eXistenZ

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Cronenberg is an interesting man. I have read everything from short pieces to long books by people who love him to death. But they seem to only love one side of him. This is the side that fetishizes human organs and wounds and makes unique contraptions that send a normal person for the hills. But Cronenberg is much more than the gross out dark humor and crazy science fiction angles, he is a true visionary that a lot of people take for granted. I say this because this is one of Cronenberg movies that gets overlooked the most. Maybe it is because of Jude Law or maybe it is because the story sort of just tapers off without having a real gain busters ending. But I think that this movie is overlooked because it straddles the strange yet compelling line a little too much.

Before I defend this movie (spoiler alert: I really liked it!), I wanted to tell you about what kind of movie we are dealing with. We open in on a planet that is a couple of years in the future. A young woman named Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a game developer who is attending a conference to debut her new game. A group of really excited youths gathers only to see Allegra almost die. She is saved by an assassin that used a gun made of flesh and blood by a marketing trainee, played by Jude Law. They go on the run in a game obsessed world. They talk a lot about what gaming means and why people love it so much. Allegra becomes insistent that Jude Law plays her game to she can gauge whether or not to trust him. She then finds out that he has never had a bio port installed before. So they go to a local gas station and get the port installed by a super fan (played by the wonderfully manic Willem Defoe). Jude Law reluctantly agrees only to have his port poisoned by this super fan that really wants the money associated with killing Allegra and destroying her new game. They escape by the skin of their teeth only to enter her game once more, this time with a little barrier. They play this game and it becomes real life for them. This is where all the cool organic gadgetry enters the picture. Allegra moves around with confidence and is never surprised by anyone or any new development.  She discovers through a series of events that she is being hunted by a movement that wants to destroy all alternate reality in the world. The alternate reality and real life morph into each other and confusion as to what is real and what is not is explored.

Cronenberg isn’t just commenting on our ever-increasing dependence on gaming. He is commenting on our uncanny ability to separate from reality whenever possible. The people in this movie chose gaming as their escape, but it could have been movies that they escaped with or drugs or music or really anything. When we fantasize we make up whole alternate universes up for ourselves. We are skinnier, more educated, more successful than in real life. We see things in a different light in our fantasies. But this different light can sometimes betray us. We can lose control and have the fantasy take over our real lives. We become less likely to take chances or do anything to comprise our fantasy despite the fact that it isn’t real. I get all of this from one minor character and one line that seems to be the thrust of this film. While Allegra and her marketing trainee body-guard are in the gas station, they talk to the grease monkey who works there (Willem Defoe). He says that before he discovered one of Allegra’s games he was just a gas station owner. The reason why this works so well is not just because Defoe is amazing and can commit and deliver even the most oddest lines with true sincerity. It is because he is still just a gas station owner to an outside eye. But in his mind he is so much more. And that fantasy is all because he has played a game. In this fantasy world I am sure he is rich and clean but in real life he is neither. This line also give punch to the betrayal he commits in the next scene.

Cronenberg has an uncanny knack for making a great universe. Everything seems to be accidental yet thoroughly thought out. Everything from the gaming console that is shaped like a weird kidney apparatus and is turned on by massaging one of it nodules to the organic gun that shoots teeth instead of real bullets are mare possible by the convincing world built around it. It is only natural that there is a umbillical cord that attached you to your console or that whole factories can be put into an old ski lodge. Although this movie can be confusing sometimes, if you just trust Cronenberg like I do you know that you will be able to come away with rich material to think about.

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…And God Created Woman

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Brigitte Bardot is known the world around as one of the sexiest women of all time. Her beautiful blonde hair, pouty lips, large round eyes… and um other things all combine to make her a dazzle to look at. Her stardom erupted on the screen when she made this … And God Created Woman in 1956.

Bardot plays a very young woman in a small seaside town, St. Tropez. She fills her days with walking around barefoot, riding her bicycle, sunbathing nude, and dancing. She just wants to do what she wants. But the men and the older women around her have different plans. Her foster parents are fed up with her coming in late and threaten to send her back to the orphanage. In order to save her from leaving St. Tropez, the rich land baron of the town schemes to marry her off to a dope so that she can stay in town without him committing to her permanently. This boy that she marries is the younger brother or a man that Bardot loves. The older brother sees Bardot’s character as nothing more than a sexual being and he can’t get caught up in her while there is money to be made. The younger brother is the moral center of the group and he falls hopelessly in love with her. Bound to be the dutiful wife, Bardot pleasures her husband and makes him happy. But she is not happy. She is constantly beholden to the matriarch of the family, she can’t go out dancing late at night and she is still desperately in love with his older brother. Finally she breaks through the tension by doing a few awful things and dancing the mambo.

The story is put on the back burner in favor of the long scenes of Brigitte Bardot dancing suggestively or being scantily clad. When we first see her,  she is completely naked bathing her already bronzed skin in the bright sunlight. The camera lingers on her in every shot and she lives up to the challenge of being the sexual and emotional center of the movie. As a heterosexual female, I still could not take my eyes off of her. Every scene that she is not in drags in anticipation of her becoming a part of the movie again. Subplots between the land baron and the family she marries into wash away when she reappears on the screen. French words glide out of her mouth like they themselves know how sexual the whole picture is. It really is a wonder to watch.

However I could not help but feel a little dirty while watching an obvious sexual exploitation of a young woman. In the movie I think it is said that she is eighteen. In real life she was in her very early twenties. But looking at her facial structure and the styling of her hair, she seems much younger. Her body is fully formed but I don’t think her mind is quite yet. This may have also to do with the extra information behind the film. Brigitte Bardot was married to the director, Roger Vadim, at the time the picture was being made. She married him when she was eighteen, but there are rumors of them being involved since she was fifteen. Roger Vadim was six years older than she was. Vadim would go on to have a lucrative career in exploiting his later wives and lovers in horrible movies like Barbarella and the Dangerous Liaisons. But here he gets a pass, if not a small one that comes with an asterisk. I wouldn’t watch his other movies but I would watch this one again.

By the way, what is up with insanely ugly dudes with drop dead gorgeous women? Google Roger Vadim and see my point. That man got Catherine Deneuve, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda, and Annette Stroyberg. Ugh.

Polar Express

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I have been avoiding this movie for quite sometime. When I was young, I used to read the book all of the time around Christmas time (sometimes when it wasn’t even near Christmas), but I was pretty grown up when this movie came out. I was no longer able to accept anything purely because it was put on in front of me. It didn’t get the greatest reviews from critics, I knew people who took their little siblings to it and they said that they were creeped out by all of Tom Hanks characters and the weird computer imaging. However Netflix wasn’t in the Christmas mood this year. Instead of having quality Christmas movies on Instant like Scrooged and Bad Santa, they decided to gut all of the movies released in theaters in favor for Hallmark drivel. I told myself long ago that I will never give into the mediocrity that is the Hallmark channel, so instead I opted to take a peak at what Robert Zemeckis has been doing for the last twenty years.

Polar Express is a book I’m sure a lot of you guys read when you were younger. It involves a skeptical young boy who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus anymore. The night before Christmas, he gets picked up by a magical train, called the Polar Express. Throughout his journey he comes to learn to believe in Christmas. This movie expands the story out to involve a lot of hijinks and shenanigans including a train stuck on ice, a chase after a golden ticket, and a know it all.

If I was still a child, I might have enjoyed this picture. There were a couple of thrilling moments and characters that I would have liked. But sometimes it is impossible to keep those kid goggles on. The animation was just something that I could not get past. The movie felt as if children had no true facial expressions. Their gowns did not sway in a believable way nor did anything really act as if it were at one time human. I respect Robert Zemeckis a lot for pushing innovation in the animation world, but I think that he probably should have kept this movie in the workshop for a little bit longer.

Just read the book to your children instead.

Rare Exports

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After watching a bunch of family friendly Christmas movies, I was in the mood for something… a little bit more grown up. But I made a promise to myself that I would devote my viewing habits to purely Christmas movies this week. So what is a bored girl, tired of the joy of Christmas, to do? Watch a Finnish movie about Santa Claus of course.

Rare Exports is about a small mountain town in Northern Finland. In this town, they make their money by capturing and killing reindeer. (How savage!) On the day of the capture, something goes wrong. All of the reindeer have been slaughtered by something other worldly near a fenced off portion of the land. In this fenced off portion of land, a bunch of Americans (We really are the villains of the world…) are blasting a mountain in a vain attempt to find the real Santa Claus. Well they found him and he gets out. It is up to a small boy and his father to rescue all the kids put in potato sacks from getting smacked and eaten. They have to battle old elves, insurmountable odds and their own doubt that such a legend could be true.

This movie is a nice departure from American-centric holiday movies. Still humorous and filled with lessons about the importance of the holidays, it is still able to be fresh and interesting because it doesn’t necessarily hold steadfastly onto those tropes. Instead it is more about the adventure and the ancient folklore than all of that holiday crap. For that I like it.

Jingle All the Way

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Is there any better way to spend Christmas than watching Arnold Schwartzenegger and Sinbad get into some hammy shenanigans? Absolutely not!

Good ole Arnnie plays an absent father who promises his son the most fashionable doll in all the world for Christmas, Turbo Man. Arnnie must get the doll on Christmas Eve, but oh no! They are all sold out everywhere you go. Sinbad plays a disgruntled mailman who is also desperate for a Turbo Man doll in order to impress his son. Arnnie and Sinbad tussle and get into several different contrived events. It all comes to a head at the Christmas parade where Arnnie stumbles into becoming Turbo Man and Sinbad clunks the villain out to become a man with his brain exposed. CGI, an overlong chase and several platitudes later and Arnnie learns the true lesson of Christmas: love (and more importantly pay attention to) your family.

Oh man. What a silly movie. I forgot what a horrible actor Arnold Schwartzenegger is. His dead pan delivery, his strange accent, and his complete mispronounctian all combine to give this film an unintended shade of comedy to it. While it is a light and family friendly comedy, the presence of Schwartzie and Sinbad, along with several other comic relief men give this a culty feel. This is probably why I enjoyed such a by the numbers movie. It is light, fun and full of unintentionally funny moments. Thank you Schwartzie for making a girl’s Christmas!

P.S. if you are a fan of Archer and Dr. Spaceman of 30 Rock, then you should pay close attention to the mall scene and the yellow clad holiday workers… a little surprise awaits you!

Christmas Vacation

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I have never seen any of the Vacation movies… Whew. I am glad I got that off of my chest. For years I had to lie about seeing them to my friends, my co-workers and even my loved ones about loving this franchise. I had to fake laughs at jokes I didn’t understand, wax nostalgic about my fake childhood that was apparently just a big Vacation movie loop, and the whole time know that I was living a lie. I  couldn’t sleep, I could barely eat, and I avoided my dark soulless eyes in the bathroom mirror as I flossed incessantly. Today is the day that I can finally go out confidently in the world and tell them yes, I have seen a Vacation movie and it wasn’t just any Vacation movie, but the mack daddy of them all: Christmas Vacation. I feel so alive.

From my many years of research, I have gathered that all Vacations are basically the same, the locations and specific gags just change. Basically there is a family man who wants nothing more than to have the perfect Vacation. But everything bad that you could ever possibly think of, happens to him. In Christmas Vacation, all of the gags are holiday themed. He picks up a tree that is way too big for his house, he fiddles with a massive amount of lights only to never have them turn on. (Until finally he gets them to turn on and the whole street is illuminated by the glow of this house) He has pain in the butt in-laws that all come to stay with him. A cat gets electrocuted. And so on.

This movie was an easy way to get into the spirit of Christmas. Clark, played by Chevy Chase, is just so relentlessly pro-Christmas, despite what happens to him that it is heartwarming. You can’t help but to fall in love with him and to root for him. This film leaves you with that warm feeling you get after eating your grandma’s cookies and enjoying some hot chocolate as the christmas lights on her tree blink on and off.

White Christmas

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Just like I did in October, I have chosen Christmas as a time to watch movies related to this holiday that I have overlooked in some way. Each entry this week will relate to Christmas somehow, but I hope to have a nice diverse selection so that everyone will have a pick that they like and write to me aghast that I had never seen this movie before. (For Christmas, I want nothing more than for you to comment on my posts and for you to pass this blog on to other people you think might like it.) The first entry I am going to talk about is a fifties musical featuring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. If you don’t know what it is called, I would suggest you look at the title of this entry.

If you have seen a musical, even a modern one, then you know what the plot of this movie is. A couple of people pull together through song and dance to save a hotel, a town, or just their reputation. In this case, it was set against the backdrop of Christmas. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play vaudeville performers and producers. They meet serendipitously a couple of sisters who sing and dance together as well. All four of them travel to a small hotel where the two sisters are supposed to be performing. When they get there the housekeeper/front desk person tells them that due to low attnedance (no one is coming to this small inn purely because it refuses to snow. They meet the owner of the hotel who Kaye and Crosby recognize as their former General in the second world war. These two boys hatch up a scheme to save this hotel, his General and presumably our souls by forcing us to watch a by the numbers maturation of the plot from here on out.

Can a musical that is conventional still garner interest? I think it can when you get the right people. Each actor, dancer and singer int his movie shined in their respective roles. They sung beautifully, danced with impeccable grace, and had some really funny comedic dialogue. If you were to give this same material to people who were less talented, the picture would have easily become lifeless. But their personalities were such that they overcame the rote plot conventions and the easy justifications for every action. I don’t think this would ever be the greatest musical ever made, but it is one that I will probably be able to enjoy again soon.

Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love

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The Kama Sutra is famous in the West for showing various acrobatic sexual positions. But the book is so much more than these positions. It is about a book about a way of life and a philosophy that can lead to a deeper meaning of life. It also paints a lush picture of ancient India that has mostly gone away, leaving only their ancient temples and structures. Kama Sutra, the movie, tries hard to capture this time. But does it fully work?

Before I answer that question, let me tell you the plot. This movie is the lives of two women. One woman is a rich princess and the other is a daughter of a dead courtesan. The princess and the daughter of the courtesan grow up and follow two very different paths. The princess, despite being not as sexual or traditionally beautiful as her friend, gets engaged and marries the shah (which is the equivalent to a king). But the shah lusts after her friend  and she seduces him on their wedding night. Because of this she is cast out of the palace and she wanders the countryside. While she is traveling, she meets a sculptor who marvels her figure. They develop an artist and model relationship while she stays in a boarding house of a Kama Sutra instructor. The relationship goes sour, so she decides to learn the Kama Sutra in order to become a palace courtesan. When she comes back to the palace, she becomes the main courtesan of the shah while he descends into opium and sex addiction. Meanwhile the sculptor comes changes his mind and chases after her. They restart their relationship and a love triangle forms.

Like I said before, this movie tries very hard. Mira Nair is known for her lush landscapes and she does not skimp here. Each actress has a plethora of ornate outfits. There are extended shots of beautiful Indian landscapes. But these images are empty without any exciting plot. Anything that happens in the movie is paced by long shots of just sex and pouty looks. The two lead girls show no charisma together nor with anyone else. They move around as animate mannequins. Thus the story never picks up steam and there are events in the film that make no sense. Like when the two girls make up towards the end of the story for reasons that only make sense in regards to the plot conventions but doesn’t make sense in regards to the feelings and the emotions of the characters.

I wish this is a good movie, because Mira Nair is a good director. She is a woman who understands Indian culture and is able to translate their stories and issues in a way that is unparalleled in this modern age. The Namesake, Monsoon Wedding, and Salaam Bombay were all effective studies in what it means to be Indian. But this movie was nothing more than sexual exploitation of an ancient text and cultural heritage. I wish that I could spend time in this era because it was so incredibly interesting both aesthetically and socially. But Nair makes this era boring and flashy and I get too much of that out of modern culture.

There Was a Father

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I have always been interested in propaganda and the ways people utilize patriotic images in order to promote their agendas. Advertisements, government bodies and even the movies are not immune to it. Everything from “Hope” to cast members of various television shows drinking coca-cola is propaganda. The history of propaganda is fascinating. During World War II, the propaganda machine shifted into overdrive. No doubt if you are familiar with this decade, you have seen some sort of sign promoting the American, Nazi or even Japanese cause. Movies were used during this time to rally the troops and to keep the men and women still at home pumped up about a collective country’s involvement in the fight. No filmmaker was immune. From Ford to Hawks, from Kurosawa to Ozu. Today I am reviewing a movie that is probably the closest you will come to having a propaganda produced by Ozu.

This film is about an widower father who has to quit his job after a tragic accident. Nobody blamed him for the inciting incident, but he felt that he was no longer qualified to teach children. The problem with his resignation is that he is supporting a young boy in school. He takes various jobs, leaving his son in boarding school alone and by himself. As the young boy matures into a handsome young man, he hopes that his father will come to live with him. But the father still working and old feels like this is some sort of handout. He refuses to take him up on the offer. War breaks out and his son is called up to service. Like everything else he has done, the son passes with flying colors. He comes to stay with his father for a week until he ships off. During this time, the father gets a party thrown for him by his various pupils and tells the son to marry the daughter of one of his friends. One day, the father is preparing to go to work, but something is wrong. He faints and the son whisks him off to the hospital where he dies. The last sequence is of the son and his new wife riding a train. The son eulogizes him to his wife and hopes that he will be as good of a father as his was.

I’m sorry to have spoiled the ending for you, but it factors into what I want to talk about when it comes to this movie. The one thing that I saw again and again in this movie is the son’s complete subservience to his father. Most of the dialogue (which is sparse because you know Ozu) is wrapped up in the father essentially ordering his son around in a semi-affectionate way. He tells the son that he has to do well in his studies, that he is going to Tokyo without him and several other things that would devastate any young boy let alone a boy who is this attached to his father. But instead of embracing him or telling him it is going to be okay, the father tells the son repeatedly to not cry. I mean the father even picked his son’s wife for him. But I find all of this weird because I am American. When this film was made it was a fantastic example of the perfect Japanese father son relationship. The father gave up everything for his son in order for him to go to school and the son does his ascribed duty by following the father’s every order. This is what is expected of a proper Japanese citizen. In fact the father can easily be seen as the Japanese government and the son as the public. The Japanese government told you what to do and you did it with honor. Which is also why the son wasn’t like “Whew. Thank god that old bastard is dead. I am going to go be with hookers and drink a lot of booze and live in Tokyo now,” like an insolent young American man would do. Instead he continues on the path that his father laid out for him and is thankful for his guidance. If you feel like this is a little bit of a stretch, remember that this same government produced thousands of kamikazes, people willing to die by slamming planes into Allied troops ships. That attitude takes some sort of ingrained servitude and honor that stretched for decades before.

There are several other more obvious propaganda Japanese films from this era, but I think this type of film has got to be the most effective because it shows you how a normal person is supposed to live. It isn’t overtly telling you that war is honorable, but it is telling you that listening to the father figure in your life is the best course of action for your life. That can be extended to listening to the government. This is how you can win the skeptical citizens of your country. Not by shouting at them that you have to join the war effort in order to be cool, but to subtly insert yourself into everyday life. This movie was minor in the canon of Ozu movies, but major in his ability to still insert politics in everyday family life.

The American

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I love the movie Control. Control was about the lead singer of Joy Division, Ian Curtis, who committed suicide just as the band was taking off. I am a big fan of the band and I thought that Anton Corbijn captured not only Ian Curtis but also the time that he grew up very well. Corbijn showed a reverence to the story and the characters that I hadn’t seen in a biopic before. He knew Ian Curtis and understood why he did the things he did. His mastery of the medium was extraordinary for a first time feature filmmaker. So when he moved on to his second feature, I was excited to see it. I figured he would bring the same reverence for mood and character to an overdone genre of an assassin on one last job. I was wrong.

The American is about a master gun craftsman living in Italy. He, played by George Clooney, is a lonely man who wants to escape into retirement, but is persuaded by his boss to take one last job. He assembles the gun with quiet mastery. But his life is anything but quiet. He courts the friendship of a local priest. He frequents he same prostitute and falls for her and he is followed by mysterious men that might have been connected to the people who tried to kill him in the opening scene. Tension builds and everything comes to a head, eventually. Key word there is eventually.

This film felt like a rote copy of several cool hit man movies in the sixties and seventies. Movies like Le Samourai and Day of the Jackal concern themselves with the process and everyday events in a hit man’s life, just like the American did. The difference in my viewpoint is that while you see minute things with no emotion to them in Le Samourai and Day of the Jackal, they all lead to a richer interpretation of the character. But in the American, the hit man is thrust into situations where he is forced to interact with people while still revealing absolutely nothing about himself. Every conversation is completely one sided with the other person doing all of the talking and him just sort of grunting. This makes the side characters infinitely more fascinating than the hit man himself. Corbijn forgot to show that the character is interesting or worth the investment in this two hour movie. He seemed hell bent on alienating his viewers at every turn. I am all for pushing the envelope, but please do it with something that didn’t make want to fall asleep every ten minutes.