Based on the results of last week's poll, a lot of you aren't interested in the upcoming David Fincher film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the option that received the most votes. Tied for second was your excitement based on the fact that it's a Fincher project and the fact that it's another Fincher/Pitt collaboration.
Thank you all for voting!
Sunday, October 26, 2008
High and Low (1963, Akira Kurosawa)
Kurosawa's film High and Low is a prime example of the quality cinema can result when two popular genres are properly fused into one story. In this case, we have the drama genre and the detective genre. To put it briefly, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, yet again in a starring role in a Kurosawa) is a shoe making plant director for the National Shoe Company. One night he receives a threatening phone call from a man saying that his son has been kidnapped, and unless Gondo pays the 30 million ransom, the boy will die. Soon afterwards, it is discovered that it is not Gondo's son that has been taken, but the son of his chauffeur. Regardless, the kidnapper still asks for the identical ransom. His son now in safety, Gondo begins to doubt whether he should pay the ransom, given that the 30 million in question is just about how much he has saved up and mortgaged to take over the National Shoe Company. And so begins a fascinating tale about morals and detective work.
The other players involved are the chief detective on the case played by Tatsuya Nakadai who comes into play mostly in the second half of the film. I say second half because the story is really split into two separate, but yet closely linked chapters. The first hour or so concerns itself primarily with Gondo and his reluctance to pay the ransom. His hesitancy is gruesome in that it is a young, innocent boy's life that is on the line. But Gondo's philosophy on the subject is heavily skewed for very personal reasons. He has been with the Shoe Company for decades, practically from the beginning. His life is his work and his work is his life one might argue. Additionally, he has just mortgaged most of what he owns in order to become the company employee with the most shares. This in theory would lead to far greater income in the future, not to mention an enhanced decision power. If he he pays the ransom however, all that vanishes, including his home.
What is on display is a bizarre but intriguing dilemma. As a hard worker, a very hard one at that, is Gondo not entitled to finally make his break in the company? Most people would of course argue no. Rather, the boy's life is far more precious. And yet Kurosawa makes it plainly obvious that in this world, men are after success more than anything else. One need only look at Gondo's right hand man, played by Tatsuya Mihashi, who insists that Gondo should follow through with his plan and not 'chicken out' because of circumstances that are beyond his control. There is a specific, ruthless business mentality that drives men like this and the result makes for a strange, but very engaging experience.
Tatsuya Nakadai shines the the second part of the film, when he and his team of crack detectives take over and hunt the kidnapper down. He and his men have witnessed first hand the strife the event has caused between Gondo and his wife (who pleads desperately for her husband to go ahead and pay the ransom to save the boy's life) as well as between Gondo and his right hand man and other colleagues. In addition to the fact that a young boy has been put in incredible peril, their resolve to bring these matters to a safe and positive conclusion is welcomed. Nakadai leads his team with confidence and cunning. One can understand why he is so highly regarded within the force. There is a natural calmness about him, but one that is supported by intelligence and a sharpness that enables him to make quick fire decisions when the stakes are high. Kenjiro Ishiyama plays one of Nakadai's men and is equally strong in his role as detective Bos'n. A bit older, bald and with a intimidating face, he displays determination and passion rather than anything overly menacing, which might have been the case were the story in another director's hands. His commitment to the case is second to none.
There are some inspiring scenes in the film, most notably when Gondo and the detectives, under instructions from the kidnapper, are riding on a speeding train hoping to catch a glimpse of the boy through the windows, but fully aware that the packaged ransom must be thrown out the window and that any false movement can derail the entire case (particularly since the detectives do not want the kidnapper to know that they are involved). The final sequence of the film exemplifies the result all the hard work the detectives have invested up until that point. When so close to catching the suspect, but aware that any false move can be translate to failure, both efficiency and stress are juggled together. A climax that is more than merely satisfying.
High and Low is one of Kurasawa's finer efforts. It may not involve samurais or emperors, but the director is comfortable with the material and handles it delicately, letting many of the scenes breath. The pacing is just right, with nothing feeling rushed. Everything plays out naturally. For those who associate Kurosawa with swords and ancient Japan epics, I urge them to get their hands on a copy of High and Low discover something surprising.
Friday, October 24, 2008
F For Fake (1975, Orsen Wells)
Orsen Wells directs and stars in this whimsical and playful 'documentary' regarding trickery. The film focuses primarily on the works of art forger Elmyr de Hory and his biographer, Clifford Irving (who also wrote a fictional biography about Howard Hughes). At times funny, at times surprising and at other times insightful and even thought provoking, F For Fake is more than just a collage of stories about people paving their road to success through trickery. Wells invites the viewer for an exploration of the mindset and motivation of people who have garnered fame and wealth all the while duping the general public, as well as the self described 'experts.'
Is a person who can replicate a work of art so accurately not talented or that merely profiting off the talent of others? What of a writer who has the guts and wit to fool everyone and get them to buy a biography that hasn't an ounce of truth in it? What does that say about the so called 'experts' and masses who embrace these works without the knowledge of their true nature? The movie, in its own entertaining way, throws our ideas of authenticity and truth on their heads. People will always have a fascination with those who choose dubious means to create their wealth and fame. But how many of them really deserve the scorn of men and women who make an 'honest' living? In the case of Elmyr de Hory, we have a person who is charming, funny, a socialite on the Spanish island of Ibiza, and obviously very talented. So much so that the man possesses the ability the re-create the works of Pablo Picasso and other phenomenal artists in only a couple of hours, which is a testament to his command of the paint brush. He claims he has fooled art dealers the world over, selling what they deemed to be original works when all the while they were but recreations done by Elmyr himself. Is that not a talent in of itself? There is a certain irony rested in the fact that Elmyr only began to make money by selling his secret recreations after failing miserably to earn a living with his own original work.
What's more, Elmyr finds a good friend in Clifford Irving, the author of a phony biography about the life of the famous and infamous American airplane pioneer Howard Hughes. Much like Elmyr, Irving is himself a bit of a charmer and often subtle and playful in the way he answers the questions thrown at him. He's relaxed and cool at all times, which is the reason why he's gotten so far in life after all. Neither Irving or Clifford seem feel the pressure of being caught for their trickery. Therein lies perhaps their greatest strength after all. These two friends have flirted with danger and success simultaneously through their respective practices. They are the masters at what they do, that is, fool people. Is it any wonder therefore that the viewer gets the impression that both are just as enigmatic when addressing the camera?
By the end of it, even Orsen Wells himself gets in on the act. After making a promise early in the film to tell nothing but the truth for the following hour, the viewer is duped into believing one last story about a beautiful woman (Oja Kodar) and how she seduced Pablo Picasso into doing 20 or so portraits of her and letting her walk away with every single one of them free of charge. The story continues with Picasso eventually coming face to face with her dying grandfather, who for years had successfully reproduced Picasso's work and made a living off of it. Great story, right? Well, as Wells rightly points out, the 1 hour mark came to an end 17 minutes ago, and therefore everything you have been lead to believe since then was a load of bull. The documentary filmmaker exploring fakery has just pulled one last coup on the audience because he knows he can and he knows that anyone can be fooled. Ironically, Orsen Wells, as the narrator, plays a magician of some sort, who are known for creating illusions of reality, which is the central theme of the movie. Wells, as the narrator, is also having a very good time and lets the atmosphere relax. He isn't out to persecute Irving and Elmyr, but to shine the spotlight on them and have some fun while doing so. His comments and dialogue are both funny and poignant.
One can't review the film without making a note regarding its editing style. Quickly paced, with detailed closeup shots and others in which all movements come to a halt, it is little wonder that F For Fake would influence some of the cinematographic techniques that would later characterize the music videos that are featured daily on stations such as MTV and Much Music. Say what you will have how 'cool' or 'pathetic' those music videos may be, in the case of this film the style is entertaining and adds some character to the proceedings.
Certainly an unorthodox documentary, but it greatly benefits from that uniqueness. And for those who aren't fans of documentaries, there is a lot of fun to be had here. It isn't the least bit dry.
Monday, October 20, 2008
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Rashomon (1950. Akira Kurosawa)
A man is murdered in the woods and his wife if raped. Terrible crimes that require explanation. What happened? Well, apparently is depends on who you ask, which is the theme of Roshamon (the title of the movie even gave birth to 'the rashomon effect'). Under refuge from a thunderstorm, three men, a woodcutter, a priest and a bandit recount all the potentially true eye witness stories heard in court that may, or may not explain how exactly the crimes in question occurred.
This is arguably one of Kurosawa's more accessible stories, which might explain why this is the movie the movie that put him on everyone's radar. There is a story told by the accused bandit, the wife who was raped, the murdered man (his voice is heard through a grisly bit of sorcery) and the woodcutter. The first three are told in court and highlight a fascinating little tidbit about human nature. Like it or not, people have a tendency to lie if it means they'll escape any kind of punishment. What's interesting is how the behaviors of each person involved in the case (the man, the wife and the bandit) shift from tale to tale. This provides some insight into the psyche of each witness telling their version of the events. We get to see, through their fear of the truth, some of their real opinions are of everyone else that was present. In essence, when people tell lies, we actually get a little bit of truth, although not the quite the one we were necessarily searching in the first place. Therefore deception is but another window into the true nature and ideas of Man. The woodcutter did not wish to tell his version of the story to the court, out of fear for getting involved. Who is telling the truth exactly? That's actually besides the point. This isn't a murder mystery after all, but a morality tale of sorts. Albeit one that doesn't quite explicitly provide the viewer with an lesson to learn. It is up to the viewer to construct their own based on what they have seen.
Both Tohiro Mifune as the crazed bandit (or not so crazed depending on whose story you choose to believe) and Machiko Kyo as the rape victim both give stunning performances. I read a lot about Mifune's performance, and justly so. Some of the eye witness tales make him to be practically a deranged psychopath, and Mifune delivers in spades. There is glint of madness in his eyes that would make anyone sane person uneasy. Kyo, particularly in the second and fourth stories, is positively haunting. The woodcutter's tale makes makes her the true villain of the story, and she inhibits the very nature of maliciousness and deception. Fascinating stuff overall.
If there is one criticism, it would be the dialogue between the priest, the woodcutter and the bandit (the one from the beginning, not Mifune) is a tad heavy handed near the end. Kurosawa seems to want the audience to understand precisely what themes were subject to the story. It's this viewer's belief anyone willing to venture into some Kurosawa material is intelligent enough to figure out at least most of what's going on here. The exchanges near the end feel very 'black on white'
Still, this is a very worthy Kurosawa effort
Friday, October 17, 2008
Cries and Whispers (1972, Ingmar Bergman)
In Cries and Whispers, Ingmar Bergman, the great late Swedish director, invites the viewer to spend some time with a family on the brink of self destruction. People even remotely familiar with Bergman’s work know the director was no stranger to stories involving sad, conflicted characters. This time however the Swede adds deep physical pain to the proceedings.
Agnes, played by Harriet Andersson, lies in bed every day because she is suffering of cancer. Her illness is terminal and it is only a matter of time before her body gives up. To ease her through her final days, her two sisters, Karin and Maria (Ingrid Thulin and Liv Ullman respectively) as well as the faithful housekeeper Anna (Kari Sylwan), are her bedside company. As the days go by, it is clear that Agnes’ physical state is deteriorating. What began as mere sleepiness and weakness soon develops into full blown episodes of shocking pain that jolts Agnes to her very core. In these scenes Harriet Andersson gives a surprising performance. It’s eerily real, almost to point of discomfort for the viewer. She has difficulty breathing properly and her voice goes horribly horse and it is shocking.
Bergman goes for the close up shots here, which is a bold move because none of these characters are feeling particularly cheery or healthy. Agnes looks worse day by day and the close up shots give the viewer an almost too intimate look into her status. Her sisters, Karin and Maria, while in better physical condition, are both experiencing their own turmoil. They are obviously saddened by Agnes’s unavoidable death, but in addition are currently wrestling with their own personal issues. Karin recently lost faith her own marriage, to the point of inflicting self mutilation. Maria is presently in a lustful relationship with the family doctor, even though she is married…with children. The function of the close up shots is therefore twofold. First and foremost, viewer cannot turn away from the anguish every player is going through. What better way to transmit the emotional turmoil of these characters than with uncomfortable close up shots? There’s no escaping it, it is relentless. Secondly, it shows off how well all these actresses can act. To put it succinctly, Cries and Whispers displays exceptional acting from all four leads. Each actress holds her own with such professionalism that it’s some of the best acting this reviewer has ever seen.
The ticking of clocks is a recurring audio element that haunts the film. The passing of time is excruciating as Agnes lies on her bed, dying a bit with every second. Such a wait can be, and usually is for most, a rather unbearable exercise. In their sorrow, the sisters and the housekeeper are reduced to many scenes of silence. The ticking of the clocks becomes a painful soundtrack suddenly. The story also back through time and shows one episode of each sister’s married life. Needless to say, neither Karin nor Maria are involved in the happiest of marriages. Karin’s marriage is an unfulfilled bed of lies while Maria’s desires are split between her cold husband and the family doctor. Time isn’t repairing any of these open wounds and it certainly isn’t bringing Agnes back to her usual self. Even Anna is affected by the passing of time. She has offered 12 years of faithful service to Agnes and with her death, Anna will have not only lost an employer, but a dear friend.
The emotional charge of the film reaches its apex following the death of Agnes, when an old animosity between Karin and Maria is renewed. This strenuous relationship was not so apparent just days ago, most likely because both were far more occupied with their sister’s health. But with Agnes now gone and the sisters bruised like never before, the masks come off in stunning fashion. The personal attacks by Karin are harsh and relentless. Does she genuinely feel this way towards Maria or is she merely succumbing to an dysfunctional emotional status Just when the viewer thought that things couldn’t get any worse, Bergman ensures that they do.
Cries and Whispers is not for everyone. Any viewer who doesn’t like their films too bleak should stay far away. But those interested in seeing Bergman toy with the human condition and pushing the envelope to dark territories, this is a must see.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944, Frank Capra)
One of my favourite actors, from any country, has been Cary Grant. There’s something about him that brings out the best in his performances. He’s a good looking bloke, confident, excellent with fast paced and witty dialogue and brings an all around charm to his roles. In Arsenic and Old Lace, Grant plays Mortimer Bewster, a play critic who has just married the lovely Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane). Before they go to Niagara Falls for their honeymoon, Mortimer stops off at his aunts home to pick up his luggage. With the taxi waiting outside, he’s almost ready to leave when he makes a shocking discovery. His two aunts, Martha and Abby (Jean Adair and Josephine Hull respectively) are killing the homeless and burying them in the cellar with the help of their crazy son, Theodore Brewster (John Alexander), who thinks he’s Teddy R.
Fear not, no more of the plot will be given away. A lot happens in this film that remains to be discovered. The plot thickens as more and more characters become involved, and this turns the heat up. Mortimer loves his aunts, despite their grisly hobby, and would never want to give them to the authorities. However, several misadventures along the way make this rather problematic. Not to mention that his new wife doesn’t understand what in blazes has suddenly gotten into him. And don’t forget: the taxi cab is still waiting outside!
For a film with such a dark subject matter, it’s quite a little wonder that Capra and the writers succeed in keeping the movie as funny as it is. And this is a very funny movie. I’m not the biggest fan of the kind of goofy humour in which the actors are putting on clown faces all day long (and there is a bit of that here), but the dialogue and delivery is so sharp, so ‘right on the money’ that I could not help but laugh out loud on many occasions. When the stakes are raised, so is the quantity of laughs per minute. Few many comedies succeed in retaining their high level of energy as the running length increases, but with the combination of talents involved here, it really doesn’t come as a surprise in the case of Old Lace. The exchanges between Mortimer and his aunts offered some of the funniest lines ever heard. But it’s critical to note how they were delivered. Mortimer is horrified, the aunts see nothing wrong. In fact, they’re positively giddy about the entire ordeal. These two jarringly different moods regarding the same subject matter only heighten the entertainment value of those scenes. The aunts are doing those poor homeless men a favor after all, aren’t they? Or is everybody in this family simply insane?
Acting in comedies must be terribly difficult. How does one ‘act funny?’ Sure the lines have to be good, but qualified actors are a requirement as well. Arsenic and Old Lace is full of them, from Cary Grant, to John Alexander, and even another personal favorite, Peter Lorre, who plays a strange doctor on the run with Mortimer’s psychotic brother.
For those who must have their films with some meat, the movie does tackle, at least a little bit, one issue: what lengths a person might travel to protect a loved one, even if the cost of that protection meant disobeying the law. That theme may not be exactly what the movie is driving at, but it stands to reason that that is precisely the predicament that Cary Grant has found himself in. Any ordinary person wouldn’t hesitate to denounce the atrocities the two old ladies have committed. Whether they behaved like angels or not would be of little consequence, they are guilty of murder! And yet, when family ties are at issue, we tend to behave a bit differently. We’ve all done something for a sibling that perhaps they didn’t merit. In hindsight the act itself may appear as silly or imprudent, but they’re family and one shouldn’t let family down. So there’s a bit of intelligence to the proceedings as well.
That taxi cab is still waiting outside…
Monday, October 13, 2008
Saturday, October 11, 2008
Clockers (1995, Spike Lee)
In Spike Lee's Clockers, the viewer is yet again plunged into an impoverished African American community and the troubles that condemn it. This time around the central character is Ronald 'Strike' Dunham (Mekhi Phifer), a twentysomething youth who, when not hanging with his peers, functions as a seller for the drug lord Rodney Little, played with cunning by Delroy Lindo. Things get complicated in the community when a fast food joint employee is gunned down one night and Strike's older brother (Isiah Washington) turns himself in and explains that the act was in self defense. Of the two detectives on the case, one of them (John Turturo) believes the case is closed. The other, played by Harvey Keitel, doesn't believe the self defence plee for a second. For that reason, the two partners head back to the community, with Keitel eyeing Strike as the culprit.
Spike Lee movies are often filled with characters and Clockers is no exception. The key is to handle them all well. Do they all have their place within the story? Are they all necessary? In this department, Lee is mostly successful. The one character that may have be of great importance is Keitel's bickering partner, played by John Tururo. Keitel's determination to make certain that the truth, or at least his version of the truth, sees the light of day was more than enough. There really wasn't a need for a partner that disagrees with him.
The real meat of the story revolves around several characters that live in the 'projects'. Mehki Phifer as Strike plays his part of the convincingly. He's lost to this world of drug dealing and probably will never escape it. Although he doesn't consume crack himself, he willfully aids his boss, Rodney, in selling the product to as many people as possible. He befriends a young lad from the neighborhood and even explains to him how to to get rich quickly, namely, by selling drugs. But he does have a passion: trains. He knows their history, has always wanted to ride in one and even has a spectacular set in his apartment, albeit purchased with drug money. He also suffers from a serious ulcer, which causes him to cough up blood. Although they may not be the most effective tools, these two aspects are just enough to give the viewer the impression that Strike is a human, not some cold hearted drug dealer. He even warns the young boy who has befriended him never to use the drugs he's selling. But of course, warning or not, too much negative influences on the boy eventually lead to a dramatic gesture on his behalf just when Strike's life may be on the line. Strike's many attempts at deceiving Keitel's detective and his deteriorating relationship with Rodney eventually land him in some insurmountable stress and an almost hopeless situation. To add to the misery, his negative influence on the young boy means he is no longer in favor among some of the neighborhoods members, such as a local police officer played wth gutso by the always reliable Keith David. Strike is in way over his head and instead of becoming a wiser, cooler character all of a sudden, as is done in other films, he crumbles under the pressure and can only survive from outside help.
There are some nifty camera shots near the beginning that show the system Strike and his partners use to sell their drug with as much coordination as possible to avoid detection. It's quick and a delight to watch in its efficiency. Spike Lee always succeeds in bringing a distinct visual style to his films. The camera work in his films is always dynamic and enhances the story telling process. Clockers clearly benefits from Lee's visual expertise, be it with regards to tracking shots or cuts or camera angles.
Clockers may not be in the same league as Lee's other works, such as Do The Right Thing, Malcom X and Crooklyn, but it is still one of his most effective and entertaining movies. Anyone who wants to explore the director's repertoire should not overlook this film.
Sunday, October 5, 2008
Sleeping Man (1996, Kôhei Oguri)
Briefly, the story revolves around the citizens of a small, predominantly quite Japanese town snuggled between some high mountains. One of their own, a man named Takuji, had an accident while in the mountains once and is now in a coma. For how long? We don’t know. The people of this town worry dearly for him, although that emotion is not shown over dramatically in their speech.
Conversations about Takuji, his accident and the area in general take center stage here. The dialogue is soft spoken and very insightful about the customs and habits of these townspeople. Historical fables, the soul, the meaning of names and other particularities are all discovered as the movie goes along through their conversations. What’s interesting is how these tidbits come into play later on. On intriguing scene has Takuji’s soul ‘blown away’ in the wind. His family and friends then begin a hunt for his soul, searching and making loud noises in the hopes that they may attract it back. It sounds silly bit these people are taking this very seriously and it’s fascinating to see unfold. There’s a brilliant sequence of shots which shows al the places we have visited to be empty: everyone is searching for the soul… Another sequences features an astonishing ritual performed before a sitting crowd and involves some of the most unique music this viewer has ever heard. One of the characters, a personal friend of Kikujiro, narrates to us that the people of this town appreciate the ceremony because it brings the living and spirit world togethor in contact. It's another example of how Sleeping Man simply wants to bring the featured community to life.
All these discussions are permitted to flourish thanks to the deliberately slow pace. Scenes are allowed to breath and we, as the viewers, all invited to admirer it all. The location shots are oftentimes impressive for the natural beauty they put on display. The conversations themselves are the perfect window into the lives of these citizens. Their slow pace allowed me to imagine and ponder what was being discussed. Director Oguri pulls off a real coup here because despite the fact that their really isn’t a lot of dialogue, one can’t help but feel that a lot is being said. When someone is talking, the viewer can hang on to their every word and learn more about this beautiful world.
Sleeping Man is not for everyone. Anyone who is averse to slow pacing may not find this movie digestible. Anyone who wants their movies to serve up intricate plots and twists won’t find this entertaining in the least. But for anyone who just wants to sit back and explore a world, its customs, its people and their stories, I implore you to get your hands on this movie.
Saturday, October 4, 2008
Days of Being Wild (1990, Wong Kar Wai)
This movie has a very appropriate title. The story's central character (there are others who earn their own compelling plotlines however) is a young, twenty something chap (Leslie Cheung) who doesn't have a job, alienates his adoptive mother and is a bit of a skirt chaser. Needless to say, with an attitude like that, the girls he meets are often left with a bruised heart.
Maggie Cheung is the first girl we meet and once she's brutally dumped, Carina Lau is Leslie Cheung's next target. What's interesting is how Wong plays with his themes differently. several of his movies explore the sticky concept of love, but Days of Being Wild seems to take that and run with it a bit differently. As the plot moves along, the chain of people who are hurt, in one way or another, but Cheung's wild and careless behavior begins to take a serious toll. Everyone around at last has a job, certain commitments to attend to and can hence be considered rather stable people, but their emotional foundations all eventually get trounced. It's quite devastating to contemplate but fascinating to watch.
It's also quite compelling to see how Wong always the most out of the actors he works with. Everyone here, espeically the two leads, Leslie Cheung to Maggie Cheung, invest a lot into their characters and therefore make them three dimensional. There's a believability about the characters that really sucks the viewer into the movie.
As is normally the case in a Wong Kar Wai film, the soundtrack is a peculiar choice. A tantalizing samba-like music is played at several moments during the narrative, but somehow doesn't quite feel out of place. It works well with Leslie's brash character, who is enganged in an emotionally dangerous dance with himself and those around him.
I acknowledge that Wong has made several strong movies, but I think Days of Being Wild really has something special about it.