4/13/04:

An interesting mix of films and some tight scheduling made today rather dizzying. First, it was off to the Ritz East theater via the El to catch a screening of Bright Young Things. As per the suggestion of Star and Sarah, I had packed some food with me today, and so managed to avoid the temptations of greasy fast food. Instead I scarfed down one and a half peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and waited for the movie to begin.



Films I saw today: Bright Young Things, Moon Child, Haute Tension

Bright Young Things

Actor Stephen Fry (whom you may remember from the "Blackadder" TV show, and/or from his role as the bumbling inspector in Gosford Park) made his directorial debut with this extremely British film version of Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies, which he also adapted for the screen, and in which he appears in a cameo part as a chauffeur. Unlike other directorial debuts I could mention, this one is a smashing success, perhaps because the director is already a veteran of the film world. Unfortunately I cannot rate his ability as an adapter, as I've never read the original material, but I can say that Bright Young Things is an extremely well-written movie, and that it gives us ample evidence that Stephen Fry is highly skilled as a director.

The film opens at a party in 1930s London. All the rich, pretty young people are there. The theme of the party is inferno, but a better word to describe it would be excess. To understand what I mean, think America in the 1920s. This was England's jazz age, and this story is a kind of British Great Gatsby. The young rich roar around, drinking, doing drugs, having sex, and complaining about how everything is so boring and beastly, while the rest of British society looks on in fascination, horror, and moral condemnation--but mostly fascination. A journalist sneaks into the party and is quickly chased out, but not before he gathers enough material to write a sensational article that's splashed across the front page of the newspaper the next day with the headline: "Feeding Time at the Zoo for the Bright Young Things."

One of these bright young things is a bored, fickle young woman named Nina (Emily Mortimer, who also stars in another film at this year's festival--Young Adam), who's awaiting the return of her beau, Adam (no relation to the Adam in Young Adam; this character is played by Stephen Campbell Moore in a fantastic debut performance--that's two good debuts associated with this movie!). He's on his way back from some time abroad, where he's been working on a book about the bright young things (called, incidentally, The Bright Young Things). Unfortunately, the folks at Dover customs don't like books, and they quickly conclude (in a hilariously surreal and bitingly satirical sequence) that Adam's is particularly filthy and evil. It is confiscated and tossed in a drawer.

Adam is just a bit put out by this event, as he had promised a finished book to Lord Monomark (Dan Aykroyd, in a small but funny role), the Canadian newspaper tycoon who sponsored his work. Lord Monomark may be Canadian, but his big, brash, no-nonsense, do-it-yourself attitude and his dislike of British modesty is all American. He wants a book on the bright young things because it's stories about the young, beautiful, idle rich that sell newspapers, and he's got a hunch it will sell books, too. Adam promises him he'll rewrite the book as soon as he can. But that's easier said than done, and Adam was counting on using the money from the book to marry Nina. While avoiding paying the rent at the hotel where he lives, Adam manages to win a large sum of money from an eccentric rich fellow named Ginger who enjoys gambling, but then gives it all to a drunk old Colonel to be bet on a horse. By the time he figures out that the horse is a sure loser, the Colonel has disappeared, and he's right back where he started. Adam continues to search for the elusive and dubious Colonel throughout the rest of the movie--he becomes the symbol for Adam's quest for wealth.

So then it's off to a party with Nina (who, I want to mention, could have been a really unlikable character if it weren't for the humanity, fragility, and warmth that Emily Mortimer puts into her performance). Also headed to the party is a friend of Adam's named Lord Simon Balcairn (James McAvoy, fresh from his role as Leto Atreides II in the Sci Fi Channel miniseries Children of Dune; his performance is a lot stronger and more convincing here), but he's going as his alter-ego, society column writer Mr. Chatterbox. Unfortunately, he couldn't secure an invitation, so, in a sequence reminiscent of the opening of the movie, he sneaks into the party in disguise, is discovered, and is promptly thrown out in disgrace. So he writes a pack of malicious lies about the party, skewering the "old survivors" and "bright young things" alike. His column (like the film itself) becomes a deconstruction and critique of an entire group of people, of an entire age, and though it is full of falsehoods, it hits at the bitter truth.

I don't want to give away what happens to Simon after that, so I'll just say that Adam is lucky enough to inherit his job. He even takes a tip from Simon and decides to write a column that's pure lies. He invents characters and fashions, and is a bit startled to see some of them become real. Everything seems to be going fine until he lets Nina write the column one week, and loses the job. So then it's back to his quest for money again, as Nina slowly slips away from him. And into the middle of all of this comes the sudden horror of World War II, which seems an intrusion from some other world, into the alcohol-soaked, endless amusement ride that is the lives of the bright young things.

Bright Young Things is a movie of many parts. It's a warm romance and a rollicking comedy, but it's also cleverly biting and rather sad. It's full of plenty more excellent performances and memorable characters that I haven't even mentioned, including Stockard Channing's ridiculous, loopy, blue-collar preacher-woman character, Mrs. Melrose Ape, who tries to "save" the bright young things from their wayward activities; Peter O'Toole's rather dotty Colonel Blount (Nina's father), who signs his checks with the names of famous movie stars; Michael Sheen's flamboyantly gay Miles, who, due to the indiscretions of his racecar-driving lover, Tiger (Alec Newman, who coincidentally played the father of James McAvoy's character in Children of Dune and Dune) is ultimately forced into exile from conservative England; and a rather ditzy woman named Agatha (Fenella Woolgar), who gets high at a race and ends up driving off in Tiger's racecar. When she's found, she's put in a mental hospital, but in her mind, the ride continues, and turns into a symbol for the lives of all the idle young rich. In her dream, she tells Adam, they were all driving around and around at another race, and all these reporters were watching, and they kept telling her to go faster and faster, and the race went on and on.

Bright Young Things artfully and wittily satirizes both ends of British society--the stolid old conservatives and the crazed liberal party-goers--all those "vile bodies," as Nina puts it. It's an amazing analysis and encapsulation of a time, a people, and a culture. It's also a truly excellent film.

My Poll Rating: Excellent

Intermission

After Bright Young Things, it was back onto the El and out to West Philly, to the International House. Unfortunately, as it turns out, it might have been a better idea to just grab a cab. The El took a little longer than I thought it would, and the stop I got off at was a little further from the I. House than I'd anticipated, so I ended up running frantically through the rain to make my next movie. Luckily, I managed to arrive before it started, and my friend Star had saved a seat for me.

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Moon Child

This was one of the movies that I added of my list of films to see as soon as I'd read the first sentence of the program description. Allow me to quote it for you:

"A wild hybrid of futuristic science fiction, John Woo-styled gunplay, and gothic vampire horror, this Japanese gangster film is an endearing multi-genre collision."

I don't know about you, but that sounds fantastic to me. Unfortunately, for some reason the movies that I'm the most attracted to tend to be the worst ones I see (e.g., The Park). Do I just have bad taste when it comes to picking movies, or are these descriptions totally misleading? Probably a little of both. I certainly can't lay the blame wholly at the feet of the programmers and the program descriptions, since the sentence quoted above is completely accurate--well, all except for the word "endearing."

Moon Child is a ridiculous, mismatched pile of genres and tones. It swings wildly from lightning fast action to achingly slow tragedy, from totally silly and stupid comedy to sickening melodrama, from gritty mobster intrigue to homoerotic goth vampire fantasy, from the realistic and the everyday to the completely ridiculous and unbelievable. It is just shy of two hours in length, but remember Einstein's General Theory of Relativity when I tell you it is a long, long, LONG film. It goes on and on and on. By the end, the fun of the early action scenes was long gone and I had been emptied of all feelings except for pain and the desire to escape.

The film opens on New Year's Eve, 1999. We meet a couple of guys running from the police who, we quickly discover, are vampires. The Japanese like vampires. They also like androgynous main characters. But they LOVE androgynous vampire main characters, and even better than that are multiple androgynous vampire main characters that share a vaguely homoerotic relationship, and that's what we have here. The younger of the two vampires is Kei, and his "sire," to borrow a handy term from the "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" universe (your sire is the vampire that turned you into a vampire), is Luka. Luka is tired of his abnormally long life and decides to give it up, leaving Kei alone. Kei is not very happy about this.

Flash-forward fourteen years or so into the future. Now we're in a fictional area of Taiwan called Mallepa. It's urban and violent and mainly populated by poor Japanese immigrants. Some of the gangs prowling the streets are just young kids. One of these little street rats is Sho. After he and his buddies steal a briefcase from an adult gangster, they all run off in separate directions. Sho happens to end up in the alley where Kei is lying unconscious, starving for blood (the movie misses a chance for an easy scare here when Kei wakes up suddenly and grabs the kid--if the scene had been edited or filmed or scored differently, this could have been an interesting moment). The kid, being kind-hearted, drags Kei back to his gang's hideout to help him, and lucky for Sho, since that grown-up gangster soon shows up looking for his briefcase (which was, as the kids had hoped, full of money). Kei takes care of him (though not before the gangster manages to shoot Sho's older brother, Shinji, in the leg, crippling him for life), and a bond is firmly established between vampire and child. In fact, Sho smiles happily at Kei as he sucks the life out of the screaming criminal. It's a very strange scene, emblematic of the film's tendency to jam together various elements in a rather inappropriate fashion.

Flash-forward yet another fourteen years or so into the future (in case you're counting, it's 2025 now, and yes, this is getting ridiculous). Sho has now taken Luka's place as Kei's partner in a vaguely homoerotic relationship (which is kind of icky, considering the incredible age difference), and he's also grown up to be a healthy, extremely androgynous main character. But he's not a vampire yet, despite the fact that he inexplicably has superpowers akin to Neo's in The Matrix. He can dodge bullets while flinging not-so-witty rejoinders back at his rather bored vampire partner. He can even catch a thrown cigarette in his mouth, sometimes. He and Kei seem to have become some kind of superhero duo. (Sho's brother Shinji is also around, making deals with gangsters, but he's crippled and on drugs and seems to basically be living off of Sho's charity.) They have a friend named Toshi who delivers drugged pizzas to gangster hideouts. Once the gangsters are unconscious, they come in and shake the place down.

One night, things don't go quite as planned--the pizza doesn't have quite enough drugs in it--and a large gun battle ensues. Kei dances one dead gangster around like a puppet, using his body as a shield and his gun as a weapon, easily disposing of various thugs. Sho flies around the room shooting everyone a la John Woo and dodging bullets via the famous bullet-time special effect. Meanwhile, Toshi is trying to take down a legitimate order for pizza on his cell phone and avoid the crossfire at the same time. It's around this time that they realize somebody else is making a hit on this same gangster hideout on this same night. His name is Son and, unlike Kei and Sho, he actually has a good reason for wanting to take these guys out--one of them raped his sister, Yi-Che. They quickly decide to join forces against the gangsters.

So far, the movie has been pretty fun. It's been silly, with some exciting, imaginative, and funny action scenes. But it's at about this point that Moon Child takes its first big turn for the worse. It becomes, for a little while, a goofy buddy movie. A montage make clear to us (while "Mr. Bojangles" plays in the background--gag!) that Kei, Sho, Son, Toshi and Yi-Che are all becoming great friends, and that Sho is falling for Yi-Che. Yi-Che, by the way, hasn't spoken a word since she was raped. Of course, we all know she will speak at some dramatic moment, because this is a movie, and that's the way these things happen in movies. The only thing separating the movie from a regular old romantic comedy at this point is that one of the characters is a vampire and all of the characters tend to get into gun battles occasionally.

And just when you think you've got a handle on things, and everything seems to be going fine for all of our heroes, the movie takes a sharp turn into much darker territory. Some gangsters finally figure out who's been delivering all those drugged pizzas. They track down Toshi and shoot him dead. Just to make things extra, extra melodramatic, they happen to find him in a park on the day that Yi-Che's mural is being unveiled in said park (apparently she's an artist). We also learn, literally moments before Toshi is killed, that he's an orphan, and he was going to meet his real mother for the first time that day. I'm not even kidding. Is the movie kidding? I don't think so. It tends to be funny or silly at totally inappropriate moments. As Toshi is being shot down, he tries to defend himself with an imaginary weapon--he pretends his fingers are a gun and shoots at the gangsters. Again, I swear I am not kidding.

Anyway, it's obviously time to jump a bunch more years into the future again, so that's what happens now. (Don't worry, it will happen yet another time before the movie ends! We eventually end up getting as far as 2045.) The film now tries to become some kind of complex, tragic gangster epic along the lines of The Godfather. Sho has become the leader of his own gang, and Son has left him and joined another gang, and Kei has gotten himself captured and imprisoned in some other country, and...

Oh, forget it. Suffice it to say, the movie goes on, adding melodramatic plot twist on top of melodramatic plot twist, and getting more and more depressing and gloomy and ridiculous as it goes. It also keeps moving slower and slower, grinding almost to a complete halt long before it actually ends. Oh yeah, and eventually Yi-Che starts talking. Guess what her first words are? She sees Son and Sho fighting and says, "Why can't we all get along like before?" I told you, I'm not kidding. The movie is really this corny.

By the end of this movie, I was writhing in agony as the characters whined and moped and raged and generally made complete fools of themselves. They were not believable or realistic or likable or sympathetic or even fun any longer. I did not like them or understand them. I just wanted them and their problems to go away. I was tired of the constantly changing tone, the strange and utterly confusing mixture of comedy, tragedy, realism and fantasy. I could not wait to leave.

Even so, I can't hate Moon Child completely. It is occasionally clever, funny, and exciting, especially during the first half hour or so. Maybe it would be better if you just walked out of it after that first big gun battle.

My Poll Rating: Fair

Intermission

At this point Star and I headed out of the International House and grabbed the El back across town to the Ritz East theater. We had plenty of time, so there was no need to run, and by this time the rain had stopped, so it was a considerably less tense travelling experience. I'll also mention here that Star enjoyed Moon Child a great deal more than I did. She found it to be silly and rather dumb, but also fun. It entertained her. For me, parts of the movie could serve as entertainment, while other parts could serve as torture.

Anyway, before Haute Tension began, our programmer Travis Crawford pointed out that he'd heard many people pronouncing the title of the film wrong--it's "Hote Ten-SHOWN" not "Hawt TEN-shun." I realized that I was one of the people he was reprimanding, and felt embarrassed. Actually, I'm still not sure I've got it right. I'm not up on French pronunciation. Unfortunately, this means that French words tend to leave me vaguely frustrated. Strangely enough, French films also tend to leave me vaguely frustrated, so I was going into this next movie with a bit of anxiety...

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Haute Tension

The title means high tension, and the movie delivers on this promise. Directed by Alexandre Aja (his second turn in the director's chair), Haute Tension is a slasher flick/horror thriller that features teen girls and lesbianism (together again at last!) and it is sick and twisted and extremely gory--so of course I wanted to see it. Even the fact that it was French couldn't turn me away. You may not want to hear this next part (so skip down the rest of this paragraph, and the next one if you like to be totally surprised by a movie, and you expect to see this one some day), but it also has one of those mind-bending, entire-movie-altering twists near the end that lots of movies seem to have these days (such as, to give some rather old but appropriate examples, The Sixth Sense, Fight Club, and The Usual Suspects).

I learned that there was a twist at the end when I was standing in line for another movie a day or so ago, and I tried not to listen to the guy who was talking about it--I didn't want to hear any details. I mentioned this to Star as we were waiting for the movie to start, and she and I agreed when the movie was over that just knowing that there was a twist subtly affected the way we watched the movie. We spent the movie looking for it, and started to figure it out earlier than we might have had we not known there was a trick. And it is indeed a "trick." It actually invalidates and makes impossible many of the scenes we have seen earlier in the film (or, to be more accurate, it makes clear that what we saw earlier did not actually occur in the "reality" of the film's universe). I guess these impossible things (like when Marie is chasing a car, or is trapped in the back of a car, that she herself must be driving; or when Marie is witnessing a murder that she herself must be committing) were meant to be occurring in some kind of mental landscape--they were the delusions of a sick, obsessed mind. But regardless of the explanation, I still feel vaguely unsatisfied with the film. To be more specific, I feel as if I was hoodwinked or betrayed. This movie lied to me! My girlfriend Sarah later pooh-poohed my objection when I explained it to her, pointing out that obviously the film was not real--no film is "real" or "true." They are made up of lies. And she has a point. But it still leaves me uneasy. Which is, of course, what the movie is going for. So maybe it's a complete success.

Haute Tension begins with a young woman, bloody and battered, apparently running from someone in a forest. A car swerves as someone stumbles out of the woods and onto the road. We see the woman again, sitting in a hospital traumatized, repeating the same phrase over and over again: "Nobody will come between us ever again." Suddenly the woman wakes up in the back seat of a car. Her name is Marie and her friend Alex is driving. She tells Alex she just had a nightmare in which she was chasing herself. We soon learn that the two girls are heading to Alex's parents' house for a little vacation between semesters at college. Their relationship is a bit odd. It quickly becomes clear that Marie loves and desires Alex, but Alex doesn't necessarily feel the same way--she even talks to Marie about boyfriends. Is Alex so blind that she doesn't see Marie's feelings for her? Is she toying with Alex? Does she just want to remain friends and is trying to ignore Marie's advances, taking them for a passing fancy--nothing serious?

In fact, Alex does seem to enjoy toying with Marie. The two finally arrive at Alex's parents' house at night. Alex stops the car in the middle of the family's corn field and wanders off into the corn, claiming that she heard something. Marie waits a while, then follows after her. She hears something back at the car, and runs back to find that Alex has tricked her and is driving away laughing.

Before this scene, the movie establishes that horror is coming by introducing us to the slasher character for the film--a huge, filthy, sweaty, heavy-breathing man. This sickening introductory scene, which I will not describe, establishes him as a dangerous and truly disturbed sexual predator.

Back at Alex's house, all seems well. Her mother and father are normal and nice, and she even has a cute little brother who likes to run around in a cowboy outfit. As the family goes to bed, Marie wanders outside, peeping in through a window at Alex as she takes a shower. There is a sense of menace outside. We know someone dangerous is out there somewhere. Marie goes back inside and, as everyone goes to sleep, she puts on her headphones and starts playing with herself, clearly trying to satisfy her unsatisfied desire for Alex. It's at this point that the slasher guy shows up in his van, and all hell breaks loose.

From here on in, Haute Tension becomes a non-stop, intense thrill ride. Marie is constantly on the verge of being found and killed, perpetually witnessing the slasher's violence while not becoming an actual part of it. She is his shadow, creeping along behind and beside him, trying somehow to stop him, and to save Alex, whom he has kidnapped.

Haute Tension uses the techniques and the situations of many a slasher thriller before it, but it uses them well. The music and strange noises on the soundtrack work to heighten the tension already skillfully created by camera work and editing. As usual, cars never start when you need them too. And there's the regular use of mirrors to create tension and to give us a little shock--will the horror be in the mirror when the camera pans up or won't it? During the question and answer session with director Tobe Hooper after The Toolbox Murders--which includes a similar, though even more effective, mirror-related fake-out scare--an audience member (who'd seen an earlier screening of Haute Tension) asked if it was some kind of tendency in modern horror films to use little tricks like these with the mirror. Hooper didn't have much to say to this, and really there isn't much to say; of course thrillers are going to be full of tricks like this. That's what they're all about--manipulating the audience in any way possible to produce tension and fear, and to then break that tension, or realize that fear.

Like many a slasher film before it, Haute Tension connects sex with violence in a very direct way. Slasher movie audiences are usually there for tits and gore--the characters who expose themselves or have sex are quickly dispatched by the killer, as a kind of punishment for their impropriety. Sex, therefore, leads to death. For the slasher in Haute Tension, the killing itself is a sexual act, expressing his frustration at not achieving an actual healthy sexual relationship with anyone. Desire has been rebuffed and repulsed and repressed until it has twisted and sickened into something terrible--love has turned to hate, violence, and death. The movie presents us with a character like this, and then very adeptly makes us hate that character so much that we come to desire violence, as well. We become totally wrapped up in Marie's quest to foil the killer and save her beloved. We want desperately for her to kill him. When she finally does strike him, at the literal and figurative climax of the film, the tension that has been built and built for most of the film finally breaks, and the audience reacts with spontaneous applause. Our needs and desires have been met, and the stress drains out of us. We feel almost as if we should sigh and light up a cigarette. The French phrase for orgasm, after all, literally means "the little death."

Haute Tension is a nasty little film. It tricks us in a couple of very clever and disturbing ways. I felt a little dirty afterwards--a little uneasy. I'd been played with, quite expertly, my strings pulled like a puppet's. And then I'd been shown the strings. It's nothing other movies haven't done before. But Haute Tension does it quite well, and quite deliberately, and includes some pretty disturbing and horrific subject matter. It's a little more subtle about what it's doing to us than The Last Horror Movie, and thus a little more effective. It tricks us and uses us. And then it makes us realize that we like it.

My Poll Rating: Very Good

Epilogue

Star and I walked a little way along Walnut towards home, then caught the bus and rode it the rest of the way. She'd enjoyed both of the movies we'd seen together. I liked one of them, but that one also disturbed me. I was still processing it as I got home and went to bed.

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Jim Genzano





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