Archive for December, 2012

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Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995)

December 12, 2012

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I enjoyed the absolute shit out of this movie. This was not so surprising, as Verhoeven at his worst is unfailingly entertaining, and at his best among the most unique film artists working today. Granted, irony is common these days, but rarely is it employed with such dedication; rather than fits and bursts of irony delineating it from the more casually sincere, Verhoeven risks the entire product (and being misunderstood) with it. As such his key progenitor is surely Douglas Sirk, likewise a European who worked within and incisively critiqued America, sharing as they do a subversive streak, targeting the satire squarely at the audience paying to see their movies. But where Sirk generally examined the middle and upper classes, Verhoeven often takes on generic movie narratives and exposes their falsehoods. Showgirls is not just a spit in the face of the American Dream, but the movies that perpetrate the myth. Nomi Malone’s (No me? Alone?) attempt to start a new life from scratch is corrupted and she becomes both victim and player (repeatedly, it becomes the film’s rhythm) of the game until her strength wins out and she ends up on top—a monster, heading for Hollywood.

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Take a look at the two phony-looking roadsigns that bookend the picture, the odd negative space on each seems to suggest L.A. represents a further moral descent despite Nomi’s social climb. Her Italian roots aren’t introduced for no good reason, like the Aryan Argentines with yanky accents of Starship Troopers, Nomi’s whitewash into Heather—along with the cowgirl outfit she dons significantly only at the very beginning—rather discreetly marks her as a vehicle for the modern American in this wild parable. But unlike Troopers, which took the form of propaganda, Nomi’s arc is subtextually tragic, and vaguely exposes Verhoeven’s sincerity, at least it felt so to me. Yet he is wary of viewer-character empathy, and his career is built around toying with its tradition in cinema. Is the rape scene here not so overblown that one’s reaction turns from horror to a distanced contemplation? Is his irony mean-spirited, or does it unpatronisingly allow for the viewer to negotiate his own way to the meaning?

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But there are aesthetic pleasures to delight in here as well: not merely in its gloriously garish cinematography, a bombardment of neon colours and lighting, but an equally heightened thrust, a total physicality that drives every bit of mise-en-scene. The result is something satisfyingly campy and sexy and hilarious and musical, but beyond that, a pointed display of affectations and egos rudely bouncing off each other; actors and characters performing alike. Elizabeth Berkley, whoever she is, is terrific in this. Nomi’s adolescent pride (later discovered to be a desperate defense) is superbly manifested by Berkley’s body, her gestures. At one point, as Nomi realises a dancing gig was a set-up, Berkley even manages the subtlest of lip quivers; it seems as if the actress felt this role body and soul.

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Verhoeven and Jost Vacano’s Steadicam camerawork dexterously keeps up with the backstage bustle, itself Renoir-esque. But it’s a real surprise to find Verhoeven’s musical talents shine through, particularly in the suturing of the dance numbers, the shots of which are timed to the music so precisely as to be kinetic. It’s not classy stuff, but then it obviously isn’t meant to be. Some may dismiss this film as a pointless and ridiculous All About Eve retread or even, as many did at the time of its release, overlook the irony altogether. But I see a great and wickedly enjoyable film, a female To Live and Die in L.A., and perhaps behind Robocop, Paul Verhoeven’s best American effort.

November 2011

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Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together (1997)

December 12, 2012

Happy Together

Though anything but political, Wong’s Argentina-set pained romance premiered on the eve of the handover of Hong Kong back to the Mainland, giving the melancholic displacement of its Chinese protagonists a macroscopic relevance after several years of the region’s West-bound diaspora. Or rather, what with the final image of a train terminating warmly at a Hong Kong station, is this ultimately a poem of a cautiously optimistic return to the motherland after 150 years apart? Allegorical notions aside, the idea of home—in country and love—as absent as it is, permeates Happy Together. At its core is a bond, as rich and convincing a relationship the cinema has ever seen, that is stretched to its limits but never breaks. The two men orbit around it: Leslie’s perpetual boredom ensures as much shameless cheating as crawling back; Tony’s more conservative classiness allows for the guilt-tripping and rebuking borne of frustrated superiority, eventually worn down out of his equally conservative desire to “keep” and take care of Leslie. By all accounts this is an unhealthy love, masochistic in nature, but one with a deep desire to rise above petty bullshit and intrinsic discrepancies. This is beautifully expressed in at least two ways: the falls the couple fails to visit in the opening part become a utopian symbol of happiness they cannot reach together, the lamp pictured with said falls a constant reminder (pensive, not cruel) of their stagnation; and a woozy, chimerical slow tango that hints at a rekindling but really exists in a more pleasant parallel universe and tenderly evokes their shared disappointment.

Happy Together

More and more non-narrative passages of pure feeling take over the film, allowing Wong’s singular talents in sculpting time and spotlighting music to shine. The sense of loss and regret becomes overwhelming as immediacy makes way for increasingly after-the-fact curtailment before a rather sunny look to the future (at least for Tony). Typically, the film entire is propelled by memory, signalled by Tony’s past-tense narration. The deployment of black and white remains ambiguous, initially suggesting a flashback or like conceit, but Wong and Doyle feel out the look organically. Indeed the black and white comes to a head when our lovers decide yet again to start over; glorious colour takes over as Leslie rests his head on Tony in the back of a taxi—an image that haunts Wong’s oeuvre. Much of Doyle’s wide-angle lensing pits the lovers at a great distance from one another, as lines recede and skies loom in a fashion both appropriate and gorgeous. To be sure, Happy Together contains some of the most stunning photography ever produced. As with Godard and Malick, Wong largely “writes” his films during production, appropriating a myriad of unforseen factors (Buenos Aires’ frigid weather, Chen Chang’s whole inclusion), and especially in the editing room, as Pung-Leung Kwan’s unmissable making-of documentary attests to with its treasure of aborted footage that wafts in similarly like vague memories or visions of those (even sadder) parallel worlds.

Happy Together

As for the gems that did make the film: The convulsive cutting of Leslie’s passport query ending with Tony slowly placing rice in his mouth, a minor masterstroke of loaded psychology left for the viewer to colour in; another bit of quick cutting upon Leslie’s arrival at Tony’s bar by which Wong crystalises the precise point in space and time their paths cross, hearts swept up in it with possibility (and the rejection of same); the snippets of one man watching the other sleep, a kinky one-sidedness to love that briefly recalls Faye Wong inhabiting Leung’s apartment in Chungking Express; and the quintessentially-Wong legend of a lighthouse at the end of the world where heartbroken people leave their sadness—further exemplifying his status as a romantic which Wong protests and resents! But truly, screen romance scarcely comes as piercing and sublime as it does with Happy Together.

 

 

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Predicting My 2013 Favourites

December 7, 2012

The Grandmaster

This is just a small experiment in how well I know my own “taste”. Naturally at this stage I’m ignorant of many films that will premiere in 2013, so it’s sure to be mostly inaccurate come 2014 or so.

  1. Tip Top (Bozon)
  2. Lowlife (Gray)
  3. Blind Detective (To)
  4. Ninja II (Florentine)
  5. Before Midnight (Linklater)
  6. Sunset Song (Davies)
    –or A Quiet Passion, if either actually drop in 2013
  7. Hard to Be a God aka The Story of the Arcanar Massacre (German)
  8. Gravity (Cuarón)
  9. Snowpiercer (Bong)
  10. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon or another Hong or another again or all tied (Hong)
  11. Voyage of Time and/or Knight of Cups (Malick)
  12. Paradise: Hope (Seidl)
  13. Top of the Lake (Campion, TV)
  14. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch)
  15. I Used to Be Darker (Porterfield)
  16. Under the Skin (Glazer)
  17. Side Effects (Soderbergh)
  18. Squirrel to the Nuts (Bogdanovich)
  19. Goodbye to Language 3D (Godard)
  20. The Grandmaster (Wong)
  21. The Sacrament (West)
  22. Camille Claudel, 1915 (Dumont) *

Side Effects

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My November ’12 in Film

December 1, 2012

Blue Steel

Not a spectacular month, despite 73 viewings in total. 16 of those were from the 1990s, no doubt inspired by Slant’s recent list regarding that decade’s best films. And indeed many of the best I saw were among them, with the majority of the worst hailing from 2012 all by itself. Apart from that only a flirtation with Siodmak (The Dark Mirror being the third and least) is evident in terms of trends.

A top 15:

  1. Kikujiro (1999, Kitano)
  2. The Color Wheel (2011, Perry)
  3. Death and the Maiden (1994, Polanski)
  4. Conspirators of Pleasure (1996, Svankmajer)
  5. El Cielo Gira (2004, Álvarez)
  6. The Day I Became a Woman (2000, Makhmalbaf)
  7. Phantom Lady (1944, Siodmak)
  8. Torn Curtain (1966, Hitchcock)
  9. Frankenweenie (2012, Burton)
  10. Central Park (1991, Wiseman)
  11. Ruby in Paradise (1993, Nunez)
  12. King of New York (1990, Ferrara)
  13. Undisputed III: Redemption (2010, Florentine)
  14. Girl Walk // All Day (2011, Krupnick)
  15. Criss Cross (1949, Siodmak)
    Underneath (1995, Soderbergh)
    *

Green Snake

Others, no order:

Breakdown (1997, Mostow), ParaNorman (2012, Butler & Fell), Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977, Aldrich), Heaven’s Gate (1980, Cimino), Blue Steel (1989, Bigelow), Cop (1988, Harris), Raining in the Mountain (1979, Hu), The Spirit (2008, Miller), Dog Days (2001, Seidl), Rendezvous in Paris (1995, Rohmer), Aya (1990, Hoass), Marfa Girl (2012, Clark), Premium Rush (2012, Koepp).

Ruby in Paradise achieves such an exquisite sort of listless melancholy made up of musings and acute experiences that best recalled the great Housekeeping. There are heartbreaking little resignations and realisations about America and about life, and it’s never melodramatic with highs and lows, just a grounded in between field of feeling. Ashley Judd’s voiceover and gestures are that of a much older woman, an older soul, as if I’d watched a Director’s Cut for which she returned to supplement years later -yet her face is so cherubic; truly wise casting.

The Color Wheel is a wonderful blend of mumblecore mumbling and a totally anti-verisimilitude, even chimerical sort of wit. Probably the funniest movie I’ve seen in months.

Torn Curtain should be more highly regarded. That farm murder sequence is among the best things Hitch ever filmed and cut, fuck. Overall very very good; an abundance of clever touches, naturally.

The Spirit

Dog Days. Probably the least of the Seidls I’ve seen but still so good. What a unique artist; I suppose there’s a good deal of Herzog/Korine etc in his humanism, but the more Kubrickian eye belies his conversely analytical, ironic, anti-humanist side. Love that dynamic. The pure dysfunction on display in this rather sprawling and occasionally repetitive portrait of sadism, masochism, trauma, base sexuality, materialism and revenge is all the more frightening in that it’s all so functional and predictably human.

Compelled to mention:

  • A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985, Sholder): Almost made the main list. A Nick Ray-esque parable of internalised homophobia outwardly destroying the sources of its attraction/fear. It’s a pity it only partially realises this premise (for instance it fails to acknowledge society’s homophobic influence on the boy), but it’s coherent overall.
  • Green Snake (1993, Tsui): Batshit insane but exhausting. The colours and effects…psychedelic.
  • Beloved (1998, Demme): Commendably weird. Suspect melodrama, perhaps. Beautifully performed.
  • The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. (1953, Rowland): Dr. Seuss does cinema & it’s exactly what you expect. Some neat Freudian stuff at play.
  • Mr. Freedom (1969, Klein): Yet more highly artificial sets & cartoon nonsense.
  • The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971, Fuest): And another. Se7en/Silence of the Lambs/Saw/Masque of the Red Death, with British humour. Nifty framing.
  • The Forest for the Trees (2003, Ade): That ending.
  • My Sister Eileen (1955, Quine): A couple of really delightful dance numbers.

The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T

Best rewatches:

  • The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967, Demy)
  • Happy Together (1997, Wong)

Worst:

  • From Beginning to End (2009, Abranches)
  • Pieta (2012, Kim)
  • Dream and Silence (2012, Rosales)
  • Deadfall (2012, Ruzowitzky)
  • The Amazing Spider-Man (2012, Webb)
  • Hereafter (2010, Eastwood)
  • Diamonds Are Forever (1971, Hamilton)