Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Bug, the movie

****Spoilers Ahead******

Bug (2006)

Directed by William Friedkin

Cast includes
Ashley Judd as Agnes White
Michael Shannon as Peter Evans
Harry Connick, Jr, as Jerry Goss

You know sometimes you'll see something with bugs crawling on a tv show or you get surprised by a spider or bug or rodent in your house and then you feel like something is crawling on you the rest of the night?

You know how sometimes you'll read an article or a book or hear a talk show about the Bilderberger Group or Obama's FEMA camps and then you start to obsess on these big conspiracies that you could probably do nothing about, even if they were true? Well, unless you are Jesse Ventura and some cable network gives you a show so you can go harass those people and places at the heart of the conspiracies.

Basically, this movie is both of those, wrapped up in a big folie a deux (madness shared by two.) It is a tense brutal movie that takes place almost entirely in a small, slightly grimy motel room in Oklahoma. When Agnes' only friend brings the quiet but seemingly nice Peter over before a party, he and Agnes start their brief but intense, co-dependent relationship. In an extra on the DVD, actor Michael Shannon, who plays Peter, says that he thinks this is really a love story, though a love story between two very damaged people. I would agree with that, but have to add the caveat that it isn't the uplifting, make your life all better kind of love we usually think of. It's the kind of all-consuming, irrational, dangerous love which often leads both people on a downward spiral fueled by their own neurosis, false beliefs, and weaknesses.

I keep thinking of the true crime story about a 'vampire clan' led by Rod Ferrell. I'm not sure that they all really believed they were vampires, the Dracula or Lestat or Jean-Claude variety who must drink human blood to survive and can't go out in the daylight, but there was a kind of group-mind that happened, just like in any other cult, where a part of you knows that what's going on is wrong or too far, but you are so far in that you don't know how to get out.

Obviously, this movie is also about paranoia. It never really answers what exactly propels Peter's delusions and it even leaves some doubt that they are suffering from a delusion. But, as with all mental illness, there are really only a matter of degrees between real life conspiracies, what we view as typical paranoid conspiracy theories, and the ravings of delusional people. Are there parasites in our bodies? Well, there can be. There's even a show on cable, on Nat Geo, I think, about people getting parasites. Has the US government done testing without consent on people? Sadly, yes. Does our government spy on us? Yeah, it's called Echelon and if a person says certain keywords in their phone conversations, it is flagged so a human agent can listen to it. So when this is the truth, who's to say this guy is so crazy? What is more interesting is why how a grown world-weary woman could so easily start to share this same delusion.

I would definately recommend this movie, as long as you don't mind the seeing the scratches and gouging and..., well, that spoils too much, that come when you think you have bugs under your skin.

The Twilight Saga (So Far)

***Spoilers ahead***

Ok, so before I actually start writing about seeing the three movies in The Twilight Saga (so far), I feel like I should add two things about movies and how I view them.

The first is the Bechdel Test. This comes from an episode in a comic strip called Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel. In it, one of the characters says that she only goes to movies that have 1) two named female characters who 2) talk to each other about 3) something other than a man. (Website with list of movies and icons to identify how they fair on Bechdel Test.) Now, don't get me wrong. Movies that pass this test aren't feminist or feminist-friendly, but I find it hard to believe that a movie that doesn't pass this test could be feminist or feminist-friendly. When you start to think about this test, you might start to realize how many movies with big female heroes (think Alien/s or Terminator 2) never have two named female characters talk to each other. Also, I would love to find a comparable test for non-racist or non-homophobic or non-hetrocentrist movies. Maybe that a mainstream movie has to have two named minority characters in which they talk to each other but not about a white character? I'll have to think on that. But I'm using this to draw a larger point. I try to look at movies (and books and tv shows and all other types of media) as both entertainment and as a part of the larger society's discourse.

Which leads me to the second thing I wanted to write about my movie viewing habits. What I wrote in the last paragraph about how I view these things - yeah, that IS how I enjoy them. Please don't read what I might say about a movie (or other piece of media/work of art) and tell me/write to me that I should "Just sit back and enjoy it," implying that I shouldn't analyze it or think about it, because that to me is a contradiction. I am trying more and more to accept the contradictions in the things I like, that a really funny comedy seems to be kinda racist or that I like Chinatown even though I think Roman Polanski should immediately go to a US prison to serve a term for rape, but I have to first acknowledge the problem aspects as well as the better aspects before I can come to terms with the contradictions. Now, when I tell my parents about a movie and include any of those bits, my step-dad always asks me why I can't just enjoy a movie for once. I could never really find a good answer for that, until I read a blog post, which I sadly can't find now for the life of me though it was either on a feminist blog or a blog that deals with race & pop culture, in which the author explained just what I wrote above in such a simple straightforward way that I felt stupid for not having thought of it earlier. I guess this is my way of saying that if you don't like looking at movies this way, which is perfectly fine, you might not like my opinions on movies.

So with that out of the way....

The Twilight Saga (so far): Twilight (2008), New Moon (2009), Eclipse (2010)

Directors (respectively): Catherine Hardwicke, Chris Weitz , David Slade

Kristen Stewart as Bella Swan
Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen
Taylor Lautner as Jacob Black
Billy Burke as Sheriff Charlie Swan
Anne Kendrick as Jessica
Nikki Reed as Rosalee Cullen
Alice Greene as Alice Cullen
Jackson Rathbone as Jasper Cullen
Elizabeth Reaser as Esmee Cullen
Rachelle Lefevre/Bryce Dallas Howard as Victoria
Peter Facinelli as Dr. Carlyle Cullen
(ok, that was a pain, you get the picture)

So last night I went to see the first three movies in the Twilight saga, in a row, in a proper theater. I had seen the first movie previously, with a friend, on DVD, on a less than theater-sized screen and had read the first book before that. I wasn't too impressed with either. But I still felt like I should bear witness to this pop culture phenomenon, especially when it was less than $5 a movie, all on a big screen. There are some good things to the movies, but I'll let others talk about those things. The biggest thing that I took away from these movies is that this series seems to be a primer in creating a dependent, sad-sack young woman who accepts (and participates in) emotional manipulation and is attracted to aggressive, possessive passive-aggressive men. To me, many of the things that happen within these relationships seem to spell out the possibility of an abusive future relationship.

In this vein, there are two events in the movies that really stuck out to me. The first is in New Moon and is pure, but very disturbing emotional manipuation on Bella's part. ***Spoilers Ahead*** After Edward abandons her, after exacting a promise from her that she won't do "anything reckless," Bella proceeds to do reckless things, once she figures out that Edward will appear to her when she does them, in an attempt to stop them. Her last act of recklessness is cliff diving, fully clothed, into freezing cold water, which leads to her near drowning and her would-be killer almost getting ahold of her. Now, maybe you haven't heard this one before, but to me it sounds like, "If you don't come back, I'll kill myself. See, I've got the razor blade out. I'm serious. Come stop me." But not only does Edward not come back but he also doesn't contact anyone to tell them that Bella needs serious help. He also doesn't seem to see that, by appearing to her every time she does something reckless, he is only rewarding her bad behavior, thus driving her to more and worse behavior so that he will pay attention to her again. Take it from someone who's been there: This is not healthy!

While the second event comes from a particular scene between Bella and Jacob, I think that this speaks to the possessive, aggressive nature of the men Bella won't just leave alone. In Eclipse, after Bella breaks the news to Jacob that she is planning on being turned into a vampire just after graduation, Jacob throws a wrench and tells her, "Better you be dead than one of them." I should acknowledge that, as a teenager, I dated a guy who liked to punch walls and trash bins that were near me when he was mad, as opposed to hitting me. Humans can make horribly bad relationship decisions, especially when they are teenagers. Why should I expect Bella and Jacob to be different? I guess I don't expect the teen heartthrob of the moment ("Team Jacob! Woooooo!") to seem like he's on the verge of becoming an abuser while still having our female protagonist want to be with him. (In New Moon, Jacob explains his trepidation in dating a human by telling Bella how his pack leader's fiancee got so injured: the leader got upset, lost his temper for just a moment, and she was too close. While Jacob does say that the pack leader feels horrible and guilty, no one seems to equate this with physical domestic abuse.) This physical violence is reciprocated in the next scene when, after Jacob kisses Bella without her consent, Bella punches him in the face, which, as he's a big buff werewolve, results in Bella getting the injury, a sprained hand. But still Bella kinda sorta pursues something with Jacob, while still committing to Edward, who starts to back down and loosen up on his possessiveness. In the end, when Bella decides to be with Edward, not Jacob, it isn't because of the actions of their men. It is simply because she loves Edward more than Jacob. Now, in real life, I would probably just throw up my hands and let humans be humans. But hundreds of people have worked hard to create these stories, many of them agonizing over these decisions. And I bet not one of them would want their daughter to consider a guy who said he'd rather she be dead than a part of another group. To them, I'm sure that disqualifies that guy for the affection of their daughter. So why are they selling this crap to our daughters?

Now, especially when we are talking about children's or young adult literature, I assume that there are 'lessons' that can be learned from the text. While I read a recent quote from (adult? regular? literature) writer Ian McEwan, "Psychological realism demands that sometimes the wicked prosper," I do not think that the same sentiment prevails in...well, most forms of entertainment, to be honest, but especially in literature pointed towards non-adult readers. Think about all the 'lessons' in Harry Potter books (acceptance of and promoting the welfare of minorities 'Mudbloods' and house elves) and all the positive character traits Harry either already possesses or that he develops as the story moves along. While I think there are supposed to be some morality imparted in the Twilight movies, our protagonist only seems to demonstrate any of these through self-sacrifice, never through actual achievement. Other characters also do things that might get them killed or harmed, but they do it through fighting as opposed to giving up, running away, hiding out, or delivering themselves to their enemy. Midway through the second movie in our triple feature, I realized the real reason why I prefer my smutty supernatural books, like the Anita Blake series, to the Twilight series, and it's not the sex, which is what I was citing as my reason. It is that Anita Blake started out as a badass woman with her own skills and talents, whereas Bella seems to possess none of those things. Yes, I know, the reason Bella is beloved by readers is because she's just like them, average, with some flaws, thrown into a crazy world she doesn't fit into as she falls into love. But if you want to think that you are just like her, so you could be her, well.... don't you want to be able to think of yourself as having something special and unusual about you? Throughout the Blake books, Anita grows in power and self-knowledge, though even in the first book I think many women could relate to a young woman who is up and coming in her career, but sometimes finds it a cold and alienating boy's club. I think that in the start of the books, she's only in her early 20s. I've also read the first two books in the LA Banks' Vampire Huntress Legends, about Damali, a spoken word artist and kickass vampire and demon hunting teenage woman, coming into her own, both in terms of power and sexuality. While both these series are popular, they are obviously not as popular as the Twilight series, obviously not popular enough to get their own movies. But I would argue that these are much better female role models than Bella.

Sigh. Alright, so I'm tired. If this was a formal, classroom /published essay, I'd come up with some bullshit at the end. But this is it. These are my theories about these movies. As for moviegoers who don't want to think about this stuff, well, they get better as they go along, though the pale vamp makeup still looks stupid. (How can they make the werewolves look so good in CGI but their makeup looks so bad? Ugh.) The second and the third movie have decent romance elements and the third movie has some pretty great fight scenes. There is no horror or scare value, despite the vampires and werewolves, but at least there is some (intentional) comedy in the third movie.

PS Among the things I didn't get to are the disappearing minorities in the movie, as the series starts out with quite a diverse cast both in the town and in Bella's high school, but these elements are quickly stripped away to leave the almost all white cast of vampires and Indian werewolves, most not played by Native American actors. And I think that all the color, other than Indian werewolves, in the second and third movies are vamps of color who are quickly killed off. I'll let you think on that.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Movie Catch-up

Ok, so I know I promised to blog about every movie (new to me movie) I watched and I've been kinda lax about doing that in a timely manner. So here are my reviews of the movies I've seen recently, though they might be shorter than usual.

Get Him to the Greek (2010)
Saw Saturday 6/19/2010 at local multiplex with my mom
Directed by Nicolas Stoller
Cast includes
Jonah Hill as Aaron Green
Russell Brand as Aldous Snow
Sean "P Diddy" Combs as record label head Sergio Roma
Rose Byrne as Jackie Q
and tons of celebrity cameos

This was a pretty hilarious send up of current pop/rock/celebrity culture, with a very healthy dose of rauch and gross humor. I was skeptical at first that a movie about a minor supporting character from Forgetting Sarah Marshall would work, but, upon further thought, Brand's Aldous Snow was probably the least whangsty introspective, but still funny, part about that movie, so I guess it was a good call to make a summer comedy about him. I do have to say that I think my favorite bits in the movie come from Byrne's Jackie Q, the raunchy popstar ex-wife of Aldous Snow, and the "The Jeffrey"/furry wall drug sequence. I hope that "The Jeffrey" makes its way into our illegal drug lexicon, though I'm not sure it really exists. I definately recommend it if you like other comedies directed or produced by Judd Apatow, though with some less sad-sack guys featured.

Oh, and sidenote: Rose Byrne's British accent was really good. I'd watched her on Damages on FX and just felt "meh" about her, but I found her really funny in this movie. Until I saw it, I guess I just assumed that she was American, but it turns out she's Aussie, so she seems pretty good at those accents to me. Also, in one scene, at Snow's very Brit themed NY apartment, Green wakes up using what looks like a British Union Jack flag as a blanket, which made me wonder if they have real quilts that are made out of soft fabric but look like the Brit flag. If so, I want one.

Black Is...Black Ain't (1994)
Watched on DVD Monday 06/21/2010 at Miss Kee's house
Directed by Marlon Riggs
Documentary including commentary from Riggs himself, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Barbara Smith, and Cornel West

Hmmm so I'm kinda speechless about this movie, unless I'm talking to someone else who has also seen this movie and is interested in the topics it brings up. So the short of it is that it's a really... interesting doesn't quite cover it but I guess it'll do, interesting nontraditional documentary about African-American life, touching on how it intersects with feminism and homosexuality and gender identity. But that doesn't quite seem to cover it. It was produced, directed, and featured Marlon Riggs, a gay African-American poet, filmmaker, and activist, who would die from AIDS before the film could be properly finished. It was sorta amazing to Miss Kee and myself that this was done back in 1994, but many of the issues haven't really changed. I think that to me, the most exilarhating part was getting to see Angela Davis and bell hooks talk about their personal experiences of being young black women. But I think I most liked it because it dealt with these issues in a very upfront, honest, but personal matter.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009)
Ok, so it wasn't the first time I saw it. I originally went to see it with TyRoy at a local art house theater about a month ago. I'd read the book it is based on, the first in a series of three internationally bestselling Swedish novels, and TyRoy was reading it at the time. Miss Kee called me last week, asking if I'd heard about a movie that she'd been told about by a customer at work. This movie. So we went to see it together. She liked it.

I still liked it, though a second viewing allowed me to wonder about how much is lost on someone like Miss Kee, who hasn't read the books and probably isn't going to. It's a big story to fit in a two and a half hours.

A part of me is always interested in audience reaction when I see a movie in a theater. Or even with friends at home. When TyRoy and I went to see this movie, we were a bit worried for the audience. There are several brightly-lit scenes of sexual violence. We observed many.... um, how to put this nicely.... older people there. Many who looked older than my mom, who's in her early 50s. Now, because there is a good story, I think I might recommend it to my mom, but only with very strong warnings about the sexual violence. TyRoy and I heard some of the people talking about having read the book, so they should have known what they were in for, though I still contend that this movie shows the sexual violence in a more brightly-light, unblinking way than most American movies. But many of those older people talked solely about the rave reviews the movie recieved from the local paper. (Oh, yeah, and obviously we were eavesdropping.) We had read the review and it didn't warn about the violence. We were worried about these folks. But not as many people left as I thought. One woman my age left during one brutal scene, which I didn't blame her for. I'm starting to think that there should be a "Trigger Warning" website, just like many religious people go to movie review websites that tell them how in line (or not in line) a movie may be with their religious and moral beliefs, before they let their kids watch them or even watch them themselves. The second time I saw it, on a weekday afternoon, there were considerably less people there. But during the last major brutal scene of sexual violence, one older man left the theater, via the exit up front, by the screen. Miss Kee and I discussed the possible reasons for his departure after the film ended. She shared my first impression, that he had left solely because this scene involved sexual violence against a man, unlike the others. I thought that we should allow room for the explanation that he had just seen several scenes of sexual violence and thought that rest of the rather long movie would be like that, though it isn't after that scene.

Ok, well, that's it. I'm caught up. Nighty-night.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

So I wanted to make myself write more, no matter really what it was, so I thought I would start attempting to blog about every film I saw. So that starts here:

Title: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Year: 1962
Genres: Thriller, Horror
Director: Robert Aldrich
Cast: Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson, Joan Crawford as Blanche Hudson, Victor Buono as Edwin Flagg, Maidie Norman as Elvira Stitt

For those who love horror but are a tad jaded by the current trends of lots of gore and torture porn, this movie will rekindle your love for horror and your admiration for directors who can really create suspense. Yes, I even talked to the screen, I was so invested in what was happening with these characters.

Alright, let's get the plot out of the way. There are a pair of sisters, blonde "Baby" Jane and brunette Blanche. Baby Jane has fame as a vaudeville performer in 1917, but is a mean little brat. Later, in the mid-1930s, as young women, Blanche gains sucess as a film actress, forcing the studio she works for to also hire her sister who is already a washed-up boozer who's day has passed. But then there's a horrible accident that leaves Blanche paralyzed from the waist down and in the care of her sister. There seems to have been a stasis for 20+ years, until Blanche decides they might be better apart.

Of course, what is a great movie without a great backstory, right? Basically, Davis and Crawford hated each other, so much so that there's a whole book about it. Crawford even campaigned against Davis winning the Best Actress Oscar for Baby Jane. But to me, I wonder if either of these actresses found anything striking about playing past their prime stars still deluding themselves, to one extent or another, that they are significant. It's also sad that they have to play down their looks and/or play up how badly they were aging (especially in Bette Davis' case) to play significant roles. Davis' Baby Jane character wants to attempt a comeback, having adult-sized versions of her childhood costumes made, and hiring a piano accompanyist, but the audience can see how grotesque and desperate this performance really is. I wonder if Davis felt like she was in on the joke, or if she was oblivious to the fact that part of how grotesque Baby Jane is to the audience is wrapped up in how ugly Davis is able to make herself. On the other hand, I get a certain pleasure from the knowledge that Joan Crawford, who would later become almost as famous as "Mommie Dearest" as she ever was as an actress, played the role of the tortured and terrified Blanche. There are several scenes that I know couldn't have been comfortable to film. Hehehe. Yes, I'm a mean person. So was she.

I definately recommend this movie for any lover of suspenseful movies. I'd warn contemporary audiences that the pacing of any film from earlier decades will not be what they are used to, but give it some time. If you find yourself bored, examine Baby Jane's face and think about what boozing and smoking and harsh chemicals are doing to your own body, how they will affect how you age. Also, there are some gaping plot holes, but please just suspend your disbelief. It was the 60s and you don't know what it was like back then, whippersnapper. But enjoy.