Category Archives: Films

The Audiovisual

Last night went out with a good friend to see You Were Never Lovlier, an absolutely terrific Fred AstaireRita Hayworth film from 1942. I had never seen a movie with Fred Astaire before, but after You Were Never Lovelier he ranks up with William Holden as an amazing star I had never seen until recently.

Then tonight watched four episodes of Kenra, a 2000s series starring Kendra Baskett née Wilkinson.

I’m pretty sure I prefer the 1940s.

The Greencine Five, Part IX: Bounce Ko Gals, LOL, The Bow, Heimat, Black Snake Moan

It has been nearly two years since I was a member of Greencine. While the price is higher than NetFlix, Greencine has a much wider selection to choose from. Thus, even when I watch movies that are available on both NetFlix and Greencine, I discover more with Greencine, because the broader collection means that it is easier to follow one movie to another, and see webs of connections between movies. NetFlix and Greencine may both have the biggest hit from Korea in a year, for instance, but Greencine is more likely to have that director’s lessor work, as well.

bounce_ko_gals

Bounce Ko Gals is a story on two levels. On the first it is about Lisa, a Japanese-American about to leave Tokyo, and her adventures with teenage Japanese prostitutes. On another it is about generational change, and the way the “aesthetics” change over time. This is seen both in the relationship of the whores to pimps-and-customers, and also their mutual disilluionment with the dreams of generations born before them both.

lol

LOL has no plot. The story is weak, and the characters are unsympathetic. It looks remarkably like a senior project for an ambitious film school student. And it gets one thing person: what around means in a world where everyone has cell phones, text messaging, laptops, and internet access. After watching LOL, my wife and I caught each other engaging in some of the “bizarre” (to an earlier generation) behaviors depicted in the film.

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The Bow is very similar to Why Has the Bodhi-dharma Left for the East, which I earlier reviewed. However, while the Bodhi-dharma requires a great deal of patience in its slow moving story of a buddhist master and acolyte, The Bow has the good sense to introduce a love triangle. The story of an old man, young girl, and young man is told almost without dialog, though with heavily archery and buddhist symbolism. The film slowly moves from realism to magical-realism and ends with a quotation that helps explain the motivation of the old fisherman.

heimat_disk_2

I watched disk 1 of Heimat: A Chronicle of Germany two years ago. Disk 2 continues the story in two episodes, the first from the mid-1920s to 1933, and the third taking place in 1935. The first of these episodes pains a picture of a society very similar to the rural life in modern China. The second of these, in which the Nazi Party cements its grip by a thousand only vaguely interesting moves, chronicles the transformation of Germany from a dysfunctional republic to a tyranny.

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If The Bow retells Why has the Bodhi-Dharma left for the East, Black Snake Moan retells the The Bow. The similarities are incredible. A three-way love triangle, a setting in an economic backwater (Korean fisherman, the American South), religious themes infuse both films. While The Bow is heavily buddhist, and preaches that the desire is the beginning of suffering, however, Black Snake Moan is Christian, and dwells on the need for grace given the presence of sin in all human beings.

Review of “Full Battle Rattle”

Full Battle Rattle would be better named The Battle of Medina Wasl. Medina Wasil is not a real town, but rather a simulation at Fort Irwin, “The World’s Premier Trainign Center for the World’s Finest Military.” Bush visited the National Training Center during the production of the film, but after the main filming, allowing clips of this event to be included:

The film concerns a two-week training simulation. The four ‘sides’ are townsfolk, a Blue Force, a Red Force, and controllers able to inject events. Some injected events (such as a Sunni-Shia wedding) go quietly, while another escalates to a massive Red Force assault. As the townsfolk repeat their roles, they develop close relationships, and this adds to the realism of the situation. Moments of levity, such as the Deputy Mayor and Deputy Chief of Police angling for a promotion are balanced with truly spooky scenes, such as a scene where Red Force “Anti-Iraqi Forces” (AIF) boredly play soccer in front of American troops. “It’s just fun to kill people and blow stuff up, you know,” an AIF terrorist says to the camera, simultaneously identifying the fun of playing the world’s most expensive game of laser skirmish and a motivation behind the true terrorists in Iraq.

The filmmaker’s clearly know their subject, and much is referenced through either brief camera shots or short comments. The resolution of a real drama — very real deportation hearings against the fake Deputy Chief of Police — is referenced by a single line. Likewise, a lingering shot shows a Blue Force officer reading Roger Trinquier’s Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency. The scale of the operation allows the Fog of War to control events, as seen after the situation escalates because of the inability of the Deputy Mayor to contact the commander of Blue Force.

Full Battle Rattle effectively captures two layers of events, the outcome of the fake Battle of Medina Wasil. Both of these levels are real, in a way. Google searches also reveal that soldier art (such as condemned by Matt Armstrong) on the National Training Center.

Similarly, a closing scene of the film shows the actors watching a laptop film of a (fake) beheading in Medina Wasl, immediately after viewing photos of (real) visits by the President to the town.

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Full Battle Rattle is the best film produced so far of the War in Iraq, and it’s set in the American West.

Strongly recommended.

The Rise of China in Film

Before our trip, watched three movies that illuminate four parts aspects of the rise of China — The Warlords, Xiu Xiu The Sent-Down Girl, Summer Palace, and Shanghai Kiss.

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Warlords is the story of an attempt to overthrow the Da Qing (The Great Brightness, 大清) by the quasi-Christian cult, the Taiping Tianguo (The Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, 天国太平). While the Taiping failed at their genocidal war of national liberation, their hostility to the Great Qing, their emphasis on land reform, and their attempts at westernization mean they are seen as a pre-revolution progressive force by many KMT and Communist historians. Warlords tells the story of what we may call three military entrepreuners, who organize a largescale militia to defeat the Taiping rebels (and make a profit for themselves). While many of the elements fall into propaganda (no mention is made of the Ever Victorious Army led by Frederick T. Ward and Charles G. Gordon), etc.), the film is well produced.

The Taiping Rebellion was contemporary with the American Civil War, and as in that battle, the fights were an intersection of millenia of war. In an early battle scene, the Warlord army use an unarmed peasant-archer rush in an attack on an army armed with rifles and cannons; in another, trench warfare leads to starvation on both sides of a siege.

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Xiu Xiu The Sent Down Girl, produced by Joan Chen and banned from China, is the story of a girl caught up in a Rustification Campaign of the Cultural Revolution. Mao’s attempt at merging the urban and population classes by pulling city students out of school to work on farms and ranches in told with much less sentimentality than is typical of films made in China. The current view of the Rustification movement is that it is a memoriable experience that led to many life-long friendships, as at this gathering that I witnessed:

rather than a murderous destruction of a generation of professionals. While much of the post-Mao government suffered during the campaign, allowing the Chinese people to realize that Mao did much more harm in every measure to China than Japan ever did is not an idea they want spreading.

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Summer Palace is an odd movie. It was banned by China under the pretense of a graphic scene that would have earned the film an NC-17 rating in the United States. However, it’s also an intensely political movie, pivoting around the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989.

Note I say “pivot,” not “focus.” The Tiananmen Massacre itself is a conspicuously missing. Indeed, there are no shots at all of Tiananmen, or even the city of Beijing proper, in the film. For half the movie the drama relentless builds to a showdown of the students against the army — and then suddenly it’s years later, and people are engaging in the activities of young adults in the workforce.

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Shanghai Kiss, set in contemporary Los Angeles and Shanghai, is dramatically better than either its marketing literature than the previous work of its cash (LOST, Heroes) would imply.

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While not quite as subtle as it wants to me, Shanghai Kiss succeeds at commenting on the alienation that comes from modern life. In other words, if The Warlords and Xiu Xiu describe the hellish life of a poor and rural China, and Summer Palace describes China during Deng’s revolution, Shanghai Kiss describes China (or at least Shanghai) as a largely developed place, with rich-country problems.

Transformers 2

Caught the midnight showing last night / this morning. Very good, especially if you loved the Transformers as children (as we both did), and you are prepared for a script far closer to:

<Insert Cool Visual, Like a T-Rex silhouetted by a nuclear explosion >

Good Robot: Save the Humans!

Humans: Save the Robots!

Bad Robot: Revenge shall be mine!

<Cool Transformer Sound>

<Fight!>

(Repeat for 2.5 hours)

And not that similar to, say,

Salaama Rodriguez des Pari: But I’m a college-educated Nicaraguan bisexual. I don’t even know how to deliver a baby/log timber/balance the federal budget!

Struggling writer who is obviously a thinly disguised representation of the film’s writer: Maybe you can’t do the work, but you can problematize the work!

Salaama: I will dismantle the monolith of imperialistic discourse!

(Repeat for 2.5 hours)

Autobots: Transform!

Update: Manohla Dargis, who accuses the film of not making President Obama as heroic as Optimus Prime and concludes “it’s easy to pretend that you’re not ingesting 2 hours and 30 minutes of warmongering along with all that dumb fun,” would obviously have preferred the film about Salaama.

Two-bite movies, Part V: “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” and “Chungking Express”

Of all the genres I did not expect to “fall in love” with, Hong Kong romance is pretty high upon the list. Yet so far I have watched Days of Being Wild, In the Mood for Love, 2046, and The World of Suzie Wong, and enjoyed all of them. With that said, recently I watched two more, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing and Chungking Express. As romances, both are terrific. But both films (almost) go beyond their genre.

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As is typical of genre romances, the only character with depth is the heroine. In 1955’s Splendored this is Dr. Han Suyin (played by Jennifer Jones), while in 1994’s Express the female lead is simply “Faye” (played by Faye Wong). Both female leads are unsure how to define themselves — Suyin is a mixed-race doctor who wishes to be Chinese, while Faye is a Chinese convenience-store attendant who wants to live in California.

chungking_express

Far more interesting than the flat characters are the common theme of the coming of the Communist Party. Splendored begins in 1949, and one of the first conversations centers around the fall of Shanghai. Suyin’s desire to help build China and apparent loyalty to the Communists as the only truly Chinese party is tempered by her family’s belief that it will be executed by the Party.

The concern is far more muted in Express, which takes place a few years before the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. These themes are explored more fully, if still allegorically, in the director’s film (with the same lead actress), 2046.

Both movies are quirky in their own ways. Love is a Many-Splendored Thing is a remarkable film when taken in the context of race relations. Chungking Express has what amounts to an extremely large series of establishing shots, all of which serve to give context for the person and surroundings of the protagonist, who does not even appear into halfway into the film.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing won three Academy Awards. Chungking Express is one of Time’s 100 best films of all time.

Two-bite movies, Part IV: “The Squid and the Whale” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

In this series, “Two-bite movies” I have reviewed the life of moster Henry Hill, Japanese adaptations of Shakespeare, and good movies ruined by Hollywoodization. Now for two nostalgic and elitist wastes of time: The Squid and the Whale, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

the_squid_and_the_whale

The Squid and the Whale is sort of a 1980s offshoot of the Wes Anderson universe. Indeed, the similarities between Squid and The Royal Tennenbaums is striking. In order to go from one to another, simply remove interesting characters, subtlety, and charm. There are no sympathetic characters, certainly the parents are both awful people, and neither of the children appear to be headed anywhere sort of juvie. Unlike Smart People (a nearly identical film made three years later) there is no attempt at humor. The only thing that Squid and Whale adds from the Wes Anderson universe is an excessive obsession with the foibles of the wine-and-Kerry crowd, from a major plot element being published in the New Yorker to the parents comparing each other based on their publishing record.

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If The Squid and the Whale is an abode of farces of those who really wish they could have voted for John Kery, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are for Americans who really, really wish the 2008 elections would have been George W. Bush v. John F. Kennedy. The film is told from flashbacks during Hurricane Katrina, and includes a dizzying array of stereotypical, flat, characters (a blue-collar worker who’s really an artist; an anti-war protester who makes a clock that goes backwards; an angelic, meaty black woman, cold, white rich, fathers; ad naseum). While I’m critical of The Squid and the Whale for its stuffy elitism, at least it is intelligent enough to recognize problems. For instance, the theme of a broken home is pervasive in Squid, even if it’s presented as a quirky inevitability. In The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it really does just take a village, and kids grow up just fine without their fathers in their lives.

Between the two, The Curious Case of Benajamin Button is worse. Longer, duller, and more boomerish, it has nothing to recommend it except for computer graphics. The Squid and the Whale, on the other hand, would be clever if not for better movies that came before and after it.

Two-bite movies, Part III: “The Parallax View” and “Lakeview Terrace”

Few people have been lucky enough to avoid the ads for The International, directed by Tom Tykwer (of Run Lola Run fame). The International is about a bank that tries to kill people. I can’t think of something that I would be less afraid of. Considering their brilliant performing in creating a financial catastrophe, I assume an actual plan by a large bank to kill me would look something like this:

  • The bank announces plans to place a ten-thousand-dollar bounty on my head, which covers the logistical, equipment, and prison risk costs of anyone who wants to knock off a blogger.
  • The bank sells millions in tdaxp assassination futures, which pay off whether when I am assassinated.
  • As such policies are risky, paying off only with a succssful assassination, investment banks then sells billions in tdaxp assassination derivatives, which chang ein value along with the change in tdaxp assassination futures.
  • Hedge funds then get into the action, issuing trillions in in second- and third- order derivatives, which pay off depending on changes in values in the first- and second- order derivatives.
  • Noticing that they’re stodgy ‘just put a bounty on his head’ has merely made them millions, instead of trillions, the banks then buy up many of these derivatives, game the financial risk anaysis market to bundle whatever third-order derivatives the banks are able to buy from the hedge funds as AAA-rated securities, and resell them to insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds, and investors all over the world.
  • Along the way, Congress will pass the Community Rearmorment Act, establish Freddie Assassin and Assassin Mac, allow individuals to deduct the interest from their handgun and shotgun purchases, and prohibit banks from not loaning to would-be assassins based on race, geography, or other sensitive variables.
  • The entire house of cards collapses, entire countries are wiped out, and I’m still here.

Thus,, instead of watching The International, my wife and I watched The Parallax View and Lakeview Terrace. The first of these, 1974’s The Parallax View with Warren Beaty, involves a company that’s actually good at assassinations.

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The film is close to being a true horror. The beginning and entry scenes are mirror-images of each other, but the plot generally increases the weirdness by turns, leading to a conclusion that is hopeless, fatalistic, and deeply closed that is visually very similar to a beginning that promises mystery, excitement, and intrigue. Parallax is very much a product of the 1970s, where the yearning of naive youth for a “change” candidate meets an iron wall of death.

Sadly , The Parallax View is ruined by two irrelevant subplots that try to turn the film into an action movie. Sequences that are out-of-plot, out-of-character, and simply out-of-sense have Warren Beaty (a recovering alcoholic reporter) going mano-a-mano with corrupt cops, and later to stop a plane bombing that he knows about through the magic of genre plot devices. A film with the uses deep focus to present both visual and cognitive parallaxx effects if ruined, in the same way the Godfather series is ruined by Godfather, Part III.

If The Parallax View is a movie of the 1970s, Lakeview Terrace is housing bubble drama of the 2000s. “A house is the best investment there is,” one character says. “The value only goes up,” responds another.

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Lakeview Terrace is the story about two families, both of which live in the exurbs of Los Angeles. The first, with Samuel L. Jackson as a single father, bought their land decades ago. Jackson’s character is “real America” version of Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a patrol cop whose cultural conservatism, emphasis on law-and-order, and authoritarian parenting are matched only by his disposal of miscegenation. Jackson’s gregariousness, The Wire-style pragmatism, and protectivenss of his kids are returned by the liberal views of his new, Utne Reader -reading, neighbors. But the viewer’s sympathy toward Jackson is turned on its head when Jackson’s anti-race-mixing bigotry gradually accelerate into increasingly heinous violence against property.

But as The Parallax View is ruinied by two irrelevent subplots, Lakeview Terrace is ruined by its tacked-on ending. I suspect another ending was originally written, if not even filmed, as a much more logical conclusion is foreshadowed through the film. Jackson becomes a Hollywood villain, his neighbor comes a Hollywood hero, and the foreshadowed ending never actually happens. The social background of Lakeview Terrace — which has a surprisingly well-developed theme of black anti-white racism (if not anti-woman sexism) — helps build a thought-provoking better than Babel, if not Crash. But this only stays true if you close your eyes and hum “Lalala! This is not happening!” for the last ten minutes, all while reconstructing the intended ending from the foreshadowing clues you noticed throughout the film.

If the common theme of Godfellas and My Blue Heaven was the story of Henry Hill, and the common theme of Throne of Blood and Ran was Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of Shakespeare, the common theme of The Parallax View and Lakeview Terrace are actually films ruined by Hollywoodization.

Two-bite movies, Part II: “Throne of Blood” and “Ran”

I recently had the pleasure of watching two movies by Akira Kurosawa: “Throne of Blood,” which was made in 1957, and “Ran,” released in 1985. I’ve enjoyed many films by the director, including “Rashomon” (1950), “Seven Samurai” (1954), “Yojimbo” (1961), and “Dreams” (1990). What makes these films relate especially to each other, however, is that they are based on Shakespeare’s plays “MacBeth” and “King Lear,” respectively.

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Of course, Akira Kurosawa was a man of his own ideas (he famously was booted from the Japanese-American co-production, “Tora! Tora! Tora!) and the characters of “Thone of Blood” and “Ran” are strange reflections of the originals in “MacBeth” and “King Lear.” MacBeth is here a spineless weakling, manipulated by evil spirits and a wicked wife, a “>Montezuma II without the violence or the self-mutilation. King Lear recalls no character in film so much as the Adolf Hitler of “Downfall“.

I watched “Ran” before “Throne of Blood,” and I am glad that I did. Many elements of “Ran” appear to be re-imaginings of parts of “Throne of Blood.” The banners which hang in monochrome in the 1950s are now brilliant colors that themselves frame the shot; MacBeth’s wife bears a striking resemblance(in appearance, make-up, and personality) to King Lear’s daughter-in-law, and the sense of place that is so patiently explored in “Ran” gives context to the quick-pace of “Throne of Blood.”

Unlike “Goodfellas” and “My Blue Heaven,” which are films about nihilistic violence in the American context, “Throne of Blood” and “Ran” are actually worth watching. The holocaust of King Lear’s death, and the world that MacBeth unites against him, provides a depth and a context that escape many directors.

Two-bite movies, Part I: “Goodfellas” and “My Blue Heaven”

1990 saw two film adaptations of the life of mobster Henry Hill: Goodfellas (directed by Martin Scorsese, starring Ray Liota, Robert DeNiro, and Joe Pesci) and My Blue Heaven (directed by Herbert Ross, starring Steve Martin, Rock Moranis, and Joan Cusack).

goodfellas

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Watching both back-to-back is a surreal experience. Most of the events of My Blue Heaven take place between 2 hours 12 minutes and 2 hours 14 minutes into Goodfellas, making it conceivably possible that a “Henry Hill Saga” could try to create one movie with a running time of nearly four hours combining both films, but told chronologically. Further, Henry changes appearance(from the Leonardo DeCaprio lookalike of Ray Liota to Steve Martin), family status (his two kids mysteriously disappear), name (from Henry to Vincent), and ethnicity (the discrimination on the part of the Sicilian mafia against Irish such as Henry is a minor plot point in Goodfellas — in My Blue Heaven, Henry is over-the-top Sicilian.

Neither movie was particularly good, but then neither was particularly bad, either. Goodfellas suffers from the same problem as The Ruins — a movie about unlikeable characters has just too few characters to like. My Blue Heaven has the same “you’re supposed to find if funny” vibe that Steve Marin’s L.A. Story also had, but without the blending of 80s and 90s pop culture.