Irréversible

(2002) dir. Gaspar Noé
viewed: 08/30/03

Brutal and harsh, dizzying and disorienting, Gaspar Noé’s film Irreversible is far from pleasurable. Notable for a vicious 10 minute plus rape scene centerpiece, this film would make even the non-squeamish squirm in discomfort.

The narrative of the film rolls out in reverse, a gimmick that could have some significance for the film’s commentary (some issues of fate are clumsily expressed late in the film), but doesn’t feel entirely necessary. The world of this film is bleak and harrowing, one in which worst-case scenarios have already played out. The film opens with the arrest of two characters that the audience does not know and then shows them entering a gay S & M club and brutally attacking and killing a patron. As the backward events unfold, it turns out that they are exacting revenge for the brutal, aforementioned rape.

The second half of the film, which I guess begins after (or before) the rape, seems almost anti-climactic. Perhaps that is the intention. As the audience is given the backstory to the characters that it has watched in traumatic action, there is a seeming lack of profundity to their lives. All of the horrors that befalls them, while potentially “fated”, are clearly otherwise seemingly random. Ultimately, there is something potentially existential being suggested, but I don’t know if the suggestion is made successfully. The brutality of the violence is the film’s signature more than anything, something without a solid context, but utterly palpable and affecting. My reaction to it is hard to quantify.

I did find the film either vaguely or explicitly homophobic. Not only is the gay S & M club shot as a dark and frightening place, but the patrons are sexually aroused and cheering for a harsh, pummeling murder like something clearly from a nightmare. Because they used a genuine gay S & M nightclub as the location for this sequence, there might be some sense that the filmmakers feel that their depiction has some basis in “reality,” but the image of the crowd in a sex-crazed bloodlust was nasty.

25th Hour

25th Hour (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Spike Lee
viewed: 08/18/03

The narrative of Spike Lee’s drama, 25th Hour, is a about a man’s last night of freedom before heading to prison for a drug charge. But, as many people have noted, Lee takes this story of reflection and casts it onto the image of New York City as a whole, not simply as setting and background, but with as much a significant role as a primary character (a best friend, perhaps), which is not altogether hard to see or inorganic necessarily.

What seems much more significant about such a meditation is the timing of it. Much has been noted about the fact that Lee went ahead with the already-planned filming of this movie in New York City, not long after the World Trade Center attacks in September of 2001. And this event is duly signified in the film: in an opening sequence in which the nighttime NY skyline is seen with two powerful rays of light rising in the space that the World Trade Center towers once stood, in a scene shot in which “Ground Zero” is clearly seen as a backdrop (even noted by one of the characters quite explicitly), and also in a direct-address diatribe that the star Edward Norton delivers on New Yorkers, stereotypes, and more.

It’s interesting to see because the subject still seems so fresh, as this film was in production probably less than a year after the event. It’s not the speed of light, of course, but for a major Hollywood production, the film seems to have a social awareness of the present, at least, that seemed more timely and poignant than most. It will, of course, be interesting to see how history treats the events of September 11th, 2001, and how this film’s commentary is read would skew as well, one would think.

All this said, this stuff doesn’t necessarily dominate the film, which is probably a good thing. The film is otherwise a fairly solid mainstream Hollywood drama. It features a cast of Hollywood’s stronger mainstream actors, including Norton, Brian Cox, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Anna Paquin, and it’s a pretty good film.

When Spike Lee directed Summer of Sam back in 1999, much was made of the fact that it was his first film to not have a primarily African-American cast and narrative focus. This film is similarly atypical of Lee’s other films. Maybe no one made much of this because there isn’t much to say. Maybe it’s not a notable fact.

The Odd One Dies

The Odd One Dies (1997) movie poster

(1997) dir. Patrick Yau
viewed: 08/23/03

After having read a little article on Johnny To in Giant Robot magazine, I decided to check out some more of the films that he had worked on. I had seen Fulltime Killer (2001) last year, a film that he had directed, and while perusing the magazine’s list of interesting films that he had either produced or directed, the list of films that he had worked on as a producer looked more interesting than the ones that he had directed. This is not unlike Tsui Hark, my favorite Hong Kong film icon/director/producer, whose own directoral work isn’t always as strong as the other films that he has had involvement in.

I have really liked Takeshi Kaneshiro, the male lead in this film, since I first saw him in Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels (1995). The Odd One Dies turned out to be quite a cool, fun, and stylish romantic comedy/drama, draped on top of an odd story about a down-on-his-luck gambler (Kaneshiro) who takes a job as a hitman to square himself with the mob, but ends up subcontracting the job to a strange girl, Carman Lee, with whom he eventually falls in love.

The film has a cool look to it as well as a somewhat off-kilter narrative, perhaps somewhat influenced by Wong Kar-wai, but perhaps not. I also found it very funny in parts and all in all, very enjoyable. The scene where Takeshi Kaneshiro is running from some people and tries to escape in an elevator but the pursuer keeps pushing the button so that he can’t get away is totally hilarious. Kaneshiro keeps jumping out and throwing kicks and punches to try to scare the guy back before he jumps into the elevator again, but the guy persistantly presses the elevator call button, popping the doors back open. It’s very slapstick and overt.

Final Destination 2

Final Destination 2 (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. David R. Ellis
viewed: 08/16/03

Having Enjoyed the original Final Destination (2000) so well, I felt moderately compelled to watch its half-assed sequel, despite suspecting that it was likely nowhere as interesting, clever, or funny. Still, I harbored a moderate hope, despite the fact that most of the principals, including star Devon Sawa and director James Wong, had nothing to do with the film.

The idea of this film has tons of potential: after surviving a freak accident, survivors are doomed to perish in some complex system of deadly “accidents,” ruled over by a fate or death that is never physically represented, and though somewhat personfied theoretically, is as abstract as the concept of “fatalism” or “death”. The film’s attitude toward this concept is largely comical and morbid. At its best, the film depicts characters in heightened states of paranoia at the entire world or physical objects, all crazed, lugubrious situations that could ultimately lead to their deaths.

Set one year after the events of the original, the characters of this film, who escape death in a gruesome, highly-choreographed freeway pile-up, are already aware of the scenario that they are in. The film wastes (spends) no time setting them with as character development or narrative, but rather winds them up and lets them go. For the viewer, this means that the film hits the ground running (and assuming you are familiar with the first film, the filmmakers guess that you don’t need any situating in the new narrative), but fails to build much emotional connection to the characters or even really ground any of the clever theoretical ideas that are embedded in the scenario.

So, ultimately, this is much less of a film than the original (unsurprisingly), but still has some amusing points about it. I still like the fact that death, though acting on the protagonists, is still pretty much unpersonified. When one of the characters starts screaming about how he controls his own fate, and then is proved wrong, not by some figure of death, but by circumstance, it is easy to see that there is a lot more potential here than is realized. There is a lot more room for cleverness and philosophical posturing than is tapped into. But, it’s still moderately fun.

I will continue to have a soft spot for the original.

Audition

Audition (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Takashi Miike
viewed: 08/10/03

Many writers have cited Audition as Takashi Miike’s strongest film, or at least among his strongest films. And at last, I think I finally have started to “get” him. Having watched The City of Lost Souls (2000) and more recently The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001), I wasn’t too sure what all the hubbub was about, though the latter film was so bizarrely over-the-top, that he has clear cult/trash film credentials. But Audition is striking because of the contrast of the exploitation/gore sequences that are set in what could otherwise be read as a more mainstream thriller.

The film opens with a scenario that could I could easily imagine a Hollywood studio re-creating in adaptation ala The Ring (2002). A middle-aged widower is talked into meeting some new romantic prospects by his son and a friend. The friend suggests that he come sit in on an audition for a film role, reviewing the resumes and watching the audition process for a number of young women for a film that will never be made. It’s a perverse twist on the dating process, but for the first part of the film, seems as though it could go anywhere. When the widower is attracted to a beautiful but strangely lonely and depressive girl, their romance blossoms. But as things get more serious, and his friend cautions him, it turns out that this girl is literally psychotic and her traumatic past leads to a traumatic ending.

The first two-thirds of the film is shot as a conventional, mainstream narrative. But as the psychosis becomes apparant, the film veers madly about, and ultimately becomes significantly gory. When in a crazed dream state, the widower starts hallucinating every significant female of the film onto each of the bizarre scenarios that flash past him, much as his life would metaphorically as he faces death. There is a sense that all women are interchangeable for him, though that realization horrifies him. And as the “revenge” is exacted, it echoes strongly of castration.

There is a lot going on in this film, and the experience of it, for me at least, informs the other films of his that I have seen. Perhaps it is simply that this film is stronger and shows the ability to have a more polished product that allows for the bizarre extremes that he reaches for to seem somewhat more intentional and controlled. I don’t know. The other two films of his that I had seen were so unalike and unusual that it was hard to get a sense of him as a director.

Definitely interesting, I still don’t know much else to say, but I will see more of his films.

Bob le flambeur

Bob le flambeur (1955) movie poster

(1955) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
viewed: 08/09/03

This is the third Jean-Pierre Melville film that I have seen, and the first that I have seen on DVD, since I have had the good luck to watch Le Samouraï (1967) and Le Cercle rouge (1970) at the Castro Theater, which is obviously preferable. At least this time, I was watching a DVD on a decent-sized television screen at a friend’s house, much better than the small screen I have at home. This film is the earliest of Melville’s films that I have seen and potentially the most significant. And as where his other films I have seen are sort of post-French New Wave, in style and vintage, this film is almost pre-New Wave (if that is an accurate statement to make or not).

Like the other films of Melville’s that I have seen, it is slickly produced and fun to watch. The opening shots of the sleepy dawn on the rough Parisian streets, lingering on the neon lights, are stunningly romanticized, even when attempting to show the wrong side of the tracks.

Despite really liking this film, I am not finding much to say about it. I thought that Isabelle Corey, as the sexually precocious Anne, was something quite notable, too.

Undoubtably cool film.

Intacto

Oldboy (2003) movie poster

(2001) dir. Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
viewed: 08/13/03

This clever Spanish film has an interesting premise. The characters of this film inhabit a subculture in which luck is traded or absorbed or stolen from individual to individual, and ultimately won and pocketed like some “soul”-like cash. In this sense, it functions as some sort of low-tech noirish science fiction, reckoning somewhat of other subcultural-themed films like Fight Club (1999) or Following (1998). The film is slickly produced and is quite entertaining.

Like many science fiction or films with any fantasy element, premises have to be something that even a relative non-believer can buy into. And while this film focuses on some literalization of the concept of luck, perhaps it still remains nearly philosophical enough to follow without analysis. Though, it must be said, under much scrutiny, the premises might start seeming silly or full of holes. The film doesn’t really leave much room for believingthat “luck” doesn’t exist and that the characters are potentially acting under some superstitious delusion. Even in more conventional concepts of “luck” that one encounters in daily life or conversation are probably considered by the majority of people as simply that, a conceptual construct, one that is imagined rather than real.

But to be honest, it feels a little nit-picky and cruel to critique this aspect of Intacto when in reality, it was a fun and clever film, and quite enjoyable. Let’s just say that if you did want to start picking into it, it might not take too much analysis to pare it down fast.

A Fistful of Dollars

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) movie poster

(1964) dir. Sergio Leone
viewed: 07/05/03

In preparation for watching The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly at the Castro Theater as part of our Monday Night Movie Club, we decided to watch the first two films of what is now referred to as Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name Trilogy”. I had, of course, seen this film before and really loved it, but it had been some time since I had seen it all the way through. It’s still an excellent film.

I am always amused by the fact that this film was essentially a period Western adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 period samurai film Yojimbo, which was an open adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel of political corruption and private detectives, Red Harvest. And even more amusing is the fact that Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing (1996) adapted the story back to the gangsters of the American 1930’s, forgoing the source material.

Seeing it again, I have to say, it’s still a great deal of fun, though the direction isn’t quite as over-the-top as I always imagine it to be (seems that impression really is latent from the finale rather from this initial installment). Though, it must be said, there are some awesome framings that always really appeal to me. I like the way that Leone frames a really intense close-up contrasted with an image in the background, i.e. a huge boot fills the bulk of the screen while the smaller part of the screen shows a figure down the street, reacting to the implied foreground giant.

Fun stuff.

Phone Booth

Phone Booth (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Joel Schumacher
viewed: 07/10/03

Produced from a screenplay by weird/cool indie filmmaker Larry Cohen, Phone Booth is a low-budget idea produced in big-budget, pseudo-“guerilla filmmaking” style by Joel Schumacher, one of my least liked mainstream directors, whose other bad films include Batman & Robin (1997) (the film that killed the Batman franchise) and 8MM (1999). Maybe if Cohen had directed this one himself on a genuine shoestring budget, it could have been pretty good. Sometimes the corny, obvious plot twists seem more palatable when you know that the film was really produced on the fly.

Worst shot is the opening shot, a cgi shot of a satellite beaming back to Earth a cell phone signal. The camera flies down from space into the phone and through all of the technology of the connections in a busy, overdone and expensive shot that really doesn’t need to be there. I think that there was also a reasonable ammount of handheld camera work, which has become synonymous with trying to get the edgy, street feel (faux “Indie” cinema) trying to recreate the atmosphere of the busy hubbub of Manhattan.

Ultimately, and this is a generous analogy, it’s like when a good, raw band goes into a big studio and gets too much overdubbing and extraneous production on their recording, stripping away the actual energy and vibe that makes them appealing. In this case, I don’t know how “good” the source material was, but the result really didn’t impress me.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) movie poster

(1966) dir. Sergio Leone
viewed: 07/07/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

I was on vacation for a while and had hopes of catching up on my little diary entries. Now, much later, I am afraid that I am not going to do these films the sort of justice that I would have, having come right off from seeing them.

This movie totally kicks ass! When the film ended, all of us in our party came out feeling like shouting “Fuck Yeah!” or something, so totally satisfying and exciting it was to see it on the big screen. I have to say that despite the fact that it seems like such a mainstream sort of choice to say this about, but I would definitely classify this film among perhaps my all-time top 10 favorite films.

Eli Wallach is utterly fantastic, carrying the whole film on his grizzly, comic anti-hero’s back. From the iconic music, to the campy inter-titles that announce the characters, to the climactic shoot-out in the amphitheater-like graveyard, this movie is hands-down awesome.

The film’s epic, picaresque narrative is set against a truly sweeping scope of a backdrop, the fallout and leftover doom from the end of the American Civil War, with maimed, lost soldiers wandering everywhere. It was only on reading about this film, just briefly before going to see it, that I realized that in essence it is a prequel to the other two films, most notably as when Clint Eastwood picks up the poncho near the end of the film that he so iconically wore in the first two. I think I had also been somewhat confused as the fact that Lee Van Cleef plays an altogether different character in this one, too. I think the first time I saw these, I didn’t see them nearly so close together as this time, having seen them all in a couple of nights.

I can’t say enough about it…but I have, so I will stop.