Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Skin I Live In (2011)

Last night, I saw the new film by Spanish auteur Pedro Almodóvar, La Piel Que Habito (The Skin I Live In).  I went with the lovely Joanna, who will be doing her own post on the film soon.  We took an Almodóvar class together in college, and we have different preferences regarding his work, so it should be an interesting discussion.  I am a big fan of Almodóvar in his woman-oriented vein, exemplified by films like All About My Mother (1999) and Volver (2006).   Most of his more sadistic, male-oriented films, however, either leave me cold or make me angry. 

The Skin I Live In falls into the latter category.  It tells the story of a plastic surgeon, Robert (Antonio Banderas), who lives in a big, beautiful house in Toledo and does research in his basement.  He also keeps a mysterious, beautiful woman locked in an upstairs room.  Vera (Elena Anaya) does yoga and reads while wearing a supportive body sock, and Robert watches her on an enormous screen in his room (which is next door, incidentally).  As the film goes on, we learn more about Robert’s past and where Vera comes from, along with lots of blood and rape.

The first problem with the film is its pacing.  Especially during the flashback section, some of the sequences are unnecessarily long and feel disjointed from each other.  In the end, it all sort of comes together, but there are definitely some slow moments along the way.  While the mystery setup is good, and the twist works well, the film ends very abruptly, with little to no resolution or catharsis.  It feels as though Almodóvar just got tired of the story and didn’t know how to wrap it up, leaving the viewer unsettled, but mostly annoyed.

One of the best things about Almodóvar’s work in general is that there’s always a great deal to discuss.  The Skin I Live In is rife with interesting topics and ideas, and Almodóvar does a wonderful job of conveying these subjects visually.  The image of Robert’s basement operating room – clean, sterile glass surrounded by crumbling brick walls – conjures up ideas of old versus new, organic versus artificial, and natural versus man-made.  Robert’s newest invention is a type of artificial skin that can be used to heal burn victims, and the notion of getting an entirely new skin is an important one in the film.  What is the relationship between our appearance and our identity?  Where does the self really live?  What makes a person ‘real’?  All these ideas, as well as issues of gender and voyeurism (old Almodóvar favorites), are at play in the film, making it quite thought-provoking despite its mess of a plot.

Probably the most irritating thing about this film was its excessive use of rape.  Almodóvar has previously portrayed rape in many of his films, and he has been criticized for many of them.  The most notable example is Kika (1993), in which a woman is raped for around fifteen minutes while talking to women who walk by, picking up the phone, etc.  The point of the scene is to make rape funny, and Almodóvar does this frequently.  The Skin I Live In contains two lengthy rape scenes, as well as a gratuitous scene of a napkin being shoved deep inside a woman’s mouth, which is clearly meant to evoke rape.  I understand why Almodóvar portrays rape so much, and why he attempts to make it a laughing matter – he’s trying to rob it of its power.  If women can laugh at rape and not be particularly bothered by it, the act loses some of its destructive effect.  I understand it, but I still find it offensive and upsetting every time I see it.  No matter how many Almodóvar films I see, I doubt I will ever be okay with this tactic of his, and it is the primary reason I am not a fan of this newest film.

That said, the cast is fantastic.  Antonio Banderas has always done his best work, albeit usually as a psycho-stalker, in Almodóvar films, and it’s wonderful to see him return to form here.  Elena Anaya, who recalls a combination of Natalie Portman and Penelope Cruz, is both fragile and furious as the beautiful captive.  Almodóvar’s camera loves her, caressing her every feature (sometimes in a fetishistic manner), and draws us into Robert’s obsession as we marvel at her beauty.   Finally, it was lovely to see Marisa Paredes, an old Almodóvar favorite, as Robert’s fiercely loyal housekeeper.

There is much more I could say about this film – like Hitchcock, Almodóvar is nothing if not thought-provoking, but I will leave off for the time being.  I look forward to Joanna‘s thoughts, and hopefully we can get some discussion going.

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Ally McBeal and Third Wave Feminism

Brief little think piece as I make my way through the first season of Ally McBeal:

So far, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by this show.  I had heard it was a kind of “feminist romantic comedy,” so I expected it to pay lip service to feminism while essentially undermining its ideals in the course of the show’s romantic endeavors.  At this point, however, 7 episodes into Season 1, I am very pleased to see that show is genuinely trying to explore ideas of feminism and female empowerment within a workplace context.

Because the show began in 1997, the first season at least is firmly situated in 90’s Third Wave Feminism, the phase of the movement that embraced femininity and was all about female empowerment and the career woman.  Ally McBeal follows a young female lawyer, played by Calista Flockhart (aka the woman who would marry Harrison Ford!), who goes to work at a new firm after leaving her last firm due to sexual harassment.  When she joins the new firm, she discovers that her high school sweetheart works there and wackiness ensues.

The show spends most of its time dealing with gender issues in a legal manner.  Most of their cases involve prostitution, marriage, sexual harassment, etc.  What’s most exciting to me about the show is its willingness to address gender issues and double standards head-on, and it’s not afraid to have Ally get overtly feminist.  In an early episode, Billy says it’s okay for men to cheat but not for women, since, for women, sex is “more mental.”  I was immediately outraged by this statement and, luckily, Ally was right there with me!  She is not afraid to call out the (often unintentional) chauvinism of the men around her.  She even confronts one of the firm’s partners for his “prostitution is more fair to women than hitting on them in bars” speech.  When he delivers it in a thought-out, convincing manner, another show would have let it go and allowed him to be vindicated, but Ally takes him on and doesn’t let him get away with his BS.

The episode that really made me like the show is Episode 5, “One Hundred Tears Away.”  Ally has been reported to the bar for being “too emotional” and “possibly unstable” after losing her temper a couple of times.  No one understands why the bar is making a big deal out of it until Whipper (hot, older-lady judge) calls them out on the double standard.  She sees that they’re going after Ally because for a woman to be emotional means that she’s fragile, that a “pretty little thing” like her can’t handle the pressures of being a lawyer.  Billy joins in, saying that Ally isn’t afraid to be emotional and human, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I really love that the show is willing to embrace all aspects of femininity – even if you’re a feminist lawyer, it’s still okay to be emotional and impulsive.  (Side note: My old favorite Zeljko Ivanek is in the episode!  He seems to play a lot of magistrate types.)

Finally, the show does an excellent job creating three-dimensional female characters.  With the exception of the stereotypical “sassy black friend,” the female characters are all layered and unique individuals.  For instance, Ally and Georgia, Billy’s wife, get off to a bad start when they admit a mutual petty hatred for each other.  Over the course of a few episodes, however, they realize that their dislike is silly and decide to become friends.  The show allows them to have a realistic, mature relationship instead of using their situation to create drama and conflict.  I love that Ally McBeal recognizes that women don’t have to fight over men to make good television.

Obviously, my opinion on the show could change as I move forward, but for now, I am a big fan of Ally McBeal.

 

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Blue Valentine (2010)

“I feel like men are more romantic than women. When we get married we marry, like, one girl, ’cause we’re resistant the whole way until we meet one girl and we think I’d be an idiot if I didn’t marry this girl she’s so great. But it seems like girls get to a place where they just kinda pick the best option… ‘Oh he’s got a good job.’ I mean they spend their whole life looking for Prince Charming and then they marry the guy who’s got a good job and is gonna stick around.”

In the quote above, Dean (Ryan Gosling) inadvertently foretells his own future.  At this point, he has yet to meet Cindy (Michelle Williams), the girl who will be his one and only.  Blue Valentine, directed by Derek Cianfrance, jumps back and forth in time from the beginning of Dean and Cindy’s relationship to the days when their marriage is falling apart.  This conceit, although similar to 500 Days of Summer (2009), is executed magnificently and with great sensitivity.  The physical transformations the two actors underwent between the early section and the late section make the juxtaposition of the two eras simply heartbreaking.  We fall in love with the young Dean and Cindy as they tap dance on the street and play the ukelele, but are repeatedly confronted by the older, more worn-out versions of them.  We are never shown exactly what went wrong in their relationship, but we can guess.

The most remarkable thing about Blue Valentine is its performances.  Ms. Williams and Mr. Gosling are simply wonderful, and the years of work they did on their characters truly show.  One thing that’s so unique about the film is its relationship to the authorship question.  Normally, the director and/or screenwriter is considered the “author” of a film, but these characters were created by Gosling and Williams in concert with the director.  Many of the scenes were improvised, and some were even shot in such a way as to push the boundaries of reality and performance.  For example, one of the early scenes in their relationship involves them walking down the street and chatting, then stopping to show each other their “hidden talents.”  Cianfrance had told them each separately to think of a hidden talent they had and then, once they reached a certain spot in the scene, to demonstrate them.  Therefore, when Ms. Williams breaks into a tap dance routing, and Mr. Gosling begins singing and playing the ukelele, both their reactions are genuine.  All of this information is in the behind-the-scenes documentary, so I’m not privy to an inside view here, but I am very intrigued by the effect scenes like this have on ideas of authorship and performance.  Can the film be called “Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine” if the characters and the action were also largely created by the actors?  Granted, improv is a practice that crops up all over the place in comedy, particularly in the Apatow oeuvre, so it’s not a new idea.  It is, however, a very different experience in drama, especially when it involves character creation to this extent.  I don’t really have an answer for any of these questions, but it’s something I found very thought-provoking about the film.

Going back to the performances themselves, Ms. Williams and Mr. Gosling are incredibly gifted and sensitive actors.  I have grown more and more appreciative of Michelle Williams since seeing her in Meek’s Cutoff and then My Week with Marilyn, as well as hearing this amazing interview with her on NPR.  She is a very thoughtful and considerate actress who really gets inside the skin of her characters.  Her performance as Cindy is quite interesting in that we never truly understand her.  There are moments when we learn shocking details about her that seem to open her up, but she remains a bit of an enigma to the end.  This is particularly effective because Mr. Gosling’s Dean is so open and giving, ready to to sacrifice everything for her, and yet he doesn’t truly understand her either.  This disconnect becomes quite clear in the scene (in the “late” section) where they talk about his future; he seems so blissfully unaware of what she wants from him and what she’s saying.  His inherent sweetness and gentleness was able to keep her with him for a while, but at a certain point Cindy needs more.

This endless analysis of their relationship is part of what stays with you after watching Blue Valentine.  The haunting ending images remind you of their early happy times together while their song plays over the credits.  We are left with nostalgia and regret, almost as if we were in the relationship with Cindy and Dean.  Blue Valentine has its flaws: Dean is rather too reminiscent of Mr. Gosling’s character in The Notebook (2004) and some of the side characters are cartoonish.  Its lovely moments and delicate performances, however, make the film worthwhile.  Cindy and Dean will stay with you for days.

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The Accused (1988)

“I never got to tell nobody nothin’.  You did all my talkin’ for me.”  This protest is spoken by Sarah Tobias (Jodi Foster) in The Accused (1988), a film about rape and the necessity of telling one’s story.  Directed by Jonathon Kaplan and written by Tom Topor, it tells the story of a young woman who has been gang raped and her attempts to gain recognition and justice for the crimes against her.  When the film begins, she has just escaped the bar where she was raped by three men in front of a crowd of cheering bystanders.  The Deputy D.A. who is assigned Sarah’s case, Kathryn (Kelly McGillis) cuts a plea bargain with the three rapists and gets them convicted of reckless endangerment.

Sarah, however, is not happy with this result, and she is definitely not happy with how it was achieved.  She protests at length that she did not get to tell her story.  To her, the fact that the crime is on the books as “reckless endangerment” means that the wrongs against her have not been acknowledged by the legal system.  To fix this, she and Kathryn launch a case against the men who stood by and cheered it on.  The idea is that, by having this case go to trial, Sarah will be able to tell her story to the court and get the rape on the books.

Although it’s rather dated, The Accused is a compelling and generally persuasive examination of rape and its position in the patriarchal legal system.  The center of the film is Jodi Foster’s Oscar-winning performance, and it is a powerful one.  As the wounded and angry Sarah, she is both fragile and furious.  With her lower-class accent and delivery, she does a wonderful job conveying the chip on Sarah’s shoulder and the inherent sweetness that lies under the tough exterior.  When she finally gets to testify and tell her story, it’s the best scene in the film.  The camera sits quietly and lets Ms. Foster own the screen, haltingly describing her rape as her eyes fill with tears and she begins to tremble.  It’s an amazing piece of acting.

The other significant performance in the film is Ms. McGillis’s.  I’ve only ever seen her in Witness (1984), in which she spends most of her time watching and reacting with her big, soulful eyes.  Here, she is a much more active presence, complete with 80s shoulder pads.  She defies the men at the D.A.’s office, insisting on trying the case, and she and Sarah eventually come to understand each other after many interactions laden with class tension.  The two women have great chemistry, and the film plays them off each other well, contrasting Ms. McGillis’s voluptuous hair and physique to Ms. Foster’s tiny frame.

The film’s main problem lies in its inability to articulate its message.  Is it just trying to say, “rape is bad”?  The rape scene itself, shown during a witness’s testimony, is quite horrifying and well done, so that message comes across loud and clear.  The majority of the film, however, is dedicated to condemning the men who cheered it on and instigated it, so that we almost forget that the rapists are already in jail and will only be there for five years.  As I discussed above, the primary emphasis seems to be placed on Sarah’s need to tell her own story, which is a great point to make regarding female subjectivity and the importance of the female experience.  After she gets to testify, however, the film loses a little oomph.  Yes, we want the rape supporters to be convicted, but it feels as if Sarah has already accomplished her goal to some extent, so the primary conflict is complete.  I’m still trying to figure out exactly how I feel about all the intricacies of the script, such as when Kathryn says that standing by and watching a rape is not a crime (really? Are we justifying this?).  The Accused is definitely worth a watch, if only for two powerful performances by strong women.

Random thoughts:

– It’s amazing how big a factor music is in dating a movie.  Just the sound of a synthesizer chord or a lonely saxophone makes me instantly think “eighties.”

– The film suffers a bit from what Thelma & Louise (1991) is often wrongly accused of – basically all the male characters are bad and misogynistic.  There’s one quietly supportive lawyer, but he barely has any lines.

– Would someone really admit to smoking marijuana in open court?  Isn’t that a wee bit risky?

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Straw Dogs (2011): A Treatise on American Masculinity

This post is more an analysis than a review, so SPOILERS ahead for those of you who haven’t seen the film.

Tonight, I finally saw Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs.  A remake of the 1971 Sam Peckinpah film, which I have not seen, this new version is a thought-provoking exploration of American masculinity and differing attitudes towards violence and women.

The primary conflict in the film is predicated on a dialectic established between two ideals of masculinity: the cultured, educated man of intellect and money, and the muscular, more primal man of violence and manual labor.  These two extremes are embodied by David (James Marsden) as the more erudite man of the mind and Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) as the testosterone-fueled man of the body.  Lurie plays these two off each other both visually and verbally; David is often shot from under Charlie’s arm, or Charlie is shot looming over the already-shorter David.  While this is primarily meant to create a sense of menace, it also works to diminish David’s masculinity and sense of power.  In the land of the construction workers and hunters, the scholar is not in his element.

Opposing ideals of masculinity in “Straw Dogs”

Over the course of the film, David is constantly reminded of his inability to intimidate, usually by his wife, Amy (Kate Bosworth).  At one point, the local patriarch (James Woods) is beating up a mentally challenged man, and Amy steps in to stop him.  As they’re leaving, she implies that David should have stepped in himself.  When he says it’s against his principles, she tells him that his principles are “convenient.”  The question of when violence is appropriate and necessary is David’s primary concern in the film.  When he finally does embrace the more brutal side of masculinity, he does so in such a way that he uses his intellect to wreak havoc.  With a nail gun, pots of boiling oil (thank you, siege warfare), and a bear trap, he is able to fight off and kill five men.  He unknowingly avenges Amy’s rape and defends his home.

David’s transformation is not portrayed in an entirely positive light, however.  As he looks around at the wreckage of his home and his traumatized wife, the expression on his face shows relief but also a kind of mania.  It is clear that this is something neither he nor Amy can come back from.  In the final shot of the film, he stands silhouetted against the burning barn that was previously being rebuilt, and the message is clear: when men embrace violence, only destruction can come of it.

Other observations:

– I found Amy to be an irritating, inconsistent character from a feminist perspective.  At times, she attempts to make feminist points, such as when she defends her right to go running bra-less (though seriously, who does that?!?) without getting leered at.  Point taken – women are not “asking for it” when men objectify them.  She also steps in to defend Jeremy from Coach, which is a strong move on her part, but afterward tells David he should have done it.  Why should the man be the one to defend the helpless when she is just as capable of doing it herself?  Just as Amy is torn between two worlds, the film seems torn between portraying her as an independent feminist and making her act as though she needs a man to help her.

Seriously! Who goes running like this?!

– The plot with Jeremy (the simple fellow) and the Coach’s daughter felt half-baked.  It’s the catalyst for all the violence towards the end, but it somehow isn’t fully realized or explained.  The scene where she lures him into the locker room, however, is interesting in that it portrays a different kind of rape from the one Amy experiences.  Jeremy says no over and over again, making Janice’s advances on him just as disturbing as the men raping Amy, perhaps more so because we do not understand her motivations.

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Shame (2011)

One of the most talked-about films at the NYFF this year was Steve McQueen’s Shame.  Portraying the daily life of a sex addict, its subject matter is attention-grabbing enough, but the film’s beautiful construction and Michael Fassbender’s incredible performance make it one of the most remarkable films of the year.

Shame begins with an overhead shot of Brandon (Mr. Fassbender) lying naked on his bed, staring off into space with a blank expression.  Entwined with ice blue sheets, his body is the center of our gaze, and McQueen holds on this shot for a while.  With no music to distract us, we quietly study Brandon’s body, the body that is so central to the film and over which he has no control.  Long, still shots like these are key to the film.  They force us to unflinchingly face the ugliness in Brandon and the painful nature of his addiction, while placing us firmly in the position of voyeurs.

A number of film-goers I spoke to complained that the film made the same point too many times; there were too many scenes of Brandon having raunchy, degrading sex, too much nudity, etc.  This repetition is actually McQueen’s way of removing the titillation from such images.  The early sex scenes affect us in the usual way, but the more of them we see, the less erotic they become.  By the end, when Brandon is engaging in a sexual encounter most men would revel in, it is simply painful to watch.  Every encounter he has seems to break him down more and more, bringing him only pain instead of pleasure.

Mr. Fassbender is truly a wonder to behold in this film.  His performance is simply mind-blowing.  The myriad of emotions that cross his face within seconds conveys the intense confusion in Brandon and his utter inability to treat himself and others well.  In some scenes, Brandon is the calm at the center of a storm of people, watching the women around him with still blue eyes.  In others, he seems about to jump out of his skin, leg bouncing, head bent down, muscles tensed until they look about to burst.  Mr. Fassbender portrays the many sides of Brandon perfectly, with the kind of commitment that comes from a truly trusting actor-director relationship.

The other main storyline in the film, aside from Brandon’s attempts to control his addiction, is his relationship with his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  An artsy young woman with depressive tendencies, Sissy comes barreling into Brandon’s life and takes over his apartment.  She disturbs his routine and makes him feel emotions he doesn’t want to admit to, particularly in the slowest rendition of “New York, New York” ever performed.  As irritating as her character can be, Ms. Mulligan holds her own against Mr. Fassbender, and their scenes together are revealing on both sides.  Her presence allows us to see yet another side of Brandon and gives us a glimpse into where he comes from.

Shame is a beautiful piece of filmmaking, with compositions that quietly convey a sense of alienation in long, static shots.  The beauty of its construction makes its subject matter all the more visceral, forcing us to experience the desensitization that Brandon feels as we see image after image of the naked human body.  Between Mr. McQueen’s masterful direction and Mr. Fassbender’s amazing performance, this is one of the most important films of the year, and I hope this pair continues to work together for years to come.

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Hugo (In Progress)


Last night, the NYFF had a surprise screening of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which was billed as a work-in-progress.  Mr. Scorsese himself introduced the film and listed all of the elements which were still unfinished, mostly visual effects.  While we were asked not to officially review the film, here are a few of my impressions:

– The pacing is extremely slow, so much so that I thought the movie was an hour longer than it actually is.  It sounds like the editing process is complete, but it definitely needs to be trimmed down some more.

– For the first hour of the film, it’s very unclear what the actual conflict is.  When it finally becomes clear that the film is a tribute to early cinema, the story begins to flow more quickly, but it feels overloaded with exposition.  None of the film history was addressed early in the film, so there is suddenly a lot to cover through flashbacks and voiceover, making the film feel almost like a documentary on early cinema.

– The 3D is generally unnecessary, but Scorsese uses it beautifully in the early sequences.  Hugo works maintaining the clocks in the Paris train station, and there are some gorgeous images of him climbing through the turning gears and sliding down chutes that made me actually appreciate the technology for once.  Again, it’s not necessary at all, but Hugo contains the best use of 3D I’ve seen (yes, including Avatar).

– The young actors are excellent, particularly Asa Butterfield as Hugo.  Sacha Baron Cohen is good but overused – there are a few too many chase scenes through the station, and there are only so many times we can laugh at his strange voice and mechanical leg.  Ben Kingsley’s performance is a little on the scenery-chewing side, especially in the beginning, but he calms down as the film progresses.

– The use of 3D brings up interesting ideas of film technology and how to present early cinema.  Would the early filmmakers have supported showing their films in 3D?  My main problem with the technology is that it disturbs the dynamics of the medium, making for a more distracting composition and different viewer relationship.  I’m sure, however, that George Melies and the Lumiere brothers would have jumped at the chance to use such effects; it was the “cinema of attractions,” after all.

Hugo is, at this point, a very slow film that is rather confused in its storytelling.  It is, however, a lovely piece of visual filmmaking from one of the true master directors, and Scorsese is never more endearing than when he is writing love letters to cinema.

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