Thursday, July 31, 2008

David Moreau and Xavier Palud's THEM

Finding films that exceed my expectations is something I live for. In the case of Them, it was had an easier task since I had no expectations. Although I had read a glowing review, I have a hard time not being skeptical when it come to the horror genre, perhaps making Them all the more rewarding. Recently released on DVD in the US, I am surprised that it wasn't given more of a chance in theaters as a film (albeit with subtitles) that is equal if not better than The Strangers. As a matter of fact Them is so closely related to The Strangers, they may have negated each other market-wise if they played too close together. Comparisons between the two are inevitable, not only because of similar storylines but they both make good use of an ambiance built with clever framing, editing and sound design.

(For those interested in the film, stop reading here and and take my whole-hearted recommendation and rent the DVD. Minor spoilers follow.)

Them was released in France over two years ago and was the first feature by the duo David Moreau and Xavier Palud who took on the US remake of The Eye. And while the offer to direct The Eye was probably a compliment to Them, The Eye lacks almost everything interesting in Them. Boasting a story based on true events (that should sound familiar to anyone who saw The Strangers), Them takes place in Romania where a young French couple have recently moved to work and live. Their large country home is as idyllic as the couple's relationship. When strange things start to happen in the middle of the night, their emotions run from anger to confusion to all-out fear. The set-up is simple enough and is classic horror film stuff regardless of true story or not.

The movie had no trouble pulling me in from the very beginning. The opening scene, a standalone introduction showing an event that may or may not be related to the couple's future ordeal, had my the hair on the back of my neck standing up. With the most simple of tactics, Them launches you into the film with an adrenaline rush. From that point, you savor the peaceful moments with the knowledge of what is to come. Perhaps I'm loosing my youthful nothing-can-scare-me attitude, but Them had me locking the doors. The fear factor was powerful enough that I was thankful for living in the city and ling in a small house. (The affordable house is not a house that creepy things or people can hide in!)

It would be easy to overstate the merits of Them simply because of its unknown status here in the US. And although I am annoyed by the "true story" prologue and epilogue, this is one of the best films of its genre that I have seen in some time. Scenes and plot devises are impressively subtle and sharp in their effect on the viewer. Both The Strangers and Them offer thrills and chills without being completely blood soaked, something I appreciate from a genre that has suffered lately from a philosophy of quantity over quality.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Youssef Chahine R.I.P.

Youssef Chahine, on of Egypt's most well respected director's, died yesterday. Four weeks ago Chahine fell into a coma from a brain hemorrhage. I'm not even going to begin to think I can eulogize this man, simply because I know too little about him and have seen very few of his films (two to be exact.) So I will barrow what Nick Bradshaw from the Guardian said about Chahine: "He took on imperialism and fundamentalism alike, celebrated the liberty of body and soul, and offered himself warts and all as an emblem of his nation. Egypt's modern history is etched in his life's work."

His last film was Chaos which screened at the 2007 Venice Film Festival.

His US website has been put in state of memorial where people can post a message.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Twin Cities Film Calendar

First the disclaimer: this is very much a work in progress. The limitations are frustrating, but I have the best intentions of providing something much more user friendly, nicer to look at and with more information. Until then, welcome to the Twin Cities Film Calendar.

There are two components to the calender: Film events (one-time, or short run screenings) and Film openings (openings specific to the Twin Cities). Each of these 'collections' within the calendar are separate and you will either have to subscribe to each one or follow the separate links to view. The calendar is hosted by Chandler, an open source "Note-to-Self Organizer." I would agree that it is not the best design and is limiting for what I would like to do, but I chose this option that more people would have access to than something like iCal.

Once you follow the link to either Film events or Film openings, you have the options of looking at the items either in a list form or calendar form (two buttons at the top, just to the left of the sidebar.) The calendar is presented in a weekly view. (If you don't see any film events, be sure to scroll down to evening hours.) You can search to a specific date in the sidebar or navigate by week with the arrows at the top right hand side of the screen. When you click on an event or tile, more info comes up in the right sidebar. You can subscribe with Chandler Desktop (available for free at Chandler), iCal, Feed Reader or CalDAV. All of these options show up in the left sidebar. I have not tried any of these options, so let me know how they work!

Obviously the biggest component to this is the information. If you know of something going on, please let me know either by e-mailing me or replying to this post. I will do my best to keep the information up to date and correct, but I would also ask for your help if you notice any errors.
The Twin Cities Film Calendar icon will permanently be in the sidebar of my blog. I will put links to both the Film events and Film openings, but the icon will always link to the Film events.

Please let me know what you think.

Friday, July 25, 2008

DVD releases for July 22

Let's not muddy the waters with last week's hum-drum releases and focus on this week with what may turn out to be two of the best DVDs of the year and one of the most interesting releases to hit the US market:

Satantango (1994) directed by Bela Tarr
After a very long gestation period, Facets has finally released Bela Tarr's Satantango. And while I don't have this DVD set in my hands yet, other people do and it really exists. Access to this has dogged me for over five years. I became somewhat obsessed with finding a copy when rumors started floating around that, despite the fact that the film did not have a distributor, Tarr himself was willing to sell copies. (This rumor seems absolutely absurd at this point, given what I now know about Bela Tarr.) Since this rumor was just that, I forgot about it, until a couple years later a friend said he knew a guy who had a copy and he could probably get a copy. (He has been reduce from friend to smack-talker, who obviously never produced a copy.) Once again, I threw in the towel assuming I would never see this film. (Ironically, bootlegs were popping up around this time, and I am glad I was distracted.) Then Facets announce in 2006 that they would be releasing the film on DVD with a release date that kept moving until finally the title just came off the release calendar. Once again, a dead end, but at least there was some hope. Then 2007 became the year of Bela Tarr in Minneapolis. Not only did Satantango get two screenings early in the year, but then got a third in the form of a retrospective and a visit by the man himself! Who needs a damn DVD! Well, I have subsequently been wanting to revisit the film, and it may as well be on DVD because I don't think it is coming back in theatrical form.

This release, two years in the waiting, is not without controversy, the most obvious being the reason for the wait itself. It seems that Tarr was relatively unforgiving regarding the quality of the transfer and obviously had a deal with Facets that it would not be released without his blessing. More power to him. Despite the grumblers, this release seems hard to pass up. Tarr's involvement seems to mostly stem from setting the greyscale to where he wants it, as this seems to be the marked difference between the Facet release and the UK Artifical Eye release last year. Not only that, the Facets DVD has a host of extras, including the two-shot made-for-TV Macbeth (1982), his short Prologue (2004) and Journey on the Plain (1995), in which actor-composer Mihaly Vig revisits the Satantango locations. At $50 at Deep Discount, this DVD is a steal, and I am really excited to own it. (Just looking at the screen shots again, I realize that I have no idea how to process this film.) Of course, being committed to this seven-and-a-half hour epic on DVD in one sitting would be hard (although I am planning a pot luck at my house for willing revelers this winter for just such a marathon.)

(If you have some time on your hands and are interested, check out the detailed comparison between the Artificial Eye release and the Facet release on DVD Beaver, and check out the epic release saga (which started in 2005) and its many facets (no pun intended) on the Criterion message board. Check out the amazing opening sequence on You Tube.)

Vampyr (1932) directed by Carl Theodore Dreyer
Just when you thought you got rid of those pesky black bars on the top and bottom of your favorite widescreen films with your new HD TV, get ready to go retro with the black bars on the side and beautiful digital mono sound. Vampyr has been available in the US for some time in the form of terrible VHS and a marginal DVD from Image Entertainment, but with an incorrect aspect ratio of 1.33. Criterion's new 2 disc set of Vampyr does everything it possible can to not only restore the quality of the original work, but make it available to just about as many people as possible. (If I were a rich person, a really rich person, I would be collecting prints, not DVDs, but this print would no doubt be out of reach.) The DVD set contains a new digital transfer in the correct aspect ratio of 1.19 from the German original, a 1966 documentary by Jørgen Roos chronicling Dreyer's career, commentary by Tony Rayns (who I could listen to all day), a "visual essay" by scholar Casper Tybjerg on Dreyer's influences in creating Vampyr, a radio broadcast from 1958 of Dreyer reading an essay about filmmaking (also good for the new HD TV), and a booklet full of stuff to read. A very very similar version will be released in the UK in August. It is with implied sarcasm that I note that this release is not anamorphic.

Help Me Eros (2007) directed by Lee Kang-sheng
Lowering the bar abit from Bela Tarr and Carl Dreyer comes this titillating surprise. Given how long it took for Wayward Cloud to surface in the US, I am surprised to see this released so soon. Lee Kang-sheng is better know as an actor who has a permanent place in Tsai Ming-liang's film. Help Me Eros is his second film as director and shows that he is no less modest or audacious than the platforms that Tsai sets up for him. Help Me Eros got mixed reviews, to say the least, and, if it isn't obvious, this film is not for everyone. However, anyone interested in Tsai Ming-liang would not want to miss at least the opportunity to check this film out.

High and Low (1963) directed by Akira Kurosawa
Like some kind of mean trick, Criterion releases High and Low, one of my favorite Kurosawa films, for a second time. If you were thinking about buying High and Low, now is the time. Criterion has added a bucket full of special features and a new transfer to what was a pretty bare-bone early release. And for those monitoring the spine numbers, this retains the #24 spine of the original release.

The Last Winter (2006) directed by Larry Fessenden
For those looking for an interesting horror film, The Last Winter is worth checking out. From the director of the equally interesting Wendingo (2001), Fessbenden creates a modern day folk tale in the heart of the Northern Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The ending may be somewhat overt, but the path there is pretty engaging.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hideo Nakata's KAIDAN

It is really no wonder that the absolute saturation of J-horror, even here in the US, can create eye-rolling in the best of us and out-in-out laughter in everyone else. In many ways Hideo Nakata started the entire avalanche in 1998 with Ring. Since then there have been so many similar films come down the pipe that it is hard to separate the worthwhile nuggets from the useless chaff. Although I have done my best to embrace the genre, I find myself getting tired of no-faced women with long hair (although Sion Sono's silly-sounding Exte: Hair Extensions is a very worthy diversion.) So it was a great relief to hear that Nakata himself was planning a period horror film in the tradition of Nobuo Nakagawa. I wrote about my excitement (here) last August when the film opened in Japan. I was immediately seduced by the beautiful production stills and equally as stunning trailer. (I would still encourage anyone with some time to check out the official website; just click on the circle at the center of the screen.) The DVD came out with English subs a couple months ago in Hong Kong, and a snatched it up. I finally got a chance to sit down and check this film out, and I was not disappointed.

The characters in Kaidan are all burdened with a tragic connection to fate and a curse that is more powerful than human will. When a humble but enterprising moneylender is murdered by a callous samurai who refuses to pay his debt, a curse, uttered in the throws of death, set the course for the film. Fast forward 20 years to the next generation, innocent to their parents connection, Shinkichi and Toyoshiga feel drawn to each other despite a difference in age and what might be seen as an inappropriate relationship. The more involved the two get, the more possessive Toyoshiga gets over the young and handsome Shinkichi who has many young admirers. Passions run high between the two of them with a chemistry that the viewer understands is powered by the curse of their parents. Things unravel in a manner that is neither surprising nor horrific, but undeniably compelling.

Kaidan is at the very least a grand homage, not only to the origins of Japanese horror but also to classic Japanese cinema, referencing the austere and precise aesthetic not only of Nakagawa, but also masters like Kenji Mizoguchi and Masaki Kobayashi. Nakata pays tribute without parody creating an overall visually stunning experience with every frame, something that is evident with the screenshots. Although the most memorable elements of Kaidan may be the aesthetic, the remaining components render nothing less than an absorbing film. Kikunosuke Onoe and Hitomi Kuroki as the two leads are taught with emotion yet graceful in their expressions of these emotions. Kaidan may not break any new ground, dolling out the mainstay fog over the lake and bewitching ghosts that float to the surface, but provides a certain amount of comfort without being lazy.

It's rewarding to watch Nakata confidently work outside what has so far been a niche comfort zone and succeed with such a strong film. (Nakata has subsequently sprung back into the realm of fanboy fodder with a sequel to the very popular Death Note series, L: Change the World.) Unfortunately, Kaidan has nowhere near the cult marketing potential of his previous films and it remains to be seen whether or not it will get a US release on DVD.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Where did the week go?

I have returned from my journey to the west, but have yet to be visibly productive. But. I am here promising that I am busy working on things, some that will appear on this very blog and some that won't. Mostly I'm just trying to catch up with everything that has happened since I was gone. Just for starters:
  • Tony Leung and Carina Lau really did get married! After years (19 to be exact) and multiple rumors that these two long term companions have tied the knot, it seems they have really done it. The wedding took place in Bhutan, and for those who just can't believe it, check out this wedding photo and news story here.
  • The Lagoon, part of the "nation's largest theatre chain dedicated to exhibiting and marketing independent film," is using three of their five screens for mainstream releases, two for Batman and one for Mama Mia. (And for those who think Landmark is simply making smart choices for quality large releases, read this hilarious review of Mama Mia in the NYT here.) And while I totally under why they might do this (it's not like there is a shortage of people in Uptown), but it makes me sad. It also makes me wonder what the Lagoon is not showing in the place of Batman and Mama Mia. Mad Detective? The Exiles? The Roman Polanski documentary? I'm still torqued that the Herzog film Encounters at the End of the World only played one week - the week I was out of town! (I skipped this at MSPIFF thinking I would catch it when it was released....not!)
  • The Chinese continue to battle the running dogs looking to sabotage the Olympics. If its not those darn protesters or that nasty pollution its the bumper crop of locusts.
  • Speaking of Batman, people seemed to have lost their minds about the winged one, or at least the movie he's in. Don't try to go to a evening showing of The Dark Knight at the multiplex without movie phone, because it will probably sell out. The Dark Knight is a good movie, but is it really that good? I also picture the suits thrilled that they picked Heath Ledger for the Joker (admittedly a standout performance amongst average showings from the rest of the cast), and were able to cash in on this man's tragic fate. I am just surprised how The Dark Knight has turned into a sort of film event where sold out theaters are filled with a collective energy of anticipation.
  • While people were going gaga for Batman here in the US, South Korea was distracted by Kim Ji-Woon's highly anticipated 'Kimchi Western' The Good, The Bad, and the Weird and China was busy romancing with the Three Kingdoms in the form of John Woo's Red Cliff and Japan was getting giddy with Hayao Miyazaki's new animated feature Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea. Who knows what was going on across the Atlantic....
  • How can it be that the one movie I miss in Loring Park is Duck Soup? A travesty.
  • And lastly, I am awash with edible green things. Why did I plant so much kale?

Saturday, July 12, 2008


Yes, I get a vacation. Not only from Minneapolis, but from the computer. The blog will be dormant and I will come back in a week with Twin Cities film culture vigor!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

DVD releases for July 8

Batman: Gotham Knight
Yeah, I know, this seems like a cheap marketing ploy for the pre-Dark Knight excitement, but I'm willing to guess it may be a little more worthwhile than that. Although this has DC Comics and Warner Brothers and "from the producers of the Dark Knight" written all over it, what isn't readily evident is the production team that will make these six straight to video animated episodes worth watching. First and foremost, the animation was done by Japan's Studio 4°C, Production I.G. and Madhouse (in other word easily the three best production studio in Japan.) Secondly, all five directors hail from across the Pacific and have contributed to various animation projects: Shoujirou Nishimi (Mind Game, Tekkonkinkreet), Futoshi Higashide (Giant Robo), Hiroshi Morioka (.hack//SIGN), Toshiyuki Kubooka (Gunbuster, BAOH), and Jong-Sik Nam (BASTof Syndrome). What all that says is that there was actually some careful planning behind this project even if the dollar signs were the motivator. The dark, moody look of the animation perfectly mimics that of Batman Begins and, maybe even more so, The Dark Knight. (Arkham Asylum anyone?) Gotham Knight is the perfect filler for the 10 days we have to wait for The Dark Knight.

Chop Shop (2007) directed by Ramin Bahrani
Perhaps one of the most depressing things so far in my 2008 movie-going experiences is being the soul viewer on the night I went to the Parkway Theater to see this poetic film. Obviously, that was just one night in its two-week run at the Parkway, so no doubt more people saw this film. BUT I regretted that the Parkway's gamble on this arthouse gem (that no one else was screening in town) seemed to be a failure. It's a great film: unassuming and very well-acted by the two young stars.

The Tracy Fragments (2007) directed by Bruce McDonald
Ellen Page (before she was Juno and after she was Hayley Stark as a character that is oddly somewhere in between) stars in this film that made the rounds via festivals. Hailing from Canada, this film looks promising, but a brief look at other's reviews do not look too good. Despite my best intentions, I missed this screening at the local film festival.

Bat Without Wings (1980) directed by Chor Yuen
A hilariously muddled supernatural wuxia flick from the Shaw Brothers, with an appearance by a Gene Simmons look-a-like. The plot is a head-scratcher, but the details of the sets and costumes and pre-CGI special effects are really great. Personally, I love this movie, but don't hold that against me.

So Much Rice (2007) directed by Li Hongqi
Here's kind of an interesting DVD to come along, although I can't tell you much about it. From Mainland novelist and poet, an "ineffably eccentric debut, centred on an enigmatic sexual triangle, with an amazing score by cult musician Zuoxiao Zuzhou." (BFI) These are the kind of films that make me glad I do actually subscribe to a DVD service.

The Future is Unwritten (2007) directed by Julian Temple
There is no shortage of Joe Strummer and/or Clash documentaries, but this seems to be one of the best.

Stop-Loss (2008) directed by Kimberly Peirce
I refuse to believe that this film is as bad as the trailer and the screaming MTV sponsorship insists, and most of the critics back me up on this. Stop-Loss is Kimberly Peirce's first film in nine years, since the award-winning but no less controversial Boys Don't Cry.

Mon Oncle Antoine (1971) directed by Claude Jutra
Greatest Canadian film of all time? Really?

Saturday, July 5, 2008

DVD releases for July 1

Happy July. Maybe not the best week in DVD releases, but whatever.

My Blueberry Nights (2007) directed by Wong Kar Wai
First, let me say that I was disappointed with My Blueberry Nights. It is not, however, a bad film by any means. I attempted to articulate my disappointment when I first saw the Hong Kong DVD earlier this year, but found myself being way too snarky and totally unable to see this film outside of Wong's repertoire. If I could, I think I would find many things to appreciate about this film, but, believe it or not, I am still coming off the high that 2046 provided. My Blueberry Nights, Wong's English language debut, pales in comparison to the depths he was willing to mine in his Hong Kong films. A lot rides on the performance of Norah Jones who plays our heroine Elizabeth. I have to admit that the first fifteen minutes is painful with some of the most self conscious acting I have seen from so-called stars, Jude Law included. But once the film settles and Jones stops emoting and simply relies on that dreamy, hard to resist look of hers, she becomes a much more compelling lead. Opinions vary, but I think Natalie Portman steals the show as the sassy gambler.

Mishima (1985) directed by Paul Schrader and Patriotism (1966) directed by Yukio Mishima
Just in time for the 4th of July, you can visit Yukio Mishima's version of patriotism. Patriotism is his own adaptation of a short story he had written that not so ironically mirrors his own eventual suicide. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters is Paul Schrader's poetic portrayal of this fascinating man. A great double feature that I plan on partaking in at some point. (Both are really nice Criterion releases.)

A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory (2007) directed by Esther Robinson
A fascinating documentary about the man who was not only at one time Andy Warhol's lover but was also responsible for some of the most interesting experimental films that came out of the Factory. However, the personality mish-mash that was the scene of the Factory seemed to be too much for Williams who disappeared in 1966 never to be heard from again. A Walk Into the Sea is a very personal inquiry by William's niece to discover not only a family secret but also an individual was missing from the typical annals of the Warhol Factory history. This doc is full of some amazing and revealing interviews with family members and Factory revelers.

City of Men (2007) directed by Paulo Morelli
This film had a very short run here. It had the look of a film very familiar (most notably of course City of God) and very predictable. That being said, it was showered with positive review and is probably worth more than the inevitable comparisons.

Sunflower (2005) directed by Zhang Yuan
This melodrama from Zhang Yuan is a quiet gem of recent Mainland films, giving life to the city of Beijing, available just in time for the Olympics. The film focuses on a father-son relationship tainted by the father's experiences during the Cultural Revolution.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Alex Cox proposes REPO CHICK

As reported in Screen Daily, Alex Cox is shopping a sequel to his 1984 mega-cult hit Repo Man, entitled Repo Chick. As you might expect it an updated version of the life and times within the repossession business with a female in the lead. Very very few details as of yet besides that "the film will feature some of the same cast," but not Emilio Estevez or Henry Dean Stanton. (I'm not sure what that really means, other than that cast members we don't actually remember will be in the new film.)

The concept sounds awesome, but obviously a lot hinges on just who will play the repo chick. Repo Chick has the potential to go Hollywood dumb or independent cool. Cox's last film was Revengers Tragedy, a sci-fi Thomas Middleton drama that I saw via UK import DVD prior to its delayed domestic release. Revengers Tragedy is brilliantly cast with British actors: Christopher Eccleston, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Booth, Eddie Izzard and many many more.

Considering that he is scheduled to shoot a film called Briefcase in 2009, chances are we will not see hide nor hair of Repo Chick for some time. Cox has a new book out entitled X-Films - True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker, out now in the UK and due out in the US in September.

Check out Cox's website here.
Read the Screen Daily story here.