Film: American Hustle

You know when there’s an actor that you simply cannot resist? It doesn’t matter what good or bad movies they make, or what awards or accolades they recieve, or what batshit crazy things they do and you see in the media, you simply love them and will see whatever film they’re in, no matter what. Beyond that, you’ll go into films with the warm fuzzies, and a sense that it MUST be a good movie because, duh, so-and-so is in it! When you come out of their movies, you feel renewed – they are just so great. Yeah. Well, that person is Christian Bale for me.

I will go and see any Christian Bale movie, I’ve seen all the Christian Bale movies, and I’ve loved pretty much every single one. (“Reign of Fire?” you say. I say, “yes, I love it.” “Harsh Times?” you say. I say, “Duh.”) Of course, I am aware that some of his movies are better than others, bigger than others, etc. But he’s always amazing. I, like many women of my generation, “fell” for Christian Bale in “Newsies,” carried a torch through “Little Women,” and was ushered disturbingly into puberty by “American Psycho.” Emotional and sexual scarring aside he remains, in my opinion, one of the most gifted actors alive today, and sometimes his Batman voice narrates my dreams (about Patrick Bateman.)

However, this is  not an epic about how great Christian Bale’s nose is, or his beard is, or how psychotic his crazy shout is. Though, I should inform you I was once deeply involved with  man who looked astonishingly like a bearded Christian Bale. I often wonder if that’s why I was involved with him. I shit you not.

This is about “American Hustle.”

“American Hustle” is a movie with a really upstanding cast of really good looking people looking less good looking than usual. Bradley Cooper has a troublesome hairdo, Amy Adams looks tired, Jennifer Lawrence looks intentionally older than she is, Jeremy Renner has an even more ridiculous hairdo, and Christian Bale is not only fat, but also bald. I thought this would be pretty off-putting, but everyone manages to maintain their sex appeal (less so Cooper, except for this one scene when Adams is sitting on a counter, and another when they’re in a bathroom stall. Actually never mind, they all retain sexiness.) It’s also a movie that seems like it’s going to get terrifically complicated. I imagine anything about hustling must do, it seems like a complicated verb, to hustle. However, this is a film where everyone seems to be who they said they were in the beginning and performs their roles in the narrative true-to-form. I kept expecting someone to make a 180, for some seemingly good-guy to go rotten (I’m looking at you, Jeremy Renner) or for a wormy character to turn out to have a heart of gold, or maybe even someone stupid to turn out to be a fucking genius. Don’t hold your breath, everyone is who they say they are. This makes what would be a really complicated film a very easy film to follow, and in some ways, a peculiar romance.

The story revolves around a faultlessly charming conman, Irving (Christian Bale) who meets a cunning and beautiful young woman, Sydney (Amy Adams) at a pool party (where she’s wearing a macramé swimsuit, and it is awesome.) and they develop a fast and furious affair. She then goes into business with him when he reveals the full scope of his less than legit means of employment. Turns out she’s totally brilliant at conning people out of money, and they fall ever more in love. It’s then revealed that Irving has a wife so young and so hot that the fact that he even thought to have sex with Sydney makes no sense at all, except that they are a true love match and his wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) though gorgeous, is really not the girl for him. She has a child who he adopted and though his family life is troubled, he’s committed to it. Sydney is willing to accept this, probably because despite the fact that he’s dense about the middle and has an “elaborate comb-over” he’s still Christian Bale, wait, I mean, he’s still someone she feels a profound connection to.

However, in the midst of all this balancing and conning and falling in love, they manage to get busted, by an incredibly inexperienced though oddly well-funded FBI agent, Richie (Bradley Cooper). Let me be clear here, I hate this character. This is a film without clean antagonists, and without a sense of where good guys stop and bad guys start (Irving is actually really similar to Nick Miller’s conman dad, Walt, on “New Girl.” Irving’s cute kid will probably grow up to be Nick, “not a healthy adult,” but a good guy. Sidenote: go watch “New Girl”.) The bane of Richie’s existence is having to answer to his stodgy but very wise boss, played unironically by Louis CK, so you could say there’s nothing wrong with his life and he’s just a bit of a wet blanket. He and Sydney predictably get involved with each other as he holds the she and Irving hostage, giving them the option to buy their way out of prison by exposing four other major conmen. Sydney tells Irving she’s playing a part of their sake, but we as viewers, like the characters around her, get lost in her charade. Amy Adams is a great actress playing a great actress. It’s cool.

Richie, apart from being a bit of a prat, also has a dowdy fiance, and lives with his similarly dowdy Catholic mother. He gets really swept up in all the intrigue, glamour, and velvet suits of conning in the 70s, and also gets seriously swept up by Sydney’s physics-defying silk blouses (the budget for fashion tape in this film was probably 100’s of dollars). Being the sort of prat who can’t tell when he’s got a good thing going, he pushes the other two characters to dizzying heights, and they plan a con which would inculcate the cheerful, well-loved, badly-styled Major of Camden, NJ. Carmine (Jeremy Renner) is a loving Italian-American family man and, like everyone else, is just as he seems. In addition to Carmine, the con involves a make-believe Sheik, an a whole lot of political types. It’s complicated, and I still really want to talk about meaningless stuff  like what Jennifer Lawrence wore.

One of the best things about “American Hustle” is how stylistically interesting the 1970s were. Whenever I see films set in the 70s, I feel like there’s no way it actually looked like that, but it did. People really did wear bell-bottoms, and velvet suits, and macramé, and really big hair. This film does not disappoint for people looking for righteous examples of shirts open to the waist, dresses covered in sequins, long sharp nails. What is perhaps most visually important is Jennifer Lawrence. While she doesn’t look quite as serious or fresh-faced as we may be used to, with piles of teased blonde hair up on her head, glossy pink lips, and the aforementioned red nails, she’s stunning. There’s also a scene with a big party where she wears a silver, sparkly dress which will make you revaluate everything you think about women and dresses, and probably your expectations of both.

Honesty, you could go and see the movie just to see the silver dress, also a moment early on where she’s wearing a tight white shirt, and calls her wayward husband to bed with her. That’s not true, you should watch the film because it’s a visual masterpiece, beautiful, and moving.

Also, Christian Bale is in it.

(And he’s really sexy, despite the comb-over, and the fatness, and because of the velvet. Hmmm, love a man in wide-lapelled velvet.)

 

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Hostel and Feminism

I am currently watching the direct-to-DVD third installment in the “Hostel” franchise. I didn’t even know there was a “Hostel: Part III” and I think of this as a major failing on my part as I am serious advocate of the “Hostel” films (says the girl who spent hours and pages working on a creative-meets-analytical writing exercise on a scene from the first one.)

Now, I am more than certain that plenty of people have plenty of less than favorable things to say about these films. Eli Roth’s “Hostel” redefined horror and peaked on a completely new wave of the genre, made changes that horror will never recover from. And rightly so. Yes, it’s wildly violent, utterly grotesque, filthy, gritty and leaves you feeling sick to your stomach, and not because of the drilling, hacking and gouging but because of the clever, unsettling construction of the film and more so the grim reflection it casts on our own nature.

Many a critic would point to the dismal things this indicates not only about our selves but also the state of the horror industry. I naturally think they are wrong and that “Hostel” (and even it’s low-fi follow-up) is a neat, sharp, troubling bit of cinema and deserves praise, I would also like to point to a little oddity that really pulls this particular franchise from the abyss.

The classic and acknowledged world of horror is one of institutionalized racism, misogyny and searing patriarchy. In horror movies, non-white characters die first and in stupid ways, women who have sex are done for, men who are vain never last, and the invariable survivor is a doe-eyed ‘final girl’. A sweet, virginal thing, with good morals and a good heart – she is the epicenter of Western virtue, and we know only she can beat evil.

Not “Hostel”. Interestingly, the first and third films focus on the capture and torture of men rather than women. (Because “torture porn” is dominated by “Saw” it seems like an equal-opportunity subgenre, but in reality the majority of torture films which are not “Saw” are about watching beautiful women suffer.) I will note that the second “Hostel” film is about women being tortured, but I get the sense this is to pull in audience, and it’s the only thing beyond coming up with new and gruesome ways to use power tools, that changes it from the first film.

The conceit of “Hostel” is that young men seeking sex and deviant good times are captured and subjected to various forms of gross bodily damage to the benefit of paying clients (in the film, and yes, you, paying audience.) What makes this interesting is that these men are lured into these situations by female sex workers. Prostitutes, escorts, strippers – these lascivious ladies of the night are usually the sort of characters who get popped off almost instantly in a horror. But not here, in fact, here, the men who so enthusiastically seek to treat these women like objects, to engage in the institutionalized abuse of women who don’t matter because of their relationships to sex are punished.

Not only are they punished, but the women are not. They are neither compliant or active, they simply have the opportunity to deliver the nice, white bread men into the clutches of evil. It doesn’t seem fair, until one stops and thinks about the way nice, white bread men are allowed to treat strippers, prostitutes and even any other women in film. As the women lure the men in they are beautiful, porn-staresque babes, flowing locks and perfectly glossy pouts, and once the men are in the facility and facing their torturous deaths, we see the women unmade up. Because they are real people, not just agents of destruction.

The End of the End

First up, I realize I’m in Zambia and so all I should have to write about is Zambia, but quite frankly, I lived here for most of my life, I’ve thought a lot of deep thoughts about Zambia, and while in my 2.5 years of absence both it and I have changed considerably, I don’t feel all that motivated to write about it.

However, it is important to emphasize that I AM here, and being in Lusaka (now, even, despite the wireless in my parents house and zippy Internet) I am way on the other side of the world. I am in a very different timezone and effectively, find myself somewhat isolated. I don’t really mind this. Usually being in Lusaka serves as a time for me to withdraw from the world and deal with things. I graduated from Georgetown about a month ago, and it has been one of the most tulmultuous months in a long time. I supposed I’d be well served to take this time to disappear.

I’ll get back in mid-July. Specifically, I’ll be back just in time to see the new (and last) Harry Potter movie on July 15. (This was the one request I made of my father, yes, I shall spend 1 month in Lusaka, on this one peculiar condition.) While, like millions of other people my age, I am totally excited about Harry Potter. I am also incredibly nervous. This is the end. (Granted, I’m aware of Pottermore and waiting with baited breath.) However, for all intensive purposes Harry Potter has been *the* dominant cultural narrative of my life.

In 1997 when “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” came out, I was 12. Granted, I did not become invested in the series until about 2 years later, when I was 14. I will turn 26 this year, Harry Potter has played a huge role in my life for 12 years. I became invested in it because Nicole moved to Lusaka and had been very engaged by it, and wanted to have someone to engage with about it. (Boy oh boy, did we get involved.)

Since the age of 14, which, let’s be honest is an impressionable time of a child’s life, Harry Potter has been a highly influential aesthetic object. Waiting for books have marked events in my life, through high school and college, the films provided a visual actualization which I was desperately motivated by. The thought that there will simply be no more makes me feel incredibly lost.

I just don’t think any of us expected this story to become so much a part of us. I know I didn’t. The characters became so important, mirrors and reflections of our own growing up. I’m nervous about the end, just thinking about it makes me want to cry.

With that, I leave you with the final trailer for “Deathly Hallows: Part 2”.

Why Write:

In the past week something pretty significant has popped up on my radar.

Firstly, I was directed to this article.
and I read it and become concerned, as the days went by, I read a few other articles, like this one and this one. I also gathered information from Eli Roth’s ever reliable twitter. What this all has to do with is the fact that Angel Sala, the director of the Sitges Film Festival is being charged with child pornography as a result of including Srdjan Spasojevic’s A Serbian Film among the films being screened.

Now, if you choose to read these articles, I encourage you to tread carefully, if you choose to watch this movie – I advise further careful treading – it is not a pretty picture.

In fact, it’s a horrible, monstrous, grotesque film – full of sights that cannot be unseen, and thoughts that will turn your stomach. It is also one of the films I’ve chosen for my thesis. I’ve seen the film, and will have to watch parts of it many times over, I can’t say I’m really looking forward to it. But then I don’t always enjoy the moments of agony I watch closely.

I’ll be maybe one of the few people to think this, let alone admit it, but I really enjoyed A Serbian Film. I’m not saying I approve of the content, but I’ve learned that a lot of films are no fun at all, and that is where their greatness lies. I admire filmmakers who will not flinch under the watchful gaze of morality and include in their films whatever they want. I admire films that actually are willing and brave enough to go to whatever terrible lengths they can. I don’t believe in censorship, I understand why this film hasn’t gotten US distribution and why when it does it will be edited to death.

I don’t think this is right. I really don’t think it’s right that an important and admirable member of the film community is being persecuted for showing the film.

Film doesn’t need to be beautiful, it doesn’t need to be acceptable, it doesn’t need to be enjoyable. Some cinema hurts, some of it is horrible and agonizing. Some of it is pure torture to watch, watching some of it isn’t fun, it isn’t cool, it’s just endurance.

And this point, I know all about it.

However, this film deserves to be released, the filmmakers deserve credit, it deserves it’s place among a wide array of extreme media. A Serbian Film does not look like your everyday horror movie, it goes to lengths I never thought I would see on film. It is painful and searing and excessive. Not everyone wants to see this, a lot of people will protect themselves from media like this, protect their children – but cinema is about vision and art – and there should be no boundaries as to what can be put on screen, and certainly no punishment for people who choose to screen or watch this media.

What this has done is allowed me to understand why I’m writing my thesis. I’ve sat through a lot of horror movies, I’ve watched difficult, gross, gory, painful scenes. I chose the most horrible, disgusting, abject movies I had ever seen. Some of them I love, some of them are so hard to watch – but I have chosen them for study, I am looking at them more closely than I think anyone other than their makers have. I wonder everyday why I chose to do this, and the reason is now clear.

I don’t believe in censorship, I don’t believe in hiding scary, troubling, complicated movies. I think there’s merit and power in A Serbian Film, as well as in my other selections. I think there is a beauty to these films, if not in their content, in their construction, in their aesthetics – it is in their ability to exist, despite censorship and judgement.

Film: The Rite

I should be working on my thesis, I have a chapter due on Tuesday. I’m not concerned. It’s like a paper, and you know, it’ll be done and it’ll be awesome.

In the meantime, Paul and I finally went to the movies again…I insisted we go and see The Rite, because I go and see all the Anthony Hopkins movies.

I really liked The Rite, it was about exorcisms, which I am very into. I was “lucky” enough to brought up with just enough old world religion to find demonic possession scary. So basically, this is what we have –

Also, I spoil movies like it’s my job – so, you know, sorry.

The Rite

A young guy works as a mortician (which was one of my Mom’s dream jobs – mortician or butcher, make of it what you will.) more so, he’s from a line of morticians. He’s not a happy mortician so he decides to go to…seminary. Michael goes off to seminary, and does pretty well. After four years of work, he decides this whole Catholic priest gig might not be for him, and tries to leave. He writes an email, and the next day he witnesses a tragic car accident, in which a vehicle hits a bicycle, the woman on the bike is dying and asks him to administer her last rites, which he does (despite not being a “real” priest yet, he’s got the spiritual know-how). Just when we think this will turn him around and he’ll become a happy priest, he gets sent to Rome to participate in a new program to train up lots more exorcists, because there are literally demons going apeshit.

Now, Michael is very personable, and very good looking, and is made out of doubt. Anyway, long story short, he gets sent to learn from Father Lucas, who is an old priest who lives in a ramshackle home, surrounded by partially feral cats and performs “unorthodox but effective” exorcisms. As usual Anthony Hopkins is awesome, and it’s probably just me, but sort of hot. So he lets Michael observe and help out with an exorcism, of a young, pregnant girl who is apparently possessed. It’s the usual possession gig, contorting, lewd statements.

Michael doesn’t believe, he think she needs psychiatric help because he realizes her pregnancy is the product of abuse and incest (not unreasonable, apparently possession and psychiatric trouble look uncannily similar.) Eventually, the demon wins the game. He also gets to observe the exorcism of a young boy who claims to have nightmares of a red-eyed mule kicking him, and he’s covered muley looking bruises. Lucas breaks his pillow and retrieves a tiny frog (now those of you with a good background in demonology might be getting close to figuring out what we’re dealing with…cats…frogs…if you’re not, don’t be hard on yourself.)

Anyway, Michael’s dad dies, the boy predicts it, and the next thing we know, he’s having dark visions, and suddenly Father Lucas is possessed. For real.

Naturally, it falls to Michael (because everyone at the Vatican has mysterious popped off on holiday) to find his faith and deal with it (with the help of a beautiful, female reporter.) I think we all know what happens, Goodness prevails, but not before Anthony Hopkins gets to be really awesome and possessed, more lewd comments, blaspheming, crude gesticulations, upturned crosses – it’s fantastic, classic, exorcism related fun.

I really like all this contorting, vomiting stuff, but again, I have to ask – why? Why are demons doing this? I understand, every soul counts. I’m not arguing with Satan’s business plan, I mean it obviously works like a charm. We eventually find out that the primary demon making trouble is Ba’al, he’s kind of a big deal. The first and principal king of Hell, in charge of the entire Eastern area, it’s a corner office job for a demon.

“Hey Ba’al, buddy, you wanna job this week?”
“Oh, sure, Satan, what do you have in mind?”
“Well, I have this pregnant teenager, and an eight year old, who really could use some tormenting.”
“Really. An eight year old and a pregnant teenager.” *pause* “seems kind of…like grunt work…”
“Oh” *sigh* “Well, it’s in Rome, you picky bastard. You could pester some priests.”
“Ugh, I don’t know, I’m so busy, and tired all the time, being First King of Hell…”
“Get out of here, I’m the fucking Dark Lord, bugger off and stop complaining.”

It just sounds like it sucks. Also, I maybe the degree with which one can make mischief while possessing a body is more limited than we imagine, because frog generation, pallor, spitting, and shouting obscenities is less than I imagine. Maybe Hollywood is making out like it’s less dramatic than it is, maybe in real life, demons are dismembering, raping, pillaging – making serious trouble. I just don’t know. Either way, The Rite was excellent. I read one review that said it started off well, and then went “too crazy”. Yeah, that’s sort of what horror movies do, the climb towards a dizzying climax of grotesque. It did a good job.

film: SAW 3D

With only a little trepidation I went on the afternoon of Halloween to my local cinema and saw Saw 3D, alone. Which always make me seem endlessly creepy. Let me put it this way: Saw 3D is truly a thing of beauty.

I’ve enjoyed all the Saw films, to perhaps an uncommon and unhealthy level – but this was everything I could have wanted. The violence and destruction was truly top-notch and I must really tip my hat to the magnificent effects crew on this film. It features some spectacular returns to some classic traps (the reverse bear trap/jaw ripper, how I have missed thee!) as well as some great new ones. I would love to delve into grisly detail of what my favorites were, but I would hate to spoil it for any of you who are just desperate to get in there and gorge yourself on destruction.

I truly think that a lot of the charm of Saw (and its “torture porn” brethren) comes from the sheer inevitability of the devestation. You know they aren’t going to make it, you know that the victims are going to be sliced, diced, speared, shredded, cooked, disemboweled, beheaded, and eviserated in glorious technicolor right before your eyes, you know there’s no way they have the fortitude to survive their fates (if they were the sort of people who could survive Saw traps, they wouldn’t be in Saw traps). It’s also fantastic because I think when violence, destruction and devestation reaches this level, it takes on a surreal, sublime quality. Piranha 3D did a similar thing, elavating the gore to point where it becomes a symphony of destruction. Beautiful.

The film pays a lot of attention to the notion of the survivor. The narrative is built around who has survived traps in the past, which lead me, for the first time to think about how I would manage a Saw trap. The notion of terrible, self-inflicted bodily harm is enough to make even more squidge in the theater. Even me.

Also, I cannot ignore that this film was rendered in ultra-trendy Real 3D. Now, horror is a genre perfectly fit for 3D. In life, there’s very little as grand as feeling like you’re about to be splattered with grotesque amounts of human blood. Saw does a good job, the 3D isn’t excessive, it works when it needs to work. Not once did it make me feel headachey or woozy.

A true delight.

Film: Birdemic – Shock and Terror

Today, I experienced something beautiful. Sonora, Paul and I went and saw Birdemic – Shock and Terror, the epic “romantic thriller” by genre master, James Nguyen. Now, don’t get me wrong, Birdemic is an unrelentingly terrible film, awful by every possible standard, however it is also a beautiful thing to watch.

The narrative follows two main characters, the alarmingly slow moving Rod and his love interest, Nathalie (Victoria’s Secret model in the making.) They apparently went to high school together, where he sat two seats behind her in English (and collected her fallen hairs) and get accidentally reunited outside a diner in California. They go on a series of painfully boring dates, while Ron does very well at work. He’s a software salesperson, and has “silicon valley dreams”. What’s even better is that as all this incredibly mundane business is being inflicted upon the oft hysterical audience the film pushes a far-less-than-subtle message regarding polar bears dying and the other effects of global warming.

The plot really picks up when after a night of passionate laying next to each other, Rod and Nathalie awaken to find their sweet, Californian town has been ravaged by killer eagles and vultures. Eagles and vultures with ear-splitting shrieks, rendered in the most spectacular gif animation I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing. They proceed to join up with another couple, and find themselves in a mini-van (read: Epic death trap). From here they spend the rest of this rolicking, joy-ride of a film doing incredibly foolish things, getting in and out of the vehicle for no apparent reason, leaving valuables behind (jerry can of gas, gun, etc.) and gathering dead weights (children). All the while they are regularly attacked by these maniacal bloody birds, and occasionally encounter sage-like individuals who proceed to unleash needlessly long diatribes about the negative affects of pollution, vehicle emissions, and global warming in general. By the time you’ve seen 20 minutes of this it becomes painfully obvious that the filmmakers are seriously trying to attempt to convey a cautionary message regarding the environment. Sometimes it feels as if Birdemic is the spotty, unwanted love-child of An Inconvenient Truth and Avatar.

I won’t go on and ruin the delicate nuances of the narrative, however, what is more remarkable about this innovative piece of film is the perceptive and effective use of the pan shot, sound editing and special effects. Never have I seen frightening, predatory birds rendered quite so poetically as Nguyen’s clunky, super-imposed creatures. Nor have I seen such epic, magical use of the pan-shot. Pans up and down, left and right, two, three, four, five, six in a row – revolutionary to say the very least. Finally, the sound editing is something to truly marvel at, the deeply moving effect of having key lines of “meaningful” dialogue being washed out by appalling soundtrack or on set background noise. Never have I felt so effectively sutured into intricacies of a film.

What is interesting about films such as Birdemic is that the people who produce them truly do deserve respect. While their films may appear to be travesties to the conditioned eye of the Hollywood film viewer, they are, actually, the products of considerable work, devotion, love and effort. I deeply respect the work of these independent filmmakers. In part because I know how proud I would be of making my own feature film, and also because it allows the average film-viewer to appreciate the detail and tremendous care that goes into the making of a major film. What is generally lacking in these sorts of films is attention to the myriad of small details, very few of these details are overlooked in the making of a major picture. It really makes me respect all the editors, effects specialists, gaffers, sound technicians, etc all the more.

We saw Birdemic at E St. Cinema in Washington D.C. It was a nearly sold-out show, and much of the audience were midnight movie regulars, and “Roomies” (people who attend cult screenings of Tommy Wisseau’s remarkable disaster, The Room). These sorts of film audiences are full on participants, funny and excited. Watching a movie with them creates a great sense of community and comradeship.

I would strongly recommend Birdemic – Shock and Terror as well as any of the film experiences in E St. Cinema’s midnight madness film screenings.