Sunday, October 30, 2005

Three... Extremes

I couldn't be more satisfied with this Asian horror anthology. I hadn't previously seen any Fruit Chan films, but his "Dumplings" is a deeply disturbing spin on the old fountain of youth formula. It's clearly has an anti-abortion slant, but I think American reviewers calling it "misogynistic" are missing its relevance to infanticide in the history of Chinese culture. Besides, the screenplay was written by a woman, so it's hardly a case of men "ganging up on" women.
Cinematography by Christopher Doyle never hurts.

The last two are where it really gets exciting, in my opinion. Park Chan-wook's "Cut" has a similar scenario to any number of manipulative (some would say sadistic, but I object) films like Audition, Phonebooth, and most recently Saw. It plays out in a completely unique manner that is characteristic of Park's other films, both aesthetically and thematically. From the brilliantly ornate opening tracking shot on, there is a quality of endless invention that is so thrilling to watch. Much of this is in the humor; while "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance" was completely downbeat and punishing, "Oldboy" introduced a totally fresh gallows humor into ultraviolent revenge films. This is further developed in "Cut", as Park draws laughs and delicious irony out of the bleakest situations. I can't think of another filmmaker with quite this twisted a sense of humor who still makes it serve theme and narrative; some of the Coen bros. darker films have similar moments, especially "Blood Simple" and "Fargo". More could be said, but this film is all about the ride, and words seem to cheapen it.

Takashi Miike's "Box" is stunning, and, along with "Audition", proves his stature as one of the great horror directors of the last few decades. It's a great Miike introduction for those with weak stomachs, as there is very little blood in it. It has some things in common with other J-horror ghost stories, but it's much, much better and more artfully creepy than the majority of the films in that genre. It moves fluidly between reality (or at least the appearance of it), dream, and flashback (again, whether the "past" actually occurred is debatable). There is an image at the end wraps things up in a viscerally shocking way that could only be rendered through cinema.

In the case of the last two, I would say that "Cut" and "Box" are on par with the best of the directors' work, and are easily the most exciting thing happening in the horror genre these days.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Salo, or the 120 Reasons I Like Battle Royale Better

Hot Asian chicks.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Samurai Spy

Masahiro Shinoda (Double Suicide, Pale Flower) directed this film recently released by Criterion on DVD. It's one of the best samurai films I've seen, and the type that could only come from a New Wave director like Shinoda. Beyond the basic idea of using the samurai genre to make a spy film, there are several things that make it stand out. The fight scenes are never played straight; sometimes it's slow-mo and quick cutaways of spears and bodies comically flying through the air, sometimes it's long shots during the most suspenseful moment of the action, but he always gives us a new spin on cliched scenarios. Furthermore, the cinematography is fantastic throughout, making use of fog, chiaroscuro lighting, a steadily moving camera, and compact locations.

The stylistic and technical innovations alone would be enough to get excited about Samurai Spy, but the narrative is equally strong, juggling about 10 characters and featuring a protagonist who poses and answers moral questions without seeming didactic and preachy.
I'm beginning to think the Japanese films of the 50s and 60s were the golden age of sophisticated moral storytelling.

Read My Lips

This is one of the most mature, sophisticated films I've ever seen. Based on this film and The Beat My Heart Skipped, I'd say that director Jacques Audiard is a great visual stylist, excellent writer, and gets good performances. But it's something more about the two films that's difficult to pin down. I'd hesitate to call it "realism", but he basically manages to make non-movies that never seem self-conscious and are never less than completely engrossing. He rarely uses the kind of dialogue and action that most writers rely on to keep things interesting, keep things moving; and yet, he wraps enough of a narrative around his complex character studies to generate tension and conflict.

Both of the leads are perfect for the roles. I read a review in which the critic complained that the actress playing the woman was too attractive to be receiving insults throughout the film. But that's not the point- the great thing about the actress is that dejected, uncomfortable expression she always has on her face (it works great in The Beat My Heart Skipped too).

Along with Jeuneut, Audiard seems to be the most unique, distinctive director working in France these days.

The Squid and the Whale

I really liked this one. All the good things critics are saying about it are true. The performances are perfect from the four leads, and Jesse Eisenberg really nails the "too young to be as neurotic as Woody Allen" teenager that I was, and many, many pseudo-cultured young men are. To make reference to the most obvious comparison again, the film features some of the best masochistic intellectual bashing since Annie Hall. Like that film, it goes beyond simple comedy and into the level of insightful commentary on its characters. Also, the references are funny- Carpenter's "The Thing", "The Mother and the Whore", "The Wild Child", "Breathless".

There are many little things that The Squid and the Whale gets right. The portrayal of adolescence is one of the most awkwardly honest I've ever seen in a film. There is a sophistication to the family interactions that never tips into either nostalgia or cynicism, a great achievement in the writing. I particularly loved a small moment in the first scene, where the family is playing a doubles tennis match; as it climaxes in a shouting match between husband and wive, the two sons convene on the other end of the court, watching their parents in silence. The handling of the quick transition between a friendly tennis game and "adult time" is truly great filmmaking. Many moments like that one reminded me of my own childhood, and the kinds of things I felt when I would see my parents arguing.

I haven't seen another Noah Baumbach film, and I wasn't too impressed with the script for The Life Aquatic, but this film is definitely the sign of a writer-director with talent and something to say.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


Just watched this for the second time in a class. Still my favorite of the series, and the last scene is the best moment in any of the films. One of the best endings in any film, ever.

Afraid To Die

Great yakuza thriller from Masumura (Blind Beast). Really interesting cast for this type of film- Mishima, Kurosawa favorite Takashi Shimura, an actress I've seen in films from high-profile Japanese directors. The fact that Mishima is a mediocre actor works in favor of the film, enhancing the weakness that the character tries to hide behind a tough guy veneer.