Thursday, July 11, 2013

Five at the Castro

In April & May, I saw five films at the Castro Theater.

Blood Simple starring John Getz & Frances McDormand; with Dan Hedaya & M. Emmet Walsh; directed by Joel Coen; (1984)
Happy Together starring Leslie Cheung & Tony Leung Chiu Wai; directed by Kar Wai Wong; Cantonese & Mandarin with subtitles; (1997)
Fallen Angels starring Leon Lai, Michelle Reis & Takeshi Kaneshiro; directed by Kar Wai Wong; Cantonese with subtitles; (1995)
Spring Breakers starring James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson & Rachel Korine; directed by Harmony Korine; (2012) - Official Website
Enter the Void starring Paz de la Huerta; with Nathaniel Brown & Cyril Roy; directed by Gaspar Noé;  English & some Japanese with subtitles; (2009) - Official Website

Happy Together and Fallen Angels were double features as were Spring Breakers and Enter the Void.


Way back in early April, I saw Blood Simple at the Castro.  Blood Simple is notable because it is the first Coen Brothers film.  I always get them confused.  Joel Coen is usually credited as the director, Ethan Coen is usually credited as the producer and both are usually credited as the screenwriters.  For the past few films they have worked on, both are sharing credits as director and producer.  Joel is married to actress Frances McDormand although during production, they were likely not married.  They were married on April 1, 1984 but I'm not sure when the film was in production.  It premiered in September 1984.  Blood Simple was remade by Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) under the title A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop.

Bar owner Julian Marty (Dan Hedaya) suspects his wife Abby (McDormand) of having an affair with Ray, one of his bartenders.  His suspicions are justified because they are having an affair but Marty is a controlling, manipulative jerk so it's not surprising his wife would stray.  Marty hires private investigator Loren Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to surveil the two.  When Visser returns with photographic evidence of the affair, Julian ups the ante by hiring Visser to kill the couple.

Visser is one sleazy "sonbitch" as they say in Texas where the film is set.  He doctors photos of Ray & Abby to make it appear they are murdered.  He presents the photos and collects his fee, but then double crosses Marty and kills him with Abby's gun which he has stolen during the course of his "investigation."  He inadvertently leaves behind his distinctive cigarette lighter and later realizes Marty locked one of the photos in the floor safe.

Ray arrives at the bar to collect his last paycheck only to discover Julian is dead.  Seeing Abby's gun and remembering a warning from Julian to not trust Abby, Ray assumes Abby killed her husband.  The becomes an after-the-fact accomplice by cleaning the office of the blood and disposing of Marty's body.  Actually, Marty isn't quite dead as Ray discovers when he starts to bury him in a cornfield.  No need to split hairs, Ray keeps on shoveling dirt over the barely conscious Julian.

Ray & Abby have some cryptic conversations where Ray attempts to explain he has taken care of Abby's mess but unaware her husband is dead, Abby doesn't get the drift.  Roy is put off because he thinks Abby is playing coy.

Abby goes to the bar and finds the office looking fine...except someone has attempted to break into the safe.  It was actually Visser trying to retrieve the doctored photo but Abby assumes it was Ray since he was upset over his last paycheck.  Combined with Ray's odd comments from before, Abby assumes Ray killed Marty.

When they later meet at Abby's apartment, Abby is leery of Ray thinking him a killer.  Ray has noticed someone following him and instructs Abby to turn off the light.  Fearful that Ray wants the lights off so he can kill her too, Abby refuses.  Visser has indeed been following Ray and is positioned on the roof across the street with a high powered rifle.  He shoots and kills Ray which causes Abby to knock out the light & hide in the bathroom.  Visser is quick to enter the apartment but when he goes into the bathroom, it is empty.  Realizing Abby must have exited the bathroom window and into the window of the next door unit, Visser reaches his arm out to open the next door unit's window. Abby slams with  window shut on his hand and drives a kitchen knife through his hand.  Visser shoots through the wall thus weakening it.  He eventually punches through the wall to remove the knife.  As he enter the unit to kill Abby, she shoot him through the door.  Her comments indicate she thought it was her husband who had come to kill her.

That was a long write up because the film had a lot of plot twists.  Everyone was suspicious of everyone it should be in noir.  Both Abby & Ray thought the other capable of murder which makes for a healthy extramarital relationship.  M. Emmet Walsh, two years removed from Blade Runner, shines as the depraved PI.  Dan Hedaya also stands out as Marty.  The Coen Brothers have made some really good films and this is one of them.


Ho (Leslie Cheung) and Lai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) are a dysfunctional gay couple at the center of Happy Together.  Lai is the more stable one while Ho is prone to promiscuity and mental abuse.  The two seem to have gone through several cycles of breakup, reconciliation and abuse.  For a change of pace, the film is set in Argentina.  At the beginning, I thought the film was going to be black & white but color is gradually added to the scenes.

After Ho & Lai breakup, Lai gets a job a nightclub where Ho comes in with other men.  This upset Lai greatly.  One day Ho shows up at Lai's apartment after being beaten.  Lai takes him in to care for him but eventually the rekindle their relationship and the destructive cycle begins anew.  Ho torments Lai until he leaves him once again.  Lai begins a friendship with Chang (Chen Chang) a co-worker at the Chinese restaurant he works at.  It is implied Chang is gay but their relationship is platonic.

However, when Chang leaves for an extended trip to the southernmost lighthouse in South America, Lai flounders and begins to exhibit behavior similar to Ho's...who coincidentally shows up at this juncture. Lai has matured in the intervening time.  He recognizes the cycle of abuse and refuses to see Ho.  In addition, Lai has stolen money from a business associate of his father.  He writes a letter attempting to reconcile and promising to return to Taiwan to face the consequences.  Before he returns, he visits the lighthouse Chang went to.  According to legend, you can drop your sorrow into the sea at this location.  Afterwards, Lai returns to Taiwan where he goes to the night market food stall which Chang's parents own.  Although Chang is not there, Lai glimpses a photo of him tacked the support beam and steals it.

Happy Together reminded me a lot of director Kar Wai Wong later 1960s trilogy.  The themes of destructive relationships and unfulfilled desires are present in Happy Together although it is played out among gay men.  As always, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai delivers a subtle performance as Lai.  In the later trilogy, Leung displays characteristics of both Ho & Lai in his performance.

I saw Fallen Angels at the Red Vic in January 2009.  I remember the cinematography.  Much of the film was shot at night among neon lit streets of Hong Kong.  The loose plot involves a hitman (Leon Lai) and his handler (Michelle Reis).  The two never meet but they exchange messages about jobs at a ramshackle, industrial space that serves as their apartment.  The woman is sexually attracted to the man; even using the scent of his clothing as masturbatory aids.

The other main character is odd mute (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who essentially breaks into businesses at night and either sells their products or insists on being paid to leave.  For example, he breaks into an food truck and forces people to buy the food out the window.  Some people don't know anything is amiss but if you try to leave without buying anything, he harasses them.

I glimpsed a plot but it's not important.  The three lead actors plus Karen Mok as a pink haired punk with a voice that couple peel paint just power through the scenes.  Some scenes are humorous such as the killer showing a classmate a photo of his "wife" who is a black woman he paid to have his photo taken with.  Other scenes have a kind of violent elegance more associated John Woo.  Still other scenes are headscratchingly weird.  The effect is cumulative; you'll either grow to love it or grow hate it - I was the former.  The film also has a distinct soundtrack which I liked.

Happy Together and Fallen Angels was a very successful double feature in my opinion.


Spring Breakers was advertised as not your typical spring break film.  Right at the beginning, there is a skillfully edited montage scene which makes spring break appear grotesque.  Actually, when thought of rationally, the debauchery is grotesque in a libertine sort of way but for generations, young people have rationalized their annual week of bacchanalia as a necessary stress reliever.  Also, there is a "what happens in Ft. Lauderdale stays in Ft. Lauderdale" mentality and code of silence.

Four college girls (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson & Rachel Korine) go to Florida on spring break.  Actually, three of them robbed a restaurant to get the money so they could go.  This film is already going in directions other spring break films don't go.

After the requisite party scenes, the film swerves into uncharted territory.  The four girls are arrested for public drunkenness or disturbing the peace.  Arraigned while still in their bikinis, the four believe they will spend the rest of spring break in lockup because they can't pay their bail.  Witnessing the proceeding is a corn-rowed wigga called Alien (Jame Franco).  Rapper, gangsta, playa and owner of an outrageous gun collection, Alien bails out the four women.

The five are out to party but the action gets increasingly disturbing.  At one point, two of the women point a gun at Alien during (what the audiences thinks is) foreplay for ménage à trois.  Initially hesitant, Alien embraces the new spin, even going so far as to suck on the pistol barrel à la fellatio.

As the action heats up and gets weird, the girls peel off.  First to go is Selena Gomez whose character goes prayer group and was not part of the robbery.  Next to go is Rachel Korine (the director's daughter) who was the getaway driver during the robbery.  She is shot during a drive by shooting by some rival gangstas of Alien.  I guess getting a flesh wound in the arm puts a damper on the thug life.

The two girls who are left (Hudgens & Benson) are the wildest of the quartet.  The two actresses go for broke in their performances.  The scene where they enter the diner to rob it is chilling and there is a shocking disconnect between their petite bikini clad appearance and their behavior.

After a threesome in the pool, Alien and the two girls go to get some payback for the driveby.  Rocking tiny bikinis, wearing pink ski masts and toting assault rifles, the two girls contribute to a memorable shootout.

Although Spring Breakers has some disturbing imagery, it's played as a dark comedy.  Franco chews up the scenery.  Some of the scenes are patently ridiculous.  Director Harmony Korine has a vision of where to take the film and she gets there in stylish fashion.  I thought Spring Breakers was tremendous.

I was on the fence about sticking around after Spring Breakers.  The next film (Enter the Void) was more than 2.5 hours long and the film was starting at 8:45 PM.  I'm glad I did because the opening title sequence was almost worth the price of admission.

What followed was equally imaginative and exhausting.  Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is American drug dealer in Tokyo.  His sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta) is a stripper, also in Tokyo.  Oscar is shot by the police (in the Japanese style public toilet of all places).  His spirit or soul rises from his body and the rest of the film is told from this disembodied viewpoint as the action skips back and forth in time to tell Oscar and Linda's story.

This sounds like a gimmick film but director Gaspar Noé is almost able to pull it off.  I say almost because I'm not sure if the movie was received by the audience as the director intended.  The story is told in mind-numbing detail as layer upon layer and character upon character is given screen time.  This may have been Noé intention so as to show the state of Oscar's spirit.  The effect on the audience was excruciating at time.  Although my concentration flagged occasionally, I never fell asleep and my interest was maintained through the end.  What an ending!  Linda and another character go to a love hotel.  After a dizzying array of overhead shots featuring several characters performing various sex acts, Linda engages in sex.  In some ways, it's as if Oscar is having sex with her sister but if that isn't creepy enough, Noé switches visual perspectives midway through the act.  The audience gets a shot of the penis inside Linda's vagina during and we  are treated to the proverbial money shot.  Boring and obligatory in pornographic films, in Enter the Void it signaled Oscar's rebirth or reincarnation as well a signpost to the audience that film was almost over.

Enter the Void was self-indulgent but Noé's vision for the film proved engrossing.

Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson & Rachel Korine (pick two) in masks and James Franco (back to camera) in Spring Breakers

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