It seems I just don’t have (or find) enough time to write long form reviews of most of the films I see. That’s why I’m going to start posting these groupings of short reviews every week to fill in the gaps...
Belle De Jour (1967) D: Luis Bunuel
Catherine Deneuve stars as Severine, a bored French housewife who makes up for her sexless marriage by indulging in erotic fantasies. Since it’s a Luis Bunuel film, these daydreams are a whole lot weirder than they are sexy-- one in particular involves her being tied to a barn while two men throw mud on her and call her dirty names. When she hears of a secret brothel, Severine goes to see the madam, and is soon working as a prostitute by day while maintaining her genteel-- and celibate-- bourgeois life at night. Like most Bunuel movies, Belle De Jour includes a healthy dose of the surreal, as well as satire of the soulless middle class and a few witty jabs at organized religion. Oddly enough, and despite the subject matter, the result is a movie that is probably the most conventional film he made in France-- the story has a definite three acts, and even the frequent dream sequences are more clearly delineated as such through some interesting sound design (we hear the sound of bells-- originally linked to a horse carriage in the film’s first scene--every time Severine begins to fantasize). But Bunuel is still a master of the subversive, and like his masterpiece Viridiana, Belle De Jour is notable for suggesting the deepest of perversions without ever resorting to showing them. Consider a scene where a Chinese businessman comes to the brothel. He carries a box that makes a buzzing sound every time he opens it, and though the camera never shows what it contains, the disgusted reactions of the prostitutes are enough to conjure up all manner of depravity. But the joke is on us: Bunuel noted in his book My Last Sigh that he never knew what was in the box. What he did know was that his audience, no matter how dignified they considered themselves, could be counted on to fill in the gaps.
Shotgun Stories (2007) D: Jeff Nichols
Here’s a fine movie that was more or less ignored by the mainstream critics. Three brothers known only as Son, Kid, and Boy, find out that their hateful father has died after leaving them behind, finding God, and starting another family. The three crash the funeral, and have soon started an all out feud with their half-brothers that quickly escalates from bitterness to bloodshed. In many ways, Shotgun Stories is the most American movie I’ve seen this year. Unlike most mainstream fare with its streamlined (and often manufactured) cultural identity, this is a film that could have been made no where else except the Southern U.S., specifically Arkansas. It feels real and honest because it is steeped in the culture that it sprang from. Director Jeff Nichols took the characters that are placed in the periphery and played for laughs in most films and made them the center of his movie, and the result is one of the most humane films to come along in a while. The mostly non-professional cast is nearly universally excellent, especially Douglas Ligon as the gentle but ineffectual Boy, who would rather live in a van in “early retirement” than get a job. Michael Shannon (most notably of the underrated Bug), the only name actor in the cast, once again distinguishes himself as one of the most unique performers working today. He certainly has one of the most interesting faces of any young actor around. Forget Gus Van Sant and all the people saying he’s achieved something resembling De Sica and the Italian Neorealists. This is a movie that feels like it’s about real people.
Stone Reader (2002) D: Mark Moskowitz
This documentary follows filmmaker Mark Moskowitz as he tries to track down the writer of what he considers a forgotten classic of literature. The book, The Stones of Summer, and its writer, Dow Mossman, were briefly hailed as visionary in 1972 before fading into oblivion. By the time Moskowitz discovers the book in 2001 it has become so obscure that even the jacket designer doesn’t remember it. While it’s ostensibly about the search to find Mossman and ask him why there was never another book, Stone Reader is more about the beauty of reading and the gifts that good literature can continue to give to its readers (one writer charmingly calls it “the only pleasure that never gets old”). If that sounds like the kind of maudlin preaching you remember form your elementary school librarian, rest easy. Moskowitz is on the whole able to steer clear of the mountain of cliches that surround his subject. Where the problems lie are not in his content but in his technical skill as a documentarian and editor. He attempts a self-reflexive approach wherein we see the making of the documentary as we watch it, and while this does allow for some nice touches, in particular one scene where Moskowitz handles the unprinted film of the scene the audience has just witnessed, it ultimately makes the film overlong and unnecessarily convoluted. That’s not even mentioning the completely lifeless color palette that Moskowitz insists on using. For a guy who’s trying to make reading look interesting to people, he does him self a disservice by making his movie look as though it were a relic of the mid-eighties.