31 December, 2007

2007: THE YEAR OF TOXIC CULTURE


Javier Bardem as the Angel of Death in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN.
The best movies I saw in 2007 were Joel and Ethan Coen's controversial melding of noir and western motifs NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and David Lynch's avant garde epic INLAND EMPIRE (my choice for the year's best DVD presentation). They both are essentially low key black comedies illustrating what I term our present toxic culture of fear, loathing and human exploitation. They both critique a contemporary Hollywood which seems to be politically correct and in which hardcore gore is now a mainstream attraction. To paraphrase a line in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, they both have something to do with Death. In a year of HOSTEL and SAW sequels, HALLOWEEN remakes/ripoffs, where even Tim Burton's SWEENEY TODD drowns in arterial splatterm, I find myself withdrawing more and more from the mainstream experience. The only other mainstream movies I saw were Werner Herzog's RESCUE DAWN and GRINDHOUSE, the former taking place in 60s Vietnam, the latter lost in references to 70's grindhouse product.
It's interesting that even though NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN takes place in pre cellphone, pre-internet 1980 it eloquently and poetically speaks to our own troubled times. Bardem's professional killer is both a calm reality check and a kind of metaphysical force who reminds his victims of the random nature of the universe. That's what makes him so unsettling. He's not just another unstoppable hit man, he's the bitter Truth. This is NOT just another serial killer film. And it is ultra violent. Having been to the Texas-Mexican border regions I can attest that it's certainly authentic in its look but the film goes beyond representation into the realms of mythic allegory. I have read all kinds of wild interpretations of the film's structural system but it expresses what has evolved into a national melancholy over the real life horrors taking place in far-away deserts as our players search for tainted gold in a blasted American landscape. Some friends have expressed confusion about the ending, its unanswered questions and dangling plot points. The film is steeped in ambiguity of the kind we rarely encounter in contemporary American movies. It's not about plot, it's finally a poetic meditation on Death, the only certainly in life. I was immediately drawn into its oneiric texture and can understand how some can feel as if they've just paid to experience a nightmare. But it's a nightmare that gives a sense of where we're at, a sort of ghoulish campire cautionary tale which also acts as a global positioning system. BTW, Bardem is the nephew of the great Spanish director Juan Antonio Bardem, whom Jess Franco worked for as a writer and composer on several 1950s projects (DEATH OF A CYCLIST) and the director of THE CORRUPTION OF CHRIS MILLER, which has been reviewed on this blog.
With INLAND EMPIRE David Lynch took a giant step away from mainstream Hollywood, although the action, like that of his other 21st century masterwork MULLHOLLAND DRIVE, takes place under its famous sign. Also oneiric and disturbing, it goes even further than the Coen Brothers by doing away with film altogether, creating its multiple realities on digital video without a formal finished screenplay and flying under the radar of coast to coast distribution and exhibition.
The premise is a cursed Polish movie which is being remade by a Hollywood director (Jeremy Irons) with a seemingly picture perfect actress (Laura Dern). From its opening scenes of characters with blurred off heads engaging in transgressive behavior in a seedy Polish hotel to the absurd coup de theatre of the play enacted by humanoid rabbits to the eerie evocations of the sexual underworlds of Los Angeles and Lodz, Poland, this is a daring, iconoclastic vision which takes us to places we've never been before. Time will tell if Lynch has revolutionized cinema in the same way his TWIN PEAKS once signaled a paradigm shift in commercial television.
The DVD is a thing of beauty, the digital imagery has a spectral quality with outre hues and unsettling textures. One gets the sense that if there is life after death this is what it very well may look, sound and feel like. A time and space spanning waiting room with the latest electronics, hookers, stylish lamps, dancing and a guy sawing a log in the corner. The DVD has hours of extras including extensive deleted footage, behind the scenes production footage showing Lynch in hyperaction, a Lynch short, trailers, stills and more. Take a vacation day, sit down for six hours and experience the poly-phonics contained within. 2 Disk SE from RHINO.
Other Favorite DVDS:
EL TOPO: THE FILMS OF ALEJANDRO JODOROWKY: I picked up the single of this from the Anchor Bay/Starz box set. I was hypnotized by the legendary cult item when I first saw it during its initial NYC run as the first Midnight Movie, thanks to John and Yoko. This lovely, much needed OAR DVD with English and Original Spanish soundtrack options actually makes the movie look and sound better than it did when I saw it on the big screen over 35 years ago. An X rated (at the time) acid western loaded with Zen Buddhist/Sergio Leone/Luis Bunuel stylistic touches. It is dated? Maybe, but the illuminating and highly entertaining commentary track proves that Alejandro Jodorowky is one of the most evolved humans on the face of the earth.
HORRORS OF MALFORMED MEN (1969): Invisible since its controversial Japanese theatrical release nearly 40 years ago KYOFU KIKEI NINGEN is a transgressive ero-guro cocktail of noir, medical horrors, surrealism and Butoh performance adapted from the stories of Edogawa Rampo, the Japanese Poe. From the director of my much beloved SUPERGIANT episodes of the 1950s (released as STARMAN features here in the 1960s), the late Teruo Ishii (THE JOYS OF TORTURE) was a wild and eclectic talent. This definitive Synapse presentation is a gorgeous OAR transfer from long unavailable vault elements with numerous supplements. In terms of film history this may have been the most significant DVD discovery and release of the year. A hallucinatory experience which demands to be seen by the adventurous viewer.
MALPERTUIS (1972): Barrel Entertainment's 2 Disc presentation of Harry Kumel's mythological fantasy based on the novel of the legendary Jean Ray. You get the long sought after 119 director's cut which was replaced by a 100 minute version for a Cannes Film Festival version. That version is also included along with documentary interviews with Kumel, Jean Ray, the lovely Susan Hampshire, and a fascinating 25 minute featurette containing outtakes of featured actor Orson Welles calling his own cuts during the tempestuous filming. Kumel provides an audio commentary on the Director's Cut. An informative, illustrated booklet by David De Valle is icing on the cake. Both versions of this heady film prove to have their merits. This 16X9 HD transfer is the only way to partake of this visual feast.
HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB/THE LORELEY'S GRASP:
BCI Eclipse made 2007 the year of Spanish horror with a series of HD DVD presentations of Paul Naschy/Spanish horror double bills. The most significant and impressive was this most recent double feature which includes the first ever Paul Naschy commentary on a US DVD presentation. Naschy and director Carlos Aured reflect on the 1972 making of EL ESPANTO SURGE DE LA TUMBA, a longtime favorite written and featuring the legendary Spanish horror icon. A must have for collectors of Spanish horror. This is paired with another HD transfer of THE LORELEY'S GRASP (1974) from the creator of THE BLIND DEAD series, Amando De Ossorio. The image quality and colors are just dazzling in this modern day retelling of the mythological Loreley(Helga Line), her servant Alberic (Luis Barboo) and the heroic Sirgud (Tony Kendall), or it can just be enjoyed as old fashioned rubber suited monster fun. Both features are anamorphic wide screen 1.85: 1 transfers from Spanish vault elements with the Spanish and vintage English language tracks included. My only complaint is that I wish they would go back to the regular white subtitles rather than the enhanced ones on view here. I find them a bit eye straining. Scholarly, fun to read liner notes are provided by Spanish horror authority Mirek Lipinski More Naschy/Spanish horror HD transfers are promised for 2008.
Late addition:
LATITUDE ZERO (1969) Tokyo Shock's 2 Disc SE of Ishiro Honda's crazy comic book style blend of Jules Verne, environmental warnings, furry monster bats, rats, and lions, all presided over by Joseph Cotton and Cesar Romero as warring submarine commanders. Takeo Kida's psychelic-lounge sets are a sight to behold as are the brightly colored plastic costumes. In 2.35:1 Tohoscope, both the original Japanese and US version are offered with language options, trailers, crew interviews and a rather amazing deleted scenes folder. A must have for Toho fantasy collectors and it's available at very low retail prices. This may be the most fun DVD of the year. Click on the CINEBEATS link below to read her excellent review.
(C) Robert Monell, 2007


3 comments:

Cinebeats said...

I hope I can see No Country for Old Men soon. I had mixed reactions to Inland Empire so I need to watch it again, but Lunch and I have an odd relationship. So far the best new films I've seen are Cronenberg's Eastern Promises and Zodiac. Eastern Promises is my favorite of the two and I was surprised by how good it was when I finally saw it this week. I think a lot of the films thoughtful subtext is really going over viewers and critics heads. I really love the mythology/commentary about violence that Cronenberg & Mortensen seem to be shaping together with their last couple of films.

I completely agree with your comments on the Jodorowky DVD set and Ishii's wonderful Horrors of Malformed Men which will both be on my own "favorite DVDs of 2007" list which I'm slowly compiling. I still need to see Malpertius (which I have on hand) and the Naschy films.

This was a terrific year for DVD releases even if many of the great companies from previous years (No Shame, Panik House, etc.) didn't deliver anything.

Cinebeats said...

Lunch should obviously by Lynch. Ha!

Robert Monell said...

Thanks for your feedback, Cinebeats. I need to see ZODIAC, I didn't see it theatrically because sitting in a theater that long is out of the question. Probably on DVD. I'd like to hear your thoughts about the subtext. INLAND EMPIRE gets more interesting on repeat viewings.