Monday, February 26, 2007

Sunday, February 25, 2007

It's just a dumb movie.

In the pre-credits opening of Hardbodies 2, a bird shits on James Karen (playing the director of the dumb softcore flick within this dumb softcore flick). The moment is an obvious self-critique from the filmmakers, who are also responsible for the first Hardbodies; throughout the film, Karen's boorish, idiotic director is similarly humiliated, abused and mocked. Hardbodies 2 is a horrible movie made by people who know they make horrible movies, and while this doesn't make it any less horrible, it is at least perversely interesting.

Scotty (Brad Zutaut, replacing Grant Cramer), the protagonist of the first Hardbodies, arrives in Greece to make a T&A picture. No explanation is given for how this character became an actor, and he's a curious choice for a marquee idol, looking like Jeff Daniels and Martha Plimpton took a trip through Seth Brundle's pods together. Like Inland Empire, the plot of the film-within-a-film dovetails with Scotty's story, burdened as he is with a fiancee (Brenda Bakke) who doesn't realize how hard it is to be a giant walking erection. Groins are kicked, gas is passed and mullets are ubiquitous. While none of this is surprising, the suggestion that the filmmakers are intelligent enough to realize that they suck makes things even worse. If they had demonstrated the wit to actively parody the first film, that would at least make them more recognizably human; instead, they deliver even the most horrid "jokes" with a shit-eating grin, implying that the joke is, in fact, on us for being too pretentious to enjoy the simple, old-timey pleasures of gay jokes and boner fodder.

While Karen (uncharacteristically bad here, though Orson Welles probably couldn't do better) flails about like an enormous ass, the filmmakers aren't poking fun at their incompetence so much as their doofishness. It's clear that they idolize Scotty, who is presented as a straightforward romantic hero (the word "love" is invoked in alien ways here). Towards the beginning, it seemed that at least the film wouldn't spiral into total misogyny, allowing Scotty's fiancee to voice her frustration at his womanizing. But of course, this is just a setup for her inevitable humiliation and rejection, the explicit message being that guys who score a lot are awesome and women who have multiple partners are deplorable sluts.

While none of this is surpising, it's still unusually pathetic compared to superior 80's teen sex comedies of the at least make some reference to the emotional consequences of sex (The Last American Virgin) or take time to grant women the right to sexual pleasure (Porky's). And Russ Meyer proved that breasts can be enough of a subject to sustain an entire film. But the Hardbodies movies are far worse than that; they're not motivated by eroticism, but by a desire to entrap, objectify and dominate women using the camera as a weapon. Hardbodies 2 hates sex, women and movies. If you like this movie, you are probably a chimp.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Thursday, February 22, 2007

It's time for the awards - the Hollywood Awards!

In attempting to write commentary for my Oscar preferences this year, I find that my thoughts keep returning to one basic truth:

The Departed for Best Picture. Scorsese for director. He's the best American director working today, and The Departed is everything a Best Picture winner should be - big, entertaining, smart, visceral, full of stars doing terrific work and destined to become a classic. If The Departed wins, it will be the coolest choice since The Silence of the Lambs. It's just that great.

Please, AMPAS, get it right this time. You owe me after the merciless gutpunch that was Crash. Do it for Queenan.

The rest (at least, the ones I have an informed opinion on):

Actor: Forrest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland Not a great movie, but by far the strongest performance in a weak field.
Actress: Kate Winslet, Little Children Never going to happen, but a guy can dream.
Actor: Jackie Earle Haley, Little Children Wouldn't mind Wahlberg or Arkin winning either.
Supporting Actress: Rinko Kikuchi, Babel Not a fan of the movie, but Kikuchi does moving work with pretty horrid material.
Original Screenplay: Pan's Labyrinth Wouldn't mind a Letters From Iwo Jima win here.
Adapted Screenplay: The Departed Children of Men is the better film, but William Monahan's script is close to perfect.
Animated Feature: Monster House Why not?
Documentary Feature: Jesus Camp I'm not really crazy about any of the nominees; I'm going with Jesus Camp mostly because it's the only one I've seen that doesn't reek of self-importance.
Foreign Language Film: Pan's Labyrinth ¡El hombre pálido!

Cinematography: Children of Men Go Chivo!
Art Direction: The Prestige Tesla's Colorado hideaway is jaw-droppingly cool.
Editing: The Departed I heart Thelma.
Visual Effects: Superman Returns Even if Supes bored you to tears, you have to admit it looked pretty nifty.

Costume Design: Marie Antoinette Sneakers and all.

Makeup: Pan's Labyrinth Fuck Click.

Sound Mixing: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest Mostly for the ominous "THUMP" of Davey Jones' pegleg.

Sound Editing: Letters From Iwo Jima Not just for its explosions, but for its moments of silence.

Best Score: Pan's Labyrinth A great score as integral to the narrative as Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

The most beautiful things in the world are most useless - peacocks and lilies, for instance.

Black Moon alludes heavily to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, which makes perfect sense; Lewis Carroll's books are progenitors of a long line of absurdist works, and Louis Malle's film succeeds in this tradition. And while Black Moon is a strange, elusive and haunting success in its own right, it is even more impressive when placed in the context of Malle's other work, which is characterized by precise insight into the human condition but remains firmly rooted in a world that is recognizably our own. Here, Malle takes his recurring themes and concerns and disappears down a rabbit hole; the result is a brilliant realization of the uncanny.

Lily (Cathryn Harrison) is a teenage girl roaming through an overcast countryside; civilization has collapsed (or is perhaps yet to begin), and gas-masked men summarily execute women on sight. After conversing with some insects, Lily escapes to an isolated farmhouse where she meets a bedridden elderly woman (Thérèse Giehse) who talks into a two-way radio connected to the infinite when she isn't conversing in an unknown language with a rat named Humphrey. Also coming and going are a mute young man (Joe Dallesandro) and his sister (Alexandra Stewart), who is cruel to Lily for unknown reasons and who provides the old woman with a puzzling form of nourishment. Characters die and are born again, a gang of naked feral children herd pigs, and a unicorn appears out of thin air to mock Lily's assumptions about the world she finds herself in. The proceedings are delibrately strange, but Malle uses the Alice connection to provide us with the foundation for a frame of reference. But Black Moon's most drastic departure from its source is its lack of a clear delineation between reality and fantasy; the world that Lily escapes may or may not be our own, the farm may be a microcosm of that larger world, and each world constantly threatens to collapse upon the other. The old lady and the unicorn each deny the other's existance, but Malle gives no clue as to whether either or both are telling the truth; by avoiding a binary opposition between the real and the unreal, Malle opens his film up to a whole other realm of tantalizing possibilities.

There's an argument to be made for a Freudian reading of the film, as Lily is frequently mocked for her emerging sexuality - her panties have a habit of falling down no matter how hard she tries to keep them on, the young man's horny gaze is repeatedly equated with violence, and snakes have a tendency to pop out of unexpected places. But Malle is not bound by a strictly analagous reading of his film (note the absence of a father figure), allowing characters to contradict one another and the laws of the film's reality to constantly shift. Black Moon can be handily read, like Malle's later film Pretty Baby, as the story of a young woman's resistance to her inevitable induction into a phallocentric world (making the Alice connection, given Carroll's sexual proclivities, tantalizingly kinky). But more broadly, it's about the disconnect from the world around us that we feel at moments of personal (and societal) transition - adolescence, for one, but also aging, death and rebirth. Lily ultimately gives herself to the old woman in a way that suggests her acceptance of this constant state of uncertainty; Malle smartly denies us an easy summation of the film's meaning, but he does leave us with the suggestion that for Lily, at least, real understanding is at least a bit more attainable.

Black Moon was shot by Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman's frequent collaborator, and he films the rural settings in a way that makes them remarkably tactile (this is partly why I prefer the film to Godard's Weekend, an intelligent film set in a similar world that sacrifices our engagement for self-satisfied trickery). Nykvist's work is reflected in the strategy of the entire film, which presents its fantastic characters and situations matter-of-factly; by using literal narrative methods (hard cuts, natural light), Malle makes his unicorns and talking animals all the more disturbing for their complete lack of artifice. The sound design is brilliant as well, creating a disconnect between what we see and what we hear (a slug crawling across a log has the volume of a tank rolling along a hill). By constantly playing with our perspective, Malle forces us to consider the value we place in our own assumptions about the nature of the world around us. The result is a mesmerizing sensory experience that would make Lewis Carroll proud; as the author himself once admonished, "Be what you would seem to be - or, if you'd like it put more simply - never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise."

Friday, February 16, 2007

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Top 10: 2006

2006 was a contemplative way for film, as both highbrow and junk movies considered notions of heroism, cultural identity and the always uncertain future in subtle and surprising ways. After Fahrenheit 9/11 and the subsequent wave of self-conscious agitprop bound to topical content, the cinema of 2006 represented a return to something more timeless. So while several of the films on this list couldn't be more prescient, they're also well-told stories that will likely have a shelf life beyond today's headlines.

There's a sense of urgency in the films listed below; while there was plenty of disposable filler this year, there's also the feeling that storytelling is more important than ever. That feeling is evident with 60-year-old filmmakers experimenting with their craft as though they were film students just getting their hands on the camera. It can also be felt in the sudden leaps forward of promising young directors who have established their importance, and with relatively new filmmakers just beginning to introduce themselves to us. As the methods of filmmaking and exhibition are changing, the possiblities are becoming virtually endless; the films listed below are the work of directors who have chosen to seize the day.

1. Children of Men The perfect marriage of form and content. We'll be talking about Children of Men for years, not just because it's an astounding technical achievement, but also because there isn't one shot, one cut, one movement of the camera that isn't loaded with meaning. Alfonso Cuaron has made the rare science-fiction film that understands that ideas, not CG bells and whistles, should drive the narrative. The result is a film with worlds to say about where we've been and where we're going, connected by the basic truth that we're all responsible for the world that our children inherit. It's not a message, it's an ongoing question, and one that Children of Men poses brilliantly - while the film plunges us into absolute horror, it also inspires genuine optimism.

2. The Fountain The film that made me a trembling mass of jelly. To call Hugh Jackman's space-chi-practicing, tree-sperm-drinking space odyssey ridiculous is to miss the point completely; what's amazing to me is that Darren Aronofsky had the guts to be ridiculous enough to court the sublime. Because The Fountain is really about the stories we create to express our hope in life after death - these stories are silly at face value, but it'd be foolish to dismiss their significance. A film deeply rooted in the power of myth, The Fountain is also a smart enough film to understand that nothing gives our existential concerns more fuel than the fear of losing one's soulmate. It's great speculative fantasy, and (largely thanks to powerful performances from the leads) it's also a devastating love story. While Aronofsky is smart enough not to provide pat resolution to the questions he raises here, The Fountain does what all great art should do; it reminds us that meaning is ours to create.

3. The Departed It's annoying to see detractors of The Departed, who argue that it's not "important Scorsese" and split hairs over its thematic depth, ignore what a completely fucking entertaining movie it is. Every actor is at the top of his/her game, the script is perfect, the soundtrack rocks and it's funny as hell. Scorsese made a genre movie that succeeds on every level without compromising his vision in the process - if that doesn't deserve a Hollywood award, than I don't know what does. And the rat isn't just a cheap joke; it's a brilliant cheap joke.

4. Inland Empire I'd be lying if I told you I "got" this movie, but I have little patience for anyone quick to dismiss Lynch as inaccessible. His movies have always proven to be coherent no matter how fragmented they appear; he just makes the audience work a little harder than we're used to. So while his three-hour, grainy DV epic of identity dislocation left me emotionally and intellectually exhausted by its final dance number, I'd never call it a chore. It's already clear that Inland Empire has a great deal to say about filmmaking, performance and the self, and if you're willing to go along with Lynch's methods, than the film opens up new ways of experiencing cinema. It's a welcome return to his experimental roots, and it contains the performance of the year in Laura Dern, who embodies all of our confusion and is a wonderful guide through Lynch's strange world.

5. Pan's Labyrinth Hooray for nerds! In Guillermo del Toro's collision of horrors both fantastic and real, one can see the influence of not only fantasy literature and film but also video games, Dungeons and Dragons, and possibly prog rock. The story of a young girl (Ivana Banquero, brilliant here) who journeys between a world filled with fairies and monsters and the war-torn Spanish countryside could have been unbearably arch, but Del Toro doesn't have a pretentious bone in his body. You can feel his mad geekiness in every frame; it takes a true believer in the importance of fairy tales to make a fantasy this exciting, creepy, and ultimately devastating.

6. United 93 The one film on this list that I haven't reviewed elsewhere on this blog - it's just too emotionally devastating. Suffice to say that, if a 9/11 movie needed to exist, I can't imagine a better one than this. Paul Greengrass and his terrific cast wisely underplay the kind of mawkish sentimentality that ruined this year's other September 11th movie, allowing a subtle, unsensational form of emotional truth to shine through. United 93 is an extraordinary act of verisimilitude, coming as close as any film likely can to sharing what the last moments of United 93's passengers must have been like. The result is a brutal experience that isn't for everyone, but it probably shouldn't have been any other way.

7. Shortbus For me, 2006's signature moment in cinema has to be the sight of one man singing the national anthem into another's ass. In a fall movie season loaded with "serious" but forgettable awards bait, John Cameron Mitchell's pansexual ode to peace, love and all things kinky was a welcome breath of fresh air. Shortbus is a radical movie not only for its explicit sex but because, in telling a sweet story about a group of sexually and emotionally confused New Yorkers for whom sex is only the gateway to a deeper emotional journey, it's a passionate cry for a shift towards tolerance, community and peace. Has there ever been a sweeter reason to make a movie containing autofellatio?

8. The Proposition The first great western since Dead Man. Nick Cave's screenplay contains the same stark poetry found in his lyrics, and director John Hillcoat perfectly captures Cave's vision, with all its hellfire and brimstone. While some found the film too solemn, I admired the visceral strength of its images - the violence is remarkable not because of its explicitness but because one can practically feel the impact of each gunshot. And yeah, the wages of sin are well-trod territory for westerns, but the filmmakers and cast (it's been a good year for Ray Winstone) respond to the gravity of the material with such unselfconscious conviction that I can't help getting caught up in its grim tale of frontier justice.

9. Superman Returns You probably hated this, and I can't blame you. Bryan Singer's rebooting of the Superman franchise eschews most of the payoffs we've come to expect from a comic book movie in favor of something more lyrical. It's not nearly as fun as Spider-Man 2 or Batman Begins; all I can say is that something about its melancholy version of Superman as a lonely, detached hero who is in the world but not of it resonated deeply with me. It's a superhero movie of unusual scope and ambition, a marriage of art and popcorn; the result may be unwieldly, but I can't help loving it.

10. Little Children The most difficult film on this list, but one I can't seem to forget. Todd Field's adaptation of the Tom Perrotta novel is a curious, often confounding work that is both deeply sarcastic and completely sincere. It contains some of the strongest performances this year - Kate Winslet and Patrick Wilson as the young marrieds flirting with disaster are a perfect mirror of Jackie Earle Haley as a man at war with his own nature. It's funny, insightful, and best of all, it has faith in its audience's intelligence.

For more best-of-2006 goodness, check out the Muriel Awards, an informal poll of various film bloggers whose creators were kind enough to invite me to participate. And, of course, I look forward to hearing your takes on the best of 2006.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Trim Bin #54

- Solveig Dommartin, longtime romantic and creative partner of Wim Wenders, passed away in January at the age of 45. I'll remember Dommartin fondly for her performance and work on the screenplay of the vastly underrated Until the End of the World (will we ever see the director's cut on DVD in the US?), Marion, the lonely trapeze artist who becomes the object of an angel's affections in Wings of Desire. In a 1995 interview with Richard Reitinger, Dommartin had this to say about the meaning of her character's unforgettable final monologue:

"It's really our story today. Who has become the woman, who has become the man, and the way that love depends today for its construction as much on the woman as on the man. This is, after all, a fairly recent development. And for me, that's what it's about. A description of something new, belonging to our century, or even to the end of this millennium, where all of a sudden the woman can make a declaration of love. The woman can say: "There, it's you. I have recognized you." Fifty years ago, this would have been unthinkable. I find it very encouraging that this new possibility exists."

- I enjoy following the Oscars, but ultimately, they're a game. So while it'd be nice if their choices reflected my own for the best of 2006 (come on, couldn't The Fountain at least gotten Sound Editing or something?), I'm just happy to see some strong choices in there. I'll be rooting for Children of Men, The Departed and Pan's Labyrinth on the 25th, as well as hoping that Babel isn't this year's Crash. There are smart nominations and baffling ones (Leo for "bling bang" and not The Departed?), but I'm just looking forward to popping some popcorn, enjoying the Ennio Morricone tribute, and applauding Martin Scorsese's long-overdue and inevitable victory (right? right?).

- The North Adams Movieplex 8 opened this past weekend - five of its eight screens were up and running, anyway. There are still some kinks that need ironing out - the screen was new enough to have some creases, and there was some distortion on the low end of the sound system - but the projection was excellent, the seating was comfortable, and best of all, it's an honest-to-goodness multiplex. I may never see another movie at the mall, and that's a beautiful thing.

- Walter Chaw calls Diane Keaton a vagina dentata.

- Finally, the trailer for Across the Universe, Julie Taymor's Beatles musical, has hit the web. My friend Kate was a background actor in this, and she said it looked to be an incredible film. This trailer, which I've watched three times, promises the same - it's like Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, only good!