Saturday, February 19, 2005

8 1/2 and The Isle

I've been watching a lot of movies recently, a lot of new ones. This year, one of my goals has been to continue exploring the world of foreign film, and keep discovering new movies. So far, it's been going really well. In the past couple of days I watched two really interesting foreign films, Fellini's 8 1/2 and Kim Ki-Duk's The Isle.

8 1/2 is a classic film, and one that I almost feel ashamed to say that I didn't see until now, but it's been taken care of, and I was very impressed by it. The 60s was such a cool time, and even though here in the States, we have this image of the 60s as Woodstock, flower child type thing, other countries had a very differnet stereotypical 60s. For Britain, this was the mod style, as chronicled in the Entropy in the UK storyline in The Invisibles, and lovingly mocked in Austin Powers. This was a classic culture, and a very cool one, but perhaps the coolest 60s culture was 60s Italy. This is seen in Danger: Diabolik, and here in Fellini's 8 1/2.

It sometimes surprises me when I watch a movie from the 60s or 70s that they could ever actually wear the stuff that they're wearing, or edit it in the way they do, not as an over the top type thing, but just in a way that they thought was cool. I think the movie is incredibly cool, but in a way that feels very self consciously designed, not in the same way that a current movie like Fallen Angels is cool. It's like watching The Prisoner, it feels so 60s, you can't imagine a world where this is the style.

But, even though I have trouble imagining it, I would love to live there. It's an awesome movie visually, the style is very 60s, but it's also still relevant. Fellini is definitely along the lines of someone like Lynch or Wong Kar-Wai, in that he constructs his films along emotional beats, rather than with the strict goal of telling a story. As the characters are extremely meta about, the narrative here is hazy and symbolic, but I've got no problems with that. The film dances between dream and reality, with each giving equal advancement to the plot.

The opening sequence is phenomenal, as is the sequence with Gudio and all his women living in a house together. The ending is also a wonderful blend of symbol and narrative reality. What's real? I don't know, that's not what matters, the image of all the people dancing in the line together says it all.

I feel like I need another viewing, because the film dragged a bit at times. I can't think of any specific slow points, it just felt a bit too long, but sometimes that happens on the first viewing, and on a rewatch, I can get into the film more.

The other foreign film I watched was from The Isle, by director Kim Ki-Duk. A few weeks back, I saw Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring by the same director. I liked it, and when I looked at it on IMDB, I read that his other films had a lot more edge than Spring..., so I ordered The Isle, and yes, it does have a lot more edge. I guess The Isle is a horror movie, but it's also a romance, a really twisted and nasty romance.

I really liked the film, it has a great atmosphere, and keeps you in the story, despite there not being much plot. The main character is basically mute, but we still get exactly what she's feeling. The most memorable and discussed thing about the film involves two scenes with fishhooks. 'Dat's nasty' pretty much describes them, without even showing anything explicit, they'll get to you. The thought alone will induce a cringe.

But, it's not just shock, these acts are the ultimate expressions of need, and for the mute girl, the only act of communication she has. When you can't talk, you have to resort to extreme measures.

The ending goes purely symbolic, and I'd consider it more a statement about men and women in general, rather than try to somehow tie it into the narrative of the movie. It's quite a film, similar to Spring in a lot of ways, but instead of the meandering Buddhist plot, it's a nasty little horror love story. I really liked it.

So, I'll definitely be seeking out more Fellini and Kim Ki-Duk in the future. Both are directors who make really interesting, arty films, the kind that I like. I'd love to see more stuff like this coming out of America, but it's just not happening, so I've got to look elsewhere.

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Friday, February 18, 2005

Leon: The Professional and Mathilda: The Amateur

Today I watched the film, Leon: The Professional. It's one of my absolute favorite films, and a film that really gets to me emotionally like few others do. I'm taking a course on action cinema right now, and I can think of few examples of the straight up action movie done better than this film. Why does Leon work where so many other action films fail?

The primary reason is because rather than being built around arbitrarily imposed action set pieces, the story development comes from the characters. There's not actually that much action in the film, there's the scene at the beginning, the finale and the montage of Leon and Mathilda 'cleaning' in the middle, but if you compare it to most action films, you'll find that not too much of the screentime is spent on action.

What it is spent on is character development, and this film has two of the richest characters ever seen on screen, the odd couple that the film is centered around, Leon and Mathilda. Right from the beginning of the film, you can empathize with these characters. A large part of that is due to the acting. Natalie Portman, who has been brilliant in some recent films, hasn't ever touched this performance, which is so natural and perfect, the line between character and actor is completely obliterated, you can't even imagine that this isn't a real person walking around. The first time I saw Mathilda, I thought wow, that looks like a miniature version of her now, but once she starts acting, you forget that this is Natalie Portman of Star Wars, it becomes Mathilda, hitgirl.

On a similar note, I don't know what Jean Reno is like in real life, but I couldn't imagine him being any different from Leon. He completely inhabits the role, and brings such an innocence to it, that you can't help but feel for the character. It's paradoxical because he is someone who kills for a living, but Reno makes you understand the humanity of the character from the very first scene. The movie theater scene sets out a lot of what's to come, as you watch this guy we previously knew only as a hardened killer get completely entranced by Gene Kelly dancing on the screen.

While they're both great characters on their own, it's in their relationship with each other that they become truly special. The scene where Mathilda is standing at the door, knocking, begging Leon to let her in always gets to me, to the point where I want to yell at Leon to open the door. The scene turns any viewer into stereotypical black female moviegoer, yelling at the characters on the screen, and that's because it's so well made. The stakes of the scene are clear, Leon has a very particular existence, one that he would forever destroy should he let Mathilda in, and yet, he also knows that to not let her would mean she would die. His humanity prevails, and thus begins the gradual humanization of the killer, Leon. Mathilda begging him at the door is such a powerful image, and a brilliant piece of acting from Natalie Portman. Similarly, Reno's very subtle facial expressions convey to us everything that's going through his head.

Another scene I have to make note of is the pig scene, where Leon puts on a show with his oven mitt for Mathilda. He's so goofy, and sincere in his hope to make her feel better.

Basically any scene between the two of them is brilliant. The two characters are perfectly designed counterparts. Leon is old, but child like, while Mathilda is young, yet much more knowledgeable about the world. They form a perfect match, and just watching the two of them interact is riveting.

The ambiguity of the relationship is what provides most of the tension in the second half. Once Mathilda tells Leon she loves him, he clearly begins to question what exactly their relationship is, and how far he can go with her. He wants to distance himself, but though he can't admit it until the end, he loves her too. The question one could ponder forever is, does that love go beyond concern and into the romantic arena? I would say no, I think Leon's moral code is so strict, and he so naive, that he would never even see her in a sexual way, and that's why her assertion that she loves him is so disconcerting. He had never considered that element of their relationship, and it makes relations more strained between the two of them in the second half.

One really frustrating scene for me, another 'stereotypical black female moviegoer' moment is when Mathilda tells the hotel clerk that Leon is her lover. How could she do that to Leon? It frustrates me so much, because I don't want to see him put in that situation.

Just the fact that the movie can get me so worked up makes me know it's a great film. A lot of directors will create these arbitrary attempts to bring tension to events, but Besson knows that it's better to just let it develop out of character interactions. There's no artificially imposed problems that create action scenes, everything comes out of the actions of Mathilda and Leon.

The scene in which Mathilda and Leon sleep together (but not in that way) is really beautiful. It says so much about how he's changed that he allows himself the comfort to let down his guard and just be happy for once. It's probably the first time he let himself do that since his girlfriend back home died. What Mathilda does for Leon is reintroduce him to the human world. It's almost like a Tim Burton movie, where this outsider who can't find his way into the world gets assisted into it by a kindly person. Leon is ultimately humanized, and at the end, he chooses Mathilda's safety over his own, and thus, we see how his priorities have changed over the course of the film. At the beginning, he was contemplating killing Mathilda himself, but now at the end, he places her life way above his. If he can get her out, he's happy, and in the end, despite the fact that he's dying, he's glad because he has given Mathilda what she wanted, her revenge.

But, he also gave her more than that. Much like Mathilda helps Leon overcome a personal tragedy, he does the same for her. His simple kindness and giving is what allows her to move on from her bad past, and at the end of the film, make a new start for herself. Leon was more of a father to her in the four weeks they spent together than her real father was in the twelve years they spent together.

I really like the ending of the film. While I'd have loved to have seen the Mathilda/Leon partnership continue, it's more logical for her to return to society, but still hold onto the lessons she learned over the course of the film. When she speaks to the woman running the school, she uses the same language she used when first approaching Leon, and the chance is there for a similar relationship. And, of course, the final image says so much. Mathilda is giving Leon his roots, just as she may have finally found a place that she can call home.

The film has many of the qualities of a typical early-mid 90s action movie, such as Besson's own La Femme Nikita, but it becomes special in the characters. Besson has made a number of other films, and the ones I've seen haven't even touched Leon. It's a confluence of a great script and direction and brilliant acting. If Natalie Portman hadn't been as good, the film would not have worked, and it took Jean Reno's innocence to make the relationship as interesting as it was. You never once think that he'd try to take advantage of her, and that's essential.

I love the film because of the people in it. Much like Before Sunrise or In the Mood For Love, the tension comes not out of action situations or plot points, but out of minute interactions between two characters. You can feel exactly what they feel, and want nothing more than for them to be happy. I love to really feel when I'm watching a film, and Leon makes me feel.

On a side note, rumors have been circulating for a while about a Mathilda sequel film. On the one hand, I don't think it could possibly be as good as Leon, but I'd love to see it. As I've probably made clear, Natalie Portman is brilliant as Mathilda, and I'd love to see how she approaches the character now, after so many years of acting. There's plenty to be explored around the character, and Before Sunset and 2046 have shown me that a great sequel can enhance the film it came from. The thing I wouldn't want to see would be Mathilda training a new apprentice, I'd rather see a new plot, same character. But, even if it's not good, I'll still be there opening day, Besson earned that with the brilliant film he created.

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Angel Season Five

Been a few days since last I updated. I guess that means I've been busy. I got Angel season five on DVD today. While it's a great season and I'm glad to own it, sadly, it also marks the end of an era, no more Buffyverse DVD sets will ever be released, barring potential films to come, but I don't want to get my hopes up for that.

Way back in December 2003 I bought Buffy season five, after having already watched Buffy seasons 1-4, and every three months since I've gotten a new season, a tradition that ends today. I'm really excited to watch the season again, since it's the only Buffy season I've never watched through in one go, I saw it in pieces as it aired, and I want to see how it stacks up as a whole.

Angel season five was one of the greatest seasons of any TV show, certainly the best of this show. It's got so many classic episodes, the Andrew episode, the Cordelia episode, the puppet episode, 'A Hole in the World,' 'Origin,' 'The Girl in Question,' and of course, the best episode the series ever did, the finale, 'Not Fade Away,' which succeeds in all the areas that Buffy's finale failed.

The season itself is a great meta-commentary on the events surrounding its production. After the fourth season, Joss and his team made a bunch of concessions to the WB in exchange for being picked up, a move reflected in Angel's move in to the law firm of Wolfram and Hart. Things go along pretty well until February when the show is cancelled. Coming on the hells of the hilarious 'Smile Time' and right before the show's best episode to date at that point 'A Hole in the World,' which saw Fred killed and taken over by a demon, Illyria. This is when the dark side of their deal with Wolfram and Hart emerges, and by the end of the season Angel has turned his back on them, and decided to go out fighting.

However, before that we have the excursion to Italy where Spike and Angel seek out Buffy, only to find Andrew, who tells them that it's time to move on, things change, and then he comes out in a suit. I see it as a meta-comment to the viewer, that it was great times, but they're coming to a close, don't just dwell in the past. It really struck me seeing Andrew in the suit that the world of Buffy was ending.

The last episode, in which the apocalypse basically just arrives is on some level, a metaphor for the end of the series, which was struck down in the prime of its life. Those last moments are haunting, it's the best series finale since Twin Peaks and one that leaves you simultaneously annoyed and thrilled that they pulled it off. Angel went out during its best season, it did not fade away.

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