Sunday, October 31, 2010

Alphaville, l'etrange aventure de Lemmy Caution

       Midway through Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville, we witness a strange series of executions. Men in suits stand on diving boards, say there last words, get shot, and fall or jump into the pool below. Synchronized swimmers gracefully circle the floating bodies and hit them repeatedly to assure that they are dead before dragging them away to make way for another shooting. Spectators clap enthusiastically on the sidelines. Before meeting death, one of the accused lets out this impassioned statement; "Listen to me normal ones. We see a truth that you no longer see. A truth that says the essence of man is love and faith, courage and tenderness, generosity and sacrifice. Everything else is an obstacle put up by your blind progress and innocence." Their crime? asks our protagonist Lemmy Caution, who is posing as the journalist Ivan Johnson but who is actually agent 003 sent from the pays exterieurs. The response is that the men are being executed for having "acted illogically."
       If this appeal for love and tenderness (and art... there are no artists on Alphaville) seems unusually emotional for the usually coolly intellectual and sardonic Godard, then it is in part. There's still a lot of irreverent coolness going on, with Hollywoodesque strings that you know Godard wasn't totally serious about, subversion of film noir cliches, wacky editing, and "level 3" seductresses, who take their clothes off at every opportunity, parading about. And the use of the swimmers in the execution scene shows more of a penchant for the absurd than anything else. But still, that message about the inhumanity of technology and science is what carries the film; we really are getting Godard's version of Farenheit 451 or 1984 or Brave New World. And "love" truly is of supreme importance.
       So what does Godard's dystopian future look like you might ask? Well it looks pretty much exactly like Paris in 1965, because that's exactly what it is ( I think it's supposed to take place about 30 years in the future). Asides from a couple of smoky rooms filled with computer banks, there are no sets, and the costume for our hero is the standard trench coat and gun. Stripping away all the inessential probably had something to do with budget and Godard's impromptu filming style (he reportedly didn't have much of a script to work on and much of the dialogue was improvised as filming went along) as well as with the desire to put the horrors of the future firmly in the now. 
       But you also have to let your audience get lost in your futuristic world, and Alphaville is weird enough to let that happen. For one, there's the deep and somewhat disturbing voice of the omnipresent Alpha 60, the evil computer that controls Alphaville and does everything from take orders for breakfast to interrogate Lemmy on the nature of love and religion. Then there's that cool noir vibe and Eddie Constantine's Bogart-like stoicism. Others have pointed out that Alphaville owes a lot to Fritz Lang and German Expressionism and there's definitely that eeriness in the way it feels. There are also bright flashing neon letters that take up the whole screen and spell NORD or SUD or E=MC2 or Hf=MC2. These last two in particular keep returning and eventually become quite ominous. Something tells me Godard doesn't have much of an understanding of science.
       Well I've written four paragraphs and haven't even mentioned the plot. To sum it up, Caution is sent to Alphaville to observe it, take lots of pictures, and do whatever he feels necessary. Eventually he feels it's necessary to kill Professor Von Braun, the mastermind behind the whole operation, and put an end to Alphaville. His other main purpose is to fall in love with Anna Karina, a task that should not be difficult for anyone to accomplish. Karina plays Natach Von Braun, the professor's daughter, although she claims to have never met him. I must admit, I was a little confused by who she was and how she got there; I just figured her main purpose was to look beautiful and ask the meaning of "love", "conscience", "tenderness" and other words that have been deemed dangerous and unnecessary and have been forbidden by Alpha 60. Caution also reads her poetry in a scene that is particularly beautiful and emotional.
        Really, it's a pretty simple story, but it seems a little more confusing at first because it's so dense. Alpha 60 gives philosophical musings throughout, and certain events seem to come out of nowhere like Caution's attending of some sort of film projection/lecture that contains more philosophical and scientific musings. The good thing about this is that a lot of interesting things are said. Take the exchange between Alpha 60 and Caution for example:

Alpha 60: Do you know what illuminates the night
Lemmy Caution: Poetry
A: What is your religion?
L: I believe in the inspiration of conscience.
A: Do you know the distinction between the mysterious principles of knowledge and those of love
L: I believe that in love there is no mystery.

    Those are some pretty lyrical and thoughtful responses. We get a little of Godard's existentialism, as well as a statement affirming the importance of love. Later another exchange between the man and the machine reveals the fundamental difference between a reliance on logic and worldview based on faith in humanity:

A: I shall calculate so that failure is impossible.
L: I shall fight so that failure is possible.

     So if the story starts off somewhere in 1984 territory, the end result is something radically different. Godard gives us an optimistic and fun movie focused on the power of love and human error. Now why did it take me 30 minutes to figure out how to upload a picture with this review? Godard was right...fuck technology.


Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ridley Scott and The Duellists

    I just came back from seeing Ridley Scott's first film, The Duellists, which was made on a tiny budget in 1977 and still didn't make any money when it was released. It's based on a short story by Joseph Conrad which was in turn based off the real story of two Napoleanic officers who fought 30 duels against each other over 19 years. Here, Armand d'Hubert (Keith Carradine) and Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel) only fight about five or six duels, but this is more than enough to get the point across about the absurdity of honor and mindless agressivity. The whole affair is started when d'Hubert interrupts Feraud while he's with a lady to give him an unfavorable message. They then start a ridiculous feud that continues through Napolean's exile, return and re-exile . They duel on foot, on horseback, with small swords, with sabers, with and with pistols. At one point they are about to duel but have to work together to fight cossacks instead.

 things get even more complicated in the sequel

      If the plot's a little silly, that's part of the point, and it contributes to the charm of the movie. The Duellists has been compared to Barry Lyndon, but while it's a serious movie with a serious message it's certainly not as bleak. Carradine keeps things pretty light and d'Hubert's romances are given some importance; there are some nice scenes with him and his young wife, Adele. Apparently, everything in it is pretty much historically accurate. It certainly looks good; the French countryside is lush, the russian winter is bleak, and the sword fights are captured dynamically, with the camera moving along with d'Hubert or Feraud as they lunge forward and slash at each other.  It's less polished than Scott's subsequent historical epics which is often a good thing.


     And now I would like to show some appreciation for Ridley Scott, a director who knows how to tell a story. I just praised Lynch as knowing how to tell a story when he wants to, and I guess that this is something you can say for any good director, but I will say it nonetheless for Scott because that's a good part of what he has going for him. Scott creates tension, characters you can feel for, memorable stories, and even more memorable visuals. His two best movies Alien and Blade Runner are defining works of the Science Fiction genre. And though he seems to like returning to the historical epic, Scott is pretty versatile with any genre...or he at least tries; crime dramas, feminist road movies, romance, political thriller.... He seems like a tough guy who knows how to get stuff done; apparently he was hated by some on the Blade Runner set who vocalized their dissatisfaction in an incident known as the "T-shirt war" (they printed T-shirts with phrases like "yes gov'nor my ass" on them, referring to how they were supposed to respond to Scott's demands.) 
     And perhaps the best thing about Scott is that he isn't James Cameron. Scott may get sentimental, but his movies are never sappy or dumb. Some of his movies may try just as hard to be epic, but they aren't as bloated and ridiculous as something like Titanic or Avatar. Aliens may get praise, but all Cameron added that wasn't in the original was an extra layer of '80s cheesiness. 
     My final message is this: while it was good to see Scott's modest roots tonight, I have confidence that he'll keep turning out enjoyable Hollywood blockbusters for a while (although it is true that Blade Runner and Aliens are not the kind of Hollywood blockbuster that gets made anymore...but that's a different story).

I like making lists, but I've seen fewer than half of Scott's movies. 

1. Blade Runner-incredible.
2.Alien- excellent. great atmosphere.
3. The Duellists- take that Gladiator.
4. Gladiator- I give it credit for bringing back the sword and sandals tradition in Hollywood.
5. Thelma and Louise- actually had a pretty big impact on me. I saw it when I was quite young.
5. American Gangster- entertaining and well done.
6. Kingdom of Heaven- entertaining and well done.
7. A Good Year- not too bad. Amusing enough

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Review: Black Venus

    Here's a good movie that I would devote more time to if I thought that anyone else were going to see it. It's funny that I just covered all of David Lynch because Black Venus is pretty much the anti-Elephant Man. Also, it's kind of like Precious without the redemption.
     Like Elephant Man, Black Venus is based on the true story of a freak show attraction; in this case, Sarah Baartman or "The Hottentot Venus." Sarah was exhibited around London and Paris in the early 19th century, and though she was fluent in Dutch, she was made to act like a savage, jiggling her enormous buttocks, snarling, and dancing wildly. The movie shows her master, Hendrick Cezar, forcing her to let the audience touch her to verify her authenticity. The director, Abdellatif Kechiche, probably elaborates on the actual story a bit when he shows the truly repulsive games high society French woman play with her. He's a provocateur, looking to shock and implicate his (probably white and wealthy) audience.
     But the fate of Baartman shown in the movie is definitely real; she ended up a prostitute, then dead at the age of about 25. Until 1974 her genitals, brain and skeleton were on display in the Musee de L'Homme and her remains were finally returned to South Africa in 2002. These facts, shown right before the credits, give the racism on display in the movie a sense of relevency (I didn't even know it was true story until then). 
     I went through much of the the movie thinking that it was a pretty standard tale of humiliation and objectification, well done, but a little unnecessary. Then things got a little more interesting when Kechiche seemed to pass the limits of good taste, and I began to wonder if we weren't being manipulated just as much as Sarah's audience. And ultimately, the movie came off as thoughtful and necessary. A little long and uneven, perhaps, but important nonetheless.
A few more things to think about:

Sarah is not really shown as enslaved, forced to perform through physical force. She's multilayered, not just oppressed, and has free will, which makes her a more interesting character. There is some physical abuse, but mental resignation is really what pushes her towards her final humiliation. She's played by Yahima Torres, who's excellent.

The racism is not one sided either. Sarah is at once an object of desire, a medical curiosity, a savage, and a means of attaining wealth. The white characters receive varying degrees of sympathy from the audience. 
Abdellatif Kechiche, who directed L'Esquive (a very interesting movie that gives an honest and intimate portrayal of disenfranchised French teenagers from the banlieu), and The Secret of The Grain (haven't seen) is definitely someone to watch.

I just researched the film to find out more about the "relevency" that I cited earlier and found that Kechiche deplores "the scornful way we treat people" and specifically mentions the expulsion of Gypsies that the French government is undertaking. It's something that's very much on the minds of the French, although less so now given how much they care about their retirement. In any case, there's definitely a message about human dignity in Black Venus that should be taken to heart.


Retrospective: David Lynch

   On my way to lunch today I ran across a small gallery filled with what appeared to be black and white photographs. Normally, I would have passed it without thinking twice but something from the small poster by the door caught my eye: it was the name David Lynch. The gallery wasn't open yet, but there was a man inside finishing up some installation. When I approached him to ask if this was indeed a David Lynch exhibit...well I can't really remember what happened next except for the fact that I turned around pretty soon after and stared straight into the face of Lynch himself. What followed was a typical star-struck encounter with me expressing admiration and wonder and Dave seemingly amused by it all. 

David Lynch looking amused

 In any case, this encounter, combined with the fact that Lynch currently has a big retrospective going on at the Cinematheque Francaise provides more than enough reason for me to write a bit about what I like about Lynch. And this can be pretty much summed up by my belief that David Lynch's movies are some of the most personal works from any director. But, I guess you can say something similar about any director who favors surrealist imagery above story, so I'll also add that I find Lynch's form of nightmarish imagery particularly entertaining. The only other big director whose films are as wacky as Lynch's that I can think of is Alejandro Jodorowsky, but his psychadelic trips don't carry the same emotional impact ( I don't really see Bunuel's films as wacky in the same way). Lynch's movies can be alienating, but they can also suck you in and make you part of a world that's darker and stranger than your own.
     Lynch's movies point out that we don't always let ourselves fully realize the weirdness in the world around us. I'm sure the suburban madness in Blue Velvet is not so far off from what many of us could find lurking beneath the surface of our own quiet towns. This said, I also think that what's going on in Lynch's mind is genuinely weirder than what we can see on our own. To take a quote from an interview in the book Lynch on Lynch, "My childhood was elegant homes...picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. But on the tree there's this pitch oozing out...and millions of ants crawling all over it." There's a lot more good stuff in those interviews that shows that Lynch is often deeply troubled by what he sees around him. He also gives a perfect explanation for why all of this needs to be put on film and why we need to see it, "I don't know why it's necessary that we get lost in the darkness and confusion, but part of it is really enjoyable."
     Indeed, Lynch's films can often be unsettling and extremely pleasurable to watch at the same time. This has as a lot to do with the fascinating beauty of his imagery and the masterful sound design as well as with the "paradox of horror" (we enjoy being scared). These contrasting feelings also say something about the importance of jarring contrast in Lynch's films. Of course, there's the savageness behind an idyllic facade in Blue Velvet, but there's also the juxtaposition of horror and love in Wild at Heart, the mundane and the epic in The Straight Story, the humane and the hideous in The Elephant Man, the comic and the bizarre in Eraserhead etc... Lynch's films work so well because they operate in two worlds; one we know and expect, and another that is entirely new.

Well, here's a list of my top ten Lynch movies.

1. Blue Velvet- Well the first thing I should mention since I didn't say anything about it in the post above is that Lynch can tell a damn good story. This is his movie that best combines Lynchian craziness with a linear coherent plot. And you can't argue with the amazing scenes in it that have now become classic. Roy Orbison's "In Dreams", Hopper's gas mask, "Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon."

2. Eraserhead- Lynch's first feature, started in 1971 and filmed intermittently until 1976. Apparently Jack Nance ages a number of years from one shot to the next at times. Despite this fact, it's still remarkably coherent and well made. It's also, I think, his strangest film even if Inland Empire or Lost Highway try deliberately to be as strange as possible. To me, Eraserhead is tonally perfect; dread, sadness, and comedy come together beautifully. 

3. Mullholland Drive- I haven't seen this since I was 12 or 13, but from what I can remember it was pretty much a masterpiece. It seemed enigmatic yet very deliberate and the two leads and the cinematography were gorgeous. The bum behind Winkie's scared me to death.

4. Elephant Man- His first film after Eraserhead, Elephant Man is one of Lynch's more commercially accepted works ( it was nominated for 8 Oscars) and remains one of his most moving. It's the real-life story of Joseph Merrick, a sideshow curiosity in Victorian England, who we find out is not a deformed freak, but "A HUMAN BEING....A MAN!" John Hurt as Merrick is excellent.

5. The Straight Story- Lynch's one and only movie distributed by Disney is also the only movie about a man who travels 240 miles on a riding lawn-mower to see his brother. On some level, it's very simple and straightforward, but it's also very unusual without resorting to disturbing imagery. And Richard Farnsworth, as Alvin Straight, elevates it to a higher level. 

6. Wild at Heart- On a level of pure enjoyment, I would put this one above Elephant Man. It's a road movie a la Lynch with a great love story going on between Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern. It has some truly evil bad guys, great sex scenes, trippy visuals, a lot of heart, and an ending that Lynch changed from the book and that seems to suit the story better.

7. Lost Highway- A lot of great scenes and some moments that are a little silly or self-indulgent. Which is not to say that I don't truly enjoy self-indulgent Lynch; cryptic hallucinations put on film always amuse me. But Mullholland Drive is the best of Lynch's recent works that are less coherent plot-wise, probably because films like Lost Highway and Inland Empire don't have the same suspense or feeling of urgency driving the them forwards. 

8. Inland Empire- A couple of great scenes with a lot that is self-indulgent. Basically, form matters to me as much as ideas. While there's a lot to think about here, I do hope that Lynch gets back to budgets and film cameras.

9. The Alphabet- Well, since I haven't seen Twin Peaks or Dune, I'm going to have to pad this list with Lynch's shorts, all of which seem to be pretty great. The Alphabet is an insightful commentary on the indoctrinary nature of didactic learning. Just's pretty much just creepy as hell.

10. The Amputee/ Six Figures Getting Sick (six times)/ The Frenchman and The Cowboy- Lotsa fun for any Lynch fan! Six Figures Getting Sick is his very first and was projected during an exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art while he was a sophomore. The Frenchman and The Cowboy is a pretty hilarious later short (1988) and The Amputee is probably the best of the bunch. It's just one shot of a woman writing a letter while her a nurse bandages her leg stumps as they spurt liquid all over the place. It's at the same time calm and mundane and very discomfiting.

There's a lot about David Lynch that I didn't even mention... other shorts (The Grandmother is the most famous), art, music, transcendental meditation etc... Then again, Wikipedia is a more useful tool than I. But to finish it off, here's his comic strip, The Angriest Dog In The World, which ran from 1983 to 1992.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Film History: The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant

     I mentioned earlier that I recently saw one of the first works of the New German Cinema, Young Torless, from director Volker Schlondorff. From what I can tell, New German Cinema seems to mean any good German movie from the mid 60s (but more importantly the 70s) to somewhere in the 80s. For some strange reason, things seem to have gone downhill for the German cinema after Fritz Lang's last movies in Germany. There's an odd lack of good films from 1933 to 1945, unless you really like Leni Riefenstahl. Things didn't seem to pick up when the Italians and the French were doing their thing in the 50s and 60s either. Hence the need for a change; in 1962 a bunch of young filmakers put out the Oberhausen Manifesto which stated, "The old cinema is dead. We beleive in the new cinema." What came after were the works of Werner Herzog, Schlondorff, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Wim Wenders, and some other guys who I won't pretend to know anything about.
     I don't really think anything from the New German cinema is historically significant in the sense of having an effect on the course of cinema; Neorealism and the French and Hollywood New Waves had all ready shaken things up decades earlier. And there's no way to really draw a cunifying theme from the works of the German Directors. What the movement brought us instead, however, are masterpieces: the works of Herzog (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Stroszek, Kaspar Hauser) and Wenders (Wings of Desire; Paris, Texas) are some of my all-time favorites.
     Unfortunately, there was one filmaker who, until yesterday, had escaped me completely. I speak of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who stands as something of a mythic figure in German cinema or cinema in general. Well, I don't think he really stands as a mythic figure to anyone but myself, but anyone who reads his filmography will surely be amazed. He directed 40 full length films in 13 years, acted in nearly as many, and directed numerous stage plays, all before his death from an overdose at the age of 37 in 1982. Take that Kubrick. A look at his biography makes him seem even more insane; not one, but two of his male lovers commited suicide (one after stabbing three people). The women that he married (he was described as a homosexual that also needed women) were't much better off. According to Wikipedia, "Irm Hermann [his first wife] idolized him, but Fassbinder tormented and tortured her for over a decade. This included domestic violence..." Fassbinder must have had some money as well; in 1970 another boyfriend, Gunther Kaufmann, destroyed four Lamborghinis that Fassbinder tried to buy his love with. There are many, many other stories out there that show that Fassbinder could be a pretty terrible human being.
     So is any of this relevant for watching Fassbinder's films, and more particularly, Petra Von Kant (1972)? Well for one, that wife that he supposedly tormented plays a big part in the movie ( it seems Fassbinder was sleeping with all his cast and crew and casting all of his lovers). She plays Marlena, a maid who idolizes Petra, a sucessful fashion designer (Margite Carstensen). Petra torments her, often mocking her in front of her friends, and generally treats her as something useless. Petra is in turn tormented by the young and beautiful Katrin (Hanna Schygulla) who responds with indifference to Petra's affection and money.
     Fassbinder seems to be keenly attuned to the power struggles and pain in relationships. He also manages to create sympathy by showing how brutal desire can be. Petra von Kant is a pretty despicable human being, but we understand her loneliness and depression. And while much of the interaction here is cruel in a way only Germanic directors seem to be able to pull off (I'm counting Haneke and Von Trier) there's also an (often failed) attempt at honesty on the part of the characters that reminded me of Bergman's Through a Glass Darkly. Particularly interesting is a scene in which Petra is trying to get Katrin to open up to her and takes delight in learning about her troubled past. Later, Petra asks that Katrin go back on her promise to always tell the truth; the pain of the truth is so unbearable that she'd rather be lied to.
     Fassbinder adapted Petra von Kant from one of his plays, and his stage background (unique among the New Cinema's directors) is very much present here. The story is told through 5 or 6 scenes over the course of a few months (I think) and everything takes place in Petra von Kant's house. The smooth camerawork is excellent and Margite Carstensen is explosive as Petra. I do realize, however, that I'm only beginning to understand Fassbinder. Hopefully I can catch In A Year with 13 Moons on Monday, although it will probably be a while before I see his 15 hour masterpiece, Berlin Alexanderplatz.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

Review: Biutiful

    When I heard that Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's new movie was getting mixed reviews from Cannes, I was worried. Innaritu first grabbed everyone's attention with the gritty Amorres Perros in 2000, and three years later brought his signature interlocking story-lines to England with a star-studded cast in 21 grams. By the time Babel came around with it's four connected stories on three continents, the whole thing was done to death (ahem...Crash). Inarritu wanted to tell a story about the impossibility of human connection, but his own ambition prevented him from connecting with anything human.So would Inarritu's ambition and heavy-handed profundity get the best of him in Biutiful? Some say yes, but I found myself pleasantly surprised.
     For one, Inarritu seems to have made a conscious effort to undo everything that was wrong about Babel (for the record, I didn't really mind Babel all that much, despite it's flaws); he's back in Spain, working with actors who (except for Javier Bardem) are unknown in America, and using his own script instead of one written by Guillermo Arriaga who was the master behind the twisty, complicated stories in all of the other movies. Biutiful seems almost messy in its structure, and it's good to know that not everything's going to fit together perfectly at the end. Most importantly, there's a main character to care for, which makes all the things that are sad or painful seem like part of the story instead of like elements consciously put in place just to make the audience feel depressed.
     That said, there's no lack of ambition in this movie, and when it comes to the story, Inarritu sometimes seems to be doing too much.  I don't really like to read or give plot summary in reviews (my favorite part of a movie is often the beginning when I have no idea what's going on) but here's a little bit of what's going on anyways: a crime story concerning illegal workers from both Africa and China, a touching aspect to that crime story with Uxbal (Bardem) trying to help said workers, a family drama with Uxbal trying to reconcile with his wife and deal with his two young children, and Uxbal's dealing with the realization that he has cancer and will die in a few months. Uxbal's main motivation throughout the film is to put his life in order before he dies. Unfortunately, there's something that happens with the criminal aspect of the film that feels out of place and overwhelms the simpler aspects of the story. I don't want to say too much more than that.
     The fact that there's so much happening at the same time, however, often works in the movie's favor. Convention would demand that each story be fully and logically developed with narrative arcs and similar things holding everything together. What holds Biutiful together instead is Bardem. The performance he gives here is pretty incredible, he's calm yet deeply pained and conveys a sense of wisdom that in turn makes the movie seem wise. In fact, all the performances here are understated, which is especially welcome in the case Maricel Alvarez who plays Uxbal's wife, Marambra. Often the female roles in Inarritu's films are what feel most overdone.
     Biutiful only occasionally feels overdone; it's more emotional then sentimental, and often moving as well. The girl who was sitting next to me (probably about my age) had the slightly annoying habit of asking her mother why things were happening on screen and was also horrified every time something violent or disgusting would occur (she gasped or said putain or hid until her mother told her it was all right every time something violent happened, but what seemed to disgust her most was the sight of people scooping ice cream out of a bowl with their fingers). But lucky for me, she was also sobbing when the end came along, which helped create a nice mood. 
     The good thing about Biutiful is that it tries to bring tears, but does so honestly. There are still grand statements about life and death, but there are smaller moments here as well. Uxbal laughs, jokes and gets angry with his kids in a way that feels incredibly real. Uxbal and Marambra fight in a way that shows that each of them is imperfect. And if Biutiful is imperfect as well, the striking imagery, ambiguity, and obsession with death actually end up leading to something human.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child

     I saw this one yesterday, but don't want to write too much about it because I don't know that much about either Basquiat's life (so I can't really tell if it covers all sides of his story) or about documentaries in general. Sure I've seen Taxi to the Dark Side and Grisly Man and what have you, but The Radiant Child is more standard fare, more like something you would catch on TV than something to see in theaters. 
     That said, I quite enjoyed the movie, and I'm going to say that it does a pretty thorough job taking us through Basquiat's meteoric rise to fame and subsequent excesses (resulting in death at the age of 27). It was made by Tamra Davis, a former friend of Basquiat's who had an interview she did with him sitting around in a drawer for 20 years before she decided to take it out and expand it into a feature film. 
     Unfortunately, that interview is relatively insubstantial; Basquiat remains slightly aloof and distant throughout and there are only a few minutes of footage. In fact, there's not all that much of any footage of Basquiat himself in the movie, but this is partly compensated for by a large array of interviews with friends, girlfriends, fellow artists, critics, and connoisseurs of various sorts. All of these are woven together quite skillfully with archival footage and music. Well, that's pretty much the definition of any documentary, but Davis, a former music video director, seems to have a knack for it, and the result is a very fast-paced and thoroughly engrossing film.
      I've seen reviews calling it fawning, but I found it to be pretty balanced, even if it did seem to call out the elitism of the art world as something contributing to Basquiat's death. According to Davis, it was the inability to be accepted and taken by critics that lead to his death. The criticism of his work with Andy Warhol, his best friend, seemed to really shake him and Warhol's death soon after pushed him over the edge. 
     Some today might still call Basquiat's work overrated, the paintings' value defined by his public image rather than by their content. If this film does anything, however, it's to prove that theory wrong. Basquiat made about 1000 paintings and 1000 drawings in his extremely short career, and the many works that make it into the film convey an undeniable energy. They're confrontational, challenging, funny, and even beautiful. I would have said primal too, but i won't repeat the mistake of the white reporter in the movie who gets a mocking response in return; "you mean like an ape? A primate?" It's one of the few examples of footage of Basquiat in the movie that shows his humor and charisma ( a brief search of Youtube doesn't reveal that much more anyways), but even if we don't have that much of the man, the work more than speaks for itself. 7.1

Monday, October 18, 2010

More Movies

Here's a continuation of the reviews from my previous post. I was saving a lot of the good stuff for last.

Young Torless- This is German director Volker Schlondorff's first movie (his main claim to fame is the oscar winning The Tin Drum). I've seen it credited as helping to start the New German Cinema (it was made in 1966) but it really doesn't seem to have as much recognition as it should. It tells the story of bullying in an Austrian boarding school in the early 20th century; the young Basini is used as a subject by his peers to demonstrate how far a human can be degraded through humiliation and torture. It's all an obvious allegory for Nazi Germany, with our hero, Torless, representing the passive and indifferent intellectual who allows the cruelty to go on. If any of this makes the movie sound dated, forced, or obvious, it's not. The commentary is more nuanced than that of Dogville, to give an example of a movie with a similarly pessimistic view of human nature, and the black and white cinematography is stunning. I'm sure Haneke was influenced by Young Torless for The White Ribbon. 8.6 Also, Schlondorff was at the screening himself, and graciously answered questions for about 20 minutes afterwards. He says the only thing that he truly regrets is not bringing more of the homosexual relationship between Basini and Torless from the novel of the same name. 

Woman in the Dunes- Awesome Japanese movie from 1962 that I highly recommend seeing. It's pretty unlikely that I'll remember this, but it's directed by Hiroshi Teshigara, if you wanted to know. Basically, a man is held prisoner by a woman in a house that is surrounded on all sides by gigantic sand dunes. What ensues is 2 hours of claustrophobia, tension, surrealism, and a pervading sense of hopelessness. The Wikipedia page compares it to No Exit and I think that sounds about right. If you think of a combination between that and Hiroshima Mon Amour (there's something of a romance between the man and the dune woman) you get a pretty good idea of what this movie is about. Also, crazy sex scenes. 9.1

Cleo de 5 a 7- Agnes Varda is truly an incredible filmaker; there's so much life in her movies, even while they remain avant-garde and experimental. This one is from 1962 so it's one of the great early films from the Nouvelle Vague. It's the story, told in real time, of our heroine, Cleo, as she awaits the results of a medical exam (she's convinced that she has cancer). Truly a lot happens in those two hours: the movie is filled with joy, sadness, music, conversation, other movies, love (both real and superficial), and the streets of Paris. And the ending is truly great. (I don't spoil anything here but I will say that there is something about the ending in the theater that surely can't be replicated on DVD). 9.3

Crash- This bizarre Cronenberg pic from 1996 is like Antonioni with sex and car crashes. And while it can seem to take itself a little too seriously at times (technology and perversion were better handled in Videodrome), the end result is something that's both disturbing and memorable. It's probably the most shocking thing I've seen in a theater (deserves its NC-17 rating). I also think that quite a bit of dark humor crept through as well, even if I didn't dare laugh out loud at dialogue such as this; "Do you know what semen tastes like? Have you ever tasted semen? Some semen is saltier than others. Vaughan's semen must be very salty." 8.2

The Social Network- David Fincher takes on the creation of Facebook and the result is the best reviewed movie of the year so far. Fincher yet again proves himself a master of his craft, although whether he's an auteur of any sorts is debatable (asides from the obvious fact that he doesn't write anything.) Script honors go to West Wing writer Aaron Sorkin who gives us something that is both witty and exaggerated in a way that Hollywood movies almost always are. Indeed, it's a Hollywood product in many ways, but it's extremely entertaining and well done (2 hours flew by in no time). And Fincher does bring that distinctive mood and gravity that you can count on him for. I didn't realize how much the story needed to be told until I saw the movie; it truly does capture the zeitgeist, and this alone makes the film as important as it is. Great score from Trent Reznor, great performance from Jesse Eisenberg. 8.5

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Movies!- Mid August to Now

Well, I was a bit rushed when I had to write that first introduction, so here's a little bit more about myself. I've just moved to Paris for 1 year from upstate new york. This being the city where movies were pretty much invented (well, the British, Americans, and French all claim the invention of cinema for themselves) it's a pretty great place for any film buff. The city's filled with theaters and also boasts the Cinemateque Francaise which is a sweet place to watch movies or go to exhibitions or forget to see David Lynch presenting Mullholand Drive last Wednesday (fuck!). All of this is good because there is no Netflix in France and no real way to rent movies. So the theatres are definitely the way to go.

And since I've seen a lot of great things since I've been here, here are some short reviews of every movie I've seen in theatres so far, both new ones and reissues. Ratings are on a 10 point scale with anything above an 8 considered "best new movie" anything above a 7 as definitely good and anything above a 6 still fairly decent. So yes, I'm blatantly ripping off

To Be or Not To Be- Ernst Lubitsch takes on the Nazis in 1942. Obviously, he wouldn't have been making concentration camp jokes if he known a little more about what was really going on, but it's the humor that makes the satire that much more biting and the movie so much fun to watch. A classic. 8.8

Tamara Drewe- Stephen Frears' new comedy doesn't seem to be getting as much love- from critics or audiences- as it deserves. It's a modest little movie, but it's a  very smart and has a dark sense of humor th that brings more laughs than most of what I've seen this year. 7.8

Uncle Boonmee- This is the one that won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. It also played at the New York Film Festival. What a great movie! I think the best words to describe it are "meditative" (it's very spiritual and slow paced) and "mind-fuck" (one scene involving a woman and a fish and some sort of weird woman-fish intercourse is particularly bizzarre.) It basically tells the story of a dying old man who can remember his various incarnations in past lives. I don't know if I really understood it at anything more than a visceral level but I think that sort of emotional interaction was mainly what the filmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, was going for. 8.6

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger- Woody Allen's latest. Not too bad. Not too good. 6.5

Crimes and Misdemeanors- Woody Allen's not so latest. Pretty great re-imagination of Crime and Punishment. It's probably his most overtly philosophical work. One of his darkest, yet also hopeful in a strange way. Check out the powerful last scene for what seem to be his thoughts on the meaning of life (although I could do without the montage.) 9.2

The last Exorcism- Quite Enjoyable. The documentary style footage starts out as surprisingly realistic and even intelligent. Some of the scares become quite silly, and the ending truly sucks. 6.5

Simon Werner a Disparu- A small French movie about a missing high school student that plays with multiple storylines quite skillfully and does a good job creating tension. It also boasts a kickass sonic youth score. Unfortunately the ending is a bit of a let down here as well; the happenings seem to get more and more bizarre as the story builds but realism and logical explanations eventually take over. 7.1

Cyrus- Sweet little indie from the Duplass Brothers (known for their role in the mumblecore movement apparently) that loses most of the comedy in the second half for better or for worse. 7.0

The Town- Affleck's second is quite well done if not a little sappy and unrealistic. It's expertly crafted escapism but I feel that it's a little cheep to make a movie where it's so easy to root for the criminal and hope that his bank robberies succeed. The sensitive criminal role is really pushed to its limits. 7.6

I Am Love- Tilda Swinton gives a great performance in this bold Italian drama about a rich woman's search for passion and delicious food with a cook who's a friend of her son's. It can get pretty over the top and melodramatic especially in the final act, but the director, Luca Guadagnino, definitely has a unique vision. 7.1

Ces Amours La- Speaking of over the top. This pic depicts a woman's love affairs from WWII to the present and is definitely ambitious, but it's also more than a little ridiculous. And I've mentioned al ot of sucky endings, but this one's is so unbelievably sappy, long, and overreaching that it almost becomes admirable. It's directed by famous french cineaste Claude Lelouche. 5.5

Des Hommes et des Dieux- This Grand Prix winner about French monks in Algeria is huge here, so it will definitely make it over to the states eventually, probably in time to compete as France's entry for best foreign pic at the Oscars. It's an undeniably great movie- it doesn't do anything wrong- but while it is moving, it didn't truly move me personally as much as some other things out there. So while it's technically perfect, I didn't make much of a personal connection with it. 8.4

Poetry- Now here's another one from Cannes (best screenplay) and I found it a little more moving. It shows the story of a Korean mother simultaneously learning to write poetry and coping with the realisation that her son helped drive one of his schoolmates to suicide. It seemed to start of as a fairly standard slice-of-life foreign pic but eventually heads into weirder richer territory. 8.5

Well that's about all I could get in tonight. I'll finish this up tomorrow and hopefully I can get in some more quality movie watching this week.


If you're looking for a high school senior's opinions about movies, you've come to the right place. In this blog you will find reviews of every movie I see from the 17th of October 2010 on. That's about all I guess. Maybe some essays or other writings about movies here and there.