Eden Lake (James Watkins, 2008)

Eden Lake seems to have been made for the British Daily Mail set; its plot involves a group of young hoodlums who terrorize a young liberal couple (Kelly Reilly and Michael Fassbender) on vacation in the countryside. The kids embody every single stereotype of the lower-class-gone-wrong: they listen to rap music! they talk loudly and profanely! they have a dog who they don’t clean up after! After nearly ruining the couple’s day out at the beach, and completely blowing off Fassbender’s strong paternal advice, they disappear into the woods, hopefully never to be seen again. Not so, obviously.

Not only are the antagonists stereotypes of the highest degree, Reilly’s character is a young, bright-eyed teacher who really believes in the youth of England. On the drive to the small country town where they plan to spend the weekend, they listen to radio reports about youth crime and education in England, in case it wasn’t clear enough to the audience that the country has some bad apples.

There is an unfortunate incident with the couple and the youths’ dog, and that sets the bloody action off. For the rest of the movie, there’s a lot of running, bleeding, and crying. The suspense is well-done at points, even when it’s pretty transparent. The most interesting part of the film comes near the end, when Jenny (Reilly) emerges from a bin of shit (literally), where she has been hiding from her tormentors. She looks at herself in a pane of glass, covered in filth, and seems to have changed. She wipes off her face and has the stony, possessed look of Willard from Apocalypse Now. She then kills the most innocent kid from the group without even a second though; although right after she does it, she gains back her humanity as soon as she had lost it.

The movie does a great job of tapping into that relatable fear of youth without boundaries. Their parents don’t care about disciplining them, they don’t care about anything, and that makes them liable to do anything. And they do, in Eden Lake. There’s a bit of clumsy, underdeveloped dialogue about how the industrial site near the beach “used to be a park,” but I was unsure if that was a social commentary or just a scarier setting to have a chase scene. While you could do worse than watch this movie, I recommend David Moreau and Xavier Palaud’s Ils as a much better example of the terrifying child tormentors movie. In Ils, the children aren’t stereotypes, they’re spectres who can’t be pinned down, and that’s much scarier than lazy social commentary on those goddamn kids of today.

The Frightened Woman (Piero Schivazappa, 1969)

The Frightened Woman might be the smartest, weirdest, most visually interesting Euro sexploitation movie I’ve seen yet. Not the oxymoron you might thing; I’ve seen some incredibly complex movies in the genre (and totally grieve for its demise. I think a lot about where the engaging, sexy, visually inventive exploitation films have gone), but very few are all about the masculine fear of the vagina like this one is. A radical feminist exploitation film? I’d say so.

A rich, handsome philanthropist likes to hire hookers for weekends of extreme S&M games. When his usual girl becomes unavailable, he kidnaps a journalist who works for his company and forces her into his games. She’s silenced (that first still!), humiliated and conquered (that second still!), has her hair chopped off, and forced to prostrate herself at his feet. When she tries to escape, she’s chased down by a car; when she tries to take violent revenge, it’s in the form of a prop knife left for just that reason, to humiliate her more. She’s completely unsure what his plans are for her, and tries to kill herself to gain some certainty. For some reason, this awakes the human inside this man – he saves her, admits the pictures of murdered woman were all fakes, and nurses her back to health.

After the suicide attempt, the film has an almost Kubrickian sense of symmetry. In one particularly clever sequence, Dr. Sayer takes care of Maria (the characters’ names aren’t particularly important, as they’re rarely used), rubbing her feet and ankles in precisely the same way he forced her to shortly before. They then take matching, symmetrical showers, Maria takes Sayer’s picture doing slightly embarrassing feats of strength, and they even have the same haircut. The way in which the action turns on a dime is surprising, but also particularly surreal, since the situation is the same, only reversed. After frolicking in a field, Sayer and Maria go to a castle/restaurant (??) where they almost make love on a duke’s bed, but are interrupted by a dwarf. I unfortunately couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

Finally, Sayer has a daydream (day nightmare, I suppose) that puts everything into perspective. He dreams about a giant pair of legs that fill a warehouse, with a dark hole between them. We never see any other part of this giant woman; Sayer has literally cut her off at the waist. He walks slowly toward the dark hole, and as he walks into it (and, in the film’s action, is psyching himself up to finally have sex with Maria, which he has been avoiding in favor of his weird games), the hole closes up behind him with toothy doors. The door reopens, and all that’s left is a skeleton. That’s right, this giant vagina literally eats him. This whole moment is very Jodorowsky and reminded me a lot of The Holy Mountain. Very rarely have I seen anything as clear-cut yet surreal and freaky about the masculine fear of female sexual power. Sayer pays women to be less than him because, in his heart of hearts, he is terrified that women actually have ultimate power, something he just can’t handle. Ironically enough, he’s proven right in the end, a weird little twist that doesn’t make sense if you think about it too much, but is radically feminist enough that I appreciated it greatly.

The only thing I knew about The Frightened Woman before seeing it was a few stills of the surreal, psychedelic imagery. That alone would have made the movie worth a watch. I wasn’t expecting much more than your run of the mill Euro-sploitation film of the time; what I got was almost a rape-revenge picture where the protagonist takes no-holds-barred revenge on a powerful (but ultimately weak!) man and the patriarchal system he represents. Near the end of the film, Maria says to another woman – I’m paraphrasing – that you can only take so much abuse from a man before you fight back, even if he is paying you. You got that right.

Remembering Eric Rohmer

From Roger Ebert’s blog, a wonderful remembrance of the director who died today. Nesselson brings up the point that actually, most of the prominent French New Wave directors are still alive (with the exceptions of Truffaut, my favorite director ever, and Malle). This is that sad kind of realization moment where: in the forseeable future, they’re all going to be gone, too, and all we’ll have left are the films they’ve already made.

A few years ago, when the Six Moral Tales were released in a beautiful Criterion box set, I spent some time with them. Beautiful movies, and more than that, meaningful movies that leave you with more questions than answers, but remind you that life is wonderful. It’s unfortunate this is what reminded me to take a look at Rohmer’s other work.

Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai, 1994)

There is a scene not long into Chungking Express where a young cop cleans a mystery woman’s shoes with his tie in a hotel bathroom while she is asleep on the bed. He then leaves without leaving a note. This moment is Chungking Express boiled down to its core; a little action, imbued with a desperate sense of needing to love and be loved. The woman returns the gesture by leaving the police officer a message wishing him happy birthday. The small things are what mean something, even if we can’t see it right away.

The movie revolves around two different stories, that of the young police officer and the mystery woman who is in some deep trouble, and a different cop in the middle of a breakup and the girl from the snack bar who decides to save him. Faye Wong as the girl in the second story is all approachable mystery and quirky energy. She has short hair, constantly listens to “California Dreaming,” and goes to the police officer’s house every day while he is not there and fixes his apartment for him, so slowly that it takes him a long time to even notice. Wong delivers a solid performance, but is too close to the modern “manic pixie dream girl” phenomenon for me to not be annoyed by the story. In 1994, it was novel, but through my jaded contemporary eyes, no thanks. (There are some other incredibly 90s moments, most memorably Wong’s wardrobe and a Chinese cover of The Cranberries’ “Dreams” that plays over a cleaning montage!)

The movie’s imagery was more effective than the stories to me; the photography (by Christopher Doyle) is absolutely gorgeous, and the colors are amazing. It especially looks great on the Criterion Blu-Ray, where the chase and action scenes are crisp in their blurriness. There’s certainly a lot to be said about the movie (the way mirrors and mirroring is used, for one – the interesting parallel between the second cop’s ex-girlfriend and Wong’s character, the way they almost become the same person sort of reminded me of an upbeat Bergman movie), but the images are what stuck with me most. Everything sparkles, the little details are the most important. Much like the stories themselves.

Watched January 10, movie 3 of 2010

The continued plight of the Green Bay Packers fan

Lily Allen for Russian Harper’s Bazaar

Just when I start making a fuss about someone like Ke$ha, Lily Allen comes back to remind me that she is actually the coolest pop star around.

More pics here.

Why I prefer stupid pop music

This is Ke$ha. Unless you’ve been living under a pop culture rock for the last few months, you’ve probably at least heard of her, if not been unable to escape Tik Tok, her ludicrously catchy single that’s apparently taken America by storm (seriously, whenever I was in the car, listening to pop radio over Christmas, I couldn’t not hear that song). Now, I’m a lady of pretty good taste, at least I think so. Why, then, am I so enamored with this Ke$ha? I mean, she has a dollar sign in her name, for god’s sake. She’s everything I should hate about pop music. And yet, I don’t.

I think it’s her unbridled goofiness that’s really endeared her to my heart. I am admittedly a sucker for songs about partying really hard, and Tik Tok is all about let’s go out tonight wooo and getting drunk and boys love me, but it’s all so tongue in cheek. “Tonight I’ma fight til we see the sunlight”? This girl has never been in a fight in her life. “Errbody getting crunk” couldn’t be said in more of a (purposefully) goofy white-girl voice. Yet somehow, it works. It’s a sort of pastiche of motifs in modern pop music, but still incredibly enjoyable. Ke$ha doesn’t take herself seriously, at all. That’s refreshing in pop music right now.

Or maybe I like Ke$ha so much because she’s kind of the anti-Lady Gaga. I’ve seen the two compared a lot on the internet, but I don’t really see how much they have in common except vaguely similar generic dance-pop songs. The difference is that Ke$ha seems to be having much more fun doing it, and is someone I might actually want to go to a party with.

She doesn’t have much cultural currency, she certainly won’t stick around for very long, but I’m enjoying the Ke$ha wave while it lasts. I am all in favor of silliness in the public sphere.