Friday, July 28, 2006

Strange fruit

Ever imagine a sex scene between classic British actress Helen Mirren and Cuba Gooding Jr? How about a romantic coupling between Mysterious Skin's Joseph Gordon-Levitt with Phat Girlz' Mo'Nique? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then perhaps you could comprehend the perplexing logic which functions in producer Lee Daniel's directorial debut, Shadowboxer. Riding on the shock-value, yet critically successful coat-tails of Daniel's co-produced grimfests Monster's Ball and The Woodsman (you can find my review of the latter here), Shadowboxer strives to achieve a similar level of disquieting gloom. But here, random would seem to be the over-riding goal. Just from the opening credits, a laundry list of notable names causes one to snicker because of their seemingly arbitrary assembly. Helen Mirren, Cuba Gooding Jr., Macy Gray, Mo'Nique, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Stephen Dorff... Costumes by Vivienne Westwood!I've joked already that the whole thing sounding like a game of casting Yatzee - and I haven't even gotten to the plot yet.

Helen Mirren and Cube Gooding Jr. are a duo of assassins. While on assignment, they discover that the woman whom they are supposed to be snuffing is not only 9 months pregnant but inducing labor at that very moment. Mirren, who is slowly dying of cancer, has one of those trite "life - death" moments and believes that God has put her in this moment for a purpose. So, instead of shooting her in the head, she delivers the child and takes the two into hiding. Enter Gordon-Levitt and Mo'Nique (playing a character named Precious) as a doctor and nurse team(yes, you are reading correctly). Of course, Stephen Dorff(who has a gruesomely gratuitous be-condom'd full frontal fuck shot) is the mother's husband and has a nack for nasty murders. Convinced that she is dead, her moves on to her best friend (a debilitatingly drunk Macy Gray). That's the first half, at least. Then, as you may have surmised, the film becomes an idyllic, watching baby grow in a secluded country house movie.

Not a single moment of traditional logic plays itself out in Shadowboxer. Neither does the film create a world in which its bizarre moments make sense. In one scene, a drunk Macy Gray asks the bereft and haggard tranny sitting next to her in an otherwise upscale bar if she wants a drink. 'What is this to' up tranny doing here?' one might wonder. A dramatic draft causes Mirren's kimono to billow in one of the few scenes where we see the pain caused by her cancer (I've never seen a healthier terminal cancer patient - nor one who smoked more cigarettes). Trouble is, she's indoors. 'Where, pray tell, is this interior gale?' Every black character has a substance abuse problem, save Gooding Jr. who is, instead, a masochist. Everyone seems to light their cigarettes whenever the new-born is brought into the room. Rats race Mo'Nique in Gordon-Levitt's doctor's office. You get the idea.

Now, because of all of this absurdity, Shadowboxer is actually a bit of a pleasure to behold. Oh, it's bad alright, and it looses precious steam when Mirren parts ways with the cast, but as a bizarre amalgam of Lifetime Women's movie and TNT style thriller it's rather priceless. The poor decision to theatrically distribute the film will not prove economically fruitful. This is one of those films which may (and I stress may) develop some sort of cult appreciation on DVD. As an almost self-fulfilling act, one scene finds a character watching Susan Hayward and her mobile co-star belt out "I'll plant my own tree" from Valley of the Dolls. The odd mish mash casting proves more desperate here than awkward as it was in Monster's Ball and The Woodsmen. Obviously someone has a bunch of industry ins, but I'm not sure that means they should necessarily use them. Save this one for the last in a alcohol addled marathon evening, but do see it. It's perplexingly sensational.

Thursday, July 27, 2006


After missing countless revival screenings and allowing sufficient dust to accumulate on the "must see" list, I finally rented The Night Of The Hunter. It's kind of inadvertently been Robert Mitchum week at my house. First, for the sake of von Sternberg, I watched him romantically play off of Jane Russell in Macao and, for Nicholas Ray, I saw him sauce it up with Susan Hayward in The Lusty Men. Of course here, he is decidedly less friendly. As a creepy killer preacher with Love and Hate tattooed on his fingers, Robert Mitchum seems as flawlessly at home as he does camping it up with Russell. In fact, all of the performances in The Night of the Hunter are relatively seamless - even Lillian Gish! I know!

Performances aside, I think the real deal here is the positively immaculate look of the film. Every single second of the Hunter is beautifully composed. Shot on a lavish UA sound stage, every moment leaks glorious artificiality, magnificently arranged light spilling over every board and fake brook. To heighten the beautifully ersatz facade, real creatures of nature (aside from the child actors, of course) are posited among the plasticine shrubbery. Frogs croaks and foxes bark in trees so idyllic they can only be fake. It's the sort of heightened serenity which can be found in the glorious films of the fifties.

Before the melodramatics gave way to the (narratively) grander, more theatrical showmanship of the sixties, performances, particularly those depicting small town life, were wooden and what we would not call meta - self-acknowledging. Performances aided to ease the reading of the film (which unveiled itself with more austere blatancy than our tricky narratives do now). Those films were not trying to pull the wool over your eyes. They played into the fact that their morality tales were rather simple to decipher. This lead to a far greater forfeit of personal reservation. One got involved with these movies, similar to certain persuasive contemporary tactics, but in a far more passionate way.

Straying from conventional narrative structure (as the more daring works of the era did) was a more shocking thing then than it is now. And Hunter is both startlingly different and alarmingly familiar. The narrative track ruptures mid-way through as the film diverges in a very different direction than you may have initially anticipated. But, when you look past the shocking midpoint action, the formula is rather reminiscent of a typically structured film the era. The film follows a progression of a typical three act structure in an alarmingly disturbing way.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

About Face

Charlotte Rampling is one of those regal actresses whom, however evil her character or - in those odd instances - autopilot her acting, one may merely sit back and explore her magnificently sculptural mug. She is one of the few remaining denizens of class in a world of Nicole Richies. Never shying from tempestuous roles (in fact, at times it would seem she favors those which make her average, like in The Swimming Pool or horribly degraded, The Night Porter), Rampling's newest offering, Vers Le Sud (Heading South) casts her as a British emigrant/control freak of a professor who, during her lengthy summer months, vacations at an exotic and idyllic resort town in Haiti. Rampling, the haven's self-proclaimed queen bee, is one in a group of regulars who have their pick of the local native boys. It's sexual sightseeing they're after, though the regular balance of things is upset by the arrival of Brenda (Karen Young, herself a facsimile of Rampling). It seems, a few years back, she and her husband took the 15 year old Legba (Ménothy Cesar) under their wing. Then, one unsuspecting night, Brenda yielded to her burning passion of the child and took him on a secluded beach. Now she has returned to reunite with the boy.

Though terrifically critical (at times), director Laurent Cantent (Time Out) allows the viewer to understand the womens' intent. He humanizes them in a way which allows more sympathy than one might expect to find in a story about an impoverished island where wealthy and sexually voracious women have their way with the powerless, penniless men who inhabit it. Vers Le Sud serves as a wonderful document of orientalization and of the internal struggle between personal conduct and private passions(a theme similarly explored in Lars Von Trier's Manderlay). In a conversation with Brenda, who is initially hesitant to partake in the sexual tourism, Ellen (Rampling) explains what differentiates these men to those in Harlem. They are barechested savages. Her explanation lacks sympathy or censorship. This is what these women were raised to understand as truth; this is how the black man has been hitherto represented in white civilizations. And as women of culture, women who know better, their identification of these men as savages takes them to a younger, safer time. But also, and of far greater importance, they comprehend the regression of their gaze, and this violation of respectable social codes excites them. Brenda could never cum before her Haitian endeavors. Ellen finds all Bostonians dull and trivial. This is true passion - under the sun, in the crystal blue waters, white on black. Taboo.

There's a terrific scene, perhaps the film's best, where Brenda finally gives way to her lusty instincts. A band is playing at an outdoor dancehall and the rhythm becomes more intense. Brenda, lost in the moment, not to mention the arms of Legba, cuts loose and begins to writhe and throb, emulating (in her mind) Josephine Baker, or some similar pop culture figure - i.e. all that she pretends to know about Black culture. The primarily black crowd stops and stares cautiously, curiously at the woman whose tourism has gone one step too far. She may visit, but she can never be.

Vers Le Sud has its remarkably poignant moments, but peppering the film, and in some cases, canceling out the good, some hopelessly trite moves lead to a very heavy handed final act. In a scene which could have come straight out of Crash (albeit, with a far better cinematographer), Legba sits in a shanty's kitchen and looks at the life-worn face of his loving mother who dotes on and chastises him for his shenanigans. Of course, Legba has been saving all of his stud-money for her. It's a bit too simple of a scene for a film which establishes great density in its other climates.

Rampling leaps into her role with a feral gusto while Young leaves a bit to be desired. The physical acting is all there, but her speach is hopelessly theatrical, recalling the weaker moments of Lili Taylor. It's a far better film than either of Cantent's previous ventures and a rather fantastic indictment of culture robbing. But for god's sake, does every black man have to be the purest, nicest angel known to man? I mean, after Crash, I lost all of the remainder of my white guilt. The simpler bits here merely drove the nail in the coffin.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Dark Shadows

Above, Ozon(L) and Melville Poupaud on the set of Le Temps Qui Reste.

There's a lot to be said about the cinema of Francois Ozon. His seemingly bipolar array of tastes, from viscous to camp to (almost)neorealist to back again have caused an enticing and varied expectation which arrives with each new film. 8 Women, perhaps his most commercially successful film, offered an unparalleled extreme in postmodern melodrama, which, a few years later, functioned in direct contrast to the starkly realistic film structured around a set theorem: an ill-fated relationship told in in five reverse order sequences: 5x2. Because of his earlier, more tempestuous works(Sitcom, Criminal Lovers and the Fassbinder penned Water Drops on Burning Rocks), he was considered France's enfant terrible. Even his more mundane works avoid pure verite by their almost subconscious acknowledgement of the director's Camp tactics and melodramatic tendencies.

That being said, Ozon's recent works have proven, at least to this eye, lackluster at best. Though commercially successful, The Swimming Pool proved too clever for its own good, and most of the director's signature spunk was absent from the aforementioned 5x2. That his forthcoming offering, Le Temps Qui Reste (literally The Time that Remains but bewilderingly mistranslated as Time to Leave) recommences a dance with death previously meditated on in Ozon's magnificent Sous le Sable (Under The Sand) is a step in the right direction. Where Sable starred the statuesque Charlotte Rampling, in a slightly autobiographic act, Le Temps Qui Reste focuses on a startlingly beautiful and successful homosexual, not too far from Ozon's own age. Portrayed by Melville Poupaud, Romain is diagnosed with terminal cancer. The film follows the brief remainder of Romain's life, how he chooses to cope with his disease and in whom to look for comfort.

Yet Roman is not your typical, sentimental subject. He's quite a bastard, in truth. His vanity and stubbornness prevent him from connecting to his immediate family and young lover. He confides in his grandmother (cine diety Jeanne Moreau) because, "we are both close to death." And Ozon is at no loss to return the favor, Romain's suffering is obviously self-inflicted - of this we are perpetually reminded. He clings to the glorified memories of a simpler childhood from which he incapable of maturing.

And like the husband's reappearance in Sous Le Sable, this idealized childhood takes on great metaphoric import. Images of the young, rambunctious Romain haunt the screen - even before we are treated to images of the adult Romain. And memory, too, functions as a ghost, reemerging at the film's more somber moments to complicate the way in which Romain approaches (or denies) the fleeting opportunities for connection with others. You begin, quite quickly, to understand that no moment which remains of Romain's short life will endow the importance as those which have already passed. The camera lingers mere inches from its present day subjects (blues and greys) and seldom allows for the distance (freedom) of these nostalgic shots - all golden glowing and spaciously choreographed. The most glorious moment of the film, an amorous shot of Romain and Sascha, windblown and smiling against a clear blue sky, is immediately preceeded by a haunting journey into the lowest fuck den of a Parisian gay bar - more a Dante depth than an architectural one. Memory is never what actually happened but instead glorified in how we recall it - and darker times only brighten those memories held most dear.

Though there are points when the film becomes a tad too maudlin for its own good(which is aided by a soaring classical score which I both adored and am tremendously suspect of), by and large, it is genuine and controlled. The tendency which Ozon has to mingle the more typical Genre moments (saying goodbye to a family member) with the more privatized ones (vomiting up a lunch which was painstakingly consumed) is ultimately dynamic, and yet, one wonders how much more potent of a tale it would have been to infuse just a touch more melodrama to the proceedings. It's there already but in this achingly morose tale, it would seem either a little less or a little more was necessary to truly make it blossom(and here I am certainly not musing on the level of melodrama which met 8 Women).

Cinematically speaking, Le Temps Qui Reste is both a step forward and back for Ozon. Significantly more mature than his previous works, it is the youthful beastly malevolence which leaves a shadow here, one which I as a viewer miss greatly. In past films, Ozon's presumptuousness brought something to the table. It was endeering. Embracing a more A grade cinema aesthetic, a grain which his earlier films more worked against, Ozon has accomplished a more digestible work of cinema. That the provocation usually ascribed to the filmmaker is absent might by excused by the subject, yet there is an air of daring that seems to be on the back burner for this one. Don't get me wrong, Le Temps Qui Reste is a good film. It is also undeniably a film by Francois Ozon. Yet it is neither a great film, nor is it stand-alone within the canon of this auteur. But I would lose sleep if I did not highly recommend it.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Happiness in Slavery

I missed Manderlay during its initial theatrical run. Relegated like a leper to a quite distant and conservative section of Los Angeles and limited to a single screening time of 11:00 am, it would seem that the film was on self-imposed exile. My concern was simple: was this indicative of the quality or the content of the film? American film critics ravaged Manderlay, but then Dogville, which I consider to be quite an exceptional film, was met with a similarly frigid reception. I suppose that's what happens when you make a trilogy criticizing America and then expect an impartial reception. A good critic should separate themselves from their national fervency, but a little bit of pride can be a deadly thing.

As it turns out, Manderlay's exile was indicative of both its quality and its content. Following Grace's flight from the township of Dogville at her father's side, the gangster caravan makes a momentary pit stop at the township of Manderlay where Grace discovers a plantation which has ignored the abolition of slavery for more than 70 years. Disastrously lacking in its predecessor's cinematically familiar, Noir-ish narrative drive, the first half of Manderlay is a jumbled dirge of establishing sequences drained of any sort of causality. The flow is lethargic at best and all the obviousness of the plot points promise a lengthy and punishing viewing experience.

But then, about halfway through, the film kicks in, and though I'm not convinced that it makes up for the beginning, Von Trier allows the theoretical investigations which slightly flavored the opening half to dominate the narrative. Grace's teachings of democracy come back to haunt her in frighteningly mortal ways. Her politically correct tendencies are hillariously frustrated by her uncouth sexual longings. This is, in fact, where the film finally takes off. As Grace walks about the yard, deep in thought, she finds herself at the bath house. Nude, black men shower and exhibit their sensualized bodies. Grace finds herself caught between her teachings and her longing. And eventually she forfeits principals for the more carnal lessons of life.

Von Trier, increasingly short on subtlety, makes his thoughts completely evident without ever truly stating his claims. Grace never says, "Fuck me you black stud," and yet her face says little else when her eyes fall upon Timothy, a "proudy nigger." In the end, the film's strength lies in the inevitable defeat of all of the liberal intentions Grace strives for. It's a beautiful slap in the face of all things which considered themselves "liberal," exposing the hypocritical piety of those who pause and say, in a slightly hushed voice, "african american" when they were about to say black. And near the film's close, when Grace reads aloud from "Man's Law," the document which has kept all of the slaves of Manderlay subjugated these many years, we are treated to a painfully familiar sounding treaty. It's a wonderful moment - one which caused me to applaud with surprise. I suppose my resonse could be interpreted as a symptom of waiting, but then that's what Von Trier's cinema is all about.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Lovin' It!

I just couldn't let this one slip me by without any acknowledgement...

Smoldering Catholic Love!

I almost always gloss over Criterion titles as part of my phobia of A List "Pure" cinema. It's reactionary, I know. But more often than not, if they release a film of interest it is a greatly established offering from a particular filmmaker. (regard the BRD trilogy by Fassbinder, for instance - the safest bet, but certainly not the best) Every once in a great while, they surprise me. Their release of Fat Girl was a treat. Their Sirk films are true gems. And last night, my understanding of the world, as I knew it, was shattered by Black Narcissus! Black Narcissus is, for those who have not already had the pleasure, an erotic Nun thriller from the forties! Yes, you read correctly. Deborah Kerr is Sister Clodagh, a young nun who leads a group of sisters to start a convent nestled in the Himalayan mountains.

Oh the Exotic Himalayas! Not to mention those dark skinned savages who inhabit them! Remember, the film was made in the latter end of a decade whose escapist genre was ruled by Maria Montez. Exotic was our fantastic. Racism ran rampant, as every non-Aryan race could fit into the category of "Not Us." Techincolor was not naturalistic but saturated, lurid and tempestuous. Red burned with the flame of every desire in the world. Just like our nuns! Poor Sister Clodagh. I've never seen nuns so given to temptation! (I imagine there is nun porn, but this seems so much more thrilling!)

From the get go, the film enthralls in the same spectacular way as the Montez movies yet carries a more brooding austerity than Montez's frivolity. It would seem that an attempt to make serious (or at least infuse a little purpose into) the vacation epics was realized only in part, as the lusty melodrama which the film becomes denies any true interpretation of the insane events that the film would seriously document. Instead it's all bursting reds and infectious - imagine if Ken Russell made The Devils in the forties without any serious text on which to validate it. Now, paint every shot like a Caspar David Friedrich, teetering on the ledge of some immeasurable chasm. You kind of get the idea. Now get the DVD.

French Tart

Recently released as a double DVD by the Criterion Collection, A Nos Amours came new to me. I had seen director Maurice Pialat's Lou Lou during an Isabelle Huppert marathon (one of many), and thought little of it. His style is rather reticent of the more languid side of French cinema. That is not to say dull, just slow. And I must admit, I rented this one because the disc included an interview with writer, director, theorist Catherine Breillat, whose cinematic endeavors (including Fat Girl, Romance, and Anatomy of Hell) have sparked controversy and accumulated a rather limited, yet adamant following of viewers(this critic certainly included). In the short interview, Breillat explains that she learned everything she knew about filmmaking from the fatherly and explosive Pialat. That this is noticeable from the first minute, I find it rather succinct in saying that Pialat's film is like a Breillat film, had Breillat possessed compassion for her subjects.

For Pialat adores Sandrine Bonnaire. Of that we have no doubt. He knows what a tempestuous little shit she is, yet, however slight it may become, we never cease to sympathize with her. In her first leading role, Bonnaire is a headstrong tart, guided (as it is in the film) by the hand of her fatherly director. It is this admirations which separates Bonnaire's Suzanne from resembling the lead of any Breillat film. She may pose and pout for the camera, and to this we accredit perhaps 45% to acting, but that gaze with which we admire her, understand her is wise well beyond her years. We can feel her stubborn youth colliding with Pialat's experience, and this is A Nos Amours great thrill. That is not to discredit Breillat's maturity, her films are merely more interested in provocation than Pialat's. Moments of violent sobriety interrupt the (essential) monotony of her amorous adventures. It is a film which allows for the quieter moments to take the place of more sensational ones, and it is this restraint that eventually imbues the film with a quiet confidence that transcends your typical coming of age movie.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Yet again proving what they say about shellfish...

Through the haze of freshly squeezed Strawberry-Lemon-Lime vodka cocktails (hey, it's summer), Cote D'Azur (or if you're French, Crustacés et coquillages which literally translates to Shellfish and Seashells) proved the perfect accompany piece to a sweltering hot lazy afternoon. Afterall, this is a French vacation sex romp which, however much you may expect from the French in terms of serious ("Pure") cinema, they seem to also frequently deliver with an admirable ease. As it hit cinemas under the moniker of "gay," I was not unjustly suspicious. Imagine my surprise to find this charming little gem.

Sensually assured Beatrix (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi from Ozon's 5X2 and Le Temps Qui Reste), her rather stifled husband and their two, quite adolescent children spend a summer at his dead grandmother's summer house on thMediterraneanan. The son, Charly, an ambiguously sexual enfant sauvage with a gay best friend, spends his time abusing himself in the shower. The daughter, Laura, is so busy fucking her biker boyfriend that she literally disappears half way through the film. The parents think Charly is gay, and really, so do we. He's not, however, and his meanderings in the dark cruising zones (following his ami) unearth a family secret (of course!) which turns the whole family upside down - though, surprisingly, not in a bad way.

Directed by the same duo which brought us The Adventures of Felix and My Life on Ice, Cote D'Azur is a casually assured piece of filmmaking, more fun than anything else. The writing is tight and witty. Hillariously humane moments like Beatrix's pot-adled confessed adoration of airplanes induce surprising fits of laughter. That the whole thing seldom rises above romp, and therefore never forces itself to deal with great consequence is a certainly a plus in my mind. I mean, this is a movie whose concept of realism includes musical numbers. Now, having our nation's cinematic roots in the musical, one wonders why so few American pictures break out into song and dance. It would surely have made Crash a little more bearable.

Cote D'Azur comes greatly recommended from this critic. It's smart and sassy. And the closer you can get to my method of viewing - freshly squeezed alcoholic beverage, sweltering heat, fan on high - the better! I couldn't picture the film any other way.