Aileen Wuornos: Life and Death of a Serial Killer

Director: Nick Bloomfield & Joan Churchill

2003

“A project that began ten years earlier with Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer  (1993), Broomfield and Churchill’s follow-up is a powerful and profound statement against the death penalty, and raises disturbing questions of about executing the mentality incapacitated.”(899, Jason Wood, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Aileen WuornosAileen Wuornos is notorious for being one of America’s most infamous female serial killers, and has as such been subject of numerous film and television projects – most recently the inclusion of her character in American Horror Story: Hotel (2015, Brad Falchuck) Probably one of the most well-known portrayals of Wuornos is in Monster (2003, Patty Jenkins) which resulted in an Academy Award for Charlize Theron. I didn’t really know very much about Aileen Wuornos aside from the fact that she was a serial killer and I’d seen her ‘mug-shot’ but that was kind of all.

“Broomfield’s resulting film examines her wretched childhood, which was filled with unrelenting abuse and violence that continued into her years as a hitchhiking prostitute.” (899) Broomfield’s documentary opened up the story of Wuornos in a somewhat disturbing way. Now I don’t mean disturbing due to her crimes but more so because it shows a woman who is clearly in some sort of crisis, one that gets worse throughout the film. It does call into question the legal system of America and the death penalty, something that I have been increasingly interested in since watching Making a Murderer (2015, Moira Demos). Despite the fact that Wuornos’ mental health seems to be rapidly declining during the process of the filming there is something really quite compelling about the film. Her story fluctuates between protesting self-defence and cold-blooded murder with increasing inconsistencies so you are left with questions at the film’s conclusion. The film not only tackles the American justice system and the death penalty but also the subject of nature versus nurture. By examining her questionable childhood and all the travesties that were supposedly reaped upon her during her formative years Bloomfield is asking the audience to question whether Aileen would have ended up on death row if she had lived a different live – was she a product of her environment or was she always destined to become the woman she was at the end?

I did find the documentary became increasingly uncomfortable to watch as Wuornos becomes more and more unstable. By the final interview Bloomfield holds with her, Aileen is almost bug-eyed and accusing the prison guards of all sort of atrocities. It is difficult watching someone who is not quite in her right mind, especially when you know that not long after this she was executed. I was left asking questions about whether she should have been put to death when it is obvious that she is in crisis. Should she have been receiving treatment for a mental condition instead? It’s an interesting documentary even if it does leave an unpleasant taste in one’s mouth afterwards.

“A resolutely non-sensationalist work, Aileen Wuornos calls to account the travesties of the American justice system and provides a sympathetic insight into a deeply troubled soul.” (899)

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There Will Be Blood

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

2007

While IMDB classes There Will Be Blood as a drama it very much had the feel of a Western to me and as you all know that spells disaster for me. Add to that Daniel Day-Lewis as the protagonist and the film basically became a write off in my opinion. I’m by no stretch of the imagination a fan of Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s often lauded as one of the great actors of Hollywood, largely due to his ability to completely lose himself in any character he deigns to portray, but I really don’t understand what all the fuss is about. Indeed I saw a lot of echoes (or should I say foreshadowings as this film predates his latest Oscar-winning performance in Lincoln, 2012, Steven Spielberg) of Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln in the character of Plainview. And I wasn’t overly enamoured of either performance. “The notoriously selective and methodical Daniel Day-Lewis gives an indelible performance as antihero Daniel Plainview – who turns nature’s resources into his own bounty, regardless of the cost to him and the world.” (909, Jonathan Penner, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

There Will Be BloodGiven that the oil business is a highly competitive one, especially at the turn of the century during it’s infancy, not a lot really happens in the film. There are of course a couple of fairly awful accidents that serve the double purpose of being visually exciting and moving the story on. The first accident serves to establish Plainview and his character. Let me tell you it’s not a positive introduction in my view. While some may view Plainview’s adoption of the child orphaned as a result of the accident as a noble act, one undertaken out of a sense of guilt at having been the foreman/owner of the mine at the time I see it completely differently. He does not adopt that child out of the goodness of his heart but rather as a calculated move. He doesn’t see this child as the vulnerable thing it is but rather a tool to use to aid his own agenda.

I suppose you could argue that my view is somewhat of a strong one in light of Plainview’s reaction to the second accident and I do believe that by that point he will have formed some attachment to poor HW. However once the extent of the damage to HW becomes obvious he is quickly shipped off. And while it is for his best, as he learns to live with the ramifications of the accident, when he returns Plainview has little time for him.

Like I said not very much happens although I suppose you could argue that the film is less about any narrative but rather the decline of Plainview. And yet he doesn’t seem to be an overly greedy person. He is definitely a master at manipulating people to get them to part with things at a much reduced cost with no promise of any profit but it’s only at the tail end of the film do you see any sort of material wealth that Plainview has amassed over the years.

I’m going to confess that it did take me a while to work out that Paul Dano was playing twins although both performances were, as usual, filled with a quiet power that I’ve come to expect from Dano.

Penner says that “There Will Be Blood, his excoriating study of greed – and the both constructive and destructive powers of competitiveness and ambition – is a stunning achievement by the still-young writer-director.” (909) And yet the only bit of the film that really captured any of my attention was the few scenes involving ASL (American Sign Language) as that particular means of communication absolutely fascinates me. Aside from that I found the film somewhat anticlimactic and overly drawn out – to the point that I don’t think I could actually tell you what happened at the end of the film is you asked me to!

Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In)

Director: Tomas Alfredson

2008

“At face value, this Swedish vampire film follows the trend of prudish predators: the vampire as your abstaining friend. Any languishing for sex is thoroughly suppressed. Of course, it helps that the protagonists – blond and angelic Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) and the enigmatic Eli (Lina Leandersson) – are (or seem to be) children.” (917, Ernest Mathys, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) As seems to be the recent trend Eli is a conflicted vampire – she doesn’t want to attack people but she needs blood to survive. Her appearance as a 12 year-old child makes her seem all the more vulnerable. Her position takes a turn for the worse when her carer fails to acquire blood for her sparking the bloody events of the film.Let the Right One In

“Throughout the film, pale white palettes abound, and punctured spots of red intervene in this snowy, sleepy and dreamy design.” (917) Let The Right One In has a very stark and somewhat bleak landscape, one added to by setting the film in the 1980s.

“The title refers to the fact that, according to folklore, vampires must be invited in by their victims.” (917) I watch (and read) a lot of things that feature vampires and no two are the same in their approach (the topic of one of my essays while at university), which is what, in part, keeps drawing me back to this subgenre of horror. Most, but not all, vampire stories abide by the rule that in order to enter a household a vampire must first be invited in. And this is true of Let The Right One In. Eli can physically enter Oskar’s flat without an invitation but her body actually begins exsanguination, only stopping when Oskar verbally invites her in. That scene is particularly bloody with blood seeping out of Eli’s eyes, nose, mouth, ears and pores. It’s very much the scene that stood out for me.Eli Let The Right One In

There is something ever so slightly wrong with Eli’s appearance. It’s not anything immediately noticeable, just a slight widening or enlarging of the eyes maybe, but it’s enough to give you the sense that something is off. These alterations become enhanced when Eli is trying to avoid the temptation of blood.

I’m intrigued to see the American remake, Let Me In (2010, Matt Reeves) as it came out not long after Let The Right One In and I’m always interested in the changes Hollywood makes. There is also a stage version playing in London’s West End at the moment but I can’t see how some aspects of the film would translate to the stage.

Let The Right One In thus asks the uncomfortable question whether hospitality means that one has to accept the bad with the good. A pointed commentary on immigration, perhaps; an enchanting fairytale, for sure.” (917)

Tsotsi

Director: Gavin Hood

2005

“Chweneyagae and Pheto give remarkable performances in a film that powerfully conveys the brutality and squalor of the urban slums of Johannesburg – while maintaining a strong belief in the human spirit, which resists being crushed under the oppressive weight of poverty.” (905, Edward Buscombe, 1001 Movie You Must See Before You Die)

Every time I watch a film like Tsotsi or City of God (2002, Fernando Meirelles & Katia Lund) or even Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle) I’m forcibly reminded that there are still people living in abject poverty in brutal locations around the world. At the same time films like these make me take stock not only of the world at large but also everything I am incredibly lucky to have in my life that more often than not I take for granted.

As always when watching a foreign language film I found it took me a while longer before my ears clicked into the language at which point the film flowed more naturally. It’s a curious language – one that seems to be a mish-mash of languages – with bits of English occasionally appearing. It’s quite pleasant to listen to which is sometimes at odds with the violence surrounding, and yes carried out by, Tsotsi.

“At last, having failed to defend himself to Miriam, Tsotsi is forced to confront the nature of his life and the direction it is taking.” (905)

The driving force of the narrative comes from a botched carjacking in which Tsotsi inadvertently kidnaps a baby. Over the course of the next 6 days we witness something remarkable – the transformation of a self-titled thug (Tsotsi) as he rediscovers his humanity.

“If at times the direction seems overly theatrical – with heavy pauses while we absorb the significance of a scene – this is a small price to pay for the film’s powerful insights.” (905)

I found his interaction with a paralyzed man the turning point. He initially intends to take the man’s money by force (as usual up to this point) and instead goes on to reveal part of himself, through his story of an abused dog … one we later witness with some incredible and heart-wrenching acting from said dog.

By far the most interesting aspect of Tsotsi is seeing Tsotsi’s attachment to the child, who is adorable.Tsotsi

Inglorious Basterds

Director: Quentin Tarantino

2009

Inglorious Basterds is a wholly unnerving masterwork from director Quentin Tarantino. Unique, engaging, and outrageous, it fits within Tarantino’s oeuvre while standing out as quite possibly his greatest film. (912, Cooper Penner, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Now Tarantino seems to be one of those Marmite people, really dividing people. You either love him or you  hate him – I’ve yet to meet somebody who is just indifferent to him. My dad is very much in the dislike camp while I am just the opposite – I love Tarantino and pretty much everything he has done. That isn’t to say that I fully agree with Cooper Penner. Yes it is unique, engaging and outrageous and yes it definitely fits his oeuvre. However I wouldn’t say that this is his greatest film. It is a move back towards the things that made his earlier work as memorable and interesting as it remains to this day. For me Pulp Fiction (1994) remains the standout Tarantino film.

I seem to have something of a road block in my mind when it comes to creating an alternate history during World War II. I read Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In High Castle (1962) and really struggled with it because I just couldn’t shut off. I kept saying to myself ‘Well that didn’t happen!’ and it became something of a mantra. I mention this because Inglorious Basterds is an alternate history surrounding the Nazis and I came to it with slight trepidation that I wouldn’t be able to accept this re-imagining. I’m glad to say that wasn’t the case. Somehow Tarantino managed to create a new outlook on World War II that was believable enough that I was able to enjoy the film without having the real history constantly intruding, trying to make its presence known.

“Hundreds of well controlled details […] really define the movie and make it a work of art that anyone will enjoy.” (912) The film is gloriously shot with the wealth of little details that is so indicative of Tarantino’s work. It’s a wonderfully rich film in all aspects. The music is, as always, a standout soundtrack with all numbers being hand-picked by Tarantino. The colors are vivid with red being extremely dominant for obvious reasons what with it being the color of the Nazi party. There is something extremely rich about the Nazi uniforms, and an elite air to those of the SS. And despite the association with the atrocities carried out by men wearing those uniforms there is something attractive about them.Inglorious Basterds Quentin Tarantino

Inglorious Basterds is very much a multilingual film with a number of the cast speaking fluently in at least two languages. Most commonly these languages are French and German, the two prominent languages of the time and area. Michael Fassbender switches effortlessly between a very British accent and his German cover story while on operation. Indeed it isn’t his speech that ultimately blows his cover but rather his gestures. While a number of the cast switch between languages in the blink of an eye the stand out here is, as Penner says “[…] a truly genius, multilingual performance by Christoph Waltz.” (912) It really was an incredible performance that rightly earned him his first Oscar. Waltz clearly does his best work with Tarantino as both his Oscars have been the result of his collaboration with the director, firstly in Inglorious Basterds and then most recently in Django Unchained (2012). He is a charismatic character even when he is carrying out the massacre of a Jewish family in hiding. There was something magnetic about him, making him almost likable, which can at times lead to uncomfortable viewing.

Inglorious Basterds, however is not just a never-ending gore-fest; it has a relatively slow buildup, which just makes those scenes full of intense brutality that much more potent.” (912) I found it much less violent and bloody then some of Tarantino’s previous work which I found surprising given the era the film is situated in. There is a much slower pace to it than his other films which in some ways I found refreshing. The violence that is portrayed is brutal but honestly would you expect anything else from Tarantino? The most uncomfortable moment for me is the excruciating scene where Brad Pitt‘s Aldo Raine carves a swastika into Waltz’s forehead. I had an entire bodily reaction to it with everything tensing up. Yes Raine has been doing it throughout the film – it became something of his signature – but this is the first time you actually saw the entire process. Pitt was his usual charming self as Nazi hunter and leader of the Basterds, Aldo Raine.Inglorious Basterds Brad Pitt

I see Inglorious Basterds as a return to what made Tarantino’s early work great. But then like I said from the start I’m a Tarantino fan.

Spirited Away (Sen To Chihiro No Kamikakushi)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

2001

“With every film that he makes, Hayao Miyazaki sets the standard for animated features higher and higher.” (894, Joshua Klein, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die) Studio Ghibli has, in the past, been called the Japanese Disney. I guess because the films that set the studio apart are, for the large part, animation you could draw a comparison. And of course John Lassiter takes control of the American/English language versions. However I think that it’s too sweeping a statement. The films that come out of Studio Ghibli are as different to those that emerge from Disney as can be. Don’t get me wrong I love Disney – I have since I was tiny and probably will until I’m old and grey – and the films of Studio Ghibli, and Miyazaki in particular, are exquisite but there are moments when a creepiness, or maybe uneasiness is a better term, emerges. Joshua Klein says “[…] his unfailingly intelligent films appeal to both children and adults, simple enough for the former to enjoy yet complex enough for the latter to appreciate on a different level.” (894) and this is another similarity with the Disney films.

I have watched Spirited Away a couple of times recently, once in the dubbed English version and then again in the original Japanese with English subtitles. I definitely prefer the Japanese version. I understand the idea behind the English language versions – they make the films a whole lot more accessible to a much wider audience but to me it just makes more sense to watch them in Japanese as they were intended. I certainly found the English version of Chihiro extremely annoying and quite grating however this wasn’t the case in the Japanese version.

The artwork is incredible and has an etherial quality to it. The level of detail in the backgrounds is always beautifully rendered which is a contrast to the sometimes simplistic character presentation. “[And] he certainly isn’t a precursor of things to come, because it’s hard to imagine anybody but Miyazaki doing what he does.” (894) Miyazaki has unquestionably created the most intriguing and beautiful films made the prestigious Studio Ghibli and they now have an almost precious quality to them following the announcement of his retirement. Spirited Away is one of his best pieces of work.

Klein says “Spirited Away is in many ways Miyazaki’s Alice In Wonderland. The writer-director’s hand-drawn scenes burst with energy and invention, and Miyazaki takes full advantage of the fantastical story to devise dozens of unique spirits and creatures that roam this world of utterly inscrutable rules and impenetrable logic.” (894) and I can see the comparisons. Chihiro goes down a rabbit hole of sorts and finds herself in a world beyond her control and completely foreign to her, much like Alice does. She finds herself surrounded by a whole host of unusual creatures and characters. Disney are great at creating lovable anthropomorphic characters. Ghibli goes one better and brings fantastical creatures into being. I particularly love the strange chicks and the soot demons. And for the most part No Face is adorable except when in the bath house and then he becomes this disturbing non-stop eating machine.Spirited Away Miyazaki

Watching it as an adult I get the underlying morality to the story – one that is essentially about greed and gluttony. Chihiro’s parents literally turn into pigs as a result of their gluttony. Similarly the bath house falls under the destructive control of No Face due to their greed for the gold he materializes. Yubaba is one of my favorite characters. The level of detail that went into drawing her is superb. She is a fully texturized character unlike some of the other human (for lack of a better word) characters. I can see similarities between her and the Queen of Hearts – further strengthening the comparison Klein made that this is Miyazaki’s Alice. They’re both larger than life characters, literally so as Yubaba towers over Chihiro, in control of their own empire, complete with workers who are scared of them. And both are ever so slightly insane.

Spirited Away always makes for interesting viewing for me, as does any of Miyazaki’s films. I love the artwork and the storytelling style is one that always intrigues me – I find it quite different to Western styles of storytelling. There’s a much more obvious and pervasive magical, otherworldly and mystical element to the Studio Ghibli films. I would say that it’s best to watch them in the original Japanese – it is worth it I promise.

“He is one of a kind, and as such his films hold a special place in the heart of movie lovers.” (894)

Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon)

Director:  Michael Haneke

2009

The White Ribbon Michael HankeThe White Ribbon is a strange little film and one I found quite disquieting to watch. In some respects it reminded me of the musical Spring Awakening (Duncan Sheik & Steven Sater, 2006) as they are both set in Germany and share some similar themes – abuse and sexual awakening being at the forefront.

I also found the conclusion rather unsatisfying. While you think you have worked out the culprit of the unpleasant episodes in the community – thank in part to the narration of the teacher – nothing is ever confirmed and you certainly never get an explanation as to the motive behind them.

Actually very little happens in The White Ribbon – or rather much of what takes place, certainly the “accidents”, happens off-screen and we as the viewer only get to see the fallout or hear about the incident – usually through the School Teacher.

The children have a creepy air surrounding them – especially the two ringleaders Klara and Martin (played by Maria-Victoria Dragus and Leonard Proxauf respectively) which in some ways is borne out of the oppressive nature of their home life. Their father, the Pastor, runs a strict household and the core of the film comes from his, for want of a better word, teachings. In order to teach his children about the dangers of sinning and being disrespectful he makes them wear a white ribbon. On the surface it doesn’t seem much but it is a daily visual humiliation and reminder they are not good enough in their parents’ eyes and acts as the catalyst for an increase in the incidents that rock the otherwise peaceful community in the years leading up to The Great War. As Stacy Title says, “the preacher’s kids have misbehaved and they must wear his scarlet letter: a white ribbon for trivial mistakes. Their shame and the implied but less explicit shame and pain of the other village children, makes them act out in horrible, unimaginable ways.” (922, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

“Hanke uses a time in Germany before World War I to explicate his point. There is a root to evil and it comes in the form of abuse. In the form of disempowerment.” (922) The outbreak of War seems almost an afterthought as it is announced right at the very end of the film.

“Shot in color and then drained to black-and-white, The White Ribbon sets out to tackle a complicated foe: terrorism.” (922) The film has a fairly bland palette which I think comes from filming in color and then altering it to black and white. While it still has an artistic feel to it the film lacks the dramatic light and shade films shot in black and white have.

I’m not really sure what to make of The White Ribbon. I came away with an uneasy feeling coupled with a lot of unanswered questions. Were they simply acting out against their parents or was it something deeper? And why the high level of violence in the acts? Did the incidents stop due to the outbreak of World War I or did they continue? It seems Hanke is on of those directors that makes for uncomfortable viewing as I also found his latest film, Amour (2012) uncomfortable, if for very different reasons.