Nashville (1975)

*. You could debate Robert Altman’s best film, with a number of plausible contenders, but I think the majority opinion is that Nashville is his most representative work. In the words of David Sterritt, it’s “the film Robert Altman was born to make.” Now: what does that mean?
*. Is it a movie about Nashville, Tennessee? Or the country music business? I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s a lot of evidence Altman cared much about either. It may be a movie about America. But the way I see it, what it’s mostly about is how people relate to one another.
*. Not having any clear agenda, it has left itself open to a variety of interpretations. Given my own reading of it, I want to look a little more closely here into how this works by discussing how Altman presents his characters, and how critics have responded to them.
*. Pauline Kael: “During this movie, we begin to realize that all that the people are is what we see. Nothing is held back from us, nothing is hidden.” I don’t know what to make of this. On the face of it, I think it’s very wrong. Altman’s fly-on-the-wall approach — showing not telling, with most of the dialogue coming in overheard fragments — only lets us see pieces of the people on screen. Some pieces are more revealing, or at least seem more revealing, than others, but they are still just pieces. Why does Kenny shoot Barbara Jean? Was that even his original plan in coming to Nashville? And what do we know about Tricycle Man? Is that all he is? A bike? Or is he just a narrative element, mere “connecting tissue” in Altman’s words.

*. I’m not criticizing Altman for this approach. I appreciate what he’s doing. How much do we know about anyone else in our lives, even those closest to us? How well do we really understand them? We have to make our judgments based on fragments. But such judgments can only be speculative, partial projections and shots in the dark. So when Kael starts explaining what the characters mean to her (all they are, remember, with “nothing hidden”), I tend to dig in my heels. How does she know?
*. For example. (1) “Barbara Jean is the one tragic character.” Really? Nashville seems stocked with tragic, sympathetic figures, with Sueleen Gay and Mr. Green being only a couple of the more obvious. (2) Tom (Keith Carradine) sleeps “with Geraldine Chapman, whom he’ll barely remember the next day, and with Lily Tomlin, who he’ll remember forever.” It seems to me as though he won’t remember Tomlin five minutes after she’s out the door. I think Kael wants Tom to remember Tomlin, but it’s not at all obvious he will. (3) Who, watching Haven Hamilton sing “Keep a’ Goin'” “would guess that the song represented his true spirit, and that when injured he would think of the audience before himself?” Again we have Kael discerning a character’s true spirit on spotty evidence. Hamilton seems like a pure shit to me. Was he really thinking of the audience before himself at the end, or was he just trying to keep his political future on the rails?
*. In his Great Movies essay on Nashville Roger Ebert quotes from a couple of Kael’s readings and agrees with them. I find them unpersuasive, as I do Kael’s initial premise that “all that the people are is what we see.” Still, if that’s the way you want to read the film, it is at least a point of view that’s available.
*. Standing before such a monument to indeterminacy and irresolution I don’t think it’s really possible to say what Nashville is about. I can only say what it means to me.

*. A constant motif throughout the film is that people don’t listen to each other. Nashville is a place where everyone wants to be a star, which means they want to be heard without having to pay attention to anyone else. Shelley Duvall’s L.A. Joan is a comic example, but really everyone is like this. The groupie and the celebrity have much in common.
*. This is something we see repeated over and over. Opal tells Bud Hamilton she’d love to hear him sing the song he wrote and then just gets up and leaves him when Elliot Gould walks by. Does anyone listen to the loudspeaker van or is it just background noise? When Winifred gets to sing at the racetrack we can’t hear anything over the noise of the engines, and presumably no one else can either. Del doesn’t want to hear about his boy’s swimming lessons. Pfc. Kelly doesn’t care about Wynn’s wife Esther dying, while Wynn isn’t interested in anything else. Finally, when Winifred sings “It Don’t Worry Me” it seems not so much a plucky or courageous anthem as simply a reflection of the crowd’s apathy. A couple of people have been shot but they’re all still there. It doesn’t bother them. They don’t care, any more than they care about the politics. They’re just there for the free concert and the hot dogs.

*. I think this is the central irony of Altman’s presentation: the overlapping, fragmented and muddy dialogue forces us into being ever more intent upon hearing what nobody in the film is listening to. I think it’s interesting that one of the few times we do see a character paying attention is when Del listens in on Linnea talking to Tom, eavesdropping (like the audience) on a conversation he isn’t a party to.
*. The film itself thus becomes a sort of exercise in determining what’s important. Given that there’s a lot of dialogue that’s hard to hear, and improvised, or just plain inconsequential blather, we have our work cut out for us. And this is one of the reasons why interpretations of the film diverge. We hear what we want to hear, or what we came in primed to hear.

*. I don’t know what it was with Altman and misandry. He made shocking changes to his sources in films like The Long Goodbye and Short Cuts to work in violence toward women. According to screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, when giving directions for the script for this film he only said he wanted a woman to be killed at the end “for whatever reason.”
*. The improvisation and humour foreshadow the comedy of Christopher Guest, as does the focus on celebrity culture. The two seem to go together, and to be sure the awful banality and amorality of publicity are easy marks. Fame is a cruel game. The vile crowd of local politicos hooting for Sueleen to strip are really no worse than the Opry goers who boo Barbara Jean during her on-stage meltdown. The public can be so demanding, and what it demands isn’t always right.

*. The ending seems slack to me, with its waving flag and sense that the show will go on even after everyone has gone home. I don’t see it as at all hopeful or affirming anything. We’re not even sure if Barbara Jean is dead. It’s a conclusion where nothing is concluded, which is fitting for a movie that was only superficially going somewhere all this time.
*. It’s hard to pin down the magic of a film like this, and of Altman more generally. The style is that of a documentary, which may be thought of as a kind of anti-style. Altman certainly didn’t want you to notice anything about the filmmaking. Then there’s no real plot and a general diffusion of interest across a wide spectrum of characters who often aren’t even connected. As already noted, much of the dialogue is just presented as background noise. Hell, even most of the music, and there is a lot, is pretty bad (again, deliberately). And yet one can’t deny the fascination such a film has, even (or maybe especially) on repeated viewings. Perhaps it’s the constantly teased connection between order and chaos, meaning and its absence, the significant and the ephemeral. Make of Nashville what you will and it obliges.

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Murder 101 (2014)

*. I’m not sure what they were thinking. On the most basic level it’s a slasher flick, complete with a slaughter of co-eds at a sleepover. But there are no good kills and indeed there’s no gore at all aside from the bodies discovered with the killer’s signature version of the Glasgow smile.
*. It’s also a kind of psychological thriller along the giallo model, but the story bumps along so clumsily that there’s no keeping track of the red herrings and the final explanation of who the killer is, and his motivations, is so baffling that I’ll confess I completely failed to understand it.
*. Perhaps a second viewing would clear things up a bit, but that’s not something I want to do. The pacing is slow, the dialogue stiff and the whole thing rather dull. A sense of humour might have helped, but I don’t think it’s meant to be a comedy. Or, for that matter, as a kind of meta-horror film along the lines of Scream or Behind the Mask. Sure most of the characters are laughable, but I don’t think they’re meant to be laughable. When the kids start to question whether the cute new criminology professor is really a professor, it’s absurd. But then you realize that he doesn’t act like any professor you’ve ever seen, so maybe he isn’t. And as for the FBI agent . . . does he even exist? This is just one of the questions I was left with at the end.
*. I try to come up with something nice to say about every movie I watch, but it’s hard for this one. I suppose what sticks in my mind the most is how confusing it all is. The killer (or at least one of them) quotes chunks of Hamlet apropos of absolutely nothing. Characters pop up out of nowhere and then disappear. The twist (or at least one of the twists) at the end introduces a superfluous hint of incest. Instead of wrapping things up, the final scene just adds another layer of mystification without explaining anything. The experience is a bit surreal. But not in a pleasant way.

Cannibal Ferox (1981)

*. Believe it or not, there’s some dispute over who has the bragging rights to having launched the sub-genre of Italian cannibal horror flicks that ran for about a decade in the 1970s and early ’80s. There actually weren’t that many of these movies, but seeing as each was released under a bewildering variety of names it always seemed like there were a lot more than there really were. “Ferox,” by the way, is Latin for fierce or ferocious. The film was also released as Make Them Die Slowly, among other titles.
*. The two main claimants to having kicked things off are Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi. I think most people who follow these things (I hesitate to call them scholars) give Lenzi the nod for having made The Man from the Deep River in 1972. It was, however, Ruggero’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) that really raised awareness of the so-called “cannibal boom.” In any event, by the time of Cannibal Ferox the conventions of the cannibal film were pretty much set and Lenzi wasn’t going to make any changes to them.
*. So, once more into the jungle, dear white people. This time we have two groups of doomed travellers. Mike and Joe are small-time drug pushers who leave the Big Apple when things get too hot, and end up hunting for emeralds among the tribes of the Amazon. If that seems a stretch, so is the idea that the subsequent murder of a junkie in Mike’s old apartment will set off an international manhunt to track him down to what was then the ends of the earth. Meanwhile, Mike and a badly wounded Joe are joined by a trio of explorers: ethnographer Gloria, her brother Rudy, and a superfluous pair of breasts named Pat. Apparently Gloria is looking to prove that cannibals don’t really exist. She doesn’t seem very well-informed, but then she doesn’t speak the language of the country she has traveled to either. Nothing good will come of this.
*. Nothing good does. Mike and Joe went full Kurtz on a tribe of natives but were overthrown and hunted down. It is as they were trying to escape that they met up with Gloria and her pals, who then find themselves in the same bloody boat. They are captured, tortured, and killed. Gloria alone survives to tell the tale.
*. There are numerous cutaways to local fauna, and the natives killing and eating animals. I don’t know what the point of these is, but they are a staple of the genre. Perhaps they’re just meant to show how “natural” cannibalism is. But since wild animals don’t know how to perform for the camera these sequences all seem pasted on. The piranha attack on Rudy is particularly silly.
*. This brings us to the moments of unintentional humour. After the piranha attack, Rudy escapes from the river and screams for the natives (!) to help him . . . while he has one (1) piranha attacked to his leg. And he is sitting on dry land. This is ridiculous. Even worse is the pig trap that Gloria falls into which looks like it could easily be climbed out of. There she is tormented by a baby pig that looks terrified and about as dangerous as a puppy. That the pig is later butchered by Mike only makes the silliness distasteful.
*. The usual political message gets short shrift, coming entirely in Gloria’s speech to Pat: “What a goddamn fool I was! Thinking I had to leave New York to find the reason behind cannibalism. Do you realize it’s us, the so-called civilized people who are responsible for their cruelty? Us and our superior society. . . . Violence breeds violence.” Fair enough, I guess, but then why does Gloria go back to NYC and write up a false report of what happened? Just to get her doctorate from the good liberal thinkers at New York University?
*. Basically the only point of these movies is to build up to a few scenes of shocking torture and death. They’re exploitation flicks, and Cannibal Ferox was marketed as “the most violent film ever made” and “banned in 31 countries.” So with that billing you have to deliver some video nastiness beyond watching natives kill and eat turtles and lizards.
*. For what it’s worth, the big scenes here involve cokehead Mike having his penis and then the top of his skull cut off, and Pat being hung up with hooks through her breasts. If that latter bit of depravity makes you think of A Man Called Horse (1970) you shouldn’t be surprised at the connection. Lenzi was inspired by that film and its influence was obvious in The Man from the Deep River.
*. Is it entertaining? Not really. Some of the dialogue is unintentionally funny in a crude way. The gore isn’t too bad, but it’s really only three very quick scenes. The plot is a total mess, wasting a lot of time following the police investigation back in New York. This has nothing at all to do with the main story, as Gloria will later be rescued by a pair of seedy monkey poachers who show up out of nowhere.
*. The cult cachet of these movies has gone up in recent years, leading to their being released on DVD with commentaries and other special features. Eli Roth even made an homage to them in 2013 (The Green Inferno). But really, they’re very poorly made and not all that interesting. If you’ve seen one you may not have seen them all but you’ve probably seen enough.

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

*. OK, first of all I just want you to know that I get it. I’m aware of the fact that comic books and video games are now our dominant cultural templates, and that today’s blockbuster movies have to speak their language. I also realize that such movies aren’t meant to be thought-provoking or intellectually challenging. They are all about CGI effects and lots of action. If they don’t make sense then that’s your problem because who told you to think about any of this?
*. I get all of this. But still. Do you think the brain trust behind Assassin’s Creed might have come up with a better idea for this movie than a quest to find the apple from the Garden of Eden? Apparently possession of this apple (which, it turns out, has been hidden in the tomb of Christopher Columbus for the last 500 years!) will rid the world of free will, sending us all back to a state of docile prelapsarian innocence. There will be an end not only to war, but all human suffering. And want. And climate change. Don’t ask how. Don’t ask any questions at all. Don’t even think.
*. This is a premise that I would be embarassed to have written. It’s a premise that Dan Brown would have been embarassed to have written. It’s really hard to overstate just how stupid it is. I think if you got a group of 8-year-olds of average intelligence to brainstorm an idea for a blockbuster movie even they wouldn’t be able to come up with an idea this dumb.
*. If only they could have dialed it down. What would have been wrong with the Templars looking to recover the Maltese falcon? Why does the fate of the entire world always have to be at stake in these movies?
*. The people looking for the apple are the Templars, who are apparently still quite a going concern in the twenty-first century. If they get their hands on it there will be world peace but at the admittedly steep price of submission to a one-world (Templar) order, overseen by Charlotte Rampling. Scary. Opposing the Templars are the assassins. They have a creed, which consists of articles like “nothing is true, everything is permitted, and assassins work in the darkness to serve the light.”
*. I’m not even going to bother making any more jokes about this. Basically, pitting Templars vs. assassins is just the vampires vs. werewolves set-up from the Underworld franchise. The plot is a dumbed-down version of The Da Vinci Code. The action is the usual comic book/video game fare. Our hero jacks into a virtual-reality device with the Jungian name of the Animus, allowing him to access genetic memories of his assassin ancestors and relive past battles. In effect, he’s playing a video game. We’re watching someone play a video game in a movie based on a video game. He’s also kitted out with blades on his wrists that turn him into a medieval Wolverine. This is all stuff we’ve seen before.
*. Director Justin Kurzel and leads Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard were just coming off working together on Macbeth. Does that seem like a big jump? It isn’t. Their Macbeth was terrible too.
*. Fassbender poses a lot without a shirt on, thrusting his chest out. I guess he’s been spending some time in the gym. Jeremy Irons does his usual villain thing. Cotillard’s character (she’s Irons’ daughter) seems entirely superfluous. People run around on rooftops and jump from heights. There are a bunch of fights that don’t look very interesting.
*. I’ll confess I’m not a gamer and I haven’t played any of the Assassin’s Creed video games. I don’t see how that makes any difference though. Indeed, not being a fan or otherwise invested in the franchise I may have been predisposed to cut the movie a little more slack.
*. For what it’s worth — and the near universal consensus is that it’s worth very little — Assassin’s Creed is considered to be one of the better video game adaptations to film. This may be true. What I wonder is why even bother moving in such a direction. To cash in on a successful franchise’s brand awareness, sure, but do the producers plan to actually make use of the differences between the two media to make something new, or are they just cashing in by making a derivative and inferior product? Thus far it seems they’ve been going for the latter, and I have no problem extending that observation to Assassin’s Creed.
*. I can forgive brainless comic book action. What I can’t condone is how dull a movie this is. They should have cut at least half an hour from the running time. Since there is absolutely no uncertainty about where any of this is going, and not even an attempt at creating characters we care about, they should have kept things moving a lot faster. As it is, scenes play out predictably and at tedious length, and the silly Animus machine becomes a repetitive device. Then, to cap things off, the ending is surprisingly anti-climactic. Of course they had to leave things open for the sequels, but I was still left open-mouthed at the final scene. Was that it? Not that I wanted any more, but was that all there was? This movie is a sugar crash without any rush.

Lisa and the Devil (1972)

*. First the back story. Mario Bava was riding (relatively) high after the success of Baron Blood and so was given a green light to basically do whatever he wanted next. Lisa and the Devil was the result, but it wasn’t seen as being commercial enough to find a distributor. So it was recut and some footage was added to make it into a devil-possession film that would cash in on the success of The Exorcist. This movie was called The House of Exorcism. Lisa and the Devil never had a wide release anywhere, and it’s really only been rediscovered recently with a deluxe DVD edition.
*. I don’t want to say anything more about The House of Exorcism here, as it’s really another, later movie and I don’t think seeing it provides any insight into Lisa and the Devil.
*. If you give a director, especially an older, established director, a bit of freedom, does it make sense to expect him to do something radically different than his usual? I don’t think it does. Bava was the filmmaker he was by this time, and while Lisa and the Devil is a little more bizarre than his usual fare we’re still very much in Bavaland. There’s the garish use of colour, the zooms, the mirrors, the mild exploitation in the form of gratuitous skin (Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina’s bosom yearning to be free), the family psychodrama, and of course the mannequins. I don’t know what Bava’s thing for mannequins was, but he really gets to indulge it here.
*. Even the basic plot, while weird in its uncanny neo-gothic way, isn’t that far afield from Bava’s usual territory. What mixes things up is the odd frame to the story. Is it all a dream? Is Lisa dead at the beginning, making the film an odyssey like that of Canadace Hilligoss in Carnival of Souls? I don’t know if things are worked out enough for us to be able to answer questions like these. I’m still not sure as to whether Lisa is just a random victim, a tourist having a resemblance to Elena, and or if she really is Elena. And I’m not sure if Bava knew either.

*. As the events slowly draw us into more surreal territory the atmosphere takes over. This is a good thing, as Bava’s plots were rarely his strongest suit while atmosphere was something he possessed in spades. After a while, and not a long while at that, I found myself wishing it were a silent film, or at least without any dialogue. I don’t think the dialogue gives us any necessary information, and without it I might have imagined I was lost in Buñuel’s Spain (which is where in fact this film was shot). I can’t think of any Bava film that makes such overt use of symbolism, with recurring elements like the keyhole arch Lisa passes through and the broken pocket watch. Even the mannequins fit with the surreal motif, and I’m only sorry we missed seeing Telly Savalas’s Leandro going full Buñuel and measuring Elke Sommer’s feet.
*. Usually when a director is given creative control over a project we’re encouraged to view the results as being more representative of their most abiding preoccupations and the peculiar bent of their imagination. I’m still not sure what Lisa and the Devil tells us in this regard, as it’s really a farrago of elements that don’t cohere that well thematically or tonally. It’s tempting to see Bava as Leandro: the stage manager of the whole farce, though forced to play the role of underling to the decadent, moneyed family. The actors, meanwhile, are transformed into mere dolls to be arranged into the proper positions. Even Sommer’s big sex scene has her unconscious throughout, only slightly more flexible than the skeleton she’s lying next to.
*. Is this the real Bava then? Well, maybe. It’s certainly a plumbing of someone’s unconscious. And while I wouldn’t rank it among my favourite Bava films, it does have goofy charm (introducing us to Kojak’s lollipops) and unfolds an elliptical dream logic that’s as smooth as a silken dress or tapestry. As with any dream, however, it’s hard to tell how much is surface and how much is depth. I find it weightless and mad, but nevertheless essential.

Baron Blood (1972)

*. Mario Bava scored a real hit with Baron Blood, which in turn led to producer Alfredo Leone giving him a free hand on his next feature, the ill-fated but intriguing Lisa and the Devil. That’s about everything good I can say about Baron Blood though.
*. The story is uninteresting and tired. Just for kicks, Peter, the descendant of a bloodthirsty German baron (modeled on Vlad the Impaler) decides to read aloud an ancient spell that, legend has it, has the power to resurrect his ancestor. The baron comes back and kills some people before finally being done away with.
*. None of it makes any sense. There’s a sexy witch who says things like “you mortals are such fools!” and a magic amulet thrown in for good measure. The young man pairs off with Eva (Elke Sommer), who runs around and screams a lot. Aside from looking good in a torn-up dress, she’s awful.

*. A couple of silly parts stand out. I liked it when Peter tells Eva that, after raising the Baron from the dead, “if we don’t dig him, we’ll ditch him.” Yeah, man! But even better is when the Baron, after being dead for three hundred years, crawls out of his grave and heads straight to a local doctor for first aid. You have to take care of yourself.
*. The book Peter’s professor uncle is seen holding is Die Kultur der Griechen by Thassilo Von Scheffer. I always notice things like this, and it made me wonder what it is he’s a professor of. When we see him working in his classroom he has mathematical equations and drawings of the brain on his chalkboard. He carries around books on the classical world. He says he studies ESP and the paranormal. I think he’s probably just the stereotype of the brainy Professor of Everything.
*. To be honest, I was mostly just waiting for Joseph Cotten to show up, which he does in a wheelchair at the halfway point. He’s playing Vincent Price (who was the first choice for the part). The fact that he’s disabled is immediately suspicious, since the castle he’s just bought doesn’t look very wheelchair accessible. Are they going to put in elevators while they’re refurbishing the torture chamber in the dungeon?
*. There’s nothing scary going on. The effects are poor. There are no good kills, despite the film’s reputation for gore. And Bava’s usual camera tricks, in particular the use of zooms and shots going in and out of focus, are gratuitous and overused. I know they’re a staple, but they’re so repetitive and pointless here that they become annoying.
*. I like Bava a lot but there’s no denying this is one of his weaker efforts, both uninspired and dull. I would recommend it to fans, but think that it may disappoint them the most. Better to take a pass.

Vengeance is Mine (1979)

*. There’s always a difference between the movie you see and the movie you remember seeing. I first saw Vengeance is Mine at a rep cinema (remember them?) in the early 1980s. I found some of it pretty shocking, though the friend I went with, who was Japanese, said it was nothing out of the ordinary for a Japanese film.
*. I didn’t know (and still don’t know) how true an assessment that was (I’m not expert on Japanese cinema), but there were a couple of images that stuck with me over the years. On returning to the movie more than thirty years later I was surprised to find that I had apparently imagined one of these. Call if false movie memory syndrome. It happens a lot.
*. David Thomson begins his Biographical Dictionary entry on Shôhei Imamura by telling us that “Imamura has never been easy to pin down.” Again, I don’t know how true this is, but Vengeance is Mine certainly strikes me as a movie that’s hard to categorize. It’s not a thriller. There are some bloody murders but they aren’t presented in a suspenseful way. It’s not a psychological study, or at least not a successful one. We get glimpses of various forces that may have shaped Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) and made him into a monster, but nothing that adds up to a convincing portrait (Roger Ebert: “A few scenes from the killer’s boyhood feel almost like satirical demonstrations of how any ‘explanation’ would be impossible.”) There’s some Dragnet music that plays occasionally but it’s not a police procedural.
*. Is it a morality tale? I don’t see it. The title is a Biblical reference, but whose vengeance is it drawing attention to? Personally, I don’t see this as a movie involving a lot of “vengeance” on anyone’s part. And what is the significance of Iwao being raised in a Catholic household? It doesn’t seem to have rubbed off. In one striking scene he attempts to strangle himself and adopts a pose suggestive of crucifixion, and we notice he’s wearing a crucifix too (the only time I remember seeing it in the film). But he’s hardly a Christ figure, and I don’t see anything in his story that suggests he could be seen this way.

*. I just want to dilate on this point about religion for a moment. Iwao is a poor vessel for carrying any religious meaning, but he is hardly unique in this. It is a problem for a lot of serious filmmakers who have taken up the theme of crime and punishment. One thinks, for example, of Bresson’s L’Argent (1983) and Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1988), two films that also suggest deeper spiritual or Christian interpretations that might take us beyond their sordid and bloody crimes. But do they work on that level? In Crime and Punishment (I’m speaking of Dostoevsky’s novel here) Raskolnikov has a conversion in prison, he sees the light. That doesn’t happen in any of these films I’ve mentioned, and certainly not in Vengeance is Mine. The modern killer isn’t a tortured soul or even a psychopath but only a blank slate or automaton. He has no spiritual dimension.

*. Moving along, is this a “state of Japan” film, a social documentary? It has a very realistic feel to it, and while the narrative is complexly structured there’s nothing flashy about it visually. I also thought it interesting how there are a lot of awful people in the movie aside from Iwao.
*. It’s interesting we never see Iwao in prison. He seems to think of Japan itself as a kind of prison, and is surprised while on the run to get a sense of how big it is.
*. Is it a love story? I remember finding the bath scene between Iwao’s father and his wife kind of creepy the first time I saw the film. This time I found it erotic. Perhaps that’s just me being older. As for Iwao, he seems to have some kind of genuine feelings for Haru. Like his father, however, he has problems with exercising his libido in conventional ways.
*. I don’t mean to suggest that Vengeance is Mine is a failure at being any of these things. I think it’s a movie that’s meant to suggest all of them.

*. That said, I’m still not sure what the ultimate purpose is. That may be deliberate though. It’s a peripatetic film, and does a great job of capturing the fragmented and random nature of Iwao’s wanderings and the sense of a passionless predator who is just going from one victim to another, taking money or killing and then moving on to the next hit. I doubt even Iwao could find a purpose or meaning in what he’s doing.
*. How sad to have such a good movie end with such a crumby effect. Are we to imagine Iwao’s bones are still floating around somewhere above the city? What sort of supernatural curse would have to be removed in order for gravity to take over?
*. I really like Vengeance is Mine but I do feel like something is missing from it. Not the black hole that is Iwao, that’s a given, but something more about the people around him. His father and wife, and Haru and her mother, all seem so much more interesting. They each seem to understand Iwao, or at least a part of him, but in different ways. In the end, however, they’re all fooling themselves. Self-delusion is, as so often, the real path to destruction.

Paradise (2014)

*. Any filmmaker’s style represents a particular way of looking at the world and expressing its meaning. The “look” of a film is always doing some work, no matter how generic it may seem. This is probably even more so in the case of animation, where reality is more obviously transformed and exaggerated in fanciful ways.
*. I think that’s clearly the case with Laura Vandewynckel’s Paradise, whose very distinctive visuals carry a message.
*. The main visual motif is that of transparency. We begin at an airport that is a kind of skeleton, all white frames that nevertheless contain space and are impermeable. Departures can’t just walk through empty walls but have to follow a certain path. That same transparency is also how human figures are rendered, as though their flesh has been stripped away and all that’s left is one of those “visible men” figures, with scribbles of a yarn-like circulatory system. It seems like they should be falling apart, but as with the airport building there’s an implied but invisible structure holding them together.

*. When the man gets on the plane we’re introduced to the second visual motif, as we cross a green moat protecting the White World from a sunny resort destination. Again there is the idea of an invisible barrier, one that the plane cruises above, upsetting the desperate refugees drowning below.
*. As it turns out, the man is enjoying a kind of sex tourism, where he’ll get to leave behind some of the extra baggage he picks up. What happens in the tropics, stays in the tropics. Alas, the White World won’t be able to maintain its gated-community status, and when the Man returns there are hints that the chickens are coming home to roost.
*. The political message is pretty clear. The native porters as sprinters at the block when the plane descends is a nice observation. White people get to enjoy the good things in life, flying above the suffering of the burning lands and their refugees without any sense of responsibility. Just as the plane passes over the refugees, the Man steps over the derelict in the doorway (whose appearance was fittingly foreshadowed in an earlier shot of a puddle).
*. Using the visual motif of transparency, Vandewynckel exposes the hypocrisy and vulnerability of the White World’s fantasy of splendid isolation. We see through it, and through them. How much longer can such frail structures hold together?