Friday, December 08, 2006

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Movie Roundup: Say It Ain't So, Rafael Edition

Some more movie thoughts as I try to catch up with the big backlog of movies I've managed to build up while holding back the tears caused by the rumored Rafael Soriano for Horacio Ramirez trade. That's the wrong Ramirez, dumbass!

Yi Yi - Recently released in a beautiful Criterion DVD, Edward Yang's novelistic film of a family in contemporary Taiwan is warm and humanistic where the very similar Short Cuts is cynical and misanthropic. Each member of the family has their own storyline: the father tries to bring some honor and art to the business he co-owns while his partners play games with the sole goal of making money, and he meets up with his first love, a woman he hasn't seen in 30 years; the teenage daughter falls in love for the first time; the mother has a nervous breakdown and goes away for awhile; the young son gets in trouble at school and likes taking picture of the backs of people's heads; the grandmother falls into a coma after the film's opening wedding scene. A massive and profound film, one of the highlights of the great New Asian Cinema. The #4 film of 2000.

House Of Usher - The first of the Roger Corman Edgar Allen Poe adaptations starring Vincent Price. It's not nearly as successful as Masque Of The Red Death, in pretty much every way. The non-Price acting is pretty terrible, especially by Mark Damon, who plays the young man who finds himself caught up in the incestual/necrophiliac horrors of the Usher family. The ultra-low budget shows is the cheesy staginess of the production, whereas Masque had the benefit of using sets leftover from the big budget Becket. Still, Corman has a distinctive style and a good eye for color, and Price is always fun to watch. The #14 film of 1960.

The Prestige - The latest Christopher Nolan film is also the second magic-themed movie of the season (I haven't seen The Illusionist). Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale star as feuding magicians, who spend some period of years trying to top each other's tricks to humiliate and revenge themselves on each other. The omnipresent Scarlett Johansson shows up as an alternating love interest, Michael Caine plays an older mentor-magician and David Bowie's nearly unrecognizable as the inventor Nikola Tesla. Aside from a creditable amount of period detail, the film isn't all that much to look at, and the story suffers from the fundamental flaw of all trick movies: once you figure out the trick, the movie's not nearly as interesting. The unique problem this trick film has is that the audience figures everything out long before the characters themselves do, making the last 30 minutes or so nearly unbearable.

Vampyr - Carl Theodor Dreyer's classic horror film (his follow up to The Passion Of Joan Of Arc) relies almost entirely on light and shadow to create as sense of eerie terror unmatched by any but the very best examples of the genre. A young man (Julien West) comes to a creepy village and has a night filled with horrific visions of very odd things about town. Eventually, it's discovered that there are vampires about after a girl falls ill. The only way to stop them is to drive an enormous stake through the heart of the lead vampire in her crypt. West is pretty bad in the lead role, but acting is a very minor part of this film. The print I saw, on TCM, was pretty terrible, with Gothic lettered subtitles taking up the whole bottom half of the screen. I've now seen five Dreyer films, and they're all great:

1. The Passion Of Joan Of Arc
2. Day Of Wrath
3. Vampyr
4. Ordet
5. Gertrud

Les Mistons and Antoine & Colette - Two short films by François Truffaut. Les Mistons is from 1957, two years before the New Wave hit it big with the Truffaut-scripted Breathless. It follows a group of delinquent boys as they torment a young couple in love (Gérard and Bernadette) over the course of a summer. At 17 minutes long, it's a slight but interesting film, famous mostly for the icky sequence in which the boys sniff Bernadette's bicycle seat. Eww. The #12 film of 1957.
Antoine & Colette is part of the anthology film Love At Twenty, and a continuation of the autobiographical Antoine Doinel series Truffaut began with his debut film, The 400 Blows. Jean-Pierre Léaud reprises his role as Antoine, now a young adult with a job and no annoying parental units. He meets Colette, falls in love, takes her to concerts, even moves into the apartment across the street from her, but can't ever manage to escape the friend ghetto. I haven't seen any of the later Doinel movies, but I understand he becomes more successful at the whole romance thing. The #16 film of 1962.

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! - Russ Meyer's camp classic about a gang of three evil strippers who torment a young girl, kill her boyfriend and become caught up in a creepy family's power struggles. The opening half hour, when the gang meets the square couple and have a nice friendly car race is by far the best part of the film. After that, the high intensity pitch of the film degenerates into a campy weirdness. There are some cool sequence in the rest of the film (a battle between a giant manly man and a car in particular), but it's that first half hour that makes the film worth watching. The #9 film of 1965.

Killer's Kiss - Stanley Kubrick's first feature film, it has all the trademarks of a first film, good and bad. The plot is conventional B-noir, a boxer on his way out of town stops to save the hooker next door being tormented by one of her clients. The low-budget is largely hidden by Kubrick's masterful camera work and the stylization of the noir mise-en-scène, and the no-name actors are surprisingly effective. Like many a first film, it's very show offy, as Kubrick tries every trick he can think of to show what a great director he can be: expressive shadows, deep focus, showy camera movements, off-kilter camera angles, you name it, and this film's got it. Especially notable is a long shot of a rooftop case where the hero runs far into the background and loops back to the camera, the space elongated by the telephoto lens stretching the rooftop into and endless desert. With this, I've now seen all of Kubrick's features:

1. Dr. Strangelove
2. 2001
3. A Clockwork Orange
4. The Shining
5. Paths Of Glory
6. Eyes Wide Shut
7. Killer's Kiss
8. The Killer
9. Full Metal Jacket
10. Barry Lyndon
11. Spartacus
12. Lolita

Adam's Rib -Reportedly the best of the Katherine Hepburn - Spencer Tracy films, though I've only seen the mediocre Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and The pretty good Woman Of The Year. Tracy and Hepburn play married lawyers on opposite sides of a case in which a young wife shoots her husband when she catches him with another woman. The case metastasizes into a rumination on the merits of feminism, and quite nearly ends more than one marriage. Judy Holliday is terrific as the would-be murderer. Especially notable is a very long-take scene in which Hepburn talks to her client for the first time. Director George Cukor holds the two actresses in a two shot, at opposite sides of the frame and separated by a table for the entire sequence. The film also stars Tom Ewell (The Seven-Year Itch) as the unfaithful husband and Jean Hagen (Singin' In The Rain) as the other woman.

I Walked With A Zombie - The second of Jacques Tourneur's horror films for producer Val Lewton is apparently a voodoo version of Jane Eyre. Since I'm totally Brontë-ignorant, I can't say anything about that, but this is a superb noir-horror film. A young nurse comes to a small Caribbean island and becomes the object of conflict between the two white brothers who dominate the island. She's there to take care of the wife of one of them, who the other one was in love with as well and who may or may not be a zombie. A zombie in the voodoo sense, not quite in the George Romero, must eat brain sense. Like in the previous Lewton-Tourneur collaboration, the great Cat People, the horror is more a function of psychology expressed through light, shadow, camera movement and general eerieness of mise-en-scène that the shock and gore of modern examples of the genre.

The Leopard Man - The third Lewton-Tourneur film is a lot less successful than either of the previous two. Playing like a straight version of Bringing Up Baby, a hungry leopard is on the loose in a small New Mexican town and manages to kill a couple girls. The question is: who let the cat out? Not as interesting psychologically or visually as its predecessors, it still has some great moments, specifically the first cat attack (cattack?) and the finale set during a creepy holiday celebrating imperialist massacre, complete with black robes and masks.

Seven Men From Now - The first of the low-budget Westerns directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott, and also the first one I've seen. Scott plays an ex-sheriff on a quest to kill the seven men who held up a bank and (accidentally) killed his wife. Along the way he helps a young married pioneer couple travel across the country (out-manlying the husband, naturally) and meets a couple of outlaws, led by Lee Marvin, playing his specialty: a cagey amoral nihilist. Psychologically complex in it's study of revenge, the film would make a great double-feature with The Searchers. Shot in an existentialist Technicolor, with larger than life men struggling against vast, terrible landscapes. It's too bad more Boetticher films aren't available.

Goodbye, Dragon Inn - A run-down movie theatre showing King Hu's kung fu classic Dragon Inn is the setting for this very slow film by Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang. There's no dialogue at all until about halfway through the film, instead there are a series of long shots of the few moviegoers watching (or more specifically not-watching) the movie, along with the box office attendant making her lunch, eating it, and limping her way very slowly around the theatre. None of the patrons seem especially interested in watching the movie; we spend a lot of time following around a young man looking to pick up a guy, any guy he can find and being totally unsuccessful. In the weirdest sequence of the film, he wanders through a backstage maze, walking past dozens of the apparent ghosts of all the random encounters in the theatre's past. the films always teeters on the edge of boredom, but never quite falls off. Instead, it works as a loving tribute to the movie theatre culture, a lot more interesting than the vastly overrated Cinema Paradiso, for sure. The #4 film of 2003.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Movie Roundup: Sátántangó Hangover Edition

Just about done getting over my cold, but still trying to recover from Sunday's trip to see a very big movie. here's some thoughts while trying not to refresh USS Mariner every five minutes to see if the Mariners have done anything at the Winter Meetings yet (please can I have Manny Ramirez for Christmas?)

April Story - The first film I've seen from director Shunji Iwai, but it won't be the last. Takako Matsu plays a young girl (Uzuki) from Hokkaido who goes off to college in Tokyo. She moves into an apartment, meets her classmates, joins the fly-fishing club, goes book shopping, watches a movie and falls in love. That's about it for the film's 67 minute running time. Uzuki regularly gets into situations which would, in a lesser film, be played for horror are disturbing "realism" but Iwai always chooses the romantic option instead (much like Miranda July did in Me & You & Everyone We Know). It's beautifully shot in a rather soft focus hand-held style, with what appears to be some kind of filter create a white glow throughout the film (that could just be the focus and lighting, though). Simple (in the best sense) and perfectly charming, but may cause the heads of the cynical to explode with rage. The #5 film of 1998.

Written On The Wind - Classic Douglas Sirk melodrama starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone. Stack (looking weirdly like Sean Penn) plays an alcoholic heir to an oil tycoon, Malone's his sister who's in love with Hudson, his annoyingly perfect best friend. Stack and Hudson meet Bacall and both fall in love with her. She marries Stack, but his drinking and jealousy of his friend soon cause everything to fall apart. There's some fights, some crying, a mysterious pregnancy and amazing audio-only flashback (terrifically acted by Malone) all told in Sirk's sweeping, hyperbolic style. The #4 film of 1956.

7 Women - John Ford's last fiction film is about a small mission in Northern China in 1935. The mission's threatened by a Mongol bandit on the warpath and its quiet conservative life is disrupted by the arrival of Anne Bancroft, a doctor who bears a striking resemblance (in attitude and dress) to Katherine Hepburn. Above all, a visual experience in the manner of the very best Ford films, it's surprisingly short, so the women don't become as well-defined as in, say, Seven Samurai, instead the film is more a relaxed examination of the interactions between types. Relaxed in the way that only an old, great director can make a film. The #5 film of 1966.

Mary Of Scotland - Katherine Hepburn stars as the eponymous Queen of Scots in yet another Ford film, this from 1936. Fredric March displays his customary, uniquely elm-like approach to acting as Mary's boyfriend and ideal of Scottish manliness the Earl of Bothwell. The plot is standard modified for Hollywood historical epic, with Elizabeth I villainized and Mary idealized, concealing a not so subtle anti-feminist rant as Elizabeth symbolizes the ruthless career gal while Mary's a mother and a woman in love. Hepburn's performance is able to overcome that for the most part, but the film's really only interesting as an example of Ford's growth as a filmmaker, as he experiments with expressive shadows, low camera angles (lots of ceilings) and purposeful zooms, visual experiments which would pay off in the late 30s-early 40s with Young Mr. Lincoln, Stagecoach, The Long Voyage Home and How Green Was My Valley.

The Fountain - I've decided I can't really discuss it without giving away too many spoilers, so suffice it to say at this point that I liked it alright. It wasn't great, nor particularly profound (or rather, original), but I wouldn't call it pretentious either. I appreciate the sincerity and ambition behind it, and while I don't think the film is totally successful, I admire Aranovsky's effort. Visually it was somewhat interesting, but not especially beautiful, though that opinion could change with further study. In particular Aranovsky does a lot of repetition and variation on certain shots, where the similarities and differences convey thematic meanings, but that'd take more than one viewing for me to sort out. Both Jackman and Weisz were pretty good, which I've never thought of either of them before. It's actually grown on me in the couple weeks since I watched it, but I still don't think it's as great as it wants to be.

Masque Of The Red Death - Reportedly the best of Roger Corman's Vincent Price Poe adaptations, this film plays like a vibrantly colored B-horror version of The Seventh Seal. Sometime in Medieval Italy, a young innocent redhead is kidnapped and held prisoner by the local Count (Price). Turns out the Count and all his court are Satanists, and there's a plague raging in the town outside (part of the eponymous Red Death). The Count tries to corrupt the young girl with lengthy philosophical discussions and demonstrations of the correctness of his evil religion, while her boyfriend tries to rescue her and big parties rage through the castle. Dizzying, expressionistic and always weird. The #9 film of 1964.

Sátántangó - How could I possibly capsulize a film like this? Béla Tarr's 7 1/2 hour epic certainly lived up to the hype, it was even better than I expected. Believe it or not, despite its extreme length, the remarkable length of the takes (there's only 230 or so shots in the whole film, about the same as two minutes of a Tony Scott film), and the subject matter (decollectivizing a small village in post-communist Hungary) the film is never boring. Either the camera or the actors are almost always in motion, and when the shot is static, the effect is so striking that you can't look away. It runs the whole range of human emotion and experience: horror, love, awe, happiness, confusion, friendship, hope, depression, resignation and drunkenness. The film's also shockingly funny, in a mordant, Eastern European sort of way.

More poetic than other novelistic films I've seen (Marcel Carné's Children Of Paradise, Gone With The Wind, Reds, Birth Of A Nation, and so on), often there's very little happening plot wise, but amazing things occurring visually (movements across landscapes, amazing super-winds, a seemingly endless dance-sequence that's as exhausting for the audience as it is for the dancers).

It'll be out on DVD in North America soon, but theatrically is the way to see it if you get the chance. Above all, don't break it up into separate segments. It's meant to be seen all at once and works perfectly that way. Spreading it across a couple of days would only ruin its effect by destroying the considerable momentum the film builds up. Take a day and watch it, you won't regret it. The #3 film of 1994, behind only Chungking Express and Pulp Fiction.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Peter Griffin On Film Criticism

I was going to have something more substantive this weekend, but I caught a cold instead. And now I'm off to spend the rest of the day watching Béla Tarr's 450 minute classic chronicle of life in a small Hungarian village after the collapse of Soviet collectivism, Sátántangó. It's never been screened theatrically in Seattle, and probably never will be again. Hopefully it won't be too insistent.