Sunday, November 30, 2008


My anticipation for Quantum of Solace started right after I saw Casino Royale. Daniel Craig instantly became my favorite Bond, adding a studly swagger that Bond has not seen since Sean Connery. Also, I found the action in Casino Royale to be some of the most engaging that I had seen in some time. I'm not willing to say it is the best Bond film I had seen, but given I was able to see it in a theater, it was by far the most enjoyable. Whatever magic was alive with the new jump start to the Bond franchise two years ago has now died with Quantum. Neither story nor action was engaging enough to keep my attention for 106 minutes.

If you haven't heard, Quantum picks up almost exactly where Casino Royale left off. Bond is grieving for the woman he loved, Vesper, despite the fact that she may have betrayed him. Personally, I think the first mistake made was assuming that we would be that cognizant of the movie we saw two years ago. Am I alone in not remembering the exact circumstances of Vesper's death, or what M said about Vesper, or who Mathis was? Even though I liked Casino Royale, a lot, I still wasn't invested enough in the characters to carry it over to this film. Call me an armchair fan, but I don't think Bond films carry the weight of an epic; they are singular experiences.

Everything that I read prior to seeing the film was that director Marc Forster and Craig were going for a more realistic, more human Bond character in Quantum. Maybe they missed the first twenty Bond films that were built on fantasy and invention. The familiar Bond formula was dropped. Yeah, I know what his name is, but the concern for continuity even denied us an initial romp and the satisfying introduction to Bond, James Bond. And don't look for any cool gadgets or gizmos, because I guess that didn't fit into the new more authentic Bond either. About the coolest thing Bond uses is his cell phone. Seriously.

And how about those action sequences? Not! Sure, they were heart thumping and hyperkinetic, but totally unintelligible. Thanks to the success of The Bourne Supremacy, someone has gotten it in their heads that shaky cam equals realism (and furthermore, realism equals good.) First and foremost in a good action sequence is that it has to be visually legible. A chase scene early in the film only relied on visual disorientation to convey the action. Although I knew they were running and I generally knew that Bond was the one chasing, I was never given enough visual information to actually be engaged. Part of the brilliance of the initial chase sequence in Casino Royale was hiring the incredibly athletic free runner Sebastian Foucan. But the other part is being able to see and understand the physicality of the space (especially the construction sight) and the physicality of the two men.

The lack of creativity in Quantum of Solace is disappointing on all fronts. The script and story were dull, if not a little disjointed. Grieving for Vesper made seduction an afterthought for Bond, and that was exactly how it felt in the film. Mathieu Amalric is a great choice for a villain, but his skills were not put to good use. But those things would hardly matter if Quantum had half the finesse and ingenuity of Casino Royale. About the closet you are going to get to a good Bond fix this year is Transporter 3.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Renée Zellweger comes to Minnesota

Minnesotans, prepare to become the land of Northern baffonery once again in New in Town. Danish director Jonas Elmer sends Miami corporate consultant Lucy Hill (played by Renée Zellweger) to "a middle of nowhere town in Minnesota to oversee the restructuring of a manufacturing plant." Although this nowhere town seems to be New Ulm (about 50 miles southwest of the Twin Cities) the name given to the horrid backwards place in the trailer is simply Minnesota.

New in Town looks to capitalize on the quaint rituals of us Northern folks with exaggerated accents and lots of ice fishing. The film looks about as predictable as they get, as plucky city girl slowly warms to the charms of nowhere Minnesota (and Harry Connick Jr.) I can't take the good natured jokes too seriously, because, well, let's face it, the winter culture we have up here is kinda funny. That being said, I saw the trailer for the first time today and it looks to be a dog of a romantic comedy that few will be convinced to see, except us Minnesotans of course.

Before you flock to the film to see familiar places, be forewarned that the film makers did not have the decency to mock us in our own habitat. The film was shot in Winnipeg. That is not very nice.

Check out the trailer below:

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Two turkeys, two pans of stuffing, one bowl of mash potatoes, two bowls of gravy, four pans of mac and cheese, one pan of sweet potatoes and marshmallows, one basket of rolls, a bowl full of salad, a pan of green beans, a bowl of roasted root vegetables, one bowl of cranberry relish, four pies, one can of reddy whip, 14 people and one mad domino game equals good times.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

DVD releases for November 25

DVD releases are slippery critters: one minute they are there and the next they are gone. I recently picked up a New Yorker from October and it mentioned the release of the Huillet-Straub film Moses and Aaron. Really? Well sort of. Online retailers (Amazon and DVD Empire) list a release date of January 27, 2009. However. Online rental services (Greencine and Netflix) have it available for queuing. Long story short, this film is or will be out on DVD and I apologize for oversights or mistakes.

Chungking Express Criterion (1994) directed by Wong Kar Wai
So so so exciting. A US DVD release of Chungking Express without Quentin Tarantino's flap trap. Of course, it's good for other reasons as well: it is going to look 10 times better than that Rolling Thunder release (and 50 times better than my Ocean Shores release); it's got an audio commentary from Tony Rayns and an essay by Amy Taubin (two of my favorite cinephile writers); and there's a BBC dealy-o called "Moving Images" that includes Wong and wild man cinematographer Chris Doyle. I shan't count the ways I love Chungking Express because it would take too long. From Kai Tak Airport and the resulting city flyovers to an incognito Brigitte Lin in her last film, I love-a-dove this movie. Being able to see the much improved Chungking Express on DVD and the revamping of Ashes of Time in the theater within the span of a month may be too much for me to handle. (For those interested, the first batch of Blu-Ray from Criterion come out December 16, including Chungking Express. I have pre-ordered my first Blu-Ray DVD!)

Still Life (2006) directed by Jia Zhangke
One of the best films from last year, Jia Zhangke's Still Life played this Spring at at MSPIFF. If Platform showed a generation reaching for the 21st century, Still Life shows them struggling in it. Contemplative and embellished, Still Life is near perfection. The literal translation of the title is "the good people of the Three Gorges" and indeed the film takes place in Fengjie, a town that will soon disappear under the flood waters of the Three Gorges Dam. Still Life is not only a study of the physical landscape of this town, but also a study of the people who live there.

Silence of the Sea (2004) directed by Vahid Mousaian
This looks like a worthy under the radar film. Settled comfortably in Sweden, Siavash finds himself at middle age consumed with guilt for having abandoned his parents when he left Iran. A hasty attempt to return finds Siavash stranded in the free port of Qeshm, an island no-man's-land, where the locals are as puzzled by this backwards-fleeing refugee as he is by their unfamiliar customs.

Part-Time Work of a Domestic Slave (1972) directed by Alexander Kluge
Yet another release from this mysterious Alexander Kluge. I highlighted the release of Yesterday Girl a couple months back. When I get around to watching one of these, I will post my thoughts.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold Criterion (1965) and Sounder (1972) directed by Martin Ritt
Although I can't personally attest to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Criterion can. And if I am to deem The Calamari Wrestler as worthy watching, I'm sure this is too. Also released this week (in a much more modest form) is Ritt's adaptation of Sounder. I really loved this movie as a kid, and I'm sure I haven't seen it for at least 25 years.

Bottle Rocket Criterion (1996) directed by Wes Anderson
Let me just say that my short love affair with Wes Anderson started and ended here. Two films later I realized Anderson was working on films I simply wasn't interested in, to the point were I have skipped his last two. Sue me. However, I still think of Bottle Rocket without my Wes Anderson baggage that I enjoyed at the time.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


The fact that I was choosing between KG's big return to Minneapolis and a theatrical screening of In the Realm of the Senses makes me feel giddy (if not a little guilty) for my fortune. Fate may have brought me to the Twin Cities, but it was some sort of screwed up serendipity between nature and nurture that has made me a basketball fan and a film fan. Of course I am understating both of those fandoms because few would follow the Timberwolves given their current situation and few would care about seeing an esoteric Japanese film director's sudden divergence into porn.

However, this is the dilemma that faced me Friday night.

After Kevin Garnett was traded to the Boston Celtics over a year ago, Timberwolves fans were crying in their beer. It was an end of an era. The player that the new franchise had built around for the last 18 years was gone. Even more bitter was the possibilities that the Timberwolves never achieved with this great player. Last season when KG was scheduled to return to Minneapolis for the first time as a Celtic (before the playoffs and before the championship), people bought tickets in droves only to see and injured KG wave to the crowd and then leave.

Needless to say, it is a different season. KG has his ring, and the Wolves have started out miserably. KG is gone, and the Wolves have yet to show any potential without him. That being said, they are my team, and although it hasn't happened very often this season, I love to see them win. When KG left, it was an end to an era, but it was also the beginning of a new era.

On the other side of the coin is the end of a Nagisa Oshima retrospective at the Walker, and perhaps his most audacious and notorious film: In the Realm of the Senses. It is hardly his best film or even his most representative film, but the chance to watch this film in a theater with an audience is a chance that is hard to pass up. Oshima spent the 60s challenging audiences intellectually with social and political critiques. In 1976, he was approached by a French producer to make an erotic film. He took that opportunity and ran with it creating a film that is nothing short of porn with slightly more compelling characters (and a finale that would never go over unless it was dubbed "art".) The rub is that it is a based on actual events, and it was his way to lash out not only to contradictory Japanese censors, but also to European oversimplifications of Japan.

I had seen In the Realm of Senses, but only in the privacy of my own apartment (which sounds sort of pervy, but it wasn't.) Watching this film with a group of strangers is something different altogether. The mere possibility that there might be an unsuspecting audience member is unimaginable.

Weighing the options, I chose the film. I had seen all twelve films of the retrospective up to that point, and I was on a role. It would be a shame not to see the film in the context of the retrospective. The Timberwolves would have to go it alone without me. I was willing to be pleasantly surprised by the news of a win, or to be let down by the assumed outcome of a loss.

I caught the first five minutes of play on the radio before I went into the film, and while the Wolves were holding their own, that obviously wasn't the whole story. The announcers reported a buzz in the Target Center unlike anything they had yet to hear this season. I am also glad to report that there was a similar buzz in the Walker Cinema that was rare. Proof that sex sells, even in an art museum, this was by far the best attendance an Oshima screening with around 200 people. The tension was palpable during the screening. The lack of walk-outs makes me think that most knew what they were in for. There was however one woman who kept having impulsive outburst ("Oh for goodness sakes.") that I felt she was channeling from other audience members. It goes without saying that watching this film with a large group of strangers makes me think very differently about the film.

Unfortunately, most people at the Target Center also, deep down, knew what they were in for. The Celtics cleaned up the Wolves on their home court. It is especially disappointing due to the fact that last season, a season that everyone is assuming will end up being worse than this season, the Wolves gave the Celtics a run for their money twice. All I've seen this season is a team with no spirit and a coach that fails to see his players potentials.

In the end, I made the right choice. The Oshima retrospective had been by far one of the best film events of the year, and In the Realm of the Senses was a key component. The Wolves will hopefully have better days ahead in the season. And hopefully I will be in the stands for it.

Friday, November 21, 2008


The elusive Japanese Summer: Double Suicide reveals itself. Although many of Nagisa Oshima’s films are considered rare and unavailable, this film was one of the most unavailable of the unavailable. Belied by vague descriptions and nonexistent information, Japanese Summer ambiguity intrigued me. Only now, can I fully appreciate that abstraction is inherent in the film, making it just as hard to pin down thematically as it has been to pin down physically. The narrative is completely cut lose and allowed to unfurl into a free-form allegory.

The richness of Japanese Summer is in its characters, sketched into ambiguous icons. These characters allow Oshima to explore a found reality that is neither literal nor logical. Any attempt to offer a plot description will quickly lead down a rabbit hole, and, with only one viewing under my belt, near impossible. Japanese Summer is like a road movie without the road or the car. Nejiko and Otoko are on a trek, nonetheless, that eventually leads them to a secret hideout of anarchist thugs. Held prisoner, they find themselves locked in a room of kindred outcast spirits. Over the coarse of the evening, they learn of reports about a man randomly shooting people in Tokyo. This throws the thugs (and whatever plan they seem to have had) into a state of frenzy.

Despite what it sounds like, this is no action thriller. The grand finale may be a shoot-out, but the film is much more akin to science fiction: set in a nether world, caught between the past and the future. The apocalyptic settings of empty freeways and abandon warehouses seem timeless. Without contextual reference for the characters or the abstract scenes, Japanese Summer exists outside of our cognizant time frame.

Nejiko is a devil-may-care young woman prone to whimsy despite circumstances. We meet her as she is “celebrating” a breakup by tossing her undergarments over the side of a bridge, if only to entice a group of swimming men below. Audacious in style and sexuality, Nejiko wears her hair short on one side and long on the other, with steaks of highlights. She lives a life of provocative carpe diem, willing to give any man a chance. It is not love or sincerity she looks for, but unambiguous physical pleasure. Although Oshima’s films are not without dynamic female characters, Nejiko is unique. Her boldness defies the stereotype of a Japanese woman, and goes against the grain of a typical Oshima female character normally subjugated to object or victim. Nejiko is defiantly neither.

Nejiko meets Otoko early in the film and puts him in her sights as her next conquest. He offers a cerebral contrast to Nejiko without being her antithesis. Otoko is unnaturally obsessed with dying, or, more accurately, obsessed with being killed by another man. He imagines that moment before death as a pinnacle moment when both killer and victim confront mortality together. He wanders with the goal of surrounding himself with potential killers, with Nejiko in tow.

Although Nejiko and Otoko are the film’s two springboards, nearly a dozen characters come and go, adding dynamism to the film. Foremost is a young man who finds the hideout (literally coming in through a bathroom window) in search of a weapon. His only desire is to kill. However, he hardly has the look of a bloodthirsty killer in his cropped khakis, sweater vest and sweet young face. Much like how Otoko and Nejiko initially fail to make an obvious connection, this young killer is also not the one to fulfill Otoko’s death wish. Another man that descends on the hideout is equal part yakuza and diplomat. His prize possession is his television, which is carried by his loyal lackey. Also added to the mix of characters is an elderly war veteran who is more than aware of the reality of death and an American responsible for the shootings. Among them all, Nejiko is the pulse of the film. I can’t help but think of the planetary personification in Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies: in the case of Japanese Summer: Double Suicide, they would all be sober and Nejiko would be the sun with the men, and all their fatalism, spinning around her.

Near the end of the film, our outcast heroes find that they sympathize with the American who seems to be randomly shooting people. They traipse off like happy vagabonds ready to meet their destiny and join the American in fighting off the police. It is a finale that works in glorious hyperbole as Nejiko and Otoko finally have an epiphanic moment together.

Also known as Night of the Killer, Japanese Summer: Double Suicide is yet another Oshima film that seems like no other Oshima film. Working in an anti-auteur style from film to film, Oshima was constantly reinventing himself. He relished the fact that Mishima proclaimed he could not understand Japanese Summer. And perhaps it is not to be fully understood, but simply experienced. I’ve always thought that the greatest compliment a director can give his audience is taking the risk to present a challenging work. Doing so in this case seems to have sent this film down the road to obscurity. However, seeing the Janus logo at the beginning of this new print makes me very hopeful that I may be able to see this film again.

Only three more Oshima films left at the Walker! The Ceremony, Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

DVD releases for November 18

There is much much more to this week other than Wall-E:

Encounters at the End of the World (2007) directed by Werner Herzog
Woefully missed (by me) at MSPIFF and later at the Lagoon, Encounters is one of those films I kicked myself for not seeing on the big screen. Maybe a nice test for a new Blu-Ray player?

Mister Lonely (2007) directed by Harmony Korine
Mister Lonely takes place in a commune full of people who are look-a-likes: Marilyn Monroe (Samantha Morton), Michael Jackson (Diego Luna), Charlie Chaplin (Denis Lavant) and so on. From the writer of Kids, and director of Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, Mister Lonely has an air of eccentricity, no? With me so far? The fact that this film was categorically panned across the board when it played at various festivals last year makes me all the more curious. I'm excited to check it out.

Up the Yangtze (2007) directed by Yung Chang
I was truly impressed with the sensitivity and clarity of this documentary. One part of this film is about the disparaging economic strata in China, and another part is about the reality of the Three Gorges Dam project for millions of people. Up the Yangtze tackles the subject head on (as opposed to Jia Zhangke's delicate Dong and Still Life that work in far more broader terms) without being too heavy-handed. It's a great document of one family who is displaced by the dam.

Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (2008) directed by Matt Wolf
I read about Arthur Russell in regards to his connection to NYC's The Kitchen in the 70s, but hadn't fully investigated his music until after I saw this film at the Walker this summer. If you have any presuppositions about avant-guard music, especially from the 70s, Russell will completely break that mold. I totally fell in love with his music: "World of Echoes" and "Calling Out of Context" simply make me feel like I'm floating. Russell died at the young age of 40 in 1992, and much of his music remains obscure. Which is totally ironic, because it was way ahead of its time. Russell had one foot in the avant-guard camp and one foot firmly planted in pure pop. Wild Combination is a fitting tribute to Russell and his life.

Of Love and Eggs (2004) directed by Garin Nugroho
A sweet and intimate film from Indonesia that seems to bare very little connection to his 2006 mind-boggler Opera Jawa. It played at the Walkers Global Lens a couple years ago.

Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008) directed by Alex Gibney
There are plenty of movies out there, fictional and otherwise, that try to box in Hunter S. Thompson. What Gonzo does is show that this man can not and should not be put in a box. Thompson is as frustrating to me as he is fascinating. This is Gibney's follow-up to his award winning Taxi to the Dark Side.

The Minoru Kawasaki Collection: Executive Koala (2005), The World Sinks Except Japan (2006), The Rug Cop (2006) directed by Minoru Kawasaki
Remember The Calamari Wrestler? Bless you if you do. (If you don't, you are probably a normal human being unwilling to spend time on films that are clearly absurd. Needless to say, these releases are not for you.) For the rest of us, Synapse films brings us three new Kawasaki masterpieces. Executive Koala is about Mr. Tamura, a business man who happens to be a Koala, is a junior executive at a pickle factory is Tokyo. But it seems that someone is out to sabotage he career. When he suggest merging with a South Korean kim chee company, Tamura's girlfriend ends up dead and he becomes the prime suspect. The World Sinks Except Japan is obviously a spoof to the Japanese blockbuster The Sinking of Japan. The Rug Cop is a satire of 70s cop shows. (If you have suspicions about the meaning of "rug cop," you are absolutely right.) These are the Airplane/Naked Gun movies of Japan.

David Lynch: The Lime Green Set
For those of you that have some extra money, here is a box set that is sure to be cool. A Crhistmas gift perfect for that creepy film freak in the family, like me. Here is what is included in the set: "Writer, director and artist David Lynch has personally selected these works, including many pieces new to DVD, and a Mystery disc of content taken from Lynch's own personal archives and available only in this box set. Includes Eraserhead - Remastered, Eraserhead Soundtrack, The Short Films of David Lynch, The Elephant Man, The Elepjhant Man Extras - DVD debut, Wild at Heart, Industrial Symphony No 1 - DVD debut, Blue Velvet - New Lynch approved 5.1 sound mix, Dumbland, Mystery Disc - DVD debut, 32 deleted or extended scenes from Wild at Heart, 40 page collectors picture book." Wowie zowie. One would have to assume that there is bound to be other colored sets.

Fanfan le Tulipe (1957) directed by Christian-Jaque
A French adventure film from Criterion - I'm sold by the cover alone.

Derek Jarman Collection: Sebastiane (1976), Tempest (1979), War Requium (1989), Derek (2008 - directed by Isaac Julien)
This is just a repackaging of DVDs already available from Kino. I can't see anything new except the box it comes in and overall cheaper pricing for the four.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Nagisa Oshima's BOY

Adapting a film from a news story may be nothing new for Nagisa Oshima, but Boy (1969) is an overwhelming standout. Right at the heart of Oshima’s most productive and self-assured years, Boy was one of eleven films made in a five-year period. One might expect such an unbridled creative streak to be full of haphazard hits or misses. Quite the contrary, Oshima was in full control of his manic output, and Boy is a perfect example of that.

Intellectually drawn to the story, Oshima felt it was tailor made for him. In 1966 a family was caught using their young son to fake accidents with automobiles in order to extort money. While such scams were not unusual, the callousness of the parents’ use of their son was out of the ordinary. Oshima adapted the narrative for his own use, conjecturing a family bound together in their isolated life of crime. The father uses his role to control his wife and ten-year-old son, with a toddler in tow. Seeking approval from his father, the boy is more than willing to carry out the accidents when the wife refuses. Carefully planned jumps in the street brushing against moving cars would send the mother screaming and the father shouting.

The boy’s “work” funded a hollow lifestyle that consisted only of superficial pleasures in life. Setting up the grift and then spending their earnings was all a day would offer. Moving from town to town to keep a low profile, the four project an image of a perfect middle class family. At one of the lavish inns, a geisha expresses her envy at such an idyllic family. Eventually, the father loses control of the monster he has created. The mother and son lose sight of reality, no longer questioning morality or legality. The mother becomes driven by money and it’s ability to provide normalcy, and the boy is empowered by his new role of provider, leaving the father helpless to the careening train wreck.

Boy is not the emotional tear-draining drama you might expect, but more of a social psychoanalysis of the family unit. That is not to say that the film stays completely detached, but it doesn’t take advantage of the story’s natural sentimentality. Instead Oshima tears apart the family role that society has created. This is the modern family functioning at its most base form: a primary economic unit. None of the characters are given names only their function within the family: Father, Mother, Boy and Tiny. Father is a veteran injured in the War, who is more than willing to display his scars to prove a point. Although he seems to carry no more than the superficial burden of his injury, this remains his primary excuse for not getting a job, and furthermore, why Mother and Boy must work for him. Rigid in his belief that society and his family owe him for his suffering, Father rules with an iron fist of guilt. Mother, on the other hand, is more adaptable despite emotional scars that a hard life has brought. Unlike Father, she can see beyond the next meal and the next hotel to a future that is resiliently hopeful. Boy and Tiny are the product of these two dysfunctional adults.

The performance of the young Tetsuo Abe cannot be overstated. The film completely relies on the nine-year-old Abe, who is utterly perfect. The crew went to great lengths to find the right boy, first interviewing young actors and then resuming their search on the streets and in children’s homes where Abe was subsequently found. He is able to express wisdom beyond his years due to his own personal situation: an orphan who had been abandoned by his stepmother. The emotional burden of his character is portrayed with an intricacy that carries the film. Boy’s transgressions into the mysterious world of aliens and monsters are his only escape. Vocalizing his imagination to the too-young-to-understand Tiny or simply to himself, he imagines himself an alien from Andromeda. Without friends or school, Boy’s only escape is into his fantasy world. It’s only near the end of the film when Boy’s reality and fantasy collide in an unsettling and painful epiphany of anger.

The transient lifestyle of the family is incredibly vivid. The film crew mimicked the family’s vagabond life by traveling the length of Japan. This effort translates well into the film, with scenes in the most unlikely places among the most extreme situations. Whether in the pouring rain or snow showers, the film embraces the natural elements as a perfunctory part of day-to-day life. But what isn’t perfunctory are some the locations—the settings of wandering and exploration. From a surreal scene in a track field to Boy’s aimless roaming, the surroundings give the film a feeling of being ungrounded.

Boy is a film loaded with powerful images that are poetic and moving isolated on their own. Once Boy has switched allegiances and sided with his stepmother instead of his own father, a patriarchal showdown is inevitable. Alone in an hotel room, Father puts bot Boy and Mother in their place. The camera rests on the end result: Boy and Mother, lying flat at the bottom of the screen and the husband lording over them, cropped at the waist showing only his lower torso, with Tiny trying to decipher the scene. It’s a portrait that tells part of the story without saying a word. Likewise is the image of Boy and Tiny sitting in the snow. Are they looking at us? Are they talking to each other? What does the look on Tiny’s face really mean? The actually scene only adds power to the image.

Boy bares a striking similarity to A Town of Love and Hope, Oshima's first film. Oshima confessed later that he secretly decided commemorate his tenth year as director with Boy and attempted to “return to the heart of a novice.” He, along with co-writers Masato Hara, Tsutomu Tamura and Mamoru Sasaki, had finished the script three years before production started. Boy is a hammer to the heart with little room for the dark humor or the bold experimentation found in Oshima's other films. Other than moments mimicking documentary newsreel, Boy is shot and edited in a very straightforward manner with few deviations.

Although it is tempting to proclaim that Boy is Oshima’s most refined film, this only diminishes his other films. Given the nature of his other films, Boy shows a tremendous amount of restraint alongside the self-confidence of a master. Due to its rarity (available on DVD only in Japan with no subtitles), the current Oshima retrospective traveling the country will be the first opportunity for many to see this incredible film. It is an undeniable masterpiece.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

DVD releases for November 11

Blood and Bones (2004) directed by Yoichi Sai
Yoichi Sai's epic story of a Korean immigrant in Japan is easily one of the toughest films you are going to be faced with for the unrelenting brutality of the lead character played by Takashi Kitano. That being said, Blood and Bones was also one of the best Japanese films of 2004, pulling down a number of awards as well as critical praise. Based on a book Soguri Yang wrote about his father, the film spans 60 years of Shunpei Kim life: from his arrival in Osaka on a boat to his eventual return to North Korea. It's a dark and unflinching film about surviving at the bottom. Part gangster film, part period drama, and part history of the down trodden, Blood and Bones is the kind of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps story that makes absolutely no attempt to be uplifting. Kitano is amazing.

Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) directed by Takashi Miike
For those who only know Miike as the director of Audition, it should be known that he has a great sense of humor that exudes almost all his films. Sukiyaki Western Django is no different; it's nearly as fun as it is funny. Miike employs every action film icon from Honshu to Topeka to great effect. A Japanese variation on the Spaghetti Western, it pays homage to samurai and gunslingers alike.

Love and Honor (2007) directed by Yoji Yamada
Director of the much-loved Tora-san films (48 of them!), Yoji Yamada has made a comeback in recent years with his period samurai films. First with Twilight Samurai, then with Hidden Blade and now with Love and Honor. Make no mistake, all three of these films are about nostalgia—filmic nostalgia. These are solid films that may not be great, but they do enough to be good.

Hellboy II (2007) directed by Guillermo del Toro
Give me Hellboy any day over that bloated bat megoloman.

Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman (2006) directed by Jennifer Fox
This film played during the Expanding the Frame series at the Walker this past Spring, and it had the appeal of a wet noodle. But that is just me.

Mister Foe (2007) directed by David Mackenzie
After seeing the trailer for months, I guess this film won't be playing theatrically here.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

ENVISIONING RUSSIA @ The Heights Theater

For the second year in a row, the Museum of Russian Art presents a unique slate of Russian films screening at the Heights. Last year's series was nothing short of fantastic. Unfortunately, the first film in the series has come and gone, but there are still three more upcoming films that many never pass this way again:

Sunday, November 9, 7pm and 9:15pm
Carnival Night (1956) directed by Eldar Ryazanov
"The film of all films to counter the Western stereotype of Russian culture as uniformly somber and joyless, this uproarious musical will have you singing and saluting the New Year months ahead of schedule. Young workers try to organize a night of merriment on New Year's Eve, but must constantly stay one step ahead of the wet-blanket Party official who wants to ruin all the fun. Noteworthy for its relentless satire of political cliches, Carnival Night's breezy insouciance recalls MGM musicals of the same period, with star Lyudmila Gurchenko as its Soviet Debbie Reynolds. "

Thursday, November 13, 7pm and 9:15pm
The Russian Question (1948) directed by Mikhail Romm
"Made by one of the most respected figures in Soviet cinema, The Russian Question presents Cold War dilemmas from a Russian perspective. As tensions between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. tighten in the years after World War II, a New York newspaper reporter (Garry Smith) is given an ultimatum by his editor: write a negative book about the Soviet Union or else. But Smith is torn; he developed a knowledge of and affection for the U.S.S.R. during his years as a wartime correspondent stationed there. His task a hatchet job would necessarily be full of lies and distortions that he can't countenance. Will he choose his integrity or his career? Although the ideology of Romm's film is very much a staple of the Stalinist era, the director's exploration of the conflicts of interest that arise even in a "free" country like the U.S. is nuanced, intelligent, and still provocative 60 years later."

Thursday, November 20, 7pm and 9:15pm
Walking the Streets of Moscow (1963) directed by Georgi Daneliya
"A Soviet version of the youth films that were becoming popular in the West in the 1960s, Walking the Streets of Moscow follows four young adults as they negotiate universal rites of passage and attempt to find their place in the world. A startlingly fresh-faced Nikita Mikhalkov (Burnt By the Sun, 1994) plays Kolya, a construction worker, who guides his Siberian friend Volodya through the big city. Meanwhile, Alena, the object of Kolya's affections, is entranced by Kolya's boyhood pal Sasha. Noted writer Gennadi Shpalikov penned the delightful screenplay, and Vadim Yusov, whose luminous images haunt Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece Ivan's Childhood (1963), served as cinematographer. The film as a whole forcefully exhibits the Khrushchev-era notion of 'socialism with a human face'."

For more info and to see everything I have cut and pasted above, check out the Museum of Russian Art website.
Also more info on The Heights website.

Nagisa Oshima's GOHATTO (TABOO)

The turn of the century saw a handful of iconic Japanese filmmakers retooling their machines and sharpen their swords for a fresh attack. Kinji Fukasaku pulled Battle Royale out of his hat at the age of 70 in 2000, shocking and thrilling audience with its audacity. At 78 Seijun Suzuki came up with a sequel to Branded to Kill, over 30 years after the fact, with the euphorically mesmerizing Pistol Opera in 2001. Not to be outdone, Shohei Imamura directed the mind-boggling Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001) at the age of 75. In 1999, the youngest in the group, Nagisa Oshima directed Gohatto (Taboo) at the age of 67. Challenging feudal society in its own element, Oshima's period film examines love among the samurai. Although Gohatto initially stuck me as understated and underwhelming, now, with a second viewing eight years later, it seems like a graceful punctuation point on career.

Suffering a stroke in 1996, Oshima struggled to regain enough strength to direct Gohatto (a film he had already been working on at the time of his stroke.) Oshima reportedly directed the entire film from a chair. Perhaps Oshima knew that Gohatto would be his swan song, or at the very least, his chance to take one final swing. No one could have foreseen that Oshima would suffer another stroke, this one much more serious, after the completion of the film. Retaining many of the themes he was concerned with throughout his career, Gohatto makes peace with his formal filmmaking adversaries, allowing beauty to reign over experimentation.

Set at the very end of Japan's Shogun era in 1865, the elite Shinsengumi militia decides to hold trials for new members. After viewing the skills of the applicants, two young men are admitted, Tashiro (Tadanobu Asano) and Kano (Ryuhei Matsuda). Kano youthful beauty is unsettling for many of the samurai within the militia, including Commander Kondo. Many men within the militia attempt to court Kano, but Tashiro, his fellow recruit, is rumored to be his lover. Jealousy and desire threaten to tear apart the militia as its soldiers start to turn up murdered in Kano's wake.

Oshima's implications of homosexuality among the ranks of samurai is less accusatory than it is allegory. However, the suggestion that these icons of feudal Japan partook physically in their love for one another is an outrageously bold attack and presumption on Japanese culture. In reality, it would be hard to deny that such manifestations occurred within dojos full of testosterone, aggression and rigor. The lines between sex, love, violence and death have always been incredibly thin in Oshima's world.

The realization that Kano is something of a sadist, Commander Kondo becomes complicit to the emotional malaise that ensues. Kondo instantly recognizes Kano as more than a pretty face. The fact that he comes from a wealthy family implies that there is something more to Kano's desire to wield a sword than a livelihood. His dutiful decapitation of a rule-breaking comrade comes effortlessly. Kano's skill and brutality make him even more attractive, even to those who "don't lean that way." When Commander Kondo goes for an extended leave, he does so knowing that he is the cat and the mice are likely to play. Left in charge, Captain Hijikata (Takashi Kitano) fails the test and misreads the situation. Kano is not the passive effeminate, but a hunter who consummates his desires through killing.

The cast is something of a brilliant coupe for Oshima. Gohatto was Ryuhei Matsuda's first feature film, which in retrospect is quite amazing. Matsuda's beguiling looks has made him nothing short of a big star, acting in over 20 films since his debut. Tadanobu Asano was well established in the independent film community. Prior to starring in Gohatto he had worked for such directors as Shunji Iwai, Hirokazu Koreeda, Sogo Ishii, Shinya Tsukamoto, Christopher Doyle, Shinji Aoyama, and Katsuhito Ishii—even as I look at it now, the list is shocking. Shinji Takeda was also an excite new actor on the 'it' list. However, it was Takashi Kitano that Oshima saw as the heart of the film. He voiced his interest in how the young comedian had aged into a more serious persona. Kitano's character, Captain Hijikata, is the one warrior who remains stalwart against the lures of Kano, but also the one who is the most profoundly effected. Historically, Hijikata represented the spirit of the Shinsengumi militia. His death symbolized the end of the Shinsengumi militia, and the beginning of a new era for Japan.

The end is reveled in a series of symbolic tableaux that unveil the characters, resulting in the overt severing of a cherry tree. The film's beauty is only interrupted by divisive intertitles that only succeed in pulling you out of the seductive but cold world of the samurai. The set design and the cool colour palette are perfect for the mood of tempered passions. The desires of Gohatto are not ones that burn red, but desires diminished by fate. Gohatto is set in the twilight: the twilight of the shogonate, the twilight of the fate of the samurai.

Out of the four patriarchs of the Japanese New Wave who put out films between 1999 and 2001, only Oshima and Suzuki remain. Fukasaku went out with a huge bang with Battle Royale, only to have his son muddy the waters with Battle Royale 2. Imamura last film was a surreal short included in the September 11 omnibus. Although Suzuki has said that Princess Raccoon (2005) was probably his last, I wouldn't be surprised if he still had one last trick up his sleeve. Oshima seems to have directed his last however. Quietly living out the rest of his live near Tokyo, little news surfaces about this iconoclast. Gohatto is an end note that is not only beautifully rendered,
but poetically resolute.

"In the Realm of Oshima" continues at the Walker Art Center through November 23.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

In the Realm of Oshima at the Walker

The second best thing to celebrating a victory by Barack Obama? An Oshima retrospective of coarse! When I heard about the retrospective this summer, I was ecstatic. Nagisa Oshima is one of the unsung innovators of the Japanese New Wave, and gets tragically overlooked due to the lack of availability of his films. Some may remember a Japanese New Wave series at the Walker in 1999 that included two films by Oshima (Cruel Story of Youth, Diary of a Shinjuku Theif), and those who really had their nose to the ground will remember a trio of films shown at the MIA (Death by Hanging, The Man Who Left His His Will on Film, Diary of a Yunbogi Boy) also around ten years ago. But these screenings were fleeting at best, as I still try to find someone else who remembers those MIA screenings.

Oshima has long been on my list of directors for international DVD treasure hunting. I had to bite my fist in 2006 when Japanese box sets were released without English subtitles. Despite a handful of titles available in Hong Kong (Night and Fog in Japan, Sing a Song of Sex/Treatise on Japanese Bawdy Songs, A Street of Love and Hope/A Town of Love and Hope) and his most recent available domestically (Taboo, In the Realm of the Senses, In the Realm of Passion, Max Mon Amour), huge gaps exist in Oshima's filmography. As some of those gaps started to be filled with releases in the UK, news of the Oshima retrospective started to surface.

"In the Realm of Oshima," a retrospective organized by James Quandt of the Cinematheque Ontario, brings the best of both worlds to the Walker: a comprehensive, 16-film overview of Oshima's career and a boatload of new prints. Seeing these films theatrically, many of them restored to perfection, is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Check out a more thorough overview that I wrote for the Star Tribune here.

Here's the rundown of what is screening. None should be missed:

Wednesday, November 5
Welcoming Remarks, 7pm
Organizer James Quandt will offer an introduction to the series. Quandt also organized the Japanese New Wave series that came to the Walker in 1999.

Taboo (1999), 7:30pm
Oshima's most recent film, and due to his poor health, it is more than likely his last. It's a poetic and subtle swan song for Oshima. A samurai period piece that is low on action but high on emotional tensions between the handsome samurai. The movies cast can not be understated. Takashi Kitano is by far the biggest international actor, but Ryuhei Matsuda, Shinji Takeda and Tadanobu Asano are equally prominent in Japanese cinema.

Friday, November 7
Cruel Story of Youth (1960), 7:30pm
Often compared to Rebel Without a Cause, Oshima's version is far more dark and complex. This was Oshima's second film and his first success. The film will be introduced by Mark Anderson, University of Minnesota Assistant Professor, Asian Languages and Literatures, and will also lead a post-screening discussion.

Saturday, November 8
Violence at Noon (1966), 2pm
A visually stylized film that shows Oshima as a great experimenter. At the time, Violence at Noon was the most highly edited film in Japanese cinema. Scenes are wrought with tension and disorientation. Seeing this on the big screen will be unbelievable.

Japanese Summer: Double Suicide (1967), 7:30pm
A crime thriller that I look forward to seeing. Oshima took pride in Mishima’s saying he did not understand the film. I like not understanding. (Not to be confused with Masahiro Shinoda's black and white stage-like Double Suicide that came two years later.)

Wednesday, November 12
Boy (1969), 7:30
I tracked down a fan-subbed copy of this film a few years back, and was completely blown away by the performance of the young boy. Based on a true story, the boy's grifters parents exploit him through fake accidents to fund their hollow middle-class life. Not to be missed.

Thursday, November 13
The Sun's Burial (1960), 7:30pm, free!
Yet another film that remains obscure. Osaka's underworld is exposed as a world where everything is for sale as gangs fight for control over the streets. From the Cinematheque Ontario catalogue: "Sweatily shot in Scope, keyed to carmine and orange, and breathlessly edited, The Sun’s Burial crams a lot of filthy, grasping humanity into its outrageous frames, and buries the sun, representing old Japan, in heaps of industrial refuse."

Friday, November 14
Night and Fog in Japan (1960), 7:30

One of three films that Oshima released in 1960, this one was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's political overtones was deemed dangerous to social stability due to the assassination of the Japanese Socialist Party. Shochiku pulled the film after only a few days, which caused Oshima to pack his bags and start his own production company. Night and Fog in Japan is full of beautifully composed long shots that melt into theatrical flashbacks, as two generations of protesters draw their lines in the sand.

Saturday, November 15
Pleasures of the Flesh (1965), 7:30pm
Pleasures of the Flesh marked Oshima's return to filmmaking after a period making television documentaries and writing criticism. It proved to be a success. From the Cinematheque Ontario catalogue: "The bizarrely funny Pleasures of the Flesh satirizes Japan’s “economic miracle” with its crazed tale about a young college graduate, alienated in his white-collar job and pining for a woman for whom he has committed murder though she isn’t aware of it."

Sunday, November 16
Death by Hanging (1968)
An absurdist comedy about a botched hanging. Oshima lashes out at society with tongue in cheek. Introduced by Christopher Scott, Macalester College Assistant Professor, Asian Languages and Cultures, who will also lead a post-screening discussion.

Wednesday, November 19
The Catch (1961), 7:30
The Catch is set during the final days of World War II. A black GI is captured in a remote Japanese farming village, and becomes a pawn in a power struggle between various factions. Introduced by Michael Molasky, University of Minnesota Associate Professor, Asian Languages and Literatures, who will also lead a post-screening discussion.

Thursday, November 20
A Town of Love and Hope (1959), 7:30pm, free
Don't let the sunny title fool you, Oshima's first feature is a dark view of Japanese society. The themes of A Town of Love and Hope are ones that Oshima will revisit throughout his career. Screens with Diary of a Yunbogi Boy (1965), his impressionistic film he made after returning from South Korea. Introduced by Noboru Tomonari, Carleton College Associate Professor of Japanese, Asian Languages and Literature, who will also lead a post-screening discussion.

Friday, November 21
In the Realm of the Senses (1976), 7:30pm
Not for the faint of heart, In the Realm of the Senses is by far Oshima's most notorious film. Oshima's first partnering with French producer Anatole Dauman, In the Realm is Oshima's retreat from social revolution to a more individual and personal liberation. Oshima shot the film in Japan, but processed it in France fearing censorship. Watching this film is an unbelievable experience.

Saturday, November 22
The Ceremony (1971), 2pm
For those shell-shocked by In the Realm of the Senses, The Ceremony offers a more tempered film, but no less scathing. This family saga is formal in style, but radical in its attacks on Japanese tradition. Oshima fearlessly exposes the collective skeletons in the closet of a powerful yet morally conflicted family.

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983), 7:30pm
Set in a World War II POW camp in Java in 1942, David Bowie plays a recently transfers officer who clashes with the the fanatical camp commander. I saw this film long ago on VHS before I had any grounding in who Oshima was as a filmmaker. It stuck me as an odd film at the time, and it will be interesting to see it again.

Sunday, November 23
Diary of a Shinjuku Theif (1968), 2pm
Last in the series, but certainly not least, this film is equal parts comedy, drama and action. Diary of a Shinjuku Theif is a mesmerizing romp following the criminal and sexual excesses of a young couple against the backdrop of political protest. It's an extremely fun film that caps off the series beautifully.

Barack Obama

Unbelievable and amazing. For the first time in my very short voting history, I am very proud. After eight years of having an administration that, in my mind, turned their back on everything the United States stands for, I am filled with hope for our new president elect Barack Obama. November of 2000, I was in Vietnam, Hong Kong and China watching a surreal election drama unfold. Four years later in 2004, I was completely disheartened by the election (as apposed to the appointment) of George W. Bush. Watching the economy, the Iraq War, and general international perception of the United States go down the tube, I had lost some hope.

That has all changed. Not only did Barack Obama quickly claim Minnesota, but my home state of Indiana has made me proud and as did my people in Florida.

That being said, all is not well in Minnesota. Norm Coleman seems to have edge out Al Franken in an insanely close race (1,210,790 vs 1,210,028) that will demand a recount. Even more disappointing is the 6th District just to the south that decided to reelect someone who is just shy of an idiot (proved nationally a couple weeks ago on MSNBC.) Like a ring of red surrounding the Twin Cities and boarding the rural areas where people have more sense, the House won three seats: the aforementioned lunatic Michele Bachmann, incumbent John Kline, and Erik Paulsen, in a hard fought race that dashed the hopes of Democrat Ahwin Madia and his supporters.

Thank you for everyone who voted for Barack Obama, and for those who didn't please give this inspiring man a chance.

Sunday, November 2, 2008


The Unforeseen may be the best documentary you've never seen. Although it gathered critical accolades everywhere it went, it didn't stray far from the festival circuit (missing the Twin Cities altogether.) Powerful, intelligent and extremely well crafted, it uses Austin, Texas as a microcosm for the cyclical economic and ecological mire we have been sinking into for decades. The overarching themes ask that we examine the American Dream in a way that is thoughtful without being judgmental. Don't let the names of Terrence Malick and Robert Redford as executive producers deceive you, this film is independently minded and is as close as you're going to get to a movie that matters.

At the crux of the documentary are two opposing forces: development and conservation. Not exactly a unique adversaries nor an unusual topic, but this story gets told with an investigative curiosity rather than an accusatory finger. On the development side is Gary Bradley, an upstart real estate developer who capitalized on the Austin boom in the 1970s. On the conservation side is Barton Springs, an important source of fresh water that is often referred to as "the soul of a city." Stuck in the middle is the city of Austin and the state of Texas tinged with a fluctuating political climate.

The drama starts after Bradley finds himself in a financial bind during the Savings and Loan Crisis of the early 80s. A multinational company, Freeport McMoran, comes in to bail out Bradley and capitalize on opportunities in Austin. Freeport follows what has been successful for Bradley and proposes a huge subdivision to be built around Barton Creek and Barton Springs. A large protest ensues, initiated by Earthfirst! but eventually garnering public support against the development. Hundreds of people sign up to testify at a public hearing that lasts all night, ending in the city council denying the permit to build the Barton Creek development. Furthermore, a coalition was formed a put an ordinance on the ballot in 1992 to protect the quality of water coming off of development in the Barton Springs watershed; the Save Our Springs Ordinance passed with two-thirds of the vote. However, two years later, Texas had a new governor that was sympathetic to developers. Lobbyist, who had been fighting hard against the restrictive ordinance, found a friend in George W. Bush. The newly elected governor quickly grandfathered in developers allowing them do pretty much anything they wanted.

What may seem like a city of Austin history lesson is anything but. Director Laura Dunn is careful to look at the issues surrounding this timeline from every angle. Interviews from Gary Bradley to former Texas governor Ann Richards to powerful lobbyist Dick Brown, The Unforeseen builds the issue's complex web from the inside out. But it is the interviews that form the outside of that web (the ranchers, the academics, the concerned citizens) that give the film its substance. As easy as it would have been to turn Bradley or Brown into a villain, the film is more interested in understanding than condemning, and this sentiment is passed along to the viewer.

More than just an in-depth inquiry, the film is carried by a poetic aesthetic. Opening with Wendell Berry reading from his poem "Santa Clara Valley" (which echoes many of the concerns of the film), the first shot from a skyscraper construction high above the city fills you with the awe that no doubt many developers feel. The power that we have over the landscape, and the contrary effect that nature has upon man is a reoccurring theme. The beautifully cinematography and graphic animations add a visual dynamic to the story, juxtaposing the Austin "grid" with the stark landscape that lies just beyond its boarders. Unwilling to allow function to triumph over form, The Unforeseen weaves the likes of Arvo Pärt and Sigur Rós into the soundtrack among the dustbowl, the growing grid, the demonstrations, and Barton Springs.

It's hard not to quibble about Robert Redford's involvement in the film. Although Malick seems to have acted as a mentor and guiding force for the film, at least he doesn't appear in the film. Redford's testamonials as a former resident of Austin simply take up too much screen time with anecdotes that seem hollow. The Unforeseen, Dunn's first feature length documentary, should be a testament to her skills not Redford's mug.

Every moment is a turning point, but it is very hard to watch this documentary and not feel that everything hangs in the balance right now, with our generation. The archive footage of the initial public hearing against the development around Barton Spring is powerful and moving. An emblem of the movement, "If the people lead, the leaders will follow," is full of hope for what democracy is supposed to be; a true tribute to the power of the people. But how quickly tides turn, and popular opinion can swing given the right persuasion. When environmental laws began restricting developers, the spin was that it was an assault on private property. More than ever we seem to be on the precipice of complete collapse. We desperately need to rethink the way we live our lives, and, ironically, we also seem to be on the precipice of collectively understanding this need. The very heart and soul of The Unforeseen is this notion of empowerment and unselfish decision making. It's an incredibility elegant film about convoluted nature of power structures not only in Austin, but in our global economy.

The Unforseen was recently released on DVD. Buy it through Laura Dunn's website here and receive her documentary Green for free.