Dennis Hopper, 1936-2010

Out of the blue…

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Six Figures (2005)

Director: David Christensen

Screenplay: David Christensen

Here’s a surprise: a sharp, penetrating character study that doubles as a multilayered essay on domestic violence – made in Calgary, of all places. The location may not seem thrilling, but one soon discovers it is integral to the story.

A thirtysomething couple with two young children arrive in the latter-day boomtown Calgary, hoping to earn enough money in their new jobs to purchase a house and put down roots. The wife, Claire (Caroline Cave), finds employment at a local art gallery, where her ingenuity and savvy with customers quickly draws the attention of her (profit-hungry) boss. The husband, Warner (JR Bourne), has a head position for a non-profit community organization, whose acronym is, ironically enough, M.O.R.E..

The nagging pressure of getting ahead in a city so focused on material gain begins to weigh on the couple. At the non-profit, Warner must remain on probationary status with the board of directors until he can prove himself capable of fixing the damage left by his predecessor’s shifty accounting schemes. Before such time, Warner will not claim the salary necessary for Claire and him to afford a down-payment on a house.

Tensions rise between the couple. A spectacular blow-out at Claire’s work finds Warner storming off in a huff. Shortly thereafter, while alone at the gallery, Claire is bludgeoned with a hammer by a mysterious assailant, leaving her in a temporary coma. When police move in to investigate, they find that Warner is the only feasible suspect.

Adapted from an American novel by Fred Leebron, Six Figures marks Calgary-born documentary filmmaker David Christensen’s first and, to date, only foray into narrative feature filmmaking (he returned to the Toronto Hot Docs festival this past spring with his latest non-fiction feature, The Mirror). His direction here is remarkably sensitive, almost meditatively tuned to the implicit tensions between characters which threaten to explode with each passing exchange of dialogue, gesture, glance (e.g., an ostensibly innocent game of slap-hands played between Claire and Warner turns progressively unsettling). This slow-boiling unease, accomplished through a judicious use of soundtrack, master-shot framings and long-takes, among other strategies, has earned Six Figures aesthetic comparisons to the work of Michael Haneke.

Six Figures also demands favourable comparison with the Austrian master for the way it exposes how people in the present are doomed to inherit the conflicts of the past (Haneke’s Caché provides the superior example of this). Warner, for example, has not only inherited his predecessor’s malfeasance at work; he also seems to have inherited the violent temper his mother (Joyce Gordon) subjected him to as a child, possibly incriminating him further in the assault on Claire. If Warner is to (re)gain the trust of the other characters, and of the audience, he must prove himself capable of conquering his inheritance – of breaking the chains tying him to the indiscretions of the past.

The title “Six Figures” resonates in multiple ways. It can be seen to refer to both the salary that so agonizingly eludes Warner, and to an unseen sixth character in the story – indeed, the mystery figure who catalyzes so much of the five central characters’ (Claire and Warner; his parents, and her mother) grief. This latter figure is ostensibly Claire’s unknown attacker (if not Warner, then who?), but one could also argue that the “sixth figure” represents Claire’s absent father, a man whom we learn through subtle clues was an abusive presence in Claire and her mother’s life. (This absentee father also completes the set of three married couples in the film – Claire and Warner; and their parents – that together comprise a case study in marital and familial dysfunction.) Whichever way one chooses to interpret this ambiguous “sixth figure,” the term connotes a destructive influence in the collective characters’ lives: an axis-point of conflict and tragedy.

-Cam

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Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

Director: Leo McCarey

Screenplay: Walter DeLeon and Harlan Thompson

Finally arriving on DVD in North America, through Universal Home Video’s intriguing “Vault Series” of manufacture-on-demand DVD-Rs (available exclusively through Amazon.com), Leo McCarey’s Ruggles of Red Gap is a very pleasing fish-out-of-water comedy enhanced by the director’s humanistic feeling for his characters and their social condition.

The film opens in Paris, 1908. Charles Laughton portrays the Ruggles of the title, a stodgy British servant whose world is turned upside down (or right-side up) when his master (Roland Young) loses his services in a poker game to a nouveau riche American couple. Hilarity ensues as Ruggles discovers that his new employers, a Mr. and Mrs. Floud (Charlie Ruggles and Mary Boland), helplessly lack the social graces befitting masters of the house. The husband, for example, encourages Ruggles to drink on the job, leading to a very amusing and very touching sequence in which Ruggles gets soused and goes for a blissed-out ride on a merry-go-round.

Mr. Floud further insists on calling his new manservant by the nonsensical sobriquet “Colonel.” This particular faux pas incites a major misunderstanding back in the Flouds’ hometown of Red Gap, Washington, where the locals confuse the nickname “Colonel” for a genuine military designation, and celebrate the humble butler Ruggles as a distinguished member of the British Army. His social standing thus flipped, Ruggles grows to appreciate the life of an (accidentally) independent man, and resolves to strike out and make something of himself in his newly adopted country.

In the hands of McCarey and Laughton (who gradually suffuses Ruggles’ droopy, solemn countenance with pride, dignity, and good humour), this is a very sweet story of personal triumph over class barriers. So sweet in fact that one is tempted to forgive the whiffs of Hollywood flag-waving (see: Ruggles’ recitation of the Gettysburg Address in a Red Gap saloon), and the complementary aggrandizements regarding how far individual rights and freedoms actually extended in America at the time (the Flouds’ Black maid and Chinese servant are conspicuously forgotten about in all the hoopla surrounding Ruggles’ ascent to independence). Though it’s never quite as funny as Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), another assimilation-of-foreigners comedy (in which Garbo the communist learns to laugh!), Ruggles does claim the highroad over the latter film by avoiding easy condescension about how bad-off Ruggles was before his American conversion. To wit, McCarey doesn’t hard-sell America’s superiority over other nations and ways of life, but makes a gentler point about how much more fun, enlightening, and affirmative life among equals can be.

-Cam

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Perfect (1985)

Director: James Bridges

Screenplay: James Bridges and Aaron Latham (based on Latham’s articles for Rolling Stone Magazine)

Here I am again, stuck in the ’80s, like some broken Jan Hammer record. Between posts on Thief of Hearts, A Night in Heaven, and now Perfect, reviewing sexed-up, widely reviled stuff from the Reagan-era Hollywood assembly line is fast becoming my schtick here at Wipe. I might as well make this a running feature of the blog: “Searching for Sex in Reagan Hollywood’s Junk Trunk.”

Maybe it’s my fault for continuously seeking out such films; I admit I’m fascinated by ’80s Hollywood as an era of vulgar ostentation, cheeseball culture, and recrudescent conservatism. There’s also something extra-horny about Hollywood in the ’80s (perhaps it was all the coke being passed around at Don Simpson parties). The perspiring hardbody seems to be the sex object par excellence during this time; sweat and athleticism (or muscles) are fetishized (see Flashdance for arguably the key female figure of this fetishization; or really any Stallone movie for the macho-violent male alternative). What struck me about James Bridges’ Perfect as I watched it recently was not only that it took as its main focus Hollywood’s obsession with sweaty, fit bodies (the obsession to be “perfect”), but that it actually, almost in spite of itself, yielded insights into this phenomenon. I also found the film noteworthy for being less asymmetrical in its sexual politics than is usual for films of its type, i.e. ’80s Hollywood entertainments where the plot pivots around the problem of facilitating coitus – the methods used, the ethics involved, the reasons behind. And yeah, I realize I’m casting a broad net here.

Perfect sets out to blow the lid off the L.A. sports gym culture of the early ’80s. Based on articles by real-life Rolling  Stone writer Aaron Latham (who also wrote the script for Perfect), the film follows journo Adam Lawrence (John Travolta, playing the Latham part) as he braves the California gym scene to research a piece on how fitness centres are fast replacing single’s bars as the primo destination for eligible, lusty bachelors and bachelorettes on the West Coast.

At one of the gyms Travolta meets Jessie (Jamie Lee Curtis), a popular aerobics instructor whom he immediately targets as the central figure in his piece, being most drawn to her sexually. She refuses to let him interview her, explaining she’s been burned before for trusting a journalist (more on that later). But Jessie has no qualms about going to bed with him, and in fact is the first to make a pass, doing so by typing “Wanna fuck?” on Adam’s word processor – a pre-cell phone example of “sexting,” to be sure.

Even as one appreciates the brazenness of Jessie’s sexuality (in contradistinction to the repressed female leads in A Night in Heaven and Thief of Hearts), one cannot help feeling a little bemused by Jessie’s conviction that she doesn’t need to trust Adam as a journalist to want to have sex with him. Integrity is not an immediate issue for Jessie and Adam’s sexual relationship; in the beginning, it’s just “physical, physical” (to quote one of Travolta’s erstwhile co-stars). A very funny sequence (that’s also supposed to be very sexy) has Adam and Jessie facing off in one of her aerobics classes, where she pushes an increasingly risqué set of groin exercises, as if to test Adam’s ability to match her, hump for hump, in sexual endurance. The inherent narcissism of Jessie’s routine – she becomes more attracted to Adam the more he imitates her, and we might say vice versa – is enhanced by the mirrored walls of the aerobics room. In essence, the whole act of the group workout becomes masturbation en masse, with each person concentrated on his/her reflection (Jessie and Adam act as each other’s reflection). The sequence imbricates a fetish for the hardbody with an obsession over self-image, in the process becoming a perfect microcosm of ’80s vanity, topped off with an utterly vacuous pop beat (“Shock Me” by Jermaine Jackson and Whitney Houston).

Yet – surprise, surprise – Perfect is not only out to peddle gyrating gym bodies and superficial sex. Eventually serious complications arise in Jessie’s ongoing distrust of Adam as a journalist, when she discovers that he has, after all, been crafting a totally exploitative piece on the fitness centre and its horny-but-good-hearted patrons (one of whom [Larraine Newman] carries a reputation as “the most used piece of equipment in the gym,” a nickname Adam shamelessly picks up on and builds his cynical article around). Jessie breaks off the affair with Adam, remembering all too well the hurt once caused by a journalist who betrayed her trust by writing an unscrupulous article about her relationship with her Olympic swim coach. In order to woo Jessie back, Adam must take a dramatic, unprecedented stand on behalf of ethical journalism. I suppose we’re to understand from this that being “perfect” is about more than having a wicked hot bod – it’s a matter of possessing honesty and integrity, too. Razzie-founder John Wilson, in The Official Razzie Movie Guide, cuts through this baloney quite aptly, arguing that Perfect‘s real message seems to be: “Standing by your journalistic principles is good for your sex life.” It’s a shallow premise, but at least the film has a more balanced notion of what a sex life is than sleaze like Thief of Hearts and A Night in Heaven.

If anything can be said to carry Perfect, it’s Jamie Lee Curtis’ performance as Jessie. It’s a legitimately sexy star turn. The actress whipped herself into terrific shape for the role; she makes the aerobics routines sizzle, as hilarious as they often are.

And the film’s soundtrack’s not all bad. I’m now hooked on Dan Hartman’s “Talking to the Wall” thanks to Perfect – and thanks also, in no small part, to the hot-blooded Jamie Lee cardio-choreography that accompanies the song in the film.

-Cam

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And now…a Brief Musical Interlude.

We’re still alive!

Back with more reviews soon!

Thanks for your continued patience,

-Wipe

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La meglio gioventù (The Best of Youth) (2003)

Director: Marco Tullio Giordana

Screenplay: Sandro Petraglia, Stefano Rulli

Marco Tullio Giordana’s La meglio gioventù was first screened to the Italian masses in June of 2003, just one month after winning the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard Award.  It was a massive hit in Italy, later going on to be shown in four parts in December of 2003 on Italian state television network Rai Uno.  Yet despite screening in numerous countries around the world, the film arguably retains an air of obscurity about it, most likely due to its daunting 383 minute running time.  (In case you’re still doing the maths on that one, it’s just under six and a half hours.  Yes, you read that correctly: six.  And a half.  Hours.)

Following the course of the lives of brothers Nicola (Luigi Lo Cascio) and Matteo Carati (Alessio Boni) from 1966 to 2003, La meglio gioventù juxtaposes the transition from youth to adulthood with some of Italy’s major historical events.  Nicola is a medical student motivated by a strong desire to right the wrongs he sees within Italy’s brutal mental healthcare systems.  Matteo, despite his passion for literature,  is a no nonsense hardass, attracted to the strict rules and discipline of the military and police forces.  On a trip to Norway’s North Cape in 1966, the brothers go their separate ways and from this point, the film examines the different course of each man’s life.

For the most part, Nicola is the story’s protagonist, with the majority of the film being devoted to him.  We watch as Nicola dabbles with the life of the wandering hippy throughout the late sixties, spurned on by slight notions of free love, the beauty of life and topped with his ever increasing compassionate desire to help those who suffer.  By the 70’s he’s fathered a child with activist/communist Giulia (Sonia Bergamasco) and settled in Turin.

The problem with epic films such as La meglio gioventù is that there’s always a notion that if it’s long, it’s art.  If it’s long, it’s a miraculous concoction of cinematic magic that simply couldn’t have existed within the suffocating realm of 90 or even 120 minutes.  If it’s long, it has meaning.  The fact of the matter is, La meglio gioventù most certainly did not need to be six and a half hours long.  In fact, the last three and a half hours of the film are simply there.  They function by continuing to show the lives of the characters on screen, yet they really say nothing about these lives.  I myself am of the opinion that after 383 minutes, I should know the characters onscreen inside and out.  There should be no murky side to the people I’ve been watching grow up for over six hours.  That’s not the case with this film.  I can honestly say that although Nicola’s life was for the most part interesting to observe, by the film’s end I did not feel that I knew anything more about who he was than I had learned within the film’s first hour.

The same can be said of Matteo, a character whom I found to be particularly annoying.  Right from the start we can see that something isn’t quite right with him, but we are never sure exactly what.  He’s temperamental and isolationist, anti-social and depressed.  Why he behaves this way is really anyone’s guess.  Even his family can’t figure him out.  Still, we are asked to observe him for hours without ever getting a deeper look into who he is.  It’s repetitive and frustrating to watch.

The film finds its best groove early on by hinting at a severe social and personal conflict between the two brothers.  Unfortunately, around hour number three, it became apparent that the film is more a showcase of the changes in life brought on by the passing of time, and that there really was no central conflict.  Time passes and we watch its affect on the multitude of characters.  Perhaps this is how life really works, but if that’s the case, why stop at six hours to illustrate how life manifests itself upon people?  Why not 9 hours?  16? 24?

The point of course, is that La meglio gioventù wants badly to be a studious examination of life.  Yet what it misses in this gargantuan process is that life is a series of both small and large incidents which shape who we are and how we live.  Aside from one or two major incidents at the start of the film, Nicola and Matteo’s lives are disappointingly unaffected by any of the film’s potential character shaping moments.  And this failure to see what effect life’s twists and turns have on a person’s character makes the entire journey from 1966 to 2003 actually feel like six-hours of actors acting rather than thirty-seven years of people living.

-Mike

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To verdener (Worlds Apart) (2008)

Director: Niels Arden Oplev

Screenplay: Steen Bille, Niels Arden Oplev

If you happen to be a fan of author Steig Larsson’s Millenium trilogy and the subsequent films it spawned, then you’ll know Danish director Niels Arden Oplev as the man behind Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo).  One year prior to that film, Oplev co-wrote and directed To verdener, a film that was modestly fêted on the festival circuit in its native Denmark, as well as surprising the box office with over 300,000 tickets sold.

The film tells the true story of Sara (Rosaline Mynster), a 17-year-old girl living in a devout Jehovah’s Witness family.  When Sara’s dabbling in things forbidden by her religion leads to a romance with 23-year-old atheist Teis (Johan Philip Asbæk), her faith as well as her ties to her family are tested.  Throughout the film, Sara continues to walk a fine line between being on the verge of banishment from the faith by the elders as well as her family, and forgiveness.

To verdener commences with Sara’s mother Karen (Sarah Boberg) and father Andreas (Jens Jørn Spottag) announcing to their three children that Andreas has commit a sin against Jehovah and the family.  Though it isn’t specifically stated what that sin is, it’s evident that Andreas has had an extra-marital affair.  Both Karen and Andreas tell their children that the decision as to which parent must now leave the household is entirely up to them.  Sara is quick to point out that forgiveness is a necessary virtue and because Karen refuses to forgive Andreas, it should be Karen who leaves.  Though shocked by this decision, Karen obliges her children’s wishes and moves out.  This sole action sets up much of what sort of person Sara is, foreshadowing her own attempts at finding understanding and forgiveness amongst her family and church.

From this point onward, as much as I hate to say it, To verdener felt increasingly like a Movie of the Week – a European Movie of the Week, mind you – but a Movie of the Week none the less.  This I can surmise is due in large part to the actual thinness of the plot and the lack of any particular momentum of the film itself.  For starters, Sara’s great love affair with Teis is little more than a tool to ignite Sara’s moral dilemma.  He’s 23-years-old and at no point is there any indication exactly why he so quickly falls in love so hard with Sara.  The entire reason as to what attracts a 23-year-old Danish musician and atheist to a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness is severely lacking.  Sara is the centre piece of this film and for this reason, Oplev chose to place every last drop of the film’s energy into proving to the audience that she has one big decision to make.  Which of course, she does.  Still, that shouldn’t mean that the rest of the cast should be relegated to mere set pieces.

There were also too many unanswered questions, such as why Sara’s mother seemed to only slightly obey the strict laws of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and still remain perfectly accepted within the group.  I’m also confused as to why on the first night where Sara sleeps at Teis’ apartment after missing the last train home, that she didn’t simply take a taxi or even walk.  Yes, at heart she was not fully supportive of the church’s vows and laws, but at the time when she misses her train, we are lead to believe that she really did not want to spend the night at Teis’ apartment.

In general, it seemed that To verdener had little room to go after it established that Sara would struggle to find a balance between her faith and her life.  This struggle, while potentially capable of powering a strongly made drama, fizzles and becomes repetitive rather quickly under Oplev’s command.  The ending comes as no surprise, further strengthening the film’s inability to shake off the melodramatic weight of a Movie of the Week.

-Mike

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