Secretary

Dir: Stephen Shainberg
2002
A fabulous performance by Maggie Gyllenhaal
and a typically weird one by James Spader, in this tale of a socially backward girl who comes into her own under the weird dominating presence of the lawyer, Edward Grey, she works for. The critical consensus of the film is that the ending falls apart, or suggests that much was cut to keep the third act from leaving its near-literal hothouse atmosphere. I felt this way too, that Lee (Gyllenhaal) finds her freedom through becoming a submissive, and so the end, where the two consummate their love in a very straight, hetero way (naked rumpy-pumpy) feels like it’s against everything that’s come first. Surely, the desired outcome for Lee would be more of the submissive game.
A few days later, I came up with an alternative to just dismissing the ending. Perhaps what we’re seeing is Edward’s assertion of dominance over the narrative. How can Lee, a submissive, wind up being the hero? Wouldn’t that make her dominant? So, think about the orchids, Edward’s prised possession. They are cloistered, doted on, but stuck in an artificial “natural” environment.” We also see Edward plant a photo of Lee in the garden. What if the lawyer’s office is the nursery, and marriage/life in a suburban house is the end location/result? Lee becomes a flower that is transplanted into Edward’s life. When they finally make love, it is on a grass bed. A following shot shows Lee strapped to a tree during sex (the last image of bondage we see). Is the ultimate bondage domestic servitude? Is the final shot of Lee, as she looks into the camera with all sorts of emotion washing over her face, damning? A cry for help? Acceptance? She has spoken to us thorughout, but now Lee just looks. Is the film a very subtle and/or vague version of “The Collector”? How complicit is Lee in her fate? How should we feel about this?
Looking at the film this way, it may not be so hard to dismiss.

Stolen Kisses

Dir: Francois Truffaut
1968
Francois Truffaut’s sequel–if you discount the short made in between–to “The 400 Blows”,
following the young adulthood of Antoine Doniel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), as he goes from crummy job to crummy job (hotel night clerk, detective (!), shoe salesman, TV repairman), falling in and out of love, and getting into a little bit of trouble.
It’s an incredibly light film, surprising as it was made during May 1968, as the Nouvelle Vague protested the Langlois affair and shut down Cannes. In the Criterion Collection DVD extras, the film is said to almost have been made as a way to relax from the political pressures of that year, with filming happening in a scattershot fashion with loads of improv.
The various detectives in the film (in typical trenchcoat, and always shadowing someone) are classic American Noir (Truffaut had just finished his adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s The Bride Wore Black before this film) rendered comical by their transplanting into French society. The young, sometimes girlfriend of Antoine, Christine (Claude Jade), is tailed all the way through the movie, only to find the detective confessing his love for her at the end in a strange closing scene. Hey, it’s France, vive l’amour!

Prime Suspect 6

Dir: Tom Hooper
2003
Has it really been six years since the last Prime Suspect?
This series along with Cracker show how differently the British and the Americans see their police dramas. Although Prime Suspect is clearly Detective Tennyson’s show, the fleshing out of her fellow squad members and of the victims and suspects really give the show a novelistic touch. Detective Supt. Tennyson is not a super-genius, but we thrill at her bullheadedness and determination, while her moments of self-doubt and even defeat round out her character humbly.
There are very few chases–the ones that happen resolve themselves quickly (suspect escapes, suspect caught)–very little gunplay, though there are guns. Tennyson wanders around potentially dangerous areas without a gun drawn, confusing the American viewers. Major clues are not exclusively the domain of the lead–often a member of the team finds them.
Steadily, steadily, the case is built, in this case around an obvious suspect in the murder of a Bosnian Muslim women who immigrated to England 10 years before only to find the war followed her. Interrogations don’t produce immediate results. The media is out of the investigation’s hands and ruins leads. And one major tactic that PS does over and over to some effect is never allowing the audience any release through the protagonist. As stones are lain in her path, Tennyson gets more and more frustrated, but very little do we see her exploding in anger. Instead another, sometimes disconnected, scene begins and we carry over that emotion with us. No wonder the show is so bleedin’ tense.
Helen Mirren is great, just great, a real hero, always thinking.

Giants and Toys

Dir: Yasuo Masamura
1958
Absolute complete insanity from Masamura
and all sorts of props go out to Fantoma DVD for bringing this out of obscurity. Imagine a mix of Willy Wonka, Network, and a 1940s screwball comedy, driven by a soundtrack like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and you have a little sense of this film.
The setting is modern Japan in the late ’50s. Three caramel candy makers declare an all-out consumerist assault on society with a series of campaigns that begin to look a bit like war. We focus on one company, World Caramel, that hires a very common looking girl (Hitomi Nozoe) to be their spokesmodel, all the while trying to second-guess the other two companies on its way to complete market domination. At what point does decency and humanity go out the window and when does the race for a bottom line turn into a nosedive?
Furious in pace and devilishly funny (I particularly liked the earthy, sleazebag photographer) the film has to be experienced not described. In fact, though modern filmmaking looks fast, it often drags drags drags. Masamura just keeps blasting along, scene after scene, breathless, throwing people together, watching the sparks. He also employs a weird montage strategy involving the mid-level boss’s cigarette lighter. Some sort of family heirloom or gift, it takes about 50 strikes to get it to work. The incessant strikes are the gateway into several montages, one showing the candy being made, the other the marketing of the spokesmodel. Once the montage finishes (and it is usually double exposed with a close up of the lighter), Masamura returns to the scene and carries on. This is so strange (are we supposed to see the montage as happening concurrently or in the past?) that I can’t think of a single film before or since that has does such a thing.
On top of that, the film stops near the finale for a 4-minute dance sequence, featuring the now-successful spokesmodel and a chorus of men dressed up like savages.
After this film, and with memories of his similarly wacky “The Key” and “Blind Beast,” more Masamura films need to be released.

Black Robe

Dir: Bruce Beresford
1991
Bruce Beresford’s gloomy film of a French Jesuit priest (Lothaire Bluteau) traveling into the wilds of 1600s Quebec
to find that God ain’t gonna save him from the weather, the Iroquoi, or his own righteous hubris. Scott and myself gave this a look on the weekend as its setting ties into the script we’re writing, and though the plot was a bit tepid, the historical details, costumes, and set design were all intriguing to us. The film is often cited as a refreshing antidote to the “noble white man” of Dances With Wolves, but the main character is so stuffy and unbending, we just watch him get buffeted about by fate and by the tribe who live more realistically within their surroundings. Trouble is, we follow him to the end, a disease-overrun tribal outpost in the snowy north, where he finally convinces the tribe there to be baptised. Some reward.
A shaman, played by a little person with yellow-green fright mask make-up, and who follows whitey around shouting “Demon! Demon!” provided (unintentional?) comic relief, and the young Algonquin woman, Annuka (Sandrine Holt) was cute as the dickens. Unlike the uptight Jesuit, traveling companion Daniel (Aiden Young) was down for a bit of doggie-style cross-pollination with Annuka inside the teepee.

Evil Dead

Dir: Sam Raimi
1981
Wow, was it really 16 years ago that I watched this for the first time, and is this really the second time I’ve seen it?
I’ve always said I preferred this Evil Dead to the sequel, as this one have much more bad vibes to it, and less slapstick. I still think the “forest-rape” scene is rather silly, but the demonic possession is still chilling and the scares still made me jump, and all done in the simplest way (sleight of hand, making us look at one part of the screen and popping something up elsewhere.) And I had plum forgotten about all the wonderful stop-motion animation at the end.
This special release from Anchor Bay comes in a “Book of the Dead” rubber mask-covered case and contains bonus outtakes, an interview with the British distributors that made Evil Dead a roaring success and a fine, short documentary by Bruce Campbell on fans and fanatics, which contained enough shots of overweight Jedi Knights and furries to keep me away from conventions for life.

The Hustler

Dir: Robert Rosssen
1961
Most excellent and gritty drama that made a well-deserved star out of Paul Newman,
but also has fine performances by George C. Scott and Piper Laurie, as well as a “guest star” appearance by Jackie Gleason, saying few words and dominating the screen. Who could do that now?
The film has a surprising structure, with an opening 10 minute “tease” that sets up Fast Eddie (Newman) and his manager Charlie (Myron McCormick) as pool hustlers. Then for the next 30 or so minutes Fast Eddie goes up against reigning champion Minnesota Fats (Gleason), winning, then losing all his earnings in a show of hubris (and booze). It’s such a long scene it surprising they thought they could lead off with it, but it’s engrossing nonetheless. Fast Eddie rehabilitates with the help of Piper Laurie’s Sarah, an alcoholic trust-fund baby with a habit for picking up men to share a bottle with. Bert (George C. Scott) becomes his new manager and the second half of the film follows the three as Bert uses Fast Eddie and destroys Sarah in the process. Nobody in this film is a dunce, but they all have their weaknesses. And its in recognizing the weaknesses that make the characters strong–ignore weakness at your own cost…
This a film about father figures and father issues, a psychological drama as only they could make ’em back then. (Psychological dramas now have somebody say “I love you, Dad” in the third act.) Fast Eddie spends the film looking to topple the father (Minnesota Fats), leaves his manager, finds another one even worse (“When did you adopt me?” Fast Eddie asks Bert after one spectacularly written scene in a bar), and in doing so, kills off the feminine. His maturity is revealed at the end when both Fats and Fast (anagrams of each other, notice) size each other up as equals, not a high/low equation. Great performances all ’round–no wonder Newman became such a star.

Japanese Story

Dir: Sue Brooks
2003
I’m glad I stuck with this film,
because for the first half the story really sticks close to the typical road-film crossed with romantic-drama of two people who are complete opposites finding love. Sandy (Toni Collette) is a geologist software expert who winds up accompanying an interested Japanese salaryman Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) around the outback. She’s rude and outspoken, he’s quiet and demure. She can’t believe she’s being treated as just a tour guide, he is headstrong over where he wants to go and doesn’t care how long it takes to get there. The characters are almost stereotypical, but then the two get stuck in the outback and things begin to flesh out. The third act then throws a complete curve ball and suddenly the film takes on much emotional resonance, not just from our relationship to the characters, but our relationship to the expectations of genre.
I dont’ want to mention the third act surprise, but the film becomes a true study of grief, and not even the early scenes that would suggest a framing structure (to give us that good ol’ sense of “closure”) are found wanting in the face of events. What starts off as a story of the difficulties of bridging cultures through communication in a lighthearted way turns around and looks at the difficulties of communicating emotion, and the inability of the unaffected parties to understand just what has been lost. It’s good stuff, and it reminds me a little bit of the emotional punch of another recent Australian film, “Lantana.”
Toni Collette looked familiar and no wonder: she was the girlfriend in “About a Boy,” and, reaching back, the title character of “Muriel’s Wedding.” Blimey.

The Ladykillers

Dirs: Ethan and Joel Coen
2004
“That’s a bomb,” my dad said, when I was over visiting
and the ad for “The Ladykillers” came on the TV. He didn’t know I had just come from the cinema having seen it. “That’s what the critics say,” he say. “They say it’s terrible.” “Well, I thought it was allright,” I tossed in, but the damage was done. I’m told that this is a bad film.
Now, I suppose that, compared to the original Ealing comedy, this is pretty shallow stuff. The film just goes for the jokes and doesn’t bother with characters, and is fair ammunition for those who think the Coen Brothers are exquisite stylists with hearts of cold. Look at the film that way, and it’s a bomb, I suppose.
But the Coens have given us rounded characters before, so I believe they know what they’re doing. This is Ealing rethought as a screwball comedy, pure satire. I laughed through most of it. It was refreshing to see Tom Hanks playing a comic role for once–I thought he was going to sink into stodgy characters like the FBI agent in “Catch Me If You Can” (to which I remarked to my wife next to me, “What, didn’t Dan Ackroyd have time to play this?”). Stuck with goofy teeth and coming on like a over-educated Colonel Sanders, his character makes no realistic sense. And neither do his ragtag group of criminals who are helping dig a tunnel from the basement of his lodging house into the casino’s vault. I found “The General” (Tzi Ma) a funny character throughout, a militaristic Vietnamese gentleman with a Hitler moustache and a perpetual half-smoked cigarette in his mouth. Likewise the accident-prone explosives expert (J.K. Simmons) with a case of irritable bowel syndrome. Marlon Wayans does the typical loudmouthed homey, but I laughed at that too. What can I say? However, you do get the itchy sensation that the Coens consider everybody in this film to be a fool, except perhaps the cat.
My main complaint is that the movie is too long in its set-up, execution, and resolution. But will I be renting it for a family get-together, so I can hear my mom pee her pants laughing? You bet your sweet bippy.

The Sure Thing

Dir: Rob Reiner
1984
Our local library has something like 200 DVDs,
but they are so popular only 5 are on the shelf at any given time (where else but Netflix can you get a deal like free rental, 7-day-loan?). It’s become a bit of filmgoer zen when approaching the shelf. I’ll usually find one film a week to watch from here, but I’ll have no idea what. Metropolis was last week’s “choice”. This week it was Rob Reiner’s romantic comedy “The Sure Thing,” which I had never seen.
A pleasant, none-too-cynical mix of “opposites attract” with a road movie, the film takes you exactly where you want to go–the eventual coupling of wild-boy John Cusack and conservative Alison (Daphne Zuniga)–but throws in every obstacle it can. A few surprising things, based on what the teen romantic comedy has become. Zuniga’s character is not the ugly duckling, the nerdy girl who suddenly looks like a million bucks when she takes off her glasses. She stays pretty much the same fashionwise throughout–it’s her character, revealed through her face, that changes. Nobody’s character traits are revealed to arise from parental issues. Refreshingly, we don’t hear much about either of their parents, except that Alison’s dad has left her with a credit card (to be discovered in one fortuitous scene). Plus the romantic tension never resolves itself until after the two return to the East Coast. How many road films feature the characters returning home?
John Cusack, in the film that made him a star, shows ever here the great charisma and ease in performing that marks all his early films. Daphne Zuniga, who went on to star in Spaceballs and four seasons of Melrose Place) gets short shrift in the DVD extras. She gets interviewed, but nobody else seems to talk about her when reminiscing about the film. The blonde who plays “The Sure Thing” (Nicolette Sheridan) gets name checked more.
Teen films are so formulaic now (although the great resurgence in them–the Freddie Prinze Jr. years–seems to have passed) that The Sure Thing, despite having a bikini-wearing fantasy woman, feels old-fashioned and “classic.”
But I also think that people who love this film really are in love with who they were when they saw it. Unlike “Say Anything”, I didn’t find the script to be that quotable. There’s no scene comparable to SA’s “Gas ‘n’ Sip”, or a monolog as bizarre as Lloyd Dobler’s career statement.
Local note–at one point they drive over a bridge that I recognized as the one on the north side of the 154–descending from Camino Cielo down to the Cachuma Lake region. The little winding path underneath it (visible on the DVD) goes to Cold Springs Tavern (we were just there last week). It’s a great bridge, especially seen from that road below. I believe at this point the characters were supposed to be in the Midwest.