by Greg Muskewitz
Greenaway's A Zed and Two Noughts
Rather than despair for a week at home (and the hospital) thanks to another week of chemo, I decided instead to bring the movies home to me for an all-too-overdue video-grab-n-run. Now I wasn’t about to go to any old video store in San Diego — no Blockbusters, no Hollywood Videos. In New York, among others, they have Kim’s; in Los Angeles, I hear Vidiots has a lot to offer; San Diego’s own treasure trove is Kensington Video, right next to the Ken Theater. It had been too long since I last set foot in the store (though that’s mainly because I can’t leave without something, two rentals quickly becoming five) and not even ten-minutes in front of the foreign DVD section, I had a handful of films that weren’t going anywhere other than home with me. Once a title was in my hand, I couldn’t put it back, and even after skimming the section a second time (just the DVDs, not even the videos!), my mind wasn’t going to change. So while I get to save myself a few extra days on saying something about 50 First Dates and Eurotrip, I may just find myself back at Kensington Video.
This is easily a film that could be remade in Hollywood where the interest would be reassigned to playing to the viewer instead of with them.
Rather than despair for a week at home (and the hospital) thanks to another week of chemo, I decided instead to bring the movies home to me for an all-too-overdue video-grab-n-run. Now I wasn’t about to go to any old video store in San Diego — no Blockbusters, no Hollywood Videos. In New York, among others, they have Kim’s; in Los Angeles, I hear Vidiots has a lot to offer; San Diego’s own treasure trove is Kensington Video (http://www.kenvideo.com), right next to the Ken Theater. It had been too long since I last set foot in the store (though that’s mainly because I can’t leave without something, two rentals quickly becoming five) and not even ten-minutes in front of the foreign DVD section, I had a handful of films that weren’t going anywhere other than home with me. Once a title was in my hand, I couldn’t put it back, and even after skimming the section a second time (just the DVDs, not even the videos!), my mind wasn’t going to change. So while I get to save myself a few extra days on saying something about 50 First Dates and Eurotrip, I may just find myself back at Kensington Video.
Beware of a Holy Whore. At some eventual point in time, I had to start somewhere with Rainer Werner Fassbinder. For the contemporary critic, meaning someone barely in their second decade of life such as myself, there are endless lists of filmmakers and their films in which beginning to make up for the lost time I simply wasn’t available during is a maddening place to be, never feeling as though I will be able to get out of the grave I dug myself, at the same time as trying to keep current. The advent and popularization of video and DVD has inarguably provided a huge cache of worldwide films at any individual’s fingertips. It also, however, takes away a particular luster from the theatrical showing, the revival house, the repertory cinema, in that, if you don’t catch it now, you can always catch it later. And so by the time that you stand in front of a single wall of videos at a rental store other than a Blockbuster or Hollywood Video, the undertaking is enough to last a lifetime. There are so many classic directors’ works I have to make up that the luxury of watching a single filmography in order is not an option I possess. (Between spotty availability and the fortuitous nature of what is checked out and when, it’s nearly impossible.) So just like Day for Night had to be my springboard for Truffaut, Breathless my springboard for Godard, Heart of Glass my springboard for Herzog, Hiroshima, Mon Amour my springboard for Resnais, etc., Beware of a Holy Whore was my springboard for Fassbinder. It’s a self-reflexive black comedy about filmmaking (immediate thoughts of Day for Night), or more specifically, a black comedy about Fassbinder’s style of filmmaking. When the film opens, the cast and crew of a German film about “human brutality” (Fassbinder’s theme of choice) are cooped up in a disreputable Spanish hotel by the shore, awaiting the arrival of one of the actors (Eddie Constantine as himself) as well as the director (Lou Castel, accoutered with Fassbinder’s leather jacket). A producer has pulled out from the project, taking away a large source of funding, and the materials ordered from Germany haven’t come either. (Fassbinder stars as a screaming production assistant.) When the director does show up, it’s hell on the set for everyone, all of whom are either between exhaustive ennui, drunken stupor, emotional frustration, promiscuity, displacement, or a combination thereof. The backstory behind the film, according to the cast, is that its depiction is a direct result from the real events that took place behind-the-scenes on the previous Fassbinder film, Whity. Never straying too far from rumored fact, the film is frustratingly funny, unmistakably self-indulgent, but with the assurance that what R.W. is indulging himself in is something he’s good at doing. The issue at hand is rarely about the actual production of the film, but the action taking place on the sidelines, the ego, the anger, the suffocation, the compromise. It’s flimsy, but it’s undeniably entertaining in the perversity of self-mockery (the integrity being that it couldn’t just be mocking, but self-mocking), and according to texts, it marks the end of Fassbinder’s avant garde period. With Hanna Schygulla, Marquard Bohm, Margarethe von Trotta, Hannes Fuches, and Ulli Lommel.
A Zed and Two Noughts. A fancy, or at least British way of spelling out “zoo,” which is where the action takes place that sets everything forth: the wives of two zoologists are killed by a woman named Bewick who hits a swan on Swann’s Way. (And in case you didn’t know, bewick is a type of swan.) Being that it’s a Peter Greenaway film, one isn’t about to make heads or tails of it. It features Greenaway’s highly obsessive tendencies in various forms (he loves to show things off in snippets of information — the decomposing of an apple, a fish, a crocodile, a Dalmatian, a swan, a zebra, etc.) and his rigorous self-imposed standards of visual bizarrity. The woman named Bewick (Andréa Ferréol) suffers first the loss of her right leg (the first images of the movie are of an amputated ape) before her symmetrical disproportion convinces her to amputate again, and she becomes the muse for the twin zoologists (Brian and Eric Deacon, not really twins) — formerly Siamese — who are attempting to find an evolutionary link between the deaths of their wives and a swan, and in the meantime, one or both of them manage to impregnate her. (“No limbs to hinder entry.”) Apart from the clarity of the humor, much of it centered around amputation (“How do you feel?”/ “Short of a leg”; short coffins, etc.), the dialogue itself follows tradition in the cryptic floatation of Greenaway’s ambiguous query, leading you on to connect pieces only when he sees it fit — and with everything in its place for a purpose. Much like the Fassbinder above, it’s frustratingly interesting for the director’s self-indulgences, but here Greenaway only allows for a head-scratching resolution insofar as there is never any intention for a clear understanding, at least within one viewing. (Another of Greenaway’s visual obsessions herein: the use of symmetry in compositions (and, to a degree, thematics), which is ably handled by cinematographer Sacha Vierny, often the DP on Alain Resnais’ films.) The best that could be said for A Zed and Two Noughts is you get what you invest into it, but any investment requires total commitment. Not exactly an equal tradeoff. With Frances Barber, Agnes Brulet, Joss Ackland, and Gerard Thoolen.
Dead or Alive. One never knows what to expect with Takashi Miike except some form of perversity. Outside of the overly frenzied jag that this starts in — throwing the movie’s four main groups together to decipher which is what later — it mellows out to the story of a straight-laced detective in the pursuit of a renegade group (they’re mainland Chinese, but they don’t identify with the Chinese or the Japanese) who are proving rabble-rousers to a partnership between the yakuza and Chinese mafia. It’s filled with a lot of intermediary plotting, none of it particularly original for the genre, but Dead or Alive is still marked with the imprimatur of Miike in scenes such as a slovenly yakuza getting shot only for his belly to explode with the Shu Chi noodles he just ate, or a pornographer jerking off a dog to photograph him humping a woman, or a hooker drowning in her own excrement, or another hooker spitting out a mouth full of semen. Miike is undoubtedly full of stylistic energy, shown off best during the composed moments of violence, but his problem seems to be around the staging and preparation of those moments, and that the construction of the rest of the movie hinges only by the effects they elicit. And the ending is outrageously and incongruously over-the-top even for all of the already ridiculous proceedings. With Sho Aikawa, Riki Takeuchi, Renji Ishibashi, Hitoshi Ozawa, and Michisuke Kashiwaya.
Time Out. “Suspense” may be the wrong term for this very staid French film, but director Laurent Cantet consistently keeps the question of “where does this go next?” in the passenger seat with the film’s star Aurélien Recoing (who looks like a brother to Larry Miller). The family man’s secret is initially kept from us too, though it is never him who lets us in on his embarrassment, that he was fired from his job several months ago, and has yet to signify such to his wife (Karen Viard, unfaltering in the small amount of room given). He still goes through the motions of going to work, pretending he’s switched employment to the UN while he cruises around Switzerland, though he does find a scheme which satisfies his rationale in order to pass the time, a shaky proposition to old friends and acquaintances to invest money into a faux Russian fund. Despite his scam, his intention is never to run off with the money, and his frustrations only grow as word spreads about the investment and he must perpetuate his lie. Eventually he’s spotted as a phony and goes to work for that man selling phony knock-offs of watches, clothes, etc. Though the film gets nowhere near a moment of intensity, Time Out does manage to remain compelling for all of its austerity and simplicity, acknowledging a strong performance by Recoing, whose character’s psychology is only finally revealed near the closing of the film. That Cantet doesn’t get entangled in it earlier, or over-explain it in the course of time, only further complements his restraint as a director and raises his strengths as a writer. Co-written with Robin Campillo; with Serge Livrozet and Nicholas Kalsch.
Chaos. Not to be confused with Coline Serreau’s film of the same name, this is an involving mystery from Hideo Nakata, director of the original Ring. The film opens with a Japanese husband and wife dining at a high-end restaurant, and the wife leaving while her husband takes care of the bill. When he returns to his office, he receives a call that turns out to be demanding a random for his wife’s kidnapping. Against the perpetrator’s demands, he enlists the help of the police, but neither the money is collected nor his wife returned, while in the meantime, the kidnapper demands more ransom money from the wife’s sister. A time shuffle is made, returning to after the couple’s dining; disguised, the wife shows up to the kidnapper’s residence, paying him his fee to fake her disappearance, and proceeding to go through the meticulous details step-by-step. She is to stay at a friend of hers who’s out of town, remaining tied up to give the effect of bruises, and the scene cuts out just as the initial call is made to her husband. When the faux-kidnapper, a handyman, arrives back at the apartment, he is startled to find the woman dead, and a disguised call instructs him to dispose of the body, otherwise the police will immediately be dispatched. A few days later he sees a woman who is a dead ringer for the dead wife, only to dig the body up discovering the already decomposing corpse. We shuffle back in time again to the handyman responding to a call, fixing a burst pipe for a woman who was the same one he later assisted in the kidnapping. Something is clearly not adding up. And later, she approaches him with the initial offer for his help, claiming her husband is cheating on her, and this plan of hers is to test him. Though this is pre-Memento, the device of shuttling back-and-forth in time, hopscotch-style, is used for a different effect in this film; its many secrets and surprises are revealed only when Nakata is ready to do so, regardless of the suspicion aroused early on, and with the filmmakers taking no time out to hold the viewer’s hand in constant explanation. Nakata is the kind of director who is more interested in generating suspense and tension from the material he has available to him, and not by what he can add to it in the sense of stylistic and visual trickery. The viewer’s attention is solely wrapped up in the careful and exact revelations that unfold in the mystery, and it never loses sight in keeping a pace or two ahead at all times. (There are so many fronts flipped about at each turn, with who’s involved in what, and how, constantly reversing in front of our eyes.) This is easily a film that could be remade in Hollywood where the interest would be reassigned to playing to the viewer instead of with them. The stakes would be raised (by the touch up of the filmmakers) to show more, get away with more, and ultimately, give away more. But like Nakata first exhibited — at least in my attendance — in Ring, his concern, his strength, is to give the viewer a detective’s book’s worth of suspicions, only to take it away and replace it for the unexpected. Nothing succeeds in offering a higher payout than that. Chaos solidifies any early notions of what Nakata’s strengths were as a director, putting me on a much more aware lookout for anything else he is behind. With the strong performances of Masato Hagiwara (Cure), Miki Nakatani (Ring), and Ken Mitsuishi (Audition).
Anatomy 2. Slightly above-average for its type of movie, and slightly better than its predecessor. A panglossian medical student is wooed into joining a clandestine anti-Hippocratic group — disassociated, but acknowledging, the Heidelberg incident of Anatomy — where the young professionals are led by a reputable doctor with a mind for greatness (and, of course, recognition and fame in the medical world), in the testing and application (first on themselves) of synthetic muscles, hopefully leading to the replacement of natural muscles to gain unparalleled agility and stamina. (Each member has at least one synthetic muscle — a bicep, a calf muscle, in their fingers, in their penis, etc.) Where our protagonist’s naïve turnaround to join the illegal group comes about perhaps too fast, it’s justified insofar as we know he has a crippled brother at home, ailing from the same disease their father died by. Slick and fast-paced, Stefan Ruzowitzky picks up where he left off, giving the movie more of a commercial feel than the last (lots of young and hard bodies), but also letting go of the sense of realism that held the first back for its schlock-y genre mentality. Anatomy 2 has a combination of thrills, laughs (intentional, or not), twists, and even a sentimental streak that seeks to differentiate between the sterilized medical environment and the humanism behind it, though it’s all minor. Franka Potente also shows up for an appearance as Paula Hennig, now a detective in pursuit of busting the AAA clubs she almost fell prey to. With Barnaby Metschurat, Herbert Knaup (Potente’s father in Lola), Rosie Alvarez, Roman Knizka, Heike Makatsch, August Diehl (Knaup’s employee in Distant Lights), and Wotan Wilke Möhring.
So, in order of priority, the rentals panned out as such:
2. A Zed and Two Noughts
3. Time Out
4. Beware of a Holy Whore
5. Anatomy 2
6. Dead or Alive
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=994
originally posted: 02/13/04 17:52:49
last updated: 06/10/04 03:48:17