Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Departed/Infernal Affairs

Warner Bros./Media Asia Films
Directors: Martin Scorsese/Andrew Lau & Alan Mak
Length: 151 min./101 min.
Country: USA/Hong Kong
Format: 35mm/DVD

[MAJOR SPOILERS INSIDE - you've been warned]

We have here, with Martin Scorsese's The Departed and Andrew Lau and Andy Mak's Infernal Affairs, a shining example of how to remake a film (there are far too many similarities between the two for the new version to be considered a mere "inspiration" as Scorsese claims). Take a lackluster movie with a good premise and plenty of potential and work to create a new film that improves upon the source. And in almost every way, The Departed certainly does improve on Infernal Affairs.

Infernal Affairs is a big cult favorite, the result of lowered expectations on the part of both execs and audiences. The film can rightfully boast of a fun dual rat story, two genuinely thrilling and exciting set-pieces (the very long opening coke deal and SP Wong's demise), and two knockout performances by Eric Tsang (as mob boss Sam) and especially Anthony Wong (as SP Wong). Otherwise, the film is an exercise in mediocrity, suffering from pacing that alternates between rushed and overlong, half-assed lead performances by blandly charismatic Andy Lau (who also serves as director/producer) and the typically outstanding Tony Leung (perhaps my favorite actor of our time and one who could even make Zhang Yimou's Hero somewhat watchable - no small feat), ridiculous overstylization in the key of Bruckheimer (a character looking through a file is shown with 20 cuts and whip-pans), and a typically terrible and cheap-sounding HK score (with synths replacing orchestras, well, you get what you pay for).

The biggest crime of the film, though (no pun intended), is a all-too-often corny yet humorless script that affords no real characterizations or motivations whatsoever (though Tsang and Wong somehow manage to bring their respective characters up to two-dimensional). True, some characterization is given, but it never once helps us understand or sympathize with either of our leads or their utterly useless relationships (Lau's girlfriend is writing a novel about a man with multiple personalities! Get it? I guess mainstream American filmmakers aren't that only ones that think their audiences are stupid). Leung's Yan has a kid he doesn't know about developed only in a casually tossed-off reference. Lau's Inspector Lau has a girlfriend that he is nice to, and his coworkers don't trust him once he joins the Internal Affairs division. I'm not barely exaggerating when I say this is how deep the lead of the film is developed. How exactly did Lau and Mak expect us to care for any of these people? I think they cared only as much as they made a paycheck (further evidenced in Lau's performance).

Character motivation fares just as bad. Why does Inspector Lau decide to shoot his true boss, and why does he try and go straight at the end of film? Because he was caught? Because he felt remorse over what he had done? Because his criminality made his girlfriend cry? Why does Yan threaten to kill Lau only after it's established that only Lau can really help him? With no character laid out before this, there's no way for us to know and even less reason for us to care. This is not simply a case of extremely subtly motivation, or leaving it open-ended for the audience to figure (watching the film leaves no doubt that the filmmakers have zero faith in our intelligence). The writers (Mak and Felix Chong) didn't write any for us. It's rare to see a script this lazy. Any assertion of motivation given by an audience member would be giving the script too much credit.

The Departed is not without its flaws, but it almost entirely corrects those of its predecessor. It's easy to see Nicholson shooting for King Lear with his Irish crime boss Costello, but he shoots way too far, typically (these days, at any rate) taking his performance over the top while the rest of the film remains generally restrained. Eric Tsang played his Sam as a model of the ego-mad and flamboyant kingpin, a little crazed by his own success, perhaps, but never becoming embarrassing in his wild gesticulations as Nicholson does by the end of the film. The other major flaw of Scorsese's version is the combining of girlfriends into one character who goes between Damon's Sullivan and DiCaprio's Costigan. This subplot is overly contrived, but admittedly, having her turn out to be pregnant with Costigan's child is a nice touch, and deepens Farmiga's Madolyn to an excellent degree (in comparison with IA's woefully anemic girlfriend subplots).

Aside from these complaints, however, the film works wonderfully as a 40's or 50's film noir (of which Scorsese is a tireless champion) updated for our modern sensibilities and stamped with Scorsese's auteurist markings. The entire cast does a first rate job (though it took me a few scenes to get used to Wahlberg's Dignam), and Scorsese once again does a perfect job of matching rock music to his imagery - even accomplishing the very difficult task of making The Dropkick Murphys listenable. The film has an incredible amount of energy and stays tense throughout its 151 minute runtime, which go by much faster than IA's 101 minutes.

But where IA's script is so ridiculously weak, The Departed's is remarkably strong. The script uses a number of subtly but wonderfully developed fluid dualities, examining the distinctions between law and criminality, undercover cop and undercover criminal, father and son, impotence and virility, upper class and lower class, Italian and Irish (Boston seems the best American city for this film due in part to its notorious, continued racism as well as its heavy mob presence). On top of this, the characters are well fleshed-out with history and motivation, which help increase the tension between shifting allegiances and allow us to sympathize with all of the characters, even the asshole Dignam. When the dominoes fall at the end of the picture for damn near every character introduced, it's always truly surprising and thrilling (and bloody). Though the surprise of the second dirty cop in the unit may be a bit unearned, it's still damned effective. I can't think of a better ending of the film (and the rat past the gold dome is pitch-perfect), and can only imagine that the old film noirs would have been much like this if it weren't for that damned Production Code.

Infernal Affairs will most likely be remembered only as another bland Hong Kong actioneer made past the HK renaissance of the 80's and early 90's (well, I hope so, at least), but The Departed should stand as one of Martin Scorsese's masterpieces, and one of the better films on this decade.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Blue Velvet

DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group
Director: David Lynch
Length: 121 min.
Country: USA
Format: DVD

Like any American small town or suburb, Lumberton seems perfect. Everybody is super-friendly with big smiles to prove it, high school girls have blonde hair, wear dresses and date football players, the red roses are bright, the white picket fences even brighter.

But, also like any American small town or suburb, something dark and chaotic exists under the brightness and order. Lynch reveals this thesis in the bravura prologue to his Blue Velvet. From there on, the film never lets up, moving systematically through Lynch's story like it were an expertly-written treatise on the disturbing underbelly of small town/suburban life.

Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlin playing a character remarkably similar to Lynch himself) returns home from college to visit his ailing father and by pure chance happens upon a severed ear that leads him and the viewer on an odyssey through voyeurism, domestic violence, ritualistic rape, kidnapping, drugs, corruption and murder. Unlike conventional wisdom (when people even admit there are dark sides to their towns), however, this filth happens immediately under the surface and often right on it. It's no coincidence that Jeffrey's literal descent into the pitch-black "underworld" goes down only one flight of stairs and ends on the ground floor (subtly digging at your typical townie/suburbanite's naive belief that they live above indecency - generally only by virtue of not living in a major city).

This odyssey doesn't just show us what we (should already) know about towns like Lumberton, it also functions as Jeffrey's coming-of-age and as a romance (between Jeffrey and Laura Dern's Sandy - the force of good and light in Lynch's vision) that begins as innocent as the "chicken walk" that sparks it and becomes an adult relationship that came out of Jeffrey's need for an emotional anchor amidst the storm, and out of Sandy's need to be dragged through the darkness without dirtying her off-white dresses.

We watch Jeffrey become a man as the film unspools, but we can't help but wonder how much of sick fuck antagonist Frank (a perfect and particularly terrifying Dennis Hopper) rubbed off on him, and for how long - will he hit Sandy, desperate for filth, like he hit Isabella Rosselini's Dorothy during sex? That seed is clearly inside him, but will it take root? We can only hope that Jeffrey, once such a nice boy, has risen above the darkness and become a nice man, aware of the "disease" inside him but rejecting it wholeheartedly.

This is one of Lynch's best films, and aside from his "Hollywood" films, one of his most straightforward. It serves as a fantastic antidote to pap like the similarly themed American Beauty, and if you can handle the violence and intensity, is highly recommended.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Seven Samurai

Shichinin no Samurai
Toho Studios
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Length: 208 min.
Country: Japan
Format: 35mm
Date Viewed: 6 July 06

Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is the grandaddy of the modern action film and remains one of the best examples of how to do the genre right. This near-perfect epic is a full 3 1/2 hours in length, yet it feels shorter than most contemporary two hour Hollywood films. Kurosawa keeps the pace at top speed, while occasionally slowing down just enough to efficiently build a high amount of character and drama, allowing us to easily invest in the many memorable characters at the film's core. The action scenes are intense and exciting, but the examination of the Japanese sense of inter-caste relations and fulfilling one's duty regardless of the cost, as well as the more universal themes of processing loss and sacrifice, and wartime fear and paranoia are what make the film so compelling. If you skip this one because of length, black-and-white photography or subtitles (I have a real hard time respecting film opinions of anyone who expresses a preference against "having to read a film" - my least favorite phrase in the English language), then you're making a big mistake; it may or not be Kurosawa's best (Yojimbo gives it a run for its money), but regardless, this one is essential viewing.

Sunday, May 07, 2006


Cinecom Entertainment Group
Director: John Sayles
Length: 133 min.
Country: USA
Format: DVD
Date Viewed: 1 May, 2006

John Sayles' Matewan is a film that relies far too heavily on exaggerated distinctions between good and evil.

The story concerns a real-life mining strike in Matewan, West Virginia in 1920, in which miners attempted to become unionized to protect themselves from their ridiculously greedy and criminally negligent employers. Performances are outstanding across the board, and Haskell Wexler's cinematography is remarkable. The film is long and talky, but always tense and tightly edited, and when it was all over I wished the film was longer.

The story is a fascinating one, but the characters, though largely likable, are cartoonish to the point where the film can't be taken as seriously as it should be. The "good" miners and townspeople are given some character flaws and a somewhat balanced portrayal, but we can never for one second doubt that they are precious lambs who need Cooper's Union-man Kenehan and Strathairn's Police Chief Hatfield's sheep-herder like protection.

More cartoonish are the Baldwin-Felt detectives, Hickey and Griggs (Kevin Tighe and Gordon Clapp, respectively), caricatured so heavily that they may as well be twirling handle-bar mustaches after tying Nell Fenwick to railroad tracks. Tighe and Clapp give good performances to be sure, but they are so over-the-top in their evil that we can scarcely believe that the detectives of the Baldwin-Felts Agency could have been so monstrous, even though in real-life they were little more than murderers and thieves. The strong good/evil divide would have been much easier to digest had Sayles given them a more balanced portrayal along the lines of the miners/townspeople.

Sayles has made a good film here, but one can't help but thinking that with a little more work, it could have been great.

Touch of Evil

Universal Pictures
Director: Orson Welles
Length: 112 min.
Country: USA
Format: 35mm
Date Viewed: 21 April, 2006

Orson Welles' achilles heel was his storytelling ability. His visual capabilities were undeniably brilliant, but when it came to the story, Citizen Kane was cold and uninviting, The Trial was too hazy for its own good, and The Lady From Shanghai was not terribly interesting (though I will be reevaluating this film in the coming months). Even in his Shakespeare adaptations, the stories feel secondary and all but cast aside in favor of their (eye-popping) cinematography and editing.

This inspires a feeling that his films are beautiful but somewhat empty. Touch of Evil, however, is the one film of Welles' I've seen where his story rose to match his visual prowess. It's a complex and well-written B Noir, reveling in the pulp that made the genre so satisfying. The film delivers memorable characters (Welles' Quinlan, guest-star Dietrich's Tanya, Weaver's Motel Manager) and many important societal themes that still apply today (police corruption, racial tension, drug abuse, and questions of loyalty, to name a few).

Without having seen The Magnificent Ambersons or F For Fake, I say that Touch of Evil is Welles' masterpiece, a film much more solid than his generally overrated Citizen Kane. This one is very highly recommended.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Europa Corp.
Director: Tommy Lee Jones
Length: 121 min.
Country: USA
Format: 35mm
Date Viewed: 20 April, 2006

Is it coincidence that the acting is only major strongpoint of The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the new film directed by Tommy Lee Jones, a very good long-time actor here making his theatrical feature debut? I think not. With the exception of the Barry Pepper and his limited range (he spends the film alternating between shouting and looking incredibly serious), the ensemble, headed by Jones, is uniformly excellent, and it perhaps also not a coincidence that this is Jones' best performance in years.

Otherwise, the film has many flaws, least of which is its unfunny attempts at black comedy. A more significant flaw is the cinematography. Chris Menges is a capable cinematographer, and yet his Scope compositions here are remarkably flat and bland, unfortunate as the sheer beauty of the desert locations in south Texas deserve to be photographed accordingly. A few of the landscape shots work, but few enough that they can probably be credited more to the fact that one can't film desert scenery without getting at least one great shot. The problem may be that the compositions appear to have been framed for an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 - which Menges usually shoots in - as opposed to the film's ratio of 2.35:1 (take a look if you rent it on DVD).

A bigger problem with the film is the inconsistent editing style. The origin of this flaw is actually in the script by Guillermo Arriaga. He sticks to his standard personal convention of the broken narrative, but strangely this time, only in the first half of the film. In the first half the film jumps back and forth in time extremely quickly and with almost no visual cues to help us figure out easily where we are and as such we spend more time trying to figure out what point in time we're at as opposed to concentrating on the narrative. Once the film hits the half-way mark, however, it becomes almost entirely linear. It seems that Arriaga was more concerned with maintaining his reputation as the "broken narrative guy" instead of creating a narrative throughline that is more than a useless gimmick.

The film's poor use of ambiguity is the biggest problem in the film, however. Pete Perkins' (Jones) relationship with the titular character (Julio Cedillo) is left purposefully vague, but it's not successful in being enjoyably ambiguous (like, say, a mid-to-late period Kubrick picture). Perkins and Estrada's relationship is established in four scenes/sequences that don't effectively reveal how little to their relationship there really is, nor do they properly convey Perkins' extreme loneliness - the catalyst for the film's events after Estrada's first burial - so much as just feel underwritten and poor at expressing what we think should be a deeper and closer relationship, an error in storytelling by Jones the director. Indeed, the only way we can be sure that the two men's relationship was not a deep one and that sad irony propels the narrative is in the addition of a pathetic relationship between Perkins and Rachel (Melissa Leo), a waitress cheating on her husband with both Perkins and Sheriff Belmont (Dwight Yokam). Perkins' overwhelming need to attach himself to somebody only becomes clear in this well-scripted and directed subplot. At some point, though, it feels that this subplot could have been omitted and the somewhat bulky story more streamlined if the main relationship was developed enough to not need thematically related sequences to bring it into focus.

Overall, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada isn't a bad film, but it's not a particularly good one, either. If only Arriaga and Jones had paid more attention to developing the central relationship than to cutting up the narrative, and Menges had tried a little harder with the camera, this film might even have been a great one.

Miyazaki Blogathon

So, for all of you that have websites or blogs out there, a new phenomenon has hit amongst online film critics with blogs: blogathons. One of these sites calls out a topic and a day, and anyone who wants to posts an essay on the subject, fans of the subject as well as people who dislike them.

So far, there have been blogathons for Showgirls, Robert Altman, Code Unknown, Abel Ferrera, Angie Dickinson (meow!), and just today, Michelle Pfeiffer (

Next up is a blogathon for Hayao Miyazaki, the anime director for those of us who don't like anime (myself included), coordinated by Quiet Bubble between 12 and 14 May. The introduction for this can be found here:

So, whatever you may feel about Miyazaki or his work, if you have a blog or a full-on site, pull together an essay and post it sometime during the blogathon. If you decide to do one, send me a link to it; I am interested in checking out what others think about the man and his career.


Thursday, April 27, 2006


RKO Radio Pictures
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Length: 101 min.
Country: USA
Format: DVD
Date Viewed: 16 April, 2006

Francois Truffaut considered Notorious to be "the single work that provides the fullest representation of Hitchcock’s art" (§ion=essay). I concur in full.

All of the standard Hitchcockian devices appear in this film: the beautiful blonde leading lady, the dashing male lead, the dark comedy, the MacGuffin, the inventive cinematography, the careful building of suspense with little or no action, his cameo quietly tucked into the film. It's all very well done, especially the flashy (by today's standards, even) and fun photography by Ted Tetzlaff - his last and best known film as cinematographer.

And yet, Notorious feels a bit underwhelming by the time it's over. Everything we've come to know and love about Hitch's body of work is present and accounted for, but the story doesn't strike a terribly strong chord. The biggest issue is the highly mechanical feeling to the chain of events in the film's narrative through-line. Instead of feeling brief and shorn of fat (and it is on the whole), Ben Hecht's script ends up feeling like it was hurriedly written with little care outside of plugging controversial topics (Nazis on the run and uranium) into a formulaic structure. As a result, the film is an especially light slice of Hitch's proverbial cake. A delicious slice of cake, but a very light one nonetheless.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Les Film du Fleuve
Directed by: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardienne
Length: 100 min.
Country: Belgium/France
Format: 35mm
Date Viewed: 13 April, 2006

Seattle can be a frustrating town when it comes to foreign films. Mediocre or bad movies like Kung Fu Hustle or A Tale of Two Sisters can get mutli-week runs, but real films, like This Charming Girl, The Best of Youth or the recent L'Enfant, either can't get distribution or get a quiet, blink-and-you-miss-it one week run at one of our wildly overpriced Landmark cinemas.

L'Enfant follows the Dardienne brothers' mind-blowing work, The Son, and is a strong film, if not as instantly satisfying as its predecessor. L'Enfant takes a little time to unfold, and is slow, though not to the point of being boring. The cinematography sticks to the same style as The Son, and is used to great effect in both (though it works better in the earlier film because the intensity of the camera work matches the intensity inside Olivier).

The story is a fascinating one, and the main character, Bruno (Jeremie Renier), is one of the most interesting characters in recent memory. The child referred to in the title every bit as much as his son, Bruno is an amoral man-child living hand-to-mouth in a bleak, harsh Belgian industrial town, eschewing any job ("only fuckers work," he retorts) or responsibility that might come his way, and all too ready to sell his new son in the same manner that he sells his hat early in the film. He does this thinking, with all seriousness and innocence, that him and his girlfriend will have another baby, but now they have a lot of money to spend (most likely within the next couple of days on new jackets and convertible rentals). It's hard to think of another film with a main character who commits this many shocking acts and yet is not a "bad" person. It's harder to think of a film that could pull of this main character as skillfully as the Dardiennes do.

Apparently, the film serves largely as a religious parable, but any religious references were lost on this young atheistically leaning reviewer. The main theme, which was thankfully easier to pick up on, is the first spark of responsibility in young men (making this a good double feature with You Can Count on Me); the time when a man realizes that his actions can affect others in negative ways (notice his confusion when his girlfriend, Sonia, faints after learning the fate of their baby) and that he must be held accountable for said actions. This spark comes to Bruno in the last shot of the film. [Minor Spoiler] Before this, he acts so selfishly so often, that when the spark hits him and Sonia forgives him, we still think that she is making a huge mistake on this guy even though he has made an important step towards redemption. We can't help but question whether he will take this spark and build on it to become a more responsible man, or if he will reject it and commit more stupid acts that Sonia will have to pay for (shades of Kenji Mizoguchi's works). The amazing ending is simultaneously and strangely depressing, frustrating and hopeful.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Do the Right Thing

Universal City Studios
Director: Spike Lee
Length: 120 min.
Country: USA
Format: DVD
Date Viewed: 13 April, 2006

The people who confused Paul Haggis' Crash for a thought-provoking treatise on racism are in dire need of seeing Do the Right Thing, a serious and deep look at the continually important topic.

Hearing others' viewpoints on the film, ambiguous almost to a fault, is telling of how off the mark some audiences are to the film's message. Most (white) people who see the film, and this goes for myself the first time I saw Do the Right Thing years ago, seem to not notice that white/Latino cops murder a young black man, but certainly do notice that a black man throws a trash can through the window of a white-owned business leading to the destruction of said business. Most white audiences seem to lament the destruction of (white) property, but not the loss of (black) life.

[Spoiler Alert]
Interesting, too, that most white audiences seem to instinctively side with Sal above anyone else, including Mookie. They can accept that Sal would destroy Radio Raheem's stereo with a baseball bat after calling him a Nigger, but they cannot at all accept that Mookie, a close friend of the now murdered Raheem and the still living Sal, would throw a trash can into Sal's pizzeria as a direct response to the racist murder.

But all of these acts are the direct result of poor communication set up early in the film, and of subsequent venting of suppressed racist views and of miscommunications on all sides on the neighborhood throughout the second act. In the end, nobody save Da Mayor, played by the excellent as always Ossie Davis, did the right thing. In fact, Da Mayor is the perhaps only reason that Sal and his sons remained alive through the ordeal, giving the film one of its glimmers of hope in the promotion of level-headed, colorblind and non-violent persons who will work to save others about to be affected in times of violence.
[Spoiler Alert Over]

The heavy ambiguity of the film mainly comes in the contrast of violent and non-violent methods of self-defense. Lee, in the Cannes press conference supplement on the film's outstanding 2-disc Criterion DVD, says that he believes the violent self-defense of Malcolm X's teachings, but doesn't necessarily discount the non-violence preached by Martin Luther King, Jr. The two quotes at the end of the film that serve to put this conflict into words, whose purpose seemed fairly evident in explaining that there are multiple answers to all situations and that perhaps both are necessary for true change, seemed to confuse even the intellectual critics at Cannes, not to mention the American public. A couple of critics during the press conference made reference to the quotes, and seem to think that they gave an explicit call-to-arms, especially towards the black youth one critic was sure would terrorize New York with racially-charged violence later that summer as a result of Do the Right Thing's theatrical release.

But this heavy ambiguity, originally considered by me to be a flaw, actually seems like a positive aspect upon further reflection. Any mainstream white audience member who sees this film needs to see the realities of lower-class urban life, and that violence is sometimes the only recourse that an oppressed people have. We can see this in the Watts riots of the 60s, for instance, or more recently in the Paris riots last fall, for two examples. White suburban audiences (of which I belonged until a couple years ago) will no doubt be unable to comprehend urban unrest and the necessity of violence where non-violence quite simply doesn't work. This audience can use this film to begin to understand the reality of violence in times of social unrest. It is frustrating that this audience seems to have completely missed the lesson. So long as people really work to think deep about the reasons why everyone in the film acts as they do (and use the supplements of the Criterion DVD for further analysis), the ambiguity should not be as huge an issue as it has become.

Aside from this, the film on the whole is a outstanding achievement of acting, cinematography, editing and screenwriting. Lee was in complete control of his location shoot, and the film's beautiful woven tapestry reveals this truth in its fluid movement around the diverse neighborhood, always hinting at the inevitable third act conflict and at the economic and social realities of low-income urban neighborhoods.

The film stands in stark contrast with Crash's remarkably incompetent technical aspect and its contrived and mechanical character interactions that many people mistook for realism. Do the Right Thing fits Chikimatsu's definition of art as fitting between the real and the unreal, though its high stylization paradoxically allows the real-world situations at its core to stand-out more vividly than if Lee went for cinema verite; Crash spiraled far into the unreal for it to be anything but useless. It's nice that we have at least one film that adequately looks beyond the non-revelation that we (and the cops!) are all racist to some degree.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Update 2

OK, so the new website did not pan out as expected. I am still planning on changing to a new site, but this will be a more long term change. If you or someone you know is interested in creating from scratch a new film review website for me, please contact me so we can discuss particulars.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Dark City

Dark City Productions
Director: Alex Proyas
Length: 100 min.
Country: Australia/USA
Format: DVD
Date Viewed; 10 April, 2006

Alex Proyas owes a huge debt to European sci-fi of the 90s, and the films of Jeunet and Caro in particular, for his Dark City, which in turn is owed a huge debt by the Wachowski's for their The Matrix, which took so much from Proyas' sci-fi noir that it's almost surprising Proyas didn't sic attack lawyers on the brothers.

The world that Proyas creates is breathtakingly beautiful in its bleak, near-Dystopian look, and indeed the film's style is its main strongpoint. The timeless look of the film and the costumes help bolster the visuals, and reinforces my view that men wearing suits and fedoras all the time, like William Hurt's character, always looks incredibly cool (just you wait until I can afford a suit). The use of miniatures and CGI are almost always perfectly blended, and Dark City is, until the climactic showdown when the effects overpower the characters and drama and become laughably poor, one of the best examples of heavy CGI done right.

And yet, the film is only mediocre at best. The film looks very cool and plays with some interesting ideas, but the film completely fails to create an emotional connection with us, the only way the film could have truly succeeded. Proyas tries to have us buy into the burgeoning love between John (Rufus Sewell) and Emma (Jennifer Connelly), but between lackluster performances by Sewell and Connelly and only a couple of scenes between them anyways, it is hard for us to really care much. As a minor sideplot it might not matter as much, but Proyas tries to make this a major storyline and the emotional center of the story. It is surprising, then, that it is so underwritten and poorly cast (the other actors in the film do a great job, however).

The main storyline suffers from a similar problem of being underwritten. The ideas come through long, breathless monologues - dull to listen to and a little overwhelming in their very high info-per-minute rates. You can tell that Proyas cared about the themes, but paradoxically wanted them rushed through so he could get back to the (stunning) visuals. As a result, the film is beautiful but empty. There's nothing for us to really latch onto except the style, and that's simply not enough for a film that wants us to feel something.

Apparently, an early cut of the film slowed the pace down quite a bit, developed the story and themes less hurriedly, and omitted the opening voice-over that tells a little too much about the set-up. This may have improved the film, and will hopefully be a part of the director's cut which is slated to have a DVD release later this year.

In it's current form, I can only recommend it for the pretty pictures, but don't expect any sort of emotional depth or well-developed story.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Our Daily Bread

Viking Productions
Director: King Vidor
Length: 75 min.
Country: USA
Format: VHS
Date Viewed: 10 April, 2006

Inspired by the hardships of the Great Depression and the new collective farms that were growing in the Heartland as a result, King Vidor revisited the characters John and Mary Sims from his brilliant film, The Crowd, and puts them to work on one of these farms in his independently produced pseudo-sequel, Our Daily Bread. This powerful film must have been quite inspirational upon its release, and would probably be an inspiration if we found ourselves in another Great Depression today.

It's power comes from a couple of factors. First, the film is very brief. It starts, makes its points very quickly and precisely, and ends; no point is hammed to death and there is no fat on the film. Second, the ideas and themes are incredibly clear, so clear that the movie could be watched with the sound off and we would still be able to understand them. This is helped by the fact that Vidor was an amazing visualist (see also: The Crowd). Vidor's style here is a little more subdued, but the sequence of the men digging the canal to save the farm is a masterpiece in its combination of story, picture, editing and sound.

[Minor Spoiler Alert] There is one flaw to the film, though, a storyline that should have been fleshed out. Sally, the very symbol of boorish Capitalism, makes a play for John and wins his affection; indeed he begins to run off with her at the end of the second act. This whole sequence is incredibly rushed and terribly undernourished, betraying it's importance to the story as a whole. It's importance comes in that it tests John's resolve towards staying with the Collective lifestyle as opposed to reentering the Capitalist system which impoverished him in the first place. And yet, in one scene, they take a walk together, and the next, he's running off with her. It's a hurried plot device that needed a little bit more to make his character's transition much clearer (why is he so eager to leave his wife for this obnoxious shrew?), but of course, not so much that the film would have been bogged down in the subplot. [Spoiler Alert Over]

The rest of the film overcomes this flaw, however, and on the whole, Our Daily Bread is a rather solid film, one that would make a good double-feature with its predecessor, The Crowd.

Animal House

Universal City Studios
Director: John Landis
Length: 109 min.
Country: USA
Format: Video
Date Viewed: 6 April, 2006

Animal House is another example of mysteriously overrated '70s cinema. Sure the film has some funny jokes in it, and it can be appreciated for, if not inventing, than certainly popularizing and setting the trend an entire subgenre of comedy - the slobs versus the snobs picture. But when it's all boiled down, it's just another half-baked gross-out comedy that can only succeed with rather low expectations from the audience along with the eager anticipation of lots of bare breasts.

Director John Landis would be much more successful later, following up Animal House with a great one-two punch of The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London. And when it comes to dumb, zany comedies, Landis didn't get better than with Spies Like Us, a great guilty pleasure and a comedy much more satisfying than Animal House.

For low-brow entertainment, you could do worse than Animal House, but you could do quite a bit better, too.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


Brick Productions
Director: Rian Johnson
Length: 110 min.
Country: USA
Format: 35mm
Date Viewed: 7 April, 2006

Rian Johnson, with his debut film, Brick, joins Darren Aronofsky and Shane Carruth in a group that, over the last few years, has been bringing back the spirit of '70s cinema by making low-budget, inventive and intelligent films with a visual style reminiscent of their predecessors - Scorsese, Carpenter, Romero, to name a few. With, Brick, the visuals owe a huge debt to the '70s, but the structure and dialogue, of course, come straight from the '40s and '50s, transplanting this era's film noir trappings onto a modern day Southern California high school.

The experiment had so many ways to go wrong, and in a couple small areas it does, but on the whole it's a huge success. As for its flaws, they include inconsistent cinematography, with a handful of shots out of step with the rest of the film which call too much attention to the framing, though these aren't necessarily jarring enough to be more than a quibble.

The other and much bigger flaw is in the sound mix, presenting the dialogue in a very muddy and muted fashion - strange in light of the fact that the rest of the soundtrack is quite clear. This is more of a problem than usual for three reasons: the dialogue is spoken extremely quickly, the plot is extremely complex and we learn the majority of it through the dialogue, and third, the dialogue is peppered with made-up slang to sound like a '40s or '50s film noir but is often vague enough to be unclear as to its meaning (at some point, I wanted a glossary). All of these are heavily hampered by the terrible dialogue tracks on the sound mix. If this is not fixed for the eventual DVD release, it is the hope that it will at least come with English captions. Luckily, it is still quite possible to understand the main plot, but the details are what makes the film especially fascinating, and many of the interesting details are found in this somewhat unclear dialogue.

Aside from these two issues, the film is very well made, and is one of the better modern noirs (for the best of them, see the original Insomnia, and not the Pacino crapfest). The performances are by and large outstanding, the look of the film is dark and intoxicating and the film-noir transition from crooks and cops to students and vice principals is perfect.

But the film mainly works so well because it avoids the pitfall of campiness. Johnson and his actors made the perfect choice in playing the story and characters straight. Had they included a sense of jokiness to the proceedings, even the slightest wink to the audience that they were just having some fun with some quaint dialogue, the entire film would have been a lesser work - another tedious update of older source materials created with smarm instead of a true love for said sources. Film noir is a tricky sell these days; revival screening audiences generally end up laughing at how cheap the productions were, or how "cutely antiquated" the style is. It seems like there aren't many people out there anymore who truly love the genre, and it's refreshing to see that Johnson and his cast and crew treated the genre with the respect it deserves.

Rian Johnson has created a very strong film his first time out, and it will be exciting to see what comes next from the young director.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Sansho the Bailiff

Sansho Dayu
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
Length: 125 min.
Country: Japan
Format: VHS
Date Viewed: 5 April, 2006

Sansho the Bailiff is another outstanding personal film by Kenji Mizoguchi. His standard theme of the sins of the father being suffered by his wife and children is readily apparent here, as well as his other recurring theme of citizens being consumed and destroyed or driven to apathy by warfare.

The first theme appears time and again in the director's films as he was (understandably) never able to get over the sale of his sister by their father when they were children. Adding this element to his films was not only cathartic, but also an attempt to warn other men not to commit similar unconscionable acts against the family.

The second theme appeared often as a comment on his own anti-war feelings during the Pacific War. By the mid-fifties when Sansho the Bailiff was released, this point was seemingly moot in the wake of Japan's new constitution neutering any militaristic ability and the "awakening" of its citizens from the pro-war hysteria whipped up the country's military leaders during the war, but it was still a necessary and effective theme.

Both themes are masterfully inserted into a script of high tragedy, encapsulating situations that were still largely fresh in the Japanese post-war experience. More importantly, it mirrored most accurately the situations of Japan's Pacific War victims, most notably China and Korea, where the largest numbers of slave laborers and forced-prostitutes came from - a connection most likely unnoticed then and now by the majority of the Japanese audience, but really, audiences anywhere outside of China and Korea. Knowing his strong anti-war sentiment (he even "sabotaged" his own The Loyal 47 Ronin to deny his military backers' satisfaction), it can be guessed that Mizoguchi created Sansho the Bailiff with this connection on purpose.

But the film is all too eerily similar to current wars around the world, especially in the various Africa conflicts, and in the war in Iraq as well, revealing our own continued ignorance or apathy towards the film's timeless message against the horrors of war. There are a handful of world leaders that need to have this film screened for them. You should watch it, too, though, for no other reason than it being an extremely well-made film. Sansho the Bailiff is highly recommended.

Monday, April 10, 2006


Minbo no Onna
Izumi Films
Director: Juzo Itami
Length: 123 min.
Country: Japan
Format: VHS
Date Viewed: 2 April, 2006

Juzo Itami's Minbo is the classic underdog story, this time set in an upscale Tokyo hotel. The underdogs are two employees picked largely at random by hotel executives to push out the yakuza (Japanese mafia), who have moved in and are bilking the hotel and its employees for millions. The underdogs' add to their corner Mahiru (the fabulous Nobuko Miyamoto), a feisty extortion attorney with plenty of anti-yakuza experience under her belt, as the trainer/mentor character. This comedy breaks no new ground, but is a pleasant and often very funny take on the archetypal story.

The only thing that puts a damper on the proceedings is that it runs too long by twenty or thirty minutes, hammering home its point again and again and again, first in a comedic manner and eventually turning to dramatic and suspenseful examples of extortionary measures and how to stop them. Though it is successfully tense in the final showdown, the movie works best when it stays with its funny side, and is hilarious when it does so.

The film never suffers too terribly from flaw, but it is enough to keep the director's Tampopo in its spot at the pinnacle of the director's filmography. Still, Minbo is worth a rental. It's a little harder to find, but worth the trouble.

Bad News Bears

Paramount Pictures
Director: Richard Linklater
Length: 113 min.
Country: USA
Format: DVD
Date Viewed: 1 April, 2006

Essentially a companion piece to Linklater's own School of Rock, Bad News Bears remakes the well-known kiddie baseball movie of the same name with a fair amount of success. The jokes are piled on thick and fast and with a slant towards poop jokes, but truly funny lines find their way into the proceedings surprisingly often (the "German chick" line nearly had me on the floor). Thornton ambles through the role, seemingly enjoying himself and delivering the endless onslaught of jokes in a casual and naturalistic manner. The Bears are played by child actors with very little acting experience - some have not been in a movie before or since - and it shows. But they do decent enough work for the movie, and indeed it helps in giving a rather genuine feeling of outsidership and uneasiness to their characters. The movie isn't infused with much flair or excitement and the story is nothing new, but it's competently made and moves along at a brisk pace while thankfully avoiding MTV-style editing. Bad News Bears certainly isn't an award winner, but you can find many worse ways to spend two hours on a rainy day.