Sunday, August 31, 2008


It's hard to believe that The Machinist and Transsiberian were children of the same person. Or that the same pen wrote the smart and funny Happy Accidents and the moronic film I saw at the Uptown a few days ago. I'm still baffled by how anyone could find suspense or intrigue out of a film built on such slight stereotypes (the Russian cop, aka torturer; the backpacker, aka drug smuggler; and the American tourist, aka idiot) and on a scenario that is utterly droll for the sake of being complex. Opinions differ on this film to the point where I am clearly in the critical minority, causing me to reassess, but I still come back to the same verdict. At the height of the suspense, instead of being engaged I was either knotting my brow in disbelief or distracted by the people getting up, wondering if they were leaving and wondering if I should do the same.

Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer are Roy and Jessie, a married couple completing some sort of vague good will effort in China organized by their church. Instead of flying back home, Roy, a train enthusiast, and Emily, a restless soul that has yet to settle, decide to take the Trans-Siberian train to Moscow and fly back to Iowa from there. Needless to say, the journey is the romantic adventure they had hoped for. (Especially since when Jessie wants Roy to use a condom, gosh darn it.) When globetrotters Carlos and Abby show up to share their cabin, suspicion and couriousity is aroused as they are transparently painted as the 'bad element'. Maybe a little less transparent, but nonetheless stereotypical is Grinko, the Russian detective, who also befriend Roy and Jessie at a convinient time. Who's zoomin' who is the question of the hour as we stay on pins and needles until we find out if our American friends can survive the web of international trechary! Not.

Anderson is good at flipping the coin back and forth: making something romantic into something frightening, or something beautiful into something ugly, or something passionate into something violent. Specifically, when Jessie and Carlos visit a deserted church out in the middle of nowhere - not only do you start to feel some honesty in the characters and the situation, but it is also a plateau in the film of breathtaking beauty. Save this one scene, Anderson's preoccupation with the blurred lines of who we are as individuals in this global village of Russian train travel feels like a contrived morality tale looking to outdo Moses on Mount Sinai. From this perspective, it's hard not to read into Roy's eventual fall from innocence in the face of the big bad world and Jessie's discovery of a deeper love for her knight-in-shining-armour husband. Not to mention her resulting change of heart about offspring.

Woody Harrelson's character, Roy, comes a close second to Mark Wahlberg's character in The Happening as one of the most annoying characters of the year. A God loving American, from Iowa no less, who loves trains, he is naive to a fault. Perhaps Anderson is having a little fun making iconic generalizations for the sake of allegory, like the fool-hardy Christian from Iowa or the weathered punk girl from Seattle. I had a hard time swallowing it, even for the sake of parable.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Criterion puts five Blu-Ray titles up for pre-order

I have been dragging my feet on getting a Blu-Ray player ever since HD called it quits, waiting for a price drop in players or simply the right release that would get me pulling out my credit card. Well, that day has come and my deadline for getting a player is November 25 and the release is this one:

Criterion has put five Blu-Ray DVD up for preorder on their sight, three for November 18 (The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Third Man and The Last Emperor) and two for November 25 (Chungking Express and Bottle Rocket), all for $31.96. Chungking Express is the big news even if you are not a huge Wong Kar Wai fan. It is the one release that has been ignored domestically, unless you want to count the pan scan DVD that Tarantino slapped his picture on. A couple remaster versions have come out in Japan, France and most recently in Hong Kong. Criterion is releasing Chungking Express on Blu-Ray as well as on plain ol' DVD. Here are the special features listed for both:
  • New, restored high-definition digital transfer
  • Remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack supervised by director Wong Kar-wai
  • Audio commentary by noted Asian cinema critic Tony Rayns
  • U.S. theatrical trailer
  • Episode excerpt from the BBC Television series Moving Pictures, featuring Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle
  • New and improved English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by critic Amy Taubin
Blu-Ray party at my house for Thanksgiving!

Monday, August 25, 2008

DVD releases for August 26

Chicago 10 (2007) directed by Brett Morgen
I was more interested in this film for its visual flair that its history lesson, but I missed it or it didn't play here; I'm not sure. Either way, from the art standpoint, Chicago 10 gets high marks and low marks for the factual diversions along the way. Whatever. Those in the Twin Cities should hold off on renting the DVD and check it out at the Walker: they are screening it for free and director Brett Morgan will be on hand to introduce the film and participate in a post-screening discussion with local filmmaker Matt Ehling and U of M scholar Jane Kirtley.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini
Personally, I think the merits of this film are completely blown out of proportion, but maybe that is just because I saw it on some crappy import where the quality of the DVD was more of a bigger subject than the film itself (a testament to just how bad the DVD was.) But what is a person like me to do when a film is unavailable? For those who didn't track down a blasphemous version on DVD, your waiting has paid off. Criterion offers Pasolini a stage that he no doubt believes his film deserved. I'll give it another chance, if for no other reason than to check out the DVD itself. Maybe there will be something in the special features or the new transfer that will convince me that Salò is a masterpiece. Not for the faint of heart.

Son of Rambow (2007) directed by Garth Jennings
For those not ready to tackle Salò, I whole-heartedly recommend this sweet and funny film that is as easily enjoyed by adults as it is kids. (Read a short something I wrote during MSPIFF about this film here.)

Redbelt (2008) directed by David Mamet
I did not care for this film so much, but that doesn't mean I don't respect Mamet, even if he is a born again conservative, or, what he calls "not a brain dead liberal." (Read more blah blah blah from me about Redbelt here.)

Love for Sale (2006) Karim Aïnouz
I wish I could offer up more of a recommendation that just a weak proclamation that this film generally received good reviews. It didn't play around these parts, but seems worthy of the rental. Also known Suely in the Sky.

Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden? (2008) directed by Morgan Spurlock
Oh, that crazy Morgan Spurlock, willing to eat McDonalds more than once and willing to grow his chops out into a full beard in order to chase America's most wanted. This documentary probably would have gotten more publicity if he had found Osama Bin Laden, but as it is this film kind of came and went. Is it a sore subject or just a bad movie?

Lynch (2007) directed by "blackANDwhite"
Part one of the documentary about the man himself is a must for Lynch lovers. Part two is included on the Inland Empire DVD. (This is another that I caught at MSPIFF, leaving my thoughts here.)

Pingpong (2006) directed by Matthias Luthardt
I don't know much about this German film other than the ad was up on Screen Daily for like a year. It played at Cannes two years ago and I guess the ad paid off because somebody bought the rights at least for home distribution. Interested parties should check out this interesting article about Pingpong by Hanns-Georg Rodek for Die Welt.

Snuff, a documentary about killing on film (2007) directed by Paul von Stoetzel
Local filmmaker Paul von Stoetzel's documentary is now out on DVD. It is also screening locally this weekend at the Minneapolis Underground Film Festival.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

James Marsh's MAN ON WIRE

First things first: Man on Wire is one of the best films of the year. This humble documentary about Philippe Petit's unbelievable high-wire feat between the Twin Towers gives us a glimpse at just how big and magical life can be. The gift that is given to those who live their lives to the fullest and who dare to dream is written all over the face of not only Petit, but also everyone involved in the project. Inspiring and moving, Man on Wire goes so far to expand the definition of beauty.

Philippe Petit's amazing story starts in 1968 when he first sees an article about the two towers of the World Trade Center being built in New York City. Already an accomplished high-wire walker, Petit recounts how he simply draw a line between an artists drawing of the Twin Towers. Perhaps vacillating on the notion of a grand feat, the film chronicles his momentum as he first walks between the two spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 1971 and then between the Northern pylons of the Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia in 1973. Petit's preparations for stringing a wire between the two towers was nothing if not fastidious, taking into account every aspect of the project. Being able to get into the WTC with the equipment needed to string a wire was no easy job even in 1974. Watching the preparation through interviews, archive footage and re-enactments is riveting. Four people, two on one tower and two on the other, defied all the odds of getting caught and rigging the wire. Despite the detail, nothing prepares you for the actuality and seeming impossibility of the event.

I'm probably a couple years shy of being able to remember this event, as friends just a few years older than me can recall hearing what seemed like a fairytale story of a man walking in between two buildings 1300 feet in the air. And for people who saw the event, it is evident that Philippe Petit's realization of his dream was a gift. The emotive experience is alive in the people interviewed in the film, and especially within Petit, as he talks about his walk as if it was yesterday. There is one photo of Petit walking the wire between the Towers with a grin on his face (or is he laughing) that totally embodies the joy he describes thirty-four years later. While the event was joyful for Petit, it was, and is, overwhelming for his good friend Jean-Louise who loses composure recollecting the moment. Stock news footage shows a policemen stating, "I personally figured I was watching something somebody else would never see again in the world."

Who knew that the greatest homage to to those towers would come 27 years before their collapse. I'm thankful that Marsh made a conscious decision to omit any literal reference of September 11th, leaving the tragedy for a place where it is better suited. The Towers nonetheless lurk like ghosts hovering just at the edge of the film. Seeing photos of the construction and the top of the Towers prior to any observation decks is thrilling as an archive of the structure.

"Man on wire" is the simplistic but poetic description scribed on his police report. But how else do you describe it? Words fail, but James Marsh's documentary does the man and the achievement great justice.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Paul W.S. Anderson's DEATH RACE

Probably the most disappointing aspect of Paul W.S. Anderson's remake of Death Race 2000 (and there are many disappointing aspects to account for) is the absolute failure to reach any of the potential that this action film had. I'm probably doing more of a service than most to admit that there was any potential, but as the original Death Race has simply gotten campier with age, our society has gotten more severe. As a result, the set up (economic collapse, corporate penal colonies, brutal reality television) is even more appropriate today than it was in 1975. However, it is pretty obvious that most of the brains behind this film came from below the (male) belt, leaving any social commentary on the sidelines. Death Race wishes to do more than what summer movies are supposed to do: earn cash from the young men.

Starring underrated action stud Jason Statham, a pursed lipped Joan Allen, and a subdued Swearengen (aka Ian McShane) who are all dropped into the most ridiculous situations, it is hard to take any of the performances seriously. Statham is Jensen Ames, set up for the murder of his wife which is all a part of some master plan by Hennessey (Allen) who is not only the active CEO of Terminal Island, but also the Death Race. Ames is sent to Terminal Island where he is roped into driving as the now deceased but very lucrative driver Frankenstein. The Death Race is run in three stages and people can subscribe to one are all stages of the race which is less reality TV than reality video game. The drivers are all convicts from Terminal Island (completely expendable) and the co-pilots are all from the women's prison. The whole thing is rigged for maximum suspense and bloodshed which equals maximum viewership.

The scenario of Death Race is propelled by by outside forces - economic collapse, a desperate populous - that never materialize. Ames is apparently making less that $3 per hour on the outside, but his living situation looks like a better situation than mine. The scriptwriters simply keep the eye on the prize of their target audience with hackneyed low-brow jokes about homos and women. Men are not allowed much complexity either, as they are either relegated to husband or father or social ill, no other variance exists in Death Race. The action is visceral and the look is dark and apocalyptic, but no special effects or glossy production is going to save this film from itself. Ironically, Death Race ends up being not only stupid, but also heavy-handed with its lame flirtations with intellectual or emotional provocation.

Do yourself a favor and rent the original.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

DVD releases for August 19

Please support you local independent video stores. I've already seen one very near and dear to me go under, and I hope not to see another.

Recount (2008) directed by Jay Roach
Although keeping Comcast out of my life forever is one of my main goals, I often regret not having those premium channels with all their clever programming. But I don't regret it for long, because inevitably those clever programs come out on DVD. But just seeing the trailer for Recount in theaters got me racking my brain to figure out if I even knew anyone who had HBO. Just seeing the very short clip of Laura Dern playing Katherine Harris was enough to give me the giggles. Has it been long enough that we can laugh about the 2000 election? Or at least have a communal laugh about how absolutely screwed up it was? Either way, this looks like a good vehicle to do just that.

Twenty-Four Eyes (1954) directed by Keisuke Kinoshita
This film is a time honor classic in Japan and first heard about this film from Japanese friends. I admit my ignorance of the film by mistakenly reading the title as 20 Four Eyes instead of 24 Eyes until I finally saw the film on a Hong Kong import DVD. Twenty-Four Eyes is a charming film film that plays on everyone's love for nostalgia and respect for determination. This is a Criterion disc that boasts a new transfer and a better translation, but not much else.

Quid Pro Quo (2008) directed by Carlos Brooks
It would be hard to sell a fictional feature about people who long to lose a limb because they feel it doesn't belong to their body. It would be hard, that is, if you haven't seen Melody Gilbert's documentary on the subject entitled Whole. Quid Pro Quo got a sneak peek at the Walker (reported on here at Getafilm) a couple months ago but then never got a wider release, even though it was scheduled to. Can we blame it on Batman?

Please Vote For Me (2007) directed by Chen Weijun
Well, all be darn. Book man Hans at Micawber's just asked me if I had heard of this documentary and here it is. I'll simply go on his recommendation that this is a fascinating documentary about the prestige involved in being school monitor in China. As a microcosm, it works to show how much pressure there is on kids to perform, and that is something you can see on the faces of everyone of the athletes at the Olympics. Looking at various reviews of the documentary, it looks like Hans' recommendation is spot on. Check it out, and then go buy a book from his store.

Enough! (2007) directed by Djamila Sahraoui
A part of the Global Lens series, this screened at the Walker last year. I can't for the life of me remember if I saw it, but I think there-in lies the major downfall of most of the films included in Global Lens: totally forgettable international films.

The Small Black Room (1949) directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger
Leave it to Criterion to point out my filmic inadequacies. I did not write this: "Based on the acclaimed novel by Nigel Balchin, The Small Back Room details the professional and personal travails of troubled, alcoholic research scientist and military bomb-disposal expert Sammy Rice (David Farrar), who, while struggling with a complex relationship with secretary girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Byron), is hired by the government to advise on a dangerous new German weapon. Deftly mixing suspense and romance, The Small Back Room is an atmospheric, post-World War II gem."

Don Quixote directed by Orson Welles
Assign whatever date you would like to this film. Orson Welles started shooting the film in 1955, and, if you believe rumors, he was still mumbling the words 'must. finish. don. quixote.' on his death bead. A Spanish distributor and producer picked up the ball after Welles died and release a version at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival. Who knows how close they got to Welles dream, but it is in there somewhere. Obviously Welles himself had a hard time finding it.

Wizard of Gore (2007) directed by Jeremy Kasten
This is one for Crispin Glover fans, but I'm not sure about everyone else. Click the link about to check out the trailer...not very promising.

...and two other films that might be okay for a rainy day: The Life Before Her Eyes, and
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

YELLOW SKY (1948) @ the Parkway

The Parkway Theater
Monday August 18, 7:30pm

If you missed the first three films in the "Richard Widmark: Playing the Villain" series at the Parkway, you still have two more that you can catch. Specifically, tonight is William Wellman's Yellow Sky, the only Western in the series. I could recap how popular the ol' Western has gotten recently, but instead I will entice you with highlights from the last three films:
  • With Kiss of Death, Widmark might have had a small role, but by far the most villain-like with a sneer and a laugh that would send anyone to the other side of the street and with the ability to push an old lady in a wheelchair down the stairs.
  • Slattery's Hurricane might have made Widmark's character into a war hero, but he was still willing to kick his heartbroken girlfriend out in the rain along the way. (Of course, she forgave him for that.)
  • Panic in the Streets (my favorite so far) not only gives Widmark an interesting character (genuinely likable and dislikable), but also places him alongside the amazing "Walter" Jack Palance - young and incredibly unusual looking. Ethan Coen also seemed to enjoy the film.
Yellow Sky sounds like it will be the best yet:

"A fine Western, harshly shot by Joe McDonald in Death Valley locations, inevitably conjuring comparisons with Greed and The Treasures of the Sierra Madre as six bankrobbers on the run all but die in the desert salt flats before stumbling on a ghost town where a lone prospector (James Barton) guards twin secrets: his rich gold strike and his fiercely tomboyish granddaughter (Anne Baxter). Like a pack of wolves, the strangers are soon snarling lustfully after gold and/or the girl, with their leader (Gregory Peck) gradually detaching himself as his presence causes the girl to discover her femininity, and hers revives in him something of the man he was before Quantrill's Raiders descended on his home. Intriguingly, Lamar Trotti's screenplay develops WR Burnett's source story with The Tempest in mind, the subtler analogies serving to provide resonances. The situation again harks back to fraternal conflict (the year is 1867, in the aftermath of the Civil War); Yellow Sky also has its malign spirits, a band of renegade Apaches under the uneasy control of the prospector; and the conflict similarly resolves strangely, at its violent climax, into a sense of conciliation. Beautifully cast and characterised, this is one of Wellman's best." (Tom Milne, Time Out)

All this goodness is presented by Take Up Productions.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Mark Pellington's HENRY POOLE IS HERE

Check out my capsule review of Henry Poole Is Here in the Star Tribune today.

Luke Wilson does the best he can with what is a pretty serious role for him. He never achieves the miserable drunk that the story wants him to be - he's as likable as any other character he has played, but just slightly more pained. The superficial nature of the film should be distasteful for Christians and non-Christians alike, pandering to an assumed ignorance about religion and faith.

Mark Pellington also has quite a career in music videos and concert videos. This is evident in the polished look of the film and in the interesting (although heavily used) soundtrack. Almost anything can look good if you slow it down a little bit and add a song.

Although I did not care for the film due to its preachy nature, I did not hate it nearly as much as I thought I would.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966) @ the Bell Museum

Bell Museum of Natural History
August 14, dusk

Kicking off their second annual outdoor Summer Sci-Fi Series: Research to the Rescue!, the Bell Museum and Take Up Productions presents the timeless classic Fantastic Voyage. More action and cold war politics than you are likely to ever see inside a human body.

Films are free and start at dusk—popcorn and soda will be available for purchase. In the event of rain, films will be moved indoors to the Bell Museum Auditorium and begin at 8:30 p.m.

"Very Nearly a corking sci-fi lark, kicking off from the premise that when a top scientist defecting to the West suffers brain damage in an assassination attempt, the only answer is to inject a miniaturised submarine and medical team through his bloodstream to deal with the clot on his brain. The voyage through the fantastic landscapes of the body is brilliantly imagined, with the heart a cavernous vault, tidal waves menacing the canals of the inner ear (caused when a nurse drops an instrument in the operating theater), cyclonic winds tossing the sub hopelessly about as the lungs are reached. The script, alas, is pretty basic, expending half its energies on delivering a gee-whiz medical lecture, the other whipping up suspense around the mysterious saboteur who lurks aboard (and is so sweatily shifty-eyed that there isn't much mystery). An opportunity missed, therefore—especial as the imaginative sets are slightly tackily realised—but fun all the same." (Tom Milne, Time Out)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

DVD releases for August 12

This week is full of movies that seem to have come out of nowhere: The Secret (David Duchovny, Lili Taylor), Smart People (Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Page) The Search for John Gissing (Alan Rickman, Janeane Garofalo), and Watching the Detectives (Lucy Liu, Cillian Murphy). You can watch those at your own risk, but here is what I would suggest:

Branded Upon the Brain! (2006) directed by Guy Maddin
Branded Upon the Brain! was originally more of a theatrical event than film that included live narrators and Foley artists when it premiered at Toronto in 2006. So when in came to town as a plain ol' theatrical run, I was initially disappointed. My regret faded as soon as I say the film. Branded Upon the Brain! is simply one of Maddin's best films with or without the live element. Full of brilliant dark humor and creative black and white wonderment, Branded retreats ever-so-slightly from The Saddest Music in the World into more surreal territory. This DVD release from Criterion (cool!) looks to add some of the elements from the live event with narration tracks by Isabella Rossellini, Laurie Anderson, John Ashbery, Guy Maddin, Louis Negin, and Eli Wallach. (The theatrical had only on narrator as I remember, which I think was Maddin.) Fans of Maddin will know that his shorts are equally as interesting, and the disc includes two shorts "exclusively for this release:" It's My Mother’s Birthday Today and Footsteps.

Larisa Shepitko from Eclipse: Wings (1966) and The Ascent (1976)
Here's a nice two disc set from a director I claim total ignorance of. As a result, I will use their pitch: "The career of Larisa Shepitko, an icon of sixties and seventies Soviet cinema, was tragically cut short when she was killed in a car crash at age forty, just as she was emerging on the international scene. The body of work she left behind, though small, is masterful, and her genius for visually evoking characters' interior worlds is never more striking than in her two greatest works." I'm sold.

Irina Palm (2007) directed by Sam Garbarski
I missed this film at MSPIFF merely due to scheduling conflicts. Both screenings were up against other films that won out, and I regret not seeing it. Starring the one and only Marianne Faithfull as a 50-year-old woman who naively takes a job as a 'hostess' at 'Sexy World' to earn extra money.

Poisoned by Polonium (2007) directed by Andrei Nekrasov
Here is a doc that was MSPIFF that I did see and was absolutely mesmerised by this web of Russian intrigue. (Read my brief take here.)

CJ7 (2008) directed by Stephen Chow
Maybe not Stephen Chow's best film, but it is okay-la. More of a kids film that would be cool for those old enough to read subtitles. Yes, it is a sci-fi comedy that is set in Mainland China. By far the best part of the film is young actress Jiao Xu as the young boy Dicky.

Kiss of Death (1973)directed by Ho Meng Hua
Here's a Hong Kong sexploitation revenge flick from the Shaw Brothers. Staring Lo Lieh and Chen Ping in her debut.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


You can't blame Ryuhei Kitamura of being a slouch. After being launched from a fanboy rocket for his audacious zombie/samurai/yakuza actioneer Versus in 2000, he has made eight features, one short film for the omnibus film Jam, and two TV episodes. However, I think there is enough evidence to blame Kitamura for occasionally falling short of the mark. In retrospect, Versus maybe wasn't all it was cracked up to be, but the communal swell of enthusiasm for this low-budget raw film was undeniably contagious to those of us interested in such things. I was even pleasantly entertained by the polished and lighthearted Azumi. But, nothing, I repeat, nothing can redeem him from the atrocity that was Godzilla: Final Wars: a film and concept (the death of Godzilla) that had so much potential was completely sold down the river for nothing more than cheeky spectacle.

Kitamura has always had aspirations to do Hollywood films and saw it as an eventual goal. So when Lionsgate, smitten with the bloody cash Saw, The Grudge, and Hostel turned out for them, signed on Kitamura to direct a film based on a short story, "The Midnight Meat Train," by none other than Clive Barker, this seemed to be his ticket. Not so fast. Working in the mysterious marketing ways the movie business does, Lionsgate changed gears, Peter Block, president of acquisitions, was shown the door, and all of Block's projects (which included The Midnight Meat Train) were cast to the dogs. In this case, they had an obligation to open the film on 100 screens. And that it did. Very quietly with no press. In the Twin Cities, it opened at our favorite Bollywood budget theater, Brookdale 8.

Although The Midnight Meat Train is not good, it's not all bad. As a matter of fact, I think Kitamira has turned in a decent genre film. If you don't go in looking for a love story, you will probably be pleasantly surprised. It is tasteless in all the right places with floors syrupy slick with blood and women slipping on eyeballs and a killer using what might be the largest meat tenderizer ever. However, it is well made production with sets that reminded me of a Kienholz installation and a character that looks like he just stepped out of Madmen in that dapper military kind of way. The film employs great shots of shallow focus where everything flattens out and things on the same plain have a wierd fuzzy/sharp thing going on (ala poster.) You can watch the trailer and get the gist of the plot without me reiterating it, but I will say there is enough fantastical mystery to keep you engaged. The cast does their part effectively with a cold Vinny Jones as a convincing psychopath and a surprising Brooke Shields as an art dealer. Everyone else including Bradley Cooper (who I just can't disassociate from Alias) falls predictably where they should.

In the end, I feel a little bad for Kitamura who definitely got screwed on this deal. Kitamura no doubt saw the writing on the wall about a month ago when he announced that he is working on an American version of Versus, piercing the heart of every Versus fan out there. The Midnight Meat Train is in its second week at Brookdale, and given decent crowd at the showing I was at, it may endure a third week. For horror fans, it is well worth your 3 bucks.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Ba Ba Ba and Olympic Fever

It is the start of the Summer Olympics in Beijing on what might be the most auspicious day ever: 8/8/08 (or in Chinese ba ba ba, which is basically goo fortune times three.) No doubt, much of the spin on the Olympics is that the Chinese are bad and, by default, we (that would be the US) are the beacons of morality. Whatever. Let's just say there are human rights problems in other countries as well.

For the time being though, I'm with Liu Huan and Na Ying: One World One Dream!

Personally I am very excited about the Olympics if for no other reason than every star within what China sees as its boarders is involved. Case and point: Here is Gillian Chung, as the "FIBA Diamond Ball Ambassador," ready to get the smack down from Lisa Leslie.
"Please don't hit me."

And yet another mega-stars spectacle in this music video that was championed as the 100 Stars 100 Days countdown theme song, with entertainers from Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Mainland personally welcoming us to Beijing, over and over again.

Here is Zhang Yimou, director of the opening ceremonies that will be televised tonight on NBC, carrying the torch through Beijing. (Of coarse, Steven Spielberg was invited to help direct, but due to pressure from his 'genocide olympics' friends, he bowed out like a ninny.)
"I didn't like the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull anyway."

I see China as my surrogate country and am willing to say that I love it very much. I understand the pride for their country, as imperfect as it is, that has seen more changes in the last ten years than anyone else is likely to see in a lifetime. 恭喜中国!

Bring on the ping pong and the badminton!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

DVD releases for August 5

Before I get blamed for promoting porn, here are some very interesting releases that have the possibility of being anything but:

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006) directed by Mary Jordan
If you didn't make it to the parking lot of Patrick's Theater last week, don't despair: here is the exact same documentary on DVD. For fans of Jack Smith, this is a must see. Jack Smith was a man that the world benefit from having. Endlessly creative and probably equally as mad, Smith was committed to his life as art and art as life. Do yourself a favor and check out the website (linked above) with an unlimited amount of curiosities.

Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (2007) directed by Jim Brown
The original protest singer who long enough to build a legacy certainly deserves a documentary. This doc had a short run at the Bell about six months back.

The Counterfeiters (2007) directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky
From the director of Anatomy, the German Best Foreign Film Nominee and eventual winner arrives on DVD.

My Brother is an Only Child (2007) directed by Daniele Luchetti
I actually wanted to see this film, but it either never materialized or I wasn't paying attention. (Both very possible.) From what I had read My Brother is an Only Child was anything from predictable in the very predictable set-up of bother vs. brother in Italian 60s. Maybe a better option than Step Brothers.

Choking Man (2006) directed by Steve Barron
Another release from my friends at Film Movement who were kind enough to send me the DVD, but I have yet to watch. (I'm a subscriber, don't cha know.) I don't expect much from this film, but the mostly amateur cast has gotten kudos across the board.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Lee Kang-Sheng's HELP ME EROS

Lee Kang-Sheng is not your average actor. He has become the face of Tsai Ming-Liang's laconic films, and as a result the emblem of Taiwan's alienated youth now grown into adults. Tsai has placed Lee in compromising situations that few other actors would be willing (not to mention able) to do for over 15 years. The collaboration between the two of them has obviously been mutually beneficial, with Tsai feeding off Lee's odd presence and Lee reveling in Tsai's abnormal dramas. Although Lee has acted in other's films, Tsai has gone on record to say that he would never make a film without Lee Kang-Sheng. Even if Tsai mentioned this off-the-cuff, it is a pretty strong affirmation of the bond between the two of them.

The similarities and differences between the two of them became noticeable when Lee decided to take the director's chair with his first feature film The Missing. Originally The Missing was to be a one-hour companion piece to Goodbye Dragon Inn, but once Goodbye Dragon Inn evolved into a longer film, so did The Missing. Although the two films are connected at the hip, The Missing is a work that stood on its own under Lee's name, receiving awards at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and the Pusan International Film Festival.

Despite what might seem as an international success with The Missing, Lee came up with no offers for his next feature. After three years of trying to sell the script, it was a filmmaking grant from the Taiwanese government that got the ball rolling for Help Me Eros. The reality of trying to get a film made is not something Lee took lightly. Participating as writer, director and actor was not so much a choice, but simply a more economical way to get the film made. Tsai Ming-Liang lent a helping hand as producer and production design, and, inevitably, as the silent influence on Lee's style. Portions of the film seem like misplaced Tsai Ming-Liang scenes, but overall, and perhaps to its demise, this film is 100% Lee Kang-Sheng.

Lee Kang-Sheng plays Ah Jie who is clearly down on his luck: his girlfriend has left him; he has lost a bundle, maybe even everything; he is not gainfully employed; and only finds solace in smoking weed and calling a suicide helpline. Ah Jie's connections to the outside world are Chyi, the case worker at the helpline, and Shin, a Betelnut salesgirl where Ah Jie buys cigarettes. Chyi is in an unhappy marriage, and pours her depression into the absurd amounts of food her chef husbands cooks for her. Chyi longs for someone to need her, and in lieu of her husband, it is Ah Jie. Shin has newly arrived to city to work in the Betelnut stand but is burdened with aimlessness. All seem complacent with their situation while silently yearning for more. The connected stories are driven more by coincidence that plot, with a pace not unlike a stoner's dream.

On a superficial level, Help Me Eros is a film about fetishes, with food and sex at the top of the list. On a more serious level, it's about the bigger issues of life and how we find a purpose to keep going. In the long run, those two don't gel so well and you are left with something that is much less poetic than it is intended to be. Lee has said that he tapped into some personal experiences for the film, and there is no doubt that some aspects seem very personal, where others have a self conscious distance. The opening scene does not mince words with a cruel analogy of Ah Jie's desperation that most will find totally inappropriate. When these poor lonely souls do get a reprieve, the morphs into some sort of male fantasy of weed smoking and endless three-ways. (If it is not obvious thus far, the film has a fair amount of sex.)

But Help Me Eros is anything but literal. As a matter of fact it is pleasantly abstract. Whether it is two men playing pool without their pants on or a woman taking a bath with a tub full of eels, Lee is keen on setting things slightly askew. When the narrative slides into a dreamy music video it is actually quite beautiful. As a director, Lee has a great eye for film and does an incredible job in setting up some of the shots, but the emotional inconsistencies left me cold. Outside of a joy-filled moment hanging out a sun roof of a stolen car, Help Me Eros implodes on itself with its apathy.

Senses of Cinema interview with Lee Kang-Sheng here.
Twitch interview with Lee Kang-Sheng here.

Sunday, August 3, 2008


Posting about Ashes of Time is my own helpless attempt to get this film in a theater near me. Soon. Please. The Sony Pictures Classic website has yet to have any real content, but I ran across this page at the New York Times where they have a new trailer and an old trailer and the comparison is pretty interesting. The new trailer features Mr. Movie Man voice over, which I could do without, but a picture that looks very very nice. Both trailers have brief scenes of when Yin and Yang (Brigette Lin) are fighting in the water, and the difference is amazing. The old trailer leaves a lot to be desired (I love the "with a hot Hong Kong cast"- I wish Mr. Movie Man was saying that), but I'm going to have to say that I think the images provided in the old trailer give a better representation of the film overall, and I don't think the film has change that much. Also, I have yet to be sold on the new soundtrack; I just love the old soundtrack with its weird synthesizer sound so much, its hard for me to let go.

As if my own illogical anticipation for Redux isn't enough, reports from Cannes are nothing but encouraging. Amy Taubin's report in Film Comment calmed my fears: "With its gloriously souped-up digital re-colorization and new soundtrack with solos by Yo-Yo Ma, what had been the most abstract and difficult to follow of Wong's films is now wildly even more so."

Friday, August 1, 2008

DVD releases for July 29

More than a few releases worth mentioning:

Privilege (1967) directed by Peter Watkins
It is amazing that Watkins made this film over 40 years ago. When I saw it a few years ago at a particularly well-programed the Sound Unseen in town, I was blown away by the relevance of this prince puppet parable. The film follows mega pop star Steven Shorter who has the masses hooked like a messiah. Needless to say Shorter is no more than a well-marketed icon. Privilege is done in Watkin's documentary style, and compared to his other films, with limited effect on the believability factor. Fortunately, it doesn't really matter. The power of Privilege is its overall analysis of power structures and the manipulation of the naïves, a structure that is very much in place right here and now. Peter Watkins may have been voicing his concern about his home country, but there was never a better analogy for what is going on right in front of our eyes, whether it be with George W. Bush or Britney Spears.

Doomsday (2008) directed by Neil Marshall
Neil Marshall took his success with The Descent and made a film where he simply lowered the bar to the most base level of entertainment. I'm tempted to say Doomsday is so bad its good, but the conditions in which someone would actually enjoy this film are pretty limited. If you are willing to accept that Marshall is doing nothing more than simply having a row, it's a pretty fun ride.

Tai Chi Master (1993) directed by Yuen Wo Ping
An emblem of 90s Hong Kong action movies, Tai Chi Master contains the perfect combination of Michelle Yeoh, Jet Li and director Yuen Wo Ping. The action is cleverly kinetic and endlessly enjoyable. Once again, Dragon Dynasty is doing its best to repair the Weinstein's reputation by re-releasing this under its original title (instead of Twin Warriors under the Dimension label) and offering improved picture and soundtrack with a fair amount of extras.

Hair Extensions (2007) directed by Sion Sono
I'm more than aware of how stupid this movie sounds, and it probably does little to explain that, although serious in it's intentions, Hair Extensions uses irony to its benefit. Yes, it is the curse of the dead girl's hair that reeks havoc in this bizarre movie. Sion Sono is no ordinary director or writer.

Surfwise (2007) directed by Doug Pray
This documentary seemed fascinating when I saw the trailer, but that doesn't mean I caught it when it was in the theater. If you think your childhood was strange, the Paskowitz family with two parents and nine children were livin' the alternative life to the extreme.

The Deal (2003) directed by Stephen Frears
Originally broadcast on BBC Channel 4, The Deal dramatizes Tony Blair's rise to power. Starring Michael Sheen, who reprised his role in Frears' The Queen.

Young and Restless in China (2008) directed by Sue Williams
What is this? I don't know, but it might be interesting viewing before the 2008 Summer Mega Media Olympics. Reportedly about "the lives of nine Chinese Gen X'ers over four years as they scramble to keep pace with a society changing faster than any in history."

Challenge of the Masters (1978) directed by Lau Kar Leung
Yet another Shaw Brothers release to hit the US streets starring the perpetually cool Gordon Liu as the perpetual hero Wong Fei Hung.

The Band's Visit (2007) directed by Eran Kolirin
Popular arthouse comedy that may be just as predictable as it is heartfelt and sharp-witted.

Shine a Light (2008) directed by Martin Scorsese
I guess if you can't afford the $150 tickets to a Stones concert and you are really dying to see this guys pretend they are still rock stars, this is the way to go. Now maybe I'm being too harsh giving the fact that I haven't seen this concert movie, and I feel that at the very least the DVD is worth noting, but I really have no idea what Scorsese is doing.

Masters of Horror: Season 2 box set
Check out that packaging!