Cinema Psycho

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Archive for January, 2006

Broken Flowers (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on January 27, 2006

Directed and written by Jim Jarmusch/starring Bill Murray, Jeffrey Wright, Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, Tilda Swinton, Julie Delpy/Universal Home Video

An aging lothario is informed that he has a son, and visits several of his former girlfriends to try to discover the identity of the mother.

It’s pretty much old news by now that Jarmusch films are an acquired taste. From his early days as a pioneer of ‘80’s indie cinema, the words “quirky” and “odd” have often been used to describe his work. So I won’t belabor those clichés in this review, because that would be pointless. I will say that he’s one of those guys who definitely has his own particular sensibilities, and you either respond to that or you don’t. The same could be said of just about every interesting director working today, but Jarmusch films in particular have a reputation of being too “offbeat” for mainstream moviegoers. I’ve never quite understood how that makes him any different from, say, the Coen brothers, who have received tons of acclaim and even scored a few mainstream breakthroughs over the years (as well as the idol-worship of virtually every working Hollywood actor). Whatever. The point is, the guy has stood just on the fringes of the business for a long time now.

So it’s no surprise that his latest film, Broken Flowers, has been interpreted by some as Jarmusch’s bid for mainstream acceptance. After all, there are some pretty big names in it, and it seems to contain a rather conventional narrative. It’s definitely more accessible to the average filmgoer than such works as Down by Law or Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. But there’s some definite weirdness going on around the edges here, as well as a sly sense of humor that should be familiar to longtime fans of his work.

Flowers concerns itself with the unfortunately named Don Johnston (Murray), a fiftyish bachelor whose current girlfriend (Delpy) is leaving him because “he doesn’t know what he wants”. Don is puzzled by this vague statement, but he accepts it with the stoicism of a man who’s heard it many times before. Not long after this, he receives an anonymous letter from a past love, who informs him that he has a 19-year-old son he never knew about. He’s reluctant about pursuing the matter any further, but his neighbor (Wright), a would-be amateur detective, tracks down some of his exes on the Internet and insists that Don visit them to find out which one is the mother.

The rest of the movie details Don’s road trip and the various surreal encounters he has with his former flames, as well as their families and co-workers. There’s Laura (Sharon Stone), who’s now a racing widow with a teenage daughter named Lolita (Invasion’s Alexis Dziena, who’s got a disarmingly casual nude scene here); Dora (Conroy), a flower child turned suburbanite; Carmen (Lange), an ex-lawyer who’s now an animal therapist with a suspiciously protective secretary (Chloe Sevingy); and Penny (Swinton), a tough, bitter woman living on some sort of biker commune.

Each woman has a different reaction to Don suddenly reappearing in their lives – some are welcoming and gracious, others are visibly irritated and upset. Meanwhile, as Don revisits them, he gets a glimpse into the lives he could have had with each one, if he had made a different choice in the past. At the same time, Don is experiencing a longing to have a child that he’s never had before, to the point that he wonders whether every young man he sees on his trip is actually his own son.

It’s Don’s existential crisis that is the real focus of Broken Flowers, not the mystery of his son’s paternity or even whether or not he actually has a son. Jarmusch purposely leaves this open to interpretation, which may frustrate some viewers, but then the whole point isn’t whether or not Don finds an answer – it’s that he’s finally asking the question. Not that Don’s life as it stands seems particularly awful to this viewer, but it’s clear that he could have had more, and is just now starting to regret that he didn’t take it.

If laconic comic god Murray (he’s “A god”, not “THE god”) seems an unlikely actor to play a “Don Juan” type, that perception isn’t particularly helped by Jarmusch’s choice to have him spend much of the movie staring blankly into space. Yes, he’s naturally in shock at the news that he’s a father, but initially it’s hard not to feel like we’ve already seen this performance done better in Lost in Translation. Yet there are moments where a bit of the old charming, quick-witted Murray shines through, and that’s where we see what the younger Don must have been like. It’s a deceptively simple piece of acting, one where you can project just about anything onto that age-weathered face, and the key is in trying to read between the lines. Unlike Clint Eastwood, who speaks volumes with just one look, Murray’s placidity forces us to imagine what he must be thinking, which makes Don a more interesting character than simply telegraphing every emotion. This seems to make Murray the perfect star for Jarmusch, who typically refuses to spell out anything for the audience. It’s as if both actor and director are simply shrugging their collective shoulders and saying, “hey, we don’t know. YOU figure it out.”

Murray is matched here by a terrific supporting cast, led by the underrated Wright as the curious neighbor. Stone is surprisingly likable and loose here, as is Conroy, who’s best known for playing the horrendously uptight and hypersensitive mother on Six Feet Under. I especially would’ve liked to see more of Lange, as she essentially shares just one scene with Murray in which she’s guarded but fascinating, and I really wondered what exactly was going on with her. Plus I’ve had a crush on Jessica Lange since I first saw the ’76 King Kong on TV as a kid, so there’s that. Swinton and Delpy are given even less to do, but they both make vivid impressions.

Broken Flowers is ultimately not a film for those who like to have all the answers wrapped up in a nice, neat little bow. It’s a movie that occasionally takes weird digressions to nowhere in particular, and seems perfectly okay with that. If you don’t mind the occasional rest stop, and you don’t particularly care if you actually arrive at the designated destination or not, then this is absolutely a trip you should take.

The DVD extras are relatively short and, in appropriately Jarmusch fashion, obscure and inscrutable. You get your outtakes, your extended scene, your behind the scenes and an interview with Jarmusch. But none of them are presented in anything resembling straightforwardness. As always, Jarmusch makes you work for it, and you somehow wind up glad you made the effort.

***1/2 1/27/06

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Hostel

Posted by CinemaPsycho on January 13, 2006

Directed and written by Eli Roth/starring Jay Hernandez, Derek Richardson, Eythor Gudjunsson, Barbara Nedjeljakova, Rick Hoffman/Lions Gate – Screen Gems

Three young travelers are lured to a Slovakian city that promises sexual paradise, but is instead a quite literal tourist trap.

Hostel is one of those movies that deliberately earned itself a reputation. It’s like the problem child, the kid that purposely acts up to get attention and, predictably enough, is certain to get it. Some of the other kids are certain to stay away, yet others are strangely drawn to it. Whether you love this movie or you hate it, you can’t deny that everyone knows its name.

While most of those kids wind up in juvenile hall, the “problem child” movies often use their reputations to great effect. When you’ve got enough pre-release hype telling people that this is one of the nastiest, most brutal and disturbing (not to mention bloody and gory) films ever made, it’s no wonder that a certain audience flocked to see it. It’s a great example of turning what some would see as a negative into what others would view as a positive. “Yeah, this is sick and fucked up – but it’s SO sick and fucked up that you can’t handle it! We dare you to try to sit through this bad boy! No, never mind, because you’re too much of a fuckin’ pussy to see it! Nah, you should go see BloodRayne instead, that’s more your speed!” Just try to keep people away.

And so it is that Hostel has become known as “the torture movie”, a twisted piece of business that only genuinely disturbed people would want to watch. When I stood in line for the film at my local cineplex, I overheard the ticket seller informing the potential ticket buyers in front of me that the violence was “pornographic” – and this is a person who works at the theater. She was trying to discourage them from seeing the film (the exact opposite of her job description), yet I think she only added in a small way to the movie’s anti-establishment legend. I don’t know if those people actually bought tickets or not – they let me go ahead while they made up their minds – but I’m willing to bet they’ll come back.

In truth, Hostel is really not that bad. I’ve seen a lot of violent movies over the years, and I wouldn’t even put this in my Top 20 for extreme violence and gore. We live in a world where you can see severed fingers on Medium, for cryin’ out loud. Yes, there are moments that are absolutely cringeworthy, but they’re used sparingly for maximum effect. Those who consider this a wall-to-wall gorefest are simply delusional. While I liked the movie, I was more genuinely disturbed by Roth’s debut feature, Cabin Fever – and a lot of people consider that a comedy. If anything, Hostel is more like Tobe Hooper’s classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the way it handles its violence – it’s a movie where the idea of what’s happening is so revolting that it makes people think they’re seeing more graphic carnage than they really are.

While Roth claims to have been influenced by the intense, extreme cinema of Takashi Miike, in actuality Hostel plays more like an ‘80’s teen sex comedy gone horribly wrong. A good 40 minutes or so is devoted to watching our young protagonists tour Europe and have various misadventures in their endless quest for easy, dirty sex with hot babes. This is, of course, just the setup, and while some people consider this a waste of time, you can feel Roth slowly turning the screws (so to speak) throughout. He knows exactly what he’s doing here, and when our horny kids wind up in a suspiciously friendly Slovakian town, it’s not difficult to predict that there’s trouble ahead. After all, we didn’t pay good money to see another Eurotrip, now did we?

Strangely enough, what ultimately makes Hostel interesting is not its abandonment of conventional morality but its eventual embracing of it. While our boys have lots of fun with the hookers in Amsterdam, eventually the tables get turned on them and they become the ones who are exploited. Of course there’s a serious difference between the two – prostitutes choose to be willing participants, whereas torture victims definitely do not. I personally don’t consider wanting sex to be a crime worthy of violent punishment, but Roth shows us a culture in which the usual conventions of exploitation have been turned inside out. Where tons of young people travel to Europe to take advantage of more permissive attitudes, it seems only natural that some Europeans would find a way to take advantage of that and use them for their own benefit. We fuck them, they kill us.

This underlying theme makes it all the more puzzling when, in the third act, Roth reverses direction once again and turns the movie into a vengeance flick, where the lone surviving American gets even with the opportunistic Europeans. While this ending depends on an escalating series of massive coincidences, it would be dishonest to call it unsatisfying. And it’s not like our hero walks out completely unscathed either, which is a refreshing turn of events. Still, it’s difficult to imagine anyone getting caught in this kind of situation and not being, you know, completely fucked.

The charges of the violence in Hostel being “pornographic” seem particularly specious. Where pornography is obviously intended to titillate – or to get you off, in other words, I don’t think that’s Roth’s intention here. It’s pretty clear that his message is “look how fucked up this is”, not “look how COOL this is!” The whole point of this is that it’s supposed to be disturbing and awful – it’s a horror movie, not a comedy. Hostel is clearly not a celebration of torture, or a fetish flick for sick fucks who are into watching people get sliced and diced. The violence here isn’t slick or “cool” – it’s repulsive and ugly, and it’s meant to be.

There’s a natural amount of xenophobia here, as the movie deals primarily with American kids who are strangers in a strange land. But this is offset somewhat by the generally boorish behavior of the Americans, as well as one particular character who shows up late in the film, an American businessman (played by veteran TV actor Hoffman) who takes a particular delight in violent sadism after being burned out on just about everything else out there. It’s clear that there’s plenty of scum to go around on all continents.

Ultimately, Hostel may not be a horror classic, but it is a decent flick that shows a lot of progress in Roth’s evolution as a filmmaker. While some supposedly intelligent critics will simply dismiss it as exploitation trash (as Ebert slammed Wolf Creek with his ridiculous zero-star review – the man simply does not understand horror films), there is a functioning brain at work here. Some people just don’t like what films like this have to say. The idea that life isn’t all sunshine and roses apparently scares these people beyond all rationality. But some of us already know that people commit hurtful acts towards each other on a regular basis – movies like this just take that concept to its natural extreme. It’s a cruel, fucked-up world out there, and sometimes bad things happen to nice people. That’s the true horror of it all, as sick and sad and terrible as it is. Movies like Hostile – oops, I mean Hostel – simply illustrate the truth, and do it well.

*** 1/13/06

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