Thursday, November 29, 2007

Hitman (Xavier Gens, 2007)

Snore, snore, bang, bang

Dear Messrs. Askarieh, Besson, and Gens;

Congratulations on your new film Hitman (2007); it's very handsomely made, and it looks great--you can see every quart of arterial blood and every fleck of brain matter fly across the room and spatter on the faces of all concerned (that's how it is in real life, you know). I love how the bullets make holes in people's heads, like a pumpkin being smashed (compliments to the sound effects crew for the way they capture not only the sound of spraying blood, but the stickiness of it--the way the droplets splash across the skin, slowly expand, stick there (all suggested by sound!)). And I love how, in that scene with Belicoff's brother, you had my character spot the fact that every gun on that table is fake--I agree with you, if that was really me, I would have seen that right off. You've totally captured every element in my life, exactly the way I live it; except for a few details here and there, I might even call this a documentary, or at least a docudrama. Every shot, every explosion has the ring of undeniable truth.

The man playing me, Timothy Olyphant, is quite good, if not quite as handsome; he captures my complete and utter determination not to show even a trace or suggestion of emotion. In our training, of course, we're given numbers instead of names (hence my number: '47'); more, we're taught to ignore any and all matters irrelevant to our training: fear, affection, anger, passion, humor. Even the one joke I make--what was that again? Oh yes--"I have a gag for annoying little girls." Did that joke seem lame, a limping target for my traveling companion to effortlessly shoot down? Yes, but that doesn't matter. We are not trained to tell jokes; if forced, we will improvise, but only if forced. Saying something actually interesting, much less funny, is irrelevant.

Perhaps the only scene I disliked is where that annoying little girl (Olga Kurylenko) climbed on top of my character in bed. The insolence of that girl, trying to arouse me! And her lines--did she sleep with the writer, to be given all kinds of "funny" replies to my questions? That scene is what I think people are supposed to take as comical, and I don't appreciate that. It is better off cut, and I urge you gentlemen to have it removed from the picture. It should be dipped in gasoline and lit on fire; it should be sliced into inch-long pieces, dropped in a blender, and shredded. Is my dislike for the scene irrational? I don't think so--it makes me look like a fool.

I remember little girls like her; I despise them, with their soft curves and pouting lips and huge eyes and needy whine; they are more trouble than they are worth. I like hard things, smooth and unfeeling things; why do you think I'm more eager to insert my finger into a trigger guard than I am into nasty little girls?

Perhaps the worse thing about the picture is the suggestion that I actually came to care for her. Me? The best in the business, with an all-time high body count, caring for someone so weak and contemptible? The picture is so close to being a masterpiece, gentlemen, it's so close to being an honest and undistorted account in the life of an actual hitman, it's a pity that you don't make it completely honest, completely undistorted. Little flaws, gentlemen, but the effect they have on me! I almost want to line you all up in a row, handcuffed to your chairs, myself with an automatic pistol in hand standing before you…

Apologies; that was uncalled for. I'd like to point out that the action is largely well done, only Mr. Gens cuts too often in the close combat sequences to see my blocks and strikes clearly, not to mention my stances (Balance, as anyone well versed in the martial arts knows, is all; and balance always comes from a good stance, good footwork. An action filmmaker who gives due attention to the fighters' footwork is an action filmmaker who knows what he's doing). I love it that they give due emphasis to the different countries in which I have operated in the past--Turkey, Russia, those little dictatorships in Africa (But wait--no China, Vietnam, the Philippines? Didn't the budget allow for it?).

As for the rest of the cast, I congratulate them all; they died handsomely. It's as if their faces and bodies were blank canvases against which I can wield my paintbrush, creating masterpieces. I like to think that, humble skill that I possess, I do have something of the creative spirit in me; I like to think that somehow, in some way, I can be considered an artist.

Of my co-stars, I would especially like to single out Mr. Dougray Scott as Mr. Whittier, the Interpol officer assigned to arrest me. Mr. Scott is a fine actor, and a wonderful boon companion; I would have much rather spent more screen time in his presence, with his warm eyes and soft hands that look at me so intensely (and believe me, I return the gaze!), than I do with that irritating hussy. I remember insisting that you gentlemen write in some kind of wrestling scene between me and Mr. Scott; I find it strange that you would be so unenthusiastic about that--I'm sure it wouldn't have hurt the boxoffice any.

Still--details, details! This production is, due respect to Mr. Besson aside, much preferable I think to his Leon (1994) with its equally implacable assassin (Jean Reno) saddled with yet another whiny little slut (I did not like the ending so much, which is redolent of what I believe is called "irony"--if I had asked for as much iron, I would have it planted firmly between my enemies' eyes). It is, I believe, much preferable to the supposedly great hitmen films of the past--Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai (1967), whose body count hardly compares to mine; Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961), which is tainted too much with that even weirder element called "black comedy;" Seijun Suzuki's Koroshi no rakuin (Branded to Kill 1967) and Pisutoru opera (Pistol Opera 2001) which frankly I just didn't understand. No, this picture is all too easy to understand--loud, wet, uncomplicated, boasting of an astronomical body count. My congratulations to all--I predict it will make millions!

Your humble servant:


(First published in Businessworld, 11.23.07)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Little Black Book of Movies

The Little Black Book (Movies)--critic Chris Fujiwara's yearlong project, involved 62 critics, historians, filmmakers, enthusiasts choosing to write short entries (250 to 300 words) on 1,000 of what they considered seminal moments in 100 years of cinema. This can be anything from a "key scene," a "key film," a "key event," even a "key person;" the films can range from all over--silent and sound; color and black and white; Hollywood and otherwise; mainstream and alternative. Contributors include Fujiwara himself, Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum; Australian critic Adrian Martin (Rosenbaum and Martin recently co-edited a book Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia); critic Dennis Lim (formerly of The Village Voice (back when working for the publication actually meant something (no disrespect meant for surviving critic Mr. Hoberman)), presently Editorial Director at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York); critic David Ehrenstein (Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928 - 2000)); critic Brad Stevens (Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision); L.A. Times web editor Tim Cavanaugh; Aruna Vasudev (founder/editor of Osian's Cinemaya: The Asian Film Quarterly; founder and director of Osian's Cinefan Film Festival), journalist, film critic and novelist Kim Newman (Anno Dracula); longtime film writer and lecturer Fred Camper; film critic and curator Paolo Cherchi Usai (The Death of Cinema); Filipino filmmaker and historian Nick Deocampo (Oliver (1983) and Cine: Spanish Influences on Early Cinema in the Philippines) and, heh, yours truly.

Frankly, I'm surprised to have been at all involved in anything this impressive. The book is a heavy black-bound beauty; the cover (seen above)--well, I've long since stopped being a big fan of Demme's serial killer flick (partly because of all the copycat serial-killer flicks it spawned in its wake) but for an image depicting the very essence of cinema viewing, I find the film's poster difficult to best: Jodie Foster with tawny eyes wide open in an unflinching gaze, a lovely Death's Head moth sealing her lips tight. "Silence!" the image seems to proclaim. "We're at the movies, and the time for talking is done."

Inside--well, inside the contents are, if anything, even more fabulous than the cover. The first entry is startling: "The Death of Cinema" by Paolo Cherchi Usai. He talks about how from the very beginning (the date of this particular event is 1895) films were made and as quickly destroyed, and how destruction of this footage--a worldwide phenomenon, but a particularly acute tragedy in the Philippines, where classic film prints are sliced up and used as New Year's Eve party trumpets--is an irreparable loss. But, he adds, there are worse crimes than the mere physical destruction of film prints...

Other entries include obvious key scenes such as the "Over the Rainbow" number in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939), which Kim Newman considers "one of the greatest song performances in all of cinema;" key films such as Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952), for which Brad Stevens provides a remarkably concise analysis of the director's narrative strategy (he chose the film because it "provides the best evidence of Kurosawa's ability to communicate challenging ideas through audacious large-scale structures"); key events such as the 1994 debut of Turner Classic Movies (according to Tim Cavanaugh "it mainstreamed cinephilia")--but there are equally interesting entries on lesser-known films (or less conventional entries on better-known films) as well.

Nick Deocampo chooses as his key event "The first public film exhibition in Asia" (July 7, 1896), goes on to describe the circumstances of the exhibition and its consequences. His reason for choosing this moment: "The arrival of film in Asia helped shaped the identity and culture of people in the region." Considering in the case of the Philippines how film has become one of the most popular art forms (second, I suppose, to song--third to television, if there's anything in Philippine-made television nowadays that can be called art (and there is, but not much of it)), I can only agree with his assessment.

Brad Stevens picks the imprisonment of Alfred Hitchcock in 1905. Hitchcock was known for his anecdotes, and one of his most famous--and possibly most revealing--concerns his being locked in a prison cell for five minutes at the tender age of six. Stevens' reason for choosing the moment: "it connects with several aspects of Hitchcock's work." Stevens proceeds to tell us what was especially traumatic about the incident, and how this may have affected several of Hitchcock's key films.

Fred Camper chooses a scene from Chuck Jones' 1948 classic Mouse Wreckers, about two mice who decide to drive a cat insane through the sheer force of mis-en-scene--upside-down furniture, unsettling window views, and the like (I wonder, though, how much this short was influenced by Robert Heinlein's "--And He Built A Crooked House"), reasoning thusly: "Jones' vision, turning on control of physical space, gains a hilarious and ecstatically disorienting expression here." I've always loved this cartoon short, long before I even knew of Jones or auteurism or the magic of incongruous imagery; Camper pretty much put my unvoiced affection into words.

Camper also writes passionately about arguably one of the greatest of noirs, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955)--not so much about the violence, or the famous explosively radioactive ending, but about the opening image, of Mike Hammer's car speeding through an "isolating darkness." His reason: "The obliteration of space in the opening scene resonates throughout the film; without firm ground, threats can appear everywhere, and morality is impossible to maintain."

Adrian Martin chooses to write a breathtaking passage (among many excellent ones) on one of my very favorite films, Ritwik Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960), about a young woman who moves from deep depression (she's the sole breadwinner in a family of five and too goodhearted to prevent anyone (her family included) from taking advantage of her) to utter despair. Martin writes, "No one but Ghatak would have filmed this bleak scene in such a restless, disconcerting way."

Jonathan Rosenbaum writes about arguably the single most startling (and hilarious) moment in Francois Truffaut's Tirez sur le pianiste (Shoot the Piano Player, 1960), the death of a gangster's mother, and comes away with this startling (yet somehow reasonable, after you give it a moment's thought) statement: "Truffaut proves conclusively that you can do anything in a movie."
Eddie del Mar as Crisostomo Ibarra and Leopoldo Salcedo as Elias in Gerardo de Leon's Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, 1961)

My first of seven contributions involves a single shot in Gerardo de Leon's flawed yet great adaptation of the Rizal novel Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not, 1961), of Sisa and the leper outside the church. The reason I chose it: "This scene is a superb example of Gerardo de Leon's mis-en-scene, and the way his compositions can sum up themes, characters, relationships."

I have to give credit where credit's due; it was film historian/archivist Teddy Co who first pointed that shot out to me--he called it "The greatest shot in all of Philippine cinema." I could think of a few others I prefer, myself, at least two of them included in this book...but in terms of complexity of detail and thematic reach, the shot is an impeccable choice.

(Note: copies are available at Fully Booked in Powerplant Mall, Makati City)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Andrew Leavold, enthusiast extraordinaire

The incomparable Weng Weng

I first 'met' Andrew (funny how nowadays you can carry on friendships and acquaintances for years without having ever even met the person)--but this blog post might describe the encounter better.

(Yes it's long--Andrew told me it runs for about ten thousand words, and yes I put the whole thing in a single post. If you haven't the time--but I urge you to make time, it's a funny, fascinating document--scroll down to the last few paragraphs when I make my reply to his kilometer-long letter (basically about the point when the italicized text ends)).

Anyway, Mr. Leavold has put up a blog--I think new, and I think a good one: ANDREW LEAVOLD: The Search for Weng Weng in 2008, and right on the blog's front page is this gorgeous painting (Watercolor or oil? Poster color? But what do I know?), which I hope he will forgive me for appropriating outright, without permission (it's a gorgeous painting, Andrew--who did it?).

The blog's not all about Weng Weng (though even if it was, I don't see anything wrong with that); he has this lovely little post about experimental self-taught filmmaker Khavn de la Cruz, of which he had this to say: "To date, Khavn’s output numbers 16 digital features and over 50 shorts. That’s 15 features more than me, I mentally count with shame." He's got a picture of filmmaker Elwood Perez strangling him in a Spanish restaurant (you know Elwood's one of the uh, best-equipped filmmakers in the industry, don't you, Andrew? (actually, I can't believe I even know that)). He's even got a picture with Maria Isabel Lopez (lovely woman, even today; I wouldn't mind trading seats with him at all).

He's got posts on Gerrry De Leon and Eddie Romero's Blood Island trilogy, to which he breaks open the undiluted lime cordial and solemnly intones: "I, a living, breathing creature of the cosmic entity am now ready to enter the realm of those chosen to be allowed to drink of the Mystic Emerald fluids herein offered. I join the Order of Green Blood with an open mind, and through this liquid's powers am now prepared to safely view the unnatural green-blooded ones without fear of contamination."

Now that's an oath I'm ready to take myself, anytime.

I'd wished he'd note that de Leon had directed only the first two of the Blood Island trilogy (the better ones, in effect)...but that's a minor complaint; he does them justice (maybe more than enough justice). He also writes about de Leon's two vampire films--vampire films I've also written about, though obviously without as much relish or naked enthusiasm as he does (he considers them "one of Filipino horror's finest moments").

It's gratifying--if not a little mystifying--to see a seemingly sane Australian critic go gaga over the Philippines' pulp cinema--but you see stranger things up on the Filipino screen, and I suppose he takes his cue, ideals, inspiration from the very oddities he so avidly sees. Not a bad way to waste one's life, I think--if anything, I'm green with envy.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961); Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)

(Yet another contribution to filmsquish's Kurosawathon)

Yojimbo (1961)—about a wandering super-samurai (the late Toshiro Mifune) who cleans up a lawless town—is supposed to be Kurosawa’s comic masterpiece, but it’s easy to overlook that fact. The film is overwhelmingly grim, dealing as it does with violence, murder, and wholesale genocide. In the opening sequences, Kurosawa swiftly establishes a mood of threat and sudden danger—a dog walks by with a human hand in its jaws; minutes later someone’s entire forearm is chopped off, and presumably the same dog will carry away the even bigger trophy. The only clues Kurosawa allows in the picture suggesting that the whole thing is really a comedy are the bouncy, sardonic music and the editing, the kind of precisely timed cutting you find in slapstick, or in great silent comedy.

I can talk endless trivia about Yojimbo: that George Lucas lifted the limb-chopping sequence for his Cantina scene in Star Wars (where Obi-Wan Kenobi (poor Alec Guinness, no Lucas fan yet eternally grateful in spite of himself for the money) makes a disarming reply on behalf of his protégé, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)); that in one scene Kurosawa hired a knife-thrower to actually skewer a flying leaf; and that in another the director pokes fun at serious control freaks like himself (villager: “Did you write the script for all this?” Mifune: “No, only about half; the rest was improvised”).

I could add many other details, but I’ll confine myself to just two: first, the film is one of the most superbly photographed comedies ever made, with wide-screen images that satirize and at the same time surpass the Westerns that inspired them (unfortunately, the Japan Foundation print was screened without anomorphic lenses, badly squeezing the picture); second, that a slew of other movies resulted from this film: a sequel--Sanjuro (1962)--the title of which is the name of Mifune’s character; Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful Of Dollars, 1964), Sergio Leone's spaghettie western classic introducing Clint Eastwood; and Last Man Standing (1996), Walter Hill's dour gangster-western starring a glum Bruce Willis.

None of them operate on the same level as Yojimbo. Sanjuro is perhaps more exuberant and more sheerly entertaining, but it’s also more light-weight; Yojimbo is a satire on violence, on the men that cause violence, on the machismo that drives men to violence, and on the movies made about these men of violence. More than satire, the film has scenes of destruction and wholesale slaughter that equal anything done by Sam Peckinpah, D.W. Griffith, or Kurosawa himself. The devastation gives the satire real teeth, the same time the satirical attitude gives the devastation a stinging moral point.

Mifune embodies Kurosawa’s concept in a way no action super-hero has ever done before or since, Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis notwithstanding: he plays to perfection a man of absolutely no morals. More than anyone else in the film, Mifune’s Sanjuro understands the way the world works: kill and manipulate, and you profit by your actions; help others, and you can only be punished for your mistake. No wonder he’s reluctant to help a kidnapped mother and her husband; he knows that a conscience is a foolish indulgence, and he’ll only get beaten for his efforts.

Kurosawa once said this was how he sometimes saw the world, and in films like Ikiru (1952) and Akahige (Red Beard, 1965), he fought against this point of view. But there must have been one moment in life when he gave in to this all-too-clear-eyed view of the world, and Yojimbo was the result. Kurosawa’s vision is so scathingly honest, his means of immersing you so immediate and intense the only response to all this heightened, stylized violence is laughter--a bitter laugh, a derisive laugh, despairing and at the same time defiant; the kind of laugh you fling at Death when looking him in the face. Yes, on final analysis, Yojimbo is a comedy, if only because it moves you to laughter almost as often as it moves you to horror; it is, in fact, one of the greatest black comedies ever made.

Ikiru (1952), on the other hand, lies at the other end of the emotional spectrum. If Yojimbo is so hopeless it’s hilarious, Ikiru is so hopeful the laughter dies in your throat. The film’s reputation varies according to which film critic you talk to; Pauline Kael watched it and concluded that “the meaning of life was doing a bit of goody good-good for others.” A far more square critic like Roger Ebert will come away from the film writing—well, it’s hard to remember anything Ebert writes; all I can recall are the four stars he hung on the movie, like a medal for good behavior.

Whether you buy the high moral seriousness or not may depend on whether or not you still believe in the possibility of goodness (or, for that matter, Santa Claus). It’s a question of temperament, I think, and if I were pinned to the floor with my arm twisted behind me, I might admit to still believing in such—but only the way Kurosawa and his like might depict it; anything else should be laughed out of the room.

The story’s premise is simple—a man named Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) learns that he has six months to live; he panics and tries to put some last-minute meaning into his life. It’s the basis of so many soggy “heartwarming” movies (Dudley Moore in Six Weeks; Michael Keaton in My Life; Tom Hanks in Joe And The Volcano) you might argue, with some justification, that it constitutes a previously unrecognized genre—the “condemned man” weepie.

What lifts the film above all these later, lesser efforts—what, in effect, makes the picture great—is Kurosawa’s way of working out the simple story. Ikiru begins in the manner of a classic 19th century novel, with an all-around portrait of Watanabe. The first shot in the film is of an x-ray of his innards—we see the man’s cancer even before we see his face. Then we see, in a series of brilliantly edited flashbacks, where he comes from—his wife’s death, his son’s growing-up, the gradual shriveling up and drying out of all dreams and pleasures in his life (“for the sake of my son,” he says), so that what remains prompts fellow office workers to nickname him “The Mummy.”

When Watanabe realizes he’s doomed, he rebels; he goes on a series of drunken binges around Tokyo. Kurosawa shows Watanabe’s swift dissolution against a background of scintillating mirrors, sweeping spotlights, flashing neon signs; the city around him is all sound and movement—pleasure-seekers drinking, dancing, laughing out loud; sequinned and feathered creatures move through the thick cigarette haze, like gaudy goldfishes in a huge cloudy aquarium.

It’s as apocalyptic a vision of night-time Tokyo as any put on screen, but what commands your undivided attention—what relentlessly draws your eyes—is the still, silent figure of Takashi Shimura as Watanabe. Shimura spends most of the film bent over double, like a kowtowing seven (the position helps relieve abdominal pain); his protruding lips and bulging eyes give him the look of a flounder (you think of that huge aquarium) gasping for air.

Shimura plays Watanabe with laser-beam concentration; he gives us the sense of a man wildly groping about for something to keep him afloat. When Watanabe finds that something, he clutches it with startling ferocity—his flounder eyes snap into focus, his bent-over body points, like a huntsman’s dog, towards a single, purposeful direction.

Midway through the story Watanabe dies and the film shifts gears: it begins to resemble that most famous of all great films, Citizen Kane (which Kurosawa claims he never saw prior to making this picture). Like Kane, there is a postmortem investigation; like Kane there is a final revelation that once in for all sums up the man—or fails to sum him up, depending, as I’ve noted before, on your temperament. Where Ikiru differs from Kane is in the style of progression: Kane is one cinematic flourish after another, its images piling up and igniting, turning into a great cloud of smoke; Ikiru starts out as a relentlessly intense portrait of a man’s final days, then slows its momentum—gradually, gradually—until it comes to a full stop.

Ikiru’s climax is simplicity itself: a shot of Watanabe sitting on a child’s swing and singing. Everything that has come before—the brilliant flashbacks, the spectacular night sequences, the intricately woven investigation at the wake—has led up to this. It’s a measure of Takashi Shimura as an actor, and of Kurosawa as a filmmaker, that the moment does not disappoint; it’s a measure of Ikiru as a film that the moment—a sublimely simple moment—is possibly one of the most moving images in the history of cinema.

Hakuchi (The Idiot, Akira Kurosawa, 1951)

Posted for the Kurosawa blogathon:

Forgotten masterpiece

Akira Kurosawa's 1951 film Hakuchi (The Idiot), his adaptation of Dostoevsky's novel, is pretty much forgotten now, or is rarely mentioned when talking about the filmmaker or his masterworks. The work is seriously flawed--about a hundred minutes were chopped off before the film was released, and you can see Kurosawa trying to make up for this with lengthy expository titles and voiceover narrations, trying to explain the characters' complex relationships in a few minutes of screen time. Critics who do get past the rushed, awkward beginning note the film's literalness, its director's apparent need to get as much of the novel as possible up on the big screen.

Kurosawa transposed Russia to Hokkaido, for several possible reasons: Hokkaido, located at the northernmost tip of Japan, is in terms of landscape, architecture, and clothing considered the most Western-looking of all of Japan's islands; in wintertime, with everyone decked out in fur, the streets looks particularly European. Kurosawa may have been looking for more than a Russian-style snowstorm, though: a master of onscreen weather, he recruits the various manifestations of the season to help express his characters' inner states, from gentle snowfall to harsh sleet to mysterious fog. Snow and ice make fantastical shapes in the form of frozen cascades, thick blankets, grotesque mushroom growths; his characters walk through them as if through an enchanted forest. Kurosawa has made expressive use of summer heat before (Nora inu (Stray Dog, 1949) comes to mind), but wintertime is weather made visible, even palpable, and Kurosawa makes full use of the season's visual possibilities in this production, possibly more so than in any other of his projects.

The film finally starts to be great in the scene where an evening party is thrown by Tohata (Ejiro Yanagi), the wealthy man who supports Takeo Nasu (Setsuko Hara, as the novel's Nastassia), and is presumably her lover. The first shot is a stunner: the camera pulls back from a huge rattan chair, and through the chair's high, soaring backrest we see Nasu sitting in the middle of a greenhouse, in the middle of a snowstorm (the rattan's weave and the greenhouse's metal frame are a visual symbols of her imprisonment by Tohata--her status as caged bird (she's wrapped in black like a raven) and exotic flower, blooming in the midst of winter). She's tense, upset--Tohata is marrying her off to Koyama (Minoru Chiaki, playing the novel's Ganya) with a dowry of 600,000 yen; Kurosawa indicates her tension by wiping the frame several times, each successive wipe showing her heading for the wet bar and drinking a glass of champagne, then another, then another.

Then follows a wonderful wordless sequence where Nasu sits at the couch, silent, while the three men in her life stand around her worried. Ono (the great Takashi Shimura), whose machinations are about to come to fruition that night (he arranged the marriage) looks at her suitor Kayama who, glancing at Nasu, throws a look back at Ono; Ono turns to Tohata, who stares at Nasu, still unmoving (the music here, which sets the pace of Kurosawa's precisely timed cuts, is as lovely as it is thrilling). It's obvious what's on all three's minds: What is she thinking? Will she agree to this engagement, or will she make trouble? Cut to an outside shot where the camera glides sideways through the snow, peering through the window and the couples dancing within, catching a glimpse of the seated Nasu along the way. Cut back inside to the motionless Nasu, then (in reverse order) to the staring Tohata, who looks back at Ono, who looks back at Kayama. The tension is broken; Ono grins as if saying: "she'll come around." Then the maid announces that Kameda (Masayuki Mori) has arrived. Kameda is Dostoevsky's Prince Mishkin, his idiot, his holy fool, who will throw the three men's plans into complete disarray; only now do you realize that that shot outside in the snow was a glimpse of Nasu through Kameda's eyes. What was she thinking? Kurosawa without our knowing it has already given us the answer--she's thinking of the man in the snow, peering at her through the window as he approached the door.

It's a long scene that gets better as it goes along. At one point there's a startling shot of Nasu hovering vulturelike in front of a valuable vase before she dashes it on the floor; later Akama (Toshiro Mifune as the novel's Rogozhin--a perfect match) arrives to throw a million yen on the table for Nasu's hand; still later Kayama stands before the fireplace, rigid, wide-eyed, while the same million yen burns to ashes. The scene, incidentally, may be Chiaki's finest as an actor: he's been a genial, even funny presence in many of Kurosawa's films, but here he shines; Dostoevsky, with his unparalleled ability at measuring the height and depth of a man's dignity or depravity, often both simultaneously, challenges Chiaki, who rises--pale, trembling--to the occasion.

Then there's the climax, a confrontation between Nasu and Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga as the novel's Aglaia) with Kameda as the prize (please skip this and the next paragraph if you plan to see the film). Kurosawa prepares for it elaborately enough, with parallel scenes of Nasu and Kameda expressing their fears to their respective mates, Akama and Ayako, about the meeting. Kameda and Ayako ascend the stairs to Akama's room, with Akama looking down at them through a stained-glass window (their ascent reminds you of a convict and her guard's climb up to the gallows' platform). Nasu's senses are so keyed up she can hear them coming even if she's seated away from the stairs. She stands; she turns. Her eyes widen at the sight of Kameda, the man she hopelessly loves; her eyes widen further at the sight of Ayako, his fiancé. Ayako's eyes are downcast--presumably out of modesty, though you suspect it's more out of fear. The two women sit down. Ayako edges away from Nasu about an inch; Nasu just keeps staring at her. Kameda steps forward, alarmed at what he senses between the two; Akama leans back amused, interested in what might happen next. Ayako pulls a bit of hair back with her hand, and Nasu visibly reacts to this seeming effrontery--how dare this girl move under her gaze?

The gesture gives Ayako the courage to look at Nasu. When their eyes meet, it's Hara's moment: her eyes are huge, brows swept upwards at the edges like gull wings--she looks like a feathered demon; Yoshiko's Ayako can barely stand up to the stare, but does, somehow--her expression gains courage in response. Kurosawa cuts to a shot of the room's wood-burning stove, flaring up from the icy wind (I wouldn't be surprised to learn that one reason why Kurosawa turned Russia in summer to Hokkaido in winter is just so he could include that fiery stove). Ayako looks away first; Nasu's eyes relax and take on a hooded look. At one point Nasu laughs, a wild, despairing laugh--it's perhaps the strangest moment in the whole film, because Kurosawa doesn't show her laughing; we just hear a high screech, almost a stuttering shriek (this is the second time; the first is when she laughs at Tohata's party). Does Kurosawa cut away because he felt Hara couldn't do it (though assuming the sound really is Hara's voice, I'd say she can)? Or is cutting away his way of suggesting that it's too much to put onscreen?

As Kinji Kameda, Masayuki Mori (he played the husband in Rashomon (1950)) keeps his frail hands under his chin, a gesture that emphasizes his wide eyes and wider forehead; the overall impression is of someone childlike, helpless. As Taeko Nasu, Setsuko Hara gives us a performance worlds away from her serene spinsters in Yasujiro Ozu's films--this Nastassia is a fire-breathing woman, totally in the grip of her tempestuous emotions, unable to tolerate anyone who dares defy her, yet willing to surrender to anyone capable of understanding her. Toshiro Mifune as Denkichi Akama is ostensibly the most violent of the cast of characters, but his violence really feeds off of Nasu's perversity and Kameda's innocence; in Dostoevsky's upside-down yet totally familiar world (he wouldn't have so much power over our imaginations if his characters weren't so recognizably us) Akama may be as innocent a pawn as Kameda.

Dostoevsky's novels often take a philosophical principle or proposal then "test" it or explore its various consequences in dramatic terms; Kurosawa, in films like Rashomon and Ikiru (1952) has done much of the same. Hakuchi might be described as Dostoevsky's attempt to show us how a saintly innocent would act or be treated in our cynical, often malicious world of today--just the kind of proposition Kurosawa might apply one one of his characters. His adaptation of The Idiot is arguably his most direct and comprehensive attempt at adapting Dostoevsky--perhaps too direct, one might argue: Kurosawa is possibly more successful streamlining a Dostoevskyian character and letting him loose onscreen for a relatively short two-plus hours (Watanabe in Ikiru), than in trying to include every character and subplot in a novel, where said novel really needs a mini-series to do it justice.

But Kurosawa has never been known for timidity or caution, and in fact his need to cram more and more in his pictures (in direct opposition to films about "green tea over rice"--his dismissive (and more than a little unfair) description of Ozu's films) has resulted in at least one masterpiece, the massive two-hundred minute Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai, 1954) arguably the greatest action film ever made. One wonders what his two-hundred sixty-six minute Hakuchi would have been like (it exceeds Samurai's running time by over an hour); as is, one can't help but admire this, his butchered one hundred sixty-six minute version, for its passion and reckless beauty.

(Originally published in High Life Magazine, September 2005)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

We Own the Night (James Gray, 2007)

Better than The Godfather
Things change; fact of life. I've been fond of Coppola's gangster epic since I was but eight years old, catching snatches of the Cuba sequence in my grandfather's private viewing screen (long story), seeing part 1 several years later and revisiting both every year since. I grew up practically developing my sense of cinema on those pictures, learning about theme and character, the use of music, cinematography, location and design to create a sensibility, a distinct vision.

And things change; sensibilities change. The virtues of Coppola's first two films have become a touch too familiar (the third I’m learning to appreciate a bit more for the ugly yet not entirely charmless duckling that it is); the famed line "leave the gun; take the canoli" has become almost tiresome in its ubiquity--instead of being a sharp line of dialogue it's become the punchline to everything from Godfather jokes to parodies on TV (and in fact Anthony Bourdain staged one such parody in his travel show not too long ago). Things change, and while the films will hopefully remain enjoyable pop spectacles, full of iconic images (rough sex at weddings; horse heads in bedrooms; handguns wrapped in towels; epic massacre sequences) it's about time, I feel, that I found something new to admire.

Or, rather, I've found something new and developed this little theory to explain my disenchantment with the former (though to be honest I've been growing less and less fond of them for years), my fascination with the latter. James Gray's We Own the Night (2007) is arguably not just the best American film of the year so far but the best American crime thriller in several (aside from Michael Mann's Miami Vice (2006) his massive and beautifully brooding reinterpretation of the hit '80s cop show). It traces the trajectory of two brothers, Bobby Green (Joaquin Phoenix) and Joseph Grusinsky (Mark Wahlberg) as they look over and cross each other's boundaries in 1988 Brooklyn. Joseph is a newly promoted officer in the NYPD's narcotics department; Bobby is the manager of a hot new Brooklyn nightspot Caribe. Both are up-and-comers in their respective worlds, with Joseph being advised by his father, Chief of Police Burt Grusinsky (a fine-as-ever Robert Duvall) and Bobby being the protégé and confidant of Caribe owner Marat Buzhayev (Moni Moshonov). What gets things rolling is Marat's nephew Vadim Nehzinski (Alex Veadov)--word is that he's about to land a huge shipload of drugs (actual type is never really specified, but from all the sniffing I assume it's cocaine), where or when nobody knows. Joseph asks Bobby: has he heard anything about it and if he has, is he willing to help?

It's no accident that Bobby and Joseph's surnames don't match, by the way; Bobby has taken on his mother's. He jokes about it, saying "Grusinsky" is too hard for most people to pronounce, but the real reason, presumably, is that Bobby refuses to be tied to his family, especially to his father Burt (the other reason may be that in the coke-snorting circles in which he circulates, having familial connections with the police may be a liability). In a later scene Joseph professes to feeling jealous that Bobby has pretty much been able to do what he pleases (not without clashing with Grusinsky senior), while he, the prodigal's brother, mostly obeyed their father's wishes. Joseph's words seem ironic, considering what follows.

We're introduced to Bobby's world first, with an eye-popping Freudian scenario, if Freud edited Penthouse Magazine: Amada (the luscious Eva Mendes) is curled up in a gold-upholstered couch, in a kind of erotic haze; on the soundtrack thumps out (what else?) Blondie's Heart of Glass. Bobby makes his entrance in the distinct Gray manner (striding towards the camera, the doorway framing him from behind, the ambient light growing stronger at his approach). He bends down to his feline pet curled up in her golden womb (a mother figure and object of desire in one fabulous package) and caresses her between the legs, slipping his fingers under her black panties; a nipple pops out, startling in its perfection, and he applies his lips to it with infantile greed.

Admittedly this type of film and its emphasis on family and relationships (and, of course, sex and violence) could never be made without the huge success of Coppola's Godfather pictures, and in fact the general shape of Gray's narrative shows striking correspondences with the earlier films: the way one brother stands outside of family affairs (Bobby is the film's Michael Corleone); the way a near-fatal shooting in the first third of the film crystallizes the crisis; the way Bobby transforms during said crisis from amoral hedonist to loyal family member, and is put through a harrowing test; even the way he is at one point pulled aside and told "I didn't want all this for you…").

The similarities are fascinating, but so are the differences. Where Coppola drenches his films in rich gold hues (I like to say his cinematographer Gordon Willis must have poured extra-virgin olive oil on the lenses), Gray adopts a chillier palette: the Grusinsky home, the various apartments and motel rooms, the police station, the streets themselves seem dim, autumnal, even (appropriately) a varied shade of concrete gray (only Marat is rich enough to build his house with dark wooden floors and walls)). The net effect in Coppola's first Godfather film was to lead some critics into accusing him of glamorizing the Mafia, to which he responded in the sequel with a cooler scheme of Nevada stone (Coppola reserved his warmer colors for Cuba, Sicily, and early New York). Gray's film is more strikingly urban: nightclubs, alleys, underpasses and abandoned warehouses (a climax in a field of tall grasses is the marked exception); where Coppola's film is locked away in the past, encased like a fly in amber so to speak, Gray's is here and now (even if it's a 1988 kind of 'here and now').

And while Coppola's film seems like the very height of American cinematic art (at least compared to recent gangster flicks), one sometimes has to remember that it was based on a bestseller written over thirty years ago, and that the adaptation had every expectation of being a commercial hit (that Coppola had turned pulp entertainment into a family saga was, at least to popular perception, icing on a cake). It's Coppola's telling, but of novelist Mario Puzo's story; Coppola's pacing and camerawork, but Puzo's structure and themes (one goal Coppola declared, coming out of the success of the films, was to try develop a more personal cinema). Gray creates out of whole cloth, and his storytelling is, arguably, even less commercial than Coppola's--aside from the jawdropping opening sequence it's a long slog till the first big sequence, the police raid on Bobby's nightclub, with its swirling, panicking crowds and its horrific touch of a bottle of charcoal poured into someone's mouth (it evokes a similarly repulsive scene in Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1969)).

A long wait, that is, unless you manage to notice the grace notes Gray scatters throughout the film--the little pirouette Marat's wife makes, for example, as she and Bobby waltz into the dining room to meet her husband, or the kiss Bobby gives Marat in the forehead as he takes joyous leave of him (a new nightclub was to be established, possibly in Manhattan, and Bobby was to take charge), or the wary look Joseph and Burt give each other when Bobby arrives at a policeman's function with Amada in tow. There's the way Amada and Bobby make love to each other, lost together in their little world (hence the cocoon-like nature of the couch), and how later Amada remains at Bobby's side no matter how reduced his circumstance, wordlessly showing that her passion for him is more than just sexual, and how even this brave face changes, and the passion dies. Amada (and Mendes's interpretation of her--perhaps the capstone of her career) is I think a gem of a creation in a constellation of fine creations--a woman in a film where women are often shoved aside to the margins, but who stubbornly refuses to remain a cipher, who refuses to completely knuckle under and become just another faceless trophy-wife.

Gray is a master of the little detail that says pages about the character; he often frames said characters in medium distance from waist up, close enough (but not too close) to catch their gestures and expressions as they reveal themselves to us. The pleasures he gives us are so subtle it's almost an intellectual exercise trying to pick them out (which is probably why all three of his films to date have not grossed much more than thirty million dollars); better yet to lean back, relax, and sense those pleasures from the back of one's mind (maybe come back for a second viewing, for a better glimpse of the marginalia).

Then there's the car chase in the rain, a sequence that takes off from a similar chase in William Friedkin's The French Connection (1971) but swiftly and spectacularly becomes its own creature--Gray knows how to work against the material, to use not heavy metal music or even heavier metal sound effects Michael Bay-style but instead a heavy absence of sound, the kind of awful silence you hear in the stretched-out seconds before a car hits (in the background Gray lays on a metallic thumping beat that somehow manages to sound both regular (like a stamping machine) and out-of-control (like a runaway heartbeat)). That plus judicious use of the handheld camera, so remarkably absent throughout the rest of the film; unlike in, say, Paul Greengrass' Jason Bourne movies where the camera is whipped about indiscriminately (hence, less effectively), here the trembling lens suggest Bobby's chaotic state of mind, evoke his utter helplessness in the face of matters going horrifyingly wrong.

Then there's theme and content, to which Gray in a recent interview attaches prime importance (he can attach all the importance to it that he wants; to my mind he may be a tad confused about priorities, but remains every bit as good a stylist as he is a narrative storyteller). We Own The Night, Gray tells us, is the capstone in a trilogy--the first, Little Odessa (1994) was about the Russian Mafia; the second, The Yards (2000) about corruption in the city government; the third, this one, deals with the police. It's been noted that the film has a more clearly demarcated line between good and evil, which is partly true; the police aren't corrupt, they have an antagonistic rather than ambivalent relationship with the Russian Mafia--but corruption isn't what the film's about. This is basically Bobby Green's story, his trajectory from a kind of sensual innocence (that womblike gold couch) to a state of moral awareness stranded in a gray limbo. Bobby eventually decides he wants to do the right thing, but it costs him, the way it cost his brother and father, and Gray expresses this through the visual scheme of his film (from warm gold to tomblike cold). He gets glimpses of that paradise here, there--that's why, I think, the field of golden grass was so tempting, and why he caught a glimpse of Amada in an audience--he keeps longing for it, but it's lost, lost, lost. If Gray's previous film The Yards begins with Phoenix and Wahlberg saying "I love you;" "I love you too"--an expression of sibling solidarity that the film proceeds to break down, in We Own the Night the declaration of love comes at the end of the film--a kind of consolation prize they present to each other, in the face of the desolation that is their lives. If we believe in Bobby's success, if we at all believe in his redemption, it's because we believe in the width and depth and range (more, Gray makes us believe it) of the price he had to pay to achieve that redemption.

(First published in Businessworld, 11/9/07)

Friday, November 09, 2007

Oh God! (Carl Reiner, 1977)

(This is part of the Comedy Blogathon)

In this age of high-concept comedies (sometimes yoked to an action-oriented plotline for more value per ticket-dollar spent) and semaphoring, elastic-faced comedians, going back to a modest, semi-forgotten little comedy like Carl Reiner's Oh God! can literally be, well, a godsend.

Made back in 1977 from a novel by Avery Corman (who also wrote Kramer vs. Kramer, the movie adaptation of which became a rallying point for middle-class single fathers) and adapted for the big screen by Larry Gelbart (Tootsie, the MASH TV series), the movie was an agreeable little entertainment that presented God (who was much more Jewish in the novel) as an agreeable little old man trying to get a message across--and maybe earning a laugh on the side.

The picture keeps a firm foot on the ground, always suggesting more than it shows, always creating its comic effects with a minimum of effort (you should see the reactions Reiner gets from an elevator door opening and closing, opening and closing). It's a resolutely middlebrow comedy--basically God as a 70's poster writer, doing sunny one-liners that don't really offend anyone--but Reiner's direction is such a model of simplicity and restraint and grace one can't help thinking "we can use more of that." You only have to endure, oh, Bruce Almighty and its even less funny sequel, or Apatow and his overaged virgins and geeky impregnators to realize just how different Reiner's film really is.

And it's not as if Reiner doesn't show any visual inventiveness. He opens the movie with an intriguing white glow--you spend most of the opening credits wondering just how he achieves that pearly glow. His camera pulls back to reveal an egg, and that's the picture's theme in a nutshell--look at the world no matter how humdrum and dull from a slightly different angle and it becomes an object of wonder. Later, when Jerry is intimidated into attending an interview with the Lord he enters a room with the same pearly glow--Heaven, Reiner suggests, has a limitless supply of white vinyl paint and industrial-strength Mr. Clean. Oh, Warren Beatty will adopt a similar featurelessness for his hereafter in Heaven Can Wait, released the following year, but I like to think Beatty's bigger-budgeted, more terminally tasteful and ultimately less funny metacomedy took its cue from this smaller picture.

But Reiner's funniest moments are based less on some mildly radical take on the afterlife and more on Burns delivering Avery Corman's (via Larry Gelbart) jokes with a soft-spoken approach. "Did you know that Voltaire probably got me right?" God (George Burns) informs Jerry Landers (John Denver), his would-be prophet; "He says 'God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.'"

For a veteran like Burns, who at that time had been performing in showbiz--radio, TV, stage, film--for something like 74 years, such an uptight audience would be anathema; he works on them patiently, prying a chuckle out of them, maybe even a giggle, building on scant material for a decent laugh, maybe even a guffaw. The movie would be unthinkable without Burns--Mel Brooks, an early choice for the role, would have probably played Him like a Borscht Belt professional out for scalps. Burns has a far lighter, quieter and in his way more effective touch--you can imagine him shuffling into the room holding an empty satchel bag, greeting everyone, complimenting all the pretty girls, puffing on his trademark cigar, and before anyone has even noticed, shuffling right back out with everyone's wallets in his satchel.

Burns' late life persona always depended on this scrawny little old man outsmarting everyone in the room; lift that joke to a cosmic level--at the same time keeping everything to visibly human, even everyday, proportions--and you gain something, not quite sure what. But no, I do know--a divinely empowered Burns, shuffling out of the room with a bag full of wallets.

Burns is surrounded with a royal flush of comic performances--David Ogden Stiers as an exasperated produce manager; William Daniels as an even more exasperated district manager; Paul Sorvino, near-unrecognizable as a bullying Bible-Belt reverend (I remember how Anthony Hopkins on the set of Nixon (1995) admitted that Sorvino (who did a spot-on impersonation of Henry Kissinger) played Nixon better than he ever could), and Ralph Bellamy, the very picture of pompous, self-righteous villainy, as the reverend's high-powered lawyer. Not to mention Reiner himself, appearing on the Dinah Shore show and giving a fifteen-second impression of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Can't write about the film and not mention John Denver--he's not an actor and it shows, and that's not meant as a snide comment. Denver is such a relaxed and easygoing presence you feel for him no matter what he does, even when he's yelling in exasperation at his sexy, skeptical wife Bobbi (Teri Garr, the only actress I know who can give marital domesticity considerable erotic appeal). His soft eyes and wide nose and even wider mouth denote pure sincerity (what is it with wide noses and mouths? Charles Bronson had a similar quality); compare him to more recent recipients of Divine Intervention (Jim Carrey, anyone?), and, well, who would you be more willing to believe, when he claims to have met the Almighty Himself?

More than the relentless optimism, the corny jokes (which are only funny because they're delivered by either veterans or amateurs), perhaps what speaks the most to me is the picture's sanity. It doesn't claim much for its God--He can't tell the future, and He can't affect our lives any more than to give us some poor schmuck with the message "We can do it! And He's rooting for us." It's that very helplessness and candor that's refreshing; we pray to Him day and night, only to find out that He's been seated right next to us all along, every bit as unsure what will happen next, or why. If the film were made today, the Religious Right might have a fit--probably surround the theaters with picket lines as long as those protesting Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1989--my favorite Christ film, incidentally). Well, maybe not, but I'll bet there'd at least be a dozen picketers at the boxoffice.

It isn't just God Himself, even His miracles are wonderfully mundane--a calling card that refuses to be discarded, an elevator to a floor that doesn't exist, an impossibility predicated on the steady sound of squeaky shoes--nothing that would upset anyone's composure too much, much less (as He puts it) "the balance of things." And when He does stretch--causing it to rain, for example, while He and Jerry are out on a drive--He limits the downpour to the inside of the car. "Why ruin everybody's day?" God reasons out to Jerry; if only the real article was half as tactful.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Islanders (Mirana Medina, 2005)

(A note of explanation, perhaps; was asked by Mirana to post this by way of promoting her little film. Might add that I haven't seen the film myself--but Mirana is easily one of the best if not the best film editor in the Filipino film industry, as witness her work on Tikoy Aguiluz's films (most notably Bagong Bayani (The Last Wish, 1995), Segurista (Dead Sure, 1996), and Biyaheng Langit (Paradise Express, 2000). More, Aguiluz takes the unusual step of including her from the beginning of the filmmaking process, at the story and scriptwriting stage; this way, he once told me, he and Mirana can keep track of what scenes are crucial and what not--what, in effect, he can cut out for reasons of budget, and still keep a reasonably clear narrative.

I like editors turned filmmakers; I admit to a bias for them. They often end up responsible for piecing together a comprehensible storyline from an messy pile of film footage; they know how to tell a story clearly and simply, despite poor and often mismatched material. Actors tend to either focus on performances and have a carefully understated style (Sofia Coppola, Robert Redford, Laurice Guillen (who I would consider one of the best of the lot)), or overcompensate the other way and give us a wildly obvious style (Danny Devito, Mel Gibson). Production designers
I'm not too crazy about--the films often turn out garish and incoherent (Joel Schumacher, Peque Gallaga).

So would I recommend her film? I haven't seen it yet, but based on her previous work as an editor/scriptwriter that I have seen, I would definitely be interested and excited in whatever she might do as a filmmaker. Take a hint, Chicagoans.

I'd like to add a few remarks by University of the Philippines Department of History professor Rico Jose:

"TIGA-ISLA is a unique documentary about the Island of Corregidor. It is the story of life on the island by the civilians who lived there before World War II. While the island fortress is well known for its gallant stand in World War II, hardly anything is known about the people who originally populated the island, and who lived there even as the US Army developed it into a fortress. Largely shot on location, this documentary, told by seven Corregidorians brings to life the sites, the concerns, the experiences—happy and sad— of the civilians on Corregidor, and the pain they suffered on being evacuated from the island on the eve of war. It is a poignant look at life before the war in a unique setting, a testimony to a group of people who lost their hometown, and a plea against war.")

NOVEMBER 9-11, 2007

Told in exacting detail with archival photography and eyewitness testimony, THE ISLANDERS, directed by Mirana Medina, is a fascinating look at the fortress island of Corregidor, the U.S. military stronghold that was all but decimated in World War II. Corregidor is often noted for its strategic significance in the Pacific Theater of World War II; THE ISLANDERS provides a rare look at the people that lived there, through the eyes of Filipino and American residents and their descendants.

6:30 PM EVENT:
9:00 AM - NOON
12:00 PM
8:00 PM
12:30 PM
BATAD with LIBINGAN (animated short)
2:30 PM
10:00 PM
2:30 PM
4:30 PM
THREE TO FIVE AND GLASSY (show starts at 5:30 PM, preceded by live music and performances)
10:00 PM
4:30 PM
7:30 PM

9: 00 PM

9:30 PM

Friday, November 02, 2007

Hitchcock, kids, umbrellas and trains, oh my!

Consider, if you will, a modest alternative to the usual flavorless multiplex fare, where morphing robots are so bereft of imaginative programming that all they can think of turning into are sports cars and ten wheelers, and effeminate pirates are so enamored of boxoffice profits they can't even recognize when they've been drained dry of creative juices and just lay down and die. Shake things up a bit, plug into something a liddle different, and sample fare at these two modest film festivals: the Fright Fest at Ayala Cinema's Glorietta 4, and Cine Europa at its traditional venue for the past ten years, the Shangri-La Plaza.

The Fright Fest features (what else) fright flicks from Wes Craven (not a big fan) to John Carpenter (who isn't, in my opinion, represented here by his best work), and four from this funny fat Englishman named Alfred Hitchcock. Who's he, you may ask? Only one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, and, as all his own promotional material use to put it, a "Master of Suspense."

Probably best to take his pictures chronologically (more or less). Shadow of a Doubt (1943) is about a young girl (Teresa Wright, beautifully innocent, here), living in a quiet little community who starts suspecting that her "Uncle Charlie" (Joseph Cotten, at his most graciously menacing), fresh from the big city and a glamorous, mysterious figure, is actually a serial killer. Hitchcock considers this his favorite among all his films; I don't quite agree--I think the very best Hitchcock also needs above and beyond finely tuned thrills a strong element of sensual romance, even guilt over the consequences of said romance (something one can't quite find between the girl and Uncle Charlie (and anyone who suggests otherwise is a cad)). I do think it's a perfect melding of playwright Wilder (Our Town) and filmmaker Hitchcock, one feeding off of the other in an unholy, vampiric dance.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) is a romp, from exotic Morocco to England's Albert Hall; what makes it more than that is Hitchcock's incomparable skill in sketching unsettling details into the margins of his narratives. The way, for example, Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart, in an underrated performance) seems a tad too eager to drug his celebrity wife Jo (Doris Day, also underrated here) before telling her that their son had been kidnapped by international terrorists. The rest of the film is, as mentioned, a romp, but you're never ever sure from then on if the doctor's motives for anything is pure. Excellent--did I mention it's underrated?--Hitchcock thriller.

Rear Window (1954) is Hitchcock on top of his game. You can take the film on two levels: first, as a mystery where a man with a broken leg begins to suspect (Hitchcock's best works often start with someone in a familiar situation suddenly acquiring the notion that things aren't as they should be) that his neighbor across the way has just killed his wife; second, as a meditation on the consequences when a man is granted access into the lives of all the people around him--possibly the very first multi-screen, multi-channel entertainment system ever invented, in incomparably sharp detail and stunning color, churning out the '50s equivalent of reality TV. Hitchcock poses and pulls the stings of his little marionettes for Jeffries (again, Stewart, again amazing), and you share the fascination, the rush of power Jeffries feels. Should he--and we, by extension--feel disturbed? Should we, in fact, feel ashamed? Hitchcock may have been called the master of suspense to sell tickets, of course; no one points out how much Hitchcock is also a master of guilt and lasting remorse.

The Birds (1963) was Hitchcock's much-anticipated follow-up to his boxoffice hit Psycho (1960); in my opinion, the former exceeds all such anticipations. That's not a popular verdict; seen today, people consider The Birds a tad too ambitious, its bluescreen effects (despite contribution by animation legend U.B. Iwerks) too clunky and obvious ("think," some say, "of what Hitchcock would have done with digital effects!"). Seen on the big screen, however, The Birds is an entirely different creature; it's essentially an aural film, with Oskar Salas' collection of bird cries orchestrated by Bernard Herman's unique electronic keyboard into a cacophonic, apocalyptic attack on man's presumptuous position on the evolutionary ladder. Standing on top rung, Hitchcock seems to ask, are we as we often assume master of all beneath us, or are we just that much more exposed to takeover attempts from creatures below?

Hitchcock's films often ended with rational explanations and comforting reunions, presumably to make up for the unpleasantness he inflicts on his audiences. The Birds offers no such comfort: the animals attack, one by one we offer up theories that one by one are knocked down; the animals continue to attack without apparent end. As Hitchcock's most sweeping statement about the ultimate condition of our species and its relatively precarious grip on the planet Earth, The Birds stands alone; beyond any picture's ability to use giant apes or flamethrowing lizards or ants or spiders or sharks or worms or dinosaurs or whatever to rattle our environmental sense of smug entitlement, the film stands alone.

At the Shangri-la Cinema--Jan Sverak's Kolja (Kolya, 1996) was his most internationally successful work (it won one of those gold doorstops for Best Foreign-Language Film), and possibly most likeable, his variation on Eliot's Silas Marner where a man (Sverak's father Zdenek) acquires temporary custodianship of a young boy, learns to care for him, and along the way learns compassion and some measure of humanity. Sverak doesn't entirely transcend the sentiment, but his trademark low-key humor and effortlessly bittersweet melancholy (seen in fine form in previous works like Jizda (The Ride, 1994)) helps pull him through.

Fanny och Alexander (Fanny and Alexander, 1982), Ingmar Bergman's penultimate film, isn't so much a singular and intense work of art as it is an encyclopedia of singular and intense works of art--if anything, it seems to be a summation of Bergman's career at that time, not a bad thing to be at all. One wants to hold it like a treasury of great stories and images, and opens the book (or reviews the film in one's mind) directly at favorite passages--the spectacular Christmas Eve dinner early in the picture; Alexander's severe flogging; the terrifying moment in the Jew's workshop where God informs Alexander that He is stepping out and revealing himself. Not, perhaps, my favorite Bergman but easily his most accessible, a big, warm, fuzzy introduction (with a good dose of severe Lutheranism to balance it all out) to the filmmaker's works.

Jiri Menzel's Ostre sledované vlaky (Closely Watched Trains, 1966) is an amazing debut feature; ostensibly about the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, its hidden theme (and real subject) is the Soviet Union's stranglehold on the country since the Second World War. It comes off initially as a lighthearted romantic comedy about Milos (Vaclav Neckar) and his determination to lose his cherry, if you will. There are plenty of comically erotic opportunities, not to mention young nubile Czechs to lose it with, but the picture is no mere teenage giggle fest; Menzel carefully relates Milos' sexual repression with the Nazi repression of the country as a whole (and, by extension, the Communist repression of the country at the time), and never lets us forget the grim background against which the hilarity is playing out--the corpses glimpsed at in one train, Milos' attempted suicide, the film's own grim ending. One has to marvel at the way Menzel managed to say what he wanted to say and yet still toe the line, censorshipwise; thanks, ironically, to Soviet oppression, Menzel managed to create a subtly, cheerfully subversive film.

If Menzel's film is bittersweet, Jacques Demy's Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (Umbrellas of Cherbourg, 1964) is bittersweet set to music. Michel Legrand's swooning romantic score and Demy's shocking color palette are an exhilirating match; add the incomparable Catherine Denueve and only a man with a heart of stone (and groin of boiled pasta) can resist the potent mix. Walk in with a will, walk out with bright reds, brilliant yellows and profound purples throbbing away against the back of your eyelids, with Legrand's indelible score warbling in your ears, and with the film's melancholy conclusion slowly, exquisitely breaking your heart.
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