Capsule Reviews for the Week of April 3 2010

Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009) REWATCH

I don’t see myself getting tired of this film anytime soon. The beginning remains somewhat shakey, the establishing scenes typically adolescent and obvious. Then again, the world the main character inhabits is typically adolescent and naive… his world is completely un-fazed and shallow, there are no challenges to his actual emotional state. The film takes off after the credits, as the music brings us to a new world, and though the flashing lights and shots of rides of an amusement park ought to inspire notalgic feelings of childhood and games of youth, they usher in a distinct sense of melancholia. My own experience in life probably mirrors, on a shallow surface level, that of Jesse Eisenberg’s… but I only wish I still had his naive sense of go-getism and his severe lack of emotional awareness. I still maintain that Kirsten Stewart’s Em is one of the most painfully realistic portraits of unhappiness I’ve seen in a film about youth. Not even in the obvious sense of her stating her regrets or her “outbursts”. It is in those aching moments of silence that you truly feel the pain and sadness she is holding back. I wonder why the characters around her fail to see that, as they are only able to project their desires onto her… only adding more pressure into her life. The single shot of her driving the car while the orbs of light fly by might be my favourite of last year, and the best summation of any moment of unhappiness I’ve ever felt in my life. Though this film only ranks as my fifth favourite of this year, in any year with a weaker output it could have easily been my favourite.

Daria: Is it College Yet? (Karen Disher, 2002)

Though a favourite television show of my early adolescence, it’s been years since I’ve so much as seen an episode of Daria. I decided on a whim to rent the movie, because I was yearning for a return to youth… and I have to say, I was impressed. The film is hardly exceptional, and though I am far removed from the events of the show, it feels like an extended episode more than anything else. I have a distinct sense that a lot of the humour and relationship woes would have been far better expressed in an episodic formula. It was fun though to realize how much of the show I remember, and how much of an impact it had on me… the satire on high school life, and the upper middle class is incredibly on the nose, intensely intelligent without packing the obvious punches. It is never too mean either, something I can’t help appreciating, because misanthropy is only too easy.

Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005)

Despite the fact that much of this film sailed well over my head, it’s vivacity and craft have me well convinced that it is exceptional… it reminds me of my old adage (I am after all wise and weathered) that one does not have to understand something to be fully able to love and appreciate it. The film relies on mysteries, the unsettling secrets and deceptions that haunt our lives. The small, the big and the unexplained. What is hidden does not always seem harmful, it is often just a misplacement of information that makes our own lives easier. The film is punctuated by news stories, televisions and social/cultural tensions, but they lie in the background. Is the film raising issue with our own reception and relationship with the world at large? The self-deceptions that allow us to live comfortable lives while others suffer? Perhaps. The film boldly presents it’s final moments with the same detachment as the videos and cultural allusions, it is puzzling, even disturbing as two characters who have no connection are suddenly linked, and yet we have no voice, no explanation… just an understanding that a relationship exists where we never expected, and it is an amiable one. The punctuated violence of a particular scene, is one of the most brutal I’ve seen on film… perhaps because it is so unexpected. Then again, Haneke has never been one to pull any soft punches when it comes to the horror of violent death.

2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004)

Simply put, one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think it was possible for me to love any Wong Kar-Wai film more than Chungking Express or In the Mood for Love, but I was wrong. I still need time to digest it fully, but at this given moment, I am in complete awe… the images, and the emotions are awe-inspiring in the profoundity of their superficiality. Has emptiness ever felt so potent, so real? The shifting from one world to the next is wonderful, seamless as the blending of art and reality take place. What world takes precedence? Neither, because none is more real than the next. It’s just so…. gahh… no words folks. One thing… Translation issue maybe, or philosophical (my film had French subs) when he says roughly, “Nothing changes in 2046”. Does he mean, that world remains the same, or it is the same world as the one we live in? I mean, is it the material world/environment that remains unchanging, effectively, or our inner desires/wants/feelings? I feel as though this may be painfully obvious regardless, but I was once told there were no stupid questions…

Les Bonnes Femmes (Claude Chabrol, 1960)

Though only one Chabrol has ever wowed me (no, it’s not this one), his themes have consistently fascinated me. The placement of the women within society is critical to every film of his I’ve seen; he is consistently fascinated with exploring female relationships with one another and the world at large. In this film in particular, he examines the treatment of women in relation to men, especially the almost persistent violence leveled at his female characters. Nearly all of it is dismissed as games, or playful, though the stakes are eventually raised. Chabrol never paints his women as weak, or inherent victims of their sex, but rather paints a rather grim portrait of a status obsessed patriarchal society that allows inequality to flourish. Nearly all his characters are frankly, unsympathetic and unlikeable, but that is actually part of the film’s charm. Chabrol’s empathy is not exclusive, and the characters themselves are clearly unhappy… the titles “les bonnes femmes”, ironically translated as “the good-time girls” reflects the character’s dissatisfaction with their tumultuous commercial lives, but there is unfortunately little other channel. I would not recommend this as a first entry into Chabrol’s work, I think it benefits greatly from an expectation of what his oeuvre entails. Him being dubbed the French Hitchcock is not without merit, and is almost essential for the suspense and tension created in the film’s latter half. The film was actually kinda eye opening for me, despite the fact I don’t find it thoroughly engaging… I suppose in a sense it’s a moral tale, though I don’t think it condemns the life style of the characters, rather it mourns the dangers and disillusionments that it inspires, yearning for change and a more hopeful tomorrow.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009)

Not sure quite what to make of this film, and I am sure this is the normal reaction. Generally though, I am surprised at how ambivalent I am towards it, because as weird as it is, it is never truly compelling or engrossing. That isn’t to say it is without interest, the expectation of strangeness is enough to keep the film moving and to keep my interest… but overall, I doubt it’s ability to leave any kind of lasting impression. I have to wonder what Herzog is trying to say, the constant presence of animals, the too good to be true ending, the subversion of every trapping of the crime genre… in many ways, it defies any and all attempts to be pinned down, a quality I can’t help half-admiring. I sorta wish the film was more consistent, or maybe just that I liked it more. It’s strange, my favourite parts of the film aside from the random animal POV and the ending, were the scenes involving Xzibit, who is somehow incredibly endearing and likeable. I am really at a loss as to what to say here… I would like to see Herzog do more films like this?

The Kid Stays in the Picture (Nannett Burstein & Brett Morgen, 2002)

Today was the last class of my film aesthetics course, which happened to be my very favourite university course with my very favourite university professor. I have a feeling my time at university will be all downhill from here, and I mourn the future of my education. A man of peculiar taste, my professor had three filmic passions; horror, documentary and 1970s ensemble cast disaster films. Combining, more or less, all three in our final class he picked out a truly innovative documentary called The Kid Stays in the Picture. Using audio from an audio-autobiography, still images, television and film clips, the filmmakers paste together the life of one of Hollywood’s most infamous producers, Robert Evans. His career began as a child actor, and with two major roles in Hollywood films during the latter part of the 1950s. Realizing that he had little to no talent at acting, Evans decided that he wanted to become a producer, and that’s what he did. Evans has had his hand in some of the best film’s of a generation (Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather and Chinatown among others), and is credited personally with saving Paramount studios. The film is intensely dynamic, visually the photographs and montage are brought to life through a wide variety of techniques that transform familiar still images into a medium more akin to animation. The film is consistently engaging, it is intensely personal and one-sided, but most of that is the charm. This is truly one of the best documentary films I’ve seen, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in doc cinema or Hollywood history.

Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)

A film that reveals the true criminality of the government policy makers, Hearts and Minds takes no official political stance… at least not in the strictest sense of blind political allegiances. This is only appropriate for a film that reveals the deceptions of five consecutive “commanders in chief”. Hearts and Minds may be the purest anti-war film I’ve ever seen, one that not only succeeds to reveal the value of human life, but examines the political and economic costs of the Vietnam war in particular. Even taking into account the extreme situation of the Vietnam conflict, the film successfully paints the painful and essentially disgusting cost of a violent war-prone culture. If Noah Chomsky argued in the mid-90s of a conspiracy of a culture of fear, a conspiracy of a culture of war seems all the more probable. Hearts and Minds is all the more relevant in our contemporary age as oversees conflict has been forever changed, and yet consistently repeated. The mistakes in this world are clear, even from a purely political a-human perspective. The misunderstanding and misdirection of the “enemies” cultural values is essentially a mistake. Though in the short term, it helps dehumanize the opposing army, making fighting easier, if the conflict is not speedy, it will cause a very unhappy gap between the invader/opposer and the people involved. The misunderstanding will cause a rift that will often create a bitterness that will only extend the conflict. The film is at it’s best painting the true horrors of war. Not only the irrational violence involved, but the detachment the American public and experience had in comparison. This is probably the most telling aspect of modern warfare, as North Americans in particular involved in international conflicts, are no longer even affected by acts of rationing, possibilities of air raids and home grown attacks. This detachment is presented in the perpetuating of military values, and things kinda come full circle… the film ends on a note asking what have we learned? The film presents the thesis that, even on an individual level, not much has changed… if anything at all. It is easier to lie, to deceive, but it is therefore easier to continue engaging in these kind of destructive conflicts. The film consistently presents it’s narrative in terms of misdirection, not only in direction, but in stylistic presentation. It’s truly an engaging and emotionally powerful filmic style, and as manipulative as it may be, it really is not a stretch of any imagination to paint this conflict as anything less than essentially destructive and inhuman. At heart, this is a film about the cost of capitalist pursuits… the costs are not only high, but entirely misguided.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)

A paranoid drug induced cross section of American consumer culture. What is paranoid about kitsch? The fact that kitsch is God, and God is essentially a distilled and misleading package of the American dream. What is worse? We celebrate, engage and participate in this market amidst real world conflicts. It’s a veil, and in a sense, the drug induced frenzy that the protanogists inhabit is one that allows to see beyond it. Drugs are not a means of escape, but a means of seeing the world as it really is… at least from a perspective of it permitting the true absurdity of our existence and world to emerge. I wouldn’t necessarily call this film a thesis on drug use, but rather the depiction of a volatile paranoid state that has been filtered through the perspective of a truly visionary journalist. His vision of American life skirts any romanticism, and despite the absurd anarchy of his world, the fact that he’s a crazy gun wielding crazy person (crazy needs to be emphasized) his vision of freedom is strangely poetic. Does Gilliam’s film succeed? I’m not sure, there isn’t enough fear… the paranoia that these characters fall into, as absurd as it may be, as colourful as Thompson may make it, is still genuine earth shattering fear… as it very well should be. There is not enough horror in this comedy! I don’t think Gilliam’s film is entirely bad, I actually like it quite a bit. I just think it is entirely wasteful in terms of exploring and presenting the text. It is far too one dimensional, it is only in the words, and Depp’s performance that the nuance, irony and politics of the situation… I am just unconvinced that the filmmaking supports any of the writing, it is simply a superficial interpretation… sure there are visual hints and games, but it never quite fits together in a meaningful way. The only scene that really and truly comes close to what I’m really looking for (not consistently, but intermittently) is the scene at the diner… which is actually genuinely upsetting and somehow, real. There is nothing necessarily wrong with it, it’s just a missed opportunity. The only shame is, a society of Hunter S. Thompson’s is a failed civilization. Then again, we could probably do worse… we are probably doing worse… I think? I really do not know. I’m not sure I want to know. Well, maybe a little… I will say, I’m surprised how this film somehow avoids being entirely misanthropic. It’s certainly not the opposite of it, but it doesn’t feel hateful in the least, fearful maybe, but not really hateful.

4 responses to “Capsule Reviews for the Week of April 3 2010

  1. I think you point to what has never worked for me in Fear & Loathing. The parts never quite coalesce into a workable whole. But I also wonder if this is not partially the fault of the source? For me, the novel unravels in the last quarter or so, though I think the themes are more clearly portrayed. I seem to like it less than most people. The film is not misanthropic because Gilliam is not really a misanthrope.

  2. Number of great things in this post for me.

    “…one does not have to understand something to be fully able to love and appreciate it.”
    There is no way on Earth I could agree with you more and I may have this tattooed on me somewhere.

    I am very enthused by your take on 2046, as I also loved ChungKing Express, and would love to feel that magic again.

    FWIW, I really loved Fear and Loathing, but I think a great deal of the fear and paranoia is in the minds of the characters, whereas the loathing is external. Having ridden that frayed and precipitous edge of drug-induced madness a good bit in my younger days, I related a great deal to both the dialogue and situations and their presentation by Gilliam. The number of times I grinned in frightened recognition during that movie…
    It’s fun to watch it from the outside now, scary as hell back then.

    Anyway, great stuff as always.

  3. Les Bonnes Femmes is such a curious piece of work: like verite slice-of-life until it turns . . . I’ll never forget my reaction to that long-shot where that couple is “making love” until you realize their position is a little odd . . . .

    The other thing that’s stayed with me is the very end, which somehow I found eerily blissful, in an ironic, almost Lynchian way, with the girl dancing and the shots moving in and out from the disco ball (??–but am I hallucinating a different ending?). Maybe it was that, as I was watching it, I was imagining how one could film an ending *like* it– this sort of contended dancefloor bliss-out this character is having while the world (or film) around her is full of mordancy and evil. I suppose that’s what I *felt* Chabrol was trying to communicate– but this may be a completely off misreading. I’ve only seen the film once.

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