As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

The Dark Knight Rises, comics, and… Magic Mike?

Posted by Hedwig on July 22, 2012

No “what’s making me happy” this week, since what I really want to talk about is the new Batman movie, and it unfortunately didn’t make me very happy. I hesitated to write this post because of the violent response to early negative (or not positive enough) reviews, but by now the virulent fan boys have seen the movie, and they’ve been much quieter since…

Note: a minor spoiler for The Dark Knight occurs further in the text. I’ll warn beforehand.

For me, the film illustrated how valuable film criticism can be. See, I liked, but didn’t love, the first two batman films, BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. There was plenty to admire – many of the performances, with Heath Ledger’s joker as a stand-out; the fact that Gotham became a tangible place; the sheer scope of the thing, the epic scale. But I never really got into them, never really managed to lose myself in the films, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on the why. I knew that part of it was that the themes were stated over and over, and that the film mistook being dour and “dark” for being intellectual and deep, but that wasn’t everything.

Then I read many of Jim Emerson‘s many pieces about the films, and it clicked. Read the rest of this entry »

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Prometheus

Posted by Hedwig on June 1, 2012

cross-posted on tumblr.

PROMETHEUS (Scott, 2012) – I was planning to unleash some snark about how inconsistent and poorly thought-through the science in PROMETHEUS was, but someone’s already done that for me (warning: VERY spoilery). I was going to refer to one of the actors as “a poor man’s Tom Hardy”, but that’s apparently not very original either.

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The Tree of Life

Posted by Hedwig on June 13, 2011

I’m always a bit amused at people who get angry because they thing someone has a “wrong” opinion of a movie – i.e. one that doesn’t line up with their own. It’s certainly possible to give an assessment of a movie that’s fundamentally mistaken, but our own subjective experience plays such an important part that the final verdict we offer says as much about ourselves as it does about the movie.

I am an atheist. Have been as long as I can remember – when I was six, only recently relocated to France, I swore to some older kids at school that I believed in God, but that was only because they were big and scary, and I had no idea who this “Dieu” character was anyway. My mother thought it was important for me to know the bible from a cultural standpoint, and I did like some of the stories, but I never connected with them, and they never seemed more or less true than, say, the Greek myths. I called myself agnostic for a long time, because it seemed arrogant to claim to know for sure, but at some point I decided that if believing in the existence of God was enough to call yourself a believer, believing in his absence was enough to call myself a atheist.

While I do have a problem with some aspects of organized religion, I don’t think all religion (or belief) is a bad thing. If people apply it only to themselves, and if it helps them derive some meaning or comfort or hope in the face of the fundamental meaninglessness of existence, who am I to begrudge them? Furthermore, religion has led to some of the most beautiful artworks made, whether in music or painting or literature, and I can appreciate it for that alone.

This is a pretty long introduction just to tell you that the religious parts of THE TREE OF LIFE, especially at the beginning and at the end, took me right out of the movie, and I don’t quite know why. It was the direct address to a mute God, in particular, that made me feel remote from the movie, like it was not meant for me, like I did not speak its language.

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Thor

Posted by Hedwig on April 28, 2011

I’ve been posting short things about films on tumblr lately, but this post expanded to the point where I thought I’d cross-post it here, too.

THOR is an entertaining, well-paced, action-filled opener of the 2011 blockbuster season. It’s often funny, it has an intriguing, conflicted villain (which is an improvement over the two IRON MAN movies), and Chris Hemsworth acquits himself quite well, especially in the Earth-based scenes. It also caters to the audience in pleasant ways: he walks around shirtless for a full minute -maybe two- and while I generally like less bulky guys, I have to say, da-yum*. The Asgard and Jotumheim scenes are all CGI-gloss, but I guess that could not be avoided. And I’m impressed Branagh managed to keep the film tonally similar to the IRON MAN movies, which is promising for further entries in this Marvel series.

Unfortunately, this is one of those movies where you can glimpse the scaffold beneath the story. For instance, from the way the story resolves, I would guess that THE AVENGERS will use Thor as a (semi-literal) deus ex machina. Also, I understand that the whole movie revolves around Thor learning a lesson, but his reversal is rather sudden and extreme. And there are more nitpicks: Hopkins really hams it up (though I guess it’s hard to underplay Odin All-father), Portman doesn’t quite pull off the scientific mumbo-jumbo (but I appreciated seeing a female physicist – we don’t get a lot of representation on-screen), and Thor’s quartet of friends didn’t really get much to do. All-in-all: worth seeing, but non-essential.

A note on 3D: in my city, I couldn’t see THOR in 2D, and this kind of pisses me off. It’s not so much the price hike (though 11 euros is quite a lot of money), but it’s an ‘upgrade’ I’d rather opt out of. I only seldom see the added value of 3D (the scene with the clown in TOY STORY 3 is the only example that comes to mind), and I don’t get the claims of realism: in fact it’s often detrimental to immersion. For instance, it doesn’t go well with fact cutting and hand-held-like shots, where it often leads the audience to look ‘through’ the action, but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone. It doesn’t combine with other cinematic tools, either: in THOR, there is a shot where the foreground suddenly becomes blurry because we’re supposed to focus on something in the background. In 2D this works as a depth indication, and it’s a trope we’re used to as a guide to the eye, but in 3D it just takes you out of the experience: if you were truly watching at a 3D images, you would be able to focus your eyes wherever you wanted. I don’t want to rule out all 3D (I hope they’ll bring out CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS here at some point), but it would be nice if it was an option instead of a mandatory drag, and if people realized how much 3D limits the director’s bag of cinematic tricks and acted accordingly.

*couldn’t find a good still of that for drooling purposes, sorry. Hope this one will do, instead.

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Secret Beyond the Door

Posted by Hedwig on February 20, 2011

This post is for theFilm Noir Blogathon, details of which can be found here. Please consider donating to the Film Noir Foundation for the preservation of The Sound of Fury, and do hop over to the first link: there are so, so many great posts already, I almost hesitate to add my meager offering.

I first intended to write a post about Fritz Lang and gender relations, focusing especially on violence against women, but the subject proved to wide-ranging and diffuse. More specifically, I kept circling back to THE SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR, a Bluebeard kind of tale Lang made in 1947, starring Joan Bennett and Michael Redgrave. Warning: spoilers herein.

Any Bluebeard tale needs to deal with a few questions: why does the woman/girl marry Bluebeard? Why doesn’t she run away once she discovers the ‘secret beyond the door’? And, not unimportantly, what is Bluebeard’s deal? Why does he kill his wives?

The first wrinkle the movie presents us with is in the character of Celia. Her introductory voice-over (all about dreams and daffodils and fear of marriage) makes her seem like the stereotypical innocent, but the flashback we dive into reveals otherwise: Celia is reluctant to settle, and while she agrees to marry her brother’s dull & reliable friend, he thinks it wise to send her to Mexico to sow her wild oats.

She there, of course, meets another man – not a big surprise, considering the movie opens with their marriage. But it’s worth noting just how she catches his attention: by being enthralled by a knife fight between two men over a woman. Her friend is horrified, but Celia is powerfully drawn to this mix of violence and sex (incidentally, this is the same mixture that often draws us to noir). She barely even flinches when she’d almost hit by a thrown knife.

Hint: if you get picked up by a guy because he sees you love the mixture of violence and sex, marrying him might not be the smartest move.

Still, for all this heavy foreboding, Mark Lamphere seems fairly normal, even bland, though a tad sexist: there’s a fascinating conversation between the newlyweds about gender difference. Mark posits that men (or “human beings”, which is in his quote opposed to “women” and “children”) are rational, whereas women are intuitive. Celia makes a face. He defends himself, by saying that women can intuitively jump to a conclusion it might take a rational man days of rational reasoning (and so on) to get to. Celia, promptly and justifiably, pushes him off the hammock they’re laying on.

Mark also turns out to be prone to sudden mood swings, which soon interrupt the idyllic honeymoon. And then we come to his fort, where Celia not only finds his domineering sister, but also a son (with attendant Mrs. Danvers-like tutor) and the specter of a dead first wife – Rebecca, anyone? Creepier and creepier, it turns out during the housewarming party that the “felicitous” rooms her new husband told her he collected are all rooms where gruesome murders took place. Furthermore, while the movie doesn’t immediately point it out, they’re all murders of women. And there’s one room to which the door is ominously closed.

Ok, frankly, the concept of a “room collection”, even for an architect, is patently ridiculous. Still, the scene is powerful – and funny, as it’s commented on by a (female) psychology students, who proclaims that none of these murders would have taken place if only the murderers had sat down with a therapist. After all, who hates women except the repressed?

Of course, Celia just HAS to see what’s in that room – for her husband’s good, of course. She uses some wax to copy the key (in a really tense scene – Lang is an amazing director, and knows how to direct a thrilling sequence), and whaddaya know: it’s her bedroom. At first, this makes her suspect that Mark killed his first wife. But then *drumroll* she notices… that the candles are asymmetric. He means to kill her!

It looks, at first, as if she’s going to do the smart thing and run. And we get a nice little fake out: she sees a figure in the distance, she screams, there’s a fade to black and then we open back at the house, at a conspicuously Celia-less breakfast. We even get a courtroom scene, in which Mark attempts to protect himself, though the lack of features in the room clues us in to its non-existence.

But no! The dark, menacing figure was just her old fiancé, and somehow, this convinced Celia that she has to give her husband another chance. More specifically, SHE STILL THINKS HE WANTS TO KILL HER (I usually use italics for emphasis, but this warrants all caps), but she thinks there are, like, deep, repressed reasons for that, and she wants to get to the bottom of the matter. In other words: she doesn’t just try to stall, but she tries to talk him out of his murderous rage.



It turns out that Mark is angry because he thought his beloved mother once locked him in his room – but as Celia coincidentally knows, it was actually his sister. As if it’s not hard enough to swallow that a lifetime of misogyny (and even murderous rage at women) could be caused by a childhood prank, this clarification alone is enough to jolt Mark out of his trance, just in time to save his beloved wife from the fire lighted by the nanny (told you she was like Mrs. Danvers). And all was well.

I mock, but I really loved this film, despite its ludicrous elements, I love Joan Bennett in it (I’d like to take her character out for a drink), and I think it’s fascinating to think about. I don’t know how much Lang had to do with the plot or even theme, but violence against women is a recurring theme in his movies. In CLASH BY NIGHT, Marylin Monroe has a conversation with her beau about whether men have a right to smack their girlfriends around. In SCARLET STREET, Edward G. Robinson is henpecked by his wife, and eventually takes out all his bottled rage on Joan Bennett – though in that movie, she kinda deserves it.

The other big movie in this respect is THE BIG HEAT, in which the murder of a woman is a prime motivator for the hero, and violence perpetrated against another woman (Gloria Grahame) turns her into an instrument of revenge. In fact, in that movie, it can be said that Gloria Grahame’s character is a manifestation of Glenn Ford’s id, his violent inner safe made flesh, allowing the law-abiding cop to keep his hands clean, perhaps in illustration of Mark Lamphere’s thesis that men are ratio and women are instinct.

Of course, drawing these kinds of links is tricky. In Lang’s first two American Noirs, FURY (an alternate version of the story of THE SOUND OF FURY, the movie to be preserved) and YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE, the women (both played by Sylvia Sidney) are faithful and supportive, even functioning as consciences, while in a later film, BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT, the murder of showgirls might be the subject, but the only truly heroic character is played by Joan Fontaine.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re a tenacious person, and I’m afraid I’ll have to leave you without a clear conclusion, or well, point. Fact is: Lang is most famous for M and Metropolis and Dr. Mabuse, but his American work (of which I’ve seen only 8 out of 22) is worth exploring too, and he made a valuable contribution to film noir. THE BIG HEAT is the best one I’ve seen so far, but THE SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR shows his craftsmanship, is a fascinating variation on the “is my husband trying to kill me”-theme (see also: SUSPICION, GASLIGHT, even REBECCA)… and is a lot of fun, to boot.

Oh, and if you’d like to get me a birthday present? A donation to the Film Noir Foundation would be a great one!

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COPIE CONFORME: film as a Rorschach blot

Posted by Hedwig on August 9, 2010

Warning: SPOILERS herein (not that they really spoil the movie, in my humble opinion, but YMMV)
Disclaimer: Rambling, run-on sentences, etc.

From the advance reviews from Cannes, I knew that Copie Conforme centered around an ambiguity: is the central pair a long-married couple pretending they’d just met, or are they two people on a first date who play at being a troubled married couple? It seemed clear to me after the movie that it was the former. When I turned to the friend I saw the movie with, however, and said “well, that wasn’t THAT ambiguous”, she immediately agreed… and said “yes, I mean, obviously they’ve just met”.

Furthermore, my former colleague Ronald, whose opinion I greatly respect, described Juliette Binoche’s character in his (Dutch) review as a woman on the verge on a nervous breakdown. My takeaway? That William Shimell’s character was cold, distant, and kind of a jerk.

Of course, different people seeing different things in the same movie (or any work of art, in fact) is the rule rather than the exception. One could even say that art that can only be interpreted one way, or that can inspire only one specific emotion, is hardly art at all. Still, maybe because Shimell’s character is said to be interested more in the perception of art than in the art itself, and also because of the vast difference in the interpretations, it struck me as an interesting aspect to focus on. What if the ambiguous nature of the film is intentional, a deliberately equivocal canvas for us to project our interpretation on? Something like one of those optical illusions where you can see either one of two images, but never both at the same time?

If we accept that the movie functions as a sort of cinematic Rorschach blot, the next question is: what does it reveal? It seems that my interpretation would mark me as a cynic, but then again, in the alternative take on things, the two central characters are the cynical ones. Do Ronald and I disagree on the characters because of our respective genders, because of a facet of our personalities, like a fear of commitment versus a fear of abandonment – or, hopefully, because of something less facile? And there is, of course, another alternative: maybe it’s because we side with a certain protagonist’s views on the value of copies that we side with them as a person, too – though I cannot say if this applies to me, since I haven’t quite made up my mind on the matter.

As for the “truth” of the relationship, it might all be much simpler than all that. After all, with so little to go on (the only “concrete” clue, the outside perspective provided by the son, points to the second option), what made me so convinced? Probably mostly a failure of imagination: improvising a courtship seems, to me, much simpler than convincingly acting like you’ve had over a decade of recriminations between you. I also can’t imagine why you would even want to imagine that when everything’s still full of hope – while I can imagine trying to re-capture the thrill of the beginning.

Whichever your take is cannot give a conclusive answer about your stand in the copy vs. original debate, since it cannot equivocally be determined which is which – and that, of course, is kind of the point. All we can say is which WE – or I should say I – think is more credible as an original, which feels copied.

Maybe a second viewing, later, will change my mind – but the movie will, of course, still be the same. In any case, I’m fairly sure I’ll be as fascinated as I was this time: it’s a wonderfully shot, wonderfully acted film full of twists and turns about two complex people engaged in a complex, constantly evolving dialogue about art and relationships – how could I not be?

P.S. It is tempting, of course (if only since it’s the movie of the moment) to draw comparisons to Inception. However, I think the ambiguity there is cheap rather than interesting: since a happy ending would have felt/been undeserved, and a straight out “he’s still dreaming!”-conclusion would have been both a cop-out and not entirely supported by the rest of the movie, Nolan wisely decided to leave everything in the middle. It’s telling that not only do I not have an opinion on which option is “correct”, but I couldn’t care less.

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Apocalypse. Now.

Posted by Hedwig on December 31, 2009

Francis Ford Coppola: it’s hard to deny he’s a great director. But between a movie-watcher (or critic, if you want to use fancy words), as important as admiration is a factor I’ll call “chemistry”. Me and Francis, well…. I just don’t know if we click. Not that I don’t admire the Godfather, or the Conversation. Of course I do. I used to really like The Rainmaker in my Matt Damon-crush days (aka. when I was 17). In drunken honesty, I’ll admit that I kind of loved Youth without Youth. But there’s a reason I still haven’t watched all of The Godfather, pt. II. There’s a reason I avoid getting dragged into conversations about The Godfather altogether, to be honest. There’s a reason why, until today, I’d seen only the first 2/3rds of Apocalypse Now, and hadn’t taken the time to watch the mythical Kurtz part.

I’m still not entirely sure what the reason is, but finally seeing Apocalypse Now in its entirety (the original version, not the redux) did crystallize my feelings a bit. I was really impressed with the film, and I imagine that I would have been absolutely in awe, had I seen it in the cinema instead of on a snowy TV, interrupted by commercials.

Still…

Maybe it’s just my aversion to war films. What’s the quote again? “It’s impossible to make a movie about war that doesn’t glorify it” or something like that? I beg to differ. War movies sicken me, and I have a hard time seeing glory in any war – even justified ones. But it’s not just that. It also… well, it’s not exactly subtle, is it? Not that I require subtlety (I heart Baz Luhrman, after all), but after a dozen shots of faces half in shadows, half lit, am I the only one who feels like shouting “ok, ok, I GET IT” at the screen?

The movie is full of absolutely amazing shots, that I’d love to see in better quality some day. It’s majestic, yes, and there are a number of unforgettable sequences… But the line between majestic and just plain bombastic is very thin indeed. Marlon Brando is brilliantly cast, but having him quote T.S.Eliot? A little over the top, perhaps?

Of course, the movie wouldn’t work at all if it were subtle. It’s truly the work of a madman, and it thrives on the grand symbol, the swelling Wagner, the blood and madness. War IS excessive brutality, and a brutal assault on the senses is, thus, the only honest way to portray it. The over-the-top-ness is necessary to illustrate the absurdity of war. Again, I admire the film, I’m even planning on seeing the redux version (in, hopefully, better quality) soon.

But the click? Still missing.

Readers: help me out. Should I wattch Tetro?

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Bright Star

Posted by Hedwig on October 29, 2009

Film_BrightStar-570The friend I went to see Bright Star with liked the movie, but mentioned she liked The Duchess better. The comparison is interesting: both movies, set less than half a century apart, are about women who express themselves mainly though clothing, and who cannot marry who they wish. It surprised me at the time that I enjoyed the Duchess quite a bit, but in my eyes, Bright Star is a much more interesting – if flawed – film.
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More observations about Basterds

Posted by Hedwig on August 26, 2009

*Chap. 1: at first, the switch from French to English proposed by Landa seems a cheap trick from the director, to avoid more subtitles. I didn’t wonder about Landa’s motivation, because I assumed it to be artificial. However, as it turns out in the crescendo towards the end, Landa did have a very specific motivation for the switch, indeed, and it was no QT ploy.

inglourious_basterds

*Chap. 2: After the western opening, we now move to farce. I love how there are nested stories here. There’s what really happened: that the soldier betrayed his fellows to save his life, and was let go accordingly. There’s the story Aldo Raine feeds him: that they let him escape to strike fear into the hearts of the nazis. And then there’s the story that Hitler, after hearing (the fake) story #2, orders the soldier to tell: that he daringly escapes. Thus the coward becomes a hero – all it takes is two propagandistic spins. In fact, propaganda really is (one of) the continuing thread(s) through this movie: from Chap. 1, wherein Landa references the portrayal of Jews as rats, all the way to the end.
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Inglourious Basterds

Posted by Hedwig on August 24, 2009

Who’d have thought: Tarantino does it again, “it” being making a quintessential Tarantino movie, talky, slow, yet exhilarating too, at moments horrifying, and veering wildly from authentic dread to over-the-top absurdism. In one word, it’s awesome – though admittedly not unproblematic.

inglourious_basterds_2

The main objection to the film, from venerable people like Daniel Mendelsohn at Newsweek and Jonathan Rosenbaum, is that the film is morally despicable, “akin to holocaust denial”. I can see the point… or could if it was unambiguous that Tarantino wanted us to root for the Basterds and cheer their vicious tactics, wanted us to glory in this revenge story, the third in a row in his recent filmography (counting Kill Billas one film). However, I’m not sure his intention is so crude. In fact, I think the case can be made that in all three films, there are significant question marks* as to whether the revenge is satisfactory and/or fully deserved. (warning: here be SPOILERS)

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