Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Review Revue - January 2006 (II)

I signed up for Netflix, which means I'll have a steady supply of new films coming in while I'm at school. This will allow me to catch up on some of the obscure and foreign stuff I wasn't able to get earlier. So, this post will have the first batch of those films, as well as a bunch of films I watched when I was still on break.

Spun - This was the first film I got from Netflix and it was not a good start, film wise or disc wise. I saw the censored version of the film, so I feel a bit uneasy about criticizing the film, since the impact was dulled by beeps and blurs, but from what I saw, it was pretty clear that this wasn't a particularly good movie. Jonas Ackerlund has done some good music videos, but here he stretches out his dirty, quick cut style to an entire film and it just doesn't work. I love a lot of quick cut excess movies, like Domino, but what that movie had that this lacks is a sense of fun. The whole film seems so dire, with nasty people going around doing pointless things.

I'm not saying that your characters need to be likable, but other than The Cook, there's no one here who's even interesting. They're all caricatures taken to excess and as a result, the whole film feels like it exists in a cartoon world. Most of the quick cut stylistic stuff was done better in Requiem for a Dream, and a lot of the film seemed designed solely to shock. There was no core humanity to the film, and that made it an empty viewing experience. That said, I did enjoy the Billy Corgan score and Mickey Rourke was excellent.

High Art - This was a movie I went in knowing virtually nothing about. I read that it featured Patricia Clarkson as a former Fassbinder actress and that was enough to get me interested. It's a really well done, engaging film that creates a wonderful sense of atmosphere. The most interesting place in the film is Lucy's apartment, where everything seems to move though a drug induced slow motion stupor. The lighting and acting draws you into what they're feeling, and over the course of the film, the viewer, like Syd, gets drawn into the world, starting as an outsider, but gradually becoming a part of their circle.

Clarkson is quite different from the other stuff I've seen her in, and I enjoyed the references to Fassbinder's stuff. Not to be prejudiced, but there's definitely a different feeling you get watching a film directed by a woman, particularly in terms of the way it defines relationships. Syd's boyfriend was just that, the boyfriend, he had very little depth in and of himself, a twist from the typical Hollywood way of doing things where it's the female character who's defined solely by her relation to a man. In this film, that definitely fit with the story, and I don't think you needed any more depth in that guy because he's meant to stand in for the safe, typical relationship she would expect to find.

The ending is a bit jarring and falls in with the typical art film cliche of having the main character die. I suppose that creates a more ambiguous ending, and removes the need to provide a concrete resolution for Syd and Lucy's relationship, but still, it felt like a bit of a copout. However, on the whole, it's a really strong film that I enjoyed watching, and definitely brings to the fore the fact that there's too few female directors working in film.

Lilja 4Ever - This film is shot in the handheld, jump cut, verite style that I've seen in a lot of recent films based around poor people in underdeveloped countries, most notably City of God. It's a style I really like, and in this film, it works really well. The film opens strong, with a really strong music track and a powerful image. I'm not usually a fan of the start at the end and jump back film structure, but it works here because the opening moment is so strong.

The film is a chronicle of Lilja's tragic fall through the dark corridors of human existence. The film is successful because it shows us what could be a really maudlin tale of woe in such a way that it's entertaining even as it's disturbing and tragic. The soundtrack is a constant pulse of club beats, befitting the false glamour that Lilja takes on when she goes out as a prostitute. Lilja goes through a litany of indignities, but things don't get really bad until the scenes in Sweden. The sense of claustrophobia and draining of life as is she gets further and further trapped in the life of a prostitute is devestating. The most powerful sequence is the montage of clients seen from her perspective.

The ending is very strong, I like the intrusion of fantasy imagery into the otherwise realistic, verite world of the film, in the real world, Lilja and Volodya could never find happiness, but it seems that in death, they're finally able to transcend their limitations and realize their full potential.

Malena - This was a film I really disliked, and even though I saw Miramax's cut version for US release, I don't think that would have changed my opinion. In film theory, there's discussion about the concept of the male gaze, the idea that the way the film is shot places the viewer in the role of a male observer. The idea that this is true of every film is ridiculous, but in the case of this film, it's inescapable, and the film is rather disturbing as a result. The basic premise of the film is that Renato lusts after Malena, a woman in his village, all while Italy is involved in World War II. I'd imagine there's some kind of allegorical statement about the corruption of Italy during the war, but the primary thread of the film is this kid's voyeuristic obsession with this woman.

The film reminds me of Fellini's stuff, in the way it shows these neighborhood kids ogling a beautiful woman, but at least he had some other stuff going on in his movies, and pointed out some of the flaws in this situation. Here, Renato's spying is basically condoned, and his love for her is positioned as purer than that of any of the real men she's with. So, the film starts out by creating this idealized vision of Malena, a woman in need of male protection, and then over the course of the movie gradually destroys, first turning her into a prositute, then having all the women in the village beat her in the middle of the square. And our hero after idolizing her the entire film just stands there and watches. He's pretty much a bastard, and that makes it difficult to care about what happens to him. As for Malena herself, she's a construction more than a character, a shallow male fantasy.

Monica Bellucci is someone I deeply respect after seeing her in Irreversible, that was a film that used her immeasurable beauty to serve the story, and enhance emotion. Here, it seems like Tornatore wanted to film her, so he created a story around which to do so. And the way the film is shot, it's pretty clear that he's still the same pervy kid he was back in the war years.

Match Point - Woody Allen is a filmmaker who's been in decline for most of my life, so I don't have the same high opinion of him that the previous generation had. Yet, stuff like Annie Hall and Manhattan is still great, and I'd heard that Match Point was a 'return to form.' It's actually more of a departure, it has very few of the traditional Woody Allen trademarks, and outside of the alphabetical order credits and scratchy record soundtrack, it'd be tough to tell it was his. However, that doesn't make it a great film. This is a movie that's got some really strong twists and emotional hooks, but ultimately takes too long to tell his story, such that by the time we get to the good part, it's tough to remain fully engaged.

I'm noticing that I've been saying that a lot lately, that a film is too long, and I don't think it's a reflection on a diminished attention span, rather it's films that move slowly without providing really strong visual or emotional moments. Because the filmmaking here is so conventional, everything is dependent on the actors and the writing, which puts you at something of a handicap. Wong Kar-Wai could shoot a trip to the grocery store and make it riveting and emotional, something most directors cannot do.

So, beyond those flaws, this is a nasty movie. I was aware of some of the twists, but the places it went in the end were very surprising and put the audience in a weird position. The main character in the film is a difficult guy to really like, yet he's surrounded by characters that we do like. So, no matter what he does, he's going to end up hurting someone. Seeing his wife and her family's affection for him, I didn't want him to screw up their lives by going off with Nola, yet at the same time I felt Nola's pain as Chris' hypocriscy. What happens in the end makes things easy for him, but it's a bit more troubling as an audience member, because it points to the fragile balance on which we live our lives. Chris has gotten away with a huge crime, and outside of his conscience, there's nothing that can incriminate him. So, he'll live a life with Chloe, but in some respect it will always be a lie.

It's a film that's way beyond all of Allen's recent work, and it's heartening to see someone branch out of his comfort zone. It's also another top notch performance from Scarlett Johanson, who's piling up an impressive list of credits despite being only twenty-one.

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