Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Some Things Never Change

When we first meet “Baby Jane” she is the perfect ideal of innocence and youth. She is a child performer complete with the bouncy blond curls and an eerily realistic look-alike doll sold as a souvenir at her shows. Lurking backstage is her rather bland older sister Blanche, gazing on enviously as Jane basks in the attention. But once the curtain falls, Jane constantly reminds her family that big tempers can come in small packages.
Jump ahead several years and it’s Blanche’s (Joan Crawford) turn in the spotlight while Jane (Bette Davis) struggles to get an audience for her second-rate movies. But the tide turns once again when an accident involving a car and a wrought iron gate leaves Blanche paralyzed from the waist down. Her life from then on is spent confined in a wheelchair in her bedroom under the thumb of her condescending alcoholic sister.
Pale in comparison to Davis’s boisterous performance, Crawford opts for a more subtle resolve in her character’s demeanor. Quietly, she plays the frightened victim as she desperately attempts to break open the shell of her confined world.
In contrast, Jane, whose claustrophobia strikes deeper than the confines of a bedroom, becomes delusional as she attempts to summon the happiness of her childhood. Her makeup appears to have been applied with a putty knife, and her tangled white hair is twisted into frizzy ringlets, a throwback to her earlier years. Her haggard body is nearly always swathed in girlish lacey dresses. She moves about the house like a sloth in a rage, but in moments of nostalgia, she lapses back into the lightly tripping step of her glory days. She only finds pleasure in tormenting her sister.
Blanche is maddeningly passive in the face of her sister’s cruelty. As Jane sardonically forces her own anguish and claustrophobia on Blanche, Blanche keeps a level head and never loses her soft manner of speech. While Jane’s cruelty and anger toward her sister grow, Blanche develops a weak surrender but her discreet tenacity remains unscathed. Why does she wish to remain alive in a world where she is at the mercy of her sister’s cruel hand?
As Blanche becomes weaker and weaker and Jane becomes more and more unbalanced, the film careens into a tension-breaking plot twist. It is not startling, nor does it have any real effect on the sisters. They are so far gone, emotional impact is met with neutrality.
Blanche may be portrayed as good hearted, yet frail prey, but who is the real sadist here? Jane violently takes out her angst on her sister, but what is it that wears away at Jane’s brain taking her to the border of insanity? Where does Blanche find her strength as her sister loses her marbles one by one? What kept Jane from becoming a celebrity into adulthood? What kept the social butterfly locked in a cage? These are two sisters who fight fire with fire until they both burn themselves out.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Versailles Hasn't Looked This Hip In Centuries

For all of its flamboyance, its sequins, silk, and ruffles, its candy-store color palette and many shots of decadent French desserts set to a harpsichord and ‘80s pop-rock soundtrack, “Marie Antoinette” is superficiality made startlingly human. Director Sophia Coppola does not look back at Marie Antoinette’s reign through the veil of historical documentation. She tells her story through the eyes of Marie Antoinette herself. It is not the story of a queen who turned her back when the country needed her the most. It is the story of a young girl, used as a pawn in the sticky workings of monarchy. It’s the story of a naïve teenager who is forced into the lap of luxury and who behaves like, well, a teenager.
Coppola’s rendition of the now familiar tale of Marie Antoinette’s premature betrothal and grisly finale is not what you’d expect in a period piece. Rather than time-porting us back into the 18th century, she pulls the notorious queen up a few years. Her lavish wardrobe would make Lady Gaga blush with envy, the courtiers’ discourse is anything but antiquated, and guests at a Parisian masquerade dance the Viennese waltz to the tunes of Siouxsie & the Banshees. The ambience is so overblown that “Marie Antoinette” can and has been accused of being merely a novelty. But, like the queen herself, there is something more lurking beneath that towering, powdered wig.
Historical biopics tend to take their own grandeur too seriously. Wanting to do justice to the time period, the historical details, and most importantly the characters themselves, they attempt to recreate the mood of a bygone era for a contemporary audience. In doing so, they inevitably date themselves. When historical figures are so esteemed that we should make a movie of them, filmmakers will try to emanate that opulence by placing them on a pedestal so high that the modern public can only stare up.
In “Marie Antoinette,” we have a young lady full of elegance and beauty, forced to do what is the downfall of all teenagers- grow up too quickly. She winds up wallowing in a pool of champagne, bonbons, drugs, taffeta, and scandal. Kirsten Dunst is perfectly balanced in the role of the stately-yet-ignorant, poised-yet-naughty queen who unknowingly finds herself in a dreadful state of unbalance.
Though she lived a life that the average moviegoer could only dream of (or fear), Marie Antoinette was still simply a human. The Queen of France was a kid in a candy store; the King correlating to today’s male who finds recluse in his hobbies, much to the chagrin of his overlooked wife. They were raised overprotected and reigned the country clueless of the world outside Versailles. Lavishing in her posh lifestyle, you can’t help guessing that Marie Antoinette wants something that her extravagant exterior won’t permit in. She questions her position but is too sheltered to find an answer before it’s too late. Perhaps if Antoinette had been elected, things would have turned out differently.

Friday, September 17, 2010

And We're Still Trying To Catch Our Breath

A director in the time when directors were revolutionaries, a filmmaker when films were being reinvented, Jean-Luc Godard was as influential and renegade as the movement he was involved in- the Nouvelle Vogue or French New Wave.
Paris in the 1950s was a film lover’s haven. The younger generation, seeking freedom and refuge from the conservative ideals of their elders turned to cinema. It was in the smoky and jazzy early years of the 1950s that visiting cine-clubs became a staple activity for young Parisians. Cine-clubs would screen movies, new and old, regardless of genre, for audiences of adoring and often cynical young movie buffs.
It wasn’t long before Godard, a wide-eyed movie-watcher, got the urge to pick up a camera for himself. In 1960, after making several shorter experimental films, he released his first feature film, A Bout de Souffle (Breathless). A definitive film of the New Wave and of modern cinema in general, Breathless pioneered filmmaking methods that were unheard of at the time but have now become cliché. During the final editing process, upon realizing the film was half an hour too long, Godard began hacking frames out right and left rather than eliminating entire scenes. The outcome was the now commonly used film technique, the jump cut.
Godard’s choppy editing technique resulted in an equally jittery pace, combined with the New Wave’s signature long takes gave Breathless the offhandedly breathless feeling that is has become known for. The directors of the New Wave were risk-taking movers and shakers. Fed up with predictability and conventionality in movies, they decided to take things into their own hands. Breathless is one of the defining films of the New Wave movement because of its impulsiveness and narcissistic cinematography. Characters and plot was purely subjective, a canvas on which to paint with technique, philosophy, and tributes to favorite filmmakers and styles.
Godard’s main character, Michael (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is obsessed with Humphrey Bogart, or rather, Bogart’s screen persona. Michael tries to dress like him, imitate his movements, his facial expressions. He steals a car. He shoots a cop. He doesn’t seem to be too affected by his actions though. Perhaps Godard is saying that when one models one’s self after a perceived image of something, one’s very existence becomes superficial. His characters behave as if they are in a B-rated crime flick. They are nonchalant, emotionless, as if they know they are in a movie and their actions do not have an impact.
And they don’t have an impact. Godard’s personal existentialist reasoning does not extend to the characters themselves, because they do not exist, they are merely puppets. He wanted the film to speak for its self, to break new waves. Like a Fauvist, he reveled in the essence of his medium, pulling in tradition, rejecting frivolity, and making his movies the way he wanted thought movies should be made. The members of the New Wave were not looking to entertain or profit, they wanted the viewing of a movie to be as much of an art as the movie its self. Breathless is considered Godard’s greatest work. But being his first film, he resented this notoriety; to him it was a form of paralysis, an inability to progress aesthetically. This subjected him to perpetually reproducing his own methods in his many films to come. For Godard, Breathless was a beginning and an end. But in the pages and frames of cinematic history, it represented the dawn of a new generation of movie.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Ladies In Action Pt. 3: Nikita C'est Ne Pas Une Femme... Or Is She?

Action heroines and heroes alike tend to become subjective in the face of fatal weapons, bloodshed, and techno music. With complex, over-the-top story lines and soundtracks to match, action flicks are all about what will pack the biggest punch; tenderness, such as characters we can sympathize with and relate to, is often considered secondary.
The French film, “La Femme Nikita” is an action film with director Luc Besson’s personal touch. As his story evolves, so too does his protagonist. When we first meet Nikita (Anne Parillaud), she is a drug-addled gang member. When she is busted for ransacking a drugstore, she holds a gun to the chin of a cop and giggles before pulling the trigger. She is sentenced to life in prison, sedated, and wakes up in a cell like room where she is told that her suicide has been faked and if she doesn’t agree to become a government assassin, she will be put under…for real.
Nikita is carnal. Her pale blue eyes are coldly listless and ferocious, staring out from beneath a forest of bushy brown hair. She is frail, and only finds strength when she is striking out at other people. But there is something buried deep inside of her that wants normalcy, and if she chooses to live, there would be no hope of bringing that forth. Still, she surrenders to her new life and must undergo training not only to kill like a professional, but to behave like a human being- and a woman at that.
After years of training, she is released into the real world as a sleeper agent. She gets an apartment and, in a comically romantic scene, a boyfriend who later becomes her fiancé. Of course, just as things are starting to go well for Nikita, duty calls. The tension in the movie comes not from her trying to keep her dual identity a secret, but from her inner struggle between being a killer and being killed, being alive and being able to live. For Nikita to find freedom, she must run away from not just her demons, but also her loves.
Luc Besson is a master of the action film. He uses subjectivity as a tool to create over-the top characters, then gradually peels away their layers while simultaneously crafting slick, well-timed, explosive action sequences. His characters are Pinocchios. They are people you would only find in a movie, placed in direly fictional situations, but dearly longing for human connections and emotions.
“La Femme Nikita” is an exquisitely well-paced movie, flowing seamlessly between scenes of violence, emotion, tenderness, suspense and quiet. The French have a great eye for cinematic detail which utterly envelops us in Nikita’s world of confusion and her search for safety. Nikita’s journey takes her from being a dingy street criminal to a professional killer of the highest order. It also takes her from being a movie character to being a woman.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Ladies In Action Pt. 2: The Bride Doesn't Play Well With Others

Quentin Tarantino is the kind of director that Hollywood needs more of. He is the nightmare party guest who dominates the conversation with his “movie talk.” He eats, sleeps, and breathes movies. He has an eye for style, an ear for dialogue, and a passionate hunger for all things cinema that he uses to create his own brand of movie. His film “Pulp Fiction” is not only a fusion of cinematic genres and styles, but has become an American movie staple, skyrocketing to greatness because of a director who is fanatically, obsessively, dillusionally, crazy about movies.
In films like “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs,” Tarantino strikes upon the right combination of his three signature components: dialogue, cinematography, and blood. However, his tribute to the Japanese Samurai film genre, “Kill Bill” lacks in character development, dialogue, plot, and narrative what it makes up for in blood and well-framed scenes.
He fuses traditional Japanese film technique with an ultra-hip comic book-ness and his hero is a Caucasian woman. This trendy pseudo-Asian inspired bloodbath is probably exactly the kind of movie Tarantino was aiming for. Unfortunately, like so many great directors, he loses his natural talent for developing a great movie in pursuit of technique.
It’s no secret that Tarantino made “Kill Bill” as an excuse to work with actress Uma Thurman who he refers to as his “muse.” But judging from the work she inspires, I would suggest he begin looking for a replacement. “Kill Bill” is practically a visual study on Thurman. It opens with a blood-spattered closeup of her face and throughout the course of the movie, examines her from every possible angle: feet, eyes, profile, bird’s eye, etc. In fact, Tarantino is so fixated on his mass-murdering starlet that he keeps her at arm’s (or sward’s) length from any of his supporting characters. A fatal mistake for any movie.
True, the fight scenes are done with a master’s touch. You can tell Tarantino knows exactly what makes a great fight scene- choreography, grace, respect, anger, poetry. You know this because he demonstrates his facility almost unceasingly throughout the course of the movie. It was as if he had a million ideas for how to shoot a martial arts scene, and decided to execute them all in one single movie. No pun intended.
We have the improvised Kung-Fu sequence in a suburban house, ending with blood and fruit loops all over the kitchen floor; the kinky young assassin in a schoolgirl uniform, armed with a ball and chain and a sweetly wicked grin; and the elegant battle scene with sword blades and blood accented against lightly falling snow. Any one of these would have been enough to memorably enunciate an action movie. As they are, I was left with that curious nausea that comes from eating too much candy.
Tarantino is a great director because he creates characters that are bigger than his movies. Nobody can forget Jules Winnfield from “Pulp Fiction” or The Jew Hunter from “Inglourious Basterds.” But it is precisely because of their interactions with the supporting cast that made them unforgettable. A single interesting character is a complete waste of time if she is not given a number of other individuals to work with. It would appear Tarantino is best off letting his characters inspire the movie, rather than the actors who play them.