Movies – A Mix

Timecrimes (2007) is a wickedly diverting, mind-teasing Spanish thriller from writer / director Nacho Vigalondo. It employs the always engaging man-going-back-in-time scenario (the ‘Back to the Future’ films are the most obvious example, although this is certainly a more serious-minded film) – a man repeatedly reinserts himself into past events to fix them while trying not to run into other versions of himself.
Our protagonist, Hector (Karra Elejalde), is a somewhat cantankerous protagonist, yet he dives into the time-jumping action with heedless enthusiasm. Delivering him from past to past is a nervous scientist’s assistant who, presumably, is gonna get in a lot of trouble if Hector gets himself in a lot of trouble. Which, of course, he does.
The first iteration finds Hector at home with his wife. After receiving a mysterious wrong-number phone call, he decides to relax in his backyard lawn chair, but in the woods across the lawn at a distance, he spies a beautiful young woman disrobing. Of course, that’s worth investigating. Arriving at the spot, he now discovers she is unconscious. While trying to revive her, he’s put upon by a monstrous-looking man who stabs him in the arm with a pair of scissors. Fleeing from his assailant through the woods, he stumbles upon a small laboratory, where a scientist’s assistant suggests he climb into an enclosed chamber to hide from the attacker. Emerging from the chamber, he discovers he’s gone back in time one hour. Still wounded, he nonetheless investigates the circumstances of the nude girl’s original appearance, which becomes his second, although earlier, iteration. And down the rabbit hole we go.
The twists and surprising shocks are plentiful, but Hector fully engages in each set of circumstances with a Buster Keaton-ian deadpan determination, ignorant of the ironies we’re delighting in as the objective audience. It’s very compelling as a movie experience. In hindsight, loopholes and logical voids will appear, but there’s enough suspense and fun to make the after-film brainwork worthwhile in the first place. It’s a splendid little film that swoops past its lower-budget limitations. Highly recommended.

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The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) is one of the highlights of later German Expressionist film. Directed by the great Fritz Lang (‘Metropolis’, ‘M’, ‘Scarlet Street’, ‘The Big Heat’), it’s a melodramatic police procedural peppered with heartless thugs and wily, good-natured police inspectors. The evil, laser-eyed Dr. Mabuse is a criminal demigod mastermind, formerly head of all organized crime in Berlin, now consigned to an asylum for the criminally insane. But somehow he’s still directing the actions of his empire of crime, still wreaking moral and financial havoc, while isolated and delusional in a solitary cell.
No real plot synopsis is necessary here – it’s easy to follow the episodes of urban underground intrigue, the perpetrated crimes, the network of criminal collaboration and the police investigations, led by the blustering Inspector Lohmann. It is, of course, visually striking, using the now-familiar trappings of film-noir in combination with Lang’s expressionist touches. And the set-piece scenes are the prototypes for hundreds of imitators after – car chases, assassinations, interrogations, even a couple trapped in the flooding room.
Classic stuff, but I promise it doesn’t feel like homework. Many see the film (and its predecessor, ‘Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler’) as Lang’s critique of Weimar decadence and the rise of National Socialism, but you can genuinely enjoy it as just a spooky, suspenseful mystery-melodrama good time at the movies. But don’t be surprised if you return for multiple viewings to admire the larger implications within.

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Inglourious Basterds (2009) was reviewed to death last year, so I won’t belabor things. Quentin Tarantino serves three masters in most of his movies – proselytizing on the glories of ‘B’ movies as genuinely artful (noir crime dramas, social-problem melodramas, cars-and-chicks drive-in movies, and, here, hard-boiled war movies), while indulging his own uniquely eccentric perspectives on plot and character, and placing these elements within a meticulously complex but seemingly effortless structure. ‘Reservoir Dogs’, for instance, was an homage to the great European and American heist films of the 50’s and 60’s – but that homage was a submerged foundation for Tarantino’s aggressively original characters and time-scrambling narrative carnival ride. We can follow Tarantino’s own eccentric twists, turns, and shocks because our own understanding of ‘these kinds of movies’ fill a lot of the subtext in for us, and we get the best of three worlds – genre pictures we reliably recognize that deliver wildly original surprises within a non-linear but propulsive structure.
However, I can’t think of any earlier Tarantino film that sacrificed believability to style. Even in the glib second half of ‘Death Proof’, I was still invested in rooting for the characters Zoe, Kim and Abernathy, (not Zoe, Tracie and Rosario the actors) against Stuntman Mike. But here you’re always watching Brad Pitt, and what he’s doing with the character – Lt. Aldo Raine never becomes anything more than what Pitt is overtly pretending to be. Christoph Walz, Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, (et. al., anyone else besides Pitt) give fantastically believable performances within Tarantino’s parameters. But the brash goofball cartoonishness of Pitt’s portrayal strains credulity, most painfully in the theater lobby scene where Pitt and two other ‘basterds’ try to pass themselves off as Italians. Landa discovers they’re imposters, but I don’t think he needed to discover they’re the Three Stooges to arrive at that conclusion. I don’t necessarily blame Pitt himself – I think it was one stylistic choice too many on Tarantino’s part that, unfortunately, betrayed the credibility of everything else around Pitt. And, sadly, ruined an otherwise wonderfully executed film.

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Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loupes, 2001) is a genre-bending historical thriller based on a series of real-life 18th century killings in rural France. Gregoire de Fronsac is an adventurous agent-of royalty and naturalist who has come to investigate these deaths, supposedly committed by a giant monstrous wolf. De Fronsac (Samuel le Bihan) and his American Iroquois consort, Mani (Mark Dacascos), pursue inquiries among the humble farmers, furtive townspeople and landed gentry of the area, and discover an evil secret society who apparently unleashes the beast at their behest.
Gothic superstitions, swordplay and martial arts (no, really, and, oddly, it works) infuse the mystery with some splendidly anachronistic flourishes. The plotting gets a little bogged-down; family secrets, fights, dark rituals, double-crosses and wolf attacks get a little too intermingled across the over-two-hour running time, but many details are terrific. Supporting turns by the always-reliable Vincent Cassell (this year’s ‘Mesrine’ will hopefully be his ‘La Vie en Rose’, the role that propels him to international stardom) and always-stunning Monica Bellucci lend admirable star-power gravity to the proceedings.
Epic mash-ups like this can be insufferably pretentious (I’m looking at you, Stephen Sommers), but this one is quite successful and entertaining. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore, and director Christophe Gans is convincingly qualified to ask “Why not?”

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Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) – Eastern-European and Russian directors have a real reverence for time, place and detail. Many westerners have difficulty sitting still and surrendering to the contemplative mood of many of the films by Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexander Sokurov, Nikita Mikhalkov, or, in this instance, Bela Tarr. But in this particular case, as Roger Ebert so accurately advises, “If you have not walked out after 20 or 30 minutes, you will thereafter not be able to move from your seat.”
On the eve of a solar eclipse, a circus of sorts is coming to a small town in Hungary. Its main attraction is a giant taxidermic whale. But as we follow young Janos through a seemingly endless series of visits and small errands, we learn that the arrival of the attraction, with its impresario, The Prince, is imbuing the town’s residents with an ominous sense of dread, somehow both superstitious and political. Janos is pleased to explain the mechanics of the eclipse to a saloon full of besotted fellow citizens, instructing them to orbit each other on the tile floor to enact the movement of heavenly bodies. But he’s puzzled by the conspiratorial reactions of the citizenry to the circus’ arrival, even as the town square where it will take place fills with somber people who have obviously travelled there to follow the exhibition, and the town’s most prominent leaders convene to deal with, and argue about, what its arrival means.
Over its 2-1/2 hour runtime, we slowly discover that the arrival of the circus, indeed, leads to chaos. But did it come inevitably with the show, or did the town bring tragedy on itself in its own fear and intrigues, regardless of The Prince’s appearance?
As the map is not the territory, so my explanation of the plot is not necessarily what the movie is about. You’ll need to decide that for yourself. But if you have the patience, and allow yourself the insight, you’ll come to love and wonder about this movie as I have. Highly recommended.

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