Category Archives: film

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

Frontier(s) (Xavier Gens, 2007)

I love the New French Extremity. For me, the relatively new wave of French horror films has really breathed some new life into my beloved genre; not only is the violence more extreme, the ways of telling scary stories, and the elements contained within said stories, are often more developed and thought-provoking than your average American horror movie. Frontier(s) had the potential to be the biggest breakthrough film of this breed of horror films. It was originally chosen to be a part of the 2007 After Dark Horrorfest, but after getting slapped with an NC-17 rating, was demoted to a very limited release and a life on DVD.

One one hand, that’s too bad. Frontier(s), despite the terribly parenthesis-ed title, could have been a small hit. It follows a familiar formula in American horror movies (actually, follows very closely the Texas Chainsaw Massacre formula): some kids get into trouble, run away into the country, find way worse trouble than they were running from. Only these characters’ trouble revolves around their participation in political riots after the election of a conservative president; they feel threatened as Muslims and one of the gang beats up a cop. Our pregnant protagonist Yasmine’s brother dies in the aftermath, and the gang splits up and meets at a bed and breakfast in the country. But, of course, the inn is run by Nazi cannibals looking to start a new master race. Of course. Yasmine is spared a bloody fate because her captives want her baby. There is a great, bitter irony in the fact that these Nazis want Yasmine’s baby while saluting “pure blood” over dinner.

The plot of Frontier(s) is promising, but the film never quite delivers what it should. Almost nothing of interest happens in the first half of the movie – in fact, things actually only get interesting in the last half hour or so, after most of the main characters have been killed. The most engaging parts of the movie are those between Yasmine and a girl living in the house who is also pregnant, but very supportive and caring, to a creepy extent, towards Yasmine. Gens seems to suggest, through the girl’s actions in the film’s climax, that there’s some sort of universal bond of sisterhood between pregnant women, one that transcends family and history. I can’t decide if I think this idea is empowering or just a little silly and lazy writing (although, interestingly enough, Yasmine doesn’t feel the same way towards the younger girl, as evidenced near the end of the film).

Like Martyrs, Frontier(s) can be interpreted as feminist; Yasmine spits at the family, “I’m not obedient! I never will be!” and I wanted to get up and cheer for her. When she secretly brandishes an axe to use against her male captor as he screams at her about how she will listen to him and start being obedient after all, it’s a perfect visual metaphor for the hidden female rage and violence that Yasmine has inside herself.

But that’s really where Frontier(s) stops being interesting. Xavier Gens takes the momentum out of a few key scenes with poor editing and music choices. Distracting music is played over a violent scene at dinner, undercutting the brutality where it could and should speak for itself. In the climactic scene, there is an onslaught of machine gun violence and explosions, which seem strangely out of place with the more “personal” violence of the rest of the film.

While watching the movie, a year or so after seeing it for the first time and having become more familiar with French horror since then, I was really struck by the similarities to other films of the genre. It has the pregnancy violence of Inside! It has a painful haircutting scene, just like Calvaire and Martyrs! It has freaky country folk, just like Sheitan, Calvaire, and Ils! I certainly don’t think Frontier(s) ripped any of those other films off, as some of them were made after this one, but all these elements just reminded me that I wasn’t watching any of those other films. And I wish I had been.

Bottom line: Not a complete waste of time, but it’s best undertaken after seeing other, stronger French horror first. 7/10

Date watched: 1 January – film 1 of 2010

The 2010 Project

I plan on documenting most, if not all, the movies I watch in 2010, hopefully eliciting thoughtful responses on my part (and yours, dear reader) about what I watch and what it all means. It’ll be exciting, I promise! Of course, I’ll also be writing about whatever else tickles my fancy, probably food/fashion/music related. So, welcome to the (re)birth of Live Fast, Die Old! Stay a while, won’t you?