Saturday, April 28, 2007

Movies watched, week of April 15-21, 2007

The Firemen’s Ball, Milos Forman, 1968

In this absurdist, satiric comedy, a group of firemen plan a gala affair for their retired chief (actually, he retired the year before, but now that he has cancer they feel they’d better hurry up and get it over with before he kicks the bucket). Throughout the film the event grows increasingly disorganized and chaotic, from reluctant beauty contest participants fleeing the stage, to disappearing door prizes (right down to the glazed ham), to an actual fire breaking out nearby, which none of the fire department seems to respond to, as they’re all too busy worrying about the ball. Meanwhile, they’ve neglected their venerable chief, who’s been patiently waiting by himself at his table of honor. There’s an air of sadness pervading beneath the hilarity—for the dying old man who just wants to collect his award with dignity, for the man whose home is engulfed in flames (when the party attendees offer him their raffle tickets, in what they perceive as an act of great generosity, all he can muster is a dumbfounded stare), and for the people—and, presumably, society in general is implied here too—that have forgotten what’s really important in life.

Branded To Kill, Seijun Suzuki, 1967

This surrealistic gangster film, shot in striking, high-contrasted black and white, features Hanada, Japan’s Number Three killer, who has a fetish for the smell of boiled rice. He's hired by the death-obsessed, proto-goth Misako—in our first encounter with her, she's driving a convertible in the rain with the top down, a dead bird hanging from her rearview mirror instead of an air freshener—but he botches the hit when a butterfly lands on his gun just as he’s pulling the trigger. Now that he’s killed a civilian, he becomes a target, hunted by the “Phantom Number One,” which culminates in an unforgettable scene in a deserted boxing ring. The basic plot points echo that of a typical thriller, but the bizarre details and disjointed structure transform it into something much weirder, yet beautiful, heavily laden with symbolic imagery and motifs. For instance, Misako’s bed is covered with dead moths and butterflies, with more pinned to the apartment walls; in another scene, Hanada is assaulted by cartoon rain, moths, and birds; and lest we forget that aforementioned butterfly with such impeccable timing. This is the kind of film that takes several viewings to piece together exactly what's happening, though that’s not necessarily a fault.

12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet, 1957

Legendary director Sidney Lumet’s debut film effectively depicts the incompetence of our legal system, how one’s fate is placed in the hands of twelve people who don’t really want to be there in the first place. These jurors aren’t willing to actually think about the case—a boy’s life is at stake and they just keep looking at their watches. When they take an initial vote, some of them are glancing around to see what the others are going to do, shakily raising their hands according to the majority’s opinion: guilty.

Gradually, one person at a time, Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) convinces the others of the boy’s innocence (or the possibility of it, at least), dissecting and unraveling the so-called hard evidence of his guilt. While I think Juror #8 does a good job of discrediting the witnesses, some of his arguments are kind of improbable. The defendant owned a knife that was identical to the one that killed his father; he claims it fell out of his pocket earlier in the day. Yes, “it’s possible,” as Juror #8 keeps insisting, that by some bizarre coincidence he’s telling the truth, but it seems extremely unlikely.

Regardless, it’s a pretty incredible feat to maintain such an engaging, gripping momentum for 90 minutes when, essentially, the only action taking place is a dozen men talking and arguing around a table. The confined feeling is particularly effective—as time goes on, the camera closes in on the actors, accentuating the discomfort, the intense heat and sweat, seldom allowing the viewer a breath of air.

The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman, 1973

In this brilliant reimagining of Raymond Chandler’s classic detective, Philip Marlowe, instead of tough, hardboiled, and humorless, our leading man is a smartass, wise-cracking underdog, a kind of radical private eye for the 70s. Elliot Gould’s Marlowe sleeps fully clothed in cheap J.C. Penney attire, a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips, mumbling humorous witticisms like “He’s got a girl, I got a cat” and his catchphrase, “It’s okay with me.” One could say he’s sort of an amalgamation of Gould and Marlowe; a 1973 New York Times review conjectures that at the ending, when Marlowe is walking away, his back to the audience, that’s the character’s exit. When he starts dancing, it’s entirely Gould.

In addition to Marlowe, the film is brimming with endearing and memorable secondary characters: the security guard who does impressions of classic Hollywood actors, the bumbling hood following Marlowe around (our man gives him directions to the place he’s headed to in case he gets lost in traffic), Marlowe’s hippie neighbors who practice yoga topless from their deck, and, perhaps the real star of the show, Marlowe’s cat, who, in the opening scene, wakes him up at 3:00 in the morning demanding to be fed. (The cat is quite particular about what he eats, sending Marlowe to the 24-hour grocery store in search of Courry brand cat food.)

The palm-treed L.A. backdrop enhances the noir elements—there’s a sordidness beneath the sunny surface, bruises marring the artificial tans. The camerawork is exceptional, particularly in the scene in which Eileen and Roger Wade, Marlowe’s clients, argue inside their house, while Marlowe, seen through the tall glass windows, wanders around the beach, jumping back from a wave crashing onto the sand. Later, that shot is mirrored—albeit much more darkly—when Marlowe and Eileen argue from that same room; this time it’s Roger seen through the window, drunkenly stumbling into the ocean.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Movies watched, April 1-14, 2007

Okay, I've been slacking a little bit, so here's two weeks worth of viewing pleasure (and, in some cases, displeasure).

Killer of Sheep, Charles Burnett, 1977

About a dozen people walked out of this screening, all within the first two to ten minutes or so. I’m not sure what they were expecting, but I found it was a beautifully shot, poetic portrayal of the lives of the residents of Watts, California in 1977. Stan works at a slaughterhouse (hence the title), dissatisfied with his job and how his life has turned out, which frustrates his wife, whose sexual advances are continuously turned down. There are a number of memorable scenes of the neighborhood children playing—for instance, as Stan and his neighbor walk through an alleyway, one can see the occasional blip of flailing legs above their heads, as children leap from one roof to the other. At times, the plot seems a little disjointed, lacking a conventional narrative. Essentially, it’s more of a patchwork, weaving together loosely linked characters and scenes, which cohere into a moving, heartbreakingly comic film.

David Holzman’s Diary, Jim McBride, 1967

This scripted movie succeeds in its attempt to mimic an off-the-cuff diary entry. The character decides to film himself, thinking that by observing the patterns occurring in his life, he will come to some greater understanding of their meaning—of course, it doesn’t really turn out that way, and he ends up scaring off his girlfriend, Penny, in the process. This is an interesting study on the way people react to being filmed: Penny is upset and disturbed by David’s project, while others don’t seem to mind, playing up for the camera. (One of David’s colleagues delivers a monologue stating that one cannot truly film “real life,” for the moment a camera is detected, people stop acting naturally—I would tend to agree.) It features some particularly innovative technical effects (especially considering the year it was made), such as a sped up montage of images from David’s evening TV viewing, and voiceovers accompanying photobooth pictures.

Factotum, Bent Hamer, 2005

I think this film captures Bukowski’s novels more successfully than Barfly—I always pictured Hank to be more gruff and bitter than Mickey Rourke’s dreamy, romantic interpretation—but it’s still not quite right. For one, Matt Dillon’s not ugly enough—he needs to bulk up a bit, stop washing and styling his hair, and for God’s sakes, get some acne scars. Now that I think about it, the whole movie’s not ugly enough; it’s too attractively shot to capture the necessary squalor and hopelessness.

The Player, Robert Altman, 1992

It seems wholly appropriate that Altman, whom the movie industry made its crowned king in the 70s, then abandoned in the 80s, marked his triumphant return in the 90s with a satire on Hollywood. Well-crafted and brilliantly biting in its comedic subtlety, The Player mocks various aspects of the industry—including the film itself.

The Brown Bunny, Vincent Gallo, 2003

The magnitude of hatred that the general viewing audience seems to feel for this film really made me want to like it. While I didn’t find it offensive, I wasn’t exactly impressed with it either. Basically, a man drives around for 80 minutes, then gets a blow job. (Actually, he gets an imaginary blow job.) There were a few nice touches, like the bug-splattered windshield glinting in the sun, but otherwise, this was a little too slow-paced, even for me (it was so quiet at times that I got distracted and actually forgot I was watching a movie). Moreover, the “surprise twist” at the end is pretty groan-inducing.

Death and the Maiden, Roman Polanski, 1994

This is, supposedly, the third film in a loosely linked trilogy, starting with Knife in the Water (1962) and Cul-de-sac (1966). But considering it was made 30 years after the other films in the set, it seems like Polanski simply realized that the theme was vaguely similar to two of his earlier films, and there you have it: now part of a trilogy!

That said, Death and the Maiden is a relatively suspenseful film, surprising at times, though I prefer Polanski’s earlier stuff. (Then again, I tend to say that about everything, so what do I know?) Also, much of Sigourney Weaver’s acting feels kind of stiff—when she delivers longer monologues it clearly sounds like Acting with a capital A, which I don’t imagine is the desired effect.

Slums of Beverly Hills, Tamara Jenkins, 1998

A coming-of-age story about a family of self-described nomadic “freaks,” who move in the middle of the night from one shitty apartment complex after the other, all within Beverly Hills (“for the school district!” their father insists). It’s somewhat typical, thematically (awkward teenager experiments with sex, doesn’t like her breasts, is embarrassed of her family, lacks a stable maternal role model, etc.), though the actual details (pot-smoking older brother singing show tunes in his undies, pot-dealing neighbor/devirginizer who seems to have an endless supply of Charles Manson T-shirts, etc.) are more on the atypical side, and make for some entertaining, comedic scenes. The 1970s period detail is spot-on, from the mustard-colored shag carpeting (I swear my grandparents had the same one) to Vivian’s standard outfit of tube socks and cut-offs.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Three Women * Robert Altman * 1977

Continuing with the string of Robert Altman films I’ve been watching lately (and I plan to watch more in the coming weeks—how did I manage to miss out on all of these for so long?) is Three Women, which evokes a distinctly different mood from others I’ve seen. There is a weird, unsettling feeling beneath the surface that reminds me of David Lynch’s later films (more specifically, Mulholland Drive).

The film opens with a dreamy, hazy montage of strange paintings and old people languidly moving their wrinkled legs through a swimming pool, to a soundtrack made up of some kind of primitive wind instrument. The pool turns out to be part of the nursing home where Millie Lamoreaux (Shelley Duvall) works, along with new hire Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek).

From the start, it’s apparent that there’s something odd about Pinky, as if she were an
alien who doesn't know how humans are supposed to act. She blows bubbles in her soda and awkwardly wheels herself around in a wheelchair. Upon meeting Millie, she is instantly smitten, and seems to decide right then that she's going to not only model her behavior on her co-worker but, essentially, to become her. (That day she punches out with Millie’s time card.) In the coming days she carefully observes her object of interest, picking up her lingo (“I’m going to the little girls’ room”), her likes and dislikes (“I hate tomatoes! Yuck!”*). Later on, Millie comes home to find Pinky, who has by now become her roommate, wearing her bathrobe and reading her diary—whether Pinky’s studying or playing dress-up isn’t clear.

Millie, meanwhile, is far from the type of person one would want to emulate. She prattles on about tuna casseroles and her file of recipes she sorts by the amount of time it takes to make them, but no one pays attention; in one scene, her co-workers walk away, talking amongst themselves, as she shouts after her disinterested audience about how Macy's is offering hula lessons, and she’s going to try it. When she gets in her car and closes the door, part of her large flowing skirt sticks out of the bottom—apparently this was unintentional, but Altman saw how perfectly it summed up Millie’s character, and insisted that they kept the shot.

Millie's apartment is part of a large complex next-door to a shooting range and a Wild West-themed bar. Willie, the pregnant co-owner of this strange theme park-ish compound, silently moves around the grounds, painting iconic-looking figures in the bottom and sides of the pool. When Pinky tells her she likes her paintings she says nothing and walks away. This is troublesome for Millie ("Why'd you go and do that? That's embarrassing!")—throughout the film she displays strong concern for always projecting "normal" behavior (she later screams at Pinky, “You don’t drink, you don’t smoke, you don’t do anything you’re supposed to do!”), although she comes across as odd in her own way.

Millie often strikes me as delusional; she has an idealized picture in her head of what her life is like, and despite some obvious clues that this is an inaccurate picture, she clings to the imagined version. For instance, Tom, one of her neighbors, is clearly brushing her off, but she says she thinks he'd like to go out with her. While she’s out shopping for one of her “famous” dinner parties, her old roommate stops by and tells Pinky she’d been planning on stopping by for drinks “or something” but has decided to go to Dodge City instead—Millie doesn’t believe Pinky and insists that she must have scared them off. It’s downright pathetic how hard she tries to please, yet everyone still hates her. (When she arrives at the community pool, one of her neighbors whispers, "Uh oh. Don't look now, but it's thoroughly modern Millie.")

The turning point of the film occurs when, after Millie has berated her for various undeserved reasons, Pinky heads to the diving board, trancelike, and lands in the pool, where she floats lifelessly until Willie and several other neighbors jump in after her. This part is somewhat vague: has she hit her head? Can she not swim? Or is the cause entirely more complex?

Like Pinky, her parents, whom Millie has flown in to visit their daughter in the hospital, seem rather odd; I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is definitely something amiss. For one, they look too old to be her parents (though we do find out that they still have sex, despite their aged appearances), and her father can’t seem to stay awake for more than a minute at a time. Neither of them appears to understand the fact tha
t Pinky is in a coma, the father constantly asking why she doesn’t wake up, while the mother makes comments like, “Oh, we don’t want to wake her.”

When Pinky does finally come out of her coma to see them staring back at her, she acts as though she doesn't know them; when they insist that they're her parents she freaks out, shrieking that she doesn't have parents. This brings up a few questions: has she truly forgotten who she is (perhaps suffering from amnesia from a head trauma), or do the facts of her real identity coming to the surface cause her to throw a fit? (Or maybe they really aren’t her parents, though that theory seems somewhat unlikely given the rest of the story.)

Pinky undergoes a drastic transformation after leaving the hospital, wearing makeup and painting her toenails, drinking, gambling, practicing her aim on the shooting range, and generally acting like a total badass. She actually seems a little more grown up—or at least less childlike, maybe more like a troubled teenager. In one particularly bizarre scene, she starts laughing, but it sounds as though she doesn't know how to laugh and is literally saying “ha ha ha ha ha” over and over again. More and more one wonders whether she honestly believes she is Millie, as she begins to write in her diary, speculating about who her parents were (“maybe Lamoreaux is French”).

Throughout the film, there is an underlying theme of duality, of spiritual connectedness and split personality. When Willie and Millie (separately) peer into a glass window at the hospital, their faces reflect in such a way that it appears as though there are two of them, splitting off like a cell reproducing. (I only wish Altman had decided to do this just once, since it happens to both characters in exactly the same way.)

The twins, Polly and Peggy, who also work at the nursing home, are also mentioned throughout (everyone’s always talking about those twins!), though we never really get to know them—they’re shown from a distance, usually walking by in matching outfits, which enhances the strange, unsettling feeling they suggest. These themes are brought to a head in an abstract dream sequence involving water, twins, and the mirrored reflections of Willie’s and Millie's faces, permeated by a murky, blue haze (similar to the opening of the film).

What I interpreted as one of the most important scenes in the film involves Pinky asking Millie, in reference to the twins, "Do you think they know which one they are?" Millie dismisses this as a stupid question, but it seems rather significant: does Pinky know which one she is?

* In this scene she refers to butter as “that white stuff,” which perpetuates the feeling that she’s from another planet. I mean, who doesn’t know what butter is?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Movies watched, week of March 25-31, 2007

Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette, 2003

The recent “movie about my family” trend of documentary filmmaking theoretically has the capacity to create something really remarkable by exploring universal themes on a personal level, but in my experience the results are usually rather disappointing—Tarnation, however, considerably exceeds my expectations. The story is disturbingly tragic, yet manages to avoid becoming maudlin or self-indulgent. The movie is also quite visually complex for something edited entirely on free computer software, though sometimes the plot is sacrificed in favor of aesthetic stimulation. I would have liked to see slightly more exposition through the images (almost all of the actual storyline is conveyed exclusively through rather lengthy captions).

The Bad Seed, Mervyn Leroy, 1956

I was a bit disappointed with this B-grade horror movie about an evil child who fools everyone with her syrupy sweet outward appearance. The acting is pretty bad, in some cases verging on the bizarre: the weird, creepy groundskeeper, the mother of a dead little boy who has taken up drinking to deal with her sorrows (complete with hiccups and staggers), and so on. The blonde pigtailed protagonist isn’t nearly evil enough either—essentially, she’s just an exceptionally devious spoiled brat who knows how to get what she wants. It definitely does not justify a running time of 2 hours and ten minutes.