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.

The Royal Tenenbaums

The Royal Tennenbaums (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Wes Anderson
viewed: Metreon, SF

I enjoyed The Royal Tennenbaums, though in retrospect, it was a little “precious.”

Rushmore, I thought was pretty brilliant. So, I anticipated that Tennenbaums would be quite good, too.

And it certainly is a film cut from a similar cloth. The narrative presentation and pacing ring a similar bell, while the characters are clearly the same sort of imperfect geniuses that amuse and create in this fantastic, Salinger-esque universe of Anderson’s. Gwynneth Paltrow’s character has the same sort of knack for impressive theatrical adaptation at a tender age as the lead character in the earlier film.

The film has a great visual style, at times, striking and slick, while at others it looks like a student film. It’s mise en scene bears a strong influence on its personality.

The narrative follows an entire extended family and is, in that sense, a classic ensemble picture, revolving around Gene Hackman’s lead as the “Royal Tennenbaum” himself. And the cast is good: Ben Stiller, Angelica Huston, Luke Wilson, Danny Glover, all put in good performances. The characters feel developed in that they all have elaborate “back stories” that we are told, often in detail, but they are so “presented” to us that there is almost a feeling of detachment toward them.

The film is genuinely funny at times, both situationally and visually. It’s another film that I expect that future viewings may well offer more fuller enjoyment and understanding.

Blow

Blow (2001) movie poster

dir. Ted Demme (2001)

This film, which turned out to be Ted Demme’s (1963-2002) last, Blow, proved to be a pretty decent mainstream Hollywood bio-pic. Its subject is George Jung, “the man who established the American cocaine market in the 1970’s”.

The film was not really anything overly special, but none too shabby, either.

Demme envisions Jung’s life as the classic American success story/tragedy, an innovative businessman who discovers a new market, has to buck the system to make his business flourish, and ultimately gets rich. Jung is a sympathetic character for Demme, despite the fact that he is claiming to have essentially ignited the drug trade into the massive “illegal” industry that it became. It’s a stark and interesting contrast with Traffic (2000), Hollywood’s big “drug” film from the previous year, which was much more centered on the “problems” of drugs. Blow pretty much glamorizes Jung and his lifestyle, particularly in its initial splash, and maybe Demme saves his harshest criticism of Jung for his fading lack of fashion sense as he enters the late 80’s and middle age.

Johnny Depp is good as Jung. As his empire unravels due to betrayals and arrests, Demme never casts a negative light on his actions or motivations. In fact, in his final drug bust, he is set up by former friends who ultimately sympathize with him, feeling guilty for stabbing him in the back. And his motivation for getting in on the final scheme is to get enough money together to take care of his daughter and start a new life. He is portrayed as a family man, almost all-American, not a criminal.

In fact, Jung’s relationship with his father is classic Hollywood stuff, boy and his dad, right out of the late fifties/early sixties (perhaps not ironically, the period in which the boyhood scenes flash back to). Ray Liotta plays Jung’s father, who never judges him for his choices. He claims not to understand Jung’s career, but admires his son’s success, due in part to his own failures to eke out a living for his family. Liotta’s character is highly sympathetic and thusly, his compassionate view of his son is shared with the audience.

It’s melodrama with a coke straw.

The film features an good performance by Paul Reubens as drug-dealing hair salon queen and a dull performance by Penelope Cruz as a Columbian trophy wife, who is humanized only after she has crashed and burned and morphed into a typical suburban housewife.

The film is fairly well-made and entertaining, but gains its most thought-provoking aspects from its ironic use of mainstream Hollywood narrative and style to idealize a person whose lifestyle is clearly counterposed to mainstream American ideals. In that sense, this film is almost radical and definitely partially subversive.

Interesting.

Bridget Jones’ Diary

Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Sharon Maguire

Recommended to me by a litany of people, I had unfortunately concocted some expectations here. Word of mouth is the best arbiter for me, something I more inherently trust. But this time, it didn’t add up. Eleanor liked it, though.

It was only half-bad. I mean, I thought that Renee Zellwegger was pretty good. And I thought that Hugh Grant made a more interesting bad guy, even though he was only half-bad.

It just wasn’t all that funny. And I think it was supposed to be.

There was this weird little Pride and Prejudice undertone, what with the male lead being called Darcy and all, but it was pretty half-assed, too.

for what it’s worth, most people I know that have seen it, liked it. Pretty well. Maybe I am the only one. Maybe I saw it on a night when my sense of humor was hard to please.

Who knows?

Brother

Brother (2000) movie poster

(2000) dir. Kitano Takeshi

I love Takeshi Kitano.

The man is a genius. He is a great screen presence, like a small, bemused, Japanese “Man With No Name,” a la Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti western film persona. He’s always on the verge of laughter or violence, yet he is almost always expressionless. One of those faces that it’s impossible not to project upon, yet impossible to comprehend.

As a director, I personally think that some of his films are brilliant, particularly Sonatine (1993), another film about yakuza who are taken out of their element. However, Sonatine‘s brilliance is not matched here, even though some similar ground is tread and like metaphors abound.

In Brother, Kitano’s character escapes from Japan, following a change in mafia family loyalty by his best friend. He winds up in L.A. with his half-brother who is a small time drug dealer on the fringe of the American mafia with his multi-cultural gang, of which, Omar Epps is a primary figure. Kitano winds up taking charge of thier operation and starts gunning for the top.

It’s certainly an area full of potential, the culture clash of the two strong forms of mafia is set against the personal culture clash between Kitano and the American culture, which tends to underestimate him.

The strongest moments occur during sequences in which Kitano and Epps are playing games with one another, Chinese checkers, simple dice games. The best moment occurs during a basketball game in which Kitano’s aide from Japan tries to play, but is not allowed to play.