12.30.2007

Moving

Almost a year ago today, on January 17th 2007, I wrote a post entitled "Let's try this again, shall we?". At the time I was frustrated about my studies, and I needed some distraction, an outlet.

The success, I'll admit, has rather overwhelmed me. Not only have I managed to post on a pretty regular basis, but *gasp* I got a readership! I now get an average of 20 visitors a day, which may not sound like much, but it still amazes me every day. What's more, in great part thanks to this blog, I got myself a real writing job, getting paid for movie reviews, which is more than I'd ever hoped for.

One year later, I think it's time to move on. No, don't worry, I won't stop, I'm having way too much fun! I am, however, getting increasingly frustrated with the limitations of blogger, and I think a change of scenery will do me good. Therefore - drum roll please - I would like to announce that as of 2008, the fruitstand will be relocated to wordpress, in particular, to http://sarcastig.wordpress.com

To go with the new site, and in keeping with New Year traditions, I have some resolutions. I will make it habit to respond to each and every comment I get (you may have noticed I've started to implement that already). I love that my blog gives me a platform to vent my ideas, but I want it to be a forum for discussion about films, too. Furthermore, I'll be more conscientious in labeling and in keeping my review index up to date, because by now I've written so much it's starting to be hard to keep up with.

So, update your bookmarks! And I hope to see you in 2008 at the bigger, better, leaner, meaner but still just as familiar fruitstand.

12.29.2007

Two genre exercises: 3:10 to Yuma & The Black Dahlia


Between these two films, 3:10 is undoubtedly the "better" one. It's more coherent, slimmer, it has more complete characterization and plenty inside into people's motivations. It has Christian Bale perfectly cast as a humorless hero, and Russell Crowe naturally as a charismatic and manly villain. And hey, I liked it, was fully engaged by it, and it's a solid piece of genre filmmaking. I just can't really think of much to say about it.





The Black Dahlia, however, is the kind of film I can really get stoked about.

Oh yes, I know, it's a much clumsier, messier movie. Scarlett Johanssen looks perfect in those period costumes, but as soon as she has to move and speak she's awkward and slightly out of place. Aaron Eckhart tries his best, but gets far too little screen time. And not only does Hilary Swank not look a bit like the real Black Dahlia OR like Mia Kirschner, who plays her in screen tests, but she has an inconsistent accent and she overacts the hell out of her femme fatale part.

Still, this movie got a grin to my face, and I enjoyed it immensely. Partly, that's because the parts that are good are great: Mia Kirchner, for instance, who brings real pathos to her victim, but strangely enough also Josh Hartnett, who surprised me by truly embodying his boxer/cop, by overcoming his boyish (and rather bland) exterior. And there is a scene where he meets the Linscott family that'll make you gasp in disbelief: it's so over the top, but it's also hilarious - and more than a little creepy.

I'm not a de Palma convert. He's too much of a showoff, I think, too brash and too cocky. But he DOES love film. Maybe I liked the Black Dahlia so much only by proxy, because through it I was reminded of so many noir favorites. But I liked it, messy as it is, maybe even because of its flaws and not in spite of them.

Black Snake Moan


Just look at that poster. The tall, strong, older black man in a wifebeater holding chains tight between his hands. The tiny, disheveled young white girl in a tiny shirt and cut-offs, on her knees at his feet, holding her arm up to hold the chain like she needs it, wants it. And that chain going on around her bare midriff, too.

How could any movie live up to that poster?

The sad answer is that Black Snake Moan can't quite. Oh, it does offer some unforgettable imagery: Rae (that would be the girl) walking on a narrow road in front of an enormous tractor and giving it the finger. Lazarus (that would be the man) walking her through the fields, but who's really leading who? Rae trying to escape her wicked desires by wrapping herself as tight as she can in that chain and moaning.

In the end though, the film is much more sweet and, alas, much more tame than it has any right to be. See, they're just messed up people. The bible-toting Lazarus isn't religion-crazy, he's just been left by his wife and, you know, hurt. Rae might be a nympho, but she's really in love with Ronnie (Justin Timberlake, who actually turns in a decent performance). They even have watches that beep at the same time: ain't that cute? And in the end, everything turns out just fine - though Brewer, to his credit, doesn't make the resolutions too neat.

Black Snake Moan is a film worth seeing. But it's not the exploitation dream promised by the poster, and that's too bad.

12.24.2007

Marie Antoinette

I watched Marie Antoinette for the second time last night. The first time, I liked it. Now, I think I even loved it, and found myself defending it rather fiercely to my lukewarm parents.

Yes: it's fluff. Yes: nothing really happens. Yes: it largely ignores the historical context. But Sofia Coppola is really subverting the costume drama here in a fascinating way. The movie might still be about the costumes and the thrill of seeing historic places come to life, but at the same time it is royally disinterested in the significance of the events or being accurate. It's even not really interested in the 'why' of the events, or in fact in what exactly happened.

What it is interested in is putting you there. Right there in the middle. The modern music, 'accidental' sneakers and the relatively modern use of language is not a device to put us at a remove: on the contrary, it forbids us to see the characters just as historical personae, it puts them on our plane. It makes us see Marie-Antoinette as just a girl. A rather shallow, not particularly bright girl, but no different from a great portion of high school girls everywhere, in fact, no different from a great portion of young girls in any time, in any place. Just a girl. It might not sound radical, but by not being a history lesson, by not caring about realism or accuracy, she managed to take a stiff historical character, someone mocked, derided, hated, but never really seen, someone who was only a figure in paintings and history books, and it turns her into a person of flesh and blood. I can't think of another movie that does this, and thanks to this Marie Antoinette is a film worth revisiting not just for the purely aesthetic pleasures that can be derived from it, but also as an investigation into a genre on par with Death Proof.

12.23.2007

Noir night: The Postman Always Rings Twice & Kiss Me Deadly

The Postman Always Rings Twice

The wife-and-lover-kill-husband plot works every times, doesn't it? It certainly does here, very well even. The chemistry between John Garfield and Lana Turner just crackles. I sometimes wonder if we weren't better off in the days of the code, when sex had to be implied through a cigarette being lit or subtexts in dialogue: it can be so much sexier than the real thing. The introduction of Lana Turner is just great: the lipstick rolling on the floor, the shot resting on her legs, and the look on Garfield's face...priceless!

Kiss Me, Deadly

Some films you just feel like watching again right after they finish. It was late and I was having trouble keeping my eyes open so I didn't, but this was such a film for me. It's so out there and strange that I'm not sure if I love it or hate it. I bought the DVD mainly because I heard Southland Tales references is over and over again, and I wanted to be able to get these references. What I didn't expect is a film as weird as Southland is supposed to be.

I was entranced by it, from the fantastic opening onwards. Many moments are simply unforgettable, some shots are amazing, and well... I fell for Mike Hammer. He's just so sleazy and mean, he's the ultimate noir anti-hero, and I loved it. Girls spontaneously kiss him for no reason at all in this film, but you buy it. I think I'll go towards love, but I do need to see it a second time.

Bottle Rocket


I'm on break, and that means: I have time to watch movies! Yesterday night I treated myself to a noir double bill which I'll post about later, but in the afternoon, still very much in the Anderson spirit, I re-watched his very first feature, Bottle Rocket.

It's rather strange, in a way. Bottle Rocket is clearly a Wes Anderson movie, but at the same time it doesn't have much of the characteristics we now associate with him. The camera work in particular is - dare I say it? - rather conventional, with some notable exceptions, and the frames leave a lot more breathing room. In fact, I had a rather hard time finding a screen cap that would show where Rushmore and the following movies came from.

The characters, on the other hand, couldn't have existed in any other world, especially not Dignan. Ah, Dignan. The guy who wants his friend to escape from a voluntary mental institution. The man with a 75 year plan. And his relationship with Anthony is, I think, the sweetest in all Anderson films: when Anthony insists on getting a ridiculous yellow jumpsuit like Dignan is wearing, it almost breaks your heart.

While Bottle Rocket is very Andersonion, there are several different things he could have done after this, several different directions he could have explored. He is sometimes blamed for going too precious, too emotionally remote.I kind of missed the richness here, and I have no complaints about where he's gone. It would be nice, however, to see him tackle relatively poor, not-so-highly educated characters again, because Dignan is both the most infuriating and most endearing of his characters so far.

2008

I know, I know, I promised a year-end list..there's just a few films I still want to watch before that. In the meantime, I found this great list (via), and so here goes: films that make me look forward to 2008.

First, a few movies that have been released in the US, but not here yet

1. Sweeney Todd (January 24th)
2. There Will Be Blood (Febuary 28th)
3. Paranoid Park: I was supposed to see it at a press screening January 1st...then they canceled that. grrr. Will probably see it in February now.

Then, the truly new releases.

  1. Australia: this could be a total disaster. But it's Baz Luhrman, and sometimes I just really feel like high melodrama. The impossibly beautiful Aussies Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman star. The story is something of Gone with the Wind-ish proportions, apparently.
  2. Babylon A.D.:just because it sounds so....awesomely weird. I mean, get this: Vin Diesel escorts a women who turns out to have an organism inside her that "a cult wants to harvest in order to produce a genetically modified Messiah." It'll probably suck though
  3. Be Kind Rewind: without a doubt among the most anticipated titles for me. I love me some Michel Gondry. Mos Def and Jack Black accidentally erase all the tapes in the videostore where they work...and they star reproducing them. Gondry's DIY imagination should make this one a treat.
  4. Burn After Reading: after a film at least as good as Fargo, one worthy to be the new Big Lebowski?
  5. Choke: I like the book, and it has Sam Rockwell AND Kelly McDonald. I'm curious, at the very least.
  6. Cloverfield: yup, the hype worked on me, too. Next!
  7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: it's Fincher reteaming with Brad Pitt. So, between Choke and this one, at least one has to be as good or at least exciting as Fight Club, right?
  8. The Dark Knight: I thought Batman begins was good, but I've never really felt like watching it again. But it looks like Heath Ledger's Joker might rival Nicholson's, and be a lot more scary to boot.
  9. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: ok, it has a lame title and a protagonist who's probably too old. But c'mon, it's Indiana Jones!
  10. James Bond 22: is it bad that this is here mostly because Craig might get nekkid again?
  11. Jumper: I hesitated over this one, but Doug Liman has yet to make a film I didn't like (yes, I enjoyed the heck out of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, sue me), and the premise sounds very cool: something about a guy jumping back and forth in time. The catch? Hayden Christensen, and hasn't Samuel L. Jackson played enough mentors by now?
  12. Son of Rambow: I didn't think the Hitch-hiker film was all that amazing, but I've heard nothing but good about Garth Jennings' follow-up, about a little boy who re-enacts with his friend their favorite film: Rambo! Might make a good double-feature with be kind rewind, come to think of it.
  13. Where the Wild Things Are: Ok, it's Spike Jonze, and it's a children's book I LOVED as a kid. Just look at these pictures: are you drooling yet? Oh, and Dave Eggers co-wrote.
  14. Zach and Miri make a porno: Kevin Smith and Seth Rogen team up!
Looks like 2008 might be a pretty good year for film. For me, the top 3 most anticipated of the truly new releases are those in boldface, but if I missed some obvious ones, let me know!

12.22.2007

The Darjeeling Limited


It might have been by virtue of lowered expectations, but I kind of loved Anderson's latest. Oh, I understand all the criticisms, even agree with most, but I don't really care: I like spending time in Andersonland, and he does, here, try a few new things. His frames are still filled to the brim with knick-knacks and his compositions are sometimes overly precious, but this film is quite a bit shaggier than his previous ones, and true emotion manages to wiggle itself into those unfinished spaces.

I don't think anyone has ever used Adrian Brody's awkward, gangly body so effectively. When he runs past Bill Murray to catch the train, it's a moment of pure comedy, almost a cartoon. But the relationship between the brothers is anything but cartoonish. Owen Wilson is more vulnerable here than he's ever been, without an ounce of smugness, and Schwartzman proves yet again that he's the ultimate Andersonlander, and most importantly you can believe them as brothers. Their dynamic is what keeps this film together.

Of course, I should probably address what happens after the brothers get kicked off the train. Quite a few critics felt the moment was undeserved. I'm not sure, also because (darn my addiction to review-reading) I knew what was coming. It certainly was a break with the rest of the film, but it didn't feel jarring, like the ending of the Life Aquatic did to me, and the flashback it leads to is probably the most mature thing Anderson's ever done.

So, yes, ok, when they got rid of their metaphorical luggage, I did think: "but there's one of those really cool Bose iPod speakers in there!", and it would be interesting to see what Anderson would do back on planet earth. But -while this film isn't quite a return to form- I enjoyed it immensely. Call me a hipster. I'd move to Andersonland anytime.

And really, how can you not walk out with a smile when over the credits, a long shot from an Indian train, you hear "Oh, Champs-Elysées"?

12.21.2007

Rio Bravo


My, but do I love, love, love this movie! It took me by surprise, since my two previous forays into the realm of western classics (as you may recall, with The Searchers and Red River) left me a little disappointed. Oh, I enjoyed them. But they didn't fill me with glee like this one did. In Hollywood terms, it simply has everything: action, romance, humor, even character development.

This film was also the first time I understood the Duke's charm, and it's all thanks to Angie Dickinson. I mean, usually you talk about actors having chemistry. Here, she just sparks so much I think Wayne had no choice but to spark back. And I loved how here, the comedy stems from the characters and from the tension. In the Searchers, the comical interludes were in too sharp contrast with the grim reality of the search and the grimness of the characters, but here, it all fit.

Isn't this Tarantino's 'test movie'? If it is, I think I'd pass.

12.19.2007

Titanic


Larry tells me that it's ten years ago today that Titanic sailed into theaters. Why does that mean anything to me? Well, I'm almost certain it was the first non-Disney film I ever saw in the cinema. It was while we were living in Casablanca, and we had to buy black-market tickets, as I recall: even in Morocco, this movie was an incredible hit.

What a film to discover the cinema experience with. It was simply overwhelming. The odd thing is, I can't remember exactly what I thought of it. Oh, I liked it, but I don't know if I loved it as much as everyone did. I did, of course, fall head over heels for Leo. What twelve-year-old wouldn't have? And I remember arguing with a boy in my class who, I believe, called Rose a "triple salope" and had quite an elaborate justification for that. I kicked him in the shins for it - at the time, this was my preferred flirting method.

Ten years. It's seems like a long time, but it really is quite short. I never watched the film again, and I don't feel the need to. But I suppose you could say that day, my cinephilia must've been born.

12.17.2007

Inland Empire


WARNING: overuse of metaphors ahead.

After seeing Mulholland Drive, I declared myself a David Lynch fan. I might have been overly hasty.

Let me explain. Mulholland Drive, like for instance Donnie Darko and to a lesser extent No Country For Old Men, is all about playing with our narrative expectations. From scene to scene the Hollywood style of continuity is obeyed: weird things may happen, but every scene leads to the next one and there seems to be an underlying "sense". However, in the end, they pull out the rug from under us: there is no "sense", there is no solution that will tie up the narrative strands in one neat bow.

(As an aside, this aspect is exactly what I hated about the celebrated Dutch book "the Darkroom of Damocles" by W.F. Hermans, which plays with our expectations in a similar way, but that was five or six years ago. I should reread it)

Inland Empire, in contrast, doesn't even try to fool you that there is any cohesion. It has a certain dream logic between scenes sometimes, true. But in dreams, everything seems logical, doesn't reveal its absurdity until you wake up and look back. In this film, everything is absurd from the get-go. Luckily, since this is Lynch, it's not like listening to someone recounting their dream -which is universally acknowledged to be dreadfully dull - but like being right inside of someone else's dream.

And a strange dream it is. I counted at least three, probably four different representations of Laura Dern's character. The one that fascinated me most is the cursing, crass one who tells her story to the private investigator, but all throughout the film it's great to see Lynch use her face as a canvas, doing anything he can think of with it, using make-up, distortions, and her great performance.

I enjoyed watching Inside Empire, not so much as a film but as an experience. In the end, though, I prefer the more ordered, more formally constructed puzzles. There are scenes featuring rabbits in this film, but I didn't even bother thinking about what they might mean, because I'm almost sure the answer is "nothing": they're probably just there as an idea, an image conceived of in a dream, without any significance. I like thinking of what Chigurh represents because there are so many possible answers, each of which can be defended. In that film, you can try to find the answer that fits the puzzle best, even if you know the puzzle is at best a Möbius strip with missing pieces. However, Inland Empire is like having a handful of pieces from half a dozen puzzles, and even the most dedicated puzzle fanatic wouldn't attempt that. I won't, in any case.

Lynch's subconscious is an intriguing place to dwell for a few hours, and I certainly don't regret my visit. Ultimately, though, this kind of film is too vague for me, too 'floaty', to translate a Dutch term literally, and my logical mind bristles.

12.15.2007

Best Scenes

I was already preparing a list of alternative awards to post here. You know, best nude fight, worst nude fight (the winners seem obvious), the "who-knew-he-was-so-funny"-award (that would be for James Marsden), etc. However, seeing how I quickly ran out of inspiration and couldn't rival Jim Emerson anyway, I decided to list a few of my favorite scenes from this year instead. One award I think deserves giving out anyway: the "would love to see show up in any movie"-award. It goes to Garret Dillahunt, who gave very different but equally fascinating performances in No Country For Old Men, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and on the smaller screen in John from Cincinnati.


Now then: my favorite scenes, in no particular order.

  • Carla Jean's last stand - No Country for Old Me
    closely followed by: every other scene in which Chigurh interacts with other people. And every scene with Ed Tom bell talking. And any scene...you know what? The whole film is pitch-perfect. Just go see it, alright?
  • Goin' to Acapulco - I'm not There
    closely followed by every scene with the electrifying Cate Blanchett as the electric Bob Dylan
  • The awkward conversation leading up to the first kiss in Waitress
  • The scene with Adam Goldberg, his girlfriend's phone in one hand, a dictionary in the other, getting progressively more agitated, in 2 days in Paris
  • The bathhouse fight - Eastern Promises.
  • 'not many people have basements in California' - Zodiac
  • Jesse James in the fog, waiting for the train - The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
  • Closing ass-kicking - Death Proof
    closely followed by: "You saw my car, I saw your ... legs" & Stuntman Mike sniffing Rosario Dawson's feet.
  • Falling Slowly - Once
  • Sex under a Tree & The first sleep-over - Lady Chatterley
  • The mano-a-mano fight in Tangiers - The Bourne Ultimatum
  • Le Marais - Paris je t'aime (not my favorite, but the short that lingers most)
  • "They fucked with the wrong Mexican" - the best of the Grindhouse trailers
  • Making soup - Ratatouille
  • The champagne and the two glasses in the fridge - Michael Clayton
  • Jeff Daniels as the blind Lewis chatting up a waitress - The Lookout
  • Toby Kebbell making his bid to be the manager - Control
There really are so many more I could mention, and this is all before having seen There Will Be Blood, Sweeney Todd, Juno, Into the Wild, Away from Her, Inland Empire and others being mentioned for awards. This was a pretty great year for film, wasn't it?

So, what were your favorite scenes this year?




12.13.2007

Lady Chatterley


Unfortunately, despite some wonderful shots and an great, layered and open performance at the center, Lady Chatterley (Ferran, 2006) is a messy, messy film. The film is fragmented, moved in strange bursts. An omniscient narrator suddenly comments in voice-over, saying about 4 lines, an hour into the movie, and only comes back once for a longer stretch of text. Near the end, a character suddenly read out a letter looking into the camera. None of it has any specific reason, and none of it makes sense.

Ah, but of course, for a film based on Lawrences book, it's not about the structure, the main question is: how are the sex scenes? And I have to admit, the sex scenes here are perfect, both erotic and providing insight into the characters and their evolution. Be warned: this is explicit, and much is shown both of the female and male anatomy, although the early sex scenes take place almost fully clothes (let's just say garters are convenient). But it never feels exploitative, and starts feeling almost natural.

However, then we come to the ending, and it's simply awful. The characters suddenly start communicating with words rather than actions, and their words couldn't be blander and unlikely. The gamekeeper especially is suddenly revealed to have a sensitive side. He suddenly confesses to be all angsty over being unlike other people, and his sudden "sharing", according to the idea there currently seems to be about the ideal man, is both entirely out of character and boring, almost negating all the good that came before.

12.12.2007

The year in movies - pt.1: new oldies

I did a bit of statistics on the many, many movies I watched in 2007. As it turns out, and contrary to my expectations, I watched about the same amount of pre- and post-millenial movies: almost 80 films made before 2000, and almost 80 made in 2000 or later.

Of these films, the most popular decade were the 50s and 90s (with 17 movies each), closely followed by the 40s (15) and the 30's (13). But of course, it's not about the numbers, and in the above counts I did not make a distinction between films seen for the first time and old favorites. What were the biggest discoveries?

First of all, I saw three early (or at least earlier) Almodóvar films, two of them for the first time: Matador and Átame. I love his more mature work, but these early films are just so filled with film making fun that it makes me giddy just to think about them. The bright colors, the shoulder pads, the camp... I just love it, and I'm determined to explore his entire oeuvre.

Then, of course, the noirs. I can never thank my dad enough for giving me that DVD box. The titles it contains might not have been the biggest ones, but they show the full range of what you can do within the boundaries of the genre, a genre now even more firmly established as my favorite. I also watched "The Big Heat" and "Double Indemnity", two films deservedly considered to be among the best noirs ever made. I just love the cynicism, the photography, the wit; I love the crooks and the dames; I love the endings, too. I'm sure I'll often revisit D.O.A. and the Hitch-Hiker on rainy days, and I look forward to watching even more classics I missed. So if you're still looking for a birthday present...

Of course, 2007 was also the year I discovered Godard. I saw Masculin/Féminin, Bande à part & A bout de Souffle, and Alphaville is waiting in my DVD drawer. I'm still undecided on whether I really enjoy his films beyond just the intellectual thrill they give, but I understand now why he's so revered.

There's more, of course. I finally saw some eighties classics (Say Anything, Back to the Future 2&3, Fast Times at Ridgemont high), some western classics (including my first Montgomery Clift film, Red River), saw two classic Hitchcock films for the first time (Rear Window and Notorious), two by Ed Wood, watched four films by Antonioni (two of them for the first time) and grew to appreciate him even more, watched my first Bergman film, my first Malick... All in all, I think this year made me a more well-rounded film lover, expanded my knowledge and my taste. At the same time, it's made me realize that there's more to explore than I'll ever have time for, but why would I complain about having so many more films left to discover?




Next time: some awards. Suggestions still welcome.

12.09.2007

Zodiac


This is such a well-made film in every detail. The cinematography is great, the acting ,even by those who are on screen for only minutes, is pitch-perfect, I loved the period details, and even the small character moments work. Despite the jumping structure, the film never feels episodic, and I was fully engrossed. And I liked the point Fincher made by having three different actors portraying the Zodiac killer: you might think you know something about who did it because you see the murders happening, but really, you can't even tell if it's the same guy.

So, a very well-made film. A great film? For that, I don't know if there's enough under the surface. Sure the film's about obsession, about making the viewer as obsessed as the characters are, but it doesn't really tell you anything about what would make someone more susceptible to obsession than another, about what it's really about.

I wonder what Fincher could do with a costume drama, a romantic comedy, a musical for all I care. It seem he's pretty much mastered this genre, and it would be interesting to see him go outside his comfort zone. It might make him loosen up a little. Benjamin Button is a start, and I'm curious what will come out.

Tell me what movies you like, and I'll tell you who you are...

My movie-lovers profile, courtesy of CJ Kennedy.

Your approach to movies is more intellectual than Glimmer’s. That’s not to say you don’t like to have your emotional buttons pushed in the right way, but you like to be able to get your mind around a movie as well as your heart.

You’re a cinema omnivore and your tastes are going to continue to expand as the years go by. You’ll voraciously move from genre to genre but you won’t be stuck with just one. Your non-movie friends already raise their eyebrows at some of the strange things you like, especially the things older than you are, but just wait until you’re waxing poetic about French cinema from the 30s or silent films or Japenese films from the 50s and 60s.

There’s a hint of pride in your taste. You’re probably looked upon as “the movie girl” in certain circles and you like playing that role, but you’re careful to tend the impression that your tastes are pretty refined.

Your tastes are pretty gender neutral though leaning towards masculine. I wouldn’t be surprised to find you spent many nights watching movies with your dad or perhaps an older brother when you were little.

Finally, you’re a Coen fan so clearly you’re operating on a higher level of movie appreciation than your average person :)

In short, you’re smart and cultured and you don’t care who knows it. You can also be a romantic sentimentalist as long as you don’t feel you’re being pandered to. Sometimes you maybe wish you could be less the former and more the latter, but you’d never sell out your intelligence.


Sound about right?

It's the end of the year...

Which means the time of short days, Christmas cards, and especially of year-end lists, the first of which have been rolling out. I'm planning my own little year end extravaganza: one post about statistics (how many films I saw, how many new how many old, how many for the first time, how many in the cinema etc.), one reviewing my most notable cinematic experiences of the year, maybe a top 5 or 10 of older films, and in any case a top 5 or 10 of 2007 releases.

The latter is tougher than it sounds, and not just because ranking your favorites is always hard. Quite a few good 2006 releases weren't released in the Netherlands until 2007. In order to be more or less comparable with American groups, however, I will make a top 5 of films released in America in 2007. This means for instance that Little Children will be out of consideration for the 2007 list, but Once, which is officially a 2006 movie, will be in the running since it wasn't released theatrically in the US until this year. Since I do want to give attention to some of those 2006 films, I'll also make a short side-list of 2006 releases seen this year (sounds confusing? Well, maybe it is...)

I might also do a couple of acting lists. Cinematography I'll skip: it wouldn't yield anything beyond raving about Roger Deakins anyway. I might even give out some weird awards, I'm not sure. We'll see. Suggestions for categories are welcome, in any case.

Anyhow, enough technical details. On to what I really want to talk about: which films do you think I still need to catch up on before making my final list? I'm not talking about big films that still need to be released, like Sweeney Todd. There's no press screening date for that as of yet, and I refuse to download it, as I think it's a movie that needs to be seen in theaters. I am talking more of releases from a few months ago that I might have missed. I'm already planning on watching Zodiac (it topped Jeffrey Wells' list and is mentioned on several others) and I'm considering whether I have the energy for Inland Empire. But what else should I check out? Half Nelson? Gone Baby Gone? In the Valley of Elah? Into the Wild? Let me know! And in case you're wondering what I have and have not seen, I kept a handy filmlog.



The Guardian also has a list, incidentally. Interestingly enough, in the top 8, most films are films they gave 4 or 5 stars in the original review... Except for the #2, which only got 2 stars at first. The film? Eastern Promises. Confirming that it's a film that - while it might not look all that interesting at first- grows on you as you think about it more.

Also: added to my DVD-collection as of Sinterklaas: Marie-Antoinette (Coppola, 2006), Brick (Johnson, 2005), La Luna (Bertolucci, 1979) & Tystnaden/The Silence (Bergman, 1963)

12.05.2007

Waitress


By all accounts this film should not work. And well... it doesn't, not quite. It might however, work enough.

It's a cartoon in many ways. Some of the music cues are way over the top, and the actors deal with the material with different degrees of success. Keri Russell, for example, is great as Jenna, the waitress of the title. There is one extended sequence of shots where she has an exaggerated bewildered look on her face, a look which then turns into an ecstatic smile for the next couple, and it is perfect, somehow. But aside from hers all the characters are fairly one-dimensional, the two other waitresses most egregiously: they each get their perfectly predictable plot development, but character development, apparently, was too much to ask. As for Jenna's husband, he's supposed to be both a laughingstock and genuinely threatening, and that simply doesn't work

But let's get to the things that DO work. Mostly, that's the chemistry because Nathan Fillion's Dr. Pommater and Jenna. Every time they kiss I felt it. Now, admittedly, I do have a long-standing crush on Cap'n Tight-Pants, but still. And I loved how refreshing the film's take on adultery was: the film admits that it's a foolish, potentially hurtful thing to do, but in the film it doesn't need to lead to a terrible conclusion, and it even has some positive consequences. This is the kind of nuance and realism sorely lacking from the sexualisation-of-our-culture debate currently going on in the Netherlands.

And then there's the pies. Oh, I wish I could bake pies like that. They are gorgeous and odd and delicious-looking, and having Jenna give them names like "I don't want Earl's baby-pie" is a gimmick that works. In the end, the film doesn't quite manage to reconcile the quirks on the surface with the truly depressing content, but this is a little film worth watching.

A film, too, with a worthwhile message: maybe it's best, indeed, to settle for being "happy enough".

12.03.2007

No Country for Old Men - Second, hopefully more coherent, spoiler-riddled reaction

It's right up there in the title too, but a final warning just in case: major **SPOILERS** ahead!


It's been almost 24 hours now since I started watching No Country for Old Men, and after much reading and rumination (see also the reading list below), I have come to a conclusion: the Coen brothers have put a lot, and I mean by that A LOT of ideas into this movie, but I doubt there is an overarching thought or message to be found. This should, of course, not come as a surprise: these are the Coens we're talking about. It means the only deeper meaning you'll find is the one you, yourself, bring to the table. The movie has no clear interpretation, it can be interpreted at least half a dozen ways.

And that's what makes it great.


Take, for instance, Chigurh. He works on a superficial level because - using the words of another character - he is the ultimate bad-ass. On a deeper level, he soon becomes more complicated. Is he evil personified, as some have suggested? Is he the Grim Reaper? Is he fate, a ghost, just a man of flesh and blood, or maybe just the manifestation of Sheriff Bell's fears? Each interpretation can be justified, and has been, vehemently, in various comment sections. He's evil made flesh because he destroys and/or corrupts anything on his path, and the ending can then be interpreted as "evil can be damaged, hindered, but not stopped". He's the Grim Reaper because he simply comes to take people away when their time is up, and doesn't when it isn't, etc. etc.

In the end, all these interpretations are valid, but are they really meaningful? Maybe the Coens* just enjoyed the irony of having Chirgurh, who lets other people's fate be decided by a coin toss, be taken out by chance. Maybe the scene with the two kids is nothing more than a "money corrupts" throwaway, inserting something not necessarily relevant or related to anything else into an already dense text. Then again, there is always something that CAN be connected - in this case, you could invoke the fact that there is literally bloody money being paid with. It's almost as if they're teasing us to make connections, appealing to our need to categorize and analyze, and then reveal that there is nothing but mud at the bottom of the well.

This movie already has been dismissed by some critics (most notably by Manohla Dargis) as pure craft. I don't get that complaint. Yes, the Coen's may be overly fond of stylistic tricks, but they seem to like them so much it's infectious. Yes, they like doorways, they like them A LOT, but why is that a problem when this leads to such wonderful - and sometimes suspenseful- shots? I'm not sure all the mirroring - the shirts, Anton/Ed Tom both drinking milk and watching themselves in the television, etc. - means something, but the various instances are fun to spot.

Much of the discussion on the boards seems to be about plot questions. Did he kill the accountant? (my guess, no, but does it really matter?). Did he kill Carla Jean? (Definitely). Did Llewelyn go along with the beer woman, and what happened to her? And mostly, was Chigurh in that room, and if so, how did he disappear? I don't think, however, that these details were left sketchy because the filmmakers want us to figure out the "solution". I think the details were left sketchy as a Rorschach test: the interpretation we give says something about who are, and where we stand.

The movie opens and ends with something Chigurh does and something Bell says, with Llewelyn stumbling through the movie in between, his fate and perhaps morality the stakes in the contest between the two. Let me end, too, with some words about Sheriff Bell. Tommy Lee Jones truly is one of the treasures of modern American cinema, and the deep grooves of his tired face serve this character well. He seems a straightforward good guy at first, white hat and all, a remnant of better, more straight-forward times. However, unlike the Western heroes he's meant to remind us of, he isn't sure he's up to the task, and he's scared. His big triumph is opening the door to that motel where Chigurh might be, but his relief when the room is empty is so great he decides to retire. Decides to wait for his time to be up in peace.

So much more can be said about this movie, but I think I will stop at this: I'm not sure yet if this is a masterpiece, but I do think this is a marvelous film, satisfying and challenging both on a visceral, and aesthetic, and an intellectual level. A film I look forward to revisiting in February on the big screen.

*I know, McCarthy should probably get a lot of the credit here, but I haven't read the book so I'm analyzing the film purely by itself, and seeing everything as the Coen's choice


ESSENTIAL READING

Also, if you're up for something a little less serious, there's always Nora Ephron.

No Country for Old Men - First, disjointed, spoiler-free reaction


Whoa.

I mean, whoa.

But I don't know how, or why.

All I can say is, I got out of this film in a daze. Shattered, you could say. Not quite sure quite what I'd seen, and not quite sure if it added up to anything. Sure, however, that everything on the screen was exactly what the Coen's intended, and exactly how they intended it.

Weird thing is, much as I've been keeping away from too detailed reviews and analyses of the film until now, I keep hearing people are surprised/disappointed about the ending. Now, I can understand that some people are ticked off by the lack of a clear resolution - although, being forewarned, much more was resolved than I had expected. But the ending, in my opinion, is what makes this film something more. The first three quarters of it, I was enjoying the film very much, but on a very superficial level: I thought it was well made, tense, scary even, funny, too, but I wasn't getting the 'masterpiece' vibe. After the ending...

Well, I don't know. Something. I came back and told a friend I'd just seen a movie that might be a masterpiece. Upon hearing what movie it was, his response was "Oh, I watched that last night! It was stupid!". Now, the only thing that really tells you is that some movies should not be downloaded and seen on a tiny laptop screen, but I had a hard time articulating a response, a hard time putting into words what exactly it was that made this movie clearly NOT stupid. I still don't know how. All I know is, I have a meeting with my thesis supervisor in twenty minutes, nothing to say to him, and yet I'm not preparing something for the meeting, but writing this blog post, trying to get my head around this movie.


I'll write another post tonight, after some more digestion, and after having finally read all the analytical pieces I've been closing my eyes for so far. I just wanted to put down my first thoughts, my gut reaction. Maybe it's all a joke on the Coen bros., maybe there is no deeper significance or thoughts and this movie's just another excuse for them to insert their beloved doorway-motif. Maybe it will turn out to be a profound meditation on violence, on life and death, and predetermination and/or choosing your own fate. Maybe, hopefully, my thoughts will have crystallized tonight. I wish I could go and see it again tonight, but unless I resort to the downloaded laptop format, I'll have to wait until Valentine's day.

11.30.2007

I'm Not There

I didn't get the review assignment for I'm Not There. I did, however, sneak into the press screening, because I simply could not wait until March 13th. I am very glad I went, and not so jealous any more of the guy who has to review it.

Let me start by saying I think this is a brilliant, amazing film. With an emphasis on I think. I know for sure that I loved many of the parts, and that most fragments of the film are, yes, amazing and brilliant. I'm still debating whether they add up to an amazing hole, and I'm increasinly leaning towards.... absolutely.

I told myself this post came third because I wanted it to stay on top, but it was also in great part because I have no idea where to start. I'm not even going to try to describe the movie. It's too much like a dream: in the moment it makes perfect sense, and probably on some level it does, but the fragments, upon waking, seem too disjointed to ever have flowed smoothly together. Yet they do. The film goes from black and white to color, from documentary-like footage to lush Malick-esque nature shots, from sequences closely based on things that really happened to totally fantastical stories. But it never feels jarring, and magically, the edges between the different stories and actors blur. The personas played by Heath Ledger (the least interesting one, unfortunately) and Christian Bale (humorlessness, but as pointed out on filmspotting, appropriately so) even inhabit the same world.


Cate Blanchett has received unanimous praise, and she deserves it, but there are many more performances worth praising. Marcus Carl Franklin makes the wonderfully intricate sentences he's given come out smoothly and naturally: he's both the little boy inside Bob Dylan and believable as a grown man in a boy's body. Wishaw is great as the sort-of second narrator, Arthur Rimbaud, showing how annoying yet fascinating Dylan must've been as a seventeen or eighteen year old, smarter than his peers and knowing it too well. And last but not least, I think it's worth singling out Michelle Williams - who I didn't even know was in the movie. She's Coco Rivington, a clear Edie Sedgwick socialite, and it's not even exaggerating that much to call her performance a revelation.


I'm getting long-winded here, and honestly, I still don't know exactly what it is I want to say, nor what the film has to say. One thing is for sure: do not go see it expecting more insight into Bob Dylan. But you can go see it expecting a wonderful, surprising, beautiful, mesmerizing, etc. work of art, experimental but not difficult or impenetrable. A film that stays with you even if you see two other movies after it the same day, and a film I can't wait to revisit in March.


How does it feel? It feels like it might be my favorite film of 2007.



Also: check out #187 of FilmSpotting. It made me finally accept Matty (I had some hurt feelings after Sam left), and it has a great interview with Todd Haynes. I couldn't have had better listening material on my way home.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.

I know, I know, it's not supposed to be realistic, it's MELODRAMA with capital letters, actions first, characters second, but jeez, are the people in this movie dumb about certain things. It works, though, at least on some level. There's a fascination in watching these people go down, but I hesitate to throw around words like "greek tragedy" (as some critics have), because stupidity doesn't quite count as a fatal character flaw, nor do daddy issues. Furthermore, I'm usually all for playing for continuity, but it simply had no purpose in this film, and didn't really disguise the fact that the story was really quite simple. There was no reason for it, either, since the story starts out more or less at the start, and end up exactly at the end.


But enough of the whining, because despite the above, this is an enjoyable thriller, even it's more a movie to rent on a rainy day than one to see in the cinema. For the guys, there's Marisa Tomei topless about half of her screen time, and for all of us, there is yet another great performance by Philip Seymous Hoffman, who really is one of best and most reliable actors in his generation, and totally devoid of vanity. There is a scene in which he calmly, methodically turns his place upside down, and he does it in a way that's both surprising and entirely in character. He's a character who's interesting beyond the story he's trapped in. Unfortunately, he is the only one. I'm probably being overly harsh here, and possibly I was burdened with overly high expectations (88 on metacritic, and 88% fresh on rotten tomatoes), but this film, unfortunately, didn't really do it for me.

TBS


First of three entries for today, and it will be the shortest one... since I signed a confidentiality agreement which forbids me to reveal the ending of the film. Now, of course, most of you don't care anyway, because it's a Dutch film that probably won't be released outside of this tiny little country. But even for those Dutchies among you it is kind of weird, since the ending's not really a twist or surprise. It makes me think this film will be marketed with an emphasis on plot and intrigue, and it's too bad, because this is a film you could, and should, sell on the performances and characters. The story's simple: an escaped TBSer (basically a prisoner kept in a psychiatric facility instead of a prison) kidnaps a thirteen year old, but it plays out in a very nice, Bonnie & Clyde meets Lolita way, and the central performance by Theo Maassen (an actor I wouldn't mind being kidnapped by) is very strong. The thirteen year old does some very stupid things, but it's all stupid in a believable, stupid-thirteen-year-old-girl way (I was one of those, I should know).

Anyway, unlike the ending, this movie was a surprise, and a pleasant one at that.

It is DONE

Finally! The murderer(s) have been caught, some dangling plot threads resolved, sense, unfortunately, note quite made. The final 51081 words will be sent to anyone who would like to see how shitty writing gets when you're just pumping out words on request.


Now: back to normal life.

But first: sleep!

11.28.2007

Eastern Promises - reconsidered

WARNING: spoilers for Eastern Promises, A History of Violence, and Dirty Pretty Things.



I just wrote my review for this film, and it's amazing how much my opinion has shifted since I first saw it. Oddly enough, I see many more flaws now, many more opportunities for improvement even, yet at the same time I like it a lot more than I did then.

Let's start with the flaws. I've come to the conclusion that the narrative wouldn't be hurt much if Naomi Watts' Anna was removed from it altogether. Don't get me wrong. Girl can act - and nobody who's seen Mulholland Drive will argue otherwise. But her character, despite some desperate touches to make her edgy - black ex-boyfriend, motorcycle - is dreadfully bland, and she isn't served well by the script, which gives her groan-inducing lines like "sometimes life and death go together". She's too obviously there just to be a) an audience stand-in, and outsider discovering the world of the Vory V Zakone as we do and b) a catalyst for the action. I'd say the dead girl would have been enough for b) with anonymous cops on the hunt, and preferably without the voice-over.

It's strange how Steven Knight's script for Eastern Promises has made me like his earlier Dirty Pretty Things LESS, because it's exposed some of the tricks and manipulation as, well, tricks and manipulation. Most irritatingly, Knight uses women being sexually assaulted as an overly obvious signaler for EVIL. Of course sexually assaulting women IS evil, but wouldn't it be nicer to, you know, make the good/bad division a bit more ambiguous? In Dirty Pretty Things, it's apparently not enough that Audrey Tautou's character is so desperate to go the the US she'd give up a kidney or work in a sweat shop, and that Sergi Lopez and the sweatshop owner take advantage of her desperation. Both have to sexually violate her, degrade her. The same in Eastern Promises: Semyon and Kirill are members of a criminal organization that KILLS PEOPLE, you know, but their evilness needs to be reinforced by having Semyon be a real and Kirill a wannabe rapist. Knight probably feels all good about acting righteous, but it speaks of a profound objectification of women, seeing them merely as beings to be protected - by men.


Why, then, has Eastern Promises grown in my estimation nonetheless? Because both Cronenberg and his actors - Mortensen in particular - take this extremely flawed script and put their own idiosyncrasies and ideas into it, leaving the surface intact but inserting layers upon layers below.

Cronenberg, first. In a recent interview with Poland, he explained that especially because he is an atheist, murder is, to him, the ultimate destructive act, and that he wants to show it as such. That's why he lingers longer than most would on blood spilling out of a slit throat, that's why he doesn't offer us the luxury of looking away. In most action movies the body count is much higher than in his, but he makes every body count. It shows, for instance, in how messy it is to dispose of the first corpse: death may be swift, but it's not easy to forget. The scene in which Nicolai methodically clips off the dead man's fingers is partly played for laughs, but it's also there to remind us of how messy death is.

Then there is, of course, Cronenberg's obsession with the combined strength, malleability, and vulnerability of the human body. Nicolai is a killing machine: effective and smooth. At the same time, his body shows the signs of his life: not just scars, but tattoos. In the scene where he gets some new ones, we see it happen: a needle is inserted and his body changes. Finally, the vulnerability: despite the eventual outcome, seeing a naked man fight two clothed ones with nasty, curved knives makes you very, very aware of how easy to pierce human skin is, how easy to damage a man.

Finally, Mortensen's performance is amazing. He is, here, the polar opposite of Tom/Joey from A History of Violence: where that character was an evil man acting at being good, Nicolai is, or at least seams to be, an evil man, but he might be good inside. In History, the evil character comes back out, but the conclusion can be seen as optimistic, as Mortensen's character wants to be Tom again at the end. In parallel, Nicolai (in a 'twist' that didn't need to be so spelled out) is undercover as a Vory. His cop persona comes out: he frees the prostitute, doesn't kill Anna's uncle. But in the end, it seems that he wants to be the 'fake' persona too: he's sitting in Semyon's restaurant, staring ahead of him, and it's possible to read half a dozen conflicting feelings on his face.

Mortensen really builds this character from the inside out. Oh, the accent is good, but it's not just that. It's in the way he talks, too, in the way he stands with his hands over one another, in how he moves. In the bad-boy moves - fingers to his throat, cigarette out on his tongue - that keep you wondering about how much of it is an act, and how much is real. I can't really articulate it better than the Shamus did (in an entry he unfortunately seems to have deleted, but google "shamus mortensen"and you'll find it cached), so I won't try, but it's his performance that keeps the film together, and that makes it infinitely more interesting than in would otherwise have been.

I didn't mean this post to be so long, but I suppose that shows more clearly than any words could how much this movie has stayed in my mind. I didn't expect it to. I'm seeing it again this Sunday, and I'm curious if I'll see even more.

UPDATE: Still thinking about this movie, and discovered two very insightful posts, one looking at the movie from a very gender-oriented perspective, the other amongst other things about the strange lack of technology.

11.26.2007

Speechless


Last week of nano-ing, and I'm less that 8000 words off so I'll probably make it again. Also means that by Friday the blog should be back to its normally scheduled programming. Ironically enough, nanowrimo this year more or less coincided with the writer's strike in Hollywood. I am of course, firmly on the side of the WGA, and my blog hiatus left you bored, well, you should check out the "speechless" videos posted by Nikki Finke and conceived by George Hickenlooper, especially #11 with Laura Linney.

11.22.2007

Thanksgiving

I've never quite understood the whole appeal of Thanksgiving (aside from the cranberry sauce), and not being American, I've never celebrated it. In fact, I was feeling less than thankful, since a commenter on filmtotaal pointed out to me that my latest review - the one I felt so good about, the one I didn't have to labor over but that simply spilled out onto my keyboard - was actually very awkwardly written. And he was right. Quite a blow to my fragile ego, as you can imagine. However, I do not want to dwell, and hence, forced myself to write down this list of things I am thankful for.

- My new room, and watching films from my new bed
- Pepernoten
- The way Cary Elwes' hair falls in front of his face in the beginning of The Princess Bride
- The Princess Bride existing, at all
- How well my thesis is going, progressing slowly but steadily
- Friends who bring brownies and rosé to movie nights
- Getting the No Country For Old Men review, and thus getting to see it in a week and a half instead of on Valentine's day
- The fact that no matter how many great movies I see, there's always so many more to discover
- Gus van Sant still being allowed and able to make strange, noncommercial movies when he wants to
- The fact that soon, I'll be allowed to play Sufjan Stevens' Christmas albums again
- "Don't eat those old people's french fries, pigeon! Don't you know you can fly?"
- Hugh Laurie as Gregory House
- Blog-a-thons
- having people read what I write, even if on the blog it's only a hanfdul
- The internet, where there is always someone who shares your obsessions and passions
- Finally, for the fact that despite my underdeveloped writing skills, I am getting -through my job and editor- a chance to improve myself little by little. It's frustrating that I can no longer always get away with elliptic, associative nonsense, but I know that in the long term, it's going to make me a better writer.


Ok, boring rant over, and I do feel somewhat better. Very therapeutic and all. So, go ahead, what are all my many, many readers thankful for?

Happy Thanksgiving

11.20.2007

Beowulf

Ok, so in my desperation to get the "No Country for Old Men" review, I offered to review Beowulf, since nobody had professed interest for that and the release date is this Thursday already. The IMAX version is already in theatres, and there I went, begrudgingly, thinking it would be another 300. But I have to admit...


I didn't hate it.

Oh, it was silly. And with those strange, almost-real, plastic characters, it's hard to truly get into the story. But except for the first fifteen minutes, I wasn't bored for a minute, and I laughed a lot more than I did at my last semi-voluntary review, which was of The Heartbreak Kid.

Still. No fair. The guys get Angie's boobs, but Ray Winstone's digital dong stays carefully, hilariously, hidden, even in a naked fight longer than Viggo's. I know this is intended for 13-yo boys, but still, no fair!

Another plus for Beowulf? It's inspired some truly funny reviews.

11.19.2007

A tale of two Hedwigs - Queer Film blog-a-thon

NOTE: this is my contribution to Damion's Queer Film Blog-a-thon. What are you waiting for, go check it out!

My name is Hedwig.

I was named after the main character from a novel published in the year 1900. "Van de koele meren des doods" by Frederik van Eeden. The title loosely translates as "Of the cool lakes of death", and the book is exactly as cheery as you would expect. The delicately nerved protagonist is a sensual creature who gets married to an impotent man and wonders about why "the mystery of marriage" is missing. She then runs off with a piano player, delivers a dead baby, and carries it in a basket with her to Paris where - if memory serves - a doctor makes her a morphine addict, after which she wanders the streets of Paris as a whore. In the end, she ends up a nun.


When I finally read the book at age 18, I hated, hated this Hedwig. Luckily for me, I found a namesake I could identify with a lot more around the same age. This one was a botched transsexual, a rocker from Berlin, with fabulous wigs and a thirst for vengeance. Someone who had no less of a tragic life, but who - unlike the turn of the century twat from the book - didn't just roll over and hope for the cool embrace of death, but instead fought with tooth and long, polished nail for justice and for love.
The movie, if you haven't guessed it by now, is Hedwig and the Angry Inch. And I'll admit, I bought the DVD mostly out of vanity. If you're called Hedwig, you don't find a lot of namesakes, and I was curious enough to spare 10 euros. I couldn't have spent them better.



John Cameron Mitchell does so much so well in this movie that's it hard to know where to start. The music, and its very own mix of mythologies, the amazing central performance, the strange ending, the humor. But what I want to talk about in particular in connection with this blog-a-thon is how naturally and flexibly gender, gender-roles and sexuality are treated.

Hedwig herself is, of course, a wonderful mess. She's not transgendered in the sense that she's felt like a girl all her life: the operation is done out of love, both for her "sugar-daddy" and the country (and associated freedom) he represents. Her surgery is botched, leaving her with the "angry inch" of the title, and as a result she is the ultimate outsider: a piece of an impossible puzzle, futilely looking for another half that will fit. Her triumph is that she refuses to stop looking.

You can tell John Cameron Mitchell believes, or at least wants to believe, that there is indeed someone out there for everyone. To use an awful Dutch proverb, there's a lid for every jar. What Hedwig points us to is that in order to find that lid, we shouldn't be halted by convention, and if we should consider both men, women, and everything in between. This movie shows that in some way, everyone is somewhere in between. It's not for nothing that Hedwig's poor, abused boyfriend Yitzak is played (wonderfully) by a woman. And the reason Tommy Gnosis is a tragic figure rather than a true villain is that he cannot look beyond a simple angry inch to find love.

I've long had a fascination for gay culture. I'm still not entirely sure why, but I think I'm starting to figure it out. Queer culture is all about taking what makes you different, what makes you a "freak" in the eyes of some limited people, and making something great out of it. I might not be gay, but I understand what it's like to be different, even in a subtle way, from what's considered the norm. Hedwig, and many other queer films sure to be discussed today, take these feelings of unbelonging and turn them into art. In this particular case, the lesson to draw is clear: be whoever you are, and find love wherever you can.

I don't know about you. But I take comfort in that.

11.08.2007

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford


I usually don't link to my filmtotaal review any more, but I'm rather proud of this one. My editor added the word welhaast in one sentence, which I don't think I've ever used, but hey, his other changes are usually big improvements, so I can't complain.

In the end, the star rating might be a little high for the review. What I wrote down was my frustration, because this film is almost great, could have been the masterpiece it wanted to be. But almost great still deserves four stars, in my opinion, if only because of the ambition on display here, and the resulting beauty.

My earlier post

11.06.2007

The Hitch-Hiker, and a noir-box recap

Sometimes the best things come to you when you least expect them. I was feeling pretty drained from laboring over my review of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (I just don't get tired of typing that), and writing on my nanonovel was not progressing, so I decided to play hooky from writing and watch the last film in my film noir box instead: the Hitch-Hiker. And I think it might be my favorite of the bunch.

It's directed by a woman, Ida Lupino (who I liked a lot in They Drive By Night), yet it features only men, three men, to be exact, two hostages and one man with a gun. A very sadistic, trigger-happy man with a gun. The music is amazing, notable also for its absence in some thrilling scenes. At one moment, the hitch-hiker forces some shooting-practice, and I couldn't take my eyes off the screen.

So, then, the recap. All ten films, listed from best to worst (in my opinion, of course), with grades. Letter grades, for some reason.

The Hitch-Hiker A
Detour A
D.O.A. A-
Scarlet Street A-
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers B
Quicksand B-
Impact B-
Trapped B-
He walked by night C+
Whistle Stop C-

If there is a trend at all in the above, it's that a) I like my noirs on the road b) I like em dark, though the Hitch-Hiker has a fairly happy ending and c) I like Edmond O'Brien.

I've been thinking a lot about why I love noir so much, lately. It's partly due to my love for genre pictures: I think often the most interesting art comes from having to operate within boundaries or conventions. There's a reason there's so many great sonnets, too.

Still, that's not the only thing. Westerns are very genre-y movies as well, and I like them, but after watching The Searchers and Red River not too long ago, it's becoming all too clear that while I like westerns, they often don't put a grin on my face like noirs do. I suppose part of it is that I'm a city person, and not really a nature lover. I considered that maybe it had to do with me being a verbal rather than a visual person, but I also prefer the style of noirs to that of westerns. This is all a rambling way to say: I really don't know. What I do know is that I'm glad I put all those noirs on my Sinterklaas wish list.

11.04.2007

Quicksand


Wow, this movie really is a 101 course in right screen writing. Nothing happens that hasn't been foreshadowed in some way, yet it's never obvious. Nothing comes out of nowhere: not the photo booth, not the hiding spot, not the landlady. And the story, of one man who follows every bad choice to its worse follow-up as he slowly gets himself stuck in the quicksand, is fascinating. Too bad he gets thrown a -rather unlikely - rope in the end.

Mickey Rooney's not your typical noir hero. He's too uncomplicated: he's certainly not sweet, but he has no hidden depths. His voice-over is devoid of the usual snark, but for this movie, he's the perfect protagonist: he's enough of a jerk that you don't ming seeing him tortured - and he really is a terrible criminal, gets caught at every single thing that he does- but he's not so unlovable that you don't care about him getting out. And hey, he's redeemed when he finally turns around an learns to appreciate his sweet ex-girlfriend, and who could object to that?

11.02.2007

Enchanted

So, I just saw Enchanted, and I have to admit it was...enchanting. Which is of course silly, predictable thing to say, entirely lacking in originality yet sweet, and as such a perfect description. The internal logic here is -at best- flawed, the performances are over the top, the bits with the henchman don't quite work and yet....I can't bring myself to hate on this movie. I might even have to give it 4 out of 5 stars when I review it, because this film made me remember what it was like to see Cinderella for the first time.

Like almost all animation films nowadays - and don't let the trailer fool you, this is animation, in almost every frame, despite the fact that there are live actors involved - this film tries to balance two audiences. There are even two audience substitutes here: McDreamy is the cynic rolling his eyes for us, but (like us) ultimately swept along, and his daughter is there for all the pre-teen girls who are sure to flock to this in numbers. And they won't be the worse for it: some jokes will go over their heads but none of them are crude, and the film even has a nice emancipatory vibe, without pushing its message on you.

You have to wonder though: do these kids even get all the references? I mean, have they ever seen a non-postmodern fairytale? Irony's all good and well, but I remember reading through a book of Grimm fairytales half my weight when I was a kid, and there's a power to those stories that Shrek and his followers can't quite equal. And while James Marsden sending himself up is a hoot (at one point, his helper asks "Sire. Do you like yourself?" and Marsden dryly answers "what's not to like?"), Susan Sarandon isn't likely to inspire quite as many nightmares as Snow White's evil Queen did.

11.01.2007

Remember, remember...it's November

Against my better judgment, I've decided to participate in NaNoWriMo again, for the fourth time, after winning in 2003, 2004, and 2005 (and taking a break in 2006). I am, very unwisely, trying the hard-boiled genre. With, obviously, a female PI. I have one corpse already, just no idea as to the killer or the motive, but I'm hoping that will come.

I'm not blogging my attempts this time, but if you want to read along, just send me an e-mail and I'll make sure you get regular updated. Keep in mind, this would be quickly written, unrevised prose from someone without notable talent.

Wish me luck!

H. 1065 words and counting.

10.29.2007

Control - first thoughts


Is this film gorgeous or what? What else would you expect, of course, from Anton Corbijn, who surprisingly didn't act as his own DP here. I cannot find a right picture to illustrate it, but his compositions are amazingly simple, so stark, yet they work beautifully.

I almost can't believe Sam Riley is a first time actor: he's great here. I'm not even talking about the mimicry - I'm not very familiar with Joy Division and until I searched youtube fifteen minutes ago, I'd never seen Ian Curtis dance - but simply about the intensity of his portrayal, the openness, too. The tragedy of Curtis' life is that it really wasn't all that tragic, but he couldn't take it, and Riley shows us the little boy he really still was. When he was my age, he was already married, with a kid, a band to lead and a lover. All of this happened more or less impulsively. Then, when he was one year older, he had one fatal impulse.

I only have one gripe, really, and it's not even the predictable rise-and-fall structure inherent in biopics. There is one scene where Ian Curtis is -more or less- hypnotized, and Corbijn unfortunately resorts to the old method of repeating phrases he heard before in voice-over. It's such an unfortunate trick, and the scene would have been much more effective had we been able to fill in his thoughts ourselves: we've heard what's been said to him, it's even been filtered for us since this is a film, and we really don't need to be told explicitly what's in his head.

Ok. I'm off to download Joy Division songs now.

10.28.2007

Notorious

It's interesting to watch Notorious, as I did, the day after Casablanca. The first things you notice are rather superficial: how much Claude Rains aged in the three years in between, for instance - though looking at his birth date, the surprising thing really is how he managed to look so young before. But there are more telling differences.

Most of all, Ingrid Bergman is, I'll admit it, a more interesting character here. In Casablanca, she's an ideal being: a beautiful, smart, noble woman who has to make a very difficult choice between two worthwhile men. Her doubts are played out wonderfully, and you can imagine you inspire the passion of both men, but outside of the context of Casablanca, she wouldn't be very narratively interesting. Her Alicia in Notorious, on the other hand, is amazing: self-destructive, smart, full of abandon and desperate to find someone she can love and who can love her back. Witness the scene in which she tries to make a chicken dinner: it's a total failure, but she can laugh about it, and who wouldn't rather have that than a perfectly prepared dinner with a bore? It's amazingly bold for that time, too: it's obvious that not only does she drink too much, but she sleeps around, too.

All of which makes it so unpalatable that by the end of it, to be redeemed by reducing her to a powerless damsel in distress who has to be rescued by a man who's consistently humiliated her throughout. Oh, I'll admit, I got stomach pangs watching that last scene, because Grant and Bergman do have amazing chemistry, but I cannot see a single reason for her loving him so much aside from her own self-loathing. He's pristine, he's a patriotic good guy who would never admit to a mistake, and well, no match for Bogie's Rick, in my opinion.

Is it bad that I found myself sympathizing with Rains? Really, there is so little attention paid to the nefarious nazi plot (a phrase I used before, but I like alliteration, so hey) that it's hard to not see Rains simply as a poor sap fooled by a beautiful woman who betrays him. True to Hitchcock fashion, he's a mamma's boy, but he defies his - very scary - mother to marry Alicia, and what does he get for it?

Oh well. I did love the movie, despite my ranting. It's Hitchcock doing what he does best. And if you're interested in more Hitchcock, Joe Valdez has devoted the whole month of October to his films, so go check it out.

10.25.2007

Top 50 - #1 - Casablanca

Well, I really can't put it off any more, not after watching this wonderful, wonderful film for what was probably the 6th or 7th time yesterday. See, there was a house dinner. And one of my house mates has a Casablanca poster in his room, but had never seen the film. I'd been pestering him to watch it for a long time, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. "But it's black and white!" he protested. "I'll fall asleep!".

I bristled. So did another one of my house mates -one who had been mildly OK with watching the film - but not for the same reason. "Wait, it's BLACK AND WHITE? No, no way, it'll be boring." Luckily, I can be pretty persuasive, and I managed to coerce them into watching 30 minutes of the film. If they found it too boring then, the deal was, we'd switch it off and pick a color film to watch. Needless to say, we watched until the moment Louis and Rick walk off in the fog.

I know, lists of this kind, those made by the more discerning film buffs at least, are usually dominated by another black and white film, one that doesn't even appear on the list: I am talking, of course, of Citizen Kane. Thing is, while I greatly admire Citizen Kane, while I can see why it is revered and still innovative after all these years, I can't muster up any love for it. It's just too cold and analytic an exercise, with no room for real emotion, for any lovely flaws.

Casablanca does have flaws. When Ilsa says "was that cannon fire, or is that my heart pounding?" it's corny, too corny in this instance, and "The Germans wore gray. You were blue" is also stretching it a little, but the film's willing corniness works, it wins you over. And I mean, who can remember any quotes from Citizen Kane besides "Rosebud"? Contrast this with this film, which gave us "Here's looking at you, kid", "Play it once, Sam, for old times sake" "If she can stand it I can! Play it!", "I stick my neck out for nobody", "We'll always have Paris", "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!" "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship", "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine" and so many more.

Ah, but you say, Citizen Kane is all about cinematography! To which I reply, Citizen Kane is all about showing off. Yes, the camera in Casablanca moved in much more conventional ways, but it is above all effective. Take the shot which introduces us to Rick: first the check, the hand signing it "OK Rick", then taking the cigarette and in one smooth movement showing us the face of our hero.

Ah, Rick. Yes, Ingrid Bergman is glowing here, more beautiful than ever, but to me this movie belongs to Bogart. His Rick is so wounded, but he doesn't want to be pitied, doesn't want to be weak, and it's through his bitterness that it shows. The way he delivers lines like "Or aren't you the one that tells", with a sneer: it's mean, it's lashing out, but it's also profoundly touching, more so than any doe-eyes could ever have been. He doesn't "emote" in the way male actors sometimes try now, but his emotions are obvious.

Well, I don't pretend to be able to add something to all that has already been said about this film, let alone something insightful. I just love this film. And I don't think I can share that any better than by leaving you with some more wonderful exchanges:

Captain Renault: Carl, see that Major Strasser gets a good table, one close to the ladies.
Carl: I have already given him the best, knowing he is German and would take it anyway.

___________

Captain Renault: Rick, there are many exit visas sold in this café, but we know that you've never sold one. That is the reason we permit you to remain open.
Rick: Oh? I thought it was because I let you win at roulette.
Captain Renault: That is another reason.

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Ilsa: Don't, Rick! I can understand how you feel.
Rick: [scoffs] You understand how I feel. How long was it we had, honey?
Ilsa: [on the verge of tears] I didn't count the days.
Rick: Well, I did. Every one of 'em. Mostly I remember the last one. The wild finish. A guy standing on a station platform in the rain with a comical look in his face because his insides have been kicked out.

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Major Strasser: You give him credit for too much cleverness. My impression was that he's just another blundering American.
Captain Renault: We musn't underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918.

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Rick: And remember, this gun is pointed right at your heart.
Captain Renault: That is my least vulnerable spot.

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Major Strasser: Are you one of those people who cannot imagine the Germans in their beloved Paris?
Rick: It's not particularly my beloved Paris.
Heinz: Can you imagine us in London?
Rick: When you get there, ask me!
Captain Renault: Hmmh! Diplomatist!
Major Strasser: How about New York?
Rick: Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade.

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Captain Renault: What in heaven's name brought you to Casablanca?
Rick: My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.
Captain Renault: The waters? What waters? We're in the desert.
Rick: I was misinformed.

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Major Strasser: What is your nationality?
Rick: I'm a drunkard.
Captain Renault: That makes Rick a citizen of the world.

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