21 April 2008

Mothers, Tears, Sex and Watermelons

Savage Grace – dir. Tom Kalin – 2007 – USA/Spain

God bless Julianne Moore were the first words that left my mouth after Savage Grace, Tom Kalin’s nearly fifteen-year follow up to Swoon. How many American actresses can hiss so wonderfully the line, “Yeah, that’s right, I called you a cunt,” as the lovely Ms. Moore can? In Savage Grace, Moore plays Barbara Baekeland, the victim in one of the most famous murder cases of the 1970s, at the hands of her young son Anthony (Eddie Redmayne). Based on the book by Natalie Robins, Savage Grace isn’t so much concerned with the violent act itself (it comes within the film’s final moments) as the course of events leading up to it. Baekeland quite famously married above her class to Brooks (Stephen Dillane) around the time of WWII only to become a socialite of questionable moral density. As Barbara, Moore plays the woman as if she were scripted for Isabelle Huppert and molded into Julianne Moore. It’s a fiery performance, one that will likely detract most American viewers. As a film though, Savage Grace isn’t nearly as satisfying as Moore herself. It’s exotic and full of debauchery (think an American Ma mère, only much better, and not directed by Christophe Honoré) as the mother’s curious relationship to her son (here, a bee-stung lipped homosexual) forever shapes his erratic, antisocial leanings. Rounding out the rest of the cast are Hugh Dancy as Barbara’s “walker,” Belén Rueda as her Spanish high-society acquaintance, Elena Anaya as Anthony’s “beard” and Unax Uglade as his hunky lover Black Jake. Kalin has certainly been missed after his New Queer Cinema staple Swoon, and while Savage Grace certainly mirrors that film’s taste for offbeat romance and violence, Savage Grace’s provocation is left somewhat unfelt.

Water Lilies [Naissance des pieuvres] – dir. Céline Sciamma – 2007 – France

It seemed fitting that the first film I ever saw that focused around synchronized swimming would come from France. Certainly, I could imagine Disney envisioning whoever their new Linsdsay Lohan is to embark on such a competition, however there’s something that’s too theatrical and aesthetic for a brainless competitive sports film. Thus, the world of synchronized swimming has come to life, beautifully, in the form of three young girls’ sexual awakening. Sciamma’s film debut is smart, if familiar, which does and does not go where you want it to. Water Lilies hits a point midway through, particularly at the point where your fears that you’ve seen it all before begin to surface, in which the film actually does defy those fears. Ultimately, it’s not enough, but the film still stings of the awkwardness of adolescent sexuality.

The Wayward Cloud – dir. Tsai Ming-liang – 2005 – Taiwan/France

There’s much to be said about the cinema of Taiwan’s Tsai Ming-liang. I’m pretty much convinced that I like his films even before I see them, as was certainly the case with The Wayward Cloud, his musical about a drought taking over Taipei and the wordless love affair between a bored woman (Chen Shiang-chyi) and a porno actor (Lee Kang-sheng). However, as has always been the case, I end up liking his films less once I actually see them. Maybe I should just keep my good faith toward the director and not see his films, because, more often than not, they lack something essential to my continued patience. His films are, quite frankly, slow as hell, which is never a problem for me, but the extraordinary distance he places himself from his audience feels more often like vacancy than it does poignancy. He’s a brilliant image maker, but that’s not the same thing as a filmmaker… and after seeing this and The River, the guy has gusto. I just wish I could feel something, instead of the limbo between something and nothing. The last shot of the film, however, is breathtaking.

Mother of Tears: The Third Mother [La terza madre] – dir. Dario Argento – 2007 – Italy/USA

Alert Mystery Science Theater 3000, Mother of Tears is on the way! Truly, I cannot think of a worse film directed by a once-revered filmmaker. Certainly Francis Ford Coppola’s Jack comes to mind, and I’ve heard wind that Terry Gilliam’s Tideland could qualify, but Dario Argento’s Mother of Tears is in a league-of-its-own awful. I think I’ve seen films released by Full Moon Pictures that have exuded more skill than this. For those interested, Mother of Tears is the long-overdue conclusion to Argento’s Three Mothers Trilogy, which begun with Suspiria, followed by Inferno. Here, the director enlists his too-game daughter, Asia, to play an art history student who may have unleashed the third mother from her grave, and, naturally, she’s the only one who can stop her. Ms. Argento has obviously grown out of her days with daddy, constantly associating herself with vital and challenging filmmakers, and it seems about time for her to opt out of acting in all her father’s films. You can almost read the embarrassment she’s feeling on her face while enduring Mother of Tears. Perhaps Argento was once a great innovator the genre of horror, but he’s taken such a step away from those days that you’d have never guessed Mother of Tears came from the same man who directed Opera or Suspiria. I can’t stress enough how putrid Mother of Tears is, but at the same time, I can’t deny that the film elicited some of the most rousing and unintentional howls from this reviewer. If I’m to say anything nice about this catastrophe, at least Argento isn’t afraid to kill children… violently.

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