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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Friday, February 29, 2008

Hot three-way (review) action

The opening scene of Belle de Jour is one of the most clever scenes I can remember seeing. At first, it's a normal scene of marital discontent; then, it's a horrifying scene of domestic abuse, as the woman's husband has the coach drivers carry her into the woods, tie her up, and then (presumably) rape her; it gets a lot more interesting when the woman seems to be into it; and finally, it's revealed that this is all a dream (or a fantasy) by the wife. Director Luis Bunuel seems to have tapped into the forbidden nature of transgressive female sexuality in the 60s -- a wife wasn't expected to like sex, much less have hot dreams about being tied up and raped by strangers.

But the rest of the film sorely fails to live up to the promise in the first scene. The young wife, Severine (played by a radiant Catherine Deneuve -- she's always beautiful, but her skin seems exceptionally smooth and bright in this film), won't have sex with her husband, but after she hears about a brothel in the middle of Paris, she goes there and gets hired as Belle de Jour in order to live out her fantasies. It's never quite explained why she won't have sex with her husband, but nevertheless, the movie turns into an episode of Law and Order: SVU after Severine falls for a young thug who comes to see her at the brothel all the time. It's almost as if she's punished for expressing her sexuality the way she does, a move I would expect from a morality piece, but not from Bunuel. The final scene moves away from that moralistic judgement of Severine, but not enough to turn my opinion competely.


There's no way I could try to defend The Gore Gore Girls as a good movie. Instead, it's relatively entertaining and the epitome of all things H.G. Lewis. The story of a strip club (sort of, the girls are almost never topless and certainly never bottomless) that's being tormented by the brutal murders of their dancers, reporter (maybe? maybe he's just a gent who likes solving mysteries?) Abraham Gentry is recruited for $20,000 by young, hot Nancy Weston from a local newspaper to solve the mystery. I could have sworn that Gentry was supposed to be gay, because he seems really averse to women and is quite the dandy in mannerisms, but the final scene begs not.

Anyway, you don't watch a H.G. Lewis film for plot or believeable characters or any of that. The gore is here in full-effect, the goriest Lewis film ever (one of the first rated-X horror films, apparently), and even though it doesn't look real, there's still face-ironing, bare asses being tenderized, an eye gouged, put back in the head, and then taken out again, and much more. It's funny and gross at the same time. So if you can bear some of the worst acting ever (I prefer the ridiculous over-acters to the ones that don't seem like they know they're in a movie) and definitely the worst stripping ever (weirdo dancing to circus music for five minutes that isn't remotely sexy), The Gore Gore Girls is for you.


By the same token, there's no way I can defend I Know Who Killed Me as a good movie. Maybe there's something about horror movies about strippers that just doesn't work? But for the same reasons I didn't mind watching The Eye remake, I had a good, mindless time watching this one -- and I even watched it all at once (which I don't often do, to be honest). Reason one: I like Lindsay Lohan. I don't know why. I always have, and I was sincerely disappointed when she had that bad summer last year. But she seems to be (more) on track these days, even if she did just win the Razzie for worst actress. I didn't think she was terrible here, a bit out of it in some scenes, but mostly pretty competent. Plus, the girl is pretty hot. Reason two: when it comes to horror/thrillers, I am pretty easily entertained. This movie has some of the biggest plot holes I've ever encountered, and is truly one of those films that's best if you don't think about it at all after you watch it, but there's still some thrills and some really gross gore. So if you're like me, and you can zone out to just about any horror film, get yourself a double bill of The Gore Gore Girls and I Know Who Killed Me. It'll be a fun night (especially with a few beers).


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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman, 1968)

The other film I've seen lately that's left me unsettled was directed by, of all people, Ingmar Bergman. After Persona, Bergman kept going with his creepy portraits of people's inner lives with Hour of the Wolf, the story of artist Johan (Max von Sydow) and his wife Alma (the always fantastic Liv Ullmann) who live in a secluded house on a virtually empty island. The film starts with Bergman stating this is a true story, written from Johan's diaries and talking to Alma; it also starts with a stunningly beautiful scene of Ullmann (who was pregnant with Bergman's child at the time) talking straight to the camera.

In that way, it's a typical Bergman film for the first half: people talking about their thoughts, their fears, their infidelities, with the small exception that all the talking takes place late at night, as Johan is terrified of the dark and refuses to sleep before dawn. Two stories of Johan's are particularly important: one, told through Johan's narration only, about the time when he was a child he was locked in a closet as a punishment by his father, and the other, acted out, an encounter he had with a young boy on some cliffs overlooking the water. Bergman's decision about what to show the audience and what they only hear is really brilliant, and keeps you intrigued about this complicated, troubled man.

But the second half goes off the deep end when Johan and Alma are invited by the only other residents of the island to a dinner party at their castle. Johan's inner demons are released, and the results are hallucinatory, intense, and scary.

Leave it to Bergman to make a highly intelligent, visual horror film. Some of the images really stick with you, and the ending is both open-ended and gives you a sense of closure, somehow. With every film I see, I really believe that Bergman is one of the greatest masters ever; even in one of his "lesser" films, there's so much to take in.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Joshua (George Ratliff, 2007)

I have had the pleasure in the past few days to watch two movies that really creeped me out, something that doesn't happen too often anymore (after watching too many horror movies, I suppose). George Ratliff's followup to his 2001 documentary Hell House, Joshua, was the first of those. The titular ten-year-old boy, played to a t by Jacob Kogan, is the most straightlaced kid you've ever seen. His hair is always perfectly parted, his shirts tucked into his pants, his room immaculate, his piano routines practiced constantly. But he's the son of two more, uh, liberal parents, played by Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga. Even though he's in the stock market (I believe), he seems like a laid-back, cool guy. It's incomprehensible how these two people made this child, and so the movie opens with the birth of the couple's second child, an adorable, happy baby named Lily. Predictably, Joshua gets pretty jealous of Lily, and that's when the trouble begins.

Without giving too much away (because all I really knew about when I watched the movie was that it was about an evil child), this movie deals with post-partum depression, evangelical Christianity, and the power of creativity over one's life. Sam Rockwell is, as he always is, really likeable and sympathetic, even when his character is doing some questionable things, to say the least. Vera Farmiga is in full-on hysterical mom mode, but not in a campy way. And Kogan is just terrifying, in the best possible way. The script is actually well written, and there's a twist that I didn't see coming, but also isn't ridiculous. The movie ends with one of the creepiest freeze frames I've ever seen; I went back and watched the last scene with director's commentary on, and he said that he was skeptical about the editor's choice to end with a freeze frame at first, but he came to love it as a tribute to all the 70s psychological thrillers. That's what this film is at its best; a throwback to the 70s thrillers, like The Omen or Rosemary's Baby, but never a ripoff.


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Post-Oscar thoughts

Well, my predictions were wrong. Even though I was off-base on a lot of the categories, I still didn't find the ceremony very suprising at all. Marion Cotillard was a good win, and makes me a little more likely to see La Vie En Rose, but overall, it went how I thought. I really, really wish there had been a few more wins for There Will be Blood, though -- No Country took screenplay, direction, and picture, and I was hoping TWBB would get one of those. I would pay obscene amounts of money to see the inevitable hissy fit Paul Thomas Anderson threw after the awards, but at least it would have been well-deserved. Overall: meh (although it was funnier than most years).

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Happy Oscar Day!

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Be Kind Rewind (Michel Gondry, 2008)

I've always admired Michel Gondry's childlike sense of imagination and wonder. The Science of Sleep's dream/fantasy sequences were the best part of that wonderful movie; stepping into Stephane's mind was clearly stepping into Gondry's, and it was wonderful what you found there. Be Kind Rewind takes all of the wonderful, sweet aspects of Gondry's filmmaking and distills them into the real world. Mos Def plays Mike, who works at Mr. Fletcher's (Danny Glover) Be Kind Rewind video store -- "1 Video, 1 Night, 1 Dollar, Every Night." Jerry (Jack Black, in surprisingly non-annoying mode) is Mike's best friend who accidentally becomes magnetized after trying to sabotage the power plant he thinks is controlling his mind. His newfound magnetization erases all the tapes in Be Kind Rewind's all-VHS stock, so when customers come in asking for movies, they decide to remake them themselves.

That's a plot that could get old quickly, but Black and especially Mos Def are so darn likeable that it doesn't. They remake Ghostbusters first, then Robocop, The Lion King, Rush Hour 2, and more. It's knee-slappingly hilarious at times, and sweetly touching at others. The Onion's AV Club described it as completely apolitical, but I think that it's subersively, personally political in its message that your own entertainment and happiness should come from yourself, not what you have or can get. Plus, there's that stuff about the New Jersey town the video store is in kicking the black-owned store out to the projects, but it's not made an issue. The AV Club also described Mos Def as Danny Glover's son in everything but name, and once I thought about it, I realized it's definitely true -- both men are incredibly talented in both comedy and drama and are so darn likeable. Be Kind Rewind is a great, sweet movie about the importance of creativity and friendship. It's nothing earth-moving, but there's no better time at the movie theater right now.


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Official Oscar predictions

So, since I know you've been waiting for it, here are my official picks for tomorrow's awards.

Best Picture
No Country For Old Men (although, as I have discussed with several people, I wouldn't be suprised if any of these movies won, really.)

Best Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood -- Clearly the winner. The performance of a lifetime.

Best Actress
Julie Christie, Away From Her -- A really tight race, I could see either Ellen Page or Marion Cotillard winning as well, but I really think it'll go to Christie for her gentle, exquisite performance in Sarah Polley's wonderful film.

Best Supporting Actor
Javier Bardem, No Country For Old Men -- Clearly.

Best Supporting Actress
Ruby Dee, American Gangster -- A surprise nominee, but I think she'll win because of how AG got the shaft in every other category, especially best actor.

Best Director
Joel & Ethan Coen, No Country For Old Men -- I would love, LOVE to see PT Anderson or even Julien Schnabel win this one, but I don't see it happening.

Best Original Screenplay
Diablo Cody, Juno -- Clearly the winner, although I will cringe when they have to read that stupid fucking pseudonym on the podium.

Best Adapted Screenplay
PT Anderson, There Will Be Blood -- I think the Coens might win this, but I'm guessing Anderson because TWBB won't win picture or director and PT has to get something.

So there you have it! I may or may not liveblog the damn thing, but probably not, because the ceremony is always interminably boring.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

3 items of note

Is Spike Jonze's Where the Wild Things Are in trouble? If the film is actually as it seems to be -- a dark, art-house film about a child on a monster's island -- I'm not surprised at all. It definitely sounds like an amazing movie, but if they have to reshoot the entire thing, including recasting the young lead, I doubt it will ever get off the ground again.

But in better news, David Fincher is in line to direct a film version of Charles Burns' graphic novel Black Hole. The graphic novel is really beautiful, but never completely captured me story-wise. While I'm surprised that Fincher is taking this movie on -- it really doesn't seem like his style -- I'm really glad he is, and am definitely looking forward to the final product (although with Fincher's perfectionism, it might be years still).

And I'm not sure how I missed this a month ago, but here are some clips from the upcoming Chuck Palahniuk adaptation Choke, starring Sam Rockwell. Rockwell is one of those actors I'll see in just about anything, and I'm reading Palahniuk's book right now and am liking (but not loving) it. The cast seems pretty well chosen, except that Vincent Mancini is supposed to be about 25 (but at least they raised the age of everyone, then), and much of the dialogue is taken straight from the novel, a good sign. In fact, I laughed at the scene with the woman who wants him to rape her, while the comedy was not laugh-out-loud in the book. Palahniuk's work is great for film adaptation, and this is one of my most anticipated 2008 films.

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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Camila (Maria Luisa Bemberg, 1984)

Camila is a film that is much more important as a historical artifact than as a good film in and of itself. The story of Camila O'Gorman and Father Ladislao Gutierrez, who ran away after falling in love in 1840s Argentina, and who were eventually arrested and executed without a trial, Camila was released in 1984, after Argentina returned to democracy and their free speech laws had been reinstated. As a political piece of work, it's a moving reminder of that country's past and how far they had come -- a commenter on Netflix remarked that it's pretty obvious that, although it was nominated in 1985 for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, it was made for Argentinian consumption. And that's true -- I didn't understand many of the exact references made to Argentinian history, but I understood the gist of the film. What happened to these two people was tragic, especially since Camila was pregnant at the time of her death (stated in the film, although wikipedia tells me she was 8 months (!!) gone at her death).

What's not shown in the film, but I found out afterwards, is that the execution of Camila and Ladislao was a catalyst to bring down the reign of the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas, who is debated about so passionately in the film. That's a fitting, touching end to the film, that argues that love and humanity should come first. I think Bemberg should have put a post-script to her film, but I can understand why she didn't. A good film about a tragic historical event.


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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)

It was discomforting, almost disturbing, to watch The Battle of Algiers as a 21st-century American. It's as if the American military watched Gillo Pontecorvo's movie, and then decided, "That's how we're going to run the war in Iraq." There are so many similarities between the Algerian conflict with France, as portrayed in the movie, and the US' involvement in Iraq: the controversy over dubious "interrogation" techniques, the division of the native population by the occupation of a Western country, and the use of women and children by the population in suicide attacks. The Rialto re-release trailer of the film says that it was screened for the Pentagon before the invasion of Iraq; but apparently, no one learned anything, and history is doomed to repeat itself.

Pontecorvo's film portrays the struggle for an independent Algeria, mostly from the Algerian point of view. It is so sympathetic to the Algerians that at times, it seems almost like propaganda. The filmmakers are quick to say that all the footage was filmed for the movie; good thing they said that, because much of it is so impressive, so realistic, that I would have thought it was archival footage. The story focuses on the FLN, the Algerian liberation movement, and, if it focuses on any person in general, it's on Ali, a young leader of the group. But unlike most war films, there's no real focus on people or personalities; it is almost totally a documentary-like timeline of the important events in the revolution. This is both a good thing and a bad thing; there's certainly no melodrama, as a movie now would undoubtedly be, but there are also no real characters to cling to emotionally.

If you want to see how we might be looking at the current Iraqi conflict in 50 years, check out The Battle of Algiers. This was one of the first major films made after Algerian independence, and makes me look forward to the day we see a lot more films from Iraqi filmmakers, probably some about this current war.


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Monday, February 18, 2008

3 quick ones

You know, this wasn't actually that bad. Especially if you fit one or both of these qualifications: you can see bad horror movies in the theater and generally be entertained (especially if you are with a friend who gets scared easily), and you like Jessica Alba. Thankfully, I am in both categories. There are actually some pretty good jumps, and creepy imagery. Obviously, there could have been more, but for a PG-13 horror movie, you really couldn't do too much better than this. Well, you probably could. But still.


The Experiment, based on the Stanford Prison Experiment (even though a confusing screen at the beginning says it's not based on anything whatsoever), starts out really tense and enjoyable. Twenty men volunteer to take part in a psychological study where 8 are made prison guards and 12 are prisoners for 14 days. Things start lightly enough, with the prisoners making fun of the guards, but when everyone starts taking their roles seriously, things go really wrong. The first half of the film is intense, especially when you consider that this is a German film, and the Germans have an interesting (to say the least) history with follow-the-leader mentality. But the second half just goes over the top and loses its grip on reality. Sure, it would be less spectacular if things didn't become so explosive, but it also could have been more of a creepy, subtle character study.


Considered to be Fellini's masterpiece, I was a little...underwhelmed. It's not that it's not a great movie, because it is. Rather, I found myself less emotionally invested in these shallow people than in, say, Nights of Cabiria. Marcello Mastroianni is predictably fantastic as Marcello Rubini, a jaded gossip journalist who wanders around 1960 Rome, cheating on his suicidal girlfriend with a friend and then a Swedish actress (even though they don't really speak the same language). You can't take your eyes off of Anita Ekberg as the actress, but you don't feel for her, either. I did, however, find the last half hour incredibly depressing and touching; Marcello has lost touch with any sense of humanity he might have had -- is it the soul-crushing nature of his job, his alcoholism, his inability to be faithful to one woman, or something else? Certainly a film that has to be seen, but let me down a tiny bit.


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Friday, February 15, 2008

The Diving Bell & the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007)

I decided to take advantage of being on vacation in the Big Apple to see The Diving Bell & the Butterfly, which hadn't opened in my town as of yet. Despite the sticker shock of a mid-afternoon movie costing $12, Julian Schnabel's masterpiece was completely worth it. The story of Jean-Dominique Bauby, an Elle magazine editor who, at age 42, had a stroke that left him completely paralyzed, except for his eyes. One of them, however, has to be sewn shut almost right away, for fear that it wil get infected. The movie begins from Jean-Do's perspective, from which much of the movie is shown. Jean-Do can speak, but only in his mind. We can hear his internal dialogue, and he is a real, fully-formed character in every way.

Mathieu Amalric plays Jean-Do with remarkable empathy. We understand the pain and frustration Jean-Do is going through -- when he, with the help of his speech therapist, finally get down the complex way of allowing Jean-Do to communicate with the outside world, the first thing he says is that he wants to die. It's a heartbreaking moment, for audience and therapist alike. But soon, Jean-Do decides to stop pitying himself, realizing that his imagination and memory are still intact; he takes his editor up on the offer he had pre-stroke to have a book published. The rest has to be seen.

Jean-Do learns to survive as best he can with the help of four really remarkable women -- his speech and physical therapists, his ex-wife, and the "translator" from his publisher. Instead of being completely isolated through his condition, these women help him to remember the outside world, and live a little bit outside of himself. He does have other friends who come to visit him, but his former life (girlfriend included) seems to have forgotten him completely. Even though all these hurdles come up for Jean-Do, this is never a melodramatic, Lifetime channel-style weep fest. In fact, my tears only came in the last half hour of the movie. All the performances are truly stellar, and Schnabel's incredible direction brings the film into the realm of art -- the fuzzy shots from Jean-Do's early perpective and the sense of claustrophobia in Jean-Do's diving bell are among the most beautiful directorial moments I've ever seen. I'm still picking the Coens to win the best director Oscar, but Schnabel really, truly deserves it. One of the definite best films of 2007.


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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Dispatches from vacation



(notes on a few movies when I get home tomorrow/Thursday).
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Monday, February 04, 2008

Fudoh: The New Generation (Takashi Miike, 1996)

Are there many filmmakers as diverse as Takashi Miike? Just the other day, I wrote about his 1997 noir effort Rainy Dog, and today, I'm writing about Fudoh: The Next Generation, an ultra-violent, crude, and no-holds-barred yakuza revenge film from just a year earlier. In fact, his wikipedia entry mentions the fact that Miike has one of the most confusing career paths ever; he is becoming both more and less mainstream at the same time. But back to Fudoh. Riki Fudoh, as a little boy, secretly witnesses his father kill his brother in order to solve a rivalry with another gang. Ten years later, Riki has acquired a gang of classmates and children, and decides to take revenge on his father and their entire yakuza organization.

The fact that children are used as killers isn't used as a funny or silly thing; in fact, they are pretty creepy, and really effective. Fudoh's bodyguards are two female classmates, one with powerful vaginal muscles and, uh, a little something extra. Some of the things in the movie are so crass that they're hilarious, and some are just weird and a bit disturbing. Plus, I think this film takes the prize for using the most fake blood in one scene ever -- a car is literally flooded with it. Shocking, but not outside of Miike's realm. A good, brainless time.


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Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Red Shoes (Yong-gyun Kim, 2005)

The Red Shoes' first impression is its confusing misnomer. The shoes are actually pink -- was this laziness on the translators' parts? Confusion? Is the Hans Christian Anderson story on which the movie is loosely based about red shoes, and could the filmmakers just not find any? In any case, these shoes appear in a specific subway station, and the woman who takes them is condemned to having those around them violently covet them. Of course, as happens in Asian horror movies, the shoes once belonged to a wronged ballerina who has come back in ghost form to haunt through these shoes for...some reason.

The first half of the movie is really great -- truly atmospheric, and Kim does a great job of directing. It's beautiful and creepy, like the best kind of ghost stories should be. But in the second half, and, in particular, the last half hour, the movie falls apart, as is the fate of so many horror movies. The plot suddenly takes so many twists and turns I wasn't quite sure what was going on, and even after the final twist was revealed, I was still like, "Huh?" And not in a good way. I think the movie should have kept the focus on the family dynamics, as the main character (Hye-su Kim) and her daughter Tae-su (Yeon-ah Park) have great, realistic chemistry, and scary children are usually really creepy (both as shown in the great Korean poster - the Tartan DVD art is good, but I prefer this image). But too much is made of the ghost/back story angle, even after it seems to be resolved. Worth seeing for the first half, but don't expect too much. How long before we see an American remake, I wonder?


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Friday, February 01, 2008

This Is England (Shane Meadows, 2006)

12-year-old Shaun is bullied at his school because he's small for his age, because he has the wrong kind of pants, and because he doesn't have a dad. One day, on the way back from being picked on, he encounters a group of young skinheads who take him in completely, like him for who he is, and, with his lack of father and hard-working mother, become his de facto family. The group, lead by Woody (Joe Gilgun, who is singularly great and very attractive), accept and come to love Shaun as well -- even though he looks like he's about six years old, soon, he's hanging out with them, drinking beer and making out with girls. Until Combo returns; Woody's old friend went to jail without snitching on him three years ago, but prison has changed him into a vicious, angry, racist guy. Shaun falls under the spell of his beliefs, and the group is divided in two, with devastating results.

I honestly had to look up skinhead on wikipedia, because in popular culture, skinhead means nothing more than neo-Nazi now. But in 1983 England, when This is England takes place, it was a West Indian rude boy-inspired lifestyle and fashion style. In fact, one of the members of Woody's group, Milky, is Jamaican, a fact that leads him to be torn between his family and his lifestyle. Meadows' autobiographical movie portrays skinheads as more of a family culture than anything, but one that can and did go wrong with the wrong people. Combo and Woody's split is emblematic of a greater split in the culture as a whole. Shaun is swayed by Combo's political manipulation of the Faulkland War, where he lost his dad.

Everyone in the film gives a great performance, especially Thomas Turgoose as Shaun, who made me tear up more than once with his loneliness, and then with his absolute elation at having found a family. Vicky McClure, as Woody's girlfriend Lol, the mother of the group, is also outstanding. I actually could go on about every performance in the movie; if there's one movie that should have been nominated for a best cast performance SAG award, this is it. This is a touching, political, real movie about what it's like to be lonely, and what it takes to solve your loneliness. Highly recommended.


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