Cube (1997) movie poster

(1997) dir. Vincenzo Natali
viewed: 05/24/03

High on concept, low on acting and clever character development, Cube is one of those interesting films that you kind of wish could have been just a little bit better. Well, when I say, YOU wish, I actually mean I wish, and I say this because I seem to have esteemed this film somewhat below the average of most of the people that I know. Low-budget, indie sci-fi (surprisingly six years old), I remember reading about this film when it came out, but it somehow slipped through the cracks until it was recently recommended to me.

Five characters find themselves trapped in a series of interconnected square-shaped rooms, some of which are booby-trapped, and must try to escape. The lack of narrative explication makes for a nicely open-ended and somewhat philosophical journey for the protagonists, though the character actors are largely emoting histrionically rather than blending into their storyline, the viewer is constantly aware of them “acting,” which detracts significantly from the narrative. The only thing that I can say in their defense is that the dialogue is lacking as well, and the story relies heavily on the audience’s interest in the characters.

Une femme est une femme

Une femme est une femme (1961) movie poster

(1961) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 05/19/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

Really getting into a bad habit of falling too far behind for these entries. I saw this film over a week ago. It’s not as fresh in my mind as it once was.

Jean-Luc Godard’s interpretation of the romantic comedy seems, on the surface, strangely “lite.” The challenges and disjunctures to the narrative and the distancing effects that Godard uses to keep the viewer from getting caught up in the film as story are in heavy use. Music swells during certain scenes in over-the-top fashion, only to suddenly cut off in mid-note/emotion, replaced with soundtrack silence or street noises. A moment or two later, the music rushes back in, occasionally blotting out the dialogue. Godard uses visual disjunctures as well, the characters directly address the audience, bowing before enacting one scene. The big difference is that Godard seems to play a lot of the elements for laughs.

And some of it is quite funny and charming. I really liked the way that the characters used the book titles from the shelves to silently insult one another while lying in bed. Ironically, this is perhaps one of the most truly narrative sequences in the film, in a sense, figuring the least disjunctive.

The film’s title A Woman is a Woman perhaps speaks to the real underlying subtext of the film. This has probably been analyzed to death elsewhere, so I apologize for the cheap goings-over. The beautiful Anna Karina, Godard’s wife at the time this was filmed I believe, plays a stripper, caught in a love triangle, between her boyfriend/lover and his best friend. Karina’s character, Angela, is obsessed with becoming pregnant and her desire for this conflicts with that of her boyfriend Émile and is essentially the source of the conflict. What the film is saying about a woman being a woman, I can’t really say, but it does seem to seek to define that according to some stereotypically significant aspects being female, the ability to become pregnant/give birth and the ability to be sexually objectified. The film’s attitude toward these things might be debatable…

I found the film quite enjoyable. The radical nature of Godard’s work seems both still very relavant and yet oddly quaint in a way. Some of the stylistic elements and characteristics of his work have been absorbed into the common language of film, though the bulk of what he attempts to do still remains clearly outside of film-work, totally housed within the avant-garde or underground cinemas. But there is this other side of the film as a document of a now historical Paris, of a dynamic period of film production that seems for lack of a better term, almost “quaint.” I think that might sound horribly insulting, but it’s not meant that way.

Winchester ’73

Winchester '73 (1950) movie poster

(1950) dir. Anthony Mann
viewed: 05/14/03

I grew up in the South, in Florida to be exact, despising many things that I associated with Southern culture: rednecks, blue jeans, chewing tobacco, country music and Westerns. The litany of those things detailed shows how ill-informed and indiscriminate I was in consigning things to my list of dislikes. Though I still dislike rednecks and tobacco products, I have come to appreciate many other things that I associated rather blindly with one another, some more readily than others.

I came upon the Western in England, of all places. On the “telly” on BBC and Channel Four, frequently in the afternoons the films that would be played would be the great symbols of America, the Westerns of the Golden Age of Hollywood. I got quite into them and saw quite a few, but never came close to having seen even all of the interesting or important films. I want to say that I did see a good Anthony Mann Western among the viewings, but I can’t recall it. Winchester ’73 was recommended to me by a former film school chum, who credited it as being his primary influence into converting him into a fan of the Western.

It’s an interesting film with a surprisingly notable cast. Jimmy Stewart stars, Shelley Winters is the love interest, and also features an interesting performance by Dan Duryea, Rock Hudson as an indian chief (amusingly bad Hollywood casting and depiction of Native Americans — though Hudson is a notably young, strapping buck), and Tony Curtis in a bit part. The film’s Monument Valley setting is as beautifully rendered as in a John Ford Western, and the narrative is cleverly structured and literate yarn that follows a stolen Winchester rifle as it passes through several hands, leaving each usurper dead as it passes on.

When I asked my film school chum what the nature of the discussion was of this film in his classes, he said that it was the “gun as phallus,” a classically Freudian reading, the thing that every man must have and is willing to die in trying to procure. It’s interestingly lethal to those who fail to maintain it. And the landscape is rife with phallic cacti surrounding the players in the desert. It’s an amusing reading, and that is why I share it with you.

After seeing The Magnificent Seven in the theater a couple of weeks ago, I had been a-hankerin’ to see some more Westerns, so don’t be surprised to see some more classics showing up here in the DVD section, pardner.

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Phillip Noyce
viewed: 05/10/03

Based on a biographical account of real events, this film’s most-compelling qualities arise from its story’s basis in the real circumstances that set the stage for the narrative. I have not been familiar with the history of the relationship of European settlers in Australia and the Aboriginal peoples, though it has interesting parallels and counterpoints with the experience of European settlements that shaped the history of the United States. I don’t know if the subjugation of the Aboriginal people of Australia ever amounted to the outright genocide of America’s native peoples, so I don’t have that pretext to situate the facts that this film attempts to document.

The events of the film are set in the 1940’s, when the “White”-controled government of Australia systematically removed “half-caste” children from their families and sought to assimilate the lighter-complected children into “White” culture. The dubiously “well-intentioned” racism is almost jaw-dropping, though when compared to the United States’ contemporary dealings with racial issues, the reality was not utterly isolated, though certainly different. The most shocking fact of the situation documented is that the process continued up until 1970, which, again if juxtaposed against the de-segregation of schools in the American South or other civil rights changes in the United States, again makes one realize that it’s easy to forget how recently these horrible practices persisted.

Rabbit-Proof Fence depicts this legacy of racism as the back-drop to a story of three young girls who trek 1200 miles across the desert to return to their families after having been forcibly removed from them. It’s an epic journey for such young children, one that lasted more than nine weeks. The film, which has a running time of just over an hour and a half, really fails to catch the scope of their journey, partially through its tight pacing and short narrative duration. The girls are all very good. They seem like non-professional actors, largely, and offer that flavor of neo-realism that one associates with non-professional actor performances, to add verisimilitude.

Kenneth Branagh plays A.O. Neville, the government minister in charge of the system, who spews the rhetoric and masterminds the agency responsible for re-locating the children. The children refer to him as “Mr. Devil” and the film seems to well share that attitude as well. In my mind, the film overdoes his portrayal, shooting from the girls’ perspectives, he is framed in a Fish-Eye lens, as clearly an alien force.

I found this film a little disappointing, since I had heard such good things about it. The story is so compelling and the child actors are so strong and the Australian desert is so amazing, that it’s easy to get wrapped up in it. But when the film is actually operating its stylistic interpretations, setting mise-en-scene, it really seems somewhat unsophisticatedly overdone…in my opinion.

Le Cercle rouge

Le Cercle rouge (1970) movie poster

(1970) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
viewed: 05/12/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

I’d actually been to see Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï (1967) at the Castro Theater a couple of years ago, another slick post-New Wave crime flick, full of detached cool and studied Noir homage. Le Cercle rouge cut from a very similar cloth, still very hip and slick, and apparantly very influential as well. The new print of Le Cercle rouge was brought about in some way by John Woo, who is an avowed fan of Melville’s.

The jewel heist that is the centerpiece of this film, which last (I am speculating) like 40 minutes almost, is handled without a single spoken word. In an amusing comment on this, the inspector comments, upon viewing the videotape of the crime, that the thieves are not much for words. That self-reflective comment could easily apply to the entire film, which for its length and slow pacing, is incredibly economical with diaglogue. Narrative plays out almost entirely by visual means, with small pieces of exposition. The film is quite amazing in this aspect, really.

The characters are so cool and detached that when they meet their inevitable end, they do so with great fatalist inevitability.

I liked the weird bar at which the characters often rendezvoused, where there was always a strange stage show of 6-7 women dressed in identical period/stereotypical costumes and wigs, dancing to a hep jazz ensemble like robots. They were largely the only females in the film. The world of the film was one clearly inhabited solely by males, for as little dialogue as the main characters spoke, I don’t know if a single female voice uttered a word. There was one scene with an ex-girlfriend of Corey’s, who remained almost completely on the periphory of the action, behind a closed door while the main action of the scene transpired. For the rest of the film, she was relegated to discarded photographs. I don’t think that you need to be up on your feminist criticism to grasp the nature of this depiction.

8 Women

8 Women (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. François Ozon
viewed: 04/23/03

I don’t have much to say about this movie. I enjoyed it.

It’s a farcical take on the drawing room murder mystery, enlivened by musical numbers performed by each of the 8 Women of the title. The tone is consistently light and comical, verging on occasion into the realm of camp, particularyly in the cat-fight wrestling/lesbian kiss sequence. It’s a star-studded affair of French femmes, featuring Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Emmanuelle Béart, Fanny Ardant, and Virginie Ledoyen among others.

What can I say, it was pretty fun.

Better Luck Tomorrow

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Justin Lin
viewed: 04/21/03 at AMC 1000 Van Ness, SF, CA

This is another one of those diary entries that would have been much better had I sat down to write it more shortly after having seen this film. However, time failed to permit, and thus I will cobble together what I can about this.

Writer/director Justin Lin’s film about Southern Californian Asian-American over-achievers has its moments and its qualities, some of which are located in revealing cliches and stereotypes about Asian-American teens from presumably an inside perspective. The film opens much like a typical popular teen film, with the sort of light humor and “poppy” tone that typifies the genre. What makes the film unusual is that all of the central characters are Asian-American, which ,as trite as it may sound to point out, seems significantly atypical.

Lin depicts the innocuous world of suburban Southern California initially as a bland, neat, and characterless place, positioning the film’s protagonists as very much a part of this world, yet slightly outside of the social structures as well. They are recognizable participants in school functions and society, but in a complacent, peripheral way.

After realizing his placement on the high school basketball team is more of a nod to tokenism than as a result of his inherent value, Ben and his gang begin to recognize their “place” in-but-out of the social structures and begin to actively position themselves outside of the society that they had been so keen to succeed in. They step away from their perceived honor student lives by indulging in “bad boy” behavior, selling crib sheets and ultimately drugs and guns as well. Their tendency to “over-achieve” excellerates their shift toward illegal activities and things quickly get out of hand.

When I first saw the movie, I thought that I preferred the opening half that focused on the characters and their world, rather than their delinquency. But now, a week or so later, it seems to make more sense to me. The kids of this film start out fulfilling their societal roles, somewhat blindly, and only decide to break from them (while still maintaining them) after realizing that their situation in their world is less than what they had thought it was.

In that sense, it’s a dark-ended coming-of-age film. The ending of the film suggests an accepted amorality which didn’t jibe for me, probably because the character of Ben always seemed a little too bland and good-hearted to accept as consienceless. I don’t know.