Thursday, March 31, 2011

It Came From Hollywood (1982)

Because of a rights issue It Came From Hollywood is damn near impossible to see. It was supposed to get a DVD release a few years ago but the knotty issue of the right to use the clips rose up and the discs were withdrawn just as they were to be released. A few escaped but now if you want to see this very funny movie you either have to dig out your old laser disc, VHS tape, or pray that one of the odd cable stations runs it.

The film is a collection of choice clips from “bad” movies introduced and kidded by Gilda Radner, Dan Akroyd, John Candy and Cheech & Chong. The clips are from every type of movie imaginable with titles like Prince Of Space, Monsoon, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies, Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes, and of course the films of Ed Wood.

The films clips are grouped together by subjects such as BRAINS. After a title the films are introduced by one of the stars who does a little sketch before providing some pithy dialog. The clips and the narration are the subject of much mirth. In a weird way the film is a kind of forerunner to Mystery Science Theater 3000, except that the riffing is over a clip instead of a whole film.

I love this movie a great deal. I've seen it so many times I've lost count. I know that when it was in theaters my brothers and I would make regular pilgrimages to whichever local cinema was running it to see it.

In all honesty I've seen most of the films in this film straight and many of them do play better with the ribbing.

If you can find a copy do so. This is a great party film and one of the best comedies out there.

(An aside. There is a weird shootout between Sydney Toler and another man where we watch as the two shoot slowly at each other. Bang....bang...bang....bang....and on and on until someone falls down dead. It looks like the people behind It Came From Hollywood played with the footage to draw the sequence out. Well, surprise, that's the way it is. Find yourself a copy of the film Monsoon directed by Edgar Ulmer and you'll see what I'm talking about.)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Grin Without A Cat (1977)

I saw the director's re-cut version that removed an hour of material from the film's original four hour running time (something director Chris Marker said needed to be done).

The film opens with one of the most stunning things ever put on film; footage of political protests and violence inter-cut with the Odessa Steps sequence from the Battleship Potemkin. As one comment I read pondered, was Sergei Eisenstein that ahead of the curve that he mapped out what political violence would look like in the future, or has that always been the way its looked? I don't know. Next the film moves on to show a US pilot describing in detail what he's doing and why it's "outstanding" to Napalm the people of Vietnam. If that doesn't rattle your cage little will.

From there the film moves on to various political protests and wars around the world, and we're left to ponder what it all means. Director Marker plays no favorites and in a way every side comes off looking less then perfect. He simply shows us the footage, lets the people speak for themselves, and uses various other voices for narration.

I'm still pondering what it all means. I know watching a three hour movie around midnight was a bad thing to do, but this is a film you fall into. It drags you along as you kick and scream at it because you don't want to think at the level that this film asks you to. I'm not sure what I make of it all, and I know that I'll need to go through this a couple more times, but I'm glad I've seen it and have been forced to confront its issues.

On a personal note: I watched Chicago 10, in the middle of watching the parts of this film and I found that Marker's film changed the way I see the anti-war protests of the 1960's. Chicago 10 is about the trial that followed the riots during the Democratic Convention in 1968. Seeing part of Grin before Chicago 10, it suddenly becomes clear that as much as what happened in Chicago was important (in that it started things moving toward the end of Vietnam and other events), it was also something that in the grand scale of things didn't have huge stakes. You didn't have the Soviet Army marching in to retake control of Prague. You didn't have the political violence that was going on in Bolivia or Africa or elsewhere. While elsewhere in the world you had people dealing with the political ramifications of their actions on a one to one level, here in the US you had Abbey Hoffman and several other members of the Chicago Ten treating it all as if it was a joke on some level. Yes there was injustice and violence, but not so many people were dying and no one was tying Hoffman to a chair and torturing him for the hell of it. I'm not one to take things seriously, but at the same time in the face of what was going on elsewhere in the world the jokes really come off as ill advised. For me, who was raised to see Hoffman and many of the Chicago Ten as heroes of a sort, seeing them in action, especially in light of other political movements, kind of make them seem like rich jerks.

Clearly A Grin Without A Cat has changed how I see the world. See it and have your world view changed as well.

The Maltese Bippy (1969)

While I am a HUGE fan of Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, the fantastic comedic series from the late 1960's that changed the face of television, the movie that it spawned, well, isn't quite up to snuff. A mildly amusing little romp, the "plot" centers around Dick Martin's character thinking he's turning into a werewolf, while his fast-buck seeking partner, played by Dan Rowan, looks for a way to capitalize on this feat of lycanthropy...which he has yet to actually witness. Along the way, you can play "spot the late 1960's/early 1970's celebs", by looking for Robert Reed (father Mike Brady of The Brady Bunch), Dana Elcar (FBI Agent Polk in The Sting), Leon Askin (General Burkhalter from Hogan's Heroes), Alan Oppenheimer (one of those "I know that guy" guys), and, starring as "the most interesting thing to look at in the film", Julie Newmar (one of the actresses to portray Catwoman in the Adam West Batman TV series). Newmar does look absolutely fantastic in this picture, which helps to pass the time, as the movie itself is really nothing to write home about.

Perhaps the most interesting thing in the flick, aside from Newmar, is how Rowan & Martin are cast against type. In this movie, Rowan is the zany, carefree, hare-brained scheme hatcher, and Martin is essentially the straight man who seems to be the victim of what goes on around him...basically the opposite of their comedy team and Laugh-In personas. You get to see a little bit of their "normal" act as the opening credits roll, and, unfortunately, that's one of the better segments of the movie. I wanted to like this more than I ultimately did, but perhaps someone who doesn't have the same affinity for Laugh-In wouldn't be left wanting more as much as I was. Alas, I think someone unfamiliar with Laugh-In would actually be more confused as to why these 2 guys were given a movie in the first place.

Turn off the brain, don't expect too much, and enjoy from a nostalgic point of view. And just keep ogling Julie Newmar. It helps.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Warner Archive Collection: The MGM Our Gang Films

For those of us who grew up watching the Little Rascals or Our Gang comedies on TV there were only a certain number of films that were in the rotations. Based upon a recent release of the best known comedies there were something close to 70 shorts in the rotation, but in actuality the number was smaller since some of them seemed to be run all the time while others never were. Looking at books on the films as a kid I knew that it started as a silent series and then continued on. There were silents, the films in the TV package (from the advent of sound to when Hal Roach sold the series to MGM), and there were the later films which we never really saw, except as an odd airing as part of a time filler for a too short feature film. For anyone who saw and loved the TV films the chance to see the MGM films became a quest akin to looking for the Holy Grail.

The wait is over. Warner Brothers, as part of their archive collection, has put out a multi DVD set collecting the final 52 Little Rascal shorts. It's both a cause for celebration and for disappointment. The celebration is because they are at last out in their entirety, disappointment because as the reference books said they aren’t very good. Some of them are, especially when taken on their own terms. However before I talk about the joys let me talk about the problems.

The problems with the MGM series come from a couple of different points. None of them make the individual shorts bad, it just makes watching all of the films a potential long haul if you are going to do so in a limited number of sittings. Most of the shorts will work if you watch one or two at a time but the films can be a chore if you try to do a disc or more at a time. The biggest problem is that MGM stopped making individual hand crafted films and made them machine-like. If you watch the films in the set (they are ordered chronologically), you’ll notice that they cycle through in roughly a series of four with two being random, one set in the clubhouse, and one is a musical. The musicals went from “Let's put on a show” to just a performance with no context. If you love movie musicals blindly you’ll love these shorts, but for me the musicals were a real chore to get through; if nothing else the music is not very good. MGM made things even more machine-like than just repeating plot order by having many of the films follow a template, making the progression of the story almost exactly the same from film to film. The failure for them to work as a group is simply that watching them en masse is that you realize they are all plug and play. It's a situation that runs for six minutes then shifts to something else for the final two. It's a resolution that more often then not comes from left field.

Another problem is that Alfalfa (Carl Switzer) grows increasingly annoying. If you watch the progression of the series you’ll notice that his screen time varies and that during some of the music numbers he’s the only one around. The reason seems to be that even though he was under contract the studio, the actors, and the tech people grew to hate him. Somewhere along the way the self-centered, cocksure attitude that the character had became that of Switzer. Worse, Switzer developed a need to play jokes and disrupt things. It got so bad that they were doing multiple takes on a scale only matched by Stanley Kubrick because he was screwing around. If you watch one of the last films he appeared in calledAuto Antics (1939), you can see that the film is full of shots that don’t match and that takes end in break-ups or problems. The studio simply forced their way through the shoot and used whatever they had. When Switzer was done with his contract he was told he was done and that there was not going to be an extension, and he was effectively consigned to oblivion...only to do the odd role and then reappear briefly in a series of films as a late teen with several others from the Rascals who were too old. The series went nowhere and Switzer was back to the occasional role before his violent death several years later, making him a poster boy for the perils of child stardom.

Enough with the negative, what's positive about the set?

First off simply being able to see these long hidden shorts is a blast. As I said at the top if you love the best known shorts, it's great to see more films with the characters.

While many of the films are a bit rocky in their construction, if you take them on their own terms and watch the bits as bits, and not worry about a story with a beginning middle and end, you'll find that the jokes are wonderful. For example the chase in Auto Antics is wonderful and worth the effort to see. Alfalfa's Aunt is an amusing story of misunderstanding involving a murder mystery. Goin' Fishin is basically one long gag about taking a bus to go fishing and is very funny (it's also a prime example of why the films are good and not great; once it's set up the plot stops for the variations on a theme).

To be honest there is one near perfect short in the bunch and shows what the series could have been if a bit more care had been given in the scripting. Little Miss Pinkerton is one of the last shorts and it's one of the best. It concerns a window display that contains a mystery that could be solved for a prize. As things go along a murder happens and the kids get caught up in the middle of it. It's a solid mystery with a plot that has a beginning, middle, and end. It's probably the best film in the set and it's sad it came so late in the series. It's strong enough that, taken along with the good shorts, this one great film makes the set worth getting.

If you're a fan you'll want to track these down and watch them. Just go with the flow, understand some are better than others, and remember you can skip to the next one.

Worth a look.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Mon Mon The Water Spider and House Hunting (Both 2006)

As part of the Japan NYC series (that was co-presented by the Japan Society and Carnegie Hall), they screened two of the "Ghibli Museum Only" films created by animator Hiyao Miyazaki, Mon Mon The Water Spider and House Hunting. In theory you're not supposed to be able to see any of the eight films created for the museum anywhere except at the museum, but now and again there are screenings outside of the museum, and outside of Japan. A few years back the New York International Children's Film Festival ran two of the shorts (one of which was Whale Hunt), but for the most part any screenings are rare.

I'm not going to go into a discussion of the screening itself, not get into details concerning the films; you can check out Randi's blog post for details on that.

Instead I'd like to talk about the films themselves.

House Hunting is a film best described as an experiment. There is no dialog (well other than a thank you), no music, and no real sound effects (though the sounds appear written on screen and there are vocalizations by two actors). The style of animation is best described as manga influenced. It's the story of a girl (in the notes she's called Fuki, but since there are no words there is no clue in the film) who packs up all of her possessions and walks off on a trip to find a new home (again it's only explained in the notes and nowhere else; for all we know from only watching the film this could just be a hike in the wilderness). As she walks through the countryside and forest she stops here and there offering gifts of food to the various spirits she meets along the way.

It's a charming, but lightweight and breezy little film that was for me a trifle. It's got some great moments, some nice character design (including a creature best described as a feral Totoro), but it doesn't add up to much. You'll laugh, you'll smile, but it's nothing I'd go back and see for itself. It's nice, but as a stand alone film there isn't much to it. Had that been the only film screened I would have been really annoyed.

Fortunately it wasn't...

Mon Mon The Water Spider is one of the best Studio Ghibli films I've seen (and I've seen most of them). It's a wonderful romance. It's a visual feast. It's one of the best films I've seen in 2011 and I'm really pissed off that this isn't on DVD or in wide circulation so I can share it.

The plot of the film follows Mon Mon, a water spider, as he builds his underwater nest, collects oxygen, eats, and tries not to be eaten by bigger animals. One day he spies a female water strider gliding across the surface of the water. He is smitten and begins to think about her. She really wants nothing to do with him...but one day circumstance puts her in danger and Mon Mon has to go to her rescue.

That maybe telling you too much, but I think not. I'm guessing that you could probably figure that much on your own. Truthfully it wouldn't matter since the way the film is done, I could probably tell you everything and you'd still be blown away by it.

A masterpiece of art both in the animated and the still image mediums (the individual images in this are beyond spectacular), this is a film that shows how grand animated films can be. It's a film that should rank with the greatest works of art from across the ages. (And stop going "eeww, but spiders are icky"; you haven't met Mon Mon)

Okay, forget the high art talk, let me come back to earth and just say this is a wonderful little love story. It's a fifteen minute romance that is so much more touching and emotional than most two hour Hollywood romances. When was the last time that you just sat there smiling from ear to ear and had your heart strings plucked and stroked? When was the last time you saw a mismatched romance that felt good and right and just worked in a believable sort of way? (Okay it's a cross species romance but you know what I mean)

I loved this film.

It's the sort of thing that made me happy to have spent 15 bucks to see two movies that ran half an hour. Hell, I would have spent more than that just to see Mon Mon, which is saying a lot considering how few films there are that I would spend even a dollar to see.

If you can manage to see either of these films, and especially Mon Mon, do so. The likelihood of that happening I know is small outside of going to Japan and the Ghibli museum (there is a note in the Carnegie Hall Program which reads: "The Ghibli Museum has advised that all requests for further screenings outside of the Ghibli Museum in Japan must regrettably be declined"), but hope springs eternal and quite frankly I never thought I'd get the opportunity to even see this screening.

Until then consider these mostly Unseen Films.

(A HUGE Thank you to John for taking the above picture on his I-phone and sending me it to me. It's from the poster that was outside of the screening and spared me from having to choose which picture to use for the post; simple use the one Carnegie Hall chose)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Zatoichi (2003)

Takeshi Kitano's take on the legendary character of Zatoichi is a great film.

As the lead character Zatoichi (a blind massause who is also one hell of a great swordsman) wanders the countryside, he helps an older lady carry a load. She allows him to stay the night and before long he's involved with the lives in the nearby town, and two sets of travelers who are there for their own purposes.

That's about the best description of the plot that you can get without revealing too much about what's going on in the movie. The danger is not in you knowing what's going on, rather it's the joy of finding out as the film progresses what all the stories are. The stories are told in a disjointed, almost haphazard sort of way, much like the memories they are. The flashback device is both a strength and the film's only real flaw, in that at times we can't be certain for a good portion of the flashback when it's occurring. It's a bit jarring and while I'm certain it will play better on later viewings, here on the first viewing, it kept breaking the spell.

The spell that the film weaves is unique, which is fitting as this is a truly unique film. How many other "samurai" films end with a huge tap dance number? The movie is funny and touching; at times very serious, at others considerably less so. There are explosions of violence and times when nothing happens for a stretch. It tells a simple story of a town overrun by criminals but it also asks you to consider other issues, like what would you do to survive?

The film is very bloody, but not overly so, especially considering that all of the fights involve edged weapons and that Takeshi strove for a realism of sorts by having the battles over almost before they start. There are limbs and blood flying about.

I really like this film simply because it confounds your expectations. It doesn't go and do what you want when you want. There are one or two things I thought were being built up for a punchline, but it never came. There are also a couple of times when I thought things were over but they kept going. This film has a rhythm all its own. There is a music, literally, in what happens on screen, be it farming, training, building, or dancing. It is what it is and makes no apologies for it.

If you love movies, samurai, offbeat or otherwise just see this movie. It will probably stay with you well after you see it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

NYICFF Shorts One and Two PLUS two by Miyazaki at Carnegie Hall

The final weekend of the New York International Children's Film Festival was a double feature of short film programs, and that was followed up by a showing at Carnegie Hall of two films by Hayao Miyazaki that have never screened outside of Japan. Some of these were among the best films I've seen this year so far.


Quiet sedate screening early this morning began strong and ended weakly.

The screening began with Don't Go. I posted a link last weekend to this. It's a very funny film about a one eyed pink guy who plays with a cat. It's set to the title song by Yaz.

Little Boy And The Beast is one of the best films of the year. The story of what happens when we turn into beasts. It's a magical look nominally at divorce, but actually is any sort of parental depression. I loved it. I wish I could have shown this to my mom because the beasts very much reminded me of her, both in appearance and demeanor, in the year or so before she died when she was in the depths of depression. It's a masterpiece of animation and storytelling.

Gravityis a musical little film where it's all the sound of falling objects. It's an amusing trifle that had the audience screaming with laughter.

Minnie Loves Junior is a sweet film about a young boy who is in his own little world in a coastal town. He is loved by a young girl. How they come together is the gist of film. The young girl who played Minnie is a revelation and if there is any justice we will be seeing a great deal of her over the upcoming decades...yes, she's that good.

The Deep is animator Pes' look at animals of the deep. It's all done with tools. As a technical achievement it's one of the most amazing things you'll ever see. As a film beyond that it's okay. Thankfully it's only two minutes long so it never wears out its welcome.

Fluffy McCloud is an amusing film about a cloud who uses his power to rain to annoy a certain sunbather and ends up causing chaos. He then decides to do the right thing. Lots of fun.

Tigers And Tattoos is about Maj who lives with her Uncle Sonny, a tattoo artist. She wants a real family, and Sonny will be happy to try and find one for her, but when Maj ends up tattooing a sleeping customer the pair has to take it on the lam. A great looking film, it's wildly over-long and poorly written. It just didn't work for me and several others in the audience who felt the flaws outweighed the charms. I've spoken about how I don't like when subtitles are read out loud, and if you ever want to see why it's not s fun thing see the version they screened today with a single voice reading all of the text. It made a fair film seem worse.

After that there was an hour break. I went for a short walk around the neighborhood.


Waiting for the films to start the kids around me were talking how much they loved The Storytelling Show which I saw last weekend.

Dot is an Aardman produced film about a young girl running from an unraveling thread. It's an amazing animated film since it was filmed on a microscopic level. It's just really cool, especially when you see how it was done.

Marcel The Shell With The Shoes On is an Internet sensation that is one of the best films of the year. It's a funny film about a shell, with shoes. It was improvised and shot in two days and has spawned a book, a possible TV series and soon a sequel. It's a must see because it's pure joy.

Incident At Tower 37 is one of the best science fiction films of at least the past five years. In a desert where a water tower stands, two figures show up with uncertain intent. I won't say more but this is a great film that plays with your expectations. It's great. I want to tell you more, especially since the director said somethings in the Q&A that makes clear why it's so good; basically it's not for us to know or it's for us to figure out.

We Are Boys is a documentary about what it's like to be a boy. It's very good and on target. It's a true life cousin to the wonderful Kenny And Company which is about boys at about the same age. I overheard a conversation before the screening and I heard something troubling: the festival cut this film down. The person I heard talking was one of the big directors of the festival and they said they removed some of the R rated material. I'm shocked that they would do it. Frankly it shook my respect for the festival. I always loved that this festival treated kids and their parents as little people who could handle things. By cutting the film without the directors consent (The person said "We had to cut the film, I hope Tomas doesn't mind what we did"), they really made me question whether the festival may be heading in the wrong direction. My annoyance was amped up with the last film of the series, which had the audience in a slight uproar with a passionate lesbian kiss and talk of lesbianism (the parents around me were not happy at having to explain what was going on to their kids who started to ask questions)

Bottle is a great animated film about a friendship/romance that happens via items in a bottle between a sandman on a beach and a snowman by a river. I have no idea how it was all done, but it was cool. It's a great little film that I really want to see again.

The Lost Thing recently won the Oscar for best animated film. Ken's write up just about covers it, except it was really cool to see this on a big screen.

Savage was a terrible little film that looks good, and has a nice idea behind it, but really sucked. The film has a little Native American girl go off to school. Her mother sings a song of loss. She and her fellow students become zombies. It's horrible. I hated it, and so did the kids around me who wouldn't shut up about how bad it was.

Leitmotif was a good looking, but not very good, film about a jazz pianist and his cat. Looks great but the film doesn't work.

The last film was Hammerhead, about a young boy who loves sharks whose mother has run off with another woman. He wants to go see the shark that has been spotted off the coast, and on his birthday, he goes, with his dad, his mom and her lover. It's an amusing little film that had the audience in an uproar when the women kissed and the little kids wanted to know what a lesbian was. I liked the film a great deal, but wish it was longer since the shortness of the film required things to be a little too forced.

After the films the directors of We Are Boys, Marcel ,and Incident, plus an animator on The Lost Thing and the voice of Marcel did a Q&A. It was actually a good discussion that brought out lots of details, almost all of which I can't go into since they relate specifically to the films and give plot points away.

After that I took another walk. After stopping at the site of the Triangle Shirt Waste Factory (now an NYU building), I went uptown to wait for the arrival of John and Randi for screenings at Carnegie Hall of two films from the Studio Ghibli museum which, until tonight, have never screened outside of Japan.

I'll need to write them up fuller, but for now you need to know that they are neat little confections.

Househunting is a cute little experiment; there is no music or sound effects except those made by two actors. The plot has a a young girl packing up her things and walking out into the wilderness, dealing with the various spirits along the way. It's a trifle.

Mon Mon The Water Spider is a lovely little film about a spider who falls in love with a water strider. Let me just say that this is one of the most beautiful and best films that Miyazaki has ever done (and if you know the high level of quality that Ghibli turns out you'll know how good that makes this film). It's a charming little romance that is easily one of my favorite films of Ghibli, and of the year.

Outrage (2010)

Takashi Kitano's return to directing yakuza films is a darkly comic tale of the lack of honor among all thieves.

The story begins when the big boss, The Chairman, discovers that two of his under bosses have an understanding based upon a jail house pact. In order to remain on the Chairman's good side one of the men sends his underling Otomo (director Takashi) to set up an office in the other bosses' territory. This sets in motion a seemingly never ending series of retaliations and power grabs. As someone said in describing the film it's bad guys and badder guys, with everyone upping the ante.

It's a bloody, violent, often uncomfortably funny film. It's probably closer to the real world of gangsters than anything we've seen since it's a film that is pretty much dog-eat-dog. There are no good guys with the police being little more than corrupt and ineffective, if they are even going to do anything at all.

I'm not sure what I think of it. Like most of Takashi's films it gets better as it goes on and you see what he's getting at. At the same time the seemingly endless body count kind of gets in the way of any point...or maybe not since the lack of a satisfying ending (at least in my eyes) is possibly explained by the fact that a sequel is coming some time in 2011.

As it stands now it's a trip...I'm not sure to what purpose but it's a trip.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Departures (2008)

Oscar winner for best foreign language film, which shocked everyone in the know, or at least those who handicap such things. This was a film no one had seen or knew anything about, how could it win? In Japan the masses were shocked this was submitted instead of All Around Us, which was reviewed here at Unseen last year.

Me, I don't care about the awards, the movie is everything; this movie is amazing.

Yes I know it won an Oscar but I'm going to bet that you still haven't seen it. Most people I know who see every Oscar film haven't seen it. I have no idea why, but it's a film that has fallen through the cracks despite having a bright Oscar light shone on it.

The plot of the film is simple in the set up. A concert cellist is let go from an orchestra due to lack of funds. Returning to his hometown with his wife, he begins the task of trying to find a job. Strangely there is a well paying job that appears to be right in front of him. Jumping at the chance he takes it, which involves working in a funeral home helping to perform the ceremonies that will send people's loved ones on their way.

No it is not maudlin. In fact the film is wonderfully uplifting, even as it breaks your heart.

I remember seeing this the first time as an import from Chinatown. Sitting there watching the film I was absolutely floored by what I was seeing. It moved me to tears, so much so that a couple of days later I went back into Chinatown to pick up copies of the film to give as gifts. I had to make people see this movie.

You have to see this film. I'd love to grab you all by the lapels and make you watch it but that might be considered assault. As for buying you all copies, I don't have that much money. The best I can do is simply tell you that the film is out there and demand that you put it on your list for Blockbuster or Netflix.

Do yourself a favor, see this film. It will ultimately make you feel good.

The original line up of Hole to get together for the first time in over a decade

You're probably wondering why I'm mentioning the reforming of the original line up of Hole. It's because it's happening at the New Directors New Films screening Monday of Hit So Hard. This is the documentary on Patty Schemel who was the original drummer and who left due to addiction problems. The screening is Monday the 28th at 6PM. The press release I got said that there will be a Q&A afterward, so I'm guessing probably no music.

I saw the film and I liked it but I didn't love it. (It's a VH1 Behind the Music style film but without censorship). It's worth seeing, and if you can score a seat at the screening Monday go. If not wait for DVD.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Little Norse Prince (1968)

Isao Takahata is the director of the animated Grave Of Fireflies, and founder of Studio Ghibli. His first feature film is set nominally in a Norse country, but it sure seems like old Russia to me. Hols, a young boy/man/teenagerish kid, lives with his father on the edge of an ocean. Not long after he removes a thorn (actually the sword of the sun), from a giant rock man, Hols' father dies. He tells his son the story of how a devil named Grunwald had spread evil in their old village and caused things to fall apart. Hols' father, wanting to keep his then infant son safe, fled into the wilderness. As a dying wish he urges Hols to go back and find his people. Traveling with Coro (his friend, who is a bear), he sets out to find them. In the process he meets Grunwald, who wants Hols to join him and Hilda, a girl with a lovely singing voice and a dark secret.

Moving like the wind this is an 80 minute movie that has enough plot for at least another hour. This isn't a bad thing since the film keeps moving at all times. It's a beautiful film, filled with an endless series of set pieces. Actually I don't think there is a bad sequence in the entire picture. To be honest the script is a real mess. It doesn't move at times so much as lurches from thing to thing. The dialog is also often stilted, which I'm guessing is the result of too faithful a translation from the Japanese (there are times when you really need to reword things. And no this is not a bootleg or a print from Asia, it's the official UK released DVD).

Messy script or no, I think this is a masterpiece. It's a great grand adventure that hooks you and drags you along for 80 minutes. As I said the set pieces are spectacular and the sense of magic is wonderful. We have a hero who is truly heroic and some characters who are very close to being real. The design of the film has echoes of later anime projects, not just Ghibli, which helps give it a nice feel of familiarity when it's not being wholly original. Strangely the film feels very much like the Russian fantasy films of directors like Aleksandr Ptushko. It's supposed to be set in a Norse country but the design of the costumes is very Russian.

I really liked this a great deal. To be certain it's flawed, deeply, but there is something about the central story thread that allows the film to survive as something wonderful. I recommend it.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Musketeer (2001)

Peter Hyams' version of the Three Musketeers is not a particularly good film. Hampered with a streamlined and radical rewrite of the classic tale, the film has some technical flaws that make it a tough sell for any conventional audience.

You're probably wondering why I would then recommend it. Well I'm coming to that.

Peter Hyams is a very underrated director. Tending to write and shoot his own films he's made some really good ones such as 2010, Outland, Running Scared (Billy Crystal's version), The Star Chamber, and The Presidio. He's also turned out some less than good ones such as Beyond A Reasonable Doubt, The Relic, and this film.

The problem with the film begins with the rewriting of the Three Musketeers so that it's really just the singular of the title. The film is further hurt but having most of the shots seeming to have been overly close; they don't seem to be close-ups, more like when you zoom in on a DVD. You see part of the screen but not not everything. It's a mess.

And yet I'm recommending it.

The reason is that the action sequences are pretty good. They are the sort of things that you don't normally see in Western films, but rather what you see regularly in Hong Kong and Chinese action films.

There is a reason for this and that is the action director of this film is Xin Xin Xiong, who did a whole slew of great HK films. His credits include several of the Once Upon A Time In China films with Jet Li, and Coweb, a neat little film short on story but long on action. Watching the various bits of the final battle again (specifically the battle on the ropes and the warehouse ladder fight), I realized who had directed the action simply because he was stealing from himself. Sure the battles in the original films are better than what is here, but what's here is rather choice.

To be honest the reason that I am recommending this film is that if you've never watched some of the martial arts classics of recent times (either because you can't find them, or because you are like many people I know and won't read subtitles) seeing this film and its wonderful action sequences might just get you to at least try the real thing, or to try subtitles yet again.

I'm not going to lie and say it's a great film; it's not, but the action is a wonderful sampler of what is out there waiting for you if you want to look for some things that will blow you away. Forgive the film's many faults (such as dark lighting which probably rightly suggests is to hide all of the Chinese stuntmen) and you may have your eyes opened to a world of new possibilities.

Amazing Life Of The Fast Food Grifters (2006)

Mamorou Oshii's mockumentary of food freeloaders is damn near impossible to see. For some reason the film has never really had any real release outside of Japan (some people on IMDb said it has played France). In a weird way I kind of understand why. This is a very unique film in the truest sense of the word.

The story is told in a weird amalgam of photo realistic animation fused with normal animation. Characters have no depth and are 2 dimensional. There are some live-action bits mixed with other styles. Sometimes it looks like Jibjab gone berserk. At other (frequent) times it's static.

And then there is the dialog, or rather narration. It's a very heavy, very complex documentary style that tells us all about the various grifters we are seeing and the world they inhabit. Twenty minutes into the film I knew that I was in way over my head. I wasn't catching all the references, details, and odd bits. Yeah I could sort of follow what was going on, but it was clear that I was hopelessly lost. It's the anime version of Prospero's Books.

Why hasn't this gotten any release outside of Japan? I don't just think most non-Japanese audiences wouldn't sit through it; even most anime audiences wouldn't sit through it. It's not what you expect when you think of animation.

I have no idea what I think of it. I'm going to have to watch it again to determine that.

For now know that it's a very strange, very deliberate film. In its way it's a masterpiece.

You want a unique film this is it...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

New Directors New Films 2011

Tomorrow New Directors New Films starts running at Lincoln Center and at the Museum of Modern Art. I attended one of the press screenings and I thought I'd give you a quick run down on what I saw.

Bukowski is a short playing with Copacabana and is 10 of the best minutes I spent at any of the screenings.The story follows a 12 year old who is reading The Pleasure of the Damned and who decides while on vacation to take on the persona of Charles Bukowski. It's funny and charming and I can't wait to see it again.

Copacabana is the story of a free spirited mother who is forever drifting and forever broke. When her daughter bans her from her wedding, she decides to get serious begins selling time shares. The mother daughter pair are played by Isabelle Huppert and her daughter Lolita Chammah (who has won a place in my heart). How you react to the film will depend on whether you like Huppert or not. She is a selfish twit at times and she is hard to warm to. The film itself is okay. Most of the people I overheard liked the film because of it's star. Sue me I need more than that and had I been watching this on DVD or cable I probably would have hit fast forward.

Hit So Hard is a documentary about Patty Schemel who was the drummer for Courtney Love's group Hole. Its how she moved through the grunge scene and eventually was over taken by drugs and alcohol. As the guy behind me said, it's good, but haven't we seen this before. I have to agree. To me it's a VH1 Behind the Music special with four letter words. I liked it but at the same time I know this film is going to have a hard time reaching anyone but fans of Schemel, grunge or Hole since the film seems to assume you know what they are talking about. I liked it, but if I paid 15 bucks to see this on the big screen I would have been pissed.

Belle Epine is the story of a French girl dealing with the death of her mom. Dad has gone to Canada to deal with the estate and won't come home. Her sister will not stay in the house because she misses their mom so much. Left to her own devices she begins to hang out with some bikers. Running a way too brief 80 minutes the film looks great, has a good sound track and solid performances. What the film doesn't have is a second half that works as the film leaps through events and we are left with hanging plot threads. Good on it's own terms I was left wondering why the film was being shown as part of the series since it just misses the mark. (Actually I suspect, that the reason the film was chosen is the one suggested by the couple sitting behind me at the screening, namely that some one was fond of the actresses' assets.)

For now that's it. I was supposed to go see a second day of films but I had to take a family member to the ER late the night before and it made getting to more films impossible. Not to worry I have every intention of catching more screenings since I've picked up tickets for a few.

Talking to several people at the above screenings the feeling was the three best films to that point were:

Margin Call the opening night film, which was very good. (It's sold out but as two people both said don't worry it's getting a big release)

Incendies which was far and away the best film in the series and a must see. This too is getting a big release.

Black Power Mix Tape which everyone said was a head trip because changes how you see history and the Black Panthers. I have a ticket for this. This is also getting released by Sundance Selects so this will be on available on pay per view.

Always: Sunset on Third Street (2005)

This multiple award winning film is damn near impossible to see in the US thanks to the perceived non-market for Asian films. Quite honestly if they released more films like this instead of science fiction, horror, and action movies, they might find that audiences stop assuming the films are just about action.

Based on a comic book this film is set over a period of months in a small street in Tokyo in 1957. As the story opens one family is waiting for a TV. Across the way is a sweet shop run by a young man who fancies himself a writer. There is a doctor, several kids, and the lady who runs the local hang out. Into the mix comes Matsuko, a young girl from the country. She thinks she is going to work for a big auto company. Instead it's the family who are waiting for the TV and they run a car repair shop. Over the period of time the various characters have misunderstandings, romance, success, failure, and generally get by as the Tokyo Tower is being built in the distance.

You will laugh.

You will cry.

This is the sort of film that you know how it's going to feel and how it's going to go from the get go. It's a nostalgic look back at life fifty years ago that is going to have a happy ending. That's not giving anything away; you can feel the ending's emotion at the start and frankly it doesn't really matter, you will still get weepy at the end, and all through the middle.

I first became aware of this film thanks to that stalwart of good programing the New York Asian Film Festival. They had run it, and word coming out from the screenings was wonderful. I had to track the film down, but I wasn't able to do so since the name Always was much too common. What I should have done was look for the full title which is Always: Sunset On Third Street. Eventually I found a copy and ordered it, along with its first sequel, which picks up with the characters a few years later. A second sequel is filming now and takes place in 1964 (if I read the Japanese title correctly).

When I put the film on the first time it was late in the evening and I thought I'd watch a little bit and then move on to bed. Instead I was up until almost 1:30 in the morning watching it, pausing now and again to go to the kitchen or the bathroom or to take a call from a friend. It was so good that when it was over I found that I automatically put in the second film...then stopped it when I realized that the two and half hour running time of the sequel would keep me up all night.

I love this film. I've seen it a couple of times since I got it, in between handing it off to friends to watch. I've created monsters as my friends who have seen it now want me to give them the sequel so they can see what happens next. (No I haven't watched the second film yet).

In all honesty you should try and track this film down. Sure it's kind of predictable but it has a great bunch of characters in it, and it's the sort of film that just makes you feel good. It's a warm and fuzzy feeling film, and the Christmas portion is one of the best holiday sequences in any film I've seen. This one tiny little piece is so good I was tempted to save this review and make it my Christmas film for 2011, but it's just too good to wait, and I had to tell you about it NOW so you could try and get yourself a copy. Amazon e-sellers have it but you should check Yes Asia for a cheaper copy.

I love this film. It's easily one of the best I've seen in 2011.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Place Of One's Own (2009)

The search for a place of one's own, both in the sense of a place to live but also in matters of the heart, is the focus of this excellent film.

The film is one that follows a variety of characters who cross each other's paths in the limited confines of Taipei. There is a respected musician whose career is going nowhere; his ex-girlfriend, also a singer, whose career is taking off; a young man who dresses in a tiger costume and hands out fliers; his mom who tends the graves of the loved ones of people who can't or won't go to the cemetery; a couple who make origami houses for the spirits of the dead to live in; and the son of a mafia boss who befriends them. All are being affected in some way with the need to find a place of their own.

Episodic, the film takes a little bit to get firing on all cylinders as it takes its time to introduce us to someone, and lets us get to know them before moving on to the next person. It's a dangerous thing to present it this way because if any of the characters don't engage you as much as any of the others, you'll be fidgeting as you wait to get back to the ones you like. That's not the case here, as you like everyone equally, or enough that you don't mind waiting to get back to the people you like more.

This could have been just another multi-character drama but the filmmakers manage to do a few things that make this film really shine.

First up; the music that is used, particularly the songs by two of our characters, is really good. I would gladly listen to it outside of the film. That the music is so good is surprising since more times then not people will make films about a songwriter and then they will give us really bland or terrible songs. Who would listen to that sort of thing? Here the music is really good, and I almost wanted to stop the story and continue to just listen to the music. More importantly the songs that reflect what is occurring on screen are good songs, not just something thrown together to fit the moment.

Next, they don't give us the same old characters. Yes, we have musicians, but they aren't young kids on the verge; they are old hands who spinning their wheels. We have the son of a mafia leader who is rather charming. Then there is the couple who make the origami houses. Not only is what they do really cool, the details of their story is not typical. For example he's ill but won't get treatment because it's not 100% assured of helping, and it's so expensive.

To be perfectly honest, it's the characters that make the film. You will like them. You'll like them so much that you'll forgive the film its occasional hiccup.

I really like this film a great deal. It's the sort of film that has haunted me for better or worse since I saw it several weeks ago. It's also the sort of film that I want to go around and recommend to anyone who might watch it.

Definitely worth searching out (the film is not currently out in the US, but it is available as an import)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Rip: A Remix Manifesto (2009)

I was not going to review this film. After watching it the first time I found myself really ambivalent about it. It is and was a film that I admired for asking a great many really important questions, but on the other hand I have serious issues with the film with its construction, historical accuracy and what I perceive is it’s ultimate conclusion. On the other hand the film gets one talking and moving, even if it’s to toss the DVD across the room into the garbage or out the window.

Rip: A Remix Manifesto is Brett Gaylord’s look at copyright issues. Using the mash up songs of re-mixer Girl Talk as a starting point the film ponders the question of what is the nature of copyright and the fair use doctrine. It then spins off to discuss the right to use characters such as Mickey Mouse, movie clips, and patents for “living things” and other bits of science.

The film begins by asking is a song still written by the original artist if part is sampled. We are shown the degree to which someone like Girl Talk remixes thing and left to ponder. Gaylord even goes so far as to show some of the mixes to someone in the copyright office who is amazed at how the samples are used to create something new. The film argues strongly that the notion of remixing samples is a new art and what is created is something new, even if its built on the old.

From there the film branches out messily to look at Napster and the free exchange of music, the use of images such as Mickey Mouse, film clips, and ultimately the patents for things like medicine. Its at this point the film seems to be moving from the notion of fair use for creation into the realm of something else. The film seems to be arguing that its all fair game since ultimately we might be able to get a cure for cancer out of it (at least with the science bits) besides there is no way to stop it.

I’m not sure what the film is getting at in these parts of the film. The film drifts from its statement at the beginning to be about sampling as an art form that builds something new and suddenly the film is throwing in talk of people being fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for downloading songs. I was confused since I didn’t know why we were being told this.

Actually past the argument about the sampling I was never sure that the director knew what he was getting at. For a film that repeatedly talks about the history of copyright he leaves out vast tracks of the history of it, talking about the original copy right under Queen Ann being 14 years and then leaping ahead to the 1998 changes that boosted control of something like Mickey Mouse or Happy Birthday into a centuries long deal. Its’ a nice idea but he leaves way too much out the issues beyond sampling are not as clear cut as Gaylord makes out.(indeed even his seeming argument of a total free exchange of ideas is at odds with his early indication that copyright is good if used for a while.) Part of the problem is that he brings in so many ideas that many get lost, go nowhere or seem to be wildly off point.

The film further falls apart in its messy use of facts. Its dating of stories “remixed” by Disney is cockeyed from the outset when it dates Alice and Wonderland from 1644 (and it’s not even that it’s a use of character since the picture they use is of a Tenniel drawing.). For a film that repeatedly insists that the future must build on the past it has no sense of the bedrock its asking to use as a construction site. Frankly the film has no sense of history other than these things went before now.

As a factual film with dates and places and solid concepts the film is mess. Its like reading a newspaper article on a hot button issue that inflames you until you stop and think about what its saying and how its saying it and you realize that its badly argued and full of factual errors.

On the other hand, and the reason I’m writing up the film, it makes a good argument in favor of sampling and it will get you thinking about the whole notion of copyright. As much as I am annoyed by the film I find I can’t shake it and the questions it raises (however badly).

Worth a look especially if you can do so for free.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Cat In Paris-NYICFF (and Don't Go)

I attended the New York International Children's Film Festival screening of the Cat In Paris this Morning with Randi. It's a charming little crime film for kids...well, older kids. It's about a cat who splits his time between living with a young girl whose mom is a police inspector, and a cat burglar. Through circumstances she is thrown into an investigation of the man who killed her father during a robbery (not the burglar) and his gang. I need to do a proper write up to really explain it, and I will down the line.

For now know that the film is very good, with a plot that makes little real sense. It has great jokes, a few nice twists and a visual style that is worth the price of admission alone. It's one of the best films at NYCIFF this year.

As I said a full review will becoming.

Before the feature they ran the short film Don't Go. It's about Pinky and a cat. It's a blast and can be found by following this link.

Sonic Outlaws(1995)

Craig Baldwin's essay/documentary on jam/cut up/found art, specifically that of the audio visual sort. Beginning with the story of Negativeland's infamous record U2, made from a mash of Casey Kasem out takes and U2 and then examining and commenting upon the people who do this sort of collage art, their legal troubles as well as the art itself.

Made from found footage itself this is a dizzying trip for about half its running time as we are forced to examine and consider the nature of art, all art as well as what is fair use and what should and should not be covered under copyright. The problem (and it's a minor one) is that about half way in the film begins to wear down you down as it seems that its running the same ground again and a again. Its not bad, and actually there are some great pieces in the second half like an explanation of collage's history, what happens when a montagist finds his lifted work has been lifted, and some good bits of art, but there is also a great sense of I've been here before. The up shot is that the euphoria of the early part of the film and its unique vision is replaced by just a mundane documentary.

Despite the fall off I can't help but highly recommend this film to anyone who creates, and who likes the mash up art that runs rampant on the Internet. You may not watch it more than once but some of the questions it raises will rattle around in your brain for a long time afterward.

Its referenced in tomorrows film RIP: A Remixers Manifesto and it does everything right that tomorrows film does wrong.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Trouble Man - The Series (2010)

Mondocurry saw the version of this that ran at the Japan Society back in February as part of their Run Salary Man Run retrospective of the films of Sabu. The Japan Society didn't really say that what they were showing wasn't a "film" rather it was the second half of the series.

I was supposed to attend, but I over booked myself and there was no way I was going to get from the BAMkids Fest to the Japan Society in any mood to enjoy the film. The result was I deferred to less crazy heads and took a pass.

That was until I had the chance to pick the film up on DVD. I didn't realize what I had ordered until it came, namely the entire 12 episode series. Since I saw the entire series I thought it would be best to write that up as a counterpoint to the review of the Japan Society version.

I'm kind of at a loss as to how much I should reveal about the plot. Then again the plot can be explained simply its the execution that takes forever.

The series starts with some arresting images, the sound of a car crash is followed by the appearance of a burning tire, some burning people and a burning car. We also see the young man who will be revealed to be out hero Kazuo running down the street and towards us. The camera then follows as he runs. The sequence will be repeated in the final episode of the series as our hero runs towards his destiny.

The film then flashes back to several hours earlier and we follow the sequence of events as Kazuo meets various characters and they all end up in an apartment together. For the next FIVE plus episodes the series picks up in the apartment and then flashes back for the majority of each episode so that we know the back story of each character.

Its a tough haul since the central story stops dead and we end up seeing the same things over and over way too many times.

Once the characters are set the series kind of goes forward in later part of the second half and we realize how all of the too long set up ties together directly with Kazuo. Clearly there is a karma and no such thing as chance.

I can't imagine what it would have been like to see the short version of this since some of what you see in the early episodes makes what happen later have more meaning. Sure you could follow what happens if you didn't see the bits, it just won't mean as much.

On the other hand there is so much crap that you have to get through it kind of isn't worth bothering with the early stuff. (I don't know how far I would have gotten had I had to watch this on a episode by episode basis)


There is a great movie lurking in this over abundance of material but frankly I don't know how you would cut this down to find it.

For me, watching this film in it's complete 12 episode form I kind of felt that this was a paycheck job for Sabu. I think he wanted to see how far he could stretch a story but was ham strung by the TV structure which requires precise parts all the same length.

As I said there are these great moments all along the way but they never build to anything. Partly because the TV structure kills the momentum and partly because there is too much filler.

For me this is the weakest of Sabu's films. Its too much mediocre material swamping the gems.

I can't really recommend this. It's not bad as such it's just too much....

For Sabu fans only.

On import DVD

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Takashi Miike:Shinjuku Outlaw-13 Assassins (2010)

I'll be brief. A full review will follow when I can sit down and really do the film justice.

I attended a sneak preview of Takashi Miike's latest film 13 Assassins. It's a remake of a film from 1963.

The plot has a trusted advisor to the Shogun taking steps to make sure that the man chosen to succeed the current Shogun never gets the chance. You see the man is insane (he's one of the most evil men ever put on film) and if he takes the throne it will plunge the country into chaos. He convinces one of the samurai of the goodness of the cause and he gathers together the title people and sets a trap. It all explodes in a 40 plus minute set piece that ends the film.

The short version:

A masterpiece.

One of the best films of the year.

Possibly one of the greatest action films ever made.

It's a worth successor to the 7 Samurai.

Yes it's flawed, it gets a little bit to get going, some the characters are not completely drawn and the villain disappears after a fashion...

...on the other hand it's emotional, masterfully done, and exhausting. I really need to write this up.
(addendum-IMDB lists the original running time as being 15 minutes longer than the 126 minute international version we saw. If that's the case then the problems sighted above may not be there in the longer version- I await the release of the directors cut)

We were told that the film will go on to Magnolia pay per view on March 25th and in to theaters on the 8th of April. If you can see this on the big screen. trust me go to the theater for this one.

Again- This is one of the best films of the year and an action masterpiece.


For those interested, Miike spoke after the screening via Skype. I saw some of it but left early simply because to stay would have meant I was waiting over an hour if a train if I didn't leave then. I'll post on what was said later- for now it's just bed.
I had read on line that the film was coming on 4/29, but at the screening they said the information above. I was at the IFC Center today and they confirmed that the actual release date is 4/29 so thats the date to go with....

Dead Run (2005)

I picked this up on DVD as an in case film. If we didn't pull the week of Sabu films together this film would fill a slot. The trick was that I would have to find the time to actually sit down and watch it in order to have a piece written up for the required slot. Complicating matters was the fact it arrived in the mail just as the craziness of Film Comment Selects, The New York International Children's Film Festival, Rondezvous WithFrench Cinema and a few other things hit all at the same time. When was I going to have time to watch it?

Somehow I did.

One of the joys of watching a Sabu film is that many times you start to watch a film and wonder what you are watching or why only to suddenly find you're in the middle of things and hooked in the middle of a bunch of characters you care about.

The plot follows a young man, Shuji, from boyhood onward as he tries to find a place in the world and deal with the craziness of life. From the differences between those on real land and those on landfill (off shore), to the crazy yakuza man and his girl (The early scene with Shuji and the bike is marvelous), to his pursuit of a long haired girl who shares his passion for running, and search for some form of the meaning of life. The film is very much the arc of a life.

As with several of Sabu's later films (post Monday) it's very hard to really tell you what the film is about since he has so much going on that you have the choice to be overly wordy or overly brief. Things don't fall into place until the very end.

To me this is one of Sabu's best films. In a weird way his working from someone else's material, this film is based on a novel, frees him up to show how good a filmmaker he really is. Gone are repetitions that fill his salary man movies and he soars in directions that you wouldn't think he was capable of. Yes I love Monday, Drive, Postman Blues, but here as in the film that he made next, Kanikosen, Sabu truly goes beyond any notion of being a one trick pony and shows just how complex he can be. The complexity is almost always there (I think Hard Luck Hero being an exception) but it's often hidden in the rote of some of filmic patterns. Here Sabu is balancing the stories of multiple characters and ultimately story lines and doing so with an ease that one wouldn't think he was capable of based upon some of his earlier films.

I'm not saying that his films prior to this are bad, I'm not, all I'm saying is that like Drive this is the point at which Sabu grew as a director into one of the best one's working in the world today.

This film is must see for anyone who loves great story telling.

Currently out on import DVD

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hard Luck Hero (2003)

A trifle of a film from director Sabu starring the group V6.

The film begins when a bus boy at an underground club is forced to pretend to be a kickboxer in an underground bout. Its a fixed fight so there should be no danger, but a lucky blow causes chaos...and the bus boy and his friend are off and running with the mob in pursuit.

The film then flashes back to the story of two business men who were in the club when it went down. Sitting at a table close to the ring they are joined by the Yakuza who make them uncomfortable. And through circumstance we see how they end up on the run.

The film then picks up two more characters, who we see were also at the fight, and they steal the business men's brief case ....

Extremely light weight, but containing some big laughs the film is kind of like Sabu light. I suspect that this was a pay check job for the director and he took his well worn motif's and strung them together in a compact package. It's every Sabu cliche brought together for comedic effect, and for a little darkness as well (the thieves tale is dark).

This was not run as part of the Japan Society's Sabu retrospective of Sabu films and it's kind of easy to understand why. Running a scant 77 minutes the film is barely what we would think of as a feature film. There are also more than a few bits that feel like filler. Too many others reference his earlier works.

It's not a bad film but it's the sort of thing that is a great director coasting. I've seen the film once and I think that is probably enough, especially in light of my recent submersion in the films of the director. I don't hate the film, but it's nothing memorable. It's certainly not the worst Sabu film I've seen...and even if it was bad Sabu is better than many directors best work.

The film Drive was described at the Japan Society as the film that marked the dividing line of Sabu's works, with that film being a summing up of all that went before. that maybe the case on some levels, on others this is the final film of early Sabu period since after this he would go off in other more interesting, or at least experimental directions.

Blessing Bell (2003)

You could consider the Blessing Bell to be the first film in the second stage of Sabu’s directing career. Moving away from some of the manic craziness of the lives of salary men, the focus shifts to the meditative contemplation of a blue collar Joe who has lost his job.

The plot of the film concerns an unnamed man who walks off from this place of employment on a journey of contemplation.

Along the way he meets various people who are at differing points of their lives and they impart observations to our hero who remains completely mute until the final moments of the film.

A very deliberately paced film, it’s a film that can’t be called anything other than slow. I don’t mean this a slap to the film, what I mean is that this is a film that shows us some things then gives us time to contemplate what we’ve seen, then shows us some more. It’s a film that uses Sabu’s typical quirkiness but it’s turned on it’s head in a very real portrait of life. In order to compress the journey down to 88 minutes things had to be that way and it makes sense.

In reading on the film everyone talks about how the film covers a 24 hour period after the factory closes, but I don’t think that’s right. If you pay attention to what happens the film actually takes place over several days…or not, the final scene blurs things further and ultimately makes you wonder if any of it happened.

It’s a film that forces you to engage with it and figure out it’s mysteries. I would guess that had Sabu appeared at the Japan Society screening he would have been tight lipped about some of what happens, which I think is fitting since the film is like life, the sort of thing you have to work out for yourself.

I really like the film a great deal, though I suspect that I admire it more than I like it. I’m curious how a second viewing will effect me.

If you do see the film, which I recommend without reservation, I do ask one thing; watch it from start to finish before you decide how you feel about it. The film is very much a journey and like any journey or like life what you experience on the way is not the destination. I know my feelings bounced all over the place while watching the film and it wasn’t until I got to the very end that I had an AH HA moment. While all Sabu films are like this, this is one film that really really requires you go all the way through it since this is a film of building ideas and emotion. When you get to the end the pay off is, or was for me anyway, worth the uncertain journey.

Out on import DVD

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Korean American Film Festival New York is this week

The Korean American Film Festival New York starts Thursday. I just found out about this (so much for being on top of my emails). Details can be found here.

I'm not sure if Unseen will be attending, we have a pretty full dance card, but if we do we'll let you know.

Dangan Runner (aka Dangan Runna aka Non-Stop) (1996)

DB here- It's day two of our week long look at the work of the director Sabu. Today, we've got Mondocurry looking at the directors first film, which he saw at The Japan Society's restropsective of Sabu films.

Dangan Runner is Sabu’s first film, although it was the second I saw during his retrospective at Japan Society. Watching this movie after seeing Monday, I noticed that many of the ideas and visual themes the director is known for were already starting to take shape in a cruder yet often entertaining form.
The film starts out by depicting the powerlessness and frustration of mild mannered Yasuda, played by Tomoro Taguchi of Tetsuo: Iron Man infamy. This sets the tone for the robbery he will try to commit, which, in no time, goes exceedingly wrong. When this happens in a Sabu film, the results can be hilarious or tragic, and often a little bit of both. This time things go humorously, and lead quickly into setting up the nonstop foot chase involving Yasuda, the cashier at the convenience store he tried to hold up (who has issues of addiction and relative powerlessness of his own), and a yakuza enforcer played by Tsutumi Shinichi (in quite a role reversal from the unimposing salaryman he portrays at the beginning of Monday). This goes on for the bulk of the film, while every so often, there are cutaways to two institutions that Sabu seems to take pleasure in poking fun at: The police and the Yakuza. Compared to the three runners, they are not moving very much at all.
It is a simple concept, yet through it, Sabu explores some interesting ideas. At first, running brings to mind the bustling, unrelenting pace of life in metropolitan Tokyo, inescapable if you are on a lower rung of society’s ladder. The three runners play out their roles as the chased, the chaser, or both, constantly running from or after something, with seemingly no alternative. Later, running takes on a different representation. It blurs the boundaries that separate each character. Rather than running from and after each other, they move together, their similarities more significant than their differences.
Shortcomings of the movie come down to one simple factor: budget. While the final spectacle in Monday is an action-filled frenzy, Dangan Runner’s climax looks murky and the action is rather static. Similar issues affected the film Unlucky Monkey, which was released during the 2 years between Dangan Runner and Monday. Perhaps finances had yet to catch up with Sabu’s elaborate visions.
On the other hand, instances of Sabu’s clever humor do not suffer from the lack of funding to his early films. Take for instance, the scene where the runners three pass by a beautiful lady poised to pick something up off the ground. All of them glance back at her, emphasizing their similarities. We are given a glimpse at each one’s sexual fantasies: one is gentle and frilly, another overbearing and threatening, while yet another clings to an artificially slick sense of style. The sequence is hilariously put together, but also speaks to how deeply rooted one’s position in society is, shaping even one’s unconscious desires.
It is the ability to make this kind of idea work on the audience’s brain at so many different levels that makes all of Sabu’s work worthwhile viewing. I’m hopeful that sooner than later, his earlier and upcoming films will enter the realm of accessible on these shores.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Monday (2000)

DB Here- This week it's a good number of films from the director Sabu. Many of the film appeared at the retrospective that the Japan Society ran at the end of January and the beginning of February. The reviews are being split between Mondocurry and myself, and it's to his assured hand that I turn for the first film of both our series and that of the Japan Society retrospective, Monday.

Over the years, I’ve encountered many Japanese indie films that made me wonder why someone or ‘ones’ deemed them worthy of foreign distribution in the face of other possibilities. I’ll refer to just a few. There’s the film that jumps back and forth between scenes of senseless murder and hopeless drug addiction, while everyone is too bored to care about any of it. Another that comes to mind ends up being a pretty pointless sexploitation flick with a plot that makes no sense, whose big selling point is the fact that someone was wearing a rubber George Bush mask. I’m too polite to kiss and tell, but if you want to seek those movies out, they aren’t that hard to find.
All the while, within the same time frame of those movies’ releases, a little director named Sabu had been building an impressive resume of films that are visually interesting, excitingly paced, and not at all shy of taking on important themes. It’s fitting then that when Sabu gets his turn at some North American exposure, it’s nothing less than a full blown retrospective. The organizer at Japan Society (who would appear to be the man filling the role of their Senior Film Program Officer, Samuel Jamier) went all out, bringing the understated director onstage for q & a’s after half of the six films being screened, and giving the series a nifty trailer (edited by Yasu Inoue, who also made the galvanizing trailers for the 2010 NYAFF and Japan Cuts festivals.)
So, what surprises did the first of the series, Monday, have in store? It starts off with the archetypal Japanese ‘salaryman’ (re: white collar worker, middle management level at most, and highly prone to job dissatisfaction and binge drinking) waking up in a drab hotel room on a Monday morning, trying to account for how the last 48 hours of his lost weekend were spent. The first incident comes into focus and shows a funeral ceremony in progress. For a few long moments it is eerily quiet, so much so that I wondered if there was a glitch in the screening booth with the audio. Then, as dialogue gradually trickles into the scene, things get instantly hilarious. The odd verbal exchange is the sort of uneasy conversational humor that early Tarantino films were made famous for, except here, the absence of catch phrases and posturing celebrities makes it come off far more naturally. The grave ceremony ends up being mischievously intertwined with a time worn action movie trope that has played out the ending of countless shoot ‘em up movies. And we realize we are in the hands of a master storyteller.
What follows is a back and forth shift between the sordid events of the protagonist’s weekend and groggily bewildered hotel scenes (which at first, might not seem to matter, but later prove to be crucial to the story). The flashbacks become increasingly edgy as Sabu turns up the danger, as well as the weird. It probably wouldn’t be a Sabu movie if the Yakuza weren’t somehow involved, and here we get the very funny outcome of our salaryman stumbling into a Yakuza gathering and unwittingly disrupting their world. The humor reaches a fever pitch thanks to Shinichi Tsutumi’s (an actor who plays the lead in many of Sabu’s works) sensational knack for physical comedy. He imparts a hysterical, self-mocking dance routine oozing with over-confidence and goofiness. The music playing in the background is a wildly energizing dance track by Tokyo techno artist Captain Funk, and here I give credit to Sabu for using music by a fellow Japanese artist while still making it a priority to put together an excellent-rather-than-just-adequate soundtrack.
And then, things become sharply, radically, unexpectedly different. At this point, for the benefit of those of you that like their film viewing experiences to be a full-on surprise, with no warning of any bumps, twists, or turns along the way, and are convinced that this is a movie worth checking out, I encourage you to stop reading and make it a goal to see this movie. Fair warning, though, it may entail a trip to Japan and a Tsutaya membership card, or at least, a generous pen pal and a region free dvd player.
Even with events taking a violent turn, Sabu could have easily kept them in the realm of slick, stylish, and overall inconsequential (which is where most of Tarantino’s works tended to stay). But he doesn’t. All that had transpired takes on an unsettling reality for the main character and the audience watching. The weight of it all sends the protagonist into a panic, not only about his future fate, but the moral implications of his actions. It was interesting to note how, in the theater, the uproarious laughter at all of the gallows humor was later reduced to a few nervous titters. You could imagine the thinking running through people’s minds: “we’re supposed to be laughing, aren’t we?” Sabu leads on, though, uncompromisingly, and with no promises of what is to come.
The changeup is more than a little jarring. It’s the sort of thing that sends conventional moviegoers and I suppose overseas distributors running for the hills, but Sabu has too much on mind to be concerned about that. One thing Sabu is not is subtle, and serious issues, such as unchecked authority, glorified perceptions of violence, and the questionable right to take justice into one’s own hands, come to the forefront, even debated openly by the main character and those he confronts.
Despite the mood change, Sabu, who is perhaps just too darned gifted a showman to bum us out completely, continues to interject moments that are funny and also fantastical; a few times the main character is literally chased by demons that hiss and claw their way across the screen. The action convalesces into nothing less than a frantic, full on spectacle, which seems to be a trademark of his films. The scene makes us aware of the film’s complete transformation: What started as a trifle of a comedy has wound its way into becoming a media frenzy of heavily armed riot police, reporters, numerous onlookers, and our once bumbling salaryman protagonist.
The film ends with less an answer than a question posed to the audience: what would you do? What will you do? And Monday, with all of its unanticipated turns, has proven to be a thrilling ride.
DB once again- Chris Bourne has posted the Q&A that followed the screenings of Monday and Dagan Runna (aka Non Stop) at the Japan Society. They both can be found here.