Sexy Beast

Sexy Beast (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Jonathan Glazer
viewed: 04/20/02

I don’t know what I could say about Sexy Beast that wouldn’t sound like a kicker off the back of the DVD box.

It’s slick British noir comedy/drama, that compares favorably with the Guy Ritchie films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Sexy Beast, though, is not nearly as over-stylized as Ritchie’s films (just plain stylish) and features far more substance, pound for pound. Whereas Ritchie’s leads are young hip urban hoods, director Jonathan Glazer’s protagonist is a middle-aged “retired” criminal ex-pat, who has left London’s mean streets for a villa in Spain. None of the gangsters portrayed in Sexy Beast are younger than forty. It’s a different generation altogether, though some of the nasty bigwigs of the organization have similar counterparts in the aforementioned films.

Whether it is the history and backstories to these characters that give them weight, in comparison, or just simply that the characters are less cartoony caricatures than Ritchie’s, Sexy Beast carries a heftier impact and is ultimately a far more interesting film on the whole, while still as poppy and fun as Rithie’s films.

There is an interesting contrast between characters and their environment. The four ex-pat Brits who have made their home in Spain’s isolated desert region have soaked up the sun and the pace of the lifestyle, but their bright-red sunburned tans show that they are not 100% acclimated to their new climate. Their thick working-class Southern English accents are also incredibly incongruous with the smouldering desert scenery. Though at first you don’t know exactly where they are supposed to be, you know that they are clearly not natives.

When the intimidating Don (Ben Kingsley) arrives, he is a fish even further out of water, paler in the sun and not at all at home in the blistering heat.

The contrast between character and location is strong as well when Gal (Ray Winstone) returns to London with his bleached hair and suntan amidst the rainy chill and cold of London. What all this adds up to, I am not quite sure. Certainly, characters are defined by their relationship to their setting, and maybe there is some commentary on Englishness or the growing lack thereof.

Another strong theme that plays throughout is one of power and masculinity. Don, a small, but intimidating man, weilds power via a dangerous machismo. Gal, on the other hand, though a big and tough-looking character, is pacifistic and non-confrontational. His effeminate name, his pacifism, and his semi-homoerotic relationship with Enrique, his Spanish houseboy, clearly paint him in opposition to Don. The criminal world in London, from which Don has come, seems to be an all-boys club, a tough, brutal group. Again, I hesitate to press analysis further, after only one viewing, but these are certain strings that run throughout the film and may well lie at the heart of its meaning.

I guess I have found things to say that you probably wouldn’t find on the back of the box.

Whatever the case, the acting is great, as is the script, as is the cinematography. It’s a tight package at a running time below 90 minutes. A lean, fun flick.

Spirited Away

Spirited Away (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 04/21/02 at Castro Theater, SF

Hayao Miyazaki’s film, Spirited Away, is both his newest and very possibly his most-brilliant.

Miyazaki, for those that do not know it, is a Japanese feature filmanimator who could finally perhaps be the filmmaker that rescues feature-length animated films from the gigantic rut that Disney has dug for them.

Miyazaki creates wonderful fantastic images, that are truly unlike those of any other filmmaker. And Spirited Away is replete with such wonderful invention.

The story is about a girl, Chihiro, who relocating with her family to a different part of Japan, moving away from her friends to a new place. The family takes a wrong turn and ends up exploring and falling into a spirit realm that is ruled by an evil witch, who turns Chihiro’s parents into pigs. Chihiro has to work for the witch at her business, a bathhouse for the many native gods of the country.

It is a story, while original, echoes of traditional Japanese culture, like a classic fairy tale. Miyazaki was said to have been inspired by the “lethargy” of a young girl that he met, by her lack of understanding and interest in traditional Japanese culture, and it seems a significant aspect of the source and style of the narrative.

The landscape in this film is also very Japanese, supposedly based on an older region of Japan, one not far from his Studio Ghibli. Environment is always a significant theme for Miyazaki, and settings are always rendered in loving detail.

The spirit world of Spirited Away is populated by an utter menagerie of fantastic characters. There are too many to begin to enumerate.

This is a brilliant film, fantastic, surprising, beautifully rendered, sweet, scary, tremendous.

Following

Following (1998) movie poster

(1998) dir. Christopher Nolan
viewed: 04/08/02

Christopher Nolan (director of the oft-heralded Memento) made his feature debut with this film, a low-budget, B/W neo-noir film shot in London. Like Memento, the film’s narrative is non-linear, playing out in flashbacks that are intentionally disordered. The effect of this disjunctured storytelling evokes an added mystery to what could be a fairly straight-forward noir tale. As in Memento, it works, and works fairly well.

Amateurish yet elegant in its use of simple settings and natural light, the cinematography and location shooting, on London rooftops, streets, flats, and bars has a great low-budget quality. The acting, too, has an amateur feel, amateur but not dire.

A significant exception is Alex Haw who plays Cobb, the charismatic thief whom the protagonist follows into the dark world of crime. Haw has a strong Rupert Everett-like charm, and I think the strength of his character allows the rest of the film to work. In my opinion anyway.

It’s a good film. Not as good as Memento, but good in many of the same ways.

That said, it is nowhere as polished, and some of the scenes that explicate the narrative are dialogue-heavy, two characters discussing what is happening, in order for the viewer to catch up. Rather clumsy.

Whereas Nolan created this strange amnesia for his protagonist in Memento, which operated both as a significant plot point as well as the major narrative device, he offers no such explicit explanation for the disordered narrative for Following. The bulk of the film is told in flashbacks (without narrating voice-over). One can read the tale as though it is told through its protagonist’s perspective, a subjective, stream-of-consciousness reassembling of events.

Belle de jour

Bell de Jour (1967) movie poster

(1967) dir. Luis Buñuel
viewed: 04/03/02

I am ashamed to say that this is one of the only Buñuel films that I have seen outside of Un chien Andalou, which, coming from a former film student might sound rather shabby. However, I should point out that of the “classics” of cinema (of which there is an almost endless list already), there are many, many more significant films by important directors that I have never seen.

There are just a lot of films out there. And anyone that pretends that they have seen every significant film by each important director, is either just plain lying or simply has way too much time on their hands…or both.

That said, I approached Belle de jour with relatively “fresh” eyes. Which may well be the best possible approach to any film that one can have.

The film is from 1967, starring a young Catherine Deneuve as S�verine, a virginal bourgeois housewife who has masochistic sexual fantasies and comes to lead a double life as a prostitute in a Parisian brothel.

The film operates as a social critique of the middle class but also an exploration of fantasy and separation from reality.

I would suggest that perhaps the former critique speaks potentially to an social dynamic that has ceased to exist in a more literal sense. Its connections to social mores seems “dated,” though only in a contemporary interpretation. Though there are certain essences of the society of late 1960’s France that are universal, one might say that overall, the reality of the film’s world is almost fantasy in itself. Perhaps even in the late Sixties, these ideas addressed an older order that was already in the midst of change.

The film’s exploration of the dream/fantasy and its conflation with reality, on the other hand, still seems rich and powerful. It is not uncommon in cinema for directors to play with narrative by means of “dream sequences,”
even to the point of intentional confusion between opposing “realities” portrayed therein. In Belle de jour, the naturalism of the cinematography lulls one into accepting the inherent “reality” of the story. The film’s latent “surreal” character arises more once the film has ended. The borders between dream and reality have been collapsed, for both S�verine and for the viewer.

There is a troubling misogyny on the surface of the narrative that seems to be a part of the film’s critique of France’s 1960’s bourgeoisie, escaping sexual repression via fantasy. This perceived misogyny dissipated for me as the narrative became less cohesive.

In the end, I found it a remarkable, poetic film, which, I am sure that would do well with deeper analysis than I am offering here.

Moulin Rouge!

Moulin Rouge! (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Baz Luhrmann
viewed: 03/29/02 / diary entry: 04/02/02

Bombast.

This was the first word that came to mind while watching the first half-hour of Moulin Rouge!.

Loud, blaring, raging, incessant bombast.

A similar quality had grated my nerves endlessly in Baz Luhrmann’s last fantasy epic, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996). The hyperactive, MTV-paced editing and jump-cutting, seemed energetic and fresh for a few lively minutes, but very quickly I felt as though I would be like a Japanese child after watching Pokemon too close to the screen and would find myself rolling around the floor in a seizure.

This reaction to Luhrmann’s approach to far more traditional fare kept me from heading to the cinema to witness Moulin Rouge in its initial outing. The mixture of pans and raves that I read of the film seemed to suggest that this might well have been a more successful filmic venture, but I remained hesitant. In the end, I regretted missing it on the big screen. It seems to be the right place to have seen it.

On DVD, however, the production design still shines. The lurid, madcap visual style indeed reeks of MTV, where music videos, with their 3-5 minute running time, can create stunning complex visual statements in a fairly terse format. At two hours, Moulin Rouge clearly challenges the senses’ ability to comprehend so many images so rapidly unfolding. It’s an acid trip. A nightmare.

The hyperactivity swings between stunning, hilarious, annoying, and inane. There are genuinely sharp and exciting moments. But it took almost half an hour for me to get over the initial feeling of being overwhelmed for a few choice scenes to make their impression.

Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman are both good in this film, but their performances get overwhelmed by the film’s style and pace. They are likeable figures in a toiling sea of chaos. And real connection to them is challenged heavily by the, well,…bombast.

The story, though “original”, is intensely cliche. Though, this doesn’t seem utterly unintentional. McGregor’s character’s passion is represented by spewing lines from love songs, from a pop era long yet to come from the film’s “period” setting.

Though, to call this a period film would also misconstrue it grossly. Luhrmann incorporates the figure of Toulouse-Lautrec, as played by John Leguizamo, as a caricature far more “invented” than biographical. It is, in many ways, a fantasy vision projected onto a past time and place, never intended to be read as “real”. The set designs, as all of the characters, are high-camp cartoons.

The music, too, is modern pop music, largely from the 1980’s, re-imagined, incorporated in often ironic transposition to its usual associations. One of the funniest scenes is when Jim Broadbent sings Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” The song is transposed into the third person, as he croons about Satine, the courtesan, urging even more lewd suggestibility where the original hid behind synthesized pop.

The film’s music is borrowed, its storyline a cartoon of cliche, its characters stereotypes (the young writer, the tragic whore, the evil “duke”). Moulin Rouge! yearns ironically (and non-ironically) toward the past, while reconfiguring its borrowed parts via very modern production and technique. This seems to be its quandary. At what point does re-invention become “invention”. Is this the latest form of post-modernity?

In the end, I had mixed feelings about the film. Its initial “bombast” grated. But then it got going and its energy and visual inventiveness carried it along. And then, it’s last part languished as it tried to resuscitate its story.

It was better than Romeo + Juliet,…for what that is worth.

The City of Lost Souls

The City of Lost Souls (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Takashi Miike
viewed: 04/01/02

Strange gangster film from Japan, centered in multi-cultural Tokyo’s Brazilian/Japanese sub-culture.

Stylishly shot, with a true “pop” sensibility, the film seemed somewhat fresh take on the yakuza film. The film seems to address some aspects of Tokyo’s multiculutalism, partiularly its Brazilian minority. The protagonist of the film, Mario, is played by Teah, who looks, like the character he portrays, to be Brazilian/Japanese. He is a cool, slick, mod-dressed, gun-toting hero, a man of few words. His beautiful moll of a girlfriend, Kei, is Chinese. Both are cultural outsiders to the traditional gangster milieu, and both are characterized by their beauty and hipness.

One of the main villains of the film is Chinese, an effeminate, bondage-obsessed killer, who expresses his anti-Japanese racism to the more traditional Japanese yakuza character.

I would be hard pressed to analyze the meanings of each characters’ representation, as there were a lot of characters to keep up with and it was easy to get a bit lost. There are several languages spoken throughout the film, a significant portion of which seemed to be in Portuguese.

The film’s subtitling was amusingly poor. The title of the film in English is The City of Lost Souls, but on DVD, it is presented as The City of Lost Sales, which I am guessing is a double mis-translation, (1) wrong homynym and (2) wrong vowel. Which would make this potentially seem to be perhaps instead a film in which Willy Loman might show up.

From my single viewing, I can say that it seems clear that the film is addressing issues of multiculturalism, but what exactly it is trying to say might be a little more tough to pin down.

So, I will leave it at that, for now.

Also, there was a truly bizarre cockfighting sequence in which the roosters were digitally animated. The truly bizarre extreme was hit when one of the roosters leapt up into a “Matrix” style kick, in which the camera swerved around the scene, as the bird hangs in mid-air, just before dealing the death blow. This strange, humorous “aside” for the film was not a-typical, but was truly weird.

Also, the DVD I had rented of this film got stuck a lot on the second side (it was like an old laser disc that had to be flipped half-way through — also strange and unfortunate), which impeded the last 20-30 minutes for me consdierably.

Overall, though, the film was definitely interesting. Several of Miike’s films had come through town last year and I had missed them all, and this was the first of his films that I found on DVD. I will keep my eyes out for the others, which I have read are supposed to be stronger, Audition and Dead or Alive.

Bully

Bully (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Larry Clark

My morbid curiosity.

That is why I watched this film.

Bully is based on a true story about a epynomous fellow who terrorizes his best friend, beats, rapes, and intimidates others, until in an act of group vengence, they lure him with sex to an isolated spot, where they stab and beat him to death.

I had seen the story told on one of those crappy Discovery Channel crime shows that they run on Tuesday nights. It was a compelling story, almost subversive in its high-end perversity located in a middle-class suburban neighborhood, somewhere in Florida. The brutality quotient is higher than anything that (hopefully) most people have experienced in their lives, but the “bullying” aspect of relationships is not utterly alien. In fact, the story resonates more than one would immediately think it would.

So, when I heard that Larry Clark was working with the material, it sounded interesting. He has this weird interest in the lives of young people, catching certain ugly realities of unpleasant sides of human nature.

He virtually pornographies the kids in his film, shooting lots of scenes displaying their nakedness in a dull, almost “heroin chic” style. Beauty and ugliness in one.

His camera oversexualizes them, too, shooting one scene in which a conversation is taking place between two of the girls, with the camera vying for an angle on Bijou Phillips’s crotch. It’s downright lurid.

The oversexualization seems to be both his interest and his interpretation of them. They are shallow to the point of dehumanization, almost completely lacking in self-awareness, selfishly motivated, and deviant.

How much does Clark sympathize with them while casting them in this light? It is hard to say.

Rachel Miner’s character is the organizer of the plot to kill the bully. She has been raped and beaten by him, and her boyfriend, Brad Renfro, has been beaten and bullied regularly all of his life. For her, there is no alternative solution than killing him and she is driven single-mindedly to bring about his end.

Like Kids (1995), Clark’s other disturbing film about teens, Bully paints a frightening picture of youth. But as much as Clark portrays the kids in a dehumanized light, he seems to identify with them. The full effect is a complex mixture of repulsion and vague understanding.

I don’t really know what I think of this film. Even years after having seen Kids, I am still unable to come to terms with exactly how successful of a film it was. It is beautifully shot and very effective, but depressing and sickening.

Bully is less powerful than Kids, though its source material is by far more profound and fascinating.

It’s a hard film. And it’s a hard film to have a simple reaction to.

The Gift

The Gift (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Sam Raimi

Sam Raimi’s The Gift was a decent paranormal thriller. It had moments.

But it had a lot of annoying celebrities in it, too.

My most-hated actor, Giovanni Ribisi, annoys in his own special way. I can’t recall if I actually watched some portion of the terrifying film, The Other Sister, which was Juliette Lewis’s return to acting after rehab or something, in which she plays a “mentally-challenged” girl who falls in love with a “mentally-challenged” boy (Ribisi — see there is a connection here), or if I just saw the trailers. But somehow, playing “mentally-challenged” characters is something that Ribisi prides himself on. In The Gift, he takes a lot of screen time on a side-plot, being “mentally-challenged.” He annoys.

Keanu Reeves (want to talk “mentally-challenged”?) plays a “bad” guy who beats up his white-trash wife, Hillary Swank. They are both annoying. It’s painful to watch Keanu “act”. Swank, who was brilliant in Boys Don’t Cry, seems like an enormous hack playing trailer trash, sporting such a weird “trash” hairdo that she just looks really weird. Annoying.

Greg Kinnear was very funny in Mystery Men, but otherwise, seems to specialize in annoyance.

Katie Holmes was even annoying.

Cate Blanchett, the real “star” of this ensemble, actually doesn’t annoy. She doesn’t impress, but she doesn’t annoy, so kudos to her.

As for Sam Raimi, the man behind the camera, one has to wonder if he used up all of his genius on Evil Dead II and left absolutely nothing for the rest of his career.

OK, that is harsh, he’s done decent work, like A Simple Plan and this film, too, to a lesser extent. I honestly couldn’t bring myself to see For the Love of the Game which he made with Kevin Costner. For the loathing of the name.

I watched a part of the cast and crew interviews made for this disk. Raimi says at one point that he almost didn’t do this film because it “seemed too dark.” Dude! This is his area of expertise! What is he talking about? It seems that he is trying to push his career further into mainstream Hollywood and does not want to be pigeon-holed as someone who specializes in horror/thriller material or something? I don’t know. With his live-action (sort of) Spiderman due out in a couple of months, one seriously wonders what drives him.

Raimi, do you still have it in you? Or is it all spent?

The Anniversary Party

The Anniversary Party (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming

The Anniversary Party is an “actorly” film. Written and directed by actors Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming, it’s “Dogme 95” meets L.A.

Handheld cameras, digital video, location shooting, naturalized acting, all calling cards of the Dogme 95 manifesto, are utilized here, brought in by Jennifer Jason Leigh after her venture shooting a “genuine” Dogme Film, The King is Alive.

Leigh introduces Dogme 95 to Hollywood literally and figuratively. The film is shot and set in L.A. and its characters are all Hollywood types (i.e. filmmakers, actors, writers). They utilize Dogme 95’s anti-Hollywood aesthetic guidelines (dreamed up by a cluster of Danish filmmakers) to illuminate the world of Hollywood and its denizen.

While the script focuses on the Hollywood milieu, the cast is populated by notable members of the “real world” Hollywood, including Kevin Kline, Gwynneth Paltrow, and the directors themselves. There are interesting appearances by a couple of faded 80’s stars. Jennifer Beals appears as Cumming’s best friend and Phoebe Cates shows up as Leigh’s best friend, a former film star turned mother. A sense of self-reflexivity abounds at times.

The film addreesses many subjects: friends, relationships, family, Hollywood. Yet motherhood is one of the strongest recurring themes throughout the film. Each of the main women characters seems somewhat defined by their attitude and relationship with motherhood. Leigh’s character shuns it; Cates’ character embraces it on the surface but ultimately is drowned by it; Jane Adams’ character is a new mother who is utterly neurotic about it until she gets high and forgets about it. Motherhood is an onus for all of them, whether it’s the thought or the reality of it.

The script features much clever repartee and equally many scenes in which each actor is given his or her chance to “act” — the choice types of scenes that seem to appeal to actors in which they are free to emote. Since each of the actors gets a turn, it truly is an ensemble picture. The performances are fairly strong, and the film is clever and well-made. A good experiment.