Movies »Black Swan

Directed by Darren Aronofsky (2010)

I know I am late to the Black Swan parade, but since Darren Aronofsky is pretty much a bad word in our house, this recommendation is for those, who like me, were hesitant to believe the hype because they just hate Requiem for a Dream so much.

After watching the stylized sexual thriller, I was both elated and initially a little disappointed. The first half of the film surprised and floored me with it’s incredibly haunting mood, subtle creepiness, and paranoid tone. It reminds me of the best work of Roman Polanski or Ken Russell.

About half way through, though, when everything breaks apart and the more traditional horror movie events come into play, I felt betrayed that the subdued artfulness had gone out the window. However, once I had finished watching it all and looked back at it for what it was, not the movie I expected or wanted it to be, I realized the somewhat repetitive “gotcha” part felt like it had passed in a few seconds and effectively felt like some fever nightmare.

This manic explosion of insanity did have some truly stunning parts – like a particularly cringe inducing scene involving Portman’s legs and the absolutley exquisite final dance where we see her internal transformation into the black swan flawlessly displayed externally in a feat of special effects and amazing costuming.

Still, it’s the slower paced eerieness that sets the tone perfectly and promises a conclusion more complex and strange than we get.

Portman is very believable as a frigid, scared young woman who seems constantly falling victim to the few people she’s let into her life.

One of those people is her mother, played with tight lipped, quiet obsession by an unsung Barbara Hershey. Another is Vincent Cassel‘s predatory director – a role that could have easily fallen into parody in the hands of anyone less French, oddly handsome, and confident in his lechery.

Mila Kundis doesn’t get much praise, maybe because her role is simpler than Portman’s, maybe because she is, after all, some girl from That 70’s Show, but she is effective and necessary as a foil to Portman’s pent up anxieties. It’s also fun to see Winona Ryder as an aging ballerina, even if I didn’t totally buy her wobbly, cocktail spilling performance.

The Tchaikovsky score is, of course, beautiful and Rodarte lends their ethereal touch to the great costumes.

A surprising and very strange delight.

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Posted on May 16, 2011

Movies »The White Ribbon

directed by Michael Haneke (2009)

The White Ribbon very much reminds me of a classic “man’s inhumanity towards man” novel taught in high schools and is far more interesting than all the bratty kids reading it will give it credit for. It questions whether man is inherently evil and if you’ve ever seen a Michael Haneke movie, you’ll not be surprised that his answer is yes.

I can even envision the reading comprehension questions at the back of the non existent text book:

1. Who do you think committed all the crimes? And what was their motive?

2. Is the narrator correct in his accusations?

3. What do you think happened to the midwife and her son? What about the Doctor and his family?

All questions I’ve been pondering and frankly wish I had a classroom of people who’ve seen it to discuss.

Several disturbing acts of violence erupt in a small German village before the break out of World War I. From torture to arson, the crimes are as heinous as they are confounding and Haneke, once again proving he’s one the most compelling and daring film makers working today, isn’t as forthcoming as he seems. These troubling times are told through the eyes of a kind school teacher as he falls in love with a local governess, lending a small glimmer of benevolence among the cruelty.

The film is absolutely beautiful, not only is the cinematography stunning and sweeping, but the details of costume and set are superb. This is a cold, severe, yet elegant take on the themes we love so well in Nick Cave’s “The Curse of Millhaven”, Village of the Damned and Lord of the Flies. The children are impeccably cast.

It is available on netflix instant and I hope that will allow it to find a wider audience despite it’s deliberate pace.

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Posted on May 8, 2011

Movies »Pale Flower

directed by Masahiro Shinoda (1964)

From the Japanese New Wave movement emerges this hard boiled noir. Pale Flower, of the gambling noir sub genre, is tough, cool, and stylish. Shot in such stark black and white that only slivers of the action are often visible, it takes us on a cold journey to the Tokyo underworld where addiction, desperation, skewed loyalty, and failed redemption run rampant.

It follows yakuza gangster Muraki who has just been released from prison for murder to find his old life changed. His gang’s in a truce with his rivals, he no longer yearns fpr the woman that waited for him, a young man enters his life unexpectedly, as does an strange, beautiful and mesmerizing gambling addict named Saeko.

Muraki is played with calm gravitas who barely registers emotion whether he’s falling in love or some one attempting his assassination. His contorted pain finally reveals itself in a surreal nightmare sequence that will have you wondering if Polanski saw this before making Rosemary’s Baby.

Saeko is equally enigmatic. Wildness and lunacy stir quietly behind her doe eyes. It almost makes you wonder if she were simply perfect casting for her inherent madness or if Mariko Kaga is one fine actress who does more with her vacant eyes than all the smizing in 100 cycles of ANTM (yes, I’ve taken up watching again.)

It’s funny, I usually scoff at remakes, but I often cast them in my head as I watch classics. In this case, I’d move the story to Las Vegas, focusing on rival meth gangs. Titus Welliver would be my lead with Juliette Lewis as his former lover, Joseph Gordon Levitt as his new young friend and, if she can lose the vampiness, Evan Rachel Wood perhaps as the degenerate gambler though I’d consider Amanda Seyfried or Angela Bettis.

 

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Posted on April 18, 2011

Movies »Small Change aka Pocket Change

directed by Francois Truffaut (1976)

Friends, Small Change is so utterly charming, you must take time to watch it! A loving ode to childhood, Truffaut, a frequent chronicler of youth (see 400 Blows) gives us a glimpse into the lives of young children in the town of Thiers. The script was largely improvised and the children (who are adorable, every one) are non actors, lending a documentary quality to the film.

Described perfectly by the Times as “a major work in minor keys”, Change is made up of small moments, often mundane which add up to a touching, heart warming whole but never feels cloying nor hits a false note.

In its simplicity and subtlety, the movie is profound – almost life changing even – in that it’s opened up my eyes to the way a film maker can so clearly capture the feelings of childhood. The only other film comparable would be the equally lovely Spirit of the Beehive.

With yuppies of the opinion that children are little more than nuisances that might dare to invade one’s dining space, and all the crummy stories of abuse and neglect in the news, it’s particularly gratifying to see a movie that is so pure in its vision and message  – essentially that children are wonderful and need to be loved; this is a sentiment that very few of today’s navel gazing artists seem to share.

While the film is brimming with humanity and includes one of cinema’s kindest portrayals of good teachers, it doesn’t shy away from the dangers of childhood, particularly neglect in the case of the rascally and charming Julien.

It’s worth noting that Small Change, as it is mostly known as in the US, is listed as Pocket Change on netflix, where you can enjoy this gem instantly. (Moms, there’s tons of great kid style too!)

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Posted on April 9, 2011

Movies »Nights Of Cabiria

directed by Federico Fellini (1957)

I expected Nights of Cabiria to be great, considering Fellini is directing, but it’s so much smaller in scale and less dramatic and surreal compared to my favorites (8 1/2 and Amarcord) that I was surprised to fall so hopelessly in love with it like I have.

Much of the magic of the film belongs to Fellini’s wife and star Giulietta Masina, whose adorable face is one of cinema’s most expressive. She manages to make the character of Cabiria, an aging prostitute in Rome touching, prickly, slightly disturbed and incredibly charming all at once.

I really can’t imagine any other actress creating such a memorable and complex woman with little more than a smile and a smirk. Of course, the cast orbiting her is also spectacular and in usual Fellini fashion, awesome to look at. Her curvy best friend Wanda is notably amazing.

Divided into small intimate vignettes of her life, you grow incredibly tender for this scrappy but deeply damaged woman. Nothing is more painful than watching someone you care about get hurt and it’s even harder you see it coming a mile away and they are oblivious.

As she walks down the street, literally brushing her self off from rock bottom and manages a tearful smile to the camera, it’s impossible not to get teary eyed yourself. It’s a rare treasure to find a film that can evoke so much compassion.

Cabiria just reminds me and affirms again that Fellini truly was a genius, whether depicting the lavish loves of the jet set or the hard knock day to day of the poor. A must see!

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Posted on April 2, 2011

Movies »A Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

directed by Richard Brooks (1958)

There’s no modern equivalent to the great Tennessee Williams whose witty melodrama and familial unraveling is always fascinating. So when I am in the mood for some passionate Southern squabbling, nothing fits the bill like A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (By the way, that’s a mood I do get in fairly often.)

From Burl Ives’ hard hearted Big Daddy to the shrill “Sister Woman” the cast is excellent. But it’s the Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman that really bring the life to the film. And they seriously both look insanely gorgeous. It’s unearthly.

Thank goodness Grace Kelly and Elvis didn’t take the offered roles, neither could capture the fire like these two.

This is one of the best Williams adaptations, second only to Night of the Iguana but it’s definitely not one of the most faithful. The toned down homosexuality enraged Williams who told people not to see the film.

The first time I saw it, I was too naive to understand the subtext (Skipper was just his BFF, right?) I’ve seen it a few times since then but I found it the most heartbreaking this go round. Maybe it just comes with getting older, the pain of life seems more acute, even if it’s just in a broken marriage and a loveless family on screen.

Of course, with Taylor’s recent passing makes this the perfect time to watch or rewatch this classic which is available on Netflix instant.

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Posted on March 27, 2011

Movies »La Jetee

directed by Chris Marker (1962)

Chris Marker is a bit of a legend among art school film students for his stunning experimental La Jetee. A highly influential science fiction film made up entirely (except for one moving image) of black and white photographs and voice over. It’s a huge testament to how much can be achieved with so little.

I find myself now especially inspired and excited about the simplicity. Making movies is a long, exhausting, expensive effort and hard to do on your own. Jim and I have so many stories we’d like to tell, and a piece like La Jetee proves that typical film making isn’t always the only or the best way to tell one.

This fact is proven by Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, which was adapted from this short. For all the big name actors, cinematography, long running time, and imaginative director, it wasn’t nearly as memorable and effective as the original low budget project.

The images, though fabricated by Marker, feel like photojournalism that has captured events as large as the end of the world and as small and personal as a smile.

Le Jetee can be seen on netflix instant and was released by Criterion with, no doubt, lots of interesting history and commentary.

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Posted on March 20, 2011

Movies »The Great Happiness Space

directed by Jake Clennell (2006)

The Great Happiness Space (which I came across on Netflix instant) uncovers the odd, excessive, depressing world of Host Boys in Osaka, Japan. Basically young call boys/escorts for young wealthy women, they lure passersby into exclusive clubs, offering much needed flirty attention while racking up huge champagne bills.

Most of the young men interviewed make more than $10,000 a month, with Issei, the charming but admittedly messed up 22 owner of Club Rakkyo taking in more than $50,000. Both the hosts and their clients refer to it as being “financially worshipped”.

The film unfolds different aspects of the business revealing more and more complexities as it goes on. After meeting the ultra groomed Host Boys, we meet the women who pay exorbitant amounts of money to experience faux relationships with them. Many claim to genuinely love Issei and hope for the day they can become his girlfriend out of the clubs.

It’s sad, but at the same time they seem happy with the arrangement and it makes you wonder: if a pair of shoes can cost a fortune, is it so wrong that the one thing that most people crave the most: companionship, affection, love shouldn’t also be something worth spending for if you so please?

But, then the film takes a turn again when we learn that most of the women who come to the clubs can only afford to do so because they themselves are call girls and prostitutes, making for a strange self perpetuating cycle of manufactured love. It’s especially sad to learn that some women are only struggling through the horrors of prostitution solely in order to come to the host clubs and experience fleeting, champagne filled moments of happiness. The underlying severe loneliness effects the boys too who reveal themselves to be just as in need of real human compassion but are stuck in the empty job of pretending to love women for money.

Filmmaker Jake Clennell paints a fascinating portrait of this world in a short time without ever injecting himself or his own judgement. Too often new documentarians are more interested in their own journeys than their subjects. A cinematographer mainly, Clennell has a gift for documentaries and should make more!

 

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Posted on March 9, 2011

Movies »Yojimbo

directed by Akira Kurosawa (1961)

Yojimbo opens on a lone, unnamed Samurai, so drifting in life that he allows the toss of a branch decide the direction he wanders. It ends up leading him to a dusty town where only the coffin maker can earn a living. Two houses of criminal gamblers are at war, fighting over territory and the entire town is hostage to the violence.

Seeing an opportunity to make some money and mess with some bad guys, he offers his incredible skills with a sword as a bodyguard – pitting the two bosses against each other for his favor.

Seemingly rough and impenetrably tough, it’s only when he gives into and reveals a kind heart that our Samurai falls prey to the bad guys and we can cheer for not just a clever man but a true hero.

Yojimbo is probably one of Kurosawa’s most comical movies and also one of the straight up coolest. Thanks in no small part to the handsome dynamic duo of Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai but you could also site all the Dashiell Hammett Kurosawa was reading at the time and the films of John Ford he found so inspiring.

No wonder it made such an easy transition to the Spaghetti Western as the Clint Eastwood classic A Fistful of Dollars. West inspires East inspires West.. though I will have to rent the Leone version to see how he interprets the awesome Samurai sword versus pistol fight.

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Posted on March 4, 2011

Movies »The Tales of Hoffmann

directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (1951)

When Jim saw The Tales of Hoffmann in the Netflix sleeve, he asked what it was and I said “That is not for you”. While it is highly and rightfully praised for it’s cinematic beauty, a film set entirely to opera with no dialogue is a tough sell in my house, and probably many others. I like opera generally, though have to admit, this one isn’t my favorite musically.

Luckily, that hardly matters since the real spectacle here are the surreal, fantastical and sometimes creepy imagery that Pressberger and Powell have created.

The plot, concerning a poet’s three big loves lost to a wind up doll, a gorgeous temptress, and an opera singer is full of fun flights of fancy. Like a man who sells eyes to make you see the world as you wish it or another that turns candle wax into jewels.

While I admit, I found the third act a bit of a snoozer, this is a film unlike many you’ll ever see. If you are familiar with their more popular work, The Red Shoes (a previous Brix Pick) you have some idea of the visual spectacle that awaits you. Not only are the sets stunning (such a shame no one makes unrealistic sets for movies anymore) but the costumes are amazing.

While it was a surprise to read that George Romero sites this as a most favorite and inspirational movie, I’d not be shock at all if fashion designers took to it for the insect body suits, eyes adorned with flower petals, gold manicures, eyeball printed trench coats, and that awesome candle wax necklace that I would buy in a heartbeat.

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Posted on February 23, 2011

Movies »Femme Fatale

directed by Brian De Palma (2002)

While I have to admit on second viewing, Femme Fatale is far less clever and more cheesy than I remember, it’s still a great noirish guilty pleasure that marked Brian De Palma’s return to over the top form – mirroring some of my favorites of his career: the Hitchcock inspired Sisters, Blow Out, and the best, Body Double.

It’s hard not to have a soft spot for a film that opens with an epic heist set to classical music involving a bra made of diamonds and lesbian bathroom stall groping. Or maybe not… It was a box office bomb and most people seem to hate this movie.

But despite porny dialogue, bad acting (Romijn playing French speaking English, whew!), and a ludacris, off the rails plot about fate and a paparazzo – or maybe because of all that, I have loads of fun watching.

Just don’t take it too seriously or have lofty expectations.

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Posted on February 21, 2011

Movies »Coup de Torchon

directed by Bertrand Tavernier (1981)

If nihilists believed in heroes then Lucien, the small town sheriff in Coup de Torchon could be the man for them. He comes by way of Jim Thompson, darkest noirest extraordinaire and his novel, Pop. 1280. That book is set in 1917 Texas but the movie is cleverly moved to 1930s West French Africa, Senegal.

I haven’t read the book to compare it to (though it’s definitely making my list), but I think director Bertrand Tavernier has captured the weird, almost surreal darkness of Thompson’s work most effectively on film. (P.S. – other notable adaptations: Serie Noir, After Dark My Sweet).

To say Lucien is disrespected is an understatement. He’s called ass licker and turd more than by name, he is kicked by other policemen, pushed around by the local pimps, mocked by his own wife – and for good reason. As a policemen he never arrests anyone and ignores crime as much as possible, even when own mistress is being abused publicly.

He seems to initially be a gentle and simple sort who detests violence and has more respect for natives than most. Which is why you are almost on his side when he begins to take action against the “trash” of the city by committing righteous murder.

But, as the film progresses and his motives become less about justice than his selfishness, any semblance of morality is blown. Played with just right amount of pathos and underlying insanity by Philippe Noiret, the sheriff, if I had to imagine him cast today, could be pulled off by a bitter little Patton Oswald and his unassuming baby face.

Scrounging around in the mud of human depravity with him are his scheming wife played by the always amazing Stephane Audran, her “brother”/secret lover – a half witted brute (I’d cast John C Rielly in my remake), his mistress, Rose, a piece of amoral work with a naive lust for violence and chaos played by the also always amazing Isabelle Huppert.

The cast is astounding, turning almost cartoonish physical comedy into something dimensional. Not that it’s cartoonish due to sloppy film making, quite the opposite, Tavernier manages the tough balance of darkest comedy only to reveal something very sinister.

The totally bizarre alternate ending, featuring dancing man apes, is worth a look on the Criterion Collection release. The only way this low profile masterpiece could have better is if it had stayed in.

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Posted on February 12, 2011

Movies »Casablanca

directed by Michael Curitz (1942)

As I continue my resolution to finally watch movies I’ve always meant to, I rented the stunning bluray of Casablanca. Yes,I had yet to see it til now to my embarrassment.

Even knowing most of the iconic lines, most of the plot, and the ending, I found this stands up as a masterpiece. I am left, though with very little to say that hasn’t already been said about this classic romance.

I mean, you’ve probably seen it, right? It’s great. Bogart is tough Nazi Killer with a heart of gold and the courage of a lion, Bergman is gorgeous, brave and well dressed, and who isn’t moved by As Time Goes By?

However, I really wish there had been more Peter Lorre. I love that guy and when his character was killed I even asked Jim, like a seven year old watching Bambi “He’s not really dead, right – He comes back?”

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Posted on February 6, 2011

Movies »Metropolis

directed by Fritz Lang (1927)

If you are who you are when no one is looking I might just be a pretentious tween. Left alone, sometimes I’ll watch a Disney made for pre teen television movie, and other times I tend to watch lots of silent movies. Let’s face it, neither is easy to talk another person into watching, and both are rather soothing. Unforgivable, then that I’d not seen the silent movie masterpiece, Metropolis until now.

In a way, it’s good I waited since only recently was a restored version released after long lost original footage was found in Argentina. The new release is a more complete, more comprehensible film and it looks fantastic. After all, it’s the visuals here that are so mind blowing, inspirational, and timeless. Even Fritz Lang admits the theme and plot were a bit simplistic and heavy handed.

Visually, though, what a treat – like nothing you’ve ever seen. Well, actually its influenced so much, you probably have seen something that resembles it. The costumes, the sets, the scenery paintings, the actors – including a gorgeous and  expressive Brigette Helm, the fiery and bearded Heinrich George, and Rudolf Klein-Rogge as the wild eyed mad scientist are all incredible.

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Posted on January 24, 2011

Movies »March of the Wooden Soldiers

directed by Hal Roach (1934)

Because of their rotation of Holiday films, we had TMC on in the background of our Christmas morning festivities, but when the Laurel and Hardy spectacle March of the Wooden Soldiers came on, we couldn’t help but become enthralled with surely one of the most visually bizarre and arresting movies I’ve seen lately.

I was so taken with the crazy human cat costumes, the midgets as beefy pigs, and the monkey playing a mouse that I actually bought the DVD – something I haven’t done in ages (and was promptly reminded of the unessecary annoyance of opening one of those things).

The plot centers around Little Bo Peep and the evil Silas Barnaby – Toyland’s cruelest resident who plans to make her his – even if it means framing her boyfriend for eating one of the three pigs! A journey to boogeyland brings on the evil… well, I’m not sure what they are except loads of extras in furry pants and truly grotesque masks who along with a thwarted Silas proceed to bring terror to Toyland for revenge.

Defending the joyful town are the toy soldiers – single minded wrecking machines that will stop at nothing (even a decapitated head) to destroy what they are after.Weird colorized animals, songs, an appearance from Santa and the hi-jinx of Laurel and the always shockingly styled (Hitler mustache and a page boy bob) Hardy round out the movie.

I am super excited for this oddball gem to become a new Christmas tradition – as long as the bizarre imagery doesn’t terrify our little one.

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Posted on January 14, 2011

Movies,TV Shows »Hysterical Blindness

directed by Mira Nair

Hysterical Blindness, a 1980’s set HBO version of a Lifetime movie could have been nothing but hairspray and bad accents, but to every one’s credit involved, it’s a surprisingly nuanced, and touching portrayal of two party girls past their prime, standing guard at a local dive bar, waiting desperately for romance to change their Bayonne, New Jersey lives.

Uma Thurman is transforming as Debby, a character interestingly enough portrayed by the great Amy Ryan in the original 1997 Laura Cahill theatrical production. She contorts her exceptional beauty into a woman so needy and spastic that you wince as she awkwardly rockets around the screen between cigarettes, tears, freak outs and blow jobs. Juliette Lewis, Gena Rowlands, and Ben Gazzara all of whom are always, without exception, excellent round out the dream cast.

While it all ends a little too much on the cute side, it’s nice to see these women, icons of ironic tackiness and stereotype get a little happiness, whether in the form of new living room furniture or front yard parties all summer. And speaking of ironic tackiness, there is much here for thrift store shopping hipsters to get excited about: Shredded heavy metal tees, acid washed paint on jeans, spandex mini skirts, and lots of cheap rings.

I saw this when it first aired several years ago but recently felt the urge to revisit. I’m glad I did.

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Posted on January 10, 2011

Movies »Best of 2010 Movie Round Up

Great Movies

Time to reflect and give a run down of the very best of the recommendations I’ve given over the year. So here’s my list of the top movies to see, a mix of old and new, funny and strange – the very best for the next time you want to stay in with popcorn and a whole bunch of movies (perfect actually for this after New Years weekend):

1. Hausu

2. Amadeus

3. Hard Ticket to Hawaii

4. King of Comedy

5. Videodrome

6. Valhalla Rising

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Posted on January 1, 2011