Archives for category: movies

Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, set in Victorian England, tells of an illiterate girl, raised with an Oliver Twist-like band of criminals, who is hired out as a maid to an orphaned Japanese heiress in the care of her uncle. There are some truly Dickensian plot twists including an involuntary commission to a madhouse. Central to the plot is the love that develops between the young thief (Sue) and the young lady (Maud).

Chan Wook-Park’s Handmaiden is a Korean adaptation set in World War II-era occupied Korea. While there are obviously some dynamics between the Korean and the Japanese characters that might be lost on a Western audience, there are only a few indications of the period. Japanese soldiers on a ferry, for example. A note at the beginning of the film lets us know that subtitles in white indicate Korean, while subtitles in yellow indicate Japanese. That said, the film mostly takes place on a wooded country estate. (Occasional music cues indicate a debt the filmmakers feel they owe to Downton Abbey.)

Arranged in three parts, the first details the story from the perspective of the thief (Sook-Hee). She arrives, plays her part, which is to make the heiress (Lady Hideko) fall in love with he Fagin character (Count Fujiwara – a Korean who can play a convincing Japanese aristocrat) so that he can have her committed. It concludes with the three going off to celebrate the marriage and the honeymoon. Hideko’s role is to play a somewhat head-sick ingenue.

The second part goes back earlier in the story to when Fujiwara conspires with Hideko’s uncle (Kouzuki) and guardian to take the girl away so that her inheritance will devolve back to the uncle. Kouzuki, we learn, is a collector of pornography. Lady Hideko has been trained from a young age to give dramatic readings of this material to selected guests. She’s not the naïf we thought we’d met in part one. These readings are some of the most intense scenes in film. With everyone in the room fully dressed, they’re more sensual than the actual sex that the film portrays.

In the third we learn of the double-cross planned by Hideko and Fujiwara. I don’t want to give anything away to folks who’ve neither read the novel nor seen the movie, but the film gives very little time to the madhouse sequence which was one of the more unexpectedly harrowing pieces of writing I’d ever come across. The fact that Sook-Hee is illiterate makes for some amusing moments early in the movie, but these moments are used to contrast only Hideko’s dramatic readings. The contrast is far more disturbing and used to much greater effect in the novel.

Kouzuki and Fujiwara both receive an interesting (and somewhat horrific) comeuppance.

I’ve become rather prudish in my old age and found some of the sex rather gratuitous. Beautiful, but distracting from the power of the rest of the film. I knock off a star for the combination of that and the missed opportunity of the madhouse. Otherwise, Handmaiden is beautiful, intriguing, and very well crafted.

I hadn’t seen Casablanca in several years when I started this little essay, save for the clip of the Marseillaise which I always pull up on Bastille Day (but before that horrible attack in Nice). I watched it again on a flight back from the US a few weeks ago, though, to make sure my notes made sense.

As we get to know Rick Blaine, the facts of his life come in drips. We learn that he lives by his own code which is honourable but not in the most conventional sense, that he’s carried a torch for a woman he never expected to see again, and that he’s on the run from the US for an arms-related issue. (This is tricky because what we learn from Laszlo is that he fought in Spain on the side of the Loyalists. Is that sufficient to put him on the wrong side of the US? We don’t really know the reason he’s on the run.

He’s anti-fascist on principle, and seems to thrive where there’s little in the way of order.
Having been in Paris at the time of the initial occupation, he packed up for French-administered Morocco and set up Rick’s Cafe Americain, expecting he’d be able to do business there for the duration. The Americans hadn’t taken sides and didn’t look set to do so.

The movie came out in November, 1942, so about a year after US entry into the war. But when precisely does it take place? We get one hint: in a stupor, Rick asks his friend Sam ‘If it’s December 1941 in Casablanca, what time is it in New York?’ only to receive the answer, ‘My watch stopped.'(What is the nature of their relationship? They’ve been together for several years, and Sam is something more than an errand runner, pianist, and drinking buddy, but he’s those things too.)CasablancaJP

Having identified the ‘beginning of a beautiful friendship’ with the French police captain, we can guess that either the next day or the day after that, Casablanca will hear the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor and Rick will be back in the war.

As we near the 75th anniversary of US entry into World War II (and shortly after that, the 75th anniversary re-release of the film), we find ourselves on a similar precipice. There’s a whole lot of war going on, but we’ve not formally declared World War III. Does Brexit signify that the UK (the Untied Kingdom?) will enter hostilities with Turkey and Russia on a different side than the US and the EU? For example.

In 1991, I was oh so certain that we wouldn’t get out of the 20th century without another great war. I think I figured that by the time I turned 50 we’d be at the other side of it, not just getting ready to enter it. But, as I’ve argued elsewhere (and not originally), we’ve spent the last century fighting the ongoing skirmishes of WW1. Alliances shift, but we’re still keen to be at war. Just because we can’t picture an Anglo-Russian invasion of Iran today doesn’t mean equally strange alliances aren’t afoot. In that category of unintended consequences (you know, everything that’s going on in the Middle East that was predicted in 2002 in some form or another), the results of the Brexit referendum are just all of a piece.

Every time I skim social media, there’s a link to some new atrocity (all the places we’re bombing or the bombing of which we’re financing) or case of legislative poor judgement (today’s example is France banning the burkini – let’s alienate all the people we really don’t want to alienate, shall we?). Each one leads me to the conclusion that the war is just going to get closer even if we don’t declare it. Happily sat in relatively unharmed Nederland, I can claim my own neutrality. At what point to I have to declare which side I’m on?

The first point to make perfectly clear is that the act of which Roman Polanski is accused (and to which I believe he has admitted guilt, though I’m not certain) is indefensible. As indefensible as what Prince Philip is accused of this week.

It also occurred in the 1970s.

Calling Hollywood at the time a very different place is an understatement. I don’t even refer to what was published in the tabloids, but what Hollywood produced. I recently saw a publicity still from the 1980 film Little Darlings about two 15 year old girls vying over who will lose her virginity first at summer camp. I’m not certain this movie could be made with that precise premise today. I’ve not seen it since it was first on cable TV. The same is true of A Little Romance (1979), Rich Kids (1979), or Foxes (1980).

These four had a distinct influence on my adolescence, though perhaps A Little Romance is the odd one out because it addresses teen love without being overt about sexuality per se. The others have central plot components that hinge on teenage or pre-teen sexuality. This is especially true of Rich Kids in which the protagonists are twelve. In Foxes, the lead characters are all dealing with coming of age in different ways (but are for the most part at least of their majority).

Paul Thomas Anderson’s 90s film Boogie Nights shows much of what film life in Hollywood in the late 1970s was about. Yes it’s a fiction about the porn industry, but shows a little about the behind the scenes fantasy that was film in general at the time.

Other notable films that engaged in teen or pre-teen exploitation included Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby (1978) and Blue Lagoon (1980). My notes indicate Caligula as well, but Caligula (which I only know by reputation) is of interest because it was essentially a porno (produced by Penthouse magazine founder Bob Guccione) with duped major league actors (including John Gielgud, Peter O’Toole, Helen Mirren, and Malcolm MacDowell).

Blue Lagoon‘s paper-thin plot revolved around two youngsters (played by Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins) shipwrecked somewhere tropical who grow up with only each other for company after the one other survivor (played by Leo McKern – how do I remember this stuff?) drinks himself under with a washed up keg of rum. There’s sex and nudity (though I recall a defense made because Shields’ boobs were played by a body double).

prettyBabyPretty Baby, which starred Susan Sarandon as madame of a (New Orleans?) brothel in the 1917. Again, it’s not one I’ve watched in a long time – probably 20 years. I recall that one plot point involved the auction of one prostitute’s virginity, possibly that of the girl played by (again) Brooke Shields.

The thing about these movies is that they’re from a relatively long time ago. Note that (going back to my opening), I don’t believe there should be a statute of limitations on crimes against minors. My question is: has the sexualisation of teenagers (and pre-teens) increased or decreased since then. Or simply changed. I’m no longer the target audience for such films and am more likely to see a Pixar movie in the theatre than one targeted to a slightly older audience. I’m also aware of how much easier it is to get a kid-friendly rating from the MPAA for a violent movie than for a movie with sexual themes. I’m not sure that makes a difference to my argument. I don’t recall the rating Little Darlings received, but I’m pretty sure Rich Kids got a PG, but Blue Lagoon and Pretty Baby were both R. (A comparison of UK and US ratings system can be found here. Just because they had R ratings, however, doesn’t mean they didn’t sexualise the youth in the movies and exploit that in the marketing.

I’m also not saying that the themes of these movies shouldn’t be addressed in celluloid. Just that the way these themes were handled at the time reflected an entertainment industry culture that found it easy to test the boundaries. I should note that the period in question is the first decade or so after the ratings system replaced the Hays Code (a change that itself was a response to the boundary-pushing already happening in 1960s films). The Hays code (enforced from 1934-1968) pretty much meant that any major movie that made it to the big screen was suitable for all audiences. Wikipedia cites Antonioni’s Blow-Up (denied release for nudity) and Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf‘s use of language as reasons to categorise movies according to audience suitability.

The administration of the ratings system in the US has a questionable history. The process, if I recall rightly, was always secret, and rarely did the committees rating the movies provide reasons why rating A was given over rating B, leaving directors to figure for themselves how to edit a movie to get the rating they were after. My favourite such example regards the South Park movie released in ’99. The original subtitle was All Hell Breaks Loose which earned it an NC-17 (17+, no exceptions) which was the death knell for a film aimed at teenagers. I’m pretty sure the makers were after an R. The more I think about it, the more I’m certain this story is apocryphal, but changing the subtitle to Bigger, Longer, and Uncut earned them the rating they wanted.

A check of Wikipedia indicates multiple issues the studio and producers had with the MPAA, but the title wasn’t one of them. It took a lot of back and forth, however, to get the desired rating. Another film that faced similar issues was Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut. The solution there involved obscuring a couple of participants in what might have been an orgy.

Note that South Park and EWS had vastly different target audiences and that neither sexualised young people. In the movies, the last couple decades seem to be a little different in that regard than the years that preceded them.

I participated last week in a discussion on the relative merits of Frozen. (Do I need to link to Frozen? I hope not.) Yes, this seems like a big left turn, but hold on. One friend argued that focus in the movie on the relationship between the sisters was markedly different than that of previous Disney movies in which the goal of getting a prince was paramount. She continued that the way the movie handled the central theme of actively rejecting parental restrictions on expression empowers young women to acknowledge and overcome their own experiences in this regard. This may not be apparent now, but wait until this generation of six year olds hits adolescence.

In short, I agree with her, but with the caveat that this depends on how much other Disney product young Frozen fans are exposed to. I occasionally end up on the treadmill at my gym that faces the TV tuned to the Disney channel. (Other choices are TLC, Discovery, and some Dutch channels.) While I don’t listen to the TV audio when I’m on the treadmill (I have to have music or there’s no motivation), I’m always drawn to the video monitors. Live action Disney programmes really trouble me for the way teen and pre-teen girls are depicted. I know sound like Tipper Gore at the PMRC hearings when I say that the way girls are made up and behave on these shows disturbs me. I’m childless, but certainly wouldn’t want my nieces (who are brilliant and not easily swayed by such things) to dress or behave that way. A visit to disney.com redirects for me to disney.nl, but clicking on a link for Violetta, one of the first shows listed, seems to make my point even if I’m doing a poor job of it. I’m sure there’s more to say on this, but I’ll leave it here for the moment.

nicked from imdbI found Red, a 2010 action comedy, an amusing diversion. Good actors, decent script (based on Warren Ellis source material), nice soundtracking and editing. Bruce Willis plays a retired CIA agent who stumbles on a series of murders and ropes in John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman, and Helen Mirren to get to the bottom of the case. Done successfully, with a nice bad guy flip at the end.

The movie did, however, hit three of my sore spots regarding movies in general. I’d like to say these problems are limited to genre fare, but they’re not.

The first is relatively minor, but I think it’s astoundingly common. Take the one really cool special effect – the one about which the effects department is most proud – and put it in the trailer. No! Let it actually astound the audience in its proper context the way it was supposed to.

Note: Spoilers below. Read the rest of this entry »

The last movie I saw in the theatre was Magic in the Moonlight which confirmed for me that Woody Allen has little or no use for women (or at this point character development). I’m about 90% sure it didn’t pass the test. The last movie I saw that did pass the Bechdel test? Frozen. That was a surprise.

Yes, the test was originally part of a satire, but it’s still not a bad starting point when creating a movie. Damn sad that it still seems to be a point to change when taking a script from paper to screen.

On the other hand, Bechdel was just awarded a MacArthur fellowship which is really bloody cool.

Victim to Charm

Think about the last movie you saw. Were there two or more female characters? Did they talk to each other about something besides men?

The Bechdel test, created by Alison Bechdel, examines female roles in movies by asking three questions:

  • Are there two or more women in the film?
  • Do they talk to each other?
  • Is their conversation about something other than a man?

alison bechdel, dykes to watch out for From Alison Bechdel’s comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” (1985).

The test seems simple—women talk to each other about things besides men all the time in real life—yet a surprisingly high number of movies fail to represent this basic activity.

5540832_origThe test is so basic because it’s a standard that should be easy to pass. The fact that so many movies fail to achieve one, two, or all three of the test’s clauses highlights the rampant misogyny of the film industry. If a movie can’t…

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