Archive for October, 2009

Driven (2001)

“Driven” (2001)



nascar, not F1

Car racing and films. Sports and films. Of you let go your imagination, these are powerful mixtures. Sport is about movement, it’s like a dance, and that’s cinematic, indeed it is one of the most rich cinematic fields. It has live emotion, which means you will not no what to expect, despite taking sides. There is a strong aspect of suspense that surrounds every game, every sport, and racing isn’t an exception. But than there is a huge catch: no one (supposedly) knows where it will go. Anything can happen in sports, it lives on the moment, more than any live or filmed performance, musical theatrical or any other else. So, this means that in order to keep the fuel of sports emotion true and alive, you can’t stage it. And you can’t make a feature film without having nearly everything staged. So that’s the difference. Dance, music, theatre, it’s all a performance, it’s all about delivering something that has been preestablished. Cinema inherited this. That’s why we need interesting minds to have interesting art, where the most talented of the sportsmen can perfectly be an intellectual schmuck. And it’s also because of this that i personally find it impossible, at least with the tools we have so far, to successfully create a film (not documentary) that binds together sports (any sport) and film. That’s probably why the Wachovsky explored racing relying on technology, because they knew the ordinary tools were useless (i haven’t seen ‘speed racer’ yet). And yes, we have Chariots of Fire, but sport is only incidental there, and works as a frozen performance, which the music enhances. Pure sports films, i don’t know any that is remotely interesting.

Even less when we have the attitude of this film. This is such a mess, way beyond the problems of sports and film together. So here we have Reynolds, playing a crippled ex macho racing hero, which is probably the only role he ever played. We have Stallone, playing the old war hero, coming back to action, to save the day where he is needed. And we have a couple of other cliché characters, uprising stars, guys struggling to be themselves, and to feel free. Anyway, check this: every pseudo dramatic arc that is intended here exists in a different world of relationships. Love over Success, Pride, personal affirmation. Dull, vulgar, done below the watchable. Not even a single try at filming the races in an interesting way. All explosion and injuries, coins grabbed by the tires, spectacular collisions, boring, useless.

Oh, the rescuing scene by the two leaders of the championship still can look ridiculous in the middle of this ridiculous film

My opinion: 1/5

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Suknickár (2005)

“Suknickár” (2005)



This is a film created by a guy who is not actually an assumed filmmaker. He likes to try different media, ranging from radio to film, collage to written word. So, one should expect a certain freedom, or detachment from ordinary cinematic codes, that real filmmakers would follow. That’s something that makes me wanna try it.

I like what has been tried here. A kind of sensuality, achieved through partial views of the female body. That’s probably the very definition of sensuality, and it was taken quite literally here. The fact that this is a short film, and does not obey a linear or full bodied script protects this vision, since there are no actual (female) characters to be developed. The result is that you can imagine anything you’d like, and it will always be more perfect that the actual reality (no matter what that would be) of having faces to match those legs so carefully photographed, half covered by also carefully shot tissues, of different textures and seen with different levels of detail. Skin is tissue, it becomes tissue in many moments.

So the basic idea was good. But i’ve seen it better done, by this same director. “spittin kiss”, which i saw 2 years ago on a big screen, was far more effective, and i think that was because of two things: -the basic story was more tender in kiss, because he centers things on a guy, who incidentally looks for love, in the legs of women passing by. So, he eases on the leg obsession, and that highlights the sensuality. -here he films live action, short shots, sometimes abstract, but real action. In “kiss” what we have is stop motion. Real scenes shot with a photographic camera. Not 24fps, instead bits of reality, which gives us even less to see, and more to imagine. It’s an effective trick, which we don’t see here, and that cuts the effect, to me.

My opinion: 3/5

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Being John Malkovich (1999)

“Being John Malkovich” (1999)



voyage to your (other) self

Some films define what your dreams will become. Others help you understand what your dreams are made of. Maybe these two ideas are more close to each other than i’m willing to admit. Anyway, this film is the second type. At least to me. I am a romantic, incurable. I cry over love, uncorresponded love, true love. More and more, these last months have been a difficult hard period in my life, a time of change, indecision, not about love, but everything else. So i feel immediately like Cusack’s character, someone who is not allowed to puppeteer. All i said so far would make this film special for me.

But this is cinema, and that’s what breaks things for me here. So, in what concerns cinema, what we have here is the mix between an inspired and competent director, two of the best actors working these days (Cusack and Keener), one really interesting mind, which actually borrows himself to be the film stage, quite literally (Malkovich), and one of the best screenwriters ever.

Kaufman’s writing is, to some extent close to that of Medem. Both envision the world as a black sky filled with shiny star dots. Than, out of that sky, they take a magic marker and unite dots, until they shaped their own personal constellations, until they’ve put their souls into the sky. If you are willing to track down what they mean with every dot they choose to make their own, you will know that you are in a different world, not at all separated from our own, because it intersects it, but truly, you’ll be “inside” someone’s head. You will not control it, you will not puppeteer it, but you’ll be blessed. The difference, though, between Medem and Kaufman, is that the first one directs what he writes, always. So we have always a coordinated vision, that strikes every bit of what we see. Kaufman collaborates, and in the process gains what the directors have to give, but takes the chance of being misunderstood. In this film, all the compensations and personal interpretations by the main creative intervenients seem perfectly balanced to me. This is a sweet experience, something you will not forget.

Spike Jonze has a career as a video clip director, and that shows, he takes the visual representation of Cusack’s dramatizations to a high level, and that’s a fundamental piece of the metaphor. Puppeteering, the illusion of a created life on stage, taken to staged lives, in the real world. How Schwartz has to become another person in order to become himself, in order to freely express. In order to get the illusion of true love! What a true drama that is. How Maxine bends the benders, deceives the deceivers, manipulates everybody, even those who are supposed to be the manipulators; only to find out she shouldn’t. How Lotte is the ultimate manipulated woman, and because of that is the only uncorrupted. How Malkovich, ultimately, doesn’t exist. How Lester is the closest to God that we have on film.

Undecisions, half way between places, half floors. Channels between people, people as vessels which can contain multiple selfs. Creating literally your own reality, by blurring the definitions of self. This is as much about love as it is about the process of living that love. This is as much about truth as it is about what truth means. This is as much about a story as it is about how to tell stories. This is as much a film as it is an essay about making films, about cinema. This is a master piece of self-reference.

My opinion: 5/5 probably “eternal sunshine..” tops this, but this will be a part of you, if you’ll allow it.

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America’s Sweethearts (2001)

“America’s Sweethearts” (2001)



bogus fake lives

There is a common cliché in film commenting, usually by average viewers, the target audiences for films such as this, which goes like: it’s good to watch because it allows me not to think and to forget the real world. Something like that. This is a bogus, of course. No one who thinks will stop thinking in front of some unchallenging piece of entertainment, like this film, and those who usually aren’t accustomed to question things, won’t do it, no matter what film you place in front of them. But i understand the meaning of the concept of “not thinking”, and this film has a gold place in the (huge) warehouse of films designed not to be interesting, merely entertain. That’s because if the makers of it didn’t place interesting leads for us to follow, there’s nothing to follow.

Well, even in the worst swamps we have some flowers growing, so there are two things i point out here:

One is John Cusack. The guy is good, and brings something fresh even to worn out roles like this one. He has a strange way to place himself in between the narrative in the film and us, audiences. Is neither a real life person (like us, as viewers) nor a film integrated character. Instead it seems like he a kind of David Attenborough of cinema, someone who is in the action scene, but comfortably protected by some bushes, while commenting on the dangerous lions meal. He is great.

Taking this Cusack situation, i think we have the core of this film. We have 2 plus 2 characters swinging all the time between two distinct realities in the film: that of stardom, and that of the “real life” in the film. Absolutely everything, every joke, every romance bit, every discussion, every plot point swings around the idea that famous actors like Cusack and Zeta Jones’ characters have two faces, two lives; one that shows to the whole world, shiny and brilliant, and the reality of boring, unhappy and unfit lives. In the end Zeta Jones sticks to the fake reality of fame, and that’s why she stays with the Spanish equally fake character; and Cusack stays with Julia Roberts’ character, someone who live in the shadow of stardom all her life, watching and living star environments all the way without ever becoming part of it. There’s a public venue where all the assumptions (by the public in the film and the characters) take place. That’s a golden rule of date films.

So, the way i see it, we have this: the “real” life of Jones and Cusack’s characters is to their star profile, in the film, as this film is to real interesting cinematic ideas. Dull, boring, empty, trying to look bright, shiny and appealing. But hey, this entertains, and even if you start thinking about it, you won’t take much out of it, so i suppose it completes its purposes.

My opinion: 1/5

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La noche del terror ciego (1971)

“La noche del terror ciego” (1971)

noche terror


Slap the woman, and get bit

In no other type of film like the “b genre” is the original passion of its makers so directly transposed onto the audiences. It’s all there. Because so few mediation is involved in the production of these films, they are the faces of their makers, watching them is like being there when they were made.

Another great thing in these films is the almost complete freedom of its makers, regarding their audiences. I mean, given a certain genre, “horror” in this case, guys who look for these films expect a certain number of elements. But after those elements (usually visual) are granted, filmmakers can do whatever they want. Of course we have to put up with the poor production values, but that’s part of the ride. It’s the passion that matters, the fact that the film Was done counts. And of course, specially after so many years, all the fake production things, from the voices to the characterization is lovable, a sweet labor of people who love what they do.

So, just considering the horror genre, these films range from the “jump in the dark” scary film to the moody depiction of an environment. That’s what we have here. The film invests everything in granting a gloom the the old abandoned village, which actually is just a convent, not a village. Every scene outside that place talks about the place itself, how everybody seems to be frightened at the very mentioning of the name of the invented village makes you want to uncover its mysteries. So we have pretty countryside landscapes, characters circulating around for apparently useless reasons, a crap past story invested in the two major female characters, that involves lesbianism, certainly to allow them to shoot the flashback (there goes the sexy depictions that the audiences demand). Sex, old myths, esoteric tales, old mummies walking around.

And the convent. This is where the thing starts falling apart to me. That’s because they chose a great theme, templars, but than they fail to take the visual exploitation of a building to the level of the promise. Templars have a deep tradition of esoterism, the occult, and that reflects on several levels, and to our contemporary eyes, the most visible face of that esoterism is their architecture, what’s left of it. Now, if you don’t know, at a certain moment templars were hunted down and killed and officially extinct and repelled by every country in Europe, with the exception of Scotland and Portugal. Under different names, they continued in Portugal their activity, and indeed became anonymously fundamental in what followed, the sailing enterprises and the beginning of modern globalization in the 15th century. What they did was huge. So, more than any other place, Portugal has a great concentration of magic places, esoteric locations, templar influenced architecture. Trust me, i’ve been to many of those places and lucidly felt them, they are great. But in this film, Ossorio chooses to film everything in Portugal, except the only place that matters, the old convent, which he finds in Spain, and has absolutely no relation to the Templars. Shame on him. That’s what i complain. The convent location, except from the old standing arcs of a degraded church, there’s no interest to it, it’s old stones and old pieces of walls, with no apparent meaning. In Portugal, he shot near some great locations, how could he not use one of them? That would be something of a “cult”. But no, none of the circular ritualistic paths of the templar architecture. Imagine those blind mummies playing the rituals of the original knights? that would be spooky no matter how phony the voices sounded, or how fake the puppets looked like.

The machismo is screaming, and it would be laughable if it didn’t match the reality of Spanish (and Portuguese!) societies 40 years ago. Every man exists to dominate the women that surround him. You have the rough type, mustache, beats women, rapes them, and still gets to be desired by them. And you have the retro playboy who flirts with two at a time. Women are objects here, shirts get ripped off so that breast come out. Well, this is obvious exploitation, but the macho guy is not. It really was like that.

My opinion: 2/5

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The Dancer Upstairs (2002)

“The Dancer Upstairs” (2002)

dancer 1


knowing a soul

For the way they move my soul, i think films fall into 3 categories: -those that make me indifferent, unable to push any of the buttons that stimulate my mind and emotions, the worst kind; -others just punch you in the stomach, they just shock you, force you to face situations without making you really dig into its core; -the best kind of film move everything inside you, make you discover parts of your soul you didn’t know to be there. They grab you where it matters, and lead you to uncharted territories;

I would never guess that this film would fall into the third category. But it does, despite its flaws, which are not few. For his work as an actor i always thought Malkovich was an interesting person. There is a kind of disturbed lucidity that overshadows even his loudest commercially oriented interpretations. Also, if you check is role choices, he is one of those guys who gets into crap projects to make a living, and than finds time to work in things that motivate him. That’s why we have 3 participations in Oliveira’s films. Here he tried directing.

On the surface, the story is a bad choice. How and what happens is uninteresting, predictable and even incoherent. But there is something great: we are led into thinking we will watch a political thriller, high conspiracies that affect the lives of small people. The lonely hero who will do the right thing. Having not read the book, i’m guessing it points that way. The beginning of the film gives that impression as well. But than Malkovich deceives us, and smoothly pushes us into a deeper layer of personal emotions, of character development through people’s relations. In the end, this is a story about an interesting character caught up in a corrupt shallow world, who makes his way into trying to live an honest life, “looking for a more honest way to practice the law”. A little bit like Malkovich’s career. We have that character beautifully played by a highly focused Bardem, a very interesting method actor. His character lives polarized by three women, his empty headed wife, his dance oriented daughter, and her troubled dance teacher. How he swings among them is what matters. For how the political background intersects Bardem’s emotional life, i think the story helps, but i found it a major flaw that Malkovich wasn’t able to make us understand when we should really give up on the (after all) useless thriller and focus on what he sure wanted to do, which was to center us on the head of Bardem’s character. I know Malkovich wanted it better, but hey, this was only his first try.

The direction is uneven. We have some poorly edited dialogs which work against the actors and the fluidity of the story, and some bad choices in the scene sequences that perturb the understanding of the plot. Basic mistakes. Worse than that, some times Malkovich looses the grip and let’s us, spectators, wandering about where to go next. This tense and concentrated film requires a gripping direction which Malkovich doesn’t deliver consistently. But we also have pieces of honest pure and beautiful cinema, which include performances. Among these we have a dancing lesson, inter cut with the murder of three people in a theater performance, having the audience take those executions as a part of that performance. And we have the very final scene, a performance of the child, with Bardem rushing to get there. Those and other bits were truly powerful, sincere and moving. Should we have this consistency through all the film, and we’d have something really powerful.

There is something particularly well done: the locations. Malkovich is known to be around Portugal often, so i imagine he chose personally most of the locations. Anyway, they always add to what he tends, they are a permanent character that en forms what we are supposed to see. In this specific point, the film is consistent all the way. I’m guessing a lot of time was put into choosing the places.

My opinion: 4/5 there is a true soul behind this, despite its flaws as a film.

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Death and the Maiden (1994)

“Death and the Maiden” (1994)



surrounding an idea

This is one of the cinematic homes for this filmmaker. He swims comfortably in these waters. Polanski requires very little elements to induce great tension in any film. That’s why he has looked for scripts like this, often in his career.

This is a great thing, the ability to take very few scenery elements, in this case a single very small house, and the surrounding landscape, and build the narrative over that. Because that’s what we have. The story is simple enough to produce no distractions, and the landscape is wide and desert enough to do the same. What we have is a whole set up that surrounds an idea of uncertain truth, provisional reality (to our eyes). That’s why we never stop wondering whether Weaver is right or wrong, whether Kingsley is a rapist or a victim. So does Stuart Wilson, who goes through the same range of doubt as we, spectators, go, and that makes him our surrogate in the film. We are judges to our own sentence. All the cruelty of an invented regime of a supposed south American country is the mere formalization of the credibility of the world. It is not about denouncing crimes nor about discussing politics, as it has been said. Also, much has been said about how much the final monologue reveals the truth, i say it keeps all the possibilities opened, though it suggests sincerity.

As an idea, this is as simple as it gets, and as every simple idea, it’s so hard to achieve, keeping it simple. That’s where things get interesting, when you check the cinematic devices that surround and collaborate with the simplicity of a simple doubt that this theatrical script suggests.

First we have the core of the story framed, at beginning and end, by the core music, a quartet which names the film, and gives consistency to the drama of Sigourney’s character.

We have the handling of the wide open landscape, with its lighthouse. The sense of green isolation, the poetics of the location, which growths on us, as it is given in small bits, until becoming the final stage to the real drama.

The house. This part matters, as this a film by a director who really knows how to handle space and include it in the drama. This is worth for a hotel room, a boat, or a small house. This is what he has been making throughout his life, in “knife in the water”, his apartment trilogy, bitter moon and this one. It is something i admire, the ability to include the space that surrounds the characters into their dramas and discussions. That’s one way, one of deepest ways to include (architectural) space in the fields of cinema. Orson Welles, Hitchcock (sometimes), Polanski… they all trust on their own camera.

We have the acting at the center of the success of this film. Everyone of the 3 actors involved play at their top here, each one knows where he stands, and interprets perfectly what is required of him to make things flow. Ambiguity, to Ben Kinsgley, Messed up mind to Sigourney Weaver, Reactiveness and indecision to Stuart Wilson.

This is less achieved than other efforts, but Roman never ceases to deliver his special gaze, and that’s always worth seeing.

My opinion: 4/5

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