Imitation of Life (1959)

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It is hard to sit in judgement of a woman who wants to pursue her passion in life.  For Lora (played by Lana Turner), she wants nothing more than to make it as a star on the stage. Recently widowed, she packs up her child and moves to New York City to follow her dreams. She takes in an African-American woman and her light-skinned daughter who are homeless. In exchange for a room, this woman becomes the mammy of the picture; kind-hearted, full of good advice and very plump. Lora pursues her passion with blind eye for anything else around her. She meets a fine arts photographer who tells her to give up acting in order to be his wife. She meets a casting director who tells her that she needs to get on her knees to become a great actress. Finally she meets a stage director who only wants her to do his pictures and doesn’t care about her career. She rejects each one singlehandedly while blindly pursing her career and forcing her daughter to think of the maid as her real confidant. Meanwhile the maid’s daughter wants nothing more than to pass and she goes to great pains to forget and put down her darker mother. Lora becomes famous at the expense of not knowing her daughter, her maid or even her maid’s daughter. Finally the maid’s daughter runs off in order to be a lounge singer (she was a very bad singer and dancer, by the way. let’s hope they didn’t hire that actress purely because they thought she could dance and sing.) and the maid dies because her heart has been broken by her own daughter.

Melodrama rules this world with over acting, crazy plot twists and strong feelings. I would expect nothing less from the king of melodrama, Douglas Sirk. The basic premise perpetuates that only young white women who are down and out can really achieve any success. African-Americans are constantly pushed aside, made to do undeserving work or try to pass as white. Most of the interesting drama comes from this push and pull that is manifested by the maid and her light-skinned daughter. Unfortunately all of the drama involving Lana Turner’s character and her relations with both her various lovers and her daughter is what makes up most of the film. Mr. Sirk is famous for injecting social commentary into what would normally be just a sappy and flat story. He was always restricted by the studio head or the Production Code from showing the true side of the social issue. So he had to dress it up and encompass it around a fluffy narrative about a woman who rejects love in order to pursue her dreams of the stage thus eliminating everyone in her life. I guess that is also social commentary. Mr. Sirk, you social commentary bastard. His films do have more layers than you expect when you first watch the film. I hated this film on the first viewing. I wanted so badly to love it like I loved All That Heaven Allows (a really good melodramatic film that is shot so amazingly), but was so disappointed. It was only when I decided to watch the film again in order to review it, could I see past the heightened dialogue and emotions to what is really going on. Both Lora and the maid do what they have to in order to survive. For the maid it is to be willing to do the grunt work in order for her and her daughter to be together. For Lora it is flirting and fighting for what she wants. Of course all of the fighting prevents her from becoming too close to her daughter. Therefore she is blind to the fact that her daughter is in love with her fiance.

I would suggest you watch this film, but first you need to be aware of the role of women in the fifties. You have to know that Lora showing that much ambition was frowned upon and the maid’s daughter passing as white would have dramatic consequences. Her punishment is light compared to how some women met their fates in the fifties after doing exactly what she did. You have to realize this film was made when Brown vs Board of Education was in the very recent past. With these historical facts in mind you can forgive the heightened plot and remember that this was one of the first films talking about such divides in every day society.

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Safety Not Guaranteed

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I am a very hip media consumer. This means of course that I follow The League, Parks and Recreation and the New Girl religiously. I also root for the actors of these series (except for Zooey, she is too cutesy to root for) in the various films they act in, produce or direct. So when I saw that Safety Not Guaranteed has Audrey Plaza, Mark Duplass and Jake Johnson in it… I waited until I watched it a couple of days ago. (you thought I was going to say I ran to go see it, but it has been out and on Netflix for quite some time.) But I was intrigued by how these television actors can translate their skills to a more succinct platform like film. The result was a pleasing but not exciting film.

Audrey Plaza plays a sarcastic young intern at a magazine. A magazine staffer comes across a weird classified ad that asks for a companion to time travel with and asks if he can bring along a couple of interns to go investigate. The magazine staffer is not really interested in the story, but more interested in getting back together with a former flame. So it is up to Ms. Plaza’s character to investigate and infiltrate this crazy person’s ad. She slowly gets sucked into this crazy person’s world. She falls in love with him against all odds while the supporting characters come of age through their own experiences. Everyone is hunky dory in the end.

I think the only problem I had with the film is the amazing amount of quirkiness that is going on in the film. The premise itself leads to quirk, but the casting choices, the dialogue and the characterization also leads to an abundance of quirk that is too much to handle sometimes. For instance Mark Duplass’s character wears a headband, rocks acid wash jean everything and trains for his time travel duties with a series of insane activities. It is hard to see for the first half of the film that he is a real character with feelings beyond wanting to time travel. It isn’t until Audrey Plaza’s character starts to fall in love with him do we see some side of him that isn’t just convenient character traits. The same could be said about Ms. Plaza’s character. She has to be the sarcastic curmudgeon because that is what the script calls for and only because of that. However each character and each storyline does sort of get you at the end. Each character does grow and realize what they need to change in their lives in order to be a better person (except for the main character’s dad. He is still probably at that kitchen table eating Chinese takeout). This is why I am being so easy on the film. Yes parts of the story bothered me at the beginning (especially Jake Johnson’s character and the Indian intern’s relationship. Not everything in this world is about getting laid. Can someone please tell all of the Hollywood executives for me?) but by the end the story grounds itself and realizes that in order to have emotional truth you must strip away some of the quirk.

Charade

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Both Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant are actors that I admire. They both play their respective suit of characters with ease and charisma. They can both deliver witty dialogue like it was ingrained in them. So putting them together would be a no brainer. That is what Stanley Donen thought when he cast Charade, a comedy thriller. But I feel differently.

Charade is about a recent widow who is being stalked by various former friends of her deceased husband. She receives help from a beautiful stranger and he protects her from a series of attacks. The widow falls in love with the stranger, but the stranger could be working for the bad guys. At least that is what the CIA representative suggests. Who is on the good side and who is on the bad? Why does this plot summary more interesting to me than the actual film?

I think my major problem with the film is the lack of chemistry between Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. They are supposed to be falling in love over the course of the film but it is hard to see why. Cary Grant looks tired and exasperated by what each scene entails. Audrey Hepburn is too busy changing costumes every scene to really put any energy into reciting her lines with any feeling at all. Once I saw during the beginning credits that her wardrobe is given a special credit, I knew I was in trouble. I care little for fashion. I care more for actual performances. Audrey’s character I admit is probably the hardest to pull off. She has to look vulnerable to the bad guys while also delivering slightly rapey comments to Mr. Grant. I think it was too complex a character for Ms. Hepburn to pull off. A Rosalind Russell or a Katherine Hepburn would have pulled off this character flawlessly. But Audrey is neither one of these girls. She deflate any bite or wit in her lines by delivering them in that fake British accent of hers. So if you mix one part tired with one part flat delivery, you get one very boring movie. The only bright spot in this film is Walter Matthau. Mr. Matthau plays the CIA representative and he delivers his lines with the usual gruffness that I find so endearing. At the beginning of the movie, he is interviewing Ms. Hepburn and he breaks to offer her a sandwich. This little bit of exchange is the most comic thing in the movie. He does all of the heavy lifting, Ms. Hepburn just has to sit back and react to his wittiness.

I can respect this film as being one of the first comic thrillers on the scene. I can also respect the amount of time and energy that was put in to concoct all of the insane twists. But it just didn’t add up to enough respect for me to like this film. When I see this type of film, the main relationship is how I can get through all of the wacky setup. A more modern example of how well this type of genre can be done is OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies. This film is probably even more wacky than Charade, but the main relationship between Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo is so rife with tension and charisma that I forgive all of the crazy plot machinations. Charade wasn’t believable because Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn weren’t believable together. No matter how good the script is, how interesting the set choices are and how nicely it is shot, it all falls flat due to lack of charisma.

Submarine

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I hardly ever do this. Usually after a I watch a film, I spend a couple of hours reading other reviews, assembling my thoughts and considering how I truly feel about a film. But not now. I just finished Submarine a couple of minutes ago and I am bursting with emotions. I am going to try something new. I am not going to read what other people write. I am not going to hold back. I am going to just write what comes to mind about this wonderful film. Whether or not you agree with my assessment is irrelevant to me.

The most emotionally relevant films are ones that reflect your past experiences and shed more light on them. Although I was never a boy who wanted desperately to lose his virginity, I did have a first love. A first love that I have made mistakes with. In this film, the boy makes tons of mistakes with the girl that he feels gets him. They share a sense of adventure, of rebelliousness and of coy phrases. But he is distracted. He wants nothing more than for his parents to stay together. This is exceedingly difficult as his mother is feeling neglected. She acts out when an ex-flame moves in next door. They end up spending an inordinate amount of time together as his father sinks deeper and deeper into his melancholia. So not only is Oliver (the main character) dealing with his parents possibly splitting up, but his girlfriend’s mom is dying of cancer. He is too young to deal with such a heavy load. So he lashes out, but in ways that a neurotic kid does. He takes a lot of antidepressants and pees on his mother’s ex-flame’s belongings. This doesn’t seem too productive and it isn’t. He can’t delay the inevitable with either his mother nor his girlfriend’s.

I must talk about how this film is directed. Richard Ayoade is known as the quirky nerd on the I.T. Crowd. But this film shows that he has more to him than just an incredible sense of comic timing (I love the poop out of the I.T. Crowd, by the way). He has the ability to capture the flesh of new love. This is honestly one of the few times that I truly saw my experience with the flush of new love on film. It is awkward. It is rebellious. And it is full of passion. The last scene with Oliver and his first love is full of subtly. This act that they are engaging in is important to only them. Someone from the outside would think it was just childish games, but to them it is a show of both affection and playfulness. This scene and some themes of this film remind me strongly of the 400 Blows. They are both a coming of age film that doesn’t want to be that. They both show infinite affection for the main character and they both give me a feeling that I have just watched something monumental.

I responded so strongly to this film for such an intangible reason. The feelings and the events that Oliver goes through is so mundane and yet so impactful on his life that it causes me to examine my own life. Each small choice and event that happens around you can create a tidal wave that can cause years of repercussions. Whether it is Oliver’s mother choosing to go out with her ex-flame on New Years Eve or Oliver choosing his parents over his girlfriend, it is hard to recover what seemed to be a natural decision. Throughout the film Oliver asks both of his parents at different times the same question: If he and the opposite parent are trapped in a burning building and are equally hard to get to which one would you save first. The answer to the question is how Oliver determines how committed the parents are to each other. But what he is getting at and what I think the whole film is about is your gut reaction. What is your first instinct? If you had to choose between your mother and your boyfriend or girlfriend who would you choose?

Top of the Lake

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I usually don’t review mini series on this site because I have a problem with being brief. The episodic nature of all mini series leads to too many plot points being thrown out for everyone see. I love to see the twists and turns of a series on my own terms and therefore do not like when all is revealed to me. But I feel like I need to shed some light on this series, because I really enjoyed it.

Top of the Lake is really about a town. A town that is dominated by the ever-present male oppression. It is ruled by the Mitchum clan with Matt Mitchum being the ultimate ruler. And man does her rule this town. He has his thumb up everyone and enforces his dominance through intense cruelty. I think the actor Peter Mullan lives for these types of roles. He takes full advantage of the grisliness of his character by snarling, using cuss words and just being a dominant force. He has a clan of kids that seem to come from very different parents. One of these kids is a young girl named Tui. At the beginning of the series, Tui tries to drown herself in the lake that dominates the images of this series. Someone finds her just in time and she is hauled into the police station. While here she meets the protagonist of the series Robin, played by Elizabeth Moss. Robin is a detective specializing in sexual abuse because she was once a brutal victim of sexual abuse. Robin actually used to be a resident of the town when she was younger and she has returned because her mother is dying of cancer. Robin takes an unusual interest in Tui and tries to help her, but Tui is silent as to who impregnated her. She eventually runs off into the forest to escape the thumb of Matt. This forces Robin to be in this town longer than planned. She proceeds with the investigation and the desperate hope of finding Tui despite it being freezing out in the open. Matt Mitchum is also desperately trying to find her, but he does it in a way that is characteristic of his brutal ways. The last thing I will mention is the presence of a woman’s colony. This colony camps out on Matt Mitchum’s land that he lost a long time ago but still houses the grave of his mother. So attached to his mother, Matt vows to get the land back and force the women’s colony out. Of course the leader of the colony, a sage named GJ (I love how New Zealanders say this name. It sounds so cool!), is having none of this. She sits in her camping chair and dishes out blunt wisdom to every woman who takes the trek to see her. She speaks the truth. The truth these women desperately need, but cannot bring themselves to face. She is my favorite character.

Jane Campion is a director I intensely admire. She makes feminist films that are emotional resonant while also being compelling on a purely plot level. This series is not just about Robin trying to find Tui before she has her baby, but is about something more. Too often women are marginalized by societies that are as close-knit as this one is. Men think that these women are theirs purely because they live in the same community. They objectify these women’s bodies, they impregnate them, they take advantage of the young woman’s naiveté and they don’t care about their actions. But these actions will forever be a black mark on these women. They will never forget something that the men forget so easily. When Robin confronts one of her old abusers, he has no recollection of her nor what he did to her. Her reaction to him when he says it is what I wanted to do for. Instead she needs no help standing up for herself. She takes down a whole town’s hypocrisy in only a couple of months. And she does it in such a way that it would be hard for it to recover. This leaves the people who are still standing, mainly the women, to rebuild it in a way that is more harmonious for them.

Room 237

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Stanley Kubrick has always been a fascinating figure for people who are obsessed with film (like me). He was known for his strange plots, his meticulous compositions, his abuse of actors, his reclusiveness and his intellectual meanings behind his stories. When Stanley Kubrick decided to make a horror film based upon a very popular and mainstream book, most film critics and snooty movie going people were shocked. How could someone who was considered a genius in this world stoop so low? What came out of this production was an amazing film that has this feeling that something else is going on beneath the surface of the story. But what exactly is it? Rodney Ascher decides to take several people’s theories about the Shining and illustrate why they think the way they do. The result is Room 237.

The theories that Mr. Ascher presents here are conspiracy theories. We will never know exactly what, if any, of these theories are based on the intentions of the director. This is because Stanley Kubrick hardly ever granted interviews and never explained any of his films. So it is really up to the viewer to come up with ideas of their own. And boy do these viewers come up with some wild theories. One theory involves a confession by Stanley Kubrick for faking the moon landing, another is that he is illustrating a lifetime of genocide of the American Indians and another is about minotaurs or something. These theories are crazy but they can be very convincing. These people have studied frame after frame of the film and point out the smallest details to support their theories. I don’t know if I will ever have as much passion for a film as these people do. But the wild thing is that most of the theorists are not film buffs. It is just that this film has touched them so much that they have to figure it out any way they can.

Mr. Ascher makes one of the most effective documentaries for several reasons. One reason is that you never see the interviewees faces. As an audience member, you are not tainted with if the American Indian genocide man was really an American Indian or not. He also takes meticulous care in explaining each interviewees point through the images on-screen. He not only uses images from the The Shining, but he also uses images from all of Stanley Kubrick’s films along with other stock footage. He also underlies this eerie score underneath every phrase uttered and image seen. This score is creepy not only because it is set to horror movie images, but because these people are discussing events outside the context of the film that are sinister. Mr. Ascher hints at the issues of the film and gives us more to ponder as we walk away from the film. This is what I think all documentaries should do and what they always seem to fail to do.

White House Down

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I don’t write about action films here much. This is mainly because I don’t watch them. However when you are visiting your mother and she has a crush on Channing Tatum, you watch things that you normally would not watch. Things that involve lots of explosions, silly plot twists and Channing Tatum stripping down to a wife beater half way though the film so that his rippling muscles have more of a showcase. But what is surprising about this adventure that I took with my mother and my brother is that I actually liked the film. Crazy huh?

The plot of White House Down is your typical action flick fodder. It includes a down on his luck military man, a crazy rescue mission of not only the President, but also his daughter, and maniacal bad guys hell-bent on the destruction of this whole world. But what is great about this film is that the actors are very aware of just how silly this plot is. So nobody takes themselves very seriously. James Woods plays the villain of the piece. He overact in the only way James Woods can. He is vicious, angry, and above all hammy. In fact every actor is so well cast it is unbelievable. Maggie Gyllenhaal is great as the determined Secret Service Assistant Director. Jamie Fox plays the President as a charismatic and earnest man who I only wish our president is in real life. Channing Tatum oozes charm. He knows just how to get around the villain’s henchmen without ever really harming himself. He totally commits, even if his character could never possibly do the things he does in the film.

I never thought I would be sitting here writing a defense of a Roland Emmerich film. I have hated so many of his movies in the past that I wonder why he is getting consistent work. After watching such duds as the Day After Tomorrow, 2012, or Godzilla, I usually wanted to punch the television and the person who made me watch it (every one of those was my mother who is the queen of picking out horrible films to watch.) But this time, my mother was saved from my wrath. Yes this film is absurd in every way. But sometimes absurdity leads to a great time spent at the movies.

L.A. Confidential

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Most period pictures about cops seem to be formulaic. You have the protagonist who is seen as a misfit in his precinct because he is either too violent or has too high of a moral fabric. You also have the villain who is usually some misunderstood gangster. They battle it out until at the end the cop is the victor. Put in some excellent set pieces, period costume and shots that copy old film noir tropes and you have a typical period drama. L.A. Confidential does all of these things, but somehow it feels different from any other movie that transverse the same material.

I think the main reason is that there are three cops who are all protagonists, even though you have your suspicions about them throughout the whole film. One cop, played by Russell Crowe, is a cop who bends the rules in order to serve justice. He beats up wife beaters, he kills a man who seemed to have raped a young woman, and he has no problem beating a confession out of someone. Another cop, played by Kevin Spacey, is a spotlight hungry career man. He does not seem to care for anything that doesn’t get his name in the magazines. His need to always be the celebrated one makes him not as clear-headed as he could be. The last cop, played by Guy Pierce, is a very by the books officer. At the beginning of the film, we here Guy talking to his Captain. The Captain asks him a series of questions all having to do with violence that he has to learn to deal with in order to make detective. He tells the Captain that he will not need to do any of the things in order to get the job done. All of these characters have the potential to turn into the villain of the piece in order keep the plot going. But none of the end up being. Instead the villain turns out to be someone nobody really suspected. This is only one surprise in this film. Another surprise is just how good all of these actors are in their roles. Russell Crowe is understated (which is usually saying something), Guy Pierce is lock jawed, Kevin Spacey plays the cool aloof cop all too well, but the best performance is out of Kim Basinger. She plays a hooker who is supposed to resemble Veronica Lake. At the beginning of the film I thought she was just going to be this vixen woman who beds men only to turn on them later. But she is in fact a lonely and sweet woman. She gives the film an emotional resonance that is absent from the procedural aspects of the rest of the plot. She is interesting to watch.

This film shouldn’t have been as good as it was. I shouldn’t have liked it as much as I did. It shouldn’t have surprised me in such a subtle way. And yet it is. That is all I feel like I have to say about it. Just go watch it and you will see what I am talking about.

Cypher

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When I watched Splice a couple of years ago, I was intrigued by the plot and the look of the film. The storyline is easily recognizable as a Dr. Frankenstein parable, but it is told in this slanted and perverted way that I found odd. The creature also seemed to be something that the great science fiction director, Guillermo del Toro, would have come up with, but with the edge of a Cronenberg monster from the eighties. Needless to say the film felt very familiar to me, but it was slanted in a way that still sticks in my mind today. I was hooked on to Mr. Natali’s work and wanted to see more. Well with Cypher, I now have.

Cypher deals with a world in the near future where major companies use humans to spy on their rivals. But it is not like our protagonist, Morgan Sullivan, thinks its going to be. In fact it is rather boring. He lies to his wife, pretends he is someone else, and travels across the country to convention after convention. All he has to do is push a pen and record very long speeches on the modern problems facing the manufacturers of processed cheese. What he doesn’t know is that he is just a pawn in the major company’s game. He is really being drugged and made to think that he is who he is pretending to be. This is all to get the rival company’s secrets without them knowing. But Morgan Sullivan has a guardian angel. Her name is Rita Foster and she wakes him up to what is really going on behind the scenes. Except can Morgan Sullivan really trust her? Who is she working for anyway?

The look and the feel of this movie universe is this film’s biggest strengths. At the beginning of the film, this universe feels washed out. There are only shades of beige lining the walls and the suits of the men. Morgan Sullivan’s home is very condo like in its milk toast presentation. Every image just seems to sigh with boredom. Even Morgan’s face is nothing to look at (for such an attractive man, Jeremy Northam can have a very bland face if lit just right) and nothing to care for. But as the film goes on and Morgan finds out what is really going on, the whole look of the film changes into a brighter and livelier film. It is really subtle, but it is there.

This film does not do a whole lot to break out of its science fiction thriller conventions, but instead embraces them with gusto. I think that this is actually a justified move for Mr. Natali to make. You can’t always be breaking out of conventions, because then there would be nothing to be broken out of. Instead a good genre film can live and relish in its conventions and still produce a good watch. This is exactly what Cypher is and I applaud the filmmaker for it.

A Town Called Panic

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Who doesn’t want a French stop motion animated film whose main characters are little figurines your kid brother played with when he was a child? I’m sure you have been screaming to your mother way past the time of normal mother screaming that you want a movie based on your figurines. Not some computer animated or live action film, but your actual figurines that include a horse that is way bigger than the rest of your bunch, a Cowboy, an Indian, a Policeman (named Policeman), a farm, scuba divers and a myriad of non speaking farm animals. Well take a break from screaming at your mother for this impossible movie, because a bunch of French guys have already made it for you. I present to you A Town Called Panic.

This film makes no sense. This last statement does not mean that it isn’t enjoyable. In fact I rather liked being in this slapdash anarchic world. But nothing happens that you would ever expect. Just to give you a taste: all of the figurines talk in a weirdly high-pitched voice (except for the lady Horse… her voice is as beautiful as her mane), some animals can talk while others cannot or choose not to, they can build a house’s walls in a day, there is a massive robotic penguin that shoots snowballs out of its head, and they have an undersea adventure right after being stuck in a volcano. Do see now why this film makes no sense? This seems to have literally come out of a child’s head, much like the famous comic Axe Cop does. (what an awesome comic that is… so funny.) And I loved every minute of it.

I do have a special place in my heart for stop motion animated films. I think that the time and the effort the people put into a stop motion film imbues it with their passion. These filmmakers are passionate. And they have a real sense of color. The settings are sparse, but they just pop right off the screen. For instance the romantic interest, Madame Longree, of Horse is a music teacher. Horse goes to the music school in order to pick up his neighbor’s kids. When he enters the school, a character named Simon is playing this piano. But the piano wraps around him in a bean shape. So his little figurine is moving around at warp speed playing this huge amoeba like piano. I thought that was genius. This film is full of little things that seem a bit odd, but fit perfectly with the odd story line.

After awhile the film does become a little too much. After thirty minutes of this anarchic madness, I wanted to pause it for just a moment and take a breath. But this film was made for children and they have a tolerance for craziness that an adult just can’t handle anymore. If I was a child when I saw this film, I would have watched it over and over again. It is a cute film full of passion and large mechanic penguins that throw snowballs out of its head. Do I need to say anymore?