Monday, October 24, 2011

To Havre and Have Not

Just to clear up any confusion - I liked Ari Kaurismäki's Le Havre. I just didn't love it. It's a boldly theatrical film exploring rather minor emotional shifts, and is an absolute pleasure to watch in many regards. I just didn't think it all came together as successfully. In any event, my review is now up at Battleship Pretension.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Skin I Live In (dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

The following review contains spoilers.

In the supplements on the Criterion edition of Harakiri (which I reviewed for Battleship Pretension (plug!)), screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto provides some insight into why his flashbacks are so effective, noting that "it isn't a flashback if it moves in the direction of the drama." Each of the flashbacks is "introduced" by an important dramatic turn or a new question. Also, there are people in each scene as clueless about the story Hashimoto is about to cut to as we are in the audience. Each time, we get a dramatic, emotional reason for diving into the past to illuminate the present.

And this is the key to what's missing in The Skin I Live In. Almodóvar begins with a fascinating set-up. Robert Ledgard (Antonio Banderas) is a brilliant surgeon researching a new type of artificial skin, which he's testing on a patient, Vera (Elena Anaya), who also seems to be his prisoner. Their relationship is intriguing, as Vera seems to want him desperately while Robert is constantly battling his own attraction towards her. The film's best image is classic Almodóvar - Robert spies on Vera through a camera, which he views on a plasma screen as big as his wall. Before long, a crook will break into their house and rape Vera, with strong implications that they used to have a relationship. She tosses out a line that feels revealing even before we know the context - "I've had enough of sex in the garden" (or something to that effect).

Even better, the answers to all of these questions are thematically satisfying, emotionally shattering, and quietly terrifying, but their presentation is so ham-handed and obvious, bereft of true dramatic impact and stuffed into a flashback that serves no structural purpose.

The key revelation is that Vera was once Vincente, a wayward, pill-addicted twenty-something who raped Robert's daughter, Norma, sending her spiraling into insanity and eventually killing herself. Upon hearing about the rape, Robert kidnapped Vincente and locked him in a dungeon, before performing on him a forced sex change (the result of which leaves him looking very similar to Robert's late wife, who ran away with her lover, was burned in a car crash, and eventually committed suicide) and keeping her prisoner for further experimentation. Which, by the way, is an awesome story, but even the best concept goes sour when mishandled.

The flashback itself is totally unmotivated. Robert and Vera have sex, and then each seems to dream, or at least reflect upon, about how they met. First, we see Robert's perspective of a wedding he and his daughter attended, and how he found his daughter lying in the garden unconscious, clearly the victim of rape. Then, Almodóvar cuts back to the present, gives us an isolated shot of Vera asleep, and fades back into that same night to show her perspective. But her flashback doesn't start there - it starts in Vincente's mother's vintage clothing store, in which Vincente and another woman work. We know right away, because of the principles of cinematic language, Vera has to be one of these two people. But then Vincente attends the wedding alone, and suddenly the whole movie opens up in front of us - Robert kidnapped Vincente and locked him in a dungeon, before performing a forced sex change on him and keeping her prisoner for further experimentation. And yes, I know I already typed that sentence, but only as a means of pointing out how redundant the film becomes, because the next ungodly amount of time is showing step-by-step how this is carried out, and the whole affair starts to feel a lot like the last few episodes of Lost - lots of answers without any emotional heft.

The key problem here is that all of the characters already know the whole story. We're kept in the dark because it's more surprising that way, but as a result, we're on a totally different trajectory than the characters. We don't get any time to truly appreciate Robert's struggle, because by the time we move back to the present, he's made up his mind - Vera goes free, and they're going to live together and have lots of creepy sex. Vera, despite her promises, eventually turns on him, killing Robert and Robert's mother/housekeeper. But her struggle, her chess game, is kept totally secret until a few seconds before that particular showdown.

So we can reflect on the earlier, more intriguing part of the movie, and apply the twist in order to gain some emotional resonance, but it's unnatural, unearned. We're being manipulated, saving the film's most intriguing element for a revelation that operates as a twist. But unlike the twists in Memento, Fight Club, Psycho, or any of the other classics of "gotcha!" cinema, it's not used to mirror the characters' emotional journeys. It's used cheaply, and elaborated on unnecessarily, when time could have been spent with the characters and what all this has meant to them. Instead, by the time we cut back to the present, everyone seems pretty content. Until suddenly they're not. Couldn't we have gotten a hint of Vera's plan? Wouldn't that have been more emotionally satisfying, never mind the heightened dramatic intrigue. Couldn't we get a moment of Robert wondering what kind of monster he has become, or maybe an indication that he believes he's earned his monstrosity after the tragedies that befell him? Or maybe he's too completely lost in his own obsession and madness to even think these things. We never know.

I'm left wondering just what this movie was trying to do, exactly. If it's yet another contemplation about how an urge for revenge manifests itself in worse acts than that which it's avenging, fine, but by the time we meet Robert, it's already clear that whatever he did to Vera was far worse than anything she could have done to him. Robert's plight remains distant, unknowable to us; he's a monster when we meet him, and the unfolding revelations only help us to understand, but never sympathize. Meanwhile, save for one glorious moment in which she discovers yoga, we never really see Vera for who she is until the final minutes of the film. The last scene, in which she reunites with her mother and the other girl in the shop, is similarly backwards - because of the events shown in the film, it makes narrative sense for Vera to reveal herself to the shopgirl first, but the true emotion should remain between Vera and her mother, and we're only given a slight hint of that.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Hills Have Ides

Among my observations that didn't quite fit into my review of The Ides of March, which is now up at Battleship Pretension:

-I loved, loved, loved the way the characters kept referring to life after campaign management, and starting a consulting firm, with the kind of tone people usually use to talk about retirement homes or death. Said so much about these people and their way of life.

-I knew instantly that Marisa Tomei played a reporter, not because I read/saw the played or read any review or really had much in the way of prior knowledge of the film. I knew she was a reporter because she wore glasses and had ruffled hair. Clooney, for all the subtlety he gets from performers, is in full-on Confessions of a Dangerous Mind mode when it comes to visualizing his characters.

-Speaking of Confessions, this makes two films in which Clooney has cast himself as the antagonist of sorts. I don't think it's a role for which he's particularly well suited, but since it's only really been twice now, it has felt like a breath of fresh air each time. So in other words, if he made a habit of this, I'd get sick of it fast, but since it's so spread out, it works quite nicely, and he's very good in the film.

-IMDB assures me that I have seen Jennifer Ehle in stuff before Contagion, but that was the first film in which I really noticed her, and between that and this, she's my new favorite actress. Does almost nothing but is so naturally wonderful it makes me wonder if I'm just missing the millions of tiny things she's doing.

-Max Minghella (a.k.a. Divya a.k.a. the Winklevii's friend in The Social Network) is a really good actor, but I wonder if he'll only ever work in movies about processes, i.e. he's uniquely suited to spouting exposition and portraying someone caught in the beginning of a success he always expected.

-I know it's cool to rag on her, but I still like Evan Rachel Wood. This isn't her strongest moment, but her character is also kind of ridiculous, and more than a little bit of a plot device. I can totally see the character working really well onstage, and a little bit broader, but the translation loses a lot by demanding subtlety.

It's an uneven film to be sure, yet I think it might be Clooney's best to date. Good Night, and Good Luck was a more unified work, perhaps, but it was also a lot simpler. With this, Clooney's actually making a film about something in us as people, and how that manifests itself in modern life.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Two for Blu

Well, more of Blu as in Blu-Ray, but hey, that works too.

I recently had the chance to look at two recent releases from The Criterion Collection for the good folks at Battleship Pretension. I loved the hell out of Victor Sjöström's The Phantom Carriage, even if I wish the special features were a little more...I don't know, special or something. On the flip side, I was a little ambivalent about Claude Chabrol's Les Cousins, but gained a greater appreciation for it after listening to Adrian Martin's commentary, which sadly stands as that disc's sole supplement. For the rest of my thoughts, click on the respective links. We've been getting a lot of readers, which is awesome, but very few comments, and we'd love to see more discussions start up!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

You Can Count on Margaret

Meant to post this on Friday, but if you live in New York or Los Angeles, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you go see Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret this week. It was shot several years ago, but has been held up in editing and legal proceedings ever since. The result isn't perfect, but it's so, so, so good. Fox Searchlight is dumping it big time, but it's a damn good movie that deserves better. I don't know when or if it'll be hitting other cities, but if Fox updates their website or I hear about it opening elsewhere, I'll be sure to at least post it to Twitter. In the meantime, my full review is up at Battleship Pretension.

Oh, also, I'd recommend against seeing the trailer; it misrepresents the hell out of the movie, among other undesirable traits.