Monday, March 28, 2011

From Russia with Peace, Love and Understanding

You know my name but who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? 
-Hans Gruber

Growing up with American cinema, I believed that World War II was won by John Wayne and Audie Murphy with a little help from the Brits. I also believed Rambo beat Vietnam. It wasn't until college that I had the opportunity to get a more unfiltered view of history, more specifically, the huge role the Soviet Republics played in WWII. Further, it wasn't until recently I began to look into pre-glasnost Russian cinema for the first time. The few films I've seen thus far have been very impressive, the latest of which is the Criterion release, Ballad of a Soldier.

Synopsis - After an act of heroism, a young Russian soldier is granted leave to go home and see his mother.

Ballad of a Soldier is kind of the flip side to Elem Klimov's Come and See. Where that film was a darkly nihilistic story of a young partisan's soul-crushing journey through the hellish aspects of the eastern front war, Ballad of a Soldier is a much more positive, yet equally moving WWII tale. Directed and co-written by Grigori Chukhrai, the film is simple and straightforward in it's storytelling but still emotionally deep, engaging and authentic. It avoids the usual sentimentality and propaganda that war films are often prone to and stays focused on the extremely likable main character. The people he meets along the way give a subtle testimony to the foolish wastefulness of war.

Chukhrai rolled the dice with a young, relatively inexperienced actor named Vladimir Ivashov, and cast him as Private Alyosha Skvortsov. Ivashov plays the young soldier in such an open faced, innocent and sincere way, that it's impossible not to immediately become charmed by him. Zhanna Prokhorenko, who plays a young peasant girl named Shura, is similarly winning. Her large, expressive eyes seem taylor made for emoting. These two engaging characters account for a great deal of the story line and are the heart and soul of the film. 

Without a doubt, the black and white cinematography by Vladimir Nikolayev and Era Savelyeva is the strongest component of the film. Shot after shot look like beautiful old-time picture postcards and the movie looks great whether it's featuring a bombed out landscape, a locomotive weaving its way through the countryside or a shy couple staring longingly at each other. In one of the most well-conceived and composed shots of the film, the couple stand across from each other in the open door of a moving box car, the girl's windblown hair gently tracing the boy's face like tiny fingers. Often times, I'd admire a shot so much that I'd have to rewind to read the subtitles of what the characters just said.

Lastly, the original music by Mikhail Ziv avoids the usual war movie cliches of thunderous, brass heavy, marching numbers and manages to convey mood without being obtrusive or maudlin. It's not a great soundtrack, but quite restrained especially when compared to American and English WWII films.

To call Ballad of a Soldier a war film is actually kind of a misnomer. There's only one, small, brief battle scene in the beginning, and then the movie shifts away from the front, but it still manages to subtly show there's a war going on through characters and landscape. It's actually an anti-war film but without all the hair-pulling, self righteous preachiness that often accompany films of that genre. By showing the effects of war on characters that are not active participants, the film makes a quiet, clever and strong statement about its effects both express and implied. If you want to watch a film about the horrors of war, watch Come and See, if you want to watch a film about the heartbreaks of war, watch Ballad of a Soldier.

Score 9/10

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Danning the Flames

I know I'm mixing metaphors here, but, if hunger serves as the best seasoning for a meal, then horniness is the straw that stirs the soft-core movie lover's drink. OK, that makes little sense, but I'm still reeling with confusion from watching Howard Avedis' 1984 opus They're Playing with Fire

Let me start at the beginning. My girlfriend is out of town for the week, so of course it's time to catch up on some of the more prurient cinema out there. I hit a nearby DVD swap place and while poking around in the erotic section, I snagged some Jess Franco, and a movie that had Sybil Danning posed provocatively on the cover (is there any other way for her to pose?) in what looked like some ultra-sleazy 80's sexploitation movie in the tradition of Private Lessons. As soon as I got home, I tossed They're Playing with Fire on and it began exactly as expected. The opening credit sequence features Sybil Danning walking around a yacht in a string bikini - so far so good - and then cuts to some establishing shots of a college that ultimately lead to a classroom where Professor Danning (all right, her character's name is Diane Stevens - who cares! ) is teaching the students some Shakespeare while dressed in her conservative skirt and humongous glasses, 'cause she's smart, classy and sexy.

As the class period ends, Danning, er, um, I mean, Dr Stevens looks at innocent young student Jay Richard and says "See me after class in my office, I may have some work for you." Ya she does! Even the girl sitting behind Jay, who has an unrequited crush, cannot deter him from helping out the hot professor as she warns "You better watch out, you're playing with fire." Oh, hell yes, go Jay go! Cut to the yacht, the professor, in a barely-there bikini, and Jay.

OK, right about now, I'm expecting the typical teen sex comedy complication to ensue. Either Jay falls overboard, or the professor's husband shows up, or the yacht starts sinking, etc. But no, Sybil- I mean Diana, takes Jay below and boinks his little brains out! 

WTF? The movie just started five minutes ago, is it over? He gets the girl at the beginning of the film? With that plot point, uh... taken care of, I had no idea where this movie was headed. What's more, the movie didn't either. What actually happens next is a massive exercise in genre jumping that, while disastrous to the film's cohesion, is pretty darned entertaining as a train wreck. I don't really want to spoil with further details, but within a scant few minutes of Jay getting pinned to the sheets, someone is shooting at him and the film turns into a thriller.

It subsequently turns into a mystery. Then an erotic thriller. Then a slasher. Oh, and it's a comedy too, I think. I did laugh in certain places, but I don't know if it was appropriate. Are tied up dogs funny? Does it depend on the breed? 
I had so many questions I wanted to ask about this film while viewing that it took me out of my soft-core state of mind and I began delving into the directors background immediately after viewing. To my surprise, like Orson Welles (and Ed Wood), Avedis writes, directs and produces his features, and even more surprisingly, I'd seen two of them:

Both were exploitation films from the early 70's, and I began to since something Oedipal about Avedis' love of cougars. These films were pretty dull affairs, despite the tawdry titles, which were somewhat plot-deceptive, and I remember growing impatient with the slow pacing in both of them. That wasn't the case with They're Playing with Fire, which for the most part, moved very quickly and genre switched so fast, that I was never bored. The movie is horribly written and wildly uneven as you'd expect, and there's something off-putting about Eric Brown, who plays the lead character Jay. He's kind of like an inappropriately old cub scout, and his acting consists of opening his eyes too wide and smiling. I was actually uncomfortable, and not in a good way, when he was on top of Sybil Danning. On the plus side, the luckiest man in the world, aka Andrew Prine, co-stars as the professor's husband.

Prine is always solid and does well in this film playing a major douchebag. It would be easy to be distracted by Danning's phenomenal assets and overlook the fact that she did a decent acting job as well which is particularly noticeable in scenes with the inferior Brown.

Ultimately, I only partially got the sexploitation delight I was expecting, but it was an entertainingly bad movie that I'll return to and not just for Danning's smoking hotness. Oh well, maybe one of the Franco films I picked up will have a lot of titillating, near porn content. Has anyone heard of She Killed in Ecstasy?

Final score 6.5/10

Monday, March 14, 2011

6 Underground

"Take me down, 6 underground,
 The ground beneath your feet,
 Laid out low, nothing to go
 Nowhere a way to meet"
-Sneaker Pimps

When I was eleven, I used to go see Reggie Jackson at the Oakland/Alameda Coliseum by myself via the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. It's probably due to this experience that I've always felt a positive association with subways. Likewise, whenever I see a subway setting in a film, I get amped up. 

Subway scenes have often had a memorable place in the history of cinema. From Walter Hill's The Warriors, to DePalma's Dressed to Kill, to Crocodile Dundee, subways have been scary, suspenseful, or even funny locations to set a scene in. However, it's the rare film that's set almost entirely in a subway. Here are six of my favorites that take place almost exclusively in the underground:

*Metropia (2009) 

In a dystopian near-future, all major European cities have been interconnected by a large subway system. A Scandinavian named Roger, avoids using the system until one day…

The unusual animation style in this is the film's strongest aspect. It's very unique, disconcerting and creates an odd sense of paranoia. It's almost the polar opposite of anime - a grey, nearly colorless and motionless palette, with big-eyed, exaggerated, limited motion characters. The villain corporate boss-man, Ivan Bahn, is particularly unnerving. Where a colorful, smiley-faced anime world creates a warm, trusting, friendly environment, Metropia intentionally creates a cold, uncomfortable one. This is a film you'd definitely want to be in the right frame of mind for when viewing. The story is familiar especially in the literary dystopian genre. It's not as mean as Orwell, or as bleak as Kafka, but it's pretty far from a feel good movie and is helped out mightily by the animation technique.  Vincent Gallo, in low key mode, does a good job voicing the main sad-sack character. Udo Kier is excellently creepy as the evil CEO Bahn. The rest of the characters serve their purposes, but don't really distinguish themselves in any interesting or unusual ways outside of their unnerving appearance. Of the six subway films, this was the weakest, but I found its look very captivating. 7/10

*Subway (1985)  

A safecracker named Fred hides out in a Paris subway and befriends some of its denizens. 

A light-hearted, whimsical, Luc Besson film with a French cast that blows the top off the charisma-meter. Christophe Lambert, with his weird, bleached, spiky, 80's hair, is the lead, and he has never been more disarming and debonaire. Beautiful Isabelle Adjani with her Princess Toadstool 'do is the love interest. Richard Bohringer, Jean Reno, Michel Galabru and my favorite French actor, Jean-Hughues Anglade as "The Roller", are some of the subway characters. Even with a wildly unbalanced style to substance ratio, there's an uncaring, glossy charm to the film that's irresistible. Great cinematography, along with an oddly likable Eric Serra soundtrack, and an additional song by Rickie Lee Jones, add to the very cool, quirky atmosphere. It won't convert Besson haters, but for those that enjoy "cinema du look" films, this is a must see. 7.5/10

*The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) 

Four men hold a New York City subway train for ransom. 

I appreciate this film more and more on every additional viewing. There's a seamless blend of acerbic comedy and taut suspense that few films can match. In addition, the real time component to the story coupled with the intense soundtrack gives the movie a solid pace that never flags. It does have a slight TV feel which actually works in its favor by giving the film a greater sense of immediacy. There's very little stylization with the camera or in editing which adds to its true crime/reality aspects. Every character is a well-drawn, NYC-type and gets a chance to throw out a good line. Kenneth McMillan as a borough commander and Tony Roberts as the pragmatic, get-it-done, deputy mayor are just two of the characters that made me laugh out loud in small but colorful roles. Walter Matthau is excellent in the lead as a smart, put-upon transit authority cop and Robert Shaw is spot-on as the cold, efficient ringleader of the hijackers, Mr Blue. For fans of subways, heist films, 70's film or cinema in general, this is an essential.  8.5/10

Creep (2004) 

A somewhat obnoxious businesswoman/party girl tries to get across London via subway in order to meet and shag George Clooney. Bad times ensue.

Christopher Smith, who made 2009's excellent Triangle, wrote and directed this disturbing subway horror film starring the great Franka Potente. For a change, Potente plays a somewhat unlikeable, but still empathetic character. The characters she encounters in the subway are excellently acted especially the Paul Rattray and Sean Harris characters. Smith creates an unsettling atmosphere that alternates between the bright, deceptively safe waiting areas for the trains, and the unknown subterranean depths of the subway and sewer system. A nice original score by The Insects adds to the fun. 8/10

End of the Line (2007) 

A Toronto nurse, on her way home from work, encounters some persistent religious zealots. Once again, bad times ensue.

Canadian horror written and directed by Maurice Devereaux that's not as stylish as Creep, but does have a pace-y, suspenseful, and darkly humorous story. The largely unknown cast do a really fine job of creating tension with Robin Wilcock playing a great antagonist that I really wanted to kick in the nads. There's a very nice logical twist near the end and a final scene that doesn't ruin the film but opens it up to debate. I enjoyed the piano driven score by Martin Gauthier as well. The only problem I had was with some of the Christian stereotypes, especially the fat, white televangelist who was a bit too on the nose, and the 'Brothers, Sisters' psalm the cult was singing was a bit much as well. Otherwise, it's a smart, engaging little horror film. 7.5/10

Kontroll (2003)

A group of subway ticket inspectors in Budapest deal with hostile passengers, rival co-workers, a hooded killer and an angry bear.

This is my hands down favorite subway movie of all time - a wonderfully absurd, slyly political and surprisingly haunting film by Nimród Antal. The look of the film is incredible with striking shots of the interior of the endless, airy, shiny, immaculate Budapest subway system. It resembles nothing less than an immense, post-modern, fairy tale kingdom of chrome, florescent lights and tile. Whereas the NYC system looks very grungy, lived in, but strangely comfortable in Pelham, Antal shoots the Budapest underground as an antiseptic, other-worldly limbo that's somehow unfriendly despite its cleanliness, sturdiness and awesome size. 
The story initially follows a somewhat inept, but likable, crew of ticket inspectors through their workday. In the latter half of the film, however, it settles on their leader, Bulcsú, played very winningly by Sándor Csányi, and his battles with a rival crew chief, his run in with a mysterious killer and his shot at romance with, um, uh… a girl dressed as a bear. Along with Csányi's performance, the surprisingly beautiful Budapest underground and a great original electronic score by Neo, I haven't been so charmed by a film in years. 9/10

*Currently available on Netflix Instant Watch

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Who is Private Movie?

During WWII, a small group of GI's returning from Rome stumble into a mine field while fleeing an enemy tank. A young recruit, named Movie, attempts a 'Hale Mary' dash across the area. The actor who played this soldier often found himself coming to the aid of other movie characters in dangerous situations. Who is Private Movie?

He helped this detective fight crime in San Francisco:

He helped Paco and Mick to be good boys in lock up:

He helped this war correspondent get to Rome during an invasion.

He helped Lieutenant Marion Cobretti go after the Night Slasher's army in Los Angeles:

He helped gunfighter Chris to free a revolutionary in Mexico:

Regardless of where he's been throughout his career, this actor has always been a helpful kind of character:

Reni Santoni
With large expressive eyes and handsome Latin features, Reni Santoni has acted as a supporting character with some of the biggest stars in movies and television for the past 50 years. His first starring role came in Carl Reiner's Enter Laughing (1967) where he played an aspiring, but inexperienced actor cast in an off Broadway play with Jose Ferrer and Elaine May. His most prominent role came as Inspector Chico Gonzalez, in Don Siegel's Dirty Harry, where he was teamed with Clint Eastwood. 

Throughout his career, he's often been cast as a cop in movies such as Cobra or television shows like NYPD Blue, Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice and Manimal. He's also played a judge, a priest, a network executive and had comedic roles in shows like Seinfeld and films like Betty Thomas' Private Parts. My favorite role of Santoni's, however,  will always be the lovestruck green GI who has to beat a hasty retreat though a minefield in Italy with Robert Mitchum, Peter Falk and Earl Holliman. 

With a resume that is nearing 100 credits, Reni Santoni certainly deserves a place in The Under-appreciated Character Actor's Hall of Fame.