Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Unloved Lovely Laura Linney

Today's IMDb poll is an abomination. (click to enlarge)

Who are the fools that vote in this poll? There are SO MANY things wrong with it I barely know where to start. 2044 people are "not that familiar" with The Lovely Laura Linney's work? And this is the answer that's leading the poll? And her Love Actually performance (which is good, make no mistake, but hardly the best environment for her superior skills) is the only one challenging it? 854 "don't have an opinion here"? Driving Lessons- easily, oh so easily her worst performance- ABOVE her wonderful, stunning work in Jindabyne?! Are these people on some kind of mind-eroding drugs?

Oh, wait. That's right. Bush is president. It's back to my fantasies, then, where the entire room drops to its knees upon Laura's entrance and isn't allowed to stand until she says so.

Oh, and I want to see John Adams, but obviously I don't have HBO (or indeed a television here, OR a foot on American soil), so I can but hope that something that's probably too American to be picked up over here somehow is. OR that it's shit. But Laura doesn't deserve that. So I'll take option A, please.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ingmar Bergman frightens me.

Obviously I don't mean that in a literal sense- I don't see a picture of him and cower in fear. Perhaps more precisely I should say that Ingmar Bergman's films scare me. Excepting, maybe, the almost melodic and enrapturing beauty of Wild Strawberries (possibly my favourite Bergman film, at least up to this point), those films of his that I have thus far seen have dealt in the most abstractly terrifying realities of the human soul that it's often tempting, while watching them, to run screaming from the television or computer (or theatre if you're so lucky) and deny that they ever existed.

That is, by the way, not a criticism but the most deeply meant compliment, because Bergman, hardly the cheeriest of directors, manages to inject such bare truth into his works that watching them is literally like being confronted with the worst impulses of your own soul. This seems particularly true in the case of Cries and Whispers, so sharp and direct even through Bergman's familiarly abstract imagery that I think my mouth fell open in abject terror or disbelieving horror about ten times. So attuned is Bergman to Karin's (Ingrid Thulin) savage distanciation, Maria's (Liv Ullmann) conniving coquettry, Anna's (Kari Sylwan) sly derisory judgments, that you can barely move for wrenching observation and reflective lucidity. Restricted so firmly to this one country house it seems forceably bound to it, Bergman's close shooting style wraps us in a deep claustrophobia only increased by the sounds of the title and the constant, vivid use of the colour red. Add to this spellbinding performances from the actresses- watching Thulin cruelly, coldly enunciate every word at one point is transfixing, and Ullmann is just as superb, particularly in her subtle, complex facial expressions- and you have an experience that is painful, raw, delicate but entirely rewarding. Cries and Whispers is not an easy film to like, but it is easy to love, to hosanna, and, horrifying though it is, I think Bergman would see it as fitting that there seems to be some masochistic impulse within me that wants me to go back and drag myself through it again. A

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Have you ever wondered what I think of...

... every single film I've ever seen?

Well, wonder no more, my friends, for my companion blog, Victim's Movies By Year, has finally been updated all the way back to the 1910s, with a grading for every single film I've ever watched (barring kids' things I can't remember), as well as a "still unseen" listing for all years from 1930. All years have a home-made (and quite low-tech) header graphic.

And that's not all. In the processing are my own personal awards for the top six categories (Best Pic, Director, and the four acting categories) for all the years since 1995. At the moment you can check out 2005, 2004, 2003 and 2002. Gold, silver and bronze in each category are handily colour coded for the easiest possible perusal, and previous years will be appearing in due course.

But is there anything there that makes you appauled that I've not yet seen it? Anything that you think needs a fast-track to the top of my rental queue, because I just haven't lived until I've seen it? Tell me. And, as long as you don't offer too many suggestions, those mentioned will, indeed, be bumped to the top.

And you know what? That's not all that's been happening. On the sidebar back here at the main blog I've added my own Oscar statistics for those same six categories. This isn't to signify that I'm about to abandon all other films and go chasing Oscar- but then my viewing is still at the stage where "greatness" and Oscar are still aligning... for instance, who knew that Cries and Whispers was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director? I do, though, want to go chasing my favourite Oscar category, Best Actress (and, just in case anyone doesn't know, Nick Davis has recently published a spectacular section on that very category which is pretty much the best thing ever), and so I'll be trying to catch up on as many winners there as I can. Most, from Jessica Lange back to Jennifer Jones (I just can't bring myself to put The Great Ziegfeld on there...), have been added to my LoveFilm (pretty much the British equivalent of Netflix) account, and their cycle will start as soon as I'm done catching up with last year.

And the most recent film to add to all these things? The superlatives just aren't enough for F.W. Murnau's Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, which is most famous for being the only winner of the "Unique and Artistic Production" award at the very first Academy Awards, as well as one of three films that won Janet Gaynor the first ever Best Actress Oscar. (It also rather deservedly won Best Cinematography.) Whenever I ponder watching a silent film, I always pause, thinking that the experience will somehow be more difficult than any other film- but it hardly ever has been (we'll ignore Way Down East at this point), and Sunrise, perhaps, is even easier and more pleasurable to watch than almost every other film. It isn't a film overloaded with intertitles, instead choosing to tell its (admittedly quite simple- but then it is somewhat of a fable) story by visual poetry, by the subtle yet crystal clear physicality of its actors, and even by its soundtrack (it was one of the first to use Fox' Movietone sound-on-film system).

Two things surprised me while watching Sunrise: one, how good the unmentioned George O'Brien was as "The Man" (to Gaynor's "The Wife"- she's just as good, but then I'd already been told that); and two, how funny it proved to be. I was aware of Sunrise's credo as a moving visual and emotional experience- which indeed it proves to be- but the central act is light and almost frisky in its delight, the couple's reconciliation and joy felt through the imagery and jokes. Sunrise matches Murnau's striking visuality with an almost screwball sensibility and a delicate, fragile emotional core, providing unmitigated warmth, depth of feeling and redemption. This really is a masterpiece. A

Friday, March 07, 2008

My Dinner With... Jeanne Moreau

I've been tagged by Nathaniel over @ The Film Experience... I'd just like to thank him for providing me with such a panic-inducer of a meme. Everyone knows I'm no good at social interaction! Dinner equals disaster. I just know I'll trip and send those dishes flying...

1. Pick a single person past or present who works in the film industry who you'd like to have dinner with and tell us why you chose this person.
I've decided to make a date with Jeanne Moreau.

I wavered and pondered over who I could invite to this shindig. But I couldn't think of anyone who I could really hold an evening long conversation with... I'd either be too prone to slap them for their recent misbehaviour (that means you, Jodie... and you too, Uma!), or too entranced by them to say much except "uh-huh". And the idea of bringing back someone from the dead is too unnerving for words. But Jeanne, sex symbol she may have been, always had an aura of generousness to her, and a sense that her feet were the firmest on the ground in any given place. She's a legend, yes, but an approachable one, and an endlessly fascinating one. Hopefully, we'd get on like a house on fire.

This is also a way of capping my almost-complete university module on the French New Wave, during which we watched not only what is probably Jeanne's most famous film, Jules et Jim, but also her breakthrough, Louis Malle's L'Ascenseur pour l'echafaud.

2. Set the table for your dinner. What would you eat? Would it be in a home or at a restaurant? And what would you wear? Feel free to elaborate on the details.
I'm no chef, so we're definitely off to a restaurant. Jeanne has recently turned eighty so she can wear whatever she feels comfortable in... however, she deserves the best, so I'm wearing a spotless dinner jacket. I'll take the Eurostar over to Paris (where I assume she lives, or at least nearby) and we'll go to a quiet but classy restaurant, where Jeanne can order whatever she likes. I'll pay any bill for this legend.

3. List five thoughtful questions you would ask this person during dinner.
1. You are perhaps the only French actress who was a large, influencial force in the New Wave and was recognised independantly of- and in some cases was more famous than- the directors. Do you see yourself as an important creative force in the movement, or simply someone under the guidance of those who around you?

2. You headed the Cannes jury in 1995. What was the experience like? Did you feel comfortable in control, or was the experience more a communal one?

3. You recently starred in Francois Ozon's Time to Leave, playing Melvin Poupaud's grandmother. Is working with and encouraging young actors important to you? Do you see that you have anything useful to teach the next generation of performers?

4. With such international fame and sex-symbol status there must surely have been the opportunity to leave entirely for Hollywood. Did you ever consider it? And do you think you've maintained a satisfactory balance between projects over the years?

5. You've not stopped working even into your ninth decade. Do you think you'll ever stop, and does working in cinema still hold the same value for you?

4. When all is said and done, select six bloggers to pass this Meme along to. Link back to Lazy Eye Theatre, so that people know the mastermind behind this Meme.
I'm tagging J.D., Glenn, Cal, Jesse, Scott, and Catherine. Who may choose to ignore this as if they never even read it. (Ooh, burn...)

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

The Politics of (Filmic) Revenge: The Brave One and Kill Bill

- Note #1: This post is inspired by pure coincidence. My viewing of The Brave One happened to be just a few days before a double-bill of the two Kill Bill films for my course at university, and, as such, the idea seemed too obvious to pass up. This post contains spoilers for both The Brave One and Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2. -

- Note #2: This post is, I think, my first attempt at a serious, in-depth comparative study of films and their apparent viewpoints, and, as such, it may have oversights and glitches that I haven't caught. So please, treat it kindly but also feel free to challenge and constructively criticize. -

As is obvious to anyone who has seen them, both The Brave One and the Kill Bill films have one major thing in common: both concern a woman who is brutally attacked and then, upon waking from a coma, sets out to seek her revenge on those who attacked her. Naturally, the films take these ideas in different directions- The Bride (Uma Thurman), after all, is already a trained assassin, but it takes a lot of nervy build-up to the first time Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) pulls the trigger on the gun she illegally acquires in a (ludicrous) backstreet deal with a shady Asian figure. Moreover, The Brave One- somewhat bizarrely titled- retains the revenge aspect for its finale, instead taking Erica on a ride of vigilante justice- while Kill Bill, of course, overtly flaunts its fatal trajectory in your face, not only in its title but in The Bride's "Death List", on which names are heavily crossed out after the people themselves have likewise been erased.

The idea of the revenge film- not exactly a new one to cinema- is a shady area to enter. How can you ever really justify this violence, even if it is simply the central character(s) doing to others what those others did to them? Surely that makes them as low as those they kill, and any film endorsing this- as the revenge film must to some degree, to really have any point at all (unless we're talking some meta-philosophical arthouse film, which neither The Brave One or Kill Bill fits into in any way, shape or form)- morally reprehensible? Edward Gallafent (a professor at my university) makes a most important distinction in his book on Quentin Tarantino- to make this kind of narrative acceptable, the revenge must take place in a world not of our own, an extraordinary one. And this is where The Brave One and Kill Bill most clearly diverge.

Kill Bill is less reality than a hyper- reality, a world without any kind of "normal" policing force against these deadly assassins (the police who appear at the church early in Volume 1 are not only simple observers of the aftermath, but Earl McGraw (Michael Parks) is borrowed from friend-of-Tarantino Robert Roderiguez's 1996 film From Dusk Till Dawn- and he subsequently reppears in Tarantino and Roderiguez's Grindhouse), and one made up of cultural and pop-cultural references, whether they be from other film worlds (i.e. Lady Snowblood, the Dollars films), Tarantino's own back catalogue, or simply ideas (which may or may not be realistic) of different cultures (in Volume 1, mainly Japanese). In this world, a representational one, the Bride's unstoppable requirement for revenge is acceptable, because the people she slays, human though they are, exist in another world, one where violence is an accepted way of life. (Any intrusion into this, from Vernita Green's little girl to the comic figure of the female restauranteur, seems to be Tarantino's way of momentarily showing his audience how "normal" people would see this violence, whether through shrieking alarm or blank acceptance.) The way Tarantino presents the violence also seems to hold this up, whether through the gushing blood of the anime sequence (and the brief scene of Gogo (Chiaki Kuriyama) "penetrating" a guy at a bar) or through the comic sight of the Crazy 88 groaning in a bloody mess across the restaurant floor.

But The Brave One, in stark contrast, not only sets itself in a recognisable universe (New York), but constantly begs you to see it as reality, as something that is completely feasible. And this is where it fails, for, like Kill Bill, it wants you to see Erica Bain's journey of justice as justifiable. Sure, the people that Erica kills are all bad people- killers themselves, or sadistic (male) torturers and threateners- but the film couples this quest for realism with completely ludicrous (and clearly unintentionally so) set-ups. Practically the first time Erica enters a building after acquiring her gun, a crazed man enters and shoots the woman behind the counter. Erica just happens to walk past a pervert who has a drugged woman in the back seat of his car. This intriguing contrast of reality and the hyper-real comes to an interesting point- as Nathaniel noted in his astute review of The Brave One, "Kill Bill... had more ambiguous feeling in virtually every bloody scene. ... None of Erica Bane’s targets have so much as a hint of an interior life." Kill Bill's world may be hyper-real but its characters still feel human- the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad have histories, have scars, have done wrong and recognise the Bride's need for revenge (as Michael Madsen's Budd says, "That woman deserves her revenge... and we deserve to die."). The Brave One's murdered are faceless representations of violence that exist for no reason other than to be despised and quickly shot.

In contrast to Kill Bill's stylizations (which lessen in Volume 2, where more often we experience the brutality of the Bride's final stretches, whether on her side or her opponents- perhaps a reason why Volume 2 is less effective for this argument, although I do think that this is more because it focuses less on blood and more on dialogue), The Brave One's violence- generally shown to us in stark normal speed- is realistic for what I assume were good intentions but which are all the more reprehensible when we reach the film's ending. Having finally moved on from helpful vigilante killings, Erica finally gets a lead on those who attacked her (and killed her fiance), and, having killed two, she stands over the third, ready to shoot. Enter Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard), the police officer who has been puzzling over the mysterious vigilante and who has also formed a frienship with radio presenter Erica, but has arrived on the scene having realized that she is the vigilante and that she is now seeking to exact revenge. As expected, Mercer points his gun at Erica and tells her to give it to him. So far, so moral. But then The Brave One capitulates to something- whether it's the writers' weird morals or simply the star image of Jodie Foster- and there is an abrupt u-turn. Mercer hands his gun to Erica and says to shoot now, because at least it's now legal. This might be a acceptably downbeat twist if it made any sense, but Howard's character has been established as a morally upright officer, and to do his turnabout seems completely illogical with the confines of his character that have been established. And so, instead, it seems like a pathetic attempt to surprise, and, worse, a justification of Erica's killing spree. It's okay to lower yourself to these levels, because the law said it was okay.

You might say that Erica constantly seems to be assauged with guilt and deliberation over her actions throughout the film. (Well, she could have stopped.) But The Brave One offers no movement on these issues. She's been given a way out and she takes it, free and seemingly guiltness to live a life with her faithful dog finally at her side again. Is The Brave One, then, a deeply pessimistic comment on how violence is the only path, and how happiness is never reachable? To try and justify this movie would be to take this path, but the final shot shows you light, hope in visual form- literally, there is light at the end of the tunnel. And Erica has done nothing to deserve this light- rather, her killing has been justified, her way cleared, her conscience lifted. Sure, the Bride has gotten away with her killings too, as well as her daughter, but not only were there never any authority figures to serve as fatal contradictions here, the final image here is that of the Bride writhing on the bathroom floor, stuck between crying and laughing- her mission is over, she has got what she wants and more, but what to feel about this is a mystery- as she watches Bill die, an old man falling over in silence, Thurman's face is a mess of emotion: the Bride has recieved her revenge, finished her journey, but she has also killed the man she loved, the father of her child. The Bride serves as her own judge, recognizes the consequences of her actions, but now has to live her life for her child. Retribution may come back to her in turn ("... if you still feel raw about this, I'll be waiting."), and she knows it. But Erica is free, maybe not happy, but absolved of any guilt and retribution. The Bride is stuck on the floor of a motel bathroom, but Erica can walk freely through Central Park with her dog at her side.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Climbing Up A Falling Tree

The more I think about Margot at the Wedding the less I like it, and the less I think it has anything remotely useful to say. The Squid and the Whale seemed tart and astute, if a little single-minded in its bitterness, but Noah Baumbach's psychological schemas don't seem to have advanced- they still seem too cold in his judgments of these white middle-class, middle-aged troubled family members. As with Squid, though, the cast proves enormously helpful in drawing out different shadings of Baumbach's dry observations- Jack Black gives a sense of painful inadequacy to his sad-sack failure, while Jennifer Jason Leigh and Nicole Kidman seem surprisingly worn and lived-in as estranged sisters, applying a more pained, delicate approach to their duet than the sharp brittleness of the script asks for. But, while there are some amusing witticisms and sly moments of authentic awkwardness from the cast, Margot at the Wedding seems to go nowhere and take a painfully long while getting there, which seems all the more astonishing when you discover it's not enough an hour and a half long. Baumbach isn't interested, really, in any possible nicities of character- when Black's character is apologising he's turned into a farcical histrionic- which would be perfectly acceptable if he didn't ultimately ask us to try and care about them- but he does. As a well-acted, vicious and bitter portrayal of fucked-up, cruel and damaged people, Margot at the Wedding is all well and good, but nothing is offered up beyond their bickering arguments and a last-ditch attempt to provoke feeling, and you look back with almost the same bitterness that Jennifer Jason Leigh finally cracks and snarls at Nicole Kidman- you want to yell and scream and call it on everything that you didn't like but put up with because you thought it deserved the chance. C