Monday, May 31

Pulling Rabbits: On Charlie Kaufman

There is a decent chance you have never heard of Charlie Kaufman, but you have probably seen some of his movies. The reason for this is that mr. Kaufman isn't an actor or a director. He is a screenwriter.

Let me tell you a little bit about how a movie is made nowadays.
When a studio decides to make a blockbuster, someone writes a script, a producer picks it up, finds a director who knows how to make words into pictures, they make the movie, it's a huge success and the studio people have a refill of their cocaine supply.
But when an "art-movie" is made, the script is mostly written by the director himself. And in the rare cases that a script is picked up, the studio usually change it (sometimes completely ruining them in the process), and the director gets all the creative credits.

You might have noticed that this is a pretty lousy deal for the screenwriters. A good script is rarely noticed by reviewers, but a bad script all the more often. Any movie geek worth his salt can name at least ten of his favorite directors, but very few can even name more then a few screenwriters, let alone their favorites. So I would like to give a little credit to one of the great cinematic visionaries of our time.

To quote his TIME 100-entry (he was on the list in 2004):
"Charlie Kaufman has ideas, which for a screenwriter is rarer than you would think. And not just obvious ideas like killer aliens or making your children really, really small. Kaufman's ideas for movies (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York) come from the part of your psyche you avoid."

Thanks, mr. Stein. I couldn't have said it any better myself.

There is a decent chance that you have seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Remember how incredibly clever that movie was? The two parallel stories of how Carrey and Winslet first met, which in the end turned out to be both first encounters, but in a different time? That is pretty much what Kaufman does all the time. Take, for instance, Being John Malkovich. The movie is about a puppeteer who found a little door in his office that, if you went inside, put you inside the head of John Malkovich. Played by John Malkovich. Confused yet? The protagonist of his next movie, Adaptation, is called Charlie Kaufman, and he is a screenwriter who visits the set of Being John Malkovich. Also, in that very same film he decides to write a script about somebody called Charlie Kaufman who writes a script. The Charlie Kaufman in the film has a brother, who doesn't exist in real life. But what appears on the credits of Adaptation? "Written by Charlie and Donald Kaufman".

Kaufman has the creepy ability to really get into your skull. His premises might sound ridiculous on paper, but they are worked out so cunningly that you will run along with them no matter what kind of crazy shit Charlie decides to heap on you next. This is really a testament of his skill: if there is one demographic that is eager to call bullshit on what they see, it's movie geeks.

I think that all of Kaufman's work is essentially about illusion. Adaptation and Synecdoche take this to the surface and ask questions about the workings of film and theatre, and how they are interlocked with our lives. Eternal Sunshine and Being John Malkovich, on the other hand, are about the illusions of everyday life. What in our lives is real, and how much do we pretend? Is our identity real? Our bodies, our memories? How much of what we do is trying to give an impression, and how much of it is "genuinely" us? These might sound like vaguely philosophical questions that you might ask yourself when you're stoned, but Kaufman really makes them matter.

Charlie Kaufman's movies, in short, fuck with your head. And you will love every second of it.


I normally try not to use music from the film's soundtracks, but I couldn't refuse this wonderful song from the soundtrack of Synecdoche, New York.

Thursday, May 27

Review: Marie Antoinette

Before I begin this review, I want to announce that I'm suddenly getting an assload of readers! This is probably mostly due to the shout-out my little sister (well, kind of) made for me on her blog. It's in dutch, and it's very cutesey and green. You should check it out. Here's looking at you, kid.

Okay, on to the review.

Sofia Coppola only made three feature films. She is the daughter of what I think is one of the most over-rated filmmakers ever. And she is a female director in a completely male-dominated industry. It's pretty much a miracle I like her so much. Her style is refreshing and sweet, her dialogues witty and charming and her use of music bordering on genius. And in Marie Antoinette, she pulls all of this off again.

Marie Antoinette tells the story of the French queen from the moment she leaves Austria for France up until the moment she fleas Versailles. If you were hoping for some gory beheadings, bad luck. Instead, we get to see MA's daily routine in and around Versailles. The extensive (and at times downright ridiculous) rituals for everything, the endless gossip, the attempts to reproduce with a guy who has the libido of a wet tissue... Everything. But where most costume dramas have a swooning, boring girl as the protagonist, the Marie Antoinette in this film resembles a modern it-girl.

Mrs. Copolla has been criticized for the historical inaccuracies in the film. For instance, when MA is  trying on shoes, you can clearly see a pair of blue All-Stars in the background. But that was exactly her point: Marie Antoinette was just a teenager. Not exactly one in normal circumstances, but a teenager nevertheless. Having parties, shopping, talking with her friends for hours on end, having boyfriends... Everything. She has more similarities with Paris Hilton then with Jane Eyre.

She even has her own sextape now.

The movie trades in the bleak English countryside for the splendor of Versailles and the strong colors of pastry and dresses. The crew was even given permission to film at Versailles, which is very rare. This style gives the movie a completely unique feel, which is helped by the equally unusual soundtrack. Copolla ditches the harpsichords and string orchestra's for hip indiepop and post-punk. It works so well that you hardly even notice it after a while. The soundtrack now proudly resided on my iPod, and probably will stay there.

But despite all the goodness Marie Antoinette has to offer, I was a little disappointed by it. It was good, definitely, but it didn't connect to me emotionally in the way The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation did. As it is, it's a wonderfully stylish flick that kicks convention in the balls and delivers something very unique in the progress. And that is more then enough.


The music is in style: really, really hip.

Wednesday, May 26

Pulling Rabbits: On Movie Romances

Movie critics tend to dislike so-called "romantic" movies. So do I. This has several possible explanations. Most films in the genre are not terribly unique, the characters tend to be quite stereotypical and the humor is mostly either crude or family friendly. But critics also tend to be bitter, jaded and, most importantly, male.

However, romance doesn't always have to fall flat. There are some love stories that can easily be described as masterpieces. Think Casablanca. Think Amelie. Think Notting Hill or Moulin Rouge. What makes these movies stand out from the rest? What makes their romances work?

Before I begin, I want to make one thing clear. I am only going to be discussing movies I actually liked. It's not hard to pick on movies that suck anyway, but picking out the flaws in otherwise great movies will  hopefully spawn something interesting.

I think there are three points that make a movie romance work or not. The importance for the plot, the predictability and the characters.

To start with the most important point: the importance a romance has for the plot.
   A while ago, I was watching TRON. The movie is about a dude (who happens to have a girlfriend). The dude discovers some secret plot, and calls the help of THE dude: Jeff Bridges. Bridges then gets sucked into a computer and walks around a bit in a fancy suit. Also, in the computer he encounters the avatars of the dude and his girlfriend. They set out to defeat the evil computer dude. But just before Jeff Bridges makes his heroic final move, he seems to think: "well, here goes nothing" and kisses the girl. If you have seen the movie you might remember that this comes from absolutely fucking nowhere. They decide what to do to kill the evildoer, look at each other intensely (this is the first time they show even the remotest bit of interest in each other), kiss, and off he goes. The same exact thing happens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Except that that guy was married.
   I understand that romance is marketable and relieving and stuff, but this is just bad filmmaking. It comes out of nowhere and it goes nowhere. They are just meaningless shots. If it would show them brushing their teeth it would make more sense.

Sense: it can be severely lacking.

On the other hand, take something like Casablanca or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Or Bridget Jones' Diary. The whole point to those movies is one essential question: will they get together in the end? You hope they will, but you can imagine why it would go wrong, yet they fit together so well...
   What we have here, dear readers, is conflict. And that just so happens to be the most important driving element behind every story ever. And if there is no conflict, romances very rarely work. Even in a subplot this is important: think of Sam's reluctance to court Rosie in The Lord of the Rings.

This is closely related to my other point: the predictability. I know I might anger some people with this, but I fucking HATED Love Actually. The filmmaking wasn't terrible, but every single plot line had the same basic formula: 1) they like each other 2) "problems" 3) problems resolved (4: profit). You see, for conflict to actually work, it has to be believable that the main character is in actual doubt.
   One of the most beautiful examples of this is from a very old movie you probably never heard of. It's called Brief Encounter, and was released in 1945. And at the time, it was rather risky.
   The film is about a middle-aged woman who has a rather boring life. She has a husband who hardly notices her, a kid, the whole shebang. Then, while on one of her weekly trips to town, she meets a man. He is everything her husband isn't: passionate, handsome, and genuinely interested in her. He, too, is married. They fall in love, and meet each other every week. The relationship is warm and sincere, but mature: no giggling, no holding hands, but mutual respect and genuine interest in each other. They could divorce their spouses and marry, but that would cause quite a stir. And besides, is it worth it to throw away all their securities in life? In a movie, sure, but in real life? The question is really there. And while the movie is kind of slow and old, if you can appreciate this sort of thing I really urge you to see it.

Hot damn, is that ever a sexy hat.

But what really makes or breaks a romance are the characters. Take my favorite genuine romance movie, Notting Hill. The most endearing moments of the movie comes when Honey, the protagonist's crazy sister, quietly proposes to Spike, the protagonist's crazy roommate. Spike and Honey have up to that point been providing most of the comic relief in the film (Spike has lines like "Just going to the kitchen to get some food, then I'm going to tell you a story that will make your balls shrink to the size of raisins"). But when Honey confesses her love to him, he seems to be as unaware of her love as we, the audience, were. He looks at her, completely dazzled, and says: "Yeah. (...) Groovy". The two are a match made in heaven.

The characters don't have to be very deep and complex, mind you. Flat characters can work just as well, as long as they are endearing, relatable and, most importantly, fun and interesting to watch. Because if you watch someone long enough on the screen, you will fall a in love with him or her just a little bit anyway.


I didn't even had to think about this one.

Tuesday, May 18

Review: Naked

What do you get when you combine Fight Club, Blue Velvet, Trainspotting and American Psycho? Okay, the most depraved sex scene ever put on tape, but you would also get Naked. The film is made in 1993 and hot damn, does it show. If Kurt Cobain had seen this movie, he would have written songs about it. But if you are willing to embrace all the bleakness and weird dialogue, you will be welcomed by a truly amazing movie.

Naked follows the wandering of Johnny (a brilliant role by David Thewlis). He is pretty much the archetype of Generation X: eloquent, but bitter. Charismatic, but rather sadistic. A complete asshole, who nevertheless seems to be a good person at his core. He wanders through the urban jungle that is modern London, like some sort of Aragorn of the modern generation. There isn't much of a story to speak off: Johnny just does stuff, seemingly without any purpose. He messes up the live of his ex-girlfriend, at whose house (and life) he keeps showing up. He talks about the meaningless of life and the coming apocalypse with random strangers. And then there is his ex's landlord, a sadistic and emotionless yuppie who is just one blow on the head away from full-on Patrick Bateman-crazy.

This is Patrick Bateman. Notice the impeccable suit. Also, see his movie. It is criminally underrated.

All the dialogue was created by the actors themselves, by getting into their roles really well and improvising. The best bits were written down and preformed. And since there is not one writer at work, but so many, the dialogue is unlike anything I've ever heard in a movie. Even though it's mostly about nothing at all, it's a bliss to listen to. The scene were Johnny explains to a security guard his theory on the end of mankind, while you only see their silhouettes, is especially stunning.

I'm not really sure how to interpret this film, however. You could see it as a clash of generations between Johnny's Generation X-mentality and the crazed yup, the latter being definitely the least sympathetic of the two assholes.
It can also be seen as a movie of the times. In that case, the comparison with Trainspotting rings even more true. But everything that makes that movie fun to watch, such as the cool music, clothes and jokes is absent from this one. Only the bleakness of life in the 90's remains. Which is enough in it's own right.

But maybe the truth lies in the characters, and in particular in Johnny. No matter how cruel the world treats him, or how cruel he treats it, he always comes back to it. At the finale of the movie he has the chance to get home, get a life and disappear. But he choses to get back. Still limping from the beating he got earlier on, he slowly walks back into the city. Without remorse for himself or anyone. Constantly trying to get his message of loneliness and despair across. Like a true hero of the times. And while maybe Johnny isn't the kind of hero the world needs, he is definitely the kind of hero the world deserved.

This is what Batman would look like if he had no money and read too much Nietzsche


British, bleak, atmospheric... Could I have picked anything other then Joy Division?

Friday, May 14

Pulling Rabbits: On Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was an American director. He made movies like A Clockwork Orange, Full Metal Jacket, The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey and more. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest directors of all time, and by me to be the greatest. By far. I could review all his movies separately, but the reviews would mostly end up being page after page of OMG OMG OMG OMG!!1!!1. Instead, I would like to give a little retrospective on his life and oeuvre.

Film historians usually think in periods when they talk about cinema. For example, the period between 1910 and 1960 is usually called "classical hollywood". When we talk about "Hollywood movies", we talk about a system of movie making that was developed and used in this period. Then came the "new Hollywood", in which brave new directors made more experimental films with a lot of violence and sex, partly inspired by foreign movies. What is interesting about Kubrick is that his works rarely confine to the period they are made in. They follow their own chronology. His early works are genre films of genres that were dead already at the time. And his later films really stand on their own. His work can often only be explained as being Stanley Kubrick's, instead of the product of the times. This makes him even more interesting to study as an artist.

His beard alone kicks more ass then most other directors.

So, what makes his films some of the greatest ever? There are many different explanations. On a purely technical level, Kubrick was definitely an innovator. He was one of the first to make extensive use of tracking shots and he used lenses from the goddamn NASA so he could film with only candlelight on Barry Lyndon. He was also a notorious perfectionist: one scene from The Shining was reshot 148 times, which is a world record. Shelley Duvall literally got a nervous breakdown from working with him.

But his technical mastery isn't the main reason I'm so in love with Kubricks work. There are other directors who are perhaps even better on a purely technical level whom I literally don't give a shit about (here's looking at you, Federico). One of the main reasons I love Kubrick so much is the way his movies have affected me. Full Metal Jacket made me almost suicidal, The Shining made me pretty much crap my pants and even Barry Lyndon, a costume drama of all things, made me wonder about the sharp dividing line between good and evil in fiction and real life.

And the way he handles good and evil is the other main reason Kubrick fascinates me so. Every time I have seen one of his movies, and caught my breath again, I start to wonder: who is the bad guy in the movie? Who is the good guy? And the answer is always the same: there isn't one. We as an audience are eager to accept a black and white dividing line between good and evil in our entertainment, but Kubrick completely pulls that rug out from under us.
     Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange is a demented, sadistic murdered, but you have to wonder if he is really the worst person in the story. Maybe he is just honest about the rotten state of the world.
       Many horror movies take the easy route of presenting a monster straight out of hell as a villain, but The Shining does things differently. Jack Torrance starts off as a (reasonably) sane person, whose descent into madness we witness in it's entirety. Is he really evil, or just the wrong person in the wrong place? Is the Overlook Hotel the real evil force here?
      Even in his (only) comedy, Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick makes us laugh and wonder at the bizarreness of everything around us. "Gentlemen! You can't fight here! This is the war room!", the president of the US exclaims in shock after one of his generals and the Soviet ambassador have started brawling.

Kubrick's films can be easily seen as deeply ironic and pessimistic portrayals of everyday life. He seems to say: "This is where it's at. Where is your god now?" before punching you in the face and stealing your wallet and your girlfriend. But I don't buy that. Kubrick as an artist is too complex and deep to simply assume he thinks that way. It's like saying he was a sex maniac because sexuality is common theme in his films. It's all just part of life. The way I see Kubrick is as somebody who stares into the void of society. He wants to change it, but he alone can do so little. So, as an artist, he pulls off the mask of the hypocrites and shows us our true face. And maybe that is the very best an artist can try to achieve.



In case you didn't notice, I always pick songs that I think brings across the atmosphere of the movie. Picking a song for an entire life was really hard, but I decided upon this one.


Saturday, May 8

Review: The Thin Red Line

I don't think it would be appropriate to say I "like" war films, but the ones I've seen have mostly been good to great. I count classics like Saving Private Ryan and Full Metal Jacket among the greatest cinematic experiences in my life, but I've often been surprised by smaller, more original war movies like Waltz with Bashir and Jarhead. The Thin Red Line tries another approach, which works surprisingly well. Which makes it even sadder that it is ultimately killed by one fatal flaw.

The Thin Red Line tells the story of a WWII assault on an island in the Pacific. It's not too original, but that's not what makes a great war film. What does make one is the way the soldiers are portrayed. Saving Private Ryan shows their struggle with duty and personal sacrifice, Full Metal Jacket shows their slow descent into madness and Jarhead shows the boredom that comes with actually being in the army. The Thin Red Line has quite an original hook: instead of focusing on a single soldier or squad, it shows several soldiers. Their storylines don't cross, but the combination of their stand-alone personal stories creates a view on the war from within. It's like a mix of the Hollywood model with a single protagonist and several supporting characters and the crowd mentality of Battleship Potemkin. It's a little hard to explain, but it actually works really really well. You really get the feeling that you are amongst the soldiers, and that is pretty much the point of a film like this.

And while the beginning was a bit slow and unnecessary, I got completely sucked in when the film kicked it in gear. But this is were an otherwise pretty damn good movie make a fatal mistake: it overstays it's welcome. A lot. You see, because there is no real protagonist in the movie, there isn't really a story to speak of either. Stuff just happens. That works fine for a while. There is a sense of meaninglessness that gives lots of depth to the movie. But if you keep this up for almost three hours(!), things just get redundant. There isn't really any "finale" to look forward to, and at the end of the movie I was just plain bored.

And apparently I'm not the only one

I feel a bit guilty about condemning the movie like this, because it definitely has vision and a heart. And it gets damned by such a basic mistake: not stopping early enough. There are plenty of moments the movie could have stopped. Maybe if you just stop watching when you've had enough? I don't know. The movie is by no means awful, but it could have been so much more.


P.S. This movie could have learned a thing or two about cameos from The Hurt Locker, too. If it wasn't released earlier. Shut up.

This song is really pretty, and the video is really well done as well.

Saturday, May 1

Review: Elephant

I think the main reason that old people call college the "happiest days of their lives", is because of the contrast with what precedes it. For everyone over about 25 who can't remember that kind of stuff, let's get one thing straight. High school sucks. It sucks on levels so fundamental you can't even begin to comprehend it. You may laugh about your pubescent insecurity now, but try to imagine having no security about anything whatsoever, and being called out for it too. Am I doing the right things? Why don't girls like me? Am I a freak? What the hell is happening? This for six years. Day in, day out.

Gus van Sandt's Elephant brought back this feeling in the most gut-wrenching way possible. I've rarely seen a movie that felt so much like my everyday life (or at least, my everyday life up until last year). Everybody and everything in the film feels so convincing, so breathing, almost... touchable. The first half of the movie shows nothing more then just a group of students going their way. Going to class, being late, gossiping, sporting, everything. One of the guys is a photographer and apparently pretty good at it. One girl is told she can't wear long trousers to gym class anymore. A boy with a yellow shirt has an alcoholic father whom he has troubles with. And one guy gets whet tissues thrown at him. The only difference between this and any normal high school is that the last guy has a gun.

The shooting that eventually ensues made me literally sick to the stomach. The movie became almost unwatchable at points. Not because it is particularly gory or nasty. What makes this movie such an incredibly punch to the guts is the way it presents everything.

The camera, for instance, seems almost to be a character itself. Sometimes it closely follows somebody for a while. Sometimes it just stand still, and watches people walk by. Sometimes it watches one of the characters walk through a corridor. Sometimes it is observing girls having lunch. And sometimes it observes somebody randomly shooting everyone he sees.

But this camerawork is used to convey the most important point of the movie: the sheer pointlessness of it all. Some of the students escape, some die. Without any reason. The killers are not shown to have any motivation, or "push" over the edge. They are shown in the same way as the victims. And in fact, they are the same as the victims: people. Or even worse: adolescents.

The second worst thing about school shootings is the coverage. The media are always trying to find reasons, some inherent higher justice. This movie has the guts not to condemn. It is brave enough to just show. And it succeeds in everything it does. This movie is one of the most intense and heavy I have ever seen.


This song completely captures the eerie, helpless mood of the movie. Listen closely to the lyrics.