Posts Tagged ‘Foreign

15
Mar
16

Song of the Sea

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Christ, what an asshole.

Song of the Sea is by the studio that made The Secret of Kells, and it’s funny, warm, beautiful, and sad, as you’d expect, but that’s not what I want to talk about.

Song of the Sea is about Ben, an Irish boy, and his relationship with his Selkie sister Saoirse, and their race to save her life and the lives of every other fairy or magical creature in the world. It does a lot of things right — the quiet way it lets the family’s trauma play out, the awful (but not quite abusive) way Ben treats his mute sister, his dawning self-awareness about how odious he’s been — those are all handled well, but there are two fundamental things the movie does that bug me:

First, the story is about Ben, not about Saoirse, despite it clearly being her story, not his. I understand this is typical of these kinds of movies, to make the audience stand-in the normal person, but Saoirse is a normal person for the bulk of the movie. She doesn’t have any particular knowledge or insight that would be problematic if it was given or withheld from us, she has the same emotional turmoil and catharsis to go through as Ben, she is literally the person who saves the magical world at the film’s first climax, but she’s consistently backgrounded in his favor, literally deprived of her voice, and it’s frustrating and alienating in a movie that is otherwise so deft emotionally; imagine if Harry Potter were written exclusively from Ron’s standpoint. If there were a gap between the characters — if she were significantly older or younger, say, or bigger or smaller, or more magical, or something — it would have gone down smoother, but the movie has an extended piece through the middle where they are literally tied together (because he has leashed her like a dog, which is simultaneously incredibly assholeish and a particularly well-observed bit of eight year old older brother dickishness), made a narrative unit even as he continues to belittle and berate her. You wouldn’t have had to do much to shift the emphasis here, either — simply shooting the same scenes from her perspective would have done the trick — but that might have made Ben out as too much of a villain. I don’t know. He should have been framed as more of a villain, maybe, and I’m sorry the movie didn’t commit to that empathetic leap. My sympathies as a viewer were entirely with her, but the film kept putting me in his place, and that dissonance was continually distracting.

Second, all the magical creatures go off to the Other World at the end of the movie, like they always do, and that always frustrates me. If your story is about leaving fantasy behind, or transcending it, or going through the harrowing process and returning to the other world informed and enlightened, that sort of thing makes sense, but Song of the Sea was explicitly about accepting yourself for who you are and the people you love for who they are, and not shutting things away simply because they’re uncomfortable. Ben and Saorise go through an entire movie to return her to her true, magical self (at which point she’s finally able to speak!), only for her to cast that away five minutes later because it would mean leaving her frankly terrible human family behind. She gets to keep her voice, I guess, but that’s still pretty paltry a reward. Hell, they get their dead mother back, and she goes off into the Distant West almost immediately. What was the point? That nothing comes without a cost? It feels undercooked. Compare the ending here to Labyrinth — which has a similar “you are a terrible older sibling now go save your kid brother/sister and also magic is real” plot, but which ends with Sarah partying with her goblin friends in the real world, having grown from her experience but not having to repudiate it all to return. That’s satisfying.

labyrinth

That’s how you do it.

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11
Mar
16

Four Oddballs

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Modesty Blaise

There are two of these. The more recent one is actually a pretty decent movie (and definitely worth a look as an honestly feminist spy movie where the action hero draws her power from the connections she’s made, not violent isolation) but the original one is candy colored and BALLS CRAZY. About equal parts Danger: Diabolik and Our Man Flint, it’s inexplicable, campy and fun as heck.

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Ravenous

A black comedy (or comedic horror movie) about cannibals and the Wendigo, written and directed by and starring vegetarians, so there are a lot of queasy shots of meat both animal and human. Featuring Guy Pierce, the guy from the Full Monty and Jeffery Jones (of Howard the Duck fame!). Look for the chase sequence set to the banjo music from Raising Arizona.

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The Revenger’s Tragedy

You just never know with Alex Cox. His influences are all over the map, and sometimes he’s just damn unwatchable. (The dreary, muddy Borges adaption Death and the Compass?) But other times he’s sublimely inartistic—Repo Man, sure, or the even awesomer Repo Chick—or here, where he somehow found funding for an original language version of a Jacobean revenge play set in the grim post apocalyptic world of 2012 Liverpool starring The Doctor and The Master (Christopher Eccleston and Derek Jacobi, if you’re a philistine). Oh, and Eddie Izzard is in it as one of the less flamboyant characters, so there you go. Hard to follow in a noisy environment, but then the dialogue is kind of secondary, anyway. Everybody wants everybody else dead, and there’s some incest too, just because.

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Lemora

I don’t even know about this one. Sort of like Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty, and sort of like Teeth, and sort of like neither. Lila, a fundamentalist pre-teen girl leaves her creepy pedo foster parent (a really broad caricature of an evangelical preacher) and goes in search of her missing father, a violent 20s style gangster. She runs into zombies, slimy bus drivers and an old witch before falling in with Lemora, who might be her mother, or another witch, or herself as a sexually mature woman. Weird, culty, doing that feminist reworking of fairy tales as a sexual coming of age story thing. Especially great for a scene where Lemora pursues Lila as her clitoris embodied as a burning torch.

19
Jan
12

Interstella 5555

There are times when I desperately miss MTV’s Liquid Television, an off-putting showcase of animation bizarre, gross or just plain experimental. A lot of the shorts were dialogue-free, or nearly, relying in true MTV style on the kineticism of the visuals to carry the film. There isn’t really anything like it anymore, although Daft Punk’s Interstella 5555 comes pretty close.

Written by Daft Punk and Cédric Hervet and animated by Toei under the direction of Kazuhisa Takenochi, I5555 is anachronistic as all hell, a slice of early 80s anime that somehow fell through time and space to crash into DP’s Discovery. The story is… well, pretty thin (alien musicians are kidnapped by an Earth cult as part of a plot to conquer the universe utilizing the power of 5,555 gold records?), but so what? The movie reeks of wish-fulfillment, a chance for the band to work with an animator that they loved, and that kind of obsessive labor of love is the pure beating heart of cult.

I’m still waiting on that Jem movie, though!

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.

03
Aug
09

Yes Madam, Sir

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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.

29
Jul
09

The Double Life of Veronique

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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.