28 April 2006

Caché dans ta coeur

The Intruder (L'intrus) - dir. Claire Denis - 2004 - France

I guess I will use this as the formal warning that I normally give away key plot points in the films I review. It's hard to say that I'm giving away key points for L'intrus, but some might complain. Which is why I'm finding it so difficult to post my review of Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss. But, alas...

You know how some people really have a liking toward film noir? Or some people really get off on Japanese cinema? Or the Nouvelle Vague? Well, I'm one of those people that gets off on contemporary French cinema. And, no, not L'auberge espagnole. I can find the most deeply flawed of the non-genre (J'aimerais pas crever un dimache [Don't Let Me Die on a Sunday] or Romance) to be far more salvageable than the average viewer just as a film noir lover can appreciate Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai far more than I can. Double Indemnity, it sure isn't. Out of all the contemporary filmmakers that fall into this category (Bruno Dumont, Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat, Olivier Assayas, etc), Claire Denis may be the most difficult to swallow. Her films are still polarizing, but not for the same reasons. She's equally as uncompromising as the others, but still for different reasons. Certain other directors are abrasive and confrontational (in a good way, mind you), while Denis is not. If I were to dub the New New Wave of French cinema as "French Extremism," Denis would probably not qualify, outside of her cannibal tale Trouble Every Day. Yet, as mentioned, the uncompromising nature of her work demands to be included with shock-fests like Anatomie de l'enfer [Anatomy of Hell] or Irréversible or Twentynine Palms.

The difficulty of L'intrus is not in the subject-matter as many of its contemporaries. Instead, it's difficulty is truly in Denis' narrative. Based on the novella of the same name by Jean-Luc Nancy, Denis explains in her interview on the Wellspring DVD about how the film was essentially her own mood piece on the story itself. What would be considered serious plot holes in a big-budget American film are essentially some of the strengths in Denis' film. Questions often go unanswered and, frustratingly, a lot of the story itself is left to be interpreted by the viewer. This is usually a good thing, as she establishes an intellectual trust with her viewer; however, a lot of L'intrus is utterly puzzling. We're told that Louis (Michel Subor) has a son (Grégoire Colin) whose life he is barely a part of. Yet, he goes out later searching for his son in Tahiti, where a local friend conducts a screening process to choose a son for him, as the mother will not allow Louis to see the boy/man. Call me a fucking moron if you will, but I have no idea what was going on here.

Though perhaps not as apparent as something like Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny, L'intrus is a very interior film. Most of what we see is inside of Louis' mind, and seldom does Denis clue us into this. Scenes pass by our eyes without Louis in sight. In fact, several scenes introduce us to completely foreign characters that appear (?) to have no connection to the film at all. Yet we have a crisp understanding of the roles of certain characters. Katia Golubeva, one of the many Denis regulars in the film (Subor also worked with Denis in Beau travail), plays a mysterious Russian woman, credited simply as Young Russian Woman, to whom Louis pays a large sum of money and who seems to be following him around the world. Some critics named her "The Angel of Death," which makes plenty of sense considering Louis pays her for the heart transplant to continue his life. And yet, she's still not finished with him. Other characters play less understood roles, like Béatrice Dalle as the "Queen of the Northern Hemisphere," as she's credited. She appears to have a purposeless role as a neighbor of Louis' who runs a dog shelter, yet it's her face we see before the end credits appear. Is she also a figment of Louis' imagination? This is far less clear in the film.

Most of what I'm saying sounds like pretty severe criticism. Yet, I was completely glued to my TV screen. Denis' less successful films (Vendredi soir [Friday Night]) have the tendancy of giving the viewer too much (too much for Denis is an extremely less amount that... say Crash). Her most successful ones (at least the ones that make my toes curl) tend to have formed a severe distance from the viewer (Beau travail, Trouble Every Day). L'intrus is probably a notch below Beau travail or Trouble Every Day, if only because its evasiveness comes off a bit more frustrating than the other two. Denis gives us the makings of a potential weep-fest: a "heartless" (get it?) man searching for his son and a new heart. Yet she gives us nothing further, and this is to her benefit. While watching, her strength as a director can go unnoticed, but upon reflection, you realize that the initial thoughts that the film loses steam in its final half-hour makes complete sense. L'intrus is all about Louis and Subor as Louis (which Denis explains quite well in broken English on the DVD), so that the film appears far more confused and flimsy in the end is a totally conscious decision as (here comes your spoiler) Louis' body begins to reject the new heart. L'intrus is a quietly menacing film from its opening camera address from Golubeva to the haunting title-card, lit by only a cigarette, and the even-more-haunting music loop that continues throughout the film. It's quite rewarding, but maybe you have to be a total gutter-slut for New French New Wave, like me, to truly appreciate it.

25 April 2006

In Your Stores 25 april 2006

As I was sort of annoyed at thinking up clever tid-bits about all the weeks' new releases on DVD, I killed off my weekly listings. However, this week appears especially promising at the video store, so I thought I'd highlight a few of the notables. First off, we have Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (Professione: reporter) with Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider (above). While not nearly as strong as some of his earlier work, it's still worth a look, if only for its signature Antonioni ending and a memorable performance from Jack.

Also on DVD this week is the latest Claire Denis film, The Intruder (L'intrus), which is supposed to be a lot better than her previous Vendredi soir and on par with some of her best work (Beau travail). Expect a review of this as soon as Netflix gets around to sending it to me. As you can see above, Béatrice Dalle has still not fixed the large gap between her two front teeth.

Criterion's got a pair of films you've probably never heard of from directors you probably have.
From Marco Bellocchio (Devil in the Flesh) comes Fists in the Pocket (I pugni in tasca), a "horror film" about an epileptic, and from Louis Malle (Au revoir les enfants), his first feature film, Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l'échafaud) stars Jeanne Moreau as a woman who wants to kill her husband.

Strand is releasing a deluxe edition of Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin, a film that ranked high in my best of 2005 list, after acquiring the rights from Tartan. As the disc is no less expensive than the Tartan one was, purchasing this instead seems unnecessary, as the only deluxe addition seems to be cast audition tapes and some deleted scenes. I e-mailed Strand to see if they were planning on obtaining the rights to the rest of Araki's titles (they've already released Totally Fucked Up; The Doom Generation and The Living End are in need of new transfers; and Nowhere and Three Bewildered People in the Night have yet to make it to DVD), but they did not respond.

For the nun lovers out there (you know who you are), Jerzy Kawalerowicz's Mother Joan of the Angels (Matka Joanna od aniolów), based on The Devils of Loudon (the source material for Ken Russell's far more decadent The Devils), is on DVD now. Lionsgate is also releasing a Spanish horror film titled simply The Nun (La monja), which looks awful but does have the hilarious tagline, "Not all water is holy." This should hold the nun fetishists over for a while.

In music DVD, you can finally fulfill your secret desire to mention Suicide, Captain Beefheart, and Mariah Carey in the same sentence. The Suicide disc is a live concert in Paris, which looks to be a recent concert with poor artwork, so be cautious. The Captain Beefheart disc is a two-hour documentary about the man himself. The Mariah Carey disc is a Behind the Music-esque exploration of how this diva has stood the test of time.

Artificial Eye UK is releasing Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Double Life of Véronique (La double vie de Véronique), which is still unavailable on DVD in the US. Irène Jacob (who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes) plays two women (Véronique and Weronika) born on the same day, one in France, the other in Poland. Though I haven't seen The Decalogue, this film marked, for me, Kieslowski's wonderful turn from boring Polish realism to cinematic treats.

If you like melodramatic Spanish romances about two lovers with palindrome names, then check out Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Los amantes del Círculo Polar). The film stars Fele Martínez (Bad Education) and Najwa Nimri (Sex and Lucia).

Woody Allen's Match Point, reviewed below, and Werner Herzog's Where the Green Ants Dream (Wo die grünen Ameisen träumen) are also being released, though most will note these as lesser entries on the directors' filmographies.

24 April 2006

Ciao, Alida!

One of the greats of Italian cinema, Alida Valli, died over the weekend. Her impressive film credits include The Third Man, Eyes Without a Face, Suspiria, Senso, Il grido, 1900, and Oedipus Rex. It seems as though she worked with all of the masters of Italian cinema (Visconti, Antonioni, Argento, Bertolucci, Pasolini).

La Morte et la folie de la jeunesse

Heavenly Creatures - dir. Peter Jackson - 1994 - New Zealand
Lost & Delirious - dir. Léa Pool - 2001 - Canada

On the surface, Heavenly Creatures and Lost & Delirious have a lot more in common with My Summer of Love and Presque rien than below it. But, really, I do not like to focus on the surface of things, so instead of pairing either of these films with My Summer of Love, I'm giving them their own post. And by "having things in common," I don't just mean lesbian sex.

While having their own merits, both of these films fail to accomplish the beauty and maturity of My Summer of Love in their absence of subtlety and obsession with death. The Romeo & Juliet/Shakespeare metaphor comes up quite clearly in Léa Pool's Lost & Delirious, as our all-girls boarding school discusses the Bard's plays in the English class. Instead of our star-crossed lovers, Paulie (Piper Perabo) focuses on Lady Macbeth. In Lady Macbeth, she sees her own limitations as a woman to achieve what she so greatly desires: the love of Tori (Jessica Paré). And, yet, we still can't get ol' Romeo and Juliet out of our heads. As word spreads about Paulie and Tori lezzing out, Tori flees into the arms of an easy boy from the boys school across the forest (the all-boys and all-girls schools are always very conveniently located, aren't they?)... and Paulie sets out to win back her heart. Possibly trying to steer away from the "am I gay?" coming-of-age tales in recent years, Pool shows us the love of Paulie and Tori in third-person. We see the passion and betrayal through the eyes of our young protagonist Mouse (Mischa Barton), as the film pretends to be about her growth. Instead, Mouse is a distraction. It's quite clear throughout the film that Paulie and Tori are our focus, and this therefore makes Mouse's dealing with a dead mother and a distant father that less captivating. And this, surprisingly, cannot be blamed on Barton, who's gotten a rep as a worthless actress on The O.C. Here, it's Pool's fault. She's trying something different, but it doesn't fully work. This method separates us from the tension at hand, which could have added a nice mysterious veil over the film. However, we still see Paulie and Tori at their most vulnerable, even outside of Mouse's eyes, therefore creating Mouse, the central figure, as a severe annoyance.

In Heavenly Creatures, Peter Jackson creates for us a visual landscape of the two girls' fantasy world. Their fantasy world is ladden with castles and knights, where they play the betrothed princesses, all visualized with claymation. And while this tactic works beautifully within the film, it's lack of mystery somehow lessens it, in relation to the world of My Summer of Love. It's difficult to say this, as it seems almost a comparison of two pairs of girls' fantasy worlds, as each work in their own respect. Yet, despite already discussing the flaws in the narrative of Lost & Delirious, what makes me like these films less than My Summer of Love or Presque rien?

The lack of subtlety works fine for Heavenly Creatures (it is Peter Jackson, by the way), and, in its own respect, Lost & Delirious does create a beautiful remembrance of the possibilities of youth. However, I'm brought back again to my disdain for Romeo & Juliet. All four films expose the intensity of teenage emotions and the desire to be loved. Yet, somehow, death makes our heroines here the same dumb teenagers as the beloved Romeo and Juliet. I realize as I'm writing this that these observations could be of my own personal reservations. But, it's my blog, so........ Just take note that I already realize this. Perhaps Jackson and Pool meant to show us the immaturity of these girls by resorting them to murder. In Jackson's case, he's dealing with a "true story" (as awful as that may sound), so the adoration he has for Juliet (Kate Winslet) and Parker (Melanie Lynskey) cannot be maimed by their heinous crime. In Pool's case, we see the death of a true idealist, a real dreamer, and it's quite clear that Paulie is the focus of the film, even if her struggle is meant to be a turning-point for the narrator. So, each director has their grounds covered. Yet neither seems to match the maturity of My Summer of Love or Presque rien. Or, maybe still, Paulie, Juliet, or Parker cannot match the maturity of Mona or Mathieu.

As I've been thinking, I've realized how many films in this "sub-genre" that exist. As far as Heavenly Creatures is concerned, another good entry into your own personal lesbian-teenagers-driven-to-murder film festival would be Rafal Zielinski's Fun, if you can find it anywhere. Shot in black and white and color, Zielinski gives us the painfully obvious displeasure of showing us two worlds: one where the girls are together, another where they're apart. Bet you can't guess which world is in color. (Or maybe you can... it's that obvious). Form your own opinons and then come and yell at me.

21 April 2006

The Criminally Dull

Match Point - dir. Woody Allen - 2005 - UK/USA

At times, you often have to remind yourself that Match Point is a Woody Allen movie, for better or worse. Most noticably, Allen gives us a change of scenery. The backdrop of Manhattan is replaced with London. Never in the film does he show his face, even for a cameo, and nowhere in the film do we find the Woody Allen character. Even in other Allen films where he doesn't show up, it's not terribly difficult to find him within the picture. In his last film, the severely lifeless Melinda & Melinda, he shows up played by Will Ferrell (you'd think an actor who got his start doing impersonations on Saturday Night Live could do a better job of impersonating Woody Allen). Match Point works outside of our general understanding of a Woody Allen film, a lot like Bullets Over Broadway and Sweet and Lowdown do, two of his recent films that most Allen haters can tolerate. We're not treated to the wonderful comtemporary Manhattan scenery (or, in the case of Sleeper, a futuristic Manhattan)... and with the exception of September and Another Woman, we have a Woody Allen "drama." But, here, we have a Woody Allen "thriller," which is as dull as you might expect.

For all intensive purposes, Match Point is one of Allen's better written films in the past few years (if you have to ask, I think Deconstructing Harry was his final masterpiece). I want to say that somewhere in Match Point, Allen goes completely wrong... but really, it gets better as it goes on. So maybe the verb "to go" isn't what I'm fishing for. So, we've all heard the story about Annie Hall. The film was intended to be this spralling, over-two hour film about Woody Allen's anxieties... only his editor, Ralph Rosenblum, told him to focus on the relationship with Diane Keaton... and the rest is history. This helps us to understand why Allen has failed so many times. He makes movies cheap, attracts big stars, and churns them out lately at the rate of one a year. No one can tell this man "no." Woody, you're film's too long. Woody, your actors blow. Woody, this isn't funny. No one tells him these things, and this is why we get duds like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Small Time Crooks.

One of the real killers about Match Point is that he gives his two lead characters to two untalented actors. Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (still trying to convince us he's a heterosexual) never captivates or allows us to "relate" with him. On paper, he sounds rather fetching. A young man from a modest background who likes opera and the arts who wants big things to happen in his life (Keep in mind, the empathetic Woody Allen character doesn't ever reach Mr. Joe Moviegoer). First of all, he's too fucking pretty. One of the things I never realized about an audience members relationship with the onscreen Allen was that, despite his shortcomings, he was easy to like... and he was easy to like partially because of his average looks. Upon a closer look, though, perhaps it isn't important that we relate with the Jonathan Rhys-Meyers character, as Match Point eventually reveals itself to be a morality tale. But that doesn't mean Rhys-Meyers' prettiness and tendancy to appear as if he's simply "reading lines" doesn't distance us from the film itself. On to Scarlett Johansson. I kept feeling as though she was the understudy of a much better actress, only to find out that Allen cast her after Kate Winslet (undeniably a much better actress) dropped out of the production. For some reason, Hollywood has been fooled into thinking this 21-year-old "actress" has the capacity to play adults. We saw this flaw in Lost in Translation, and we see it here. She's quite stunning to look at, and this works just fine when her character merely functions as the sexy mysterious woman. But when we're forced to see her as a human being, Johansson just doesn't cut it.

The final nail-in-the-coffin ends up being Allen himself, as it always seems to. I can look past our near-fatal casting blunders. But I can hardly look past the fact that Match Point takes about an hour and forty minutes for anything to really happen. Allen is a good enough screenwriter that, when we look back, the core of the film is set up long in advance. So, I don't understand why it took us so long to get where we needed to be. Perhaps, Allen had incorrect faith in his uncharismatic and chemistry-free leads (I should mention that Brian Cox and Emily Mortimer are quite good in the supporting roles) to carry the film through its dullest moments. And, maybe, Match Point is only dull because of them. It's truly hard to say. Either way, it's hard to cheer on a film whose end (as lovely as it may be) never truly justifies the means. Allen has another film ready for this year (starring Johansson, unfortunately) and another for 2007, just so a bunch of critics can disagree, some calling it his "best since Crimes and Misdemeaners," others falling asleep in their seat.

20 April 2006

À Cannes

So this morning, or maybe it was afternoon as I slept away the sunlight today, the line-up for Cannes 2006 was announced.... with a wimper.

Apparently David Lynch's Inland Empire was not ready, so the slot for most exciting entry has now been filled by the new Pedro Almodóvar film, Volver. Other films of note I suppose would be the new Guillermo del Toro film El laberinto del Fauno (Pan's Labyrinth), which marks his return to Spanish-language films after Hollywood forgettables like Blade II and Hellboy.

And if you like your cinema uncompromising, Bruno Dumont's (Twentynine Palms, Humanité) new film, Flandres will also be in competition. A cautionary tale of war really doesn't sound appealing, but how could you not want to see how Dumont handles it?

If you can forget Avril Lavigne and Ethan Hawke are in it, Richard Linklater's film adapation of the non-fiction Fast Food Nation will also be screening in competition and maybe it'll be good.

And if you like boring neo-neo-realism, Ken Loach's The Wind that Shakes the Barley and Nanni Moretti's Il caimano will be there too.

Most grudgingly, however, some moron at Cannes has accepted the new Richard Kelly (yeah, that fucker who made Donnie Darko) film into competition, starring..... The Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Mandy Moore, that other guy from Dude Where's My Car?, and (?) Miranda Richardson. Truly, I think they only included this film in competition so I could bitch less about the new Sofia Coppola film. I had once hoped that Donnie Darko was simply an American teenage fluke, but this proves maybe not.

Out of the competition, however, will premiere John Cameron Mitchell's long-in-production hard-sex drama Shortbus and the French premiere of X-Men 3! Oh, yeah, and The Da Vinci Code. For a full listing, here's the link.

18 April 2006

No, you have no shame

As Shameless was my Confirmation name, I have decided to copy (yet again) an idea from my dear friend Bradford's film blog. Some might call me (especially after posting three blogs in direct response to his own - One on Gregg Araki, one on Ken Russell's The Boyfriend, the most recent on My Summer of Love and Presque rien) the poor man's Bradford Nordeen... but as my self-esteem is rarely in jeopardy, I'm assured that I am the poor man's nobody. So here is the ol' iPod playlist Tuesday April 18th.

By the way, doesn't Siouxsie look like Louise Brooks above?

1. Siouxsie and the Banshees - Tattoo
2. Slowdive - Albatross
3. Cocteau Twins - Amelia
4. The Pretenders - Don't Get Me Wrong
5. Boris - Just Abandoned My-Self
6. And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead - How Near How Far
7. Edith Piaf - La Foule (thank you, My Summer of Love)
8. Moonbabies - Ghost of Love
9. Vincent Gallo - I Wrote This for the Girl Paris Hilton
10. Piano Magic - The Index

16 April 2006

The Tragic Hipness of Jim Jarmusch: Films I Hate, Part 2

I quite literally think from time to time that Jim Jarmusch is personally trying to impress me. His casts include a slew of personal favorites of mine like Tom Waits, Tilda Swinton, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Joe Strummer, Béatrice Dalle, Chloë Sevigny, Crispin Glover, Frances Conroy. He got Neil Young to entirely score Dead Man. He makes visual homages to Robert Frost and Seijun Suzuki. He includes the Wu Tang Clan both in his films and on their soundtracks. And he succeeds at personally impressing me most of the time. Other times, he fails... miserably. I wanted to include his brief performance in Wayne Wang's Blue in the Face on this second-installment of "Films I Hate," but as I turned it off midway through (as I discuss in both posts, clever casting does nothing for me... even though I bet, before Blue in the Face, you never thought you'd see a film with Harvey Keitel, Roseanne Barr, RuPaul, Lou Reed, Madonna, Lily Tomlin, and Jim Jarmusch in the same film), I can't comment on its truly abysmal nature. So, here they are, two more additions to the ever-increasing list of films I hate.

Coffee and Cigarettes - dir. Jim Jarmusch - 2003 - USA/Japan/Italy

More so than ever, Hollywood has ran out of ideas. Sequels, remakes, films based on video-games hit your multiplexes every week it seems. But Hollywood isn't the only one who can't seem to think up anything new. We musn't put those outside of Hollywood off the hook. The music industry does it all the time. Did we really need a Massive Attack greatest hits this past week? From what I've heard, most of the B-sides are pretty throw-away. Is it not just a way to buy more time for an actual new album to come out? Both Pearl Jam and Dead Can Dance have thrown out "limited edition" live albums of each of their concert stops... to make you forget you haven't heard a new album in a long time. This even applies to our "indie" icons, like Jim Jarmusch. In 2003, he hadn't made a film since 1999's Ghost Dog, so instead of waiting to create some new material... hell, why don't we just throw together a trio of short films I made in the '80s and get some of my famous friends (omigod, Cate Blanchett and the White Stripes! With Tom Waits and Iggy Pop!) to star in new variations on the same subject? Granted, this fiasco did allow us to set our hopes low for 2005's Broken Flowers, for who wouldn't have been pissed to discover Broken Flowers... six years in the making?

Not all of the segments are without merit. A lot of people I know really got into the Alfred Molina/Steve Coogan segment, as well as the final one with Taylor Mead. The film will probably always be remembered for the Bill Murray/RZA/GZA segment, however, which was the first indication of Jarmusch's slump. "Jim-fucking-Jarmusch is casting Bill Murray in his next film!?! Lemme guess, Bill Murray as Bill Murray, right?" I guess having Bill Murray in your film really lifts the pressure off of you to make a good film. No one will recognize Broken Flowers as a Jarmusch film, as much as they will another Bill Murray one. So, no harm done right? I really don't think I've seen a series of short-films, especially from a well-respected filmmaker like Jarmusch, feel so painfully uninspired.

Straight to Hell - dir. Alex Cox - 1987 - UK

Sometimes even I can be impressed by your hip friends. Especially if those hip friends include Grace Jones (above), Dennis Hopper, Joe Strummer, Elvis Costello, and Shane MacGowan of the Pogues. And who doesn't love seeing a fat Courtney Love getting beaten? And then sometimes you can get all your friends together for the lamest party of the year. The Internet Movie Database reports that this film was never intended to be made. The bands in question (The Pogues, The Clash, The Circle Jerks, Costello, Amazulu) were supposed to be a part of a big tour that was never funded. As they had time to kill, they decided to get with punk-rock filmmaker Alex Cox (Repo Man, Sid & Nancy) and goof around. And goof around is what they did. Presenting itself as a modern spaghetti western, it was about as good as a Civil War musical my cousin and I made when we were thirteen (set to Devo songs, no less). And, yes, a Civil War musical with Devo songs in it does sound delectable, but I can assure you it wasn't. And more so than that, I can assure you that Straight to Hell is a fucking disaster.

Films come around from time to time that are so utterly awful that one cannot find the right words to express its wretchedness. Straight to Hell is one of them. I've always marveled at the way Hal Hartley (whom I hate) has reduced someone as vibrantly watchable as Parker Posey to a dull zombie as he did in Henry Fool. And while Cox doesn't exactly do this here, he gets together a truly memorable cast (minus Courtney Love) and ruins all the potential. I mean, c'mon, only a genius would cast Dennis Hopper and Grace Jones as a married couple. Yet somehow, the two are only in one scene, and Cox only gives our Grace a single line. Jim Jarmusch (the thread that links this terrible film to the previous terrible one) shows up near the end of the film as.... oh, I forget. But I remember his character was very important and appears just before the final showdown. Alex Cox really isn't as wretched as this film is... Repo Man and Sid & Nancy both have their charms, though I can do without his ode to Ken Russell with Revengers Tragedy. Here is just one example of a dream cast put to complete waste.

14 April 2006

Neverland et la folie de la jeunesse

Double Feature:
My Summer of Love - dir. Pawel Pawlikowski - 2004 - UK
Come Undone (Presque rien) - dir. Sébastien Lifshitz - 2000 - France/Belgium

Before I begin... I want to let everyone know that this double-feature was hardly my own concoction. My good friend Bradford made the initial connection between the films and even wrote about it here. My observations are of a similar nature, but I thought I'd talk about the films anyway.

I've always hated Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, probably more so because of all the girls I once knew carrying book, with its final act stained by tears and lip-gloss, everywhere they went than because of the play itself. This is not to say I never succumbed to the perils of teenage love, but even at a young age, I recognized the ridiculousness of it all. Romeo and Juliet were not soul-mates; they were a pair of whiny teenagers whose suicides have been misinterpreted by the young as the utmost of love and romance. After watching the My Summer of Love/Presque rien double-feature, I think I have a greater understanding of what Romeo & Juliet was all about. At one point in Presque rien, Mathieu's mother expresses her concerns about her son's summer romance after another woman says, "he's only seventeen." "That's the age where you fall in love," she responds, somberly. The line and the tone it's used in fully express why these films exist as they do. But what the mother doesn't know (or maybe does, but doesn't speak of it) is why these teenagers fall. And this, as Bradford pointed out, is where the two films become truly fascinating and worthy of comparison.

Stylistically, the films stand apart. Cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski drenches My Summer of Love in galvanizing sun. It'd be easy to call the film simply a mood piece, taking in the harmonious union of Goldfrapp's "Horse Tears" and "White Soft Rope" and the lush visual topography. But this union, instead, enriches the narrative. The film is way too beautiful to exist in any present reality, but, like any summer fling should be, it becomes even more enriched by our own memory. On second viewing, I noticed that the visuals never appear nearly as overbearing as I remembered them. The richness in aesthetics really lends itself well to the notion that My Summer of Love doesn't capture a summer romance as much as it remembers one. This is more clear in Presque rien, where we are presented with two worlds: the summer and the winter, the before and after (the winter beautifully accompanied by Perry Blake's "Wise Man's Blues" and "This Time It's Goodbye"). Told in non-linear fashion, Lifshitz interrupted the budding of a summer fling between Mathieu and Cédric with the wintery aftermath, having Mathieu's frivolous, youthful ambition reduced to a cold stone of a man. While there are obvious visual differences between the summer and winter here, cinematographer Pascal Poucet never immerses us in the way My Summer of Love does. There's a hint of sadness even to the playful beach scenes, aiding us in exposing of Matheiu's state of mind and a better understanding of why he falls for Cédric and why it eventually falters.

One of the strenghts of both films is their ability to escape from the singular narrative. We naturally have single protagonists in both films, Mona (Natalie Press) in My Summer of Love and Mathieu (Jérémie Elkaïm) in Presque rien. Yet our understanding of character and fulfillment extends beyond the two. They have their respective "lovers," Tamsin (Emily Blunt) and Cédric (Stéphane Rideau), who fill the void, and their complementary family members, Phil (Paddy Considine) and Mathieu's mother (Dominique Reymond), who both mirror the protagonists' sufferings and yet expand the already-large emptiness. Family life sucks for both Mona and Mathieu. Mona's mother died of cancer, and her father disappeared when she was young. Her brother Phil's emptiness has consumed him and has substituted sadness with Christianity. Mathieu's mother hasn't gotten over losing a baby three years prior and stays in her bed all day; his sister is a cold bitch, and his father is "away on business," which we gather to be a regular thing. Never do we find that Mona or Mathieu's void has lead them to homosexuality. The word "lesbian" is never spoken in My Summer of Love. When Mathieu tells his mother of his affair, he doesn't say, "Mom, I'm gay;" he says, "Mom, I'm in love." The summer flings in both films are gender-specific. Mona and Tamsin dance around Tamsin's house listening to Édith Piaf and trying on clothes. Mathieu and Cédric grapple on the beach. However, their companionship is more youthful than it ever is "girlish" or "boyish." Both couples sing songs to one another and play around like children. As mentioned above, the relationships do not serve a one-sided purpose. Tamsin has her own reasons for engaging with Mona. Her family, too, is absent for various reasons, but it appears as though Mona has become the perfect audience for Tamsin's theatrics. It's never condescending (Tamsin is of a much higher class than Mona); it's simply a desire for attention. Mona becomes the perfect outlet for this attention hole within Tamsin, just as Tamsin becomes the familial closeness that Mona so strongly desires. Cédric's family is distant as well (notice a theme here?) and, in Mathieu, he seeks a permanence that he cannot get with his family, schooling, or work. For Mathieu, Cédric is the bond he cannot have with his family (or with his few friends, for that matter). In a sense, these bonds are all unstable. And they all fail.

"Coming-of-age" is a difficult way to describe these films. I know it's a synonym, but "rites of passage" almost seems more fitting. Roger Ebert said about My Summer of Love that it's not so much a coming-of-age film as it is a film about being of age, which is a statement, for once, that I would tend to agree with. Bradford very firmly states that neither are "coming-of-age" films, and while this argument could seem a rather futile battling of terminology, I don't wholly agree. The term "coming-of-age" quite literally means a transfer from childhood to adulthood (in case you didn't know), but often suggests the sexual blossoming of a youth. This is not the case here. While sex is certainly present in both films, it is hardly the eye-opener for Mona or Mathieu that one might expect. Mona's not a virgin; we see her fucking a married man in the back of a car early in the film. While there's no mention of Mathieu's sexual history (as Bradford stated in his review, the drama of Presque rien, unlike My Summer of Love, exists almost entirely offscreen), he doesn't become the man we see in the winter because he got laid. That would've been too easy. Mona and Mathieu come of age as a result of the bitter destruction of their void-fillers. Once reality sets in for both, their worlds crumble. Tamsin has to return to school. Mathieu's family must return to Paris. It's the reality that conducts the downfall, and the downfall that creates their transfer to adulthood.

So how does these films help me in truly understanding Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet? It all comes back to Mathieu's mother's concerns about the age of falling in love. Is it impossible for a teenager to truly fall in love? I have no idea. As we all know, the pretense of love presents itself all the time, as in these films. Is the saddest part about these films the fact that the relationship fizzles, or that the pretense does? One could suggest that Mona's newfound hatred for her brother is her own way of hating herself. He replaces void with religion; she does it with Tamsin. Both consume their lives. Mona states that Phil doesn't have a girlfriend because talking to Jesus is a full-time job. Mona and Tamsin rarely part throughout the summer. During the winter, Mathieu becomes his mother, unable to communicate with the world. When we see him cry at the beginning of the film, it's not simply for his mother, but for himself and for his ultimate fear of succumbing to the world. The entrance into adulthood is not as easy process, and our characters react dramatically. None of the characters kill themselves as in Romeo & Juliet, showing us that they're much stronger as humans. Their "love" is as false as that of Romeo and Juliet, but they walk away. Whether they find themselves and ultimately fill their voids, we don't know. But that they walk away, there's a shimmer of hope.

I can always count on Anton.

You heard it here first. I e-mailed Anton Newcombe, lead-singer of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and raging Stones fan, asking whether or not he'd seen Stoned. He replied very simply with, "I walked out." Hey, at least there's a bunch of penises and vaginas in it.


Here are some upcoming summer DVDs worthy of mention, more to come as I look harder:

27 June 2006
Michael Haneke's wonderful Caché will be hitting the shelves on today. Let's hope you've caught up on others before then, as Kino will have four of his early works on DVD in May.

That very same day, you can get a taste of what's already rumored to be this year's worst film (even though it's release in the States was delayed by two years), The Libertine, with Johnny Depp hamming it up (isn't that all he does?) opposite Samantha Morton and the loathesome John Malkovich.

But better still... Comedy Central is releasing a box-set of all three seasons of Strangers with Candy just in time for its much-delayed theatrical release. It comes in a very special trapper-keeper packaging. I better sell my copy of Season 1 fast.

Criterion is bringing us Maurice Pialat's somber romance À nos amours in June, along with a double-disc of Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, which I shamefully enjoy immensely. In May, we'll have Viridiana. And in July, Edward Yang's Yi yi.

Feeling like a good dose of camp? 20th Century Fox is releasing special edition of Valley and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, with awesome cover art to boot.

Along the same lines, in July Universal will be releasing Stoned, a biopic of Brian Jones, founder of the Rolling Stones. TLAVideo suggests that this would be a good match-up with Nicolas Roeg's Performance, where Mick Jagger does his best impersonation of Brian Jones there. Expect plenty of drugs, moppy-hair, and threesomes.

On May 1st, Island Records will be releasing in the UK (in PAL and NTSC versions, don't worry) the first ever PJ Harvey DVD, entitled PJ Harvey On Tour: Please Leave Quietly. The live performances will span her career, from Dry to Uh Huh Her. She's interviewed on her website about the disc.

13 April 2006

Xenophobia Is Gross

Hostel - dir. Eli Roth - 2005 - USA

Really... has there been a good torture film since Dancer in the Dark? It's up to you whether or not that's a good thing. If you've determined that it's a good thing, Eli Roth's second film, Hostel, certainly fits the bill. Yet why it the film works so well has nothing to do with its excessive violence or its impressive gore/make-up effects. It works, instead, because Eli Roth is a jackass who doesn't play by the rules. It seems like there's been an unhealthy number of Hollywood slice 'em ups or slasher flicks in the post-Scream era. As I've stopped following the trend of hot young television stars in peril, I can't really pinpoint where or when the resurgance occured. By the time Scream 3 came out, we'd forgotten why and how the whole trend showed its face again. Yet, it's back. And it's worse than ever.

You don't need to thank Eli Roth for bullshit like Stay Alive or the upcoming Grudge 2. You should be thanking him for making you smile instead of rolling your eyes or checking your watch in hopes that the theatre clerk overclocked eighty-seven minute running time of When a Stranger Calls. Though an endorsement from Quentin Tarantino means jack shit to me, it was said that David Lynch (along with Peter Jackson) was a huge fan of Roth's macabre first feature, Cabin Fever. Why? Because Cabin Fever was the sparkling gem of crap crop of Texas Chainsaw Massacres and Wrong Turns. Standing away from its lesser peers, Cabin Fever doesn't hold up as well as I wanted it to... its boring middle-segment really kills the momentum. Hostel, thankfully, doesn't fall into such trappings; Roth is maturing as a horror auteur! The film begins as deliciously as Cabin Fever, introducing us to three characters we couldn't give a shit about: two American teenagers and their Icelandic friend. Instead of making us care as little as possible for the three, Roth winningly makes us hate them. They're a trio of homophobic frat douche bags posing as pussy-sleuths on a European vacation. Roth doesn't like these characters, so why should we? This just makes their inevitable torture deaths all that more appealing and appetizing. He does exactly what I'm sure I would have wanted the director of Eurotrip to do with his dimwitted heroes... had I actually seen the movie. Our film begins in Amsterdam (where else?), mid-way through the European tour. "Are there actually any Dutch people in Amsterdam?" one of the characters poses, looking around a marijuana bar and seeing a bunch of other frat douches hitting a bong (one of them hilariously played by Roth, himself... perhaps the same loser character he plays in Cabin Fever if he hadn't killed himself off). The two Americans then unsuccessfully attempt to get laid at a disco, then returning to their hostel where a Russian boy informs them of the mountain of pussy they could get in Slovakia. To both the characters' and the audience's delight, the three trek off to Slovakia in a teenage boy's wetdream turned glorious nightmare.

Hostel presents itself initially as an anti-imperialist metaphor, an indictment of America's foreign policy... or even globalization. But this doesn't really pan out as the "twist" is revealed near the end. Hints of commentary on xenophobia, naturally, show their face, but also to unsatisfying conclusions. Roth may squash the characters' predjudices by the end of the film, but never to a redeeming value. They're still a bunch of assholes, and we're still happy to see 'em get it. In the 1970s, when horror films actually threw a social statement on the butcher's table, Hostel might have been regarded as a lesser film. But, when surrounded by a group of shit-storms like Red Eye or a Uwe Boll catastophe, Hostel becomes that breath of blood-curdled air you've been waiting for. Though he seems to have worked out some of the first-feature kinks here, Hostel will probably not be remembered for long. Despite touts from respected filmmakers, Roth is not so much a maestro of the grotesque as he is a master at timing, sneaking his trashy, fun, gross Hostel into a cess-pool where he's the only one to emerge dry.