Hotel Chevalier

I'm never quite sure what to think about Wes Anderson. Oh, he's brilliant, especially visually, there's no debating that; unfortunately, he knows it a little too well. Still, when iTunes was being infuriatingly local last night and I was unable to download Hotel Chevalier due to being outside the US, it ruined my evening.

I managed to get a version. Low quality, and I believe the beginning has been chopped off (please tell me, my version starts with Jason Schwartzman opening the door of his room), but I was very happy with it nonetheless.

It's a strange little movie. It's unmistakably Anderson, from the way it's shot to the small details in the set decoration, and even in the way the two characters talk. It never quite takes off, but I was left wanting more, and that can't be a bad sign, can it? Unusually enough for Anderson, it doesn't feel like the characters' whole world is contained on screen, like all they ever were and will be is here, it feels like they are fully realized characters with interesting stories beyond the screen. They breathe. And that's a welcome change.

I'm looking forward to The Darjeeling Limited. The three brothers setup makes me hope it will be more Royal Tenenbaums than Life Aquatic. And to keep me entertained in the meantime, I just ordered Bottle Rocket, which I found clumsily charming the first time around.

Top 50 - #4 - Donnie Darko

This is a movie I really can't be objective about. Oh, of course, we can never judge a movie truly objectively - it's about taste, after all. All kinds of things factor in: what mood you were in when you watched the film, which films you'd seen before, your own life, even. Still, I'm usually able to take a step back and see a movie for what it is, even often understand why people would have a different opinion of it.

Not Donnie Darko though. You have to understand: this was my absolute favorite movie from ages 17 to 19. I must've forced more than a dozen people to watch it with me, and I don't think there's any movie I've seen more often. It's almost as if this movie's in my veins, even now that I'm no longer a true believer or fanatic. And I have absolutely no idea what I would think if I was able to watch it today for the first time.

I can't quite put my finger on what made this movie so perfect for me at that time. Part of it is definitely that Jake Gyllenhaal plays the ultimate misunderstood teen, both aloof, feeling infinitely more intelligent and interesting than his peers and at the same time much more vulnerable and sensitive than he wants to be, or will admit to being. Another big part is that - in the original version at least - this is a film that dares to trust its audience, to not explain too much, and at the time this made me feel majorly intelligent myself, of course.

I still think the movie stands up: there's a lot of first-timer show-offy camera moves, but they work, the tracking shot through the school especially. The dialogue is great. The plot is still fascinating after twenty times. And since I've managed to avoid listening to the director's commentary, the movie is for me still very much open to interpretation, and wonderfully ambiguous.

If I sound a little defensive, it's because I no longer think my adoration of this movie is justified. I do still think it's a movie that will stand the test of time, and will be loved by many troubled teens to come, and it's certainly not just for nostalgia's sake that it ranks this high.

Gretchen: My mom had to get a restraining order against my stepdad. He has emotional problems.
Donnie: Oh, I have those too! What kind of emotional problems does your dad have?

and let's not forget:

Gretchen: You're weird.
Donnie: Sorry.
Gretchen: No, that was a compliment.

Next up: a black and white movie from this decade about "the modern man", with bonus aliens and blackmail.


Quick thoughts - Shrek the Third

The Shrek sequels are surprisingly inoffensive. Yes, they lack the freshness of the original, but whereas with the bloated, convoluted Pirates sequels this bothered me to no end, the Shrek movies keep it simple and short, without any more ambition than entertaining, and in that ambition they succeed, despite a falling lpm ratio. The Shrek-based humor is quite repetitive at this point in particular, but there are lovely little visual jokes - the trees using their branches as a parachute, for instance. Also, the celebrity voices are well-cast, I especially liked that after already using John Cleese in the second movie, they now also added fellow Monty Python alum Eric Idle as a somewhat loony Merlin. The subplot about villains taking back their stories could have been more interesting and fleshed out, but it feels petty to complain about a movie that knows to stay simple, short, and light.

Of course I prefer originality, daring, and so on. But for an evening like yesterday, when I was spending the evening with a friend I hadn't spent time with in a while, there could not have been a more appropriate movie.


Top 50 - #5 - Jules et Jim

Whenever I hear someone extolling the greatness of Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulian, aka. Amelie, I feel like just sitting them down in front of my TV and pushing Jules et Jim into the DVD-player. Jeunet doesn't deny his influence, of course - Amelie is seen watching a scene from Jules et Jim at one point, and he does use some of the elements, including a voice-over eerily similar in tone, to great effect. He's even able to add some things, most notably in his use of color. Ultimately though, there is one thing that makes Jules et Jim many times more fascinating that Amelie, and by far the greater film, and that is Catherine.

I don't think any woman like her has ever been put on screen: willful, strong, yet ever changing and impossible to get a grasp on. She is truly - as much as that expression is a cliche - a force of life: someone whose passion is for living and for living grandly, wildly, freely. She can stand in for every woman, but at the same time I don't know anyone even remotely like her.

Nobody could have played her as well as Jeanne Moreau, of course. She's infuriating, but you can understand why Jules and Jim can't let her go, why she exerts a fascination on them even before they meet, and why they go along with her plans, her desires. Why they try so hard to make her happy, even knowing that it's an impossible task. Why they strive to understand this strange woman, who jumps into the Seine out of protest, dresses up as a man at will, and laughs that wonderful, triumphant, and slightly intimidating laugh.

The tragedy, of course, is that just like Jules and Jim can never be free of Catherine, she can never be free, because she can never be satisfied. She simply wants too much: the home life with Jules, the love life with Jim, the sex life with Albert, even, and independence despite all this. Yet she never, ever stops trying, and even at the end, where it could be said she gives up, you can also see it as her trying out a whole new form of freedom.

There's more to the film, of course. It's gorgeous to look at, the music is amazing, and the tempo, the pace, is unlike any other film I know. It's a tragic film, in a way, but it never makes me said, just melancholic, wistful and feeling like throwing my life upside down. Feeling like simply living more.


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

This film's not quite the masterpiece it wants to be, but I liked it, liked it a lot even. It's a western without many of the standard elements: no shoot-outs, here, no chases on horses, no cowboy hats, even, just bowlers. It's almost as much a period drama as a western, in fact. It's a movie I'd sooner recommend to my mother than to my little brother, which you don't expect from a western.

I usually hate movies that are so self-serious and solemn, but I found myself entranced by this one, its slow pace and elegiac tone, maybe because it's content not to give any straight answers. We spend a lot of time with Jesse James and Bob Ford, we get the feeling that we know them, but their precise motivation remains opaque. There are a lot of themes here, from hero worship to celebrity culture, but luckily Dominik doesn't try to convey any specific message, and the assassination of the title is left wonderfully ambigious. Some of the symbolism is heavy handed (Jesse playing with and then killing the two snakes comes to mind), but while this bothered me to no end in The Brave One, here it seemed to fit.

I know a lot of people dismiss Brad Pitt, and he does tend to pick lighter, easier roles he can just coast through on charisma, but he's perfect as Jesse James. Sure, he falls back on his familiar ticks, opening his mouth and showing his tongue, squinting, but who cares when it works? His Jesse is fascinating and charismatic, but you never forget that he is also dangerous and unpredictable.

And then, Casey Affleck. I agree his is the knock-out performance here, keeping his Robert Ford exactly on the fine line between repulsive, sympathetic, and pathetic. He gives you the willies, as another character says at some point, but at the same time you want to put your arms around his protectively and yell out "he's just a kid!". Affleck is 32, but he is totally believable as a gawky 19 year old still finding himself (and imdb tells me he studied physics, which raises him a few points more in my esteem). I could go on about the supporting cast too, but I'll just point out that Garett Dillahunt from Deadwood and John from Cincinnati is great as well.

Why not a masterpiece, then? Well, it's a pacing thing, I think. The coda feels too short, and other parts feel a little uneven. I think the elliptic storytelling works, but it just doesn't feel quite right. I also think the narration had some problems: I had a hard time getting used to it, and it is sometimes a little too explicit about what the characters are feeling. I'm not against it, and I believe the sectioning of the story into "chapters" by the narration was a good idea, but it feels like it could have used a little more tweaking.

I know, this film has been tweaked with forever already, but just like in poetry you need the exact right word in the exact right place, a film can only be a masterpiece if every cut or shot feels like it couldn't possibly have been any different, and this film still feels too fluid for that, too wavering. Too many threads are left dangling.

I do think it's a timeless movie, in the sense that it feels detached from any time and place, feels like it's on some different place, and I can imagine returning to it in ten years, in twenty, if only for some gorgeous images - like Jesse waiting for a train and disappearing in the fog - and the absolutely beautiful Nick Cave soundtrack.


Buñuel blog-a-thon: Belle de Jour

And now, for my contribution to Flickhead's Buñuel-a-thon:

The title "Belle de Jour" is a strange one, and can be interpreted in many ways. The official explanation is that a "belle de jour" is a day lily, a flower that blooms only during the day, but I always associate "Belle de jour" almost automatically with its complement, 'Laide de Nuit'. The title can be translated as "beauty of the day", but also as "beautiful by day", and thus maybe implicitly ugly by night?

The interesting thing is that Séverine is a prostitute during the day, a well-mannered (though apparently frigid) BCBG woman during the night. According to the rules of society, the former is ugly, the latter "beautiful", but if you interpret the name as I do, could it not be the opposite? Might it be that Buñuel is trying to say that's it's not her work in the brothel that's wrong, her masochistic desires, but just her repression of those desires, her lies and pretense?

Buñuel invites us to be a voyeur in this film, to watch the pristine Catherine Deneuve get defiled, and we enjoy it. Are even aroused by it to some extent. The brilliance of the film, in my opinion, is that he never tells us how to feel, not just about Séverine, but also about our own feelings. I like to think that he's on her side, that all he blames her for is her shame, but it's equally possible to look at the film as a cautionary tale about what happens when you don't restrain yourself.

I think the first interpretation is more plausible, though. See, he does stack the deck a little. Just watch the look on her face. It's almost impossible not to envy her in that moment.

Nobody knew how to give the finger to the repressed bourgeoisie quite like Buñuel. And even 40 years later, few films have dared to be this sexy and provocative.

For a more straight-up review, I've recently written one here. In Dutch, alas. So only for the privileged few ;-)


They Drive by Night

My 200th post, already, or so blogger tells me. Not taking this month into account, I'm kinda glad with the posting rhythm I have now, and the tone. Now, on to business.

They Drive by Night
really has no right to work as well as it does. It's a weird genre-blend, part social commentary/underdog story, part noir. The plot meanders: first it's about these truckers and their hard life, then it's about how they plan to make it, then about the danger of the road, then all of a sudden it's a noir with a murder and an attempted frame-up. A pre-High Sierra Bogie is one of the two main characters in the first half, then more or less ignored, or at least neglected, afterwards.

Still, it works surprisingly well together. Part of it is because the characters are consistent through the tonal shifts. For instance, Ann Sheridan's Cassie might give in at some point, and go from hard-to-get to loving and trusting fiancee, but she never becomes so soft that we don't recognize her. Part of it is also simply that the dialogue is so good, sharp and witty, and it rolls off everybody's tongue. The cast, including supporting players, is also good, and look for our old pal Shapely in the small role of Irish.

A classic this is not, by any stretch. But just as it's possible to enjoy an unremarkable, yet well-made and entertaining film made today, it's possible to enjoy a film like that made 67 years ago.

William Wyler blog-a-thon: The Best Years of Our Lives

My contribution to goatdog's William Wyler blog-a-thon. Enjoy!

Three men return from war, each wounded in similar but separate ways, both physical and mental, visible and not-so much. They try to fit back in.

It doesn't really sound like enough story to fill 3 hours, does it? But quietly, unassumingly, these three hours pass, and when it's over you look at your watch, surprised at how much time has passed while you were in this world.

I have a hard time expressing what makes this film so fascinating, I don't quite know how to describe its appeal in a way that will prompt everyone who hasn't seen it go see it, now, as they should.

Dana Andrews is the young hotshot who comes back to find that the girl he married just before leaving doesn't really like him so much out of his uniform. Frederic March does get to come back to a loving family, a faithful wife, a son, and a no-nonsense, pretty daughter who very much appeals to Andrews. But he can't stand the job he returns to at the bank, having to deny loans to people who fought alongside him, and falls back on the bottle too often. Finally, Harold Russell, himself a war invalid, plays Homer, a sweet young man who comes out without his hands without even really having participated in battle. There is a sweet girl waiting for him at home, but he can't deal with his family's reaction to his handicap, and can't accept the love and care his fiancee is willing to give him.

What I admire most of all, I think, is that the film - while admittedly being somewhat schmaltzy at times - doesn't resolve all these threads tidily. The ending is uplifting, but there are many problems still remaining, and the film acknowledges that none of these people will lead an easy life. Some resolution is possible, but the problems will never entirely disappear. Something that I suspect has never changed and is still relevant for returning soldiers.

And, of course, this being a studio film from the 40's directed by Wyler and photographed by Gregg Toland, it looks absolutely gorgeous and gets all the details right. The performances are also top-notch, especially also from Russell, who was not a professional actor but rightfully got an Oscar for this part.

It's not a flashy movie, it doesn't have any easy hooks, but it's a thoroughly honest and involving movie. Wyler maybe wasn't an "auteur" in the strictest sense of the word. But he was, as can be seen here, amazing at getting the best out of all his collaborators, putting everything together, and crafting a great film out of it.