Friday, September 30, 2005

Change of pace

Since I'm an admitted Scorsese junkie, I think it would be appropriate to post this. I came across his top 10 of the 90s today, and thought he had some interesting choices on there:

1. Horse Thief
2. The Thin Red Line
3. A Borrowed Life
4. Eyes Wide Shut
5. Bad Lieutenant
6. Breaking The Waves
7. Bottle Rocket
8. Crash
9. Fargo
10. Malcolm X / Heat

I haven't seen the two Chinese films, but I would also have The Thin Red Line, Bottle Rocket, and Bad Lieutenant on my list. And Breaking the Waves and Fargo are great films. I didn't care for Crash.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Vengeance Is Mine

The matter-of-fact way in which the sociopathic antihero of this film goes about his business is startling. Even more unsettling is the fact that the story ultimately offers no characters to respect or sympathize with; even the protagonist's father, who is first presented as a man of strong moral conviction, confesses his secret sin in the end. The final scene is completely engimatic; it's beyond ambiguous, venturing into something more like nihilism.
But Imamura is a highly gifted filmmaker; sometimes I get the feeling that I would understand his films much more if I was more familiar with recent Japanese history and culture. As it is I can always appreciate the formal elegance of his style in The Pornographers and Ballad of Narayama even when the obscurity of the themes in those films leaves me in the cold.
One of the virtuoso moments in "Vengeance Is Mine" is the early scene in which Ken Ogata's character murders the two men. The word "gritty" is thrown around a lot when describing films like Reservoir Dogs and Straw Dogs, but nothing I've seen before has been quite as raw and disturbing as the prolonged stabbing that closes out the scene. The murder sequence also has a perversely funny moment, when Ogata, immediately after killing the first man, goes to a nearby convenience store and buys a knife which he plans to use on the other guy.

Crazed Fruit

Maybe a good way to assess this film is to consider it the Japanese "Easy Rider". It represents a genre of films that came into being in the late '50s, dramas that dealt specifically with youth culture. Like its American counterpart, it features some interesting editing techniques and a new treatment of young adulthood. And like Easy Rider, it's ultimately not that great of a film when compared to the work being done by Ko Nakahira's contemporaries: Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Ichikawa, etc. The emerging Japanese new wave may have drawn inspiration from its coarse subject matter, but the films those directors made far surpassed Crazed Fruit in nearly every way. To finish the Easy Rider analogy, it's worth a look and contains a few great scenes, like when the shy younger brother tells the girl of his affection that he needs to see her soon to return her bathing cap to her, all the while holding the cap in his hand for her to see.

Spirits of the Dead

Roger Vadim; Jane Fonda; period piece. Enough said about the first segment.

Louis Malle's film is a very good adaptation of "William Wilson," one of Poe's most thematically interesting stories in my opinion. Alain Delon is brilliant as always.

Fellini's "Toby Dammit" is the one to see. Made at the height of his talent, it's rich with the surreal color cinematography that characterizes "Roma" and "Juliet of the Spirits". Italy is really an incredible setting for horror tales- "Don't Look Now" is another example. Fellini turns Rome into a maze of lifeless human forms and apocalyptic landscapes. Watching the awards show scene, it's clear that the director was a master of blocking for the camera; actors fly in and out of the frame as if their 15 minutes were due to expire at any moment. Altman, Woody Allen, and Scorsese all attempted to replicate that style at some point or another in the '70s.
Doesn't Terence Stamp look like the ideal Poe antihero?


Shower time.

The Wild Child

My first inclination is to say "That's it?". But on reflection, there is a calculated simplicity about the film that works in its favor. Truffaut presents the story with such a lack of drama and pretension that it becomes almost a documentary. Maybe his aim was to make a true neo-realist film, since most of the classics of De Sica, Rossellini, and Visconti are impure in the sense that they incorporate melodrama into the mise-en-scene and writing. Along with the overwhelming majority of film critics since the French New Wave, I tend to believe that absolute realism (as if it were even possible), is not necessarily the best goal in narrative filmmaking.
However, this film is about science. It seeks to replicate an experiment in which a cultured middle-class doctor attempts to acclimate a feral kid to society. In that sense, it succeeds, and there is a subtle catharsis in the final scene that defies its humble presentation. Not quite what I expected from the director of intensely dramatic films like Jules and Jim and Two English Girls, but a wonderful departure nonetheless.

Thursday, September 22, 2005


Although it had the misfortune of being released in the same year as Carrie, Obsession is a hell of a film. I'd venture to say it's my favorite of director Brian DePalma's that I've yet seen. Vertigo is one of my favorites, and I often love films that tackle similar themes- 2046, Mulholland Dr., etc. Obsession could almost be considered a remake, but it introduces an element that takes the story in a different direction and gives it a unique identity. Strangely enough, the ending reminded me of Oldboy; I wouldn't be surprised if Chan-wook Park had drawn inspiration from this film.

Aesthetically it's DePalma's most mature and beautiful film. Vilmos Zsigmond (who was present at the screening and talked about the film) used innovative film treatment techniques and oblique angles to achieve the surreal atmosphere that is sustained throughout. Paul Schrader, who lists Vertigo as one of his 10 favorite films, keeps the dialogue simple and jarring when it needs to be. An underrated classic of the '70s.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Gate of Flesh

Suzuki is one of my favorite directors, so it's exciting to see Criterion put out four of his films already this year. Gate of Flesh was classified as an adult film on its original Japanese release, but it's pornographic in the same way X-rated Midnight Cowboy is- which is to say, not at all. One of the things that makes Suzuki's B-films so enjoyable and inspiring is the playful touch he injects in the production design, camera work, editing, etc. In this film, a band of obstinate prostitutes (think Sin City) in post-war Japan spend their days looking for pleasure and giving the finger to everything they dislike, especially GIs. The costume design is wonderful- four of the five women wear pastel dresses, each of a different color, while the sophisticated outcast of the group wears a traditional Japanese outfit. The effect is similar to the West Side Story-ish gangs of The Fighting Elegy or the ranking of killers in Branded to Kill. It's a big genre joke, but really adds another dimension to the simple story.
Like Story of a Prostitute, and moreso even, this is a pessimistic film that borders on tragedy and expressionist pathos. It seems that the tragic hero is not the protagonist, but Japan itself; it is portrayed as a dejected group of people united only by their nihilism. Truly a sad portrait of the after-effects of WW2 on Japan's national consciousness. Not nearly Suzuki's best film, but a great example of his stylistic enthusiasm.

Dangerous Game

Every time I watch an Abel Ferrara film, I decide afterwards that he's the single most underrated American filmmaker of the last couple decades. Even his less well-reviewed ones like The Addiction and The Funeral are some of the best and most challenging movies I've ever seen. And Dangerous Game confirms that. Lord, what a movie.
It seems to get bad reviews all around the board, and I can only think of two reasons for that- a. critics hate personal films and tend to write them off as indulgent; b. the relentlessly bleak tone of the film. Usually Ferrara's films drop you in the gutter of humanity for 2 hours and then end on a note of transcendent redemption. Dangerous Game just keeps getting deeper and deeper into spiritual death and finally sticks the knife in at the end.
It's kind of his "Day For Night" or "8 1/2"- that is, an expose of the artist's role in the filmmaking process. There are a couple of really great references to that effect. First, "Blue Moon" is heard at two different moments, the opening credits and the end crawl; I saw this as a clear reference to the scene in "8 1/2" where Guido's wife comes to visit him suddenly, knowing that this film is very clearly indebted to Fellini's. The other is towards the end and really gives you something to think about; after an intense fight with his wife, Keitel's character watches "Burden of Dreams", the great documentary on the making of Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo". In particular he sees the scene where Herzog admits that he has absolutely zero sense of satisfaction and happiness with completing the monumental task of making that film, and no one will be able to convince him otherwise; without needing to hear anything from Keitel's director, we realize what Herzog's words mean for him. Having seen "Burden of Dreams" and "Fitzcarraldo" really contributes to the weight of that scene, and it may be considered a weakness of the script to quote a film that not everyone has seen- or maybe Ferrara just knows his audience well enough.
But beyond being just a film about film, Dangerous Game has much in common aesthetically and thematically with emotionally intense chamber dramas like "Scenes From A Marriage", "Paris, Texas", and "A Woman Under the Influence". The tension between characters is almost unbearable at parts. Harvey Keitel has given some classic performances- "Mean Streets", "Bad Lieutenant", "Ulysses' Gaze", "Reservoir Dogs"- and this one is as good as all of those.
I've made it to the end of this review without a single mention of Madonna, which I count as an accomplishment. But now that it's out there, let me say that viewers would get much more out of this film if they didn't spend the entire duration marvelling at the parallels between the actress and her character- her performance is good enough to make those secondary concerns unnecessary.

Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance

Although there's absolutely no question Oldboy is the better film, Sympathy is much better than the critics are giving it credit for. For one thing, its take on vengeance/vigilante justice is one of the most sobering and unsettling I've ever seen on film. As with Oldboy, there's a wonderfully healthy sense of absurdity in many of the scenes that really seems unique to this director, and I'm excited to see what he does with Lady Vengeance, and future films. His visual style is mostly superb, if not always focused on plot. One reviewer said that by the second half of the film, the director's talent is wasted on shock value as one awful killing follows another, but Park seems to use the non-stop intensity as an expressionistic storytelling technique rather than an end in itself, which I can't find any problem with.It has its flaws, and I'd probably give it a B, but it's still one of the more exciting and original films coming out of Asia in the last few years.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Most of the time when I watch a film, I have certain thoughts and impressions I'd like to express in some way; I think a blog is the perfect way to get those things down into concrete ideas rather than just letting them fly around in my head until the next sensory overload comes along.

To begin with, I tried to make a list of my 50 favorite films I've ever seen, which will be interesting to return to in a year after I've watched new films and re-watched these ones. Sometimes I feel like I need to make "favorites" lists to get things organized and try to determine the common threads between the movies, albums, books, etc. that mean the most to me. It's clear to me that with a few exceptions (The Thing, Open City, My Night at Maud's), I tend to like very expressionistic, stylish films; the ideal to me, as expressed in most of these films, is a perfect convergence of form and content, artist(s) and audience. That's all very abstract, and it's a difficult thing to express. It would be easier to take each film and give examples of individual scenes or moments, but who has that kind of time?
With this in mind, though, I realize that there are certain types of films I'm predisposed to like based on my approach/tastes, and certain films I can only appreciate without truly liking.
Enough is enough. Here's the list-

8 1/2 (dir. Federico Fellini)
Mean Streets (Martin Scorsese)
Taxi Driver (Scorsese)
Jules and Jim (Francois Truffaut)
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau)
Chinatown (Roman Polanski)
Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki)
Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock)
Nashville (Robert Altman)
Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir)
Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-Wai)
In the Mood For Love (Wong)
2046 (Wong)
City Lights (Charles Chaplin)
Raging Bull (Scorsese)
Goodfellas (Scorsese)
Blade Runner (Ridley Scott)
Chungking Express (Wong)
Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino)
Faces (John Cassavetes)
Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara)
The Thing (John Carpenter)
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick)
Le Cercle Rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville)
Rocco and his Brothers (Luchino Visconti)
I Fidanzati (Ermanno Olmi)
Harakiri (Masaki Kobayashi)
Archangel (Guy Maddin)
Night of the Living Dead (George Romero)
The Addiction (Ferrara)
Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Woman in the Dunes (Hiroshi Teshigahara)
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (Sergio Leone)
The Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov)
Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wajda)
Open City (Roberto Rossellini)
Boogie Nights (P.T. Anderson)
The Life and Death of Col. Blimp (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)
My Night at Maud's (Eric Rohmer)
Alien (Scott)
2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
Manhattan (Woody Allen)
Audition (Takashi Miike)
Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson)
Stranger Than Paradise (Jim Jarmusch)
Blue Velvet (David Lynch)
Pierrot Le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard)
Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman)
Paris, Texas (Wim Wenders)