Monday, May 16, 2011

hello again

I've been thinking about dusting this old blog off and giving it another go. I think it's because I've been missing academia lately. That said, life is about to get very busy so posts may be bit meager for a while.

Since you've been so kind as to check out my little corner of the interwebs I can't just leave you with nothing filmy to think about. Here's a fascinating article @GordieG sent me today:

And if you haven't watched the trailer for Miranda July's next, then you really, really should:

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

The brevity of this review is the result of several drafts and several days trying to come up with an accurate reflection on the film's craftsmanship, depth, and beauty, as well as Spike Jonze's uncompromising resolve to create something simultaneously reverent and original. Where the Wild Things Are, simply put, is a film about childhood - possibly more specifically about boyhood - and some parents are going to confuse this with being a children's film.

My hope is that children will see this film, despite the fact that it is truly frightening at moments. It is good to be scared at times, it is good to be deeply sad at times, and it is good to be profoundly challenged at times. Spike Jonze's latest is challenging, tragic and frightening, but it is also full of wonder, joy, and family.

This film should not be missed.

Visit this link for the theatrical trailer.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

"Pure Tarantino."

That statement alone is enough to fill seats in a theater. It's also enough to know that there are going to be upset, frustrated, and confused people sitting in a good number of those seats. Everyone knows that QT films are going to be polarizing, and I doubt many will question either his skill as a filmmaker or his (obsessive) love of the medium. What critical movie-goers should be asking is whether Quentin's latest film "works," or whether the worlds most accomplished cinephile missed the mark this time.

By "working," I mean whether the film resonates in some way with people (chiefly myself), and whether or not I would tell a friend to see it. Different films resonate with people for different reasons and in different ways - it's those films that we remember, the ones we see again and again, the ones who's images infiltrate our conversations and daydreams. Being able to connect to a film is a great achievement for the filmmaker(s), and something that is hard to quantify and criticize. My experiences are only mine and this means I will be able to connect to some films (see my '500 Days of Summer' post), and others will pass by with little emotional response.

But this post is about the Basterds, so it's time to get back to WWII, sort of. A bare bones plot description of Tarantino's latest reads something like this: a select group of Jewish American soldiers are dropped in to pre D-day France with the intention of killing/maiming/mutilating/terrifying as many Nazi's as possible, and things heat up as fate presents the "Basterds" with the chance to get their hands on the most prized scalp of the war.
The story is presented in five acts, which for the most part follow Tarantino's (in)famous dialogue structure of complex conversations building in tension and ending in outbursts of graphic violence. The fact that 'Basterds' does not break from QT's self-established mold means that some are going to criticize the film for lacking originality. Personally I know that I am in no position to judge because I will gladly and lovingly throw money at any/every Wes Anderson film, regardless of how similar they all are, so I have little to say about being original. Quentin has a style, he does it well - having a conversation about being unique, especially being unique in response to oneself, is valid but shouldn't necessarily affect someones judgement on a film's worth or effectiveness.

Trying to break down every element of 'Basterds' for this review would be a time consuming task far beyond my abilities, so I will try to keep this manageable and brief. What amazed me the most about 'Inglourious Basterds' was Christoph Waltz's performance as a charismatic and linguistically gifted Nazi colonel. It's difficult to imagine 'Basterds' without Waltz's character, his character's sadistic intellect is the perfect counterpoint to Brad Pitt's Lieutenant Aldo Raine. Not that Pitt's character isn't a sadist; he's just a different variety...
Other notable performances include those of Eli Roth and Melanie Laurent - Roth because he gives me nightmares, and Laurent because her character is the link to an important theme of the film: the love of cinema. Shosanna Dreyfus is the young owner of a french movie theater who's own revenge driven plot becomes intertwined with the Basterd's similar schemes. On a more conceptual level she represents an ode to the medium of motion pictures. There is a lot of talk about how 'Inglourious Basterds' pays homage to films like 'The Dirty Dozen' and 'Quel maledetto treno blindato' as well as several spaghetti westerns, but I would argue that there is an overarching appreciation of cinema being represented through Laurent's character. Tarantino's films are always self aware and often have overt film references in them (like Uma Thurman's biker outfit in 'Kill Bill'), but the French cinema proprietress is the most outward clue that this movie is really about movies - most particularly war movies, and that it's not about war.
There are other ways 'Basterds' distances itself from war even in Nazi occupied France. A clever mix of out of decade music references (David Bowie for starters), moments of stark/morbid comedy and a liberal understanding of historical events reminds us that we are not watching 'Saving Private Ryan' or anything by Spielberg for that matter.
If anything is to be said about gender in this film it would probably come down to how characters act and react to their circumstances. Even though there are two strong-forlackofabetterword-women in the story it is important to note that they only react to the conflict and violence around them. The men of the story do not react, they act; they enlist for the special mission; they are the hunters. This is a pretty universal theme in movies, even those whose female protagonists are portrayed as individualistic and capable of taking charge of their lives - it is almost always because of forces beyond their control pushing them to react. This kind of action/reaction gender dynamic hints at deeper notions of men and women's (perceived) relationships to violence. Men seek out violence, for sadistic or honorable purposes, where as women must be pushed to violence.

My final verdict is to go see 'Inglourious Basterds.' Compared to other works by Tarantino I was not as impressed, but that does not mean that this film was unsuccessful. Nobody makes films like Quentin, which makes seeing his movies a necessity for movie buffs. Tarantino's prolificacy as a director aside, I would still recommend this movie solely because of Christoph Waltz's performance. Consider not eating before sitting down for this one though as there are some graphic depictions, or "glourifications," of violence. Bring some friends too because this film, as with all Tarantino films, is a great conversation starter. If you hate Quentin's other works than you can probably skip over the 'Basterds' as this one's another chip off the old block(buster).

Check out the trailer over here.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

(500) Days of Summer

It has been far too long since I've sat down to write anything for this blog - I was on the verge of discarding it altogether and then I saw a film that actually got me off my lazy summer butt. I know this probably sounds ridiculous but when I walked out of the theater the first thing I thought was, "I am not doing enough with my life - I should learn how to play the harmonica or something."
My second thought was, "where can I find headphones like that?....."

Well, now I'm actually writing about movies again (as I listen to music on my new headphones and compare harmonica prices on amazon), and it's honestly because of this one sappy, angsty, pseudo-hipster romantic comedy... how is this possible?

In short, '(500) Days of Summer' is a film you can relate to. And by "you" I mean "me" (and all my friends). I could go on and on about this one, but as far as the story goes it's really quite simple - "boy meets girl, boy believes in love, girl does not." A lot of critics have been calling '(500) Days of Summer' a "post-modern love story," and although that sounds appropriate I must admit I have no idea what that means. So, for a slightly lengthier explanation and a taste of the amazing soundtrack I recommend watching the trailer over here.

After having watched the trailer if you're still skeptical I beg you to keep an open mind. You see, Marc Webb has successfully taken a genre of film (romantic comedy) which I usually run away from at full tilt and has created something fresh, and I would go so far as to say honest. Fresh because of how the movie looks at a relationship and honest because of what the movie looks at in a relationship.
A major part of '500 Days' freshness comes from how it is filmed, or more precisely, how it is presented. Instead of offering up the generic romance chronology '500 Days' jumps around in the time-line of this couple, showing us the ups and the downs in a haphazard mess (kind of like a relationship!). Of course there is a method to the madness and the film is able to come together by the end in a way that should satisfy most of the cynics as well as the romantics out there.

In terms of how this film depicts the relationship of Tom and Summer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel respectively) it is a little harder to pin-point exactly what feels so unique. It really comes down to an appreciation of the little "in-between" moments people spend together who's poignancy only (and often tragically) become apparent in retrospect. This story highlights quiet conversations in bed, shopping for furniture at IKEA, and arguing over random pop-culture references. Now that may sound trite on paper/blog, but the believable screenplay and Deschanel/Gordon-Levitt's chemistry is more than enough to make this love boat float.

As I try to figure out how to wrap up this review I'm getting more and more frustrated because I feel like there is so much more and more to say. I'm learning that blogs are supposed to be quick and concise and none of my past posts posses either of these qualities. I could go on and on about the way the brief narration segments bookend the story, or how the opening childhood montage does an excellent job of preparing us with references throughout the movie, or how the repetition of wardrobes creates a sense of familiarity with the characters, or how Marc Webb's experience as a music video director lends a kaleidoscopic nature/multiple photography styles to the film, or how the soundtrack manages to unobtrusively commandeer scenes in a beautiful way reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson's 'Magnolia'.... But I should stop here.
Or at least soon.

I didn't write a particularly "feministy" segment in this review not because there aren't points of interest for feminist film theory, but because I'm getting a little exhausted with how I've been incorporating those segments into the different reviews. This film does approach some gender issues - particularly about gender expectations concerning love, but there is more that I could (should?) write about. Maybe I'll write a follow-up when I inevitably download a screener copy... For now all you need to know is that you should go out and see this film as soon as possible - yes it's a little angsty, but aren't we all a little angsty at times? Do yourself a favor and embrace it for a couple hours, you'll be glad you did.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Star Trek

"Your father was captain of a starship for 12 minutes. He saved 800 lives. Including yours. I dare you to do better."


I can claim geekdom in several areas of my life, but being a trekkie is not one of them. I've actually never seem a full episode of the show, nor have I seen any of the films. That little detail out of the way, I still enjoyed J.J. Abrams' revitalization of Star Trek immensely. It wasn't perfect, but it did a lot right - namely making an engaging, accessible, action-adventure that succeeded in drawing in first-timers like myself.
If I had any inkling that this blog was read by more than a handful of people I would be hesitant to write anything about Star Trek for fear of messing up a factoid or misspelling a character's name. Even so I'll do my best to keep things simple as to avoid any negligent flamebait.
In a nut shell Star Trek follows the exploits, adventures and general tomfoolery of the original crew during their early days in the Starfleet Academy and on the U.S.S. Enterprise's maiden voyage. Things go awry when the young cadets run into an unruly Romulan from the future whose thirst for revenge and planet-cracking starship places the universe in peril. The plot is thickened with protagonist James T. Kirk's past connection with the evil Nero.
That's the basic plot, and it works well even if you didn't know beforehand (like me) that Romulans are sort of expected to be evil and tend not to get along with Vulcans. I'm pretty sure most of the shear joy trekkies will be getting out of this film will stem less from the conflict of the film and more from the introduction and development of characters like Kirk, Spock and Scotty.

My only real gripes with the film are with the occasionally awkward comedic moments and a fairly one-dimensional bad guy. Otherwise the film is a riot - it's gorgeous (just the right amount of bloom-lighting and vast, future cityscapes), the score and soundtrack are spot-on, and the heightened level of action made the film that much more exciting, even if it felt a little more like a... dare I say it? ... Star Wars film... (I mean come on, the whole ice-planet thing didn't remind anyone else of Hoth?)

When I was sitting in the theatre, trying to ignore the 8 year old narrator behind me, I thought to myself, "now what would this movie look like through a pair of feminist goggles?" The first knee-jerk reaction was to the obvious attention-bait underwear make-out scene at the beginning of the film. Now I don't have anything against the idea of sex in films - it's just how sex is handled and what purposes it serves that oftentimes undermines a movie and gives cinema in general a misogynistic rep. If you're going to use sex in a movie make it complex, make it honest, make it something more than a tool. In Star Trek any sexual tension is obviously used to frame the character Kirk, which makes sense for the plot/character development. The scene just feels a bit obvious, especially when it's throw out there within the first 15 minutes - Hollywood knows that if there isn't an explosion or a boob in the first 17 minutes of a film half the audience is going to fall asleep or walk out.
Beyond being centerpieces for said sexual tension, there really aren't many roles for women in this film. There is a brief segment that deals with the mother/child (dis)connection, but that only comes up a couple of times in the movie. Overall it would have been interesting to see the film try something new with incorporating women into this typically heroic-male oriented story. You would think that gender roles would have changed at least a little bit after however many centuries in the future the story is supposed to take place.
It is hard to be critical though because this is a remake of sorts - and from what I've heard from friends, it sounds like the original Star Trek series was pretty progressive in regards to social issues.
Even if you're not a die-hard fan you should definitely drop the dough on this one - it's a great summer adventure film, and unless space really isn't your thing you'll be having a blast with Star Trek.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Terminator 2...

I'm aware that writing this post may forfeit any legitimacy/dignity this blog has, but stick with me for a minute - this will be a short one.

"A feminist critique of the movie Terminator 2 you say? ludicrous! absurd!"

Honestly I was just avoiding real work and most of my responsibilities the other night and somewhere between procrastination and napping the Terminator showed up.
One of the problems with trying to think like a film critic (and maybe even more so from a feminist perspective) is that you can remove yourself from the actual entertainment that a movie is supposed to provide.
I'm guessing most people going out of their way to read a blog about feminist criticism would be hard pressed to call Terminator 2 entertaining - therefore I won't spend too much time trying to explain the intrinsic awesomeness of filmic devices like explosions, slow-mo, motorcycle chase scenes, time traveling robots, post-apocalyptic landscapes, and being able to reload a shotgun with one hand...
I love movies, I really do, sometimes even bad ones. It's true that sometimes it feels wrong to let myself enjoy action films - why is violence so captivating/why do I subscribe to such hyper-masculine notions of strength/why is it cool to wear sunglasses at night/why why why? There is probably an analysis in the making right here: trying to understand how it is that I can spend so much time in convoluted criticism of movies - like the fact that I didn't enjoy Garden State because it's "too accessible," (what the hell does that even mean?) - and yet I can sit down with a bucket of popcorn and have a great time with any number of guilty pleasure films (i.e. zombie flicks).

Alright, back to Arnold.
I'm not going to really review this one, I just wanted to throw out some thoughts I had when watching the movie in regards to motherhood. For those who haven't seen the movie there is a lot of attention given to protector/protected relationships. In the first film of the series it was the mother, Sarah Connor, who needed protecting from a heartless/emotionless robot assassin from the future. Sarah was to be the mother of a son who would grow up to be the leader of the human resistance against the bots. In the second film it is the same son, John Connor, who needed protecting, but this time by both his mother and a reprogrammed robot - also from the future.
One of the greatest tensions in the film comes from Sarah Connor's divorce of everything "motherly," turning her character into a fiercely independent, aggressive and cold person. The only thing keeping her alive is the knowledge that she must become as strong and prepared (military training, access to weapons) as possible in order to protect her son from the impending war between the humans and the machines. The end result is a mother who does not resemble a mother at all. The love for her son is obvious but with such a jaded exterior there are plenty of moments when our hearts bleed for a boy whose mother has been taken away from him; replaced only with a bodyguard.
The film also has something to say about fathers - although it's brief. At one point in the film during some introspective monologue-ing on Sarah's part she mentions how the robot protector from the future is actually functioning as a better father figure then any other man in John's life. The implications that a robot devoid of emotion could serve as a better father seems bizarre, but Sarah goes on to say that the robot will never leave John, never raise his hand against him. He will always be there to protect him. I guess in a strange way, those few lines say a lot about fatherhood, what we look for in a father, what we expect.
Well that's all I really have to say about the film - if nothing else I hope this post wasn't completely worthless. I really do think it's possible to extract a feminist critique out of films even as hyper-masculine as Terminator 2. There is definitely more I could go on about with this film - such as the mother/child authority complexes or the gendered notions of sacrifice, but I think I'll end here. Let me know what you think about all these expectations we have for mother figures (fathers too), as I really do think that this is one of the most important themes in this and many other films.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Wandafuru raifu (After Life)

A somewhat more obscure film than my first review - Wandafuru raifu (literally "Wonderful life") is an international piece released in the US back in 1998 under the localized title After life. Similar to Brick, my intention in reviewing this film is a mostly selfish one (I just wanted to watch this movie again), but I was also drawn to the film's nuanced use of gender in telling a story and presenting an aesthetic. Japanese writer/director Koreeda Hirokazu managed to take a simple question and turn it into a film that connects deeply, without the baggage of melodrama or convolution. At the end viewers are left to ponder the quiet joys in life - and that is really what this film is all about.

And what is that question you ask?

"If you had to choose one memory to take with you into all of eternity, what would it be?"

The story in After Life follows a group of counselors who work at a sort of waystation or halfway house for people who have recently died. The job of the counselors is to speak with the souls in order to determine which memory they want to take with them into, well... whatever comes next. The catch is that the recently deceased only have a few days to decide. At the end of the decision process the counselors recreate the memories as short films for the deceased to be a part of in order to relive their experience. The fact that no one knows what "eternity" means or looks like isn't the point of the film - the purpose lies in finding meaning in one's life by searching back through the years.
Koreeda's early background in film was primarily in documentaries, which may explain why After Life spends so much time fleshing out the dialogue and revelations between counselor/patient in interviewer/interviewee scenarios. This style works well and really gives the film an intimate feeling.
The conflict of the film (if you could call it conflict) lies in the relationship between two of the counselors. Protagonist Shiori (female) is sort of a counselor-in-training to Mochizuki-san (male), and although there is little interaction shown between the two, it becomes obvious that there are feelings for the other going in at least one direction...
The film is minimalistic in almost every sense of the word - the setting is bleak but not quite depressing; the dialogue is brief and vague, and there is almost no use of music. But minimalistic does not mean emotionless - there is a lot of feeling in the film - it's quiet, but it's memorable.

The biggest "feminist" question/thought/quandary I have with this film is whether or not Koreeda is effectively directing from a "female gaze." The whole question of gendered "gaze" comes from an influential feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey - particularly her 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" (Screen, 1975). So as not to bore anyone to death I'll be quick. Mulvey basically proposed this idea that film is created from a dominant male perspective, specifically for a male audience, i.e. the "male gaze." Therefore Mulvey proposed that sexism in film goes beyond how women are presented and reaches the boundaries of why film exists and how it is produced.
In response to Mulvey's notion of the male gaze other feminist film theorists like Judith Mayne and Teresa de Lauretis wrote on women's involvement in the production and consumption of cinema. De Lauretis in particular wrote on what she saw as "female spectatorship," an alternative to the assumed male gaze, and explained how it was possible. The first step is simply female authorship in film - women being involved in the process. But de Lauretis' theory reached further into arguing for an aesthetic specific to women directors - and this is where I feel the film After Life posses an interesting question.
There are several aesthetic, as well as narrative choices that Koreeda (male) made in the production of After Life that remind me of what de Lauretis defined as "female spectatorship." Although fairly ambiguous in nature, some of the filmic elements de Lauretis wrote about included a focus on "in between moments" and concern for relational drama as opposed to conflict drama between characters. I've mentioned the relational drama in After Life already, but there is also a focus on transitory moments, or moments of contemplation - such as Shiori spending time in the mirror adjusting and readjusting her hair, or a solitary walk through a bamboo grove without any real intent. These kinds of scenes remind me of what de Lauretis was describing as "in between moments," and I can't help but wonder how much gender plays into constructing a scene like this.
I really didn't mean to spend so much time in the theory behind this stuff, but I thought I'd bring it up because when I first read through some of de Lauretis' arguments, Koreeda's film came to mind.
This review is getting a little out of hand so I'm going to try and cut it off somewhere around here. I guess what I'm curious about with After Life is whether or not the gender of the director is easily discernible. What would seeing the film have been like if someone had told me it was directed by a woman? What are some of the gender/culture implications? (that's a whole other analysis waiting to happen). And finally what does it take to command/incorporate a "female gaze" into a film? Is a male director capable of that?
A lot of these questions spill over into (feminist) film criticism in general so this probably won't be last time they apply to other movies. If you haven't had the pleasure already, do yourself a favor and pick up this movie - it's a great "feel good movie" that's context is death and mood is deeply reflective - which I know sounds morbid but you'll understand when it's all over.

p.s. seriously, what memory would you choose?