Friday, November 16, 2007

Movies watched, week of October 6-13, 2007

Abre Los Ojos, Alejandro Amenábar, 1997
Vanilla Sky, Cameron Crowe, 2001
Usually the “it was all a dream” explanation seems like a cop-out, but while that is essentially what’s going on in Abre Los Ojos, it’s much more complex than the typical dream scenario. For César, a former pretty boy whose face was maimed in a car wreck, and who may or may not have been made pretty again through plastic surgery, it’s never totally clear as to how much of his experiences are a dream and how much is reality, or if any of it is reality at all. Sometimes he dreams that he’s dreaming, or dreams that he’s awake. With elements of a Philip K. Dick novel—Ubik, in particular—the bizarre, nightmarish dreamscapes of disjointed sequences of images become frighteningly real for César.

This is much subtler than the American remake; there are hints that something is amiss—for instance, the empty city streetscape—but in Vanilla Sky, you’re hit over the head with it. Crowe goes to great lengths to ensure that the viewer doesn’t miss the fact that things are not as they seem (i.e. Tom Cruise running through an empty Times Square and screaming to the heavens), sacrificing the film’s eerie, uncanny atmosphere. Then again, deserted Times Square is pretty damn eerie.

Labyrinth, Jim Henson, 1986
I love David Bowie, Jennifer Connolly, and modern fairy tales, but “Pan’s Labyrinth meets Ziggy Stardust” this ain’t.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Kirby Dick, 2006
Of the recent onslaught of documentaries being produced, this funny yet infuriating film about the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its rating system is one of the more engaging and well-crafted ones that I’ve seen. Amidst interviews with “controversial” filmmakers (John Waters, Kimberly Peirce, Allison Anders, and so on) and a primer on the history of the ratings board, a story emerges in which the director hires a pair of private investigators (who also happen to be a lesbian couple…gasp) to identify the members of the ratings board, which is shrouded in secrecy.

Throughout the film the same question is asked repeatedly: why does the MPAA deem the cinematic depiction of graphic violence to be suitable for younger viewers, but not consensual sex (or even any hint of nudity)? It seems like a somewhat clichéd argument, yet there’s definitely some truth to it—we’re in many ways still living in Puritan times.

The MPAA seems to be pretty deluded regarding the effect that their ratings have on the life of a film. Their president, Jack Valenti, asserts that you can slap any rating on something and people will still see it if they want to, but this is obviously not so. If a film gets an NC-17 rating, it will never see the light of day. No distributor will carry it, forcing the director to either throw in the towel or alter the movie, to sacrifice the art. I’m left wondering about all the amazing films I never got to see due to some arbitrary decision made by people who know nothing about filmmaking.

Mutual Appreciation, Andrew Bujalski, 2005
Andrew Bujalski’s films are associated with a new wave of ultra low budget filmmaking (if there’s a name for it yet, I don’t know it) that I’m intensely curious about, yet have some mixed feelings towards. Filmed on a shoestring budget, much of the films are unscripted, or at least invoke an improvisational feel, as though you're just peeking in on a conversation, on people living out their lives. And I like this idea—in theory.

Shot in stark, grainy black and white 16mm, Mutual Appreciation reminds me a lot of early Jim Jarmusch films in terms of its look. But the similarities end there; it lacks Jarmusch’s wit and distinctive style. There’s a lot of talking, a la the French New Wave, but I find myself wanting out of the conversation. Maybe I just have a cultural bias—having lived in Williamsburg I’ve developed a bit of a distaste for the disaffected hipster type.

The film becomes more compelling towards the end, when an actual conflict arises in the form of a love triangle among the three main characters. This is achieved rather organically, subtly hinting at the aching sense of longing between Alan and Ellie. The foreshadowing comes through right from the opening scene, when they’re lying side by side in bed and Ellie’s boyfriend, Lawrence, walks over and gets in between them.

I have high hopes for Bujalski’s works to come, but I wasn’t moved by the saga of these hipster twenty-somethings’ awkward attempts at romance. They seem to be floundering in their acute awareness of the complexities of their emotions, trying to figure it all out—and I just don’t really care. Or maybe I just desperately don’t want to be them.

Love and Anger, Carlo Lizzani, Bernardo Bertolucci, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Marco Bellocchio, 1969

A collection of five short films by some of the leading European filmmakers of the 60s—which is pretty much proof that it’s near impossible to create a truly great short film, simply because of time constraints. These are definitely attempting to create something ground-breaking and innovative, but fall somewhat short. That and they feel extremely dated, particularly Bertolucci’s "Agonia", in which a dying priest is surrounding by members of New York’s Living Theater troupe (i.e. a few dozen hippies moaning and writhing around on the floor). It's an interesting compilation, but not essential viewing.

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