Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Review of Enter the Void (Noe, 2010)

Enter the Void
Directed by Gaspar Noé
Starring: Nathaniel Brown, Paz de la Huerta, Cyril Roy, Olly Alexander
Grade: C+

Eight years ago, divisive filmmaker Gaspar Noé divided critics and audiences worldwide with the extremely violent Irreversible. While the reverse-narrative approach of that film does not return to haunt his new effort, "Enter the Void", the menacing, toxic tone remains present. He again focuses on figures drawn into criminal underworlds, and chronicles how the darker aspects of our personalities can emerge through circumstances that are on the peripherary of our realm of control. Fledgling drug dealer Oscar (Brown) is murdered in a Tokyo hangout, before re-emerging as a ghost to observe the lives of the various people who have shaped his fate.

Noé's film is named after the club in which we see Oscar murdered, but also because he himself is 'entering the void', or at least encouraging us to. People like Oscar die every day without so much as an inch in a newspaper column, because their deaths aren't deemed as damaging enough to society. We're discouraged from understanding them. We can't understand them. "Enter the Void" shows us that every life and death has a meaning for somebody, even if it does flog that meaning far too much.

As with Irreversible, Noé's visual style correlates well with the allure of the various vices in the film, the mystery and danger of being out of control. What's special about Noe's implementation of this is that it's also frightening and intimidating, as if he's beying us to even challenge this mode of generating mood and suspense. It's formidable. "Enter the Void" is a more intrusive, confined entity in the way that its trippy opening credits induce seizure, in the way that he uses point-of-view to place us inside Oscar without us being able to fully realise outsiders' perceptions of him. For stretches of his living moments he's faceless, much like the inevitable way in which his death will be consigned to phatic conversation on the street.

What's incredibly frustrating about the film is that, after the 40 minutes of present-day turmoil, there is a flashback of Oscar and his sister's difficult childhood and subsequent bond. It feels particularly manipulative in terms of constructing a voice for Oscar that wasn't there before, imposing sympathy where we don't need it. Noé does a terrific job in making us interested in this man, making us think for ourselves about his motives and failures, that a ten-minute montage of his life story feels a somewhat crass way of filling in the gaps. Moreover, the subsequent hour of the film is so pedantic in its desire to inform, to thoroughly dissect Oscar with an autopsy that doesn't get performed for real. Gus Van Sant's Elephant had similar problems with dragging out a paltry story, though that didn't make it much past the 80-minute mark. In that regard, "Enter the Void" is done about halfway through, the rest dedicated to re-iterating social observations through flashy, disorientating cinematography, and canny manipulation of colour.

The striking images in "Enter the Void" that act as either transitory or symbolic, are nearly always fiercely provocative, and there is much to be said for immersive visuality in inciting our emotions and intellect, as well as our gaze. But as a tripped-out anti-parable the film is much too unevenly skewed towards disguising the overkill of a narrative that severely loses drive. The relative convention of the film's approach to storytelling in its first act doesn't mesh well enough with the overwhelming sense of abstract that succeeds it. There's much to extract from its deadened sense of humanity, but, unlike its chaotic protagonists, "Enter the Void" feels that bit too eager to settle.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Chris Morris' Four Lions, and Politics in British Cinema

What has been particularly concerning about British cinema of late is its confirmation of (mainly) negative cultural stereotypes. 2008's Eden Lake portrayed youths as troublesome, knife-wielding criminals (allbeit brought up by ignorant, aggressive parents), and 2009's Harry Brown polarised street warfare with international warfare, once again consigning youths to brassy thugs. Living in Britain, it's difficult to seperate reality from what's written in the papers — there's plenty of smoke and mirrors floating around. The blatantly critical connotations that filter through media coverage of this generation of young people are not without reason, but consistent demonisation threatens to alienate groups of people much more than it aids in uniting them. For instance, do you ever see a photo of a "criminal" smiling in a newspaper, unless the article is angled towards portraying them as some kind of unsympathetic sadist?

I don't mean to get on my Cahiers high-horse about this, but there's something very sinister about wanting to draw attention to members of society already addressed and denounced as morally reprehensible, and firmly within the 'public sphere'. Socio-realist pieces that force our gaze upon dynamics and inequities that we aren't familiar with, such as Andrea Arnold's Red Road, and Paul Andrew Williams' London to Brighton, feel less motivated by modern culture and therefore artistically fresher works.

Not necessarily just since the September 11th attacks, but definitely more so, there has been a hostility towards Muslims in modern Western society. To quote but one reasoning I've heard for the Muslim exclusivity in the 'War On Terror': "Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims". Whatever you believe, the increasing scepticism and mistrust of different ethnicities in the UK is very tangible, whether born out of xenophobia, fear, or a mixture of the two. Nationalism in Britain is pertaining to mean 'white'.

Enter Chris Morris, writer of controversial TV show "Brass Eye", which poked fun at people's perceptions of various social issues. His debut feature film, "Four Lions", made a splash at Sundance earlier in the year, and tackles the threat of terrorism in the UK through the plotting of four incompetent would-be suicide bombers living on a London estate.

The Islam religion is not focused upon a great deal, but the motivation of these men (three Asian, one White) certainly conform to those lines of divinity and sacrifice. Thankfully, that's where the conformities of the film end, and there's something wonderfully novel about the way that the characters, even in their murderous aims, emerge as hybrid representations of 'Britishness'. The group act more out of duty to each other, out of duty to a perceived impression of British muslims, than they do from their own instincts and feelings. It may feel like these men are ideologically estranged (if not, why plan to incite conflict?) but Morris offers perceptions of martyrdom and conformity that aren't exclusively "Eastern" or "Western". He eliminates any suggestion of an Us vs. Then mentality by blurring political boundaries.

That's not to say "Four Lions" is perfect, with a bit of a silly, repetitive approach to comedy that wears thin after a while. There are some delicious In the Loop-style quips, which offer snippets of British life ("Let's bomb Boots..." is a particular highlight), but they don't really hit home the frustrations of these four men. "Four Lions" does, however, hit home some of its own frustrations about 21st-century representations of Nationalism, and, for that, must be commended.

The Last Ten Best Picture Winners

There are now only ten winners of the Best Picture Oscar that I haven't seen
(See image below.)

From top left: Wings (1927-28), The Broadway Melody (1928-29), Cavalcade (1933), Hamlet (1948), Gigi (1958), In the Heat of the Night (1967), The Deer Hunter (1978), Gandhi (1982), Out of Africa (1985), Braveheart (1995)

Not many of these instill fervent anticipation, but I'm probably most looking forward to Norman Jewison's "In the Heat of the Night". The final three of those winners look daunting, but particularly Mel Gibson's "Braveheart", which I've seen about ten minutes of and could. not. stand.

If anybody has any suggestions as to which I should leave until last, I'd be happy to hear.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bo and Bolero: Notional Or Exploitative?

Bolero (1984)
Directed by John Derek
Starring: Bo Derek, George Kennedy, Andrea Occhipinti, Ana Obregón, Olivia d'Abo, Greg Bensen
Grade: D+

One imagines that there are only two reasons that somebody might feel possessed to watch John Derek's 1984 flop "Bolero": For an affirmation of its infamy and critical slaughter, or for an eyeful of Derek's wife Bo in all of her barenaked glory. The former motivation was fresh in my mind when I sat down last night to experience the sexual awakening of Bo's virginal 1920s heiress Ayre, who when graduating from college, embarks on a quest to become de-flowered by an Arab sheik.

Although "Bolero" sounds as absurd as it plays out on screen, this wasn't that much of a low-budget affair, Derek managing to garner $7 million from MGM for the project. As if that wasn't enough, he also managed to convince Charade's George Kennedy to star as Ayre's cheerful butler, and musical legend Elmer Bernstein to conduct music that barely improves upon Arab porn soundtracks. Someone at the organisation, somewhere, must have been questioning the idea of Bo Derek riding naked, bareback atop a horse. The fact that it also markets itself as "An Adventure in Extasy", and eventually celebrates the fact that it's spelling the word 'ecstasy' wrongly, should surely have sounded a few alarm bells.

Part of the problem with assessing "Bolero" is that it's difficult to guage whether it knows how trashy it is. Derek intersperses his enterprise with an amalgam of pretense, representing sex as slapstick as much (if not more) than he does sensual. As Ravel's Bolero booms out of the screen in non-diegetic splendour, Bo Derek's voice comes through, complaining that her lover is sat on her leg. An earlier scene with a Sheik features some of the worst acting I have ever seen by a supporting player (clue: his name is last in the above cast overview), as Bo is lathered in honey and devoured by her hungry suitor. Derek cuts from shots of Bo's sticky midriff to silent movie-style subtitles that are rather comical in their over-elaboration of events, and the tryst soon turns into a complete washout.

It would be as absurd as "Bolero" itself to suggest that it's always unintentionally funny, especially as it becomes somewhat of a paean to women, and their use of sex to obtain what they want from relationships. As much as Bo's body feels an alluring, exploitative tool to draw in the male gaze, the entire film is about regulating masculinity. Ayre meets Angel — a ripped Spaniard Bullfighter with a traditionally-feminine name — and splits up his relationship, leading him to suffer an accident that renders him impotent, before finally taking over his job and all-but-raping him in the film's climax. "Bolero" is mental, but it isn't without a certain focus.

Believe this: 1984's Razzie 'Worst Actress' winner Bo Derek acquits herself well, even if the inflections of her performance can't count for much by themselves. The evident interest from a gender-political standpoint only marginally atones for the film's inept direction, one-note collection of characters, and its lazy approach to characterisation. While Russ Meyer saluted women in control, his pussycats killed. Derek's feline doesn't have the backup to create serious wounds, and, even with erotic overtones, this Bolero just ain't rousing enough.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Claudette Colbert

Claudette Colbert in "Private Worlds"
Lost the 1935 Best Actress Oscar to Bette Davis in "Dangerous"

Grade: ***

Even if Claudette Colbert couldn't quite emulate Bette Davis, Greer Garson, and Irene Dunne in gaining Default Nominee status in the Thirties and Forties, she managed to win an Oscar before all of them. Just two months prior to the release of Gregory La Cava's "Private Worlds" Colbert was picking up the 1934 Best Actress Oscar for It Happened One Night, and she was clearly in the mind of the Academy when they doubled the number of nominees from three to six in 1935. "Private Worlds" represents a huge departure from Frank Capra's romantic comedy to more ethical, issue-driven dilemna, set in a psychiatric hospital under upheaval from new boss Charles Boyer.

If the "worlds" referenced in the title are a very vague way of suggesting that everybody has skeletons in their closets, the result isn't quite so juicy. La Cava spends the first twenty-five minutes of the film establishing that Colbert's Jane is a paladin of humanist know-how, solving any problems that she encounters and maintaining her composure at the testiest of times. Colbert's grace can often serve her well, and her soft expressions suggest a maternal, knowing affection that always helps to see her inside of the character. It's a weapon that's effective in her final nominated-performance in David O. Selznick's Since You Went Away, where it moulds nicely into the maternal instinct of her wartime housewife. In "Private Worlds", however, Colbert's radiating comfort can tend to align itself with Jane's insipid lack of fault, and it feels as if she's too plainly bringing out the inarguable competencies of the character.

Colbert recognises that Jane's passivity generates as much tension and conflict within the hospital as it does calmness, and there's an aloof charm about her that suggests a 'Private World' underneath that immovable exterior. The film tends to lampoon tidbits of backstory onto Jane, as when Colbert is forced to divulge a story of a former lover killed in the war, and in its constant liberal placement of her in so ethically strong a position. It's somewhat of a stretch for us to really care about failed romances and workplace prejudice. Colbert herself is adept at generating empathy, and she deals with the martinet tendencies of the script supremely, proffering a learned, studious faux-ambivalence to Jane's outlook and how she copes with internal politics and confrontation. Does she secretly court attention? Is the hospital's hierarchy really none of her concern? Colbert implants more greys into our perception of Jane than initially promised, and carries the film through its dourest periods of nonchalance.

Friday, November 05, 2010

A Review of Easy A (Gluck, 2010)

Easy A
Directed by Will Gluck
Starring: Emma Stone, Amanda Bynes, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, Thomas Haden Church, Lisa Kudrow, Penn Badgley, Dan Byrd
Grade: C+

Written for InRO:

As the story goes, there’s only one thing worse than being a slut: being a virgin. A ludicrous notion if you value your health, but a no-brainer if your social cred is at stake. Olive Pendergast is hardly a sexy name, but her life is all about sex; the sex that she doesn’t have, and the sex that she pretends to have. And even if Emma Stone’s Olive isn’t so preoccupied with losing her V card, “Easy A” is constantly occupied with demonstrating sexual politics through a high school dynamic and its oft-conservative attitudes toward promiscuity.

Olive herself gets in trouble when she is coaxed by best friend Rhiannon into inventing an imaginary weekend of passion with a non-existent guy. Word gets around that she has done the deed, attracting the attention of red-blooded males and generating uproar among the school’s Christian branch, led by prim Marianne (Bynes). Olive plays up to her newfound status as a siren by dressing provocatively and stitching a scarlet A (for “Adulteress”) into her outfits, a la the shamed heroine in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s controversial novel “The Scarlet Letter”. When gay boy Brandon confides to her that he is being bullied for his sexuality, Olive unwittingly agrees to ease his troubles by pretending that they have slept together, which only exacerbates the impact of her increasingly trampy persona and makes life far from “easy”.

Many teen comedies tend to embellish their own stamp on wise-old fables, and while “Easy A” often feels very fresh in the way that it approaches the issue of promiscuity, it has a distinctly individualist way about it. There isn’t so much of an underlying fear about losing one’s virginity as there is about following a crowd, 21st century social networking and Hollywood big-budget remakes satirised as vapid distractions to be scoffed at. “Easy A” and its heroine are deliciously condescending, which can make for a fun time, but which results in an army of familiarly narrow-minded examples within its host of high-school subcultures. For every savvy assessment of high-school life there’s a bloodthirsty Christian, or a horny teacher around the corner, poised to exercise their fickle tendencies in order to provide Olive with a sliver of a further challenge. For each biting, hilarious quip made by Olive’s parents Rosemary and Dill (a typically fabulous Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci), there’s an indulgent bout of liberal go-getting to follow. It somehow feels as if the film focuses too much on the characters it wants us to like.

Nevertheless, Stone works wonders in collating Olive’s sassy façade with the quirky, confessional twist to her character – a sort of “Olive Explains It All”, with much cooler parents, and a less annoying little brother. She completely takes hold of the film without resorting to hyperactivity to engage, pulling you so firmly within her perspective to the extent where her humility becomes attuned to a view of Olive as an underdog, even though she never really becomes one. Stone is miraculous in dealing with the latter stages of her arc, especially when reacting to a promising suitor handing her a $200 gift card at the end of their date, with the hope that she will sleep with him. She channels popular depictions of the downfall of the good-time girl by launching into a tearful, neurotic breakdown, becoming her creation for a short while, however far-fetched that seemed from the outset.

The niggling doubt about Olive is that Stone plays her with such a knowing sense of superior intellect that you wonder why she cares so much about what her “peers” think, or if she does, then why she gets herself into situations that will inevitably lead to severely damaging her reputation. For the most part, Olive is so aware of how the different personalities around her work; from Marianne’s fickle sense of worth, to Rhiannon’s need for inclusion, to school shrink Mrs. Griffith’s self-concerted attitude towards therapy, that it’s somewhat of a stretch to paint her as someone that can dig themselves into this big of a hole. For all of the apparent intelligence of Lindsay Lohan’s Cady in “Mean Girls”, one can believe her attention-seeking a little more than you can Olive’s, whose cultural idols lean more towards Lillian Gish than Britney Spears.

The film’s gripes about how Facebook etc. are quelling the creativity of the population don’t prevent Olive from using a similar interface to amend the wrongs of her tattered credibility. She presents the scenario of the film through close-up confession, which definitely introduces energy and anticipation, but when this turns out to be part of the resolution to the narrative, it leaves you a little wanting. If Bert V. Royal’s script is a canny instigator of disruption, it can’t quite carry early promise through to a concrete enough final act, tying up every loose end available in all of three sanitised minutes.

At the very least, “Easy A” is one of the more genuine attempts to access the conflicting messages society often projects about when to have sex and how much of it to have, and there are no great political compromises in that regard. What’s unconvincing is the huge gulf in maturity between the two factions of characters, and a lack of middle-ground characters to anchor and richen what the film struggles to say without Miss Stone. It’s difficult to gauge whether the “A” in “Easy A” most constitutes Adult, Adulteress, or plain-old Attainment. One thing that is for sure is that its formidable starlet is the only component of the film that comes close to achieving top marks.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Goldie Hawn

Goldie Hawn in "Private Benjamin"
Lost the 1980 Best Actress Oscar to Sissy Spacek in "Coal Miner's Daughter"

Grade: *

Despite winning an Oscar for Cactus Flower in 1969, I always think of Goldie Hawn as an Actress that belongs to the Nineties. Perhaps that's just my age speaking, but I'm yet to be truly moved by her before she met Steve Martin in a pair of hot red heels and moved into his house uninvited. Goldie Hawn's primary attribute is her sex appeal, and somehow, against all odds, "Private Benjamin" is a film that all but sucks this from her, especially in its second half. Maybe not that surprising, given that the film is about a middle-class widow getting a wake-up call from enlisting in the army, but certainly not encouraging for this reliably glamourous actress.

One of the more rewarding elements of Hawn's canny comedic ability is in building up a sense of self-protection, largely through her own status as a blonde bombshell. There's an inoffensive, naive hint of arrogance in the way that she struts around, which helps to facilitate the impact of humour in her thin bursts of disapproval at not being taken seriously. Her first scene with the intimidating Cpt. Lewis, in which she wears a black dressing gown to roll call and proceeds to criticise the hygeine of her accomodation, highlights what she can do when given a real comedic platform. And even if this scene is part of the film's early stab at novelty, she does at least give it some much needed vibrancy and encourage us to follow Judy that little bit further.

The scene which marks a shift in the narrative, in which Judy switches from being thoroughly disgusted by her surroundings to defiant of her old life and committed to the army, reads as such an abrupt, misjudged way of dealing with the arc of the character, and Hawn doesn't really give any sense that Judy is fearful of her old life enough to spurn it. She ends up sitting back and allowing the film to chronicle its old-fashioned "journey" of the woman from discontent to fulfillment, without crafting anything for herself within that journey. She feels lost when required to question her boyfriend about his fidelity, clueless as to whether this woman is being driven to become neurotic, and in the end settles to ease the film's finale a little with a pang of resignation. Her version of emotional camouflage?

Hawn feels constricted in the role, mistaking indifference for duality, and she's muted when more hysteria is called for (trust me, I don't say that very often!) If "Private Benjamin" had gone as first indicated and become a permanent battle of oneupmanship between Judy and Lewis, then Hawn would feel much more comfortable in the role. The downtrodden later aspects of Judy don't sit well with her, and I don't think that she ever really makes Judy that worthy of support. A result that's as much about the platitudinous irks that come with the character as it is about Hawn's own failings as an actress, but if this is awards-level acting, colour me unimpressed.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Bitesize Best Actress Oscar Profiles: Jeanne Eagels

Jeanne Eagels in "The Letter" (1929)
Lost the 1928-29 Best Actress Oscar to Mary Pickford in "Coquette"

Grade: ****

Jeanne Eagels made just two talking pictures before her early death from a drugs overdose at the age of thirty-nine. Her most famous quote, "I'm the greatest actress in the world and the greatest failure. And nobody gives a damn." is a bold statement in itself, and though this film is my opening foray into the work of Ms. Eagels, I can certainly subscribe to the "great" if not the "greatest" tag. While William Wyler's remake would market itself with the tagline, "With all my heart, I still love the man I killed!", De Limur's original version of Somerset Maugham's "The Letter" was content to rest on that line, as if the mere confession of its tainted anti-hero Leslie Crosbie is itself enough to underline her treachery and put an end to any pretense.

Eagels' pretense had reached a height upon a courtroom stand, as an examining barrister asks her if she can recall the events of her and boyfriend Geoffrey's final, murderous encounter. Her response, "I'll try..." is trying, but so forlorn, resolute, and demanding of the court's attention without feeling at all threatening, and as she feathers her calculated lies with fragile affectations and insistent glances, she does so with such a mechanical ease that the entire scene is uproariously funny. Eagels makes Leslie impulsive in her answers, as if she's eager to get a rehearsed story across, but isn't cracking under the pressure and, quite to the contrary, appears to be adapting and eventually revelling in the attention she so keenly craves. She finds it difficult to hold back on the romantic dialogue of the story, heightening her well-to-do voice at just the right places so as to seem acceptably prudish but still thoroughly identifiable as a housewife.

While I consider Bette Davis' 1940 reprisal to be probably the most deserving Best Actress nomination of the entire decade, Eagels doesn't have as much of the feigned grace that Davis brought to Leslie. She plays her as more of a bitter, shameless shrew, if anything conjuring up images of Bette's lauded 1934 turn in "Of Human Bondage". In the famous scene in which Leslie retrieves the letter that would incriminate her, from the woman that her victim really loved, Eagels shuts Leslie off from any sort of empathy with the woman. In part, this can be attributed to "The Letter" and its lack of concern for this strand of the story, turning the exchange into a bit of theatre geared by racial oneupmanship. Still, Eagels doesn't capitalise on what should be Leslie's real lesson and shame in the film, a realisation of those haunting final words.

The waspish demeanour of Eagels imprints the film with a veracity that fits acutely into the modest brand of cinema that marks De Limur's film, more reflective of the stage or television in its quickfire, bare-bones approach to issues of the heart. So much could go wrong with playing somebody with little-to-no redeeming features about their personality, who lies through 90% of her film, but Eagels is aware of the pitfalls of being overzealous and romantic with Leslie, who one can imagine being oblivious to passion unless it were thrust in front of her face. We're used to seeing women in films of this era receive comeuppance for their errors, or at least appear to act out of downtrodden, desperate hysteria. After her crime Eagels' Leslie acts assuredly, through contempt for a life she never really had, and if the film doesn't want to punish her for that, I'm certainly not going to complain. There are few opportunities to see someone be this conceited.