Uncharted Cinema #19: Perdita Durango

perdidodurangoÁlex de la Iglesia, Mexico/USA, 1997, 121 min.

Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: I very much enjoyed Day of the Beast when I saw it at a film festival, but Iglesia’s other films have been near-misses. I’m expecting to at least see more of his twisted and colorful style in this one.

After: Alex de la Iglesia has shown in the past with Day of the Beast that he can present the absurd and insane in an entertaining manner. But only two words come to mind when thinking of this film: bloated and juvenile.

The film opens on Rosie Perez (the titular Perdita) lying on a luxurious white bed while a jaguar prowls over her, pulling the sheet down with it’s mouth to reveal her naked body.

This dream of hers is broken when she awakens in an airport. It’s unclear where she is going or what her plan is, but it’s definitely clear, by the way she handles a businessman trying to pick her up, that she is looking for trouble.

And she definitely finds it in the form of Romeo Dolorosa (A young, long-haired Javier Bardem). Romeo is a maniac, a criminal, and a demonic priest. Perdita and Romeo quickly get together and start wreaking havoc.

Added to the mix are a government agent out to capture Romeo (James Gandolfini), and Duane and Estelle, two teenagers out on a date (Harley Cross and Aimee Graham) who end up hostages of Perdita and Romeo.

This is where the bloat comes in. There is a lot going on. Including human sacrifices, combat flashbacks, robberies, shootouts, multiple rapes, near-misses, fortune telling, and mobsters. Few of which are handled with style (the demonic ritual scenes are pretty good), and none of which are handled with class or dignity.

I’ll mention three little things from this film. If you find any of these interesting or entertaining, then, and I’m sorry to say it, this film is for you.

James Gandolfini, on the way to intercept Romeo he escaped from a botched illegal-fetus-delivery operation, turns to his partner for no reason and says: “What’s red and white and goes 60 miles an hour? A baby in a blender.”

Romeo, robbing a bank at the beginning of the film, despite his partner warning him of the imminent arrival of the police, forces a female teller at gunpoint to open up her top and expose her breasts. Then he snickers and leaves.

After finding out while raping him that Duane has had sex with one other girl, Perdita asks how it was. “I’ll never forget it.” he says, and then the film cuts to a three-second flash flashback of an overweight girl laughing maniacally while straddling Duane on a bed.

I’m no prude and I’m very accepting, even eager, for absurd, graphic and unusual content. But only in context and only if it’s done with some sort of intelligence. This film feels like it was written by a fourteen year old, and I’m guessing only audiences of that mental age will enjoy it.

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Uncharted Cinema #18: Closely Watched Trains

closelywatchedtrainsJirí Menzel, Czechoslovakia, 1966, 93 min.

Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: I’ve heard of this classic of the Czech New Wave for a long time but have never watched it. It’s supposed to be a comedy but I think I’ll probably find it more interesting than entertaining. We’ll see!

After: Closely Watched Trains is unconcerned about story. Instead, it focuses on the small moments that make up the big picture. The humor found in everyday life. The people and what motivates them to perform deeds big and small.

The film takes place in Czeckoslovakia during World War II. It’s a quiet place not yet touched by the war. We open with our hero narrating the history of his family. But Milos Hrma (Václav Neckár) really shouldn’t be described as a hero. His goal, like his father and grandfather before him, is to skate through life by doing the smallest amount of work possible.

So he gets a job at the local train station, which will allow him the luxury of doing basically nothing while still making a living. He’ll also be close to Masa (the lovely Jitka Scoffin), the girl he’s keen on.

A series of events unfold that show what Milos’s life is like, what’s going on with his coworkers, and tangentially, what is going on with the war effort. The film doesn’t have a traditional arc, but the episodic events begin to paint a picture and stories emerge.

A personal story for Milos, who finds he isn’t much of a man in the bedroom and seeks an older woman to “tutor” him. And the larger story of the war effort, which Milos may or may not end up a part of.

The style is what shines here. The camera stays on scenes that shouldn’t be interesting but end up so because of Menzel’s great sense of timing and composition. See the above image for an example. And even fifty years later, these moments can be very funny, or oddly tragic depending on your point of view.

Closely Watched Trains came out at a time when the new guard was trying to break the old rules of cinema. It doesn’t quite smash them to pieces like Godard was doing, but it does bend and shape them enough to be one of the most pleasant and entertaining films to come out of the New Wave, and one that was a joy to watch.

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Uncharted Cinema #17: Come and See

come-and-see-childElem Klimov, Soviet Union, 1985, 142 min.

 Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: I have heard great things about this film. It is supposed to be one of the best war movies ever made. Hard to watch, I’m sure, but I’m looking forward to it nonetheless.

After: Right off the bat I’m going to say that there has never been a more devastating war film than Come and See. It was produced to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Soviet victory against the Nazi’s in World War II. To call that a victory brings to mind images of smiles and cheers and flag-waving, but as this film makes perfectly clear, it was anything but that.

Come and See is filled with horror and fear and danger and mud, dirt and despair. It follows the initially cheerful Flyora, played Aleksey Kravchenko in one of the best performances ever put to film.

Flyora is a young boy from a small village in Belarussia. Barely a teenager, he is excited to join the army and fight against the Germans. The opening scene shows him and his friend, playing in the dirt, digging up the graves of fallen soldiers in order to find a gun. When he finds one, it isn’t long before he leaves behind his mother and sisters to go off to join the local militia.

The militia is happy to have him, and things are looking up until the unit is mobilized and Flyora is forced to give up his nice boots to a seasoned soldier and stay back at the base. He takes it very hard. This was his dream! And it is being denied. He thinks, at the time, that this is the worst thing that could have happened to him.

Here is where Glasha (Olga Mironova) enters the story.  She had a connection to one of the soldiers that just left her behind, and acts out against Flyora, who she finds crying in the woods. It’s a very surreal interaction, and serves as almost the calm before the storm of harsh reality that is to follow.

For here is where the film takes a turn. I have written a lot of words about the setup, because I don’t want to dwell on what follows. I’ll just say that it is impressive in it’s harshness. As Flyora and Glasha navigate a war-torn landscape there are moments of solace and moments of panic, moments of relief and moments of terror.

The world is populated by real-life people, Non-actors like the film’s leads, who bring an incredible sense of reality to what happens. Real explosions. Real bullets. And I would dare-say real terror on the actors faces.

The film-making itself is simple and stark. A steady camera shows us what we need to see but don’t want to see, and Klimov knows when to focus on Aleksey Kravchenko expressive face, which is often. There are images in this film I will never forget, and that’s partly because the director gets out of the way and never calls attention to himself.

This litany of atrocities ends with a powerful coda that gives everyone a chance to turn back time and make a hard choice. It’s a unique sequence that affected me even more than what came previously.

Yes, this film is hard to watch, so why even sit down to view it? What does that get you? I can’t answer that, but I’ll leave you with these words from Ales Adamovich who co-wrote the screenplay with Elem Klimov. He was once asked who would ever want to watch this film and answered: “Let them not watch it, then. This is something we must leave after us. As evidence of war, and as a plea for peace.”

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Uncharted Cinema #16: The Golden Child

goldenchildMichael Ritchie, USA, 1986, 94 min.

Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: I missed this one somehow. I always wanted to see it, because you should always give a chance to any 80’s Eddie Murphy film. Looking forward to some comedy.

After: I’m going to say right off the bat that this film does not age well. It’s take on oriental mysticism is out-dated and the effects are obviously behind the times.

Normally, I’m always willing to give a film a pass on things like that, even going as far as to say I find them charming, but this one didn’t work for me.

Eddie Murphy plays Chandler Jarell, an inner city private eye with a heart and a sense of humor who wants to do some good for the community. Meanwhile, in Tibet, a magical young boy is kidnapped by some bad guys with supernatural powers.

The two stories collide when Murphy is hired to track down the child and realizes that this case has ties to a missing girl he was already looking for.

Murphy is good. His dialog and reactions work within the context of what is going on. He keeps his character likeable where other people in that role wouldn’t be. Because, let’s be honest here, Chandler Jarell is kind of a dick.

He doesn’t believe any of what is happening and spends most of the first half of the film hitting on Kee Nang (Charlotte Lewis), a follower of the golden child who is trying to help get him back.

Eventually, Chandler learns the truth and everyone gets drawn together for the supernatural climax. But getting there was a bit of a chore. The pacing is off, and the tone varies too much between scenes. It’s hard to become invested in what’s going on because everything seems mashed together in ways that don’t feel natural.

The film does give Murphy some room to shine, but overall it was forcing itself to be all things at once. Comedy, action, horror, drama, romance, supernatural mystery, martial arts, etc. And it never does justice to any of them.

Handled with a little more care The Golden Child could have been an enjoyable mess. Instead, it was just a mess.

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Uncharted Cinema #15: Kind Hearts and Coronets

kindheartscoronetsRobert Hamer, UK, 1949, 106 min.

Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: For some reason I thought this was a Powell & Pressburger film. I was wrong. But I am expecting something similar: a witty and smart period piece with some feels.

After: This has a great setup. The film opens on death row. A well-spoken regal young man (Dennis Price) is in a cell writing his memoirs. It’s nearing the time of his execution for the crime of murder.

How did he get to this point? And why is he taking it so matter-of-factly? It was a long road that got him to that point, and the film starts from the beginning.

Without spoiling anything: Louis, our narrator, is a distant relative of the Duke of the D’Ascoyne family and is the last in a long line of elligable family members who will inherit the Dukedom.

Unfortunately, his mother was ostracized from the family and he grew up poor and under-privelaged. But he made due and was happy with his lot, until a brash moment after his mother’s death where he decides that he does deserve the royal title.

But so many relatives stand in his way! An admiral, a priest, the duke’s son, a general, Lady Agatha, and the Duke himself. And the best part, they are all played by Alec Guinness!

It’s a series of great performances in a film filled with great performances. The plot zips along, the jokes are well-written and visually sharp. The whole film is full of unexpected delights.

The style of the film can be exemplified by the two leading ladies, both having central roles in the development of Louis’s character. One is the regal and aristocratic Edith (Valerie Hobson), a prim and proper teetotaler that represents the world Louis is trying to break into. The other is Sibella (Joan Greenwood), the energetic and eager love of his younger years, a passionate and unpredictable force.

That’s the film in a nutshell: a prim and proper British comedy with impeccable upbringing. But one that, even today, is still fresh, fun and surprisingly inventive.

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