Monday, March 31, 2008
The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, 1973)
Appropriately named Dan Freeman becomes the first African American CIA operative. After putting up with rigorous training as well as passing numerous physical and academic tests on top of the racism and discrimination, he is relegated to a remedial desk job in order to showcase the employee integration. He leaves the CIA to begin leading a double life as a social worker in Chicago by day and the leader of an underground militant guerrilla group known as The Black Freedom Fighters. Things escalate when I cop shoots a junky in the ghetto and riots break out. The national guard occupies the ghetto and the Black Freedom Fighters declare war. It's a miracle this film ever was able to be produced as it must have been frightening for white America at the time of it's release. The trailer included on the DVD presented the film almost as if it were horror movie. I anticipated the film to have a real low budget rough look to it, but I was really impressed with how professional it looks and it was edited by Michael Kahn, one of Hollywood's most renowned editors who does Spielberg's films. This is an extremely revolutionary film based on the book by activist Sam Greenlee and it assumes an us vs. them mentality with whitey as the enemy, but quickly evolves into more of a with or against after they find themselves combating other African Americans. Such recourse is a bit drastic, but the film presents everything in a fairly plausible fashion. It's important to establish that the message is more about promoting a less passive and more aggressive attitude, community cooperation, and encourage change in order to obtain freedom and dignity through use of a fictionalized and radical scenario as allegory.
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn, 1973)
also known and recut as
Vampires of Harlem
Blackout: The Moment of Terror
Well, quite honestly I don't know what to do about this film. I'd never seen heard of it before and had no preconceived notions as I just decided to attend a Cinefamily screening on Holyfuckingshit themed Saturday at The Silent Theater. The film was introduced as an odd mixture of blaxploitation, horror, and African American art cinema about a archaeologist who is stabbed by an ancient knife and becomes addicted to blood. After his assistant commits suicide, the man falls in love and marries Ganja, the assistant's wife. I admire the dedication and ambition of the work. It's obvious this isn't an ordinary exploitation piece, but rather serves more as allegory with it's fractured narrative, and themes of spirituality, sexuality, identity, class, and race. That being said, the film seems clumsily directed, with a lot of unintentional hilarity, unprompted monologues and philosophizing and heavy handed religious imagery randomly spliced in. The soundtrack is great and for better or worse the imagery in the film is unforgettable. All in all I had a lot of fun with this...really there is only one word that can really some it up...Holyfuckingshit.
Friday, March 28, 2008
Samurai Rebellion (Masaki Kobayashi, 1967)
After recently watching 5 of Kobayashi's films he's quickly become one of my favorite directors. Formally he is a master of his craft. The editing, pacing, compositions, and lighting in all of his films are virtually flawless and I think he has an amazing knack for the use of dolly shots and cinematic rhythm. Samurai Rebellion is another humanistic story of a man standing up for authority and choosing to live his own life after 20 years of worrying about his social stature rather than living freely. The slow buildup is meticulously crafted and works perfectly for a thrilling finale.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
The Connection (Shirley Clarke, 1962)
The Connection is one of the first low budget American underground films and an early documentary satire. It is based on a play of the same name which is a little too apparent at times seeing as it all takes place in a studio apartment and the characters take turns delivering long winded monologues. The film is about a documentary filmmaker attempting to capture a week in the lives of a group of junkies, most of which happen to also be jazz musicians and contribute to a great soundtrack. Jazz musician Jackie McLean who plays the sax in the film, battled an addiction to heroin himself. Clarke does an excellent job of distinguishing her film from the play and making it more free flowing and natural through stylistic intentionally sloppy camera work, jump cuts, and improvised dialogue, realizing the true potential of the medium. The film often appears to be in the form of cinema verite style even though it is carefully scripted as it captures the bebop counter culture much in the same way and perhaps better than Cassavettes's Shadows. The Connection takes a fairly objective stance on the subject, neither condoning nor glamorizing drug use. The film also comments on the nature of the filmmaking business as the documenter at first tries to force his own version of reality, paying Leach to keep the junkies high for a week, and insisting that they act naturally, yet directing them to philosophize or act as he'd seen them on previous occasions. The question is raised whether or not the filmmaker wants to document the activities for social commentary or just turn it into a freak show. Eventually the filmmaker partakes in the drug-use, taking his first hit or heroin, and subsequently succumbs to the drug as we gather from the opening title card. The film won the Critic's Prize at Cannes and was also banned for it's edgy subject matter and harsh depiction of drug use.
Kwaidan (Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)
Kobayashi directs an anthology of four Japanese folk tales and ghost stories that predate the J-horror phenomenon, but share many of it's elements including psychological tension rather than gore and an infatuation with the spirit world. Apparently at the time it was made Kwaidan was the most expensive film in the history of Japanese cinema. The lavish production is truly beautiful to look at, although I think the color photography and expressionistic sets both compliment and hinder the film in certain respects. The look lends a surreal supernatural fairy-tale feel, but on the other hand there is an obvious artificiality that takes me out of it at times, especially during exterior sequences. The cinematography and sound design are the two most impressive aspects of the film in my opinion. The music really sets the mood throughout, and the sound effects correlate with the pacing and rhythmic editing. Several instances employ an interesting technique where the diegetic sounds such as the screams of the characters and other foley are muted as eerie echoing sounds are put in place, representing the presence of the spirit. The four tales include "The Black Hair," "The Woman of the Snow," "Hoichi the Earless," and "In a Cup of Tea." "Hoichi The Earless" serves as the centerpiece and most elaborate with a duration almost double that of the other three. The opening montage juxtaposes images of painting of a sea battle with reenactments of it taking place. This sequence in particular reminded me of what graphic novel adapatations today like 300 are trying to do.
Monday, March 24, 2008
Sisters of the Gion (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936)
Perhaps Mizoguchi's most direct indictment against patriarchal society and the poor treatment of women, specifically geishas in this case. The story follows two sisters, Umekichi who abides by traditions of loyalty and obligation to her patron Mr. Furusawa even after his business goes bankrupt and the self-assertive Omocha who looks out only for herself, and believes in the pursuit of wealth rather than love. Omocha laments "why is there a such thing as geishas in the world" in the final scene.
The Life of Oharu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1952)
A bleak, poetic, and compassionate portrait of an ill-fated woman who's purity is corrupted by society and her environment. Oharu reflects on her life of misery as she gradually falls further from grace as her misfortune continues to snowball. Mizoguchi's compositions, pacing, and camera work is as elegant and graceful as Oharu herself, yet the dark sky and gloomy clouds are always ominously lingering above. It's shocking that this doesn't have a proper DVD release here yet.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Osaka Elegy (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936)
A tragic story of a woman who brings shame to her family by helping them out of their financial jam by acting as her bosses mistress. The cinematography is incredibly beautiful and the Japanese master employs his trademark long takes and includes a self-relexive Kabuki scene. Isuzu Yamada stars as the strong minded woman and foil to the more weakly portrayed degenerate men. The film ends abruptly and without resolution as Ayako wanders the streets in confusion of what to do next after being outcast as a delinquent.
The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939)
Mizoguchi, "the women's director" tells the tale of Otoku, a maid who falls in love with a kabuki actor from a prestigious family causing him to be disowned. Otoku becomes the actor's muse and sticks by him through 5 years of difficulties and poverty before he finally becomes a famous actor resulting from Otoku's sacrifices. The story wasn't particularly engaging for me, being a melodrama it was actually fairly predictable, however these themes being explored in prewar Japan were important and unconventional and the final images were chilling. In this film along with many others, Mizoguchi explores the roles of women in society and their plights, as well as the traditional Japanese family values, and celebration of the arts. Moreso than the themes and narrative itself, I was much more infatuated with Mizoguchi's unique and influential aesthetic. His choice of camera positions is often unique, sometimes placed behind railing or other obstructions, other times at very low angles, or vice versa. This film particularly utilizes a lot of wide master shots that run for long durations without cutting. He also employs some fantastic fluid camera work, chiaroscuro lighting, and meticulous pacing. The distant camera allows the viewer to more actively participate, scanning the frames for the important actions, yet also allowing the freedom to explore.
Saturday, March 22, 2008
Wet Hot American Summer (David Wain, 2001)
I really didn't expect much out of this, but it turned out to be a genuinely hilarious spoof of 80s summer camp movies. Writers Michael Showalter and David Wain's sketch comedy sensibilities are apparent as many of the gags could play as individual sketches and are often over the top, but to their credit they work as a coherent whole to progress the story and to provide lots of laughs.
Friday, March 21, 2008
Tange Sazen yowa: Hyakuman ryo no tsubo (Sadao Yamanaka, 1935) aka Sazen Tange and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo
Sazen Tange and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo (Sadao Yamanaka, 1935)
In his film Humanity and Paper Balloons, director Sadao Yamanaka deconstructs the jidai-geki genre, taking a more psychologically oriented approach. Here he does the same, but in a much different manor. Humanity and Paper Balloons explores the deeply tragic life of a masterless samurai. Sazen Tange and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo instead utilizes a genre based around reversal of expectations to do exactly that. The film begins with a classic setup for a traditional moral tale about greed vs. honor as we are quickly told of a pot that contains a map to the whereabout of a hidden fortune. We soon discover that the pot is more of a mcguffin than anything else, as the characters have other concerns and we are in fact watching a comedy. The original owner of the pot pretends to be in search of it while spending his days away from his wife shooting arrows and flirting with girls which is where he meets Sazen Tange, a popular figure who made many appearances in Japanese popular culture during this period. Sazen Tange was characterized as a ruthless one eyed, one armed swordsman, but Yamanaka humanizes his character as he cares for an orphaned child who just so happens to own the pot worth one million ryo.
Yamanaka's direction is almost flawless and the script is wonderful. The score and music pieces the mistress plays within the film are quite enjoyable. I was also impressed with how effectively editing is used to enhance the narrative and the comedy without any detrimental stylization. Throughout Yamanaka uses elliptical cuts for comic effect where character's say one thing and then do or allow the opposite to occur. There are also several brief montage transitional scenes, sound bridges, and other technical and formal devices that work very well. I found the film to be quite funny without resorting to slapstick and still maintaining the tradition of Japanese humanism and offering social commentary.
Thursday, March 20, 2008
Election 2 (Johnny To, 2006)
Dull and fairly unoriginal with nothing significant to say.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Election (Johnny To, 2005)
Formally and stylistically I was very impressed with To's direction and the ending is particularly strong, however the story wasn't enthralling and the themes of modernity vs. tradition and loyalty were nothing new.
It Happened One Night (Frank Capra, 1934)
Archetype for the romantic comedy...first film to win 5 major categories at the Academy Awards...great script...poor editing...interesting class and gender dynamics yada yada yada.
Friday, March 14, 2008
Thursday, March 13, 2008
3-Iron (Ki-duk Kim, 2004)
I liked the premise, but didn't like the direction Kim took it. 3-Iron hits on some interesting themes and does do a lot of things well, but I was annoyed by a lot of little things and overall I found the film to be a little too frivolous for my taste. I never quite understood a lot of the character's actions and motivations, but I didn't really care either. I did however enjoy how the 2 major characters never talked throughout. I realize that the interpretation is most likely meant to be open ended, but I think I was initially taking the film too literally. I think the film works better for me if I think of the young man as an entirely fabricated entity that the woman created as a coping mechanism for her abusive marriage or perhaps a ghost, but with this in mind, the story should have began the focus with her, rather than providing exposition from his perspective. I suppose the other interpretation would be that he was killed in prison by the guard and became a spirit living in the woman's home. As I said I really liked the general premise and even the idea of the characters as thematic embodiments, but I still think Kim is hit and miss with this. The film is "poetic" at times but often gets sidetracked, resorting to facile moments such as the repetition of scenes where character's are pelted with golf balls. Perhaps it's just a tonal issue for me, I really don't know. I think I'm mostly disappointed because I thought the film had so much more potential.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
The Human Condition III: A Soldier's Prayer (Masaki Kobayashi, 1961)
The grueling journey for Kaji as well as the audience commences with Kaji realizing that socialism may be a better answer than fascism, but is still deeply flawed. All of his tireless efforts are futile in the end, suggesting perhaps humanity is doomed in the material world, but perhaps truly free in the afterlife. The combined trilogy is probably the greatest cinematic effort I've witnessed.
Monday, March 10, 2008
The General (Buster Keaton and Clyde Bruckman, 1927)
Buster Keaton's The General is a textbook example of a well structured comedy with it's reliance on coincidence, serendipity, recursion, and minoration. It is also an excellent example of a chase/action film, unfortunately the narrative itself is very shallow and basically stretches a simple concept that could have easily been a short and stretches it into 70 minutes of action. The gags become tedious and are often too reliant on slapstick. I've only seen 2 other Keaton features and 2 shorts, however I have seen a lot of clips from his resume, and The General strikes me as a lesser work, despite the reputation. The gags just left more to be desired from me. The train stunts are impressive on a technical level and Keaton's athleticism is always admirable, but overall it failed to translate into genuine hilarity or even arouse excitement for me.
The civil war setting is an interesting backdrop, however it basically becomes a reunion film; as the confederates are the heroes; yearning for a return to better days similar to films like The Littlest Rebel or even Birth of a Nation. This relation, and the imagery of the confederate flags waving in victory disgusts me to some extent and is difficult to overlook, especially given the subjective nature of film criticism.
Cops (Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline, 1922)
Sunday, March 09, 2008
Julien Donkey-Boy (Harmony Korine, 1999)
Harmony Korine based this film and the character of Julien on his schizophrenic uncle. His intent was to avoid the simplicity and sentimentality that coincide with the portrayal of most mentally ill characters in mainstream cinema. Korine opts to delve into the disturbing world and fragmented imagination of an ill teenager and his insane family using the medium to help communicate a haunting depiction of reality that some people have to face. The film employs the techniques of the Dogme 95 manifesto including digital video format, natural lighting, hand-held camera work, realistic characters and settings, etc.; but Korine sets himself apart from the other Dogme films, that I've seen at least, by adopting his own aesthetics, using in camera adjustments such as shutter speed and aperture tinkering as well as high gain lending a very grainy look to the film. To some the look might seem unappealing, but I found it to be an excellent choice, especially given the tone and subject of the film. The cinematography is impressive throughout as the film presents several interesting compositions, my favorite of which being a dutch shot of the distant silhouette of Werner Herzog (Julian's father) wearing a gas mask and dancing to opera music framed between the candles of a beautiful chandelier in the foreground. Korine also uses editing to capture Julien's schizophrenic mindset and presents much of the narrative through a series of vignettes, sometimes employing frantic jump cuts and other times using a montage of still images as the sound continues in real time.
The film presents the characters as being out of touch with reality, and almost inside their own bubble, that we as viewers are not permitted to leave for the duration. However their is still a very humanistic quality to the presentation. In one touching scene Julien's pregnant sister played by Chloë Sevigny talks with him on the phone, pretending to be his deceased mother and comforting him; telling him the voices he hears are friendly and that she is watching him. Werner Herzog's antics are the most ridiculous and actually quite hilarious as he insults his children by calling them cowards, dilettantes, and sluts, chugs cough syrup from a slipper, offers his son $10 to wear his mother's dress and dance, and so on. Julien's brother Chris is another interesting character. Although he is seemingly the most "normal", his unsettling obsession with becoming a wrestler and rigorous training regiment appears just as insane as any of the other character's actions, especially when he begins wrestling a plastic trashcan. Another hilarious scene unfolds when Julien and Chris indulge in a wrestling match as the rest of the family watches and cheers them on.
Throughout the film a religious motif is prevalent as the family uses prayer and church hymns in different ways. In one scene the family appears to be the only Caucasians at an otherwise all black congregation. I'm not exactly sure if Korine means to deface religion or just acknowledge it's utility as a crutch by juxtaposing such iconography with the lower class, the less fortunate, and even insane and freak-like characters. My only minor complaint about the film is that it too often introduces random odd characters such as a black albino man, an armless man who does card tricks and plays drums, and a man who performs cigarette tricks. During these moments I felt the film begins to resemble a freak show of sorts, rather than offering something of value to the piece as a whole, but when it sticks to the examination of the family, the film really works.
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (Preston Sturges, 1944)
The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is a bold farce about a woman getting married and pregnant to an unknown solider on a drunken bender. I found Betty Hutton to be slightly annoying as the lead, but Diana Lynn as her 14 year old, wise beyond her years sister steals the show. Eddie Bracken and William Demarest are also enjoyable as the nervous suitor who can't get into the army due to high blood pressure and the stern yet loving single father/police officer. It's pretty amazing how crafty Sturges was to work this subversive script around the production code standards.
Saturday, March 08, 2008
The Lonedale Operator (D.W. Griffith, 1911)
The Original Movie. (1922)
8 minute animated satire of the filmmaking process.
The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)
Early example of cutting on action.
Three American Beauties (1906)
early color film (painted frames)
Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy (1909)
Great little short where two smoke fairies start a fire. The film employs early manipulation of size and space as well as stop motion animation.
The Fall of the House of Usher (James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber1928/I)
My second viewing of this experimental German expressionism influenced Poe adaptation.
Black Smith Scene #1
Glenray Brothers (Comic Boxing)
Feeding the Doves
Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory
Arrival of Train
Promenade of Ostriches
Demolition of Wall
The Golden Beetle (Segundo de Chomón, 1907)
Beautifully painted special effects film in the tradition of Melies.
The Thieving Hand (1908)
Hilarious comedy about a prosthetic hand that steals anything it can grab.
I'm Insured (1916)
Friday, March 07, 2008
Christmas in July (Preston Sturges, 1940)
Sturge's concise comedy about a man who is duped into believing that he has struck it rich in a coffee slogan contest is just as entertaining as it is intelligent. It captures the essence of the American Dream and man's struggle to confirm their own self worth. Christmas in July bears a striking resemblance to some of Capra's optimistic films as Sturges shows the fickle nature of big business and their inability to think for themselves which ties in the the motif of common beliefs and stereotypes (degrading portrayals of African Americans aside) not holding true such as black cats being unlucky and coffee keeping people awake. Some of the shot selections in this film are among some of the more sophisticated I've seen from Sturges (specifically when the camera climbs several stories, and the shot of the couple entering the car as their gifts are piled in after them). I especially enjoyed the montage of eager radio listeners from all races, genders, and classes awaiting announcement of the contest winner as well as the montage later in the film of the children playing with their newly acquire toys in the streets. I also laud Sturges for the smooth usage of Hitler and Mussolini as comedic insults.
Wednesday, March 05, 2008
The Human Condition II: The Road to Eternity (Masaki Kobayashi, 1959)
The second installment of the trilogy follows Kaji from his military training to the front. Most of the film conveys the brutal infrastructure of the Japanese military and Kaji's attempts to challenge the system. Michiko makes a visit and spends what they each know could very well be their last night together in a touching sequence that ends without a proper goodbye as Kaji promises he will survive and return to his wife. The first segment of part two follows a fellow recruit named Obara. Obara is the typical runt of the litter; cowardly, and inept, he is mocked and beaten by his fellow men. Before he kills himself he is made a fool of when forced to mimic a harlot. Kaji speaks out against the military, blaming it for Obara's suicide. Kaji also meets some other interesting characters on his journey including a fellow private who is also blacklisted and shares many of his own ideals. Shinjo talks of crossing the border in search of a comparatively "true freedom" and a fresh start. He makes his escape in perhaps the most thrilling scene of the film as a prairie fire breaks out and Kaji and a superior officer give chase across dangerous swamp lands. After several promotions Kaji leads a group of recruits into a battle against the Soviets which closes out part 2.
Monday, March 03, 2008
The Human Condition I: No Greater Love
Both visually stunning and emotionally searing, the first installment of this 10 hour epic trilogy commences the journey of Kaji as he faces the human condition. Technically the film is almost flawless, with wonderful compositions that are beautifully blocked, framed, and lit. This film explores the many facets of the human experience in fascist Japan during WW-II. Inhumane acts as well as humanitarian ideals are expressed as Kaji tries to indoctrinate his revolutionary socialist and pacifistic beliefs on an ore mine, who's authority figures only know of exploitation and brutality towards their employees and Chinese POWs. Collectively the character's experience the full palette of human emotions from love, joy, and kindness, to fear, mistrust, greed, betrayal, manipulation, sorrow, guilt, and pity. It's interesting to see the treatment of different genders, classes, and ethnicities in the film as well, with characters ranging from men and women, harlots, prisoners, intellectuals, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, authority figures, and military men.
Sunday, March 02, 2008
The Circus (Charles Chaplin, 1928)
A lot a good gags in here, although I found most of my favorites to be a the beginning of the film, such as the bit where the tramp eats the baby's food and when he disguises himself as an animatronic robot.
The final trapeze act with the monkeys is pretty solid too, and I always enjoy bittersweet endings. Great film, just not as good as some of Chaplin's other more poignant and mature films that incorporate more of a social commentary.
Saturday, March 01, 2008
Semi-Pro (Kent Alterman, 2008)
Semi-Pro is an unstoppable box office formula combining Will Ferrell and the elements of the underdog sports team we've seen over and over again in films like Slap Shot, Major League, Unnecessary Roughness, The Replacements, and more recently in Dodge Ball. I was surprised at how well the art department handled the 70s look of the film and I felt the overall production seemed a lot more carefully executed compared to more recent sloppily thrown together comedies like Talladega Nights and Anchorman whether it be lighting, editing, and even the script. The characters are impressively multi-dimensional, but although the film has it's entertaining moments of hilarity, it's just not funny enough to be a memorable comedy. If it isn't the formula and Will Ferrell's act itself that has grown tiresome and ran it's course then perhaps first time director Kent Alterman adheres to the script too strictly, as Will Ferrell's comedic improv moments from the recent television commercials for Old Spice and Bud Light, which I found to be much more funny than anything in the film itself, seem to be missing.