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Sunset Blvd. (1950)
Context and knowledge of subtext is key
Sunset Blvd's 'narration from the dead' lends a great deal of strength to this Wilder Classic. William Holden (Joe Gillis) leaves us with an answer for a question we haven't asked yet. This type of approach makes understanding the motivation of the characters the prominent goal, rather than guessing the 'ending' as in many other traditional Hollywood films.
Joe Gillis is an unemployed writer with seemingly nothing to lose, who becomes involved with the narcissistic and fading silent movie star Norma Desmond. He is cajoled and somewhat spinelessly agrees to work with her on a script to stage her comeback, and later to an increasingly less professional and more male gigolo type of role. The statement of Joe's death at the beginning of the film is explained near the end, though at that point, he has become much less of an important and likable character than he was to begin with.
In addition to the unusual narrative, is the choice of casting, as just about all of the characters reflect their own roles in cinematic history. Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond) was a silent movie era actress who's own life (in some respects) mirrored that of her character's. Erich von Stroheim (Max Von Mayerling) was a brilliant silent move director and actor. Cecil D. Demill played himself, a director that moved on from silent film to talkies and remained prominent.
I think that, although this movie was great in many respects, it hasn't aged well because the context in which it was shown originally was lost. In the 1950's names and faces like Cecil Demill, Erich Von Stroheim and Gloria Swanson were much better known, and seeing these people in roles which so mirrored their own would have made for a much more powerful viewing.
12 Angry Men (1957)
A play within a movie
12 Angry men is a seemingly simple crime-drama from produced in 1957. A jury of twelve men are sent to deliberate the guilt (and subsequent possible execution) or innocence of a young man accused of killing his father. 11 of the men, with varying degrees of intelligence and seriousness, vote to find the young man guilty.
Henry Fonda portray's the 12th juror, who has a reasonable doubt of the boy's guilt. He votes not guilty, in a situation that demands unanimous consent. This is where the great interest of this movie comes from, because you know that each of the other eleven men will have to be broken away from and convinced to totally reverse their stance. It is the inexorable grinding away at their initially implacable facts and ingrained prejudices, which make this film so interesting to watch.
Henry Fonda does an acceptable job of portraying the 'rebel' juror, though I felt that had the supporting cast been weak, his performance would have had much less of an impact. Fortunately, he is surrounded by a strong cast, and together they make for a very compelling and in its way, suspenseful viewing.
Frida's passions inaccurately displayed
Salma Hayek portrays the talented and tormented Frida Kahlo. A biography visiting the Mexican artist's tormented life as directed by Julie Taymore. Taymore's innovative and unorthodox vision of Frida's life provide a much more powerful connection and insight behind her motivations.
The use of Frida's paintings, and stop motion animation and imagery within the confines of the filmed scene hypermediates Frida's reality. This hypermediacy provides a more accurate and powerful representation than would otherwise be possible. In this respect, the film is very successful, though can leave the 'unaltered' scenes feeling weaker than they should have been.
Frida met her future husband Diego Rivera as a young girl. After having been brutally injured in a trolley car accident, which broke her spine, collarbone, legs and ribs, she was confined to a plaster body cast and retaining structure for nearly a year. Faced with the prospective of being a cripple unable to pursue the regular venues of employment, she began to paint - channeling the incredible pain endured into her pictures.
After having sought Diego's advice on her paintings, they soon became friends, and eventually fell in love. They were married for a turbulent and painful number of years, to be separated after a series of events. An aborted baby, the destruction of Diego's Mural at the Rockefeller Building and catching Frida's sister with Diego, they separated. It was their passion for politics, which had drawn them together initially, that drew them together again. Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) sought and was granted asylum in Mexico. As a favor to Diego and out of respect for Trotsky, she agreed to allow he and his wife to stay in her family's villa. A subsequent affair with Trotsky prompted him to leave at his wife's insistence. Trotsky was murdered shortly after. Frida's remainder of life was marked by the return of Diego, a leg amputation, drugs, alcohol and her first public showing of work in her country.
Frida's passion was painting and politics. The films preoccupation with her bisexual encounters and fierce fighting with Diego weakened the audience's understanding of that. Frida's intelligence, pain and indomitable strength of will are cluttered with this preoccupation as well.
This film provides a powerful representation of a remarkable woman. The acting, beautiful cinematography and hyperimmediacy of the art that ruled her life into the film OF her life make this worth viewing. The most important part of this films great success is the interest of further exploration into Frida's life that it creates.
Taxi 2 (2000)
Luc Besson successfully follows up his ridiculously popular French action film 'Taxi Taxi' (1998). Taxi 2 delivers exactly what it promises - extensive action and basic, but intricately setup humour. Although intellectually lacking, this stimulating film it is easily the most entertaining movies I've even seen.
Although I didn't speak French, I was able to readily follow along with the plot. A Japanese ambassador visiting France becomes a hostage of a large gang currently running circles around the helpless French police. Samy Neci plays Daniel, a speed demon and extraordinarily talented taxi driver. When his disregard for safety land him in an awkward position with the police, he grudgingly agrees to help them rein in the terrorists.
Quentin Tarantino style, 'Ronin'-esque action and the unmistakable addition of 'French' humour make this movie a unique viewing. Surprisingly well shot and edited, Taxi 2 is a pleasure to view. The perception of a film's quality often lies in the basis of the audience's expectations. Taxi 2 was vastly entertaining, stylistic, adrenaline filled and well worth the effort to track down and view - that is if your expectations are fitting the films strengths.
Y tu mamá también (2001)
A Mexican coming of age film in which two young men indirectly confront the violence, rampant sexuality and unease of place which plagues them. A troubled older woman allows herself to be seduced when all three of them look to escape Mexico City for different reasons. A heavily multilayered story, the oppression and rage that they attempt to escape consumes the many that they leave behind.
The boys manage to convince a beautiful older woman to travel with them to a legendary beach of paradise. The woman initially rebuffs the boys, but upon an event, which the audience learns of much later, she agrees. Jealously erupts over her lustful attentions and the once unified front of the two boys is ruptured to expose the individual character of each.
The smoldering older woman Luisa (Maribel Verdu) is seduced and subsequently becomes the seducer of the young men. Schooling the young men in the sexual arts this is probably the most sexually daring film I've ever seen. In this application, sex is used as a tool with which the audience pries back the overlying veneer of each character to expose the virulent emotions and underlying motivations below.
While I found this to be a film of great depth and personal exploration a less writerly viewer might find the seemingly simple chain of events unsatisfying. Once again, an audience's willing participation in the writing of events and analysis of the character provide the basis for its subsequent success or failure.
Nueve reinas (2000)
Prepare to be confused and amazed.
Get ready to be confused, intrigued beyond all reason and drawn to the incredibly character rich world of Nine Queens. Two con artists become involved in an increasingly complicated scheme to sell a bogus sheet of stamps to a rich collector fleeing the country (Argentina). Based loosely around the Argentinean banking system failure. That macrocosm of the bank failure and the microcosm of the two con artists eventually meet after the end of an incredibly thrilling 15 minutes in which all of the means to the eventual end collide.
An elaborate grifter/con movie made on an extremely tight budget, Fabián Bielinsky (director) manages to use an incredibly diverse cast of characters and his beautifully written screenplay to engage, manipulate and anticipate the responses of the viewer.
The sheer number of subplots and characters to keep track of is brilliantly handled through the incredible rapidity of conversations, 'con lessons' and plot twists. The audience is forced to constantly engage the information given; with pace only allowing them to 'rebuild' the story once it has ended. The subsequent remediation of all the information given in light of the 'ending' provides a shockingly sudden moment of clarity and understanding in which the full depth of the movie is appreciated. That moment of surprise and clarity rewards the engaged viewer in a way that few movies can.
Haiku Tunnel (2001)
World's largest, and possible worst inside joke.
The worlds largest inside joke. The world's largest, most exclusive inside joke.
Emulating the brash and 'everyman' humor of office space, this film drives the appeal of this film into the ground by making the humor such that it would only be properly appreciated by legal secretaries writing books. The audience is asked to assume the unfamiliar role of a legal secretary, and then empathize with the excruciatingly dumb protagonist.
The entire film is centered on the legal secretary finding free time, listening to music and writing a novel while working. These are his goals. You can't imagine the slap in the face it is to the audience when (around halfway through) they find out he has had a job which fit all three of those criteria, but then gives it UP! The director and screenwriter (Jacob Kornbluth and Josh Kornbluth) completely remove the audience's motivation to empathize or even find entertaining a protagonist that has previously thrown away that which he is complaining about the lack thereof.
Apart from that major stumbling block, the legal secretary insider humor fails because they must be explained explicitly to the audience each time they happen. Without these asides, the audience wouldn't have noticed anything particularly strange. Humor is only effective if it doesn't need to be thoroughly explained to the audience what is funny.
Igby Goes Down (2002)
Would have been great...
A dark coming of age film, which resembles American Beauty in a lot of ways. Igby is the emotionally deformed product of his mother and father - Narcissist and Psychotic respectively. Bouncing around a relatively broken (though well conceived and satisfying) plot, Igby and the characters within all receive the punishments that they deserve.
I thought the movie quite good and cerebral until I (possibly unfairly) compare it to what it could have been before a series of important scenes were cut. The DVD version included a few short scenes, which were eventually cut from the movie.
The sad thing is that they were the strongest, most poignant and interesting scenes 'in' the movie. It's frustrating to se just how much better this movie would have been had the director (Burr Steers) not been so worried about time. As it is the movie clocks in at 97 minutes, so adding another 7 minutes of film wouldn't have affected the pacing that much. Yet, would have added so much.
Strengthened by the combination of cinematic and stage performances
A visceral, sexual, and powerful that draws even the most reluctant audience into rapt attention. Lust creeps towards, and encircles the viewer through the steamy dance performances, sultry music and seductive songs.
Comparatively, Moulin Rouge appears as weak, uninspired and artificial.
Catherine Zeta Jones did a fantastic job portraying the narcissistic and vulnerable Velma. Although Renee Zellweger was surprisingly good, Jones undeniable stole the stage with intensity so powerful it was almost visible. Richard Gere, well what can you say - I'm glad he was limited mostly to the cinematic portions as that is where his strength lies.
Working alone, neither the musical nor the cinematic sections of this film would have had nearly the impact they did. They both serve to reinforce and reprieve each other as soon as a scene begins to lose its momentum. As a result, a near fever pitch is sustained throughout the entire performance.