23.4.10

Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

The Almodóvar season takes a little detour to consider the film that made his name on a world stage. An enjoyable romp, this one. Spontaneous and stylish, but with a bitter edge to it. Definitely not as warm as the other two films I've seen. Almodóvar can provide his own analysis. The DVD comes with an interview with him about the film, and here are some choice cuts:

'I consider comedy to be the most artificial of genres. I therefore wanted to start on a model of Pepa's apartment block and give the impression, helped by the sunlight pouring in through the window, that the model was the real thing. Then I'd pan across to the bed Pepa was sleeping in and the audience would then realize the building was a model. I remember I wanted to do this in one go, but for various technical reasons I was forced to split the opening sequence up into several shots. Losing the effect was very frustrating.'

'The voice-over has much to do with the technical problems I had with the opening sequence. I decided to use it for the sake of clarity and to bind all the shots together. It then became the basis for all the images of the film. And it ended up working very well. It was only at the end of the shoot that I decided to use a voice-over. Even if it's a little forced, the voice appeals to me because it explains Pepa's predicament; also because it compares the Pepa-Ivan couple to animals on Noah's Ark, which is an idea I'm very fond of.'

'Julieta's character is essential. It represents what all the other women in the film could become if they don't control themselves. Maria Barranco, the model who has an affair with the terrorist, Carmen Maura and Julieta represent three stages of frustrated love. As for Rossy de Palma, she's an innocent virgin but her fiance is dumping her for another woman. She won't remain a spectator of other people's passions for much longer.'

'The gazpacho in the film is a kind of magic potion. Like the potion in A Midsummer Night's Dream it can change the life of the person who drinks it and transport them to another world. The gazpacho transforms Rossy de Palma into a real woman. And her dream completes the transformation. When she wakes up Carmen tells her she's lost the kind of hardness and lack of sympathy typical of virgins.'

'The thesis of the film ... was to posit a feminine universe that's totally humane. The only remaining problem in this earthly paradise is that men continue to leave women. It's the perfect starting point for comedy: the taxi driver sings, he's like Pepa's guardian angel, the chemist is a wonderful woman. Obviously it's all ironic because city life is nothing like this...'

Kick-Ass

The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw found its relentless outrage-provoking stunts a tickle to the diaphragm, and he gave the film five stars. Me being a superhero comics veteran, am slightly less impressed by the Kick-Ass agenda. Yes, I get the gloriously offensive silliness, the satire with a human face mentality. It's just that I've read comics that have done all this better, and am rather frustrated that THEY haven't been made into fims, as opposed to Mark Millar's creation.

My biggest problem with the film is the romantic interest character -- a pining blank beauty who forgives Dave's deceptions at the drop of a hat. There should be a rule: useless geeks should not be given an easy ride on the relationship front. They don't deserve it. Yes, Hit Girl is awesome, but Mrs. Kick-Ass is nerdy wish-fulfilment. This is not a step forward for girls in comics.

Second, smaller problem. The butterfly knife and the bazooka were cool, but were there any actual funny lines in this film? Most of the gags were physical, and some of the funniest looked like ad-libs (the boogie in the car for example). The film-makers could have done wonders with Nick Cage's weirdness, or the two nerds, or anyone really. But they didn't.

Again, to risk repetition, the world of comics offers so much more. Read The Pro by Garth Ennis and Amanda Conner, where the satire with a human face actually hits you. Or Nextwave by Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen, where pop ridiculousness gets taken to the next level. Or even Ultimate Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, where the teen superhero and his girlfriend are real people you can sympathize with. Having this perspective means I cannot see Kick-Ass as anything more than average.

That said, Hit Girl really WAS awesome.

20.4.10

Badlands

Kit throws garbage for a living. Everything is disposable to him. He is disposable. Society cannot hold him because he's completely divorced from it. But he looks like James Dean. And he wants to live forever. He's got this restless energy that can't go anywhere and isn't held back by anything. Hollywood + Poverty + Will-To-Power = HERE BE MONSTERS.

Holly is a gawky school girl, no friends to speak of, completely under the thumb of her father. But Kit looks like Martin Sheen looking like James Dean. And Kit is into her! Isn't that how young love goes? The pretty boy from the wrong side of town? Romeo and Juliet? Bonnie and Clyde? No matter how surreal and horrible the reality gets, Holly clings on to those epic romantic myths. She'll faithfully follow Kit to the end, because he needs her. Isn't that what love is about?

Both characters believe in the myths of themselves. They are kids on an adventure -- Treasure Island with Cadillacs and shotguns. Terrence Malick's innovation is in presenting their killing spree in this cool, detached haze. The events are so extraordinary that neither character really sees them.

And neither does anyone else, in the end. America gets swept up in their story, and the death toll is forgotten. Kit becomes a star, and another variant on the myths America tells itself is added to the canon.

19.4.10

My Neighbour Totoro

Kiki is more sophisticated, and Laputa more thrilling, but this wins because the relationship between the two siblings is JUST. SO. REAL. It's astounding. Miyazaki knows childhood back to front. He can capture it, distill it, and draw us a film that can take us back to when we were children. A master at work, ladies and gentlemen...

I don't know whether it's just me, but I got a whole heap of references out of the film. Most obviously, the line about the trees no longer being our friends recalls the Ents in The Two Towers. More broadly, the set-up is straight out of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Indeed, at the Stone Table Susan and Lucy deal with berevement before having their hope restored. Satsuki and Mei go on the same journey. Finally, what is Totoro if not a bear-shaped Mary Poppins, complete with umbrella? Like the flying nanny, he shows the kids in his care what a magical world they live in. So you have environmentalism, growing up, and child-like wonder all rolled into one. A great way to spend 80 minutes.

18.4.10

Live Flesh

The Almodóvar season continues, and happily we have a much better result tonight. Again, a romantic fairy-tale, but this time structured around an erotic thriller type plot. I LOVED it. A whole mesh of connections sweeps you along at breakneck speed. And the thing throbs with soapy, over-the-top melodrama. Thrilling.

A lot of ideas in Live Flesh were carried over from last night's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, and I just want to note some of them down for future reference:
  • Catholic imagery used in the opening of the film.
  • A disabled character pining after a beautiful woman, and getting all jealous.
  • The hero being an innocent sweetheart, released from some correctional institution.
  • The hero smitten by one-night-stand. Brushed off, but wins the girl through good deeds.
  • Also by being a demon in the sack. Love underpinned by an intense sexual connection.
We'll see if they crop up in film number three...

17.4.10

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!

We might see the beginnings of an Almodóvar season developing here on the Hothouse, seeing as I've got a box set and I'm not afraid to use it. I've started with the earliest film in the collection, because I'm obsessive compulsive when it comes to these sorts of things.

How to read it? The film follows the 23-year-old Antonio Banderas, who is released from a mental hospital, finds the one night stand he's been obsessing over, and ties her up in order to make her fall in love with him. Banderas is a thief and a rogue, but a total romantic at heart. Eventually, after he undergoes a trial by pissed-off Madrid drug dealers, Victoria Abril's character succumbs to stockholm syndrome and they all live happily ever after.

...I mean, Christ! How DO you read this film??

I'm sure Almodóvar sees it very simply -- it's a romantic comedy, a fairytale. The finale is in a friggin' CASTLE, for pete's sake! But let's push that a little. Perhaps Almodóvar is suggesting that this pure, idealized romance can't find a foothold in modern Spain. Abril's character would just brush-off Banderas if he didn't resort to hand-cuffs and duct tape. True love in the big city requires extreme measures.

Banderas is a sweetheart. But am I being over-sensitive when I get uncomfortable with him punching Abril out? Should I just accept it when Banderas feeds Abril's drug habit without thinking of what is truly good for her, as her sister does? Banderas IS a sweetheart, but people who do this sort of thing in the real world AREN'T. Isn't the film being a little disrespectful to victims of domestic violence by overlaying their experiences with a romantic fantasy narrative?

I don't know. It's important to not get all moralistic when it comes to judging a work of art. But it's also important to admit when something makes you squirm. This love story is moving, and all the characters are fully realized and treated with sympathy. But I just can't get down with the 'forced to be free' tenor of the film's themes.

11.4.10

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

The path to redemption never did run smooth. In this here case, it involves being dragged through cowboy country by a gruff, slightly unhinged Tommy Lee Jones, and then getting shriven with bullets. On the DVD the writer Guillermo Arriaga stresses that he is not a religious man, so we will avoid pulling out easy metaphors. And to be fair, Jones (who directed the film) refrains from using Christian symbols in the final absolution scene. Perhaps he thought that would be too easy, obvious and tired.

Plus, he wanted to focus on other things. Again on the DVD, we got to hear him talk about the shared culture Texans and Mexicans have, and how an artificial political border, upheld through violence, runs through it. It strikes me that Jones isn't at all happy with America. In his film, he mentors a masturbating, cowardly, self-centred jock in the ways of the wild. He holds the older generation (such as the blind man in the desert) and Mexicans of all stripes in higher regard. His heart also bleeds for the women of America, tied down and unfulfilled by good-for-nothing husbands. The Mexican medicine-woman is much sassier by comparison.

All these broad brush-strokes sit a little ill with me. Is Mexico's culture 'purer' than that of Texas? Then again, it's not like I know Jones's country better than Jones himself. The contrasts he gathers together are certainly interesting, and they are presented in beautiful, stark slow-motion shots of everyday life. And I like pretty things.

I do find Guillermo Arriaga's pechant for disorientating, non-linear storytelling a little annoying. He is the man behind the 21 Grams screenplay, which told a simple story in a needlessly complex way. Arriaga justifies his approach by saying that when we tell stories, we usually don't proceed in an orderly fashion. I would reply that neither do we seek to confound the listener. Arriaga's cut-up narratives are a cheap trick, and this film didn't need it. I could guess what was happening well before the 'revelation' was presented to us, and would have preferred the story to unfold without the flashy editing. The latter half of the film, where the device is abandoned, is much more gripping and enjoyable.

7.4.10

From Hell

I'm not as well read as Alan Moore, so I don't have the capacity to question his selection of evidence and his interpretation of that evidence. Even so, the Masonic conspiracy that forms the plot of the book, and Gull's historical musings in chapter 4, struck me as rather extraordinary. The only note I know to be, if not inaccurate, then misleading, is this little detail:

'It was the overt paganism of London during the period following Rome's collapse that prompted the siting of the centre of the Christian church in this country at Canterbury, rather than London'

My recently completed dissertation covered this ground, and according to my reading London was not necessarily any more pagan than anywhere else in the south of England. And the siting of the Christian church at Canterbury was 'prompted' by political reasons as much as anything else. This is nothing but pedantry, and I apologize for it, but it did prevent me from uncritically accepting the case Moore was presenting. What is important is that Moore is well aware of the tenuous strands of evidence he is using to construct his narrative:

'As with much of the evidence surrounding these murders, the data is ambiguous, a shifting cloud of facts and factoids onto which we project the fictions that seem most appropriate to our times and inclinations.'

That is a pretty good definition of what history is.

On to more significant, and interesting, matters. Moore introduces the theories of a certain Robert Graves: 'in his book The White Godess ... he suggests that human society was mother-centred until males finally figured out their roles in procreation, at which point some form of patriarchial revolution took place'.

Reinforcing this 'patriarchial revolution' is what motivates the Ripper in From Hell. I should hunt this book down before passing judgement, but it strikes me that women's childbearing abilities would be a source of weakness rather than strength. Only recent political and technological developments (medical childbirth, oral contraception, legal abortion) have begun to reverse this disadvantage. Moreover, I am sceptical of historians appealing to a prehistoric 'golden age' in extolling the inevitability of sexual equality, or socialism for that matter. We should remember that Marx never finished Capital because he was frantically searching for the existence of communist societies in the distant past. He died before he could find any. Again, to his credit, Moore accepts that Graves's 'informed speculations' are 'unproven', though he suggests that they are not necessarily 'untrue'. I find them pretty unlikely, but there you are.

The Platonic drift of the final chapter again got me to start begging questions. (I demolish Plato over here). But again (again, again...) Moore covers his ass. The chapter ends with two nurses fucking in an asylum -- the earthy physicality of the scene undermining the archane, mystical drivel that comes before it.

Moore refuses to explain page 23 of the final chapter, which is fair enough. He doesn't need to explain anything if he doesn't want to, as far as I'm concerned. He asks that you work it out for yourself, and I shall. The only clue Moore provides is that 'Marie Kelley was known by various nicknames that included Ginger and Fair Emma'. Ginger is a red herring, but Emma is the name of the entirely fictional woman Abberline helps out. Indeed, Emma and Marie look identical, which led to some confusion as I was reading. Maybe Moore wanted to give Marie a way out of Whitechapel and back to Ireland, where the Ripper wouldn't be able to touch her, where she would be able to protect her friends from his predations.

Is From Hell Moore's masterpiece? I like Eddie Campbell's work even more than I liked that of Dave Gibbons. And it is just as self-assured and inventive with the form of the comic strip as Watchmen. But From Hell made me beg too many questions. Does Jack the Ripper symbolize the twentieth century? Why? Can a whole century be boiled down to an individual and the myths surrounding him? I just can't get fully behind the themes Moore is exploring here. When it comes down to it, I would pick Nietzsche over Plato, and Watchmen over From Hell.

6.4.10

King Kong

...which I really should have seen in a cinema rather than on a late Friday night on ITV. Regrets, I've had a few. Some of the CGI looks a little flat a couple of years on, but the sheer invention mitigates that: dinosaur avalanches, subterranean man-eating bugs, and the spectacular Kong vs. T-Rex x3 battle, which made me giggle like a little boy high on candy and monster trucks.

But anyway, themes. Exploitation in show-business being one. Jack Black is no better than the pornographer Naomi Watts is sent to in the beginning of the film. The limits of cinema being another? Black's relentless quest for outlandish spectacle is contrasted with the serene moments Watts and Kong share. Real mystery, real emotion, realness is found outside the screening room of your local cineplex.

My one gripe with the film is the existence of Adrien Brody. He puts on a fine performance (as does everyone else), but WHY does he exist. King Kong should be a tragic love story. Having a second love interest is distracting -- it takes some of the tragedy away from Kong's last stand. The film is not supposed to give Watts a happy ending. Its DNA is Kong being pulled apart by two forces: oppressive (male) and supportive (female). Brody doesn't have a part to play in this story. I think he should have been chucked out when Kong comes to Manhattan.