Friday, December 31, 2010

Black Swan

I waited to blog about Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan after discovering that there were a couple of other ballet themed films that I had not yet seen and wanted to be well versed before tackling this project. Having a personal interest in ballet and more then casual acquaintance with that world, it seemed that any attempt at criticism should come from a place that is well versed on the cinematic history of ballet in cinema.

But on further reflection, there is no reason to look to dance cinema before a discussion of Black Swan. Despite it being about a young dancer, Nina (Natalie Portman) getting the lead role in Swan Lake. Her attention to perfection and reticent character makes her an obvious choice for dancing the White Swan, but the lead in Swan Lake must also perform her seductive twin, the Black Swan, which is an uphill battle for the virginal Nina. Knowing that Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis trained with the New York City Ballet for a year in preparation for this part, one would expect there to be more on screen ballet. What draws me to dance films is the promise of on screen dance, so in this regard Black Swan was a disappointment.

Instead of a dance movie, Black Swan is a character study of a woman's descent into madness. This is a film with more parallels with Polanski's Repulsion then Altman's The Company. But the stress placed on female dancers do provide a uniquely plausible situation for psychological horror. To this day, ballet remains an art form where women are asked to conform to completely unrealistic cultural beauty standards. In order to succeed in that world, young girls must have a perfect body-type appearing long and lean without being tall enough to tower over male dancers while on point. They have to be very thin, much thinner then possible if eating regular meals despite dancing 8 or more hours a day. Due to the intense competitiveness between female dancers, dancers dance injured trying never to reveal the pain they are experiencing. Actually, pain is part of the world of ballet, in that dancers develop a very high tolerance to physical discomfort, because dancing ballet hurts, even when uninjured. However, the rewards for success are financially small, but culturally great. A young ballerina is the embodiment of mythical perfection for women. This is likely why all little girls seem to dream of becoming a ballerina or at least wearing pink tulle.

And this is where Black Swan really works as psychological horror. Like many girls in the ballet, Nina is being pushed into this world by a mother (Barbara Hershey) who did not rise above chore dancer during her career and hopes that her daughter will be the prima ballerina that she was not. And so Nina is sheltered by her mother, keeping her a child and Nina's only outlet for self expression and independence is her work at the company, where she strives for rigorous perfection and achieves a high standard of discipline and determination. But evident on Nina's face is the real driving force behind her fight for perfection. Instead of dancing for the sake of art, or for herself, she starves and rehearses through the nights out of sheer terror of failure. And this terror is worn on Natalie Portman's face during nearly every frame of Black Swan.

And Nina's terror is only enhanced as she gets closer to achieving her goal to dance the lead in Swan Lake. A new arrival at the company, Lily (Mila Kunis) becomes the personification of Nina's fears as she struggles to learn the more challenging role of the the evil side of the swan queen. Lily gives the impression of the natural dancer who doesn't have to fight to achieve perfection and her ease gives her a charisma that Nina lacks and also a sensuality that Nina both drawn to and frightened of. So Nina and Lily become both friends and at least in Nina's mind, desperate rivals.

So much of the plot of this film and Nina's descent toward madness is plausible and acts as an allegory of womanhood, but Nina's reticence keeps it from being authentic. Nina is never a joy to watch move and this kept me from believing that she was able to achieve the heights of a lead dancer. But the portrayal of her waking nightmares were always authentic and well staged. Black Swan opens with a dream sequence and can be presented as a segmentation of Nina's hallucinations. And the portions of the film that exist in Nina's mind are terrifying and didn't come across as predictable and has some nice horror movie jolts. This is where Black Swan succeeds along with Natalie Portman's depiction of this frail ballerina, who is disintegrating or rather being eaten alive by her need for perfection, both psychologically and physically, depicted by Portman's shockingly, frail tiny body which shrinks over time.

But Black Swan wasn't entirely successful as a ballet film, even a ballet horror film as it left me longing to watch real dancers move and for more time with Mila Kunis's free-spirited depiction of a young dancer. I see what Aronofsky was attempting to portray with Black Swan, a kind of feminine version of The Wrestler, but it doesn't quite achieve the greatness that it strives for.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Araki's New Queer Cinema

People come to the cinema with very different motivations. For some, a movie is pure escapism. Some are looking for intellectual stimulation, or maybe to get caught up in an emotional experience. The reason I keep returning to the theater is to catch brief glimpses of my personal realities on screen. In college, I went to nearly every movie with a gay character or a queer subplot. I was searching desperately for a glimpse of the future I wanted for myself, before I even had a fully formed notion of my adult identity. I only knew that the path that most people take in life was not the road I was traveling. I always knew that I wouldn't be a wife, a home-maker, a mother... And it was through my worshiping at the alter of the cinematograph that I occasionally glimpsed images of alternative lives.

In all of this searching, there is one filmmaker that I feel a strong kinship with, Gregg Araki. I had read of Araki and his cinema long before I had seen or even heard a plot outline for any of his films, as during the 1990s, Gregg Araki was one of a minority of queer figures that did not identify as gay, but as bisexual. There still aren't too many public figures that reject the binary of gay or straight. I had put Araki on a pedestal long before I had seen any of his films.

And then, Doom Generation was released. To be fair, I still have not revisited Doom Generation, the second film of Araki's teen apocalypse trilogy, but I swore that I would never, ever see another Gregg Araki film after and I still don't have much desire to see it again. Pretty strong words considering the movie featured a young and perky Rose McGowan. And I felt more than justified in avoiding Araki at all costs, after reading what others have written about his cinema. I was definitely not alone is strongly disliking an Araki film. In fact, the critical consensus on his films ranged from dismissal to hatred.

But more than a decade later, I was at a screening for an Araki film. It wasn't my first choice and I was filled with dread, but Gregg surprised and delighted me with Mysterious Skin. So much so, that the film immediately joined my favorites and I started to work my way though his previous films and an amazing thing happened, Araki's cinema made sense to me and now quite a few of his movies remain on frequent rotation as guilty pleasures. Once I stopped looking for film art, but movie camp, I started to enjoy Araki more.

With the exception of two films, Mysterious Skin and The Living End, Araki films do not take themselves at all seriously. He populates his films with young, queer, Californians and puts them in highly sexual and downright bizarre situations. Everything about Araki's cinema is reckless, artificial and steeped in 1990s aethetics and sentiment. The dialog is ridiculous and there is no attempt at creating plausibility. Not only aren't the films steep in any recognizable reality, but some of them are downright awful, but despite this, I have grown very fond of Gregg Araki's alternative reality. Unlike his first film, The Living End, Araki's universe has complete sexual liberation. There is no angst due to sexual orientation or attraction. Polyamory causes some short lived drama, but the characters are struggling with a different existential crisis.
Dear Diary, what a day, I swear I've never been do depressed, miserable, and lonely in my entire life. It's like I know there's got to be somebody out there somewhere... just one person in this huge, horrible, unhappy universe who can hold me in their arms and tell me everything is going to be okay. And how long do I have to wait before that person shows up? I feel like I'm sinking deeper and depper into quicksand... watching everyone around me die a slow, agonizing, death. It's like we all know way down in our souls that our generation is going to witness the end of everything. You can see it in our eyes. It's in mine, look. I'm only 18 years-old and I'm totally doomed
While there are plenty of examples of so bad it's good dialog, it is amusing, and laughs of the whole GenX outlook. But there is a wonderful earnestness to the sincerity to Araki's characters. But despite the negative outlooks of the characters who inhabit these movies, none of them are apologetic about their sexualities. I love that in a Gregg Araki film, there is little attempt to define anyone's sexual orientation. Boys have sex with girls. Girls with girls. Boys with Boys. Sometimes all in the same afternoon. And most refreshing, is that no one cares. Araki just allows us to watch these young attractive people have lots of sex on screen in an atmosphere that is more celebratory than the real world.

This hasn't always been the case in Araki's films. The film that launched Araki into the center of the new gay cinema of the 1990s, The Living End, is a allegorical road trip into hell for two HIV+ gay men. The Living End is Araki's last film that has any hint of self loathing. His teen apocalypse trilogy is a celebration of destruction and the reckless sexuality of youth. But the film that fills me with complete delight everytime I watch it is his take on Jules and Jim, Splendor. Many films have referenced Truffaut's tragic manage a trois, but like the original, the films always end badly. In Splendor, Araki's most conventional romantic comedy, Veronica cannot choose between the two men she is dating, sensitive writer Abel and rock drummer, Zed, so she moves in with both of them. This threesome begins well, but over time, Veronica becomes frustrated with the immaturity of both men and leaves them for a director who promises maturity and financial stability for her unborn child. The threat of losing Veronica forces Abel and Zed to win Veronica back and they all live happily ever after.

Yes, Splendor is all camp and melodrama and I completely adore it. Why? Because unlike every other threesome movie, this one ends happily. In Araki's universe, it isn't unthinkable that two men and a woman could happily spend the rest of their lives together. Actually, in an Araki film, it is probably more likely that the characters will find happiness in a non-traditional relationship as every relationship challenges the cultural mainstream.

From Blogger

Monday, December 06, 2010

127 Hours

Everyone knows the story. Aron Ralston was hiking when he is pinned by a falling boulder and cut off his own arm to escape. But how would one make a film about an ordeal that everyone already knows how it ends? This story poses some serious challenges for a feature length film as it is asking an audience to be trapped in a canyon with Ralston as he ponders his predicament, for 5 days, until he finally decides to cut his way free. One could decide to approach it as a horror film, using the viewer's dread and claustrophobia to build to the final gruesome scenes when cutting occurs. It could also explore the territory of so many other man versus nature films, and use Ralston's days of isolation for internal exploration. So it was a bit of a surprise that filmmaker, Danny Boyle, decided to conquer this project as his films are about as far from interspective as it gets and it is hard to imagine him attracted to a project that puts it's sole character beneath a rock for it's duration. Boyle, who never fails to be flamboyantly entertaining, fed my curiosity as to how he would handle Aron Ralson's well publicized story.

127 Hours is a highly watchable film; Boyle takes this ordeal and makes it downright entertaining. He uses plenty of flashy shots, split frames, and rock music keeping the film loud and visually interesting within the limits of setting. Unlike another of this year's releases, Buried, the camera work keeps the audience from feeling at all trapped with pans out of the crevice, opening to wide shots of the surrounding desert and clear blue sky. 127 Hours has none of the intense fear and claustrophobia that made Buried such a challenge to endure. 127 Hours maintains a spirit of adventure instead of delving into questions of morality or man's place in nature. If this film has a message, it is simply to leave a note before going on an excursion into the wilderness.

What this film really understands about Aron Ralston's story is the kind of man he is. Aron Ralston (James Franco), like many rock climbers, treats nature with a spirit of conquest. He sets out to complete hikes faster than anyone before, to try new climbs, and while experienced, it is his cockiness that gets him into trouble, but also makes him appealing. This is perfectly illustrated during the opening of the film, when he prepares for his Saturday expedition and meets two female hikers on the trail. He offers to guide them and leads them through a climb and to an underground lake. All along this adventure, he photographs and takes videos to document these accomplishments.

It isn't until Aron's new friends depart and he hikes further into the desert canyon that he is suddenly pinned by a falling boulder and the film's title finally appears. The tone shifts and becomes more serious, but maintains levity due to Ralston's constant documentation of his predicament. At one point, he even interviews himself about his dire situation, asking if he was actually stupid enough to not tell anyone where he was going. But James Franco as Aron appears calm and rational throughout his entrapment, carefully taking stock of his limited supplies including a small amount of water, camelback, head-lamp, rope, and a woefully inadequate multi-purpose tool, with a tiny knife. He spends his time trying to chip away at the boulder with the dull knife, while hallucinating and thinking of his family and lost loves. These sequences that depict moments of grief or regret seem overshadowed by his generally upbeat nature. And none of these sequences give relief from the tension. As time passes, one cannot help but to know that soon, he will have to cut himself free and climb out of the desert, keeping the tension on edge, waiting for Ralston's dreaded method of escape.

It took about an hour for Aron to cut off his arm, just above the wrist, but thankfully, it occupies no more than 2-3 minutes of screen time. However, they are graphic and intense minutes. After, listening to Aron Ralston's account of how he severed his own limb, 127 Hours succeeds in communicating exactly how it was done using mostly sound effects and sparing the more graphic visual details. This resulted in the most graphic moments of the film being watchable. After this seemingly agonizingly long scene, his hike to safety and film's conclusion is brief. The overall result is an enjoyable film, one skillfully acted and directed, but ultimately an empty experience with little below the surface. But it succedes in capturing the mindset of an adventure seeking man who had what it took to survive this brush with death, but based on the character developed in this film, he might not survive his next accident and there will probably be others.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Horror Fail!

So the horror movie challenge is totally off the rails now. The movies seem to be drifting further away from horror all of the time. I'm mostly just chasing my own interests, which often lead to oddities that can easily be classified as horror, but I'm not feeling well and have become too weak to resist the charms of Tom Hardy and Gael Garcia Bernal. Actually traditional horror films hold very little interest, but I greatly enjoy psychological horror and thrillers so I couldn't stay away from Dot the I once it was described as an erotic thriller. Erotic + Gael Garcia Bernal + Tom Hardy + flamenco dancing; oh my.

Well, it was romantic and a little twisted and a bit sexy, but sadly, not horrific and mildly disappointing. And I don't care! The love triangle that develops at the first of Dot the I is hot and when the triangle is revealed to be a fraud, created as part of an emotional snuff film that Carmen has unknowingly found herself at the center of, the film suffers from implausibility, but remains sexy and fun with a little dash of evil.

And since my boyfriend, Tom Hardy, was just barely in Dot the I, I had to watch Bronson, based on Brittan's "most violent prisoner". And again, I don't think it could be called horror, even with all of the promise of excessive violence. And it delivers plenty of bare-knuckle fist fights, orchestrated by Bronson, who never has a fighting chance against multiple prison guards in riot gear, armed with clubs. Bronson is a captivating character study about a flamboyantly and gleefully violent man who appears to thrive in the theater of correctional institutionalization.

Bronson also emphasizes why there is so much enthusiasm over Tom Hardy. Sure, he was incredibly hot in Inception, but in Bronson, he shows such charisma and brings a completely implausible character to life and even makes Bronson's violent episodes seem logical and not a symptom of madness. This is a fascinating piece of work that while being highly stylized is based on documented facts. Now I would like to see another film, a documentary about this Charlie Bronson exploring how the British legal system can explain keeping him locked up indefinitely, in complete isolation, when he has only been sentenced to 7 years.

So the horror challenge has been derailed by too many fascinating films that are peripheral to the horror genre. But I'm doing my best to get back in there with the frights, splatter, and gore.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Delving into 1970s horror

I had planned on going a little further back into the history of cinema, but this group of films are all from the 1970s.

Patrick is an Australian movie that was prominently featured in the Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood. In my effort to watch all of the films referenced in Kill Bill, vol. 1, I had overlooked Patrick. It was stunning to see just how much the hospital scenes had borrowed from this rather obscure film. But in actuality, while one can see echos of KBv1, Patrick is a very different film.

Patrick opens with him electrocuting his mother, i.e. toaster + bathtub. After this opening, the rest of the film is centered on Kathy, the nurse who cares for Patrick. He has been in a coma since the accident and stares straight ahead. She is told he is brain dead, but becomes convinced that he is communicating with her using telekinesis. While this is far from the best piece of horror cinema I've seen, it is a fascinating one. And Patrick is a bit unsettling, the way he just stares, unblinking.

Next, I watched the George Romero vampire movie, Martin. Martin isn't exactly the stereotypical vampire movie. In fact, it questions whether Martin is a vampire at all, but a serial killer. His techniques have much in common with those used by Dexter, except that Martin sedates his female victims so that he can have sex with them, before killing them. It is only Martin's uncle who seems convinced of a family curse and screams Nosteratu at Martin repeatedly.

Then finally there was Blood Freak. I had to see this after I heard it was about a giant turkey monster, but this 1972 student movie is a true oddity. At times, Blood Freak threatened to become Refer Madness, but once the plot brings the characters to the laboratory at the turkey ranch, Blood Freak gets downright freaky or at least silly. This is a terrible and misguided film that is rather light on turkey monsters and gives a few too many speeches on the dangers of marijuana and the importance of finding christ, but is also short. And who can forget about a movie about a giant blood thirsty turkey monster?

October Horror Movie Challenge Total, 13.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Jigoku or The Sinner's of Hell

From Blogger

The horror movie challenge has been derailed, but this isn't really a surprise. I often don't have the time to watch one movie/day and the weekends have been rather busy lately. Now I have several work related meetings to prep for that I anticipate with further dip into my free time. Gone are those days when I had very little to do at my day job and no friends to spend time with when not at work and I'm not complaining. In fact, I'm surprised at the number of movies I have managed to see by day 14.

Jigoku (1960) was a little slow and completely dumbfounding, but as illustrated in the above still, it looked amazing. Having just been to Never Let Me Go, a film that director Romanek admits to basing the look on classic Japanese cinema, I was pleasantly surprised to have stumbled upon another film shot in a similar perspective that that used by Ozu. These early Japanese films are shot from a low angle and I hadn't picked up on that, but then it became so obvious why this point of view is so different from Western cinema. The Japanese sit upon the floor and thus, they must instinctively see the world from this lower view point. The other element concerning the look of Jigoku was it comes across as a bit of an exploitation film, or pinku film, but also took much care in setting up very cinematographic shots. So while the journey this film takes feels a little long, there is plenty to look at along the way and the film was instructive about the nature of Japanese horror.

My first question was about hell. As explained in the film, Buddhist does have hell which is graphically depicted in Japanese hell scrolls. Japanese hell sounds pretty complex, with multiple levels and it ruled by deities of Japanese folklore that predates the arrival of Buddhism, but what was really surprising was the belief that eternal entrappment in a place of suffering is not punishment for evil deeds committed in life. I couldn't figure out why Shiro Shimizu was in hell. Sure, Shiro was in the car when Tamura* ran over the yakuza man and he was also in the same car accident that killed his girlfriend, but it was odd that he ended up in hell. So apparently, hell can happen to anyone, even the moral and good people. Who knew?

Probably, listening to the commentaries that accompanied the Criterion edition was the most fascinating and informative part of this experience. The film was in fact based upon some specific hell scrolls and I greatly enjoyed listening to the actors and other filmmakers discuss the film. Kiyoshi Kurasawa pointed out some interesting differences between Western and Japanese horror, like in Japanese horror is more based on just the existence of spirits. The evil, scary figures in Japanese horror don't actually do anything to the protagonists. The horror is more about atmosphere. Anyway, interesting observation.

Last night's movie wasn't horror, but a survey of Oz-sploitation pictures, Not Quite Hollywood. I hadn't intended to watch the whole thing, but it was rather intriguing and potentially helpful for choosing horror movies. I've seen very little genre cinema from Australia, so it was nothing but informative. Just from the small selection of Australian cinema I have seen, I knew that it tended towards extremely quirky and sometimes downright silly, but I've never stumbled upon the outrageous films discussed in NQH. What was most amazing was the car genre. Now that I know how car chases and crashes have been filmed in Australia, I'll never be able to watch Mad Max again without wincing and wondering how many broken bones resulted in every shot.

Tally: 10

* For Nate, Tamura may be derived from the verb tamuke, meaning to make an offering to a deity/spirit or to make a tribute for someone about to depart. And Shiro, from shiroi (white) apparently directly translates to "good guy".

From Blogger

Monday, October 11, 2010

Never Let Me Go

From Blogger

Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, Never Let Me Go, is among the most emotionally powerful books I've ever read. Never Let Me Go is set in a boarding school, where the children are special. As they are being instructed to create art and take care of their bodies, they are told only the bare minimum about life, especially their purpose in life. Unlike regular people, the children at Hailsham have a very specific purpose. Their future is determined for them and set in stone, but the children don't really understand what this means.

In the novel, this premise is slowly revealed only with the discoveries of three friends, Kathy H, Tommy, and Ruth as they grow up in this unusual world. Never Let Me Go is science fiction, but not at it's emotional core. The heart of the story in within Kathy, Tommy, and Ruth and is in fact the most epically tragic love story I have ever read. Knowing that the soul of this story isn't about the alternate present day reality of the United Kingdom, but the betrayals and love between three friends, I could not imagine a major motion picture based on this story. This is a subtle and romantic story, who's setting elevates it to a devastatingly tragic tale. How could such emotions possibly be evoked by a film?

But it is easy for forget about those films that stay in my heart for days, weeks and sometimes years later. Maybe not in exactly the way that Never Let Me Go has, but my attraction to Japanese cinema is because of a knack for telling a profoundly moving and personal drama. I have to take these films in small doses, but Ozu's Tokyo Story and Naruse's When a Woman Ascends the Stairs are incredible for just how moving they are while being beautiful. So it shouldn't really be a surprise to learn that Mark Romanek decided to draw influence from the films of Ozu and Naruse. And the result is breathtaking.
From Blogger

In Romanek's film, the love story and relationship dynamics between Kathy, Ruth and Tommy remain intact, but the visual nature of cinema allows other aspects present in the novel to over shadow the romance. Actually seeing the children at Hailsham trade the only currently they know, large plastic tokens, for items they regard as treasures, but are in fact junk was powerful. And seeing the interaction between the students with the people who live outside Hailsham was heartbreaking as they looked down on the students with pity or disgust. Never Let Me Go transcends the romance genre into a study of class and caste systems. We see how the world views these characters, not as people. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy's only value is the organs they incubate, but they are sheltered from the reality of their social status; kept away from society not for their protection, as they were told as children, but so society isn't reminded of why humans live longer and healthier then in past generations. It is easier to ignore ethical questions, when a new class of humanity can be created and deemed to be not human, but special.

This is all expertly communicated in the film in a way that flowed over me echoing the book, but also breathing a different, new life into the characters that reains tragically short and completely beyond their control.

From Blogger

The American

Sometimes, it is almost as if American culture is so distasteful and alienating that sometimes, I dream of exodus. As I spend an inordinate amount of time alone, it is easy to forget just how at odds my own point of view is with the culture as a whole, but occassionally, something happens which makes it difficult to ignore. Major elections are the biggest reminder of just how divergent my values are, but occasionally a memorial day screening of a George Clooney movie does the trick.

I went to The American knowing little about the film, other than it was directed by Anton Corbijn who made the stunningly stark and beautiful Ian Curtis biopic, Control. I was immediately struck by the quiet of the picture. The opening scene perfectly set the tone for the following acts, with Jack (Clooney) walking with a lover in a perfectly silent, snow covered landscape, until violence suddenly erupts, leaving Clooney's character alone to travel to a place to lay low. This quiet continues throughout the film, allowing the audience to watch and speculate as to who Jack (or is it Edward?) is and what exactly he is involved in that has him hunted by "the Swedes".

After the initial flurry of action, Jack receives instructions via payphone, and is given a location where he is instructed not to make friends with the locals while he waits for his next assignment. Thus, the majority of the film is set in a picturesque Italian town where Jack spends his time doing pull-ups, resting, and watching. The American is not a film where the plot is advanced with dialog or with long stretches of exposition. It instead unfolds through quiet observations of Jack's actions during this working vacation, where Jack never drops his guard, except perhaps during meals shared with the local priest and during his visits to a local brothel. And because the setting is serene, Jack is alone, and the action is minimal, the audience like Jack searches for clues as to when another violent outbust will occur, because as soon as Jack makes this assignment his least, genre dictates that he will not live to see this last mission finished.

I found the meditative nature of this character study to be completely absorbing. First George Clooney is charismatic and thus easy to watch even when he is doing very little. And the calm quiet of The American's atmosphere only added suspense to this cinematic waiting game. But while I was gnawing off my hands, the tension would suddenly be broken by the sounds of audience unrest. Yes, the audience I was watching The American with was bored. The were audible sighs and grumbles throughout the film. And I haven't any clue why they were so bored, as I was completely sucked in for the duration.

Since then, I have read that despite topping the box office on opening weekend, people were not pleased with what they saw. And I couldn't help but wonder what proportion of cinema that I greatly enjoy is generally disliked. These thoughts are unsettling as they contradict my belief that if a movie is good, most people will enjoy it and the reason that more don't love the same films I do, is because they haven't seen them. Even in my own experiences, this ideology doesn't hold up, otherwise Citizen Kane would be my favorite film and it is not. So while I recognize that everyone responds differently to good cinema, I still believe that most can agree on whether a movie is good. But wow, was that notion shattered at The American.

I did greatly enjoy The American, there were issues with the film. And one particularly odd plot point, considering that Corbijn is a photographer. The notion that any hit man would have a little, tribal butterfly tattoo struck me as false. Not only that, but the aesthetic was wrong, so I was irritated at not giving Clooney a better fake tattoo. And my odd reaction is not about a man having a butterfly tattoo, but more about it being a little, lower neck butterfly tattoo. I really with Carbijn had written the butterfly theme differently, like having his cover job entomology and then he could have borrowed the kind of imagery seen in The Woman of the Dunes.


From Blogger

I apparently have no clue what a horror movie is. Or at least, when the challenge rolls around and I take the leap and attempt to watch 31 horror movies, I suddenly feel as if I have no idea what that means. There are times when it is obvious that a movie is horror; Friday the 13th, Halloween, Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Once I dive into the challenge, I begin to question whether the movies I'm seeing really count.

This year, I've seen Buried, Carrie, Clean, Shaven, Nosferatu (1922), Scanners, Sisters, and I sell the Dead. Nate protested Sisters, saying DePalma's movie about a pair of disturbed Siamese twins isn't a horror movie. And he has a point, but how is one supposed to choose movies without having seen them before to really know whether they are horror? Especially since I'm only using the challenge to catch up on movies that I should see because they are classics and to re-watch a few others that need to be revisited. But picking the movies is real bitch because the line between suspense, thriller and horror is very blurry indeed.

So, I'm going back to gut feelings on movies. When I read a synopsis and it mentions dead bodies, asylums, being buried alive, human experimentation, serial killers, ghosts, vampires, were-wolves, or other supernatural beings, I'm going to count it as horror and just keep going. I'm spending too much time trying to qualify movies as horror when I should just be watching them.

Of last week's group of films, Sisters was my favorite. It was faced paced murder mystery that leads to the fractured psyche of a pair of Siamese Twins played by Margo Kidder. I'm also pleased to have finally seen Nosferatu as it was a visually intriguing movie. Vampires have changed a bit since 1922. And I expected I Sell the Dead to be bad and only wanted to see it because I adore Ron Pearlman, but I didn't expect this horror/comedy to be so boring.

Tally: 7

Sunday, October 03, 2010

3 days and three movies in

Day 3, of the October Horror Movie Challenge and already, it's time to change strategies. Apparently, when I pick a horror movie, I can REALLY pick them. I think it is safe to say that if we keep going, Nate and I will have PTSD by the end of the week.

So far the tally is 3 films, 2 first viewings.

We started today with Carrie (1976), which we both had seen previously, but not for many years. I hadn't remembered the lascivious male gaze or the overt misogyny. But this might be the elements that gives the film a surprisingly authentic depiction of High school experience. there were plenty of times when I would have loved to have gotten rid of the entire school in a giant ball of fire.

But the movie that neither of us had seen before was Clean, Shaven. This film caught my attention three years ago, when I attempted to complete the challenge, but never managed to get my hands on it during October. So I rented it this October and between it and Buried, I don't think Nate is going to play October Horror Challenge with me anymore. Clean, Shaven was a difficult film to watch.

Peter Winter (Peter Greene) is searching for his daughter, which is difficult to focus on when everything is a distraction. The sound design of Clean, Shaven attempts to recreate the experience of schizophrenia. Peter is constantly overwhelmed by noise, the humming of power lines, radio static, every sound seems jarring and agonizing. And in this world, Peter wants to find his daughter, but he also seems to hear voices and suffers from delusions about a transmitter in his head.

Clean, Shaven was also a murder mystery while being a study of a man with a severe mental illness. It was really quite fascinating as a murder mystery, since the narrative is primarily through Peter's eyes, making it nearly impossible to discern whether a crime has even been committed. This is a very complex film that would probably benefit from repeat viewings, but I personally don't have the stomach to revisit it. There are some seriously grizzly scenes of self-harm and the sound design was agonizingly intense.

So next on the agenda would be some films that fall into the horror genre, but are a little less horrific. It is time for a reminder of just how much fun horror movies can be.

From Blogger

The Social Network

Don't you hate it when a film really says something and makes you want to talk about it, but you never can find just the right words to do so. A month ago, I saw The Social Network at an advance screening and have been thinking about just how brilliant the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg and the creation of facebook is done. I knew that I needed to see the film again in order to really collect my thoughts, since it was severely underlit and the pace was so quick that it was difficult to reconstruct the sequence of events after.

But now that The Social Network has opened, the professionals have been busily writing amazing things. I think Jim Emerson has succeeded in seeing the same film I did in the same way. I totally saw that The Social Network is a film about class and privilege in college as well as a character study of someone who is ultimately unlikable. And I gravitate toward these prickly people.

Jim Emerson: The Social Network: Communicating in code

Saturday, October 02, 2010

It's that time again

I've only attempted the October Horror Movie Challenge once and didn't quite complete it. I believe I came in at 29 films, with most of them being new to me and all of them were feature films. I'm already off to a late start, since Friday, I had planned to see Buried after work which just didn't work out, due to long work day and nasty headaches.

But on day 2, I finally went to my first horror movie of October. There were some questions as to whether Buried is horror. According to, it is not, but I couldn't imagine that any movie that is set in a coffin already buried in the earth wouldn't qualify for the October challenge. So, I drug Nate out to Buried today, when he actually was in the mood for a romantic comedy.

And I'm pleased I did. I was very curious about how this movie could even be made, but it worked and was quite an intense study of fear and claustrophobia. Buried was a very dark movie as the camera never strays from the interior of the buried coffin with the frightened Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) inside. There is absolutely no relief from the darkness or the confines of the pine box for the duration of the film and the experience was surprisingly unnerving.

Paul Conroy (Reynolds) discovers he is entombed after regaining consciousness after his convoy was attacked by insurgents in Iraq. It is not until his captor calls a cell phone, that was left in the coffin, that Paul discovers that he has a tool that might allow for his rescue. I cannot help but to be impressed at what the filmmakers did with such a simple premise and the limitations of the setting. Somehow, Buried manages to be engaging, have a definite narrative, maintain tension and even manages critique of the Iraq occupation.

Not a bad start to the Horror Movie Challenge and I now have no hesitation at calling Buried and horror movie. We will both be avoiding confined spaces for a while and I'm already not looking forward to returning to my basement dungeon of the laboratory on Monday.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Even the orchestra is beautiful

Last week was nightmarish. Really. There were in-laws living in my livingroom, gluten poisoning, and to top things off, a work project that was completely overwhelming, that I never did really get a handle on. But there were a few bright spots. One was on Wednesday night, after the departure of the unwelcome futon crashers, we popped in the newest NetFlix arrival, Cabaret.

I have no recollection as to how Cabaret found it's way on our queue, but I have no control over what comes our way from NetFlix, other than making suggestions of titles to add. I know that we have a few hundred movies lined up and that they were randomized, but I never seem to know what is coming next and why we decided on the titles that arrive. But as I'll watch anything once, I don't mind this arrangement.

My knowledge of Cabaret was limited. I knew it was a musical and a play, and I knew it was a big Oscar winning film. I didn't remember that it was the movie that swept the Academy Awards on the same year that The Godfather won best picture. But most importantly, my expectations were non-existent. So imagine my delight when I discovered that the big opening number was the completely awesome "Mein Herr" and that the film hailed from the same inspiration that the Dresden Dolls drew from, Germany's Weimar Republic.

So how did I miss this connection? Perhaps it is my prejudice against Broadway inspired films and that I'm a tad ashamed about my love of dance in cinema, that I had never gone looking for this Bob Fosse gem. Or maybe the long standing backlash over a film depicting the excess and sexual freedoms of the Weimar period that proceeded the rise of the Nazis, had subconsciously influenced the avoidance of the film. But I was immediately infatuated with the care taken to film the little bit of dance that is appropriately photographed (read, not in extreme close-up, but from a distance and even bringing in audience shots) and with believable GLBTQ characters. These are characters I want to know and spend time with. This, like Velvet Goldmine, could be inspiration to a way to fashion one's life!

And Joel Grey! I cannot express how much I am in love with him as the Master of Ceremonies. His presence was a constant scathing commentary on the Nazi regime and the still rampant prejudices that hold too much weight in our culture.

Then it was back to the grind for a few more days, but in order to take a brief reprieve, we went out to see Robert Rodriquez's Grindhouse trailer movie, Machete. Yes, there are a few filmmakers that are still celebrating the 70s culture. And Machete was everything the trailer promised. It was a collection of ironic celebrity appearances, i.e. "introducing Don Johnson", old school exploitation plotting, and plenty of naked women, just because. While Machete is not great cinema, but Rodriguez doesn't strive to create cinematic masterpieces, but just a fun ride. What Machete does acheive, that is in line with Cabaret, is a satirical tone and less then subtle criticisms of the political right.

The movie that I watched last week that is anything but subtle was the astonishingly misguided film I Love You Phillip Morris. I had read about this film a couple of year ago and was shocked to hear that Jim Carrey was to star in a gay comedy with Ewan McGregor, but the film never surfaced in theaters. Friday night, I noticed it among the new releases so I brought it home out of a kind of morbid curiosity.

I Love You Phillip Morris is among the most painful cinema experiences I've had of late. Right up there with watching Tulse Luper's genitals smeared with honey and Russian women spit up bread to make grotesque dolls. Seeing Jim Carrey's attempt at depicting a gay con-artist in love was just like watching Arizona Governor Jan Brewer's debate last week. It was just as difficult to watch, but unlike Jan Brewer, I feel sympathy for everyone involved with this movie and pray that this cinematic disaster is buried deep in the film archives to never resurface.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Inception: Dreaming a dream within a dream

From Blogger
After seeing a film, I turn to film critics to aid in my mental digestion of what I've seen, as immediately after I am often at a loss as to what I really thought. Instead of concrete, coherent thoughts on a film, I instead experience an emotion, but this may or may not have anything to do with the experience of the film, but instead may have more to do with my own baggage that I brought to the cinema that day. So I ruminate, read what others thought and finally I am able to put into words what value I found in the film.

Saturday morning was spent reading the critics that I get the most value from their writings to aid in this process. I visited Roger Ebert, the New York Times' film critics, and my favorite place for fascinating discussion on film criticism, Jim Emerson's Scanners blog. There what I read has left me stunned and considering how much what we expect to see when we go to the theater impacts the critique of the film. Don't get me wrong; I'm not put off by dissenting opinion. But what I've been amazed by is the number of critics that disliked Inception because what they experienced on the screen was nothing like their experience of dreaming. And I believe that misses the point. Inception is not a film about dreams or dreaming, but instead is a heist movie set in a dream.

Inception is a carefully constructed maze of a heist film, where the team of thieves is a group of experts on navigating the subconscious of the chosen mark. Saito (Ken Watanabe) hires the troubled Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) to implant an idea in the mind of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy). The pay for this, if successful, is that Cobb can return home to his children since being exiled after the death of his wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard). Like any heist film, much of the pleasure is derived from the assembling of the team and the preparation, which is all methodically calculated.

The set-up is rather slick. In Cobb's search for an architect (i.e. dream designer) for the mission, he selects a newcomer to the underground world of dream infiltration, Ariadne (Ellen Page). Acting as teacher allows the necessary exposition essential to understanding the logic of Nolan's dream world to flow effortlessly. In fact, one of the greatest moments in the film is when Ariadne approaches her shared dreamscape with Cobb and tests the limits of this inner world by folding the streets of Paris into a M.C. Esheresque landscape. Ariadne's playful spirit while learning Cobb's dream rules is among the only light and playful moments. Does Nolan do playful?

What Nolan does well is construct intricate, smart, and wholly novel films. Inception, unlike some of Nolan's other films, follows a well worn heist movie structure into the totally novel territory of dream theft. The result is stunning as stairways transform into closed loops and skyscrapers crumble. Probably the most breathtaking spectacle are the action sequences that occur in zero gravity. One cannot help but to be reminded of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but with fighting. My complaints about Christopher Nolan's lack of ability to film a coherent and suspenseful action sequence are corrected in this film. While he still refuses to consistently use wide angle, steady shots to film action, they are much better than previous attempts and attempted to keep tabs on the geography of the scene. Nolan's weaknesses are his characters. He keeps the viewer at an academic distance from the characters and as a result, they are little more than the role they play in the heist; the mark, the architect, the forger, the chemist. We even remain at an emotional distance from the character most central to the film, Cobb. The most real character in the film is Cobb's deceased wife, Mal, but this might be part of the film's design.

But what I enjoy most about Christopher Nolan's cinema is just how smart they are. Nolan does enjoy constructing puzzle-box films. After the closing scene, I want to see the film again in an attempt to piece together what version of reality, or rather who's dream, this film takes place in. Knowing the answer to that question is certainly not necessary to enjoy the film, but the final image leaves so many lingering questions. I have my own theory, but I'm certain that Inception will reward repeat viewings with clues as to the intended meaning of the final scene.

Some interesting reading (contains spoilers):

The closed loop

Inception: Has Christopher Nolan forgotten how to dream?

Saturday, April 03, 2010

My attempt at Filmspotting's Top 5 List

I just finished listening to Filmspotting podcast, episode #296, and I've been inspired to begin a small project. My concept of great cinema has changed now that I live in a place with so many choices. When I lived in Anchorage, I primarily saw movies at the local Art House, Capri Cinema. Rand, being an out gay man, tended to show a lot of GLBT cinema as well as the better known independent/art house films. The years I lived in Columbia, I watched more mainstream film and really, just about everything that came to town that sounded at all interesting. But in Seattle, the choices are overwhelming by comparison. Sometimes I'll see a classic film, or a film with a lot of buzz, and there are a lot of foreign language films, because of the wide variety of cinema I have access to, I am now a very devoted fan of Asian cinema. The filmmakers in Hong Kong, Korea, China, Japan, Thailand are incredible. And this isn't at all limited to the genre films that have made Asian film world renowned, like the Hong Kong martial arts film, Japanese horror, or Anime. There are as many genres in Asia as there are in America, and now that I'm looking for them, most of my new favorites are Asian.

However, being a general fan of film, I still watch At the Movies (RIP) and listen to a few movie podcasts, like Filmspotting, but now I am very aware of how little is said about Asian cinema. So, I'm taking it upon myself to add to Matty and Adam's weekly top 5 list, by attempting to create an alternative eastern, top 5 list.

This occurred to me last week, when listening to their list of the top 5 movies of 1998. I found their lists very disappointing and discovered a major portion of my library seems to be from 1998. Pi, Run Lola Run, Velvet Goldmine, Babe: Pig in the City, and a few that they mentioned Buffalo '66, Shakespeare in Love, and There's Something about Mary. But I needed to find out what Asian cinema was being enjoyed in 1998. This is what I found;

Bullet Ballet (Japan) Dir. Shinya Tsukamoto
Kiki's Delivery Service (Japan) Dir. Hayao Miyazaki
The Emporor and the Assasin (China) Dir. Chen Kaige
After Life (Japan) Dir. Hirokazu Koreeda
The Hole (Taiwan) Dir. Ming-liang Tsai
The Bird People in China (Japan) Dir. Takashi Miike
Dr. Akagi (Japan) Dir. Shohei Imamura

That's an impressive list of films by very world acclaimed filmmakers, but sadly, I've only seen three of these films at this time. This makes it difficult to make a top 5 Asian films of 1998, but I can highly recommend Kiki's Delivery Service. The jury is still out on Bullet Ballet (haven't seen the whole film just yet) but generally I adore Shinya Tsukamoto's films. and the Emperor and the Assassin was beautiful, but a bit too cold and intellectual for my taste.

But this week was colorful movie titles, that is, movies with a color in the title. This project was a lot harder than anticipated, but I did find some Asian films to plug in for this list.

Color Movies

1. Tears of the Black Tiger
2. Flight of the Red Balloon
3. The Bride with White Hair
4. Black Tight Killers

Sadly, I'm a title short. Also, some might question the inclusion of Flight of the Red Balloon as it is a French film, in French, but it totally counts since it was made by Taiwanese director, Hou Hsiao-hsien. I also highly recommend all 4 titles. I'm just sorry that I could not include Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum or Raise the Red Lantern, but alas, I've yet to watch either film. I need to remedy this.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Shutter Island

From Blogger
For probably the first time, I was very excited about a Scorsese film. I have been left cold by nearly every film I've seen of his, either due to subject matters that I just cannot bring myself to care about or I'm generally unimpressed by the film. There are exceptions of course as Gangs of New York was flawed but very powerful and The Last Temptation of Christ is a masterpiece, but despite a blip here and there over the years, Scorsese generally makes films that don't speak to me.

Well, with Shutter Island he had me. I have a weak spot for psychological thrillers set in historical asylums. I gravitate towards these films, and when they work, they quickly find their places among my favorites. I found myself comparing the trailers for Shutter Island with Brad Anderson's Session 9 and the detective films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa (i.e. Cure, Retribution). Silly me assumed that Martin Scorsese was influenced by the amazing atmosphere of the Japanese detective thrillers and was making his own. If Shutter Island hails from those influences, it doesn't succeed in duplicating the tone or attention to setting. Sadly, Shutter Island instead tries to be a M. Night Shyamalan film without the tension and unlike, Shyamalan, Scorsese gives away the twist immediately. Calling Shutter Island a disappointment is an understatement.

Stop reading now if you want to avoid spoilers, because I'm about to give away everything.

My biggest issue with Shutter Island is that nothing holds together and the more I think about it, the more annoyed I get. I hate movies that depend upon a big reveal at the end that finally explains everything. The biggest problem is that they almost never hold up to repeat viewings. Well, if Shutter Island had worked up until the lame and blatantly obvious reveal that Teddy Daniels is criminally insane, then I'd just be annoyed with it in the way that I am at the filmography of Shymalan, i.e. I was entertained the first time, but it completely falls apart with any scrutiny . If one could say the same for Shutter Island, it was be a complement.

The problem is that the whole premise of Shutter Island is completely retarded. I realized to my disappointment very early on that Teddy Daniels (
Leonardo DiCaprio) was not on the island to reveal a conspiracy, but as a patient. But are we really supposed to buy this plot? Would a mental hospital allow a delusional patient to wander about their facility for a few days playing detective in order to determine if he can be cured? Shutter Island's biggest failure is that it didn't make a lick of narrative sense. I enjoyed some of the dream sequences, but again, they allowed the truth of Teddy Daniels' crime to be so obvious as to made the last 30 minutes of the movie unnecessary for anyone who was awake during the first half-hour. In fact, the second half of the movie bludgeons you with Teddy's actual story, which was evident from the not so subtle clues throughout.

However, there was one completely unforgettable part of the reveal. The moment that Dr. Cawley (Sir. Ben Kingsley) brings out the visual aids to show Teddy that all of the names in his conspiracy plot are anagrams, was the best bit of unintentional comedy that I've seen all year. But then, what could have been a downright cool detective thriller investigating the very horrific practices that happened in asylums during the first half of the 20th centry, we get another movie with a non-nonsensical plot that is simply explained by the protagonist being insane. Yawn. My advice is to watch Quills, Session 9, or The American Experience: The Lobotomist for some intense, horrifying stories of mental institutions. Or go out and see Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer as Polanski is the master of thrilling, tense, and very paranoid thrillers.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

What I learened from Johnny To last night

I've been a long time fan of action cinema. I became hooked on the martial arts movies of the 1980s, when Sho Kosugi was making a serious of ninja movies. The result of this discovery of movies like Enter the Ninja, Pray for Death, and the hilarious Nine Deaths of the Ninja was finding the martail arts section of my local video store. There I rented dozens of Hong Kong movies that were poorly dubbed, but occasionally contained the most amazing fight sequences I'd ever seen. I felt elated watching these movies and probably contributed to my own enthusiasm for ballet and I even took some tai kwon do at that time.

Sadly American action cinema probably has never been as well crafted as it is in Hong Kong. This isn't due to lack of great fight choreography, since many of the best have been imported from Hong Kong, but simply due to inadequacies in filmmaking. This has never been so apparent as it was last night when watching Breaking News (2004) by Johnny To. The opening sequence is one long, intricately choreographed tracking shot which serves to introduce the characters, set the situation that drives the gripping man hunt, and establish the setting. And it is a stunning 7 minute shot.

the shot: I never watch films in this much detail, as I rarely catch the details, but I had to stop the movie and restart because I was suddenly aware that a complex gun fight was occurring and I hadn't noticed a single cut. I assumed they were just cleverly hidden so I watched again and what hit me was that one never sees a scene like this in American cinema anymore. And I still don't see a single cut, but instead a long, steady cam shot is used to capture the opening action.

First, we focus on the Hong Kong sky line which orients us to the urban setting. This is a shot that is disappearing from so many American films replaced with tight shots of the actors and little information is given to the setting except through dialog. But here, the scene opens on the sky-line then pans to a man walking down the street. The camera follows him into a building, by panning up the wall and through a window (1:13) where we can see he is meeting a group of men. Then we pan back out through the window and follow a newspaper to a car below where we learn that these men are being tailed by undercover police. This was the shot that originally caught my attention and caused the repeat viewings, because I was unable to really pay attention to the smooth camera movements in this well set up shot while reading subtitled. But this quickly establishes all of the players of the film in just 3 minutes. Breathtaking.

But then, the camera watches the men leave the building to gather at the backing car, viewed though the windshield of the police car. Starting at 2:58, another long pan shot moves along the alley focusing on every player in the unfolding scene. This shot is also never included in current American action films. What Johnny To is doing is allowing the viewer to quickly understand the spacial arrangement of the scene. We can easily deduce who these people are; the bad guys leaving the building, the undercover cops, the interfering uniformed officers, and by standers. There arrangement in space is respected and during this one minute pan they are each introduced, before the action erupts at 4:20.

The resulting gun fight is never disorienting as it is in American cinema. The camera remains steady and each action is clearly shown. The result is that as action escalated, so does the cinematic tension because we can easily follow what is going on as well as the body count on each side of the conflict instead of simply feeling dizzy at the fast camera movements to various close-up action shots. The following scene from Batman Begins (2005) is also an introduction shot, but is much less coherent.

Batman Begins: First Appearance

This is actually a pretty good action movie, but it still has the problems that I mentioned. In this much shorter scene (3:46), it is pieced together by numerous tiny shots and filmed primarily in close up. The problem is one loses a sense of setting and it is difficult to discern the orientation of the characters in space. This disorientation benefits Christopher Nolan's attempt to make Batman seem like he can swoop down from anywhere. But the downside is that we never grasp simple facts. How far away is the scene in the car from the action happening in the alley way? And just how many men is batman taking on? As soon as any action erupts (2:42), the camera moves as much as the men who are fighting. Since this is all filmed in closeup, one cannot grasp exactly what is happening and the whole scene becomes confusing. And this really irritates me.

The whole reason I enjoy the genre is because I love the exciting tension of action cinema. I love to watch people do impossible things on screen, but in order to appreciate the excitement of a fight on film, you need to be able to see the fight including the set-up and the outcome. This has been bothering me for quite some time and I haven't been able to pin point why I prefer these films from Hong Kong, Korea, Beijing and Japan over what is made in the US other then the over reliance on quick cuts and too much camera movement, until I watched Breaking News. Now I see the difference. They respect the actual space a scene occupied and effectively document the details of the space before and during an action sequence. For a final example of this, here is my very favorite scene from Oldboy (2003) which occurs in a narrow hallway, but is amazingly filmed through a wall.