for he dominates her in some way. M also has an unerring habit of winning all the games he plays, with ruthless skill. The film became a puzzle during its time and it remains as intriguing, though admittedly hearing those who saw it in theaters during its release gush about it is a “you had to be there” situation. What can compare? Will Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York rise to the challenge? I enjoyed this, it appealed to my love of German Expressionism. Do I know what it means? I like to think Resnais was playing with minimalism, and showing how film techniques can draw us in and make even the gauziest image feel three dimensional.
The exact opposite technique is used in the excellent, ahead of its time, feminist masterpiece: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Directed by Chantal Akerman, the camera is beyond static and almost seems to disappear. At the same height, unobtrusively observing the monotonous life that unfolds before it. It is over 3 hours long, and in theaters it was an excruciating test of both bladder and concentration to watch. The maddening rote is its message; Jeanne is a widowed housewife who fends for her son and herself- she prepares and serves dinner thanklessly, cleans the plates, and tends the house. We see three days of her Sisyphean toil.
The first introduces us, and we pore over the minutiae of housewife habitat and behavior. In the early ’70s, women were becoming liberated and this is a stark reminder of how few choices they had. That becomes even more evident as we see day two, when a gentleman arrives at the apartment for sex. Her son is unaware of what she does to send him to school, of course, and is even callous in his disregard. He takes his life for granted. When he describes sex as disgusting, and wonders how women can tolerate it, she begins to unravel. Her sacrifices are utterly disrespected. I won’t tell you what happens on day 3; you can watch all 210 minutes to find out, but the ending is incredibly powerful.
Director Chantal Akerman surely was a great influence on Michael Haneke, one of my favorite film makers. He’s probably best known for Cache and Funny Games, but his film most resembling this one would be The Seventh Continent, which brutally depicts the empty life of a nuclear family. Classic film fans, and fans of Haneke especially, should give Jeanne Diehlman a shot.

Le Samouraï – girl, gun.

Jean-Pierre Melville is a true master. This is something I seem to have internalized without seeing his films, and by seeing one of his least acclaimed films, Un Flic, first. I found it in a DVD bin, and found it a gripping cop thriller. And if that’s mediocre, I wondered, what would great be? The next film of his I watched was the brutally oppressive picture of the French Resistance working in Nazi occupied France, Army of Shadows. I felt like a power drill was twisting my guts into knots, as I watched the agents operate, not knowing who would be betrayed, to be dragged off by Vichy scum. Or when vengeance could be wrought, years later. You feel the sense of terror these people must have had very clearly, and it stands as one of the great artistic representations of organized moral terror.
But Le Samouraï is something else. It takes the anti-hero of a contract killer named Jeff Costello and strips it down to the barest of essentials. A man, a code, a girl, a gun. It went on to inspire John Woo to make The Killer, Jim Jarmusch to create Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Luc Besson to give us Léon. We meet Jeff in his spartan flat, smoking a cigarette and watching the ceiling fan turn. A scene later cribbed by Francis Coppola for Apocalypse Now. A tiny caged bird flutters in its prison, tweeting discordantly and scattering feathers. Before the visuals begin, we are given one epigram: “There is no solitude greater than a samurai’s, unless perhaps it is that of a tiger in the jungle.”
I read Roger Ebert’s Great Movies review of this long before I saw it, and the detail of Jeff’s flat containing only packs of cigarettes and bottled water struck me as brilliant. We never see Jeff eat. He is gaunt and haunts his surroundings like a spirit, in his long grey trench coat with the collar pulled up, and his immaculate fedora. He has a relationship with a call girl named Jane, but only uses her as an alibi, not for pleasure. He doesn’t desire her, he needs her; this inspires her loyalty. As Jeff heads out for a job, he becomes robotic. He has a ring of car keys and slips into a Citroen, his eyes flicking side to side as he tries them all. Like the famous kitty cat clock, until one turns and he takes off. He slips into a jazz club to do his work, and faces his target.

Bar Owner: Who are you?
Jeff Costello: Doesn’t matter.
Bar Owner: What do you want?
Jeff Costello: To kill you.

His work is done without splash or emotion; the jazz singer Valerie, perhaps intrigued by this fellow jungle cat, follows him to the hallway, and sees his face as he exits. His one mistake, catching her eye. Jeff lives in a drab world leached of all color. Noir is a black and white world where everyone is a shade of gray, but Melville chose color for Le Samouraï. And somehow it is still beautiful, unlike the overused desaturation we’ve seen everywhere since Saving Private Ryan. He is the perfect killer, and thus must face his diametric opposite, the unstoppable detective. Known only as The Superintendent, he immediately senses the professionalism of his prey and wastes no time, putting all his forces into play to catch this faceless assassin. We respect him, and our loyalties waver. Just a hair.
Of course, Valerie doesn’t finger him, and neither does Jane. Alain Delon’s Jeff is not merely handsome but intense and alluring, despite his stone face. His steely eyes exude his loneliness, and they are drawn to the abyss. The plot has been copied a dozen times; not only is he pursued by the police, but doublecrossed by his contractor. Instead of being paid, he’s shot and escapes. He tends to his wounds with stoicism, in a scene that directly inspired the recent and memorable No Country for Old Men, when Chigurh plucks buckshot from his knee. As Jeff dodges the police and hunts down his employer for vengeance Melville delivers a spectacular foot chase through the metro. The French Connection and even The Taking of Pelham One Two Three owe a debt to this fantastic scene with double backs, escalator jumps, and even simple glances as Jeff spots the undercover cops with their transmitters, broadcasting his location.
This is deconstruction done right; the character and story of a contract killer whittled to the bone, where he resembles a Buster Keaton with his moral compass turned to magnetic south. The emptiness of a room, a life, a soul fills the screen with such rich minimalism that it proves that for a story, all you needed was a girl and a gun; Godard may have said it, but Melville proved it.

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come with Pépé le Moko to Le Casbah

I finally watched Pépé le Moko, the crime film set in the Casbah of Algiers with Jean Gabin as a Parisian crook holed up in its seedy labyrinth. As a lifelong fan of Pepe le Pew, I almost fell for director John Cromwell’s attempt to erase this film by buying up prints and destroying them. See, he directed the remake Algiers with Charles Boyer and Hedy (Hedley!) Lamarr, and didn’t want the French classic by Julien Duvivier around for comparison. Now I’ve seen both, and while Hedy is gorgeous, see this one. Jean Gabin brings great life to the notorious thief Pépé le Moko.
I’d seen Gabin before and admired his skill in Grand Illusion and the lesser-known early noir Port of Shadows, and he’s equally excellent here. Like the skunk that would later spoof him, he has an effortless way with women; he exudes such confidence, and moves through the exotic world of the Casbah as naturally as a jungle cat in its realm. According to wikipedia, Graham Green cited this story as an influence on The Third Man, and the story is similar, except we meet Harry right away. Pepe is king of his domain, his small pond that he cannot escape. The cops set up traps, but he’s eluded them for two years, playing cards and pulling small heists with his gang. It’s not until Gaby, a Parisian beauty trophy-wife of a fat businessman who visits Algiers for the thrill of it, shows up that Pepe remembers the City of Lights and yearns for his home.
In the meanwhile we get a gritty gangster tale as stool pigeons are lured by the cops, and their victim, returning to Pepe’s hideout with a bullet wound, is helped to shoot the snitch with his dying breath. That’s part of what made the movie so appealing, how it balanced a crime tale with romance equally well. Its influence would go on much further than cartoons, and the dangerous beauty of Algiers would inspire even greater films such as Casablanca and the aforementioned Third Man. The remaining prints are soft and scratchy at times, but the poetic realism style holds up especially well today, and never feels old fashioned. In fact, some parts seem a little brutal if you see them through classic-film glasses; there’s no Hayes Code here.
The tough guy whose heart betrays him is now an icon of cinema, and Jean Gabin’s Pépé le Moko is one of the first and the greatest. Like Humphrey Bogart after him, he was able to convey immutable strength and yet, weakness inside that would engender our empathy, not our contempt. He was more handsome than Bogey, which makes his tough guy persona harder to sell, but he does it effortlessly. He’s rough around the edges; used to getting what he wants. He slaps around the young crook he mentors, like he was surely cuffed by his own teacher; and Gaby is both aroused and frightened by his street manners. It’s not easy to be so confident and not come off as cocky, which would lose us from his side. Gabin knew how to pull it off, and this is probably his best demonstration.

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NetFlix Queue Picks – JCVD

The first good movie starring Jean-Claude Van Damme? I was intrigued when I heard about this one. JCVD is not a venereal disease you catch in church, but a movie about a down on his luck Van Damme who gets caught up in a robbery hostage situation. And it’s everything you don’t expect from a movie with him in it. Now, I like watching him struggle with lines and spin-kick for no reason, but seeing him in a thriller-drama was just as enjoyable.
For one, the first scene is Van Damme on a movie set, fighting his way through a war zone in one uninterrupted take for a demanding Hong Kong director. It’s one of the best action scenes in a Van Damme movie, including the much-maligned Hard Target which I love. It’s mentioned several times that Van Damme “brought John Woo to Hollywood and then got dropped” for big names, and after seeing Face/Off, Broken Arrow and Mission: Impossible II I have to say, when the Jean-Claude Van Damme one is the least ridiculous, what the hell is going on here? But that’s another story. Jean-Claude is behind on his alimony, he’s losing his custody battle, and he needs his paycheck cashed to pay his lawyer. But the bank can’t cash his check, so he goes looking for a post office so he can send a money order.
On the way, some fans ask for photographs and he quietly accepts. Through his suffering he remains thankful to the fans. He takes a cab ride and just wants to sleep, but the cabbie keeps talking; she finds him rude, and tells him so. We see our hero reduced to having more than feet of clay, but perhaps a whole body of it. And when he enters that post office, nothing you expect happens. One crook is a fan and wants to see him spin-kick a cigarette out of someone’s mouth. We keep waiting for him to turn into the karate machine, but this is an actor. A tired one. And before he gets out of this sticky situation, we’ll see him bare his soul. It’s nothing you’d expect from a Van Damme movie, but more gripping than any film he’s ever made.
This was one of the most surprising and enjoyable movies of 2008 and I regret waiting to rent it. It was theater-worthy. This is like Cop Land was for Stallone; Van Damme is directing The Eagle Path (trailer) due out this year, but I know little about it. If he learned enough from JCVD, it might be something.

Rating: Tasty

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Wasabi

Jean Reno is one of my favorite actors. I’ve been to Japan and like the crazy Zoku girls. So a movie where Jean Reno is a French supercop who finds out he has a daughter with a Japanese flame who’s passed on should be perfect for me, right?

WRONG!

Written by Luc Besson’s factory of monkeys with typewriters, and directed by a a Monsieur Ratner type who’s body of work is the 3 Taxi sequels, we have a script so flimsy that I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Those that know me might say my eyes are barely open when I’m surprised, but let me reiterate- a goofball cop movie where Reno punches transvestite bank robbers across the room like Arnold Schwarzenegger strutting onto the set of Dog Day Afternoon in an outtake from Last Action Hero should never be boring. And sadly, Wasabi is.
The joke bit of title is that Yumi is supposed to be like the condiment, spicy Japanese horseradish paste that’s surprisingly colorful and potent. The problem is, she’s just a typical annoying teenager. The actress was 21, so fap away, but she was pretty unappealing in this one. It was a film I wanted to like, but couldn’t be bothered with; I’d seen it all before, and Jean was really phoning it in. This wants to be a comedy version of Leon: The Professional but Hirosue doesn’t have Natalie’s acting chops, and there’s little chemistry between the trio of Reno, his daughter, and his partner Momo playing fish out of water in Tokyo.

Rating: Stinky

Tell No One

If you don’t mind subtitles, this is one of the best thrillers of 2008. If you mind subtitles, learn how to fucking read. Tell No One is based on the novel by Harlan Coben, a Jersey boy who won’t make Dennis LeHane lose any sleep soon, but who writes solid thrillers about ordinary people thrust into frightening and realistic situations when something from their past rises from the muck and comes out swinging.
Alexandre Beck is a reserved and friendly doctor working at a Paris clinic. We meet him one morning when a brash, thuggish man brings in his child and demands that Dr. Alex see him. We see his calm in dealing with the violent man, and the sadness in his eyes. Through flashbacks, we learn that Dr. Alex’s wife was brutally murdered 8 years ago, as they swam in a lake near a country cabin. He heard her scream, and when he climbed onto the dock he was knocked unconscious. Eventually her murder was blamed on a serial killer operating at the time, but he never confessed. Alex himself was suspected, because he could never explain why he was pulled from the water.
Now eight years later, two more bodies have been unearthed in the same area. The police begin sniffing around again. And on the anniversary of her death, Alex receives a cryptic e-mail he believes to be from his dead wife. How can this be? Is she still alive? He never got to identify the body. Her ex-cop father had that unfortunate task, and he describes the brutality vaguely, with obvious pain. So we have a set up similar to The Fugitive, but instead of fleeing the cops and hunting the one-armed man, Alex finds himself hunted by vicious, powerful men intent on destroying the life he’s managed to cobble together after Margot’s murder.


As he awaits the instructions in the e-mail, he finds that he is being watched. And as he reaches out to friends, they become targets. The pincers of the police digging through the old case begin to close, and Alex has no choice but to go on the run, for his own safety, that of his few friends, and possibly for Margot’s, if she really is alive. Director Guillaume Canet keeps the tension pegged for much of the movie. The nameless thugs are led by a bearded man who kills as if he’s swatting a fly. His consort is a silent woman with ripped muscles who seems to have studied massage therapy for the ability to cause pain instead of relief. Played by Mika’ela Fisher, she’s one scary bitch.
Alex gets stuck between them and the police, with only his lawyer friend on his side. Even Margot’s father turns against him. The film is Hitchcockian in how things close in on Alex, but without the master’s dark humor. Here we are kept in Alex’s shoes for the entire film, and we feel his fear. When he finally runs from the police, there’s a fantastic foot chase through Paris, with none of the usual cliches. When he comes up against a busy highway he can’t just dash across, flip over a windshield and keep going. There’s also no booming chase music, we get to hear his breath, his footsteps, and the sounds of the city around him as he dives through alleyways, the backs of shops, and through street fairs. And unlike most wrongfully accused men, Alex actually gets tired.
The film is taut as a drum, and while we meet many colorful characters- sleazy lawyers to street thugs, senators obsessed with steeplechase horse races- they all matter. The ending is a little too long, and maybe a little too neat, but we get there it’s quite satisfying. Alex is played by François Cluzet perfectly, as a man who dearly loved his wife and is not granted superhuman powers through his righteous anger at her murder. Dustin Hoffman can play him in the inevitable remake. But see it before then, it’s worth a little subtitle-readin’. Even if your lips move while doing it. Then go read the book, too.

4 croque monsieurs out of 5

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Taken

Liam Neeson: I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.

Voice on other end of phone: Good Luck. (click)

That’s the set-up for Taken, an excellent action-revenge thriller about an ex-operative whose daughter gets kidnapped abroad. Liam Neeson is the father, Famke Janssen is his ex, and Maggie Grace (The Jane Austen Book Club) is his daughter, who he’s fighting to stay involved with. It sounds typical, but the writing is taut and the actors subtle enough to portray history without overdoing it. And as you’d expect from the director of Danny the Dog and District-B13, the action is top-notch.
The movie spends a good 30 minutes setting things up, but from then on it’s a gripping thriller. The story takes us to director Pierre Morel’s familiar Paris, where it’s only been grittier in Irreversible. Brian Wills, a retired operative who sometimes does security detail work with old pals for celebs, still has the edge. We see that in an early scene where he protects a pop singer. But he’s a bit of a control freak; he’s seen the worst of the world, and he’s overprotective. And his spoiled daughter is still interested in karaoke and ponies at 17. The kind of morsel that gets eaten up if not well guarded in the big city.


Once Brian hits Paris, he’s a ruthless machine. He traces down the kidnappers with the expertise and zeal he warned them about, using his old contacts and a lifetime of working with international scumbags. What do kidnappers want with a pretty young thing like Kim? Well, there’s still plenty of trafficking in young women in the world, and it’s not just young Russian girls like in Eastern Promises. He only has so much time before she’s hooked on heroin and sold off someplace where women are still chattel. 96 hours, a friend tells him. So he wastes no time.
This is to our benefit, because the pacing keeps us from noticing just how damn good an operative Brian is. Like another guy named Jack Bauer who has a hapless daughter named Kim. But let’s face it, Liam Neeson may have been suckered into playing Qui-Gon Jinn, but he can act the pants off Queefer Sutherland even if he’s stuck in a Jedi robe. Here the only willful suspension of disbelief you’ll need is the usual bad marksmanship attributed to the bad guys in movies, which we’ve come to expect. The hand-to-hand fighting is much more exciting anyway, and Pierre Morel manages to make Liam look as bad-ass as Jet Li did in his last film (also known as Unleashed).
This is up there with Man on Fire and Spartan for tops in the kidnap thriller genre, and will please action fans who want something gritty and grounded somewhat in reality. Famke Janssen has the thankless role of the bitch ex-wife but looks hot as usual; Maggie Grace also doesn’t get much to do except be an excitable American teen wench, but she certainly looks scared enough to fit the bill. Taken isn’t a great movie but it delivers both action, thrills and emotional involvement in spades. A notch above your average thriller, it shows that Pierre Morel is a director to be reckoned with, and hopefully this will do well enough in the States to give him the recognition he deserves.

3.5 broken arms out of 5