I suppose the first half is more tense if you’ve read beforehand that the movie involves a terrorist bombing plot – there’s little backstory or explanation as our young heroes walk briskly around Paris, check into hotels, take the subway, looking very serious as they drop off packages into vehicles and trash bins. After a half hour of this, an older-looking mustache guy shoots a dude in his apartment, breaking the simmering tension. Then we see the results of their efforts:

The long second half has our bombers gathered in a department store after hours waiting out the night, for some unexplained reason, instead of going home their separate ways. They blast some Willow Smith on the high-end stereos, shop amongst the high-end toys and expensive clothes, lounge in the designer living spaces, invite a homeless couple inside (Hermine Karagheuz!) and watch the news of their own exploits on TV until it starts to show the outside of the building they’re in. It ends the only way it could, the cops storming the store and killing everyone (even Hermine).

Not sure who everyone was, but our gang included Finnegan Oldfield (Les Cowboys) and Vincent Rottiers (lead baddie of Dheepan). Omar, their inside man at the department store who murdered the other security personnel, was Rabah Nait Oufella of Raw and Girlhood. There’s some fractured chronology, hard to follow even though the current time keeps appearing on screen. This and House of Tolerance were so slick-looking, it’s not surprising he made a fashion film in between them.

Ehrlich calls it “intriguingly inert”:

Bonello’s camera tracks behind each of the kids as they go about their shady business, emulating Elephant as the tactic conjures the same sickening momentum that made Gus Van Sant’s film about homicidal youths so vague and disquieting … It’s fine that Bonello would rather raise unsettling questions than provide unhelpful answers, but his inquiry often feels every bit as confused as his characters.

It does seem confused and perverse, and possibly even offensively wrongheaded (after the Bataclan attack, Nocturama was denied festival appearances and distribution). Why make this film, and what did the characters hope to achieve (in either the first or second half)? Only Blake Williams in Cinema Scope seems to have a convincing, incisive explanation – though you’ve really gotta read the whole thing, so I’m only excerpting his description of the movie’s timeline:

[Nocturama] presents time as indefinite, opposing conceptions of the present as concrete or ahistorical even as it works to augment the gravity of the present happening. Bonello’s choice method for achieving this is through shaping the film’s timeline into something that, were it to be graphed out, might resemble a lightning bolt — working through narrative events from one vantage only to fold back and re-show the same temporal moment again (and again). Many of his time warps are accompanied by either the reappearance of an onscreen time stamp or a repeated music cue, but many others arrive unmarked — especially when Bonello moves us further back in time, such as an extended detour through the initial planning stages for the attack — destabilizing our footing on already tremulous turf.

“Full Moon Pictures presents”

Oh God, it’s happening. I delayed for seven years, watching the occasional Dollman or Demonic Toys movie, but there are still Puppet Master sequels to watch, and eventually I must watch them.

“A Charles Band Production”

Don’t be too impressed – IMDB says Band produced 30 movies that year.

“A Joseph Tennent Film”

Since his previous Puppet Master sequel only a year earlier, director David DeCoteau had made about seven movies under various aliases.

Retro Puppetmaster

It’s so retro that Puppetmaster is one word again – a throwback to the first movie, or a misspelling due to overall franchise confusion and underpaid titles writers?

Flashbacking from 1944 to “long ago” Cairo, a sorcerer is stealing the secrets of the gods, and everyone in this temple is repeating their lines of dialogue in order to pad the scene.

Vincent Price-ish sorcerer holding scroll of forbidden secrets:

To Paris 1902, and enter flamboyant Ilsa, who is acting her heart out, and uptight Marguerite, who seems to be appearing in this movie at gunpoint and reading her lines phonetically. “Don’t go into any opium dens,” Ilsa is advised as she heads for a puppet show. She meets Young Toulon (now played by Greg Sestero, soon to become infamous in The Room) backstage when sewer-dwelling Dark City fellows hire hit men to take out a hobo after the show.

Sestero is not strangling this hobo, he’s checking for signs of life:

The prop and costume budget on this movie seems higher than the talent budget. “I understand. You’re a 3000-year-old sorcerer from Egypt and you want to teach me the secret of life.” Afzel (Jack Donner, DiCaprio’s dad in J. Edgar) shows Young Toulon how to resurrect the soul of his dead hobo friend into a mute wooden puppet with oversized arms, telling him this is the most precious power in the history of the world, which I dunno. The new wooden puppets are cool: I call them Skeletal Surgeon, Primitive Screwhead, Sergeant Cyclops and Hobo Hulk.

“It is time to act,” say the Dark City Goons, and not a moment too soon… oh, but that’s not what they meant. While Toulon is off being arrested and beaten by Ilsa’s ambassador father’s soldiers, the DCGs head to the theater and psychically murder all the puppeteers by blurring the film over their faces. Cornered, Afzel proactively blurs himself to death.

Blur-attack:

Self-blur suicide:

After all this plot and dreadful dialogue delivery, Toulon only has 30 minutes left in the movie to transfer the souls of his dead friends into the wood puppets and direct them to murder the DCGs. “We shall be avengers.” It’s actually not bad as far as origin stories go.

They set out to search the country for the Dark City Goons, but they’re standing right in the other room, so we get our first showdown straight away: the DCGs’ film-blurring powers vs. a bunch of stabby, strangley little puppets. The DCGs are dispatched by a falling chandelier, then the voice of Sutek shouts “live again,” and two of them do, with newly green-glowing hands. The remaining DCGs (their leader, the appropriately-named Stephen Blackehart, was later in Super and both Guardians of the Galaxy) decide to get to Toulon by kidnapping his girl.

Lovely Ilsa: Brigitta Dau, a voice on My Little Pony in its least-popular era:

Blackehart, probably:

Second showdown, on a train this time, where everyone talks real slow to allow the puppets time to get into position. It’s all kinda underlit and non-dramatic, so DeCoteau tries tilting the camera around to build some energy. The puppets team up on one guy and Toulon punches the other out the window. As with the rest of the Puppet Master movies, it feels like they’re desperately stretching out scenes to make a contractually-obligated runtime.

In 1944 postscript, properly aged Toulon (series fave Guy Rolfe) builds anticipation for another movie by telling his puppets that he’ll tell them what happened to the original puppets “at another time” – but it would be four long years before the clip-show Puppet Master: The Legacy, a cheap and shitty move even by this series’s standards, then came the Demonic Toys faceoff, and in the 2010s a new nazi-themed trilogy began, so I guess we’ll never know.

Paris, 1999: Sullivan and Camille are young and in love. He moves to South America, letters arrive less frequently, and flash forward to 2003, Camille has a serious haircut and is taking architecture courses. We see scraps of her life as the years go by, trying to get over Sullivan, dating married professor/architect Lorenz, moving in with him. When Sullivan finally returns to Paris, they get together, but not for long. “I’m leaving you because it’s too late or too soon to start again.”

My first Hansen-Løve movie and it’s a good one, with the beautiful Lola Crèton (Justine in Bastards) made ever-more beautiful by regular Jacques Audiard cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine. The look sometimes made me think of Rohmer, but the way the story and the scenes moved was something else, which I’m apparently not smart enough to describe accurately (Peter Labuza says “sensually naturalistic yet carefully calculated frames”).

In fact I have a hard time defining what makes this a great movie, but I’m convinced that it is. The talk about light in building design reminded me of La Sapienza, a movie I rated more highly than this one on a year-end list, but they could easily switch positions. Ben Sachs’ article in Mubi is a good one:

The movie seems to advance by intuition … Nothing happens comfortably or predictably: Hansen-Løve will devote several minutes to a seemingly mundane action, then advance the plot several months into the future with a simple, unassuming edit. (The greatest elisions, usually skipping over a few years at a time, are denoted by slow fade-outs that suggest the line breaks in a poem.) … The film ends abruptly, and yet at exactly the right moment. Hansen-Løve doesn’t sustain Camille’s final epiphany, which only makes it feel more true to life. The character, now a grown woman capable of elegizing her youth, hasn’t experienced a lifetime of love and regret – she only thinks that she has.

Maybe it’s a gimmick, but it worked for me, belatedly. I spent most of the movie wondering at the widescreen cinematography (which seems to use its black bars as a weapon, subtracting from the picture rather than adding) and the going-nowhere story, only gradually realizing that friendly, innocent Simon is being revealed as a liar and woman-beater.

Adam Cook:

The portentous title immediately creates an anticipation for the events that will follow. Yet whilst there is a logic to the title, Campos smartly plays with the audience’s expectations as this is not a serial killer thriller but the character study of a detached sociopath who leeches off others before discarding them when they have fulfilled their usefulness. Simon is a complicated and ambiguous character, weak and pitiful yet cunning and manipulative. He is a man who adapts himself to take advantages of situations, appearing hurt and helpless yet always in control.

American Simon is Brady Corbet (part of the Melancholia wedding meltdown) and his girl in Paris is Mati Diop (35 Shots of Rum), and the two cowrote their parts together with Campos, whose third feature Christine premiered at Sundance the week I watched this.

We watched these on Mondays (“Before Mondays”) in January.

Before Sunrise (1995)

Celine and Jesse meet on a train, talk for a while, and he convinces her to disembark in Vienna and spend the day with him before his flight out. They ride the trains and buses, go record shopping, visit a cemetery, church and carnival (feat. The Third Man ferris wheel), talk to fortune teller, poet and theater guys, hang out in bars, cafes and plazas then end up in the park with a bottle of wine. Next morning at the train station, plans to meet again in six months. Standard, unadorned romance-movie setup. Nothing new here. But so, so perfect in the dialogue and details. Linklater won best director in Berlin.

Before Sunset (2004)

Carefully maintained real-time structure – only about one edit where I felt time might’ve elapsed, and then no more than a minute. It also shuts out all side characters once the main couple meets again at Jesse’s book event (right after readers succeed in getting him to admit that the girl he’s written about really exists). Conversation starts with reminiscing and explaining why they didn’t meet six months after last time, gradually turns more personal, revealing their dissatisfaction with current relationships, leading to one of my favorite-ever movie endings: Jesse, who parted with Celine last time to catch a plane, not making that mistake again.

Before Midnight (2013)

No more happy reunions – they’ve been together since the last movie and now have twin girls. Jesse is concerned about his son growing up with his mom a continent away and feels out Celine on the idea of moving there, which sparks a massive, movie-length argument that felt almost too real for Katy to handle. At least they’re in a new country, at the end of a writing retreat in Greece, but there’s little time for sightseeing. The first section of the movie has them in conversation with friends (including Athina Rachel Tsangari), a nice way of bouncing our main couple’s middle-aged ideas on love and romance off other couples of different ages.

Happy SHOCKtober!

It’s hard to tell what I watched in SHOCKtober 2013, since I was running months behind and posting movies out of order, but I think it was six movies, from Mr. Vampire through The Black Cat, plus a Last Ten Minutes full of ridiculous horror sequels. SHOCKtober 2012 consisted of a single movie, The Hole. So 2011 was the last big SHOCKtober, and 2010 even got its own horror top-ten list. Time to bring back the shocks – got a bunch of movies lined up for this month.

Polanski himself plays Trelkovsky, who snags a Paris apartment (with an awfully steep deposit) thanks to the suicide of the former tenant Simone, and is made to feel unwelcome by almost everybody. He visits Simone during her final days in hospital agony and meets her friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani of Possession, also Lucy in Herzog’s Nosferatu). Then Trelkovsky attempts to settle in at home (he works as some kind of clerk, shades of Kafka), but everyone is suspicious of him, even the local police, accusing him of rule violations, and Trelkovsky starts to suspect these hostile neighbors drove Simone to jump from her window.

One man and a wardrobe:

French neighbors scheming against Polish Jew, was starting to look like a persecution story, but then Polanski starts believing the neighbors are trying to turn him into Simone when he wakes up with women’s makeup on his face, and another day he’s lost the same tooth she had lost.

At the end, when he has found shelter at Stella’s place then trashes her apartment because he thinks she’s in on the conspiracy, it becomes clearer than Trelkovsky is just nuts. Inevitably, he jumps from the apartment window in front of an imagined audience of mocking neighbors, but the fall doesn’t kill him, and as the police arrive, he lurches back up the stairs and jumps a second time, ending up in a time-loop as he takes Simone’s place in the hospital bed and sees himself and Stella visiting.

Polanski and Adjani pause to watch Enter The Dragon:

Great cast: Melvyn Douglas (40-some years after The Old Dark House) is Mr. Z the landlord. Jo Van Fleet (Wild River) brings a petition (which Trelkovsky refuses to sign) to evict another neighbor. Jeunet regular Rufus (Amelie‘s dad) comes by looking for Simone. Shelley Winters (A Place in the Sun, Night of the Hunter) plays the angry building concierge. Unfortunately some actors have been euro-dubbed, and even the cinematography by Sven Nykvist (between Black Moon and Autumn Sonata) looked just-decent on my video copy.

Jo:

Melvyn:

Ebert called it an embarrassment, also explains there was an apartment shortage in Paris at the time. I guess people were bound to be disappointed in any follow-up to Chinatown, but Canby called it “the most successful and most consistently authentic Polanski film in years,” dismissing Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby as “more or less tailored to popular tastes.” Critics mention Trelkovsky’s meek and malleable nature and the film’s pessimism, but I’m still not sure what to make of the Egyptian references. And am I misinterpreting the image, or at one point is his nightstand replaced with a two-dimensional copy?

Nominated at Cannes the same yeas as Taxi Driver, The Marquise of O, Kings of the Road and Mr. Klein. Based on the novel by Roland Topor, who cowrote Fantastic Planet and played Renfield in Herzog’s Nosferatu.

We’ve got three guys who live in the same building over a cafe: painter Jerry (Gene Kelly), pianist Adam (Oscar Levant of The Band Wagon and The Barkleys of Broadway) and semi-rich guy Henri (French singer Georges Guetary). Each has a backstory, love and career aspirations, but only one is Gene Kelly so we don’t spend much time with the other guys.

The ladies: Leslie Caron (whom I recently saw in Surreal Estate) has a killer introduction via musical dream sequence. After Gene acts stalkerish towards her (as we know from watching classic movies, this is the correct approach) she starts to fall in love with him, but whoops, she’s due to marry Henri who once saved her from nazis. Rich, overconfident Nina Foch picks up Gene as his sponsor, then starts to act possessive.

So Gene and his two women take up most of the plot, but surprisingly Oscar gets a long dream sequence of his own, where he plays a dramatic piano piece conducted and accompanied and viewed by other Oscar Levants (someone has been watching Keaton’s The Playhouse). At the end Gene finds out about the whole nazi thing and grudgingly lets his girl go, then proceeds to dream himself a massive, astounding ballet (IMDB confirms Gene was a big Red Shoes fan). Sometime during the ballet Leslie must’ve had a heart-to-heart with Henri, because he brings her back to Gene at the end, leaving one happy couple, two broken-hearted rich people, and one lonely, out-of-work Oscar Levant. Then one assumes Nina pulls her sponsorship so Gene never gets his art show, and the couple lives off Leslie’s perfume-counter pay in their tiny apartment.

Written by major songwriter Alan Jay Lerner (My Fair Lady) and directed by Minnelli between The Pirate and The Band Wagon. The songs have a rocky start with the unintelligible By Strauss, then Gene’s got a great routine for I Got Rhythm but there are children interfering with the song. Finally Gene and George get in a nice version of ‘S Wonderful halfway through. Oh and Gene and Oscar sing one in the apartments where Gene dances in a doorway. But really it’s all about the three dream sequences.

J. McElhaney in Senses of Cinema:

Chris Marker has stated that when he, Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet were in London in 1952 filming Les Statues meurent aussi they began every day by attending a 10am screening of An American in Paris. An American in Paris: a film which, apart from a few second-unit shots, recreates Paris entirely on Hollywood soundstages and the back lot; Les Statues meurent aussi: a documentary short on what happens to African art when it is exhibited in museums where it loses its relationship to the folk culture from which it sprang and as a result becomes lifeless, part of the “botany of death that we call culture.” In a larger sense, the short is also about the nature of art and what it (along with science and religion) means to us in our fight against death, becoming the “instrument of a desire to seize the world.” There are, of course, many ways for an artist to seize the world and consequently many ways for the artists we sometimes call filmmakers to do so as well, through the most rigorous of documentaries to the most stylised of musicals. Marker does not go into detail as to what it was he and his collaborators got out of this daily ritual of watching An American in Paris except to note the “lightness” that they felt watching the film. Consequently it may have been nothing more than a refuge from the seriousness of the work on their own obviously very serious film. But let us suppose for a moment that what these three French filmmakers saw in the faux French world of An American in Paris was a cinematic universe parallel rather than antithetical to their own, one equally possessed with a desire to seize the world and equally concerned with its own version of the “truth” but paradoxically articulating it within the realm of artifice. In the midst of a review of Francis Ford Coppola’s musical One from the Heart Serge Daney describes Coppola as working within the Minnellian idea “that a good illusionist does not ‘break’ the illusion, but constantly multiplies it, ad infinitum. The truth of a mask is not the face but an excess in the mask .. Two minuses make a plus. Two falsehoods make a truth”

Valentine’s Day screening with Katy (who liked it more than I did, but has issues with Owen Wilson) ends my 8-year ban on Woody’s new films since his Melinda & Melinda was so awful. Owen is about to marry irredeemably bitchy Rachel McAdams (potentially of the next Terrence Malick movie), so they’re vacationing in Paris with her condescending/republican parents (Kurt Fuller: Karl Rove in That’s My Bush! and Mimi Kennedy: the anti-war diplomat trying to wrestle into the war meeting of In The Loop, also of the Mr. Boogedy movies).

Owen is an annoyingly self-effacing frustrated novelist (but not so self-effacing that he doesn’t push people he’s just met into reading his manuscript) and a lover of old-fashioned things. At the titular magic hour/location he finds himself in his ideal 1920’s, mingling with Zelda Fitzgerald (Alison Pill: Scott Pilgrim‘s girlfriend), Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody, wonderful), Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) and fifty others. Each time Owen manages to stammer out their name and indicate that it’s an honor to meet them, then the famous character gets a couple lines before we’re whisked away to another famous character. Owen also meets non-famous Marion Cotillard, who dreams of an even earlier time, and then that ol’ Paris magic whisks her and Owen back to a pub in the 1880’s or 90’s where she meets her own art heroes (Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas) – who dream of an even earlier golden age. This was my favorite bit, where the movie seems to mock Owen and its own nostalgic premise. Marion opts to stay in her ideal past, but Owen returns to his present, dumps his wife (she was sleeping with Michael Sheen anyway), and picks up tour guide Lea Seydoux (baddie who shoots Paula Patton’s boyfriend in Mission Impossible 4).

Michel Simon (returning from Le Chienne) is Boudu, a crazily bearded homeless guy who grows despondent over the disappearance of his dog and jumps into the river. Hundreds gather to gawk, but one man, a bookseller who was watching Boudu before he jumped, leaps in to save him. The bookseller (Charles Granval of some Duvivier films) is congratulated and given awards for taking the poor man in, so he can’t throw him back out, even though Boudu is wrecking his house and interfering in the bookseller’s affair with his housekeeper Anne Marie. Finally Boudu wins the lottery (!), and so marries lovely Anne Marie, but just after the wedding, floating down the river with the whole family, Boudu topples their canoe and floats away, happily returning to his hobo life.

Simon at his most Charles Laughtonesque:

I can’t figure out if it’s an attack on bourgeois society, or simply an attack on everything. It opens with a couple of telling scenes. Boudu loses his dog, asks the police for help and they tell him to fuck off. A rich woman loses her dog a few minutes later and everyone in the park takes up searching for it. Then a fancy man drives up and Boudu opens the door for him. The man searches all his pockets for cash to give in return, until finally Boudu is tired of waiting and gives the guy five bucks. It’s a very fun comedy, much lighter than La Chienne and with an exuberant performance by Simon. Richard Brody calls Boudu a “walking principle of anarchy, insolence, and truth,” who “punctures the pretenses of decent society with the riotousness of a fifth Marx brother.”

There’s a scene with Jean Daste as a student visiting the book store, and immediately afterwards, a shot of barges on the river. I figured Daste + Michel Simon + barges = a L’Atalante reference, not realizing that this movie was released two years earlier.

Jean Daste with Charles Granval:

Renoir: “The success surpassed all hopes. The public reacted with a blend of laughter and fury.”

Based on a play, which was remade for television in the 70’s, again in the 80’s with Nick Nolte then in 2005 with Gerard Depardieu.

It could be fun to think of this movie as a sequel, since Michel Simon ended Le Chienne as a cheerful hobo, his former life and marriage in tatters. But the accountant of Le Chienne was too mild to turn into a Boudu. Also, his beard wasn’t nearly awesome enough.

C. Faulkner

This is the period of the Depression in France, which accounts for the indifferent remark by a working-class character on the bridge that, of late, people have been throwing themselves into the Seine with regularity.

There is a sense that Boudu exteriorizes something that is in Lestingois himself, that the bookseller has summoned him up from the dark reaches of the personal and social unconscious. Boudu is everything at the center of the self and within society that has been discarded, ignored, or repressed. This “boudu” belongs to filth, to waste, to the unassimilable; he is an instinct, an urge, a drive. (What kind of name is Boudu? Does it connote a substance? An action? A disposition?) This “boudu” is something “savage” (so says Madame Lestingois), summoned involuntarily, that both attracts and repels, in equal measure, and over which Lestingois has no control, as the balance of the film proves.

Assistant director Jacques Becker plays a ranting poet in the park: