Monday, January 31, 2011

First word on the films at Film Comment Selects 2011

The first word of what the films are going to be at this years Film Comment Selects is up at Indie Wire. They didn't have the actual schedule but they did list the films including the opening and closing night films.

The selection of films, is as always intriguing.

The Opening night films are on the artistic side with Jia Zhanke's I Wish I Knew and Isild Le Besco's Bas-fonds, with the closing night films going for visceral horror with John Landis' Burke and Hare and James Wan's Insidious thus proving that when you get down to it good films come from every genre and place.

The series goes all over the place with some films from Claude Lanzmann, performances by The Velvet Underground and co-presentations of three HUGE Asian films with the New York Asian FIlm Festival Kin Ki-woon's I Saw The Devil, Sion Sono's Cold Fish and Andrew Lau's Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen.

They are also running three films that you may have seen reviewed on this blog: Werner Herzog's Cave Forgotten Dreams, Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death and the film that was our Christmas offering Klaus Kinski Jesus Christ Saviour. It goes with out saying that we at Unseen Films recommend those films highly.

Tickets go on Thursday and I'm guessing the actual schedule will go up before that. I have no idea what I or my compatriots will be attending but I'll let you know once we know what is playing when. If you're interested in more detail on whats play I suggest following the two links I posted above, though as I write this the Indie Wire link has more information.

Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World (1961) aka Maciste alla corte del Gran Khan

Other than a Hercules film that was done as part of our Mystery Science Theater 3000 week around Thanksgiving there have been no sword and Sandal films reviewed on this web site. As Ken is fond of saying "the fact that you like those sort of films is a sign that something isn't right with you" Probably, but the films are as mindless as they come and to me they are the perfect way to unwind.

Actually my love for the films comes from the fact that many sword and sandal films are full of really bad monsters. I'm a sucker for really bad monster suits.

This week I'm going to write up a few genre films that are worth your time. The reviews will be short and sweet since the films really aren't the sort of things that lend themselves to long discussions.

First up one of my favorite sword and sandal films, Samson and the Seven Miracles of the World. (Oddly its a completely monster free film)

Its not high art but it is highly entertaining.

One of the many retitled Maciste films about a muscle man who wanders the world and helps out people in need. The character was created in a silent film called Cabria where a dim but helpful muscle man helped a woman in need. The character took off and has appeared in dozens if not hundreds of other films. Most of what we think of as Hercules or related films are actually Maciste films retitled. (and yes the character is the source of the term machismo)

This time he's in China and helps a country find freedom by literally ringing the bell of freedom.

It has a couple of good fights, the hero saving men buried up to their heads from having chariots with bladed wheels from running over them and of course the classic causing an earthquake as he frees himself from his burial place in a mountain. It has exotic locals and takes itself just seriously enough that you can buy whats going on. If you get the chance try it.

As with most muscle man movies there are multiple versions of each film out. I being an insane person own multiple copies of many of them. With this film what ever version you get is probably okay with one exception- the Retromedia release. Stay away from it at all costs. Not only is the print badly mangled, its missing twenty minutes, making the plot line a joke. Avoid it as you would a nest of vipers.

The best thing to do if you want to see the film, or any sword and sandal film, is start out with Sinister Cinema. There prints are all good to great quality and they tend to be very close to complete.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Run Salary Man Run: Dangan Runna (Non-Stop)

DB here posting a brief piece on one of the screenings in the Sabu retrospective that is running at the Japan Society in New York. This report is being filed by Mondocurry who attended the third of the six films they are running. As you may know both he and I attended the first screening on Wednesday of the film Monday. (We braved one of the worst snow storms in recent New York history to do so). The second screening was Postman Blues, which we both passed up, I because I've already seen the film and my compatriot because I gave him a VCD copy of the film when I saw him two days earlier.

As with Monday, this is more a teaser. A full review of the event and of the film will be coming in a couple of weeks.

The reason we're not posting a full review of Dangan Runna is that in discussing the piece we decided that it was going to be best to do reviews of all of the films they are showing. In order to do this we'd have to wait until after next Saturday when the final film screens. We then figured that if we added a couple more films we could pay homage to Sabu the best way possible by an entire week of films that will hopefully do our part toward making him a household name. So in a few weeks you'll see full reviews of six of Sabu's films: Monday, Dagan Runna, Hard Luck Hero, Blessing Bell, Drive,and Troubleman. Keep watching this blog.

With that out of the way I turn you over to Mondocurry for a few words on the screening last night:

Day 2 for me at the Sabu retrospective and day 3 of the retrospective as a whole, or as Sabu himself put it, the Sabu Matsuri (literally translates to Sabu Festival). Dangan Runner, otherwise known as Nonstop, Sabu’s first feature length film was shown. This was also Sabu’s third and final day of q & a’s , and he continues to show himself as a good natured and modest sort who is genuinely grateful to be here. It’s regrettable he cannot be here to introduce and talk about the rest of the films being screened.

Dangan Runner is a noticeably less polished work than Monday. But the director’s knack for humorous visual scenarios, as well as numerous themes that he deals with in his later films, are already prominent in this debut.

Feeling excited to see more of this under appreciated Japanese director’s work.

The screenings continue over the next week with Drive on Wednesday, Blessing Bell on Friday and Troubleman on Saturday. Check out the Japan Society website for details.

And for those who want a taste of the films a trailer can be found here.

Mad Detective (2007)

Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai have reinvented the detective genre and things will probably never be the same.

Inspector Ho is stumped by the disappearance of a detective 18 months earlier.Desperate for a break he looks to Bun, a genius profiler with whom he briefly worked years before...when Bun went crazy and was thrown off the force.

A funny, tense un-nerving cop drama where nothing is certain. Is Bun a genius or crazy? Has Ho lost his mind? Where will it all end? Its a trip. I'd tell you more but I'm still trying to process what I saw since things shift from our reality to Bun's, often so its not clear. (One helpful clue- what Bun and we see isn't always real)

Its a trip and then some. Actually I'd be very surprised if this film doesn't end up with a cult following, an American remake and lots of articles written about it. Its just a nifty little thriller.

Definitely worth a viewing or two.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Memories of Murder (2003)

This is the second feature from Joon-ho Bong who did three of my favorite films of all time. This is one of them. (The other two are Mother, which I reviewed back in March of last year and The Host, possibly the best giant monster on the loose film you'll ever see.) As with all of the directors films what you expect is turned on its head, and used against you to startling effect. Here what you expect to be a straight forward police procedural is turned on its head.

After two women are found dead in a rural community, a detective arrives from the big city to help out. Things quickly mushroom with the discovery of more bodies, more suspects and no end in sight.

Whether you like police films or not you should see this movie about the real hunt for Korea's first known serial killer simply because its a great movie. This is a movie that alters your expectations and changes your view of things. Its impossible to guess whats going to happen simply because the twists and turns are so unexpected. At times this is a funny funny movie, especially if you like shows like Law and Order or CSI since what we take for granted in those shows is stood on its head (these are people who know little of forensics). At other times this is a very taut thriller and you become as desperate as the police in needing to put an end to the madness.

On top of all of this is a picture of Korea in 1986, a place with political unrest and civil defense drills that seems like something out of the 1950's America.

This is brilliant brilliant film-making.

If you've never seen a a Korean film start here. Its the film that I use as a gateway to Korean films. Its a world class film that I tell people to see because not only is it a great film it show people how good Korean films can be.

It's one of those films you'll go back to time and again because its just a great film.

My NYICFF Choices, Tim Minchin in New York and some links from IMDB and elsewhere

The tickets went on sale yesterday for The New York International Children's Film Festival and I picked up tickets today. There is a chance that I'll add more, but for now I have tickets to 8 screenings. For the curious the choices are as follows:

Opening Night: Mars Needs Moms - In all honesty I don't need to do this, or see it since I'm not a fan of motion capture and they radically redid the book, but it's Opening Night which means its a a hell of a lot of fun.

The Dreams of Jinsha

The Storyteller Show

Welcome to the Space Show

The Time of Eve

A Cat in Paris

The Two Short Film collections

Yes its animation heavy, but my choices always tend toward animation- though things like Boy or Aurelie Laflamme's Diary may end up on my dance card.

I'll be writing more down the line but for now it's just waiting.

Next up-
Comedian Tim Minchin, who's work we reviewed in So Live and Rock and Roll Nerd The Tim Minchin Story , is playing New York's Gramercy Theater May 4th. Check Live Nation for tickets. Everyone here at Unseen Films are big fans having seen him when he last passed our way. We will be there in May . If you want to have a good time and are in the New York City area go. If you're not sure go to You Tube and look him up.

Lastly I'm leaving you with some links and such mostly lifted from IMDB:

Odd movie sets at Popular Mechanics

Movie Locations around the world here and here

Disney poster mash ups

The trouble with subtitling Jeff Bridges in True Grit can be found here.

Walter Mirsch tells Roger Ebert why 3D will never work in the movies. And this sparks further discussion.

Why do some movies crash and burn here and are mega hits elsewhere is pondered here.

I've added to the sidebar under useful links. If you like Korean film this is one of the best places to look around. Its not really encyclopedic but it is damn good writing.

Friday, January 28, 2011

On Further Review: True Grit (1969) and John Wayne's Oscar

The truth that many people subscribe to is that John Wayne was given his Oscar for True Grit for decades of service. They say that the movie marks the end of old Hollywood and it's notion of the western. The new western was marked by the arrival a week later of the Wild Bunch.

Yea ,well maybe, but has anyone actually watched Wayne's performance? I'm not sure many people under a certain age have. And what's worse has anyone actually compared it to the other performances nominated? I don't think so.

I am not a John Wayne fan. I think that with few exceptions he really did play basically the same role. It wasn't until I was in my 20's until I actually sat down and watched his films and distanced the notion of him being an old Hollywood Icon with what he actually did. In all honesty I think that in the 60's Wayne actually started to be really good actor who was more than just The Duke. Look at The Alamo or Rio Lobo, where he is taking the notion of being the icon and doing more with it. In away I think his work compares favorably with what Eastwood did Unforgiven. I think that in those films, has he does in True Grit he takes the icon and twists it and switches it into something more.(It can also be argued that with the exception of The Shootist Wayne fell back into the Icon role for many of his films from the 70's).

First off you can't discount True Grit to The Wild Bunch. The films are both westerns, but its really pointless to try and compare them since they are both doing different things. Wayne's film is an adventure and little else, even if there is riffs on the notion of revenge. The wild Bunch is a mediation of violence and of the death of the west. Its a film that is trying to do more than Grit.

If you look at Wayne's completion for the Oscar things kind of get interesting.

Richard Burton was nominated for Anne of a Thousand Days but to me the performance is unremarkable. The performance is standard Burton.Its the sort of thing that Burton did well, even when he was asleep. I think Burton got it because he was the actor of the moment.

Peter O'Toole in the musical Goodbye Mr Chips is the WTF nomination. Yea the film is okay, but O'Toole is more mannerisms then anything. Again he was a hot property and I think he got the nomination for who he was.

The only rational competition for the award was both Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman for Midnight Cowboy. Okay it could be argued that the double nominations split the votes, but on the other hand I don't think that Voight and Hoffman are quite Oscar material. (Full disclosure I'm not a huge fan of the film, I think its second to Z). To me Voight is a bit wishy washy who I remember not for anything he did, rather for the hat he wore. Hoffman's performance is reduced to the cliched "Hey I'm walking here", which I've heard was ad-libbed. Neither performance as a performance stands out over time.

Which brings me back to John Wayne and True Grit. If you want the easiest answer as to why he deserves the Oscar consider the mere fact that we are still seriously talking about it forty plus years later and not any of the other performances. Sure its an iconic performance by an icon performer, but its one that took the larger than life Wayne and redefined him in an even larger than life role. Its a role that casts such a HUGE shadow that they had they had to find away to counter it for the recent remake. (None of the other nominees come close)

Did John Wayne deserve the Oscar? Hell yea.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Schedule of the New York International Children's FIlm Festival is up

The schedule is up for this years New York International Children's Film Festival is up. Please go take a look.... and then buy tickets, there are some real winners there.

Some of the highlights are as follows:

The opening night gala is Mars Needs Moms in 3D. It's based on Berkley Breathed's children's book. I met Breathed when he was touring for the book and he was a blast. The book is wonderful but if you've seen the trailer for the film you know that it's been greatly expanded for the film. I'm probably going to go.

A Cat in Paris is the latest from the people who did Mia and Magoo, which is also playing the festival. Mia is a must see if you want to see beautiful filmmaking. (The spelling difference in my review is because it depends on where you see it as to how it's spelled)

Dreams of Jinsha which was on the Oscar short list for the animated Oscar. It's the East Coast premiere.

Echoes of the Rainbow is playing. Its a film that is about a family in Hong Kong in the mid 1960's. I saw the film at last years NYAFF where it reduced many in the audience to tears. I've loaned the film to several people and they've fallen madly in love with it. While I don't love the film I did like it, and think that if you want to see a sure fire hit see it. (It was also on the short list for the Foreign Language Oscar)

Time of Eve is a complete version of a film that was shown in part at last years festival. For me it's a must see since I saw that part of it last year and I need to see the rest.

And then there are other features and their glorious short programs....Its weeks and weeks of great films. A must see.

On Further Review The Hurt Locker (2009)

One of the lowest grossing Oscar Best Picture Winner is a real head scratcher. Sure it's a critical darling but out side of the critics I've never met anyone who was that rapturous about it. I've seen the film a couple of times now and I still can not get my head around why this is regarded so highly in some quarters.

The plot of the film concerns Jeremy Renner a bomb disposal expert in Iraq. We follow him over the course of a series of operations as he gets closer and closer to getting to go home. Renner is a bit of a loose canon who doesn't play by the rules, he does however get results...and quite a big rush from living on the edge.

There are severe questions about how realistic the film is, many people in the military are upset at how unrealistic Renner's character is. The argument is that if anyone did what Renner does he would be dead. The filmmakers shot back that its based upon their research. I can't say how true their criticism is, but I suspect that some of their concerns probably come from not wanting to be labeled as a bunch of thrill seekers. I think that they chafe, rightly, at the thought that they would do what they do for any reason other than a need to keep their fellow soldiers alive.

For me the problem with the film is two fold.

First off the film isn't quite as tense as it should be since until the final half hour or so you never really feel fear for Renner. He's the star and you know that until the film he's going to be okay. Sure many characters are killed but they aren't really a major character. And since the film is solidly focused on Renner you don't have the shock and awe of say Psycho and the death of Janet Leigh. I knew that the only chance that Renner was going to get killed was going to be right before the credits rolled.

The real problem with the film is that the film isn't about anything special. The whole point of the film is that Renner loves the danger so much that he will do anything to experience it. Its plainly clear from very early on that civilian life isn't going to work for him. The final revelation of that fact is a supreme let down. We have to go through 131 minutes for that?

I was so stunned by the utter banality of the film and what it was telling me that I wandered around for days afterward wondering if I had missed something. I mean it wasn't that simple; it couldn't be. So I did what anyone with questions would have done I watched the film again.

And I was even more underwhelmed by the film the second time. Knowing what the film is about and knowing where it was going only made the film all the more disappointing. There is no complexity to anything, its just a a not particularly original idea presented as something special.

How did this win the Oscar?

In the films defense it does have some great sequences that taken on their own terms are quite stunning. The problem is that if you put all the pieces together it doesn't amount to much. Certainly nothing deserving a Best Picture Oscar.

Run Salaryman Run: The films of Sabu- A teaser about the first night

It's been a long day. I was meeting Mondocurry in Manhattan so we could go see Monday the first offering at the Japan Society's retrospective of the films of Sabu.

Sabu is an actor who is one of the best directors working in the world today.He is, as a he joked this evening, a genius. Unfortunately because his films are unavailable in the US no one really knows his work unless they are willing to hunt down his films from places around the world (trust me even Yes Asia and other sites are little help in getting the films).

The plan was to meet, get food and then go to the movie. The winter weather kind of cooperated and It only took me a half an hour extra to get in. The allowed enough time for me to woof down a piece of pizza before we hustled off to the screening.

The screening was introduced by Sabu, who did a Q&A afterward. It was his first US visit and it was great to be there. (Details will be coming at a later time)

The movie was a blast, and it too will be getting a full review later, I think Mondocurry and I are going to draw lots to see who actually writes it up. For now just know that its about a man who wakes up in a hotel room with no idea how he got there. He then starts to remember...and we go from there. Its not what you expect, trust me...

After the film I met Sabu and told him how much I liked his films. They are unlike anyone elses films anywhere, so how can you not. I also got my copy of Postman Blues signed.

As I keep saying there is more to tell all around but since it's after 230AM and I spent over two hours getting home in a foot of snow I'm deferring it until another time. Just know a wonderful time was had by all, at least on this end.

For now follow the link to the Japan Society above and find a screening of a Sabu film and go. His films can not be had in the US and he's too important a director for you not to be watching his films. They are running six films over two weeks. As things stand now some one from this blog will be at at least two more of the screenings (Drive and Troubleman) though we're talking about seeing more.

And now bed time for me.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Children of the Dark (2008)

This post wasn’t suppose to happen here. This was suppose to be another On Further Review Oscar edition but I decided the one for this slot was more a comment then a post and as such didn’t belong. To that end I’m going to go off the Oscar board and talk about, briefly, a film that there is a good chance none of you will have seen, will ever see or ever want to see. This is a film that is the very definition of an unseen film.

Children of the Dark is a very bleak, very dark look at the child sex industry in Thailand and South East Asia. A Japanese Thai co production the film has had extremely limited release anywhere, with the film’s uncomfortable subject semi graphic reporting style it’s really not surprising. One of the few pieces I read on the film said that the film hasn’t been able to secure even berths at film festivals because of it. The film did play the New York Asian Film Festival in 2009 which is how I heard of it. I went and tracked it down simply because the film played there since based on my experience all the films they run are worth trying no matter what the subject. As I‘ve said it’s one of the two best programmed festivals I know (the New York International Children’s Film Festival is the other) with all of their films selected because someone on the selection committee actually saw the film and thought it was worth showing. I picked the film up from Yes Asia on VCD because it was relatively cheap and I would be less likely to be upset if I pitched the discs when I was done.

Having seen the film all I can say is I need another shower. Its been two days since I saw it and I’m beyond disturbed. I understand why no one wants to show this, and why no one wants to see it.

The simple story is the film follows a reporter looking into the sex trade and as a result finding out all sorts of truly nasty things. I’ll spare you the details but the film goes into the business and related businesses like organ harvesting. A ball of laughs it’s not.

The film is more talk than action, but through clever editing you get a real sense of what happens to these kids (if you should see this in a theater sit near the aisle since you’ll want to flee the theater during some parts). It’s a warts and all film that really isn’t sensational.

Frankly if it wasn’t so important to shine a light on this terrible industry I wouldn’t mention the film, not because it’s a bad film, simply because it’s so disturbing.

As a film unto itself it’s not a bad film. It suffers from a few cliché’s of the expose genre, and it’s a tad too long at 138 minutes, but for the most part it’s a good film as a film…

…unfortunately the film goes off the rails in the final moments with a sting in the tail ending that undercuts everything that happened before. I won’t go into it, but let me just say that it’s a twist that doesn’t need, nor should it, be there. It turns a heartfelt expose into a pot boiler. It’s an ending that takes some of the edge off.

Is it worth seeing? Probably, but it’s also the sort of film that you’ll need to figure out if you want the images and ideas of the film rattling around in your head for days afterward. I thought I’d be okay, but frankly I shouldn’t have seen it. Any choice you make will be your own. (Me I’m trying to purge the film by writing about it)

For those who want to see the film you’ll have to search it out, as of this writing Yes Asia has it. (Just be sure to check the edition for subtitles since some editions don’t have them)

On Further Review Rabbit Hole (2010)

John Cameron Mitchell's film version of David Lindsay-Abaire's award winning play is the very definition of Oscar Bait. It's a film that was designed to get Nicole Kidman another Oscar.

The film follows a couple in the wake of the death of their four year old son. She is trying to cope by erasing any trace of him. He's fumbling about just trying to connect with his wife who seems to be a stranger. Complications arise as her sister reveals that she is pregnant. She also begins a relationship with the young man who killed her son.

Strong on performances the film doesn't have much beyond that. Director John Cameron Mitchell's direction is workman like but isn't all that creative. the film feels like any number of small budget independent films. While this isn't surprising considering that Mitchell turned out two good small films (Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus) previously. Unfortunately while those films, like this one were good, there was nothing to set them apart from any other independent film except perhaps the subject matter or stars.

This isn't a bad film, but its very much like any number of other better films and other than the big stars and Oscar push this film would rightly fall into the cracks. I'm guessing that once award season is over this film will quickly disappear, especially if it doesn't win any Oscars.

Worth a look, but not something you need run out to see.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Take Off (2009): The second of the Korean Cultural Services screenings for 2011

I promise to find a better title for the next post in two weeks.

This is going to be short and sweet because it's getting late and if the weather holds I have a screening at the Japan Society tomorrow night. Actually its not so much that I need to rush off, it's more that I am tired and I really want to take the time out to really write up the film properly. The best way I can explain why is to say that me and the two nice Korean ladies were quietly sobbing in the back row of the theater and I want to get that feeling down properly.

Yes I finally made it to the KCS screenings. Mondocurry had to brow beat me to get me there but I made it. I was disappointed that the concession stand was not open so I didn't have dinner until I got home a short time ago.

When I arrived I was handed some info on the film, the next film and the entire series KCS events for this month and the next. I was then directed to the theater that was having the screening and I took a seat in the back. Waiting for the film to start I marveled at how full it was. Every seat wasn't taken but it was close.

At show time Grady from the New York Asian Film Festival bounded down the aisle and did his talk about the film, the series and then he left saying the film was a long one at two and a half hours.(Its running time was about 10 minutes shorter than advertised running only two and a quarter hours)

The film concerns the efforts of Korea to get the Winter Olympics. IOC will not give it them because they feel they don't love winter sports enough. Seeking to prove them wrong, or at least trick them, they field a ski jump team and send them off for training- mostly on water slides. (work with me here its a true story and often very funny). Needless to say everyone is a character and how things go are not what you expect. The upshot of all of this is lots of laughs, lots of happy tears (seriously) and a general good time will be had by all.

How good a time, well before I wrote this up I checked Yes Asia to see if I can get a copy- yes I can,and yes I will.

You really want to see this if you get the chance because it is that good.... okay I won't be on my Best of 2011 list but it will be on my list of finds and I will be subjecting friends and family to it. As I said a full review will follow but for now go find the damn movie and watch it.

I had a good time tonight and as of right now I'm planning on going to the next screening in the series- though there is a chance it may not happen since it's going to come at the end of a week long stretch were I'm in and out of Manhattan four times in days and the film will be the fifth time in seven days. We'll see.

A word of warning the next film is called Lifting King Kong and is about women's power lifting. Apparently its VERY graphic in showing injuries to the lifters and is prone to make people ill. If you have a strong stomach I recommend you try the series since so far the choices I and Mondocurry have seen are choice. (The next film is February 8 at 7pm, doors open at 630)

On Further Review The Ghost Writer (2010)

Roman Polanski's thriller has been hailed as a return to form for the master filmmaker. For many people this was a return to Polanski's early days when he turned out wicked thrillers. For me this is a neat little thriller that loses its way in the second hour.

The plot of the film has the body of a man washing up on the coast of Maine. The man disappeared from a ferry and some how ended up in the water. Enter Ewan McGregor who is hired to take over for the dead man- ghostwriting the memoirs of a former British Prime Minister. As McGregor soon finds out sometimes its best not to dig too deeply into one's subject.

I loved the first hour and a bit of this film. It was a wickedly clever little thriller that cranked things up with his mix of politics and menace. The intrigue of the politics and spy games really helped to keep us focused on what was going on.

Then something happened. Somewhere the film became less about the MacGuffin of the politics and drifted more and more into being a conventional thriller. The plot which had galloped along for most of the first say 80 minutes, suddenly stopped adding layers and simply became McGregor trying to find out how to stay alive. Sure he was still trying to find out new wrinkles in the tale, but at the same time he wasn't doing a whole hell of a lot, certainly not enough to warrant another 45 minutes of screen time.

I was heartbroken. Worse I was kind of disinterested. Sure I wanted to find out what happened but at the same time if I had turned off the DVD and never saw how it ended I wouldn't have been disappointed. (Worse the final reveal was kind of a let down, with the final image the sort of thing that wasn't called for)

Its not a bad film, it's just one that goes from being one of the best thrillers of the year to one of the most mundane in the course of the last three quarters of an hour.

Its worth seeing, it's just not a film that should be considered for an Oscar.

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Barefoot Dream: The first of The Korean Cultural Service screening series of 2011

DB here. I want to take a minute and explain about this post. This is a report that was done for us at Unseen by Mondocurry. If you've been reading the blog since last years New York Asian Film Festival you'll have run across occasional references to him. I quoted his comments in regard to Live Tape, one of the most amazing concert films you'll ever see. I've referenced him in a few other reviews over the past year, now he's posting his first official review.

I met Mondocurry a couple of years back through an Internet discussion of Asian films. We kept in contact on line before finally meeting in person at last years New York Asian Film Festival. He's a great guy and a lot of fun to go to the movies with.

Two weeks ago the Korean Cultural Service started up their series of screenings of free Korean films for 2011 down at the Tribeca Cinemas. The series has been running off and on for a couple of years as mostly one offs but they appear to have started up as a regular feature last year when it moved to Tribeca. If you follow the link in the post below or on the Korean Cultural Service link in the sidebar you'll be able to get details.

Getting back to the post. I was supposed to go see this film but bad weather related traffic kept me from making a train. Fortunately I have a good friend who stepped up to the plate and said he would do what I couldn't do and covered the first film of the series, Korea's submission for the Oscars Foreign Language Award A Barefoot Dream, which is a true story of a soccer team.

A year ago, a shady little outlet for Asian cinema cropped up in New York City. Once every two weeks, the Korean Cultural Service would host a free screening of a Korean movie fitting under an umbrella theme (which changed about every two months) in a miniature screening room at Tribeca Cinemas.

The first film they showed in the series was a subtle comedic slacker-on-a-roadtrip charmer, Daytime Drinking. It was so low-key that a year later I all but forgot about it, even though it was a personal favorite from that year. As the year grew on, screenings were held with less regularity. Both waning interest and ability to attend caused me to miss a great deal of the year’s menu. Now, one year later, the Korean Cultural Service launches another year of programming, which is off to an even bigger start. January and February will consist of sports films, and the year was kicked off with the North American Premiere of Korea’s Best Foreign Language Oscar submission, A Barefoot Dream.

The film tells the too--bizarre--to--seem--true story of a washed up football player, Kim Won-kang, who is looking for profit in Indonesia. Ending up in Timor, a small village with a volatile political climate, Kim interacts with the area’s football-obsessed youth, leading up to the unlikely opportunity for them to travel abroad and play in an international youth exhibition tournament.

For me, the film was a bit of a bumpy path. There are stretches of pure amusement and bewilderment that get hitched up by a few rather large pebbles, until ultimately reaching a satisfying and very emotionally moving ending.

The first big rough patch is the tone of the movie, which often seems unnecessarily goofy when straightforward seriousness was what I expected and would’ve preferred. This probably owes to what I’ve come to expect from Korean dramas: dark moods, taut and tense, that pull no punches. While it is refreshing to see films shot on location in very real exotic locales such as this one, a " look at those crazy natives” sort of zaniness sometimes takes away from the emotional power of the story.

While it is pleasing to hear the authentic sampling of Indonesian pop music used in the film, the soundtrack sometimes contributes to the hokey-ness. At other times, the music choices overcompensate by being melodramatic to the point of tugging hard on the heartstrings. Rather than let the plight of the village kids speak for itself, the film highlights their ‘third worldliness’ in a way that condescends to preach to the audience. Long slow motion pans of the kids’ smiling faces, filled with the potential of dashed drams, proved a bit too manipulative for my tastes.

The other hitch is the sometimes meandering flow of the story, which often distracts from the big picture. To start with, the portrayal of Kim Won-Kang does not clearly establish him as a character in need of change. Sure, he is a slippery snake of a conniver, but he is never that much of a creep; not enough to make his path to salvation pack as powerful a redemptive punch as one might hope for. Events along the way, like the football matches held between Kim’s group of hopefuls in brand spanking new sneakers, versus a suspicious and overprotective older brother’s group, in barefoot squalor, seem to confuse rather than advance the story forward. I think I know who we are supposed to be rooting for, but wait a minute, who is the underdog here? Is it really so terrible that this local guy is looking out for his younger brother’s interest? It gets confusing as to what exactly the movie’s end game is supposed to be. While these incongruities sometimes distract and frustrate, I had to remind myself that this is indeed the retelling of a true story. The director’s only crime may be that he insisted too much on maintaining accuracy, and there is something noble in that.

There are also some eccentricities that are so oddball you can’t help but find them endearing. Take for example, the scenes where characters (including the impoverished little kids) argue heatedly, each in their own native languages, with no gap in comprehension at all. Then, there is the Japanese one man shipping company who, over solemn hot pot dinners with Kim and the Korean Ambassador, serves as the moral compass of the film by delivering meaningful allegories in broken English.

The jumble of events continues, which finds “coach” Kim in situations that prove him to be heroic, compassionate, and filled with a dreamer’s ambition. Then, things coalesce into something solidly and unwaveringly stirring in the 20 or so minute conclusion (and if a film is going to really shine in one place, where better than the ending?). Football, which is what we all came to see, takes center stage, and the themes that were somewhat muddled earlier on become crystal clear. Tae-gyun Kim delivers an exhibition football match between our Indonesian Bad News Bears and a team of adolescents from Japan, with the intensity of a high stakes battle in a gritty war film. Soccer balls collide with opposing team members’ bodies with the thud of hand grenades, and whiz past teammates’ ears like narrowly missing artillery. No emotionally leading music or overwrought dialogue is necessary to show the emotions felt and life lessons learned by the young protagonists. With little explanation, the magnitude of Kim’s achievement stands tall.

After the film, director Kim was on hand to humbly thank the audience and answer questions. He revealed background information that added to the intrigue of the film. “Coach” Kim was indispensable throughout production, opening channels between the director and the local government, including Timor’s president who appeared as himself in the film. Members of the real life football team on which the film is based were cast as older teens in the movie, and for the most, the kids comprising of the team in the movie were all locally cast, with little acting experience. In the course of filming, there was an instance of violent civil unrest much like the one shown in the movie. Afterwards, I felt as though I had received a rousing history lesson about a little known event (that will probably remain largely untold) which found altruistic behavior trumping nationalism.

I suspect that A Barefoot Dream lacks the same level of art and execution as many of this year’s other submissions for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. But it’s hard to imagine any of those films have nearly as much heart.

As of the posting of this entry, the official nominations for Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award have not been made. We'll have to see if A Barefoot Dream is among them when they are announced tomorrow morning.

DB again---For those interested in seeing the next film in the series that's tomorrow January 25th. The film is Take Off a comedy based upon what happened when the Olympics went to Korea and they realized they needed to field a ski jumping team. With any luck I should be attending and a post will go up towards week's end. (I'd post it sooner but the Sabu series at the Japan Society starts Wednesday and I'm planning on attending that as well.)

On Further Review: Black Swan (2010)

By the time this posts I will have seen Black Swan three times. The first time was to see it because I wanted to see it. The second time was to see if my reaction to it the first time was in order and the third time was for this piece so I could remember the reason why it’s a film that really doesn’t belong in the Oscar race. This is not a great film but a grade C horror movie that if it didn't have a big director probably wouldn't have been taken seriously.

I’m going to mostly discount Natalie Portman’s performance in this. Even though I’m not a big fan of Portman, I don’t think it’s fair to pick on her or her performance. While I feel she isn’t completely right for the role, I don’t think my reservations are do to anything she does. I think any problems I do have are due entirely to director choices which have her starting in an uneasy and uncomfortable state and then pretty much staying with that one emotion through out. I don’t quite think it’s as bad as Jim Emerson said at the Scanners Blog on the Roger Ebert website that Portman had one emotion until the final few minutes when she then got a thirty second of another one, but I don't think it's good. On the other hand there are people who love Portman’s performance (she's won a Golden Globe) and how you react to the film will depend on how you take Portman, who is in pretty much every shot of the film.

Actually she’s not in every shot of the film, she’s in every close up of the film, because as anyone who has seen this movie knows this is a film of close ups. Pretty much the entire film is made up of shots of Natalie Portman from the waist up or higher. There are only a few medium or wide shots, its all close ups. This film is so intent on being in the face of Portman there are very few shots of any of the other characters except when they get close to her. It’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen in a movie. The whole film is pretty much just Portman’s face. That’s all fine and all but she’s not given anything to do. She is simply asked to look uncomfortable and she does. Yes, this creates and uneasy feeling but at the same time it becomes like looking at a statue or a painting for two hours with out changing your perspective by stepping forward or back or left or right; it's always the same basic view. While it's extremely claustrophobic after a while it gets real dull.
For me the notion of a film in close up is interesting, I think you could make a great film that way; but if you're going to do it why would you make one that is a ballet movie? Its a weird thing to do because you never really see anyone really dancing and the dance is vital since the plot hinges on the plot of the ballet. You see torsos and arms and you see feet, you see pieces but you never, well not ever, but almost never see whole people. The argument I’ve heard for that is that Portman was not a dancer so they had to cover for her, perhaps, but why cast her then? Neve Campbell was not a dancer when she worked with Robert Altman in The Company, but at least they showed her whole body.

I know differing effect, one is a drama, one is a proto-horror film, but at least the Company had a sense of people.

Speaking of horror, let’s talk about how clumsy Black Swan is in handling the tropes of a horror film.

To say that the film starts off over playing it’s hand is an understatement. From the first instant we are made uncomfortable by the shot choice, music and performances. There is no calm before the storm, its simply a storm that gets worse. That’s all well and good but if you don’t have a central character you can identify with and connect to the decent into madness is nothing we can sympathize with or be shocked by. In any good horror film of a similar nature you have to at least believe that the character that descends into madness isn’t crazy. Portman may not be padded room material but she is certainly on a high level of high strung . While not exactly the same think about films like Single White Female or Fatal Attraction where the woman who goes crazy, there is at least a moment or two where we believe that maybe they aren't nuts, that never happens here.

My next problem: The music is awful. It starts off gloom and doom and only gets worse. When the sex scene happens and the music became even more menacing I wasn’t certain how to react. Sure it was a “bad” thing to happen but didn’t Darren Aronofsky trust the audience to know that? Did he really have to beat us over the head with it?

Actually Aronofsky never seems to trust his audience at any point. I’m a fan of his films ( I'll be writing up The Fountain in a few weeks) but his work on this film is worse than many of the hack directors I’ve run across over the years. His handling of pretty much everything in this film is terrible. H's botched not only the technical aspects but also the themes in the film. Look at the whole theme of twinning and doubles that runs through everything, Aronofsky beats us over the head with it from the first subway ride to the final fade out. Are we so stupid that he has to direct us to seeing it in almost every instance?

It’s terrible.

I had a discussion with a friend recently about Aronofsky and horror. I don’t know how true it is, but he was telling me that Aronofsky has a great love of the genre but doesn’t have a feel for the genre as a director. He said that he’s been involved with a couple of horror films over the last few years but nothing came of them because his ideas didn’t match what the producers wanted. He said that David Twohy was brought in to direct Below because Aronofsky couldn’t get his script to work. I don’t know if any of it is true, but seeing what he’s done with Black Swan I’m not unwilling to accept the premise.

As I’ve said I’ve seen this film three times and each time it becomes clearer and clearer why the film doesn’t work, and trust me it doesn’t work if you really look at it. I keep picking out things that just don't work...or were done better in any number of low budget exploitation films.

It’s a mess.

It doesn’t deserve the acclaim.

On Further Review: Toy Story 3 (2010)

This week I'm taking a look at both a bunch of potential Oscar contenders and two Oscar winners. When this week was put together none of the nominations were known (the nominees are tomorrow). The first five films (The films today through Wednesday) are to me are some of the over rated films of the year. Thursday I take a look at last years Best Picture and Friday is a look at the original Rooster Cogburn, who is actually found to be deserving of his award.

(Warning this post will contain spoilers)

I know this is going to get the brick bats thrown at me but I really don't see what is so great about Toy Story 3 out side of a nostalgia for visiting old friends. Yes, it has a few moments, primarily at the end, but for the most part this film is a what were they thinking film. I could probably let it go and chalk it up to a matter of taste but with this film angled toward getting both an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film, as well as one for over all Best Picture when they are announced tomorrow I have to take a few moments to say very loudly You must be joking.

The plot of the film has Andy grown up enough to be heading off to college. His toys are boxed up and put away...or should have been and instead they are sent to a day care center which is ruled by an evil bear and his cronies. Woody, who was going to go with Andy to college and who can't really deal with the changing times has to find away of rescuing his friends and finding them a new home.

Pixar has made a dark little film about growing up and growing old. On a certain level they should be applauded for actually thinking that audiences will not run from a dark film. I personally never thought I'd see a Disney (okay Pixar) film with scenes as touching or as bleak as the hand holding as the toys wait for death in the conveyor belt finale. Of course they chicken out and they don't actually kill anyone off, but it's nice that they tried.

Unfortunately I have problems with the film.

The first thing I dislike is that the film seems artificial. I suspect that Pixar has wanted to do something daring and different for a while and that they saw their opportunity to do that with this film. I think they felt safe using the Toy Story characters because it allowed them a safety net. People will give them a bit of leeway they might not have allowed them other wise. I suspect that this drive to do something dark made them come up with a plot that is set up to hit certain points. Perhaps they said "We need to get across what its like to grow up and let go" and they went with it. But at the same time they had to make it family friendly. To me it would have been really ballsy to have the ending less certain, that maybe there is no happy ending over the hill and that sometimes people we love die. That never happens, there is a happy ending.

The up shot is none of it feels real. The plot feels as if its being manipulated.

No where is this more evident then in my biggest problem with the film, the total mentally diseased change in Woody. Where did this some from? How did Woody become so psycho? Every other character in the film seems to be on an arc from the first film, Woody seems to have gone off the rails. He's screams and runs around and acts as if someone has taken away his meds. Granted Woody has always been a bit high strung but here he's so much more tightly wound he seems about to explode at any second.

Why? What brought this on?

Its never really explained.

Had any of the other characters changed this might have made some sense, but they haven't so the attitude change makes no sense. Why has only he gone round the bend? I could have seen it had the toys been whittled away but they are more or less all there, and all in one piece.After all these years none of them have gone missing? Yes I know its only a movie but it's still pretty amazing that almost every toy from the previous films are still around and in good condition (it shouldn't have been like that)

Hasn't anyone noticed any of this? Hasn't it bothered anyone but me?

Apparently not, this is the most successful animated film of all time.

Okay, I'm nit picking but for a film that is trying very hard to tell a great emotional truth it can't get the surface details right, worse it has to radically stack the deck to get to that truth.

This is not the Best film of 2010, nor is it the best animated film.

(and yes I know the picture is from the second film but its the LGM's and they make me laugh so the picture went up)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Wild Blue Yonder (2005)

Werner Herzog's science fantasy about a trip to a far off planet. The plot concerns an alien played by Brad Dourif, who has come to this world from Andromeda when his world begins to die. He outlines the story of his time on earth and of our trip to his far off world.

Consisting of new footage by Herzog the film also contains a great deal of footage from a space shuttle mission as well as images from under the Antarctic ice (Herzog coming into possession of this footage lead to his making Encounters at the End of the World).

Its a strangely hypnotic film that's often a head trip as we are forced to look at our own world as something, somewhere than what it is. This is a heady mix of facts and fictions mixed with beautiful images set to some intriguing vocal and cello music (think Tibetan throat songs) . For much of the film the mix works as we begin to see believe that the aliens are here and that we sent a mission that went there.

The problem with the film is that there are long passages, particularly with the space shuttle stuff where its nothing but image and singing. It would be fine if there was a change of image but Herzog holds the images, say of an astronaut jogging, much too long. I don't why he felt the need to use all of the footage that was shot of some subjects. It will drive you to the point of slumber.

Which isn't to say the film is bad. Its not. The dialog, well monologue is very witty and contains some great quotes. It also presents a few facts, about distance and our ability to bridge it that is wickedly disheartening for people looking to jump in a ship one day and travel far away, while at the same time opening you up to the possibility of actually doing it.

Its a film that gets the mind going and opens you up to a great number of possibilities, which is the best thing I can say about any film.

Ultimately this is a movie that you will think about for a long time after you see it.

Currently out on DVD.

et tu IFC?

IFC has gone commercial.

Yes the once mighty IFC has started running commercial during their movies and programs. I'm not amused.

I noticed it when I saw they were running Soderbergh's Che in a six plus hour block.( the film runs about four and a half hours). So I switched it on and saw a commercial for a strainer that folds flat.


Sure they still have their In Theaters service and they are still a big distributor of independent and foreign language films, but their flagship station now runs commercials.


In fairness I haven't been a big watcher of the station since they started in with the various TV series reruns. I was not a fan of their own non-film programs either. at the same time they were always the channel I could turn to for something interesting.

I'm guessing the merger with Sundance had something to do with it. Though even Sundance is now becoming heavy with TV shows, whats up with that? (Girls Who Love Boys Who Love Boys really need to be on Sundance because? And I'll ask the same of pretty much anything other than Iconoclasts)

Who is programing these stations and can we stop them?

I suppose I should be happy that their HD service isn't reconfiguring non-widescreen films, and has stopped running washed out and well worn prints any more, but the cost of having that being commercials breaking up the films is too much.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lessons in Darkness (1992)

Werner Herzog went to Kuwait to see the fires that burned after the first Gulf War. Filming the unearthly sights he formulated a new way of seeing the events and put it together in such away that the film is a visit to an alien world.

Leave it to Werner Herzog to make a film that is about it's subject and isn't. To be certain the sights and sounds are of the Kuwaiti fires, however Herzog's narration make the film into something else. His comments both reflect on what we are seeing and turn it on it's head...and make them exactly right on target all over again.

This is a hypnotic film that I love to put on and fall into. I turn off the lights and go somewhere else. It's a film that messes with the mind and gets the grey cells going. Its amazing at how easy it is to convince ourselves that we are aliens.

This is a perfectly constructed film. Its a 50 minute head trip that runs just long enough that it never loses its grip on it's audience. I've seen most of the films that Werner Herzog has made, with the highest percentage being his documentaries. As much as I love Herzog's films I'll be the first to admit that sometimes he has things run on too long. Here that's not the case. This film starts where it should and ends the same way. Its perfect.

Currently out on DVD this is a great way to spend an hour. If you want a full evening I suggest a second Herzog film or another film that takes you on a head trip somewhere- perhaps tomorrows film.

Friday, January 21, 2011

7 Keys to Baldpate- A discussion of the classic tale that includes spoilers

It began as a story by Earl Derr Biggers who created Charlie Chan. It was then turned into a play by George M Cohan. It has been the source of at least 8 official movie versions with 3 silent, 4 sound and one for TV. I've seen all of the sound versions and all are fun on one level or another and all are worth taking the time to see if you see them.

The plot is now so incredibly worn out as to be beyond cliche: a writer makes a bet that he can write a novel in 24 hours, so he goes to Baldplate manor, which is empty. The writer is told he has the only key, the trouble is that people keep showing up, all claiming to have the only key.

The first sound version was in 1929 and starred Richard Dix. At times it resembles a filmed stage play with the camera never seeming to show "the fourth wall" and a set that doesn't feel real. Allowing for that this is probably the best version of the story that I've seen. At no point did I forget I knew the story, however the performances are such that it's clear that everyone is having a good time. This version is also in love with the language and its filled with lots of great dialog that keeps things moving even if the play is stage bound. Best of all the film keeps the set up of the story- the writer and his publisher making the bet that sets everything in motion since it draws us into the action better then our just being dropped into the action, which is what happens in the next two versions.

The next two versions, one from 1935 and the other in 1947 are very close to being the same movie. Watching the 1935 version several years after I saw the 1947 version I was hard pressed to remember if I was seeing the wrong version of the film. The visual style is similar with the events set in a huge old dark inn. Both versions are also wildly jokey to the point of distraction.

The 1935 version would probably be the better of the middle sound versions of the story except that Gene Raymond who plays the writer is way too knowing. He walks through the events with a smirk on his face as if he is aware of what is going on complete wrecking any notion of danger. Frankly if Raymond had played it straight this might have been one of the great old dark house mysteries of the the 1930's. Now its just an okay little mystery.

The 1947 is a good version but it suffers from too much humor. Yes, the source story is full of humor, the story being one of the ones that started the comedy mystery genre, but here everything is a bit too jokey. Sure its fun and enjoyable but it kind of just misses being great because the filmmakers were being a tad to jokey in what they were doing. You never feel the danger that should be lurking in the shadows.

The most recent official version of the story is probably the weakest. Peter Walkers House of the Long Shadows (1983) is an updating of story.Here Desi Arnez Jr is the writer who goes to an old dark house to write a novel in 24 hours. The film is a workman like exercise that is under cut by a weak lead actor (sorry Desi) and the fact that the color photography never really paints the mood the way it should. The film just sort of is there. The film's only real claim to fame is the supporting cast Vincent Price, John Carradine, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing all together for the only time on screen. Its more a gimmick then anything with most of the performances little more than fleeting cameos. However if you're a fan of actors any time on screen is worth a look.

As I said should you run across any versions of this classic story and its a dark and stormy night you may want to consider curling up on the couch and giving them a go.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The Warrior's Way (2010)

I debated reviewing this film here. Its a good little film and not a great one. Lately when I've been picking films I've been choosing films that I have a mad passion for one reason or another. Most of the films have been "Oh yea I have to do that film". The thing is that its easy to do the mad passion films. Those are the films that will get talked about and not really get lost. The Warriors Way is not a mad passion film. Its a film that is good for what it is namely curling up on the couch on a Saturday night and just vegging. Its also the sort of film that is going to get lost. Its a film that's doomed to be forgotten and fall into the cracks. It doesn't deserve that. This blog was started to point out films that are in those cracks, so with that in mind I present my review of the genre mashing The Warriors Way.

Kung Fu Spaghetti Western about a warrior from the East sparing the life of a baby of an opposing clan and fleeing to the American West with the baby in tow.

Its a form over content film that mixes genres and styles into something that is going to be loved by some and hated by others then again depending upon mood ones attitude may change.

The visual style is very much a manga infused style that comes from doing the film on blue/ green screen backgrounds. Everything is real, yet hyper-stylized. We are dealing with archetypes and characters and not really real people which is fine. Arguing against the film because it isn't realistic is kind of missing the point, this is the cinematic equivalent of a boo hiss vaudeville show.

The film riffs and borrows from dozens of films both from the east and west. From Lone Wolf and Cub, to Django, to 300 to Casshern to Immortel to well take your pick.

I like it but I don't love it. Part of the reason it didn't really work for me is Kate Bosworth who gives too mannered a performance at times. She's clearly trying but if she hadn't tried so hard it would have been better.

The other problem with the film is that the form over content makes the plot kind of optional at times. The final half hour of the film is a two part battle first between the towns folk and cowboys and then between the cowboys and ninjas. Its great fun but at the same time I kind of wished there was more meat to the story so that I cared about more than the leads. (I will give the film points for not making the ninjas invincible and susceptible to bullets)

I do think it's worth seeing, however I'm kind of torn in that the vistas look good on the big screen but the film isn't really worth paying full movie prices. Worth a look when this hits DVD and cable.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Capsule reviews 1/19/11

Today a couple of Quick looks at some films that were nominated for the best Foreign Language Oscar but didn't win

Baader-Mienhoff Complex
Mostly straight forward look at the terrorist group known officially known as the Red Army Faction but is best known as the Baader Meinhoff Gang thanks to press coverage. Actually the film follows the story of the group from its founding in the wake of several events in 1967 until the death in prison of the initial group of members during about the period that was known as The German Autumn in 1977(the organization lasted a further 21 years). A very good very gripping film the film sheds a great deal of light on the group and their activities For me the group was something frequently mentioned in the news but nothing I actually knew anything about until I saw this film. One thing I read on line about the film said that in Germany the film had the effect of deflating the public perception of the group as anti-heroes and revealed them to be misguided slackers (if you think about it, they were slackers since they talked a great deal but didn't do as much as other groups. the leaders spending a great deal of time in prison). While I don't find it to be a great film it is one I like a great deal. I have to say that I found after I read about the group after seeing the film that I liked it more. The film definitely plays better the more you know about the group and what was going on in Germany at the time they were operating. What I found interesting is that when coupled with the recent miniseries Carlos is that I really got the sense that the life of a terrorist is really kind of pointless. its sitting around talking extreme politics with no practical application followed by stints of getting pissed off because the police are hunting you down for blowing things up. What a bunch of misguided morons. Definitely worth a look

From the director of Barber of Siberia comes a version of 12 Angry Men set in Russia. Instead of a boy and a knife its a Chechen boy who kills his step father. The film is pretty much exactly the same, it's 12 men in a room, in this case a gym converted to a jury room, talking about the case that they are deciding, though with the political implications of one of the Russian wars looming over everything. As someone who doesn't like the original film version of the story I found this film to be a revelation. The rigid structure of the Sydney Lumet film was restructured into something less formal. To be certain everyone follows similar paths with some expected character arcs, it takes a while before you can pick out who is going to be which character, which is nice since it makes clear that the film is an expansion of the original tale not a simple retread. What floored me was that the first time I saw the film I did so with out subtitles. I had picked up the film in New York before the US DVD release in a Russian store and had been told it had subtitles. When I got home I found it didn't. Being too lazy to go back into the city I decided to tough it out and just watch it. Strangely I got into it. The story isn't far off from the original that you can't follow what is happening. Also the fact that the actors involved are some of the best working in Russia today helps to put the whole thing over. To be certain I got more on the second time through with subtitles but the fact that I could watch and understand with out speaking a word of Russian says a great deal. A great film.

Four Months Three Weeks and Two Days (2007)
This one I'm cheating on, because it wasn't nominated for an Oscar. Actually this film caused a minor firestorm because it was received with such love and affection by the critical and film community in the US that the controversy sparked a change of sorts in the Oscar voting. The film is a small little gem from Romania about what happens when a woman decides to get an abortion during the bad old days of the communists. Told in long takes we watch as the women go to a hotel to wait for the abortionist and what happens after that. Its not sensationalistic, it just sort of is. Its a warts and all slice of life about the back alley ways that women have to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. The film also shows us the society where this sort of thing happens when the friend of the woman having the abortion leaves to meet her own boyfriend and she is ignored and abused. Its a harrowing little film. Is it the greatest thing since sliced bread? No. I wouldn't have put it on my best of the year list (though I will be perfectly honest and say that the controversy surrounding the film created an unbelievable hype and expectation that was impossible to live up to.) It is a damn fine drama that is oddly chilling in it's matter of factness.

100 Years of Horror/ A Century of Science Fiction

Today I'm going to take a look at two multi-part TV series that may never have played on TV. One is the history of horror films, the other science fiction films. Both run 26 episodes, however both also have radically reduced versions that run two hours. Needless to say the short versions are not the way to go.

100 Years of Horror
Ted Newsome put together an amazing, if awkward history of horror films. The history runs across 26 half hour episodes that seem to have been intended to run as a series. I don't know if any station actually ran the series, it doesn't really matter since the series is currently out on DVD from Passport Video.

The series is hosted by Christopher Lee who appears in host segments and who supplies the voice over narration. Lee makes for an interesting host with the narration he's given to deliver being both informative and wickedly funny. The only flaw with Lee's narration is that when you watch the series in large blocks of episodes you notice that some of the narration is repeated.

Actually some of the footage repeats from episode to episode, which is understandable since the film clips shown are taken from public domain film trailers and TV series. I know some people who don't like the series since the use of public domain means that the series mostly concentrates on films before 1970. On the other hand if you like the classic horror films this series is a real treat, I mean where else are you going to see Boris Karloff singing?

I'm not going to lie and say that the series is perfect. If you watch the episodes willie nilly or you don't watch the series in its entirety it came feel like its random and not very good. However if you are willing to take the time and watch the entire series something wonderful happens and its seeming random bits begin to fit together. Bits from one episode that seem not to mean anything connect to something in another episode and and you find that you are suddenly going "Ah ha!" a great deal. Suddenly what looks to be a scatter shot mess is instead found to be a wonderful whole. I love this series and I often revisit it because the odd construction makes this a something you need to see repeatedly so that you pick up all the things you missed the last time through.

A must for anyone who loves the history of horror films.

A Century of Science Fiction
Another series of 26 episodes that cover a variety of subjects relating to the science fiction genre.

Like the above series this one is constructed from trailers and other sources of a public domain origin. However where the horror series peters out with films from the late 1960's, this film goes well into the 1980's or early 1990's.

Arranged more according to subject rather with any sort of history limited to how a subject, say the end of the world or aliens, played out over time, this series plays well if you simply catch a show here or there.

For lovers of monsters and spaceships this is like an overload of candy. Its all the best parts rolled into one. Its the sort of thing that will make you want to go out and watch all of the films again.

A must see.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Les Adventures Extraordinaires d'Adele Blanc Sec (2010)

Luc Besson goes farther and farther past his once imposed limit of films he said he's direct with an adaption of a French Comic book series. The trailer showed mummies and a dinosaur and I was chomping at the bit to see it.

I'm sure it's going to show up in the US at some point-some day- but I couldn't wait. I picked up the DVD from Amazon France. The plus side I got to see the movie. The down side I have no frigging clue what the film's details were about because there is no English translations.

Did that matter?

Yea, but what I saw amused the hell out of me that I'm looking forward to seeing the film with the words translated. (at least that way I won't have to wait until the end to know what was going on)

The plot of the film has something to do with Adele uncovering some sort of nefarious nonsense in Egypt. Meanwhile a mysterious force hatches a Pterosaurs in a Paris museum. Beyond that I don't have a clue since the neat visual pieces are linked by dialog in a language I don't speak.(There is also something to do with her sister who is in a coma due to a tennis accident)

Some of the colorful characters reminded me very much of Tintin and I can only hope that the Tintin movie looks as good as this.

I suspect that the non-gratuitous nude scene may bollocks the American release since the film appears to be solidly PG rated otherwise.

I have read a couple of reviews of the film which liked it, but didn't love it saying that the film is a bit unfocused (I think the film is actually based on 2 unrelated tales from the comic- but I could be wrong). Based on what I can understand the film does seem to be unfocused- then again I'll take it since some of the twists, such as the rescue by dinosaur isn't something you see every day- especially in pre-WW1 France.

Flawed or not definitely worth a look
(A region 3 version of the film is coming out the week of January 27 in Asia and can be had from Yes Asia for about 20 bucks)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Robots of Ripley (aka The Death of Sensation) (1935)

Sinister Cinema has done a great service to film lovers of all stripes by making the Soviet film Robots of Ripley (aka The Death of Sensation) available to anyone who wants to see possibly the most visually impressive science fiction film of the 1930’s. This is a film who’s visuals should be as talked about as those in films like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which this film seems to echo at times. It’s a film with robots which, while not as elegant as Metropolis’s Maria, certainly puts any other robot to shame (especially the ones in the cheesy American movie serials I love so much.)

The film is set in an unnamed capitalist country. In the factory where he works, the inventor Ripley is worried about the toll being taken by the assembly lines on the workers. Something has to be done. Sitting in a night club he sees a woman with puppets and forms the idea about making men of metal. Moving from a small scale robot on to ones that are about 10 to 12 feet tall Ripley makes an army of metal men that are the joy of the evil money men and the bane of the workers who see their jobs going the way of the wind. Is revolt not far off?

Let me get the painful part out of the way, the class warfare angle is terrible. The film stops periodically for long discussions angled toward explaining what is really good for the workers and all mankind. I’m not sure what exactly is said I don’t speak Russian (Sinister hasn’t subtitled the film, they only put in occasional narrative titles that explain what is going on), but from what I can understand from the few words I do know and from the context of the scenes it’s the old struggle between the classes. The film effectively stops during these sequences since the film becomes little more than people standing around talking. I suspect that the director wasn’t thrilled with these sequences either since those don’t have the visual flair of the rest of the film. If you are willing to suffer through the talk you’ll be rewarded by a film that will really please the eye with it’s gee whiz and oh wow factors.

Where do I begin to discuss the joys of this film?

Perhaps by saying that the black and white cinematography is some of the most beautiful you’re ever likely to see. Every shot is portrait and worthy of framing. The landscapes are amazing and the shots of the characters seem more like portraiture then shots from a film. It’s a film that look and feels like the finest silent film photography. Even the sequences in the night club or in the capitalist enclaves have the style and scale you only see in the big scale European silents.

The robots themselves are these big huge clunky things that look like the Mr Machine toy but way cooler. They are steam punk and industrial practical combined. As odd as they look they are the sort of things that weirdly make some sort of sense. They are also something you can’t take your eyes off of. I kept wanting to see more and more of the robots.(which bear a large RUR on their chests even though the film has nothing to do with the Karl Capek play). You know that the small robot is a man in a suit but the big ones make you ponder what exactly they did. Yes, the arms are at about a mans height but its clearly not just a man in a suit- and even then they don’t have normal hands.

The film is filled will wonderful sequences that delight. The opening shots of the city are just beautiful. The surreal factory with the turn table work stations where the accident that sparks Ripley to make the robots is weird and surreal. You have the first sequence in the night club which seems to be more something out of a German film from the 20’s then a Soviet film. Its jazzy and smokey and full of great faces. You have the girl who just stares and the men who try to look at her. We have the woman with the garish puppets that inspire Ripley. The sequence where Ripley unveils the huge robots to the captains of industry is an amazing set piece of growing wonder. Sinister Cinema in the write up for the film mentions the wonderful scene where Ripley is drunk and using his saxophone (the robots are controlled by sound) gets the robots moving in a weird dance that starts off awkward and builds into something that will make you wonder why the film and the sequence has been hidden from view (in a weird way that one sequence is worth the price of admission.) After that we have the sequences of the robots working and finally the battle between man and machine that kind of reminded me of bits from the Terminator films, only with the robots being controlled by other men and not Skynet.

I suspect that even the most jaded film fan will be amazed, I was….

This is a film that needs to be seen, for its pieces if not for it’s whole (even if as I said the politics make some of this a tough go).

Gregg Luce and Sinister need to be thanked for bringing this film to light.

See this film if you can. Sinister has it for sale, and hopefully it will show up elsewhere, preferably in film festivals.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Grave of Fireflies (1988)

Roger Ebert calls Grave of Fireflies one of the greatest anti-war films ever made…. I think he’s selling it short…. I think Grave of Fireflies is one of the greatest films ever made


Certainly the film is better than the two live action versions of the story that have been made since this was made.

The film was directed by Isao Takahata who along with Hayao Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli. Takahata is a vastly under rated director who has unjustly lived in the shadow of Miyazaki. To me the fact that he did this film instantly makes him among the best directors ever. Luckily he made other films (Little Norse Prince, My Neighbors The Yamadas, Pom Poko, Goshu The Violinist among others) which may not reach the height of this film still prove he's not a one trick pony.

This film tells the story of a young boy and his younger sister as they struggle to survive in Japan in the waining days of the war. How their lives spiral out and away from them is the story....

...and it is a story that will leave you emotionally drained and broken. This is the pain and suffering of war on a very human level. What is the cost of war? Here it is laid out. This is, as Roger Ebert has said a great anti war film, but the film transcends that. There is something about the film that makes the story something more than just a war film. There is something about the way that director Takahata tells the story that makes really about our struggles to survive. I can't tell you what it is, but it's there and it's a magical thing.

You need to see this film.

Everyone in the world needs to see this film at least once in their lives. Its a film that has changed everyone who's ever seen it.

See this.

Just see it.

Only keep a HUGE box of tissues near by since it will reduce you to tears and very likely uncontrolled sobbing.

Yea, it's one of those.

Currently out on on DVD.