short film reviews, criticism, and occasional musing.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Notorious Bettie Page (2005, USA)

Who could have guessed that a movie about one of America's most famous pin-up queens, made by the women responsible for American Psycho and I Shot Andy Warhol, would be so dull? While Gretchen Mol is lovely, and quite sweet, as Page, the character has virtually no psychology to speak of, leaving the audience to follow a series of carefully-constructed set pieces that have little life of their own. Everything looks great, especially Mol, but nothing means anything at all - even a gang rape near the beginning of the film, and Page's lifelong relationship with Christianity don't serve to give her any depth as a character. The E! True Hollywood Story from 1998 actually contains more information about Page's biography than the film version does, perhaps in part because the producers may have cared less about respecting the privacy of the now-reclusive icon.


Having finally seen the bitch-slapping, bear-suit-wearing, honeybee of a good time that is the Wicker Man highlight reel, I started wondering . . . how could Ghost Rider POSSIBLY be ANY worse? Then I remembered the release date - February 16.

I love February. Not only do I inch closer to 30, but look at what the studios are blessing us with this time around!

Hannibal Rising!


Factory Girl! (Unless Bob Dylan's lawyers can block it - and I'm guessing he's got some pretty good lawyers. From what I've heard, we'll all owe Dylan big on this one.)

Music and Lyrics!

Because I Said So!

And let's not forget about Joel Schumacher! The Number 23! (Naturally, to capture that all-important synergy, this will be released on February 23. Because Crazy Dramatic Jim Carrey isn't going to get them into the theater seats all on his own, you know. The sad thing is, Danny Houston's in this one, so I'll totally end up seeing it. There goes what little cred I had left.)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Illusionist (2006, USA)

I came away from The Illusionist feeling pretty much the same way about the film as I do about its female lead – pretty to look at, but there doesn’t seem to be much going on under the surface. On the latter part, it’s not for lack of trying – the filmmakers attempted to imbue their movie with a political subtext that never quite gelled, and with a ghost story that goes nowhere at all. Complicating these issues is the fact that the movie’s “twist” is entirely transparent, so much so that the second half of the film feels more like a waiting game than an investigation of turn-of-the-century European politics and social mores. However, The Illusionist does give Paul Giamatti something fun to do with his facial hair, and it’s good to see Rufus Sewell not slumming it for a change. Norton is less out-of-place in a costume drama than I’d expected him to be, though, on the same note (and as I hinted above), I think it’s no mistake that Jessica Biel’s character essentially disappears from the movie about halfway through.

Beauty and the Beast (1946, French)

Visually, Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast is stunning – the sequences in the Beast’s castle are incredible, as disembodied hands present candelabras, mute heads observe from the fireplace, and physical transformations occur at the threshold of every room. The costumes are beautiful, and the make-up that creates the Beast’s catlike face is impressive even by contemporary standards – he never looks like a puppet, or a man in a mask.

However (spoiler alert!), I can’t help but quibble with the ending – everything is wrapped up in such an oddly abrupt manner, with the hero and the villain essentially trading places in the blink of an eye. Belle’s reaction to the transformation is similarly odd, rendering her character shallow and calling into question her actions in the rest of the film. Of course, a fairy tale needs a magically happy ending, but this one is bewildering, almost as if Cocteau is sending up the genre itself.

Talk to Her (2002, Spanish)

Volver put me on something of an Almodóvar kick, and Talk to Her is perhaps the most problematic of his films I’ve seen recently. I’d heard critics accuse it of being misogynistic, perhaps more so than his other movies, and considering that this claim was made about the man who directed Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! . . . it’s a pretty serious charge.

At first, I was troubled by Almodóvar’s presentation of female bodies, inert as they lie in irreversible comas, dressed in male drag as matadors, or carried limply around a stage as parts of dance performances. But even more difficult is the narrative romanticism – how is the audience supposed to accept the character of Benigno, a man in love with Alicia, a girl in a coma, and who he was essentially stalking before the accident that placed him in her care? What are we supposed to think about his supposed physical violation of her (if, indeed, it even happened), which he sees as a natural expression of their love? Almodóvar presents Benigno as a harmless naïf, and steers just clear of presenting the narrative through his eyes. Perhaps things would have been simpler if the director had dispensed with the centrality of Benigno’s friend, Marco, and more fully explored Benigno’s obsession with his lifeless girlfriend. As is, there is so much ambiguity surrounding Benigno’s emotions for this girl – he seems to want only what’s best for her, but he is also so entirely convinced that she is a conscious, reactive partner that his gentle delusion is almost creepier than had he been an obvious pervert.

Perhaps the comparison to Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is more apt than I’d first thought. Both films concern men who invent peculiar ideals for their lovers, and convince themselves that these women share their feelings. Talk to Her may be a somewhat more sober, mature exploration of this particular kind of obsessive love, but I think I prefer Tie Me Up! In the end, its lightness (along with the power of the female lead) renders the subject matter somewhat less disturbing.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Bad Education (2004, Spanish)

First off – an Almodóvar film without any (biological) women? Bad Education is like the inverse of Volver (or vice-versa), at least in casting. Thematically, Education is nearly as concerned with femininity as it is with masculinity.

Starring Gael Garcia Bernal as . . . well, that’s complicated, so let’s just say that he and Fele Martinez anchor the movie, and that Bernal makes a surprisingly pretty girl. The two characters, school friends (and more) from childhood, reconnect in their twenties – Martinez plays a successful film director (at least on the surface, a stand-in for Almodóvar) and Bernal a struggling actor with a talent for writing. What he writes is a story of their past together, intertwined with a parallel present. There are a lot of shifts in Education – time, gender, sexuality, power, reality – and it may in fact be Almodóvar’s most deftly put-together film to date. While the ending felt a bit abrupt, and Martinez’s character often seems disconcertingly above the action, the film as a whole is a powerful examination of the fluidity of identity, and how those things that we think define us incontrovertibly are often less stable than the selves our force of will can create.

Of course, as with everything Almodóvar directs, Education is gorgeously shot. The use of color and music actually reminded me of nothing so much as Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven, and I think the two make interesting companion pieces, despite the vast difference in construction. Both simultaneously revere and deconstruct the melodrama formula, using the genre to encode subversive texts in the realm of the familiar and in doing so, forcing a reappraisal of both text and convention.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Night Watch (2005, Russian)

For a movie that makes little sense and is quite often totally off-the-wall, Night Watch is pretty much exactly what I would have come up with had someone asked me, “Hey, imagine what a contemporary Russian vampire movie might be like!” Hyper-stylized to a fault and a lot of fun to watch, there’s really no there there, but who cares? The story concerns the ultimate battle between light forces and dark, centered around two seemingly unrelated events and one very, very tired-looking warrior for the light. The mythology behind all this leaves more questions posed than it provides answers for (perhaps the two inevitable sequels will get there), but the special effects are well-done, and the whole thing has an air of cheeky flair that’s nearly impossible not to like. A bit bewildering, sure, but when was the last time you saw a Russian vampire movie that wasn’t?

Note: Apparently this was Russia’s official entry for the 2005 Academy Awards Foreign Language Film selection. I find this both hilarious and awesome, especially since that year's winner was The Sea Inside.

Another note: Is it too much to ask that there be some kind of standard for subtitle and language selection on foreign-language DVDs? I first tried to watch this movie about six months ago, and could for the life of me not figure out how to select the Russian language feature with English subtitles. It took me a good 20 minutes to figure it out this time. Then there are those films (like my copy of The Crimson Rivers) that automatically start the dubbed track up whenever the movie is stopped. And don’t get me started on the wackiness of language selection on Bollywood DVDs. I guess that with Hollywood blocking American access to so many quality foreign films, I should just be glad I can get my hands on these movies in the first place. Still, it bugs.

Children of Men (2006, UK)

The conceit behind in Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men (adapted from the novel by P.D. James) is so incredibly simple that it belies the complexity what happens onscreen. It is this vision of an intricately detailed future, so close to our daily reality, that is the real triumph of Cuaron's film. I found the visuals more affecting than the story of a washed-up revolutionary (a very solid Clive Owen) charged with ferrying the last fertile woman on earth beyond the reach of a totalitarian and despairing Britain. The world of Children of Men is just realistic enough to be truly chilling, and in focusing the fear of the future on an incredibly simple problem – the inability of mankind to procreate – the story does away with overblown conceptualizations. The problem is as simple as it is horrifying.

Perhaps the best visual marker, and the image that has remained in my head, is a long shot of Michelangelo's David, seemingly utterly perfect, whole and out of reach of the human devastation has overtaken London. Seemingly perfect, that is, until the viewer sees that the statue's left thigh has been blown away, and is now held together with a single metal rod. Not only is there no one left capable of repairing the masterpiece - what would be the point in fixing it?

Some plot details may be obvious - betrayal, the mortality of key characters - but in the service of such a richly imagined future, the results are more classic than mundane. Both a messiah parable and companion piece to classics such as Brave New World, Children proves Cuaron's talent in a more substantial way than Y tu mama tambien, or his entertaining installment of the Harry Potter franchise.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995, Indian)

In Yash Chopra’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, the romance between Raj (Shahrukh Khan) and Simran (Kajol) is framed by the typical Indian battle of tradition against contemporary society – contemporanity, in this case, that is defined almost exclusively by foreignness. After twenty years in London, Simran’s father still calls the Punjab home, and when his daughter falls for desi Raj during a month-long trip through Europe, he immediately packs up his family and heads “home” intending to marry Simran off to a proper Indian boy, hoping to stop the encroachment of the West by physically relocating to the East.

While the story and performances are both fairly strong, with Raj and Simran’s Swiss adventures in the first third of the filman entertaining highlight, the real meat of the film is the tension that plays out in the love story once the action arrives in India. It is fascinating to watch Khan, the ultimate Bollywood heartthrob, attempt to convince Simran’s father that he is Indian enough to marry his daughter.

It’s also interesting to compare DDLJ to a more recent Khan romance, Kal Ho Naa Ho, to see how much foreign-set Bollywood films have changed over a few short years. The entirety of the latter film is set on foreign soil (in this case, New York City), and the characters are as comfortable conversing in English as in their “native” Indian languages. Both the women and men dress primarily in Western fashions, and the heroine is as focused on career matters as she is on family and romance. In less than a decade, these seemingly surface affects demonstrate a deeper blend of cultures that has become naturalized in members of younger Indian generations.

Funny Ha Ha (2002, USA)

Encouraged by a bout of good press during 2005’s year-end critical roundup, I finally got around to Andrew Bujalski’s directorial debut, Funny Ha Ha. I came away a bit unsure about all the fuss – yes, the film is extremely realistic, generously depicting a certain kind of shiftless post-college lifestyle that rarely rings true on film. But was that really what attracted so many critics? I did a little searching, and found this at the tail end of Scott Foundas’ review for the L.A. Weekly (“Vague Young Things,” June 2, 2005) –

Bujalski takes a sledgehammer to the carefully ordered surfaces and dramatic conventions of narrative cinema, favoring instead an unpredictability in which the crosscurrents of quotidian life collide on the screen in a series of brilliantly alive patterns. This isn’t improvisation, but rather an adroitly achieved randomness — the perfect syntax for a generation-defining work about a generation marked by its very lack of definition.

What? Had it been a while since Foundas had seen a halfway-decent student film? Perhaps I wasn’t paying close enough attention, but the “adroitly achieved randomness” seemed to be not much more than a relatively talented newcomer deciding to dispense with plot and focus on character and tone. As for “generation-defining” . . . while Bujalski is obviously intimate with the life he depicts – full of listless temp workers, twentysomethings behaving as if they’re still undergraduates, romantic mixed messages – I fail to see how he makes this combination greater than the sum of its parts.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Descent (2005, UK)

The Descent is essentially The Cave with girls. But, unlike The Cave, it’s genuinely creepy and actually worth ninety minutes of your life. Six friends, one of whom is still reeling from a horrific car crash that claimed her husband and young daughter, go caving in the middle of nowhere, only to discover that all sorts of nasty things hide underground. It’s not particularly genre-busting or psychologically deep, but it’s a monster movie done well – one that recognizes that the scariest kinds of monsters aren’t necessarily those that prey on human flesh.

The Black Dahlia (2006, USA)

Whose brilliant idea was it to let Josh Hartnett anchor a movie? Altogether dull, overwrought, and generally pointless, Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia suffers most from glacial pacing and an awful script, but it doesn’t help that its “hero” is played so flat that the extravagant period sets often upstage him. Unfortunately, Hartnett is not the only problem in the cast. As Hartnett’s partner and best friend, Aaron Eckhart, so fantastically smarmy and enthusiastic in Thank You For Smoking, is given absolutely nothing to do but freak out for no apparent reason. Hilary Swank’s entire character (and let’s not get into that bizarre accent) makes no sense whatsoever, and while Scarlett Johansson pouts quite well, and certainly looks lovely in 1940’s garb, both actresses seem far too modern for this particular period piece. Swap out Jennifer Connolly for Swank (which would also make the physical comparison between Swank’s character and the Dahlia, played in film stock by Mia Kirshner, much more believable), get rid of Johansson altogether, and let Eckhart play Hartnett’s role, and maybe there would be something here. As it stands, I still say that Sisters and The Untouchables are the only decent films that De Palma has ever made (and yes, that includes Scarface).

Volver (2006, Spanish)

My personal dislike of Penelope Cruz may be a peculiar one – I find her public persona dull, and I can’t stand her in any role that requires her to speak English, but I have to admit that in her native language, she is often an amazing actress. I first saw her in Belle epoque (in which she played the youngest and sweetest of four sisters who take turns romancing a deserting soldier), and thought she was extremely good in Todo sobre mi madre and charming in Abre los ojos (and the less said about Abre’s misbegotten remake, Vanilla Sky, the better). Back again with Almodovar in Volver, Cruz is gorgeous – her character, Raimunda, is radiantly trashy – and she carries the movie without a hitch, despite the presence of strong costars Lola Dueñas, Blanca Portillo, and Carmen Maura.

Indeed, there might only be two or three men with any lines at all in Volver – it’s all about the ladies here, the ladies of Raimunda’s family, her Madrid neighborhood, and village home. They comprise a unique and startlingly strong community, and as the plot of Volver meanders along without much of a sense of urgency, the passion of the women onscreen is allowed to come out, full-force. While not as emotionally evocative as Todo sobre mi madre, Volver is charming and generally a delight to watch, and Cruz seems to enjoy every moment of being at the center of the action. All I can do now is hope that Almodovar will keep her out of Hollywood for a little while longer.