Thursday, January 12, 2006

Review Revue - January 2006

Last Tango in Paris - I was a big fan of Bertolucci's The Dreamers, so I figured I'd check out his original sex in an apartment film, Last Tango. I guess reading about the controversy surrounding the film's release made me expect something a bit more explicit. It's certainly got a lot of content, but this is one of those movies that pushed the boundaries, and as a result, its successors have gone further than it did.

So, where does that leave the film itself? It's got one of the best titles of any film, evocative and a perfect description of what happens in the film. The relationship is Paul's last chance to really feel alive. He's surrounded by the numbness created by his wife's death and it's only in that apartment that he can feel alive. When Jeanne rejects him, he's got nothing left and it's logical that he dies then. The basic emotional core of the film was strong, and the sexual content wasn't there solely to shock, it's integral to the character development. Brando is excellent in the film, a thoroughly engaging performance.

However, the whole subplot with Jean-Pierre Leaud making a film felt a bit disconnected from everything else, and also the ending felt a bit off. It was enough to let Brando die emotionally, there was no need to actually kill him. That's the cliched 70s film ending, every New Hollywood film seems to end with the main character getting shot down.

And one other superficial gripe was why did Jeanne ditch the awesome pimp-like style she was rocking at the beginning of the film for the bad 70s perm?

Downfall - This film got a lot of good notices, it's currently ranked #46 on IMDB's top 250 films of all time. It's the type of film that's easy to respect, but is ultimately hollow. The subject matter has a lot of gravity, Hitler certainly isn't a subject to be treated lightly, no matter how many incarnations of The Producers have been successful. This sort of historical setting automatically bumps a film's star rating up by one. If this same film was set in the future and done as a sci-fi movie, it wouldn't be anywhere nearly as respected.

Now, you may say that that makes sense, it's the film's relationship with historical reality that gives it meaning. And that's ultimately the problem. As a film, this isn't particularly successful. There's way too many characters, and without a huge knowledge of Nazi history, I knew them as something like "that guy with the mustache," rather than as actual people. I struggled just to keep track of everyone, so that meant that I couldn't really relate to them. So, while some scenes were very effective, such as the mother poisoning all her children, it ultimately doesn't hang together. I think it would have been more effective to narrow the film down and focus on the experience the seceretary had in those final days, rather than trying to cover all those people. We knew her story, so the parts with her were more emotionally affecting.

That said, I do admire the way the film refused to either demonize or sentimentalize Hitler. There were moments where you saw him as hateful and demonic, but then ohter times he would seem like an ordinary person. Bruno Ganz did a great job in the title role, virtually unrecognizable compared to his great work in Wings of Desire.

Me and You and Everyone We Know - This was the indie darling of 2005 and it definitely fits into the mold of last year's indie successes, Garden State and Napoleon Dynamite. I loved Garden State, but hated Napoleon Dynamite, so it's logical that my reaction for this film falls somewhere in between, since it has similarities with each. One of my favorite things about Garden State was how stylish its cinematography was, this film goes for a less self conscious style, though its still well shot. All the little stories within it were nicely woven and I feel like all the characters had a nice little arc.

My favorite story was the difficult courtship of Richard and Christine. You really did want them to get together, and it's admirable that July was able to replicate the emotional experience of a Hollywood romantic comedy without taking the formulaic style of those films. The funniest moment of the film was when Robby finally meets up with his online friend, an absolutely hilarious, bizarre moment.

Badlands - Another Malick film. I've now seen his entire filmography and his first film finds his style in an embryonic state. The voiceovers and nature are here, but this film is set in a fairly recognizable everyday reality, something that none of his other films share. The first half hour of so of the film sees the characters move from a traditional world to a more typical Malick world, when they create their life in the woods. This is treated as an edenic period, apart from the world Kit and Holly live an uncomplicated, pure existence. However, that existence is destroyed when society crashes in, sending them off on the run, and ultimately both Holly and Kit give up their run, knowing that they can never return to the perfect life they so briefly had.

The film looks good, but Malick isn't yet the incredible visual stylist he would later become. The voiceovers are more closely tied to the narrative, less devoted to philosophical musings, it's an altogether more conventional film than The New World. I'd imagine at the time it got a lot of comparisons to Bonnie and Clyde, I think B+C was a better film, but this one has a lot of merits. Martin Sheen is great, and the whole film has an almost dreamlike progression from event to event. Holly seems to live all the events as if in a dream, with no concern for consequences, and because she's the audience surrogate, we feel that way too. It's this dreamlike atmosphere that Malick would build on in his later work. I don't think this is a truly great work, like his later three films are, but it was an important step in the development of a great talent.

Gozu - Speaking of dreamlike films, this Takashi Miike film is a disturbing, confounding journey through a world that resembles our own, but is not it. Miike is notable for being the most prolific director since Fassbinder, he churns out movies like they're going out of style, he's released fifty films in the past ten years, no one else in the world is even close to this level of production. I've only seen three of his films, but they're all unique and challenging, even as they fall short of being truly great. Should he take more time on each? Perhaps, but this is still one of the better films I've seen recently.

The film's basic premise is Minami needs to find the body of his Yakuza partner, and doing so brings him into contact with some really weird characters. The film is certainly bizarre, going to some places you might not want to go. The breastmilk pumping is a bit disturbing, as well as the brilliant image of the lactating light on the ceiling. Then there's the giant cowheaded demon who licks Minami. This is pretty weird stuff, but the finale of the film tops it all, with a really disturbing birth sequence.

This was a film I liked, but didn't love, and the reason for that is because the film sets you adrift in this bizarre world with no frame of reference. The movie got a lot of comparisons to Lynch's stuff, but the thing about Lynch is he doesn't just throw in weird stuff for no apparent reason, there's a reason to everything he does, even if he's the only one who knows it. Watching Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, the surreal images all have a purpose and meaning within the narrative, and profound emotional significance for the audience and the characters. However, here, it's more like a tour of a bizarre world. It feels a bit like an 80s fantasy movie in that respect, Minami is looking for the body, and along the way he has some wacky adventures.

That said, the ending where Ozaki does come back, albeit changed, was very strong. That was where the film came together, and the aforementioned birth sequence is an inspired conclusion, leaving you unsure about the nature of the characters' relationships and all that's come before.

While I think the film isn't neccesarily designed to fit into any kind of linear interpretation, this is what I'd say it's about. Minami has an attraction towards his partner, Ozaki, but is unable to deal with this attraction. After he loses him, he's confronted with various images of female sexuality, most notably in the landlady's lactation, and he's not sure how to deal with this. When Ozaki comes back, seemingly in a female body, Minami isn't sure whether this is actually what he always wanted, the chance to have a relationship with Ozaki, while still staying straight. However, he finds the whole thing a bit weird. At the end, he has sex with female Ozaki and winds up splitting Ozaki into two personas, his friend who existed before and the female version, who he can continue to have a sexual relationship with. So, in his mind he splits the attraction and finds peace with this new incarnation of Ozaki.

I'd have to see it again to go more in depth, but that's the basic idea I got. As for what is objectively 'real' in the film, that's very tough to say. I'm not sure even Miike would know that.


Anonymous said...

Last Tango is perfect. An absolute masterpiece. Much, much better than The Dreamers. If you look at them both after 10 years you'll know it.

I think you give Badlands less credit than it deserves. It's not a typical film by any means. It is certainly less apparently poetic than Malicks other work, but in effect I think its mood gives it a lot more power than one first acknowledges (when comparing the differences to Malick's other films).

I don't know why you first say that Gozu doesn't have meaning, and then go on and explain it better than one could explain most Lynch films. I'm not saying Miike is Lynch, or in the same ballpark. Not at all. Miike doesn't take movies as seriously as Lynch does. To him they're just movies, not films. That's the main difference, but it doesn't mean that Miike isn't one of the most interesting and original directors alive.

Anonymous said...

That was me.


Patrick said...

The thing I liked about The Dreamers was the way it captured the feeling of 68, I'm not sure if it was really like that, but the way it was shown in the film, it seemed like a perfect, idealistic world. I would say that Last Tango is more consistently good than The Dreamers, which sort of got bogged down with the stuff in the apartment. In Last Tango, the sex isn't really the focus, it's more about illuminating the characters, whereas in The Dreamers, it's pretty much all there is.

I definitely liked Badlands, but one of the things that I didn't mention in the review that hurts it is how many films have imitated it. It's somewhat similar to Bonnie and Clyde, but then films like True Romance and Natural Born Killers all touch on the same territory, and even though Badlands is better than both of those films, it probably doesn't feel as original now as it did when it was first released.

And on Gozu, as I was writing about it, I was thinking more about it, and saw some stuff that I didn't originally consider. So, yeah, there's certainly a solid explanation for the film, but I don't think it's as cohesive as Lynch's stuff, though considering how much stuff he's making, that's logical. All of his stuff that I've seen has been really interesting and engaging, I just wish more of his films were more readily available over here.