Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Kissing On the Mouth

Kissing On the Mouth (Joe Swanberg, 2005) [6]
I was recommended this by Netflix, and the review was intriguing, so I thought I would give it a try. Aside from the truly hideous title and the cheap look that comes with being shot on DV, there are some moments and aspects of this film that really are done quite well. The plot is a melding of every kind of twenty-something form of angst you could get and form into a coherent form. All the bases are covered: sex, commitment, jealously, finding of purpose; they all converge into the characters of Patrick and Ellen as they grapple with life after college. Of course it's all done in the incredibly narcissistic way that most people of this generation handle their problems. Being of this generation, however, I find not this not really completely self-indulgent but to have some truth at times. These characters are obnoxious and the scenes aren't greatly revolutionary or complex but they have some truth to them and that's all that's being asked of them. Patrick and Ellen have been thrust into the real world and all its dealings, especially sexuality, and they are still completely unprepared for all the emotional repercussions that dealing in reality bring. Ellen thinks she's having meaningless sex with an ex, but it's not that simple. Patrick clearly has feelings for Ellen but can't express any of them beyond having shit-pantsed tantrums. For anyone else, these characters could have insufferable but they lay themselves out there to be exposed so much, it's hard to not take notice. Most of this has to do with the frank depictions of nudity and sexuality. Far from being titillating, it's mostly boring and not arousing in the least. Its uncomfortable nature is perhaps its strongest element. It forces the viewer to tackle not in terms of exciting sensuality but in terms of all the neurotic, needy feelings behind it.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Lake of Fire

Lake of Fire (Tony Kaye, 2007) [5]
Give Kaye credit for making an in-depth documentary that attempts to be even-handed in its coverage to both sides of the abortion argument. There is a red flag blowing in the breeze however. For a film that is about such a delicate issue of abortion and have hardly any female interviewees is wrong and short-sighted of Kaye. How can you talk about the issues that women have to face in this debate and have ideas for both sides interpreted through men? The film has such a male perspective of the issue that it makes a flawed film. The one idea that kept running through my head is that this film is so authoritative in the male realm of things, that it treats women as victims and not rational people, like many of the talking heads interviewed. Many of the women interviewed by Kaye are just that, victims. There's the woman who worked at the Florida clinic where two doctors were murdered by zealots. There's the woman who was injured by Eric Rudolph's bombing of a clinic, and there are the two women that let Kaye film the procedure. Kaye also handles the events in such a theatrical, emotionally charged way that it never lets a thoughtful perspective of these women get through. I feel that the woman at the end who allowed herself to be filmed in such a private, emotional moment is completely exploited for the sole purpose of creating a moment. Kaye also does this by showing graphic footage of fetuses, for no reason other than Kaye wants to provoke a reaction. The only time the film really finds a steady groove is when the discussion moves more the sociological spectrum, talking about abortion and in regards to class, birth control, and gender politics. When abortion itself is brought up, a lot of time is spent on talking to right-wing zealots who use their religious beliefs as their sole defense of "life." (Authors note: I know I said that I would not bring politics up but my ideas on the Christian right and religion in general are fairly negative, and I think their pro-life argument is lot of bull.) The times when the film is actually sober and rational are when it's best, and those are not the times when any of the religious zealots are on screen. And, by creating a film that operates more on emotion than rational thought, the film is inherently pro-life. Yes, the film gives time to the pro-choice argument but visceral nature of the pro-life people and their argument overruns the more measured, nuanced explanations of the pro-choice argument. It's not that Kaye is doing this on purpose; I don't think he realized that by framing the film the way he does, he gives more leverage to one side. Some or most may disagree, but I don't feel this film ends up being as neutral as its director thinks it is.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

WR: Mysteries of the Organism

WR: Mysteries of the Organism (Dusan Makavejev, 1971) [7]
Coming out at the peak of the sexual revolution, it's not much of a surprise that a lot of Mysteries of the Organism feels like a product of ideals of a certain time. Its combination of sex and politics was something was handled with a more revolutionary zeal back in the early 70s than it is today. Makavejev starts his film as a pretty much straightforward biography of Wilhelm Reich, a colleague of Freud who espoused radical views on sexuality and his idea of the orgone. The key points of Reich's philosophy was that suppression of sexual freedom is harmful to mankind and that sex and the orgasm is something to be enjoyed and not ashamed of. Makavejev uses Reich's ideas as a jumping off point to a variety of subjects, from a member of The Fugs roaming New York in a makeshift military get-up, to Warhol denizen Jackie Curtis, to the editor of Screw magazine getting his member encased in plaster. These documentary elements reach into Reich's ideas of freedom and how they could be expressed in the (then) modern world when even all of Reich's work has been banned. The film doesn't really find it's thematic groove until the final sequence, a narrative about two Yugoslavian women, one interested in politics, one in sex. As her friend fools around, Milena (Milena Dravic) complains of how the totalitarian nature of the communist state represses sexual freedom, which in limits true freedom, something they were promised. These scenes are intercut with scenes from a Soviet propaganda film starring Stalin, an example of this forced obedience. Milena woos a Russian skater, Vladimir Illyich, only to have him be unable to deal with his sexual awakening, with tragic consequences. This entire section is really the strongest because it resonates thematically. Makavejev uses Reich's theories as a way to critique the Soviet system, which crushed almost all personal liberties in the name of blind allegiance to the state. Makavejev is not anti-communist but clearly anti-totalitarian. The purpose of the film, rather than an examination of Reich and his views, is to use those ideas to the totalitarian like repression most nations have about sexuality, whether they be communist or democratic. Mysteries of the Organism is a much more relevant political document than a sexual one. It handles its sexual material in a way neither pornographic or vulgar but in a way that actually creates a dialogue other than about sex.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Essential Collection: Pierrot Le Fou

Pierrot Le Fou (Jean Luc Godard, 1965) [10]
Existing in a middle ground between his earlier genre deconstructions and the more experimental, radical works like Weekend, Pierrot Le Fou is my favorite Godard film. That Criterion has given the film a deluxe treatment have made it even better after not having seen it for many years. The one element I hear in critiques of this film is that it feels inconsequential and that may be perhaps I like it so much. This is the most pulp of all Godard films, starting with a standard noir storyline. Ferdinand (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a dissatisfied writer who upon meeting an old acquittance with a sketch history (Anna Karina), embark on a road trip after an apparent murder. What is essentially a standard noir story is transformed into something bordering on pulp but becomes something. Frankly, the dialogue is ambiguous and obtuse, but the scenes and images that Godard crafts are so much more interesting that it hardly matters. There are moments in the film that foreshadow the more radical, non-narrative style that would appear in later Godard films, but here, they still have some attachment to a story, which I feel makes them work well. The musical interludes and the man on the dock are good examples. They on the surface appear somewhat random but the really dig down to an idea of complete devastation as Ferdinand's journey with Marianne has not come to what he thought. A lot has been made of Pierrot Le Fou being an extension of Godard's feelings at the time, that he had just divorced Karina and he had lost all interest in the base story that inspired the film. What I feel is more important is the idea of the destruction of the narrative form that the film contains. At least if not that, it reflects on a director searching in a new direction. But unlike the more strident tones of his more political work, Pierrot Le Fou succeeds because it allows itself to be somewhat frivolous. The vibrant look of the film, the most striking aspect of the film to me, gives the film the feel of the comic books that keep popping up. Unlike someone like Tarantino, who uses pulp and popular forms more for an all over style, Godard uses just enough to keep the heart of the film from being a bludgeon. Some critics may like the more genre-specific early films, some may like the more political ones, but for me, somewhere in the middle is Pierrot Le Fou. For me, this film is hard to beat when talking about my favorite twenty so film of all time.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Amateurs

The Amateurs (Michael Traeger, 2005) [3]
With a cast like this and an interesting premise (some local nobodys team together to make a porno film), it's not that big of a surprise that it came out not much better than a pile of garbage. Jeff Bridges plays Andy Sargentee, recently divorced and worried that he doesn't compare to his son's rich step dad, attempts to make a score for himself. What else but porn? He wrangles all the local losers and weirdos (played with varying degrees of passabililty by Joe Pantoliano, Ted Danson, and Tim Blake Nelson among others) to chip in and make a nice porno film in Butterface Fields. My number one gripe are the names in this thing. Does Traeger think naming a town Butterface Fields and a character Some Idiot are going to be funny? It begins to show the shallow depths of the humor in this film. Besides making the porno jokes (black guys are supposed to be well endowed, a girl works in a bed store so she must be into sex) and not actually having the balls to show any sex or nudity, there's not much that could make it worse. The film also crams out a stale "gay guy pretending not to be gay by acting overly macho" subplot and hampers Andy with a self-reflective narration, having to constantly make the audience aware that they're watching a film; I don't know where this comes from lately, but it's a stunt that always backfires. The only time Traeger is really on track with his humor is the bickering over the scripting and execution of the film, the only time that shows how actually clueless yet entertaining these guys can be. The rest of the film is just time to throw out lame jokes and have Andy wallow in self-pity. The film also has a mild ripple of chauvinism in it. It's not mean or that intentional, I think, but it is a bit alarming how Traeger spends a lot of time with male characters. The only time women appear they are more or less treated as objects. Not objects in the pornographic way but more there just to propel the story. Lauren Graham and Judy Greer are tremendously funny actresses but they rarely register in their screen time. The story is about men; I can understand that, but it certainly weakens what was already a fairly mediocre script. The real way this could have been better is if Traeger when all out and made this a raunchfest. It would have a lot more satirical bite than the toothless, throwaway nature of this film.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Panic In the Streets

Panic In the Streets (Elia Kazan, 1950) [4]
Am I missing something here? Having been led to believe it was an underrated noir, I found it to be nothing of the genre and not very exciting at all. The greatest attribute I can give to the film is that is was filmed on location in New Orleans, but even though, the film rarely uses its location to its advantage to make the film more exciting or unique. Richard Widmark plays a milquetoast medical examiner that's brought into to do an autopsy on the murdered man. The victim is found to be carrying a form of the plague which leads to a massive manhunt for the murderers, an odd couple pairing of Zero Mostel and Jack Palance. The threat of a widespread epidemic also leads to political and bureaucratic in-fighting about who's in charge, what to tell the press and public, etc. Kazan handles these elements the best, which is a bit sad because they really should be secondary to the primary action of apprehending the two men who pose the most danger to the city. For a film that's called Panic In the Streets, it's amazing that no one really shows that much of that particular emotion. A lot of the talk between the Widmark character, the mayor, and the police is spent bickering about what to do without anyone any showing much of any emotion. Widmark's character is clearly meant to be the most immediate voice but there's a scene, in the dead middle of this supposed manhunt and possible epidemic, that he goes home and has a measured conversation with his wife. The logic of this moment is completely lost on me. If he's that concerned with the public welfare, this conversation could have clearly waited, couldn't it? The only characters that portray the correct emotional level throughout are the Mostel/Palace pairing, clearly confused why they've become such targets for what seemed like an inconsequential murder. Palance, physically imposing and intimidating, makes the perfect noir villain but is not utilized enough or correctly to his attributes. Kazan is a fine director, but he misses all the elements that make good film noir. I'm not even sure that this should be considered noir. Given its pedigree, Panic In the Streets is a perplexing disappointment.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Into the Wild

Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007) [6]
John Krakauer's book on the life and death of Chris McCandless is one of the best journalistic books I've ever read. It is thoroughly researched yet goes well beyond listing facts, with Krakauer trying his best to figure out who McCandless really was. The trouble may be is that it's quite impossible to know what his motives for his treks were or what happened to him those final months in Alaska. Penn's film asks the same questions the book does but it excerpts the self-reflexive thread that made Krakauer's work so interesting. This film feels too much like the viewer is to sit there and experience Alex/McCanless's experiences rather than reflect on them. Obviously film is a visual medium so the experience is meant to be looked at. It's also true that film can't not be a reflective medium but Penn pares the film down to a lyrical celebration of McCandless and his experiences. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that but I felt like the film just lacked something. McCandless to me is such an intriguing figure. I have admiration for what's behind what he does and extremely sorry for his arrogance that ultimately led to his death. The first half of the film finds Chris as played by Emile Hirsch lacking these qualities often. Only the sequences in Alaska and some later moments in the film really strongly form what I think that character should have been. These moments done right are about as good as they can be. The problem that keeps this film from being a great film is that they aren't consistent enough. Penn's directorial choices, such as the breakup of the film into chapters and a lot of the narration, with the exception of Chris, don't work enough. Still, it's worth saying that Penn has crafted a film that clearly has it's focus in the right place. Hirsch has his moments when he feels really close to the person I think Chris McCandless was. I admit it's hard for this film to measure up to what I felt it should have been compared to the book, but it's not a worthwhile effort from Penn.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


Moolaade (Ousamane Sembene, 2004) [8]
Sembene's final film was also the one film of his that really gained any sort of significance in upon its release in America. That it took three years to find it on DVD caused me to lose some of the initial interest I had in it when I first heard about it. The main reason the film got much more attention than all of Sembene's other films was the subject matter: the controversy over female genital manipulation that is practiced in some African nations. The subject arouses interest because in regards to Western thought, this is thought of pretty much a black and white issue, with all cultures condemning the barbaric principle of "purification." Sembene's achievement is that he doesn't reduce the argument to something this simple but instead takes into account the traditions and being respectful to these cultures while still condemning the practice. The argument is framed obviously along gender lines as Colle attempts to keep a group of girls from being cut while also attempting to convince not just the men but the women of the village. Sembene clearly has an acute understanding of what he's talking about because he never panders to the West and make the picture about outrage. There's a deliberate showing of the patriarchal societies that these cultures build up as another subplot involves a son of one of the village elders attempting to disobey his father and marry Colle's daughter. I feel that the film uses female circumcision as its main theme but it also lends itself to a greater discussion about the conflict between the past and modernization in Africa. Female circumcision is just another example of the traditions under threat (at least to the male elders) that is being thrust upon them as Africa modernizes socially and economically. The point with the radios, that the men refuse to let the women have radios because they're bringing messages that are causing Colle and the others to question the traditions is a brilliant way of showing this. The character of Mercenaire is another example of this, a man convinced by capitalism and nothing else. His disregard for traditions and obedience eventually end up badly for him. Sembene clearly is no fan of these ideas and practices but he has the great sense to handle them smartly and understand the arguments rather than just blanket assessments.

Moolaade also looks fantastic, capturing the colorful dress and landscapes of the African landscape. Sembene's captures it all unobtrusively and creates some fantastic shots and scenes, especially the beginning and end. There's a reason that he's considered the father of African cinema.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007) [8]
A highly enjoyable and entertaining film to watch, I was surprised myself how good Michael Clayton is. The only detriment about it is that is plays a little too close to the legal thriller playbook but when a film of that genre is well done, it's almost always an entertaining one. Gilroy, who also wrote the script, fills the film with enough twists, intrigue, and just enough action to draw you in. George Clooney plays the title character, a lawyer whose job it is to swoop in and expedite problems. He gets drawn into having to keep a mentally unstable colleague (a flashy but not overboard Tom Wilkinson) from blowing a case involving an agricultural conglomerate's pesticide that has been contaminating ground water and killing people. As Clayton goes deeper, he uncovers more and more about the company, that they knew about and covered up the problems with contamination and also that they're not above eliminating any problematic elements in the case such as himself. It all falls neatly into the paranoid thrillers of the 70s, films that explored the shadowy deeds of corporations and the government, usually brought on by rogue individuals. The film is foremost about the character of Clayton, and even though he uncovers all this information, the film is never really wholly about what he discovers. The contamination/lawsuit is a subplot, just a way for the film to explore the character of Clayton. That plot is used as a way to bring out an ethical dilemma in him, to decide to do what's best for him or to do what's best ethically for not just him, but everyone around him. The film really centers around Clayton and what decision he's going to make. You know it's a sign of a good film when at the end, he does the right thing (in terms of how these films usually end up) and you as the viewer actually want him to. Gilroy and Clooney don't just leave it there, as they still leave open feelings of ambiguity in Clayton as if he did the right thing all along, not just in this situation, but in his career as a whole. The film takes one event and is able to create a nuanced character study that happens to be unabashedly entertaining. It may not break any rules but Michael Clayton is a film like they used to make, when studios actually acknowledged their audience had an intellect.