Russian Ark (2002)

Russian Ark
Directed by Aleksandr Sokurov
Written by Svetlana Proskurina, Aleksandr Sokurov, Anatoli Nikiforov, Boris Khaimsky
(number 364)

I did mean to see this in the film festival when it came out, back in 2002 but I didn’t manage it for whatever reason. It’s one that people talk about when they talk about long shots, which is a cinema trope I enjoy a lot.

This is such an arthouse film. It just, it couldn’t be more arthouse. Now first up, I know very little about history and I know even less about Russian history, so I’m sure there’s a lot of aspects of the things shown in this movie that I just didn’t get. But for the most part this doesn’t matter, because the movie is lush and the Marquis/Man in black explains some things in case they’re important.

The breathtaking thing about this movie is the spectacle. First the all in one take and secondly the lush location, third the costuming.

The spectacle is incredible. So many people in these beautiful costumes, perfectly made up and coiffed and moving through this astoundingly beautiful winter palace, which looks like a cross between Versailles and the Vatican. We get to see and appreciate some priceless pieces of art; paintings and sculptures and historical figures. The lighting is perfect, there’s no moment where the style is compromised. No small task given how it was filmed….

According to wikipedia: “According to In One Breath, the documentary on the making of the film, four attempts were made. The first failed at the five-minute mark. After two more failed attempts, they were left with only enough battery power for one final take. The four hours of daylight available were also nearly gone. Fortunately, the final take was a success and the film was completed at 90 minutes.” It’s mind boggling to imagine the set up and the control and the timing of it all.

Does it make me love the people? It sort of made me love the Marquis, he reminded me of a cross between John Malkovich and the dandelion haired gentleman from Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. But it’s not a movie about the human condition or getting to know characters particularly. It’s about the lush creation of a piece of cinematic art.

Bechdel test: No, to be honest there’s very few named characters at all. It’s funny because right at the start there are two women who talk to each other about the ball and where to go, but as with many of the people encountered no names are given.

Best line:

The Stranger: Let’s proceed with caution. These madmen could eat us.
The Time Traveller: They liked your hair.
The Stranger: Of course, I’m a writer. Writer’s always have good hair.

State of Mind: It got sort of boring towards the end. I found the style of filming to make me feel somewhat dreamy, which made me sleepy. I might watch it again, but I do need to be in the right frame of mind for it I think.

Watched movie count

Romper Stomper (1992)

Romper Stomper
Written and directed by Geoffrey Wright
(number 392)

I’ve been putting this one off for a while. It’s one of those movies which I told myself I never have to see, because I know I don’t like racism and skinheads beating people up without having to see a movie about it. However, it’s on the list so here I go. I have chosen a sunny Spring Saturday, the first sunny weekend day we’ve had for weeks, to watch it. I’ve already done something like five loads of laundry, brought much of the laundry back in, aired and dry, and sorted outsome of my planters with new seeds and two little new strawberry plants. Plus I planted my ‘little garden‘ seeds, which is very exciting. In short, I feel calm, domestic, like I’m getting things done and in a pretty fine place to watch a nasty movie.

Roll on Russell Crowe.

Okay so yes, that was more or less what I expected it to be. It’s a hard watch, maybe a bit of an easier watch than American History X in terms of the amount of violence shown/level of budget. There’s a lot of violence in this, but it’s not shown with such precision, it’s a lot more street brawl; inelegant and brutal, whereas the way American History X is filmed there’s a lot of detail in the violence, so as a viewer you see exactly what’s happening. It’s much nastier to watch.

It’s filmed with that raw film festival/low budget almost documentary style feel to it. Lots of long, lingering shots. Following the action for what feels like too long to me.

Does it make me love the people? This one’s tricky. I didn’t like Gabrielle… but I didn’t want bad things to happen to her. I think mostly I liked Davey, although this is pushing it as well, since I really didn’t like what he did most of the movie. Still, his was the redemption arc, so he was who you were meant to be rooting for.

Russell Crowe’s Hando was awful, as expected. The irredeemable racist leader of the skinhead pack. Forever ready to get violent just because of how someone looks. It’s a great performance though, he does bring gravitas and some sort of sensitivity to the role.

Bechdel test: Yeah, Megan and Tracy talk about hair dye, and one of them talks to Gabrielle about whether or not they should join in the fight with the Vietnamese.

Best line:

We came to wreck everything and ruin your life.

State of Mind: Bleh. I feel tense afterwards, even after having a couple of breaks in the film to hang out the last bit of washing or scrounge something to eat. It’s a grimy film full of mean people which doesn’t make for pleasant viewing, and it’s not at all intended to be pleasant…so it achieves that. I won’t be watching that again.

Watched movie count

300 (2006)

Directed by Zack Snyder
Written by Zack Snyder, Kurt Johnstad and Michael Gordon based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley
(number 342)

This is a movie which wears what it is on its sleeve. It’s about men! Men being hard! and fighting for no good reason! Because they’re so hard and fighty. I remember first seeing this movie and knowing I probably wouldn’t enjoy it. What I did was a read Cleolinda’s 300 in 15 minutes parody beforehand. I went into the movie theatre (Reading, Courtenay Place if memory serves correctly) and laughed my way through it, based on the jokes in the parody. I’m not sure this movie was meant to be viewed as a comedy but there you have it.

It’s beautifully shot, Snyder has a lovely lush eye of contrast and saturated colour. Excellent imagery and comic frame recreations. But it can’t get away from the essential silliness of the whole thing. It’d be better I think, if it accepted its own silliness. Something more like Watchmen where there’s internal critique of what’s going on, or maybe just a little less heavy handed narration. But alas.

The slow motion is overused. It’s everywhere. The loving attention to the bodies of the Spartans, their shiny abs and their pretty cheekbones undercuts the scornful use of ‘boy lovers’ as an insult to the Athenians. The Persians pleasure house has lesbians, to show how evil and decadent they are, I guess.

The Persian volley of arrows blotting out the sun is probably my favourite sequence. The coolness of those effects gets to me. I like a good arrow volley thanks to Lord of the Rings.

The problematic parts of this movie outweigh the things I appreciate. There’s misogyny, obviously, homophobia, racism and ableism. The Persians are described as black as night and soulless so… there’s that. There’s the whole ‘if you’re not able bodied then you cannot live in Sparta let alone fight’. The rejection of the man with the twisted, deformed body. And sure, if that’s how the Spartans really were, then okay. But this isn’t a movie about realism. Every single frame of the movie is fantasy, so why do we have to see these very modern issues displayed like they’re normal? Oh wait, there’s some body shaming stuff with fatness happening too. Uh, I just… we can have fantasy movies which don’t use the easy shorthand of modern prejudices. I’m sure we can…It just doesn’t seem to have happened yet. The Huntsman: Winter’s War is pretty close. But that was made 10 years later than this.

Does it make me love the people? … no. I feel a fair bit of sympathy for the deformed dude who just really wants to earn his shield, and there’s lots of pretty people, but I love none of them. This isn’t a movie about people, even. It’s a movie of a stylised fictionalised comic of a legendary event. It’s about the ideas, but over all it’s about the coolness. And in this case, the coolness doesn’t work for me.

I find myself comparing this to Watchmen and Sucker Punch. Movies that I feel Snyder did better at. You can feel the same griminess, the same colour palette soaking all three of these movies, but both Sucker Punch and Watchment feel like better films to me, because they have characters, humans at their hearts. This is too far down the style black hole and ends up feeling like shiny garbage. And not even fun shiny garbage, like, say 2012 or Jupiter Ascending. Just… sort of dull.

Xerxes is beautiful and impressive though. I like Xerxes. Having said that, it’s a whole queer-phobic thing with him,isn’t it? Because he’s the villain and he’s wearing make up and decorations. And it’s shown to the evil sort of make up, not the dashing eyeliner that the Spartans wear.

Bechdel test: Are you kidding? Only two women speak in the whole movie. One is Gorgo, she talks only to men, and the other is the Oracle, who is unnamed, and only whispers, has to be translated by a man for the other men. This isn’t a movie where women are anything but sex objects. The queen is some way to being cool and bad ass but ultimately she’s raped as a plot point so..

Best line:


State of Mind: Ehhhhh. I don’t think I’ll be watching this again. I am honestly bored by it.

Watched movie count

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Pan’s Labyrinth
Written and directed by Guillermo del Toro
(number 332)

This is the first movie Guillermo del Toro made which got the world paying attention. I had already watched The Devil’s Backbone, so I found some of the themes and story choices familiar. The juxtaposition of youthful curiosity and massive destruction being the biggest similarities between those movies. I didn’t manage to see Pan’s Labyrinth at the cinema, but I remembered watching it in a big group with a lot of friends. There were a couple of moments where everyone reacted, a couple of times everyone shielded their eyes. Overall enjoyed it, but I’ve not been able to watch it again since.

Watching it again, snuggled in blankets on a chilly, rainy Spring Sunday afternoon I didn’t find it nearly as traumatic. It’s a stunning film, beautifully shot, beautifully conceptualised, beautifully acted. It had to be rough and nasty given the setting. I have very limited knowledge of the Spanish civil war beyond it was very nasty.

The nastiest scenes I remember are Carmen cutting the captain’s mouth open and his later sewing it closed. The latter is what I averted my eyes from last time, this time I was able to watch it, knowing it’s CGI and marvelling at how bloodless the procedure was. Have I grown as a person? Maybe. Is it still a wickedly uncomfortable scene? Yes. But it does well at demonstrating what a hard bad ass the captain is.

I love Guillermo del Toro’s design aesthetic. The glorious swirls and earthy symmetry of his monsters. Everything is both beautiful and unsettling, which seems perfect for a fairy tale. It’s very much the first time he’s got to be really fantastic and he spread his wings later in the Hell Boy franchise. This is simpler, better contained in the confines of the dual reality setting. It’s visually lovely.

Does it make me love the people? Yes, I love Carmen and her boyfriend, I love the kindly doctor who’s willing to euthenise when asked, and obviously I love Ofelia, she’s your classic plucky, imaginative fairy tale protagonist. Sort of a reverse of Sarah from the Labyrinth in that she chooses the labyrinth and she takes the baby there.

Bechdel test: Ofelia and her mother Carmen exchange the first conversation of the film – about Ofelia’s book of fairy tales, about how Carmen needs the car stopped, about Ofelia seeing a fairy. So yes, the first thing this film does is pass. Later Ofelia talks to Carmen as well.

Best line:

Capit├ín Vidal: Tell my son the time that his father died. Tell him…
Mercedes: No. He won’t even know your name.

State of Mind: The end of this movie is one of those big ‘are you an optimist or pessimist’ tests. Like Before Sunrise, a bit.What is real? Is it just the civil war stuff above ground? Does Ofelia die because she’s shot there? Or is the magic real? Can a mandrake root heal a failing pregnancy, and will Ofelia live on in the labyrinth? I choose to believe that the magic is real, that she lives on with the Faun and with the fairies, watching over her younger brother. I think the movie leaves it open to interpretation, although the last thing we see is the fig tree beginning to bloom, which indicates she has had an effect on the world by removing the toad at the start of the movie.

Faun: And it is said that the Princess returned to her father’s kingdom. That she reigned there with justice and a kind heart for many centuries. That she was loved by her people. And that she left behind small traces of her time on Earth, visible only to those who know where to look.

Watched movie count

American History X (1998)
Directed by Tony Kaye
Written by David McKenna
(number 320)

I first saw this film when it came out, on holiday down in Christchurch with two old friends: Penny and Becs, and we were all rather traumatised by it afterwards. It’s a brilliant film, but it is one I want to hide my eyes from, one I want to pretend doesn’t exist.

This is one of the movies on the list I was legitimately dreading watching again, like Children of Men. It’s easy to put off stuff like this, easy to tell myself ‘well, maybe I don’t have to watch it again at all, I probably remember enough’, but I’ve not given myself that excuse so far into the project and I don’t intend to. Besides, I can’t recall if it passes the Bechdel test or not so…

This is a tour de force performance movie. Edward Norton at the centre with his incredible weight and gravitas, Eddie Furlong as the one to be saved and Avery Brooks as the kind of teacher you see in movies who is brilliant, dedicated and devoted to saving/improving the children in his care. It’s effecting stuff.

The choice to film flashbacks in black and white is both perplexing and not at all. It’s not a particularly arty movie, which you’d expect from conscious choice of black and white film around the 90s, but then of course it’s the entire crux of the film. Black and white. Shades of grey. How do you portray people who see the world only in terms of black and white? Obvious.

There are two sequences I dreaded the most: the attack on the grocery store and the curb stomping. I made myself watch the grocery store and the thing which makes me most upset about it is the consistent racial slant on the attack. The skinheads using milk to make the Latina woman more white (and then they taunt her about how she looks better, could get a job above her station), beating a Latino and spilling beans on him as he sobs, broken on the floor. It’s an absolute representation of bullying, and bullying turns my stomach.

tangent: I remember I used to get these books given to me as a kid, large format hardcovers with lots of different stories and rhymes in them. There was one which had a story about dolls, and one doll bullying another doll for not being pretty and fancy enough. The bully doll had long plastic hair that curled, fancy clothes with frills and velvet, the doll being bullied was a simpler doll with molded plastic hair and a plain yellow dress. I remember reading the story and feeling so upset, sick to my stomach, because there’s nothing the bullied can do about the way they are. The injustice, the plain unfairness of being made to be miserable simply because of how you look devastated me. Watching stuff like this, thinking about bullies.. it always brings up this one doll story in the back of my head. I can’t even remember what happened in the end, except it was good – the plain doll had friends at the end, but that was an early benchmark for me of how unfair bullying is, how horrible, how I never want to perpetuate it or allow it to happen around me.

I skipped the curb stomp. I just. No. cannot deal. It looks too real.

I made myself watch the rape, because I watched the rape in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and it seemed like fair play. I also didn’t remember it as being the truly traumatic thing for me. The death at the end is seriously shocking though, even when you know it’s coming. This is a brutal, unforgiving movie, and that makes sense to me because there’s no easy answer to centuries of racism. It’d be a disservice to wrap it up in a happy ending.

Does it make me love the people? I love Derek and Danny right off, and that’s the strength of the writing and the performances. We know that they believe some utterly abhorrent things, but we see the promise in them as well. The way they care for each other, for their mother, their sisters. The circumstances which have led them in their directions are clearly shown so we can understand that too.

I love Lamont the most though, I think. He gets all the best lines and he’s so sweet and easy going. Sweeney is amazing too, there’s lots of great characters and good stuff going on. This is a movie which is dedicated to making you love and understand humans and that’s why I rate it so highly. The film making itself is good, fine, but it’s about understanding what makes people tick, and how people can learn and change.

Bechdel test: Yes, over the course of the family dinner fight scene Davina, Doris and Stacey all talk directly to each other about the fight, race relations and why Davina should listen to Stacey. The men are also talking around this but I’m confident there’s interchange there. Later Doris talks to Ally when she’s going to bed.

Best line:

Lamont: Don’t fuck with me. Cause I’m the most dangerous man in this prison. You know why? Cause I control the underwear.

Lamont: chill the fuck out! God damn! No matter how fast you get through ’em man, they’re gonna keep bringing ’em in, and bringin’ em in, and bringin’ em in. And throwing ’em around like that ain’t gonna do a damn thing but give you a fuckin heart attack. And you know what? That’s cool with me! But you gonna give me a Go damn heart attack too. – slams his hands on the sheets to stop Derek folding them so fast – I know, I know, I’m just a dumb stupid n****r right? What do I know? I know I ain’t the one getting mad at some damn sheets though.

State of Mind: Raw, hard, and unrelenting. This movie is essential viewing but it’s at no point easy viewing. I love it. I hate it. I might watch it again in another 10 years. Eds Norton and Furlong are brilliant, and ably supported by the rest of the cast. What I hate the most is how relevant this movie still is. This was made almost twenty years ago.

Watched movie count

The Truman Show (1998)

The Truman Show
Directed by Peter Weir
Written by Andrew Niccol
(number 336)

This is one of those movies that my parents took me to as a teenager which blew my mind. (I’m pretty sure they took me to a weekend showing at the Penthouse in Brooklyn, but I could actually be wrong about that.) But it opened my eyes to what movies could do. How a piece of Hollywood media could interrogate Hollywood media and make you think about what media you’re consuming – the human cost or effect of it. I loved it, and every time I watch it I love it again.

Truman’s world is based on a carefully constructed script. A world where everyone is in on the joke but him, everyone else is playing a careful, faux, product placement act of a life and he’s this weirdly groomed guy in the middle who has grown up with it, so it’s totally normal for him.

The facade begins to fail when the set starts to have technical issues. First a ‘star’ falls, which is of course, a light hung from the ceiling, then a malfuctioning rain storm and then the man who played his father sneaks into the set to play a homeless man. These, especially the last thing make Truman question his life. I like this idea that you can be living a sort of, cookie cutter life without questioning it, but once you do you start pursuing truth. For Truman this is the literal truth about the circumstances of his world, but it can also be about realising you’re unhappy/wanting more and questioning why. This is a very real situation I have been in.

Although it’s set up as a utopia, Truman is shown to be unhappy. He wants to travel, badly. He’s yearning for a girl he spent a couple of hours with as a teenager. Yearning and wishing for her even though he’s married.

One of my favourite tiny moments is when Truman gets onto the radio frequency they use to track and cue people, and there’s a massive squeal of feedback as they switch. There’s a long shot of everyone in the area stopping and clutching their ears as the feedback hurts them. It’s beautifully done. This also leads the inspiring music sequence of him actively interacting with the world in ways he never has before, giving him a glimpse of behind the scenes.

Does it make me love the people? Laura Linney’s slowly breaking mask of happiness, the cracks in her careful facade are so gorgeous. I want for her to have won an award for this movie. Jim Carrey’s work is great here too, his dramatic work has always impressed me more than his comedic turns.

Bechdel test: Meryl and Truman’s mother sort of speak, pointing to photos in an old family album and exclaiming over them, but there’s issues with this. Truman’s mother has no name but also they’re both talking to Truman, and about Truman. The photos are all of him.

Representation shout out to the two old lady lesbians who are watching the show and frequently cut to in the viewer montages. They’re wearing matching bathrobes and they fall asleep on each other, it’s sweet.

Best line:

Christof: We’ve become bored with watching actors give us phony emotions. We are tired of pyrotechnics and special effects. While the world he inhabits is, in some respects, counterfeit, there’s nothing fake about Truman himself. No scripts, no cue cards. It isn’t always Shakespeare, but it’s genuine. It’s a life.

Marlon: you have a desk job! I’d love a desk job

Truman: why do you want to have a baby with me? You hate me.
Meryl: That’s not true! – turns away, lets her actual emotions show, picks up a box – Why don’t you let me fix you some of this Mococoa drink? All natural cocoa beans from the upper slopes of Mount Nicaragua. No artificial sweeteners.

State of Mind: I really rate this movie. I love the way it's crafted, the careful performance of Ed Harris, Laura Linney and Noah Emmerich as the people closest to Truman, curating his life. Jim Carrey's performance which is both excellent and naive. It's a classic, I’ll definitely watch it again.

Watched movie count

The Passenger (1975)

The Passenger
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni
Written by Mark Peploe, Michelangelo Antonioni and Peter Wollen
(number 347)

Here’s another movie I had never heard of and had no idea what it was about.

Slooooow to start. It was slow enough that I started to think about all the films on this list which are set in deserts: Wake in Fright, Paris Texas, Rain Man (partially), Electra Glide in Blue, The English Patient, Ace in the Hole and Lawrence of Arabia. It is certainly a fascinating landscape, and quickly makes the whole feel of a movie bleak. I want to say it’s a great emphasis for a certain type of character but I’m struggling to find a commonality in the leads for the above. A certain kind of ruthlessness is shared by some, but definitely not all of them.

There’s a very cool long tracking shot of the changing of passports and then flash back (in camera, very jarring before I realised what was going on.)

In a kind of reverse- Hitchcock plot a man steals the identity and life of a man with a life rather different to his own, when the other dies in the hotel they’re both staying at in Africa. Only the dead man is an arms dealer, and that is a risky line of work, especially when you’re dealing with revolutionary fighters.

There are a number of interesting locations in this film, from domestic apartments to Barcelona… it’s all, of course, terribly 70s with the fashion and the hairstyles. I like the performance Jack Nicholson puts in, it seems easier, less affected and over the top than some of his later work.

Generally the movie didn’t grab me though. It was very slow, and very… yeah. There was a pretty neat couple of lock off long shots, but I don’t feel like they added a whole lot to my viewing experience or displayed particular artistic flair. I could be convinced otherwise maybe, but… eh.

Does it make me love the people? Not really. It was a bit on the boring side for me, and it seemed like bad things happened to people who were basically being shits. I’m sure there’s stuff to say about identity and the fluidity of who we are, etc, but ultimately I don’t feel like Locke changed much of who he was when he became Robertson.

Bechdel test: No, Rachel seems to be the only named woman, with the other lead woman character only credited as ‘Girl’ despite being pretty important to the storyline. The women are only characters in relation to Locke, which, given it’s a tight point of view on him doesn’t surprise too much. It is pretty lazy story telling but I’m not sure what else I can expect from a 70s film.

Best line:

Did you love each other?
Rachel: yes, I think so, we just didn’t make each other very happy.

I also liked the moment where Locke/Robertson stuck his fake moustache on a lamp.

The Girl: Isn’t it funny how things happen? All the shapes we make. Wouldn’t it be terrible to be blind?

David: I know a man who was blind. When he was nearly 40 years old, he had an operation and regained his sight.

The Girl: How was it like?

David Locke: At first he was elated… really high. Faces… colors… landscapes. But then everything began to change. The world was much poorer than he imagined. No one had ever told him how much dirt there was. How much ugliness. He noticed ugliness everywhere. When he was blind… he used to cross the street alone with a stick. After he regained his sight… he became afraid. He began to live in darkness. He never left his room. After three years he killed himself.

State of Mind: Ehhh, boring. I just wasn’t feeling this. It seems like a movie I may have enjoyed more if I’d seen it at the theatre during a film festival screening, but then I may have just found it terribly boring then as well. I feel like there was more that could have been explored with this premise, especially with Rachel’s reaction to her husband’s apparent death – there’s an emotional journey there barely touched on. But it was never her story. Locke seemed to learn very little, instead relishing the laconic ‘know it all’ attitude even though he was quickly in over his head.

Watched movie count