12/30/05

The Fearless Vampire Killers

Looked at Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers again and it's a near-silent wonder: a minimum of dialogue and plenty of Polanski's handheld camera shots, the visual equivalent of a free-floating anxiety (you know something bad's going to happen, you're just not sure from what direction, what form it will take, or why). It's horribly hilarious, or hilariously horrifying--the kind of mix of visual wit and the supernatural that he doesn't quite get right in The Ninth Gate. Has to have been an inspiration for much of Joss Whedon's career.

12/29/05

The Devil's Rejects

Finally caught up with Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects, and it's surprisingly a lot better than I would expect it to be--which isn't saying all that much. Unlike his previous film, which looks like it was pureed, this one actually seems to transform that footage-in-a-blender into a distinctively disorienting style that actually adds to the tension, not fritter it away through sheer pointlessness. Also helps that he's doing homages along the way of telling a fairly original story, not stealing entire sequences from his favorite redneck gothic (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in particular).

That said, it's not exactly a good picture, much less an unsettling one; too many complications, too much fuss. I'm thinking of Michael Haneke's Funny Games, where a pair of youths torment a family at home, and does so with far less fuss and bother.

12/28/05

Stardust Memories

Stardust Memories isn't all that bad; I remember reading about how the critics hated the way Allen seemed to turn upon his core audience and send them up, but no one seems to point out that Allen mercilessly caricatures the character he's playing as well (he's on record as saying it isn't autobiographical, none of it is). If the world seems hostile and incomprehensible to Sandy, that's his point of view; he refuses to understand the world, or to admit that maybe it's not all about him.

Maybe where I'd fault it is in the way it evokes its models so religously: Fellini of course, but for some weird reason I keep seeing Fellini strained through the sensibility of a Bergman, or Allen's idea of Bergman--circus grotesquerie framed by Swedish severity, in short, a weird combination. Big mistake; he evokes Fellini and Bergman, but can't make them his own, or can't come up with equivalent images or moments that would rival the films he's trying to emulate--it remains borrowed Fellini, secondhand Bergman. Gordon Willis' black and white work here is gorgeous, however--maybe his best work aside from the Godfather films.

12/27/05

King Kong '05 is a video game!

From award-winning independent filmmaker Noel F. Lim

"Give me WILLIS O BRIEN and RAY HARRYHAUSEN and Jim Danforth anytime.Yes this KONG is much spectacular! YES it has more fight scenes! Yes this film is designed for the drooling idiots with sorround home theaters who's concept of a good movie is enough explosions and sub whoofer THUDS to make their speakers earn their keep.All STRUM and DANG but man no magic! Just because we have digital cg technology doesnt mean we have the RIGHT to remake or even have the audacity to think that we can best the original.Yeah yeah yeah there's motion capture and new texturing programs for minute close-ups of real fur. But it doesnt compare with the bristling effect that O brien accidentaly gave the 31 kong due to the stop motion technique. Accidental but still very intersting.

"On the onset I wasn' t hot about a digtal Kong. I saw Mighty joe young and i thought, " Now that looks like a real giant gorrila that they just superimposed on the footage. the same way with the new KONG. He's too real!I agree with ray harryhausen that the beauty of  stop motion is that it's not too perfect that it becomes mundane! There's a sense of the unreal. It has a dream like effect. Thats why when you have cg dinosaurs comming at you, " Hey it's just another rabid dog or lion.It Doesnt have thatagain, Dream like or nightmarish quality that O brien and Harryhausen unleased on us.

"Jackson's film is a giant videogame.it is designed like a thrill ride but nothing more. Those quiet moments between Watts and Kong were plopped in to make us think its anything but a videogame movie.Everything has been REVVVED  UP! Why settle for one T-REX when you can cut and paste three more? Why have just one brontosaurus when you can have an entire herd.

"For all the glitz and glam they put , nobody even had the idea of changing the dinosaur sounds. Its like its been lifted from Jurrasic park.

"And JACK BLACK? I'd take the orginal Denham anytime.

"The entire first half of the film was so totally useless! Oh yeah Jackson defenders would come out of the wod work and scream, " ITS CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT! " Well, looooooong film scenes that arent action scenes are not necessarily character development scenes. And those slapstick moments were very painful to watch.

"Just because the extended long scenes worked for Lord of the rings doesnt mean it'll work for KING KONG. The former's a literary beast that weighed how many pounds. It's world creation for crying out loud.While KONG...its just KONG and the dinosaurs!

"So in my book as a movie JACKSON'S FILM IS A BLECH! AS A VIDEO GAME IT'S COOL. BUT ITS NOT A KING KONG FILM! LONG LIVE THE 31 KING! HAIL! "

In the Mouth of Madness and Rasen

Two other films:

While John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness may be his most out-and-out suspenseful (at least at this pont of his career), In the Mouth of Madness is arguably his most unsettling, mainly because it has a taste--a hint--of real insanity in it. Sam Neil isn't as engaging in it as I'd like--not his fault, I suspect, he's usually interesting to watch--but the narrative makes interesting loop-de-loops with itself, and causes the hero to end up in what you might call a 'metaphysical moment,' laughing at himself in a moment of black despair.

Rasen was the other sequel to Nakata's Ringu--it basically took up the novel by Koji Suzuki and reconciled the novel's storlyine with the changes Nakata made (in the novel there was no videotape or TV set involved). It was made with Ringu's cast but not director, and was a flop, causing the producers to call back Nakata to make Ringu 2, (the story of which had nothing to do with Suzuki's novel).

The story seems all over the place, as it makes hash of the rules set up by the first film. Then it all comes together and shows us Suzuki's entire vision, not of Sadako taking simple revenge, but of her plan to conquer the world (the title is a clever reflection of the film's plot: where Ringu (or 'Ring') suggests that Sadako's vengeance will go round and round in circles, limited by the actual handover of the videotape, Rasen, meaning 'spiral,' suggests that Sadako has found the means to break out of the circle).

It's an odd trade: in place of Nakata's trademark sense of creeping dread and slowly mounting tension, you have instead a science-fiction drama (I'd like to say 'science fiction thriller' since this is what the story seems to want to be, or is structured to be, only there are precious few thrills here) with a touch of Faust involved. The chills are there, but subtler, more moral and philosophical.

12/26/05

Demons, Lilya 4-Ever, Psych-Out, Carnival of Souls

More stuff I can only mention in passing:

Demons--didn't read the credits carefully enough; turned out this was only produced by Dario Argento and directed by Lamberto Bava. It's a real mess, even by the standards of Italian horror, which isn't famous for watertight, logical plotting. The demons--mainly zombies that move faster and snarl louder--have the kind of makeup the lazier and less imaginative kids in kindergarden do with hands and fingers, mainly gross-out goo and bubbly stuff coming out of odd orifices. Most of its good ideas are stolen from Romero, which I wouldn't mind, only they could at least have done Romero the honor of doing something decent with what they'd stolen. I returned Demons 2 unwatched, first time I ever done so to a Netflix DVD, solely because of the sheer awfulness of this picture.

Lilya 4-Ever is the kind of film where the director thinks a shaky hand-held camera denotes gritty realism and jump-cuts denote a restless, ultramodern sensibility. It's the story of a girl abandoned by her mother and gradually ground into the dirt, a classic plotline for the likes of Lars Von Trier; it differs from Von Trier in that the script is actually solid--the heroine's fall is carefully plotted out and persuasively executed, you don't see the filmmaker cheat on details just so he can go straight to the sadism and cruelty; the suffering is honestly earned (or at least as honestly as I can see). Maybe the only thing unconvincing about it is the relationship between girl and her mother; if the mother is such a bitch towards the girl all the time, something suggested by the way she treats and talks to her daughter and by hints dropped by an equally unsympathetic aunt, then the girl should be tougher, more independent, more prepared to be left to herself. Good film; I only wish the director didn't feel the need to make his film look so damned fashionable.

Psych-Out was on the flip side of DVD of The Trip, and I assumed it to be yet another Corman quickie, but it turned out to have been directed by Richard Rush, with Laszlo Kovacs as cinematographer. It was a chance to see the difference between a brilliant producer and cunning director like Corman and a real filmmaking talent like Rush; the imagery is more fluid, the colors (thanks to Kovacs) brighter, more intense. Kovacs notes in the 'making-of' documentary the use of racking focus, to link together a series of images in a single shot--you see this in the scene where a long string of beads is taken up and tangled over the furniture, stairway, everything--hallucinatory imagery with only a minimum of special effects.

Finally saw Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls, and I think I need to revise my list of all-time favorite horror films (not immediately; have to mull this over a bit). Part of what makes Harvey's film so great is that he takes even his neophyte ineptness (he's done many instructional films, apparently, but this is his one and only feature) and makes it part of the film's unsettling atmosphere. It's as if god were telling you a story and getting it wrong somehow--as if he were suffering from memory lapses or schizophrenia, and it was affecting his sense of and narrative. There's also the suggestion that the heroine, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligloss, in her first ever film performance, so strong you wish she made a career out of it (she made only one other film afterwards)) is having trouble waking up from a fevered dream, is confusing her waking life with that of a dream--something we all might have felt at one time or another, when we've been up all night or have slept too long.

The Saltair Amusement Park is a tremendous location, all those enormous, empty buildings made lonelier and more depressing by the fact that they were designed for the delight of huge crowds. The finale is perhaps one of the most memorable horror fantasias I've ever seen, about as close to the experience of a nightmare as anything I can remember.

12/25/05

Christmas Eve dinner

Night before Christmas Eve, I took out twelve small lamb chops, drizzled them with extra virgin olive oil, sprinkled them with chopped garlic, and laid them to marinate between sprigs of rosemary. Turned them over once in the morning.

Evening of the day itself, put a big pan on medium high heat, poured off the olive oil, scraped off the garlic, put aside the sprigs, seasoned the chops with kosher salt and fresh-cracked pepper, then panfried them in their own oil marinade, two minutes on each side, four at a time. While cooking the second side I added a bit of the chopped garlic and rosemary to cook a little. Set the chops aside, and garnished them with the garlic, now toasted, browned rosemary sprigs, and the oil they cooked in.

Served with hot french bread and butter, and a salad made of baby spinach, mandarin orange slices, and a dressing of extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, kosher salt, fresh-cracked pepper, mustard, honey, a splash of orange juice and a crushed garlic clove.

Easy to prepare, and quick to cook (if you don't consider the marinade time). The lambs came out a crusty brown with a juicy dark-pink interior and a fragrant herbed-garlic scent. Went well with the hot, crusty bread (perfect for sopping up the garlicky olive oil) and crisp salad.

12/23/05

Paisan (Roberto Rossellini)

Roberto Rossellini's Paisan (1946) is superb, using non-actors in the most wretched of shooting conditions with barely any budget and somehow coming out with a work of art. 

The original script (co-written by Federico Fellini) was written as a tribute to American soldiers who died liberating Italy, but in Rossellini's hands, it's something richer and more ambiguous--a series of encounters between two cultures and all the friction, irony, humor, bitterness, and even love that might result from such encounters.  The Italians are often bemused, even startled at the Americans' energy, integrity and, at times, nobility; the Americans discover something old and basic and simple, even spiritual, in their Italian colleagues.  Both come away often sadder, sometimes a little wiser. 

It's made up of six stories.  The first, between an Italian girl left alone in an abandoned castle with an American soldier (both not knowing the other's language) has an awkward tenderness (even the American's clumsy line readings--actually, few of the American actors here are any good--somehow adds to his sincerity).

The second, about a black MP who catches a street urchin, shows remarkable restraint, in that it ends exactly where it should end, without any additional comment on the matter.  Incidentally, the ruins around which the story is set are incredible; you'd need a budget in the tens of millions of postwar dollars to achieve the same effect (today, you'd have to use CGI...which would make a remake anything except neorealist).  All Rossellini had to do is set up and roll his camera...

In the Rome sequence a soldier falls in love with a girl, is called away, looks for the girl some months later but can't find her, is picked up by a prostitute, tells her his story, whereupon the prostitue recognizes herself as the girl in his story.  Hoary, but it's a variation on the old legend about Da Vinci using a beautiful model for the face of Jesus, spending years trying to find a face decrepit enough for Judas, finding it in some wretched prison, then realizing it's the same model.  Human faces change, Rossellini seems to be telling us, sometimes drastically.

There's a harmless little interlude in a monastery--funny and even poignant, if you still have faith in God.  There's an extraordinary thriller sequence where an American nurse looks for her Italian lover through streets still being fought over by partisans and Nazis, the whole thing built up from nothing more than a series of well-edited shots, music, and judicious use of silence and sound effects (machine gun rattles, bullet ricochets).

Finally there's the Po river sequence.  Warfare alongside a riverbank isn't something we often see in World War 2 movies, and the visual record Rossellini gives us of this particular riparian battle (the crouched way the soldiers move through the reeds, the peculiar, slow motion quality of fighting on boats) is reason enough to watch the film.  The ending is--well, I won't say more, but it's killer conclusion, and a fitting way to end the picture.

12/22/05

King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005)

King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005)

Additonal comments from a_film by:

Incidentally, I remember reading that gorilla penises average around an inch or an inch and a half; if Jackson's anatomically correct Kong at twenty-five feet is four times the size of a six-foot man, his schlong's going to be four, six inches, tops. He's not going to impress anyone watching him on the big screen. Except maybe Tom Cruise.

As I wrote in the article the '33 Kong I don't really consider a gorilla--more a cross between a gorilla, a demonic anthropoid, and the accumulation of the filmmakers' pulp nightmares. So if he has a two-foot male organ, I'm perfectly willing to buy that; he's more of a sexual threat to Fay Wray than he is to Naomi Watts, who considers him A Beautiful Soul (up volume the sound of a plaintive violin).

Strangely enough, the version that does fullest (if still inadequate) justice to the natives is the '76 version: it at least had a scene where Jeff Bridges tells us the natives will miss Kong--he was their source of mystery and grandeur. That went a long way in explaining why they did what they did, even gave a psychological dimension to their collective character.

I don't like the '76 version much, but I do like that cast much better--Lange's blonde, Bridges' sub Kong, even Grodin's oil executive has more scale and megalomania than Black's clueless filmmaker.

12/21/05

War of the Worlds: Spielberg vs. Welles vs. Wells

From Forum With No Name:

DJ Joe: War of The Worlds -This new version does a great job of conveying the menace of the aliens.It was neat to watch an invasion story from the ground- no war rooms,no cutaways to news coverage- just a man and his family adjusting to an everchanging reality.I admit I am not bothered by Tom Cruise the way others are- but I am not impressed at all by Dakota Fanning- maybe it was the spoiled brat who was always screaming at the worst times in this movie- but nothing I have seen her in that seems all that special.I enjoyed this movie - it had several surprising reveals - some of them up there with the door opening in the Wizard of Oz.This is a special effects movie and they are boffo- but it is also a suspense thriller- you never know when the aliens will make an appearance and what they will do - nor can you predict what other paniced humans will do or how they will react. A-

Spielberg's War of the Worlds has nothing on the kind of chill Welles' radio version can inspire.

Fact, it caused a nationwide panic.

But that wasn't due to the story itself. Welles cheated with his framing device. That was essentially Welles's stroke of genius. Spielberg (or “his Mexican non-union equivalent, Senor Spielbergo}) could concoct this elaborate pretense that he has made another socially uplifting opus nonpareil, a TV movie, and just as it starts, when all America is sitting down to have their sensibilities flossed and burnished, there would be an interruption, and CNN, Fox, etc. (it would have to be all of them) would interrupt with a fake "news flash", with documentary footage, and to top it off cast members would tramp through your garden, aliens would burst through your windows, etc., and this would be happening all over. Now, that would be some gag. Cinema and the Cosmic--together again. The pretense that there is a difference between reality and metaphysics would be smashed forever, finally and irrevocably. We could all just happily roll over, tongues lolling, droll dripping moronically, and let the Huns stick a fork in us, because we would be done.

[Homer hugging his TV]: “Let’s never argue again.”

Wells did take advantage of the moment.

But beyond the gimmick, it's a great piece of storytelling--ever heard it, ted? The (SPOILERS) first encounter of the Martians ('we areexperiencing technical difficulties), the fall of New York ('Is there anyone out there? Is there...anyone?'), the encounter with some idealist in a basement (I think Spielberg lifted his Tim Robbins character from the same basement)--I can't think of a better version.

Spielbeg's has too much heroism on the part of Cruise and betrays Wells' premise by having the Martians rise up from underneath, instead of crashing in from the sky (if they've already been here thousands of years, why don't they know about our bacteria?).

ted fontenot: I've heard parts of Welles's broadcast. I've never read the book.

The book doesn't have the immediacy of Welles' broadcast, although it has plenty of memorable moments all its own.

"Spielbeg's has too much heroism on the part of Cruise and betrays Wells' premise by having the Martians rise up from underneath, instead of crashing in from the sky"

DJ Joe: Well that is to be expected - the hOllywood beancounters figured they needed a big name to open the movie- I honestly think the movie could have done just as well or better without Fakota Danning and Tom Cruise-but it is not my investment or whatever

in the extra features they decided that the capsules where in the ground cuz it would be creepier thinking that this alien presence had always been here just waiting to attack

and while Cruise had some minor heroic things - most of the movie he was cowering/crying or just trying to hold it together

"they decided that the capsules where in the ground cuz it would be creepier thinking that this alien presence had always been here just waiting to attack"

Creepier? Eh, not really. Plus a big plot loophole. Never do to 'improve on' Wells.

And Cruise looks constipated either acting angry or acting scared. Has all the range of a toaster oven. No insult meant to toaster ovens.

You only have to look at Tim Robbins to see who could have been the better lead.

12/20/05

Comrade X (Hedy Lamarr, Clark Gable, dir: King Vidor)

From a film by:

Mike Grost: NINOTCHKA relates to a very long history of political satire in Lubistch. This satire on Communism is an unofficial sequel to TROUBLE IN PARADISE, Lubitsch's satire on Capitalism.

Call it heresy, but I was looking at King Vidor's Comrade X some weeks ago, and...well, I enjoyed it a lot more than Nintochka. Not sure why--maybe that Lamarr is so much more a warm, sensuous presence than Garbo (a goddess, okay...but goddesses are untouchable), and the jokes here seem to have more teeth (a commissar is willing to have all his followers shot to prove his loyalty). But I never thought Ninotchka was Lubitsch's best, it's probably all apples and oranges (you might say X's story begins where Ninotchka ended) and I seem to prefer Ben Hecht over Wilder anyway...

From Forum with No Name:

ted fontenot: Although it is by no means Lubitsch's best, I like Ninotchka, but not especially because of Garbo. Douglas is quite personable, as is Garbo's foil, and the ensemble of supporting players is buoyant. Garbo is just the straight man for everyone, and in this capacity she's surpisingly good.

The movie Lamarr made with James Stewart right after Comrade X wasn't bad either. The premise wasn't particularly original, but for a while there it looked like it was going to develop into something special. It never lives up to that, but still it's interesting. Lamarr seems to have been underserved by Hollywood for some reason; she just didn't have many quality projects. I wonder why.

I like Ninotchka too, and I agree, it's mostly the story and the little touches of characterization from the cast. But I do think Comrade X is stronger, funnier.

The film is famous (or that's what I gather) for the lack of chemistry between Gable and Lamarr, but Lamarr makes up for most of it, sensually speaking, and Gable is game. They're funny together.

12/19/05

"Dominion" (prequel to "The Exorcist")

Finally saw Paul Schrader's Dominion, having seen the Renny Harlin version and wow, if there's a worst case of bastardization I can't remember it at the moment. Same sets, some of the same cast, roughly the same story, but the difference is almost night and day. Perfect material for a Hollywood satire, where this serious filmmaker is given a free hand until he's almost finished his picture, then he's shown the door and replaced by a barrelful of monkeys.

I think the first half is superb--after a grabber of an opening sequence (that ends with a haunting series of sound effects, fading away on the soundtrack) the details accumulate slowly, patiently: a church is found, but signs indicate it was buried as soon as it was completed; the angels inside are poised not to worship god in heaven, but to gaze downwards, watchful of a hole in the floor; outside the church, a pack of hyenas attack a herd of cows--the cows kill the hyenas and eat their flesh.

I remember Skarsgard in Harlin's version: he seemed tired and beleagured, not by guilt or past memories but by a sense of "what the hell am I doing here?" Watching Schrader's version completes that performance, because now you understand what was going on in his mind: here, he was in the hands of a fascinating writer (and on occasion, competent filmmaker) with a genuine sensibility; there he was in the hands of a, well, hack. There he was trying to do his measured, tortured Merrin, looking backwards on that horrfying winter day in Holland, while the movie was doing Ghostbusters meet Close Encounters of the Third Kind; here the performance is in perfect harmony, as the very African air breathes a sense of bleakness, overlaying a profound corruption.

The film stumbles towards the end; too many flying figures, and this really bad heavenly glare that looked as if the producers had cut Schrader's sfx budget a month too soon; I'd have liked him to maintain his measured pace to the very end. But an imperfect Exorcist film by Schrader is far preferable to anything by Harlin; if I had to rate the movies, I'd put Boorman's sequel on top, this second, Friedkin's original third, Blatty's occasionally funny, often inept version fourth, and Harlin's slap-and-tickle brand of horror deep beneath the church, where it belongs.

12/12/05

"Seconds," "Deep Red," "Donnie Darko," "Funny Games," "Dementia 13"

Stuff I can only mention in passing:

Seconds

John Frankenheimer's film has such a high rep actually watching it was something of a disappointment. The acting was great--both John Randolph as the man experiencing a middle-aged crisis and Rock Hudson as the improved version manage to convey his spiritual anguish; more, they manage to suggest it's the same man trying to cope with a different face, a different body (no easy feat, I think).

But the story itself feels clunky now; all that money, effort, surgery, and you still have a high percentage of failures? Maybe it needs a touch more of fantasy or science fiction to smooth it out (Death Becomes Her just attributed it all to a magic potion; Orson Scott Card's short story, "Fat Farm," spends a paragraph on the transformation, then the rest of the story on the consequences).

Deep Red

Plenty fun, if highly implausible (David Hemmings' character shows an insane amount of courage, breaking into deserted houses at night and letting his girlfriend wander a darkened high school building even when he knows a serial killer is out to get him); what saves it are Argento's seductive camera moves and incredible sense of color (even a construction vehicle--bright orange aganst the black asphalt--stands out). I do think I prefer his supernatural to his myster-thriller films, if only because it's easier to swallow improbables when the unearthly are involved, while you assume watertight logic when you see a mystery thriller.

Donnie Darko

Starts out nicely ominous, but diminishes the more you watch and the more you understand. Ultimately clever and entertaining but not much more--Lynch lite, with a need to resort to time travel to achieve its more surreal effects.

Funny Games

Thought Michael Hannake's Code Unknown was remarkable, this one less so--a hermetically sealed film that subjects its mice to a series of increasingly sadistic ordeals.

That said, Hannake's a master at the game--more severe, more convincing at it than Von Triers (who's so eager to begin torturing his protagonists you wonder if he left out a missing reel or two) or Gaspar Noe (who if you look at the details deals mainly in fantasy) or Miike (who's just plain cartoonish) or Park Chan Woo (who's just plain sloppy). Hannake has such confidence in his control he can even make jokes about his killers losing theirs overthe situation (and regaining it with the push of a button). Not a bad film--a masterpiece, if you enjoy watching mice in a maze with no cheese reward.

Dementia 13

Fun, in a low-budget way (it's Francis Coppola's debut film), with unusually well-written characters (unusual for films of this budget, anyway) and near-nonexistent special effects.

12/10/05

Richard Pryor dies

Richard Pryor dies

Live in Concert is easily one of the greatest performances I've ever seen. The Wayans brothers, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, they're all pygmies at the feet of this genius.

12/9/05

Bright Future

Bright Future seems like a strange film to come from Kurosawa Kyoshi; it's relatively light in tone, it has an unabashedly optimistic final shot, of a group of youths striding down a street to the tune of a bright pop song. Its central image, that of a jellyfish glowing in the water, is reflected all throughout the film--in the character of Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano) for one, who like the sea creature manages to be seductive, monstrous, and somehow nourishing all at once to his protege Yuji (Jo Odagiri). He fascinates Yuji, to the point that the latter is willing to wait years for them to 'do things together' (he does will his pet jellyfish toYuji to care for--which Yuji promptly loses into Tokyo's canal system); he manages to suss out Yuji's wishes, and perform the film's one blood-splattered murder for him; and he manages to be a kind of goad to Yuji's life, to finally give up his isolation and reach out to others, and to society in general.

The heart of the story, though, seems to be the relationship that forms between Yuji and Mamoru's father Shinichiro (Tatsuya Fuji, famous for playing the male lead in Oshima's In the Realm of the Senses). When Mamoru's life goes into a downward spiral, Shinichiro is forced to backtrack, to find out why his son did what he did, and the trail leads him to Yuji. The two have enough in common to form a bond: Yuji is clueless because he's young and hasn't tried to connect with anyone, Shinichiro is old and has spent his life trying to avoid connecting with anyone. Tatsuya's performance as an old man shaken from his isolation is easily the film's most moving, because Kurosawa contrasts his life, essentially a candle flickering to the point of extinction, against Yuji and other youths, who glimmer with untapped possibilities (at one point, Kurosawa shows us the lovely image of a youth gang walking up a street, every member wearing a pair of blinking headphones and glowing in the dark like a herd of, well, jellyfish). Like father, like son, like jellied pet, like slacker friends, like the movie itself, they're all a mixture of fleeting, fragile, phosphorescent beauty, hiding a set of venomous stings.  

The director's interview is just as fascinating. Some highlights, noted through a quick viewing and imperfect recall:

 

Kurosawa admits he's always fantasized being the one behind the scenes, pulling all the strings (you can see how fascinated he is by manipulators in the number of times they've appeared in his films: the hypnotist in Cure, the kidnapper in Serpent's Path, Mamoru in this picture, to name a few).

 

He says he's not one to read psychology into his characters, and prefers to focus on their physical aspects (paradoxically, his characters' often perverse physical actions suggest complex and tortured inner psychologies). 

 

He enjoys doing genre films (yakuza, horror, science fiction) because genres have conventions that he can conform to or break; a non-genre film (if there is such a creature) he doesn't have anything to get a hold on: he approaches such a project with plenty of restraint and caution.

 

A crew member notes that the main leads in Bright Future are all aspects of Kurosawa: age him a few years, and he's like Shinichiro; take away a few years and he's Yuji; add a menacing look, and he's like Mamoru. Kurosawa is delighted at this observation, noting that when he writes, all his characters are figments of his imagination; they lack the roundness to come to life. That's where the actor and costume designer comes in: they put in their input, their interpretation of the character, and it becomes something more solid than a mere figment, and he's grateful for the contribution.

 

When the film has wrapped, Kurosawa changes gears; while editing, he declares himself a dictator. He's democratic on the set, but in the editing room he's a tyrant, especially when it comes to music. Someone notes that on the set Kurosawa keeps his madness restrained, then when editing unleashes it.

 

His definition of a film is something people view as a group. Everyone has a different reaction to a film, and it's instructive to see how your reaction differs or conforms to the groups' reactions. It's a quick outline of your relationship with society, in what ways you are a member, in what ways you are alienated.

 

The director of the interview asked Kurosawa what he thought of being the subject of a film himself. Kurosawa replied that he's always changing, it's what he does, it's part of living; when he's being filmed, he's being shown an aspect of himself that he's abandoned, changed, left behind, and it's tough for him. He's of the generation that takes pictures of his life, so seeing his image isn't so bad, but when he hears his voice, on video, it's upsetting.  

12/7/05

More on Feischer's 'Popeye'

From Forum With No Name:

Melpster: Great review for Popeye, Noel I'm a rabid fan of the Fleischer films and those three 20-minute features were extremely influential to me as a child.

Thankee! Wanted to do all three but didn't have the magazine space to do it.

Felt Ali Baba's long rides through the desert sand didn't exploit the stereopticon process as thoroughly as Sinbad's island landscape--or for that matter the zoo sequences in Little Swee'pea--did (not as much rough texture), but that the forty thieves were a marvelous sticky-fingered invention. Bluto's chief thief was a delight, but didn't have the bluster and outsized ego of his Sinbad (the Ali Baba cave sequence though, did have jewels, unlike the Sinbad's, where people swore there were (but there weren't--they only thought they saw some because of the colored lights)).

The third had no 3-D effects (a disappointment), but I love the joke about the diamond-powered spotlight, and the film did have what is probably Sammy Timberg's single most delightful song--What Can I Do For You? The evil sorcerer isn't as memorable as Bluto's thief or Sinbad, but overall, the animation is beautifully smooth (if not as distinctively funky as the first two).

12/5/05

My favorite cookbook, my least favorite cookbook

My favorite cookbook.

Taught me how to fry an egg. Maddeningly coy (it assumes you've the proficency of a master chef too), it leaves out some crucial recipes, like his crayfish gratin--in the opinion of some, his masterpiece.

And as for least favorite, check this out, from Rosie Tinne's Irish Countryhouse Cooking:

1/2 lb spaghetti—cooked and cold

1-2 lb white fish—cooked and cold

1-2 pt white sauce—cold

1 (or more) tin shrimps

1 dessertspoon curry powder

chopped chives

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1 teaspoon redcurrent jelly or apricot jam

GARNISH

parsley

paprika

Mix all ingredients gently together, sprinkle with parsley or paprika. Chill and serve.

12/2/05

Oldboy

Ho boy, oh boy, do I dislike Oldboy. Wasn't a big fan of Park Chan Woo's JSA either (too hysterically acted, too melodramatic, too much CGI), but this one really hit bottom for me. Ludicrous plot, spotty attention to detail (If you're going to imprison a man for fifteen years, wouldn't you consider taking out all breakable items? And how did they know he slit his wrists--a camera? But if they had a camera, why did they allow him to almost dig his way out?), too much resorting to lazy devices like knockout gas and hypnotism (both undependable, the former rather dangerous) to advance the story.

Park pulls off some interesting shots (a long take where the hero dispatches of twenty or so assailants with a claw hammer), shows a meal involving a deliciously live octopus (shocking table manners, though), and builds a nice circularity into the plot (revenge story turns out to be a different kind of revenge story), but really, the story's innermost secret (SPOILERS) doesn't seem like such of a big deal, especially in these desensitized times; definitely not a reason to lose a body part or that much of one's dignity over--I mean, Park has read (or heard of) Oedipus, I'm sure, but hasn't he read Oedipus at Colonus? Sometimes you can reconcile yourself with your sins, without the need for yet more hypnotism.

Choi Min Sik, incidentally, is winning all kinds of praise and an acting award here that he never earned in the far superior Happy End, and I've got mixed feelings about that. He carries the movie better than it has any right to be carried--puts a sad-eyed conviction into every hammer blow and chaw of tentacle--but I still remember his more persuasively anguished husband in the previous film. No cartoonish violence there; his dilemma and the suffering it provoked was heartbreaking.

Oldboy's of a genre that isn't to everybody's taste--shock cinema--and something I watch wondering more and more why the hell I keep watching (for the sex and violence, stupid). With sloppy Korean filmmakers like these provoking so much praise and relatively little protest, I'm also wondering what the case is against Kim Ki Duk; he tells stories that are far more coherent and psychologically plausible (relatively speaking), his characters display a becoming reserve (Park likes to shove his obsessions up your right nostril), and he has an eye for the beauty found in a shocking or transgressive image.

12/1/05

Michael Gambon

I'll say one thing for the Potter movies--they give Michael Gambon a steady income. Spotted him in several ads for Potter merchandise, and I hope he gets plenty of fat paychecks for each and every one. He's a great actor, and his performance in The Singing Detective is one of the greatest I've ever seen. If he can't get millions upon millions (not to mention every acting statuette from every award-giving body for the past few decades including the Oscars) out of doing that, he can at least make money off of this franchise.

I don't understand the lack of love for Gambon's Dumbledore. Harris has had his moments (This Sporting Life, Return of a Man Called Horse, Juggernaut, even as recently as Patriot Games and Eastwood's Unforgiven he's terrific), but when he was doing the Potter movies he was literally at the end of his tether. Gambon makes for a sly, cunning wizard; he gives you the sense that while he may represent authority and establishment, he'd much rather be with the students, having fun.

And then there's the Gambon in The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover--don't much like that movie, but he's terrifying there. Gambon would have made an incredible Voldewhastisname--as likely to plunge his wand right into Potter's eye socket as wave it.

Prime

Prime

Starring Uma Thurman, Meryl Streep

Directed by Ben Younger

11/30/05

'Land of the Dead,' and why Romero's zombies are so disturbing

From Forum With No Name:

DJ Joe: Land of The Dead- George A Romero's latest zombie pic- I enjoyed it- Dennis Hopper is King Rat on an island sanctuary away from the stenches- the usual mix of funny gore kept me amused throughout B+

An especially vivid passage from Dickens' Oliver Twist gives us a clue as to why Romero's zombies are so memorable:

these fears were nothing compared to the sense that haunted him of that morning's ghastly figure following at his heels...He could hear its garments rustling in the leaves, and every breath of wind came laden with that last low cry. If he stopped, it did the same. If he ran, it followed--not running too--that would have been a relief--but like a corpse endowed with the mere machinery of life, and borne on one slow melancholy wind that never rose and fell.

See, it's those words it followed--not running too--that would have been a relief that nail it for me. Romero's zombies are frightening because they're never in a hurry; they operate on a different sense of time from our own, and we feel, no matter how fast we run, that they will somehow overtake us--if not now, later; if not today, tomorrow.

Today's running zombies, you feel as if a tranquilizer and a long hot shower would make them feel better. Not so with Romero's undead: they feel as inevitable as the cold that will someday creep up your bones, and invariably, inevitably claim you for its own.

11/29/05

Mitchum and De Niro and Brando, oh my!

From Forum with No Name:

Don Seigel's The Big Steal's not bad--clean action sequences, sexy interaction between Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum. Felt a bit disposable, I thought, but very well done.

ted fontenot: The most pleasant thing about The Big Steal is the easy rapport Mitchum and Greer have. They exude more a feeling of camaraderie rather than one of sexual heat a la Out of the Past (which plays this evening). You can tell they genuinely like each other. The Big Steal is an early chase movie, and the stars seemed grateful for its being light, and ultimately lighthearted, for not having to take things with any great seriousness. The whole thing is an excuse for an exercise in sardonic repartee between the main characters that, while funny and integral to the characters and relationship, spoofs high seriousness of Out of the Past.

It was a Mitchum marathon last night and today. Night of the Hunter, Cape Fear, His Kind of Woman, Macao. I much prefer the Peck/Mitchum CF to Scorsese's. It's simpler, more direct, more concentrated, thus more forceful. Mitchum isn’t just evil; he’s a natural force. He's a calamity as pitiless as a hurricane. Humanity means nothing. John D. MacDonald, whose novel the movie was based on, is the creator of the legendary Travis McGee series. His depiction of society is Old Testament righteousness meets Darwinian ruthlessness in seeking out the main chance. The McGee novels are noted for Max Cady-type villains. CF's theme is that it's impossible to be decent—the veneer of civilization is mighty thin. Animals like Mitchum sense the niches in the liberal humanistic society they can take advantage of and thrive in. However civilized we may think we are, in dealing with them, at some point we're going to have to become like them, if we are to defend against them. I used to think the ending was kind of a copout, and emotionally I guess I still may feel a little like that. You want Peck to blow the mother away. But the movie subtly takes the point further. Bowden does become like Cady, and not just in that he sets him up to be killed, but he becomes Cady in his way—he stays within society's boundaries after all, and uses society’s institutions, not biological drives, to alpha Cady. In the natural world, when two males confront, often it is just ritual, a dangerous one, but ritual until one realizes he can’t take the other. However, sometimes there has to be a fight to a bloody end because they are too evenly matched or because one will not concede. That’s Cady. In the natural world, Bowden would have to kill him. But, in the end, in civilization, it's about transfusing Darwinian dominance and biological ruthlessness into socio-legal institutional acts of justice. It may not be much of a difference, and it may break down under great stress (see natural catastrophes, like Hurricane Katrina/Rita, or man-made ones, like the black market Germany immediately after the end of WWII),

His Kind of Woman was fun, too, in the same way as The Big Steal. Mitchum and Russell are more like sibling rivals than lovers in their movies, but, again, there's a rapport. Vincent Price is outrageously the ham, but when isn't he? Is there ever an instance on record of his "underacting". Nevertheless, in his self-parody, he's almost the best thing in the movie. But, then, there's Mitchum ironing his money when he feels stressful. Now, I laugh just saying that.

TonyaJ:  don't like the Scorsese Cape Fear either - DeNiro's Cady is just a gross guy and a sadist on top of it (note early scene where he takes a bite out of the hooker) - I don't remember Mitchum's Cady being a sadist - elements of sadistic maybe, as far as I can think back, but as you point out, he's more of an opportunist than just purely evil.

ted fontenot: By "understandable", I mean it can be understood, not that it is justified.

Agree on Scorsese's Cape Fear. More, De Niro's done impressive work--once--but he's not the sui generis presence that Mitchum is; he has to work out, and Scorsese has to show him at it. Nolte is arguably a more interesting actor than Peck, but Peck is perfectly cast here--a decent man forced step by step to become, as ted points out, what he beholds. You can even see the moment--he's not only outfought Cady, but as he trains the gun on Mitchum, the final piece clicks into place, and he begins to think like Cady--going under the radar of social convention and law to take his sweet, slow revenge on the man who has tormented him into this present shape.

Oh, I do think Mitchum's Cady is a sadist--he's just too smart not to leave any marks. His preferred method of torture--sophisticated for its setting, which isn't far from where I'm sitting right now (the Cape Fear Hospital is just thirty minutes away)--is of the mental kind.

ted fontenot: Yes, he's a terrorist.

DJ Joe: I perfer the Mitchum version of Cape Fear- he does a good job of conveying evil with a rogueish charm- another decent Mitchum flick is Tobacco Road

just finished Streetcar Named Desire- talk about rogueish charm- Brando is hot in this flick - great dialogue/acting-glad I finally saw this film

TonyaJ: The trouble with Brando's performance in the film version of Streetcar (and it's been said by film buffs and reviewers other than me) is that he dominates so much in his performance, that he tends to overshadow the other actors. While Stanley needs to be powerful, Brando's performance veers towards caricature simply by the sheer scope and size of what he brings as an actor. I much prefer him (not that I world every throw Stanley away) in more low-key, meticulous character studies like The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris.

DJ Joe: I think he is magnetic- but very much the primal man- I know guys like that - there is no mute button and no personal censor- they say what they believe when they want to how they want to

and I don't think he overshadowed Viven Leigh or Kim Hunter who did a good job as the straight person cuaght between 2 explosive personalities

for some reason the Karl Malden charcter reminded me of Bill Daughtries from King of The Hill

ChrisJ: Brando and Leigh were the show, though Hunter and Malden weren't wallflowers in the thing. It had to be changed from the stage to the screen for the censors. The reason to watch is Brando.. . he overpowers and changes the dynamics of what is the toned down play that Kazan and company got onto celluloid. It has become the definitive version of the play for most and that's a shame... it should be a interesting adaptation.

Oh, I didn't think Leigh was no wallflower.

Always thought of Streetcar as a domestic comedy--the heart of the film for me is Stanley and Blanche bickering away at each other, as the in-laws from hell.

His best performance for me is in Last Tango.

11/23/05

Ring 2, both versions considered

Here's a strange case; Ringu 2 is now available on DVD. Took a look at it, and while Ring Two (the American version) seems to make more sense and to actually be more moving (I think thanks to Kruger's script in part, and to Watts and the boy playing her son), there are some bizarre touches in Ringu 2 that don't make much sense, yet at the same time really send a few chills up the spine (e.g. a live-action reprise of the video; a climactic showdown that includes Japanese science-fiction gadgetry and a swimming pool).

Nakata's touch is really missed when the series continues on to the prequel, Ring 0: Birthday (also available on DVD); on the other hand, the prequel does make the interesting decision to reposition Sadako's story as a romance, one with a horribly tragic conclusion.

11/21/05

Developments in the Filipino film industry

Finally, some proposals to help the Filipino film industry

Twenty or so films for 2005--where in 1998, it was as high as a hundred and fifty, more than the Hong Kong film industry back then.

And this:

SM Cinemas install digital projectors

should help digital film production.

Thanksgiving dinner

Someone's thanksgiving dinner--wish I could sit in. From Bizarre Hatred of Random Celebrities:

The Great Beast: The bird itself is crucial. If pressed, I'll use a frozen Organa farms bird, but usually I get it from Saltspring Island--an organic farm, free-range birds who eat worms and run about bothering the sheep. I prefer a never-frozen, New York dressed, 21-day dry-hung bird, but some folks find that too flavourful (oddly, a lot of folks who eat chickens and turkeys want them to taste like styrofoam it seems) so I've settled on 18 day if I've got guests.

My turkey is seasoned with three kinds of sage, rosemary, thyme, garlic, black pepper, salt and lemon. I cover the breast with foil, pop it into a well preheated oven at 500F, and turn it down to 450 after a half-hour or so, and take the foil off in the last 15 minutes. I cook it to 150 on the breast-bone, take it out and let it sit for 10 minutes. Gooshing with juice, and perfectly cooked.

If I do stuffing, of course, I have to cook it a bit longer to take care of the insides. My stuffing takes about two hours to make, as there is a lot of peeling of chestnuts and sauteeing of onions, garlic, celery, water chestnuts, etc.

11/19/05

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Gobble, gobble

Cuaron introduced a bit of jazz to his film, and it was a breath of fresh air and sophistication; Newell mainly relies on John William's usual galumphing orchestral themes (supplemented by music from Patrick Doyle) and I can barely keep awake (there was some really loud rock music at the Yule ball that shook my teeth for a while, but otherwise left me unenchanted). Cuaron spent time watching the boys enjoy some free time together and have angry confrontations--he's really excellent at this kind of adolescent interplay; Newell concentrates on the TriWizard competition, which looks like Fear Factor on steroids. Cuaron created a gothic, forbidding Hogwarts, all vertiginous heights surrounded by towering peaks, broken ground, and dark forests; Newell doesn't quite turn his picture back into Chris Columbus' country-club-with-a-golf-course, but it's sunnier, less menacing. Cuaron did what I longed to do with Quidditch--throw so much wind and rain at it that it gets called off (it's the most wildly beautiful version of the game I've seen yet); Newell turns it into a World Cup tournament, complete with tailgaters (here using tents) and an elaborate pre-game show. And I like the conclusion written into Azkaban, which used ingenuity, imagination and not a little personal courage; Goblet's conclusion pretty much has everyone, living or dead, coming to Harry's rescue, as if he was a FedEx special delivery package marked "fragile."

Michael Gambon I approve of; he's vigorous and sly, and he keeps things moving along; Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman are given some moments--not many, but at least they're there. Emma Watson almost manages to make something moving about her underwritten relationship with Rupert Grint, and all in the space of a ball night (she even makes it seem it was there all along, and not suddenly sprung upon you like a bear trap by the screenplay). Ralph Fiennes is wonderfully villainous as the noseless Voldemort, but the menace he builds up in his one big scene is frittered away by a silly light-and-sound show involving a pair of dueling wands spraying digitized special effects (I've seen Popeye cartoons from the 1930s that handle this kind of cliche confrontation with more visual flair).

Cuaron's emphasis, I feel, was more on character, relationship, and atmosphere, to the detriment of the plot--and a good thing, in my opinion. Newell puts in major events and plenty of big-scale spectacle, and the nuances Cuaron brought into the franchise are lost as a result. This Goblet of Fire feels pretty much doused to me.

11/16/05

Really bad joke

Read this article years ago in a copy xeroxed from the New England Journal of Medicine; apparently it's true.

 

11/15/05

Bad joke

Q: What's worse than falling off a building?

A: Falling off a building and getting your eyelid caught on a nail.

11/14/05

'Carlito's Way' defended

From Forum With No Name:

DJ Joe: Carlito's Way Al Pacino is Carlito a reformed gangsta looking to clean up after a five year stint in a correctional facility.The DePalma flick never really jelled for me- it did have nice scenes like a groovy escalator shootout and Sean Penn's Jewfro- but I never bought into Carlito's romance with Penelope Ann Miller- she is cute- but there seems to be no chemistry. C

Tonya J: Interesting. I think Carlito's Way is a much better film that De Palma's Scarface, which is more a gangster caricature than it is a film about real human beings, which I think Carlito is. Miller and Pacino should have had chemistry (I have some recollection they did); they were doing it in real life at the time.

[edit] - I meant to put in here but I was in a hurry to leave, is that while Pacino gives a brave, balls-out performance in Scarface, I wasn't moved by it and the gore was hard to look at, what he does in Carlito's Way is so nuanced that the violence, while not pleasant, means more because Tony Montano only lives for scratching and clawing his way to the top of the gangster heap, and Carlos Brigante wants out of crime in a big way, to just run a legitimate business and be left alone. Unfortunately, getting out is mountainously harder than Pacino's Michael Corleone getting out.

Shit, Carlito's Way is one of the best films of the '90s and one of the best things either de Palma OR Pacino ever did. Pacino played a real character here (not, as Tonya called it, a potty-mouthed "caricature" like in Scarface), with real depth, and the ending has the amplitude of genuine tragedy.

And Pacino and Miller--that scene with Miller behind the door chain gives me a boner every time.

Tonya J: There's two ways to read that scene. The first one I don't like, which is "Come get me, I want to be taken." That's a major reason I don't read "romance" novels because the feeling of being overpowered is not one I would enjoy, besides being uncomfortably close to rape. The other is more palatable; "I'll lock the door and see how badly he really wants me and how hard he'll work to do it" (because really, she's not a helpless damsel - she was a stripper now trying to be a legitimate dancer [which is of course, something they have in common big time - two people who were way off the fringes of normalcy trying to have a more normal, decent life]) and yeah, it is kind of exciting how much he wants her.

ChrisJ: Ditto Carlito's Way is one of the best modern Gangster films, far far better than Scarface (Pacino's)which goes from an over-the-top guilty pleasure to the equivalent of a bad Bay, Harlin, Schumacher sequel during its last 30 minutes. I enjoy DePalma's Scarface as camp of course and pretend it isn't utterly despicable in its portrayals of minorities and women.

DJ Joe: I am not a big fan of Scarface either- it felt forced

my fave recent Pacino gangster thingy was Donnie Brasco

I liked Carlito's Way but I was underwhelmed by it yet again- it felt vaguely real- but the Penn character was too over the top and I just never bought into the Carlito/Penelope Ann Miller romance- but I do like it better than Scarface easy

my fave gangster flicks are Godfather 2 , Godfather , Casino, Goodfellas,Donnie Brasco,White Heat,Force of Evil &Bugsy- but truth be told- I am more amped up about the upcoming seasons of The Wire & The Sopranos then anything

Carlito's Way was a genuine tragedy, the way it was shaped and paced, circumstances rising up against Pacino's character until he's undone by a character flaw (mercy, compassion--not a strong survival trait in his world). Unlike Scarface, where the man was a bastard and hard to sympathize with (I don't care how many kids he saves from blowing up--you need to sympathize with the hero / antihero before the tragedy can have any sting).

Donnie Brasco had a great Pacino performance...but the film itself didn't have the visual snap and clarity of De Palma, and I keep forgetting Depp's in the picture (he kind of faded into the background). It also didn't have DePalma's cynicism to counterbalance the sentiment (Pacino was very fine, but the film practically asked you to weep for him--Mike Newell's handling of emotions there is crude...unlike, say, Wiseguy, maybe the best recent undercover-cop series, or even Ringo Lam's City on Fire).

I'm not sure which magazine voted Carlito's Way best film of the '90s--Cahiers du Cinema, perhaps?--which made me raise my brow back then. But now I tend to agree: not THE best, but one of the.

11/13/05

Neon Genesis Evangelion

(Warning: plot twists and revelations discussed in close detail)

Saw the first seven episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion and...well, it's interesting enough. The first episode was shockingly sloppy--poor animation, poor editing, all the cliches of mecha anime present. Understand the cliches--it's a setup for their ultimate deconstruction, but were they suffering budget cuts then? This isn't the Gainax that did the wonderfully animated Fooly Cooly.

It recovers. The hero's angst concerning his father feels like standard mecha melodrama, but it's intriguingly revealed, little by little, through throwaway details, and the character of Rei (funny hers is the only name I remember) contributes to the fascination nicely. Nice idea of making the mechas' power supply limited (puts a time limit on the fights, which can get tiresome), of making the feedback more intense (usually the pilots seem to be screaming because they're terrified of being blown up), and of suggesting that the mecha's armor is really skin, hiding something monstrously alive underneath. Here the series borrows not just from science fiction, but from science-fiction horror.

I also like it that the battles aren't so ritualized--usually we see filler footage of the pilots suiting up, docking into their robots, etc., etc.; not so with Evangelion: it spends the minimum time on the fights, they're never when you expect it, and they never end up quite the same way. We also never know what the enemy is thinking of or feeling; the Angels just come, the people just deal with them the best they could--talk about the Unknowable Other.

Not so crazy about the humor, the peek-a-boo stuff with the girls and their underwear (although Rei is interestingly nonchalant about it, and slaps our hero when we least expect it), or the hero's tendency to shriek and cry at the least provocation. Plus the last episode I saw (the one that introduces whatshername, the redhead), is the first ordinary-looking battle I know of (well, there are hints that there's more to it than that--let's hope so).

All in all, I'd say it's easily the best mecha series I've ever seen (not that I'm an expert), and one of the better animes out there. Not ready to say it's up to Miyazaki's level, or that it's a great work of art, but we'll see.

Have this to say about disks 3 and 4--the redhead is much too annoying. She becomes a source of much of the 'fan service'--standard issue t & a shots with giggly comedy--when she should have been a breath of fresh air in the overserious atmosphere (she ends up just irritating everyone around her, and me). The battles are moderately inventive--as I've noted, never when you expect them to be, and never the same method of attack, or defense.

The 11th Angel, however, was impressive--nanomachines. This episode showed a good understanding of what AI machines could become (or at least uses the concept of AI in a consistently fascinating manner--uses an excellent metaphor for depicting AI, in effect), at the same time revealing a different side of a previously uninteresting character (the blonde computer scientist). Always knew smallest is deadliest.

More hints of lack of cooperation, that things are not what they seem. Nicely ominous, but I have to see the whole thing to say whether or not the payoff justifies the promises.

On Neon Genesis Evangelion discs 5 and 6: finally saw the infamous episode 18, which reportedly made the moneymen cut the series' budget drastically. Nothing out-and-out graphic, but it's pretty intense for television, and the sight of a mecha hunched down on all fours chewing on the enemy's corpse does have a potent horrorshow charge to it.

The drama between boy-hero and dad, however, still seems off--things are falling apart around them, and daddy still wants to know what his son wants?! Not convincing, feels forced. We also pretty much knew who the Fourth Child was early on, so hiding the identity seemed redundant. The issue that divides father and son--that father used son to kill an enemy with a human inside--also feels forced and contrived.

Episode 20 looking very experimental--they probably feel the budget crunch already. Interesting interiority--for now.

Final disk of the Eva TV series:

Well, it's impressive mostly for the number of ideas and the amount of storytelling they put forth on an obviously painfully smallbudget--making their straitened circumstances, in fact, something of an asset.

I like the last angel--turns the notion that alien invaders are bizarre creatures out to destroy us neatly on its head, and Shinji's reaction to all this is more believable than the angst he goes through with his previous conflict-of-interest drama (where he beat his classmate's mecha into the ground and, well, consumes him)--here he's responding to what literally is the first love of his life, and you understand the psychic costs he paid to win.

The final two episodes devolve into a psychiatric exploration of Shinji in particular, in an attempt to prove that nothing is more complex, or more dangerous, than the human mind. Veddy ambitious stuff...but probably thanks to the budget cuts, not quite flawlessly executed. Whole characters were dropped out (So who shot Kaji? What was the point of kidnapping whatsisname, the second-in-command?), questions remain unanswered (What is the Instrumentality really? So what if the angel at terminal dogma is Lilith and not Adam? Why does that make Kawuro suddenly understand us?), and Asuka, after all is revealed (suicidal mother and all), is still an annoying brat.

Not fair to mention Bergman, Bunuel, Lynch and Cronenberg on film, Ballard and Philip Dick on print as being better purveyors of man's inner landscape, but there you are; I would have thought with all that hype about the Kabbalah and the mystery of numbers, there would be some coherent, complex connection to it all, but they remain mainly clues, to a puzzle I suspect even the creators never bothered to finish constructing.

To be fair, Ritsuko and Misato (finally, I remember their names!) come out better drawn then I expected--but Shinji is still a sniveling failure, and that's a major disappointment, especially as the series has to end up inside his head, undergoing a combination of basic therapy and Philosophy 101. Can't help but feel Oshii's understated questions about the nature of human and machine consciousness are better put, more persuasively asked.

Evangelion: Death and Rebirth is interesting--a clip show that's a marked improvement over the series' ostensible ending. I don't agree that the Death portion is just a rehash ofthe entire show; I think Anno was able to retell the entire series using judicious sampling of previous material plus a few minutes of new material (a practice session of Pachbel's Canon in D).

The form of Death is unusual: it starts with an early image, goes to the end, then recounts the story in between, going into digressions along the way that help explain each character or event that takes place. What's unusual is that Anno doesn't so much as explain the whole series all over again--you definitely need to have seen the episodes to understand all this--but does it as a variation of the theme, shortened and heightened at the same time.

I think the clue to this is the extensive use of Bach, who's famous for doing this sort of thing-- basically playing the same melody over and over, only different each time.

It's compelling and at a certain point, even moving--Shinji's angst isn't tiresome, Asuka's brattiness isn't annoying, the general contours of the story comes out clearer, the themes and sense of despair stronger.

Rebirth has some interesting revelations to make, but is basically a preparation for the next movie, and thus is more conventional.

End of Evangelion is something of a relief and a disappointment. Relief in that it's all over, and we don't have to listen to Shinji whine anymore, or Asuka bitch; disappointment in that true to form Anno once more goes for the willfully obscure, but doesn't give us much of an incentive to follow him into the intricate thickets of his narrative.

It's intelligently made, and ambitious, but even at its most experimental it shows the limits of mecha anime--we're still talking about adolescent frustrations and fantasies, only more graphically, and about the only strange images Anno can come up with are some non-animated footage of power lines accompanied by extensive use of classical music. I thought putting "Fly Me To the Moon" in the TV end credits was more subversive--it didn't reek of high art, yet it was still a startling choice.

As for the plot: even granting that Anno is being veddy veddy experimental and oblique, it still doesn't make sense. If SEELE was planning to trigger the Third Impact all the time using the Evas, why bother fighting the Angels? If the Evas and not the Angels were meant to trigger Third Impact, what were the Angels for, then? If the Angels want to wipe out humanity, which SEELE wants to stop long enough to trigger the Third Impact, why doesn't SEELE just trigger the Third Impact and save themselves the trouble of fighting the Angels?

Or is SEELE prevented from doing so because they have to follow the Secret Dead Sea Scrolls, which predict all these events? In which case, are those scrolls Anno's parody of the classically arbitrary mecha series script, which often goes through the motions of waging robot battles without making much sense? I don't see the point in sitting through yet another senseless mecha script for the sake of watching a satire on the senselessness of mecha scripts.

Shinji continues wimpy; as I pointed out when I wrote on Death and Rebirth, he's best taken in small doses. Asuka at least partially redeems herself by freaking out in suicidal samurai frenzy, though I really wanted to learn more about her escape and slow spiral into depression and catatonia (it seemed more motivated by a drug overdose than by any psychological cause it's so sudden). And I'm not clear just where SEELE and Gendo Ikari differ in their strategies--so what does it matter if Adam merges with Lilith? Does that mean Gendo gets to meet Yui again, and the rest of humanity can just go to heck? Rather selfish and small-minded motives for someone so intensely driven for so many years to do what he did.

People have pointed out various interpretations--that Shinji is ego, Rei superego, Asuka id; that Shinji is the psyche, Rei Thanatos, Asuka Eros; that Shinji, Rei and Asuka are the Japanese gods Susanoo, Amaterasu, and Ama-no-Uzume; that Gendo, Shinji and Rei represent the Christian trinity; that Shinji and Asuka represent the Orient and the Occident; that Ritsuko and Misato represent intellect and emotion. Haven't found anyone who pointed out that Shinji is Oedipus who hates his father and wants to sleep with Rei/Yumi his friend/mother (Gendo putting his hand on Rei's breast prior to uniting poor Adam and Lilith gives you an incestuous tingle), but that may be because I haven't found the right website yet.

That hand-on-breast image just about summarizes the series' problems for me: Anno wants to break out of using mecha conventions and does, partly, but can't resist copping a feel along the way, his choices incidentally being often the naughtiest and most Freudian he could find.

Ultimately, what is Anno saying? That one must be free to choose between uniting with others or keeping distinct and separate? That one can do both as long as one has will and imagination? Truisms, and I suppose all films present truisms, the difference between a good and not so good one being that good ones present them with persuasive forcefulness (or persuasive gentleness, whatever). Anno seems to say it with a lot of baggage attached, is all; you wonder at all the effort expended to express something obvious. I'd say Anno is top of a particular genre he only partially transcends, but to put him in the same class as, say, Oshii, who is able to pose his questions in more radically different terms that at the same time keep you both stimulated and fascinated, using images that are surreal but not abstract, or Miyazaki, who uses child characters in an uncompromisingly realistic environment (even his fantasies are grounded in a superbly realized reality) dealing with adult themes and complex emotional and ethical issues--I don't know. He still needs some growing up to do first, I think. 

11.13.05

11/9/05

"The Red Shoes" debated

From Forum With No Name:

ted fontenot: The Red Shoes is a fine movie. Maybe I was spoilt by Colonel Blimp and Black Narcissus, however. The movie is essentially Footlight Parade or 42nd Street with Walbrook in the Cagney/Baxter roles. Shearer was an extraordinarily striking presence and Walbrook was suitably a dark commanding one. Nevertheless, I felt the theme of the all-consuming nature of art was underdramatized. I never felt that Shearer was a "prisoner of rock 'n' roll". Indeed, we sort of have to take that for granted. We never see evidence of her mania after she marries and leaves the company. We're told about it. She was a truly naturally gorgeous creature, though, and the ballet justified itself if only in serving to accentuate that remarkable feature.

Apparently, TCM will not be running "I Know Where I'm Going", which stars Wendy Hiller and Livesey. There are damn few movies with the young Hiller and not nearly enough with Livesey, and from the comments on IMDB, this seems definitely worth seeing.

The Red Shoes didn't feel underdramatized, only just right--what sign there is of her obsession, of being under a spell, happens very quickly, and depends on Shearer's and Litvak's acting; think it works, myself (try showing it to young girls of 9 years and older...stuns them, every time). But I agree, Blimp is so much better.

I Know Where I'm Going is a lovely little film, much like The Edge of the World, only with a luminous Hiller performance in the center. Powell's early work is much underrated.

DH1: "The Red Shoes didn't feel underdramatized, only just right"

I have to agree. Besides Shearer, Anton Walbrook's performance is damn near mesmerizing. And the thing that was striking about the movie to me is that even though the use of colors and set design suggest the surreal, and even though Walbrook's character is larger than life, the performances are delivered in a non-scenery chewing style. The contrast between elements of the movie and the 'modern', more natural acting style was quite interesting.

ted fontenot: Walbrook's character's effect on Shearer's seems unrealized. Is he a Svengali? A Mephistophelean tempter? Just a shithead?

How about the shoes? Are they magical? That aspect never came to fruition. The magical aspect of the story seems almost an afterthought, then is forgotten, then comes back as if it is fairy tale talisman.

All three, I thought. The shoes I believe are just shoes--it's what her mind believes about them and what they symbolize (the need to dance) that matters. Powell gives us just one shot outside of the ballet that invests them with magical significance--where the shoes move backwards in the corridor, pulling her to the stairs, and her destiny. I think it's an image of the shoes that comes from her mind (what she thinks is happening to her feet at that moment in time), and it's an electrifying image.

11/8/05

"Touch of Evil" defended


From Forum With No Name:

ted fontenot: Peeping Tom was too thought out, too cerebral, and ultimately unaffecting. I didn't really care about anyone. Not the protagonist/antagonist, Shearer, Massey (remember her from Frenzy), or the alcoholic blind mother. It reminds of Touch of Evil in one way. The technique, however ingenious and adroit, overwhelms the substance. 

DH1: Sorry, I love Touch of Evil. There's a lot going on in there besides slick technique.

ted fontenot: I like it a whole lot.

"There's a lot going on in there besides slick technique."

Yes, there is. Nevertheless . . . . The technique is more than slick. It's the end-all/be-all, the only real reason to see the movie. Everything is subservient to it. It's like bodybuilding--so extreme it almost becomes caricature of the human. It's topiary art.

ChrisJ: Style over substance arguments revisited. Touch of Evil however has STYLE AND SUBSTANCE. Absolutely correct in saying during several sequences style is nearly as important as anything else going on in the screen--but that's okay if it is blended into the film and it doesn't completey overwhelm.

You can look at something like Sin City as an example where style completely dominates substance. It wears off and your left with whatever scraps make up the rest of the movie. Sometimes there's enough there, often there's not.

Touch of Evil is an exception-- so is North by Northwest and Psycho and Peeping Tom for that matter.

VERA: Touch of Evil has a great subject--the destruction of a good cop and flawed human being (he was right, but morally he was wrong). Everything pointed to his corruption and long descent, including the border town's garbage-strewn streets and choked canals.

And I've always argued that Charlton Heston was perfectly cast, as a straight man to all this perversity and malevolence; an unlikeable, charmless man who cares more about justice than he does his wife who is, nevertheless, right. You have to learn to see beyond Heston's cluelessness and Welles' brilliantly charismatic performance to realize that it's Heston who's the hero and Welles the villain (Welles stacked things that way, so that somehow the victory of justice is a joyless affair--a tragedy, even).

Maybe my only reservation with the film is what the gang does to Janet Leigh--c'mon, that was a gang rape; it's only because of the censors that they couldn't show what really happened (that, and all the manufactured hysteria involving weed--thank god Mercedes McCambridge managed to mention heroin).

Not all of Welles' effects are outlandish, or even obvious. That scene with Akim Tamiroff where he's offered a shot of whisky and he goes "I don't drink" is a beautifully understated little pas de deux where Tamiroff dances like a devil imp around the orotund Welles, needling him, Welles' right hand creeping up to the shotglass like a spider to its prey; when Welles repeats his statement "I don't dri--" he realizes that he just did; the camera cuts to a high-angle shot, with Tamiroff smirking and leaving Welles in his cubicle to order another shot (a double). Suddenly Welles looks like a fly in a web.

Then there's the scene where Welles confronts his superiors about charges that he planted the dynamite; I love the business with the little bird's nest where he picks out an egg; when Heston drops the bombshell that he knows the dynamite comes from Welles' ranch, Welles' hand convulses, crushing the egg; he's left with dripping goo on his fingers looking for a handkerchief, and--beautiful moment--it's Heston who hands him a handkerchief, hands him, in effect, the one chance to 'come clean.'

It's not all flash moves and shock cuts and grotesque imagery; some of it is superb theater, subtle characterization, and all of it is of a piece of Welles' sensibility: a visualization of entropy, of the coming apart of a man you have so many knotted feelings of repulsion and regret and pity about that you can't articulate them clearly; when Marlene Deitrich was asked to try, she just shrugged and said 'he was some kind of man.'

ChrisJ: And there's also Dennis Weaver showing Tony Perkins how to run a hotel if you know what I mean.....

VERA: Yeah. Read accounts that Hitchcock was looking over Welles' shoulder, so to speak, when he did Psycho.

ted fontenot: Touch of Evil is a fine, even brilliant, technically daring movie. But, too much is "stacked". Sure, there is a lot of nice little business. You can always count on Welles to be visually ingenious. But, the whole enterprise has a schematic air of being predetermined (not pre-destined). Everyone, except possibly Welles's character, is a stereotype (except those that are vacuities), some more amusingly freakish than others. This is no Elizabethan tragedy. I don't see it as the fall of a good man. He's fallen already. The movie is about his being found out. Too many people make too many extraneous comments on his character. I, too, think Heston has gotten more grief over his role in the movie than is warranted. He was the big bankable star and he essentially handed the movie to Welles, relegating himself to a supporting character, a mere plot device really. Same for Leigh. Too, too much is just too unbelievable. Welles was handed a film noir mule, and he dressed her up, making you believe he had the Kentucky Derby winner, but in the process he so overpacked that mule that it collapses under the weight of everything it's carrying--it barely staggers across the line. All the sweaty freneticism, the unaccountable agitation to and fro, the unexplained behavior, the change of motivation, the utter seriousness with which it takes itself--all of this finally distracts from the story, which was pretty empty anyway. It's Welles's version of Hawks's The Big Sleep without any of the wit of that movie. But, I like it. Really, I do. It's a fine prancer. But it ain't Secretariat.

VERA Never suggested Welles in this film was a good man; he was a good cop, but a lousy human being (I think the script had a different line, but roughly the same idea). Didn't think it was Elizabethan drama either, though I imagine Richard III would consider Welles' cop a distant spiritual cousin.

I do think the motives are well-accounted for--Welles needs his man, later he needs a cover-up; Heston's prosecutor is interested in justice; Leigh is interested in her husband; Tamiroff is interested in pinning Welles and with his help framing Heston. They're mostly grotesques, but hardly just stereotypes--think Dickens with a Mexican flavor; he was always able to give even the smallest walk-on a detail that brought the character to life.

Didn't think Touch took itself too seriously either--look at Tamiroff, or McCambridge, or Weaver; even Welles' lines (and the comments on his weight) seem as much a joke on him as on his character. And surely Heston was smart enough to realize he's the straight man to all of Welles' huffing and puffing (and as such, perfectly cast).

I'd say Touch takes itself seriously on the subtext level, in the way Welles stacks the deck emotionally and dramatically against Heston and for Welles' police officer. But above that level--the visual gags (the egg dripping from Welles' hand), the verbal gags ("Someone found a shoe; it had a foot in it. You're going to pay for that"), the performances (Weaver unable to say "bed" out loud)--it's a darkly funny movie.

11.8.05

11/7/05

"Broken Flowers" and Bill Murray movies

From Forum with No Name:

Not a big fan of Jim Jarmusch and I guess Broken Flowers isn't going to change my mind. What I see here is Bill Murray in a pair of cool shades wandering the length of Jarmuschland in a Ford Taurus. He's funny, and the movie maintains its tone and lack of predictable cliche with all the skill of a master, but I'm not sure there's anything more than that. The movie seems hermetically sealed. I can respect it, and I like it to some extent, but that's pretty much my response to it--my feelings are every bit as sealed off as the movie.

ChrisJ: I found Lost in Translation to be exactly that with some additional false notes added to the mix (despite some superb scenes and Murray) so I have put off seeing Broken Flowers.

Well, by way of comparison--Lav Diaz uses this minimalist style to ponder some pretty weighty sociological and philosophical problems; Tsai Ming Liang seems to have more fun (cracking open a few metaphysical questions along the way); Kitano uses the style to to bring a fresh approach to violence, romance, so forth. Seems to me some newer filmmakers have taken minimalism to different directions, while Jarmusch pretty much remains staring (expertly, skillfully) at his navel.

crabgrass: nice to see someone else who didn't think Lost In Translation was some great masterpiece. I mean, it's a nice little film and all, but it's not all that.

Lost in Translation was okay; didn't feel like I had to go flipflop over it. My fave Murray (maybe because the film itself is so good) remains Groundhog Day...

10/31/05

"Tubog sa Ginto" (Dipped in Gold, 1970), a groundbreaking Filipino gay film

Tubog sa Ginto is a wonderful portrayal of a closet queen--or at least a gay man in '70s Manila--married to a beautiful wife with a handsome young man for a son, financially successful, terrified of being outed. Eddie Garcia as Don Benito captures not just the crushing sense of guilt (we see him endlessly praying and confiding to his doctor, who gives him drugs to quell his libido) but also the careful posing (he hires a "social secretary"--Marissa Delgado in all her bountiful glory--as a 'beard' (an ornament designed to make him look macho)), and the terror of being found out (having dinner with his son in a restaurant, his face freezes when one of his lovers accosts him).

And more unsettling than the guilt and terror is that sense he gives you that at any and every moment he's in danger of giving way to his appetites (having been on a strict diet for maybe a year didn't help any). When Garcia gazes upon young male flesh he has to close his eyes and swallow, because the sense of sheer lust that takes over literally gives him vertigo, it's so intense.

It's an amazing performance, even more amazing because I've heard rumors about many actors, but never about Garcia (far as I know, he's not just straight, he's a one-woman man), yet his scenes kissing and caressing other men seem perfectly natural, not a single false note. Equally amazing is the source of the film's story, a komiks serial by Mars Ravelo (the Philippines' Will Eisner if you will) who along with this story created Darna (flying superwoman who champions the poor) and Dyesebel (mermaid who magically acquires legs and falls in love with a human)--fantasy figures seen from a uniquely Filipino perspective. Ravelo's is a protean mind coupled to a sharp ear and an uncanny sense of drama able to develop whatever ideas and characters that mind comes up with in a recognizably Filipino setting. No hint or rumor that Ravelo is gay, either; far as I can tell, he willed Tubog into being through the sheer force of sympathetic imagination alone.

Garcia's Benito is the focus of Tubog, but he's defined by the people about him. His wife Emma (Lolita Rodriguez) is the hapless victim, and it's tempting to make her an object of fun and derision; Brocka (and presumably Ravelo), however, resist the easy way out. Emma and Benito genuinely love and need each other; the tragedy of it is that Benito's lovefor Emma isn't sexual. It isn't just Benito's good name that's in jeopardy but a bond that Brocka and Ravelo so deftly sketch and both actors so sensitively and persuasively play--you can see that there are real emotional stakes to be won or lost here. Likewise with their son Santi (Jay Ilagan), who woships Benito; it's easy to try score comic points off of him, but his affection and respect for his father is real, and you can see why Benito is so frightened of losing both.

When Mario O'Hara's Diego enters the picture, he threatens to turn the film into a Filipino Boudu Saved from Drowning. But where Renoir's Boudu is something of a literary conceit (I've heard theories speculating that he's the subconscious product of the bourgoisie mind), O'Hara's Diego is a simple, all-too-real creation, a male version of the dewy ingenue/gay predator. O'Hara here has the easy arrogance and physical charisma of a young Brando (I remember saying about Brocka's version of Streetcar Named Desire that Philip Salvador as Stanley and O'Hara as Mitch were both seriously miscast), even Brando's pansexual appeal: when he confidently allows Emma to run her eyes up and down his near-naked body, you can't help but think of Viven Leigh or even Marcelle Hainia, their eyes rolling upwards from the sheer sexual heat.

But Renoir did Boudu to make a philosophical and intellectual point (that much if not all civilization is hypocrisy); Ravelo's and Brocka's intentions are probably more down-to-earth, and they spin out their tale swiftly and with great gusto. Love Boudu--think it's one of Renoir's best--but there's some merit to Brocka's approach too. It's tailor-made for a simpler race (us Filipinos), paying close attention to social details (Benito's advice to Santi is a classic summary of the Filipino male's attitude towards mistresses and wives) and psychology (Garcia's finely observed portrayal of Benito) in ways maybe even Renoir would approve of.

Some notes: Brocka was gay, and it's natural that his depiction of gays in this film is sympathetic, but he doesn't apologize or try to whitewash some of the things his gay characters do--the ease, for example, with which a gay man can threaten his fellow gay man with exposure (if outing a man can be embarrassing today, outing him in the early '70s, in the kind of climate Manila had at the time, must have been the equivalent of social suicide). And it's interesting to see that when the most progressive straight character--Benito's doctor friend--pleads for understanding of Benito's situation, he characterizes homosexuality as a handicap, an infirmity to be pitied or at least tolerated. Tubog broke plenty of ground especially in Philippine cinema, but it couldn't break everything at once.

Is this the Philippines' one great gay film? I don't know. Visually it lacks the expressiveness that a great cinematographer like Conrado Baltazar might have given it (the cinematography here is by Steve Perez); occasionally it shows flashy editing (by Felizardo Santos); perhaps it misses greatness by being a shade too melodramatic. All I can say is that it's probaby the finest Filipino gay film yet made.