Cat People (Schrader, 1982)

Whether he’s focusing on eroticized violence or masochistic sexual encounters, Paul Schrader has never shied away from exploring the darker side of human nature. Lustful situations often crash into moments of desperate rage, shoving his characters toward a purgatory of uncertainty while making them fully aware of their failures. Schrader’s screenplay for Martin Scrosese’s Taxi Driver and later directing efforts like Hardcore and American Gigolo firmly identify him as one of the seediest auteurs to rise out of the 1970’s New Hollywood, if not the most consistently dirty.

So it comes as no surprise Schrader’s flimsy remake of Jacques Tournuer’s horror masterpiece Cat People deals almost completely with the animal instincts hiding beneath the repressed surface of everyday life. In a strange and awkwardly shot prologue, Schrader stylizes the sexual origin of the Cat People by glimpsing the sacrificial joining of man and beast through a clay red vision of Mesopotamian brutality. Schrader then dissolves from the glaring eyes of a Black Leopard to the equally studied pupils of Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski) arriving in modern day New Orleans, a graphic match foreshadowing the long-lasting torment to come.

Irena’s feline lineage, represented through the menacing stare of new found brother Paul (Malcolm McDowell), wreaks havoc on her quest to find some normalcy amidst the glitz and grime of The Big Easy. Apparently siblings are the only “true” mate for the Cat People and Paul has been waiting a long time for a shot at love. To confuse the matter even more, John Heard plays curious and passionate zoo curator Oliver Yates, who entices Irena away from her concealed instincts, much to the chagrin of Paul’s grizzly advances.

It’s clear early on Schrader’s vision isn’t too concerned with story or pacing, but with extreme visual and audible stimulation. Bloody wounds and screams of the nightlife become the motifs that define Cat People. The pain of rebirth comes to represent both the beginning and destruction of physical love. Gone are Tournuer’s brilliant use of off screen space and stylish black and white images, replaced by a typical 80’s synthesizer score and lambasting blue and red hues highlighting a world consumed with deceit. Irena’s sexual awakening seems more symbolic of a director obsessed with his subject’s image rather than her plight as a dimensional character.

But the film still has a daring flare to it that raises it up from the depths of trashy camp. The kinetic filmmaking undoubtedly pops during a few scenes, like when Irena makes her first kill deep in the swamplands and returns to Oliver bloodied and confused, very much a woman on the verge of something terrible. It’s a haunting moment of clarity surrounded by glossy fluff.

For all it’s over the top characterizations and meandering musings, Schrader’s Cat People does serve as an interesting link in his long chain of work dealing with sexual comeuppance. In the end, danger is never far from the bedroom. However, aside from the occasional filmmaking virtuosity, the film rides a swirl of eroticism right into the ground, making one yearn for the mystery and horror of the original. One thing’s for certain. No one will ever confuse Paul Schrader with Jacques Tournuer.

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Blu-ray DVD: Black Hawk Down

My recent thoughts on Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down can be found here, and I still stand by them. But I want to expand the discussion by addressing the impact HD quality has on the film’s strengths. First, this is the perfect film for highlighting the advantages of Blu-ray, namely the incredible picture and audio quality.

Watching this intense and densely layered war film on Blu-ray opens up the action scenes for more analysis, turning what was once obscured and jumbled on Standard Def into harrowing and precise explorations of modern day warfare. Sure, Scott can’t help but button up certain emotion-driven scenes, but for the most part his direction is more restrained than usual (that’s a compliment). Scott’s patriotism still feels a bit on the nose, but the engaging experience speaks for itself, integrating the viewer into a crumbling war-torn mise-en-scene with vibrant explosions and wrenching gore, something you won’t soon forget.

A Few Notes on We Own the Night

My original (and unenthusiastic) review for We Own the Night can be found here. But seeing James Gray’s cop thriller again, I feel it’s better than originally thought and worth discussing a bit more. During my initial theatrical viewing, the film came across as dynamically stylish and light on character, extremely watchable and engaging but disappointing in the end due to its reliance on silly plot devices. The second time around, Gray’s construction of tragedy really hit home for me. The rapport between Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg’s conflicted brothers caught on separate sides of the law became more authentic and palpable beyond genre convention. Their respective dramatic compromises, both played out significantly in the final scene, resonate greatly with Gray’s motif of familial sacrifice. While I still reserve the right to roll my eyes during a number of outlandishly implausible scenes in We Own the Night, it’s a work filled with interesting moments of tension dependent on performance and genre. 

 

The Kite Runner (Forster, 2007)

Marc Forster’s well meaning but flawed adaptation of the best selling novel by Khaled Hossieni goes for the emotional jugular, taking this tragic story of lost innocence and forgotten honor framed by 20 years of turbulent Afghan history and tying it into together with a nice, sentimental ribbon. I’m a fan of Marc Forster’s earlier pictures, especially Finding Neverland and Stranger Than Fiction. But those films walk a fine line between sugary sap and honest sentiment, whereas The Kite Runner doesn’t concern itself with such balance. Almost every scene contains crescendos of music, blatant audio flashbacks, and teary-eyed close-ups, all guiding the viewer by the hand toward an easy, Hollywood ending. Its all supposed to add up to something “important”, paralleling the guilt-ridden conscience of one man with that of a country lost to religious fanaticism. Instead, The Kite Runner stumbles over its good intentions and doesn’t explore the psychological facets of this fascinating and complicated story.

Blu-ray DVD: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

 

I wanted to enter the world of High Definition DVD with a true visual feast, a film bursting with rich compositions and vivid colors that would display this new format’s worthiness. Andrew Dominik’s masterful Western The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford definitely qualifies, and aside from viewing this magnificent piece in HD, I also wanted to see if the film would live up to repeated viewings. First, I’ll say the Blu-ray transfer does look incredible. In a film like Jesse James, the subtle and somber mood is so dependent on the visuals, and here Deakins’ color scheme pops with glaring clarity while the fluidity of his camera movement remains epic even on the small screen. Second, Dominik’s vision does stand up and I’d venture to say becomes even more interesting as the historical threads of its subject matter are obscured.  The film moves along at such a strange pace, jumping effortlessly from Robert Ford to Jesse James to Dick Liddel back to Bob and then to Jesse all while bringing it together as if the story is on a leisurely walk down historiography lane. Maybe the reason I responded to this film so strongly is because it has such a distinct vision, such a rambling outlook on heroism and betrayal and unflinching style complimenting the characters. I’ll definitely be treading through the murky waters of Jesse James again, and it will be on nothing less than Blu-ray. Unless I get the privilege of seeing it again on the big screen. Now that would be a true visual feast. My original review of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford can be found here.

Red Beard (Kurosawa, 1965)

Another gem from the Kurosawa/Mifune dream factory, this time in the form of a wonderfully compassionate story about three diligent doctors attempting to find meaning and honor while running a Shogun era Hospital. Ironically, while being one of Akira Kurosawa’s most restrained and subtle films, Red Beard still displays a truly amazing and brutal fight scene, pitting Mifune’s titular grizzly bear against a rabid gang of pimps. Pure gold.