So for whatever reasons, my weekly movies posts seem to have permanently morphed themselves into biweekly ones. I can’t promise this’ll change — I want to be writing more, but it doesn’t seem to be coming easily. I keep half-writing posts in my head, promising myself I’ll get them done when I get home from work, and then not actually doing it. It kind of defeats the purpose of having a blog if I make a big thing out of posting.
- Changeling (Clint Eastwood, 2008): Changeling definitely isn’t a great movie, but it is well-made and interesting. Eastwood does an exacting job of recreating 1920s Los Angeles, starting with a black-and-white image that dissolves to colour, and ending the same way, but this studied pastness doesn’t really seem to have a point. Other than that, it’s a good movie: it’s well-paced, the story is structured in a way that you want to find out what happens next, the performances are strong. Angelina Jolie has a few big Oscar-baity scenes, but mostly just has to radiate quiet strength and resolve, which she does quite well. The most surprising thing about Changeling to me was that Clinton Eastwood Jr. made an explicitly feminist movie. There’s a little boy that goes missing and a serial killer, but the crux of the drama is in how the man (the police) use a supposedly authoritative discourse (medicine, psychiatry in particular) to keep down the uppity women who cause them trouble. Oh, and the heroine plays a single mom who’s really successful in her job and completely impresses in a position usually occupied by a man. Even after the loss of her son, we see her thriving, having graduated to her own office at the phone company. It even passes the Bechdel test: in the sanitarium, Angeline Jolie talks to Amy Ryan (who plays a prostitute who’s in there because she complained about a cop who beat her up) about how unjust the system is, and how the man uses stereotypes about women being emotional to keep them down. It’s all a little on the nose, but it’s kind of nice to see such unambiguously feminist rhetoric in what’s otherwise a capable thriller/drama.
- Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006): I finally got caught up on all the big Oscar movies…from 2006. Heh, maybe next I’ll get Michael Clayton! Seriously, this was so good, but I had completely glossed over how gory it was supposed to be by the time zip1 mailed it to me. Imagine my surprise when all the fairytale creature our young heroine Ofelia encounters are totally horrifying. They’re not fairies! They’re bugs! Plus big ol’ no eyes! And that’s just the fantasy world. Who can forget the fascist captain getting his face cut open Joker style and then sewing it shut himself. Oh my god. I had sort sort of conflated this movie in my head with Spirit of the Beehive, which is similar in a lot of ways (and to which it has often been compared) — little girl with overactive imagination, Spanish civil war, countryside — but is a quiet, contemplative work that uses elements of fantasy to hide its political meaning from Franco’s censors. This movie — it’s not un-political (come on, you know me better than that), but it’s political in a different way; its use of history is kind of blunt and fantastical, with the fascists being almost perfectly evil, and the republicans, almost comically good. But, you know, it’s a movie about imagination, not about historical facts. It was ridiculously well-reviewed, and I was totally in awe of it the whole time I was watching it: Del Toro never has an off moment in terms of mise-en-scene or framing or effects, but I kind of have nothing left to say. It’s weird for me, I guess, having spent so much time watching Spanish films from around the transition, so seeing Spanish filmmakers who were there deal with the same kinds of issues, whereas Del Toro’s got enough distance (being as young as he is and being Mexican) that Spain’s past becomes myth.
- Synecdoche, NY (Charlie Kaufman, 2008): I don’t quite know what to say about this movie. I really loved it — well, I really admired it and found it fascinating and mostly enjoyed watching it. I’ve seen it compared to Ulysses a lot, which makes it sound pretentious and inpenetrable (maybe it is?), but it’s also the same kind of movie in spirit: bawdy, scatalogical, poetic, huge. Obviously Ulysses ends on a much more hopeful, afirmational note than Synecdoche, though (“…and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes”). Kaufman both reaches for and self-consciously mocks the ego necessary to reach for a work so expansive it’s able to sum up all of life somehow. Cotard’s project (a play about his whole life) eventually balloons totally out of his control, and Synecdoche, NY is always threatening to do the same to Kaufman. Eventually, Cotard cedes control of his project to someone else, a woman who quietly talks into his earpiece until he goes to sleep. The whole movie changes the minute Cotard steps away from the director’s chair, and we realize the whole thing’s been slanted from the beginning. And in a way the ending is hard to watch, now that you’ve lost Cotard as the “director.” As much as he’s unlikable and frankly unpleasant to look at, now that he’s fading away, you feel a bit impoverished. The whole thing still seems more a question than an answer.
- Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997): Meanwhile, Haneke’s answer to every question a viewer asks him is pretty much “Fuck you.” (I’m assuming people know the story because of the recent remake: basically, two weird boys in white torture this normal bourgeois family in their palatial lakehouse for no apparent reason). This movie’s amazing, I can’t even believe I waited this long to see it. Sure, it’s violent and nihilistic and deliberately alienating (in a Brechtian way — the villain straight-up addresses the viewer and at one point actually rewinds the movie so he can get a second chance, just when you think the family’s getting somewhere). But it’s viscerally affecting. You know exactly what you’re getting into when you hear (but don’t see, Haneke only shows like, the roof of their car and hands) this boring couple (one half of which is the late Ulrich Muhe, who’s probably best-known for the Oscar-winning The Lives of Others) playing “guess the classical music”. Partway through their conversation, this crazy-loud metal comes on, and you can still see their lips moving as it plays, way too loud, through the credits, for really too long. It’s so unsettling, and it only gets worse from there. You never really see anything, despite it being kind of a horror movie (it follows that same slasher-y calm-before-the-storm thing, where you get bored waiting for the bad stuff to start), but then it kind of asks you why you’re so interested in seeing violent things a lot. It came out in 1997, but in the era of Saw V (which I don’t plan on seeing, the first two were enough, thanks), it still feels very vital. Here’s that opening scene (dubbed in Italian, but the effect’s the same):
- Quantum of Solace (Marc Forster, 2008): Not in love with this, but better than the reviews led me to believe. I was kind of even mostly okay with James Bond having a relationship with a girl based around talking about their feelings. Lots of pretty and stylish and people getting shot, to the point that even M was like “Wow, James Bond is kind of a bad spy, he keeps killing people instead of figuring out what they’re up to!” I liked Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction quite a bit, but I don’t think he has much of an eye for action: the opening chase is between two black cars. I did like all Daniel Craig’s Tom Ford suits (especially the one he pulled out of some random opera waiter’s locker), the big Tosca set piece with all the conspirators meeting at an opera to plan the overthrow of the Bolivian government and duping the CIA, and the huge denouement action sequence set at Bolivia’s most explosive hotel.
- The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954): I never know what to say with Kurosawa. This one, it’s tough because the story is so slow-moving and so familiar (both because of its influence on the action genre in particular and because I’ve seen The Magnificent Seven) that you mostly wind up just admiring it. Like, there are those long, slightly off-kilter but still normal-looking shots, and you just kind look at the lovely compositions and the telephoto lens photography and it’s all very soothing and lovely, but it’s hard to imagine watching it with fresh eyes at this point. I kept retroactively comparing it with the Westerns that came later. It has a lot of the same structure, but the action, and how much it depends on the town finding the courage to stand up to the bandits, as opposed to the American version, where civilization can only be…civilization if it can keep the violence at arms’ length. In the Japanese version of basically the same story, I feel like it’s more about everyone having a role to play? I’m not trying to be gross about how “different” Japan is or whatever, it’s more that it’s interesting to see a story that I think of as quintessentially American play out in Feudal Japan and how that national mythology changes things.