26 June 2007

Black Snake Moan

I know, I know, I'm always sayin' oh man, this movie was weird. But seriously, this movie was weird. WEIRD. I have no idea what to make of it.

So let's begin with the basics, the plot. Justin Timberlake, who has a serious anxiety problem, heads out of town to enlist, leaving behind his girlfriend, the demented blonde Christina Ricci. She's got a history of abuse, and some kind of strange disorder where every so often she starts twitching and copulates with anyone in arm's reach. Meanwhile, Samuel L. Jackson has just been jilted by his wife. He finds Ms. Ricci beaten up and left for dead on the road by his house, and takes her home to fix her up. Then she has one of her twitchy episodes, and he thinks maybe she's possessed by Satan. Then he finds out she's been giving herself to anyone who'll have her, and proceeds to chain her up in his shack for her own damn good. Ok. So the film kind of chronicles these bizarre messed up people who end up fixing and comforting each other, sort of. Now, what's strange about this is the blend of ultra-violence, sex, and psychobabble. No clue what to make of it. Is Ricci's horrific abusive past a kind of metaphor for Satanic possession? Then how do we read Justified's panic attacks? Is Jackson actually a devout believer? Does he undergo some kind of conversion over the course of the film? Does Ricci exorcise her demons? What kind of narrative/symbolic work are the interjecting reflections on the blues? Is there a moral to this story? I mean, other than a kind of bland, look at how people, even messed up people, can end up supporting and helping each other? Is there a point? Is there a more compelling reason for showing all the messed up sex scenes, other than a kind of pornographic voyeurism? Isn't it odd how race both is and isn't an issue? Shit, when is the movie even set?

That said, while it does drag at times, the movie does keep you on the edge of your seat. The fact that Ricci spends most of the film in a very very small top and some panties doesn't hurt. The opening sex scene between Ricci and Timberlake is H.O.T. The cinematography is amazing. Samuel L Jackson is pretty goddamn great. Justified does just fine, Ricci is hot, but a bit cartoonish.

All in all, a really, really strange movie. I have this sense that there's a clear, step by step explanation of it all that I'm missing. If you know it, please, share.

19 June 2007

Puccini for Beginners

You know, you can get away with an awful lot if your characters are extremely likeable. Because after all, when you're watching a movie, you're basically spending time with a bunch of fictional people. So if you like them, you'll probably have a good time, even if what you're doing isn't that great. It's kind of like hanging out with a good friend of yours and listening to him/her tell and long story that isn't really that interesting, but you don't really care, because you're just sitting around shooting the shit with someone you care about.

This isn't to say that Puccini for Beginners isn't an entertaining flick. I enjoyed it mightily. But it's basically a cheesy romantic comedy, except with lesbian sex and occasionally cerebral dialogue. It's sort of like Sex in the City for bisexual intellectuals. I suppose your average viewer would find it incredibly pretentious to have the main character strolling down the street musing about Freud's views on coincidence, but I, of course, loved it. Not that the ideas were particularly profound; they were just nicely packaged in some intellectual evening wear. You could say the same thing without namechecking Freud and it would come off as standard rom-com cliche, and probably placate people who felt that the movie was just trying to be snooty and elitist, but goddamnit, give credit where it's due, eh?

The movie follows a young woman named Allegra who, after a rather unpleasant break-up, falls into a relationship with a philosophy professor and, coincidentally, also finds herself sort of cheating on him with his kind of ex-girlfriend (played by a very cute Gretchen Mol). Though none of them realize this until late into Act Two of the film. Allegra is absolutely charming. You can't help but like her. She's smart, witty, and has that kind of helpless flighty nature that makes her seem adorable even when she's being a total asshole. She never really means to harm anyone, she's just kind of self-centered and inconsiderate sometimes. In a way, she acts like the stereotypical "average guy" - a fact that the movie does not neglect to point out. Incidentally, she's also supposed to be a lesbian, so this whole relationship-with-a-guy thing kind of freaks her out, and leads to some nice reflections on sexuality and its stereotypes. It's well done, though again, could strike the average viewer as overly intellectualized. To me though, it seemed to strike just the right balance, not too anguished, maybe a bit narcissistic, but really just kind of enjoying the juxtaposition of theory and practice. Then again, I am often told that I overanalyze things, and especially things of this nature.

The film also has the whole "love story in and about new york city" thing going, but this is also done quite well. Random strangers offer commentary on the action - most delightfully, 2 sushi chefs; where, incidentally, the film earns extra points by actually having new yorkers speak foreign languages, a nice bit of realism - or give Allegra advice. I suppose it's a cheap trick, but it's kind of a sweet way of capturing the odd spirit of the city.

The film has been compared to early Woody Allen movies, and certainly the influence is there, with the New York thing, the coincidences leading to hopelessly tangled romantic debacles, the characters busting out fifty cent words like "pulchritudinous", and well-meaning but highly self-centered cast, but still, it's no Annie Hall. It's a fun movie, but ultimately, the characters are just a bit too good to be true, especially in terms of their blase attitudes about their own sexuality, and the plot works out just a tad too neatly. It doesn't quite manage to strike the delicate balance of Woody Allen at his best. All in all though, a fun movie.

10 June 2007


It's somewhat surprising that I enjoyed this movie, given that I really wasn't that into the music, and it is, after all, a musical. But I really have to be in the right mood to appreciate heartfelt singer/songwriter type stuff, and the tracks in this film were a bit too Damien Rice for me. Still, though, I did think this was a worthwhile movie, at very least because it was an interesting take on the genre. Perhaps some of my appreciation also came from the fact that it's set in Dublin, and many of the scenes happen literally around the corner from the hotel I was staying in, so it was nice to be on those streets again. But anyhow, it's a curiously difficult film to describe. It's sort of a musical, and the two main characters sort of fall in love, and it's sort of a happy ending... this isn't to say it's waffling, it's just sort of understated.

In a way, it's kind of about how sometimes two people can be kind of perfect for each other and still not end up together, but that's ok. Even if, perhaps, they would be happier together. The final scene, of the female half of the ill-fated couple sitting at the piano given to her by the male half and gazing out the window as her husband, whom she maybe loves, but not as much as she maybe loves this other guy, plays with their child in the dingy apartment that she shares with her mother, is not so much tragic as it is wistful, yet resigned. Or perhaps better to say, accepting of the current state of things, and grateful for the beautiful moments of the past.

The musical aspect is interesting. The film has been described as a musical for people who hate musicals. I suppose this is because it doesn't have that obnoxious musical quality of everyone suddenly bursting into song and dance numbers in ways that require a strenuous suspension of disbelief. The music is pretty well integrated here - I mean, it's about two musicians for goddsakes. Still, and maybe this is because I just wasn't that into the songs, I didn't feel that it really contributed to the development of the story. I suppose the idea is that these two people express their feelings for each other through the music, but really, it comes across more through the lovesick stares they cast at each other. Come to think of it, I guess that's part of the point - that these characters are so guarded and careful in conversation, but then they really let loose and get all earnest and angsty when making music. But the thing is, I liked them more when they kept all that emotional turmoil to themselves. Their seething inner lives, as conveyed by sounds that occasionally verged on caterwauling, were kind of off-putting. The disjunction between the two was a bit too jarring for me, I suppose.

The character development is sparse, and there are some rather odd scenes that ultimately don't really fit - the opening, for instance, where the protagonist is robbed, chases the guy down, gets his stuff back, and ends up giving the thief some change. I mean, its a cute scene I suppose, but...

Yeah, so in the end, I guess I wasn't as wild about this movie as I originally thought. Hmmm. Worth seeing for it's experimentation with the genre of the musical, but if you really want to enjoy it, get yourself in the proper mindset for some heartfelt, wringing-every-drop-of-emotion-out-of-vocal-chords-that-aren't-fully-suited-for-the-job type of music.

02 June 2007

All That Heaven Allows

This movie got remade a few years back under the title Far From Heaven, starring Julianne Moore, and was a big hit. Having seen the original, let me tell you what, the remake is crap. This is one hell of a movie. It's the story of a widowed housewife who falls in love with the guy who prunes her trees. Unfortunately, it's the 50s, and nobody is really down with cross-class relationships.

So it's a tricky situation. That people will say vicious things about her behind her back and stop inviting her to cocktail parties if she marries Rock Hudson is one thing, but that her children will cut her off is another altogether. One is tempted, in situations like this, to say, well, screw the haters, do what you want. The incredible thing about this film is that it shows you how selfish such a decision is. Which isn't to say that it might not be the right thing to do.

What really makes this movie a masterpiece, in my mind, is the way that it depicts the fundamental powerlessness of the protagonist. She has almost no agency over her own life. It's not just that she is a member of a snooty upper class that has rigid rules and expectations and relentlessly punishes those who fail to conform; it's also that she has followed a certain path in her life, and it's not easy to deviate from it. And while this illicit love affair looks like a chance at freedom, it's not, really. Rock Hudson is a rebellious kind of guy who lives on the outskirts of society and has an "I do what I want attitude", but the thing is, there's no in-between with this guy. If our heroine takes up with him, it's going to be on his terms. He's completely unwilling to compromise - he's not going to meet her half-way. So basically, she can choose her prison. Some may be more pleasant than others, some might not feel like a prison, but at the end of the day, she's not really in charge.

Part of the reason why the movie works so well is because the main character, played by Jane Wyman, is so incredibly likeable. She's a lovely person. Smart, curious, cheerful, friendly, beautiful, and generally wonderful. She deserves the best. She deserves to be happy, and she doesn't ask for much to be so. But the world she lives in is an awfully cruel and harsh kind of place. And she's somewhat aware of this, and upset by it, but she never wallows in self-pity. She's a fighter. She's tough. She's amazing.

There are some cheesy aspects to this movie. A product of its times, it can't quite resist certain somewhat silly symbols, but you know, I kind of enjoy them. They operate rather cleverly as metaphors, I think. The young deer prancing around Hudson's house is a bit much, but the startled bird that suddenly takes flight at a moment of sexual tension is quite elegant.

Also, there are some lovely moments of dry humor. The supporting cast is portrayed with a sense of irony of the kind one finds in the novels of Jane Austen, or George Eliot. Wyman's daughter, a self-righteous prig who constantly quotes Freud, is particularly delightful in this respect. The old fuddy duddy who also makes a move on the protagonist is another good example.

Finally, there's a rather incredible subtext about the rise of tv in American society. Everyone keeps telling the heroine to get a tv because she's so lonely, and she constantly reiterates that she doesn't want one. And when her children buy her one on Christmas morning, it becomes this horrifying spectre in the living room, symbolizing, to me at least, the terrifying loneliness and boredom of these women, trapped at home with nothing to do.

Really, an incredible film. There's a good reason it's a classic.