Sunday, August 19, 2007

Time To Leave (2006)


I'm not quite sure what this says about me, but I can often find that the films that depress most people can exhilarate me when they've just been done so well. As is the case with François Ozon's Time To Leave.

Truth is, when I saw it, I really liked it, but didn't love it upon leaving the theater. But it's just one of those films that grew in my estimation with time. It has since become one of my favorite films of the decade.

On the face of things, this would seem like your run of the mill movie of the week, but, it really isn't. As far as terminal illness movies go, they're a dime a dozen, but what Time To Leave manages to do is to bring a fresh perspective.

The central character, Romain, is NOT a likable guy, nor will he have a change of heart at any time during the movie. He's an instigator with few people he truly shows any love for. He's the sort that pushes people away and knows how to push buttons intentionally: with family, with his boyfriend, and almost anyone with whom he comes into contact.

But, when he receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer, it sets off a chain of events that really only seems to make sense to him. He doesn't reveal his diagnosis to anyone except his grandmother (in a small, but wonderful, performance from Jeanne Moreau).

I think a lot of things amazed me about this film, but I think what stuck with me is that it managed to remain poignant while not trying to forcibly redeem Romain. He's an ass up to the end, in most respects. Yet, I still found myself caring about him as a character who is weaker than he lets on. But it manages to do so without employing all the tired cliches from most of these types of films. As much as we like to say that we don;'t care what people think of us, Romain truly doesn't, and he's selfish throughout. Yet, he takes a very interesting internalized journey through his past and what shaped him into being the unsympathetic man he's become, and reflect on a life being cut too short far too early.

I also have to say that it is refreshing to see a film concerning a gay man who has a terminal illness that isn't AIDS. Now, that's not to downplay the devastation AIDS has caused every community (although the gay community has been disproportionately effected). But it's nice to see a film in that the gay community isn't just reduced to having one story to tell when it comes to illness.

Beyond just a storyline I cared about, it never would have worked if it weren't for the actors involved. Beyond the aforementioned performance by Jeanne Moreau, Melvil Poupaud is astoundingly good here. Probably amongst my favorite leading male performances of all time. He's really that good. I hope to see great things from him in the future. Just a great performance that exudes angst and a quiet sort of intensity. And while it seems quite commonplace nowadays for actors to give up vanity for a role, it often comes off as a stunt now, but here, I think it just came off in a way that wasn't distracting. It wasn't a role where I felt like he was screaming for an award because he dropped weight. It seems simply incidental.

And in a supporting role, Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi once again gave a performance that is just amazing. She has such a natural knack for giving a complete performance that just grabs you. One of those few actresses who can make a character feel more important than it really is in the scheme of things, and who can communicate volumes simply through facial expressions alone: she doesn't need the big Oscar clip to communicate exactly what the character is feeling. She makes you feel it through a subtle shift in a forced smile or a gentle movement in her eyes to make you know exactly what she is feeling.

And the closing scene is just so gorgeously filmed. I can't recall being moved so much by such beautiful imagery in lieu of all the grandiose finales to comparable films. I haven't been impressed with much of gay cinema, but this one is a rare exception to so much of the garbage out there for the gay community. Yet, it's not a film that requires a sexual preference to admire. I think the story is pretty universal, and while some folks seem to have an aversion to anything gay, and I'll reserve comment on that, but I think for those open minded enough took beyond sexual labels, and for those who really truly appreciate cinema in all its forms, they'll find a wonderful film here as well.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Waiting For Guffman (1997)

Crappy Trailer (only one I could find)

So, I figured it was high time to lighten the mood (Von Trier films have that effect), and I figured I would talk about one of the most brilliant and quotable movies of the last 15 years, Waiting For Guffman.

Now, for anyone who has watched This Is Spinal Tap, you should have a pretty good idea for the feel of the film, as it shares the mockumentary format. But this time out, Guest is both in front of and behind the camera on this vicious skewering of small-town community theater, and the offbeat, quirky, and completely bizarre inhabitants of Blaine, Missouri, a town most noted for its footstools and UFO sightings.

Guest plays Corky St. Clair, who has been commissioned to put on a play celebrating Blaine for it's 150th Anniversary. And he assembles a cast of oddballs, including Eugene Levy, as the cross eyed dentist with delusions of talent; Parker Posey, who pics up the acting gig in between her shifts at the Dairy Queen; Fred Willard and Catherine O'Hara, the goofball couple who pride themselves on being master thespians and who share an interesting history.

This is a film where the sense of humor isn't for everyone. It's not the standard set up/punchline kind of jokes. It's more the type of movie where you're laughing with it by laughing at it. The characters are all fairly idiotic and delusional, and some of the things that come out of their mouths is just fucking funny. Even if you don't appreciate it the first time out, give it a second go. The humor will become apparent.

From Corky's comments about his wife "Bonnie" to Sheila Albertson's now infamous "Shhh... girl talk" scene at the Chinese restaurant, this is one of those rainy day movie that always cheers me up, and I find myself quoting this probably more than any other movie I can think of. For the initiated, the Guffman-related back-and-forth quips can last for hours.

His two subsequent mockumentaries Best In Show and A Mighty Wind are both excellent as well: the former shares it's mean-spirited mockery, but in the world of dog shows, while the latter is a lot more of a heartfelt and sincere ode to folk music. But somehow, despite having expanded the repertoire of actors in his later films, Waiting For Guffman is still the gold standard. And if you don't like it... well.... then, I just HATE you... and I hate your... ass... FACE!


Thursday, August 9, 2007

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)


When recommending this one to friends and family, one of the first comments I would hear was "I don't really like Jim Carrey movies." Well, neither do I. But to put this one into the same category as Ace Ventura or The Mask is a shame. Because Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was one of the most daring, imaginative, and inventive films of this or any other decade. But even that doesn't quite describe the emotional honesty that lies beneath the surface of its visual flair and hallucinogenic storyline. It's honestly one of the most accurate films about the beginnings and endings of a relationship that I've ever encountered.

The basic premise is that Joel and Clementine meet, fall in love, the relationship runs it's course, and they have a very nasty breakup. Then, Joel finds out that Clementine had Joel completely erased from her memory through a company called Lacuna, Inc.

Out of spite, Joel decides that he will do the same. And so we retrace the journey of their relationship from the most recent painful memories and into the older memories from better times. In the midst of the procedure, Joel decides he doesn't want to continue the procedure and that he wants to hold on to these memories, but he's powerless to stop it, so he stands idly by while all of the good memories they shared are erased from his memory one by one, until he has nothing left of Clementine and the time they spent together.

What could have been precious or overly sentimental comes off as completely sincere and genuine. Adding to that, director Michel Gondry brings the same kind of surrealistic point of view that he has brought to countless Björk videos, which truly makes for a memorable cinematic experience. Both the visual sequences and the underlying story linger long in the mind after the film has ended.

As for the problematic leading actor, not a trace of Jim Carrey as you know him is to be found here. He's completely restrained and he more or less plays the "straight man" here; there's no room for facial contortions and idiotic impressions. As Joel, he's meek and passive aggressive, with a shyness and vulnerability to which it's easy to relate.And he's quite good. On the other hand, Kate Winslet, in one of her first roles not involving a corset, makes a notable impression as the wilder of the couple. She's flaky, irresponsible and highly impulsive. In other words, everything Joel is not.

And it's easy to see why these two would fall in love for all their differences, and equally as understandable that these same differences would be what ultimately dooms their relationship.

But like the visual trip from Gondry's astounding visuals, you also get the mental mindfuck along the way by piecing everything together as it goes along and still having everything turned on its head by the end.

On top of all of these qualities, you have excellent and dynamic supporting turns from Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst, and Mark Ruffalo. Elijah Wood is also in it, and if there's a weak spot to be found, it's him, playing out of his league. But that one quibble aside, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is just an amazingly beautiful and honest look at relationships: The giddy exhilaration and anxiety pangs at the outset, the regrets and bitterness that boils over at the end, and everything in between.

If you've ever avoided this movie by saying "Well, I don't really like Jim Carrey movies," smack yourself, get over it, and go out and see this as soon as humanly possible. Because, however you define what a Jim Carrey movie is, this is the exact antithesis of that.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Dogville (2004)


Self-indulgent, depressing, American-bashing, pretentious, self-righteous bore. These are all descriptions I've read in various reviews, even from some of Von Trier's more ardent fans.

And on the face of things, it's not an easy film to want to throw yourself into: it's three hours long, and it's set entirely on a sound stage with chalk outlines doubling as buildings. However, it ends up being a rather inventive and beautifully shot film (in my opinion, it was amongst the best filmed movies that year), although admittedly sadistic and misogynistic.

As for the America-bashing stance that many people take... yes, it clearly does show a bias against this country. And I say... so what? As much as people like to bash Von Trier for having something to say about another culture despite not having been here, it's not like most people don't do that here. How are those Freedom Fries by the way. Tasty? And quite frankly, I think we DO have a lot of problems in this country, and it's interesting for me to see an outsider's take on them. So I have no problem disembarking from the jingoistic "America! Fuck Yeah!" train for a second to get some outside perspective.

In the years since Dogville was released, it seems to have taken on a new relevance, since the film is primarily about our treatment of immigrants, and three years later, we've got everyone up in arms, trying to build fences between Mexico and Texas, and the likes of Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly spouting off their rhetoric to anyone who actually listens to what they have to say.

The plot follows a young woman named Grace (Nicole Kidman), who seeks refuge from some men who are trying to find her. The townspeople at first are skeptical, but they eventually warm to her. She begins to assert herself into the town, but because they did her a favor by harboring her, they begin to expect things of her, and when she cannot meet everyone's expectations all the time, they begin to hold their charity over Grace's head and exploit her for all she's worth.

The film is quite brutal and uncomfortable, but for me, highly memorable. While I realize that this is not a sentiment that is shared by most filmgoers, I find it absolutely thrilling to feel this kind of discomfort while watching a film. I love a film that has the capacity to get under my skin and effect me like that.

Whether you like the film or even have no interest in ever watching it, I think everyone can agree that the cast here, even just based on names alone, is highly impressive: James Caan, Lauren Bacall, Paul Bettany, Chloe Sevigny, Patricia Clarkson, Philip Baker Hall, Ben Gazzara, Stellan Skarsgård, and in the lead role, Nicole Kidman. Personally, I think this is the best Kidman has ever been, and based on her career choices as of late, I'd say the best she will be for a long, long time.

By the time the film wraps and the credits roll over a montage of the downtrodden and poor and set to the tune "Young Americans," I just felt drained of emotion after having spent so much during the film. I can't say that this feeling will be experienced by everyone, but hopefully, someone will seek out the film (or any of Von Trier's other films that I've written about) and feel what I felt while watching this. But skip the follow-up, Manderlay. That's the one where I jumped off the bandwagon, but based on the strength of the three I just wrote about, I'm always willing to give Von Trier a chance.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Dancer In The Dark (2000)


After writing about Breaking The Waves last evening, it got me thinking more and more about the two subsequent films I mentioned: 2004's Dogville and 2000's Dancer In The Dark. And while I've wanted to bounce around more between genres and time frames than I have, I figured it probably does me a lot more good to write about the films I'm thinking about, so I figured I'd just go for this one, instead of writing about an older film I've not seen in ages for the sake of diversity.

So, as I said earlier, Lars Von trier's films tend to be divisive, and I'd wager that this is probably the most divisive of the bunch. Like Breaking The Waves, this is a bleak film about a naive heroine's struggle against the establishment. But there's more... it's part musical that stars Björk, who most people tend to either go ape shit for or go running for the hills from with their ears covered.

As for those elements, I was intrigued. I love Von Trier. My feelings toward Björk are mixed: I truly respect her for being someone who just genuinely seems to march to her own beat, as opposed to so many people for whom it's just a gimmick. I like a lot of her music, but it's just not music I can listen to all the time.

As for musicals, that was going to be the big stumbling block for me. Let it be known that I really don't like musicals. At. All. Yet Von Trier's inventive approach made me not mind the musical portions at all.

Björk plays Selma Jezkova, a Czech immigrant to America in the early 1960's when musicals held a more widespread appeal than they do these days. And while she spends her evenings in the cinema taking in the latest Hollywood musicals, she spends her days toiling away in a factory, in hopes of saving up her money to spare her son Gene the same fate that has befallen her.

Selma has a degenerative vision disorder that has left her nearly blind, and she puts away almost all of earnings to get Gene an operation to save his eyesight.

Through her work at the factory, she begins to hear the frequent continuous sounds as musical beats and finds herself daydreaming about appearing in a Hollywood musical herself, and in these musical interludes, it really does transform into a different film in a different world. The grainy aesthetic and somber mood gives way to bright colors and joyful songs. While it maintains the feel of the older Hollywood musicals where everyone bursts into song and choreographed dancing, Dancer In The Dark manages to pull it off using the same visual flair without that trademark corniness that sinks so many of those films, for me at least.

The film takes a turn, however, when circumstances lead Selma to be found standing over a dead friend with the gun in her hand, and through her own childlike innocence and failure to comprehend what is really happening to her, she heads out of court as a woman condemned to death row.

The film is widely viewed as a commentary against the death penalty, and specifically, The United States use of capital punishment. Whatever your feelings are on that issue, I think Von Trier does a great job in presenting his case. Björk does an astonishing job in the film, deservedly winning Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival, and the film won the Palme D'Or, or the equivalent of Best Picture.

As for the music in the film, even if you aren't particularly fond of Björk, the songs work so damn well within the context of the scene, and her shaky, on-the-verge-of-tears rendition of a beloved song from most of our childhoods wonderfully juxtaposes a sense of heartbreak to a song I previously considered so cheerful. Now, I can't ever quite hear the song in the same light again. And the movie is one not soon forgotten.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Breaking The Waves (1996)

NSFW Trailer

Lars Von Trier is probably among the most polarizing directors working in film today. As a person, Von Trier is very eccentric and outspoken, and has managed to piss off a lot of people with his Anti-American comments. His films, which often tend to be allegorical protests against one institution or another, are often just as divisive. You either love them or you despise them. Even as someone who appreciates what he does, he's had films I've hated. But for the most part, I adore him as a director, and amongst many great films, Breaking The Waves, for me, is the best film of 1996.

The basic story is that of Bess (Emily Watson), a devoutly Catholic and simple minded woman living in a somewhat primitive, god-fearing Scottish village. She is engaged to be married to Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), an oil worker, who spends much of his time off at sea on the oil rig. In this community, it is not all that uncommon, as it seems that most of the men work on the rig, while their wives stay home and go about their lives while waiting for their husbands' return.

In her moments of loneliness, Bess has conversations with God, who speaks back to her through Bess' mouth. While she asks God for his return, hers is an angry, spiteful God, who does send Jan home, but not in the way that Bess had planned: an accident on the oil rig send Jan home as a quadriplegic.

And what follows is a tragic, downward spiral. Jan tells Bess that in order to keep him alive, she should go out and sleep with another man, and come back to him and tell him what it was like. So, she does as instructed, not only from her husband, but by her God as well. This pattern continues, which raises eyebrows from the community, eventually leading to her excommunication from the church and from the townsfolk, who ostracise her as well.

The film is a damning protest against the church. Not religion so much as it is against the organized church distorting the word of God. It's a devastating dilemma between living as God commands versus living as the church commands. She honors her husband's wishes, but in doing so, must accept damnation from the church and deplorable treatment from the townspeople, who treat in her in a manner which goes against everything religion should have taught them.

The film's aesthetic is bleak and grainy, but amazingly realistic. It almost feels like you're watching a home movie. And Emily Watson gave a performance that is at least among my five all-time favorite performances ever.

Now between this and the previously discussed The Secret Life of Words, one might think I have a fetish for oil rig injuries, and who knows, maybe I do. But other than some minor similarities, the comparisons one could make begin and end there. They really couldn't be more different. Von Trier followed Breaking The Waves with the also well regarded Dancer In The Dark and Dogville, both of which are great in their own right. But for me, this one hit me the most.