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.