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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Universal Soldier


Like most friends, I saw the first Universal Soldier (1992) and ignored all subsequent sequels, including the official ones (three after 1992) and two TV movies. However, intrigued by some of the critical traction that Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning got in 2012, I decided to see both of the Universal Soldier films directed by John Hyams and revisited the first film to put everything in context.

Universal Solider (1992, Roland Emmerich)
Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009, John Hyams)
Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012, John Hyams)

Universal Soldier starts off in the Vietnam war, a starting point for many cinematic stories over the years, where a fight between two soldiers Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme) and Scott (Dolph Lundgren) results in both of their deaths. Both dead bodies are indoctrinated into a US military program and brought back as Universal Soldiers or UniSols, android fighting machines. The concept of UniSols follows the Robocop pattern in reanimating a dead character to fight justice. In Robocop, Murphy is meant to fight crime on the streets and keep civil justice. Whereas, UniSols are meant to safeguard nationalistic interests. Both Murphy and Luc are also united by their desire to return home. Despite the efforts of scientists to erase both Murphy & Luc's memories, a tiny portion of their past lingers on and manages to guide their moral compass. This makes both of these characters heroes, who try to do some good despite being programmed to kill without question. At the end of Universal Soldier, Luc does reach home. But a happy ending in Hollywood is never a guarantee for conclusion and Luc was called into action in 1999’s Universal Soldier: The Return.

Two TV movies filled the gap without JCVD and Dolph Lundgren until John Hyams resurrected the series in 2009. Hyams rightly decided that both JCVD and Dolph Lundgren are not as young as they once were and instead made Andrei Arlovski’s UniSol the central character. Arlovski’s character is a pure representation of what a Unisol was originally meant to be as he has no moral compass and is free to kill without any filters. Regeneration is certainly a major improvement over the 1992 movie and takes the series into a much darker territory. Still, the 2009 film cannot predict the direction that Day of Reckoning jumps towards.


If Regeneration showed shades of darkness, then Day of Reckoning is a full blown nightmare that is only connected to the Universal Solider series in name. The 2012 film does feature Luc Deveraux and Scott but Luc is nothing like the past films. He is more like Tony Todd's Candyman character who appears either inside John’s (Scott Adkins) head or in his house. The Candyman sequence is shown early in the film and follows a point of view nightmarish start reminiscent of Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void. Day of Reckoning then stitches a David Lynch feel and mood throughout the film and includes nods to conspiracy stories and a few horror films along with the way, such as the famous axe breaking door scene of The Shining. It is impressive how many diverse ideas and sub-plots Day of Reckoning incorporates and it might have been better if the film had shed the Universal Soldier tag. As it stands, the UniSol reference will prevent others from checking out the film. The open ended nature of Day of Reckoning suggests a future possibility of another film but more importantly, it will be curious to see what John Hyams directs next.

Related Reading

The following three articles played a big part in my viewing these films.


Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's excellent mubi review.
Ian Buckwalter's review in The Atlantic.
Bilge Ebiri.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Lisandro Alonso

Some quick notes on all four of Lisandro Alonso’s features.

La Libertad (2001)
Los Muertos (2004)
Fantasma (2006)
Liverpool (2008)

All four films focus on a lonely male as he navigates his way through an environment. With the exception of Fantasma, the environment in the three other films is nature, free from the reach of any city, ranging from farmland, forests and mountains.


For a brief moment at the start of Liverpool, the camera is in a confined space but once Farrel leaves the ship, the camera soaks in the open spaced surroundings like it does in La Liberdad and Los Muertos.


Fantasma is the only film where a character, Argentino Vargas, the actor from Los Muertos, wanders within a confined space.


Argentino walks in a cinema hall before settling to watch a special screening of Los Muertos. The cinema hall setting is also the only city location depicted in any of Alonso’s films. However, the city is only viewed in tiny glances through the glass panels in the cinema’s lobby. Even this tiny glimpse of city life is a shocking aspect to find in an Alonso film. Lisandro’s other three features are devoid of people rushing from one place to another so it feels unnatural to see people walking at a brisk pace through the glass panels in Fantasma.

Fantasma
Even though Fantasma stands apart from the other three journey features, it forms a closed loop with Alonso’s first 2 features. Both the actors of La Libertad (Misael Saavedra) and Los Muertos (Argentino Vargas) are present in Fantasma while the cinema hall is playing Los Muertos. If Liverpool had not taken place in an open space, then Fantasma would have formed a natural trilogy with La Libertad and Los Muertos. However, in terms of location and style, La Libertad, Los Muertos and Liverpool form a natural trilogy. La Liberdad, Los Muertos and Liverpool evoke Bresson by depicting emotionless characters and stripping out any irrelevant details from the frame. The following quote from Robert Bresson applies to these three features:

One does not create by adding but by taking away.

Alonso’s films have removed any distractions from the frame thereby allowing an intense focus on a singular character.

Fantasma also deviates from the style of the other three features. The cinema hall in Fantasma evokes Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn and the large glass panels in the lobby and stairs remind of Tati.
Fantasma
Tati in Playtime
James Quandt’s excellent essay outlines this Tati connection in splendid detail:

But, oddly, it is Tati who most comes to mind in surveying the San Martín’s modernist horror of malfunctioning elevators, confounding staircases, and harshly lit hallways, rooms too ample or cramped, humanity subjugated to decor, architecture, mazes, and machinery. Like Tati, Alonso sees in this surrounding a kind of elegant inutility, a vast contraption in which people stumble, turn back, retrace their steps, push buttons that don’t work, tentatively position themselves in spaces not designed for their being, much less comfort. And, again like Tati, he embeds this vision of errant modernity in a musique concrète of mechanical sound: outside traffic; the whoosh, buzz, and hum of elevators; a computer whirring to life; an incessant, unanswered telephone; the squeal of an unoiled door; the roar of the projector showing Vargas the rural world of Los Muertos, with its contrasting quiet and cacophony of birds.

Alonso's new film (2014)

At first, the casting of Viggo Mortensen in Alonso's new film seemed to indicate a continuation of the lonely men journey structure but the following synopsis on imdb indicates otherwise:

A father and daughter journey from Denmark to an unknown desert that exists in a realm beyond the confines of civilization.

Related Reading

James Quandt’s article.

Michael Guillen’s interview.

Srikanth (JAFB) on the films of Alonso.

Cinema Scope’s interview.

Gabe Klinger’s 2005 article anticipated the rise of Alonso.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Paul Verhoeven

It is easy to label Paul Verhoeven’s films as a cinema of excessive sex, blood and violence. However, these tags just refer to the surface of the films. Revisiting the following three films revealed the presence of multiple layers underneath:

Robocop (1987)
Total Recall (1990)
Starship Troopers (1997)

Robocop and Starship Troopers are razor sharp satires that are packed with social, economic and political commentary. On first glance, these references are overshadowed by over the top sequences which grab all the attention and become the film’s major talking points, such as the extremely violent killing of Officer Murphy (Peter Weller) in Robocop. Murphy’s killing is brutal but it fits in the film’s context of portraying a society where violence is used to drive all social, economic and political policies. For example, brutal force is used to evict the poor out of their homes in order to build a safer and cleaner new Detroit. And the residents have no choice but to use violent means to fight back. The rise of violence & crime is in turn used to justify the need for building more destructive killing machines so that peace can finally be achieved. RoboCop shows a society that is constantly in war with itself and depicts how once the war machine is started, it will never stop. The faces making the political decisions will change but an endless cycle of building bigger weapons will continue. In this regard, the film correctly anticipates the rise of private corporations in getting lucrative government contracts to protect society.

RoboCop not only targets private security firms but throws its net over all corporations. The appropriately named Omni Consumer Products (OCP) has its hands in every aspect of society and citizens can’t escape its influence. OCP not only thrusts its products down citizens throats but also creates weapons for them to kill or be killed. The media is not spared either and the hilariously depicted fake newscasts in both RoboCop and Starship Troopers shows how a culture of fear is created and controlled by a small group. When RoboCop was released back in 1987, news channels didn’t run 24 hours / 7 days a week. So the film can be credited as correctly predicting the state of contemporary news channels which repeat the same stories over and over again.

RoboCop and Total Recall also show that policies which deny basic equality to all citizens will force the have nots to fight for their rights. And when these citizens demand their rights, they will be labelled as troublemakers and attempt to be crushed by those in power. The enforcement of force is made possible by a collusion between government, corporations and certain elements of the police.

Even though Paul Verhoeven didn’t direct RoboCop 2 and RoboCop 3, those later films continue the story, themes and style explored by Verhoeven’s film. For example, in RoboCop 2 Murphy’s programming is altered by those in charge to make him more friendly so that he is not seen as a cold killing machine but instead a friendly killing machine. This example is another piece of witty satire which shows how corporations use media spin and public relations to shift public opinion.

Other related reading

Aaron Light has an excellent essay about Verhoeven & his "Cinema of Excess".

Robert Koehler’s interview with Paul Verhoeven.

Remake

It is not surprizing that the remake of RoboCop (2014) will be directed by José Padilha whose Elite Squad films contain a biting social commentary about violence between the poor and the police. Padilha’s films don’t feature any satire so his selection appears to indicate that the remake will be a more serious and darker examination of society.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Nacer Khemir's Desert Trilogy


Nacer Khemir’s Desert Trilogy:

Wanderers of the Desert (1986)
The Dove’s Lost Necklace (1992)
Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul (2005)

All three films have a wonderful myth + fable structure which incorporates motifs of journey and death. Music is also a key component and plays the biggest part in Bab’Aziz, a film infused with Sufi music. As the title of the trilogy indicates, the films are set against a desert background. In an interview, Nacer Khemir explains the beauty that comes with filming in a desert:

There is a Tuareg proverb that says: "There are lands that are full of water for the well-being of the body, and lands that are full of sand for the well-being of the soul." The desert is a literary field and a field of abstraction at the same time. It is one of the rare places where the infinitely small, that is a speck of sand, and the infinitely big, and that is billions of specks of sand, meet. It is also a place where one can have a true sense of the Universe and of its scale. The desert also evokes the Arabic language, which bears the memory of its origins. In every Arabic word, there is a bit of flowing sand. It is also one of the main sources of Arabic love poetry. In all of my three movies, which form a trilogy, The Wanderers of the Desert, The Dove’s Lost Necklace, and today, Bab’Aziz, The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul, the desert is a character in itself.

The Wanderers of the Desert

A bus drops a teacher off in the middle of the desert. The village that he is looking for doesn’t appear to exist.


But it does. The village exists even though it is mostly empty because the village men often disappear to wander off in the desert for days on end.


The concept of a journey is a key ingredient in The Wanderers of the Desert where characters yearn to leave for far-off lands, especially for Cordoba which is seen as the ultimate pilgrimage.

 
Myths and fables are found in almost every frame as the film feels similar to the multiple layered structure of One Thousand and One Nights. In fact, at certain moments, fairy tales manifest themselves into reality such as the appearance of Sinbad’s boat:


The Dove’s Lost Neckless


Hassan (Navin Chowdhry), a calligrapher, queries many wise men to gain their wisdom about the meaning of love. One elder tells Hassan that the Arabic language has 60 different words to describe love. At first, Hassan believes the discovery of all 60 words would bring him closer to an understanding of love. Unfortunately, he remains stuck at 35 words but his hopes are boosted by finding a single partly burnt page from a book about love. That page makes makes him yearn for the “Princess of Samarkand”, who haunts his dreams. He goes on a quest to find the book and perhaps his princess along the way.


The film is garnished with many thoughtful philosophical dialogues:

The Beginning is easy but the end is hard.

The above words are applicable to life and stories in general but they also perfectly describe the structure of all three films. The beginning of each film appears to be simplistic but the complexity of life is only revealed as the characters undertake a physical, emotional and spiritual journey. At the end of each journey, death greets one of the characters. But this death is not meant to be a final stop but just one of the paths in a cosmic journey that spans generations.

People often run after a dream. One day they run across it and don’t recognize it.

A basic truth where a person often loses sight of their goal during an exhaustive quest.

Bab’Aziz: The Prince who Contemplated his Soul


Unlike other trilogies, the third film of the Desert trilogy, Bab’Aziz, is the strongest work.


This is because the desert’s beauty comes through in virtually frame of Bab’Aziz. Also, the Sufi music against the background of giant sand dunes makes for a calm and mesmerizing experience.


Once Upon a Time....

These four words have started countless stories but they appropriately describe the Desert Trilogy as well. Each film contains scenes of story telling that peels off multiple layers of fables, myths or reality. Often, a character is mesmerized by a story they are listening to and slowly find themselves drifting into the realms of myth, where they in-turn become characters in stories that will be narrated to future generations.

Nacer Khemir deserves a lot of credit for creating a visually rich form of an ancient story telling tradition that is mostly lost in contemporary cinema.

It also seems appropriate that I came across two films in the trilogy in an old fashioned way by flipping through DVD racks in the library. With the disappearance of almost all rental DVD stores in the city, finding new films is down to online digital files. But my discovery of The Wanderers in the Desert and Bab’Aziz evoked memories of a time when DVD stores and the library played a big part in discovering gems. “Once Upon a time....” indeed!

Essential Reading



Chale Nafus, Director of Programming for the Austin Film Society, perfectly describes The Wanderers in the Desert, including the Arabian Nights references.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

The Right IP Address

A few years ago, Verena Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki’s Foreign Parts got some critical love and was a must-see film. The documentary’s setting in the Queen’s auto parts lanes besides the New York Metz stadium was also the setting for Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop, a film which made it across Canada. However, Foreign Parts has remained foreign and not touched my local Canadian shores theatrically or rental DVD. Currently, Amazon.com streams the film for $2.99 (USD), a few weeks ago that price was $2.35. The website also sells a digital copy of the film for $9.99. But one can only rent or buy this digitial film if they live in the US. The only legal option for me to view Foreign Parts is to buy the film's DVD. Amazon.ca sells a DVD of Foreign Parts in Canada for $29.71 (CAD). Hardly a fair differential to view the same film but people in Canada are used to paying more for everything. Even Canadian oil is cheaper in the United States than in the Canadian spots that extract the crude variety out of the ground.

Often excuses of tariffs, taxes, population and currency disparity is used to explain the price difference. None of these excuses matter when it comes to a digital streaming file which does not have to travel across a physical border. In fact, the price difference feels worse when it comes to streaming a digital file from a remote server which may be located in one common location. For example, iTunes US rents most new releases for $3.99 (USD) while the same film costs $4.99 (CAD) in iTunes Canada. At the current currency rate, USD 3.99 = CAD 4.09. And this ignores the fact that for most of last year, the Canadian dollar was on par or above the American dollar.

Then there are the lack of legal streaming options in Canada compared to the US. Fandor and Hulu don’t stream in Canada while Netflix.com has almost 10,000 more titles than Netflix Canada. SundanceNOW also has more streaming films in the US than in Canada. Licensing rights are blamed for lack of film availability in Canada. But there are many titles that have no distributor or rights holder in Canada. To make matters worse, in a few cases Amazon.com won’t ship a DVD to a Canadian postal code even though there is no place in Canada that sells the DVD. I ran into this problem last year when Film Movement confirmed in an email that they don’t have legal rights to sell The Country Teacher in Canada. As a result, Film Movement and Amazon.com won’t ship a DVD of The Country Teacher to a Canadian postal address.

When seeking reasons for the lack of film title availabilities in Canada, some say it is due to the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) regulations. But the CRTC can’t be blamed in all cases. Regardless of who is to blame, the fact remains that many films remain unseen.

If one followed the legal path, then one won’t have access to most films. But if a computer has the right IP Address, an American one in this case, then one has access to a world of films. But if a computer has a Canadian IP Address, then one must continue to be frustrated and see the message that the film is not available.