Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Desperate Attempt to Catch Up

In the chaos of my life in the last few weeks, I have fallen hopelessly behind on my stated ambition for this blog, but I have concocted a clever scheme to catch up. Since I believe the best works of art are the ones that stick with you longest, I will give here a brief summary of everything I have watched and/or read since my last update. Anything I neglect to mention can most likely be assumed to be something that was not worth my time in the first place.

The Movies:

Toy Story 3: Do I need to tell you Pixar knocked this one out of the ballpark? I think it’s been a little weaker than some of their recent films, but it still holds the Pixar charm that puts their films so far above everyone else’s.

Cropsey: A documentary about a serial killer on Staten Island who lived in an abandoned mental hospital and preyed on the mentally disabled. So named because of the startling resemblance he had to an old urban legend by the same name. Probably the scariest documentary I have ever watched.

Withnail and I: Probably the greatest drug movie I have ever watched. It starts off a bit slow, but is incredibly funny once it gets into stride and contains an absolutely unbelievable performance from Richard E. Grant as the bitter actor Withnail.

Micmacs
: The latest effort from Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, it has much the same charm as Amelie but is not as well made and, despite its visual inventiveness, is in a lot of ways a pretty formulaic movie.

Barton Fink: The Coen Brothers’ account of a troubled screenwriter trying to tell the story of the common man is one of their best efforts. This is definitely a movie for Coen Brothers fans (and if you count yourself amongst that number, you’ve probably already seen this one).

K20: The Fiend With 20 Faces
: A preposterous title yes, but a rather delightful and quirky film from Japan about a circus performer who is framed as the notorious thief K20 and goes on the run to clear his name. There are gaping holes in logic, but you’ll be having too much fun to care.

A Taste of Cherry
: My first Iranian film confirmed what I’d always heard about Iranian cinema – that it’s almost impossible to believe that such a wretched country could produce such beautiful movies. A Taste of Cherry is a simple and provocative film in spite of the preposterous ending that nearly ruins the whole thing.

Missing: A political thriller from Costa-Gavras, whose Z is one of the greatest political thrillers I’ve ever seen. It’s no insult that Missing doesn’t live up to it, because it’s still a superb movie and I found myself admiring the way it so sincerely handles a conservative American’s developing disillusion with his country.

Metropolitan
: A movie that many people had been urging me for years to see. Call me a commie, but I found it impossible to sympathize with the movie’s lamenting of the death of New York’s old money elite, but the movie does have its charms and a humor so dry you’ll miss the jokes if you blink.

Noises Off
: A film based off a play (that is basically a filmed version of the play) about a group of actors whose performances of a hit play go gradually downhill as backstage tensions mount between them. A very funny and overlooked movie.

Black Orpheus
: An adaptation of the Orpheus legend set in Rio during Carnivale. I loved the musicality of it but thought many of the other elements didn’t hold up as well.

Vengeance is Mine
: A Japanese film about an actual serial killer who terrorized the country for several months in the 1960’s. I found it a bit slow, but was one of the better examples I’ve seen of the “psychology of a killer” type of story.

The Books:

Denis Johnson, The Name of the World: I’ve been deeply impressed with Johnson’s books Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke but found this to be the most underwhelming of any of his works that I’ve read so far. I think the problem is that it is the most tame, mannered and restrained of any of his books, and felt like he was out of his element.

Carlos Fuentes, Aura: Funny that I managed to read his gargantuan (and mind-bogglingly difficult) masterpiece Terra Nostra with pleasure but could summon little love for this short (barely even long enough to call a novella) book. It was a pretty hackneyed piece of work, lacking in the originality of vision that I saw in Terra Nostra and leading to a conclusion that felt pulled from the depths of bad horror stories. A real disappointment.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway: Like with Gulliver’s Travels, I’m not going to review Mrs. Dalloway. I liked it, for whatever that’s worth, and it was my first Woolf (I know, I know, but I’m working on the second one right now, A Room of One’s Own, which I will also refrain from reviewing).

Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel: a brisk and brilliant little book about a man trapped on an island that holds a bizarre secret (please note this was published sixty five years before Lost). One of the only books I’ve ever read where the solution to the mystery elevates the book to new levels rather than simply answer whodunit.

And that just about covers it. I’m going to make damned sure that I don’t fall this far behind again.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The New Academy Rules: A Comparison

Two years ago the Academy changed the rules for voting in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It used to be that the voters in that category were not required to watch all of the movies. Even without any context, the unfairness of this policy should be blatantly obvious, but it’s even worse when you consider that most of the foreign film nominees get no screening whatsoever anywhere outside of its own country when voting comes around, meaning the film that wins is whichever film made the biggest splash at Cannes or Toronto. Voters would almost always have to pick on the basis of having seen only two or three of the movies.

Now they are required to watch all of them (they’re given special screenings), and it has made a profound difference. This was made very clear last year when the completely unheard of Japanese film Departures beat out the widely-screened heavyweights The Class and Waltz With Bashir. I remember being quite shocked by the upset, but after seeing all three of them, I have to agree that Departures is superior to either of the favorites. The new rule pulled an upset again this year, when the also unheard of The Secret in Their Eyes beat out the guaranteed-to-win The White Ribbon. I’ve now had the opportunity to see both films, and I have to applaud the Academy, because it looks as though their new rules will be a boon to people who care about real movies by shedding light on films we otherwise would have been highly unlikely to ever have a chance to see.

The Secret in Their Eyes is a vastly superior film to The White Ribbon, although I’m a bit biased because I think Michael Haneke is a grossly overrated director. I’m actually not surprised that so many of his admirers consider The White Ribbon to be his masterpiece, because it is the epitome of his style: overlong, agonizingly slow, pointless, meandering and reveling in its own masturbatory elusiveness. The Secret in Their Eyes, despite being twelve minutes longer, moves so quickly I barely even noticed the time had passed and is an absolutely riveting film for every minute.

It is about a retired investigator who has found himself compelled to return to a case he worked on twenty-five years before in which a young woman was brutally raped and murdered. It is also an opportunity for him to bring the judge he worked for, a woman who he was madly in love with, but could never bring himself to do anything about it, back into his life. The story flashes back and forth between the present day and the events of the investigation, and the suspense isn’t so much in the whodunit (we actually find out very early on who the killer is) but in the question of whether or not justice would actually be served. The corruption of Argentinian politics of the 1970’s has a quiet but forceful impact on the events that unfold. But this is really more of a human film than a political one, and one of the things I found myself admiring about it is the way so much of the case depends upon an understanding of human nature rather than forensic evidence. The film is called The Secret in Their Eyes for a reason.

It is also beautifully filmed, rich in the vivacity of South America. It makes superb use of colors and shadows and, not surprisingly, there is a lot of focus on eyes. I suspect a lot of these actors were chosen for their eyes, because so much of the story is told through them and through the times when they are hidden in the shadows, such as in the film’s final revelation, which contains a twist that was entirely unexpected, not because the director pulled the rug out from under us, but because we realize what it says about one of the film’s key characters. And I would remiss if I did not mention that this movie contains what is without any doubt one of the most mind-blowing tracking shots I have ever seen. It easily deserves to stand alongside such celebrated long takes as the famous shots in Weekend and Goodfellas, but with the difference that those are shots we admire because we know they were difficult to film, whereas I’m at a loss to even fathom how they pulled off the shot in The Secret in Their Eyes. When you go to see it, start paying attention at the helicopter zoom into a soccer stadium, and then come back here and tell me how they managed it.

I was quite surprised when Departures pulled an upset two years ago, but had to concede that the Academy made the right choice. Because of that, I knew that when The Secret in Their Eyes beat The White Ribbon that we were in for something really special. I’m not at all surprised that that the Academy preferred The Secret in Their Eyes, because next to The White Ribbon’s plodding, emotionless story it is such a joy to behold. I’m also grateful, because without the new rules it is highly unlikely that I ever would have seen this movie. The Academy’s new voting process means that more great foreign films will be given space in the American market, and I look forward to more surprise picks in the years to come.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Why I Won’t be Reviewing Gulliver’s Travels

I just finished reading Gulliver’s Travels for the first time today, but I am not going to write a review of it. In case you’re wondering why, it’s because I see no point in doing so. There is nothing left to be said about it, and certainly nothing I can contribute to the conversation.

I started this blog for two reasons: 1.) to make people aware of books and films they may not have heard of or motivate them to take on works they hadn’t gotten around to yet, and 2.) to contribute my voice to the discussion of works you may have already read or seen. It is one thing to do this with a film like Mandrill, which very few people will have even heard of but is worth knowing about, it is another thing entirely to do it with a book that has become such a vital thread in the tapestry of our culture that just about everyone knows the story even if they haven’t read it.

I think the only way I could respond to Gulliver’s Travels would be as a creative writer, which would mean writing a story about it. I may do that, too, but this is not the place for it. This is why I believe writing is the future of English departments and not literary analysis. Analysis is drying up, wearing itself out, specializing itself into irrelevancy, but the imagination is boundless. There are no end of stories inspired by Gulliver’s Travels that could still be written (I myself have been bouncing around the idea of a contemporary version) and so many that can, in turn, be inspired from those stories. Creative writers have the freedom to build off of each other in any way they want, while any analysis of Gulliver’s Travels can only have its basis in the book.

Plus, if you need me telling you you should read this book, your priorities are all out of whack. Of course you should read it: especially if you’re a creative writer.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Marko Zaror: Or, if Stephen Segal Could Act

I got the peculiar opportunity the other day to watch a double screening featuring a rising Chilean action star, Marko Zaror, with him and the director of one of the films in attendance. Zaror has recently started becoming a household name in Chile, and there’s been some speculation that he may soon become a household name in the US as well. I’m crossing my fingers for it, because he has all of the makings of a great action star: an exotic South American charm, numerous black belts and, quite rare for someone of his type, actual acting abilities (mind you, he’s no Robert De Niro, but he’s skilled enough to be fun to watch).

This double feature made quite a stir in the film community out here, because Zaror’s film Mandrill was a huge hit at the Fantastic Fest film festival last fall, big enough that the festival directors, Alamo Drafthouse owner Tim League and Ain’t it Cool News founder Harry Knowles, flew him in from Chile to show it again alongside his latest vehicle, a mixed martial arts movie called Undisputed III: Redemption (the director of that film, Isaac Florentine, was also in attendance).

Since the title of that last film may have raised a few eyebrows, I have to say that it defied my expectations by actually being good, far better than the third film in a straight-to-DVD series of mixed martial arts action movies had any business being. A lot of this is because Florentine is actually a very talented director, and his skills are being wasted on movies that no one other than die-hard UFC fanatics are ever going to watch. Hollywood seems to have its priorities backwards (Undisputed III was produced under the universal label), because this is the kind of stuff hacks like Michael Bay, Stephen Sommers and Bret Ratner ought to be directing, while the big projects ought to be going to guys like Florentine who actually know what they’re doing. It really says a lot that this movie is better than any movie I’ve seen from any of those directors.

There is a story in Undisputed III, about an underground fighting ring in Georgia (the country) where the winner gets released (despite the fact that every single one of them is a murderer), but it’s the fights and not the story that’s important, and there are two reasons the fights work so well in this movie (Hollywood, pay attention here): they are filmed well and we actually have reason to care about the characters who are fighting in them. Florentine spoke afterwards about how we have no reason to care about a fight if the characters don’t interest us, and though they aren’t exactly Shakespearean, they are fleshed out well enough that we do take an interest in him. The two really notable performances are by Scott Adkins, who plays a Russian criminal with an injured leg (which makes his fights quite interesting) and, of course Marko Zaror, the Lorca-reading villain of the film. The rivalry ultimately comes down to the two of them, and when they fight, we’re fully aware of the fact that there’s much more than just who wins at stake. As for the fights, Florentine also spoke out against the quick cut techniques that have become too common in big action movies. These are real guys fighting real fights (well, real enough at any rate) in front of a camera that takes its time to show us what’s going on.

But while Undisputed III was a far better movie than I ever would have imagined, it is ultimately a niche film unlikely to appeal to a larger audience (though it’s telling that the reviews on IMDb from people who do enjoy these types of movies all say that it’s one of the best such films they’ve ever seen). Mandrill is the movie for the more general filmgoer. An action comedy with Zaror in the lead as an angry hitman out to find the man who killed his parents, it is solid proof that you don’t need a large budget to make an innovative action movie. It opens with Mandrill beating up a series of people, asking of each of them, “Where’s Waldo?” a joke the audience was surprised to learn in the Q&A afterwards was entirely unintentional, because Where’s Waldo does not exist in Chile. The hit job gives him a lead to track down his parent’s killer – and I’d prefer to leave the rest for you to find out. The story does not develop in the way you think it will, and a blind viewing is better.

Mandrill is remarkably fast-paced, almost too fast-paced, because I could have sworn the movie had just started when the credits started rolling, but I had a lot of fun the whole way through. This is basically a low-budget James Bond (if Bond were a hitman) but one that operates in its own quirky, offbeat style (and with a lot more karate in it). There is a love interest, but it doesn’t turn out the way you’d expect it to, and numerous flashbacks to Mandrill being raised by his uncle, where we learn that his badass persona is a combination of a laughably bad Chilean Bond knockoff called John Colt and preposterous dating advice from his womanizing uncle. More action stars should have origin stories like that.

The good news is that if you want to see Mandrill, they announced at the screening that it was just picked up by Magnolia for American distribution, so Zaror is one step closer to becoming the next big thing in action movies. And if he does wind up becoming a major star, I called it.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Old West Korean Style

If I told you I went the other day to watch a Korean homage to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that featured a villain who was emo before emo was a concept, a bounty hunter who can single-handedly take out an entire battalion of Japanese soldiers, a bungling anti-hero who runs through gunfights in a diving helmet, in addition to pipe-smoking bandits, opium-addicted Korean independence fighters and more ass stabbings than you’d ever expect to see in a movie, I’d say odds are you’re either wondering what the hell’s wrong with me or clamoring to know where you can get in line to check this one out.

The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a Korean western, which would almost seem like an oxymoron, but though it’s a Korean production and stars mostly Korean actors, it is set in 1930’s Manchuria, whose desert vistas are remarkably similar to the lands John Wayne and Clint Eastwood roamed through and proves to be a remarkable setting for an homage to the American west. In a similar fashion to its source material, there are three principal characters, labeled as the bad, the good and the weird. Park Chang-Yi, the bad, is a notorious criminal outlaw who gets hired by a wealthy businessman to steal a treasure map off a train. Yoon Tae-Goo, the weird, is an incompetent train robber who unwittingly steals it before the bad can get his hands on it, and Park Do-Won, the good, is a bounty hunter on the trail of both men, but who decides to take a stab at going after the treasure himself in the process.

The aren’t the only three after it either. A gang of Korean outlaws are trying to get their hands on it as well and the Japanese military is willing to stop at nothing to get a hold of it for themselves so that they can assert their dominance over Manchuria (that the Japanese are heavily vilified in this film should come as no surprise).

The treasure is, of course, a macguffin, the term Hitchcock coined for an object in a story that all the characters are trying to get their hands on. There’s nothing wrong with a macguffin story, but when you spot one, it’s a sign to you that whatever the characters are after is the least important element of the film. There’s no reason for you to care who gets the treasure, not when there are so many superbly painted characters to follow, so much incredible action, such fantastic writing that has all been wrapped in an offbeat interpretation of the kinds of westerns we grew up on. The actors are superb, but Kang-Ho Song is especially brilliant as the plucky Tae-Goo, who has an exceptional ability to stay alive no matter how many people are after him. The characters are boldly painted and even minor parts are quite memorable (just wait till you meet Tae-Goo’s grandmother).

The action had me lamenting Hollywood’s masturbatory obsession with quick-cut queasy cam, because the action here is filmed so clearly and fluidly with many long takes so that we can always be sure of what’s going on. I have faith that the queasy cam is just an obnoxious passing fad, but hopefully a film like this will encourage directors to go back to the old tried and true techniques. The action is delightfully innovative too, giving in occasionally to old-fashioned tropes, but more often than not setting us up for something we think we’ve seen before then pulling the rug out from under us. This is not a movie where you can easily predict what happens next.

The general consensus is that South Korea is quickly becoming one of the new hot spots for great movies (Mexico and South Africa are two others), and a film like The Good, the Bad, the Weird is a great showcase for why that is. If my description in the first paragraph turned you off to the movie, it’s your loss. This is the best movie I’ve seen so far in 2010 (that doesn’t mean it won’t get trumped, but I’m pretty sure it’ll finish out in the top five). It is consistently stylish, innovative and an absolute blast from start to finish. Korean movies do have a penchant for being rather bleak, but this one is definitely more upbeat than is the norm and I highly recommend you check it out to see what South Korea has to offer.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Lost in Lost

Because I watch so little TV, I’d like to think the fact that I became so enraptured with Lost testifies that it is above and beyond most TV shows. I initially just wasn’t that interested in it, even though I’d heard it was good, but with so many other things that call for my attention, I usually don’t like to make the investment for the huge amount of time any TV show takes. I could watch a dozen movies in the same time it takes to just watch a single season of most shows. Then I went to Europe, and every time someone asked me where I was from and I answered Hawaii, their first reaction was always, “I love Lost.” I then had to confess to them that I’d never seen it before, which always left them utterly stupefied. I suppose I’d feel the same way if I ever met a Brit who’d never seen Monty Python.

Embarrassed into curiosity, I rented the first season, intending to just watch a few episodes so I could say “yeah, it was good,” then move on with my life.

Then I got sucked in.

Five years later, my insatiable anticipation for the final episode cured, I find myself reflecting back on the show. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but the series as a whole was really a fantastic piece of work. Yes it was annoyingly elusive right up to the end, yes it occasionally made digressions that were quite obnoxious, yes there were some lousy characters and awkward moments, but when you consider that the show is basically an 84 hour long movie, expecting every single minute of it to be flawless is preposterously unreasonable. Any time someone undertakes a long story, it is inevitably going to be uneven. Something like Lost requires you to look at it as a whole.

Of course it was the mysteries, the unanswered questions, that kept us coming back, but if that’s all the show had been, there really would have been very little reason to watch. No one is going to want to know the answer to the questions you pose unless they’re invested enough in them to want to find the answer. It was the characters and the storytelling that were the real heart of Lost. The mysteries were just the gift wrapping.

What I think I found most compelling about Lost were the characters and the way they interacted with each other. It is so common in popular entertainment for the good guys to be one-dimensionally good and the bad guys to be one-dimensionally bad. Occasionally an inspired producer will show the villain helping an old lady cross the street or the hero taking just one swig too many from the whisky bottle and try to pass it off as emotional complexity (gee whiz, bad guys can do good things and good guys can do bad things). Compare that to a character like Ben, whose motives we could never be sure of right from the beginning, when we thought he was another victim stranded on the island, up to the end, when we weren’t sure of his allegiance until the final moments of the show. Ben did a lot of evil stuff, but he did a lot of good too, and (here’s the important part) his actions weren’t motivated by a producer trying to dupe us into thinking that the show was more profound than it really was, but came out of who the character was – and always made sense no matter how unexpected his actions were.

Or consider the rivalry between Jack and Locke, the way it fluctuated between uneasy friendship and outright hostility, and again always motivated by who the characters were and what they believed in – Jack as the man of science and Locke as the man of faith (a cliché, yes, but the characters were fully developed enough that it didn’t feel like one).

For me, the other key to the show’s success was the way they were always upping the ante. Cuse and Lindelof understood that in order for the show to be successful, they couldn’t fall back on the same tired tropes so often employed by mainstream films and TV. For me, the most shocking example in the entire show (and this is a plot spoiler) came in season four when Keamy was holding a gun to Alex’s head, trying to coax Ben out of hiding. Every movie, every TV show we’ve ever seen up to this point has told us that Ben was going to surrender himself to save Alex, because the conventions of storytelling will not allow an innocent teenage girl to be murdered in cold blood. I remember how cocksure I was when watching that episode, because I knew exactly what was going to happen, which made it that much more horrifying when Keamy pulled the trigger. It is moments like that that put Lost above 99% of the popular entertainment out there. You don’t have to watch it for very long to realize that the producers are willing to do anything and that you can never be safe in your assumptions.

That, for me, is the true appeal of Lost. It is a show that’s difficult to outsmart. It will throw unexpected twists at you at a regular pace, but Cuse and Lindelof were clever enough to guess about when audiences would be catching on to them and twist things even further than we’d guess. And when the pulled back from the surprises there was still the powerful human element to keep us interested.

That human element is why, even though it seems many people are angry about how the series ended, I was so pleased with it. Most people wanted all the questions answered so they could move on with their lives, but the worst thing about a mystery is always the solution. Lost gave us an ending in which the gist of things was there, but not everything was fully explained. What they gave us instead of all of the answers on a silver platter was an ending that spoke to the humanity of the show, and even if it didn’t completely make sense logically, it made sense emotionally. With that said, I’m really surprised at how many people completely misinterpreted the show’s final scene. Without revealing too much, let me just advise you to take another look at the opening and closing scenes of the show. It could not possibly be any more obvious that the two scenes are not identical and that they are in fact taking place under completely different circumstances, which means that there should be no question that time has passed and that the last six years were not just a flash, and yet debates like that are the reason why Lost is going to stay with us long after it’s gone. They made damned sure that we aren’t going to forget about it.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Japanese Have Made Acid Redundant

In 1977, when America was giving us Star Wars, Germany was giving us Stroszek, and Australia was giving us The Last Wave, Japan’s contribution to world cinema was Hausu (the Japanese spelling of “house”), a film that can best be described as The House on Haunted Hill filtered through LSD. To call Hausu off the wall would be an understatement, this film exists in a universe where there are no walls to bounce off of.

A plot summary would make Hausu sound pretty pedestrian. All it’s really about is a group of seven girls who go to visit one of their aunts in her old Victorian era house (what such a house is doing in Japan is not quite made clear), where all is not as it seems and the girls start disappearing one at a time. It would have been a rather clichéd movie except for the absolutely psychotic style in which it is filmed, and by psychotic I mean it defies any kind of rational thought. The director throws every type of film technique he can think of up on screen with absolutely no rhyme or reason, switching back and forth between picture in picture, animation, sepia tone and jump cuts with utter impunity and includes so many random digressions that one suspects the film was probably shot from a group of scripts that were dropped on the floor and reassembled at random. How else to explain the scene where we suddenly transition from the girls cleaning up after dinner to a skeleton dancing to the music of a singing cat?

And there is no train of logic within the realms of sanity that can explain the disembodied head that flies around and bites people in the ass, the man who turns into a pile of bananas for absolutely no discernible reason, the woman who, no matter where she is or what she is doing, always has a soft breeze fluttering her hair and scarf – and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There is not a single scene in this movie that resembles conventional movie-making in any sense of the word. Combine all of this with a budget that couldn’t have paid for a night on the town, and you’ve got something that is more of a spectacle than a film.

Let’s be clear on one thing here, I rather enjoyed watching Hausu, but I’m not entirely sure I could say I enjoyed it as a movie. There was something so remarkable in its relentless insanity that it was difficult not to have fun, but I did not appreciate it the same way I would appreciate anything you would normally think of as a movie. Hausu is basically a geek show where you sit in astonishment at what you’re witnessing, wondering all the while what could possibly come next.

I can’t help but find it remarkable that the same country that has brought us such films as The Seven Samurai, Departures and Grave of the Fireflies, films that contain such profound depths and so beautifully explore the human condition, could also produce movies like this. Perhaps that’s a bit unfair of me though, since I do in fact live in the country that has given the world both Citizen Kane and the films of Rob Schneider. I find myself wondering sometimes if, at this very moment, there is an audience in a movie theater in Japan watching The Animal in stunned incredulity, wondering how it is that Americans can be so screwed up.