The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

The post where I confess my NYC obsession

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Frances ha

Too much of New York City in your movie diet is probably bad for you. I’m starting to feel the effect of it myself. It messes with my brain.

My addiction has been building up during a long time. It started back in the 80s when I watched my first Woody Allen movies and after that it has just continued, through TV series such as Seinfeld and Friends and Girls  to newer films, like the ones by Noah Baumbach.

Oh, you vaguely middle-class intellectuals in your thirties, in vaguely creative professions, with all your soul searching and dinner conversations in your perfect shabby chic home! How much time haven’t I spent with you? You’re not aware of it, but I know you so well at this point that I almost forget who I am. On some level I have this delusion that if I just made up my mind, New York City is just one flight away. And like you I would have to struggle for a while, but that would be temporary because in the end I would find my path, my creative voice, like you all do, and I would be one of you, and we would take strolls in Central Park and go to cool clubs that aren’t in the tourist guides and… Oh well. Enough of day dreams.

This is somewhat silly, isn’t it? If you’re 46 years old you’re supposed to be past the stage of childish daydreaming.

(Jessica, where is your dignity? Where is your maturity? Please pull yourself together and get real!)

Ahem.

Ok, so that’s my background. I’m a sucker for movies about middleclass people in their thirties in NYC. If I only was allowed to watch movies from one city for the rest of my life, that would be the city of my choice. New York movies. That would be enough to last me a lifetime.

It goes without saying that I really loved Frances Ha. I’ve watched it twice now and it was just as enjoyable the second time. It’s black and white, with a beautiful score, simple and yet stylish, reminding a little of Woody Allen (kinship, not plagiarism).

(And yes, for your record, I speak well of his movies and I’ll keep doing that and I’m not planning to talk about THAT here at any point. I leave that to the courts. I’m not a judge and that’s all I have to say about it).

I suppose you could call Frances Ha a “feel-good movie” or a “finding who you are-movie”, but that sounds terrible, like a standard concept, which it isn’t. Yes, it’s light, but that doesn’t make it mindless. It’s quite funny, but that doesn’t mean it lacks pain and emotional depth. It’s stylish, but not to the extent that the surface takes overhand.

Some movies have a “soul”, if you get what I mean. Others don’t. Frances Ha has it.

And it has New York City. And Greta Gerwig, who is wonderful.

The only thing it lacks is me. (Oh, sorry, that was my delusional side speaking again. My apologies.)

Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, US 2012) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

February 10, 2014 at 1:00 am

Posted in Frances Ha

Frozen – the childfree version

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Frozen

Kids in theatre audiences can be a bit of a pain. Aware of the risk that I might some out as a modern cousin of Scrooge, a mean, grumpy, child hating person, I must admit that I find it somewhat distracting when they loudly comment on everything that’s going on in the movie or – worse – complain about being bored. Not to mention when they repeatedly need to run out of the movie since their parents for reasons I cannot fathom have bought them the largest sodas which result in bladder flooding incidents. Or the fact that they’re walking zoos carrying an assortment of germs that they’ve picked up at preschool and now do their best to spread all over the room, sneezing and coughing constantly.

All of this is of course referring to other people’s children. Your own kids are angels, naturally.

Anyway I was happily surprised as I took my 21 year old daughter to see Frozen. As it turned out here wasn’t a single person below 18 in the theatre, which was as good as sold out.

And I think it wasn’t just the late hour that kept them away. It was that we watched in the original language, with subtitles instead of dubbed voices. That’s the advantage of watching it in a country outside of the English language zone. It makes for a natural selection. If you’re a grown-up who still fancy child movies, you can skip the matinees and catch them late at night instead, with English voices. When you looked around in the room, you would assume from the age mix that we were just about to watch a slasher movie – not a movie about Norwegian princesses dealing with magic and dishonest cavaliers.

The positives
But let’s get to the point: what did I think about the movie? Well, I guess it’s a case of half full or half empty glasses. Starting with the negatives: I’m growing kind of tired of this idea that Disney movies always have to be about princesses and that the love interest theme – getting married or not getting married, finding your “true love” and so on – always takes such a big part of it. One part of me thinks that we could just skip this princess because it’s old and silly and start to make films about ordinary girls – and boys – who become heroes in their own lives. Without the crown-and-pink-and-pretty-dresses-and-ball party- crap.

BUT – and now I’m seeing it from the other side that wants to look at things from a brighter side: progress is being made and we’ve come a very long way compared to how it used to be when I grew up, when the princesses were reduced to being objects, whose only purpose was to be dressed up, saved and kissed. The prince type is still there, but he’s in the periphery.  Brave was a story about a mother and her daughter sorting out their relationship. Frozen is about the ups and downs in sisterhood. And just like in Brave, the power is in the hands of the women. They’re the one bringing magic and anti-magic to the story. They’re the ones who cause mayhem, but also the ones who save the world. The love interest is in fact of very little use. He’s mostly there to be rescued. So while there’s still some room for improvement, I think there are movies that are far worse when it comes to stereotyping than Frozen. I would happily have brought my girls to the movie when they were kids, in the hope that they might pick up the idea that getting over the differences with your sister is a good thing.

As a Scandinavian I couldn’t help enjoying the environment, the clothing and the names on the characters, even though it was clearly more Norwegian than Swedish. It would have been nice if they had picked up a little bit more of a Nordic tone in the song numbers, like they picked up some Celtic heritage in Brave. As it is now it’s too generic. Nothing stands out, nothing sticks with you and at this point I couldn’t hum a single song from the film no matter how hard I tried.

Get a Horse!
Something that really did stick out though, which deserves a special mentioning, is the short film that precedes Frozen, Get a Horse!, which is a sort of homage to the Disney history with a delightful mix between old Mickey Mouse cartoons and modern 3D animation with a lot of breaking of the fourth wall. Not everyone is on board with it. For instance a poster at Criticwire called it an “insult”.  The thought hadn’t occurred to me that anyone could hate this before I read that piece, and perhaps you can criticize it if you’re a Disney historian. But this doesn’t change my experience of seeing it the slightest. I was chuckling all way through it of pure delight and love for everything that animated movie stands for: the possibility to break all boundaries and let your imagination run wild.

Frozen (Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee, US 2013) My rating: 4/5
Get a Horse! (Lauren MacMullan, US 2013) My rating: 5/5

Written by Jessica

February 9, 2014 at 7:19 pm

Posted in Frozen, Get a Horse!

On Lovelace and how much dark matter an audience can take

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lovelaceDo filmmakers need to take into account how much of violence and darkness and audience can cope with?

The question is rhetorical. Of course they do. Unless you’re a billionaire who can afford to finance your own movie and do whatever you like, you need adjust. You don’t want to shock people so much that they leave the theatre and advise their friends against watching the film. And you don’t want a rating slapped onto your film that locks out your potential teenage audience. So they tread carefully. And they compromise.

I thought of this as I watched The Killing Fields, which I will write about at some other point. While it shows some of the hardships that the Cambodian people suffered from under the Pol Pot regime, it’s a watered down version compared to the books I’ve read with testimonies of what really happened in those camps. The torture that took place was on par with the worst sort of horror films. The Killing Field doesn’t quite convey this. They must have calculated that it was too much.

Two perspectives
Lovelace is a more recent example of a story that is smoothened out a little to make it possible to watch for a wider audience.

This film covers a few years in the life of Linda Lovelace, the actress who got famous with the porn movie Deep Throat. It’s a two-part story with different perspectives. In the first part you see her life as a pretty content young woman, having a great time, hanging with the celebrities, participating in fun parties and cheerfully flirting with Hugh Hefner. That’s the story that the movie was sold with, the story that the audience wanted to hear. Half way through it turns over, showing what some critics wish that The Wolf of Wall Street should have shown: the “other side”. Because, as she later stated in her auto-biography Ordeal, Lovelace wasn’t happy at all. She lived in a relationship with a man who abused her in every thinkable way.

With a matter as dark as this I think you need to take some risks as a film maker and Lovelace doesn’t quite do this. There’s nothing wrong with Amanda Seyfried Lovelace, but what she’s exposed to isn’t so outrageous and graphic that it gets under my skin. A film about a woman suffering like this should leave me nauseated, angry, upset. I should want to hide under a blanket, covering my eyes. I should feel Linda Lovelace’s pain as if it was my own. And I don’t. Yes, I get that Chuck was a horrible person, but he’s not so beyond-any-description bad that he’ll claim a reserved seat in my mind where he’ll torture me with recollections for the rest of my life, like let’s say Gary Oldman in Léon.

They bailed out a little. I guess they had their reasons. It’s not a bad movie. It’s over average, but it’s a little unremarkable. And I wonder if it was the right call. It hasn’t been a success, neither with the critics, nor at the box office.

Lovelace (Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, US 2013) My rating: 3,5/5

Written by Jessica

February 4, 2014 at 12:28 am

Posted in Lovelace

Why I wanted a pause button watching Nymphomaniac

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nymphomaniac

One of the joys of watching movies in a cinema is the lack of disruptions. There is no pause button. The movie goes on, no matter what, and you have to toss yourself into the stream and float along. But when I watched the four hour version of Nymphomaniac: Volume I and II, I cursed silently several times, wishing there was a remote control.

This urge for a break had nothing to do with bio needs. I had managed my fluid intake carefully before the screening and besides there was a twenty minute intermission between the two parts when you could take care of such things.

And if you think that I needed a pause because all the explicit sex scenes were more than I could handle, it wasn’t that either. If you can handle Shame, you can handle Nymphomaniac. Yes, there is a lot of sex scenes, even more explicit than in Shame since we see penetration and erected penises and such things (made by stand-in professional sex actors). But regardless of what von Trier claims, it’s not a porn movie of any sort. It’s not intended to arouse anyone. The sex is not erotic. It’s technical. They do certain things with their bodies, but they could as well have been doing yoga or cutting their toe nails. And you get used to it. After an event early on when the main character and a friend of hers have a bet on who can “get” most men during a train journey”, you see where this is going. By the time she’s having sex with ten different guys per night, nothing surprises you. The whipping that comes into play as the stoy advances can be a bit bothersome to watch. But after all you know it’s voluntary.

No, the reason why I wanted a break was because my brain ran the risk of getting overheated. You see, the amount of sex scenes is nothing compared to the amount of words and ideas that are thrown to you, quicker than you can handle.

Mentally stimulating
Basically this is a four hour long conversation, illustrated with images and music that sometimes is intriguing, striking and beautiful, but never with the emotional intensity as in Melancholia. This movie didn’t hit my heart. It hit my brain, like a truck.

The participants in this dialogue are on one hand Joe – a woman who describes herself as a nymphomaniac and who is tormented by guilt over her sexual desires and actions, on the other hand Seligman, the man who found her lying damaged on the street and now listens to and comments on her story.

The way they speak doesn’t resemble much how people talk naturally in real life. In this aspect it reminds me of Ingmar Bergman. It’s so scripted, every line like a little carefully sculptured speech.

Sometimes we get to listen to miniature lectures out of the blue, on topics such as fishing, mathematical patterns, music composition or the difference between the Christian church in west and east. Once in a while they make statements about the world, clearly intended to stir a discussion. For instance Seligman puts out the question if we as an audience would judge Joe’s actions as hard as if she had been a man. Is the morale scale we measure people against different for men and women? Particularly during those thought provoking political outbursts I hear Lars von Trier’s voice I my head. It’s him speaking, though both of the characters. He may have decided to not to make public appearances anymore, but this doesn’t mean that he’s been silenced.

Perhaps this doesn’t sound altogether enjoyable to watch, but in fact I thought it was. I was mentally stimulated in a way that I normally don’t get by movies. I agree with the film critic at the local newspaper who called it “masturbation for the brain”. But it’s a masturbation where you don’t have influence on the pace, and that’s why I wished there was a pause button. I heard a line or an idea that made me go: “wait!” or “oh, no!” or “hm…”, and I wanted to halt for a moment to think a little further about it, but there was no room for this. All I could do was to try to quickly toss down a few lines on an imaginative mental note in the hope that something would stick, preferably long enough so that I could discuss it some other point with others.

Alone or in a group?
This is a movie you might want to watch on your own considering its sexual content. You might feel uncomfortable about seeing it with family and friends. But in the case of me, I regretted being alone as I left the cinema. I looked enviously at the small groups of people gathering. I could see how they connected their wires to each other, pooling their brain power, doing the mental processing as a group. I had to deal with it myself, without anyone to chat with. On the other hand – this is what the blogosphere is for.

It will be some time before more movie bloggers have had the chance to see this film, but I look forward to when they have, so we can sort this out together.

Nymphomaniac: Volume I & II (Lars von Trier, 2013) My rating: 4/5

Written by Jessica

February 2, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Nymphomaniac

The three hour sports documentary that doesn’t require you to like sports

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hoopdreams

First of all: full disclosure. I don’t care about sports. I’m almost completely ignorant of and equally indifferent to all sorts of competitions where people are supposed to jump, run, swim or toss balls and other objects one way or another.

Most of the sports I’ve watched in my life, I watched in class at school. You see, I grew up when the Swedish alpine skier Ingmar Stenmark was at his top. Whenever he was up for an important (or not so important) competition, all Swedes unanimously turned on their TVs and watched it, regardless of what they were doing at the moment. Everyone did it – at school, at work or in public and it didn’t matter if you cared about sports or not. Downhill skiing in the 70s was greater than life, don’t ask me why.

As an adult however I barely ever watch sports. Admittedly I enjoy watching elite gymnastics and figure skating, but I regard it more as a performing art than anything else. During the Olympics I might also check out the iconic men’s 100 m final since the raw energy burst somehow holds a spell over me and it only takes ten seconds of my time. And of course I watched every match and competition that my daughters participated in as they grew up. But with those exceptions, I don’t care for sports. I have no idea of which team won the national league in football this year and I can’t name a single Swedish basketball player. (Michael Jordan wasn’t Swedish, was he?)

Coming from this, you would imagine that a three hour long documentary about a couple of aspiring American basketball players wouldn’t be exactly my cup of tea. But strangely enough, or perhaps not so strangely after all, it was.

A film about people
Hoop Dreams takes place over five years in the lives of the teenagers Arthur and William, who both come from poor circumstances, living in the inner-city of Chicago. The film starts as they’re about to begin high school and ends somewhere in the beginning of their college time. We follow them on their way through the educational system and the world of basketball. Both have been recruited to a high profile high school thanks to their talents for basketball. Both dream of becoming professional basketball players one day. And, as it turns out, both will have a rather bumpy ride as they’re trying to reach their goals.

So how is it that I, a middle-aged middle-class woman in Sweden with no knowledge or interest for American basketball, ended up liking this film? I would say that it’s because for being a film about basketball it hasn’t that much of basketball in it. If you’re looking for a film that recounts the history of basketball, that teaches you basketball tactics or how to become a better basketball player, this is not a film for you. This is a film about real people and their real lives.

Basketball to them isn’t just something you do with your friends an afternoon because it’s fun and gives you a bit of exercise. There’s a lot more at stake here; succeeding in basketball can be the one chance they’ll get in life to raise from poverty, to get an exam and a better life for themselves and their families. The pressure on the boys is huge, from their family as well as from the schools that have recruited them. If they turn out not to become the excellent players that their original talent suggested or if they end up injured, they run the risk to be spitted out from the machinery, back to the place where they came from. The recruiting schools that offer scholarships and prosperity as long as they play well aren’t necessarily doing a bad thing. But there’s definitely a downside to the system.

Had this been a reality TV show, we would have seen sensational twists or people badmouthing each other secretly in front of the camera every second minute. Unbearable if you ask me. But as the serious documentary film it is, it makes no hurry to get to the dramatic and emotional highpoints. The film is plodding along during the three hours it lasts and there are long sequences of lectures at school, family gatherings and spontaneous basketball games with family and friends in the neighborhood. This is not necessarily a negative, but you should be prepared for it or you might get a little impatient.

You need to take the mental step into the world of those boys and walk along with them, rather than watching them from the sideline, waiting for the drama to unfold.

The role of the women
One final thought that occurred to me as I watched this:  the film is rather traditional when it comes to how it conveys men and women.  The men are the ones with talent who struggle to fulfill their dreams. The women don’t dream for their own part. They dream on behalf of men and are there to support them.  You have the mothers who push the boys, cheer for them, cry with them and help them along all the way. You have the girlfriend who takes care of a baby that it took two people to make. You have the cheerleaders who do what cheerleaders are supposed to do: dance, chant smile and cheer for the team of men to win. It’s not the filmmaker’s fault I suppose; it’s a documentary after all. But it was a little saddening to see.

Hoop Dreams was made twenty years ago, but given that it was made today, I wonder if it could have been about dreams of two promising female players? Is there such a thing as scholarships for girls with a talent for basketball? I hope so and I hope someone one day will bother to tell their story.

Women do engage in other sport activities than cheerleading and figure skating. It’s about time that movies start to reflect this fact.

Hoop Dreams (Steve James, US 1994) My rating: 4,5/5

filmspanarna

I watched Hoop Dreams as a part of a blogathon run by the Swedish network Filmspanarna. The theme was “sports movies”. Here’s what my fellow bloggers wrote on the topic:

Fiffis filmtajm
Filmitch
Filmr
Fripps filmrevyer
Jojjenito
Movies Noir
Moving landscapes
Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord

Written by Jessica

January 29, 2014 at 6:00 am

Posted in Hoop Dreams

Leaving the comfort blanket for a moment

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lambcast

Psst!

I usually don’t talk very much here. It’s all about the written word. It feels safer that way. But once in a while I leave my blanket behind, making a talk show where anything can happen. And now this has happened again.

LAMB, the large association of movie blogs, where I’m a member, recently ran a show where five bloggers battled over their top lists of 2013 and I was one of the participants. Who won the fight? Judge for yourself.

Lambcast 202 The Best of 2013

photo credit: sarkasmo via photopin cc

Written by Jessica

January 26, 2014 at 11:47 pm

….and the winner is a woman! – Musings over the Swedish Guldbaggen Awards

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guld3

Not only Hollywood knows how to celebrate itself each year with awards. Sweden does the same thing, although in a much smaller scale.

This annual event is called Guldbaggen. I don’t blame you if you’ve never heard of it. It’s been going on for 50 years, but from all I can get it’s an entirely Swedish affair.

Similarities and differences
There are some similarities to the Oscars: film professionals of all sorts dress up in tuxedos and dresses, put on a lot of make-up and smile into the camera since the show is broadcasted on national television.

Awards are given out in pretty much the same categories, though there are a little fewer of them – no special categories for sound editing and sound mixing, in Sweden it’s just “sound”. There are also only three nominations in each category instead of five. I guess it’s because we don’t make that many movies in Sweden.

Then we have the differences:  The “celebrities” aren’t real celebrities outside of their own world. And the winners don’t get golden statuettes in their hands. They get a humble, rather ugly beetle. It’s basically like watching a kick-off event for a random business enterprise where you don’t know anyone. Or think of it as the school theatre version of Hamlet compared to seeing it played at the National Royal theatre scene.

Usually I don’t blog about this event since I assume it doesn’t interest anyone outside of Sweden. I’ve also been rather unenthusiastic about Swedish films over the last few years. 2014 however is a little different from previous years. For one thing there were several Swedish movies that came out 2013 that I genuinely liked, movies such as Lukas Moodysson’s We are the Best, Lisa Langseth’s Hotell and Anna Odell’s The Reunion.

But there was another reason why the Guldbaggen Award event stood out to me this year, to the extent that I want to spread the word about it outside of the Swedish borders.

Female winners
I don’t think I need to remind you of how men on a global level dominate the film industry and how rare it is that a female filmmaker is recognized with an award or even by being screened at for instance Cannes. Yes, Bigelow had her well-deserved statuette, but there isn’t much else to rejoice at.

And from this point of view, the gender equality, the Guldbaggen Awards were extraordinary. Women didn’t only win categories where women traditionally have appeared, such as make-up and costume. They won most of the categories with weight, the ones that get the headlines.

Here are some of the winners:

Best Film
The Reunion / Återträffen (Producer: Mathilde Dedye, director and writer: Anna Odell)

Best Short Film
On Suffocation (Director: Jenifer Malmqvist)

Best Documentary Film
Belleville Baby (Director: Mia Engberg)

Best Screenplay
The Reunion / Återträffen (Anna Odell)

The greatest thing about it was that not a single one of the awards that were handed out that night felt as if they were a result of reserving a certain quota for women for political reasons or whatnot. The awards were given out in fair competition and were well deserved.

Watching all of this I couldn’t help feeling a pang of national pride for an ever so brief moment. “This is how far we’ve come”, I thought to myself. “I wonder how many years it will be before we see an Academy Award show that looks anyway like this. Will it even happen in my lifetime?”

Then I noticed how bad the jokes of the in-between-the-award entertainers were and I was back down to Earth. Sweden is a small country. We’re pretty good at gender stuff – not so good at classy glamour. Despite deficiency in regards of female representation, you can’t beat the real thing. That’s just how it is.

But who knows, perhaps the Swedish example can serve as a source of inspiration from some young, aspiring female filmmaker out there who hope to one day receive the golden man in her hand? I hope so.

guldbaggen

Written by Jessica

January 22, 2014 at 10:05 pm

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