Borderlands (Zev Berman, 2007): 6.5/10

The Magic Flute (Ingmar Bergman, 1975): 7/10

La Guerre Est Finie (Alain Resnais, 1966): 7/10

Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers, 2008): 8/10

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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Mephisto (Istvan Szabo, 1981)

With Oscar season right behind us (I'm not nearly interested enough in them to post what I thought, except that the more I think about it, the more I realize how badly Children of Men got screwed), I thought I'd take a look at Istvan Szabo's 1981 Best Foreign Film winner Mephisto, the story of a German actor so hungry for fame and power that he's willing to cooperate with the Nazis in order to get it. The actor, Hendrik Hoefgen, played by Klaus Maria Brandauer, starts his career in Communist theater in Hamburg, but moves to Berlin in pursuit of fame and glory. While in Berlin, the Nazis win the election, but Hendrik turns a blind eye, even when his wife leaves the country and becomes involved in the resistance. He wins the fame he so desperately desired, but also is associating with people that are deeply involved in the Nazi party. Mephisto, the role that gained Hendrik fame, appears in his life in the form of a Nazi general who loves his performances and takes him under his wing, eventually making Hendrik the manager of the Prussian State Theater. But what about Hendrik's soul? That is the question with which Szabo leaves the audience.

The performances across the board are solid, especially Brandauer as Hendrik and Karin Boyd as Juliette, his black lover who tries to be his conscience (and with whom he sees no conflict with his passive support of the Nazis). The film is based on Klaus Mann's novel, which was based on the real-life story of Gustaf Grundgens, but much of the film still feels very implausible. It was hard for me to buy that a man so dedicated to his socialist ideals in the beginning of the film (there are many speeches where he declares that theater has to have a purpose) to just throwing them aside for fame (he begins referring to himself constantly as "just an actor," trying to place blame for his actions outside of his self). I definitely understand that there are many people who give up their ideals for fame, especially during such hard times as Nazi rule in Germany, but I don't expect such willing, blind change from someone as formerly dedicated as Hendrik is portrayed. Near the end of the film, even when Hendrik claims to be doing revolutionary things such as putting on Shakespeare in the Third Reich, it is still only because the Nazis saw Shakespeare as one of theirs. The last third of the film, when Hendrik becomes friends with many powerful Nazis (but, as is explicit in one powerful scene, still has no power himself), is filled with shots of Hendrik standing in front of giant Nazi flags, to which he has sold his soul.

The Mephisto legend comes to life in Hendrik's story, and Szabo's film, but not without problems. I was frustrated with the characters, but because of the times and the place, how could I not have been? The movies makes one wonder what he or she would have done, and that's a very powerful thing in film.


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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Whoever Says the Truth Shall Die (Philo Bregstein, 1981)

There are few cinematic lives as thoroughly interesting as that of Pier Paolo Pasolini (Fassbinder - of course - is the only one I can think of at the moment). Born of an anti-fascist mother and a Mussolini-supporting father, Pasolini taught school before being fired (although found innocent) for supposedly having sexual relations with his students. He moved to Rome, began writing a lot of highly political poetry, fell in with the Italian Communist party, then was eventually kicked out of the party because he refused to fall in line with the party on every issue. In the meantime, he not only wrote poetry, but novels, his own movies, and helped with other directors' movies (such as Fellini). He was outspoken in his radical political views, which caused him to make Salo, and then was murdered, either by a teenage hustler (the official, government view) or by government assassins (pretty much everyone else's view).

While all these facts make for one incredibly interesting life, Philo Bregstein's 1981 documentary is remarkably dull. It's worth a watch for people interested in the life of this brilliant, tormented man, especially for the interviews with Bernardo Bertolucci, who provides some personal insights into his life and death. The other interviews are rather hit or miss, and we hear surprisingly little from the man himself. All that aside, it's a worth effort, but more than anything, it made me wish someone would make a real, full-length (this is only little less than an hour) documentary on the incredibly controversial life of this under-appreciated genius.


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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Porcile (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969)

Porcile is a criminally overlooked Pasolini triumph, the kind of bourgeoisie-smashing experiment that preceded Salo in both theme and style. Salo is the more famous and notorious of the two, but Porcile is equally damning of the dominant social structure. In the parallel stories, Jean-Pierre Leaud plays the son of a Nazi industrialist who has a big, big secret; and Pierre Clementi plays a young man in medieval times who kills and eats several people and finds his end at the hands of the church.

Leaud is wonderful in the role of Julian, a man who doesn't care about life, doesn't care about his girlfriend (Anne Wiazemsky, who was Mrs. Godard for a while in the 70s), and eventually falls into a coma-like state because of his ennui. He wakes up just in time for Ida to leave him, but he has a secret love that speaks volumes for Pasolini's feelings toward the upper-classes, especially those who profited during the second World War. Leaud's performance is quiet and disturbing, and while I couldn't stop thinking of him as Antoine Doinel (that's what happens when you take on a character so fully, I suppose), he plays Julian with the desperate emptiness the character embodies. Julian's father, who is the focus of the present-day story while Julian is in a coma, was a Nazi collaborator who now joins forces with another German industrialist in order to hide their collective pasts.

The second story, about the young cannibal, is less compelling, but simply because there are less dialogue and empathetic characters. The story is almost psychedelic at times, and when the religious elements come to punish the main characters, it reaches a fever pitch of imagery and meaning. Pasolini's direction is, as always, stupendous and beautiful, even though the DVD has a rather terrible transfer, subtitles that are in the middle of the screen, and possible dubbing (Leaud doesn't sound like himself, but the dubbing itself isn't bad). If ever there was a movie in need of a total restoration, this is it. Come on, Criterion Collection!


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