Saturday, February 18, 2006

Review Revue - February 2006

I've been watching a ton of movies this year, but it's been a while since I saw a really great one, probably since All that Jazz back around the very start of the year. However, I've seen some good stuff, and some not so good stuff.

6ixtynin9 - This is a film by Pen-ek Ratanaruang, who did the excellent film, Last Life in the Universe. Watching this movie, it's clear that Pen-ek has some very specific thematic and narrative things he likes to do. 6ixtynin9 lacks the profound melancholy of Last Life, Last Life was a movie you could drift into and get lost in, while 6ixtynin9 is more narrative based.

There's nothing wrong with that, I really enjoyed the movie. The music is great, and the lead actress is a really engaging presence. There's a nice sense of tension throughout the movie and it's fun watching the Rube Goldbergian unfolding of plot events.

However, the thing that holds the film back from being great is the fact that I feel like I've seen these sort of low level crime noir comic dramas many times before. It seems like every director starts with a film like this.

Bound - And this conception was fueled by the fact that I'd just watched the Wachowskis' first film, Bound. This film is also a noir drama with some comic elements, revolving around a bunch of money that gets lost. The twist that the film brings is the lesbian relationship between the two main characters. This is an entertaining movie, with some nice twists, but ultimately it's a bit constrained by the fact that everything is set in one place for the last hour.

The first forty minutes or so of the film are more unique. Watching the relationship develop between Corky and Violet is fun, though my whole viewing experience of the film was colored by an article I read about Larry Wachowski. This reaction raises some questions about how much a director's personal life should impact one's reaction on their work. In this case, the personal life is so bizarre, it basically forces you to reassess the work to date.

In the case of this film, right from the title we can see stuff that could be interpreted as playing on the masochistic tendencies of Larry, as well as on the fluid gender identities. But on the whole, the work is something that's good, but not great. But, it definitely shows that the Wachowskis have always been capable of capturing really striking images. Though at this point, it feels like the most interesting stuff from them is going on in real life.

Ran - When I watch a really acclaimed movie, even if I don't love it, I can usually at least see why it's considered a classic. However, in the case of Ran, I don't understand how this one got critical acclaim. I liked Rashomon, but here, Kurasowa makes an incredibly static, boring film. There's a lot of art cinema films that seem to deliberately confront the viewer with slow pacing and a lack of events. The recent Van Sant films are a good example of that, except they're so thematically rich and accurate in depicting everyday life. What Elephant does is show us ordinary life and allow us to find the drama within.

However, what this movie does is use similar pacing, except set everything in a very theatrical world. Most of the senes in the film feel more like a play than a movie, with their excessively stylized performance and static camerawork. You can put hundreds of people in suits of armor on the screen, but if you don't shoot it in an interesting way, it's not going to be cool to watch. I think the reason I didn't like the film is that in terms of style, it's basically the opposite of what I like, this is a very restrained, cold, theatrical style. I usually prefer the immersive movement and intensity of Wong Kar-Wai or Noe. In my mind, this film doesn't even look like it was made by someone who understands how to use film. I know Kurasowa is considered a master, but it seemed like he was phoning it in on this one.

There are some good parts, but it's a movie that moves so slowly in the first half that the movie had lost me before it got to the stronger parts. It's not wise to have an absurdly slow paced opening to the film because you're going to lose the audience. You've either got to have something interesting in the narrative or something interesting in the filmmaking, you can't do slow paced if you've got nothing happening. And, I know it was the culture at the time, but the women's eyebrow style was distracting. She looked like Robert Blake in Lost Highway, and that made it difficult for me to take the character seriously.

I just don't understand how this could be considered one of the best films of all time. If it wasn't for those outside scenes, this thing could have been a videotaping of a staged play. Film can do interesting things, why not try them?

Lenny - This is Bob Fosse's biopic of Lenny Bruce. Fosse's become one of my favorite directors, but unlike All that Jazz and Star 80, this one isn't able to transcend the traditional limits of the biopic. It's a great Dustin Hoffman performance, and I like the way that Fosse uses the comedy bits as sort of a Greek chorus to comment on the action, however, the narrative doesn't fully hang together. It's basically a function of the fact that at the end of his life, Bruce became boring, obsessed with his law issues, and hence the film has difficulty treating this period of his life.

However, it's still a good movie. The black and white photography is great, and Fosse has a great eye for composing a shot. However, Fosse didn't seem as engaged with the material as he was in his other films, so, no matter what he does, this was never going to be a really great movie.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Dottie Gets Spanked

Dottie Gets Spanked is a short film that Todd Haynes did between Poison and Safe. It's not his strongest work, but it's a really interesting piece that contains a lot of the themes and motifs that inform his later work.

One of the things I love about Todd's stuff is that all of them take place in a slightly skewed version of our reality, making the ordinary into something alien and disquieting. This is most notable in his early stuff, Safe and Poison both make you slightly uncomfortable, and Dottie Gets Spanked also has that slightly off feeling. It's a film that you don't enjoy in the typical way. Dottie feels very similar to Poison, and could probably even have been incorporated as another piece of that film. However, it's also clearer and more well developed than most of the stuff in Poison, and a bit more thematically dense.

I listened to the commentary included on the DVD, and that illuminates a lot of the motivation behind the film. The main character, Steven, is a stand in for Haynes, who went through most of the stuff that he does. Nearly all of Todd's films are concerned with the way that the typical suburban family structure is constricting and damages those in it, be it Karen Carpenter's cruel parents or Cathy's snarky neighbors in Safe.

Almost all of Haynes' films are concerned with troubled female protagonist, a tendency that first emerged in his childhood drawings, much like Steven's. What makes this film interesting is that even though the film is essentially about Dottie, it's the only Haynes film that addresses the suburban family from the perspective of the male child. Steven's mother may feel the same constriction that pains Cathy or Carol, but that's not what the film is about, it's about the development of this kid.

I admire Haynes for taking on tough subject matter. It's shaky territory dealing with childhood conceptions of sexuality, but this film pulls it off, and the dream sequences present things from Steven's uninformed point of view, while at the same time showing us the tendencies that will most likely inform his later life. He knows that his attraction to spanking is something to be ashamed of, but at the same time, he can't let go of it. This sentiment is eloquently summed up in the finale, when Steven buries the picture, with the assumption that eventually he'll return to that fantasy.

The film is very economical in the way it sets things up, to some extent, Haynes uses archetypes, the gruff father who's not able to understand, the overindulgent mother, but I don't think that hurts the work. Like Lynch, he takes this somewhat cliched suburban setting and then peels back its layers to reveal the dysfunction beneath.

The dream sequences reminded me of the scenes in Natural Born Killers which also used the laughtrack as an ironic counterpoint to onscreen action. To some extent, I feel like this sort of postmodernism is a bit passe. It's been done so much that it's not as shocking as it might have been back in 1993.

This doesn't hold back Dottie from being a really successful, haunting film. Haynes is a consistently intriuging and challenging filmmaker and I'm really looking forward to his upcoming Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan.

The Dottie DVD also included a short that Haynes produced back in the 80s called He Was Once. It's a dark parody of 60s TV show Davie and Goliath. This one suffers much more from the fact that this ironic deconstruction has been done a lot in recent years. However, it's still out there enough that it works.

I haven't seen the original material, so I'm probably not the best audience for the film, however, I'm aware of the basics, it's a moralistic claymation story of a boy and his talking dog. The first notable thing about this film is the great makeup and set design, which is designed to mimic the claymation aesthetic of the show. The actors move in an odd way, which contributes to the illusion. It's a very good looking movie.

It's tough to evaluate the film without having seen the show. I'd imagine the belt stuff is drawing out something implicit in the original material, that his parents don't believe Davie's story. Here it's turned into a sadomasochistic ritual which serves as the primary form of communication between family members. The thing that makes the film work is that it's not played as something jokey, the characters behave in an exaggerated way, but events are given gravity and played seriously.

The two dream sequences are fantastic, really dark interesting stuff. It's a good companion piece to Dottie because both explore the way that children rebel against their powerlessness in relationships with their parents. So, this was a cool film, definitely worth seeing.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006


Eros is an anthology film featuring segments by Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michaelango Antonioni. I'll watch anything that Wong Kar-Wai makes, so I was eager to check this out, and the bonus of a short by Soderbergh made it even more enticing. However, the film varies widely in quality.

There's been all kinds of rumors lately about Wong Kar-Wai's next project, but one thing is clear, it's going to be in English, with American actors and shot in the United States. 2046 functioned as in many ways the ultimate Wong Kar-Wai film, taking elements from everything he'd done before and combining them in a story that touches on all his favorite themes. The end of that film seemed to signal the end of an era,and from here he's moving on to new stuff.

That's what makes Eros a bit weird, it's so entranced in the same emotional and physical space of In the Mood For Love/2046 that it feels almost superfluous watching it after seeing the two more extended treatment of the same themes. It's not that it's not a good film, it's just that it feels like Wong Kar-Wai on autopilot, there's no real innovations in the film.

That's how I felt for the first half hour or so. Chen Chang's Zhang is a fusion of Tony Leung's character in 2046 and Ziyi Zhang's in the same film. He's trapped by this one experience of passion, which holds him back, and at the same time the woman he loves so overtly rejects him by flaunting her other men when he's around. This was profoundly emotional territory in 2046, but here it feels like there's at once too much and too little story. The basic events are very simple, as in most Wong Kar-Wai films, but the beauty of most of his work is in the moments between the plot, the acute observations of everyday.

By fitting the whole story in 40 minutes, we lose the sense of these characters as fully developed people, and instead they exist more to move the story forward. Yet, at the same time, it's such a simple idea that I was hoping for some more layers or complexity. Even the style for most of the film was WKW on autopilot, using the same style as in ITMFL, obscuring characters behind objects, not allowing us to see their faces, and showing only one side of a relationship.

That's not to say there isn't some good stuff, the music is still fantastic, and some of the shots, most notably the long slow motion shot of Gong Li fixing her hair. That was a moment that only WKW can do, but most of the short moved too quickly to allow us to luxuriate in the moment.

However, in the end all the emotions come to the surface and we get some of the rawest emotional pain in any of WKW's work to date. The final scene with Zhang and Miss Hua is very powerful, the way that this expression of love becomes incredibly painful for both of them. Zhang running his hand over the dress, trying to breathe life into it is a perfect image, one that encapsulates everything that the film is about. He feels like he has made her into what she's become, he's been a part of life by making her clothes, but without her, it's just fabric.

I like the ambiguity of the ending, not telling us that Gong died, but leaving us to assume that this is indeed what happened. I think it's tough to make a 40 minute film work, because it falls in that void between feature and short. You need a lot of material, but at the same time, there's not enough time to really flesh things out, leading to an inevitable feeling of unfulfilment. It's a good film, but in terms of WKW's canon, it's never going to be anything more than a minor work.

Soderbergh's film is also a minor work, one that's jokey rather than painful. The opening dream sequence is beautifully shot, I love the blue color scheme and the way props from the dream crop up later in reality. Very cool stuff. The psychiatrist scene is funny, but the whole thing feels a bit lightweight, especially positioned after the really affecting finale of 'The Hand.'

The ending is a bit nonsensical, the way I interpreted things, it's that Robert Downey Jr. is struggling to compete with the inventors of the snooze alarm, and as a result, has a dream that he was the one to come up with it. The ending feels a bit goofy, but I do like that final shot, the repeated throwing of the airplane out the window.

But this film looks like a masterpiece compared to the finale, Antonioni's 'The Delicate Thread of Things.' I haven't seen any other Antonioni films, and though I still want to check some out, I'm hoping this film isn't representative of his work. I heard it was really bad, I heard people were walking out, but I thought, it's only 40 minutes, plus it's got a lot of nudity so how bad could it be? Very, very bad is the answer.

This movie is almost a parody of European art cinema, the characters have ambiguous, vaguely philosophical dialogue, a man wanders into a stranger's house and has sex with her, then two women run around naked on a beach. It's a good looking movie, but the narrative is really lacking. There's no character motivation and there's no sense that these characters exist in anything resembling the real world. It's like an art film set in the universe of a porn film, that's the only way to make sense of the behavior.

These are good looking women and the film is enjoyable on that level, but overwhelming that was the fact that there was no real reason for them to be doing anything. Maybe I missed something, but there didn't seem to be any themes, it was just a bunch of stuff that happened, and the final image seemed like it should be important, but there's no real significance from the story. It just doesn't work.

So, on the whole, this wasn't a particularly good film. I'm glad I saw it because the Wong Kar-Wai piece is strong, but they're all clearly minor works from otherwise excellent directors.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Real Sex in Cinema

A few days ago, I watched the movie 9 Songs, and then yesterday I watched Gaspar Noe's video for Placebo, both of which feature actual sex. So, watching these two raises some questions about where the line between art and pornography is, and more importantly, is there really any reason that you need actual sex in a film?

9 Songs isn't a porn, but it does seem constructed entirely around showing people actually having sex, and that's where it fails. I think there's definitely films that would benefit from the frank depiction of sex that this film has, but the problem with this movie is that it clearly with the idea, "Let's do a film with actual sex," and went from there. I'd guess that the basic conception of the film was to show how a relationship changes by showing us the ways that their sex changes over time. It's not a bad idea, but the film doesn't really work because we've got no context for their relationship and only a vague idea of who these people are as characters.

So, rather than feeling a greater sense of intimacy with the characters, the audience is put in a voyeuristic position. We don't know these people, so watching them go at it doesn't have much emotional significance. Plus, the band appearances felt disconnected from the rest of the movie. The film is definitely spectacle in the sense that you're there to watch some bands and some people have sex, there's no sense of real narrative progression.

Now, I'm not saying it's a bad film. There's some strong parts, the increasing antagonism of the two characters, who seem to be unable to connect to each other and start to do all sorts of role play stuff rather than confront the reality of their relationship. The best scene in the movie is when Matt blindfolds Lisa. The image is striking, and there's a lot of subtext to what they're doing there, escaping into fantasy rather than being content in the reality of where they are at the moment.

So, this is a film that's more an experiment in the depiction of sex on screen than a real narrative. I think it would have been much more interesting to drop most of the band performances, and spend more time developing the characters. The film is only 70 minutes, so if you add another 20 minutes, you could get a better sense of the relationship as a whole. Then, the sex would feel less exploitative and more like we're just seeing every facet of these people's relationship.

In terms of depicting sex on screen, it's certainly true that there's a falseness in a lot of mainstream Hollywood movies. The not so subtle positioning to avoid showing any actual nudity can seem a bit contrived. However, I don't think the reaction to this needs to be actual sex. For one, that puts actors in a really awkward position. Where's the line between kissing someone for a role and actually having sex with them? In both cases, it's supposed to be meaningless, but where is the line drawn? What should you have to go through to serve a role? In this film, there's not that much gained through the shots of actual penetration, they don't add to the emotional reality of the scene, and ultimately that's what the point of the real sex is supposed to be, to make things feel more real.

If the sex was just one part of the plot, I might have had a different reaction. If these were more developed characters, there would probably be less sense of contrivance, but as it is, it's not that the film goes too far, it's just that it seems designed only to test the limits, rather than having the boundary breaking come out of a fundamentally engaging story.

I was reading an interview with Vincent Cassel where he talks about how Gaspar Noe originally approached him to do a film in which Cassel and his real life wife, Monica Bellucci would have sex on screen. But he didn't want to do this, and that's what led to the creation of Irreversible. Even once they started Irreversible, he was saying that if they wanted to "make it real" in the scene where they're in bed together, he'd be cool with that, but Cassel and Bellucci both said there was a line between the character and the real person, and they didn't want to cross that line in the film.

That's a film that I think finds a good balance in terms of depicting intimacy on screen. The two of them wander around their apartment naked, and the fact that they're so comfortable with each other tells you what you need to know about their relationship, you don't need them to actually have sex.

Yet, Noe clearly fancied the idea because in a video he did for Placebo he goes back to the real sex idea, it's basically two people wandering through an orgy. Now, in this case, there's no narrative, what makes this video different from porn?

I would argue that it's not in the narrative, it's the technique. Watching the film, what's being shown is almost incidental to the astounding camera movement. Noe's camera glides through space, capturing this environment in a great long take. Like a lot of stuff in Irreversible, it's astounding filmmaking, but for a lot of viewers, the brilliance of his technique is negated by his subject matter.

I like the video, but I could definitely see why someone would consider it pornographic and exploitative. Noe's someone who loves to shock, and this video is an example of that.

So, what's the conclusion. I feel like in general, you don't need to have actual sex in a film. For one, it can obscure the rest of the film in terms of media attention, as with what happened with 'The Brown Bunny,' but also because I feel like it's not needed. Actual shots of penetration don't really add anything, and as long as you have actors who are willing to go to an emotionally real place, you're good. Looking at Buffy, there's a show that had to deal with network television restrictions and still managed to portray sex in a really strong, interesting way. Buffy and Spike having sex in the falling house doesn't need nudity to convey its meaning. But there are other scenes that feel hamstrung by the need to keep any real nudity out of the scene.

It would be interesting to see the reaction to a mainstream film that features real sex, but I don't see it happening, and for the sake of actors involved, I'd say that's a good thing.