Posts Tagged ‘Independent

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.

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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.

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.

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.

24
Sep
08

Two Friends

I saw Two Friends by Australian director, Jane Campion last night. Not a masterpiece exactly, but a well-executed slice of life movie that captures the de-evolution of a friendship in an intriguing way. The film is structured as a series of progressively earlier flashbacks, so it ends with the scene that happens in the characters’ lives the earliest. Admittedly this is a gimmick, but I feel like it did emphasize the nostalgia that tends to permeate my own reflections back on my adolescent friendships. There is a nice, implicit feminist tone to the film, as you might expect from a movie chronicling a friendship between two girls, without being too cliche or overwrought. The whole film is done with an amazingly light, understated touch which allows the relationship between the friends and the mother and daughter in the movie to unfold in a way that feels very genuine. I recommend it, especially for people who have enjoyed other works by Campion.

–Vicky Vengeance