a seemingly random journey through cinema's heart of darkness. so to speak.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

No Sympathy For for Lady Vengeance?

The first of Park Chan-wook's revenge trilogy to score a Philly release (at least outside of a festival), the retitled Lady Vengeance opens this weekend. I review it here, along with the also newly named District B13 and Twelve and Holding, Michael Cuesta's marginal (but still plenty sucky) improvment over L.I.E. Also on tap are an A-list on this weekend's FirstGlance Film Festival (last one) and, as ever, Rep, with much words on the Flaming Lips doc The Fearless Freaks, the moniker doc The Grace Lee Project and an appearance by Steadicam inventor (and Philly resident) Garrett Brown.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Shohei Imamura 1926 - 2006

Not to cheapen what is a very sad day, but I have this habit of "killing" filmmakers, as well as anyone toiling away in the cinemaworld. Back in 1999, I picked up a DVD of 2001: A Space Odyssey; the next morning, I awoke to hear that Stanley Kubrick had just died. When visiting Manhattan in September 2001, I made a joke at Pauline Kael's expense; the next day, she had passed away. And on 05 June 05 (as my records go), I put in my air conditioner after the stifling heat and resulting delirium left me hopelessly lost during Shohei Imamura's antic, twisted 1966 comedy The Pornographers. Last night, I decided to put my A/C in a couple days earlier than last year (aside: holy hell did the East Coast suddenly get goddam hot); this morning, I discovered Imamura has died. Coincidence?

Well, yes, obviously. But the thing is, I don't really have much to say about Imamura, a filmmaker whom I've seen fairly little of, and whose work I didn't initally get. When I saw his 1997 Palme d'Or-grabber The Eel, I was mostly at a loss to his endless tonal switches, which leapt from opaque tragedy to wacky slapstick with even less transitional wiggle room than Arnaud Desplechin. That may be why it took me three years to get around to my next Imamura, the aformentioned The Pornographers -- though that may just be because I've somehow managed to mostly avoid classic Japanese cinema during my various trips through history. Like many before me, I loaded up on the far more available (and far more Western) Kurosawa, cherry picked from Ozu, Mizoguchi and Suzuki, and left many to be either briefly dealt with or deemed total blank spots on my (nonetheless immense) films-seen list. (Along with Imamura, this would include such luminaries as Oshima, Ichikawa, Kobayashi, Fukasaku, Teshigahara and Gosha.) I've semi-recently tried to correct that, if without much direction; it's weird that I've seen as many Naruses as I have Ozus.

That's Ed, having since "gotten" Imamura -- courtesy 1989's beautifully grotesque post-Hiroshima portrait Black Rain (turn to your right) -- I can't wait to dig deeper into his filmography. A former clapper boy for Ozu, Imamura grew up to make films in diametric opposition to his former employer, defying the filmmaker's languid, bottomless humanism in favor of, well, manic, bottomless misanthropy. Or so goes the cliché. In fact, the Japanese New Waver's films -- again, from what I've seen -- trade in a worldview that, unlike other cinematic pessimists, is more amused than emboldened by the ridiculousness of the homo sapien set. Like the best filmmakers, his viewpoint and specific tone are hard to shake off even days after the movie's over. Ryan Wu, who went so far as to name his blog after an obscure and awesomely-named 1961 Imamura, dubbed him a zoologist; I can do no better.

Then, of course, there's his technical chops, which are beyond formidable. Even if my heat-induced self couldn't make heads or tails of The Pornographers' constantly shifting plot(s), there's no state of consciousness in which I wouldn't be salivating at his 'scope B&W. Here's one of my favorite images from the film (plucked from Herr Filmbrain):

Surprisingly, this shot -- with its curious framing, subtly pronounced shades of B&W and, of course, seemingly wtf? action; click on it for a bigger image -- is not atypical. In fact, when I say "favorite," I really mean that this shot is in a dead heat with, oh, at least 60% of the other shots in the movie -- of which, thanks to the rapid-fire editing, there are many. Even if, again, I couldn't follow what was happening, The Pornographers was a front-to-end pleasurable experience (heh). You almost don't need to follow it -- just letting it pour over you could do the trick (though you'd miss out on Imamura's patented pointed satire). I dare say it's the most striking B&W 'scope I've ever encountered, though, after some retrospect, I'd downgrade it to beingneck-and-neck with a film from one of his colleagues, Seijun Suzuki's 1967 whatzit Branded to Kill.

While Imamura is far more represented on video than many of his other contemporaries (Oshima most notably), he's still thin on the ground, with the first half of his career almost completely absent from shelves. (This includes his 1968 epic The Profound Desire of the Gods, which Imamura-heads swear by. Drat.) All of the films I've mentioned (excepting Pigs and Battleships) are available on DVD, along with his last two films, Dr. Akagi and Warm Water Under a Red Bridge. (Oh, and his allegedly interesting contribution to the otherwise loathed comp film 11'09"01 - September 11, too. Now I have to fucking rent that one. Fuck.) Otherwise, you can still find old copies of Black Rain (which has a now-out-of-print Fox-Lorber disc), his other Palme d'Or-winner Ballad of Narayama, Eijanaika and Vengeance is Mine (look up). The TLA site claims to have a VHS copy of his rad-sounding 1963 film Insect Woman, but who knows a) if this is still correct or b) if the copy's any good, or even letterboxed. Now there's an added incentive to find out.

Meanwhile, pore over this 2003 retrospective from Senses of Cinema's Nelson Kim, which should have, erm, more memorium data than this post. (Plus, a welter of useful -- and sometimes, sadly, erroneous -- links.)

Also, wouldn't it be great if his IMDb profile was, like, updated to include his death? A. Yes.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Penélope Cruz: Cannes-Fêted Thespian

Six way tie, but still.

Quick, largely ignorant thoughts on the outcome! Thanks to being placed in the Director's Fortnight, there was no chance that md'a's favorite -- Memories of Murder maven Bong Joon-ho's monster movie The Host, just today covered by the NYT -- would walk away with the Palme. But I, at least, heard no rumblings about the across-the-board terrificness of the Ken Loach. Good job, bud. Must have been one of your better days. Also quite surprising was the win for Flandres, the latest from Humanité's frigid misanthrope Bruno Dumont. I perked up on Dumont after Twentynine Palms, which showed much improvement and more than a trace of, uh, humanity (before capping off with an all-too-typical finale). But the idea of Dumont going to war is too much to imagine, and reaction was predictably split. (Guess which Salon critic was bowled over, though?)

Not a lick surprising were the token awards handed to Almodóvar and Iñárritu. Ditto, for that matter, the continued awesomeness of Almodóvar poster art:

Meanwhile, if this doesn't get a stateside distributor, the terrorists have already won.

By the way. Make sure to bookmark Bilge Ebiri's newfangled Nerve blog, The ScreenGrab, which compiles random and helpful cinema news, and often a day to boot.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

One more piece of validation for my unhealthy Kicking and Screaming obsession

Unless his essay in the film's upcoming (in August) Criterion release turns out to be, I dunno, a soapboax rant on miscreant youth or something, it looks like Chicago Reader great Jonathan Rosenbaum is a fan of Noah Baumbach's cultish yet still underrated portrait of post-collegiate inertia. Phew, right? As a low-budget poison pen letter to slackerdom made in the mid-'90s, featuring snappy one-liners (note: the box cover), and starring people like Chris Eigeman, Eric Stoltz and Parker Posey -- not to mention strictly-of-the-era names like Josh Hamilton, Jason Wiles, and the great Carlos Jacott -- it's easy, recently achieved acclaim aside, to lump K&S in with a certain group from a certain era. I myself have often wondered if my obsession with it -- and I can probably quote the thing from head to tail -- is chiefly due to it being roughly about people like myself, i.e., pseudo-verbose white twentysomethings who divide their time between brooding over girls and getting excited about nonsense. (And, oh, have I ever mentioned that I once co-founded a club dedicated to the film? We wrote haikus.)

But I'm probably wrong to be nebbishy. What always distinguished K&S was not only its relative visual confidence (dig the subtle, rectangular camera movements during flashbacks), but the potency of its milieu. Far from the wankerish posturing of, say, the Ben Affleck-starring Glory Daze, K&S nails the way self-deprecation becomes a prison, constant failure becomes a security blanket, and constant one-liners soon take on a menacing nature. Were you shocked by the awesomeness of The Squid and the Whale? (Let alone the more oblique kind proffered by The Life Aquatic?) I wasn't.

You may now litter my comments box with K&S quotes. I'll start: "There's also that dark side to the nosering."

By the way, if you haven't hung around Criterion's (newly spiffed-up) site recently, do. Their line-up, especially in August, is, how they say, to die for. Yi Yi and Eric Rohmer's entire "Moral Tales" cycle* are well worth the drool you'll wind up spilling, but I might be even more stoked for July's release of A Canterbury Tale, the low-key and increasingly magical film Powell & Pressburger made between Colonel Blimp and I Know Where I'm Going! The final section is something else.

And before I forget: Gratuitous Self-Promotion! This week's PW finds me being in the minority, it appears, on Richard E. Grant's autobiographical Wah-Wah, which I was an inch within fleeing when I caught it at the PFF. (My original, far less restrained take can be found here.) Also, as ever, (a measly) Rep.

* What's the dealio with Criterion going for Love in the Afternoon rather than the more prominent translation, Chloe in the Afternoon? Not hoping that Audrey Hepburn-aholics will get confused in your favor, are you?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Midgets, bleeding elephant trunks, armless mothers and me

Because last week's PW issue included only this as far as shameless plugs go, I wasn't too keen on swinging by, especially since I'm still, as it were, blog-blocked. But this week, I have no such excuse. Reviews of The Syrian Bride and The Beauty Academy of Kabul await you, as does, as ever, Rep, which features the source of the elements that so tidily make up the subject title (and accompanying picture): Alejandro Jodorowsky's so, so whack Santa Sangre.

What this plug bouillabaisse doesn't include is a capsule of Down in the Valley, David Jacobson's possibly insane Ed Norton vehicle. Why do I mention this? Only because a tiny mix-up led to me accidentally dashing off a capsule, only to find out that doing so was, well, an accident. (My brilliant colleague Sean Burns wound up writing it as a lead after Brian Grazer and co. decided to only show Da Code That Fictitiously Reveals Catholicism is Bullshit not to snooty American film critics but, rather, to the far more welcoming Cannes crowd.) Anyway, no harm done; when I said "dashed," I meant I churned the review out in record time. Besides, what are blogs for than posting, um, stuff you wrote? Here, then, is the review as it was when I turned it in. The grade, by the way, would be a B+. (At least Burnsy and I agree on Poseidon...almost.) With no more ado:

"Thanks to a third-act switcheroo that’s been less misunderstood than glibly simplified by detractors, David Jacobson’s assured Down in the Valley -- in which modern-day cowboy Edward Norton starts romancing San Fernando teen Evan Rachel Wood, much to the increasingly harried disapproval of prison guard dad David Morse -- has been classified as a “Boyfriend From Hell” pic, putting it in the company of fare as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female and the ilk. But why stop classifying there? Valley certainly doesn’t. Westerns, ‘50s rebel movies and serial killer biopics can also be detected in Valley’s DNA, with Jacobson -- who last made the surprisingly terrific Dahmer -- mashing them up into something unpredictable, unique and, best of all, hard to pin down.

"In fact, it takes well into the second act to even intuit that any of these movie types will come within a multiplex of Valley, not the least because Jacobson and company are too busy caught up in some of the most palpable delirium this side of last year’s Tropical Malady. Discovered at a gas station, sweetly dopey Norton -- who calls himself a “cowpoke” and refers to his motel room as his “spread” -- accepts a ride from genuinely curious Wood to go to the beach, to which he claims to have never been. A remarkably un-remarked-upon cross-generational romance quickly blooms, and for awhile it’s just the two of them and their cordoned-off paradise, getting high on swoony romanticism. (Let’s just say a sequence where they take Ecstasy comes this close to becoming too wonderful.)

"That questions as to whether he’s benign or not don’t spring to mind till almost the halfway mark owes as much to Jacobson’s smoothly evolving screenplay as to Norton’s delicate, note-perfect performance, which alternately suggests a soothing presence and a man perhaps dangerously in awe of his own self-perpetuating myth. Once the bubble pops and the movie heads into territory nearly unrecognizable from the opening, it’s tempting to think Jacobson, much like his protagonist, has gone off the deep end, no less because his movie kind of has. But while Valley constantly threatens to become less interesting (a quickie explanation of Norton’s psychosis feels thrown in by nervous distributors), its explorations of masculinity and patriarchy only become more intriguing. Thanks to Norton and an equally brilliant Morse, this may be the only “[Blank] From Hell” movie where it’s possible the “[Blank]” is a less contaminating force than the ostensible hero."

I neglected to mention The Talented Culkin, who, as noted elsewhere, is quite fawesome. Sorry 'bout that; space reasons, ya know?

Btw: Motherfucker's at Cannes.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

A whole new (nearly globalized) world

This is my new DVD player.

It will destroy my life.*

Albeit quite belatedly, I have joined the regionless DVD player/playing club. As you've doubtless surmised, that means I can now play any DVD on the planet. (Whether I can understand it, of course, depends on subtitle options.) People warned me that, once I finally made the leap -- via, by the way, the Philips 642/37, which came out of the box with make-go-regionless code already inserted -- it won't take long for me to grow apalled by how much money I've spent and am spending. They were and are right. I just compiled a list of the discs that are currently en route to my house in the boondocks of Philadelphia from various retailers in Britain. It is staggering. I'd rather not repeat the number, even though I'm pretty proud of each selection. (Is one of them the BFI disc of A Zed and Two Noughts, vastly superior to the R1 Fox Lorber both in transfer quality and extras, including an actual Greenaway commentary track? It is!) I also want to note that I made this list before, on a whim, I threw my credit card number at the new, wholly drool-worthy La Jetee/Sans Soleil disc. (Like most of my purchases, this one was made after a trip to DVD Beaver, my new favorite place to waste gobs of time, and second only to the IMDb as a place to get more excited about the thought of watching movies than actually watching them.)

I'm sorry to be a pessimist. This should really be a happy occasion, not a time to groan underneath the weight of a kaboodle of thin plastic cases festooned (so far) with red circular British grading stamps. And I should remind myself that, thanks to my nascent DVD transfer nazism, I'm really getting some (purportedly) dyno cinema: how else am I, as a Yank, going to see Innocence, directed by Gaspar Noe's girlfriend? And while the zeitgeist still catches up with the genius BBC science spoof Look Around You following its Matt Groening name-drop, I can sit atop my mountain, laughing that not only have I talked it up a couple of times, but I can play the Region 2 disc long before Region 1 companies even get around to the PAL-to-NTSC conversion. (Just wait till I get a grasp on bitrates.)

For the North Americanly curious, by the way, YouTube (you don't need a link) has, I believe, all eight nine-minute first series episodes of Look Around You, as that is what YouTube is seriously more useful at providing, this be damned. Series two, which stretches out the length twice over and does a hefty reformatting, is still running on BBCAmerica. While also not nearly as funny, it has its high peaks. Among these is this clip from the "Music" episode, in which contestant (and teacher) Tony Rudd postulates by example what music will sound like in the year 2000 (the show, though it never explicitly mentions it, takes place in 1981).

Dude might have undershot by 20 years. I wonder if 2020 will find songs that constantly change key, are sung in a nonsense language made of word patterns, and feature constant breaks into falsetto wailing. The spectral dude in the box, by the way? Why, it's Tchaikovsky's ghost. Rudd doesn't win (and neither does the guy who posits that 2000 will teem with rap songs about rapping), though he has scored a following.

But the real reason I'm posting? Shameless plugs! And I'm backlogged again. Last week, I forgot to direct you to my review of Steve Buscemi's dreary Lonesome Jim as well as, as ever, Rep. This week, I can't make the same mistake. In the issue of 5/3, I penned a giant article (as opposed to a review) of the loving, if not exactly burrowing, doc Saint of 9/11, which memorializes Father Mychal Judge, the first recorded victim of the WTC attacks. Also, there are three reviews (one Dan Buskirk review of a Chen Kaige pic down), namely of Hard Candy, Water, and Akeelah and the Bee: guess which one is kind of awesome. Also, as ever, Rep.

Also, yes.

*It is also out of stock -- sad, really, because when I picked it up, Amazon.com had marked it down to the point of essentially being thievery. There are still a couple used models, though you could always search elsewhere.