Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Moulin Rouge!

I've participated in this series just once before (for Bring It On), but I've been sadly inactive since, despite several of my favourite films being covered. I knew I couldn't miss this one, though, because of my great passion for Moulin Rouge!.

I won't go on before I show what my favourite shot is, since I know I hate to be kept waiting:

One of the things that fascinates me most about Moulin Rouge! is its sense of intertextuality. I mean, I get caught up in the mad pacing and singing and just general energy of it all just like anyone else, but what always keeps the movie near the front of my mind is how it relates to other musicals.

I had an evening a few months back where I watched four or five of my favourite musicals in a day, and I realised at the end of Moulin Rouge! that its climax bore a remarkable resemblance to my favourite musical:

I suppose it's possible that this could have been a complete accident, but I give Luhrmann a lot more credit for this film than a lot of people (Oscar's Best Director snub, especially amongst all the film's other love, still stings), and I've been taught to assume that nothing is accidental. It seems even more unlikely when you see the other visual references Luhrmann makes to the classic '50s musical throughout his film.

Both of the films feature lovers, with the plot revolving around their romance. That's typical of the musical genre, of course, with the history of the backstage musical stretching back long before Singin' in the Rain. I'm more interested in the more nuanced connections which you can map from the first film onto the second. They both feature one lover deceiving another for their own good - Don convincing Kathy to sing for Lina, and Satine lying to Christian to make him leave and save his life. I could talk about the fascinating gender reversal that Moulin Rouge! gives us, since I think one of that film's crowning achievements is the confounding of sexual and gender-based norms. I get the feeling nobody wants to hear about that, though.

In the end, I do love all of Moulin Rouge!'s flashy shots, its hyper-kinetic editing and the constant experimentation with colour and other techniques. This shot has stuck with me, though. It may not be the most showy, although I do still love it from an aesthetic standpoint. It ties two of my favourite musicals (and films overall) to each other inextricably, and I love it for that. I definitely don't think Moulin Rouge! is Singin' in the Rain's equal, but both of them have brought me a lot of joy since I found them, and I love them for that.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The Stepford Wives (1975)

The Stepford Wives (1975) is often considered one of the classic horror movies of the 1970s, a decade which is hardly deficient when it comes to horror. The decade saw a large upswing in supernatural elements in horror films, probably brought on the the success of Rosemary's Baby in 1968. The novel Stepford Wives is based on is written by Ira Levin, the same man who wrote Rosemary's Baby. The former film was nominated for two Oscars, so it probably seemed like a safe artistic and critical bet to make Stepford. Despite its legacy being degraded by a string of sequels and a recent comedic remake, the film retains a lot of its dignity and still seems timely today.

The plot revolves around a man and his wife moving from New York City to Stepford, a seemingly idyllic town. Our protagonist is Joanna, played by The Graduate's Katharine Ross. She is not your typical housewife, which puts her out of place in Stepford, a town where every wife is almost subservient to her husband. Joanna has aspirations to be a photographer, and is immediately differentiated from the other woman of Stepford in her determination and desire to succeed as an individual.

She soon forms a friendship with Bobbie Markowe (Paula Prentiss), who is also new in town. The two women bond over their separation from the other Stepford wives, and they grow to depend on each other and suspect that something is going wrong in Stepford. The bulk of the movie is dedicated to building a slow sense of discomfort in the viewer. Joanna and Bobby try to set up a group where women can talk away from men, but the only things other women seem to be interested in talking about are cleaning products.

It's necessary to remember that the film is from the 1970s, which favoured building tension over scares, unlike modern horror films. Even The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released the year before, builds an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty before the plot explodes into motion. This approach doesn't always lead to the most exciting films, as it favours a slow accumulation of details over jump scares, but it usually provides the viewer with a more satisfying experience, and often leaves them with something to think about after the film is finished.

I've never read any of Ira Levin's novels, but if the two I've referenced are any indication, he is a writer with a very specific set of themes that interest him. Both Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives feature sympathetic female protagonists who move to a new area and become suspicious of the people around them. They feature themes of gender relations, both in a larger, societal sense as well as the relationship between spouses. On a more basic level, the films are interested in paranoia and suspicion, and the sinister events that might be unfolding under the surface of what seems innocent. Consequently, both of them operate on several levels. We can read them as films about women who have gone insane under the pressure of everyday life. Alternatively, the horrors they face represent the societal factors that were hurting women at the time.

Where the films differ is in the atmosphere they try to create. Those who have seen Rosemary will probably never forget an early dream sequence that marks one of the most crucial plot points. It is a surreal nightmare, filled with imagery designed to unsettle the viewer. Stepford has nothing of this kind, preferring to aim for verisimilitude even in its maddest moments. This is not to favour one film over the other, but I do prefer Polanski's feverish approach to the material.

Despite this, it's hard to criticise Forbes' direction. Much of the film's power comes from his composition and quiet building of atmosphere. He constructs the film to constantly bring us back to the main themes. We see Joanna imprisoned by shadow bars or from the other side of a window, highlighting her status as a prisoner in both Stepford and her marriage. This school of image-making often makes me squirm as it reminds me of the on-the-nose cinematography of The Graduate. Still, it's easy to understand when we place the film among other films of the same time with similar cinematic vocabulary. There are a lot more fades than I can make a justifiable case for, jarring against the film's tone without saying anything meaningful. They would be indefensible if it wasn't for the shot above, where we see the idea of women as images created by men economically conveyed with a smart fade. The score's gradual transformation from the beginning of the film to the last act is also an impressive feature. It seems like it will be maddeningly chipper in the opening scenes, but as it twists into something gradually more sinister, we see that it is geared into the themes of the film as well.

It may be clear from this review that I am less interested in Stepford as a film than as a document of a particular point in history. It's not that the film is dated at all. It has remained just as relevant, given that women are still fighting for equality. Indeed, it'd be a lot more reassuring to say that it seemed alien. Parts of it are still recognisable in today's society, particularly in smaller towns. This makes it even harder to understand the charges that the film is "anti-woman" that were leveled against in 1975. This makes me even more likely to be forgiving of how obvious the film seems to be at times, given that it was not perceived that way in 1975. It seems clear that the film is intended to be a satire of perceived gender roles, and a criticism of patriarchal society. Then again, many people didn't understand Vertigo's intentions when it was released, and that film also shares a lot of things with Stepford.

Spoilers from this point. I know it's an old film and the plot is one of those things that's been absorbed by popular culture to the point that most know it, but I want to preserve anyone who made it this far unspoiled.

It's hard to understand the "anti-woman" label feminists slapped the film with, especially since it is in large part an examination of the social forces that render women into domestic servants to their husbands. Joanna, with her fascination in photography and ambitions for herself, is severely contrasted with these women. I've been told that she and Bobbie are better developed in the novel, but it is hard not to sympathise with Joanna. Horror movies of the time were often masterful in their establishment of their protagonists' basic personality attributes, putting us immediately on their side. Joanna's photography is only mentioned in a few scenes, but Katharine Ross makes it an integral part of the film when she talks about her desire to be remembered when she's gone. This desire makes her ultimate fate all the more tragic.

This is also fascinating in that it presents a woman capturing the image. I previously referenced Vertigo as a touchstone for this film, and this is particularly clear in the photography subplot. Vertigo establishes males as the capturer of the image, with women being degraded to images instead of individuals. Joanna's interest in photography makes us more aware of the film's meta-textual leanings (estabblished with somewhat less skill in a conversation about one of Joanna's old boyfriends, "Raymond Chandler.") and make us examine her purpose in the film's narrative. We see that horror films are finally shifting to allow women the typically male status as protagonist. Stepford is not as complex as Hitchcock's film, but it is definitely attempting to push against patriarchy, both in cinema and in society at large.

This becomes most obvious in the last minutes of the film, when it is implied that Joanna is strangled by a black-eyed clone of herself. The film then cuts to a scene of the Stepford wives shopping at the supermarket, all greeting each other blankly. We see that Joanna has been replaced by her clone, and all of the energy and passion is gone. I've read that the original intent was to have the Stepford-ised Bobbie kill Joanna, which would have been an inferior ending in my opinion. The image of the black-eyed Joanna stretching out the stocking is horrifying, moreso because we've waited almost two hours to see it. Joanna's death at the hand of her own clone is also more ideologically complex. Joanna makes a hysterical speech at a late point in the movie, claiming she'll be replaced by someone who looks like her "but doesn't take photos." The two versions of Joanna play on the idea of the double, which is a hugely common idea in genres like science fiction and horror. If we take Joanna's death at the hands of her clone at a deeper level, we see the female's desire to please men crushing her personality and ambitions. Death at Bobbie's hands would be horrifying, but it would imply that women are destroying each other, which is not a message the film needs to convey.

This is not to say that the film blames women for their own problems, although the film's references to Vertigo do become somewhat problematic in their (probably accidental) suggestion that Joanna could be unnaturally obsessed with turning people into images. However, this is averted by Joanna being more interested in photography as an art form and a way to be remembered than in particularly gendered terms. We can also see that Joanna is more technologically inclined, while we see a man draw a picture of her. This automatically gives us the implicit impression that Joanna is more advanced than the men of Stepford. Even so, it is possible the people who criticised the film could have thought that the film was against Joanna. Despite this, we see the machinations of the man throughout the film harming women. Their machinations that force women into these gender roles because they have an obsession with perfect and servile wives, unable to deal with the reality of women with ambition and personality. This shows an implicit criticism of patriarchal society within the film.

The Stepford Wives is a fantastically atmospheric horror film, truly representative of its time period. It may dig as far into its own ideology as Vertigo or be as vivid Rosemary's Baby, but it is a worthy and competent film. Looking around the internet, I couldn't find much contemporary discussion of the film. This saddens me, as it has aged well and is competently crafted. Again, I may be more interested in the ideology, implications and social context of the film, but the film itself is a solid entry into the horror genre.

Final Grade: A-

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Top 10 of 2010

So, I know this list is about four months too late, and since I live in New Zealand we still haven't gotten a large number of movies that could potentially end up on this list, but I'm going to do a draft of it now and revise it as I discover more from last year. I'll try to write a hundred words or so on each film. As a disclaimer: I know other people have different opinions, probably worth more than mine, but these were the best films of the year for me.

What I still have to see: 127 Hours, The American, Another Year, City Island, Fair Game, Fish Tank, For Coloured Girls, The Loved Ones, Monsters, Never Let Me Go, Night Catches Us, The Runaways, Unstoppable.

Feel free to make any suggestions of any standouts you saw last year. I'm interested to know what everyone else loved. Or hated, for that matter.

First, though, the runners up. Any of these films could probably move into the Top 10, depending on what kind of mood I was in. In alphabetical order:

Animal Kingdom, David Michod.
Buried, Rodrigo Cortes.
Greenberg, Noah Baumbach.
A Prophet, Jacques Audiard.
Rabbit Hole, John Cameron Mitchell.

And now for the list itself...

10. Cairo Time, Ruba Nadda. Because I didn't see a more tenderly and intricately sketched map of a relationship all year. Clarkson caught one of those rare leading roles and shone brighter than she ever has before. Siddig was just as capable in a part that is part love interest, part sparring partner. It's not groundbreaking, but it's beautiful and has some of the best and most character-appropriate costuming of the year. Of all the films in my Top 10, this is the one that could have slipped by the easiest. I would have caught up with all the others eventually, but I'll always be grateful that I found this modest treasure in theatres.

9. The Ghost Writer, Roman Polanski. Because although Polanski has almost no hope of making a contemporary picture that I'll admire and love as much of his older films, this one came close. The score was my favourite of the year and Williams was my favourite supporting actress. Brosnan was a revelation as well, showing depths to his acting that we hadn't seen before. I'll write about them both more soon. If Catrall had been up to their standard, the film would have created almost a perfect ensemble. Despite the criticisms some had of the script, I think the film has enough to say about the modern world and our identities that these things fade away. Besides, who can resist those last five minutes and specifically that last shot?

8. The Social Network, David Fincher. Because David Fincher created a movie that was actually funny as well as being a gripping examination of an individual and a friendship. I may have found myself out of place with consensus on The Social Network, neither loving it unreservedly nor hating it, but there is a lot of worth in it. Like Fincher says, it isn't his best movie, but Eisenberg, Garfield, Reznor and Ross all add a great deal to this film. A fantastic public arrival for Garfield in particular. I may question the structure of the script, but I give Fincher and Sorkin credit for making something so entertaining.

7. The Fighter, David. O. Russell. Because no other film took something that could have played as a lifeless and rote biopic and turned it into one of the year's most energetic releases. Many of the other directors on this list take something great and make it into something better. Russell reportedly took over from Aronofsky and fine-tuned it into his own vision of family. It may have played to every cliche in the book, but it played to them perfectly and still feels like its director's own work. Wahlberg continues to make a case for being one of the most overlooked actors out there, while Leo, Bale and the menagerie of sisters bring a whirlwind of energy. It would be my pick of Oscar's Best Picture nominees if it wasn't for a film appearing soon.

6. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edgar Wright. Because it brought a killer ensemble to a film dedicated to delivering pure fun. In the same vein as Toy Story 3 , I was probably biased to love Scott Pilgrim. It's a geeky tribute to the video games that I loved as a kid, and it's just the sort of movie that I can put on anytime to watch. What deepens my love for it, though, is the subtle self-examaination and critique that goes on just below the surface. The film doesn't celebrate its characters nasty actions, but it also doesn't make the viewers confront them if they don't want to. I don't pretend that the movie is perfect, but I think that certain elements, like Ellen Wong's Knives, just might be.

5. Toy Story 3, Lee Unkrich. Because the film tackles many of the themes the series has already looked at, but never once feels like a rehash. Unkrich manages to dig deeper into this world than any of the two preceding movies and emerge with something that feels more true, more emotional and still as entertaining as the first two movies. I'll admit my bias, given that I grew up with the first two movies and the series as is now feels like an analogue to my own life, but I don't think anyone could deny the depth of feeling that Pixar has brought to the film. Half a dozen set-pieces and characters have been ingrained into my thoughts since I saw it, and they're all welcome memories.

4. Dogtooth, Giorgos Lanthimos. Because it stretches the definition of "entertainment" to lengths that are sometimes painful, but still emerges with a film that can be funny and moving. The story is almost surrealist, but the actors all play it with such sincerity that we never doubt its reality. The references to other films Lanthimos brings are funny on the surface level, but also lead us to ask questions about the presence of cinema in our lives and its influence on reality. I don't think I've fully digested what Dogtooth was trying to say, but I'm eager for another viewing.

3. I Am Love, Luca Guadagnino. Because no other movie took a typical melodramatic situation and elevated it to high art. Tilda Swinton is a consummate presence, proving once again that she can excel in any role. The film mixes what could be melodrama with genuine desire and sensuality, resulting in a film that's an intoxicating rush of emotions as much as it is a movie. The beautiful score only highlights this feeling. Giadagnino bathes his cast in the richest light and colours and proves to have a masterful control of his film's tones and technical elements. A stunning mood piece.

2. Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance. Because it's as stunning a mood piece as I Am Love, cutting back and forth in what may be my favourite screenplay of last year. Williams and Gosling both give pitch-perfect performances, molding themselves to Cianfrance's film, an auteurist piece if ever there was one. The screenplay takes infinite dramatic tension from some minimal events and makes the most of every plot point. At times I felt like the movie might have been pushing too hard, but then another crosscutting decision, dialogue exchange or small character moment would place me firmly back in the movie's camp.

1. White Material, Claire Denis. Because no other film this year played to such unique editing rhythms or showed us characters so compromised in their actions. To be completely honest, I'm sure that this film will continue giving up things I hadn't yet noticed on further viewings. But Denis' fantastic direction and Isabelle Huppert's best performance since The Piano Teacher join to give probably the best auteur/star colloboration of the year. The film is mystifying and beautiful, unlike anything I've seen before. I'll be seeking out Denis' other films and hoping for revelations like this one.