Friday, September 30, 2011

DREAM HOUSE

Jim Sheridan, 2011
Starring: Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Marton Csokas

Going to see this film was not the best idea I’ve ever had. I’ve hated every single horror film to come out of Hollywood for at least the last ten years and, if anything, Dream House only intensified that hatred.

Theoretically, the movie should have had a shot. It was helmed by Oscar-nominated Irish director Jim Sheridan (In the Name of the Father) and has a star-studded cast with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz as the lead couple and Naomi Watts and Marton Csokas as their neighbors. These are all capable actors and you would think that if I could handle watching the Vin Diesel vehicle XXX to see Marton Csokas, Dream House would be a walk in the park.

Not to be confused with the superior Korean film Dream Home, the plot vaguely rips off Amityville Horror, The Shining, and A Tale of Two Sisters. The film concerns a publishing exec (Craig) that moves his family to the New England suburbs to spend more time with them. They soon find out that several years ago a man murdered his family in their house. Is the house haunted? Is the killer still on the loose? Do I care?

No, not at all.

Dream House is crippled by its inane premise and the fact that it is a total failure in terms of script-established expectations, and, overall, is a boring mess. The film sadly went the way of one of my favorites, Tinto Brass’s Caligula, where the studio/producer ripped the film out from under the director and created, through the cunning use of bad editing, their own print. Except Dream House lacks the hardcore inserts that at least provide a few moments of stupid entertainment in Caligula.

You know things are bad when the director and stars refuse to do press to protest the lousy editing job the production company did. There wasn’t even a proper press screening. This may be due to the fact that the trailer gives away an important plot twist. Great job, Universal. I hope someone got fired for this.

I want those two hours back.

Dream House opens today in Philly-area theaters.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

I love noir and detective novels, but have huge gaps in my bibliography, so I'm trying to go back and read some of the old classics. Dashiell Hammett is an obvious place to start and, as I love the film version of the novel, figured I would track down a copy of The Maltese Falcon and give it a whirl.

Sam Spade, the private detective who is The Maltese Falcon's protagonist, is probably my favorite literary detective I've come across yet. He is cold, rational, has a genius for detail and knows how to handle the ladies whether he's bestowing them with sexy caresses or slapping some sense into them. Like most anti-heroes, he also has a strict code of personal justice he adheres to, even when laughing in the face of the law.

Spade's new client is Miss Wonderly, who hires himself and his partner Miles to follow a man, Thursby, and her runaway sister. Miles turns up dead later that night and Thursby a few hours later, making Spade a suspect, partly due to his affair with Miles's wife. Spade discovers that Miss Wonderly is actually Brigid O'Shaughnessy and she was after Thursby, not a made-up sister. He also gets a new client, the slimy, effeminate Joel Cairo, who offers him a lot of money to find and return a black statue of a bird that has shown up in San Francisco but is allegedly stolen property. Cairo attempts to double-cross Spade, believing for some reason that he has the statue.

Spade puts two and two together and realizes that Brigid and Cairo are connected. He sets up a meeting for all three of them, which turns bad when Brigid and Cairo fight and the police show up. Spade realizes he is being tailed by an unpleasant looking young man whose boss, Gutman, is also offering to pay Spade for the statue. Gutman explains the statue's rich history, saying that it is potentially priceless. The situation continues to get murkier and more dangerous. Who has the figure? And who can Spade trust?

Hugely influential to the detective genre, this 1930 novel was originally published in serialized form in Black Mask magazine. The Maltese Falcon is tight, well-written and full of hard-boiled excitement. Though the general mystery is expertly put together, the strength of Spade's character alone could carry the novel. He's bitter, sarcastic and appears to trust no one, giving the book a heavy dose of misanthropy that characterizes the genre. Some of the other characters establish classic tropes like Cairo and Brigid. All are interesting and colorful. The plot is quickly paced and as things rapidly unfold you never know who to trust, including Spade, till the bitter end.

If you're looking for somewhere to start with hard-boiled detective fiction, The Maltese Falcon is the best place. There's a nice Vintage paperback available, though older editions of the novel are plentiful in used bookstores. Here's a great run down of the different editions. I also highly recommend the third film adaptation, The Maltese Falcon (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Ripley's Game by Patricia Highsmith

The third effort in Patricia Highmith's Ripliad, Ripley's Game (1974) almost immediately follows Ripley Under Ground, though like the latter and the first novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, it is a widely different work from either.

Ripley's Game explores Ripley's further manipulations and machinations, as well as including elements of organized crime and the lengths a person is willing to go under pressure. We meet seemingly the same Ripley as in Ripley Under Ground -- slightly older, wealthy, comfortable, and living with his wife in their French country home. An old acquaintance, Reeves Minot (introduced in the last book), is an American expatriate living in Germany and attempts to hire Ripley to murder two known members of the mafia. He offers him quite a large sum of money.

Ripley is also interested in Jonathan Trevanny, a British picture framer who lives with his French wife and son in the village near Ripley's estate. Trevanny is sick with leukemia and, to Ripley's amusement and irritation, rebuffs Ripley's casual attempts at friendship, most likely because of his knowledge of the rumors about Ripley. In turn, Ripley convinces Reeves to offer the hits and money to Trevanny. Ripley increases the pressure on Trevanny by starting some local rumors that he only has a few months to live. Trevanny is suspicious and angry, but also has deep-seated feelings of guilt that he will die without being to provide for his family. Reeves brings Trevanny to Germany to see a specialist and also convinces him to accept the murder contract.

Trevanny murders the mafioso in a crowded subway station, then insists that he is quitting. Reeves once again manipulates Trevanny into murdering another, more important mafioso, this time on a train with a garrote. Ripley shows up and steps in, executing the man in Trevanny's place. This forms an unlikely, reluctant friendship between the two of them. Trevanny confides in Ripley his fears that his wife will discover what he's done and also that he won't be able to explain the money. Ripley is cooking up an explanation for all this when the Mafia unexpectedly turn up and he has to ask Trevanny for help. Simone, Trevanny's increasingly cold and suspicious wife finds out what they are up to and also gets involved. Can Ripley keep them all alive and deliver some satisfactory explanation to Simone?

Though Ripley's Game is not as enjoyable or complex as the first two novels, it is still an interesting read. There is an increasing sense that Ripley is a stand-in for the maturing Highsmith. Her relationship to her characters is partly summed up in Ripley's relationship to Trevanny. Out of a sense of boredom or maliciousness he gets Trevanny involved in murder and mafia business, but confesses and intervenes, forming his first real friendship in the series. Highsmith, in a sense, gives this novel a happy ending. Ripley is not implicated in any of the murders. Trevanny dies quickly, defending his family, rather than the slow, agonizing death leukemia would have given him. Simone is able to maintain her moral superiority, but can now live the rest of her life in a degree of financial comfort that previously would not have been possible.

The novel was adapted by Liliana Cavani as Ripley's Game (2002) and parts of the plot were used for Wim Wenders' adaptation The American Friend (1977). It's followed by The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water. If you have read and enjoyed the first two books, it only makes sense to read this one. I read the Everyman Library Ripley trilogy, though there is also the Vintage paperback and the Complete hardcover box set.

Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith


The second novel in Patricia Highsmith's "Ripliad," which began with The Talented Mr. Ripley, Ripley Under Ground (1970) came fifteen years after the original novel and received less critical acclaim, but is definitely a worthy read. The book introduces an older, more mature Ripley and a more mature, more accomplished Highsmith.

Tom Ripley is now married to a French heiress, the almost equally amoral Heloise, and lives comfortably in their country estate. He has been peripherally involved in an art forgery scheme where the paintings of dead or missing Philip Derwatt are forged by his old friend and fellow painter Bernard Tufts. Derwatt is dead, but Ripley and some of his old friends have convinced the public that the painter is a recluse living in Mexico and ships his recent work from there. Tufts is nervous, depressed, guilty, and doesn't want to carry on with the forgeries. This is aggravated by an American buyer, Murchison, who comes to England with accusations that his painting is a forgery.

Taking the reigns, Ripley goes to London and pretends to be Derwatt during an art opening and press conference. Murchison is not convinced, so Ripley, as himself, invites Murchison to his home as a fellow collector and shows him similar works by Derwatt. Murchison believes Ripley's paintings are also fakes and tries to explain his theory, which escalates into an argument and Ripley murdering him. He convinces Bernard to help him properly dispose of the body, meanwhile dealing with visits from the police and Bernard's failing mental health. This quickly turns into a juggling act with Ripley bouncing back and forth between Paris and London, where he again impersonates Derwatt, but also to Switzerland, where he must try to pursue the highly unstable Bernard.

In addition to the central plot, a major theme is Ripley's relationship with Heloise. She is immoral, but in a different way than Ripley. It is unclear what kind of relationship they have, though it is marked with an enormous degree of mutual personal and financial freedom. Ripley also receives an unexpected visit from Dickie Greenleaf's younger cousin Chris, which is presumably a tie-in to some of the unresolved questions of the first novel.

Ripley Under Ground presents a larger philosophical debate about the value of real verses fake in regards to art and life. Highsmith barrages us with almost constant visual and thematic links -- real and fake paintings, real and fake murders, impersonations by living people, corpses, and dummies, a "fake" business and a "fake" marriage. It also continues to touch on her favored themes of artists, the creation of art, and mental instability.

I enjoyed Ripley Under Ground almost as much as The Talented Mr. Ripley. It is less chilling, less emotionally profound, but much more philosophically complex. Ripley is no longer the mercurial, sociopathic social climber and con artist of the first book. He is comfortable in his lifestyle, but also seems bored by it and I can't help but wonder if maybe he decides to murder Murchison more for excitement than anything else.

There is a film adaptation of the novel,
Ripley Under Ground (2005), and elements of it are used in Wim Wenders' An American Friend (1977). It is followed by Ripley's Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water. The book comes recommended and it could probably be read independently of The Talented Mr. Ripley. There's the Vintage paperback, the hard cover Everyman Ripley trilogy I used, or the Complete Ripley Novels hardcover box set.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith is one of my favorite literary personalities. She wrote predominantly mysteries, thrillers, and crime fiction, but her work is uniquely nasty, pessimistic and misanthropic. It contains a strong undercurrent of erotic feeling, while also generally renouncing sexual relationships as distasteful power games doomed to failure. American by birth (1921), she emigrated to Europe early in her adult life and has retained a much stronger following there. Partly I enjoy her so much because she represents an intellectual, existential side of crime fiction. The Talented Mr. Ripley is the most famous of her novels and represents all of these themes, along with some dollops of black humor.

Tom Ripley is a working class con man living by his wits in New York City. He has ideas of upward mobility and a sociopathic lack of morality. He comes across Herbert Greenleaf, father of a boy he went to school with, Dickie. Dickie is in Europe, refusing to come home and learn the family business, and his father is distraught. Tom manipulates the elder Greenleaf into sending Tom to Europe with the pretext that he can talk some sense into Dickie.

Ripley finds his way to Italy and reacquaints himself with Dickie and Dickie's friend/girlfriend Marge. Dickie is relaxed and happy with no intention of coming home. He reluctantly befriends Ripley, letting him stay at his house, but Marge instantly dislikes him. Eventually Dickie begins to tire of Ripley's friendship, just as Ripley is becoming obsessed with him. They go on one last trip together, where Ripley has a burst of inspiration and kills Dickie. He hides the evidence and assumes Dickie's personality. He moves quietly around Europe, enjoying a life of leisure as Dickie until the police, Mr. Greenleaf and Marge begin an impassioned search, both for Ripley and Dickie. Ripley unexpectedly runs across an old friend of Dickie's and the bodies begin to pile up.

Written in 1955, Ripley is early in Highsmith's career, but is indicative of the tone of her work. Ripley is a character that you can't help but love, though he is utterly unlikable. His motivations are all selfish and, in many ways, he represents the dark underbelly of the capitalistic drive. Changeable, heartless, deeply prideful, and really only interested in pursuing the life of art and luxury he feels is owed to him, Ripley is the quintessential anti-hero. He gives voice to the hateful thoughts and feelings everyone tries to ignore or repress.

Highsmith's style is recommended for anyone who loves thrillers, mysteries or noir fiction, and, surprisingly, travel writing. Ripley's travels to and around Europe are obviously taken from Highsmith's extensive travels and provide an interesting color to the story. Equally, her obsession with artists and writing about the lives of artists and the process of creating art is a theme touched upon in Ripley that she later explored in multiple novels.

Adapted for film as Plein Soleil (1960) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), it was followed by a series of five novels that stretched throughout Highsmith's career: Ripley Under Ground, Ripley's Game, The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water.

I read and own the Everyman's Library Ripley Trilogy hardcover, which contains the first three books, though there is also the Norton paperback and, better still, the Complete Novels hardcover box set. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 16, 2011

DIAL M FOR MURDER

Alfred Hitchcock, 1954
Starring: Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings, John Williams, Anthony Dawson

A greedy, selfish tennis player, Tony Wendice (Ray Milland), plans to have his wife murdered when he discovers evidence of her infidelity from the year before. She was involved in a romance with an old friend, mystery writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cummings), but called off their relationship when Tony quit tennis and began to act like a devoted husband.

Determined to off Margot and pocket her sizable fortune, Tony begins by anonymously blackmailing his wife over a romantic letter she saved from Mark. He also manipulates an old school friend and womanizing hustler, Charles Swann, into murdering Margot. He believes his plan is foolproof and both he Swann will get away considerably richer. When Mark is visiting for the weekend, Tony takes him to a party and leaves Margot home to go to bed early. The murder is supposed to look like a home invasion. Tony has cleverly hidden a key for Swann to slip in and at a set time, when Tony will call the house and Swann will strangle Margot from behind as she answers the phone.

Everything goes wrong. Swann does strangle Margot, but in the dark they struggle and she fights back with a pair of scissors, accidentally killing him. Hysterical, she goes to call the police, but Tony is still on the other line. He tells her to wait for him and touch nothing. When he arrives home, he consoles his wife and puts her to bed. While the police are on their way, he arranges the evidence to make it look like Swann was blackmailing Margot and she has killed him in revenge. She is taken away, convicted for murder and is awaiting her execution. Can Mark string everything together and save her in time?

This is unfortunately one of my least favorite Hitchcock films. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Preston Sturges' wonderful black comedy about attempted murder and infidelity, Unfaithfully Yours, minus the very dark humor and the over the top performance by Rex Harrison. My main problem with Dial M for Murder are the performances from Grace Kelly and Robert Cummings, particularly the latter. Ray Milland is a tough act to compare to, but neither of them exude any humor or sex appeal. It's difficult to believe that the two were ever lovers -- it only makes sense because they are equally milquetoast -- and Grace Kelly's smoldering performance in To Catch a Thief feels a long, long way away here. Hitchcock is famous for casting icy blondes, but I simply dislike Grace Kelly in this role. It would be nice to see a more neurotic figure, like Tippi Hedren.

The only real reason to see this film is for the wonderful performance by Ray Milland, who is sneaky and diabolical for the entire running time. He smoothly manipulates Swann, Margot, Mark, and the police force, and genuinely seems to care about little other than money and his own personal comfort. Hitchcock doesn't give the impression that Milland's character is killing Margot because he's in love with her and is insanely jealous about her affair, rather it is a cold, reptilian sort of logic where he can plausibly do away with his wife and have her money all to himself. Her bland personality and asexual quality make it apparent that he only married her for the money and that this is the logical conclusion.

There are also excellent supporting performances by John Williams as the Chief Inspector and Anthony Dawson as Swann. Both men are reprising their roles from the stage play of the same name that the film is based on. The Chief Inspector provides the film's only moments of humor as he bungles his way into clues, taking a completely anarchistic approach to detective work. Aside from Milland, Williams is my absolute favorite part of this film, though I do have a soft spot for bumbling, yet brilliant detectives.

Dial M for Murder has a lot in common with Rope: both are based on stage plays, are set mostly inside an apartments, and deal with the concept of the perfect murder gone wrong. I prefer Rope, but Dial M for Murder is still a Hitchcock film and thus preferable to any recent Hollywood drivel. It's definitely worth a rental, thanks to the sublime performances from Williams and Milland. Make up your own mind with the Warner single disc DVD, which includes two documentaries and a history of 3-D, as Dial M for Murder was initially shot in the latter.

DRIVE

Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Oscar Isaac

It's been a long time since I've seen a movie as ridiculous as Drive.

A Hollywood stunt driver with no name (one of my least favorite screenwriting conceits) occasionally moonlights as a heist driver. He talks very little, but is exceptionally talented at driving. Gradually, he makes friends with his neighbor, the adorable Irene, and her equally adorable son whose father (Oscar Isaac) is in prison for some undisclosed crime. He spends more time with them and it is clear that the nature of his relationship with Irene is becoming romantic, but she receives news that her husband is being released from prison.

Meanwhile, the local shop where he works is being financed by an ex-producer, Bernie (Albert Brooks), and his dirty partner, Nino (Ron Perlman). The shop owner, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), has convinced Bernie to help him purchase a car they will restore and race with his star driver behind the wheel.

Standard, Irene's husband, returns home and is jealous of his wife's new relationship. The driver witnesses him getting roughed up by some gangsters, who beat up Standard and threaten his son. They make it clear that if he doesn't help them with a final robbery to pay off his debts, the threats will escalate. The driver decides to help him, mostly to protect Irene. It is supposed to be a simple convenience store safe robbery, but some unexpected mafia money turns up and everything goes wrong. Can the driver keep Irene and her son safe?

If you look at each element of this film separately, everything is ridiculous. The dialogue, the acting, the pacing, the set pieces, the soundtrack, and especially the writing. It should be a bad film. But when you put everything together, you get a surprisingly entertaining heist effort. Adapted from James Sallis' novel, Drive is part action, part noir, and part retro heist film. It was obviously inspired by Steve McQueen films, which Refn himself has stated. Honestly, I think this is the only reason that I liked part of it. Refn, who was chosen by Gosling to direct, is clearly a rabid film fan. Though his works aren't perfect, they have a lot of promise, namely Bronson and Valhalla Rising, both of which I recommend a lot more than Drive.

I liked that Drive feels dated and, partly from the lighting and soundtrack, seems like it should have been made in the '80s. The synth-heavy electro-pop soundtrack surprisingly works, except for a few places where it just comes across as absurd. Drive is also visually appealing. I love films set in L.A. and this is no exception. Allegedly the driver's wardrobe was inspired by Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising, which I find a little hard to believe.

If you don't take it too seriously, it's a lot of fun. It does take a little while to get going, though the second half explodes with flash and lots and lots of violence. With that said, there's no depth and it's overly polished. I enjoyed Ryan Gosling, who I have never actually seen in a film before. I don't understand the appeal and I wish someone with the screen presence of action heavy-hitters like McQueen or Clint Eastwood starred instead. I was a little disappointed in the rest of the cast. Carey Mulligan is adorable, but she doesn't bring much to the table other than smiles and dimples. The cameo from Christina Hendricks feels out of place and it's hard for me to watch Ron Perlman in recent films without being reminded of his character Clay from Sons of Anarchy.

Overall, I enjoyed Drive, though by no stretch of the imagination would I call it a good film and parts of it are incredibly stupid. If you're a Steve McQueen junkie or love car-focused action/heist films, it is worth watching.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

THE MUSIC LOVERS

Ken Russell, 1970
Starring: Richard Chamberlain, Glenda Jackson, Max Adrian, Christopher Cable, Kenneth Colley, Izabella Telezynska

While I am a huge fan of Ken Russell, it's been difficult in the past to get access to a lot of his films. I finally got a chance to see his Tchaikovsky biographical epic, The Music Lovers, and I was absolutely blown away. While this is not a film for everyone, it comes highly recommend for lovers of the weird and the unusual.

Tchaikovsky is a teacher at a music conservatory and is about to unleash his newest composition. He gets a lot of criticism from friends and family for his open homosexuality and public romps with his paramour, Count Anton. The only woman he really loves is his married sister, who he frequently daydreams about. His new symphony is met with mixed reviews and the president of the conservatory dismisses it as ridiculous. A wealthy, eccentric widow, Madame von Meck, hears it and decides to become his patron. In an effort to become more respectable and impress his patron, he decides to get married.

A local nymphomaniac, Nina (Jackson), sees Tchaikovsky in passing and becomes obsessed with him. She begins sending him love letters that he responds favorably to, though everyone else disapproves. He marries her, but is unable to consummate their relationship. This, combined with the unexpected arrival of her mother, drives Nina slowly insane. Tchaikovsky has a breakdown and is invited to recuperate on Madame von Meck's estate. Their relationship has been solely conducted through letters, but she decides to see him in person. Count Anton also returns, but is rebuked by Tchaikovsky. Jealously, he reveals the true nature of their relationship to Madame von Meck, who locks Tchaikovsky out of her home and ends her patronage. With a failed relationship, a failed marriage, and alienated from his family and patron, Tchaikovsky deliberately drinks a glass of contaminated water and agonizingly dies of cholera.

Critically skewered, Russell's film is delirious, self-indulgent, psychedelic, and ultimately a wonderful portrait of artistic genius and its inevitable connection to insanity. Written by the great Melvin Bragg, the script is largely taken from a series of letters between Catharine Drinker Brown and Barbara von Meck. Though there are many truthful elements, a lot of Tchaikovsky's life was improvised by Russell. This might be hard to digest for more conventional cinema fans. There are many scenes of nightmares, flashbacks, and extended fantastical music sequences that will likely drive the unprepared viewer into a state of psychosis.

Some of the scenes are genuinely chilling with their wild, over the top presentation of madness. Nina's relationship with her mother is nauseating and her subsequent induction into a mental asylum is terrifying and saddening. For genuine Tchaikovsky fans, there are some beautifully arranged segments put together by Andre Previn and played by Rafael Orozco.

This is an incredibly personal film and I think a lot of the criticisms are unfounded. It's been called sensational, irresponsible, a garish fantasy, unstable, etc. To a certain extent, it is all these things, but what's wrong with excess? The film's reputation has improved in subsequent years. Thanks to Netflix, you can watch the film streaming, but there is sadly still no region 1 DVD available. If you need to own a legitimate copy, check out the VHS, though it is still outrageously expensive. If you enjoy The Music Lovers, check out Russell's series of films about composers, which include Elgar, Mahler, and Lisztomania.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

THE LAST MISTRESS

Catherine Breillat, 2007
Starring: Asia Argento, Fu'ad Ait Aattou, Roxane Mesquida, Claude Sarraute

Une vielle maitresse, which actually means "an old mistress," is a period piece from taboo-busting director Catherine Breillat, one of my favorite filmmakers of recent years.

Ryno de Marigny, a handsome young libertine, is marrying the well off Hermangarde, a young, innocent noblewoman. Ryno has a passionate farewell with his mistress, the Spanish Vellini, with whom he has had a relationship for the last decade. When Hermangarde's grandmother and the rest of their social circle hear about his farewell, they are scandalized. Hermangarde's grandmother sits down with Ryno and makes him relate the entire tale of their relationship to her, until she is satisfied that it is over. Ryno and Hermangarde get married, move to the seaside, and are expecting a baby. For a time, they are happy, but Vellini eventually follows them and pursues Ryno. His resolve crumbles and soon their old relationship resumes, to Hermangarde's dismay.

Based on a novel by Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly, an 18th century mystery writer who influenced Henry James, among others, the film is essentially divided into two parts. The first half is comprised of Ryno's story telling, where he confesses about his time with Vellini. The second part is about the aftermath of Ryno's decision to leave Vellini and marry Hermangarde. Though the first part of the film takes places in Paris, the second is in the blue, blustery seaside and marks a clear division between the two segments. For a minute I really thought this was going to lack the normal bleakness of a Breillat film and that she was going to deliver a lovely period piece about reformed libertines. Of course the ending proved me totally, gratefully wrong.

At its core, Une vielle maitresse is not the story of Ryno, the handsome libertine gone wrong but determined to prove his love; rather it is the story of Vellini, who engulfs the film in her large personality and inflamed sensuality even though we never see things from her perspective or hear her side of the story. She is fickle and changeable, not in her personality, but in the way she appears to us from the screen. She is not young or conventionally beautiful, nor is she smart, interesting, or adept at the political games played by the aristocratic ladies. But she appears in every role imaginable: proud, insecure young woman, resolved wife, passionate lover, grief-torn mother, friend, confidant, and determined seductress. Despite all of this, she remains inscrutable and unknowable, an independent being despite her refusal to give up Ryno.

Asia Argento is excellent as Vellini. Though I'm already a big fan of hers, I was surprised to see her in a major, dramatic role in what I first thought was a conventional period piece. When she smiles unconsciously and looks deep into Ryno's eyes, we understand the je ne sais qua that makes her so attractive. She is well matched with newcomer Fu'ad Ait Aattou, who was allegedly discovered by Breillat in a cafe. He is Ryno, with his voluptuous beauty and shy smile. These two characters are not drawn together by their love for one another, but by a consuming, mutual love of pleasure and independence.

If you haven't seen any of Breillat's incredible work, she usually focuses on themes of love and sexuality, though with plenty of violent, explicit elements. Though this film is relatively accessible and doesn't overtly attempt to shatter any taboos, I think it does so on a subtle level. Both Ryno and Vellini are anarchistic characters who float alongside the upper social strata, but lack the breeding, money, or social ambition that normally vaults middle class people there. Their insistence on independence continually flaunts the middle class values at work in the rest of the film and betrays the fickle nature of love and the inherent instability of marriage, which is presented as little more than a socio-economic contract.

I loved the film and it comes highly recommended. Aside from the subtle screenwriting and accomplished cast, Une vielle maitresse is visually sumptuous and appears to be inspired by the paintings of Goya. I could say a lot more about it, but as a final note, it is also interesting, like most of Breillat's work, as an incredible, if cruel, exploration of female sexuality. Though I only just watched it for the first time, I'm sure subsequent viewings will reveal more treasures.

There is no readily available region 1 DVD, but the film is streaming on Netflix and there's a nice PAL region 2 from Artificial Eye. If you thought you knew Asia Argento before this, think again.

Friday, September 9, 2011

SWIMMING POOL

Francois Ozon, 2003
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Ludivine Sangier, Charles Dance

Though usually advertised as a sexy murder mystery or psychological thriller, Ozon's breakthrough film is more about the difficult process of writing and, as a writer, I absolutely loved it. Sarah (the great Charlotte Rampling) is sent on holiday by her publisher and part-time lover John (Charles Dance). She is a well-known mystery and crime fiction novelist, but is suffering from the strain of her lonely, London existence. John is eager to help her move past writer's block, but also seems interested in getting rid of her for awhile.

She heads to his home in the French countryside and settles down to a relaxing, if isolated schedule of writing. Late one night she is startled by the arrival of Julie, John's young, pretty French daughter who has shown up unannounced. Though Sarah is initially irritated by the younger woman's presence, she soon becomes fascinated by her voracious, indiscriminate sexual appetite and the secret diary hidden in Julie's bag. The two strike up a competitive friendship and Julie invites over a waiter Sarah is interested in, partly to drag her out of her repressed, English shell and partly to make her jealous. Sarah retires to bed and Julie makes a pass at him, which he rebuffs, only to turn up missing the next morning.

It turns out that Julie's mother died in some sort of accident and Julie has a breakdown, confusing Sarah for her mother. Sarah begins to care for Julie, discovering that the poor waiter has been stashed in the pool shed. Julie admits it was an accident and the two women go about disposing the body. Julie gives Sarah a manuscript she claims her mother had written years ago, one that John refused to publish. Sarah returns home and finishes two books, the murder mystery she was initially working on, as well a newer, more personal book based on Julie's mother's manuscript, called Swimming Pool. She meets with John, who doesn't like the book, and confides that she has already had it published and is moving to a new firm. As she exits his office she passes his daughter Julie, who is pretty and blonde, but is not the same girl from the villa.

Though Swimming Pool went in a totally different direction than I expected, I loved it. There's a great script and wonderful performances from the two women. I'm a huge Rampling fan, so I went in expecting her to make the film a success. French actress and model Ludivine Sangier is also perfectly cast as Julie.

Swimming Pool received favorable reviews, but a number of critics and film-goers had a problem with the ending, when Ozon abruptly reveals that Julie, at least as we have come to know her, does not exist. I honestly don't see what the problem is. As I mentioned earlier, I enjoyed the film so much because of its comments on what it's like to be a writer. In addition to the isolated, daily hours of self-discipline required, you also have to have enough experiences, imagination, and spontaneity to be inspired. As Alan Moore will tell you, artists and writers, like magicians, create and shape their own realities. Is this what Sarah has done for the purpose of her fiction?

For a sexy murder mystery, this isn't overtly sexy or too violent. Ludivine Sangier is frequently nude and exudes youthful sex appeal, but the sex scenes are carefully edited and barely rate as softcore. Rampling is one of those women, like Helen Mirren, who will be incredibly sexy regardless of age and her repressed British sexuality spills out over the edges in her fascination with Julie, obsessive voyeurism and masturbatory dreams.

This film comes highly recommended. Check out the unrated single-disc DVD from Universal. For the subtitle wary keep in mind that the dialogue regularly switches back and forth between French and English.

ANGEL

Francois Ozon, 2007
Starring: Romola Garai, Sam Neill, Lucy Russell, Michael Fassbender, Charlotte Rampling

I recently had a double feature with this film and Ozon's acclaimed, earlier film Swimming Pool, both works about successful female writers. The similarity ends here, however, as Angel could hardly be more different from Swimming Pool and it is somewhat astonishing that both films come from the same director.

The film is based on British author (not the actress) Elizabeth Taylor's novel Angel or The Real Life of Angel Deverell, about a young girl who rises from her impoverished beginnings as a shop keeper's daughter to find fame and fortune through writing. She publishes a series of imaginative, if ridiculous romance novels that are devoured by the public, but scorned by the intelligentsia. The selfish Angel is coddled and encouraged by her publisher, Theo (Sam Neill), who looks past her flaws because she makes him so much money. One of her adoring fans, Nora (Lucy Russell), convinces Angel to take her on as a personal assistant and secretary. Though Angel is initially a little repulsed by Nora's devotion, she hires her mainly to get closer to Nora's handsome brother, Esme.

Esme (Michael Fassbender), is a womanizer, gambler, and abstract painter with a gloomy disposition. Angel is instantly smitten with him and eventually convinces him to marry her. Though she is with the love of her life, wildly successful, and living in her dream home, things soon begin to unravel. War breaks out, public opinion changes, and Esme cannot remain faithful. In addition, he and Nora have been keeping a tragic secret from Angel.

Ozon's first English language production is essentially a period piece satire that borrows heavily from early Hollywood melodrama and even earlier theatrical melodrama that rose to popularity in Victorian England. Melodrama, with few exceptions, is a popular rather than literary genre, with an emphasis on emotion over realism. Angel is an excellent example of this, but is unlikely to be accessible for most audiences. The titular character is unpleasant, unlikable, and ridiculous. Her rise to riches and acclaim is a bit hard to swallow, from an audience perspective, and her final fall is more grotesque than tragic.

I'm not sure how I feel about this film. Michael Fassbender gives a wonderful performance as Esme and it's never truly apparent if he is a deeply flawed man with a good heart or simply out to take Angel for all she is worth. Romola Garai is lovely as Angel and gives an enthusiastic performance, but is simply unable to make the character remotely likable or sympathetic.

Though I would only really recommend the film to Ozon devotees or lovers of old melodrama, it is visually stunning and has something interesting things to say about the frequently unhappy nature of love and compromise, and the inherent selfishness of artists. But it does have Michael Fassbender. Check out the DVD if you're interested.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

THE LAST EXORCISM

Daniel Stamm, 2010
Starring: Patrick Fabian, Ashley Bell, Iris Bahr, Louis Herthum, Caleb Landry Jones

I've been burned by almost every single occult-themed film that has come on in the '00s. While I was initially very skeptical of The Last Exorcism, I read some positive reviews and heard good word-of-mouth feedback, so I tracked down a copy and settled in to watch it.

Cotton Marcus, a skeptical evangelical preacher, has reached the point in his life where he's basically delivering sermons just to rake in the cash and care for his family. He decides to wrap up this part of his life, but first will do one last exorcism, which will be caught on film by a documentary crew who wants to expose exorcisms as fake. From a large pile, he chooses a letter from a farmer in rural Louisiana, whose daughter Nell seems to be possessed by a demon. Nell has some very real problems, though the Reverend and the filmmakers believe these to be undiagnosed psychological problems, made worse by her father's abusive behavior and his insistence on complete isolation for the family. Though the Reverend initially believes he has cured Nell, violence quickly escalates and there are plenty of new strange occurrences. Driven to the edge, Nell's father offers the Reverend an ultimatum: give his daughter a real exorcism or he will kill her.

It turns out that I was right and all the people who positively reviewed this film are complete idiots. The Last Exorcism is yet another poorly written, poorly developed occult film that sets up an initially interesting premise, but soon dashes it on the rocks with cliches, overly blunt transitions, and a conclusion that makes me want to rip my eyeballs out in frustration.

It turns out that the local church is full of Satan worshipers who want to use Nell as the host for their dark lord. They imprison her and the film crew and use them in a Satanic ritual before killing everyone.

Bo-o-o-ring.

And yeah, I just ruined it for you. But this has so much in common with every other recently made, trite occult film that I want to impress on you how imperative it is not to waste your time The Last Exorcism. In the film's defense there's decent acting and some creepy incest/abuse undertones, but those are swept away almost instantly in favor of the same stupid plot devices used by every other stupid American Exorcist-derivative film in the last two or three decades.

Most of all I'm sorry that I made other people suffer though it with me.

xXx (2002)

Rob Cohen, 2002
Starring: Vin Diesel, Asia Argento, Samuel L. Jackson, Marton Csokas

Absolutely everything about this film is ridiculous. Almost offensively ridiculous. In the event that you haven't seen it, let me quickly rehash the plot.

Xander Cage (Diesel), an anarchistic extreme sports celebrity, is busted by the cops for a recent stunt that involved driving a senator's car off of a bridge. He is recruited by Samuel L. Jackson and the NSA to spy on ex-Russian Army terrorists in Prague involved in an organization called Anarchy 99. They have wild parties by night, but during the day develop a plot to overthrow all major European cities. Can Xander stop them? Does he even care?

If you are planning to watch this movie because you expect it to have reasonable dialogue or a plot that makes sense just stop right now. This is the type of movie where you absolutely have to switch your brain off -- and if you can, you're in for a pleasant surprise. Or not. I can't really defend xXx. It's kind of a piece of shit, but I also really love it. There are some amazing cars, explosions, fisticuffs, secret agents, a Prague setting, Asia Argento, Samuel L. Jackson, and, depending on whether you like him or not, Vin Diesel, hamming it up and seemingly having a sense of humor about it all. The acting and dialogue are terrible. There are some scenes where Asia Argento looks like she's about to burst out laughing.

But why does that have to matter in Big Dumb Action Movie Land? There are certain films that work because everything that could go wrong does and I think this is one of them. In no reasonable universe should I be entertained by this plot, but I am. It's almost as if a 10 year old boy made a list of awesome shit in action/espionage films and jammed them into one script with no regard to sense or plausibility. There are also some pretty enjoyable stunts, though unfortunately Vin Diesel's stunt double actually died during filmmaking. This occurred during a scene at the end of the film when Xander, code name is XXX in case I failed to mention that, has to rappel down from a speeding car onto a moving submarine.

The thing that really boggles my mind about the film is its attitude towards women. Misogyny abounds in action and horror cinema. I'm used to it, I expect it, and generally ignore it. In xXx, it's particularly strange. Women are kept around by Anarchy 99 for parties, presumably hired women, and are referred to in ways that you might expect, such as one thrilling scene where a business deal is over and it's time to party, so a character yells, "Bitches, come." What's weird about it is that there is very little nudity or sexual interaction. There aren't a lot of babes hanging around, other than a scene where Xander returns to his bedroom after a night of partying and Anarchy 99 have graciously left him a hooker who uses the ornately carved corner of a wooden poster bed to briefly pole dance. But Argento's character, Yelena, an ice cold double agent who has maneuvered her way into dating the head of Anarchy 99, seems to control their finances and can kick some serious ass when it comes down to it. It almost seems like the film is going through the motions with its misogyny and it feels so cartoonish that is just doesn't seem real.

If you like big dumb action movies, this is a decent one. It especially sweetens the deal if you're into either extreme sports or espionage thrillers, as there's a lot of both thrown in for good measure. This is the fancy special edition, which is so cheap it's almost worth buying instead of renting. Make sure you have lots of beer and popcorn on hand.