Archive for July, 2009

31
Jul
09

kiss of the spiderwoman

kiss_of_the_spider_woman

Well, so I sat down and watched Hector Babenco’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. I’m not here to talk about the film — it’s good, Raul Julia as Valentin is as great as you’d expect, William Hurt is good (if a little broad) as Molina, the score is fantastic, the look is unexpectedly and delightfully gritty, the ending is tragic — but more about how the movie interacts with the book that it’s based on.

Kiss of the Spider Woman has been adapted a number of times: translated from its original Spanish, turned into a play, turned into this film, then into a musical (which I have a hard time picturing, but then Little Shop of Horrors makes absolutely no sense if you just describe it as a musical version of a Roger Corman film about a man-eating plant). The book likes to play around with narrative conventions, dispensing entirely with any description whatsoever up to and including dialogue tags. All the information we have about the protagonists and villains we gather from the conversations themselves. It’s a very theatrical approach, stripped of the faces and voices which would normally help the audience separate Valentin from Molina, Molina from the Warden, the Warden from his subordinates. It casts an ambiguity over the whole book, especially in scenes where the personalities of the characters are suppressed or where they don’t refer to each other by name. The love scene between Valentin and Molina benefits particularly strongly from this; the assumptions you bring to the scene and your understanding of who’s doing what to whom is all internal.

Obviously, all of that ambiguity goes out the window when you pin Valentin and Molina down to this particular face, this particular voice. There’s never a question of who’s speaking and when; Raul Julia is clearly not William Hurt and vice versa, so what was crucial to the novel — the blending and exchanging of personalities between Valentin and Molina — just evaporates. In the book, the line between the two is sharpest at the beginning of the book, when you have Molina the gay aesthete spinning out a movie for the hardline revolutionary Valentin; as the book develops, the boundary blurs. Valentin softens, becomes more willing to accept small pleasures and fantasy, and Molina is spurred into action and out of his apolitical escapism. Without a narrative framework to overtly place the characters, this exchange of personalities and narrative voices effectively transposes the characters. Molina becomes Valentin, Valentin becomes Molina. The film faithfully follows the arc of the book, but the transition is simply less effective when you’re looking at huge, blond Hurt and not the small, dark Julia. The physical distinction is simply too great to admit to any ambiguity.

All of which isn’t to say that the film is bad in any way. It isn’t. It’s great! But something of what made the novel so compelling is inevitably lost when it’s taken away from the page, and any understanding of the Kiss of the Spider Woman has to be grounded in this recognition.

31
Jul
09

The General

buster_keaton_general

Just a quickie review today. I saw The General yesterday and it is, of course, fantastic. It’s kind of amazing to watch Buster Keaton act, since he actually has a really dour, long face, huge, soulful eyes, and he naturally wears a rather serious expression. Check him out in this close-up for example:

BusterKeaton

He looks more like a poet than a virtuosic, daredevil comedian. But when I really think about it,  I guess this deadpan is actually part of what makes him funny. The true magic of The General comes from the way Buster Keaton floats through the obstacles around him half-unaware, half-blase. Just like his other famed contemporary, Charlie Chaplin, the real dynamite quality of his performance is how effortless he makes pretty unbelievable stunts look. His odd, sullen face sets this off all the more. The other thing I like about The General is how it is a perfect marriage between action and comedy and, as I’d already mentioned in an earlier review, these genres come together all too rarely these days. This one is definitely worth checking out. Particularly, if you are lucky enough to live in a city with an amazing silent movie house with a real working organ like I used to.

29
Jul
09

The Double Life of Veronique

veronique-500

Yesterday, I watched The Double Life of Veronique, which is actually the first movie I’ve seen by much-lauded director, Krzysztof Kieslowski. It is a really interesting movie which is a hybrid of several different genres, in addition to experimenting with character, narrative, and cinematography. It’s probably the most difficult movie to write about that I’ve reviewed so far because it is constructed almost like a poem, with so many of the images in the film bearing a lot of intuitive and emotional weight. This movie is one of those rare films where the director handles everything delicately enough, with enough grace, that the images take on a life of their own for the individual viewer. A wide range of shadings and interpretations can be taken from each one, an effect he apparently created deliberately since he tinkered with many different versions of the film before the final cut.

Kieslowski uses a filter over the lens for most of the film and the color palette of the scenes alternates between warm, autumnal tones and an eerie, absinthe green tint which also contributes to a certain unsettled quality, as well as an overall magical realism to the world around the main characters. When the movie begins, it feels unmistakably like a horror movie. The overpowering charm and naive sensuality of the heroine, Polish Weronika, puts us on guard because her joy feels so open, a loose and vulnerable thing. Whenever the camera lingers too long over perfection, it is a cue to the audience that something is wrong underneath the beautiful scene on the screen. As the movie shifts to focus on French Veronique, however, it turns into a romantic mystery of sorts (the kind which Amelie is surely greatly indebted to, not to mention the striking likeness between Irene Jacob and Audrey Tatou). Yet, even though there is much less tension around Veronique’s narrative, we are haunted by her supernatural similarities to Weronika.

As flowery as it may sound, the movie gradually insinuates itself into your consciousness like curls of smoke and stirs the place where the most-difficult-to-describe feelings dwell. It draws out a kind of spiritual deja vu, which you might feel in an unexpected moment of startling coincidence or the sudden recognition a pattern in the unfolding of events. Moments like this can make the world around you suddenly seem alive and all too conscious in a way that is both exciting and scary. The movie genuinely evokes that tension to very dramatic effect, causing the viewer to have an emotional response to concepts that would be fairly abstract and intellectual when broken down on a philosophical level. It is very much a magical movie in that sense and one that I would definitely recommend to anyone who has not seen it yet.

I will mention though, the feminist in me was a little disturbed by how the characters Weronika/Veronique are portrayed. They are very innocent, almost to the point of having a certain child-like quality, yet they are still intensely eroticised as well. It is hard to imagine a film heroine who is more beautiful, delicate, and alluring, almost wholly without flaw. While her character is well-developed, with a close attention to the little details of personality which make a character feel like a real person, she is also clearly a poeticized fantasy-object, an objectified muse, kept apart from the flesh-and-blood realm the rest of us live in. Because of the mystical, fairy tale quality to the entire movie, this doesn’t feel as out of place as it might in a more realistic picture. And also, I’m sure certain blanks are left in the character in order to intrigue the viewer to watch the events unfold all that more closely and further build the mystery around her.

She does seem like a sort of cypher though in some moments, or an elaborate metaphor, in a way that made me a touch uncomfortable. I felt like she was this close to being revealed as a constructed, cyborg manifestation of the director’s vision in a way which makes the viewer feel like a voyeur. Indeed, toward the end of the picture an explicit reference is made as the lead male crafts a puppet version of Weronika/Veronique and begins to craft a narrative for his upcoming novel. It definitely provokes a bit of a creepy, paternalistic feeling that troubled me, especially since it also places the viewer in such a voyeuristic position with the most intimate pieces of Weronika/Veronique’s lives exposed to our scrutiny.

There is too much reliance on traditional gendered dynamics between masculine director:feminine muse, masculine audience:feminine lead actress, subject:object. Making the same film with a male main character would almost be unfathomable, since so much of the tone of the film turns on the audience being drawn in by the romantic and sexual desirability and very feminine fragility of Weronika/Veronique. This, in turn, makes me feel unsure about what subtle, built-in undertones we are ultimately meant to take away, at least in terms of what gendered implications the movie allows.

27
Jul
09

Cold Fever

Cold Fever

I randomly picked Cold Fever up at the video store a few days ago. It is about a Japanese man who ends up traveling deep into the wilds of Iceland after his parents’ accidental deaths there. The blurb on the back compares it to Mystery Train by Jim Jarmusch and it definitely does have a lot in common with that film in terms of tone and subject matter, but I’m not sure it’s quite as successful.

The movie really emphasizes the atmosphere of the place, which is portrayed as a surreal, icy landscape populated almost entirely by eccentrics and the occasional mystical elf. While it definitely has its moments of humor and beauty, there were some holes in the structure of the film that bothered me a little. For one thing, it is never really fully explained what his parents were doing living in Iceland and when you realize how far out into the wilderness they were, it becomes difficult not to see it as a fairly elaborate plot gimmick. Considering that his parents’ deaths are the whole impetus for this epic journey in the first place, it seemed odd not to understand the circumstances or really the full background of their relationship.

Secondly, a major running plot device is built around the rickety frozen car the main character randomly buys to help him get to his remote destination. I don’t really understand though how he wouldn’t realize in advance how far out he would need to travel and why he wouldn’t have rented a decent car in the first place. He also ends up getting lost trying to get to Reykjavik in the beginning, boarding some kind of tourist bus by accident when he arrives in the airport. It seems somewhat unbelievable that a successful Japanese executive, even one has young as him, would not have at least made a few preliminary arrangements before arriving in a foreign country. Of course, the movie is really intended to be much more about mood and atmosphere and there’s a nice rhythm to the narrative, but it was hard for me not to get tangled up with these little inconsistencies in the plot.

24
Jul
09

Bound

bound

Continuing in the cult movie vein, I saw Bound for the first time a few days ago after meaning to get around to seeing it for years. For as long as there are video stores, this is one movie you’ll always be able to find for the infamous sex appeal between Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon. Their relationship has become a classic in some lesbian circles and no doubt a favorite amongst legions of straight men. With that said, there has also been a fair amount of controversy about whether the film is a feminist-leaning subversion of traditional gender roles and heteronormativity or whether it is just another male-fantasy, lesbian-exploitation film with some clever twists on the noir genre. Honestly, I feel some ambivalence about it.

One of the things that first made me like cult movies was how much more playful they can often be about gender, race, and sexual orientation, with a deeper interest in subverting categories and spoofing Hollywood conventions than most mainstream popular films. This is a characteristic of cult films that has clearly followed through from the older, pulp classics of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s and straight through Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. This is very much present in Bound too. I am, in fact, a big fan of Jackie Brown in particular, where Pam Grier does such a great job of bringing her refreshingly three-dimensional character to life. The characters in Bound are definitely not as sensitively developed here and are more like something out of a pulp novel, like old-time lesbian classic Beebo Brinker, or a B-movie noir.

Jennifer Tilly’s Violet is a sort of Mae West, gun moll type and Gina Gershon’s Corky (ahem, I really almost couldn’t get past how ridiculous her name is) is James Dean by way of K.D. Lang. Is it over the top? Undoubtedly. Does their first sexual encounter seem pretty stilted/tawdry? Definitely. Is it still super entertaining? Pretty much. The best thing about the movie and the reason that it deserves to haunt video stores from coast to coast is that it’s a pretty cleverly written little noir, where nothing goes as planned, but the main characters still somehow manage to keep on going. In comparison to the mega-overblown scripting of the Wachowski’s next series of films, (The Matrix series), it is nice to see the little indie film they started with which wraps up so neatly and has a lot of similar lovable touches to it that have always made the Coen brothers films such masterpieces.

For another thing, SPOILER ALERT, it is really nice to see a movie where the lesbian leads get a happy ending for once, in comparison to so many of the other lesbian-themed films out there (typically the ones written by honest-to-God lesbians) which are crushingly depressing. For all its cheesiness, this movie is really fun to watch and is good for what ails you if ye olde patriarchal hegemony is getting you down.

21
Jul
09

Constantine & The Prophecy

constantine

I was excited to catch Constantine on TV a few days ago since I remembered it getting decent reviews when it originally came out and, contrary to how it may seem based on the movies I have reviewed on this blog so far, Horror and Cult movies are really my first love. Fair warning, I’ve never read the comic book for this one so I have no idea how much of the film was built around the source material and I realize some allowances must be made when a film is trying to do justice to a pre-existing work. I will say, from the Google imagesearch I did of the Hellblazer comics, the drawn Constantine looks a lot more like a noir-ified version of Kiefer Sutherland’s character from Lost Boys than a Matrixified Keanu Reeves and I’m sure the fans were less than thrilled with the casting here. Like many of the lead characters in the Vertigo pantheon, it seems like Constantine is intended to be more of a dark anti-hero with a troubled past, which doesn’t fit with what we see of his character in the film.

This movie was definitely overstuffed with plot and I feel like it lacked a lot of background exposition which could have made some of the plot progression less confusing. The audience does not have a clear sense of Constantine’s abilities/personality or the rules governing the world of the movie until fairly deep in. While some of the visuals were cool, I also thought the action in the film was too heavily emphasized over the horror aspects. Lastly, it was a touch disappointing to see Rachel Weisz’s character be little more than a pretty, useless tag-along for most of the film, despite supposedly being a tough, city detective. I think if her relationship with Constantine was more balanced out, more akin to an amped-up Scully/Mulder dynamic, it could have brought a lot more charm and interest to the movie. In general I think one of the biggest deficits in some recent action movies, Constantine included, is that they lack the sense of humor which has made other action films like Die Hard, so much more fun to watch. More of a tongue-in-cheek attitude works much better, especially if what you’re expecting the audience to follow and buy into is really over-the-top like in this movie.

In terms of the positives, I will say I was pleasantly surprised to see Tilda Swinton playing Gabriel, who of course steals all the scenes she’s in and I wished there had been more of her throughout the movie. Her level of acting ability and charisma in comparison to Keanu’s weak lead is kind of ridiculous. Even Pruitt Taylor Vince, who is a great character actor and plays a minor side role, has more life to him than Reeves. As an aside, Gavin Rossdale is also in the movie (making his acting debut here as one of the villains) which I found kind of bizarre and random. Anyway, overall the movie was pretty bad and made me have an intense craving to watch cult classic, The Prophecy again, which is a similar concept with a much stronger execution.

the prophecy

I always think of The Prophecy as being like Christopher Walken’s Silence of the Lambs. Even though he is the villain of the series, he really captivates you every time he’s onscreen with some great lines and a kind of jokey, crackling menace that is wonderful. There is actually a lot of good acting in the film though, with Eric Stoltz, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Hytner, and Adam Goldberg all doing a good job in their supporting roles and only the two leads coming off a little wooden.

In contrast to Constantine, there are some genuinely tense parts in The Prophecy, in addition to some dynamite action sequences and the script is well-written enough to keep you engaged. The movie offers enough background about the characters and the main conflict for you to basically understand what’s going on, without giving away the plot twists that keep the movie hurtling forward. There are also a lot of nice, unexpected details to the script, such as how Gabriel stalls begrudging, unfortunate souls from crossing over so they can operate as his servants to great comedic effect. And there is interesting playfulness with Christian mythology in the kernel of the story, which raises the idea that angels might be jealous of humans for their souls and for being God’s best loved creation. It’s definitely a cult movie worth picking up at your local video store if you’re in the mood for a horror/action movie with some off-beat touches or just for Christopher Walken being awesome.

19
Jul
09

In A Lonely Place

in a lonely placeThis weekend I also saw In a Lonely Place, directed by Nicholas Ray and starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame, which is a classic noir about a reclusive screenwriter with an anger management problem and a potential murder rap haunting him. It’s an interesting bit of IMDB trivia to learn that Ray was married to Grahame at the time and they ultimately broke up during the filming of the movie. Apparently the producer was worried enough about the situation to force Gloria Grahame to sign a contract stating “my husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday…I acknowledge that in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail.” Grahame was also forbidden to “nag, cajole, tease or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.” One has to wonder how much the tension between Ray and Grahame may have contributed to the tension in the film as Grahame’s character, Laurel Gray, grows more and more uneasy about her boyfriend’s violent temperament.

The script is packed full of wry, lightning-quick dialogue and there is well-balanced chemistry between Bogey and Grahame, who is more droll and less va va voom than Bacall would have been in the role. In comparison to the protagonists in so many modern movies, there is a crackling intellect about both leads here that is very enjoyable to watch. Like any noir though, the movie takes a much darker turn and does so fairly abruptly.

Although I enjoyed the movie and I do recommend it, I thought a few things might have enhanced it’s underlying themes. For one thing, I found it curious that as Bogart begins to lean toward the Mr. Hyde half of his personality, we become more distanced from his character and it is left ambiguous whether he really recognizes how inappropriate his behavior is and how scary he must be to the people around him, despite his supposed genius-level intelligence. In fact, the movie gradually shifts from following Bogart’s character to following Grahame’s character in a somewhat awkward dodge, meant to ramp up the doubts of the audience. After Bogart wounds his agent and oldest friend he only hesitantly, barely apologizes to him and he is unwilling to directly address how his erratic behavior is effecting Grahame after another major episode. I wonder how different the film would be if the narrative stuck with Bogart instead and his character more directly engaged with this demon inside himself. I was half-expecting something like this to come through in a closer view of the script Bogart is working on in the movie, but nothing like that ever actually materializes.

dvdlonelyhands

SPOILERS AHEAD. Apparently, in the movie’s original ending Bogart actually kills Grahame instead of almost killing her, but Ray felt that ending made the picture too bleak and Bogart’s character too monstrous. I wish that it had ended as it was originally intended because it would have brought out the full dramatic irony of Bogart’s former innocence and it would also have made more of a statement about how violence can lead to more violence and what kind of atrocities we may be capable of against our better natures depending on the circumstances.

Instead, the parting message of the film is murkier, with the ironic weight being placed on the relationship’s seemingly unnecessary demise. After seeing what happens when Bogart loses his temper, it’s hard to be satisfied by that ending. Whether or not Grahame suspected he could be capable of murder, his character did in fact seriously injure a former girlfriend and it seems inevitable that she was bound to become afraid of him when something else she did set him off later on. The audience is supposed to see this ending, where the two lovers are torn asunder, as unhappy and we’re given the oil tanker of a parting line: “I was born when he kissed me, I died when he left me, and I lived in a few weeks while he loved me.” In reality though, this ending is only truly unhappy if your sympathies rest primarily with Bogart. It actually seems like fairly good fortune to me that Grahame ultimately gets out of the relationship with her life and her freedom.

When looked at in this sense, the movie is almost a time capsule of societal attitudes of domestic violence at the time, with a subtle implication that if Grahame could have just trusted Bogart and stood by her man, things wouldn’t have escalated into the messy violent breakdown of the climax. Instead, Bogart is provoked again and again by the white lies she makes while she tries to extricate herself from the powder keg she finds herself in. From a modern perspective, it’s hard to really go along with the reading the film draws the audience into since it is so clear that most of the problems in their relationship are not about the unsolved murder hanging over their heads, but about Bogart’s inability to express his emotions in healthier ways and Grahame’s inability to talk openly with him out of fear for her own safety and her traditional feminine position in the relationship. Considering that Ray also directed several movies which perhaps more effectively questioned gender roles and sexuality like Rebel Without A Cause and Johnny Guitar, it’s interesting that Ray did not more directly question the crisis of masculinity that Bogart’s character somewhat embodies in In A Lonely Place.