Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Love & Admiration in "Passion" Trailer

Christine chats up Isabelle in backseat of chauffeured car.


A STORY OF WOMEN FIGHTING for power—and love in the workplace, the teaser trailer for Passion dances a waltz to the sound of a clock ticking. A blond woman in a red power suit walks fast; a brunette turns her head fast; the blonde joins the brunette on a sofa fast and slows down as the sofa sways from her motion. The trailer for Brian De Palma’s film is full of approaching and retreating movement that uses the visual vocabulary of his past films as a language to speak about today’s smart phone world.

The two women are blond Christine (Rachel McAdams) and brunette Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), a boss and protégé at a Berlin ad agency; they always seem on the verge of something, as if something’s bubbling just under the surface. The ticking clock soundtrack is no doubt meant for suspense, but it makes me think of the element of time that drives all of De Palma’s films: clocks, split screens and multiple chances for a person to right a wrong populate his films. In particular, his trademark split screens speak to the nature of things happening at the same time: while someone watches late night reruns of “King of Queens” a person gets murdered.

The trailer speaks to the idea of things in the world happening simultaneously; there is a narrative that runs throughout the trailer, despite not being linear. When Isabelle sits nervously in an office, she wears an upper crust blue scarf; cut to Christine wearing an upper crust blue scarf, but more convincingly; cut to Isabelle in the same scene with Christine, but now Isabelle is wearing the blue scarf and Christine is not: it’s visual storytelling at its best. When Isabelle sits stiffly in the office, she looks like she snuck into her boss’s office to pretend to be the boss. Think of the autograph seeker trying on Eve’s cape and holding her award as she looks at her image reflected times five in a mirror, in All About Eve, or Heather #2 holding Heather #1’s red Scrunchie: it’s all about a person wanting to replace someone else by becoming them.

At this point the protégé is hanging out in the boss’s office and wearing the boss’s scarf. Next, after the boss gives her scarf to her protégé, she says with bedroom eyes, “We make a really good team,” bringing these two women closer together. Wouldn’t you know the next shot is of the boss and protégé at a party (work-related), with the boss holding Isabelle’s face in her hands examining it like an artist admiring her creation? This is where the word “seniority” comes in, because in business “seniority” refers to rank and not age, but since Christine and Isabelle are both in their early 30s Christine interprets seniority as trying to look older and dominant. At the party, Christine wears dangling, phallic earrings with her hair fixed in a severe French bun, while Isabelle looks underdressed, almost school girl-like; maybe because her black blazers and pants look like a school uniform, as well as her bowl-cut bangs.

As all of these images of Christine and Isabelle move gracefully across the screen, there are POV shots of someone walking through a house at night; Venetian blind shadows decorate the house, which looks to be Christine’s house. The Passion trailer has a pattern of entering and exiting, which falls under the category of approaching and retreating. The first shot of the trailer is a POV shot of someone opening the door to Christine’s house; cut to the open door of Christine’s chauffeured BMW that closes once she exits. Then there’s nervous Isabelle inside an office, but it’s still a public space because the office is made of glass, like a fishbowl; not to mention that there are probably cameras in the office. It’s not until Isabelle shares a drink with Christine on Christine’s sofa that they’re in a private space. But are they really?

Drawer full of sex toys & a Kabuki mask.

The person in Christine’s house walks up her stairs closer and closer to the bedroom. Isabelle stirs her cup of coffee/tea in a spiral motion, sitting in Christine’s immaculate white kitchen, as the maid irons on a crisp white iron; note how Isabelle’s fuming eye darts for a split second and then returns to its original position. Christine walks smugly into an office presumably not hers, wearing the much discussed high-waist trousers; of course there’s a mini alabaster statue of a man about to dive off the edge: foreshadowing much? Christine wears a hilarious plastic smile framed by ruby red lips that’s made all the more funny by the fact that De Palma chose to show this scene with the audio from another scene (Christine and Isabelle riding in the backseat of Christine’s chauffeured BMW). Follow that with Isabelle walking into Christine’s office while Christine sits waiting for her; Isabelle has been summoned and the room is painted in Venetian blind shadows, a nod to noir, entrapping Isabelle as if in a prison cell, while Christine is free of any Venetian blind shadows, casually smoking her cigarette with her hair free from her trademark bun.

Inside the backseat of Christine’s chauffeured BMW, Christine chats up Isabelle trying to find out more about her mysterious protégé; the two women are in the same clothes as the work-related party, and probably they’re en route to the party. The back window of the BMW has Venetian blinds a la the cab in On the Waterfront: does this make Isabelle Marlon Brando? Also, there’s the cab in De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, which tells what can happen in a moving cab. De Palma’s camera pans 360 degrees around Isabelle sitting on a bench looking down at her smart phone, while a bus stop billboard for a ballet is next to Isabelle.

Then there’s the De Palma drawer that pops up in many of his films: someone opens a drawer and it contains a plot device. Inside a bedroom Isabelle opens a nightstand drawer full of sex toys and a Kabuki mask, and in the process opens a drawer of De Palma films past. Dressed in a man’s shirt (that likely belongs to Paul Anderson’s character Dirk), Isabelle becomes the cheating wife Jenny from Raising Cain who opens drawers to find birthday gifts that could reveal her infidelity; she becomes the cheating wife Kate Miller in Dressed to Kill who opens a drawer to find a report from the health department stating that the stranger she slept with has VD; she becomes the black-clad Nicolas Bardo in Femme Fatale who opens a drawer to find a gun. The Kabuki mask—molded from Christine's face—that Christine makes her lovers wear is in the drawer and proves to be an important plot device since it appears three times in this trailer.

All the smoking in this trailer puts me in the mind of film noirs, which in relation to De Palma puts me in the mind of Femme Fatale where the main characters smoke like crazy. Christine smokes in her chauffeured BMW while talking on her smart phone (Panasonic?) with devilish eyes; she even talks on her smart phone when taking baths, like Laure Ashe in Femme Fatale who smoked in the tub, but didn't go as far as use a electronic device, but let’s hope she doesn’t fall asleep and dream of life as Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.

Someone wearing a Kabuki mask gets it on with Christine.

Things end up back to the bedroom, just as Christine’s bedroom eyes foreshadowed, and a blindfolded Christine feels her way through the hallways of her home en route to the bedroom. She wears a silk robe that makes me see Liz Blake at the end of Dressed to Kill, in that feminine robe and the nightmare she would have in the bedroom. Back to the BMW with Christine and Isabelle on their way to the party: Christine the boss tells her protégé she wants to be “loved” instead of “admired”; she moves swiftly from bared teeth to bedroom eyes. Again Christine moves in aggressively, always taking the initiative while Isabelle reacts.

The trailer comes to an end with a bed-headed Christine giving what else but the bedroom eyes to the intruder in her house; the leather-gloved intruder removes Christine’s blindfold and caresses her head tenderly. Then BOOOOOM!!! That mask of Christine’s face moves into the camera. It’s fitting that the trailer ends in darkness like when we close our eyes at night to sleep, or dream. 


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Son, Brother, Father in 'Untouchables'

Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness in The Untouchables

The first time I tried to watch The Untouchables, I had recorded it on DVR, but with the commercials on AMC, the movie took up 150 minutes of DVR space, so I prioritized and decided that I could chuck The Untouchables to make room for more important programming.

Maybe a month later I recorded it again on DVR and this time the movie flew by.  From the first explosion killing a child it's clear that Brian De Palma's Prohibition film is about the threat to the family.  This is when a young Kevin Costner, as FBI agent Eliot Ness, flaunts his sturdy German looks and farm boy identity to fight Chicago's crime. The first time he tries he fails and becomes the embarrassment of the FBI. He's down and out with a wife and daughter at home, but no male friends. This is where Sean Connery comes in to inject the perfect dose of mature masculinity into Ness's life.

Forming a team with a few other men, Ness heads into a cat and mouse with the criminal Al Capone and his associates. Ness's team becomes known as the Untouchables. The team becomes a brotherhood and a second family for Ness. The fact that this group of men becomes a family chokes me up as if I were hearing a powerful melisma in an opera. It makes perfect sense that the murder of Jim Malone (Sean Connery) is intercut with an opera Pagliacci that Al Capone (Robert De Niro) cries crocodile tears for. It's at this point that I feel like I'm in a disaster movie like 1972's The Poseidon Adventure, when I was connected to the characters so much that I hoped each one made it out alive. Like when Linda Rogo (Stella Stevens) falls into the fire causing Ernest Borgnine to break your heart with his grief.

Being an only child, I always wanted a brother. Every time a cousin or friend stayed over at my home, it was the most exciting thing in the world to me. The Untouchables is like many of De Palma's films because the brother-seeking protagonist becomes stronger at the film's end and finds his place in the world because of a family unit. Who doesn't want to find their place in the world, where they belong? The brotherhood saved Eliot Ness and made him a better father and overall better man. Who knows where Ness would have ended up if he hadn't met Jim Malone. He might have become a drunk lost in the world because of his failure to be a man. By saving himself, he saved his family.

If I hadn't urgently watched The Untouchables, I would have missed Sean Connery's Oscar-winning performance. He plays a character who plays father figure and brother to a younger version of himself. He tries to redeem his life by helping Eliot Ness take out Chicago's crime and making the world a better place. I may have erased the movie from my DVR, but it will stay forever in my mind.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

'Raising Cain' After Dark

Jack (Steven Bauer) and Jenny (Lolita Davidovitch) in bed in Raising Cain
I fell in love with Brian De Palma's Raising Cain (1992) in a fractured way earlier this month. It was on television on Encore and 25 minutes had passed, but I wanted to see it then, so I watched it despite missing a half hour of it. The frame I saw in Cain was Jenny talking in the park to her girlfriend and then seeing tall glass of water Jack (Steven Bauer) appear because he needed to get his car keys from Jenny. I later found out how they came about meeting at the park. The two walk through the park launching into a soft porn-on-Cinemax scenario. They make love in a leafy ditch and it all turns out to be a dream...or is it?

Ever since Dressed to Kill, the erotic scenes in De Palma films have reminded me of those softcore movies that used to air on Cinemax after dark when I was 12 and 13 from 1998 to 2000. It was the reason I sometimes watched "Sex and the City" because I knew it featured nudity and sex. The Cinemax series like "Passion Cove" always featured everyday scenarios and the sex scenes were as explicit as in any R-rated movie, but they were also comedic like De Palma's films. The scenery was always beautiful on "Passion Cove" and more importantly the show was dreamy. The images had a fuzz to them just as De Palma's films do, or as Pauline Kael described it, "the gliding, glazed-fruit cinematography is intoxicating." Maybe that's how I feel in a nutshell: I wanted to eat the images in Raising Cain.

One thing those Cinemax shows couldn't do was bring tears to my eyes, but De Palma's films could. Pino Donaggio's operatic score helped to get that reaction from me. The scene, which was a flashback, of doctor Jenny in the hospital room of the comatose wife of the man she never got over, Jack. It's one of De Palma's moment in time sequences where the characters move in slow motion in a moment of happiness that you know is short-lived that will be abruptly interrupted by something terrible. It's funny because Jack's wearing a nice suit and Jenny wears her hair in a fancy bun, dangling earrings and a white coat: they look like they're going to a party or a dinner date, but then I realize the white coat is Jenny's doctor coat. I think this was De Palma's intention to make Jenny look like she was Jack's date, especially since the New Years Eve ball dropped on the hospital room's television. Those slow motion moments in De Palma films are what happiness looks and feels like: it feels like glazed fruit.

Throughout the rest of the film I wondered if what I thought were just dreams were really flashbacks within dreams, since most dreams contain elements of reality. The fact that the beautiful Jenny was married to the homely Carter (John Lithgow), a child psychologist, brought to mind the mildly handsome Jake Scully in Body Double who also was dating a hot blonde out of his league. Body Double turned out to be all a dream, and that's how Cain seems: like Carter is imagining life with his dream wife. Even the California location and arched doorways recall Double. It's a world I wanted to live in, despite the murders because De Palma thrillers aren't never about the murders, but instead about the beauty that surrounds the murders. I wanted to live in the New York City of Dressed to Kill and the sunny Los Angeles of Body Double.

After dvr'ing Raising Cain at a later date, I saw what I had missed in the first 30 minutes. I had finished a movie that was like the many dreams I have every night that reminded me of my early erotic feelings and a simpler time. Thank you Brian De Palma.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Spiral Effect of Britney 2.0

Heather Morris reenacting Britney's doomed VMA performance.

Sitting behind the judges table on "X Factor" with her legs crossed and stiletto'd foot twirling, she was the fidgety off-stage Britney Spears the world has loved/hated for the last decade. I saw this Britney with her little black dress, fresh blond dye job and Sally Field face and thought 'this is the perfect segueway into Glee's Britney 2.0 episode" airing after "X Factor."

The episode "Britney 2.0" makes the 2010 "Glee" episode "Britney/Brittany" look like amateur hour. While that one was a forced dentist-themed episode with its own charms, Britney 2.0 is seamless. Ryan Murphy and his team finally use Britney's iconography to tell the story of loneliness, sexiness and comebacks. The "Glee" character Brittany identifies with Britney the most and acts out Britney's fall from grace. When Brittany is cut from the cheerleading squad for poor grades, she's sees this as her chance to fall into a downward spiral of unkempt blond hair, cheetos, cigarettes and jumbo-sized Starbucks coffees. It's what I call the Britney fetish.

Jake Puckerman (Jacob Artist) is the bad boy of the school and when he starts dating the mean girl cheerleader Kitty (Becca Tobin), it's clear that Jake is living Puck's old life and destined to make the same mistakes. There's something eerie about how life repeats itself all the time. I remember when the blond goddess of 11th grade stopped in the hall to talk to her freshman self, a taller blonde. The torch was past down. Once people graduate from high school there will always be people to carry on the tradition. It's a spiral effect and clever of Ryan Murphy to use the cycle of life as the theme of "Britney 2.0" all the way down to the title. It implys a revised version of the past. Brittany acts out the life that Britney Spears already lived and thankfully learns from Britney's mistakes. It's funny, Jake reminds me of a guy I worked with on a temp assignment with who had the same button brown eyes and close haircut as Jake, but was white. He also was a bad boy with a bad relationship with the law. The past always floats it's way into the present and the future.

 I found myself singing along with joy when the Glee characters performed Britney's songs and when doing this I thought back to the Britney in a little black dress on "X Factor" and thought she really will always be a star because her catalog is so big and memorable. The girl she shares the judges table with, Demi Lovato, tries to be Britney 2.0 with her pop songs, bottle-blond hair and public breakdowns, but Britney made her magic in another time, in almost what seems another life, and that magic will never die.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

De Palma's 'Passion' is the Smell of Success

Christine (Rachel McAdams) comes closer to Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) in Passion.

As I started to type this a big thud jolted me to attention. I didn't know what it was, so I got up to investigate and it turned out to be a stack of shoeboxes that had fallen inside my closet. I had just been watching the one-minute trailer for Brian De Palma's Passion a few times and it's full of stomach-jumping surprises just like my real-life one.

Passion is an "erotic thriller" about two successful businesswomen Christine and Isabelle who are attracted to each other's ambition, which of course leads to murder. The TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) released this trailer five months ago, so I'm late on writing about it because Passion has since screened at TIFF. Who cares? This blog couldn't have been more in the moment, and the fall of those shoeboxes was perfect. So when the trailer begins with a graphic of the TIFF logo and footage of onlookers at a festival snapping pictures and recording on their camera phones what they see coming down the red carpet, I instantly expect to see Femme Fatale's Laure Ash as one of the paparazzi snapping pictures. This scene is just like the beginning of Fatale set at the Cannes Film Festival in France. The sound of a door creaks open as blood splatters the screen. Then, what do you know, a door opens.

Everything to do with this movie has been lusty from the moment stills and promotional photos for the film were released last spring. And there's something about this trailer that moves like a heart racing when aroused, then the body stands at attention and slows down after the climax. Just peep the way senior ad exec Christine (Rachel McAdams) steps out of her chauffeured car and walks fast towards the office building. This is followed by the clink of a glass as Christine sits next to her subordinate Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) on the sofa, swaying into Isabelle as if for a kiss. They move towards each other, but then move slightly away from each other. In and Out. Their movement is a tug of war.

The trailer keeps me off balance, but not necessarily jumpy until the end of the trailer. I feel what Isabelle feels in the trailer, even walking through Christine's house. As Dirk (Paul Anderson) says, Christine likes surprises and the payoff of the trailer is an ultimate surprise. We see from presumably Isabelle's point of view, but then we see Christine's. It's someone wearing the mask molded from Christine's face. The way the image jumps out at me that makes my stomach jump every time, no matter how many times, even when played on mute. The scream that sounds like it came from a demon in hell right on the moment of surprise really makes the scare effective.   

When you hear the clink of a glass it could be someone celebrating a job promotion over drinks, or it could be something that scares you or startles you. One of the best images in the trailer is when Christine, dressed in a light blue shirt and pants and a Tippi Hedren bun, makes the sofa cushion rock towards Isabelle. With glass full of liquor in hand, the big diamond ring on Christine's finger stands out and gives the impression that she's married. The truly scary and sexy thing about this scene is the way Christine's nose is upturned and mouth slightly downturned suggesting cruelty. She looks like she's smelling the stench of fear or the stench of ambition. Regardless, both stenches wreak like someone wearing way too much perfume.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Blondes Have it Rough

L-R: Alison Lohman & Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander

White Oleander began as a late-night affair on a thursday night. I had DVR'd the 2002 movie from earlier that evening and the movie started with a bang, but I was tired. I had work the next day. The following night at like 8 pm I watched it and was lilted into this quick-moving repetition of situations that seduced me with its closeups of Michelle Pfeiffer's contained beauty and Alison Lohman's sad brown eyes.

The first thing that struck me was how I had never seen Pfeiffer look more beautiful, as monstrous as her character Ingrid was. Her long blond hair was straight and uncomplicated and her eyes like steely pools of blue. I can see why Lohman's character Astrid regarded her as some kind of mythical creature, maybe even a goddess. Beautiful. Dangerous. Blond hair is a major part of White Oleander, even a character in itself. Some might get the impression that the film is saying "beautiful white blond women have it rough too," but that's surface-deep. When Lohman gets beat up by some tough Latinas at a youth facility, she cuts her long blond locks short and assumes a more butch persona. It transcends race and brings up the fact that race doesn't matter when a person is without a family and a home. The Latinas and Lohman are both victims of circumstance.

The film is based on a book of the same name and it's a testament to the direction and the actors' performances that the film is the visual equivalent to a page-turner. The scenes moved in a perfect rhythm: mother and daughter get along until a man screws it up. Daughter lives with foster family and that gets screwed because of a man. Interspersed is Lohman visiting her mother in prison periodically. Despite the subject matter, the film is never harrowing and hard-to-watch. In fact, it's a hopeful movie that shows a young woman's resilience. It also hit personal spots for me reminding me of my own dad who left my family for another woman. Abandonment sucks. It's Pfeiffer's admission of abandonment (given and received) that cracks open her cold, calculating shell to reveal an actual human being.

The revelation at the end involving the father put a lump in my throat making it hard to swallow and a bit hard to breathe. That's what White Oleander does, it makes you think about your family whether good or bad, past or present. The movie left me feeling grateful and still taken with Pfeiffer's simple, goddess beauty. Or even, her clean beauty. The movie also reminded me that there were still things I needed to find out about my own family.

Venetian Blinds and The New Normal

L-R: Andrew Rannells & Justin Bartha on "The New Normal"

On a saturday afternoon in mid September and sun shining through my Venetian blinds, I didn't feel like watching the second episode of the new tv show "The New Normal." I had DVR'd it, but I felt like edging closer to the end of the novel I was reading called Admission instead. I turned the tv off.

15 minutes later, lying on my side on the floor, legs outstretched I turned the tv back on and I started watching "The New Normal" and to my surprise for those 20 minutes I was enraptured. Mind you, I had seen the show's pilot, but the pilot was weak and had zero rhythm. The characters seemed more like flat images than real people, existing only to spout snarky one-liners. The second episode brought to mind something I had read about tv pilots (in a review of another NBC show "Smash"): they're meant to set up the characters and then focus on the nuances in the episodes that followed.

Nuanced is what the second episode of "The New Normal" was. It was full of surprises that triggered me to smile each time. Even though I had noticed this in the pilot, I was still surprised at how much Justin Bartha (stars as one half of the show's gay couple) looks like tennis champion Novak Djokovic. There's a Slavic, Baltic look to both men. So what is better than to imagine the always charismatic Djokovic as one-half of a gay couple?

The next surprise was the little girl Shania dressed as Little Edie from the Grey Gardens documentary replete with Little Edie's black head scarf. She even spoke like her. The fantastic thing that show-creator Ryan Murphy does is develop the effortless bond between Bryan (Andrew Rannells) and Shania (Bebe Wood). They relate to each other and they seem the most like Murphy. All the show gets to breath in its second episode and Bryan proves a more intricate character while being one-note in the pilot. When I look at Andrew Rannells as Bryan, I can't help but think of Ryan Reynolds, but Bryan is someone who I can relate to who's a brother and a friend. The best part is that Bryan treats Shania like the star that she is (with the name of a country music diva) and is excited about her impersonating Little Edie. Having a little girl dress and act like Little Edie as a coping device is not completely out of left field for Ryan Murphy, but yet I didn't expect it. I was surprised at how clever and perfect it was.

L-R: Bebe Wood & Georgia King on "The New Normal."

Ellen Barkin is the show's Cruella de Vil, but I have this feeling she's going to turn from the dark side, but of course that won't be easy. She's where most of the show's political commentary comes from, and is what Laura Ingraham will look and act like in 10 years. I've always found Ingraham hilarious, so that's a plus for me.

I clicked off from DVR and I felt like I had escaped into the warmest world. "The New Normal" is a family show and I think open-minded families will love this show. There are a lot of kids who are different, but not gay (Shania a case in point), and that's why a lot of people will share my reaction to the show. As the sun still shined through the Venetian blinds I felt even warmer than when I started the show.