Auteurism is on full display in April’s What We’re Watching. Featuring films from Paul Verhoeven, Takeshi Kitano, Steven Soderbergh and more, there’s much to like about the selection of films chosen this month by our critics.
Turkish Delight (1973)
Turkish Delight tells the story of a young, rebellious couple played by Rutger Hauer (Eric) and Monique van de Ven (Olga). Their first meeting, when Olga picks up a hitchhiking Eric, almost instantly becomes carnal as they have sex in the car. Almost immediately after that, they crash and Olga needs to be taken to the hospital. This mixture of sex and violence will characterize their entire relationship. Hauer’s Eric is a cyclone of chaos, disrupting Olga’s comfortable middle-class life. He boldly refuses his mother-in-law’s offer of financial security in favor of his own bohemian lifestyle as a sculptor, getting by the occasional commission.
There are also scenes of shocking violence when Eric fantasizes about killing Olga after she has left him as well as an extended sequence of Eric’s sexual conquests, treating all these women as trophies by literally taking pictures and physical souvenirs from them. All of these scenes go to show that Eric and Olga’s chaotic relationship is actually a healthy expression of the baser desires of Eric’s id. Yet Olga is far from some passive participant as she is just as aggressive as Eric sexually and just as happy to cause chaos such as when she wears a very revealing dress to a ceremony where the queen is visiting.
Paul Verhoeven‘s talent is abundantly clear in only his second feature. Much has been said about Verhoeven’s ability to shock and how that shock seems to overshadow whatever filmmaking ability he has. But Verhoeven rarely uses shocking violence and sexuality gratuitously, and even if it seems to be gratuitous (like in Showgirls) it often fits the nature of the story he’s telling. He also clearly has a knack for physical comedy and blocking such as the hilarious attempt by a marching band to block Olga’s revealing dress. Even in a more modestly budgeted film such as Turkish Delight, Verhoeven’s tendencies as a provocateur who nevertheless wants to entertain are obvious and would translate very easily into the artfully crafted shlock he is known for today. – Eugene Kang
Violent Cop (1989)
Takeshi Kitano pushes bleakness to the extreme with his 1989 directorial debut Violent Cop, while simultaneously letting his grim cop thriller intersect with comedy that’s by turns goofy and pitch black. Kitano himself plays Detective Azuma, the titular violent cop, and, true to this description, he spends most of the film’s 102-minute runtime smoking cigarettes, berating his subordinates, and slapping and kicking suspects. Azuma ranks amongst cinema’s most memorable lawmen, his bizarre stride and intriguingly caveman-esque conversation skills rendering him a particularly short-tempered enigma — one enabled by a system that indulges brutal impulsiveness in the name of justice of a very specific kind.
In what could be described as the film’s centerpiece, a group of cops, led by Azuma, chase a suspect down in a brilliantly deconstructed chase sequence, complete with frequent turnarounds, petty squabbling, unflinching violence, and a laugh-out-loud-funny smooth jazz score. The scene recalls Buster Keaton‘s deadpan action comedy of errors but it expertly juxtaposes its breezy tone with deceptively sturdy direction and choreography devoid of flashiness — a contrast to Keaton’s showstopping setpieces, let alone the explosive action fireworks of someone like John Woo. But once the film’s last third dissolves in a fugue of devastation and death, it’s evident that a uniquely gifted and uniquely twisted voice in Japanese cinema has just announced itself. – Fred Barrett
Erin Brockovich (2000)
2000 for Soderbergh almost feels like he’s showing off. He would direct two critically acclaimed films, Erin Brockovich and Traffic, and be nominated against himself at the 2001 Academy Awards for best director for both features. Ocean’s Eleven in 2001 is often seen as Soderbergh’s blank check, but one could argue that it was a combination of Traffic, Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s that cemented his status as true talent extraordinaire and must-work-with director. With Traffic, Soderbergh proved how deft he was at working with large casts and juggling multiple storylines while making a compelling and entertaining feature. With Erin Brockovich, he took a conventional biopic and made it into something truly excellent that goes beyond its predictable roots. The script by Susannah Grant is competent, but there are definitely cliches and tropes she hits such as the cheerworthy moments when Erin gets to stick it to the snooty lawyers at the big firm who look down at her. Yet Soderbergh also manages to find elegant visual and storytelling shortcuts to slide past the conventional, such as the husband of one of the victims of the PG&E cover-up finding out that his wife has a malignant tumor. We see a scene where he is throwing rocks while screaming at the top of his lungs, but with no sound, a perfect metaphor for the helplessness the character feels against an almost unknowable entity. Julia Roberts also does her best work, taking her natural charm and channeling it into something much harder and more desperate, which makes her even more compelling to watch. Erin Brockovich feels almost effortless in its execution – so perfectly crafted into this genre. But seeming effortlessness is often the sign of a true master, and there were more than a few true masters or at least collaborators working at that level in Erin Brockovich. – Eugene Kang
In the realm of anime, Studio Trigger may not have the prestige of a Ghibli or the hot properties of Ufotable (Demon Slayer), but its creators have managed to create a distinct visual and storytelling style that has captured many fans of the genre. In the world of Promare, random people suddenly acquire the power to create massively destructive flames with their bodies, which destroys much of the world. 30 years later, these people, called the Burnish, are shunned and hunted. An unlikely partnership between Galo Thymos, a member of a squad meant to put out fires by the Burnish, and Lio Fotia, the young leader of a Burnish resistance movement, kicks off a story of adventure, intrigue and conspiracies.
The intensely colorful world of Promare is a throwback to older styles of animation, cel-shading, whose resulting product appears more boldly impressionistic. What Promare lacks in granular detail, it more than makes up for with its stunningly breakneck animation where characters and figures are almost brushstrokes of pure kineticism. The story is a balance between a shonen (manga and anime meant to appeal to boys) adventure story and a searing critique of large institutions perpetrating racist and genocidal practices. Such a combination of light and heavy subject matter isn’t unusual to anime. One need only look at Neon Genesis Evangelion, a classic of the genre, and its heady combination of mecha and heady Biblical apocrypha to see part of Promare’s inspiration. The film suffers a little when it needs to go into the exposition of the origin of the Burnish and who the Promare are, but most of it is such zippy fun with wildly creative character designs (the mecha are all unique and wondrous to behold) that it’s easy to forgive these storytelling flaws. – Eugene Kang
Old might be the most idiosyncratic theatrically-released American film of the past few years, a corky mess of high-concept genre filmmaking, B-movie sensibilities, and late-style formalism. Even as its surreal affectations unfurl with the progressing sci-fi thriller plot, M. Night Shyamalan stubbornly escalates his directorial quirks to new heights. Bubbling under the sometimes surprisingly gnarly horror surface is the director’s kooky sense of humor, expressed through stilted dialogue, recurring shots, and oddball character tics, all of which, paradoxically, makes the film that much more nightmarish — a work so permeated by the subconscious, that the very notions of realism or tone evaporate completely.
Considering the subject matter (and title) it’s curious that Shyamalan’s much-maligned gonzo body horror embodies the spirit of a great late-career work with its eccentric shot compositions and frequently unreadable performances — given his regularly underrated intelligence, this is likely deliberate — but regardless of how one contends with the film’s insulated pulp wit, amongst the dour, beige “content” that floods theaters with distressing frequency and a worrying degree of exclusivity, Old, somewhat ironically, feels extremely fresh, vital, and necessary. – Fred Barrett
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