“Hard To Be a God” (Movie Review)

Screen Shot 2015-10-10 at 7.37.46 PMHard To Be a God (2013)

Director: Aleksei German
Screenplay: Svetlana Karmalita & Aleksei German
Cast: Leonid Yarmolnik, Dmitri Vladimirov, Laura Pitskhelauri, Aleksandr Ilyin

How does one even begin to review, to assess, to assimilate Aleksei German’s “Hard To Be a God”?

Any discussion of “plot” or “character development” is absurd. Dramatic arc? The ol’ three act structure? Fuggetaboutit. I challenge anyone who hasn’t read the Strugatsky bros. novel that serves as the film’s source material to accurately summarize the alleged storyline. The movie defies exegesis; indeed, I would say German deliberately flouts expectation, convention. Method and madness intertwined.

But putting that aside, I come away from this movie with nothing but admiration for it. Despite its inscrutability or because of it (I’m not certain which).

German makes no compromises with this production and that single-mindedness, the willful determination it must have taken to get a film like this made is, I think, its most admirable quality. His vision was translated to the screen with absolute faithfulness, every effort expended to make sure each scene and set-up met his exacting specifications.

And then he had the misfortune to die while the film was in post-production.

Never mind, Svetlana Karmalita (German’s wife and artistic collaborator) and his son, Aleksei Jr., oversaw the completion of the “Hard To Be a God”, ensuring that it remained true to the director’s conception.

It is a world of mud and offal, open sewers and constant sickness. Festering sores and long strings of snot. Malformed, twisted, freakish faces. Intellectuals and “bookworms” ferreted out and either strangled on public gibbets or burned alive like unrepentant heretics.

There is no beauty, no color, no art…the Renaissance will never subvert the cultural and political spheres of this medieval, backward society. The populace destined to live out their lives in poverty and squalor, suffering and enduring under one iron heel or another for many centuries to come.

The Grays. The Blacks. Does it matter whose foot fits inside the hob-nailed boot? Here, the inquisitors and pious murderers have won. It is they who will make the future, not Michelangelo or Leonardo.

The Dark Ages have arrived.

And these barbarians kill in the name of God.

“Hard To Be a God” (Official Trailer)

ΩΩΩΩ1/2 (Out of 5)

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Orson Welles’s Last Movie

Book coverORSON WELLES’S LAST MOVIE: The Making of “The Other Side of the Wind”
by Josh Karp
(St. Martin’s Press; 2015)

Do we really need another book about Orson Welles?

That particular shelf is already bulging with titles, the heavier tomes causing it to sag in the middle, like a geriatric accountant.

There’s Simon Callow’s three-volume biography, and offerings from Welles’ personal circle (Bogdanovich, McBride, Jaglom, Gary Graver), various and varied academic studies and overviews, scholarly types and cineastes weighing in on all things Orson. And it’s funny how starkly the lines are drawn: it seems you either consider Welles to be a genius, a larger than life talent frustrated and bedevilled at every turn by idiotic producers and gutless sycophants of the Hollywood studio system…or a spoiled, over-rated egoist who parlayed one admittedly ground-breaking movie into a career spanning almost fifty years.

So give credit, I think, to author Josh Karp for coming down squarely in the middle of that seemingly endless debate. Karp leaves no doubt that Welles’s body of work, while not lengthy, boasted other gems besides “Citizen Kane”. Personally, I consider “Chimes at Midnight” every bit as good as “Kane”…and much warmer and more humane. The new king’s rejection of his old friend Falstaff is a magnificently constructed scene and acted to perfection. The growing despair and pain in Welles/Falstaff’s eyes as he realizes the extent of Hal’s betrayal is almost unendurable.

Karp also recognizes what a brilliant editor Welles was—he had his own, personal Moviola and was happiest when assembling his grand visions out of the smallest bits and pieces of celluloid. Witness the battle scene footage from “Chimes” or the way Welles expertly cuts to disguise paltry budgets and crude production values, matching episodes shot months and thousands of miles from each other (“Othello”).

But I think it’s safe to say Karp has his misgivings regarding Welles’ last film, uncompleted upon his death in 1985. “The Other Side of the Wind” was going to be his magnum opus, his return to form. At the same time, it was Welles using all the tools at his disposal to lash back at a Hollywood that had rejected an entire generation of older directors (Welles, Ford, Renoir), essentially putting them out to pasture. “The Other Side of the Wind” starred John Huston and featured a number of familiar faces from Welles’s entourage (to save money on casting), shot by a cinematographer (Graver) who worked fast and cheap, having cut his teeth on quickies and exploitation films…

The production was prolonged, very prolonged. The years dragged by and the crew changed, actors quit, died, or were replaced and the script…ah, yes, well, Orson was constantly revising and updating it, reacting to production necessities but also regularly introducing new elements and threads. Producers and studios asked to see the screenplay, Welles steadfastly refused. He would pitch it to a few of them, screen one or two scenes, but should they deign to question him or reveal any confusion, he was abrupt, dismissive.

A contrary auteur? An independent artist who refused to cede the slightest control to greedheads in suits? Or a man well past his prime, physically and mentally, his powers much diminished, no longer possessing the decisiveness and strength of mind to approach the monumental task of assembling all that footage (11 1/2 hours digitized so far) into a coherent narrative?

Welles knew “The Other Side of the Wind” was destined to be his last film. He was aware the culture of Hollywood had changed and the new people in charge were money men, ex-agents and lawyers with little interest in creating or disseminating Art. Despite a lifetime achievement award from the American Film Institute in 1975, no one was anxious to back a project by a noted maverick, someone who clearly held most of the contemporary film world in contempt and was unlikely to kowtow to trends or commercial considerations. TOSOTW loomed larger and larger in his eyes, as a swan song but, also, vindication for all the slings and arrows cast his way by inferior minds and second-rate talents. He ran existing footage over and over again, cutting and recutting sequences. He coaxed and browbeat his young, inexperienced crew into another day of shooting, hurling orders and abuse at them, fuming and fulminating as he inhaled those enormous cigars he favored.

By the time he realized he was in over his head, it was too late. He’d invested too much money, time and energy into TOSOTW to abandon it, but lacked the courage and honesty to face the folly of his creative vacillations. He had to maintain the illusion that this much-touted movie was a work of art in progress, while taking great pains to ensure it was kept under wraps, film reels piling up like cordwood.

The legal woes, a print of the film seized by the new Islamic regime in Teheran (one of the movie’s backers was allied with the former Shah), money mishandled, possibly misappropriated…welcome distractions, as far as Welles was concerned, excuses he could proffer when asked about the status of his troubled tour de force.

A few months ago, I noticed a crowd sourcing project seeking donations to complete “The Other Side of the Wind”. For a measly one million dollars, a team of Welles scholars and aficionados will confront those miles of footage and somehow shape the mess into something resembling what Welles envisioned. The group didn’t reach their funding target and in a way I’m glad. I share Mr. Karp’s doubts that any version of “The Other Side of the Wind” will do Welles justice and might, like many posthumous efforts, inflict lasting damage to his legacy. There is a certain voyeuristic appeal to seeing some of the film, perhaps a few selected scenes, but I harbor no illusions that “The Other Side of the Wind” is a “lost” masterpiece waiting to be discovered by the adoring masses.

Leave it in the vaults. Dead and buried. A monument to what could have been, or a failure of nerve…or the brilliant, errant leavings of a stubborn, willful personality. But more than anything else, an old man’s last shot at relevancy, the fire still burning, though the hall has grown empty and silent, the guests long since departed.

Last Orson

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Film quote of the day

“Buster, I’m going to try to explain something to you that you probably don’t understand. When a man’s hurt he bleeds until he either dies or the blood coagulates. If the bleeding stops, one day the wound becomes a scar and then, if he’s lucky, one day that scar will become only a memory. Now, Eddie, you’d better just let me bleed a little or I’m going to throw you right through that fuckin’ window.”

Budd Boetticher, film director
(from his memoir When in Disgrace)


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“Jodorowsky’s Dune” (film review)

Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)

jodorowskys_dune_ver3Director:  Frank Pavich


Pure madness attempting to translate Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel into a feature length movie in the first place. The production was bound to be difficult, the special effects alone pushing mid-1970’s film technology to its very limits (and probably beyond). This is pre-“Star Wars” remember, pre-digital. Which means big, elaborate sets, no green screen; utilizing rear projection, hand-painted mattes. Real exotic locations, using a real human cast and crew.

Very expensive.

And on top of that, it’s complete, utter, incomprehensible madness to put a maverick like Alejandro Jodorowsky at the helm of such a daunting project. A quick glance at A.J.’s small, unique body of work is all one needs to realize we are dealing with a singular and, let’s be honest, irrational talent. A mind with a surrealist bent, an aesthetic that embraces the bizarre and baroque.

Mr. Pavich’s documentary ably depicts the extensive pre-production efforts undertaken to convince potential backers that “Dune”, the movie, was a viable project, with enormous commercial potential. A storyboard was constructed, each shot in Jodorowsky’s script meticulously described, the sketches accompanied by beautifully rendered, color reproductions of costumes and scenes from the movie by top flight artists and designers like Chris Foss, H.R. Giger and Moebius.

Unfortunately for “Dune”‘s courageous and naive French producer, Michel Seydoux, the folks in Hollywood had seen some of Jodorowsky’s work or, at least, heard enough about him to know he wasn’t likely to deliver a movie North American audiences would turn out in droves to see. While they were impressed by Seydoux’s presentation, it was clear that Jodorowsky’s affiliation with “Dune” was a deal breaker and, in the end, the single biggest reason why this incarnation of “Dune” never made it to the big screen. The writer-director couldn’t even provide the money men with any idea of how long the finished film would be—to this day Jodorowsky doesn’t seem to know.

Is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s “Dune” one of the great “lost” films of cinema? I have my doubts. A.J. readily admits that his take on “Dune” was vastly different than Frank Herbert’s Dune. At one point I believe he talks about “raping” the book, in favor of his personal, spiritual vision. What would Herbert have said to that? How would science fiction’s notoriously prickly fans have responded? Not favorably is my guess.

And if the film had somehow gone ahead, the production would’ve been drastically scaled back, the special effects slipshod, the whole thing painted with the broadest possible strokes. I think it would have ended up resembling a slightly higher end “Flash Gordon” (complete with tawdry rock ‘n roll soundtrack).

Mr. Pavich’s documentary posits an interesting “if only”, but my hunch is this is one movie that is better off for remaining unproduced. As Jodorowsky and Feydoux point out, a number of their creative collaborators (Giger, Moebius, Dan O’Bannon) went on to bigger and better things, Jodorowsky’s “Dune” continuing to cast a long, peculiar shadow on fantastic films for decades to come.

Perhaps that’s sufficient.

ΩΩΩΩ (out of 5)

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“The Zero Theorem” (Directed by Terry Gilliam)


Director: Terry Gilliam
Screenplay: Pat Rushin
Cast: Christoph Waltz, David Thewlis, Melanie Thierry, Lucas Hedges, Matt Damon

Terry Gilliam wants to know what makes us special.

What separates us, as individuals, from the hive mind of humanity, the constant background bzzz-bzzz-bzzz informing us what’s hot, what’s not and what is absolutely indispensable and available for only a limited time on approved credit and through bi-weekly payments with no cash down?

It’s a battle for reality, ladies and gentlemen, and our minds the killing ground, subjected to a flood of stimuli meant to excite our basic instincts and prevent us from thinking about the actual state of the world…and our benighted souls. God help the Powers That Be should we ever wake from the nightmare of invented history and discover what crimes they’re committing, the lies they so readily concoct and embroider to conceal their culpability. To avoid that possibility, governments and corporations conspire to pound it into our heads that the pursuit of happiness involves the acquisition of material possessions and the accumulation of debt, and that the spiritual ennui and colossal sense of unease we’re currently experiencing can be cured by a restorative trip to the nearest mall.

Qohen Leth (that’s pronounced Cohen, but spelled with a Q, no u) has been given an impossible task, solving the ultimate insoluble paradox (how can nothing = everything) and his mental exertions are driving him insane. Management (Matt Damon) has decreed that Qohen (Chistoph Waltz) be provided with the necessary resources, all the latest hardware and tools to achieve his goal—and that includes Ainsley (Melanie Thierry) to entice and reward him and Bob (Lucas Hedges), a fifteen year old prodigy who spends his waking hours writing endless streams of computer code in an effort to please his near omnipotent father. Qohen sequesters himself like a Medieval monk, pale and doughy from long hours at his console, devising his equations, trying to build a perfect, plausible, sustainable model for the Theory of Nothing and failing every time. His supervisor (David Thewlis) is sympathetic but makes it clear to Qohen that it is imperative he produce results and never mind that no one else has ever managed to lick the Zero Theorem or that Qohen’s exertions may leave him a burned out husk.

Christoph Waltz takes on the daunting responsibility of trying to get us to relate with a man who, throughout most of the film, is little more than a cipher. Monotonic, indisinct, robot-like. An individual disconnected from himself by a trauma likely prompted by his wife’s departure. Now he lives only through his work as a highly prized number cruncher for ManCom. Indeed, it is his mathematic aptitude that recommends him to Management. But as detached and removed from humanity as Qohen may be, he still feels a yearning for something beyond his present circumstances, an epiphany or insight that has nothing to do with his vocation. There is an emptiness inside Qohen, a void…and part of him dreams of pouring something like purpose into it, filling that great silence. Waltz never falters in the central role; he gradually comes to life as the film progresses and by its conclusion we realize we have been treated to a subtle, psychologically astute performance.

Director Terry Gilliam has devoted great efforts detailing the damage exposure to our gaudy consumerist society is having on us and has collaborated with his admirable cast and crew to create a near future that equates individuals with ambulatory shopping bags and translates our every whim into a disposable commodity. To stand out in such an environment is to invite unwanted scrutiny, even ridicule; to speak of God or the spirit suitable grounds for involuntary confinement. Qohen, as weird as he initially seems, is the final result of someone who can no longer cope with the speed and intensity of modern life and has withdrawn from the outside world to prevent further injury.

Surely we can sympathize with his stance. How often, these days, do we feel under siege, inundated by a deluge of information and programming too ubiquitous to escape? And who among us hasn’t searched for meaning amidst that turmoil, a whisper of reassurance lost in a whirlwind of change?

ΩΩΩΩ (Out of 5)

Note: “The Zero Theorem” is currently playing at the Roxy Theater in Saskatoon.  

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“The Double” (Directed by Richard Ayoade)

%22The Double%22“The Double” (2014)

Director: Richard Ayoade
Screenplay:  Richard Ayoade & Avi Korine
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Noah Taylor, Cathy Moriarty, Wallace Shawn

It’s a question of identity, the most basic, fundamental notion of who we are and the way we are perceived by those around us.

Are we unique as individuals, as personalized and singular as a fingerprint—and if that is the case, doesn’t that almost automatically lead to a sense of isolation, existential loneliness, a separateness that reduces each of us to a tide-battered, remote “I-land”?

Thus the continuing appeal and fascination of the doppelganger, a dark twin existing somewhere else in the world, possessing a face similar to mine/yours, a life that might be better or worse or eerily paralleling our own. Tradition has it that our shadow usually contains some malign or repressed aspect of our personality and contact should be avoided at all costs. An encounter with our lookalike almost certainly means the destruction of one of us (and I don’t like my chances against an evil version of myself, do you?).

Director Richard Ayoade’s second film, “The Double”, cites, as its source material, a novella of the same name by Russian literary giant Fyodor Dostoevsky. Which, if nothing else, proves that he and his writing partner, Avi Korine, certainly aren’t lacking in the ambition department. But while they may have adhered to the spirit of the original story, their screenplay has other influences and touchstones. The ghost of Franz Kafka is in evidence throughout, flitting about the periphery of almost every scene. There are also affectionate homages and nods to Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil”, Orwell’s 1984, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant”.

The script is intriguing and occasionally baffling. Simon (Jesse Eisenberg) is a non-entity, toiling in a data collection center for seven years and making almost no impact on those around him. Then one day a new man, James, joins the firm and immediately distinguishes himself with his charm and winning personality. The added complication: James is a dead ringer for Simon. Inevitably, the two doubles meet and Simon’s world begins to fall apart.

Ayoade’s direction is accomplished and his aesthetic sound. He knows how to employ a camera to maximum effect without detracting from the footage that’s created. But while the cinematography and acting on “The Double” are excellent and the script solid, it’s the film’s sound design that really distinguishes it. The ambient backing track is something else, loops of apartment noises, muffles moans and thumps that add an extra dimension to what’s happening on-screen. Let’s have a round of applause for “The Double”‘s sound  & foley artists (Adam Armitage, Stuart Bagshaw & Martin Beresford, among others) who all too often toil without recognition or reward. Without them, “The Double” wouldn’t have been nearly as haunting or effective.

A few quibbles: the film should’ve been shot in black & white, which would have emphasized the grimness of Simon’s world, deepened the mystery and enhanced that sense of impending disaster surrounding him. I also wish people would stop employing the lamentable Wallace Shawn in their movies—he plays the same recurring and annoying role and it’s time to put him out to pasture with the other old war horses.

“The Double” is not faultless but it is original and that erases a lot of sins, at least as far as this reviewer is concerned. It’s a spooky and maddening treat, a dark lullaby to Prague’s most famous literary denizen, a Kafkaesque reminder that we aren’t who we think we are and that mirrors often lie.


*Click here to read my review of Richard Ayoade’s directorial debut, “Submarine”


ΩΩΩΩ (out of 5)

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“A Field in England” (movie review)

FieldA Field in England (2013)

Director: Ben Wheatley
Writer: Amy Jump & Ben Wheatley
Cast: Reece Sheersmith, Michael Smiley, Ryan Pope, Richard Glover, Peter Ferdinando

A film so defiantly weird and consciously anti-narrative that one can’t help wondering, how was it pitched? Who in their right mind would sign off on a project entirely denied saving graces like, well, a great story or likable characters or even a coherent plot line? What kind of maniac would invest good money on a script where the cast spends most of their time stumbling about in a psychedelic haze?

Whoever it was, they have our thanks.

“A Field in England” is unique and original and these days that goes a long way with me. In an era of comic book movies, CGI fests, rom-coms and Michael Bay, I cherish, I celebrate any cinematic effort that attempts to break new ground, while playing havoc with our carefully cultivated preconceptions.

“A Field in England” surprised, shocked and amazed me. I’ve never seen anything like it. Two hours later and I’m sitting here, still trying to accommodate what Wheatley et al were trying to communicate.

Do you know the story?

During the English Civil War (1642-51), three deserters from Cromwell’s ranks are forced to assist an alchemist seeking an unnamed treasure in a field near the site of a recent skirmish between the Royalists and their adversaries. The meadow, it turns out, is liberally sprinkled with a potent variety of hallucinogenic mushrooms, which some of the men ingest.

And then things really go off the rails.

Imagine a mix of Jodorowsky and Ken Russell at their wildest and wooliest and you’re starting to get the picture. Abandon any thought of cohesion or a classic story arc and just hang on for the ride. The cast, despite the daunting material, are wondrous–Michael Smiley as “O’Neill” and Reece Shearsmith as “Whitehead” are particularly fine. The ugliness and dinginess of the period are well-delineated; life is short and brutish, the quality of mercy in short supply. No one, back then, lived to a ripe, old age.

I note that this film has its detractors and fares poorly with audiences on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. I think this is largely a case of viewers attuned to facile, superficial visions being confronted by a motion picture that offers them few precedents and very little reassurance. It demands discussion and welcomes conjecture. Not content with merely entertaining, Wheatley and Ms. Jump have presented us with a scenario that takes us out of our comfort zones, disorienting and dismaying us, requiring under-used mental muscles to divine the brilliant purpose and guiding intelligence behind this magnificent mess.

“A Field in England” is ambitious, maddening, riveting.

Most of you will undoubtedly hate it, turned off by its unabashed strangeness…refusing to recognize, of course, that your disavowal reveals your own silly prejudices, the paucity and stubborn rigidity of your imagination.

ΩΩΩΩ (out of 5)

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