Thursday, November 30, 2006

Week in Movies Part 1

This week long cinema-going extravaganza began with a cheapy screening of Casino Royale which I'm none-too-sure I can deliver a biased judgment of, but then the film isn't so much a film, proper, but a feature-length justification of a very over-hyped, risque decision. The decision, to cast Daniel Craig as James Bond. The verdict, absolute success. In a very similar way as last year's insanely successful Batman Begins (the casting was not that brave, folks), Royale is all about the gritty beginning of that which we already know. 'How'd we get here?' is a question America would seem to be asking itself a lot lately - or perhaps its the last stitch effort to pretend like we've still got a few original ideas. Whatever the case, director Martin Campbell unleashes a fiercely efficient amalgam of Besson-style body action (see District B-13) and your typical James Bond stop the fuel truck with the bomb before it collides with the unveiling of the world's largest airliner stunts. They fuse with the aid of Craig's debonair smirks and cunning. His quiet moments of card playing are just as thrilling as those of big explosions. That was the point of the casting and it comes off really well. But really, this film is meant for one to just gaze upon every part of Craig with insane admiration. And that's something I'm completely willing to do.

With my gluttonous action fare fulfilled, I moved right along to its antithesis - the dialogue driven, why-relationships-are-doomed-to-failure picture. Jeff Lipsky's sophomore picture, Flannel Pajamas is just awful. Seldom do I let loose so clearly and adamantly when it comes to this sort of film, but from the first moments of Flannel Pajamas awkward as ass opening scene, you can sense nothing good will come of this endeavor. Lipsky's snappy dialogue never actually resembles human conversation, instead favoring the "colorful" brand of intellectualism you would hear in a personal monologues delivered by an aspiring would-be Woody Allen, nervous outside of some audition room. At one point, the lead protagonist's brother ends his life. "He was watching Everybody Loves Raymond and he shot himself. I guess he couldn't understand why everybody love Raymond." Unfortunately, this potentially hilarious line is delivered for existential purposes. Instead, it merely found my companion and I roaring in the aisles.

As the film progresses, some poignant observations are made at the intricacies of relationships, but without any understanding or compassion towards the impetus of the relationship, the viewer can do little with these matured glimmers of realism. This was obviously a story that Lipsky thought necessary to tell, but really, at two very long hours, editing and an appropriately distancing gestation period would have been key to pulling off this potentially interesting project. God knows it's been done before, but, to quote some sage whom I cannot recall, assholes are like snowflakes - there's no two alike. Just, if you're fresh off the failed-relationship wagon, allow yourself some time for retrospection before you make me relive your foibles. I've my own to deal with, thank you very much.

And speaking of failed relationships, a new Mexican Queer art film, El Cielo Dividido (Broken Sky) purports that love is always destined to ill-fated missed connections and wrong moves which haunt your for the remainder of your existence - which is ultimately what the two-and-a-half-hour film feels like. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for really long films. Warhol, I'm there. Betty Blue, sign me up! But Broken Sky's fatal brand of languid turgitude and cinematographic wizardry kills any sort of essential beauty the film achieves (and it certainly does that, in quietly fleeting moments). So intent is the film on its melodramatic self-importance that our scrumptious youths are swallowed by the immense weight of their trivial experiences. Of course, on some level, first and all-consuming love is the greatest thing in the world. But there's a sense that these two young lads will never overcome the relationship which ended as briskly as it began. Trudging about their apartments in a depressive haze, their demeanor is enough to make The Smiths sound like Kylie Minogue.

The film's main flaw, however, is its cinematographic schtick: camera locates figure and within the same shot, pans to find said figure in another location. The magic of cinema. This magic defeats itself after we endure it 50 or so times, though. It ceases to hold any metaphoric significance and instead starts to read like a wink from a supremely chuffed filmmaker. Which is really too bad. It's nice that somewhere, someone is making Queer film outside of the self loathing status-quo. I was glad to have supported this film as I sat through the insipid preview for Eating Out: Sloppy Seconds . At least Broken Sky was artfully made. Too bad it wasn't good.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Carte Noir

So, I think it could be indisputably claimed that David Lynch is an odd product of America. His films have never really done well in the Unites States, and yet is one of our most renowned auteurs. His films have always considered the line between narrative Hollywood cinema and experimental film. Some might deem him a Surrealist, but Surrealism was a movement. For that moniker, Lynch is 70 years too late. And I'm none too sure he would agree with that claim to begin with. Last night I attended the AFI fest Centerpiece Screening of his latest offering Inland Empire with equal measure of hope and caution.

Before I begin discussing the film, for those of you who do not know, Lynch runs his own subscription only website, Those who pay their dues may then have access to a plethora of miscellany which Lynch generously heaps onto the well designed site. This may come in the form of a Festival video diary. There is apparently a daily forecast and blog. There is also original material which Lynch airs on the site. For the past few years, I have taken notice of a few particular broadcasts: Rabbits, a sitcom featuring lifesize talking rabbits voiced by Mulholland Drive alumns Naomi Watts, Laura Elena Harring with Scott Coffey, a short featuring Jordan Ladd in a room which never seemed to materialize into anything. Both were shot on mini DV. One must consider the initial reasoning for such a transferal of media being dictated not only by economic restraints, but by a consideration of quality. No matter how high of bandwidth you have, you will never get film quality streams off of a website. When Lynch announced that he would be shooting his next feature on DV, I wondered how much of these prior endeavors would work their way into this new narrative.

It's all there, for better or worse. There are moments when watching Inland Empire when it would seem a freshman had picked up a video camera and decided to do his best Lynch. Is this association due to the fact that we are watching positively shoddy video transfers emulate the majestic filmic images typical to Lynchian cinema, and therefore victim to our medium bias? Or perhaps because the picture is a whopping three hours and, for the first time ever, Lynch was allowed to throw in everything and the kitchen sink. Fortunately, he reemerges, and we recall just why Lynch is such a maestro. Though, ultimately, my qualm with the picture is his refusal to balance that dance he does so beautifully.

In a typical film by David Lynch, we have our cohesive narrative. It's seldom overtly complicated. Boy meets girl. Girl in trouble. That sort of thing. Between this simplistic narrative, we are treated to a descent into whatever peculiar world is percolating in Lynch's mind, knowing full well that, however mentally bruised or shaken, we will rejoin the cogent, in a simpler world where we may (in vain, perhaps) attempt to make sense of this strangeness. The film becomes a balance between a traditional film structure and a more free form one. This is what makes Blue Velvet a masterpiece; the painfully straight narrative meets its bizarre and violent consequence in a balanced sway of narrative approach. In Inland Empire, Lynch eventually foregoes the typical story (actress cast in potentially curse film) to indulge in the revelry which he has so long wished to serve as whole. It cannot however, and the attempt here to follow (not logically, mind you - I'm no fool to non-narrative cinema) the film's flow is near impossible - not because it confuses, but after a certain point, without any sort of figure with which to anchor what has previously been established as our base (the actress) anything is possible, therefore nothing means anything.

I won't attempt to discuss plot here. Let's just say there's the aforementioned one, something involving Polish prostitutes, a displaced woman in the Inland Empire (perhaps?) and, as Lynch so eloquently put it when asked what this film was to be about, "a woman in trouble." A whole slew of Lynch regulars will keep the Lyncheads happy. I know I certainly chuckled when the first recognizable face was that of Miss Grace Zabriskie (a.k.a. Laura Palmer's plaintive mother), who's even kookier than usual. Laura Dern, Harry Dean Stanton, Laura Elena Harring (sort of), Justin Theroux, (a deliciously trashy) Diane Ladd, William H. Macy, (an unseen) Naomi Watts and an unrecognizable Nastassjia Kinski round out the rest of the varied cast.

Watching (and at times, enduring) the film, I began to wonder whether Lynch has made a crossover with his internet endeavors. I kept considering how the film would play out as a youtube serial. A of sorts. It fluctuates so violently from one moment to the next that chaptering, like that of a book, seems crucial (of course, Lynch famously hates DVD chapters). A break, a deserved respite. Which is not to say the it does not eventually reward. The moment that we are given some semblance of sturdy ground, the past 2 hours swirl in our head like an odd liquor. Things, even here are not as they seem, but with his requisite breathy-voiced angelic song which closes the film, we are treated to a profound realization. 'Goddamnit,' I thought. 'It does make sense. It's about an hour too long, but it makes sense.'

Monday, November 06, 2006

A Lite Simmer

To say that Almodovar had been on a roll is to put things quite mildly. His past few films (what I jokingly call Talk To My Mother About Her Bad Education) have been true masterpieces. All About My Mother earned him the Oscar everyone thought he would never receive. Talk To Her found an insanely great audience as far as foreign film distribution is concerned. Bad Education, perhaps the sleeper of the three, was a formidably multi-faceted tale of betrayals. With drawn suspense, the public has awaited Volver (literally, To Return) with great expectations, not merely because it heralds Almodovar's return to Penelope Cruz (in his hands, we last saw her as All About My Mother's HIV positive, pregnant nun), but his reunion with Carmen Maura, star of his brilliant Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. After taking home a couple trophies at the Cannes film festival (one for the ensemble cast of vivacious actresses), the film finally opened last week in a limited run.

Though Volver is irrefutably Almodovar, it is a far quieter world than that which we have come to expect from him. Soaring melodramatics and lush tableau vivants are still intact, but it is as though someone has fiddled with the volume switch, placing a greater importance on the speakers, rather than that noise which emanates from them. Cruz is rather lovely as the buoyant Raimunda, whose daughter kills her incestuous father in the first act. In her slight, tenement apartment (so much more humble than Celia Roth's palatial apartment in All About My Mother - and she was unemployed) Cruz must clean up the gore with her mundanely feminine housekeeping implements. A grocery store mop sluiced about in murky red water, squeezed dry and brought back to the bloodied kitchen tile with blue be-gloved hands. The humor of the parallel is not lost on Almodovar, yet neither is the poignancy of the moment. It is at once comedic, sensitive, macabre, heartbreaking and redemptive.

Yet a bit of steam has been let loose from the film which makes it hard to relate to as one might have Almodovar's prior films. It is certainly an approach which I could see working to produce a more muted and focused narrative, but that is not entirely the case. At its lesser moments, the film comes off as cold and overt in a way that causes an empathetic disjunct. We cannot mourn with Raimunda because we are never truly allowed access to her. When her mother Irene "returns" from the grave, the specter is less spectacularly spectral and yet not human enough. Though Almodovar does have the capacity to slighten his grandiose tendencies, his decision to do so does not seem complete. Sadly, the end result is rather lopsided. There are fantastic things about Volver. There are magical moments of sobering meditation - on objects, people and relationships. It ultimately proves to be quite good, but does not achieve the greatness of his prior works. It is no great surprise that Volver was the film for which the retrospective Viva Pedro festival was organized. It certainly contains a slew of his signature tropes, so much so that prior knowledge of his canon are key to gaining the greatest amount of appreciation, here. And if we learned anything from the character Lulu in All About My Mother, a great dependence is also a great detriment.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Some thoughts on the effectiveness of Kylie Minogue

Why do I love Kylie Minogue so? I do adore pop music to a degree. There's a variety of it which repulses me. I think Americans truly have plenty to learn about pop. I find the Britney Spears, Kelly Clarksons and Madonnas, even, in serious need of some teachings. I love the Pet Shop Boys, yet their approach towards pop is a greatly intellectual one and it could be said that their musical stylings are more derisive of Russian classical compositions than the last pop single. But Kylie?

A good friend of mine described her music as "perfectly mediocre" then continued to liken it to thanksgiving cranberry sauce as it escapes from the can - perfectly intact, still ribbed with lines of its origin. I quite like that, but it is something far more thorough. So thorough that the brilliant writer Kevin Killian is said to be writting a 2,000 page theoretical biography of the pop songstress. It is something I look forward to greatly, but my desire to understand my desire is rather pressing and I cannot wait until publication to come to terms with my poptastic appreciation.

P J Harvey joked in an interview that Kylie is not a person. I think that this is perhaps the greatest thing working for miss Minogue. Last night I sat down with Ultimate Kylie, a DVD collection of most of her promos. Time after time, we find her before a robotic procession of dancers moving with the most mechanical grace. Angular choreography is supplanted with closeups of a face, so painted and lighted that it becomes not a face but an idealized version of one. I don't get a particular sense of personality from Kylie, but then, where is the need for personality in Pop music? Pop is, in its most successful incarnations, impersonal, stoic - or, as the americans would call it, Universal. Kylie Minogue isn't, as P J Harvey has insinuated, a person, but an ideal. I don't see her sitting around and considering her image, but a crew of moguls. She is merely the vehicle, a vessel. As I sit here, writing this, the video for 'Love At First Sight' plays before me. Kylie sings in the foreground as out of focus mechainical, computerized dancers move uniformly behind her. Grids of digital imagery scan the screen, across her face - fabricating her, in a sense.

It would be silly to assume that Kylie was real. One cannot look at her face without noting its plasticine formation. Those lips, the eyes, that shine... The fact that age has not betrayed her over the 20 years of her career. No one looks younger 20 years into their career, and yet, the older miss Minogue gets, the more consistantly she sells her image of absolute eroticism. Look at the video for Slow. Kylie lies on a towel amidst a sea of bikinni clad men who all writhe in unison. It's is positively the most sexually charged video I have ever seen. And yet, in this instance, Miss Minogue wears the most clothing of her career. Strange. She healms a lingerie line in her native Australia called Love Kylie.

In fact, in considering the videos, her commercialism is certainly a factor in her effectiveness. In 'Love At First Sight,' she is adorned with a dangly earring 'K' and a large orange bracelette clipped onto her bicep which reads 'KM.' For 'In Your Eyes,' she flaunts silver knuckles which read 'Kylie' in, what I have come to understand as, her signature font. A quick trip to will yield a vast array of Kylie products for your purchasing pleasure. Of course you will find t-shirts, CDs, DVDs (one for every concert, it would seem), books, posters but also jewelry (similar to those which Kylie wears in her videos), candles, drawer liners, lingerie and, my pseronal favorite, the Official Kylie Doll - Silva Nemesis. Kylie Minogue is a product, pure and simple. An honest evolution of pop ideals. Not only is her music available for purchase, but the Impossible Princess, herself can be bought, sold downloded and collected. And by fabricating an artificial image, why not? The less Kylie appears as a real person, the more we may have of her. As a DVD extra, we may watch Kylie perform her mash-up of her hit song Can't Get You Out of My Head with New Order's Blue Monday. She is raised to the stage upon a giant plexiglass record which reads, of course, Kylie. She is no different from this record (coincidentally, all of Kylie's vinyl singles are picturediscs, replete with a large image of miss Minogue who may now still be "Spinning around" in the comfort of you own home). As she steps down from the record, she joins the robots down below and fits in all too well. As the song draws to it close, she reassumes her perch upon the large shiny commodity, well at home.

Friday, November 03, 2006

An Evening of Lumbering Melodramatics

Lots to report. So, as some of you may know, I'm thoroughly obsessed with Lifetime original movies. I use the term "emotional pornography" as frequently as Britney Spears drops her children, but the truth behind Lifetime programming is that it sorts all of its purposes into easily digestible bundles so that, when the always climactic and tearful finale arrives - and justice along with it - we know that, if we have missed the point along the way, it will be represented in a short monologue from our female protagonist as she a)confronts her rapist in court b)embraces her estranged daughter c)settles down in her house, while the sun sets, with her family (crowded around her) heaves a sigh of relief from the feature length storm they have just endured. Of course there are variations on these conclusions, but apparently someone thought they might mix it up and try to produce something edgy for the network.

That film is called Obsessed. It stars Jenna Elfman as the wronged mistress of a well-to-do doctor. Or is she? We are treated to her version of the story in golden, warm hued flashbacks. It's all passion and smoothe jazz (just one track, though, for the budget assuredly went to Elfman). When the other side of the story emerges - a decidedly less cuddly one - the world takes on ominous and urban blue tones, sterile. Is Elfman, as the doctor claims, making up a relationship which never occurred? Did she merely begin stalking him at a conference or did they have a few torrid years of extra-marital bliss? Do you dear reader care?

The odd thing about Obsessed is its distrust of all things feminine. Elfman is certainly insane (with a vocabulary, to boot!). Yet the doctor's wife is just as prodding and irritating. 'Is he lying?' is the question on everyone's mind, but the film eventually ignores that man-hating storyline for the calling-your-boyfriend-too-much-will-turn-you-into-a-crazy-stalker -bitch-who-talks-to-herself-and-makes-inappropriate-phone-calls-to-courtroom-judges one. So, for god's sake ladies, don't call him too much. Elfman is deliciously inept for any sort of dramatic performance. When her character is to change moods, her diction falters drastically and she stumbles about, unsure of her footing, even. The fact that her character endows exceptional intelligence is particularly prolific hightening the ineptitude of the performance. Eventually, you stop looking for the familiar guiding hand of your average Lifetime picture and give into the mess that is Obsessed. Oh, it's great fun, and by the time the final, flaccid surprise has been delivered, you are more than satisfied. And perplexed.

Then, I moved right along to a grander variation on the same genre, I watching Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves rekindle non-existent chemistry in their first onscreen union since the smash hit Speed. Not a single moment of The Lake House makes the slightest sense. Mere personal interaction - between brothers, say - becomes a narrative guessing game. When Keanu is reunited with his brother, the simple narrative understanding of what unfolds before us is denied. A guessing game begins: are they lovers (if only), strangers, school pals? Who is this older man(Christopher Plummer) who shuns them as he exits the building? The stranger is Keanu's brother, the man his father, though it takes entirely too many scenes for us to realize this.

Then, of course, there's the plot involving a mailbox which defies all laws of time. Keanu - and all of his lineage, for that matter - is an architect. His father designed the eponymous building. Keanu lived there in 2004. Bullock in 2006. When she leaves a note for the next tenant, it is transported into the past for Keanu to brood his pouty little mug over. What follows is romantic propaganda for the middleaged to try IMing. Never mind that, when Bullock uses Keanu's marked-up map for a walking tour of Chicago, they converse in rapid IM-like snippets of written dialogue. If the mailbox is that mystical object which enables them to communicate, where is it on this urban jaunt? How can they be talking if the box is nowhere in sight?

These are the sorts of inconsistencies which riddle the film and make it a bit of a mess/treat to behold. Its mediocrity is rather exceptional. This void of a narrative presents itself more as a mystery than the heap of romantic fluff it would prefer to be. I watched The Lake House because a friend and filmmaker whose opinion I greatly admire called its ineptitude cult-classic-worthy. I'm not certain I would go that far, but, as a silly accompaniment to a bottle of wine, it did more than fulfill its duty.

Finally, in my slew of maladroit, I watched Swimfan. Having recently watched Bring It On, I must admit a have a little bit of a thing for Jesse Bradford. Knowing full well it was a movie about swimming - swimming, Jesse Bradford: you draw the conclusions. Erika Christensen was the nice little surprise which the film had in store. Her campy version of Glenn Close's infamous Fatal Attraction role was a bit of a delight. In a movie which requires very little of its viewer - nearly nothing, really - to have someone on board like Christensen is a saving grace. Not much else to say here, uninspired, predictable. But I"m a convert for Christensen.