Spider

Spider (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. David Cronenberg
viewed: 03/17/03 at Lumiere Theatre, SF, CA

David Cronenberg’s new film Spider reminded me a good deal of another film that I had seen a couple of years back, Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy (1997), so much so, that I began to wonder if they were both adapted from the same author. This turned out not to be the case. The Butcher Boy was adapted from a novel of the same name written by Patrick McCabe, and Spider was adpated from a novel by Patrick McGrath. In both cases, the novels were adapted for the screen by the original authors, though Neil Jordan shared a screenwriting credit on his film.

These items are more pure coincidence really. The parallels, if there really are any, are in the narrative’s plot lines. (I will warn you that I am getting into spoiler territory here, so if you don’t want to read the film’s plot twists, turn back while you still can.) The films linked in my mind by depicting the interior world of two mentally ill boys who end up becmoing murderers as their psychoses dominate their personalities.

In both movies, the world of the film is aligned very much with the mind of the protagonist, offering a something of a first-person perspective/interpretation while seeming initially as objective. Not explicitly “narrated” by the protagonists (there is no voice-over in either film, I believe), each film begins with a more naturalistic representation of the narrative, giving the viewer the impression that the world of the film is objective and believable. Eventually, though, the viewer is forced back to realize that the narratives have not been reliable, that at some point one is forced to recognize the delusional state of some of the content and that this confusion lies within the protangonists’ understanding of reality. This break, arguably, shifts the narrative back into a more traditional third-person omniscient perspective, seeing more than what is viewable by the protagonist, knowing more than is possible for the protagonist to know.

In Spider, the cracks in the believability of the narrative only start to show near the end, just before they are shattered in the climactic revelation at the end. It’s almost classically Freudian. Dennis “Spider” Clegg views a duality in his mother’s personality (depicted as almost a virgin/whore stereotype), which he envisions as an entirely different people. Only after succeeding in killing the “tart” does it become perfectly clear, to both “Spider” and the viewer, that both characters (each played by Miranda Richardson) are one and the same person. “Spider”‘s split is not of his own personality, but with his comprehension of the personality of his mother.

All in all, I thought that the film was pretty good, though a bit slow. I would definitely recommend Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy, though, which I thought was utterly amazing.

Talk to Her

Talk to Her (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Pedro Almodóvar

viewed: 02/28/03 at Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF, CA

I thought that this film was excellent. I have been totally stymied on trying to write about it. There is a lot of interesting stuff in it, particularly the way that care and devotion easily transposes into creepy obsession. The relationship of two men and their comatose female objects of desire. The fantastic, surreal silent film section really stood out. Talk to Her is pure Almodóvar, in the more mature, art house-friendly, Oscar-friendly stage of his career, but arguably among his best work. Well worth seeing.

Chicago

Chicago (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Rob Marshall
viewed: 03/05/03 at Loews Theatre at the Metreon, SF, CA

More fun than innovative or aesthetically pleasing, Chicago still struck me as reasonably high on entertainment, if not a particularly notable piece of “art.”

But what is “art” anyways, right? In this case, as in so many, it’s a mostly matter of opinion.

I wasn’t familiar with the original musical Chicago. Though I have somewhat of an affinity for musicals on celluloid, I haven’t seen much Theater and so am pretty uninformed about plays that have not been adapted for the screen. I understand, to some degree, that the handling of the musical numbers in the film version differ from the original stage productions in that they are envisioned as fantasies, and so staged outside of the narrative’s “world” largely. This is not a new convention in the least, and my guess is that in some ways it’s a way to perhaps make the pieces more “believeable” to a contemporary audience not as comfortable with the more typical traditions of musicals, like when suddenly an entire town bursts into a song and dance routine that magically they all know. Oddly, it’s just that surreality that appeals to me about a good musical.

I didn’t care for the general execution of the musical numbers in this film for the most part. They had a very “stage-y” quality to them, departed from the context of the general storyline, like fantastical “asides,” and very theatrical, almost like they were being performed on the Oscars stage. Largely, this was an overall aesthetic problem for me, and quite ironically, I thought that the songs themselves were very good. I also thought that the underlying story, with its eminent cynicism, and script itself were pretty good, too.

As for the performances, Catherine Zeta-Jones was excellent, all the way around. Queen Latifah’s one musical number was definitely the best single musical performance and she had some strong scenes, acting-wise. Renée Zellweger was okay, but seemed too skinny and waif-like a lot of the time. Richard Gere really shouldn’t be singing and dancing any more than I should, which is to say…at all.

My guess is that this film will top the Oscars this year, not because it is a great film (which it isn’t), but because it is entertaining. And despite the fact that the story is essentially an aptly cynical saga about media culture and fame, its buoyant, upbeat musical numbers give the film an almost escapist, “feel-good” sensation (the film literally depicts escapist fantasies in its flashiest moments), which contrasts with the other films up for top film this year. It’s been noted before that musicals were at their height of popularity during the Great Depression and WWII, and that it is easy to find such parallels in the current situation of our world. An interesting theory, though doubtful to imagine that the musical will ever regain its popularity as a form/genre in film, though it would be interesting to see.

Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams

Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Robert Rodriguez
viewed: 03/09/03

Robert Rodriguez’s campy, over-the-top, comical sensibilities seem to have found their perfect output in the Spy Kids franchise. Rodriguez has always imbued his films with a certain verve and light-heartedness, while playing with the conventions of genre, such as action/adventure or horror. Actually, I don’t know if one could characterize any of his films as having too much seriousness or pretention. In fact, that seems perfectly counterposed to his character as a writer and director.

In Spy Kids 2: Island of Lost Dreams, the conventions of multiple genres are employed, lampooned, and exploited. Essentially a “children’s” movie, something perhaps not so much a genre but as an stylistic application to various genres, the movie addresses itself to the spy film, but pays homage to other “classic” action/adventure films, including Jason and the Argonauts (1963) & Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Rodriguez tends to amp up certain motifs and conventions to outrageous extremes. In this sense, the events are not “grounded” in realistic depiction, but tend to expose the action sequences and sight gags for the entertaining eye candy that they are.

Rodriguez uses many well-known Latino and Spanish actors in all of his films, often as a pop cultural set of references as well as an aspect of character. In the Spy Kids films, the primary characters are either Latino or Spanish (I think perhaps the family is meant to be Mexican, though I am not sure if it’s specifically noted). I would suggest that this is a significant aspect of their depiction, though arguably one that doesn’t seem substantially explored outside of its general state of being.

True to his low-budget roots, Rodriguez led production design throughout the film, doing a great deal of the film in post-production with a heavy reliance on digital backgrounds and animation. I had read one comment that perhaps he relies on this too much,…which I would probably agree with. Overall, though, the film was a good deal of fun.

Russian Ark

Russian Ark (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Aleksandr Sokurov
viewed: 03/03/03 at Opera Plaza Cinemas, SF, CA

Russian Ark follows a surreal trip through time and the Hermitage museum in St. Petersberg, Russia, a dream-like meditation on Russia that documents the splendor of The Winter Palace. Narrated from a first-person perspective (the camera vantage tours the museum via steadicam), the tour also follows another displaced onlooker, the character of a 19th(?) century French marquis, played by Sergei Dontsov. The marquis critiques the museum and its objects, as well as the character of Russian culture. Numerous historical figures, spanning the four centuries of the museum’s existence, roam the galleries as well.

The narrator, who mumbles his broken thoughts, is never seen by the camera (the camera’s steady strolling gaze represents his own view). He is also never seen by most of the other characters save the Marquis, who also has a fluctuating invisibility to the events and people they are witnessing. They stroll quite like ghosts through the museum, which is filled with numerous other resurrected figures of history. There is little explication, as the intended viewer is perhaps thought to have a better grasp on Russian history than I do. Though it does seem that Sokurov envisions The Hermitage as a vessel (read: ark) to carry Russian culture and history through the centuries.

The film’s notoriety arises from its technical achievement (the film was shot in one unedited, flowing 96-minute take), a conceit that is employed at times to striking effect. The opening sequence, trailing a group of 19th(?) century revelers as the make their way into the Hermitage through back passages and narrow stairways, has a dizzying, dreamy sensibility. And at it’s best moments, the film feels much like an amusement park ride, one in which the viewer flows along a predestined track, drinking in all the spectacles but with no control over the event. That said, it is clearly not a “thrill” ride.

More a stream-of-consciousness essay than typical film narrative, Russian Ark slides between fantasy and document. Unfortunately, for one member of my party who attended this film, the stream of consciousness was not maintained…and he slept through the bulk of the film, even snoring briefly. The film is challenging in this sense, truly, which is too bad because I found it very interesting on the whole and have found myself thinking of it considerably since seeing it.

My son’s Russian day care caregiver, who didn’t like the film, told me that the translation was awful. I certainly felt that knowing more Russian/Soviet history would have helped considerably in comprehension, but I had to experience it with the faculties that I have, poor as they are. This lack of understanding probably added a lot to the induction of sleep for my companion and for me in the experience’s overall surreality.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Joel Zwick
viewed: 03/02/03

The story of this film’s success is probably far more interesting than the film itself, which is largely a pretty bland and tepid comedy, sweet-natured, but pretty weak. My mother and many other family members of her generation all loved it and had seen it months ago, just as its hype was building up steam. Yet I had also heard from sources with whom my perspective may be more closely aligned that the film really wasn’t anything special. Some have noted its essentially “sit-com” quality and so its re-birth as just that seems utterly appropriate.

Somewhere along the development of the stereotypes that star/screenwriter Nia Vardalos cultivates about her family and Greco-American culture one might find some interesting areas of discourse. Not necessarily Vardalos’ intentional discourse, but the sense of creating an image of an immigrant subculture for popular culture to easily devour and regurgitate in typical means. The television show will probably carry this along to some end.

That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if Vardalos wins an Oscar for her script, even though it’s pretty weak stuff in my opinion. That is just how those things go.

The Rules of Attraction

The Rules of Attraction (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Roger Avary
viewed: 02/25/03

Published in 1987, Bret Easton Ellis’ novel The Rules of Attraction addressed itself to its contemporary world, in particular to the luridly hedonistic “reality” that lie behind the facade of the priveleged lives at an ivy league university of the time. In apadting the book, Roger Avary opted to not make a period film, but to rather set the film’s events in the “present” of the film’s production, assuming, I guess, that the world depicted had not changed dramatically in the ensuing 15 or so years. However, Avary scores the film with a good deal of music from the book’s time period (lots of late-80’s pop music), perhaps a minor nod to the book’s original setting. The result has a weird effect, seeming creating a time period somewhere between the book’s contemporary world and the one contemporaneous with film’s production.

Avary uses the soundtrack to comment on the action of the film, punctuating numerous scenes with snippets of lyrics and refrains that often make an ironic statement on the situation of the characters and events. In one scene, Paul, who is in love with Sean, is shown in split screen, on one side fantasizing (masturbating, actually) while on the other side the projection of his fantasy is played out. Since there is no dialogue occuring, the music floods the soundtrack with Love and Rockets’ “So Alive,” panting “I’m alive, oh, oh, so alive.” Though Paul’s fantasy is alive, Sean is passed out on the floor right in front of him, the real experience is not alive at all. This might not be the best example of what I am talking about, but it’s the one that comes to mind.

The film’s attitude towards its characters is a mixture of contempt, sympathy, and humor. The characters all suffer from an inability to connect emotionally with one another, though in many ways, they are a classic love triangle, longing emotionally for one another. To different extents, they seem to have some self-awareness, but are so addled with sex, drugs, and their unfulfilled desires that they only wind up humiliated and demoralized. Avary uses a sort of “re-wind” on their deepest lows that they hit, playing a scene backwards and in slow motion, as well as from a slightly different perspective, suggesting a sense of regret and that things could have happened differently, if…

Roger Avary has quickly become a point of trivia in having shared Quentin Tarantino’s co-screenwriting Oscar for Pulp Fiction (1994), which is pretty much his claim to fame. His only other feature film, 1994’s dire Killing Zoe, was awful. The Rules of Attraction is considerably better, but still not that great of a film, I would say. But I did find it more tolerable than I was expecting, which I think is due to the fact that the film maintains a sense of humor in its lurid depictions.

Signs

Signs (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 02/21/03

When this film was released theatrically, Newsweek magazine ran a cover story touting M. Night Shyamalan as the “new Spielberg” or something. From what I read, this would clearly be his ambition, to make box office-friendly genre films very slickly and imbue them with auteur-like meanings and character. His first feature film that I saw, 1999’s The Sixth Sense, clearly made it seem as though he had the right stuff for making a run at his goal. But both Unbreakable (2000) and now Signs show his formulae and bag of tricks as increasingly worn and transparent.

Signs wasn’t marketed well, in my mind. The crop circles thing is not inherently spooky to me, but rather something that has been pretty much clearly evidenced as hoaxes and are almost downright silly. Really, Signs is an alien invasion film, focused on the effect such a thing has on a single, isolated family in a small town. From that angle, it’s a pretty good pitch, though in execution it lands wide of the mark.

In Signs, Shyamalan becomes more heavyhanded with his subtext, positing the protagonist as an ex-minister who has forsaken his faith after his wife’s death. Faith and redemption are his themes, which, I would guess any child could see. In this sense, maybe he is truly evolving to a more Spielbergian style, employing blatant dewy-eyed emotion, though I would be willing to guess that he hasn’t such a cynical attitude about his idol.

There are some seriously stupid plot holes that really yank all credibility away from this film. This will sound insipid, but here goes (don’t read for spoiler stuff). For the aliens, who invade the skies over the entire Earth and have seemingly come to take over, water is like acid. Simple plain ordinary water. For a planet that is like two-thirds underwater and one in which rain frequently falls on those parts not already underwater, this seems like a pretty dangerous endeavor. But more strikingly, these aliens, who have managed to fly in from who-know-where and trample corn stalks, cannot open a locked door even though they can break in a window.

I kept thinking of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996), in which the aliens were defeated by the yodeling of Slim Whitman. This is just the sort of 1950’s camp scenarios that Burton’s film was lampooning. The solution to the alien problem is much more simple than anyone would have thought!

At times, Shyamalan frames shots well and occasionally pulls off certain scenes quite cleverly and aesthetically. But in this film, I could almost imagine his storyboards as I was watching the film, see him thinking this out rather than experiencing this. This could be called “When Formulae Go Bad”.

My step-mother thought that this was one of the worst films that she had ever seen and frequently laughed out loud at dramatic moments. I wouldn’t go as far as placing it in any pantheon of badness, but I could easily see the humor in the emoted performances of Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. I could almost see this film become a camp-classic.

Another reading that this film should inherently receive, being released almost a year after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, is one that asks the question of what the aliens represent. This film has a truly all-American setting, with even a baseball player and baseball bat as key hero and weapon, respectively. Aliens have often been an almost literal representation, in a sense, that they represent “others” who are “alien” to the primary way of life represented.

The state of alert and boarding of windows in the film clearly echoed with the contemporary “real” fear and preparations recommended by the Homeland Security Chief, Tom Ridge, last week. In the case of Signs, one might posit that the duct tape does work, since the aliens (with their poison gas, no less) couldn’t break into the family’s stronghold. How political of a commentary is this film? I would hazard a guess, with its anticipated happy ending and rather simple resolution, that if it is making a political statement, it is one that suggests that everything will be okay. But, to quote the bard, George Michael, “We gotta have faith.” Preferably non-denominational?

Quai des Orfèvres

Quai des Orfèvres (1947) movie poster

(1947) dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot
viewed: 02/18/03 at Castro Theater, SF, CA

I really don’t take advantage of some of the real perks of living in San Francisco as much as I should. We have such fantastic repertory cinemas that play such cool and interesting movies that I should never have to find myself standing in some megaplex theater debating which of the latest Hollywood crap to see. It’s a crying shame. And it’s a shame that I feel this most poignently when I do actually make my way to the likes of the Red Vic, the Roxie, or jewel of the city’s cinemas, the Castro Theater. Its well-noted beauty and excellent slate of films really should entice me more frequently. It makes me want to alter my viewing habits entirely.

I hadn’t actually heard of Quai des Orfèvres before reading about it in the paper last week when the film debuted at the Castro. It sounded cool, especially since I have liked director Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955) and had also been interested in seeing his 1953 film The Wages of Fear. The paper described it roughly as a sort of French noir film, shot on location in Paris only shortly after the end of WWII.

The world of the film is indeed shadowy and suspicious and is filmed with a polish not unlike its contemporary Hollywood B-fare of the time. Its style and look sort of accentuate the ribald and explicit nature of the language of the film, something one might expect in pre-code Hollywood perhaps, but certainly not in a post-war film. I don’t know how much of a misnomer it is to dub this film as noir.

It features an interesting, world-weary Inspector character, played by Louis Jouvet, back from his tour of duty in Africa with an adoptive son (which seems potentially quite metaphorical) and an colorful portrait of the operations of the the French police. There is a lot of interesting stuff here: the wonderful burlesque theater backdrop (with innumerable amusing background goings-on), the lesbian photographer/family friend (and her portrayal, which was both more explicit and sympathetic than one might expect from the time period), and the nighttime shots of the wet Paris streets, only a couple of years after the occupation (as noted by the SF Chronicle, as I mentioned above). The world of the film, which is replete with such interesting details, seems to address itself to the nature of post-war France through this tale of folks who are presumably not living on the right side of the tracks, so to speak.

The bigger picture seems less concrete to me than many of the smaller details. It’s one of those kind of things where I think that I will remember images and things from this film, down the road, while I might forget most aspects of the narrative itself. That is pure supposition on my part, of course.

The Hours

The Hours (2002) movie poster

(2002) dir. Stephen Daldry
viewed: 02/22/03 at Park Cinemas, Paso Robles, CA

Chick flick par excellence…or maybe Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood for intellectuals.

I just wanted to make a few stupid jokes before really addressing this film, which is actually quite good. And while the preceding comments have a somewhat derrogatory flavor, they are not utterly inaccurate if one views them less subjectively. The Hours is essentially a literary melodrama, focused on three connected stories about three primary female leads. The film pivots around Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, to which each of the storylines has some connection to, including the “main” story that features Woolf writing the novel. The literary thread also harkens back to the novel (by Michael Cunningham) from which this film was adapted (by noted playwright David Hare).

Each sequence features depression, suicide, and a kiss between two women. And, in essence, these are the roots of some of the film’s themes. Though the film doesn’t explicitly explore the roots of Woolf’s mental illness, there is a sense of repression tied to her confinement as well as an aspect of repression and depression regarding her feelings toward her sister whom she passionately kisses in a desperate, clandestine way. Not knowing enough history about Woolf, I can only go on what the film offers in terms of narrative here, and so, though there is implication of something more than traditionally sisterly love, it’s never foregrounded and explained. One can easily imagine that an incestuous relationship could be a site of repressed feeling and potential sadness, though the film does not imply this as the sole impetus behind her general depression and ultimate suicide.

There is a sense of evolution in the stories in this regard. In the storyline set in the 1950’s Julianne Moore plays a woman not at all at ease with her life as a homemaker and mother. In a sudden, empathetic kiss to her family friend, a potential glimpse of the reality that she is repressing comes suddenly to light. Though her friend ignores the action as though it hadn’t happened, it seems to spark some realization for Moore, and she is driven to suicidal thoughts. Moore’s character ultimately overcomes her situation by running from it and starting anew. She survives, but presumably at some cost, alienating her children, friends, and family, but not dying. The viewer can only speculate on the life she is implied to have lived.

The contemporary sequence, which features Meryl Streep as a possible embodiment of character of Mrs. Dalloway, shows a further evolution of similar themes. For Streep’s character, the repression and sadness are embodied in the figure of the dying poet (played by Ed Harris), her one true love. Comparatively, her repression is almost inverted in that her long term open relationship is with a woman and her repressed longing and love is for a man. Streep’s character, though tormented by her poet friend’s long illness and depression, is ultimately never pushed to the brink of suicide. Comparatively, her problems are managed.

I am not totally sure of what the film was intended to express entirely. It is interestingly structured and seems quite intelligently written. Nicole Kidman is excellent, as is Meryl Streep. I am sure that under further analysis, something coherent could be extrapolated, though I won’t do that here.