Monday, December 29, 2008

Bryan Singer's VALKYRIE

Hollywood has been mining Nazi villains for decades. Even before Hitler was dead and buried, you could take a character, put a swastika on his arm and give him some shiny black jack boots and—vuala!—a perfect, easily identifiable bad guy. Colonel Deitrich from Indiana Jones, Dr. Christian Szell from Marathon Man, and even Major Strasser from Casablanca have all done their part to create the caricature of 'Nazi' that we have today. Nazi equals bad.

So one might think that a film about 'good' Nazis—whose blood boils with so much hatred for Hitler that you might mistake them for Americans—would turn the tables on our old iconic villain. But alas, Valkyrie, the story of one of the attempts on Hitlers life, is told with the same simplistic reductions of historical morality that make us feel good. Some Nazis equal good; some Nazis equal bad.

You don't have to be a history buff to know that the real story is going to be more interesting than the fictionalized fluff. And this seems more than true in the case of Claus Philipp Maria Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg. As might be apparent with that name, Claus von Stauffenberg was born into an wealthy aristocratic family. He started his military career at a young age, and although he was extremely nationalistic, Stauffenberg (a practicing Catholic) was sympathetic to religious freedom and moral justice. His discontent with the Nazi Party was no secret, and he had been approach very early to join the resistance movement. It was only after he was injured in Africa in 1943 that he was willing to help those against Hitler.

Most of the complexities of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg is completely lost in Valkyrie which demands you only know one thing about about him: that he is an unwavering hero. The intricacies of his character are never revealed for fear we might forget that he is the good guy. Because Stauffenberg is represented as an archetype, I found his character superficial and unmoving. Tom Cruise's performance doesn't help much. With his million dollar smile sidelined, Cruise remains resolutely serious—as in, Nazi serious; as in, I'm-a-gonna-kill-Hitler serious. Physically, he is about as animated as a toy soldier. With his hand withdrawn up his sleeve and his chest puffed out, Cruise is stiff as a board thoughout the entire movie.

To Bryan Singer's credit, he seems to want to tell a story unhindered by over the top drama or exaggerated action. Hitler and Goebbels are portrayed with apathy and without a patronizing introduction. Ticking off historical signposts and maintaining an authentic production (except for the weird mish-mash of English accents) seem to be Singer's main concerns, even if it is dry and unemotive. But the film carries such an even tone that when it come to a moment of supposed drama (such as Stauffenberg's revealing of his stump in an exaggerated heil Hitler!), it falls completely flat. Same goes for the dramatic ending in which I have no idea what Stauffenberg says, but does it really matter?

Valkyrie has been rife with controversy from the get go. Singer wanted a smaller project, but signing Tom Cruise sent it in the other direction. The poster boy for Scientology not only allowed the budget to blossom, but also caused protests among Stauffenbreg's family. Poor response to the film cause schedule changes that I mostly lost track of. Valkyrie is certainly not the film that is should be, but nor is it the film that it wants to be. Historically this is pretty interesting stuff, but it's peddled out the tepid simplicity that Singer should have saved for X-Men 3.

Friday, December 26, 2008

My Christmas List for 2009

For what Santa didn't deliver in 2008, I will patiently wait for in 2009. Before I shower 2008 in praise for the diverse screenings I've seen this year, I first want to lament what I have yet to see. I know my Christmas list is long, but these are gifts I would gladly share with anyone.

First here are things on my list already scheduled for this unfortunate frozen middle-land we live in:

Waltz With Bashir (2008) directed by Ari Folman (Opening January 9 at Landmark)
Given the fact that I have been to five movies at the Lagoon in the last week means that I have seen this trailer five times. I'm not saying anything new when I proclaim that it has a great look to it—iconically contemporary.

Che (2008) directed by Steven Soderbergh (Opening January 9 at Landmark)
Che is coming, but I suspect the scheduled date is off. This is a huge film and I'm not sure why it isn't being treated as such. The lack of a trailer, ads, website, anything is just odd. Plan on paying two admission prices, ala Best of Youth, for parts one and two. (The total running time between the two is about four and a half hours. Yea-yah.) However, it may be worth it. Soderbergh has charmed the critics into thinking Che is something of a magnum opus.

Of Time and the City (2008) directed by Terence Davies (Screening January 23-24 at the Walker)
I'll admit having seen none of Davies films despite their availability. But I can't say I ever had the interest until I started reading about this film and the director himself. This film marks a return to Davies' hometown, a place of pain and joy for him, in something of an homage. Of Time and the City was another film that premiered at Cannes. Check out issue 35 of CinemaScope for a very interesting interview with Davies.

24 City (2008) directed by Jia Zhangke (Screening January 30-31 at the Walker)
Jia's most recent feature film arrives sooner than his 2007 film, Useless. 24 City is part fact, part fiction in its story of a factory that is to be torn down to make way for high-rise apartments in Chengdu. Reading about Jia's construction of a 'slice of life' interviewing people connected to the factory immediately reminds me of Liao Yiwu's amazing book of interviews The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories—China From the Bottom Up. I am very excited that the Walker has included this in their "Expanding the Frame" series.

Wendy and Lucy (2008) directed by Kelly Reichardt (Opening February 6 at Landmark)
Much like 2 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days from last year, my anticipation and confidence about this film is so strong that I would almost call it my favorite film of the year without even seeing it. Reichardt's previous film, Old Joy, is a film that has stayed with me since I saw it two years ago. Old Joy captures the beauty and complexity of life and friendship with a sorrowful reverence. Wendy and Lucy looks to be no different. Because there is nothing sexy about a poor, homeless young woman (at least not as sexy as a horny Nazi or an angry and horny suburban housewife played by Kate Winslet), Michelle William's performance is not getting nearly the attention it probably should.

Gamorrah (2008) directed by Matteo Garrone (Opening March 13 at Landmark)
This film promises an examination of the mafia like we have never seen before. Based on the bestseller by Roberto Saviano (who is now in hiding for his own protection) Gamorrah takes place in a very rough and raw crime world of Naples. Gamorrah was one of the most highly praised films from Cannes 2008.

The Wrestler (2008) directed by Darren Aronofsky (Opening January 9 at Landmark)
This promises to be a unique tear-jerker that even the most macho guy will enjoy. Micky Rourke looks absolutely amazing, and I would like to see him get an Oscar for this (but I think Hollywood is feeling too guilt ridden about Proposition 8 and will give it to Sean Penn.)

And here is the laundry list of the other films that I am waiting on, at least the recent ones. Get ready to scroll:

The Headless Woman (2008) directed by Lucrecia Martel
Lucrecia Martel's first film (La Cienaga aka The Swamp) was nothing short of a masterpiece, and her second (The Holy Girl) was psychologically tighter but no less masterful. I would like to think I don't bandy words like 'masterful' casually. I've been waiting for Martel's next film for four years, and the fact that it is somewhere out there, but I can't see it, drives me nuts! The Headless Woman premiered at Cannes 2008, and had its US premiere at the New York Film Festival.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) directed by Kim Jee-woon
Obviously this was a big enough hit in South Korea, that eventually it will show up hopefully in theaters. Kim Jee-woon has been working his way up the popularity ladder with The Quiet Family (1998), Foul King (2000), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003, being remade as The Uninvited here in the US) and Bittersweet Life (2005)—some of the best film to come out of South Korea in the past ten years. He seem to have reach a critical mass with The Good, The Bad, The Weird, a Korean version of the great American Western. I thought The Weinsteins had the rights for this film, but now I find a listing that IFC has the rights...either way, they need to hurry up, because that fancy DVD from Korea is coming soon! Official Korean site here.

Seven Nights (2008) directed by Namoi Kawase
Seeing Naomi Kawase's films at the Women With Vision series was a 2008 highlight for me. Seeing this film may prove to be a little difficult in these parts. It opened in Japan in November and hasn't really done the festival circuit yet. After winning the Grand Prize at Cannes for Mourning Forest, Kawase had mentioned, sarcastically, that her next film would be a comedy. Hilariously, this got reported and she did nothing to deny it. If you watch the trailer (linked above) you can clearly see that it is not a comedylots of emoting here. Seven Nights is a literal translation of the Japanese title, Nanayomachi.

Sebris (2008) directed by Brillante Mendoza
I set my sights on Singapore to bring me this film on DVD. It got completely dumped on at Cannes, but further reports made it seem that the presentation (specifically the sound) was all effed up. Sebris is a family drama from the Philippines. The family lives in and runs a large old movie house that has been reduced to screening porno films. (I would also like to see Mendoza's Slingshot from 2007 please.)

Tokyo Sonata (2008) directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
No doubt in my mind that this has a much better chance of making itself available on DVD than in theaters. Although Kurosawa's last three films (Retribution, The Loft, and Doppelgänger) haven't been his best, word is that Tokyo Sonata not only finds him back in fine form, but also exploring new territory. (Does anyone think Seven Pounds director Gabriele Muccino has seen Bright Future?)

Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007) directed by John Gianvito
"A visual meditation on the progressive history of the United States as seen through cemeteries, historic plaques and markers." I know it doesn't sound like much, but I am convinced it is and would really like to see it.

Martyrs (2008) directed by Pascal Lagnier
What would life be if you weren't waiting for a blood-splattering French horror film? Maybe I'm just kidding myself when I say the French bring something new to this genre. Either way, just like I have with US films of the same ilk, I will give these films a chance so I can make a more informed critical assessment...

Tulpan (2008) directed by Sergey Dvortsevoy
Tulpan is a contemporary Kazakh folk tale with a wandering reality-based nature. Asa is off to proposed to Tulpan for her hand in marriage. When she refuses, Asa is convinced that Tulpan is his true love despite the fact that he hasn't even really seen her.

Hunger (2008) directed by Steve McQueen
"Featuring on of cinema's greatest scenes ever..." proclaims the London Times. Steve McQueen is an Artist (with a capital A) earning the Turner Prize for a performance video he did in NYC entitled "Drumroll" and garnering fame as a war artist, campaigning to have each British soldier who has died in Iraq commemorated on a postage stamp. Hunger, his first feature, tells the story of IRA martyr and hunger striker Bobby Sands. From everything I have read, this film is no walk in the park, and I worry it may have some trouble finding its way to the US.

Pontypool (2008) directed by Bruce McDonald
A Canadian horror film from the director who brought us The Tracy Fragments. An apocalyptic virus that spreads via the English language has hit the small town of Pontypool. In theory, this film sounds very cool, but I'm not sure how it will all play out on screen. I like the tag, "Shut up or die."

Dust of Time (2008) directed by Theo Angelopoulos
Angelipoulos' second film in a trilogy that started with The Weeping Meadow made in 2004. If it is only half as good as The Weeping Meadowa dense, complex and poetically elegiac filmI will not be disappointed. The film stars Bruno Ganz, Michel Piccoli, Irene Jacob, and Willem Dafoe. In Angelopoulos' words: "The Dust of Time is a film that treats the past as if it were in the present. It is history written in capital letters and history written in small print. We used to think of ourselves as the subjects of history. Nowadays I can't say if we are its subjects or objects."

Plastic City (2008) directed by Yu Lik Wai
Oh, to be an independent filmmaker in Hong Kong...Yu Lik Wai continues to do it, barely scratching the festival surface with his film. Love Will Tear Us Apart is without a doubt one the most interesting and unique Hong Kong films I have ever seen. I search endlessly for his other film All Tomorrow's Parties endlessly the last time I was in HK and China, but to no avail. Yu Lik Wai is much better know as Jia Zhangke's cinematographer, but certainly has his own credentials as director. Plastic City stars Japanese superstar Jo Odigiri as a gangster living in São Paulo, Brazil. Part Triad film, part international action drama, Plastic City seems perfect for a subtitle tolerant mainstream audience.

Sky Crawlers (2008) directed by Mamoru Oshii
Godfather of Japanese anime adapts this five part novel from Hiroshi Mori into an very exquisite looking animated feature. This is the kind of thing that I die to see on a big screen. In this case I am optimistic that it might just happen. Check out the trailer linked above.

Warsaw Dark (2008) directed by Christopher Doyle
Crazy man and super-cinematographer Chris Doyle completed his second film in the director's chair this year. His first, Away With Words, was (as one might expect) beautifully filmed but a hopelessly flawed meditation on life, love, and drinking too much. I guess I don't expect too much more from Warsaw Dark, but I will take it any day over the choices facing me today in the theater. Warsaw Dark screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival with a few people reporting both the good and the bad, but no word on the film since and nary a trailer to be found. The film is set and was shot in Poland, and is some sort of crime thriller with gangsters and the like.

United Red Army (2007) directed by Koji Wakamatsu
Once again, I have little hope of seeing this in a theater. Wakamatsu has tried to give a true account of Japan's radical student group formed in the 1970s. Wakamatsu knew many of the people involved, and proves that fact by still being barred from entering the United States due to his political affiliations. The complicated story lets the viewer decide whether to demonize or champion it's idealistic members. The film is entrenched in history that few outside of Japan might know about, making the film a hard sell. Wakamatsu did some grassroots fundraising to get the film made, so perhaps it will find an equally creative way to be distributed.

Bing Ai (2007) directed by Feng Yan
Recommended to me as a much more poignant look at the displacement of people from the Three Gorges Dam project than Up the Yangtze. Zhang Bing Ai is a peasant woman who refuses to leave her home and stands in the way of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Filmmaker Feng Yan spent ten years documenting Bing Ai's struggles. Chances are I'll have to find this on DVD.

Fengming (2007) directed by Wang Bing
This is only Wang Bing's second film in five years, but if you counted every 90 minutes as one film, these two films would equal 8 films. His documentary, West of the Tracks, was over 9 hours long and Fengming is 3 hours. There is a lot of banter about the transformation of China, and West of the Tracks showed a powerful version of that through the industrial landscape of Shenyang. Fengming seems to do the same thing, but through one woman's eyes, He Fengming.

Dust (2007) directed by Harmut Bitomsky
It is the smallest subjects that are the most fascinating. We had a book kicking around out house for a while that tackled this subject matter called "The Secret Life of Dust," and although I didn't read it, the person who did would relay the high points. Thinking about the nature of dust makes me feel a little like Pigpen, but I like the idea that I physically retain some of the space I'm in. I think this documentary sounds amazing.

Useless (2007) directed by Jia Zhangke
Here's the Jia film I must wait on a little longer. Useless is a documentary about clothing designer Ma Ke, but also reaches beyond to China's role in the clothing industry. Someone should bring Jia here and do a retrospective of his work. (Hint, hint!)

Yasukuni (2007) directed by Ying Li
Yasukuni is the Japanese Shinto shrine that is dedicated to those who died for the Emperor of Japan. To say that the shrine has become controversial is kind of an understatement. Many see the shrine and those who visit it a validation of what Japan did in WWII. It didn't help that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi like to visit it with great fanfare just to piss people off. (And by people, I mean China and South Korea.) Documentary filmmaker Ying Li has done a little pissing off himself. Born in China but living in Japan, Ying Li says that he made this film "for both Japan's sake and for my sake." Clearly meant to be a cathartic film, it was nonetheless seen as inflammatory and largely suppressed.

At Sea (2007) directed by Peter Hutton
I guess this isn't even a feature film. At least not a feature film your gonna see in your multiplex, Mall variety or independent variety. Most refer to Peter Hutton as a cinematic portraitist of landscape. Nonetheless, I am fascinated by commercial maritime activity, and when I read about this film (no doubt in Art Forum, my favorite covert film magazine) I immediately wrote it down. What I found on MOMA's website encapsulated where my enthusiasm came from: "A haunting meditation on human progress, both physical and metaphorical, At Sea charts a three-year passage from twenty-first-century ship building in South Korea to primitive and dangerous ship breaking in Bangladesh, with an epic journey across the North Atlantic in between."

The Mugger (2007) directed by Pablo Fendrik
I'm sure there is a good reason why I wrote down this Argentinean film, but the article or review or interview I read escapes me. I have no choice but to trust myself.

Rembrandt's J'Accuse (2007) directed by Peter Greenaway
Peter Greenaway has certainly fallen from cinematic grace that he once possessed. His recent films are damn near the hardest things to get a hold of. Which is too bad, because Greenaway is a director who is obviously creating a body of work rather than single films. Only seeing one Tulse Luper Suitcases film, for example, does no justice for what this man is doing. (Or that is my excuse for feeling so confused by it.) I was hooked on Greenaway at an early age and then ended up working at a theater that screened The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover for an unprecedented amount of time due to the brand new NC-17 rating it received. Jeepers, I have seen that film so many times. I also have a fond memory of seeing Prospero's Books at an empty theater at St Anthony Main on a particularly lonely Thanksgiving. Those are other stories though. Greenaway's esotericism is a draw for me, but no doubt a deterrent for others. I would like to see Greenaway's new films in similar situations for future nostalgia.

Cargo 200 (2007) directed by Alexei Balabanov
This film is tagged as a bleak black comedy. Now I am not really sure where I read about this film, but it must have caught my eye at some point. And although I don't think I have seen any other films by Balabanov, I notice that I also have his 2002 film War on my list of films I would like to see. (Don't worry, I will not go that far in this list.) Somebody needs to fill me in on this guy.

Sad Vacation (2008) directed by Shinji Aoyama
Yes, there is a Japanese and Korean DVD out there of this film, but neither has English subtitles. Why? Why?!? Is someone really going to buy the rights to this film in the US. If they do, great, I don't mind waiting. But if they don't, I'm a-gonna be really mad. I consider Aoyama to be an inconsistent director, but that is only because I regard Eureka as one of the best films ever made. Given my expectations, his other films have failed to launch, in my opinion. Maybe odds are bad that he will make one of the second best films ever made or even outdo Eureka, but as long as he is making films, I will hope for the best.

The Unpolished (2007) directed by Pia Marais
The début feature from German director Pia Marias scored high marks when it made the festival rounds, but has yet to show up beyond that. This film looks really interesting, and just reaffirms my assumption that there are so so many good films out there that never surface. Let's hope the digital age and on-demand services will bring more access to films like this.

Am I asking Santa for too much? God knows, there is more, but I am cautious to just how much of my insanity I am willing to reveal.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Singing Chen's GOD MAN DOG

Reaping the benefits of other people's access to films, I took note that the Taiwanese film God Man Dog showed up on a few 2007 lists. It had obviously caught a few people's attention at Pusan and Vancouver, both festivals know for their eclectic Asian film selections. When it came out in Taiwan in an absurdly over-packaged deluxe edition, I quickly added to cart. If I had a dollar for every special edition DVD I bought that I was disappointed in, I could probably afford to buy a couple more special edition DVDs.

Although God Man Dog hardly lived up to my expectations, it is appropriate to put this film in a context. Ask anyone to pony up what they know about film in Taiwan and most will come up with Hou Hsiao Hsien, Tsai Ming Liang, and, now that he's dead, Edward Yang. (And I guess we could throw in Ang Lee for good measure.) But after that? An industry that is trying not to be smothered not only by Hollywood, like most markets, but also the ravenous competition from Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and even big bad Mainland. Taiwan film fare tends to target the young audiences with good-looking young men and women and a little light comedy, a little light romance, and a little light drama. God Man Dog is clearly attempting to do more, and I think this is why critics took note.

God Man Dog weaves together three concurrent storylines. On a small island like Taiwan, six degrees of separation probably turns into more like three degrees. As done with so many other films before it, the characters are linked without really knowing it. Their connections are only happenstance and never burden the narrative with a forced scenario. First, we have a young well-to-do couple with their new baby. The mother is a stay at home wife suffering from depression, with little or no acknowledgement from her husband. Second is a lower icome family torn apart by the fathers alcohalism. Their teenage daughter has moved away from home, but longs to come home to stability. And third we have Yellow Bull (played by the amazing Jack Kao), a man with a prosthetic leg who plays servent to the gods. He collects and repairs discarded Buddhist idols and give them a home in his temple on wheels. He drives his huge truck displaying the idols from festival to festival to earn money. He also feeds the dogs wandering the countryside. Yellow Bull is our man between the gods and the dogs.

Yellow Bull is the heart and soul of the film. A selfless man who simply wants enough money to replace his deteriorating prosthetic leg. He adopts a wandering young man who hijacks his way around the country in the luggage compartment of buses and earns his money from eating contest winnings. The relationship that is formed between these two misfits feels genuine and sincere. As does the story about the man fighting his addiction to alcohol. He finds strength in his wife and the hope that his daughter will come home, only to fall off the wagon with any sign of despair. Their daughter can't bare watching him destroy the family, and is fighting to find a way out of that life. It is the depiction of the young couple that drags the film down. They are both mired in their own selfish worlds, it is hardly possible to imagine why they are together in the first place. The disaster of a relationship seems nothing more than trumped up melodrama, bolstered by bold tragedy.

God is omnipresent, with both a capital "G" and a little "g." The alcoholic looks to the church for support and for help. As does the wife in dealing with her depression, that for a short moment starts to resemble Secret Sunshine. But it is the man with the god of little "g" who has an aura of peace. The Christian church gets kind of a bad wrap in God Man Dog as it fails to give the characters what they need to move on or grant them any serenity. However, it shows the Church's flaws without being patronizing. It also leaves our protagonists with little resolution. Yellow Bull still doesn't have a new leg. The young couple are miles away from figuring out their problems. And the father succumbs to the pressure of drinking again. It is hardly as hopeless as it sounds, but honorably pragmatic about the world and the troubles that try men's souls.

Despite narrative conundrums, the film is a diverse blend of rich characters and smart pacing. God Man Dog has a big heart that ends up being lackluster. Well made and subtle in its beauty, the film shows that Chen, in only her second film, has a knack for creating a pastiche drama, but simply fails to pull the parts together at the end.

Watch the unsubtitled trailer here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Nacho Vigalondo's TIME CRIMES

Because I am an old fuddy duddy, I missed the late screening of Time Crimes at MSPIFF. I lamented my need to get 7 hours of sleep when I ran into a friend a few days later who gave this indie thriller a thumbs up. I read the praises of the film on Twitch (is it a coincidence that I saw Todd Brown's name in the credits?), and was excited to see that it would be getting a theatrical run via Magnolia's newly formed genre label Magnet Releasing.

The charm of Time Crimes comes from it's modest means, using structural brains instead of special effects brawn to make an engaging film. Being clever on a budget is not something you see very often in thrillers, which is more than enough reason to champion Time Crimes. It's a simple story with simple characters, but it plays time loop tricks that tested my feeble mind to what it had seen 20 minutes before.

Hector is our antihero. His brief introduction allows us to at least understand that he probably doesn't wear the pants in the family. As his wife lovingly mocks his weakness, Hector doesn't even bother to argue. The couple are fixing up a country house that is surrounded by the beautiful silence of the woods. Hector thinks he sees something in the woods and decides to while away the afternoon by aimlessly looking through his binoculars, starting a chain of events that seem inexplicable the first time around.

Time Crimes builds a great deal of suspense through the simple anticipation that something is going to happen. And once we know what happens, we are compelled to solve the mystery set before us. Wrap someone's head in gauze, put a large black trench coat on him, arm him with some scissors and you have a pretty compelling pursuer. Figuring out the puzzle is half the fun while watching Hector's transformation is the other half. Time Crimes is not without a fair amount of humor that plays off the absurdity of one man caught in a time loop. Hector goes from being passively curious, to actively afraid, to unwittingly confused, to belligerently fed up. His physical trials are equal to his metaphysical feats. For the last quarter of the film, it is Hector's turn to take the reins.

It's hard not to think of the other independent time travel film Primer when watching Time Crimes. It comes at the same subject with a similar style. But where Primer is more analytical, Time Crimes is more visceral and a little less heavy handed. It's ingenuity and modesty might put it below the bar for most movie-goers, but these are the attributes that I find so refreshing. Is Time Crime's the mystery more profound than that in Seven Pound's? Probably not, but I'll bet my movie admission that it is more entertaining.

Word on the street is that David Cronenberg is interested in the remake, and if his last two films are any indication, he'll no doubt make Time Crimes into a real crap hole. Maybe we could see Viggo Mortensen climb into the time travel tank naked. Like so many other home-grown foreign film hits that were farmed out to Hollywood (My Sassy Girl, anyone?), a remake will only negate what makes the original so unique.

Visit the official site of Time Crimes here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

New International DVD Releases

In light of the fact there is very little coming out this week domestically, I thought I would highlight new and forthcoming international DVD releases (organized by release date with links to where to buy or spy on how much money I spend on all this crap):

I Just Didn't Do It (2006) directed by Suo Masayuki (Hong Kong. R3. November 21.)
Jeepers H. Christmas. I felt like I was waiting for this film forever. The Japanese DVD that came out over a year ago had no English subtitles. (If they were waiting for a US distribution deal, it doesn't look like it happened.) Suo Masayuki's career took off with Shall we Dance? over ten years ago. However, it took him ten more years to make his next film, I Just Didn't Do It. Popular opinion (from those who saw it, of course) is that it was worth the wait. Ryo Kase (Funky Forest, Letters from Iwo Jima) starts as the young man falsely accused of the ever popular pastime of molesting a girl on a train. My copy is the mail, and I will report back after I watch it.

Dachimawa Lee (2008) directed by Ryoo Seung Wan (Korea. R3. December 4.)
Ryoo Seung Wan has gone to great highs (his debut hyper-kinetic super-stylized actioneer Die Bad and pitch perfect shoulda-been-a-hit action drama No Blood No Tears) and very disappointing mediocres (Arahan, Crying Fist and City of Violence.) In my enthusiasm for Ryoo's Die Bad (which amazingly did play locally) I bought the Korean DVD hot off the presses. The reward was not only to see the film again but to see a very funny short film called Dachimawa Lee: a spoof action film from someone who knows action films from the inside out. And eight years later come the full length. I'm not setting my hopes too high, but I think this film might have potential.

The Banishment (2007) directed by Andrey Zvyaginstev (UK. R2, PAL. December 8.)
Remember Andrey Zvyaginstev? Well, he made a great film call The Return five years ago that knocked me off my feet for its surrealism as realism originality. My ears perked up when I heard he had a new film playing at Cannes in 2007, but I heard very little since. Although the British Pound sends my conversion alarm off, I'm excited to have a chance to see this film.

My Darling of the Mountains (2008) directed by Katsuhito Ishii (Japan. R2. December 10.)
Speaking of Funky Forest, here comes Katsuhito Ishii's follow up film. (If you have not seen Funky Forest - The First Contact or Taste of Tea, rent them now! Seriously.) Ishii-san pulls in the reins from the free form Funky Forest with this remake of Shimizu Hiroshi's 1938 black-and-white classic The Masseurs and a Woman.

Lost, Indulgence (2008) directed by Zhang Yi Bai (Hong Kong. R3. December 19.)
Lost, Indulgence created a stir a the HKIFF last year when it was suddenly pulled from the line up because, well, Mainland sensors said so. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean there is something controversial within the film, it simply hadn't gotten the green light from the powers that be. Zhang Yibai (Spring Subway, Curiosity Kills the Cat) is one of the more interesting directors working in the Mainland today. Underworked Karen Mok stars, with Eason Chan, Eric Tsang, and Jiang Wen Li.

Dream (2008) directed by Kim Ki Duk (Korea. R3. December 24.)
Kim Ki Duk just keeps makin' movies and keeps makin' 'em look interesting. In this case Kim has signed up Japanese megastar Joe Odagiri as a heartbroken man who is haunted by the memory of his ex in his dreams. His dreams manifest themselves into reality via Ran (Lee Na Young) who physically reenacts his dreams. I don't really understand that synopsis anymore than anyone else, but it sounds intriguing. This film promises to either be an engaging drama or a smultzy romance - not really good odds.

Rough Cut (2008) directed by Jang Hoon (Korea. R3. January 7, 2009)
A protege of Kim Ki Duk, Jang Hoon makes a gangster movie about gangster movies. Originally titled A Film is a Film, Rough Cut the explores the lines between reality and fiction through fiction as a tough actor gets tangled up with a tough gangster. There was enough positives in Darcy Paquet review that convinced me I would like to see this movie.

Alexandra (2007) directed by Aleksandr Sokurov (UK, R2, PAL. January 12, 2009.)
if I wanted to beat a dead dog, I would first start with a rant about how Alexandra was screened at MSPIFF on DVD. But I won't, since in some respects, I was able to see it 9 months earlier via their screener DVD. I may nonetheless check out this DVD, It may or may not make an appearance in the US on DVD. (Sukurov's amazing The Sun has yet to show up in the US.) Alexandra is a poignant exploration on the "Chechnyan problem" from a resiliently Russian point of view.

Still Walking (2008) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (Japan. R2. January 23, 2009.)
A new film from indie maverick Hirokazu Kore-eda, Still Walking is a return to contemporary family drama from his foray into period samurai family drama. Kore-eda makes some amazingly thoughtful and beautiful films that get far too little attention. (Please check out Distance, his 2001 film, available locally at Cinema Revolution. It is the most subtle powerhouse you will see after Eureka.) I have no doubts this will be a great film.

Gomorrah (2008) directed by Matteo Garrone (UK. R2, PAL. February 9, 2009)
Well, if film watching were a race (and sometimes, in my mind, it is) this DVD might be you best bet for this highly acclaimed Italian drama. Gomorrah is set to open here in the Twin Cities in March, but as with most releases at Landmark, I won't be holding my breath. At least I will know there is another option.

First Love: Litter on the Breeze (1997) directed by Eric Kot (UK. R2, PAL. Febrary 9, 2009)
Oh my God! How did this happen? Who is paying attention to Eric Kot? I have the Hong Kong DVD of this crazed homage to Hong Kong film, but I am ecstatic that it has a life outside of my mind. There is a plot to First Love, but it hardly matters because the bit parts and vignettes are so creative and funny, you won't care. God love Eric Kot and Jeff Lau for their creative friendship with Wong Kar Wai. The HK DVD is pretty crappy, so I may just pick this up to prove my undying love for this movie. Now if only The Four Faces of Eve would get a decent release.

Even if you don't think you have a region free DVD player, you probably do. Especially if you bought the cheapest one off the rack. Do a quick search of your player here at Video Help to see if there is a hack. It will be interesting to see what happens with region coding as video on demand ramps up. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Distractions: Timberwolves Triage

The post-KG days of the Timberwolves will be remembered as dark days in the franchise's history. The T-wolves may have been struggling before they lost KG, but now they seem completely turned on their backs. With every change made to the roster and the staff, I have attempted to see the positive, and some sign of hope. But even the most resilient fan, including myself, has a dark cloud hanging over their head. Hope for the team, especially this season, seems simply impossible.

With almost an entirely set of players, the Wolves faced similar problems last season, but ended with a glimmer of hope. They were able to face down almost any team for a full 48 minutes, having a relatively successful second half of the season. Logically, this hope carried over to this season. The idea with a young new team is to get better with each season, right? The Timberwolves retained keystone players, and made trades that seemed to be in our favor. I'm not sure about ditching O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love, but I though acquiring Mike Miller (and kicking Marco Jaric's butt out the door) more than made up the balance. Winning the season opener was something to revel in, but since then has been nothing but a downward spiral. My boy Corey Brewer is out for the season, and here we are, almost two months into the season, with only 4 wins.

I never liked Randy Wittman, but when he started blaming the players publicly, that was when Wittman had gone too far. Thankfully, Glen Taylor thought so too. Maybe it was less his pathetic soundbites and more a lack of leadership, but either way Wittman was shown to the door. Then in a bizarre turn of events, Taylor put GM Kevin McHale in the hot seat. "Relieved of his front office duties," McHale stepped down to be head coach. Not interim head coach, but head coach. McHale immediately started complaining about the hectic travel schedule.

I wonder if Glen Taylor has actually though about finding a coach who wanted to coach? I see his logic in "This is the team you built - you coach it," but he might want to find something that is a little better for the moral of the players. Clearly things are not going so well. Tune into the second half of any game and you will see a team that is beaten way before the buzzer. I stop short of having much pity for the players - most of them make more money in one year than I am likely to see in my lifetime.

I like basketball, and I particularly like NBA basketball. If I had cable and if I could afford the NBA pass, I would find another team to follow. But instead I am stuck here in Minnesota with temperatures of 15 below zero and the Timberwolves. Nonetheless, this is my state and the Wolves are my team. The last game I went to was Kevin McHale's first coaching gig against the Jazz. The Wolves had some good fight in them, but lost the game in the last 3 minutes. The most disparaging thing about the game was not the teams performance or even the lose, it was the empty Target Center.

Is there any hope for the season? I have no idea, but something or someone has to provide a spark for these guys and it's not going to be Kevin McHale. Like every season, there is always next season.

Monday, December 15, 2008


If you are looking for an objective review of Ashes of Time Redux, I'm merely being honest when I tell you to look elsewhere. However, if you are looking for the thoughts and musings about Redux from someone hopelessly in love with the original, you've come to the right place.

Ashes of Time is the top of the heap in my book. No other film can take me to the places that Ashes can as far as visual beauty and emotional depth. Sitting in the theater Friday afternoon felt like a moment I had been waiting for for a very long time. Although my adoration comes from the original that was released over 14 years ago, early reports of this re-edit put my mind at rest that I would not be disappointed. And indeed, Redux exceeds expectations set by the original in a totally new form. Wong has taken the mesmerizing fragmentation and tethered it with a grounded structure, discarding some scenes and supplementing others and folding random time into seasonal chapters. The characters are infinitely more complex and their relations doubly captivating. Having seen the film many times in various forms, the result of seeing Ashes of Time Redux is like a film composed of my dreams—utterly new but instantly familiar.

Nothing within the story has changed from the original; pieces have simply been rearranged. Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) is a swordsman who now makes his living as a broker. Living on edge of society at a desert outpost, Ouyang solves problems for a price. His outpost also represents a last point of contact—a meeting place for the desperate and the lost who are all somehow connected. Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) is Ouyang's friend who visits him seasonally. He is a fierce swordsman who easily breaks hearts. Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung) is the barefoot warrior. A simple man with deadly skills, Hong Qi finds work with Ouyang. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai plays a swordsman who is losing his sight. Simply known as the Blind Swordsman, he contacts Ouyang for work so he can return home before his sight is totally gone. Murong Yin and Murong Yang (Brigitte Lin) are bother and sister. Or are they sisters? Or are they simply the same person. Either way, both characters represent one individual psychological turmoil. Murong Yin and Yang both seek out Ouyang because "they" are in need of a killer. These are all heroes who have lost their way emotionally, burdened by longing and tortured by loss.

Ashes of Time
is a swordplay melodrama—a period piece without irony. It works both with and against the long tradition of martial arts dramas. Wong examines the hero's isolated existence in a self-reflexive critique that veers off course of what one might expect of a Hong Kong wuxia pian. Righteousness is traded in for narcissism, and honor is traded for pessimism. These swordsmen (and swordswomen in the case of Brigitte Lin's characters) find solace in their abilities to fight. Wielding their weapon frees them from melancholic web, if only for a brief moment. It is with the suspended waves of action that the characters are able to float above desperation. And while many are disappointed in the action sequences, they are the kinetic showboats of the film. Tightly choreographed by Sammo Hung and artistically shot by Christopher Doyle in his own personal method of undercranking.

Ashes of Time has an infamous history which can finally be put to rest with the release of Redux. Wong was undaunted by a mediocre reception for Days of Being Wild and launched into the ambitious project of filming a swordplay film loosely based on Jin Yong's martial arts novel The Legend of the Condor Heroes (aka The Legend of the Eagle Shooting Heroes). Ashes was to be his first film by his own production company, Jet Tone. He trudged off to Western China with contracts with the biggest stars in Hong Kong with nary a script or much of a plan. As the shooting continued for months, Mainland officials had to be dealt with to allow endless shooting, and stars had to fly back and forth. After almost a year and a half of shooting, the crew retreated to Hong Kong with the monumental task of editing the footage. Post-production dragged on, and Wong unleashed his pent up creativity with the fast, cheap and out of control Chungking Express. When Ashes was released soon after, Chungking Express had stole its thunder. Audiences were disappointed in the action and confused by the story. Even the festival circuit seems uninterested, preferring the kinetic exuberance of Chungking Express to the melodramatic mire of Ashes of Time. As a result Ashes languished, both commercially and physically.

Fans were left in the cold. Screenings of Ashes were few and far between, happening either at festivals or theaters dedicated to Asian cinema. Locally, Asian Media Access brought Ashes of Time here twice for screenings at The Riverview, Oak Street and Metro State. Things weren't much better for those hoping for a decent DVD release. Most would settle for an average DVD, but instead Ashes was released in two versions that could very well be the two worst DVD releases I have ever seen (and I have seen my fair share of bad DVDs.) When Wong realized the dismal situation, he set about to remaster the film only to find the remaining prints were damaged, in some places, beyond repair. So started his Redux, working to rebuild his film from the pieces salvaged from the dust. Because remastering the film as it originally existed was impossible (due to portions of the film that were literally gone) Wong took the opportunity to reconsider the film by reworking it and the soundtrack.

Ashes of Time Redux looks amazing, as Wong has taken much care to be very specific with how the image was meant to be: retain grain in some areas and sharpen in other areas. The colours look as they never have before (or at least to my eyes.) The sky was never so blue and the sand never so yellow. Most of the scenes that seem new to me are probably just so vividly different, I don't recognize them. Although Redux is actually slightly shorter than the original, the camera seems to linger more in Redux. The shots seem longer, and the content seems more beefy. Specifically, the conversation between Murong Yang and Ouyang Feng around the birdcage is far more developed and hypnotic. In addition, Redux gives far more time to Maggie Chueng's character in her final conversation with Huang Yaoshi. Achingly beautiful, she gives a soliloquy that surmises the film's broken souls.

Some of the crazy keyboard stuff in the original soundtrack has been orchestrated, powered by Yo Yo Ma's cello. The new soundtrack allows the music to recede more to the background, where at times it was overpowering in the original. If I have seen the film ten times, I have listened to the soundtrack a hundred times. I love the original, but am hardly disappointed by the new soundtrack.

For all intent and purposes Redux is the only version of Ashes of Time. My impulse to watch the two versions I have on DVD (Mei Ah and World Vision) and compare it with the new version is nothing more than my OCD taking over. Those versions are poor manifestations that barely resemble what the original was meant to be. If Wong was frustrated by Ashes in 1994, editing it must have been immensely easier. His subsequent films—especially Happy Together, In the Mood For Love and 2046—were made of a language that he was no doubt looking for in 1994. In many ways, I see 2046 as a futuristic Ashes of Time, with similar themes and pacing. As if this film had a fate all its own, perhaps this ambitious project needed to gestate for 14 years.

Ashes of Time has fully been realized with Redux. Alarmingly gorgeous, Ashes of Time can still make me swoon 14 years later. Admittedly, there are scenes missing from the new version that I pine for, but I can put that behind me with the notion that this film is having a much deserved rebirth. Not only is it there for me to see in the theater, it will no doubt be available in a form that I can enjoy for many years to come.

Official website for Ashes of Time Redux here.
Fascinating Q & A with Wong Kar Wai, Christopher Doyle and Brigette Lin at the NYFF here.

Edit: David Bordwell just posted a very nice overview of Ashes of Time and the issues involved in reduxing here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Dance Film Project @ Intermedia Arts

Friday, December 12 and Saturday, December 13 at 7pm.
John Koch, filmmaker and enterprising owner of Cinema Revolution, has pulled together 13 local filmmakers and choreographers to present seven short films that will be shown this Friday and Saturday at Intermedia Arts. The Dance Film Project is just one of the unique ways that John chose to celebrate Cinema Revolution's fifth anniversary, showing his commitment to the local arts at a very grassroots level. Dreamy local sound magician's To Kill a Petty Bourgeoisie will perform after the show Saturday.

Following are descriptions of the shorts from Cinema Revolution's website:

"Reverb" by director Katie Ritchey and filmmaker Garrett Tiedemann. Four women search the echoes of space and time. While compelled forward through programmed behaviors and a maintenance of group dynamics an underlying curiosity keeps them tracing peripheries of unknown origin.

"4-Frame Dance Project" by choreographer Justin Jones and filmmaker Kevin Obsatz. Obsatz runs four digital cameras simultaneously, each facing in toward the center of a square to capture a single choreography and displayed on the screen simultaneously in a four-square layout. The dance relates to the placement of the cameras, resulting in disorienting and surprising effects produced by this particular method of capturing and displaying choreography. The technique is repeated by 8 different dancers each giving their unique take on the perspective. Featuring performances by Justin Jones, Anna Shogren, Laurie Van Wieren, Mad King Thomas (Theresa Madaus, Tara King, Monica Thomas), Charles Campbell, Kristin Van Loon, Elliott Durko-Lynch and Megan Mayer.

"Coarse Confluence" by choreographer Megan Mayer and filmmaker Kevin Obsatz. Megan Mayer, a dance artist/choreographer and photographer based in Minneapolis, is the solo performer in this site-based dance film, which is the result of an interest in the intersection between movement and film. Megan performs in an array of natural landscapes, her dance interacting with and reflecting upon her surroundings.

"throne/thrown" conceptualized by choreographer/director Vanessa Voskuil and filmmaker John Koch. Taking its impetus from W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming," "throne/thrown" explores the search for the position in one's life by which to conduct one's authority over it. Directed and conceived by Vanessa Voskuil (2006 Sage Award for Outstanding Design) and John Koch (Cinema Revolution store owner and filmmaker), "throne/thrown" strives to create a frenetic, visually compelling, and cinematically moving experience.

"Alongside Sympathetic Neurons" by choreographer Mandy Herrick and filmmaker Dustin Nelson. Herrick and Nelson explore site-based dance, investigating particular locations and how they can be perceived differently through changing the typical movement, behavior, time, and perspective of each site. The exploration and movement inspired by the body-site, within the context of a geographical-site, illustrates a parallel in both body and place.

"Cuddle" by choreographer/filmmaker Erica Pinigis. Stop-motion is used to show the dance of two lovers lying together, suspended in black space and bound by a single bed sheet, as their bodies intertwine, merging, coming apart and back again, exploring the movement and gesture of romantic love.

"I'll be on the dock in a minute" choreographed and conceived by Mad King Thomas and filmmaker Katinka Galanos. Sally Rousse, co-founder of James Sewell Ballet, stars in this semi-biographical dance, filled with both truths and fictions about her life. Sally tells a story about being run over by a truck when she was a small girl, featuring peculiar and fantastic interview footage mixed with live-action reenactments/re-interpretations of the events. The following themes are informing the work: the scale of human bodies (over time and between individuals), rewriting history, investigating the function of truth vs. fiction, and the dynamics of tangential conversations.

For more information go to Cinema Revolution.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

DVD releases for December 9

Man on Wire (2008) directed by James Marsh
Easily one of the best films of the year. This profile of Philippe Petit and his high wire feat between the Twin Towers is not only heart-warming and amazing, but inspiring and moving. Petit demonstrates that the world is only as big and life is only as grand as you make it. All the more interesting is Petit the man—the antithesis of the "extreme sport" stereotype. If you have not seen this documentary, it will play just as well on DVD; if you have seen it, the DVD contains plenty of extras for those looking or more.

Woman on the Beach (2006) directed by Hong Sang-soo
Hong Sang-soo's seventh film in his oeuvre, but the first to ever screen theatrically in the Twin Cities. Woman on the Beach played once at the MSPIFF. Hong is one of the best directors working today with a body of work that is largely ignored here in the US. No one does romantic drama like this guy—subtle yet in your face simultaneously. Woman on the Beach is no different.

Europa (1991) directed by Lars von Trier
It is hard not to think about Lars von Trier's career starting with Breaking the Waves. But there was oh-so-much that came before that, most notably the first installment of The Kingdom, The Element of Crime, Medea and this film, Europa (or Zentropa, as the VHS was released.) Now Criterion has resurrected this surreal film from the ashes. No doubt this looks worlds better than the VHS, but the second disc in this set has more documentaries and interviews than you can shake a stick at.

Flow: For the Love of Water (2008) directed by Irena Salina
Missed this bugger when it was at the Walker and it did not get the release at Landmark that was promised. As everyone who has seen Quantum of Solace knows, water equals the next world power. I'm sure this doc explores the worlds problems with water in a much more meaningful and interesting way than the aforementioned crappy Bond movie.

The Quare Fellow (1962) directed by Arthur Dreifuss
Because I know nothing about this film: "Dublin's Mountjoy Prison is abuzz in anticipation of an inmate's pending execution, a convicted murderer known simply as "the quare fellow." But as death looms over the prison walls, life on the inside can't help but plod along. Patrick McGoohan co-stars as a prison guard learning the ropes amid a cloud of tragic duty and inevitability in this faithful adaptation of Brendan Behan's stage play by the same name."

A Hole in a Fence (2008) directed by D.W. Young
Jeez, here's another that looks interesting but will simply do the service of giving you the plot description: "The changing face of Red Hook -- a one-of-a-kind neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y. -- is the subject of this rich examination of city living by filmmaker D.W. Young. The documentary peeks in on an urban farm run by local kids; an uphill struggle to save a portion of the waterfront; the infamous arrival of an IKEA store; and more. The film was an official selection at the 2008 San Francisco International Documentary Film Festival.

Early Works of Cheryl Dunye
This DVD contains six short films from the independently minded Cheryl Dunye: Greetings from America, The Potluck and the Passion, An Untitled Portrait, Vanilla Sex, She Don't Fade and Janine. Although Dunye's feature Watermelon Woman is her most well known work, she made her name in the realm of video art in the early 90s.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Harmony Korine's MISTER LONELY

Mister Lonely is more of a dream than a film. You are stuck with distinct, razor-sharp images and very vague details. Recounting it is no different: "There was a person in it who was Michael Jackson, but he wasn't Michael Jackson, and then there were flying nuns, somewhere kind of tropical, and the sheep were sick and they had to be shot.... No doubt it is a dream, but a dream that Harmony Korine has decided to share with us in the form of a film. Contrary to his other work, Mister Lonely is decidedly more optimistic. If Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy embraced pessimism without regard for hope, Mister Lonely wholeheartedly embraces optimism in the face of despair. The fact that such a strange and silly film would be full of unexplained beauty and joy, that is both innocent and contemporary, makes it all the more charming.

Although most plot descriptions will tell you that Mister Lonely is about a commune of impersonators, there are actually two simultaneous narratives (and I use the term 'narrative' very loosely.) The first revolves around Marilyn Monroe, played achingly by Samantha Morton, and Micheal Jackson, played by the gentle Diego Luna. Marilyn persuades Michael to leave his minimal existence in Paris as a street performer for a utopian colony of impersonators, "where everyone is famous," including Charlie Chaplin, Sammy Davis Jr., The Pope, Madonna, James Dean, Abe Lincoln, and so on. Reality and fantasy exist hand-in-hand in this society of misfits. The second storyline involves a tough-love priest (played without irony by Werner Herzog) who works with a group of fun loving nuns to drop ship food in some unnamed country from his small airplane. When a nun mistakenly falls from the airplane, she puts her life in the hands of God and lands on the ground unscathed. Propelled by their belief, all the nuns take the leap of faith. Not only do they miraculously survive the jump from the plane, but proclaim that they are able to "fly."

These kitschy stories are told with tenderness and thought, free from the struggle to connect the dots or make some sort of comprehensive sense. The reflective tone of the film sets the viewer loose from the normal ties that bind a plot driven story. The narrative is only loosely tied together by a series of vignettes. Each scene has its own weight either visually or symbolically—from the group of impersonators doing Tai Chi in mosquito net hats to Buckwheat washing The Pope. The images of the nuns flying through the air, engulfed in the blue sky, is an image that I will carry with me. Similar is the opening and closing shots of Michael riding on one of those miniature motorcycles around a track in slow motion, accompanied by a stuffed monkey attached to the motorcycle by a wire that extends a couple feet out—it is a moment full of a glee and mystery that absolutely fascinated me.

Mister Lonely's death certificate seemed to be signed at Cannes almost two years ago. It received mixed reviews, and seems unfairly tossed aside with little chance of recovery. At least not enough recovery for a real theatrical distribution. I feel somewhat cheated that I didn't get to see Mister Lonely on the big screen, with those surreal and iconic images floating before me, larger than life.

Harmony Korine has never been one to play his cards close to his chest, and Mister Lonely is no different, boldly doing things his own way. For most directors, it would be a brave act; a huge risk; a career defining move. But for Korine, it is simply what he does. The result is mesmerizing and completely original.

Mister Lonely is now available on DVD.
Watch the trailer for Mister Lonely here.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

50 Years of L.A. Noir @ the Parkway

Film Noir returns to the Parkway for the next five Mondays. Take-Up Productions presents "Ready for Our Close-Up: 50 Years of L.A. Noir," offering five films that span from 1945 to 2005. The series will offer a much needed escape from the end of the season Oscar battles and holiday Hollywood hoopla. Replete with the Parkway's couches and cold beer, the series is not to be missed. All films will be screened from 35mm prints at the Parkway Theater. Tickets are $5 or you can buy a five film punch card for $20, good for any of Take-Up's presentations. (All reviews below are taken from Time Out.)

Monday, December 8, 7:30pm
Sunset Boulevard (1950) directed by Billy Wilder
One of Wilder's finest, and certainly the blackest of all Hollywood's scab-scratching accounts of itself, this establishes its relentless acidity in the opening scene by having the story related by a corpse floating face-down in a Hollywood swimming-pool. What follows in flashback is a tale of humiliation, exploitation, and dashed dreams, as a feckless, bankrupt screenwriter (Holden) pulls into a crumbling mansion in search of refuge from his creditors, and becomes inextricably entangled in the possessive web woven by a faded star of the silents (Swanson), who is high on hopes of a comeback and heading for outright insanity. The performances are suitably sordid, the direction precise, the camerawork appropriately noir, and the memorably sour script sounds bitter-sweet echoes of the Golden Age of Tinseltown (with has-beens Keaton, HB Warner and Anna Q Nilsson appearing in a brief card-game scene). It's all deliriously dark and nightmarish, its only shortcoming being its cynical lack of faith in humanity: only von Stroheim, superb as Swanson's devotedly watchful butler Max, manages to make us feel the tragedy on view.

Monday, December 15, 7:30pm
Mildred Pierce (1945) directed by
James Cain's novel of the treacherous life in Southern California that sets house-wife-turned waitress-turned-successful restauranteur (Crawford) against her own daughter (Blyth) in competition for the love of playboy Zachary Scott, is brought fastidiously and bleakly to life by Curtiz' direction, Ernest Haller's camerawork, and Anton Grot's magnificent sets. Told in flashback from the moment of Scott's murder, the film is a chilling demonstration of the fact that, in a patriarchal society, when a woman steps outside the home the end result may be disastrous.

Monday, December 22, 7:30pm
Chinatown (1974) directed by Roman Polanski
The hard-boiled private eye coolly strolls a few steps ahead of the audience. The slapstick detective gets everything wrong and then pratfalls first over the finish line anyway. Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is neither - instead he's a hard-boiled private eye who gets everything wrong. Jake snaps tabloid-ready photos of an adulterous love nest that's no such thing. He spies a distressed young woman through a window and mistakes her for a hostage. He finds bifocals in a pond and calls them Exhibit A of marital murder, only the glasses don't belong to the victim and the wife hasn't killed anyone. Yet when he confronts ostensible black widow Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) with the spectacular evidence, the cigarette between his teeth lends his voice an authoritative Bogie hiss. Throughout, Gittes sexes up mediocre snooping with blithe arrogance and sarcastic machismo. It's the actor's default mode, sure, but in 1974 it hadn't yet calcified into Schtickolson, and in 1974 a director (Polanski), a screenwriter (Towne) and a producer (Evans) could decide to beat a genre senseless and dump it in the wilds of Greek tragedy. 'You see, Mr Gits,' depravity incarnate Noah Cross (Huston) famously explains, 'most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything.' As is Chinatown. The last gunshot here is the sound of the gate slamming on the Paramount lot of Evans' halcyon reign, and as the camera rears back to catch Jake's expression, the dolly lists and shivers - an almost imperceptible sob of grief and recognition, but not a tear is shed.

Monday, December 29, 7:30pm
L.A. Confidential (1997) directed by Curtis Hanson
Dime store detective stories have inspired more great movies than Dostoevsky ever will, but local-boy-made-bad James Ellroy always seemed too tough a proposition for Hollywood to take on. Hanson's adaptation of Ellroy's most complex novel is a towering achievement, probably the finest mystery thriller since Chinatown. Set in the '50s, this punchy cocktail of gangland violence, police brutality, racism and sex-scandal cover-ups feels torn from today's headlines. It operates on the principles of an exposé, highlighting the parallax between image and reality. As Danny DeVito's muck-raising, 'Hush Hush' magazine hack guides us on a gleeful trawl through the seedier, sleazier aspects of this, the last of the frontier towns, we meet three very different lawmen: Spacey's cynical showboat Jack Vincennes; Ed Exley (Pearce), a straight-arrow cop headed for the top; and Crowe's Bud White, the strong arm of the law, brawn to Exley's brains. Contrasting not only their approaches to procedure, justice and respect, but also their vividly etched, distinctly volatile psycho-pathologies, Hanson inexorably draws these three cases to one conclusion: when the trio do take a stand, it's inspired less by idealism than self-disgust. As the emotional nexus, a Veronica Lake lookalike trapped in a web of male desires, Basinger is arguably the pick of a perfect cast. Subtle, shocking, compelling and immensely assured.

Monday, January 5, 7:30pm
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) directed by Shane Black
When Pauline Kael used the phrase ‘kiss kiss, bang bang’ to describe the visceral appeal of most movies, it was with a sense of despair – still, Shane Black (creator of the ‘Lethal Weapon’ franchise and writer of ‘Last Action Hero’ and ‘The Long Kiss Goodnight’) has never been one to court critical kudos. But while his directorial debut has its share of sex and shoot-outs, it’s also an ultra-knowing exercise in genre deconstruction, and something of a charmer to boot. Visually it’s consistently engaging, from a Kodak-coloured childhood flashback to natty Saul Bass-style credits, and the casting is spot-on: Kilmer inflects Perry’s sarcasm with an undertow of pastoral care for Downey’s Harry, whose amiable haplessness also meshes well with Harmony’s world-weariness. (Monaghan also impresses despite being a decade too young.) The film’s knowingness is natty window-dressing that lets a genre tale have its dry martini and drink it; it’s the assured characterisations that have you wishing it good health.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

DVD releases for December 2

If you are not interested in one of the fifteen versions of Narnia, Wanted or Step Brothers, keep reading:

White Dog Criterion (1982) directed by Sam Fuller
Who says the 80s had no good films? This film has been waiting for a descent release for years. I saw this at the Walker maybe like ten years ago, and it is a pretty potent film. Rife with social analogies and a wry pessimism, White Dog stars Kristy McNichol as the innocent woman who adopts a dog trained to attack black people. The new transfer is enough to warrant this a must see DVD, which is good, because the special features seem to be novelty items at best. ("...a rare 1982 interview in which Fuller interviews the canine star of the film.")

Seeding of a Ghost (1983) directed by Richard Yeung Kuen
Watching the Shaw catalog carte blanche can be a very rewarding experience...but this might not be the film to start with. About as trashy as a horror film could get in 1983, Seeding of a Ghost can be a fun watch if you are in the right mind set.

Three Short Films by Werner Herzog: The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985), Ballad of the Little Soldier (1984), Precaution Against Fanatics (1969)
Three short documentaries from Herzog. The Dark Glow of the Mountains: Werner Herzog's portrait of the world's foremost mountain climber, Reinhard Messner, becomes a thought-provoking rumination on the feat and exhilaration that drives men like Messner - and by association, Herzog himself - to continually seek new heights to conquer. Ballad of the Little Soldier: This is the story of the civil war in Nicaragua - between the government of Nicaragua and the CIA-backed Miskito Indians. Precaution Against Fanatics: Early documentation film, loose narration on horse racing.

My Father My Lord (2007) directed by David Volach
Here's on I missed at this Spring MSPIFF, but not because I wasn't interested in seeing it. My Father My Lord won best picture at Tribeca and earned a great amount of respect for first time director Volach.

My Mexican Shivah (2006) directed by Alejandro Springall
Another alum from the MSPIFF. There is hardly a genre more formulaic than the pull-the-skeletons-out-of-the-closet funeral film, but if the opening of a mariachi playing klezmer music is any indication, My Mexican Shivah finds some fresh material for the template. Or at least that is what I wrote after I saw it. An average but entertaining film.

The Trap (2007) directed by Srdan Golubovic
When I retire I will be able to sit down and actually watch many of the DVDs I own. Who knows if I will have watched this one, sent to me courtesy of Film Movement. In all honesty, this one has made it to the top of the large 'to watch' pile due to the fact that it looked interesting. Billed as a Serbian film noir, how could I not be intrigued.