Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tokyo Drifter (Seijun Suzuki, 1966)

Suzuki's Tokyo Drifter is one of the finest artistic middle fingers ever made, an absurdist take on the yakuza film that makes deliberate, stylish nonsense of its story to infuriate the studio boss who had it in for the director. The result is a kaleidoscopic, day-glo frenzy that gleefully skewers genre conventions, not merely of yakuza films but the Western as well; a ridiculous barroom brawl prefigures the deconstructive climax of Blazing Saddles by nearly a decade. Incessantly inventive, always bewildering, Tokyo Drifter is a delight. Criterion's new Blu-Ray restoration only brings this eye-popping feast to more energetic life.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)

[This is my first post for my Blind Spots 2012 choices]

Previously familiar with the legendary pair of Josef von Sternberg and muse Marlene Dietrich only from The Blue Angel, I got a much better grasp of what made the two such a fantastic duo from Shanghai Express, the fourth of their seven collaborations. Set on a train traveling from Beiping to Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War, Shanghai Express serves not only as a showcase for von Sternberg's formal mastery—Dietrich attributes the Oscar-winning cinematography mostly to him—but for what makes director and star such a good match. It's also such an advanced, nuanced drama that its chiaroscuro textures and layered, repressed emotions would not be so beautifully evoked in another picture until Only Angels Have Wings at the end of the decade.

As with Howard Hawks' masterpiece, Shanghai Express (written by future Big Sleep screenwriter with uncredited help from Hawks himself) opens in an exotic location so bustling with activity that its exoticism is defined less by the setting than the menagerie of people wading through it. A cast of characters from different nationalities and temperaments get their train tickets and fight through the crowds to get on-board before departure. Terse, meaty dialogue exchanged between people dances around sexual lines without leaving much to the imagination, as the presence of certain kinds of women set some passengers on edge and generate intense excitement for the rest.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Front Line (Jang Hun, 2011)

Jang Hun's The Front Line liberally takes from Saving Private Ryan, but then so does every modern war movie about a past conflict (and, often, a present one). Yet despite its own occasional bumps, I much prefer Jang's more idiosyncratic yet thematically consistent vision to Spielberg's sloppy hodgepodge of tropes. It captures the particular bitterness of civil war better than just about any work of film or television made about our own, and its flashes of quintessentially Korean cinematic oddness don't detract from the impact of the final moments. And the use of the contested hill itself as a messenger system between sides as each constantly wrests control of the area from the other is one of the most ingenious commentaries on the absurdity and waste of war.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Monday, January 23, 2012

50 Book Pledge #3: Martin Amis — Money

Like a Bret Easton Ellis novel as written by John Kennedy Toole, Martin Amis' Money is a savage gutting of the Reagan era as seen through the eyes of a clever but myopic and narcissistic glutton. John Self may not be as fat as Ignatius J. Reilly, but his appetites are more varied and vulgar, as his primary love is money, the root of all evil that allows him to trace his way along several crass desires. As Self gets deeper and deeper into the movie production from hell, everything slowly tilts off its axis until the detestable man is almost rendered sympathetic by the orgy of self-absorption and ego-stroking that surrounds him. I've yet to read a better takedown of the movie industry and celebrity, and the moralistic comeuppance that collapses on the narrative in the final chapters is so uproarious and insane that Amis narrowly avoids preaching for the ghastly hilarity of it all. I'd previously known of Amis solely as Christopher Hitchens' best friend, but now I'm eager to delve into the next book of his I can get my hands on.

Friday, January 20, 2012

50 Book Pledge #2: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — A Study in Scarlet

BBC's simply fantastic Sherlock series inspired me to revisit the Sherlock Holmes stories, and I was happy to stumble across some great new hardcovers from Barnes & Noble that collect all of Doyle's Holmes books into two volumes that cost only $8 apiece. I started, naturally, at the beginning, with Doyle's debut Sherlock novel, A Study in Scarlet. Man, it's amazing he ever built an iconic series out of this book, as it awkwardly ports over the mystery of Edgar Allen Poe (who is namechecked unflatteringly) without carrying over much of the suspense. It hardly even qualifies as a detective novel, with Holmes solving the case almost instantly and Doyle dragging the thing out by suddenly diverting into a strange flashback that uses inaccuracies about Mormons to paint an unintentionally hilarious "sinister" portrait of the religion. Doyle would go on to make one of the most well-known characters in literary history, but you'd never know it just by reading this.

50 Book Pledge #1: Vladimir Nabokov — Pale Fire

Nabokov's Pale Fire may be even better than his Lolita. A total put-on of a work—consisting of a poem by one "John Shade" and a foreword and commentary by Charles Kinbote—Pale Fire almost immediately reveals itself to be a farce, with the foreword so self serving on Kinbote's part that even the praise he lavishes upon his "dear" friend John is, on some level, all about him. The poem itself is neglected, a beautifully structured poem of unabashedly prosaic subject matter, speculating on life by way of the sights and sounds immediately at the poet's disposal. This style was anachronistic even when Nabokov published the book, but there's something charming about "Shade's" creation. That only makes Kinbote's resultant breakdown of the poem all the more hilarious. Vividly skewering the ability of critics to read anything in a work of art, especially if it conforms to some preconceived notion they have going into a piece, the notes flagrantly ignore the sensual (in the literal sense) quality of the poem to speculate about Shade's supposed allusions to the country of Zembla, which Kinbote may or may not have ruled before being deposed. There's not a single page of these notes that didn't make me laugh, even when it delved into darker realms of black comedy. Nabokov loved his pranks and jokes, and Pale Fire is his most immaculately crafted gag.

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011)

The trait that links all four Mission: Impossible movies, each helmed by a different director of wildly differing stylistic sensibilities, is a certain amount of incomprehensibility. De Palma's original, which has aged better than any of its successors, is a smorgasbord of that filmmaker's love of audience manipulation, leftist politics, and metacinematic pranksterism. John Woo's sequel is, if anything, even crazier, replacing the peevish joke structure of De Palma's satire with pure, free-form abandon. J.J. Abrams' installment significantly pared down the twists and turns of the franchise's plots, making for the most conventionally satisfying of the series, yet the one that leaves me the coldest.

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, the first live-action venture by animation superstar Brad Bird, is at once the most gargantuan, ridiculous of the movies and the most cogent entry, occasionally explained to the point of tedium. It makes for an uneven effort, one that comes alive every time Bird stages another setpiece and grinding to a halt when the holdover influence of Abrams' pedestrian hit weighs down every bit of dialogue. Happily, Bird, perhaps self-conscious about the expectations upon him, absolutely loads his movie with fantastically over-the-top sequences that make for perhaps the most popcorn-worthy of this franchise.

Monday, January 16, 2012

I'm on Episode 50 of the Matineecast

So, last week, Ryan McNeil of The Matinee asked me to do a podcast with him on War Horse and Steven Spielberg in general. I happily agreed and we had a fantastic talk last Wednesday, so good I feel guilty for rambling on and on well past his usual time limit thanks to my inability to condense myself. I am equally unable to listen to myself, so I don't know what the poor man cut out to make me look good, but know that it must have been a Herculean task to whittle down my incessant run-on thoughts into something approaching coherence. Ryan's a great guy, and I really appreciated the chance to chat with him.

Check out his latest podcast now over at his site.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

El Sicario, Room 164 (Gianfranco Rosi, 2011)

In an age where "FAKE!" greets even the most honest video, the almost-too-consistent dramatic ups and downs of this extended talking head about a reformed assassin for the Mexican drug cartel will certainly strain the credulity of some. And this is wholly leaving out the conclusion of the man's life story, which is so conveniently moralizing that it could play at schools and church groups (especially church groups). Nevertheless, the sicario's monologue is so enthralling as to make something compelling of 80 minutes of a masked man mostly sitting in a chair explaining himself. I know of at least one person who compared the man's confessional to Spalding Gray's ability to hook a crowd with just his speechifying, and that strikes me as more than apt.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Criminally Underrated: Jackie Brown

Jackie Brown is one of my favorite movies, and I've been meaning to write a full post on it forever. I wrote a brief piece for my lovely Twitter pal Sasha James a while ago, and now I've done a longer, if still insufficient (given my deep love of the film) article on the movie for Spectrum Culture's "Criminally Underrated" series. And even now I'm still not satisfied with commenting on the film; I may yet write an even larger piece on the movie and how it shapes my entire view of Quentin Tarantino.

But for now, head on over to Spectrum Culture to read my review of this incredible, occasionally neglected, masterpiece.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Jennifer Egan — A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel/short story collection/who-cares A Visit from the Goon Squad has racked up enough accolades for a defining work of our time. After reading it, I can only pray "our time" is not set in literary stone by such shoddy, ignorant documentation. The much-touted stylistic shifts are hardly whirlwinds of upheaval, and the characters are drawn so thinly as to be nothing more than vehicles for easy tragedy, tragedy that works neither on a human level nor the allegorical, societal plane she seeks to pinpoint. A few bright spots of wit and clarity can be found among the detritus, but I regret to say I  found the book to be such a disappointment of half-baked literary knowledge and easily exploited tropes that I was stunned to learn that it was not, in fact, some English major's creative writing exercise.

My full review is up now at Spectrum Culture.

Capsule Reviews: Weekend, Tuesday After Christmas, Into the Abyss, Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Weekend (Andrew Haigh, 2011)

Occasionally a bit precious in its cinematography (one too many woozy shots and obvious visual cues), Andrew Haigh's Weekend is nevertheless a bold, beautiful film that uses the magnificent performances of its leads to confront cinematic complacency and limitations upon homosexuality. Glen (Chris New), the aggressive art student, is defiant about his sexuality in response to the heteronormative society around him, which he convincingly argues is more "in your face" than even the loudest queer. Russell, the shy one, still wrestles with his sexuality, and Tom Cullen captures the feeling of being the odd man out at a party (whether the stranger at a farewell bash or the one gay man among straights) better than just about anyone.

It's impossible to leave the sexuality of the characters out of discussion, as the tenor of their conversations and behavior with each other is informed by the social limitations imposed on homosexuals; by denying the naturalness of their expressions, the outside world makes their private chats more open and frank than heterosexual couples who've been together for years instead of hours. Cullen and New are so effortlessly natural with each other that not only are they believable as a couple, they are two of the few romantic screen pairings one could buy having a life-changing dalliance in just two days. Haigh still has some kinks to work out with his direction, but Weekend announces the arrival of one of the most nuanced, real makers of romance, and in this respect, the sexuality of the lovers in question couldn't matter less.

Tuesday, After Christmas (Radu Muntean, 2011)

If Weekend's naturalism quietly revolutionizes the indie romance, the elegant long-takes and flawless rapport of Tuesday, After Christmas' actors adds new textures to over-familiar adultery dramas. On paper, this film is as clichéd as it gets: a husband in a comfortable family unit risks it all for a fling with a younger, attractive woman. But Muntean and the actors craft realistic interactions—the married couple in the film are husband and wife in real life—that make Paul's quandary agonizing rather than perfunctory. In this modern age of decreasing average shot length, a film like Tuesday, After Christmas reminds us of the dramatic possibilities of simply holding a shot, which prolongs the perfectly ordinary conversations between characters to the point that one almost expects a bomb to go off. Why else would a shot be held so long over (seemingly) nothing? Muntean's long takes allow the actors to add tiny exchanges that make their relationships more real and therefore more meaningful, and the decision Paul must make by that post-Christmas Tuesday promises to be devastating regardless of what we eventually see him choose.

Into the Abyss (Werner Herzog, 2011)

Perhaps the most standard, TV-ready documentary Werner Herzog has ever made, and that includes his early work for German television (which are among his most poetic works). Yet if the film lacks Herzog's usual magic, it also makes for an above-average opinion piece that bluntly voices the director's views on capital punishment while still directly confronting the horror of the death row inmates' crimes. Herzog's use of archival footage and relatively straight interviewing style reveal he'd be a fairly successful "normal" documentarian. Still a major presence in his storytelling, Herzog nevertheless mostly steps back to let the interview subjects speak for themselves, only interjecting to push them on unexpected tangents that end up revealing more than the standard questions would have. Herzog captures the full ugliness of the situation—the two partners in crime blaming each other for the crime that got them incarcerated, the shame and rage the people connected to the perpetrators and victims feel—but it is precisely because he goes for the complete portrait of devastation that his adamant stance against the death penalty carries any weight. But if Herzog does not poeticize this subject, he nevertheless searches for the beauty and humanity in this dark tragedy, and he even finds vague whispers of hope littered among the bodies of the dead murdered by criminal and state alike.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, 2011)

If Into the Abyss leaves out Herzog's style but still makes an impact, Cave of Forgotten Dreams showcases his ability to make poetry of reality but lacks the grounding element that keeps his best work from simply drifting aimlessly. Herzog's speculation of peoples past based on the cave art they left behind broaches ideas of the foundation of all artistic expression and, therefore, communication. But he fails to tie delicate play of light and simulated movement over the beautiful and miraculously preserved cave paintings to the grandiose free association that usually strikes metaphysical pay dirt. Occasionally, Herzog's tantalizing meditations, linking the caves to German Romanticism and Wagner, recall the best of the director's thin but evocative spoken thoughts. But given Herzog's interest in casting these surprisingly sophisticated paintings as not simply the beginning of art in general but proto-cinema itself, it's a shame that the film doesn't feel more resonant throughout.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Blind Spots 2012

So, various bloggers I read and like have decided to address various, wait for it, blind spots in their movie viewing in 2012. I consider much of my blog writing an attempt to fill various gaps in knowledge, but I love a good writing meme, and considering how many "must-sees" end up falling through the cracks as I get distracted with other things, perhaps listing 12 here (one per month) will at least commit me to watching some of the movies I tell myself I must see with all haste.