“Why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?”

Brilliant visual display of espionage, duplicity, politics and memory (real and false), with at least five perfect performances, but the one who towers above them all is Angela Lansbury as a power-hungry politician’s-wife.

A group of Americans is captured with help from their traitor translator Henry Silva, then Laurence Harvey (Darling, Room at the Top) is brainwashed by the Enemy and sent back to the States, but his fellow soldier Frank Sinatra starts to remember their capture and realize something is amiss. Meanwhile Sinatra falls for Vivian Leigh, Harvey kills his girlfriend (Leslie Parrish of Li’l Abner), and Harvey is being controlled by his evil mother to put his weak-willed stepfather in power, but he turns on them at the last minute.

Sinatra and his girl:

Harvey and his mother:

A movie featuring a wannabe-president supported by a foreign power who puts ketchup on his steaks. I originally planned to double-feature this with A Face in the Crowd, but maybe The Dead Zone would be more appropriate. Frankenheimer made this the same year as Birdman of Alcatraz, a couple years before the similarly paranoid Seconds.

While the Lady Gaga superbowl party raged downstairs, I was upstairs watching one of the most emotionally upsetting war films ever made…

Americans in the Vietnam war get into a battle while De Palma lowers his camera into the tunnels where someone is creeping up on Michael J. Fox, who has fallen partway through before being rescued. So the movie opens with Fox not being a huge help to his squad, and his reputation only gets worse. The men survive, but a few (movie) minutes later, Fox rescuer Erik King gets shot at a supposedly friendly village. Back at camp, Fox’s teammates (leader Sean Penn, Sean’s violent buddy Don Harvey, John C. Reilly and timid new replacement John Leguizamo) are frustrated that the whorehouse is off limits, so on the way out to their next assignment they kidnap a village girl (Thuy Thu Le) as a sex slave. After she’s raped and tortured for a couple days, they stab and shoot her during a battle atop a train trestle (during which, if I’m not mistaken, there’s a friendly-fire disaster down below) and toss her body off a cliff.

Fox has never gone along with this, trying to free the girl and once standing up armed against his men. Later as he’s recovering from a head injury back at base, he’s told “what happens in the field stays in the field” but reports his men’s actions to Lt. Ving Rhames, who says he’ll break the men into new squads and that Fox should forget it. Fox persists and finds sympathetic Sgt. Dale Dye (a Vietnam vet and the film’s technical advisor) who helps him take the men to military court, but not before Clark attempts to assassinate Fox with a latrine grenade (with some impressive first-person camera) and Fox strikes back with a shovel. The investigators find the girl’s body, each soldier is sentenced to at least eight years in prison, then back to Framing Story Fox, who still has nightmare/daydreams.

While Fox is distracted:

Such an intense and brutal movie. De Palma seems to borrow some of the obvious war stuff from Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, but the acting and filmmaking are on point, and the bitter fury comes through loud and clear. It’s not so much an anti-war movie, more about extremes of human nature, but obviously Redacted is a companion piece. Michael (not Paul) Verhoeven shot a 1970 feature called O.K. covering the same story, which caused outrage at its Berlin Film Festival premiere.


De Palma (2015, Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow)

After finally catching up with Casualties (glad I waited for blu-ray) I watched the recent career-summary documentary, finding it amusing that the guy who directed the swearingest movie of the 1980’s looks like Uncle Toad and keeps saying “holy mackerel.” He’s proud that his generation of buddy filmmakers (Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, Coppola) were able to do great work inside the studio system “before the businessmen took over again.”

On Carrie remakes: “It’s wonderful to see what happens when somebody takes a piece of material and makes all the mistakes that you avoided.” He wrote the spy kid in Dressed To Kill as himself. “I used to follow my father around when he was cheating on my mother.” I finally got to see the alternate tidal-wave ending in Snake Eyes, and as suspected it’s cooler than the real ending.

B. Ebiri:

Paltrow and Baumbach don’t get fancy with the filmmaking. They’re smart enough to let De Palma’s own resonant images — his gorgeous compositions, his smooth camera moves — do much of the work. (After all, if you can’t make an awesome clip reel out of Brian De Palma films, then what good are you?)

Directing Dancing in the Dark:

A. Nayman, who does a good job discussing the doc itself, instead of using it as an excuse to talk about De Palma’s career:

De Palma’s pride at taking a potentially ordinary, corporately backed genre exercise and hotwiring it into a slick and enjoyable piece of craftsmanship seems tied to the fact that Mission: Impossible made a lot of money. Whatever their technical or artistic merits, the successes of Carrie, The Untouchables, and Mission: Impossible differentiates them within a body of work that’s typically been more notable — and in some corners, largely validated — on the grounds of failing to connect with audiences. For all the glee De Palma says he takes in making viewers uncomfortable, he seems to get off even more on getting big crowds into the theater in the first place.

Me, I’m using it as an excuse to talk about De Palma’s career. It’s time to rewatch them all, but I’m in the middle of a hundred other things so it’ll probably have to wait. The ones I most need to watch are Hi, Mom! and Wise Guys. And to rewatch, in order:

The Untouchables
Carlito’s Way
Scarface
Mission: Impossible
Body Double
Femme Fatale
Blow Out
Raising Cain (the new edit)
Mission to Mars
Phantom of the Paradise
Sisters

It says a lot about the tone of your movie when Burial is your theme music – beautiful but fragmented vocals overlaid on a sprawling, complicated song structure. The original song even opens with the dialogue “excuse me, I’m lost.”

I learned a new word: Wahhabism. Movie gives a history lesson on Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, then leads into the present debacle, which seems even more hopeless after watching this. Combo of staged material with rough outtakes from news footage and who knows what else. Afghanistan is compared to the planet Solaris. None of our leaders are any good at leading. Everyone is hugely corrupt.

The movie goes for long stretches without voiceover or titles – a new approach for Curtis – though not as long as the Bitter Lake trailer would suggest.

Worst part: Afghani government officials are super corrupt. Local police force become evil militias, suppressing the people. British troops don’t know this, arrive in town offering to help the local police. Townspeople say oh great, more oppression, and attack British troops, who assume they’re Taliban and bomb the shit out of them. Eventually, fighting factions realize British troops think anyone hostile to them is Taliban, start telling the Brits that people they dislike are Taliban, basically using the Brits as hit men.

The woman Julia Roberts played in Charlie Wilson’s War:

Piecemeal protest doc with surprisingly great location footage and interesting scenes, each one a bit too loud and going on for too long. The pieces are mostly unsigned, but I believe Chris Marker put the project together, and some segments are either identified online, or just very easily guessed (ahem, Resnais). They mention that Joris Ivens shot on location – most everyone else stayed home and used stock footage or filmed protest marches.

“It is in Vietnam that the main question of our time arises: the right of the poor to establish societies based on something else than the interests of the rich.”

Cluster-bomb:

Supposed to be President Johnson:

The Resnais segment is interesting before it wears out its welcome. Bernard Fresson (of a few Resnais films, including a small part in Je t’aime, je t’aime) is playing “writer Claude Ridder” (name of the lead character in Je t’aime, je t’aime played by Claude Rich) while a woman Karen Blanguernon (Rene Clement’s The Deadly Trap) glares from the corner of his office. This segment was written by Jacques Sternberg (Je t’aime, je t’aime, of course), so perhaps Claude Ridder was his standard lead character name, since this Ridder seems too impassioned to be the heartbroken dead soul from the feature. “Ridder” monologues on the war, politics, and his own inability to make change. “A spineless French intellectual articulating excuses for his class’s political apathy,” per the NY Times.

Next, a history lesson using stock footage, photographs and comics, drawing connections to the Spanish Civil War (the Resnais had mentioned Algeria).

Then Godard, who monologues in front of a giant film camera, talking about the distance, his inability to connect with the war itself, or even the French working class, the focus of so many of his films. Since he can’t film on-location, he inserts Vietnam into his feature films. “I make films. That’s the best I can do for Vietnam. Instead of invading Vietnam with a kind of generosity that makes things unnatural, we let Vietnam invade us.”

After a jaunty music video to a protest song by Tom Paxton, a longer somber voiceover reading the words of Michele Ray who spent three weeks with the Viet Cong, showing her footage before it goes crazy at the end.

“Why We Fight,” in which General Westmoreland explains the official U.S. position on the war, filmed off a TV while someone zooms around and twiddles knobs. Title must be referencing the 1940’s U.S. propaganda film series Why We Fight, which Joris Ivens contributed to.

Anti-napalm rabbi:

Monologue by Fidel Castro, who gives his theories on guerrilla warfare and how this applies to Vietnam. The new wavers seemed to have easy access to Fidel back then.

Ann Uyen, a Vietnamese woman living in Paris discusses Norman Morrison’s setting himself on fire outside the pentagon, and what that meant to her people. “We think that in America there is another war, a people’s war against everything that’s unfair.” Then an interview with Norman’s widow, who seems in sync with Norman’s politics. This was by William Klein.

War protest zombie walk, probably shot by Klein:

Marker’s outro:

In facing this defiance [of the Vietnamese], the choice of rich society is easy: either this society must destroy everything resisting it – but the task may be bigger than its means of destruction – or it will have to transform itself completely – but maybe it’s too much for a society at the peak of its power. If it refuses that option, it will have to sacrifice its reassuring illusions, to accept this war between the poor and the rich as inevitable, and to lose it.

“The oil is trying to disguise itself”

Impressionistic doc shot in aftermath of Kuwait war.

Divided into sections:
– A Capital City (pre-war helicopter shot)
– The War (bombing footage)
– After the Battle (post-war helicopter shot, big horns on soundtrack)
– Torture Chambers (implements and stories)
– Satan’s National Park (oil-drenched landscape)
– Childhood (traumatized survivors)
– And a smoke arose, like the smoke from a furnace (burning oil wells)
– A Pilgrimage (firefighting)
– A Dinosaur’s Feast (vehicles, opera music)
– Protuberances (boiling oil)
– The Drying Up of the Wells (capping wells with new hardware)
– Life Without Fire (some of the fires are re-lit, great narration here)
– I am so weary of sighing, oh lord, grant that the night cometh (finale)

Minimal narration, lots of slow motion. Great music selections from Mahler, Arvo Part, Prokofiev, Wagner, others. I know little about the Kuwait war apparently – why were the Iraqis torturing people to death? But these details are beyond the scope of the film.

Great point by Noel Murray:

Herzog was booed at the Berlin film festival after a screening of Lessons Of Darkness, and accused by the audience of being more interested in pretty pictures and philosophizing than in the human toll of the Gulf War. That’s not an entirely unfair criticism. Throughout his career, Herzog has shown less engagement with any one particular political conflict or social issue than with the bigger picture of how humans continue to fight with each other and with their environment. But then that’s why Lessons Of Darkness is still so beguiling, decades after the war that inspired it.

Herzog:

The words attributed to Blaise Pascal which preface my film Lessons of Darkness are in fact by me. Pascal himself could not have said it better… With this quotation as a prefix I elevate the spectator, before he has even seen the first frame, to a high level, from which to enter the film. And I, the author of the film, do not let him descend from this height until it is over. Only in this state of sublimity does something deeper become possible, a kind of truth that is the enemy of the merely factual. Ecstatic truth, I call it.

After the Nairobi mall attack, I felt like watching some terrorists get killed. Jessica Chastain (Tree of Life, Take Shelter) gets help from her torturer friend Jason Clarke (killer of Gatsby), follows the trail left by informants to identify Bin Laden’s personal messenger, sees her friend Jennifer Ehle (Contagion) get blown up following a false lead, traces the messenger’s cellphone, follows him to a compound, spends years convincing her dumb bosses (first Katy’s TV football coach Kyle Chandler, then Mark Strong of Tinker Tailor) to invade it, then sends a Seal team (featuring Brolin-looking Gatsby star Joel Edgerton and Chris Pratt of Parks & Rec). They crash one helicopter but still have two others, shoot Bin Laden in the face, and take off.

1. A deep-voiced white kid Rafael is the only peacenik in his New Mexico high school, spurred on by a hippie teacher. His parents will hear nothing of it (“There was a time for national debate. It’s over”) so he leaves home.

2. Fernanda’s kids are abducted and killed on the first day of school by local racists. The cops are unhelpful jerks, and the kids aren’t found for a month. Fernanda herself is held for two months under suspicion of murder, disappears when released, goes wandering, is found by a woman with a house full of finches.

3. Ex-Marine Carlos returns from war, finds his job gone, is full of uncontrollable lusty rage.

So, a indie film over two hours long, shot on 16mm, full of 1990’s politics but released soon after September 2001. This was destined to be ignored, but accidentally destined to be extremely relevant to the decade that followed.

Freeze frames, long refreshingly unscripted-feeling dialogue scenes, and of course some scenes of trees and the whispering wind. Plus extended concert segments by Naseer Shemma, an Iraqi musician who performs his celebrated composition dedicated to civilians killed when American planes bombed a shelter.

Michael Sicinski in Cinema Scope:

Mad Songs is a political film that encompasses multiple stories, but does so following a film historical road less travelled – beginning with DW Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat and leading most recently to Fast Food Nation. The stories never intersect; instead they examine the problems of a time and place (the suburban US during the first Gulf War) almost geologically, by taking samples from discrete layers of American life.

Part of what makes Mad Songs so poignant, and at the same time incredibly strange, is the hope and earnestness with which it concludes. No film I’m aware of has given so much space to peace activists, sitting in meetings and testifying about the transformative power of nonviolent resistance. To a generation of critics and cinephiles reared on post-noir cynicism, Gianvito’s treatises surely sounded like transmissions from another planet.

Gianvito:

When I first began to conceive the project that became The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, around 1993 I believe, it grew purely out of seething rage over the events of the 1991 Gulf War, the mainstream suppression of those events, and concern over the continuing support of lethal sanctions and military “containment” of Iraq. By the time I saw the film to completion the entire situation had only grown graver and more infuriating.

Koko’s Earth Control (1928, Dave Fleischer)
Koko the Clown walks the planet with his dog until they find the Earth Control station. The dog willfully and maliciously pulls the end-of-the-world switch and then acts all panicked when the world begins to end. What did he think would happen? Fun mix of live-action (tilt camera while people pretend to fall to the side, the dog skittering atop an animation table) and animation (earthquakes, volcanoes, the sun melts the moon).
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Dutch Bird (2004, Kirk Weddell)
Ridiculous comedy – old man is sad and alone, so his friends convince him to go out again by pranking him with a story about drugged racing pigeons. On my TV the color was way off, which was really the main interest in the movie. In the below shot, everyone had green skin against a pinkish sky. It was eerie – as the 20 minutes stretched on and on, I liked to imagine that green-faced aliens had gotten a hold of The Full Monty and Waking Ned Devine and were producing Brit-com films of their own. Sadly, getting screenshots on my PC the color turned out normal.
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Tale of Tales (1979, Yuri Norshteyn)
At least two jury competitions have named this the greatest animated film of all time. It is really good, but we all wished it’d been half its 30 minute length, and its symbolism was extremely obvious. Not that I ever get less-than-obvious symbolism, so that’s not something I ought to complain about. Wild Things are playing jump rope and a little dog kidnaps a baby, and there’s war and peace and what not. Supposedly the director has been working on his film of Gogol’s The Overcoat ever since – for 30 years. He must be the Jeff Mangum of Russian animated films.
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Harpy (1978, Raoul Servais)
Kind of an absurd, funnier Tales from the Darkside episode. Guy saves a poor harpy from being beaten to death by an angry man and takes it home. But it keeps eating and eating and making his life hell. Finally it eats his legs off when he tries to escape, so he attempts to beat it to death, it gets saved by another man, etc. Same ending as Argento’s Jenifer, then. Mostly appealing for the crazy harpy visuals. The Belgian director has also made films called Siren and Pegasus, must find those sometime.
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Grasshoppers (1990, Bruno Bozzetto)
Cute, no-frills cartoon that looked like something out of Mad Magazine. Civilization rises out of the grass only to fight war after war after war, represented by a few dudes at a time, not by whole armies. The kind of thing that would’ve played on O Canada if it wasn’t Italian.
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Out of Print (2008, Danny Plotnick)
A dude yearns for the days when cult movies were actually rare and you could only get crappy unwatchable dubbed versions if you knew a guy who knew a guy. As someone who enjoys being able to see cult movies easily and in relatively good quality, I don’t see the dude’s point.
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World Cinema (2007, Joel Coen)
Llewelyn from No Country stops at an arthouse movie theater playing Rules of the Game and Climates. Gets advice from the ticket guy, watches Climates and likes it. Having seen Climates myself I’m not sure this is too realistic. Also not sure why it was cut from the DVD of To Each His Cinema.
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Even in a year of crazy films like The Wicker Man and Touki Bouki, ain’t nothing crazy enough to sit with The Holy Mountain. This was the last of Jodorowsky’s fully-realized features until Santa Sangre (nobody, AJ included, seems to like The Rainbow Thief or Tusk).

Third shot of movie: Director/Alchemist with women who will soon be shaved:
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First half-hour is free-flowing. A Thief (who I didn’t realize never speaks) wanders with a deformed dwarf, getting beaten up and attending a toad-and-chameleon circus, while around them dissidents are executed, riot police hold a dead-animal parade, and priests pick up underage prostitutes. Finally the thief breaks into a mighty tower occupied by The Alchemist (Jodorowsky himself) who cleanses him, turns his shit into gold, and then introduces our other characters and their corresponding planets:
– Fon/Venus – narcissist who runs fashion & cosmetic companies, slave to his dad
– Isla/Mars – major arms manufacturer
– Klen/Jupiter – sex-obsessed artist
– Sel/Saturn – makes war toys to prejudice kids vs. countries we plan to invade
– Berg/Uranus – murderous bureaucrat
– Axon/Neptune – ruthless mohawked police chief with testicle collection
– Lut/Pluto – futuristic architect, designing sleep-chamber apartments
(I had to look some of those up – movie is sensory overload, I forgot stuff)

Three chameleons prepare to defend Mexico from the toad invasion:
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Kind of a Jesus/disciples thing, but is the Thief Jesus or is the Alchemist? They go through intensive spiritual training, then Alchemist leads them to the Holy Mountain atop which nine ancient immortals control our planet, with the goal of deposing them and becoming immortal themselves. Each traveler has a dream of their own bizarre death, but they continue to the table at the summit, where they find dolls in the seats. Sitting down, camera pulls back to reveal Jodorowsky’s lighting and sound crew, and he proclaims the truth: “We are images, dreams, photographs,” freeing them from the film itself.

Atop The Holy Mountain:
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Haven’t checked out the commentary yet (tried to listen at work, but of course it’s in Spanish), but in a modern interview online, Jodorowsky says he never killed animals for his movies – not even the rabbits in El Topo. That’s surprising, but I’ll take the guy at his word. He also says he became a feminist during the making of Holy Mountain, and indeed it’s hard to think of movies less feminist than his previous two. He’s a fan of Lynch, Cronenberg and Starship Troopers, and I wish him luck with his long-delayed Lynch-produced next movie.

Alchemist & Thief in chamber of mirrors:
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Cinematographer Rafael Corkidi shot The Mansion of Madness the same year. A few of the actors have popped up elsewhere… Lut/Pluto had a small part in The Exterminating Angel, Axon/Neptune was an Oliver Stone collaborator throughout the 90’s, and Fon/Venus plays the lead girl’s dad on the show Rebelde.

Our director:
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After Calvaire and Frontier(s), it’s the third movie this week with a hair-shaving scene.