Friday, May 24, 2013
The big movie to see in the Seattle area this week is Johnnie To's Drug War, playing at the Egyptian on Monday as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. It's no longer To's latest film, since his Blind Detective appeared to rave reviews at Cannes a few days ago, but it's one of the few films with a 2012 date I'm still highly anticipating (along with Alain Resnais's You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, which I don't think has a local release planned yet; the documentary Leviathan, which I missed the two times it played here; and Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, which is opening today at one theatre in Seattle and one in Bellevue). Playing at the Grand in Tacoma this week is Christian Petzold's Barbara, about which I've heard nothing but good things and which I might make it out to see. Also, there's Star Trek.
I made some new director lists over at Letterboxd this week for Richard Linklater, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard, and also one for James Stewart on his birthday. Here at The End, I reviewed a couple of Rouben Mamoulian's early talkies, Applause and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Sammo Hung's Vietnam epic Eastern Condors.
Here are the movies I watched and rewatched over the past week, along with where they place on my year-by-year rankings, with links to my comments at Letterboxd.
The Crowd (King Vidor) - 8, 1928
Applause (Rouben Mamoulian) - 2, 1929
Lucky Star (Frank Borzage) - 6, 1929
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian) - 9, 1931
Northwest Passage (King Vidor) - 15, 1940
Le pont du Nord (Jacques Rivette) - 6, 1981
Eastern Condors (Sammo Hung) - 12, 1987
Shanghai Triad (Zhang Yimou) - 25, 1995
It occurs to me that I'd never actually seen Sammo Hung in a starring role before. I've seen him as a supporting actor and bit player, and as a director and fight choreographer, but never as the lead. At least not since his late-90s TV series with Arsenio Hall, Martial Law (believe me kids, this was a thing that happened). His reputation is that of a surprisingly agile fat man who helped revolutionize Hong Kong cinema in the late 70s/early 80s by blending comedy and special effects with kung fu (see also: Tsui Hark and Jackie Chan). Eastern Condors seems to therefore be atypical for Hung, as it’s a mostly realistic war movie with occasional comic relief, it appears to be going for a tonal blend along the lines of contemporary American films like 48 Hrs or Lethal Weapon, with the comedy being more physical than character-based.
Blending elements of The Dirty Dozen and Rambo, a group of ethnic Chinese convicts are sent by the US Army to blow up an arsenal they'd recently left behind (the film is set in 1976). On their way, they meet up with three women: Cambodian women guerillas still fighting the Vietnamese, a fast-talking con man with a surprising knowledge of martial arts and a lost Chinese officer. The cast very much feels like a family: Hung plays one of the lead convicts, his lifelong pal Yuen Biao plays the con man, his future wife Joyce Godenzi plays the guerilla leader (he first appearance in an action film, she very nearly steals the movie), Yuen Wah as the film's final villain, a giggling Vietnamese general, and several Hong Kong directors in smaller roles, including Wu Ma, Yuen Woo-ping and Corey Yuen. These Yuens are not related by the way: Biao, Corey and Wah adopted it as a stage name during their time at the China Drama Academy, the Peking Opera school where they were students with Hung and Jackie Chan, while Woo-ping is the son of Yuen Siu-tien, a longtime actor and stuntman who he directed in Chan's smash hit Drunken Master. The strangest casting of all is Dr. Haing S. Ngor, the real-life Khmer Rouge refugee who won an Oscar for real-life Khmer Rouge refugee Dith Pran in Roland Joffe’s 1984 film The Killing Fields.
Ngor plays the officer lost behind enemy lines for years and apparently now insane. The film's most complex set of allusions focuses on him, in a sequence set in a prison camp. As in The Deer Hunter, the soldiers are in partially submerged cages and selected at random to participate in a game of Russian Roulette. Unlike that film, it isn't the prisoners pulling the trigger, but Vietnamese children, dressed as soldiers and playing with real weapons. When Ngor is selected, a gun is held to his head in close-up in a shot that recalls not only The Killing Fields but the famous photograph of a Vietnamese man being shot in a street, recreated as well in John Woo's Vietnam epic Bullet in the Head. It's a profoundly disturbing sequence with reality (Ngor's real life experience and the photograph) blending with fantasy (The Deer Hunter's made-up torture made more disturbing by the participation of children) far more densely than one would expect from a film that at times feels like a slapstick comedy.
Hung himself doesn't say much. Most of the wackiness is provided by Yuen Biao or more the more comic of the soldiers (Yuen Woo-ping and Corey Yuen in particular have a funny and touching final scene together, attempting to hold a bridge against the Vietnamese Army while they slowly die of their wounds). He’s mostly the silent hero, kicking ass and making ridiculous stunt leaps and killing people with cocoanut leaves. He lost 30 pounds for the role, so he's more stocky than fat, but the contrast with Yuen Wah in the final battle is there: short and round versus tall and skinny, both actors remarkably fast. Hung's speed is what is most remarkable. Many of the early action sequences utilize slow motion to emphasize the purity of the actor's movements. But the final battle, a showdown between the convicts and the Army, almost exclusively is shot at normal speed, helping to ramp up the excitement. On one viewing, I can't say how much Hung's quickness is the result of under-cranking the camera or just his own ability, but either way, it's impressive to see.
Definitely a subject for further research.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Somewhat surprisingly, director Rouben Mamoulian uses less Expressionism in this horror film than he did in the backstage musical Applause two years earlier, and he did so in the same year that Hollywood's co-optation of German Expressionism became complete with Universal's Frankenstein and Dracula.
That's not to say that this film is any less experimental than its predecessor. Instead of shadows, Mamoulian builds his horror out of close ups and POV shots, mostly of Frederic March as the eponymous Victorian monster and his hirsute dark side. The film begins locked in Jekyll's POV, a lengthy and slightly irised roving shot that firmly establishes both the obsessive tunnel vision that will destroy Jekyll and our complicity with him. We don't see March himself until he looks in a mirror, and his reflected appearances will become a recurring motif, culminating in his arrival in the background behind Miriam Hopkins's doomed showgirl, slinking out of the back of her head, a nightmare made tangible.
A repeated pattern of close-ups is even more disturbing. Mamoulian will begin a scene, say March and his virtuous fiancee Rose Hobart talking about how much they love each other, in a balanced two shot, both actors perpendicular to the camera. He then begins a shot/reverse shot exchange, but instead of the typical over-the-shoulder angle shots, the characters are framed dead-center, looking straight into the camera, like in Ozu, but closer, so that only their head is visible (Ozu frames them with neck and shoulders too). He then moves even closer, to extreme close-ups of the actors' eyes. The dialogue (their engagement is being delayed by her father, a proper gentleman) provides the context: the two are very much in lust and, bound by society, cannot express it in any way more physical than burning hot eyeballs.
The critique of Victorian sexual repression is very much on display in this pre-Code film, much more than in the earlier adaptation with John Barrymore or the later one with Spencer Tracy. Hopkins is present first as a physical object, stripping in her first scene with Jekyll, tantalizing both him and the audience with ample displays of flesh. Upon transforming into Hyde, the first thing he does is track her down and entrap her, for months it seems, in a kind of sexual slavery. The repressed male id, once free, expresses itself with not only violence and rape but the need to subjugate, to control, to repress the sexually attractive woman. Jekyll's need to repress his sexual desire is transmuted into Hyde's need to oppress the object of that desire. Thus Jekyll creates Hyde: both are monsters. And thus the men of the British Empire, with their relentless need to control not only the far corners of the world but the depths of their own psyche are exposed: nasty, crude, brutish and above all lustful.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Rouben Mamoulian's 1929 film Applause seems to have fallen through the cracks of film history. Released in a year when many of the best films still were, at least partially, silent films (GW Pabst's pair of masterpieces with Louise Brooks Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl (made in Germany), Dziga Vertov's experimental documentary The Man with a Movie Camera (the USSR), Yasujiro Ozu's Days of Youth (Japan) and Luis Buñuel's Un chien andalou (France)), Mamoulian's film is an all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing backstage musical made shot on location in New York for Paramount Pictures. Early talkies are generally derided as a step backwards in the art of motion pictures, as stiff, stage-bound and poorly acted, the camera tied in place due to the technological restrictions of primitive microphones and with that showing none of the expressiveness of the late silent era. To some extent, that is true (the talking sequences in the otherwise masterful 1928 film Lonesome are so terrible that they function less as scenes in a movie and more as meta-commentary on the pointlessness of adding dialogue to cinema), what is at question is how long it took for talking pictures to get back up to speed.
Other films from 1929 fulfill the cliche: the first Marx Brothers feature, Cocoanuts, is particularly leaden and clunky, while that year's Best Picture winner, the musical The Broadway Melody is better than its reputation, but still shockingly poorly made at times (a tap dancing sequence in which the frame cuts off the actors at the ankle so as to maintain a stage-like proscenium is particularly egregious). Ernst Lubitsch's musicals with Maurice Chevalier are some of the most charming films of the period, but his elegant classical style suffered little from the transition to sound and, from what I've seen at least, Lubitsch never seemed interested in using the camera in the dynamic ways that FW Murnau, Fritz Lang or Josef Von Sternberg (whose The Blue Angel, made in Germany a year later, shares much of Applause's mileu and attitude, but pushes the depravity that seethes under the surface to the forefront) were exploring in the late 20s. Applause offers evidence that it took far less time than is generally believed to master the technology, that the reason for the poor quality of those other films might not be the technology, but the imagination and skill of the director.
Rouben Mamoulian, making his first film, uses all the tricks of the late silent era to illuminate this standard, if resolutely pre-Code, melodrama about a burlesque dancer whose convent-raised daughter finds herself getting sucked into the degenerate family business. The mise-en-scene is Expressionist-influenced: in lighting and shadows both portentous, as in the crosses that dominate the convent sequences, and abstract, as when certain male characters become black spaces, dominating Helen Morgan's doomed showgirl Kitty; and more subtly as in the countless multiplications of Kitty's image in pictures and posters that lie in the background of many of the sets and become increasingly dominant until the film's final haunting and darkly ironic image.
Mamoulian also makes extensive use of anti-theatrical camera movement and placement: relentlessly pushing in and out of the screen space (mimicking our attraction/repulsion to the sordid and pathetic main characters); high and low angle shots including overhead views of dance sequences that abstract the characters like a proto-Busby Berkeley; de-centering the image by focusing at key moments on the characters' legs (for example during a sequence where the young woman April is being hit on by a number of men as she walks down the street) as well as abstracting bodies in a montage like the series of grotesque men's faces watching Kitty's burlesque show.
He even uses sound expressively: impressionistically like the subjective aural hallucinations Hitchcock used this same year in Blackmail (generally considered Britain's first all-talking feature) but also in overlapping dialogue and background noise to create a densely layered sonic environment, something even the best early talkies hadn't yet dared.
With Applause, Mamoulian created a fully-realized, three-dimensional cinematic world, fully integrating sound into the cutting-edge visual styles of the late 1920s. It premiered on October 7, 1929, exactly two years and one day after The Jazz Singer.
Friday, May 17, 2013
In finally made it out to see an actual 2013 movie this week, the rather lackluster adaptation of The Great Gatsby by Baz Luhrmann. Other than that, I haven't accomplished much of anything. I did make a list over at letterboxd of all 135 movies we played over 129 weeks at Metro Classics from 2007-2011. As surveys of film history go, one could do a lot worse than trying to watch all of those movies.
Not a lot opening in Seattle this week, other than the big mess that is the Seattle International Film Festival. Ken Loach's The Angels' Share is playing in Tacoma, but I'll be making my way into the city to see Jacques Rivette's Le Pont du Nord at the Northwest Film Forum.
These are the films I watched and rewatched over the last week, and where they place on by year-by-year rankings, with links to my letterboxd reviews. Note that I'm not using the imdb date for Mama, which is incorrect.
Lonesome (Paul Fejos) - 4, 1928
The Moderns (Alan Rudolph) - 7, 1988
Mama (Zhang Yuan) - 11, 1990
Tale of Cinema (Hong Sangsoo) - 11, 2005
Chacun son cinéma (Various) - 24, 2007
607 (Liu Jiayin) - 7, 2010
The Great Gatsby - Baz Luhrmann) - 2013
Friday, May 10, 2013
Over the last couple I've weeks I posted the second part of my series on Resident Evil and Modern Auteurism, a lengthy review of Oki's Movie, watched some Kurosawa movies in preparation for the next They Shot Pictures podcast and gave out some Endy Awards for the acclaimed movie year 1939. I also put up lists on letterboxd for Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Hong Sangsoo.
I have a couple reviews of movies playing in theatres this week in the Seattle area, Ken Loach's The Angels' Share, Olivier Assayas's Something in the Air, and Wang Bing's Three Sisters, which is playing in New York.
These are he movies I've watched and rewatched over the last two weeks, and where they place in by year-by-year rankings, with links to my comments on them at letterboxd.
No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa) - 6, 1946
Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa) - 17, 1948
The Idiot (Akira Kurosawa) - 10, 1951
Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa) - 6, 1965
On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (Hong Sangsoo) - 11, 2002
Oki's Movie (Hong Sangsoo) - 2, 2010
Thursday, May 09, 2013
I noticed yesterday that this was available as part of Amazon’s Prime Instant Streaming service (along with Hahaha, the other Hong Sangsoo film I saw at the Vancouver Film Festival in 2010. I watched it the other night and was happy to see that it remains my favorite of Hong’s movies, all of which are marked by an unusual structure, in which elements, situations and/or characters from the first part recur later in the film, in ways that deepen, comment upon or subvert what has gone before. Oki’s Movie is the most structurally complex of the Hong movies I’ve seen (with the possible exception of the film that followed this, 2011's The Day He Arrives), with a pretzel logic that twists the film back on its maker, questioning the motivation for making Hong Sangsoo films, or any films at all, in the first place.
At its most basic level, Oki’s Movie is a love triangle told four ways, made up of four short films, each of which has its own credit sequence of videotaped white characters on a blue background (the title song is the same for each film: Edward Elgar’s "Pomp and Circumstance", a tune whose relation to Graduation Day is perhaps a nod to the movies’ film school settings). The most mysterious segment is the first one which doesn't fit the later developed patterns or (possibly) characters at all. Its title (A Day for Incantation) suggests that it's the film that calls the other movies into being. Each of the of the latter three films focus on a love triangle between three characters: the girl Oki (Jung Yoo-mi), the boy Jingu (Lee Seon-gyun) and their Professor Song (Moon Sung-keun), each of whom are filmmakers. Each of the last three films correlates to one of their points of view. But the characters are mixed up in the first film: Jingu is a married film professor and filmmaker where later he will be a student, Song appears only as a fellow professor Jingu admires but begins to have doubts about when he hears he accepted a bribe to award another teacher tenure, and Oki doesn't appear at all. Only at the end of the film, when an inebriated Jingu is doing an audience Q & A prior to presenting his latest film, does the question of a student's relationship with her teacher come up. A girl in the audience claims to have had a friend Jingu dated when he was her professor, and that that relationship ruined the girl's life by sabotaging her relationship with her boyfriend.
My theory is that each of the subsequent films are movies Jingu made inspired by the situation the questioner presented: a student having an affair with her professor while she was also dating another student. In each film, he casts himself as the boyfriend/hero and Song as the morally dubious professor. In the second film (King of Kisses) Jingu plays the typical Hongian hero: romantic, obsessive and often drunk. This film is the most similar to the first one in both story and style (even the locations are the same: Jingu's home in the first film plays Oki's home in the second). One example of the rhymes between them: in each Jingu hangs out on a park bench and falls asleep: in the second, he meets Oki and asks her out; in the first, he has a flashback to when he met his wife, who he suspects might now be cheating on him. (The story of the first Jingu's wife remains a tantalizingly unexplored tangent, suggesting that the rest of the film could have gone off in a myriad of other directions, not just the Song/Oki story. Such loose ends that tease endless narrative possibilities are one of the things that make Hong’s films seem so realistic, like they create entire universes.) While the third and fourth films keep strictly to a single point of view, King of Kisses is narrated more or less objectively: we also get scenes from Oki and Song's perspectives, thus we know that they are having an affair of which Jingu is ignorant. We also know that Oki is a little freaked out by Jingu’s obsessive pursuit of her, but that she does genuinely like him. The film ends happily, with Oki and Jingu together in the beginning stage of their relationship, wishing each other a Merry Christmas and remarking on what a nice warm day it is.
The third and shortest film (After the Snowstorm) is about Professor Song. After a blizzard, only Jingu and Oki show up for his class. The three engage in a Godardian Q & A session wherein the kids ask him about life and art he responds with gnomic aphorisms. It's a kind of idealized version of the teaching experience, with two eager students lapping up Song's wisdom (his best answer is when Oki asks why he loves his wife, he says "In life. . . Of all the important things I do, there's none I know the reason for. I don't think there is."). Later that night, after throwing up some bad octopus, Song decides to give up teaching and go back to filmmaking ("I was a bad teacher," he cheerfully exclaims in voiceover). It's unclear if this film takes place before during or after the love triangle situation, or if one ever occurred in its world.
The fourth film (Oki's Movie) would seem to be the most important, as it lends its title to Hong’s film as a whole. In voiceover narration, Oki tells us this is a film about two different walks she made along the same path in a park with two different men, one older (played by the actor who plays Song), one younger (played by the actor who plays Jingu), two years apart (the first, with the older man, on New Year's Eve, the second on New Year's Day). Intercutting between the stories, she points out the similarities and differences between the two men and her reactions to them. Pointedly, the men are never named, we assume they are the same characters as the Songs and Jingus we’ve seen before, because the same actors play them and they behave the same way. But that inference is undercut by Oki’s final line: "I wanted to see the two side by side. I chose these actors for their resemblance to the actual people. But the limits of the resemblance may reduce the effect of the two put together." I think she's saying that she made the film in an attempt to sort out an experience from her past, by writing a story in which she could see the two men she dated together and compare and contrast them, to better understand her own experiences with them. She had an ideal of art as catharsis, as a coming to terms with her own history. But the fact that these are only actors means that it doesn't really help: even the greatest artist is still only working by approximation, and without the real thing, true understanding is impossible. Not only is the recreation never perfect, but her perspective is necessarily limited: the best she can create is her version of her memory of the story and the people in it.
Thus, Hong has made a film about a director who made a series of films adopting the perspectives of each of three people involved in a love triangle, based on a love triangle the director himself was once involved in. And in the end, Hong, through his character the director, through his character Oki, calls into question exactly how helpful filmmaking is as an attempt to resolve personal issues. The motive, then, for making the movies has to be about something more than personal revelation. Art has to go beyond mere autobiography. The conclusion is the opposite of Alvy Singer’s in Annie Hall, where he gives the story of his relationship with Annie the happy ending it didn’t have in "reality" because “you're always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it's real difficult in life.” For Alvy, the happy ending reassures him, brings him some kind of closure and perspective on his relationship. Closure that eludes Oki and the first Jingu. As for Hong himself, the answer appears to be a rejoinder to critics who presume his films, about movie directors who drink a lot and have complicated and clumsy romantic lives, are autobiographical. Movies aren’t real, they can't be.
This leads us back to the first film. Jingu the filmmaker/professor is meeting with one of his students, giving her advice on how to improve her film. "If you don't fix it, the narrative won't support itself. Your sincerity needs its own form. The form will take you to the truth. Telling it as it is won't get you there. That's a big mistake." She accuses him of trying to impose a formal structure on her film out of greed, to make her personal statement more palatable to a mass audience. He gets angry, the form ("two turning points!") is how the filmmaker can "take away what's fake" in her. It's not by being true to life that the filmmaker expresses the truth, but in submitting truth to formal constraints truth can be uncovered. Oki will realize that she made a mistake in trying to tell it like it was.
Director Jingu, at the Q & A at the end of the first film, expresses the hope that his film "can be similar in complexity to a living thing." Answering a question about what the themes of his film are, he continues, "Starting with a theme will make it all veer to one point. We don't appreciate films for their themes. We've just been taught that way. Teachers always ask, "What's the theme?" But before asking, aren't we already reacting to the film? It's no fun pouring all things into a funnel. That's too simple." ("But people might like simple things better," the questioner responds.)
Near the end of her film, Oki tells us that "Things repeat themselves with differences I can't understand," which is a fitting a summation of the vision of the world expressed in Hong's filmography. A world of circular narratives that bend and repeat themselves with variations major and minor, tied to the rhythms of everyday life in all its awkward fumbles, missed opportunities and mysteries.
Wednesday, May 01, 2013
Part Two: What Are The Resident Evil Movies?
Part One of Army of Milla looked at Vulgar Auteurism and some issues surrounding the current discourse on low-prestige action films. Here in Part Two I'll take a general look at Paul WS Anderson's Resident Evil series, in search of evidence that Anderson might rightfully be considered an auteur.
Resident Evil began life as a video game series produced by Capcom for the Sony PlayStation, initially premiering in 1996 and achieving both popular and critical success. The games are seminal in the “survival horror” genre, a subset of the action game wherein “the player is made to feel less powerful than in typical action games, because of limited ammunition, health, speed, or other limitations. The player is also challenged to find items that unlock the path to new areas, and solve puzzles at certain locations. Games make use of strong horror themes, and the player is often challenged to navigate dark maze-like environments, and react to unexpected attacks from enemies.” The process of adapting the games to film began in the late 1990s, with George Romero attached to write and direct. The producers were, however, unhappy with the script Romero produced and brought in Paul WS Anderson who wrote an entirely new script and signed to direct as well.
Anderson had experience with video game movies, as his 1995 film, the decent but more or less ludicrous Mortal Kombat (an adaptation of the popular fighting game) had turned out to be a surprise hit, despite all expectations and the presence of Talisa Soto, star of some of the most disastrous films of the last 25 years (even her best film, License to Kill, was the movie that nearly ended the James Bond franchise). His next couple of films (1997’s Event Horizon and 1998’s Soldier) had failed to capitalize on that success and Anderson found himself back in the video game ghetto, barely a step above direct-to-video land in the Hollywood prestige hierarchy. Things had gotten so bad for Anderson that he’d had to start crediting himself with his two middle initials to distinguish himself from the later-starting but now more famous writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. The first Resident Evil movie was a hit, grossing just over $100 million, and Anderson went on to write the next four films in the series, each of which has been poorly reviewed (they range between 21% and 34% on rotten tomatoes) and commercially successful, with the last two films grossing over $200 million worldwide and the series as a whole approaching $1 billion in global box office. Anderson also directed the first, fourth and fifth films in the series, with the second and third films directed by Alexander Witt and Russell Mulcahy, respectively. Anderson passed on directing those to write and direct Alien Vs. Predator and Death Race. At present, Anderson is at work on the script for the sixth Resident Evil film, which he will also direct. Due to be released in 2014, this will reportedly be the final film in the series.
2. Structure and Setting
The five Resident Evil films each feature the same basic story structure. After an opening action/suspense sequence, there’s a long bit of exposition after which the plot proper begins. Each movie involves the main characters being trapped in a confined space from which they must escape while evading a variety of monsters. This escape takes up the bulk of the running time (so to speak), as the group is winnowed down to a few survivors left to face the film’s ultimate villain in a final battle. After the battle, there’s a short epilogue with a cliffhanger that sets up the next film in the series. This is a classic design, especially for action films, and you can find versions of it throughout film history, from Griffith shorts to Indiana Jones.
Anderson has suggested that his propensity for trapping his characters in small spaces may have something to do with his upbringing in coal-mining country, but I wouldn’t put too much stock in such biographizing as a general rule. Despite their confinement, Anderson often films his characters as dwarfed by the architecture that surrounds them, trapping them in another way within an immense space.
Each film is set in a unique environment: the first in an underground laboratory, the second in a city at night, the third in a Western desert, the fourth in an urban prison and the fifth in an undersea base which itself contains multiple unique environments. More on this later.
The main character of the Resident Evil films is Alice, played by Milla Jovovich. She’s a new character for the films, not appearing in any of the early video games. Alice is the only character to appear in all of the films, and we see almost everything through her eyes. In the first film, she’s suffering from amnesia, but eventually we learn that she was the head of security for a secret underground research laboratory run by the Umbrella Corporation. Umbrella is the primary villain of the series, though it’s incarnated differently in each film. In the first and fifth films, Alice is opposed by a homicidal computer system, the Red Queen. In the second film, as the zombie-creating T-Virus spreads through Raccoon City, the local military and government that has sealed the city off hoping to contain it, condemning millions to death. In the third film, the villain is a mad scientist, Dr. Isaacs, played by Game of Thrones’s Iain Glen. In the fourth film, it’s Umbrella CEO Albert Wesker (played by Shawn Roberts). The cliffhanger at the end of the fifth film has Alice joining forces with Wesker at the White House to fight both the computer and the zombies.
Alice is aided in each film by a rotating cast, most of whom are eaten by each film’s end. The major supporting characters include Michelle Rodriguez as Rain (first and fifth films), Ali Larter as Claire Redfield (third, fourth), Sienna Guillory as Jill Valentine (second, fifth), Oded Fehr as Carlos Olivera (second, third, fifth) and Mike Epps as LJ (second, third).
The characters are fungible. Death is not necessarily the end for them, as cloning plays a major part in the series. The fifth film is populated with evil versions of characters that had died in earlier movies. As well there is much genetic experimentation. At the end of the first film, Alice is taken captive by Umbrella and injected with the T-Virus, which we learn in the second film gives her superpowers while it turns her compatriot Matt Addison (played by Eric Mabius) into a monster (Nemesis). While fighting Wesker at the beginning of the fourth film, those superpowers are taken away, turning her back into an ordinary badass action hero. He returns them at the end of the fifth film.
This has a flattening effect on character psychology. The films place little emphasis on backstory or motivation. We know very little about Alice, and the supporting characters are as broad as possible. Like the story structure, the characters are literally generic. This particularly suits Jovovich's strengths as an actress. Her appearance is vaguely alien, or at least superhuman, and her supermodelity makes her more expressive physically, with her body and with her face and eyes, than she is verbally. The films don't require her to create a character with a complex psyche, rather she's a perfect vehicle for plot delivery and audience identification (always based on fantasy).
(Not that Jovovich isn't a good actress. I was a big fan of her performance in Luc Besson's Joan of Arc movie The Messenger, though I think I might be the only one.)
4. Visual Style
There’s a bit more variation in visual style as you would expect from a series with multiple directors but only one writer. The three directed by Paul WS Anderson evince his clean, uncluttered approach to set design and action editing, with a clear focus on bodies moving in space. The fourth and fifth films especially make extensive use of slow-motion, the ‘bullet-time’ style popularized by the Matrix films. The second film, by longtime Ridley and Tony Scott assistant director Alexander Witt and the third, by Highlander director Russell Mulcahy, are much more in the ‘intensive continuity’ style of modern Hollywood action films, which uses the kinetics of rapidly cut together shots of body fragments and empty space as a proxy for the intensity of physical action, and thus tends to create spatially incoherent fight scenes. The third film also uses a grainy, sepia-grey color palate similar to PWSA’s Death Race and Marc Neveldine & Brian Taylor’s Crank: High Voltage that looks particularly ugly next to the sleek whites and blues of Anderson’s films.
The first film makes extensive use of security camera footage, motivated as the POV as the Red Queen computer system. Trevor Link makes a compelling case for this as a study of voyeurism and political power in an essay at his website. That thread isn’t much explored in the later films, though the concept of the Umbrella Corporation as an entity reaching into every aspect of our lives is somewhat there. Yau Nai-hoi’s Eye in the Sky from 2007, produced by Johnnie To, is I think more successful and nuanced at analyzing surveillance culture through use of different film stocks representing the various ways we are spied on in public.
The Resident Evil films, with their schematic plot structures and generic characters are the perfect vehicles for movie references. The structure allows the films to be set in almost any kind of environment, and Anderson utilizes them to essentially chronicle the last 50 years or so of action and suspense cinema. The references begin with the first shot (repeated in each of the first three films), an extreme close-up of Milla Jovovich’s eyeball, from which the camera slowly pulls away reveling her collapsed body in a bathtub, shower curtain draped around her. It’s the inverse of one of the concluding shots from the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Where that camera spirals into Janet Leigh’s dead eye, Anderson spirals out. What we’ll get is a story of life after death: literally as the dead come back to life but also life after the death of civilization, the twisted clone lives of the dead side characters, and the indestructibility of Alice herself, never more evident than in the beginning of the fourth film, when she storms Umbrella Headquarters backed by an army of Alice-clones. We see Alice die again and again and again.
Each film in the series has a specific model from genre film history. The first is a variation on Alien, with a small group of people trapped in a confined space against an enemy they don’t understand being manipulated by a shadowy corporation and a computer that doesn’t place much value on human life. The second film recalls Escape from New York, where Alice and her companions must traverse an overrun and locked-down metropolis to rescue someone (in this case the daughter of an Umbrella scientist as opposed to the President in John Carpenter’s film). There are also hints of George Romero’s Land of the Dead, with the city walled off from the zombie hordes while the elites escape. The third film takes place after the virus has spread, destroying civilization and much of the planet itself. It’s a desert world where fuel is the most important currency and gangs of survivors attempt to caravan to a promised land. In other words: it’s The Road Warrior. The fourth film begins with the attack of the Alice-clones, shot in a cleanly digital bullet-time with the Alices dressed in the all-black cat-suit Carrie-Anne Moss sports in The Matrix. The film’s middle section takes place in a prison where a group of survivors is surrounded by zombies, recalling Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. The fifth film presents the most complex set of references: it’s based on the Resident Evil series itself, going about as far as sustainable down its own rabbit-hole.
Opening with a gorgeous action sequence played in slow motion and backwards as the credits role, then replayed forwards, the film quickly plunges Alice into a massive undersea Umbrella base. Within that base are the aforementioned clones of the characters from previous films, as well as a series of unique environments: the Raccoon City of the first film, a sequence set in Tokyo (replayed and expanded from the fourth film), and the ultra-white Umbrella hallways seen in most of the other films. Unique to this film is a normal suburban world, complete with an Alice clone who thinks she’s a typical housewife with husband (a Carlos clone) and daughter. This world is then ravaged by zombies in an experiment run by the Red Queen. This is the only time we ever get to see Alice leading anything like a normal life. The plot of the film more or less follows that of Aliens, with Alice joined by a team of soldiers to rescue a little girl, her clone child from the suburban simulation. It ends with a confrontation straight out of Ice Station Zebra, with each side facing off in an Arctic wilderness: Alice and the surviving soldiers vs. a now super-powered and evil Michelle Rodriguez clone and a brainwashed Jill Valentine.
Watching most of Paul WS Anderson’s films, this kind of referentiality is what strikes me as his most distinctive trait. Almost all of his films are based on an existing, and very popular, property of some kind: Death Race is a straight remake of the 70s cult classic Death Race 2000, The Three Musketeers is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the Dumas novel, albeit with a wildly anachronistic twist, Alien Vs. Predator is a movie based on a game based on two series of movies. The latter I think gives a clue as to Anderson’s approach to genre and story, as the mythologies of these sci-fi classics are melded with actual historical mythology and some contemporary conspiracy theories about ancient history. The film posits that the pyramids built in Egypt and Central America were built by aliens, and that humanity participated in ceremonial sacrifices there. These aliens were the Predators and the sacrifices involved the Aliens. There’s a seamlessness to the way Anderson passes from one mythology to the other, with the way he adapts and bends previously created material to build his own unique mythological world. It’s somewhat akin to the way a backwoods preacher has a limitless supply of bible verses at his disposal for use in any situation. Except for Anderson, the bible is genre cinema.
The question remains though, is there enough evidence to call Paul WS Anderson an auteur? He has a unique approach to story and character, with a distinctive visual style and appears to be exploring interesting and personal thematic territory. But is it art? I’ll attempt to answer that in the next and final installment of this series.