Borderlands (Zev Berman, 2007): 6.5/10

The Magic Flute (Ingmar Bergman, 1975): 7/10

La Guerre Est Finie (Alain Resnais, 1966): 7/10

Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers, 2008): 8/10

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Location: milwaukee, wi

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

No Country For Old Men (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, 2007)

There is no film, at least right now, that is getting more best of and awards buzz than No Country For Old Men (with the exception of possibly Juno, on which I'll discuss my feelings soon). At the earliest show in a Saturday afternoon, the weekend it opened in Milwaukee, the huge auditorium I saw it in was 3/4 of the way full, and with a refreshingly diverse crowd (not just old white people, as it usually is at this patricular theater). All the buzz had me expecting the best movie of the year, and while I wasn't disappointed, I was not completely bowled over, either. It's a very good movie with some great performances, but it's not perfect.

Javier Bardem, however, is perfect as Anton Chigurh, the cold-blooded killer and thief who my family decided was one of the worst killers onscreen ever. But aside from all the killing he does - and there is a lot - he is also one of the only men in the film with an actual set of values, ironically enough. He does what he says, and says what he does. He's not a killer who traps you through lies and conniving; he is straight-up and brutal. That's terrifying. I hope this role finally brings Bardem the breakout success he so deserves in this country, as well as an Oscar for the finest acting I've seen all year.

The rest of the cast is certainly solid, with Josh Brolin (he's having one hell of a year) as Llewellyn, the man who unfortunately finds Anton's briefcase full of money, Tommy Lee Jones as Sherriff Bell, who tries to protect Llewellyn, but is always one step behind, and especially Kelly MacDonald as Carla, Llewellyn's wife who is smart-mouthed but deeply caring and affected. My brother contends that Brolin's performance was as perfect as any actor could be in this role, and maybe he's right and I just don't get the character. Llewellyn is a man who finds ten brutally murdered bodies and doesn't panic, keeps calm, and takes a briefcase of money that he knows someone is going to be looking for. He shows no human emotion throughout the story. Cormac McCarthy's novels are all about the new west, so maybe Llewellyn is just a new version of the old west's cowboys, but I couldn't fathom the lack of shock in his character.

The photography is absolutely beautiful, with plenty of long, sweeping shots of the Texas deserts. In a lot of ways, the photography and landscapes reminded me of Badlands, only more depressing. The silence in the movie was a great choice, and served the film well. One decision that the Coens made that I was unsure of, but now definitely appreciate, is their decision to omit the one scene that is arguably the most important, anticipated in the story (if you've seen the movie, I'm sure you know what I mean). The big event just happens, with no flashback to explanation. This is how life is; it just happens, there's no warning. Also, sort of related: there are theories floating around IMDB that Sheriff Bell and Anton have a confrontation in the motel room that the Coens also leave out - probably involving a coin toss and Bell getting his freedom. This is what I thought happened, but my brother and father thought that Anton was long gone from the room before Sheriff Bell arrived. So why that shot of Anton hiding? This would make sense in the context of the film, as most of the scenes in that room are deliberately not included. Did Bell somehow get the money? Why else would he be able to retire so suddently after? Thoughts?

So while this is a very good movie, I couldn't feel myself emotionally connect to it. Maybe that's the point; life is cruel and harsh and quick. Expect this to get tons of award nominations, and rightfully so. But maybe I was spoiled by the trailer before the film for There Will Be Blood (which gave me shivers).


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Sunday, November 25, 2007

A Brigitte Bardot double feature

It's really too bad that Brigitte Bardot became a far-right homophobe and Islamophobe, because this Michel Boisrond double-feature starring the bombshell really makes it obvious why she was so popular.

Naughty Girl, from 1956, features Bardot as the foul-mouthed, smart-ass daughter of a nightclub owner who, when he is investigated for fraud, leaves his daughter with the most popular singer at his club so he can disappear for a while. The hijinks and romantic plot you expect follow, but there's a huge difference here between this film and today's pathetic crop of romantic comedies: this movie is witty and has heart, and, most of all, has Bardot at her most charming. You can't help but smile when she swears while trying to clean the pool grate, or engages in back-and-forth with the singer's stuffy butler. She's the best of both worlds, both classy and elegant when she needs to be, and goofy and down-to-earth. Not to mention how stunningly gorgeous she is.

IMDB lists Naughty Girl's tagline as: "Come in at the Middle, Beginning, or Even Tell the Ending...Anytime is BARDOT TIME!" The film company used the Bardot factor to the max, not even minding if people came at the end of the movie just to see the star. But this is selling this cute movie short; the scene where Bardot dances in a jail cell and takes home a wise-cracking parrot is enough to warrant a rental of this gem.

Come Dance With Me came three years later in 1959, and shows Bardot as the sex kitten woman we know her as. Instead of playing primarily a daughter, she's Virginie (what a name!) the young wife of a dentist who soon becomes under suspicion for a murder he didn't commit. The couple escapres from the police, and Virginie goes undercover at the dead woman's dance studio to try to find who the killer is. Of course, Virginie's charm and considerable assets (prominently displayed throughout the film) get her closer to the real killer than the police.

Bardot is again magnetic in the film: the two things that stuck out to me are her hair - those blonde locks are everywhere, so thick and curly, I have total hair envy - and her wardrobe, all high-waisted full skirts and beautiful dresses. The end of the 50s was a great fashion period. But enough about that; Come Dance With Me also has brief nudity and a gay/transvestite subplot, something Hollywood films of that period wouldn't have come close to touching. And although you can see pretty much where the film is going long before it gets there, this is another charming little film, the kind of enjoyable fluff that Hollywood doesn't make anymore.

Both these films are available on one disc courtesy of Lionsgate's Brigitte Bardot Collection - I'm looking forward to getting the other disc (with Two Weeks in September and Love on a Pillow) in the near future.

Both films: 7/10

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Uzumaki (Higuchinsky, 2000)

If Hyenas was one of the most bitter films I've ever seen, Uzumaki is one of the strangest. This movie is a perfect representation of the left-field wave of J-horror, films that don't make sense and don't mean to. The town in the film is beset by a plague of, well, spirals (uzumaki is Japanese for spiral). People become obsessed with spirals, starting innocuously with snails and pottery, but soon, this obsession becomes overwhelming and gross things start happening. In this middle of all this is stupid, stupid Kirie and her way smarter life-long friend/boyfriend Shiuchi, whose father is the first victim. Suicide by putting yourself into what appears to be a dryer? Awesome.

The acting is perfect for the movie, meaning that everyone in the film doesn't seem to be particularly worried about this plague until it's way too late, and no one seems concerned or confused as to where the plague is actually coming from. In fact, the cause of the uzumaki is never revealed in the film, but apparently is in the manga on which the film is based, and that I really want to pick up now. American audiences almost always call this "bad" acting, but it's what the film, and, in some ways, the genre, calls for. I think it fit perfectly.

Acting aside, the images in this film are ridiculous. Spiral everywhere: people turned into spirals, hair spirals, everything you can think of. The film retained the green tint of the manga, giving it a dark, other-worldly feel. Even though the premise might seem silly, there are definitely a lot of intense moments in the film; I'm not someone who gets scared by movies at all, but this was one I had to shut off right before I went to bed because it got too intense. Some images are ones that I will never forget. One of the strangest, most visually extreme films I've ever seen, and a must-see for those who love bizarre fare.


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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Who the Hell Is Juliette? (Carlos Marcovich, 1997)

Who the Hell is Juliette? is one of the most entertaining, beautiful, poetic documentaries I've ever seen. And the funny thing is, I'm not even sure how truthful it is. But unlike Zoo, which also mixed drama with documentary, Carlos Marcovich's docudrama never felt as if it was missing pieces, or covering up the unsavory bits of life with its drama. To the contrary, actually. Juliet (or Yuliet in Spanish, as she insists in the first shot - the first introduction we get to Juliet shows her as sassy, yet knowledgeable about who she is and what she wants, an impression that lasts throughout the film) is a 16-year-old girl living in Havana, who director Marcovich met on the set of a Mexican music video (I think - although Marcovich involves himself in the plot somewhat, the origin of his interest is still relatively unknown) and who enchanted him. It's not hard to see why Marcovich became fascinated with Juliet; although she's had a hard-scrabble life - her father abandoned her family before Juliet could even make any memories of him, her mother, soon after, killed herself by burning herself alive, and she on occasion makes money by whoring herself out to tourists for $1 - Juliet is witty, snappy, and full of life. She's completely endearing, even when she's talking about her baby cousin's hard-on.

The loose narrative in the film centers around Juliet and Fabiola, a gorgeous Mexican model who Juliet worked with on said music video. Juliet was found on the street and hired because she looked so much like Fabiola, and in the video, the two play sisters. From that time on, they developed a sisterly bond that, even though we don't see much interaction between the two girls during the film, is clearly very strong, stronger even than most blood ties both girls have. Fabiola might seem to have a much better life than Juliet; she travels to New York City for modelling jobs, and seems to have a very glamourous life. But Marcovich, through the first-personal confessional-esque shots of both girls, reveals some deeper similarities, most importantly that both were abandoned by their fathers and have issues with men.

As interesting as the story of these two girls' lives are (Juliet's story gets about 70% of the screen time, Fabiola's, 30%), Marcovich inserts fiction randomly into the movie. In fact, I'm not even sure how much of this is real, or how much is fake. From Havanese Marcovich inserts saying other people's lines (most memorably, a young boy who introduces himself at the beginning as the one we should come to when we are unsure of something) to breaking the fourth wall and showing the boom mic operator, keeping in the times when the subjects talk to him, and even one scene where he seems to be telling Fabiola what to say in the middle of a very personal speech about her sexuality versus Juliet's. There are scenes where Juliette is on the phone, purportedly with her father, but we never see who is on the other end. Who is she talking to? Is it anyone at all? But instead of enraging me, these decisions thoroughly intrigued me. What is the difference between fact and fiction in our lives? If we say something is true, what makes it untrue? Juliet's constant "confusing" of the words actual (real) and actuar (to perform) is incredibly clever and thought-provoking.

Maybe what I've written about the film has you scratching your head. Who the Hell is Juliette? had me scratching mine, but in the best possible way. Not only is it a compelling story and a interesting meditation on fact and fiction, it has several of the most genuinely moving scenes I can remember. When Juliette tells the modeling agency that she wants fame and fortune, only in Havana and not Mexico City, it's a matter-of-fact statement on the importance of having a home, one that particularly struck me. And I won't even start on the scene when Juliette and her father finally meet face-to-face. The only thing that disappointed me about the new Facets DVD is the "10 Years Later" featurette - only a few words from Juliette and none from Fabiola, it's mostly a vanity piece on Marcovich's part. So maybe he's right when he says that second parts are never any good. I recommend this film as whole-heartedly as I have any film on this blog.


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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Hyenas (Djibril Diop Mambety, 1992)

Hyenas is one of the bitterest, most pessimistic films I've ever seen about human nature. Director Djibril Diop Mambety adapted a French play, The Visit, and transposed its events to his homeland of Senegal. A woman, banished for adultery 30 years earlier, returns to find the town in dire straits. Everyone in the town is dirt poor, and the mayor has even had to sell the furniture out of the courthouse in order not to go bankrupt. Linguere Ramatou, the scorned woman, has become a millionaire - although we never find out how, and if it was all a ruse in the end. The mayor, seeing an opportunity, sends the town's most well-liked personality, Draman Drameh, who knew Linguere well 30 years ago, to sweet talk her into giving the town money.

Linguere does decide to give the town money, lots of money, but only if they offer her the body of the man who accused her of adultery so many years ago - everyone's favorite, Draman Drameh. At first, the town is outraged; the mayor even voices what I was thinking when he says something about how they would never become like Americans and give up someone they care about for mere material goods. Here lies the great divide between American culture and "non-Western" (for lack of a better term) ones: I have no doubt that if you asked a group of almost any Americans, we would have killed Draman with little or no doubt that we were doing the right thing. It's the power of a mob mentality, which does eventually take over this village as well.

Linguere, from this time on, sits on the sidelines and waits for the town to kill Draman, no matter how much they say they will never do it. She turns the town into hyenas, vicious scavengers who would kill one of their own for a little material gain. So it's not Draman's murder that is Linguere's ultimate revenge, but her pulling back of the curtain to reveal what these people are, what she's known for 30 years.

The film is pretty stylistically bare, but plenty of beautiful shots of the Senegalese wildlife and deserts. The film leaves a bitter taste in your mouth because of the vile core of human nature these villagers reveal. It's the perfect film for the pessimists among us.


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Monday, November 12, 2007

It's been a while

Because it's National Novel Writing Month, I've been focusing a lot of my attention on trying to write a damn novel, and not watching as many movies. But I should have something to say soon. For now:

Why wouldn't you?


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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Zoo (Robinson Devor, 2007)

The problem with making a documentary about such a taboo subject (one of the only taboos we have left in America - bestiality) is that no one wants to talk about it, on camera, at least. So you get a film like Zoo, which is a beautiful, dreamlike documentary on the death of a man who was killed by a perforated colon after having sex with a horse, but a documentary without any real, solid facts. This is because the filmmaker, Robinson Devor, along with his cowriter Charles Mudede, decided to take a strongly nonjudgemental point of view on the acts in question, to the extent that there is no objective narration, nor any concrete facts; while I do applaud Devor's decision to not reveal the victim's name (even though Tom Leykis dispicably did), I would have liked even a little information about when this event took place, etc. Almost all of the narration is done by two friends of the man who died who were also involved heavily in this beastiality group that gathered at a Washington ranch from time to time to do what they do. Brief narration is provided by a horse advocate, along with the cop that investigated the crime (I believe). So while I appreciate the concerted effort toward not condemning the dead man or his peers, there is really no voice in the film saying this is wrong, either. Nor do we get any personal explanation of how these people realized, then accepted to the point of action, that they were zoophiles.

So while the documentary is low on facts and big on rationalizations, the images are incredibly beautiful. Roger Ebert, in his review, compared Devor's work to that of Lynch and Errol Morris, and I agree. With one exception, the participants refused to be taped, which left Devor with the choice to use dreamlike imagery of what the narrators are describing, such as a beautiful night scene with white flowering trees, as well as reenactments, which are at their best tolerable and at their worst, like an episode of America's Most Wanted. All these facts together make for an interesting watch, but a frustrating one. If only there could be a forthright, factual documentary about this subject. But would we really want that?


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Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007)

On the surface, Lust, Caution is more of a Wong Kar Wai film than anything I would have expected from Ang Lee. The story takes place in Hong Kong and Japanese-occupied Shanghai in the days of World War II. Wang (Wei Tang, who was a model before Lee cast her and is nuanced and wonderful in the role - her first ever!) is a young student in Hong Kong who gets drawn into a Chinese nationalist theater group. The group soon moves from theater to political machinations, and they decide to act their way into the life of a bigwig in the Chinese government, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung). Wang acts as Mei Tai Tai, young wife of an import-exporter (who is never seen by Mr. Yee), and befriends Mrs. Yee and beguiles Mr. Yee. But something happens, and the Yees are called back to China. Wang's mission is over. Flash forward three years to Shanghai, and her radical cohorts have found her again. Mr. Yee is back as well, and Mei Tai Tai is reborn, and involves herself in the lives of the Yees again.

Mei Tai Tai, on the surface, is manner and composed, as Wong Kar Wai films often are. The period clothing, the sets, the way people acted with such restraint are all highly reminiscent of films like 2046 and In the Mood for Love. But just when I thought Lee had restrained himself, there's a reason this movie is rated NC-17. The sex scenes between Leung and Tang are brutal and hard to watch at first, but morph into something animalistic and loving, in a perverse sense. If Wang is supposed to be simply using Mr. Yee in order to get access and kill him, something definitely happens along the way.

The difficult relationship between Yee and Wang is the centerpiece of the film, and is brilliantly nuanced and surprising. At one point, Wang begs her revolutionary boss to come in a kill Yee because he is worming his way into her heart. The relationship between power, sex, and politics is displayed in all its forms. Compare this film with the restrained, painful sexuality of Brokeback Mountain, and it's an interesting double feature to the duality and complicated nature of human desire. The two leads are brilliant, and the photography of the film really brings you back to the 1940s. Everything, and nothing, is drama in this film. Really one of the year's best.


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Sunday, November 04, 2007

American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007)

Awards season has officially begun with Ridley Scott's American Gangster, based on the true story of Frank Lucas, 70s Harlem kingpin who shipped kilos and kilos of heroin into the US from Vietnam during the war. Denzel Washington plays Lucas with a perverse kind of charm, and nails the role right on the head. Lucas is a murderer, both by his own hands and the countless number of people he killed with his incredibly potent, cheap Blue Magic heroin. He's also an incredibly devoted family man who buys his mother and his extended clan of brothers and cousins an gigantic mansion, both because he wants to do something good for the mother who raised him and because he needs people around him who he can trust. One of Frank's core values is loyalty, that you never give up your family. Above all else, he believes that, and it helps bring upon his downfall.

Russell Crowe plays the opposite role of Richie Roberts, a cop so honest that his peers don't trust him (stemming from an incident where he found $1 million in the trunk of a car and returned every single dollar to his superiors). Because he can't work within the NYPD, his boss gives him a special assignment: to head up the new New York head of the DEA. Roberts becomes obsessed with finding the source of the heroin scurge in the city, and while he starts with the Italian mafia, it comes down to a single black man who has no boss.

The racial politics aren't really at the forefront of American Gangster, but it's an interesting paradox to have a strong black protagonist that defies the dominant culture, yet is an amoral character who is destroying the same Harlem he claims to be defending. Washington is electric in the role, and you end up almost hoping Lucas gets away. He doesn't, of course, thanks to Roberts. Crowe's portrayal is solid, but, as my brother and I discussed right after the movie, it's never as fun or interesting to play a good guy as a bad guy.

The movie clocks in at almost 160 minutes, yet there's no real lag. Thankfully, there's also very little personal details about the characters that seem tangential to the plot. This is a movie about these people, rather than their deeds (as opposed to, say, Zodiac, another good movie, but one that wasn't as solid throughout), so nothing feels unneeded. Lucas' brothers, played, among others, by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common, are great supporting characters, if a little underused, and, in a funny twist, TI plays Common's baseball playing son (and the source of some of the most touching moments in the film). Oh, and if you're looking for Cuba Gooding Jr's comeback role, as many reviews say this movie is, you're out of luck - he's good, but probably has about ten lines in the entire movie (but apparently enough for Showtime to make a show about his character). A great start to the best movie season of the year.


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Saturday, November 03, 2007

Two New Wave masters after the fact

Mostly by accident, there's been a strong connecting thread between a few of the movies I've watched recently: they're 70s efforts from the two leading directors of the French New Wave. But that's about all they have in common; Truffaut and Godard couldn't have been more different after the 60s.

Roger Ebert called Two English Girls Truffaut's best effort, and while I don't quite agree with that, it is a solidly emotional, impressionistic film. Almost ten years after Jules and Jim, Truffaut tells a similar story about the two titular English girls and the French guy who loves them both. Jean-Pierre Leaud plays Claude, who charms young sculptress Ann in Paris, and she takes him back to her English countryside home. Ann has an ulterior motive to this trip, to introduce Claude to her younger sister Muriel, certain they will fall in love. They do, then complications happen, then more complications, as happens in Truffaut romantic films.

Leaud is wonderful in the role of Claude - he plays it as a more continental, gentleman-type of Antoine Doinel. The sisters, played by Kika Markham (as the sexually liberated, wonderful Ann) and Stacey Tendeter (as the sort of irritating Muriel), are sort of underused, but the turn-of-the-century pastoral scenes are gorgeously shot by Nestor Almendros. This is a gentle movie, yet the convoluted love story gives it a crushing sense of heartbreak and the quiet desperation that haunts everyday life.

On the flip side of Two English Girls's quietly harsh emotional punch is The Story of Adele H, Truffaut's interpretation of the story of Victor Hugo's daughter, Adele, who follows a military officer who seduced and promised to marry her, all the way to Halifax, Canada. Adele follows Lt. Pinson around everywhere he goes, like the most dejected puppy you've ever seen. She screams, cries, pleads with him, lies, and tries everything else she can do to get Pinson to love her, so much so that she makes herself deathly ill several times. But, as everyone knows, you can't force someone to love you.

Isabelle Adjani, one of the most exquisitely beautiful actresses ever onscreen, plays Adele with all the desperation and clinginess the character necessitates. Some of the shots that are meant to convey Adele's inner turmoil (stormy seas superimposed over Adele's crying face) are just silly and incredibly melodramatic, and those tendencies are what keeps this movie from being a great one. There are much of the same elements in Two English Girls as in The Story of Adele H, but Truffaut seems to have used most of his subtle charm in the earlier picture.

I have been as consistently hot and cold with no director more than Jean-Luc Godard. Breathless is one of the finest films ever made, but pretty much every film I've seen of his since 1970 I have absolutely hated. I was expecting to feel the same about 1972's Tout va Bien, but I think in this film, Godard found the perfect balance between politics and art.

Yves Montand and Jane Fonda (imagine a Hollywood actress doing this film now!) star as a married couple who are changed by the political strife they witness firsthand at a factory strike. But to put it that way makes it far more personal than it is. When we see the couple arguing, it's about politics; in fact, everything they do in the film is about radical politics. But Montand and Fonda are only pawns in Godard's (and co-director Jean-Pierre Gorin's) political statement. The workers in the striking factory are radicals, but ones that went through the May '68 revolt in Paris and understand the hard work radicals face.

But this film isn't all about politics, it's a statement of art as well. Some actors clearly read their lines, and there are fewer dialogues than political monologues between characters. While frustrating at times, the colors in the film are revolutionary in their own right. Before Godard went off his rocker and began making films that were completely inaccessible, he made this film that is a treat on par with his 60s films. Truffaut and Godard went in incredible divergent directions after the French New Wave unofficially disbanded, but both continued to make intriguing, underrated films.

Two English Girls: 8/10
The Story of Adele H: 6/10
Tout va Bien: 8/10

Fun fact! Godard was offered the opportunity to direct Bonnie and Clyde after Truffaut declined. Arthur Penn eventually ended up directing, but imagine how different it would have been if either of those men had directed - a Pierrot le Fou orShoot the Piano Player for American audiences!

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