Tag Archives: crime

A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year doesn’t give viewers much to chew on, which is a shame given the film’s deliberately retro palette, recalling the glory days of New York filmmaking in the 1970s. Thing is, while movies by Scorsese and Coppola hummed with what felt like a novelistic depth and intensity, A Most Violent Year just sort of scoots along the surface of its milieu — heating oil distribution in greater New York City, circa 1981. And the violence of the title isn’t Scorsese violence, or even Coppola violence. Literally, it refers to the high crime rates in New York in the 1980s. Figuratively, it’s a metaphor for the pain caused by the unpleasant ethical dilemmas that are the film’s subject. Expect lots of terse exchanges and meaningful looks, not so much gunplay and fistfights.
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The Vanishing

What scares you the most? If you chew on that question for a while, then imagine a narrative that gets you to that terrible place, your story might be a little like the one in The Vanishing. Completed in 1988, this downbeat thriller didn’t make it to the U.S. until a couple of years later, when it coincidentally landed in New York within weeks of The Silence of the Lambs. The Vanishing isn’t, strictly speaking, a serial-killer movie like Silence, but it shares that film’s deep interest in the psychopathology of its villain. Like a good (and by “good,” I mean “lurid”) true crime book, its interest is similarly piqued by the painful, quotidian details of an abhorrent crime.

The Vanishing begins with a young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, on vacation in France. As they drive, they play word games, they bicker about whether the tank needs to be filled, and they talk about dreams. They stop at a gas station for rest and refreshments and then — after a bare 15 minutes of screen time — she’s gone. Gone as in vanished, as if into thin air, after stepping inside to buy some soft drinks. Just when you think the film has little to do but settle comfortably into a kind of detective story, with Rex gathering clues that put him on the trail of Saskia’s abductor, it switches gears completely and reveals the perpetrator as comfortable family man Raymond Lemorne. In an extended flashback, Raymond hatches and rehearses his plan for kidnapping a woman, tracking the expected traveling time for a comfortably choloroformed victim, measuring his pulse rate under stress, and trying out incapacitating moves on his own daughter. After a sudden, multi-year flash-forward, the film spends the balance of its running time moving back and forth between parallel nonlinear narratives, from Rex to Raymond and back again, before bringing them together for a perverse, low-key pas de deux that moves the film toward its inexorable conclusion.

The Vanishing subverts the expected narrative mode of the whodunit by turning its attention to Saskia’s abductor before said abduction even takes place. Raymond is introduced as a serious-looking but anonymous fellow driving a late-model family car and affixing a fake cast to his right arm — a small thing, but clearly nefarious in context. More details are filled in. Raymond teaches chemistry. He once dove into cold water to save a little girl from drowning. He has a wife and two children and a country chateau far enough from the neighbors that he’s sure they can’t hear the screaming. Is he sympathetic? No — well, nobody looks at his professorial demeanor, calculating mindset, and overgrown shrub of chin hair and thinks: psycho killer, c’est moi. But he’s credible. His life is quiet and comfortable enough that you can imagine his bourgeois lifestyle generating a kind of privileged ennui that gives wings to his demons. The film goes to great lengths (maybe too great) to posit the kind of pretzel logic that could lead a demented but thoughtful man to commit heinous crimes.

In a clever reversal, Rex is clearly the more unhinged of the two. Obsessed with Saskia’s disappearance, he is still plastering the city of Nîmes with “Have you seen this woman?” posters years later. He has a new girlfriend, who seems lovely, but she’s alienated by his behavior, insisting at one point that she has no interest in being part of a menage a trois. (On a repeat viewing it becomes clear the third party is Raymond, not poor Saskia.) He has ample reason to feel guilty. On the day Saskia disappeared, the car had run out of gasoline on his watch, and he had abandoned her at a dangerous spot in a dark tunnel, ignoring her cries for his return. It’s a failure of character that he never recovers from. His betrayal revealed his great egotism, and it’s not grief that drives him later as much as an desire for knowledge that overrides his concern for his own safety. He must know, he declares, what happened to Saskia Wagter. And, from a safe distance, Raymond Lemorne is watching him.

Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu invests Lemorne with just the right amount of awkwardness — his demeanor is generally confident and charismatic, but his facial expressions are often pinched and there is sometimes a bit of tightness around the shoulders and a stuffy, reserved posture that hints at his creepy inner world. (Check out the film’s final shot, in which he musters an glaring intensity to rival the closing images of Psycho and Taxi Driver.) Raven-haired Gene Bervoets is less convincing as the dickish young loverboy of the film’s first act than he is as the smoldering bag of emotional wreckage of its latter half, when he makes a perfect id to Raymond’s ego. Bervoets’ somewhat off-putting screen presence helps Johanna ter Steege steal the show with a bright, naturalistic performance that adds resonance to the tragedy. Georges Sluizer directs it all with classical precision, framing shots in the best way to propel the narrative and showcase performance, never venturing a style that could draw attention to itself. When telling Rex’s story, he stays close to the character, favoring tracking shots that move alongside him and especially Dardennes-style follow shots that that emphasize his subjective experience in relation to the vast, empty and unfriendly environments he faces. Raymond is more likely to be seen from a medium distance, in compositions with a bit of a surveillance quality to them; you feel that the camera is keeping its distance from a dangerous man, and the wider vantage is best for revealing body language as he plans, rehearses and executes his crime.

Still, despite being perhaps the best-known Dutch film export not directed by Paul Verhoeven, The Vanishing is utterly ordinary in appearance. Anything but a stylist, Sluizer is the definition of a cinematic one-hit wonder; the only other film of his to stir up much interest was his own Hollywood remake, which starred Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, and Sandra Bullock and was ridiculed as a disaster. (It gained nothing from a rewritten ending, nor did it benefit from its star power.) But Sluizer was an accomplished documentarian in the 1960s and 1970s, having gotten his start making industrial films for Shell, and it’s his methodical, journalistic approach to novelist Tim Krabbé’s scenario that makes The Vanishing such a compelling investigation. It’s disturbing in part because its lack of affect reflects the emotionless remove of its antagonist. But that banality-of-evil stuff only gets you so far. What’s really distressing about The Vanishing is the film’s climax, with the emotional voyeurism it invites. It induces a genuine, shivery thrill at the prospect of a horrific event imagined three times over — the hero’s appreciation of his predicament is eclipsed only by his horror at his lover’s ordeal, and both of those theoretical atrocities are overshadowed in the mind of the viewer, who is surely imagining how it would feel to actually live through what’s depicted on screen. The spectre expands in the mind as if reflected in a pair of facing mirrors. And there’s something unsavory about simply being a viewer who makes it all the way to the end-credit scroll, having consumed so much abject horror as an evening’s entertainment. (Somewhere, Michael Haneke was taking notes.) The experience shames the viewer as much as it fascinates. And, in that tension, The Vanishing reaches full flower.

Criterion certainly seems a little bashful about the film, releasing it in a handsome but unusually slender new Blu-ray edition. According to the liner notes, this transfer was sourced from a 4K film scan that took place in Italy, with color dialed in by Criterion’s technical mastermind, Lee Kline, in New York. The results are a big step up from the company’s previous DVD release and look to have wrangled every last bit of visible detail from the camera negative. The picture is generally grain-free in brightly lit exteriors, though the grain structure of the film stock is apparent in darker scenes. Shadow detail is good, and colors are richly saturated, even in scenes late in the film where the color palette is deliberately subdued. The picture is mostly (but not entirely) clean of dust, dirt and scratches, which Criterion says were removed using a combination of manual and automatic or semi-automatic tools. The transfer has been generously budgeted at an average video bit rate of just over 35 Mbps, which ensures that any digital artifacts are indiscernible. But the biggest qualitative difference from the earlier version, I think, is the color timing, which now tends toward the warm side of the spectrum during scenes featuring Rex and turns a bit chilly whenever Raymond is on screen. The included uncompressed PCM monaural audio track is similarly exemplary, presenting an exceptionally clean and clear representation of the film’s 35mm magnetic audio track. Criterion reports that imperfections were manually removed during a 24-bit remastering process.

There was plenty of room for picture and sound on the dual-layer disc because extras are sparse by Criterion standards. Still, the 19-minute interview with George Sluizer recorded earlier this year is an especially precious thing since the director died in September, just weeks before this title hit the streets. He discusses adapting the source material, which apparently involved butting heads with novelist Krabbé over Sluizer’s preferred cinematic approach, as well as the casting process, including bringing a difficult Donnadieu to heel. He also remembers speaking at length with Stanley Kubrick, who he says was the film’s biggest fan, and reveals that the English-language title was in part a homage to The Shining. In a new 14-minute interview, ter Steege herself remembers auditioning for The Vanishing as a third-year theater student and describes the challenge of crafting a performance that only gets about 11 minutes of screen time. She also recalls her problems with Donnadieu, who didn’t trust her performance and treated her poorly because of it until Sluizer intervened. (No one else associated with the film is represented here; an interview with Krabbé would have been especially welcome.) An essay by Scott Foundas takes up one half of a four-panel insert, with another take on the jacket art plus three pages of liner notes occupying the opposite side.

Pale Flower

Wow — here’s misery, violence, and cruel fate seen through a prism of yakuza assassinations, gambling addiction, and a sublimated tough-guy love affair. Muraki (Ryo Ikebe) is a hit man fresh out of prison who falls for Saeko (Mariko Kaga), a mysterious, big-eyed beauty who hangs around in gambling parlors and asks Muraki to find her a game with bigger stakes.

Director Masahiro Shinoda lets the story’s yakuza intrigue play out around the margins — Muraki returns to a new world where the gang bosses he knew as arch-rivals have joined forces to close ranks against a threatening newcomer — but is more interested in Muraki’s frame of mind, which tends to nihilism. Muraki has never felt more alive than he did as an assassin; he and Saeko grow close but stop short of declaring their love either verbally or physically. A midnight race through the streets of Tokyo leaves Muraki in awe of Saeko’s thrill-seeking spirit, but a make-believe hand of cards played between the sheets in a borrowed hotel room is the closest they come to an erotic consummation. Muraki is preoccupied with Saeko, but he’s worried about Yo, a glassy-eyed killer from the younger generation of yakuza who he notices in the game rooms. As it turns out, Yo represents more than one kind of threat.

Pale Flower is the only Shinoda film I’ve seen (yes, I know, Double Suicide; I’ll get to it), but I was surprised to see it so skillfully working Seijun Suzuki territory in a somewhat less outré, more naturalistic way. That’s not to say it’s a naturalistic film. It’s at least more restrained than Suzuki’s pistol operas, but all the elements are potent, from avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu’s modernist score and the odd clack-clack of the hanafuda cards (they were replaced with tap-dancing sound FX, per Donald Richie’s A Hundred Years of Japanese Film) to the minimal set design, lithe montage, and expressionistic cinematography. And Mariko Kaga, of course, portraying a woman of leisure infiltrating a man’s world — she is tough, self-assured, but still very vulnerable.

Ryo Ikebe in Pale Flower

In its shadowy depictions of the city after dark it out-noirs some of the best films noirs ever made, and some of Shinoda’s shot compositions are just dynamite — like the one that has Muraki sitting in a chair in a small, sparsely furnished room in front of a wall that’s blank but for a jagged mark that curves up and around his body on the right, as though gouged by a samurai sword. There’s a great use of negative space throughout (which may be crucial to making good use of the widescreen frame) and repeated employment of camera angles that peer through windows and doorways and down hallways and alleyways, as though taking in the action voyeuristically.

Pale Flower

And there’s a moment at the film’s climax, as Muraki is commiting a swift but brutal murder, where Shinoda cuts to Saeko watching helplessly while the camera is still whip-panning to get her in frame — the camera jerks to a stop on her face, a now-common trick that gives the image an urgent, almost documentary edge. In fact, in an essay on the film included with the Criterion DVD and Blu-ray release, critic Chuck Stephens says this scene is deliberately modeled on the 1960 assassination of Inejiro Asanuma, a socialist politician, on-stage during a political debate by a 17-year-old nationalist. After looking up the footage on YouTube, I certainly believe him, and the reference gives the film a political resonance that I’m not ready to attempt unpacking. (According to Wikipedia, the kid hung himself less than three weeks later, after writing, “Long live his Imperial Majesty, the Emperor!” in toothpaste on the wall of his prison cell. ) Anyway, it does not surprise me at all that writer Masaru Baba was appalled by what Shinoda did to his script — but the script isn’t what makes this great. Pale Flower grows in my estimation the more I look at it.

 

The Bling Ring

Sofia Coppola’s metier is the direction of seemingly unguarded moments — a girl lounges in pink sweatpants, a boy grins dorkily as he bounces up and down on a dance floor, teenagers play dress-up and go gun crazy — so the more this strained to be on point with its observations about stalker culture and celebrity status, the less I liked it. Still, as a snapshot of a world gone crazy circa A.D. 2013, its verisimilitude is mostly undeniable, and it’s still a bit invigorating when movie girls are allowed to have the kind of disreputable fun the movie boys have always taken for granted.

Coppola has plundered young Hollywood for talent — cinematographer Wally Pfister’s daughter Claire Julien is here, as is Vera Farmiga’s (much) younger sister Taissa and even the actress (Georgia Rock) who, at 7 years old, was chosen to be the vaguely creepy drummer girl in the motion-graphic logo for Mandate Pictures (you may have seen her in front of The Purge last week) — and the actors are all just about exactly as good as they need to be to keep the endeavor afloat. Emma Watson has obvious fun playing a Calabasas girl with Beverly Hills pretensions, and Coppola pulls off the pretty good balancing act of making her characters thoroughly despicable and yet not completely unlikable — the quick glare that crestfallen Israel Broussard shoots at a passing pair of pink pumps when the jig is finally up is kind of heartbreaking.

Comparisons to Spring Breakers are both unavoidable and legitimate, though it’s hard to measure a straightforward narrative film directly against Harmony Korine’s dreamier, more deliberately anhedonic work. In its portrayal of the short history of a tiny fallen empire, The Bling Ring is most evocative of Coppola’s own Marie Antoinette. Kirsten Dunst even drifts through one scene, a lovely ghost — and, for those of us who don’t even know who the hell Audrina Patridge is, a spectral reminder of how quickly and decisively youth culture moves forward.

Killer Joe

As the final scene cut to black and the end credits appeared, accompanied by the ridiculous “Strokin'” by Clarence Carter, Killer Joe made me laugh harder than anything I saw last year, which is quite an accomplishment given that a more reasonable (not to mention easily defensible) response to its most over-the-top moments would be to recoil in disgust. If the film didn’t read in part as a knowing and deliberate parody of the literature of the American poverty belt — think of it as a demented three-way involving Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and Jim Thompson — I’d likely find it psychotic.

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Scarface

One of the most powerful moments in Scarface is the culmination of a violent, perfectly judged sequence of events crafted for maximum impact by screenwriter Oliver Stone and staged with ferocious efficiency by director Brian De Palma. It takes place at the end of a night when Al Pacino’s Cuban gangster, a feisty little hard-on named Tony Montana, has survived an attempt on his life that left him with a bullet in his shoulder. He has overseen the execution of his boss, who was behind the hit. He has shot dead a corrupt cop who was extorting his cash and favours. And he has just been upstairs to collect from between satin sheets his boss’s woman, a sleek blonde dressed in white who is his prize. The camera zooms out from a medium close-up on Pacino’s face as, still bleeding, arm in a sling, exhaustion writ large across his face, Tony Montana peers through 20-foot-tall glass windows, staring dumbly into a Giorgio Moroder sunrise as an advertising blimp floats over the water, its pithy slogan an empty promise of greatness yet to come: “The World Is Yours….”

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Rote Sonne

Women are absolutely fabulous and also out to get you in Rote Sonne (Red Sun, an artifact of Munich, circa 1969, that puts an alluring, unnerving, yet weirdly dispassionate spin on social unrest. Shot at a time in German history when student protests and leftist communes were subverting the longstanding post-World War II status quo, Rudolf Thome’s film has a go at the country’s nascent feminist movement by taking as its subject a women’s commune populated by man-eaters. There are four of these succubi, and they’re submissive enough for five days of courtship and good times. But woe be to the who shows up for a sixth day with love on his mind and ends up with a bullet in his brain.

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