May 31, 2007


Hello readers, I have to apologize for the complete lack of updates for the past week and a half. The reason is, I am in the south of France right now, on a brief vacation. I had the amazing fortune of being in Cannes for the tail end of the festival, and while I didn't get to see any films, I got to attend an awards ceremony and meet quite a few people in the industry. The spectacle is truly incredible. Anyways, I will be back and blogging in full force in about one week, so please don't think of this blog as finished, it is far from it. In the meantime, I hope you will explore some of the posts and reviews on the blog that you haven't yet read. It's quite hard to get internet in the small town I am currently in, so bear with me.

Thank you so much for reading, I really appreciate it!

May 19, 2007

The Guard From Underground (Kurosawa, 1992)

Much has been made of the connection between this early work from Kiyoshi Kurosawa and the American slasher films of the late 70’s and early 80’s. He himself has referred to this film as an homage of sorts to that particular brand of cinema (the primary influences here are Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and John Carpenter’s Halloween), and there are obvious parallels to be found. In the great slasher tradition, the killer is a hulking, almost invincible menace that seems to be everywhere at once, and there are a few creative death scenes (though they are fairly bloodless affairs). Kurosawa even throws in a wonderful visual reference to Hooper’s influential film. And yet, despite the abundance of similarities, I hesitate to refer to this as a slasher film. In fact, most fans of slasher cinema would probably hate The Guard From Underground.

Kurosawa’s film feels somewhat antithetical to the slasher genre, if not in terms of plot, then at least in terms of mood. The narrative is extremely slow, and the true slasher elements don’t really surface until the film’s latter half. The plot follows Akiko, a young woman who has just joined the newly formed Department 12 at the Akebono Corporation. Her first day at the corporation, just so happens to be new security guard Fujimaru’s first day as well, which is unfortunate, as he is a mentally deranged ex-sumo wrestler who was previously tried for the murder of a fellow wrestler and his lover.

In many ways, I consider The Guard From Underground a perverse comedy more so than a slasher film. The film focuses on a group of employees of the Akebono Corporation who never seem to be doing any real work. The head of Human Resources at the corporation, Hyodo, sleeps more than he works, and even though he does almost nothing all day, he still refuses to take most calls. And yet, everyone always seems to be putting in overtime. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, two characters, both fleeing from the killer, run into each other in a hallway. Surprised, one says to the other, “you’re working overtime tonight?” Beneath its slasher film exterior, Kurosawa’s film reveals itself to be a surreal portrait of corporate Japan and office politics, extremely funny in an eccentric, offhanded way.

Lest I give the wrong impression, it must be said that The Guard From Underground isn’t a great film. By most accounts, it isn’t even a good film. Shot on a shoestring budget, taking place in only a few rooms, and built upon an admittedly thin screenplay, the film will probably bore most. Yet, there is something intangibly fascinating about this work, which I am sure has to do primarily with the fact that it provides a glimpse of Kurosawa’s emerging style. Everything that has marked his later, superior work, is here in larval form, from the detached, languid visual style, to the palpable sense of dread, to the quick bursts of brutality, and of course the bizarre sense of humor that flows beneath the surface (for further evidence of humor in Kurosawa's work, watch Charisma and Doppelgänger). Although this is one of Kurosawa’s earlier works, it isn’t a recommended entry point into his oeuvre. However, for those more familiar with the director’s unique brand of cinema, there is much to enjoy here.

Cannes 2007: The Coen Bros. Are Back!

After the disappointment of their last two films, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, it looked as if the once infallible Coen Brothers were running out of creative steam, but the early word out of Cannes is that their latest film, No Country For Old Men, based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, is fantastic, if not a masterpiece. Every review for the film has been positive, with some calling it possibly their best work ever. Although festival reviews tend towards hyperbole, this is certainly encouraging. The film, one of my most anticipated of the year, is slated for a November 21 release, just in time for the awards season.

Reviews & Reactions:
Hollywood Elsewhere
The Independent
The Hollywood Reporter
Screen Daily

Defending Your Life (Brooks, 1991)

What happens to us when we die? This fundamental question provides the premise for Defending Your Life, a premise that seems perfectly attuned to writer/director Albert Brooks's particular brand of intelligent comedy. According to him, we are put on a trial of sorts, where it is determined whether we move on to the next world, or get sent back to earth to be reborn. Yet although the film is certainly entertaining, it also represents a missed opportunity of sorts.

In this case, Brooks's intelligence is to fault. If the film never quite realizes its full comedic potential, it is primarily because Brooks is so preoccupied with creating a fully formed vision of the afterlife, complete with its own interesting philosophical system, and peppered with a raft of entertaining details and visual gags (the pavilion of past lives is particularly enjoyable), that he forgets to put equal effort into the films plotting and dialogue. The result is a comedy that elicits many smiles, but hardly any big laughs.

Brooks's prior film, the hilarious Lost In America, succeeded primarily because of his way with conversation, his ability to write hilarious exchanges. Here, the dialogue is occasionally good, but too often, conversations feel uninspired, like filler, and while the actors give it their all (particularly Meryl Streep and Rip Torn), Defending Your Life ends up feeling extremely light. It runs 20 minutes longer than Lost In America, but manages to feels less substantive. Yet, although it never quite reaches the admittedly lofty comedic heights of that former film, the intelligence and clever minutiae of Defending Your Life make it an enjoyable way to spend two hours.

May 18, 2007

Cinderella Liberty (Rydell, 1973)

Both the subject matter (the life of a navy man) and the pedigree (the screenplay is an adaptation by Darryl Ponicsan, from his own novel) of director Mark Rydell's film had me expecting something akin to Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (also based on a Ponicsan novel). The reality is that Cinderella Liberty is a far different, far more conventional type of film, and a lesser one as well. Gone are the latter film's enjoyably salty sailor speak and grittiness. In their place we get an attempt at realism and grit that ends up feeling far too manufactured and syrupy to be convincing. And James Caan's lonely sailor with a heart of gold is probably as far from the real world as one can get. And yet, thanks to the strong performances from Caan and especially Marsha Mason, (as the prostitute/single mother Caan's sailor falls in love with) the film merits a look. Both of them imbue their characters with a charm and likability that is hard to fault. However, this isn't the place to look for complex emotion and characterization. Rydell has crafted a film that functions predominantly to tug at the heartstrings, which isn't necessarily a terrible thing. Although in this case, since we have been so inundated with films of this type the formula is exceedingly easy to recognize. As a result, this early 70's effort feels less aligned with the daring cinema of the "New Hollywood" era than with the clichéd product Hollywood churned out so frequently in the 80's.

The Trailer Compendium: Vol. 6

The 60th Cannes Film Festival kicked off on Wednesday, and in celebration, I present to you three films that have played at past festivals. Lindsay Anderson's if... won the Palme d'Or in 1969. The Strawberry Statement won the Prix du Jury in 1970, although that year, half of the jury felt the film deserved the Palme d'Or. And finally, proving the statement that the most interesting films aren't always the winners, Dennis Hopper's Out of the Blue was nominated for the Palme d'Or in 1980, and although it is mostly forgotten today, it remains one of the best examinations of the punk ethos. So, happy 60th Cannes! Enjoy!

if... (1968):

The Strawberry Statement (1970):

Out Of The Blue (1980):

May 13, 2007

Cannes 2007: Hark + Lam + To = Triangle

When multiple directors are involved with one project, the result is usually an anthology film, with each director contributing a self-contained narrative. Thus, the central conceit of Triangle, having three directors tackle separate thirds of the same narrative, is already fascinating. When those three directors happen to be Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, and arguably the best Asian director working today, Johnnie To, Triangle moves from being fascinating to being a must-see. Here is a plot synopsis from distributor Celluloid Dreams:
"Life has not been kind to drinking buddies Sam, Fai, and Mok as they struggle to make ends meet. That is until one stormy evening a mysterious old man appears before them in a bar with a 'get rich quick' scheme: An ancient treasure is buried under a high-security Government Building. All they have to do is slip in and retrieve it, if they believe his story.

The friends agree to make a run for the treasure and test their fate but what they uncover is far beyond anything they
had dreamt of: An ancient coffin containing a ceremonial robe made of gold. According to Mok, who deals antiques, the robe is worth millions. The thought of getting rich puts the men's friendship to the ultimate test as all three are plagued with uncontrollable thoughts of greed.

The treasure, however, also attracts the attention of Ling, whose
marriage to Sam is on the verge of collapse, and who plans to steal the robe and run away with her secret lover. Gangsters from the mainland are also hot on their heels. It seems that everybody wants to get their hands on the treasure. Whoever has the strength and outright determination to survive this struggle will become the owner. Between survival, wealth and friendship, Sam, Fai and Mok will ultimately have to make a choice…

The first film ever to be shot in the style of the game 'exquisite corpse' with the three undisputed masters of Hong Kong cinema."

Triangle will have its premiere "out of competition" at the Cannes Film Festival. Currently, there is no trailer out, but when one surfaces I will post it here.

For a taste of what these three can do within the confines of the crime genre, check out Hark's excessively stylish Time and Tide, Lam's iconic City on Fire, and just about anything To has done in the past ten years (but especially The Mission, Election and Election II).

More stills @ Celluloid Dreams (click on "Triangle", and then "downloads")

May 11, 2007

Brief Impressions: Point Blank (Boorman, 1967)

A breathtaking fusion of art film and genre flick. Probably the most formally inventive/experimental crime film that has ever come out of Hollywood. Boorman's influences include the Nouvelle Vague, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Harold Pinter, and the result is nothing short of breathtaking. Lee Marvin is raw power fused with unbelievable grace. At times, the cinematography, editing and especially sound design seem almost Avant-garde. I need a bit more time to parse a more complete reaction (possibly a second viewing), but don't wait... Go see this film now! IMDb listing.

Lee Marvin Retro At The Lincoln Center!

Lee Marvin is an actor so cool, that a secret society called "The Sons of Lee Marvin" exists in his honor, founded no less by maverick director Jim Jarmusch. The Film Society of Lincoln Center is currently paying tribute to Marvin with a 22 film retrospective that runs May 11-24. Highlights include a brand-new 35mm print of The Dirty Dozen, and a couple of in-person appearances by director and Marvin collaborator John Boorman. If you are in the NYC area I strongly urge you to check out a couple of these films. The absolute must-see of the entire retro is Point Blank. (If you can't make it out to the Lincoln Center, Point Blank is also available on a great looking DVD from Warner Bros.)

Lee Marvin: The Coolest Lethal Weapon @ The Lincoln Center

Point Blank:

The Trailer Compendium: Vol. 5

Two of the toughest, most suspenseful films you are likely to see. Clouzot's The Wages of Fear is an established classic. Friedkin's Sorcerer is a forgotten classic, and in my opinion, one of the greatest remakes of all-time.

The Wages Of Fear (1953):

Sorcerer (1977):

An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006)

Let me establish something right off the bat, I am not an environmentalist. In fact, I wouldn't consider myself anything even close to an environmentalist. I've never really gotten on the recycling bandwagon, I probably use more electricity than I need to, I haven't ever given thought to buying a hybrid, and die-hard environmentalists have always pissed me off for some reason. That being said, An Inconvenient Truth really affected me. Guggenheim's film, essentially a document of Al Gore's PowerPoint presentation on Global Warming, is a startling work, and in many ways, could be considered a horror film. In a short 90 minutes, Gore presents the "facts" on Global Warming. Utilizing graphs and more effectively, pictures, Gore shows how the temperatures worldwide have risen drastically in the past hundred years, how the oceans are slowly heating up, how the major bodies of ice are slowly melting at an ever increasing rate. He also devotes a section of his presentation on answering the critics of Global Warming. Fortunately, Gore proves to be a far less wooden personality than he has been in the past. He injects the proceedings with a small dose of humor, and you can sense a true passion in his voice.

I don't know if every fact in this film is true. I don't know if Gore has manipulated the data to some extent to support his claims. But if he has, then those who oppose him certainly have as well, and in the end, for me, it comes down to making a simple choice. Would we rather err on the side of caution, or not? Personally, I would rather be safe than sorry, and it both puzzles and saddens me that there are people out there so opposed to trying to live cleaner lives.

Marshall McLuhan once said that the medium is the message, and if you'll permit me to warp the term a bit for my own purposes, here, the opposite holds true. In terms of the filmmaking, An Inconvenient Truth is the epitome of basic. Guggenheim's directorial style is for the most part, "point and shoot." The lack of style is appropriate though, as it allows Gore's message to take center stage. Here, the medium means almost nothing, and although the film certainly has its faults, the central message is so compelling, so frightening, that it transforms a conceptually boring film, a glorified science lesson, into something powerful and vital.

Lost In America (Brooks, 1985)

Lost in America bears the hallmarks of much of Albert Brooks's work. In other words, it is incisively witty, intelligent, and most importantly, very very funny. What I love about Brooks's comedy is that it feels organic. The laughs stem from natural situations so they don't feel manufactured or artificial in the least. Almost every joke works in the sense that even if you're not laughing out loud, you are smiling. The highlight here is certainly Brooks's fantastic dialogue. There are a pair of exchanges that rank amongst the funniest I have ever seen, and as I was watching, I couldn't help but feel that the TV show Seinfeld was in some way influenced by Brooks's way with words and conversations. The only problem with the film, a problem I almost never encounter, is that it feels too short. The ending is jarringly abrupt, almost upsettingly so. It is as if the entire final act was accidentally excised during editing. Still, the 2/3rds of Lost in America that remain are funnier than every comedy released this year put together.

May 7, 2007

Boudu Saved From Drowning (Renoir, 1932)

Jean Renoir once called his film a "free exercise around an actor," and if that statement isn't enough to convince you of the brilliance of Michel Simon as the tramp Boudu, than nothing will. Simon's Boudu is less a human being than a force of nature, an alternately comedic and disgusting agglomeration of twitches and spasms. And it is truly a sight to behold as Boudu works his way into the consciousness of the bourgeois Lestingois household and tears it apart. However, in making that statement, Renoir is selling his own film short. The beauty of the film lies in the immense depth that rests below its farcical exterior, and in Renoir's refusal to pass judgment on either Édouard Lestingois or his other self, Boudu. IMDb listing.

The Ten Best Films Of 2006

1.   Children Of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, Japan/United Kingdom/United States)
2.   The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, United States)
3.   Inland Empire (David Lynch, France/Poland/United States)
4.   Miami Vice (Michael Mann, Germany/United States)
5.   Syndromes And A Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/France/Austria)
6.   Paprika (Satoshi Kon, Japan)
7.   Triad Election (Johnny To, Hong Kong)
8.   A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, United States)
9.   The Host (Joon-ho Bong, South Korea)
10. Red Road (Andrea Arnold, United Kingdom/Denmark)
&    Requiem (Hans-Christian Schmid, Germany)

*list based on year of release, not U.S. theatrical release date

On "List Making"

Lists have always been a curious animal to me. In the realm of cinema, though lists are ubiquitous, especially come awards time, to a certain extent they will always feel unnecessarily reductive and restrictive. But there is one positive aspect of lists and the process of list making. The "list," whether it be of the best films of 1953, or of something as seemingly inane as the best late 80's body-swap comedies, provides a quick reference guide for readers, and a small window into the particular identity of the "list maker." The world of film is so vast that sometimes it is nice to be able to glance at a distillation of a particular year or genre. With this in mind, I have decided to join the fray and begin posting my personal lists. My plan is to unveil a list every two weeks or so, beginning with the best films of 2006. All of the lists will be indexed in the "Lists" sidebar. Of course, I look at lists as constantly evolving organisms, open to revision at any time, and I will update my lists accordingly. Hopefully, these lists will inform, and inspire your cinematic choices!

Red Road (Arnold, 2006)

Andrea Arnold’s feature length directorial debut is an unsettling invitation to observe. Specifically, we are asked to observe Jackie, a lonely CCTV operator who spends her days in front of a wall of television monitors observing the unsuspecting citizens of Glasgow, Scotland as they go about their daily lives. Jackie knows nothing of those she observes, and appropriately, we know tantalizingly little about Jackie. We know only that she hides a tragic past, and that she has distanced herself from those close to her, but apart from that, Arnold reveals nothing. And so when Jackie spies a man from her past on one of her monitors and begins obsessing over him, we immediately prepare ourselves for the mystery that is certain to come.

With Red Road, Arnold has crafted a protean work that chips away and chips away at itself and its audience with an ice-cold, deliberate manner, until all that remains is raw, naked emotion. Jackie’s pursuit of the mysterious man sets the film off in the direction of a Haneke-esque thriller and DP Robbie Ryan’s lingering camera deftly mimics the furtive invasiveness of CCTV cameras, providing a suitable atmosphere of dread. But just as we think we have a handle on the film, the pervasive sense of real-world menace, so tangible in the film’s first two-thirds, gives way to a complex, challenging humanism, and suddenly Red Road isn’t quite as allied with the sensibilities of a Michael Haneke film as it may have initially seemed.

Arnold is only concerned with the central mystery of the plot insofar as it is a mechanism used to keep the audience on unstable ground. She is less concerned with the big reveal (who is the man and why does Jackie seek him out?) than she is with the consequences of the reveal, the questions that remain in its aftermath. For although Red Road wears the clothes of a thriller (and wears them exceedingly well), it is ultimately a portrait of guilt and reconciliation, a study of two damaged souls bathed in the beautiful ugliness of the real world. Only in its final scenes, which feel emotionally unfaithful and incongruous, does the film falter.

*Red Road is the first film in a three-film concept called Advance Party. All of the Advance Party films must use characters conceived by Danish filmmakers Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen, and must also be set in Scotland.

May 6, 2007

The Earrings Of Madame De... (Ophuls, 1953)

This brilliant tragicomedy of manners is my first Ophuls film, so I cannot rightly profess a more profound, complete understanding of this wonderful work, although I can say for certain that it is a work of absolute beauty and timelessness. Ophuls's gliding, elegant camera creates a sensation comparable to that of silk flowing across the skin, and serves as the perfect visual metaphor for the specious lives of the upper class. Regarding the performances, which are splendid across the board, I am particularly partial to Charles Boyer, whose portrayal of the not quite cuckolded General is a delightful study of refined contempt. It is not difficult to comprehend why some consider The Earrings of Madame De... the greatest film of all time.

May 5, 2007

The Trailer Compendium: Vol. 4

Gonin, Takashi Ishii's violent, urban neo-noir is one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Asian crime genre. You won't find a tougher, more beautifully stylized gangster film anywhere else. And what other film features 'Beat' Takeshi as a gay, one-eyed contract killer? Watch this film!

Gonin (1995):

May 3, 2007

The Kid Stays In The Picture (Morgen & Burstein, 2002)

Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein's dynamic documentary of Hollywood producer Robert Evans is really Robert Evans' documentary of Robert Evans. Evans narrates his life story, reading from his own 1994 autobiography, and the result is an overly stylized, self-indulgent softball piece. Glimpses of the inner-workings of Hollywood are few and far between, and though the film deals with dark periods in Evans' life (a drug scandal, a murder case, thoughts of suicide), it has a tendency to glamorize rather than dissect. We get nothing more than a surface level examination. The overabundance of style serves as an indication of the lack of substance to be found here, although Evans (especially his vocal impersonations of various Hollywood players) is an entertaining, charismatic listen. It is quite disappointing that such a full life has given rise to such a hollow film that is less a documentary and more a pat on the back. IMDb listing.

Soldier Of Orange (Verhoeven, 1977)

The perfect companion piece to Black Book, and also the superior film. Verhoeven's first examination of trust and betrayal during wartime chooses friendship rather than sex as its prevailing motif, and the story of six friends pulled in different directions at the outbreak of WWII is more epic in scale and more narratively diverse, and thus a bit more interesting. Verhoeven's film is a curious war epic, mostly because the war he depicts isn't fought on the battlefield with bullets, but rather in small rooms, behind closed doors, with covert messages. Once again, there are a stable of rich characters and scenarios for us to follow. However, viewing this film shortly after having seen Black Book elucidates a peculiar shortcoming of Verhoeven, namely his inexplicable refusal (or perhaps inability) to devote sufficient time to developing certain thematically complex subplots. In spite of this, Soldier of Orange remains a dense, compelling and unique look at war, and possibly Verhoeven's most disciplined film.

May 2, 2007

Michael Mann Goes Noir

Looks like Michael Mann has decided on his next film, which is being described as a big-budget "untitled noir drama that takes place on the old MGM lot in the 1930s." According to Variety, the director recently submitted the untitled script, by Aviator scribe John Logan, to studios, and a bidding war for the rights to the film is expected. The film is intended to be a vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio, who will play "the kind of private detective studios once relied on to clean up the scandals created by its stars." L.A. Confidential via Mann is a truly intriguing prospect, and it's nice to see that he is still getting the proper respect from Hollywood after the flop that was Miami Vice, a criminally underrated film that deserved far better. I'm also really anticipating the collaboration between Mann and DiCaprio, someone whom I initially dismissed, but who has proven himself to be a very strong actor.

May 1, 2007

Greenaway's "Nightwatching"

Peter Greenaway is one of those rare directors who's work I would enjoy even with the sound off. He is a visual genius with an incredible talent for composition. If you don't believe me, watch any 10 seconds of The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (on my shortlist of the most beautiful films ever made). It seems that Greenaway is putting his painterly eye to appropriate use with his next film Nightwatching, which explores the life of Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, and the mystery behind his famous work "The Night Watch." Martin Freeman, of BBC's The Office and the recent The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, plays Rembrandt.

Promotional Trailer (possible spoilers).