Category Archives: Reviews

“It happened to someone who knows someone you know…You’re next” – Reviewing Urban Legend (1998)

I recently watched the 1998 horror movie Urban Legend. I don’t know what took me so long – I’ve been wanting to see it for a long time. I can actually remember the poster hanging on the wall of my high school cafeteria back when the movie was still in the theatres, or had just come out on VHS or whatever, and being intrigued by it. It’s not that I ever thought the movie looked particularly good, but as I’ve mentioned before I always loved urban legends, so I thought a horror movie based on the subject must be pretty interesting.

After having actually watched Urban Legend the idea of basing a horror flick on urban legend remains the best thing about the flick which, sadly, is not really all that well executed. Probably inspired by the wave of teen horror/thriller flicks that swept the world in the late ’90s (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer), the movie focuses on a group of college kids at the fictional college Stanley Halls. The kids grow increasingly concerned as it seems a killer is on the loose on campus, killing college students, basing his murders on famous urban legends.

“Turn around, bright eyes”
Like I said, I really like that idea. Our culture has so many great gory legends, they seem to be almost begging to be filmed. And while the college setting was probably chosen chiefly because the movie was to be marketed to teenagers, I also like it that the urban legend horror flick is set in a dormitory milieu. Not only does the college campus serve as the frame of many a popular urban legend (like “Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Turn on the Lights“, which is actually featured in the movie, and the “Our College Has No Virginal Women” one), college dorms also seem plausible as a setting for urban legends to get spread around.

The movie also has a compelling opening scene: A lovely co-ed is driving home one stormy night as she runs out of gas. She stops at a gas station but is unnerved by the creepy looking gas station attendant who happens to have a weird stutter. As he asks her to step out of the car and urges her follow into a locked garage, she freaks out and maces him, rushes to her car and drives off. Alas, as it turns out the poor attendant was only trying to warn her about a stranger hiding in her backseat. Once she’s back on the road, said stranger emerges, killing the girl with an axe. The plot will sound familiar to most people, and the movie pays great hommage to this famous legend, building up the suspense slowly. In a particularly nice move on the director’s part, the girl is listening to “Total Eclipse of the Heart” in her car, featuring the repeated lyrics “Turn around… turn around, bright eyes”, which I find to be a fun, and not too obvious piece of foreshadowing.

I actually think that most of the murder scenes of the movie are pretty effective. It’s simply a thrill to see these familiar old tales acted out, and the “Scratching Noise on the Car Roof” is very nicely done and quite scary, as is the movie’s rendition of the Flashing Headlights tale.

Hey! It’s that Guy!
The piecing together of these scenes into a movie plot with real, fleshed-out characters, however, goes down less smoothly. Urban legend characters are traditionally vaguely defined archtypes who don’t need any real introduction: The Babysitter, The Killer, The Ignorant Tourist etc. Since the urban legend-teller will usually insist that these are people he knows or at least knows of, we will usually be able to relate to the characters even if we know very little about them. This aspect is of course lost in a movie, where we’re constantly aware that we’re watching a piece of fiction played out by actors. So an urban legend movie is  dependant on our being able to identify with the characters on screen, and this is a huge problem in Urban Legend. The casting consists almost entirely of secondary actors from 1990s tv-shows. Between Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, Toni from 90210, Gersten from Twin Peaks, and Jordan from My So Called Life the H!ITG-factor  gets kind of distracting, and none of the actors really have the presence required for the big screen. I suppose Tara Reid is the one household name among the cast, having starred in a Coen brothers film, but she hardly stands a chance at carrying the movie by herself. The actors also aren’t given much help from the director, Jamie Blanks, who fails to guide his audience sufficiently in the exposition of the film. It took me forever to even figure out who the protagonist was supposed to be, and I never felt that I got to know the characters well enough to actually care about them. I suppose part of this is due to Blanks wishing to keep his audience guessing – will one of the main characters turn out to be the murderer? – but it is ultimately disruptive as it prevents the viewer from truly identifying with anyone.

Coincidence and plot holes
And speaking of the whodunnit aspect of the movie, the big revelation falls somewhat flat. For a while it seemed that the killer would be revealed to be some kind of supernatural power, like a vengeful ghost, and I liked that idea: There is something ghostly in the repetitive, ephemeral nature of folklore. But then the plot took a turn that revealed the murderer to be alive and kicking. And not only is this twist not very interesting, it also reveals a motherload of plot holes in the story.

The thing is that urban legend deaths usually depend on a series of outrageous coincidents – indeed Snopes has an entire section devoted to freak deaths. The killings portrayed in Urban Legend are no exceptions: There is really no way a person could plan something like a reenactment of the Killer in the Backseat, for example. Even if one could plan for the victim’s car to run out of gas in a precise spot, how would one plan for the gas station attendant to have a speech impediment that keeps him from warning the victim? And even if one could plan that how would one plan for him not to have the presence of mind to write down his warning once his voice failed him? Etc. etc. This breaking down of the story perhaps seems nitpicky, but my point is that the plot holes could have easily been avoided: If the director and the writers had allowed for a supernatural explanation of the events, the prosaic planning of the killings would have been irrelevant.

Pop rocks, rollercoasters and remakes
And that’s  my general point with this review of Urban Legend. I know it must seem like a bit of a cheap shot for me to be dissing a b-rated horror/slasher movie from 1998 the director of which did not go on to enjoy a glorious career. But I wanted to review it because I do think that the movie showed some great potential and presented an interesting idea for a horror flick. The writers certainly knew their folklore, and the filmmakers had a fun, meta approach to the subject. In some of the movie’s more succesful scenes, urban legends are casually worked into conversation, thus demonstrating how great a power folklore has over our conceptions of reality: A college professor dares a student to consume the alleged fatal combination of soda and pop rocks, and a guy tries to get our protagonist’s attention by telling her that a woman was killed during the recording of The Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster”. It’s funny and relatable and again; urban legends will never not be fascinating as a subject.

So, while I normally detest the whole “re-make” craze going on in Hollywood these days, maybe it’s time for a re-make of Urban Legend?

I would go see it. And were I to go to the movies by car, I would probably check the backseat twice before closing the car door. So obviously the 1998 movie has managed to do a few things right.

The Mediocre Dancer – Reviewing Fish Tank (2009)

I recently watched Fish Tank. Just about three years later than everyone else, I know, but better late than never. And I’m glad I did finally get around to it because, my God, what an amazing film.

Some have called it a coming-of-age film, but to me that seems much too dramatic and maybe also too conventional for what Fish Tank is. The film only covers a very short period of time in the life of a 15-year-old girl, Mia, who lives in the ghettoish East London council estate with her mother and her younger sister. Mia is an aggressive, unruly girl who has recently been expelled from her school. Prone to violent behaviour and bursts of anger, she has alienated her friends and is now drifting about by herself, waiting for the system to send her off to a special school. Her sole passion is funk dancing, which she practises in an derelict flat in the estate. Her life changes, however, upon the arrival of a new man into her mother’s life: Handsome and charismatic Connor (Michael Fassbender). Connor takes the family on outings and seems genuinely interested in Mia’s thoughts and feelings, and a certain bond start to form between the two.

A lot of movies boasts their ability to cover several genres. Fish tank refreshingly and minimalistically sticks to just one genre, social realism, and it handles it beautiful and with a sure grasp of the genre’s purpose. ‘Realism’ is really the key word here – director Andrea Arnold stays 100% on track throughout the movie and doesn’t allow her movie to overdramatize or sentimentalise her subject matter which is the conditions of a teenage girl growing up in a ghetto-like environment with few or no role models to look up to and bleak prospects. Strictly realistic, the movie doesn’t offer any magic solutions to Mia’s prospects and, sympathetically, it doesn’t demand that Mia be an extraordinary person.

I’ve heard people compare Fish Tank to Precious, and this irritates me. I didn’t like Precious much, exactly because I really disagree with its point of departure: The fact that Precious is allowed to move upwards in life because she happens to be unusually gifted at math. I strongly disagree with the idea that a person is only interesting if he or she has a special talent. Talent is overrated in our culture, if you ask me. Not everyone has one, and not everyone is supposed to, and you should be able to feel that you are worth something even if you are not talented in the least. Which is why I found it so refreshing that Mia is not shown to be a particularly gifted dancer. She is good, considering how limited her access to any formal training is (Mia learns her moves from watching hip hop videos on youtube at an internet café), but she’s not phenomenal. Commenters on IMDB are complaining that she isn’t better, and they’re missing the point, I think. The point is, to me, that Mia likes to dance, just like you and I might like to play the guitar or write a blog. It doesn’t mean that she’s necessarily brilliant at it, it just means that she’s a person, and she likes something. She seems to like the world for a brief moment when she’s dancing. Sadly, that world has little to offer her, and as the movie shows, her dancing isn’t likely to form any fantastic pathway for her out of her council estate existence.

It does seem that way for a short while, as Connor enters Mia’s life. Playing the part of kind of make-shift father to Mia and her sister one would be happy to cast him as Mia’s mentor who will help her believe in herself and inspire her to pursue dancing. And maybe this would have been possible if it weren’t for the sexual tension between Mia and Connor which is there from the very beginning and which interferes with any potential cute father-daughter relationship between the two. Connor is attracted to Mia, she is crushing hopelessly on him, and he acts on it. But here again, Arnold doesn’t take the easy way out: Connor is not the perfect father figure, but he doesn’t fit into the category of a monster either. In Roger Ebert’s review he says, “Some reviews call Connor a pedophile. I think he’s more of an immoral opportunist.”. I’m not even sure that I would go as far as that. In Fassbender’s excellent portrayal, Connor becomes fallible in an incredibly human way. One scene has Connor aggressively wooing Mia by making vulgar, petty remarks about Mia’s boyfriend Billy. In another scene he is, however, tenderly stroking her hair or helping Mia practise her dance routine. And through her unmistakably feminine lense, Andrea Arnold allows us to enjoy Fassbender’s stunning good looks in numerous scenes that has the actor walk around half-naked, thus ensuring that even if we’re not charmed by the more benign sides of Connor’s personality, we will at least be enamoured by his enticing physical appearance.

The story offers little hints of a potential horror underlining Mia’s life and her choices. For a chilling moment towards the ending, I found myself on the edge of my seat, thinking that the story was going to turn into a horrific Boy A type scenario (it didn’t), and the cinematography and dramaturgy of this particular nervewracking scene is drawn so skillfully and tastefully that it never disrupts the social realism of the story. The imagery of the movie’s horror lies within the world that is Mia’s: In the troubled water rushing to the shore of a near-by beach, in the mean grins of a group of bullies attacking our protagonist. Likewise, Arnold explores the beauty of the estate council without romanticising it, framing beautiful shots of stormy summer skies above concrete buildings or a white horse chained to a fence. The movie even has its humorous elements, too, mostly via Mia’s foulmouthed younger sister Tyler (pricelessly played by Rebecca Griffiths).

If it sounds like Fish Tank is a dull movie that fails to make any actual statement, positive or negative, then it’s my fault and certainly not the movie’s. It is exactly Fish Tank’s ability to not spell anything out for its audience that makes it into such a powerful film. When one reaches the ending of Fish Tank one is sure of nothing other than the fact that whatever happens to Mia, there will be no easy solutions in store for her. And that this is exactly why she deserves our attention.

Reviewing MTV’s Plain Jane

MTV’s Plain Jane is one of several tv shows that I’ve become addicted to by  accident, while spinning in front of the tv screens at my gym. Here’s a review.

I’m usually not that into reality shows, but makeover shows tend to reel me right in. What appeals to me about them is, I’m sure, the same thing that appeals to anyone who ever got hooked on a makeover show: The illusion that a quick, easy, and positive, yet radical personal transformation is possible and that you can become a better person practically over night. I call it an illusion because that’s what it is of course – change is difficult and demands hard work. But it’s a nice illusion. Especially when you’re on the spinning bike and the display lets you know just how painfully slowly you’re burning off those calories. So I rate makeover shows based on how good a job they do at selling me this illusion.

Louise Roe - hostess of MTV's Plain Jane

In MTV’s Plain Jane the hostess is English fashion expert Louise Roe. Roe receives video applications from young women, one per episode, who tend to have a plain appearance, and during a short period Roe sets about administering their transformation into hot, well-dressed, stiletto-sporting ladies.  She does this not only by taking them to high-profile stylists and hairdressers and expensive clothes shops, but also by putting them up to several challenges which typically include flirting with random guys in public and forcing the women to confront and overcome some random phobia of theirs, like touching snails or being alone in the dark.

Two days
Does the show do a decent job in selling the illusion that these acts really do transform the young women’s characters? Of course it does, a little. I wouldn’t have watched the entire first season if it weren’t the case. However, I do think there are some aggravating problems with the format of the show. The first and most obvious one is the fact that the entire transformation allegedly takes place during the course of just two days. I get that it must be sensible in regard to the budget of the show’s production to limit the shooting to a few days, but couldn’t they at least pretend that the makeover is spread over a longer period? Like a week or so? A span of two days simply doesn’t seem convincing in terms of personal transformation, not even of the most superficial kind. And especially not of the in-depth kind. Which brings me to the next problem with the show:

The Alleged In-Depth Transformation
The show’s primary object is to change the apperance of the girls – it’s right there in the title. The show is not called “MTVs Fear of Commitment Susan” or “MTV’s Problem with Intimacy Paula”. It’s “Plain Jane”. Which is why I really think the show ought to just focus on getting the girls to look and dress better instead of insisting on taking a faux-deep spin on it all by having the girls conquer their various fears and phobias, as mentioned above.

Especially considering the fact that, once again, the show only has two days to accomplish all this, which is hardly enough time even for a physical transformation. The result is that Louise Roe often ends up doing a half-assed sort of job on the girls. Like with Carrie in the episode “Conservative Jane”. Roe and the crew spend a lot of time conquering Carrie’s deepest fear (I believe it was a fear of the dark, but I’m not sure) instead of spending some time teaching Carrie how to walk in the super tall platform stilettos that they put her in in the last scene of the show. It hardly helps Carrie that she’s faced her phobia and is wearing expensive clothes and make-up when she is walking around with the apologetic and unsure slouch of a kid trying out stilts for the first time. And I’m not even beign catty here: Walking in high heels is difficult – we’ve all been there, with the stilt-walking – and it’s not Carrie’s fault that nobody on the show bothered teaching her.

Another thing is that the crew doesn’t seem prepared to deal with it when they actually manage to accomplish something with their in-depth “face your fears” challenges. In one episode, “Wallflower Jane”, 24-year-old Loreli is made to take a kind of boxing lesson, the emotional impact of which makes the young woman burst into tears. Louise Roe, being a fashion reporter and stylist, understandably has no idea how to handle the situation and as a result she just stands around awkwardly while the poor girl is sobbing her eyes out on international television. I get that the entire point of departure of reality TV is to explore people’s emotions (which is of course also problematic in and of itself, but that’s another discussion entirely), but on a show like “Plain Jane” where the premise is sleek surfaces and the illusion of painless metamorphoses, it’s just incredibly out-of-place and uncomfortable to watch.

Every Plain Jane has a Secret Crush
I’m also not sold on the show’s statement (repeated in the intro of every episode) that “every Plain Jane has a secret crush” the affection of which is pointed out explicitly as the goal of the entire makeover. It simply bothers the feminist in me that the makeover needs to be done for the sake of gaining a man’s approval when it could just as easily have been a question of simply making the young women feel better about themselves and their appearance. I actually think the show works the best when it takes a brief pause from focusing on what the guy in question will like. Like in the episode “Do Over Jane”. Here we meet a young woman, Clare, who has allowed herself to become stuck in a job a s barrista and lost sight of her dream of becoming a professional writer. In a few very nice scenes, Roe helps Clare pick out outfits that will make her look like a business woman, like someone who would be taken seriously if she walked into a publishing house with a manuscript. There was much more dignity in these scenes than in the final scene in which Clare was reuinted with some random failed blind date from her past, sharing an awkward on-camera kiss with him.

The “learn-how-to-flirt-with-guys” challenges that the Plain Janes are put up to are a little less offensive to me, since these could easily be seen as a way of learning how to get the young women to have fun and let loose a little, and these exercises don’t have the approval of one specific guy as their focus. The actual scenes, however, suffer a great deal from being so obviously staged: The allegedly random guys are clearly hired actors, and if I were one of the Plain Janes the idea that the show had to hire people to flirt with me would not exactly make me feel more self confident.

Also, I would like to add that the vast majority of the guys I’ve been involved with in my life haven’t really been that into fancy clothes and expensive make-up. They appreaciate the effort, so they have told me, but several of them have told me flat out that they think it’s sexier when women have their hair tousled and are looking casual and a little dirty. And, preferably, not wearing any clothes at all, fancy or not. Of course the preferences of men change from person to person, but still. I’ve seen little evidence that pretty clothes = endless romantic success.

Long sleeves and broken mirrors
Again: I’m not saying all this simply because I want to expose the show as being stupid and superficial. Of course it’s superficial, that’s what I like about it. It’s all about selling that superficial illusion. And there are a few things that I think the show does really well in this resepct. The best part about it, I think, is Roe’s repeated message to several of the young women that they have to embrace the woman in themselves and stop thinking of themselves as little girls. Women get things done while little girls sit around in schoolrooms and wait to be told what to do, and as all the partitioners on “Plain Jane” are on the wrong side of their school years, I love that Roe makes it her mission to get them to act their age. In one episode, Roe tells a Plain Jane to stop letting her sleaves fall down over her hands, because it looks childish. And in episode “No Risk Jane” Roe walks into Plain Jane Joanah’s bedroom and scolds Joanah for totally neglecting the interior decoration. Joanah is a hoarder, and her bedroom looks like the room of a messy 12-year-old,  packed with defect Chinese-style fans, ugly furniture, stuffed animals, and even a broken mirror. “Do you know what that means?!” Roe says, pointing furiously at said mirror. “Seven years of bad luck?” Joanah replies timidly, to which Roe retorted “Seven years of bad sex!” I thought that was one of the genuinely funny and cute moments of the show, and the interior decoraters that Roe released in Joanah’s bedroom actually did a wonderful job with it.

More of this, and less of the awkward boxing lessons and you’ve got me hooked for another season, MTV. Catch you at the gym.

“What did you say?” – Reviewing Lantana (2001)

Last month I had my first commissioned assignment ever on this blog! And All Suns Are Darkened sent me a dvd with the 2001  Australian movie “Lantana”, asking me to do a review of it on the blog. I am so honoured that this excellent blogger would be interested in my opinion, and I am really sorry that it has taken me this long to write the review. As I’ve already hinted at, I’ve just been incredibly busy lately, and I didn’t want to do end up doing an inferior job of the review. But enough of my excuses, on with the review.

Lantana is directed by Ray Lawrence, and I knew absolutely nothing about it before I sat down to watch the dvd. The film did, however, affect me deeply, and I was sucked into the movie right from the first phrames of the film which showed the body of a woman lying in a lantana bush. It’s the classic way to open a crime story, but Lantana isn’t that, or not just that, it’s more of a love story about the things that unfold when evidence takes the place of testimony.

Still from "Lantana"

The film, most of which is composed as a flashback showing us the events leading up to the body being found in the bush, introduces a handful of characters that are all more or less directly linked to the woman’s body. Anthony LaPaglia plays police officer, Leon, whose marriage is crumbling. Leon is having an affair with Jane, a recently separated woman (played by Rachael Blake) while Leon’s wife Sonja is secretly consulting a therapist about her worries that she is losing Leon. The therapist, Valerie (Barbara Hershey), is having problems of her own: The book she has just written about the loss of her 11-year-old daughter Eleanor has failed to give her the release she desperately needs, and the grief is tearing Valerie and her husband John (Geoffrey Rush) apart. Troubled by the thought that John may be leaving her, Valerie finds herself threatened by the cynical persepectives of a client, Patrick, who is having an affair with a married man and blames his lover’s wife for her denial. In the middle of all this is Jane’s next-door neighbour unemployed Nik and his wife Paula, parents of three young children and struggling to pay the bills, but happily married. One night, Jane sees Nik toss a woman’s shoe into a bush…

Something gets broken
Is there really any way a man could throw a woman’s shoe into some bushes late at night without it being a sign of some awful crime having been comitted? Suspicion versus redeeming trust is at the core of the movie, and mistrust is an essential problem in almost all of the relationships in the movie. Valerie says as much in her speech at her book launching:

We don’t know what’s right or right or wrong anymore. (…) We ask, what can we believe in, what should be we believe in? Our politicians? Hardly. Our priests? You’d be amazed at how many of my clients come to see me because they once believed in priests. It’s not supposed to be that way, but it is. What then, our parents? Our home is our sanctuary. For a privileged few. For most it’s a battle ground. It’s not supposed to be that way, but it is.”

Geoffrey Rush’s character John confirms as much in a pivotal scene in which he and Leon discuss their respective marriages:

“Have you ever cheated on your wife? (…) Well, you’re a better man than I am. (…) There was someone once. A woman. Once that’s happened you’re never entirely believed again. Something gets broken, permanently – trust, I suppose. When that’s happened anything’s possible it woud seem.”

But what I like the best about the movie is that John is actually – subtly – proven wrong. In Lantana it’s not the mistrust itself that seems to be the most damaging, it’s the failure to communicate that lack of trust, and the scenes that deal with these breaches of communication are what really makes the movie stand out to me. Ray Lawrence has something truly original at heart here, I think. One amazing scene has a frantic Valerie standing at the side of a road, talking into a payphone to her husband’s answering machine. She’s asking John to come pick her up and telling him that she needs him, but the message gets muddled by a not-quite-articulated suspicion:

“I’m on the back road, and… I just wanted to get home. (…) I called road service, they said there were going to be a 90-minute wait. Where are you? You didn’t say you were going to be late. I can’t stand this! Please… Please, I need you. (…) John? There’s a man… Patrick. He’s a client and he’s… he’s gay. I don’t understand this, I don’t understand us… anymore. I don’t want this to be happening to us.”

The message goes unanswered by her husband – with disastrous results. And this is far from the only scene in the movie where communication goes horribly wrong. Sonja wisely makes the point during a therapy session that Leon cheating wouldn’t be a problem in itself, but him cheating and not telling her would be, and after being deeply upset by her client Patrick and not voicing her anger to him, Valerie has a miserable non-conversation with a random stranger (Pete – Jane’s husband) whom she happens to pass in the street:

Pete silently passes Valerie in the street
Valerie: What did you say?
Pete: What?
Valerie: You said something to me.
Pete: No, I didn’t.
Valerie: Yes, you did!
Pete: I didn’t.
Valerie (to a bystander): You heard him, didn’t you?! He said something!
Pete: This is bullshit…
Valerie: Bullshit? I want your name.
Pete starts walking away
Valerie: Give me your name! Your name!

And this scene mirrors another scene which, to me was the most powerful scene of the entire movie, and to which I wouldn’t do justice by quoting it here as it doesn’t actually have much dialogue: Jogging in his neighbourhood, Leon bumps into a stranger in the sidewalking while turning a corner without looking. The collision causes him to accidentally headbutt the stranger. This leaves Leon with a massive blow to the head and it seemingly breaks the stranger’s nose. Blood everywhere, Leon starts shouting abuse at the stranger, blaming him for the accident. The stranger cowers and starts stuttering away. Leon then sees the stranger’s groceries lying on the street, he picks them up and follows him, trying to make amends. The stranger breaks down sobbing in a startled Leon’s arms.

It’s really one of the most powerful scenes I’ve seen in a long time in any movie, and it actually had my crying. Not so much because of the blood and the implied physical injury (although this was certainly graphic enough! So much blood.), but because of the implied psychological impact: The shock, the misdirected aggression, the hurt, the emotional response – and the short glimpse of compassion between two people. If misunderstandings and mistrust are inevitable between people, then it’s at least possible for us to make amends by genuinely communication with each other, so the movie seems to say.

Ray Lawrence and the “Short Cutspremise
The actors’ performances are excellent all around, and the art direction is brilliant as well. The opening shot of the film – zooming in through the pretty surface of a beautiful, blooming lantana bush, uncovering a bloody corpse lying between the tangled, dark branches while insects are buzzing – is iconic and reminded me somewhat of some of the nature morte-ish shots from Peter Weir’s excellent Picnic at Hanging Rock. It sets the movie’s tone of merciless scrutiny which is balanced by the aforementioned subtle sense of hope in the interacting between the characters.

I’ll admit that I was a bit worried when I first realized that the various’ character stories were all going to be intertwined somehow. I loved that premise in Short Cuts, but so many directors have tried to pull it off since and failed (most notably the clumsy and pretentious Playing by Heart). However, Lantana does this really well, especially because Lawrence actually manages to use it in quite a clever way: Several times I was fooled by this premise into suspecting that there was going to be a connection between two stories that turned out not to have a connection at all. An ingenious way to demonstrate the theme of suspicion and misunderstanding even in the narrative level of the movie.

And All Suns are Darkened did a review of the movie in his Top 5 of Australian movies himself – read it here.

C’est la guerre – Waterloo Bridge (1940)

I’ve been in bed for three days with a cold. After two days I badly needed something to pass the time. I called my father who recommended the 1940 movie Waterloo Bridge starring Robert Taylor and Vivien Leigh.

Despite being, so I like to think, at least somewhat well-versed within the movie classics, I’d never even heard of this movie before, which really got me thinking about how arbitrary it is that some movies continue to be thought of as classics, while others sink into oblivion. Waterloo Bridge certainly deserves status as a classic as much as, say, Casablanca does, if you ask me. I expected an old-fashioned romantic movie, but I got a lot more than that.

Air-raid romance
Not that the romantic story of the movie isn’t fulfilling in and of itself – it is. It’s the story of Captain Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) and ballerina Myra (Vivian Leigh), a young couple who have a chance encounter on Waterloo Bridge around the time of the on-set of World War I during an air-raid. After having spent some time together seeking shelter in the underground for the duration of the raid, the two are sad to part, and Roy goes to see Myra in her ballet company’s production of Swan Lake, taking her out afterwards. The two fall in love and Roy, destined to leave for France two days later, proposes the next day that they marry right away. Myra accepts, but before the two can be wed, Roy is given order to leave a day earlier than expected.

Courtship in wartime: Myra and Roy during the air raid

Taylor is dashing and Leigh displays a wonderfully sweet mien that will surprise anyone who associates her chiefly with the proud and capricious Scarlett O’Hara, and the two have great chemistry. Director Mervyn LeRoy has wisely chosen to let their quick attraction towards one another be shown through clever dialogue, which always seems more convincing and less forced to me than the lingering gazes movie directors sometimes resort to when depicting love at first sight. You really believe that these two people feel singularly comfortable with each other right away. The dialogue allows us to get to know the two main characters and the two characters to get to know each other:

Myra: What was it that you started to tell me in the restaurant that you didn’t understand about me?

Roy: No use getting into it now…

Myra: No, but tell me, please, I’d like to know.

Roy: Well, it struck me as curious ever since I met you… that you’re so young and so lovely and so… defeatist, you know? You don’t seem to expect much from life.

Myra: Well, aren’t I right? For instance, I met you. I liked you. And now so soon we have to part – perhaps we’ll never see each other again.

Waterloo Bridge as a “womance”
Myra is late for a ballet performance as she has to rush to the station to say goodbye to her war-bound fiancé, and for this misdemeanor she is excluded from the company by the strict manager Madame Kirowa. Myra’s best friend Kitty (Virginia Field) steps into character here as she stands up to Madame Kirowa trying to explain the urgent nature of Myra’s errand that night – and is thrown out along with Myra. This marks the beginning of the second half of the movie which is what really makes the movie stand out to me.

Because apart from being a romantic drama about boy meets girl, the movie is actually also a bit of a womance – the story of loving friendship between women. Kitty and Myra seem to be depicted deliberately as opposites: Brunette Myra is demure and meek, while blonde Kitty has a fiesty, outspoken temperament. Yet the two remain close and loyal  friends to each other, and after Roy has left to fight in the war, they move in together in a humble flat trying to make a living as dancers. The war leaves very few job opportunities for two young women ballet dancers, and as Myra is led mistakingly by a note in the newspaper that Roy has been killed, she sinks into depression and illness, leaving Kitty to desperately trying to support the both of them.

Sisterhood: Kitty and Myra

Kitty lies and tells Myra that she has got a job in a dance theatre production, but Myra catches her in the deception and confronts her. This leads to the most tremendously moving scene of the film:

Myra: Where is the money coming from? Where are you getting it?

Kitty: Where do you think I’ve been getting it?! …I tried to keep it from you, but… Well, you know now.

Myra: (sits down shakily) You did it for me.

Kitty: No, I didn’t! I’d have done it anyhow! C’est la guerre: No jobs. No boys who want to marry you. Only men who want to kill a few hours because they know it may be their last…

Myra: Kitty, you did it for me, to buy me food and medicine. I’d sooner have died…

Kitty: No no, you wouldn’t. You think you would, but you wouldn’t! I thought of that. But I wasn’t brave enough. I wanted to go on living. Heaven knows why, but I did, and so would you. We’re young, and it’s good to live! Even the life *I*’m leading, though God knows, it’s… I’ve heard them call it ‘the easiest way’. I wonder whoever came up with that little phrase. I know one thing: It couldn’t have been a woman. I suppose you think I’m dirt…

Myra: Oh, Kitty. (embracing her)

My quoting the scene doesn’t really do justice to it. The direction is absolutely ingenious here. The dialogue balances just on the verge of becoming an argument, and you think it will, but then it doesn’t, and it ends in an embrace. The feeling of solidarity between women that you sense in this scene is all the more important because of the subject matter, and it is also echoed significantly in Myra’s interaction with her mother-in-law Lady Margaret (a superb Lucile Watson) as the two share a scene of great compassion towards the ending of the movie when Myra is in a desperate state.

“If I were only casting the white swan…”
And the movie goes even further with that solidarity. Rather than letting Kitty play the part of the whore opposite Myra’s virtuous Madonna (like Kim and Amanda in the 2008 flick Taken which I recently reviewed), Myra, too, descends into prostitution in the aftermath of this scene. Kitty is right: Myra really does want to live, and there’s only one way to do that in their situation and it’s not the Madonna way. Surely it’s significant that Roy sees Myra dancing Swan Lake of all ballets. More than half a century before Black Swan, this movie explores the interesting duality that lies implicitly in the title character of the Tchaikovsky ballet – the white and the black swan embodied by one dancer.

In this movie, produced during the trying times of World War II, the theme is not, as in the Aronofsky movie, the destructive fulfilment of true art, but the hardships of women left behind as their men go off to the trenches. The reference, though kept very subtle, is most apparent in the heartbreaking scene,  beautifully played by Leigh, when Roy returns as a war hero and is overjoyed to find an astonished Myra there to receive him at the train station. He remains oblivious to the tragically ironic fact that she was really there to pick up customers . Once a white-clad ballerina, Myra is now wearing dark dress and a pitch-black hat. “It is you, isn’t it? It’s really you” Roy says, embracing her – as the swan theme from the Tchaikovsky ballet is struck up mournfully by the  orchestra in the soundtrack.

Metamorphosis. Left: Myra at the beginning of the story clad in white tutu as a bashful ballerina. Right: Myra as a prostitute in dark dress on the train station as Roy returns

Roy’s question goes unanswered by Myra who simply bursts into tears. This puzzles Roy – “This is a happy ending!”, he insists. In Mervin LeRoy’s directing, the returning war hero is optimistic and triumphant. But for the ones who have been left behind there is little triumph, the movie seems to say, and they have good reason to be, well, defeatist. For Myra and Kitty the war has been a humiliating defeat to the black-feathered side to them that has had to take over in order for them to go on living, and the home-coming of Roy assigns to Myra the impossible task of having to be the lily-white maiden that her war hero expects to find waiting for him.

Oh, ye’ll take the high road, and I’ll take the low road
The ending of the movie is concerned with the question of whether Myra will tell Roy what’s happened to her and whether Roy will be willing to accept and love Myra for what she is now. This makes for a satisfying ending to the romantic storyline, but it isn’t an urgent question. We have already been led to accept Myra and love her. I really like that, and I’m impressed that a movie from this era of partriachy, and directed by a man at that, got such a message through. I’m sure that the movie was marketed in part as an exploitation film because of its scandalous subject matter, but the prostitution storyline hardly gets an exploitation-like vulgar feel to it at any point in the actual movie.

Finally, the film has a very good soundtrack. Apart from introducing a fetching original love theme and, as mentioned above, remnants of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the orchestral score includes fragments of Scottish sentimental ballads such as “For Auld Lang Syne“, and “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond”, thus emphasizing discretely and effectively the themes of Myra’s metamorphosis, scottish-born Roy’s somewhat nostalgic approach to the world, as well as the moving story of affection and loss between two lovers.

“They are going to take you” – Reviewing Taken (2008)

So! Last weekend I did a lot of cleaning up around the house. I wanted a movie to watch while I was doing this, and decided on the 2008 action flick Taken starring Liam Neeson. This turned out to be a poor choice.

I guess you could say that I should have been able to predict the fact that Taken was not going to be a masterpiece. The poster is pretty generic looking as far as mindless action flicks go:

Still, Liam Neeson was in it! Whom I associate with clever films like Husbands and Wives. And the script was written by Luc “Leon” Besson.

And then I also got interested in the movie because I’d heard that it dealt with trafficking. Which it did, although in a slightly backhanded way: Liam Neeson is Bryan, a former CIA agent and divorced father of a 17-year-old girl. He very reluctantly lets the daughter, Kim, go to Europe with her 19-year-old friend Amanda as her sole companion, urged on by the ex-wife who thinks that Bryan is being overprotective of the girl. Shortly after arriving in Paris, however, the two young women fall prey to a group of criminals who are in the habit of kidnapping attractive girls and selling them off as sex slaves. Bryan is informed by his CIA sources that in cases such as this one, one usually has about four days to track down the victims before they will be gone forever, forced into a (presumably short) hellish existence of drugging and prostitution. With this grim statistic in mind, the father sets out on a gun-toting, action-packed quest to retrieve his daughter.

“The next part is very important… They are going to take you”
I do think there’s a lot of potential in a story like this. There’s strong motivation for the main character to get involved in the plot, there’s the possibility of a moving depiction of the love between a father and his child, and there’s even a chance of raising awareness about the conditions of victims of trafficking.

And the movie actually starts out promising. Liam Neeson does a great job in the expositional part of the movie, playing the part of a somewhat defeated man, estranged from his wife and struggling to be a good dad to his only child after having been absent during most of Kim’s childhood because of his job at the CIA.

This also builds efficiently up to the peripeteia of the movie – the scene in which Kim and Amanda are kidnapped from their Paris apartment – which is equally well crafted and actually one of the most chilling scenes I’ve seen in any action movie. Kim happens to be on the phone with her father when she witnesses a terrified Amanda getting attacked and dragged off, and Bryan can only listen helplessly as Kim tells him that the kidnappers are coming for her as well. Drawing on his CIA experience, Bryan records the call, then instructs her to win some time by hiding under a bed in the nearest bedroom. But as he informs her, wincing with terror and sorrow:

Now, the next part is very important … they are going to take you. Kim, stay focused, baby, this is key. You have five, maybe ten very important seconds. Leave the phone on the floor, concentrate. Shout out everything you see about them: Hair colour, (…), scars, anything you see. You understand?”

The monologue effectively sets up Bryan as a competent crime fighter, but it’s also absolutely chillingly set up. You don’t have to be a parent in order to be able to imagine how horrible it must be to listen to your child’s kidnapping, and to have to tell her that you have no way of preventing it. And it’s just as easy to identify with Kim’s horror as she realizes that nobody can stop the strangers from hauling her off to an unknown fate.

Then one of the kidnappers picks up Kim’s abandoned phone, which gives Bryan the chance to deliver the line that became the movie’s tagline:

I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.

The line is totally over the top and campy, of course, but as an action movie line it works and is kind of charming.

“…Good luck.”
The criminal on the other end of the line, Marko, of the line pauses dramatically before replying with an evil “Good luck”.

And this can be pinpointed as the exact moment when the movie starts sucking hard and loses every hint of believability.

I get that trafficking criminals are evil and ruthless, but I don’t really see them as supervillains who revel so much in their own evilness that they would actually take the time to wish a victim’s father a vicious “Good luck”, mid-kidnapping. In fact, I would think that traffickers are probably mostly in it for the money, and that they would want to get the hell out of the crime scene if they had just successfully kidnapped too teenage girls, one of whom had already alerted somebody over the phone.

But that’s a kind of finesse there’s obviously not room for in Taken. The villains have little resemblance with the malnourished, downtrodden thugs of the real world of crime, and as Bryan starts chasing them across Paris, they skillfully and athletically jump off highway bridges and on to moving trucks, dodge bullets, aim perfectly, taunting Bryan all the while. As if they’re quite used to their victim’s middle-aged dads coming after them 007 style and in fact take pleasure in his distress.

The Hollywood hero and the justification of torture
I can’t help but feel that this bears witness a view of the world that I find extremely dangerous, namely one in which fixed concepts of enemies thrive and are even encouraged. Kim’s kidnappers are Albanian mobsters, Kim is later manhandled by a lustful Arab sheikh, and the entire movie just reeks of a very unhealthy kind of post-millennium xenophobia mixed with a portion of post 9/11 paranoia. In such a world view there are no grey areas, no subleties, no nuances. The villains are villains and they are foreign and certainly not western, and they will rape your daughter and laugh in your face while doing so. And so anything goes for our western hero who is automatically in the right.

Pictured: ARAB!!1!!

This is most glaring in the scene in which Bryan has managed to capture Marko. I was absolutely appalled as I watched the hero of the movie tie his opponent to a chair and then continue to subject him to torture by giving him severe electric shocks through nails hammered into his thighs. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but it still shakes me to my very core to find that we’re living in a society in which we can still have a mainstream movie protagonist torture another human being.

The valuable virgin and the worthless whore
I’d be able to forgive at least parts of the above flaws in this movie if at least the issue of trafficking was dealt with tastefully. Not so, however. Since the traffickers seem to be in the business solely in order to torment Bryan, I suppose it makes sense that Kim would have to be the only victim that matters in the story. Still, it’s galling to see Bryan largely ignore every other victim of trafficking he encoutners. He makes contact with one other girl, whom he rescues – but only because he suspects that she has information about his daughter.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, there’s a truly icky tendency in the movie towards a stigmatization of sexually active women. Kim is ultimately saved because she is a virgin and thus too valuable to be put into immediate prostitution. Meanwhile, Kim’s friend Amanda is a sexually aggressive young woman – we learn as much from a piece of dialogue between the two girls upon their arrival in Paris:

Amanda: I’m gonna sleep with [Peter].
Kim: You just met him!
Amanda: I hear French guys are amazing. Maybe he has a friend, huh?
Kim: No, no.
Amanda: Oh, come on! You gotta lose it some time. Might as well be in Paris.”

‘How dare Amanda want to sleep with a cute French guy?’ gasps Hollywood and clutches its pearls indignantly. And sure enough, when Bryan finds Amanda, she is sprawled on her prostitute bed, dead from an overdoze.

He doesn’t even make an attempt to bring her body to safety, for fear lest, I suppose, he will catch syphilis from this dirty whore of a teenage girl. Virgins may be more valuable than non-virgins to the evil, evil Arab sheikhs in the movie, but our hero seems to make pretty much the same misogynic distinction. I wish the film would have included a scene in which Bryan is confronted by Amanda’s grieving parents whom he has robbed of the chance to bid a final farewell to their daughter. But of course then there wouldn’t have been time for the very relevant and deifying ending in which Bryan takes his virginal daughter to be given singing lessons by a famous American pop star.

No, I’m not kidding. That’s the actual ending of this action thriller about trafficking.

“A shrine to all the bullshit in the world” – The Towering Inferno (1974)

After watching and reviewing The Poseidon Adventure I was thirsty for more disaster movies, and The Towering Inferno seemed like the obvious choice for the second installment of my disaster film cavalcade.

The box office success of The Poseidon Adventure was a huge inspiration for the production of The Towering Inferno, no doubt about it. Even the hellish theme of the title is like an alternative version of the Poseidon Adventure tagline (“Hell upside down”), and Maureen McGovern was brought in once again to perform the movie theme song.

But The Towering Inferno feels more like an evolution of a genre than a rip-off of Poseidon. It’s a tremendous disaster film, a classic and every bit as cathartic as one could ever hope for.

A ship overturned by a tsunami is plenty scary, to be sure, but there is just something that much more terrifying about being trapped in a skyscraper several floors above a raging fire. There’s the fire – which, I suppose, will always seem a more immediately threatening element than water – but there’s also the law of physics to take into account.  If it seemed difficult to have to climb your way up through a ship, the prospect of escaping the Inferno scenario seems downright unnatural, unreasonable, impossible.  Add to this the post 9/11 feeling of terror linked to the image of a burning towering skyscraper, and it just doesn’t get more horrific.

It’s important to note, however, that the idea of terrorism has nothing to do with the original intention of The Towering Inferno. The frail, burning building in this movie becomes instead the image of a late 20th century fatal decadence, and this theme is introduced very elegantly at the beginning of the movie as the camera lingers in the beautiful rooms of the brand new building. Everything looks smooth and and luxuriously seductive in that certain 1970s kind of way, full of muted browns and orange hues, and you really just kind of want to move right into that building.

“Did you ask me then how I could shave two million from our electrical costs?
All the more shocking is it then, when the flimsy electrical system of the building allow the mutedly colured, seemingly robust walls to give way to fiery sparks, ultimately setting the tower on fire. The point that the cheep electrical system is indeed the cause of the disaster is made quite explicit. Engineer Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain) is responsible, and he is indeed portrayed as a very unattractive character – selfish, rude, cowardly, and unwilling to take on any responsibility, even in his marriage to his boss’s sweet daughter Patty (Susan Blakely).

But The Towering Inferno makes sure to let us know that things are never as black and white as all that. Roger Simmons did not build the tower on his own. Simmons is not completely in the wrong when he confronts Jim Duncan, his benign father-in-law, with the fact that Duncan very carefully avoided asking Simmons how he was able to get the budget for the electrical costs down by so much. Duncan was probably as seduced by the inviting, stylish appearance of the tower as we, the viewers, initially were, and you don’t have to make villanous, grand, epic gestures in order to cause the kind of terrible damage that is done in the Tower – the little things we choose to overlook in the name of saving and budgetting are quite enough.

This idea is also relevant to our protagonist. Paul Newman plays Doug Roberts, the architecht of the tower. Surely Roberts can’t pretend to be completely blameless either, as he witnesses his spectacular building disintegrating in flames, leaving the people inside it little chance of escape. Newman plays the part of the guiltridden, yet heroic and responsible architect beautifully, and the part is well written. Roberts has what is probably the most essential line of the movie, as he regards the burnt-out, hollow, flimsy frame of the Tower:

“Maybe they just oughta leave it the way it is. Kind of a shrine to all the bullshit in the world.”

A sobering thought, even in the world of today where our fixed gaze on our bullshit budgets still cause us to overlook things and avoid asking certain questions.

Muscle & Brains
Perhaps the writers recognized the fact that Gene Hackman’s brawny intellectual in Poseidon was a bit on the campy side. In any case, they have divided the brains and the muscle into two heroic characters. Slender, blue-eyed Newman has the Brains, while sturdy Steve McQueen provides the Muscle as the Battalion Chief of the heroic, summoned firefighters. The two convincingly work together at limiting the number of human lives lost in the flames.

They still allow Paul Newman to unbutton his shirt a little, though. And with that I'd like to extend a warm thanks to the producers.

Killing your darlings
The human lives in question are depicted admirably and without any feeling of rushed exposition. The one exception may be the adding of a deaf woman to the story – who is not only hearing impaired, but also the mother of two helpless and attractive young children (one of them played by the wholesome youngest kid from The Brady Bunch) – that one is the only jarringly obvious attempt at tugging at the sentimental heartstrings of the audience.

Pictured: The oil paint equivalent of trapping a deaf mother inside a burning building in a disaster film.

Apart from this, the characters and their story arcs are sketched with a ruthlessness that sucks you right into the movie. If the Poseidon had a few unexpected character deaths, Inferno takes this surprise element to a whole new level. You simply never, ever know who’s going to get killed off, and it seems to be an important point in the story that the good, selfless, and brave characters are not necessarily the ones that make it to safety on the ground.

A particularly shocking scene is (SPOILER ALERT) the one between the movie’s two lovers – chief of public relations Dan Bigelow (Robert Wagner) and his secretary-come-mistress Lorrie (Susan Flannery). The couple are, despite their seemingly adulterous affair, depicted as two perfectly lovely individuals – intelligent, sexy, amorous –  and yet they are killed off in the most gruesome fashion, as Bigelow burns to death and Lorrie falls to her death to avoid the flames in a very explicit scene. Gentle Lisolette (Jennifer Jones), too, is given a cruel fate even after she’s risked her life to save the two children. There is no mercy in Inferno, and, despite its religiously inspired title, no comfort to be found in the idea of a merciful God, the way we saw in Poseidon. We’ve got to take responsibility for our own mess, the movie seems to say, or we will continue to endanger our own and others’ lives. Or as Steve McQueen puts it in the most moralizing moment of the film:

“You know we were pretty lucky tonight, body count’s less than 200. You know, one of these days, you’re gonna kill 10,000 in one of these firetraps, and I’m gonna keep eating smoke and carrying out bodies until someone asks us how to build them.”

We May Never Love Like This Again
Other things worth mentioning include the appearance of Fred Astaire as an aged, but redeemable and charming con-man, beautiful Faye Dunaway’s subdued portrayal of Roberts’ girlfriend Susan, and the fact that writer Stirling Silliphant managed to make the movie feel coherent despite having based its plot on two different novels.

Maureen McGovern’s song for the movie is decent, but it lacks the compelling atmosphere and catchy tune of “The Morning After” and too much effort has been put into making the song lyrics work on two levels – love story and disaster story:

“We may never love like this again/Don’t stop the flow/We can’t let go.”

I mean, I get how the “flow” relates to the disaster story – fire hoses and all that  – but on the love story level it just sounds kind of gross.