Author Archive for

12
Nov
11

Grace of My Heart

Allison Anders is one of my favorite directors and I was really excited to finally watch Grace of My Heart which I’ve been wanting to see for forever. While I didn’t like it as much as Mi Vida Loca or Gas, Food, Lodging and it does have some structural flaws, it is an incredibly feminist movie in lots of ways and I think it is a more successful effort than Things Behind the Sun.  The inspiration for the movie came from the Brill Building era of American popular music, when the songwriters, producers, and recording studios were all working in the same building, just across the hall from each other, and churning out a new hit record every week. The movie follows Illeana Douglas as an aspiring singer turned song-writer, Edna Buxton/Denise Waverly and travels through several decades of music history along the way.

There were so many things that were refreshing and amazing about this movie. It is chock full of a laundry list of lovely feminist touches. Edna is not conventional, Hollywood pretty. Instead, she is intelligent, talented, funny, and ambitious. The movie follows her story and is told from her perspective. It is so rare to see such a well-developed female character at all, much less a film that follows her journey and lets her drive the plot. On top of that, it is one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that was really about a woman’s career and her ambition more than her love life. While Edna’s relationships are important components of the story of the film, they’re important because they develop her character and give her life fullness for us, not because that’s the whole focus of all the movement in the film, which is exactly how romance is used in most movies about male main characters.

The strongest relationships Edna ultimately has are the friendships that she builds with other women trying to succeed in the business and her boss, played really wonderfully by John Turturro. The strength of the bonds that exist between women is a recurring feature in Anders’ movies and it was especially well done in this movie, especially because Anders also shows the initial rivalry and jealousy that can exist between women in the professional world and then shows the women breaking through that. So. Amazing.

Additionally, the movie also lightly touches on the racism, poverty, and homophobia of the time, which gives the movie a lot of extra merit that could have easily been left out or watered down by another director. I especially really loved how Anders included a riff on Lesley Gore’s experience as a lesbian recording artist during that era. She also shows what Edna goes through as a single mom and it is one of the few movies I’ve seen where the children don’t just disappear mysteriously into the background immediately after they’re born. Instead, we actually see Edna’s daughter through the whole movie, we see Edna being a mother while also having a career and dating and living a well-rounded life as most moms do. We see how she has to arrange for child care and we see poignant moments with her little girl. Again, this is something you just NEVER see in movies.

Where the movie kind of falls apart for me is when Edna becomes involved with Anders’ riff on Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. The real heart of the movie is in the Brill Building and when she leaves New York for L.A., the movie drifts away from its real strengths. Brian Wilson’s whole bizarre personality and life story could clearly be a movie all its own and it feels awkward to have it added on. It takes the drive of the story away from Edna and we lose all the beautifully rendered color and energy of the Brill Building. With that said, it is definitely well worth seeing and it makes me really wish that Anders would make another movie soon.

29
Sep
10

Apartment Zero

I just watched Apartment Zero, which has been on my cult movie list for a long time after being recommended by Videohound and one of Scarecrow’s clerks ages ago. It certainly wasn’t entirely what I expected since the box sells it more as a horror and instead of the psychological thriller with very pronounced homoeroticism throughout that it is. With that said, it was definitely an unusual and surprising film. There are very strong similarities in tone and subject matter to Polanski’s The Tenant, which is another paranoiac film about getting along with your neighbors, although in some ways it is its polar opposite. In contrast to The Tenant’s harmless, socially awkward main character who mainly just wants to get along with his unsettling neighbors despite the way they increasingly intrude on his privacy and sanity throughout the film, however, Apartment Zero’s lead LeDuc is openly hostile to his friendly, though eccentric neighbors from the beginning in this film. Then again though, like the best Polanski films, Apartment Zero has the audience on pins and needles throughout, the twists and turns of the plot are truly unpredictable in a way that most thrillers aren’t, and it explores non-mainstream sexuality in a challenging way.

What I also really liked about Apartment Zero was the way that although all of the characters in the film have very large and obvious flaws, almost everyone is at least sympathetic with many of them being pretty likable. I wouldn’t call it a great movie per se, as overall it is fairly uneven. In certain parts it can feel less unpredictable and more like the movie can’t make up it’s mind about what it wants to be, teetering between black comedy, romance, horror, and even quasi-porno. And it also hits you over the head with the homoeroticism in a way that’s bordering on totally bizarre and laughable. I appreciate the ambitiousness of the attempt though and Colin Firth’s performance is really excellent.

29
Sep
09

Hiatus Over

Sorry to have vanished again briefly. The last few weeks turned out to be totally killer for me between having various people visiting me, going on my own vacation, working, being boring etc. etc. Hopefully, I can get back started again now though. I have seen so many movies that I need to update on, including:

Hell is a City

Bright Star

Capitalism: A Love Story

Dead Again

Odd Man Out

Ponyo

Inglourious Basterds (I can barely stand to write out this title with its bad spelling omg)

Julie and Julia

District 9

Maybe I’ll do a series of short takes just to plow through them.

11
Aug
09

An Angel at My Table

an angel at my table

With my recent discovery of another sprawling, chaotic video store to haunt, I finally tracked down a scratchy VHS copy of An Angel at My Table by Jane Campion, which has been surprisingly difficult for me to find considering that it was recently released by Criterion Collection. As usual, I’m sure the fact that it was directed by a woman and is about a woman writer has NOTHING to do with being unable to find it anywhere.

Anyway, the film is a biopic about New Zealand-born writer, Janet Frame, which starts with her working class childhood, extends through her adolescence, and on into her early adulthood with three separate actors for each phase. I really liked the movie, although I do have a couple complaints. For one thing, I did not have the benefit of closed captioning/subtitles while watching it, which caused me to miss a fair chunk of the dialogue between the thick accents and the poor quality of the VHS copy I watched. I would definitely recommend trying to get the DVD version if you can because I imagine subtitles will make it much easier to follow.

Secondly (and no doubt relatedly), the scene changes in the film are often pretty abrupt and several times I got confused about what was happening and who different characters were. There is no direct narration in the film so you have to pick information up as it moves along.

There is no direct narration in the film so you have to pick information up as it moves along. The edges become a little blurry in terms of how much time is actually passing from scene to scene, what the relationships between different characters are, etc. At a certain point, you kind of just have to let go of understanding a lot of the background particulars.

With that said, it was impossible for me not to identify with the main character and to feel compelled by her life story. As a card-carrying introvert, I always really appreciate movies that focus on people who are painfully shy, even if they make me cringe intensely. This movie is an intense, sensitive portrayal of the character that manages to pull her inner life out through a lot of subtle details in the landscape, the framing of the shots, the narrative choices, and last, but definitely not least, absolutely fantastic acting. I think Campion must have left a lot of blanks in the movie in terms of the story, not only for practical reasons, but also because this style forces the audience to watch the movie in the hyper-observant way that Janet Frame lived her whole life. By the end, you feel like you’ve really been inside her world, with all its beauty and pain. Much recommended.

05
Aug
09

moon

rockwell-moon-1

Here is another quickie review today. I was a latecomer to Moon because I suspected it was going to be one of those anxiety-filled, Kafka-esque sci-fi movies that make me even more nervous than I am on my own and I was right to a certain extent. It is definitely very tense for most of the film. Yet, somehow it was tense in a way that didn’t wear on the psyche and it was very absorbing to watch.

There are some interesting plot twists along the way (that I won’t ruin for once) which wake the audience up a little bit and there are a couple scenes out on the moonscape which actually does a lot to relieve the audience’s claustrophobia. I also think there’s something about the muted vacuum of the space station setting which oddly mellows the emotions in this movie out, which is kind of the opposite of a few other sci-fi movies I can think of. Generally, there are definitely echoes of some of these other films, Dark Star, Solaris (the American remake version, as opposed to Tarkovsky’s heavier endeavor), and even the other recent, fabulously executed sci-fi movie, Sunshine. But the charm of the movie isn’t really so much from it being particularly groundbreaking or even all that philosophically deep.

Mainly the movie’s charisma is thanks to Sam Rockwell’s amazing, bravura performance and a carefully written script. So much of the believability and pathos of the film rests squarely on Rockwell’s shoulders and I thought he did a spectacular job during what must have been a lot of green screen time. It’s a little indie gem that’s worth checking out even if you aren’t particularly big on the genre. I can at least say that I felt like it was worth addling my nerves a bit to see it.

03
Aug
09

Yes Madam, Sir

yes-madam-sir_592x299

The IFC Center is hosting Docuweeks in NYC this month, which is a festival of documentary films from all over the world which are screened here and in Los Angeles to put them in the running for the Oscars. This weekend I went to see Yes Madam, Sir, profile of Kiran Bedi, India’s first female police officer. After refusing time and time again to compromise with a corrupt, networking/politically-based system, Bedi is dumped in numerous unwanted, nightmare positions and manages to make some powerful reforms in a notoriously ill-run prison she oversees and at a police academy which has been allowed to be lax in its discipline and training regimen before her arrival. It is a very interesting portrait of a strong, passionate woman who has always pursued what she felt was best. While there are obviously some very meaningful feminist components to the film, I appreciated the fact that the movie does not hit you over the head with them and that it realistically portrayed the difficult choices many ambitious, principled women must make as they seek success in a patriarchal world.

While watching the film I couldn’t help making comparisons between Kiran Bedi’s life and my mother’s. She is a similarly strong-willed, ambitious woman who started out (at least during my lifetime) as an LDS housewife and went on to go to a prestigious law school and fulfillment in her career. I think one thing that struck me during the movie was how, beyond the nobility of relentlessly sticking to her moral code, there are deeper reasons why Bedi’s opinions had to be so firm and her assertiveness so unbreakable. For many women, particularly women who are trying to make progress in a very male-dominated field, compromise is not an option. While certain compromises might soften you in the eyes of some, they will ultimately be unforgivable to those who judge women much more harshly and will use any opportunity to undermine their authority and strength.

A significant subplot in the film revolves around Bedi’s relationship with her daughter and other members of her family. As is common for so many strong women, it seems like Bedi has been forced to neglect her family as she pursued a larger agenda for the betterment of her country. Toward the end, you can see very clearly both how painful it’s been for her daughter to grow up without having her mother as much as she wanted, but also how much respect she has for her mother and how she would not have wanted her to back down from the numerous fights she found herself in. I feel the same way about my mom. Whatever sacrifices my dad and I made to move with her to law school were very much worth it to see my mom succeed where others said she would fail. I’ve learned so much from what my mom went through and it makes me want to pursue my career with the same drive and also, just be myself in a way I don’t know I would have the courage to otherwise. It is great to see such a fascinating woman portrayed with real depth and insight into what she faced along the way and I hope this film will have a chance for wider distribution in the near future.

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.