Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Film Review: Chico & Rita

With its semi-surprise late inning Oscar nod for Best Animated Feature (I predicted it - just sayin'), this unique work of animation, incorporating hand drawings with live action rotoscoping and computer generated effects, showing us the lively world of Cuban Jazz before the revolution, and the fatalistic world post revolution, is a bravura work of daring gusto.  Sexy and sensual in both picture and story (we do get animated lovemaking and full frontal cartooning, but in a much less sensationalized manner than in something like Heavy Metal) the Spanish born, Havana/NYC/LA/Vegas set Chico & Rita takes away the sheen of the typical high end modern day animation a la Pixar and company, and gives us a rough-hewn, passionate look at love, life, music, success and loss.  In other words, a dynamic feeling and even more dynamic looking work of animation chutzpah - and it works baby.

Directed by Fernando Trueba (Belle Époque and Calle 54) and artist/designer turned first time director Javier Marsical, and telling the story of Chico, a down and out piano player and songwriter and the long and tumultuous affair he has with  singer/dancer Rita, this rather erotic look at Cuba in its heyday, and the downfall of both this society and the love between these two young lovers, replete with backstabbing, star struck stupidity and hot Latin jazz of the period, is a sight for sore eyes one could very well say.  The imagery of the film (some animation ne're do wells have called the film cheap looking, but what do these fools know!) syncs beautifully with story, as both are dangerous and could come apart at any moment - and I mean this as a compliment on both ends.

With a soundtrack that includes Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gellespie, Chano Pozo, Tito Puente and Bebo Valdés, a Cuban pianist and arranger of the film score, who was brought out of obscurity by Trueba in his 2000 jazz doc Calle 54, and a look and feel that recreates a boom time in Cuba and in its music (a time before communism, when many would come to the States to play) this film is a buggy beast of boss tones that holds no punches in its storytelling, while still maintaining the most classic tale of love and loss and love again - and I mean that as a compliment as well.  The film ended up losing the Oscar to the more well known, and more well seen, Rango, and I suppose it rightfully did so (its nomination was its reward some might say), but nonetheless, Chico & Rita is a film well worth seeing if not for its taut storyline, which is worth it alone, then for its incredible jazz and flamenco soundtrack.   If only more animated films had such heart and soul.

Film Review: The Secret World of Arrietty

In today's world of sleek picture perfect computer animation - the kind of Pixar/Dreamworks kind of stuff that is nearly flawless in its look but utterly cold and antiseptic in its feel - it is always a welcome respite to be able to peer upon the classic cel animation style of Japan's Studio Ghibli.  It may not live up to the near impossible standards of today's aforementioned picture perfection - nor to that younger generation of why nots that crave the smooth shiny coating to the chewy yummy center of things - but its charming visual cadence and soft, watercolour like appearance, give the studio that brought us the brilliant Spirited Away, the succulent My Neighbor Totoro, the haunting Grave of the Fireflies and the adorable child's tale of Ponyo, the most elegant and painterly of looks - and to this old school animation guy, that is the best thing one could hope for.

The latest lovely piece from Studio Ghibli is The Secret World of Arrietty, or as it was originally known in its native Japan, The Borrower Arrietty.  Written by Japanese anime master Hayao Miyazaki (director of three of the aforementioned studio works), along with Keiko Niwa, and based on Mary Norton's classic children's book The Borrowers, the Secret World of Arrietty, directed by first time director and Miyazaki protege (and, at just 38, the youngest director in Studio Ghibli history) Hiromasa Yonebayashi, is the story of the most charismatic of Miss Norton's Borrowers, a young and most curious girl by the name of Arietty.  For those not in the know, Borrowers are little people (small enough to stretch out in a human's hand) who live in the nooks and crannies of houses and live on items they borrow, but that will not be missed, such as sugar cubes and tea leaves.  In our story, little Arietty is seen by a human boy, and it is with this much taboo event that the Borrowers lives erupt in very unwanted excitement and danger.

First released in Japan back in 2010, the film finally winds its way to the States in, as is par the course for Studio Ghibli films, a Walt Disney distributed English dubbed version.  Sadly though, unlike earlier releases of films like Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle, where the films were released in both Japanese and English versions in the US (the Japanese tending of course to play in the more art house kind of venues) it would seem that Arrietty is being released in an English only rendition this time around.  Now granted, the English version is not a bad film - hearing real life husband and wife Amy Poehler and Will Arnett as Arrietty's parents is somewhat odd but still quite fun - but to hear a film in its native tongue is always the preferred way.  But alas, as far as theatrical release goes, Disney's English language dubbing is what we get (the UK also has their own version, with Saoirse Ronan as the titular little person), so I suppose it is what we must live with it - unless of course you were able to seek out the original Japanese version which incidentally is available on DVD, and as I have already stated, is the preferred way to watch said film.   But either way, the tender yet vivid animation on the film is quite stunning and the story, though perhaps a bit more slight than some other Studio Ghibli works, is nonetheless quite enthralling.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Oscar Round-Up.....and Almost a New Record

Damn that Meryl Streep!  Seriously, with just two awards left to go in the night - Actress and Picture - and having already predicted 18 of the first 22 correctly, it looked as if I would finally break my record of 19 correct guesses (done in both '08 and '09 before plummeting to a record low of 16 last year).  But no dammit, that bitch Streep had to come in and ruin everything.  Okay, I am not really mad at La Streep.  How could anybody be mad at La Streep?  So please, do not comment about how much of a bastard I am - because it is just a joke people.  Just a joke.  Even if her film was what they call utter crap, or at the very least (or best?) utterly mediocre, Streep's performance was quite good.  Seriously though, I was happy to see Meryl win this (my personal vote would have gone to Rooney Mara, or perhaps the ever lovely Miss Michelle Williams), even if she did screw up a possible new record.  But alas, I digress.  Congratulation to The Artist for its five awards, including Picture, Director and Actor, and to Hugo for its five awards as well (if you do not count the four that The Departed won, that is more Oscars than every other Scorsese film combined).

As far as the record goes, I did come close, but with 19 out of 24 right, it was still just a tie.  Missing just five this time around (adding Costume Design, Visual Effects, Film Editing and Cinematography to the aforementioned Best Actress) was pretty good I suppose, considering how up in the air many of the tech awards were.  But hey, I aced all three short films, so I must know what I am doing, right?  Yeah, sure I do.  Anyway, the Oscars are now over for another year, so it is back to watching, talking about and writing on both classic films (planning on finally finishing the 1000 Greatest Films list) and new releases (upcoming reviews of The Secret World of Arietty, Albert Nobbs, Chico & Rita, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Picture, A Separation are on their way).  I will also be back with my waaay in advance Oscar Predictions for next year.  This silly folly will happen sometime in April.  After all, in the same nutsy nine month in advance way, I did pick five out of the eventual nine Best Picture nominees correct this past year.  I even had Rooney Mara correctly predicted - something I did not do in my eventual final predictions.  Crazy, huh!?  Oh, and congrats to you too Ms. Streep.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

FINAL Oscar Predictions!!!

After back to back years of correctly guessing 19 out 24 (two years running, my personal career best) in my annual Oscar precognitive ritual, I ended with just a measly 16 right last year (an all-time low).  Well, as they say, another year, another chance (they do say that, right?).  Anyway, without further ado, and in the hopes of reaching that elusive 20 out of 24 threshold, here are my final Oscar predictions.

Best Picture - The Artist

This is pretty much a no-brainer at this point.  The Descendants had been the frontrunner early on, but now only a crazy person would pick something else to win.  I would love to see The Tree of Life or Hugo take home this prize (and if I had my druthers one of them would) but that surely is not happening.  This year will be the year of The Artist.  

Best Director - Michel Hazanivicius for The Artist

For a while it looked as if Scorsese would be taking home his second Oscar, even if The Artist were to take home the top prize, but after victories at both the BAFTAS and the DGA (the two  most accurate precursors in this case), it looks to be M. Hazanavicius' year.

Best Actor - Jean Dujardin in The Artist

Seriously, this looks to be shaping up to be the year of The Artist.  Granted, this is really a two way race, between the Frenchman and George Clooney (who had been all but the sure bet about a month ago), but with several victories under his belt, including the BAFTA, it looks like The Artist will make a clean sweep of these top three awards.

Best Actress - Viola Davis in The Help

Now on with one of the less sure bet categories.  Many are saying this is a two way race between Davis and La Streep in The Iron Lady.   Early on it looked as if Davis would go supporting (she is not the lead here, Emma Stone is) but after the campaign for lead began (a category where she would not have to compete with her costars) the steam began to roll.  Streep on the other hand, is a legend with two Oscars already under her belt (the last one waaay back in 1982) and she is playing that stalwart of Oscar winning, an actual historical figure.  In the end, obviously, I am going with Davis.  Unlike Halle Barry's win back in 2001, which may have been just white guilt, Davis does a phenomenal job in a much less than phenomenal picture - and a thing like that actually helps.  Then again, Hollywood does love when someone in Hollywood plays someone else in Hollywood, and therefore Michelle Williams' turn as Marilyn Monroe could surprise.  I actually almost went with her in the end.

Best Supporting Actor - Christopher Plummer in Beginners

Back to another no-brainer. Probably the biggest no-brainer of the bunch.  Back in December and early January, there was nary a reasonable voice claiming that Albert Brooks would not take home this award.  Gradually Plummer took over the frontrunner status, and then to top it off Brooks was not nominated.  What!!?  But yeah, this is Plummer's award.  A veteran actor (at 82 he will become the oldest Oscar winner Sunday night) with only one previous nomination (and that was just two years ago) this could be looked at as a lifetime achievement kind of thing, but considering how great of a performance he gives it is a worthy victory after all.

Best Supporting Actress - Octavia Spencer in The Help

This is a category that could go many ways.  Spencer is considered the safe bet, and I am going with her, but it would not be a surprise to hear Melissa McCarthy's name called either.  The supporting categories are more likely to go to a comedic role than the leads (think Marisa Tomei's surprise win in 92 or Kevin Kline's in 88) but then again, her performance may be a bit too raunchy for the decidedly older Academy membership.  We could also see Bérénice Bejo take home the award if The Artist plays the sweep card.  I suppose I will go with the safe bet here though, and leave the more daring guesses for other categories.

Best Original Screenplay - Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris
Best Adapted Screenplay - Alexander Payne, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash for The Descendants

In another safe bet, I am picking the two WGA winners here.  Allen is the safer bet indeed though The Artist or even Bridesmaids could surprise, but only in sweep mode. In the more open Adapted race, I think people are going to want to vote for The Descendants somewhere on their ballot, and since Clooney has fallen from frontrunner status in Best Actor, this would be the most reasonable spot to do so.  Then again, the screenplay for Moneyball (my own personal choice) that was written by Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian (the two best writers working in Hollywood today!) could surprise and take the award, even though back to back wins in this category (Sorkin won last year for The Social Network) is a rarity, having happened only twice in 83 years.  Another surprise could be a win for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Best Foreign Language Film - A Separation (Iran)

Conventional wisdom would say to go with the frontrunner A Separation.  The Iranian film has won pretty much every precursor this year, so who wouldn't pick it to win.  Of course considering that Biutiful, A Prophet, The Class, Pan's Labyrinth, Paradise Now, Hero and Amélie were all frontrunners and none of them took home the Oscar, one could make a fair assumption that such a thing could happen again.  This is the category with the most instances of upsets, but then A Separation is a pretty bold frontrunner to get knocked off.   In going with this trend (which of course does not happen every year) I had a tough time deciding between this Iranian film and the more traditional choice of In Darkness, a film about that old stalwart of the Oscars, the Holocaust - as well as a film that may play to the older Academy members.  In the end though, A Separation is probably just too obvious to be upset.

Best Animated Feature - Rango

Here is another one that I was tempted to go out on a limb for and pick Chico & Rita over the more sensible choice of RangoThe Adventures of Tintin was the logical frontrunner early on (it won the Golden Globe) but once it was snubbed on nomination morning, Rango took over the lead status.  We could see a surprise here since Rango is not that strong of a frontrunner (though still the best of the nominees), and the likely surprise is the aforementioned Cuban film.

Best Cinematography - The Tree of Life
Best Art Direction - Hugo
Best Film Editing - The Artist

The fabulous The Tree of Life has got to win something here, right!?  Cinematography is the most logical spot for that to happen, though the slick silvery nuances of The Artist could take the prize.  Then again, this category has only synced up with Best Picture once in the past decade (Slumdog Millionaire in 2008), so perhaps Hugo or even The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo would be a more reliable surprise.   But still, the love for The Artist may still triumph everywhere.  As to Art Direction, this is an award that usually goes to the most elaborately decorated film (the last two winners were Alice in Wonderland and Avatar) and Hugo certainly fits that bill - unless of course voters wish to reward the now finalized franchise of Harry Potter, or if The Artist is in sweep mode.  As to Film Editing, it has synced up with BP six out of the last ten times, which kinda makes The Artist the frontrunner here, even though a film as sharply edited as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo could surprise.

Best Costume Design - Hugo
Best Make-up - The Iron Lady

Costume Design is an award that more oft than not is awarded to the most elaborate costuming.  This is why we see so many winners from films set in the Victorian or Elizabethan ages.  The last six awards have gone to just such films (if one can count Alice in Wonderland as Victorian age rather than straight fantasy).  Of course we have also seen wins for The Aviator, Chicago and Moulin Rouge (yeah, that last one is technically Victorian age, but still with a more modern flair) so a victory for Hugo over something like Jane Eyre or Anonymous would not be all that far fetched.  And it is three-time winner Sandy Powell, who is very well respected in Hollywood.  Then again, there is that possible Artist sweep mode I keep throwing about and it is set around the same time.  Then we cannot count out Madonna's royal love story, W.E.  Basically, what I am trying to say is that this is probably the one and only true 5-way race in the bunch.  As for Make-up, they have gone the monster route (The Wolfman, Pan's Labyrinth, Star Trek, LOTR twice) as well as the old man/woman route (La vie en Rose, Benjamin Button, Elizabeth) and there is really no telling which route they will take.  Harry Potter could get a franchise-wrapping win here but I still think The Iron Lady is the one to beat.

Best Original Score - The Artist
Best Original Song - "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets

Ludovic Bource's score for The Artist, though rife with controversy over its sampling of past film scores, most notably Vertigo (something Kim Novak has equated with rape!?), has won most every award this year and I do not think that will end any differently come Sunday night.  And a Muppets victory for Best Song (a contest of just two nominees) is a pretty solid bet as well.

Best Sound Mixing - Hugo
Best Sound Editing - Hugo
Best Visual Effects - Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Usually the old story goes that the loudest movie will win the sound awards, which I guess technically would mean victories for The Transformers, but I do not see that happening.  Hugo, with its leading eleven nominations is bound to take home several awards, so the two sound ones will more likely go to that film than any other.  Though a victory for Drive's lone nomination would be fun to see.  And I do not think we should count Spielberg's War Horse out of the race just quite yet (a lot of voters will want to give that film something) - or for that matter, we probably should not count out that Tattooed lady either.  If voters wanted to award the entire franchise, then Visual Effects could easily go to Harry Potter but if they haven't given them the award yet (only three of the seven films have even been nominated) then they probably won't bother to do it now.  I think the work done in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the most worthy and the most likely as well.

Best Documentary Feature - Undefeated

This is a pretty wide open race here, with films like Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory and Wim Wenders' Pina in the running.  Some have kindly asked the Academy not to nominate Paradise Lost 3, due to the series' rather seedy history, but that doesn't mean they listened - oh yeah, I guess they did not.  It's in the headlines story could give it the victory here but I think the emotional high of Undefeated (no, not the Sarah Palin thing) will pull off the eventual victory.  But again, this is a tough call indeed.

Best Documentary Short Subject - Saving Face
Best Animated Short Film - The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore
Best Live Action Short Film - The Shore

In my opinion, these three are anybody's guess, so I am just throwing out some guesses and hoping they land near their intended targets.  I have been relatively successful at this, going 5 for the last 7 in both Animated and Live Action predictions - not so much in Documentary.  So who knows what will happen.

Well that's it for now.  All that is left is to wait and see who the winners will be.  I am confident in only about half of my picks (perhaps semi confident in another 5 or 6) but I am still hoping for that ever elusive 20 out of 24 (or even better) score.  I will be back on Monday with a round-up and tally-ho of how I did, or rather how well the Academy did in trying to predict my predictions.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Anomalous Material Weekly Feature: 10 Best Silent Films

Here we are again true believers, with my latest weekly 10 best feature for the fine folks over at Anomalous Material.  For those of you not in the know, those same said fine folks have given me a (possibly foolish on their behalf) regular gig as feature writer.  It is a series of top ten lists on various cinematic subjects - and anyone who knows me can attest to how perfectly suited I am to such an endeavor (yes I am a  list nerd).  This week's feature, my twenty-third such feature, is on the timely subject of silent movies.  Why are silent movies timely in this day and age of digital in your face mass media you may ask?  Well, it is because a silent film is just days away from taking home the Oscar for Best Picture (and probably Director, Actor, Score and Editing as well).  So with that in mind I composed a list of my personal favourite silent films of those (semi) lost woebegone days of yore.

Read my feature article, "10 Best Silent Films" at Anomalous Material.

As for the many silent films I had to leave out of this list, one of the most important is a little thing that debuted back on December 28, 1895 in Paris by the name of La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon, or Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory.  Directed by film pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumere, it was the very first film shown at the very first public screening of a film anywhere in the known world.  It is just a mere 50 seconds long and really shows nothing but exactly what the title would have you believe it shows, but considering what it led to, aka, the birth of cinema, it probably should be mentioned somewhere here.

Who SHOULD Win the Oscar Poll Results

Almost a month ago, a few days after this year's Oscar nominations were announced, you my faithful and constant readers (thanx to Mrs. Parker for the borrowing of at least part of that phrase) were asked to choose which film you think should win this year's Oscar for Best Picture.  Not the film that will win (which incidentally seems to be more than a foregone conclusion at this point) but which film you would vote for if you were a member of the Academy.  Did you pick the swaying genius of The Tree of Life or the giddy nostalgia of The Artist or Hugo?   Did you cast your vote for Woody back in Woody form in the magically inclined Midnight in Paris?  What about the love of the game directness of Moneyball or the dramatic poignancy of The Descendants?  Did you vote for the succulent looking but emotionally manipulative War Horse?  What of the pandering mediocrity of The Help, which though wonderfully acted all around, saddled with the most inane screenplay imaginable?  Or perhaps your choice was for the insipid atrocity that was Incredibly Loud and Obnoxiously Close?  Perhaps you can see a bit of my own leanings from the above statements, but after all, I am one of those nasty critics everyone speaks so badly about.  Anyway, on with the results of the poll.

In no real surprise, and by a veritable landslide, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, easily the most acclaimed film of 2011 and my own personal favourite, wins the thing hands down as they say.  Garnering 31 votes (out of an overall total of 72 cast), which is another way of saying 43%, Malick's gorgeous film (hated and reviled by much of the mindless multiplex masses) is our big winner.  I would love to see it spoken when they open that final envelope of the night on Sunday, but that, as they are prone to say, ain't gonna happen brothah.

Coming in at a distant second and third are a pair of films that look back into the annals of cinema history.  With 12 votes (16%), just squeaking out the silver medal spot by one vote, is Martin Scorsese's Hugo.  This film, my second favourite of the year, is followed by the frontrunner to win the actual Oscar, The Artist, grabbing 11 votes (15%).  Pretty much from the beginning this was really a race between these two motion pictures for the honour of coming in second to The Tree of Life, and it was nearly a photo finish - but in the end, Hugo had all four feet off the ground.  In case you do not get that last reference, check out some, appropriately enough, very early, pre-film history here.  

That brings us to the rest of this nine horse pack.  With 6 votes (8%), coming in in fourth place is Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, which in turn is followed by Moneyball and The Descendants in a tie for fifth with 4 votes (5%) each.  Then we have those lesser films - and not just in my not-so-humble opinion but apparently in the voter's eyes as well.  With 2 votes (2%) apiece are Steven Spielberg's visually stunning (see I can say good things too) War Horse and that 9/11 work of arrogant stupidity (okay, not everything can have good said about them) Incredibly Overblown and Ridiculously Annoying.  Then we have that last place finisher, The Help, in a sad state of affairs, grabbing exactly zero votes. 

Well, there you have it true believers (now I must thank Stan Lee for usurping his tagline) - the results of how you would vote if you were a member of the "illustrious" Academy.  And speaking of the "illustrious" Academy, I will be back on Saturday to announce my final predictions for these so talked about Oscars.  Until then.....

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Film Review: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

All things considered, this quite silly and quite ridiculous sequel to Ghost Rider, which in itself was quite silly and quite ridiculous, is a more enjoyable film than it gets credit for.  Granted, it is not really any better or any more well made than it is given credit for, but there are a slew of very fun, very giddy moments, that if not making up for the poorness of the movie itself, then at the very least making it more than bearable for those willing to open their minds and let themselves be taken in my the kitschy, campy charm of these said fun and giddy moments.  In other words, just lie back and enjoy the damned ride.

Seriously, there have been many a naysayer saying their respective nays about this film, and yes, it does have a terrible script and seems to be directed with the grace and subtlety of some sort of mind numbing power drill, and yes it is a lame movie rendition of a much cooler comic book character that may even make the fiasco that was the Ben Affleck Daredevil seem quality in comparison (though in all honesty, the comic in this case, though one of my favourites as a misbegotten youth, lends itself to such a rendition), and yes, the action sequences are few and far between, with not much scintillating dialogue betwixt, and when they do happen they come off as seemingly truncated versions of what must have been much cooler and much more exhilarating story board proposals, but when Nic Cage is allowed to let loose and do his usual  batshitcrazy and a-bit-too cocksure shtick (think Memphis Raines meets Klaus Kinski), the film really, as they might say, catches fire. 

Yeah yeah, okay, the film really isn't all that good - but it should be dammit!  I mean, you have an actor like Nicolas Cage, who when going full throttle over the top is one of the most exciting, albeit terribly so actors out there (and I mean that in the most complimentary way one can mean such a thing) and you have a character like Ghost Rider, aka Johnny Blaze, who is possessed by an ancient fallen angel-turned-demon who catches on fire and punishes the wicked (and sometimes the not so wicked) and bringing these two hotheads together seems like not only a no-brainer, but also one of the best freakin' ideas one could come up with in the realm of comic book/movie mash-ups.  Seriously, the thing should be a goddamn Grindhouse work of three-dimensional art (though the 3D really adds nothing to the film other than a few obligatory in your face moments) - no matter how cheesy it may very well be (a factor that actually helps in such a genre).  Instead, what we get from the directing team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor (billed as Neveldine/Taylor) the duo that brought us, for better or for worse, Crank and Gamer, is a film that never goes near as far as it shoulda, coulda and/or woulda - a sad and somewhat surprising fact considering the oeuvre in question.

What we do get, in lieu of the batshitcrazy (yes, such a term need be used more than once when describing something involving mad man Cage) that we should have received, is a mediocre movie sequel with splashes of giddy mayhem slashed across the canvas like the burning chain of the Rider.  With a quick backstory told in voiceover by Cage himself during the strangely yet intriguingly animated opening credits (made, one assumes, as an easy catch-up for those unawares of either the first movie or the Marvel comic book) and periodic catchphrase asides (seriously, who is this guy talking to?), combined with Cage's over the top greatness and some of the worst/best acting one could hope for in such a monster movie as this, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance could have been, if not a great movie (could not even imagine that in this scenario), at least a fun romp somewhere in the Grand Guignol realm, not unlike last year's Nic Cage from Hell film (shouldn't there be one of these every year?), the oft-maligned but quite delicious Drive Angry.   But I suppose one must take what one gets out of life, and even if we do not get all that much here, we are allowed the opportunity to grab the gusto that does come spewing forth from such a film as this.  If only we could grab more.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Criterion Critiques w/ Alex DeLarge

What follows is part of a regular series of reviews on the always wonderful, and quite indispensable Criterion Collection, written by our special guest reviewer Alex DeLarge of the Korova Theatre. 

GODZILLA (Ishiro Honda, 1954)
Released on Criterion Blu-ray 01/24/2012; Spine #594

Caveat: This is the original uncut Japanese version. To fully appreciate this film, you must understand it on its own terms; you must put to rest the campy films spawned by this classic. Godzilla is a parable of the atomic age, a monster awakened by science tainted with moral lassitude; a destructive and dire warning that mankind stalks the nightmare’s abyss.
The giant Jurassic creature stirs from its millennial slumber because the United States is testing atomic bombs in the Pacific Ocean: this beast the rises from the murky depths and ravages Odo Island before advancing upon mainland Japan…and laying Tokyo to ruin. It is also a metaphor concerning science run amok: Dr. Serizawa fears that his volatile creation the Oxygen Destroyer, though it will kill Godzilla, will be used as a weapon to escalate the arms race and obliterate mankind, he laments “Bombs versus bombs, missiles versus missiles, and now a new superweapon to throw upon us all. As a scientist-no, as a human being-I cannot allow that to happen”.
Dr. Yamane (superbly portrayed by Takashi Shimura!) believes that this creature should be captured alive and studied, even at the risk of total catastrophe: knowledge is more important that human life. While the debate rages, so does Godzilla as millions die in the ensuing firestorm of Tokyo, eerily reminiscent of the Allied firebombing of Japan only a few years earlier. When one woman on a train compares this war with her survival at Nagasaki, the chilling catharsis is finally revealed.
The film is deftly directed by Ishiro Honda and focuses upon the characters and their moral dilemmas…not a rubber-suited monster amid crushed dioramas. When Godzilla is filmed in medium and long shot, the towering silhouette is reminiscent of a rising mushroom cloud as the cities fiery tendrils rake the darkening sky. The creature’s nightmarish roar is like Munch’s scream, a discordant reverberation as nature fights back to reclaim the world. But science does not fail us: Dr. Serizawa burns his research and utilizes his desperate weapon to kill the Beast and makes the ultimate sacrifice for Japan…and the whole damned human race. He takes his secrets to his watery grave. But if these nuclear tests continue, Dr. Yamane asks, will another Godzilla awaken? Or something worse?
Final Grade: (A)

About Alex: "To state things plainly is the function of journalism; Alex writes fugitive reviews, allusive, symbolic, full of imagery and allegory, and by leaving things out, he allows the reader the privilege of creating along with him." Alex can be found hidden deep within the dark confines of his home theatre watching films, organizing his blu-ray and dvd collection and updating his blogs. Please visit the Korova Theatre and Hammer & Thongs to see what’s on his mind.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The White Hell of Pitz Palü, Sturdy Pre-Hitler Leni Riefenstahl and the Strange and Fascinating Allure of the German Mountain Film

Before Adolph Hitler and his National Socialist party came to terrible power.  Before the Nuremburg Laws were heinously put into effect. Before the Third Reich's invasion of Poland and Czechoslovakia and the inevitable advent of World War II.  Before the horrors of the Holocaust.  Before the Berlin Wall split the nation in two.  Before the likes of Lang and Wilder and Sirk and Lubitsch escaped to Hollywood and (relative) artistic freedom.  Before there was ever a Fassbinder or a Herzog or Wim Wenders.  Before any of this there was the natural beauty and simple, pure pleasure of the German Mountain Film.  And the greatest of this forgotten genre was Arnold Fanck and G.W. Pabst's two and a half hour silent masterpiece, The White Hell of Pitz Palü.

This sweeping and quite harrowing film (especially harrowing for this admitted acrophobic) is used as an important and quite intriguing talking point in Quentin Tarantino's own alt-history WWII masterpiece Inglourious Basterds as poor Archie Hickox tries to get around his bad German accent by using this film and a story of growing up in the setting's valley as an excuse (it doesn't work).   Tarantino, the ever consummate cinephile plays highly with the Weimar era German cinema in his film, but given the circumstances, he only scratches the proverbial surface.   Thought of with a sense of national pride, the German mountain film, as opposed to the contemporaneous  Expressionist cinema and its own inherent avant-gardism, tried bringing the ideal of the human form, in both its physicality and spirituality, to the forefront of the film industry.  Though, again as opposed to the aforementioned German Expressionism (aka, Murnau, Lang, Weine etc), the mountain film is pretty much forgotten in this day and age.  Well, forgotten except for perhaps QT, myself and a few German film scholars.

Palü, along with films such as The Holy Mountain and The Great Leap (also directed by Fanck), could never be accused of being overly creative in their storytelling techniques - men go up a mountain, some do not come back - nor would I say they were generally greater than many of the Expresionist pieces of the day, but the sheer visual beauty of the mountains themselves (the Bernina range in the Alps) and the way Fanck filmed them (Pabst, a great director of the urban underworld of 1920's Berlin, put his directorial input in with the indoor and mountain'less' portions of the film) are something to never be forgotten.  The swift, thundering avalanches, the devastating wind swooping off the mountaintops, the monstrous vehicle that is nature, coming down upon the specks of bravado-laden humanity that dare brave these near peerless peaks.  The White Hell of Pitz Palü is a dangerous motion picture in both its epic destruction of man's hope and the redemptive nature of his resolve.  Beautiful and dangerous indeed, but there is something else in these films that make them even more beautiful, and ultimately one might say, even more dangerous.  That something is the lithe yet sturdy frame of the most famous actress in 1920's German cinema, and eventually the most despised woman in all of film history, miss Leni Riefenstahl.

Riefenstahl, who would go on to become a director herself (1932's The Blue Light, one of the last mountain films, was her debut behind the camera) and later one of the most infamous people in the world as Hitler's favourite filmmaker (and some refuted sources, his lover) and the woman behind the supposedly propagandist Triumph of the Will and Olympia, was merely a girl who wanted to climb mountains with the man she loved.  Strangely attractive, Riefenstahl was the standard bearer of the female form in both pre-Hitler and post-Hitler Germany.  Shapely and athletic, she was a true nature girl.  Her eyes were set ever so slightly too close to one another, but this just gave her a sort of otherwordly beauty.  Her brown hair and broad yet feminine shoulders, her muscular legs and strangely pristine feet (she would climb mountains, the non-iced ones, barefoot!?), her narrow European nose, her wide exuberant smile, her inset eyes that could work wonders on a young man's soul, her seemingly endless energy.

These are the qualities that made the young Riefenstahl such the perfect figure to play these mountain-climbing heroines of yore.  These are also the qualities that would eventually bring the sexy budding director to the notice of one Adolph Hitler, and hitherto, the most hated woman in film history.  Whether this infamous moniker is deserved or not really depends on one's thoughts on whether an artist is responsible for how their art is used.  I am not really going to get into such a debate here and now, for this is the story of Riefenstahl as an actor and not the director she would become, other than to say that her work is some of the most vibrant and most visually groundbreaking in cinematic history and she should be held accountable for the aesthetic value of such, and nothing that may have been out of her own hands.   Did she know the breadth of Hitler's plans?  His antisemitism?  His final solution?  Riefenstahl was just trying to make the best, the most beautiful film she could.   If nothing else, Riefenstahl was a director of perfection and thus showed that ideal through her camera.  Needless to say, Hitler and Goebbels (who incidentally was not fond of the uncontrollable director) also held to this ideal of perfection and therefore would use these films as propaganda.  But I digress.

Recently, Germany produced a new mountain film with 2008's North Face (directed by Philipp Stötzl), whose plot was rather similar to The Holy Mountain, and though its modern day style lacks something of the artistry of the silent era (or perhaps that is just my own sense of classic film snobbery) it does play out as a surprisingly well-honed homage.  When all is said and done it is the mostly forgotten mountain films of Weimar Era Germany that even within their rather restrictive storylines - again, men  (and women) go up a mountain, some do not come back down - when seen on a big screen, which I have been lucky enough to have seen just that way, are giant creatures of cinematic bravura that deserve more than a bit more recognition than what they normally receive.  The chilling agonies of those trapped on the mountain make our hearts race unlike any cheap action flick of today (there's that film snobbery again).  These are not studio films.  These are movies not only set in the mountains but also filmed there.  Riefenstahl laughed about how Fanck had brought down an avalanche upon her, only to do it a second take.  Harrowing is indeed the perfect word to describe such brilliantly naturalistic subversive films as these, and especially of that apex of them all, The White Hell of Pitz Palü.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Film Review: Chronicle

For all those comic book and super hero aficionados out there, the idea of an origin story can be pretty tiresome, but in the low key Chronicle, first time director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (neither one with much under their respective belts), take the idea of the super hero origin story and give it a (somewhat) fresh new kick in the pants.  The story of three teenagers - Andrew, an outcast and fodder for bullies; Matt, a middle-of-the-road kinda guy who may be a bit too smart for his own good; and Steve, a jock and star of the school - who stumble across an underground cavern and are suddenly endowed with the power of telekinesis, Chronicle never tries to delve into the inherent supernatural aspect of this story.  The story just is. 

We are never given any answers as to why or how any of this happens, we are just thrown into the so-called pot and led along the path of discovery as these three teens go from goofy high school high jinks to accidental destruction to inevitable power-hungry villainy.  We do not need to know how this came about, for it is what happens to these three kids that is the crux of our story.  These are not superheroes in funny costumes fighting supervillains for the fate of mankind.  These kids never even think about such things (I on the other hand would do nothing but).  They are just trying to live.  Trank's film is less a superhero or sci-fi movie and much more a coming-of-age story.  More than trying to hone their new found powers, which they do with relative ease, especially the ever-increasingly unstable Andrew, these are kids who are trying to find their way in the world.  A world with or with the power of telekinesis.

The movie is told in the style of found footage cinema, which is a true hit or miss kind of sub-genre (more miss than hit I must say), but it works in the case of this particular film.  We see only what is filmed, either by Andrew's seemingly omnipresent camera or surveillance videos or by the camera of a a young woman whose only purpose in the film seems to be as a convenient chronicler of all those things that happen when Andrew is not around.  We do not need to see any more.  We do not need the backgrounds, the whys, whatfors and hows of all that has transpired.  Trank's film is whittled down to just the basic necessities of filmic life.  We watch as these teens grow closer to each other , becoming unexpected friends.  We watch as their powers become stronger and mere silly pranks are no longer enough.  We watch as their world, especially the timid, weak Andrew, grows into something none of them ever imagined.  We watch as Andrew, through constant bullying, a dying mother, a bastard of a father, grows angrier and angrier, his power growing stronger than the others, until he eventually blows to quite inevitably tragic circumstances.

Now this trimmed down style works as long as that is what you are looking for.  For those unwilling to compromise and step away from the often overblown style of superhero movies (and that is not a criticism for I too enjoy the overblown sense of a superhero movie, and actually prefer mine that way) Chronicle will seem, like Andrew at first, timid and weak.  But for those who can see both sides of a coin (do these people still exist?), Chronicle's slimmed down narrative (a somewhat reality TV kind of superhero movie, but without the ridiculous preening that usually goes with such) will surely pay off.  Granted, the ending is seen about a billion miles away (only a slight exaggeration) and the conflict never quite comes to the fruition it should, and the final two minutes (a seemingly tagged on tag on) is pure saccharine nosebleed kinda stuff, but overall, for a down-sized deconstructive superhero flick, even with its sometimes annoying found footage mannerisms (one still wonders who exactly was filming a lot of the final action sequence), Chronicle ain't half bad.  Ain't half bad indeed.

Film Review: The Woman in Black

I think what surprised me most about The Woman in Black was not the post Potter acting of Daniel Radcliffe - he is a capable actor, if nothing else, and that was to be expected - but how out of time the film seems to be.   In this day and age of the paranormal found footage films and the omnipresent torture porn taking the horror genre way off course, The Woman in Black plays out as an old fashioned ghost story, even while still using more modern tricks of the so-called trade.  Set at the end of the Victorian Age, in an appropriately creepy looking gothic house, in the middle of an appropriately spooky looking foggy moor, just outside an appropriately cursed small village, this appropriately old school horror movie takes on aspects of Jack Clayton's eerily designed 1961 haunted house tale The Innocents (which in turn was an adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw) while simultaneously playing out as a sort of retooling of The Ring.  In other words, this film takes both the old and the new and blends it into a surprisingly hearty and quite fun horror movie.  Imagine that.

Now granted, the film does leave something to be desired - some more scares would have been nice, and perhaps a stronger actor than Radcliffe - but when compared to the sheer gross out factor so rampant in what passes as horror these days, this is a film more people should be seeing - especially those who think chaining a woman up and systematically carving her up is the be all and end all of horror.   With strong supporting turns by Ciarán Hinds and Janet McTeer, Radcliffe's rather stunted acting does get by here - the way the story is told, for the most part he need only react to what is going on around him, and he seems capable of doing at least that - and we are allowed to ignore such and just let the story, which is basic but well honed, engulf us in its appropriately scary (though never too scary - my main criticism) tale of a long dead woman whose ghost makes the village's children kill themselves in order to fulfill her revenge on those who locked her away and took her own child away.

Directed by James Watkins, who's only previous directorial effort was the the horror film Eden Lake, about a gang of teens chasing down and torturing a young couple (and of course one of the couple is played by Michael Fassbender - seriously, is he in everything?), The Woman in Black, in all its old school charm of ghostly wet footprints and dead-eyed children and dolls and toys come to life (seriously, that shit is scary!), is enough to remind one of those great woebegone B-pictures of the genre that permeated the 1950's and early 1960's.  This too is appropriate as the purveying studio that brought many of these ghost and monster stories to life, the iconic Hammer Films, is out of seeming hibernation and has their logo front and center at the opening of the film.  All in all, a classic tale of wickedness and the netherworld that never falls prey to the siren call of the modern day torture porn set - and a film that ends on the strangest happy note one can imagine.  That is a happy ending, right?  No?  Really?  C'mon, you know it is.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Anomalous Material Weekly Feature: 10 Most Romantic Movies

Here we are again true believers, with my latest weekly 10 best feature for the fine folks over at Anomalous Material.  For those of you not in the know, those same said fine folks have given me a (possibly foolish on their behalf) regular gig as feature writer.  It is a series of top ten lists on various cinematic subjects - and anyone who knows me can attest to how perfectly suited I am to such an endeavor (yes I am a  list nerd).  This week's feature, my twenty-second such feature, is on the timely subject of romantic movies.  With Valentine's Day tomorrow, I hand out the ten films I think are the most romantic.  Anyone who knows me knows that this is sure to be a rather strange little list - and I suppose they would be correct in such an assumption.  No Jennifer Aniston movies here folks.   No Katherine Heigl nonsense.  No freakin' Twilight either!!  Too bad if that offends you.  You can read my list at the link below.

Read my feature article, "10 Most Romantic Movies" at Anomalous Material.

Below is a scene from a film that just missed making the final list.  Now you tell me, is the love between a caregiver and his comatose patient not one of the most romantic things you have ever seen?  No?  Really?  Wow, ok.  Well then, perhaps my list is strange after all.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Retro Review: The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh, 09)

The following is part of a series where I bring back some of my "older" reviews (those written during my 2004-2010 tenure at the now mostly defunct The Cinematheque) and offer them up to a "newer" generation.


Before tackling this film, the twentieth of Steven Soderbergh’s quite eclectic career, perhaps one should know just what the titular girlfriend experience is. A GFE, as it is called in those circles that know of such things, is a service provided by the highest of high-end call girls in which, in lieu of the typical wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am of prostitution legend and lore, they essentially act as a proxy girlfriend for their rich, and most probably lonely clients. I must admit to having had no idea about the existence of such a service-provider before first hearing of the imminent release of the film and reading up on the subject. According to interviews, Soderbergh himself had never heard of such a thing either, before hitting upon the idea while sitting in a bar with a somewhat more knowledgeable buddy of his whom gave him the whole skinny. Well known or not, like it or not, this is what Soderbergh’s twentieth film is all about.

And on top of such an unconventional movie idea, Soderbergh has done himself one better by casting an honest-to-goodness, flesh & blood, ass & tits porn star in the lead role. And then on top of all that, perhaps to keep us on our proverbial toes, he goes and chooses Sasha Grey, a twenty-one year old arthouse film fan who, according to her MySpace page, counts Jean-Luc Godard, David Lynch, Gus van Sant, Gasper Noe, Catherine Breillat, Richard Linklater, David Gordon Green, P.T. Anderson, Harmony Korine, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Monte Hellman, Bernardo Bertolucci, Agnès Varda, Terrence Malick, Louis Malle, William Klein and (appropriately enough) Steven Soderbergh, among her filmic idols. She even claims to have tossed around the idea of using Anna Karina as her stage name.

Nicknamed the Erotic Enigma, Ms. Grey has stated that she considers what she does as something beyond mere porn, something akin to performance art. This quirky outlook on her career - a career that includes an Adult Video Award for best blow job in her resume (performance art or not) - combined with her arthouse desires, has made Ms. Grey the almost perfect host for this reality show-cum-experimental cinema piece that Soderbergh has concocted and put together after the aforementioned few drinks with his more "street-hip" pal. Here, playing a high end call girl or not, Ms. Grey finds herself in her first legitimate role, playing a GFE who goes by the name of Chelsea.

Soderbergh, who has made such disparate films as the festival favorite sex, lies & videotape, the big budget, star-filled crime caper Danny Ocean films (11, 12 & 13), the Oscar winning Traffic and Erin Brockovich, the minuscule digital video experiment Bubble, the epic two part Che Guevara biopic from a few months, back as well as the upcoming Jazz age retelling of Cleopatra. The film is shot guerrilla style, mostly by Soderbergh himself, using a hand held digital camera precariously positioned and re-positioned and re-re-positioned to act as a voyeuristic eye for the unwittingly passive viewer. This peekaboo motif of Soderbergh's works to turn this already taboo-seeming subject matter into something that seems even dirtier by our being no more than a peeping tom on the unsuspecting, and surprisingly human, Chelsea.

Showing five days in the life of Chelsea (as well as chronicling the days leading up to President Obama's glorious victory) and wavering back and forth in what it shows and how and when it shows it (the film is purposely non-linear) GFE swings effortlessly between Chelsea's $2000 an hour clients and her A-type personality boyfriend. Grey is perfect in the role. Not due to any great acting breakthrough (ala Meryl Streep emerging from a brothel) but due to her lack of such. Grey is a perfect stone cold dead fish in the role. Whether this is on purpose or just merely the girl can't act I am not sure. It could very well be a combination of both, after all she looks realistic enough for me in her porn poses on the internet! And I think she may very well have deserved that aforementioned AVN award. But I digress.

The real casting coup though is also Soderbergh's own little in-joke about his relationship over the years with critics. It is the casting of one of our very own in the role of, what else, a critic. Real-life film critic Glenn Kenny portrays a sleazy escort critic, who playing his mostly ad-libbed part in the most Rabelais of fashions (seemingly wallowing in his own filth) is the dark comic relief of the film. It is Kenny's Erotic Connoisseur, and not Grey's Chelsea (ironically she only has one brief nude scene) that plays out the dirty sexual wordplay and innuendo. A sort of fuck you and fuck me to the critical profession. Kenny's casting, and that of Grey, is integral to the idea surrounding Soderbergh's film. A sort of fuck you and fuck me to his own profession and to the Hollywood landscape that surrounds him.

Soderbergh peels away the veneer of Chelsea's profession but at the same time he reveals the fallacy around his own as well. Showing the corrupt world of the escort business, with its cutthroat necessities and back-stabbing realities, Soderbergh also shows, as thinly veiled allegory, the equally corrupt movie business, with its cutthroat necessities and back-stabbing realities. Soderbergh has always been the most passive of auteurs. Acting more as tour guide, or voyeur if you will, than director. Perhaps it is this very passiveness that gets the filmmaker through the nasty world that is Hollywood USA and allows him to make the movies he wants to make without much interference from the corporate world that has pretty much taken over the filmmaking industry. It is the same passiveness that we see in the stone cold dead fish eyes of Sasha/Chelsea.

In the end, with all his wrangling of genres and styles, Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience has taken the filmmaker full circle. From his debut twenty years ago, sex, lies & videotape, where the participants were obsessed with the camera, to now, where the participants are seemingly unaware of the camera, almost as if it had always been there - and I suppose in this day and age, it has been. The Girlfriend Experience is part cinema verite, part reality television, part socio-political allegory and part performance piece. There you go Sasha. Above all else though, this is a unique spectacle of filmmaking and well worth being sought out wherever one can find it. 

[Originally published at The Cinematheque on 07/02/09] 

Friday, February 10, 2012

Film Review: The Turin Horse

"In Turin on 3rd January, 1889, Friedrich Nietzsche steps out of the doorway of number six, Via Carlo Albert. Not far from him, the driver of a hansom cab is having trouble with a stubborn horse. Despite all his urging, the horse refuses to move, whereupon the driver loses his patience and takes his whip to it. Nietzsche comes up to the throng and puts an end to the brutal scene, throwing his arms around the horse’s neck, sobbing. His landlord takes him home, he lies motionless and silent for two days on a divan until he mutters the obligatory last words, and lives for another ten years, silent and demented, cared for by his mother and sisters. We do not know what happened to the horse.”  These are Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr's introductory words on his latest, and possibly last work of cinema, The Turin Horse.  The film then proceeds in telling the story of this unknown cab driver as he goes back into his brutally harsh world of shit.  A world that may make many a film goer quite uncomfortable in their seats.

Let's not kid ourselves.  The cinema of Béla Tarr is not a cinema for everyone.  It is a hard and harrowing cinema.  It is a cinema full of despair and longing.  It is a lonely, desperate and miserablist cinema.  The director himself has spoken of how he sees the world as shit, and in turn we see that in his work.  It is not a cinema for those faint of heart.  But for those who get Béla Tarr, and understand what it is he is doing with his films, it is a cinema of beleaguered beauty.  A cinema of transcendental ideas.  It is a cinema full of grim Hobbesian views but also a cinema that makes sheer and succulent imagery out of that aforementioned world of shit.  For many, especially those used to a faster editing style, it is a cinema of painstakingly long takes, but for the few that do see Tarr as the visionary master of poetic modernism that he is, it is a cinema of ultimate pulchritude.

With three true masterpieces already under his Hungarian belt, Tarr has fashioned yet a fourth film worthy of such accolades. With the director's latest (and if one were to believe the man's own hype, his final film), a work called The Turin Horse (actually co-directed by long time collaborator, film editor Agnes Hranitzky), one can easily see the filmmaker is back in the brilliantly subversive mad genius mode that gave the world such masterpieces as Damnation in 1988, Sátántango in 1994 and Werckmeister Harmonies in 2000, before faltering a step or two with his flawed but still quite impressive Man From London in 2007. A mode that has influenced many a modernist filmmaker (or should I say remodernist filmmaker, after the movement indirectly started by the works of Tarr) and made Gus Van Sant go from Good Will Hunting to Gerry.  This is a mode that makes the director's films seem like classic works of cinema with their immediate release.  This is the mode that all we true Tarrheads, from stalwart defenders like Susan Sontag and J. Hoberman to yours truly, clamour for, and this is the mode that Tarr has given us for what the director calls his final film.

But then, as more than alluded to up front, Mr. Tarr is definitely not everyone's cup of tea. In fact he probably isn't even everyone's cup of anything. We Tarrheads are surely outnumbered, but naysayers be damned!  This is what is meant when someone speaks of pure cinema.The auteur is known for having an oeuvre of long (some could say excruciatingly long in a few cases - especially in one case in particular), very methodical, oft-times meandering along at the breakneck pace of an especially melancholy sloth, works that derive the same type of socio-religious pleasure as Dreyer, Bresson and Tarkovsky all rolled into one great big beautiful three-headed, six-armed, six-eyed apocalyptically-minded cinematic beast from the very bowels of Hades. Hyperbole aside, the basic gist of all that was to state the obvious fact (for those that know the man and his films) that to see a Béla Tarr film is to see a work that may be demanding to those uninitiated, but a work of true mad genius indeed.

With a running time of 146 minutes (which, with the exception of the 450 minute long Sátántango, is a pretty standard Tarrian running time) and based on the harsh life of the horse that was the supposed breaking point for Nietzsche’s impending madness (as you have already ascertained from the opening salvo), The Turin Horse shows us the daily rote of the old man and his daughter as they go about their miserable existence in an old wooden shack in the seeming middle of nowhere. The landscape is harsh and unforgiving.  The wind blows through as if a sign of the impending apocalypse.  Interspersed with moments of surprising humour and feeling as if it truly is the end of the world, Tarr manufactures the most appealingly miserablist motion picture he can conjure up for what may very well be his final act of cinema.  And if this is indeed the director's final film, it is a shame really, as he has proven once again why he should be considered one the most important filmmakers working today.  Even as his film shows the finality of the man, his daughter and their horse, and very possibly of the world, we too are saddened at this being the end of Tarr's cinematic world as well.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Strange Decadent Beauty of The Makioka Sisters & the Elegant Old World Way the Japanese Do Melodrama

The natural beauty of the blossoming rain-dabbled cherry blossoms.  The old world elegance of brightly coloured and delicately designed kimonos.  The deep-hued wooden interiors of the Osaka homes.  The cheaply lit bars and opulent restaurants.  The eponymous snow-capped peaks in the not so far off distance.  The knowing, cunning look of each of the four titled sisters as they slowly and intricately weave their way through the rapidly changing world around them.  The innocent yet passionate stares of one husband for his sister-in-law and the unsurprised, revealing look of the sister-in-law as she takes in these obvious glances.  The traditions and rituals of arranged marriages.  The hissing finality of the train whistles.  These are the images, the sounds, the moods and transactions of Kon Ichikawa's 1983 masterpiece The Makioka Sisters.

Ichikawa's film, the third and by far most famous adaptation of the 1948 novel, is a perfect example of a mood piece.  With stares and words that mean more than what meets the eyes and ears, every nuance, every backward glance, every sideways motion give way to a multitude of emotional theories.  And though the film is of course reminiscent of such classic Japanese filmmakers as Ozu and Naruse, it is the 1950's melodrama that comes to mind more oft than not while watching this gorgeous motion picture.  With allusions to Sirk's Written on the Wind and Quine's Strangers When We Meet (on purpose or not - and it is more likely the latter) Ichikawa breathes vibrant life into his WWII set period piece. But then this is not a movie about the war (mentions of the tragedies of such are done in only peripheral moments) but about family and duty and tradition.  A film rife for the melodramatic touch it gets.

The Makioka Sisters is the story of four sisters from a once prominent Osaka family who, thanks to the great depression, have now fallen on harder times.  Now granted, these harder times, though forcing them to sell the family business, are still times of prominence when compared to the abject poverty that hit Japan in the 1930's and became even worse after the war.  We still see a family of ways and means but a family that does not know how to cope with being what they have become.  But still, Ichikawa, a director who showed the horrors of this war torn era in The Burmese Harp and Fires on the Plain, never delves into the squalor that the youngest sister subjects herself too in order to be free of the restrictive past.  Perhaps in the day and age of 1980's Japan, when the boom of their economy was hitting astronomical levels, Ichikawa was afraid audiences would not take to being reminded of their sometimes ugly past.  Instead, the director, even with the inherent sadness, gives us just the beauty of the past.

As far as the social structure of the family goes, it is headed by the eldest sister and her husband (the husbands in the story are what one would call adoptive husbands as they came from lower stations in life and took their wives' family name) who do their best to keep their once good name out of the muck.  She is run afoul by the third sister's refusal to marry any of the train of prospective husbands brought in front of her and the youngest sister's wild ways (smoking, adopting western style of dress, working for a living, sleeping around), as well as the second sister's attempt at usurping control of the family (not for any nefarious soap opera reasons, but for what she thinks is the good of her sisters).  The story, with all of its traditions and rituals, plays out like an Ozu film, though without Ozu's sense of subtle style, but there is more than just this going on here.

As I said before, and in what is essentially the whole point of this piece, all of this, even in the traditional, melodic feel of old world Japan and the classic Japanese cinema of Ozu and Mizoguchi, is pure 1950's Sirkian melodrama.  The way Ichikawa lights his film, the movement of his camera, the natural beauty juxtaposed with the inner turmoil of his characters is all Sirk.  Now I am not saying Ichikawa's film was necessarily influenced by films such as Written on the Wind or A Time To Live and a Time to Die, or for that matter the works of Nick Ray or Richard Quine or even Satyajit Ray, which also bear resemblance here (Ichikawa, who started as an animator, considered himself a cartoonist at heart and Chaplin and Disney were his biggest influences) but the feel of the film still conjures up memories of this bold, oft-maligned cinema of the past.  

Then again, much of this also conjures up the cinema of the mostly forgotten fellow Japanese director Keisuke Kinoshita and his groundbreaking work on such films as The Ballad of Narayama and The River Fuefuki.  Of course with Kinoshita being the closest thing classic Japanese cinema has to a Douglas Sirk, perhaps this is all mere happenstance.  Whatever the case, The Makioka Sisters is a true masterpiece of cinema and deserves to be recognized as such.  Its recent restoration (it made a repertory round last Summer) and release as part of the ever growing Criterion Collection (a beautiful transfer indeed) will hopefully make this happen.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Film Review: The Grey

The Grey, an action flick about seven men, stranded in the Alaskan wilderness after surviving a plane crash, only to have to deal with a pack of very hungry and very pissed off wolves who happen to be stalking them, may seem a bit nonsensical at first, but once we get in to the film and dig into the inevitably intense action of it all, in all its Jack London bravado, it is a quite enjoyable movie indeed.  Starring everyone's favourite middle-aged badass Liam Neeson along with a gaggle of mostly little known actors who appear to look just like one another (enough so that when the wolves attack we are not sure at first who exactly is under attack) the film starts out in a pondering mode, but eventually just lets go of its inhibitions and tells the story of man versus nature in all its brutal guts and glory.

Sure, the film does tend to pontificate a bit too often with its meandering scenes of coming to grips with one's spiritual destiny that are liberally interspersed within the scenes of man versus the big bad wolf, but when seen as an allegory on the eternal struggle between man and beast (ie. wolves eating men, men eating wolves, howling at the goddammed moon, general mano y lobo paw and fistacuffs) the film takes proverbial flight as a kick ass now and take names never kind of action adventure story.  We watch as this survivalist group (made up of mostly surly ex-cons working as drilling grunts in the Great White North) is systematically dwindled down one by one as the avenging wolves stake their own kickass claims.  We watch as these men say goodbye to any futile thoughts of rescue or returning home and become either warriors of the woods or its fallen victims.   We watch as man becomes beast and beast becomes even beastier.  But allow me to put the hyperbole aside for a moment.

Now the film's premise may allude to not just the fiction of the aforementioned Mr. London, but also, in a way to Hitchcock's The Birds, but even with its allegorical pretensions intact (and its pseudo-spiritual rhetoric to boot), this is a movie about survival - and a relatively kickass one at that.  I mean really, who doesn't love to see a man strap blades and broken bottles to his frozen knuckles and beat the crap out of some big Grey Wolves?  Well, apparently many animal rights organizations including the always up-in-arms PETA.  Not happy with the film's vilifying of the Grey Wolf (an animal recently kicked off the endangered list in the US) many have spoken out about the film's content.  Not to necessarily defend the film or its director, first off the wolves in the movie are CGI wolves (though the wolf that our intrepid heroes are seen feasting on was an actual carcass bought from a local trader) and let's face it, they kick some serious ass (can we guess who the eventual victor of this battle royale is), but they are by no means the villains of our story.  They are merely protecting their territory that these men inadvertently dropped into.  But I suppose these are the potential hazards when telling a story such as this.  Still, when the action is going (and not the pontificating), this action flick comes through in spades.

Film Review: Man on a Ledge

It is barely February and already we have a strong candidate for worst film of the year, or at the very least, the dumbest movie of 2012.  Granted, the first month or so of the year, while everyone outside of New York and L.A. are catching up on the Oscar films, is when the studios use the multiplexes as their own personal dumping ground, spewing forth all those sad sack movies that they know will never flying elsewhere in the year when people may actually be paying attention.  But even with that in mind, and even though no one is really paying attention, Man on a Ledge is a surprisingly stupid work of cinema.  And as stupid as this film as a whole may be, the ending in particular is so ridiculous, so incredibly preposterous, so mind-numbingly inane, to raise it to a level of one of the worst endings in film history.  And I ain't just whistlin' Dixie folks - this is one bad movie.

Okay, okay, perhaps the movie isn't the worst thing since unsliced bread (my critical hyperbole runneth over above), but still, it is pretty damn stupid - especially that ending.  But I digress.  What exactly is this whole thing about anyway?  Starring Sam Worthington as an ex-cop who, after falling on supposedly bad times and landing himself in prison, escapes and lands himself on the ledge of the twenty-first floor of a posh New York hotel.  Apparently there to do a swan dive into the oblivion of the street below, as the story progresses (what story there is) we see that Worthington's disgraced ex-cop has a bit more on his plate.  These ulterior motives will eventually become clear to the audience, but this by no means, will make them seem any less silly.

Featuring Elizabeth Banks as a cop saddled with the duty of getting Worthington's ledge walker back inside the hotel, Jamie Bell as Worthington's snarky kid brother and Anthony Mackie as his former partner, this quite lackluster cast (really, could you find a more bland menagerie of one-note players?) doesn't exactly get this already quite ridiculously themed party back on its shaky two feet.  I suppose there are worst films out there (trust me, there are a hell of a lot of them) but the combination of the most middle-of-the-road cast this side of the Pecos (the one shining note could have been the almost always powerful Ed Harris, but with what he has to work with...) with a director that seems as lost as his characters are, and a screenplay that starts off as yet another rogue cop scenario and eventually spirals into the mind-numbingly stupid final act we finally, mercifully get (really, it makes no sense in any sort of reality I have ever encountered and the willing suspension of disbelief only goes so far people!) make for a definite candidate for any discerning film lovers worst of the year list - and the year is only a twelfth of the way over.