Wednesday, October 29, 2008

DVD releases for October 28

Nothing too super-duper exciting, but there are some possibilities here:

Body of War - The True Story of an Anti-hero (2007) directed by Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro
Phil Donahue, the original talk show host, was no patsy when it came to speaking out against the war in Iraq. Donahue and co-director Ellen Spiro focus on a more personal view of the war from Tomas Young, an Iraq War veteran paralyzed from a bullet to the spine. This documentary received good words from people who have seen it. The number of stories in this war is nearly match by the number of worthy documentaries.

Yesterday Girl (1966) directed by Alexander Kluge
This looks awesome, but I admit to knowing nothing about the film or Alexander Kluge except the information I just scanned from a google search. Like this convincing preamble: " acerbic, deliriously fractured, incisive, and darkly comic satire on a young German woman (and archetypal embodiment of the postwar generation), Anita G.'s (Alexandra Kluge) search for happiness, liberation, and independence in the illusive wake of a transformative national recovery (a parallel history of postwar reformation not unlike Japan's recovery)." (From Strictly Film School.)

Tuya's Marriage (2006) directed by Wang Quan'an
This film is much better and much less predictable than it looks (like half of the other Mainland films of this ilk.) This played at MSPIFF. Here's more recycling on my part (a capsule review that I guess I will stand by): "Wang Quan’an’s epic tragedy harks back to the “fifth-generation” filmmakers that brought Mainland Chinese film to world attention twenty years ago. Tuya is the sole provider for her paralyzed husband and two young children until health concerns of her own threaten to take away their livelihood. Tuya’s pragmatic and resilient character is not only the heart and soul of the film, but also adds refreshing life to a familiar story. Cleverly paced with little adornment, the beautiful vistas are as prevalent as the unrelenting circumstances. Shot in Inner Mongolia, Tuya’s Marriage captures the simple herding life that is fast disappearing as economic development engulfs China.

I Love Beijing (2001) directed by Ning Ying
I'm embarrassed that I haven't seen any of Ning Ying's films. She is a well-respected Mainland director who even had a mini retrospective of her film at the Harvard Film Archive a few years back.

A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory (2007) directed by Esther Robinson
I bragged about this coming out on July 1...? Sometimes I have no idea what is happening. Why does the world vex me so? Anyway. This played at the Walker earlier this year. Honestly, the story about Williams is much more interesting than his films, or at least the ones that seem to be his. Whether or not he shot more of the Factory films is all part of the mystery. Absolutely required viewing for people interesting in Warhol with its interviews with people who were there.

Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976) directed by Yasuharu Hasede
Japanese sexploitation, if you please. Hasede did the well known and widely available Black Tight Killers. Don't expect any more subtleties than what is implied in the cover. Viewer discretion is advised on the above link to the trailer.

Monday, October 27, 2008


I will take some bragging rights that I bought "I Could Live in Hope" off the shelf at Cheapo records in 1994. I fell in love with this music that I could only describe as something like sad optimism that was gentle and intense all at the same time. Since then, their music has grown even more complicated despite the slo-core moniker. "The Great Destroyer" made me realize that our local band had launched beyond my bubble. Reviews nationwide were overwhelmingly glowing.

David Kleijwegt's documentary about the band, and more specifically about husband and wife members Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk, reflects some of the same complexities and contradictions of the music in lead singer Sparhawk himself. At the heart of this contradiction is Parker and Sparhawk's Mormonism. As ridiculous and one-dimensional as it sounds, it is hard to imagine musicians, especially musicians you respect, being a part of the same church as those young men in the white shirts always trying to save me. But Sparhawk represents his faith as unwavering in light of, and more to the point, because of his own imperfections.

Low is, of course, from Duluth, a town that is readily adopted by Twin Citians as their own. They have put out eight full length CDs, five EPs, a Christmas CD, a fantastic 3 CD/1 DVD box of B-sides and rarities, and also a subject of one of the best remix CDs ever entitled Owl. They show up in town often as a "local" band, annually doing a Christmas show at First Ave in December and most recently at Radio K's 15th anniversary show. They have always been an enigmatic band that refuses categorizing, and the documentary is a compliment to that.

Sparhawk suffered something of a breakdown a couple of years ago that sent him to the hospital. Sparhawk talks around the incident with mumbled vagueness: as being delusional and manic and even eludes to the believe that he might be the anti-Christ. It becomes pretty clear that Sparhawk's feelings run pretty deep regardless of whether he is talking about his religion, the state of the world, or his music. Some of his opinions are strange and difficult for me to reconcile, so I can't imagine how these things reconcile themselves in his head. But that is really one of the brilliant things about the documentary: like every other individual out there, you can't simply pigeon-hole someone with a label. Whether it's Mormon, musician, or drug addict, people are infinitely more complex and interesting.

The documentary takes place post "Drums and Guns" on tour and at home with Parker and Sparhawk and their two young kids. There's some nice Duluth footage, as well as a brilliant scene at their home where Sparhawk is downstairs rocking out with the band as Parker is upstairs trying to manage the kids. Some of the impromptu acoustic performances with Sparhawk and Parker are nothing short of beautiful. Kleijwegt does an excellent job of providing intimate interviews that never exploit and tour footage that never becomes dull. But then again, I'm a fan.

Low: You May Need a Murderer screens again on Wednesday, October 29 at 9:15pm at St Anthony Main as part of the Sound Unseen 9.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Masahiro Kobayashi's BASHING

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Masahiro Kobayashi's Bashing is that it is uncompromising in its condemnation of Japanese society. And this is not light praise. It opens stating that "This film is a fiction loosely based on real events." Indeed, in 2004 three Japanese civilians, two journalists and one aid worker, were kidnapped in Iraq in an attempt to get Japan to pull it's 1100 non-combat soldiers out of Iraq. Originally advised not to travel to Iraq, the hostages returned home to signs saying "You got what you deserve." Seen as an embarrassment to the entire country, the three were ostracized and simply went into hiding.

Bashing echoes many aspects of the real story—right down to verbiage used in negotiations by the Japanese Foreign Ministry—modeling the lead character, Yuko, after the young female aid worker who was in Iraq helping children. The film begins six months after Yuko's return to Japan, trying to hold down a job and move on with her life. But the harassment from strangers, co-workers, acquaintances is overwhelming in the small seaside town. Yuko's social suffocation is palpable with only her father standing by her, albeit silently. Yuko is a young woman, emotionally unequipped to handle the situation. Resigned to the circumstances, it is hard not to be frustrated by Yuko's helplessness (turning the guilt of 'blaming the victim' on the audience.)

The film itself is an austere contemplation of complex human emotions. It is far to personal and intimate to encompass the whole of Japan, instead focusing on society distilled down to individuals in a small community. Bashing is pared also down to a minimal pallet and mere ambient sound which adds to the oppression. Moments of beauty, spare as they are, exists in the grey sky and sea outside Yuko's apartment that she shares with her father and stepmother.

Morality is unavoidable in this incredibly unjust story that would be easy to write off as an exaggerated account if you weren't aware of the actual events. Fusako Urabe's performance initially seems one-dimensional until her shy character starts to reveal complexities that no doubt existed far before leaving for Iraq. Urabe's nuance only becomes evident near the end of the film when she gives a heartfelt (and devastating) explanation of her feelings to her stepmother. Poignantly, it's Yuko's personal desires ("selfishness") that lead an entire nation to condemn her.

Few films are so pointed and yet so subtle as Bashing. Yet its oeuvre is so slight it feels as though it might just float away before your eyes. To Kobayashi's credit, he resists a heavy-handed approach, leaving the film and the actors to speak for themselves without the burden of contrivances and devices. I took note of Bashing after I read about it at its debut at Canes three years ago. But the local disdain for the film seemed to quash any potential international play. It played at scattered film festivals gathering little momentum. The fact that it has resurfaced on DVD here in the US is a testament to tenacity.

Bashing was recently released by Facets on DVD.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Sound Unseen 9

This year's edition of Sound Unseen started, uh, yesterday. Fortunately the Star Tribune has done a very comprehensive overview of the fest and the films (in today's paper and in the free VitaMN), alleviating my guilt. The great thing about most of the films is they are repeated, so if you miss them the first time (which I undoubtedly will) you get a second chance. Outside of Dead Man and Rust Never Sleeps (which both rock in their own individual ways) and the Wholphin shorts (I am a sucker for DVD subscriptions), I can't comment on any of the films. Over all some pretty rave reviews in the Strib, which is great to see. I have seen many-an-unexpected gems at past Sound Unseens, and I'm sure this year's will be no different.

Sound Unseen 9 official website here.
VitaMN's rundown of the films here.

Sigur Rós: cool, sensitive, Icelandic and playing tonight.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

DVD releases for October 21

There's some other stuff out this week, but I am being lazy. Here's the top of the heap:

Kenji Mizoguchi's Fallen Women from Eclipse
Wow. This set from Eclipse includes: Osaka Elegy (1936), Sisters of Gion (1936), Women of the Night (1948), and Street of Shame (1956). Have any of these films ever been available or in circulation with English subtitles? Well, I haven't seen a damn one of them but plan on buying this set so I can savor them.

Flight of the Red Balloon (2007) directed by Hou Hsiao-hsein
One of the best films I have seen this year, full of cinematic beauty and overall a celebration of the medium. Inspired by Albert Lamorisse's charming The Red Balloon and commissioned by the Musee d'Orsay, Flight of the Red Balloon is more than meets the eye. Hou hardly misses a beat in the Paris setting and creates is a beautiful companion peice to his 2004 film Cafe Lumiere. Juliette Binoche is unusual and effective as a character she and Hou collaborated in molding.

Missing (1982) directed by Costa-Gavras
What a great film for Criterion to choose. Missing has sort of faded from my mind, but this new release seems perfectly timed. (Maybe even better timed than W.) Jack Lemon plays Ed who travels to Chile to try and find his missing son and ends up making discoveries he did not expect. I will not tell you any more. Sissy Spacek also stars.

The Strangers (2008) directed by Bryan Bertino
A fine horror film that I am also fond of. There is some serious suspense in The Strangers that eventually gives out to a lame ending. Nonetheless. An awesome movie for Halloween! (Fans should also check out the very interesting French film Ils (Them) from 2004. The two would be a great Halloween double feature!)

Billy the Kid (2007) directed by Jennifer Venditti
Wasn't there some local aspect to this film? Is Jennifer Venditti from here? I can't remember. This film played at the Parkway for a week this past Spring. It is a coming-of-age documentary about an interesting kid. It comes off as honest and genuine.

And finally, if you are Region 2 (PAL or Blu-ray) capable, there is only one DVD to buy:

Monday, October 20, 2008

Xie Jin R.I.P.

Legendary and award winning Chinese film director Xie Jin died at the age of 84 this past weekend. Xie didn't make many films that had much of an international impact, but he and his films are very well known in China. Xie directed 19 features, the first (Woman Basketball Player No. 9) in 1957 and his last (Woman Soccer Player No. 9) in 2001 (ironically coming full circle.) His 1961 adaptation of The Red Detachment of Women (which later became a popular ballet, especially during the Cultural Revolution) is a brilliant piece of Communist propaganda about a peasant woman's rise in the Communist ranks. More recently, he directed Hibiscus Town (1986) which won Best Picture at China's Golden Rooster Awards in 1997. He duplicated his award winning success with The Opium War in 1997 which had the biggest budget for Mainland film to date (no doubt having something to do with the Hong Kong handover.) He was found unconscious in a hotel room.

For the obsessive importers the DVDs can be found here: The Red Detachment of Women, Two Actresses aka Stage Sisters (1965), Legend of Tianyun Mountain (1980) and The Herdsman. The Opium War and Hibiscus Town seems to be unavailable with English subtitles.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Takashi Miike's CROWS ZERO

Watching Takashi Miike's films is like watching some sort of mad genius at work, occasionally leaning toward mad and occasionally leaning toward genius. What seems purely random is his ability, every now and again, to transcend his straight-to-video cult reputation. It's easy to assume that Miike is purely a shoot-from-the-hip director—master of his own reality—resulting in three to five films a year that range from awful to masterful. His refusal to adhere to genre and his policy of never refusing a project is underlined in every film he makes. Regardless, sometimes the mix is just right; I might even go so far to say that occasionally he reaches some sort of perfection in his stylistic mash-ups with the best example being Gozu, combining comedy, drama and melodrama with twinges of Lynchian surreality and yakuza brutality and visceral horror. Miike's recent Crows Zero comes so close to finding a yankii ne plus ultra, it is easy for me to forgive it for its minor shortcomings.

Crows Zero is a loose adaptation of the manga Crows which takes place in the rough and tumble world of Suzuran All-boys High School. The school earns the nicknamed 'The Crows School' from the delinquents and hang-abouts that fit the image. Classes hardly fit into this anarchistic microcosm where factions fight for king of the hill. Enter Genji, a transfer student who has but one mission: to rule Suzuran. Genji seems more than up to the task, but he realizes very quickly that he is going to have to do more than just bang a few heads together to earn the respect and the momentum needed to take down Suzuran's reigning gang lead by the more-than-meets-the-eye Tamao. Genji enlists a two-bit yakuza and Suzuran alumni, Ken, to help him out on some of the more diplomatic nuances of becoming number one.

Although there is enough hand-to-hand man-to-man down-in-the-dirt fighting to keep any delinquent wannabe happier than a clam, Crows Zero is much more than testosterone stare-downs and tough-guy swaggers. The opening sequence is a rare mixture of comedy and action as Tamao displays his incompentence in driving a moped. He nonetheless speeds through the streets dodging people and cops alike. Due to his aggressive mis-handling of the tiny moped—including accepting a challenge to 'chicken' with a squad car—the bike proceeds to fall apart, replete with "boing" sound effects. Tamao's hilariously silly ride on the mini bike is bookended by a full-on freshman class fight in the gymnasium and Genji wiping up the local yakuza, with minimal throws of the fists. It's an intro of no restraint that blindsides you with it's sheer unexpectedness.

Despite the violence, the film is much more tender than you might expect. Self-destruction aside, the heart and soul of the film are boys struggling to become men. Genji is a boy in the shadow of his yakuza father (a minor role played by the excellent Goro Kishitani.) His father has promised him the family business if he can truly rule Suzuran High, a set-up that is no doubt more of a learning experience than a real possibility for Genji. Likewise, the characters are not one-dimensional brutes without feelings. Genji's insecurities are in full view as his friendship with Ken develops with genuine trust and respect. Conversely, Ken's weakness as a yakuza gives over to admiration of Genji's youthful pursuits of respect and honor. Miike refuses to trivialize the male bonding as anything other than part of a right of passage to adulthood. He even goes so far as to create a triangle involving Tokio, Tamao's rock solid number two man, who used to be good friends with Genji in junior high. In Crows Zero, love exists outside of gender in loyalty and who you are willing to cut off an ear for.

The fights are a satisfying combination of Shaolin Soccer and Nowhere To Hide, mad with CGI and effects, and the raw mano a mano of Blue Spring and Spirit of Jeet Kune Do (keeping in mind that none of those films are 'fight films' but films that have fighting.) The violence never veers over-the-top, a la Ichi, but stays within the lines of acceptable stylized action. If Crows Zero is going to be blamed for going over-the-top, it will be for the melodrama of the showdown fight. With rain pouring down on our young ruffian heroes, Miike goes into unforgivable theatrical overdrive intercutting Tokio's brain operation with Ruka's love ballad with the ultimate tough-guy slow-mo fist flying. It would have made a great music video, but it is completely excessive and actually pulled be out of the adrenaline pumping action.

Crows Zero doesn't necessarily mark new territory for Miike. Substitute the yakuza for the yankii, and there are a good dozen films that explore similar themes. The success of Crows in Japan probably has less to do with Miike himself, than the familiarity of the manga and the popularity of the young cast. Specifically, Shun Oguri, Takayuki Yamada, and Sousuke Takaoka, all young actors greeted by young girl's squeals. Their characters may be ready to bust some heads, but they will not do so with out looking really good. When Crows opened at number one in Japan last year, it was reported to many people's surprise that the audience ratio was 43 males to 57 females. For a film that is clearly directed at the young men, it is no wonder it did so well.

Crows Zero was Miike's biggest hit so far in Japan (Crows Zero II is now in post-production), but don't expect that to translate into anything on these shores. Miike had his breakout film nine years ago with Audition, and interest in his films seems to have plateaued. His fans, your truly included, will no doubt be loyal to a fault, taking in the good with the bad, but being exhilarated every step of the way.

Crows Zero is currently available as a Region 3 DVD from Taiwan, and is slated to get a US release via Media Blasters.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

DVD releases for October 7 and October 14

It's hard to suggest renting a DVD when there are so many good things going on in theaters right now. I certainly hope that is the case where you are. However if you are stuck in the house with chicken pox or are simply a shut-in, here are a few options from this week and last:

October 7th
Touch of Evil 50th Anniversary Edition (1958) directed by Orson Welles
You can't really go wrong with Touch of Evil, and it seems, from the comparison here on DVD Talk, pretty substantial improvements have been made to the picture quality. This edition includes three versions of the film: a "preview version" (a test print, not approved by Welles), the "theatrical version" (part appeasement to Welles, part blowing off Welles) and finally the "restored version" (producer Rick Schmidlin, editor Walter Murch, critic Jonathan Rosenbaum's 1998 reworking to Welles specific notes.) There are also commentary tracks to make watching and re-watching different versions of this film more interesting. All this may seem like a bit much, but it is a really great movie, some say Welles greatest.

Paranoid Park (2007) directed by Gus Van Sant
I sincerely enjoyed this film, but I am surprise at how quickly it has left my mind. It is a beautiful yet understated film that echoes some of the same aesthetics Van Sant was exploring in Gerry, Elephant and Last Days. Although his upcoming film, Milk, looks to be something different altogether, I am very very very excited about it.

Boy A (2007) directed by John Crowley
Watch this movie for one of the best performances of the year. (Actually it was from last year, but whatever.) I had more to say about this film here.

Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966) and Le Doulos (1962) directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Jean-Pierre Melville film from Criterion.

Slacker Uprising (2007) directed by Michael Moore
I don't know. This is free on the internet, but if that is too weird you can rent it now too. I just don't know what to think about Michael Moore anymore, but I'm having a little trouble getting enthusiastic about this doc. Please just vote, because you know those people at the McCain rally in Lakeville last week are going to.

October 14
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) directed by Cristian Mungui
I don't understand why this is listed as a new release...perhaps it just gives me another chance to recommend or reminds me that I would like to see it again.

Mongol (2007) directed by Sergei Bodrov
Another 'man-behind-the-megalomaniac' movie that would be tired if I didn't like Asano Tadanobu so much. Much of the epic focuses on Temüjin (Genghis Khan's name before he became Genghis Khan) youth and young adulthood and the circumstances leading to his rise to power. Much of the story is predictable even if you don't know the history, and I guess I was hoping for something a little more interesting from the director of the quirky melodrama Schitzo.

Standard Operating Procedure (2008) directed by Errol Morris
More thought provoking than informative, Morris examines the "truth" behind the most notorious photographs in the world. Through interviews with people involved with Abu Ghraib, from Brigadair General Janis Karpiski to the "bad apples" themselves, to dig deeper than the knee-jerk reaction solicited by the photos.

Edge of Heaven (2007) directed by Fatih Akin
A thoughtful and sensitive drama about people from different places making life altering connections. This played at MSPIFF and had a short run here in the Twin Cities. Edge of Heaven paints a picture of fate that, at times, is slightly implausible, but it is unique in the very real issues of family, class and race it touches upon.

XXY (2007) directed by Lucia Puenzo
As gender modification and surgery becomes more and more sophisticated, the more complex gender identity becomes. Coming-of-age is completely different for Alex, who is 15 years-old and an intersexual—neither male nor female, but both. It boldly puts forth the notion that perhaps Alex doesn't need to choose a gender and might simply exist as a unique individual. There is something very sweet and genuine about the film without glossing over the cruel nature of society toward someone "different." XXY screened at this summer's Queer Takes.

Revenge of a Kabuki Actor (1963) directed by Kon Ichikawa
For a second I thought I hadn't seen this film and that Ichikawa has two very similar films out there, but this is indeed An Actor's Revenge. It's is a fantastic film that is not only unbelievably beautiful, but amazingly acted by Kasuo Hasegawa. The tagline is brilliant: "Only a man can portray the perfect woman—and only a perfect woman can wreak the perfect revenge." Ichikawa dies earlier this year at the age of 92.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Godard @ the Oak Street

Although the three-day run of Contempt, with the fabulous (cue French accent) Brigette Bardot, is over, there are five more films left to go in the Oak Street's mini Godard retrospective. The Oak Street's future is a mystery shrouded in an enigma, and whether or not films will be playing there a month from now is anyone's guess. However. Supporting Minnesota Film Arts right now also means you get to see a good film as well. (I would like to suggest a membership to MFA, but until the board and the powers that be decide to release some sort of plan, like, anything at all, there are probably better places to give your money.) If you need added incentive, they have 50 cent Mountain Dews in cool cans and a shelf of dollar candies. Be there, or don't be square (all reviews borrowed from the masters of the capsule review at Time Out):

Band of Outsiders (1964)
October 13-14, 7pm and 9pm
"Godard at his most off-the-cuff takes a 'Série Noire' thriller (Fool's Gold by Dolores Hitchens) and spins a fast and loose tale that continues his love affairs with Hollywood and with actress Anna Karina. Karina at her most naive is taken up by two self-conscious toughs ('The little suburban couins of Belmondo in A Bout de Souffle', is how Godard described them), and they try to learn English, do extravagant mimes of the death of Billy the Kid, execute some neat dance steps, run around the Louvre at high speed, and rob Karina's aunt with disastrous consequences. One of Godard's most open and enjoyable films."

Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966)
October 15-16, 7pm and 9pm
"Despite some time-bound concerns and irritating conceits, the sheer energy of Godard's dazzling sociological fable is enough to commend it. Paris and prostitution, seen through 24 hours in the life of a housewife-prostitute (Vlady), tell a story of selling yourself to buy happiness, but getting paid in bad dreams. A fictional documentary of Alphaville's nightmare, its virtuoso display of confession and analysis, the sublime and ridiculous, show Godard's deft grasp of the subversive nature of laughter and passions. Too good to miss."

Breathless (1959)
October 17-19, 7pm and 9pm with 5pm matinee on Saturday and Sunday
"Godard's first feature, adapted from an existing scenario written by François Truffaut, spins a pastiche with pathos as joyrider Belmondo shoots a cop, chases friends and debts across a night-time Paris, and falls in love with a literary lady. Seberg quotes books and ideas and names; Belmondo measures his profile against Bogart's, pawns a stolen car, and talks his girlfriend into a cash loan 'just till midday'. The camera lavishes black-and-white love on Paris, strolling up the Champs-Elysées, edging across café terraces, sweeping over the rooftop skyline, Mozart mixing with cool jazz riffs in the night air. The ultimate night-time film noir noir noir... until Belmondo pulls his own eyelids shut when he dies. More than any other, this was the film which epitomised the iconoclasm of the early Nouvelle Vague, not least in its insolent use of the jump-cut."

Alphaville (1965)
October 20-21, 7pm and 9pm
"One of Godard's most sheerly enjoyable movies, a dazzling amalgam of film noir and science fiction in which tough gumshoe Lemmy Caution turns inter-galactic agent to re-enact the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice by conquering Alpha 60, the strange automated city from which such concepts as love and tenderness have been banished. As in Antonioni's The Red Desert (made the previous year), Godard's theme is alienation in a technological society, but his shotgun marriage between the poetry of legend and the irreverence of strip cartoons takes the film into entirely idiosyncratic areas. Not the least astonishing thing is the way Raoul Coutard's camera turns contemporary Paris into an icily dehumanised city of the future."

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)
October 22-23, 7pm and 9pm
'Put a tiger in my tank' says Belmondo to an outraged Esso pump attendant... and the voyage begins. Pierrot le Fou was a turning-point in Godard's career, the film in which he tried to do everything (and almost succeeded). It's the tragic tale of a last romantic couple fleeing Paris for the South of France. But then again it's a painting by Velazquez (says Godard); or the story of a bourgeois hubby eloping with the babysitter; a musical under the high-summer pine trees; or a gangster story (with Karina the moll and Belmondo the sucker). She was never more cautious about her love; he was never more drily self-aware; and the film agonises for two hours over a relationship that is equal parts nonsense and despair. In desperation he finally kills her and himself while the camera sweeps out over a majestic Mediterranean sea. And a voice mockingly asks: 'Eternity? No, it's just the sun and the sea'."

MFA website here with full details.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

John Erick Dowdle's QUARANTINE

Sometimes a smart movie is simply an entertaining movie. And sometimes an entertaining movie has no more intellect than roller coaster ride. Quarantine is as straightforward as you average roller coaster—simple, predictable, and, if you are interested in such things, fun. Like a martyr, I'll take it upon myself to give voice to this critically cast aside film that seeks an audience who could care less about reviews.

Quarantine is another bastard child of first-person video forays that found marketable legitimacy in The Blair Witch Project and reality television. Let's forget about placing hyperbolic intellectual properties to this style and call it a market driven format that has low production costs with potentially high returns. And God knows, if there is something that "works" (i.e. makes money), Hollywood will keep doing it until it doesn't work. Quarantine acknowledges this with a refreshing candor and absolutely no pretense. It's low budget; it's horror; have a good time.

We're watching unedited footage from a program presumably called Night Shift, shot by cameraman Scott and hosted by the perky but amateur Angela. This episode features the LA Fire Department and we watch as Angela interviews the captain and crew and maintains a good attitude with locker room jokes and crass comments. Angela and Scott are mostly just killing time in hopes that they get to go on a call. As luck would have it, once we have gotten to know a couple of the firefighters just enough to be invested in their characters, they sirens go off. The call is to an apartment building where neighbors have heard a woman screaming. Well, as you may have guessed, this woman has turned into some kind of maniacal flesh eating humanoid who moves very slow until she gets hungry. As it would happen, the woman is carrying a contagion that is passed through bodily fluids. The authorities seal the people in to contain the spread of the "disease" and a mayhem that you might be able to imagine ensues.

Quarantine had a pretty major marketing campaign, with a hard hitting trailer that was able to get your adrenaline pumping in no time. The lack of a press screening for the film would generally mean that the film sucks, and while it is no Casablanca, the people who decide to spend their hard earned money on this movie are not looking for Casablanca. I appreciate Quarantine for not trying to be too clever or cheeky. We are not burdened with the subtext of "these tapes were discovered in an abandon building six months after blah blah blah" or rationalizing for an irrational plot. The camera just keeps rolling and once everyone in the building has been consumed by their rapid brethren, movie over! (Fortunately, one of the last ones to bite it is the cameraman.) No prologue; no epilogue; we get it.

I like a good roller coaster in the same way I like a good horror film. Scare me a little bit and get my heart pumping and I've gotten my $6 worth. Quarantine does its job. (For what its worth, lead actress Jennifer Carpenter deserved some credit for going from perky TV host, to serious shit-hits-the-fan anchor, to a woman over the edge displaying a sustained hysteria that's impressive.) Given the bloated egos of many of the films in theaters right now (Blindness, Body of Lies, Appaloosa, Eagle Eye, Righteous Kill), I'll take Quarantine any day.

Friday, October 10, 2008


I was introduced to Mike Leigh's films in 1989 when I saw High Hopes at the Tivoli Theater in KC, MO. I was a recent transplant, and although Kansas City may not be the end all cultural Meca, it was worlds away from the amber waves of grains that I had come from. All of the sudden my world of film got much bigger, broadened not only by the two arthouse theaters in town (the Tivoli and the Fine Arts Theater, where I eventually found employment, although I wouldn't call it gainful) but also by a rich mixture of avant guard film and media artists brought in by the Kansas City Art Institute where I was gittin' meself edgemacated. The Tivoli played the High Hopes trailer for what seemed to be months and it is firmly stuck in my head. When it finally opened, I was enamored with it's mixture of comedy, humanism and ethereal sadness. Shortly after, I encountered an article that chronicled Leigh's work in television and a highly praised first feature he made in 1971 entitled Bleak Moments. Although my feverish attempt to find a copy of Bleak Moments was fruitless, it added another more challenging component to my cinephilia that continues to captivate me to this day: a world of film that existed just beyond me; Bleak Moments and many many other films were out there waiting for me to see it.

In a way I have yet to decipher, I have come full circle: 20 years later seeing a film I wanted to see from (nearly) 20 years before. And somewhere in the context of Kansas City, the Tivoli Theater, Mike Leigh, Film Comment, the Fine Arts Theater, and films waiting to be seen, my adult psyche was formed. Seeing Bleak Moments last week at the Walker was nothing short of what I expected, and I'll even say worth the wait. But what struck me like a thump on the head was the still, that flashed by so fast, that I had seen in a magazine in 1989: a close-up of Sylvia, with a stone cold stare, standing in the doorway with a babushka tied over her head. The image is as moving as it it emblematic of the film. What was Sylvia looking at? Was she leaving? Was she waiting? Or was she simply gazing out her door? No doubt I will carry this image for another 20 years or more.

Bleak Moments is not nearly as boisterous as High Hopes and not nearly has dark as Naked, but it falls somewhere in between: painfully funny and heartbreakingly awkward. Bleak Moments is a unique character study where the studying leads to an ambiguous understanding of the characters in the film. Sylvia finds comfort in her sherry as she cares for her mentally disabled sister, Hilda, and tries to navigate the convoluted social byways. Pat is Sylvia's co-worker who struggles with taking care of her aging mother but has found solace with some sort of spiritualist group. Peter is a school teacher that Sylvia is courting, but this poor man is wound up so tight it is an effort for him not to show his teeth. Norman is a sweet but odd tweaker who has rented Sylvia's garage to print an underground newspaper and occasionally comes up to play his guitar. The fact that Sylvia can only find brief and unsatisfying connections with these people seems, on one hand, totally beyond her control, but, on the other hand, self-fulfilling.

Bleak Moments is a quiet film that rests firmly on the idiosyncratic performances which in my mind are amazing. The characters tread this very thin line between Benny-Hill absurd and too-close-to-home real. A failed date between Sylvia and Peter is a delicate but bitter centerpiece of the film, as Leigh's camera lingers on each scene just slightly longer than usually, saturating the viewer with its uneasiness. Peter takes Sylvia to an empty Chinese restaurant, save for one man who is not only gorging but glaring at the couple from the corner of the room. The abuse from the waiter gives us one hint of why the restaurant might be so empty. Things don't go much better when they return to Sylvia's flat as Sylvia loosens up with some sherry only to have Peter meltdown into an indescribable episode of acute social anxiety. Sylvia handles the rejection of the evening with a perfunctory grief that we feel she saw coming. This is the moment we see Sylvia in the doorway.

Despite the fact that Bleak Moments was made 17 years before his second feature film, it is easily recognized alongside Leigh's other films. The tenor of the films may have a different pitch, but the characters and motifs are echoed throughout his films.

The Mike Leigh Retrospective continues at the Walker, with his dark and uncompromising Naked this evening, and his new film Happy-Go-Lucky tomorrow night. Also upcoming is Topsy Turvy, Secrets & Lies, Career Girls, All or Nothing, and Vera Drake. The dialogue on Wednesday is, however, sold out.

And for those who missed Bleak Moments and are interested, it is fortunately now available on DVD.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Choi Jin-sil R.I.P.

Getting through the main section of the paper is depressing enough these days. Added to today's paper is the very sad celebrity news that South Korean actress Choi Jin-sil has committed suicide. The announcement about Choi, an actress that has been adopted as "Korea's Sweetheart," overshadowed the opening of the 13th Pusan International Film Festival. Choi has been beleaguered by the tabloids regarding her divorce from famed Yomiuri Giants baseball star, Cho Sung-min, and her alleged connection to actor and friend Ahn Jae-hwan, who committed suicide last month.

Choi Jin-sil is well known in South Korea for her roles in TV dramas and feature films, but few of those films have risen to any prominence internationally. Her role in My Love, My Bride by director Lee Myung-sae (Nowhere to Hide) solidified her fame in 1990. She has appeared in the rom-com and dram-com hits Mister Mama (1992), How to Top My Wife (1994), Ghost Mama (1996), The Letter (1997), as well as period action drama The Legend of the Gingko (2000).

Very sad news.