Sunday, December 30, 2007

Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006)

Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006)
Rating: 6.5

After a pretty weak and predictable first half, the film begins to pick up, boasting of a great hari kiri grenade scene, but aside from a few notable scenes, the film is pretty formulaic, showing the absurdity of war, and the equality of each side, which is nothing new at this point.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)

Blue Velvet (David Lynch, 1986)
Rating: 8.6

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Jake Kasdan, 2007)

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Jake Kasdan, 2007)
Rating: 1.1

Potentially the worst film I've ever seen. If Anchorman is a feature length SNL skit, then Walk Hard is a feature length Mad TV skit.

Friday, December 21, 2007

O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson, 1973)

O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson, 1973)
Rating: 9.8

A brilliant three hour epic musical/surrealistic satire of capitalism. Malcolm McDowell is a joy to watch as Travis Mick as he travels through Europe, obsessed with greed and trying to get ahead anyway he can. The film implies that humans are slaves to capitalism and the resulting poverty leads to crime and the ills of the world, all while maintaining a comical and even whimsical tone.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Fando y Lis (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1968)

Fando y Lis (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1968)
Rating: 6.9

Apparently this film was based on a one page script and Jodorowsky's memory of a stageplay. It follows Fando and his paraplegic girlfriend Lis on their bizarre surrealistic odyssey as they search for the city of Tar. I found the imagery and expressive sound effects to be very fascinating, but the editing was rather clumsy at times. Fando and Lis reminded me of Easy Rider in several instances as it employs the flash forward alternating scene transition technique. Also the amazing acid trip sequence in Easy Rider seemed similar to the cemetery montage in Fando in Lis, leaving me to wonder if this film was an influence on the other or whether it is just coincidence.

Here are the two cemetery scenes:

Sunday, December 16, 2007

El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970)

El Topo (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1970)
Rating: 7.5

I found the expressionistic surrealism didn't seem to work as well as it did with Holy Mountain, however the film is still something unique and worthwhile.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Ballada o soldate (Grigori Chukhrai, 1959) aka Ballad of a Soldier

Ballad of a Soldier (Grigori Chukhrai, 1959)
Rating: 7.5

Ballad of a soldier is a simple tale about a 19 year old hero during WWII who trades his medal in for a chance to take leave and see his mother. On his return trip home he meets and touches the lives of several civilians he meets along the way and even manages to fall in love. My major problem with the film is Alyosha is basically perfect in every way. So much so that he seems more like a caricature than an actual human being. Never-the-less the the film is an enjoyable attempt at individualizing the soldier and humanizing war. After following the path of this young man for several days and seeing his kind youthful spirit, his death which we are foretold of in the opening scene becomes much more tragic rather than just another statistic. The climactic scene when he hugs his mother is very moving. The editing is a little rough in spots, but the shot compositions and overall cinematography are lovely.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sayat Nova (Sergei Parajanov, 1968) aka The Color of Pomegranates

The Color of Pomegranates (Sergei Parajanov, 1968)
Rating: 7.7

The Color of Pomegranates is less of a film, than it is a visual arts piece, or perhaps a physically realized poem, which was Parajanov's intent. It's very unorthodox in nature, as it is a biography of the Armenian troubadour Sayat Nova told through the context of the poet's own imagination, only using the narration of his his poetry rather than any dialogue, and with a completely static camera. I found the film to be fascinating in it's bold approach and an eye opening account of ancient Armenian culture. The film is obviously gorgeous to look at a well, but hard to follow with all of the convoluted expressionism. It definitely deserves another look, as a lot of it was admittedly over my head.

Katok i skripka (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1961) aka Steamroller and Violin

Steamroller and Violin (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1961)
Rating: 8.5

A delightful short film about a seven year old boy from a wealthy family who plays the violin. Tarkovsky employs the ole "opposites attract" chestnut as the boy befriends a blue collar steamroller and becomes the envy of the children in the neighborhood until the two are forced to part ways due to circumstances beyond their control. This was Tarkovsky's graduate film and certainly lacks the dream-like style of his future efforts, but still remains an impressive piece foreshadowing things to come with rain and water motifs, along with the reflections (mirrors) in the puddles. The camera work, lighting, and shot selections are expertly chosen as well. The film obviously is a product of it's time and culture, as the themes of communism and the optimism of rebuilding a better Russia are less than subtle. An eye catching shot and perhaps the most poignant moment in the film comes when an old building in the foreground comes crumbling down after being struck by a wrecking ball, only to reveal a taller more beautiful building glistening in the sunlight.

Cheap Magic Inside (Vincent Moon, 2007)

La Blogothèque and The Take Away Shows team published live videos shot in Brooklyn, New York for each of the tracks off of Beirut's latest album The Flying Club Cup.
view them here.

The video for "Nantes" (#1) is by far the best and most ingenious.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Beiqing chengshi (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 1989) aka A City of Sadness

City of Sadness (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 1989)
Rating: 10

A flawless masterpiece and the most politically important film in Taiwanese history as it addresses the 1947 massacre known as the 2/28 incident. After the end of WWII Taiwan gains independence from Japan after 51 years of occupation, but a new war between the mainlanders and the Taiwanese people begins. The story of Taiwan is told through the lives of a family of brothers who are effected by the radical changes and savage violence they are surrounded by. The film contain so many individually brilliant scenes that coalesce into a perfect whole. The juxtaposition of funeral and wedding procession, Wen-ching, who is deaf while in prison, unable to hear the gun shots not reacting to their executions, street riots, a beautiful New Year's celebration scene, and my personal favorite is the family photograph taken at the end of the film. The family sits in front of an artificial backdrop while the baby looks around the room, distracted, before looking up at the camera and smiling just as it flashes. Hinomi, Wen-ching's wife sends the photograph to their family with a letter announcing his arrest three days after the photo was taken. The photo captures a false or perhaps temporary moment of happiness as chaos and tragedy cloud their lives. Fittingly, the film ends with uncertainty.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Hai shang hua (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 1998) aka Flowers of Shanghai

Flowers of Shanghai (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 1998)
Rating: 8.8

Flowers of Shanghai is an ensemble period piece taking place in the opulent brothels, referred to as flower houses, in late 19th century China. Hou's meticulous style and pacing has never been more appropriate than it is here, as the stunning mise en scene, cinematography, fade in/out editing transitions, music, and long drifting camera master shots all mesh together perfectly to evoke a seductive mood. Hou's direction excellently balances the screen time of the many characters, alternating between the group scenes where men gamble and drink, and more intimate scenes between the courtesans and the mistresses. The men are rich and hypocritical and the women are manipulative and greedy. Some of the flower girls earn their freedom, some marry, while others die trying to distinguish the blurred lines between love, lust, and lies. The claustrophobic nature of the film is also worth noting as the film consists of only interior shots. Despite the beauty of the brothels they are much like a prison in many regards. The indentured servants are owned and bound financially to the brothel, while the gentleman callers are contractually obligated to their flower girls, while no one is free from the addiction of opium.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Haonan haonu (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 1995) aka Good Men. Good Women

Good Men, Good Women (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 1995)
Rating: 9.6

Good Men Good Women, is dedicated to political activists, Chiang Bi-Yu, Chung Hao-Tung, and all of the political victims of the 1950s. Rather than making a period biopic, Hou places his film in contemporary Taiwan allowing for a critique of both the old and new. The central character in the film is an actress by the name of Liang Ching (Annie Shizuka Inoh) who is starring in a biopic about Chiang Bi-Yu who left Taiwan for the mainland to join the anti-Japanese resistance during World War II, only to be arrested as Communists upon their return home. The film alternates back and forth between excerpts from the film within the film signified by black and white photography and Liang Ching struggling to overcome the pain brought on by the murder of her former criminal lover along with her drug addicted past. On top of this she begins receiving mysterious faxes that contain entries from her own diary, and is accused of infidelity with her own brother-in-law. Early on in the film Liang Ching explains through a voice-over that she feels she has become Chiang Bi-Yu and thus experiences the anxiety of two generations simultaneously. The parallels between the characters are evident as they face persecution as well as the death of their lovers, among other things. Liang Ching being haunted by her past further serves to perpetuate how events buried in the history of a nation can have far reaching consequences. Good Men, Good Women is perhaps Hou's most political, conventional, and possibly best film.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
Rating: 10+

I've seen this movie many times before, as it is one of my favorites and I consider it to be a masterpiece, so I'm not going to review it. The following was a discussion board response I made for a 1960s pop culture class a few years ago:

Nuclear Insemination:

Besides the obvious phallic symbols and more overt references to sex, the part I found to be the most interesting is the metaphor of the attacking planes and fertilization. Hundreds of planes are sent to attack the general target of the U.S.S.R., but by an unlikely chance, only one makes it through, which happens to be just enough to end the world. This is a direct metaphor for sperm fertilizing an egg. The chances of fertilization are very slim, but the success of one sperm is all that is necessary for life to begin. The accidental nuclear attack on the Soviet Union is another way Kubrick kind of plays with the idea of an accidental pregnancy. By ironically comparing war and death with sex and birth, we are reminded that life is a cycle. Although the bomb is detonated, life will continue underground as discussed by the few privileged. With the deaths of millions, the few remaining humans will be encouraged to be even more prolific. In a way a new way of life is born from the act of "insemination"

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007)

Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007)
Rating: 4.8

Juno is coincidentally enough, about Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), an offbeat yet intelligent sixteen year old girl who is faced with an unplanned pregnancy after having sex with her best friend Paulie Bleeker(Michael Cera). Writer, Diablo Cody tackles a controversial subject, without offering much to say about teenage pregnancy, adoption, or abortion. Instead Cody focuses on the hip and witty dialogue, that seems more forced and phony than anything (who talks like this?). I actually can only recall genuinely laughing at one line in reference to adoption: "You should go to China, they're giving them [babies] away like free Ipods. They shoot them out of t-shirt guns at stadiums." Cera fortunately provides comedy through his ability to transform an innocuous line of dialogue into an awkward moment of hilarity. Cody really doesn't concentrate on the two major characters themselves as much as she should either. All we really know or learn about Bleaker is that he is an awkward teenage guy who is part of the cross country team and was formerly in a band with Juno. Although Juno gets most of the screen time, she is pretty one, perhaps two dimensional herself.

After the screening there was a Q&A with director Jason Reitman and writer "Diablo Cody" if that is her real name? (It isn't). Cody continued to lose credibility with me when confronted about her past working as a stripper. Not that I have anything against that, but her reasoning was complete bullshit. She said that she was "bored and since she grew up in a conventional small town environment, needed to add excitement for writing inspiration." She was apparently discovered through the world of blogging. She also mentioned that she "hates the word "bog" due to the trendy association of it by nature, although her entire script contained an abundance of such hip and snarky word usage. I was especially annoyed by Cera's multiple uses of the word "wizard." It's obvious that Juno, is a semi autobiographical adolescent representation of the author herself, although I'm sure Cody wasn't half as "cool" as she is portrayed. An audience member brought up a good plot-hole point during the Q&A. "Juno is conveyed as intelligent and very with it, so why wouldn't she have used birth control?"

Directing and production design help to cover some of the flaws in the script, but only barely. Bleeker's room reflects his immaturity and ineptness to raise a child as we see his outer space wallpaper, toy robots, and racecar bed. He is also a slacker, as we see him going to cross country practice late on several occasions, or running behind the rest of the pack. Later in the film after he learns of Juno's true affection for him, we see him win a race, actually breaking the school record, and then continuing to run up stairs upon completion of the race as if not even winded. The Loring's (the adoptive parents played by Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner) home is impeccably clean and yuppi. There is a great little montage of them adjusting small details in preparation for their audition with Juno and her father. Juno's room is covered in graphic art, and a hamburger shaped telephone. Unfortunately, the magic of subtltey is ruined when Juno calls unnecessarily attention to the phone. Speaking of unnecessary, the voice over narration is sporadic throughout and offers no insight.

The film does manage to offer a few redeeming termite moments such as the scene where the step-mom defends her step-daughter after a condescending comment from a radiologist. I also thought the Japanese comic book about a pregnant teenage superhero was cute, and the reversal of expectation with the roles of Bateman and Garner turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Bateman's character is perhaps the most interesting in the film. Formerly in a band, he has sacrificed his art and his freedom for his marriage with a controlling wife, and career as a commercial jingle composer. One subtle touch I enjoyed was when Garner is painting the babies room, while wearing/ruining an Alice and Chains t-shirt, that obviously belongs to Bateman. I also enjoyed the soundtrack as I am a fan of The Moldy Peaches, Kimya Dawson, and Belle and Sebastian, however I felt the music didn't always accommodate the scene properly. For instance one of my favorite songs, "Piazza, New York Catcher's" lyrics just have no place in the film. Other than matching the folky acoustic tone setup from the previous songs, it just doesn't fit. At least Reitman's Thank You For Smoking had something worth while to say, Juno however is mostly just throw away, but will probably be lauded by the general public. I just hope it doesn't go as far as to being a dark horse original screenplay nominee.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927)

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
Rating: 9.1

Sunrise, begins as with a very dark, almost noir-esque tone. German expressionistic influences obviously play a major role in this, as the film features low key lighting, a lot of shadows, angular camera set ups and set arrangements. Technically the film is incredile, with it's extremely mobile camerawork, frenetic overlapping dissolve editing, and foley sound effects. I use the term noir because the genre stemmed from German expressionism, but also because of the story itself. Our main character is a farmer with a wife and child, who is having an affair with a vacationing women from the city. The woman is clearly the femme fatale, as she attempts to coax the man into murdering his wife, by making it look like a boating accident. Upon failing to follow through with the murder plot, the film takes a drastic change of tone. The man begs for forgiveness realizing how much he truly loves his wife. She eventually forgives him and they travel through the city, attending a wedding, carnival, dancehall, and getting photographs. There are also many moments of humor throughout the film, including a drunken pig that gets loose in the ballroom and a man desperately trying to keep his date's shoulder straps from falling, among others. These comic moments seem a little unbalanced with the tone of the film at the beginning and end, however I think they could have worked better with a tragic ending rather than happy one, as the best tragedies always make one laugh first. It has been the subject of question, as to whether or not the ending was a concession Murnau made to Americanize his film, whether it was the choice of the studio, or his own. I don't know if this is just my pessimism leaking out, but I personally think the film would have worked better with a tragic ending.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Kôhî jikô (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2003) aka Café Lumière

Café Lumière (Hsiao-hsien Hou, 2003)
Ratings: 8.3

As the opening credit informs us, Hou made this film for the centenary of Yasujiro Ozu's birth. The two artist's have very different backgrounds and approaches to filmmaking; Hou shooting independently financed films on location, and Ozu coming from the stringent Japanse studio system. Despite these differences, both filmmakers share the commonalities of portraying everyday human emotion. For this particular film, Hou experiments by working under similar conditions as Ozu. He strays from his homeland of Taiwan and makes a budgeted film under a studio in Japan. Ozu's influence in Café Lumière is apparent as Hou explores family values, social criticisms, and most importantly traditionalism vs. modernity. Despite the slight adaptation, Hou incorporates many of his stylistic traits, including long static takes, claustrophobic framings, as well as obstructed and sometimes off-screen action. The film follows Yoko, played by Japanese pop idol Yo Hitoto, as she struggles to connect with people. She even remains distant with her family and friends. This is most overt when we see Yoko on her cell phone, disconnected from reality in a sense, which occurs in close to a dozen instances. Later we discover that Yoko is pregnant and adopted, although not all at once. The biological father of her child has moved to Thailand, however local bookstore owner Hajime (Tadanobu Asano) who records train sounds in his spare time, becomes a potential replacement as he forges a meaningful relationship with Yoko. The film captures the beautiful moments of solitude in everyday life, as Yoko stares out the train window, lost in her reflections, taking in the sights and sounds, yet the Hou also emphasizes the essential human need for relationships; familial and otherwise.

Les Enfants du paradis (Marcel Carné, 1945) aka Children of Paradise

Children of Paradise (Marcel Carné, 1945)
Rating: 9.9

A beautiful romantic epic blooming from the tradition of occupied French poetic realism, Children of Paradise follows the intersecting paths of love and lust between Garance (Arletty) and four men for whom she is the object of desire. Although the film is set in 19th century Paris, the film allegorizes occupied France and employs fantastic camera work, lavish set decor as well as wardrobe. The film is full of richly distinct and intriguing characters, including Baptiste (Jean-Louis Barrault), the dreamer and popular pantomime artisté, who believes anything is possible. At one point he remarks that "dreams and life are the same thing." Frédérick (Pierre Brasseur) begins as an unemployed actor/ladies man, who eventually evolves into the most popular and beloved actor in the nation. Thirdly, there is the lonely, pessimistic, murderous, thief, Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand). Playing a foil to lover of life, Baptiste, Lacenaire decrees his disdain for humanity and most importantly illustrates the similarities between comedy and tragedy. Just before the climax Lacenaire warns "The plots are the same, however the distinctions lie in the character's class, however there are instances where all men are equal." The last love interest of Garance is Édouard, Count de Montray, a rich and jealous man who comments that the plays of Shakespeare are dull and bestial and best suited for the lower classes; "Today one comes not for the plays, but for the actors." There are several other characters of interest including Jericho the ragman, and Nathalie who falls in love with Baptiste and eventually mothers his child, despite his love for Garance. The film contains several acts of violence, however Carné makes use of elliptical editing to deny the spectator from seeing such acts, much in the same manner the Coen's do most recently in No Country For Old Men. Children of Paradise has much to explore, historically, philosophically, cinematically, etc., however I did have a minor qualm with the film that is very subjective and not so much a factor on my feelings towards it overall. I just found Garance to be a completely unlikable and unsympathetic character. Moreover I didn't find her to be the least bit attractive, in fact I was repulsed by her looks as well as her characters personality, but it seems that the filmmakers urge us to embrace Baptiste and Garance's infidelity.