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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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948)

No, I'm not reviewing this movie again; actually, these two probably couldn't be further apart in every aspect, except for the fact they're both loosely based around the same Hans Christian Andersen story. This The Red Shoes stars Moira Shearer as Victoria Page, a young ballerina who gets an audition with famous company owner Boris Lermontov half through her pluckiness, and half through nepotism. She joins Lermontov's company, and he sees something in her no one else does and makes her the lead in his new ballet, an adaptation of the titular Andersen story. At the same time Victoria is hired, so is young composer Julian Craster, who writes The Red Shoes and becomes as much of a protegee in his field as Victoria does in hers. Of course, Julian and Victoria fall in love, and Victoria has to eventually choose between love and career.

Before we get to the melodramatic plot twists of the last hour of the film, there's plenty of absolutely gorgeous dancing to feast your eyes on. I'm not a ballet fan, but even I was hypnotized by Shearer's performance in the ballet-within-a-film, as a young woman who can't take off her haunted red shoes. The costumes and sets are wonderful, and the optical effects (which I was unsure if they were happening onstage or not) give the ballet a surreal, dreamlike feel.

But of course, there's the last part of the film, and Victoria's choice between dancing (and Boris, although he doesn't show any real physical/sexual attraction to Victoria, just a possessiveness of her talent) and love (and Julian, whom I just found creepy and disconcerting the whole film for some reason). Of course -- this is 1948, of course -- a woman can't have both, and the only reason she can't is because Julian won't let her. That's right -- he leaves the opening of his opera to berate her for performing after a long absence in Monte Carlo. Boris asks Victoria if Julian would give up his love of music for her, and she (as well as we) know the answer. If there's ever been an example of a woman forced to give up her ambitions to be a perfect wifey, this is it. And then, instead of choosing dancing like I hoped she would, Victoria throws herself off a bridge in order to ensure she would never dance again. And then, she doesn't even die, just breaks her legs and asks Julian to take the red shoes off of her. Vomit rose in my throat. Could this have been any more obvious? Sure, Boris is trying to control Victoria as well, but there were certainly situations where she could have been a dancer and not under the control of either of these men. But his is 1948, so of course not. Barf again. So this movie was ruined for me by the last 15 minutes, but if you can swallow that, it's a beautiful movie about dancing.


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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Vagabond (Agnes Varda, 1985)

I'm working my way piece by piece through Criterion's Agnes Varda box set, and although Vagabond (or, its French title, Without Roof or Rule, which I actually like better) doesn't quite live up to the promise of Le Bonheur, it's quite a good film in its own right. Sandrine Bonnaire, whom I loved in A Nos Amours, plays Mona (formerly Simone), a young drifter about whom we know almost nothing. We never learn about her past, or what (except hating life as a secretary) made her abandon normal life and live on the road; this is a breath of fresh air, as most films would have become overly bogged down in the past and sentimentalization of the road. There's no sentamentality here; the first scene in the movie is Mona frozen to death after sleeping in a ditch. She's never identified, and is buried in a potter's field. But from there, we go back to the past few weeks in her life, and find out the effect she's had on all the people she's recently met on the road.

There's the former drifter and his wife and children, who now run a sheep farm, who want to give Mona a parcel of land to farm for herself and are bitterly disappointed when she doesn't want to take up a solitary existence. There's the tree researcher, who treats Mona alternately as a freak, a pet project, and someone to whom she looks up as an example of freedom. There's the researcher's protegee, and his elderly aunt and her maid, and the Tunisian migrant worker who teaches Mona how to clip grape vines and provides the central heart of the film. Mona is up front about what she wants from people: money, food, a ride, a place to stay. But all these people take something from her, and they are much more conflicted and conventional about it. It takes almost everyone she meets a long while, if ever, to realize that Mona is someone who has something to offer, although she might not be conventionally a teacher. This is a wonderful portrait of a young woman with so much to offer, who lives how she wants (or does she?) and dies young. The Criterion transfer is beautiful, as is to be expected, and Varda's script and direction are wonderful.


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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Two French films

As a recap of what I've been watching lately, I thought I'd demonstrate how wildly different contemporary French film can be. Regular Lovers, my first experience with director Phillipe Garrel, is a war story of a different kind. Set in 1968 Paris during the student uprising, Louis Garrel (the director's son, and one of my favorite French actors) plays Francois, a 20 year old poet who is, for the first hour of the film, involved with some revolutionary groups. We see stunning front-line footage, but nothing really ever happens. Garrel is trying to demystify what has become an epic myth about that time; his characters randomy flip cars over and have a hard time organizing anyone to do anything. As can be expected, the group's political efforts fall apart rather rapidly.

And yes, I did say the first hour. This film clocks in at nearly 3 hours, but the pace is so incredibly slow that it might seem like 6. There are long, unbroken shots of almost nothing happening, and while this can be beautiful under a trained eye like Garrel's, it's often frustrating as well. Francois falls in love with Lilie, a young, ambitious, beautiful sculptor, and the next two hours explore their relationship, as well as the lives of the tangential characters that share their lies, including more artists and a young man with a hefty inheritance and an opium addiction. Francois and Lilie's relationship isn't really tumultuous, although Francois does have problems with Lilie's insistance on non-monogamy( ones that he doesn't express, but you can see it in Garrel's expressive face). When they say they are going to be together forever, some people mean it more than others. The dramatic ending is a bit much, but mostly, the film is gorgeously shot and acted, if a little trying on the patience.


On the other side of the spectrum is Them, directed by The Eye's David Moreau and Xavier Palaud. A quick, not-even-80-minute horror film, the setup gets to the point, gets intense and scary, and stays that way. A French couple living in Romania (apparently because the boyfriend is working on a book), half an hour outside of Bucharest, is terrorized by a group of home invaders. That's it, although the story gets really scary. The girlfriend and boyfriend are more or less the only characters in the story, and while there's not much in the way of character development (but not in that way that shitty PG-13 horror movies put each character into a stereotype box), you honestly do care about the characters and do want them to get away. If you rent it, don't read the Netflix description, because, in that subtle Netflix way, it kind of gives away the ending. Nothing that will ruin the story, but still, come on!

I wasn't paying too much attention to the direction in The Eye, but where Regular Lovers is classically beautiful, Them is horror movie beautiful. Mostly taking place in the dark, there are some really scary moments, and the film is shot on grainy digital film, giving it a real documentary-type feel. If you want a quick, intense thrill ride, Them is for you.


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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Le Bonheur (Agnes Varda, 1965)

The first thing I felt after watching Le Bonheur (Happiness) was an overwhelming sense of awe. How could this movie have been all but forgotten today? It's as good as the best Godard (A Woman is a Woman, in my estimation), a beautiful, emotionally resonant piece of French New Wave filmmaking. Then, I, of course, got angry. Agnes Varda, who, in the special features of the Criterion DVD looks like the nicest French grandma you could ever hope to meet, has been neglected by film history, and why? Because she's a woman? Because she was married to Jacques Demy? Well, nevermind why, because hopefully this Criterion box set's release will change that.

Francois is happily married to Therese, with two young children. All is fine (and dull) until he meets Emilie, a post office worker who connects his phone calls and takes him to get coffee. He falls in love with Emilie, but not to the detriment (in his mind) of his marriage to Therese. In fact, rather than falling out of love with either woman, or becoming secretive or surly, he is, as he says, more himself every day, becoming a better husband and lover at the same time. What a revolutionary vision of marriage, of non-monogamy! And then something changes, but not in the melodramatic way you'd expect.

The film is revolutionary in its portrait of marriage between two real equals. But Francois is an interesting character, and not nearly as progressive as he seems at first. On one hand, he believes in free love -- he's not guilty about having an affair, and even tells his wife about it in a completely different way than I've ever seen in a movie. It's really the most interesting portrait of "infidelity" I've ever seen. But on the other hand, Francois is a very typical chauvinist; when Therese tells him about a movie she wants to see, and asks if he prefers Brigitte Bardot or Jeanne Moreau, he says, "I prefer you." He wants it all! He deserves it all! He can have Bardot and Moreau, and Therese and Emilie!

The movie is visually stunning, with a host of motifs that really stand out: Brigitte Bardot (as a stand-in for female sexuality?), bright colors (blue & orange the most pronounced, especially in the opening sequence), flowers, and female hands (there are two stunning, parallel sequences of Therese's and Emilie's hands that are incredibly poignant in the context of the film). Varda, not only having written a beautiful, subtle script, directs it to absolute perfection. It was written & directed by a woman, but isn't necessarily feminine. It's just life.


Sorry for the absence; for some reason, Blogger had flagged this as a spam blog. Hrm.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Leatherheads (George Clooney, 2008)

If there are two actors who can charm the hell out of me, they are John Krasinski and George Clooney. I'm a huge fan of The Office, and Clooney is pretty much the suavest actor out there. But he also is a pretty talented director, as we've seen with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (a really underrated film in my eyes) and Good Night and Good Luck. But if he has one problem with directing, its editing himself. All of his films have been just a tad too long, and that's Leatherheads' problem as well. The story of the legitimization of professional football in the mid 1920s, via an aging playboy with a good mind for cheating (Clooney) and a young World War I hero who's also a dynamite football player (Krasinski, playing a little young but who cares). Renee Zellweger plays Lexie Littleton, Chicago Tribune reporter who's sent to follow Krasinski, because something about his war story stinks a bit.

The good: Leatherheads really swings along on the charm of the two leading men. It's funny, it's cute, and, at times, it succeeds at being more than it really is. This movie has something to say about what it means to believe in something, and what professional sports were like before commercialization. But more than that, the witty 20s repartee is more than enough to see the movie. Zellweger and Clooney have lots of snappy back-and-forth, and you even forget that she's squinty and annoying.

The bad: yes, Leatherheads is about 20 minutes too long, and drags a bit in the last third. Also, there's been a lot of talk about how much Clooney revised the 17-year-old script (so much so that he resigned from the WGA proper because he wasn't acknowledged as screenwriter for the film), and it really shows. Krasinski's character Carter is a totally likeable, all-American boy in the first half of the film, but when Lexie gets too close to his story, something in him changes. In a great interview this week with the AV Club, Krasinski comments on how he and Clooney changed the character of Carter from an unlikeable guy to just a misunderstood one. While I think that was a good call, the last third seems to have slipped Clooney's mind, and when Carter changes, it's never really explained. The same goes for the relationship between Lexie and Carter; it's laid out in the first half, and then just dissolves in the second.

So while there are a few inconsistencies in the movie, they're nothing that take away from enjoying the movie in the moment. Two charming men, a quick, funny script, and a love triangle is enough to spend 2 hours with this movie.


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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Strange Circus (Sion Sono, 2005)

If the trailer for Tokyo Gore Police freaked you out, then Strange Circus certainly isn't for you. The movie begins as a story about a young girl who is forced into a sexual relationship with her father, until the entire family dissolves. In the meantime, she fantasizes about a circus atmosphere where she's accepted in her death.

Then the plot twists, and it's revealed that the first story is actually being written by popular Japanese author Mitsuko, who is flanked by syncophantic editors and one new guy, who seems un affected by her charms. From there, the movie takes you places you thought you'd never go, both plot-wise and visually. Although topics like child abuse (sexual and physical), murder, incest, self-mutilation, mutilation of others, disembowlement, and more, it's much more than it seems.

At its core, I believe Strange Circus is a film about the strange relationship that exists almost universally between mothers and daughters. Mitsuko, through narration, often equates herself with her mother, especially when she talks about how she's been waiting to be executed since she was born, or was she born on the executioner's slate. The relationship between Mitsuko and her mother is an eternally complicated one, including sexual jealousy and even abuse when the father begins sleeping with both females. Of course, most mothers and daughters never take their natural rivalry this far, but there are naturally twinges of competition in most relationships that close.

Sion Sono takes these existential themes and wraps them in a Japanese shock exterior. Many people who've seen it will say that Strange Circus is the most disturbing film they've ever seen, and I can't really argue with that. But much like other shock auteur Takashi Miike, this is shock with a purpose. If you can stomach it, Sono's Strange Circus is a shocking, thought-provoking watch. But it's definitely not for everyone, or even most.


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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Insane Tokyo Gore Police trailer

Without one word of dialogue in the trailer, I know Tokyo Gore Police is going to be awesome. In this five minutes of ridiculous footage, there is more blood than culd possibly be measured, plucked eyeballs, a woman with a crocodile head as her bottom half (??!), awesome fighting school girls with sword arms, and more gore than you can shake a stick at. It's so awesome, it makes me use phrases like "shake a stick at." All I can say is check it out. (Thanks to Twitch for hosting the video.)

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Towelhead clips!

Having just finished Alicia Erian's novel Towelhead (and loved it), I came to search out any news on Alan Ball's (American Beauty, Six Feet Under) adaptation. No trailer or release date as of yet, but IESB has some clips of the film that get me more excited for the movie.

But will it be called Towelhead, as the novel is and the working title was, or Nothing Is Private, the name under which it premiered at last year's Toronto Film Festival? If I had to guess, even though right now it's being called Towelhead, I'd put my money on Nothing is Private, because the original title is just too controversial. If you thought the outrage by conservative radio/tv hosts over movies like Stop-Loss and Rendition was ridiculous (and I do), then just wait until this movie comes out, non-offensive title or not. Yikes.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

First Watchmen video blog!

Thankfully, Zack Snyder and company aren't going to keep us completely in the dark about Watchmen leading up to its May 2009 release (I still have no idea how I will be able to wait). has the first of 12 monthly video blogs from the set. This one is pretty basic, about the set and how almost everything was built up from scratch, but it makes me optimistic to see the amount of work going into making every single thing exactly like the graphic novel. What do you think -- excited about the movie?

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Snow Angels (David Gordon Green, 2007)

Most reviews I've read of David Gordon Green's delayed (it premiered at Sundance 2007!) Snow Angels remark upon how Green seems uncomfortable, out of his element in the movie. I'm starting to suspect that reviewers just read previous reviews and then parrot them, because I didn't see that at all. One review, I can't remember where, said that the movie is like watching these people from the inside of a car, to the detriment of the film. I agree and disagree; Green is detached from the film because the characters are detached from their lives. No one in the movie, save perhaps the teenaged couple of Michael Angarano and Olivia Thirlby (who can stop playing the quirky teen friend any day now), have a hold on their lives. Everyone in the movie seems to just be moving with the tides, and where their emotions and circumstances take them. In that respect, Green got it completely right.

Angarano plays Arthur, a teen who works at a Chinese restaurant with Annie (Kate Beckinsale), who used to babysit him. Annie is separated from the mentally unstable Glenn (Sam Rockwell), with whom she has a 4 year old daughter, Tara. If that drama wasn't enough, Arthur's parents are in the middle of a separation themselves, and Lily (Thirlby) is a new girl with a huge crush on him. But none of this is frivolous (some have called the movie humorless, which I again couldn't disagree with enough -- I found myself laughing at some moments, usually as the only one in the theater). In this movie, everything means something. In the half-ridiculous, half-revelatory opening scene, the high school band, including Arthur on trombone, is marching and playing a distorted version of "Sledgehammer." In a monologue that mirrors exactly every school band director I've known (band geek here), the band director tells his band fervently that every move is based on the person next to and in front of you, and every move is precisely what it needs to be. This is the most important speech in the film; it lets you know where Green is coming from in this portrait of small-town malaise.

Sam Rockwell continues his reign as my favorite working actor. His task in the movie is a really tough one; Glenn could end up just being a pathetic psycho, which he certainly is in some scenes, but Rockwell endues Glenn with something else, something that makes the audience feel sorry for him, and sincerely empathize with him. Kate Beckinsale is very good as well, and again, reviews have called her a hothouse plant just put down in the middle of this environment, that she doesn't belong there, but I think that's a lot of Annie's tragedy. I think I missed the point where Beckinsale became a "real" actress, but I like it a lot. Amy Sedaris also delivers a surprisingly solid performance (for someone known for comedy) as Annie's friend and coworker. If Snow Angels is playing near you, don't let the mediocre reviews stop you from seeing it. It's a beautiful, agonizing portrait of regular people and regular tragedies.


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Thursday, April 03, 2008

White women with different kinds of problems

I've been away for the last few days, and while I usually like to blog while on vacation, this was more of a trying to find a goddamn job-stressful trip, so no dice. But I did watch a few movies with friends, and a few of them were about white ladies with problems, to varying effect.

The Hours won Nicole Kidman abest actress Oscar for her performance as Virginia Woolf, but I wasn't impressed. In fact, I wasn't impressed with the movie much at all, except for the section starring Julianne Moore as a repressed 50s housewife. In fact, I found Kidman as Woolf and Meryl Streep as the contemporary version of Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway incredibly selfish and irritating. I understand the feminist interpretation of mental illness, but I don't think it was explored in any meaningful, interesting way in this film. I was bored while watching it; I think my liberal arts education ruined for me any possible enjoyment of anything with rich white people constantly complaining.


This Girl's Life is the flip, more interesting side of the coin. Juliette Marquis, who looks, acts, and just seems like Angelina Jolie (in a good way), gives a fearless performance as major porn star Moon, who is caring for her Parkinson's-afflicted father and considering getting out of the business. She's not afraid to appear naked, to simulate sex, to talk dirty, and to show real emotion and vulnerability. This really should have been an it-girl-making performance for Marquis, so I'm unsure as to why she's falled off the map. The other actors in the film are solid as well: James Woods as the father, who one moment is shaky and unsure of what's going on, and another is telling dirty stories about visiting Morocco as a lawyer; Kip Pardue as a sweet, understanding new boyfriend; and Michael Rappaport as an obsessive man who comes into strange contact with Moon. This is a strong, fearless film about a strong woman who isn't sure what she wants, and one that I recommend for those interested in the adult film industry or just offbeat character studies.


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