Sunday, December 21, 2008

Recent viewings (Twilight Samurai, Once, Shop Around the Corner, King of Kings, Casablanca)

Other movies: Yoji Yamada's Tasogare Seibei (Twilight Samurai,2002) is surprisingly enjoyable. Didn't have high hopes from the director of the endless Tora-san series, but goes to show what assuming things does to one's viewing choices. It's not a novel premise (a samurai with a second class reputation and mien so modest everyone assumes he's a loser, including himself) and the film follows a fairly predictable narrative arc (basically the samurai exceeds everyone's low expectations), but the pleasures to be had are so modestly and expertly wrought one hums with pleasure, as if sipping a bowl of comfort noodles. The fight scenes are wonderfully retro--long takes, no fast cuts, and the occasional sidestep off camera to make the outcome all the more tantalizing.

John Carney's Once (2006)--maybe it's just because I don't know much about music but the songs themselves don't seem all that memorable (I responded more to the singing than the lyrics or melody), except perhaps the duet at the piano store, which was lovely, and the number at the bus, that 'Broken-Hearted Hoover Fixer Sucker Guy," which was low-key hilarious.

Beyond that the two actors are perfect for each other, and I love how understated everything was. Not a bad film at all.

From Bizarre Hatred of Random Celebrities:

Looked at Ernst Lubitsch's The Shop Around the Corner (1940) again. What's striking isn't so much the romancing (there's actually very little to none onscreen) as it is the bickering, and there Lubitsch catches the essential truth about workplaces, that it's all about cliques and allies, covering your ass, and trying to pull down your fellow worker. It would all be bitter and depressing, if it wasn't so funny.

Ted Fontenot: I, too, have been re-watching some old favorites courtesy of the seasonal marathon on TCM, including The Shop Around the Corner. Sullavan's performance in Shop Around the Corner is pretty damn daring. She really skirts a razors edge. Just a little more and her character becomes unlikable and annoying. She's still got her ideals right up to the ending kiss. Indeed, there's no indication that she's really given them up in an absolute sense. They were just misdirected. Stewart's character finally maneuvers the goings on so he can assert himself, but after all his elaborate finessing, what happens—he still has to show her his calves to prove he isn’t bowlegged. He doesn't, and can't, really put her in her place because (like the later Cluny Brown) she doesn't accept the idea of knowing her place, which is what the men in those films find attractive to begin with, so in a real sense putting up with the downside of that is the price they must pay. But like I said earlier somewhere, he will have his hand's full with her (it's the price you pay for positive of attributes arising from that irrepressibility. One of the nice touches in Stewart's performance is this air of admiration that his face can't help but express at her facility with sticking the knife in him. She's definitely high maintenance. He has to assert himself, confront her, or what is all too likely to be is a recapitulation in some form of the relationship of Matuschek & Wife. Through the parallel relationships, we see how neatly Lubitsch and his screenwriter(s) traverse a precarious tightrope, successfully negotiating a delicate balance between comedy and pathos. Kralik knows his woman (“not too beautiful, just a regular, average lovely girl”). He knows all what he's getting, and he lets her know he knows. Then he relents. All romantic comedies are about the essential Darwinian battle between the sexes, and they aren't successfully resolved, whatever your gender perspective, unless an equilibrium is attained. And successful campaigners know when to stop overtly fighting it. Matuschek doesn’t understand this, and thus never confronts his romantic illusion.

Good call on the parallels between Matuschek and Kralik's high maintenance women. I suspect the difference is that while Matuschek married above his station (he might have been an up-and-coming retailer who managed to impress the daughter of old money), Kralik and Novak are both struggling bourgeoisie--they know the chill breath of loneliness, joblessness, and they'll cling just a little tighter together for comfort. I can't see Klara's eye wandering, in the near future, anyway.

Apparently according to the wiki (for what it's worth), the British comedy Are You Being Served? is based on the film.

I remember Lubitsch insisted on setting it in Budapest. I can believe that's necessary--you don't get this amount or flavor of hypocrisy in America. It actually pretty much captures the flavor of hypocrisy found in the bank I worked in for ten years.

A quick glimpse of Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1951), which I mention briefly in my overview of Christ movies turned up a striking throwaway image, of Christ standing in Pilate's courtyard, the stripe of a red carpet running down the left side, the stripes of black shadows stretching out to the right. A row of obelisk-shapes stand towards the right (I wondered what they were, and eventually guessed that they could be flagellation posts), and to the leftward rear is a massive gate guarded by Roman soldiers.

This could be the cinemascope version of some long-lost Star Trek episode, with the courtyard functioning as some kind of elaborate board game metaphor, red stripe, black stripe and all; the flagellation posts, the soldiers, and Christ himself standing left of center seem to represent game pieces with arcane functions, powers, weaknesses, though I'm guessing the posts and stripes serve another more practical function--they lend a sense of depth to the image, cuing to us just how far away those soldiers and that gate really are. It's a powerful image, suggesting the forces at work (at play?), struggling to determine the fate of the King of Jews. The shot held my eye longer than I intended it to, before I managed--with effort--to switch the channel. Fact is, the shot stayed with me longer than I'd wished; hopefully by writing about it I can finally exorcise it from mind.

And Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942)'s still the onscreen equivalent of a page-turner, 'specially the last fifteen minutes. Couldn't help but notice Curtiz was photographing ceilings, this only a year after Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) was doing it.

Ted Fontenot: Casablanca...indeed, is a real page-turner. The movie just develops and never stops. So much happens, and it all takes place in about a couple days. It's a textbook script on how to plot and tell a story.

Watching it last night again, I was struck about how neatly Rick sticks it to Elsa. It's all high-minded and high sounding, and he may not even be aware of that aspect of it, but, all verbal ritualizing aside, what it comes down to is he gets some of his own back from her for her leaving him flat, and in the dark, like that in Paris. The parallel is all very neatly drawn out. At some level there had to be some psychic release. Everyone gets to be noble, but only he wins and then has the satisfaction of giving it all up for a noble cause, while accruing points that will come in handy later in life I'm sure.

Casablanca's armature, the original play, is a nice little engine to set to humming along while Bogart and Bergman miraculously strike sparks off of each other (what did Kael say--that they wisely didn't push their luck on a second collaboration?), Curtiz makes with his proto-Spielberg trucking and low-angled shots (don't they give you a head rush, zooming in so many times on Bogart's huge forehead?), and Steiner drenches all with his swooning romantic score.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

New issue of Criticine out

I'll have to admit, this is very late news: the latest issue of Criticine, arguably the finest online website dealing with Southeast Asian cinema and film criticism, is up--has been, or so I've been told, for the past few weeks.

In this issue, along with a review of Apichatpong "Joe" Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century are interviews, features, and a survey question put to filmmakers and critics alike: why and for whom do you film/write?

Editor Alex Tioseco's collection of directors is surprisingly impressive: filmmakers Kiri Dalena (who flips the question around: "why, and for whom, do we cease to make film today?"); Erik Khoo (whose reply was blessedly succinct); Raya Martin's typically enigmatic answer; John Torres', expressed mostly in Tagalog); Pen-ek Ratanaruang; and, again, Weerasethakul.

And, of course, there's my rather long-winded contribution.

Whatever; nearly the end of the year, and we're supposed to do our summing-up articles. I suppose my own would resemble that old Chinese curse: that we live in interesting times. Not a big Christmas fan, so I'm not going to wish you happy holidays, only the fervent hope that you survive them, and go on to have a better year. Mabuhay.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008)

How'd it suck badly? Let me count the ways:

1) It runs for a hundred and twenty minutes, about a hundred and nineteen too long.

2) It's a vampire movie without fangs, crucifixes, stakes, beds recycled from used coffins, and spontaneous daylight combustion--in short, all the paraphernalia that marks a classic vampire movie. Watching it is like watching a Western without horses, or a comedy without a sense of humor.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Four Christmases (Seth Gordon, 2008)

Four suggestions

Dear Messrs. Gordon, Allen, Wilson, Lucas, Moore, Barber, Billingsley, Birnbaum, Disco (?!), Emmerich, Evans, Glickman, Kaufman, Nedivi, Riedel, Rohlich, Vaughn and Witherspoon;

Saw Four Christmases, about a couple (played by Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon) forced to spend the holidays with their four divorced parents (Robert Duvall and Sissy Spacek as Vaughn's parents, Jon Voight and Mary Steenburgen as Witherspoon's) and yes, it's bad, yes it's an almost complete waste of time (more on that "almost" later), and yes I can't recommend it to anyone unless they're some kind of Yuletide masochist willing to accept this as their only alternative to an eggnog enema (given a choice, I'd need a minute to think about it).

But I don't want to dwell on that. 'Tis the season to be jolly, so they say, and I want to keep myself happy, my smile wide and cheerful; I want to offer four constructive suggestions that might help improve the film, if you feel the need for improvement (if any of you are even halfway sentient you'd want to improve this with a can of gasoline and a lit match). I just hope y'all take this in the spirit in which it was given.

First suggestion: listen to Hitchcock.

Hitchcock famously said, "actors should be treated like cattle" (actually the entire quote goes something like this: "I never said all actors are cattle; what I said was all actors should be treated like cattle." He was probably joking (for the record plenty of artists of the thespic (I just love that word; know a few critics who use it liberally, it's so pretentious) persuasion that enjoyed working with him, and he in turn coaxed quite a few great performances from 'cattle'), but like all Hitchcock jests there's a kernel of truth to be found. Actors should be treated like cattle--not in the concentration camp sense, perhaps, but certainly in the sense meant by older cultures, where you use every part of the animal you slaughtered. I mean, used.

I mean--a movie with Robert Duvall, Jon Voight, Sissy Spacek and Mary Steenburgen, and I'm barely able to stay awake? Duvall and Voight aren't known for comedy, but the filmmakers could have used that, blindsided us with carefully calibrated yet surprising roles for these two old hands to play; instead they have Duvall at one end of an elaborate gag involving an old TV set and a very long video cable yelling at the top of his lungs to little effect, and Voight at another being so serious I could have sworn the occasion was a wake, not a Christmas party.

Steenburgen--well, she didn't have a lot to do, but I found myself in a more forgiving vein with regards to her, especially as she has managed to stay devastatingly sexy even past the age of fifty. Sissy Spacek is in a better situation--she's involved in perhaps the only really funny joke in the movie, where a surprisingly younger man turns out to be her boyfriend (I loved Vaughn's reaction to watching the man kiss Spacek. "Your mother is a very sexual being," his stepfather explains). There's an almost Woody Allen-esque quality to Vaughn's mother of a problem (I wonder if one of the reasons they cast him weren't because he played the Oedipally challenged Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant's infamous Psycho remake), and for maybe ten minutes I was thoroughly entertained.

Second suggestion: Lose the concept

Cuteness is all--meaning every year, all they serve up is a cute concept. Last year it was Santa's terminally underconfident brother (again starring the hardworking Vaughn--what is it with him and Christmas comedies?); the year past it was a decorating war between neighbors; some years before that it was Ben Affleck hiring a family for Christmas. Every December they come up with the same unfunny idea, that a seemingly funny idea (instead of decent writing, acting, directing) will carry a movie through. Enough already; you're flogging a long-dead horse, and the stink is starting to bother the neighbors. Give it a decent burial or, better yet, cremation.

Third suggestion: be funny.

Not as easy as you'd think. As I'd already mentioned, I sat up and chuckled for all of ten minutes (Sissy Spacek playing a cradlesnatcher); most of the time I was just trying to find something--anything--to enjoy in this comic wasteland (maybe that's why many of the women in the picture wear low-cut tops; "if you show it," the filmmakers must believe, "they won't leave"). To recall another quote: "Dying is easy, comedy, hard;" the movie has four writers and thirteen producers, you'd think that some time before the wrap party they'd all have more or less agreed that they were doing a comedy. If Witherspoon had been cast opposite of Daniel Day Lewis and the whole thing reshot as straight drama it might be funnier.

Fourth suggestion: be real.

Vaughn was said to have suggested Seth Gordon as director. Gordon did an excellent job telling the story of some of the world's greatest video-game players in The King of Kong (2007); you'd think his experience in documentaries might have prepared him to tell us what Christmas really is: a monstrously overblown corporate excuse for pointless consumer spending, set in the center of a howling spiritual wasteland. The ideal Christmas film for me (and Gordon might still have been the man to direct it) would tell of decades of corporate greed suddenly collapsing in an orgy of cutbacks and deflating values. Streets would be littered with the bodies of financial analysts; the rich would sit on the window sills of their million-dollar executive suites and contemplate the pavement far below. It may sound like a grim apocalyptic scenario, but it would at least be honest. And, I'm willing to bet, as funny as hell.

Well, those are my suggestions--make of them what y'all wish. I just hope they do the reshoots in time to save what's left of the season.

Yours truly,

Wide and cheerful

(First published in Businessworld 12.5.08)

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

American kids view 'Not One Less,' 'Grave of the Fireflies,' and 'Whispers of the Heart'

(Warning: plot twists and general story for all three films discussed in detail!)

Three films about children

Some weeks back I talked to some kids about the Philippines, showed them Lino Brocka's Insiang and Ramona Diaz's Imelda and then moved on to talk about China. End of that series of lectures I decided to show them a film that I thought would give them an idea of if not present-day China at least China at a transitory stage, from being a purely communist country to a country with a communist government and capitalist economy.

Zhang Yimou's Yi ge dou bu neng shao (Not One Less, 1999)--his finest film, in my opinion, is about a substitute teacher named Wei who is promised a bonus if she can keep her students attending school. It's a portrait of what life is like for the majority, the people who live in the countryside and (as opposed to urban dwellers) struggle to comply with the government-mandated nine years of schooling; even in recent years the issue of education in the countryside is still a problem. "This would have been before China's economy really started kicking in," I reminded them. "Even in China, the countryside's usually the last to benefit."