Friday, October 19, 2007

8 1/2

It is only appropriate that we honor those works which were so much a part of our formative experience with cinema. Now while this may open up reasons why either Lady and the Tramp or Home Alone should receive consideration here, there are also those foundational films that allowed for film to be viewed through a fuller, more comprehensive lens. For me, no film better exemplifies these qualities than Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963). Few films are as successful in their representation of cinema imitating cinema as this one, and the audacity with which Fellini consistently employs in this work remains visionary.

In it the filmmaker Guido (the great Marcello Mastroianni) is being restricted both financially and artistically, confined to fashioning a science fiction film that now fails to keep his interest. He feels psychologically pressured by an asphyxiating circle of colleagues, denied the ability to pursue his artistic visions, and unable to craft a self-definition all his own. He turns to evasion, but that is ultimately a facile escape, leaving him in a spa and still pestered by the colleagues. Restriction, in sum, is all around him. However, in fantasy he escapes and is free—free to retreat into childhood memories and free to imagine taming a harem of women, from his wife to his mistress, to anyone generally. This desire goes into excess and, indeed, Fellini celebrates the excess, for in it we find life and genuine art.

Within all of this excess there are endless doubling of Guido and Fellini, whether it be the mistresses, the licentiousness, the tawdry offenses, even the seemingly pigheaded visions of what art can become, but through it all Fellini defends his discipline with artistry and craft, something that is more problematic for Guido. Yet Guido too earns a sense of order as he makes his cast and crew conform to his outlandish efforts, culminating in one of the most singular scenes in cinema: the parade of actors that is complete transcendence. Rarely have I been euphoric while watching a film, but this conclusion earns its euphoria every time.

So what, then, might we say this film shows me? It educates me about the context of cinema, pinpointing the struggle for artistry within an industry that tries to dissuade directors from venturing beyond continuity style and renders visible the efforts of a visionary. It also exposes me to a multiplicity of narratives working simultaneously within one mind, chronicling the true-to-life willingness to drift off into space and freedom, composing such oscillations in pure cinematic terms. Finally, though, it is a celebration of art and a argument for the positive, life-affirming qualities that the best of cinema (and all art) can offer, and on those terms I wholeheartedly welcome it every time.

8 1/2: 10/10

The Piano

Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993) is, to my eyes, one of cinema’s great beauties, filled with the rapture of beatific images and music, of spiritual and sexual yearning, and of the embodiment of the titular musical instrument for a voice. As such, Campion’s film chronicles the myriad loves that mute Ada (Holly Hunter) holds dear, entrusting her daughter, the piano, and the prospect of emotional love with her undying devotion. More literally, its high status is often entrenched as a feminist critique of the objectification of women, when women were considered the property of their husbands. Yet such a narrow reading precludes a study of how Baines (Harvey Keitel) exploits Ada for his personal interest, even though she soon reciprocates, and so such a definition must be reconsidered to include the appropriation of objectification that the characters confer upon themselves when their sexual exploits evolve into something deeper and more profound.

Yet this is not a solemn film, even though it concerns itself with muted self-expression, both figuratively and, in the film’s climax, literally. Instead, it is a joyful film, one that celebrates the awakening that may be found in even the greatest torment, and so Campion’s vision arrives at a grace that is its greatest virtue. Ada and her daughter Flora (Anna Paquin) survive through the ravages of their time, transcending any petty betrayals that each might commit upon the other, and refuse to submit to the cultural landscape that demands public and private submissiveness in a marriage.

Ultimately, this film’s claim toward greatness was conferred in my eyes at the ambiguity that lies in the climax and coda of the film, when Ada unwilling and later willingly sacrifices herself to be at one with her voice, her piano. The shots that follow are held in a capsule by my mind, as Campion took a very good film and crossed the threshold to greatness in those moments. The Piano is a magical film, and Campion’s lasting legacy to cinema thus far.

The Piano: 10/10


Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher (1999) is perhaps the biggest surprise on this list for me. It was one of the last additions, largely because I kept deliberating on what makes this film so different from other stories about preadolescent males who grow up amidst poverty, secrecy, and self-reflective guilt. Ultimately, it comes down to how Ramsay eschews conventionality to tell a more panoramic case study, allowing the narrative to unfold naturalistically, yet with flair and elegance, so that Ratcatcher becomes a document of an entire city seen through the extremely subjective viewpoint of one boy.

And immediately the film announces its narrative subversions as our expected protagonist drowns in the early minutes of the film, settling upon the guilt that James (William Eadie) finds himself plagued with, internalizing feelings of the waste and wreckage that sit alongside the Glasgow homes during the 1970’s garbage strike that the film is based in. Yet James finds security in his escapes of reverie out into the countryside, where wheat fields and empty houses show him a promise and allure that is entirely beyond impoverished family. Moreover, Ramsay fashions a facsimile of an adult relationship between James and Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), as the two are appropriately confused and understanding of the responsibilities that attraction and adulthood are supposed to bring. There is an understated reciprocity in a scene in which the two bathe one another, and if they nonetheless draw away from one another, it’s because neither James nor Margaret Anne have a good same-sex parental figure to emulate.

The film reveals itself to be a marvel during a sequence in which his friend Kenny ties his newly purchased mouse to a balloon and releases her from his upper-level apartment. The extended sequence that follows was a transcendent moment, full of narrative and creative aplomb. Likewise, and in a moment that reminds me of the similarly-minded tranquility that exists, albeit briefly, in Lukas Moodysson’s A Hole in My Heart, James’ trips through the countryside are the respite to his habitual oppression in his familial life. Throughout Ramsay and her composer Rachel Porter find a quiet lyricism to alleviate the bleakness, resulting in a poetic masterpiece of mood and character, with an appropriately ambiguous ending.

Ratcatcher: 10/10

Grave of the Fireflies

Looking at my animated selections in this blog (Toy Story 2 and Whisper of the Heart), it should be readily apparent that I am most attracted to anime and CG films that tell realistic rather than fantastical stories, albeit even as they utilize the strongest aspects of their exaggerated style to construct that sense of realism. It is little surprise, then, that I find myself most affected and emotionally devastated by Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies (1988), as this film showcases all the hope, the pride, the desperation, and the immorality of survival in the firebombed ruins of Kobe, Japan.

As families are torn apart, so are our protagonists, young Seita and his little sister Setsuko, stripped of their immediate family as firebombing ravages their town. As Seita shields his sister they turn to their extended family, seeking shelter with their aunt. Yet Seita is defiant in his refusal to sacrifice much of their freedom to aid his similarly displaced and hungry relatives. Rather than submit to his aunt’s harsh but fundamentally sound criticisms, Seita internalizes his pride and he and Setsuko steal off to fend for themselves.

Much of this film concerns familial responsibility and examines the repercussions when that responsibility falls beneath the indifferent eyes of society and nature, which is also caught up in simple survival. Most of this film concerns Seita’s attempts to feed his sister, to prove his capabilities at adulthood. Without revealing anything more than superficial plot, it’s little wonder that he fails to consider the longevity of such efforts. More vitally, this film is a token to the desperation that haunted any survivor, and Takahata thankfully refuses to placate his audience or his film with artificial intrigue.

Everything follows matter-of-factly, but the film still allows for small poetic moments, and their grandeur is strengthened by their limited appearance. There are few films that express the wonder of being alive as succinctly and intelligently as this one. To my eye, there are few images in all of cinema more powerful than the bookends, which simultaneously express melancholy and the most extreme devotion between siblings. Beautifully orchestrated with lilting images of the fireflires and music, these scenes expose the fragility that is behind all lived experience in wartimes and they possess a sort of raw power that is unbearably affecting.

Grave of the Fireflies: 10/10

The Thin Red Line

There is a melancholy beauty in all of Terrence Malick’s films, and in The Thin Red Line (1998), Malick simultaneously fashions his most intimate and classically universal examination on life, innocence (lost), and the pursuit of paradise. Coupled with John Toll’s breathtaking camerawork and Hans Zimmer’s singular score (Journey to the Line is moving even after wearing it out these past nine years), Malick appropriates James Jones’ novel and filters it through his transcendentalist lens, chronicling the devastation of war and the philosophical/theological desire to do honor in this world.

Situating the film around ellipses, allowing characters to rise and fall with the same ebb and flow as his pacing, Malick is able to examine multitudes of perspective, yet the film is governed through Pvt. Witt’s thoughts and memories and, indeed, the core of the film is situated in his opening voiceover about his mother: “I just hope I can meet it [death] the same way she did, with the same... calm. 'Cause that's where it's hidden - the immortality I hadn't seen.” Within all of Witt’s actions lies the attempt to dutifully face death with the same calm and grace, and the opening and closing of the film reveals the consequences of that faith, situating immortality in the typically Malickian image of nature (an idea that is returned to in the closing of The New World).

Among the many wonders of the film are the characters, and few possess the honor and grace of Captain Staros (Elias Koteas), a character who grows more profound in his care of his men with every viewing. And, of course, Lt. Col. Tall (Nick Nolte) is the doppelganger to Staros, abusing the hierarchical military structure of the war for professional recognition, yet he too expresses fear and regret, allowing Malick to posit the various shades that chronicle duty. When I refer in the opening paragraph to the classical-ness of the film, I do so noting the deliberately idealized role of women in the film. Yet within that idealization exists the “Dear John” letter which divests the film of this idealized quality, rupturing the exterior transcendence that the men bestowed upon women (though Malick never judges the men for these actions) and revealing women to be just as confused and lost at home, and Bell’s Wife thus epitomizes the women’s struggle through the indignant horror of war.

All in all, it’s the first film that revealed to me the wonder that cinema can offer, and it’s a film I regularly return to, only to be as astonished as I was during the first viewing.

The Thin Red Line: 10/10

Breaking the Waves

It is one of cinema’s great dilemmas—if a director falls into a habit of repetitious themes and characterizations yet still broaches those topics with ingenuity and insight, should he then be regarded as a one-trick pony? Since his 1996 breakthrough, Lars von Trier has seemed almost calculated in his chronicling of female subjugation and martyrdom for a man/Man, but even so, with his first foray into these topics in Breaking the Waves (1996), von Trier constructed one of the most exacting studies of unwavering faith amidst social prejudices and hierarchies.

Utilizing a narrative that questions the fundamental idea of religious truth, of the Word of God being channeled through the devout yet dim Bess McNeill (Emily Watson), von Trier explores the murky area between extraordinary devotion and absurdity of faith. Certainly here he remains critical of the institutionalization of faith by church elders, who prioritize tradition far more than they prioritize true love for their neighbors. Yet sexual love, voracious though it may be, is combined with something akin to a native spirituality when Bess finds a husband (Stellan Skarsgard). However, when Bess’ husband suffers a paralyzing injury and asks her to commit sexual acts with others and then report those stories back to him, as these words will aid his recovery, or so he believes, there is the foreboding sense that Bess is falling into a trajectory of degradation without principle or purpose.

Still, von Trier is humble in his treatment of faith, even if he isn’t humble in the face of the institutionalization of it. It’s a fine line between mockery and humiliation, but von Trier positions Bess as less an idiot than an idiot savant, devoted to granting her husband the same faith that she grants to God as she regularly visits the church. Here, in an auspicious debut, Emily Watson shines as a film actor, and Skarsgard and Katrin Cartlidge provide quality supporting work, yet von Trier does the best work, balancing secular and religious devotion for a final image that is humbly poignant and heartrendingly transcendent.

Breaking the Waves: 10/10

The Red Shoes

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s collaboration with The Red Shoes (1948) is easily one of the most captivating experiences in cinema to me, serving as an exemplary account of formal mastery and ingenuity, yet the film is tied to a philosophical core that intrigues given what it advocates. Especially coming on the heels of World War II, this tale that affirms, though tragically, the beauty of sacrificing oneself for one’s art is challenging, since Powell would later note: “For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.” Yet this notion is itself problematized over the course of the film.

Simultaneously a more romantic and radical idea than dying for either freedom or democracy, this film considers the investment that goes hand in hand with a conscious desire to climb to the highest ranks of art. Yet this desire threatens to become hyperconscious, that is to say, understood as a desire that will consume life itself, and so it must be tempered lest one become a shell of a man. Thus, against these ideals lies the polarity of love, which could afflict and remove the single-mindedness of one’s art, yet could also ground one with a stabilizing force. The question, which Powell and Pressburger wisely leave open, is whether or not one is better suited to sacrificing all for the sake of their art, given that Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) has artistic success but no real personal life beyond his dedication to ballet, while Julian Craster (Marius Goring) has a love in Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) yet denies her the license to practice her ballet, adhering to a (unwitting) model of patriarchal oppression.

Fascinatingly, Lermontov would also clearly like to possess Page in some manner, but until the end this desire is unfulfilled. Yet his perspective embodies the third act, even if he’s relatively absent from the narrative itself. What is stake if one surrenders their single-mindedness to the arts but a surrendering of the transcendent heights into the pits of respectability if not absolute mediocrity. This fear haunts our heroine Victoria Page, and the film is attuned to her rise to fame, so that her ascendance into her imagination takes place solely on the stage, allowing Powell and Pressburger the opportunity to deliver a sequence that is full of haunting virtuosity and expressive metaphors. So we must arrive at the fundamental question—is Miss Page’s life, if denied her artistic expression, worth the same amount as it was formerly worth?

Beyond existing as an immaculately crafted melodrama, The Red Shoes also serves as a case study of the patriarchal oppression which comes at her doubly and from both sides, allowing us to sympathize with whole generations of (female) performers who have acquiesced to their dreams for the sake of a man. Yet what awaits those who do not conform but celebrate their art, in an ode to Hans Christian Anderson’s own tale, is not much better. Yet there is a sense of the sublime in the final dance sequence, where one’s absence underscores how important the presence truly is, and it is that sequence that allows this film to reach the rhapsodic heights as it concludes.

The Red Shoes: 10/10

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Goonies

Ah, childhood. Being a product of 1982, I came of age at the tail end of Hollywood’s 80’s appeal to suburbia and our inner Pan. Still, I somehow escaped my childhood without seeing The Goonies (1985), as my cinematic ventures instead aligned with hundreds of viewings of The Lady and the Tramp, Home Alone, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. What does this mean? Well, beyond the obvious bliss that all three films yielded to me, this fact means that there’s an absence of nostalgia behind my viewing of Richard Donner’s film today. Whether this damages my take, you’ll just have to read on…

Given that it’s a product of 1980s Hollywood, one shouldn’t be surprised that The Goonies contains such odd tonal shifts, yet the tonality here suggest a direction that is still searching for continuity. That is to say, there’s a crudity in how it contrasts the sensibilities of suburbia and the adventure/caper aspects. Yet this isn’t designed to be kitsch, so there’s obviously a layer of unintentionality as Donner works the plot mechanisms to get to the discovery of a treasure map for Mikey Walsh (Sean Astin) and his friends, who seek the treasure to salvage their homes from certain takeover by a property magnate (boo on capitalism, yo).

Yet, beyond Mikey these friends never express any innocence of youth, either, as the tone frequently highlights the maliciousness that is prevalent in the town, but especially in our main characters. We are entrusted to laugh when Mouth, who knows Spanish, preys upon the new (obligatory Spanish-speaking) maid that the Walsh family has brought in. We are entrusted to laugh when Chunk is ridiculed by his friends for his continual need to eat (as well as his absurd penchant for pratfalls to introduce the very plot mechanism of the map). Elsewhere, we are entrusted to accept it when Mikey’s elder brother is thrown off a cliff on a bicycle by a cocksure jock, rather than the girls in the car reporting him for attempted assault if not murder. Nay, you say, this is a children’s film and concern ye not with logic. But between the insistence on objectifying all the women and especially the minorities, see Walter Chaw’s review for a vitriolic attack, and the film never managing a consistent tone, there’s little to enjoy from a pragmatic sense.

Now, this can be saved if the main performances are quality, but only Astin and James Brolin as the brother redeem themselves, though Martha Plimpton (?) also delivers a nice performance as the awkward girl tagging along with the boys. Otherwise, though, we’re doomed to performances that are firmly modulated in the range of shrill, suggesting that these actors lack internal expression and express all emotion through bombastic shouting.

Granted, such limitations can yield to a fantastic drinking game, I’m sure, where one takes a shot every time a kid shouts his line, but I fear for the hospitals that would be plagued with terminally ill patients as a result of such a practice. However, the sequence once they find the treasure is exciting. And Plimpton has some good handling of her material, such as her nice delivery here: “Brand, God put that rock there for a reason... and... and I don't think we should move it.” As a director, Donner also gets a nice moment when he references his earlier film Superman. Yet every moment like that is counteracted by Mouth in a performance that epitomizes one’s asking, “Where’s the gun? Someone fire the gun.” Ultimately, it’s an excellent case for a guilty pleasure as it works better as moments than as the sum of its parts, though I still hesitant to feel The Goonies succeeds beyond any nominal level.

The Goonies: 3/10

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Punishment Park

While never subtle, Peter Watkins' Punishment Park (1971) is riveting and willing to engage in political discussion through dialogue and crosscutting give-and-takes, rather than brandishing a singular viewpoint. So although it is clear where Watkin's politics lie, they don't intrude upon a film that is successful on a cinematic level, negotiating between an action-based documentary and a think-piece about the role and responsibility of individual dissidence. And, of course, there is the machine of government that hands out discipline to any voices that chooses, rightly or wrongly, to dissent.

Beyond the fascinating juxtaposition of criticizing objective/subjective responsibilities of media and the visual medias, which Watkins forcibly critiques at the film's end with the narrator (himself, natch) speaking against the system that he's documenting, the film adroitly considers the willingness to let institutions rather than individual choice decide the ethics of speaking out. And while a few bits of dialogue feel a bit too crafted in 70s brotherhood and peace to a contemporary viewer, the fact that we're only ostensibly closer to that dream reveals the worth of reconsidering it anew. I especially enjoy the ambiguity prevalent in the ending, when it feels some of the police forces feel they must still justify their reasonings, which speaks to a sense of humanity and possibility still prevalent in this bleak future, even if the park itself threatens to perpetuate its nihilistic attitudes toward the oppressed.

The last female interviewee, the one who comes to the aid of the downtrodden African-American (she's the 23-year-old feminist, I believe) offered the moral framework for the film, grounding her beliefs in enough detail and consideration that these sections personify the dedication Watkins received from his actors and fellow creators. It's a visionary film, and one I want to think and talk about long after it's finished.

Punishment Park: 10/10

Sherlock Jr.

Just over 40 minutes long, Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. (1924) is built upon one of the more self-reflexive ideas of silent cinema—accused of a crime for which you are framed, what would occur if you were to be transplanted into the veritable fantasy-world of cinema, blessed with the candor and intelligence of Sherlock Holmes, and given the opportunity to expose the cocky [CENSORED BY BLOGSPOT MANAGEMENT] who tried to set you up.

In Sherlock Jr. what follows are the typically genius Keatonisms, a tender love story crafted around meticulous stunts, visual gags, and commentary on the nature of the filmgoer, with this latter idea buttressed by the psychological split between time and space as it corresponds to the filmgoer imagining a reverie of participation in what is only a medium mediated by all that is cinematically shown. That is to say, cinema itself predicates how we dream, how we fictionalize ourselves. Thus, in order to win the heart of his beloved and regain his good name, the bumbling squire (Keaton) goes into the movies and becomes an enforcer of the law with the pedigree of absolute assurance, outsmarting the conniving villains at every turn.

Yet within all of this there exists a commentary of class and the cultural expectation for the proper social work of marriage. Keaton is judged by the counter girl at the shop with chocolates (it is chocolate, right?) when he lacks the proper money to court his beloved, and this unspoken bemusement by the counter girl sets in motion the rest of Keaton’s misfortune. Of related interest is the manner in which Keaton suggests that for all of the elaborate designs and giddy fantasies, in reality it is the woman, who of course suspects that something is afoul by the perpetrator once Keaton is accused, who does all of the real detective work and rights the wrong being perpetuated. She, not Keaton, is the true hero in all of this, for cinema also has the potential to blind us to action, allowing daydreams and reverie to be conflated with a genuine real-world response. Moreover, as we see so memorably at the film’s close, it still doesn’t instruct us how to have babies at this point in time.

Sherlock Jr.: 10/10

Three Colors: Blue

Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue (1993) is one of the three immaculate films that came out of 1993, along with Jane Campion’s The Piano. Moreover, though, Kieslowski’s film, along with the remaining top ten on my list, is one of those films that are perfectly attuned to a visual as well as aural rhetoric, celebrating every bit of minute composition. A composite of the three colors of the French flag, this first piece of the trilogy focuses on freedom apart from historical memory, with the widowed Julie (Juliette Binoche) struggling to lead a new life liberated from all threads of connection. Yet the philosophical implications that Kieslowski and co-screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz question are whether or not such a life segregated from all social and psychological contact is deserving of high praise or melancholic regret.

After the car accident that claims her composer husband and young daughter, we see Julie try to commit suicide by swallowing pills in a recovery hospital. But she cannot give in to desires to end it all, at least not physically. Psychologically, though, her seclusion away from all former employees and acquaintances signals how that she cannot yet confront her pain. She destroys what she believes to be her (or is it her husband’s—an ambiguity that rightly affords Julie more dimension) sole copy of a commissioned symphony for the Unification of Europe, epitomizing the metaphoric destruction of unity. Instead, she remains adrift, visiting her institutionalized mother, a sufferer of Alzheimer’s, who is the personification of total freedom away from historical memory or connection.

These visits to her mother plague Julie’s perfect exterior of wishing this life for herself. Significantly, whereas she has habitual visits to a pool and swims in the waters, her mother spends her days watching the television as individuals bungee-jump toward the water below, though they are unable to penetrate the ambiguous form of baptism that Julie is unconsciously enacting with her laps in the pool. As such, the water becomes one of the many transformative healers in the film, and it’s no surprise that the final scene at the pool has the water, Julie’s haven, invaded by many youths. It has achieved its ambiguous aim and now reminds Julie of the world outside her small seclusion.

Over time, she comes to rely on her pleasant rendezvous with Olivier Benoit (Benoît Régent), a former benefactor of her husband and a man who urges her to finish the symphony. As she begins work (anew?) on the piece, the frequent fade-to-black intercuts of music and their symbolic indecision fade away, giving way to a new authority and open, structured self. The film closes by connecting the many disparate people that we have seen in what appears to be a single, unbroken tracking shot, antipicating the themes of fraternity that would later follow in Red.

The idea of returning to society despite heartache, together with the visual patterns that frequent the film, make Blue an exemplary film for trauma and recovery, and, moreover, position Kieslowski as one of the most literate and humane of directors.
Three Colors: Blue 9/10

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Basic Instinct

While Basic Instinct (1992) received much of its attention to a certain leg-crossing scene and a lowbrow but quality-in-its-meta-ness Joe Eszterhas screenplay, it is Verhoeven’s touch that makes so much of this film’s noirish material flow with ease. Certainly this is partially due to the fact that the story is basically a re-baked The 4th Man, with the lesbian elements filling in for the “troublesome” androgyny elements. However, whereas the former film aspired to contemplation with its Bergmanesque juxtapositions of the cross/spider, existential images that continually haunted the protagonist, Basic Instinct celebrates its crassness, wallowing in its psychological depravity and utilizing the noir treatment in a shorthand form that extends the themes of denial and refutation.

By now the story doesn’t need much summarizing, since the noir elements reveal much of the desperation and fatalism that will follow: Det. Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), doubted by the police squad because of an accidental shooting that killed an innocent, investigates a string of murders that a literate and sexually promiscuous author, Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), has endless ties to, and he gradually becomes so taken by her that he denies all the obvious signs of her guilt. The subjective psychosis of Nick’s character, also famously, best finds its externalization in a scene where he and his on-again-off-again shrink (Jeanne Tripplehorn) engage in what can only be described as non-consensual sex, existing as nothing but rape/violation. Thus, we realize that Nick is no mere innocent in the transgressions that follow, but rather that this rape has consequences and any desire to cover up those consequences is a part of Nick’s unconscious. So, in accordance with noir tradition, only the innocent (the shrink, Nick’s partner) are at risk, as the amoral (Nick, Catherine) have nothing to lose.

The film is slickly shot, but that same slickness acts as part of Verhoeven’s mise en scene, offering a vacuum, a blankness to the compositions that is in accordance to his lead’s interiority. So this film isn’t even about moral ambiguity, but about how the vacuous Nick unconsciously believes that washing away all ties to innocence will cure him of his own moral blankness. It is the appropriately blunt masterwork of Verhoeven’s engagement with Hollywood.

Basic Instinct: 9.5/10

Total Recall

Total Recall (1990) creates more of a dilemma than the other films that Verhoeven has crafted, as there are two distinct paths to a review of it—as an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, and as a Verhoeven picture. If viewed through the former lens, it would have to be considered one of Arnold’s very best pictures, somewhere behind Cameron’s first Terminator flick, which perfectly matted Arnold’s imposing frame onto a narrative that likewise suited his speech. Further, the meta-questions regarding epistemic reality and ontology at the halfway point of this film would place it at the top of Arnold’s filmography, as the entire oeuvre of Schwarzenegger would then be metatextually revealed as disparate dreams valorizing the very persona of Schwarzenegger as monolithic hero.

If viewed through the latter lens, though, as a Verhoeven film, it’s slightly less successful since Verhoeven’s trademarks are distilled and only there peripherally, such as the absurd three-breasted woman and the hints at a dreamscape rather than reality that Schwarzenegger’s Douglas Quaid is experiencing. Some of these ontological questions receive consideration but whereas the sociopolitical and propaganda messages behind Starship Troopers are overt, here they seem more implied and distantly contemplated. The shift between Quaid’s loyalties to the underprivileged and devotion to the bourgeois society are perfunctory, for example, and never granted much depth.

Still, there’s much joy to be found in Arnold’s performance, which carries an understanding of how best to utilize the Schwarzenegger persona, externalizing confusion, mystification, and glimpses of ironic humor. Moreover, Michael Ironside displays a typically wonderful performance, full of psychotic anger and brewing jealousy over letting his mistress (Sharon Stone) serve as Quaid’s wife if the pre-awakened scenes. The film never really lets up and the ride is always enjoyable, with trademark moments throughout, such as the robot taxi, Quaid/Hauser’s double-crossing,, and quality chick fights (and what film isn’t bettered by Arnold’s cackling with obliviousness DVD commentary—here’s where I use a guy as a human shield!). The special effects still hold up nicely, and the fade-out at the end reveals that there’s still a subversive streak behind Verhoeven’s Hollywood cinema, should one choose to examine it. Largely, though, it’s a high quality Arnold film and a good Verhoeven film with glimmers of his traditional sarcasm and subversive streaks.

Total Recall: 8/10


A film that seems to anticipate the amateur dirt bike revolution that would be epitomized by the awesomely bad film Rad, Verhoeven’s Spetters (or, loosely translated, HotShots) chronicles three would-be motorcycle racers as they struggle to use their talents for capitalistic profit. So the film tries to understand why these desires for speed are in place, and within this microcosm the film paints a study of Dutch youth. As long as you a part of the clique, you are lusted after and cared for, but once you fall out of touch with the clique, be it through a racing injury or a sexual difference, you are exiled and abandoned. These ideas are bluntly hammered home in this film, and it is these ideas, not the racing sequences, that linger after the film is finished.

I emphatically wish to highlight the film’s engagement with capitalism, since everything in this film is inherently based around a capitalistic desire. Fientje (Renée Soutendijk), the girl all of the racers lust after, is willing to bed anyone who might offer a promise away from a miserable and miserly life selling junk food at raceways. This economic exchange finally results in her settling for a big dick and a true restaurant she can fashion for himself and her hubby (one of the racers). Likewise, Rien ‘s (Hans van Tongeren) dreams of securing a position in life are based around this same yearning for financial reward, and his fate suffers once he is injured, wherein the ostracization from his group is revealing in its study of camaraderie.

Some of the film’s adolescent humor works, such as the scene in the abandoned building where two couples enact a façade of copulation for the benefit of the others in the next room to underscore how masculine they are. However, this aggressive display of and commitment to conventional masculinity is, in true Verhoeven fashion, subverted by the biker who is secretly gay, yet maintains a bravado of machismo and beats up the town’s homosexuals for their money. His eventual comeuppance is simultaneously haunting and disrespected in the Lynchian way that Verhoeven cuts between glib humor and genuine compassion through the picture (a blueprint that may in fact be Verhoeven’s raison d'être).

The film’s failing are the fact that the racing isn’t really all that exciting now, and the glibness of Verhoeven’s treatment of his characters sometimes subverts the melodrama that he wishes to instill in the film. Still, as an admittedly broad character study, you could do worse.

Spetters: 5.5/10

Monday, July 23, 2007

Muriel's Wedding

P.J. Hogan’s Australian film Muriel Wedding’s (1994) is one of the premiere exhibits of what honesty and comprehensiveness can do to what is ostensibly a genre product. Only in the most shallow of terms can this be called a chick flick as it’s more a film that simply appropriates those tropes in order to stage a psychological drama of womanhood as it corresponds to the awkward and callow Muriel (Toni Collette), a woman so desperate to be considered beautiful that she acquiesces to external definitions of beauty and accomplishment. And while this merely demonstrates the superficial showiness that weddings and marriage can attain if wrongly desired, and thus the superficiality behind “chick flicks” in their most rigid definition, it is integral precisely because Muriel believes in the one-to-one correlation between marriage/happiness.

When mediocrity becomes so conditioned in the interiority of Muriel’s character that she begins to compulsively lie, fabricating untruths in the attempt to win friends and respect, she loses her individuality. When she first meets Rhonda (Rachel Griffiths), she constructs a false engagement to a man to keep from revealing the truth that haunts her—that she is pointedly, inflexibly alone. And while we see that this shifting of character is not entirely bad since there are numerous negative personality traits she has that have damaged her socially, it’s still a fundamental change in her character and thus is one that lessens her dedication to her individuality.

For her part, Rhonda possesses a volatile personality, one that is willing to lash out savagely to avenge the wrongs of adolescence to hilarious results, as when she honestly yet spitefully reveals the truth about another’s bridesmaids, but that same instability is cast inward and internalized when Rhonda becomes aware that she has cancer on her spine which dehabilitates her early vitality and leads her into depression. Thus, we start to see Muriel and Rhonda each invert their depression, with Muriel projecting outward after years of internalizing and Rhonda internalizing after years of externalizing.

The titular wedding sequence chronicles the giddy and oblivious Muriel, who’s so attuned to her need to upstage her friends’ disparagements at her spouselessness that she commits to an artificial marriage, one designed merely to satisfy country politics so that her new spouse, David, can participate for Australia in the swimming meets at the 2000 summer Olympics. In committing to this artifice of a marriage, though, Muriel loses Rhonda’s respect for her, as she surrenders to her dream rather than her individuality. Yet at the wedding we begin seeing glimpses of Muriel’s natural beauty that is only countered when her honest giddiness transforms her beauty into pointed naïveté, trusting in the dream to the detriment of her integrity. Yet her eventual shedding of the narcissistic desire for marriage leads her, and the film, to a greater awakening, one that instills in the whole affair a sanctity of friendship that is largely absent from the marriage.

My singular fault in this film is Muriel’s decision to bed David. While such a scene suggests reciprocity and genuine communication between her and David when he formerly despised her, as when he secured Muriel and himself separate bedrooms and thus neutralized any thoughts of intimacy, the two later come to understanding about each other. Both of them understand the other’s game and Muriel’s naïveté is revealed to be her way of consciously hiding all of her transgressions, so that we see the fragility at work in her mind. Yet while the sex affirms the attraction of marriage, it is also paradoxically negated by her realization that she must leave the marriage. At this point I am unsure whether this is a regressive or progressive gesture, as there’s some slippage in the connotations (does this mean there’s no longer a one-to-one correlation between sex and love for Muriel or is this merely a means to sanctifying the marriage before she realizes what she’s done?).

Still, this is the only flaw in the film, and it’s one that is comfortably in my top 100 now as an embodiment of how to fashion a near-perfect film from the constraints of genre. This is one that only a film swap would have forced me to watch, and it’s one that will be suggested to others so that they too may see a quality example of the “genre.”

Muriel's Wedding: 9.5/10

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

2001: A Space Odyssey

Few films are as directly meditative as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Constructed around visuals and music rather than conventional dialogue, this is one of those few films that underscores its intelligence, and the intelligence it seeks to impart onto audiences, vis-à-vis pure cinematic framing. Throughout the film Kubrick absolves words of their standard power, placing rhetorical power instead in the frequent ambient sounds and the transformative energy of the photographic lens. Thus, the film exists on a scale that truly surrounds the mind and body as one watches it.

Moreover, it is this dichotomy of the mind/body split that Kubrick seeks to consider in new terms, starting with the Dawn of Man sequences. Here we see the apes struggling to survive even as they are at one with nature. However, once the mysterious monolith appears as they will throughout the film, the apes begin to learn and create (fashioning weapons here), so that nature is a construct that can be subject to domination. Thus, we arrive at a first thesis—wherein because mankind is vulnerable to the outside interference of the monolith, though that word interference has problematic rhetorical connotations, they are here able to survive attacks at a greater frequency. Violence and intelligence collide, then, contributing to the first growth.

Later growths in the film concern how that intelligence is to be used, and how humanity responds to the monolith, so that the outlets that these monoliths present are seen as reservoirs of untapped potential and transcendence, seen in new technological, ethical, and biological changes. The humans change, but then so too does the super-computer HAL 9000, and not all of these changes bode well for the future of individual humans. Yet the sense of awakening that the monoliths present allows new forms of existence where intelligence is shifted from a physical dominion into something metaphysical, so that in the end when the physical body falters, the mind can begin again, transplanted into a more perfect, more harmonious (and transparent) union as the star child at the conclusion. Yet even here the film does not end; it does not end until the camera lens brings the star child’s gaze directly to our gaze, wherein the child seems to be questioning if we too are ready for the next stage of evolution.

2001: A Space Odyssey: 10/10

Friday, July 13, 2007

Linda Linda Linda

Nobuhiro Yamashita’s Linda, Linda, Linda (2005) is an appropriately odd film, one that celebrates the innocence and fearlessness that comes with being a teenager. Structured around four teens in suburban Japan who plan to play at the school’s rock “concert,” the film doesn’t quite a singular tone, partaking in both the ambivalence and latent desire of attraction, as well as the contemplative struggle for one of the four, a Korean, to be an individual in the midst of country expectations from Japan. Through it all, there’s a sublime joy to the characters and their endeavors that makes the film take flight, even when some of its realism fades into fantasy.

However while the Korean/Japan juxtaposition is initially emphasized with the schoolmates, little is actually dealt with. One expects a bit more engagement with the Japanese/Korean dynamics, whether through a study of the ennui that threatens to swallow up the outsiders in Japan or through an examination of the singer's social situation at home. Additionally, while it's almost pleasing to see a film that leaves so much of the boy-girl relationships muted and unresolved, it kinda feels like there needs to be a bit more concrete there.

Essentially, this is a quality film through and through, but to lavish it with rhapsodic love seems a bit much. Because of its lack of socio-historical engagement at times, the film can feel slight, though always enjoyable. For example, while the enthusiastic response from the attendees at the concert's end when they take the stage felt just a little too emphasized and thus unreal, the film is successful enough in its character types that we forgive it and soar along with the girls.

Even with its various shortcomings, it's still eminently viewable.

Linda Linda Linda: 7.5/10