Archive for March, 2010


Chloe (2009)

I was going to see Shutter Island again yesterday, but I instead saw this film because it will no doubt be gone from my town after a week, due to its unmarketed, arthouse type lack of money-making status (two other people showed up as the previews were ending to the Saturday matinee I attended). I guess Atom Egoyan isn’t much of a draw here in the States. He used to be one of the better known Canadian directors (perhaps even the most celebrated in the 90s, before people like David Cronenberg and Guy Maddin started getting rightfully noticed for their awesomeness). If you haven’t seen The Sweet Hereafter, you should stop reading and watch it now.

I wasn’t going to write about this movie, because I’m not sure I want people to get the wrong impression. I usually only write about movies I like, or think I will like if I think about more. The longer I think about this film, the less I liked it (Since I knew most of what was coming, it’s hard for me to judge how well crafted it is, though). It is being billed as a sexually provocative film (you would think that would make it some money), but knowing Egoyan is the director should make some expect a bit more than some sort of Emmanuelle-type picture, though the plot sounds a bit trite: a woman (Julianne Moore) suspects her husband (Liam Neeson) of cheating on her, so she hires a prostitute/whore, depending on your classification of the difference (Amanda Seyfried), to attempt to seduce him in a series of encounters. The women meet several times to discuss the results (in all their so-called lured detail) and….stuff happens.
The film differs in some rather important details from its original source; the French film Nathalie… (2003). It interestingly expands upon and makes blatant what was only ambiguously hinted at in the original (maybe this had more to do with the cultural differences than the choices/abilities of the writers, but more on that later). One can choose to see this lack of subtlety as a fatal flaw of the film (which I was originally inclined to do), but as with any comparison of any two films, they are ultimately separate entities with separate agendas.

Knowing this was an Egoyan film was really enough for me to see it, though I was intrigued by his high-profile, non-Canadian cast here (though the film is set in Toronto). It is no surprise that Julianne Moore is drawn again to yet another masochistic role that blurs the line between bad taste and perversion (after this and Savage Grace one has to wonder what she sees in these roles exactly). She is refreshingly good in this film (personally preferable to the rather blank Fanny Ardant in the original), without a silently crying, frozen/hysterical face in the entire film (when she does this it really annoys me). Amanda Seyfried takes the title role (originally played by the similarly, beguilingly odd-faced Emmanuelle Beart). I don’t want to be too harsh on the rising starlet, but she is clearly no match for Julianne Moore in gravitas. While one could argue that this unequal screen balance is part of the intent between the two characters, I think it might just be a matter of their incomparable level of experience. Neeson is a bit of a cypher; playing the rouse to her game, left with the thankless job of simply reacting to everything (his French counterpart Gerard Depardieu clearly a different character in a different time and place).
This change of the male role is a curious one and I can’t help but think it has some sort of gender commentary to go along with it. Though Egoyan is male, the English-language screenwriter, Erin Cressinda Wilson (writer of the also-dubbed ‘psychosexually provocative’ Secretary), is obviously a woman. I was wondering about any noticeable differences in the ramifications of a woman directing the original and a man directing this version, but I’m not sure if that really even matters. Does Egoyan’s choice of making the husband a seemingly more sympathetic character mean anything? Does his choice of revealing Chloe’s motivations less discreetly or expanding upon her interactions with the couple’s family mean anything different? The original was also clearly more class-focused in the motivations of its title character, while the latter completely ignores any reference to Chloe’s background. Ultimately, I think Egoyan leaves Chloe without any sort of recognizable humanism, forcing Seyfried to pick up the slack in the emotion department (which isn’t quite fair to the actor, methinks).

This is obviously not on par with Egoyan’s Exotica, which has similar story themes and structure, though it is much more reigned in than the mess of Where The Truth Lies (which attempted to be much more provocative as its original NC-17 rating attests to).
I’m not sure what else to say without ‘spoiling’ the film. Knowing what happened in the original and then seeing it play out in the extended way that it did in this film is both interestingly welcome and disappointing, if that makes any sense. Egoyan auteurists will want to check this out and those infatuated with more than Seyfried’s face will not be disappointed, to put it discreetly. Um, yeah.


Shutter Island (2010)

Before I write anything, I have to admit that I will have to see this again before I trust anything I think about this movie.  I rarely see films more than once at the theatre, but this will definitely be an exception. So, dear reader, this post may be more confusingly inarticulate than most.
After a first viewing, I believe this is possibly one of Martin Scorsese‘s best narrative feature films (and I’ve seen them all, save Kundun). One cannot discard the winding, conspiracy-laden plot from the filmmaking technique, but judging on a purely technical level, I defy anyone to name another (living, American) director who can so masterfully meld his own thematic motifs and personal/historical film references/obsessions in a such a seemingly effortless way (credit, of course, goes to others like Thelma Schoomaker as well; his career long editor).
So, let’s focus on those two elements:
Scorsese’s thematic obsessions are relevant here in a way that is both obvious and newly applied. His background as a seminary student and, of course, his (Italian) immigrant upbringing bring an ingrained sense of questioning the morality of Action, especially in violence, and a repeated examination of the possibility for redemption in the fall-of-Man. In this film we have a man, Teddy Daniels, “duly appointed Federal Marshal”; an entrusted authority of the Law, compelled to find and save a woman literally lost in and to the world. In this quest he, of course, must wrestle with his own sense of right-and-wrong, his past indiscretions (real or imagined), and how far he will go in service to Others. This is not unlike many of Scorsese’s better known protagonists (some of them also played by Leonard DiCaprio, in an increasingly impressive list of roles). What is different here is the complexity and convolution involved in this character’s arc. Unlike, say, the delusions of Robert DeNiro‘s Travis Bickle or Rupert Pumpkin (or, dare someone say, Willem Dafoe‘s Christ), the purpose and nature of DiCaprio’s character motivation seems to constantly change and shift, literally before our eyes. Without spoiling anything for those that have yet to experience the film, we begin to question what is actually going on. The film’s narrative ride, for most of the picture, hinges on this doubt and curiosity. We don’t know what he’s thinking (even when we think we do), and Scorsese makes sure the filmmaking keeps us off guard with various visual flourishes that may or may not catch the eye (like the poorly done, perhaps on purpose, green screen/rear projection on the boat at the beginning, or the jarring editing of flash cuts within scenes to draw attention to some sort of change in thought or focus).

If I’ve gotten away from my point about theme, I guess what I’m trying to say is that Scorsese takes what he’s always been interested in inserting into his pictures, some of which have retrospectively been coined as more ‘personal’ than others, and transports it to a new kind of presentation. He is not just venturing into new genre territory (the horror/thriller, I suppose), but also what I will term, for lack of a better phrase, a more open dialogue with the audience. A lot of current, negative Scorsese commentary focuses on how he appears to be working more often as a ‘director-for-hire’ these days, making less of the seemingly ‘personal’ projects he has been defined by in his earlier years. As I’ve begun to say above, I think this is a short-sighted observation. He doing what so many of his idols and predecessors had to do under the Classical Hollywood studio system; working within that system to occasionally transform the given substance into something transcendently more than the sum of its parts.
Part of his own addition to this also has to do with his use of existing, popular music with the image (i.e. the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in Mean Streets ). George Lucas may have broken this ground with American Graffiti, but Scorsese has continued to noticeably use existing music as a major emotional element in his pictures (as well as what one could term a piece of his own ‘authorial voice’).
People may not realize that there was no original score commissioned for Shutter Island. Robbie Robertson, a long-time Scorsese collaborator, supervised the selection of entirely existing music, most of which is neo-classical (and even avant-garde). It’s an odd, jarring assortment of music that only furthers the unique mood of the film.

Let’s try focusing on the other element I mentioned above: Scorsese’s unmatched mastery of film history and general movie knowledge. This film is a treasure trove of film references that have laid the foundation for this type of picture Scorsese has taken upon. Val Lewton, Sam Fuller, Nicholas Ray, even William Castle, are all found within this film if you know where to look. Yet, unlike most of Quentin Tarantino‘s pictures, who is the most obvious predecessor to the predilection for this type of filmmaking (and perhaps even a latent influence as well), Scorsese takes the attitude and atmosphere of films by these filmmakers and makes them his own. In other words I did not notice a prevalence of specific shot and staging references to past films (in my own limited knowledge), but rather a feeling that evokes the power they seem to have for Scorsese personally (He is literally bringing filmmaking from beyond the grave and passing it on to newer audiences in his own films). There is a very memorable flashback in the film that includes a pan, left-to-right, involving a ‘confrontation’ of Allied soldiers and their Nazi counterparts. I don’t know/remember if Sam Fuller used that shot in any of his war pictures, but as I was seeing it happen I knew that he could (maybe even should) have. You might think that this type of thing really has nothing to do with enjoying a film (and you may be right), but to me it just illustrates the interconnectiveness of the art form, and how someone like Scorsese (or even Tarantino in parts of Inglourious Basterds) uses Cinema to accentuate the story. The references aren’t there to be cute or know-it-all-ish; they serve the story and, even if you are unaware of their origin, they have a power that cannot be matched by a more simple, naive filmmaker.

Other random observations:
I wonder what this film would look like in black & white. I also wonder how different this film looks from other films that could have been made with this type of color in 1954.
A lot of people have been mentioning Eyes Wide Shut in comparison to this film. I can see the tonal connection and the fact that they are both (wrongly) criticized for having less going on than it seems. If you like one, I would think you would like the other (despite being completely different in many other ways).

So, once again, this post has very little to do with the story of the film itself. Though, most people may find the story a bit disappointing/confusing, or at perhaps predictable (it is doing surprisingly better at the box office than anticipated). This movie has so much more going on for it than its narrative twists. Although the movie year has just started for me (post-Award season), I can easily say this is my favorite film of the year so far. I can only hope Scorsese continues to make pictures as cinematically interesting as this one. We have the adaptation of Caldecott Medal winning The Invention of Hugo Cabaret to look forward to next…after the eagerly awaited pilot episode of his new, brilliant looking HBO series, Boardwalk Empire, starting this Fall (a preview is posted in the top sidebar to the right).


2009 list

Now that the movie year is officially coming to a close, it is time for me to post my favorite movies of the year (also known as ‘the top ten’ list). This year’s list, like most, has more than ten movies. I watched 145 movies from 2009, so you’ll have to permit me to really like more than ten.

The obligatory top ten:

*Antichrist (Lars Von Trier/Denmark)
*Ddongpari/Breathless (Yang Ik-Joon/South Korea)
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino/US)
Julia (Erick Zonca/France/UK)
*The Messenger (Oren Moverman/US)
Moon (Duncan Jones/UK)
Un Prophète (Jacques Audiard/France)
Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga/Mexico/US)
*Two Lovers (James Gray/US)
*Das Weiss Band/The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke/Germany)

and a second ten:

*Los Abrazos Rotos/Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodóvar/Spain)
Chéri (Stephen Frears/UK)
An Education (Lone Scherfig/UK)
*Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold/UK)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam/UK)
Martyrs (Pascal Laugier/France)
Orphan (Jaume Collet-Serra/US)
*Passing Strange (Spike Lee/US)
Sugar (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck/US)
*The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh/US)

And a special mention all on its own, for all of its perverted 237 minutes :
Ai no mukidashi/Love Exposure (Shion Sono/Japan)

Some of these movies I’ve already written about here (they have an * before the title), others I just didn’t make the time to sit down and write (or wasn’t sure what to say). Notice these are in alphabetical order, because ranking completely different films is a ridiculous task.

Some general observations about my lists:
Many of my favorite films from 2009 have a strong, single performance; the films cannot be separated from their performances. Rather than the actor eating up the screen; where the film is only about the performance (like say, Tom Hardy in Bronson), I think many of these films are extraordinary in building the story around the character. I suppose it’s a bit chicken-and-egg, in that the films cannot be great without the performances, but the films themselves have more going for them than just the actors’ delivery. The Hurt Locker is conspicuously absent from this list, partly because I saw it last year in 2008 and partly because Jeremy Renner‘s performance is, in my opinion, simply so much more superior than the film itself (easily one of my favorites of  either year). I’m still not entirely sure about Julia. Tilda Swinton is so amazing, it kind of blinds me to the (perhaps many) faults of the film. The title character in this film cannot be separated from the progression of the film; her addictions and her situational decision-making fuel everything that happens and why it happens the way that it does. This is different than, say, Penelope Cruz‘s performance in Broken Embraces. Almodóvar literally fashions the character into who she is and is not, making her larger than her specific part in the story through his direction (and, of course, writing). I think this may be why some people are not quite recognizing her brilliance in this film. She is controlled and directed, but she embodies that within her character; her character is defined by her own singular ability as an actress to capture our gaze. Similarly, the performances by, say, Ben Foster in The Messenger or Charlotte Gainsbourg in Antichrist provide an emotional through-line for the entire film, whether it is his restrained sense of anxiety and loss or her controlled ascent/descent into hysteria. Michelle Pfeffier is so great in Chéri because she (and Stephen Frears and Christopher Hampton) uses a period story to, among other things, comment on (her own) aging beauty (something many of her decent performances have been plagued by). She literally embodies the character, hyper-aware of this specific moment in life where everything is, in the realm of the superficial, all downhill from here. I won’t even try to get into why Sam Rockwell is so amazing in Moon (I mean, the man made Gentlemen Broncos entertaining!)…

I forced myself to cut my second list to ten for the sake of synchronicity (it was closer to 20). I noticed that it was heavily favoring horror, with selections like The House of the Devil (Ti West/US) and Linkeroever/Left Bank (Pieter Van Hees/Belgium) ultimately not making the cut, because I felt like I personally liked the films (and the genre) more than I thought of them as good (though they are that too). Left Bank, especially, has one of the most inventive endings I have seen in quite awhile…
As for the two I’ve left (in addition to Antichrist); Orphan and Martyrs, these two films couldn’t be more different. Orphan should be celebrated as a return to form for the classic Hollywood horror/thriller (also due to excellent actors); it uses a minimum of gore or flashy visual effects to convey an atmospherically controlled, well-crafted yarn. Martyrs, on the other hand, is an assault to both the senses and conception (and, perhaps more importantly, structure) of the modern horror film. There are countless tirades for and against this film, whether or not you think its brutality outweighs its seemingly (perhaps easily dismissed) pretentious ‘argument’, it is a film to be reckoned with (cognitively and morally).

I kind of regret not posting anything about Inglourious Basterds previously. Let’s just say that even though Tarantino is an idiot savant of film references, he is maturing into a filmmaker who actually has ideas (as opposed to just a filmmaker with images). Aside from the obvious cinematic influences, I see a lot of thematic similarities drawn from Chan Wook-Park‘s vengeance trilogy. I won’t even attempt to get into the whole revisionist history stuff (though I’m interested in J. Hoberman‘s suggestion that this is a sci-fi film as much as it is a revisionist western or ensemble war film. Any way, it is a feast, regardless of the blood involved.

I could keep going, but I’m tired. If anyone wants to know anything else about any of these movies, let me know.

featured Short film (9 min)

Blue Shining (Richard Vezina, 2015)

great scene from a great film

Sullivan's Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)

March 2010