…and the quest to see everything

Archive for April, 2012

Scary, Funny, Sweaty, Hot Docs


I’m linking and recommending you to two websites that have Hot Docs coverage, because I write for both. The first is Nathaniel R’s The Film Experience (link below), where I write my first impressions on the Hot Docs line-up, intimidated by a few stand out movies that have too serious of subjects. Or at least that is true with some of the festivals’ opening movies such as The Invisible War and Outing. The former captures talking heads who have firsthand experience of the rape within the military while the latter is about a man who, at fifteen, discovers his sexual attraction to children. But there is a silver lining to the festival’s programs as I’ve discovered other, fringe-y subjects who look at the bright side of their imperfect circumstances.

The second is Entertainment Maven, where our friend Kirk Haviland has written a preview of the festival. He starts his coverage by reviewing Brett Whitcomb’s Glow: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. I share reviewing duties with him, starting with the Ross Brothers’ Tchoupitoulas, a movie sharing a name with a bustling street in New Orleans’ French Quartier. I’ve also seen Najeeb Mirza’s Buzkashi, about a traditional Tajik sport that’s raising Western eyebrows. I also have pending tickets about Tajikistan’s powerful neighbours in The Boxing Girls of Kabul. I’m sensing that my coverage is more international than I previously thought. I’m also looking forward to our co-reviewer Nadia Sue Sandhu who is bravely facing the James Franco doc, among others. This week will be tiring, as most scary fun things are.


The All Wet Blog-A-Thon: Inception


It’s super boring to talk about Christopher Nolan‘s Inception, the favourite movie of people born yesterday, but despite of the flaws we know about it’s a movie we like revisiting. Or it likes revisiting us. Like every (lax) fan boy I was obsessed with Hans Zimmer‘s bombastic soundtrack, half of the songs deserving to be a ballet that needs to happen, especially the track “The Dream is Collapsing,” it’s suggestions of violent and volatile movement. I then had to look up and remember which scene it corresponds and it couldn’t have been a better one, starting with the appropriately named Mal (Marion Cotillard) ruining her living husband Dom Cobb’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) extraction. Being in a dream within a dream Dom’s collaborators try to wake up him up to salvage the mission. On the first dream level it just looks like the old architect (Lukas Haas) pushing his boss down a tub and ruining the latter’s not so young face and white suit which, in hindsight looks ridiculously over-played. But we see that the first level infiltrates the second. This isn’t necessarily rain as the blogathon requires but it, like an act of God, comes out of the sky and into the palace’s rooftops. Dom eventually watches this artificial world’s destruction, being brought back to the fiery troubles of the first level and the real world itself. It’s a beautiful event in itself.

This is part of The All Wet Blog-A-Thon via Andrew Kendall.


The Notebook


I know I’ve discussed gender perspective in genre movies so I feel as if I’m treading too familiar of a ground but it still fascinates me that we’re watching a male protagonist in contemporary romantic movies now, like here in Nick Cassavetes‘ adaptation of  The Notebook, the catalyst to Nicholas Sparks‘ factory of insufferable ubiquity. But this movie that started it all is still exemplary in the way it visualizes emotion.

Anyway, we’re seeing James Garner‘s character narrating. At least that shows that men have some semblance of feelings, as well as giving for both the female target audience and their poor boyfriends a reason to stay for the movie. Or no, it’s more complex than that, he tells it in Rachel McAdams‘ character’s point of view who, after all, is a fitting centre because she – as part of the genre’s formula, I know and I don’t care – has to choose between two men, a poor young man of her dreams (Ryan Gosling) and his richer yet equally handsome and benevolent rival (James Marsden). He has a purpose and pathos in retelling this story. Attraction or emotional attachment, as the genre suggests, are the most important aspects to ponder in her choice and with the movie’s setting – the 1960’s – and class dynamics it’s still a wonder whether she would act on those factors or repress them and stay with the suitable man her mother (Joan Allen) want to marry. Whether this would end in a fade-out happiness or tragedy.

The Notebook is the closest we’ll get to a Sirkian drama although it doesn’t go to those heightened emotions. I’m talking about the well-crafted visuals here, the clear images, sticking out against movies made that year that are either too plastic, dark or wintry. It’s a great lens to portray Garner and a woman he’s taken a liking to at an old folks home (Gena Rowlands) – he tells his younger relatives that he will never let her go after taking pains to find her. But the cinematography is more naturalistic yet glowingly lucid in depicting their younger equivalents, experiencing rural beauty – someone has probably already written some thesis about how different it is to fall in love within the country as it is in the city. The couple find themselves alone while he rows a boat further into a river where tall trees and the whitest ducks in the world would be, but there’s this Arcadian purity in their seclusion and the camera is in the right kind of distance to experience both the lovebirds’ perspective as well as enjoy their environment. Great romantic movies like this fool us into thinking these two can’t be in any bad scenario – some of us think of courtship scenes more cynically because doesn’t work with us real people – except for the ones where they have to be pulled apart. And the movie’s length didn’t bother me as long as they spent more time or possible grow together.

This is a movie of boat rides and car rides, a woman going to her loved one or her mother showing her the risks of marrying down. A movie about discovery that those little journeys produce. Although one thing strange about the mother’s revelation, that maybe the reason that her own fling ends up the way he did is because she didn’t save him. I’m not saying that women are obliged to save lower class boys and convert them into the kind of men that their parents will approve of but there is this therapeutic element to relationships, or at least the movie shows characters’ romantic bonds as to having that effect. But even though her mother and her fiancée prefer that she doesn’t run off and elope, they’re not necessarily the movie’s villains, since they’re merely looking out for her best interests.

Also, isn’t it a bit Crazy that Allen and Rowlands are in a movie together and if McAdams proves herself to be better than her present role choices – this movie, like Sparks’ oeuvre, also starting her stint as the actress in every other weepy – she could join them as part of a great actress ensemble? She can hold the screen in what could be considered a period piece without being overwhelmed and relying on the costumes and hair. It’s the latest example of a movie knowing how to sympathize with and aestheticize a woman and the people and objects around her in a way that most directors have now forgotten to do.


The House Bunny


The House Bunny is the only movie that allows Anna Faris and Emma Stone to share the same screen and since the movie views women to Faris’ standard, Stone will probably never get this naked and Mean Girls-y again. Shelley Darlingson (Faris), being last out in the orphanage (the movie pays lip service to this part of Shelley’s character which, to be honest, is all it needs), always thinks of herself as an outsider even though she has one of the most coveted jobs that conventionally beautiful women have, a job that some of those women use to stab each other with. She’s grateful and has a sunny perception – she says something like “It’s like being naked in the centre of a magazine and people unfold you!” – about her precarious place within the mansion, as a 27-year-old she sees herself as 59 in Bunny years. After being schemed out of the Playboy mansion, Shelley becomes house-mother to Stone’s sorority house – the Zetas – although both mentor each other, the former with knowledge about how to attract men to help them save their sorority house and the latter knowing how to attract a man who isn’t superficial (Colin Hanks, obviously son of Tom). One of the movie’s funniest montages involve her trying to smarten herself by reading many books at once in a library and going to senior level classes in which she’s not enrolled. It reminds me of one of the movie’s earlier scenes where she asks one of the girls from a rival house where all the desks are. Both scenes are, to my limited knowledge of the subgenre of frat/sorority movies, the biggest indictment of college culture in cinema.

Stone, like her other housemates (Kat Dennings, Katherine McPhee and Rumer Willis) go through two makeovers. The first, through Shelley’s guiding hand, takes too long to set up. The second is when one of the Zetas tell the other that they’ve become as superficial as their rivals. Stone’s character soberly advertising Zeta’s mission statement as being about acceptance is how we’ll see her onscreen persona in future rules.

Even if Faris and Stone are regarded as underrated comic gems stuck in a cinematic era that treats them like shit, the former, a secret national treasure and a celebrity impression that some cheerleaders have in their comic arsenal – is good but not enough to elevate this movie. There is absolutely no reason for everyone to watch this movie or to call this as a comedy – but then I read a lot of complaints that contemporary mainstream comedy isn’t funny so I guess this movie’s first few scenes might fit in with that description – and I felt the same way until I heard Faris’ voice get deeper and more guttural because that’s the way Shelley remembers names. I’m immature and get amused by stuff like that – it’s actually the first thing I’ll remember with this movie, the ‘erythromycin/meteor’ soliloquy in the end being the second. OHLIVEHR! That voice, simply enough, makes Faris’ Shelley a physically straining, full-bodied performance. You can call it as Faris putting the wool under our eyes but I still like it.

Aside from those two leads the movie also boasts a cast that sounds useless on paper but are awesome together. I tweeted earlier that McPhee acts and sings more here than in all of “Smash” and I stand by that. And who knew that Willis, whose character is stuck in a body brace for most of the movie, ends up having the best body in a cast of many beautiful women? Dennings in her most sarcastic yet most restrained, surprisingly. I love the scene where the sorority girls take out their fake eyelashes and tell each other that despite of Shelley’s inadvertent bad influence the latter still has style. Anyway, back to the cast, Beverly D’Angelo’s villain reminds us that, despite not necessarily deserving a lead role in anything, she’s a competent and more preserved Faye Dunaway. This is an ensemble picture in, as many would see it, its worst and most embarrassing way bot I can’t knock it because of its entertainment value and that I keep rooting for these actresses in their future projects.


HMWYBS: Raise the Red Lantern


Raise the Red Lantern is my first Zhang Yimou and first Gong Li, the latter’s talent discussed with exclamation so much that it makes me feel like I missed out, although there are many beauties who have come to grace cinema after her. Nonetheless there can’t be a better first impression than watching her play Songlian, determined to dig her own grave despite her mother’s warnings. She behaves as stiffly and as nervous as a wall in one minute and trying to shout those same walls down during the next. I’m used to more Western narratives where a woman, whose only companion is her husband and perhaps a lover, becomes unhinged in isolation. But this movie complicates that dynamic by making Songlian one of four mistresses to an early 20th century Chinese aristocrat Master Chen (Ma Jingwu), whose attitudes to each other are less cooperative and more competitive, adding to her isolation, a crippling yet universal feeling for many of literature’s heroines. But while we’re sympathizing with her and want her to succeed and play her wifely role perfectly, we’re also frustrated by her introversion the growing viciousness that her servants (especially Lin Kong as her servant Yan’er) begin to notice.

I love how the mistresses are depicted, Songlian, the dowager one, the ‘nice’ one (Cao Cuifen) and Meishan (He Caifei), the holdout who still introduces herself as an opera singer. She always uses lipstick and light make up and her chamber reflects her former occupation, looking like a stage as Songlian remarks. It’s has the most personality compared to the golden warmth of the first two mistresses’ chambers. It’s one of the last times that the two women will be positioned as equals, both having the same stakes at the game, both deferring a chance to be in their Master’s company to the ‘nice’ mistress through one’s schemes and the other’s indulgence.

But I noticed that there’s more to Songlian’s off-white chamber when her frenemy the third mistress visits. Plastered on the walls are scrolls as large as Meishan’s masks, a reminder of her off-screen past as a university student – funnily enough that Meishan looks up to her because of the former’s unfinished education. I’m starting to grow into the shot above as my best because of the inadvertent double effect that these scrolls put attention to themselves as well as recede to walls of the same colour, as well as reflecting the restrained nature of both her studies and as a mistress-in-waiting. Even the red lanterns don’t even make the place look more colourful. Yimou’s camera prefers to push the camera back, making these women as secondary to the room as the room’s motifs. She finally lets Meishan into her chamber not as a competitor but as a confidante but there’s so much going on with the body language and blocking to reinforce the borders between them, as Meishan furthers herself into Songlian’s quarters there’s still some reluctance, with her arms crossed and the latter with a demure pose, not looking at her visitor directly.

The shots that came close to being the best are exteriors. Songlian is outside her quarters, giving her the freedom to navigate the palace in open air but she again recedes, making her insignificant compared to the palace’s grand scale as well as its many, conniving inhabitants. But this new knowledge has a price, giving her more access to the family’s ghosts. The ‘nice’ mistress tells her not to go to the locked chamber. Of course the household likes to keep their oppression from reach but she goes back when her friend Meishan is dragged there through her own drunken fault.

Because of an injustice the house seems as if it has its own spirit, or that Songlian makes it seem that way to keep her victim alive. In the household light means power and most of the time the Master and the men have this, the lanterns symbolizing the Master’s company and the favour tipping towards a certain mistress. But sometimes the women get this power like the shot below where the women can scare the men off, being unable to kill off or rid of a subversive mistress.

Her freedom is eventually negated in the end when she regresses into her childlike self with school girl outfit, walking back and forth in her own hallway like Minotaur, barred from the Master and the household’s company as they fear the destruction she might cause to the society that’s been equally cruel to her. It was kind of frustrating to get this shot, as Yimou kept cutting these static shots too fast and with slightly different angles. It had this effect where the lanterns criss crossed together. There’s probably something more to these shots that I can’t articulate but I eventually embraced its beauty.


Playerhaters from Outer Space!


Guy Pearce is a punching bag. He is a man without a past, able to negotiate with or win against authority. This lanky figure, under the shadows of independent cinema, portrays movies’ masculine myths, sleuth, cowboy, king, explorer, diver, fishing on both good and evil. He says your insecurities loud enough for you to hear. I referenced at least five of his movies but he relives them all in the Luc Besson-incepted and Stephen St. Leger and James Matherdirected sci-fi Lockout, a movie set in 2079, while wearing a women’s sized medium graphic tee to expose his veiny biceps, telling audiences he’s not too old to play the Hollywood game of Commonwealth actors working out on the gym to get leading roles. He’s passable as a sellout but let’s be honest, he bagged this role because Hugh Jackman was busy and Pearce wants to buy a condo and put kids through college.

This movie has a plot. Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) is on a humanitarian mission to a detention centre on outer space – I feel so stoned typing that – where the prisoners are cryogenically frozen to keep them from assaulting each other. Somehow the American government taxes the rich in this sci-fi. She’s there to check whether the detainees are treated fairly but all goes awry when one escaped prisoner (Brit TV actor Joseph Gilgun)  helps lead the hundreds of others into taking the scientists controlling the complex as hostages, including Emilie. The secret service’s (led by Peter Stromare) mission is to rescue the hostages, bringing in maligned rogue CIA agent Snow (Pearce) to rescue Emilie and to hope that the prisoners don’t discover that she’s the president’s. Daughter!

The performances here is interesting, where the supporting cast either flaunt or hide their European accents (Besson by the way has occasionally portrayed America through his European lens), one of the prisoners, suffering from the dementia caused by the freezing, is acting like a Scottish gargoyle. Grace is painfully deadpan as a blonde-tressed damsel with sleepy eyes but all she needs was an impromptu haircut from Snow for her face to open and show her second note, shooting off the script’s witty banter to counter his remarks against her that are so sexist that they shouldn’t be taken seriously. Pearce’s performance here is lazy but it’s also admirable to watch him play devil’s advocate without trying. Together Grace and Pearce play off each other like middle school kids who punch each other as a shorthand for affection, Emilie learning the ropes even though Snow doesn’t readily give them to her.

There are some contrivances in this fictional world that the characters aren’t smart enough to grasp, like when Emilie doesn’t realize that Snow’s friend helps her cause. The movie’s technology is also questionable. But those shortcomings are compensated with its honest execution. Its tone is just like Snow’s philosophy that despite being surrounded by concepts, these characters speak and act as snarky yet competently forceful. It has its share of quotables, referring to kin-hood and character flaws delivered ridiculously. And sometimes a movie not caring about how good it is makes the actors and the set pieces seem like they’re going all out. I’m not the kind who predicts on a movie’s success – and keep in mind that I wouldn’t pay to see this movie – but if this ends up being a cult favourite or a franchise, I wouldn’t be surprised. I’d actually be happy. Image via THR. 3/5


2011: We Need to Talk About…


I’m wishing that We Need to Talk About Kevin, the movie based on the Lionel Shriver bestseller, came out on DVD already so I can share with you the film’s first two images. The first one is of a translucent white curtain slowly being blown by the air. The second of an inevitably erotic nature, of muscle squashing together tightly, painted red by tomatoes and tomato juice, those bodies ion the streets that we see from the air in the Tomatina festival in Spain, one of its participants being our protagonist Eva Katchadourian (Tilda Swinton). Seeing these I inevitably compare this work of Lynne Ramsay’s to artist-turned director Steve McQueen’s, both seemingly having the same meditative pace and construction. The movie doesn’t live up to those expectations although we get a few visual treats – Eva hiding behind carefully stacked Campbell Soup cans, jagged ones of meeting her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), her troublesome six-year-old son Kevin (Jasper Newell) making her office room wallpapered by maps into a ‘special’ Jackson Pollock of a mess – to clarify I’m not a Pollock hater but I would equally freak out if my kid dripped and shot paint all over the walls – and countless ones where mother and son (the teenaged version played by Ezra Miller) awkwardly share opposite sides of the same uncomfortable space. Eva, and sometimes Kevin, live in middle American kitsch suburbia, these poppy images drowned under fluorescent blandness. These images satisfy, the rest of the compositions mixing the elfin Swinton with middle American motifs, an unlikely pair that we get used to.

But I keep going back to the first two images, the second set pushed to the back burner as the happiest moment of Eva’s life while the first is the gateway and culmination of her worst. The movie’s intertwining plot lines mostly show us that her worst moments continue. Her new, shabbier house is often vandalized, surrounded by distant neighbours, their suspicious children and the occasional Jehovah’s Witness missionary, oblivious to her eternal damnation. But the movie also return to her relative misery as a wife/mother of two in a rich neighbourhood, their house funded by her best-selling travel books. She’s the town’s pariah, having to apply for a lowly travel agent job while her skeletal face gets clocked by another housewife after her job interview. We find out why the townspeople hate her so much as she has to, out of obligation, visit him in jail. When her family was intact, there seemed to be an alliance between Kevin and Franklin while Eva asks for the sympathy of her daughter, which he gets. But in her present situation, mother and son are stuck together.

Despite the images, this adaptation, as a medium, can’t help but be more one-sided than I imagine the novel to be. We the audience see Kevin as a baby alone with Eva – she takes his stroller to a construction site to drown out his incessant cries as opposed to, you know, feeding him or changing him or whatever actual good mothers should do. Then he magically stops crying when daddy comes home. She even tells him that she would be in France if he wasn’t born, these impulsive words heard by the disapproving Franklin. Speaking of changing, six-year-old Kevin is seen wearing diapers, and eventually we discover that she has to accidentally injure him in order for him to be potty trained. Until this section of the movie Eva seems like a passive character but even with punitive action she can’t discipline the boy or make him be nice to her. There is an exception when, after the hospital visit, she reads “Robin Hood” to her child, only realizing that hell take up an archery obsession that eventually drives her crazy. As the torture continues to his teenage years, Kevin giving her the cut eye to let her know that something would be amiss in the house for which he’s responsible. There’s also a sequence of her as she takes teenage Kevin for a golf and dinner date, when he combats her every attempt of small talk, Miller delivering each line with vehemence as Swinton is exquisite even while reacting. But I keep replaying the dialogue in that sequence in my head, since there are possibilities that his words aren’t that mean, that he’s just holding up a mirror to her hypocrisies and performed motherly warmth.

There’s also this unnecessary nihilism to the movie, especially with introducing Eva’s daughter. The movie, especially with its flashbacks and forwards, makes us wait for what he does that puts him in jail and for why her daughter has to wear an eye patch and the way the movie develops makes us feel that these events will be obscenely portrayed. This also makes me curious about how parents of juvenile criminals in reality are treated because it can’t be as bad and extreme as this. It is about the labourious plastering of how Kevin affects Eva. I’m not necessarily asking for a sugar-coating of the grisly subject it’s as if Ramsay and those involved in this movie are making it more difficult to reach these characters’ and environment’s humanity.