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Noir Monday: Shutter Island

Shutter Island

I'm preempting the promised Brick edition of Noir Monday because I managed to get to the theater to see Scorsese's Shutter Island. Proper noir it may not be, but it uses enough classic noir elements - and deliberately so - that it's worth talking about. Also, it just happens to be a good film.

First off, let's get the spoiler alerts out of the way. There's a significant plot twist at the end of this film, and I'm not going to take pains to avoid it. If you're allergic that type of thing, read no further. But I'm not going to go much into covering the plot anyway, because I can't really be bothered. In case it isn't desperately clear by this point, I don't do formal film criticism, folks - it's just me tossing out some thoughts. You're welcome to toss yours back in return.

On one level, Shutter Island is a throwback B-movie thriller made with A-list talent. On another level, it's a throwback B-movie thriller made with A-list talent. Which is a convoluted way of saying you can enjoy it just as a stylish and skillfully-made thriller or as a cinematic love letter to the classic genre film. It's no towering epic or profound statement. It's a thriller, in the full, movie-definition sense of the word. It could have used a bit more editing and/or restraint in places. But, of course, had it been more edited and restrained, it, and the audience, wouldn't be able to revel in those B-movie indulgences that made it such a fun theater experience in the first place.

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Noir Monday: Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity

When I started this series, there were two films I knew I couldn't avoid and which I was slightly anxious about covering because of their ubiquity and notoriety - the very things that made them unavoidable. They were Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. Both foundational staples of film noir, both with powerful statements to make about women's societal roles, and both with so many years of accumulated baggage it's hard to say anything original about them anymore. But also both such genuinely great, continually rewarding films that it's worth a try to do so.

Double Indemnity began life as a James M. Cain novel, and, in the way I generally rank Cain novels and their movie versions (The Postman Always Rings Twice makes a better novel than movie, and Mildred Pierce is a pretty much a draw), Double Indemnity is a much better film than book. For my money, I have no reservations casting this in large part to the screenwriter Raymond Chandler. But Chandler is probably my favorite writer, so there you are.

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Noir Monday: In a Lonely Place

In a Lonely Place

It's the triumphant (hopefully) return of Noir Monday! I intend to keep it going this time, ideally biweekly, but no promises. Feel free to suggest a future film.

The source material of In a Lonely Place is one of the most well-known pieces of hardboiled mid-century fiction written by a woman (Dorothy B. Hughes). I've never read it. I'm wary of doing so. I saw the film well before I was aware of the book, and it made such a profound, indelible impression on me that I wasn't ever sure I wanted to risk complicating it with other versions of the story.

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Top Films I Saw in 2009

ponyo

As I explained last year when I did a similar list, this is not a "best films of the year" list. For all my film fascination, I don't make it to the theater for first-run features all that often. Blame the kid. But, in no particular order, here are my favorites from the films I did manage to see this past year, regardless of their particular release dates.

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Top Ten Films I Saw in 2008

Eve

This is not exactly the type of list you might think it is. Most people, when writing about their top films of a certain year, reasonably confine themselves to writing about films that actually premiered in that year. But I possess a noisy, squirmy toddler, which makes theater-going almost impossible on a regular basis, and limits my film watching to not-quite-new films. So, here's a random list of the best movies I managed to see in 2008.

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Noir Monday: The Ice Harvest

the ice harvest

John Cusack does comedy tinged with tragedy (or perhaps vice versa) really well. Generally, he seems to go for romantic tragedy rather than any other kind, but whenever he gets close to tongue-in-cheek noir, it seems, to me, to be a perfect fit.

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Noir Monday: The Trial

This is a deliberately unconventional pick. Orson Welles directed many other films that fit better into the noir canon - The Stranger, The Lady from Shanghai, and the film noir to end all films noir (literally), Touch of Evil - but The Trial is a newfound favorite of mine.

I'm not going go into too much detail with it, because discussing enough details to give the movie justice would quickly expand this post into book-length. But The Trial is a cinematic adaptation of Franz Kafka's novel, turned by Welles into a sharply stylistic, brutally beautiful dream of oppression and death. In a very loose sense, it's very noir-like in its themes (complete with some mysteriously dangerous dames). It's almost a meta-noir. It's also essential for any noir fan to watch, if only to compare to the other, more conventional offerings.

Stardust

Maybe it's just my inner rabid fantasy fan and Neil Gaiman acolyte, but, even though the critics had prepared me to dismiss Stardust as a less-than-worthwhile film, I really liked it. I didn't expect to. I expected to like it in spite of itself, but feel a bit ashamed about it. Not so. I think it was a perfectly respectable fantasy film, a decent interpretation of the novel, and a lot of fun. I even liked Claire Danes! A lot! And deNiro's foppery (I don't think I'll ever get another occasion to use that word in the blog, so I'm going for it now) didn't annoy me as much I was told it would.

I'm honestly perplexed that this wasn't more popular. Is it just my personal inclinations showing, or did anyone else really like this?

Noir Monday: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

I picked up 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang on a whim, and, after watching it, I was glad that my expectations hadn't been very high. It has some interesting twists on traditional film noir elements, as well as other general film elements, and some clever humor - but an enduring movie it is not.

The Plot. Robert Downey Jr. is a thief accidentally thrust into the movie world. Val Kilmer is a gay private detective. Michelle Monaghan is a struggling actress who just happens to be Downey's old high school friend. They get caught up in rich guy Corbin Bernsen's web of stuff that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The plot is hard to follow, and you have to be willing to go with the filmmakers on a most of the things they claim are important, or evident, or realistic.

The Noir. It has the basically good if flawed hero who gets into situations way over his head. It has the PI. It has the (basically) good girl sidekick. It has the big, bad city of LA. It has chapter titles taken from titles of novels and short stories by Raymond Chandler. It has sex, violence (it gets gorier as it moves along), and money. It's not the noir part that fails here. The atmosphere is perfectly done, right down to the lovely low-saturation cinematography and the bizarrely decadent party backgrounds.

The Dame. As dames go, Harmony is an okay one. She's pretty smart (she figures out a key plot point before any of the other characters do, even though I don't think the logic she uses is as indisputable as they make it sound). She's a little shrill at times, but willing to jump into the fight. Could have used a dangerous femme fatale as a counterpoint to her "dream girl" role, but the last thing this movie needed was more complications. It could barely handle the ones it already had.

The Fourth Wall. The only completely successful cinematic breaking of the fourth wall I can recall offhand is Groucho Marx's numerous audience asides in the early Marx Bros. movies. It's hard to pull off. Another attempt that comes to mind is the recent Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which also didn't quite work.* Kiss Kiss takes the meddling with conventions to a humorous, but ultimately just confusing extreme. It works better in book format, which is whence this particular story came. Here, the narration directly to the audience, and the constant reminders that the narrator knows he's in a movie, destroy the suspension of belief the audience needs to believe this convoluted plot and its characters are real enough to pay attention to. If the story were tighter, it would be easier to accept the asides. But it's not, and everything is just too messy to concentrate on.

The Bottom Line. It's fun, especially for neo noir fans who treasure old-noir-style wit and one-liners. Which I am. I enjoyed watching it. But it doesn't go down on my list of noir classics.

* Only a few days after I posted this, the Filmspotting team took on this very topic, movies that break the fourth wall, and come up with many more examples, including some I overlooked - High Fidelity, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Inside Man, and more than one Woody Allen film - but few play with these rules as fast and loose as Kiss Kiss does, and most do the fourth wall trick much, much better.

Noir Monday: Shadow of a Doubt

Shadow of a DoubtOne of the best noir themes is the peeling away of a pretty, false facade to reveal the hard, nasty truth underneath, and, in that theme, Shadow of a Doubt is one of the best examples.

It's early Hitchcock (my favorite Hitchcock film, in fact, probably only challenged by Notorious), and is rife with irony, subtext, and dark humor. The main character, Charlie, is a young girl on the cusp of becoming a young woman in a idyllic American small town. When her beloved uncle and namesake comes to visit, a series of events start to make her wonder exactly who her uncle is and what his connections to the "Merry Widow" murders might be.

What sets this apart in the world of film noir is the fact that it has at its center an entirely innocent heroine. Most of the women featured in noir are either the dangerous dames or the hard luck girls, and whether or not they're up or down, the thing they have in common is that they've all seen the dirty side of life. Charlie has not. She is sheltered in a good family in a small town, and while she longs to get out and see the world, she doesn't really know the first thing about it.

There's also the undeniable subtext of her sexual awakening, which is eerily prompted by her growing realization of her uncle and hero not only as a serial killer, but as a man - and Uncle Charlie's realization that his little niece is now a grown woman. The film may try to deflect the sexual tension mostly onto the relationship between young Charlie and the detective that is following her uncle, but with Hitchcock and his hyperactive sexual imagination at the helm, we should know better than to read that particular plotline as anything but a distraction. As Charlie is confronted with the realities of life beyond her family and childhood beliefs, her new adult understanding of violence, lies, and sex is all tangled up together and presumably leaves her a much different person at the film's close.

There a lot in this film to appreciate - I love young Charlie's younger, know-it-all sister, with her huge round glasses and ever-present stack of books, and her father's ongoing, darkly humorous debate with their geeky, pulp-reading neighbor about the best way to murder someone. Joseph Cotten - my favorite most underrated actor - is perfect as Uncle Charlie. The direction, obviously, is detailed and beautiful. This film is often named the thematic precursor to films like Blue Velvet - which it is, but somehow, a movie like this, which hints rather than explicitly states, is so much more powerful than any other that's tried to take on the same topic of investigating what lies beneath.

Noir Monday: Liebestraum

LibestraumI play fast and loose with the label of "noir," which is why Liebestraum is on the list.

I hate writing straight summaries, so I'm stealing this one verbatim from IMDB: "Two affairs, a generation apart. Nick, a professor of architecture in upstate New York, comes to an Illinois town to be with his birth mother in the final days of her illness; he was adopted and has never known her. On the first day, he runs into Paul, a college friend, whose construction company is demolishing an old, downtown department store where a murder-suicide happened 30 years' before. The building is of beautiful cast-iron construction, so Nick wants to study it before the demolition. Paul introduces Nick to his wife, Jane, and over the next four days, their attraction grows as Nick explores the old building, attends his mother's bedside, and unravels the past." (Thanks, unknown summary writer!)

I should make clear that I don't think this is a great film - it definitely has its faults. But it is artful, almost hypnotic. It has some Lynchian touches (the very strange brothel scene reeks of it), and a lot more distinctly noir touches, including twisted affairs of both past and present, and deadly jealousies. The entire effect of the film is an unsettling one. Chances are you won't wholly like it (although you may wholly dislike it), but it will attract you against your will. And, really, what's more noir than that?

Extras: the lead character is played by Kevin Anderson, a rather fine actor who also starred in one of my personal favorites, Eye of God - although you may remember him better with Julia Roberts in Sleeping with the Enemy. Plus - if unsettling movies are your cup of tea, Liebestraum's director Mike Figgis also directed 1999's The Loss of Sexual Innocence, which is a thoroughly continental, arthouse type of film that I can describe no better than "unsettling." In fact, if you have any sexual hangups whatsoever, you should probably avoid Figgis's films, including Liebestraum, altogether. They will not help.

Noir Monday: Scarlet Street

Scarlet StreetIf someone new to film noir wants to learn about it through a single film, Scarlet Street is the one of the ones I would possibly hand her. It's pretty much perfect.

The great, often unsung Edward G. Robinson is Christopher Cross, a quiet, creative man with a mind-numbing bank job and a nagging shrew of a wife. He falls for Kitty, a young, pretty (not to mention loose, foul-mouthed and not particularly bright) woman who mistakes him for a famous artist. Kitty's abusive, domineering boyfriend Johnny sees Cross as a sugar daddy, and pushes Kitty to push Cross for money, which Cross, unaware of Johnny, starts stealing from the bank so that he can keep Kitty happy. It doesn't take much to make him happy - when Kitty and Johnny start passing off Cross's paintings as her own, to their own profit, Cross is so pleased that his work is appreciated he lets her continue to do it. And when Cross's wife's deceased husband suddenly turns up alive, he sees an out of his unhappy marriage and goes to convince Kitty to marry him. Kitty, however, laughs in his face, enraging Cross to the point that he snaps and murders her with an ice pick. Johnny is executed for the murder, but Cross loses his job due to his theft, and tries to kill himself. Unsuccessful, he ends up penniless and alone wandering the streets with Kitty's voice echoing in his head.

Scarlet Street illustrates most clearly the lesson all film noir whispers from the shadows: what you desire can destroy you. Every character in this film wants something desperately: Kitty wants the love of her boyfriend (who is really not much more than a thinly-disguised pimp) so that she'll do anything to keep him, but her game with Cross ends in her death; Johnny wants the money that Kitty can get him, but his involvement results in his murder conviction; Cross's wife wants her deceased husband back, but when he does come back, he's revealed to be crooked and corrupt. And Cross - he wants a lot. He wants freedom from his wife, he wants to be appreciated as a painter, and he wants the love of a beautiful young woman. He gets it all. He even escapes conviction for a murder he committed. But once he's lost everything he gained, he is a great deal worse off than he ever was before, and the loss drives him literally insane.

The film benefits greatly from having a master at its helm - director Fritz Lang, to put it succinctly, knows what he's doing. Every shot, every movement, every line, is deliberate, and carefully builds the characters and story. The performances are brilliant, too.

Scarlet Street is in the pubic domain, and is all over the internet - unfortunately, it's also very poor quality. I've embedded a clip below, but it wouldn't be a bad idea to seek out the 2005 remastered DVD to get the full effect.

Noir Monday: Brick

BrickIn noir terms, neither the storyline or characters of Brick are revolutionary. In fact, both are as noir as it gets. That's the point. But when they're set among teenagers at a high school, it becomes a decidedly different type of film. Meta-noir, I suppose?

Frankly, I just love this film. It's slick and well-done, and full of both dark plots and sly humor. It's possible, though that noir fans get more out of it than others do. As long as you can stretch your ideas of noir, that is. I think Brick is a good example of how film noir isn't so much about the light coming in through the blinds or puffs of cigarette smoke - all in shades of black and white - as it is about that hard, unlucky, and dirty side of human society. That's why I like it - that's the interesting stuff.

Next week: Scarlet Street.

Noir Monday: Leave Her to Heaven

Leave Her to Heaven Three weeks into this, I almost forgot it was Noir Monday. See, this is why I can't be trusted with an ongoing series.

But anyway. There's been quite a few movies made in the noir tradition since the advent of color, but Leave Her to Heaven, in all its Technicolor glory, is the classic example.

Like the other noirs I've discussed (The Dark Corner and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers), Leave Her to Heaven revolves primarily around a woman character - unlike the others, though, Gene Tierney as Ellen is all-around pretty reprehensible. She's beautiful, yes (one of the most unmentioned beauties of all time), but as Ellen she's also insecure, demanding, and literally insanely jealous. She breaks off her engagement with a strangely normal Vincent Price to marry novelist Cornell Wilde, then systematically "gets rid of" every one who threatens to come between her and her husband, including members of her own family, and is willing to destroy herself to do so. Even though Ellen might spring from a typical noir stereotype of the scheming femme fatale, she's portrayed with much more delicacy. Unlike the stereotypical noir women, who are evil without much explanation as to why, little clues about Ellen drop throughout the film about her psychological background (including hints at a disturbingly intense relationship with her late father) and how it developed her into who she is, and, by extension, why she's driven to do what she does.

While it stretches the traditional definition of noir, Heaven makes up for by being a genuinely twisted little drama, and, frankly, what seems to me a greatly underrated one - although Martin Scorsese, in his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese through American Movies also waxes poetically about it. There is a recent remastered DVD release out there now, so go forth and rent/buy away.

Noir Monday: The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers

Despite having one of the most ponderous and misleading names in movie history, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers is a great film noir. I first came across it as a less-than-high-quality VHS tape of it, which I picked up because it was super cheap and I enjoy Barbara Stanwyck. It was a pretty good buy, since it's remained a favorite of mine.

The strongest part of this film is its cast: the aforementioned, wonderful Stanwyck, Van Heflin as the hero, Lizbeth Scott as the hard-luck girl, and Kirk Douglas in his very first role as Stanwyck's overpowered husband. (As a side note, I just learned from Wikipedia that Kirk Douglas's real name is Issur Demsky. I had no idea.)

As with The Dark Corner, one of the things that interests me the most about Ivers is the female characters. They're both rooted in traditional noir figures, but with some progressive touches. Lizbeth Scott is Toni, a tough, been-around-the-block type of girl who tends to get mixed up with the wrong guys - but, of course, she's got a heart of gold. The film is kind to her without covering up her faults, and gives her a second chance by letting her get the good guy - Heflin - at the end.

Babs is much more interesting. She plays the stronger femme fatale angle as the wealthy heiress, industry owner, and wife to Douglas's DA character. She definitely doesn't pull any punches by seducing Sam (Heflin), putting down Toni, or (SPOILER ALERT) eventually revealing her own part in her aunt's long ago death. She also obviously despises her husband and controls him almost completely.

But she also shows pride in her worthier accomplishments. She boasts to Sam about how she took ownership of the tiny factory her father once worked for and more than tripled it in size, providing jobs to most of the town. Her influence in the town, including her support of its businesses and charities, is large. It's rare in noir to find a woman, even a bad one, with so much power and clear advantages, both in materials and attitude, over the significant male characters. When she walks in on Sam and Toni in their adjoining hotel rooms and Sam asks why the front desk let her just walk in, she coolly replies, "I have special privileges in this hotel, Sam. I own it."

The male characters are strong as well, and the story, while a little contrived and overblown in places, overall moves well. The score is lovely, and the ending is happy (unless, like me, you wanted evil Barbara to triumph).

I was almost certain this film was in the public domain, considering the cheapo brand-new copy of it I once bought - and it may very well be, but I can't turn up an online version. You can, however, listen to the excellent Out of the Past podcast episode where they explore the film even more thoroughly.

Noir Monday: The Dark Corner

The Dark Corner

Is this a new weekly feature? Maybe. I don't want to jinx it by putting too much pressure on it. Let's just leave it at that I love noir, watch a lot of noir, and sometimes feel compelled to talk about it. If it continues, it continues. So enjoy it while it lasts.

Over the weekend, I watched The Dark Corner from 1946, which has the interesting distinction of being a tried-and-true, hard-knuckled film noir that stars comedienne Lucille Ball. It's a respectable, even good, noir, but, ironically, she is by far the best part of it.

In fact, her character is the reason this noir stood out for me. Traditional women's roles in film noir are pretty much limited to the gorgeous, scheming femme fatale. Which is fun, but, well, limited, to say the least. Sometimes there's a trusted girl ally, like Spade's secretary Effie in The Maltese Falcon, but she's strictly second stage. Even though Lucille's character is also a secretary, she's tough, smart, and stands up for herself against anyone, including the police and the man she works for. She also has a vibrancy that overshadows every other character in the film. It's a refreshing change for a noir, to see a female lead like her.

Best part? You can watch it online. Well, you could until TVLinks went kaput. I can't find the video anymore, but you can watch the original trailer.

Review: Linda, Linda, Linda

Linda, Linda, LindaLinda, Linda, Linda took a little while to win me over, but in the end it did it completely. It's a charming Japanese teen drama - not to be confused, however, with anything that might come to the minds of mainstream American audiences when it comes to teen dramas. This tale might turn on a fairly unspectactular plotline, which follows a group of schoolgirls practicing their rock band numbers for an annual school festival, and it comes complete with boy problems, the shy exchange student finding friends, and a bit of bad blood between past band members. But it's sincere, and likeable. Also, running underneath its surface is a quiet spirit of youthful rebellion that never becomes a cliche like it might in a less skillfully-done movie. Instead, it keeps it fresh.

If you don't watch a lot of indie or art films, Linda's pace and style might throw you off a little, but stick with it. It ends up in good, old-fashioned, happy rock 'n' roll ending, like all great teen dramas should.

Greencine - Better than Netflix, Blockbuster

Gizmodo is reporting on the price drops at Netflix, presumably in response to Blockbuster's influence in the DVD-by-mail business. I don't care much about this war. I've long had a anti-Blockbuster stance because of their censorship policies (much like Wal-Mart, they don't stock anything that they don't happen to like and pressure media companies to comply with their tastes), and, after a freezing period, I recently completely canceled my Netflix account. I simply felt it was a good opportunity to point out that there's another, much better option: GreenCine.

GreenCine is a multi-faceted film service: the SF-based company sells and rents a massive catalog of DVDs, publishes in-depth movie articles and interviews, and maintains a fantastic blog about the film industry. Here, in no particular order, are some reasons why GreenCine rocks:

  • The Catalog: GreenCine's movie selection is huge and diverse. They stock the classics, the contemporary, the popular and the obscure. They have TV series. Their anime collection is unmatched. They even rent you porn! Take that, Blockbuster.
  • The Website: Beyond their great blogs, GreenCine's website is also a repository for a wealth of genre information, primers, top lists, and knowledgeable recommendations.
  • The Community: GreenCine encourages a much stronger community than I felt Netflix did. The site is full of customers who know movies, and the forum, polls, and member reviews are a places for rich debate and reference.
  • The Schedule: They process DVDs on Saturdays.
  • The Service: If you are looking for a little-known movie, they'll help you track it down.
  • The Principles: Without a doubt, my loyalty to GreenCine stems primarily from their own loyalty to independent film. They donate to various film organizations, festivals and worthy filmmakers. They care about film as an art, and celebrate those who push its boundaries.

Of course, especially in comparison to the other rental services, there are some down sides. Since it's a smaller, more hands-on operation, there is only one West Coast facility, so East Coasters may have a longer turnaround time. (Personally, my own turnaround times have never been longer than what I experienced with Netflix, and I'm in Ohio.) Their rental prices are slightly higher. Finally, sometimes new release availability is poor (but again, not much different from Netflix).

For me, it's all worth it to have access to the variety of films I want and to deal with a company that I can side with and believe in. Sometimes, the best deal is not necessarily the lowest price.

Movie Reviews in Future Tense

I've been enduring a movie drought lately. Busy work and life has left my latest Greencine offerings sitting around for weeks now, and if I don't even have time to watch movies at home, I definitely haven't had time to secure supervision for Little One and go to the theater. So, obviously, I haven't had as much to talk about film-wise lately. But then I figured, why let a little thing like not having actually viewed any given movie stop me from reviewing said movie? Therefore, I present a few brief future-tense movie reviews.

  • Stardust - There will most likely be a slip into fangirl mode at some point during this, so consider yourselves warned from the beginning. I've been looking forward to this move for well over a year, and , if the regular updates on its progress I've been reading over at Neil Gaiman's journal for the same period of time are any indication, it's going to be worth the wait. As big of a film fan I am, I used to be an even bigger reader, so when a favorite novel makes the journey to screen, the inner book snob trumps the film snob - I was originally very wary of this project. Stardust is a beautiful little book. But while I would still encourage, out of principle, anyone to read the book first, all signs point to the movie capturing its essence rather well - primarily because it has author Gaiman's stamp of approval. It also has a fantastic cast, and I'll even reserve judgment of not-my-personal-favorite Claire Danes until I see how she does.
  • Broken English - I'd like to say I trust in director Zoe Cassavetes for more reasons than her last name, but I'm not sure what else I have to go on. This is her first full-length feature, and while I seem to remember seeing her earlier short on Sundance years ago, it (obviously) didn't make a huge impression on me. And, yet, I do trust her. I trust that this film will transcend the typical "aging single girl obsessing over being single" paradigm and become more than chick flick fodder. I trust that the always-trustworthy Parker Posey can help Zoe pull off reflection and introspection without navel-gazing. And if she doesn't? Well, I've made that sort of mistake before (see, Coppola, Sofia).
  • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - I said I was a fangirl. I don't expect to watch it as anything else. The whole series is just for fun, with Alfonso Cuaron's third entry as a notable artistic exception.
  • Becoming Jane - I like Jane Austen, and while I also like some of the 90's barrage of movie versions of her work (Persuasion was the best), I'm a little dismayed at how synonymous her name has become with period-setting romantic fluff, which is what I fear this movie will turn out to be. I have more faith in the talent of actress Anne Hathaway than many another starlet, but the expanding of an almost completely undocumented historical Austen love affair into a feature film makes me think more than a few liberties have been taken with the subject matter. I know little about the director, Julian Jarrold, beyond the fact that he also directed a TV version Great Expectations, which was serviceable. We will, as they say, see.

In other disturbing news: I have yet to watch Children of Men. I think I may have a niche for myself as a film reviewer who only reviews those films that everyone has already seen and don't care about anymore. Maybe next I'll write about 2007's Oscar contenders.

Quick Ones - Pirates, Propositions & Women

The PropositionI delight in putting together odd trilogies of film reviews. This one features one of the biggest blockbusters ever, an Australian western, and the original "chick flick."

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2007). As horribly disappointed as I was by the second Pirates film, I decided to go and see the third one. Not so much because I thought it would certainly be better, but because I was going with someone else, and I wanted to forgo a tussle over movie choices. It turned out to be in fact better than the second, but still managed to avoid absolutely everything that made the original so charming in the first place. As I have so kindly been reminded lately by the USA channel - who has deemed it necessary to run the first Pirates movie five nights in secession - I truly enjoy that film. It's funny, slight, and, well, enjoyable. Nothing more, nothing less. Its two sequels, however, tried to be much, much more and resulted in so much less. The emphasis on special effects and epic story-lines overwhelmed the subtle wit and creative performances they should have focused on instead.

I could describe what actually happens in the film, but I won't because a) I don't quite understand/remember what did happen, and b) I don't care. The plot had no discernible logical movement - it just seemed so many marionette strings being pulled rather haphazardly to make the people go somewhere to do something. Internal motivation? Eh, why bother exploring that. As a result, the characters were flat, and while there was the perpetual amusement of watching Johnny Depp's eccentricities, it was not much new. It's a respectable adventure-ride film, and that's it.

They were fortunate, though, to have Keith Richards wander on set and mumble a couple of lines for them, weren't they? Presumably he then wandered back off to his daily tasks, which involve just as much dissolution and eyeliner.

The Proposition (dir. John Hillcoat, 2005). A Western set in the Australian outback? Guy Pierce? Penned by Nick Cave? I can't possibly explain why it's taken me so long to see this film. Everything about it sounds great. And, in reality, it's even better. Cave's influence manifests itself in the same haunting poeticism that identifies his music. It's richly beautiful and original. I particular enjoy seeing a foreign twist on what is usually considered to be a quintessential American genre. It proves that what makes good cinema transcends both cultural and genre borders. Highly recommended, even for those who don't tend to like Westerns. Maybe especially so, since The Proposition might change their minds.

The Women (dir. George Cukor, 1939). I'm sure there are in-depth academic treatises all over the place about the feminist and post-feminist and pre-feminist overtones you can ascribe to this film. The literal, original tagline was, "It's all about MEN!" But it's not, not really. It revolves around men, but the film itself is very much about its female characters, which run the gamut from wronged wife to devious tramp to thrice-divorced old warhorse to comic society gossip. It has a hugely talented cast, and a genuinely witty script, so all in all, it comes off well. Whether its forthcoming remake will do the same is anyone's guess. Mine is no.

CIFF - Part II

King and the ClownAnd now, a good couple of months after the fact, here is the last half of my Cleveland International Film Festival viewage.

King and the Clown (2005, dir. Jun-ik Lee). According to the ever-helpful Wikipedia, this film is apparently one of the highest grossing films ever in South Korea, which leads me to the conclusion that South Korean movie audiences are awesome. I wish we had American films of this scope and quality crowning our mainstream multiplexes on a regular basis. Plot outline from IMDB reads: "Two clowns living in the Chosun Dynasty get arrested for staging a play that satirizes the king. They are dragged to the palace and threatened with execution, but are given a chance to save their lives if they can make the king laugh." Well, yes, but that's rather like describing Romeo and Juliet as a couple of kids who off themselves. This film reminded me a great deal of Shakespeare, in fact. Very rich character and story. And the historical setting of old Korea, with the detail on both the rural and royal ways of life, was fascinating to me. The King and the Clown is really the first South Korean film I've ever seen; obviously, I'm not very well-versed on Korean cinema. However, if what I saw in this film represents in what direction their contemporary film scene is moving, I'm going to be looking for many, many more.

Boxers (2005, dir. Joanna Kohler). After the screening of Boxers that I attended, they held a forum that included its director, Joanna Kohler. She spoke about her background in social work, and how she approached film as a tool for social justice. Which I respect and appreciate. However, it takes her film out of the realm of artistic criticism. At the beginning of the viewing, I was disappointed with the low production quality, and the lack of creative framing. But I soon realized that none of that is what the film wanted to accomplish. What it wanted was to tell the story of a group of female boxers, and what their story meant in the context of our society as well as to them individually. Kohler delves into all the reasons these girls decide to step into the ring, and the consequences of that decision. Towards the end of the movie, when the boxer who had progressed to the final round of the lost, the entire audience gave a collective gasp/groan. By that point, we were all definitely on board with these women. Boxers is not a groundbreakingly innovative documentary. It's simple and forthright, and it does what it sets out to do. It might even change some people's minds about things. Which I believe Kohler would consider an absolute success.

Relative Obscurity (2007, dir. Jeff Rosenberg). I jumped on this one, because it's by a local boy, set and shot at Ohio University. Supporting your local film scene is always a good call, especially on world premieres. Plus, it's set among characters almost exactly my age, so I figured it had some built-in sympathy. Which it did, although I can't say I was completely crazy about it. Overall, the film was well produced, and well-acted. It suffered only from trying to do too much at once. There are a ton of main characters and twisting storylines. More than that, I got the feeling that this movie wanted to be The Voice of Our Generation, and sought to express absolutely every detail the director had ever thought about growing up and learning to live in the world. That's a pretty tall order. And I ended up vaguely disappointed at the end, since it was almost impossible to live up to the ambition that permeated the film. But it was a sincere ambition, a true, inspiring ambition, so it led me forgive a lot of its attendant faults. Relative Obscurity is a very clearly a film made by a young, hopeful person. Which is not at all a bad thing. It simply is what it is.

No more local festivals until fall, it seems, and none on the level of Cleveland. Back to Greencine until next year.

Quick Ones - Pluto, Bond, and Spiderman

Breakfast on Pluto's Cillian MurphyI have had some disastrous dealings as of late with both the United States Postal Service and Netflix (don't worry, I'll fill in plenty of details about it later), so my movie-viewing rate has dropped off considerably. Here's a quick rundown, however, on some of the ones I have managed to see:

  • Breakfast on Pluto - Dear Mr Cillian Murphy: Please come and make more American movies for us. You are delicious. Love, Jen. This film is a modern fairy-tale if there ever were one. I don't mean that in the sense of being trite and happy-ending-ish; I mean it was full of romanticism and humor. It's not perfect, but it is sweet.
  • Casino Royale - Realistically raw was really the only way left to take the James Bond franchise into new territory, and it worked. Helps that they found the right guy to do it.
  • Spiderman - I never got around to watching the first Spiderman movie, and only saw it for the first time this past weekend. It didn't exactly pump me up for this week's release of the third installment. Most of it didn't provoke any reaction at all, except for Mary Jane, whom I hated unequivocally. Towards the end of the movie, when she was shrieking her head off yet again, all I was thinking was, "Okay! You're in mortal peril. Again. We GET it. I won't even ask that you do something outrageous like develop a bit of character - just please shut up." And so considering one of the main character's main motivations was MJ, I had a hard time sympathizing. The only part I liked was Evil Willem. Which is not an unusual occurrence.

In the GreenCine queue: Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, Children of Men, and The Proposition.

CIFF - Part I

Deadpan ValentineSo it's been over a month ago now, but I did in fact make it to the 31st Cleveland International Film Festival. Unfortunately I didn't have more time than a day to devote to it - but I did get in four films, as well as some low-key vacation time, so I consider the trip a success. Moreover, I enjoyed the films as a whole. There were a ton I wish I could have been in town to see, but so it goes.

I intended to post about all the films at once, but once I got done with the first, I realized I went on longer than I thought I would. So I decided to break it up. Hey, instant post topics for the rest of the week!

Deadpan Valentine (2006, dir. Robin Lindsey). Dark comedy and British comedy - my two favorite types. So with both of those attributes, it didn't take much to charm me into seeing this film, which turned out to be basically a funny, sweet little movie. It seemed to connect really well with the audience, which unfortunately included the hungover girl next to me who kept burping beer fumes and making helpful comments to the characters on screen. We were stuck in the very first row - maybe she just thought that, being so close, they could actually hear her. I'm sure every one else in the audience, however, was reasonably sober and intelligent enough that their evidence of approval can be taken more seriously.

As for the film itself, it's all about Jamie, a chronically depressed ex-stand-up-comedian, who hasn't left his apartment in two weeks and who decides that Valentine's Day is finally the perfect day to commit suicide - and about his roommate, Scott, an actor who spends most of his time styling and posturing like a combination of James Dean and Marlon Brando. As Jamie is failing comically in a series of attempts to off himself, he's interrupted by by a hysterical, gun-wielding Bruce, who is convinced Scott is having an affair with his girlfriend and ends up holding Jamie hostage. While the set-up is a bit fantastic, it doesn't matter because the focus is on the characters, cutting back and forth between Jamie and Bruce's own private miseries, and the misery that Scott inflicts upon pretty much everyone else around him. It comes down to the rich topics of identity and happiness and late-20's malaise, and, of course, love, and does a interesting job of depicting all the sorts of confusion those topics can create.

Deadpan definitely has dark, serious matters running underneath it the entire time, but up until the end, it treats them comically - not lightly or callously, but with a dryness and a distance that is just as effective than directness. When the end comes, with Jamie's epiphany and re-dedication to his life - well, it's just not funny, and becomes almost maudlin. Is it too brutal of me to wonder how someone who fully appreciated the sarcastic humor of the movie's first three quarters could suddenly turn all heartfelt and sincere? The shift was jarring to me. It's also just plain depressing, because with the laughter gone, you see clearly that none of the characters are really that much better off, and in fact some are much worse.

All in all, though, I thought it was great first-time independent effort. It's the type of film you go to festivals to see and enjoy.

Oh, and I don't have the slightest bit of a crush on Jamie. Not at all.