Saturday, July 31, 2010

Orson Welles, Chimes at Midnight,a bit of Don Quixote and filmmaking as life

Another weekend, another pair of suggested films. This time out the films were suggested by comic writer JM DeMatteis during a conversation with Unseen Films contributor Ken Fries. The films suggested were todays film, Orson Welles Chimes at Midnight (aka) Falstaff and the Roger Corman film The Intruder starring William Shatner, which we will be doing tomorrow.

Chimes at Midnight
is considered by many people to be one of Orson Welles' best films and one of the best or the best Shakespearean adaption on film. For me it’s not quite the greatest Shakespearean adaption ever on film, however I do think it contains some of the best work Welles did on film, as well as flashes of of some of the best Shakespearean moments on screen.

The film was the out growth of a stage production that Welles was doing which stitched together all of the Falstaff pieces from Shakespeare in order to create the story of the man from start to finish and which would give him a role that he could hold center stage for the whole evening. Welles took the production, and with the aide of some of the greatest English actors and actresses put it on film.

Let me begin with a confession by way of a long rambling aside.

While often hailed as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time Welles more often then not couldn't get the money to make a film. He would work through out the 1950's,60's and 70's trying desperately to get the money to make a movie. If you can't believe that an artist as great as Welles sold out and made some of the terrible films he did, you need to understand its because he needed the money to make the films that were closest to his heart. The result was that his personal films were more often then not were long in production, shot all over the world in a style that is best summed up as unique, at worst as choppy (in some films characters talking to each other never appear together because the shots were filmed years and continents apart), and very often many, if not all, of the voices were done by Welles after the fact because the sound was lost, never existed or retakes required an actor who was unavailable.

The sad thing about the films he made like this is that they have been cut up and mixed up by a variety of companies that did or did not own the rights which further complicates opinions about the films. A perfect example is Welles' Mr Arkardin which has been so chopped up that Criterion released a DVD edition with three of the many known versions.

If you look at the films he made in this manner or from this period it's pretty easy to spot them since they all have a certain feel coming from the choppy shooting schedule and economy of style. Some times the style and the feeling works and some times doesn't. In Chimes at Midnight the feeling works, Othello and Mr Arkardin its less successful

Another example is also his long in production film of Don Quixote which was put together in some form after his death.

Welles was working on Don Quixote for two decades. From the surviving footage it can be seen that the film had both a period setting and a modern day portion I really can't say more since Welles was cutting and re-cutting the film all along the way and so many people saw so many different cuts and sequences that its impossible to know if there ever was one grand plot line or if Welles was making it up as he went along (I vote he was making it up). And in typical Wellesian fashion Orson never had all of the footage in his possession so several sequences are apparently being held by investors who never saw any return on their investment.

After Welles died the surviving available footage (several sequences were unavailable due to investor liens) was cut together by director Jess Franco who worked with Welles on some productions and it was received with very mixed reviews. Some people loved it some people hated it. I think its a complete mess and if it weren't for some stunning sequences- say they windmills- I would argue that Welles wasn't that great a director as we thought. (Franco, who has taken numerous brickbats for his cutting of the film, has rightly stated that he did the best he could with what he was given.)

In all honesty I would dismiss the film and Welles except that since I saw the film I read several interviews by Welles and his collaborators that lead me to believe that the film was never supposed to be finished. Actually what I feel is that Welles at a certain point stopped making "films" as such and just began to crank out movies that he finished because he was contractually obligated to do so. Welles loved film and had these ideas and he just shot the film because it gave him joy to do so. I don't think he really wanted to ever finish anything because if he did he's have to stop making movies. Don Quixote was never finished because it was his toy and he never had to finish it. The rest of his films were finished because he had to contractually; or in the case of the Shakespeare films like Chimes and Othello because they were the Bard, whom he respected and had a beginning a middle and an end.

Chimes at Midnight is one of the films from the wilderness years that it seems very few people have seen. It is out on DVD but the company was small and unless you were looking for it you probably never noticed that it was available, assuming you knew the film existed at all.

The film is based upon Welles Five Kings play which condenses Henry IV,V,VI and bits of Richard III into one story. The film refocuses everything so its all about Falstaff from his appearance in the plays to his final exit.

Its a film that is clearly Shakespeare and yet strangely not. The film is very much real and alive and not the formal static productions that you see with many Shakespearean adaption (I loath Olivier's films for that reason). Yes Welles resorts to a formalness of presentation at times, but that is because he's using it for effect, mostly during the sequences having to do with the actual royal court.

At times the small budget seems to have forced the film into close up and into tight odd camera placements that work wonders putting us into the action. With out a typically huge Hollywood crew Welles could get int places that are small and cramped and feel very real. The fact that Welles shot the film in a stark black and white makes the film come even more alive since the film looks more like old photographs or movie footage that might actually have been of the events.

The performances are really strong, as they should be with people like John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Margret Rutherford in the cast. These people are English acting royalty and the words of the Bard are like the very air to them. Even Welles, in a role that was very close to his heart, is amazing. Here is one of the few times where he was actually giving a performance and disappearing into the role instead of just saying the words and ham boning it up.

The real joy of the film is that it isn't really Shakespeare. Its not the plays we all know in the order we all expect and as a result the film springs to life with a vibrancy that many films of Shakespeare's plays do not have. By cutting loose the words and the rough story from the source plays Welles has created a living breathing film that makes the words not lines of dialog but the actual words of the characters on the screen. The film has the feel more of events that really happened instead of a rigid series of events that are following a preset course. Its best summed by the question when was the last time you watched a Shakespearean performance and didn't know what was going to happen next? (I am of course assuming that you knew the material going in)

Regrettably the film is all but lost now because it's so off the radar. Unless you saw it before or unless you are a Welles fan odds are you've never seen it. I know being in love with the Bard is no guarantee you'd know about the film since a guy at work who can quote chapter and verse had never heard of the film until I mentioned it. This is a film that is in desperate need of rediscovery. As it stands now the film is out on DVD in the US from a very small company. I have a copy of that DVD but at the same time it was hard to come buy since it took my looking at several retailers to find it. Fortunately I've heard that a major restoration of the film is in the works and with some luck this film will get a major push back into the consciousness of film and Shakespeare lovers.

Definitely worth a look, especially if you don't like Shakespeare since this is a film that may finally make the words of the Bard click with you.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Ship of Monsters

If you like monsters this is for you. I can't do better than what I said in the review I posted at IMDB so here it is:

It's a must see movie for anyone who loves 1950's style scifi , Mexican movies or movies that are in their own little universe (which this one most certainly is).

This is a Mexican scifi/monster/western/musical/comedy/horror film. It concerns a space ship piloted by two women (think Cat Women of the Moon or Queen of Outer Space) who land on earth with a ship of monsters. They get mixed up with a Mexican cowboy who's prone to song and who falls in love with one of the women. As you can guess the monsters get loose and pandemonium ensues.

Wow, wow and wow.

This is a fun film that is NOT a so good its bad film, its just a fun little movie that is very good on its own terms. Its clear that everyone knows that what they are doing is silly but they play it straight anyway and seem to be having a good time.

Being a monster junkie I was in heaven. Not only is there a great looking robot, but a strange talking skeleton, a weird little guy with a brain like head, a furry guy with long arms. a giant monster of some sort, a vampire and something else. Its a a wonderful assortment of monsters of the clearly men in suit variety. You'll laugh at them and probably find them charmingly hokey.

I really loved this film. Its a 9 out of 10 for me for the simple reason that I had to see this with out any English translation. Somehow I think that had I seen this in English this would have been even better since from the few words I could grasp it seemed to strike the right balance between serious and silly.

If you get the chance see this movie, its just a lot of fun and it will make you feel good.

I picked up the film from a dealer. I don't think this film has had a proper US release, yet.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

(Battle for)Terra (2007)

Before Avatar and before Planet 51 showed up in 2009 there was Battle for Terra.(Actually this was originally called Terra and then they inflated the title)

Never heard of it?

Not surprising the film was barely released to theaters in early 2009. I first heard of the film when it was set to premiere in the US at the New York International Children’s Film Festival. I didn’t attend the screening there because I knew the film was due to be release a couple of weeks later in 3D wide. Actually it wasn’t wide, it went into a handful of theaters where it didn’t do much.(When I saw it I was one of only three people in the theater.)

The plot of the film has a happy peaceful alien world invaded by a ship from earth bent on reshaping the planet for its own. Earth it seems is long gone having been destroyed by man’s actions. The humans are going to forcibly take over the planet and set about destroying the planet until one alien girl and a human pilot connect and begin to find a common ground. (There is also a dark secret about hidden alien technology, buried because the aliens have forsaken their war like past)

Watching this film again on DVD I was actually surprised at that the film actually plays pretty well in 2D (The film’s 3D was actually some of the best use of the technology I’ve seen in several decades of film going). Sure the film isn’t going to win any awards, but there is a nice edge to the proceedings that really shows up in the later part of the film. There is a grimness to the invasion where characters die, and the film has an ending is NOT what you’d expect from what was marketed as a “kids film” (the film gets several points for sticking to its guns and convictions). I'm guessing the dark subtext didn't sit well with some parents who want everything light and airy.

I like this film. Is it great, no. The film main problem is that it occasionally falls into the clichés of the stories such as this, but the film has some winning characters and as I said there are some decidedly unclichéd turns that keep the film interesting.

The film also knows how to stage action sequences which I found much more engaging than some of the films bigger budget “clones”. I felt more engaged by the sequences here than I did in Avatar because this film used the action sequences to advance the plot, not to show off. There are also no dead spots everything in the film feels like it belongs there with the result that this expanded short doesn't feel expanded or bloated.

If you like science fiction or good action adventure this is definitely worth a look. I don't know if you'll think its the next best thing, but I do think that you'll enjoy yourself for the 90 or so minutes its on screen.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Capsule Reviews 7/28/10

Today three very good horror films from China. All were picked up on VCD and the first and third I've replaced on DVD.(I'm still looking for the second film). They are not the best horror films ever made but I had a good time watching them, especially since they only cost me a couple of bucks each. I should point out that I don't think any of these films are currently listed on IMDB


A series of possessions are being covered by the local media. into the mix comes two talk show hosts and a priest who's wife died in a car accident not long before. Good but unscary horror thriller works better as a character study with some tension. Following a familiar story line, you can kind of assume that things are not as unconnected as they first seem, the film remains watchable in that it manages to keep enough balls in the air that everything seems "new". If there is any real flaws in the film (aside from the box art which makes it look doofy) its that the plot sometimes asks us to believe things that are a little too incredulous, for example a young man who kills his mother and sister is deduced to be demoniacally possessed and is given an exorcism instead of going to prison. Worth a look if you run across it for a buck or on cable. but I wouldn't go out of my way to see it. (even if the ending is at first funny then creepy)
During a raid a cop runs across a woman who is covering herself in gasoline. Stopping to stop her the woman manages to set herself on fire and the cop is left traumatized. It soon transpires that there is a rash of suicides and all are connected to a certain website. Can the cops get to the bottom of it before anyone else dies? Good thriller that takes what is now a tired idea and makes it into something worth watching. Yes you've seen it before but there is something non-cliche about the way the story is handled. If there is anything really wrong with the film its that the denouncement doesn't really feel right and seems more tacked on because they didn't know how to end it.

Unplugged Nightmare (Aka Night Move)
Two women working for a magazine are having the same dreams. They end up assigned to write a story on haunted houses around the country. In the process they find themselves draw into events which mirror their dreams. There's more to it then that but its a start. This is a good little horror film that starts out a tiny bland (intentionally so) and then almost instantly sucks you in as it spins out its tale. Well used special effects and camera tricks ratchet everything up a couple of notches as the nightmare grows and we become less sure what is real and what isn't...and as the danger grows. Really solid in the way a good supernatural thriller should be this is a small scale movie that is much more interesting than most better know horror films. The films only flaw is that the ending didn't really seem to work for me.I can't go into it with out spoiling it, but its a bit of a let down. Still its worth a look see since the film really works until then, and the end is more disappointing then bad-certainly it doesn't ruin the experience as a whole.

The color German Edgar Wallace films

I had been going through the moody black and white films of the German Edgar and Bryan Wallace films when I decided to try some of the color films one night. I was curious how they were since the earlier ones in black and white were the sort of moody mystery that I like to fall asleep to and I was wondering what the garish colors of 1960's films were going to be like and how that was going to affect the mysteries.

Clearly aimed at competing with TV these wide screen brilliantly colored films with some nudity are an often silly lot. They aren't bad as such they aren't what you would expect from an Edgar Wallace film (indeed many aren't even based on a Wallace-neither Edgar or Bryan- story but are part of the series because a voice says at the beginning that this is the voice of Edgar Wallace). Films connect to each other through the head of Scotland yard and his secretary.(The black and white films really don't connect except by the fact that many of the actors seem to appear again and again.

They are a forgettable lot, more something to have on in the background as a distraction rather then something to put on and lose one self in-frankly you'll be talking to the screen especially with the last two.

While I'm not a fan of the color films as a whole I'm including them here at Unseen Films for two reasons first, a couple of the films (the first two I've listed) are worth a look see on their own terms. If you can rent or borrow the films they are worth a look. The second reason I'm including them is that despite my ambivalence there are many people who really like the films. Because there is a chance that the films may click with you I've put together a short list of titles, good and bad, I've seen. (All of the films below are currently available from Sinister Cinema.)

Hand of Power-Who killed Sir Oliver? More importantly who is going around taking out people dressed in a skull mask and/ or looking rather dead and pretending to be the deceased Sir Oliver. A great skull mask is the best reason to see this okay but a bit too jokey murder mystery. This is one of the better color films.

Dead One in the Thames-A female cop is apparently killed after a drug bust she helped arrange by penetrating the gang. However her body disappears before the police arrive and her sister is left to ponder whats going on. Mod Bondish tale is okay but despite its best effort never rises above run of the mill. Best viewed on its own terms and not as one of any series. Possibly the most graphic with lots of red paint blood and bare breasts.

Man with the Glass Eye- Almost a Carry On film in its way with the police being more wittily silly (they wish) then in control. The title refers to a glass eye that's found in one victims pajamas. Notable for the murders, including poisoned pins in a mask, rather than anything else.

Horror of Blackwood Castle- Everyone is trying to get the jewels of a dead man. This is really a Carry On film with one of the characters seeming to be Spike Milligan. Its much too jokey to be taken seriously even if the look of the film is closest to the moody black and whites.

Hunchback of Soho-A hunchback in a poor costume lurks in and around Soho. If it wasn't intended to be a comedy, its become one-and not a good one either.
Gorilla of Soho- a Man in a Gorilla suit is running around Soho. He wears it because he was scarred. This would be okay but it just plays too knowingly to be enjoyed.

As a whole a mixed lot and not entirely worth bothering with. However if you stumbled on the first two (Hand or Dead One) you may want to try if you're in a forgiving mood.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Team (2010)

I just saw the big screen version of the A Team and I just want to say its possibly the best Summer Movie of 2010. Granted I'm still playing catch up, but as big screen action films go this one is a blast.

Its basically an origin story for the team and it has great action, funny lines and not one deep meaning anywhere in sight. Its the perfect popcorn movie.

Sadly the film hasn't gotten a great deal of attention, which is a shame, its so much better than the more heavily promoted films that I feel its doomed to be forgotten. Don't let that happen. Get on board now and go see what is bound to be a cult film when it hits cable and DVD on the big screen.

Go see it and leave your brain at the door.

Examination 1977

Good little Chinese film about the cracking of the cultural revolution and the possibility of something more when the Communist Party opened up university exams to everyone across the country. The story is set on a collective farm (I think) in the wilds of China where the men and women there take back the land for agricultural use. Not everyone is there willingly and most want to escape to a better life, a possibility that doesn't exist with out getting into school.

Well acted drama juggles a good number of characters but never feels like its too many. I really liked the film and the fact that I took to the characters really surprised me.

This was one of the many films that I've picked up rather blindly in Chinatown based solely on the DVD cover art. I had no idea what it was about other than it didn't look like the urban dramas it was mixed in with. You have to be an adventurous sort to do that since more often than not you run a real risk of getting something that isn't pictures (as in a drama and not an action film). I like to take chances (most of the time I do it I'll only pay a dollar or two or maybe five,) with the result that I've found some absolute winners and I've found some drink coasters. This is decidedly not a drink coaster, its one of the better films I've run across (its something I would happily see again).

If you can manage to find a copy I recommend trying it.
Its good enough that I would actually like to see it again, which says a great deal. Should you ever run across it (A slim chance I know) I recommend it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

East German Westerns?

This week we're starting a couple of weeks of random films that will bounce you between genres, countries and feelings. There is no rhyme or reason so it will be worth it to come back each day since you won't know where I'm going.

More than a while back First Run Pictures released a set of 3 East German westerns on DVD under the collection title Westerns With a Twist. Yea, I know its a contradiction in terms, but I assure you its true.

Actually if you want to do to know about the whole genre of East German Westerns you really need to look else where either on line or in a book such as Tom Weissner's Spaghetti Westerns. They'll be able to give you better background on the films than I could in the space allotted. I say this because there's more to the story than just them being westerns from an Iron Curtain country, rather its how they fit into the whole Spaghetti/Euro- Western genre that's the interesting part. In a weird way these films and the Shatterhand films begat the Sergio Leone films and everything that followed.

However I'm not going to get into that. What I'm going to do is answer the question "how are they?". Well its best described as "I know why the box set was reduced by over 50% on Amazon".

Don't get me wrong they aren't horrible. If they were truly horrible I wouldn't mention them except in passing. However, I have to be really honest here and say that the films more of interest as a footnote and to the real western fan who thinks they have seen everything. Basically if the films weren't off the beaten trail and nominally hidden from view I probably wouldn't have put this post together.

The problem when you watch the films is that the "film grammar" is so radically different from what we're use to they may as well not be westerns. They don't follow any of the conventions of what we think of when we think "western". Certainly they are not even remotely close to American made westerns, though if you look you can see how on some level the German westerns-though probably not these films-had in someway influence on what became the spaghetti westerns in that they were there first.

All three westerns in the set look great and often seem more real than many other Euro-Westerns. They look-for the most part- like they were shot in a real place that could have had real cowboys and Indians in them. The films also are anti-white man. The films are clearly on the side of the Indians and their tribe (sense a commie message here?). The films also suffer from being in German which just seems wrong on the face of it. Worse the German is dubbed, often slightly out of sync or not by the actor speaking (such are the perils of watching three movies at once-you realize the voices are different)

The first two films-Sons of Great Bear and Chingachook:The Great Snake have a couple of things in common. They are very much not like westerns we know.The music is really counter to the film, they seem more set in the North east of the Americas, and they are stilted in ways that are do to them not having western grammar (they play like costume dramas). The films were made in the mid 1960's when the rules for Euro-westerns were still being written,

Sons of Great Bear is the earliest and its okay. the pacing is too slack and it has some really laughably bad action sequence. it has something to do with gold, settlers and revenge. I didn't get much more than that because I was just too bored or laughing too hard. Taken on its own terms its probably okay in the same way when you watch early film dramas are and they are okay if you taken them for what they are.I couldn't get more than 20 minutes into this before shutting it off. (In it's defense I was watching the film looking for a conventional western)

Chingachook is a better film. Its got a multi layered plot of the hero trying to rescue his bride, the English trying to use inter-tribal war fare to kill off the redskins and a couple of other things wandering around. It has a real sense of Indian life, almost to the point of boredom.Sure it feels like an Edward Curtis film but its much less exciting. The film is a bit schizo. It has some of the best looking landscapes I've ever seen in a western, yet several sequences were shot on shitty (and I do mean shitty)(pardon my language) sets that look worse than a high school production. I won't get into the British Army hats which look cheaper than dime store and have gold sparkles on them. If you forgive the technical oddness and you can get past a pacing that's much too slow. this isn't a bad movie. The problem for me was the pace and I found myself nodding off.

Apaches is the best of the bunch. Concerning an Indian warrior who gets revenge when his tribe is wiped out. More like the westerns we know this film has a much more appropriate music score. It doesn't seem like Ed Wood went to the music library and took the first six pieces he put his hands on. The film actually boasts some good action sequences and plot that moves along at a reasonable clip. To be honest I don't know if its genuinely a good film or just so much better than the other two in the set. If there is a draw back to the film its that more than once it gets much too talky. There are a couple of times when the characters begin to talk and the film seems to stop as the words overwhelm the action and the visuals.

So there you have it, a quick look at First Run Features' Westerns with a twist. Simply put only Apache is worth your time if you're not a dyed in the wool western fan, the others are simply curios best left to those who are real western nuts who want to see everything.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

NYAFF 2010 Capsule Reviews Part 4 -Rappers,angels, decorators and the dead. Some films not to be forgotten

The festival is over and the films have been sent back to the distributors, however I just wanted to remind you of a few films that really you need to keep an eye out for in case they show up on DVD or in a theater near you. I wrote up brief little pieces when they played but I just wanted to take the time to impress upon you not to forget these films even though I’m only giving them a few lines. They may get a few lines but they are really worth your time (and some are the best of the year)

A Little Pond (2009)is the Korean film dramatizing one of several massacres by US forces in 1950 during the Korean War. Brutal, heartbreaking and almost unwatchable in its sadness, this is one of the best films of the year. This is probably the one film of the festival that hung with me the longest, coloring everything I saw after it that night and the next day. If you want to know how tragedies of this sort happens this is a perfect explanation. A masterpiece that I never want to see again. (This is also a film that resulted in a near riot at the end of the film when some one in the back of the auditorium began shouting about how the US was still doing this sort of thing. This prompted a shouting match which got more and more heated as it spilled into the the lobby. The cooler heads of the Walter Reade staff threw everyone shouting out saying if they would have to take it outside.)

Sophie’s Revenge is a charming comedy you’ll forget an hour after you see it but which will make you laugh while its on. The basic plot has Sophie trying to win back her ex and take revenge after he leaves her for a high profile actress. It’s a wonderful version of the romantic comedies that Hollywood turns out with regularity, but done better than Hollywood has managed of late. See it before its remade.

Symbol is a wonderfully off kilter comedy about a man trapped in a white room and Mexican wrestlers. How the two parts fit together is the movie. Containing some of the biggest laughs of the year toward the end of the film, this is a film better to see than read about. If you can be patient and go with a really off beat film where ever it goes, including through existential loops, this is a film for you. Look it up on You Tube to get a taste of the weirdness.

Tian An Men was described by Marc at the Film Festival as a movie about home decorating. Its about the men assigned to decorate the Tian An Men Gate for the Founding of the Republic ceremony in 1949. It’s a propaganda film from mainland China and is way better than you think it is thanks to a great selection of characters who touch your heart and make this very much a human story. Best of all its true. This is exactly precisely the sort of film I wanted to highlight when I started this blog, the small film that doesn’t have a snowballs chance of being seen by many people and really needs to be. I was moved by the real emotion and the very real characters. If you ever get a chance to see this, do so. Its not a great film, but it quietly rewarding.

8000 Miles (2009) and 8000 Miles 2: The Girl Rappers (2010)are two films that taken together are one of the best films of the year. Look, forget that the music is rap, it’s the characters that matter here. The first film is about a bunch of guys in the sticks who do their best to live their dream and become rappers in rural Japan. It’s a darkly comic film that plays more like a slice of life about two guys and their friends who are trying to hold on to their dreams. It’s a film tinged with the reality of living a life too far away from where you should be. It’s a film that asks the question what happens when reality and your dream are forced to fight it out. The film has haunted me since I saw it.

The second film is a more conventional style story about some young women in their late 20’s who want to recapture the spark they felt when they were performing rap back in high school. Their desire to recapture the spark is kicked off by the appearance of the two lead characters of the first film who come to town on a pilgrimage to find a sacred site where a deceased friend performed a legendary concert (which the girls had attended). It’s a deeply affecting movie about trying to find your way back home to the place where the passion of your youth burned the brightest. Do we have to give up those things that make us happy and give our true selves voice? I can’t recommend the films enough, particularly if you can see them in close proximity which will allow the themes and ideas of the two films to play off each other. As I said, taken together they are one of the best films I’ve seen this year so far.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Memories of Matsuko (2006)

Continuing the posts of the NYAFF into this weekend I'm going to write up Memories of Matsuko which is playing in the Japan Cuts look back at the Naughties unreleased in the US films. It also played the NYAFF proper a couple of years back and blew the roof off the festival.

To be perfectly honest I do not want to write this film up. I love it to death but it is so sad and so tragic that I don't want to go there again. However because my duty is to point out over looked films- and damn it this film is horribly overlooked, I find I have to do a full review even though I did a capsule one back on July 3rd.

This is the story of Sho, a 20 year old slacker musician who’s lost his girl and his band and is spending his time hanging out and watching porn. His father wakes him up one day telling him he has to go clean out the apartment of the aunt he never knew existed. It seems that Matsuko, his aunt “disappeared” thirty years earlier and only turned up when Sho’s father was informed that she had been found beaten to death next to a river. Finding his aunts apartment in total disarray (to put it mildly, its closer to a garbage dump), he begins to put the pieces of her life together based upon what he finds, the neighbors who knew her and the friends he stumbles upon the way.

I’m not going to lie, this film is a very sad film. I was deeply bothered by the sadness of our heroine’s life. Sure she muddles through, but for the most part she just can’t get a break and its heartbreaking. At the same time its very compelling you can’t help but like Matsuko and most of the people in her life. Sure it all goes wrong but she somehow survives, Would we all be able to do the same?

The film is a supreme mind bender because for the most part the film is full of bright happy colors and bright happy musical numbers which heighten the highs and the lows of the story. Your expectations are bounced back and fourth between images that should be happy but a story that isn't. This is a film that confounds your expectations and makes you really engage with what is happening.

I love this film a great deal, but at the same time I never want to see it again. I think an argument could be put forth that this is one of the greatest films that has both ever been made and one the greatest that no one in America has seen.

This is brilliant filmmaking and acting and everything we want from our movies- except that its not completely happy.

I 'm sorry if I keep going back to the sadness in the film, it kind of unavoidable. There is hope in the film, but Matsuko's life definitely ain't a bowl of cherries.

How good is this film? While the film is officially part of Japan Cuts this year it played the NYAFF a couple of years back and won the audience award by a staggering margin. Its a film with such a huge reputation that most people I know either want to see it again or for the first time.

Any film lover worth their salt needs to see this. This is one of the greatest films of all time and you need to track it down. It is available from Yes Asia last I checked, from Amazon UK in a region coded DVD and it can be had in Chinatowns so you can find it if you want to make an effort. (Its an effort worth making)

Just see this film, it will restore your faith in life and in the movies.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Live Tape (2009)

One of the highlights of the of the NYAFF was Tetsuaki Matsue‘s Live Tape. Even allowing for the fact that I met Kenta Maeno, the star of the film before the screening and he signed my CDs and took a picture with me, this was just an absolute joy of a film. As I said in an earlier post the film is one of the best of the festival, best of the year and one the of the best concert films ever made.

Simply put I love this film.

The whole set up is simple The camera leaves a temple on New Years Day and picks up Kenta who is playing outside it. Then in one continuous take the film follows him as he walks through the city singing. Along the way he meets members of his band, the David Bowies, and they all end up at a band shell at sunset.

Conceived and filmed in less than a month the film was put together for about twenty bucks, the cost of the digital tape. New Years Day was chosen because it was hoped the crowds would be small (they were bigger than expected).

The film was planned via talks between Kenta and the crew and they walked the course three times to get a handle on the timing. Then they shot it.

Its magical.

You fall into it. It’s a film that you forget is a film and becomes a living breathing experience (the director said that he was hoping that the film was going to be an experience for the audience. What is it like to walk with Kenta). The film is alive and at the screening I attended the audience was applauding after each song as if it was a concert.

Its not all music. At some point the director begins kibitzing which then turns into questions and answers which then brings up a discussion of the death of Kenta’s dad right before he takes the stage in sings Weather Report about his dad. Somewhere in there the film moved from just being Great into the realm of being transcendent and glorious and it takes its place as one of the greatest concert films.

Never mind if you like the music going in or not, you will love it by the end. Don’t take my word for it take the word of my friend Dave who said "a few weeks ago, I would've agreed I'd soon be watching some excellent movies (at the film festival). No doubt, there'd be bloody murder, conspiracy, deception, and even some surreal romantic encounters. Had I been told one of those movies would be a documentary focus on an independent folk rock musician walking around and performing on the streets of Tokyo, I would've been very doubtful. or that the musician at the focus of said documentary would perform a few songs afterwards, I would've had an even harder time believing. but if I've learned anything from NYAFF's screening of LIVE TAPE on Wednesday, it's the value of letting go of expectations and sitting back to embrace whatever may come." (The full post can be found here)

I’m now a fan of both the film and of Kenta.

See this film. Currently on the festival circuit this will hopefully hit DVD soon so I can experience it again making this the rare magical experience you can watch again and again (and play a great game of eye spy since there is so much to see in the background and the camera keeps moving you are constantly seeing new things)

Thursday, July 22, 2010

NYAFF 2010- A kind of wrap up.

Its been a couple of weeks and I've had some time to reflect on the madness that was the New York Asian Film Festival for this year. There was some good, very little bad, and some what the hell was that?

Film wise probably the best films I saw are the films that are in the process of getting entries this week through this Sunday. These are the cream of a really good crop. (Sundays post is a bunch of capsule reviews, however I need to point out that they are actually some of the best films of the year, I just don't have the words to really do them justice). My one complaint about the films this year is that there weren't more peaks and valleys, with very few exceptions everything I saw was really good so it was hard to pick out the truly great.

Since the films are the reviews I've been posting, I'd like to take this time to go off topic slightly and just mention some of the little things that I experienced at what continues to be the best programmed festival in New York. This is to contrast with the unhappiness and miserable experience that is Tribeca. What follows are some truly random moments, mostly not film related, that stayed with me from the festival:

For me the highlights started with seeing the four Buddhist monks and their guide with three different subway maps standing in Penn Station near the Long Island Railroad arguing and pointing about where to go.

My notes began with the statement: I'm kind of hoping to see Sammo (Hung) or Simon (Yam). Later in the day I would watch a wonderful Q&A with Sammo and have Simon Yam pause before getting on stage to introduce Echoes of the Rainbow to shake my hand and say hello. Little did I know that I would have another meeting with Simon Yam outside the Walter Reade which was friendly, spontaneous and made me certain he thought I was someone else (not that I mind)

The worst experience came during Bodyguards and Assassins when some thoughtless jerk spread out into everyone's lap. A close second was bouncing my camera at the train station off a garbage can, the cement platform and then a broken brick. It mostly works but I know the focus if messed up.

I was intrigued by the Q&A after 8000 Miles when a discussion started about the subtitles between someone who knew Japanese and the director about how much better the dialog was than the subtitles which was losing the power of the aqctual Japanese.

Before the second 8000 Miles film I met Dave and Shigeko who I have been conversing with online since last years festival. You'll be getting to know Dave down the line since I've been talking about having him as a contributor and because I quote from his blog post about Live Tape.

The Last Airbender
premiere was held outside of the theater. As the film festival tweeted "Fake Asians outside, real Asians inside". It was a nightmare to get around.

Tian An Men was such a surprise. What a really good film that almost no one will ever see. Its about decorating the Tian An Men Gate and is the sort of film I wanted to highlight when I started this blog. I'm saddened more people didn't see it.

I met Kenta Maeno before Live Tape and found him charming (or as charming as two people who don't speak each other's language can find each other). I bought a bunch of his CD's, some for me, some for gifts.(Actually I was buying the CDs and I guess he saw me buy them and he started to talk to me and I was shocked because I had no idea who he was because he wasn't in his normal shades. Then suddenly it was "Hey this is you" I said and he smiled and said yes. It went from there) He was kind enough to sign them, and he asked to take a picture with me. Somewhere there is a picture of me and Kenta, a crazy American film fan and wonderful Japanese singer.(I wonder what he did with it). The film and the post concert performance were highlights and I really hated I couldn't go to his full performances because I had more movies to see.

At the Japan Society for the opening of Japan Cuts I got into an discussion with a woman, a film critic, who was bemoaning this years festival. Why were there so many Chinese films when they (Chinese films in general) aren't very good. She prefers Japanese and Korean films and thought they should make up a higher percentage of the films. I don't see the problem since to me a good film is a good film regardless of where its from. She was also unhappy because she had travel plans and couldn't see some of the films...she was comical more than anything. I'm kind of sad that snobs like that are the people reviewing films these days.

Unfortunately the seats killed my back and I had to sit on the aisle which was fine except the stair light distracted me.

July 2nd was a tough day. I broke my tooth and then had to recover from A Little Pond which was way too emotional a film for words. One of the best of the year, thoroughly depressing in a real world sort of way.

The Sushi Typhoon nonsense kept me on track since Pond basically derailed me. I'm not going to get into it but the films (Mutant Girl Squad and Aliens vs Ninjas which will be reviewed at the end of August) were mindless un-politically correct films high on blood and action. The show before, between and after the films was equally bizarre (you can You Tube it, but be warned its not work safe) involved ninjas, scantily clad actresses and men in Japanese lion clothes. There was also some games involving darts but the less said the better. It was profoundly tasteless and more fun than was legal.

After that the festival kind of wound down energy wise.

However there was the one more high point, the appearance of Bruce Leung before Gallants. Yea its a great film, but there was something about the man that impressed the hell out of everyone there. I said that it was the only real standing ovation in the festival and I stand by that. Yes Simon Yam and Sammo got ovations and so did other people, but they weren't spontaneous. I knew I would stand for them or after a great film, as did everyone around me, but with Bruce it was different it just happened, back to front and side to side as people, lots of single guys, just stood, they couldn't see the people around them standing they just kind of got up and applauded. It was real, it was magical, it was special. (And trust me I've seen enough standing ovations in my day to know whats real and whats not.)

After that it kind of wandered down to the wire, ending with two films that disappointed to differing degrees (Doman Seman and Blades of Blood). Everyone was tired by that point so it was understandable that after Grady said that there would be no voting on Blades of Blood because the director didn't come, they all went off to get drunk. I don't drink but I wanted to go to.

It was exhausting. It was a blast.

As I've said its the best festival in New York because its the only one that cares about the people and the films and the rest (air conditioning excepted) can all go away as long as real people go to the films.

I can't wait until next year.

(ADDENDUM: I forgot to mention the wonderful staff of the festival who actually help make it all fun. I mean this beyond Marc and Grady and the main faces, but the other people taking ballots, selling us t-shirts, answerinf stupid questions and hearding us into our seats. You're all wonderful)

Little Big Soldier (2010)- a film that may never play the US

Jackie Chan has always been a great actor. Unfortunately most people would never know it because his performances in his films tend to be clownish. The fact that Chan is a truly great actor is obscured even further by the absolute shit that are most of his Hollywood films. Occasionally Chan would turn in a hard edged performance, say in Crime Story, but mostly Jackie Chan has been a martial arts clown which some people take to mean he’s limited in ability.

Of course in the last couple of years Chan has decided to show people what he could do. Taking on more and more serious roles until in the last year we have him appearing in the remake of the Karate Kid, the gritty Shinjuku Incident and his long in the planning Little Big Soldier. The combination of the three roles has had the effect of sending shock waves through the film community as Jackie Chan is suddenly seen as more than just a guy doing stunts and cracking jokes. All I can say is what took them so long?

For me the point at which Jackie has finally grabbed the mantle of great actor by the throat for all to see is Little Big Soldier. Here is a pet project that he’s been trying to make for well over a decade and which perfectly show cases what Jackie can do. It’s a role that makes you laugh and makes you cry. It’s a film that will ultimately break your heart simply on the power of the performance by Jackie Chan.

The plot of the film has Chan as a solider who wants nothing more than go home and farm. In order to give himself a chance he’s come up with a variety of ways to survive including a fake arrow so he can pretend to be dead (Not to give anything away but its something that in the end will provide a moment of shattering poignancy). Into Jackie’s lap falls a wounded enemy general. Jackie knows that if he can get the general back home he’ll be able to farm on good land and never have to serve in the military again. Taking the general as a prisoner he tries to make his way home, along the way fighting off bandits, warlords and the general’s own men (who have an ulterior motive of their own). Its world weary march across the countryside that will change both men.

What can I say, this is one of the best films Jackie Chan has ever made. There is a strength and maturity to the work that is unlike anything he’s done in decades, with the exception of his most recent work. It’s a film that boggles my mind at what might have happened had Chan been allowed to actually be more than a buffoon for the last 20 years.

The strength of the film goes beyond the stellar performance of Jackie Chan. Indeed pretty much everything about this film is great, from the action sequences which manage to be both funny at one moment and bloodily realistic the next. It’s a film that use the humor and seriousness of everything to create a world weary edge that makes everything seem more important than you would expect in a film such as this. It’s a beautifully shot film that takes advantage of the Chinese country side in order to produce some jaw dropping shots.

And by the time we got to the final fade out I was left drained, not because the action is exhausting but because the arc of characters took me to a place that was unexpected. This was not what expected from a Jackie Chan film.

All I have to say is WOW.

This is a masterpiece…

...and it will probably NEVER get a release in the US. or if it does it will be by a bottom tier distributor direct to home video. Talking to Grady, one of the minds between the NYAFF, between screenings he said that no one wants to release this film in the US, everyone it seems has passed on it. Which is a shame.

Actually this lack of love is the reason that there are black and grey markets for the films. If you want to see good films from over seas you almost have to turn to places like Yes Asia, or Chinatown or even places that are disreputable because its the only way to see these films.

Whats worse is that even if the films do get picked up they may not show up for years after they have been out in other parts of the world so that if they ever do get a release they may not do any business because the market for them will have seen them long before.

The Weinsteins currently of The Weinstein Organization and formerly of Miramax did this all the time. They would buy up films and then sit on them, only to become befuddled when the films would bomb in their token release three or four years after they came out in China or where ever. (and do I need to mention that they frequently cut the films? Jackie Chan's Legend of the Drunken Master (The US Title, the film is actually Drunken Master 2) was released not only a almost a decade after the film was out in China, but was severely cut to change the film (in the original version Jackie is left blind by the drinking of impure alcohol, in the US version that's not the case)

Its a shame. Something should be done, but I don't know what to do.

I didn't mean to get off on a rant, but I just wanted to say that if you get the chance to either see Little Big Soldier or to purchase a copy do so because odds are it will be your only chance to do so .

The film is definitely available from Yes Asia because that's where I got my copy- so use the link in the side bar to get a copy.

Addendum: This film tied for Third Place in the Audience Award Voting for the NYAFF this year.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Gallants (2010)

The power of some people is such that they get a standing ovation when they walk in a room. Bruce Leung, making his first trip to America got a standing ovation as he stepped out to introduce his film Gallants. It was the only true standing ovation I saw in 23 screenings at the NYAFF. I was standing too. I know why, it was something that had to be done, I mean here was a man who was in so many of the martial arts films I watched on TV growing up, still plugging along 45 years after he started- still in martial arts films. I got the sense from most of the people in the audience that it was the only way we could give back to a man who gave us so much.

It was so nice to have the film be as wonderful experience as was seeing one of the people who helped form my love of martial arts films.

Gallants is a charming film full of great characters that you really really like. It’s a film about people and family (particularly the families you make). It may not have been one of the BEST films of the festival but in a strange way it was one of the most enjoyable, which in the end probably means that its one of the best. In my notes after the film I wrote down a more apt description : If movies are about the characters then this is one of the best films you'll ever see. If films are about the plot points then this isn't one of the best.

The plot of the film has a nebbish being sent from his real estate firm where he’s botching everything on an unpaid punishment assignment. He’s to help remove tenants in and around a particular area so they can redevelop the whole place. However before he can find where he’s to be, he’s attacked by some tough guys after he berates a child who was shooting him with a toy gun. Pretty much having his head handed to him, he is saved by the crippled and advanced in years Tiger (Bruce Leung) who happens to be walking by. Tiger rescues our hero who then through circumstances ends up at Tiger's dojo which has been turned into a tea house, its days of a dojo gone when the master, who is up stairs in bed, slipped into a coma. What happens next is the discovery of the fact that the guys our hero was going to visit was the ones who beat him up and the ones he was to help evict was Tiger and his friends.

Rambling throw back to the martial arts film of the 1970's this is one hell of a good time at the movies. The characters are all people you genuinely like. You actually like a good number of bad guys which is kind of unheard of in this sort of film. The film plugs along at a good clip taking us from comedy sequence to martial arts sequence to touching moment wiht the greatest of easy. Its a film that makes you go wow even as its making you laugh or cry.

The cast, full of martial art faces from the 1970's and 80's is note perfect. Not only can these guys fight they can also act up a storm. They are the reason that you'll love this film. Its amazing and its so sad that everyone involved had to fight to get this film made.

I started this post by mentioning Bruce Leung and I really have to single him out for praise. With his broken gait, his thick glasses and bucket hat he comes off as a guy you'd never expect to kick your ass, but once he gets into the tick of it he instantly becomes a guy you never will want to mess with again. He also touches you creating a character as big as all of Asia. Its utterly masterful.

I really liked this film a great deal. (And so did audiences at the NYAFF who voted it the Audience Award along with Castaway on the Moon which I reviewed earlier today)

If there is any flaw in the film its perhaps that the ending seems kind of abrupt and not what you expect. I kind of had the feeling that they ran out of film so they ended it. Still its a small flaw in an otherwise wonderful film.

If you get the chance you really need to see this...which maybe difficult since the film has no US distributor as of right now. I suggest you keep an eye out for it because this film is a great deal of fun. (If I see it on DVD anywhere I'll let you know)

One of the finds of the year.

Castaway on the Moon (2009)

How good is this film? It tied with Gallants for the Audience Award at this years NYAFF. (Gallants will be reviewed later on today as part of the Matinee Day Double feature)

It’s a love story of sorts. A love story because it’s the easiest way to describe it, however that’s not really true. Actually it’s a film about connecting and finding the ability to go on even when we don’t meet the person we’re connecting with. What Castaway on the Moon is really is a charming one of a kind movie that will probably touch you.

The plot of the film concerns a man trying to commit suicide by leaping into the Han River. Washing ashore on an island in the middle of the river he now finds himself trapped with no way to get off. He begins to build a life on the island and eventually decides that he doesn’t really want to be rescued. Watching him is a young woman who is equally isolated. She hasn’t left her room is a young woman who lives a very organized and ordered life. She’s slightly out of touch with reality, to the point that she thinks the man on the island is an alien. The collision of their lives changes the rules for both of them.

Okay there is one ground rule when you watch this film. Stay with it to the end. Don’t bail early. Watching the film I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. There was something odd about the first hour that rubbed me the wrong way. The first half hour is about the man and his time on the island. The second half hour is about the young woman and her time in her room. It wasn’t bad but at the same time I wasn’t sure where it was all going. Then about an hour in it all clicked and what I just liked, I started to love. There is this point where the film suddenly becomes something special.

I was moved. I smiled broadly and laughed out loud.

What can I say, there is something about an agoraphobic running amok in a city at night that brings me joy. I love these characters. There is something real and charming and wonderful about this mismatched pair and their halting attempts at communicating with each other (and I do mean halting). As weird as they seem to be, they really aren’t that weird. These are the sort of damaged people that we’ve run across. Given a turn or two in our lives there is a really good chance these people could be us.

This film is one of the great finds of the year.

Currently playing festivals in the US it's out on DVD as an import but one hopes it will get a US release, but for now it has no US distributor.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Scandal Makers (2008)

Scandal Makers is an utterly charming comedy from Korea that was billed via a question and answer at the NYAFF thusly “ Why are we showing a two year old comedy as part of this years festival? Because its damn funny.” I couldn’t agree more. Actually I would go so far and say that of the films that I saw on DVD that I learned about because of the festival, this is the best, and its probably going on my list of best films I’ve seen in 2010.

The plot of the film is the sort of thing that Hollywood has done to death, the discovery of a lost child. But here its done with a style, grace and sense of warmth missing from the Hollywood productions. Here a radio talk show host is exploiting the tale of a young mother looking for her long absent father. He urges her to find him, and boy is he shocked when she shows up on his doorstep. Adding to the confusion is the fact the young girl is hoping to have a music career and she’s entered the radio station music contest.

What can I say. I was charmed from start to finish. I laughed I cried I felt good. I just had a great time.

Why can’t Hollywood do this?

The performances are first rate with everyone creating characters you actually like. Sure some of them are just there comedic relief, say the vet, but at the same time you like them and buy that they are real people. Think of some thing like the recent Game Plan with the Rock, where you had a bunch of characters, who, while amusing were no one you’d ever meet in real life. Where in a typical Hollywood film you wonder who thought of these nimrods we see on screen, in Scandal Makers we have people we’d actually like to hang out with.

Yes, it hits all the spots you think it will but at the same time, you really don’t care because the film knows it’s a cliché and just goes with it. By accepting where the plot is going it can do wonderful things on the side like the romance between the DJ and his grandson’s teacher or the music. I love the music in this film it’s a wonderful mixture of songs in Korean and in English and it adds so much to the story and the viewing experience that I think its one of the major reasons the film works as well as it does. This is a film that knows when to put in a song to bump up the emotion. (Try not to smile like an idiot at the end.)

I love this film a great deal. I started talking this film up from the second the credits rolled by sending an email to Eden to watch the film when she got a chance. The next day at work I was talking the film up so much the people in my office suggested a screening party after work.

See this film.

This is currently out on import DVD, but hopefully this will get a regular US release because its films like this that could help correct the misconceptions about Asian film. Actually this needs a US release because it’s a film that will make people laugh

Monday, July 19, 2010

John Woo's Red Cliff- The full two part five hour version

This week I'm doing films that played this years New York Asian Film Festival. I'm beginning the week by continuing with the theme of this past weekend, namely two films released separately but really should be seen together since they form one bigger film greater film together.

First up is John Woo's Red Cliff, which was released in theaters at the end of last year, but in a severely cut down single film. The NYAFF did a special marathon screening during the Fourth of July Holiday Weekend which was a chance to see the film on a big screen after seeing a couple of times on the small one (I've had it on DVD since it was released as an import)

This film got an Honorable Mention at this Years NYAFF. Actually what happened was the audience voting was incredibly high in favor of the film but the votes were discounted because it already has had a US theaterical and DVD release.

I'm going to try and be brief in discussing
Red Cliff. I could discuss the film in endless detail, but I don't want to give too much away since this is full of wonderful treats and you should be allowed to find them on your own. (besides you don't want to listen to me drone on about this film. Nobody want to hear me really go on about the film)

After a decades long stay in Hollywood, director John Woo returned to China to make a film in his homeland for the first time in many years. It was to be an adaption of part of a Chinese classic tale, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms and would concern the battle of Red Cliff. The plan was to film a huge epic film and then cut it down for international release. Woo brought in the best people he could and he was even going to reunite with Chow Yun Fat. Chow for what ever reason walked away and went to do the misfire epic Confucius. The cast was shuffled slightly and the film went into a long period of production. The first half of the film was released in the summer of 2008 and was a huge hit. The second half was released in the Winter and was also a hit.

The film was eventually picked up by Magnolia for US release, however what they released was the shortened International release. When the film was finally released on DVD the film was made available for both the Theatrical cut and the full two part film (which they released as both separate parts and as a special edition of the parts together)

If you've only seen the US theatrical cut I pity you. You've seen a cut of the film that effectively removed half of the full film. The way to see the film is as the massive two part five hour version that was the way the film was originally screened in Asia and which was released in the United States and else where as "The International Cut" on DVD.

The real International Cut is the short version. This short version reduced the first film to about an hour of screen time and the second film to about an hour and fifteen minutes. (weirdly I read in one place where Woo said he kind of liked the short version better. If that's true I would argue that he's gone mad)

I'm not going to get into an argument about which version is better or why. I did that in a couple of places already with the result that I don't think that whom ever maintains the NYAFF website likes me much. This entry is about the full two part version so you can guess where I fall on that argument.

The short version of the plot has the Prime Minister of the Emperor of China using his power to consolidate all of the smaller kingdoms under the power of the Emperor. The idea is that there should only be the Emperor. What the minister didn't tell the Emperor was that once he wipes out all the smaller kingdoms he was going to get rid of Emperor and crown himself in that post.

Unfortunately the kingdoms are not going without a fight and when only three kingdoms remain they form an alliance and prepare for an attack which they know is coming at the fortress at Red Cliff. Part one of the film takes us up to the point where the two armies are about to square off. The second part of the film, is eventually, the land and sea battle.

Okay, let me not put too fine a point on it, in my humble opinion the two part Red Cliff, is, despite its flaws, one of the greatest films ever made. Rarely has any film ever had the ability to be both a small scale human story and an epic armies crashing tale. Its comparable only two other multi part epics Sergei Bondarchuck's War and Peace and Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings.

I love this film and I was handing off import copies from the time the first film came out on import DVD until the film was finally released here in the US. (I've since picked up the US release and I steer everyone to that)

I know some people don't like this sprawling, rambling epic in its five hour form. They argue that there are too many characters, too much talk (there is a great deal of philosophy) and too many subplots with the result it takes its time between battle scenes. Actually the only arguments I've heard for the short version is that its faster to the action, however what people don't realize is there are huge cuts in the battle scenes as well. * I don't understand why anyone would want to just cut to the fights since the dialog and philosophy add so much emotional resonance to the battle sequences.

I love the long version. I love the philosophy. I love the characters. I love that it takes time to get to know everyone so that many of the token characters of the first half shine in the second. I love that Woo has taken the time to create a real place on film that is inhabited by real people. Everyone, even in the small roles seems to have a real personality. There are these wonderful small moments, such as the speech at the funeral pyres in the second half, that manage to say so much more that just the crashing or armies.(The speech is gone from the short version)

What I love is that Woo has created all of these interpersonal relationships that really pay off in the end. I could wax poetic about the relationship of the three leads but their relationship stand in what ever version of the film you see and are ultimately much too obvious a point of discussion. Rather I want to talk about the small moments that break your heart during the final battle. Actually I want to talk about this one relationship, removed from the short version, that is a masterpiece of screen coupling.

The sister of one of the characters ends up disguising herself as a man and going into the enemy camp in order to spy. No one catches on and she manages to make the acquaintance of an enemy soldier who becomes her friend. However war spits on friendship and the enemy soldier is killed during the final assault. When the battle is over and the dead are being counted the girl kneels mourning over her fallen friend in a quiet testament to the stupidity of war it breaks your heart (And while I'm mentioning it the final shot of the relationship remains in the short version of Red Cliff, despite the fact that everything that would make the shot mean something has been removed). Its this wonderful moment about the cost of fighting and for a chunk of the film the set up seems so trivial, but in the end its not.

If you like action this film has it. Almost from the start the film has large scale action sequences. Going from the opening twenty minute battle to final hour plus assault this film is full of some of the most amazing battle sequences ever put on film. Truly awe inspiring and magical. And while there is some use of CGI, particularly in the fiery boat battle at the end (it had to be lest they roasted all of China) the film seems surprisingly to have been filmed with real people in real places. To me its so great not to have fake armies fighting fake armies.

And yes the film isn't perfect. It does get a bit too talky at times, there are simply too many characters and too many plots, but at the same time the film being too much makes the film just right. We feel the film bleed off the screen. We really are in these places and we are seeing armies crash. I will gladly suffer through the few flaws because the film manages to get so much right.

I should probably add that women looking for strong female characters should see this film since much of the second half of the film and the success of the good forces's plans hinges on the actions of two women who take it upon themselves to do what no man could. All of the talk in this film and about this film is about the men, but the few women in it hold their own and then then some.(I mean think about how strong the women have to be to stand out among all of the men.)

You need to see this film so DVD is fine. I know outside of Asia your chances of seeing the full two part version on the big screen is small, but if you do get the chance to see it that way do so. The New York Asian Film Festival screened the film this year in all its epic glory and the world was a better place for it.

(*An Aside: What never made sense to me was that some people don't like the talk in this film and just wish it were all action, crucified the film The Three Kingdoms (2008)(aka Resurrection of the Dragon on US DVD), which came out ahead of Red Cliff and used the same source, as being all action and no plot. Clearly you can't win.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mesrine (2008) (Part One: Killer Instinct. Part 2: Public Enemy Number One)

Two part film about the life and crimes of Jacques Mesrine. He ran roughshod over France, Canada and the United States in the 1960's and 1970's before meeting his maker in a hail of gun fire.

The film was released as two separate films (Part one is Killer Instinct. Part two is Public Enemy Number One), but in all honesty, other than a difference in feel between the parts this is really one four hour film. I can't imagine seeing these two film as stand alone films, especially with any time between them.

The first part takes Mesrine from his time in the French Army in Algeria through to his time on the run in Canada. It covers his marriage, his time away from crime and his growing notoriety. The second part has Mesrine's life from his return to France through his violent end.

I'm going to be honest here and say four hours is not enough to do this story justice. As amazing as Vincent Cassel is at portraying Mesrine, and as good as his fellow actors are, the film simply is trying to tell too big a tale in too short a time. Characters come and go, threads of his life are left hanging. The biggest loss was for me the relationship with his children. On some level its clear he loved them, but at the same time they are barely mentioned past a certain point. We are left with bits of a story that is more short hand. Actually much of the story is short hand (for example I was lost about their attack on the Canadian prison) and I ran to the computer when the film was done to get more details.

On the other hand as short as the film can be on story at times everything else is gangbusters.

Vincent Cassel has won a boat load of awards for his portrayal and everyone of them is deserved. Say what you will about anything else Cassel gives one of those portraits that sucks you and forces you to watch, even though things are either too brutal or not quite compelling enough. Cassel grabs you by the throat and makes you watch the film, nay, he insists you watch the film, all of it right now, even though you're too tired or its too late or what ever the excuse. When the first film ended I didn't even consider not watching the second part, I simply got up and switched the DVDs and kept going.

The rest of the cast is equally good, especially Gerard Depardieu as Mesrine's first boss and friend. As Mesrine finds out you may think he's a shnook, but he'll still take the gun from you belt without you ever knowing it.

This is an amazing film. It grabs you from the first, the day of Mesrine's demise is filmed with skill and style that you can't help but be drawn in. The film then flashes back and the film becomes a stylistic romp with the film filled with harsh blues and reds that accentuate the films tone. As the first film shifts from one part to the next the film shifts tones, becoming more realistic with the sharp colors of the night clubs and gangster hangouts of Mesrine's early life giving way to homes and apartments and the countryside where the events took place.

Say what you will the film is never boring. Sure you may wonder about characters or threads that have been left behind, but at the same time you're going to be wondering about how is Mesrine going to get out of this new scrape or situation. Come on, how can you not be draw in by a man who bargained with the cops for 20 minutes so he could get dressed and greet them with a bottle of champagne.

Its a masterful film...

...but it appears that that the film, which has caused a sensation in Europe, maybe a while in coming to the US. I picked this up as a DVD from the UK because I didn't see any US release listed anywhere. In reading on the film I see that the US distributor is having money problems and the film is caught in the mess. Its a sad turn of events but I'm sure that the film will eventually be seen, I mean seriously the film is much too compelling to fall by the wayside...

...then again this is a website that is full of films that one would have thought would never have fallen by the wayside.

This is one to put on the list to keep an eye out for. I'm certain it will be coming your way.

8/6/10ADDENDUM: This appears to be finally getting a US release. A local theater has it on their website as up coming in the fall.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Election and Election 2 (Triad Election)

This weekends double feature are pairs of crime films that when viewed together create a greater whole. Both pairs of films were released separately, but are so closely connected to that it would be ludicrous not to see them together.

Today's films are the Election films of director Johnnie To which have been compared favorably to the best American gangster films. Tomorrows films are the two parts of Mesrine, about French Gangster Jacques Mesrine who was loved and hated in France as he cut a bloody swath through the 1960's and 70's.

First up Election

I have to say at the start what is now out on DVD in the US as Triad Election is actually Election2 the sequel to Johnnie To's Election. While you probably can see just the second film I don't recommend it since so much happens in the first film that's only eluded to in the second and the depth of understanding seeing the first film is vast.

Election is the story of the election of a chairman for one of the Hong Kong Triads. Every two years a new leader is elected by the uncles-the elder statesman of the Triad. In the first film the loser doesn't care to hear that he's lost and takes steps to put himself in power, mostly having to do with getting the Dragon Baton which signifies authority. As the leaders discuss and plot, often from in jail, the foot soldiers begin trying to find the Baton and bring it back so the leader can take power.

The second film is set two years later. Its time for a second election and the candidates are lining up. If you thought there was at least some honor among thieves in the first film all notions go out the window as everyone tries to manipulate everyone else. (I want to say more but I don't want to spoil anything).

Time Out NY reviewed the films and compare them favorably to the Godfather.I would say these guys are much more dangerous than the Corleone clan. I think also that they are a meaner bunch of people than even the Sopranos. You don't want to cross these guys because you'll never see it coming.

The first time I saw these films I started them while sitting to do some cleaning and cooking. There was some stuff I could do that didn't require me to move so I sat and put on the first film. I fell into it, and before I realized what was happening I was half way into the first film. It was a strange trip as the film shift gears from the election to the finding of the Baton to another unexpected thread. This is a wild ride that keeps you consistently off balance.

As a stand alone film this is a good film that has a great start. As a tale meant to stand alone it suffers from meandering a bit too much and leaving a few too many threads hanging. Chilling and a punch in the gut on a visceral level the film is not completely satisfying. The film suffers from shifts in perspective and a very large cast of characters...however the the story doesn't really end there.

The second film picks up two years later as the next election looms. Candidates begin to gather and everyone tries to either become the new chairman or side with the next one. This film has almost no set up it just goes, with a dinner among friends briefly recapping what went before. Its done in such away that unless you saw the first film you wouldn't know what was being done.

As a stand alone film I'm certain this film will play okay. Indeed the film played the New York Film Festival with nary a word that it was a sequel, so you can see the films apart, but I wouldn't do it, there simply is too you wouldn't know.

What was set up in the first film is built upon here. Characters try to take sides, stray remarks from the first film are haunting in the second. Motivation and back story are all explained in the first film and here they have a dark resonance that is barely even hinted at if you saw this film as a stand alone (The heartbreaking final moments of one character are even sadder when you know all that went before) In deed one key character in the second film will play very differently when you know some of what happens in the first. The second film-in actuality the second part of the story smooths out some of the flaws of the first film. Things make sense in retrospect since you know where they lead.

This isn't to say that the second film isn't flawed, it does seem to move a bit too fast for the story its telling, and there are a few too many characters to completely follow, but its still a really good film. As the first film is improved by the second, this film is improved by seeing the first, its flaws are smoothed out by its brother.

(Of course the films together have some flaws that aren't in either single film)

I've been kicked in the chest by these films. The two films together form one of the best gangster sagas put on film.

This is grand human story telling. The layers and the complexity of the tales they tell simply demand repeated viewing. Honestly these are films that get better with a second viewing simply because what happens in each film is deepened by knowing what has gone before and after.

As stand alone films they rate a 6 or 7 out of 10. If seen together I'd rate them 8 or 9 out of 10 and a must see.

As much as it might be considered sacrilege I'm hoping this gets dubbed into English at some point- simply because there are many people who won't read subtitles and they are missing out on one of the best gangster films of the last few years.