Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Patterns

The Crescent (2017) - Smith
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Beth (Danica Vandersteen) is an almost inappropriately young looking mother of Lowen, a toddler. She is seen attending a funeral in the beginning, presumably her husband in some kind of accident. She drives to a large wooden beach house in Nova Scotia. She will sell the house soon. But for now, she will live in there with her young son. Isolation, apart from human contact seems to be what she is looking for, out of grief one can assume.

Lowen is a handful child. Always running around, doing what toddlers do, always falling over, always in imminent danger of injuring himself. Young Beth most of the times, doesn't seem to be a capable mother, at least the whole situation seems that way. There is a creepy old neighbor who's always eyeing on Lowen, saying ominous, creepy things. Beth is an artist, specializing in marbling, a technique where one drops oil based die on water and makes trippy patterns, then put a paper over it to get that groovy 70s style wall paper patterns. These patterns figure largely into the big picture later on - on Beth's wishes and nightmares, and in her surroundings. The film quietly develops into part Lovecraftian horror and part portal to a parallel universe thing.

There are a lot of modern horror films about death and grief and such. But The Crescent is a special film. Seth A. Smith, a visual artist and a filmmaker from Nova Scotia, is a real talent in creating certain quietude and sensitivity that is lacking in today's loud and obnoxious horror. Combined with his artistic skills, Smith evokes something that is deeply felt and memorable. Never a horror movie I watched recently that stayed on for days in my head- the visuals, details, the over all impact, and the sadness it carries. The Crescent goes down as one of the best films I've seen this year.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The World is Ending, Let's Fall in Love

First Reformed (2017) - Schrader
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Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a mild mannered, wise pastor of the First Reformed church in small town upstate New York. His congregation is tiny. Even though the historic white chapel church is about to be reconsecrated for being 250 years old, it is functioning more as a tourist site and in Toller's own words, "gift shop", to the megachurch next door, Abundant Life. He lost his son in the Iraq war and so his marriage fell apart. He drinks and has health problems which he won't seek out help for. In the beginning of the movie, we see Toller starting a journal where he pours out his heart and soul. It's a test, self discipline of sorts. When it's filled, he will rip it up and burn the pages. We see the glimpse of internal struggle with his faith already there.

Things get shaken when a young couple come for his advice. Mary the pregnant wife (Amanda Seyfried) says her environmental activist husband Micheal (Philip Ettinger) is conflicted. He visits them at home. There Michael lays out the evidence of man-made destruction of the earth. That he sees no point of bringing a child to the world. Toller's typically wise man of god talk won't comfort the troubled man. After Michael blows his brains out, Toller's laissez-faire attitude at least from the outside perspective, changes. Not to complicate the suicide case, Toller tells Mary to get rid of any possible incriminating evidences - including a suicide bomb vest that her husband hid in his garage for whatever reason. Helping Mary coping with the death draws them closer too.

Things come to focus as Toller sees that the big donor of the church, is a coal baron whose industry is wrecking a havoc on the environment. As the First Reformed reconsecration service looms, he has one thing left to do.

I believe Schrader mentioned Bergman's Winter Light as a source of inspiration. And yes, there is more than the narrative thread with the suicide and everything in the beginning, that the film has its affinity with. But also that sinewy human entanglement that many Bergman's characters see as a prison is there too - definitely Bergman-esque. But whether you consider Schrader's filmography spotty at best, he is responsible for penning Taxi Driver. First Reformed is definitely not a rehash of the masters' older films he is inspired by. Dealing with the contemporary issue that we all face (it was the threat of atom bomb in Bergman's film), Schrader squarely puts the ball on our court to toil with.

Shot in stately full frame 4:3 and simple, straightforward narrative, First Reformed is an extremely lean film. There is a lot of humor in it too. Mystery Magic Tour scene alone is worth the admission. Ethan Hawke, with his craggy forehead, finally aging appropriately, gives the best performance of his career as a conflicted, religious man in the time of uncertainty. The ending goes haywire in the most beautiful way and I really loved it.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Japan Cuts 2018 Preview

Japan Society's always immaculately curated film series, Japan Cuts, to me, over the years has been regarded as a smaller, quieter sister to massive and crazy and unruly New York Asian Film Festival. And I don't mean this as a bad thing. I think what happened was, when it comes to choosing films to cover from the full line up of Japan Cuts, after extravagance of NYAFF, my attention shifted toward Lo-fi, indie films. This year I specifically chose women directors' works. Many of them unknowns and first timers who need more exposure. And I was richly rewarded for it. Japan Cuts runs 7/19 through 7/29 at Japan Society.

Here are four films I was able to sample:

TREMBLE ALL YOU WANT - Akiko Ohku
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Matsuoka Mayu makes a star making debut playing Yoshika, an introverted twenty-something accountant, in Tremble All You Want. Stuck in her uneventful, lonely life, Yoshika the virgin resorts to a fantasy world where she converses with strangers at a coffeeshop, buses and streets. She is still carrying the torch for Ichi, a princely classmate from Middle school days. But her life takes a turn when Kirishima, a goofy co-worker, confesses his crush on her. In her mind, Ichi will always be number one (ichi) and however nice of a guy Kirishima is, will always remain number two (ni).

Yoshika organizes school reunion under a false name in order to see Ichi again but gets heartbroken when her doesn't remember her name. Going steady with Kirishima seems to be OK at first, that it feels good and natural. But it gets thwarted by her crushing insecurity. Sooner or later, she has to choose between the fantasy and real life.

Tremble All You Want's strength is in its incongruous details - Yoshika's daily rituals, her quirky mannerisms and her eccentric neighbor are all intimately observed. The film rides on the charm of Matsuoka as she breaks out in to a song or does something equally irrational at a moment's notice. A bit overlong for its foregone conclusion, yet with beautifully written characters and and winsome cast, the film is a constantly watchable rom-com.


AMIKO - Yoko Yamanaka
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20 year old Yamanaka Yoko's no budget debut Amiko, played drolly by Sunohara Aira provides a window to the low-fi angst of a high school girl leading a boring suburban existence. Mostly in close-ups, Amiko, our bowl cut haired, Radiohead listening heroine, leads an uneventful life in Nagano. Her ideal fantasy world comes in the form of Aomi (Oshita Hiroro), a nihilistic boy obviously too cool for school. He is in the school soccer club just because. And when things get boring at a practice, he'd fake leg cramps. They bond over their hatred of sports and Radiohead one day. Then it's the waiting game for Amiko. Time passes and nothing happens. She deliberately passes by him in the stores. Nothing. Then she hears that he ran away to Tokyo to live with a former student who was pretty and popular, the kind of shallow girl Amiko thought they both loathed. The life gives you lemons, you better suck them in the bathtub.

So Amiko embarks on a journey to Tokyo, to confront Aomi. There she finds that her ideal world is not what it's cracked up to be. That everyone realizes growing up and facing the reality suck donkeys. Completely devoid of adult presence, you can detect the sweet stench of youth emanating from every frame of Amiko. Peppered with French New Wave spirit - especially the "If you two are truly in love, dance with me!" impromptu dancing scene in the subway, the film packs a rebellious, playful punch.


DEAR ETRANGER - Yukiko Mishima
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Salaryman Tanaka (Asano Tadanobu) has an adoring daughter from a previous marriage. With the company he's been working for downsizing, lately he is having second thoughts about having another baby with his current wife who also has two girls (Eri and Kaoru) from her previous relationship. Good natured Tanaka is a good dad to all three, trying to do right by everyone. But Kaoru, the older sullen tween daughter with an abandonment issue, rebels against Tanaka, saying deeply hurtful things - that he will abandon Eri and her as soon as he gets a new baby with their mom.

Even though gentle, the situation pushes Tanaka to a breaking point. He lashes out to his wife and Kaoru. Boy, ain't the mid-life a bitch to wade through? Dear Etranger is as real as it gets. But it's also a downer, just because it's all too real. Asano shows a great range here as a everyday salaryman.


TOWARD A COMMON TENDERNESS - Kaori Oda
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'Searching' is the main theme of Oda Kaori's deeply personal documentary, Toward a Common Tenderness. Oda, a young Japanese filmmaker, forever uncertain, is searching for her identity, both as a person and as a filmmaker. Her debut short Thus a Noise Speaks, she used the camera as a weapon, to confront her family who rejected her coming out as gay. She jumped at a chance to attend film.factory, founded by Bela Tarr, in Sarajevo. There, she was searching for the purpose of filmmaking. She discovers that she likes to film people - her hosts in a small village and Romani family who acted as guides. Their soulful, sad faces spoke volumes more than their limited verbal communication with her. Her project in the coal mines there resulted in the film Aragane.

The film is a compendium of Oda's work so far. It beautifully conveys her loneliness and isolation and longing. This time, Oda uses camera as a direct and intimate communication device. The film is a lyrical, poetic gesture of reaching out from Oda to herself, to her subjects and to the viewers.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Line in the Sand

El mar la mar (2017) - Bonnetta, Sniadecki
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As Trump's cruel zero tolerance immigration policy and its inhumane consequences play out before our eyes, El mar la mar, Joshua Bonneta and JP Sniadecki's audio visual essay on the south of the border arrives. It's abstract, artful approach to the subject might infuriate some of the viewers who are inclined to witness emotional catharsis through human suffering for sure. But its deliberate omission of identifiers (other than some of the silent inhabitants on the north of the border) is perhaps the point - the film can emote without seeing the human faces.

Frenetically moving cameras capture stripey, zoetropic images of colors - green and brown, then we realize it's the border fences stretching for miles seen from a moving car or train. There are discarded clothing and other personal items strewn about, completely alien to empty, unforgiving yet achingly beautiful Sonoran desert. The night time provides with flickering lights of the either the travelers or the border patrols.

Voices of ranchers, well wishers, border patrols and immigrants spill in and out of the film, often over blank screen. They tell sudden encounters, compassion, indifference, harrowing and often fatal journey. There are vipers, coyotes. You run out of water, you die. You leave people who are weak and sick and old to die. It's all the more resonant now to think about human cost. Illegal immigration won't stop whether there are stricter laws or not. Isolationism won't solve the problem in the capitalist society where economic inequality is the root cause of all problems. El mar la mar addresses human cost of the border politics in a way that only the film medium can.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Textural ADHD

Like Me (2017) - Mockler
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A movie made for the ADHD generation? Aptly titled Like Me concerns Kiya (Addison Timlin), a young woman videotaping her misdeeds and putting on the internet for garnering fame. Constantly on the road living in various motel rooms, she is a restless, aimless, lonely soul looking for human connections. After seducing middle aged motel manager Marshall (Larry Fassenden) and taping him on camera, humiliating him and getting one million views on youtube, they become an unlikely captor-captive pair. It works because he says he understands her. It is obvious that Kiya takes on a lot of different roles just to disguise her loneliness and her needs for validation.

Unlike other didactic take on loneliness and isolation in the age of social network, Like Me lets its loose narrative be and compensates it with candy color palette and dizzing edits. Fassenden has become as reliable of a presence in the indie world as Gary Oldman is to the mainstream films now. With all the excess style, I liked Like Me much more than I thought I would. Its textural, rough around the edges aesthetics really works for its there/not there theme. One of the year's best.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

NYAFF 2018 PREVIEW

Dubbed as the Savage Seventeenth edition, this year's festival hosts four world premieres, three international premieres, 21 North American premieres, three U.S. premieres, and twelve New York premieres, showcasing the most exciting comedies, dramas, thrillers, romances, horrors and arthouse films from East Asia.

NYAFF 2018 runs from 6/29 to 7/13. Please visit FSLC Website for more tickets and more info.

ONE CUT OF THE DEAD
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With Romero's Night of the Living Dead, the zombie genre has a humble, low-budget indie beginning. Taking the cue from this idea, Ueda Shinichiro's One Cut of the Dead serves a love letter to the indie filmmaking process as much as it works as being an entertaining zom-com.

It starts out with as an impressive 37 minute uncut zombie movie where a frazzled director screams at a young actress, who has just gone through her 42nd take. She needs to look more frightened. That she really needs to fear for life! His wish comes true soon enough, as real zombies run amok in the filming location, a large water treatment plant where the Japanese army conducted human experiment in the days of WW2.

The film rewinds and becomes a making-of documentary where it shows how the uncut movie was made in clever, comical ways. As anyone ever involved in low budget filmmaking would attest, no matter how terrible the end product turn out, there is tons of hard work and on-the-spot problem solving that goes in to each film. An interesting aside to considering: The movie gives the 'crane shot' a new meaning...

One Cut of the Dead is part zombie movie, part making-of documentary and part touching family drama. And it's hugely entertaining.

HUNGRY LION

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Comprised only with short static shots that cut to black, Ogata Takaomi's Hungry Lion takes a non-sensational, clinical approach to reflect on the peril of our society completely under siege by social networking. It's very Haneke yet very Japanese.

The film begins in a high school classroom where a teacher is getting led away by the police. The video of him having sex with a student went viral. Hitomi, a normal high school student who has a considerable SNS following or someone who looks very much like her was in that video. She denies that it is her. Some of her immediate circle believe that she is innocent at first. But once the rumor starts doing rounds, it spreads fast. People turn on her and the adults who are supposed to protect her innocence openly exploit her. The gossip at the school and home become too much for Hitomi and she throws herself in front of a train.

Hungry Lion digs deeper into our relationship with the world in the internet age and how we see things in a distorted way and prey on the most vulnerable. It's a compelling movie watching experience.

LIVERLEAF

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Violent Japanese schoolgirls! This is what I love about NYAFF!!

Based on a manga of the same name, Naito Eisuke's Liverleaf is a school bulling revenge movie. Haruka Nozaki (Anna Yamada) is a transfer student from Tokyo in a rural town Middle School. She is relentlessly bullied by a gang of close-knit friends, headed by cool redhead Taeko (Rinka Otani). It is said Haruka stole Aiba (Hiroya Shimizu) from Taeko. How dare she!

Things take a violent turn when Rumi (Rena Otsuka), a loner who would do anything to impress Taeko, actually carries out burning down Haruka's house with her family in it. With her parents killed and her little sister in an intensive care from burns, Haruka exacts revenge on the gang, one by one, using a rusty nail, a pair of wire cutters, a crossbow and a pocket knife. As usual, nothing is more beautiful than blood on the pure white snow in the Japanese countryside.

THE BLOOD OF WOLVES

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Detective Ogami (Yakusho Koji), known affectionately as 'Gami by his colleagues and yakuza friends alike, leads a colorful existence, walking a tightrope without falling to either side. He has been the key figure in keeping the peace between too warring yakuza clans. But it's Gami's method - taking bribes, getting favors, extortion, violence, etc that irks a young idealist rookie partner Hioka (Matsuzaka Tori). While investigating the murder of a civilian accountant, Hioka realizes Gami might be in too deep with Irako (Ishbashi Renji), one of the crime bosses. Would Gami find out that Hioka is an agent from internal affairs? Would they still bring down the gangs together?

As flamboyant Ogami, always dependable Yakusho is fabulous here playing against type. Without honor, loyalty or fear, his character is only interested in protecting civilians. With large, great supporting roles played by many familiar faces in Japanese cinema (including Maki Yoko of After the Storm, Like Father Like Son and Abe Junko of Still the Water), Blood of Wolves is an excellent, gritty crime film that is hugely enjoyable.

PARADOX

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Hardened HK detective Lee (Louis Koo) sees his young daughter grow up to be a teenager. As soon as she takes up a no-good boyfriend and gets pregnant. After an abortion, she runs away to Thailand only to be kidnapped by local thugs who in deal organ transplants. Yes, just like previous SPL series, you don't watch Paradox for the plot. You watch it for a handful of heavenly action sequences!

Choreographed by Sammo Hung, with picturesque backdrops of the bay city of Pattaya, we get some glorious fight scenes involving Koo, Lue Wu and Tony Jaa (as local cops) and Chris Collins (as a sadistic organ trafficker). One set piece in the narrow hallways and rooftops with Collins and Jaa is breathtaking. So are the extended meat packing facility fight sequences, fully equipped (for your pleasure) with plenty of sharp, clanking cutlery. It's not great as the previous SPL series and the typical cheesy HK plotline drags down its greatness a notch. And you only wish you want to see more Jaa, but oh well. Vithaya Pansringarm (Only God Forgives) also shows up as a police chief.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

A Duel of the Sun and the Moon

Duelle (1976) - Rivette
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Duelle tells the fate of earthlings trapped in the battle between Leni (Juliette Berto), the Moon Goddess and Viva (Bulle Ogier), the Sun Goddess. It just gives an excuse for Berto and Ogier, the mother-daughter team, strut around in various pretty costumes and seducing anyone whom they lay their eyes on. Their objective is finding a diamond the size of a peach pit so they can stay on earth or something. Embroiled in this cat and mouse chase are a cat-like hunk Pierrot (Jean Babilée), his snooping, late night hotel clerk sister Lucie (Hermine Karagheuz), love-lorn Jeanne/Elsa (Nicole Garcia) and others.

Just like Celine and Julie, guided and framed by the great William Lubtchansky, Duelle has a fluidity of an improvisational music (not jam but more like jazz). With never obtrusive handheld camera work and black and white sequence thrown in, the film is not short on cinematic playfulness. The ensemble cast seems to be having a blast too. Good times.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Heads Will Roll

Hereditary (2018) - Aster
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Grief has been a common theme in horror movies for a long time. Lately, it's been the loss of a child as 'the worst thing that could happen to a family'. It's become so goddamn pervasive, I've grown to avoid films that deal with it whenever I read synopses while browsing. Hereditary, like many of recent horrors, stabs at this theme and twists until it bleeds for the sake of a scare or two, leaving very bad taste in my mouth. One should ask actors involved in the project - why did you sign up for this when there is no empathy written for your characters whatsoever, that they are tools to be dispensed to support the flimsy ending? Cold and sadistic, Hereditary recalls the brutality of Ben Wheatley's Kill List. Well let me correct that: Kill List's characters are driven, have a confidence in themselves but get thwarted unexpectedly. The characters here are blubbering mess the whole time, like crying babes in the woods ready to be preyed on.

There are elements of Hereditary that would make a dozen features. Ari Aster, however technically apt he is at filmmaking, sacrifices these narrative and emotional potentials for the end that doesn't deserve them. There are so many questions one could ask - why the miniature artist? Why does she look funny? Why is he so timid? Why the sudden point of view change and what does that signify? In fact, is this a family? Where is a shred of indication of that? Its scares are built upon sadism and hollow, grotesque images. Then again, it's a horror movie. So who needs an emotional depth? Very disappointing.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Builders and Destroyers

Taste of Cement (2017) - Kalthoum
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It starts with a voice over. In it, a man remembers his construction worker father coming home from Lebanon. Holding his rough worker's hands, he as a boy could smell the concrete off of it. Dad also brought a poster of a white sandy beach and framed by a couple of swaying palm trees against the blue sky. the boy had never seen the ocean before.

Beirut has seen many wars. Because of that, the city is in perpetual construction boom. As the Syrian war turns its 7th year and the end nowhere in sight, Ziad Kalthoum's Taste of Cement rightfully juxtaposes the urban destruction of Aleppo with the neighboring country's relatively well to do city-by-the-sea. These are Syrian workers. As their fathers as migrant workers, worked to rebuild Beirut in the 80s, they are repeating their father's footsteps, but mostly as refugees. If the recent film The Insult was any indication - as unsubtle as that film was in portraying deep seeded prejudices and rift between the two countries, these workers are living under constant fear of prejudices and retaliation.

Kalthoum's lens serenely captures these workers in their work place - as they wake up from the concrete floor and emerge from the hole, taking a lift to a dizzying height, working in a highly dangerous environment. At night, everyone's glued to their phones, flipping through the photos of destruction of their homeland - of the mangled concrete and metal. TV blares terrible news from home, reflecting in their eyes. The unending lift ride, measured panning and camera placement all the way up in the crane that features the bird's eye view of the affluent city with many high skyscrapers on the lush slopes, hugging the beautiful coastline. The camera even dives in to the emerald water, reminding us the war past.

With close ups and silent moments, Kalthoum's visuals have lyricism and sensuality of Claire Denis' work. But once it gets to the matching POV footage of construction cranes slowly panning over the Beirut skyline and tank gunner pointing at its next target, and the real footage of rescue effort to dig out the civilians trapped in collapsed concrete buildings, you realize that Taste of Cement is much more than, say, Terry Malrick's pretty, contemplative picture show.

Concrete smell is the smell of travel and also the smell of death. It's also the smell of rebuilding and smell of destruction. Kalthoum achieves something miraculous here. Something tangible and important. Something that is arty enough for the public already jaded and numbed by the sheer stupidity of the world and don't care anymore, to care.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

British Cousin of Suspiria

Legacy (1978) - Marquand
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British director Richard Marquand's Legacy resembles Argento's Suspiria in more ways than one. But it's terribly British, meaning, instead of popping colors and macabre violence, it's overstuffed and subdued. But it's still a fun ride. Legacy concerns an American couple Maggie and Pete (Katharine Ross and Sam Elliot) on business in London. They are architects (please pronounce it in Sam Elliot's drawl- ai-chi-te-ackts) from LA.

A near accident while on the country road trip on their Triumph motorcycle send the couple into a country mansion as (un)invited guests by a rapidly dying millionaire, Mountlive (John Standing). The other 5 guests and non emotive servants exchange knowing glances but not too fast on divulging any helpful information.

Weird things are happening in the mansion and some unseen force wouldn't let the couple leave. The guests die off one by one in mysterious circumstances. Then Maggie finds news clippings of deaths that the other guests are involved in, that their deaths in the mansion are some kind of karmic reprisals. It is clear that Maggie is meant to be there and wear that skull ring that all the other guests are wearing. Is this some kind of Satanic cult? Is rapidly disintegrating Mountlive (resembling David Lynch's monstrous grandma and the witch in Suspiria), trying to pass the satanic power on to the unsuspecting American?

The deaths are pretty spectacular - many very similar to ones in Suspiria although not as over the top. I wonder if it was at all influenced by the Italian maestro's, which came out a year before. Marquand went on to direct memorable Donald Sutherland classic thriller Eye of the Needle, then Return of the Jedi. Not bad.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Love Letter to American Cinema

The American Friend (1977) - Wenders
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Unlike a lil sociopath playing elaborate games in Patricia Highsmith's novels, in Wenders's hands, Ripley is a quiet enabler, trying to stir shit up from a distance because someone stiffed him. But he is no less psychologically complex here. With all his American director heroes making a cameo - Nicolas Ray and Sam Fuller, admired for their hard hitting noirs and under-appreciation stateside, I'm sure, The American Friend is Wenders's thinly veiled love letter to American cinema.

Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz) is a soft spoken, picture framer/art restorer leading quiet life in Hamburg with his wife and son. He has a rare blood disease that he regularly visits his doctor for. He invites the ire of Ripley (Dennis Hopper), a cowboy hat wearing American con-man, when he disses him (wouldn't shake his hand) at an art auction where Ripley is selling one of the counterfeit paintings (painted by Nick Ray in Manhattan studio). In revenge, Ripley and a French gangster Minot (Gérard Blain) starts a rumor that Zimmermann's health is serious and don't have long to live.

Freaked out by his health concerns, he reluctantly accepts Minot's proposal - killing a couple of no good gangsters from New York for large sum of money for his soon to be widowed wife and fatherless son. The following Paris underground subway assassination sequence is thrilling to watch.

The killing takes a toll on mild mannered Zimmermann, physically and emotionally and when he's forced to do it again, this time in a moving train in Munich, Ripley, who's been mumbling, questioning himself who he really is, decides to help Zimmermann to be his friends.

The plot line makes little sense but it's Robbie Müller's cinematography that really shines here. It's all about mood and atmosphere - Zimmermann's childlike red and white stripe scarf pops, red Voxwagon Beatle glows, dingy green flourecent lights adds character indoors, and soft crushed blacks and oranges are all gorgeous. With Fuller and Ray playing dangerous seedy characters, you can easily guess the romantic notion of gangsterism and its thrill equal American movies in the mind of impressionable German director. Ripley in a cowboy hat is the instigator who plants the seeds in an unsuspecting German man, but he himself can't avoid jumping in the action because it's so fun in the end.

I do not have a reference point here since I have not seen Wenders's 70s movies before they were restored. But along with Wrong Move, The American Friend is one of the most beautiful color film I've seen. It's like William Eggleston photographs reversal, saturatated Kodachrome photos. Bright, warm and gentle. I don't know if those were enhanced since it was shown in theaters in film print. But it's up there with A Woman is a Woman in terms of beauty.