Sunday, July 27, 2008

Quiet Apocalypse: Kurosawa's "Pulse"

This post is part of the Kiyoshi Kurosawa Blog-a-thon being hosted at The Evening Class

In Kiyoshi Kurosawa's "Pulse" (Kairo), the end of the world comes in hushed tones. The inhabitants of Tokyo begin to slowly absorb into the fabrics of everyday life- literally. It begins with a florist's assistant and then spreads to a group of technologically inclined college students. Messages begin to surface in weird video images on computers which causes the viewer to slowly go insane, taping off their residences with red tape and then morphing into wet stains on their walls. Is what they're seeing on the website the images of their dead friends? A portal to some other world? Or is it simply their imagination and a chance for a filmmaker like Kurosawa to broaden his thematic outlook on the modern world? Whichever way one looks at it, "Pulse" is one seriously scary piece of work.

Released in 2001, "Pulse" fits in nicely with the rest of Kurosawa's moody work. I've said it before, but for whatever reason, Asian filmmakers like Kurosawa, The Pang Brothers, Hideo Nakata and Takashi Shimizu understand that the recesses of the frame, the dark edges of the image and background shadows can be just as terrifying as any horror film aesthetic. Kurosawa is probably the unspoken master of this. For an entire investment in mood, check out his latest film, "Retribution", which seems to be shot entirely with natural sunlight and one bulb per room. And even though "Pulse" is another Asian metaphor on technology taking over society (on the heels of Takashi Miike's pretty damn good "One Missed Call"), Kurosawa makes us believe in it. The desperation and impending dread hovers over each and every second of "Pulse". I'm not too afraid of nuclear weapons wiping us off the map, but I could easily see the world degenerating into a chaotic hell hole if some super virus infected modern technology and rendered us helpless. "Pulse" plays on that fear and ends on a truly harrowing visage of planes going down in flames, a woman jumping to her death (in a remarkable well staged and tricky single shot") and a woman (Harue Karasawa) stumbling around the mayhem searching for a way out. The apocalypse had never felt so scary.

Filmed in 2001 but not released in the United States until 2005, "Kairo" was pilfered and turned into a nearly unwatchable Hollywood remake in 2006. Though some of the images were transferred faithfully- including the one with a "crab woman" walking towards the camera which, in either version, is one of the more disturbing images I've ever seen- gone is the fragile sense of dread. The Hollywood version amped up the ghosts and swept out the energy. The attention was turned from the darkness of the frame to the overtness of the "jumps". With Kurosawa, his films seep into your consciousness and rattle around for days. "Pulse" is but one great example of this.

The common visual structure of "Pulse" notwithstanding, it's also a film that demands your attention. With an array of characters, the narrative refuses to focus on one person. The man or woman that we're watching one minute very well could end up a stain on the wall in the next scene. Besides being a strong indicator that Kurosawa is interested in the mass psyche as it pertain to this unknown phenomenon causing mass suicide, this storytelling device adds great tension. Anything goes. But, anyone familiar with Kurosawa's films knows that the unexpected should be expected. In both "Cure" (the first Kurosawa I film saw on Sundance channel in 1998 one year after release) and "Retribution" (2007) an unknown force triggers ordinary people to kill without warning. With the introduction to each new character, we're never sure if we can relax and put our trust in this person or if they've already been possessed by this growing evil. In "Pulse", the students affected by one's suicide exponentially impact the others. Who'll be next? Who will go home and have their computer automatically turned on and see the image of a shadowy bedroom? For some, this unwillingness to identify with a strong character can be maddening. For Kurosawa, it's yet another methodical way of dealing with the non-descriptive nature of the evolving landscape.

Last year, I included "Pulse" on my list of 15 scariest Movies of all time. It's that good. Over time, it has only gotten better. With each new Kurosawa film, he continues to dazzle and mesmerize. The logic is a little fuzzy sometimes and I wonder if he doesn't get totally lost in mood sometimes (thinking of "Retribution, which I need to see again), but its the promise of seeing something nerve-shattering that brings me back to Kurosawa as the leading figure in modern Japanese cinema. "Pulse" has been regarded as a genre attempt by Kurosawa. If this is the type of minor genre attempt he continues to make, then I'm very afraid for the horror genre itself. His 'minor' efforts reveal more purpose, more visual brilliance and more damning statements about us as a society than any 'major' work by true auteurs.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A Good Couple Weeks At the Movies


Relegated now to the status of that 'other' superhero movie, Peter Berg's "Hancock" is nonetheless a bold interpretation of this type of film- which means I bought wholeheartedly into the "twist" of the film and loved how it dared to step into some pretty mythical and even romantic aspects of the genre never before explored. I've been a fan of Berg since his incredibly well-tuned "Friday Night Lights", one of the absolute best football movies ever made and a pretty damn good exploration of small town Texas life as well. He has a way of melding music and image that transcends the genre sometimes, and with "Hancock", there's no exception (the score from John Powell). Berg also has a way of creating memorable images, as if his camera is constantly revolving and recording the action around him where gentle moments of human interaction are discovered. Think of the whisper between Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner in "The Kingdom" (a smart film that deserved more notice last year) or the fatherly tug on the helmet to a disillusioned son walking off the field in "Friday Night Lights". Berg is just as attentive in "Hancock", giving us glimpses of the scarred human beneath the superhero mantra. As the alcoholic protagonist who causes more damage than good, Will Smith ably inhabits his role. Though the first half plods along routinely, settling the desire for mainstream entertainment through unoriginal quips of dialogue and one head-ramming sequence which involves the ass of another man, Berg and screenwriters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan toss a curve ball that elevates the film into something more about halfway through. That's when it really hooked me. Essentially high priced summer fare, "Hancock" also hits high notes of genuine loneliness and sacrifice. Both Will Smith and Charlize Theron add immense depth to their roles and "Hancock" deserves to stand out from the rest of the summer shuffle for that alone.

Shotgun Stories

Jeff Nichols' "Shotgun Stories" is a remarkable assured debut film that had me spellbound right from its textured opening images of Arkansas crop fields at sunset. With David Gordon Green serving as producer, Nichols maintains a good majority of the Southern ennui and rag-tag awkwardness of Green's previous films, but "Shotgun Stories" is a much darker tale. You can feel the portentousness from the very beginning and it never lets up. Starring Michael Shannon (who'll forever be ingrained in my memory as the creepy guy from "Bug") leads a relatively unknown cast in this violent family drama. After the death of their father, Shannon and his two brothers show up to the funeral and effectively spit on the casket as its being lowered into the ground. There are hints and visual cues of a tormented past between the brothers and their now dead father. Rightly so, this action offends the four brothers of the dead father's new family- the one he created and loved after "finding God" and sobering up. Hence begins a struggle between both families as the hatred seethes and the violence mounts. Nichols handles everything in modulation. Through strong editing and a stunning visual look, "Shotgun Stories" infuses the numerous confrontations between the brothers as something almost biblical. But while it's the startling violence (mostly off-screen) that registers while watching, the overall lasting reverberation of the film is its fair and balanced representation of both sides. There are no clear cut villains here and the motives for either side (both in action and peace-keeping missions) are examined with clear eyes. "Shotgun Stories" is smart, bracing independent film making.

The Dark Knight

Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" could easily earn that high praise of "" I won't go that far, but it is a stunning example of the intelligent progression of Nolan's Batman franchise. I loved "Batman Begins" enough to rank it number 15 on my favs of 2005, and I can easily see "The Dark Knight" ranking twice as high when '08 rolls to an end. This is not only a good entry into the caped crusader chronicles but its a terrific crime film, echoing the vibrancy of Michael Mann with its opening heist and sweeping helicopter pans through urban downtown and refusing to let off the accelerator as Batman and The Joker use Gotham as one giant sprawling playground of excess (both good and bad). There are some moments in this film that are so good (the quiet cut to the Joker hanging his head out of the backseat window of a police car and smiling gently or the slow tracking shots that snake around people, highlighted by genuinely unnerving drone music) they beg for second viewings. And while its hard to avoid hefting praise on Heath Ledger as the Joker, his performance is more than a stunt. His voice inflections and reaction shots are composed of perfect timing. Every time he's on-screen, you could feel the audience tense up in my showing. I've never quite experienced anything like that before. That's the mark of true screen greatness.

The Wackness

Initially drawn to "The Wackness" for its sense of nostalgia since the film takes place in 1994 and charts the tumultuous summer after graduating high school for one Luke (Josh Peck) and I myself graduated just one year later, it didn't take long for me to realize I had nothing in common with this film. Our soon-to-be college student is a pot smoker/dealer (strike 1 for me), living in the dog-eat-dog urban environment of New York City (strike 2), who listens to rap music (strike 3) and befriends his equally drug addled psychiatrist Dr. Squires played by Ben Kingsley (strike whatever). About the only strands of familiarity came in Luke's persistent search for having sex with girls.. pretty much the main focus for most high school guys, no? Having said all that negative, there is something to like in Jonathan Levin's "The Wackness" and that comes in the somewhat sensitive relationships formed between Peck and Kingsley (who gives a terrific performance and whose energy sweeps across the screen every time he's on) and the projections of his lust onto the daughter of Dr Squires played by Olivia Thirlby. The film comes to life intermittently, but Peck's constant mutterings of "waddup, yo" or "that's dope" only serve as alienating factors in a performance that's not that great to begin with. To believe in a film, one has to believe in the main character, and as Luke, Peck simply resembles a blank slate in which I checked out long before the resolution of his messy, fumbling summer comes about. I could have easily taken a film about the miserably complacent lives of Kingsley, his disaffected wife (Famke Jansen) and daughter (Thirlby) much more readily than the central focus of "The Wackness". And whether it was intentional or not, but the cinematography by Petra Korner, full of washed out browns and golds, becomes annoying in its relentless search to capture the halcyon days of '94 New York. I've never been there, but it seems to suck the life right out of the city.

Paranoid Park

Speaking of 'ennui', Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park" is another trek through teen anomie, this time in the guise of Portland, Oregon's skateboard culture and the (maybe?) murder of a security guard. Starring unknown faces and shot by master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, "Paranoid Park" is full of splendid visual moments and muted emotions as Alex (Gabe Nevins) tells his first-person story in non-linear fashion, scribbling down what happened to him in a notebook. Van Sant is faithful to the confused state of this teenager mind as his film jumps around in sync with Alex's struggle to articulate past events and how he may have been responsible for murder. Van Sant is a filmmaker I admire more than appreciate. His trilogy of films, including "Gerry", "Last Days" and "Elephant" take a remarkably European art film aesthetic (long tracking shots, strong attention to sound and lyrical movement) and apply it to the wasteland of suburban young adults in America. "Paranoid Park" is definitely the best of these films, but it still resonates as a cold, detached experiment. The best moments, though, are the opening ones as a fuzzy handheld camera documents in home movie fashion the snaking paths of several skateboarders in the concrete underpass known as Paranoid Park. With this seemingly innocuous event, Van Sant seems closer than ever in capturing the free-spirited milieu of suburban America. A nice effort.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

70's Bonanza- The Hospital

By 1970, screenwriter/novelist/playwright Paddy Chayefsky had reached the pinnacle of cinematic heights. With one Academy award behind him already (for "Marty" in 1955)and two more to follow in the 70's, Chayefsky had just as much power as a director or producer. Like screenwriting peer Robert Towne a few years later, his pen turned paper into gold. And this position of power was mandated with the release of "The Hospital" one year later in '71 . Not only did Chayefsky get another Oscar for this work, but he got top billing upon release. There's the title, followed with "by Paddy Chayefsky" and then a quick directing title for Arthur Hiller. It must be nice at the top.

But, I'm not complaining. "The Hospital" is one great script. Like "Network" which would be written later in his career, Chayefsky tackles an institution (the medical profession) and turns it inside out, reveling in its bureaucratic uglies, taking sardonic swipes at its individuals and essentially bracketing the whole profession as one huge three ring circus without a ringleader. And in the midst of the neglect and mounting confusion of its merry-go-round cast over one long night in their New York hospital, there stands George C. Scott as Dr. Bock... a depressed, burned out live wire who is just as royally condemned as the homeless man left in the corner to die. Chayefsky certainly has an affinity for that 'off the reservation' maverick. He crafted an Oscar winning role for Peter Finch years later in "Network" as the demented TV broadcaster who turns into a cult leader for the disenfranchised and psychotic, and Scott's performance as Dr. Bock is basically the foundation for this type of professional defect. Held to a much lower key than Finch, Scott still burns fiercely, and when it comes time to deliver a long, rambling monologue about the state of the medical field, his own failures as a father and his impotency, Scott owns the scene. Many have tried to imitate Chayefsky's verbose brilliance, but no one comes close. When his characters deliver a monologue, you feel it in your bones.

Chayefsky's treatise on the horrors of hospitals isn't the only one. Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" from 2006 is an equally damning representation. But Chayefsky got there first, and not only does "The Hospital" induce cringing as a lady from accounting calls out insurance numbers while someone dies on a gurney behind her, but it also creates great laughs in the way his characters stroll around in a state of eternal confusion. There's a casual disregard for death and mistakes. When one patient (who may be a doctor from the hospital) ends up dead in the hospital bed of a missing patient, it takes a full 2-3 minutes before one nurse convinces the other to come see what's wrong. It's to the credit of Chayefsky (and we should mention, I guess, director Arthur Hiller who keeps the whole thing fresh and paced) that he manages to wring great ironic humor out of assembly line human waste.

"The Hospital" isn't all gloom and doom. Without spoiling much, George C. Scott's Dr. Bock isn't a casualty in the engulfing morass. Chayefsky's script cares too much for him, throwing him a rekindled sexual appetite in the form of a beautiful visitor to the hospital played by Diane Rigg. And just when things seem darkest and the impending forces of the outside world descend in the form of urban protests from low-income tenants of a housing project destroyed by the hospital's plans for expansion, Scott turns a responsible corner and becomes the film's moral compass. While it's not Chayefsky's most fully believable character arc, Scott delivers his intentions with such determination, that's it hard to not root for him. Like "Network", Chayefsky's intentions are broad strokes against an empirical setting. Not only does he create vivid characters virtually swallowed up by their surroundings, but every now and then one of them gets out alive. In the hospital of this 1971 film, that's all the more fantastic.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Blogathon Note and Links

Over at Cinexcellence, they're asking for participation in the 'Unseen Blogathon'. The idea is that you check out a DVD on a whim. This can be one you buy at the store, rent online or steal from your girlfriend's roommate as one commenter stated.... but it's gotta be one that you wouldn't normally watch. For me that means no police procedural films or 70's exploitation. I guess that leaves a Meryl Streep comedy or something? Once you watch the film, a review is necessary. This could be interesting. It goes on through late August so have fun.

Also, its not a blogathon, but one helluva brave idea- and yet another example of the interactive and fun community of blogging. Caitlin at 1416 and Counting opened up her comment section and asked for suggestions of films. She would then Netflix them, watch every one of the suggestions and review them. Of course, I had to throw out two Michael Winterbottom films, "Wonderland" and "The Claim". She's a trooper alright, fearlessly accepting each suggestion and duly shooting them into her queue. That crazy bastard Piper already suggested "Meet the Feebles". What's the matter Piper, you couldn't wait for "Salo" to be released! But it's all in good fun. If only I were more inclined, I'd try something fun like that, but you know.. I'm a miserable curmudgeon.

And finally, the LAMB association continues to grow. Nice job, Fletch!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

What's In the Netflix Queue #18

Some weeks are busier than others. This was one of those weeks. Next 10 flicks in the 'ol inbox:

1. Porcile- Still working my way through Pasolini. It's been a mixed bag. I hated and could barely make it through his "The Hawks and the Sparrows" in which we spend 90 minutes as two vagrants walk and converse with a talking raven about communism, religion and the poor. Yet I liked his debut feature, "Accatone" which can be seen as the influence for alot of Scorsese's work, including stealing the opening theme for his 1995 film "Casino". We'll see about "Porcile".
2. Badge of Honor (2 discs)- Three hour documentary about the history of the Los Angeles police department from the 1800's to today. I have to admit, since visiting L.A. a month ago, I've been fascinated by its history and lore.
3. Monsieur Hire- Patrice Leconte's French thriller that I think was just released on video. It made quite a few critics list back in the late 80's. Not sure why it took so long to get a DVD release.
4. Oh Woe Is Me- Godard film from 2007. A good majority of Godard's late work is pretty insufferable. But, as my 2nd or 3rd favorite director working today, I'll give any film of his a shot. This one is described as: "God takes over the body of Simon Donnadieu (GĂ©rard Depardieu) in order to make love to his beautiful wife, Rachel (Laurence Masliah). When publisher Abraham Klimt (Bernard Verley) hears about this astounding occurrence, he travels to the couple's Swiss town to see whether it's true. French director Jean-Luc Godard's meditation on God's relationship with man is replete with stunning images of the European countryside and nature.
5. Who'll Stop the Rain-70's bonanza rolls on. Karel Reisz's drug smuggling thriller stars Nick Nolte. Never heard of this one.
6. Oedipus Rex- Last Pasolini film I need to see (that is until "Salo" gets its big Criterion release in August) and the oeuvre inspection will be complete.
7. Eyes of Laura Mars- Late 70's thriller starring Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones about a fashion photographer who learns she can see the murders of a serial killer through the lens of her camera. It can't be as bad as "Shutter" can it?
8. The Notorious Concubines- Third and final film of director Koji Wakamatsu's that is available on video. I expect more weird, perverse stuff.
9. The Lovers- A whole slate of previously unreleased Louis Malle films recently made it to DVD. No better time than the present to catch up. I hold a special place in my heart for his debut, "Elevator to the Gallows" that was the first French New Wave film I can remember watching.
10. The Eagle Has Landed- John Sturges is the man. Anybody who directs "The Great Escape" is pretty damn good in my book. This was his last film in 1976, a World War 2 tale about an elite group of paratroopers landing behind German lines. Sturges is long over due for one of those New York Film Forum retrospectives.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

There Goes My Hero

Forget what I wrote a few months back about this guy:

My new hero is this guy:

(Josh Hamilton, taken last weekend after batting practice)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Taking Stock of '08 (So Far)

Fifty-four films into 2008 for me personally, there have been some surprises. While the list of not-so-great films grows longer ("Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, "Wanted", "Diary of the Dead", "Drillbit Taylor", "Be Kind Rewind" rounding out the very bottom) I have seen 6 really good films. Whether these chosen ones survive the onslaught of the Fall season remains to be seen, but something tells me they probably will. With a mixture of auteur sensibility, these half dozen films represent originality, strong acting, compelling narratives and good old fashioned entertainment done with pizazz.

In alphabetical order:

The Bank Job

Roger Donaldson's thrilling genre piece showcases a mannered attention to detail (1970's London), a well constructed heist, and just enough tension to make "The Bank Job" great retro-fun. The cast is also smartly assembled and there's nary a gun fired until the very finale. Up until that point, the film keeps the dialogue firing on all cylinders and relying on good old fashioned suspense and character evolution to make you care about what's happening.

Boarding Gate

Olivier Assayas' international thriller keeps Asia Argento sharply in the sights of every scene as she dodges killers and manipulative ex-boyfriends at every turn. Filmed in Assayas' characteristic style of handheld cinematography and nervy jump cuts, he continues to take the thriller/espionage picture and smash it into a thousand pieces. The reasons for virtually every bad guy in this film are left on the editing room floor, and we're given a woman on the run against... something. Hints of corporate skulduggery, drug dealings and murder are left unfounded. "Boarding Gate" is the ultimate abstract thriller- with Assayas' "demonlover" a close second.


Finally, a French horror film in a long line of them that scores. Directed by Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury, imagine a film that suspends the dingy nightmarish blood spewing of "Taxi Driver" in its closing moments and you have a small idea how unsettling "Inside" is for most of its 100 minute running time. Except this time, the target of the maniacal killer is a pregnant woman home alone on Christmas Eve. This film will shock, upset, and make you cringe with its relentlessness. But besides that, it looks terrific and Maurey and Bustillo certainly understand how to frame a film for ultimate effect.

My Blueberry Nights

This is basically a road movie as only Wong Kar Wai could make... full of speed up landscapes, fluorescent subway trains and life observed from the outside looking in through glass windows. Like German filmmaker Wim Wenders, Wong Kar Wai's 'outsider' views about America don't always translate, but the time warp that envelops "My Blueberry Nights" is transfixing. From New York to the open vistas of Las Vegas, Nora Jones gets to be the anchor for a series of loners and addicts as she travels across country. David Straithern, as an alcoholic going through a divorce to Rachel Weisz, deserves a supporting actor nomination for his work. This is one beautiful film, both in emotions and look.

Summer Palace

Lou Ye's sprawling yet intimate look at 4 college students from the 60's to the 80's tracks along with the rest of his career in which he spans the years for emotional complexity and cultural significance. A knockout of a film.

The Visitor

It's so nice to see great supporting actor Jenkins wrestle with a starring role. After turning in strong performances in a host of films like "North Country" (in which he deserved a supporting actor nom that year) and "The Man Who Wasn't There", he does it again here but on the LEAD actor scale, embodying Walter with nuance and a less-is-more attitude that cuts right through the screen. I wasn't a fan of McCarthy's previous film, "The Station Agent", which felt quirky and forced, but with "The Visitor", he's created a film full of life, redemption and subtle human interaction.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

What's On My Mind... In Links

Still reeling from Josh Hamilton's walk-off 2 run shot over the Angels tonight, something has been nagging me that I've been meaning to pound out for several weeks now. Yes, there is an East coast bias (sorry to all the Red Sox fans I know read this blog!) Over the past few weeks, every game on ESPN and every Sportscenter highlight have involved Boston vs. Yankees, Yankees vs. Twins, Red Sox vs. Rays, and Sunday night the Mets vs god knows who. Please, break up the monotony and give us some heartland folks something to sink our teeth into. I'll be watching the Rangers anyway, but it'd be nice to flip over and see the occasional White Sox game or watch Arizona fall flat on their faces and lead the division with a .500 record.

And now, there's this inane story about Jason Giambi's freakin' moustache that has owned ESPN TV and radio for the past day. I had to turn off the radio last night after hearing Jason Smith on all-night radio spend 2 hours on this subject. Ridiculous. Anyway, yes, the bias does exist.

As a fan of Coast To Coast AM radio, I found this story somewhat compelling. Legendary occultist Aleister Crowley as a British spy?

With Tiger Woods done for the year, you could hear the collective sigh of relief when PGA tour phenom Anthony Kim won his second tourney last weekend in Washington DC. In between some terrific sporting events (baseball and Wimbeldon which really sucked me in), I flipped over to watch Kim's pretty flawless Sunday round, dropping approach shots within 10 feet and making some critical putts. With Tiger out, the tour needs someone like this to pump some fresh energy into the events.

And in the spirit of Weepingsam and his The Listening Ear blog, below is a bonus YouTube clip! From the Gutter Twins (Greg Dulli and ex Screaming Trees frontman Mark Lanegan).

Monday, July 07, 2008

Cinema Weirdo: Ecstacy of the Angels

When Cinemascope published an article last issue discussing the work of Japanese New Wave director Koji Wakamatsu, I knew I had to track down a few copies of his work. After seeing one of the (only) two films available on DVD, entitled "Ecstasy of the Angels", I'm flabbergasted and unsure if I really want to venture further. Filmed in 1972, "Ecstasy of the Angels" is definitely an acquired taste and prime candidate for any cult film junkie's list of weird and extreme.

Filmed in black and white with splashes of color thrown in for good measure (and indiscriminate reasons it appears), "Ecstasy of the Angels" follows a small group of Japanese revolutionaries who deal with in-fighting, power struggles and the daily grind of having to plant 'time bombs' all over the city, including police stations and crowded nightlife spots. But, I make this sound much more exciting than it really is. Like Godard's "La Chinoise", Koji is more interested in documenting the crazy ideas of his young warriors with dialogue rather than action. There is a flurry of activity towards the end of the film- captured in extremely jerky hand held camera work that follows a succession of bomb detonations around the city- but a majority of "Ecstasy of the Angels" takes place in the cramped, stuffy apartments of the revolutionaries as they spout mantra-like sayings and fight over the cache of stolen military munitions like three year olds. To make things even more avant garde, Koji supplies all his characters with names like Monday, Friday.... while the various factions of the militant group who struggle for power are known as seasons in the year. The 'October group' initially stole these weapons from a US army base (which opens the film with a rather well staged and believable break-in), but their reluctance to use them causes the 'February group' to show up, beat the 'October' leader, rape his girlfriend and take the weapons. If nothing else, Koji does a great job of fleshing out his revolutionaries as childish, inane and pretty clueless about reason, calculation or common sense.

But, wait... there's more to "Ecstasy of the Angels" than its political dissidence. Among the various double crosses and split factions, there's plenty of sex. Clearly deriving part of the film's stance from the pinku genre that Koji worked in for several decades, it belies a universe where sex and politics are inexplicably linked. Major decisions are made during the throes of passion. Nonsequitur comments such as "a park bench!" and "smash... smash them all!" are thrown out during foreplay to... I really have no idea. It does add a great dimension of weirdness and humor to the whole affair. If the film doesn't succeed as agitprop, then it may have a great shelf life as a comedy.

Wakamatsu has made close to 100 films since 1963. The next film I've slated to see is called "Go, Go Second Time Virgin" from 1969. It sounds just as genre-bending as "Ecstasy of the Angels": After being raped in an unknown rooftop, nineteen year-old girl Poppo meets a mysterious boy, and both share their sexual traumas and fears, with fatal consequences. Last year, Koji released a film called "United Red Army" that creeped into several critics top ten lists and has been written about recently by J Hoberman at the Village Voice. Koji is seemingly still interested in the disastrous and chaotic consequences of Japanese revolutionaries as this latest film (clocking in at 3 hours) follows a faction of the Red Army from infant stages to their death in a ski lodge. "Ecstacy of the Angels" seems to be his warm-up for this later effort. It is interesting to see a man of his age still spotlighting a cause he obviously supports, but if "Ecstacy of the Angels" is meant to convert anyone to his side of the line, then it fails miserably. If you're curious, check this one out.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Short Cuts


Sergei Bodrov's "Mongol" created Internet hype late last year when fan boys at Aint It Cool News were privileged a showing at their annual Butt-Numb-A-Thon. The film went onto garner a Foreign Film Academy award nomination and generously released here in the summer for Hollywood action spectacle counter-programming. It's a smart move, coupled with the fact that Bodrov's first film in an expected series about Ghengis Khan is pretty damn good in all the right ways. Following the rise of Khan (Tadanobu Asano) from childhood to mongol warrior (with slave and prisoner roles in between) and ending with the promise of large-scale battles in the next episode as Khan rises to great leader, "Mongol" is sharply directed. While there's no really huge set piece, the battles are filmed in logical, easy interpretive methods with the right amount of blood letting. Filmed on remote locations in China and Kazakhstan, the vistas and snow capped mountains compliment the fundamental scope of the film. But the real surprise is that emotions are just as visceral as the action. A good majority of "Mongol" traces Khan's initial relationships in life with his chosen bride Borte (Khulan Chuluun) and blood brother Jamukha (Honglei Sun), which makes his later escapades all the more meaningful. The fan boys were right. "Mongol" is exceptional storytelling and I look forward to the continuation of Bodrov's vision.

The Incredible Hulk

I think I'm one of the few who really liked Ang Lee's "less-is-more" rendering of "Hulk" a few years back. While there are some similar contemplative moments within Louis Letterier's fast and furious sequel- or spin off or re-visualisation... whatever this new film claims to be- Hulk smashes and he smashes some more. It should please as a summer blockbuster. Until the ending, which devolves into a giant CGI cartoon where Edward Norton's Hulk battles Tim Roth's mutated self, "The Incredible Hulk" sustains a highly entertaining pace. Letterier is adept at staging some nice action set pieces (especially the chase through a Brazilian slum early in the film) but it's the final battle, drawn out with weightless looking special effects against a cartoon backdrop of New York city, that seems to jump the shark. I understand the need for big, climactic finales in my summer blockbusters, but this one feels excessively fake and meaningless. That being said, everything till that point in the movie (including Norton's performance and his palpable connection with Liv Tyler) are crisp and enjoyable.


Another comic book adaptation- but this time with much fewer legions of fans than Hulk I'm guessing- Timur Bekmambetov's "Wanted" is a high-adrenaline shoot em up that failed to move me on any level. From the smug, detestable voice over (at which one point lead character James McAvoy says something like "I used to be a nobody.... like you"- well well how's that for friendly audience interaction from a screenwriter who apparently feels so much better than the rest of the world?) to the over-the-top action set pieces, "Wanted" is a loud, abrasive experience. Lost amid video game aesthetics and music-video montages of bullets flying and bodies flailing, "Wanted" never really connects with anything except the desire to "wow". That wouldn't be all bad if its attempts at humor and character development were more than bottom feeder theatrics. Amazingly, this film even makes Angelina Jolie look boring.

Joy Division

Grant Gee's "Joy Division" is a more commercial documentary approach towards a trend-setting, cultish rock band than his early 90's peek-on-tour with Radiohead called "Meeting People Is Easy", but the results are just as appealing. Gee obviously has a sharp eye for melding image and music as both films represent the bands as the masters of their era, yet "Joy Division", obviously, reflects a sharper reverential attitude since lead singer Ian Curtis' young farewell has been duly noted. Full of talking head interviews with the usual crowds (band mates, ex-girlfriend, Tony Wilson, album producers), Gee also occasionally breaks out of the mold with some startling inter textual asides- such as when he flashes a black and white photo image of a 70's club or loft, then cuts to a modern 35MM view of the same space with the playful footnote "things that are no longer there", complete with footnote number and all. In other (almost subliminal) moments, Gee flashes a word on the screen as someone off-screen speaks this word... and it's just these ultra-modern moments that make "Joy Division" feel like a prescient subject even though that subject mostly mattered 20 years ago. It doesn't matter whether one sees this documentary before Anton Corjbin's fictional telling of the band in "Control". Both efforts are blessed with having the special intellect and fragile personality of Ian Curtis and a band whose music are forceful enough to carry either film on their own.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

TV Alert- Rescue Me

I've been meaning to write something about "Rescue Me" season 4 for awhile now, and this You Tube clip provides the right amount of motivation. Quickly rising to the ranks as one of my very favorite all time TV comedies (right behind "Arrested Development"), Denis Leary's incarnation of NY firefighter Tommy Gavin is sheer genius. While season 4 takes the laugh meter down just a bit compared to the previous 3 seasons, it still remains a solid mixture of quick hitting comedy and tense drama. The noticeable extension of the show and its growth in season 4 comes, unexpectedly, from it's attention to technical flurries of brilliance. In one episode, the team of firefighters is stumbling through a nondescript office building, carrying on their usual casual conversations, avoiding smoke and fire, getting lost in the corridors and finally helping a woman give birth... all of this handled in one stunning 6 minute long take that feels like something out of Cuaron's "Children Of Men". OK, maybe its not quit that spectacular, but it's still a ballsy move for a 42 minute television episode.

Then you've got the closing musical numbers that typically provides the exit. I'm not sure when or where musical epilogues began ("Sopranos" maybe??) but "Rescue Me" constantly marries the perfect song with a great moment on-screen. In the clip added below, the images coincide with The Twilight Singers "The Lure Would Prove Too Much", frontman "Greg Dulli's" now defunct band. Leary was so impressed with the band's 2006 release, "Powder Burns", that he's included two seperate songs on the show's soundtrack. "Powder Burns" is a hell of an album. If you like what you see, I urge you to start with Leary's "The Job" from 2000-2001, a short-lived series produced by Leary and creative partner Peter Tolan. Working in the same vein as "Rescue Me" but with lead characters as cops, the faces of that series make an impressionable parade through "Rescue Me". Three cheers for FX.