Thursday, February 16, 2006

Clean, Shaven

This film is really difficult to talk about, because its primary aim is to get you inside the head of a guy, and to establish mood. I should clarify that it's a really messed up guy, and a really unsettling mood. It succeeds on both counts. Not only is it one of the best psychological horror films of the 90s, but it's one of the few great American indies of the decade. Relying on a minimum of dialogue, writer/director Lodge Kerrigan makes the most of hectic POV editing, cover-your-eyes makeup effects, and an unreliable protagonist. Like this year's Tony Takitani, it's very short and focused, and packs more of an emotional punch than most 3-hour epics. The brief closing shot is one of the most haunting I've ever seen. It's one of those films that slowly gets under your skin, and then just lets you have it at the end.
For those wanting to seek it out, be warned- it's not a very pleasant viewing experience and there are a couple unbelievably grisly moments, but it's as good as this type of film gets.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Squid and the Whale

This is an article I submitted to Bandoppler magazine ( I wasn't given any guidelines for the length, but the word count seems to be pushing into feature territory, so it might be chopped in half. The site just launched yesterday and they're updating content almost daily, so it could be posted any day. Anyway, here's the full version before the editor unsheathes his sword.

The Squid and the Whale
Directed by Noah Baumbach
Samuel Goldwyn

“There is one thing you should know well, of this there is no doubt- you cannot get inside again, once you have come out”- from “Dilated To Meet You” by Loudon Wainwright III

The single most frustrating and painful thing for one person to hear from another is “I’m sorry, but...”. Didn’t our mothers teach us that everything after the ‘but’ cancels out the first part? In truth all of us have been on both ends of the exchange, and all of us have been torn about how to move on without doing any more damage. Then there are circumstances in life which in and of themselves seem to have nothing to give but halfway apologies. From the perspective of an adolescent or child old enough to understand the situation, divorce is one of those cases. As eloquently stated by a character in the Noah Baumbach-directed “The Squid and the Whale,” “joint custody blows.” And who is to blame, from a child’s point of view? The break-up of one’s parents is not something that can be explained in a way that will make everything seem right again; if the child is old enough, it is something like the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and a point of no return.
Baumbach’s film plays on that fact brilliantly in his intimate portrayal of a family in crisis. Although the narrative centers around the divorce between Bernard and Joan Berkman (played to perfection by Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney), it is not really a film about divorce. It is not about the social causes of divorce, and has no clear socio-political agenda. Neither is it a morality play in any way; all of the characters are flawed but none are made the scapegoat. Most importantly, we should not read too much into Noah Baumbach’s intentions with the film; a select few critics seem unnecessarily bent on viewing it as a letter of hate to his own father. More than any of those things, it is simply a film about growing up and the complexities that entails; most accurately, it is one of the most sensitive coming-of-age stories this generation has yet produced. In one of the first conversations between Joan and Walt after the fateful family conference, she tries to reason with him by asking,, “Don’t most of your friends have divorced parents?” This is the world that the film takes place in- Park Slope, Brooklyn, 1986, rendered in very specific detail- but it is our reality as well.

- “Me and Mom versus you and Dad.”
- An excessively competitive family game of doubles tennis.
These are the first things we hear and see as the title screen appears and disappears in a flash, and already we have been told a great deal about the Berkman family. With apologies to Woody Allen, the “most effective tennis metaphor in an opening scene” of the year award goes to some fish documentary. Younger son Frank sides with Mom, while brother Walt proudly joins their father, who gives some questionable advice regarding his wife’s backhand stroke. When the cataclysmic family conference occurs, these divisions become more pronounced. A teary-eyed Frank complains about his father’s plan to move “across the park”- “Is it even Brooklyn?”. Meanwhile, Walt becomes convinced (certainly through some careful suggestion from his father) that Mom is entirely to blame for the divorce. This is a very normal division along parent lines, even in cases where the parents aren’t separated. Usually depending on personality types, one child will feel a closer bond and understanding with the father, and another will gravitate to the mother.
When all is said and done, this film is about reaching the point in one’s childhood where parents are no longer gods, but human beings like everyone else. This happens with Frank to a degree, but it is mostly Walt’s story. Divorce becomes the catalyst for growth that pushes him into young adulthood in multiple ways. For the majority of the film, Walt believes that his father is right and the rest of the world is wrong about everything: Why can’t his father get his newest novel published? Because the publishing houses don’t appreciate true quality. Should he read Tale of Two Cities for his English class? Hell no- his dad says it’s minor Dickens, and he wouldn’t want to waste his time. By the cryptic final scene of the film, it is clear to the audience that Walt has suddenly seen something in Dad that wasn’t there before, and it will forever change the way he lives his own life. Frank experiences this to a smaller extent when he learns of his mother’s adultery; there is a disturbing and poetic scene where mother and son are looking into a mirror together, and Frank shows a new side of himself . This is one of the most painful processes a child will ever endure, and it has happened to every one of us who idolized our parents when we were younger.
The aforementioned opening sequence tells us something right away that is a key to understanding the arc of the film’s narrative and an ending that seems to come before the story is over. “The Squid and the Whale” is about divisions, about clashing forces- the mother and the father, the intellectual and the “philistine”, the appearance of the things and their true nature, and finally, the squid and the whale. Underlying each of these conflicts and every scene in the film is the battle between cynical detachment and vulnerability. By watching his father, Walt has learned how to hide his feelings and, often, his ignorance behind a reference-heavy jargon that passes for intellectualism. When he starts to dating and becoming conscious of his own sexuality, he looks to his father for advice, who tells him to play the field, and shares that he regrets not being a “free agent” when he was becoming a successful novelist. Furthermore, father encourages son in a kind of condescension towards non-intellectuals (which doesn’t work with Frank, as seen in a humorous ping-pong game). In a wonderful scene, Frank’s tennis instructor Ivan accidentally passes in front of Bernard’s car, which prompts the latter to call Ivan “a bit of a half-wit”, and share a laugh with Walt. Meanwhile, Frank is in the backseat of the car, head cocked sideways to look out the window in wonder at Ivan, whom he admires as a father figure.
The key moment in the story arc occurs when Walt is forced to make a visit to the school psychiatrist. He begins the encounter with his usual brand of half-baked pretentiousness: When asked to recall a pleasant memory in his life, Walt responds, “Isn’t that kind of a stock question for a shrink?”, to which the doctor responds “Yes. That’s basically how this works.” Walt has been too busy absorbing his father’s own egoism and bitterness with the world to realize the value of things taken for granted. Then comes his great moment of self-discovery, Archimedes’ “Eureka!” for the over-confident: He recalls a childhood memory with his mother, when they snuck away to watch the original “Robin Hood”. That memory triggers another, the times his mother used to take him to the Natural History Museum, where he would be terrified by the monument of the squid and the whale locked in battle. After being questioned by the shrink, Walt realizes that his father was not present during those moments. In the scenes immediately following this visit, it is clear that Walt looks at his father differently, with new doubts and a clearer head. Lying on a hospital bed, Bernard tells him, “you used to be very emotional when you were younger.” And in the final series of images, we realize that Walt has regained a wide-eyed wonder for life and the emotional vulnerability to cry in front of his father. In a day in which nothing is new and American culture goes to the movies to laugh at people who are stupider, crazier, more inept than they are, it is refreshing to see a film where the director asks us to be uncomfortable in our laughter and to sympathize with a character who grows by admitting weakness.
Comparisons to Wes Anderson are not entirely unfounded. Anderson was a producer for the film, and his films also embrace a childlike perspective. On the other hand, this feels like a more adult treatment of family division than the self-consciously twee “The Royal Tenenbaums”, which is a wonderful film for different reasons. It is worth mentioning that Randall Poster, the music supervisor on Anderson’s films, worked on “The Squid and the Whale”. There are some similarities in the way music is used, but in this film it is slightly more esoteric and subtly weaved through scenes. Baumbach and Poster mine the British folk movement of the late 60s for various stages of melancholy and earthy beauty. Four songs by the great Bert Jansch are featured, including “Courting Blues” during the sequence immediately after the children are informed of the separation. Elsewhere, lost classics like Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s “Heart Like A Wheel”, Loudon Wainwright III’s “Lullaby” and “The Swimming Song”, and the Feelies’ “Let Go” immerse us in a world of painful realities. The final masterstroke of the soundtrack is the final scene where Walt painfully comes to terms with himself, as Lou Reed’s epic “Street Hassle” propels him along. It’s a stunning sequence which tugs at just the right strings emotionally if one been along for the journey Walt has just taken.

What ultimately makes this such a special, alive film is the way that everything just “feels right”. Realism means many things to many people; “The Bicycle Thief” is realistic, the CGI effects in Episode III aren’t, and according to Harry Knowles, the grasshopper bondage scene in some new Korean film is the most realistic thing he’s ever seen(!). It’s a tricky term that’s best left elsewhere, but the organic, true-to-life quality of every scene in “The Squid and the Whale” is what makes it such an exciting film, and what reassures me that personal, intelligent auteur cinema is still alive in the US. There is always some independent American filmmaker wanting to claim the title of John Cassavetes’ heir, and this film is one of the few cases where the master’s talent for “small moments” is equalled. There is no better way to celebrate its merits than to conclude with a few of these small moments that live and breathe of their own accord:

- In the opening tennis game, Bernard purposely hits the ball at his wife’s weak spot, and ends up hurting her by putting it too close. The two of them walk to one side of the net and start arguing loudly, while the two sons stand on the other side of the net, staring at a world they don’t yet understand.

- A few scenes later, Frank sees his father arranging a makeshift bed on the couch and asks what the matter is. Dad says something about sleeping out there because his back is hurting, to which Frank responds with a disarming mix of naivete and book-knowledge, “Isn’t the couch worse than the bed... for backs?”

- Frank, a turtle lover, asks his mom if they’ll ever get to visit the Galapagos. She says that her and Ivan will take him to see real turtles on Saturday, which briefly causes his face to light up, until he remembers: “Saturday is Dad’s day.”

- Bernard’s few flashes of vulnerability, such as when he learns that his father has talked to his wife, which brings him to approach her about trying to make the marriage work. Daniels does such a good job of maintaining the cold, unaffected persona that it is startling and moving to see him start to break down.

- The way that Frank looks at Ivan in every scene they are together. So few words are exchanged between the two of them, and yet they seem to share a tight bond of love and understanding. When his father rants that none of the men Joan has been seeing are interesting, Frank responds that he thinks Ivan is “very interesting”.

- Finally, the many scenes where the awkwardness of adolescence is fully captured. Among these are Frank’s first brushes with sexuality, his writhing on the floor after trying too much of his mother’s alcohol, Walt’s first conversation with Sophie, and a wrestling match between the brothers that ends with expletives.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Les Enfants Terribles

One of Jean-Pierre Melville's influential classics which still isn't available on DVD, this film actually resembles the work of its screenwriter, Jean Cocteau, more than the sophisticated noir which Melville perfected in the years after. It concerns an unusual brother-sister relationship and a gender-bending friend who threatens their bond. The surreal touches sprinkled throughout recall Cocteau's Orpheus and even Polanski. The acting is very good, especially the performance of the devilishly manipulative sister. It's beautifully shot and staged and delivers a knockout of a payoff. A wonderful lost classic of pre-New Wave French cinema.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Mother and the Whore

This film history landmark was directed by Jean Eustache, who makes Terrence Malick look like Taksahi Miike (eerie... both with TM initials) in the sparseness of his output. It is pegged as the last masterpiece of the French New Wave, as well as the death of that movement. Of course, calling it a New Wave film brings up questions about its formal approach- Does it use a lot of jump cuts and purposely jerky shot/scene transitions? Does it feature handheld camera work and on-location shooting? Does it have a Marxist subtext? Does it celebrate or condemn classical Hollywood cinema? After all, "The 400 Blows" and "Weekend", both considered Nouvelle Vague classics, are about as similar as the Beatles and Schoenberg. That is to say, "The Mother and the Whore" could just as likely be a traditional narrative film as it could be a Godard-type film essay.
Actually, it feels most similar to something like "My Night at Maud's", which came out only 4 years before. You could say that it's a three and a half hour Rohmer film. Like "Jules and Jim", it features an optimistic menage-a-trois that gradually becomes too much of a good thing. It also shares similarities with the American underground films that were made in the wake of the European new wave, especially the free-wheeling looseness of "Faces" and the self-conscious talkiness of "David Holzman's Diary" and "Who's That Knocking At My Door".

Like "Kill Bill" or "Boogie Nights", however, "The Mother and the Whore" would not really be worth its marathon running time if it were only the sum of its influences. Instead, it uses those formal and narrative ideas to create a new set of characters and concerns. New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Leaud plays the over-cultured and often pretentious protagonist, who bounces between the girlfriend he lives with and a nurse he meets at a cafe. Most of the narrative involves ramblings between the characters about sex, love, money, feminism, and the things that were on people's minds at the turn of the 70s. Unlike some Godard films, the dialogue is not disembodied from the characters, but tells us a lot about them, the way it does in a film by Woody Allen or Eric Rohmer. The three lovers live their "liberated" lives self-consciously, seeming to try very hard to do what young people do. There is a wonderful, lengthy scene in the last stretch of the film where the nurse, after a drunken night between the three of them, gives a morning-after monologue about what she really wants and what free love really means to her. It's a devastatingly emotive climax to a film that seems to hide its heart for the first three hours; in fact it is the characters who refuse to be vulnerable and who pretend that nothing affects them. In contrast with the mournful, contemplative ending of "Jules and Jim", "The Mother and the Whore" ends with a fragment, a piece of organic domestica capped off with a comma rather than a period. It's one of those great fragment endings like "Faces", "Cure", or "A History of Violence" that leaves the audience with questions and doubts, and yet feels satisfying. Like life, right?

Monday, January 16, 2006

Memories of Murder

This is one of the best serial killer thrillers to come out in a while, and more proof that Korea is producing some of the most interesting and original films in the world right now. Like his contemporary Chan-wook Park, Bong Joon-ho's modus operandi is an unusual mixing of oddball humor, shocking brutality, and deeply felt pathos. It shouldn't work, but it really, really does. For example, one of the suspects in the case is a mildly retarded young man who is the butt of many jokes at the beginning of the film; near the end of the film, he suddenly ceases to be a comic figure in the most startling shot of the film, which I won't disclose. I'll just say that it recalls the great ending of Chinatown- those moments when everything seems to finally be going right, and then suddenly, all is lost. The transition from caricature to tragic figure is present in the characters of the cops as well. The small-town officers are clumsy and brutal, just trying to get the investigation over with quickly so they can say they were the ones who solved the case; we feel nothing but disdain for them until the final act, when we truly see them in their tragic humanity (much like the transformation of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull). In the climactic scene of the film, the slick big-city cop is stripped bare as well, and it becomes clear that he is no different than the vicious locals he distances himself from.
The last scene, an epilogue some years later, is deeply haunting- try forgetting the look on Song Kang-ho's face as the film fades out.
There are some clever formal tricks throw in. For example, there is a scene where it seems that the protagonist's wife is about to be the next victim. Through some Hitchcock-style crosscutting we see POV shots that tell us the killer is about to pounce. Suddenly another young woman appears, walking in the opposite direction. What happens next? The director does an excellent job of playing with the expectations of genre thrillers in that scene.
Overall, this is one of the best films released in the US this year (it came out in 2003 in Korea).

Too Late Blues

John Cassavetes' most neglected film, made after Shadows and before Faces and the studio one with Burt Lancaster, is not one the same level as most of his other work, but it's actually not that bad. Like Shadows, the action is divided into little vignettes, in bars and pool halls. The best thing about Too Late Blues is the way it reproduces the kind of interactions that people actually have in those situations. Screenwriting teachers and gurus will tell you that good dialogue is not the way that people talk in reality, but a more intelligent, streamlined dialect. Cassavetes takes the opposite approach, usually by encouraging and facilitating improvisation; I find the results that he gets to be exciting and engaging. For instance, people who are familiar with each other don't need to "fill in the blanks"; they have their own ways of communicating and their own jokes that will sound stupid to anyone who might eavesdrop. Now why would anyone want to see those kinds of conversations on film? Because it's fascinating! Martin Scorsese obviously agreed, because many of the scenes in Mean Streets and Who's That Knocking At My Door use the looseness of Shadows and this film as a framework for depicting Little Italy.
Back to Too Late Blues. The story is not great, and some of the acting is awful. But Bobby Darin as the conflicted band leader is actually quite good, and it's always great to see a young Seymour Cassell. While it's not essential viewing, there's no good reason why it hasn't had a proper DVD release.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Joint Security Area

I have to be honest, the first 20 or so minutes of this had me worried. It felt like A Few Good Men or any military procedural drama, but without the polish and tightness that usually makes that genre work. Particularly awkward are the early scenes with English dialogue; the lawyer is supposed to be Swiss but has a Korean accent? What is this, that Biola film about POWs?

By the time it switches gear into an extended flashback into the past, which recounts the crime scene and the events leading up to it, JSA gets very good and very compelling. On the North-South border of Korea, two soldiers from each side start a late night clandestine friendship that they envision as the beginning of a unified republic. We come to like these characters very much, partly because of the solid writing, but mostly due to the charismatic actors who give each soldier a unique personality. Director Chan-wook Park has used each of the four actors in other films, and they really work well with his mix of deadpan humor and high melodrama.

The second segment ends in a recreation of the fateful night, which is cut off right at the moment when the drama beings. We're jolted back into the investigation, where one of the men has attempted suicide. Playing around with narrative time has become old hat, but this is one of those films that reminds you how effective the technique can be. We are only given pieces of information at a time, until the end, when we see how things actually unfolded.

Every other review mentions the film's final shot, but how could they not? It takes a scene from earlier in the film, shoots its from a different angle, and then freezes the frame, simulating a snapshot from a tourist's camera. In the same take, the camera pans and zooms in and out, revealing each of the four soldiers. Such a brilliant and tragic way to end the film.

Although it's not Park's best film and feels like the work of a director who hasn't quite found his voice at parts, it's an effective drama and has some moments of brilliance that anticipate his more ambitious and assured Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Cut.

Monday, January 09, 2006


Terrible, pointless trash. It's interesting that this and Wolf Creek were released within a few weeks of each other, because they could serve as a film school lesson in the good and bad of this subgenre- like Saw vs. Oldboy or Audition.
It's difficult to know where to begin with Hostel, there are just so many things wrong with it. Meaningless, boring subplots, sloppy editing, and it even feels too long for a 90 min. film. This is the kind of script that makes you wonder how it ever got into production. And in a genre that usually overextends itself in terms of style there's a puzzling absence of any artful aesthetic touches. Overall, just a mess.